Mtx forever, the sequencing
still stumbling through the Mr T Experience
Well, folks, we’re tightening in on this Mtx forever thing. And by “this Mtx forever” thing, I mean… well, hang on… we want you to make Spotify playlists of your Mtx forever album sequence, and here’s an explainer link from Sounds Rad and…
Well, this is a long (sort of) essay, so I’m going to front-load the main point as a tl;dr type intro before moving on to the gory details.
As you know, we solicited input for the track list for the new Mtx forever comp. We got lots of responses and they were very interesting helpful. But the thing that was missing from that mechanism was sequencing, which is in a way far more important even than what tracks you choose. I tried to figure out a way to include the sequence issue in the original web form we used to collect those entries, but it was determined that was too complicated. Ever since, and especially in view of the thoughtfully chosen lists submitted by friends and fans in that phase of the project, I’ve been trying to think of a way to include sequencing ideas from the public in this thing. And as an old fashioned guy, it never occurred to me, but Chris Thacker of Sounds Rad suggested that we try to use Spotify playlists. And despite my dyspeptic views on digital platforms in general, that really does seem like it could work. In fact, it’s a good use of Spotify, really. All the songs are up there. Assembling playlists, per se, is easy.
So let’s do it! As I said there are instructions at this Sounds Rad link. We want to hear a 24 song sequence that comprises four sides, and… well, read the essay below for some of the parameters and things to consider. It’s way more complicated and challenging than you probably think. (If you want to use the list you previously submitted but no longer have it saved anywhere, you can email Sounds Rad — include your full name so they can find you — and they’ll send it to you.)
“Tag” us so we know about it: On Facebook: @FrankPortman, @MrTExperience, @SoundsRad; On Twitter: @FrankPortman @Mtxforever, @SoundsWayRad; and use the hashtag #Mtxforever so we can find it.
Okay, let’s start again…
Well, folks, we’re tightening in on this Mtx forever thing. And by “this Mtx forever” thing, I mean that compilation album we’ve been working on for the better part of the year past. In case you haven’t been following, the full details are in this announcement post, but to sum up this is a compilation of the sort often described as a “greatest hits” or a “best of” (because sometimes bands don’t have any “hits” all, though on on the other hand I suppose it’s all relative isn’t it?) But what we’re aiming for here is more of a “retrospective,” I suppose, something that presents the broad sweep of the material, all eras, line-ups, labels, etc., the good, the bad, and the ugly — though preferably not too much of the bad.
Throwing around the term “best of” here has caused consternation because for many people that means 1995 through 1997 only, and anything from before or after would make a mockery of the very concept of “best.”
But the idea is, we’re trying to provide a compact answer to the question: what the heck is this Mr T Experience? That answer needs to include a before 1995 and an after 1995 element as well, and in a way that makes sense.
As you probably know, and as explained at that announcement link, we solicited input on these tracks through a web form on the Sounds Rad site, asking people to make a twenty-four track selection of their ideal album, within the given parameters. We got nearly a thousand responses. The idea wasn’t so much to tabulate votes mechanically and use those songs, but to “take the temperature” of the views of the most interested fans, stimulate discussion, and maybe help narrow things down just a bit. People took it seriously, and a great many of the entries were interesting and helpful. It was the comments attached that were the most interesting bit, in a way; they attested to how difficult was the choice, and, most gratifyingly, how much people have taken these songs to heart and how meaningful the music is for them. There’s a sampling of the comments — posts which include updates and such as it was developing as well — here; here; and here.
Tabulating the votes, as I say, wasn’t exactly the point, but doing so revealed a list of the most frequently selected songs that was pretty much completely unsurprising. We all know what the “hits,” relatively speaking, are and the data confirmed them. But it’s where the lists strayed from the obligatory that the full range of confusing possibilities became apparent. It’s basically a kind of balancing act: “More than Toast” and “Even Hitler…” on one side of the scale balanced on the other side by… what? That’s the tough part. Some people favor the earlier material, some the later, some prefer to emphasize the more cerebral sorts of song-writery tracks (raises hand) for this role, some choose the funnier or the more energetic ones, some (raises hand again) are into sheer sonic diversity… It can go all sorts of ways.
And in my running lists in narrowing this all down, it does. Go in all sorts of ways, I mean. I can’t stall forever. I’ve got to choose. And then I have to sequence it into a satisfying, meaningful, effective sequence.
And that, the sequencing, is the thing we haven’t really discussed yet in this weird “take the temperature of the fans” process. Once you’ve rescued and restored the actual tapes, it’s probably the most difficult part.
