20 September 2011

On Vinyl

Lately, I've been spinning vinyl records.  Part of what instigated this was that I resumed being an active member of Lost Highway Records's Fancorps promotion team (an unpaid gig in which I share links to their stuff on Twitter, Facebook, etc. in exchange for free stuff).  I received the new Robert Earl Keen album, Ready for Confetti, the day it hit stores and I've also received the Lost Highway 10th anniversary edition clear vinyl release of Lucinda Williams's West, with the clear pressing of Shelby Lynne's Just a Little Lovin' on its way.  Free vinyl gets my attention, y'know?

I don't own much in the way of vinyl myself.  My wife inherited her stepdad's record collection and there are a few things in there that interest me (the original Star Wars soundtrack, for instance).  I have a list of my deceased uncle's records, and I'll be working to get hold of those so I can try to explore his library.  I also have quite a lot of 45s of my mom's.  I went through those in the last week and found some surprises.  I never expected, for instance, to find a George Jones single in my mom's library; she grew up the quintessential suburban girl who lived for malls and lighthearted bubblegum pop.  I've been meaning to ask her how she came to have that, but I keep forgetting to bring it up.

One nice thing about getting into vinyl is that it's pretty inexpensive so long as you're not a collector.  I have no need to track down the most obscure, valuable vinyl pressings.  I'm content to hear whatever I come across that interests me at a price I'm willing to pay.  Half Price Books is a treasure trove of cheap vinyl.  This past Sunday, shortly before hitting Barnes and Noble (where I bought Batgirl #1), we stopped into HPB and I turned up four albums for a combined $3.50.  Not bad!  I scored a pair of Kenny Rogers albums (Daytime Friends and Love or Something Like It), Randy Travis's third album, Old 8x10 and Waylon Jennings's Waylon, the Ramblin' Man.  Waylon was priced at $1.98; the other three were on clearance for 50 cents apiece.
Wanted! The Outlaws - Waylon, Willie, Jessi & Tompall on vinyl
Much has been made in recent years among audiophiles that vinyl sounds better than digital.  I'm not qualified to speak to that, but I can tell you that the kind of music I favor was meant to breathe, and vinyl lets it do that.  Technically-minded audiophiles describe this in terms of compression, and they're welcome to dissect how this all works but I'm content just to know that I can feel the difference.  For some music, it wouldn't be as appealing to me, I don't think; I have a hard time imagining, say, Lady Gaga's Born This Way benefiting from the vinyl experience the same way Waylon does.  (I'm also now a member of Gaga's Fancorps team, so if I ever get them to send me any of her stuff on vinyl, I'll be sure to test this!)

Aside from the sound, there's one more important thing about vinyl worth discussing.  I've always been attentive to the sequencing of an album, having grown up in the era of the cassette and also being a geek.  I've been listening to CDs for nearly 20 years now, though, and the sequencing in the recent era is different.  I had sort of forgotten about this until I got to spinning some of these vinyl albums and it became readily apparent that each side has its own personality.  On CD, it sounds like the album kind of loses its initial tone and focus, but on vinyl you get a clearer sense of why those specific songs were grouped together and sequenced the way they were.  CD sequencing calls for more homogeneity, as the album is presented as a singular body of work.  On vinyl, though, you're really getting a collection of sides (typically two sides, but sometimes more, as is the case with double-albums).

It's not mere nostalgia (or faux nostalgia) that makes this worth discussing.  Remember, producers were mindful of the fact they had two sides to fill with music and their sequencing reflects this consciousness.  The most obvious kinship I can think of right now is to the nature of film aspect ratios, where directors and their cinematographers deliberately decide what imagery will fill the screen, and if you see a cropped version of the movie, you're missing out on what they intended you to see.  It's a technical matter that has a subtle effect on the artistic content.

I have no desire to come off as yet another pretentious hipster snob who's too cool for CDs.  I still like CDs, mostly so I can import music for my iPod at a bit rate of my choosing, and also because I'm a tactile person who likes flipping through CD booklets.  But there is something to be said for the vinyl format that's unique to it, and right now I enjoy exploring it.