1970: Alvin Lucier - I Am Sitting in a Room
On March 10th, 1970, Alvin Lucier sat in his small rented apartment on High Street in Middletown, Connecticut and read a paragraph into a microphone. “I am sitting in a room, different from the one you are in now,” he began. It was the first step in a process that created the ur-text for understanding lo-fi music.
There’s a tendency to equate low production values with a certain type of intimacy. On it’s face, this is counter-intuitive; that poor sonic fidelity and less clean production create a recording that is more honest and sincere. Early Mountain Goats albums, On an Airplane Over the Sea, and pretty much all of the Corwood Industries catalog trade on this principle. The idea is partially rooted in our understanding of space. By retaining bits of sonic ephemera that were present at the site of recording — the tape hiss of John Darnielle’s boom box, the creak of Jeff Magnum’s chair at the end of “Two-Headed Boy Part 2” — the listener gets a more full and less mediated experience.
These imperfections could easily be scrubbed out in a studio, but keeping them gives the listener access to the site of creative activity. It’s a trick that gives recordings immediacy — it puts you right “there.” The construction is so incredibly pervasive that it’s no wonder we have a genre signifiers like “bedroom pop.” You and the artist share the same aural space, giving the entire recording a patina of intimacy.
After he finished reading the paragraph, Lucier hit rewind and played it back, recording the playback on another tape. He then repeated this process more than 30 times. I am Sitting in a Room is all these recordings collected and stitched together chronologically. With each copy of a copy of a copy Lucier’s original speech gets increasingly warped and distorted, the size and shape of the room emphasizing certain frequencies and absorbing others. After 45 minutes of tape, Lucier’s words are completely incomprehensible. What we’re left with is not his voice, but the sound of the room itself.
What stands out about the piece is how our relationship to Lucier changes in proportion to the prominence of the room’s presence in the recording. At the start, Lucier’s comes through clearly, his soft-spoken enunciation creating a sonic coziness. For the first few repetitions the closeness increases along with the slight distortion. As the clarity degrades and the words begin to blur around the edges. We hear Lucier speaking, as well as where he is speaking. We’re right there with him. However, as I am Sitting continues, the process quickly reveals diminishing returns. Within a few a few more loops, the voice sounds modulated and hollow, like HAL has taken over the reading. Soon, the human lilt of the speech disappears completely and all that’s left are pristine drones and harmonies: all room; no person.
Pull out some graph paper and draw it if you want. You get sort of a distorted bell curve, with peak familiarity somewhere near the beginning before dropping off completely. It’s the line all music working within the lo-fi framework must walk. You want to hint at the realities of the recording — the space, the tape hiss, the crackle of the mic — without drowning out the human aspect with the artifice of it all.
1968: Ant Trip Ceremony - 24 Hours
In the introduction to Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984, Simon Reynolds writes that, during the post-punk era with which his book is concerned, he never bought older records. Reynolds posits two reasons for this phenomenon: to begin with, today’s pervasive reissue culture did not yet exist but, more importantly, the overwhelming fertility of the then contemporary musical climate left no time to turn toward a nostalgic past anyway.
Liberated from the commodified leisure culture of the 70s mainstream rock spectacle, post-punk musicians sculpted their own vernacular, free from punk’s rockist foundation, upon the scorched earth landscape with which they had been left. They applied punk’s transgressive ideals to itself, synthesizing its minimal, neanderthal approach with supposed antagonists disco, prog, and electronic music to effect both a formal and aesthetic break from punk’s already cloistered structural misanthropy – and it is this further break from tradition, coupled with post-punk’s proletarian accessibility that lent itself to such a rich proliferation of recorded material from the period.
