moments before the wind.

April 23, 2007

EMP Pop Conference #16 – End Bits

One thing that I continually find entertaning is the feedback loop at the conference, presenters quoting writers to help support their point, and those writers are literally sitting in the audience listening to their own words spoken back to them. This kind of validation (or cancellation?) is a kind of black hole, a weird moment in time when the reasoning behind an argument starts to sound circular. For some reason the fact that the original writer is in the room listening sort of serves to render the intellectual capacity of the argument null and void. Like anything that is circular, you have to wonder whether it’s useful to end up where you started. Of course it can be. And of course it can’t be.


There seemed to be an exceptional amount of political commentaries built into the arguments I saw. The theme of the conference, “Waking Up From History,” propelled many writers to arrive at the concusion that we should actually wake up TO history, to learn from history, and to draw conclusions between the cultural sphere that our work covers and the political sphere of which we are citizens.

Some examples:

-Robert Bennett on the Jazz Diplomacy program and the things we should learn from it.
-Scott Nelson’s timely mention of “abortive gun policies” in the paper about John Henry’s exhumation – I’m not sure how he managed to reference the VA. Tech shootings in that conversation but at the time it made perfect sense.
-Brendan Greaves’ talk of Terry Allen’s border politics and the ways in which the Texas/Mexico border is treated by the government versus the inhabitants. 
-There was also an entire panel about New Orleans, as well as a smattering of other related papers throughout the weekend, all of which contained a fervent expression of the power of music and solidarity and the essential character of the city.

In general, as there seems to be in more and more things these days, there was a real sense of urgency that was more palpable than in previous conferences. It may have been the effect of the theme, but in general people’s research was very much rooted in the grim realities of life and music’s ability to help maintain and even create hope where all seems quite hopeless.


April 20, 2007

i heard there was a major chord – introduction

Ahhhhhhh. So nice to be back. The continual decline of the EMP’s institutional gravitas only makes this conference all the more sweeter. Oh, how imminent demise doth make the heart grow!

But in the lovely Seattle springtime, everything feels like a rebirth, and so this weekend we embark on the eternal journey of speculation and debate, insight and confusion. Does this stuff matter to anyone else? If it doesn’t, does that matter? And if it does, then what are we doing here?

We are analysts, we are critics, we are artists: I cannot think of a more potent combination of inspired and cynical people who must against all odds maintain faith in this crazy work we do. For me, the conference feels like a yearly pep rally. So lets get to it. Thanks for reading!

October 23, 2006

ta na na, ta na na na

Filed under: authenticity, digital, music, recording, rock, vinyl, writing — alimarcus @ 8:31 am

Tape. Have people forgotten about tape? It’s impractical, I know. It unspools and rips apart inside the machine, and it ruins your afternoon when an irreplaceable mix tape is ruined that way. It has this soft sound that’s really soothing. Right now I’m in a theoretical exploration of compression, and in thinking about the physical realities of pop music today, about how it is truly, scientificaly harmful to your ears (“aural assault?”), I’m just sitting here listening to Graceland on tape and it’s just so soothing.

Kelefa Sanneh’s article in today’s paper is about Paul Simon’s nervous energy, and it draws a fantastic parallel between Simon’s obsessive percussion pursuits and his percussive lyrical quality. But it doesn’t make me nervous. Even if I were listening to it on vinyl, or on CD, it wouldnt make me nervous. So I know that this soothing feeling is more of a function of the music itself – “His path was marked by the stars of the southern hemisphere…” – but still. Tape is so…pleasant. A bit muffled. As if the music’s on but you’re still under the covers.

Losing love is like a windown in your heart
Everybody sees you’re blown apart
Everybody sees the wind blow

August 16, 2006

should end this story here

Filed under: architecture, authenticity, country, folk, music, producers, recording, rock, vinyl — alimarcus @ 8:20 am

I am a very lyrics-oriented critic. Most people take this to mean that my opinions on music come from the words, but what it really means is that songwriting, for me, is about the interplay between the narrative of the words and the narrative of the music. And I’ve been saying this for years. I think I finally found words for it when I was studying music in college, and we’d do all those counterpoint exercises, analyze all of the structure and postulate why the composer made it that way. Searching for stories within the music itself was actually one thing that turned me on the most about those years.

Anyways, having paid some, but not enough, attention to this already, I definitely began to be much more attentive to these kinds of details. Over the years they have ceased to be details and actually become just a part of my working way of making stuff. That’s very articulate, I know.

