For the old or prematurely nostalgic, the present is a dull replica of the burnished past. Bygone inconveniences are remembered as ennobling trials by ordeal, while the myriad advances of modern technology become soul-sucking bargains. Nothing so warms the cockles of the cranky heart as to see callow youth — whose taste is usually so abysmal — display surprising wisdom in adopting some icon from the golden years. Vinyl LPs are the old-fart heart warmer du jour.
Twelve-inch discs of easily scratched plastic inscribed with concentric spirals of dust collecting grooves, LPs have the additional charm of warping at summer room temperatures. Despite this delicacy, they're commonly called aurally superior to their sturdier digital successors. This was undeniably true in their early days, when cynical record companies rushed out under-sampled, error-saturated product. (This gave them the opportunity to sell same product twice when they released "enhanced" digitally remastered versions.) Audiophiles say analog records have a warmer sound than CDs. Then again, they say the same about $5,000 vacuum tube amplifiers and, less credibly, about thick and expensive speaker wire.
Such sonic subtleties are likely moot for the average young listener using a $100 turntable, a moving magnet cartridge and affordable speakers. Perhaps the charm is in the honest physicality of the LP experience. You don't just hear the recording, you hear the record the popping, hissing haze of time through which the great vintage music reaches across the decades. This is how the Velvet Underground, the Beatles, the Stones or the Clash were meant to be heard — their music frozen in an almost-visible geometry of waveforms, not a mathematical blizzard of bytes on a mirrored disc. Bands that release LPs today are making a claim on that history. Having a big plastic disc in a cardboard sleeve the size of a side table is somehow more real.
LPs also have the dark glamour of being one of an endangered species. Although once mothballed pressing plants are temporarily stamping out new product, most records will never be remade. Their irreversibly dwindling numbers haunt the bins of used record stores. Flipping through album after album two things are striking: how creative the packaging could be, and how mediocre it often was.
For every masterpiece — the Beatles' "Sergeant Pepper" and its Mothers of Invention satire, "We're Only in it for the Money;" the distinctive Blue Note jazz covers, the Warhol peelable banana for "The Velvet Underground and Nico"; and working zipper on the Stones' "Sticky Fingers" — there may be two or three monstrosities, pouting boys with big hair, soft-core porn, saccharine fantasy landscapes so glowing with unlikely light they would make Thomas Kinkade blush. It is no coincidence that Spinal Tap's David St. Hubbins observed that with album covers there's a thin line between stupid and clever.
Quality is always rare, and risk is essential to the hunt. Why listen to a 20-second sample on iTunes when you can gamble on a mystery, drag it back to the cave, slide it out of the paper sleeve — careful to touch only the edges — mount it on the turntable, slowly drop the needle with a hydraulically damped lever, and only then find out whether it is delight or a dud.
So much better than today's ease, where everything ever recorded is available with a few clicks and payment is optional. It's an embarrassment of riches, like playing a video game on invincible God mode. Sure the end result it the same but the transformational hassle is missing. No wonder those born too late for the heyday of LPs are inexorably drawn to experience the joys of getting their music with maximum inconvenience on an easy-to-ruin platter, in 20 minute increments. Best of all, most of the new LPs come with a digital download or CD as part of the deal.
As always with the best and brightest, record buyers are the minority. Most of the young will grow up knowing only instant gratification, media piracy, and music immaculately downloaded and pumped into their skulls through ear buds. We have the consolation of knowing that, in some graying tomorrow, they will look back from their futuristic wonderland of advanced technological miracles and imagine that this, our flawed present, is their golden age. S
Peter McElhinney is Style Weekly's jazz critic.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.