Tuesday, April 3

A Bit of Art On the Walls

Here's a few of my favorite recent album covers. Starting from the top, we have:

Stars of the Lid - And Their Refinement of the Decline (Kranky)
Pantha Du Prince - This Bliss (Dial)
Senking - List (Raster-Noton)
Moskitoo - Drape (12k)
Patrick Wolf - The Magic Position (Loog)

Monday, April 2

Follow-Up: Digital Album Art & Liner Notes

Following on from my post last week, Wired has published this new story today:

Designers Work to Rescue a Dying Art Form

I'm not sure about "a theme park ride through the album," but at least it appears they're moving in the right general direction.

Thursday, March 29

Bridging the Media Gap

Here's what happens with new CDs that arrive at my house. I retrieve the package from the mailbox and take it over to the kitchen counter, where I rip/cut/slice it open. Then I take the disc to the living room and place it on a shelf where I store soon-to-be-listened-to music. When I finally get around to playing the disc, the case sits on the top shelf of my media cart, just above my DVD/CD player. Once I'm done with the disc downstairs, I take it upstairs and place it on a to-be-filed pile I have on a small stepladder. At some point the disc makes its way onto my CD storage shelving. I never really planned this system, it just emerged organically from the intersection of my listening habits and my physical space.

In sharp contrast to the above parade of atoms, I've been trying out my new AppleTV. Besides its video features, I'm using the device to stream music to my stereo. Already I can tell you that my MP3s sound much better than they did streaming through the Airport Express. And being able to control the experience directly from my A/V setup is a big plus.

Until recently, I've never felt anxious about my music collecting. But with all the stories these days about closing record stores and The Death of the Album, I sometimes feel like a luddite fool when I purchase an old dusty CD. The media is slowly marginalizing me, turning me into that weird old guy down the street who collects music on those round plastic things. How quaint I will seem in the future. Surely one day I'll feature in a quirky documentary titled CD Junkies. The truth is that I do occasionally purchase MP3s; I am not afraid. No doubt the AppleTV will nudge me more and more in the direction of digital downloads.

The album's demise doesn't concern me. I'll be glad to see albums become an aesthetic choice, instead of a marketing and distribution necessity. As for MP3s, I'm not even worried about sound quality, format obsolesence, or DRM. I think those issues will work themselves out eventually. No, it's the loss of a visual and tactile experience to accompany my music. I love album art, liner notes, lyric sheets, and nicely printed digipaks. I like holding those things in my hands while I listen. I have always argued that experiencing music involves more than just the sound. In a previous online life, I hypothesized that the iPod's success may, in part, be related to this desire for a physical manifestation of our music. I'm not all convinced that my theory is correct. Recently I've been wondering if physical media has somehow been artificially enhancing our connection with music. We perceive "value" in "things." Will people ever be able to truly value art that exists only as ephemeral data, a format intentionally designed with a built-in deletion imperative? Maybe that's a tiny evolutionary leap for the next generation.

Recently, design-conscious labels like Raster-Noton and Ghostly have tried to bridge the digital/physical divide by offering albums on memory sticks and SD cards. It feels like a stop-gap measure. I have little doubt that eventually digitally downloaded music will dominate the market. When CDs came along artists complained about the reduced canvas size, but eventually they found ways to leverage the five inch square format and turn out unique designs. My questions is: How is this going to work with downloaded music? We may lose the physical object, but can we replace it with something equally compelling in the digital realm? Sure, iTunes has been offering some digital booklets, but that's really just pasting old formats onto new systems. In a blog essay last year, David Byrne recognized the vast potential of what I'll call digital liner notes. Watching giant album art spin around on my 42" plasma screen, I'm catching a glimpse of the future.

