“And now let us take this artistically limited world, based on appearance and moderation; let us imagine how into it there penetrated in tones ever more bewitching and alluring, the ecstatic sound of the Dionysian festival; let us remember that in these strains all of Nature’s excess in joy, sorrow, and knowledge become audible, even in piercing shrieks; and finally, let us ask ourselves what significance remains to the psalmodizing artist of Apollo, with his phantom harp-sound, once it is compared with this demonic folk-song!”
— Friedrich Nietzsche
Last year was an odd year for music, what with a national tragedy and a new war putting everyone’s brains and hearts off kilter. But really, one of the weirdest things about last year was the triumphant return of lo-fi to the indie community. I mean golly, the two hottest hep-cat LPs of 2001 — the excellent debut albums by the Strokes and Moldy Peaches should make an audiophile rip out his thinning hair. The Strokes’ Is This It was expertly engineered to create a fuzzy, mildly cacophonous sound that made Julian Casablancas’ voice sound raw and the band’s grooves crackle like vinyl. It was a carefully constructed unpolished sound that felt like a skinned knee, a burnt tongue. The album’s engineering was perfect in its imperfection, its pixellated retro-feel, its vinyl ghosts. Very strange, and even the nay sayers who hated the band confessed a lust for the grainy sound.
Even more striking, however, was the debut by the Moldy Peaches, which sounded like Beat Happening, Moe Tucker and the Vaselines shot through with Soft-Boys absurdity: just plain old-fashioned lo-fi at its most sublime. Adam Green and Kimya Dawson spend the entire album trading hilarious lines, generating righteous stolen hooks, and making a buncha mistakes, all with a home-baked sound that feels like you’re sitting on their couch. From the spooky stoned recitation “These Burgers” to the thrash ruckus of “NYC’s Like a Graveyard”, they know what to do with their bottomless wit. It’s all loud, but it’s all clunky too: the guitar-lesson strumming and the Moe-Tucker drumming (not to mention vox) is varied and amplified just enough to give their work an eclectic feel. And yeah, the lyrics are demented and quotable, just like you read in all the reviews (“Scrinched up your face and did a little dance / Shook a little turd out of the bottom of your pants”, for example, could be a metaphor for the album as a whole!). Kimya’s voice cracks, a cell phone goes off, Adam forgets his lines. Every song is hilarious, a rudimentary joke shaped like a mud castle into something primitive, profane, and resonant. In the end, they transcend the crappy sound and inept playing with brilliant tunes.
Of course, I thought lo-fi was cast into the dustbin of history once Guided by Voices hired Ric Ocasek as producer. Sure, some valiant artists carried on with bedroom 4-track recordings and half-baked songs (e.g., Mountain Goats, Will Oldham), but the hipster audience had moved on. It seemed like the lethargic indie-nineties lo-fi explosion — a self-conscious copycat aesthetic that was easy to reproduce — had literally screeched to a halt. But the Moldy Peaches made me think again. Not only is it an amazing record — righteously rocking and genuinely funny — but they evoke the longer span of lo-fi history, not just the cheapo nineties trends and the phony nostalgia. Instead of simulating a transient fad, the Moldy Peaches turn right around and shove into your face the realization that lo-fi is an integral part of popular music. And this album’s singular brilliance might just make them the apotheosis of lo-fi.
When you get right down to it, the human larynx is always lo-fi. Only the most talented singers can raise their voice in song, without engineering and amplification, to convince you of a technically faultless and precise instrument. For many modern singers, the natural state is one of shaky vibrato, slight burr, nascent hoarseness, imperfections on the high end, lack of control, and a generally flat delivery. Technology allows them to delete the imperfections, to shape and amplify the genius in their voice box. I think it’s safe to say that Scott Stapp and Britney Spears would sound almost as horrible in the shower as you do. Technology is now the handmaiden of “talent” in modern music. “High fidelity” — making music sound faithful to the original — is now a lie. Everyone loves a tune that sounds “natural”, but nowadays songs need to be gussied up with all sorts of knob-twiddling digital gimmickry before they can be truly dynamite. Part of this is due to the nature of modern recording technology, which is almost entirely digital. But real life is analog. Digital recording can give you metafidelity or even hyperfidelity, but the infinite, continuous sampling rate of the olde analog technologies are now a hoary curiosity. The way lo-fi evokes our collective analog past goes a long way to explaining its constant appeal, and its necessity to the aesthetic of pop and rock.
