Music

The Kids’ Tunes Are Alright

new music

I’ve been playing a metric crap-ton of the new Harmonix/Hasbro musical card game DropMix recently, which has had the unexpected effect of starting more conversations about music than I can remember having in a long, long time. And a lot of them have been great discussions about key and tempo and genre and the common threads that wind through the totality of popular music. Far too many of these conversations, though, have boiled down to one curmudgeonly premise: That no good music has been made since X, with X being the year of the curmudgeon in question’s birth plus 25 years (give or take half a decade).

 

Look, I get it. I do. Much as I love Andrew Bird and Sarah Jarosz and Bleachers and all manner of modern musical artists, they don’t have quite the same emotional impact on me as do Nirvana and 10,000 Maniacs and Guns N’ Roses. And the reason they don’t mostly boils down to one major difference: I wasn’t listening to The Mysterious Production of Eggs when I did my first load of laundry in my own apartment, or Song Up in Her Head the first time I got laid, or Don’t Take the Money when I was learning how to drive.

 

The thing is, these curmudgeons know deep down that they’re full of it. Because every time I come back with, “But have you even heard the new Sleater-Kinney album? Or Mates of State’s new jam?” they invariably roll their eyes at me, as if to say, yeah, look, I realize there’s some good music these days, but most of it sucks.

Here’s my reply to that: Most music has always sucked. Want to play a fun game? Think of your favorite year for new music. 1968 just happens to be mine, despite the fact that I wasn’t born yet. It’s the year that gave us Electric Ladyland and “Mrs. Robinson.” It’s the year of The White Album and Waiting for the Sun and CCR’s eponymous first effort. In ’68, we got Music from Big Pink and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” Janis Joplin belted out “Piece of My Heart” and Cream burned down the house with “White Room.” The No. 1 song of the year was “Hey Jude,” for goodness’ sake.

 

You know what No. 2 was? “Love Is Blue” by Paul Mauriat. Yeah, no, I don’t have a clue, either. Venture out of the safe territory of the Top 25 tracks for 1968 and most of it’s just utter garbage, aside from a handful of gems like “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Magic Carpet Ride.” And again, this is the year I uphold as the single finest in pop-music history. Fast-forward to the late ‘80s and early ‘90s—my formative years—and the situation is far direr.

 

The thing is, we don’t remember the stinkers, do we? We put the best of our youth up on a pedestal and imagine them to be representative of the music we grew up with. And here’s the thing: Your kids and grandkids will do the same. If you think a bunch of old folks are going to be sitting around their retirement communities in the year 2073, rocking their walkers to “24K Magic” by Bruno Mars, I want some of whatever it is you’re smoking.

You want to discover the music being made today that’s really worth listening to? Grab your twentysomething son or daughter or niece or grandkid, go on a road trip, and take turns picking the tunes. You’ll quickly learn what they dig, and you’ll be able to share music from your youth that resonates with them. And they’ll return the favor.

Road trips with my daughter have turned me onto some righteously awesome new tunes and artists, running the gamut from Alexi Murdoch to Rae Morris to Little Jackie to the Lumineers. And spending that time with her listening to all of that music rewired my brain in the same way the best music of my youth did. To the same degree? Of course not. Nostalgia is a hell of a drug. But ask me again in another twenty years, and I think it’s a pretty safe bet to say that Alexi Murdoch’s “Orange Sky” is going to resonate with me just as much as the Breeders’ “Cannonball” does now.

—Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including
high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of
Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound
American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

The Lost Art of Album Listening

album listening

I have a confession to make: I can no longer listen to an entire album in one sitting. I can binge-watch an entire season of Game of Thrones over a weekend, but I can’t devote 60 to 75 minutes of real concentration to absorb the latest creation from a favored musical artist. I get maybe six or seven songs in, then I just tune out. The music may still be playing, but my brain ain’t listening.

 

I would not call myself an audiophile, but I’m definitely a music junkie. For me, music is an indispensable part of each and every day—when I’m driving in the car, working at my desk, going for my daily walk, or making dinner. Music is always playing. The thing is, that music is always in the form of a playlist. I almost never listen to complete albums anymore, even my most treasured faves.

