How Important is Fidelity?

When Hi8 seemed like an impossible dream

I’m not talking about matrimony, here, but how well an audio or visual recording resembles the real-world phenomena it seeks to capture. High fidelity sounds and images used to be both a mark of professionalism and a barrier-to-entry for hobbyists in the temporal arts (film, video, music, etc.). I suppose the same discussion could have played out regarding the static arts a hundred and fifty years ago — and it probably did — but I’m not much of a painter, so I’ll stick to what I know.

If I wanted to make a movie in 1995 with my camcorder (VHS!), I could do it, but it would look and sound like hell. There would be an obvious and extreme fidelity difference between what I was able to do on my own and what somebody would pay money to go see in a theater. But now that’s gone. I can shoot a movie ON MY CELLPHONE that can play in a multiplex. I can (and have) record a song in my bedroom that will play on the radio.

Loplop Presents Loplop by Max Ernst.

Those are the facts, but my actual question is an emotional and experiential one. To use a food metaphor, has the sophistication of the listener/viewer changed to the point where we are now better able to taste the quality of the ingredients even if the presentation on the plate is lousy?  Or have aesthetic decisions eroded our ability to even tell what’s good or bad about how something looks or sounds anymore? Serious question. What do you think?

People call a lot of Elliott Smith’s and Iron & Wine’s recordings “lo-fi,” but how lo-fi are they, really? I mean, they were recorded on good equipment, you can certainly hear everything clearly, and they’ve got great dynamic range, so what else do you want? Sure, they’re not over-produced in the way that a Rhianna or Katy Perry song puts everything the producer can think of in a sonic pot, but they’re not actually low fidelity recordings. See, for me coming up on metal bands and hard-to-find import CDs from Scandanavia, I heard some stuff that was really, legitimately low fidelity (a lot of black metal comes to mind), where it’s honestly difficult to even make out what’s going on in the song.

The Tincanland blog has done a couple of good posts that touch on this topic, asking the question of whether or not a self-produced album can succeed commercially (sure, why not?), and how artists don’t get a second opportunity to impress someone if their stuff sounds like hell (unless they change their name).

This is a very personal question for me, because when Black Spiral released Defeat way back in the long, long ago, most of the reviews we got were really positive, but the ones that weren’t got hung up on the production. Some writers utterly crucified us for it…but the thing is, the production’s not bad. It doesn’t sound like it was made on a major label budget, but pop in a Darkthrone album from the same period, which  mostly sound like they were recorded on a cassette in somebody’s bathroom, and tell me we don’t win that battle.

A couple of years later, I shot a no-budget DV feature, and not even small film festivals would take it seriously. OPEN WATER hadn’t hit yet, and for most people the idea of exhibiting a film shot on DV was laughable. But that doesn’t have anything to do with the content of the movie — which, again, reviewers really, really liked — just the presentation.

For me, it remains an open question. Audio, video, and computer technology has come so, so far in the last ten years, that we shot our music video for “Broken World” on a camera that was in many ways superior to the f900s George Lucas used to shoot the first STAR WARS prequel. So people are able to make things that look better more quickly and more cost-effectively, and we may have gotten somewhat used to pixellation, compression, and a low signal-to-noise ration.

But I guess if I was handing out advice, it would be to take the time, and put in the craft, to make things look and sound as good as humanly possible. Because I’m not convinced that we’ve trained ourselves yet to look past the presentation and at the content underneath. Or even that we’ve trained ourselves to understand there’s a difference.

Great Album Reviews: The Dust of Retreat

Album: The Dust of Retreat
Artist: Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s
Genre: Pop, Chamber Pop, Indie
Year: 2006

Just after Pandora came out of beta, I created a station seeded from Damien Rice, and one of the songs that kept popping up was “Jen is Bringin the Drugs” by Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s.  It’s Richard Edwards — singer, rhythm guitarist, and chief songwriter for Margot — by himself, a sad song with just an acoustic guitar and vocal, and it has an aching, world-weary beauty that stuck with me. So when I went to MySpace Music to check out the band, I was surprised to discover that Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s actually has a roster that rivals its unwieldy moniker.  The band has something like nine people in it, and most of the tracks on The Dust of Retreat feature layered guitars, bass, piano/keys, horns, strings, drums, and percussion.

A bigger surprise came when I saw them live, and Margot instantly became maybe the heaviest band I have ever seen — and I’ve seen Cryptopsy, Metallica, the Dillinger Escape Plan, Napalm Death, you name it.  In the Troubadour in Los Angeles, they brought the members of the opening act up onstage with them, at times resulting in 12 people playing together, threatening to buckle the rafters with what I had always thought of as nice little indie pop songs.
That just goes to show that there is nothing else out there like Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s, and their debut album, The Dust of Retreat, is a unique work that insists on being listened to over and over again.  There is a breadth of diversity on Dust, but it still manages to remain cohesive.  “Quiet as a Mouse,” for instance, begins as an atmospheric mystery conjuring images of alienation, and explodes into a clinic of wall-of-sound rock.  “Talking in Code” tips delicately between a soft acoustic guitar and what sounds like an entire marching band, all anchored by Edwards’ tender, melancholy vocals.  Margot has been compared to Arcade Fire, which isn’t quite right, and I hear echoes of Death Cab for Cutie, though more raw and earthbound, and the later Beatles albums, with the notable exception that those albums were culled together from four distinct voices, and Margot’s work reflects the strong, if diverse, guiding hand of a single architect.
After The Dust of Retreat, Epic Records signed the band, and the immediate result was a very public dispute over the content of the band’s major label debut.  Epic released an album called Not Animal, and permitted the band to release their own preferred version, Animal!, on vinyl and (eventually) digital.  Both are wonderful albums (but FYI, the preferred version of “Broadripple is Burning,” woefully over-produced on Not Animal, can be found here, as performed at Daytrotter Studios), but they seem less urgent than Dust, so it remains at the top of my Margot playlist.
Potential barriers for the uninitiated: One of the strengths of this album is its musical diversity, but lyrically the songs are uniformly pretty somber.  This album feels like it was written while trapped inside during an Indianapolis winter (and it probably was…), and while there are moments of real humor that poke through — “Paper Kitten Nightmare” stands out — people who aren’t so into the mopey side of indie rock might have a couple of hang-ups with the record.