29 December 2007

Seeing music on the small screen

There is something that has bothered me for a good while, a puzzle that I will probably never be able to solve completely. How did I hear so much Motown when I was growing up? And, even more so, how did I hear so much of the Stax and Volt catalogs?

I never thought about it until a few years ago when I was talking to someone about Booker T and the MGs and got off on a sidetrack about Otis Redding. He wanted to know how I had gotten onto that music, since I am thoroughly from the Wonder Bread people. I couldn't answer him. I realized at that moment that I had no idea.

Thinking about it more hasn't gotten me far. Until I was grown up, I never had access to a radio station that played much of that material beyond the biggest Motown hits. I didn't go to concerts outside of the gruesome kind they have on holidays at school. I did hear a lot of Mexican music growing up (because of where I lived), but Stax?

Over the last month or two, I have been thinking more generally about how the ways I find and get music are different now than they were before my enforced hiatus from my usual immersion.

(Side comment: if you are ever in a relationship with someone who will reach across in front of you to turn off your music, even though you listen patiently to his oompah-disco album (and I'm not kidding on that--check out the Dolomiten Sextet if you are brave), that is a BIG RED FLAG that you should run away, because it only goes downhill from that.)

To get a handle on what changed, I have been thinking again about how I did before. I know I have mentioned having a radio all the time, but for a long time, that was a cheap AM radio that didn't pick up much beyond the hit-du-jour pop stations. My parents didn't believe in pocket money, so I wasn't buying a lot of albums. So how did I soak up music before I moved into FM and record stores?

I find myself thinking I must have been MTV generation before MTV. I remember watching every single show with or about music that I could on television: variety shows, award shows, tributes, New Year's Eve shows, specials, everything. I snuck down at night to watch all sorts of late-night small-local-station television (which is where I got my taste for old movies).

I also listened to a lot of movies and figured out who did the music that they played, but I that would have been more of a factor after I hit the age of FM. I also went through the albums of anyone we visited, but that would have been other Wonder Bread people and more reading the album covers than listening to the albums.

And this brings me to the same place I usually finish: how could I have found the music that I know I listened to? Was there really so much cool stuff scattered around on television before MTV brought it together?

This time around, I started doing some aggressive Googling and started to remind myself about things like Otis Redding on American Bandstand, Simon and Garfunkel on Dick Cavett, The Who on The Smothers Brothers. Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin. Flip Wilson. Even Shindig, for crying out loud. And then I started to wonder if MTV (and its kin) really made the availability of music on television worse, killing off competing forms and then getting bored with actual, you know, music.

People talk a lot about variety television coming back, but that doesn't seem ever to go much past the obligatory musical guests on late-night TV.

I have noticed over the last few years that there is music coming back all over television again, but in a different way: turning scenes in programs like extreme sports shows, The OC, CSI:Wherever into de facto music videos. It's good exposure for the music and there are web sites dedicated to listing the songs used in the various episodes. Hear it, like it, talk about it with your friends, buy it. Helps the shows establish their coolness and style, packages the style for the audience.

It almost makes modern episodic television into a low-density version of the old heyday of FM radio, come to think of it. One particularly interesting change from earlier televised music (variety or video) is that the artist is invisible, just like on radio. (The visual style is from the palette of the show, not from the artist.) It is very significant, I think, that this musical programming is appearing on over the air broadcast television. Those channels are available to more people than cable, and since there are fewer such channels, the audience much more heterogeneous than for a cable program. There isn't much music available that way, and the gatekeepers are national corporate functionaries, so there is a lot less chance for diversity and serendipity, but it is an interesting new step in an old direction.

Track-downloading services are also a new step in an old direction (even though I bet no one reading this ever had any old real albums, with individual singles collected into paper sleeves in notebooks), and I have been messing around with those for a while now so I could write about them. I think first I will need to write about what gatekeepers are good for, though. So, more to come.

Now, I'm feeling like some urban grit house music. Time to spin some CSI:NY. (Oh, that reminds me that you should hear what they did to extend "Baba O'Riley" for the opening credits this year--a latin-urban-percussion remix. I'm not sure it works, but it fails in an interesting way.)

