When It’s Your Turn, Lurch Forward: Chagall Guevara, “Play God” (1991)

Before a song starts, you can imagine each note that’s going to be in it waiting in a queue to be played.  When its turn comes, it moves onstage for its big moment.

The notes have to be lined up before the song begins because the song already exists and they are all parts of it.  If you know the song, you must know the notes.  You probably wouldn’t be able to list the notes in “Star Spangled Banner” without at least mentally singing them in song-order.  But they’re all there when you start, waiting in the wings.

On top of the inherent drama in every note’s advent—what’ll it do? what’ll happen to it?—a particular note’s coming onstage can be given a specific dramatic charge of one sort or another.  It might rush out earlier than expected, charmingly impetuous; or come slow and grand; or stammer.  (In the realm of words, one recipe for stammering is that you’ve worked out a full statement in your mind and then, when the opportunity to speak comes, your words all crowd forward together and get jammed in the narrow doorway of that moment.  How thrilling, though, to have a lot to say and then blurt everything out smoothly, like “crab-a-locker fish wife, pornographic priestess, boy you been a naughty girl . . .”)[1]

There’s always a delicious tiny moment of suspense before each note of “How’d you get so good?” in the chorus of “Play God” by Chagall Guevara.  The sense of slight delay is most strongly suggested by a sonic clear-out just before one of the first statements of the phrase (see there in the middle how the soundwave is pinched in the audio clip?):

“Play God” early statement

Now here’s a fuller dose from near the end:

And you still play God!  How’d you get so good?
So misquoted, so seldom understood
And you still play God!  How’d you get so good?
What a heavy role, what a livelihood
And you still play God!  How’d you get so good?
So almighty, so mighty misunderstood . . .

“Play God” last chorus

Is it the regal ponderousness of a phrase of extra weight, the sarcastic Main Comment on the awesome one?  Or is it a barely averted stammer in the presence of, yes, actually, the still-intimidating awesome one?   I can hear it either way, and the effect never wears smooth—perhaps because I can always hesitate between these meanings.

Question

I’m still not sure whether the almost reluctant paying out of piano notes in the chorus of The Beatles’  “Drive My Car” is an example of the queueing hook I’m trying to explain here or the sticky hook I’ve discussed elsewhere.  Or something else.

_________________________________________________________

[1] And how about Crosby, Stills, and Nash blurting out the first words of “Déjà Vu”?

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About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Rock Aesthetics, Time and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to When It’s Your Turn, Lurch Forward: Chagall Guevara, “Play God” (1991)

  1. Matt says:

    So glad you gave me an excuse to listen to CG again. This album has always hit an almost uncannily sweet sweet-spot for me, and now I’m thinking it’s all about their mastery at building, bottling up, and releasing a certain kind of flow — one that you’ve analogized to speech, but that I’m inclined to tie to the more visceral act of walking. ‘Play God’ makes me want, more than anything else, to stomp around my living room (no, that’s not the right word; stride?): its tempo exactly matches the fastest speed at which I can walk without hurrying. It’s the speed of confidence, the speed I imagine I’d pace at while delivering a righteous accusation, and the break at ‘You still play God’ allows just enough time to whirl, point, and declaim the main charge before proceeding.

    Compare this with the slower, swaggering gait in the chorus of ‘Monkey Grinder’ (from the same album), in which it feels so good to find our footing again after lurching through the push-pull B section; or the hurry-up trot of ‘The Rub of Love,’ in which we segue from the straight-ahead beat of the verse to a syncopated obstacle-course chorus, allowing the thrill of navigating tricky terrain at high speed (I think this is what is going on with the piano line in ‘Drive My Car’); or the slightly quickened, searching pace of ‘Can’t You Feel the Chains,’ with its B section that marches us up a harmonic cliff with snare-heightened goose-steps before hurling us off into the chorus’s freefall…

    I say ‘us,’ but shouldn’t it be different for everyone? Regardless of how kinesthetically sweet these tempos are for me, might someone with a different gait be left cold (comparatively speaking — this album, of course, has plenty of other charms to compensate)? Might a non-trivial part of our response to rock depend on something as ‘arbitrary’ as our personal rhythms? Scientists, get on it!

  2. Steve Smith says:

    Thanks for expanding the celebration of CG. Hope you approve of the music clips I plugged in. I like the model of picking one’s way through tricky terrain–a 2- or 3-D complement to my 1-D queue.

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