Refusing to exit

Eclectic Playlist Series 8.03 – March 2021

We have this time a month of challenging segues, as a disconcerting number of the songs selected for the March playlist have what music folks call a “cold” ending–which means a song that has an actual end point, often an abrupt one, versus a song that fades out. The more abrupt an ending, the harder it can be to create an effective segue; and an extra problem this month is that a noticeable number of songs likewise feature cold openings, starting either suddenly or loudly or both. This is the first time I can remember having to change a number of songs around, or even kick songs out of the mix, based on an inability to construct a workable segue. And there remain a few here that are a bit bumpy for my taste. But it’s worth it, I hope, for the songs to follow.

And this: there have now been a year’s worth of pandemic-shuttered playlists. On the bright side, this is an activity that in theory is unaffected by physical lockdowns. But, that’s merely theory; in practice, everything is affected, while so many things still refuse to exit: degenerative idiocy in the public sphere, systemic racism, proto-fascist tendencies in state legislatures, and oh yes this persistent virus. All things must pass; we just, in advance, never know quite when.

“Heaps of Sheep” – Robert Wyatt (Shleep, 1997)
“Stay” – The Blue Nile (A Walk Across the Rooftops, 1984)
“Mirrorball” – Taylor Swift (folklore, 2020)
“Tattler” – Ry Cooder (Paradise and Lunch, 1974)
“New Resolution” – Heartless Bastards (Stairs and Elevators, 2005)
“Argos Farfish” – Sharhabi Ahmed (1960s)
“Day After Day” – The Pretenders (Pretenders II, 1981)
“The Night” – Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons (single, 1972)
“Hysteric” – Yeah Yeah Yeahs (It’s Blitz!, 2008)
“The Hunger” – Bat For Lashes (Lost Girls, 2019)
“The Universal” – Blur (The Great Escape, 1995)
“2.A.T.” – Fingerprintz (The Very Dab, 1979)
“Every Little Bit” – The Royalty (The Royalty, 2012)
“Sword” – Ian Sweet (Show Me How You Disappear, 2021)
“Angels” – David Byrne (David Byrne, 1994)
“Call On Me” – The Dynells (single, 1968)
“Postcards From Italy” – Beirut (Gulag Orkestar, 2006)
“Downtown” – Christine Lavin (Good Thing He Can’t Read My Mind, 1988)
“Wake Up Everybody” – John Legend & The Roots (Wake Up!, 2010)
“Salt of the Earth” – The Rolling Stones (Beggars Banquet, 1968)

Stray notes:

* I’m never sure how far into these mixes that listeners tend to get but please do yourself the favor of hanging in there this month at least until you get to the majestic Frankie Valli single “The Night,” which elevates melodrama to the awe-inspiring. The bass-driven beat will lure you in, the horns will charm you, and the theatrical melody, with its heroic intervals, will all but take your breath away. Many thanks to George from Between Two Islands for the tip on this brilliant ’70s nugget.

* I will say up front that I have very little knowledge when it comes to the vast array of sounds that have been recorded outside of my limited Anglo-American musical bubble, and in particular had zero exposure to Sudanese jazz before the song “Argos Farfish” had a moment in the spotlight over on Hype Machine a few months ago. The artist, Sharhabil Ahmed, is known in some circles as the “King of Sudanese Jazz”; seven of his recordings were gathered last year into a compilation on the German label Habibi Funk, which specializes in reissuing “Arabic funk, jazz, and other organic sounds.” Their 16 album releases to date can be found on Bandcamp. Try as I might I cannot locate a specific date for “Argos Farfish,” but it seems to have been recorded some time in the 1960s. I obviously still know very little about any of this, but I know that the song caught my ear and wanted to work its way into a playlist so here it is.

* At another end of the spectrum, we have Taylor Swift. I’ve never previously connected to her music but also never doubted her talent. And while her widely-praised Aaron Dessner-produced 2020 albums didn’t turn me into a fan per se, they did have me listening. On the one hand, even in a new sonic setting, her songwriting style veers too much towards the “spill words out in double time without a melody” end of things to hold my interest.  On the other hand, there is “Mirrorball,” in which she lets a graceful melody take root in a gauzy, quasi-dream-poppy setting–to me, an encouraging detour. (With a different but related vibe, “Marjorie,” from the follow-up, evermore, is another good listen.)

* Two of my favorite all-time songs share a title: “Stay.” Then again, maybe not surprising, given that Wikipedia lists more than 90 songs with that same one-word title. But I am particularly partial to David Bowie’s “Stay,” from Station to Station, and, best of all, this one from the Blue Nile’s debut album, 1984’s  A Walk Across The Rooftops. Paul Buchanan’s voice may be an acquired taste through the album’s more meander-y tracks, but on the comparatively buoyant “Stay,” he and the band hit it out of the park.

* Ian Sweet is the performing name of the Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter Jilian Medford. “Sword” is from Show Me How You Disappear, her third album, released earlier this month on Polyvinyl Records.

* As disconcerting as it was to have a David Byrne solo album, in 1994, after being so indelibly presented as Talking Heads’ front man all those previous years, he has long since succeeded in making it seem almost equally disconcerting to think that he used to be in a band. Anyone with access to HBO: I all but demand that you go and watch “American Utopia” at your earliest convenience, if you haven’t done so already. It will bring a smile to your pandemic-weary face; in fact, watching him perform “I Zimbra” during the show made me so happy I started crying.

