Remember business cards? They’re back, in pog form!
Remember business cards? They’re back, in pog form!
Singles are often overlooked by hi-fi enthusiasts, disregarded as junk in favor of limited edition 180g boxsets and the like. In some ways they were the MP3s of the vinyl era: cheap, tradeable, compact, and expendable. So expendable that they are a dime a dozen these days and often in very poor shape (people used to stack them up on their turntable, removing one after each track to create a primitive playlist). But despite the difficulty of finding singles in good condition, they are a good way to get some easy wax into your collection. In addition to affordability, they have a supposed sound benefit because the 45 RPM speed allows greater spacing between the grooves which in turn permits better dynamics.
I own only a few singles, most of which I took from my father’s collection. The rarest in the collection is probably “Robot Love / For Adolfs Only” by The Valves , an incredibly early punk band from Edinburgh. Unfortunately, my copy was wrecked when a girl I was dating sat on it. I was sorting through my collection and set the single down on the couch next to me, she plopped down without realizing and hairline cracked the damn thing. The whole thing was my fault entirely but I got mad at her regardless, and we broke up like a month later (for other reasons, but the record cracking incident was the start of the downfall). Anyway, I’m going to give some of my singles a good listen and report back on the sonic quality or lack thereof.
Joy Division – “Love Will Tear Us Apart / These Days” : The krautrock-esque drums snap outward (but the hihat sizzles in the distance). Ian Curtis’ robotic murmuring emanates from the dead center, the synths swirl and the guitar just kinda stays there. When I flipped it over to “These Days” I hadn’t noticed that side B was at 33 RPM and briefly wondered why it was some cheesy New Order dance remix…yeah. Curtis sounds even more like an android on this tune, proper speed or not. The percussion is desperately thin but the guitars are at least up to something. Track 2 on side B is some kind of alternate take for “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, and frankly it just sucks.
Nirvana – “Sliver / Dive” : The vinyl is quiet for a used record, ill give it that, but this kind of stuff is hard to judge on audiophile grounds. At the beginning, the bass intro sounds promising but it disappears into mush which I guess is the point. Side A ends with a pointless recording of a hung over / strung out Cobain on the phone with his producer or something. Side B’s “Dive” is a better song and a slightly better recording.
Lou Reed – “Walk on the Wild Side / Perfect Day” : That famous bassline rumbles nicely and the acoustic guitar chills in the right-center channel. The “colored girls” surround Reed on both sides during their bit, but the rest of Reed’s vocals get that irritating sibilance which I pin more on the record wear rather than a flaw in the recording. An unfortunate buzzing quality affects the closing sax solo. “Perfect Day” lacks most of these sonic faults for some reason. The occasional popping and clicking enhances this intensely defeating and ironic tune.
So despite that these singles aren’t shining examples of acoustic brilliance, they are still worthy components of my music library. The only real pain in the ass associated with them that my turntable ( the Pro-ject Debut III) doesn’t have a speed control so I have to remove the platter and physically move the belt to a different part of the motor when I want to switch between 33/45 . Fortunately, there exists a speed box that you plug in between the power source and the table which adjusts the motor speed.
Title – Crumbling the Antiseptic Beauty
Format – Vinyl LP
Label – Cherry Red
Felt was an early indie band from England that mostly made jangly stuff centered around guitar melodies. The lead singer and songwriter goes only by “Lawrence” and sounds kind of like Bryan Ferry on valium.
…i’m not sure what else to say, really. Having listened through some of their 10 year discography, it’s all kind of samey : shimmering, atmospheric instrumentals paired with plaintive lyrics. They get a little poppyer and uptempo as they progress through the 80s, but this debut record is on the darker side..
The album opens with Evergreen Dazed, a 5 minute instrumental piece whose pained guitar lines evoke shuffling through chilly fall afternoons under steel gray skies. Unfortunately, the guitar on this track is kinda shrill, I mean I guess its meant to be high pitched and twangy but it’s still not as smooth as I expected from vinyl.
Our next song is Fortune , and the version on this album is different than the one i’ve heard before, it’s slower and has tribal-ish drums instead of porn music rim knocks. Wiki tells me it was re-recorded and re-released in 84 as a b-side, which is probably what I heard before. I prefer the single version.
