An album made entirely in one’s bedroom is no longer a foreign concept. In fact, it has become the norm. Digital sampling and recording programs such as Pro-Tools, Reason, Cubase and Digital Performer have all become the norm for most musicians. Why pay studio costs and mixing engineers for what you can do on your own your own computer?
The unfortunate result has been that as the need to record in a pricey recording studio has become a thing of the past, so has analog home recording. There is something a bit different from home recording made from analog forms (cassette or reel to reel recorders) rather than digital. Most arguments made on digital versus analog have to do with sound. My argument has to do with creativity. Although you still have the ability to overdub parts in analog recording, there are no quick fixes. You cannot instantly quantize bad timing, edit mistakes, cut out background noise or automatically tune vocals that are off key; all which you can do on the most basic digital recording programs. Instantly the mediocre can sound like the professionals. But what if some mediocrity is part of the charm? Honesty captured onto tape, with background noise, slightly off key vocals and poor recording techniques that captures a song in its purest form. It's no wonder fans of Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix used to pay top dollar for bootlegs of their home demos. There is purity to their songs that got lost once they made their way into a professional recording studio. The same thing sometimes happens with digital recording. The options are limitless, so much so that the end results sounds nothing like the beginning.
The Lo-Fi movement of the late eighties/early nineties exemplified this. Artists such as Daniel Johnston, Sebadoh, and The Mountain Goats didn’t just record onto four track for the sake of purity, it was also about economics. A Tascam 4 track recorder was affordable. Many studios were selling their outdated eight and four track reel-to-reel recorders dirt-cheap as well. In a bedroom, garage or in a practice space, you were left to your imagination to create without the restraints of paying a studio an hourly rate.
Below are some of my favorite analog home recordings. This is not a best of, rather, it is a collection of home recordings that have plenty of creativity and very little musical boundaries. On top of that, these artists wrote great songs.
Aleyda-Estrofas y Estribillos (Verses and Refrains)
Released in 2001, Aleyda is Alex Chavez, an Austin, Texas based musician who now fronts the group Maneja Beto. Alex played guitar, keyboards and sang the vocals on this record, which goes from heavy rock, “Sin Sentido,” to an absolutely beautiful acoustic version of “Hasta Siempre Che Guevara.” There are jazz excursions, traditional Mexican music and ventures into Nueva Trova. Estrofas y Estribillos is revolutionary both musically and in content. Much of the CD is filled with speeches by Subcomandante Marcos, recorded by Alex when Zapatistas marched to Mexico City back in March of 2001.
Cody Chestnutt-The Headphone Masterpiece
Cody was Shuggie Otis, Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix, D’Angelo and Prince all rolled into one. Mix that with a Southern Hip-Hop influence and you've got one of the most unique albums ever recorded in or out of a studio. Recorded in his bedroom on a four-track cassette recorder, Cody was sometimes spacey, sometimes horny, sometimes in love, sometime angry and sometime vulgar, but he was honest and wrote some great songs. Everyone from The Roots to Thom Yorke cites him as an influence. Maybe that is why we haven’t had a follow-up to THPM. It would be a tough act to follow.
This was my introduction to Beck, back in 1989. My friend played me the song “Let's Go Moon Some Cars" with lyrics that seem to be an ode to everything young and stupid: “Let's go moon some cars, let's go steal some beer, let's go shoot some pigs…yea!” Of course, I loved it instantly. Beck performed everywhere he could during that time, mostly impromptu sets between forgettable local L.A. bands. Most of the songs on Banjo Story ventured into the Dylanesque flow of conscience via teenage hipster that would serve him well a few years later on songs such as “Loser” and “Devil’s Haircut.” But what is likable about this release is his first hint of two themes that continue to mark his career even now: the tragic love song with “Woe” and also tales of regret in “Goin’ Nowhere Fast.” Both of these themes would continue on albums such as One Foot In The Grave, Sea Change, Mutations and his latest, Modern Guilt.
Money Mark-Mark's Keyboard Repair
Money Mark was a carpenter with a home studio when he had a run in with a Beastie Boy while repairing a fence at one of their houses. Who knows if we would have heard any of Mark’s Keyboard Repair had he not hooked up with The Beasties. Makes me wonder how many more Money Mark types lay dormant in the suburbs of Los Angeles, recording at home with their songs stuck on their computers or tape decks. I love the honesty of “Cry” and “Sometimes You Got To Make It On Your Own.” They are like soul hits from the past, simplistic in nature, heavy in emotion, yet filled with humor. Money Mark has put out several albums since but none have reached the level he hit with Keyboard Repair. Maybe I have an attachment to this release because Mark and I grew up in the same town (Gardena, Ca.) To me, his sound was all Gardena; Slow and low ballads, low level funk and soulful rock.
This album captures the freedom of home recording. David Hidalgo and Louie Perez from Los Lobos, off the heels of a successful number one song (Their version of "La Bamba") and their most critically acclaimed album Kiko, drank tequila, got high and recorded what they felt onto a cassette eight track. The sound of the album is marked by oops of neighborhood sounds underneath hypnotic violin, low moaning contrabass and out of tune guitars. Latin Playboys sounds like Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs and Chrome’s Half Machine Lip Moves being played simultaneously while driving past the Estrada Court murals in the early morning hours. Latin Playboys was a part of an incredibly creative period for the band and David Hidalgo, who not only wrote two Latin Playboy records, but also created great songs on the next three Los Lobos releases, Kiko, Colossalhead, This Time, as well as the Hound Dog record, a one off project with former Canned Heat member Mike Halby.