* Sadly little is known about the group called The Dynells, except that that were fronted by the dynamic Brenda McGregor, and that this song, originally released on a Philadelphia label called Vent Records in 1967–and more widely released on Atco Records in 1968–was produced by none other than Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. This was a few years before they founded Philadelphia International Records, but in the same time frame as when they produced their first big hit, which was “Expressway To Your Heart,” by the Soul Survivors. Why wasn’t this a hit also? It’s a mystery; the song is fantastic, with a groovy guitar riff and fully developed horn charts. Just about every piece of information about McGregor on the internet is word for word the same sentence about how she was later in a group called the Vonettes and how she died at age 25.

Free and legal MP3: Ciel

Melodic splendor, w/ squonky noise

“Pretty Face” – Ciel

Launching without an introduction, “Pretty Face” brings us promptly into the compelling world of vocalist/guitarist Michelle Hindriks, a Netherlands native, transplanted to Brighton. Her lightly accented English and pellucid tone combine with irresistible potency, all the more so when we reach a chorus that ravishes with its melodic sweep and splendor. The subtle double-tracking of the lead vocals here adds to the poignant beauty.

At the same time, tune your ear further down into the mix and track if you can what Jorge Bela Jimenez’s guitar is doing, which is quietly and intermittently going crazy in a “don’t mind me” kind of way. You won’t hear it at first unless you listen for it. By the chorus’s third iteration (2:05), Jiminez is becoming less restrained, setting up the all-out assault that breaks free at 2:43, and carries us through a memorably squonky coda.

Lyrically the song veers into unexpected territory. By Hindriks’ account, she was inspired by a number of documentaries she found herself watching under lockdown about a variety of cults, and one particular story about a man who lost his wife to a cult–how he knows she’s still out there, but forever separated from him. While it’s not a direct experience many of us (thank goodness) can relate to, it can stand as a metaphor for living with the grief of heartache and separation.

Ciel has put out two EPs to date, most recently Monument, in April 2020. “Pretty Face,” released last month, is the second single the band has released since then. Check out the full discography on Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Brandon De La Cruz

Hushed, impressionistic storytelling

“Salmacis” – Brandon De La Cruz

Brandon De La Cruz sings with a hushed authority, his voice cracking against the muted beauty of this simple-seeming song. A two-line verse is answered by a two-line chorus, the former resolving the latter with matter-of-fact grace. Whatever story is being told here is being told obliquely, like a camera focusing only on discreet details, with no establishing shot.

We can, however, flesh out the story via the title: in mythology, Salmacis was a nymph who lusted after Hermaphroditus, the child of Hermes and Aphrodite. When he rejected her and went to bathe in her pool, she sprang upon him; when he still resisted, she prayed to the gods that the two of them should be always together. The gods, in classic “be careful what you wish for” manner, granted her her desire, and they were merged into one body. (Thus, clearly, the etymology of the English word “hermaphrodite.”)

This background renders De La Cruz’s impressionist account evocative in the extreme. We get body words–hands and arms and lips and legs–and, in the repeated chorus, words of union (collide, link up, entwined, seam). Consciously or not this song is in every possible way the antithesis of the prog-rock deep cut “The Fountain of Salmacis,” from the 1972 Genesis album Nursery Crime: concise versus expansive, humble versus baroque, quiet versus clamorous. Nothing at all against Genesis; let’s just say this goes in another direction.

“Salmacis” is one of eight tracks on the album Visions of Ovid, being released this week. With a long-standing interest in mythology, De La Cruz this time has fashioned an entire album riffing on ancient stories. Based in Portland, De La Cruz has been more or less stuck in New Zealand for a year, having chosen an unfortunate time to visit friends early in 2020.  (But there are probably worse places to be stuck!) He has been previously featured on Fingertips both in 2011 and in 2013. MP3 via the artist.

Free and legal MP3: Loma

Steady and dramatic

“Half Silences” – Loma

Loma is a band that seems to enjoy giving us space as much as sound. Don’t let the pulse-like beat that you’re first hearing distract you from the song’s more idiosyncratic attributes. Listen, for instance, to how the beat is soon neutralized by a synthesizer rhythm that slows the effective pace of the song by a factor of eight. And it’s kind of a stuttering, science-fiction-y synthesizer sound at that. Creating space, as it were.

When singer Emily Cross checks in, at 0:31, she delivers a long and careful melody line, half-time to the underlying pulse, which further works to draw the ear to the alluring expanse in which the piece unfolds. The aforementioned synth accents seem slowly to be morphing into wordless vocals by around 0:55; and by 1:16 this background vocalizing, nearly medieval in vibe, becomes the song’s signature accompaniment. Cross, meanwhile, holds the center with her unhurried, slightly smoky mezzo. I love how much drama the song creates without Cross herself having to do anything dramatic–the tension of the beat, the solemnity of the vibe, and a variety of subtle musical flourishes do the work for her. It seems a corollary of Charlie Chaplin’s famous (and effective) acting advice: if the thing you’re doing is funny, you don’t need to try to “act funny” while you’re doing it; here, the song itself is dramatic, and so Cross doesn’t need to sing dramatically to serve the music. Perhaps more singers should figure this out.

