Ubiquitous Grooves: A Vinyl Obituary

Perhaps these days our real choice is not between buying vinyl or digital, but between listening and not listening.

Vinyl: The Analogue Record in the Digital Age

Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic
Price: $29.95
Author: Dominik Bartmanski and Ian Woodward
Length: 240 pages
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2015-02

A Feast of Records

Since its inception in the USA in 2007, Record Store Day (RSD) has grown in popularity and duly penetrated European countries. An homage to the material life of music, RSD also represents a golden opportunity for bigger independent record labels to sell limited edition colored 7-inches and other collectable treasures (I say “bigger” independent record labels because labels have to press a minimum of 500 records to be part of RSD).

This year I stayed home on that celebratory Saturday. The idea of a guided pilgrimage to the local record shop made me feel slightly nauseous. General celebrations and days of blissful commemoration – duly documented and reported on the national news – awaken my suspicions. A more cynical and pessimistic part of myself would be tempted to file Record Store Day in the same category as Valentine's Day and Mother's Day. Actually, in the '20s, American stores had come up with a strikingly similar operation called “Baby Week”, principally aimed at increasing the declining sales of layette (under the guise of “educating” young parents). Imagine.

Why not celebrate “Vinyl Week”? From the outset, Record Store Day appears to be a more serious and honest endeavor, and yet, it may only be a slightly more “upmarket” or hip conflation of sentimentalism and commerce (or just another capitalist party under the guise of supporting independent record shops). Record Store Day is first and foremost a trademark, and not every record shop can afford to participate or stock the records (arguably, only relatively successful record shops can join the party).

The Vinyl Rush

In the '90s, the French sociologist Régis Debray wrote about the contemporary thirst for remembering and reinventing traditions. He imagined – as a joke – that soon one would start celebrating plastic and vinyl. The compact-disc industry had developed according to industry plans, and vinyl was a decidedly unhip format. Few people kept their record collections. Debray anticipated the metamorphosis of vinyl into the cool, magic substance which vinyl-researcher Simon Poole quite aptly christened “black gold”.

Reasons for the vinyl revival have often been enumerated and discussed (Richard Osborne gives a few of them in his extremely well-documented book Vinyl: A History of the Analogue Record). One of the main arguments is that, as a tangible artefact, the vinyl record affords a greater range of sensual pleasures for the listener. In other words, vinyl is a typical audiophile format: the format privileged by discriminative, serious listeners.

In his April column in the French music monthly Rock 'n' Folk, cult rock critic and record-collector Patrick Eudeline (member, in his own time, of the infamous punk band Asphalt Jungle) thus wrote about vinyl as the real format for music-lovers. Eudeline claimed that digital formats were for the ignoramus or, to put it in his own tender terminology, for “peasants” who understood nothing about music. But he should not worry about “peasant” invasions: the record shop will remain the reserved territory of a wealthier fringe of the Western European population, which still has spending power, “distinction” and “good taste”. And, in the not so distant future, the record shop may even acquire the glossy attractiveness and exoticism of a touristic destination. In this scenario, vinyl records will function as simple tokens or souvenirs. A little something to bring back home.

One can browse galleries of photographs on the UK website of Record Store Day: the vinyl rush is documented. Yet, a part of me remains intrigued and would want to follow the cheerful vinyl-buyers and other lucky 'participants' of Record Store Day to the privacy of their own homes.

Buried in Sound

For some time now, I have become rather obsessed with knowing how people listen to music. The event of RSD only rouses my curiosity further. I wonder when and where people listen to their newly-purchased records, wondering when they consciously put on an LP. This is only because I have been collecting stories of frustrated listeners. They would put side A of a record on, leave the room, and plainly forget to listen. For they were desperately, diabolically pressed for time.

I also know of many people having towers of records looming in a corner of rooms: music to store and listen to for rainy days. A slightly bashful record collector I interviewed last December confided how he would buy and feverishly stock records: a most conscious squirrel, he always had at least ten records, still in their plastic film, awaiting to be played. He too was a busy young man.

