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In this episode, Carl King examines one film and one song: Mia Goth in Pearl (2022) and Cardiacs “Dirty Boy” (1995)
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I’m Carl King, and this is The Carl King Podcast, where we learn about music, filmmaking, and the other creative arts. To support this podcast, head over to Patreon.com/carlking, and join for just $1 or $5 per month. Or send a tip through PayPal or Venmo to username CarlKingdom. Special thank you to my Illusionist $51 level patrons, both Hank Howard III and Chewbode.
Quick shout-out to my music endorsements: Vienna Symphonic Library, Fractal Audio, Ernie Ball Strings, Toontrack, and Millennia Media.
Now let’s get this episode Beginned!
CARL KING THE HUMAN UPDATE
A couple of Carl King The Human Updates:
1 – Very Good Friends of Carl King. I have deleted my Twitter account. It was putting me in a bad mood. And I believe the best thing I can do to make the world better is keep making good things. So if you’re looking for me, you won’t find me there anymore. The best places to find me are my website, this podcast, and behind the Whole Foods dumpster.
2 – Speaking of my website: this past weekend I attended DesignerCon 2022 in Anaheim, California. And I posted a gallery of nearly 100 photos on my blog. I visited so many talented artists and creators. Including Strange Cat Toys, The Monstors, Matt Ryan, Kelly Toki, Los Fokos, DeerCat, Alex Pardee… it was overwhelming. So head over to carlkingdom.com/blog and give them a looking.
3 – My desire to make some new Carl King music is growing. Each day, I’m over here in Plosive Central, and see my PRS guitar and my Rickenbacker. Sitting there. And I want to make sounds with them. I think it’s almost time for a new Carl King album. But who knows how long that will take, and how I will ever have the time.
4 – That brings me to today’s episode. It’s going to be shorter than usual. I am going to talk about just one film and one song. Here’s why: I’m spending the majority of my own creative time each week making this show instead of making my own music and films. For instance, my new animated pilot DragonTooth Inn has been waiting on me for WEEKS, and I’m making no progress on it. All of the voice acting is finished, and all I need to do is score it, add sound effects, and turn it over to Lance for animation. So in order to keep things in balance, I’m going to continue with the podcast, but try to scale back the length. I think it would be better if I could record at least a couple of songs per month — one for Patreon members only, and one for public release. So, we will find out how this adjustment works.
And with that, or with nothing, let’s get into this week’s Filmmaking Lesson.
FILM: PEARL (2022)
The filmmaking lesson this week is PEARL, from 2022. Directed by Ti West and starring Mia Goth. And Screenwrited by Ti West AND Mia Goth.
This story is a prequel to the other Ti West Mia Goth film called X, which I covered in episode 35. It rewinds about 60 years. It’s set in 1918 during the influenza pandemic, and coincidentally filmed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Folks. Fooolks. I usually watch movies on my TV in the living room. But I watched this on my iMac, and was caught off-guard by the super-wide aspect ratio. It’s 2.39:1. Maybe I’m just not used to seeing video files that shape. I think having the letterboxing, the black bars at the top and bottom of the TV helps me to overlook that squashed shape, which is nearly two and a HALF times wide as it is tall. For reference, 1.78:1 is your usual look. Your typical TV show or movie or whatever you’d shoot with a video camera. Okay than. I will let everyone know.
Pearl has a similar opening shot that we saw in the other movie, X. It’s a shot of the farm house from inside the barn.
I got a kick out of the opening title design, which was over-the-top stylized like “Gone With The Wind (1939)” or “Wizard of Oz (1939).” And both of those movies are from 1939 for some reason.
I read an interview with the director, Ti West, and he said that the opening shots of a film teach the viewer how to watch it. I think it tells us what genre or creative language to think in, what to expect.
And this film has a quote-unquote Technicolor look, or at least a nod to those old highly saturated films. Interesting trivia: he originally wanted to shoot this in black and white in order to save money, but A24 told him to go for it, make it full-color.
