Life and Death of an American Fourtracker
If Plato were alive today, he'd probably get around to telling us that the primary form in rock music is the love song. As usual he would be right on the money. Love songs bridge the gap between Joe Recordbuyer and an imaginary character, Bob Rocksinger, who in real life is a Bowery junkie or a London sybarite or maybe just some nebbish in a moldering garden apartment. In any case Bob and Joe share this belief in a vague notion called "love." This is the link by which rock songs become universal. This is how they enter the cultural canon one set of ears at a time. It's what we agree on. People will never get enough of silly love songs.
Or serious and complicated ones. The theme is even more universal than you might think: Pink Floyd's bombastic use of English postwar imagery camouflages their heartache over the loss of their partner Syd Barrett (the ostensible subject of both The Wall and Wish You Were Here). The Who's Tommy is about love on many levels: the love Tommy's mother betrays when she thinks her seafaring husband is dead, the blind love of the disciples for their messiah--and yes, the love of a boy for a pinball machine.
In fact, love songs about machines are a tradition within the tradition. Take Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska. On the surface, it's a concept album about, uh, Nebraskans, but at heart it's about automobiles and the people who love them. There's a car or a highway woven into the narrative of almost every song. In Nebraska the automobile functions not as a symbol but as a living character, a real entity that hovers like a creepy relative, causing trouble, stirring up resentment, taking loved ones away or bringing them home or bringing them together. John Vanderslice's Life and Death of an American Fourtracker is a Nebraska for a different subset of the American population--indie rockers. The medium is the message: it's a record about the subculture of home recording, a musical document about musical documentation, love songs about the love of recording songs.
Let's consult the manual for a little background. Up until TASCAM introduced the TEAC quarter-inch four-track reel-to-reel machine in the early 70s, home recording was mostly relegated to the primitive technology of the cassette recorder--a device that, while cheap, portable, and widely available, was ultimately designed for voice dictation. Even this modest application was hampered by the tinny built-in condenser microphone and vexing mechanical noise.
The quarter-inch reel-to-reel presented several major improvements over the cassette recorder. The overall fidelity was clearer, and it could more accurately reproduce musical sound, thanks to high-quality tape heads and double the signal capacity of the eighth-inch tape that cassettes employ. It was compatible with industry-grade microphones, and most important it was capable of multitracking--layering multiple instruments on discrete tracks, in a small-scale version of recording studio practice. The early reel-to-reels were cumbersome, temperamental, and expensive, but they enchanted amateur musicians and whetted their appetite for the next era of home recording.
In 1979 TASCAM introduced the TEAC 144 Portastudio, the earliest model of the four-track as we know it today: a self-contained and portable box that combines the cheapness and ease of a cassette recorder with the fidelity and flexibility of the reel-to-reel at an affordable price. It was the equivalent of the slant six engine crossed with the Gutenberg press: so simple, reliable, and foolproof you could become a recording artist within an hour of unpacking the box.
The Portastudio incubated the 90s indie-rock revolution in basement dens across America, producing a generation of home-recording stars that included Sebadoh, Pavement, and Guided by Voices. It gave a new crop of aspiring songwriters their identity. It's at least partially due to the four-track that we have come to take for granted the giant leap the Beatles made with Revolver, when they crossed the glass control-room barrier and took the faders into their own hands.
Life and Death of an American Fourtracker only has one song that's explicitly about recording, "Me and My 424," but it contextualizes everything else on the album--songs set far from the basement on Greyhound buses, on the seashore, under a pile of leaves. It's only the most recent example of Vanderslice's talent for using humankind's sticky relationship with technology as a backdrop for private drama. Vanderslice's first release, Mass Suicide Occult Figurines, contained great pop songs about the lonely underworlds of Internet porn ("Bill Gates Must Die") and clandestine drug manufacture ("Speed Lab"), narrated by complex Faulkner-esque characters resigned to the baffling era they were born into. His next album, Time Travel Is Lonely, used the meditations and hallucinations of a fictional geologist stationed in Antarctica as a metaphor for everyday loneliness. The protagonist's only guides through the drifting whiteness are his E-mail and his wavering GPS, and his hard drive's just been disabled by the I Love You virus--which would you rather have if you were stranded at the bottom of the world, a compass or a telephone? In Vanderslice's existential universe, our machines bring us solace and sometimes redemption.