Ant Trip Ceremony hardly draw from the same ideological well, but perhaps share deeper impulsive groundwater. Recorded on a low budget in early 1968 by students in Oberlin, Ohio and originally released in a run of only 300 copies, the band’s only album 24 Hours remains very of its time, typifying the zeitgeist of a late 1960s America abundant with the music of an inspired generation. The presence of a “Hey Joe” cover and the album’s current status as a reissue beg for it to be interpreted through the lens of Lenny Kaye’s influential 1972 compilation of proto-punk, Nuggets, and 24 Hours fits predictably into that mold. The band’s version of the standard lies somewhere between The Leaves’ frenetic original and Jimi Hendrix’s laid-back, downtempo interpretation with the album’s 11 other tracks accordingly straddling the line between raucous garage rock and gauzy psychedelia.
Yet unlike typical 60s tracklistings, where a hit single becomes the title of a band’s record and its first track, 24 Hours remarkably resists front-loading to the point that I almost wanted to abandon ship on first listen. Though Ant Trip Ceremony are also clearly at fault, it is these introductory tracks that suffer from the album’s rough production. Opening crooner “Locomotive Lamp,” which in another world might burst out of floodgates with the bombastic pomp of Scott Walker, here limps from the silent void, weary with dispassion. Along with its three successors, the song is barely saved by mildly interesting, spindly guitar work, and half-hearted lyrical banalities like “eternally free to love” and “bridges in my mind” do little to prevent me from being reminded of Spinal Tap’s satirical hippie pastiche “Listen to the Flower People.”
Fortunately, “Hey Joe” is a breath of fresh air that manages, through its sonic oscillations, to express both the blind passion of a man who shoots his lover after being cuckolded and the melancholic aimlessness of consequent self-exile where most versions settle for just one. And the remainder of the album builds off of its energy. “Outskirts,” with its tastefully applied vocal tremolo, could be the story of Joe’s southbound journey: “Going down the river/ Going down the track/ Don’t know where I’m going but I know I’m going back.” Side two mostly atones for the shortcomings of its obverse, utilizing the no-frills production to its proper advantage on tracks like pithy rocker “Get Out Of My Life.” The specter of “Hey Joe” continues to exert its vibrant influence via the successful appropriation and slackening of its chord progression on “Four In The Morning;” and the band is at their most compelling on such instances where they let things stretch out and take on a life of their own, exemplified by “Pale Shades of Gray” and the instrumental flute-adorned pseudo-raga “Elaborations.”
While 24 Hours fits in with the better Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, it also doesn’t particularly stand out. So why reissue the album? There already exists a 1995 repress, and this new edition surely can’t have been motivated by a demand for a 180 gram issue of such an obscurity. I originally intended to use this review to present the 2010 Vinyl Lovers version of 24 Hours as a separate entity from its 1968 predecessor: a Borgesian re-contextualization forward in time that would illuminate the deficiencies of garage rock’s current crop of lazy anachronistic imitators, decrying the shoddiness of their misplaced troglodyte nostalgia, etc., etc. But such a rash generalization would be both defeatist and a hasty simplification of reality. The truth is that I continue to discover older music I love, whether it be from 1968, 1981, or 2010.
Contemporary labels like Spectrum Spools rescue albums from both historical obscurity and the ephemerality of recent limited cassette pressings. So, if Simon Reynolds’ statement regarding the post-punk era is to be applied to today’s glut of reissues, maybe its emphasis should be placed on the erstwhile absence of such a reissue culture rather than on a cultural inadequacy inherent in our current digital age. Today’s music curators are faced with access to a near-totality of recorded material, both past and present, and the act of presenting a recording or collection of recordings as a relevant, coherent album is a way of making sense of it all, of separating the wheat from the chaff. Reissues have brought about a folding of music history in on itself, a canon in flux, and an archaeological intertextuality facilitated by the information age. Formerly lost in the ether of 60s garage rock, it is because of this recent reissue that the existence of Ant Trip Ceremony came to my attention. 24 Hours might not be the best example of its type, but I’m glad to have heard it.
