Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Cheap Seats 4: The (Un)Happy Accident

Signal to...1, 0 or some combination thereof
The previous Cheap Seats installments have mostly focused on my own recent creative experiences as an independent musician recording a new album.  Please permit me (in an effort to gradually expand the scope of the discussion to a realm that involves all musicians and listeners alike) to get a little bit macro.  Today's focus is the single most powerful determining factor affecting the distribution of any artist's music as well as the top force that dictates the ebb and flow of today's commercial music marketplace--I'm talking about the advent and full scale implementation of digital music recording

I'm sure when Sony and Philips designed and released the first CDs in 1982 they were mostly thinking about the obvious benefits CDs possess in comparison with the analog music media of the day--unlike vinyl and tape, CDs are sturdier and less easily damaged, are smaller and more lightweight, last much longer and are not degraded by use, and have ultimately become as inexpensive (or more) than the other available options.  In the intervening 30 years, though, the simple twist of converting source analog audio recording data to the universal binary 1's and 0's of the digital vernacular has had far-reaching implications for the music world.  On the consumer end, the introduction of CD-R technology first allowed easy copying of any audio files, while the increasing capabilities of home computers and the internet have gradually made the distribution of audio files (the size of which has more or less remained the same) easier and easier, providing music consumers with innumerable sources to acquire recordings for purchase or for free.  This increasing broadening has significantly diminished the sales of traditional physical recording media, not to mention how it's made it more and more difficult for copyright holders to keep track of and protect their intellectual property. 

On the "industry" side, not only has digital music technology changed the shape of music as a product, in the last 15 or so years it's also replaced analog recording as the most accepted method for the very creation of recordings.  ProTools has both become the industry standard software for recording studios, but its relative ease of use and availability (as well as the availability of similar free and inexpensive recording software) has meant that the average person potentially has the ability to record and edit digital music in much the same way (and with many of the same tools) as a professional recording studio--and when the product's finished, the aforementioned home computer technology and internet advancements have made it possible for artists to distribute their recordings without any of the record label, distribution and promotional infrastructure that was compulsory before digital recording dominated the market. 

Like most of the issues I'm trying to wrestle with in this series, digital recording is the quintessential double-edged sword.  Music listeners now have unprecedented access to almost any music they'd like to hear--gone are the days when local record stores could only mail-order expensive imports of cult artists whose distribution was too poor to make the music widely available, and the realities of file sharing mean that most recordings can be found and downloaded for free without risk of punishment and regardless of the recordings' copyright status or availability for sale through mainstream channels.  MP3 players allow consumers to consolidate a nearly limitless library of digital music that can be accessed instantaneously and portably (my personal favorite!).  Up-and-coming artists are no longer necessarily forced to demonstrate popularity in order to make their first recordings (a chicken-and-egg scenario that imploded as often as it succeeded).  It's never been easier to find out about and sample new music, and there's more music being recorded than ever before. 

For the recording industry, the sword mostly cuts viciously in the negative direction--though digital music does offer even more avenues for sales, when offered the choice, "You can either pay us and download the recordings, or search Google and download the recordings for free," consumers have by and large chosen the second option.  Promotional power still rests in varying degrees in the hands of record labels, but it's often limited in the case of independent labels and diminishing sales have scared the big labels into a policy of recording and promoting only guaranteed money-makers, which, as you can imagine, does little to further the spread of non-commercial music, impairing the strength of music as a product one degree of blandness at a time.  For independent musicians, it may indeed be easier and cheaper to record music, but when it comes to standing out amongst a constantly-swelling sea of competition, there are few promotional tools that seem to be worth the time or monetary investment. 

This is where the pros and cons of digital recording become even subtler.  For cash-strapped musicians, free recording is often a deal that's difficult to pass up, but the benefits of using a professional recording studio (high quality microphones and other recording equipment that most musicians don't possess, and especially the technical expertise of recording professionals) are often noticeably manifest in the quality of the finished product.  Then there comes the role of the recordings themselves--are they designed as a promotional device, to be given away at no cost to spread the word about the artist and hopefully convert more fans?  Or, is the artist hoping to offer the recordings as a product for sale?  I've heard again and again that music recordings "are free" and that the only way for musicians to make money these days is through live performance.  While I don't want to diminish the value of live performance, this argument denies the fundamental fact that regardless of the recording, somebody is investing a certain amount of time and/or money into its creation, and investments with virtually no chance of return are utterly unsustainable.  Since this entry is not supposed to focus completely on the financial aspects of independent music, I'll leave further development of those points for a later date.  Additionally, the choice to give away recordings is a difficult decision for reasons unrelated to finances--what message does it send a potential listener if you're willing to give up the fruits of your hard work in exchange for nothing?  There is an intangible degree of integrity lost when you tell listeners that your recording is worth...nothing...even when your decision is motivated by a desire to acknowledge the inevitability that your recordings will be pirated.  In such a competitive music marketplace, I've repeatedly found that the most difficult accomplishment is to simply get people to give your music a chance and listen to even one song all the way through (let alone a whole album).  Can unknown musicians afford to devalue their work at the very outset?

