In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. This week, in commemoration of Neil Young’s new and novel record, we’ve selected our favorite lo-fi cuts.
They Might Be Giants’ “I Can Hear You” is reputedly the only wax-cylinder recording to ever appear on a studio album, for reasons made apparent throughout the song’s just-shy-of-2-minute running time. A wavering hiss persists throughout, John Flansburgh’s vocals are distorted at regular intervals, and the acoustic instrumentation is rendered into monochromatic mush. As with any worthwhile lo-fi recording, however, the songwriting overrides the sonic flaws: There’s a lullaby-like quality to the melody, the type of elementary-yet-instantly familiar tune Flansburgh and bandmate John Linnell cranked out for years as part of their Dial-A-Song phone service. Like the Thomas Edison-technology of “I Can Hear You,” the answering machine-based Dial-A-Song—known throughout the land by its “Always Busy, Often Broken” tagline—proved that solid musicianship transcends all crackly mediums.
The sound of the human voice and the many electronic means of warping it gives “I Can Hear You” an added dose of wiseass. It’s a song based in communication breakdown, rendered in jokey terms recognizable from ear-straining drive-thru transactions and intercom conversations. In other verses, the lyrics are hysterically specific: a reference to the talking auto-security system Viper, or one side of an in-flight phone call. (“Guess where I am / I’m calling from the plane / I’ll call you when I get there”) The sardonic subtext of the song—underlined by its melancholy arrangement—is that the innovations brought forth by Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and others made it easier for people to talk to one another, but current technology is still a long way off from fully achieving that goal. Fortunately, that’s a sentiment that comes across loud and clear even on the most outdated of technologies.