Thursday, May 05, 2011

Tromsø, Kaptein

I feel like I have crossed some invisible--perhaps imaginary--threshold with my recent purchase of Robyn Hitchcock's new album, Tromsø, Kaptein. Rather than ordering the album on CD, I chose to buy the (lossless) FLAC download. For the first time, I skipped the physical release of a Robyn Hitchcock album. Of course I've bought digital albums in the past, but doing so for a major (for me) artist like Robyn Hitchcock feels somehow different.

It's a sensible choice, but it still somehow feels a little strange. But (with shipping) the CD would have cost me over $20 (there was no vinyl release of this album) and the FLAC download was $11. So purely from an economic standpoint, my decision makes sense.

The were other factors in play however. The last Hitchcock album I bought on vinyl, Goodnight Oslo, despite being well-mastered and virtually free of clicks and pops, was something of a disaster sonically. I pre-ordered it from Yep-Roc, and when I got the vinyl in the mail, I found side two was pressed well off-center, leading to audible warble. Yep Roc kindly mailed me a replacement copy, and I mailed the defective LP back to them. Unfortunately, my replacement copy had the exact same problem. I then bought another copy at my local record shop, and when it too featured an off-center side two, I gave up, and have mostly listened to the MP3 that came as a bonus with the vinyl.

It's hard not to think about the environmental impact of my old-fogeyism in this case. How much larger was the carbon footprint of my multiple vinyl purchases than if I had just settled for a download in the first place? There is the carbon emission associated with producing three slabs of vinyl, plus the emissions associated with shipping it back and forth. It's gotta add up, right? How many icebergs need to melt for me to continue feeding my vinyl habit when there are other options available?

After that experience, I passed on the vinyl edition of Robyn's next album, Propellor Time, and simply purchased the CD at my local record store. But I don't think I listened to the CD in the traditional sense once. Don't get me wrong, I've listened to the album numerous times, but that has either been on my laptop music server or on my iPod. The CD has done little more than gather dust in a drawer after being ripped (losslessly) to iTunes.

All of which left me questioning the wisdom of paying twice as much for a CD as for a FLAC download that is bit-for-bit identical to the data encoded on the CD. I had to convert the FLAC files to a format that iTunes recognizes in order for them to be useful to me, but that wasn't hard.

So now I have Robyn's new album with sound quality that is equal to the CD, and the carbon footprint of my purchase is much smaller than it would have been otherwise. Allow me to pat myself on the back in typical American self-congratulatory fashion for being a friend to the planet and a defender of the icecaps. I am the Greatest American Hero. I spit on the rest of you and your decadent, wasteful ways.

The downside is that I have no fucking clue who plays on the album. There are some enchanting female backing vocals as well as some lovely string bass, but I have no idea who is responsible. A Google search revealed all kinds of places to download the album illegally, but no details on who plays on it (Paul Noble produced, I can tell you that).

The album itself is fantastic. I would put Hitchcock's body of work from Spooked to the present up against any other period of his career. In fact, this may be the best stretch he's had overall, even if none of the albums quite match something like Underwater Moonlight. Highly recommended.


wardo said...

To what file format are you transferring the FLAC files for iTunes use? The main reason I haven't delved into FLAC is that I don't know the best way to play them.

I'm curious about this album, as I very much like Robyn solo acoustic. However, I'm not as enamored of the 21st century version of him as you are. I'll be revisiting those albums soon enough, so I'll see what sticks.

Pete Bilderback said...

Hi Wardo, I used a program called Amadeus Pro to batch process the files from FLAC to Apple Lossless. Took about a minute. I'm sure there are other programs that can easily do this as well. Audacity (which is free) can probably do it.

This isn't exactly a solo acoustic album, although it is largely in a spare acoustic style. But there are strings, backing vocals, etc. Parts of it remind me of the sound of his work with the Egyptians, except that a bowed bass largely replaces Andy's signature fretless playing.

Anonymous said...

Hi there. Great post, interesting reading. Yep Roc seem to struggle with vinyl - the soft boys reissues are a mess. However, the vinyl edition of propellor time is lovely. I have the UK edition which was done by Terry Edwards' Sartorial records though.

I'm still hoping for tromso kaptein on vinyl. The website of the Norwegian record label which has released it seems to suggest it exists. not seen a copy yet though....

Doug said...

I remember the first time I didn't buy an album from a favorite artist (such as Robyn) on a physical format and instead merely downloaded it. It definitely seemed like I'd started down a less noble path, but the ease was hard to deny.

I haven't gotten around to getting this new album from Mr. Hitchcock yet, but when I do it undoubtedly will be via download. I have made peace with my audiophilia having moved into a phase of convenience. (Although my turntable still works, I cannot recall the last time I put the needle on some vinyl on it. Don't judge me!)

This notion of downloading being more "eco-friendly" is something I wrote about in this post of mine (from nearly three years ago). Why iTunes hasn't turned this into an ad campaign is beyond me.

Pete Bilderback said...

Hi Doug,

I would not say that vinyl or CD is a more noble path than downloads, it's just what I'm used to.

