Thursday, October 18, 2007


Les Savy Fav's Tim Harrington, on the nature of the album - what most amuses me is the ambiguity of his scholarly tone, balanced on the edge between irony and brilliant earnestness (and does he really smoke a pipe? Notice also that he doesn't actually attempt to persuade the viewer that the album is worth saving, which was the original purpose of the broadcast.)

I personally have never really bought anything but albums (excepting a few 7"s, and a couple of legally downloaded EPs), and almost all on CD. I have about 200 - astronomically small, no doubt, compared to most people's collections, but I've only been buying them for the last 4 years or so (and I had, for most of that time, next to no money.) The question of format has intrigued me since I began buying vinyl (a small stack of charity shop LPs - including a vintage copy of Crass' Penis Envy - has built up, despite my having no record player to speak of), and it seems to me to be the best approach. The MP3 player is not so much, as far as I see it, a filtering tool, allowing you to gather together the best of your collection and push out filler, so much as a dessicater: everything becomes a 'best of' the artist, when really you want to listen to it yourself and find out what's 'best'; I'm a non-systematic hoarder of music, buying from my enormous List Of All The Albums I Want, which currently runs to over 700, whenever the money or interest strikes me, and I'm more interested in getting all of the things within a certain category I want from an artist (for example, all of the LPs John Coltrane recorded with the Miles Davis Quintet, or the whole of Glenn Gould's recordings of the Goldberg Variations) than getting a selection of the supposed best. I'm really just a musical (and literary) glutton, wanting the whole of the turkey, when record companies are increasingly just offering plates of sliced breast, in accordance with the demands of a generation which has often eaten nothing else, and, in fact, probably never even seen a live turkey (where exactly is this metaphor going?)

For convenience' sake, I should theoretically get an MP3 player - not least so I can listen to my podcasts outside the fucking house, or take walks listening to music without having a bulge the size of a Walkman in my jeans - but it just feels impossible. It sounds stupid to say that we've lost something by going from CD to MP3, but it seems true: notwithstanding the transformation of hard, fetishised objects (pun intended) into a collection of immaterial ones and zeroes, or the simultaneous reduction in sound quality (which, having grown up with CDs, I can pretty much tolerate), the reduction of music from the album to the pick-and-mixable track, is exactly that - a reduction. And I don't simply mean that it's a Violation Of The Artist's Intent, or of the vinyl LP as constructed aesthetic experience; it's that, instead of whittling down the world of music (much of it populated by crap) to a goodly core, to which you can then give love and attention, you're demeaning it. It becomes literally, well, not a simple commodity - Soulseek and Limewire have put an end to such fetishism - but wallpaper, background noise. And whilst it's probably not a good idea to import too much importance to music (a state of affairs giving a much higher chance of developing Malachi Ritscher Syndrome) it's still a change in use-value that wrecks one of the best things in life. The most fascinating thing about Richard Meltzer's 'Vinyl Reckoning' - quite possibly the most important thing he ever wrote - is the way that, despite being the distant forefather of Frank Kogan-trivial poptimism, he imports an importance to the music itself that's heartbreaking. Vinyl can be seen as the literal manifestation of that weird, immaterial thing some of us give so much to, or get given so much by - a literal codification of music, residing in the grooves like an archaeological tale in geography and landscape. He writes "that the very idea of the single is rather amazing, and in retrospect almost preposterous. Two sides, one song per. One!--what forcible focus on the unit sonic offering!" - and whilst that's, theoretically, what MP3s allow you to do, take records one-dose-at-a-time without the dilution of the other dozen tracks on an album, it in fact makes them less important. If the single is the central currency/totem of Pop fandom, an object charged with the complex electricity, the magickal will-power of fan-lust, something even more "queer... [and] abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties" (Marx) than your average commodity, then format-destruction turns it to, um, just the music - sound to be picked-and-chosen (I don't want to use the word 'dilettante-ism', but it's going to appear, I think), consumed (in the sense of buying), rather than consumed (in the sense of 'taken wholesale into the body/mind.)


Blogger Brad said...

Dan, I appreciate these music blogs. My comments:

I own an iPod (Nano). And it's full of complete albums, not assorted loose songs. It saves me time deciding what goes on the iPod (since it can only hold about a tenth as many albums as songs), and I figure that if I only listen to the songs that immediately became my favourites from each album, I've wasted a lot of money on those other, neglected songs that might appeal to me with a bit more time. So it all goes into the mix.

