Spotify and Google Play Music (All Access or no) have made it more of a chore to listen to whole albums. With infinite resources at my disposal (should I relisten to Black Sabbath’s 13? Is the new Weekend album as good as non-Huey Lewis Sports?), paralysis sets in. And Play Music’s card system isn’t helpful – give me a list, or give me death, I say. Don’t make me scroll thru endless boxes with laughing pictures of Aaliyah and the wrong B12.
There’s a certain anonymizing effect that streaming music services have on every note that passes through them. The listener doesn’t own it, and the artist receives peanuts for it, and in theory it could be just one of a never-ending string of songs played from that same account on a given day; Spotify has no run-out groove or optical laser. Jaron Lanier commented:
“I was in a cafe this morning where I heard some stuff I was interested in, and nobody could figure out. It was Spotify or one of these … so they knew what stream they were getting, but they didn’t know what music it was. Then it changed to other music, and they didn’t know what that was. And I tried to use one of the services that determines what music you’re listening to, but it was a noisy place and that didn’t work. So what’s supposed to be an open information system serves to obscure the source of the musician. It serves as a closed information system. It actually loses the information.”
It’s bad enough for individual songs, but what about full-length albums? Conventional wisdom says that infinite plays and custom playlists on streaming music services mean that traditional albums, with their meticulously crafted running orders, segues, reprises, and lyrical or thematic concepts, are DOA. But you could have made the same case when the first CD player with track shuffle was released.
The album was built for vinyl in the 1960s and, to a lesser extent, the 1970s. Vinyl is the anti-Internet: it discourages dilettantism and track skipping, and by being so damn large and requiring a huge apparatus just to be played-back even at low quality, it takes up the whole room. There were no multiscreen living rooms during vinyl’s heyday, but I don’t think there could have been any, so all-encompassing is vinyl.
Vinyl is to music as Lisp is to programming languages. Per James Gosling:
“Lisp is a Black Hole: if you try to design something that’s not Lisp, but like Lisp, you’ll find that the gravitational forces on the design will suck it into the Black Hole, and it will become Lisp“.
An album made during the heyday of LP records conformed to the physical details of the medium: continuous, uninterrupted playback for 15-30 minutes, split into at least 2 sides. Full user attention was required. And vinyl had unique artistic possibilities, explored to their fullest by classics like Abbey Road (side 2 is a medley ; furthermore, the jarring “She’s So Heavy/Here Comes the Sun” break required the listener to actually get up and switch the record in order to be relieved of the deafening, sudden ending to the former song) and the Mothers of Invention’s Absolutely Free (side 1 is all about vegetables; side 2 is about high school nostalgia and Lolita), but even knew albums like The Knife’s instantly legendary Shaking the Habitual (any album whose title references Foucault gets a thumbs-up from me), on which the epic “Old Dreams Waiting to be Realized” has an entire side, all to its lonesome, to stretch and unwind its spacious rumination.
In light of how long (a millennium, I think) the codex book form has been with us (and will continue to be with us – get on any CTA train in Chicago and compare the number of paperbacks to the number of people reading on Kindles/iPads, and you’ll probably be shocked at how many more are in the former category), it’s worth investigating why music only achieved similar status between roughly the mid 1960s and the present day. Meaning, music was fitted to a discrete unit that had to be consumed sequentially: you listened to an album like you read a book, start to finish, with full mindshare dedicated to the artist and their specific vision at a specific moment in time.
For years, I’ve kept an obsessive “Top 10 favorite albums” list, updating it with new choices, often impulsively after digesting some album du jour (I try to listen to at least one new album per day – one of the blessings Spotify provides), but some have remained there for a long time. I’ve noticed that many of my true favorites – the early work of Aphex Twin, the 1960s Mothers albums – are items that I own on vinyl and am willing to consume only with devoted attention. I think that part of vinyl’s ongoing appeal, which is significant enough even to buoy podunk record shops, is that is immune to nonsense about “disruption” – it offers a literally analog experience that has no digital equivalent, since it, in a way, assumes isolation and dedication, not fragmentation and iteration (Latinate roots abound in these high minded “tech” discussions).
