March 11, 2011

In Praise of Liner Notes

As the music world slides ever onwards towards being all digital, I continue to cling to CDs.  Yeah, I know, they're digital, too, but at least there's a physical product involved.  Something I can hold in my hand. Something you can read while you listen.  In other words, if I even have to go all digital, I'll miss the liner notes.

Liner notes, of course, are primarily treasure troves of geeky technical information about the album.  You get info like who played what (often in mind numbing detail - a good thing!) to who mixed and recorded it and, hell, sometimes find out who the lawyers are.  Details like the fact that the first Brand X album, Unorthodox Behaviour, was produced by Brand X and
Dennis Mackay (who was produced by Mrs. Mackay).
Occasionally, there's stuff in the liner notes that's just fun.  Like when IQ admits that Tales from the Lush Attic was
recorded far too quickly. 
Or when Ain Soph warns, in the notes to A Story of Mysterious Forrest, that
[t]he music of this CD is not dancing music, but basically music for listening to.*
Sometimes, there's helpful guidance for listeners in the liner notes.  In the notes to Brave, Marillion recommends that you
Play it Loud with the lights off.
(A good suggestion, that).  Or bands make a play for commercial endorsement.  The notes to Mogwai's EP+2 (which triggered this post) state that
Mogwai wear Kappa and Addidas clothing.  Representatives of Nike, Puma, and Umbro may contact them at the P.O. address.
Meanwhile, in the notes to The Joy Of Molybdenum by The Trey Gunn Band, drummer Bob Muller, after his bandmates list their "exclusive" equipment chimes in that his
equipment was exclusively purchased with his own money.
But when it comes to epic liner notes, ones that are truly great pieces of writing in their own right, the best are a pair of my favorite musicians: Mike Keneally and Dave Stewart.

Keneally occasionally graces his CD booklets with track-by-track descriptions and observations.  Take this blurb for Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song," from disc two of Half Alive In Hollywood:
This is the soundman (or woman) test.  Most any soundman (or woman) who's spend more than three nights in a bar will add some kind of reverb or delay effect to the lead vocal as soon as they hear the opening riff to this song, and it was fascinating on tour to find out which ones made it.  The majority, I'm chuffed to report, passed with flying faders.
And I defy you to like an album whose notes start out:
Hello and welcome to our music, motherfuckers!  Play along!  Strap on a guitar or a drum or a sousaphone or whatever your tool of choice and improvise along with us.
That's from Guitar Therapy Live.

But the all time king of liner notes, at least in my eyes, is Dave Stewart, keyboard player extraordinaire and part of (at one time or another) Egg, Khan, Hatfield and the North, and Bruford, among others.  It's his time in National Health that I like best, spurred partly by Stewart's hilarious liner notes for Complete, a two-disc set containing all three of the band's albums.

In the notes to Complete, Stewart provides a quick and dirty history of National Health and its many permutations, throwing in many amusing anecdotes along the way.  My favorite involves the search for a drummer in the early days (before Bill Bruford was recruited).  It's too long to recount here, but this bit gives you a taste:
I guess the time signatures, which shifted constantly, were the biggest stumbling block - to me and the other embryonic Healthsters they seemed totally natural, but they reduced most of the visitors to our rehearsal space . . . to a flailing mess of uncoordinated limbs, quivering flesh and dropped sticks.
I ask you, when all music is reduced to digital files downloadable from the Net, where will such pearls of wisdom be dumped?  Along the side of the road, way back there, far enough that nobody will care anymore.  But some of us will miss them, at least.

* If that's not the best one-sentence definition of "prog," I don't know what is!

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