moments before the wind.

March 30, 2006

the salt in my stew

Filed under: authenticity, country, folk, music, reviews, writing — alimarcus @ 10:35 am

In a Toronto Star article Blake Sennett, of Rilo Kiley and The Elected, is quoted as saying "I'm just a fan of sad lyrics with happy music." This is something that he is quite good at (ex: "So Long", from The Execution Of All Things), and it's got me thinking, as a songwriter who has done exactly that, about what motivates people to write songs with this subversion in mind.

The first example that pops to mind is Hank Williams' "Lovesick Blues," where lines like "I don't know what I'll do/ all I do is sit and sigh." The jaunty rhythm and signature yodeling belie the pathos of a man who's been slighted by the woman he loves. This is interesting because Hank Williams got his yodeling pretty much direct from Jimmie Rodgers, the "blue yodeler." The Blue Yodel had such power because its primitive sound could easily be taken for cries of joy or sobs of pain, usually both at the same time. That Emmett Miller is associated with yodeling in blackface much more than Rodgers (who also was known to perform in blackface) suggests a deeper racial interpretation, or misinterpretation, depending on who you talk to.

So what incites this subversion? Is it originated in some sort of slavery-era musical culture like gospel, where the invocation of a spiritual happiness helps to override the pain of the physical present? Appropriation is the definition of American music, and tracing lineages can bring up some thought-provoking questions as well as crazy theories. For instance, maybe for Sennett and others, the musical qualities correlate with a spiritual language, while the lyrics represent the physical existence. By using our standard language – written word – to express the tangible reality, and juxtaposing it with music that by its very nature is a medium one cannot literally touch, there is some sort of poignant cosmic friction. To highlight something so internal is a special collaboration between things known and unknown, and my speculative powers are losing their ability to focus on what's rapidly becoming way too abstract. Hopefully I've made some sort of sense.

This combination tends to have a different effect on people than a song that sends matching emotional signals in both it's music and words. As a songwriter, I've always said that a song is not just about the words, but that the interplay of the words and music have to work in a way that creates a narrative all its own. Sennett is extraordinarily good at this, my main criteria for judging songwriters.

some links:

a review I wrote for The Crutch on The Elected
Their newest album, Sun, Sun, Sun. You have to open the pdf file- it's really easier than it looks.

Love And Theft, the authority on blackface and American culture. Written by Eric Lott, a professor in my old English department at UVA. And Dylan's album was named after this book, 'nuff said. Read it.

some music:
Emmett Miller clips
Listen for the "Lovesick Blues," later made famous by Hank, and also the "St. Louis Blues" and "You're the Cream In My Coffee."

Jimmie Rodgers clips
tons of great songs! He was the same time period as Miller, but I don't often see them compared, probably b/c Rodgers had pop success and Miller was still part of the vaudeville circuit. They are so similar.

Hank Williams clips
Listen to "Lovesick Blues" here if you're not familiar with it. Now you may come to understand how the sound changed over time, and what that means about cultural perceptions etc., given that Hank is often referred to as the father of country music.


March 28, 2006

motownphilly back again

Filed under: authenticity, business, distribution, labels, marketing, music — alimarcus @ 12:50 pm

Greatest Hits albums. A point of contention for many, or few, depending on who you talk to. In my world, there are few benefits, and in the end I firmly believe that they do more harm than good. First a few things in support, to be fair:

-They serve as a good introduction to a band that you are unfamiliar with; it is not uncommon for someone to buy a greatest hits album, and then become interested in the original sources after the fact.
-They generate extra recognition for musicians; the implication of a retrospective is that there has been a meaningful career worth celebrating.
-It's a good way to get a few new songs, or re-tooled, re-mixed versions.

but, here are all the things that are disturbing:

First, the cons of the above pros.

