Category Archives: Lists

Great Bedroom Recordings

“I like to believe I do art because I have to do it—it’s like vomit.”
Willis Earl Beal, Credit: Michael Boyd / Chicago Reader

That’s Willis Earl Beal, this guy in Chicago who’s about to release his first album on XL Imprint Hot Charity in April.  He has an intense outsider sort of backstory (you know you’ve hit the obscurity jackpot when your first big exposure comes in Found magazine). He doesn’t even  have a Bandcamp or Soundcloud (!), and what has surfaced of his recordings sounds sounds like long-lost practice tapes with clanky percussion and waterlogged guitars.  It’s awesome, and for anyone who’s spent hours huddled around tape recorders or laptop mics  just happy to get stuff down on tape before it vanishes into thin air, it’s like a siren call from the past — when expectations were low, magic happened in real time instead of being wrestled from DAW editing tools, and things were real.  

It brings up a long obsession for lots of us with busted up recordings so gnarly they seem like they can’t be lying.

There’s a certain moment in life when a listener is suddenly fine with hearing shitty audio quality.  For most of our formative years, we spend the days listening to what’s on the radio, at the club, drifting through TV shows, blasting durin movies, whatever. We get used to the idea that the results of super expensive methods of recording are the standard for how to hear things.

Eventually, you get to hear something some talentless soul recorded on his or her own.  This is easy now that anyone can put up any recording they feel like all over the internet but, even in the prehistoric days, we all had tape recorders growing up and our parents had big reel-to-reel doo-dads before that.  Eventually you were exposed to it, and the first time you heard it I think we can agree that you probably hated it.

It sounds really bad.  It gets all fuzzy on the loud parts and blows out the speaker and these unexplained ghost waves of dissonance trail the held out notes.  Bands are even worse, usually coming across as a racket so smeared and useless that no right-minded person would sit through more than 30 seconds of it.

But step onto the other side of this equation and it’s like putting on Roddy Piper’s magic Ray-Bans. Once you’ve recorded yourself in the garage – once you’ve been behind the scenes – you know that terrible washing sound is the cymbals.  The warbled moan is the artifact of what seemed like a captivating singer at the time.  It all makes sense. You listen to it over and over.  It’s one of the most exciting things ever.   You put it on your shelf next to a dubbed Guns’n’Roses tape and don’t even bat an eye.

I was in a band that did this, of course.  We recorded onto an old cassette deck. For vocals, we figured out that we could plug an old pair of ‘70s headphones into a keyboard amp and yell into them.  We recorded ten songs. We brought them to a friend who was a drummer and played the tape for him and he looked at us in horror.  “I don’t even know where the drum beat is in this,” he said.  I was baffled.

In any case, it’s an acquired taste, but it doesn’t go away. It’s like learning how to ride a bike, with broken brake cables.  And so you move on bravely equipped to pick up people’s bad demos, practice recordings, and bootleg live tapes and parse them for treasures the way mycologists dig around in dank woods teeming with rabid grizzly bears for choice mushrooms while the rest of us are fine with the dealies in the Styrofoam trays.

This was just news on CNN:  scientists cleaned up what is possibly the oldest audio recording ever, made in 1878 by a French scientist named Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville on a thing called “the phonautogram.”   On it, he’s singing “Clair de lune” in what sounds like an extremely depressed stupor, but who knows.  The recording is muddy and scratchy and barely decipherable and amazing.  In all of his research and fundraising and engineering while believing he was doing one of the most high-tech things ever, Scott de Martinville basically made the world’s first lo-fi single.

Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville – Claire de Lune

There’s been a lot written about “lo-fi” as a genre, mostly since Lou Barlow started kicking it (about 115 years later) with a four-track in some Northampton apartment and Robert Pollard stumbled toward a boozy record button in Dayton.  But in its essence, talking about this method (or lack of method) in the greater context of stuff flying around the internet can drain what’s cool from it.  And that is: shitty recordings serve a great, unfathomable, and maybe even holy purpose that (hopefully now) goes beyond getting stuff up on a Tumblr as fast as possible.

