The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2011

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SEPT 2011 Issue
Art Books

Nicely Dressed Noise

Touchable Sound: A Collection of 7-inch Records from the USA
(Sound screen design, 2011)

Caveat emptor on my reviewing this book, which intersects with my own life in numerous ways, and which I cannot claim to judge with an impartial eye. My vantage point is so subjective, in fact, that I could not even figure out what the book was about at first. Objectively described, it is a collection of record covers, belonging to a particular and obscure niche interest: 7-inch independent label vinyl releases circa 1985-2009, but centered mostly around 1993-2000. I own quite a few of these records—those latter dates correspond about exactly to the time in which I traversed the American DIY house show scene where so many such objects circulated. Most of the records that I recognize in these pages I got in trade. Many remind me of a specific night, a particular person, a strange anecdote, or a memorable occurrence appendixed to the transaction by fate. Henry H. Owings sets the utopian tone in his introduction: “Touchable Sound is all about limitless possibilities and how to execute them, and a boundless love of music.” But Sam McPheeters gives us the cynical final word, putting the story in context more bluntly: “In the 1990s, the disincentives to identify with underground music (violence, ridicule) plummeted at the same rate that the cost of production plummeted. But the subculture’s core message—anyone can do this!—remained constant. So bands and fanzines and record labels became the default pursuits of a generation.” Is that what we have documented here? A catalogue of default pursuits?

I showed this book to various friends, all of whom had the same initial reaction that I did: after flipping confusedly through the pages for a minute, their eyes would light up and they’d exclaim: “Oh, I have this one.” A serious professional from the Baltimore area patted a page and sighed, “Vermin Scum records,” with a tone of voice usually reserved for reminiscing about a high school crush. A summer in San Diego was nostalgically recounted by a German acquaintance, including becoming best friends forever with a member of the Locust. Meanwhile, I couldn’t help thinking that a book about this era could never be complete without mention of Steve Munsell, the Charlotte-based screen-printer responsible for so many great 7-inch covers in my own wayward North Carolina youth. History is amorphous, subjective, and written by the victor, which is unfair, but on the other hand, can there be infinite simultaneous personal histories? At some point down the line, someone has to not get a Wikipedia page. There have to be a few unsung heroes. When Warhol predicted 15 minutes of fame for everyone, did he consider what a pain in the ass the cataloguing was going to be? But then, wait, on page 307, there’s Steve Munsell. He has made it in after all.

Looking for a more objective response, I showed the book to my mom. She is a classical musician, who spent her professional life in orchestras, playing other people’s music—never experiencing the joys of pressing her own band on a 7-inch. “Poop Loops,” she chuckled, pointing to a particularly well-titled disc. Then, waving her hand dismissively, she handed the book back to me: “It looks nice, but none of it really has any quality, none of it is stuff that will last.” Holding the book up to the Mozart meter, she predicted, “No one will care about any of this in 200 years.” 

A valid point: it is interesting to note that, of the many record covers I recognize here, only one or two conjure up any actual music in my mind. Aside from a few notable exceptions, this collection is comprised of records hardly anyone remembers, or has ever heard of in the first place, pressed in miniscule amounts, and distributed mostly regionally. Even the fragility and flimsiness of the materials used in the construction of the packaging (vellum, string, spray paint, aluminum foil) indicates that these objects were not built to last. Immediacy is what characterizes them. “The bands or the labels don’t know if they’re going to be able to scratch together enough money to put out another record, and so this might be their only release,” says graphic designer and former label owner Mark Owens, explaining the pragmatic reasons for these records’ laborious and extravagant packaging. “If it’s your first record, it’s your debut to the larger community, so there is this impulse to put it all in...filling the wax with as many songs as will fit, and then putting as much in the packaging as you can.”

The phrase “default pursuit” comes to mind again. “People crave traditions, even traditions that only span a few decades,” says McPheeters. The 7-inch single was one of the dominant musical formats of the 20th century, peaking in commercial popularity in the 1960s, re-invented in the ’80s and ’90s as agitprop, referential art object, collector fetish item; the vinyl record defines the physical era of music as product altogether. Punk rockers were not the first or only people to press singles at United Record Pressing. It is no accident that the plant is located in Nashville, Tennessee, the hub of country music. Simultaneous to the rise of phonograph technology in the 1920s was the rise of DIY phonograph recording, spanning many decades and every conceivable musical genre.

There is little mention in Touchable Sound of any such history, or any broader context within which to frame these records. Mike Amezcua describes finding a self-released single from the 1960s and imagining “thematic parallels to my own record making,” but beyond the anecdote itself this parallel is left unexplored. Even the very recent past is only vaguely recounted; a couple of contributors lament having sold their 7-inches on eBay in the early 2000s, one for what he calls “a king’s ransom.” Why these records briefly sold for such outrageous prices is left undiscussed. It may be the music that motivated buyers to spend exorbitant sums on others’ default pursuits, but, in the age of the MP3, that’s doubtful. More likely, what is attractive about these objects is their truly untouchable aspect—the culture they are affiliated with, the identity that they represent.

I am currently storing my 7-inches in a closet in North Carolina. Like many possessions, the longer you go without them, the more you realize that you don’t really need them. And still, it would be heartbreaking to lose that crate of records, tantamount to losing some tribal affiliation. Without the records, I have only Mark Owens’s word for it that there was once a “larger community” to present yourself to. But there was, and we did: I dreamed the small dream of my generation, and so did the makers of this book. “Each of these records is a project that surpasses the mundane and becomes something intimate and personal,” writes Henry H. Owings. “And really, isn’t that what art is all about?” Perhaps Marcel Duchamp is a more appropriate reference than Andy Warhol. Duchamp’s idea of the “ready-made” (“an ordinary object elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist,” as he defined it in the Dictionary of Surrealism) is all over these pages: in the manila envelopes, packing tape, and other “off the shelf” materials used to create these works, but also in the editorial conceit itself—that these low-budget, functional creations are, in fact, art. It is easy to find ordinary objects here. The question is, who gets to do the elevating? Utilitarian items often experience the death rattle of high-cultural validation in the moment before their obsolescence. “Objectivity” rests on the word “object.” But the meaning depends on the receiver, the subject, and is open to interpretation, like any dream. 


Al Burian

AL BURIAN is a writer, artist, fanzine producer, and musician. He is currently living in Berlin.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2011

All Issues