Welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends. This month, it's Chronogram as LP. (In case the kiddies out there don't know what I'm talking about, LPs are those pieces of vinyl wrapped in thin cardboard sleeves that your dad keeps in boxes in the attic and wistfully equates with his lost and misspent youth.) The album metaphor is apt, methinks, for despite the obsolescent air surrounding these vinyl relics, they are physically large and pleasing to hold on a purely tactile level, aside from any aesthetic considerations or soul-ennobling profundity their content may contain. In the era of the mp3, we can skip from Bon Iver to Beethoven to Beyoncé on iTunes with ease. Just load your 10,000 tracks into your computer, hit shuffle, and stream your 38.6 days of music, bouncing from one disconnected morsel to the next. Extend this to Facebook, Twitter, Tivo, podcast subscriptions, and reality becomes your mixtape (another hoary bit of technology). It's now possible to be digitally connected in every way, with access to all viewpoints and ideas, and still retreat into a personally curated solipsism of your own music, friends, and politics.
The LP isn't all things to all people. It's a full-length artistic statement by one person or a group of people at a particular moment in time—a metaphor in music. Most aren't exceptional. They're fair to middling, like most of us. But some LPs very much tilt toward Art. Without unpacking too much of that baggage, I'll quote David Foster Wallace on the subject: "The plain fact is that good art is magical and precious and cool." I hope that Chronogram sometimes rises to the level of magical, precious, and cool for our readers. Here's your long-playing magazine experience.
A saying about a book and its cover comes to mind. In the digital space, this is ever more a practical reality. Songs and albums are now often (choose your own adventure: bought, streamed, pirated) without the cover art ever being seen by the consumer. With LPs, the art and object were part and parcel of the listening experience. Think of The Wall: Gerald Scarfe's ominous white brick façade opening onto a gatefold of more daunting white brick with holes provided for the demons to crawl through—Mother did it need to be so high?—the visual distillation of Roger Water's fever dream of anxiety.
This month, Julianna Swaney's whimsical Hansel and Gretel-like drawing sets the tone for the February issue. Swaney explains her influences to Jennifer Gutman in On the Cover.
What you're reading currently is this album's stand-in for liner notes—the explanatory essay undergirding the endeavor and often giving thin creative material the veneer of respectability, even inevitability, with the aid of verbal gymnastics. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences even gives a Grammy each year for "Best Album Notes." This honor has been almost exclusively reserved for scholarly exegeses on jazz giants like Erroll Garner and Miles Davis. The last time anything slightly off-topic won was in 1976, when journalist Pete Hammill got the nod for his mad stab at explaining Dylan's Blood on the Tracks. Here's Hammill's first sentence: "In the end the plague touched us all." Yowza. Does anyone even read liner notes anymore?
Every great album needs a whiff of mystery. Why was Paul walking barefoot on the cover of Abbey Road? What does the synchronicity between Dark Side of the Moon and The Wizard of Oz signify—was Pink Floyd trying to tell us something about the flying monkeys? Our mystery man this month is Master Kwan, an aged Taoist master who some claim to be his early 90s, though to see the man do tai chi, you'd never believe it. Is he really the soldier, Peking Opera Star, and Golden Gloves boxer described in the fantastical book Chronicles of Dao? Wendy Kagan investigates in "Keepers of the Tao".
What is life but a brief squawk in the face of inevitable death? The Flaming Lips certainly tapped into that with the bouncy psychedelia of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, with the eponymous heroine doomed but determined. Simon Critchley, author of The Book of Dead Philosophers, has spent quite some time ruminating on how we shuffle off this mortal coil. Prior to a talk at EMPAC in Troy this month, Critchley talks with Sparrow about the difference between death and taxes, among other topics, in "Funny Stories About Death".
Subversion needn't always be as straightforward as a Dead Kennedy's record. Sometimes it comes in unexpectedly commercial forms, like Lady Gaga's Born This Way, which brought the fight for LGBTQ equality to Top 40 radio. And then, sometimes subversion can come out of left field, as in the work (and life) of Michael Perkins. An author and journalist, Perkins's recent book, Life Sentences: Aphorisms & Reflections, is filled with zingers that unsettle our preconceived notions. Here's Aphorism 484: "We don't drive cars; they drive us." Perkins explains why walking is a subversive act to Nina Shengold in "Walkabout".
This is how the record companies get you to buy stuff you didn't know you needed—until they told you it existed: the double live album at Budokan, that rare unreleased track that's now tacked on to the Greatest Hits release. The Smiths nailed the crass merchandising angle of this expertly in "Paint a Vulgar Picture," imagining a record meeting at which the execs plan to cash in on the death of one of their stars: "Re-issue! Re-package! Re-package! / Re-evaluate the songs / Double-pack with a photograph / Extra track (and a tacky badge)."
At Chronogram, of course, we give it all away, but we still have plenty of bonus material. In the past year, we've been plotting and scheming how to enhance Chronogram.com. Since we relaunched a few months ago, we've taken every opportunity to deepen the printed stories online. (This is in addition, of course, to our roster of bloggers who post fresh content daily, and our curated calendar listings that not only tell you what's going on, but guide you toward what you want to do.) This month, we're featuring video exclusives shot by Stephen Blauweiss of our house profile, the Villa Sofia in Hudson, and of the work of cover artist Julianna Swaney. You'll also find streaming tracks from the CDs we're reviewing this month, as well as a wealth of other material.
Take a tour of the new Chronogram.com with Editor Brian K. Mahoney: