On sampling

Intellectual property (IP) law has become an increasingly important part of everyday American dialogue and culture during the last 20 years. Piracy in the ’80s, via tape trading, evolved first to Napster and then to today’s BitTorrent. Laws like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and technologies like digital rights management keep up the debate about what we can and cannot do with creative works.

Probably the most interesting debate related to IP is the issue of sampling, re-using pieces of existing songs to make new songs. This has been revisited lately with artists like DJ Danger Mouse (now part of Gnarls Barkley) bringing the “mash-up” into mainstream cultural awareness, and artists like Pittsburgh’s Girl Talk having to release their popular sample-based music on smaller labels like Illegal Art because of problems with getting permission to use the samples used to make it. However, this is just a new dance-based angle on a much older issue.

Negativland is another band dealing with sampling legality. Using a style often termed “plunderphonics” (a term coined by John Oswald, originator of the technique), they use samples in a sort of collage to create their pieces. Sound clips, including outtakes from radio broadcasts, education films, and news reports, are used without any other adornment and mashed together.

Their best-known release is U2*, a record released in 1991 parodying U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and *America’s Top 40 host Casey Kasem. This album includes extensive samples of U2 and Kasem, over which Negativland placed samples of children’s shows and themselves playing kazoos. Naturally, Island Records (U2’s label) sued, claiming copyright infringement and intentional, deliberate confusion of U2 fans. Negativland lost, and U2* is still illegal for sale in the U.S. (but it is on http://www.negativland.com/*).

They later rereleased these tracks on 2001’s bootleg These Guys Are From England And Who Gives A Shit, with more political songs containing samples saying “copying is a criminal act,” “they’re trying to target Island Records,” “even if you too have done nothing wrong,” “oh, please don’t sue us, we’re really sorry about this,” and others, highlighting the issue at hand quite explicitly and making an impassioned plea for relaxed copyright law. In “their own” words: “Can’t be blase about it … it might be the music business, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous.”


On alt-country music

I apologize in advance to anyone I offend, but most modern country music is simply terrible. I’m sorry that I don’t care about your dog or how your wife left with your truck. That said, I admit that I am a fan of alternative (alt) country, and it’s definitely worth your time to check it out.

The general consensus is that alt-country came about through two different influences. On one side we have the traditional American country music. Examples of this range from Woody Guthrie to Hank Williams, both amazing artists worthy of their own Paperhouse columns. On the other side we have the country-rock style that originated from the re-emergence of rock and roll with country. The artist best identified with this style is Gram Parsons, who released two great albums before his untimely death. As a frame of reference, I would classify the legendary Man In Black, Johnny Cash, as somewhere between the two. Skip ahead from the 1960s to 1990, when the band Uncle Tupelo released No Depression, the first widely recognized modern alternative country album. From there, alt-country began to take off. Many different groups and individuals began to embrace the style; its influence can be seen in groups like Camper Van Beethoven, whose lead singer formed another group worth a listen, Cracker. Jeff Tweedy, of Uncle Tupelo, went on to form Wilco, whose early albums are steeped in alt-country stylings.

Today there are many artists who embrace this style; Bright Eyes is one of the more well known. Other examples include the Old 97s, Whiskeytown (a now-defunct band led by Ryan Adams) and The Elected (with Blake Sennett and Jason Boesel of Rilo Kiley). Albums released in the past year include Rabbit Fur Coat, by Jenny Lewis (of Rilo Kiley) with the Watson Twins; Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, by the reigning queen of alt-country Neko Case; and more recently Post-War by M. Ward, though his style leans closer to traditional Americana.

To all the country fans out there, give alt-country a listen — trust me when I say that it’s better than what you’re listening to. And to everyone who hates on country, twangy music ain’t all that bad.


On Against Me!

In high school I was always the kid walking around the halls with my headphones on, rocking out in my own little world. People unfamiliar with the concept of a “one-person dance party” stared at me like I was psychotic. I never minded; I just had a good time. The music that bled through my headphones into the surrounding hallway was not the Top 40 or Dirty South that was popular at my school at the time; it was loud, typically anthemic, and reasonably impassioned. Now, three years after having strayed from the aforementioned angsty genre in which I once found interest, Against Me! remains a personal outlet.

The four piece from Gainesville, Fla., is laden with acoustic guitar, syncopated drums, and harsh, semi-yelling vocals. They are considered “folk-punk,” a genre which I initially labeled as being too abrasive. I didn’t truly understand or appreciate the genre until I saw Against Me! live. The show was unlike any which I had experienced; it seemed as though everyone knew every lyric to every song. It was like a huge pub: Hundreds of people sang the same semi-political choruses in a pleasantly dissonant roar. The band broke a collective sweat from dancing and exerting more energy than I could have ever expected. There were no mosh pits or girls wearing Ugg boots. The show wasn’t treated as a place where individuals prove their devotion to a specific genre through their clothing choices or attitudes. That night was just a bunch of people together in a room sharing music, dance and an obtuse feeling of camaraderie; I was with a group of friends to whom I had never actually been introduced. I haven’t been to a concert like that since.

Every so often I walk along the Cut at night and hear a bunch of guys with acoustic guitars singing random Against Me! songs. They sit in a circle strumming and singing at the top of their lungs, not caring about who is trying to study around them or who actually likes the band. I hear:

Everyone would leave with the memory that there was no place else in the world/ And this was where they always belonged/ We would dance like no one was watching… /Just gimme a scene where the music is free/ And the beer is not the life of the party/ There’s no need to shit talk or impress/ ‘Cause honesty and emotion are not looked down upon,

and it reminds me of that night at the show. I crack a smile, knowing that there are still people who love music for how it makes them feel, not for the scene or a prescriptive image. They appreciate how music should bring people together and make them happy, not self-conscious. Consider this a “thanks” to those guys, from the kid with the headphones.


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