It's going to take a lot for me to forgive John Mellencamp for 2007 and that the whole
Ford Chevrolet commercial nightmare. While it's true that maybe I was watching too much TV that year, that god damned “Our Country” song, which I hesitate to say out loud because it'll likely spark an earworm that will repeat in my head for the next week, ruined my life. It haunted me, made me feel schizophrenic, as though I had no control over my brain. That line, “This is our country,” repeated ad infinitum like a taunt and a stab. But you know that, because it ruined your year, too. Over and over again it came on TV and radio, seeped from passing cars and seemingly out of every gas station loudspeaker in Our Country.
That song, and that moment in history, still irks me, and not just because I drive a girly-man Volvo and not a domestic truck. It felt like a Big Brother thing, and revealed to me a truth that, given enough money/blanket access to media, a corporation, if so inclined, can pound a song into America's collective skull at will, can control our internal stereo with sheer ad-buying power. It wasn’t even the sentiment, either, that bugged me. It’s kind of a protest song, in a neutral kind of way. But still, it felt like some sort of assault. It hurt most because I actually like the Cougar, and think he's written some decent, earnest songs.
T Bone Burnett, on the other hand, has never done anything to piss me off. On the contrary: a lauded producer and underrated singer and guitarist, T Bone the Sonic Guru, former Rolling Thunder Revue-er, is perhaps most famous for his work overseeing the music for the Coen Brothers' O Brother Where Art Thou? Soundtrack (and, even better, The Big Lebowski). He also wrote a great noir love song called “The Murder Weapon.” T-Bone seems like a clear-thinking musician's musician, someone obsessed with music and sound who would never ever write a song about a Chevy
Ford (unless it was about maybe John Ford).
So anyway Burnett teamed up with Mellencamp to produce the latter's forthcoming Life, Death, Love and Freedom CD, which is good news for both of them, and yesterday I went to hear it at Electro Magnetic Studios in Brentwood, where longtime Burnett engineer Mike Piersante has transformed the living room of his house into an impressive home studio. Speakers the size of dorm fridges hang from the ceiling, tilted toward the sweet spot of the room, a comfy couch behind the mixing board. Piersante, Burnett and a few other engineers have developed an innovation in audio reproduction technology called CODE. The high-definition format, they say, features reproduction that’s virtually indistinguishable from the original master tapes, and can be played on most DVD players. CODE will debut as a bonus disc on Mellencamp's new album, which arrives from Starbucks' Hear Music division on July 15.
Burnett's currently in Europe as part of Alison Krauss and Robert Plant's touring band, so he couldn't swing by Electro Magnetic. But Piersante and Burnett's manager, Larry Jenkins, were there to relay the logic and reasoning behind CODE. In a nutshell, according to Jenkins: Like Neil Young, Burnett has long felt that the sound quality of compact discs was hardly an improvement over analog reproduction. In fact, it was a step backward. “T Bone never bought in. He thought the sound of most CDs was a weak, pale substitution,” imparts Jenkins. What’s worse, he adds, is that record labels have been feeding these substandard CD versions into the digital retail marketplace, often forgoing a high-quality transfer of the original master in favor of a simple data transfer, with tweaks.
To illustrate their point, Piersante pops in the song that proved a clarion call to Burnett. While the producer was working on film music for a project, he was confronted with the stark differences between a reproduction of the analog master and the CD version of Jimmy Reed's classic blues number, “Baby, What Do You Want Me To Do?” Piersante has both versions on his computer, and plays the opening bars of a dupe of the analog master. It's deep, with a lot of bottom end and a pronounced depth. You can hear the room, and the wood, and the dust. Mid-verse, Piersante switches to the CD version, and it's shockingly hissy, with so much trebled high-end that it sounds like an old cassette tape with the Dolby off. He switches again, and the difference is even more pronounced. The master has an ambiance, a warmth. The reproduction is all highs and lows, with less in between.
Piersante then loads in “Troubled Land,” a song from Mellencamp and Burnett’s new album, but this time with the two different versions that will come in the retail package: one the normal quality, 16-bit CD; the other the bonus CODE disc. He starts with the lesser version, and plays it loud. “Pay attention to the shaker in this song,” he says, referring to the little rattle-like percussion that’s hitting on the eighth-notes. “It’s more pronounced in CODE, if you’re paying attention.” The shaker sounds good. It sounds like it’s in the room. The whole song, in fact, sounds good, and not really anything I’d think would be used to shill automobiles. Piersante switches to the CODE formatted track. The shaker sounds a little richer, a little fatter. But just a little. Had he not told me he was switching, I’m not sure I’d hear the difference. And considering this is in a room with jumbo speakers, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to hear it out of my dinky computer speakers. He does it again. I guess I can hear a difference. Can’t I? Or is his suggestion messing with my ears? If someone filled a glass with Two Buck Chuck and told me it was first-growth Bordeaux, would I love it? Probably.
And on we go, through the new Cougar disc. It sounds really nice. The songs aren’t dumb like that one dumb one, don’t sound like Bob Seger outtakes. They sound like someone who’s uncovering something new, something interesting in a bluesy/rockin/folksy/country way. It’s not like Mellencamp’s doing dubstep or anything. He’s playing his rock, but T Bone Burnett is on lead guitar, which makes it sound authentic. And isn’t authenticity what CODE is striving for? Truth in audio, a sonic certainty?
One big reason to be optimistic. Mellencamp's CD package will not only offer the two discs, but also on those discs will be three other bonuses: the entire album as high-quality WAV files; big AAC files (256 kbps); and high-resolution mp3 files. That in itself bodes well for Mellencamp's future; unlike his stodgier compadres like the Eagles, the Coug's a liberal, smart guy who, despite whether you like his choice in sponsorship deals or not, isn't throwing tantrums regarding the “cheapening of music” in the digital world. He, like Burnett, seems more concerned with one potential cost: the cheapening of sound.
Editor's note: in the original version of this post, we misidentified the name of T Bone Burnett's engineer. His name is Mike Piersante. We apologize for the error.