Plug of the Day: Gentry Morris

Today's genre puzzle is Gentry Morris. I see him tagged here and there as "alternative", "modern folk", "Alt Country", and "Pop/Folk/Acoustic". I guess those look like a coherent package (a lot easier to digest than the "Alt Surf" that I ran into for another band a while ago), but it doesn't quite click for me. I am doomed to be a splitter, I suppose. Gentry Morris is a singer-songwriter from Georgia who went to Nashville for a while and is now in Ireland. His music is a lot like the guy on the deck at the party in college, you know, the one with the guitar and the idea that he is a lot better than everyone else thinks he is. Except imagine that that the deck guy really was a good songwriter and had a pleasant voice and could play the guitar pretty well. And then imagine that he really did pack up and go to Nashville and pay his dues and release albums (indie, but still actual product instead of hot-air dreams). Then you have Gentry Morris. He doesn't write big songs about big ideas. Not edgy or angry. Just good old songs about life and stuff. It would be a big mistake to track-pick on this one, because he hasn't recorded a flashy breakout-hit kind of song. (Although I would nominate "Big" from 2004's Daydreams if I got to pick.) Despite that, the songs don't all sound the same. (And this is another thing I have learned is worth mentioning after a lot of sampling of real-indie albums.) If you accidentally click "repeat", (a) you can tell that the album is recycling and (b) you won't hurting yourself jumping over to cancel that and move on to the next album. The album as a whole is a very nice package of music that sticks to your ribs. My only hesitation in giving a complete rave is that his voice is pleasant but a bit thin, and he doesn't play it as well as he plays his guitar. It's not bad, but it's not compelling. He has a live album out of pretty much the same material as on the studio album. I don't think that the live performances are as good as the polished ones, because he hurries the tempo and doesn't control his voice as well, but I almost always prefer studio versions so weight my opinion with that. (The exception being Five Star Iris's live acoustic album, which mostly I like better than the studio tracks, but don't tell them because they probably spent a lot of money on the studio version and all the electric thingummies. But I am getting lost on a sidetrack...) I think that his studio performances are still very personal and connected, even though they are not acoustic--I don't have liner notes so I can't give a shout out to the producer for that. And, as I see I neglected to mention, the nice songs he writes about life and stuff are very good songs. He's not Lucinda Williams or Steve Goodman or Guy Clark, but then who is? He's only 25 or so, and he's got a lot of insight and perspective for a kid. I'd like to hear his work when he has had a little more mileage and his voice has a little more grit, but I think what he is doing now is well worth your time and your sawbuck.

Gentry Morris
on CDBaby.com

26 December 2007

Plug of the Day: Dick Dale, Guitar God

Those of you who are guitar geeks have already nodded. If you aren't, you are probably rolling your eyes. "Surf music! What a lameass musical fad. Amber has finally finished losing it." Well, you are so lucky: today you get to learn something new. When you think of "surf music", you are probably thinking about something like Chantays' hit "Pipeline" (here on the The Lawrence Welk Show, 1963): Well, here is what Dick Dale did with "Pipeline" in 1987 (with Stevie Ray Vaughan, featured in Back to the Beach): While the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Eric Clapton were turning skiffle and blues into rock, Dick Dale was turning the Middle Eastern music and non-western tunings of his childhood into shredding. He wanted to make music that conveyed the surfing experience. Surfing is not Frankie and Annette. It is fast, hard, and loud, and the surfers are a very rough crowd. Surfing is metal. In 1963, while the Chantays were practicing their snappy guitar choreography, Dale was recording Misirlou (here as seen in an otherwise best-forgotten film): That was 1963 and he was already delivering the now-standard guitar-god package: shredding, grimaces, wide guitarslinger stance, putting english on the guitar neck, all of it. (Let's pretend we never saw the rest of the band.) These filmed performances don't come close to conveying the full Dick Dale Experience, either. He was all about The Loud. I mean, as loud as you can imagine and then turn the dial up again. When he started, guitar amps went up to maybe 4. He blew out so many that Fender had to develop a custom job for him so he could crank it up to 11. And then that forced development of custom speakers, and so on. For your pure admiration and listening enjoyment, here is his 1996 version of Misirlou (when he was 60): People talk about Keith Richards surviving the nuclear apocalypse, but I'd put my money on Dick Dale. Listen to Dick Dale. Buy Dick Dale. Worship Dick Dale. I'd say that if you want to start modestly, get Tribal Thunder. If you want to take a plunge, go for Better Shred than Dead.
Dick Dale on Amazon.com