The Vocoder & Opinions on Blitzen Trapper and Sleigh Bells

Jim and Greg are joined by Dave Tompkins, author of How to Wreck a Nice Beach, a history of the vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop. Tompkins reveals the instrument’s secret military past and funk roots.

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Jim and Greg kick off the show by discussing the results of the biggest pop music contest in the world. No, not American Idol... Eurovision! That television broadcast drew more than 120 million viewers worldwide (compare with Idol’s 24 million) and remains the world’s most-watched non-sporting event. Germany is the big winner this year with its contestant 19-year-old Lena Meyer-Landrut.

The History of the Vocoder

Next Jim and Greg are joined by Dave Tompkins, author of How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop. The vocoder is an electronic instrument that produces a distorted, robotic sound. You probably recognize it making an appearance in songs like Trans Europe Express, or even I’m Not Moving, but you probably don’t know about its secret military history. It was developed as a tool to encode speech during wartime and was used by Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt–a far cry from Afrika Bambaattaa. As Tompkins explains, there’s something the human ear finds undeniably fascinating and pleasurable about machine-like voices. And, ultimately, the technology all stems from a desire to make cheaper phone calls.

Destroyer of the Void Blitzen Trapper

Destroyer of the Void (Bonus Track Version)

Blitzen Trapper kicks off the reviews this week. Their 5th and latest album is called Destroyer of the Void. Both Jim and Greg were big fans of the 2009 Sub Pop debut Furr. Greg continues to respect singer Eric Earley’s songwriting and fondness for traditional American folk sounds. But, he feels like the band is on repeat with this album. It’s too predictable and only gets a Try It rating from Greg. Jim can’t believe his ears. The moments of departure and growth that Greg loves are the worst parts of the record according to him. Blitzen Trapper is aping Queen, and it doesn’t work for Jim. It’s a disgrace and a Trash It.

Treats Sleigh Bells

Treats

Sleigh Bells has released its debut record, Treats. The duo of guitarist and beat maker Derek Miller and vocalist Alexis Krauss made noise at both CMJ and SXSW. But to Jim, a self-professed connoisseur of noise, this is too much. Every note is full of massive fuzz and distortion. Everything’s at 11, and it gets a Trash It from Jim. Greg wants us all to note the moment where Jim complained his rock and roll was too loud. It’s ear-bleed loud, yes, but it’s also a tremendous pop pick-me-up. Greg gives Sleigh Bells a Buy It.

Jim

It’s Jim’s turn to add a song he can’t live without to the Desert Island Jukebox this week. He honors iconic actor Dennis Hopper, who died last week at age 74. Hopper not only directed classic movies like Easy Rider, he chose their soundtracks. So for his track, Jim chooses The Ballad of Easy Rider. The version in the film features a solo performance by Roger McGuinn of The Byrds, but Jim prefers the version by the whole band.

Dear Listeners,

For more than 15 years, Sound Opinions was a production of WBEZ, Chicago's public radio station. Now that the show is independent, we're inviting you to join the band and lend a hand! We need your support more than ever because now we have to do all the behind-the-scenes work that WBEZ handled before (like buying insurance and paying for podcast hosting, ugh). Plus, we have some exciting ideas we'd like to try now that there's no one to tell us no!