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Friday, Aug. 7, 2009

Albums R.I.P.

The Loss of the Long-Playing Record

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The long-playing record arrived in 1948 and by the '60s had become an art object as well as a carrier of sonic material. However, the process by which we listen to music within the last decade has changed and therefore so has the cultural significance of the record album.

The Vinyl Countdown: The Album From LP to iPod and Back Again (Soft Skull Press) treats the rise, fall and phantom re-emergence of the vinyl album with insightful decoding of its significance. Were it not for attempts by author Travis Elborough to be more hip than the subject matter, resulting in prose that sometimes reads like failed stand-up comic banter, we would have a book that achieves near perfection, as it is so comprehensive and built upon subtle and thoughtful research. The Vinyl Countdown succeeds through massive detail and proper definitions that are all too important to ignore. But his theme could have been better organized. Elborough jumps around like the nutty professor.

From the perspective of making albums as complete works of art, one of the most essential figures of The VinylCountdown is Moses Asch, founder of Folkways Records. Elborough leads from Asch to unique takes on producers Samuel Charters and Harry Smith as shapers in the development of album-oriented music. Charters is known for making many discoveries, especially in the area of blues, but his rediscovery of Lightnin' Hopkins is the highlight. And it is the re-discovery of Hopkins in 1959 that serves as a model for what the record album eventually became.

Having recorded several hundred singles for countless labels before descending into obscurity, by the time Charters found him, Hopkins didn't even own a guitar anymore. The producer rented a guitar for Hopkins who, at first, refused it because it wasn't electric. However, Charters stuck to his preconception that Lightnin' plays acoustic music, and so he did again after receiving raw gin and three hundred bucks. Hopkins sang and played two songs for Charter and stopped. This didn't suit Charters' "intention of recording an LP… Charters had to explain [to Hopkins that] for the type of record they were making today, he would need more than two numbers."

Once the session was complete enough for an album called Lightnin' Hopkins, the guitarist went back to the nearest bar and, significantly, when a copy of the final Folkways album was sent to Hopkins through his local post office, he never claimed it. But soon enough "the LP [made its way] into college dorms and beatnik lairs up and down the land." This recording inspired John Lee Hooker; he unplugged to record an album entitled The Folk Blues of John Lee Hooker, also in 1959. By 1964, Muddy Waters pulled out his guitar cord, got an acoustic six-string and made an album entitled Folk Singer. My, what an album can do-in the 1950s and '60s it created entire idioms.

Another Folkways discovery, Harry Smith, culled from his record collection to select the archaic folk, country and blues material for a three-LP set, Anthology ofAmerican Folk Music, that became a Holy Trinity of influence on the folk revival. Elborough tells many stories regarding the rise of the vinyl album, but none so telling as those from Folkways, which set the standard for listening to more than just singles. Because of albums, we have artist canons, and, in the case of Smith's Anthology, the canonization of an entire genre performed by numerous, disconnected artists spread over three albums packaged as one concept.

The album as work of art, as object d'art in itself, became manifest through Bob Dylan's mid-'60s masterpieces and The Beatles' mid-to-late '60s endeavors. LPs became concepts. Singles disappeared. But now in 2009 the industry has gone back to singles.

One of Elborough's flashes of brilliance is his realization that there is still a yearning for the album; artists still claim to make them whether they do or not. He cites the rising sales of vinyl, rightfully proving that listeners want more than the iPod's compressed mp3 files. Aural culture is demanding a resurrected listening experience, although record company marketing, computer sales forces and web-based music distributors of all sorts are not in compliance. The industry doesn't care. And so, in the end, we shall not have a rediscovery of the album. "The carrier no longer matters," he writes. "Real or imagined," the actual album is dead.

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