NICHE OR KITSCH? The New Wave of Cassette Releases

Get behind it before it gets past you:
more and more artists are embracing the once-maligned format.

 

BY LAVINIA JONES
WRIGHT

 

It seemed like
they had all discussed it and planned it together.  Suddenly, two words I never thought I would
see in a press release again without the words “remembers this” or “slipped on
a” connected to them, were everywhere.   “Marah’s
Life Is A Problem out now…on cassette.”  News that The Pack A.D. were doing a limited
run of tapes for their Mint Records release We
Kill Computers
reached me just days before I heard through a friend about a
great band out of DC that did tape releases, aptly named the Cassettes.

 

Been to a
truckstop lately?  I’m not asking why,
just pointing out that there is still a genuine, albeit small, market for
cassettes among dudes in rigs with only tape decks for company.  So George Jones and Elvis might still be
doing some business in magnetic tape, but who’s buying these tiny plastic boxes
of indie rock?

 

That would be
someone, says Timmy Kinsella of Joan of Arc, “…coming down from a bad trip as a party
winds down, or maybe… heart-broken, or you have a tooth-ache.” 

 

This
fall, Kinsella’s long-running project of getting the reissue treatment via a
cassette box set reached fruition when the Joyful Noise Recordings label released
the elaborately-designed 10-tape Joan Of
Arc
box, limited to just 100 copies. It quickly sold out. In the fourteen
years Kinsella has made records under the Joan of Arc moniker, he had never
seen his work on tape, though “in the late ‘90s when we were on Jade Tree I
pestered them to put the records out on tape, arguing it was the medium of the
people, but they just thought I was being a smart-ass.”

 

In his recent book
Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life,
often smartass Steve Almond claims a nostalgic attachment to vinyl and tepid
relationships (some ongoing) with 8-tracks, CDs and digital, but it’s his
dichotomous relationship with the cassette that is the most compelling.  “Tapes were sci-fi marvels,” he writes, in
typically light-handed tongue-in-cheek, claiming that they allowed for outdoor
drug use and, via the Walkman, ratcheted up portable significance for
everything a listener saw. 

 

Almond also
attributes to cassette tapes much of the blame for music piracy, citing them as
the first opportunity the casual music fan had to copy their friends’
albums.  “My loyalty to cassettes was
inexplicable.  I hated them,” he recalls,
conjuring memories of plastic puddles fused to the backseats of cars along with
that seductive hiss that anyone born between 1975 and 1985 (myself included)
has a hard time separating from the grunge, punk, hardcore, “oldies,” metal and
greatest hits of their youth.

 

Anyone who loved
music during the two-decade Cassette Administration can claim a similar
love-hate with their collection. Like the soul comp I spun down to a nub,
pounding down that sticky, plastic button with the raised triangle on top until
Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” developed a lisp so severe as the tape stretched
and warped, you’d never be able to tell it apart from Otis Redding’s
version.  Or the live Ike and Tina, for
that matter.  And many bands, like The
Pack A.D.
, remain tape collectors because, says singer Maya Miller, “our van won’t
play anything but cassettes.”

 

Tape had a weird
power over us despite its obvious shortcomings. 
There’s something magically frustrating and satisfying about an album
you can literally wear out, that will degrade from use.  Especially now, with digital music existing
ethereally in a series of 1s and 0s that you can’t scratch or forget in your
car or return to an ex with their worn copy of The Unbearable Lightness of Being and favorite shirt.

 

I reached out to
the Cassettes mastermind Shelby Cinca to find out what, besides the group’s
name, inspired them to go the tape release route, specifically for their most
recent album, Countach.  I found out from Cinca that they sold tapes
to fans in a semi-elaborate package with a toy like a musical Cracker Jack and
a download card.  “We got this
idea from the love of toys and the desire to give fans an experience like they
really got something special,” recalls Cinca. 

 

He
goes further, adding, “Perhaps any physical medium that is done with attention
to detail is a fetishized object now. It’s quaint no matter how you look at it
because digital music is so easy and convenient. I think fans who want to
experience a favorite record a bit slower and savor the album and its
artwork/concept will want a physical object.” Cinca also enlightened me on the
ease of having tapes produced.  He was
pleasantly surprised to find that the tape plant that released his old band’s
records was still in business. 

 

Back in the day
(and by “the day” I mean the ‘80s), there were a few tape-only labels carrying
the torch for the format.  But even the
most hardcore of the bunch have gone digital and vinyl or disappeared.  For example ROIR (Reach Out International
Records)
, a stalwart tape producer representing the New York hardcore punk
scene and the likes of Bad Brains, Suicide, Beastie Boys and the MC5, now only
carries one release on tape, Bad Brains’ S/T
RED.
  If they were willing to let
their favorite format die, why isn’t everyone else?