Loma is the trio of Cross, Jonathan Meiburg (front man of the band Shearwater), and Dan Duszynski.  Cross and Duszynski had been a duo together, opening for Shearwater; Meiburg was taken with their sound and attracted to the idea of relinquishing the spotlight for a while. They got together for what was to be a one-off project, resulting in a self-titled 2018 album. A second album was not in the original plan, but the three of them found themselves drawn back together, perhaps partially due to some supportive words on BBC Radio 6 from none other than Brian Eno that made their way back to the band.

“Half Silences” is the third track of 11 on Loma’s second LP, Don’t Shy Away, which was released on Sub Pop Records back in October. (Note that Eno was eventually invited to contribute to the album; he is credited with “additional synths and drum programming” on the album’s closing song, “Homing.”) The band was previously featured on Fingertips in March 2018, around the time of their debut. MP3 via KEXP. You can listen to the whole album, and buy it, via Bandcamp.

I can see you’ve had a rough few months

Eclectic Playlist Series 8.02 – February 2021

I’m squeezing this playlist into February even as it was actually March 1 when I hit the “publish” button. The short month always takes me a bit by surprise. The playlist took me a bit by surprise as well, from its over-reliance on the 1980s (not usually my thing) to its ongoing parade of strange bedfellows. It started when I got sidetracked into watching a documentary on Genesis, took a detour on George Harrison’s birthday (when I discovered via WXPN that he did not in fact write “Got My Mind Set On You”) and was thrown for another loop at the last minute by the word of mouth swirling around Cassandra Jenkins’ brand-new album, which required finding a place for “Hard Drive.” Lots of other goodies in here, including what is surely one of the great covers of all time (Cake doing “I Will Survive”; I mean come on–the arrangement, the vocals, the bass line, just perfection) and an admittedly unusual side trip into what might be considered “smooth jazz” (yikes?) except that Bob James/Earl Klugh song, however mellow (okay, smooth), has a beautiful inevitability about it. Consider it a respite ahead of the more prickly tracks to follow, including a blast of sound from the Chromatics and that unexpected spoken-word journey from the aforementioned Ms. Jenkins. Here, specifically, is what you’ve got in store:

“Turn It On Again” – Genesis (Duke, 1980)
“This Mess We’re In” – PJ Harvey, w/ Thom Yorke (Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, 2000)
“Mourning Sound” – Grizzly Bear (Painted Ruins, 2017)
“Got My Mind Set On You” – James Ray (b-side, 1962)
“Driving” – Jane Aire and the Belvederes (Jane Aire and the Belvederes, 1979)
“Regret” – New Order (Republic, 1993)
“Misguided Angel” – Cowboy Junkies (The Trinity Session, 1988)
“Kari” – Bob James & Earl Klugh (One on One, 1979)
“Kill For Love” – Chromatics (Kill For Love, 2012)
“Hard Drive” – Cassandra Jenkins (An Overview on Phenomenal Nature, 2021)
“I Will Survive” – Cake (Fashion Nugget, 1996)
“What” – Judy Street (b-side, 1968)
“On the Rocks” – Dennis Brown (Foul Play, 1981)
“Sweet Heart Said” – Shelley Short (Captain Wild Horse Rides the Horse of Tomorrow, 2006)
“Born To” – Jesca Hoop (The House That Jack Built, 2014)
“Mumbo Jumbo” – Squeeze (East Side Story, 1981)
“I Wished on the Moon” – Billie Holiday (All Or Nothing At All, 1958)
“The Adults Are Talking” – The Strokes (The New Abnormal, 2020)
“Borderline” – Joni Mitchell (Turbulent Indigo, 1994)
“On My Way” – Sandy Denny and the Strawbs (All Our Own Work, 1967 [released 1973])

Stray notes:

* I’m not sure anyone writes songs like “Mumbo Jumbo” at this point in time, and the world is a worse place for it. After the short, ear-catching intro, we get five or six really strong hooks in a song that doesn’t have one moment that feels like it’s treading water. The chorus alone is a multi-faceted wonder of movement and development. Tilbrook and Difford at their best were among the best we’ve had. Let’s not leave them behind.

* Leave it to the Strokes to record an album in 2019, call it The New Abnormal, and release it in April 2020. We’ve been living in the new abnormal ever since. You may recall that their debut album was released in October 2001, a month after 9/11.

* Reggae is (clearly) not my specialty, but over the years, certain songs have stuck with me. I don’t know much about the late Dennis Brown, except that he was a huge star in his native Jamaica, and put out a gazillion albums during a career that was cut short in 1999, when he died at the age of 42. “On The Rocks” is not especially representative; it came out during his stint with A&M Records, when he shed his lovers rock sound for more of a pop/R&B sheen. Purists probably object but I’m no purist so I think it’s pretty wonderful.

* It’s hard to believe that Joni Mitchell’s Turbulent Indigo, considered a late-career highlight, is now itself 27 years old. I remember feeling that the album was over-praised when it came out; and yet here in 2021 I’m countervailingly inclined to feel that it is underappreciated. Even as she lost interest in melody, her sense of musical space and texture never dimmed. And let me say this while she’s still with us: Joni Mitchell is in my mind the best singer/songwriter of them all, and to me it’s not even a close contest.