Likewise, for listeners, digital music has made it easy to react in a knee-jerk fashion, skipping or abandoning a recording if it doesn't instantly gratify our spoiled ears and robbing us of that crucial repeated exposure that so much great music needs in order to sink in and sound great to our often inattentive ears.   Similarly, the art of a cohesively-crafted album has been all but lost in the mainstream, with consumers able to pick and choose tracks selectively without hearing them in the intended context.  There is indeed more music than ever for listeners to choose from, but it's also becoming increasingly difficult to find out if it's actually good (of course, by "good" I mean relative to each listener's tastes and musical ideals).  How does the average listener navigate the swarm of hopeful independent musicians without help and without becoming cynical?  Do the types of algorithms that govern internet radio stations like Pandora actually succeed in steering us toward new music we'll eventually love, or do their fixed formulae actually rob us of the chance of hearing something new or different that might actually expand our tastes?  On a hopeful note, there does seem to be a kinesthetic aspect to recordings that cannot be digitized--many people believe that the added dimension of a physical package that comes with a CD or LP isn't sufficiently conveyed by a digital scan of the album art, and the artistic possibilities that come with mixed media can enhance the music and facilitate the development of a special relationship between listeners and the musical thing they're holding in their hands that's simply not possible with an intangible digital file.  Additionally, the "warm" analog sound quality, enhanced art and retro chic of vinyl records has recently experienced a resurgence among aficionados, probably for very similar reasons--still, the challenge of dealing with the rest of the potential market persists!

As an independent musician on the verge of releasing another recording, I wish I had answers to these questions--the more I think about it the more I realize that the digitization of music recordings is neither good nor bad, but that it's at its root a coincidental reality that further complicates an already complicated endeavor!  Printed text will likely remain a viable physical product in books and magazines because it can simply be unpleasant to read text on a computer screen for extended periods of time; digital reproduction of physical art like paintings and especially sculpture never comes close to capturing the physical dimensions apparent in person; television and movies may be easily digitally-reproduced at home, but live theater, dance and movie theater screenings offer an experience that cannot be digitally reproduced to come anywhere close to the live experience.  In our increasingly digitized world, recorded music has been the perfect victim of an unhappy accident insofar as it's easily reduced to digital form and sent down the waterfall into the world's digital information collective.  The issues of promotion and the value of music recordings will be further developed later, but for now I pose these questions:  What's your relationship with digital recordings?  If you're old enough, how has your relationship with music changed as digital has become standard?  Do you think the digitization of music recordings is a good or bad thing for musicians and listeners, and why?  Comments welcome and appreciated!

Cheap Seats Part 1
Cheap Seats Part 2: Non-Commercial Music 
Cheap Seats Part 3: A Day in the Studio

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Captain Beefheart - Bat Chain Puller

It's been well over a year since I kicked off the reviews division of this site with a review of Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band's Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), and considering how much the Captain's work has continued to influence my approach to music and writing I'm surprised I haven't waxed poetic about any of his other classic albums.  Technically, today still isn't that day--I'm here to gush about the "brand new" 2012 Captain Beefheart release, the lost 1976 first studio version of Bat Chain Puller, just released this spring (to disappointingly limited fanfare) on the Frank Zappa record label and nearly exclusively available for purchase here (which just might be why the album's gotten so little press).

To describe the genesis of this release briefly, Don Van Vliet decided in 1976 to return to the avant-garde and stage a creative comeback.  Herb Cohen (Frank Zappa's manager) secretly used Zappa's money to fund the project and the two had a falling out upon Zappa's return from tour, resulting in Cohen's seizure of many of Zappa's assets, unreleased Bat Chain Puller masters included. Zappa eventually reclaimed his property through legal means, but by that time Van Vliet had re-recorded most of the material on his final albums.  Since then Zappa, and now his widow Gail, have been busy enough managing Zappa's gargantuan legacy that the tapes have remained neglected in the vaults...until now!

