Friday, November 15, 2019

More Popular than Jesus?

A few further thoughts on 50 Years Ago Today...

Apparently, the Beatles are still well known and income generators for their label. I'm shocked! Well, not really. Despite the fact that both John and George have died and Paul and Ringo are well into their 70s, Beatles music remains popular even among kids. This continues to strike me as odd. Shouldn't they be obsessed with their music, the music of right now?

We were.

But then, having thought about it, a few other thoughts came into my head about what exactly I was listening to when I was young. Like today's kids-they probably hate that term as much as we did-most of what I heard was on the radio. If something really got me going, I went out and bought the record. I assume today if you hear something you like while streaming, you can add it to your personal playlist. I don't know if the kids then listen obsessively to it like I did, but I assume they do because I don't think they're that much different from us.

Of course as I got older my interests expanded. I still like and listen to Jazz regularly and have a soft spot for the music from the late 40's through early 60's, and yes that includes everything from the somnambulistic languid stuff to the crazy bebop that is Jazz's version of speed metal. I also got more into Americana and Classical.

Good music is good music no matter its age.

And while streaming has its critics, as all mediums do, it does afford listeners the ability to stream whole catalogs, which was impossible back when I was young. Much as I wanted to hear the bands and musicians I read about, hearing all of them would have been very expensive and time consuming as not every record store had the albums and radio certaining didn't play entire catalogs or even albums back to back.

The bigger question is how imprinted the music is to those who stream if they're hearing lots of different bands and musicians but not hearing the songs over and over as we did in the past. It's possible the reason music from 40 or 50 years ago is so impressed into kids minds is that we, their parents, played it all the time when they were young and whether they like it or not, the do remember it.

So whether today's music is as well known as the old stuff, I guess we'll see, but I think it will be just maybe prompted differently because it was absorbed differently.

©2019 David William Pearce

Friday, November 1, 2019

Damn Little Fingers!

Totally bummed!

Occasionally, I get it in my head to learn a new tune, one that's not my own, or a part of a song that I think is just too fun. The beginning of Led Zeppelin's Achilles Last Stand is one example. It's basically going back and forth between a F#m(add) and Em9. Simple right?

Except when you can't get your fingers where they're supposed to go.

Now there are cheats which require a certain level of dexterity and speed since you're not setting your fingers in the structure of the chord and simply picking the strings in the order set out on the page. I don't have long elegant fingers and I'm no longer young and supple in my movements-that matters. It's why there are no old prodigies.

It also explains why some can effortlessly play like Stevie Ray and the rest of us can't even as we studiously try our best to master sweep strumming and picking. Just watch the videos and watch their hands and fingers as they move along the fretboard. Yes, some of it is the result of lots of practice and playing-wood-shedding if you like. But they also possess the physical talents the rest of us lack. Just like premier athletes, premier musicians have the skill and dexterity the rest of us don't. That's the way it is. Only so many people can play Rachmaninoff properly and effortlessly-at least as those of us in the audience perceive it-they too work very hard at that appearance of effortlessness.

It's also the reason why when we listen to people trying to play some of this stuff it doesn't sound quite right or like the original. All of us can play a passable version of Freebird or Stairway to Heaven, but they're not that tough unless you want to nail it and not everyone can. But again, it's not like trying to nail a Joe Satriani solo (or entire song) or the twin solos played by Joe Walsh and Don Felder on Hotel California. 

At this point you maybe asking: "What are you getting at, Dave?"

Well, you can give up-for me that means 32nd note solos that are for the most part flash and bang-or you can work through it and inevitably discover something you didn't know before, so you gain from that.

That, and a better appreciation for the talents of those who can play what you can't.

©2019 David William Pearce

Friday, October 25, 2019

What Happened to our Music Scene?

In a short blast, a KUOW reporter asked what happened to the Seattle music scene. You know, the one that produced Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and Soundgarden among others. The answer was that Seattle's too expense, so people are leaving.

I'm not so sure.

Yes, Seattle and its surrounding suburban environs are not cheap places to live, but neither is LA, New York, and Nashville and people still flock to those cities with wide-eyed dreams, mostly because they have the business infrastructure that supports musicians and songwriter/creators. That doesn't mean you'll make it anymore than being here in Seattle.

The article is quite short and pivots quickly from people leaving because housing, studios, and rehearsal space is expense to how to convince the next generation to stay by providing 5G technology etc, as if that's all it takes. And as if those of us already here and making music are a lost cause and dead weight.

