Sunday, February 11, 2007

Chronicles of a music listener

Look around, next time you're on a bus, or in town or on a train. Chances are, every second person you see will be, as Cliff Richard would have it, "Wired for sound". Plugged in to their tiny white boxes, people are happily oblivious of outside noise, scrolling through their music collection with an idle finger, bopping away to an inner soundtrack.

There is no doubt that the advent of Soulseek, iTunes and their ilk are great assets to the modern music listener. They allow people to download music they've never heard before, discover new bands, revisit old classics and build up a music library that our mothers and fathers would never had been able to acquire without a lot of time and money. With the click of a button we can instantly purchase an artist's entire discocraphy. I, myself, am a healthy advocate of the online trend and it has proved useful in checking out the latest trends.

There is a part of me, however, that laments this.

Music is one of the most important things in my life. Many, many people say that but it doesn't take away from the fact that it's true. I listen to music every day; while I'm online, when I'm lying in bed, plugged in to my headphones when I'm on the bus. When I listen to music I love, I make a connection. For example, when I listen to Siouxsie & The Banshees, I can remember being twelve years old, sitting in my friend's house looking at a cassete tape full of Banshee's songs, a battered old cassete with a hand-written cover. And looking at this tape made me unbearably excited and nervous and happy, far more emotion than is natural for an inaminate object. My delight stemmed from the fact that at the time you couldn't get Siouxsie and the Banshees records in Ireland. I remember being enthralled with the handful of songs I could get my hands on and the giddy excitement I felt listening to them. When I finally got my hands on two albums (purchased on a school trip to Italy. It's a testament to my love for this band that the discovery of two of their cds in a dingy record shop in Verona is my happiest memory of this trip) I was head-over-heels. Now, if I had discovered SATB a few years later, I would have been able to hear these songs in one happy rush. While it doesn't really matter how I heard them, I do feel my deep love for the band would be somewhat diminished if I didn't have to wait.

Which is why, as a new project, I am going to relisten to every album I own.

Well, maybe not every album. I don't know if I could bring myself to listen to Sum 41 again, or Linkin Park. But the most of the rest are worthy to listen to again. Glancing over my shelves, I see albums I've neglected, old friends that have lain untouched for far too long, artists that I haven't thought about in years. Sadly, it seems that the internet, while opening up my eyes to a wealth of new bands and genres, has simultaneously dulled my (slightly obsessive) love for music. I'm not the worst offender, by any means. I still purchase albums and fixate on artists, but probably not with the intensity I did before I hopped onto the download-bandwagon. So, without further ado, here we go.

Neil Young, "Harvest"
One Saturday morning, about four years ago, my mam made a trip into town. I had made a request - I asked her to pick up Dirty by Sonic Youth. I was itching to hear some New York art-rawk, and the hipster's seminal 1992 smash seemed to be their most accessible starting off point. I knew where she could get it, a second-hand music stall in the George's Arcade. There, I had longingly lingered over the cover and track-listing for weeks. When my mam returned from her shopping expedition, she handed me the Sonic Youth album, along with another cd.

"Listen to this," she instructed. "I used to love this album."

I looked at the cover, a pale yellow background with the artist and album title in swirling black cursive. Neil Young. Harvest. I knew of Neil Young already, of course. I was familiar with his name, at any rate. Nearly everything I knew, admittedly, had come from my then-obsession with Nirvana, feverishly reading everything I could get my hands on. Young had come up a few times in my readings and I vaguely knew "The Needle And The Damage Done" as a hymn to junkies. I'm sure at the time I was a little doubtful about being handed this folksy album, as I was yearning to listen to the noisy art-rock of the 'Youth. But, I listened duitifully. And I loved.

Harvest is one of Neil Young's quieter albums. Although there are moments of quiet anger and despair, there's none of the raging fury of "Like A Hurricane", no blazing guitar solos or feedback. Nah, this is Neil kicking back with some friends and playing some country-ish guitar songs. It is also one of Neil Young's most popular albums, the back of my version gives a little bit of history, informing me:

Released in February 1972, Harvest quickly captured the national number one slot in sales, and sustained its popularity to become the album best seller of the year. It's most prominent single cut, "Heart of Gold," still stands as Neil Young's most purchased record.

It's easy to ascertain why this album was so popular. It bridges the gap between devout music listener and casual fan with it's stirring choruses, steel guitars and Young's winsome, unusual voice. Was there ever a rocker with such a distinct voice? High, nasal and capable of wrenching his heart around a tune like no other. It's filled with shuffling odes to love and heartbreak ("Heart of Gold") and singalong stompers ("Are You Ready For The Country"). At some moments it's like one big party, with its harmonies and the rustic Americana feel and yet its imbued with quiet moments of introspective like "Old Man". It's impossible, however, to write anything about Harvest with mentioning it's penultimate track, the best song on the album, the beautiful "Needle and the Damage Done".

With the opening guitar and the line "I caught you knocking on my cellar door..", I'm gone. In under two minutes, "Needle..." manages to evoke pity, despair, loss, failure, redemption and hope, all softly delivered over the cyclical guitar line that is still my favourite thing to play on my acoustic. It's utterly beautiful, and so short that when it abruptly stops, I still get a jolt of surprise.


Ann Marie said...

I know what you mean about people everywhere with headphones, then again I am guilty myself :)Then again I don't download, I just buy albums.
I normally play something everyday and then stop. Months later I'll go back and start listening again. At the moment I can't stop listening to Ray LaMontagne and I'm back playing Rufus Wainwright. I'd like to think my music taste has vastly improved since I first started buying cd's so I don't think I'll be re-listening to anything from a few years ago.

Catherine said...

I think my music taste from when I was about 12 is fairly good and I still listen to most of the artists I liked back then. Most, mind you. Some are best left....just, left!

Emma said...

Your music taste rocks! Anyone who's picks vary from Siouxsie and the banshees to Joanna Newsome, and isn't ashamed to admit to liking Girls Aloud, is great. :)

Catherine said...

Why thank you, Emma! I agree, if I do say so myself...

I'm going to see Joanna Newsom in April. Cannot. Wait!