Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Records Are For Perverts

I have a longstanding difficulty with cultural decay as a model for anything, unless I can learn something from it. Certainly, when anyone says, “All music sucks now,” I tune them out as quickly as I would tune out “Chicago X is the best album ever made. Period. Pete Cetera kicked ASS!” It’s not news that all artists, milieus and entire genres lose focus and generating principle over time (not to mention aesthetic principle), and we know how traumatic the simultaneous lessening definition of one’s cultural landmarks can be when middle age hits (I was about 18, myself). But that only means that somebody you don’t know (or like, probably) is getting all fired up somewhere, and the attendant manifestations are coded for a different audience (not you, Gramps). It’s somebody else’s pimple misery now. Well … another time for that. More pressing to those who ponder how recorded music will proceed right now is the apparent decline of the audio fetish object. Vinyl records were fetish objects; CDs work better, but they're not.

That is not to say I’m sentimental about vinyl. I buy CDs and I download (legally) at the highest resolution I can obtain. Digital music in digital formats – of course, why not? The tiny niche market for current releases pressed on vinyl is such an obvious dead end that it just depresses me to hear about. But even back in the ‘80s, the notion that everyone should replace all vinyl with CDs was such blatant snake oil that I still can’t believe how many did just that, even though keeping a working turntable now is no snap and movers curse me when they lift the record boxes. And you know what? Ask any archivist what the only durable format for audio is. Not most durable: only. All digital formats – discs and hard drives, both – fail eventually. Digital failure doesn’t mean increased background noise; it means unplayable music. So, all of our non-vinyl music will have to migrate ahead of that obsolescence. Or we can just buy it again. (Right?) For me (and probably you), it's a bit late to turn back now so it's a contradiction I'm resigned to. Neo boutique vinyl is too expensive, anyway.

The one aspect of vinyl records that I am oddly sentimental about is what CDs made go away and now miss: the difficulty of reproducing their contents. That’s what made them fetish objects (cf. Webster's: "a material object regarded with superstitious or obsessive devotion"), and not all the groovy art on the LP covers. “Analog” means what it says: analogy. Etching a master recording for vinyl pressing means making a model of what was on the original recording, whereas a digital format is a reproduction of the original signal and nothing but. Whether analog gives you a smoother, warmer and more complete sound than the super-approximation of digital is neither here nor there, really. It was more significant that you couldn’t copy what was on vinyl records (by taping or whatever) without getting an inferior signal and you still can’t. Accordingly, I doubt anyone in the record industry ever regarded home taping as a serious threat twenty or thirty years ago. Vinyl was like Walter Benjamin turned on his head: a privileged reproduction in the age of mechanical originals. The content of vinyl records was coextensive with what they were as physical objects.[see ill-advised footnote]

Unlike vinyl recoords, CDs are not privileged reproductions in any essential way, except legally. They are conduits for digital sound files that you can extrude and reproduce intact. The fetish aspect parallels the commercial dilemma, although the dilemma is very old news now. For as long as CDs were viewed as a bright, convenient and capacious alternative to vinyl records, their attraction and massive salability were assured. But CDs are not fetish objects, because their content is readily separable from its container. No matter how groovy the art in the booklet and inlay card, their audio content is what’s privileged and – if you’re so inclined, and millions are – it’s a spirit you can exorcise from its host with a few keystrokes.

I still buy CDs, like I said. I have to, given some of my tastes (pervert!) (uh…nerd!), my professional belief that artists need to be paid, and the plain fact that I’m not inclined to put 700 MB of .wav file on a damn hard drive for everything I own. (You aren’t either, but you don’t care.) Recorded music is essential for me and it’s not going away commercially. But it is not the goopy lens of youth that causes me to regard CDs and vinyl records very differently, and that goes double for their respective commercial prospects past and present. If the fetish aspect of salable recorded music product units is eroding (or gone), we have to assume it is now elsewhere (or about to show itself) and that proper re-contextualization of this aspect will mean a new CASH COW. For somebody. After all that pimple misery…

