My wake-up call came as a text from an old college friend.
"Any new music to share? I'm lost."
For the first time in forever, I struggle to come up with a new artist. New new. Every album I can think of is four and five years old.
I know OF brand new records, but the last thing I really connected to … ? Crap, I'm lost too.
Every music obsessive knows that it's hard to keep our tastes from calcifying as we get older. I'm also aware of how radically the pandemic changed my listening patterns. Nearly two years of no live shows. No commutes to sit and just absorb an album. No seeing my music nerd friends and trading our finds. I love my kids, but like many parents, my alone time was non-existent during the lockdown.
My ears are flabby. I need to get them back into shape.
This piece is for anybody willing to invest a little extra time and thought into how they listen. Call it a guide to establishing more mindful listening practice – building a routine for deliberately taking in new music. Much of it is probably self-evident to music junkies of all ages. I'll admit scheduling quality time for you and tunes seems pretty dad rock. But self-care is no joke, kiddos. Maybe like me, adding a little ritual to your musical diet is a way to ease back into the outside music world.
Active vs. Passive Listening
When we're young, music is about getting away from where we are. As we get older, it becomes a way to get back to where we were.
During the insanity of the past two years, where the news every morning brought a fresh anxiety attack, I listened to the comfort food of old favs. The indie rock and backpacker rap of my youth were fuzzed-out blankets I could wrap myself up in and not think about. While we cooked or did dishes, my wife and I played our parents' classic rock and Motown trying to conjure ghosts of normalcy. Our kids bellowed at Alexa to play the same Vampire Weekend songs and soundtracks non-stop, and I wasn't going to deny them just to save face on my Spotify End of Year Most Played Tracks.
This is passive listening – music as the backing track to our daily routines. There's nothing wrong with it. Life only grants us so much attention each day.
The other mode is active listening. Music fans know this feeling instinctually – highly engaging, Zen-focused, immersive listening. Active listening is a teachable mechanism for activating your ears and getting closer to the music. Musicians use it to process what they hear and get dialed into each other as they play.
For a master class, check out this viral clip of jazz drummer Larnell Lewis' jaw-dropping use of active listening to flawlessly play "Enter the Sandman" after one listen.
Your move, Lars.
I'm never going to be able to play by ear. But I want to find out if a non-pro listener like me can use these same basic skills to connect with new music on a deeper level.
There's More to Hear
I suspect the way we listen today pushes us to be less engaged by default. Streaming gives us the bulk of recorded history with a click. Paralyzed by endless options, I often cue up what I know. And as we increasingly trust algorithms over DJs, critics, and record store clerks, are we just being fed what the bots think we want to hear? Aren't our hunter-gather brains naturally less invested in tracks we don't have to work as hard to track down?
Wah, wah. 15-year-old me would stab old me for whining about having it so good. But there is something more to how we listen in 2021 that is undoubtedly disconnecting us from music.
The fact is thin, compressed streaming files through devices with no dynamic range are a big problem. Growing up on tapes and CDs, I'm no tone purist. The hiss of TASCAM 4-track is my love language. LoFi for life! But even I can tell when my ears are being starved.
You don't have to be an audiophile to know that less information means less to connect with. The good news is streaming is catching up. Standard streaming has been giving us about 300 kbps a track. New offerings are pushing us up to 800-1000 kbps, and even 3000 kbps in some cases. All the major players have launched "HD" or"Ultra HD" lossless subscription options that are promising CD-like quality (Spotify says theirs will be out later in 2021).
Apple Music: 16bit / 44.1kHz
Tidal HiFi: 24bit / 96kHz
Amazon HD: 24bit /192kHz
Deezer HiFi: 16bit / 44.1kHz
Qobuz: 24bit /192kHz
I'm increasingly shopping at Bandcamp because I love their artist-friendly profit sharing and the ability to both stream and download FLAC files.
File quality doesn't matter if your hardware can't play everything that's there. You are reading this on a speaker site, so I'll assume I’m preaching to the converted.
I know all of it too, but getting my JAM5 really was like realizing I’m nearsighted but never worn glasses. "Oh hey bass, I remember you!" Hearing a fuller sound again, I'm pretty sure subconsciously I've been defaulting to songs I've heard a million times lately because my brain is better able to fill in the blanks.
Music biz gadfly, artists’ rights activist and drummer Damon Kruskowski (Galaxie 500/Damon & Naomi) has written extensively about all of this. Check out his podcast "Ways of Hearing” at his site dadadrummer.com
Prepping for Your Session
Make the appointment well in advance. Shoot for 90 mins., but don't sweat shorter sessions. It's like a workout – take quality and frequency over intensity. This is about building a habit. I'm doing Sunday morning with my coffee while the kids watch cartoons at the far end of the house.
