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February 13, 2008

Note Books - The Motion Sick

The Note Books series features musicians discussing their literary side. Past contributors have included John Darnielle, John Vanderslice, and others.

Boston's The Motion Sick always impresses me not only it its catchy indie pop, but also with its witty lyrics often filled with social criticism and/or pop culture oddities. The band's sophomore album, The truth will catch you, just wait.. was released earlier this year. Of the album, Three Imaginary Girls wrote:

"Boston foursome The Motion Sick have a keen ability to combine a dark, sinister side with glowing pop to create a slick sound that's equally danceable and eerie. Songs tend to sway more to one side than the other, but on The truth will catch you, just wait..., a delicate and compelling balance is struck in just over 30 minutes."

Apart from his lyrics, I know the Motion Sick's frontman Michael Epstein is a fan of literature (and particularly Kurt Vonnegut) from reading the band's blog.

In his own words, here is the Note Books entry from Michael Epstein of the Motion Sick:

Most of my reading these days is concentrated in the realm of cochlear mechanics so that I might gain insight into how tiny vibrations in the air turn into spine-tingling musical sensations. On the occasions when I break away from the science for a good bedtime read, I usually end up with texts, both fiction and non-fiction, that shift my brain into overdrive and keep me up all night.

Every Book I’ve Read So Far (and probably all the ones I haven’t) by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

At the present, I love the writings of Kurt Vonnegut so much that I have trouble justifying reading any books that are not written by him. This sadly includes my father’s recent book detailing the life of Jewish immigrants living in the Lower East Side of Manhattan around the turn of the century, Umberto Eco’s Interpretation and Overinterpretation (borrowed from the library almost two months ago), and the pile of Ayn Rand books cherished and recommended repeatedly by my wife. Sometimes it is hard to logically accept that my neglect for this otherwise attractive book pile is built by this recently deceased (sadly), scrappy, self-effacing fellow.

I admire Vonnegut’s artistry tremendously. He seamlessly and shamelessly weaved painful autobiographical events and personal struggles into every word he ever wrote, a task that I grapple with when approaching songwriting. What makes Vonnegut most appealing to me, though, is his completely unpretentious ability to alter the way in which narrative is conveyed. Numerous authors have experimented with such endeavors in a variety of ways, but never so successfully as Kurt. While William S. Boroughs would cut and rearrange text to bring out hidden meaning and generate non-linearity, Vonnegut was busy sidestepping linearity by treating the dimension of time as observable in the same way that we observe the dimension of space. Vonnegut’s most famous work, Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance With Death, absorbs this modality so readily and easily, that it is even accessible to young people and those who typically do not enjoy the flavor of aberrant structure.

When I first read Vonnegut, my entire concept of what narrative means was overturned. His books are page-turners, but not because the reader can’t wait to find out what happens – he tells you the entire plot including the ending on the first page – the reader can’t wait to find out how it happens. Vonnegut never wrote books focusing on events; he wrote books examining the journeys between events. To me, that is precisely what successful songwriting is inherently about. When you have such limited word space to work with, the telling of events is trite and unnecessary. Often times, the burden of narrative results in songs that feel like bulleted summaries rather than tales of intricate and deep experience.

The Arrogance of Humanism by David Ehrenfeld (1981)

I’m the kind of person who is very reluctant to enjoy sociopolitical non-fiction. I am hyper-wary of being manipulated by the presentation of selected “facts” and information. It is far too easy for an author to provide a very convincing argument for just about anything. What is special about The Arrogance of Humanism is that I cannot find the flaws in the arguments or identify the omission of pertinent bits of information.

In the context of his writing, Ehrenfeld defines humanism as the belief that humans are capable of overcoming any future obstacle, no matter how great. Therefore, according to this belief, there is no need to worry about the repercussions of present actions. Modern examples include: the transport of water from California’s limited reserves to supply Las Vegas, the world’s continuing dependency on non-renewable energy, and the use of nuclear power without long-term plans for the disposal or reclamation of the resulting toxic waste.

Ehrenfeld believes that we must carefully examine the repercussions of all of our actions, and that we should not and cannot simply rely on humanity to find solutions some time in the future. If we don’t know how to solve a problem today, we should not create that problem. Who can argue with that?

It is possible that I am taken with these ideas partly because of a deep-seated, misanthropic hope that humanity is in the process of digging its own grave. In fact, I’ve only recently learned that not everyone has blissful fantasies of the swift and painless obliteration of the universe. As such, this particular book is indeed alarmist and almost even extremist, but for some reason, when Ehrenfeld tells me the sky is falling, I am certain that it must be.

Motion Sick links and free and legal music downloads:

"Jean-Paul" [mp3] from The truth will catch you, just wait..
"30 Lives" [mp3] from The truth will catch you, just wait..
"Satellite" [mp3] from Her Brilliant Fifteen
"The Day After" [mp3] from Her Brilliant Fifteen
"Pre-Existing Condition" [mp3] from Her Brilliant Fifteen
"Grace Kelly" [mp3] from Her Brilliant Fifteen

the band's website
The band's MySpace page
the band's blog

Three Imaginary Girls review of The truth will catch you, just wait...
Popmatters review of The truth will catch you, just wait...

Shondes music blog posts at
Shondes tracks at Hype Machine
motion+sick posts at Largehearted Boy

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Note Books submissions (musicians discuss literature)
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
Soundtracked (directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2008 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)


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