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Thursday, November 3, 2011

Reviews – New Series Takes a Fresh Look at Old Recordings, “Across the Digital Divide...”

    We are introducing a new series in the Acoustic Americana Music Guide. It's new reviews of old recordings from the other side of the digital divide. What we intend here is a bit of a time machine, delivering fresh reviews of music released a decade ago or more.
We get asked to do a lot of reviews of the latest new CD releases and even web-only new albums. It's overwhelming because the sheer numbers of new recordings are so great, and yes, sometimes the new recordings are, too.
    Obviously, not everything new is wonderful, and not everything wonderful is new.
    Older recordings have a magnetic charm – not simply because many of them were released primarily on magnetic tape cassette, or before that, on 8-track or 4-track tape and/or grooved vinyl phonograph record. In an age before pitch correction software, there was a fundamental honesty to recorded music.
    Perhaps they would have chosen to “enhance” or “improve” them if they could, but they couldn't. That technology was not there. What you hear is what the most talented recording engineers and producers could do to present the artists' best efforts. (Okay, so they could and did overdub to add instruments and vocal harmonies and to get rid of unintended sounds and replace bad notes. But that was about all they could do.)
    Then, as now, some bands and artists were better in the studio than they were in live performance for an audience, and vice-versa. Often, with the passage of time, we are left with the surviving product of one – the recordings - and only memories and contemporary reviews of the other – the live shows. Over time, attrition factors of age and sensibility will consume the latter. As with silent movies, recorded music from another time should not be allowed to vanish. Certainly the best of it should not vanish from the artistic record or the measure of today's best.
    In the days of vinyl records, it cost a LOT to manufacture – to physically “press” – and release an album. That limited the number of recording artists. CD technology is cheap, and now every musician is a recording artist. That was artistically liberating, but it lowered the bar. Tracks a label never would have released were able to flood the market, for good and bad.
That might suggest that everything pre-CD is of better quality. That's a factor. Old recordings can likewise sound very dated, loaded with archaic and tired old riffs and conventions. It runs the gamut. Disco still sucks. Old tracks are as likely to make us chuckle as say “wow.”
    Yet who can question the worth of having records of Enrico Caruso or Lightnin' Hopkins or Jelly Roll Morton or Lena Horne or Django Reinhardt or Woody Guthrie?
    Often, old albums – and those in the folk-Americana world in particular – go extinct. Many recordings issued only on cassette – which first broke the Big Label vinyl barrier – were never re-released on CD, so they were left behind. They have not crossed-over the digital divide.
    The Guide's new review series, “Across the Digital Divide,” brings us face-to-face with old recordings that should not be forgotten, for the sake of our cultural heritage, our history, art, our musical legacy – and as recordings that set the bar high, with standards of musicianship and finished recording that we should aspire to meet today.
    Will we present reviews of albums that are out-of-print? Sometimes. That's not intended to frustrate, but to create interest and demand for re-release in a modern format – CD or digital download – to enable the music to be heard again by today's audience.
    If you're wondering what started this, it's a tale with something useful. We were changing batteries in the radio in the earthquake / emergency box, and noted the device has a cassette recorder-player.
    Then we remembered why.
    When we wrote an Emergency Response Plan for an aerospace company about a decade ago, we got them to buy compact portable radio / cassette recorder-players. We had them install tapes with useful info on one side, like where to find water and first aid supplies, and blank tape on the other side to enable leaving messages. Messages like, “We [with all names] are safe and are going to _____,” or, “We are at such-and-such place, digging-out trapped people, so come help us.”
    Following our own advice, we bought a compact portable radio / cassette recorder-player.
    All THAT, in turn, reminded us our digital devices won't work in a disaster because all the cell phone sites will be down and the land lines and power will be out. Along with a note pad and pen, an old cassette recorder-player and fresh batteries are still a good idea.
    Serendipitously, we ran across a big box of cassette tapes we hadn't heard in years, inclusive of old favorites. Playing some of them after such a long time has become habit-forming, and it's music worth sharing. So there you have it.
    Our first review in the series appears below. How long these new reviews of old recordings from “Across the Digital Divide” continue will be determined by your interest and feedback.
    WE WELCOME YOUR SUGGESTIONS FOR REVIEWS IN THIS SERIES, from blues to bluegrass to borderlands, Cajun to cowboy to Celtic to Cape Breton to Quebecois, music of the sea or the islands, new-old-trad-alt-post folk, and acoustic singer-songwriter music of its day – any acoustic Americana recording that was released ten years ago or more. We may need to ask you to send us a cassette copy or burned CD along with a Xerox or legible scan of the L-card or the 8-track's pasted-on label or the vinyl record's liner notes. If you think it's worth keeping alive and sharing, we probably will, too!
This review originally appeared in the November 3, 2011 edition of the Acoustic Americana Music Guide, available in its entirety at

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