[SoundStage!]The Vinyl Word
Back Issue Article
October 2001

Found on Vinyl: GodSpeed! You Black Emperor and DJ Food

by Jason Thorpe

I like to provoke people. "Football? It’s just a game. TV? Don’t watch it. CDs? You listen to those?" It’s kind of pleasurable to go against conformity, to buck the trend and be an oddball.

I know it’s a character flaw, but you work with what you’re given. I’m a mainframe programmer, which, in the computer world, means that I’m a dinosaur. While the kids get the glory playing with the latest gee-whiz technology, I lumber along working on dull billing systems written in a language that was designed around the time the Magna Carta was signed (OK, 1960, which is about the same thing in computer years).

So I guess it’s no surprise that I still listen to records. But above and beyond the shock value engendered by the concept of making music via a stone grinding on brittle plastic is the fact that it works as well as, if not better than, newer digital technologies. Mainframes aren’t glamorous or high tech, but they shift data around in volumes that those smaller, puny little boxes can only dream of. Vinyl is old and archaic, but it works great.

But it only works great if you can get software. A couple of years ago I didn’t think it was possible for LPs to get any harder to find. It was possible, and it’s getting even more difficult. This means that you need to source out and support independent retailers, and, failing that, scope out websites such as Music Direct and Elusive Disc that carry relatively complete selections of what’s available.

Most of the records that are available, here in Toronto at least, tend to be of an esoteric nature. While you can find Oasis, U2, the Beatles and Radiohead in the pathetic, token LP section in HMV, the meat and potatoes of the records that you find in the independent retailers cluster more in the fringe. It’s doubtful that you’ll bump into Britney, Mariah or Ricky at Rotate This on Queen Street. It's a local record store that specializes in fringe music of all shapes and sizes, and it still carries mostly records.

I have a friend to thank for introducing me to genres of music that I didn’t even know existed. Andy would come by my desk at work, drop off a CD, and tell me that the band would be playing locally next week. Occasionally he’d warn me about the contents. "It’s kinda crazy," he might say, and then I’d assault my ears with what is ostensibly music by Mr. Bungle, Estradasphere, Fantomas, John Zorn and -- get this -- DJ Food (I guess all of the good DJ names are taken). Just about everything that Andy sent my way was interesting, much of it was absolutely startling, and some of it, sez I (voice charged with emotion), is even available on vinyl!

And what better way is there to provoke people, I ask you, than to expose them to music that’s not only in a format they thought was obsolete, but also of a type they can’t understand? I rub my hands together with glee.

Skinny Fists

Andy’s latest recommendation is Godspeed! You Black Emperor’s latest album Raise Your Skinny Fists like Antennas to Heaven [Constellation, cst012]. With a title like that, how could I refuse?

"Have you heard the latest Diana Krall CD?" An acquaintance might ask.

"No, " I would reply. "I’m too busy listening to GODSPEED! YOU BLACK EMPEROR ON LP."

Skinny Fists is a minimalist trip-hop/ambient record that owes fealty to Portishead, Tortoise, and even Talk Talk and Brian Eno. While it’s exciting enough in places, this is an album to read by and relax to. The tension-building quality of the dissonant, repetitive guitars combined with an almost symphonic structure make this, like the later Talk Talk albums, intriguing and at the same time soothing.

This is a decent pressing, and the packaging is of fairly high quality. My only criticism is that the inner sleeves were too tight, which engendered excessive manhandling of the discs. I picked this album up at Applause Audio on Queen Street East here in Toronto. Applause has a pretty good selection of cutting-edge and classic jazz vinyl as well as an obscene array of scorchingly high-end gear. If you’re in downtown Toronto, I suggest you check them out.

The sound quality of Skinny Fists is pretty good, but by no means excellent. There’s not that much depth to this album, and production is somewhat primitive, which fits the mood perfectly. The obligatory "found" voices and sound effects, craftily shoehorned in, add body to the soundscape.

