The Blog

Sometimes I Sit and Think About Records

As much as I adore my Spotify subscription for music discovery, music creators can not live off the pittance from the streaming model, which is why I buy physical when I come across a piece of music that I really want to hear it again.

A few weeks ago I traversed across New York's Greenwich Village, hitting all the hip record stores in search of a vinyl copy of the just-released Courtney Barnett's Sometimes I sit and think, and sometimes I just sit, the best new album through the first quarter of 2015 -- to no avail.

About six weeks before its 24 March official release, Barnett's publicist graciously furnished me with a stream-only digital copy. Trapped within the confines of my MacBook Pro and its tinny-sounding speakers (why didn't Steve Jobs do something about that before his death?), I couldn't wait to listen properly to the album, especially after my digital copy timed out.

Vinyl promos weren't available of Sometimes I sit, and the publicist thankfully provided a CD. I'll happily buy the record when I find it, which brings me to a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times by Julianne Escobedo Shepherd that absolutely pissed me off.

Shephard, a music critic, attempts to use Starbucks' recent decision to no longer sell CDs as an excuse to badmouth all physical media. She prefers to receive MP3s rather than promotional CDs, which she regards as "an occupational hazard," complaining about having to open up packaging.

The CDs gathering dust in her basement "are more memories than objects," and she admits she sort of misses browsing the Virgin Megastore. She discovers new music on Soundcloud and Tumblr, which she admits doesn't feel "as adventuresome."

When Shephard moonlights as a D.J., she no longer hauls around crates of LPs and CDs, in favour of her MP3 collection and an iPad app. I hope she can get people to move on the dance floor because she appears to know absolutely nothing about the holistic music experience.

Shephard runs contrary to every music critic I've ever encountered -- even in the 21st Century -- and I know many. We're all music fanatics, and collectors. We covet the tactile: cover art, liner notes, etc.

As much as I adore my Spotify subscription for music discovery, music creators can not live off the pittance from the streaming model, which is why I buy physical when I come across a piece of music that I really want to hear it again.

And yes, I prefer holding an LP gatefold cover to a CD, and prefer a record's warmer sound. I listen to CDs in my car and home when vinyl is not available. Shepherd can whine all she wants about a jewel case, but a well designed Digipak and booklet easily trumps looking at the iTunes interface of what song is playing on your laptop.

Although she acknowledges vinyl being the format of choice for "serious music fans," Julianne Escobedo Shepherd should be banned from Record Store Day next Saturday, 18 April, as far as I'm concerned.

A coffee-table book, Dust & Grooves, shows the world's most serious record collectors in all their glory, beautifully photographed by Eilon Paz, who financed the five-year project through crowdfunding. Subtitled "Adventures in Record Collecting," this hefty, enjoyable read, delves into the psyche of individuals, who never gave up on vinyl LPs and shellac 78s, celebrating their physical artifacts that contain magical sounds.

What these non-digital collectors have in common is that they can never own enough records nor tire of crate-hunting in thrift stores, estate sales and flea markets even if they often come up empty-handed. It's their religion. Sure plenty of stuff may sit on the shelves and never get listened to during their lifetimes. But there's a certain comfort knowing that they're there, just in case. As far as the records they cherish and know every note, it's sacrilege to think an MP3 might be a viable substitute.

Dust & Grooves is the perfect gift for any record collector.

Back to Courtney Barnett's Sometimes I sit..., shows considerable musical growth from her previous fantastic release, A Split of Peas, which ended up on many critics' best-of-2014 lists (including mine), repackaged from two EPs put out in her native Australia.

Barnett's lyrics are wordy cinematic slices of life, such as on "Avant Gardener" (from the EP collection) when the protagonist suffers an asthma attack and the paramedic quips she's clever for playing guitar to which she responds "You're clever for saving lives."

Sometimes I sit... similarly captures lyrically vignettes that may seem mundane, such as shopping for organic vegetables or a conversation with an elevator operator, but fascinating observations nonetheless. Her tour de force is "Pedestrian At Best," in which she implores fans to not hang onto every word because she'll ultimately disappoint them.

It's a funny ironic twist with a throwaway corny line like "Give me all your money, I'll make you origami, honey" that makes me laugh every time. Meanwhile, the band plows ahead with the reckless abandon of Nirvana in its prime. And then Barnett slows things down with fat guitar phrases worthy of Duane Eddy.

As Barnett sings in "Pedestrian At Best": "My internal monologue is saturated analogue."

Mine too.

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