 

I’ve always been a playlist kind of gal, dating back to the days when playlists were called mix tapes. Oh, could I make a mean mix tape. The hours spent picking a theme, agonizing over song selection, and then arranging the songs just right to ensure that minimal time was left at the end of each side of the tape. Give me a mix tape that cut off part of a song, and I would think less of you as a human being. But there was a balance between my love of mix tapes and my love of albums. How do you think I found all the songs to mix?

 

Mix tapes evolved into CD mixes, which evolved into iTunes playlists, which evolved into Pandora artist-inspired radio stations, which evolved into curated playlists from Apple, Amazon, or Tidal. The ease of playlist listening, combined with the ability to buy just one song off any album, has simply removed “the album experience” from my repertoire . . . apparently to the point that I can’t even do it when I want to.

album listening

This became painfully obvious when I recently picked up U2’s latest album, Songs of Experience. We’re talking about my all-time favorite band here, and I was determined to sit down and really absorb the album from start to finish. Didn’t happen. Got distracted. The snarky response is that perhaps the album just isn’t good enough to merit my full attention, but how can I even make a fair assessment without one serious listen? Believe it or not, Achtung Baby didn’t jump out at me at first, and now it’s my favorite U2 album, start to finish.

 

It seems there is no “start to finish” anymore. I wonder, if I forced myself to use nothing but a CD player—to ban iTunes and all streaming music services—for six months, could my love of album listening be revived? Or are the days of sitting in front of the record player, reading liner notes, and learning lyrics far behind me? I could say I don’t have time for such indulgences, but the hard truth is that I don’t make time for it. I don’t give music the attention it deserves anymore.

 

As for liner notes, who can even read the text in CD packaging these days? Maybe that’s the real reason for vinyl’s resurgence—it’s not the sound quality, it’s the larger print.

    —Adrienne Maxwell

Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer
than she’s willing to admit. She is currently the managing editor and video specialist
at HomeTheaterReview.com. Adrienne lives in Colorado, where she spends far too
much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough time being in them.

The Avalanches on Vinyl–Why?!

Mention The Avalanches and you’ll usually get a blank stare in returnwhich always surprises the hell out of me because they had big hits in 2001 with “Since I Left You” and “Frontier Psychiatrist,” and their videos have millions of views. But more importantly, they reinvented pop.

 

I’m not saying they were the first to explore this territoryfar from it. Appropriation has been rampant in the avant-garde ever since reel-to-reel recorders, it entered the mainstream in the ‘80s, and bands like the Beastie Boysa key influence on The Avalanchesand Propellerheads made it part of the lingua franca.

 

But The Avalanches changed everything by not just sampling in a certain way at a certain timethey did it by sampling everything, all the time. And that might help explain why they, like Propellerheads, were kind of a one-album wonder. (They released a second album, Wildflower, last year, but their genius is really contained in their first album, Since I Left You.)

 

What makes their work sublime is that they’re both completely self-conscious and utterly unself-conscious at the same time. The “Since I Left You” track works so seamlessly as a seemingly fluffy retro pop song that most people probably don’t know it’s almost completely made up of samples. And that speaks to an extraordinary amount of effort and taste and talent.

But once you’re aware of the origins of the various sounds and songs, that almost everything on Since I Left You comes from somewhere else, that really the only thing original about it is the way the bandRobbie Chater and Darren Saltmann, reallybrought those existing pieces together, it becomes a completely different experience. And, yes, I’m being ironic when I say “really the only thing original” because an astounding amount of creativity went into crafting these tracks, and a lot of the samples are so heavily manipulated you’d probably never recognize them in their original form.

 

But that’s a big part of the album’s deadly serious playfulness, retaining the essence of what is, for the most part, some pretty trivial raw material while transmuting it into something that becomes an essential part of a radically different whole.

 

The greatest thing about Since I Left You is that it troubles notions of creativity and originality in very fundamental wayswhich both does and doesn’t lead to what I really wanted to talk about here: What does it mean to listen to Since I Left You on vinyl?

