Vinyl Sunday: Pure Rockism Edition
The figure in the photograph on the left is Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys playing the Temple Bar Music Centre - now the Button Factory - in Dublin in September 2006. Apparently they have a reputation for terrible misogynist rockist music now (when they make music that’s, y’know, popular) but I was transfixed when I first heard Thickfreakness, and their covers of Junior Kimbrough’s ‘psychedelic blues’ on the Chulahoma EP are still fantastic. I haven’t listened to any of their new stuff for a few years now, though - once they made the sonic progression from raw, punk-ish blues to 70s-style blues-rock I lost interest. The one time I saw them live (well before they started playing shows in the O2) was one of the first live gigs I’d been to, outside of school battle-of-the-bands. It was the same show as in the photograph, taken by one of the owners of the Road Records shop in Dublin, and which I bought there when they were closing down a few years ago. Last week I discovered at the back of a shelf an unfinished loyalty stamp card from Road, which I’m currently using as a bookmark for Perfecting Sound Forever.
The record on the turntable is Jeff Buckley’s Grace, “produced, engineered and mixed by Andy Wallace” and released on Columbia Records. Both of the latter two get a lot of mentions in Milner’s book: the first as the source of “pure ambience”, high-fidelity recordings in the 50s and 60s; the second as one of three producers/engineers (the others being Tony Bongiovi and Steve Albini) he uses to guide the reader through the chapter on ‘Presence’ in audio of the 70s, 80s and 90s. There’s a certain cross-over with Retromania, although mostly in the ‘every generation looks to the past’ sense:
"It makes sense that Wallace’s less reverb-happy approach would captivate Gen Xers. Many of their earliest childhood musical memories were probably of dry-sounding seventies records, and the sound was a comfortable alternative to the overblown sound of the eighties, when Gen Xers were growing up and life was getting complicated."
As a Gen Y-er or a Millenial, or whatever, I didn’t really absorb or engage with music at all until my teenage years, so the term ‘child of the 90s’ doesn’t have a lot of resonance for me in that respect. Secondary (i.e. high, between about 12-18 years of age) school for me was 2000-06, and it was in those years that I discovered music part-rooted in the preceding decade and part-rooted in the present. I heard of Green Day by reputation, and 2000’s Warning was the first album I bought (on CD). Followed I think by the Offspring’s 1992 Ignition. I don’t think I was particularly aware of that being much of a time gap (in perspective, it’s like buying a 2006 record today!) since the whole Californian punk movement, that broke into the mainstream in the 90s, was at that time my main entry point into music. The other thing I do recall and that still seems odd today, however, was the immediacy and ‘presence’ (in a sonic and social sense) of another of Wallace’s productions - Nirvana’s Nevermind. Even in the early 00s, in the Dublin suburbs, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and yellow-on-black Nirvana hoodies were still the shorthand for teenage rebellion.
I don’t listen to Nirvana or Nevermind much any more - not quite in the “I don’t need to listen to it because I can play it any time in my head” sense, as I don’t have a great aural memory, but similar enough. While it’s still great music, it exists mostly as a memory of ‘great music’ before I really knew what or why that was. Of course, I’m still grappling with that, and I just started with understanding the ‘how’ part. I remember it came as a shock to me to discover that Nevermind's guitar sounds were multi-layered: it had never occurred to me that the defining essence of rock's potency was a studio production. On the other hand, when I first experienced live music it took me a while to adjust to and actually enjoy it: having been used to the sound of mostly 90s albums reproduced cleanly on CD players, with neither the over- or under-production of the 80s to challenge my expectations, it was disorienting not to have a vocal or guitar line to clearly pick out in the mass of live distortion. (Conversely, when I bought some decent filter earplugs to protect my hearing a while ago, I was disappointed to hear live bands sound like a CD track; I dropped them while dancing around at a Dan Deacon gig and haven’t replaced them yet.)
An important if obvious question Milner points to in respect of ‘hi-fi’ is fidelity to what? With Edison, he argues it was a Platonic ideal of music to be recorded acoustically, without any electrical mediation. Common sense and technology prevailed to an extent, but still an idea persisted that what ought to be recorded was the music itself, free from its acoustic surroundings. The antithesis of this was the notion of ‘presence’, which also served later as an escape from the excesses of technological production. The 90s, in general, were a sort of middle ground that isn’t wholly satisfying. Listening to my CD of Nevermind this morning, I wondered did the drums have to sound like that? Yet I’m a little mystified by the attitude of Albini at least as presented in the book - what use is replicating the studio experience as-is, when I’ve never heard a band play live in a studio, but instead only in a noise-saturated, busy pub venue? As I write that I can see the solipsism in it: one can presume that the artists themselves would prefer you to hear it as they intended, in the studio (although, at least in punk, a major challenge is usually considered to be ‘capturing’ the live sound/energy). I suppose, ultimately, the only thing to be faithful to is the artists’ vision, however well that matches the tastes of the time (maybe I should wait until I reach the end of the book to see if it offers a different answer, but given the title especially, I’d be surprised if it did.)
