Sunday, November 11, 2012

More Record Ruminations

My enthusiastic re-entry into the world of vinyl music continued unabated. I've added another fifty or sixty albums to my growing collection; as I had indicated previously, much of what I'm buying now are replacement copies of the albums I had in the late 1960s through the mid-1970s. I foolishly parted with my vinyl copies in the first five years of the CD era; I figured that once I had replaced them on CD, there was no reason to keep the vinyl. Oh, if only the myself of now could travel back and educated the myself of then...

As I've listened to some of the albums again (tonight's rehearings: Four Way Street by Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young and Santana (self-titled), I've found myself thinking not only about the quality of the vinyl recording, but about the experience of vinyl as well. I believe that vinyl is a more satisfying listening experience for several reasons.

First, LPs give the artist more control of the listening experience. Unlike CDs, LPs cannot be placed on ramdom; the listener will generally listen to the entire album side as the artist envisioned, created, and engineered it. While an album may be made up of individual tracks, the placement, arrangement, and organization of those tracks is quite often designed to create an aesthetic whole. Listening to the CD in random mode, or listening to the MP3 in a randomized mix with many other songs by many other artists, doesn't communicate that aesthetic whole.

The best example I can think of off the top of my head is the Beatles' Abbey Road. The vinyl LP is engineered to create musical suites--medleys of several different songs that meld together to create a musical experience. Put on the CD of Abbey Road and hit "random" and you find that even those medleys are broken into their individual components--quite jarringly so, in fact.

A more recent example: Al Jardine's A Postcard from California. As I listened to it on random, mixed with other recent music acquisitions, I thought that it was almost hokey; it seemed that Al felt obligated to include references to California, the ocean, the surf, etc., in every song.

Then I listened to it straight through and discovered that it was a concept album--each song was like a segment of a play following a man's odyssey to California. He's initially drawn there by work, then he becomes intrigued by the history, the culture, and the lifestyle, until finally he's ready to make the transition and become a Californian--and in the process, he even sets his career aside and weighs the option of becoming a musician. None of this is communicated in a randomized listening--but when the album is heard as a whole, it takes on a new meaning.

Secondly, there's the duration of an album. Due to limitations of the vinyl, the ideal album side is 18 to 20 minutes long. Some longer sides have been produced, of course, but there is often a sacrifice of audio quality to squeeze more tracks onto the album. As a result, the artist not only constructs an album, but also constructs two sides of that album, knowing that each side can create its own feel and tone. Again, I turn to Abbey Road as an example: side one, beginning with "Come Together" and ending with "I Want You (She's So Heavy)." The album kicks off with a powerful, distinctive rhythm carried by the unusual drum sound; it ends with a driving wall of sound underscored by a white noise generator that builds so steadily that it becomes a part of the music. In between are the softer, more moving "Something," the almost satirical "Oh, Darling!" and the lightly absurd storytelling of "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," and the catchy "Octopus's Garden," all interspersed to create a mood change from one song to the next.

Turn it over, though, and each track builds, from the cosmic joy of "Here Comes the Sun" through the introspection and vitality of the various medleys, ending with a celebration of the Beatles themselves, stressing their individual contributions through a series of solos that reconnect them as a group in the very end, delivering the ultimate theme that drove most of their music: "And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make."

And each side, constructed to work in a unified fashion, delivers its particular message in less than 20 minutes. It's the perfect listenable block of sound: it requires more of a commitment than a song, but no so much that the listener feels burdened by the investment of time. It allows the creation of individual listening segments--it's a sort of tonal play in two (or four, or six, depending on the number of discs in an album) acts.

Our busy lives often make it difficult to find time to devote a full forty minutes to an hour to listening to a new musical release on CD; we take it in tiny aural bites instead. But the shorter duration of the album side is more suited to listening, and the physical format of the medium makes it more likely the listener will stay with the album for the duration of that side.

I know it's not true in every case--greatest hits albums by their vary nature are a forced fit, although the duration aspect remains constant--but I think it begins to explain why I'm listening to albums differently than I listen to CDs, and enjoying it more.


Tredekka said...

I can definitely audiolize what you're saying about albums being two separate entities by virtue of having two physical sides. That's pretty cool Cliff!

Charles R. Rutledge said...

Your comments made me think of when 'listening to an album' was an activity in itself, almost like watching a movie. I can remember going to people's house specifically to listen to an entire album. As you say, some were meant to be listened to as an experience, particularly the concept albums.