With 10 of 12 tracks already appearing on Captain Beefheart albums that have been available for 30 years, the biggest worry with Bat Chain Puller is that it'll come across as merely supplementary to those "definitive" versions, or worse that it'll sound only partially complete in comparison to the later recordings.  Thankfully, the disc falls prey to neither possibility, playing like the hazy, dream-like album-that-never-was that it's always been!

After listening to these different versions of familiar songs and becoming familiarized with the new track sequencing, I'm left with the strong impression that this album has an undeniably distinct feel, especially in relation to Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) in terms of its accessibility.  Compared to Shiny Beast's almost exclusively song-based program, this Bat Chain Puller is very much a venture split between songs, spoken word-over-music and pure poetry.  Sure, it's still considerably more mainstream than the hallowed stuff of Doc at the Radar Station, but even compared with Doc's orchestrated prickles, the poetry/music tracks here feel much more spontaneously arranged and the sonic palette more often unexpectedly drops down to just one instrument or Van Vliet's voice in some very effective instances. 

Perhaps as expected, some of the material here isn't significantly different from later versions--the arrangement of "Harry Irene" (never one of my favorite later Beefheart tracks, but an important contributor to this album's accessibility) includes guitar, but otherwise isn't much different.  The title track has its own subtle identity (further shaded by a third version here in bonus track form), bristling with kinetic motion (it's easy as ever to hear how Van Vliet originally pulled the rhythm from windshield wipers), more of an organic feel with cranked harmonica and just-barely-conflicting guitar layers (though the ever-important synths are still there) and outstanding vocal delivery (dig the the naked place he takes "their very remains and belongings").  Right off the bat, my highest hopes are kindled--one of my disappointments with later Beefheart albums is the marked reduction in the elasticity of Van Vliet's voice and additionally, in the case of Ice Cream for Crow, an overall dip in energy and compositional effort--here the Captain's voice still possesses a razor's edge and he takes enough risks that we can almost forgive him wasting the early/mid-70's trying to become a mainstream star.  "Owed T'Alex" burns with a reinvigorated closeness that's magnified further on "Floppy Boot Stomp," where the band's joyous delirium pushes the vocals so close that it sounds like the Captain's ranting all the way inside your brain. 

The most exciting aspect of Bat Chain Puller, of course, is the brand new material, namely the poetry/music hybrids "Seam Crooked Sam" and "Odd Jobs."  The former is a moody guitar/electric piano duet with Van Vliet's downbeat-yet-intense images spinning seemingly unrelated on top, while the latter is more of a full band piece with tunefully-spun vagrant imagery while the band shifts ever so slightly into what must be the first kernel of Shiny Beast's "Tropical Hot Dog Night."

Evaluating these pieces has helped me identify a couple of the specific traits that make Captain Beefheart one of my top favorite artists--first, it's the way his poetry mirrors the music, flowing smoothly then stopping, jerking, suddenly rhyming or playfully riffing off of a phrase's connotations or expected syntactical outcome.  Unsurprisingly, Van Vliet chooses words like paint colors on a palette, not necessarily concerned with their logical or expository value but rather their energy, emotional color, and the way they sound.  When I hear these songs, there are countless unexpected images and feelings popping into my head, and I can't think of too many other poets in the popular music sphere who can achieve that.  And yet, there's a strange logic or narrative to many of these pieces--what at first seems like incoherent rambling in "81 Poop Hatch," for example, gradually reveals itself to be an impressionistic panoramic scene including Van Vliet's beloved natural imagery as well as a view of his internal landscape--at least, that is, until he leaps mid-sentence to somewhere completely different; every piece seems to be at its root a rational enigma with unlimited emotional potential.