-The converted fans can often only like the "popular" songs, and are conspiciously missing the context in which they originally came from. This is in my opinion a less satisfying experience, and somewhat ignorant. I've seen many people eventually end up buying, say, Turnstiles, b/c they like Billy Joel's Greatest Hits, and not being able to get into it at all. The music that makes it onto the radiowaves is frequently of a certain type of character (upbeat, or rhythym-heavy, or some other such "poppy" sound), and the beauty of an album like Turnstiles, or Blood Sugar Sex Magik, or Tragic Kingdom, lies in the structure of the album. No question about it.
-Record labels abuse the format. Have musicians like Hillary Duff or Britney Spears really displayed the kind of longevity, not to mention talent, that justifies a greatest hits release? I think not.
-With the ditigal marketplace becoming so prevalent, there is no need to produce an entire CD in order to introduce a single to the fans. Exclusive downloads work just fine.

and more:

-I get the distinct feeling that record labels re-releasing content in most cases has very, very little to do with the content, and very much to do with the bottom line. This in itself bothers me, and appears to exploit a loving audience. How many times should someone be expected to buy the same sound recording? It's a blatant scam.
-As a proponent of the album format, merely for artistic purposes, I think greatest hits are a waste of space. They are uninteresting in their construction, and often there is no flow, no connection between the different songs. If it is a band I already love, there is not a lot of interest for me, because there is no cohesive narrative.
-People often argue that an album sometimes only has a few good songs, so an aggregate compilation of them is much more pleasurable that owning 6 albums and skipping around the tracks. I say, if an artist makes an album with only a few good songs, it's not worth buying anyways, that they're probably not very good anyhow.

Well, if anything, I encourage you to give more attention to the primary source. From the perspective of a musician, this is the intended expression of their art. This week's (is it last's, already? Seattle is so behind) New Yorker had an article about Camille Pisarro's preferences for specific kinds of picture frames, and explained how it is a matter of respect to preserve the original content in the frame that the artist meant for it.

March 25, 2006

like paper in the wind

Filed under: authenticity, music, recording, vinyl — alimarcus @ 9:56 pm

I would argue in most cases that music sounds better on vinyl than on CD, but it's a taste that I devloped quite recently; growing up, I was all about cassettes and then CDs, and never once complained. It wasn't until some time in college that I started paying attention to vinyl, and anyways what really inspired me was the desire to hang John Denver's Greatest Hits on my wall. (I don't think I know of another album that emanates just absolute pure joy.)

I've really come to believe, more fervently than about Denver or Springsteen or whatever, that classical music sounds exponentially better on vinyl than on CD. I have always hated listening to classical music – and I've been playing it on piano for years and years and years. My parents had a decent collection of piano and orchestra works, and I detested all of it. Lately I have been buying some of my favorite pieces on vinyl though- for example, Chopin waltzes, which I own on CD also. And by "own" I mean "stole from my parent's shelves." I discovered that the elusive "warm" tones, which sort of defy description even though everyone knows what it refers to, make a world of difference to the sound of a concert hall. The music comes alive in a way that I've only previously experienced while playing it myself. And as for the symphonic works, it has all of a sudden become listenable.

I thought for a moment that maybe I've just grown up a little, and am beginning to acquire the taste for the genre. Maybe it is just all those years of classical music study and academic obssession paying off. But when I try to listen to some stuff on CD that I have, it simply isn't the same. Maybe it appeals to the experience of the performer, because the slightly muffled fuzziness seems more tangible than digital perfection. Maybe lending it that antiquated sheen is sort of like a sepia-toned photograph, enhancing the appeal through an implicit sense of nostalgia.

ADDITION – 3/29/06 – Bob Dylan writes in Chronicles: Volume One: "Folksingers, jazz artists and classical musicians made LPs, long playing records with heaps of songs in the grooves- they forged identities and tipped the scales, gave more of the big picture. LPs were like the force of gravity."

March 24, 2006

water from another time

Filed under: authenticity, country, folk, marketing, music, recording, reviews — alimarcus @ 12:00 pm

I'm still thinking about movies and music – really, the proliferation of music-related movies lately. On my list to see these days are Heart Of Gold and Be Here To Love Me, about Neil Young and Townes Van Zandt, respectively. These are clearly much different from the biopics Ray and Walk The Line, being of the documentary rather than the blockbuster pedigree. And in the way that many things seem to refer back to a singular experience that in some way introduced me to a specific idea, this makes me think of O' Brother, Where Art Thou?

