Like the poor old man from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, this blog ain’t dead yet.¹
Yes, posting has been quite sporadic. This year has been filled with much flux and change. There’s been the grad school application racket, the teaching of 40-plus students a week out of a big box store, the adjusting to life in the alternate universe known as Long Island.² But that certainly hasn’t meant that I’ve stopped writing.
For those who haven’t followed, I am now writing for Jazz Speaks, the official blog of The Jazz Gallery, whom I think is one of the most important venues for new improvised music in New York. They’ve been a real incubator for a lot of great young talent from across the aesthetic spectrum, helping musicians go from “talent deserving wider recognition” to actually getting that recognition. I interview a couple of musicians each month about their upcoming shows and current projects, attempting to illuminate the experience of being a maker of art in today’s highly-connected world. I just posted an interview with the clarinetist and composer Mike McGinnis today and he’s doing some fantastic work in the cracks between jazz and contemporary concert music. Update your bookmarks and keep your heads up for more in the new year.
Some of you may now be looking for a top 10 list, like what any self-respecting music writer puts out at this time of year. However, now that I am far away from the large giveaway stacks at NPR headquarters and the regular stream of promo CDs popping up at the Princeton Record Exchange, I don’t feel I’ve listened to enough new music to really make a list of albums that have honestly affected me in a major way this year. But as I’ve looked at the end-of-year lists and listened to some of the tracks and albums that have made their way to the top of the heap, I’ve heard something – perhaps a trend, perhaps something less than that – that has gotten me thinking:
What’s with all the gauzy production out there?
Gauzy production? What the hell does that mean anyway, Kevin?
Well first of all, production refers to how all the sound sources are mixed and organized in a recording. When a production is gauzy, all of the sounds are organized in a way that makes them seem cold and distant, that they aren’t vibrating in an actual space. Sometimes it means that there’s too much reverb, or that the reverb doesn’t mimic a real space. Let’s look at exhibit A in that department: “Don’t Swallow the Cap” by the National from their album Trouble Will Find Me.
Listen closely to both the piano sound and the pulsing strings that dart in and out. The low piano notes are suffused with high overtones, creating a very complex sound. You can only get this sound by micing the exact piano string very closely to pick up all those subtleties. However, in order to make that sound stand out in the thick mix, the recording engineer had to add artificial reverb and boost the overall level. So instead of emphasizing the unique color of that note, the production makes the piano seem artificial. We feel uneasy because we know that this sound could only be generated using a great deal of digital technology.
The string parts are recorded not with a full section, but with what sounds like a quartet (a whole section would probably be too expensive for an indie record like this, even one for a band as big as The National). While recording with a string quartet vs. a section can give a greater point to the sound, it seems the band wanted the sweep of a whole section, so they added a good deal of artificial reverb. However, the reverb doesn’t feel natural. The sound of the strings tends to decay quickly after each articulation, and then the tail of the note is held for longer than one would expect.
The effect of these production choices undermines what I think makes The National a good band. There are very few rock performers out there who are as technically proficient on their instruments as the members of The National are. For instance, guitarist Bryce Dessner can shred with the contemporary classical crowd (see his other group Clogs and his work with Bang on a Can/Steve Reich) and drummer Bryan Devendorf comes up with the most melodic, almost chamber music-like grooves in rock. They sound terrific live – go check out their Tiny Desk concert and performance at Bonnaroo from this past year. When I listen to the great songs of “Trouble Will Find Me” from the studio album, I feel I’m almost getting a really good midi mockup of the songs, rather than an immediate, messy, and human live performance.
Another way that production can feel gauzy is if all the instruments are mixed in a way that prevents their sounds from interacting with each other like they would in an acoustic space. To see this issue in action, let’s look at the song “Man” from Neko Case’s standout album from this year.
