Last tracks, or: A filler post that somehow turned into a rumination on the dead artistry of the vinyl long-playing record as a distinct medium...

>> Monday, January 25, 2010

Wait? Did I not put anything up today. (I might never have to again, thanks to Chris Clarke, actually.)

Ah, well, I should rectify the lack of posting today. But with what? Ah! I know! How about a classic '80s B-side encapsulation of horny teenage male angst improperly regarded as an album track because a record label snuck it on to the CD issue as a bonus track without letting the band know in advance?

Violent Femmes' "Gimme The Car" (London, live, 1984):

I don't care what anyone else says: the last song on Violent Femmes is "Good Feeling." "Car" is a great song, but appending it to the end of the CD made that a wholly different album. It may seem trivial, and in a way it is, but there was an era during which the LP was an artform unto itself, and not just a collection of songs, when artists made thoughtful decisions about how to bookend sides or kick and close records. (Something the Femmes actually talked about in the liner notes to the anniversary edition of Femmes, by the way, bitching about what Sire did with the original CD issue.)

I mean, by way of an illustration, consider for a moment Pink Floyd's 1977 album, Animals. The record begins and ends with a pair of bookending acoustic guitar tracks, "Pigs On The Wing" parts 1 and 2. Part 1 sets a tone and part 2 makes a nice wind-down. But when the band played the album in its entirety on the 1977 "In The Flesh" tour, they began shows with a different track--"Sheep." Why? Because "Pigs On The Wing (part 1)" is a great way to begin an album, with the needle dropping into a mellow acoustic groove that sets a somber tone, but it's a lousy way to begin a big spectacle-heavy rock'n'roll show with lights and inflatable puppets and brutal animated rear-projections and shit; "Sheep" starts with an ominous synth pulse that builds into a full-frontal, full-band assault. Meanwhile, the 8-track version of "Animals" included a "Pigs On The Wing (part 3)", an instrumental that was sort of performed on the tour as part of an extended version of "Pigs On The Wing (part 2)"--it was left off the vinyl version not just for time, but because it weakened the impact of the sort of abrupt, bleak-yet-hopeful finality of the version of "Pigs On The Wing (part 2)" at the end of side two, not an issue when "Wing" pts. 2 and 3 were performed in the middle of the live first set, sandwiched between "Dogs" and "Pigs (Three Different Ones)".

The point being, perhaps, that an idea of the album--even a non-concept album--being more like a novel in the sense of being a longform medium that carries the audience through a series of feelings guided by the author and less like a collection of short stories that has just been thrown together is probably on its way towards extinction thanks to digital media and shuffle play. (And I know not every short story collection is arbitrarily edited; indeed, good ones are carefully arranged.) I'm not trying to be a curmudgeon--my iPod's set to shuffle, too, and shuffle itself creates interesting experiences by linking things you might not have thought linkable. But there is a sadness about it, too. One of the oft-overlooked qualities of vinyl is that the physical structure of the media affected how good artists presented their work, arranging songs within not just the temporal limits of the medium but the spatial limits, too--arranging them so that the sides began and ended in certain emotional places. Digital media inherently lacks spatial limits--you can release as many songs as a hard drive will hold (e.g. Radiohead has been flirting with abandoning the concept of the album altogether and just releasing new material online as it suits them)--and thus lacks a certain... I don't know... delicacy, maybe?

Anyway, it's what I miss most about vinyl albums. Not the warmth of analog (mine always ended up with a bit too much snap, crackle and pop anyway), but the sense of beginning, middle and end, the kind of feeling of closure you got from listening to a Last Track, a real Last Track, be it "Good Feeling" or "A Day In The Life" or whatever. That sense of completion, which somehow isn't the same on most CDs these days for whatever reason--ah, hell, maybe I am being a curmudgeon. The disease of nostalgia's symptoms include caring sorrowfully for things that nobody else really even knows why you're bothering about at all.


David Tuesday, January 26, 2010 at 12:38:00 AM EST  

It's actually nice to know that you'd heard of the Violent Femmes prior to 2009.

I was starting to worry about you.


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