Buying Air
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Downloads... Sometimes

I still buy CDs.

Yes, I’m that guy. I’m the one who keeps my local record store afloat, spending twice as much on new music as I’d have to if I just switched to downloads. (Alternatively, I spend half as much as I would if I went to vinyl for everything, which some people I know do. But I can’t play vinyl in the car, so I buy very little of it.) I know CDs are the most reviled form of music delivery system out there – even behind cassettes, the cutting-edge technology of 1971 – but I think they still deliver the best value for what I want.

I’m not one to go on about the quality of the sound I’m listening to, but I can definitely hear the difference between compressed download files and glorious full-sound CDs. And I’ve never warmed to the idea that extra noise and pops and crackles somehow enhance the sound of vinyl. CDs are where it’s at for me, still, and it’s partially because I like the sound, but mainly because I’m a fan of physical media.

I’ve sung this song before here, so I’m sure you know the tune. The artwork, the credits list, the liner notes, even the thanks list provide important context for me, into which I place my experience of the music. Just listening to the music itself is a less complete experience for me, and I don’t feel like I actually own the album I’m hearing. I feel like I’m just borrowing it, which is why paying money for downloads is so hard for me. I feel like I’m buying air.

But in recent years I’ve been listening to more and more downloaded music, and the reason is pure impatience. Many bands – and I have three instances of this on tap for this week – are offering immediate downloads of new music with CD purchases, and I have found that I just can’t wait. Often it takes weeks, if not months, for a band to press a CD, and with the music at my fingertips, I can’t help myself. I have to press play. By the time my CD shows up, I’m intimately familiar with the music, and I’ve robbed myself of my preferred experience.

I suppose I could be more patient, but when the music is as good as it is in all three cases this week, it’s pretty unlikely that I will wait months to hear it. I don’t know anyone who could. I absolutely understand the convenience and instant gratification that comes with downloaded music. I totally get it. But I feel a little adrift this week, reviewing music I don’t really feel like I have heard yet, in its full context.

In the case of Nine Inch Nails, the physical component of their work has always been important. This is a band that takes great care when designing the artwork and packaging for their releases, setting a mood and drawing you in. NIN artwork is unsettling, often indistinct and abstract, letting you know you’re about to hear something damaged, something just beyond your ability to grasp. And amazingly, most of their music lives up to this image.

And then, late last year, NIN basically stopped making albums. Trent Reznor, the group’s mastermind (and, until the recent addition of Atticus Ross, sole member), announced a series of smaller EPs that would be released online, and touted this as the way forward for the band. The idea is a mixed bag for me – I get new NIN material every six months or so, but Reznor – one of the most accomplished album artists in the world – is limited to smaller statements, released into the ether without proper packaging.

Luckily, these EPs have also been really good. Last year’s Not the Actual Events brought back the weird and creepy aspects of Reznor’s sound, and the recently released Add Violence continues along that path. The opener, “Less Than,” is the catchiest and most immediate NIN song in years, but once it’s over, the remaining four songs swim in darker waters. “The Lovers,” like much of Reznor’s best work, is physically uncomfortable in places – his unnerving voice-overs send chills – while “This Isn’t the Place” rides its slow slither of a groove through more than two minutes of instrumental setup before Reznor’s wavery falsetto enters, singing “I thought we had more time” over and over.

“Not Anymore” is a shambling burst of anger and confusion punctuated by his unhinged screams over the unmistakable sound of live drums. But it is the 12-minute closer, “The Background World,” that is the most disorienting. After a slow crawl of a first act, Reznor and Ross fill out the remaining eight minutes with a disjointed, cascading loop that builds in intensity and disintegrates as it goes. Every time it loops, it misses a fraction of a beat, which drives my musical OCD nuts, but truly illustrates how confused and out of step the song’s protagonist feels. It goes against all the lessons Reznor seems to have been teaching himself about sonic architecture, burning it down in a fascinating way.

Even without a full album to work with, Reznor and Ross have spun a whole world around Add Violence. The CD version is out in a few weeks, and I’m definitely buying it. But these EPs do have physical components, which ship weeks (or months) after the music is available, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention them. While Not the Actual Events was accompanied by a dossier covered in a strange, invasive black substance, Add Violence’s component is safe to open indoors. It looks like an owner’s manual for a sound mixer, and actually contains lyrics and details (including that Add Violence is Halo 31). These are appreciated, though a straight-up CD would be appreciated more.

Quiet Company is doing the same thing with their new music, releasing it in bite-sized chunks as it is recorded. Thankfully, they’re also releasing CDs of these mini-albums, but as they’re one of my favorite bands, the instant download has so far proven too tempting. The second of these installments is called Your Husband the Ghost, and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t, for the first time, really capture what this band sounds like live. I’ve been following QuietCo since their debut, and up until now, the insane ferocity of their stage show has outpaced their recorded output.

The snarling Your Husband makes me feel like I’m watching them play it. Taylor Muse, the band’s mastermind and lead singer, is as passionate and emotional here as he is on stage. His songs are typically sharp and hummable, but they feel more intense here than usual. Part of that is the subject matter – this album dissects his relationship with his ex-wife, in all its messy, painful truth, and offers a bleak state-of-our-disunion address from Muse’s conflicted mind. But part of it is the way it’s recorded – loud, vibrant, barely controlled.

