According to iTunes, since last Tuesday, I have listened to The Mint Chicks‘ “Stolen Hill” 89 times. It’s probably more though. I listened to it while commuting a bunch, and rewound it to focus on specific bits while sitting at my desk. It’s kind of weird that I did that. Maybe kind of obsessive, sure, but I was researching.
If you’re not familiar, The Mint Chicks are a now defunct New Zealand band that morphed into some other bands, most notably Unknown Mortal Orchestra. They put out a lot of great releases. All of them are, pretty much. Released some of them on Flying Nun and did the whole New Zealand rock thing. The version I have of “Stolen Hill” is especially weird. First of all, it’s a live recording from the 2006 Silver Scroll Awards, a New Zealand music awards show. Second, it’s actually a cover. The original is by Anika Moa, a contemporary Christchurch singer-songwriter. It’s languid, contemplative and tinged with a sort of rich, uneasy darkness—PJ Harvey style, but less angry.
The Mint Chicks cover is muffled and distant. It’s overly bassy, and it takes a few listens to figure out what they’re even singing about (hint: it’s a love song). This is to be expected, because it feels like one of those weird live tracks that we all used to come across on Napster back in the day. Something for completists who realized they were completists when they figured out they could get everything ever for the price of nothing at all.
So why do I keep coming back to it? It’s plainly a shitty recording, but the melody is there, and it sticks with me. Not too long ago, Andrew Nosnitsky wrote a column for Pitchfork about the shifting landscape of recording quality in rap. How so many artists in rap’s new underground are creating these hissy, low-fidelity recordings that are so urgent and full of love and a desire to just make shit that the recording quality, or lack thereof, actually becomes another element of the song. Nosnitsky stuck to rap, but the idea crosses over into most other popular genres as well.
What’s always been weird, though, is this concept that a cleaner sound somehow means a better sound. That you’ve “made it” when your guitars are crisp, or your vocals are audible. It seems kind of ridiculous to actually write down—especially in a column that regularly applauds difficult records—but it’s an assumption that people are making. The reason “Stolen Hill” works as a good song in its own right, aural faults and all, is because it deliberately draws on nostalgia for live shows, or the experience of half-hearing songs that sound like they might be good coming from a car, through a wall. Messing with the fidelity of your music is a way of experimenting, a way of taking sounds that might typically be thought of as “bad,” and finding something to love in them.