The latter prospect is what makes "Me and My 424" genuinely touching. Any previous ambivalence toward technology is gone, replaced with the giddy crush of high school romance. And when it comes down to it, lonely guys are ultimately better suited to writing love songs to technology. When they start using their machines to sing about real people, the soft machines, they resort to projecting and idealizing, and then they're not really singing about love, but about pain, frustration, and failure. When your love is returned by a real person, you do the backstroke in the limpid pools of your lover's blue eyes. When a machine loves you back, you relish its features in equally lusty detail. You can lay rubber in all four gears, and you just have to tell the world about it--like in the Beach Boys' "My 409," this song's obvious antecedent in title and spirit.
Some of the best love songs are not about tits and ass, but tires and gas, the perfect greasy engagement of gears in a transmission box, "a carburetor, baby, cleaned and checked, with her line blown out...hummin' like a turbo jet." The faithful four-track not only listens to your fears but transforms them:
You can ask the 424
For guidance and for help
As it pulled me through
Number five and number twelve
Say good-bye to model two
They discontinued you
I got parts and I got spares
For my 424.
Vanderslice has found a soul mate in the ugly duckling, like the zit-faced gearhead in Christine. She's real fine, my 424.
Curiously, while this album is about analog love, it's not necessarily of analog love. That is to say, it's unmistakably hi-fi. Life and Death of an American Fourtracker was recorded at Vanderslice's own 24-track Tiny Telephone Studio in San Francisco, and it's as rich in texture and color as a fairground carnival. The charming melodies are deftly arranged, with a heightened awareness of chord structure and pacing--considerations that are too often given short shrift when home recordists get their hands on the glimmering menagerie of gear in a modern recording studio.
This subtle balance between basement and studio is the key to Life and Death's likability. It doesn't sound like a Concept Album in the Styx sense; it's a baroque construction that recognizes the sanctity of the holy bass-drums-guitar trinity. The expected guitar-solo breaks are replaced with organic strings, samples, and sounds, themes and saturnine variations fluidly arranged. The guitar solo did fulfill an arranging duty at one time, way back when, and only became a cliche when producers started taking it for granted. Vanderslice finds space between verse and chorus that we didn't know existed and fills it with reveries that fit perfectly even though they're not what we expected to hear. He is resourceful where other songwriters are gratuitous. After absorbing this album you realize that "psychedelic," when applied to most of indie rock's George Martin wannabes, just means "hookless." Vanderslice has more hooks in his tacklebox than a weekend angler.
Sure, it's ironic to sing the virtues of tape hiss with the assistance of Pro Tools and the other modern gewgaws that make an album like this possible in the first place. But is it any more ironic than the Rolling Stones using their unlimited funds to book recording time at the sub-sub-tech Chess Studios, or to build a half-assed recording studio from scratch to capture that "raw, authentic" sound on Exile on Main Street? These grand gestures are forget-me-nots, romantic odes to technology that was a straight-up pain in the ass from time to time--just like Tom Waits's ol' 55 must have been--but only gains talismanic power over time. Just like any first love.
In "Me and My 424" Vanderslice makes a lyrical connection between the fourtracker's daily descent to the basement and Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase. Behind the plastic buttons our hero becomes the subject and object, the naked model, the apprentice, the abstractor all in one. He understands the palette of the four-track in cubist terms: "It's not really four tracks / 'Cause you can add and you can subtract." A bare lightbulb swings, the hours pass. The artist emerges "Shell-shocked and pale gray / With a box of TDKs," like poor Vincent from his cell at Saint-Remy. But when your subject matter is your own hands, you can paint in the dark.
Vanderslice and a three-piece band open for Spoon on Sunday, September 15, at the Abbey Pub; see Section Three listings for more info.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Peter Ellenby.