Tag Archives: Listening to music

On the idea of feeling estranged from contemporary music

Depending on your vintage at some point in your life you’ll have been preciously horrified by what’s going on in your name by your generation and will have retreated to a point where old music means more to you than what’s on the radio or the papers. Way back when that implied a retreat from the present, a spurning of airwave and print and telly with a sense of horror at how little that was contemporary actually reflected or touched you.

This paragraph comes from a blog post by a writer called Neil Kulkarni, a name I remember from my long-ago youth (was it in Uncut or Kerrang? Damned if I can recall, unfortunately). The context of that quote is very, very different to anything I want to talk about, but it does feed into something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. I’ve written around the subject here a few times, and am going to do so again probably. It’s a huge subject for me, one that’s intimately bound up with every choice I make as a listener and as a musician (and I do feel myself, still, to be both – I’m no less prolific a writer than I ever have been, and I still work on records with other musicians), so I don’t know if it’s something I’m even capable of unpacking.

I remember when I felt the way that Kulkarni describes. I was, I guess, 21. I went to university at 18, and at that time was still a fan, primarily, of American rock and indie. I had some favourite older records but they were outliers. At university, living at the back of the now-demolished Goldsmid House (in a room overlooking the hell on earth that is Oxford Street) I met James McKean. James lived a couple of rooms along the corridor, sang way better than me and was considerably cooler. A fan of British guitar pop in his teens, he’d found his way back to artists like Van Morrison, Fred Neil and Tim Buckley, and was better versed in Mojo/Uncut canonical rock and pop bands, too.

Our influence on each other’s tastes wasn’t one-way, but, as an aspiring songwriter with an acoustic guitar and under no illusion that I could ever front a rock band, I was keener to learn about the sort of things he was interested in than vice versa.

Within a year, certainly within two, when we were living behind The George in Shadwell (this before it became a hipster’s paradise – when it was desolate six nights a week, only coming alive for Friday-evening karaoke, where the backing was provided by two gentlemen in their sixties playing live drums and organ and supplying harmonies best described as enthusiastic), I was in that place. The place of precious horror at the things my generation was listening to.

You can grow your own set of ears, left to yourself. I heard no radio, watched little TV, didn’t have that much spare cash for magazines and this was still fairly early days for me with the internet (we were a couple of years away from an internet connection seeming essential). I spent my time listening to Bob Dylan, The Band, Tim Hardin, John Martyn, Nick Drake, Neil Young, Fred Neil, Paul Simon, Tom Waits and Joni Mitchell, and relatively little time listening to anything modern. When I did, the music sounded completely wrong. I’d hear pop music and it was so dense, so loud and so flat that I simply couldn’t process it. It just bounced off me.

I remember vividly hearing Crazy in Love once in a shop when I was in the process of having my eyes tested. I’d had eye drops and was sent out to wait for 10 minutes or so while they dilated my pupils fully. Unable to focus on anything, disconcerted by the loss of one of my senses, hot and sweltering (this was 2003, the hottest summer in the UK since records began) and assaulted by this thing that purported to be music but that sounded nothing like music as I understood it, it took all the composure I had not to trash the place and run out the door screaming for the torture to stop. That is not an exaggeration. This music, made by people whose aesthetic norms were so opposite to mine, really was that foreign to me, living in my bubble of 1970s record production. I could find almost nothing in contemporary rock music that touched me or reflected how I felt, and nothing at all in pop. Sonically, it all repulsed me.

I still dislike the way modern records are made (on darker days, it seems like a lot of once-good record-makers, long since sucked into doing things the modern way simply to remain employed, would no longer be able to make a good-sounding album if Herbie Hancock walked in and suggested they cut a small-band jazz record live to 2-track at AIR Lyndhurst), but the Crazy in Love incident was in fact the high watermark of my estrangement from contemporary pop. I listen to the radio a lot more these days (most days) and hear a decent mix of old and new music.

Maybe these things go in cycles. Perhaps this poptimistic swing of the pendulum will be followed by one in the other direction, and I’ll rush back to the safety of my battered copies of Bleecker & MacDougal, For the Roses and The Heart of Saturday Night and I’ll once again feel the estrangement Kulkarni discusses in the piece I excerpted above.*

Waveform B&M
Fred Neil’s Bleecker & MacDougal sounds like this. We call it headroom.

Waveform EasyTiger
Ryan Adams’s Easy Tiger. Sonically typical 2000s singer-songwriter record. Headroom conspicuous by its absence. That loud section near the end (RMS -9.8 dBFS) is particularly horrible sounding – completely pancaked, with hundreds and hundreds of clipped samples

*Since you ask, it was a furious response to media hype over Peace’s 2013 debut album – an event which for all Kulkarni’s passionate despair, passed me by completely – and which I chanced upon during a random internet jaunt where every click took me further away from what I was researching in the first place. Just goes to show, really. The mainstream music press will make themselves look silly by throwing their support behind some hopeless act on a regular basis. Best to pay it no mind.

On reunion records, on fitting new art into your life, balancing all your creative projects, and stuff like that

When you’re young and you don’t know much about music, almost every time you get a new record you’re taking a step into properly unknown territory. Not only might you not know much about the wider body of work of the artist whose record you’re buying, but you probably don’t know that artist’s context either: who they are, where they’re from (both literally and figuratively), who influenced them, who signed them, who they’ve played with and so on. As you get older and more knowledgeable, that experience recurs less often. It does for me, anyway. And so I find I’ve become a little more comfortable poking around in the margins of favoured artists’ catalogues, or listening to artists who grew out of a scene I’m familiar with, than I am diving headfirst into a completely new thing and having to start from scratch with it. That’s a major job of work, I’m a little out of practice, and I don’t always feel like I’ve got the time – or the space in my life – to do it properly.

Similarly, when a favourite band of mine gets back together to release new material after a long hiatus, I always feel a sense of trepidation. Other fans might be wildly enthusiastic about the idea of new songs to immerse themselves in and getting another chance to see them play live, but my reaction is normally more ambivalent. I know this band, I’ve come to understand their body of work, I’ve got a sense of the shape of their catalogue, and opinions about the peaks and troughs – and now you’re telling me there’s this new record? And I need to hear that too? And absorb it, understand it, and determine its place in that band’s canon? What an imposition!

Ah, first-world problems.

There are specific artists and records I’m thinking of here. Over the last couple of months, a bunch of old favourites have put out new records after hiatuses of varying lengths (seven years, 10 years, 14 years, etc.), and all of these records are on my shopping list. But at the same time… I know these artists’ work already, I’ve got dozens of records on my computer I’ve hardly heard, new recommendations coming in all the time from friends, a list of bands are artists I’d like to hear who I’m all but entirely unfamiliar with, my own projects to keep up with: I’m making records, albeit slowly, with James McKean, and Yo Zushi, playing drums with Sumner, which is also a live project, and still writing and recording my own songs (album expected when I stop being a perfectionist and insisting it’s not finished until I’ve recorded that new song I wrote last week, which will then be replaced by the new song I wrote this week).

Maybe this is just a post about the past not having the good manners to stay in the past where I can pick it over and understand it at my leisure. Maybe it’s the time of year, with a birthday, Christmas and New Year coming up fast. Maybe it’s the anniversaries of two major life events that come up in the next few weeks. But time seems so short and there’s so much still to do, to learn, to see, to hear. Sometimes it’s a little overwhelming.

My apologies for writing a diary entry rather than something analytical and useful. It’s all I’ve got in me today! Have a great Sunday.