There once was this ferocious blues-rock duo, and they were really good. Nope, I’m not talking about the White Stripes (who were also really good) or Boston heroines Mr. Airplane Man (again, really good). I’m referring to the Black Keys, whom I had the pleasure of interviewing and writing about for The Boston Globe right as their second album, “Thickfreakness,” was about to hit. I caught them at the tiny but seminal Cambridge, MA. club ,T.T. the Bear’s Place, where they absolutely tore the roof off the sucker. Afterwards, geeking out like my usual self, I asked Dan and Pat to sign my LP copy of their new album. They seemed flattered at the request and I handed them my black Sharpie marker. A moment later, a young woman came up and asked for their autographs too, just as they were about to hand me back my Sharpie. And then more people approached. They looked surprised, caught off guard. Adulation was new to them. They hadn’t brought anything — not pen nor pencil nor crayon — to sign with. “You keep it,” I told Pat and Dan with a grin, gesturing toward the marker. “I think you guys are gonna need it.” I was right, of course. They did. In no time at all, the Black Keys were everywhere, playing to huge crowds and headlining festivals. But to my mind, they’ve never matched what I saw and heard that night at T.T.’s : one of the most scorching sets by anyone, ever. Here’s the full version of the advance feature I filed with The Boston Globe on a then-little known combo from Ohio.
THE THICK, FREAKY GREATNESS OF THE BLACK KEYS
By Jonathan Perry
The source of the sound is, at first, almost impossible to believe. It’s a thick, bluesy snarl, rising through the dank haze like a dark flower blooming from ancient soil. That the clamor comes not from a nearly-as-ancient, African-American blues musician in the Mississippi hills but from a pair of 23-year-old white guys from Akron, Ohio who call themselves the Black Keys is as startling as the music itself.
The duo’s new album, “Thickfreakness”, is loaded with such revelations, not the least of which is the gritty vitality and scuffed-up swagger of songs that sound as old as the hills they set out to conjure. Small wonder, then, that the album is out on the Greenville, Miss. blues label Fat Possum, which happens to be home to the works of the region’s recording artists such as R.L. Burnside, T-Model Ford, and the late Junior Kimbrough, whose droning trance-blues “Everywhere I Go” the Black Keys convincingly cover on “Thickfreakness”. The CD’s release coincides with a headlining club tour that brings the Black Keys to T.T. the Bear’s Place tonight (they’ll also open for Beck at the FleetBoston Pavilion May 24).
“Where else were they (Fat Possum) going to go? All these blues guys were dying so they had to look to the suburbs,” deadpans Black Keys singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach, who’s one-half of the duo that also includes drummer Patrick Carney. “We like simplicity and rawness and American roots music, and in that sense it was a really good fit. But we’re definitely not trying to be a blues band or be on a blues label. I think we just play rock and roll – that’s the only way to really easily describe it.”
What makes the bass-less Black Keys compelling isn’t novelty, or the blurred cultural lines and musical distinctions between black and white, blues and rock, the rural South and the suburban Midwest – it’s the sheer quality of the songs. And after all, the emergence into the mainstream and commercial dominance of hip hop over the past couple of decades – not to mention rock and roll’s deep historical debt to rhythm and blues – long ago set the template for pop music as hybridized art form.
As if to drive this point home, on their 2002 debut, “The Big Come Up” (released on the tiny Alive label), the Black Keys covered both Kimbrough’s “Do The Rump” *and* the Beatles’ “She Said, She Said.” Despite its limited distribution, and the fact that the duo had never even played a live gig until after ‘The Big Come Up” was released, the disc received glowing reviews from publications far and wide including the Village Voice, Alternative Press, Mojo, and others.
The Black Keys are, understandably, reluctant to characterize themselves as a blues outfit, or to claim a cultural legacy they know isn’t theirs. From the start, Auerbach says over the phone from Akron, blues “was just one of the many things I think we’re capable of doing, and it’s music that we really love so we try not to think about it too much. We’re just making music we want to hear. We’re definitely not going to be the torch-bearers for blues, but we’re always going to have our influences, and they’re going to show.”
Those influences first took hold while Auerbach and Carney, who grew up around the corner from each other in Akron, were attending high school together and the guitarist heard Kimbrough’s “Sad Days Lonely Nights” album for the first time. “I just thought it was perfect in almost every way,” remembers Auerbach. “It was eerie and to the point and it just clicked with me.”