Settle into a comfortable spot with minimal traffic. I live in the city next to the train, so quiet is definitely relative.
Turn off alerts on your phone.
Sorry, rockers. Exercise and diet have been linked to better hearing. Old sound engineers swear by proper hydration: your inner ear needs water to function.
Make your playlist early to minimize indecision. Cross-train: mix it up and stretch your tastes. Try picking something adjacent but deliberately outside your favorite genres. Pick something to match how you feel or perhaps how you want to feel. I think about this old Elvis Costello piece about matching your music to your mood, task, and the hour of the day.
For me, it's early, I'm waking up, and I'm feeling contemplative. Countering my normal rockist instincts, I'm going with something new, borrowed and old...
New: Bonnie "Prince" Billy and guitarist Matt Sweeney's new Superwolves record on Drag City. I loved their first record from 2005. Seems like an excellent way to ease into the day.
Borrowed: Ignorance by The Weather Station. I know nothing about this Canadian group. They're recommended by my friend Drew, who is always dialed in. And they'll be playing at the Pitchfork Music Festival, which will be my first post-pandemic live outing.
Old: A reward for trying new stuff, but I also need a stylistic switch-up. I opt for the 20th-anniversary rerelease of J Dilla's Welcome to Detroit. The crate-digging master solo debut offers lots of gritty atmosphere and depth to soak up.
Breaking It Down
I start with silence. I do 10 mins of meditative breathing and a body scan to quiet my head. I even pop in foam earplugs, so all I hear is my heartbeat.
Take it all in
When hearing something for the first time, consider all the components and how they work together. Today's first happy accident is Superwolves is beautifully sparse folk. I can easily track the interplay between Will Oldman's sad, ghostly voice and Sweeney's fingerpicking. It's a comfortable dance between old friends. Lots of breathing room, perfect for a rainy morning when I'm shaking the rust off.
What are the stylistic choices the performer is making? I'm traditionally a lyrics-first listener, but today I'm trying to take in the full emotional impact. It's a wistful record - confident effort from two indie elder statesmen. It's easy to see why over the last 20 years, Sweeney's guitar has become a not-so-secret session weapon of everybody from Rick Rubin and Adele to Josh Homme and Stephen Malkmus.
Any good meditation guru will tell you, mindfulness is not about silencing thoughts, but allowing for free flow. Your brain is going to drift. Let it. During "Resist the Urge," I suddenly have a sense memory of riding to church as a kid every Sunday listening to "Overeasy," the weekly folk program on the local classic rock channel. This whole experiment seems already worth it for shaking loose that decades-old collision of folk and Southern church music.
Consider the composition and how it mixes together. I grab another cup of coffee and switch to Weather Station (not the ’70s fusion band). Off the bat, Ignorance has a pop sheen I was not expecting. "Robber," the lead track, is a lovely breathy swell, complete with strings, vamping sax and synth stabs. Even my untrained ear is appreciating the separation I hear through JAM5. Like the best pop compositions, there's an aching running through all of frontwoman Tamara Lindeman's songs. I'm reminded of a more melancholy Fiest at first pass, which I bet Linderman is sick of hearing. "I should get all this dying off of my mind/I should know better than to read the headlines," she sings on the second track “Atlantic,” which nails my last two years.
I am fighting the temptation to press rewind. I'm trying to stay in an open, receptive state. I know I can't hear everything at once, so I scribe down track names to revisit and dig into later. When my brain thinks about the rest of the day or deadlines, I try to zero in on one specific instrument. Track it and focus on it as an anchor.
As I switch to Dilla, I'm sitting on a bed, and I'm delighted to feel the JAM5's bass hitting on my legs through the mattress. Music is a physical vibration, and Welcome to Detroit is a visceral feast. I'm reminded of the first time I ordered chicken at a farm-to-table restaurant. After a lifetime of the factory farm stuff, I took a bite and realized that I didn't know what chicken tasted like.
Shifts in tempo or key are also handy hooks to keep you coming back to the music. This is what J. Dilla is famous for. His music is constantly morphing – one-sec grimy gangster, next goofing on Kraftwerk or bossa nova. "Think Twice" is a woozy jazz instrumental that keeps shifting until it's broken up by a dice game that turns into a shooting. The rapping never quite hits as hard as the beats, but you get plenty of brilliant change-up moments that hint where he'd go with his final masterpiece "Donuts."
My session ends thinking about how much more we should have got out of James Yancey, who died at 32. How much further he was going to take us in the last 15 years.
But I'm still here. My ears are turned back on. And I want more.