Tommy Birchett

Toneward

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AllMusic Review by

Tommy Birchett's double CD arrives snugly inside a cardboard box only a tad larger than a jewel case. Carrying on many of the traditions of the '80s cassette underground, this artist from Richmond, VA, has a handle on simplicity. Like a Japanese monk scratching patterns into a sand garden, Birchett brings his own collection of scratched-up records to one of the local temples, an underground radio station, and does a shift. This aspect of his life, tremendously revealing in how it impacts his own musical creations, is documented on the first of the discs, "Broadcastatic 25 Nov 03" as inscribed on the disc itself. The second disc, "Tonewand," is an adept series of manipulations of vinyl and tape performed with the concentration of a metal drill going through a steel plate. The alarmed listener's head will be the thing with the hole through it by the end of this 28 minutes, for sure.

These two titles are the only information Birchett provides about this set. But like the previously mentioned cassette folks, he has totally succeeded in flip-flopping the usual approach to music and information. Vinyl junkies know full well that these precious vessels of sound have a limited amount of audio space as opposed to a large amount of display area for text and images. Mysterious artistic messages go on the record, while all manner of explanation or non-explanation utilizing the printed word, photography, or whatever can take place on the album cover. Birchett is working in a medium where the most mysterious artistic message is the cover, while the expanded playing length of a CD-R, like a cassette, provides plenty of space to explain whatever needs to be explained.

This process allows the listener to figure things out by experiencing the recording rather than reading about it. It all begins mysteriously, as a sappy soul song unfolds, the context of a recording such as this naturally creating the anticipation of someone about to wreak havoc. Minutes later it becomes noticeable that the recording is scratched, although this is nothing like the mutilation that occurs on the second disc. Maybe, however, Birchett scratches the records on the second disc and then features them on his radio show on the first. At any rate, it is soon revealed that the host is indeed on the radio, doing his thing, which often consists of mixing together different sources.

He plays an extended portion of a record that consists of a discussion about alcoholism. In this case, the other material he plays in the background seems to be undermining the other material, the most obvious reaction to, as well as perception of, such hackneyed crap. At other times, material is combined in a manner gentle enough to inspire the aforementioned image of the sand garden. This critic was surprised to hear a portion of one of his own live musical performances, in this case a solo banjo Bach sonata in which the audience is less than engaged, their audible chatter originally included on the release as kind of a document of artistic frustration. Birchett further adds a drone that may involve manipulating the speed of a record. The calm way in which he announces that the audience has heard the record in 33, but might hear it again later at 45, is delightful.

The resulting flow is ambiguous, but then again, this is just a radio show. The final section seems to be more like a selection of tracks played without additional mix-ins, the highlight being an attack on the 2003 summer radio hit "Hot in Herre." This, along with all material by other artists, is given full credits in the disc jockey's announcement portions of the program. Questions arise in the moments before the second disc begins. Is this an official release? Or is Birchett simply sending his radio show out to the artists who were featured on it, including the gentle folk discussing alcoholism? The second disc can stand on its own and will be something to treasure for anyone who collects genres such as noise music or musique concrète. Combined with the sample radio show, this little box adds up to a big vista.