Nobody would argue with the revolution that O' Brother inspired – in the film industry, regarding soundtracks and quality (Dirty Dancing has a great soundtrack but how can you compare Patrick Swayze with Ralph Stanley?), and in the music industry, where it singlehandedly influenced the entire cultural opinion towards a more southern, roots-oriented kind of taste. How many of you knew people back when O' Brother came out that thought it really was George Clooney singing "Man of Constant Sorrow"? Neither a biopic nor a documentary, the movie pretty much did everything perfectly – really, absolutely perfect. The Coen Brothers' collaboration with music producer T-Bone Burnett includes The Big Lebowski and Ladykillers as well, both exceptionally done.

So then I start comparing the musical motives of the songs in O' Brother with it's follow-up, cinema verite-styled Down From The Mountain, directed by D.A. Pennebaker, of Don't Look Back fame. The movie is comprised of interviews, performances, and behind the scenes shots of a show at the Grand Ole Opry that the musicians from O' Brother put on, and then eventually went on tour as well. Where one movie fictionalizes the music of well-respected artists and simultaneously catapults many of them into the mainstream consciousness (Stanley's been around since the 40's and didn't really get national recognition until 2000, despite his patriarchal position in the world of old-time and bluegrass music), the other movie gives the real artists credit where credit is due. Dan Tymisnki (Clooney's doppleganger), for example, is better known as a member of Union Station, the band that Alison Krauss plays with, but in Down From The Mountain, he is front-and-center.

Here's where my thoughts are overlapping. The biopics intend to give the artists credit as well, and they do it without using the actual music. This is a little confusing to flesh out, but there is a big difference to me between the O' Brother/Mountain scenario, where the actors were mostly lip-synching, and the biopic thing where the actors are basically doing impersonations. Every single musician from the O' Brother soundtrack got a gigantic career boost, and overall there was a really positive feel to the whole thing. Concerns about the A-word (can you guess it? It ends with "thenticity") hardly have to be addressed. Meanwhile, I am a bit apprehensive about Jamie Foxx's musical career, and I wonder what, if anything, will come from Reese Witherspoon or Joaquin Phoenix via an opportunistic record label. While they do have track records of being talented actors, they aren't anything more than karaoke experts in these movies. Clooney wasn't giving off the karaoke vibe in O' Brother.

As I write, I am thinking that maybe it is mainly the difference between a Coen Brothers film and the more mainstream-tastes of the biopics. After all, the Grammys haven't drawn a line, since all these movies have been nominated, and neither has T-Bone Burnett, who was the musical director for Walk The Line. I think that in the end, I feel like the Coens treat the music with more respect, because they do not employ the uber-cheesy impressions in an attempt to be sincere. Coen sincerity comes from an altogether different angle, one that has alot more to do with irony, sarcasm, and perversity than a straight-up pop mentality.

I look forward to the Townes Van Zandt movie not because I am one of his adoring fans, but because I think we need a break from the big-Hollywood glamour. And besides, maybe it will open the door for that Gram Parsons movie I mentioned earlier. Maybe Joel and Ethan Coen should think about doing a movie about Gram and Emmylou. Imagine the possibilties.

March 22, 2006

but there’s no reasoning

Filed under: authenticity, live shows, music — alimarcus @ 8:51 am

On the bus yesterday I eavesdropped while two sixty-ish women talked about SXSW. The women did not know each other, but in the course of the twenty minute bus ride they attempted to tell their life stories and connect over points of empathy or compassion. It was touching, really. One woman, the younger of the two, had spent the week in Austin at the festival with her husband, graduate student daughter, and college-aged son. Apparently, though neither of her children were participating in the festival, they are regular attendees because of mutual friends they have that live locally. Direct quote:

Younger Lady: We had to go to rock shows, like, six times in one day. And really, my husband and I were just happy to be with our kids, even though they were in this other, party party place. Luckily, there were a lot of musicians who got together in churches-

Older Lady interrupts: -and jammed? I love it when people jam in churches!

