Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Danger: Music Overload

Last night after I got into the car, Bill Mallonee came on the ipod (the classic, hardwired into our Prius's sound system), and I thought to myself, "Wow, I love this CD. This guy is great." Then I realized I had hardly played it, could recite not a single one of the record's song titles or even the name of the album. Yet, it really is a terrific CD. Mallonee has been around a long time, and his music -- which sounds a bit like Neil Young's when he's playing with Crazy Horse -- is worth checking out.

This pointed up a problem for which I have no answer, and I wonder whether other BW readers have the same frustration.

When I was growing up on Long Island and dreaming of getting out of that hellhole (How bad was it? A serial killer lived on our block, and he wasn't the worst person I met up with.) we'd hear new music over two or three primary sources. There was WABC for the top ten; WNEW for cool FM type stuff - The Band, Rolling Stones, Who, etc.) and to a lesser extent WLIR. Starting in 1970 or '71, WCBS went to an oldies format but that served to introduce me to the wonders of  doowop and early rock, which was pretty cool.

If I heard something that I, my friends and Pete Fornatale liked (and Pete played Poco all day along, which was fine with me), I would save my money for a few weeks, and when I finally had the $3.89, I would get on my bike and ride to Modell's, which had a pretty decent record department (as did Korvettes, but for that I had to depend on my mother to drive me) and would pick up the new Poco, or James Taylor or maybe Abbey Road. The Who's "Tommy" was a big deal, not only because it was a great album but because it was a double album, and it took twice as long to horde my allowance before I could afford it.

First, you had to hope that Modell's would have a copy. If so, I'd grab it from the bin (even though I knew maybe one or two songs from it), pay for it, then hang the record from the handlebars of my bike, and now hope against hope that when I got it home and took the plastic off the record, it wasn't too warped to play. This was a real problem then. Your heart would sink if  you put it on the turntable, looked at it from eye level and saw it rising and falling like a merry-go--round horse. If so, it was get on the bike again to Modell's and get another. and prayed it didn't happen again. It happened a lot. No wonder I had strong legs in those days. I owe my years as a marathoner to cheap vinyl.

Sometimes the records were not only warped but they would all skip in the same place. The trick was to tape a penny to the arm of the record player. Sometimes it worked, if not, it was back to Modell's. Unfortunately, every one of their copies of "Sweet Baby James" skipped. I must have bought five until I finally gave up. To this day, I cannot hear Taylor's "Blossom" without waiting for the skip that would inevitably come halfway through it: "Blossomskipsunshineskipwayskiplonesome."

But here's the thing, I'd listen to Abbey Road or Sweet Baby James almost exclusively for a month. I'd not only learn every skip but every breath that Taylor took; every fill by the musicians, all the intros and outros. It wasn't long before I had the entire album memorized. Only then would I start saving my dimes and quarters to buy my next album.

Here's how it goes now: I get up in the morning, I read through several blogs (including this one), I got through Ray Gianchetti's terrific Powerpop newsletter. I read several reviews. Then I turn on Spotify and listen and save what I liked. I might even download a few new records, and if I like them, I buy them on Amazon or itunes or Bandcamp or directly from the artist (my favorite way). Soon in a week, there might be twenty new records, all of which, like Bill Mallonee's I think are terrific, few of which I really get into, and as a result some of the best music I've ever heard gets continually buried on my hard drive.

Is this progress? I don't think so. On the one hand there is just so much great music out there, much more than there ever was back then when I was a kid, but it's also overwhelming.

What to do about it? I have no idea. Collect the stuff and just listen one at a time for a long time like I used to? I'm 58. By the time I get to a month's worth of new stuff, I'll have Alzheimers.

This raises a few questions I'd like to pose: Do you feel the same about this? What do you do about it? Or if not, why not? And then, because I've become an addict, what are your sources for learning about new music? Blogs, and if so which ones? Does anyone actually listen to the radio anymore? I occasionally listen to WFUV by streaming it out here in Portland, but it's mostly for nostalgia's sake rather than to learn what Darren DeVivo is recommending these days.

Finally, before I go, let me leave you with some music by the guy who started all this, Bill Mallonee. This is the title song from his 2012 album Amber Waves.

