I share respected international journalist, correspondent for The Atlantic and former Jimmy Carter speechwriter James Fallows’ love of this duo.
So it’s lovely to see them back in the game.
Jack Conte here describes how things went sideways for a bit, in a circuitous presentation about his new and worthwhile venture, a way for regular people to collectively patronize creativity that is more day-to-day than Kickstarter.
Mostly when I watch them, I notice the, to me at least, heartbreaking details of the house they clearly live and work in. Heartbreaking in the sense that it’s a thing I would have loved to have done, if it were possible when I was young with the capacity to absorb financial shocks, and had I had the imagination to conceive it.
What they are doing, or the guys responsible for Rocket Jump, or Corridor Digital, is a version of the box ramen fueled internet startup, but with entertainment rather than software as the outcome.
They aren’t the first artist collectives to bootstrap members, but these have a newer quality colored by tech startup culture. That’s not the best culture to emulate, though it seems like these creative takes on it are following a bit more humane path. The tech startup is like house flipping: inflate the value of as simple an idea as possible and sell it high as soon as you can. These creative starups seem to be using the same general template but the end result is creator owned small businesses instead.
This idea deserves a more thoughtful treatment than I can spare the glucose for right now.
So here, have a little improbable combination of Pomplamoose, Ben Folds and Nick Hornby.
I got a turntable in early January. I haven’t had one of those in over 20 years. The plan is to find and listen to at least one new artist’s music on vinyl each month of 2013. Not old records found in used record shops. New albums pressed by current musicians.
The first album I picked up was valtari by sigur ros. I was going to talk about that one but then in mid January something more interesting came along.
(valtari is very lovely, however! Listen to this, one of my favorite tracks, and imagine it with the delicious subliminal vinyl hiss:)
At this event, Meredith Yayanos, spooky Theremin player, was going to play while Mr. Negovan recorded her onto wax cylinder using an antique Edison machine. This very one:
Here they are not yet recording onto wax:
And here is a video that was taken on that night, apparently right next to my head, by someone else:
Ok, scene set?
I went to this mainly to see Meredith play, as Theremin players are not exactly thick on the ground, so on principal you should go see them when they happen to electromagnetically oscillate by. But in this case she is also someone I’ve had a years long tenuous twitter acquaintance with, and was looking forward to the opportunity to meet her in person.
Add to that the weird brilliance of using an utterly mechanical recording device that uses no electricity whatsoever (the wax recorder is powered by a hand-wound spring and a membrane agitated by actual moving air is what directly depresses the needle into the turning cylinder) to record an instrument that is so utterly electrical that its very strings are an electromagnetic field.
They both suspected that nobody had ever recorded Theremin onto wax cylinder before. I suspect that was true, but it was done that night.
The experiment was interesting, but the recording wasn’t terrific. The cylinders don’t capture any subtlety or much tonal range. Often the Theremin would drop out to silence on the playback, or meander aimlessly as whole layers of sound were just lost. What remained sounded hilariously like an operatic cartoon flea.
The whole process was fascinating to watch! Here is a video not from that night, but giving a feel for what it takes to get sound on that wax, and what the playback sounds like:
For sale at the event were several vinyl records of other music Thomas Negovan had recorded onto wax using the same machine. This fit my Year in Vinyl effort so beautifully that I picked up one of each, sight unheard. On the way out, chatting a moment with him, he warned me the sound quality was not terrific on the first one, a bit better on the second, and he felt the 7″ 45 single was the best.
That is an accurate assessment. But even the very rough sound on the two LPs is worth a listen for the novelty of the recording process. The 45 is gorgeous, maybe one of the loveliest raw pair of songs I’ve heard in a while.
First off, the packaging. It is superior. Hand made, screen printed, uniquely splattered, designed very, very well. He has made up for the weakness in audio quality with visual elegance. For experimental objects like these, that goes a long way.
The first album is called By Popular Demand. He had three different editions, I got the one above.
This album has eight songs on it, but they are really, really difficult to hear. The reason is that they were all recorded, transferred and pressed without ever being digitized and enhanced. He set himself a challenge: could he get this album from wax recording to vinyl entirely by analog process? Yes, he could. The record sleeve is printed with a detailed explanation, but basically he recorded first onto wax, then from wax onto magnetic tape, then delivered that tape master to the vinyl press for production. At no point was it ever converted to bits, but the consequence of that was he was never able to enhance the audio to compensate for the weakness of the wax cylinders.
Here is an example of how it sounds. This track sounds much clearer on youtube than it actually does on the record.
The thing I found the most entertaining about listening to this one was that I had the volume turned up so high just to make out the music that whenever the needle popped it sounded like a firecracker going off in the next room.
The second album is called The Divine Nightmare:
It contains just two songs, The Divine Eye, an original, and then a cover of Alice Cooper’s Welcome to My Nightmare:
You can hear from that the sound is improved, but still not great. He still recorded first to wax cylinder, but then converted the recording to digital and worked on it a bit to clarify the sound. It has a disturbing quality to it that probably would work as an effect or layer of mood to a fuller composition, but on its own is still not the strongest work.
The disk itself is green translucent vinyl with a red label and the sleeve is a giant eyelid through which the record shows in a cutout, so that the whole thing looks like a monstrous eye. It’s a visually impressive object. but you won’t find yourself listening to it too often.
This simple cloudy violet 7″ got flipped back and front multiple times on my turntable the day after I brought it home. It is lush. Just listen to the side 1 here:
I can’t really describe how much better this sounds on the record itself, other than that the raggedness in her voice feels physical. You can feel the needled scratching out of her throat. The B side isn’t on youtube, but it’s an even better song. These were not recorded first on wax, they are just straightforward recordings by Alice Genese of Psychic TV, produced by Thomas Negovan in a way that keeps the best aspects of his antique analog experimentation without sacrificing modern technique or audio quality.
Honestly these two songs are worth the entire set of albums.
So, that’s January. I would be shocked if I find anything even comparable in technical ambition to these for the whole rest of the year. I’ll likely listen to these less often than whatever is to come (with the exception of that 7″, which really is outstanding), but for their embrace of deliberate, almost Dogme 95 grade obstructions, they deserve respect.
Meredith Yayanos also has a new album out called The Parlour Trick. Just Listen. Then buy it from her. Because spooky that’s why.