Very very very short songs.

This article, written by and copyright Douglas Wolk, was originally published in famous New York weekly newspaper The Village Voice in 1997. It was sent to World Of Stuart by its author in the wake of Big Songs For Little Attention Spans, and is reprinted here with permission.

Pop songs got standardized around three minutes because that's what 78s could hold, but sometimes life is just too short for that. Which is when bands that are very fast, or very good condensers, or just very terse, become useful. Just think: in the time it takes to hear the radio repeat the chorus 18 more times, you could be listening to three one-minute songs, or six 30-second songs, or a dozen 15-second songs.

That's songs, mind you, not "songs" that get no further than their title, like the Descendents' "All" or Go!'s "Pizza Boy" or (stretching things a bit) Velvet Cactus Society's "Child Hugging Himself In An Empty Room Where The Electricity Doesn't Work Too Well." Destroy 2, a one-off duo of the Boredoms' Eye and Chew, took that approach to its practical limit with their ingenious self-titled EP: 48 "songs" that might as well have been a single start-and-stop number, including a 17-second "Nazi Punks Fuck Off," in a 10-minute live set. And, while Napalm Death's one-second grindcore single "You Suffer" has its uses--a friend of mine uses it as the beep noise on his computer--listening for pleasure isn't really one of them.

Noise miniatures, which rely on texture more than on form, are a more meaningful sub-category of sonic miniaturism--you can hear them and get the idea right away. The new "Four Years In 30 Seconds" compilation spotmikes 25 international noise groups doing their thing and getting it over with. Even more extreme: the "RRR-100" 7-inch comp, with 100 noise types each doing one locked groove, lasting  two seconds or infinity. Most of the duo Inca Eyeball's work consists of very brief text-and-sound doodles played on whatever bangable things are at hand. Their first CD (after a jillion cassettes), the new "Quattro Symbolos", crams 99 tracks in and, just to make things more of a challenge, one of them's 21 minutes long. Most of them, regrettably, aren't quite as amusing as their titles suggest (I had high but unrealized hopes for the 24-second "Satan Comes To Earth And Gets A Job At H.M.V. - A Rock Opera"). The idea is plenitude, rather than bite-size treats.

Hardcore's tempo, intensity of expression, and strict rationing of one idea per title keep it from developing much in the way of variety, but make it a fertile mini-song breeding ground. The cover of the 7" hardcore/grindcore compilation "Bllleeeeaaauuurrrrgghhh!" advertises "41 Bands! 52 Songs!" (it was followed it a few months later with "Son Of Bllleeeeaaauuurrrrgghhh!" - 52 bands! 69 songs! very hard to take!), though most of its tracks are less songs per se than grinding sounds separated by silence. The song-form brevity champ would have to be Negative Approach's 1982 "Pressure": intro, chorus, verse, chorus, outro, total elapsed time 9 seconds. And there are still great hardcore miniaturists at work, especially in Boston, where a scene centered on the blistering _concrete_/'core band Fat Day and guitarist Doug DeMay's label 100% Breakfast! has produced some imaginative variations on the old two-step (check out "Save The Ants", a yippy, hilarious split 10" by Gerty Farish and the Pissed-Officers).

Outside those mutant styles of rock-based music, though, there's not much truck with miniatures--you can't work up much of a dance groove or much jazz heat in a few breaths, and the hip-hop micro-jam that isn't just a skit hasn't evolved much past P.E.'s "Meet The G That Killed Me." High-culture composers occasionally attempt tiny forms, but it's hard to get a commission or a performance for a 45-second piece. The teensy piano solos and duos of Hungarian composer Gyorgy Kurtag's "Jatekok" are nicely realized, though, and John Zorn's "Torture Garden"-era pieces for Naked City delivered the amusing sight of people reading 12-second blitzes off sheet music.

Maybe the reason miniatures haven't caught on in mainstream pop is that when you hear a minute-long tune, you think "commercial." Not that jingles can't be good pop, or vice versa (for proof blessed with a little bit of history's disjunction, track down the excellent bootleg CD "Things Go Better With Coke", an anthology of '60s hitmakers - Leslie Gore, the Supremes, the Box Tops - doing one-minute tunes whose final verses sell sugar water), but pop brevity is hard to disassociate from pop whoredom. That resemblance has been exploited outside the mainstream, notably by the Who (who themselves did soda ads) with the little ad-songs on "Sell Out", the Residents with their "Commercial Album" of 40 one-minute songs, which they got played on KFRC by buying 40 one-minute spots (10 of the better ones show up on their new retrospective "Our Tired, Our Poor, Our Huddled Masses"), and by Wire with "The Commercial."

But its new champion is a twitchy Glasgow band called the Yummy Fur, whose formal and lyrical obsessions include brevity, whoredom and how they get along with pop. Their second album, "Kinky Cinema" (on the British label Guided Missile), is a beeline through 60 tracks, 58 of which are actual composed rock songs and about two-thirds of which make it in under the 60-second line. Most of them are newly released, though 10 appeared on the 1995 single "Kodak Nancy Europe", a game stab at the short-song grail of the perfect 7-inch album (attempted by punk miniaturists from the late '70s - the first singles by the Suburbs and the 49 Americans - to last week's entry, Runaway Weiner Dog's ineptly Residential "Cheesy Fun From 1 To 10").

The kick of "Kinky Cinema" is that it works as an album, heard straight through. Yummy Fur frontman John McKeown has a bark-and-scrape aesthetic learned from the Ron Johnson bands of the mid-'80s and later Scottish cult faves like the Stretchheads, but he writes songs, not variations on an approach. They differentiate themselves (by degrees, anyway) in rhythm, sonics, arrangements and hooks, if not much in lyrics. When McKeown's not yelping about sex, he's usually yelping about his bandmates, his favorite bands or his ideas about how music should work--the line "Mark Gibbons and me fuckin' hate this song" is sort of a nod to the Minutemen's me-and-D. Boon-isms, and "Liliput" is a straight-up ad jingle for, well, Liliput. The Yummy Fur namedrop the Residents and the Fall, too; the latter aren't known for their terseness, but McKeown's trebly, almost-in-tune guitar jitters are derived from Craig Scanlon's, Mark E. Smith's proud-uh Mancunian drawl made his broad Glaswegian singing accent possible, and anyway the Yummy Fur get through the Fall's "Fiery Jack" in 48 seconds by leaving out most of the repetitive bits.

On a couple of recent singles and last year's album "Night Club", the Yummy Fur have shown the song-length sprawl that tends to set in with even the most laconic young bands, and they've even oozed over the three-minute mark once or twice. That may even be good: their best song to date is "Car Crash" (on the new album in dub, as "Car Smash"), an epic at 2 minutes 43 seconds. But "Kinky Cinema" is an essential record of the days when they knew when to shut up.


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