 

Unless I’m missing something (which is completely possible), the whole point behind the vinyl revivalor renaissance or backlash, or whatever you want to call itis to assert vinyl’s superiority over digital media. Simply put, that’s nothing but bullcrap because most people don’t have good enough equipmentor, if they do, it’s usually set up in a way that compromises the sound qualityto tell the difference.

 

The so-called revival is really just a vaguely elitist fadand a preference for coloration (a supposedly warmer sound) over authenticity. And boy does that open up a huge can of worms.

the avalanches since I left you vinyl

Since I Left You was reissued earlier this year as a two-LP gatefold, including a limited-release colored-vinyl version. So what are you actually hearing on those LPs? What nuances can vinyl reveal that digital media can’t?

 

I mean, we’re talking about an album made up of samples from all kinds of sourcesincluding, inevitably, old recordsall tossed into a vast bouillabaisse that made it virtually impossible to maintain an optimal level of sound quality. Since I Left You is filled with distortionthe kind of stuff that makes hardcore audiophiles want to rally for an old-fashioned album burning. But that distortionwhich sometimes borders on outright muddiness, and is very much deliberateis one of the most beautiful things about this very beautiful record.

 

So, again, when you listen to Since I Left You on vinyl, what are you really hearing? It could be argued that it’s still an audiophile experience because the vinyl could have greater fidelity than the CDbut faithful to what? It can’t possibly be to any kind of absolute sound, because that wasn’t relevant to the album’s creation, so I guess it’s to all that distortionand the pops, hiss, and sometimes questionable engineering in the sampled tracks, and to everything else that represents the antithesis of audiophile dogma.

 

Which might be why I love it so muchboth the original CD and the recent LPbecause it makes a mockery of all these sacred cows, not viciously, but by doing something really transgressive with wit and a deft touch, and a genuine love for the source material.

 

So if you cue up Since I Left You on your turntable, you can’t be listening to it for any kind of traditional notion of fidelityunless you’re deeply deluded. If you do prefer it to digital, it has to be because of a coloration, because of something that goes completely against the grain of the “vinyl’s better” battle cry.

 

You’re preferring it just because it sounds warmerin other words, because it creates the illusion of comfort in a very cold world. Which means you’re just trying to crawl back into the womb.

—Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and
now this.

Keep It Clean! Record Care 101

If you keep your vinyl and stylus clean, you’ll be able to enjoy your records for many, many playings.

 

Keep the dust, dirt, oil, and sweat from your fingerprints, along with other contaminants, away from the record surface. Always handle records by the edgesnever grab them by the surface! Whenever I see somebody do that in a TV show or movie, I cringe.  (Guess the producers didn’t do their homework.)

 

After you put records back in their sleeves, put the sleeve into the album cover with the sleeve’s opening facing up, not with it facing to the right, aligned with the opening of the cover. I realize it’s easier to pull the record out if you don’t have to remove the sleeve from the cover, but doing it right will protect your LPs from dust and other schmutz. And storing records “sleeve up” keeps them from accidentally falling out.

 

Store your albums vertically, never laying one on top of another, which makes them susceptible to warping. And never pile bare records on top of each other. They’ll scratch and go from mint to mauled in no time.

 

Keep records away from extreme heat and humidity. I can’t tell you how many moldy records I’ve found in basements. Never store them in direct sunlight.

 

Before you play a record, clean it off with a record brush. This will remove dust that can cause ticks, pops, and record and stylus wear. (You can brush the record while it’s spinning on the turntable.)

 

Clean your stylus. The dust and contaminants that can accumulate there can cause distortion and even damage the stylus. But don’t use your fingertip! Use a brush specifically designed for stylus cleaning, and use a back-to-front motion to avoid damaging the stylus assembly.

 

If you like to buy used records, and if your budget allows, get a record-cleaning machine. They can be miraculous in transforming dirty click-and-pop-laden LPs into noise-free specimens. If money is tight, buy a record-cleaning kit. You can clean records by hand using various methods, including dishwashing liquid and soft clothsyou have to be careful but it can be done.

