On Modern Music and Digital Discovery

The Chop is probably not your typical music fan in many ways. The great majority of our social life has revolved around music for twenty years now, yet we’ve never really bothered to pick up an instrument. Our record collection count stands at zero, yet we’ve never really embraced digital discovery either. Most of what’s in our iTunes (26+ GB) was ripped from CD’s at one time or another.

And even well into our 30’s our primary (and practically only) method of discovery for new music is seeing it live. It can be slow work waiting for great new acts to come through your city, and even when they do you still may not catch them and connect with them because it’s Sunday night and you just don’t feel like going out. Plus for every Deleted Scenes or Titus Andronicus that comes through there’s 6000 other bands whose sets you politely sit through and promptly forget about.

These days word of mouth is not quite what it used to be. Most friends are fairly set in their listening habits and recommendations tend to be brief and take the form of “Oh it’s so and so from XYZ band doing something that sounds like ABC band.” When you’re over 30 your all-time favorites are pretty well established and there’s not a lot of room left in each listener’s personal pantheon of great artists.

Likewise music journalism isn’t much help. The noise to signal ratio on popular music blogs is far too high and there’s too much PR interference and feed-the-beast mentality involved. If you’re posting 4 hours of streams to listen to daily and the average reader has maybe 90 minutes a day to spend on listening the backlog is going to build pretty quickly and most things are going to be missed. And let’s not even get started on sites like Pitchfork and Spin with their boring 8.9 reviews and their 100 Best this and that lists.

Even digital discovery has been a failure for us. We never cottoned to Spotify with its Facebook-centric user base model, and other algorithm based Internet radio features out there are similarly disappointing. You tell them you like great music like the Clash and Social Distortion and they play you back garbage like Pennywise and US Bombs. No digital service with which we have experimented has played us anything new that was more than mildly interesting.

Until now.

We will admit that we’ve been using iTunes radio more and more lately. Mostly this is a function of the ease of use. It’s already in our phone and we’re automatically signed up for it so why the hell not? It’s definitely a thing that is designed to sell you $1.29 impulse-buy downloads and it’s not without its problems, but it’s also not a bad choice to put on for an hour while you’re cooking dinner.

The quality of Music iTunes Radio plays back depends entirely on your choice of artist to base a station around: REM is a poor choice because you get nothing but crap like U2 and Sting. However Television is a great choice as it prompts the algorithm to spit out the Jam and Suicide. Once the program starts to repeat you can create a new station from the Jam and get slightly different results. Best to do this every 60-90 minutes.

It was in this way, creating new stations from artists in results that we landed on Jens Lekman.

Jens Lekman is one of those artists whose name has always sounded familiar, but the music not so much. Makes sense, right? Releases outside of Sweden are on Secretly Canadian, a respectable and fairly big indie label that’s home so several artists you’ve probably heard of like Yeasayer, Damien Jurado and The War on Drugs. Stuff that’s pretty good, but for us fades into the background pretty quickly and is by and large unremarkable, lost in the shuffle of so many Pitchfork 8.9’s.

We’d come to iTunes radio looking for background music, something to have on while reading on a lazy Sunday. When A Postcard to Nina came through the speakers though we recognized it immediately as the kind of song that cannot and will not be relegated to background music, at least not before several dozen listens. This guy can sing.

By the end of the five minute track we liked it so much it was clear we we’d have no choice but to abandon iTunes radio and find a stream of the entire record. We listened to 2007’s Night Falls Over Kortedala in a way we almost never listen to records anymore; sitting on the couch, staring at the (digital) cover, doing nothing else.

By the end of it there wasn’t any doubt remaining. The record is a masterpiece that, in our opinion, should have placed Lekman up there with Morrissey, Belle and Sebastian, David Byrne and Billy Bragg in indie-pop genius status and probably should have had enough mainstream appeal to take more than a few Grammys away from Amy Winehouse. It’s the first record in years we’ve bought (for we did in fact download it shortly after) that we’ve felt the urge to play again as soon as it’s finished spinning. It’s that good.

And it sounds like little else that’s in our collection. No wonder it took the Internet’s best algorithms a full seven years to get it into our ear holes. Lekman’s also been easy for us to overlook, releasing only two full length records despite being active since 2000. As a European his tour schedule is the type that passes over Baltimore entirely and makes only occasional stops in Washington DC.

If, like us, you’ve been overlooking Jens Lekman up until now take it from the Chop: this is not more of the same. This is worth much more than another boring 8.9.