Like most of these kinds of quick go nowhere comments, it avoids the elephant in the room, which is how hard it is to be paid period for providing something unique and interesting. Some may argue that point, but having been part of it for a long time and having heard the wide range of talent in this town, young and old, it's apparent that the problem, as stated above, is being able to make a living making music.

Everything else is, in essence, dross. Unless the city is interested in funding and supporting artists to a point where they're earning enough to support themselves or see that support as having a social value, then in the end it won't fix the problem or stem the exodus.

Some of this is self-perpetuating in that any artist life in the societies we've created is predicated on a value often independent of that effort, meaning most artists never make back what they put into it. So it can't be a surprise if after a while, artists will either give up, move on, or move where the possibilities are better.

If you want a vibrant local music scene, you have to support it and in a capitalist society that means paying for it.

It's that simple.

©2019 David William Pearce

Thursday, October 17, 2019

It Just Keeps Getting Better...

As frequent readers of this blog will note, I find the whole vinyl craze fascinating, to say the least. Now, I found out, I'll soon be able to manufacture my own vinyl records right in the privacy of my own home! If there's one thing I need, it's a bunch of substandard records cluttering up the house. After all I already have 600 albums that I bought mostly in the 70's and 80's, and I probably have another 600-700 CD's. I think that's a lot, and it doesn't include downloads, but compared to some collections, it's fairly puny.

Who knows how much all this will cost. There's not only the machine itself, a couple of grand-I'm going to assume it also has a play feature-as well as the cost of the vinyl blanks and whatever system it's plugged into. That in itself has costs, but I've gone into that many times before.

Still, it's vinyl, man!

As this article in Fair Observer notes, how we hear sounds matters, that there is a quantifiable difference between headphones and speakers and actually being at a concert where real instruments and voices are not only heard but felt. That in a nutshell is why performance will never die out and may in fact proliferate as AI and other artificialities pervade all of our personal spaces. I whined about this last week.

I realize that there is an esthetic to records, that they require a certain level of activity and care that CD's and MP3's don't. They're bigger, they should be cleaned each time they're played; the cover art and lyrics, if included- not that many artists provided lyric in yon olden days- are easier to see, and they took up a lot more space. But that was a point of pride to collectors, that wall of albums no one else had.

There's also the inherent limitations of the medium and therefore limitations on how much you can shove onto it.

Recording and mastering engineers will undoubtedly be shaking their head at the idea that what I stick on my records through a USB connection-which means digital to analog-will be any good, that instead will produce any number of sonic and space problems, especially where highly compressed LOUD recordings are transferred to vinyl. That assumes that the people making these records are deeply discerning audiophiles.

I'm thinking no. It's a novelty.

Maybe that's the allure of the home make-your-own-record machine. Yes, that wall there is a collection of my records of other people's songs, although there may be my own stuff too. More likely, it'll be akin to all those mixtapes we made before iPods and their ilk made it much easier to put all your music on one convenient device. And mixtapes, like old records, have a special place for those who grew up with them. They also weren't known for their high fidelity, but that wasn't the point. The point was to have the songs you like in the order you liked and not what some radio DJ kept playing which sucked.

Just saying...

As a final thought... I've yet to read of anyone advocating for the multi-stack record players of my youth where the records would be stacked on top of one another and then flop down after the previous record played. While convenient, it was also scratch inducing, which all audiophiles of the time abhorred. I assume they still do. Of course, most of those people who had multi-stack record players didn't save their records anyway.

Just saying...

©2019 David William Pearce

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Fake It to Make It...

AI musicians are already here!

Hmmm. At the risk of being redumbdant, I'll say again how fascinating this is. Think about it: people are already following, in good sized numbers, AI created musicians and entertainers. I italicized musicians for the very real reason that they're not! An avatar, hologram, program with a visual interface, won't be dazzling you with their technique while you stand 5 feet away because they don't physically exist...

But that's beside the point.

What is the point is that we humans are so predictable in what we respond to positively and negatively. AI listens to what we listen to, tracks us, and replicates it, time and time again until it knows exactly what we want to hear. And given the power of computing these days, it can be tailored individually.

Huh, huh, huh!

Let's see Taylor or Katy or Lorde do that!

They will, of course, dispute that, saying they're doing their own thing, even though their management, representatives, label use the same algorithms to study their fans in order to keep them buying, buying, buying as the AI created popstars, like Lil Miquela. Now they just have to figure out how to keep from aging out, something their AI competitors don't have to worry about. Lil Miquela may not stay popular, but she'll never be 40 or 50 doing nostalgia shows at a casino. Or like Poppy, they can pretend to be cyborgs.

Am I being harsh, mean?