Guitar harshness is reduced on the rest of the tracks, but still seems too jumpy and fake. On the tracks that have percussion, the drums are primitive style tomtoms and hand drums that have appropriate bass and a sense of being struck by a person. Lawrence’s vocals can get rather hissy and sibilant, especially on I Worship The Sun. In sum, the album’s sound isn’t terrible but it left me disappointed, especially since I had only heard the MP3s from the CD version before so I was expecting to be blown away by a rich sonic landscape. I guess if I had a tube amp it would mellow out the edges a bit.
Being that this is a fairly rare record, I can’t find it on Amazon for you guys. I got my copy from a guy on Discogs for about 55 dollars, which is fairly steep but at least it was in near mint condition.
Music – B-
Sound – C
Artist – Rick Astley
Title – Whenever You Need Somebody
Format – Vinyl LP
Label – RCA
Year – 1987
Yeah, I know, old meme is old and we’ve all been rickrolled over 9000 times already. We really don’t need to talk about Rick Astley any moar, but as far as i’m concerned, haters gonna hate. So while I haz your attention, I’m gonna ask a question: Has anyone really been far even as decided to use even go want to do look more like? Because….um..uhh….okay, that’s enough obligatory 4chan memes (but I did briefly consider writing this entire post in Impact).
In case you have been living under a rock for the past three years, Rickrolling was an internet fad where you trick people into a clicking a link to the YouTube video of “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley. The purported humor lies in the intense eighties-ness of the song and the general incongruity of suddenly viewing a scrawny red haired Englishman awkwardly gyrating in front of a chain link fence instead of that funny cat video your friend promised. This prank was intensely popular throughout 2008; it became the theme song for Anonymous (the ad-hoc group of Guy Fawkes mask wearing basement residents who surface in public to protest Scientology, of all things), the target of online poll spamming to get it played at Mets games, and finally culminated in Astley himself lip syncing the song during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
I gotta be honest , I’ve only listened to the first half of this record so far and I don’t really plan on even attempting the B side unless under extreme duress or extreme intoxication. Like all of Astley’s oeuvre, it consists of competent but uncompelling dance-R&B constructed on synth equipment that sounds charmingly dated to modern listeners. But even before Rickrolling was a thing I unironically enjoyed “Never Gonna Give You Up” and to this day maintain that it is a corny but solid pop song, despite all the jokey baggage it accumulated thanks to Family Guy and the Internet.
Like most mass-market LPs, this album comes on thin, floppy vinyl. The inner sleeve is printed with lyrics, credits, and several B&W portraits of the man himself. Drop the needle on Side A and that opening drum fill we’re all too familiar with bursts out the speakers with surprising depth. In fact, the tracks I’ve listened to so far have a fairly rich and detailed sound for something that was likely recorded on some crummy 16-bit Sony DASH machine. However, it’s still difficult to judge the sonic properties of electronic music like Astley’s because drum machines and synths don’t “exist” in an acoustic space, they are dumped straight to their recording medium instead of being miked in a studio.
In about 10-15 years when we’re all grown up, Rickrolling will officially count as nostalgia. If you have this album on vinyl by then, you can put it on during one of your yuppie wine & cheese parties and smugly revel in the fact that you just Rickrolled your friends…IN ANALOG! The guests geeky enough to remember the joke will briefly laugh and reminisce about various other dumb memes from a youth wasted online, while those who don’t get it will just shrug and go back to their Pinot Noir. To prepare yourself for that day, Amazon has used copies starting at just under five bucks , or you could probably find it at your local record store like I did.
NEXT WEEK : “Bed Intruder Song” split 7″ with Eduard Khil
Artist – Crucial Youth
Title – The Posi-Machine
Format – White Vinyl LP
Label – New Red Archives
Year – 1988
I first heard of Crucial Youth back in middle school, from a friend whose uncle was in the band. I managed to find a few MP3s on Napster, downloaded them, had a laugh, then forgot about them. I came across this LP on eBay a few years ago and just now decided to give it a review. Basically, Crucial Youth was one big parody of straightedge hardcore, featuring hilariously overblown songs about brushing your teeth, eating a balanced diet, and not masturbating. Active in New Jersey in the mid through late 80’s, they were a pretty good antidote to overbearing punk bands preaching militant asceticism, and pointed out just how silly the whole thing can sound to an outsider.
