- Such nostalgic and
recuperative intentions are evident in a great deal of music that samples
old sounds and recordings, or more directly with bands like Counting
Crows that attempt to restore the sound of classic rock by returning
to "authentic instruments" current in the sixties such as
the Hammond B3 organ. Significantly, this trend has continued across
the divide from vacuum tubes to transistors with the revival of interest
in the "quirky" sounds of an earlier generation of analog
synthesizers from the seventies. In this framework the defining characteristics
of the older technology are valued over the new, rather than brokenness
or obsolescence, musicians speak of the warmth, authenticity, humanity,
and even sexuality of analog sounds, tube amplifies, and vinyl LPs,
as compared to the coldness, inauthenticity, and disembodied character
of digital recording, integrated circuits, and compact discs (Goodwin
1988 265, Théberge 207-13). Eno describes how the apparent "weaknesses"
and limitations of instruments and media, these aspects regarded as
"most undesirable," become their cherished trademark."
(see fn. 6) There are, to be sure, genuine demonstrable acoustic
reasons for the strength of feeling on this subjectdigital media
do have certain limitations in contrast to analogbut the terms
in which the debate is carried out suggests that the issue goes far
beyond the aural dimension. In a 1999 Spin magazine interview
Matt Sharp of The Rentals remarked, for example,
synths are a lot more sexual than digital synths. I definitely have
a relationship with them that goes beyond man-and-machine. Theyll
work for one take, but on the second one theyll change completely.
Theyre like "Fuck you"like a stuck up cat.
("Man in the Moog" 52)
- Perhaps the most common way the "warmth"
of analog is evoked is through the use the sound of scratchy surface
noise in the background. The approach is similar to what happens in
the Portishead example above, but without the disruptive intrusions
of silence. Instead, the sound of vinyl provides a soothing blanket
of noise, giving the other musical material a patina of age and physicalityas
if to restore Benjamins lost aura to the work by reembedding it
in the fabric of tradition.10
The way the sounds of old machines are used in this recuperative or
restorative mode can be compared to what happens in Pink Floyds
"Wish You Were Here," in that both depend for their meaning
on the presentation of an earlier sound world while rendering transparent
the modern apparatus that makes it all possible. Indeed the effect of
authenticity depends on investing the old technologies with the illusion
of reality, through techniques that can be compared to the "reality
effect" in film theory.11
- Trip hop band Alpha
created a similar sort of "reality effect" in the song "Over"
from their 1998 release Pepper. Here
the sound of a scratched record is at first foregrounded and then absorbed
into a rhythm track with which it remains perfectly synchronized and
integrated for the rest of the song. What in the age of vinyl would
have been interpreted as a flaw, as a sign of brokenness, is here reinscribed
as "antique" and located in a sphere of comfort defined by
the bands use of samples by Herb Albert and other soft music of
the seventies. Only at the very end is a disturbing element introduced
with a distorted vocal sample that undercuts the preceding calm.
- Significantly, this synchronized scratch
effect could only happen with a sampled record scratch. If this were
an actual scratch on an actual vinyl disc the inward spiral of the tracks
would not allow the scratch to stay in rhythm with the music.12
This manufactured defect is typical of what can be done with hardware
and software tools now available to musicians, which, as Stan Link has
described, make it easy to introduce the non-linear response of analog
instruments, all aspects of turntable noise, and the blurring, static,
and distortion associated with the sound of lo-fidelity.
- The character of
"Over," which contrasts sharply with the more manic dance
pieces earlier on the CD, can be explained by its concluding function
as the last track, bringing the listener down to a contemplative state.
A similar technique is used at the end of Mezzanine by Massive
Attack (1998) which recreates the silent scratchy bands at the end of
a record, thus capturing the moments of afterglow when an album was
over before you lifted the needle. The last track of the 1999 release
Play by Moby uses a related effect in the song "My Weakness."
