Friday, June 6, 2008

Tuned Out

There was a time that I'd go listen to live music any chance I got -- these days, I rarely have the time or, I confess, the inclination. Sadly, this is more a reflection of my age than of the quality of music being played, but might also reflect the changing digital dynamics of the music biz.

I went to see the Raconteurs this week in Boston, a band dubbed oxymoronically an 'alternative supergroup'. An uneasy spotlight fell on Jack White, with the rest of the band playing second fiddle to his manic guitar. The Raconteurs new release has got a lot of press for the music, but just as much because it's a pressing on vinyl. For White, it's the tangibility of the object, in the sleeve, and the experience of playing a two-part story in music. White's music sensibilities hark back to the blues, punk, and an era when singles and albums formatted songs acoustically and physically. An album could hold about 30 minutes of music a side, a single maybe 7 minutes, and this condensed things. And albums tracks, the artwork, gave a new release an indentity that a CD or MP3 download can't get.

Before the Raconteurs, the last music I went to hear was Elvis Costello at a small club in Boston, where he played a long retrospective set interspersed with covers ranging from Bacharach to The Beatles. He's just released a new album, Momofuku, that is also on vinyl, but even the CD has a "side one and side two" listing of the tracks, which he recorded in a low-fi studio in a couple of weeks.

Costello and White are looking back for a lot of reasons, and I suspect one of them is a hankering for a time when music mattered, especially live music. The digital economics of the music industry are a mess, but it's also turned music into an solitary ibudded experience. It's a shame, because seeing White belt-out guitar solos, hearing Costello scream The Beatles' "Hey Bulldog", it's what it's all about.

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