Music also accumulates in the digital spaces of hard disks and online playlists. Of course it is forever impossible to catch up; and the absurd density of the archive, combined with new releases, weighs heavily on contemporary listeners. There is no end to this, and no solution: collecting and accumulating have something oppressive, and frankly quite monstrous, to them. Of course, this did not prevent me from getting a Shangri-Las seven-inch from a charity shop (a first pressing on the Action label), or from running to the Glasgow Conservatoire Library the day they were selling some of their LPs. There was little point in resisting: music (or rather its objects) continues to trap me. The sirens' calls have solidified into things, and – could Marx be wrong? -- all that is solid will not melt again.

The records live their quiet life in a corner of my diminutive living-room. Sometimes I take them out and play them, disturbing their mute absurdity. Sometimes I too forget about them. Unplayed, the discs are not dissimilar from the pretty, potted roses I forgot to water and which died from my carelessness. This is because, to put it in the timeless words of Clarence, the record collector interviewed by Eisenberg in the late '80s: “records are inanimate until you put the needle in the groove, and then they come to life” (The Recording Angel: Music, Records and Culture from Aristotle to Zappa).

Ubiquitous Grooves

In their recently published book, Vinyl, Dominic Bartmanski and Ian Woodward have written about the lived experience of vinyl; they went clubbing in Germany, interviewed record shop and label owners, spent hours with makers of beats... Mostly they speak about crate-digging in cool, underground places. Buying and hunting for music have become another form of living with – and experiencing – music; and indeed, it is certainly for those who cannot stop and listen: buying becomes a substitute for listening (but perhaps this was always the case to some extent, tying in with the idea of the collector).

Vinyl is everywhere, in the form of LPs, but also books, programmes and exhibitions. Not only do we hear records, we also engage with them through touch and seeing. The recent Curves of the Needle exhibition held in Newcastle-upon-Tyne last April echoed with earlier events such as the The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl first held at the Nasher Museum of Art in 2010. I wonder why there seems to be more joy, more imagination, more rhythm and more life to these galleries than to many record shops. I still nurture the idea that one day record shops will become museums, while museums will be metamorphosed into wilder, adventurous sites.

People on Sunday

A rather banal yet piercing feeling often comes back: the world has become too cluttered, too full, too diabolically packed with objects. There are indeed much more objects than meanings and this dense, inextricable jungle of things, tokens and fetishes almost makes it difficult to breath.

Only the perfect image of a 20-year-old girl, somewhere in the prewar German countryside, listening to her gramophone records in the open air brings me some form of appeasement. The girl was recruited by Curt Siodmake for his semi-documentary film People on Sunday. During the week, she is a record saleswoman in Berlin – at weekends, she carries her wind-up mechanical gramophone beside Nikolassee beach. The year is 1929 and there is a formidable carelessness to her demeanor: the camera captures a youthful hope, apparently barely touched by the Depression. The girl seems completely unaware of the weight of history. She is not conscious, either – how could she be? -- of shellac as a historical format, one which would literally disappear in the war effort (many shellac discs were effectively melted to manufacture new records or weapons).

Indeed, we can retrospectively read the prewar period as marking a real age of innocence for discs. Very few thought about them as collectible objects. The girl does not treasure the playback device (a record is even broken during the course of the film) - playing shellac is not a mark of appreciation or distinction, but the most obvious and popular choice. At any rate, playing discs is not the privilege of the educated or distinguished connoisseur. More or less, the shellac may be the equivalent of today's digital file, just as vinyl were later the unproblematic and almost “neutral” format to play music.

In Siodmake's film, the girl's selection is small yet she listens. She has room for music; she treasures it more than its shell. Now that we have spoken about vinyl records at length, one crucial (and after all, perfectly legitimate) question still haunts me: what about music?

Perhaps, today, our real critical choice is not between buying vinyl and buying digital files (for considering aesthetics-as-politics is too superficial an idea to really mean much) but between listening and not listening. After all, MP3 files and records sound exactly the same when they are not played. The real act of resistance to digital culture and the acceleration of capital (in the words of Hartmut Rosa) is not purchasing obsolete or tangible formats, but taking the time to stop and play them, at our own unhurried, lazy pace, as if we were always people on Sunday.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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