 

This post just scratches the surface. (Sorrybad analogy!) Other aspects of record care include replacing worn paper inner sleeves with high-quality sleeves, using anti-static guns and cloths, and investing in electronic stylus cleaners and even ultrasonic record cleaners. More to come!

—Frank Doris

 

—> check out Frank’s turntable setup tips

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

how to clean records

Listening to Vinyl? Then Do It Right

record listening tips

Editor’s Note: For a lot of people, listening to vinyl is the ne plus ultra of the home-entertainment experience,
and since this site is all about finding the best ways to enjoy the best entertainment at home, we’ll be
offering advice on what it takes to make sure you’re getting the best sound possible from your records
& your system.

 

 

What’s not to love about the vinyl renaissance? The inviting sound, the tactile pleasure of handling a record, the cover artwork, the thrill of finding a sought-after album, and the pleasure of building a collection all add to the experience.

 

But you need a turntable that’s set up properly, and a good music system. A poorly set up or poor-quality turntable won’t give you all the sound records have to offer and might even damage themusually because of a crummy stylus and tonearm.

 

And an inadequate music system won’t let you hear records at anywhere near their wonderful bestin the same way watching a movie on your phone can’t beat seeing it on a big screen! You can listen to a turntable through a cheap Bluetooth speaker but you won’t get the tonal realism, dynamic impact, stereo imaging, and other sonic attributes you’ll hear out of even a modest system with good speakers.

 

You need to start with a level playing fieldand I mean that literally. The turntable needs to be level so the arm can properly track the record from beginning to end without wanting to “skate” from one end to the other.

 

The cartridge needs to be mounted and set up correctly. The tracking forceor the pressure of the stylus in the groovecan’t be too light or too heavy. And the geometric alignment of the cartridge has to be right in all three dimensions.

 

If all that sounds daunting, the good news is that many turntables come with the cartridge already set up, or might require just a couple of simple adjustments (usually tracking force and anti-skating). Or, your dealer or other specialist can set it up for you. But you might want to learn how to do it yourselftweaking your turntable to perfection is something many aficionados will tell you is supremely rewarding.

 

But not as rewarding as listening to your vinyl on a good, properly set-up turntable and system. It’s astounding how much music is engraved into those record groovesand how captivating and real a good record can sound.

Frank Doris

—> check out “Thoughts on the Vinyl Revival”

 

Disclaimer: Frank Doris handles U.S. public relations for Audio-Technica, a manufacturer of turntables, phono cartridges, and other products, and for high-end turntable manufacturer Spiral Groove. All opinions are his own.

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s been involved in audio 
& music for most of his life
and is a professional guitarist.

Bring Out Your Dead: Thoughts on the Vinyl Revival

The Vinyl Revival

All of us at The Absolute Sound who worked like mad to keep vinyl alive after the mainstream had officially declared it dead bear some responsibility for this travesty called The Vinyl Revival. The simple truth is that those who choose the right gear in the right combination and connect and calibrate it correctly and put it in the right space in the right way and continually maintain and finetune and tweak what they have can arguably experience a sonic benefit that could be just as convincingly attributed to subjective bias.

 

That would pertain, generously, to a small fraction of the hipsters who now bow down before vinyl like it will somehow save their pudgy souls. The other simple truth is that the vast majority would get better sound out of a cheap and easy to maintain all-digital rig than from the pricey, and laughably configured, setups they’re using to play their expensive virgin pressings on.

 

Like the rest of hipster culture, the vinyl thing is just another empty gesture borrowed from the past and embraced because it’s known and safe but has the aura of being vaguely transgressive. And, like everything else hipsters touch, they’re driving a stake through its heart by trying to keep it alive, taking something valid—for those who know its value—and turning it into a silly, affected joke.

 

We TAS staffers from vinyl’s darkest days did a great job of bringing LPs and tubes back from the dead. But they now exist almost solely to feed a vast army of zombie poseurs. Being more responsible for all that than we’d probably like to admit, the big question now is: What are we going to do about it?

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and
now this.