Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Test Strips, Flashback Sundays

I haven't said that much lately; my mind has been elsewhere and I've had a busy past week. It's been a bit tiring. Plus I don't have a lot of perfectly fleshed-out ideas to write about; there are a few, one that has to do with natural belongingness you can get from a place, as well as one that has to do with...I forget.

One thing that's been at the back of my mind for awhile now is my idea to do a song review on this particular song. I started a post on it, but I never got past the first or second sentence as my heart really wasn't in on it.

Well, here it is.


When you think of the song 'Freeze Frame,' do you immediately identify it with the opening organ? The introduction it's probably most known for? The C-C-C-C-C-G-A-A#-A?

I've probably heard that organ introduction many times throughout my childhood, randomly, thinking on some level that I've heard it before. It's one of those sounds you know from somewhere because you've heard it before and recognize it as part of past pop-culture. It's so ingrained in our minds because that's what a song from the past was known for, and that's largely only what it was known for. Of course, that's the mindset of the future generations that hear something striking and only pay attention to that; everyone that was around at the time the song itself came out probably remember the song well as a whole, but those of us that were born later and only heard it somewhere on TV or on radio now and then only notice the striking part it's known for. Even the people who heard it when it was released in 1981 probably identified the song by the introduction.

When I used to hear the organ, I would think it was a song by a southern American rock band. I was wrong.

Generally, when I properly listened to the song, I found it interesting and kind of fun. Here's one thing I want to sort out right now, though: Just because the song contains about a hundred references to photography, it does not mean, as a photographer, I must like it.

Lyric-wise, the song seems to follow a photography theme, as well as a weekday theme. Tools used in contemporary film photography of the time, as well as terms and practices are used as metaphors. It also brings up the days of the week quite often. For instance:

"I could see it was a rough-cut Tuesday
Slow-motion weekdays stare me down
Her lipstick reflex got me wound
There was no defects to be found
Snapshot image froze without a sound"


"Thursday morning was a hot flash-factor
Her face still focused in my mind
Test-strip proof-sheet love is hard to find
Friday night we'll dance the spotlight grind
Stop-time heart for me if she's not mine"

I once mentioned, particularly in my review on the Madness song 'Please Don't Go' that I tend to really like it when days of the week or months or years are mentioned in lyrics. This isn't the case for this song. The only reason I can think of for my non-excitement or pleasure at the mention of Tuesday or Thursday or whatever day is that they are mentioned too often - more than once. There are two songs that have one mention of a day or month, just one, and I like hearing it. Both are Madness songs - 'Please Don't Go' (demo version, mid-September) and 'Missing You' (Monday).

Looking past these metaphors, it appears that the song is about, though I could be wrong, the singer's admiration of a girl he likes, and perhaps any experiences he has with her. He describes the girl and experiences using camera metaphors - 'there were no defects to be found' (she looks perfect), 'Thursday morning was a hot-flash factor' (Thursday morning, she looked beautiful and made me feel great, or, she wore hot, flashy clothes), 'zoom lens feeling just won't disappear' (could be a metaphor for how he feels scrutinized by her, or the other way around).

Looking at all of it at once, I tend to find that this is the perfect song for a photographer's crush on his female darkroom assistant. Or, in school, in photography class, a boy and girl are partnered with each other...

Musically, it's a mostly simple song other than the big brass featured on it. The bass line is very easy - C-G-C....A#-A#-A#-A#-F-F-A-A#-C and over again. The guitar chords follow a C, then A#, and finally a F (low F) chord pattern.
It's a song that has a prominent guitar, organ, and brass to it. The organ repeats its same melody from the beginning except for the G-F part, in which it ascends and then descends. It's not exactly a sound I like that much because it sounds like someone feeling sick and dizzy to me. I don't know why. Maybe it's the ascending and descending sound, as if you're out of balance?

The song was written by Peter Wolf (the singer) and Seth Justman - the organist responsible for the striking introduction, and all the photography/calendar jargon. Interestingly, just about all the songs on the album (also called Freeze Frame) were written by Justman.
Even more interestingly, he produced it as well. Can I go further? Sure. His brother directed the band's music video for 'Centrefold,' their big number one hit-single (written by, yes, Seth Justman). I've made reference to that song on here before.

