Tooth Imprints on a Corndog

I) Ferrous Oxide’s Day Off

Cassette Hand-1 Remember the bad old days of yore, making mix tapes for yourself and friends, mistakenly believing you could re-use the same cassette over and over again ad nauseum ’til the ferrous oxide particles started to dissolve or flake off? Somewhere between the time you first slid off the shrink-wrap and the time the tape inevitably got stuck between the capstan and pinch roller, leaving 17 seconds of that unreplaceable Minutemen live bootleg tangled up like a knot of dried tagliatelle pasta, there was the “print through/partial overdub” period, when traces of audio from previous recordings or adjacent layers of tape would appear as ghostly traces on the current recording.

The effect was mostly annoying, but also sometimes mystical. Rhythms might accidentally match up, or serve as counterweights to one another. Sometimes you’d think you’d proven finally and conclusively that T. Rex and Marmalade really were involved in a mutual back-masking cabal. But mostly it just sounded weird. In a good way.

After the jump: Backyardigans and Evan Lurie, The Wizard of Floyd, Dali’s paranoia-critical method, and the sonic layering of Solveig Slettahjell.

II) Evan Lurie and God Knows What


Five-year-old Miles was deeply zoned in a Backyardigans video game featuring a predictably groovy Evan Lurie musical soundtrack (Lounge Lizard John Lurie‘s little brother Evan Lurie scores the music for Backyardigans). Knowing Backyardigans tracks can sometimes have a lot going on at once, I didn’t bat an eye when I first heard what sounded like a second, unrelated layer going on in the background. But after a few seconds, it became clear that the second layer of music was completely unrelated to the first. Realizing that iTunes must be chugging away in the background, I suggested that maybe we should turn it off. “No daddy! I like it this way!” Whoa. What to my ears sounded dissonant and distracting, he was digging. Solving his little spy puzzle, accompanied by simultaneous doses of Lurie and god-knows-what shuffling through the background rotation.

n.b.: This was the same toddler/punk who recently reacted to his first exposure to the genius of Harry Partch by saying the music “Sounds like space chimps driving a broken car.” Had I broken his musical brain by exposing him to too much avant stuff too early in life? Was he genetically wired to like challenging music? Or was he finding synchronicities in the two soundtracks that I wasn’t tuned into?

But the more I listened, the more I was struck by the sonic coincidences; moments of musical timing that came together purely by accident, complimenting one another rather than conflicting. Either he was oblivious to the strangeness of the layering and just didn’t want to be bothered, or he was truly digging on the confluence.

III) Dark Side of the Rainbow

Wizardoz Try this (no, really — try this): Cue up a CD of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and immediately hit the pause button. Simultaneously cue up a DVD of the Wizard of Oz on the TV. Keep your TV’s sound muted. When the black-and-white MGM lion roars the first time, un-pause the CD. Sit back, torch a doob or brush up on your mycology if you must, and let the audio/visual coincidences mount. Some accounts say there as many as 100 noticeable moments where the technically unrelated media streams appear to line up perfectly. Impossible coincidence? Mass hallucination? Mystical multimedia kismet?

The phenomenon is called, alternatively: Dark Side of the Rainbow, The Wizard of Floyd, or Dark Side of Oz. A decade or so ago, a handful of Stuck writers and their significants gave it a shot. We didn’t find all 100, but the match-ups were pretty striking.

What’s going on here? Floyd vehemently deny any intentional connection, but your brain insists otherwise. Salvador Dali had a name for this tendency of the mind (and used it to great advantage): The Paranoia Critical Method:

It was defined by Dalí himself as “irrational knowledge” based on a “delirium of interpretation. As a matter of fact, all of us have practiced the Paranoid Critical Method when gazing at stucco on a wall, or clouds in the sky, and seeing different shapes and visages therein. Dali, though not a true paranoid, was able to simulate a paranoid state, without the use of drugs…

In other words, it’s the same thing iPod users do when they insist that Shuffle mode is not actually random, but is rather capable of “sensing” what songs would work well back-to-back, or even capable of reading their minds. Apple engineers insist that random mode is as random as a computer can get, but our brains tell us otherwise. We’re really good at finding coincidence where there is none. Making connections is what we do. Our brains will scramble like hell to map the un-mappable, connect the un-connectable, and to draw false (but pleasing) meaning from perceived confluences. We’re a trip, man.

