Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Switchboard Sessions, Volume Two

Spring was stretching into summer the first time I was able to fully absorb Tin Horn Prayer's Get Busy Dying. I was driving to work past Northern Illinois' hazy, humid cornfields and leaning barns, above which the summer sun had risen hours before. I remember how well the album's gritty, gutsy folk matched the fresh and dilapidated landscape, and I smirked knowing that I would be on the phone doing a Switchboard Session with them within the week.

Singer and guitarist Andy Thomas and I had emailed back and forth a bunch of times to determine a time and a place to record. I had scribbled down several questions about their conception and somewhat contradictory sound. I got to know the songs on Get Busy Dying—the lyrical themes that connected them, the instruments that contributed each's mood, which of the band's three singers sang on which, and so on. It was my twenty-seventh interview for the site, so these preparations were a familiar part of my process and prepared me fairly well.

I wasn't prepared for Thomas' performance, though.

He recorded it while he was waiting for his bandmates Mike Hererra and Scooter James to arrive at his girlfriend's dance studio in Denver, which was the only landline they could secure. Thomas intended it to be on Get Busy Dying but, for whatever reason, it didn't happen and, for some reason, was happy recording it through a phone.

The resonator guitar he strummed sounds gummy over the phone (lacking real resonance, ironically) but makes up for it with thick, chunky sounding chords. As he strummed these in a subdued, syncopated rhythm, Thomas screamed—not the raspy howl that somehow sounds smooth and raw when stretched across an acoustic's strings, but a sincere, core-cramping scream. When he sang, "But I stumble, lord knows I try," his scream implied pain and pure apology, all as his resonator guitar limped eagerly behind him. It freaked me out.

Later, after the interview, Thomas' bandmates each recorded incredible songs (Hererra's was as darkly uplifting as James' was triumphant), but few songs—regardless of whether they were performed in a professional studio or on a Tascam tape recorder—haunt me like Thomas' Switchboard Session does.

If I sound self-indulgent here, I apologize; it's not my intent, nor is it to champion one recording over any other. If anything, the above story is my attempt to make sense of something that still doesn't seem like a logical idea to me. After all, what person would want to record songs over a landline phone, let alone listen to the tracks? Every session I conduct, though, convinces me that this project reveals something specialat least to me. Having initiated thirty-five Switchboard Sessions, I'm still baffled at how recording songs over the phone can capture real, raw emotion so effectively and expel those elements that make music meaningful.

I'm also still in awe at how "right" some musicians sound over a dusty, muffled landline. For some reason, the telephone captures Evan Weiss's dynamic, quiet charm with the same degree of success that it captures Tom Gabel's spitting fury. Likewise, the raw, rustic way in which it captures Greenland is Melting's brand of bluegrass is complimentary, as is the way that it captures the Copyrights' buzzy, sort-of-experimental simplicity. And I'll still argue that the process of recording stripped down songs over the phone is an equalizer, where dizzying post-punk firebomb can become delicate and perfectly placed beside smokey folk song.

Hopefully, all of this comes across on The Switchboard Sessions, Volume Two, which you can download as a compilation below.

Like last year, I'm still not sure if anyone would want to download this, let alone burn it onto a CD and slide it into a printed sleeve, but I've included a PDF with instructions in case anyone is feeling crafty (and let me know if you do; it'll make my day). Also, because of limitations on my SoundCloud account, I'll be removing some tracks from their features; please contact me if you're interested in any tracks that are no longer accessible.

Thanks to anyone who reads, listens, and supports the Switchboard Sessions. I'm not sure why you do. This little project is fulfilling and fun for me, and it has exposed me to music that I'm not sure I'd know about otherwise. Like any blog (or, really, any creative internet undertaking), it's difficult to tell whether (and why) anyone cares. Knowing that at least a couple people do means more to me than you will believe.

Finally, thanks to all the bands and musicians who have recorded with me this year. Each of the bands I feature on this sitenew finds or old favoritesare those that, I feel, is making the most meaningful and incredible music. Buy something from them, see them play live, and support them in every way you can.

It's impossible to express what it feels like to talk to the musicians I admire most, let alone listen to them as they play a private performance for me. Every time, it gives me goosebumps; sometimes, it freaks me out.

1. “Stumble” by Tin Horn Prayer
2. “The Nausea” by Against Me!
3. “Canseco” by Banquets
4. “I Wasn't There” by the Fucking Cops
5. “Seamless Copper” by Dan Webb and the Spiders
6. “Stormy Weather” by the Copyrights
7. “Dark Side of the Super Moon” by Devon Kay and the Solutions
8. “3/4 Eleanor / Passing Days” by Elway
9. “Wicker Chair” by Greenland is Melting
10. “Not Superstitious” by Franz Nicolay
11. “The Frames the Used to Greet Me” by Into It. Over It.
12. “My Drug Buddy” by Great Cynics
13. “Service with a Smile” by How Dare You
14. “Leon” by Larcenist
15. “No Big Deal” by Ninja Gun
16. “Canadian Club” by Restorations
17. “Religion on the Radio” by Polar Bear Club

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