Auerbach soon began seeking out obscure yet influential bluesmen such as Doctor Ross, Joe Hill Louis, and Robert Nighthawk, and emulating their guitar techniques and resourceful, less-is-more approach. He also made several pilgrimages to Mississippi to seek out his heroes. Meanwhile, Carney was a drummer who owned a four-track recording machine and had access to his dad’s basement. “I was obsessed with early ‘50’s raw electric blues, ” Auerbach says. “Pat was listening to indie-rock, but we both loved soul music. That’s pretty much how it started. I’ve been playing open tunings and slide (guitar) and Pat plays rock and roll and rap beats and we have fun recording. (This) was never about getting a band and playing live. It was about getting into the basement and creating.”
“Thickfreakness” is an album that’s meant to be felt as much as heard, rigged with plunging riffs, Auerbach’s charcoal-smoke singing voice, and rhythmic pockets as deep as quicksand. It aims to grab listeners by their hips as well as their heads, and succeeds marvelously on both counts. Most of the material was recorded in Carney’s home studio in roughly 14 hours on a minimal budget, which suited the band just fine. “We really wanted not to think about the album too much,” Auerbach says. “People can get obsessed with something and ‘think it’ to death. You’ve gotta put it down and let it be because it’ll kill you if you don’t. (But) we can’t really go wrong as long as we stay honest. We’re just trying to do our thing.”
TICKING LIKE A TIME BOMB: Steve Wynn’s Tell-Tale Heart
By Jonathan Perry
Who would have thought that, some 25 years after he first became a leading light of the nascent American underground rock movement, Steve Wynn would be just hitting his stride? Along with the likes of R.E.M. and the Violent Femmes, Wynn’s much celebrated and short-lived outfit, the Dream Syndicate ushered in what was then called “college rock” that flew in the face of bloodless corporate rock (Asia/Styx/Toto) with *The Days of Wine & Roses*, one of rock’s few perfect debuts and an instant alternative classic.
Flash forward four presidents later to *tick … tick … tick*, Wynn’s latest work with his latest band, the Miracle 3 (who at this point, with three albums in five years, have been with him longer than the original incarnation of his L.A.-based Dream Syndicate. The new disc, the third in what he characterizes as “a trilogy” of recordings that began with Wynn’s 2001’s comeback masterstroke, *Here Come The Miracles*, sounds every bit as bristling, immediate, and mercurial as *Wine & Roses* did back in 1982.
“We spent three solid years on the road and the shows just kept getting harder and faster and louder and more seat-of-the-pants and frenzied,” says Wynn, whose band just polished off a 50-date European tour. “It was exciting and I wanted to get the feeling of the live show we were playing together on record.” Mission accomplished. Like *Miracles* and 2003’s *Static Transmission*, the new album was recorded in ten adrenalin-fueled days amid the desert heat of Tucson, Arizona, at Wavelab Studios. But Wynn claims he never intended to make a third album there.
“No, in fact I was determined not to go back to Tucson. I didn’t want to repeat myself or want it to become boring or repetitive” he says. “The songs this time were feeling more New York than Southwest, but I feel that, at this point, if I’m comfortable with the studio I can get what I want out of it. So it was really a New York record made in Tucson.”
If the Velvet Underground-inspired cover art (a chili pepper instead of a banana) doesn’t tip you off about Wynn’s New Yawk state of mind, the downtown sounds that recall the vintage bustle and nocturnal clatter of late ‘70’s/early ‘80’s Bowery post-punk hints at where his head was at. Whereas *Miracles* was marked by a marvelous sprawl and sense of space inspired by the desert, *tick* is something else altogether.
“I think there’s a claustrophobic sense of panic on this record, which is really the way things feel in the world right now,” Wynn says. “It’s a very brittle, angry, freaked-out, even vindictive kind of record. I’ve never done a lot of writing that’s political – even though I’m a very political person – because I’ve felt that not all but most rock writing that deals with politics oversimplifies things and reduces them to sloganeering and cliches. The best political songs are those that use a personal experience or a portrait as an allegory of something bigger, and that’s the way I prefer to write.” Wynn says the troubled track, “Freak Star”, for instance, “is about being overwhelmed by a presence that has no regard for reason or truth or implications down the line. And that can be a friend, a lover, or your president.”
While Wynn’s enigmatic post-Dream Syndicate ‘90’s work was always solid and occasionally stellar, his emotionally bracing, fiercely driven output in the new millennium has earned him unprecedented plaudits from all corners (*Uncut* just lavished *tick* with a four-star review). He’s heard the word “comeback” more times than he can count. And all because five years ago he finally felt ready to revisit his roots and embrace what made the Dream Syndicate’s *Wine & Roses* such a landmark. Remembering that the band had recorded it in five hours, flying on instinct and with lots of guitar, was a good start. Does he regret not having returned to the blueprint earlier? The answer is no.
