Review of a Mix Tape?
My friend, Tim Falconer, is pretty great. He’s a great writer, great teacher, great friend, and has, well, great taste in music. Our first conversation nearly five years ago was about music and every conversation we’ve had since hasn’t deviated much from our mutual favourite topic.
Despite having a lot of similarities in taste, we consume music very differently. I get into terrible (and terribly long) listening ruts; he has so much music waiting on his ‘save for later’ list that he gets through a lot more a lot faster than me. So he’s always trying to encourage me to listen to certain artists and albums. His latest trick seems to be working: mix tapes, compiled especially for me. Okay, they are mix CDs, but done up in that traditional way—a set amount of time, a theme, and the best of his collection, put in the perfect order.
His last mix for me consisted of his pared down list of the best duets, largely from the roots/country/indie part of his collection. As I listened to it, I started to think about the art of the mix tape. Tim has set this up both musically and as a mirror of our friendship and bimonthly beer-drenched music discussions.
The album starts off quietly, with the gentle voices of Annie Clark and Matt Berninger on St. Vincent and The National’s “Sleep All Summer,” and things progress in a slow and stilted way through Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan on “Come Walk With Me” and Mark Lanegan and P.J. Harvey’s “Come to Me” reflecting our usual ease into the conversation—how is work? what are you writing? how many classes are you teaching?—quick answers and move on to the next update. Finally, one of us gets into a longer story and the conversation picks up, and The Pogues’ “Haunted” and Nick Cave’s “Where the Wild Roses Grow” echo our growing ease as the conversation relaxes.
The next four songs, running through Feist/Ben Gibbard, Okkervil River, Belle and Sebastian, and Frank Black have a nice, mellow mood to them, the kind of songs you put on for a Sunday morning. They sound just like an old friend…matching the moment in our outings when we recognize how fun it is to hang out.
And then things really pick up. About the time we might be forgoing our ‘one beer, one hour’ rule set out at the beginning, dictated by busy schedules, other obligations, and maybe the vague fear that we wouldn’t have had enough to say to each other, we order another pint and settle in for the fun and familiar, heard in the songs “Static on the Radio” by Jim White, “Love Hurts” (a classic), and my favourite from their album, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’s “Please Read the Letter.” The lyrics in White’s song correspond with our efforts to challenge our ideas about music and make fun of each other wherever possible (mostly me who gets it): “Everything I think I know/Is just static on the radio”.
The rest of the album is mostly a party, oscillating between Marvin Gaye, Wilco, Stars, and Iggy Pop. It could have ended perfectly with “You and I” by Jeff Tweedy and Feist—what ideal lyrics to describe a friendship:
You and I
We might be strangers
However close we get sometimes
It’s like we never met
But you and I
I think we can take it
—except that Tim took it further and finished with the only song we have sung (and may ever sing) together, “You’re Still Standin’ There” by Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams.
Every time I listen to this mix, I wonder if the art of the mix tape is dying. Sure, we can create playlists and upload them to each other’s devices, but there’s something about the imperfect, physical time constraint of a tape or CD. A playlist can be endless, 500 songs if you want, but a CD will only hold so many tracks, so you have to keep sloughing off the unnecessary, those songs that are extraneous to your overall purpose.
But it’s not just about the time limitations, it’s about how you mix it. You can’t change moods without some warning or build up. You can’t insert too much variety, or the listener has nothing to grab onto. You can’t surprise your listener, but you must surprise your listener. You want familiar tracks, but you don’t want them to know everything or they could have compiled it themselves. We all know this from laboriously rearranging our own party mixes or workout playlists; tracks must progress in exactly the right fashion. Too much of a surprise or deviation and you’ve lost interest or momentum. I remember during my time as a radio DJ that I found something magical in perfecting the cross fade. What if a song started in the same key as the last one or the voices had a similar timbre, or the mood established by the first song in a set could be continued right through the fourth? All DJs, mashers, and playlisters aspire to those moments.
Tim captured the spirit of the mix tape in the disc he created for me. He went through his extensive music collection and got his list down to the best 19 duets. These duets not only match the mood and progression of our hangouts, but are made for my taste, which he knows well, and reflect what he loves too. A little bit of me, a lot of him, and a ton of good tunes. And it’s true that every time I listen to the album, I hear Tim.