Friday, April 13, 2007

Reviews:: Ben Kamen and random thoughts

I rest firmly on the fence about how the internet has affected the music industry. With little music blogs popping up daily, countless myspace pages and a steady tidal wave of promos and emails being posted on an hourly basis, it’s quite easy to saturate the market, create unwarranted hype and breed lazy listening. Often it feels like listening to music becomes a process:
1) Open overstuffed envelope
2) Listen to track one objectively
3) Smile or frown
4) Blog about band before album is through the first spin or dismiss

Sadly, this is becoming the way people listen to records. Download an unmastered version of the record months in advance or grab the mp3s you like. Listening to music is something almost as passionate as making the music itself. Shane and I have talked about the golden age of hip hop for years now. In high school I used to love running to the record store. I’d read the liner notes on the Diamond D record, see who he thanked and go hunting for any of the names I could find. I’d see a video from Fresco and Miz and wonder if the album would ever make it to Halifax under the pricey tag of “import.” Sure, I got burned a few times – like when I bought Jimmy Z’s record because he was on Ruthless (I didn’t think that the people who brought us NWA would employ a white dude who only plays the flute, but… they did) – but the experience was very rewarding. It made me love music, which is something that has never changed.

The way we listened to music even made you soak in the complete product. Twelve songs, (usually on a tape) and fast forward was a precious resource. Wasting the batteries was not a good plan, so you hunted for albums that you could listen to front to back, often for a whole day. You had to listen to every song. You started recognizing the way songs ended and started.

Now, it’s very easy to get your hands on music, with little to no effort and people listen to songs, not records. Hit an aggregator, right-click | Save As and add it to the thousands of songs you have at your disposal. I know this is oversimplifying it, because often the artists that get blogged about need the support these random hits give them. One more person at a show might mean one more t-shirt sale, one more tank of gas.

But mainly, the thing I love about the internet is that it’s a way for people who love music discover bands that don’t get signed and have the money to take out an ad or make a video. I’ve read a few times at somuchsilence the author talking about how he used to trade old bootleg shows on a Hieroglyphics message board. I did the same with the Beasties Boys. Now, I get music from artists that print a run of discs with homemade covers. I can send an email and get a CD-R of music from an artist who makes music knowing it may almost certainly not be heard. These make the records because they love music. As hokey as that sounds the concept more than makes up for any negative aspect of the net for serious music fans.

For everyone who ever dismisses blogs as PR tools or bloggers as shills for a few labels or “cool” artists, I wonder if you consider what goes into the sites. People always drag down the big hitters – chromewaves, gvsb, mokb, aquarium drunkard – and that’s fine, until you consider how much time those guys spend doing what they do for almost nothing. A few click throughs or some ad space probably adds up to running the blog for a couple of bucks an hour with the majority of the visitors just waiting to bash their tastes. Not really a dream job.

But those are the elite sites. They might not be making much, but they are making something. They are the ones that generate loads of traffic and help set the tastes for a lot of the feeder sites (which I guess we fall into). Much like the musicians who do this as a hobby, there are hundreds of sites that write day after day for the couple of hundred people that visit, but mostly for themselves. Songs Illinois (probably the best blog on the net) is a perfect example.

Songs Illinois plugs away with the supports of nothing more than a few ads anyone can ad to a page and writes about musicians that almost no other blog even bothers with. I’ve found some amazing artists on the site, and at times our taste is fairly similar, but at the same time, 95% of the time I visit the site, I have no idea who the artist of the day actually is. His posts are never dictated by hype. His posts usually have the glowing 0 comments attached. But I don’t think any of these things matter to the author and it comes across in his writing.

Where am I going with this? Well, I’m not 100 % sure. It was supposed to be a post about Ben Kamen, a talented artist living in Olympia Washington, but it evolved into something else. So, back to Ben. His songs almost never get above a hushed whisper, usually only using an old, tattered guitar that is strummed and picked without a hint of regret or shame. The subtle mistakes and imperfections aren’t corrected. There is no polish, and none is needed. The tracks are gritty and raw and usually the squeak of a fret board is as ever-present as Ben’s honest vocals. Much like the guitar, Ben’s voice wavers and creeks as he reaches for notes that sometimes seem just out of reach. He’s ok with his imperfections, and that’s why his songs are so powerful. Anything that is too perfect is something no one can relate too. With his gentle tones, it’s almost like you are leaning closer while he whispers you a secret. You can hear Ben admit that he’s not sure if this is ever going to fully work out, but he’s never going to stop trying. It’s the same secret we are all keeping inside and it's what keeps us going.

He’s the type of musician who will play music until he’s too old to hold his guitar, and I wonder if he will ever be playing shows for more than a couple hundred amazed fans. He’s the type of musician that other musicians love. He’s the type of musician that makes me want to keep writing this blog.

MP3:: Time Stretched Like Like Light
MP3:: All My Thirst Can Not Be Met
MP3:: Energy You've Been Saving (with Super Daughter)

Posted at 6:06 PM by ack :: 0 comments

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