I Let My Tape Rock ’til My Tape Popped: Music and Media in the 21st Century

A couple weeks ago my friend David Haeselin posted a nice review of Deerhunter’s Double Dream of Spring on the North Dakota Quarterly page. I’ve been wanting to write a response, and this is my first draft. 

The most curious thing about the Deerhunter album is that it was only released on cassette tape. 

Cassette tapes have always fascinated me (and some of this, I’ll have to admit, is simple nostalgia). They anticipated in so many ways the release of compact discs, but carried with them some of the same limitations of vinyl records. First, the were portable and ideally suited to mobile playback in such iconic devices as the Sony Walkman and in cars. Second, like vinyl LPs, they were relatively fragile and deteriorated over multiple plays (and were susceptible to oxidation over time). Third, compared the the compact disc it was possible for a tape to sound really good with suitably expensive playback gear and high quality tapes, in most cases, tapes sounded pretty bad and, in this way, they reflected the character of vinyl records, which could and can sound divine, mostly didn’t because most records were cut poorly and played back on mediocre equipment. (The final iteration of Dolby noise cancelation for tapes “Dolby S” was apparently almost CD quality). Finally, cassette tapes could be dubbed either completely or into mix tapes initiating an entire culture of dubbed, bootlegged, and pirated content that continued into the CD era and has structured, in many ways, our engagement with online digital music. 

Compared the vinyl records and tapes, compact discs represented an amazing leap forward in sound quality and durability and offered enhanced portability. Deerhunter’s release of a cassette tape reflects the negotiation of a number different affordances and different historical attitudes. On the one hand, cassettes offered a convenient portable medium for distributing their new EP and people who wanted to listen to the music would, at first, be limited to a small group of individuals who had access to working cassette players. The physicality of the tape itself stood as a immediate barrier to the circulation of the music and a badge of exclusivity. On the other hand, Deerhunter knew that copies of the EP would soon enter the digital realm and circulate widely on forums and Reddits and other places where Deerhunter fans congregated. This would, of course, reinforce, in the short term, access to a community of Deerhunter fans. In this way, a tape like this parallels the circulation of bootleg recordings prior to the internet which found their audiences in fan magazines, pre-concert festivities, and word of mouth.

About a month after Deerhunter released Double Dream of Spring, Beyoncé and Jay-Z released their first album as The Carters, Everything is Love. The single from the album was titled “Apeshit.” Like Deerhunter, the single was released in an exclusive way, but rather than on nostalgia-inducing cassette, on the streaming music service Tidal of which Beyoncé and Jay-Z are part-owner and which has a significant number of African American subscribers compared to other streaming services. The single itself likewise defies convention in its lyrics and title which would limit its radio play. (The old relationship between the single and the radio seems to be almost completely over thanks, in part, to the challenging lyrics and popularity of hiphop music.) The lyrics themselves celebrate this flaunting of convention with Beyoncé demanding “pay me in equity” which would certainly resonate with Tidal listeners aware that the service is owned at least partly by artists, many of whom are African American. The iconic music video for “Apeshit”, also premiered on Tidal and its setting in the Louvre emphasizes how the reception of art is as mediated by class and race. Unlike the ephemerality of the cassette tape, “Apeshit” stakes its claim to museum quality permanence.    

At the same time, Tidal has its limits. Kanye West released his album The Life of Pablo exclusively on Tidal in 2016 which famously led to wide spread pirating of the album as fans attempted to get access to the album without paying the service’s fees. West’s departure from the Tidal ownership group has sometimes been attributed to the mishandling of The Life of Pablo launch (and that Tidal owned him money), but its hard to separate that album with its changing list of songs, versions, and order from the streaming medium. Moreover, it seems unlikely that the album would have been pirated less had it been released as a conventional download. 

Without this little essay devolving to yet another case study of how the “medium is the message,” Deerhunter, Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and Kanye West demonstrate how the current moment in the music industry sees the medium as far more than simply a passive method for disseminating creative works but as the co-creator of the art itself. This isn’t new, of course, as artists have long recognized the relationship between their music and album covers, the color of vinyl, music videos, and even the ironic reminder by Tom Petty “Hello, CD listeners, we’ve come to the point of his album where those listening on cassette or records will have to stand up or sit down and turn over the record or tape.” I do suspect, however, that, today, that the intersection of technological and music has an explicit relationship with a growing awareness of the significance of fan communities, inequality within the music industry, as well as issues of race and social class.  