Sorta, but pop itself is based on fads and stereotypes and the music is hardly nuanced and thoughtful-mostly it's hooks sung over and over until your head explodes. It's aural candy. Like its confectionary equivalent, it can be fun and dancey and mindless. It's not philosophy, but it has no real value, nutritional or otherwise.

So if you're a serious musician or singer or songwriter, all of the above means that your art is what you make of it and the realm of pop probably isn't going to be the land of milk and honey if it ever was.

But it certainly tests the limits, assuming there are any anymore, of where popular music is going.

©2019 David William Pearce

Sunday, October 6, 2019

It Was 50 Years Ago Today...

50 years ago, the Beatles Abbey Road was released. Much has been written about the last Beatles album, and for those of us holding on to our old vinyl copies-see above-the obvious opportunity to vouchsafe our good taste and prescient abilities to know well in advance what good music is.

As well as use words like vouchsafe and prescient. Right?

Anyway, I feel quite confident that the "50 years ago today" theme will continue unabated till a good many of us are dead. Why? Because 50 years ago was, and this is considered by many, the beginning of the great age of rock music as it morphed from rock and roll-though many still called it that-into the colossus that we now refer to as ROCK!

And this looking back is most striking from the UK, given that the British invasion was at its zenith during this period.

The question I have is how far into the weeds, so to speak, do you go?

Think about all the significant bands from that period, from '69 to '75, just from England: the Stones, Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, Yes, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, King Crimson, Genesis, Led Zeppelin... Then, of course, you have Jeff Beck, Clapton, Elton John, Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, Starr, and all the ones I can't think of at the moment but will the minute I finish this post. The next 5 to 10 years can be one album after another after another...

(Please feel free to add your own favorites.)

And then you can argue about punk!

Individually, I'm not adverse to a reasonably amount of looking back; Abbey Road was the final album from the seminal band of 60's and very much a precursor to their solo work. And much from that period, like Exile on Main Street, from the Stones, is considered the apex of their creative output.

For me, these retrospectives should be about how the albums impacted the musicians after them, and the musicians they borrowed from-with examples! As this is the great Boomer look back at our time musically, it ought to be more than a continuation of "ooh, look at us".

©2019 David William Pearce

Friday, September 27, 2019

The Record as Icon

As someone of a particular age- read old -I am less inclined to the recent fascination and elevation of vinyl, or as us oldsters used to say, records. I'm not against them, in fact, as the photo above can attest, I still have my phonograph, record player, which I still use from time to time.

Mostly while watching sports because the play-by-play and commentary has, of late, become just a lot of background noise. Why not listen to something more interesting? With 4K hi-def, I won't be missing anything visually.

But this isn't about that.

No, this is about the elementary nature of playing records, which I imagine is part of the renewed interest in buying and spinning platters. Hipsters, anyone?

Naturally, in order to play records, one needs a record player, also referred to as turntables and phonographs. A quick review on Amazon finds many available from the portable, which were popular when you wanted to play anywhere, to $1000 Japanese imports. And for those with lots of extra dollars, there are the high end models that cost as much as a car.

Then there's the fun of getting up to flip the record (don't forget to clean it).

None of this is new to someone like me, who lived through the great age of vinyl in the 60's (probably the 50's as well, but that predates me) through the 80's, when CD's made their play. The irony with the whole record thing is that the quality of sound, which is what the Dad's are swinging, man, because records are king, is predicated on the entire signal chain, meaning that everything from the phonograph to the amp (preamp)/receiver to the speakers, including the wires, plays into how "good" your record sounds. This is minus the inherent limitations of vinyl to begin with, but that's old hat.

That means if you buy a $50 tabletop phonograph with built-in speakers, it probably won't sound any better than the MP3 does through tinny earbuds. For those more discernible listeners, there's the thrill of component matching and how long you'll be paying for it.

As a case study, I have a JVC QL-Y55F turntable, a Yamaha R-S300 receiver, which replaced a preamp/amp combo many years ago, feeding AR28 bookshelf speakers. The turntable and speakers I've had for 30 plus years. I spent real money on this stuff and as I've had them for that long speaks well of them. I have had to replace the cartridge on the turntable and both speakers have been reconed, but other than that, they still sound great... to my ears.

The point of this, as it has always been with audio, is what you hear is what you buy and what you buy, outside of budget, is subjective because, hopefully, you listened before you bought. And that is true of any media you listen to music through. I don't play heavy bass driven stuff through the AR28's because it beats the hell out of them; they're not built to move that much, but anything out of the classic period mentioned above sound great... to me.

And that's the whole point.

©2019 David William Pearce