Obviously, low fidelity refers to sonic quality, as in a low fidelity recording or a low fidelity tape. It is naturally trebly, neither reaching crispness on the cymbals, or timbre in the bass. It is often the sign of a cheaply recorded artefact, or a cheaply constructed playback unit. A bootleg album is typically low-fidelity. A home-made tape usually is.
To appreciate what lo-fi meant in its original, classic sense, think of the Kingsmen’s “Louie, Louie”; so murky the lyrics were believed to be obscene (they weren’t). Think of the rarest 45’s from the puniest 60’s garage bands, how they’re all fuzz. Catch a whiff of overheated vacuum tubes and tinny transistors.
In the 1970’s, punk music was a low-budget affair, and most of the seminal punk records of the time were recorded on cheap, second-rate equipment. That same tinniness from the cheaply made 60’s recordings is evident on the punk records, too. In some cases, they may very well have been recorded on the same old equipment. The trebley static and hiss of these records is as much a part of their sound as the actual notes played.
When the compact disc appeared, there was a small but significant faction of music consumer who resisted them; to their ears, the crystalline sound of remastered albums brought out a fullness of sound that sounded alien to them; the DNA of the song itself was seemingly altered. There were also those musicians who grew up listening to hissy records, and had spent their lives dreaming of making hissy records of their own someday.
By the 1980’s, professional recording equipment had become small enough and affordable enough that small-time producers would often have a little 4-track and soundroom available at home for recording demos and even albums. Although better equipment had become available at professional studios, including digital technologies, few of these bands had the resources to pay for extended studio time; thus, their 4-track home recordings often had that same lo-fi quality as many of their heroes’ albums did. Some of these artists, rather than trying to mask the low fidelity of the recording, would make use of the sonic limitations; experimenting with white noise, free-form, art-noise, to incorporating pure pop and melodic rock into the lo-fi environment.
And thus was born the lo-fi movement. The term lo-fi came to represent a particular type of record, with its own aesthetic, beyond just the actual recording quality. The punk D.I.Y. ethic informs the genre; as well as a resistance to mainstream trends or notions of commercial music. Even at its most melodic and pretty, lo-fi is made homely by its thin sound quality, hiss, and often inaudible, impressionistic and purposely obtuse lyrics. It is this homeliness in sound that gives this music its appeal.
Since the term “lo-fi” originally came from the recording technologies used and sonic ambience more than a musical direction, the early “lo-fi” bands ran a wide gamut of styles and sounds, so that there are many subgenres of and cousins to lo-fi, or genres of music that bore some lo-fi influence, including twee-pop, jangle-pop, noise pop, and ambient pop.
The obvious referents in the early lo-fi movement were the Forefathers of all Indie Rock, the Velvet Underground. Murky indie bands like Pere Ubu, noisemasters Sonic Youth, the fuzzy melodicism of early R.E.M. and the el-cheapo sound of the Meat Puppets also inform much of this music, in varying combinations and ratios. New Zealand bands the Chill and the Clean have also been cited as influences. While it is impossible to name the exact moment lo-fi became self-aware, and thus alive, one could point to the Fall’s 1979 LP Dragnet, as an initial launching point. The album is a cheap-sounding mix of rockabilly punk and shouted art-poems, complete with intentionally echoed, murked-up sound and roughshod playing. An example of lo-fi aesthetic from that album is the live tape of the song “Spectre vs. Rector” playing in the background of the studio version of the same song.
The next step in the evolution of the lo-fi aesthetic was how most of the recordings were available; as homemade recordings on tape, traded or sold at underground record shops; the first label to take notice of this trend was K Records, of Olympia, WA, owned by Calvin Johnson of Beat Happening, which set up shop in the mid 1980’s. K Records would become an important clearing house for lo-fi recordings. Via K Records, the playback medium of choice changed from cassette to vinyl record, years after vinyl records were presumed dead and gone.
This might not have had radical implications, but it did have aesthetic ones, and a core audience developed. Husker Du took hardcore and turned it progressive, a feat thought impossible. Semi-madman Daniel Johnston banged around on tape. Liliput were an all-woman lo-fi unit from Switzerland. Pussy Galore was one of the important proto-lo-fi bands of the late 1980’s. Becoming legendary for a cassette-only cover version of the entire Exile On Main Street album, they specialized in murky, quasi-blues submerged in low-fi murk and hiss. Beat Happening became one of America’s most important lo-fi/twee pop bands, with Calvin Johnson an important figure behind the scenes.