Friday, March 23

The Electronic Score

You're working your way through a maze, eating pellets. You turn a corner and come face to face with a ghost. You turn around to escape, but another ghost blocks your way. You have nowhere to go. The ghosts move in for the kill and you collapse, cursing, "Damn, they killed me again!" Now you're running through a jungle, trying to avoid obstacles and dangerous animals. You grab hold of a hanging vine, trying to swing over a swamp, but your timing is off and you fall into the snapping jaws of an alligator. "I just got eaten," you moan.

I've never put too much thought into exactly how I came to enjoy electronic music. I've always assumed my interest simply grew out of exposure to a few records I enjoyed in my teens, including Eurythmics, New Order, and Depeche Mode. Once I heard "Blue Monday" and "People Are People" I just started following the trail, and somehow I ended up here today listening to Autechre and Taylor Deupree.

Earlier this week I watched 8 BIT, a documentary about visual artists and musicians who utilize Gameboys, NES machines, and Commodore 64s as their primary tools. The film could use some serious editing and focus, but overall it contained lots of interesting tidbits. One of the taking heads talked about how interesting it was that even though these old video game characters were very low-res, abstract collections of blocky pixels, gamers were able to engage with them emotionally. Pac-Man and Pitfall Harry are hardly photorealistic humans, yet players are able to immerse themselves in the game. In the case of Atari's Adventure, the main character is literally a single block, and still player's preface descriptions of their actions with "I." Interestingly, this ties in with something Scott McCloud describes in Understanding Comics, his classic book on the workings and visual grammar of sequential art. Essentially, McCloud explains that the more basic and abstracted a character design, the more readers will be able to identify with that character.

In a sense, the character in a comic book stands in for the reader. That character is your avatar, pulling you through the narrative. In Pitfall!, you are not simply controlling some disconnected second party. Pitfall Harry is your avatar. He is you. I've always had the feeling that music taste is at least partly vicarious; people are drawn towards types of music they can imagine themselves creating. The performer becomes your artistic avatar, and if you're a computer geek or a video gamer, it's much easier to envision yourself as Kraftwerk than as, say, some rock guitarist.

So, back to 8 BIT. One of the musicians in the film theorizes that this group of artists grew up with video games and video game music, so naturally they have an emotional connection with these electronic sounds. There's more than simple nostalgia at work here. For my generation, the first to grow up with video games, these games provided our first opportunity to control and guide a system towards achievement and reward. These feelings of empowerment and success were always set to electronic melodies. The connection was made.

Monday, March 19

We Play the Songs and You Do the Talking

Really, I'm not dead. I just didn't have anything to say for a while, then I had a serious work deadline to deal with, then I was sick, then SXSW came along. I'm not planning on posting a detailed description of my SXSW experience. If you're really interested, you can check out the daily recaps over at my wife's blog.

One thing on my mind throughout this SXSW was how difficult these gigs are for the bands, and how well most of them deal with the madness. For starters, many bands travel far out of their way to get to Austin. Obscure Japanese bands fly here to play one or two shows. Bang Gang flew from Iceland to Baltimore, then drove to Austin. Au Revoir Simone finished up their short set at about 1AM; they were scheduled to play in California the next day. And then we have the shows themselves: horrible sound mixes, tiny cramped stages, people walking out to get to another show, tons of people ignoring the band while texting on their phones, drunk people screaming at the bar. You must always remember that SXSW is primarily an industry event, so the audiences are not necessarily stocked with fans of the band. All of this for the hope of a bit of media coverage, maybe a distribution deal, or a mention on a blog. I'm impressed with the professionalism of most of the bands, carrying on through all the annoyances and indifference. Most of them do try hard to put on a good show, and many appear to really enjoy themselves. I think it has mostly to do with the exciting carnival atmosphere of the festival itself and the excitement of mingling with other musicians from all over the world. I suspect many of the bands couldn't care less about the industry people and are just there for the party.