IV) Solveig Slettahjell != iPod Malfunction

Solveig So there’s all this wispy stuff out there – tendrils of information intertwining in our minds. For the most part we do a good job of filtering out the stuff we’re not paying attention to, and focusing on what we want to hear. But every now and then, improbable textures collide in mid-air and transform themselves into some kind of freaky new whole.

I’m not sure what made me pick up Solveig Slettahjell’s Good Rain. Slettahjell is a lovely Scandinavian jazz singer with a sliver of Bjork in her face and voice (but isn’t that true of all beautiful Scandinavians?), sans swan dress. And another sliver of Norah Jones. Maybe it was the name of her backup band that got me: “The Slow Motion Quintet.” Oooh, I loves me my slow motion – this must be good!


Truth is, I hadn’t given the record much of a listen since coming into it six months ago. Then, while pounding my way through the daily bike commute home a few days ago with the iPod in shuffle mode, I started to hear what sounded like a print-through effect rolling through one of her tracks. My first thought was that something had gone terribly wrong with the iPod. Sultry vocal jazz in one ear, back-masked synth warbles in the other. A rhythm section working contrapuntally to the cadence. Felt like I was simultaneously hearing laid-back Scandinavian vocal jazz, Bohemian drums, and left-field electronica all at once. And yet, all of the pieces somehow fit. I assumed that these disparate sounds couldn’t be thrown together intentionally – that I was actually hearing multiple sound sources at once, and was merely having a paranoia-critical moment. Had to stop both the bike and track to make sure I wasn’t hearing audio from an external source.

I wasn’t.

The track was composed this way – but my expectations of her style* had fooled my brain into thinking that she was too “straight” to get all experimental on my ass, and that I must therefore be hearing something else.

Like tooth imprints on a corndog, these fly-away particles of meaning drill deep into the imagination of humans, looking for love in all the wrong places. The brain truly is great.

* Most of Slettahjell’s stuff isn’t like this; the record is lovely, but don’t buy it assuming you’ll get an ear-load of experimental sonic layering. There’s a bit of it going on, but the Slow Motion Quintet is pretty restrained, with the exception of this song.

