Cool and Cool Again: Robin Holcomb, “Hand Me Down All Stories” (1990)

“Cool” to me means those things that are
1) different and better than most people would have expected,
2) and I mean a better kind of thing—a better, other kind of thing; and
3) incisive and assured but nicely limited—not loud, not large, not gaudy, not busy.

I like innovation so much that “cool” to me in music sometimes veers close to what others would call “quirky.”  Whatever turns out “quirky,” though, is utterly lost for “cool”—because “quirky” is just different as in “unusual” and “out there” and “optional,” whereas cool is different as in “if you don’t come over to this you’re a loser.”  I say this because the artist and track I want to exhibit right now as way cool could easily be categorized as “quirky” in one of those infernal taste-tracking schemes for pop music consumers.

Seasoned in the partially cool 1980s downtown New York scene, Robin Holcomb put out her first sort-of-pop album, Robin Holcomb, in 1990.  There’s a lot of cool all through it, but what I want to talk about is a positively freakish onslaught of coolness (I know, it’s contradictory to say “onslaught of coolness,” but that’s why it’s freakish) on the sixth track, “Hand Me Down All Stories,” produced by Wayne Horvitz and Lenny Kaye, with Bill Frisell acting up on guitar.  (I give the production info because—here’s the coolness factor again—you’d want to live in that other/better world where this track wins the Grammy.)

Now play the first minute of it, and tell me how many times you do a double-take and exclaim yet again “That’s cool!”:

“Hand Me Down All Stories” 1

For me, it happens twice even before the drums are heard:   (1) the soft whammy-bar guitar sound moaning upward in no particular key, and (2) the quiet duet playing a series of two-chord progressions (the chords are simply fourths) that sound purposeful and indeed do belong to the key of G, but you have to accept an F-sharp + C-sharp (that is, an actual F-sharp chord, edgier than the expected F-sharp + B would have been) to D + G as the last pair.

(3)  Then there’s more cool pleasure as the drums fall in with a spare groove for a repeat of that chord progression, perfectly confident; with (4)  a wonderful out-of-left-field squeaky-skidding abstract guitar effect at the pickup point.

Now we’re 18 seconds in and (5) a whole new chord pattern emerges with the singing of the first verse, leading us on a cool ramble—almost but not quite quirky:   a bass line that works its way down D-to-B-flat,  C-to-A (so far it sounds like we’re setting up in the key of F, a cool shift from the earlier G—but then!), (6) D-flat-to-A-flat:  new ball game!  Cool modulation to key of D-flat!  But no, now (7) D-to-B-flat is calmly repeated, and then B-flat-to-F grounds the whole sequence firmly in F.  So that‘s the ballgame.  Cool.  We’ll repeat that pattern twice so you can enjoy getting to know it while (8, 9 . . .) cool keyboard texture and more fresh guitar touches are added.  And note that little run of bass notes at the start of the third time, around 0:46.  I’m losing count now.  At 0:49 there’s a cool little nyah-nyah schoolyard phrase in the guitar.  At 0:55, dig it, a crisp pop chorus starts up in a blues-rock key of G (Hand me down my walking cane . . .).

The cool touches keep on coming, but I think we’ve covered now most of the structural coolness in the track.  Except that when the F pattern resumes at 1:10, the bass line is the same but the guitar adds notes to bring out strange implications of gorgeous major chords on the D-flat and A-flat and even the D—a D major chord, with its oh-so-sharp-sounding F-sharp in the key of F! and held over the following B-flat chord, sharping on its F too!  And the second B-flat is a B-flat minor this time, for that tangy twin half-step descent to the final F!

“Hand Me Down All Stories” 2

This is an onslaught, all right, almost gaudy, almost busy, yet it’s never too much; it stays poised in its other/better essence.

As a bonus, I’ll take a line from the song as this week’s Hooks motto:

May their pleasures be repeated


About Steve Smith

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

2 Responses to Cool and Cool Again: Robin Holcomb, “Hand Me Down All Stories” (1990)

  1. Elise Smith says:

    One of the things that most surprises me about this song is the disjunction between some of those high playful background notes, almost decorative, like screeching trills in places (what you describe as “squeaky-skidding”), and the vocal style which is much more deadpan, both melodically and emotionally. There’s what I’d describe as a seemingly careless weight to the vocals that’s at odds with the sprightly intricacy of the instrumentals that skid and float in the background. Only together can they add up to the sort of cool that makes me think of Baldassare Castiglione’s praise of sprezzatura, a kind of effortless grace, in his early 16th-century The Courtier. Weird, I know, but there you have it…

    Oh, and I love the detail of Picasso’s Three Musicians!

    • Steve Smith says:

      I think the relative flatness of her singing that you point out is crucial in keeping the whole thing poised in coolness; otherwise it might indeed get sprightly.
      I would say Castiglione’s ideal courtier is at least as much suave as cool, like, hmm, a Burt Bacharach song?

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