Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Agent Takes Fifteen Per Cent

Another thing I like about my cheap little MP3 player is the playback-speed feature. I used to use it occasionally at the gym, to synch a tune up to my stride. Now, because MP3 is a digital format—because there are no moving parts involved—it’s a simple thing for the player software to alter the playback pitch without altering the tempo, or vice versa: I can do it with a single click in the free open-source audio editor I use to make my DJ mixes. But for whatever reason, the speed function on the Lexar emulates a physical medium, like a turntable or a tape deck, and effects pitch and tempo together. Which leads to some left-field discoveries.

I had my first breakthrough with a Pogues song—“My Baby’s Gone,” a Rankin/Finer album cut (and—if this squib is to be believed, and I’ve no idea if it is or not cos these guys have a history of lying ruthlessly to the press—the most emotionally devastating song the band ever recorded). It’s a breathless song, overstuffed with words even by Pogues standards, and it scans for shit. I wondered if it would sound less clumsy if it were slowed down a titch, given room to breathe. It did—and then some.

Suddenly, this skittery little blur had some heft. At 85%, it was a gutbucket blues stomper. The bass and drums were heavier, but not ridiculously so; Hearing this made me realize just how thin and weedy Michael Brook’s production of Waiting For Herb was—it took an act of sonic violence to give the record some bottom end. It’s my preferred version, these days. The original was so fast, so short, so trebly, that slowing it down turned it into a solid rock song—and it’s still over in less than three minutes.

Most astonishingly, though, Andy Rankin seemed to have been transformed into Tom Waits.

The funny thing is, it kept happening: I would tweak a singer and he or she would sound like someone else entirely. At 85% speed, Bryan Ferry becomes Nick Cave, and the Go! Team’s “Junior Kickstart” is a thing of creeping menace. At 85%, the guitar squall of The Skids becomes Morricone—postpunk roar to spaghetti-western raunch. And most amusingly, the divine Emmylou Harris somehow morphs into big-haired 80s poseur Richard Marx.

The late DJ Screw was doing stuff like this ages ago, but this isn’t dance music for people all fucked up on cough syrup. This is more like one of those morphing photographs—except that nothing is added to the image. Nothing but time, I guess. Which makes different people of us all, in the end.

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