The latest problem with music

It’s really a shame that Steve Albini’s famous article from 1994, The Problem with Music, is now more applicable than ever. I’d love to read an updated version of this article with sections dealing with how studio engineers, producers and label executives convince bands to “fix” all their mistakes with computer programs such as ProTools, thereby removing any trace of “soul” from the recordings. Check out this handy feature of the latest version of ProTools:

Automatic Tempo Detection and Conforming
The new Beat Detective™ feature saves hours of editing time by analyzing a performance, intelligently correcting timing, then automatically smoothing the edits.

Isn’t that nifty? No longer does your drummer need to keep a beat! He can be all over the place and the computer program will “intelligently correct” it. Never mind the fact that the occasional, subtle change of tempo can add to the emotional atmosphere of a recording. Just ask Ringo Starr. To quote Beatles producer, George Martin: “…[A]lthough Ringo does not keep time with a metronome accuracy, he has unrivaled feel for a song. If his timing fluctuates, it invariably does so in the right place at the right time, keep the right atmosphere going on the track and give it a rock solid foundation.”

And how about the Pitch Doctor plug-in, also known as the Pitch Bitch? “When an out-of-tune performance is a problem, PitchDoctor is nothing less than a session-saving miracle. Simply enter the desired key and scale, and Pitch Doctor automatically adjusts the intonation of any out-of-tune notes.” This of course is how the WB channel can take four obviously talentless girls and turn them into Popstars. If you watched any of that show, you could tell from the finalists’ auditions that it was going to take a great deal of studio trickery to make these gals sound slick.

Slick. Polished. Professional. That’s what these new tools can make your band sound like. I would be willing to bet that the Beat Detective and the Pitch Bitch were used on the new Weezer album, stripping it of the soul and charm that the Blue Album — whose formula the new album copied to the letter — had by the boatload. And they’re used by every major label band out there. And by a lot of indies too. Slick. Polished. Professional. Isn’t that great! Isn’t that what rock and roll is all about?

33 vs. 45

So I’m torn here. I’ve always been an album guy. Raised on AOR Classic Rock. Among my favorite records are concept albums like Quadraphenia and The Wall. Never bought too many “singles,” even when they were disguised as 12″ records. Still use the term “LP” on occasion. Yet I’ve always loved that one great song from the one hit wonder. And due to a rather serious habit of making mixes for friends in college, I even got hooked on the idea of a single: One great piece of music that can be taken totally out of context of the artist’s larger body of work.

All this leaves me pondering the future. Now that we’ve got CD burners and MP3s, what’s going to happen to the album? We’re left trading, ripping, uploading, and burning singles; will there be any room for anything else? Increasingly, I find myself not even using my album or CD collection anymore—it’s easier to fire up the MP3 player and listen to an endless random selection of my music. But this does not come without a price.

As I continue to rip everything I own, the dilemma becomes how do I categorize it? Do I keep the album information intact on my hard drive? Do I just lump every Wilco song together in the same directory? Do I even remember the track order for Summerteeth anymore?

The answer to that last rhetorical question is, unfortunately, “No.” The other day I realized that I had accidentally deleted one of the tracks from that album from my hard drive, probably over a year ago. Or maybe I just never finished ripping the disc. I don’t really know, but amidst the other dozens of Wilco tunes, the song got overlooked.

This is a serious issue, and not just because the new way we collect music runs the risk of omitting odious album filler, reducing all of music listening to the lowest common denominator that is (was?) Top 40 radio. Content and form are more than just casual bedmates; if we leave out the less than stellar, we’re left with little context for evaluation, thereby forgoing much of the joy of listening.

There’s a reason we’re music lovers and collectors, rather than just casual radio listeners, and a lot of it has to do with albums. Albums breed a comprehensive approach to listening, not just to artists, but to entire genres of music. How can one appreciate “The End” if they haven’t listened to the first 15 songs on Abbey Road? How can you see the greatness of early 70s Stones without having heard Hank Williams Sr. and John Lee Hooker?

What would Tommy be without “Tommy’s Holiday Camp?”

The Strokes: I Heard They Suck Live

They’re cooler than Keith Richards. Their music will save your life. And their haircuts will make your girlfriend leave you. They are The Strokes, and they’re coming to a truck-stop shower stall near you.

