Staying Current (Painful As It May Seem)
July 17, 2010
I suppose I should be grateful to the flabby idiot who tooled around in his Corvette trying to impress girls for about forty thousand too many miles before having his four-wheeled compensation system serviced. If he hadn't tied up the alignment bay at my local tire dealership for six hours today, gamely doing his best to ignore the gradually darkening scowls of the four... excuse me, five... whoops, seven by now... nine.... of all the people lined up behind him waiting to get their much more civilly-treated automobiles looked at, I wouldn't have had the forced opportunity to sit and read magazines in the waiting room for a good chunk of that time.
Waiting-room magazines are fascinating things. They tell you a lot about what the people who run that particular establishment consider important, and what they think their customers will consider important. This tire shop proved very enlightening in a lot of ways, actually; I now know more about next year's baseball hopefuls than I did before, and I can argue the relative merits of Remington vs. Mossberg shotguns in a way I haven't been able to since the last time I did any sport shooting... which was a very long time ago.
But this is a music magazine's blog, and I wanted to talk about the experience of reading a music magazine. Not mine, or a competitor's; a magazine about the music on the radio and Internet right now, with famous names, not-so-famous names, some worthwhile interviews, some much less than worthwhile interviews, and a fair number of thumbnail album writeups chock-full of clever similes and literary tropes I hope I don't use in my own articles. Do people really still talk about "mining the Bob Dylan vein of edgy folk-pop"?
What got me, though, was the experience of learning about artists I hadn't heard of before. In this issue of this magazine, there were probably about fifty writeups, and I'd say I was familiar with the music of the artists in about a third of them, had maybe heard of another third, and was completely new to the rest. That was a refreshing experience, and I jotted down the names of about a half dozen new acts I was intrigued enough to go out and listen to.
Which brings me, in my usual roundabout way, to the point of this blog entry. When was the last time you did that?
Our readership spans a wide range of ages, backgrounds, and musical genres. And as in every other human endeavour, there will be people reading our magazine who eagerly devour any news of new developments in this area over here, but are utterly uninterested in that area over there... or worse yet, actively hate it and call its adherents idiots or worse. It's nowhere near as common as it was, say, ten years ago, but we still do get the occasional letter from someone thanking us for all the hard work we put in reviewing the tools of his or her particular trade, and in the next sentence joking that the only way we could make our magazine better would be to stop wasting page count on... well, you fill in your own blank. Somewhere out there is a kind of music you're convinced the world would be better off without.
As I read through the magazine, I took note of the few bands that were making a point of strongly entrenching themselves in a genre with well-defined boundaries, but saw many more bands that were actively engaged in cross-pollination, even of a tentative and nervous sort. This band here came out of New Jersey, but they avoid being called "Bruce Springsteen clones" because their working-class ballads have a strong punk ethos. That band over there was well-known for its indie-pop aspirations, but seems to be delving into the old rock albums by Brian Eno for inspirations, a sudden turn that left the reviewer cold. And this band here, which became famous for down and dirty R&B, has discovered the work of famous gospel singers and is bringing that vibe to the forefront in a way that engages and excites listeners.
And where styles go, production techniques follow. If you took your average bluegrass player and plunked him down in an experimental recording studio in Berlin or Dusseldorf from thirty years ago, he might well feel like he was on another planet... but if you did the same thing with a modern rap producer, he'd need maybe five minutes to feel right at home. What was the realm of space musicians and krautrockers eventually became the day-to-day tools of the rap and R&B genres, and you can hear some of the echoes of those old pioneers in many of today's hits... even if the kids who produce them don't know where it all came from originally.
Even in the purest of the "pure styles", modern production techniques borrow from other genres in most studios. The engineer mixing a record in Nashville might... might!... insist on a vintage console, a multitrack tape machine (and no, not an ADAT), and doing editing with razor blades and reel-rocking and wax pencil. But for every one of those rooms, there are several (many?) others working with a digital mixer and a computer running modern DAW software, never once worrying about the fact that they're Auto-Tuning vocal performances, comping multiple takes with the click of a mouse, and mixing with moving faders tweaking automation curves, all in software that not too long ago would have been classed as "the MIDI sequencers electronic musicians use for the bleepy bloopy stuff".
The point is, cross-pollination happens, in the writing of music, in its execution, and in its recording and production. When I go to listen to the music of those half-dozen new bands I read about in that waiting room and was intrigued to learn more of, I expect I'll hear at least one cool new trick that will make my own music better, and which I can pass on to my readers. If I dismissed them all as "not my thing", I'd have missed out. It can be hard to listen to a variety of modern music if you really prefer a particular genre to the exclusion of others, or more generally if there are genres you avoid on principle... but the learning experience can be valuable, and who knows? Maybe that emo-shoegaze-triphop-world-beat-jazz-funk album that looks so scary at first glance might actually grow on you.