Tag Archives: listening

The Return of Listen With Dudelet

It’s felt like it’s been ages since dudelet listened, really listened, to a record with me. At some point, the toddler who’d boogie in his seat to Aphex Twin or the five year old whose favourite record was Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible became the eight year Harry Potter fanatic who only wanted to listen to the John Williams soundtrack and build towers in Minecraft.*

Attempts at “What do you think of this?” or “Do you want to choose anything?” met with a shrug or a “Whatever.” Meanwhile, Minecraft seemed to be colonising most of the conversations we were having.

Don’t get me wrong – we were talking a lot. But it was 40% Bin Weevils, 40% Minecraft and 10% whining about being required to get off whichever screen he was accessing either of them through. (The remaining 10% tended to be me commiserating with him about the latest bout of appallingness from his little sister. But that’s another story).

Anyway, there seems to have been a sea change. Possibly he’s humouring his rapidly aging father but he caught me the day before yesterday listening to Led Zepellin 2. He paused, then sat, nodding along to the first few bars of ‘Ramble On’.

“I really like that,” he said.

“Uh huh,” I said. I felt like a caveman (well, we were listening to Led Zep) keeping a hungry wild dog in my peripheral vision as it edged cautiously towards the firelight and a scrap of left-over reindeer meat.

“It’s really…it’s got a good tune.”

“I’ve had that record for 32 years.”

“And it still plays?”

Little elf bounced in and sat down to listen too. A few minutes later, supermum stuck her head into the lounge, probably to find out what all the lack of noise was about (apart from the very loud music) and found little elf on my lap, dudelet leaning on my shoulder and John Bonham pounding through a slightly surplus-to-requirements drum solo (‘Moby Dick’ hasn’t aged well). She backed out again, quite quickly.

Yesterday, dudelet asked me to put on “that pretty song” again and gave us a full-on demonstration of virtuoso air guitar. Then I played him the guitar solo in ‘Whole Lotta Love’ and he wanted me to start the record again so he could hear it twice.

Perhaps tomorrow, I’ll see how he gets on with Baroness…

*I feel I should add that there are a million and one things he could be doing that are less worthwhile than the admittedly creative pursuit of Minecraft. But there’s only so many brick-by-brick descriptions a dad can take.

Vinyl, sacred spaces and the placebo effect

I’ve been reading Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science and I’m especially intrigued by the the chapter on placebos. The effect is probably well known. Crudely, it’s the idea that the belief that one is being healed or medicated is as likely to have a positive benefit as the actual medicine itself. It can be held responsible for everything from the occasional improvement in someone’s hay fever via to homeopathic sugar pills to remarkable treatment successes documented in shamanistic cultures.  Goldacre cites Moerman’s reframing of placebos as the meaning response, ‘the psychological and physiological effects of meaning in the treatment of illness’ and I like the idea of explicitly addressing how meaning affects the tricky and highly permeable interface between mind and body.

So what does this have to do with records?

Another way of framing the placebo effect is to look at it as a consequence of the way rhetorical devices frame our responses to pain, illness, perceived pleasure or other life events. In other words

  • do records sound better than mp3s because we expect them to?
  • do we expect them to because of the rhetorical devices that comprise and frame the act of putting a record on?

When a shaman sets to work to drive out an illness, the dancing, chanting, herbs and all the rest of their activities form a powerful ritual that has an actual physical impact on many healing processes (for example, here’s an academic paper examining the impact of shamanistic ritual on drug addiction). Now lets think about the ritual associated with vinyl compare to CDs or mp3s with the caveat that, as with the placebo effect in medicine, all of this is deeply and locally culturally specific.

Firstly, there’s the act of choosing a record and the limitations the physical nature of the medium impose. Records occupy space. It takes time to riffle through a shelf and pull down just the right one. Additionally, long playing records aren’t set up to easily play just one song – one is choosing to immerse oneself for a set length of time. The cover art is larger and demands one’s full attention. The record itself is fragile and needs care and cleaning before being played. ‘Fragile’ equals valuable – a record is more easily broken, damaged, scratched than a CD.  Records, then, demand an investment in acknowledging their ritual value before one has even turned on an amplifier and played a note. And it is a ritual, like the tea ceremony or awarding a degree – it’s a ceremony that ascribes value.

