Seeking The Perfect Groove
I recently faced a monumental decision. The Mrs. and I gave a turntable to our son John for Christmas. The turntable was the easy part. John is a music lover of the first order, and also has an appreciation for most things retro. I nice turntable is the place where those two things intersect. But the difficult questions was what to choose for the first album to go along with that turntable.
The choice was not made any easier by the fact that I was doing the shopping online. You know it – that place where the selection is virtually without limit. This is not like the old days where you could thumb through the bins at your favorite record store and stumble across something that was a million miles from your mind when you went through the store’s front door. I realize that those places still exist and I like the idea of patronizing them. But there were some deadlines involved and not a lot of time to meet them, so . . . yeah.
Looking back, we had also given a turntable to our daughter the year before but had been spared the deeply serious task of choosing her first record because she had already collected a few for playing on the equipment of her friends.
John has picked up at least some of his father’s fondness for jazz. He has listened to many of the things I have chosen for myself over the years, but has moved beyond those boundaries. You know that the seed has taken root when father hears unfamiliar jazz coming from son’s iPhone and son explains what it is and what he likes about it. Role reversal is not always bad.
Jazz being my own playground, I began there. John’s tastes tend a little more towards the progressive than do the old man’s, so the trick was to land on something I felt I could vouch for yet would be something he would appreciate. I eventually decided on Miles Davis’ seminal 1959 album Kind of Blue. Yes, sort of a safe choice, given that it regularly tops peoples’ lists of “Best Jazz Albums of All Time.” But I knew that he didn’t already own it. And if he didn’t like it, at least everyone who gazes over the collection he will build will see it and conclude that he has taste.
A few days later, I fired up my own copy (the lazy way, via my computer from the CD I had ripped into it.) Regular readers know that my method for listening to a new album is to do a deep dive, listening perhaps ten or fifteen times before moving on. The benefit of this method is that when I que up an album for a single quick listen, almost every note comes across as intimately familar to me, almost to the point where I can easily get lost in it.
Although I did not buy this album in my “vinyl era”, my mind soon went to the lost art of listening to music on an LP in this time of shuffles and custom playlists. Many millennials grab a track here and a song there and live with a “greatest hits” collection, which certainly has its benefits. An album, though, is something else altogether.
Although many of the earliest LP albums were simply collections of pieces recorded over a related series of sessions (such as Birth of the Cool, which Miles Davis and his nonette recorded in 1949 and 1950 and released on a collection of 78 rpm discs before an early 1950s reissue in LP form). A well produced album soon developed into a cohesive whole, with songs chosen and ordered in a way so as to take the listener on a journey with a defined beginning, middle and end. All punctuated by a little intermission midway through when it was time to flip the disc to side 2. Kind of Blue, a mere ten years after the beginnings of the LP, fit this formula perfectly. Three long tracks on side 1 and two even longer tracks on side 2 take the listener through a process where each side begins fresh and bright and ends mellow.
Older listeners will understand the significance of listening to a song in the context of its original album release. When you listen to a song in isolation, you can often remember what was the track that led into it, as well as the track that followed. This is why so many modern re-releases of classic jazz albums with multiple bonus tracks is so jarring to me. These tracks, often interesting and some even quite enjoyable, are simply not part of the original concept and turn a cohesive whole into a mishmash at the end. While it might be interesting to listen to Ella Fitzgerald begin a song not on the album and abrubtly call a halt when she hits a bad note, this is not the sort of thing that one can listen to over and over.
The album was also good for exposing a guy to music that did not grab right at first. Playing the side with a favorite song would generally force one to listen to a few other tracks that were not quite so catchy, but which , after a few listens, could become favorites themselves. We old-timers remember that our turntables lacked the “skip” button found on later CD players and iPods and how it was often so much trouble to get up, cross the room and manually carry the tone arm over a less favored song. Laziness could indeed be tied to stretching our musical boundaries.
Initial reports were generally positive, and our gift recipient was particularly happy with the deep, warm quality of classic analog sound. Which I found interesting because I remember when everyone was in awe of the newfound crispness and more pronounced highs and lows that came from that cutting edge digital technology. It is funny how vinyl LPs are becoming a kind of “luxury listening” instead of the inferior inconvenience that they had become by the early 1980s.
The whole enterprise is off to a good start as I understand that some additional vinyl purchases have been transacted by now. I hope that his choices allow him to bond with music in a new and richer way. However, I wonder if he will still be listening to an occasional record in another thirty years or so? Because that is what I want to do right now.
I bought myself a truly great turntable back in about 1997, a Garrard with a glass platter, the body cut out of a solid block of wood. Man, what a fabulous and gorgeous machine. I had to get rid of it when the marriage failed.
I made it back to my favorite record store, Headstone’s in Terre Haute, over the weekend. Got to take my son Garrett in. I told him that I didn’t expect him to truly understand how important that place was to me back in the day, but that I was exceedingly happy I got to share it with him. The same aging hippies still work there, and the used records still start at $2.
My own turntable is so very 80s, a programmable linear tracking Technics that I bought when I was in law school. Within a few years, CDs made it obsolete but I kept it around. I need to mess with the ground wire connection to solve an annoying hum, but beyond that it still works perfectly.
Technics! If I were to get back into vinyl today I would buy a Technics SL-1200 Mk II. Check my blog today; the turntable I’m cueing up is one of those. Fabulous, sturdy machines.
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While not having delved back into vinyl – or even owning a turntable – the appeal is easy to understand, if rather hard to articulate. Having twice becoming heir to a sizable number of LPs and 45s in the past year has likely spurred this along some.
On the flip side, my fourteen year old daughter has a turntable and an increasingly eclectic variety of vinyl. It ranges from a 45 of Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy” to her cherished Harpo Marx LP that we found in an unopened package (it had to be produced in the late 1950s). The love of vinyl glows strong in that one.
Oh boy, the 45s have not come out in eons around here. I was given some cast-off cast-offs as a tot and allowed to use the little 45-only player that my mother had from the early 50s. Johnny Horton’s Battle of New Orleans and Johnny Bond’s Hot Rod Lincoln both got played until you could barely understand the words.
It is fun to watch young people’s musical tastes start to gel.
Hah! I also have a Technics turntable down in the basement. It hasn’t revolved once in about 20 years, though. When we moved into this house, the kids were rather young and I didn’t even bother setting up the equipment. I thought for sure I would do it later but here we are, as we get ready to put this house on the market, still not set up.
Part of what killed LPs the first time was that many of them were just plain junk. I remember owning a copy of Steely Dan’s “Aja”, the pressing was horrible. It wasn’t the only new album I bought that was like that. Once we got to the CD era, I was able to hear Aja again, and discern all the things I had been missing. But, there is something neat about putting an album on the turntable and just letting it roll…
Mine has been set up the whole time we have lived here, but it is in a location where the TV is often in use, so not really handy. And I have not been able to find time to devote to sitting in a room just listening as when I was a single guy.
I am apparently one of those “older listeners [who] understand the significance of listening to a song in the context of its original album release.” When I still had a turntable I had a mental map of my favorite albums — which songs were on each side, how they related to and informed each other, etc. I think it fostered a greater appreciation of my favorite artists than today’s playlists, which are molded to the listener’s hyper-specific tastes and moods.
Yes, doesn’t your mental DJ cue up the next song from the album whenever you hear a single track played somewhere?
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It does indeed, J P! I rather love that.