*  Jane Aire was one of three singers to emerge from Akron, Ohio in the late ’70s–the other two being Chrissie Hynde and Rachel Sweet. Hynde you know, Sweet perhaps you know, but Jane Aire probably not. She recorded for Stiff Records and Virgin Records in England, made one full-length album, and either left the business or the business left her. The internet has little else to offer. I do know that “Driving” was a cover of an independently-released single by the Bay Area new wave group Pearl Harbor & The Explosions (they called it “Drivin'”),  whose follow-up song, “You Got It (Release It),” is itself a bit of a lost power pop classic. Meanwhile, if you wanted to hear music that crystallizes the sound of the American new wave, you could do a lot worse than Jane Aire.

* As for Genesis: while I find their early, prog-rock sound rather too precious and noodly for my taste, and their last few albums veering towards the insipid, I am a big fan of their middle years–let’s say 1973 through 1981. There was a sweet spot in there when the songs grew shorter and sharper even as they retained a complexity well beyond standard pop fare. “Turn It On Again”–catchy demeanor covering a tricky progression of time signatures–is a highlight from the later part of this fertile period.

Free and legal MP3: Lucy Francesa Dron

Rhythmic, jazz-inflected indie rock

“What Is Next?” – Lucy Francesca Dron

There is something fetching to me about songs in which the rhythm guitar functions as the lead guitar–when resolute strumming characterizes the accompaniment rather than any sort of fingered showing-off. “What Is Next?” is a showcase for this concept, a song built on a swinging cadence, dictated by the rhythm guitar’s determined syncopations and suspended chords. Against this backdrop of her own doing, Lucy Francesca Dron sings with a cagey, unleashed elegance, landing halfway between a ’90s alternative rocker and a jazz singer.

The guitar’s relentless, recurring chords give “What is Next?” a circular feeling, accentuated by the song’s amorphous structure, with chord-driven verses that lead to no particularly identifiable chorus outside of a few theatrical repetitions of the title phrase. The second time we get there, the song veers into a free-form bridge (2:26) with run-on, scat-like lyrics–as bravely jazz-inflected a section in an indie rock song as you’re likely to hear. Overall the song manages to feel simultaneously determined and light-footed, and presents as a breath of fresh air in our over-processed, hyper-algorithmic times.

Lucy Francesca Dron is a 21-year-old musician from Brisbane. “What Is Next?” is the third single she’s released since a debut EP back in 2017. A new EP is slated for later this year.

Free and legal MP3: The Weather Station

Steady, rich, and resonant

“Tried To Tell You” – The Weather Station

At once intimate and expansive, “Tried To Tell You” simmers with nuanced allure. While grounded in an assertive backbeat, the song’s charms lie in some less obvious places. Do you hear that wobbly synthesizer that eases its way into the mix in the introduction (0:11)? That’s the kind of small, wonderful moment to expect here, much having to do with what the various keyboard sounds are doing; you’ll discover everything from foreboding bass notes to an assortment of friendly interjections if you pay close attention.

But the star of this steady, rich, and resonant song is Tamara Lindeman, the Canadian singer/songwriter who does musical business as The Weather Station. Her voice impresses with its warmth and flexibility, as she ranges between a dusky alto and a breathy soprano, an elasticity that brings to mind none other than fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell. The chorus is concise and sublime (if, again, you stop to pay attention), with brilliant phrasing and intonation. Listen to how much she does with the phrase “I tried to tell you” first heard at 0:48, its simple parade of one-syllable words enhanced by a shift in vocal tone that takes the breath away.

“Tried To Tell You” is a track from The Weather Station’s 2021 album, Ignorance, released earlier this month on Fat Possum Records. You can listen to the whole thing, and buy it (digital, vinyl, CD, cassette, you name it) via Bandcamp.

MP3 via KEXP. The Weather Station was previously featured on Fingertips in September 2011.

Free and legal MP3: Static Shapes

Confident midtempo rocker

“Wolves in White” – Static Shapes

Confident in its artful foundation, “Wolves In White” is purposefully constructed from start to finish. Listen to the way it opens: there’s 10 seconds of a barely-heard, three-note synthesizer line, tracing a classical-sounding ascending interval; another 10 seconds to establish the underlying midtempo backbeat, keyboards up front; 10 more seconds for the bass to break free from the beat (keep your ears on this instrument moving forward) as that ethereal synthesizer returns to float around the top of the mix; and only then does the guitar step in, offering a rounded, lower-register lead to ground us in a fully-formed musical landscape. I’m not usually down for long introductions, but that’s only because most long intros are repetitive vamps. This is not that.

When the vocals begin (0:46) we are treated not only to singer/guitarist Steve Yutzy-Burkey’s agreeably scuffed baritone (although he’s likely tired of the comparison there’s no overlooking his Tweedy-ish tone) but also now have a front seat for bassist Rick Sieber’s acrobatic  explorations. Yutzy-Burkey likewise shares Tweedy’s gift for converting minimalism into grace, his way of altering a simple melody with improvisational-sounding shifts, along with a knack for ending melody lines without resolution. Even the song’s chorus ends up feeling elusive and unresolved: first of all, it’s heard only twice; second of all, it’s a paragon of suggestive constraint, encompassing only four basic notes and a refusal to fully land.