During the indie revolution of 1992 a sizable number of willfully lo-fi bands gained sudden (and fairly unexpected) notoriety, among them Pavement and Sebadoh. Pavement became the flagship lo-fi band made good; they had a slacker image, they recorded at a dive with a hippie burn-out drummer, Stephen Malkmus had Lou Reed down cold, and they took a kitchen sink approach to production, often using whatever was handy at the time. Their 1992 Slanted and Enchanted release is often considered the true starting point for lo-fi as a movement, some of it has the general feel of the Fall’s Dragnet.
Pavement’s relative breakthrough made lo-fi respectable, and it was enough of a fresh sound to the mainstream that home studio artists like Beck and Liz Phair became icons of sorts. The Mountain Goats took lo-fi to its logical conclusions in the mid-late 90’s, recording much of their music on a boombox. In 2001, I Am The World Trade Center released a noteworthy lo-fi electronica album recorded entirely on a laptop computer.
Although the mainstream flirtation with lo-fi proved to be short-lived, lo-fi is here with us to stay. As long as there are musicians with no money, and recording equipment (or laptops) in their house, lo-fi will always be around. What The Fall, Pussy Galore, and most of all Pavement taught us is that the limitations of lo-fi itself become part of the musicians palette; thus, there will always be the consciously lo-fi. There are also far too many examples of the genre to include in a list of 10.
Which makes it a musical expression and mission, after all.
Some important/influential lo-fi bands include:
1. Pavement: Trigger Cut Wounded Kite at 17
The gritty, almost atonal guitars and Malkmus’ laconic, Lou Reed-esque voice, and the band’s fuzzy, slacker background vocals help define this fine example of the Pavement sound, from their groundbreaking Slanted and Enchanted. Light on bass, heavy on guitar crunch, punky and rootsy simultaneously, with the song structure turned halfway inside out, and a little riffing coda thrown in, this is an ambitious arrangement, recorded on a shoestring. Slanted and Enchanted ultimately stands as a watershed; it is one of the most influential albums of the 90’s, and certainly Pavement’s best moment. Pavement would continue to make albums of crackpot eclecticism throughout the 90’s, never abandoning their lo-fi approach, even after they started generating some sales. They broke up in 1999.
2. Ween: Doctor Rock
Ween was formed in New Hope, PA in 1984 by Mickey Melchiondo and Aaron Freeman, both 14 at the time. Something of the comedians of four-track, the duo recorded witty, deconstructed rock music cut with satire, and humor that sometimes lapsed into tasteless. Their 26-track debut GodWeenSatan: The Oneness appeared in 1990 and featured fragmentary noodling of all stripes; many tracks clocked in at just over one minute. They upped themselves in the weirdness factor with their sophomore effort, The Pod, recorded under the influence of Scotchguard and a bad case of mononucleosis the pair came down with. Dark and moldy sounding in places, detached and distant in others, this established Ween as among the more outre of the lo-fi bands of the early 90’s. “Doctor Rock” has a psychotronic garage band feel to it, and ranks among their early classics.
3. Liz Phair: Fuck And Run
Although this wasn’t the single from Phair’s debut and best album, Exile In Guyville, it is the one that turned the most heads, and now stands as the embematic cut. While the title is an attention grabber, suggesting an in-your-face-independence, in fact it and most of the album conveys a lonely, abandoned feel; Phair is a vulnerable tough girl, and is frank about it in her lyrics. She sings in an offhand voice, while the song has a muted, fuzzy jangle to it. Phair had a performing style that was essentially that of the classic singer/songwriter; a style she fused with an underground pop aesthetic. The album barely nudged the charts at #196; her subsequent albums would all chart in the top-40, making her one of the best selling lo-fi artists.
4. Guided By Voices: Gold Star For Robot Boy
Guided By Voices are in the running for lowest-fi band of them all, particularly on their 1986-1994 output. “Gold Star For Robot Boy” is a key cut from their breakthough, Bee Thousand, released in 1994. Tinny and trebly, with considerable tape hiss, the song is an intricate piece of British-flavored uptempo pop/rock. Led by former schoolteacher Robert Pollard, with an ever-changing lineup, the band was essentially a hobby; all of the band’s early albums came out on local Cleveland labels and were not distributed widely. The band didn’t tour in earnest until 1994 when they appeared at some Lollapalooza dates. At times amateur sounding, and at times restlessly ambitious, Guided By Voices epitomized D.I.Y. and lo-fi aesthetic. After this, they started drifting towards a clearer better defined sound, until they had evolved into something else altogether. They announced their final dissolution in 2004.