Tracks on this album include “Caffeine”, a warning about the dangers of legal stimulants (“STAY A-WAY FROM MEEEE WHEN YOU’RE DRINKING YOUR CO-FEEEE!!!”), “4 Food Groups”, a primer on healthy eating, and “Cross at the Green (Not In between)”, an informative lesson on crosswalk safety. The music itself is unremarkable, intentionally amateurish hardcore somewhere between Cro-Mags and DRI. Vocalist “Joe Crucial” delivers appropriately trite lyrics in a honking bellow (a commenter on another website described it as “Ian MacKaye with a 47th chromosome”) that consist of gems like:
“When you smoke pot / what have you got? / I’ll tell you what / Not a lot!”
Hardcore albums in general aren’t known for their impressive sonics, and this record follows the rule. The guitars groan and drone in the distance while thin, spitty drums dominate the mix. Great sound isn’t the point of this record though, it gets its satirical message across just fine.
This album comes on “milk white” vinyl and has cover art depicting the band and their crew gleefully steamrolling glam rockers and Quincy punks. I’m not sure if it originally came with the “Crucial Youth comix” or if these were in a zine, but my copy didn’t have them. A seller on GEMM.com is offering it for almost 60 bucks, which means I got it for a steal at 10 from eBay. If you want the CD, Amazon has it for 14 dollars and it’s probably remastered so the sound will be improved. Buy it to troll your sXe friends with, or just as a vaguely amusing satire of a scene that desperately needed it.
One of the major topics of this blog is affordable audio, so i’ve decided to put together a reasonable priced system for playing vinyl records. These recommendations are just starting points, and I would encourage you to substitute components for any vintage or used stuff you might find. You can always upgrade later, the point now is to start spinning records as soon as possible.
Basically, a hifi stereo setup involves three parts: the source(s), amplifier and speakers. There are a variety of other sources possible (CD/SACD players, iPods, computers, etc) but for now we’ll stick to a turntable. You probably already own a MP3 or CD player anyway.
Turntable – Pro-ject Debut III
This is the table I currently use, and I highly recommend it. Professional reviewers agree that it is a perfect entry level turntable for those curious about vinyl. Unlike other, more expensive turntables, it’s pretty much ready to go right out of the box and comes complete with a cartridge (the needle), tonearm, dust cover, felt record mat and attached L+R and grounding cables. The MSRP is currently $349, and there is a $499 version that includes a USB output so you can rip your records to your computer and convert them to MP3. Amazon has it, and they can also be found at Magnolia outlets (which are often located in Best Buy stores).
Amplifier – Cambridge Audio Topaz AM10
The signal from a turntable must go through a preliminary stage of amplification before it can go to the main amp. This might be accomplished with a “phono stage” like the NAD PP-2 , which I use, but it is an additional expense, takes up more space and uses more resources. The solution is to use an amplifier that has an integrated phono stage, like the Topaz AM10. I haven’t listened to this particular amp, but Stereophile’s Stephen Mejias recommends this and it is the cheapest one of the four he lists in the linked article. In addition to the phono stage, it’s small, light, looks cool, and has a front input to plug in your iPod. Amazon’s got it for 349 dollars , and it’s probably your cheapest, easiest bet for beginner hifi amplification.
For beginners, floorstanders might not be the best idea, simply due to their size and expense (although you wouldn’t need to buy speaker stands). Bookshelf speakers are the optimal entry level solution. The problem with speakers is that they are the most subjective in terms of sound quality; what sounds good to me might sound awful to you. This is why it’s kind of difficult to recommend a good speaker without listening first, but sticking with established brands that specialize in making speakers is a good start. This means avoiding crap from Sony or Yamaha, which might be cheap but are of poor quality. Bose speakers have an undeserved reputation for quality thanks to aggressive marketing, but they are the laughing stock of the audiophile world. The Polk Audio TSi200 is available for about $300 a pair, or if you need to go cheaper then the Klipsch B-2 Synergy is only a bit over $180. Either of these would work fine for a hi-fi-curious individual. A set of speaker stands can be found at most any big box store for 20-30 bucks, or you could DIY up some of your own.
Turntable – $349
Amp – $349
Cables and other accessories – $50
Total: +- $928
I hear ya, that’s hardly pocket change. But as I mentioned in the beginning, this is only a suggestion. The best deal and the most important purchase is the Pro-ject turntable, I can’t really think of a better value for the money. The speakers can vary, if you already have a cheapo pair then use them to begin with. The amplifier is optional as well, in fact, if you browse vintage or thrift stores you shouldn’t have a problem finding a decent integrated amp. Most older (pre-1990s) amps that you’ll likely encounter have a phono stage; if it has an input on the back labeled “PHONO” then you’re good to go.
Every system has humble origins, and once you get into vinyl you’ll be hooked.