Keep an ear in the meantime on Sieber’s work, and the way the bass often works itself into the foreground, culminating with a nimble solo at 2:28. And if anyone can identify the likable noise we get at 3:37, I’d love to know what that is.

“Wolves in White” is the lead track from Static Shapes’ debut album, Give Me The Bad News, released in December. Listen to the whole thing via Bandcamp, where it’s available to buy in both digital and vinyl form. Based in Philadelphia, Yutzy-Burkey was previously known as the front man for the well-regarded local band The Swimmers (which featured Sieber as well). Before that, he headed up the Philly-based quartet One Star Hotel (also with Sieber), who were featured here on Fingertips way back in the innocent days of 2004. Thanks to the Yutzy-Berkey for the MP3.

Defending the MP3

While streaming obviously has its benefits, so do MP3s. From a music listener’s point of view this is not a zero-sum game, even if the pundits want us to believe that.

Pity the poor MP3: as formats for recorded music go, it seems to lie somewhere below the 8-track tape in terms of critical appreciation. Despite its track record as a revolutionary medium for music, the MP3 has never been loved as much as tolerated. And by the end of the 2010s there had developed a widespread feeling of “And don’t let the door hit you on the way out” by industry pundits, as well as no small number of musicians and listeners alike.

Given the short nature of our collective memories, not to mention our increasing resistance to actual facts, it’s easy to forget, here in the 2020s, that in the beginning, a new generation of music fans couldn’t get enough of the MP3. And they proved it by uploading and downloading music willy-nilly, with no regard for legal standards of intellectual property, not to mention simple human fairness. Thus was the MP3 format disfigured from the outset: it was never an unconditional force for good in the world. No other previous medium for recorded music was so immediately and boldly embraced by people who did not feel the need to pay for the product they were laying claim to.

If in the early years of the MP3, the magic of music available digitally was marred by issues of legality, the format gathered additional criticism based on sound quality. Audiophiles wanted nothing to do with MP3s from the get-go, but even music fans with less sensitive ears could likely discern a transistor-radio-like quality to first-generation digital music files. This did change with time, as 128kbps and then 192kbps and higher MP3s became the norm. Once reasonable-quality MP3s were standard, however, the format seemed always to contain a whiff of the inadequate about it–the very idea that recordings had to be “compressed” into MP3s made the end result seem suspicious even if many listeners did not notice any problem with their own ears.

And then came streaming–first slowly, then by the mid-’10s flooding the digital music scene. At that point, for many, it was game over: streaming wins, MP3s lose, no one needs to own their music any longer because how can you own a digital “thing” anyway? Actually you can, but never mind: renting music is so much more convenient and then, wow, look at the end result: you can pretty much listen to anything, any time. Isn’t this what those dreaming in the ’90s about that so-called “Celestial Jukebox” were dreaming about?

I’ve been watching all this from my front-row seat in a virtual theater increasingly threatened by the wrecking ball of obsolescence. I still, clearly, feature MP3s here on Fingertips. And while I am not sure if, to use the old nugget attributed to Mark Twain, reports of the death of the MP3 are greatly exaggerated, I am entirely sure that MP3s even now serve a valuable role in the 21st-century musical landscape and if they are to die an untimely death, we will be collectively losing out on something important about how music may enhance our lives.

Look, I can’t and won’t argue against the many and varied benefits of streaming. I stream music myself on a daily basis, in a variety of circumstances. What I am arguing against is the tech-industry-driven picture of a world in which that beautiful human need we have for music in our lives is so thoroughly serviced by streaming that possessing music of one’s own comes to be regarded as somehow foolish. It is after all standard tech-talk to presume obsolescence, to be so interested in selling the latest technology that any and all ways that the newest innovation ignores or counteracts benefits from previous products and services are dismissed without a care.

Food for thought: if the MP3 were so worthless and kick-aside-able, what’s with the concern over the past few years about “stream ripping,” identified as a “major problem” for the music industry starting in 2016, and continuing to nip at the industry’s heels, as discussed for example in a recent Hollywood Reporter article? Stream ripping is positioned as an ongoing threat to industry revenue; what no one seems to mention is the fact that this means that people still want MP3s.

And yes some who rip streams may simply be trying to avoid YouTube ads, but at this point, it’s not as if every last song that’s available on YouTube has an ad in front of it. Furthermore, it’s not clear that ripping a stream is a less involved process than watching a short ad; to me the act of stream-ripping is more about reasserting control as a listener, about taking possession of the music itself in a way that listeners just can’t do when they are streaming. I have never advocated piracy, and I’m not saying everyone should be stream-ripping to their heart’s content. But in this case, for the first time, I can appreciate the gesture; I can appreciate a listener saying, “I want my MP3.”

So let’s acknowledge the actual facts, free of industry spin: streaming has its benefits and so do MP3s. From a listener’s point of view this is not a zero-sum game, no matter what the pundits say. By now everyone knows what the benefits of streaming are. Few talk about the benefits of the MP3. Some of these benefits are subtle and interrelated, but this is the internet so I will attempt to make this look like a list.