My biggest concern with the new "pay per song" model of the music industry is that it's basically saying all music is divisible into "songs" of approximately equal value. That might work for pop music, but a lot of music isn't like that. Many experimental/noise releases are just a single CD-length track, or divided into just a few long sections. And what about genres like grindcore, that commonly have songs under a minute long? Of course, those are being sold online for 99 cents each, just like any normal 4-minute song. To me, the beauty of the "album" isn't that it's a unified collection of songs- it's just an hour or so of time that artists can use however they want. I can see the "pay per song" model being artistically restricting, if it encourages only typical song-length works.

Get an mp3 player, but get a record player first. :)

October 22, 2007 at 8:21 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

Interesting - you seem to regard the I-Pod in the same way that I regard CDs, just with a different format. Recently I've been buying CDs having never heard the songs before, so I've got the same situation of finding out if songs "appeal to me with a bit of time", which seems to me the best way of listening, as you find more good music that way. That's partly why the CD and vinyl formats appeal to me - as compendiums, rather than anthologies of music. Also, CDs and vinyl have status for me as 'objects' - they have a palpable afterlife (I get most of music from secondhand and charity shops), whereas digital music is both infinitely reproducable and deletable, which seems to be one of the reasons for its decreasing value in that format.

RE. music pricing, the industry seems bent on making as much money as possible by overcharging customers (in the same way they used to charge £12 for a CD that cost £5 to manufacture), with your average 12-track album costing about £11 at 89p per track (the standard price). Even the larger indie labels (Chemikal Underground, Rough Trade) charge these sort of prices, and really you would have thought they'd have learned something from the gift economy of DIY music. Hopefully music pirating software (Soulseek, etc.) should make enough pressure to mend their mercenary ways.

(And I'll get both when I actually have a job :( )

October 22, 2007 at 1:08 PM  
Blogger Oliver said...

On the subject of reduced musical quality, what do you think about this compression business that Nick Southall et al. (eg 'Imperfect Sound Forever' @ Stylus) have been ranting on about, and the difference in quality between CDs, and Mp3s with bit rates greater than 128?
And to me, the beauty - or one of them anyway - of an album is that it 'is' (don't know how to do italics) a unified collection of songs, specifically picked by the artist. Listening to an album from end to end is like going on a walk or journey. I love how the atmospheres morph and shape - you can just lie back and let it consume you. Self-indulgent, but I love it.

October 23, 2007 at 2:07 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

Theoretically, the diff. between MP3s, CDs and vinyl are the kind of thing people with too much time on their hands worry about - guys wanting to hear 'Ziggy Stardust' or w/e in crystal sound when it was recorded crappily in the first place. And, indeed, that context is important: pop records are meant to sound terrible, and I don't mind that because they're about more than the sound, if they're good pop (i.e. The Long Blondes); whereas no-one in their right mind would listen to Rhythm And Sound or 'Unknown Pleasures' on bad MP3s. Which is one of the reasons I listen to earlier pop and rock, but not the stuff bobbing around today, which often just sounds horrible and murky (The Killers and Justice being the culprits that come most to mind), and why I buy old CDs rather than new - it makes soaking in sound so much better.

October 23, 2007 at 6:52 AM  
Blogger Oliver said...

It's interesting when you say some songs are ‘about more than the sound'. I've always wondered if you can separate the immediate enjoyment that comes from just hearing a sound, with conscious interpretation/application into a kind of contextual analysis that adds another layer of meaning and possible enjoyment. Is pure enjoyment of tune and timbre qualitatively different to a comprehension and empathetic reaction to subtext/context, or do you think they are they inseparable?
And as much as you probably hate Justice, I actually think that their production 'aesthetic' works alright on some of their tracks, ie. 'Waters of Nazereth'. It seems to suit the intent of the song, if that makes any sense.

October 26, 2007 at 7:45 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

To be honest, I don't think it is really possible to separate one's enjoyment of sound from the 'ideas' (for want of a better word) you get from/with it, not least because one's emotional reaction is tied up with the ideas behind the sound, and the ones they provoke (even if it's just 'what the fuck was that?' or 'this is really quite good for a pop record'.) I can envisage people responding to the most primitive sounds on a similarly primitive level (i.e. the most simple, dance-along pop songs), but even something like drone - which is ostensibly as minimal and contextless and pure as music gets - provokes ideas. It's partly to do with the human need for categorisation, which, despite the teachings of Zen, I think is (if not fundamental) very important.

And RE Justice, I must admit I do like 'Waters Of Nazareth', and they do have that purposeful dimension to their evil production techniques, in that they're following the lead of their pop heroes (Quincy Jones, etc.) I'll still always prefer to dance to minimal techno, though.

October 26, 2007 at 2:59 PM  

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