If you ask the nice folks in Lake Edna what they think of Fabrizio Moretti’s drumming skills, or Albert Hammond, Jr’s coif of impossibly unwashed hair, they might use responses similar to those uttered by the good people listening to “Short Skirt, Long Jacket” in John McRea’s docu-video for Cake’s new single. In the clip, no one cares that McRea’s band is “hep” and features a trumpet. His snide, proto-Malkmus lyricisms get about as far as the left bra strap before the hearty souls listening on headphones hold up a pink hand and say “WOAH! Outta the car, longhair!” Cake’s inability to get to third base with the average American who doesn’t wear odd eyewear or sport a homemade Kahimi Karie T-shirt illustrates the humor behind The Strokes’ campaign of guerilla chic. Even though every critic from London to Los Angeles has taken their moniker literally, Dot down at the LeSabre Diner probably wouldn’t seat Moretti, Hammond, Nikolai Fraiture, Nick Valensi, or Julian Casablancas if they stumbled through her door looking for a round of blintzes. “They looked homeless,” she would remark later.

The Strokes are an NYC product, built out of showcases at the Bowery Ballroom and Mercury Lounge. They wear leather. They’re pretty. And none of them can rent a car legally. Is that why this quintet of fabulously wasted youths have made like Jimi Hendrix, storming the UK press before anyone in the US even bums them a Marlboro? No. It’s because the Strokes’ full-length RCA debut (slated for September) will move more units if a few pricey Rough Trade singles have already spread the word amongst the funny shoes set. For you everydayers, those are the freakishly pale youngsters on the subway who look like they stepped out of the couture section in your copy of British GQ. For this truly is the demographic that this sort of marketing works on. Just like Jessica Simpson and City High touring your local supermall (“SEE the STARS! BUY their RECORD!”), a band of the Strokes’ pedigree sells records anyway it can. And if a million media outlets (including NME, Top of the Pops, The Face, Blender, and Sonic Net) buy into their New York state of mind and unwashed groove, then that’s more blowjobs for Julian Casablancas and his mates. And I don’t mean from the critics.

So what’s up? Are they a Flock of Seagulls tribute act, or what? Nah, but those guys had nice haircuts, too. No, the Strokes’ ju ju, based on two EPs and a brief domestic stint with Guided by Voices, seems to revolve around the musical heart of — surprise – New York City. After all, they are children of Manhattan, and Julian’s daddy is John Casablancas, brains behind Elite Modeling. In the chiming, gritty guitars of “The Modern Age” EP lie echoes of The Velvets, and Julian’s faux crooning goes a long way toward conjuring Lou Reed. Their simplistic, yet tuneful songs could suggest the No-Wave of Television. Or they could just be amateurs. Either way, their hair is perfect…

The boys grace the latest Rolling Stone’s “Random Notes” column with a photo that seems boilerplate Strokes: As half-drank Budweisers add color, the lads stare into and away from the camera’s flash, reveling in their complete wasteosity. Bassist Fraiture seems to be pointing at Hammond’s crotch. “No, you put that in the model’s growler.” As this shot is basically identical to every other Strokes publicity snap, one can only assume that, even if their music doesn’t make any waves with Joe Heartland, at least the elegant boys from New York’ll deflower his daughter.

And if that isn’t as cool as Keith Richards, what is?

JTL

Cult of Personality: Jeff Tweedy vs. Alt-Country

Cult of Personality

Jeff Tweedy’s family feud with alt.country

By Phil Wise

Obsession is a funny thing. It can be as powerful as a smoking habit and as enveloping as the priesthood. It often elicits behavior as extreme as the lifetime smoker stuffing cigarette butts into his tracheal hole or a monk protesting injustice by dousing himself with gas and setting himself ablaze. Obsession can show you the way to enlightenment through discipline or mask you with blinders that block out your mania. When that obsession turns on its muse, you’ve got the makings of a stalker and they are a dangerous breed.