Much of this EP is difficult for me to listen to, since I’m invested in Muse’s happiness. He’s clearly miserable on “An Unholy Year,” using sex as a “poor imitation of the thing I needed” and only comfortable when the encounter ends. “Oh! The Humanity” is even bleaker, contrasting the Muse of today with his more optimistic younger selves. The song is such an uptempo winner, horns and gang vocals and all, that it’s easy to miss how dark it is: “Now I’m 33 and all that’s left for me is greed, spite and jealousy…” He seems lost in “On Guilty Pleasures,” when he dismisses a connection (“I want you to mean more, but I know what it meant”) and resigns himself to feeling this way forever (“I will never fall in love again, but I think that I can do without…”).

This EP is terrific, of course, as Quiet Company records always are, and I’m very much looking forward to owning the CD and adding it to my collection. Musically, it is tremendous – ferocious and hummable, with surprising quiet interludes and some great arrangements. But I’m not sure how often I’ll listen to it. It’s a dark and painful thing, and I find myself hoping that Muse takes the advice he shouts in “We Should Go to Counseling”: “You’ve got to change, change, change, motherfucker, you cannot stay the same, same, same, expecting progress.”

I’d been expecting both the Nine Inch Nails and Quiet Company records, but the third of my review subjects this week was a complete surprise. I wasn’t sure we’d ever hear from Brand New again – it’s been eight years since the rushed-sounding, not-quite-there Daisy, and that album had all the hallmarks of a band throwing something together for the sake of it. Of course, Daisy followed up The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me, which is basically this band’s OK Computer, completing their rapid transformation from pop-punk to a thoughtful, textured, almost indescribable kind of music.

Five days ago, Brand New surprise-released Science Fiction, their fifth album, and there’s nothing rushed about this one. If Daisy was a speed bump, Science Fiction completes this band’s evolution, bringing the subdued maelstrom of The Devil and God home to a more reflective, consciously beautiful vibe. Among a small segment of my friends, the unheralded appearance of this record was a seismic event, and while I can’t pretend to feel quite the same about this band that many do – they’re cherished and important to a select few, in a way not many bands ever are – I had to listen to the download ahead of the October CD release, to be part of the conversation. And I am so glad I did. Science Fiction is quickly becoming one of my favorite records of the year.

For a band that started out playing three-chord punk, the fact that most of this record is played on acoustic guitars is striking. Much of this record is like staring into a lake at a calmer reflection of the band Brand New used to be. Jesse Lacey only rarely breaks out his full-throated scream, and you have to get to track five to hear it at all. The album starts slowly, almost hypnotically, with “Lit Me Up,” which sets the introspective tone. Lacey struggles throughout this record with his faith in God and his lack of faith in humanity, and he dives deep right at the start: “When I grow up I want to be a heretic, I want to climb over the wall ‘cause I’m not on the list, I want to put my hands to work ‘til the work’s done, I want to open my heart like the ocean…”

From there, Lacey thoughtfully tackles depression on the self-consciously upbeat “Can’t Get It Out” (“I want to tell you we’re all right, want to erase all your doubt, I’ve got this thorn dug in deeply, sometimes I can’t get it out…”), self-harm on “Same Logic/Teeth,” nuclear war on “137” (named after Caesium-137, an isotope that only appeared in the atmosphere after the first nuclear detonation), healing through video games (really) on the heavier “Out of Mana,” censorship on the shuffling “451” and the bigotry infesting modern Christianity on “Desert.” Science Fiction is also without a doubt meant to be heard in sequence, with interludes and snippets of conversations and segues throughout. It’s beautiful, and it’s beautifully made, worth every day of those eight years.

It’s definitely intended as a single thought, as well, diving below the surface on track one, visiting painful experience after painful experience, feeling those emotions drive closer to depression, and on the glorious closer “Batter Up,” coming to peace with those feelings and continuing the work to make the world a better place. “It’s never going to stop, give me your best shot,” he sings over gorgeous acoustic and electric guitars, spinning a fine and fitting swan song for the album and the band.

Yes, Science Fiction is most likely going to be the final Brand New album. Lacey and his bandmates have been talking about the impending breakup of the band for a while now, and they plan to finish things up next year. Many of the lyrics on Science Fiction take on a new resonance with that context – some songs, like “Waste,” are clearly about the band and what Lacey hopes it has accomplished – and its conclusion a new significance. Before Science Fiction, I didn’t realize how much I would miss this band. Now I’m genuinely mourning them.

I didn’t see Science Fiction coming, and every time I listen – even without context, even just as wisps of air floating out of my hard drive – I’m impressed anew with how good it is. I’m looking forward to hearing it for real in October, and losing myself in it all over again. If this truly is the last we hear from Brand New, it’s a fantastic way to go out. I’m still all about the CDs, but I’m glad I got to hear this right away. Two months waiting for this music would have been tragic.

Next week, Everything Everything and a couple others. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at

See you in line Tuesday morning.