Turntable Tales – Or Why I Love Vinyl

The last few weeks have been a curious process of learning not how to walk again but how to walk properly. I’d developed a perfunctory, flat-footed semblance of ambulation which allowed me to shuffle from A to B without too much of an ungainly wonk and minor discomfort in my recently rearranged ankle. When I went for some physio, it took them all of thirty seconds to explain what I was doing wrong and how I could get it right. The first day I went out without crutches was euphoric, despite cobbled streets keeping me at a shuffle and the headbutting of a light in the coffee shop as I focused solely on my foot and forgot about the remainder of my body. In the time since that day, each one has been better than the last and, this week in particular, I’ve been visiting some of my preferred haunts. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that they largely specialise in the retail of vinyl records. 

When I couldn’t walk, shuffle or even attain any kind of vertical presence, it wasn’t just record shopping but also vinyl listening which went out of the window. Unable to browse the racks, retrieve the discs, dust off the records and cue up the turntable, the sizeable Expedit, crammed with all sorts of wonderful albums, would taunt me from the back of the living room. Wireless streaming of iTunes and Spotify filled the gap as best it could, but it was no substitute for the ritual which is at the heart of my enjoyment of music. This afternoon, as I listened to ‘Ceremony‘ from a recently acquired original copy of ‘Substance‘, it struck me just how much I love the actual sound of vinyl as a medium for transmitting music. Yes, I’ve said before that my return to the turntable was down to the chronically awful mastering of CDs which reached its peak in the mid-Noughties, but it’s not really that which I’m talking about here.

The sound of nascent New Order was floating out across the room, lodging itself in my head in the way I find vinyl so often does. It didn’t burst out at me so much as share the same space. I’ll pay the price of the odd bit of crackle to hear some Bert Jansch breathing between the speakers or Moby Grape pushing to the edges of the room. CD sound is still, largely anyway, pretty good, but it’s not the same. As Echo & The Bunnymen‘s ‘Lips Like Sugar‘ was playing from the ‘Crystal Days‘ boxset earlier, the sound was rich, bold and full but I could tell it wasn’t vinyl. It sounded professional and it sounded good, but it didn’t set off the same process in my brain that vinyl does. I’m willing to accept that this might, in some way at least, be due to personal experience rather than scientifically provable discrepancies between one method of playback and another. And any such emotional attachment goes back a very long way.

I hadn’t asked for it and I can’t remember where it had come from. It looked second hand and was almost certainly the sort of thing which destroyed everything it came into contact with. It was my first record player and it was given to me at the age of six, so the wall full of vinyl behind me as I type this is all my dad’s fault. It’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it. It had a stacker as part of the spindle so you could line up five discs at once which would drop down automatically, one by one, as each finished. It made an awful noise, as vinyl crashed onto vinyl, but it was a fascinating and tactile experience for someone so young. This having happened in 1988, my first acquisitions included Kylie Minogue and Jive Bunny‘s many sterling megamix releases. They all came from the remaindered and ex-jukebox 7″ racks in BeWise in Newport, where such classic tracks could be added to your collection for 69p, if you didn’t fancy poorly made beige jumpers or shiny Eighties ties. I’d buy things that caught my eye, generally picking up one a week and having a fairly terrible strike rate. I have a vague memory of owning a Van Morrison and Cliff Richard duet and vague is probably the best way to keep it.

Since relocating last summer, I’m now blessed with having both an excellent independent record store and a wonderful second hand vinyl shop nearby. Thumbing the racks is one of life’s little pleasures, made all the more pleasurable by the knowledge that new stuff is getting added frequently and that, by and large, it’s all pretty decent. In many ways, the same palpable thrills that I got from swinging the rickety rack in Newport round in the late Eighties are present as I hunch over boxes of previously cherished records. Music by Emmylou Harris, Islet, Harry Nilsson, Gonjasufi, The Louvin Brothers, Michael Chapman, First Aid Kit, The Lovely Eggs, Mark Lanegan, Loudon Wainwright III and a number of others has entered this house on vinyl since the turn of the year. The combination of new and old is all part of the enjoyment, the purchasing of second vinyl rather more pleasant than rummaging through racks of scuffed, faded or cracked used CDs.

