Another piece from 2008. It almost feels quaint a scant six years later, since everyone and their uncle has a few records laying around nowadays. At the moment I’m in the middle of prepping for a cross-country move from Northern Virginia to Seattle, Washington, I almost detest the eight forty pound boxes of records stacked up in my spare room… but I could never even begin to part with even a few.
When I was sixteen, my teenage dreams came true when I landed my first job at a record store called Waxie Maxie’s. The “wax” in the name, my new manager explained, referred to what they used to call vinyl records when he was a DJ in the seventies. “Who buys records anymore?” I chuckled to myself as he gave me the customary first day tour of the store, showing me all the sections while injecting witty commentary and stories of the bands he had met over the years.
I came to love working there. We could play anything we wanted in the store, and we would pride ourselves by picking the right obscure CD to play—Burt Bacharach’s The Look of Love for that little old lady in the easy listening section, Juliana Hatfield’s Hey Babe for the college girl in flannel whose hair hadn’t been washed in weeks, Milt Jackson’s Cherry for the guy with the horn-rimmed glasses and the corduroy sport coat with patches on the elbows, or the Cranes’ Loved for the kid in black with dyed hair and pale makeup—to get a particular customer to walk up to the counter and go “Wow, I really need to have whatever you’re playing!” Yes, I realize that’s a scene from High Fidelity and yes, every record store employee does it—some better than others. I took pride in personally selling more copies of the debut albums of both Korn and Jeff Buckley than anyone else in the area (according to our local Sony Music rep). Though I must admit that I take no pride in admitting that at one point in my life I actually thought listening to Korn was a good idea…
I worked at Waxie Maxie’s for three years, and picked up an eclectic set of musical tastes from my fellow employees. A love of silky-smooth Motown and crisp jazz from our eccentric manager, a taste for the melodic noise of shoegaze bands like Medicine and My Bloody Valentine from his gothed-out assistant, and an appreciation for the chewy bubble-gum-like pop goodness of groups like Hanson and Savage Garden from the bubbly blonde cheerleader who worked Sundays with me. But what shaped my music-loving future more than anything else in those years was the first piece of “wax” that Waxie Maxie’s got in stock after decades of selling only CDs: Alice in Chains’ Jar of Flies.
I was looking forward to the album’s release as I already was a fan of the band, and was listening to their (now classic) Dirt non-stop since their song “Would?” had become a staple on WHFS the previous year. When I opened the boxes containing that week’s new releases I was enthralled by what was buried beneath the CDs: two copies of a double vinyl album containing both Jar of Flies and another earlier acoustic EP called Sap. I immediately set aside one of them for myself, and purchased it at the end of my shift.
Although I had bought the record as a bit of a novelty, once I opened the record I knew I had stumbled onto something amazing. We had already been playing the CD earlier in the day at the store, so I had already heard the entire album a half-dozen times—but I wanted to listen to my new treasure. When I got home I lifted the cover on my roommate’s dusty turntable and gently slid the record onto the spindle. I carefully lifted the tone-arm and set the needle in the groove, then sat down on the living room floor to listen.
By sixty seconds in, I was hooked. The LP was a sonically superior experience compared to my earlier listens in the store: the opening guitar lick sounded warmer and fuller, the crack of the snare drum had immensely more bite, and the singer’s voice had tone and inflection that were not apparent before.
As I sat on the threadbare green carpet listening to the album, my attention turned to the cover in my hands. It was a gatefold double LP—the cover opens like a book, with one record in each side. The cover listed the first records’ sides as “A” and “B” and they contained the songs on Jar of Flies. Side “C” was Sap. “So side ‘D’ is blank then?” I thought to myself as I pulled it out to check. It wasn’t. Instead of a groove filled with songs, side “D” had the band’s logo etched into the vinyl’s surface, thus solidifying my new-found love for the format.
Most people think of records as antiques that sound terrible and are full of pops and skips. That may be true for a Duran Duran LP sitting unloved in a stack of Lawrence Welk and John Denver albums at a musty thrift store, but a record that has been cared for properly will sound better than any CD. While it is certainly true that records are more fragile, they also have higher fidelity and more nuance than their modern digital counterparts.
Compact discs exist in a world of ones and zeros. When a song is recorded in a studio, the music is set down to analog tape. Each note and beat recorded in exactly the same was our ears hear them. Once a song is mastered for a CD, however, all of those notes are converted into electronic signals that can be read by a laser from the CD’s surface. Each note is (theoretically) assigned a space in the digitized soundscape as either a one (the note exists at that point in time) or a zero (it doesn’t). Everything between is lost.
When a song is pressed to vinyl, however, it stays in its original analog form from the musicians note to the listener’s ear. On vinyl, all the droning harmonics of a cymbal crash stay intact. The wooshing thud of a bass drum hit sounds full and forceful, instead of the timid “thunk” heard in a digital recording. In the early days of CDs engineers attempted to compensate for this lack of fidelity by boosting the volume of the entire mix. This led to a phenomenon insiders call the “loudness war” wherein producers and engineers tried to out “loud” each other by pushing their mixes to new max volumes allowable by digital recording. But this war really only accomplished one thing: making CDs louder. Everything that was missing before is still missing, but today’s listeners don’t miss something they never knew they had—a sad state of affairs, in this musicphile’s opinion.