But as an environmental piece, something that Brian Eno would describe as "musical furniture," this album, and basically the LP format itself, falls short. Seventeen minutes per side is just too short! Like the Eno ambient stuff, Skinny Fists is most conducive to a Sunday-afternoon nap; but I’d be just starting to drift off and the side would end. Since it’s a double album, I’m up and down three times. Most inconvenient. Imagine having to pump up a pneumatic pillow three times an hour because of a slow leak. How comfortable would that be? Would you buy a chair with this known shortcoming? You’d sit on synthetic foam. It might be less comfortable, but hey, it holds its shape.

New uses for your hi-fi VCR

If any of the digital hecklers have gotten this far, I’m sure that they’re gloating and tsk’ing up a storm, and are probably waiting for me to suggest burning the album onto a CD for convenience’s sake. Well, sorry ladies, that’s not going to happen.

Here’s what I did: I recently took the plunge and purchased a hi-fi S-video VCR to replace my older Sony hi-fi unit (DVDs are just a fad; they’ll never catch on). Did you know that you could fit up to eight hours of music on one videotape? Although you can’t play the tape back in your car, the VHS format is quite handy for recording LPs, and several years ago I archived all of my Eno albums onto one tape using the Sony. This tape ended up about four hours long, and has seen many Sunday afternoons, so I appended Skinny Fists right on to the end of it.

While you do lose some depth and top-end extension compared to the original source, the sound quality of videotape is significantly better than that of my Technics three-head cassette deck. More importantly, it’s still analog and thus avoids all of the sharp edges that come along with digital sources, and all of the unknowns associated with consumer-grade A-to-D converters. As far as I’m concerned, I’m happy trading off some resolution in order to keep both musicality and sanity.

I can’t really tell you whether the new Panasonic deck sounds better than the older Sony as far too many other things have changed in the interim for me to be able to make a valid comparison. All I know is that the copy I made with it sounds pretty damn good -- more than good enough for the background listening I’m using it for.

Delicious

Another interesting album that I’ll add to the Sunday-nap tape is DJ Food’s Quadraplex [Ninja Tune, Zen 1291]. Contrary to what you might think, this isn’t a dance album. While I don’t profess to understand much of what those crazy kids are doing, I get the impression that DJ Food (really a group of individuals) started off as, well, DJs in London England, but mutated into music engineers.

There’s a notation on the label that says "120bpm." While that seems fast, the music is quite calming. The album is subdued, trance-like, and minor-chord-dominated in nature, with a repetitive, hypnotic feel. It certainly sounds as if there are real instruments involved, but from what I understand, all of the sounds are sampled. After seeing one of the guys from DJ Food live in a local bar, I can attest to the fact that they can put together a real-sounding album using only existing CDs, LPs and tapes. It’s an odd concept, but I’m trying to get a handle on it.

This 45rpm EP is pressed on fairly thin, clear vinyl, which you’d think would be the kiss of death as far as sound quality is concerned. But worry not! Surface noise on my copy was low, and there were no pops or crackles to be found. There’s quite a good sense of depth (artificial, of course) on this album, but don’t expect miracles.

I got my copy at Rotate This. The DJ in the show I attended was throwing copies of the album into the crowd, many of whom had pupils the size of pie plates, I might add.

LPs have been a backward-facing medium over the last decade. While new stuff is being released, it’s a pain to find it, and it’s rare to discover a store that stocks a comprehensive cross-section of what’s available. So generally I’ve stuck to thrift shops, yard sales, and used record stores, and I've stocked up on all of the classical stuff that I’ll need when I get old.

But, to use a well-worn phrase, the times they are a-changin’. Artists like DJ Food and Godspeed! You Black Emperor are putting out good-quality, listenable records. They’re reasonably priced (as opposed to the stratospheric price tags on premium reissues) and they’re available.

The kids, it seems, are all right.

...Jason Thorpe
jason@soundstage.com

 

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