 

“Everyone else”
here certainly includes Joyful Noise Recordings, the Indianapolis label that did the Joan Of Arc
cassette box. In September JNR also released Of Montreal’s latest album False Priest on cassette (Polyvinyl did
the CD and LP versions), and the product description is borderline fetishistic:
“Limited to 500 hand-numbered copies. The artwork features a 12-panel booklet
containing paintings and re-interpretations of paintings by David Barnes, Nina
Barnes, and Kevin Barnes. The tape is pressed on a badass red cassette,
matching the artwork. High-quality MP3s and FLAC audio are included.” And plans
are for a January release of the new album from Deerhoof, titled Deerhoof vs. Evil (also due on CD and LP
from Polyvinyl), which like False Priest will be in a limited, hand-numbered edition of 500 and pressed “on a green tint
cassette with high quality chrome tape.”

 

Meanwhile, the
aptly-named Tapes ‘N Tapes band, of Minneapolis, recently announced that their
next album Outside, also due in
January, will be available on cassette and featuring artwork created by
the band, signed by every band member and hand numbered, in a limited edition
of 250, available primarily at shows. They’re holding a contest at their
website whereby if you email them proof of purchase of tickets to an upcoming
TNT show, one winner will be chosen on Dec. 17 for a copy of the cassette. (The
band’s website also displays the various pieces of artwork that the members
designed.)

 

Among other
tape-centric releases of late: Carrboro,
NC’s Odessa Records released Shit
Horse’s They Shit Horses… Don’t They? on tape and download; Magnetic South, of Bloomington,
Ind., is an analog recording
studio and cassette label that has issued a number of compilations as well as
titles from Wee Giant, the Sitar Outreach Ministry, Apache Dropout, Gourmet
Scum and Flux Balcony; and the delightfully-named Just Plain Awful Records, based in Wakefield, Mass., issued the band Dungeon Honey’s Pacific Motion on cassette and download; Wild Animal Kingdom, which
has a “Monthly Mix-Tape Club” fans can subscribe to, did the cassette-only
tribute album Guided by Guided by Voices, featuring lo-fi artists such as Andrew Cedermark,
Fluffy Lumbers, and Real Estate’s Martin Courtney IV and Alex Bleeker.

What with the
cartoonish resurgence of ‘80s and ‘90s culture – my Brooklyn neighborhood is
splashed blinding with neon, hung low with fanny packs and squished comically
into spandex of late – cassette tape-themed memorabilia is not a surprise.  Tape-shaped flash-drives for making digital
mixtapes, iPod Nano cases resembling cassettes, hand-sewn coin purses adorned
with felt spools, cassette belt buckles, graphic tees silkscreened with
squiggly, unraveling tape doodles: these are all par for the course for a post
millennial generation fiercely devoted to regurgitating the culture of
generations past.  (The DesignBoom
website
has a fascinating visual overview covering much of this.)

 

But we never
really believed music would come in those clackety little plastic boxes
again.  Sure, vinyl came back with a
vengeance.  But vinyl sounds good.  C’mon. 
I mean, tapes sucked, right?

 

So what can the
format bring to a recording besides kitsch value?  In the case of Joan of Arc, says Kinsella, “Our records
have often consciously been made to listen to as sides – like some songs would
undoubtedly be lousy as singles on their own but make sense because of their
context. So I guess tapes have a continuity that iTunes doesn’t.”

 

Ok, but
sonically?  Claims Cinca, “Tape has a
natural compression that is warm and distinct, so I think it added a
dimensionality to the record.”  And when
asked what the cassette format adds to her music, The Pack A.D.’s Miller
replied simply, and poetically, “A hissss.”

 

What
it really boils down to is best explained with a story Kinsella told me about
his beginnings as a music collector.  “My
folks paid me $5 each week to mow the lawn. The record store near the house
sold tapes for $7.98, so I would mow the lawn then go to the store and sell
back the tape from the week before and with that trade-in and the $5 I could
get a new tape. There’d be enough left over to buy blank tapes every couple
weeks. Mostly what I remember is the smell of the new tape covers, sweet like
if chalky candy had a scent, but then mixed with this chemical-plastic smell.
I’d walk home from the record store once a week with my nose buried in the
unfolded cardboard covers, huffing.

 

“Oh
man, I don’t think I ever realized how downhill my whole life has been since
those walks until I just remembered them now!” 

 

So it’s quirky,
it’s cute, and it’s completely based in our rose-colored memories of the last
moments of pre-digital life.  And with
all the releases mentioned here including a download card, the tape release
trend doesn’t seem confident enough to stand on its own. 

 

Miller sums it
up most cynically, simply, and quite possibly accurately: “Anything that
you make that can’t be used by everybody has an appeal. It becomes niche – and people like saying that
word.”

 

 

 

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