Then there’s the equipment. Mp3s are utterly portable and carry no inherent value. CDs can be exactly replicated on home equipment and are again relatively portable. Records are completely useless without a record player. Listening to records requires an environment specifically set up for record listening. It’s an activity which needs a dedicated sacred space, not to mention a non-trivial bunch of relatively pricey hi-fi, even at the lowest end.

To recap. Before we listen to a record, we’re (and by ‘we’ I mean ‘people-who-listen-to-records’) prepared to accept that it has an innate value beyond that of other mediums. We’ve invested a degree of time up-front. We’ve spent quite a lot of money and organised a not inconsiderable portion of our homes to provide a space for this ritual*. We’re ready to be transported; to, in ritual terms, have our consciousness. We are ready to listen to a record.

Is it any wonder, after all this, that The Queen Is Dead sounds so much better on 180 gramme black vinyl?

The latter, by the way, relates directly to another phenomenon Ben documents, of how much more Western people trust anything that comes wrapped in pseudo-scientific-techno-babble over something presented in plain language. Of course 180 gramme vinyl sounds better. One hundred and eighty grammes!

Of course, there are are a seemingly limitless number of complicating factors – everything from how clean the record is to the quality of the stereo, the shape of the room, the amount of damage your ears have suffered, the bloody quality of the electricity – that feed into the journey from that deceptively simple vinyl groove to your ear. A controlled test is virtually impossible. And, in any case, if it really is the ritual and rhetoric of the vinyl placebo that enhances ones listening, does that really matter? When I put a record on, it’s a commitment to that piece of music that goes beyond sloping around the underground with my in-canal earphones and iPhone or slotting a CD into my work computer. Is it any wonder I get a little more out of it? And if the impact of my nice record player, speakers and cables and so on is rather physical and more metaphorical or metaphysical than I might like to think, does it really matter all that much?

*Space…ritual! Geddit? Oh, forgeddit.

I am listening to Year of the Tiger by Fucked Up

It’s a 15 minute ‘single’ by the Canadian post-hardcore band, Fucked Up. I’m listening through headphones for the first time. I wish I had the lyric sheet handy.

Two minutes in and several layers of guitars backed by a steady backbeat have gradually edged out all the background noise of television, adenoidal sleeping four year olds and supermum rustling a posh bag of crisps. It’s not unlike Rhys Chatham but more cleanly arranged.

Three minutes. Pink Eyes makes an appearance, trading off his hoarse howl with another vocalist who seems to be providing a sort of distant voice-over. The guitars are beginning to deconstruct the original chord sequence is steadily more anthemic ways. Somehow, the whole assemblage is continuing to build.

Five minutes. There’s a piano. The backbeat is relentless. “No-one left remembers his name/So he kills again.” The guitars are chugging, circling, building tension. It’s a very New York technique. The sparse piano chords anchoring the corners of each melodic building block are surprisingly forward in the mix.

Seven minutes. Rolling fills across the floor toms, the back beat starts to swing, accelerate a tiny bit even. The piano is hinting at arpeggios. The guitars colonise every other available space. “Who makes the tree grow up from the soil?” They really are singing about a tiger. “Afraid of desire…” – that’s what I think he’s singing. Desire the tiger? The tiger, desire?

Nine minutes. A heavily distorted flanged guitar line introduces a new rising motiff – how long can this song continue to rise without losing momentum? A new voice, female? North American accented, clear. The backbeat and rolls return, the new chord sequence merges with the original steady thrash. The drums are leading things now.

Nearly twelve minutes. Singer Pink Eyes is trading lines with the singer. “They’ll try the tiger tonight”?

12 and a half minutes. A moment of triumph, Pink Eyes seems to be singing words implying defeat but it’s all too upbeat.

Thirteen minutes. This quickly resolves into a river of intertwining leads and rumbling bass. The piano twines single notes, upper-mid range chords and gentle flurries.

Fourteen minutes. The drums are slowing everyone down and signalling a fade. One by one, the guitars are dropping out. The drums are reduced to a pulsing loosely closed hi-hat. The guitars stop.

Fifteen minutes. Studio chatter. Back ground noise. The TV leaks back in.

I think I like it. I put it on again.

You can listen to it here if you’re curious.