763 MP3s in 48 Hours

Paul Ford heard more SXSW acts than anyone else, without leaving New York

It's probably safe to say that nobody's South By Southwest experience this year was as comprehensive as that of Paul Ford, an editor at Harper's and a blogger at themorningnews.org.

And here's the thing — Ford never left New York City. Instead, he downloaded the SXSW 2008 Torrent File, which included single MP3s from 763 of the bands that went to Austin (just under half the total acts that appeared there). And then he listened to every single one of them and wrote a six-word review of, and assigned a rating to, each one. You can read them at http://www.themorningnews.org/archives/reviews/sixword_reviews_of_763_sxsw_mp3s.php.

Here are a few Florida examples:

Black Tide's "Shock Wave": "I remember: fringe jackets, fringe boots." (Two stars)

The OaKs' "2. Masood": "Introspective, wanders, apparently inspired by Afghanistan." (Three stars)

Papercrane's "Treasure": "Remember Aleka's Attic? Here's the singer." (Two stars)

This style of music reporting boggled my mind. I had to talk to this guy.

New Times: Your piece is the talk of my little [rock critic] world.

Paul Ford: (Laughs) I, uh, you know, I guess that's good.

So you didn't even go to South By?

Not at all. If anything, I would have gone to the tech one, because I'm a big nerd. I'm not cool enough for the music one, so I just downloaded the file. So obviously you went. How was it?

It was great. I saw one band early and they were so incredibly good I went and saw them two more times.

Who were they?

Monotonix. Israeli garage-punk.

Hmmm. They didn't have an MP3. I would have remembered.

Probably so, but their recordings don't do them justice. I've never seen a live show as feral and crazed as theirs. They never use the stage, and they move the drummer during the show, so you have no choice but to get deeply involved.

That's interesting. Do they sing in Hebrew or English?

You can't even tell at the show.

That's great. That's everything it's supposed to be. Interesting.

So what about this piece of yours?

Basically I was asked to review an MP3 or two, and I said I had this big idea. The truth is, the A's — I did it in alphabetical order — the A's were pretty bad, and I was about ready to kill myself. And then I started to find one or two songs which completely redeemed everything, and it was like, all right, it's worth it, like you with Monotonix. You find something like that and you realize it's a worthy endeavor.

Exactly. What was your process with this thing — like eight hours a day for six days?

I'd be working, take a little break, listen to a couple songs, and then write them directly into iTunes in the comment field. And there were a number of nights where I stayed until three or four in the morning, and then I would take it home, and there were two, two-and-half weekends completely given over to it. So altogether it was 48 hours spread over a couple of weeks, and as long as you kept going at it steadily it wasn't that bad. And not that it was ever suffering — I was listening to music.

You never had to resort to chemical stimulants?

No, it was like that piece plus anxiety [were all I needed]. Especially the one-star songs, you want to give 'em a fair hearing, and you can watch me flame out toward the end there. But you owe it to them.

I fear that people don't really know what real excellence is anymore. Everything's just pretty good, and that's good enough.

The tools are there. The one point that kept coming up was that there seem to be all these arrangement skills that have been lost. Because everyone has ProTools or Ableton Live... It got to the point where I could almost hear the difference, where I was like, "That's ProTools," or 'That's an Ableton Live mixing session." I wrote about it in the piece — the dynamics are gone and no one arranges as much. They just sort of draw a triangle and say, "The drums need to go now." What I heard a lot of were vocals and guitars that don't line up. It's like, "Do you guys even play in the same room? What are you trying to get at?" That was the slog, hearing that over and over again.

What about the totemic animal band names? A couple of years ago we were plagued with wolf bands. As you wrote, it's all about bears this year.

Right. Bears, and another thing I noticed was "black." There are like 30 bands with the word "black" in their name.

Do you think there's anything to that on a Jungian level?

It is actually kinda fascinating to think about what the spirit animals are.

Or is it just kinda kids reading Pitchfork?

I think it has to be. On a certain level, they just think it sounds cool. It sounds awesome. And that's just part of the tradition, the great history of rock music. Like Pink Floyd or whatever, it's just some random influences that some 19-year-old glues together. But still the prevalence of the animals is kinda surprising.

 
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