Allo Darlin’ and intertextual music

Allo Darlin'

One of my favourite moments on Allo Darlin’s self-titled debut album is where they depart from being Allo Darlin’ mid-song:

“Underneath the stars on the ferris wheel
You swung your feet and sang your favourite Weezer song
So I sang along…

At which point a chorus of people literally break into the melody of Weezer’s classic ‘El Scorcho’, with all the rousing energy the song inspires:

“I’m a lot like you so please
Hello, I’m here, I’m waiting
I think I’d be good for you
And you could be good for me!”

And when Elizabeth Morris launches back into her own chorus, she has invoked Rivers Cuomo’s capacity for anthemic emo empowerment; it brings the song to another level. Perhaps they chose ‘El Scorcho’ just because it fitted nicely with the chords, aside from it being easily one of the best rock songs ever made – or perhaps there’s something more. Weezer are associated with a more masculine, teenage form of emotional anguish – Pinkerton is a classic, if sometimes accused of ignorant misogyny. It shouldn’t fit into Allo Darlin’s lighthearted, ukelele-filled song about fairgrounds and blissfully unhindered love – but somehow it totally does, and there’s humour in the way the lyrics of the song don’t matter. It’s as if songs about unrequited love, even at the height of an idealised relationship, are more enjoyable and expressive than the simplicity of Allo Darlin’s song, and as such Morris self-consciously ironises the silliness of her chorus, which is literally about kissing someone who has been eating candyfloss and salty popcorn. I saw Allo Darlin’ at End of the Road and before playing this song, Morris paused to introduce a man who proposed to his girlfriend right in front of me.

It’s a brilliant example of maybe my favourite thing about Allo Darlin’: how unafraid they are of making pop music about pop music. It’s by no means something that other bands don’t do; it’s even a major point of the song they break into during ‘Kiss Your Lips’. ‘El Scorcho’ features lines about Green Day and a Public Enemy quote, but the references are peripheral, as the narrator’s love of Green Day is immediately dismissed when his crush “said [she’d] never heard of them – how cool is that?!” If references to music are present in other musicians’ work, the only examples I can think of are general, allusive; for instance The Mountain Goats’ album The Sunset Tree contains multiple songs about music as a form of refuge, but the lyrics need not do more than leave the actual connection to the imagination: “I lean in close to the little record player on the floor / So this is what the volume knob’s for / I listen to dance music”. (See also: ‘Headphones’ by Björk, ‘Radio’ by Beyonce, ‘Heavy Metal Drummer’ by Wilco). Although putting these emotions into music always creates a sort of mirror for these feelings, and thus allows the song to replicate feelings evoked by the music which it discusses, rarely do artists embrace the fact that they are making music because of music made by others.

Although the references on their early singles were frivolous – picture, as Morris does in a dream in the splendid ‘Henry Rollins Don’t Dance’, Henry Rollins taking umbrage with a DJ because he’s not playing ABBA – on their albums Allo Darlin’ (2010) and Europe (2012) the references are more developed. Allo Darlin’ tacitly acknowledge that some of the strongest ambiguous emotions have already been captured by other songs, and acknowledge them as such. This is a very complex matter: how does one justify invoking the subjectively-gathered emotional resonance of one song within the separate world of another? What can you bring to the song which isn’t already present in the original? And does all of this suggest a lack of inspiration?

I know that many people have expressed scorn at the band’s habit of relying so much on music itself as its core emotional drive. It’s tautologous; engagement with music should be taken for granted. Their desire to place themselves within a larger body of comparable indie-inclined musicians might seem forced. So many emotions are better represented not with words or with Allo Darlin’s music but with other songs. It works because Morris is so bloody passionate about it – watch her singing ‘My Heart Is A Drummer’ at End of the Road fest and positively screaming her lungs out; the lyric is “You see it’s like loving [Paul Simon album] Graceland / It’s not allowed to be, but we know it’s everybody’s favourite / Deep down in a place where / MUSIC MAKES YOU HAPPIEST!” Ignoring the controversies about Simon’s violation of the cultural boycott of South Africa during apartheid and his pretty-much-admitted plagiarism of collaborators Los Lobos, Morris goes solely on the feeling the record inspired, and that’s what’s so special about her intertextuality; it avoids seeming trendy or deliberate and cuts right to the purest, inexpressible truth of what the music means to her.

And this habit of intertextuality has become one of the band’s defining characteristics. Compare the way they reference classic alt-country band the Silver Jews on ‘The Letter’ with the way the same band is referenced in WHY?’s song ‘Good Friday’: Morris’ “And I pictured you singing the Silver Jews” versus Yoni Wolf’s “And with you in the front of the Silver Jews show / When you act like you didn’t notice”. Wolf’s reference is a detail, a means of establishing idiosyncracy but ultimately peripheral to the mood – it’s a reference to the tour they spent together, but also knowingly points towards his songwriting inspiration. It lends specifics to the song, but in actuality, said specifics are rather interchangeable. However, had Morris picked another band, the meaning would be completely changed; her reference is feelings over facts. She relies upon her listener’s familiarity with the band, which is perhaps something of a leap, given that they’re so bafflingly overlooked. She uses the musical image of Dave Berman’s melancholy baritone, partly as a counterpoint to her own tuneful vocals – Berman’s voice evokes moods beyond her own vocal range, and by alluding towards this, she summons up not just his vocal tone but Silver Jews’ culturally-distanced American atmospherics. It’s a rich image but this is because Silver Jews’ music is so rich, rather than because of Morris’ songwriting (beyond picking an awesome band to invoke), and Morris is comfortable with that.

