Sounding it out

Sometimes we need to recall music’s materiality

Jack White, phonographic archaeologist. Kris Krüg, CC BY-SA

In the weeks leading up to the release of Jack White’s new album Lazaretto on June 10, a number of record shops around the world ran a promotional campaign that gave curious users the chance to experience White’s “ultra LP” on a bright yellow spinnerette turntable manufactured for and sold by White’s record company Third Man. In addition to being an eye-catching promotional gimmick, the provision of the turntable is something of a necessity for those listeners who don’t happen to have a player that runs at 33, 45 and 78 RPM. All three speeds are needed to get the most out of Lazaretto.

White’s LP comes with a variety of notable features, all aimed at encouraging the listener to interact physically with the object itself. For starters, there’s a matt side and a glossy side, two finishes designed to evoke different historical moments in the production of records. Then there’s the fact that one side has been cut so that the needle runs from the central grooves to the outer ones rather than vice versa, a bit of a head-scratcher for seasoned users of records.

There are also hidden tracks etched under the labels in the middle of the vinyl, one of which runs at 45RPM and the other at 78. These and other features are listed on the Third Man website and explained by White on an instructional video. Here, and on the promotional trail for the album, White has been keen to boast of the revolutionary vinyl engineering features of his LP.

The “ultra” LP.

A few weeks earlier, White had been also been involved in promoting Neil Young’s new album, which was recorded in a 1940s Voice-o-Graph booth and subsequently released on Third Man. Because Young has spent much of 2014 promoting his Pono music system and waging war on low fidelity MP3 music, some have seen the lo-fi, noisy new album as a sign of deliberate contrariness.

But I’m not so sure that Young’s release of A Letter Home and launch of Pono represent a contradiction. Both are ways, it seems to me, of claiming an immediacy of experience that contrasts with most people’s everyday encounters with music. Easily accessible, portable and preferably free music has become the norm for many in the digital age. This seems to be motivating playful, explorative audiophiles like White and Young to offer something different.

When I recently acquired an old Decca portable gramophone, the thing that struck me most was the immediacy of the musical performances being played back. Whether as a result of the significant surface noise accompanying the music or the surprising volume and command of the sound (particularly vocals), there is a palpable sense of time distortion; it’s as though the listener is in the presence of the performer.

There is also the ritual involved in winding the gramophone, attaching the needles (which are supposed to be changed after every couple of sides) and handling the fragile 78s. The short duration of the records means they demand constant attention, giving the listening experience something of the brief, sensory thrill of a good espresso or shot of whiskey.

The sense, however illusory, of intimacy and proximity that I found with listening to 78s this way is also, I imagine, a key to understanding Young’s Voice-o-Graph recordings and his campaign for higher quality digital sound via Pono. The thrill of the ritual engagement with the recordings is, meanwhile, what seems to be behind White’s obsession with evocative objects.

Young and White are not alone in their desire to play around with recording history as a way of getting people to hear beyond the everyday. A team working under the title of The 78 Project have been getting musicians to do one-take, direct recordings of old American vernacular songs, then playing the records back to the often surprised and delighted artists.

That this work of phonographic restoration operates primarily as a digital video project via websites (and now a film) is, admittedly, something of an oddity. But it’s also a sign of the digital age’s fascination with what it no longer has or does. Perhaps it’s as fascinating for viewers to watch musicians being amazed by sound as it is to hear it. This might also explain the thinking behind the video promotion accompanying Pono. Web viewers are asked to buy into the system’s superiority by witnessing other people (including many celebrities) being amazed by the Pono experience.

It may be easy to dismiss the undertakings of White, Young, The 78 Project and a host of other phonographic archaeologists as gimmicks. But it is precisely this gimmick status, their weirdness and unexpectedness, that makes them fascinating and relevant. Whatever we think of the actual music associated with these projects – and I’ve said nothing about that here – the acts of recording and playback they invite serve to recall music’s millennia-long relationship with tangibility.