Oh, but then I should queue up Ruth Moody's terrific version of "Dancing in the Dark." Damn, but what about the new Fleetwood Mac or Live Jerry Lee. Seasick Steve, The Lemon Clocks. Oh, Joscho Stephan!

See the problem?


Troy said...

Great post and great topic. I, too, have great memories of riding my bike to record stores to pick up that just-gotta-have-it album or 45 (I bought a lot of singles back then). And I remember the anxiety over the warped or skipping album. To this day, in my head I still hear the skips in the first 45 seconds of the song 'Angel' by Fleetwood Mac (Tusk, side 3, first song) even as I listen to the remastered CD. In a strange way, it endears me to the song even more.

You summed up really well what I have been trying to figure out more and more recently. I used to go so deep into the albums I'd buy, I knew every note. Practically wore out copies of albums like Tusk, Who Are You, Born to Run, Peter Gabriel Plays Live, and Damn the Torpedoes, to name a few. Now everything feels so scattershot, I'm just grabbing a bit of this followed by a bit of that, almost all of it digital, some of it memorable, some of it almost instantly forgettable. And then there's my iPod: currently at 9,405 songs, half of which I probably only listened to once or twice since loading them. Hell, I just realized I've got 284 songs by Big Country (!) on there. How did that happen? I feel like I used to be a scuba diver of music, going deep into the depths to uncover amazing treasures; now I feel like I'm in a motor boat, zipping along the surface and occasionally looking down into the water - - hey, is that a stingray? cool! - - before my attention wanders elsewhere. But what I've noticed is that a lot of those old albums and songs still have a strong pull on me, and listening to them is as satisfying as ever.

I guess the bottom line is that there are definitely some albums and songs that are embedded on my soul, and then there's a lot of stuff that passes my way and gives me some momentary diversion & pleasure. And that's probably ok.

jeff said...

exactly, except you put it a lot better than I did: "a scuba diver of music." love it.

Sal Nunziato said...

It's all become too easy to make, release and get music. An artist used to work for it. A record buyer, too. Now a few strokes on a keypad and voila, you have 284 Big Country tunes on your iPod.

I'm just as guilty. Only recently heard the Paul Williams tune Someday Man. Loved it so much I immediately acquired 7 more PW records. Took an hour. Of course, I only listened to one and moved on.

And now I must play the cranky card. Music back then was better. Plain and simple. We remember every note and guitar flourish because there was something to remember. All due respect to the youngsters but "fine" is just going to cut it. And "fine" is how I describe most new music. "Yeah it's fine" that's why I make one pass then move on.

Sal Nunziato said...

That should read "not going to cut it"

jeff said...

How did he get free?

I agree. I think music was better then. someone needs to write a book about the music of 1969. Think about the bands and artists who were at their peak then. It's astonishing.

There were fewer record companies. They signed fewer artists and released fewer albums that were heard on much fewer outlets, but while I doubt I'll hear anything as good as The Band's brown album again or Tommy or Abbey Road, I'm glad there is more music out there, because so much of it is still damned great and it would never have been heard in the old days. I suppose I can listen to Sweet Baby James every day again but I don't want to. I have a feeling though if I only had a few cents and went out to buy Blue Rodeo's "Five Days in July" or Shelby Lynne's breakthrough record, I'd be pretty happy. Are either one the first CSN, nope? But great music nonetheless. I'm sure there are more out there but I'm either missing them or not giving them the time to grow on me.

buzzbabyjesus said...

Me and my bike made many trips up the hill to Licorice Pizza. If I didn't like a record I'd warp it over a burner on the stove. Then I'd return it and get something else. Sometime this required hiding the other copies.

I've always needed a steady diet of new music. "Close To The Edge" caused me to follow Bill Bruford to King Crimson, and then John Wetton led me back to Family. And so on.

The downside of digging deep is knowing something too well. A lot of that stuff, like the Beatles, I can't really listen to anymore.

Every once in a while something comes along I'll allow myself to play to death. Last time was Los Lobos "Colossal Head". I haven't played it since.

A late '70's an article in Stereo Review claimed that a record began to noticeably degrade after 8 plays. When I brought something home, if it started off well, I tape it the first play, and then listen to the cassette forever afterward.

