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Listening to Old Albums

Spotify and Google Play Music (All Access or no) have made it more of a chore to listen to whole albums. With infinite resources at my disposal (should I relisten to Black Sabbath’s 13? Is the new Weekend album as good as non-Huey Lewis Sports?), paralysis sets in. And Play Music’s card system isn’t helpful – give me a list, or give me death, I say. Don’t make me scroll thru endless boxes with laughing pictures of Aaliyah and the wrong B12.

There’s a certain anonymizing effect that streaming music services have on every note that passes through them. The listener doesn’t own it, and the artist receives peanuts for it, and in theory it could be just one of a never-ending string of songs played from that same account on a given day; Spotify has no run-out groove or optical laser. Jaron Lanier commented:

“I was in a cafe this morning where I heard some stuff I was interested in, and nobody could figure out. It was Spotify or one of these … so they knew what stream they were getting, but they didn’t know what music it was. Then it changed to other music, and they didn’t know what that was. And I tried to use one of the services that determines what music you’re listening to, but it was a noisy place and that didn’t work. So what’s supposed to be an open information system serves to obscure the source of the musician. It serves as a closed information system. It actually loses the information.”

It’s bad enough for individual songs, but what about full-length albums?  Conventional wisdom says that infinite plays and custom playlists on streaming music services mean that traditional albums, with their meticulously crafted running orders, segues, reprises, and lyrical or thematic concepts, are DOA. But you could have made the same case when the first CD player with track shuffle was released.

The album was built for vinyl in the 1960s and, to a lesser extent, the 1970s. Vinyl is the anti-Internet: it discourages dilettantism and track skipping, and by being so damn large and requiring a huge apparatus just to be played-back even at low quality, it takes up the whole room. There were no multiscreen living rooms during vinyl’s heyday, but I don’t think there could have been any, so all-encompassing is vinyl.

Vinyl is to music as Lisp is to programming languages. Per James Gosling:

Lisp is a Black Hole: if you try to design something that’s not Lisp, but like Lisp, you’ll find that the gravitational forces on the design will suck it into the Black Hole, and it will become Lisp“.

An album made during the heyday of LP records conformed to the physical details of the medium: continuous, uninterrupted playback for 15-30 minutes, split into at least 2 sides. Full user attention was required. And vinyl had unique artistic possibilities, explored to their fullest by classics like Abbey Road (side 2 is a medley ; furthermore, the jarring “She’s So Heavy/Here Comes the Sun” break required the listener to actually get up and switch the record in order to be relieved of the deafening, sudden ending to the former song) and the Mothers of Invention’s Absolutely Free (side 1 is all about vegetables; side 2 is about high school nostalgia and Lolita), but even knew albums like The Knife’s instantly legendary Shaking the Habitual (any album whose title references Foucault gets a thumbs-up from me), on which the epic “Old Dreams Waiting to be Realized” has an entire side, all to its lonesome, to stretch and unwind its spacious rumination.

In light of how long (a millennium, I think) the codex book form has been with us (and will continue to be with us – get on any CTA train in Chicago and compare the number of paperbacks to the number of people reading on Kindles/iPads, and you’ll probably be shocked at how many more are in the former category), it’s worth investigating why music only achieved similar status between roughly the mid 1960s and the present day. Meaning, music was fitted to a discrete unit that had to be consumed sequentially: you listened to an album like you read a book, start to finish, with full mindshare dedicated to the artist and their specific vision at a specific moment in time.

For years, I’ve kept an obsessive “Top 10 favorite albums” list, updating it with new choices, often impulsively after digesting some album du jour (I try to listen to at least one new album per day – one of the blessings Spotify provides), but some have remained there for a long time. I’ve noticed that many of my true favorites – the early work of Aphex Twin, the 1960s Mothers albums – are items that I own on vinyl and am willing to consume only with devoted attention. I think that part of vinyl’s ongoing appeal, which is significant enough even to buoy podunk record shops, is that is immune to nonsense about “disruption” – it offers a literally analog experience that has no digital equivalent, since it, in a way, assumes isolation and dedication, not fragmentation and iteration (Latinate roots abound in these high minded “tech” discussions).

So I wanted to look briefly at one of the albums that has always been at the top of my list: We’re Only in it for the Money by The Mothers of Invention.

I picked the 1995 CD remaster up at a Ear X-Tacy in Louisville, KY (since closed: the shop, not the city) in the summer of 2005, after my first year of college. I had just gotten my first iPod in the winter of ’04 but still carried a CD player around for cases like this one, when I didn’t have iTunes for Windows (during the dark days, before I migrated to Chrome OS and OS X). So I gave it a listen on the way home, 90 minutes from Louisville to Lebanon, and I have since given it probably 500 additional listens, more than any album I own.

The album is a snapshot of the era, but it transcends the hippie, freak, and psychedelic movements that inform it. Mothers mastermind Frank Zappa originally intended for it to be a mashup of Mothers music and Lenny Bruce comedy, a concept mercifully scrapped in favor of a melange of psychedelia, melodic surf rock, collage, and comedy. Much of its change can be attributed to the 1967 release of Sgt. Pepper by The Beatles, which blazed new trails and created almost every album cliché in the book, from seamless transitions between songs to “epic” avant-garde closing songs.

We’re Only in it… crams 19 songs into under 40 minutes, and the last song takes up nearly 7 minutes of that. It’s a master course in rich, detailed economy. Those first 18 songs breeze past in what seems like seconds.

Eric Clapton shows up on both “Are you Hung Up?” and “Nasal Retentive Calliope Music” to shout and/or stonily reminisce against a strangely affecting sonic collage background. The latter song samples (in 1968!) a surf rock that Zappa produced.

“Who Needs the Peace Corps?” is a history lesson about LSD, the Grateful Dead, and Haight-Asbury, set to a nifty vocal melody and squawking sax. The other two songs in its suite – “Concentration Moon” and “Mom & Dad” – foreshadowed the Kent St. shootings with masterful songwriting. The latter may be the most moving song in the Zappa canon, set to a 2/2 beat elevated by mallet-played drums and an endlessly catchy guitar figure. I used to hum it while working in a Subaru factory during that endless, oppressive 2005 coma summer. “May be,” since “Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance,” despite its silly title, can nearly induce tears from me, for its high-minded idealism set to a parody doo-wop melody. It’s so good that a merely instrumental version of it salvaged the otherwise drab Lumpy Gravy album that Zappa issued in 1967.

“Mother People” pays homage to “sleeping in a phone booth” (what’s that, you’ll probably ask) and incorporates an orchestral section: all in under 3 minutes. “Lonely Little Girl” has a riff and a vocal that would make Led Zeppelin blush: it shifts so many gears and unveils so many motifs in its sub-2 minute running time that you wonder why anyone else tries.

There are so many details to go into, especially about the album’s tortured version history. And of course there’s the multi-layered beautiful guitars of “The Idiot Bastard Son” and the sick humor of “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black.” But I’ll stop for now. Next time, I’ll look at another one of my favorite albums.

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