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


Your Taste in Music is Fucked Up

Remain in Light
Talking Heads
SRK 6095
Sire Records Company

This girl I worked with – Laura was her name – picked me up in her Jeep CJ5 rag-top to go to a party just to celebrate Saturday night. This was in 1983, during a hot July weekend. Laura was a pothead and had a lit bong between her legs as we drove to the house of festivities.

I buckled myself up in the Jeep as I cradled a stack of vinyl in my arms. This was what you did back then when you went to parties – you brought LPs to share. And I’ll admit that I took a couple long drags off of Laura’ bong, which is also something you did back then when you went to parties.

Its a risky proposition (then as now), sharing music that you personally love with people who may not give a shit. In a party situation, its even more risky. One of the albums in the stack I brought to that party was Talking Heads Remain in Light.

Back in ’83, Talking Heads was on the verge of a mass breakthrough but the band was still relatively unknown by the mainstream. However, there was a cult of Heads followers, which included so-called college student ‘intellectuals’ who gravitated toward the band’s quirky lyrics and manic live performances. David Byrne’s odd looks and sense of humor helped seal the deal for kids looking for something adventurous – but nothing too frightening. As part of the Heads breakthrough, Speaking in Tongues, released in 1983, was kind of new-wavy but was ultimately a mainstream journey just different enough for those wanting a little more risk than, say, Bryan Adams.

Remain in Light (1980), on the other hand, was not mainstream thanks to punky/psychedelic production by Brian Eno punctuated by Adrian Belew’s trippy, dissonant and altered state-inducing guitar work. Byrne’s lyrics were almost impenetrable and provided expansive abstraction. Ironically, the record spawned a semi-hit – Once in a Lifetime – that helped put the Heads on the map. Over the years, Once in a Lifetime has become a staple on classic rock radio, which points to the evolution of taste. In 1980, the stations playing that song were more of the ‘underground’ nature. The rest of the songs on Remain in Light never saw the light of day on radio. They couldn’t. Either they were too long or too bizarre (Seen and Not Seen anyone?).

Stumbling into the party already stoned and wrecked was the perfect recipe for spinning Remain in Light, which I promptly put on the host’s turntable. There were other people at the party already stoned and wrecked and I couldn’t wait for the oozing Belew guitar solo that worms its way into Houses in Motion, just to watch other listeners react to the lysergic sonic soundscape.

When the solo hit, in my state, I felt it stretch forever, but I was digging it: every peak and valley sluicing through my synapse, a cosmological experience of innerspace, color and dissipating time. I was experiencing visionary geometrical imagery (that was some weed Laura had!) during Belew’s warpage – a psychedelic break that, apparently, others didn’t appreciate.

Laura, who was twice as ripped as I, looked at me and said (buried under Heads cacophony), “Your taste in music is fucked up.”

© 2017 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

This World of Vinyl is a Wild World

Takin’ It to the Streets
Doobie Brothers
BS 2899
Warner Bros.

Takin’ It to the Streets is a very precise, very analog listen.

Ted Templeman (Van Halen) produced and Steely Dan influenced, which isn’t a surprise since both Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter and Michael McDonald spent time with Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. Either way, this is my favorite McDonald-era Doobies joint because it’s just so sonically embracing on a melodic trip that grabs you.

For those not convinced that vinyl is the best (if not the only) way to hear music, you have to spin discs like Takin’ It to the Streets. It’s not about whether the music sounds ‘dated’ (Takin’ It to the Streets isn’t dated, its of a certain time), or if doesn’t quite fit within the oeuvre of an Ed Sheeran or a Mac DeMarco.

DeMarco, by the way, is a huge fan of Michael McDonald, a fact he revealed on Marc Maron’s WTF Podcast recently. DeMarco also had some interesting things to say about Steely Dan – a band he also loves. But he said things I don’t necessarily agree with when it comes to Steely Dan. Like Steely Dan is good for people who don’t necessarily want to be challenged.

Opposite of that, Steely Dan is challenging, instrumentally and lyrically. DeMarco’s complaint about Dan is their lack of emotional connection – but that’s the point and, ultimately, their music’s emotional connection.

Either way, this whole analog business, this vinyl business, has some people really angsty.

Fans vs. profiteers.

Music fans resent music profiteers. They resent shelf-stackers who buy everything up just to load their collections.

This world of vinyl is a wild world.

© 2017 Chris Barry

Never Leave a Record Unattended

What’s Going On
Marvin Gaye

A  few weeks back I was at 2nd & Charles in Naperville, IL, digging through crates of vinyl when I came across a pretty rough 1965 mono release of Decembers Children (And Everybody’s) by the Stones. The jacket was pretty beat up and the vinyl was dirty and scuffed (but no deep divots) and, I figured, a run through the Spin-Clean, and it would probably be relatively playable.

It had a price tag of $20 and my LP budget for that day was $25. So the inner debate started. Do I spend $20 on a rough and tumble Stones (probably as I’m currently in the process of building my Stones collection) or continue to hunt through the bins and buy 3-5 inexpensive LPs and stay within my budget (another probably)?

There appeared to be nobody else near the album bins, so I figured I’d continue digging and then come back to the Stones after I was finished flipping through the rest of the records in the store – a process which typically takes about an hour at this particular 2nd & Charles.