I bring it up today because in the last week I have come across two different experiences that use lyrics as a genre-defining element of song.

First, in the latest issue of American Songwriter (a new read for me, feels sort of like a “welcome to the family” but also wayyyy too obssessed with Nashville and glorification of the Tin Pan Alley process), country music is said to be all about the story. The words tell a story that people can relate to. The Dixie Chicks tell stories that may apply to you or me, as opposed to, say, Nelly Furtado, who these days is not painting a picture in quite the same way.

Second, yesterday my boss, a venerable hip hop expert and fan, said, and I’m paraphrasing, “I’m really all about the lyrics. Good hip hop has lyrics that mean something, and sound cool, but they have to mean something important.” Her hip hop DJ/star producer boyfriend would most likely agree.

Lyrics are part of most all American pop music. The rare instrumental band never does make it so far. Implicit in a person’s lyrical focus is a distaste for long solos, jazzy interludes, jam bands, or unintelligible lyrics. And that’s just not true. People shouldn’t have to defend their preferences from imaginary assumptions about what they don’t like. And yet, in both of these instances, people are defining actual genres based on the lyrical importance of the songs. Isn’t it weird?

I have a very strong belief that a good song cannot have either great lyrics or great instrumental tracks, or a great groove. It’s only a great song when all these things combine. People naturally separate the words from the other instruments because we separate the disciplines, and envision a wall between musical instruments that we carry in cases and play on a stage, and a poem that we write, sitting at a desk, on a piece of paper. But your voice is a musical instrument. And just like a piano or a flute or anything else, judgement of the performance of the instrument is based on not only the tone but the order and the style with which the notes come out. With singing it is just the same.

Production-wise, I believe vocals should be at the top. When they are not, I get frustrated and I complain that I can’t hear them. I also am fairly confident that producers are trying to hide the imperfections of the voice in that way, rather than make it obvious to the world that this person may not have the chops.

It could be jazz, or it could be bluegrass, or it could be grunge, or it could be rock, or it could be metal. Lyrics are important for all of these genres. There is not one or another that valudes lyrics more or less. What is interesting is the way that people spin it in order to communicate a certain point. Shared assumptions, you see, have a lot of power, despite reality.

This was all spurred, I should add, by a revelation I had in the shower this morning. I was singing the Nields’ “The Sweetness”, and when I got to my favorite line, I realized in a flash of shampoo that I’d been singing the wrong lyrics for years:
“The trees are golden thirsty and they need a little rain/ Nothing would ever happen if we always stayed the same.”
is not right. Common sense has always gone against that particular phrase, but that’s why I love it. It all of a sudden occured to me though that it’s really that “the trees are cold and thirsty…”

Changes everything. 

June 11, 2006

the windows open and the ac on

Filed under: authenticity, business, digital, live shows, music, news, radio, recording, vinyl — alimarcus @ 10:45 pm

The New York Times has a few random columns that pop up from time to time, probably on a regular schedule that I just don't pick up on, and today it's worth talking about. Verlyn Klinkenborg has a column called "The Rural Life" that often paints beautiful still lives of his farm and the animals that he observes, the structure determined by Nature that the farm abides by, and some other romanticized farmy stuff. Its great to read, certainly a break from the global disaster that the world seems to be stuck in, if not meant to serve as something more. He wrote a book recently about a sea turtle, to mixed reviews.

Anyways, there is also sometimes a column called "The City Life," which never really interests me. It's a similarly romanticized take on all things New York, and I often just dont connect with the stuff. Today though, Lawrence Downes writes about recording to wax cylinder, and it's enrapturing. Is that a word? He notes: "It's staggering to think that lungs and plucked strings could vibrate the air, wiggle a stylus and capture a song for 100 years on a fragile thing that looks like a toilet paper roll."

Downes makes the point that this is not a case of luddite reactionary anti-technology denial; rather, an aesthetic and consequently visceral experience arises out of the specific technology of wax recording. The absence of electricity and wires and digital intimidation changed the entire experience for him. I wonder: is Progress such an imposing force that it refuses to acknowledge the value of what's become outdated? Is dated-ness itself a result of an insatiable appetite for novelty? Why is it that anyone who prefers the "warmess" of "inferior" technology is accused of pigheaded closeminded ignorance? I don't mean to say that this column is ignorant; in fact, I believe it is quite the opposite, though I am not confident that's the way it appears to many readers.