“When I broke up the Dream Syndicate, the last thing I wanted to do was make more music that sounded like the Dream Syndicate,” Wynn says. “That would have been pointless. But after a certain point, it became fair game to do what I do best and, at the end of the day, what I like most: guitars, amps, distortion, drone, noise.” So, after all this time, is a Dream Syndicate reunion in the cards? He’s answered that question before, of course. Only now, Wynn is not quite as quite to dismiss the notion. This time, he answers with a definite … maybe.
“For the longest time I had no desire, but I have to say that at this point I could see doing it because maybe as you get older you get nostalgic or maybe just curious. The four people in the original Dream Syndicate (guitarist Karl Precoda; bassist Kendra Smith; drummer Dennis Duck) only played together one year. We made an album, an EP, did a bunch of shows, and that was it. I’d kinda be curious to see what we’d do now.”
Still, to shake things up, Wynn asked his friend, crime novelist George Pelecanos (whom he had first met after being tipped to the Dream Syndicate references in the author’s novels), to write some lyrics Wynn could put music to. Although he was initially reluctant, Wynn’s encouragement culminated in the Pelecanos-penned “Cindy, It Was Always You”– a dark poisonous track with a misanthropic protagonist, sung in the first person. “It’s a bit creepy, very unfiltered, but they’re his words so that made it easier to sing,” Wynn says with a laugh. “If all the songs were about me I’d be dead by now.”
David Crosby Q&A/ RollingStone.com/July 15, 1998
If David Crosby were a cat, he’d have used up the lion’s share of his nine lives by now — but David Crosby being David Crosby, he’d probably figure out a way to make it to ten. Call it good fortune or luck, miracle or circumstance, but the man is right when he claims that the truths of his sometimes painful, often remarkable, life are stranger than fiction.
Here’s a musician who’s been voted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame not once but *twice* for his work with two of the most celebrated bands of the 1960’s and ‘70’s: the Byrds and, of course, Crosby, Stills & Nash (and sometimes Young). Here’s a man who’s spent the better part of his very public life battling very public substance abuse problems (a battle that eventually led to a one-year prison term on weapons-related charges in 1985); who lived through a life-threatening motorcycle crash; and who underwent a life-saving liver transplant in 1995 that enabled him to stick around for the birth of his new baby, Django. No doubt about it: the peaks of the 57-year-old Crosby’s life have been breathtakingly high, and the valleys terribly, darkly, deep. Thankfully, these days he’s got a mountain-top view of the present.
At the moment, Crosby is touring the country with a new trio comprised of longtime Crosby, Stills & Nash multi-instrumentalist sideman Jeff Pevar, and a Los Angeles musician named James Raymond– who also just happens to be Crosby’s son; a son, in fact, who had been given up for adoption more than 30 years before.
With his adoptive parents’ blessing, Raymond had sought the records of his birth parents under California’s family adoption laws. During his search, Raymond’s birth mother, who had married and emigrated to Australia years earlier, confirmed that the name listed on the adoption papers was indeed the same guy who wrote “Deja Vu” and played Woodstock. Three years later, father and son are sharing the same stage.
Dubbed CPR — an acronym that refers to the band’s last names (as well as a somewhat more obvious life-saving procedure) — the band’s just released a debut album that takes up the themes that have consumed most of David Crosby’s life. And in addition to deeply personal songwriting from all three band members, the disc is built upon lushly intertwining, three-part harmony vocals and accomplished musicianship that weaves together strands of coffeehouse folk, the cool jazz-pop sheen of Steely Dan, and earthy and earnest classic rock. Sound familiar?
RollingStone.com: The past few years have been a series of beginnings for you between discovering your son James Raymond, having a new baby, and surviving your liver transplant. In a way, the experiences seem a bit surreal. Is it still hard for you to get your head around what’s happened to you?
Crosby: Oh yeah. If I hadn’t had that one-day-at-a-time-thing happening, I would’ve gotten swamped emotionally. But that stuff really works in helping you deal with overwhelming events if you practice it seriously. Ever since I went through the almost-dying thing, I’ve tried very hard to live in the present and take life a little bit at a time.
RS: There’s a haunting song on the new album called ‘Time is the Final Currency’ that’s fairly self-explanatory. Is this an example of how recent experiences have shaped your approach to songwriting?
