Monday, January 14, 2008

i phone, i tune, and now i tube!

For a long time I thought iTunes was software for someone else. I even deleted the software and its icon from my desktop computer to minimize personal cultural shock. Little earphones and tinny little tunes, so I thought, were not for my high-expectation ears. Note that I wasn’t being a snob, please. It’s not the tunes I disdained, but what I supposed was the audio quality.

Then I bought an iPhone, which is a dressed up iPod to some people and a tiny entertainment device-with-phone for others. I underestimated the entertainment potential when I decided to buy it, and then many things changed.

I no sooner decided to buy the gadget than I decided to learn to use the iTunes music library as a real library for myself. I decided to create a little sonic autobiography on my laptop. I started to remember songs that were so vividly woven into memory that I recalled scenes and situations related to each song. Please Mister Custer, a song I didn’t want to hear again, is still in my memory of riding in a car with my friend, Jim Nickell. We played in a little rock band in high school and we palled around now and then as we both got drivers’ licenses. Jim was driving in the day I remember, the car was a big blue Buick, I think, and he turned up the bass on the radio so that Please Mister Custer really boomed out. I remember the joy of that moment, how we both relished the things that could be done with sound.

I browsed the iTunes library for some old favorites like The Drifters singing Under the Boardwalk and Judy Collins singing The Hills of Shiloh. The more I browsed, the more I found alternate possibilities for the songs I remembered, and the more I found music I’d never heard of but which I wanted to have for repeated listening.

I’ll give one example. I wanted to look up the title of a tune on the CD “Meeting By the River” by Ry Cooder. I looked up Ry Cooder and discovered a world of recorded music I hadn’t known anything about. One of his old CDs was titled “Bop Till You Drop” (1979). It is a joyous look back at infectious material from the 50s and 60s. Little Sister is my favorite track. It has the feel of informality, horsing around, in the vocals, but with very clean, tight instrumental backup. The utter lack of “rehearsed” ensemble when the gang sings “oo-oo-oo-oo” in the refrain tells me this is about the fun of playing the music, and not about the what the lyrics are narrating.

I finally imported Ry Cooder's rendition of Isa Lei from the CD I own. Once I knew the title, I found it in other versions and discovered an outstanding guitarist, Ed Gerhard, who I hadn't known about. Wow, the things you discover!

The earphone experience was another revelation. Those inconvenient little ear buds that come with the iPhone created surprising amounts of listening pleasure in the few moments the buds remained lodged in the right position. Real earphones made a huge difference for me. The surprise was how good everything sounded. A minor addiction was under way. I imported a vast number of songs from my CD collection and in no time had nearly 800 items on my computer and iPhone and still more than half of the iPhone’s storage space available. Listening to Joni Mitchell's All I Want from the "Blue" album is a great example of "earphone music." With the ear buds in, Joni and her dulcimer sound like they are in the center, between my ears as it were, and I hear other distinct things on the right and left. On the right, as I imagine things, sits James Taylor, who is listed as a guitarist on this song.

As I listened to my newly-captured tunes, I began to organize some into a “playlist” and started to goof around with the order of things so that my chosen songs made sense in their juxtaposition. The making of a playlist can be a creative project, and I’ve derived a lot of satisfaction from working up a long one.

I spent much of yesterday surfing YouTube for video versions of some songs I liked. The “library experience” at YouTube is much like the one at iTunes. You can type in a song title or you can type in the name of an artist. Either way, the search results show you some related material that you can easily browse.

One type of music video is a photo montage over the audio recording, there being no video of the artist performing the piece. A gorgeous example of this is thomasj157’s upload of winter pictures to go with Gordon Lightfoot’s Song for a Winter’s Night.

Another style is the candid video of an artist either in rehearsal or in a non-concert setting. I love the one I found of Joni Mitchell singing Night Ride Home in someone’s back yard.

She recorded the CD in 1991, so I guess this video is from the 1990s. I like it a lot better than the “produced” music video she made.

There are a lot of gems in the list of Joni Mitchell clips on YouTube. I like to watch her play guitar in the distinctive way she developed over 40 years ago. Distinctive lyrics, distinctive guitar, she’s one of the songwriting giants of that long era.

“Produced” music videos, for me, are less interesting than live performances or informal renditions. I looked up Kathy Mattea's Asking Us To Dance because the listening experience was outstanding with those little iPhone earbuds. I found a produced music video from 1991 with a "ballet" of sorts intercut with a secondary ballet between the camera and Mattea's wonderfully expressive face. I had seen these things before....where? Aha! The choreography and cinematography were taking ideas from recent movies: a sex-in-a-downpour scene from 9 ½ weeks (1986) and the after-hours dances in Dirty Dancing (1987). The video is a sensual viewing experience, not R-rated by any means, but Kathy Mattea’s mocha mezzo voice is the loser here. A voice like that deserves earphones-only listening, eyes closed. She’s photogenic, though, and the camera tours her face like a lover’s lips.

I prefer the style of Mike Reid’s Walk on Faith video from 1990. It’s like looking at a college yearbook for me. I knew Mike years earlier, when he was an All-American defensive tackle at Penn State and a classical piano major studying in Earl Wild’s studio. I was a few years ahead of Mike, but I saw him give impressive, piano-shattering performances in student recitals, and I watched him play pro football with the Bengals on TV. I had no idea back then that he wanted to sing and be a songwriter, so I treasure my CD of his music and this video of him in lip-synch with his recording. It’s a really cute montage of images, and it captures the Mike Reid I remember, though with a thinner neck and more hair than when he was a Nittany Lion!

p.s. If you liked that one, I think you'll have fun with another of the same era, Poor Boy Blues, with Chet Atkins and Mark Knopfler.

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