When the four-track became an affordable recording device, bedroom musicians everywhere started popping up, self-releasing their own rudimentary recordings. The device also served as an affordable means for bands to create demos or simply to record their practices. Since the indie-rock explosion of the early ‘90s and the subsequent popularity of lo-fi recordings, the trend has faded away. With the price of computers falling, as well as the cost of recording software, its scary how easy it is to produce a recording on a computer that will rival the sound of a professional studio. Bedroom artists no longer need to rely on the transparent and naked sound of a four-track. Digital recording and instrument emulators can make one person sound like a full band is backing them.
I guess it’s not so surprising then that in the wake of available technology, there has been a small but bold return to the intimacy and spirit of the four-track recording. Most notable has been Devendra Banhart, whose first album, Oh Me, Oh My . . . , found much of its charm in the audible lo-fi quality of the recording. Likeminded artists such as Joanna Newsom and Sam Beam (aka Iron & Wine) have also found success with their honest, vulnerable recordings.
Chris Barth, a member of the prolific indie rock outfit the Impossible Shapes, has decided to enter the lo-fi fray with his debut solo album, Born a Black Diamond, released under the moniker NormanOak. Also recorded on a four-track, and featuring a vocal style that is not too distant from that of Marc Bolan, the Devendra Banhart comparisons will no doubt be thrown around left and right. Unfortunately, Barth’s noble attempt at similarly formed folk falls short. Lacking the unique presence and lyrical imagination Banhart brings to the table, Born a Black Diamond is merely a curiosity that fails to satisfy the investigation.
To be fair, though the approach by both acts is identical, there are some notable differences between the two acts. Unlike Banhart, Barth chooses to have some tracks (“It Is Impossible”, “Baby Trees”, “Changing My Course”) filled out by percussion and even plugs in an electric guitar for a few tracks. Additionally, Barth’s voice is often double tracked, unlike the bare, clear timber of Banhart’s.
Missing the otherworldly essence of Banhart, the lo-fi recording actually does Barth more damage than good. If anything, Born a Black Diamond exposes the songs as simply being uninteresting. From beginning to end, the album fails at any point to grab the listener. Barth’s voice is good, but is merely serviceable, while the lyrics border on trite. In “It Is Impossible”, Barth sings, “I know that to live it is impossible / I know that to die it seems so easy sometimes / I know that to try it is remarkable / To lift a finger to speak or write”. This attempt at simple profundity falls flat. “Baby Trees” is another track that also suffers a similar fate, the achingly dull lines: “I’m gonna watch my baby trees grow / Over the next fifty years I hope”.
Barth’s NormanOak project is admirable, but lacks the substance to push it beyond the lo-fi format in which it is presented. Until he can achieve this feat, Barth’s NormanOak will sit among the thousands of other home recordings looking for attention.