The mistake I made was leaving the Stones unattended because while I was going through the bins, I decided I’d bite and purchase the record. So I went back to where it was and…it was gone. My heart sank. I felt a surge of panic, like something was stolen from me. I looked around and didn’t see anyone carrying it with them – in fact, I didn’t see anyone else in the store.

I went to the clerk at the checkout counter and asked her if someone had just bought the Stones record and she said someone had – about 10 minutes ago.

What I learned from this miserable experience was never to leave records you may want unattended. From that point on, I decided that every time I go on a vinyl expedition, I was going to carry around with me every record I was thinking I may buy while digging through crates.

Is that rude to do so? To keep someone from accessing a record I’m carrying? I don’t care.

Is it a pain in the ass to carry arms full of records around with me while browsing? Yes. But, again, I don’t care.

Just the other day I grabbed up a well-loved Marvin Gaye What’s Going On and held on to it (with about 10 other possibilities) during my search.

When it came time to choose from my stack (of which What’s Going On was one of), I neatly replaced the ones I decided not to buy in their rightful place.

© 2017 Chris Barry

I’m Not Gonna Steal Your Fuckin’ Records

Let’s Get It On
Marvin Gaye
T 329V1

An empty jacket on the shelves means the store is keeping the corresponding LP behind the counter so you have to ask for it when you go up to pay.

I’ve seen this done with so-called premium or ‘rare’ records – the albums store owners think are going to get switched out with inferior records or – worse – stolen.

The stores have a million reasons why they do it: “people will slip an extra record into the sleeve,” “people will swap a beat up record with a record in good condition,” “people will slip the LP into their coat and walk out,” etc.

This retail practice is all about what people might do. Its indicative of a lack of trust that store owners have for their customers (or potential customers).

I get it – people steal shit. They shoplift. But if I decide not to come back to a store because I can’t examine the vinyl I’m about to purchase because the record’s being held hostage behind the counter, the store is probably going to lose a purchase – mine – and not just one but many. Many more purchases lost than any $5 (or $50) record jammed in someone’s pants.

But does a store care about its customers? If its one of those corporate stores like Half Price Books, probably not. They get so many people coming and going, they could care less who graces their threshold. The thing is though, if I feel disrespected, I’m not going back and I’m going to talk about the experience online in groups like Vinyl Addiction on Facebook. And write about it on this blog…and tweet about it.

Lets face it – empty jackets on the store shelves are a sign of disrespect. And condescending. And that you don’t matter. This is a larger customer service issue that goes deeper than trying to curtail shoplifting. It’s a corporate fear masked by a superiority complex that actually implies the customer doesn’t mean anything – that all customers are potential thieves.

Its anti-customer service.

As a paying consumer, I deserve the opportunity to look at what I’m about to buy. Not be christened as a potential thief.

© 2017 Chris Barry

Dump Your MP3 Music Files Now

Tres Hombres
ZZ Top
XPS 631

Digital files are the worst way to collect music. They’re an abomination. They’re anti-music.

These files don’t exist. They’re air. A bunch of 0s and 1s. They’re Justin Bieber.

If you listen to the great ZZ Top song “Master of Sparks” off Tres Hombres on vinyl, your first reaction may be what the fuck is going on there? Sounds like it was recorded in mud…but that’s the point. That’s how the little ‘ol band from Texas intended it. Muddy, nasty, sleazy. In fact, the whole album, produced by Bill Ham, sounds this way. And that’s why it’s so great. Its recording is an interpretation of the sound that ZZ Top was trying to capture at that time. It ain’t clean – it’s a garbled, glorious bloozy boozy mess.

Hear it as a digital file and it sounds tinny, unnatural and loud. The idea with digital – and this hearkens back to the CD days – was to ‘clean’ up vinyl. To eliminate any pops, ticks, scratches, pits – anything that may make extraneous noise on a record’s surface. Not a bad idea – especially if you have records that are so dinged up you can’t listen to them. But the idea with digital was also to either equalize everything out of the music or over-equalize it, boosting all levels and dumping dynamic range. Dynamic range in music is the difference between the quietest and loudest volume of an instrument, part or piece of music. Often, when things are reproduced digitally, this range becomes limited through compression, which allows for louder volume, but can make the recording sound lifeless.

This isn’t always the case with CDs – I have some that sound incredible but most sound wrong. Like those Beatles CDs that were released in the late ’80s. They’re way off compared to hearing them on vinyl. In fact, when I first purchased those discs back then, they almost destroyed my love for the Beatles they sounded so bad. Nothing emerged from those reproductions except disappointment.

Take MP3 files. They’re completely stripped of dynamic range. They’re dull coming out of little ear buds that further destroy sound quality. Sure, they’re easy to download and they’re portable but to what point? Take your music everywhere? Ultimately they underwhelm the music listening experience.

Here’s Neil Young’s take on digital music downloads: “It’s about sound quality. I don’t need my music to be devalued by the worst quality in the history of broadcasting or any other form of distribution. It’s bad for music.”

There’s another aspect to collecting albums as opposed to air-based files. Records are a physical representation, with actual tracks cut into grooves that vibrate (like sound waves) when a needle glides inside of them.

Albums are an actual product. Not only do you have the vinyl disc itself, but you have the jacket, the sleeve, lyric sheets – all those great real things that you can curate, see and hold.

© 2017 Chris Barry