Online Music

Why am I clinging to the compact disc?  A disc lacks the character and well-worn quality of vinyl.  Compact discs require energy for pressing, packaging, and transport to record stores.  Most labels refuse to pony up the extra money for cardboard packaging, proliferating the infuriating jewel box and its inevitable shards of broken plastic.  (And those f@$&ing stickers along the top!)

Despite all of this, I’m still buying my music on disc.  I’ve written before about how much I love selecting an album from the stacks, the anticipation as the disc slides into the player.  But I also have my rituals for buying music: listing potential albums in my notebook, the monthly pilgrimage to the music store, and the intermittent reading of liner notes at the stoplights on the drive home.

Since moving to a new house, I have kept my music boxed up in the basement.  I listen, instead, to the virtual versions on iTunes.  I also stream radio (KEXP and KPLU) through the computer.  Transmitted through the amplifier to speakers, the music sounds great and is, literally, at my fingertips.  While I have embraced this virtual play, I still struggle with buying music online.

I’ve never gotten the same satisfaction from iTunes.  Yes, it’s convenient and possibly cheaper if I just buy the songs I like.  But what about the undiscovered gems that aren’t played on the radio?  And I have nothing to show for online purchase—no liner notes or titled spine to jog my memory as I’m perusing the stacks.  The songs just appear in my list with just the click of a button and an online credit card transaction.  It’s just too easy.  But beyond that is the lack of texture and context.  I do actually consult liner notes for curiosity, research, and album dating.  I appreciate the placement of one album within a band’s catalog.  I’m not just listener but a curator.

Which brings me to Bandcamp, an online music retailer I discovered when searching for information about the band Yellow Ostrich.  What I like is that each band has its own site, featuring the most recent album with artwork, playable track list, and liner notes.  Check out the site for Yellow Ostrich.  You can listen to the entire album before purchase (which beats the ninety-second clips through temperamental headphones in the music store).  Plus, the other albums tile down the right side of the page, and you can click to a page for each.  A virtual card catalog/jukebox—it’s enough to make me change my ways.  To get started, check out the Yellow Ostrich track, “Whale,” my favorite.   In the words of the lead singer, “Never look back / never look back.”

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Off Key, On Target

The popular television show “Glee” dramatizes high school through the less familiar medium of show choir.  The main characters are outsiders who form a community based on shared appreciation for music and performance.  These are kids who express their emotions through song because they can’t do it any other way.

The creators have struck a great balance between humor and drama, exaggeration and true feelings.  Like Joss Whedon’s musical episode of “Buffy,” Glee employs the naturally dramatic palette of dance and music—in this case show tunes and power ballads—to express the amplified nature of teenage emotions.  “Glee” is campy and emotionally manipulative, but those qualities work in this context.

Pitch correction, used to some degree in the first season, is suddenly center stage in the second.  Every song, despite the character or the scene, sounds smooth, shiny, and even.  It is a simple fact that high school students are naturally imperfect singers—they are still developing their voices, physically and metaphorically.  But the larger problem is that extreme pitch correction runs counter to the integrity of the show.

“Glee” succeeds based on modulation, careening from heart break to Sue Sylvester’s off-key insults or breaking a moment of silence with song.  These contrasts make the show, creating rhythm and momentum and eliciting real emotion from the audience.  Smoothing out the rough edges compresses not only the sound but also the soul of the show.   Perfect is what the characters show us each week they are not.

Gravity

Anticipating a move, I boxed up my CD’s and have been living without them for over two months.  While I can play the music through I-Tunes, I miss the physical ritual: walking to the stacks, running my finger along the spines, placing the disc in the player.  Instead of relying on recent purchases or favorite bands, I’m more likely to play older music when the actual album is at my fingertips.  Without this access, I forget about a lot of great music.

Like “Gravity” by Terri Hendrix.  For its introspection amplified by jamming acoustic guitar, “Gravity” is one of my favorite walking songs.  Having not listened to it in months, I credit a review of Hendrix’s new album for the rediscovery.  Terri Hendrix is a Texas singer-songwriter who mixes folk with country, blues, and jazz; since 1996, she has released twelve genre-defying albums on her own label. “Gravity” appears on her 1998 release Wilory Farm, but the version I own is a live recording from Broadcasts Volume 7 (produced by Austin radio station KGSR).

A guitar strum, opening like a fan, launches the song.  After a brief pause, the guitar kicks into rhythm gear, establishing a strong beat while achieving texture with upbeat flourishes.  Then Hendrix, her voice breathy but strong, sings about a “freefall” from a mountain, a “freefall into space,” getting quickly into the chorus with the question, “Why do we crash …? / Why does a high never last …?”  She’s talking about the existential issue of life’s ups and downs.  But not satisfied with mere metaphysics, Hendrix grasps for a tangible explanation, claiming, “All you have to blame it on is gravity.”  It’s a great choice, and an unexpected one, ascribing the emotional lows in life to the physical force of gravity.

The studio version, featuring sitar and percussion, sounds smooth and perfected.  Too moderated for my taste, it lacks the raw power of the live recording on which Hendrix achieves the same texture with only her guitar.  The rhythm riff lends itself to increasing complexity, and with it the song expands, dipping and rising, swirling back on itself like an eddy.  You picture Hendrix strumming with her whole arm, thumping the wood for emphasis.  The lyrics linger in the mind, but it’s the way the music energizes the body that makes “Gravity” a force to be reckoned with.