So I wanted to look briefly at one of the albums that has always been at the top of my list: We’re Only in it for the Money by The Mothers of Invention.
I picked the 1995 CD remaster up at a Ear X-Tacy in Louisville, KY (since closed: the shop, not the city) in the summer of 2005, after my first year of college. I had just gotten my first iPod in the winter of ’04 but still carried a CD player around for cases like this one, when I didn’t have iTunes for Windows (during the dark days, before I migrated to Chrome OS and OS X). So I gave it a listen on the way home, 90 minutes from Louisville to Lebanon, and I have since given it probably 500 additional listens, more than any album I own.
The album is a snapshot of the era, but it transcends the hippie, freak, and psychedelic movements that inform it. Mothers mastermind Frank Zappa originally intended for it to be a mashup of Mothers music and Lenny Bruce comedy, a concept mercifully scrapped in favor of a melange of psychedelia, melodic surf rock, collage, and comedy. Much of its change can be attributed to the 1967 release of Sgt. Pepper by The Beatles, which blazed new trails and created almost every album cliché in the book, from seamless transitions between songs to “epic” avant-garde closing songs.
We’re Only in it… crams 19 songs into under 40 minutes, and the last song takes up nearly 7 minutes of that. It’s a master course in rich, detailed economy. Those first 18 songs breeze past in what seems like seconds.
Eric Clapton shows up on both “Are you Hung Up?” and “Nasal Retentive Calliope Music” to shout and/or stonily reminisce against a strangely affecting sonic collage background. The latter song samples (in 1968!) a surf rock that Zappa produced.
“Who Needs the Peace Corps?” is a history lesson about LSD, the Grateful Dead, and Haight-Asbury, set to a nifty vocal melody and squawking sax. The other two songs in its suite – “Concentration Moon” and “Mom & Dad” – foreshadowed the Kent St. shootings with masterful songwriting. The latter may be the most moving song in the Zappa canon, set to a 2/2 beat elevated by mallet-played drums and an endlessly catchy guitar figure. I used to hum it while working in a Subaru factory during that endless, oppressive 2005 coma summer. “May be,” since “Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance,” despite its silly title, can nearly induce tears from me, for its high-minded idealism set to a parody doo-wop melody. It’s so good that a merely instrumental version of it salvaged the otherwise drab Lumpy Gravy album that Zappa issued in 1967.
“Mother People” pays homage to “sleeping in a phone booth” (what’s that, you’ll probably ask) and incorporates an orchestral section: all in under 3 minutes. “Lonely Little Girl” has a riff and a vocal that would make Led Zeppelin blush: it shifts so many gears and unveils so many motifs in its sub-2 minute running time that you wonder why anyone else tries.
There are so many details to go into, especially about the album’s tortured version history. And of course there’s the multi-layered beautiful guitars of “The Idiot Bastard Son” and the sick humor of “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black.” But I’ll stop for now. Next time, I’ll look at another one of my favorite albums.
“Technology” is a problematic term. Like “problematic,” it has a specific Greek etymology that, when scrutinized (a pastime of mine), reveals it to be distressingly vague in its meaning. Anything that is artful or crafted (techné) can be “technological.” So why limit this blog to the “traditional” (I really should cut back on the scare-marks in this blog) space of gadgets and apps, when there’s a whole world out there waiting to come under the “technological” (oops) lens of scrutiny? And what better to analyze than The Knife’s long-awaited triple/double album, Shaking the Habitual? Since it comes in a handy 3xLP/2xCD package (in Europe, if you’re lucky), it even bridges the divide between the digital and analog worlds (even such “worlds” even exist) while unfurling over an hour and a half of new original content.
But it’s more fascinating as an artifact from a cutting-edge (heh) band who have tapped one of the hoariest formats of music’s yesteryear (the gatefold double album) to contend with and combat, if even unintentionally (as if intent matters, but whatever), the current business models of music, which gives less reward for more work. In doing so, they use their enormous, obvious effort (a double album! seven years in the making!) to highlight, both implicitly and explicitly, Europe’s own ongoing issues with labor and shared currency.
