Monday, June 04, 2007

Lost in the Wires

WARNING: This post contains seemingly harsh opinions which should not be misconstrued as being so damn serious. Lighten up, dammit.
"I'm not saying it's not a craft to build a cool track with loops and riffs-but it's not songwriting to me."
-Canadian singer-songwriter, Chantal Kreviazuk

[Pictured-Sum sung brew: 70's sing-sunger James Taylor. Am I the only one of my generation who can't relate to this blando crooner? Did he spawn hoards of hideous singers all trapped within their sensitive souls? ]

For some reason, I get a copy of Songwriter magazine. Have I "made it" in the radio world to warrant this honor? It's not a bad read, but few of the artists there really interest me. It was that quote that stuck. It bugged me.

What I think the gal is really saying is, "What I do is real songwriting. Assembling prerecorded loops is a craft, not an art and certainly not real songwriting."

I'm not surprised by the attitude. I agree, but there are so many sides to any story. This brings up some issues that keep popping up. {Pictured: closeup of my favorite guitar.}

Acoustic versus electronic.

Myths: Musicians who use electronics are trying to hide the fact that they are poor players. Do some? Of course, Duran Duran anyone? Isn't that what 80's synth pop was all about? Everybody knows that an electric guitar is one hundred times easier to fret than an acoustic one, but artistry is artistry. Classico guitar-ego-geek-o-maniac Eliot Fisk can grunt and sweat his way through a thousand difficult Scarlatti sonatas, but give me Jimi Hendrix every time. Same with a thousand sweaty EMO fuzzbox grinders-give me Ralph Towner every time.

Acoustic music is more real and authentic. Please, ever picked up an el cheapo guitar? Painful to play, painful to listen to.

  • I play an electro-acoustic guitar. If I don't plug in, no one will hear me (sometimes that's a good thing), but is it less authentic that I am amplified? (I don't feel less authentic. I want to be heard, dammit!) Eric McCarl's new age piano is enough to snuff out any debate. It's acoustic all righty and and "real"-ly dull. I even emailed him one time and asked why he didn't try to use electronics or some exotic colors that could be culled from inside the piano. In short, this was way outside of his paradigm-something he perhaps would consider if he was as weird as me. The world is a far more conservative place than you can ever imagine. We like boxes, cages and everything in neat little organized places. Dull, dull, dull.

The concept of purity. Ever listen to a pure sine wave? After a few minutes, it feels like a drill on your eardrum. This is purity, by strict definition. Every interesting sound is not pure at all, but rather a combination of overtones, both consonant and dissonant as well as noise. Purity discussions should be about Aquafina versus Deer Park bottled water. There is no purity in music. There's only good music. That's where the discussion should end.

A friend of mine worked as a sound/recording engineer for one of these bluegrass/folk festivals in West Virginia. They didn't allowed any instrument to be plugged in, but only allowed using a microphone to amplify the acoustic instruments. They wanted to preserve the purity of the sound. He spoke about how precious the attitude was not only among the staff, but the audience who drank their chilled wine and basked in the authenticity of the enhanced and amplified music. I suppose these purists missed the irony.

At the root of all good music is a song, be it instrumental or vocal, so to me the core ideas are the same, it's just that the window dressing is different. The last album by a group called Shrift is a great example. While I appreciate the broad spectrum of color, all sorts, and am enamored by the female vocalist, the album failed because at the root of it all, there were no songs, no forms to hang these great sounds.

Techno/House can be mind-numbingly repetitive and soulless, but it also can be an amazing listening experience where sounds are manipulated in exact time with or against the music. A friend doesn't enjoy the mechanical beats or electronic drums, and while I can't say that all electronic sounds thrill me, I happen to like the strict metronomic time and the variety in color.

Same goes with spacey electronica. Some discs seem overly enamoured by the synth sounds which leads back to an earlier statement of: song first, instruments second. Every sound has the potential to be interesting, but sounds themselves do not a piece make.
On the other hand, "traditional" songwriting can be dull because of predictability and lack of invention. Only traditional sounds are permitted otherwise the music is seen as gimmicky and less authentic. Again, the pitfall is the same. Pick up a well crafted acoustic instrument, and damn near everything sounds good. But from a composing point of view, this voluptuousness of sound can make for some dull listening. Will Ackerman sho' could learn something about writing instead of noodling on a pretty guitar. Michael Hedges had some brilliant moments and some moments when he let the timbre dictate the song, then the music became pretty and not outstanding.