Crosby: No question. To me, writing needs to be about real stuff our of your real life as much as humanly possible. I’ve always lived my life intensely and tried to write about those experiences, as opposed to writing abstract lyrics.
RS: On the new CPR song ‘Rusty and Blue’ there’s a lyric ‘People fascinate me / All my life.’ What is it about people in particular that fascinates you?
Crosby: People’s fear fascinates me; people’s courage and intelligence fascinate me. But I think more than anything, it’s people’s compassion for each other that fascinates me and draws me in completely. I love that about human beings, although I don’t think having a sense of compassion is all that common, unfortunately. But it’s something that should be celebrated.
RS: Your musical collaboration with your son James is an amazing story. How and when did you first meet James?
Crosby: I met him right after my operation. His adoptive parents — who are two of the sweetest people you could ever meet — had contacted me and told me that James had wanted to meet me. It was very emotional for me; I was very choked up. But James was very generous to me. He’s a really great guy. But some of it’s just *too * absurd. For instance, his wife gave birth to his son the day after he met me — so he became a father and met his father within 24 hours.
RS: At what point did you begin to think about the possibility of starting a band together?
Crosby: There was a point where I gave him some words, just some lyrics, and he took them and came back with a song. And I said to myself — oh boy! Here it comes. When he came back and had all kinds of ideas for melodies and stuff, I knew immediately.
RS: How was it writing and recording an album with your son? And how different is it to be out on the road with two guys who *aren’t* named Stephen Stills and Graham Nash?
Crosby: The working chemistry between the three of us is amazing; we write like crazy. And on stage we change and modify things constantly. We never play the songs the same way twice. It’s been really good. And it’s not like I’m quitting my day job — I love working with CSN — but it’s a great gift to be able to do something brand new. You need that. At this stage of my life, I don’t want to stay in one place too long without moving forward, without trying something new.
RS: Did you ever think you’d get to this point, where you’d still be making music at the end of the century?
Crosby: Nope. Back when I was a doper, I didn’t even think I’d make it to 30. But here I am.
RS: It’s been nearly 30 years since Crosby, Stills & Nash began writing and performing together — and you’re still doing it. What’s been the secret to the band’s legacy? Why do you think the music has endured?
Crosby: It’s gotta be the songs, man. We’re certainly not doing it on our looks.
Lost Boy Gary Wilson Reappears in NYC
By Jonathan Perry
Boston Phoenix Issue Date: September 19-26, 2002
The appointment for my telephone interview with Gary Wilson has come and gone when the press rep from New York’s Motel Records calls. She sounds a little frantic, like someone who’s misplaced her neighbor’s kid and is trying to stay calm. “I’ve got some bad news,” she says. “We can’t find Gary. We’ve lost him in New York.” Twenty-five years after he first appeared in, and then vanished from, public view after self-releasing a fascinating and utterly bizarre album called *You Think You Really Know Me*, Gary Wilson was nowhere to be found. Again.
When Gary disappeared for the first time, after a small legion of college radio listeners had championed the disc’s weird hybrid of proto-New Wave and self-lacerating, synth-soul, the woundedly defiant title of the record proved prophetic. Few folks really did know Gary Wilson, or at least what became of him. All that remained was Wilson’s intensely personal articulation of the peculiar world that inhabited the four walls of his bedroom in Endicott, New York. That and the memories of those who attended his shows at CBGB’s, where Wilson, backed by his band the Blind Dates, would sing songs called “Groovy Girls Make Love At The Beach” while rolling around in flour and milk.
Those ingredients were a core part of his act until “that got too weird”, as he puts it when he finally materializes for our interview the next day. The milk, he confesses, was eroding the gear. So he switched to just flour, which reminds him “of snow”. But even that, apparently, has caused problems. “You know what they did? They actually *hid* the goddamn bag (of flour) on me,” Wilson says of a special concert engagement in New York City a couple of nights earlier, held to celebrate the re-release of his long out-of-print album on Motel. “By the second show the bag disappeared and we had to go to the cook and get a little pan of it.”
After all these years, *Know Me* still sounds like an unnerving fusion of Steely Dan, the Talking Heads, and Bill Murray’s snail-oil slick lounge lizard on *Saturday Night Live*. Still, a chagrined Wilson confesses to being overwhelmed at the attention being lavished on his songs, 25 years after the fact. “It is (surreal) in a sense. I had gone into hibernation and disconnected myself from everything. When I had done (the album), I submitted it to all kinds of labels. And there were always some people who liked it but couldn’t quite figure out what to do with it. But I couldn’t figure out what the hell the problem was. I really put my heart and soul into it.”
