balancing act

A few months back, I bought (and listened) with great pleasure to the new  release of Paul McCartney’s Band On The Run. Like a lot of people, I find McCartney’s post-Beatles output easy to like and hard to love; like a lot of those same people, BOTR is the exception.

It sounds amazing coming off my laptop by way of asynchronous USB, (you know what this means only if you’re into computer audio) and then to an amp and out to a pair of Sennheiser 650s. It’s as natural as my memory of the vinyl, with even more depth to the sound.

(It’s a high definition release, for what that’s worth, but I think the real secret to the sound is how it was remastered, with the quiet parts allowed to be quiet, the loud parts loud, without everything being pushed for maximum effect. The well-known paradox of modern music is, the more you try to add impact to a recording by boosting the quiet parts, the less you accomplish.)

Yet for all I’m rediscovering and liking about BOTR, it’s rock and roll as spectator sport, which pretty much summed up the early 70s . So I was brought up short when I hit this passage in an article Greil Marcus wrote back then, and which is collected in his Bob Dylan, Writings 1968-2010.

When I listen to the radio today, I hear Paul McCartney, Elton John. At home I play Steely Dan’s Pretzel Logic, Roxy Music’s Stranded, and Roxy Music singer Bryan Ferry’s strange new oldies album, These Foolish ThingsBefore The Flood (a Dylan live album) exposes the calculation of these records. They are so well made, either in terms of simple production (Paul and Elton) or a whole vision of popular culture (Steely Dan, Roxy Music, Bryan Ferry) that they leave almost no room for the listener to create. The tension between musicians and audience is prosecribed; your responses have been figured out, and if the artist is good at his job, you go where he wants you to go.

Reading that, I felt like someone had handed me (yet another!) secret that had been hidden in plain sight. I have tried for decades to put my finger on why some music cuts me open, (Dylan, Springsteen, old country, jazz) and why some music can be admirable, smart, interesting, and never lay a hand on me.

This is not to say ‘authenticity’ trumps all. Some of the most ‘inauthentic’ music, in terms of how it’s played and made, is dance music, and yet dance music demands ‘room for the listener to create.’ It produces some of the healthiest relationships between producer and consumer.

Conversely, there is music that relies too much on the consumer. After many years of listening, I believe that at least some metal and hard core is too heavily weighted in the direction of the audience, that it depends too greatly on the notion of how it is received. (In this way, it is cousin to the hard rock acts of the 70s, with their incessant drones about ‘cheatin’ women’ and ‘hard times on the road.’)

Finally, there is music that is not ‘well made’ or ‘complete,’ but follows its own strange muse, and in so doing allows for only one kind of creativity by the listener – the struggle to come to terms with it. Some of Cage is like that, and lately I’ve been listening to an album by the horn player Colin Stetson, in which he performs something that lies between music and soundscape. His big claim to fame is that his stuff is done in real time, though it sounds processed and unworldly. It can be bracing, but for me at least, once you get over the thrill of ‘he actually makes these sounds,’ there is not enough story to hold my attention.


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