During the four days, I am also reminded how much I hate people. I don't mean specific people, just "people" in general. I lost count of the number of times I was shoved, elbowed, and stepped on, all so that somebody could get three feet closer to the band and then spend two minutes staring at their phone before forcing their way back to the bar. Why would someone go through the effort of shoving their way to the front, only to spend the entire gig talking to their friend? I even saw one person right up against the stage with his back to the singer. By day four, you're just happy when someone says "excuse me" before pushing you out of their way.

What else? I suffered seemingly endless boring sound checks. I tried not to touch anything in any of the venue restrooms. I searched for food in a district full of shot bars. I paid double and triple parking fees. I got food poisoning. I saw a guy literally pissing in the street.

So you might ask why I do this every year. It may sound trite, but it really is all about the music. It's always the music. I complain about these exact same things every year, but I come back again for the bands. When I think back on past SXSWs, I don't remember any of the obnoxious people. I do remember the great shows. In a few weeks, I will stop ranting about the 53rd person to bonk my head with their digital camera, but I will still be ranting about the excellent sets from Nellie McKay, Fujiya and Miyagi, Vashti Bunyan, Asakusa Jinta, and Blonde Redhead.

Monday, March 5


While chatting online with a friend today about recording strategies, I was reminded of another Eno-ism: "An arrangement is when someone stops playing." This idea of reduction crops up more than once. Describing a Bowie concert, Eno writes that the best bits were when fewer people were playing. And in the liner notes for the extended reissue of All This Useless Beauty, Elvis Costello praises Eno for his ruthless application of the Erase button.

A few days ago I needed to test something in iTunes by ripping a CD. It wasn't already on my iPod, so I grabbed my copy of the Spoonfed Hybrid CD released by the long-gone 4AD sub-label, Guernica. Since I already had the CD out, I thought I'd give it a listen. Each time I hear this album I'm reminded again how it's one of my very favorites. I'm not sure I can say exactly why, but I suspect it's something to do with the arrangements. Each track is deliberately assembled from a few simple bits, glued together by plenty of empty space. You might imagine someone starting with fuller arrangements and then carving away all the extraneous material until this resulting album remains. What's left is a slightly futuristic sounding kind of chamber music, existing just outside the boundaries of proper pop music. The music sounds controlled and disciplined.

Speaking of discipline: I was also reminded today of the FFWD album, a project Robert Fripp recorded with members of the Orb back in 1994. Imagine the beatless, more experimental Orb material, augmented by Frippertronics, and you're there. Fripp has always been one of my musical heroes, which is interesting considering I'm not very familiar with King Crimson. I came to his work through his collaborations with Eno and David Sylvian. I was fortunate enough to see Fripp and Sylvian play a show in Chicago many years ago and the image of Robert Fripp playing guitar was etched into my memory. He walks out, sits on a stool next to an impressive rack of gear, and spends the entire concert totally focused on his guitar playing. This may sound boring, but I found it fascinating. Here was a kind of virtuoso musician I hadn't accounted for--not a wasted gesture or note.

Wednesday, February 28

What's Intelligent?

So, Simon Reynolds and gang are slowly drifting away from the hauntology discussion and beginning to riff on "hipster metal." I have noticed an increased metal presence on the intertubes lately, but I really don't feel like it's a full-fledged phenomenon at this point. Most of the discourse appears to revolve around the band Sunn O))) and the occurrence of one influential DJ mixing metal with dubstep. What really caught my attention was Reynolds connecting "hipster metal" to something he calls "intelligent drum'n'bass." Now I can't help but think of "hipster metal" as "intelligent metal." I am, of course, influenced by my own too-long immersion in IDM, or "intelligent dance music." The IDM tag stirred up plenty of discussion, with most people ultimately agreeing that it was a bad genre name, but feeling stuck with it anyway. As soon as you stick "intelligent" in front of something, aren't you implying that the genre is inherently "stupid," yet you are going to be enlightened and fix it? In the case of IDM, the fixing arrived in the form of an increasingly nerdy prog approach (some felt that IDM was the new prog), until the genre collapsed in on itself and the component bits scattered to the wind. So if there is such a thing as intelligent metal (can we call it intelligent black metal, or IBM?), maybe we can look forward to the same artistic trajectory. Autechre have already worked with Hafler Trio. Can an Autechre/Sunn O))) collaboration be far behind?