On the surface, Tucker Martine’s production on this track is virtuosic. The arrangement is just seething with energy from a full-bodied piano, a blazing distorted guitar, and Brian Blade’s ferocious drums. Yet even with all of this sound coming out of the speakers, each instrument seems to have its own frequency band. If you listen carefully, you can pick out what each instrument is doing quite easily. And when Neko comes in on the first verse, her voice superhumanly floats over the fray. Martine’s ability to somehow both overload the listener, yet make each part clear, is uncanny, but not always in a good way. Again, during the course of the song, one gets a sense that the particular blend of instrument levels is impossible to create in a real space. The drums reverberate differently from the guitar, which reverberates differently from Neko’s voice. With this production, it sounds like all the band members could be recording in different locations and just listening to each other over an internet connection. The effect is particularly noticeable on Brian Blade’s drums. The characteristic of Blade’s drumming that I love most is the warmth he is able to coax from his instruments; how he somehow is able to create this gorgeous halo of sound around everyone else he plays with. By regulating the drums and cymbals to a narrow band of sound, Martine saps Blade’s performance of its warmth, making it sadly anonymous.
These aren’t the only examples of gauzy production on highly-touted pop albums this year. It happens on Kanye’s Yeezus and Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City (though the production on Arcade Fire’s Reflektor is surprisingly less so, especially on the title track). Why is this the case?
Well I think part of it has to do with digital sound sources. No matter what you do to a digital synthesizer patch, it’s nearly impossible to make it sound organic and in a real space. There’s a reason why electronic music pioneers like Daria Semegen still work with analog instruments and composers like Steve Reich abandoned electronic instruments altogether.
But that’s not the only reason – there certainly aren’t very many digital sounds on Neko Case’s record, and only marginally more on The National’s. The other reason for this rise in gauzy production is a change in how we listen to music now. Despite the rise in vinyl sales, most listeners around the world don’t have fancy Hi-Fi systems. For most of us, we listen to music out of tinny earbuds and laptop speakers, or marginally-better car speakers. In order for us to get pulled in by a song, it needs to come screaming out of those inadequate speakers, pushing them as hard as they can go. If these speakers can’t do nuance, then why should there be any in production?
Case in point: let’s look at the waveform for The National’s “Don’t Swallow the Cap.”
Sorry to pick on you guys…
It’s at almost the highest sound amplitude (volume) possible for the entire song. It makes for a good first impression, but it gets a bit overwhelming on subsequent listens, as the volume gets in the way of experiencing the lovely inner parts.
However, there are some musicians who are bucking that trend and making music where the production feels immediate, tactile, and very human. One of the best examples from this year I think is from jazz/folky/poppy singer-songwriter Rebecca Martin on her album Twain. With the sonic image of “Don’t Swallow the Cap” fresh in our minds, let’s take a look at the first track off Martin’s album, called “To Up and Go.”
Now that’s better.
Just from looking at the waveform, we can see that the song is thinner and more delicate. But what you can’t tell from the waveform is how tactile Martin’s acoustic guitar and Larry Grenadier’s bass feel. Because the speakers aren’t overwhelmed by a huge amount of different instruments boosted too high in the mix, you can hear every plucked string, every decaying phrase as if you’re sitting right in front of them. The record was recorded in the living room of Martin’s friend Peter Rende and Rende does a phenomenal job of capturing the warmth and intimacy of that setting. Even when Dan Rieser’s drums are added to the mix, they don’t overwhelm the material – you can still hear each sweep of the brush on the snare drum head. Even with a set of only semi-decent headphones (I still use a pair of $30 Sennheisers from 2009), Martin’s songs feel natural and intimate, an oasis of calm in an over-saturated world.
So while I did love Trouble Will Find Me and The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight and Yeezus, I think the albums that I’m going to keep returning to are the ones like Twain that don’t feel bound by production trends. I’m going to return to the albums that know the ultimate timeless power of humans using voices and pieces of wood and metal and animal guts to make art in whatever room they may be in.
Here are some other lovely, organic-sounding records from this year (in no particular order):
Maria Schneider & Dawn Upshaw: Winter Morning Walks
Sam Amidon: Bright Sunny South
Amir ElSaffar: Alchemy
Stephan Crumb’s Rosetta Trio: Thwirl
The Claudia Quintet: September
Joe Fiedler’s Big Sackbut: Sackbut Stomp
Michael McGinnis +9: Road*Trip
Craig Taborn Trio: Chants
Sarah Jarosz: Bring Me Up from Bones
1. Though the same can’t be said for one by a New York Times jazz columnist.
2. Seriously. Bob Moses designed it so it’s almost impossible to escape – traffic jams on the Belt, traffic jams on the Cross-Bronx, pokey train service…