According to the band's history on Wikipedia, Justman was a former fan that joined as keyboardist. Justman's story here parallels Chas Smash's of Madness - Smash started out as the guy who would jump up on stage at one of their gigs and dance, then he'd announce the band. He wasn't a full member until after their first album came out, and his presence rose from that of compere to competent songwriter and trumpeter (among other instruments). Seth Justman went from fan to sole songwriter for their hit 'Centrefold.' Chas Smash went from 'nutty dancer/announcer/compere' to the writer and trumpeter for Madness's one-hit wonder (here) 'Our House.'

The song's music video (I'm back to talking about 'Freeze Frame,' the song and not the album) is very creative. As you would expect for a song with so many photographic references and jargon, it starts out with still monochrome portraits of each member of the band. You hear camera shutters.
Largely, it takes place in a studio covered with white material. Peter Wolf dances and moves about as he sings, with scenes of Justman playing the organ and Stephen Jo Bladd playing drums and lip-syncing the lyrics. 'Magic Dick' plays sax and whatever other brass instruments feature on the song, and John Geils plays his guitar.

The video is interspersed with very old footage of scenes from old movies. Often someone in the band is super-imposed on the scene, or an instrument being played is.

Routinely, and this is one aspect that annoys me, purple-pink hands will dance or 'walk' across a keyboard during those ascending/descending parts. They're probably, who knows, Seth Justman's? This is super-imposed on the old footage as well.

Gradually the music video gets more crazy as the band eventually stops playing their instruments to instead play with paint and food coloring. This is obviously why everything was covered in white. The band go crazy with their antics - plowing their guitars through bathtubs full of paint, or walking on their hands as someone else holds their legs up, making hand prints on the floor. During the bridge, some sort of stop-motion cartoon thing starts, with this character at the edge of the scene writing 'memories' on a small piece of paper. The Freeze Frame album cover features this scene.

At the end, everyone forms a pyramid with - you guessed it - Seth Justman on top. As the song slowly fades away, he puts out his paint-covered hand (looking rather annoyed) and freezes in that stance. The image is then wiped about with blackness.

When I said the video was creative, I meant that it incorporated a lot of artistic effects in it. Things turn into paintings, old footage has band mates imposed on it, etc. etc.
You'd have to see it yourself to see what I mean. 

Overall, it's an engaging song with a well-established theme and good sound (other than that keyboard bit that makes me think of dizziness and nausea).

Lyrics: B
Music: B+

By the way, just because I think it would be enlightening, here is a short explanation of what some of the terms used in the song mean (non-metaphorically):

Rough cut - demo test photograph.
Slow-motion - filming technique (everyone knows what that is obviously)
Hot-flash - External flash you put into the hotshoe of an SLR camera.
Test strip, proof sheet - a test strip is a strip of photo paper used in the enlargement process to determine the best exposure time needed on the enlarger (by extension, an enlarger is a device used in the darkroom to enlarge a photograph on the film strip onto normal-sized photo paper).
A proof sheet is basically all the film strips arranged together side-by-side, exposed onto a normal piece of photo paper (not enlarged).
Stop-time - filming technique that is similar to time-lapse, but in which the subject is moved incrementally between shots, so that when the shots are run together it appears that the subject can move on its own. The clay cartoon sequence during the bridge appears to use this technique.
Flashback - this is largely used in plot lines in film or literature, not a photographic term having to do with camera flash. I'm sure everyone knows this obviously.
Zoom lens - not necessarily a telephoto lens, any lens that can increase or decrease its focal length (how far you can 'zoom' into a scene).
Darkroom - it's exactly as it sounds like, but it's not totally dark. It's a room in which to develop film photographs onto photo paper. Dim red light is okay to use but otherwise no natural light can come into the room (otherwise the photo paper is exposed).
And, finally, Freeze frame - not exactly a photographic term, more like a film term. Stopping a frame within a film or movie - freezing it so that it's paused on one frame essentially. Like pausing your TV. It's paused on one frame, all of which together make up the entire video or film. I guess you can say the same for 'taking a picture' because it's freezing a moment in time.

I took film photography in high school so I'm familiar with these terms. It helps, except that, again, they're all metaphors used in this song for attraction and beauty. And experiences. And...well, the days of the week.

I haven't heard all of the songs by the J. Geils Band, but having heard two, am I right in assuming there's some sort of explicit theme in each song? This one uses photography. 'Centrefold' uses a lot of graphic design and magazine jargon. What does 'Piss on the Wall' use as a theme? It's another song from the same album, from the brain of Seth Justman.

Anyway, what do you think of this one?

Justin C.

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