To be honest, I have almost no knowledge of metal. When I hear Sunn O))), although I can sense the metal references, the first thing that comes to my mind is dark ambient and goth--something more akin to Lustmord maybe. Of course, Sunn O))) use guitars, so they're more likely to get a free pass from indie hipsters. And yet, hasn't there always been a close connection between goth and metal? Look at a band like Sisters of Mercy, who sounded very metal in their early days, and whose last album was chock full of metal riffs. Are Sunn O))) intelligent goth rock (IGR)? How about intelligent dark ambient (IDA)?

Thursday, February 22

The Ups and Downs of Volume

I've been on a somewhat of an ambient music bender lately. I honestly don't know how exactly how it happens, but sometimes I just end up focused on a particular type of music for some indeterminate length of time. In this case I think it's related to my sudden decision to follow up on some particular artists and labels. I always find it difficult to explain just what draws me to specific ambient works; it's not easy discussing music composed without melody, harmony, rhythm, or words. That leaves you with timbre and texture--not the easiest aspects to write about without resorting to extended metaphors or purple prose. If someone were to ask me what I think makes good ambient music, I'd most likely just say I know it when I hear it.

I have been thinking about another aspect of ambient music, although one imposed by the listener, not the composer. I doubt most people give much thought to playback volume. You turn the volume up or down depending upon your immediate circumstances. Make it louder so it can be heard over the car's engine. Make it quieter so it doesn't disturb your dinner conversation. That volume knob (slider?) is purely functional. But stop for a moment and think about how you're actively altering the artist's work. You are completing the final step in the compositional process.

I've been listening to Harold Budd for about twenty years now. I first discovered him not through some interest in ambient or avant garde music, but through his collaboration with Cocteau Twins. I was caught totally by surprise recently when Samadhi Sound sent me an email announcing a new download-only live Harold Budd recording. Perhaps captures Budd sitting at a piano and improvising for 70 minutes. Call it ambient jazz, if you like. Each piano note is like a Go stone carefully placed onto the game board seemingly at random, loosely defining a territory, and yet part of a greater strategy known only to the musician. Taken one way, the sparse sound particles and tone clusters create a lattice full of open spaces through which your imagination can wander. With Budd, the sounds and the silences are equally important. I found the album most effective with the volume turned down low. Without any concrete structure demanding attention, the music disappears into the ether. But then you briefly stop focusing on your task, or the room around you goes suddenly quite, and there's Budd's piano floating in to fill the emptiness. It's as if the music somehow knows when it's needed.

Far away from the intimacy of Budd there's As Lonely As Dave Bowman, the new Sam Rosenthal ambient project I mentioned a few days ago. Pod is massive, humming, continuous sound. This music doesn't want to hang around and fill in your empty spaces, it wants to become your entire space--a huge sphere of sound. But for that to work properly, you're going to need to turn up the volume. This album does not function properly at low or moderate sound levels. Play it loud, though, and the machine expands and expands until it pushes everything else aside and becomes your reality. It's not a quiet, meditative ambience, but it's still a place where you can hide for a while.

Tuesday, February 20

Of Hoaxes and Context

As I write this, the Joyce Hatto scandal is rocking the classical music world. In case you haven't heard, this is the story of a late British pianist, whose CD recordings released by her husband's label, have been unmasked as a hoax. It seems that someone loaded one of the discs into iTunes and the Gracenote (CDDB) database identified it as someone else's disc. This would at first appear to be a simple database error, if not for the interesting fact that Gracenote identifies CDs using a unique "fingerprint" derived from the durations of the tracks on the disc. You can read more about the story over at Gramophone and track the extent of the hoax on Hatto's Wikipedia entry.