[Ill-advised footnote:]
Aside from the cautionary tale of Reality D. Blipcrotch, a lunatic signed to Jefferson Airplane’s vanity label in the early ‘70s who expected the RCA engineers to rig a marijuana leaf to pop out of his record (literally) at the end of side one, my favorite extreme illustrations of vinyl object-ness are these:
  1. “Record Without A Cover” (1985) by Christian Marclay, a fantastic conceptualist who used to do live sound collages with four (and more) turntables simultaneously. “Record” was one of them (and very good listening it is), but it was exactly as advertised. The scratches and pops from the records used were as relevant as their ostensible “content.” Moreover, storing “Record” without any protective covering (as it instructs you to do, etched into the flipside along with the credits) would simply add more content to the thing. It certainly has to my copy.
  2. “Sonic Destroyer”/“G-Force” by Underground Resistance (d/b/a X‑101). These secretive Detroit techno guys were vinyl-fetishists to a fault (Mad Mike Banks, especially), but I’m particularly fond of this 12”. Side A has no take-up or take-off grooves and three disconnected bands, the last of which does things with a Roland 303 even more punishing than CJ Bolland’s “Horsepower.” Side B runs in reverse from the center to the rim.
  3. “Mentok I” by LFO (Warp 1991). There’s a great story in Simon Reynolds’ Energy Flash (Generation Ecstasy in the US) describing how these guys got an enormous bass sound on their 12” by convincing the mastering engineer to turn the filters off on the cutting lathe. This could have easily caused the lathe to burn out, but it didn’t, apparently. I only have the track on CD (came with UK edition of Simon’s book, in fact), but even there the bass is such that your ass will follow whether your mind is free or not.
Note that all three examples postdate the mass availability of CDs.
[Back up there...]

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Mash-Up Retrospective

Only a few years ago, mash-ups were a hot topic and they’re not one anymore. If you draw a blank at that term-of-art, you might recall hearing (or hearing about, more likely) the pre-Gnarls Barkley DJ Danger Mouse’s splicing each vocal track from Jay-Z’s The Black Album into samples from The Beatles’ White Album to make The Gray Album back in 2004. That’s just one mash-up – probably the best known – and there have been numerous others. My personal favorite was made about the same time by a British hacker, monikered “CCC,” who most notoriously spliced each track of The Beatles’ Revolver together with sundry bedfellows ranging from Madonna to Norman Greenbaum (“Spirit in the Sky”). The high point for me was the “Good Day Sunshine” track which combined that song with “All You Need Is Love,” “Getting Better,” “Eight Miles High,” “I Can See For Miles” and “Groove Is In The Heart.” Yes, it smoked. No, EMI didn’t stand for it, anymore than it stood for The Gray Album. Record companies and publishers can’t stand this sort of thing, constitutionally, and please don’t break your heart expecting them to do otherwise, not least (or even) when the Beatles are involved, and note also that the Beatles tend to be. Jay-Z’s comparative forbearance at the time probably references the singularities of the mixtape economy as then constituted (and when I have that figured out, you’ll know before I do) (whoever you are). Inevitably, the half-life of mash-ups kicked in as it would for any other form, not least because mash-ups are a trick with immediately understood and self-limiting parameters, like meme-hacking (e.g. substituting “Cocaine” for “Coca-Cola” in the latter’s typeface and logo). But while The Gray Album is a less scintillating alternate version of The Black Album (I don’t care if you think Hova was overripe by then; he’s Marvin Gaye to me), CCC’s Revolved project illuminated something else for me when I heard it – a simultaneously aesthetic and legal issue, which almost never happens. Really witty mash-ups differ fundamentally from sampling in its typical forms. In hip-hop, for example, whether you can identify the source recordings sampled is incidental aesthetically (if not legally), even when it’s a frankly derivative work with a vocal introduced onto a pre-existing song sampled or recreated largely whole (Diddy’s oeuvre, for instance). In that sense, The Gray Album was actually more a set of unlicensed remixes than a mash-up. In contrast, it is impossible for a mash-up like Revolved to work aesthetically unless the identity of every appropriated fragment is completely obvious. You have to hear every theft. And theft is what it has to be – impecunious solo guerrilla laptoppers snatching music too famous and expensive to license, or even to profitably mount a fair use argument over. Otherwise, it wouldn’t seem so clever. But it also wouldn’t be so effective if the digital audio content had not become so vulnerable to being so appropriated. I can think of no other phenomenon in music more emblematic of that critical shift.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Gang of Four

