Sunday, April 25, 2010

Contenders Series #24: The National - "Bloodbuzz Ohio"

Note #1:  Before we get talking about largely unrelated matters, I want to point out that the National's awesome new album High Violet is streaming free HERE.  Go listen.

Note #2:  Okay, Curt, here's Contenders Series #24.  I usually have a few drafts of stuff going at once, and they don't always get published in order.  It makes me happy that you read this blog as carefully as you do.  Our nation's newspapers are in good hands!

I just finished reading Greg Milner's Perfecting Sound Forever:  An Aural History of Recorded Music.  It was a little technical at times, but enjoyable throughout, and I learned quite a bit about the history of music.  I recommend it.  If maybe you don't want to read a long-ish book about the history of sound recording, let me summarize the two main things I took from this book:

(1)  I don't really understand the terminology of sound recording, but I know that it can be used to sound both smart and dismissive.  Since reading this book, I have been constantly fighting the urge to use technical terms all the time in casual conversation, without any real idea as to what they mean, until somebody calls me on it.  Every time I hear a song on the radio, I am a half step away from saying, "Oh man, you can totally hear how over-compressed this is.  And the gated drums?!?  They just clipped the hell out of this!"  Basically, I am in danger of turning into this guy.

(2)  As I've talked about in this space before, I love looking at history as an evolution.  When Edison first developed the technology to record sound, and really for decades afterward, the goal was to create as lifelike a recreation of sound as possible. The goal was the symphony orchestra in your living room.  Everyone wanted to capture the real sounds being made in the real world.

Over time, though, people learned that you could actually improve on the sound made in the real world.  By playing with levels, effects, filters, and multi-track recorders, you could create a sound on record that never existed in the real world.  Now, almost all albums are made like that.  In fact, if a rock band records an album by playing it, together, live, in the studio, this fact will almost always lead the review, as it is so novel.  Chances are, the vocals, guitars, and drums on your favorite record were recorded days apart, possibly in different locations.

The evolutionary next step, of course, was to create sounds that not only never existed in the real world, but that literally COULD NOT exist in the real world.  Think about a guitar line bouncing back and forth between speakers.  Think of all the movement going on in your head when you listen to an album on headphones.  Now think about how you would recreate that effect in the real world.  Would the guitar player run back and forth onstage, carrying his amp?  Not fast enough, he wouldn't.

So sound recording stopped being a quest to replicate the live music experience, and I don't really think we can call that either a good thing or a bad thing.  It can be said, though, that we never really captured the live concert experience in the way Edison wanted.

Talk to any fan of Phish, or the Grateful Dead, and they will tell you that the greatness of those bands cannot be captured on a recording, that you have to experience the live show to really GET it.  This isn't really unique to those bands, though.  A live recording will always be a pale representation of a live show.

The National illustrate this dichotomy as well as anyone.  Ilana and I saw them a few years ago at the Regency Ballroom, and they were great.  The sound was near-perfect, and the band's simple songs just burn with emotional intensity in a live setting.  We're seeing them again at the Fox next month, and I have no doubt that it will be great.

Before High Violet (due out May 11, but seriously, go listen!  Right now!), The National had not released a new album since 2005.  As they have some of the most hardcore fans in the business, the true believers kept the faith by circulating live MP3s of new songs, "Bloodbuzz Ohio" among them.  To be honest ... I wasn't real impressed.  It clocked in at six and a half minutes, didn't really seem to build on itself ... it kinda went on for awhile, and then it was over.

On the album, though ... it's a showstopper.  It's a minor miracle (really, the whole album is).  And I know that, when I see them perform it in person, it will blow me away.  But, if I get a bootleg copy of that show ... I won't be able to get that experience back.  Even though I was there, and I know that it happened.  I will have to go back and listen to the studio track again, and think about how great it was to see it live.

So, maybe we fulfilled Edison's dreams after all.  The studio version of the song (which is nowhere near a live performance, which may be the opposite of a live performance) does a better job of capturing the feeling of seeing the song live than an actual recording of the live performance.

So how does THAT work?

Download:  The National - Bloodbuzz Ohio

Official Site
Hype Machine
Pre-Order High Violet


  1. Ummmm, I know you likely already know this, but a stereo phaser with two amps set up on either side of the stage would create that back and forth guitar sound.

  2. Yeah, and I'm kinda oversimplifying the discussion in the book because I didn't fully understand it. I think his point was that, to run the sound through the kinds of processors necessary to pull off that effect, you're "recording" it in a sense, like it has to be captured, however briefly, to create the illusion of movement.

    Or maybe he was trying to say that the idea of sound moving like that was something we never really considered until we had sound recording technology, that is was first discovered via recording.

    There are probably a lot of oversimplifications on this blog.

  3. Yeah, I get the point being made. I just really enjoy going to guitar center and being the asshole who messes around on a line-6 rack unit or the customizable peddle processors made by BOSS.

    Ooooh I can play random non-sensical notes and sound like portis-head. Fun

  4. Ehf geetars. I can't play them. I'll leave that to talented peeples.

    The reason I was so keen for #24 musta been cause I thought this was it. Great song. Very fun to listen to the first and 100th time.