Hunting Vinyl

My friend (also known as The Master of the Needle Drop) and I have a regular Sunday vinyl hunt. First we head over to a local foodie joint for brunch which usually consists of caffeine, booze mixed with juice, whatever fancy egg special they have concocted that week, Belgium waffles, and reindeer sausage. The wait staff all have great ink and the music varies between The Clash and Bob Marley. Good music always makes the food taste better. After discussions on the best way to improve old Star Trek shows we leave a good tip (always tip or just eat at home) and head out to search for the finest wax.

Now the two of us have fairly different tastes but they do overlap in many areas. The MND is a huge fan of prog rock, and Rush while I tend more towards punk and woman vocalists/riot grrl.  Still there are a lot of times we find ourselves grabbing the same music. That special edition pink vinyl of Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love, let go darn it. I saw it first.  Sometimes I will remind him of a band he hasn’t paid attention to for a while like the new Nightwish album, Endless Forms Most Beautiful. Or he will import the Garbage Version 2.0 from the UK (can I just say how amazing Shirley Manson sounds on vinyl?). The MND is a serious junkie when it comes down to the wax though. I often find myself having to remind him that he already has four copies of a particular album and really doesn’t have to have another just because it’s the release with the uncensored cover. Like all serious collectors he has a need for things to be complete. Why do it if you’re going to take half measures?  But he knows the real reason that we’re doing this, it’s about the music and when it comes right down to it, the sound.

Since I don’t currently have a turntable, I’ve been purchasing the vinyl and The MND cooks me up beautiful little pieces of sound for my earholes. These needle drops are carefully run from his turntable through an amplifier, manipulated to clean up any problems and sent my way.  He is The Stig to my James May. While we both have a deep and passionate love of music, he has the skills and the equipment to make it come out right. He also hangs out on the forums where he has gotten to know the people who truly make a difference when it comes to music. Not the artists but the folks who engineer it. When he pulls a record out and looks at the scribbles in the area after the grooves called the dead wax, he knows what they mean. The initials or even a picture of a pig will tell you who slaved to make that album have those sweet, sweet highs and mellow lows.

We start at a used book and music store, slowly digging through the stacks of vinyl pulling out ones that look likely and checking for condition. I often turn to The MND because he is more likely to recognize if a slight warp is going to make a record unplayable or not make any difference at all. There are the usual problems of cat hair and dust but sometimes you get mold or what looks like pot residue. Scratches from being kept in the cover without a sleeve or having the needle dragged across the record are common too. Sometimes you can find amazing gems, we have picked out holographic discs that market for hundreds of dollars for less than twenty or British pressings for the same. People aren’t going to give up Japanese or German pressings, most know how high quality they are, but a lot of people will miss an album that was pressed in Canada or Great Britain, not knowing how much better the sound is for the early recordings. You never know what you are going to run across. There could be stacks of Firesign Theatre comedy albums or someone may have brought in a complete collection of Kris Kristopherson. Whatever your tastes I recommend checking out the local used shop.

Then we head over to Barnes & Noble. They have jumped into the vinyl market full bore, realizing that there isn’t much money in CDs or DVDs any more but people will pay for good vinyl. Their selection is pretty damned random and they have to take whatever corporate sends them but the prices are decent.  Currently they seem to be having a tough time figuring out how to properly display all of it, even to the point of having some of the records leaning on each other in way that will warp them. You don’t need to just get old vinyl to find amazing music. The MND picked up a copy of Nevermind at Best Buy, the 2009 ORG pressing from the original analog tapes that has an incredible reputation for sound quality and he paid $24. I’m so sorry if you downloaded yours from ITunes. You do not know what you are missing. The best description I’ve heard is that analog fills in places that you can’t necessarily hear but that you feel. You sure feel that difference in Nevermind, it’s like being back at that moment when Grunge decimated hair bands all over again. I’ve seen articles that say Nevermind is overrated, perhaps that’s because they have only heard it in digital.

There are some kinds of music where digital is going to be your best way to go but for certain kinds of music analog makes all the difference in the world. When I listen to punk rock having it on vinyl and analog brings an element to the sound that is missing in digital. Even the hiss and pops make the rough edge of punk sound better. My experience with punk live is in little clubs with lousy acoustics, under tarps in the back of local businesses or downstairs in concrete bunkers, vinyl just recreates that experience. If you are looking for something to reconnect with your punk rock concert experience try The Damned’s Another Live Album. Not only does it sound amazing but they make an effort to school the audience on the history of punk.

Rap is the same way, in fact old school rap should only be listened to on vinyl. Many of the older albums were mixed specifically for the sound to be heard in analog. Hearing something that has been changed over to digital without being re-engineered for it is similar to coloring a B&W movie. If you have just started buying vinyl check to see how it was sourced, sometimes they just slap the digital music on the wax and call it a day. You might as well buy a CD for that. Look for words like original analog tapes and from original recording.

I saw an article about a guy who invented a device that you could hook up to a turntable and Bluetooth that would insert the clicks and pops of a needle going over vinyl on your MP3s. I’m only mentioning this because it’s clear that in rushing to report this little gizmo they missed the entire point of frelling vinyl. When The MND cooks me up some music he does his best to keep it clean. I’m not listening for the sound of a needle hitting dust, or the little fuzz that comes in a quiet moment that wouldn’t be there in an electronic recording. I’m listening for the way Mark Sandman’s bass can spread across the speakers like warm butter than mix with the sax to make your heart want to climb right out of your chest, during Morphine’s title song from their Good Album. Oh, heads up for those of you who are fans, they put Morphine back on vinyl and it is like sitting in a smoky little club having them up on the stage playing just for you. Without the drunk jerk who keeps yelling “Free Bird!”

We save the best stop for last.  Not too long ago a little record shop opened in our fair city called Obsessions. The name is apropos considering the kind of folks who come in looking for records including the two of us. It would be easy to dismiss us as snobs, hipsters and audiophiles who just want to have a hobby to wax eloquent about (see what I did there) but the fact is when I’m standing in Obsessions I see all ages and backgrounds. Soccer moms buying Frozen, folks my age trying to rebuild the vinyl collections they had to give up and teens buying Frank Sinatra. You can get new and used albums at Obsessions but the owner makes sure the used albums are in good shape and is a collector himself, so you will pay the price. However, he will look out for music you want, special order obscure titles, and make good deals when he knows you’re a regular customer.

These are the kinds of reasons I’d much rather buy local than from the net. Every week I check his Facebook page to see what came in and if there is something I can’t live without I leave him a message.  He was kind enough to hold the one copy of The Damned’s Machine Gun Etiquette even though it was almost impossible to get at that point.  So I always recommend finding a local record shop and getting to know the folks behind the counter. For all the stereotypes of them judging you for your tastes in music, they want to sell you stuff and will do their best to find what you want.

When I told my daughter about these trips she gave me the side eye and looked at the IPad tied into the Blue Tooth of her car. Why would I want to dig through dusty bins or pay twice as much for music that took up huge amounts of space just for that slight edge in sound difference? Certainly nostalgia has a bit to do with it, when I’m listening to Blue Oyster Cult’s Agents of Fortune on vinyl it takes me back to high school, sitting in Rick’s basement hearing it for the first time. Most of all it’s about music, I just love it. My first choice would be to see it live but the next closest step is going to be vinyl and I’m so glad that other people are starting to realize that again.

Peter Hill

About Peter Hill

Hunter of vinyl, lover of music, drinker of Guinness, causer of trouble and pounder of keyboard.

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