Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

Parallel Lines

Joe Tangari, who is probably my favorite Pitchfork writer -- and I like most of them -- has a new review of the record Give Me Love: Songs of the Brokenhearted - Baghdad 1925-1929 up today. As you may recall, my own review of it was recently posted to Zeek. He didn't write as many words as I did, but the length and seriousness of his take on the album confirms my sense that it's an especially thought-provoking cultural artifact.

It also gives me the selfish pleasure of being able to compare my own approach with that of someone I respect enormously. Here's one of my favorite passages from Tangari's review:
The Gramophone Company and its subsidiary His Master's Voice-- HMV today-- were the first major companies to make recordings in 1925. (In the pursuit of record buyers' money the world over, Gramophone unwittingly provided one of the greatest cultural services of the 20th century by sending its recording engineers across the globe to document local musics-- I'd give a lot to be allowed several weeks in a hypothetical Gramophone vault.) Others quickly followed, including Polyphone, Baidaphon, Odeon, and Columbia, but all the recordings included here are drawn from HMV's nearly 900 78 rpm sides, all made from 1925 to 1929.

When approaching this compilation, it's important to remember something that's true of records from all eras: the recording medium is a part of the music. In today's studio, you might have 64 tracks, 20 different kinds of microphones, and an infinite amount of extra gear your can pile onto a record. Then, they had a mechanical recording device with a horn that the musicians had to be carefully arranged around to get the right mix of sounds. The dawn of electrical recording was right around 1925; by 1926, it was the norm in most of the world. But the liners here state pretty plainly that most of these records were made without microphones, and I frankly don't know enough of the difference to argue the point. What I can tell you is that this disc is nearly devoid of the surface crackle of 78s, and the sound is very clear. But one shouldn't expect a modern range of frequency response, as the low-end of performances rarely registered well on 1920s recordings.
When I was working on my own review of the record, a tortuous endeavor, I gradually came to to see it as a multi-media project that, for all the beauty and sadness of the music it collects, was as much a meditation on the state of mechanical reproduction in both the 1920s and today as it was a means of communicating obscure songs to a new generation. Tangari discusses the music more than I did. But the words I quote above suggest that he also perceived a self-reflexive character to Give Me Love, as if it were in part a commentary on old media when they were new. Here's what I had to say about the way the record presents the problem of reproduction:
Give Me Love wants to give listeners enough detail to destabilize their assumptions without taking measures to reorient them. At least, that’s what the record’s approach towards geography implies. Things get more complicated when we consider the way that Give Me Love inspires us to reflect on media. The CD booklet features more images like the one on the record’s cover, presenting photographs in a way that foregrounds their imperfection. Regardless of how poor the source material may have been, these pictures could at least have been restored to the point where the half-tone grid’s effect was diminished and where some of the details lost within it were made visible again. Instead of going this route, however, Will Bankhead’s design concept accentuates the distance between the “then” these photographs capture and the “now” in which faces of the dead stare out at us. Whereas the blue background of the cover image gives it a curiously modern aspect, like a photocopied handbill, the yellowish tint of these images in the booklet gives them an antique appearance. It’s a strategy that echoes the work of artists who have sought to represent the “unrepresentable” tragedy of the Holocaust by rendering loss visible. Unfortunately, it’s also a strategy consistently deployed by purveyors of exoticism intent on summoning nostalgia for the “Good Old Days” of colonialism.

This move would not be noteworthy if Give Me Love as a whole indulged in this form of distancing. Yet that is not the case. Because both Kojaman’s story and the notes on the music are written simply, without the adjective-laden passages that typically characterize invitations to nostalgia, a tension permeates the booklet. More importantly, the songs on the record are presented as cleanly as possible. Indeed, because they feature a small number of musicians and derive from idioms in which bass sounds were unusual, they sound much younger than they are. Part of the reason why the songs seem so easy to place is that they do not sound displaced. Even though they come from phonographic records that were bound to contain flaws, it’s easy to forget, listening to the record, that these songs were captured long before the era of high-fidelity reproduction. Indeed, someone listening to the music without knowing its source would be sorely pressed to identify it as dating from the 1920s.

The fact that the CD comes in a separate sleeve decorated with the labels from two His Master’s Voice recordings, with track listings in Arabic and English, confirms that the record’s packaging is meant to provoke listeners to relate to the music in a specific way. The idea, clearly, is to remind them that the music they are about to hear is from a long time ago, even if it does not sound that way. It seems like an effective approach, too, for those listeners who still listen to CDs. Unfortunately, though, even dedicated music lovers are likely to leave their discs on the shelf these days. We live at a time when much of the culture we consume either comes without a cover or with one that we are invited to customize. The resulting confusion affects everything from people who get their internet content through a news reader to Bit Torrent users who get their movies without having to pay for packaging.
Tangari operates under editorial and space constraints that don't affect my writing for Zeek -- he also gets paid, presumably -- so comparing his writing to mine might seem like the proverbial diptych of apples and oranges. In this case, though, they blend quite nicely, like the stuffing inside a critical goose. How's that for a terrible metaphor?
Tags: clips, music, writing

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