Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Vinyl Madness

For years, I avoided the one act that I knew had the potential to blow the lid off a box full of nothing but trouble: buying a record. That came to pass on January 2nd with the fateful purchase of not one but 20 LPs, all rescued from the basement of a lovely local junk shop called, appropriately, The Thing. Three weeks later, I'm sitting on 40 LPs and probably close to 350 45-RPM singles. Yes, folks, the madness has begun.

Beware, all ye who enter here
Where it all began. We arrive at the basement of The Thing. Standing there at the precipice of the stairway, one has the feeling that something either very bad or very good is about to happen — in the words of the world's best karaoke princess, "...buttcheeks clenched in anticipation." One gives pause to the stairway's many adornments, especially the portentous "Do not fall in love," then descends.

Records, records everywhere...Sure, on one level, it's just a stinky, dusty, moldy basement cluttered with too many records. But let's be real here: it's one of Greenpoint's wonders, natural or otherwise. It's not just cluttered with vinyl, but stuffed to the point of being choked, aisle by aisle, floor to ceiling. Full crates are stacked eye-high in front of equally full shelves, leaving passageways suitable for retreating pygmies. Pallid forms perched on overturned crates startle as you turn the corner, white eyes hovering over a white dust mask, caught in the act of reloading their portable turntable. And the best part, it's 100% unorganized. The provision of points of access to the collection at all is enough of an effort on behalf of the management. Dig in and see what you find. At $2 per LP and $.50 per 45, how can you go wrong?

So it is here where I have spent a substantial portion of my time in the last few weeks. I feel no shame. With no Meaty obligations until mid-February, it's a perfect activity for an otherwise languid January. In recent months, I've become infatuated with the idea of having a collection of soul/R&B 45s sizable enough to spin sets at local bars and parties and such. At the end of this push, I'll have myself a pretty substantial beginning.

45 Banner
But why vinyl, why now? In sum, it's a completely different, fresh way of experiencing music, one that I haven't participated since those pre-CD days of living with the parents. I can break it down into several points, the first of which being low-risk exploration. At the prices given above, why not grab something if it looks interesting? Better odds than the iTunes store! By this manner, I have picked up and enjoyed albums such as the following: Carole King, Tapestry; The Harmonizing Four, Happy Home (great trad gospel); Rick James, Street Songs; and Leo Kottke, My Feet Are Smiling. I won't even get into the 45 discoveries, as they are too numerous even to summarize. Of course, there are the bum picks, but hey, so what? I'm out a couple buck, and now I know better.

The unorganized nature of The Thing and thrift stores in general goes hand-in-hand with low-risk exploration, setting the stage for a spirit of discovery. For those who have specific wants, it would be maddening, but for one who has only the humble goal of building a record collection, it's wonderful. You never know what you're going to pull out of the basement when you first descend. Finding the gems requires dedication, much more than walking to the right section at a record store and pulling a desired album. Sure, an hour in the basement may only yield five or six albums, but the elation felt upon finding a perfect condition copy of a favorite album or hearing something wonderful for the first time validates the digging.

How could one discuss vinyl without addressing sound? There are so many foamy-mouthed fanatics out there who would run about hither and yon, destroying anything digital with baseball bats and flamethrowers, were it not for chains and medication. I am not one of these. I find it difficult to argue that a scratch-free, non-degrading, larger-spectrum-response, digital recording is inherently inferior to an analog record. Shot-Gun!That being said, good-condition vinyl does have a unique sound, which for certain styles, is undeniably preferable (ie. rock, classic R&B, soul, jazz, country). It has a certain depth and warmth that digital can't seem to touch, at least at the current sample and bit rates of CDs. Bass has a booming, bouncy fullness to it; drums sound huge and crisp; one hears an overdriven guitar amp complaining; all the funk and spit and beautiful imperfections of a tenor sax tone come punching through. Even old, scratchy, distorted Wilson Pickett and Jr. Walker singles somehow sound perfect, as if there were no other appropriate way of experiencing them.

Issues of scale are also hugely significant for me, especially pertaining to 45s, but I shall reserve this for future discussion.

And so it continues, hopefully as a "hobby" and not an "obsession." God help me, too, if I should turn into a real "collector" and forget that I am, first, a "musician." To that point, I am thankful that I have "friends" who would "heartily kick my ass" should I stray too far down this path. Thus, if any of you find me, startled, wearing a dust mask with dirty fingers clutching a portable record player, please intervene.


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