Younger Lady: Yeah, jammed. Lost of gospel and lots of jamming. I liked it with bluegrass. But I'm tired now and need some peace and quiet.

SXSW for the older set.
I haven't heard or read a whole lot about this year's fest. This is by far the most compelling review I've come across. Jamming in churches, gospel/bluegrass fusion- how great!

March 19, 2006

if you don’t, the devil will

Filed under: authenticity, country, marketing, music, reviews — alimarcus @ 8:12 am

I saw "Walk The Line" yesterday and I had pretty much exactly the reaction I thought I would have. I was too wrapped up in the authority of the impersonations to just sit and watch the movie. My complaints rest with the complete dissimilarity between Reese Witherspoon's and June Carter's voice, and also with the ignorance of all parts of Cash's life other than his romance with June Carter. Not total ignorance, but too much.

If people wanted to make a movie about an epic romance between hugely famous musicians, they could do one about Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, and they should call it "Tomorrow We Will Still Be There." Brother Adam says it should be called "20,000 Roads." Anyways, talk about melodrama, and true unrequited love. The musical collaboration turns into (or is fueled by) a desperate love affair; their eventual paramount recording "Grievous Angel" would be completed just short of Parson's overdose at age 26 in Joshua Tree National Park.

The album itself could tell most of the story. The re-release version, "GP/Grievous Angel" could frame the entire movie. There's no happy ending, but a sort of purity of intentions – kept pure by the untimely death. Who would be the actors? Musicians or actors? Because of my doubts with Phoenix and Witherspooon, I'm inclined to think it should be musicians. Musicians who want to and can act. Hmm.

Am being kicked off the computer. More later.

March 14, 2006

it’s what you’re taking with you on the day that you go

Filed under: authenticity, business, digital, distribution, labels, marketing, music, news, rock — alimarcus @ 12:47 pm

Ryan Adams' label is suing some people for leaking his album Jacksonville City Nights a month before release date. No, that's not right; they are being indicted by a federal grand jury for violating the 2005 Family Entertainment Copyright Act. From Pitchfork:

The pair are believed to be the first individuals prosecuted under the prerelease provision of FECA. By posting the tracks, Thomas and Bowser violated the section which states that media shall not be made "available on a computer network accessible to members of the public, if such person knew or should have known that the work was intended for commercial distribution." Adams' label, Lost Highway Records, is a subsidiary of Universal Music Group, which, obviously, was intending Ryan's album for commercial distribution.

Keep in mind, while you continue reading, that the drama is caused by the obsession with pre-release secrecy, as well as an underlying fear of technology.

In related news, there has been a big stir lately around Victory Records Hawthorne Heights release. Dirty label wars, street team marketing at its worst (or best, depending on how you view it) and dramatic statements from Tony Brummel, the label's owner, have all been highly entertaining. Basically, an email surfaced in which Victory's street teem was encouraged to sabotage the Ne-Yo album, viewed as HH's main competitor in first-week sales. The oft-quoted passage:

As for Ne-yo, the name of the game is to decrease the chances of a sale here. If you were to pick up handful of Ne-yo CDs, as if you were about to buy them, but then changed your mind and didn't bother to put them back in the same place, that would work. Even though this record will be heavily stocked and you might not be able to move all the stock, just relocating a handful creates issues: Even though the store will appear to be out of stock, the computer will see it as in stock and not re-order the title once it sells down and then Ne-Yo will lose a few sales later in the week.

Yes, well, this is not illegal, not to my knowledge. This is what street teams do, duh. Anyone who thought otherwise is fooling themselves. Sure, it's dirty, but, uh, it's no different from taking the CDs of the bands you like and leaving them in prominent places – which I do ALL THE TIME.

Anyways, Brummel isn't into making music available before the release date. In Jeff Leeds' NY Times article last week, different pre-release strategies were covered in relation to the spread of digital music, and Brummel is thoroughly convinced that it cannibalizes sales of the album.

