The same old stuff,
one more time.

By Beppe Colli
July 4, 2005

I have absolutely no problem in admitting that here at Clouds And Clocks the fact of receiving mail never fails to make our day brighter. Especially when we get a letter which kindly accuses me of not stressing enough the horrible sound, due to hyper-compressed mastering, of a CD that I reviewed some time ago. After reading the letter, I immediately decided to open a good bottle to celebrate: it's very rare, in fact, that my attention for this kind of topics - which is usually classified under "mental disorder" - gets to be considered as a legitimate preoccupation.

It's certainly funny to think that, having long abandoned (maybe forever - at least in the field of "popular music") the concept of the "score as ideal", we never developed a widespread critical attention toward sound (with the partial exception, obviously, of those who play). It's true that, on the surface, we pay a lot more attention to sound than ever before; but most of the time it's just empty words that we hear - a fact that puts into question the amount of attention that's paid to music.

The fact that not too many seem to have paid attention to the nice vocal and instrumental elements featured in those albums that Amy X Neuburg and Emily Bezar released last year - Residue and Angels' Abacus - was in a way something to be expected, given their scarce commercial visibility; but it's not really obvious that nobody seemed to notice how much the warm but clear sound of Nellie McKay's debut album, Get Away From Me, contributed to its (artistic) success. Meanwhile, a recent interview with Jared Reynolds that appeared in the USA magazine Bass Player confirmed that a "casual" attitude towards performance, mistakes and all, is not a tiny part of the "old time" appeal of the most recent Ben Folds album, Songs For Silverman.

Not too long ago, while dealing with a series of topics that make me quite worried, talking about the audiences that one finds at most live concerts (and I said: most; it's quite interesting to examine the whys behind the exceptions), I had written of scarce audiences with short attention spans, of people who appeared as not being too sure of the reasons of their presence there, of bad manners. I just got a letter from a friend who recently attended quite a few concerts, very different in terms of style and type of venue. He writes: "Judging from the most recent evidence, I have to confess that recently audiences have got a lot worse. They talk, they shout, they don't pay any attention, they get all excited at the first trace of a 'lively' rhythm, then after fifteen minutes they start losing interest. End-of-concert opinions are never backed by any real arguments. Maybe I'm getting older, but the situation is bleak."

That the situation is bleak is self'-evident. Nowadays we see the result of the combination of two different factors: "videomusic", which makes music = character ("What about Elvis, then?" But today this phenomenon is absolutely widespread, which is a very important distinction); and the "illiteracy" factor, where schools and families surrendered in favour of a "fun" kind of teaching - hence, severe problems when people are asked to follow an argument or to articulate one's thoughts. (Some members of the avant-garde have mistaken people's difficulty of making sense of a long narration with a refusal of it in favour of "particles")

I happened to read about a new re-release edition of four old albums (without a doubt, his best ones) by a UK musician who was very famous (better said: world-famous) in the 60s. I'm talking about someone who went to India with The Beatles, and who taught John Lennon an arpeggio technique that Lennon used on The Beatles (aka "The White Album") - check Julia. As is to be expected, nothing was said about the new re-mastering; but we were told that every CD featured a lot of bonus tracks, many of them quite interesting. More details? None. So I had to make a search on the Net, where I found what I was looking for. I can't get the sense of this kind of "information". Maybe "I'll tell you that record so and so is about to be released, then if you're really interested it's up to you"? But why am I supposed to buy a magazine that offers this kind of information? Maybe because it offers a "Free CD"?

I have to confess that I was quite curious about Fiona Apple's new album, scheduled for release in 2003. Produced by Jon Brion - a name that really needs no introduction - Extraordinary Machine was destined to prove the definitive maturation of the US singer-songwriter. As is well-known, the record has never been released. It seems that Sony was deeply unhappy about the (non-existent) commercial potential of an album that has been said to be "difficult and lacking any potential singles". Then the whole CD was made available on the Net. Downloading it was obviously illegal, but with my kind of connection - a dial-up at 33.600 bps - I didn't need to ask my conscience - or my lawyer. Then Rolling Stone reviewed (!) the album, not very enthusiastically; another magazine said that Sony was right: the album was too difficult. I'd like to make my opinion, but I can't. Meanwhile, the whole world seems to have listened to the album, which many define as a masterpiece, well sung and with fantastic orchestral arrangements. And now?

It was totally by chance that I discovered a radio station which only broadcasts "oldies". So it happens that these days - a lot of traffic, going to the sea - I listen to a lot of old songs - mostly from the 50s and the 60s - that I've never heard before, or that I've never heard after the time when they were first released. Funny how some groups that sounded so different now seem to resemble each other. How many nice instrumental parts were made on the spot by session men! I was thinking about this, for no special reason, when I happened to read the article called After The Stall, the most recent installment of the nice biweekly online column called What Goes On which Mark Jenkins writes for the Washington City Paper. After writing that "by some estimates, "catalog" sales - older CDs that no one's really working to sell today, other than by offering some of them at a "nice price" - is approaching 40 percent of the market", Jenkins observes that in the "catalogue chart" there are no titles of CDs of techno and electronic music - both genres that not too long ago were said to represent "the future of music". He proceeds to make a few conjectures about this. What about ours?

© Beppe Colli 2005 | July 4, 2005