When the folks at Motel heard an old copy, they knew they had to track Wilson down. They found him two weeks later in San Diego, playing piano with a lounge act in an Italian restaurant. When the label approached him about re-releasing the album, the 49-year-old Wilson was stunned. Although he had never stopped writing original material, *Know Me* was, after all, ancient history. And he was generally happy with his life in San Diego. “I’ve always been in working bands,” he says. “My father was like that too. He worked at IBM during the day and then he’s play the motel lounges at night. The lounge thing keeps your hands limber, you get to play music and it might be Mel Torme stuff but it’s cool, and a lot of the songs are well-constructed.”
No less well-constructed are the dozen weird basement dreams that constitute *Know Me*. They’re dreams populated with “cool chicks” and “sick trips” and of course Gary, who queries whether the “chromium bitch” and “groovy girls” in his head are “still into” his chrome. In one corner of Wilson’s psyche, there’s the disturbing instrumental squall of “Another Time I Could Have Loved You”. In another, the suicidal chill of “Loneliness” (one of several unsettling psychodramas here: when, for instance, Wilson claims that “my mind is filled with unbalanced things” on “You Keep On Looking”, you’re inclined to believe him). The signature tune, though, is the fever-dream curiosity, “6.4 = Make Out”, which he explains is the average length of an erect penis.
More Wilson dementia may be on the way. One of the reasons why he vanished from New York City this time was to travel upstate to his home in Endicott. Rooting around his bedroom, Wilson found a stash of old reel-to-reel tapes, and copies of his never-released instrumental album. Wilson’s even thinking about moving back to New York because, as he says, 25 years is “enough hibernation.” For now at least, it looks as though we’ve found Gary Wilson again. Better yet, it seems as though Wilson’s found a part of himself he too thought was lost forever.
View the original story.
The Clientele/Boston Globe Friday Music
By Jonathan Perry/Globe Correspondent
It always seems to be raining softly inside a Clientele song. A shaft or two of amber light may slant across a verse or a melody and linger for a moment, but what scant sun peeks through the British band’s melancholic skies usually precedes the next inevitable poetic downpour. The cumulative sensory effect – a sort of saturnine, wistful ache that suffuses the music – makes Clientele singer-guitarist Alasdair MacLean very happy. He rather enjoys, he says, capturing “that feeling of things slipping past.”
In fact, the group’s almost fetishistic preoccupation with the subjects of time, seasons, and the elements has haunted its music ever since the release of 2001’s “Suburban Light”, its critically lauded first album that was actually a compilation of the Clientele’s early singles. The band’s latest album, “The Violet Hour”, which came out this summer to instant raves (they’ll play T.T. the Bear’s Place Sept. 8), expands on those themes with even greater delicacy and sophistication. Arrangements are fashioned mostly from interwoven threads of glistening guitar, pastel washes of percussion, and cavernous chambers of echo and reverb that transforms MacLean’s dewy sigh of a voice to liquid glass. Again, slanted and enchanted songs about strolling through secluded churchyards, hidden lanes, and vanishing days are the order of the day.
“All of the members of the band grew up in very suburban, dead-end areas, and there’s that sense of airlessness in the suburbs,” says MacLean on the phone from London, referring to Clientele drummer Mark Keen and bassist James Hornsey, respectively. The inchoate desire, discontent, and reservoir of memory that tugs at compositions such as “When You and I Were Young” and “Everybody’s Gone”, it seems, was built into the band’s psyche from the beginning.
“Everybody does things very intensely, whether it’s making music or vandalizing property, because there’s nothing else to do,” MacLean adds. “And with that, you get a paradoxical sense of longing because you see lives and aspirations on the TV all the time that just can’t fit your reality. It really breeds this strange, surreal feeling. That sense of disconnectedness really has haunted me, and the way I’ve always tried to explain it is through music.”
This kind of heightened sensory perspective, MacLean says, has much to do with the group’s admiration for the work of surrealist artist Joseph Cornell. “The very most basic thing about surrealism is that it’s found in the everyday,” MacLean says. “(Cornell) was finding very beautiful things and very incongruous things in the everyday flotsam and jetsam of life. And that’s really what our music is about too.” Indeed, MacLean’s favorite track, “Voices in the Mall”, exquisitely recaptures the sensation he had as a teenager taking a weekend trip to a sparkling new suburban shopping complex with his mother. “It just seemed very beautiful, this kind of yellow light spilling out everywhere, and the music, and the people talking,” he recalls. “That feeling always stayed with me.”
