Zen of Recording

Indivisible

When I was in sixth grade, my family moved from San Diego’s suburbs into the untamed wilds of East County (specifically, Spring Valley). It was my second school change in as many years and for all intents and purposes, it might as well have been located on the moon. Without so much as a heads-up, everything in my world: friends, places, slang, and expectations had all profoundly and permanently changed. It was certainly, in retrospect, one of those Big Events in my life.

One small daily comfort throughout this fish-out-of-water existence was reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. At least each school day in this new world began just as each had in the past one: all of us, hand over heart, facing the stars and stripes and reciting the following:

    “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Now, I know this is a hot button for many of us. Since its inception, the waters of the pledge have periodically been politically, spiritually, socially churned to the point of distraction, if not all-out confusion. Personally, I never realized how short it was.

Composed by Christian Socialist Francis Bellamy in 1892, it was actually designed to be recited in less than 15 seconds. It’s been (officially) modified three times. The minimalistic efficiency with which these changes were rendered may be of particular interest to songwriters. The original text went as follows:

    “I pledge allegiance to my flag and the republic for which it stands: one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all.”

As with most song rewrites, most of the text’s changes were rendered for the purpose of clarity. In 1923, the words “the” and “of the United States” were utilized to make sure you knew exactly which flag we were referring to. A year later “of America” was tagged on, presumably to avoid confusion with the United States of Micronesia. Confusion eventually won out, however, after the words “under god” were officially amended to it in 1954, ensuring an infinite loop of political posturing, legal challenges and endless debate.

For me, the word indivisible seems the strongest…and, lately, the strangest.

From all indications, it would appear that at the dawn of 2012, the United States stands as a nation divided: non-stop rancor and incessant bickering have brought our government to a near, if not total halt on several occasions. Money’s always an issue at the ready, with tax cuts and government spending at issue. When it comes time for our elected leaders to speak up with solutions, someone, it seems, always offers to cut funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which I’ve always assumed meant getting rid of National Public Radio, or NPR.

Actually, NPR doesn’t receive any direct federal funding, although it does receive grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Department of Education, and the Department of Commerce. This funding amounts to only about 2% of NPR’s income, with the bulk of revenues coming from programming fees, grants from foundations or business entities, contributions, and sponsorships. Good news, because NPR probably saved me more money this year than the Payroll Tax Cut!

Since 1970, NPR has shown a knack for discovering and promoting amazing music from high caliber artists that might otherwise have gone unheard, thanks to shows like All Songs Considered, Mountain Stage, and World Café. Add to that list the following url: www.npr.org, and navigate to First Listen: Album Previews.

First Listen: Album Previews does exactly that. It streams up to three new releases each week, in their entirety. An interesting, often engrossing written article accompanies each entry, giving listeners an even keener perspective on the artist and their music. The stream stays live online for up to a few weeks at times, which has given me ample time to really digest the album as a whole, over a period of time. It’s kinda like having your friend lend you their brand new CD they just bought, for a week!

Neil Young’s LeNoise was the first album I experienced in this way, and I was thrilled! After enjoying it for a week and a half, I’d had my fill of it and was still in possession of the $17 I would’ve paid for the honor of the disc taking up space in my already crammed collection. When I see it for $7.99 somewhere, I’ll recognize the bargain. Meanwhile, I’ve been able to soak up some incredible music and avoid some complete duds, too! The recent Buddy Holly tribute CD had one killer performance from Sir Paul McCartney and not much else. Michael Jackson: Immortal was worth a single curious listen, as was the new Roots LP, undun.

My most treasured finds so far:

Meshell Ndegeocello, Weather. A deep, soulful and at times, flat-out funky masterpiece. This level of lyrical artistry and technical mastery is seldom on display within the pop idom, or any other, for that matter.

St. Vincent, Strange Mercy. Strange, yes…but beautiful, too. Rendered with an almost masculine rock sensibility. “I don’t know what good it serves/Dumping my purse in the dirt/But I don’t want be your cheerleader no more.” A not-to be-missed live set also resides elsewhere on the NPR.org website.

Wilco, The Whole Love. Starting out with a song that has been aptly described as wilcohead for its blend of English art-band psychedelica and Americana-tinged pathos, the band spends the remainder of the album perfecting all the stylistic leaps they’ve surveyed over the last several albums.

Those were all solid musical buys, purchases made with knowledge of the album’s entire contents, not just one or two cherry-picked singles. I knew by the time of the transaction that I was fully satisfied as a customer. The additional artwork was a mere bonus by that point!

NPR.org’s First Listen may have actually stumbled upon a new and better model for improving both sales and customer satisfaction. Sure, “try before you buy” may not seem all that new a concept, but when your musical standards and your library’s sense value are indivisible, it’s downright revolutionary.

Sven-Erik Seaholm is an award-winning independent record producer and avid music fan. He’s also a singer-songwriter and will perform at the Lyceum Theater on Jan. 21, prior to the performance of “A Hammer, a Bell, and a Song to Sing,” featuring the songs of Pete Seeger. Visit www.sdrep.org for tickets and information.

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