But let’s get back to that New Order record. I turned to the good lady at that point and commented that there’s something about the sound of a (well made) vinyl record which allows the sound to get inside your head. Nick Coleman, in his fantastic if terrifying account of losing the emotions surrounding music through hearing loss ‘The Train In The Night, talks of how he always associated what he listened to with architecture, the soundstage representing some sort of palpable 3D presence before him. I know what he means, and while a well-mastered CD can still be a pleasure to listen to, it’s often just there in front of you: an aural tart flaunting its wares. But, with so much of my vinyl collection, the music hovers above, around and inside me. New Order demonstrate this particularly well thanks to the nimble digits of Peter Hook producing basslines which pulse gently at my temples.

Listening to vinyl can be a frustrating experience at times, whether it’s the stubborn crackle worn into a record by equipment presumably rather similar to that which I received aged six or the dreaded and permanent blight of a skip. Tackling static isn’t always as easy as I’d like and off-centre pressings and warping can also present their own problems but they’re all things I’m willing to put up with for the emotional reward, the indescribable tingle, the very personal euphoria that a great song on a good pressing can provoke.

Why is vinyl’s popularity increasing? There are plenty of theories surrounding the need for a tactile involvement with music, the increased availability of new titles and the usual audiophile arguments, but I’d wager some of the rose-tinted, sentimental, misty-eyed waftiness I’ve detailed above has its part to play too. I’m sure I’d have found vinyl one way or another if it hadn’t been ingrained in me when I was young, but I remain incredibly glad that I was given that disc-destroying behemoth, instead of any number of gifts which might be bestowed upon a child only just starting to understand the world. I will forever remain both a fan and propagandist for vinyl, mainly because I hope that I’m not the only one who gets that familiar buzz from lowering the stylus into run-in groove and cranking up the volume. And then there’s the rhythmic and repetitive crackle of the runout groove, a firmly analogue reminder that there’s currently no music playing. And we can’t have that, can we?

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Uplifting News

As the HMV culling begins, with eleven branches and a Fopp having shut their doors this weekend, it’s a pleasure to be able to inform you of some rather more positive news in the world of music retail. Rise, 2010’s winner of the UK Independent Retailer of the Year award, has finally unveiled its online store and it’s none too shabby. Competitively priced, beautifully designed and with a comprehensive search option, navigating your way around it is actually a pleasant experience.

rise web1

You’ll find some startlingly good vinyl prices at the moment on numerous indie label releases from the last couple of years, along with some genuinely rare stuff at silly prices. Even more vinyl goodness is going to be listed on the site by the end of this week, so I’d keep your eyes peeled for what are some undeniably ridiculous bargains. Now, drenching Rise in hyperbole as I am, I should declare again my minor involvement in this music retailing behemoth. I’m doing some of the reviews for the site and you can already find my wordsmithery on the pages for the newies by Iron & Wine, The Decemberists and Jonny. In addition to this, you can find my sizeable review of the new album by The Low Anthem, ‘Smart Flesh’, here. The album’s great and I’m rather pleased with the review too. It’ll appear here in due course, but why not pop over and have a read. Then buy some stuff. I’m deadly serious about that. As we continue to see shops struggling to stay afloat, the old adage of ‘use it or lose it’ has never been more apt. If you want Rise to open a store near you then you’ll need it to be operating as a viable and successful business, which means supporting it however you can. Don’t read into that, by the way. I have no insider knowledge, but as their Warwick Arts Centre branch will close in the coming months due to lack of custom, it’s worth remembering that these places are few and far between. Continue reading “Uplifting News”

January Reviews–Iron & Wine, The Decemberists & Joan As Police Woman

A little late with these, but here are this month’s Clash appearances. There’s also a splendid double page piece on David Bowie’s masterwork, ‘Station To Station’, but I’ll refrain from posting it just now as you can all purchase the magazine at the moment, should you wish to read it.

I&W

IRON & WINE – ‘Kiss Each Other Clean’ (4AD)

If some voices are like Marmite – you love them or you hate them – then Sam Beam’s is like chocolate – velvety, rich and comfortingly familiar. After the broader sonic palette of ‘The Shepherd’s Dog’, this is rather more conventional fare, ‘Tree By The River’ joining the Iron & wine cannon of beautiful lullabies. Less folksy, more funky, ‘Kiss Each Other Clean’ is a rather more lively, sometimes even poppy record. Even with increased early-Seventies polish, a song like ‘Godless Brother In Love’ serves to demonstrate Beam’s majestic knack for melody, his mellifluous vocal left to drift atop twinkling harp and piano. 8/10

This one has continued to delight and captivate since I wrote this back when it was all snowy at the start of December. There is a much longer, and frankly more insightful, review of this which I’ve written for the Rise website which will be going live any day now. I’ll cross post it here in due course but take my word for it, you’ll be wanting this one. It’s less jarring than aspects of the last one could be and with flashes of the laidback beauty of ‘Our Endless Numbered Days’.

