Undercurrents No.3: The Promise of What

For most of the world’s English-speaking population, the word “resolution” refers to an agreement, often between two or more parties, often in regards to some important or pressing matter or dispute.

We reach resolutions regarding how and when to discipline our children, for instance, what shade of pink to paint our walls, when to invade a foreign country. Then again, the word “resolution” might refer to a specific quality of being determined. We successfully navigate certain situations with impressive skill, tact, and resolution. Along similar lines, a “resolution” might refer to a promise, plan, or goal. We make New Year’s resolutions to lose weight, quit smoking, write novels, and more. 

 Only among audiophiles does the word “resolution” conjure some relationship between reproduced music and the live event, some measurable level of fidelity to the original audio signal. To the audiophile, then, resolution is another sort of promise: the promise of – of – what? 

 Beauty? Bliss? Truth? Nirvana? 

 I will never know. I will never care.  

How We Listen to Music Today

That’s not quite true. I care, I do. But I’ll never care so much about resolution that it limits my enjoyment of music. For any piece of music, I simply want the best possible quality that exists. If that’s a cassette tape or a 128kbps MP3, then fine. If it’s an all-analog LP, an MQA file, or a hi-res steam from Qobuz, even better. 

 But, really, I don’t want to know about bits and samples. Why do I need to know? Do I need to know because of – Because of – Communism? Because of democratic socialism? Because of capitalism? It’s because of capitalism, isn’t it? Will I be somehow stronger/healthier/happier if I know how many bits are in my digital-music file; if I know how many times per second my signals have been sampled? 

 No, I don’t think so. Just give me the best possible quality. Let’s not talk about the resolution. 

Lately (for months now, honestly), I’ve been growing nostalgic for the promise of Neil Young’s Pono: a digital-music “ecosystem” – hey, there’s another fun word – released in 2015-ish, comprising a portable playback device (the PonoPlayer), a desktop app (PonoMusic World), and a download site (the PonoMusic Store) that would feature a proprietary file format.

According to Neil Young, the PonoMusic Store would simply offer “the best-sounding files possible” – a tantalizing proposition for a music-first audiophile like me. In practice, however, even this promise failed to deliver, and, though we all agreed a valiant effort had been made (you can read John Atkinson’s review, and Michael Lavorgna’s review), here we are today, Ponoless. 

 Which is partly why I was so pleased to learn of Qobuz’s decision (resolution?) to eliminate MP3s from their catalog. A couple of months ago, when I asked Dan Mackta, Qobuz US’s Managing Director, for his thoughts on Amazon Music HD, he replied, sort of generally, sort of hinting at something bigger: “We are looking at everything including pricing, features, content and every other element that can be a point of difference from others in the space. It made sense for us to be the most expensive streaming service until this week, but now there is a lot being called into question!”

And just like that Qobuz has made their MP3-free catalog one very clear point of difference from others in the space. In his company’s official press release, Mackta explained: “MP3 is really bad for music, artists, and listeners – so Qobuz is saying ‘no’ to MP3 and now offers only real studio quality in one accessible plan.” 

I agree that the MP3 file format, once a matter of convenience and accessibility, has no real place in today’s digital-audio world – unless, of course, some adventurous artist decides, for reasons beyond my imagination, to release an album only in MP3. Then, I will probably want those MP3s and I will have to go someplace else to find them.  

The Like Button

Some albums are novels, their songs inextricably tied by an overarching concept, rewarding listeners who listen from beginning to end and over again. Others are collections of short stories, whose songs may be played in any order or not at all. Still others are slim volumes of poetry, too concise to be considered full-length but too expansive to be deemed EP. 

If it can fit neatly into anything, Earl Sweatshirt’s Feet of Clay fits neatly into this final category – neither LP nor EP, seven grimey, splintered tracks totaling just over 15 minutes of confounding, intoxicating music. If I were to judge this album as I do so many others – by its cover – I might think it should be filed under Doom or Death, something positively metal, and I wouldn’t be wrong. Though there are no muted power chords or blast beats, there’s plenty of dissonance and drone, and far too many musical references for me to count. In the opening bars of “74,” Sweatshirt deadpans: “You like Amar’e Stoudemire with dreads / Bobbleheads, chatterboxes flappin’ but I got a lot ’em fed / Common head cold-level, minor setbacks, minor threats…” 

 And even if he’s not intentionally referencing Ian MacKaye’s early-80s punk band, he’s done the trick for me. The track seems to begin even before you press Play, skitters forward and back, clatters reverberantly, is hazy and obtuse, resembles nothing more than the witch house of ambient electronic artists Demdike Stare or the haunted crackle and churn of Leyland Kirby’s work as The Caretaker. It ends with some clarity, a curtain lifted to reveal the angular pinch and thrust of a Cuban tres (dug out of an old 78RPM disc, I imagine gleefully).

