Various Artists - Polyvinyl 4-Track Singles Series (Cover Artwork)

Various Artists

Polyvinyl 4-Track Singles Series (2014)


In the digital music age, labels are getting more and more creative about their collector's edition offerings. Limited vinyl colors, special artwork, and exclusive recordings do their best to tempt the lucky turntable owner back to physical media. Subscription services have been my jam recently and 2014 saw Polyvinyl release a series that piqued my collector and production value interests. The concept was simple: ship a lo-fi 4-track recorder to 12 different musicians and let each one throw down two songs. 500 subscriptions were sold, many before the bands were even announced. The series musicians for 2014 were a lineup as varied as the Polyvinyl catalog: Mynabirds, Porcelain Raft, John Vanderslice, Hospitality, Into It. Over It., Josh Hodges, Efterklang, Diane Coffee, Mikal Cronin, Cloud Nothings, Matt Pryor, and Thao & The Get Down Stay Down.

A couple bands were clearly masters of the 4-track, while most captured less polished recordings, perhaps purposefully. There's a character to this series that is often hard to find in the modern days of ProTools and auto tune. The 4-track was used to capture acoustic singer-songwriters, nearly-orchestral pop, minimalized experimentation, and loud rock songs. Throughout the series, you're surprised and amazed at what can be produced by talented musicians with only four recording tracks to work with. It's a great collection of songs and for your sake, I hope they release a compilation or you have five seconds to use your favorite search engine to listen to some illegal copies online.

I was probably looking forward to getting the Efterklang 7-inch in the mail the most. I am basically familiar with their crazy Danish experimental music, having dabbled in post-rock for a while, but I couldn't wait to see what their insane musicianship would produce on the 4-track. Their two songs are not a let down. "Kids" is a bass-driven deconstruction of a song that wanders around the concept of melody and the stereo panning of the recording in the last minute of synth, as it fades to tape hiss, is a wonderful use of the power of the 4-track. The b-side, "Open Ends" is more orchestral, and creeps out of a foggy morning to a strobe of sequences and synths, undoubtedly inspired by The Who, but taken to the middle of the Baltic Sea and just allowed to freak out a bit, fracturing and falling all over itself into atmospheric chaos. Really interesting stuff if you're into interesting stuff.

Being a long time fan of the first two Get Up Kids records, the Matt Pryor single was also of interest. The guitar melody of "I Brought You Flowers" could be from one of those early records. A repeated, clean sound that could be a slight reprise of songs like "Better Half" or "Lowercase West Thomas" from Four Minute Mile. However, Pryor's vocals on this recording are not as strained as they were back in the day, and the song ends up more like a New Amsterdams song than a Get Up Kids song. The b-side "Safety Escapes Me" combines big electric guitar chords with some banjo strumming and sounds way more 4-track and experimental than the other side. The banjo is deep in the mix and Pryor's vocals are EQ'ed far differently than you're used to hearing from him. The song is definitely interesting and builds in a crescendo to a refrain of the title where Pryor harmonizes with himself until the banjo and guitar come together for one final strum and the buzz of the 4-track fades.

The highlight of this series for me, however, is Into It. Over It. Evan Weiss is part of many of my favorite projects over the past couple years, and the first song on the single is right up there with some of the best. Feedback and 4-track are a match made in heavenly garages all over this country and Weiss & Crew provide in spades on "Arsenic". It's two minutes of uptempo distortion, broken into two verses and a tense bridge of drawn out overdrive, like someone stretched the tape of the 4-track between two fists just trying to recreate the clenched-teeth growl of the verses on either side. It's a stellar song. The b-side is... the opposite. A heavy tremolo guitar and what sounds like a child's xylophone back up a comparatively subdued Weiss as the band do their best Death Cab for Cutie impression. My favorite part of this song is that they didn't crop the intro and outro "silences" and you can hear some pre-recording band chat as well as the click and buzz of the 4-track. It's decent, but a bit of a let down after "Arsenic".

The 4-track really becomes an instrument on all of these songs with its hissing and buzzing. It makes these recordings special in a way that no digital effect can manage to for me. I've already subscribed to the 2015 series, despite a less enticing list of musicians (Telekinesis is the highlight for me, and the Jesse LeDoux art). Though the $120 price tag seems steep, they've doubled the number of subscriptions so you could have a chance to consider doing the same. Do it.