Here as I see them are the benefits of the MP3:

1) The benefit of ownership

This is something that the buzzwordy tech crowd and the casual fans content with listening to Spotify playlists do not understand, relate to, or, I guess, care about. Plenty of committed music fans, too, seem at this point entirely comfortable with using a streaming service’s extensive music library as their own, stringing playlists together on the go, and feeling good about “their music.”

But it’s not their music or their library. It’s someone else’s music they are renting, and not even directly. When you rent a car, you are taking temporary possession of one concrete thing. Paying $10 a month to stream music disconnects the listener from any particular piece of music the fee gives access to. And even if an iTunes library full of MP3s does not present the public display of personal aesthetic preferences that a shelf full of CDs or LPs did in the old days, I contend there is an important if intangible reality attendant to having music that is yours, meaning specific music that you awarefully paid for, accessible via your own physical and/or digital resources. The marketplace–which brings together someone with a thing of value and someone else who wants it pays for it–answers one of human civilization’s primordial needs for the successful interaction of individual selves in a collective enterprise. We know that owning certain things, bringing things into your own personal space, carries significance. The act of offering currency, as a stand in for value, for something specifically valued is part of what human culture does, even when that thing of value is a digital file. To rent music via a monthly fee to a technology company isn’t the same thing.

Knowing that you made the decisive commitment to buy a song or an album, to place it among your possessions, even your digital possessions, marks the music as something of personal significance, as being part of you in palpable way. And at the same time, it creates a bond between listener and artist that feels weakened if not disrupted entirely in a streaming environment.

Another thought here: if ownership has been generally devalued in the music industry, think about who has been doing the devaluing: companies (including record companies) with a stake in streaming revenue, and a tentacled variety of hangers-on (consultants, pundits, promoters, etc.) who have hitched their wagons to Spotify and its varied competitors. Vested interests have been in charge of the conversation here.

And yet try as they might they can’t completely kill the concept of ownership, the inherent value of which is at least in part behind the resurgence of vinyl records–among other things vinyl might be seen as a way for streamers to address their unmet ownership needs. I’m all for that; and I would continue to argue that buying digital music is another (cheaper!) path to the intangible satisfaction of ownership (minus of course the satisfying record covers). (Yet another cheap option few mention any more: buying used CDs and converting them to MP3s yourself.) The ongoing success of Bandcamp, not to mention the extra triumph of “Bandcamp Fridays” (when the site waives its revenue share so that the artists accrue more direct income from purchases) proves that there is a substantial audience of music fans who are willing and able to pay for the music they like.

2) The benefit of reliability

As an MP3, a song’s ongoing existence in your life will now not depend on either: a) the uninterrupted existence of a reliable internet connection, or b) the everlasting survival of a particular internet company.

Regarding a), network connections may be reasonably robust here in the 2020s but shit sometimes does happen. When everything’s working normally, it’s easy to forget that “your” music is residing on a corporate server in a remote location. This appears to be a situation most people don’t care about, but for me it’s another aspect of the frayed connection between the musician and the listener that ownership repairs while streaming perpetuates.

The b) situation sounds even more abstract but is in my mind more troubling in the long term. I have records I bought in the 1970s in my possession. What are the chances that the songs in someone’s Spotify playlist will still be there in 2070? Or 2030 for that matter? More to the point, what are the chances that Spotify will still exist?

Of course one may also ask if the technology that supports MP3s will still be around in 10 or 20 or more years. A legitimate question–but I have to assume that something will persist in this regard, even if it involves eventual migration. And I think it’s clear that technology that is independent of one particular corporation definitely stands a better chance of persisting long-term than does any one company.

A more systemic and intractable issue in the realm of reliability is the persistent fact that no streaming service will ever have every last song or album you might want to listen to, especially to the extent that your tastes are wide-ranging. While I am not someone who goes out of his way to collect rarities and B-sides and such, I have still encountered any number of songs I’ve attempted to put in a Spotify playlist but couldn’t find there. Here is where people content to stream rather than own must simply hand control of their music collection over to corporate forces that are impersonal to a fault.

3) The benefit of conscious limitation

One of the interesting things that happens when 21st-century humans are set free among seemingly limitless choices is a kind of shut-down. People get anxious, they artificially and randomly narrow down their options, they make easy or familiar choices over optimal ones, or turn away from making any choice at all. Search “having too much choice” for a quick glance at the articles, essays, and books that have sprung up in the 21st century on the problems inherent with unlimited number of things to choose from.

Thus did the streaming services rather quickly pivot from bragging about the volume of their libraries to bragging about the quality of their curation–it’s a way to allow the listener to sidestep the problem of how to choose what to listen to from too wide an array of options. But underneath it all there’s always the pressure of choice overload when operating in an effectively infinite environment.

When you have your own, demarcated music library of MP3s sitting on your computer or hard drive or smartphone, you go from a paralysis-inducing unlimited space, populated without intention, to a space of conscious limitation: a purposefully constructed musical environment that can ongoingly inspire and nourish rather than paralyze and hypnotize. While it is theoretically possible to maintain a cordoned-off area of conscious limitation as a streamer, it takes discipline to stay there, rather than drift off into a haze of music being fed to you that you have no particular motivation to pay attention to or even remember in another week or two.