Secondly, the compositions here are a dazzling presentation of Van Vliet's painterly approach implemented in yet another aspect of the music.  More than on any of his other albums we hear open, warm-sounding jazz harmony on songs like "Seam Crooked Sam" and "Ah Carrot Is As Close As Ah Rabbit Gets To Ah Diamond."  Again, though, Van Vliet applies these combinations of notes intuitively and without regard to how theoretical rules say they're "supposed" to be used.  Fragile, sweet harmony can dissolve into dissonant, minor darkness just as quickly as it can pursue a completely fresh melodic path, as evidenced on "The Human Totem Pole (The 1,000th And 10th Day Of The Human Totem Pole)," one of two album-closing commentaries on the human race's cumulative achievements (or lack thereof) and precarious current position on earth.  Here he fuses this weird compositional approach with one of his more straightforward (yet most compelling) poems, sketching a partially-obscured picture of the skin-crawling, comical-yet-repulsive "pole," and delivering it all with a seething creepy mystery that trumps the Ice Cream for Crow version within just a few seconds..."the man on the top was starrrrrrrrvinnnnng" indeed!  Now is probably an important time to laud the contributions of the rest of the band--this music certainly couldn't have been made without the conscientious talent and attention of the rest of the band, especially drummer/guitarist John French, who also performed a crucial "music director" role in transcribing Van Vliet's hastily-blurted musical ideas into a form that the other band members could understand and memorize--just listen to the through-composed spacious atmosphere as the song sputters out in a denouement that takes up over half the song's length.  The idea that it's possible and even ideal to consent to the urge to compose and arrange notes and sounds in whatever way sounds intuitively best (regardless of the rules) is one of the important lessons I've learned from Van Vliet's music and attempted to apply to my own process.  Though the difficulty of successfully communicating such an idiosyncratic method to collaborating musicians is challenging to overcome, the singular character of the end result can really be worth the sweat.  It's also one of the few lessons any artist can potentially adapt from Van Vliet's work without necessarily ripping off his total sound wholesale--it's possible, no matter what Tom Waits tells you!

In the end, this album is like a gift sent from beyond Van Vliet's grave (though very real thanks are due to all of the living collaborators who finally brought this album to release).  Amazingly, it never sounds unnecessary in comparison with the later albums--"Brick Bats" is the only song that sounds more unfocused than its later version, with a much looser guitar arrangement, less effective vocal delivery and a fun but meandering free jazzy end section made more effective in the shorter Doc at the Radar Station version.  Nor does this earlier album obviate the ones that follow (except Ice Cream for Crow, which was always teetering on the brink of being a "completists only" release, especially now that two of its best tracks are revealed to belong to a more vital earlier work), with Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) still best straddling avant-garde and pop and Doc at the Radar Station best warping Trout Mask Replica poetic/musical craziness into a newer, mature and carefully-integrated form.  Thankfully, we now have all three to consider as required listening--though the price of this CD is still uncommonly high (it cost me $27 including shipping and tax), it's worth the added expense and work it takes to track it down--let's hope there's some wider distribution on the way to make it a little easier to get the word out about this remarkable album's first issue.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

John Cale - Paris 1919

Another album I've rediscovered in the past few months, iTunes tells me I've listened to this album over 10 times.  Though I wouldn't consider it a major favorite I was trying to think of something soothing to listen to after a difficult session and this album instantaneously popped into my head.  After listening a few more times it's not hard to pinpoint why the album produces such a specific reaction: everything--from Cale's half-obscured vocals to the slide guitar, organ and strings that dominate the arrangements--everything here is the aural equivalent of being wrapped in an old but still comfy quilt (rainy day included).  If I may, it's these kinds of feelings that a lot of people might be describing when they say an album or song sounds "British" as if it's a genre or aesthetic descriptor.  There's a pervasive sophistication in these songs that seems to be uniformly reigned-in by an instinctual desire for understatement, and they all seem grounded in the sort of beauty that takes some attention to uncover and--no matter what the subject matter--is touched by a sort of resigned sadness.

Not to say that Paris 1919 is a downer, but if you're looking for some sort of extension of Cale's role in The Velvet Underground, you're likely to be repeatedly disappointed.  Sure, there are comparative moments of "rock" like the romping "Macbeth" and the quirkier, Eno-esque "Graham Green," but really nothing close to anything found on early Velvet Underground.  Not being much of a Velvet Underground fan at all, this doesn't really bother me, but I can see how this album's style might come as a shock--you're going to have to also enjoy pretty, orchestrated pop rock to make the transition to this one! 

There's so many things to enjoy in this album, from the evocative-yet-cryptic lyrics (Cale jumps from a brilliant one-liner in "nothing frightens me more than religion at my door" to the completely indecipherable titular chorus in "Hanky Panky Nohow").  The opener and "Andalucia" evoke a fragile nostalgic yearning that's only made stronger by the songs' simple and accessible melodies.  I can see how things might get a bit plodding for rock listeners ("Half Past France" gets a bit sedate, at least tempo-wise), but like many great pieces of art, a lot can change when you give yourself over to the creator's vision--when you're into it, Cale's repeated "we're so far away/floating in this bay" delivers a desolate, opiate euphoria.  Likewise, "The Endless Plain of Fortune" can change from plodding excess to gripping drama, and Cale's whispered vocals on the brilliantly-titled "Antarctica Starts Here" close the album with the sort of creepy intensity that only restrained dynamics and brevity can bring--in a scant two minutes the song is already fading away, closing the lid on a similarly terse album; packing your message into a concise package is a difficult feat to achieve, and I'm always impressed by how much more power a 31-minute album like this can pack into such a short time span.