Initially, more fans in America seemed to embrace the Clientele’s impressionistic approach than did listeners in England. When “Suburban Light” was released, for instance, publications like *Time Out NY* called the Clientele “one of pop music’s best kept secrets.” It’s sister publication overseas, *Time Out London*, meanwhile, apparently had no idea who or what the Clientele was. Even the band’s label, Merge Records, is based in North Carolina, and run by the Chapel Hill indie-rock band Superchunk. Steady touring, however, and the glowing press surrounding the release of “The Violet Hour” has raised the trio’s profile considerably. “Even the NME (the British music magazine New Musical Express) gave us a really good review which shocked me, you know?” MacLean says with a laugh. “So we’ve kind of come out of our doldrums of being a prophet everywhere except our hometown.”
“The Violet Hour” is much more musically nuanced and subtly adventuresome than its predecessor. There are, for example, shades of the Velvet Underground’s darkly inquisitive brand of instrumental exploration that MacLean believes is the difference between fledgling musicians struggling to find their creative footing and a fully integrated, intuitive live unit that’s played together for six years now. “The first gigs we played were humiliating. *We* could tell how awful it sounded,” MacLean remembers. “But it does take awhile to learn how to listen and to predict how another musician is going to play, and I think that has gradually happened.”
The other thing that happened was that, instead of merely taking their cues from the pop artists whose work informed “Suburban Light” – Love, the Zombies, Galaxie 500, Felt – the trio began devouring jazz albums by Archie Shepp, Alice Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders, and John Coltrane. They listened to the ebb and flow of the rhythm sections, and marveled at their fluidity and elasticity. “What we really wanted to do was capture that feeling of flowing,” MacLean says. “I can’t claim that I play the guitar as well as Pharaoh Sanders plays the sax, but in our own humble way, we were trying to use a lot of the ideas that they did. It would take a lifetime to learn how to play like them, anyway.”
Strapped for the cash necessary to work on “The Violet Hour” in a proper studio, the Clientele opted to test the embryonic new material on the road, where the songs routinely stretched, metamorphosed, and took unexpected instrumental detours in performance. “As always, the financial side of it helped shape how (the album) turned out,” MacLean says. “The process of selection happened that way, and how the songs were going to sound happened that way. It got thrashed out at various festivals and shows, so in the end it kind of wrote itself and sequenced itself.”
Still, there’s an intangible, enigmatic quality to the Clientele’s music that can’t be deciphered by such a simple formula as touring. MacLean claims there’s no big mystery. “The only thing I need to write is quiet and a Dictaphone, and a Spanish guitar, and a certain type of contemplative hangover,” he says. “Those are the four ingredients to a Clientele song. And I think having given away that secret, anyone can write Clientele songs now. It’s not that hard.”
The Vinyl Revival
The Boston Globe
By Jonathan Perry, Globe Correspondent
Monica Morgan, an 18-year-old high school student from Jacksonville, Fla., is taking a breather from a day spent scouting prospective colleges in and around Boston. She is standing inside Newbury Comics in Cambridge, scouring the bins of vinyl in front of her. Facing her are rows of new LP releases by artists such as Gnarls Barkley and Bjork. The colorful album covers catch her eye.
“My dad just gave me a record player so I mostly like to buy vinyl,” said Morgan, who added that she does not download music from the Internet. She does play compact discs in her computer, but her latest love is record albums, both new and old. “I have some old Beatles records with my mom’s maiden name on them. I just like the way it sounds.”
Almost any other decade – the ‘50’s, ‘60s, ‘70s, even most of the ‘80’s – this scenario would have been ordinary. But the scene – a teenager perusing stacks of cumbersome vinyl in a sleek digital age that has all but rendered the CD obsolete – was unfolding on a Friday afternoon in 2008. And it is one that is being replicated, in still-small numbers but with increasing frequency across the country, according to industry experts, music retailers, and record store owners.
“It’s unbelievable how much vinyl’s coming out,” says Josh Bizar, sales director for Music Direct, a company that specializes in analog products ranging from new and reissued vinyl to turntables and stereo equipment. “We’re seeing this explosion of young people under 25 who never even saw an LP as a child running towards a format that was pronounced dead before they were even born. But we’re seeing so much vinyl coming in our door that we’re having a hard time keeping up with it. If a title has any kind of mass appeal, it’s coming out on vinyl today.”
