Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The lost art of record shopping

By Jeff Herrin
Rocky Mount Telegram

Sunday, April 08, 2007

On a recent trip to Georgia, I spent about an hour in the record shop where Michael Stipe met Peter Buck in 1979, beginning a friendship that led to the creation of R.E.M.

That's the kind of name drop that 15 or 20 years ago might have triggered a response along the lines of: "You were at Wuxtry Records in Athens?!"

Today, the more likely reaction would be: "They still have record stores somewhere?!"

Baby boomers left behind plenty of embarrassing artifacts in our long-ago youth – butterfly bowties, AMC Gremlins, plaid everything – but we knew how to celebrate, worship and respect the almighty album.

Record stores weren't just places to spend paper route money. They were practically houses of worship – incense hitting you as you walked through the doors, black-light posters framed like stained-glass windows, the holy soundtrack of our generation on a turntable, always spinning near the cash register.

Guys kept an eye on what the girls were buying. We mostly ignored anyone in the Osmonds section. We tried everything we could think of to talk to the ones looking at Rolling Stones albums.

A record was a cheap, legitimate date. No money for movies? Nothing worth watching on any of the three TV channels we could receive?

Hey, want to come over and hear the new Dylan album?

Not only was that a respectable activity for a Saturday night. It also triggered high-fives among envious friends. Dude, she likes Dylan!

Sometime in the 1980s, records gave way to compact discs. You could still find love and serenity in a CD shop. It was just that the artwork was smaller, the discs were more expensive and the Stones' output became a little more miss than hit.

Still, CD shop clerks, like record shop clerks, knew good music. You could hit the store with your friends, browse for a while, hear some good stuff, walk out with an R.E.M. album and still find reasons to return next week.

Now ... not so much.

Try finding a record, much less a record store. Heck, the way things are going, try finding a store of any kind that's dedicated to music.

Ask a kid what kind of music he's enjoying these days, and chances are, he'll open his laptop. Here you go. All the music you could ever want ... in a lifeless digital format.

Playing a record was practically an art form in cool, especially in front of a girl.

You made a big production out of gently rolling a special brush across the surface of the vinyl. You used another brush to clean the stylus of your turntable's tone arm. You waited until the needle hit the groove before you turned up the volume on the amplifier.

These were important skills to be practiced many hours in private long before trying them out in front of a significant other.

Sharing music nowadays consists of sending a download link via e-mail. Or handing over your iPod. Or, worst of all, cranking up the volume of your ringtone.

Does anyone in 2007 wrap up a hard day thinking: "Man, I'm ready to hear some Stevie Wonder 'Innervisions.' What'd I do with my cell phone?"

Assuming someone wants to actually pay for music, kids are more likely to log onto iTunes than they are to drive to an actual store. Shops like Wuxtry, mentioned at the beginning of this column, are few and far between – mostly relegated to college towns and big cities.

Downloads and cell phones are convenient, I suppose. But I can't for the life of me figure out how a guy with no money gets dates anymore.

Jeff Herrin is the editor of the Rocky Mount Telegram.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Alejandro Escovedo, and Dance Baby!

Alejandro Esvovedo, The Boxing Mirror:
My brother turned me onto this cat some fifteen years ago or so with his With These Hands record. Quite a musical pedigree old Al has, from the punk (era and sound) Nuns and Dils to the countrified roots-punk Rank and File, his own True Believers (Austin roots n' roll) and Buick McKane (a little more nutsy), he was seasoned before starting a solo career in the early 90's. After being sidelined by hepatitis at the turn of the century, he roared back to form with this killer album. This is one of those 'textured' rock albums alongside the likes of Los Lobos' Kiko, late-era Wilco with less skronk, and most anything produced by Mitchell Froom. The man behind the boards this time is none other than the great John Cale, and aside from a questionable choice or two, he pulls it off wonderfully. The opening track "Arizona" opens with a swirling dirge and the offer..."have another drink on me/ I've been empty since Arizona..." This (autobiographical?) tale is veiled in shadowy phrases relating to his maturity, maybe looking back at a lost love? Not sure, but it's damned enchanting. The record continues with the 4/4 rock of "Dear Head on the Wall", complete with shifting strings which lift it above the standard. Other rockers include "Notes on Air", and the fist thumper "Break This Time." Unfortunately two tracks ("Looking for Love" and "Take Your Place"), while great (or at least good) songs, are marred by whizzy synth tracks, the former of which drills into my head like the worst MP3 you've ever heard.
Given his penchance for slow introspection, Escovedo does a nice job of it on "The Ladder", "Evita's Lullaby", and "Died a Little Today." My standout however is the spoken-word over free-form rock-skronk (not unlike Wayne Kramer) of "Sacramento and Polk" where the singer reflects on a gritty life and someone from his past. Spellbinding stuff from a brilliant artist.

Fisher-Price, Dance Baby Dance!:
I love my mother and know that she only wants my little 15 month-old Alice to be happy. So she gets her this cd of horribly synthesized/produced 'dance' versions of "Old McDonald", "Bingo", etc. If you really want to see Alice dance, put on XM channel 65, The Rhyme. She just starts boppin' away in the car as soon as it's on; Public Enemy, Digital Underground, Snoop, Run DMC, hell she was diggin' 2 Live Crew's "Pop That Coochie" the other day. She also loves James Brown, London Calling, and Cheap Trick. Little ones are smarter than we think....