I think I’ve talked before about my interest in books as objects, how their form is a thing of functional beauty. Although books are the main object of my devotion, I do enjoy just savoring something for the sake of design. Can you sympathize when I tell you how wonderful it is to hold a 35mm camera, to feel the heavy weight of its body & to open the back to see all the small parts? Or how satisfying a small box can be with its sides meeting at corners & ready to hold something special?
(This is how analog I am. I’m a little too invested in things I can touch.)
But, to get back on track, I have a habit of focusing on how things are created or crafted. So you can imagine how much my interest was piqued when I read an article years ago about the difference in cover art between records & CDs. The argument was that as we moved from LPs to CDs, the visual impact of the cover diminished & not as much effort was put into the design. The large space of a record cover inspired more artistic expression than the sleeve of a CD case.
Now, given that I was born in the 80’s, right as formats started to change, I can’t really speak to this. I didn’t have too much exposure to records mainly because the ones that were around belonged to my parents or other adults. I. Was Not. To Touch Them. I did have a Fisher-Price record player that I was allowed to play Peter, Paul & Mary records on (with my parents’ permission), but other than that, it was all about cassette tapes growing up.
But, nevertheless I was intrigued by the album-art-for-records-vs-CD question because we’re going through another format shift. Alternative Press (who I think ran the original article) included a poll in one of its issues asking readers whether they preferred CDs or MP3s. I remember one person answered, “I can touch a CD. I can read the liner notes and memorize the lyrics. I can’t do that with an MP3.” Which begs the question, what does the art & packaging really do for music? Does it catch your eye & entice you to buy product? Or is it another way to communicate to someone what your music is all about?
I don’t intend to answer these questions in this post, mainly because I’m still thinking it over. But, out of my original curiosity, I started collecting records, mainly as objects to hang up on my wall & look at. It started off as a fluke really. Blue Dog was closing & I wanted something special to remember Jack (the owner) & the store by. The last CD I bought there was The Cure’s Faith, but I didn’t feel like I had captured anything magical. So I got up the courage & walked through the small vinyl section in back. (It had never been very big because DC was considered the Mecca for true vinyl aficionados.)
I started flicking through the racks & found IT. IT was a slightly worn copy of Buckingham Nicks, the album Lindsay Buckingham & Stevie Nicks had put out before joining Fleetwood Mac & had never been released on CD. I was a smitten kitten.
The rest is history. I’ve quietly accumulated the following gems, in completely random order:
The Johnny Clash album was done by Billy Bragg to raise money for his charity Jail Guitar Doors. Kurt bought it for me as a souvenir when we saw Bragg perform at the Birchmere. There’s something I like about owning records I can’t play; it makes you value the song you hear that much more. I’ve only heard “Old Clash Fan Fight Song” once, performed that night by Billy Bragg & it’s locked away in my memory.
I found Tapestry in a record store in Asheville, NC while we were on our honeymoon. (I think it was Voltage Records, but I’m not 100 percent.) We had just heard local artist Susan Greenbaum perform it in its entirety a few weeks ago & a friend had burned me the original from CD. It’s an awesome work that holds up really well.
Candy-O is probably my favorite. Found her at the CD Cellar in Falls Church & fell in love, for various reasons. (Reasons I’ve actually written about & am trying to get published. If it works out, you can read about it then.)
Bought Plastic Surgery Disasters from Newbury Comics in Cambridge, MA. They had DK’s first album too (which is not as visually provoking) but PSD is the album I like the best. (“Moon Over Marin” 4 Ever.) Funny thing: you can tell this is a reissue because the booklet that is included is straight from the CD version, which includes the In God We Trust, Inc EP. So you have an entire list of lyrics for songs that aren’t even on the record.
In one of those “‘I love you.’ ‘No, I love you.'” moments, my husband & I picked out Emmylou Harris albums for each other at the CD Cellar in Arlington. Cimarron for me with the cover of “If I Needed You,” Profile for him because it was when he fell in love with Ms. Harris.
Both of these Marshall Crenshaws came from Plan 9 in Richmond. I’ve been looking for Crenshaw’s first album for a long time just because it would look cool on my wall. But, I found these instead–one has “Blues is King” & the other “Calling Out For Love (At Crying Time),” both my all-time favorite songs of his.
Found this one by Mono at a record store in Chapel Hill, NC. (Sorry, can’t remember the name, but I remember it was a narrow little shop with dark blue walls.) It was split between this & Joanna Newsome’s Ys.
My husband found this for me at Horseshoes and Hand Grenades after we watched Beyond the Lighted Stage & he finally realized what a Rush freak I am.
Finally, Japanese Whispers, also bought at Plan 9. When the guy behind the counter rang me up, he just stopped & held the record for a second. “I love this album,” he told me, “My sister gave it to me; it was the first time I heard The Cure. Good choice.” I felt a little guilty that I was just going to take it home & put it on my wall.
Perhaps there is something to the idea that record album art is more compelling than CD art. It’s a larger space, it draws the eye & makes you curious about the music. However, I can think of CDs that have interesting design elements. That, however, is another blog post for another time.