In charting the waters of great, poorly recorded music, you’d have to make two categories — those that make straight ahead attempts to record a single, honest performance (think the lifelong catalog of Jandek or maybe a weird uncle of yours), and those that flail about with tape-cutting and handfisted multi-tracking like a punk making flyers out of safety scissors and Scotch tape. Both can rule, both can sound hamfisted and corny. The first category probably yields the most nostalgic examples.

Daniel Johnston – Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Your Grievances

Daniel Johnston is the classic example and still maybe the best.  Hopefully you’ve seen the Devil and Daniel Johnston documentary, which is my favorite music film ever. Johnston made tapes one at a time on a pump organ (later guitar) in his house in Austin.  The tape recorder would sit on the top of the organ and Johnston would sing and play right into it.  On the recording, pretty much the loudest thing was the actual percussive sound of the keys getting punched over and over.  I mean it doesn’t sound very good and good luck listening to this in a car, but Johnston is too charming to not love it. His weird version of mental unbalance and honest, earnest songwriting make this stuff essential. The feeling is that he made the tape just for you (in some cases he did – stories go that he’d sometimes run out of copies to dub and would just record the whole thing again in the earliest days).

The Mountain Goats – Maize Stalk Drinking Blood

John Darnielle followed in those footsteps in the first long phase of the Mountain Goats, churning out piles of boombox dispatches from bedrooms in the late ‘90s.  Darnielle was no Daniel Johnston – he writes tense, skittish songs packed with dense, self-aware lyrics with literary allusions and obscure proper nouns. He doesn’t have quite as much of that mad genius thing going that lends itself so much to this kind of . . . format.  Still, the overall tinny blastedness of hearing Darnielle blaze through emotional manifestos over a beat-up acoustic guitar there in cassette tape oblivion is pretty a righteous experience.  He eventually developed a career out of it and started making decent-sounding recordings that weren’t as memorable, but not really any worse.  He could afford it, they sounded fine, why not?

Frank Black is a guy who’s not really ever championed lo-fi approaches to things – just check the admittedly lame-sounding gated drums on most of the Pixies albums, ouch – but he has had a pretty can-do attitude about covering everything in a song by himself.  My first live-streaming video experience is watching Frank do a low-rent web interview through AOL where he broke a string and looked into the camera and remarked, “Can you imagine a parent walking in  their kid staring at this right now?  Some guy in bad lighting fixing his guitar string?  They’re probably horrified.” Check this very old TV interview where he shows off his contentedness to just hum the lead guitar parts while Joey Santiago is off doing who knows what. Probably wasn’t even told about the interview.

When the Pixies reformed early on last decade,  someone at SpinArt (or Frank himself) had the sweet idea of releasing all the solo acoustic drafts of what would become the first three Pixies album that Frank recorded in 1986. He did it like that video — all alone in a room (right in my old neighborhood of Allston!) with a guitar and himself howling guitar parts and bass parts, sometimes giving little asides.  It’s kind of thrilling to hear, only the mastering dude put some quite cheesy reverb on the whole for I don’t know what purpose. Are we fooled into thinking a recording is more polished if it sounds as if it were dropped into a fake cave?  It would have been pretty magical, documentary-style finding is kind of turned into one of those blurry-vision dramatization segments out of Unsolved Mysteries.  Frank probably wouldn’t mind that comparison, actually. (This isn’t up on the internet for whatever reason)

On the other side lies knob-twiddling, button-mashing, sputtering-mic cable type of records typified by Sebadoh. Sebadoh III is kind of the classic, but my own personal benchmark for this approach, I guess, is that opium warped mess of John Frusciante’s Niandra Ladies and Usually Just a T-Shirt.