Celebrating Wesley College’s Corwin Hall

I’m on the road today delivering boxes of North Dakota Quarterlys to the Magic City, but I figured folks might enjoy a video from yesterday’s send off for Corwin Hall. Here’s a blog post on that.

We’ll release a far higher fidelity recording of the music next month, but for now, here’s a Facebook video.

 

Hearing the Past in Byzantium and North Dakota

It was a happy coincidence that I read Sharon Gerstel and co.’s recent article in Hesperia on the acoustics of two well-known churches in Thessaloniki on the same week that I’ve arranged for a little concert in Corwin Hall at the University of North Dakota as part of my Wesley College Documentation Project.

I’ve been lucky enough to chat a bit with Amy Papalexandrou about ideas very similar to those Gerstel and her crew sought to document at the Acheiropoietos church and Hagia Sophia in Thessaloniki. The goal of the project was to determine whether the architecture of these buildings functioned to promote (or more likely co-create) certain soundscapes in these buildings throughout their long histories. The evidence is suggestive, if a largely inconclusive. The buildings themselves have changed since the Byzantine period and their acoustic character is likely significantly different than it was in the past. Painted plaster wall instead of marble revetting, the removal of parapet screens between columns, and the absence of fabric wall coverings, rugs, and other damping in the buildings promoted different conditions that transformed the sound of these churches. As significantly, human bodies absorb sound and large congregations on feast days, for example, would have transformed the signature of the building as well. 

None of this is to diminish the significance of the acoustic research into these spaces. After all, most architectural and art historians can look beyond later modifications of these spaces to understand and “see” the original structures and their visual impacts. My own work, for example, considered the role that the columnar screens between the aisles and the central nave played on the visual experience of a processional liturgy. The impact of sound on both the experience and the shape of the liturgy in long-lived buildings would have almost certainly been as significant as the visual experience of the Christian rite. 

Later today, we’ll be recording the acoustic properties of the turn-of-the-century Wesley College recital room in Corwin Hall on the campus of the University of North Dakota. Rather than trying for a kind of rigorously empirical recording that seeks in frequency response and other quantitative measures to document the sonic signature of a room, we are attempting to capture the essence of the space through performance. We are fortunate to have a willing collaborator in Mike Wittgraf, from UND’s music department, who is an accomplished musician as well as a specialist in electronically mediated music that takes advantage of multiple speakers, microphones, and other acoustic devices to create new sounds.

We’re doing this with the full understanding that this room has been modified in rather significant ways. The most significant modifications occurred in the late 1970s where the north wall of the room was moved forward some 8 feet and drop ceilings were installed around the edge of the room to hide ductwork. The windows have been partly filled in with more efficient aluminum windows and the room lacks damping drapery or other window treatments that almost certainly would have featured in the original building.  

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All the same, the room clearly possess some of its former acoustic properties. The high vaulted ceiling, for example, creates what Mike Wittgraf called a distinctive “ring” to the room. Performing in the space today, however, will tell part of the story of the building’s history. While we don’t have original recordings from the space (at least that we know of), our recording in the building will offer a perspective from which a savvy ear or just a curious mind might imagine what the room sounded like in its original configuration just as an experience or imaginative eye can see through various renovations to the space and visualize its original form.

Finally, I’d like to imagine that this is part of an archaeology of care. Corwin Hall is scheduled for demolition this spring and the space surely witness more than its share of nervous and exuberant performances over its first 50 years of life as a recital hall (from 1909 to 1965 or so). Wesley College originally served as the music department for UND and Mike Wittgraf’s parting concert – featuring Wesleyan hymns appropriate for a funeral – serves as fitting send off for the room and the building.

Tune in to my Facebook page at around noon today to catch a broadcast of the concert. We’ll also release the various recordings with some explanation in the future.  

On being Prolific

For some reason this week, I got to thinking about people who are prolific. I think it was probably triggered by the release of Ty Segall’s double album, Freedom’s Goblin, or maybe the recent release of King Gizzard and Lizard Wizard’s fifth album in a year. Or maybe it’s because I’ve been immersing myself in the wonderful catalogue of Sun Ra who was remarkably prolific over his long career.

