Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Art of the mix tape: no. 1

Here I go again, delving into that oh-so-troublesome activity -- you know, the one which I have inferred in the past is a complete waste of time (or at least something about which I am fairly conflicted) -- writing about music. What's my problem? I'm an addict, I guess.

I'm pretty sure I have already mentioned the working title of the next IJG release (which is currently in process) somewhere in this bloggy mess. But if not, I've been calling it The Art of the Mix Tape, vol. 1. There are numerous references going on there, but the literal one is most relevant to this post, as I hope that what follows will be the first in a series of bloggified mix-tape tracklists (sorry, I'm not ready to start uploading completed mixes yet, though CD-R copies are a possibility if there is an interest).

Like I said, what's my problem? I guess it started with the realization that, of late, I rarely listen to complete "albums" (a term I'm using in the metaphorical, not the LP-specific sense). Maybe in the car once in a while -- but if you're driving, car listening is not really "listening," unless you're being reckless. And usually I'll play albums around the house during the day, but of course I'm always multitasking when I'm "around the house during the day," so that's more like a background music sort of situation too. When I really want to sit down to do some focused (or "deep") listening (usually long after everyone else has gone to bed), it's generally a "surf iTunes" kind of affair. A little bit from column A, a little bit from column B -- kind of like a private radio show with me as both the host and the listener.

This jumping around may be a weakness of mine, I'm not sure. I suppose it sounds a little like evidence of a short attention span, but that wouldn't explain the fact that I can listen to music in this way for hours. And I should point out that there are certain pieces (string quartets, say) where I feel like I'm cheating if I haven't digested the whole thing in a single sitting -- whether or not "the whole thing" takes up an entire disc. But in general I suffer from an urge toward eclecticism.

(Incidentally, sometimes I wonder why so many CD-producers seem consistently compelled to "fill up" the entire available 74-80 minutes with sound, as if somehow the listener is being duped if the content is any shorter? Have we forgotten that there can be as much beauty in well-deployed succintness as there is in an expansive work like Beethoven's Ninth (which, incidentally, is probably the source of the original 74-minute length of the medium)? My own tunes are generally between 5-10 minutes (which, compared to the Ninth is not very long at all), but IJG albums (and many of our live sets, now that I think about it) haven't yet gone longer than an hour, because sixty minutes is about as much of my own stuff as I can stand in a single sitting.)

Anyway, much of my listening time nowadays is taken up with a type of activity that I actually consider a kind of composing: devising mix tapes. Here too I am using the media term in a general, not specific sense -- of course my mixes no longer go on cassettes but end up as either iTunes playlists or, if I really like them, as CD-Rs. But magnetic tape seems the right metaphor for this process because it was this technology that first provided the widespread opportunity for listeners to assemble their own albums out of whatever shorter pieces they saw fit. When I was a kid, "mix tapes" (helpfully organized with dopey titles like "Billy Bang's Bawdy B-Sides") were how I kept track of the music that mattered to me, and how I shared my love of specific artists or pieces with my friends. The ones that survived endless replays still serve as useful touchstones for specific moments of my musical development.

I recently realized that the idea of a "mix tape" also resonates for me as a metaphor for what I am after as an artist. I have been trying like mad for several years now to divest myself of the impulse to view music as a linearly-evolving phenomenon in which the artist's role is to come up with the next innovation -- a pursuit that must of necessity repeat itself every few years (thus the concept of successive artistic "schools" or "movements," all developing in some relation to a timeline, and thus all beholden to varying notions of "progress" or "retrenchment"). I do see the value in linearity (obviously one of the main engines driving the development of western music for the last few centuries), but as I get older it has become less interesting to me than the more, well, "wholistic" (call it totalist if you like, but that wouldn't be exactly right, and besides, it sounds too much like "totalitarianism") approach of trying to look at everything that has been done, and attempting to incorporate it all (or even, say, a generous smattering of it) into a personally distinctive, generous, celebratory hybrid. Truly innovative musical developments seem (in their rhetoric, at least) to resist hybridity to some extent -- typically casting off the "shackles" of some preceding idea -- but I'm after hybridity in my life, and I'm after hybridity in my art. Which is not to say that I've achieved either, or that either is thoroughly possible (it's always a question of degree, I guess) -- just that this is my current modus operandi.

I know I'll need to say more about this "postmodernism-through-zen" (huh?) thing at some point (I'm still figuring out what I mean by it, anyway). But for now, enough blather. On to the mix! It's a work-in-progress (as they always are), and it's heavily weighted in certain directions, but I've tried it out in a few contexts, and it's a good listen. I'm gonna attempt to be sparing on the commentary, but on most of these, I can't resist (damn you, left brain!)...

Art of the Mix Tape No 1

[Note: I started with the intention of linking all of these, but that proved to be too tedious a task. A simple google search will yield up something interesting on most of 'em.]

