Sunday, August 30, 2009

You spin me right round, baby!

Recently I got an exciting e-mail from a friend. He knew I'd been wanting a record player, and he'd seen one on sale for a limited time at Adding an extra dash of enticement, he mentioned that this turntable came with a USB connector — letting one rip vinyl to mp3. My friend's advice was that I snatch the item up "if you've got $50 to drop on something like this."

I did pony up $50 for that marginal piece of equipment. It's the homeliest, lowest-frill device I've ever laid eyes on, but it's given me reason to liberate my gorgeous LPs from their dusty cardboard prisons and, for that reason alone, I love this
ugly turntable.

These days, a lot of people don't quite get the point of a record player. And admittedly, much as I've always loved vinyl, my last turntable died about six years ago, so I'd kind of forgotten, too. But as I started playing LPs on my new Ion Audio USB device, I immediately recalled how much better it feels to play a record. It's not just that the sound is warmer. There's something reassuring about glancing across the room and seeing the record spin. (Like when you watch someone perform live, the idea that you can see something happening for you is kind of cool.) The format pretty much forces you to appreciate the sequence of the songs, which generally were arranged as they were for good reason. And if you're so inclined, you can even pick up the disc and examine the grooves of your favorite tracks. To me, all this is immeasurably superior to handling a plastic disc or, worse, an electronic file.

Then of course, there's the cover art. In these modern times, there's almost no point to cover art, but back in the day, man, was that a big part of buying a record. You tend to forget that until you actually look at those 12-inch beauties again. Recently, I was reading a reminiscence by a Bosnian War survivor about her fondness for Michael Jackson; while reviewing her blog entry, I couldn't help but covet the "Bad" vinyl in the accompanying photo. I never even thought of that as great cover art, but now I'm on a quest to find a copy of my own.

Along these lines, I've been having a rather frustrating time trying to find the album with my favorite cover shot of all time: Sade's "Love Deluxe." I mentioned this to my friend Scott the other day, and he said something along the lines of, "the one of Sade naked?" Typical guy response. Yes, she's naked! But that's not what makes it great cover art: First, I love the colors of the photo; she's so dark — darker than she is in reality — which looks really striking against the white background. Plus, the way the light hits her suggests that she's basking in something warm or amazing. That sense is heightened by her posture, which to me indicates not just bliss, but also dreaminess, and a sort of unapologetic romance that is totally backed up by the fantastic music on the album.

Unfortunately, the record is not so easy to find, and it tends to be pricey. I recently saw a "near mint" version on Discogs for something like 45 euros, a bit high for me. A better deal cropped up on eBay, and let me tell you I was sure I was going to win that auction. For days, no one seemed interested in countering my bid of 20 pounds, but at the last minute the album slipped through my fingers as I obliviously surfed the web. Worse, I had to suffer, as my co-worker Jackie would say, the "indignity" of seeing I lost by only a minuscule amount.

Of course, a slight disadvantage of records is their breakability. I have a dog who's fond of tossing her toys into the air and, about a week after I set up the Ion record player, my "1999" single almost met a cruel end. Right as the Purple One was really getting into the whole "I'd rather dance my life away" bit, my dog's much-chewed stuffed duck was flung through the stratosphere of my living room with great force, crash-landing on the vinyl but skidding off harmlessly, thank God. My dog was even able to fish the duck out from behind the sound system quickly and with no help from me, so it all ended well.

As for the turntable itself, it has some shortcomings. The Ion player is the only one I've ever had whose arm doesn't automatically return when it reaches the end of the disc. You actually have to get up and go lift the arm off the record — kind of a pain. The device didn't come with a cover either. But, you know, given the low $50 price tag, I can't complain too much. The mp3 conversion process is pretty easy too, though I wish the player had come with a longer USB cable.

The actual recording process is surprisingly nostalgic, in a slightly frustrating way. I'd almost forgotten about the stress of trying to make sure you hit the record button at just the right time, or realizing you'd overlooked a bit of stylus-tripping dust on the record. Ah, the hours I spent making tapes — agonizing both over the recording itself and the lettering on the labels. Those were the days.

In any event, it's definitely cool knowing I won't have to go out and re-buy some of my obscure (and in some cases slightly embarrassing) '70s and '80s tunes; with this device I can easily load such treasures as Kiss's "Shout It Out Loud," and the Cybill Shepherd/Maddie Hayes rendition of "Blue Moon" right onto my iPod for hours of enjoyment at my gym and elsewhere. But the greatest enjoyment will be here at home, where I can carefully wipe the dust off those luscious discs, lower the needle, and revel in the sounds of snaps and pops.

And though many people don't understand the allure, it's fun to bump into those who do. The other day I picked up the jazz classic "A Love Supreme" before proceeding to Shaw's for groceries. At Shaw's, the guy behind the fish counter queried me on my Newbury Comics shopping bag and, when I told him what it contained, he was enthusiastic. "Nothing sounds better than vinyl," he said, with great conviction, as he handed me my wild-salmon fillets. "Enjoy those with your John Coltrane." I certainly did.

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Copyright 2009-2010 by Sasha Sark. Please don't reuse without permission.
"West African Dark Blue Cloth" image is displayed courtesy of the Richard F. Brush Art Gallery at St. Lawrence University.