Needless to say, I’m not terribly prolific as a writer or as a publisher, but I’ve admired for some time now scholars like media theorist Henry Jenkins who described himself “as prolific as hell.” And my interest in Philip K. Dick is, partly, owing to his prolific output. He published 44 novels and over 120 short stories in a 30 year career.

I still get a bit uptight about prolific artists, writers, and musicians. I started to wonder whether people could produce something meaningful when all they’re doing is producing. There is no doubt that prolific production causes confusion; Sun Ra’s discography is baffling and wildly variable. At the same time, I came to understand artists like Ty Segall as releasing albums as a way to perform for an audience. (And to be clear, this my reading of his catalogue, not necessarily anything that he has said). In some ways, his most recent album is another iteration in his trajectory as a musician with all its variability and dissonance.

Like jazz musicians who frequently release multiple iterations of the same song, I tend to imagine prolific musicians embracing the performativity of their craft. This isn’t to say that Bill Evans’ Waltz for Debbie isn’t a better album than the complete(ish) recordings of those sessions released as Sunday at the Village Vanguard, but to argue that, for music, at least, the performance of multiple versions of the songs each with their own character diminishes the value of any one performance?  

With writing, this all seems a bit less straightforward. I’ve recently been thinking about writing a third paper on “Slow Archaeology” which has a chance to be published. Part of me worries that playing the same song again in different ways will dilute my original idea (such as they are) or confuse someone looking for an essential version of my thinking. Maybe, like this blog, writing another version of my slow archaeology paper will move my thinking, but necessarily toward some more perfect version of the idea. I don’t think that one slow archaeology paper will necessarily supersede the other.

Perhaps being prolific is a way to embrace the iterative character of life, writing, and thinking. We can avoid thinking of being prolific as a way to achieve terminal expertise through some version of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule, but instead consider being prolific in the same way that jazz musicians were prolific or pulp fiction writers were prolific. Practicing in public celebrates the variability of our craft, its unevenness, and the interplay and transformation of ideas over time. It mitigates against the idea that the publication is the last word on a topic or offers something perfected.

At the same time, being prolific allowed musicians and writers to monetize their outputs in an efficient way. The threat of a poor recording or publication diminishing the value of other works offered a bit of a brake on being prolific, I suppose. I recognize, of course, that the ability to profit from a single work isn’t the same for academic writers, but maybe there persists the idea that a bad article or mediocre publications run the risk of offsetting the impact of a good work. Maybe the risk of an “uneven catalogue” could have a significance for a scholar’s career inasmuch as the impact of our work is a measure that contributes to how effectively we gain promotion, win grants, and other monetary aspects of our careers.

I don’t really know how to balance these risks and benefits well or to understand whether we should aspire to be prolific, but I really like immersing myself in Sun Ra’s catalogue.

[As an aside, I’ve recently applied Gladwell’s rule to my to dogs who are awake and active for approximately 6 hours each day. If they follow Gladwell’s rule, it will take them about 5 years to be really good at being a dog. This seems to actually hold true. Argie, who is almost 2, is very good at being Argie, but at being a dog, he seems a bit confused still. Milo on the other hand, who is almost 5, is really good at being a dog. He’s a dog’s dog.]

More Punk Rock (with an interview)

I used to do this more often (and I probably should do it more), but today, I’m going to send you over to the North Dakota Quarterly page where I have a long interview with Brian James Schill about his recently published book This Year’s Work in the Punk Bookshelf, Or, Lusty Scripts (2017). It’s a good book and was just reviewed by the LARB in an article about a few new books on literature and pop music, and Brian was a really good sport about talking with me over a string of emails. 

It was pretty hard to do an interview without constantly blurting out “YEAH, you think you’re SO COOL? Well, I know some OBSCURE BANDS TOO, man! And, like, I also produced a book about PUNK ROCK MUSIC. So, you’re not THAT cool. I mean, pretty cool, but only because you’re LIKE ME, not because you’re book. I did my book in 2014, and MOST PEOPLE only like the earlier stuff.” 

I think I more or less managed avoid to say those exact words, but I think the sense of that is still there in the background. What can you do, right?  

It’s an epic interview with a bunch of music and a really cool playlist at the end and some fun links to music throughout. 

So go and check it out.

Blogging

My brain is fried. I didn’t blog yesterday. I don’t know if I can blog today. I’ve written 1,356 posts on this blog and another 859 posts here. I think you’ll find something to read.