Ne-Yo still outsold HH by a lot. Coolfer wonders about second week sales, which is a valid point, but the illusion of cutthroat competition between these two unrelated bands is getting a bit old. It brings up all these ideas though, about digital music, the inability to control it, and the absolute mania about release dates, which mainly exist in order to be able to brag about sales , which in turn help to inflate all sorts of other numbers.

Does Universal really need to put two guys in jail for up to 11 years for leaking an album? Insiders orchestrate leaks all the time. And when it comes down to it, leaks do absolutely nothing but boost sales, especially when they are talked about as much as these two bands, both of which are awful. Besides, Ryan Adams released three albums in 2005, an ambitious undertaking, and sold a reportedly 250,000+ of them combined- a good number by anyone's standards.

March 12, 2006

as part of everything

Filed under: authenticity, business, digital, distribution, marketing, music — alimarcus @ 7:13 pm

I'm worried that music is becoming a passive entity in our lives. The idea of getting music "on demand" from a variety of formats in a variety of locations until you have basically around-the-clock saturation implies that there is a kind of active behavior in the seeking-out of this music. To a certain extent, this is the case, because deciding which satellite radio provider to choose, which download service to select, and what kind of personal media device to carry in your back pocket involves some basic kinds of decisions involving certain brands, certain genres, or certain payment structures.

There are two disturbing things. One is that none of these decisions have much, if anything, to do with the specific music that will be listened to, and the other is that what seems to require a sort of interaction with the material is merely consumer strategy, and people become actually disengaged from what they are hearing.

My first worry is pretty cut-and-dry: to choose iTunes over eMusic or vice versa could have something to do with the staunchly independent character of eMusic, or the a la carte availability of iTunes. It could have to do with being an iPod/Apple devotee. Regardless, there is an exponential increase in the potential for limitation of content, which is why a future that involves significantly higher digital download activity could be a bit like subscribing to BMG was back when I was a pre-teen: eventually the catalog feels like a cage. It's whatever the third (or fourth, or fifth, or whatever) party was able to secure licensing and distribution for. You start buying things simply because they are what's offered; they are what current DRM standards call for; they are what's sent to you in the mail every month on the hopes that you won't be motivated enough to repackage and send it back.

My second worry is really where things start to get scary. Pop music has been an integral part of movies since Apocalypse Now, or The Jazz Singer, depending on how you spin it. Teen dramas on TV have been similarly using music since the days of Beverly Hills, 90210 or maybe before. We are not surprised when we hear a song that exists in the real world playing on a TV show that we know is fictional; it's not outside our realm of understanding to pretend that a famous band in reality could be a famous band in the world that Seth and Summer occupy. When we see a picture of a watch in a magazine ad, we know that it is not a real watch; it is just a picture of a watch.
We are also accustomed to public places like stores and restaurants that play background music; satellite radio stations have made this incredibly easy- no commercials!
Walkmen and now iPods make it irresistably easy to actually carry a steady soundtrack to our own lives right in our pockets; we've actually become the people in those movies and TV shows; we now have appropriate, personally selected music running behind every stroll in the park, bus ride to work, even at work in some cases.
This is great! Isn't it? I'm not so sure. With devices that play streaming music for long periods of time, there is a weird paradox happening. Because just as consumers – excuse me, music listeners – seem to gain all the access they could possibly want to personalized, on-demand music 24/7, they can actually stop paying attention to the music. They don't have to get up to flip records or tapes, they don't have to search for the remote to chance CDs. They don't have to choose the order of the music they listen to – the technology takes care of all that. No wonder less people than I had originally hoped actually complain about the absence of liner notes- few people are spending that much time with the music to notice.

I want to see people pay more attention, and I mean real attention. I want to see people who care about music enough to give something of themselves to it. And I don't mean their money. I mean a kind of focus, a kind of meaning. Music needs to be brought back into the public sphere in a way that encourages participation. It's obviously going to encourage consumption; but it doesn't have to encourage this unfortunate breed of scavenging which ends up, in my eyes, looking like a weird, pop-art version of greed.

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