1956: The Louvin Brothers - Knoxville Girl (Traditional)
Murder ballads generally adhere to a strict formula it seems. They explain who the person being murdered is, why they got murdered, and finally how the killer is brought to justice. The most essential part though (other than, y’know… the murder) has got to be the motive, and that is precisely why “Knoxville Girl” is so fucking unsettling. It begins like a love song, with the narrator picking up his sweetheart to go for a stroll, and only a few lines in she’s screaming as he beats her to death with a stick. He doesn’t have any motivation, and our only insight into how he felt about her comes at the end as he wastes away in prison when he says he loved her. It never gets too gory, but a line like “She never spoke another word, I only beat her more, until the ground around me within her blood did flow,” sounds deeply disturbing when sung in the melancholy tone the song is famous for.
Pick any version you like, damn thing is nearly 100 years old so there are quite a lot to choose from. A lot of people go for the Nick Cave version, but for me nothing beats The Louvin Brothers version. These two brothers, Ira and Charlie Loudermilk, sing it so well because they depict the murderer in possibly the most unhinged way. They do that by singing it as a sad love song. If you heard their version and didn’t pay attention to any lyrics, it would sound like a broken-hearted ballad for the one that got away. They have the narrator reminisce the beating of a young girl to death, then dragging her bloody corpse by the hair and tossing it into the river as a sad memory of lost love. “Knoxville Girl” is the murder ballad at its absolute best, and this is the definitive version.
2003: The roots of Om
Listening to Al Cisneros and Chris Haikus post-Sleep band Om is like entering a realm where meditation and intensity coexist. The drums play a subtle but never simple blend of gentle pounds and reassured beats, while the bass oscillates between heavy riffing and string caressing pulses. It’s music to nod out and headbang to (and yes, it’s also great for smoking pot).
Still, the origin of the band’s sound is attributed to influences beyond rock, music from far off places preserved for centuries by millennial cultures. It seems that critics visit the “new age and world music” section of the record store to get references to where Om got their stuff. Having said that, here’s two older songs that are far closer to music geekery than ancient spiritual faiths that are the granddaddies to the their first three albums.
Yes’ classic album Fragile closes with one of their best songs, and there’s a fragment of the song where Chris Squier and Bill Bruford, for one brief moment, get their instruments locked in a gentle battle for us to breathe and feel the pulses of our circulatory system. Yes had always dabbled in ethereal realms, but “Heart of the Sunrise” does it with frenetic energy that goes beyond the drum and bass break.
The other is “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” by Pink Floyd. Saucerful of Secrets is a collage of different things, but this song is pure Om, right down to Roger Waters’ vocalizations. It’s right there, the stoner doom style in 1967.
In a way, I like to think of Om’s first three albums as a trilogy. Variations on a Theme presented Om as a continuation to the last phase of Sleep. It’s heavy and repetitive with some hushed tones that hint on Conference of Birds, where things get settled and sets a peaceful mood only to be disturbed by aggressive points. Pilgrimage is the climax, the grand finale, where everything explodes in their own way, things get shorter and there’s more variety. It’s a fitting conclusion to music that cycle and grind in equal measures.
1959: Toni Fisher - “The Big Hurt”
Are effects special? I first encountered “The Big Hurt,” by Toni Fisher, referenced as the earliest use of the flange (phasing) effect – perhaps better known as ‘that sweeping noise,’ originally created by manipulating two simultaneous recordings of the same source. The term comes from ‘flange,’ the rim of the tape reel, which could be held down with a fingertip to create the effect – bringing to mind phalanges, the bones of the digits.
Skeletal technologies, doubled disassociations: it’s no surprise that “The Big Hurt” appeals to dark luminaries (namely Scott Walker and Nick Cave), while the image of Fisher on the cover of the eponymous 1960 LP rejects traditional pop-femininity in a portrait speaking to complex psychodrama. Curiously, the artist was specifically billed as ‘Miss Toni Fisher’ – like the song itself, the very fact that an appeal is made to the concrete known (i.e. gender) undermines the quality of definiteness which is intended, thus opening up a mirrormaze vista of sensibility.