Here’s a YouTube of Big Joe Williams singing a song called “President Roosevelt.”

My Year in Music

It has been a great year in music for me and below you’ll find the newest additions to my play list sourced from my “What I’m listening to” section on my varia and quick hits.

No huge upgrades to the stereo this year (yet), but two are on the way in the next week. My biggest change to my system this year is a subscription to TIDAL for full CD quality streaming which I use constantly (but hasn’t necessarily impacted my purchasing of albums). In my office, I stream to a little Audioquest Dragon fly DAC or to a Schiit Modi DAC into my vintage Marantz 2235B amplifier. On the road (or when I’m in the headphone zone) I use a pair of Audeze EL-8 closed-backed headphones and a now discontinued ALO RX MkIII B+ amp. On my main system, I got a AURALiC Ares Mini for Christmas to handle streaming TIDAL there.

All this gear supposed a new list of fun (and rediscovered) music over the last year. Hope you can find something in the list that’s new to you and enjoyable!

Check out my 2014 and 2013 years in music here and here

Duke Ellington, Afro Bossa
Atlas, Real Estate
D’Angelo and the Vanguards, 
Black Messiah
Bill Evans Trio, 
Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Sessions
William Onyeabor, 
Who Is William Onyeabor?
Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love
Half Japanese, 
Volume 2: 1987-1989 (Music to Strip by, Charmed Life, The Band That Would Be King)
Natalie Prass, Natalie Prass
The JB’s, 
We are the J.B.’s
Chick Corea, Trilogy
Viet Cong, Viet Cong
Father John Misty, 
I Love You, Honeybear
Phosphorescent, 
Live at the Music Hall
The Wave Pictures, 
If You Leave it Alone
Donald Byrd, 
Chant
—, At the Half Note Cafe
Courtney Barnett, 
A Sea of Split Peas
Matthew E. White, 
Fresh Blood
Glen Hansard, 
It Was Triumph We Once Proposed
Courtney Barnett, 
Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit
Big Jon Atkinson, Boogie With You Baby
Miles Davis, 
Original Mono Recordings
Waxahatchee, 
Ivy Tripp
Mandalynne Panic, I Sense Harm
Alabama Shakes, 
Sound and Color
The Wave Pictures, 
Long Black Cars
—,Great Big Flamingo Burning Moon
Neil Young, 
Live at the Cellar Door
Neil Young, Live at Massey Hall 1971
Tame Impala, 
Currents
Mac Demarco, Another One
David Cloud, 
Today is the Day that They Take Me Away
Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free
Neil Young, 
Everybody Knows This is Nowhere
Neil Young, 
After the Gold Rush
Freddie Hubbard, 
Straight Life 
All Dogs, 
Kicking Every Day
Empress of, 
Me
Lou Barlow, 
Brace the Wave
Keith Richards, 
Crosseyed Heart
Low, Ones and Sixes 
Ryan Adams, 
1989
Teen Men, Teen Men
The Dead Weather, 
Dodge and Burn
Christian Scott, 
Anthem 
Christian Scott, 
Stretch Music
Ahmad Jamal, 
At the Pershing, but not for me 
Ahmad Jamal, 
Ahmad’s Blues
Youth Lagoon, 
Savage Hills Ballroom
Beach House, 
Thank Your Lucky Stars
Built to Spill, 
There’s Nothing Wrong with Love 
Antonio Carlos Jobim,
 Wave 
Deerhunter, 
Fading Frontier
Floating Points, 
Elaenia
Tapper Zukkie 
Man Ah Warrior
Various Artists, 
Ork Records: New York, New York
Allen Toussaint, Southern NightsLife
—, Love and Faith
—, 
Bright Mississippi
Paquito D’Rivera, 
Portraits of Cuba
Gloria Ann Taylor, Love is a Hurtin’ Thing
Neil Young, On the Beach
Frank Sinatra, A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra
Nat King Cole, The Christmas Album
Bing Crosby, Merry Christmas
Various Artists, A Christmas Gift to you from Phil Spector.

The Soon and the Summer

I bought by tickets to Greece for next summer and I need to buy my tickets from Athens to Cyprus this week. After a year away from my work on Cyprus to focus on the Western Argolid Regional Project in Greece, I’m going to return to Polis-Chrysochous for a three-week study season starting May 5. Then heading to Greece for almost two months on May 25th or 26th. This all means that planning for the summer has to start now.