Jan reviews

THE DECEMBERISTS‘The King Is Dead’ (ROUGH TRADE)

There are times during this record when it’s hard not to be reminded of R.E.M. in full jangle mode. Think somewhere between ‘Green’ and ‘Out Of Time’ and you’ll not be far wrong. But who’s that in the corner? Why, it’s Peter Buck, who plays on three tracks and makes the audible link a little easier to understand. Shorn of the extravagance of ‘The Hazards Of Love’ and harking back to the relative simplicity of ‘Picaresque’, this latest offering is a finessed folk-rock record to bring a little taste of long summer evening drives to the glacial January gloom. 7/10

Again, there is an extended version of this available which also graces said record shop’s website. All in good time, all in good time. However, I think this one pretty much captures the spirit of the record. There are better Decemberists albums available and there are far stranger Decemberists albums available but, is it a worthy addition to their catalogue? Absolutely. A fabulously warm sound to this one and plenty of uplifting sing-song moments.

JOAN AS POLICE WOMAN – ‘The Deep Field’ (PLAY IT AGAIN SAM)

No difficult third album syndrome for Joan Wasser, building on the sublime and slinky soulful rock which made parts of ‘To Survive’ such a delight to hear. A deceptively textured musical backdrop is, nevertheless, left to play second fiddle to consistently remarkable vocals. Album stand-out ‘Human Condition’, all hand claps and whirling bass, is destined for discerning Sunday morning soundtracks. 7/10

I couldn’t help but laugh when I saw the printed version of this one. Clearly, one of the longer reviews had fallen through at the last minute as this text (60 words – one of the small pieces down the side) has been expanded into a 100 worder by splicing new phrases in amongst mine. I think it’s fairly clear that it’s not one voice speaking! Anyway, self-promotion aside, this is a slow-burner, I suspect, and will likely sound a lot better during long summer evenings. I do wish she could keep some of the songs a little nearer three than five minutes, mind you.

2011OTR

No More Broken Promises. Probably.

As per usual, there are various plans afoot for new features and the like as we enter a new year. Inevitably, some of these will then break down around May. A Week With… anyone? However, one splendid development is Just Played’s imminent association with the rather splendid music shop Rise, which you can find in Cheltenham, Warwick Arts Centre (if you’re quick) and, most impressively, at their flagship store in Bristol. Their new sales website goes live any day now and I’ll be doing my bit to keep them supplied with reviews. I can’t stress how supremely marvellous the shop is and please read this link as a massive endorsement of Rise as a place from which to get your tunes. If you’re near one now, dive in quickly for some amazing vinyl bargains, the likes of which I’ve mentioned on the Just Played Twitter feed of late. As my annual festive jaunt around the country has served to reinforce, there are very few decent record shops knocking around and I truly believe that it’s essential for people like us to support them and keep them alive. I have a sneaking suspicion that you’ll like the new Rise sales website, but I’ll leave you to all make up your own minds on that one. Their favourite albums of last year can be found here.

rise

Please keep recommending stuff via the usual methods of email or Twitter – it really does influence what gets covered and it is impossible to grow tired of trying new music. 2010 was the most consistent year of this site’s existence, with new content appearing regularly and prompting plenty of visits. Naturally, I’m keen for that to continue this year and, once again, am happy to listen to any and all suggestions for where we go from here.

The new Gorillaz album, ‘The Fall’, is my intended listening of the choice over the next day or two, and I’ll report back for the first feature of the year thereafter. Iron & Wine, The Decemberists, Joan As Police Woman, Treefight For Sunlight, Tom Williams & The Boat and the rather special new album by The Low Anthem will all get some attention in these early weeks of the year. As has now become customary, all 2011 music coverage will be tagged as part of ‘2011 On The Record’ and, by clicking on the image found below, you’ll be able to access all of the writing concerning this year as we go along. Feel free to try it out with the ‘2010 On The Record’ tag from the cloud below right if you’d like to see such magic in action. Following on from the NME’s excellent ‘Lost Albums’ issue which was more about records which might have passed people buy, and did a thoroughly good job of convincing you to go and seek them out, Just Played will be shining a light on albums which either sold bugger all to start with or which have faded from public view as time has passed. They won’t necessarily be classics nor will they completely fit the category of ‘lost’. They’ll just be good. As I said earlier, if you wish to make any suggestions for this or any other feature, say hello on Twitter for the quickest response.

Happy New Year!

2011OTR