I Like The Sound

Posted: May 18, 2010 in Jeff Holland, Threat Quality
Tags: , , , ,

What’s the best sound you can think of?

I was listening to an interview on Philly’s WXPN with Brad Roberts. You’d recognize his voice immediately, even if he wasn’t singing – Roberts is the frontman for Crash Test Dummies* (whose first three albums are actually all-time favorites of mine, and even though I don’t necessarily like the last few, I can see why Roberts would want to play around with different genres and formats).

Anyway, he’s warm and funny and thoughtful when he talks with Dan Reed about the ways that recording and selling music has changed over the last decade or so. Specifically, he mentioned the “bugaboo” he has (god bless Canadians) with MP3s.

He’s not the first one to point out that condensing the vast sonic landscape of a real-world recording into a digital, saleable format has robbed music of its richness of sound.

Not that he’s crazed about it or anything – he recognizes, like most artists, that it’s just the Way Things Are Now, and musicians need to find ways of adapting to that reality. And I agree – sonic perfection has always taken a back-seat to accessibility for me, which means I’m willing to lose some richness in recording if I can hear a song wherever I choose.

But…on the other hand.

Anyone who’s got Comcast, do me a favor and switch over to channel 437. That’s the Blues channel. (And don’t tell me, “But I hate Blues,” because no, you don’t, trust me). Just listen to it. Leave it on for an hour. Eventually, it’s going to come back to recordings that were made before 1940 or so.

You’re going to hear Robert Johnson.

What’s quite interesting to me about Johnson isn’t necessarily his skill or his legend – it’s the sound. His recordings cannot be digitized. The will, forever and always, sound like they were recorded – that is, built into a record, to be heard with a needle and a groove.

Only the most aesthetically cruel producer would try to find a way of digitally removing that noise.

That beautiful, gravelly hum. It’s just noise crawling. But…no, there’s no simile for it. It is what it is.

It’s the sound of a needle in a groove. Warm and welcoming. It perks up a listener’s ears, that Something Is About To Be Played.

Especially the ears of a 21st century, digital-ready listener, for whom the noise is unusual. I’m 30, so my childhood was littered with 45 singles, but I think I may be the last generation that can hear that noise, and recognize it intuitively as “Someone’s putting a record on. Better shut up and listen.”

I don’t know if that’s the case for music lovers under, say, 25 or so? To get interested in that singular sound now, they’ll have to become music-geeks. They will have to become the music-equivalent of guys like me, who can tell you a shitload about the history of the Flash from Golden Age through to today.

Sonic-music-history nerds. The 21st century does strange things to us all.

Something to think about.

But what about you, dear reader? Do you have a record player, one in working condition, and hooked up to a sound system? Do you use it? Vinyl records are available for a lot of new releases (pop into an Urban Outfitters, you’ll see), but do you buy them?

I’m curious. I’m wondering how many music-lovers go out of their way to hear that crackling, humming, welcoming noise.

*I’m gonna need you to trust me when I say “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” is easily the worst song the band ever recorded – the vast majority of their output is jaunty and sarcastic and weird and fun. Go to Grooveshark, listen for free, seriously.

  1. dagocutey says:

    Dude, that’s my heart you’re talking about — Ma Rainey, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Bessie Smith — and then Louis Jordan’s take on it. It’s the musical equivalent of really good sex. And the hissing and popping on the recordings — it’s like the messiness and imperfection of homemade pasta — the stuff is so good, you get to equating those little bumps and notches with completely intoxicating pleasure. I can’t express it — it’s a visceral experience — the music starts and your eyes close and you never even realize it until the they open when the music ends. Gaaaa, I’m gone.

    Talk about “sonic-music-history nerds”, my man’s got a hand crank Victrola. That thing totally creeps me out though — sounds like ghosts singing.

  2. Mladen says:

    Since I’m still a youngin (23), my personal sonic memory is cassette tapes. When I hear the sound of a lid clacking shut, a tensed spring and a levered tab of plastic pressed and locked into place, then that soft whir begins, I know I’ma hear something sweet.

  3. Lisa says:

    I like the Superman song that they did. But I don’t know much else/

  4. Jeff Holland says:

    @Mladen: Ahh, the tape-lid-clack sound. I’ve a fondness for that one as well.

    @Lisa: I would recommend tracking down “When I Go Out With Artists” or “Our Driver Gestures” from the second and third albums, to get a feel for what they can do outside of slow, quirky folk-parables (which is: uptempo quirky travelogues!). If I can grab the songs from blip or somewhere, I’ll see if I can post them to the site.

  5. V.I.P. Referee says:

    There’s such a difference. I’m no purist, but playing a vinyl record feels similar to the experience of hearing someone sing in your ear while you’re deep in slumber; It’s haunting, raw, it clicks into that cherished realm of emotional memory, it just feels…real.

    Removing imperfections and trying to dehumanize art and music has its place, but there’s something so heartbreaking about hearing and seeing “flaws”. Human hands shake a little while painting signs or drawing advertisements. Human voices crack and crackle; they hum in the flesh. People scratch dirt on the floor while they play, they breathe heavier at different moments of a song. I understand professional singing is about the smoothest transitioning possible and attempting to remove as much “white noise” as you can during a performance, but I want to hear the sounds of life alongside the polished stuff. I want to, in the most honest way possible, feel the music.

    It might just be a matter of personal preference. Perhaps a sentimental or romantic disposition better allows for these little shows of vulnerability and imperfection in art. I’m willing to bet the same people who enjoy listening to music on vinyl or who collect old records, would respect the human wear-and-tear of vintage, love collecting hardcover volumes of their favorite books and think a true rose perfume should include a little kick of dirt and grass alongside the petals. This is about “finding beauty in the most unlikely places”–and doesn’t that just sum-up the artist and writer in a nutshell?

    And Dago, if I ever turn to a life of crime, your sweetie’s “Victrola” is first on my list. He’d better lock-up his baby.

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