Finally, I have to praise Cale's vocals--nothing makes me happier than hearing a great songwriter and musician achieve so much emotional resonance and deliver such beautiful performances with such a limited voice--there's nothing displeasing about Cale's delivery or tone, but it's fair to say he's not the most distinctive, technically-skilled or expressive vocalist.  That's the beauty of great singer/songwriter music--when it all comes together and the elements of composition, arrangement, performance and self-expression add up to something greater than their individual merits.  Though it may not sit at the front line of close-to-my-heart favorites, my collection always has more room for music as well-crafted as this!

Get it here.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Exuma - Exuma

Getting deep into a recording project, I've found I usually go through a specific progression in my listening habits.  At the beginning, I'll keep listening to my never-ending queue of new music as a sort of respite from the day's work of composing parts and worrying about small details.  As the project starts to take shape and I realize I'm getting somewhere close to actually completing it, it gets harder and harder to tear myself away, and all I can do is compulsively listen and re-listen, fretting over the relative strength of the tracks, what should be done during mixing, whether I need to come up with more songs, and what track sequencing will eventually look like.  During this phase my exploration of new music all but dries up--if I check out something new, I find I don't even fully pay attention and maybe won't even give the music a fair shot--not ideal!  At the same time, though, when I've got a spare 40 minutes, I might pull something random out of my back collection that I haven't listened to for quite a while--because it's already familiar I don't have to pay complete attention, but the result is usually quite pleasant.  Such was my recent experience with Exuma's 1970 debut--reacquaintance with an old friend, and a fresh perspective on the kind of decisions available to musicians. 

This album makes great use of that most classic option available to singer/songwriters--create a ridiculous, outlandish personality for yourself and perform an entire conceptual album in that persona (cf. Comus, Captain Beefheart, and especially Dr. John circa Gris Gris, to which this album owes both a conceptual and musical debt).  Whether or not Exuma is actually a practitioner of obeah is pretty much immaterial--this disc is an immersive experience of primal witchcraft and dangerously good times.  In the tradition of "Seventh Son," the album opens with some classic boasting, with "Exuma, the Obeah Man" standing as a howled litany of Exuma's supernatural abilities over an appealingly filthy musical canvas of strummed acoustic guitar, hand percussion, chanting and animal sounds.  Exuma's voice is awesome--thick, edgy and surprisingly nuanced as the album goes on; few people can go from tender and soft to throat-shredding roaring with such ease, and it perfectly complements the weird song program on display here.

After the first track's invitation, the album practically plays like a field recording of an obeah ritual, including an ode to "Dambala," wherein Exuma chillingly assures us that we won't be going to heaven or hell, we'll just be stuck in our graves with the stench and the smell...over one of the album's most liltingly beautiful melodies.  We get explicit zombie references in "Mama loi, Papa loi," spiritual testimony in "The Vision," and an extended séance in "Séance in the Sixth Fret."  The reason I wrote earlier that this album makes me think of the choices available to musicians is that Exuma makes some strange and specific ones through the course of the album--instrumentally, it's pretty simple, with nary an instrumental melody to be found (lead and background vocals bear that burden) with commitment to the album's concept sometimes overriding the call for actual songs ("Séance..." isn't so much a song as it is something more like musical performance art, while "Junkanoo" is a fantastic but structure-free percussion jam).  Considering this, it's surprising when a fully-formed Caribbean folk song in "You Don't Know What's Going On" shows up to entertain us with verses, choruses, and absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the album's concept.

I really like how an album like this demonstrates it's possible to pursue alternative goals and produce music just as thrilling as an album full of "good songs;" it's as heartening as it is entertaining, though the challenge of spinning a great album out of personality and mood is probably much harder to achieve than by simply writing some great songs.  As such, Exuma is an album not quite like any other and one that contains some great songs, but ultimately stands best as an album-length statement than it does when you try to pick it apart song-by-song.

Dive into this bizarre world, and get it here.