Monday, May 26, 2008

Spin The Black Circle

So there I was at Casey’s house, staring as if it were some bulking but bashful animal. I hadn’t seen or touched one in years and my interest was purely forensic— surely it didn’t even work. A turntable, outside the context of a DJ in a nightclub, standing by the side of the living room, waiting for somebody to pull sound from it. I didn’t even remember how to turn thing on, but on it came with a boom and the record, already spinning stunned me with sound. Rich, deep, and ridiculously warm. After years of astringent CD’s and faceless Mp3’s I forgot just how completely I could be pulled under by sheer rock action. There I was, all but batshit at being submerged in guitars, drums and keyboards. I looked at my friend. Holy shit, this is Tears For Fears? I said.

I had been so trained to believe all the things I supposedly gained from CD’s that I all but forgot what I lost. For all its digital precision, there was always something cold and thin about a CD, fine if your interest is only melody (classical, new age) but disastrous if you’re ruled by rhythm. A CD, being a digital medium is governed by a number, and like the nerds that invented it, a CD could only process what’s quantitative, something that could be reduced to a zero or one. That’s why some audiophiles remain perplexed when told that LP’s are warmer —as well they should be since warmth cannot be measured by a number. In a hilarious aside, once Mariah Carey had tape hiss inserted into her songs, presumably to recapture something that even she knew had been lost. The thing about LP warmth is that it doesn’t come from the music so much as the listener. For me it works this way: I’ll forgive things on an LP that I would never let slide on a CD. So much so that I could be astounded by Tears For Fear’s Songs for the Big Chair, a personal favourite, but hardly a great record. There I was rocking and shaking and dancing (OK maybe not) to Shout, Everybody wants to rule the world and my personal favourite, The Working Hour.

Maybe it’s nostalgia. Memory has a way coming with a sugarcoat already built in, and maybe the record really wasn’t as good as my memory of it. A while there is some merit to that point, it’s not enough; after all I could have just whipped out the CD. It was the hiss before the music started, the feel of that big jacket in my hands, the feeling that I needed to stay put and hear all of it. The way in which sound seemed to travel around the room, spinning, twirling and bursting. And something else that I cannot describe but I know is there. I had not experienced it since my last LP, bought in 1989, Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation.

Among its many atrocities, the single worst crime of the CD was that it made albums longer. Nowadays perfectly fine 35 minute LPs, have become bloated and tedious 70 minute CD’s. The CD has actually taken us back to a pre Beatles era where an album was nothing more than a few hit singles padded with filler. Today’s generation certainly think so and they have the choice to just buy the songs they like on I-Tunes. The double album has fared worse, ruined by the double CD. There was a time when the double album was a major statement. Either the artist was taking stock of all that he had accomplished before (Sign O’ The Times) or he needed a canvas wide enough to blast into new territory (1999), or both. But the double CD is nothing more than a clearing house for the artist’s appalling hubris. Look no further than the Smashing Pumpkins, Notorious BIG and Wu Tang Clan to see records that should have been one third their lengths. Even Prince, once a master of the extra long player, blew his load with the triple CD, Emancipation, a record distinguishable only by its lack of a single good song. And yet people still wonder why downloads killed the album.

Back at Casey’s house this record player was reminding me of what an album sounded like. I found myself missing the smell of vinyl. Wearing out and replacing needles. I found myself even missing the simple act of turning a record over. Some lazy listeners quite like never having to get up once the music starts playing, but I missed playing a part in the hearing of my own sound. What’s more, in the past, musicians used to construct albums for the pause, with the record gaining gravitas between flips. That silence was important as well. You’d be surprised at how much difference it makes; one to ten minutes of silence between Led Zep’s Stairway to Heaven and Misty Mountain Hop. Or Purple Rain’s Darlin Niki and When Doves Cry. Last week I listened to Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town and waited a full half hour between sides, just drunk on all that side one meant and allowing this most storytelling of lyricists to construct novellas in my head. No it’s not the same as putting a cd on pause. I remember waiting 20 minutes between side one and side two of Sergeant Pepper just because I was amazed and bewildered (in a good way) by side one. I wasn’t just savouring the sound that went, but also the absence of it. It’s a lost art, the construction of a good record side, and rock and roll has been the all the worse for it. You’re supposed to pause after True Blue’s Live to Tell or Woodface’s Four Seasons In One Day or even, Caught Can I Get A Witness, the side one closer on It Takes A Nation of Million To Hold Us Back, a record that gains in power by being split in half.

So in the past weeks I’ve bought records that I would never have tolerated on CD but now worship on LP. Rolling Stone’s Tattoo You. Duran Duran’s Rio. I’ve also bought records that simply never sounded and will never sound good on CD; Led Zep’s IV, The Band’s eponymous second album, Springsteen’s The River, and Wild Innocent and E-Street Shuffle, Black Sabbath’s Volume 4, but also recent stuff like the new Portishead, which seems engineered for the LP format. Maybe the real reason I went to back to LP’s is that I missed active sound. I miss the fetish of a large LP jacket and walking around with it. I miss music being foreground with activity surrounding it, rather than vice versa. And I miss the crackle and pop, the slight hiss, before sound explodes and all heaven breaks loose.