Books

If You Like Browsing, You'll Like 'Old Records Never Die'

Taking a somewhat circuitous route, Spitznagel’s book is more about the people who shape us and the music we share than the music itself.


Old Records Never Die: One Man’s Quest for His Vinyl and His Past

Publisher: Plume
Length: 288 pages
Author: Eric Spitznagel
Price: $16.00
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2016-04

In the wake of Chuck Klosterman’s successful format of semi-autobiographical, humorous pop cultural analysis, a host of writers have sprung up attempting to achieve the same. While many have tried to lay claim to Klosterman’s territory, few, if any, have truly exceeded. His is a voice wholly his own; both conversational and convivial enough not to feel contrived or forced.

Joining the ranks of those seeking to craft their own Fargo Rock City et. al. is magazine writer and confirmed music obsessive Eric Spitznagel, with the release of the appropriately titled Old Records Never Die: One Man’s Quest for His Vinyl and His Past.

A close inspection of the title’s sub-header is key to setting one’s expectations when coming at Old Records Never Die, as the narrative focus quickly moves away from that of his fool’s errand of attempting to reclaim the exact copies of the records he once owned. Through his own surprisingly well researched and amusing calculations, the improbability of accomplishing even a fraction of his purported task becomes something well beyond overwhelming and quickly falls off into that of the impossible.

But rather than continue to dwell on the absurdity of his self-assigned task, he begins looking into the motivation behind his desire to reclaim these physical items directly associated with his younger self. It’s not so much the sounds within the grooves as what those well-worn grooves represent. On one of the records he discusses in detail, The Replacements’ Let It Be, he writes of his personal copy’s inimitable skip at a specific moment during “Androgynous”, one which became so defining for him that any time he heard the song played on anything other than his own battered copy, it simply sounded wrong.

Elsewhere, he describes going to great lengths to acquire an original copy of the album online after his physical search proved futile. Paying more than he was willing to admit, he then takes it to the ‘Mats reunion show at Chicago’s Riot Fest, clutching it to his chest like some sort of talisman for the youth he’s seeking to recapture. While the album ends up getting ruined, its physical characteristics take on the significance of the moment and thus serve as a tangible reminder of this bridged experience between youth and adulthood.

While he eventually allows the search to trail off into the background of the narrative, Spitznagel does manage to acquire at least one bona fide copy that once belonged to him. This particular copy of Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet carried on its sleeve the scribbled digits of a high school crush. Once recovered, he begins grappling with whether or not to try the number (he ultimately does) and what it means to do so after all these years.

Given this pivotal event, it’s not surprising then that his quest leads him to reconnect with old friends and flames alike, sharing reminiscences of their formative years and the albums over which they bonded. In this, Old Records Never Die finds its true purpose. It’s a classic, High Fidelity-esque revelation that has Spitznagel in the midst of a “what does it all mean?” moment wherein he begins exploring what-if situations and finding that things often pan out just as they should.

In the case of an old girlfriend with whom he shares a few bottles of wine and a stack of records, the fear of old romantic feelings rekindling is quickly doused as it’s revealed she lives happily with her partner, having since embraced her homosexuality and become the person she long strove to be. The scenario is played somewhat for humor with Spitznagel’s wife adopting the role of suspicious, slightly jealous spouse. That she needn’t worry is something of a red herring and does little to further the story other than to add context to his personal self-evaluation and eventual realization.

But what’s simultaneously fascinating and saddening about his realization is that it’s tied to a generation and time that will soon be little more than a distant memory. Throughout, he recalls flipping through seemingly endless racks of records, some of which would come to define a very particular moment in his life, others that would simply prove little more than a passing fad. In this, he shows nostalgia for a vanishing age. While vinyl has certainly made a resurgence in recent years in terms of popularity, for a certain segment of the population it never truly went away.

These are the people to whom music has a visceral, physical impact that manages to burrow deep inside their emotions. Albums become talismans and direct links to a vanishing past, a sort of life raft of youth in the roiling sea of adulthood. For these people it often becomes less about the music and more about the feelings and emotions brought to the fore by encountering the music once more. Current and future generations will likely no longer feel nearly as passionate about a song or album to the point of needing to possess its physical existence. It’s hard to imagine whole segments of the population pining for digital files that remind them of younger days or better times with the same ravenous quality of those for whom music was and always will be a tangible relic.

But a battered copy of Kiss’ Alive II with the words “HANDS OFF!!!” scrawled across the front helps to momentarily bridge the gap between Spitznagel and his brother, the latter being described as having gone on to become a multi-millionaire. Despite the economic and lifestyle disparity between the two, the album serves as a reminder of their shared past. In these shared reminiscences, Spitznagel begins to find the clarity and meaning behind his need to reclaim his past. It’s not so much the records themselves as the connections to other, significant people in his life they represented.

By returning to these, he gets a better sense of who he is/was and begins the cycle again, forging a bond with his son over the records that once meant so much. It’s a relatively satisfying summation to the narrative after multiple pages spent in the weeds. From searching through stacks and stacks of defunct record stores to the typical pop cultural musings, Spitznagel tends to lose focus, these asides adding little more than tangential fragments of context to the overarching theme.

Yet despite the book’s tendency to lose focus, Spitznagel’s prose is breezy and self-deprecating enough to make Old Records Never Die an enjoyable, if not quite satisfying, look into why we do the things we do. In that, he manages to move beyond those writers who tackle their subjects solely for the potential for humors or reference-heavy asides. For anyone who’s ever sought to reclaim a part of their past and, in essence, a part of themselves, Old Records Never Die offers a knowing resonance that gets to the heart of what can only be described as the mid-life crisis of an avowed music nerd.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

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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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8

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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