First, the next few weeks will prove to be busy, but exciting.

On April 8th-11th, I’ll host Andrew Reinhard and Richard Rothaus on campus for a public showing of the documentary, Atari: Game Over, and an academic round-table on the archaeology of gaming and the contemporary world.

On April 7th, I take a quick trip to Fargo for a dissertation defense. 

On April 18th, I’ll be in at the Mary Jaharis Center in Brookline, MA to participate in a roundtable on “Byzantium in the Public Sphere” and somehow simultaneously at a Man Camp Dialogue presentation in Ellendale.      

Over the same stretch of time, I need to put the finishing touches on two sabbatical projects. One is the final round of revisions on the North Dakota Man Camp Project paper for Historical Archaeology, and the other is a book proposal for the Tourist Guide to the Bakken Oil Patch, which is become a more and more compelling project every passing week. The book proposal is virtually done and I have a meaningful draft of the manuscript in hand. Now all I need to make is a few final touches and pull the trigger. I’m also doing the final revisions on an article for Internet Archaeology on archeological blogging.

At the same time, I’ve been trying to put together the kit of necessary summer gear that has to be ordered and sorted out before the start of May.

1. New Laptop. My three year old 15-inch Dell XPS has finally become unusable thanks to a combination of Windows 8 and some kind of nagging hardware issues. So I have to order a quad-core Dell Precision 15-inch today with 16-gb of ram. 3D image processing takes a tremendous amount of power.

2. New GPS unit. My trusty, 10 year old Garmin Gecko was stolen from my 12-year-old truck this past fall. We used Garmin Oregon 650s this past summer in Greece because we could upload aerial photographs to them and they had 8-megapixel cameras. In turns out that the cameras were not particularly useful and drained the battery. So this summer, I’ll purchase a Garmin 600 which is the same unit without a camera.

3. Camera. I love my Panasonic GX1, but the camera will be going on its third field season and has enjoyed such exotic opportunities as being used in a landfill in a dust storm, being lugged up every elevation in the Western Argolid without a lens cap, and several trips to the froze tundra of North Dakota. My hope is that it survives this summer, but I bought a fall back camera, a Canon ELPH135, which is discontinued and sells for less than $90 on Amazon. It’s nowhere near as good as the Panasonic, but it’s small, cheap, and good enough for a backup camera.

4. Microphone. With my career as a podcaster slowly gaining momentum, I need a small, decent USB microphone. Suggestions? For our podcasts, I’ve used a Blue Yeti, but this is a heavy microphone and I need to save some weight for, you know, three months of clothing.

5. Music. Living away from home for this long of a time is hard on me for a range of reasons (wife, dog, house, other responsibilities), but part of the thing that makes it hard is that I go from being alone most of the time to being surrounding by people most of the time. My escape is listening to music. To facilitate this, I have seriously upgraded my mobile music kit. First, I got a pair of new Audeze EL-8, closed back headphones and a little bird has hinted that I’ll get a new ALO Rx MK3 B+ amplifier which appears to be getting phased out of the ALO line-up and is now available at steeply discounted prices from their warehouse page. The amp is probably overkill for the EL-8s, but I suspect even in single-ended mode (balanced cables are not yet available for the EL-8s) it’ll provide a bit more oomph for the relatively efficient EL-8s as well as the option to move to a balanced set up in the future. 

6. Books. Usually I make a request for summer reading recommendations, but this summer, it looks like the American Journal of Archaeology has that all sorted out for me. I’m going to be working on a review article featuring several new books on the archaeology of the contemporary world and the growing interest in materiality among archaeologists. That being said, I’ll need to track down a few recreational books to read this summer, preferably with spaceships in them. 

My Year in Music

This was a pretty fun year in music for me. (For last year’s fun, go and read my 2013 post!)

I upgraded the ole stereo with a pair of new Omen Def Mk.I.B. speakers from Zu. Like the Omen Dirty Weekends that I had last year, these speakers combine with my Audio Research VSi60 to create a genuinely remarkable sense of immediacy and enough detail to satisfy my vague hi-fi tendencies. The most fun has been listening to some mono recordings from Miles Davis and The Who. Since I’m not a turntable guy, I haven’t quite managed to get myself fully aboard the mono band wagon (and obscurely, but seemingly wonderful mono cartridges) much less the 78 rpm revival movement, but I can understand the excitement. 

