Yesterday (April 28), Bob Dylan’s latest album, Together Through Life came out. I had the pleasure of listening to the album the day it came out (I’m into pre-ordering things), and I have to say, there’s some pretty good stuff on there. I plan on writing a full-fledged review by the weekend, and I would right now, if not for the fact that 1)It’s like 3 o’clock in the morning and I’m only writing anything about the album right now because I have severe insomnia, and 2)I’m going to have massive amounts of really important, final-grade-determining homework for the rest of the week. So the review will have to wait until the weekend. Not that I’m expecting anyone to wait with bated breath for my review (besides maybe my mom, who is my most faithful reader and unfortunately has to wait until I come home from school to even hear this album).
Please, Sister Vinyl, Turn My Nightmares into Dreams… April 18, 2009
I might as well come out and say it, before it’s too late. Before the day comes when someone walks in and finds my cold lifeless body sprawled out on the floor, one futile hand reaching towards the needle. No, not the kind that administers drugs; I’m clean as a whistle in that respect. It’s the phonograph needle I’ll die reaching for. I can deny it no longer: I am a vinyl junkie.
What is it about this long-outmoded music format that makes me and countless others continue to value it so highly? I know some denouncers of MP3s and CDs who claim that some of the more subtle nuances in recordings are lost when converted to a digital format, and others say that digital music deteriorates over time and vinyl is much longer lasting. I don’t know how true these claims are, but if you ask me, what makes vinyl so appealing is its grainy, imperfect quality, which all other formats have succeeded in eradicating. As someone raised on cassettes and CDs, when I first expressed my interest in listening to vinyl, I was warned that the hisses and pops and occasional skips might take some getting used to. However, not only do these noises (besides the skips; they’re a real pain, and apparently nothing can be done about them) not bother me, but they actually enhance my listening experience by giving the music more of a personality. Recordings on MP3s and CDs sound consistently pristine (as long as the CD is kept safe from scratches and excessive fingerprints). It doesn’t matter how chaotic the music itself may be, every time you listen to a CD or MP3 recording of that song, it will still give you the same chaotic sound in perfect clarity. Vinyl is so much more personal. A record will not only play music just fine (as long as you maintain it well, as luckily my parents did, since at least 80% of my record collection is inherited from them), but those little snap-crackle-pops give it a nice organic quality, putting the music and the listener on the same plane. Listening to digital music is like being in the presence of a god, or some higher authority that I could never hope to achieve the status of. Which can be nice every now and then, but soon I start craving the company of something more approachable. Listening to vinyl is like being with an old friend, or some much-loved older relative that I can aspire to emulate some day. At the risk of sounding ridiculous for personifying a large hunk of plastic so, vinyl just seems so much friendlier than CDs or MP3s.
As mentioned in last month’s rant on iTunes, an album’s packaging can often add to its appeal. And when it comes to superb packaging, vinyl just can’t be beat. The size of vinyl albums allows for bigger and more detailed album art, and more room in the sleeve for freebies (the posters can be larger, and if you’re Alice Cooper and want to include a pair of frilly panties with every copy of your album, there’s plenty of room. No, seriously, Alice Cooper really did that back in the early ’70s). The sturdy, yet flexible cardboard structure of the record sleeve could even allow for artistic creativity that wouldn’t work with any other format’s packaging. The sleeve of The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers vinyl album has a working zipper attached to it (which, by the way, I could entertain myself for hours playing with. Hey, I’m easily amused). You can’t put a zipper on a jewel case (too stiff), or the front of a CD insert (too flimsy, and the zipper would could scratch the inside of the case, if you could even get it to fit inside the case), so a great deal of the album cover’s creativity was lost when the CD came out and they replaced the (un)zippable cardboard jeans with a boring flat version of the photograph, and — in an incredible lasp of judgement — put the previously underlying photo of a briefs-clad (and clearly stimulated) crotch on the back of the album, in plain sight of any unsuspecting child or sheltered teen (as I was at the time) who just wants to see the track listing and find out what track number “Sister Morphine” is (okay, I don’t know why an innocent kid or sheltered teen would be interested in hearing “Sister Morphine”. Maybe I should have suggested “Bitch” instead?). Another example of artistic brilliance in the album sleeve medium is Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick (which is in itself an example of musical brilliance: a 43-minute-long album consisting of a single song that’s epic in every sense of the word). The front cover looks like the front page of a newspaper, and upon unfolding the sleeve, one finds several pages of phony newspaper stories. It even folds and unfolds at the bottom, just as newspaper is often folded. This could be converted to a CD insert easier than the Sticky Fingers zipper could. But as an insert, it would be hard to read and probably couldn’t be folded at the bottom (which would probably result in the bottom portion of each page being cut off). In addition, part of the resemblance to an actual newspaper depended on the fact that album sleeves are roughly the same size as the average newspaper page.
Anyway, I’ve been wanting to post about my love for vinyl for a long time, believe me. But I thought today would be the perfect day for it, as I just found out a few days ago that today is something called Record Store Day (don’t worry if you’ve never heard of it; this is apparently only the second annual Record Store Day), a celebration held on the second Saturday of April every year (since last year, anyway) at various independent record stores all over this country and in several other countries, and promoted and celebrated by musicians who still believe in the power of vinyl (or at least the cause of physical, store-bought music, as opposed to music bought on the internet). There are artists putting out limited edition records and CDs especially to be sold at select record stores on this day and there’s musicians showing up at record stores that they probably wouldn’t be caught dead at any other day (not necessarily out of snobbery; the risk of being recognized and subsequently harassed is too great for most artists to walk right into some little record store any ol’ day of the week), some even playing concerts. And, as if he wasn’t already the biggest multitasker in today’s music industry, Jack White chose today to open up his own Nashville-based record store, Third Man Records, which sounds to me like the closest equivalent this generation has to The Beatles’ Apple Boutique (although hopefully White’s plans for Third Man Records won’t go sour prematurely. But since he’s not a quartet of worn-out drug-addled hippies, the odds are in his favor). So, if you’re as big a vinyl enthusiast as I am (or even half the vinyl enthusiast I am), go out and support your local record store today, if you can. I thought I wasn’t going to be able to, being stuck at college with limited transportation, but had the good fortune of sparking a friend’s interest in the event. And, since this friend has a car, I no longer have to settle for staying in my room listening to vinyl albums all day. Not that that’s a bad way to spend the day.