1. Rene Hall's Orchestra And Willy Joe: "Twitchy"

Your basic out-of-tune call-and-response rock-and-roll goodness. The unitar riff does indeed sound like it is twitching (a unitar is a one-string guitar: get it?).

2. Gene Pitney: "Town Without Pity"

3. Gene Pitney: "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance"

Bombastic and melodramatic as hell, Gene Pitney was one of the poppier of the early rock idols. It's hard to hear this stuff now as anything other than camp, but some would argue that Pitney preceded the Beatles in his presentation of new textures (sitars, for instance) for pop music. Like another dude on this list (see no. 6), his voice was heavily vibrato-fied. So sue me: I love the over-the-top mood of these.

4. Bob Landers With Willy Joe And His Unitar: "Cherokee Dance"

See track one; add vocals.

5. Katie Lee: "Will to Fail"

Something about the transition from the gutteral stomp of "Cherokee Dance" into the sweet, showtune-ish "Will to Fail" (with its celebration of underachievement) really works for me.

6. Tiny Tim: "I Got You, Babe"

He sings both roles: Sonny and Cher. Beware the fake applause at the end.

7. The Techniques: "Queen Majesty"

8. Rashaan Roland Kirk: "The Entertainer [Done in the Style of the Blues]"

Kirk, playing tenor, proves he can do "gutbucket" with the best of them. Yes, this is the Scott Joplin tune: an amazing, raunchy version, which pulls out the "country" potential of what is essentially an "urban" tune (that's not a very good description, but I don't know how to improve upon it).

9. R. Crumb & His Cheap Suit Serenaders: "Get A Load Of This"

Visual art isn't the only thing R. Crumb does well. Here he is playing tenor banjo in a fine 1970s string band revival outfit (except that here they are doing an original tune about, well, junk food).

10. Midlake: "Roscoe"

I don't usually go for modern indie pop (is that what they're calling it now?). If it has guitars, good-looking singers with perfect hair-dos, heartfelt lyrics, hip art, and youth on its side, chances are I'm going to be turned off immediately. But this tune (which arrived at my ears via a most circuitous route) has been played and replayed by me the proverbial umpteen times. I'm at a loss to explain its appeal -- particularly since it seems to reference what I think may be one of the most overrated bands of all time: Fleetwood Mac.

11. The Maytals: "Six & Seven Books Of Moses"

12. Lee Dorsey: "Working In The Coal Mine"

(Incidentally, I recently learned that this New Orleans icon spent a good deal of his youth living in Portland, OR. Wow!)

13. Hombres: "Am I High"

They probably were, as the talent-depleting effect that drugs can have seems evident here.

14. The Holy Modal Rounders: "Boobs A Lot"

Did I mention that obscenity (and its cultural importance) is an obsession of mine?

15. Herbie Nichols: "House Party Starting"

I know what some of you must be saying: at last, something like "real jazz."

16. Henry Mancini & His Orchestra: "Something For Cat"

17. Gerald Wilson: "Bluesnee"

18. Gary McFarland Orchestra with Bill Evans: "Relections in the Park"

Gary McFarland and Gerald Wilson: underrated, but in different ways. Throw in Herbie Nichols (and what the hell, maybe Roland Kirk as well) and you get a certain theme emerging here...

19. Ganimian & His Orientals: "Come With Me To The Casbah"

20. Folkes Brothers: "Oh Carolina"

Maybe one of the first reggae recordings ever?

21. Marianne Faithfull: "I'm a Loser"

Current MF is sort of Marlene Dietrich without the sex appeal. But she put out a live album a few years back that I simply adored (not least because she took on Weill, to great effect). In any case, don't forget that she once sounded like this. Wispy, breathy, girly -- I think "twee" is the term -- yikes. Anyway, it's not the best rendition of this quintessential Lennon tune (the chorus suffers from the absence of one of the swingin'est basslines Paul McCartney ever played), but it's got a certain beat charm.

22. Doodles Weaver: "Eleanor Rigby"

Why is this here? Apart from the obvious Beatles link to the preceding track, I think I dig this one because I am interested in failure as an aesthetic strategy (it offsets success oh so nicely). This rendition of the classic fails over and over again as Mr. Weaver attempts to remember the lyrics, and, instead of doing so, interpolates his own ridiculous words. (Ah, Doodles. Did you really kill yourself at 72?)

[Photo credit: thanks, "Stupid Nick" (if that really is your name).]


Llij said...

I still have every mix tape you ever made for me... and not because of nostalgia, but because they are f-ing awesome mix tapes. Doesn't hurt that the names are giggle-inducing, too (My favorite: Orville Texo and Freda Nape: Live Again at the Waxy Ear).

Your mix tapes shaped a good portion of my musical vocabulary during those critical formative years.

Johan said...

I say, this one looks VERY intresting! You don't happen to have a spare, do you? Trade?

Andrew said...

Sure thing. You can get in touch via any of the IJG websites listed in the sidebar.