Scene Spotlight: Lo-Fi

The Clean – Anything Could Happen

In the Scene Spotlights on Shoegaze, we covered music that was layered; detailed; lush.

As much a technological achievement, as a musical one. Shows off your good ‘phones and your hi-fi stereo.

But THIS is murkier music that will sound pretty much the same coming out of a plastic transistor radio (or, those crappy computer speakers on your desk) as it would if played on an expensive stereo system.

It shares with shoegaze an affinity for signal-obscuring (and paradoxically, potentially-melody-enhancing, as your own brain fills in the “missing” bits) noise and texture, while largely eschewing shoegaze’s often carefully-sculpted approach in favor of something a little more spontaneous.

Once again there are melodies here; but you may have to move some sonic scuzz aside to find them.

This is home recording. This is 4-track. This is lo-fi.


Lo-fi is like any genre. If you have the songs, the attitude, and the vision, it’s going to be inspiring. If you don’t, it’s going to be lifeless. Lo-fi was the last truly charming and inspirational movement, the perfect extension of punk. Not only did you not have to know how to play, you didn’t even have to worry whether it sounded good by contemporary production standards. – Robert Pollard, Guided by Voices

I’ve gone on at length about my love for Guided by Voices around here.

But as great as it was to see once more that band’s “classic lineup” at Matador 21, the real highlight for me was getting a chance to see New Zealand legends the Clean.

(Well…that and getting married. Hey-o!)

The Clean – Tally Ho!

On the Velvet Underground’s White Light / White Heat, the producer reportedly abandoned the studio during the recording of “Sister Ray”, displeased with the ungodly racket.

When the Clean encountered similar resistance from Kiwi recording engineers, they politely (they are New Zealanders, after all) picked up their songs and literally went home, choosing to record themselves on 4-track rather than constantly tussle with engineers and producers who didn’t get what they were doing.

As with the Velvets, time turns much “noise” into “pop” – it’s hard to see what those engineers were so unhappy with, with catchy tunes like these:

The Clean – Beatnik

I LOVE this next track: the ascending/descending riff that grinds and warps; the periodic strange clicking/tinkling percussion that sounds like it might be a sack of stolen silverware; the mournful horns; the relentless thwack of the snare driving the whole thing forward like a sled-driver’s whip; the rousing countdown before each chorus; the whole shebang:

The Clean – Getting Older

England’s Swell Maps were not only influential to your Pavements and Sonic Youths etc., etc., but they boasted two of the greatest nom-de-rock handles ever, in brothers “Nikki Sudden” and “Epic Soundtracks”:

Swell Maps – Midget Submarines

It sounds like Portland’s Eat Skull stole the Clean’s rinkydink organ:

Eat Skull – Stick to the Formula

This next song is a (literal, fuzzy) blast. Gleeful gang-shouted pop melodies do battle to the death with shredded-speaker noise.

“I don’t want to die in the city alone.”

Especially if that city is Columbus, OH:

Times New Viking – Teenage Lust!

Yeah…that’s EXACTLY what a song with that title should sound like…messy, amateurish, overwhelming, exuberant, and a little desperate.

Speaking of desperation:

Times New Viking – No Time, No Hope

Though the title nods to the Buzzcocks, the vocals on this song remind me more of Beat Happening:

Times New Viking – Ever Falling In Love

Flight are from Mississippi. There seem to be some dark, almost gothic undertones to their stuff.

Like the songs are the bones of old murder victims, caked with dank river mud.

Flight – Flowers

You might remember the original version of this next tune from a disturbing and NSFW movie scene.

Flight – Goodbye Horses (Q Lazzarus cover)

Bored yet? We’vve all been there:

Wavves – So Bored

Lo-fi isn’t only suited to energetic abrasiveness; hushed, almost painful intimacy is another route it can take. Home recording can allow the vision of one person to shine through; after all, it’s possible for a single person to be the whole band, engineer, and producer.

Dump, the bedroom 4-track side project of Yo La Tengo’s James McNew, really gets at the fragile beauty at the heart of this Prince song (this track is taken from an entire album McNew did of Prince covers, with the wonderful title That Skinny Motherfucker With the High Voice):

Dump – Pop Life (Prince cover)

Staying in Minneapolis for a moment, Paul Westerberg’s official solo debut, Fourteen Songs, was mostly pretty weak. Overproduced and uninspired, with little of the sharp wit or pathos his best writing with the Replacements had.

But in this track, a few clumsy lyrics here and there can’t break the melancholy spell woven by mostly just a voice, a strummed guitar, and a rapidly-ticking drum machine (OK, and a bass and a few tinkling keys), in what I like to think could be a tiny kitchen with faded and cracked linoleum on the floor:

Paul Westerberg – Black Eyed Susan

Like Dump, East River Pipe is just one man, but he somehow manages to sound like a full band on his records, with far more polish and professionalism than you’d expect from a recording made in the corner of a tiny Queens apartment.

His songs are sometimes funny, and frequently sad, and they almost always sparkle like sunlight on water, on an afternoon when you’ve had too much to drink:

East River Pipe – Kill the Action

East River Pipe – Axl or Iggy

Speaking of “sunlight” and “too much to drink”:

A Faulty Chromosome – Jackie O. (John Mellencamp cover)

Lo-fi isn’t just for the little guys. Anyone who likes bootlegs and demos may be familiar with the epiphany of discovering a much more human-scaled side of artists that are normally presented as larger-than-life.

Radiohead – Rhinestone Cowboy (Glen Campbell cover)

Rolling Stones – All Down the Line (demo)