I have a bone to pick with “Q”… April 12, 2009
A couple weeks ago, I bought the latest issue of “Q” magazine (April 2009; the one with Lily Allen on the cover with black leopards), mostly for its listing of “The 25 Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Movies of All Time”. Since I love “Top [increment of 5]” lists almost as much as I love rock and roll related movies, I knew I had to get this issue and check it out. While I’m glad that the list includes under-appreciated masterpieces such as “HEAD” and “The Rutles”, as well as well-deserving popular films like “Almost Famous”, “A Hard Day’s Night”, and the immortal “This is Spinal Tap”, some of the inclusions in the list are inexplicable and/or inexcusable. Now, I can handle the inclusion of “The Doors” at #21. I myself abhor “The Doors”, finding it pretentious and, at times, baffling (for one thing, I can’t tell if Oliver Stone is trying to make Jim Morrison look like a hero or a jackass), and furthermore think the title is very misleading. It’s the title’s fault that I erroneously expected the film to be about the whole band and not just the lead singer (perhaps if Stone gave the film an honest title like “The Jim Morrison Story”, “Jim Morrison”, “The Lizard King”, “Mr. Mojo Risin'”, or even simply “Jim”, I may have been able to enjoy the film more and wouldn’t have been left feeling cheated by the lack of importance that Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger, or John Densmore have in the film). For all the personal issues that I have with “The Doors”, I can still recognize the film’s merit and understand why other people might love the film so much (I don’t think anyone else could have played Jim Morrison as well as Val Kilmer did. And his singing voice was perfect). What I can’t even begin to comprehend, however, is the list’s #22 entry, “Backbeat”, a film that I griped about in detail several weeks ago (if you missed my rant on “Backbeat”, you can read it here). As with “The Doors”, I honestly did try to look at “Backbeat” as objectively as I could, hoping to find something in it that might warrant its inclusion in this list. But no matter how objectively I try to view it, it still seems mediocre at best. The important characters are uninteresting, the interesting characters are unimportant, and the overpowering romance kills what could have been a powerful story about the tumultuous pre-fame years of a larger-than-life band. The film also suffers from gratuitous love scenes, lame jokes, and unforgivable historical inaccuracies. If there’s anyone reading this who disagrees with me and thinks “Backbeat” has any reason at all to be in the list, please, enlighten me (I’m serious. Feel free to comment. I’d appreciate the input).
Another thing I just don’t get is the inclusion of “Easy Rider” in the list. Yes, “Easy Rider” is an amazing and iconic movie. However, what I don’t get is why it’s included in a list of rock movies, when it is not, in fact, a rock movie. There are no musical artists in the movie, either as characters or as actors (well, Toni Basil’s in it, but this was over a decade before her one hit song, “Mickey”, came out. Back in 1969 when “Easy Rider” came out, she was known primarily as a choreographer. Not that there was anything for her to choreograph in “Easy Rider”). The film isn’t about music in any way, shape, or form. Yes, “Easy Rider” has a killer soundtrack that drives the action in the film. This I am well aware of. But if that’s all it needs to be included on the list, then why is “American Graffiti” not on the list as well? That movie has, arguably, just as good a storyline and soundtrack, and the film’s action is driven at least as much by its soundtrack as is “Easy Rider”. Plus, it has a subplot involving one of the characters meeting the elusive DJ Wolfman Jack and trying to win over the woman of his dreams through the power of radio, which makes it slightly more music-related than “Easy Rider” as far as plot goes. But did “American Graffiti” make the list? No. So what makes “Easy Rider” qualify as any more of a rock film, I’d like to know?
One other thing that really irks me about “Q” magazine’s “25 Greatest Rock ‘N’ Roll Movies Ever” list is its sexism, however unintentional that sexism might have been. Looking through the list, I noticed that not a single one of these films has a female as a main character (to my knowledge, the one that comes closest to having a female main character is “Almost Famous”, and, although Penny Lane has a more important presence in the film than any other supporting character with the possible exception of Russell Hammond, the film isn’t really so much about her as it is driven by her). Which is a real shame, when you consider that the list neglected “The Rose”, a heartbreaking film starring Bette Midler as the troubled Janis Joplin-based protagonist, but included the aforementioned barely-qualified films “Backbeat” and “Easy Rider”. I’m not saying “Q” intentionally excluded films with female main characters from their list; I’m just saying that there’s at least one film with a female main character that deserves more recognition than some of the films that wound up on the list.
I’m not saying the list is terrible; in fact, I quite enjoyed most of it. What I am saying is that it could have been much better. Which can only mean one thing, of course: eventually, I’m going to have to post my own list of top rock ‘n’ roll films to make up for the “Q” list’s shortcomings. I don’t know when I’ll get around to posting it. It may not be for a couple of weeks; it may not be for another month or so. But I’ve already gotten it into my swelled little head that it’s my duty to present my readers with the “definitive” list of rock-related films, and so it shall be done.