Thursday, February 18, 2010

TVD Previews the next Story/Stereo Edition | J. Robbins Sings J. Robbins

There's a classic trope that says songs are only songs if you can play them on acoustic guitar, and that if you rely on production tricks, feedback, electronics, and other such affrontery, that the song isn't *real.* (In fact, I remember Jawbox contemporaries Edsel specifically trying to write songs that you couldn't play on acoustic guitar.)

Can you play a Jawbox song on acoustic guitar? I'm a big enough fan that I can assure you yes, you can, but we'll find out for sure this coming Friday at our next Story/Stereo event, when J. Robbins himself, joined by cellist Gordon Withers, will play songs spanning his catalog.

We're thrilled and honored to have J. for the fourth Story/Stereo—it almost feels like a culminating event—and urge you to join us, because this kind of thing doesn't happen very often.

In point of fact, J. has never done this before.

Get to The Writer's Center early (before the 8:00 start time if you can swing it), not only to hear readings from authors Marianne Villanueva (*Mayor of Roses*) and Steve Fellner (*All Screwed Up*), but because there are only so many chairs in the place.

—Matthew Byars,
The Caribbean, co-curator, Story/Stereo

Per our previous Story/Stereo features, we’ve asked one of the evening’s musicians, cellist Gordon Withers, to reflect upon an epiphany. Of the vinyl variety. —Ed.

Swervedriver - Ejector Seat Reservation (1995, Creation)

On an evening in the fall of 1996, I was thumbing through the vinyl section with some friends at Looney Tunes in Cambridge, MA. Suddenly, it appeared, with a blocky "IMPORT ONLY, $7" sticker. I was dumbfounded - a third Swervedriver album? When had this happened? I had stumbled upon a lost classic.

That night, we excitedly returned with our respective hauls. I hadn't bothered to bring my turntable that freshman year at college, but a friend and fellow Swervedriver fan in my dorm had one. The needle was ground to a blunt tip, probably horrible on the records, and the preamp barely worked, but we frantically hooked it up to my stereo anyway. When we were finally able to listen to Ejector Seat Reservation, it was like opening a secret treasure chest. I couldn't believe I hadn't heard or read about the album anywhere.

The music was like a revelation - like if the Beatles had only listened to Dinosaur Jr - totally different from their first two albums but just as brilliant, if not more so. My roommate, a Long Island native who normally only listened to Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel, was captivated (this is a guy who changed his handwriting style to match The Boss's). I'd come back from class to find the turntable shut off with the needle in the middle of the record - he had been playing it and of course had no idea how to operate a record player.

For two months it was all anyone listened to. I made cassettes of it for friends and mailed them far and wide. It became the soundtrack to that magical time in early college, when one is assaulted from all sides with sensory overload - incredible class workloads, the thrill of being away from home for the first time, the crush and craziness of living with hundreds of fellow students, forging lifelong friendships, exploring a new city, going to shows, staying up all night....

As most Swervedriver fans know, there is a good reason I never heard ESR until chancing upon it in the dusty vinyl bins at Looney Tunes - the band had been dropped by their label within days of its release in the UK, before a US distribution deal could be worked out. This was two years before mp3s started becoming more ubiquitous, and three years before Napster quietly launched, foreshadowing not only the death-knell of the CD-based music industry, but also the way we all discover new music.

It was probably the last time I had such a magical record-buying experience. It was probably the last time anyone could have such an experience. Eventually, mp3s of ESR could be found on any file-sharing site, even though the album never was released state-side. In 1996, though, the only way we could have ever heard it was by finding a rare import copy, or getting a cassette dub from a friend of a friend of a friend who happened to own it.

I'm not saying we should go back to the time when it was exponentially more difficult to learn about and locate good new music. But it's worth considering what we've lost. It's still a thrill to buy a vinyl record - they're beautiful, often limited editions, and they sound better than CDs and mp3s. But back in '96, that vinyl copy of Ejector Seat Reservation was probably the only extant copy of that music in any record store in all of Boston. There were no mp3s - the only way to hear the music was to play this one record.

That will likely never be the case with any good piece of music ever again. Gone is the thrill of finding it, of holding something so odd and rare in your hands. Gone is the motivation to play it over and over for weeks and months, soaking up every nuance, getting the absolute most enjoyment possible out of an amazing work. The flood of the digital age has shortened our attention spans - there is so much information and new music out there, that listening to the same thing many times in a row is no longer normal. Taking the time to quietly contemplate a work of art is not easy in 2010 - it is a deliberate, conscious act, requiring effort to block out a flood of distractions.

The digital age of music is a mixed blessing. I love that I can find at least a soundclip of nearly anything within a minute or two. But at the same time, I'm glad I was able to experience the magic of discovering music in a time when it was not so easy.

TVD's Pie in the Sky

#4. More art than artifice, please. Thank you.

Japan - The Art of Parties (Mp3)
Martha & the Muffins - Paint by Number Heart (Mp3)
Billy Bragg - Must I Paint You a Picture (Mp3)
10cc - Art For Art's Sake (Mp3)
Spoon - Believing Is Art (Mp3)