Image by William F. Zwirner, from The Mary Frances Garden Book or Adventures Among the Garden People by Jane Eayre Fryer
Week one. I'm going to start things off by taking a reverse-chronological tour through some genres of music that have made a difference to me. Flash back to 1992 - I was an avid reader of (gulp) SPIN magazine, even though I didn't have any way of hearing most of the music the publication reviewed or advertised. I thought it was thrilling to read about bands with names like Luna2 and I Am Spoonbender, and SPIN writers wrote impassioned endorsements of albums like Slanted and Enchanted by a band called Pavement. The record was described with phrases like "skewed melodies", "buried under tape hiss", and "off-kilter choruses" - they named it their album of the year. Oddly, I didn't hear Slanted and Enchanted until several years later, but the idea of "lo-fi recording" fascinated me and eventually SPIN led me to Guided By Voices.
After reading only a few little blurbs about Guided By Voices, an obscure lo-fi group from Ohio, I knew it was something I had to check out. A band of frustrated thirty-somethings trying to reincarnate the Beatles using garage-sale recording equipment in a suburban basement - what could be better? They had it all - the tape hiss, the tossed-off melodic hooks, the surrealist lyrics. And they had one other key element common among lo-fi musicians. Prolificacy. They were constantly recording and releasing new music. My relationship with music is more or less defined by the two things I learned from Guided By Voices. First, pop melodies can be sweeter when partially obfuscated by a contrasting component (like primitive recording techniques). Second, artists that are dedicated to creating new music constantly and getting it to listeners as quickly as possible create a relationship with the listener that is unique and personal in a way that can be very rewarding.
Today's song is "Key Losers" by Guided By Voices. It's not one of their better-known songs - it was originally released in 1996 on a fanclub-only LP called Tonics and Twisted Chasers. But, apart from being a soft-of personal theme of mine, it exemplifies what I find most rewarding about lo-fi music. Four tracks - a simple guitar figure, a melody vocal, and two harmony vocals that come in at key places in the chorus. The lyrics are gibberish - but are they, really? The singer is singing about something - he must be to sing it the way that he does. And there is a feeling being communicated in phrases like "consistently choking/the roach coach is smoking." And the tape hiss. And the put-on British accent. And the moment when the voices come together on the chorus that first time. And the guitar flub between the bridge and the final chorus. This is what lo-fi pop music means to me.
"Key Losers" by Guided By Voices