Listen to a clip of “Gravity” from Hendrix’s 1999 Live album.

I ♥ the Old 97’s

Missing the Old 97’s show in Seattle a few weeks just about broke my heart.  I usually count on the band to patch my heart together or at least shock it back to life with their rocking songs about lost loves and lost times.  Way back, almost to ‘97, in the fall of 1998, I lucked into seeing the Old 97’s when they opened for Chris Isaak at the Backyard in Austin.  At a melancholic phase of my life—post-college, post-boyfriend—I longed for the sonic retreat of Isaak’s blue tunes.

Waiting for him to take the stage, I found my toes tapping to the opening band, which I often ignored.  But this band—“the Old 97’s, y’all” as lead singer Rhett Miller announced—got my attention and much of the crowd’s, not a minor feat at an outdoor amphitheater with multiple bars.  The music, with its catchy hooks and sprawling sound, exerted its presence as did the members of the band.  Those four guys rocked hard, but singer Miller was the most fantastic, dancing and throwing around rock star moves from the seventies.  He swung his skinny hips to the beat and practically swallowed the microphone belting out his clever lyrics about love gone wrong.

The Old 97’s owned that stage in 1998, just like every venue at which I’ve seen them since.  Their music is accessible—when you hear a new song, you want to know the words so you can sing along, but it’s not simple.  It’s alt country at its best: rock swagger and instrumentation with country licks, punk attitude, and artful lyrics that invite both at-home listening and screaming sing-along.

Chris Isaak fell out of my rotation a decade ago, but the Old 97’s are still going strong.  Whenever I listen to one of their albums, particularly the live “Alive and Wired,” I shake and shimmy as at that first show thirteen years ago.  According to reviews of the show I just missed, the 97’s dished out the tunes with the same verve and conviction as always.  And like those reviewers, I’m already pining for another show.  Next time I’ll be there, with my heart on my sleeve.

Shake Your Hips

The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street is getting a lot of spin due to its recent reissue.  Originally released in 1972, Exile includes two blues covers: a Robert Johnson song and “Shake Your Hips” by Slim Harpo, a Louisiana bluesman whose songs appeared on the pop charts in the sixties just a few years before those of the Stones.  Both Johnson and Harpo died young (Johnson at 27 and Harpo at 46).  While Johnson’s blues legend status developed posthumously, Harpo’s notoriety has waned since his death in 1970.

Recently on the local show “All Blues,” I heard the Stones’ version of Harpo’s 1966 hit.  Softening the song’s crisp edges, the Stones crafted a bluesy slurry.  Jagger, curling his voice around another man’s words, concocted a southern American accent a little too contrived for my taste.  While I enjoyed hearing the Stones’ take, the cover didn’t move me as other Stones’ songs do.

Or like Harpo’s original version, which makes me dance.  “Don’t move your head / Don’t move your hands / Don’t move your lips / Just shake your hips. ”  Harpo sings these lyrics cleanly, pronouncing each syllable, and this precision is echoed in the rhythm guitar riff that grounds the song.  Only the harmonica and lead guitar wail. Swinging around the clean baseline, these flourishes create a bluesy sexuality appropriately penned in by the rhythm guitar.

According to many sources, Harpo lifted the baseline riff from John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie Chillen,” (a musical touchstone for many blues and rock artists).  Like much of the blues, Harpo’s song is derivative too.  But his composition strikes a great balance between sentiment and structure, making his original a hard version to best.

(To explore more of Harpo’s music, The Best of Slim Harpo on Hip-O records is considered the best collection of his work.)

The Lyric Moment

Remember driving alone late at night, the soft air drifting in through open windows.  You’ve just finished your night—dinner with friends, a great live show, or maybe a fight with your significant other.  You’re on your way home or you’re driving nowhere looking only for a new state of mind.  And then a song starts playing on the radio and, from the first chords, it’s the right speed, the right sound, the right words.  Your world falls away, and you’re living only in the arc of the song.

I’m not able to make music like that.  Although I’m the child of a drummer and a singer, I possess little to no musical talent.  I can find the beat in a song, but I can’t find pitch or a note on the piano.  I’ve had ample opportunity to locate some innate musical skill—sixth grade choir, seven years at the clarinet, failed attempts at piano and guitar.  I can plunk out the notes on the page, but I can’t kid myself that I’m making music.

While my parents didn’t pass along their natural facility, they did introduce me to great music.  I saw Bruce Springsteen when I was eight, Ella Fitzgerald when I was eleven.  John Prine at twelve.  The Flatlanders.  Steve Earle. Emmylou Harris.  I have found the rest of popular music through good friends and good radio (yes it still exists).

So where am I going with this?  I may not be a musician, but I’m devoted listener and student of pop music history.  Music remains enough of a mystery that I devote time to understanding what makes a song work.  What makes it ramble and build, turn and break, resolve.  What makes it play in my head long after the album has stopped turning.

The synthesis of sound and verse offers us transcendence, a fleeting moment of clarity derived from but beyond our normal experience.  A lyric moment.  Let’s take a spin.