The idea with this record (and which might be more romanticized than the real thing) is that it’s a bunch of garbled four-track recordings he released after leaving the Chili Peppers and getting strung out on heroin.  That’s the story that usually gets handed along to you if you have a friend force this one on you, like I did, and when you listen to the thing, it’s hard not to believe it:

John Frusciante – Head (Beach Arab)

This record slays, although its insanity is probably due a bit more to Frusciante’s conscious decisions about recording — guitars probably straight in, no effects other than that delay pedal and maybe some toying with the Tape Speed controls (though who am I to say?) — and he’s gone on record as saying most of this stuff was recorded before he even left the band.  Right after Blood Sugar Sex Magik was recorded, actually.  So maybe the connection to any drug-fueled turmoil isn’t even that authentic, which is kind of a let-down (but also kind of a win for artistic expression, right)? In the end, the record channels some gut level stuff anyway.

Then there’s kind of the best stuff — unearthed working demos. This is stuff that people were never meant to hear anyway, and it seems like there are often all kinds of weird glimpses into creative process and emotions that went into the creation through these.  The Beatles obviously sold boatloads of this kind of thing when they put out those Anthologies in the ’90s, despite the fact that it’s hard to imagine most people sitting around jamming to three unfinished takes in a row of “Strawberry Fields Forever.”

PJ Harvey released her 4-Track Demos as the clamor over Rid of Me was dying down and her band had broken up. It was pretty rad — self-recorded versions of the same stuff from Rid of Me with a few bonuses – and some critics were even into it more than the real deal. Or maybe this was the real deal. I don’t know.  It’s possibly the only time Steve Albini, who recorded the studio version, has ever been accused of overproducing anything.

PJ Harvey – Reeling (4-Track Demos)

Another good example is the nasty-sound collection of demos that surfaced in the early ’90s for Tom Waits’s Alice project, which at that point was only known as a musical going down in German which no one in America would ever see.  Who knows what kind of backstabbing ninja studio work went into sneaking this out the bootleggers of the time, but here it is.  In this particularly rough one, it basically sounds like some rough instrumental rhythm work was laid down and then Tom took a tape recorder along in his car while he made up words on the spot.

Tom Waits – What Became Of Old Father Craft

Basically, it’s great.

A question for now is: where are our true lo-fi, diamond in the rough recordings?  There are tons of badly produced homespun stuff out there now, graduating from MySpace pages to SoundClouds and Bandcamps everywhere and burstin from the remains of the Altered Zones blog like pesky allergens. WAVVES nailed the fried 4-track sound right out of the gates, but even then it sort of sounds affected (not exactly in a bad way, but not in a “Gee, this was made just for me” way, either). Ditto like everything else (first Grizzly Bear record, early Ariel Pink, Times New Viking, Kurt Vile records). Suggestions here are super welcome, by the way.

But then there’s Willis Earl Beal:

Willis Earl Beal – Take Me Away

And you realize that things are still awesome.

But if you need to have some guy come along on a blog and tell you where to find the hot real “authentic” lo-fi stuff, you’re probably not looking very hard.  Convince your friends to record themselves making stuff up.  There’s a good chance they don’t know what they’re doing and the whole thing will come off totally honest.  In the end, the entire authenticity of the shitty recording might just have to do with an underdog, ground level feeling similar to when you see a band onstage at a tiny rock club with no soundguy and blown speakers.  Maybe that’s just the fable we like to tell ourselves, but it hits home, right?  There’s a quote attributed to Kim Gordon, who’s seen a few lifetimes’ worth of dumpy shows, that goes something like , “When we go to rock concerts, we pay to see people believing in themselves.”  We want to believe the people making records like this — like Johnston, like Willis, like Jandek — are doing it because they have no other choice. What we’re buying into is a good old sense of duty, maybe some desperation, and maybe a just little faith in themselves.

(Note to self and exhausted readers wondering what was the point — these posts should not be this long in the future).