So, in that opening scene, we have the main character Pearl, played by Mia Goth. She’s playing dress-up in her bedroom mirror. Unexpectedly, the lights shut off with a loud ka-chunk sound effects like huge stage switches being thrown. Because the next thing you know, the lights kick back on and she’s on an imaginary stage, with a spotlight on her. This also communicates right up front, this movie is going to have a hallucinogenic tone. We know how powerful her imagination is, as well as what she most desires.
Just as importantly, or maybe even more importantly, the orchestral score by Tyler Bates and Tim Williams tells us a lot. It’s actually very John Williams, and I love those woodwinds. There’s plenty of bass clarinet, my favorite orchestral instrument. The music is prominent, and sounds like a 30s or 40s movie in an on-the-nose, jokey way.
The filmmakers used a contrast of beautiful and ugly, in every element of this film. The visuals, the sound, the actors, the writing. There are horrific, bloody scenes juxtaposed with beautiful blue skies and lighthearted theater music dance routines.
Psychologically, there’s some Generational Trauma going on here. The mother is going through hell, so she makes sure her daughter goes through it, too. As Pearl says: “I’m special. Mommas gonna feel real stupid when she finds out, won’t she?”
Ti West captures Pearl’s desperation, the homicidal narcissism, the need to prove her worth to the world — and to at all costs, escape the farm. She says, “I want to be loved by as many people as possible to make up for all my time spent suffering. Sometimes I wake in the middle of the night and the fear washes over me ‘cuz what if this is it? What if this is right where I belong? I’m a failure.”
Now why can’t we have STAR WARS movies this well-written and dramatic?
What if Luke Skywalker trying to get off the farm was a total delusion. Like at the end of Return of the Jedi, what if it cut back to Luke still staring at that binary sunset. It was all the daydream of a loser.
But this film is more like: what if Star Wars went totally wrong? What if we show what being stuck on a farm in a depressive life will do to someone, if they DON’T escape?
There’s a brilliant confessional scene where Pearl’s friend asks: “What else have you done, Pearl?” And Pearl gives a 5.5-minute continuous close-up monologue. You don’t see this sort of focus on acting in a Marvel movie. They’d never do a 5.5 minute shot like that, dedicated to a character’s psychology.
They finally cut away to the friend she confessed to. After about 20 seconds of uncomfortable fumbling, the blonde girl says: “I should probably get going now.”
This film is over-the-top and self-conscious. And most of all, the end credits. Wow. By the way, those were VERY Jon Schnepp. Check out the Metalocalypse episode called Dethwater, and watch THOSE end credits. Aha! See a similarity?
I have to wonder if this series of movies is the greatest thing Mia Goth will ever make. Because I don’t know how she could top it.
THE LESSON / TAKEAWAY: In music, there is a technique called Theme and Variation. You come up with a musical idea, and then you create many versions of it. You explore it, try it this way, try it that way. See how far you can twist it. Well, this Trilogy is at least so far — very much that. But in film form. HOWEVER: PEARL takes this idea of theme and variation to a whole new level: by casting the same lead actor, Mia Goth, but as different characters, in different eras of the same storyline. Now here’s a crazy, cool thing: remember the actor Brent Spiner? You might remember as Lt. Commander Data. I seem to recall him suggesting doing that exact thing with the Next Generation cast. Meaning, use that same ensemble of actors from the Star Trek crew — to make other shows or movies. Imagine the crew of the Enterprise all in a totally different movie together, like a fantasy adventure, or an indie comedy. Why not?
This is one of my favorite films of the year, so I gave it 5/5 stars plus a little heart, on Letterboxd.
So now let’s get into this week’s Song Analysis.
SONG: CARDIACS / “DIRTY BOY” (1995)
Today we have a song called Dirty Boy, by Cardiacs.
From the album Sing To God. From 1995.