Why is it, though, that advanced technology is endowed with automatic approval, merely by manifesting a desire for innovation? And why are those who speak out against innovation ultimately sequestered to a cariacatured old fart? Is it a result of the obvious fact that new technology is more lucrative? Or is new technology more lucrative because it's a more inborn cultural instinct?

Anyways, wax cylinders, man. It sounds like fun to me.

June 7, 2006

but my name is veronica

Turtle Rock Records

May 12, 2006

the wind is in from africa

Filed under: authenticity, business, digital, distribution, marketing, music, rock, vinyl, writing — alimarcus @ 11:48 am

Matt Corwine posted on Line Out, the music-only version of Slog, about music packaging. I think my response to it warrants its own post, lest I explode some kind of verbose, uncalled-for and off-the-subject rant about soullessness.  Or something. Not that I've been known to do that.

Packaging to me isn't merely advertising, as The Stranger's Dave Segal notes: "an effective trailer for the music," which is a direct function of his job as a music writer. While I understand the effect of packaging, having experienced it from the music writer end as well as the A&R end, my thoughts on packaging are really founded on the experience of a fan.

(Other comments to the post indicate a real attraction to tangibility and history – very un-rock values. So here we are presented with an entry into the larger debate about rock music as a temporal, or archaic, or hypocritical structure. I'm not going to take the bait this time though, because it's distracting me from what I really wanted to say.)

Packaging is not just a complement to the music, it is an integral component to the listening experience. If you expand the notion of listening to include not just what you hear but how you hear it and why you hear it, the cover art and liner notes are key. Big fold-outs, literary passages in big print, and convenient display are all part of how people enjoy vinyl packaging. CD liner notes function more like collage books, and allow for a variety of materials and layouts. The listener makes assumptions and connections through aesthetic and personal associations. In effect, it's an expansion of why the music itself strikes a person one way or another.

We don't notice mediocre packaging (unless it's totally awful, of course), but we always notice the especially grabbing art. My usual inability to conjure up a list of favorites prevents me from definitively stating what the best and worst examples are, but I can think of a few greats that pop into my head. And surely you will disagree, just the same as if we were talking about the music itself:

  • The Eels. Blinking Lights And Other Revelations
  • Aimee Mann. Lost In Space
  • REM. Green
  • John Denver. Greatest Hits
  • Carole King. Tapestry
  • Poe. Haunted
  • Natalie Merchant. Ophelia 

I like that Corwine keeps all the music, even if it's poetically tucked away in a storage facility. One day, that stuff is going to mean a hell of a lot to someone else besides Matt, and isn't that the whole point?

May 10, 2006

smile someone at the red light

Filed under: authenticity, digital, music, recording, vinyl, writing — alimarcus @ 6:42 pm

A couple things about recording technology. These thoughts are pretty much all in response to JSG's comment from an earlier post. 

The idea that artists who recorded to vinyl consciously worked within the constraints of the awkward techonology – and complained about it – reminds me of Michaelangelo Matos. At the EMP conference he mentioned his chicken-and-egg theory that recording technology drives actual musical style. He cited bass heavy, stripped-down beats as on example, and I think Madonna as another – I can't remember exactly, but I think we were talking about Madonna's "Hung Up" as the epitome of this effect. I remember thinking this is an interesting idea, if a bit redundant. Anyways, JSG's comment supports it.

A significant distinction, too, should be made between digital music and analog music. I've spent a lot of time and words trying to convince people that digital photography is an altogether different discipline than print photography, and – like skiing and snowboarding – they suffer from baseless grouping supported by nothing other than semantics. For music, perhaps this distinction is not so clear; or, maybe it is clear but fans of the old school are unwilling to accept a new regime. I don't know. I wasn't raised on vinyl myself. I hope that doesn't tarnish my thoughts about it.

And a third thing. What is with people who praise music for being great to listen to on headphones? My frustration with this stems from a larger disdain for the hermit, solitary, iPod image, as if people are really happy holed up in their room, lost in their own universe compliments of Apple and Bose. I am such a firm believer in music's social, communal nature that this seems to be a grotesque manifestation of the compartmentalization of post-modern culture. I know that there is the geek factor (not a negative association, but just for lack of a better word); layers upon layers of intricate details appeal to all sorts of fans, Flaming Lips and Phish and the Beatles alike. Anyone who has an affinity with the process of recording can appreciate the details, the hidden gems, etc. But music should be made to blast from the mountaintops.  

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