As for downloads being more green than physical media, I have always assumed this is the case, but it is possible there is some "hidden" environmental cost to downloads that I haven't considered. I don't imagine all those massive data centers are without environmental impact. But even if the environmental costs of downloading are higher than I assume, they couldn't possibly compare to shipping 3 LPs back and forth across the country.

As for why Apple hasn't turned the green advantage into an ad campaign, I would expect there are a few reasons. For starters they haven't really needed to. People seemed happy enough to give up CDs as soon as downloading became a reality, Apple's task was to convince people to actually pay for downloads rather than getting them for free.

Second, while they have made some strides recently, Apple has never been known as a particularly green company, even within the computer industry. I imagine they wouldn't want to do anything to call attention to that fact.

But most importantly, since launching the iTunes store, Apple has had a delicate relationship with the music industry, and ads pushing iTunes downloads as a "green" alternative to physical media would not have been well received by traditional media companies. I think they would have been unnecessarily poking the industry in the eye, when they needed their cooperation.

These are all just guesses on my part though...

Pete Bilderback said...

Hi Anon,

Thanks for the tip on Propellor Time vinyl. I think the Sartorial pressing might be the only one there is. I'll keep my eyes open for vinyl on this one too.

I think I've bought vinyl from Yep-Roc for the last time though.

I've heard about problems with the recent Soft Boys vinyl reissues from Yep Roc, but haven't posted anything on it for lack of first hand knowledge. But yeah, I've heard they didn't turn out too well.

Anonymous said...

I pre ordered this from Robyn Hitchcock's website and just got the CD yesterday.

I think it's well worth paying $20 now and then for a CD, especially when you get the mp3s for immediate download, and especially in the case of an album of this quality.

While the mp3s will never attain the quality of a CD, they were certainly more than adequate to hold me over till the CD arrived.

I've collected just about everything Hitchcock has released, and a bunch of live material I've gotten off since 1984 when I first heard "my wife and my dead wife" on my college station.

TromsØ Kaptein stands among the very best he's ever done, and that's saying a lot, because you can dig into this Robyn Hitchcock era or that, and find lots of gems along the way.

On TromsØ, Hitchcock channels John Lennon like never before, and he's been channeling him for decades.

The songs, both the faster uptempo ones and the heart breakingly beautiful ballads (in the latter category, especially "the abyss"), all fit together as a whole, even if he misses the Norwegian sung "Godnatt Oslo" by several miles.

I don't think the instrumentation is "near acoustic" overall, and the cellist kicks some serious ass, adding great dimension and depth. Hitchcock has an affinity for Norway, and the moods of that magical country somehow permeate the record.

"TromsØ" fits beautifully with Propellor Time and Goodnight Oslo.

You'd be hard pressed to find many so called "indie" or "cult" musicians out there today creating music of this caliber.

Looking forward to hearing and seeing these songs live when Hitchcock returns to the U.S.

John Graham

Pete Bilderback said...

Hi John,

To be clear, I am in no way saying that the CD is not worth $20, it's just that upon examining the changes in my personal listening habits, it did not seem to be the right choice for me, which kind of surprised me.

I've been obsessively collecting Robyn Hitchcock and Soft Boys releases for many years. I own all the proper albums, plus dozens of singles, EPs, b-sides, compilations, etc. There is very little that Robyn has released that I do not own. But I guess I am starting to re-think what it means to "collect" music in general, and whether that needs to be tied to a physical object, and what the value of the object is relative to the music itself.

I think the most critical thing is that anyone who wants the album should get it in a way that Robyn is paid his proper royalties, be it on CD, FLAC or MP3.

Will Bueche said...

I just did the same, but I think my environmental impact was still a bit large because I also backed the album up to a TY cd-r. Just in case the hard drives crash.

I miss the artwork and liner notes. Although it is difficult to assume there is a standard this early in the revolution, I feel that it is unusual that neither high-resolution cover art nor liner notes in pdf format were included.

Larsen said...

I just bought the vinyl release the other day here in Norway. Released on Norwegian label Hype City it is possible that this release will be rare outside Norway.

Well worth the money I must say! The quality is great to my ears. The price for the vinyl release was 179 NOK (20 GBP/32,25 USD).

I like it very much! Robyn made this for Norwegian ears. Fits well with this project by the NRK:

spine said...

Gitar, tangenter, munnspill og vokal - RH
Bass, gitar, og vokal - Paul Noble
Cello - Jenny Adejayan
Trommer - Stephen Irvine
Kor - Jennifer Macro & Lucy Parnell

I agree that Robyn is on an incredible streak. To me, "Ole! Tarantula," "Propeller Time," and "Tromsø, Kaptein" are three of his best records, and "Spooked" and "Goodnight, Oslo" are only a hairsbreadth behind. I know he's doing a short U.K. tour recreating "Eye," and as much as I love that album and would love to hear what he's calling the Director's Cut, I really prefer to hear him take this album, and the band above, out on tour.

I assume this must be Robyn with Jenny Adejayan:

Pete Bilderback said...

Awesome, thanks for the info!