The piece features a grainy sample of choral singing, as if overheard
across a great distance of space and time. Significantly,
as the source for the sample is not identified in the liner notes, it
enters into the vague and timeless category of "historic field
recordings" of African-American music from the first half the century
from which many of the samples are drawn on the CD.13
We hear the sounds through a dense mist of scratches, hiss, and added
echoing effects, and gradually the choral sounds are swallowed up in
synthesized strings and resonant piano chords evoking a Coplandesque
- It is not coincidental that all three
of the preceding examples of an intensely nostalgic and restorative
use of old sounds are the final tracks on the recordings, thus embedded
from the start with a sense of endings, memory, and the past. It is
as if the intentionally faked antique character is understood and acknowledged
on some level as a sort of imperfect and ultimately futile consolation.
In comparable terms, Paul Théberge cites Jonathan Cranes
commentary on the "interpretative instability," produced by
"Golden Oldies," as "the airing of past hits ultimately
mak[ing] us even more aware of our affective place in the present"
- The underlying elegiaic character of Mobys
"My Weakness" and many other pieces that sample old soundsas
if mourning for what is irrevocably lost in the pasthas a significant
racial dimension. The search for authenticity and wholeness has often
been bound with notions of whiteness and blackness. Many of the compositional
techniques discussed here originated in hiphop music, and pieces draw
explicitly on a range of African-American styles. Tricia Rose has described
rap musics involvement with "faulty, obsolete equipment"
and the deconstuctive techniques of using machines against their original
purposes: "Worked out on the rusting urban core as a playground,
hip hop transforms stray technological parts intended for cultural and
industrial trash heaps into sources of pleasure or power" (22).
While acknowledging the critical and oppositional aspects of these reconfigurations
of technology, she emphasizes the recuperative intent of hip hop sampling
by linking it to black poetic traditions and cultural forms. Rose describes
the prevalent sampling of Motown recordings, and rhythm and blues within
hip hop as "paying homage, as archival research, as school"
- The situation is more complicated when,
as is often the case, hiphop techniques and samples are taken over by
white DJs or musicians. Certainly there is still a concern with paying
homage, of archival research, of capturing something of the presence
of James Brown. The liner notes for DJ Shadows Entroducing
from 1996, proclaim "This Album reflects a lifetime of vinyl culture,"
and "All respect to James Brown and his countless disciples for
inventing modern music." The cover illustration shows a record
store with customers flipping through stacks of vinyl LPs. FatBoy Slims
Youve Come a Long Way Baby similarly shows a wall full
of sagging shelves stuffed with vinyl. But there are inevitable anxieties
that seem to accompany this pursuit of the real through the sampling
of African-American music. This is dramatized in many pieces through
the opposition of black voices, with recordings of stereotypical white
voices, often explicitly linked to main stream media, corporate America,
educational films (see, for example, FatBoy Slims "Rockafeller
- Anxiety about the ultimate failure of
efforts to capture a sense of wholeness or reality through old sounds
and samples strongly marks the music of The Lo-Fidelity All Stars. On
their How to Operate with a Blown Mind, (1998) the British band
makes extensive use of scratchy records, and old instruments, and samples,
many of which are taken from African-American music. But their treatment
of the borrowed materials emphasizes their artificiality and age, their
status as quotations. Simon Reynolds has written of the poignant effect
of this "Dance Music from England with a Dark Side," as reflecting
"the plight of the contemporary musicians whose memory is overloaded
with echoes from the past (40). This is particularly clear in "Nighttime
Story," again the final track on the album, which is assembled
from layered loops of a drum track, distorted African-American voices,
and a soul singer. Underlying it all is an antiquated melodramatic organ,
alternating between two chords with an intense soap opera/funeral home
- The sampled musical elements initially
seem incompatible with the verbal images in the spoken text that introduces
Bombers rip across the screen
laying waste to citys dreams
and whats it all going to mean/
when audio psychosis spills
from the speakers cones
and you can hear the music tear
tearing through your bones.
Each sample by itself would seem expressive,
affirmative, and hopeful as they repeat, "Peace brother Peace,"
"Keep on, keeping on," and "Come on back to me."
But the obsessive mechanical repetitions of the loops and their superimposition
prevents the listener from accepting them as genuine or grasping hold
of themwith every repetition they slip further away. The process
culminates when the loops suddenly stop and a recorded white voice,
with a "square" American accent as if from some 50s
film, says, "I had no idea it had to end in such tragedy."
The CD thus ends with a real sense of loss, but it is as if no one remains
to feel it.