Dr. Sellout
Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the iPod

For Christmas this year, I joined the 21st century.

I have a bit of a reputation as a luddite, I suppose. For most of my music-buying life, I rejected CDs, preferring to buy cassettes. Yeah, I know, the sound quality is crap, and it’s musical tissue paper, just waiting to be crinkled and crumpled by unforgiving spindles and wheels. But it also presents an artist’s vision in the most uncompromising form – songs are in one order and one order only, and rearranging them takes work and time and effort. Philosophically, cassettes most lined up with my artistic worldview.

That now sounds like horseshit to me too, by the way. As soon as I started buying CDs, I was swept away by the quality and ease of access they provided. I’ve made a lot of mix tapes, and often that process would take upwards to six hours to get right. Mix CDs? Half an hour or so, maybe a little longer if I play around with the sound editor for transitions. And everything sounds so clear, free of the hissy mud that I once professed to enjoy.

I’m actually afraid now. I tend to value principles and ideals, and I have discovered several times now that those principles and ideals that I once loudly proclaimed from mountaintops are easily abandoned in the face of convenience and a sizeable cool factor. Do I not believe in anything anymore? What the hell has happened to me?

To my horror, I got a pair of Christmas gifts that further established me as a world-champion sellout. For years I have railed against cell phones, calling them a virus that’s slowly infecting and choking our society. I may have even intimated that the death penalty was too good for people who answer their cell phones during movies. I might have even hinted that I believe people who talk on cell phones while they’re trying to drive deserve the inevitable brain cancer, and will hopefully die slowly and painfully.

Well, hell with all that, because with my new super-bitchin’ Verizon cell phone-slash-camera-slash-personal data assistant, I have officially joined the enemy. It’s pretty handy, I must say, and I do indeed talk while trying to drive. People can find me if they need to (a definite plus in the deadline-driven newspaper industry) and if I am ever stuck and need directions, I can just call. I don’t even need to pull over. It’s pretty sweet.

Don’t get me wrong, I still think that people who answer their mobiles in movie theaters should be unceremoniously shot in the back of the head. Or at least fined, or something. The first movie I saw as a cell phone owner was The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (whimsical and yet desperately sad at its core), and I took inane glee in reaching into my jacket pocket at the appropriate time and shutting the damn thing off. Made me feel oddly superior, like I will be the guy who remains uncorrupted by the evil cell phone industry.

“Sure, I have one, who doesn’t?” I will say, with a snooty air about me. “But you won’t catch me talking on it. Not in public.”

Ah, but my other big gift, that struck to the very core of some of my most cherished beliefs about art and commerce and convenience. I now own an iPod, pretentious capitalization and all. This is the device that allows one to store 10,000 songs and take them with one anywhere, and (here’s the important part) play them in any order. This nifty little machine also obliterates the line between music one buys on compact disc and music one downloads from the ‘net, legally or otherwise. It’s all just info to the iPod.

It’s true that you can use the iPod to play your albums, back to front, and not mess with an artist’s original vision. But where’s the fun in that? I’m finding that using my iPod to create my own personal radio station, one which always surprises me with its next selection but never disappoints me with songs I hate, is immensely enjoyable. If the novelty of this doesn’t wear off soon, I may have to rethink some things about my life. How can I be a snotty, pompous, high-falutin’ snobby-snob if I can’t even stick to my own principles?

The iPod, I’m noticing, isn’t really meant for album listening, anyway. It has no respect for mastering – songs that segue end up with half a second of silence between them as the device cycles. Which means that records like SMiLE and Dark Side of the Moon are basically ruined as complete statements. It’s all about the individual song, and while I don’t plan to abandon my love of the album anytime soon, it is interesting to take this very different trip once in a while.

Still, I can definitely see how this method of storage and transport could replace compact discs in the near future. With fewer production costs associated with liner notes, jewel cases and physical discs, labels could sign more artists, but those artists would probably have to abandon any ideas of long-form narrative in their work – no more side-long suites, no segues, none of the little things that draw you into a record like The Wall or The Fragile. Every album will be just a set of songs, and the most successful will likely be the ones that are able to be played in any order. It will be the death knell of the album revolution started by the Beatles, and the end of something special in the music world.

There. That was suitably snotty. I feel better now.

* * * * *

Of all of my friends and family, only one gave me the gift of music this year. Which is fine, because it’s insanely difficult to buy music for me – the odds that anyone will find something that I a) want and b) do not already have are pretty slim. But Mike Ferrier managed it, and turned me on to a pretty neat band at the same time.

They’re called Girlyman, and Mike saw them open for the Indigo Girls on their most recent tour. Girlyman is a trio – Ty Greenstein, Doris Muramatsu and Nate Borofsky – and they play simple folk music, for the most part. Their album is called Remember Who I Am, and it’s a collection of 11 originals and one neat cover. But it’s not the songs – they’re small, effective numbers with minor changes and sweet melodies, but they’re not exceptional. It’s not the lyrics, either, though they are uniformly terrific, heartfelt little gems.

No, it’s the voices.

Girlyman live must be an interesting sight – these three could not look any more dissimilar, yet their voices intertwine as if they were meant to coexist. Remember Who I Am is chock full of some of the most delightful harmonies you will hear anywhere, harmonies that descend and envelop the room. Just listen to the opening track, “Viola” – it’s spare and lovely, with some minor key strums and pedal steels, but the voices just lift it off the ground and float it effortlessly. I was in love by the third “viola.”

Girlyman strikes me as a true musical democracy, as well, which is always refreshing. All three share songwriting credit, and take turns on lead vocals. They change up instruments, too, switching guitar and percussion duties song to song. The result is amazingly ego-free, as if their personalities mesh as beautifully as their voices do. Even knowing the authors of each song, I can’t pick favorites, either. Borofsky’s “Viola” is just as good as Greenstein’s “The Shape I Found You In,” and Muramatsu’s “Even If.” It’s all nice stuff. They even managed to sucker-punch me with the ending of “Montpelier.”

I’m especially impressed with their arrangement of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” a great song by any measure. They open it with a funky bass beat and a repeating acoustic figure, and the shape of the song only becomes clear with the chorus. Harmonized beautifully, of course. It’s a sweet addition to an already fine album. Bottom line: if you’re looking for something challenging and twisted, this is not for you. But if you want music that will surround you and breeze through you, delightfully, then check this out. More importantly, if you want to hear three great voices weave together into one superb sound, in ways that can only be described as magical, then you need to hear this.

Girlyman’s album is available at their website.

* * * * *

Next week, some things I missed during Aught-Four. The following week, Aught-Five begins in earnest with new records from Ani Difranco, the Chemical Brothers and Bright Eyes.

See you in line Tuesday morning.