And this was submitted by Ryn Melanson
This is a difficult one — but not because it’s a difficult piece of music. It would be so much easier if I played clips of the actual music, but I want to avoid any copyrighted content. But I intend to do my best. And if you listen to the song at least once, I think you’ll be able to follow along.
Okay than. To work this piece of music out, I loaded the original audio of the song into my DAW and mapped out the first 2.5 minutes. Because this sucker is almost 9-minutes long. I’ll post a screenshot of my Cubase screen, so you can see what I did, but I won’t share the audio. And I won’t cover the rest of the song in detail. But that’s okay — everything I say here applies to the song as a whole.
What I will now do is analyze the composition, from a conceptual standpoint, and explain how it works in the world of music theory. If you wanted to write your very own Cardiacs song, I am going to give you the basic recipe.
For those who don’t know much about the band Cardiacs, don’t worry — I don’t either. People have recommended them to me for years, and I’ve listened to a song here and there. But I couldn’t tell you one autobiographical thing about them. Some have suggested I MUST be a fan of them, because somehow my music sounds similar… and that is an OBSERVANT guess. Here’s why.
The CORE, ESSENTIAL thing that distinguishes Cardiacs from other music? They modulate CONSTANTLY. Now what the heck is “modulating?”
Well, let’s get into some basic music theory.
You’ve probably heard of a song being in a KEY. For instance, the key of C Major, which is a good choice of key. In each KEY, such a C major, there are, let’s say, 7 notes. CDEFGAB. And they repeat. With those 7 notes, we put them together to create, let’s say, 7 different chords that are in the key. And that’s what you get to choose from, when you are in a KEY. 7 notes, 7 chords. Now, that’s a loose, general way of looking at it. For western, diatonic sort of classical music. Basic stuff. A lot of pop music doesn’t deviate a whole lot from that. In fact, it’s usually 2 chords, The first and the 5th (I, V) 3 chords, which is the first, fourth, and fifth (I, IV, V), or 4 chords, the first, 6th, fourth, and fifth in this order (I, vi, IV, V). Over and over. You can make unlimited songs out of that.
Now, a piece of music might CHANGE key part of the way through. The songwriter or composer might MODULATE. The song might be mostly in C major, like this. (I-IV-V-I) but then MODULATE to a related key, like A minor (Am – C – G – E). Or F Major for a while (F-Bb-C). And then go back to C. It’s not all that unusual.
It’s a little bit hard to explain without playing through a whole song, but those are the basics of keys and key changes.
What Cardiacs, and I, do — is RAPIDLY and FREQUENTLY change keys. All over the place. As often as every single chord. So instead of this (C-F-G) you end up with something like this: (chords) and so on.
In a way, you could say that this Dirty Boy, song has no key. Or you could say, it has many, many, many keys.
But what holds all those random chords together are a melody, so that it feels like they’re kind of… SUPPOSED to happen. Like this:
Now, when writing in that style of constant modulation, I like to think of each chord AS the key. F chord? (F) You’re in the key of F (F major scale). B minor chord? (Bm) You’re in the key of B minor. (B minor scale)
You can go a step further and do what Alexandre Desplat, the film composer does. Instead of thinking of every F major chord as a modulation to F major (F-Bb-C), you can instead use MODES. I’m not going to get into explaining modes, but you can think of them as little flavoring variations of scales. They’re much like a major or minor scale with a couple of notes raised or lowered.
You could treat an F chord as being the key of F Lydian (F Lydian) or F Mixolydian (F Mixolydian). And modulate into that for just a single chord. B minor (Bm chord) can be thought of a B Phrygian (B Phrygian scale) or B Dorian (B Dorian scale).
I do this constant modulation stuff all over my music, and in my opinion, it can create a magical, otherworldly sound. But it can also create a lot of tension and confusion. Unless you’re writing sci-fi movie scores, people might wonder why it sounds like that.