These days I download something nearly every day. I have a terabyte of music in an external hard drive.
I hardly ever listen to a whole song, let alone album. Sometimes I just play the first 20-30 seconds of everything thinking I'll save it for later.
I never sit down and listen to anything. I play music while working in my art studio, or the kitchen. Or driving.
More often than not I listen to talk on WNYC. I turn it off when they play music.

I have 4 gigs of music on my phone. Every other week I change it up. There are 19,556 songs in my iTunes, played exclusively in shuffle. When I hear something that stands out, I give it 5 stars. Periodically I'll collect them and make a mix cd for the car, which I'll play about 3 times.
I have Spotify and Pandora accounts I never open.
I horde music because that $3.99 back in the day was so dear, and I tell myself someday I'll eventually get to it.

Anonymous said...

i haven't embraced the technology (it took me a year or two to buy a cd player in the 90's), so i don't have this problem. i rely on the library and some websites (the quietus, pitchfork) to keep in touch with what's new, and to a lesser extent on our local Pacifica station in Houston (which emphasizes roots, folk and blues). At the end of the year, I tell a high school buddy of mine who's now in the software business to make me a disc of my favorites from the past year. last year it was Sonny Landreth, Kaki King, the Mekons, Scott Miller's "Co-Dependents", Sun Kil Moon and Rodney Crowell/Mary Karr. The rest of the time, youtube is my radio station, especially since they instituted the track aggregator and full concert/album uploads.

A walk in the woods said...

This might be your best topic ever, Sal. Because I suspect every one of us reading this - unless there are a couple reading who are in their early 30s or younger - had the same experience.

I too used to save up for every 45, every LP, by cutting grass and dividing the $3 per yard into a collection for comic books and music. That's all that mattered.

I too listened to some albums so many times, so intently, so all-the-way-through, that there's no corrolary in today's experience. Even the recent vinyl resurgence - it's more a fetish than a return to those days. I like vinyl b/c it feels good, it looks good, it's fun to take to vinyl playing parties w/ buddies - but usually I only spin even those new acquisitions more than a few times.

BUT! And here's a big BUT!

I still think 2013 is an absolutely wonderful time to be a music fan. Why? Because of the problem we're decrying here: because it's all out there. So sure, I do not "know" the new Big Country album in 2013 like I would have in 1986.

But - I can easily hear vintage Charley Patton, unknown soul sides via the "Eccentric Soul" releases, 1970s Nigerian pop I never could have heard AT THAT TIME, and the latest bedroom music I'd never have heard any time if not for the Interwebz.

So now, I can follow my muse wherever it leads me - or wherever, seriously, your blog leads me. (You've introduced me to a lot.)

And even though I fill up my iPod with about 100 new songs every single day of the year, and listen to them instead of doing much re-listening.... even with that........ it's still a very fun time to be a music lover.

p.s. all that being said; it sure was cool getting Jefferson Starship's "Earth" for my 10th birthday and absolutely obsessing over it for months afterwards. Thems was sweet times too!

Ken D said...

I feel like such a pipsqueak next to you guys... only about 1,600 iPod tunes. And I still listen to albums. On CD no less. And I can't remember the last time I heard Big Country...
I hope I'm still allowed in here.

And for me, it isn't just music I can't keep up with... when I'm asked why I don't want to join a Facebook group of people I went to high school with, I reply that I've got 20+ things in my Netflix queue, a half dozen books waiting on my nightstand, 50 podcasts to catch up on, the Red Sox are on ESPN, and I've also got to make dinner... (at least I can listen to an album while I'm cooking.) Who has the time to reminisce about chem lab?

And re Sal's cranky card... is it possible that there's as much good music now as ever but there's also so so much more of everything—good, bad, awful, mediocre, "yeah, fine"— that the good is that much harder to find?

Sal Nunziato said...

This is Jeff's topic not mine.

Anonymous said...