These days, the push for vinyl has as much to do with the musician as it does a retailer or record label. Elvis Costello, for instance, issued his new album, “Momofuku,” on vinyl two weeks before the CD and digital versions were released. And the Raconteurs, led by White Stripes frontman Jack White, recommended that listeners hear their new album, “Consolers of the Lonely,” on vinyl (it is also available on compact disc and as a digital download). Although White says he does listen both to CDs and an iPod in the car, wax is what he chooses most of the time when he’s at home.
“I prefer vinyl,” White says. “We talk about this backstage, as musicians it comes up a lot. It’s a shame the new generation is missing out on albums – not just the sound quality, but the artwork, the experience of holding something tangible in your hands, of being more a part of the band’s experience.” But droves of listeners have begun to follow White’s example.
Music Direct, which services between 250 to 300 independent record stores in the U.S. and major distributors in Europe, Asia, and South Africa, does stock more modern amenities such as CD’s and MP3 players. But it is the company’s analog-related inventory that is causing a stir: sales of albums, turntables, needle cartridges, record cleaners have jumped 300 percent in each of the last four years, according to Bizar. Sales of turntables, which can run anywhere from $150 to $24,000 – including models that can now transfer vinyl tracks to a listener’s portable player or computer – have spiked 500 percent annually during the same time span.
“They cannot make them fast enough,” says Bizar. “Now, people are burning their LPs into their computers and putting it into (their online song library) for portability.” But the old way of listening to music, it appears, has a new cache. “Owning a record album is certainly a lot cooler than owning a digital subset of zeroes and ones on a computer. And the simple act of playing an LP takes a certain single-mindedness that seems to go beyond today’s culture of sensory overload and multi-tasking. It’s not something you do while you’re playing video games or riding the bus. It’s not as easy as just pushing a button.”
Mike Dreese, founder of the New England music chain Newbury Comics, says a vinyl revival “is definitely happening.” His company’s vinyl sales, which had been increasing at an annual rate of about 20 percent over the past five years, are suddenly 80 percent higher than they were at this time last year. Meanwhile, he adds, CD sales at his stores have dropped about 15 percent since last year.
“Right now, we’re selling about $100,000 a month worth of vinyl on an overall corporate number that may be about $6 million a month, so it’s not a huge number, but it’s a non-trivial piece,” says Dreese. “It’s definitely accelerating upward.”
But why analog vinyl, and why now? Dreese blames the sterility of current technology. “I think there’s a lot of people who are looking for some kind of a throwback to something that’s tangible,” Dreese says, “Holding an album jacket is a hell of a lot more meaningful than holding a CD, let alone holding up the LED’s (light emitting diodes) on your MP3 player. The CD was a tremendous sonic package, but from a graphic standpoint, it was a disaster. People still want a connection to an artist, and vinyl connects them in a way that an erasable file doesn’t.”
Vinyl overs insist that analog records sound warmer and fuller, as opposed to the brighter yet brittle digital experience of CDs. The compressed sound of MP3s, meanwhile, sacrifices both the highest and lowest ends of the sonic spectrum.
Merge Records founder Mac McCaughan estimates that out of every 10 albums his label puts out as either a digital download or CD, eight also get a vinyl release. Still, he doesn’t want to make too much of what he characterizes as “a trend with a very low ceiling. It’s not going to come back and all of a sudden replace CDs or MP3’s. But if you do it right and make the vinyl heavy and make the packaging nice, it’s everything that people liked about music in the first place.”
Then there’s what Bizar calls “the collectability issue.”A deluxe, limited edition box set of Radiohead’s 2007 album, “In Rainbows,” which contained two LPs, CDs, a DVD, book and lyric sheet and retailed for about $80, sold out briskly. A recent search on the eBay auction site found the now out-of-print package selling anywhere between $150 to $300. “The minute they go out of print, the prices skyrocket,” says Bizar. “I’d like to see your Wall Street readers find a 150 percent return on their investment within six months.”
Nick Poggia, 25, owned LPs even before his parents bought him a turntable for his 16th birthday. He buys even more vinyl now. “I got into it because the music I was trying to find was only available in that format – like early ‘80s punk rock records,” says Poggia, who also runs a small Boston-based label called Painkiller Records (yes, he presses vinyl). “No one cares about CDs anymore, but someone will still buy an album because it’s got the huge artwork and is a limited pressing. That’s the biggest draw.”