But I am most intrigued by something New Yorker critic Alex Ross wrote on his blog. He wrote, "You have here the beginnings of an excellent case study in how reputations and mythologies affect musical perception."

I think it's fairly obvious how Ross's point extends to all genres, not only classical music. And I'm not at all certain that it's a bad thing. Yes, reputations and mythologies affect how we perceive music. So do physical appearances, costumes, makeup, music videos, CD packaging, and a dozen other things I'm probably forgetting. Are we really so naive as to think music comes to us in some pure form, as if it materialized from a parallel dimension in an unmarked box? We should never lose sight of how much context informs our perception of music (or any art). Doing so not only denies present reality, but also, I think, sells short the complex way we engage with music.

The music is not just the music. It's the the dialog the music has with the sleeve art. It's the way the songs lyrics interact with the band's back-story. It's how the band playing this music looks when they play it. And it's how their music bounces off our own experiences and feelings. The best artists realize all this and leverage it to their advantage. This is how we experience music, and it leaves us exposed and vulnerable. I don't like the idea of being played for a fool, but I sure don't want to live in a world where music comes in a plain brown wrapper.

Thursday, February 15

Wanted: More Failure

During lunch at a local sushi bar yesterday I was treated to some of Queen's greatest hits. Once that disc finished, KLF's The White Room started playing. After a couple of minutes, one of the young assistants behind the bar asked to nobody in particular, "What is this we're listening to?" And then a few moments later, "Is this the KLFA?" I should probably just be grateful that he recognized the music at all. Listening to "What Time Is Love?" I was struck, as I am each time I hear this music, how utterly banal this record can sound when heard in the context of background music. Of course if you're at all aware of the KLF's wacky situationist antics, their Illuminati fixation, or their satirical (or is it?) guidebook, The Manual, then The White Room isn't simply banal, it's gloriously, amazingly, brilliantly banal. The pop genius of the KLF was the way they assembled an audacious postmodern stew of (pop)cultural references, context, images, samples, and pranks, until the music itself could contain as much or as little meaning as you desired to find, depending on how close or how far away you want to get to it. Was there really a time when postmodernism was actually fun like this? It feels like a million years ago.

Last night on my way to see Eat Drink Man Woman I listened to The Divine Comedy's 1998 album, Fin de Siecle. I've been catching up with the band lately, working my way backwards from his newest album. Last week I finally got to hear Casanova. Here's what I've decided: Neil Hannon is one crazy, cheeky bastard. I'm predisposed towards orchestrated pop, but I had no idea how dramatic and over the top his records really are. He's included everything necessary to annoy the hell out of anyone looking for authenticity or sincerity: huge orchestral crescendos, showtunes, literary references, spoken word, pop-sociology, and approximately forty-two other ideas. How many times while listening to this music have I found myself asking, often aloud, "Is he out of his mind? Did he just do that?" Is he serious? Well, he's serious about being ironic, irreverent, and in your face. He's taking the piss and not taking the piss at exactly the same time. Which is to say he's seriously ambitious.

Lately, I've found myself thinking a lot about ambition as it relates to music. Or rather the lack of ambition. And the cynical how-dare-they appraisal (or at least confused head scratching) of any band that dares to color too far outside the lines. Don't you have to take the big risks if you want the big rewards? I'm sure there's some wildly inventive music going on out there somewhere, but mostly what I'm hearing are meager rewards from people playing it safe. When was the last time you heard an album that was absolutely horrible because the band tried something daring and failed? I wonder how this happened. Could it be related to the increased scrutiny allowed by the internet? Maybe artists were more willing to take risks when they could work on music in relative seclusion, without people tracking their every move and spewing instant opinion pollution. Maybe it was better when we couldn't preview every piece of music before making a purchase decision. What we need are more glorious failures.