The other thing the book and its accessible-to-the-layman discussion of sound recording and production is making me think about is the experience of listening to vinyl. Generally I’ve tried to be agnostic about the ‘does it sound better’ issue, mostly because I’ve been literally clueless about sound quality and the more technical aspects of music. Originally I started because the only way to own certain punk records was on vinyl, and because the physical objects and their artwork were appealing. Add to the latter the kinaesthetic experience of actually playing records, and the social aspect of being able to financially support artists other than by buying digitally redundant CDs. I’ve never been able to honestly rank the ‘sound’ experience itself above a placebo, augmented by the other tactile and visual sense-pleasures. Also my speaker system is the same as I use for playing through my netbook, Altec Lansing computer speakers that are powerful and well-defined enough for my untrained ear, while my turntable is a basic USB model that also includes a pre-amp - meaning that any sonic comparisons are hampered by having to switch volume levels every time I change between digital and analogue input.
I feel like I’ve gradually been getting a better handle on sound of late, however, in part I think from broadening my taste in music (and thus, by extension, my record collection). In the end, I never got round to buying too many shouty modern screamo bands on vinyl; it was much easier to pick up the latest indie album here in Dublin. One criticism of the recent explosion in vinyl sales, from an audio perspective, that has stuck with me is the one that points out the contradiction inherent in people eagerly seeking the analogue reproduction of digitally recorded and produced music. Vinyl may be better, this idea seems to argue, for old music (or bands so retro that they record entirely through analogue), but these days digital should lead to digital. And for a certain idea of fidelity, that probably makes sense.
However, I think I’m beginning to realise that for production in its wider aspect, the argument and the criticism is a little more complex. For me, it’s not about vinyl being ‘better’ (so far - I don’t know enough to make or evaluate such a claim, certainly not in a technical sense) but being aware of its difference. Which makes it odd that the quintessentially digital album of last year, Grimes’ Visions, is also one I really enjoy on record: it just jumps out at me. Or rather, it sounds like it inhabits its own space, and sucks you in. Why (or if) that is any different from the digital version (which I also enjoy, although seemingly in a different way), I don’t know exactly, but I’m developing a theory. Grace was an experiment to see if I could distinguish any particular quality about the LP, which was kinda irresistible to buy considering how beautiful the album sounds anyway (I remember first hearing it on my portable CD player on a bus, right after purchasing it: very 00s/90s).
By the time I got to the second side, I still had the vague feeling that the vinyl was a more pleasant listening experience; closer comparison with a digital version resulted in a conviction that the notes on ‘Hallejulah’ sounded more extended and more detailed, but the vinyl still seemed to sound better, somehow. But switching back between them I noticed an urge to further adjust the volume on the digital track - louder or quieter than what had seemed an equivalent volume to the vinyl, as the music itself shifted in volume. I’ve read about vinyl having a smaller dynamic range (between quieter and louder sounds) which gives at least part of its distinctive ‘feel’; digital, being more versatile, has a more expansive sound in technical terms but for that same reason can feel overbearing and over-detailed. I think that could explain why I prefer one experience over the other - and it says something interesting about how I value fidelity.
Could it be that the physical vibrations of a needle in a groove transmit a range of sounds which, while inferior in (actual, audible) quality than what can be transmitted digitally, result in a more aesthetically pleasing experience for the listener? Likewise, the more subtle criticism of some modern vinyl releases is not that they are plainly digital, but the mastering process used is not sufficiently sensitive to the changed medium to make the end product worthwhile as an experience in itself. I keep thinking of the metaphor of a painting and a photograph - the latter is undeniably more accurate and realistic (at least in a physical sense), often powerfully so, but the former retains an affective and artistic potential despite its physical limitations. Although I suspect the analogy is faulty, since a vinyl record is probably closer in technological terms to a film photograph: and thus we enter into another artistic debate. Fidelity, whether to artistic vision or to audience expectations, is an endlessly malleable concept.