New releases are typically being pressed on vinyl in quantities of about 10,000 per title, according to Bizar. But when it comes to the demand for lavish reissues by iconic artists such as Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Miles Davis, or John Coltrane, that number can double or even triple. Bizar notes that last year his company saw 35,000 advance orders for the four-LP edition of Led Zeppelin’s “Mothership,”a career-spanning collection released this spring. While that is certainly a far cry from vinyl’s heyday of the 1970s – when millions of sales, not thousands, were commonplace – Bizar calls the demand for a bulky box set that retails for about $60 a pop “astonishing.”
High-profile vinyl projects currently in the works include a seven-album LP box set that compiles all of the Doors albums, and reissues of the entire Metallica catalog on LP – on a choice of not one but two vinyl formats: Either as a single 33 1/3 rpm LP or as a deluxe double LP set pressed at 45-rpm speed, which experts say is the new reissue standard for top-of-the-line quality.
“Sure, record sales now are just a small blip on the music industry radar,” says Bizar. “But with the major labels losing so much money because of the erosion of CD sales – down 40 percent since the year 2000 – a few million dollars’ worth of LP sales is appealing to them.”
As an enticement for consumers to buy an entire record rather than a 99-cent download of a single, artists and record labels now usually include a CD version of the album with the LP package gratis, or enclose a secret code number that allows listeners to freely download the album they just bought on vinyl.
The idea represents a happy compromise for convenience-minded consumers, and artists who want their creative work to be something more substantive than a digital download. “It’s got to be a little frustrating that when the day’s done, there’s not that much tangible there,” Dreese says. “If you’re an artist, you’re like, ‘What do I have to show my grand kids?’ ”
No one artist has single-handedly released more records over the past 15 years than Robert Pollard, both solo and with his band Guided By Voices. In addition to CDs, the prolific singer-songwriter has released dozens of albums on labels large and small, as well as through his own in-house imprints. The vinyl version of his new album, “Robert Pollard Is Off To Business,” due out this month on his own label, will also include a coupon for a digital download.
“I have to have vinyl,” says Pollard who last year released two albums simultaneously on both vinyl and CD for Merge Records. “We have to do a limited pressing of vinyl because to me, it’s psychological. If it’s not on an LP it’s not real. Anybody can make a CD, but as we used to say, ‘vinyl’s final.’ ” Pollard presses between 500 and 1,000 copies of each title, which routinely sell out quickly. “It’s not to create instant collectibles – I’ve never wanted to do that,” notes Pollard. “The reason we keep it limited is, we know our target audience.” Pollard presses between 500 and 1000 copies of each title, which tend to sell out quickly.
Although he admits to not buying many new titles on vinyl anymore – he’s grown accustomed to listening to compact discs, which to him sound crisper and louder than newly pressed LPs (thus continuing an audio debate that has raged since CDs became the music industry standard in the mid-1980’s) – Pollard is heartened by the renewed interest in the music-listening format he grew up with. “It revives what was exciting about walking into a record store to begin with,” says Pollard, 50. “You’d see all these album covers on the wall. You can’t do that with CD covers.”
Earlier this year, Evan Shore, singer-guitarist for the popular Boston garage band, Muck & the Mires, announced that his band’s next EP would be a “vinyl-only release.” With a European tour scheduled this summer, he says, the reasoning was simple. “First of all, we’ve got product to sell when we get to Europe – vinyl is huge in Europe, it’s never died down,” says Shore. “And vinyl really goes hand in hand with the type of music we play. People who are into sixties garage rock and roll are into vinyl.” In fact, adds Muck & the Mires drummer Linda Shore (who is married to the band’s frontman), “we couldn’t sell the CD’s we brought with us last time. But the records are gone.”
Evan Shore believes a “revolt” against mass-produced and what he insists is inferior-sounding technology is afoot. “Nothing beats vinyl,” he says. “They tried to tell us that compact discs sounded better and everybody knows they didn’t. And now, MP3’s sound worse than compact discs. I do downloads. I own CD’s. But there’s something special about vinyl that you can’t replace. And I’ll tell you, as an artist, opening up a box of records is the most exciting thing there is.
Shore doesn’t have to convince Geoff Chase of the virtues of vinyl. Chase, of Watertown, was at Newbury Comics one recent afternoon, checking out John Lennon and Pink Floyd LP reissues. The 40-year-old self-described “classic rock guy” says he had stopped buying records for awhile because many older titles weren’t available on LP to replace his worn copies. Until now.
“What got me back into it big time,” said Chase, an audio engineer, “was that one day I found an old (stereo) receiver on the sidewalk and thought it was toast.” But he took it home, hooked the receiver up to his turntable, and put on his old copy of AC/DC’s “Back In Black.”
“I could not believe how good it sounded,” said Chase. “I was blown away.”