4) The benefit of committed listening

The opposite holds true when you spend actual money for particular pieces of music. As if by magic, investing financially, even in a humble MP3, invests you emotionally too. It’s easy enough to decide you don’t like music that you’re streaming for a few moments before moving onto something else, and then something else. If you’ve paid actual dollars for something, you’re going to be sure to give it a chance. It will sit in your library and call to you. Some music needs more attention and repeated exposure than other music. Streaming incentivizes fast listening and seeing what’s next; it fosters virality over substance. Buying your music fosters commitment. Once you’ve bought the music, you are now on its side: you want to like it, and you’ll work at it if necessary. As such, you learn to listen more patiently, you learn to pay attention to what’s actually unfolding, to move helpfully beyond the realm of the hot take and the snap judgment.

An extra way I choose to accentuate the commitment involved in listening to digital recordings I own versus music I stream is by keeping my digital music library reasonably well-organized. Right at the beginning of the iTunes era, I made the apparently idiosyncratic decision to sort my music by artists’ last names–you know, the way we sort things in real life, versus the idiot iTunes (and, later, Spotify) default of sorting by first name. This step right away made my digital library seem more genuine and, if I may put it this way, self-respecting. I’ve also taken time over the years to create certain sorting categories that make it easier to make playlists–you know, doing the kinds of things that digital music offers as advantages over physical recordings. Paying extra attention to digital storage works as another way to establish a model of commitment in a realm that may too easily transform itself into an indistinct landscape of disembodied and context-free sound.

5) The benefit of convenience

Much of what I’ve talked about here is not oriented specifically towards MP3s as much as any recording you might buy, whether vinyl or CD or MP3. But here’s one that singles out the MP3: MP3s are very easy to access–the first recorded medium, in fact, that doesn’t require a particular, dedicated piece of equipment to be able to listen (that is, you can use any one of a number of multi-purpose devices that you already have). It is also, of course, the first recorded medium that takes up no physical space, which offers related conveniences in terms of transport, transfer, and storage.

Lord knows I am not a fan of convenience for the sake of convenience. I believe with all my heart that convenience is oversold as a thing to seek, never mind worship. (I always refer to the movie Wall-E as the clear and logical endpoint of valuing convenience above all else.) So I’m listing it last. But: I’m still listing it, because hell, it can be pretty great to wander virtually over to Bandcamp, find an album you’d like to buy, download it, and see it populate into your music library in a matter of moments. I’d still rather go to a record store and browse physical objects, but to the extent that my music library is largely digital, there’s no point in not appreciating that aspect of digital music that can make music-buying more accessible.

Only connect

All of these five benefits together add up to what may be the greatest payoff of all: the benefit of feeling connected to something outside of yourself. Ownership lays the groundwork for connection, reliability stabilizes it, limitation renders it intelligible, and commitment deepens the possibility of connecting both to a musical artist’s efforts and to your own inner world of feelings, memories, and simple human aliveness. The accessibility of MP3s is then icing on the cake.

This is not to say that people listening to streamed music can’t likewise develop a worthy connection to what they are listening to. But the streaming environment fights it by its nature, while the personal possession model fosters it.

Note that I am not here to try to cancel streaming, even if I could. I would instead argue for the evolution of an environment for music that embraces both streaming and owning, side by side. Streaming is wonderful for some types of listening and some types of listeners, and falls short in other ways. Whatever its present and future technological limitations, the MP3 remains the most accessible format through which the valuable idea of ownership of recorded music is effected here in the 21st century. In the best of all possible worlds, we might collectively re-establish vinyl (or, better, some more ecologically responsible substrate) at the center of our music libraries, but this is implausible for many reasons. Given the portability and availability of the MP3, there is no good reason that it shouldn’t co-exist with both streamed music and vinyl records in a symbiotic way moving into the future.

Human endeavors, however, quite often fly in the face of “good reason.” I am therefore making no predictions, just laying out a modest case for the music industry’s ugly duckling when no one else seems to want to. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some new MP3s to listen to and review. Watch this space…


 

Everyone else has lost interest

Eclectic Playlist Series 8.01 – Jan. 2021

The Eclectic Playlist Series enters its eighth year. Many things were very different eight years ago, but the guidelines here remain the same: I feature 20 songs each month, and look to spread the songs out somewhat evenly among the decades. I also aim for male-female balance, but I don’t mind it if there are more songs sung by women than men in a given month–consider it a small gesture towards symbolically overcoming rock’n’roll’s longstanding misogyny. And then there’s the primary rule, self-imposed from the beginning, that no artist can be featured more than once in a calendar year. As the years have gone by I have also done my best to keep introducing artists who haven’t previously been featured here; I like at least half of the artists in each new mix to be making their EPS debut but that doesn’t always work out. (The passing years have made this increasingly challenging.) This month, for instance, there are only seven new artists. Conversely, here in January, Kate Bush moves quickly into the all-time lead, having been featured once each year to date, including, now, 2021.