So sequencing. How do you sequence an album? What makes a good sequence? Historically it is rather interesting, because the aesthetic of the rock album, like the aesthetic of many of the elements of popular music, and indeed the music itself, was largely determined by the technical parameters and limitations of the engineering involved in producing “canned music,” going back to the beginning. Why are pop songs two to three ish minutes long? Now, it’s because it just feels right for them to be that length, but the historical reason, in part, has to do with how many grooves per inch could be effectively inscribed on a 78 RPM ten inch disc in 1910. 45 RPM 7" singles and better technology improved the sonic quality but the aesthetic remained, and remains to this day largely. The pop song has its parameters, technically determined by engineering limitations, but carries on as its own art form to a great degree even in the all-digital world in which grooves per inch don’t enter into it at all.
The rock album emerged in the same sort of way, with the long playing 33 RPM record providing a way to present a sonically acceptable program of a collection of songs (still quite often two to three minute pop songs, though they didn’t need to be that length anymore.) Eventually, as is well known, artists started to conceive of these as discrete works of art, as cohesive aesthetic statements as a whole rather than a collection of individual songs aggregated because they could be “stored” that way.
But this format had limitations as well, some obvious, some lesser known. It’s two sides, for one: you have to listen to five or six songs, then pause to turn over for “part two” and this influences your experience of the music. The final track of side A lingers in the mind while you amble over to the turntable to stop the thump-thump thump-thump and turn it over. Then the next song you hear is, in effect, a new first song, an opening to the second act. What you put in these positions matters because of how they’re listened to. (Another weird aspect of that is that many people have a short attention span, and a life where things just, you know, come up, and they don’t always manage to go on to side B after listening through side A: I’m one of those people myself, and it’s rather shocking to me, when I think of my favorite albums how much better I tend to know side A.)
There’s also a length limitation per side, having to do with the grooves per inch again. The more minutes there are, the less space there is, and the more trouble you run into with sonic quality and fidelity. 17 minutes, give or take, is ideally the length to shoot for on a side. Longer can present problems, though it is often done. That’s why albums have five or six songs on a side, generally, unless some of them are longer than two to three minutes, in which case you have to have fewer, say four songs on a side. And that why I projected 24 songs for the Mtx forever double album, because my songs do tend to be two to three minutes, with some exceptions on either side of that, and that’s how the math works.
There’s also a stranger issue that can come up with 33 RPM LP sides, even when they are within the recommended length parameters, which is that the sonic information inscribed in the inner grooves can tend to distort, and you’re much better off with songs in this position that are less sonically dense. And this is why so many of your classic albums end side A with an acoustic song, and also tend to have minimalist or spacious arrangements in final tracks as well. (Though the tendency to want to end the show with a great bit elaborate bang sometimes over-rides this concern, as it often does with me — doesn’t change the risk though. Sometimes you make a decision that you’d rather run the risk of some distortion for the sake of making the grand statement, but that’s part of the technically-influenced aesthetic, too.)
(Just as an aside, you’d think the problem would have been solved completely in the CD and digital era, and I guess it sort of was solved, however at great cost. The album aesthetic persisted, in a way; but, with less restrictive parameters, a lot of the inherent logic that contributed to the effectiveness of the two sided rock album tended to fly out the window. And soon many people just dispensed with the album aesthetic entirely, and even forgot what it was. The balance between side A and B was largely left behind. You wanted your best, most accessible, most effective songs front-loaded at the beginning of the single, practically interminable side, after which you just piled on the tracks. Albums became very, very long. And then there were the “loudness wars” where the sonic information was compressed severely to compete with all the other severely compressed tracks out there with the result that recorded rock music, as presented to the public, lost most of its subtlety and dynamics. And a digital album now is just… indistinguishable from the flow of scattered “content”. No matter how high the fidelity or how great the substance, it means less, somehow. Which is why a return to vinyl is so refreshing to people like me, as artists as well as as listeners.)
Given all that, there’s the aesthetic question of sequence itself, and there there are many, many way to approach it.
The lead-off track sets the tone. Then the following tracks build on it and develop it, conceptually, sonically, historically, narratively, and what have you. You want to build and sustain momentum, but also provide relief, to fit the sonic variety as well as the range of sentiments and conceits express themselves in a sequential timeline that makes sense and develops in a way that feels like you’re going somewhere, and that, by the end, feels like you made it. Some people do this with a “quiet side” which is something I’ve considered. Sometimes they organize it like a live set, which is a similar endeavor, though that rides more heavily on the crowd-pleasers and easier-to-play numbers. (And let me re-iterate, in case it’s necessary: the result of piling all the crowd-pleasers in a row just dilutes the effect, making all of them over all less… er, pleasing. This I believe.)
A double album is basically four self-contained “acts” of a four act presentation: each should make sense on its own, but they should also integrate with each other in an over arching program and as a linear sequence, while considering all the technical parameters and the purpose of the project. This is harder than it looks.
As you can see, I’m still struggling with it. But I will be very interested to see what you folks, those of you who are game, will come up with. As I said, the Sounds Rad explainer link is here. Make a list. Do it!
Here, I’ll start you off…. A1 “More than Toast”, A2 “Love American Style”, A3 ?…
Mtx forever and may God have mercy on your souls.