About Scot Hacker

Scot Hacker is a web developer, teacher, and blogger living in Northern California. He is the author of Can You Get to That? The Cosmology of P-Funk and Understanding Liberace: Grooving With The Fey Heckler. He works by day as webmaster at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and Knight Digital Media Center, and runs Birdhouse Web and Mail Hosting on the side. Hacker is the author of The BeOS Bible and MP3: The Definitive Guide, and posts near-daily on random stuff at Scot Hacker's foobar blog. He's ecstatic that we're sitting on 100 years of recorded music history. How I Got Stuck When was the last time you bought a record because of the cover? 25 years before MP3s, I used to make a weekly pilgrimage to Cheap Thrills in San Luis Obispo with friends, where we'd surf through dusty wooden bins, de-flowering ourselves in a mist of vinyl, grabbing piles of cut-outs about which we knew virtually nothing. Junior Samples, Temple City Kazoo Orchestra, The Buggles, Paul Desmond, Instant Chic, Smithsonian collections, Robert Moog, Dream Syndicate... didn't matter. If the cover was cool, we assumed there was a good chance the music would turn us on. And we were often right. In that humongous wooden warehouse, between around 1977 and 1984, my musical universe bloomed. There were also duds - dumptruck loads of duds. The lesson that a great cover doesn't tell you jack about the music inside was a long time coming (the inverse correlation - that great music was often hidden behind terrible artwork - came much later). But it didn't matter, because cut-outs never cost more than a couple-three bucks, and all the good shit we uncovered made it worthwhile. In high school, I (for the most part) ignored the music going on around me. The jocks and aggies could keep their Rick Springfield and their Jefferson Starship - we were folding papers after school to The Roches and Zappa and Talking Heads and PiL. But inevitably, some of the spirit of that time stuck with me. ELO and McCartney wormed their way (perhaps undeservedly) into my heart. No one escapes high school without an indelible tattoo on their soul describing the music of that time. When I went away to college, the alt/grunge scene was being born, and getting chicks required familiarity with The Pixies and Porno for Pyros. I couldn't quite figure how these bands were supposed to be as interesting as Meat Puppets or Cecil Taylor or Syd Barrett, but I went along for the ride for a while, best I could. But I never quite "got" alt-rock. Never understood why The Pixies were elevated in the public imagination over a thousand bands I thought were so much more inventive / rocking / interesting. What exactly was Frank Black offering the world that Lou Reed had not? In general, I like music carved in bold strokes - extremely rockin', or extremely beautiful, or extremely weird... I like artists that have a unique sound, something I can hang my hat on. I love Mission of Burma and The Slits and The American Anthology of Folk Music and Devendra Banhart and Bowie and Nick Drake and Eric Dolphy and Ali Farka Toure and Marvin Pontiac. If you were to ask me who was the last great rock and roll band, I'd be likely to answer "The Minutemen." I know it's not true, but I'd say it anyway. And yet, in a weird way, I totally believe it. Today while jogging, I listened to a long interpretation by the Unknown Instructors: "Punk Is Whatever We Made It To Be" - half-spoken / half-sung sonic collage of some of D. Boon's best stanzas. Boon's powerful words rained like hammers and I felt like I was back in 1980, careening down the highway in a green VW bug with The Stooges blasting. It was that spirit of amazement that I used to live for - the one I never got from the 90s indie scene. And then, just as quickly, I thought "God, I'm living in the past. I suck." I'm stuck. I have vast collections of LPs, CDs, and MP3s. I listen to music for hours each day, and yet I'm completely out of it, musically speaking. I confess -- I've never listened to Guns-n-Roses or Pearl Jam or Prince, and I've only recently heard "Nevermind" in its entirety. If it weren't for Twitter, I wouldn't even know Lady Gaga existed. I'm oblivious to the stuff that supposedly matters to "music people." It's not like I'm totally unaware of pop music. I just have a finely tuned ability to tune out whatever doesn't interest me. I don't quite know how to explain it. I can only say that my friends register shock when they learn that I've never heard of Elliot Smith. And yet I do not feel thirsty. I'm always open to being turned on. But I learned long ago that, unfortunately, you can't trust beautiful cover art to promise great music, and you can't always trust your friends to push your music buttons. I'm happy to listen to damn near anything. And every now and then, that "anything" will turn into something that will become important to me over time. Something that will last. I like music with staying power. Belle and Sebastien have a certain appeal, but I don't think they're going to occupy even the tiniest slot in my consciousness in 20 years. But the power and inventiveness of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, John Fahey, Robert Wyatt, Can, The Carter Family, The Clash, will never dissipate. I have little interest in the "new" factor. I could not care less whether this year's model is the baddest thing going on in Atlanta or a rare gem rescued from 78 rpm oblivion by Robert Crumb. It's all the same to me. Just squeeze my lemon / 'till the juice runs down my leg. Please. A friend once said that he felt lucky to have been born so late in history, because the later you're born, the more history you have to work with. I don't think I really understood what he was saying until I was about 40. It's not about being born late, it's about this massive archive we're sitting on - the entire history of recorded music under our butts, which we can either choose to ignore or to mine for all it's worth. Every hour I spend checking out the flavor of the month is an hour I haven't spent with David Thomas or Richard Hell or Shuggie Otis. Life's too short. I'm going to use this site to drift back and forth through musical history, modernity be damned. You turn me on, I'm a radio. Let me know what I'm missing. shacker's station at