Saturday, July 19, 2008

KQED Music: Record Keeping

I love my record collection, and I'm pretty sure it loves me. Sure, we've had our occasional ups and downs over the years, particularly after I've said something thoughtless and stupid like "you've got to slim down a bit." Fortunately, we learned from our mistakes and in the end these hard times only made our bond stronger. But then, in April 2007, things changed.

At first I thought my trip to the United States was going to be temporary and we would only be apart for a few months. Then, when I decided to stay here, the months stretched out to more than a year. I've got to be honest, it put serious strain on both of us. I even began flirting with new CDs and records here in the U.S. while my collection, my REAL collection, languished neglected in my mother's attic in Edinburgh.

But a couple of months ago, after an arduous 10,000-mile journey by sea, my music finally joined me here in San Francisco. And that's when the real work started. Sure, my records hadn't changed much, but I had gotten married and moved in with my new wife. Plus I had left all of my furniture in the UK, so I now had none of the cases or boxes my record collection used to call home.

Rather than pretend nothing had happened, we decided to make a fresh start. Our first step was to visit the wonderful Fenton MacLaren unfinished furniture store in Berkeley, which sells inexpensive pine shelving units designed to fit CDs, DVDs, records, or books. If their standard sizes don't work for you, then you can do what I did and have a unit custom-built to your own measurements for not much extra cost.

Next came the dreaded question: how to organize it all? With a total of around 1,000 CDs, I realized that I couldn't just fill the shelves and hope for the best. They had to be sorted in a way that made sense not just to me but to my new wife as well.

In the past I operated a system loosely based on the "cream rises" principle: if you simply stack CDs back on top of each other after you listen to them, less-popular discs will tend to sink to the bottom of the heap, while your favorites will stay nearer the top where they're easier to get at. I also grouped discs in piles that corresponded loosely to genre, although some of these were admittedly looser than others. My jazz section, for example, would have been obvious to anyone, but the fine line between the subsections devoted to "miserable music" and "CDs to drunkenly fall asleep to" probably wouldn't have made sense to anyone but myself.

The solution to this organizational conundrum was to do something so drastic it still makes me slightly nauseous to even talk about: I alphabeticized my entire collection.

(A quick technical note: I ordered by artist name, with solo acts filed by surname. I haven't been too strict about it though, for example sticking Bill Callahan's solo album next to his recordings as Smog.)

You may be wondering why I don't just get with the 21st century and import all the CDs onto my computer. The truth is I don't have nearly enough space on my hard disk and, even if I did, it would take me far longer to rip them all than it has done to simply organize them a bit. Plus, I like browsing through physical piles of CDs and records. They have details such as price tags on the cases that remind me where I was when I bought them, or stains on the sleeves from that party where I dropped a beer into my record bag. At the risk of sounding like an over-romantic luddite, you don't get that from iTunes.

One added bonus I gained from the process, other than learning that I have a surprising number of recordings by artists whose names start with P, was that finally I was forced to do something about all those CDs that have thin, sleeve-like covers (mainly singles, promos, and CD-Rs) rather than proper plastic jewel cases with a legible spine. Previously, I had kept them all together in one big, impenetrable bunch, and had rarely bothered searching through them. Now, that was going to change.

But how to organize these slim-sided treasures? Mixing them individually with the rest wouldn't be much of an improvement as they'd be pretty much invisible next to their thicker-cased cousins. Instead, I decided to create groups of them corresponding to each letter of the alphabet, then place these on the shelves to serve as sort of markers for the start and end of each letter's section in the larger throng. And, rather than just placing these little piles loose on the shelf, I decided to make little cardboard files for them, like the ones you get for magazines but smaller. That way I can stick little letters on the front too, and ... Oh my god. Is this going too far?

That's the problem with organization: knowing where to stop. My record collection used to be an organic mess, one which reflected my eclectic, ever-evolving tastes; now it looks neat and tidy, like an accountant's sock drawer. Sure I feel organized, but I also feel slightly soiled by the whole process. The next thing you know I'll be one of those people who has a motorized tie holder in their closet. Is this who I want to be?

I only hope my record collection can forgive me, once again.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.