Her band has even made songs entirely about other musicians: their recent single ‘Darren’ is a tribute to cult songwriter and former leader of Hefner, Darren Hayman: “I just can’t stop listening to Darren…” The B-Side is a cover of Hayman’s electronica side-project The French’s song ‘The Wu Tang Clan’, itself about the therapeutic power of the not-generally-seen-as-therapeutic hip-hop collective:

“And RZA, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, and Golden Arms
Will hold her tight and out of harm in a council flat tonight
And the thought hits her at 105 BPM
That sometimes, for a second, she believes that everything will be all right…”

It’s hard to think of a more perfect bridge section ever written. ‘The Wu Tang Clan’ works in part because there’s a knowing irony in the stylistic gulf between The French’s daft synth-work and the Wu’s driving beats, all the while being entirely honest in the depiction of the beauty of music’s use as a resolve. It’s not a song for fans of the Wu Tang Clan (although I for one adore it) but it doesn’t matter, musical preferences are (for the sake of argument) entirely subjective. ‘Darren’ follows similar lines, in being a song about a comforting bond with a particular artist, but isn’t as successful as ‘The Wu Tang Clan’ because Hayman’s music is obviously such a huge influence on Allo Darlin’; there isn’t as much of an imaginative gap or a unifying power as in Hayman’s song because their fanbase are already (mostly, I’d imagine) familiar with the emotions Hefner evoke. Using the trope in the first person exposes its pitfalls: Morris is essentially alluding to the musical feelings of a band who have probably been placed next to hers in mixtapes and DJ nights a fair few times in the past. It reminded me of the knowing self-sabotage of This Many Boyfriends telling a partner ‘I Don’t Like You (Cause You Don’t Like The Pastels)’ – such an obscure homage digs them deeper into a self-perpetuating twee-pop scene (but of course, that’s the humour of the song).

But the thing is, this flaw is the flipside of some of Allo Darlin’s strongest lyrics. Morris articulates her frustration for relying on music to provide emotional connections; for instance, ‘The Polaroid Song’:

“I feel like dancing on my own
To a record that I do not own
In a place I’ve never seen before”.

It’s about how nostalgia is generated artificially, how a Polaroid makes things look “like it’s 1973”, already faded, immediately a romanticised imperfection as soon as it’s created. You never can quite tell whether Morris is similarly guilty of such nostalgic impositions or whether she’s expressing scepticism, and the song’s departing chorus further muddles matters. She is drawn to nostalgia, but she wants new reference points. On ‘My Sweet Friend’ she voices an even deeper concern:

“You said a record is not just a record
Records can hold memories
All these records sound the same to me
And I’m full up with memory…”

And elsewhere, on ‘Tallulah’, despite recalling the pleasures of finding “a bar with The Maytals on” and “the tape with [Go-Betweens album] Tallulah on”, Morris finds herself with the worry that music is losing its power:

“I’m wondering if I’ve already heard all the songs that will mean something
And I’m wondering if I’ve already met all the people who will mean something”

And after all that she’s sung before, the line is devastating: it’s a very real worry that a reliance on music for emotional stability and reference is just keeping her held back in the past. On this level, it makes sense that Morris’ songs are often just descriptions of other songs or artists; she finds the idea of forging new musical vessels for feelings and memories problematic, she is losing faith in it. And if new music no longer has power for her songs’ narrators, what does that mean for her audience? Allo Darlin’s following is relatively small, but borderline cult – in part because they relate to the musical references she proposes, and in part because her idiosyncratic lyrical approach has seen her music added to the memory triggers of a whole scene of indie-pop fans.

Of course there are many other musicians who have used music as emotional sources, most notable I think is LCD Soundsystem’s half-song, half-essay on the idea of “cool”, ‘Losing My Edge’, which devolves in its second half to haphazard namechecks. Another instance is David Bowie’s fascinated tribute ‘Song for Bob Dylan’, in which he expresses wonder at how many people were affected by Dylan’s poetry. I also really enjoyed Big K.R.I.T.’s descriptions of nostalgic times listening to old-skool rappers like Scarface in his dad’s car on his song ‘Time Machine’ (and Chamillionaire’s verse on that song is a typical example of the common hip-hop trope of comparisons and shout-outs to other emcees). There must be thousands more examples and it would be a nice mixtape idea! But what’s particularly engaging, more emotionally involved about Allo Darlin’s use of intertext is that it’s always the feeling of the song rather than knowledge of the artist which makes their references really sink deep.

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About decemberembers

I've noticed that all of my music-obsessed friends have completely different approaches to music in the digital age, and I'm writing this blog as an attempt to raise questions about what you experience when listening to music. It's also partly a response to a majority of music journalism which, stylistically and ethically, I find problematic. I'm trying to avoid being prescriptive and will encourage open-mindedness. :)
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