Lo-fi has a long and very honorable history, most of which begins with the fact that early recording technology was makeshift and rudimentary. All those old recordings of Bessie Smith shouting without a microphone, or Rudy Valee bellowing out of a megaphone, they were the “high fidelity” of their day, and now they sound quaintly primitive. But it wasn’t just the technology. The political economy of popular music often required haste and austerity to generate a profitable product. Rehearse your ass off at home and get the tunes down in one take while paying for studio time. Listen to the classic singles of Louis Jordan, or the Mercury sides of George Jones, and you get a clear sense of a brilliant artist transcending an ill-rehearsed band and one-take studio technology.
All those old vinyl 78s and 45s, crap sound and all, became an aesthetic unto themselves. As advances in engineering and recording technology made music sound better, you can bet there were those who found the old “raw” recording technology to be central to the greatness of popular music. I call this the “R. Crumb Effect”: when modernity gets you down, you can put yourself on the cutting edge by fetishizing ancient styles and technologies, and your antithetical influence will start making its mark on popular tastes. R. Crumb and his extensive collection of 78s may not have influenced popular music much (Canned Heat excepted), but there was always something inherently cool about his attitude. Earnest populist virtuosos were verily touched by the hand of God when their discs crackled or their voices went flat. Listen to the proud flat singing of Ernest Tubb, or the influenza yell of early Jonathan Richman to see where technical brilliance ends and real genius begins.
Well, if R. Crumb was the definitive hip reactionary, there was an undercurrent of edgy apolitical cacophony to give another facet to the current, twenty-first century lo-fi aesthetic. As spine-tingling violins swelled in Beatles tunes, the Velvet Underground were just across the pond laying down one of the defining documents of lo-fi, a stupendous marathon called “Sister Ray”, in which each zoned participant tried to play their instrument louder than the other, damn near snapping the tape with abject competitive noise. Of course, the Velvet Underground were associated with LaMonte Young, Andy Warhol, and Delmore Schwartz, so their populist credentials were nil. They were avant-garde NYC artists (just like Moldy Peaches and maybe the Strokes!).
Yep, sloppy music was elitist, but its edgy enthusiasm was brave and weird, even in the lysergic, feckless sixties. There were other early indie lo-fi touchstones, such as the Troggs, the Shaggs, Captain Beefheart, and the Stooges, who are revered today as aesthetic pioneers of a sort. But lets not forget the Basement Tapes, a chaotic document of lazy drunk shambling tunes by Bob Dylan and the Band, which got critics hot and bothered when the record was reissued in the seventies (Griel Marcus even wrote a whole book about ’em!). Or Rod Stewart’s early stumbling-melody-on-the-edge-of-chaos solo albums. Or the murky heavy sound of Black Sabbath, defined more than anything else by Tony Iommi’s clunky lead riffs (the man had lost a couple fingertips from his fret hand in an industrial accident). Or the even murkier sound of Funkadelic’s Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow, or the proud, blue, low-budget ballads of the Moments. Lo-fi has always been with us, really.
But self-conscious lo-fi is a more recent invention. There is no single “pioneer” of the form, though I like to point to the Fall’s 1979 LP Dragnet as a key progenitor. Co-produced by Grant Showbiz and the Fall, the album is a strange sui generis document of rockabilly punk and shouted art-poems, complete with intentionally grubby sound and scruffy musicianship. During the epic “Spectre vs. Rector”, you can hear an earlier live tape of the song playing in the background. Mark E. Smith’s voice is as loud and annoying as possible, all of its flaws and virtues jumping out of the “mix” like no punk you’ve ever heard. The album is a crazy, loud, muddy mess, and you wonder what engineer John Brierly must have thought, since the record sleeve says “Many thanks to John Brierly for his trust”. Sure, this may not have been the first time that a band wanted their record to sound intentionally horrible, but you can hear the influence of Dragnet in every early Pavement EP or Sebadoh tape from the early nineties. Lo-fi was no longer a regrettable consequence of low budgets or ill-rehearsed musicians. It was now a dynamite sound unto itself.
