Nine times out of 10, if I heard a group of people were going around recording musicians’ performances live to 78 using a vintage direct-to-disc recorder, I’d roll my eyes and silently hope they choked on their mustache wax, but reading about The 78 Project gave me pause, because the folks behind it managed to rope in a lot of incredible talent — Richard Thompson, Loudon Wainwright III, Rosanne Cash, and Marshall Crenshaw appear, and that’s just on Side One. Toss in a song from the mighty Joe Henry (with Lisa Hannigan), and The 78 Project had my money months ago.
The idea, as alluded to in the above paragraph, is annoyingly cute: Lug around a Presto recorder and a stack of lacquer disks to capture unvarnished live performances that — given the equipment and recording constraints — sound like they might have been recorded by Alan Lomax. It’s the kind of thing that forces you to ask yourself whether you’re listening to raw honesty or affectation.
That’s a thorny question, but still a compelling one, so I’ll bite. It’s true that a lot of The 78 Project sounds like it’s been dug out of a dirty old box in someone’s root cellar, and given that it would have been a hell of a lot easier for producers Alex Steyermark and Lavinia Jones Wright to do the whole thing with pocket-sized digital recorders and mid-level USB mics, it’s tempting to dismiss the entire enterprise as a cheesy, unnecessary throwback.
Tempting, that is, until you play it. I can’t pretend to understand the reasons for intentionally making The 78 Project sound like shit, but I can guarantee that these performances wouldn’t hold as much weight if they’d been recorded with state-of-the-art equipment. The artists involved are all incredibly talented and the songs are all wonderful (with the exception of Leah Siegel’s “A Little Love, a Little Kiss,” they’re all traditional numbers), but as the great democratization of the digital revolution has taught us, anyone can make a sound — in fact, most people can make a perfect sound. It’s no big deal.
What I take from these recordings is a sweet reminder that sound used to be ephemeral — that music was once a miracle a person needed to be present for, instead of a commodity to be carried around and consumed at leisure. No two performances were alike, and they were all bound up in their surroundings, products of their environment. And so it is with The 78 Project: whatever these tracks lose in terms of fidelity, they more than make up in immediacy. As you strain to hear the notes, you’re caught up in the moment.
And moments are what these songs feel like — partly because you hear all kinds of background noise bleeding in, and partly because there’s something about that fuzzy, ghostly aura that makes a listener lean in to hear more.
Does the method behind The 78 Project — which is, indeed, an ongoing project, which you can delve into here — amount to affectation? Perhaps. But if it does, it’s affectation with a purpose. There’s certainly no shortage of various-artists live compilations on the market, and anyone who lives in a halfway decent FM market has heard more in-studio performances than they can count. But those always feel like candid snapshots — technically fine, maybe even superlative, but rarely endowed with lasting beauty. The 78 Project is staged, but staged in a genuine way, and one that serves as an achingly lovely rebuttal to the endless quest for perfect fidelity that’s left us with a generation’s worth of recordings that, for all their production trappings, have all the sonic flavor of tofu.
Put another way: Sound isn’t supposed to be perfect, and the easier it gets to sculpt each note and quantize each beat, the number our ears become, and the further our souls drift from the power of song. Music isn’t supposed to beg for us to love it; it’s supposed to dance away, just out of reach, and make us want it before it gives in. It leaves us with a memory, and as The 78 Project so eloquently proves, that memory is so much more than enough.
The 78 Project Track Listing:
1. The Coo Coo Bird — Richard Thompson
Recorded at the Roger Smith Hotel in NYC on February 15, 2012
2. Old Paint — Loudon Wainwright III
Recorded at Brooklyn Rod & Gun on April 2, 2012
3. Glory, Glory — The Wandering
Luther Dickinson, ShardÁ© Thomas, Shannon McNally, Amy LaVere, Valerie June
Recorded behind Joe’s Pub in NYC on May 18, 2012
4. The Wayfaring Stranger — Rosanne Cash with John Leventhal
Recorded in Chelsea, NYC, on April 26, 2012
5. More Pretty Girls Than One — Marshall Crenshaw
Recorded onstage at City Winery in NYC on May 20, 2012
6. Wildwood Flower — Valerie June
Recorded at Pete’s Candy Store in Brooklyn on February 13, 2012
7. A Little Love, A Little Kiss — Leah Siegel
Recorded at the Windmill Factory in Brooklyn on April 23, 2012
8. How Can I Keep From Singing — Adam Arcuragi
Recorded in Harlem on April 30, 2012
9. Omie Wise — Reverend John DeLore & Kara Suzanne
Recorded at the High Horse Saloon in Brooklyn on September 2, 2011
10. Railroad Boy (Died of Love) — Amy LaVere
Amy LaVere, David Cousar, Shawn Zorn, Krista Wroten
Recorded on 141st St. in Harlem on December 3, 2011
11. Red River Valley — Joe Henry & Lisa Hannigan
Recorded in SoHo, NYC on June 15, 2012
12. Banks of the Ohio — Vandaveer
Mark Charles Heidinger, Rose Guerin, J. Tom Hnatow
Recorded at Ye Olde Carlton Arms Hotel in NYC on December 16, 2011
13. The Brown Girl — Dawn Landes
Recorded at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden on September 1, 2011