No Depression fans, as the group of people who love all things “alt.country” (from out of tune fiddles to overalls) are commonly called, are a rabid bunch and not to be taken lightly. They take sides. They’re more polarized than Cubs and Sox fans, Democrats and Republicans, or Sammy and Diamond Dave disciples. The most ardent of them are a proud group who revel in their cult status and the fact that they’re the only people in the world who know who Gillian Welch is. They’re not exclusionary though and welcome newbies with a zeal that rivals that of a born again Christian or Amway distributor. To join their ranks is a warm experience shared over tasty beers and homespun music. But eventually you’ll be called upon to state your allegiance and your answer will forever mark you in their yellow eyes.

It may come up at a hip party in Chicago’s Logan Square, Wicker Park having fallen from grace with the invasion of Starbucks and MTV. Or perhaps at the fantastic Hideout on Wabansia, the scene of some of the best alt.country shows in the city and host to the Bloodshot Records 5th Anniversary Block Party. You may see someone wearing a Whiskeytown shirt and strike up a conversation. You’ll both agree that former Whiskeytown front man Ryan Adams’ solo debut Heartbreaker is genius. You’ll affably debate the merits of Lucinda William’s recently released Essence, but agree that Car Wheels on a Dirt Road was your favorite. You’ll dazzle him with your fervent love of the Outlaws and agree that Gram Parsons was not only “the shit,” but also the architect of the modern alternative country movement, with ex-Monkee Mike Nesmith garnering an honorable mention.

You’re getting along famously and promising to burn stacks of Doug Sahm and Will Oldham boots for each other when the question comes: What do you think of Summer Teeth?

This is it. The alt.country equivalent of the pro-life/pro-choice question. The division in the alt.country world is wide, insipid and sometimes violent. I’ve seen No Depressioners come to blows more than once over this album and its creators Wilco.

Hard-liners are vehement in their rejection of Wilco singer/songwriter Jeff Tweedy’s departure from the alt.country ranks and often heckle him at solo shows, trying to incite the diminutive singer to react. He sometimes does with biting humor that always finds its way to No Depression magazine and various Wilco/Uncle Tupelo chat rooms. The verbal fencing sometimes gets ugly and often just serves to further alienate Tweedy’s wayward flock.

It wasn’t always this way

Tweedy’s first group, Uncle Tupelo, had a deeply committed fan base who reeled in disbelief upon the group’s breakup in 1994. But they took the release of Wilco’s debut A.M. (and former Uncle Tupelo co-songwriter Jay Farrar’s Trace under the Son Volt moniker) as confirmation that Tweedy would stay the course and promote their rallying cry against modern “Nashville” country and the despised pop music clogging the airwaves. They even tolerated Tweedy’s experimentation on the group’s follow-up Being There, mainly because of the soft pedal steel touches like those found on the heartbreaking “Far Far Away” or the raucous roadhouse stomp like “Dreamer of my Dreams.” But they sent warnings through bulletin boards and listservs that any more diversion would not be tolerated.

The warnings seemed to be heeded with Wilco’s work on the Mermaid Avenue collaborations with British folky and protest singer Billy Bragg. There was a return to folk arrangements and the back porch, beer-drinking gaiety Wilco perfected on A.M. It was most notably found on the breakout single from the first Mermaid Avenue with the lilting “California Stars.” The defiant Tweedy still dabbled in pop with “Hoodoo Voodoo” and “Secret of the Sea,” but for the most part followed Bragg’s lead. This may be due to the fact that Wilco was called in on the project some time after Bragg had initiated it.

Push comes to shove

Then came the release of 1998’s Summer Teeth, which cast aside all but the subtlest country influences. Awash in keyboards, kettledrums and Brian Wilson-esque arrangements, Summer Teeth stood in stark contrast to what had become the “Wilco sound,” or rather that of the insurgent country stalwarts.

Tweedy’s solo shows, which had grown considerably on the success of the Mermaid Avenue projects and Wilco’s increasing profile, also started to attract boisterous heckles from the disenchanted. The most ardent No Depressioners turned on Tweedy with shouts of “Judas!” just as Bob Dylan’s fans had with his turn to electric guitars some 30 years before. In chatrooms, bulletin boards, listservs and fans sites, Tweedy was put on trial for crimes against God and alt.country.