So back to Dirty Boy: the majority of the chords in this song, are… simple major chords. (E Major chord) With a few unexpected minor chords, too. (E Minor chord). And I found only a few chords that sounded like they were inversions — meaning the bass was playing a chord note other than the root of the chord. If you don’t know what that means, just know it’s another way of keeping the chords easy and straightforward. If the bassist DID play a lot of inversions, it would weaken the strength of those dramatic chord changes.
But this sort of thing avoids the vertical MURKINESS that jazz chords will create. Because it’s all fairly consonant chords from moment to moment. Instead, the dissonance is created horizontally, in time.
But here’s what makes the song sound so complex and clever: you can’t predict where those seemingly simple chords are going next. The LEAPS… from simple chord to simple chord… are what trick your ear.
And here’s the other thing that’s happening. Cardiacs write in VERY LONG PHRASES.
Typically, music is written in easy-to-manage phrases that are a measure or 4 measures long. Take Twinkle Twinkle Little Star for example:
Twinkle Twinkle Little Star
That’s 4 beats long. 1 and 2 and 3 and 4.
That’s 1 measure.
Put the whole song together, and you have a neat little tune that’s 6 measures long. It’s uniform, and even though the melody might change slightly, it’s the same little idea repeated over and over. Easy.
But on Dirty Boy, Cardiacs write extremely long phrases that feel like they go on forever. You’re not quite sure where it begins or ends.
For instance, when the singing begins at Bar 12, it takes until Bar 38 before the song returns to the re-intro, to get ready for what might be Verse 2. That’s 26 bars before they use the same chords again. It’s a phrase that is about 90 seconds long. If you think of a melody or phrase as a sentence… this would a sentence that takes up an entire paragraph, or even a full page in a book. Compare that to the simple phrase Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.
In measuring it out in Cubase, I broke those 26 bars down into 4 chunks of 11 bars, 3 bars, 5 bars, and then 7 bars. Because that’s where I detected conceptual units, or major shifts. Little miniature themes that felt like they kind of belonged together.
Now, within that, on a measure-to-measure level, it could be counted out in a couple of different obvious ways:
1 – Shifting between 4/4 and 6/4 time signatures.
Or 2 – Mostly 4/4 with occasional bars of 2/4.
I would opt for switching between 4/4 and 6/4 to accommodate the unusual phrases. Because many actually feel like 6 beats that belong together.
And here’s something to think about. This isn’t music that’s hard to play, but it’s hard to REMEMBER. It’s actually, physically, no different from playing a Nirvana song. On any of the instruments. This relates to my belief that… what we might consider good musicianship might simply a STRONG ability to MEMORIZE music. And I might be considered a bad musician simply because my overall ability to memorize things is… bad.
Now I’m just going to guess that the music for this song was written to fit the abstract lyrics, which also seem to have no obvious rhythmic form. Maybe the lyrics were written out freeform, as a big poetic cloud, and later put to music. So if you’re trying to write music with this sort of single, extremely long phrase, like Cardiacs did, starting with non-metric lyrics is a good way to do it. Or at least… lyrics that don’t SUGGEST a typical rhyme scheme and song meter.
So there’s your Cardiacs formula. Lots of simple root position chords, constant modulation, and long as heck phrases. Then again, maybe this is the only Cardiacs song that does this. We don’t know yet.
Anyway, I enjoyed analyzing this song, and thank you to Ryn Melanson for sending it my way.
OK, that’s the end of this Episode of the Carl King Podcast. Remember to subscribe on Spotify, Apple Music, or anywhere else you listen to these dang podcasts. And support the creation of more episodes by joining my Patreon for $1 or $5 a month. That’s Patreon Dot Com Slash Carl King. Or send a tip through PayPal or Venmo to username CarlKingdom.
And as always, special thanks to my $51 a month Patrons, at the special Illusionist level, Chewbode and Hank Howard III. And thank you to ALL of the Very Good Friends of Carl King for listening, and as I always say: Okay Than. I will let everyone know.