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Phonograph

(8 May 2006: Mercury Lounge — New York)

Between 1840 and 1879, America experienced technological innovations such as the electric telegraph, telephone, light bulb, transcontinental railroad, and passenger elevator. These inventions catapulted our world to its first information age. All of this purported to let us hear more clearly, see more accurately, and visit one another more efficiently. But did it?


At the dawn of the 20th century, political economist Thorstein Veblen wrote about the rise of a new American leisure class to whom seeing and being seen meant everything. With the emergence of urban life, Veblen said, “The means of communication and the mobility of the population now expose the individual to observation of many persons who have no other means of judging his reputability than the display of goods which he is able to make while he is under their direct observation.”


This class has been pushed further into intangibility in the past ten years as motion, light, space, time and communication have become more immediate than Veblen could have ever imagined. We have cell phones, Blackberrys, Sidekicks, instant messaging, e-mail, and powerhouse search engines available 24/7. Accessibility is at an all-time high. These technologies foretell the way our world will be shaped and viewed many years from now as the body-proper becomes more and more distant from the active self. And what are we hearing? Is it just a lot of noise? Are we destined to get lost in the intangible mist of all that static?


Not if we take steps to save ourselves. Music was here long before we were, and it will be the rock crushing the dead cell battery long after we’re gone. Our ears never lie, because we still know that tickling feeling of the immediately, intimately familiar. It becomes rarefied and unique; a self-affirmation. Music brings us back to the body. And, when it strikes the right way, music can help us both rediscover something about ourselves and, perhaps, understand something new.


Five-piece roots-rock band Phonograph clutch rock ‘n’ roll by its roots, swinging that mother like a battleaxe. Live, old instruments throttle and scream from the speakers, demanding to be heard despite (or perhaps in spite) of the encroaching digital age. One can identify nuggets of old, American sounds—the kind that formed the foundation of country and folk—but, though Phonograph anchors itself in tradition, the band does more than evoke nostalgia. By mixing traditional influences with experiential and found sounds, Phonograph moves beyond the bounds of front-porch Americana, transporting the listener through the static.


Of course, their show did not come without its technical glitches. The band started twenty minutes late due to sound checking complications. They had difficulty honing their monitors, leading to occasionally muffled vocals. Yet their tightness was always evident—drummer Dave Burnett’s high-hat whack careened toward potential calamity, only to be saved by multi-instrumentalist John Davis with casual effortlessness in an appealing display of band members very much in tune with one another.


Matthew Welsh’s vocals evoke singers like Tom Petty and Elvis Costello—it’s like the sound of Lou Reed leaving New York to discover more errant landscapes. Imagine the new Dylan shaking hands with the next Wilco; these boys feel like a band on the threshold of mass exposure.


Though presently unsigned, Phonograph leave an indelible impression on the unknown: what could happen and what should happen to bands experimenting with past, present, and future. I’m sure Thorstein Verblen had a difficult time convincing people to believe in his scientific studies on a day-to-day basis, but he never stopped following the lines. By the end of Phonograph’s set, like so many sets we participate in, our ears were allowed to make history.

Tagged as: phonograph
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