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Is The Record Album Dead?

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According to the March 26, 2007, business section of the New York Times, the record album is dead. Downloadable single tracks are the wave of the future. Why should anybody spend money on an entire album, especially when only one track, the hit that’s blared out of every car radio and every shopping mall PA system, is worth listening to?

Me, I was born in the vinyl era. I still think of an album as an LP, or long-playing record, a term coined to distinguish them from singles. Before the mid-1960s, singles were the standard purchase. You only bought an album if you were a devoted fan. (At age 10 I bought Herman’s Hermits’ albums, but not the Zombies’ – go figure.) Only after the Beatles defied that trend by charting massive LP sales did every band have to come up with masterpiece LPs – the old formula of lead-off-hit-plus-filler would no longer suffice. The concept album followed in due course, and an entire generation (mine) grew up on album-oriented rock.

I’ve been brooding over the death of the record album for several reasons. One is that I’m awaiting album releases this summer by two of my all-time favorite artists, Nick Lowe and Paul McCartney. The McCartney deal is newsworthy because he jumped ship from Capitol after 40 years to be the first artist on Starbucks new label. Bring on the anti-Macca protests; I’m still convinced he’s at the top of his game, and if Capitol couldn’t coax better sales out of Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, they deserve to lose him. I don’t even drink coffee, but Starbucks does provide useful public bathrooms and computer hookups, and they peddle quite decent music by the cash register. If Starbucks will market your music better, go for it, Sir Paul. I’ll be the first in line.

The Lowe album (titled At My Age, due out June 26th) is even more thrilling to me. It’s been six years since Nick released an album – 2001’s The Convincer, the third of a trilogy (with The Impossible Bird, 1994, and Dig My Mood, 1998, each one deeper, richer, and more musically satisfying than the last). Who would’ve thought the former pub-rocker, house producer for Stiff Records, and frontman for Rockpile would have ripened into such a soulful, mellow craftsman? His label, YepRoc, handles several quirky veteran rockers — Paul Weller, Robyn Hitchcock, Dave Alvin, Billy Bragg, Ian Hunter, Bob Mould — and I pray they’ll get Nick Lowe the audience he deserves.

I want these albums. I want every track these two artists record. Neither one is likely to have a standout hit single anyway. Jeez, in 40 years Nick Lowe has only had one hit single — “Cruel To Be Kind” — and Macca? Here’s an artist who thought “Silly Love Songs” deserved to be released as a single. Need I say more?

Sure, I’m guilty of downloading single tracks. I do it all the time. New artists like the Magic Numbers, Gnarls Barkley, Hawthorne Heights – I downloaded a couple tracks and waited to see if I’d get sick of them before I invested further – and I did. John Mayer and John Legend tracks, on the other hand, only improved with more listening, and eventually I bought their albums. Sometimes the single track only tells a small part of the story. If a band can’t put a whole album together, then they don’t have enough depth to satisfy me.

Consider Fountains of Wayne. Their boppy 2003 hit single “Stacy’s Mom” was a winsome pop track that I wrote off too soon. If I’d bought Welcome Interstate Managers I’d have discovered how many more facets they have. Now I’m listening to their new release Traffic and Weather, and I want the entire album and every single one of its droll vignettes of modern American life.

My teenage son, who (grudgingly) let me put it on in the car last week, asked baffled, “Are all the songs about cars and weather?” Well, yeah. We know people by the cars they drive, and weather is our common small talk; some of our deepest thoughts come to us on the highway. We’re a rootless nation of disconnected dreamers, but you wouldn’t get that big picture if you heard just one of these charming tracks, these musing Ray-Davies-like character studies larded with oblique references to TV shows and junk food and chain stores. It’s the whole album that comes together to express the themes of love and loss and yearning. By the time I get to the more personal tracks like “I-95” and “Seatbacks and Traytables,” I’ve tapped into the plaintive beauty of this album and I’m identifying with every word they sing.

Luckily, FOW’s songwriters, Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collinwood, have such a gift for melody, there’s no musical repetition to wear you down. In fact, on the second listen, I was already grinning at the opening bars of each new track, “Yay, this one again!” Will the right audience — that audience that “gets” what Fountains of Wayne is up to — buy this album? I sincerely hope so, but I’ve been disappointed before.

Then there’s Ted Leo & the Pharmacists’ new album, Living with the Living. This is one my teenage son does like for me to play in the car because its snarling guitar work and urgent vocals make him think it’s power punk. Behind that charged-up sound are infectious rhythms, great melodic hooks, and a range of musical styles from Celtic to reggae to acoustic folk. There’s also outright poetry – Leo’s punchy songwriting goes for internal rhymes, word play, and alliteration, which actually make it worthwhile decoding his sometimes-cryptic utterances. You can’t say that for most bands my teenager digs.

Yes, it’s loaded with angry politics (Ted Leo does not approve of the Iraq War, in case you’re wondering – bet it’s no coincidence that that title recalls Neil Young’s Living With War), but intelligent politics, not just mindless authority bashing. Set between the out-and-out antiwar songs you find autobiographical songs of lost love, regret, discouragement – often real heart breakers. (The stunning track “The Unwanted Things” just may hold the key to all life in the universe. I’ll get back to you on that.)