I like it. And, with that, here is a list of 15 recent releases for which I have tapped the like button:

  • Alva Noto, Anne-James Chaton: Alphabet (Noton)
  • Roxymore: Face to Phase (Don’t Be Afraid Recordings)
  • Aziza Brahim: Sahari (Glitterbeat Records)
  • Andrew Pekler: Sounds from Phantom Islands (Faitiche)
  • A Winged Victory For The Sullen: The Undivided Five (Ninja Tune)
  • Denis Sulta: Aye Spoake Te Sumwuhn & They Listenhd (Ninja Tune)
  • Omar Souleyman: Shlon (Mad Decent)
  • Xylouris White: The Sisypheans (Drag City)
  • Lapalux: Amnioverse (Brainfeeder)
  • FKA twigs: Magdalene (Young Turks Recordings)
  • Moor Mother: Analog Fluids of Sonic Black Holes (Don Giovanni Records)
  • Frail Body: A Brief Memoriam (Deathwish, Inc.)
  • Earl Sweatshirt: Feet of Clay (Tan Cressida, Inc.)
  • Klein: Lifetime (ijn inc)
  • Sunn O))): Pyroclasts (Southern Lord Recordings)

Kiki, do you love me?

Call me old-fashioned, but a lot of the music that I "like” isn’t quite appropriate for an eight-month-old baby. However, exploring music with my daughter has led to some interesting musical discoveries, many of which might be classified as soul-jazz or jazz-funk or maybe even acid-jazz – compound descriptors that might seem, oh, I don’t know, wack as hell, until you actually dig a little deeper – such as Grant Green’s 1969 Blue Note release, Carryin’ On, highlighted by the loose and driving rat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat of the irrepressible Idris Muhammad. 

We especially enjoy the second track, an upbeat version of the classic Randazzo-Hart-Winding tune, “Hurt So Bad,” made popular first by Little Anthony and The Imperials, later by The Delfonics, and later again by Linda Ronstadt. Green’s version isn’t nearly as urgent as Ronstadt’s or as pained as The Delfonics’, but its powerful, pretty, and so much fun to dance to – especially around 5:30 in the evening, just before bath time.

 While we typically stream the album from TIDAL, sending a Bluetooth signal from my dying iPhone to a JBL Flip 4 wireless speaker, we also own the LP because of course we do. The back of our copy is stamped Warren’s Crib, 10438 Mack Ave., Detroit, Mich. 48214, which is really cool, and, to my knowledge, is the type of artifact that hasn’t yet been replicated by streaming services or artificial intelligence. 

Implant that, Elon Musk.

Question of the Month

If a particular piece of desirable music was only available in the MP3 file format, would you pay for it? If so, how much would you pay? Asking for a friend.

Reading, Watching, Listening

Now Reading

  • Watchmen by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons
  • The Affairs of the Falcóns by Melissa Rivero
  • In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

Now Watching

  • Watchmen
  • Queer Eye: We’re in Japan!

Now Listening

  • Kim Gordon: No Home Record
  • Lonnie Smith: Think!
  • Junius Paul: Ism

audx's picture

Sure I'd pay the going rate of $9.99 - 11.99 for an MP3 album.

I found the Pono to be a bit perfect ugly. If I recall correctly, the album asking price was $24.99. As I would be rebuying some music for the fourth time, it was too much to bear.

Now I'm more amenable to rebuying these albums or selected tracks again especially as I realize that the purchase option could go away.

barfle's picture

I’ve purchased a few hundred MP3s over the years, generally spending from 99 cents to 1.99 for each song. Of course, most of those were songs I first listened to on an AM radio with a 3” speaker and a dried-out filter cap in the power supply. Sure, I want to hear what the mixing engineer heard, but stuff from the 60s or even earlier is going to have limited fidelity in the first place.

For modern releases, I would prefer cleaner sound, but I can enjoy music through a fair amount of noise and distortion.