here's another "lost" article from the ill-fated music magazine.
Not enough people listen to records. Your parents have their records and turntable sitting in the basement, or the attic, collecting dust. Make mommy and daddy fish it out and set it up! “Oldies” and music from decades past is still good, whether your parents were hippie Deadheads or cultured Gilbert & Sullivan connoisseurs.
And besides their old records, you can get your favorite music on vinyl, too. I was in a record store last week, and I found the new Bright Eyes release, the latest Yo La Tengo album, all things Belle & Sebastian, Jack Johnson, “More Adventurous” by Rilo Kiley, the Raconteurs, De La Soul, Dilated Peoples, the soundtrack to “Idlewild,” and Ben Folds, among countless others. And you can find used old records that mom and dad neglected to buy. Use local shops, like Scotti’s, which I <3, or huge out-of-town stores like the Princeton Record Exchange over in (surprise!) Princeton. Or even use eBay, plenty people and stores sell through auctions and eBay stores. I got the Shins, Reel Big Fish, and DJ Shadow from eBay. Just search for whatever you like.
I first started listening to vinyl because I thought it would be fun. I wanted to listen to the Beatles as people did when Sgt Peppers was new. I wanted to look at the White Album’s liner notes and headshots of the Fab Four. I wanted to see what a 45 single looked like, and why you need that yellow plastic insert. James Taylor, Stevie Wonder, and Elton John looked bigger on their album covers than on a CD. Then I realized my mom was missing records, so I found “Tommy” and “The Magical Mystery Tour” and Joni Mitchell. Then I noticed that record labels, from less-than-mainstream ones like Saddle Creek and Sub-Pop, all the way to big names like Capitol, were releasing new albums on vinyl, so there was obviously a market for it. I got some of my favorites—The Toasters, The Decemberists, Sufjan Stevens, Jurassic 5—on vinyl, even some records I already had on CD or mp3.
Lo and behold, all those CDs you already have sound noticeably different on vinyl. Acoustic music has a darker, more balanced sound that seems richer and makes digital music sound almost tinny. Right now, as I write this, Jenny Lewis is singing through the vibrations of a needle rather than a laser reading or a computer processing it, and the fullness of the sound is remarkable. It’s less treble and more everything. When Nicholas Cage’s character in “The Rock” announces that he got a Beatles record rather than a CD because “these sound better,” he is not exaggerating. Sometimes you even notice new things on the track with subsequent listenings. If you’re really lucky, the vinyl release has perks that aren’t included on the CD version. The Specials self-titled album has the song “Gangsters” on the original record, but not on the CD. “Songs for Silverman” by Ben Folds, for example, has his marvelous Dr. Dre cover “Bitches Ain’t Shit” on the record but not on the CD.
And that brings us to terminology. An “album” is a collection of songs. A “record”, an “LP”, or a “33” all means that it’s a record you are talking about. It’s specific to the medium: it’s a record, it’s vinyl, it’s played on a turntable at 33-and-1/3 rpm. A “CD” is a compact disc, that sliver-and-rainbow colored thing that you throw into your computer or discman. It’s all specific to what it is, and it is not interchangeable.
Spinning records is so much more personal than pressing “play” on a Walkman. You get to take the record out, careful not to damage it, and place it on the slip mat. Then adjust the rpm and sound qualities on the turntable or receiver, then move the needle to the groove. If something isn’t right, get up and fix it. You get to find the right groove, or just sit back and let the record spin, untouched. Sometimes you wind up feeling a special affinity towards the items you only have on vinyl. They’re special tracks, that you only occasionally listen to, when you pick it up and take it out of it’s jacket. Elliott Smith, the Decemberists, Arctic Monkeys—all are artists that have releases I only purchased on vinyl, and consequently I don’t listen to them all the time, on my computer or iPod or in my car. They become a little more special, a little less memorized, and I get bored less fast. I want to share them with people; I want to make people come over and listen to Colin Meloy go crazy in his three-movement piece “The Island.”
The album art and liner notes become so different for a record. Joni Mitchell’s “Ladies of the Canyon” has an album cover originally painted by herself. The cover used to be a work of art, not some dumb picture of the band or some graphic a computer spit out. Granted, some artists are able to pull of intriguing art. “10,000 Days” by Tool has intense 3-D pictures, and System of a Down’s two-part release had almost-terrifying artistic pieces that fit when you bought both CDs, but the latter appears to me to be a case of a band member finding a gig for his artist brother.
The liner notes are so interesting for records. Like I said, the White Album has fun notes, put on one huge sheet of paper. The back side is all the lyrics, and the front is doodles by Lennon and photos from them rehearsing, touring, or their trip in India. Also included are four headshots, one of each band member, and each of them fairly large and able to be hung up. A friend of mine has her mother’s copies of them hanging up in her basement. On “Michigan” by Sufjan Stevens, who is also an accomplished essayist, wrote a poetic and flowery piece about his home state and how dismal Detroit is and he put it on the back of the jacket, where it surely would not have fit had it been a CD. The photos that accompany “Songs for Silverman” are so much brighter, bigger, and more detailed in the LP version. The comic book contained in “The Magical Mystery Tour” is eccentric and beautify, and much of its aesthetics is bound to be lost when it’s scaled down for the tiny CD booklet.
The art of deciding the layout and track list for an album is going away, too. The beginning of a side needs to be strong and auspicious, yet the end of it should be almost calming and provide closure. “Oh, Inverted World” by the Shins accomplishes this on the vinyl release. The two strongest tracks, “Caring is Creepy” and “New Slang” start side A and B, respectively, and the last song on each side is great to wrap things up. This affect is lost in translation onto a CD because there are no sides, so there is no time or silence when you would be switching the disc. You only hear the opener and closer, and you miss the middle two.
Vinyl is vital to hip-hop, too. DJs use records to sample beats for their MCs. Kid Koala, DJ Shadow, Danger Mouse, Rjd2, DJ Nu-Mark of Jurassic 5, DJ Babu from Dilated Peoples, and Cut Chemist from Jurassic 5 and Ozomatli; all of them and so many others need records to make their tracks. The scratching, the sampling, the loops, and everything else a real DJ does is from the vinyl. Spinning a turntable in that fashion is an art that is being lost when people manufacture eight-tracks with iPod docks. Even the rappers themselves pay homage to vinyl in their lyrics. “Needle in the groove, hands in the air moving!” Chali 2na exclaims. In “Let Me Clear my Throat” the MC lovingly refers to his producer as his “maestro”. Even Vanilla Ice was appreciative: “Check out the hook while my DJ revolves it.” Records are so important in hip-hop that it and indie are the two big vinyl-producing genres. Hip-hop needs to make records even for the mainstream hits because they want to encourage samples, mash-ups, and remixes.
Mp3’s and iTunes and CDs are fine, but vinyl is simply superior, even if it is becoming forgotten. Some people consider records to be for hipsters and music snobs. Let them think that if they can’t be convinced; more for us. But the fact remains that the darker sound is how music should be played, and the facets of an album besides the music are still important and inextricable. Dust off the dust cover of your turntable, find some 33s new and old, and spin that disc.DecemberistsBright EyesBelle and SebastianJack JohnsonThe BeatlesJoni MitchellJurassic 5Cut ChemistDJ ShadowKid KoalaBen FoldsSufjan StevensThe Toasters