Monday, August 11, 2008

8/11/08 - Why Did Everyone Go Insane With Echo?

Maybe this is an elementary question, easily answered by the most neophyte music historian, but nonetheless it never fails to completely baffle me - why did everyone go echo-heavy in the '80s?

The occasion of my wondering is reading about Paul Westerberg's new album, which always gets me to go back and listen the Replacements stuff that I have since it's all so legendary and all that, and, though I readily admit that the band put out some classic, classic, songs, it's a strange legacy for me to grapple with because of issues of sonic quality. Quality not bad vs. good in this sense, but rather in the sense of sonic qualities, like "a sonic quality of Lil' Jon's club hits is a reliance on repetitive siren-like hooks" (YEEEEAAAAHHHHH!).

When I dove into the most critically respected part of the discography (Let It Be and Tim), I found that the songwriting on Tim, especially, was a high-water mark whose praises seemed deserved (Let It Be I think gets overrated - more filler on that CD than the critical conscensus would lead one to believe). "Bastards of Young" and "Little Mascara", especially, are simply two of the best-written and tuneful rock songs that any post-Beatles four-piece have put together. To me, those two songs sound the most like the Replacements conjured up by their critical reputation - desperate, a little unhinged, but melodic and empathetic and gorgeously and passionately sung.

But good God. They practically drown under all the production goop. The echo and reverb is so overpowering that it sounds like the band is playing in some kind of rock-flattening underwater room. The drive and kick of the songs is clearly detectable underneath all of the slathered-on echodrums, but only because they are so exceptional. Hearing the power of the songs, in some ways, requires listening past the way that they were recorded. Mountains of echo are all good when you're talking about Def Leppard, but the ragged glory of the Replacements at their best needed production that highlighted immediacy and volume - something like the way that the Rolling Stones were produced - another outfit that balanced ragged and tight.

So clearly there was an epidemic - this band was so reactionary (musically) as to record one anti-MTV screed and follow it up with a video consisting of speakers in an unmoving room, so it's not like they were necessarily lockstep with the sonic times. Randy Newman's '80s album drown in echo and synthesizers as well, and the man spent the '70s working a masterful variation of piano trios and orchestral arrangements. Plus, the Replacements were a rock band - Newman is an arrangement whiz that's done full-on legit film scores- his choices were undeniably deliberate.

What's even more strange about the echo epidemic is that modern rock production dials it completely back. The '70s rock production style is what's being approximated by Newman (on his most recent 2 albums) and every single guitar rock band to release a debut album in the '90s and beyond. The Strokes stand as an exreme - they bathe Casablancas's voice in echo, but the instruments are as clean and clear as obvious sonic touchpoint Television. The scrim of technology that the echo production lowered over every '80s rock song was raised again, making an entire decade of rock music (give or take) a constant battle between its production style and its songwriting.

Because ultimately, the siege of echo contains the energy spilling out at the margins that mark the best rock songs. "Pour Some Sugar On Me" is a masterpiece, but it's a pop masterpiece - there's no real danger or edge to the song. Impeccably sung, machine-buffed, not a note out of place, the production style fits with the glam aesthetic. But "Bastards of Young" is an anthem of listless confusion, a howl (or mumble) into the abyss of young adulthood - it shouldn't have the same drum sound as Def Leppard. For the pop end of the spectrum, echo/processed sounds were just another ingredient. But they seriously degraded (and continue to degrade) some top-notch rock and roll songs.

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