Dueling Basses

We’re pretty well acquainted with how bands make the most of two guitar lineups: rhythm supporting lead, riffs working against atmosphere, outright doubling, etc. In the last couple of years, a number of tracks have caught my ear that have me hoping we’re seeing a less familiar guitar trend catch on: dueling basses.

Of Montreal uses two basses regularly enough to tour with two bass players–it’s not just a recording trick. Sometimes one deep bass carries a more traditional line while another trebly bass adds a percussive motion to the arrangement. Hard evidence is the best: Around the 1:00 mark of this appearance on Letterman, we see one playing a bouncy melody high on the neck while the other rides a steadier rhythm in a lower register.

Elsewhere in that song, they remain in the same range, playing counterpoint lines. Here’s a clearer recording of the approach from one of my favorite Of Montreal songs, “Bunny Ain’t No Kind of Rider.”

Of Montreal – Bunny Ain’t No Kind of Rider

In the intro, the basses play little harmony licks to set the pace. During the verses, one bass leads the way panned center. But when the chorus breakdown arrives, two basses are now panned opposite each other, their harmony carrying the progression until the full arrangement returns. It’s a fun character that might be accomplished more often with keyboards than basses. But why put those Rickenbackers to waste? Of Montreal mastermind Kevin Barnes is such a diabolical composer, it’s no wonder he’s leading the charge with this technique–it’s yet another way to further conjure his music’s fractured psyche.

Shall we talk about panning some more? It’s common practice on recordings to use two takes of the same guitar part simultaneously, panning one to the right and one to the left. It fills out the sound and helps define the stereo field. On the other hand, because low frequencies need more energy to be propagated, recording engineers typically pan basses and kick drums dead center, so that the work is split between two speakers. All over Spoon‘s most recent album, Transference, the wily recordists in the band subvert that wisdom, doubling bass parts and panning each far opposite the other.

Spoon – Nobody Gets Me But You

Hard evidence is only the best when it’s still available–apparently the great performance of this song on Jimmy Fallon with The Roots‘s rhythm section playing along has been eradicated from the internet. But you get the gist. It’s crystal clear through headphones. We have two unique performances of the same part in the same song with the same instrument, which isn’t that unusual…except when it’s the bass guitar. It’s particularly ear-catching for long-time Spoon fans because it inverts the formula they began with: Britt Daniel’s guitar and Jim Eno’s drums. Instead, a distant, thin guitar deep in our left ear jangles away as if it’s just playing along with someone else’s recording, and a drum machine leads the way while overdubbed live drum patterns appear mostly just to ratchet up the energy here and there. All the while the parallel bass sandwiches the track along. Over the years, Spoon have gone from giving the bass a very small role to making it the key element in their ever-sparser arrangements. As a melodic rhythm instrument, it frees the guitar and drums to interpret more. “Nobody Gets Me But You” takes the shift to a new extreme, magnifying what they highlighted in Gimme Fiction‘s “I Turn My Camera On” with a sly wink from Daniel’s lyrics: “Do you get me?”

Deserved Grammy nominee Bon Iver is far more known for folkloric acoustic guitars and indie autotune than for his work in the rhythm section. On his lo-fi contribution to the two-disc compilation, Dark Was the Night, Justin Vernon serves up a track composed nearly entirely on the bass guitar.

Bon Iver – Brackett, WI

The bass arrangement on this gorgeous and obtusely timed song hybridizes the two approaches above. The basses, in a higher register, panned far opposite each other, define the progression with their harmonies. And while Justin Vernon works his sublime lyrics with that choirized falsetto, he points to his centerpiece instruments with the chorus’ clearest words. Digging low along the edges of the sound, tapping along the mathematical pattern under passing scenes and somber memories, the pair of basses are suddenly sucked out and replaced by tense acoustic guitars for the confessional reveal: “So I’m counting on your fingers ’cause you’ve reattached the twitch. And if you want opinion, I will die along the ditches.” Que suave.