“The Big Hurt,” lyrically, is a recognition of the onset of pain in a romantic loss (“Now it begins”), and its dragged-out eternality (“I wonder when/ Oh when will it end”). And this beginning is set to a discomforting and insistent beguine, over which emerges a labyrinth of shifting tones and key changes, reproducing the dislocated theme of the lyrics: a pre-postmodern house of leaves (the theme of alienated separation would also appear on Fisher’s tracks “West of the Wall,” about lovers separated by the Berlin Wall, and “The Red Sea of Mars”). The echoing sonics add to the sense of refraction, as do sighing strings which threaten to break into a stereotypical major-key pop chorus, yet slide away; and which give a chronologically impossible and eerie sense of pitch-shift as a purposeful strategy. The song both inhabits and refuses the listener’s ear, impossible to get a handle on, yet paradoxically memorable and addictive.
Despite these deflected discursions, the effect is achieved by a brutal brevity; there’s not a moment wasted in “The Big Hurt“‘s 130 seconds, and rather than a verse-chorus structure the tension builds to a single climax, a petite mort in jouissance mode, at the song’s end. To run with Lacan, there is a fundamental lack at its center, but one which is also, impossibly, a fullness of longing. We are somewhere between the glorious melodrama of the 50s, the death pop of the 60s, and the darkest aspect of psychedelia – that latter found in the surreal element of the flange. Del Shannon covered “The Big Hurt,” and like the electronic bleeps in his “Hats Off To Larry” – but in a less vengeful register – the unexpected technologesqueness gives the sense of a double mediation. It’s not that the tune arrives from outer space (as for The Ventures a few years later), but from the shadowy, phonographic past and the unimaginable future (now the present) simultaneously: from the childhood absence of the m/other, and from a posthuman state which is posthuman not from utopia, but from beyond the grave.
1996: Thela - Argentina
Start by imaging the last half of Sonic Youth’s “Expressway To Yr Skull” — specifically, the echoing part that ends in a locked groove. Thela’s Argentina is the sound of that locked echo getting picked up and shaped into new forms and directions, filled out with droning microtones and a pulse. Nels Cline once suggested that Argentina “seems like the only logical way to follow all that post-SY, post-Slint music,” and if you’ll allow me to briefly think about music in terms of minor era-based segments, Thela’s sound exists in a tightly packed sliver: it’s the mid-90s, so Harsh 70s Reality is out there; Royal Trux already ground rock music into the dirt one way, and all this post-rock stuff just seems to have abandoned “rock” in favor of stargazing (or lounging, even) — how do we break free and take it elsewhere?
Thela’s music is vaguely identifiable as rock, but only because of the instrumentation; guitarists Dean Roberts and Dion Workman are more likely to wrench out a trail of feedback than anything resembling a riff. Without overtly framing their tracks or becoming predictable (“dude, where are the crescendos?”), the echoing drones and clang of Argentina sculpts a narrow spot touching on the vague, inexpressible moodiness of the Dead C with the clarity of 90s post-rock, all filtered into long, gripping drones. In short: less murk, more open space. (And it kind of rocks in a way, kind of.)
What makes Argentina interesting to me today is that it really does sound like “post-rock,” but in the sense that it’s rock music emptied of itself. The instrumentation is identifiable, yet the rock signifiers have been otherwise deflated, hanging loosely at the sinews of scraping guitars and unsteady percussion. No track titles either, just a tarnished red chair in an empty and unfinished room – a fitting image, perhaps, for the Auckland, NZ-based trio’s second and final album on Ecstatic Peace: recognizable and worn, minimal and oddly claustrophobic in its emptiness. Argentina is an interesting moment where the free- and post- became entwined, hollowing out the mantle of rock into a serenely empty cavern, thick with dust yet never “dry” – it’s a more welcoming entry point than one might think, and a fantastic place to visit whether or not one is acquainted with the likes of Corpus Hermeticum or not. This water isn’t clear, but drink deep.