The Knife are (this British noun/verb agreement structure seems appropriate here) an enormously accomplished band, and, really, their success could hardly have been more surprising. Aesthetically, the Swedish twins traffic in a brand of frenzied yet strangely introverted techno. At its heart is Karin Dreijer Andersson’s protean voice and the way it floats unsettlingly over the duo’s electronic stew, which seems to occupy the precise boundary at which fairytale-grade Scandinavian forest meets (obscure) nightclub: earnestly rustic, yet hipster, too.
As such, The Knife are a curious case-study for the notion of “technological progress,” since they simultaneously seem to excavate some indelibly vague set of older folk musics and notions of the album as a form (not to mention the work of Yoko Ono, whose work may now reasonably elicit a response of “She’s still alive?”) while also attracting the keen attention of the hyper-hip current music press and clubgoers alike. Other than the impending release of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories next month, there probably won’t be a bigger event in “indie” music (i.e., covered by websites with fancy CSS) this year. And speaking of Daft Punk, Shaking the Habitual is very much The Knife’s answer to that band’s dense, intellectual Human After All.
But The Knife aren’t just aestheticians; they’re political activists, which raises the stakes that accompany each of their projects. Their Venetian masks, insistences of privacy, and reluctance to perform live are delightfully anachronistic, if one’s idea of “–chronism” is the always-on/you have no privacy bullshit mantras of Eric Schmidt, Jeff Jarvis, and the general cult of Google (I love Google’s products – this is an Android blog, after all – but I don’t romanticize it as an organization). They’ve assaulted notions of gender via their approach to vocals, and they reprise their assault here in “Full of Fire,” which contains the Salt-N-Pepa referencing lyric “let’s talk about gender, baby / let’s talk about you and me.” And now, they’ve made a project bigger and more politically overwhelming than anything else in their repertoire, an album which uses both form and content to wedge itself uncomfortably against the political, musical, and social status quo.
Speaking of “bigger,” this is a huge album. Almost 100 minutes of new material. And to make it even harder to down than a rum-and-(Diet) Coke that was mixed, unfinished, and then rerefrigerated, it’s almost stridently idealistic in its politics. Translated, this means that it makes no compromises in terms of run times (tracks go upward of 10 minutes in length) and often broaches topics like the Euro’s slow-motion demise, as on “Stay Out There,” or the self-explanatory “Fracking Fluid Injection.” And is that PSY on the cover (probably not, but it would be topically appropriate)?
In their 1997 song “Bigger Than England,” Long Fin Killie bemoaned “waiting here for days, and still no hint of a thrill,” in the context of gently satirizing British rock music’s history of constantly changing genre labels (“let the post-punk dash left you behind…the morning dogs who protest retro rock n’ roll”). Shaking the Habitual, as its title suggests, takes a similar tack, that of a bored/skeptical onlooker who wants real change rather than the superficial changes and labels that surround them. It does this against the backdrop of major wealth redistribution thanks to the Euro and the proliferation of electronica into the awareness of average indie and pop listeners. “Bigger Than England”? Shaking the Habitual may as well be “Bigger Than Europe.”
Since many listeners now hear electronica simply by turning on any heavy rotation station, The Knife have reconfigured even their own already-abrasive musical language to be more far-out (and I mean that not simply generically, but with specific weight to the late 1960s music scene – more on that later). The stair-step synths from their 2004 masterpiece Deep Cuts and the murky atmospherics of Silent Shout anticipated the mainstreaming of indietronica and dubstep, respectively, so what’s next? Shaking the Habitual is a super-cohesive work: its songs share an homogenous sound that is shot-thru with cheap-sounding drum machines and synths. “Networking” recalls a more cynical Drexciya, while the Egyptian pipes of “Raging Lung” play like an elongated reprise of “Keep the Streets Empty for Me” from Dreijer Andersson’s Fever Ray solo album, while also mysteriously quoting Fugazi (“what a difference a little difference would make”). Nothing sounds like “the future” (and what does something that doesn’t exist yet sound like, anyway?), but I think that’s the point: the only way for The Knife to make a cutting point here is to dig into “the past,” for music presumed dead but which is actually very much still with us.
