Bob Mould’s Workbook is a must on vinyl

This is the way to listen to music.

The CD rendering of Bob Mould’s Workbook is so constricted that all I could think about while listening was how much I wanted this set of music on vinyl. The music is so good that it deserves to breath, which it does not do on CD. It’s too tight and some passages on the high-end of the spectrum are painfully harsh. Sure the disc is loud but I’m not feeling any dynamic range here.

A lot of people complain that records have too much surface noise and that they scratch easily, they take up too much room, etc. When digital (CDs) came into the marketplace full-force back in the mid-80s I bought into that “digital is better” sell. But what they also made sure to tell you was that CDs are free of surface noise and don’t scratch because there isn’t a physical mechanism (such as a ‘needle’) touching the medium (such as a record).

Around ’86 – frankly – I was tired of surface noise on records and hated hearing scratches (my system wasn’t great back then so surface noise was probably more of my cartridge’s issue than any of my record’s). So I jumped on the CD bandwagon full steam and put my records (over 1,000 of them) in storage. The first CD I bought was the soundtrack to the film The Big Chill. I listened to it and while it was true that there was no surface noise, the experience of hearing these great songs without extraneous static was exhilarating. At first. Then it got to be shrill and mind-numbing. Every part of every song on the disc sounded as if it were on the same sonic level with the high-ends tinny and harsh. I hated that disc but also didn’t want to admit to myself or anyone that CDs were a bust and that they sucked.

So I continued and amassed an extraordinary catalog of discs. Some sounded great but most sounded mundane without any auditory thrill. The worst result – I skipped songs. I played ‘hits,’ and lost the desire to discover musicians and their artistry, which you do when you listen to an album straight through. CDs also sold this so-called ‘convenience’ factor – you never had to get up from your couch and walk over to your turntable to flip a record side. But its this act that encourages deeper listening. On a record, you simply cannot skip tracks – that is, unless you get up to do so.

CDs were also too long with some clocking in at over 75 minutes. And while that sounds like a great bargain, it’s an actual hinderance. If I tried to listen all the way through any disc, I fell asleep lulled by the digital blocks of zeros and ones as opposed to riding on the excitation of analog waves.

While CDs have their fair share of compression, at least they’re better today than they were in the 80s, 90s and into the early 2000s. But music is now downloadable and the experience of actually listening is gone. And while there seems to be a resurgence of vinyl, I don’t expect it will rise much higher than where it is now. Downloading music to your phone is way too convenient.

My only advice to someone getting into vinyl for the first time: make sure you listen to those records you buy. And support your local record store by buying used as opposed to plunking down huge dough on reprints sold at elitist stores like Barnes & Noble. And 180 gram vinyl doesn’t necessarily mean ‘better.’

And don’t just stick that record up on a shelf because you think collecting records is ‘cool.’ Be patient for 40 minutes or so and listen to it. Track by track. Live that experience.

© 2018 Chris Barry


That’s a Small Lyric Sheet

Greetings From
I.R.S. 5739

Hit single (that one about wearing shades and a bright future) almost relegated this excellent duo into that dreaded sub-sub genre known as the ‘novelty act.’ This was one of my first CDs back in ’86 and was one of the better sounding ones.

I think that disc – back then – set me back $15.99, give or take. And now I found it on vinyl yesterday at Purple Dog Records (Naperville, IL) for a buck.

It’s sonic quality blows the CD away.

But the lyric sheet, which is maddening, portends the inevitable smallness of those found in CD packages…haha.

© 2017 Chris Barry

My Third CD

u2_webThe Joshua Tree

The big lie got to me – no scratches, no pops, surface always clean.

And the biggest lie of all: CDs sounded better than vinyl. I was late jumping on the CD bandwagon and I bought my first couple discs in late 1986 and then turned my back on vinyl in 1987 until I found my way back in 2013.

My third CD was U2’s The Joshua Tree. All my U2 vinyl up to that point (Boy, October, War, The Unforgettable Fire) was perfect, each sonically richer than the last.

But that sonic bliss ended when I got The Joshua Tree on CD.

For all intents and purposes, the idea I had was that I would sit down and listen to CDs in basically the same way I did with albums – except experiencing an artist’s musical vision all in one uninterrupted sitting without having to flip the record. That was important back then for some reason. Laziness I guess.

With The Joshua Tree CD that fantasy listening experience didn’t happen. The digital landscape made everything sound flat and tinny. The dynamic range was there but didn’t sound ‘real.’ It was simulacrum.

Simply, the CD didn’t engage me the way U2’s music did on vinyl. It bored me. I found myself skipping from song to song only a couple notes into each. I had to force myself to listen to it as a whole, which I only did once or twice. And while I could acknowledge the songs were good, they didn’t feel ‘rich.’ They were vacant.

This was strange, considering the album’s producers – Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno – are all about soundscape. But the CD was a depressing travesty.

At first I blamed the band for the music’s lack of depth – yet it was a critical darling. I had bought into the CD hype so deeply, there was no way I was going to blame the music’s delivery method. I’d been touting it myself parroting marketing speak on CD superiority.

The Joshua Tree produced more radio-friendly songs than any other U2 trip up to that point and that’s where I ended up getting more exposure to the tunes – on the radio. It wasn’t through my sitting down with the disc.

As I started to reintegrate vinyl into my life a few years ago, The Joshua Tree became one of my ‘grails.’ I knew it had to sound and play better on vinyl. But I was nervous about procuring it because I had read that as the CD craze grabbed consumers by the throat, LPs were being produced using inferior or recycled vinyl. Records pressed during the late ’80s and into the ’90s were suspiciously thin and were possibly devoid of true dynamic range.

That said, I wanted The Joshua Tree on vinyl and this past summer I told the owner of my favorite independent record store, Purple Dog Records (Naperville, IL.), to keep an eye out for it.

Within a week he messaged me on Facebook and said he had a copy and was I still interested. I was.

I went to the store and he told me there was a scratch on it but it played through. Other than that, it was dusty – a normal used vinyl malady. I asked him to play it to ensure it really did ‘play through’ the scratch.

He put it on their store stereo and what came out of their vintage Sony speakers was a sonic revelation. The opening vista of “Where the Streets Have No Name” was deep, rich – in the room – as The Edge’s jangly guitar sparkled with urgency eventually folding into one with Bono’s wail.

And there was no notice of the scratch.

I paid $15 for it. Took it home and spun it. All the way through in one sitting.

And for the first time I heard this brilliant drama unfold in all of its sonic Lanois Eno glory.

© 2017 Chris Barry