The early eighties saw the first heyday of cultivated lo-fi. During this time, the tiny lo-fi market was flooded with the crazed rants of Half Japanese, the busking neuroses of Daniel Johnston, the stumbling puppy-love of Beat Happening, the human zoo of LiLiPUT, the economical engineering feats of Hüsker Dü, even the incomprehensible vox of R.E.M. These bands, along with countless others, laid the foundations for the brief lo-fi explosion of the mid-nineties, when artists like Guided by Voices, Pavement, Sebadoh, and Will Oldham made a virtue out of half-formed songs and bad sound. Sure, some of that stuff was the musical equivalent of pissing in the snow, but a lot of it still resonates today. Albums like Bee Thousand and Slanted and Enchanted keep you coming back because their naturalistic first-take ethos and bad poetry are what great rock’n’roll is made of.
Yet many myopic critics still asked: why do hipsters love this stuff? What can possibly be so cool and resonant about lazy musicianship and crap sound? One reason is obvious: lo-fi tunes foreground the song (more specifically, the lyrics) at the expense of technical mastery. Good lo-fi bands know that they have an ace tune on their hands when they can stumble drunkenly over it and it still rocks the box. Sure, the original lo-fi versions of Daniel Johnston’s “Speeding Motorcycle” or Sebadoh’s “Brand New Love” were a bit jarring, but still they moved you. And when Yo La Tengo and Superchunk made crystal-clear hi-fi cover versions, you knew that what moved you was the brilliant songwriting. Naked popcraft, tuneful poetry reading, urgent unrehearsed playing: these are the dry humble twigs that can sometimes kindle a pretty ace musical bonfire. Lo-fi is honest. In a world where music can be crass deception (Creed) or aesthetic hyperinflation (U2), you turn to lo-fi in the same way you take to a walk around the block: it’s comforting, memorable, and there’s nothing phony about it.
The other key to lo-fi is this: it’s a veritable car-crash highway of accidents. And accidents can be the key to great rock’n’roll. Lo-fi is the best acknowledgement that rock’n’roll is at its best when it’s not micro-managed and planned. Second-guessing can often destroy a great song, and the earnest first-take busking-for-change ethos of many lo-fi tunes are what makes them enduring despite the sloppy mistakes.
Finally, one can’t deny one of lo-fi’s defining elements: impatience. During these strange accelerated times, impatience is often a virtue. Hurry up. Just do it. Hustle. Come on come on. Fingers drumming at the checkout line. When you listen to a great lo-fi album, you can hear this impatience giving way to great art. Churning out one rudimentary tune after another, some of them half-finished and accelerated, the great lo-fi heroes such as Guided by Voices or Half Japanese turn hasty ruckus into a detonating series of ace tunes. The irony of impatience, though, is that lo-fi is not sustainable over the long run. Many lo-fi artists become convinced that they’re some sort of genius worthy of production values, and they go digital. Only stalwarts like the Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments or the Mountain Goats can keep their genius intact along with a sustained lo-fi output.
Which leads me back to the Moldy Peaches. They are the apotheosis of lo-fi because they take all the greatest elements of lo-fi — anti-musicianship, accidents, humor, songwriting, impatience, and genius — and delete all the feckless contrivances of bad lo-fi. They have no phony genre-identification (like Will Oldham), and they seem to know that laughter is a better medicine than sincerity. Oh yeah, they also rock. “We are not those kids sitting on the couch”, they proclaim in “Steak for Chicken”, an attempt to separate themselves from their slacker forebears. Probably they’re right: only artists with too much time on their hands can fiddle with their lo-fi enough to make it suck.
In 1872, the twenty something proto-lo-fi philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche published his first work, The Birth of Tragedy, in which he posited art as a necessary battle between two forces: the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Dreaming and drunkenness. The idea of the song, of melody, beat, and poetry, is like dreaming; the Apollonian side of the aesthetic equation. But when the song comes burbling out of you uncontrollably and your friends clap to the beat and strum awkwardly off the beat while you lay that tune down, that’s the stumbling Dionysian energy that informs all art. It’s drunkenness. And even when lo-fi is contrived, rehearsed a zillion times and then overlaid with tape noise and fake-lazy drumming, it’s still drunk in the same way a sober dude “feels drunk” at a keg party. The Dionysian element will always be essential to great music, and this is why lo-fi, whether as affectation or accident, will always be with us.