Compatriots in a Yankee Hotel

The alienation of Tweedy’s original fan base has done little to dissuade him from further experimentation. The heckles and attempts to pigeonhole hole him have actually done nothing to bring him back into the insurgent country fold. In fact, it may have driven him over the edge and into the arms of noise-pop vanguard Jim O’Rourke, who produced mixed Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco’s anxiously anticipated fourth album. A partnership like this likely sends chills down the spine of No Depressioners as they imagine an album devoid of song structure and brimming with buzzes, whistles and pops.

But they might be surprised when (and if) they hear the album when it (and if) finally comes out. While it’s by no means a return to Wilco’s simple country-rock beginnings, it does have more of the elements that put Tweedy and Co. on the map: beautiful violins, subtle pedal steel and stark acoustic accompaniment. It remains to be seen whether this new album will win back those O.T.’s (Original Tweedy-heads), but they’d be doing themselves a favor by dropping their criteria and listening to the music. It beats a restraining order and 200 hours of community service.

Fuck Viacom

Relating to the post directly below this one. . .

“We will do with the Internet what we did with cable”

—Sumner M. Redstone

Chairman of the Board & CEO, Viacom Inc.

Chairman of the Board & CEO, National Amusements Inc.

(In a radio commercial for the New York Stock Exchange)

That’s “Viacom” as in, to quote from its site: “the CBS Network, MTV Networks, BET, Showtime Networks, Infinity Broadcasting, TDI Worldwide and Infinity Outdoor, Paramount Pictures, Paramount Television, Paramount Parks, UPN, Blockbuster, Simon & Schuster, and theatrical exhibition operations in North America and abroad. The company’s Internet businesses include the MTVi Group, the CBS Internet Group, and Nickelodeon Online. Viacom also owns a half-interest in the Comedy Central cable channel.”

The “National Amusements” part is less well known. But as the “official” word has it: “National Amusements, Inc., a closely held corporation which operates approximately 1,300 motion picture screens in the U.S., the U.K., and South America, is the parent company of Viacom.”

Re-read the opening quote.

Watched TV lately?

Fuck Ticketmaster

Relating to a conversation I had this weekend…

(Fuck Barry Diller)

Some homies and I were talking this weekend about who we would be willing to pay $30 to see these days. (I think $30 is a magic number because that’s what the top-dollar tours cost when I was in high school, but the specific dollar amount is irrelevant.) We only came up with about two artists; who they were escapes me right now. (I know we did agree that if David Lee Roth toured with Van Halen, we’d go, but that’s beside the point.) Inevitably, when this topic came up, much ranting and raving about Ticketmaster ensued. Of course, we all know that Ticketmaster does us with no vaseline. The question is, why do we still pay? Is it really worth it to go see a live gig if we’re paying what usually amounts to a minimum 40% surcharge?

Consider: Wilco is my favorite national touring act right now. I’ve seen them enough times over the past few years that it’s difficult to remember to establish an accurate count, but the number is over five. They are playing on Oct. 5 here in Detroit. Tickets cost $17. That would normally be a no-brainer, right? After all, $17 is less than the cost of four beers at a show. But the problem is, the venue they’re playing at has no box office, so I’d be stuck buying tickets from Ticketmaster.

And how much does that $17 ticket cost if I go to Ticketmaster’s Web site and buy it there? That’ll be $26.45, thank you very much sir may I please have another? (For those not too quick with a calculator, that’s a 55.6% service charge—none of which is going to the venue, by the way.)

Now someone please tell me how that’s more of a “convenience” than buying the ticket at the club on one of the several odd occasions that I will actually be there hanging out between now and October? Better yet, explain to me why any of you are willing to buy a Ticketmaster ticket to another event, period. I, for one, am hereby swearing off any and all Ticketmaster events. There’s enough cool stuff to do in this world without giving my cash to this monopoly.

Not a Music-Related Post, but an important one just the same

Not a Music-Related Post, but an important one just the same

By Phil Wise

The right to protect sources is second only to the right to free speech in the media. It is essential that investigative reporters protect their sources in order to provide information that people would otherwise keep to themselves out of fear. This is standard practice and accepted in the United States. Why then is this reporter in jail for refusing to hand over notes to the FBI about a case she’s been following? If you care about truth in reporting and free speech then you need to read this article.

http://www.msnbc.com/news/619488.asp

Rock and roll can change your life.