Musings on Vinyl: the Eels and Third Man Records Offer Something New

Vinyl is back, no longer isolated to nostalgists, purists, or the hipster indie crowd. Hell, Best Buy is selling it! Vinyl is becoming a way to buy music again. With another year of higher sales in 2012, the physical conversation pieces are offering connections for those dismayed by the loss they cannot quite identify. Made up of beautiful art and what some may deem gimmicky coloring, they are something to own, collect, and admire and occupy space in music lovers’ lives.

Among fans, the flexibility of listening to music digitally provokes love/hate relationships. For the compactness of an iPod, an endless data stream is intangible and empty. It’s hard to talk about digital files. They are there. We know they harbor the data, the music, but sitting in hard drives, in list form, they do not illicit they same visual arousal that a stack along the shelf does. Digital music seems like a ghost; all the time and blood that went into crafting something just for the listener is dully represented in 0s and 1s.

“Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts…A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receeding….”
– William Gibson, Neuromancer

I listen to music digitally and really hold nothing against it. Music soundtracks my daily commute and the foretold stalling of time. But the act of listening, the joy, the sharing, is at its most vibrant on wax, represented best in gate-fold images. You must interact with the object; the object draws attention spinning on the player. I see its weight in my daughter, almost eight months old. She is fascinated by records and what they do. She can see it on a player, what music looks like. Digital music comes from thin air; it’s a whisper without origin.

“These days it’s all been erased and they’ve rolled it up like a scroll and put it away somewhere. Yes, I can touch it with my fingers. But where is it?”
– Denis Johnson, Jesus’ Son

It is in this spirit that I review, but more advocate, for a couple new releases that are particularly great on vinyl, and in the case of the latter, are only available on vinyl. They speak to the kid in me who was enveloped by music, the physical thing exhibited and shared. And their success aligns one with the truth that digital will not be the death of us. There can be a coexistence (of which film is currently trying to figure out) if we could all just learn to get along.

Eels – Wonderful, Glorious

Customary of an Eels release, there is an expanded edition – this one an entirely additional album, totaling a release of twenty-six tracks. While the expanded additional tracks are wondrous and worth absorbing, what I hear here is the vinyl release: thirteen tracks that make Wonderful, Glorious.

Atypical of contemporary vinyl releases, Wonderful, Glorious, arrives on two ten-inch vinyl discs (and in limited editions, they are beautiful, translucent orange). This system makes for multiple beginnings and endings, like chapters in a book. The individual pieces do something more than just make a whole. Within the album, four EPs achieve something difficult to hear when streamed entirely without pause.

I love this album wholeheartedly. I am excited for its promise and the potential for a new way of writing and recording by Mr. Everett. Part of this excitement comes from how I feel like it is more than just an album; this way of listening has been a conversation.

The Eels were, for me, for the longest time, the band with that one single and the video that played endlessly on MTV. But their sound was a referent. Everett is a stalwart of lyricism and insane pop melody. He plays by rules he admires. But, with Wonderful, Glorious, he loosens many typical restriction. His experimentation is justified by the strength of his skill.

It’s an album to go out on, if ever there was one. As Sleater-Kinney discovered with their last album, the Woods, this can be too great a pressure; but hopefully this will not be the case. Hopefully Wonderful, Glorious will not be too great to get beyond.

Third Man Records/Document Records Reissues – Charley Patton, Blind Willie McTell, The Mississippi Sheiks

“…one of the most fascinating stories in the world [is] that of the secret, or nonofficial, musical life of this country. It would seem that this is all bound up with religious dissent. It includes as much dissent from official America as from official Europe. It is based on the privilege of every man to praise God, as well as to court a damsel, with songs of his own choosing. For two hundred years it has refused institutional mediation in culture, as it has denied the necessity of institutional mediation for salvation. As a result, we have a body of British song that has survived the efforts of churches, of states, and of schools – for all have tried – to kill it.”
– Virgil Thomson, America’s Musical Autonomy, 1944

On January 29, Jack White and Third Man Records reached a milestone. In conjunction with Document Records, White and Third Man Records released the first volumes of comprehensive reissues of the works of Charley Patton, Blind Willie McTell, and The Mississippi Sheiks.

It’s the new old new. Not appropriation, not reference, but the straight injection – the original – with some remastering to make them sound as good as ever. And it’s out on vinyl – and vinyl only – the way it should be.

“Take away the fact on which a story turns, and other stories, carrying new wishes and fears, take its place; as they become new facts, the story’s characters may begin a great migration, to all the corners of the heart.”
– Greil Marcus, The Old, Weird America

Vinyl sales are on the rise and the format is maintaining, re-becoming an emblem of loyalty in an ever diluted music scene.

In an accelerated culture, these artists are most certainly too far gone. They are remnants of a dead age, like Aristotle, to be learned in school (maybe). With a release as grand as this, they can be new again.

When I found Charley Patton years ago, I felt like I’d come home. His voice something from another world.

“This country’s hard on people.”
– Joel and Ethan Coen, No Country For Old Men

This time, when I put the record on, my daughter stared with the same curiosity. She was mesmerized by something not previously heard. I want this for others. Future generations should not dismiss what is in the grooves of 180 gram wax. There is nothing like it. Even Dylan swearing, “No one sings the blues like Blind Willie McTell,” (which is true by the way) cannot spread the wonders enough. The Mississippi Sheiks are new to me. That seems appropriate.

“I’m going away, to a world unknown.”
– Charley Patton, Down the Dirt Road Blues

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