More Trips to the Record Store

Part 1.

One of the first rules of writing is knowing your audience. I think this rule was established before the internet existed, because in 2018 when I publish a blog post, my audience is Google’s search algorithms. It’s dirty knowledge that I wish wasn’t true, and it keeps me from publishing posts more often.

If someone like myself (someone without oodles of readers) wants what they’re writing to be found, we have to game the machine – this far in, I should have already mentioned: Wimbledon, Demi Lovato, Hailey Baldwin, and Mamma Mia 2, because that’s what people searched for last week. But I tuned out of Wimbledon after Federer lost, I haven’t even seen Mamma Mia 1, and who is Hailey Baldwin?

I kind of know my audience, if my audience is the algorithms, but I don’t like my audience. Not liking your audience can make a person not want to write.

Now – if by some miracle I can burrow through the noise of Japan’s Ninja shortage, Michael Cohen, and Ving Rames, and actually reach an audience of people who want to know what I’ve found at the record store lately – well then, I suppose I could write a blog post.

I’ve been listening to vinyl records lately. I don’t know whether or not they “sound better.” That isn’t why I’ve been listening to them, anyway. HowStuffWorks did a podcast about the science of audio recording and it went over my head fifteen minutes in. I’m not trying to persuade anyone either way – to my ears, vinyl sounds at least as good as other types of audio media, and it has the added bonus of being something that I have to engage in. It isn’t never-ending background noise. I have to get up and flip the record if I want to keep listening. Participatory!

When I put on a Spotify playlist (don’t get me wrong – I do love Spotify) I’m just handing my ears over to the algorithms. We’ve already discussed how I feel about the algorithms lately.

I got started with vinyl a few years ago when my girlfriend (now wife) and I went on a date (one of our first dates!) to a record store – something I had been in the habit of doing because I was buying used CD’s – and we played a game in which she would pick something for me, and I would pick something for her, and we would then decide (on that second or third date) whether or not we should go on and get married someday.

What happened was she picked something good for me (Regina Spektor) and I picked something good for her (Washed Out) and we ended up getting married (with maybe a bunch of stuff happening between the record-picking and the wedding.) A few months after that date it was Christmas and she surprised me with a turntable and a copy of the record that was playing in the store that day (Randy Weston’s African Rhythms.)   

Randy Weston record on the Crossley player

If our date had been, say, to sit in front of a laptop together in a coffee shop and choose songs to listen to on Spotify, what would she have gotten me for Christmas that year? A latte? A framed scrawl of the coffee shop’s WiFi password? Would we even be married? There’s something special about having physical objects. Sentimentality is a real thing.

Inspired by the record player gifted to me, I endeavored to rescue the milk crates of LP’s collecting dust in my Dad’s garage. I have no recollection of the last time I saw him take one out and listen to it – probably sometime before 1988 – so I had to assume he was keeping them around for some other reason, such as bequeathing them to me for a second life. At first, that second life was limited to me framing the ones with the covers I liked most and hanging them on a wall – Elite Hotel, It’s Only Rock & Roll, Weather Report & Manassas made a nice visual quartet. Eventually, I got around to listening to them, too.

It’s easier to learn history by experiencing some artifact of it. Walking around the ruins of Pompeii is more evocative than trying to imagine lava oozing through a city by reading a text about it. History can imbue the present with meaning and direction, too. The U.S. Government still (theoretically) operates by the order of a 200-year-old fountain-penned scroll. So there’s no reason to avoid an object simply because of its history.

A record doesn’t deserve to be ignored simply because it isn’t as new as some other thing. There’s something to learn from it. Hearing the texture, and imagining the time when it was first played – it gives color to that time and place in the imagination – “so this is what 1975 sounded like.”

Two recent events took my record-listening to a new level, one precipitating the other. 1. A record store opened in my neighborhood, and 2., I got a new record player. I love supporting little businesses that hang a shingle out on my street. I love them more when they play great music, let me bring the dog in, and introduce me to things I wouldn’t find anywhere else.

I started buying more records, and realized the Crossley suitcase-style player I had – a perfect gateway to the world of vinyl – wasn’t capable of handling the workload I was giving it. Heavier records were skipping and jumping straight out of the shrink wrap, and I had to constantly adjust the way it sat on the console because of the awkward hinge design. So I found a beautiful Audio-Technica player that matches our decor and sounds great, paired with small Onkyo bookshelf speakers.

Part 2.

I’ve had a few months now of going deeper on some great records. Here’s what I’ve been spinning:

Tunng.

“Turbines” was one of the first records I bought after getting the Crossley. The groovy vibe evoked what I imagined records sounded like back in the day – a touch of Paul Simon, a dash of Mamas and Papas, informed by 40 more years of rock music. The vocals include easy male/female duets, almost whispered in a harmony over upbeat soft acoustics, with rambling 70’s keyboards pulsing between the bars.

Charlie Brown Christmas.

My first colored vinyl – doesn’t that Tannenbaum green look nice! I played it to death last holiday season, evoking records spinning on the Christmases of my childhood.

Anything from the 25c bin.

It’s harmless to dig through a bargain crate and decide to take a risk on something. In the 25 cent bin, there’s hits and misses. I’ve found both: The 101 Strings Orchestra “Movie Hits,” featuring the theme from The Godfather (hit), Arthur Lyman’s “Legend of Pele,” a wild Hawaiian volcano folktale interpreted by Bossanova jazz (miss.) “Charanga Chicago” is a 1977 LP that I would never have heard on Spotify or anywhere else – Charanga is a kind of Cuban jazz, influenced by classical European music, and this particular record has delightful covers of Stevie Wonder and Burt Bacharach.

Quiet Sun.

Nothing really epitomizes the experience of a good record store find like how I encountered Quiet Sun. I was drawn in by the cover, nothing more – a big red sun over a photo-faded Paris. It was in the used bin, not even organized by genre. I put it on the store’s test player and immediately knew I had found something great.  On Spotify, the album averages 66 monthly listeners – more people are probably on eBay bidding for Justin Bieber’s used chewing gum, so there’s no way the algorithms would have ever decided Quiet Sun was important enough to recommend to me. And yet the group had some very influential players; Brian Eno, and Phil Manzanera who went on to play in Roxy Music.

Japandroids.

There’s a tendency in hard rock music to amp up the guitars and drums so loud that you can only hear the vocals if they’re jammed in between chords, staccato sung in short bursts between the noise of the instruments. When you hear a band that doesn’t do that – Japandroids just shouts as loud as possible over it all – it’s refreshing because it sounds more honest.

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