In Praise of the Double

dbt_smDirty South
Drive-By Truckers
NW 5007
2004
New West Records

I have a CD on the Blue Note label called What It Was. Its a jazz guitar lover’s nirvana, performed by Steve Masakowski. Its one of the best sounding recordings I own – CD or vinyl. But I can only imagine how rich it must sound as an LP.

Imagine, because as far as I know, it hasn’t been released on vinyl and the reason may be due to its length.

What it Was clocks in at 58:47, which would require it to be a double album.

I recently picked up 2004’s Dirty South by southern rock hellions Drive-By Truckers and I was excited that it was a double LP. Yes, you can compress all 70:34 of this drawling epic onto one compact disc but you can’t squeeze all of it onto one vinyl record. You wouldn’t want to. All 14 songs need to be spread out over two records. Doing so allows the grooves to breath, allows the analog sound waves to vibrate naturally letting the stylus flow smooth and easy over the sonic landscape. The sound quality of Dirty South resonates deep, warm and heavy. Its pretty close to one of the best sounding vinyl sets I have.

When I started acquiring records back in the ’70s, the double album was an event. For only a buck or so more expensive than a single LP, you were getting – basically – two for one. One of the first doubles I purchased was Frampton Comes Alive by Peter Frampton. Knocked out loaded with great songs, this live set truly brought you into Frampton’s concert world.

But the double that changed everything for me came in 1980.

Bruce Springsteen’s The River was an excursion into some of the best rock of that era. Solid rockers, heartbreaking ballads – all under the ‘live performance’ production of Springsteen, Jon Landau, and Steven Van Zandt. Not a throwaway song among the 20 tunes on the set. The packaging wasn’t a gatefold, the records came in a single jacket, two sleeves and a fold-out lyric sheet. The sleeves, the lyric sheet, were bursting with photos of Springsteen and the E Street Band at work and at rest. I played it (either a side or in full) almost every day from its release date of October 17, 1980, well into 1981.

Back then you’d hear complaints that double records were almost too much musically and a pain in the ass because you had to get up three times (flip record one; change to record two; flip record two) to listen to the whole set.

But the thing is – and this why vinyl is special – its because you do have to get up and flip the record to hear the whole thing. And, by the nature of the LP, you’re basically forced to listen to all the songs on a side (instead of skipping through them), allowing total immersion into the artists ‘vision.’ And flipping a record allows a respite, a short less-than-minute-long intermission that allows you to collect your thoughts pondering what you’re listening to before slipping into the second (or third or fourth) side of an artist’s song cycle.

One of the marketing points of CDs (and one of the reasons the format almost killed vinyl) was the so-called convenience factor. You could listen straight through without having to get your ass up off the couch to flip the LP over. What a concept.

But, what happened was this…sitting prone for upwards of 70 minutes is physically draining. Uncomfortable. Flipping an album lets you move – stretch a bit between sides. And, neurologically, the digital format doesn’t engage the brain in the same way analog does. Digital is based on linear ‘motion’ – 0s and 1s – seamlessly connected, no real vibration of soundwaves. Its a simulacrum of sound. Digital causes disengagement and induces boredom and, ultimately, sleep.

While I love What it Was – its because I’ve digested it in small pieces instead of trying to get through it all in one sitting. I can’t do it. Even though it sounds great, by the third or fourth song, I’m asleep.

Its a sonic phenomenon that I’ve actually argued about in barber shops.

According to Oregonian writer David Greenwald, “digital music engineering is often marred by a volume arms race, which leads to fatiguing, hyper-compressed songs that squish out the dynamics and textures that give [vinyl] recordings their depth and vitality. Vinyl’s volume is dependent on the length of its sides and depth of its grooves, which means an album mastered specifically for the format may have more room to breathe than its strained digital counterpart.”

Ultimately, when you can get four sides of music that’s more in sync with how the human ear hears, a double LP set is – simply – more bang for the buck. I love ’em.

Doubles of note:

Eat a Peach – The Allman Brothers
Prince – 1999
The Wall – Pink Floyd
Physical Graffiti – Led Zeppelin
The Beatles – The Beatles (White album)
Bitches Brew – Miles Davis
Steely Dan – Greatest Hits
The Who – Tommy / Quadrophenia
Tusk – Fleetwood Mac

© 2017 Chris Barry

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