Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Vinyl Countdown

Local bands go on the record

This week, Some Kind of Salvation, the new album by The Features, will be released on vinyl—and vinyl only. You won't be able to buy a download or a CD for another few weeks. That's a calculated move by a band who profess that "with the speed at 33-and-one-third I will be / the happiest person that I know." And this tactic is reminiscent of Pearl Jam's strategy for the release of Vitalogy in 1994—just subtract the download angle, which wasn't an option then.

Of course, Pearl Jam's ploy didn't prevent the decline of vinyl, which continued steadily through the '90s, but The Features' move of giving vinyl a head start is a sign of the times, as the resurgence of the once-moribund format hits Nashville in earnest. (Pre-orders for the LP have been surprisingly brisk, says Features manager Rory Daigle.)

The Raconteurs don't want to force anyone into any particular format, which is why they released their latest album, Consolers of the Lonely, in every form imaginable—even as a mobile phone download in Japan—all at the same time. Still, in their promotional materials the band "recommend hearing it on vinyl." Just a suggestion, they say, because "the choice is of course up to the listener." The listener, for her part, is increasingly choosing vinyl—though in the case of The Raconteurs, that choice won't come cheap at upwards of $25. Granted, that's for a two-LP, 180-gram gatefold package that, for any serious record collector, is a thing of beauty and definitely worth it.

But if vinyl is so great, why did we ever start listening to music on CDs in the first place?

A story told by studio owner and engineer Walter Sear several years ago in Tape Op magazine goes something like this: At a music industry trade show in the 1980s, the powers that were at the time introduced the Compact Disc. To demonstrate this new format's digital powers, they did an A/B test, alternately playing a vinyl LP and a CD. Everyone agreed—that the vinyl sounded better. But music sales were slumping, and the industry was eager to introduce a new format as a way to generate interest and resell their back catalogs. The rest is history.

The CD may be history soon, too, though it's been functionally obsolete for some time. An LP has heft and feels like it's worth something. A CD, on the other hand, feels cheap and disposable. And thanks to software like iTunes, it largely is. Once you import the music from a CD to your computer library, where it is easily searchable, rankable, playlistable and all the rest, what's that piece of plastic—and its easily cracked case—really worth?

"Everyone is so tired of buying CDs," says Aaron Hartley, who runs local label and management company Theory 8. He's considering a plan to do something comparable to the Sub Pop Singles Club—a subscription that would entitle the buyer to a whole series of releases, all on vinyl. Though he's not sure he'll do it, the idea does appeal to him. "I have a goal to release them steadily with up-and-coming acts to better document our scene," Hartley says. "I want to make it old school and find creative bands who want to do color vinyl with crazy packaging." Moreover, vinyl is not just a format from the past making a comeback—it's the future. "In 10 years," Hartley says, "people will look back at the vinyl releases with much more respect and admiration than just a bunch of obsolete CDs."

It probably won't take 10 years, though. Local label Infinity Cat—home to JEFF the Brotherhood, MEEMAW and Skyblazer, among others—recently decided to forego CDs altogether for major releases. While that's partly an aesthetic choice, it's also a practical one. "When our bands are on the road," label head Robert Ellis Orrall says, "vinyl outsells CDs 10-1." And while he's not taking that as a bellwether for the music industry as a whole, he says that "for our audience—for the Infinity Cat niche that we fill—those kids want vinyl."

That audience in particular—or the larger audience of music consumers who prefer vinyl in general—may always be a niche market, but it is growing, especially among younger listeners. "The vinyl format is most popular right now with exactly the generation that everybody is saying is all-digital, all-iPod, all-download," Doyle Davis of Grimey's told the Scene three weeks ago ("[A Few] New Kids on the Block," Sept. 18).

"One thing that put us over the top," Orrall says of his label's decision to move to vinyl, "is that United, where we have our records pressed, offers the download coupon." Orrall is referring to United Record Pressing, located on Chestnut Street in Nashville. When you buy a vinyl record that was pressed at United, you also get a coupon entitling you to one free download of the entire album in MP3 format. Labels have experimented with this concept before, and the vinyl-plus-download model seems to be picking up steam. United has offered the service since December 2007.

"It's been a real success for us," says United's Jay Millar. "In addition to making it easier for vinyl fans to have digital versions of their music for their car or MP3 player, it's opened the door to new vinyl consumers." As Millar notes, the math is pretty simple: "For the person who was only going to buy the digital files, it gives them the option of paying $9.99 for a record on iTunes or paying $12.99 or $15.99 for the same thing at Grimey's and also getting the vinyl with the huge artwork, liner notes and such." Infinity Cat sells the 12-inch vinyl version of The Boyz R Back in Town, the latest by JEFF the Brotherhood, for $10—essentially the same price as the download alone on sites like iTunes.

According to Orrall, all of this begs the question, "Why do you need to make CDs?" Sure, they're cheap, but that's also part of the problem. "We can all make CDs," he says. "Vinyl just feels more special."

"Gorilla Man" 7-inch
Caitlin Rose (Theory 8)
It's fitting that Caitlin Rose should give us these songs on vinyl, given that she seems to have fallen out of the sky direct from 1958 with her straightforward charm and unironic embodiment of old-time country music. From the off-kilter love story of the title track to the restless shuffle of "Shotgun Wedding," this record's a blast from a not-too-distant past.

"Glass Elevator" 7-inch
MEEMAW (Infinity Cat)
This is a scrappy, sloppy pile of punky pop rubble that goes down like candy and gunpowder. Along with everyone's favorite slice of summertime, "Blue in the Blacklight," MEEMAW deliver sharp guitars, messy leads and enough smart-assed octane to get your motor runnin', gas shortage or no.

Heathern Haints
Recorded at Battle Tapes and pressed on lovely lavender vinyl, this surging psych debut features Scene staffer Brian Miles' throaty, reverbed call (at times reminiscent of Dead Can Dance's Brendan Perry), while incantatory drums lay the foundation for his now-echoing, now-blasting guitar lines.

White Stone & Black Witch
Hands Down Eugene (Grand Palace)
You may know him as "The Wizard" (he's credited as such on the new Ghostfinger album), but Matt Moody is also the beard and brains behind Hands Down Eugene, whose latest effort continues in the direction established on Full Blast—shambling psych-rock with a Beatles hitch in its giddyup. Supporting cast includes members of The Carter Administration, Ghostfinger, Ole Mossy Face and DeNovo Dahl.

The Boyz R Back in Town
JEFF the Brotherhood (Infinity Cat)
The "maxi-EP" expansion of the single (in what is becoming a franchise of sorts), The Boyz 12-inch features the heavy, scuzzy riffage we've all come to expect from the Brotherhood, overlaid with a bunch of woozy noises and disorienting effects. It's more of a trip than a JEFF live show, which relies much more on power than atmospherics, but it's a trip worth taking.

Other local vinyl releases:

Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea Silver Jews (Drag City)

Some Kind of Salvation The Features (self-released)

Consolers of the Lonely The Raconteurs (Third Man)

[Nashville Scene]

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