It’s pretty late in the day to be bearing down hard on Gang of Four, but I had a couple of amusing thoughts after catching up with their second album, Solid Gold, only twenty-seven years after it came out. First, I realized they reminded me a lot of The Band. This got funnier when I subsequently came across an old interview in which Andy Gill cites Music From Big Pink and The Band as two of his favorite records ever. How similar? The strategic contrariness and the implicit rectitude that went with it. Public Image Ltd. charmed me a lot more than Go4 at the time just by being lazy pretentious screw-ups who liked Can, Miles Davis, Jah Woosh and Trinity’s “Pope Paul Dead and Gone” (not to mention - shhh! - Yes and Genesis). Of course Lydon & Co. couldn’t follow their own act, and Gang of Four could. But I never played the Gang's records much. Which is not to say I didn’t like them fine then, and maybe like them more now, while my resistance is on all fours with their intentions. They nagged you for betraying the people’s history (I’m doing that right now). They avoided tube amps in order to minimize the expressive character of the guitar sound. Andy Gill told Hugo Burnham to always drum the opposite to how he wanted to. And now I can’t hear Entertainment! without hearing the upside-down-and-backwards rhythms and impossible screeched vocals on Big Pink as a rough analogue. Solid Gold, considered even “drier” than Entertainment! at the time, now sounds to me like a groove album in the properly Brechtian sense (haven’t used that word in eons) – they map everyplace the groove isn’t and you hear it in your head instead. Sometimes, anyway. But it also inspired the second thought that came to me, which is what I think their two moments of greatness are, both somehow beside their ostensible Point: (1) the live version of Solid Gold’s “What We All Want” on the Another Day/Another Dollar EP (nothing Brechtian about it; unequivocal expressive character in the composed guitar line and as sad a song as the Pet Shop Boys’ “What Have I Done To Deserve This?” [“Now I can do what I want to…FOREVER!”]; and the groove takes them over, completely counter to their stated concept; in other words, they succeed by cheating just like Brecht did). And (2) the cover art for Warner’s ex post facto corporate compilation A Brief History of the Twentieth Century (two 1 Franc pieces depicted - one from 1961 saying “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité”, the other from 1943 saying, “Travail, Familie, Patrie.”). After the fact and beside the point is the fact and the point.

P.S. For the record, my favorite track by The Band is “Ain’t No More Cane” from The Basement Tapes.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith

Thanks to old friends and some vaguely related legal work, I was sitting last night in a vintage swivel chair in a Williamsburg performance space watching Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith being “honored to be honored” (his words) by the Festival of New Trumpet Music (FONT). Then he proceeded to play a lot of loud trumpet in a duet with Pheeroan Ak Laff . The drummer appeared to lead, the trumpeter appeared to follow, playing intermittent bursts over and off the percussion, but sectioning it off and telescoping its time axis. Then at the end of the program, the honoree trumpeter got all four of the other trumpeters who were there that night on stage with him and played a lot of soft trumpet at them, which was even more alarming. I’ve been listening to this man’s records for almost thirty years and even the pieces I’ve played over and over, like “Images” and “Divine Love,” I still can’t describe accurately. I always remember them as motionless and pointillist, and maybe they are, but whenever I play them I’m always shocked at how aggressive they actually sound without any discernible pulse (usually). My understanding of his self-designed notation is limited to how he's described it: a system that organizes his pieces (solo and group) into episodic event cells, with a set of appropriate contingencies for the players at each station. If you bear down as a listener, you can convince yourself (maybe) that you’re hearing how all of that structuring works as the pieces unwind. But they don’t unwind. Time doesn’t just pass and it is not marked. Something has to happen at a sufficient level of intensity such that something else can happen next, something that absolutely must happen, and then it has to stop and vanish.

(P.S. Thanks for the photo, Frank.)

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Jump Fly

It is likely that this blog will be primarily verbal (my sister does the visual stuff awfully well - see blog menu at right), but here's a video of my son and me levitating.