Friday, December 4, 2015

DVD Review: The Great American Cassette Masters (Talk Story Films)

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Do you think you know a lot about cassettes?   Do you love cassettes?   Do you think you own a lot of cassettes?   Well, if you're not in this film then odds are good that you have no idea.    Cassettes were literally born around the same time as me, so I've been exposed to them my entire life.   I like anything and everything that has to do with cassettes and the cassette culture.   Put a picture of a cassette on a t-shirt and I'll probably buy it.   Find a pack of adhesive tape with cassettes on the packaging and you know I'm all over it.    But after watching "The Great American Cassette Masters" I realize that despite all of my knowledge and ties to cassettes I am as of yet still no master.   (Seriously, someone says he has five thousand cassettes.   I thought, "That's not that many", until he added something to the effect of "of my own recordings".   Wow, just wow)

What this film covers is everything from how certain artists got inspired to get into music to why they continue to use cassettes as a form of conveying their music to others.     I recognize most of the people in here, but yet, somehow I still find myself (for whatever reason) relating myself most strongly with Hal McGee.   I'm not saying I disagree with other people involved or think any less of them, but it just felt like things said by Hal McGee hit closest to home for me.    One of the things as an example is that he says how much he likes to receive physical mail.   I'm not sure if everyone else feels this way, but I've become quite a fan of ordering online simply because receiving mail is fun.   When I was a kid (And we're talking really young) I actually wanted to be a mailman [Editor's Note: They are called "letter carriers" now] and to that extent I've always had this fondness for mail.    From living at home with my parents and sisters to living with my wife wherever we've lived, I've always been the one to get the mail because it can be like Christmas morning in a lot of ways.

Most of the people talking in this film sit in front of walls of cassettes or within circles of musical instruments and it makes sense to me because I watched a documentary once about VHS tapes and they did the same thing so it only seems appropriate.    In many ways, we're getting this look into the cassette collections of some of the world's top cassette collectors.    That alone was worth watching this (and going back and watching it again) for me because it's like Mtv's Cribs: Cassette Collectors edition.    One of the people in here mentions working in a grocery store and so a lot of the ways the cassettes are stored and displayed are by taking items from the grocery store.   I've actually never really thought about that before (Aside from wanting to take milk crates from a grocery store for my records instead of spending $3 to buy a clean one) and so now I am going to possibly explore that a little bit more.

Everyone in this film is a character.   You're going to watch this and fall in love with these characters but the fact that they are real and I could travel across the country and meet them one day makes them that much better.     The primary focus is the experimental, outside artist which can be thought of as "noise" on some level but it never really gets into too harsh of noise (or else I think some others would have been included) and it doesn't really get into the other genres still being released on cassette, from hip hop to good old fashioned rock n roll.     Surprisingly, Debbie Jaffe is the only woman featured in this film which I think goes to say a lot about how many women have been doing this for such a long time and how it does feel like more of something men did at first, though now you can maybe find almost as many women as men.    Also, I find it funny that everyone is wearing these sort of outrageous outfits except for one clip where they show Mike Shiflet in a nice collar shirt with a solid sweater over it.  

Somewhere between punk rock and Dr. Demento seems to be where this style of music started and the point everyone seems to make about cassettes that I've been saying all along (Because people laugh at me or don't believe me when I say I like cassettes the best) and that is simply how cassettes were the first and still really one of the only forms of media where you can record directly to them, play them back and do that all for money that isn't beyond the reach of the common person.    You still can't really record vocals or an instrument directly onto a CD the same way that you can with a cassette and records never had that either, so yeah, cassettes are my favorite not just because of that but because I was born after vinyl and before the compact disc.

Within everyone talking about cassettes and music there comes footage of live performances by most of these artists.    If you've ever read a review on Raised by Gypsies about this type of cassette music you will know that aside from your standard instruments I really don't know a lot of what goes into it.    If someone is banging a ballpoint hammer into a shovel I'm not sure and I don't really want to know about it because I want to be able to interpret the sound- in my review- how I hear it.    That knowledge of how the sound is being created is like peeking behind the curtain and that's just something that at this point in my life I don't want to do-- I want some of the magic in music to remain.    So luckily for me (and as fair warning to you) the live performance clips don't give away too much and I can still rest easy at night knowing that I will be left with the same amount of confusion and wonderment on the next cassette that I listen to tomorrow.

"The Great American Cassette Masters" might not be a cassette and I'm actually kind of glad it wasn't released on VHS, but it is perhaps the essential item a cassette collector would need to own and be familiar with outside of a cassette and tape deck.    I don't know whether or not there is a definitive book written about cassette culture, but if there is I would like to read it and if not I would like to write it.    Additionally I feel like anyone who says they want to either release a cassette of their own music or release cassettes of music for other people (artists/labels) needs to buy this DVD and watch it before doing so if only because you can be really creative with your packaging and just overall presentation when sending someone a cassette.    Seeing some of the items in this movie makes me feel like a lot of people who have sent me cassettes need to up their game.     And while I think this is one of those everyone-who-loves-cassettes-must-own-this type of DVDs, obviously, I think people who maybe don't understand the interest in the cassette should watch it as well.    People who love cassettes will learn from this but those who don't quite understand cassettes will learn so much more.    Even if it's not to the point where you are won over by cassettes, you will at least learn to respect them.

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