Friday, July 4, 2008

KQED Music: Americana

So much of listening to music is about context. The same tune can sound completely different depending on where, when, and how you hear it. Equally, there is some music for which such petty considerations fade, music so ubiquitous it's virtually timeless and placeless.

For example, I can't remember the first time I heard a Bob Dylan record. His music seems to have always just been there, to exist on a higher plane, untouched by mere day-to-day circumstance. Which is not to say that context has disappeared entirely, just that it takes some major shift to make music like this seem new, to let you hear it with fresh ears.

Luckily, it turns out that moving from Britain to the United States has given me exactly that kind of jolt. Since arriving in San Francisco just over a year ago, I've been given a whole new perspective on the American music I once heard from afar, particularly artists such as Dylan whose music is steeped in the history of the place.

What was once vague and distant, like a half-remembered story from my youth, has been reinvented as something rooted in a specific place, much more real, concrete, and suddenly relevant.

Which got me to thinking, what precisely is Americana? It is a hard concept to pin down. But that's also one of the things that makes American music so fascinating, as these three recent albums demonstrate.

Laura Cantrell: Planes And Boats And Trains

Nashville-born New Yorker Cantrell pulls off the remarkable trick of reminding us what's great about country music while simultaneously helping us forget all that's bad about most of its modern incarnations. Better still, she steers us on this path with such an easy grace that you almost don't realize it's happening.

Her latest download-only album of covers is based around the theme of travel, so it was fitting to first hear it while driving through the countryside around Tahoe. In a place like that, Cantrell's elegant, bewitching voice singing "The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down / Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee" makes perfect sense. The effect is, like the landscape in that part of Northern California, both delightful and dramatic.

The songs are drawn from disparate sources, ranging from the predictable (folk legend Gordon Lightfoot's "Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald," quoted above), to the unexpected (a haunting version of New Order's "Love Vigilantes"). But none seem odd or forced, including the title track, a perfectly weighted take on the Bacharach and David song, which brings out its delicate emotion without ever turning saccharine.

'Trains and Boats and Planes' is available for download from iTunes, Amazon, and eMusic.

Blind Willies: Everybody's Looking For A Meal

Imagine the White Stripes driven by the fevered folk of Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie, and you might get some idea of where the Blind Willies are coming from. Duo Annie Staninec and Alexei Wajchman have brought a punky attitude to bear on songs whose templates have long histories.

Alexei's voice drawls and snarls over agitated guitar, while Annie's fiddle playing gives the music it's whirling, devilish heart. Like Meg and Jack before them, they combine to create a sound bigger than the mere sum of their parts. High points include the rich, sneering sarcasm of "Mom Says No," the bluesy, Jagger-esque swagger of "Shark Out of Water," and the dark gypsy sorcery of "Sinners Medley."

The line between the past and present is muddied in the melée: You can as easily imagine "If You Was a Good Pimp" being penned in a dingy prohibition-era juke joint as by Snoop Dogg. It's this sound, of traditional music being seized by musicians with new, fiercely held ideas of their own, that makes this album so invigorating.

'Everybody's Looking for a Meal' is out now on Diggory Records. Blind Willies are currently touring the western states, with details available on their website.

Bon Iver: For Emma, Forever Ago

Bon Iver started building a steady snowstorm of praise for their debut album even before it was released early this year. However, despite the presence of some twanging banjo, it isn't exactly typical Americana. It sounds more like a downtempo, acoustic version of a TV on the Radio album, if you can imagine such a thing. There are modern rhythms (the subtle, insistent electronic thump that drives "Lump Sum"); unusual arrangements ("The Wolves Acts I & II," which starts with a simple strumming guitar, but ends up tripping and clattering in all sorts of directions); and, all the while, multitracked falsetto vocals that reach for notes and emotions far beyond the typical range.

Despite all this, it's also unmistakeably American and rural; it is Americana in the simple sense that it couldn't have been recorded anywhere else. The album is the result of three months Justin Vernon, the band's creative force, spent writing and recording in a cabin during the remote desolation of a Wisconsin winter. It is no surprise, then, that it is filled with isolated longing and space, as well as a wonderful, raw honesty on tracks such as "Skinny Love" and "Creature Fear." It is an album to treasure, wherever you are.

'For Emma, Forever Ago' is out now on Jagjaguwar. Bon Iver play the Outside Lands festival in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park on 24 August.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.