You know John Doe discussed this on "Too Many Goddamned Bands" - I think there is a ton of great music right now, but i definitely miss going to Pipe Dreams or Nickleodeon, chatting up the owners and taking a risk on something because the liner notes listed an instrument line up I liked. I remember taking School's Out back three times until the clerk and I realized the title song was supposed to end that way.
Now, even though I chat up two of the three record store owners in town, getting music is more of a solitary vice. It is also more available, so the opportunity to luxuriate through and album is lost with a few exceptions. There is still, however, so much to plow through and that brings other joys.

laiken said...

We have too much music to listen to. It's currently 300 days worth playing 24/7, so even if we listen to music 12 hours a day it would still take five months to hear everything - once. Two suggestions. One, burn a promising new album to CD, and leave it in your car CD player for a long time. Just let it play every time you drive. Two (I use iTunes, but I'm sure other software works the same way), use a rating system to flag promising new music. We usually play our library on random, and when we hear something good (even if just in the sense of "I'd listen to that again"), we mark it with a rating of three stars. When I'm tired of hitting skip during random play, I'll play the smart playlist of songs rated three stars or above. It makes a huge library manageable.

William Repsher said...

I'd put forth that there is very little, if any, great music being made these days. Plenty of good -- more good than I can handle. More good than I have the time to listen to!

But when you say "great" that implies to me music that will transcend decades, generations and genres to be recognized as such for years by many different types of listeners.

These days you tend to get good bands making good music within a given genre. But I just don't hear much greatness aware. Not saying so to be a crank -- it's just true. And I wish it wasn't! There was plenty of great music being made before I was born -- in many cases, centuries before I was born. I don't see this as an "age specific" topic.

I hear very little now that is destined to transcend years, much less a decade, at best. Which is good in terms of pop, which by nature is disposable and completely of its time. But most of that music tends to die with the fan base.

What I see a lot of these days is good music being called great, which only lowers the bar on what true greatness implies. But the same went on in the 50s, 60s and 70s, when there was legitimately great music being made in pop and rock.

William Repsher said...

And I'll see your Ruth Moody Springsteen cover and raise it by a Lauren O'Connell:

Anonymous said...

On an off-topic but related note, I can still hear the click in a song when the 8-track tape changed tracks.

Kodak Ghost said...

All good comments above. I would like to add that I listen to music differently now. “When I was a lad” I bought the LP, brought it home (bus.. no bike!) then listened to it. And I mean listened to it, nothing else. Now I listen to music when I am cooking, driving, cleaning... or on the bus.. All with other distractions.
I also think there are more CDs with “filler” than there used to be. Yes it is easy to record stuff these days, but that doesn’t mean it should be recorded. Artists need a good producer/ quality control. My latest case in point is the Buddy Miller/ Jim Lauderdale. I was really expecting something special. But I got something dashed off in three days… yes, some of it good, but it needed someone to say “ That one just isn’t good enough.” How long did “Rumours” take?... Ok there was a Bolivian/Columbian input … but all the same… polished (over polished?) to perfection.
You also suggest that we should concentrate on just a few albums… but then Street Date is back ( a welcome return.. please note Sal) which gives us several new palettes to colour with and appreciate!
Enough of the rant and back to the music. Never heard of Ruth Moody before, but now have to look her out… oh no more new music…

big bad wolf said...

it is age and the age, i think. today i had two instances that made me think about how i hear and experience things. i listen to shuffle 99.9 percent of the time; i have since i bought an ipod in 2004. the ipod gave me back music; i listen so much more than i did from 87 to 04 when my professional life and the demands of putting on a record a CD reduced me to a collector, someone who bought stuff but rarely listened to it. and yet, the ipod dpoesn't let me hear it most of the time

the first thing that happened today was that joe the lion cam on shuffle and i instantly recognized it. instantly. and i thought i could not recognize a song released after 90 in its first couple notes. even stuff i profess to "love" i need a full intro to recognize.

the other was catching lyrics from mississippi john hurt. i know the songs from today instantly and al the lyrics. but the 1928 sessions, which i know only only the ipod, i dont. and so there i am, agape, at the lyrics to big leg blues. damn. and it might have been 2019 0r 2031 before i actually heard them. quite a bit different from spending the lawn mowing or grocery store or gas pumping money for that one record a week and knowing every damn word.

that old way was better. it mattered more, but i know more now, things i would never have heard even once. i want it both ways