110214 f gfh punkarchaeology 2 0Logan Werlinger/Grand Forks Herald

I also updated my source after my long-serving Mac Mini died. It had be running continuously for almost 5 years and had barely complained, but it finally gave up the ghost. So after a brief period of mourning, I decided to go with a dedicated, audiophile-grade, digital source for my music and got a Sony HAP-Z1ES and finally retired my old Cambridge Audio DacMagic. Needless to say, the Sony sounds much better than the Cambridge, and has brought me into the 21st century with the ability to play DSD files as well as absurdly high resolution files in other formats. As much as I’ve loved hearing great high-res versions of my favorite music (the high-resolution version of the Bill Evan Trio’s “Waltz for Debby” is breathtaking), I can’t help but still love my old Nakamichi CD4 spinning shinny, plastic disks and decoding through its almost-ancient Analogue Devices 1864N chip.

I also have this idea that I might write a monthly column here on the blog about audiophile things. I know it strays a bit from the “archaeology of the Mediterranean world” theme, but I also figure that, you know, it’s my blog and I can do what I want (or, that some diversity might build a bit of a different audience, or maybe I’ll try to look at audiophile trends and media with a historians’ eye or something). In other words, I have a few more ideas that I hope to develop over the next few weeks.

Finally, for the folks who miss my “What I’m listening to” feature in my Quick Hits and Varia, here’s my complete list of albums that I enjoyed over the past year:

Duke Ellington, (with Charles Mingus and Max Roach), Money Jungle.
Bob Marley, Kaya.
Wooden Shjips, Back to Land.
Frank Sinatra, A Swingin’ Affair.
Laura Marling, Once I was an Eagle.
Velvet Underground, White Light/White Heat.
Frank Sinatra, Songs for Swinging Lovers.
Frank Sinatra, In the Wee Small Hours.
Miles Davis, My Funny Valentine (Recorded 50 years ago this year).
Bob Dylan, Times They Are A-Changin’ (Released 50 years).
Angel Olson, Burn Your Fire For No Witness.
Nina Simone, Sings the Blues.
Nina Simone, High Priestess of Soul.
Beck, Morning Phase.
St. Vincent, St. Vincent.
The New Puritans, Fields of Reeds.
Beck, Sea Change.
The Twilight Sad, No One Can Ever Know.
New Order, Low Life.
War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream.
Unwound, Rat Conspiracy.
Lanterns on the Lake, Until the Colors Run.
Lightnin’ Hopkins, The Herald Recordings.
Bamboos, 4
The War on Drugs, Slave Ambient.
Mac DeMarco, Salad Days
The Budos Band, III.
EMA, The Future’s Void.
The Moles, Flashbacks and Dream Sequences: The Story of the Moles.
Amen Dunes, Love.
Black Keys, Turn Blue.
A Sunny Day in Glasgow, Sea When Absent.
Owl John, Owl John.
Phosphorescent, Here’s to Taking It Aasy.
Half Japanese, Overjoyed
Ty Segall, Manipulator.
Portugal. The Man, Evil Friends.
Duke Ellington, Ellington at Newport 1956.
Aphex Twin, Syro.
The Velvet Underground and Nico.
Nick Drake, Pink Moon.
Willie Nelson, Stardust.
Underworld, Dubnobasswithmyheadman.
The Vaselines, V for Vaselines.
Ex Hex, Rips.
Jawbreaker, 24 Hour Revenge Therapy.
Melody Gardot, The Absence.
Thurston Moore, The Best Day.
The Twilight Sad, Nobody Wants to be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave.
Duke Ellington and Coleman Hawkins, Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins.
Arca, Xen.
Mekons, Curse of the Mekons.
The Who, The Who Sells Out.
Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street.
Velvet Underground, Velvet Underground 45th Anniversary Edition.
Anthology of American Folk Music
Steven Gunn, Way Out Weather.
Matthew Ryan, Boxers.

Maybe you can find something that you like!

Collecting and Listening

As a member of Kostis Kourelis’ book club, we were encouraged to read Amanda Petrusich’s Do Not Sell at Any Price (2014). The book describes the remarkable world of 78 rpm record collectors. 78 rpm records were produced largely before the war (although they were made until the 1960s) and usually contained pop music, “race music” (including blues and jazz that were marketed largely to an African American audience), and “ethnic music” that was not widely played on the radio. The discs themselves measured 10 inches across and were usually made of  a hodgepodge of unreliable materials that allowed for the fledgling recording business able to produce and circulate music quickly. Most of the masters for these cheap records are lost and in many cases the only recordings that we have of prewar pop music exist on the handful of poorly manufactured discs held dear by collectors.