This approach is most liberally pursued on “Old Dreams Waiting to be Realized,” a 19-minute tone poem that stays true to its title by never really firing into action but instead lingering in the background, often inaudible. As the cynical exclamation on a difficult statement, it rivals The Mothers of Invention’s “The Chrome-Plated Megaphone of Destiny,” a similarly mysterious stretch of near-silence that capped their 1968 album We’re Only in it for the Money. The latter has often received epithets like “Most Lousy Song on a Great Album,” which I’m sure will be recycled in approaching “Old Dreams…” and how it fits into the otherwise fairly digestible Shaking the Habitual. Yes, for all of its difficulty, this album is a smooth listen, driven by Dreijer Andersson’s cheeky lyrics and androgynous vocals, not to mention more than a few vocal hooks, such as on “Raging Lung” and the delightfully droning “Cherry on the Top.”
The album’s surprising appeal – I’ve since spun it three more times – made me recall a recent missive from the musician Terre Thaemlitz. In the PDF liner notes to his unprecedented Soulnessless album (which I hope he won’t begrudge me quoting here) has written eloquently of how most high-profile projects inevitably surrender to prevalent norms about music:
“Our obsession for career compliancy with the mechanisms of the marketplace, even when producing “culturally critical” projects, betrays an underlying aspiration to the status quo. It also exposes a crippling religious faith in our labor only gaining true audibility through dominant notions of audience and visibility. The marketplace demands that we develop products aspiring to universality and mass appeal, with no concern for the detrimental aspects of homogenization. And even in our most sincere attempts at non-compliance, we magically seem to comply.”
The aforementioned homogenous sound of the album seems to indicate the same phenomenon occurring on Shaking the Habitual. But it complies in an odd way, by referencing the older double-album format (what is a “double album,” anyway, in an era in which so much music has no physical form?) and its various distinctive traits like very long tracks and short, palate-cleansing interludes, seen here in the Margaret Atwood-referencing “Oryx” and “Crake” songs, both of which clock in at under a minute. This plays more like The White Album, or one of The Mothers Of Invention’s more far-strung 1960s works (the double-disc Uncle Meat, for example) than any more recent double-album. In other words, The Knife are well-versed in the particular vocabulary of the album, and they have delivered a Big Statement of sorts by electing to release such a long-form work in an era defined by single-song downloads and streaming.
Or have they? Thaemlitz, in that same essay, also remarks:
“The album, as a compositional formation derived from those media durations, is dead in the wake of infinite single-track downloads. While there is a desire to celebrate audio recording’s liberation from the arbitrary time restrictions of archaic media formats, technological and corporately devised limitations of the MP3 format make any such celebration premature. Throughout the CD era, record labels have come to demand audio producers make projects that fill the longer digital media capacities. So much so that consumers now feel disappointment and even trickery when purchasing shorter albums. Yet all the while labels are paying lower advances and royalties. ”
Paradoxically, the era of seemingly short attention spans and discrete individual tracks has also given rise to huge, never-ending albums, keeping the old format in rather rude health. The long, overstuffed Shaking the Habitual, as such, is an amazingly poignant work for 2013, and this poignancy makes its venom all the more potent. It appears to lash out against environmental abuse and the “short century” caused by the Euro crisis. It’s a work that has the residue of recent economic crises all over it, as evinced by the “End Extreme Wealth” mantra on the vinyl edition’s cover.
But it makes an even more subtle point simply by way it marries seemingly archaic form with a consistent knack for pop. Even Pitchfork, in reviewing the pair’s contributions to the Tomorrow, in a Year opera, said that The Knife have always been a pop band at heart. And it’s this pop sensibility that reveals the band seemingly grappling with how to make a difficult Big Statement (on politics, on art) while subconsciously “complying” (to use Thaemlitz’s terminology) with pop norms in a way that only they can. In 2004, on “Listen Now,” they declared: “We seek and we will find/Reason to stay alive/The price has never been this low.” In 2013, amidst shrinking musical royalties and increasing inequality in Europe and the West, they have made good on that promise, staying alive thru the sheer weight and power of Shaking the Habitual.
-The ScreenGrab Team