Lost in Translation

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“Vinyl,” as the rebirth of the record album is termed, has an album sleeve roughly 12” x 12”.   Sitting in record bins, this was the equivalent of a billboard for record companies to pimp the album within.  At times, they got either sneaky or high minded abounivlangut it and placed more seemingly altruistic stickers like s “Give the Gift of Music” on the covers.  I don’t know that I profited from that pitch, but they did as I was always mindful of gift giving in this regard.  Music lovers generally have an affinity for music lovers.  Another advertising campaign trumpeted that music is the universal language.  It resonated to a degree, even to a young teen.  

It may be universal, but that doesn’t mean it’s immune to taxonomy.

When writing my occasional album review, I struggle at times finding the right descriptor of the music.  Alt-country vs. Americana, for example.  I’m not entirely clear on what the difference is.  Maybe the prior has the obligatory Nashville “country twang,” while the other carries an authentic accent from the Blue Ridge mountains or thereabout.  Or perhaps alt-country has enough artistic grit that it garners resentment from neo-country hacks… Oh, there I go creating another label; maybe it will be useful to someone.  

Back in the emerging days of blogs and online reviews, I enjoyed searching for sites that might reliably surface interesting new music or relics that I had somehow missed.  It was a worthy pursuit given the failings of corporate radio and a very tired Rolling Stone magazine. Somewhere in the late ‘90’s, I stumbled across a site that drew my interest, The War Against Silence, that seemingly had no ambition for significance other than the author’s pleasure in the work.

The author, Glenn McDonald, knew about bands which I had not heard despite being sharing the same generation, but beyond that, he had the higher level of thinking (and memory) necessary to connect artists styles and find the right words to do so plainly:  

Some years, my musical world and the public one fail to intersect at all. In general this is fine with me, as the public musical world tends to be clogged with music that is supposed to make you want to eat fast food, but instead makes me want to firebomb shopping malls.

Other times, as needed, he wrote majestically.  I don’t often come across words like “libidinous,” “oeuvre,” or “Rococo,” but a frequent intersection of musical tastes, the pace of reviews, and a frequent joy in the reading set that site apart.  McDonald started the blog with the publication of his own 542 page (downloadable) book of music reviews of his entire collection (!), then carried on for years eventually evolving into an exposition of the joys and endurances of daily living and inserting a new musical release into that context.  This was less helpful, to be sure, but for those of who find music to be very much the stuff of life, it was fascinating.  Music heard right is intellectually dissected, tested for mental merit or emotional relevance, and absorbed into the living of moments.  To evaluate music from an existential vantage rather than from an objective pronouncement of value was as inevitable as it was singular.  I would think that music writers consciously understand that the music to which they are drawn enhances the life experience, but when taking a critical eye, they lack the introspection, willingness to share  or audience to make this type of “review” work.  Or, maybe it’s the pressure of putting out a review without having lived with it long enough.  In any case, McDonald gave this up but not before the whole of the matter subtly influenced my own desire to write in a publicly discoverable space. 

Back to my classification dilemma, most recently encountered with Sturgill Simpson’s latest CD.  Recently, I was flipping TV channels and caught a few minutes of the Country Music Awards, as fast paced and entertaining as an awards show can muster...  I lasted about 15 minutes.  But, given the state of music marketing and distribution (particularly the absence of airtime in the FM radio market for rock music post 1993 or so), I had to ask myself this:  If there were independently run radio stations with program managers and DJs who took chances with new artists, as there used to be, how many of these country musicians would instead be creating what would become classic rock for today’s generation?  The posturing is there, the power chords, the melodies, and the verse, chorus, verse, chorus, instrumental solo, verse, chorus, outro structure.  The only differences are the noted twang, the costuming, and the shallow pond from which the lyrics are sipped.  And pedal steel.  Shania Twain proved (and profited from) this when she released Up! in 2002, which was released with three different mixes for country, pop and international audiences… though given those options, she might have graced us with rock and metal options as well.    

What adventurous radio stations are left are generally found on college campuses, but their anti-commercial niche is now a readily accessible cog in the music streaming machine.  Of those, I continue to prefer Spotify, where I listen to new releases as they become available while writing, paying bills, playing games on the PC, shopping or trying to find my next kayak adventure.  Most of these new releases can be heard in full, and it doesn’t cost me a dime.  Sure, I have to put up with occasional ads, but, hey, I grew up with radio. They’re not going to annoy me enough to pay for an ad-free experience.  It’s not that I’m unwilling to spend money; if I like a new release sufficiently, I’ll go buy the CD as physical possession still has a hold on me.  I like the art.  I like having the lyrics.  I like having a hard copy. 

If I don’t like a release enough to buy it, I’ll add a favored song to my personal Spotify playlist so that I can come back to it later, even if I rarely do.  This begets data, of course, but I welcome Spotify’s algorithms that observe my tastes and curate other music that I might like.  “Discover Weekly” begins my week with about 150 minutes of music for me to sample.  It’s not perfect, but it’s improving as I continue to add to my playlist.  Listening to this is not an imperative on my schedule, but efficacy of the time spent is far better than sampling the featured new releases each week.  And, circling around to my continual pursuits of new music, this is a much more immediate experience than reading strangers’ opinions, never mind deciphering their lives. 

Wondering perhaps if McDonald had regained his footing and was again reviewing CDs, I revisited The War Against Silence recently.  Not so much, but it seems he’s a busy guy.  On a different tab of the site, I find that McDonald was the principle engineer and “data alchemist” for a company that made streaming services better and which was subsequently acquired by Spotify.  That makes all sorts of sense, even if the tedium of categorizing the musical styles of bands in Indonesia does not appeal.   In any case, it seems likely he is a driving force in classifying, 1,435 1,438 music genres (He added three since I last looked.  I suppose a new genre has the buzz of discovering and naming of a new star).  An MIT grad mixed with music results in, well,  take a look, and click on the species of your choice for a music sample.  Then read the origin story of “the sorting hat.” 

In any case, I have some new options should I need them when writing a CD review.  I don’t like country much at all, so I’ll let others decide if Sturgill belongs where I assigned him or if he is better served in the newer subclades.  Country rock. Progressive bluegrass.  New Americana.  Deep New Americana. , Anti-folk.  Whatever.  I’m off to try the playlist for neo-progressive…  Oh, and:

1 comment :

  1. Music is a tough thing to classify. For myself, it boils down to whether or not I initially like it. Once past that filter, it is what are the lyrics really saying. Sometimes, it makes no sense (Hocus Pocus by Focus) or should I add, Holiday in Cambodia by Dead Kennedys. Then there is the indeterminate (The Devil Went Down to Georgia by Charlie Daniels). And finally the make sense (Time by Pink Floyd).

    In short, I look forward to finding music that washes over me rather than music I can analyze. ;-)

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