5. Elliott Smith: Speed Trials
Like Liz Phair, Elliott Smith was a singer/songwriter with a punkish D.I.Y. lo-fi approach to recording. After several years in obscurity, he was rocketed to fame with “Miss Misery”, which appeared in the 1997 film Good Will Hunting. “Speed Trials” is the leadoff cut from his third album, Either/Or, on which he played all the instruments and came up with a collection of smart, catchy, intelligent pop tunes, cut on lo-fi 4-track equipment. Ethereal, odd, creepy, and obsessive, the album is almost a 90’s version of Brian Wilson’s earlier obsessions. Sadly, Smith commited suicide in 2003.
6. Sebadoh: On Fire
Formed by Dinosaur Jr. bassist Lou Barlow as a side-project in the late 1980’s, before developing a life of its own when Barlow was kicked out of the former band in 1989, Sebadoh ranged far and wide afield for influences; jangle-pop to experimental noise-pop representing the opposing ends of the spectrum they worked in. The lineup changed many times, but Barlow doggedly stuck at it, recording at home on a four-track. He also worked on other projects and sidelines, including the low-fi Folk Implosion, which scored a fluke hit with the semi-trip-hop gem “Natural One” in 1995. “On Fire” is from Harmacy, and sports a great twangy rock ‘n’ roll guitar bed altered with an atmospheric echo. While this recording is cleaner than their earlier stuff, the songwriting is more inventive here, making Harmacy a good example of progressive lo-fi.
7. The Olivia Tremor Control: The Opera House
Not exactly a band so much as an amalgamation of musicians who worked under a collective umbrella known as Elephant 6, and encompassing such lo-fi bands as Apples in Stereo, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Secret Square, Olivia Tremor Control was led by Will Cullen Hart and Bill Doss, multi-instrumentalists and songwriters from Ruston, LA. Olivia Tremor Control operates under the interesting conceit that all of its recordings figure into an epic plot of an imaginary film that exists only in the heads of Hart and Doss. Their music took Beatesque whimsy and songcraft, and grafted it to swirling psychedelic atmospherics and tape loops. “The Opera House” leads off their 1996 full-length debut Music from the Unrealized Film Script, Dusk at Cubist Castle, which resembles a lo-fi White Album. The first few thousand copies of this album came with a bonus CD of ambient “dream sequences” called Explanation II which, if played simultaneously with the first disc, produces a full quadrophonic sound. Olivia Tremor Control ceased operations in 2000 after 3 albums and several EP’s.
8. Beck: Loser
One of the great left-field, out-of-nowhere masterpieces of the 1990’s, Beck struck paydirt with “Loser”, and the album that featured it, Mellow Gold, in 1994. Beck is as eclectic as they come; on the album he mixes rock, hip-hop, folk, psychedelia, and country as if they were meant to go together. Remarkably, in his hands, they somehow do. Recorded at home on a 4-track, with Beck laboriously overdubbing the instruments himself, this was the album that introduced to the world at large the concept of a music geek holed up in a room of his house, creating challenging, exciting music. Such oddball loners make up a large proportion of the lo-fi scene. “Loser” is a great stoner rap, a prime example of lo-fi, and a hit, reaching #10 on the Billboard chart.
9. Magnetic Fields: 100,000 Fireflies
Magnetic Fields is lead by Stephin Merritt, another home-recording multi-instrumentalist/songwriter with a fondness for early electronica sounds, mixed with Brian Wilson whimsey and Phil Spector wall-of-sound, lo-fi style. “100,000 Fireflies”, from their 1991 sophomore effort, The Wayward Bus, opens with a jingly Spector-esque instrumentation and the warm allure of Susan Anway’s 60’s sunshine-pop influenced vocals, the tinkling of toy pianos accompanying her. The lyrics are startling in their stark sadness and dispair, with some bi-polar twists, and the instrumentation takes on a minor-key elegiac wistfulness. Superchunk had a popular cover of this song, which introduced many to Magnetic Fields. The band is still active; their most recent release, titled simply i, came out in 2004.
10. The Shins: New Slang
“New Slang” is from the Shins’ 2001 debut, Oh, Inverted World. Full of guitars, including two tremelo solos, and hurt, stung lyrics, delivered in rapid fire by singer James Mercer, this is a pretty affecting cut. Tourmates with Modest Mouse and Red House Painters, the band shows some influence from both, as well as mid-60’s derived psychedelia touching on the familiar obssessive names of the era: Syd Barrett, Brian Wilson, Arthur Lee. The Shins, from New Mexico, represent the state of current lo-fi; a little more polished than the earlier bands, a little more retro.
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