Albums on Vinyl: Quality, Cover Art, and Design

I grew up loving movies.  At a strangely young age, I  became fascinated with auteurs like Alfred Hitchcock and Krzysztof Kieslowski.  I loved seeing a full-length fulfillment of an inspired artistic vision.  My approach to music soon developed in parallel: I immersed myself in the form of the album.  I sought out the satisfaction and the thrill of slowly mapping the contours, ridges and valleys that make up a great album’s structure.

Last New Year’s, I received a record player as a gift for housing a few friends.  It was an extremely thoughtful and generous gift and has led me to start listening to vinyl.  I’d used a record player only a handful of times before (mostly at WRVU), but I’d never really I began with 2 records of my own and 3 I received as gifts, but I’ve steadily acquired a few more for a total of 11.  It’s a small collection, but I love having it.  I keep them all displayed around my apartment.

A few of my records lined up against the wall

I’ve written about digital listening habits before, but I want here just to take a moment to write about how much I have come to appreciate vinyl as a form.  I’m well aware of its limitations: records are expensive, the player much more so.  I would have never sought out these records if I hadn’t received a record player as a gift.  Records require maintenance (cleaning), careful handling, and storage space.  Furthermore, it’s just so easy to switch from one artist or album to another when listening to music digitally (CD’s have the same issue).

Vinyl forces you to listen to one album (or compilation) and nothing else, and you have to actively change out the music every 15-20 minutes to flip to the other side or put in a new record.  Records require a more active and focused form of listening to a single, extended musical experience.

Noise pollution records

In my limited recent experiences, some music tends to work better in this format than others.  Boards of Canada’s Geogaddi alternates between many short, 1-2 minute pieces and a smaller number of longer tracks, and unfortunately flipping through its 4 sides makes it sound a bit disjointed and incoherent as an album.  It never really hits the same stride it falls into when listened through without interruption.  The sound quality of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories is absolutely fantastic on vinyl, but it also loses a bit of momentum by being divided into 4 sides of 3 songs each.  Still, its two records are accompanied by impressive cover art and images.

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I have to confess that it’s actually rather rare that I notice a significant difference in sound quality between a compressed digital file and a record, but this does sometimes happen.  Random Access Memories in particular benefits from a more wholesome sound that brings out its theme of rediscovery that the French duo achieved through meticulous musicianship and live recordings.  The quiet, late-night soundscapes of Yo La Tengo’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out sound completely transformed on vinyl, and in a good way.  The record allowed me to hear entire layers of distant noises and intricate, interlocking rhythms in the back of the mix.  The fuzz of the reverb comes across clearer in a way that helps to accentuate the tightly-focused atmosphere.

A record’s cover artwork and design play an extremely important role that enhances the record to a greater extent than those of CDs.  The covers can be works of art themselves.  It’s easy to separate an mp3 file of a song from its associated cover art, but it’s impossible to separate a song played on a record in the same manner.  The cover art for And Then Nothing… is just right for the music: we see a familiar image of a home late at night where something is slightly amiss (the unexplained, alien-like light surrounding the figure on the far right).  The extended image on the inside flap shifts the balance the other way, with the “strangeness” of the crop circle overwhelming the “normal” neighborhood in the background.  This album works particularly well on vinyl, with its four sides feeling like four natural divisions of the music, which dwells in moody, contemplative tension with only a few moments of measured but strongly cathartic release.

And Then Nothing

Maybe my favorite of my own records is Night Drive by Chromatics, partially because it feels so fully intended to be played in this format.  Based in Portland, Chromatics began as a lo-fi post-punk outfit.  Prior to Night Drive’s 2007 release, the band fell apart, leaving only guitarist Adam Miller from the original lineup.  They returned with a drastically different sound, taking cues from Joy Division and New Order and echoing Italian-style disco.  Night Drive was cut to 10 tracks (due to “technical problems and time constraints”, according to Wikipedia) for its original release, but the version of it I obtained on vinyl contains the full intended experience:  15 tracks in 82 minutes over four sides.

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Singer Ruth Radelet’s icy vocals are perhaps the defining feature of the group’s sound.  She occupies the dramatic center of them music with finesse, shining amid the synth-pop glitz of “Mask” and on a magnificent cover of Kate Bush’sRunning Up That Hill”.  But her vocals are also applied with restraint, as instrumentals occupy nearly half of the album’s running time.  True to its title, Night Drive is a loose concept album that begins with a woman calling her boyfriend in the first track “The Telephone Call” to tell him that she’s going on a drive late at night represented in the second track “Night Drive”.  Chromatics’ 2013 follow-up Kill for Love (my 2012 album of the year) contains a brief – and tragic – allusion to the phone call concept that kicks  off Night Drive.  The album ends with her hurrying home in “Accelerator”, a lengthy instrumental played with the same chords as that title track.

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Night Drive feels labored over in its structure, becoming increasingly subliminal and abstract as it progresses until it feels like movie score.  Its pop songs are over by track 7, with the remaining tracks feeling like subliminal emotions floating through an exhausted mind at 4 in the morning.  Like the drive its protagonist embarks on, it feels like it’s going nowhere and everywhere at once.  On vinyl, it sounds eerily crisp and gorgeous.  The pop songs are as striking as before, but the lengthy passages of the second half more polished and detailed.  The 17-minute “Tick of the Clock”, which ended the original 10-track version of the album and appeared on the Drive soundtrack in shortened form, sounds better than ever, bringing out details in the arrangements of the lengthy electronic loop of the first section and the white noise of the last.

The cover art here is spectacular.  We see an image of a woman with long, bright, blue hair talking on a telephone colored in the same neon shade.  The impossible elements of the Lynchian image (the red lighting, possibly from a headlight, and the phone matching the woman’s hair color) push it into the abstract, but it’s still striking and erotic in a way that captures the album’s mood and Rudalet’s femme fatale mystique.  The back cover is designed like a film poster, and the records themselves are transparent, the product of the hard work put into every element of the album’s design by producer and multi-instrumentalist Johnny Jewel.

Not every record has to have so much work put into the design of its sleeve and accompanying material.  Echo & the Bunnymen’s Porcupine, for instance, works perfectly in its simple form with a thrilling cover image and not much else.  I also love only having to change the record out once (from side A to side B) to hear the whole thing.

Porcupine

I’ve heard warnings about how an over-reliance on the mass-consumption of digital files can lead to having a cheaper relationship to music.  As much as I have loved the access to new and old music that Spotify has provided me as an exploration tool, I think there is much truth to this.  On its own, vinyl has offered me a pricey but worthwhile way of reproaching music.  The sound really is better, especially for someone like myself who generally cares much more about atmosphere and production than melody and lyrics.  The quieter, more abstract pieces benefit the most through the increased sound quality.  The artwork plays a more pronounced role in its larger size, providing whole new layers of meaning and adding to the value I place on the album a whole.  When I look around at my small, carefully-selected collection of vinyl, I find myself attached to each one in a way that I simply cannot say about digital music or about CDs.  Each one has a story to tell – each is a  fully realized vision, a completed movie of its own.

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