by Ken Laster
During this year’s holiday season I decided to set up my turntable which had been purchased during my college years back in the 70s. Sometime after the advent of CDs in the 80s my records and turntable had been relegated to storage in my basement. On rare occasions I would peruse through my collection, and at times I would bring a record to the radio station where I host a jazz show and play it over the air.
In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in vinyl long playing records (LP’s). Ironically, the impetus for this has not been from my generation which grew up with this medium, but with millennials who’s current popular format for music is digital streaming.
Digitization of the music industry has been a double edged sword. While there is more music available with unlimited streaming at the touch of your iPhone, music has also become a cheap commodity. The experience of discovery, acquiring and listening to your music is now so easy and commonplace that its value has been diminished.
The LP “experience” was a significant part of my formative years. Leafing through albums in the record store, marveling at the cover art, shelling out my hard earned cash, unwrapping, carefully handling the disk, setting the needle down on the spinning turntable is an experience that is totally lost in the digital age.
Listening to records was also a social experience. Untold hours were spent with friends taking in the music, passing around the album covers, reading the lyrics and liner notes, sharing our recently purchased LP’s, discovering new music together. Admittedly we were often stoned as we enjoyed the music and each other’s company. We listened to the music intently. It was not background noise or dance music. We listened to the lyric, musicianship, compositions and arrangements.
I am now re-discovering much of this experience. Listening to these old albums is like getting back together with old friends, re-experiencing some important times of our lives. My collection has some iconic rock albums (Meet the Beatles, Sargent Pepper, Electric Ladyland). However, my most cherished albums are those that introduced me to Jazz (Kind of Blue, Miles Smiles, A Love Supreme). I remember buying Miles Davis Bitches Brew at Sam Goody’s because I was enthralled by the artwork. That album along with Mahavishnu John McLaughlin’s Inner Mounting Flame introduced me to Jazz/Rock Fusion and eventually to Miles and Coltrane which began my obsession for Jazz. Those albums changed my life. Another life altering experience was listening to Chick Corea’s Light as a Feather. Playing this LP in my dark smoke filled dorm room one evening with new friends was responsible for hooking up with my wife of over 40 years.
But, enough of nostalgia. There really is something to recordings on vinyl. There is a warmth to the sound that is unique to this format . Vinyl fans had told me this, but I always discounted it. Digital is cleaner, more accurate, truer to the source, I always thought. But now I hear a lush warm sound that is comforting like a warm blanket over the music. It is a softening of the edges that is inherent in analog recordings compared to the antiseptic feel from a digital format.
Besides the obvious differences in packaging, handling and playing of records versus digital, there is something wonderful in the format itself. Records have a physical “limitation” of having two sides of about 20 minutes of music, 40 minutes in total. This is a perfect amount of time to stay immersed in the music. It requires you to get up and turn the disk after 20 minutes, keeping you engaged. Artists used this time-frame to sequence their songs into a cohesive story. I find that this format lends itself to listening to an entire album from the first track on Side One till the last one on Side Two. Not so with CD’s, which are nearly 1 1/2 hour in length, or streaming digital where single tracks and shuffle modes are more common.
I’ve only listened to a dozen or so albums in the last couple of days, but I look forward to getting to know my old records once again. And, due to the resurgence of vinyl, there are record shops here in Connecticut like The Telegraph in New London, or Integrity in Music (Wethersfield) where I can get lost flipping through isles of record bins and filling in the holes in my collection of classic Jazz releases, and maybe some new vinyl too!