Thursday, January 25, 2007

Sonic Adventures in a Rental Car

I’ve been traveling for work a lot recently, and one of the perks is that I get to try out a new car every week. And, not just a new car, but a new car stereo.

The car stereo is one of the worst things you can subject yourself to. Acoustics inside cars have never been great, and the hum of road noise just makes listening to musical subtleties even harder. I've seen people spend all sorts of money on a car stereo that still sounds crappier than music heard on a $20 pair of headphones.

I am one of those headphone-hugging iPod users, and, in spite of everyone telling me how dangerous it is, I listen to music on my headphones when I drive and forsake the car stereo all together. Those contraptions drive me nuts.

This week, though, I decided to lose some of the ear snobbery and buy some CDs for the rental car. I picked up Gnarls Barkley’s St. Elsewhere and the Flaming Lips’ album Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. (Brief aside - if I needed proof of how behind-the-times-and-unhip I am musically, this is it. St. Elsewhere was last year’s album and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots was from 2002.)

So the first thing I do is pop in St. Elsewhere into the car stereo, all excited at the prospect of new music with a great and interesting, challenging music.

And what do I get?


Seriously, I could not understand a word or hear any of the instrumentation aside from the bass. Potential wrecks be damned, I started fiddling with the stereo settings on the highway, trying to mix down the bass so I could hear those lyrics about how cool it is to be crazy and sing falsetto.

And I couldn’t find a way to do it. The stereo only had a Volume knob. No treble/bass knob. No balance knob. Just Volume and Tuner. Road Rage usually comes when someone cuts you off, but this bout of Road Rage was directed toward all the market forces that made this crappy audio experience even conceivable.


The first thing I did when I got to the office was use my laptop to rip the album to my iPod. Listening to it through headphones, I was pleased to know that DJ Danger Mouse is still a superb sound editor, and all the promise of The Grey Album is being fulfilled with each new release. What a good album.

And then I listened to Yoshimi through headphones. There are some albums designed to be heard with every other sound blocked out of existence and this is certainly one of those. The music creates its own world filled with sonic textures and fun little asides. (My favorite - the cheerleader-esque “Whooo”s on the title track right after the line, “She’s a black belt in karate.”)

Ok, everyone in the world who told me it was a great album – you were right and I was an idiot for not picking this up earlier. There are so many fun little things when you listen on headphones – noises jump from ear-to-ear, strange bits of dialogue float through the background, and crowds that can apparently scream on pitch.

It is easy to understand why people can get obsessed with music like this (or bands like this, for that matter). There is a solid texture to the music, and a strong narrative subtext throughout the entire album. (One review for the album suggest that the “Pink Robots” in the title track are cancer cells, and the whole album is about finding out you are dying – with the first track being about taking some sort of medical test and then all of the other songs documenting everything that follows from denial to anger to acceptance.) I’ve been listening to the album solid for about three days now, and it just keeps getting better and better.

Today, I thought I would plug it into the car stereo to see how this subtle, quirky, elegant landscape would sound when spilling out into my rented vehicle.

And do you know how it sounded?


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