This tragedy of missing bits brings me to the newest format to enter the market: mp3 files. My roommate (and best friend of 15 years) was one of the first people to jump on the mp3 bandwagon. Way back in 1994 he was a total computer geek (well, he still is) and I remember him showing me a program he had found that let him record his CDs to his computer’s hard drive. It recorded them in real time, so processing one album took as long as it’s running length. I remember discussing with him the absurdity of the idea:
“Why would I want to be tethered to my computer when I listen to music? I can play a CD in a car or at a friend’s house.”
“But you don’t have a car.”
“That’s not the point! You can’t take your computer to a party just to play music.”
“Ok, you could but normal people won’t.”
“Maybe someone will invent a tiny little computer with headphones so I could listen to whatever I wanted at a party. They always play shitty music at parties.”
“What’s the point of going to a party if you’re listening to headphones and not talking to anyone?”
“Do I ever talk to anyone at parties?”
Well, I think we all know how that turned out. And I must be honest: I own an iPod. It’s a glorious piece of technology, and it is more convenient than lugging a computer to a party or fiddling with a massive CD wallet while stopped at a red light (or for the more adventurous soul, while taking a hair-pin turn). I also have an account on lala.com, where they allow a user to upload all of his or her mp3s and then stream to any computer with an internet connection via their web-browser. Ah, I love technology!
We know mp3s are convenient, but they also sound terrible. What mp3s are missing is a massive amount of the song’s original audio spectrum. CD quality recordings in their natural format take up a massive amount of space. For example: an 8-gig iPod holds 8,000 songs in mp3 format but that same iPod would hold a scant 80 songs at full CD quality. To shrink the files to a more manageable size software engineers had to make cuts: everything outside of the range of “normal human hearing.” While humans can’t hear very deep bass or super high pitched sounds unaccompanied in a laboratory, they are perceptible as part of a larger whole. In mp3s, cymbals no longer only lack some harmonic overtones; they are stripped of enough frequencies to change the pitch of tuned crash symbols making them sound out of tune with the rest of the song! And an mp3 will never give good, thumping bass—which is why dance-floor DJs spin vinyl.
The rush of free (or nearly free) digital music has had a curious side-effect: CD sales are slumping and sales of vinyl records have picked up in the last few years. Explaining lackluster CD sales is easy enough: mp3s are cheap and available to anyone with an internet connection. The reasons for vinyl’s resurgence in popularity, however, are harder to define. Old records can be found for a dollar or less at thrift stores and flea markets—certainly getting more for your entertainment dollar in this economy is a factor for some fans. New records typically come with a coupon code that can be used online to download mp3s of the album—thus giving the listener the full spectrum of sound on vinyl while solving the format’s portability problems with downloadable mp3s.
Vinyl’s biggest draw for many fans (myself included) is an attribute that mp3s lack completely: a physical presence. Mp3s have no cover or sleeve to open, no artwork to question the meaning of, no lyric sheet or liner notes to pore over, no physical medium to be translated by a machine into music. It’s almost as if they don’t exist at all, and because of this lack of being the music loses its power. Mp3s are bought in anonymity with a click of a mouse. There is no clerk to give recommendations, no store to browse, and no bag to tuck under your arm as you walk back to the subway eager to get home and listen to your treasures.
That physicality and the experience of shopping in a well-stocked record store like the Philadelphia Record Exchange is the last piece of the puzzle of the vinyl resurgence. The store’s bins are arranged in a few, haphazard rows that look as though they have not been moved or re-adjusted in decades. The hardwood floors directly under the record bins still look almost new, the dark stain on the wood still practically scratch and blemish free. But the aisles between the bins have been worn down to the smooth, raw, color of fresh oak, the finish and shine worn away by decades of footfalls up and down the aisles.
In their basement is every record geek’s dream—the mother lode—an entire room about fifty feet long lined with the store’s “rock ‘n roll” records. The bins are overflowing with records, from true classics to utterly obscure albums from bands even I’ve never heard of—but I always find something to take home. On my first trip I found Stephen Still’s classic Manassas; the cover is a photo of the band posing in front of the historic train station in the city of the same name just a few miles from my house. I typically start at the “A” bin on the left wall and proceeded to leisurely browse the bins in order, flipping past every record in each row.
People who don’t buy a lot of music are usually perplexed by this ritual. Those of us that do, however, swear by it. I love the feel of the cardboard sleeves flipping by my fingers and blur of familiar album covers moving by at lightning speed, stopping only when something new and unfamiliar pops up. Glancing at every album is the only way to know I haven’t missed anything, and it’s a skill I’ve all but perfected over the 15 or so years I spent selling music. This ritual served as my only real way of tracking my inventory when I managed a small store in my early twenties, and it allowed me to memorize enough of the stock at Tower Records (where I more recently worked part time until they tragically went bankrupt) that I could find any disc in the store before other employees could even look it up in the computer. Such gifts also have a downside though: I once had a girlfriend who threatened to leave me after I spent forty minutes in the Sound Garden in Baltimore, and my roommate and I almost missed our flight home after spending about four hours at the aforementioned Amoeba Records in Hollywood.
That gift has enabled me to find jewels of all genres over the years. From a long out-of-print Thelonious Monk LP to Mötley Crüe’s Too Fast for Love to all the obscure indie records I’ve bought over the years, every single purchase I’ve made in a record store carries with it fond memories of where I found them and the adventures I had searching for the stores they were hidden in. And every trip to a record store ends the same way: with my treasures tucked under my arm so I can take them home, gently set the needle in the groove, and sit down on my living room floor to begin the listening experience anew.