In fact, Petrusich argued that collectors of prewar 78s attracted the attention of folk and blues artists starting in the 1960s (and Harry Smith’s 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music was often their introduction to music recorded originally on 78 rpm discs) and spurred the popular revival of these genres. This connection to 78s  has continued to attract the attention of Jack White and a handful of other oldey timey music fans. 

I won’t review this wonderful book, but I do want to use it to make a few little observations about how we listen to music (and some of my comments relate to my interest in recent trends among audiophiles).

1. Authentic Sound. One of the most remarkable things about the survival of 78 rpm records is the incredibly poor quality of many of the prewar discs. First off, the record labels made these discs of schellac which was a rather fragile and inconsistent material that did not lend itself to consistent pressings. Compounding matters is that up until 1924 or so, recordings were made by the “acoustical” method. That is, the performers played into a horn that amplified the sound enough to move a cutting stylus across a master cylinder of wax. These recordings could not capture the same sonic range as later electrical recordings made into microphones, but are more coveted by collectors. The inconsistent character of shellac discs, however, continued to compromise quality at playback as did the tendency to press records that did not play at precisely 78rpm and used various frequency response curves idiosyncratic to particular labels.

As a result, the sound from 78rpm discs might be described as inconsistent, but to some extent the sound we hear from them defines an era of recorded music. There is an undeniable authenticity that audiophiles, in their relentless pursuit of perfect sound, tend to overlook. Recent debates about the LP revival, for example, tend to focus on the idea that LPs sound BETTER than the compressed sound of mp3 recordings so popular with “the kids these days.”

At the same time, it is hard to deny that our compressed-to-distortion mp3s are the authentic sound of  music for this generation just as the crackling, warped, and distorted sound of relatively inexpensive 78s was the sound of recorded music prior to the war. I’ll admit that I’m not a LP guy and, in fact, I find the sound of digitized 78s difficult to enjoy. At the same time, I’m not as mortified by the sound of MP3s, as say, Neil Young or other audiophiles. While I still prefer a CD or even a high-resolution download, reading Petrusich’s book has reminded me that there is something undeniably authentic about both 78s and mp3s.

2. The Song. One of the great tropes in the audiophile press is how the kids these days don’t have the patience for long-playing records or even albums. They just want the poppy singles, loaded onto mediocre sounding portable mp3 players (so called “iPods”), and lasting no more than 3 minutes. In fact, some argue that they simply don’t have the attention span for a LP.  This, of course, is crazy as these same young music consumers can watch movies, the NFL, and go out to concerts in healthy numbers and all of these things last for longer than a single song. 

More than that, the LP era was an aberration in how we listen to recorded music. The 78 era, lasting from the late teens to the World War II, was all about 3 minute singles. And the average listener couldn’t afford to sit still for too long because once the song was done, they have to get up and flip over the 78! Perhaps our short attention span for recorded music is the norm, and the LP generation was, in fact, a group not only too lazy to get up and flip over an album, but also dulled their music senses by subjecting them to endless, pointless, mediocre b-sides on long-playing records.

3. Rituals of Listening. One of the great aspects of Petrusich’s book is how she describes these 78 collectors listening to their prized possessions. None of these guys (and, yeah, they’re almost all men) hesitated at all to PLAY their records for the author. More than that, almost all of them clearly enjoyed hearing the music. They tapped their feet, squirmed in their chairs, fell into trances, gestured in the air, and generally reveled in the listening experience. They felt the intensity of these authentic listening experiences.

More than that, once they began to listen to 78s, they listened to more and more. The records flew off their shelves and onto their turn table. More than once the author had to extract herself from an emotionally draining listening session before her host was done spinning records. 

I found her descriptions of these events to be among the most compelling parts of the book. The way these seasoned collectors still found something invigorating in these poorly produced singles reminded me of enduring power of simple rituals.

It also made me want to go and put a CD in my ole CD player (a 1992 vintage Nakamichi CD4), warm up the tube amp (a very recent Audio Research VSi60), and listen to my big Zu Omen Defs with their old school full-range drivers.