Somehow this softens the politics and gives me sympathy for Leo’s take on life. It’s the cumulative effect — the grand arc you get on a whole album, not just disconnected tracks — that makes this a work that’ll hold up to repeated listening.

The record companies may think the album’s dead, but nobody’s told these guys. They go on writing novels instead of short stories, and looking for an audience with an attention span that lasts longer than four minutes. (Shoot, Beatle albums used to give you 10 tracks if you were lucky – Traffic and Weather has 14 songs, and Living with the Living 15, including two that run over 6 minutes.) Those of us who still care about music need to buy this stuff, to cast a vote with our dollars. If we don’t, and the long-playing album does die, it’ll be on our heads.

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About Holly Hughes

  • Mark Saleski

    very nice holly.

    the album will never be dead in my mind.

  • Holly, the album must live on. Especially in this day and age. The Bush era.

    The problem is (in my mind) that artists aren’t really saying anything nowadays. Does the music art world have Stockholm Syndrome, afraid to testify against the oppression of government and corporation? This has been going on for years and there seems to be no revolution in music, the most readily available art form to the public.

    Hooray for Starbucks!!! A new indy label with a major on it. SubPop has a new spin off label. The indy rules! Let majors license them so perhaps sales will gain some numbers again. There is a wealth of great music saying something out there.

    There is no substitute for owning an album (vinyl rules!). Holding it, reading all the trivia in the package. Finding that one song that normally doesn’t get played on the radio that is the message an individual listener might need to hear. I wish there was a way to get posters in a CD, like when Dark Side of the Moon came out.

    It might help if an artist can actually write an album’s worth of quality music….

    don’t get me wrong. Today I really like the White Stripes, Raconteurs, the Shins, and others. There are alot of musicians that create under the principal of talent + feelings = communication. Sure, there are too many that only envision ‘being a rock star’. Try moving the public with musical/social statement. That is where the big money comes in…


  • Ah, yes, the album as a physical object — I didn’t even begin to talk about that. All that fantastic cover art created for vinyl LPs (not to mention posters and gatefold covers’ inside spreads) doesn’t even begin to work on a tiny CD case, but at least you have some art to look at. And lyrics — I love an artist who cares enough about lyrics to print out the words so you can follow them, treasure them, pore over them. Even if we download entire albums rather than single tracks, we lose the tactile and visual sensations of having that package.

    It’ll take a revolution in the music business before artists who actually say something are equated with substantial sales. All we can do is buy the stuff that moves us and hope others do the same.

  • Ron Chalice

    Good go Holly!

    I wonder how many people would buy just one chapter of the Da Vinci Code… I can think of at least a dozen albums that could easily fall in with the allegory… “Dark Side of the Moon”, “Sergeant Pepper” and “John Wesley Harding” immediately top the list. I think the part that I miss most, however, is the packaging. I go back to February 9, 1964 as well. Waited on the sidewalk in front of the music store on the 10th. Spent my life savings on a Harmony guitar and Silvertone amp, then had my first paying gig ($5) on Friday February 14, playing 6 Beatles songs.

    My most vivid memories in the years since are a)carefully steaming the ‘nice’ cover pasted over the original for “Yesterday and Today”, b) poring through the lyrics and collateral material in “Sgt. Pepper”, c) unfolding the huge poster inside the White Album in the middle of the ‘Paul is Dead’ stuff, and d) listening to “Dark Side of the Moon” through headphones from a McIntosh power amp.

    Yeah, I’ve got an MP3 player, I download singles and all that. But I love whoever invented the wall frame for LP’s… they line the walls of my home and studio.

    PS… I’m the guy who writes that ‘goofball little Boomersaurus blog’… 😉


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  • Hey, Ron, good to hear from you! I steamed the cover off my “Yesterday…and Today” album too. Unfortunately, it was a later pressing that had nothing underneath but gray cardboard. Bummer.

    You know another good recent “theme” album? The Crane Wife, by the Decemberists. That one just cries out to be listened to in one go.

  • Ron Chalice

    I lucked out. Found treasure underneath, unfortunately about a year later, my stereo and a mess of albums were stolen from our band house in Boulder while we were playing a little dive called Galena Street East in Aspen. Somebody somewhere has a butcher cover with the word DUCK in blue magic marker…

    Who knows maybe someday it’ll show up.

    I will have to take a listen to the Crane Wife… didja ever get into Harry Chapin? Has to be one of the all time greats at telling stories with harmony 😉

  • Mat Brewster

    It’s only critics with a deadline saying that the album is dead. Of course there will always be pop singers who only have one or two decent songs on an album. But there are loads of solid albums out there, The Crane Wife is an excellent example.

  • Just last weekend I was explaining to podder, who wanted to share her tunes with me, the artistry of the album and how a collection of onesies just doesn’t suit. I prefer to hear the entire album sitting down, where I can zone in on the nuances and riffs, though I’m just as likely to crank it up on a Saturday and bang through the housework.

    We listened to Big Brother and the Holding Company’s Cheap Thrills together (yes I’m that old), and somewhere along the line (I had my eyes closed at the time) she got it.