Paul Nataraj ~ You Sound Like a Broken Record

This is one of the coolest projects we’ve encountered all year.  Seeing these slices of vinyl makes us feel jealous, wistful and humble.  This PhD project has already been displayed at an art center in Glasgow and a symposium in Germany.  Physically beautiful, philosophically inspiring and emotionally resonant, You Sound Like a Broken Record is one of the year’s true originals.

We wish we were one of the fourteen volunteers were asked to make the ultimate vinyl sacrifice and were rewarded with the ultimate vinyl gift.  Yet given the chance, would we have done so?  Would I have parted with my original copy of Split Enz’ laser-etched True Colours or The Hues Corporation’s “Rock the Boat” 45, the first record I ever purchased?  And furthermore, would I have allowed someone to write on them?

Given the fact that the actual records we own ~ especially the oldest, most cherished copies ~ are often played over a designated period of time before being filed away forever, they become more powerful as memory tokens than as actual records.  I love the records mentioned above, but I haven’t played them for years.  Instead, I’ve played the digital versions, afraid to worsen their already abraded sound.  (The 45 is particularly scratchy as it was played over a hundred times on a portable red and white Fischer-Price turntable.)  But Nataraj likes the scratch, the static, the stuck groove.  In these metamorphosed productions he brings such patinas to the fore.

The volunteers were interviewed about the connections to their vinyl.  These interviews were then etched on the records and integrated into sonic reconstructions.  The repositories of memory have now become objets d’art. Past and present mingle; time folds back on itself.  The physical records represent the ways in which our favorite songs and albums become overwritten by our invisible impressions, evaluations and experiences, from simple associations (first kiss, summer’s end) to complex, even conflicted feelings (“I can’t stop playing this song, even though it makes me sad”).  As Nataraj writes, “The idea of death and loss inherent in the record seems to be a constant in the ethnographies I collected.”  Everything is ephemeral.  These objects are disintegrating as our memories are evaporating and our clocks are running down.

Paul Nataraj’s music ~ and yes, it’s appropriate to call this his music ~ sounds fiercely of its time.  In many cases, the originals have been sampled and looped beyond all recognition.  Snippets bubble to the surface from time to time, enough to remind us of what once was, like the nostalgia of nostalgia.  Some tracks flirt with drone, others with pure abstraction.  The wobbly segments remind us of Kid Koala, the juxtapositions of Felix Kubin.  Once upon a time, sampling was seen as a clean insertion of snippets; Nataraj dirties it up, creating a series of sound collages.  “Lil Louis” is transformed into futuristic techno, “Duran Duran” into something more “Beat Box” than “The Wild Boys.”  The percussive tracks are especially effective, introducing new ways of dancing.  The prominent drums of “Badgewearer” are powerful enough to punch through the aluminum foil. “Tru Thoughts” includes the sample, “started playing around with sound,” operating as a 21st century version of M|A|R|R|S.  In “Nicki Thomas,” the needle at the end of the groove is just as important as the needle in the center.

One wonders if the streaming generation will ever understand the tactile bond between record and owner.  Younger music fans realize that something has been lost, and have responded by contributing to the resurgence of vinyl.  You Sound Like a Broken Record is a love letter to vinyl and its fans.  It’s also a statement that beauty can lie in brokenness.  In 1974, Chong screamed to Cheech, “You ruined my record, man!”  44 years later, Paul Nataraj makes ruin sound like eloquence.  (Richard Allen)

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