Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Commentary on Audio Fidelity in the Form of a Coldplay Review


Above: Coldplay's newest record.

I am a Coldplay fan. I am unashamed to admit it. I consider my "guilty pleasures" to simply be "pleasures," and Coldplay has been one of those pleasures for many years, dating back to early high school.

And whether you are a fan or not, it'd be hard for you to get through the months preceding a Coldplay record release without hearing about it. Mainstream media covers it, YouTube offers sneak peeks, posters go up, and eventually an epic Mac ad comes out featuring those doe-eyed british songsters.

This burst of market exposure, Coldplay-related or otherwise, is certainly a product of our times. Widely available media translates directly to widely available marketing planks. It also translates to widely available digital bootlegs and pre-release streamed copies of records. But another unfortunate side effect of the explosion of exposure space is the diminished fidelity of any audio this exposure brings us.

Let me illustrate this general principal with the specific case of Coldplay's newest record. The record was made available as a stream a few weeks before release, so many people got their first taste of the new material from a low-quality streaming music player on Coldplay's website. I personally got my first taste this way. Which is too bad.

After getting my CD copy of the record and taking some time to climb inside it and explore the space it creates, I found that Coldplay's songwriting abilities have not improved drastically since their inception. I found, instead, that this new record (entitled "Viva La Vida or Death and All of His Friends") was a sonicly complex and invigorating album.

From the opener, called "Life in Technicolor," the blippy synthesizer serves as a sort of beacon in the middle of a cavern of other sounds, the waves of other synthesizers crashing all around as the dulcimer-sounding rythmes and acoustic guitar push the song wider and wider.

The opening instrumental song is a macrocosm for the rest of the record as well. Every track finds a way to carve an interesting sonic territory and then proceeds to push to the edges of that territory. The Brian Eno production is no doubt to blame for most of this, but the band manages to provide some fascinating sounds and texture for Eno to work with. The songs are essentially as well-written as anything on "A Rush of Blood to the Head" and certainly better than almost all of "X&Y," but the febric of these songs is something new for Coldplay; the band is using the bricks of its arena-rock and adult contemporary image to build something more intricate, more expansive.

Now flash back to my first taste of the record. I was sitting in front of my computer, Coldplay.com widget loaded and mouse on the play button. The suspense was killing me. Then came my first audio taste of "Life in Technicolor."

What a dissapointment. Through that compressed audio stream, "Life in Technicolor" sounded like a muddled "X&Y" outtake. It flitted by, leaving little to no impression. And the rest of the album delivered nothing spectacular, with the wide expanse of "Lost!" sounding more like a drone and the punch of "Violet Hill" sounding like a listless, empty pop song.

Imagine my surprise when I finally got my hands on the full quality CD. The album came alive, expanding in size and scope. The songs were still a little bit of a dissapointment, but the sound and the structure revealed the sonic spelunking expedition the record actually was.

I'm not going to claim that my experience is typical of the average Coldplay listener. On the contrary, most people probably don't care what level of fidelity their music comes in, they just want the music. Good on those people. I just hope that this trend of low-quality YouTube videos and crappy record streams doesn't change the sound of my music any more than it already has.

NOTE: I had the same experience with Sigur Ros's new record, which I now believe is one of their finest. If anyone has had similar experiences, I would love to hear them.

No comments:

Post a Comment