With those guidelines in place, the playlists are otherwise constructed via intuition alone. I don’t have any concrete theme in mind when I start, and I don’t purposefully juxtapose songs based on lyrical similarities. When, say, “If You Change Your Mind” arrives two songs after “Baby, Don’t Change Your Mind,” which itself comes after “I Meant What I Said,” I consider it a bonus; I don’t usually plan this kind of thing, although I don’t rule out that there’s some unconscious architecting going on. The same goes for the segues. I will rule out songs that just don’t fit next to each other because of how one ends and the other begins, but when a really great segue occurs (for instance, this month: “Song For Zula” into “Uncle Alvarez”), it’s almost always a happy accident. And the immediate lyrical reference to “Ring of Fire” right after a song from Rosanne Cash? Definitely an accident, but an enjoyable one.

And so, for those who haven’t lost interest, here we go:

“This One” – Paul McCartney (Flowers in the Dirt, 1989)
“The Dirt” – Waxahatchee (Ivy Tripp, 2015)
“Couldn’t Believe a Word” – The 45s (single, 1979)
“Linger” – Jonatha Brooke (Steady Pull, 2001)
“Fall On You” – Moby Grape (Moby Grape, 1967)
“Teardrop” – Massive Attack (Mezzanine, 1998)
“Three of a Perfect Pair” – King Crimson (Three of a Perfect Pair, 1984)
“I Meant What I Said” – Rosehip Teahouse (Fine EP, 2020)
“Baby, Don’t Change Your Mind” – The Stylistics (Fabulous, 1976)
“My Maudlin Career” – Camera Obscura (My Maudlin Career, 2009)
“If You Change Your Mind” – Roseanne Cash (King’s Record Shop, 1987)
“Song For Zula” – Phosphorescent (Muchacho, 2013)
“Uncle Alvarez” – Liz Phair (Whitechocolatespaceegg, 1998)
“Girl Don’t Come” – Sandie Shaw (single, 1964)
“‘Long As You Know You’re Living Yours” – Keith Jarrett (Belonging, 1974)
“Astronaut” – Ass Ponys (Some Stupid With a Flare Gun, 2000)
“Wuthering Heights” – Kate Bush ([new vocal] The Whole Story, 1986)
“Romeo’s Seance” – Elvis Costello & The Brodsky Quartet (The Juliet Letters, 1993)
“Sparrow Song” – Acrylics (Lives and Treasure, 2010)
“Bulbs” – Van Morrison (Veedon Fleece, 1974)

Bonus explanatory notes:

* Earlier this month I posted a playlist on Spotify featuring Paul McCartney, noting how many excellent and overlooked songs he’s written in his long post-Beatles career. I started that playlist with the same song that starts us off here: “This One,” from 1989’s Flowers in the Dirt. I haven’t been able to get it out of my head for weeks. You’ve been warned.

* I somehow missed the kerfuffle way back when over the similarity between Steely Dan’s “Gaucho” and Keith Jarrett’s “‘Long as You Know You’re Living Yours,” which came out six years earlier, in 1974. Jarrett brought a lawsuit, or at least threatened a lawsuit (the internet record is fuzzy on this), and in any case did up end with a songwriting credit. The two songs are clearly related in vibe and musical details, even if sticklers can find no note-for-note melodic plagiarism. The Dan later admitted they were big fans of the Jarrett tune and did in fact find more than a little inspiration there for “Gaucho.” In the end, both songs are wonderful. Me, I say it takes no small talent to do what Becker and Fagan did to the Garrett tune to create “Gaucho”; it’s right for them to have credited Jarrett, and this takes nothing away from their own artistry.

* Rosehip Teahouse is a five-piece band from Cardiff, fronted by Faye Rogers and trafficking in a bittersweet, echoey, guitar-washed vibe that I find very appealing. “I Meant What I Said” is a song from their debut EP, called Fine, released in December. You can listen to it, and buy it, via Bandcamp. A brand new video for a second track from the EP, “No Gloom,” just came out this week. The band was originally scheduled to play in Austin at SXSW last year; this year, they will participate in the virtual SXSW that’s happening in March.

* While Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” is wondrous classic–written by an 18-year-old!–I always found her teenaged voice to be a little harsh in conjunction with the song’s melody and vocal range. Perhaps Bush herself thought as much in retrospect; how else to explain her re-recording of the song in 1986, in conjunction with the release of a “best of” collection that year. The song was remixed but presents as largely the same, except the vocal. And wow: to hear Bush, in full command of her mature voice, revisiting this remarkable song is, to me, goosebump-inducing. I could listen to this over and over, for all the subtle grandeur of her phrasing and intonation. “Wuthering Heights” was her first-ever single, and a smash hit in the UK, although not even released as a single in the US. Fun fact: Bush was inspired initially by a BBC production of Wuthering Heights; she later read the book, and then discovered that she and Emily Brontë have the same birthday.

* I love Liz Phair’s whitechocolatespaceegg to pieces, and have always been particularly captivated by “Uncle Alvarez,” for reasons that seem to be beyond my conscious awareness. I still eagerly await her forthcoming album, Soberish, slated however vaguely for release this year.

* I have a soft spot for Ohio’s Ass Ponys from my years of living in Cincinnati right around when the band was having their major-label moment in the mid-’90s. As melodic as they could be, the Ponys were too quirky a band to satisfy A&M’s commercial needs. Some Stupid With a Flare Gun was their first post-A&M album, released in 2000. That album’s title comes from the lyrics to “Smoke On The Water,” for those keeping score at home.