SIDEBAR AND SOAP BOX TIME: Songwriting seems weak today. All of them want to be soulful and deep, but these little guppies need to learn to swim in the small currents first. Not to pick on her, but Tina Dico is a prime example. Good voice with the au courant jaded, wounded delivery, but it's like eating tofu when you expect a bite of steak. Not knowing her full catalog, but what I have heard has all the appearance of depth, but I ain't feeling none.

Lisbeth Scott, a darling by many standards, has written some really powerful material, but it's her voice that seems to be at once her most powerful instrument and her downfall. It's as if she emotes through those glorious pipes, yet lyrically she falls into cliche after cliche. Trying so hard to be vulnerable, honest and sensitive, she ends up making pretty, but not profound music. The sad thing is that she is capable of setting the world on fire.

Lyrics are especially poor these days. It's as if no one reads enough to have even the faintest grasp of poetry or language. "Whiny" is an overused word, but still effective in describing these faux sensitive, smug, so-self-aware tribe of fingerpicking troubs. The whole singer-songwriter thing is a bad name for a confusing and imaginary line drawn between musicians. What the hell does it literally mean? Found this hammering of a WSS (whiny singer-songwriter). Ouch.

The acoustic versus electronic thing: look at my rig. Nothing between the amp and guitar except a high quality cable. A tuner, my only "effect", runs out of the back so that doesn't color the sound. Would I add effects? Yep, if I could afford them or find something that appeals to me. ( I may be one of the few so-called classical guitarists who delights in plugging in a distortion pedal -at home, of course- and listen to the damn thing howl like a wounded devil. Feedback is always a problem live, but the sustain is infinite. Maybe not so good for the equipment, but Neil Young ain't got nothing on me.) Effects seem to be more suited for steel string acoustics-the effect is better suited for the sound. Think of chorus, distortion, compression.

But no one will ever accuse me of being a purist.

For this, I am thankful.

1 comment:

Will said...

So much to say, so little time.

You ARE a purist! But the purity you seek is not so easily delineated. It's not the crusade of the acoustic v. the electric. It's not the purity of the singer-songwriter-against-the-world (or, at least, the music industry). But it is a kind of purity you seek. Me too.

I basically agree with you, of course. But I find more in James Taylor's music than you do. And, I also think that traditional forms became traditional forms for a reason. In becoming traditional, of course, they became overplayed, hackneyed, beaten on by lesser interpreters, sold to muzak and drilled into our ears until "All the things you are" inflicts pain. Yet, a composer/performer as outstanding as Mr. Towner chooses to include "Come rain or come shine" and "My man's gone now" (12-string!) on his latest. Why?

Standards are standards because they are great songs, and attract great performers. So many, in fact, that finding the great performance needle in such a large haystack is tantamount to ... uh ... well, it's really hard to do.

I find myself pulled by several different purities. Some purities are contradictory (Eno's Discreet Music vs. Johnny Mac's Between Nothingness and Eternity) and cannot be simultaneously served. We tend to experience musical performances in two venues: live and recorded. Different musical interests of mine -- purities which pull me -- are best experienced in one of the two. I mean, Discreet Music live would be dull dull dull; and, other musics are meant to be imbibed in the moment, person to person. I don't fault the bluegrassers for insisting on a particular format for their live performances -- even though I'm not pulled by the idealized bluegrass trip.

But, excellent points about the intoxicating effects of playing killer acoustic instruments. THAT'S something that has to be experienced individually! If I'm holding the box and feeling it vibrate and decay, I'm in bliss at a rate of 10 notes per hour; Listening to Will Ackermann do it is fun for about five minutes.

Some things just shouldn't be recorded -- NOT because they're bad, but because so much is lost.

Anyhoo, great post. Gotta go.