Over There (in the UK)

September 8, 2005 at 1 PM

Twin Cinema

High Art, Local News by the New Pornographers This 7″ vinyl record came with my purchase of Twin Cinema, the new album from The New Pornographers. Luckily I was in Vancouver at the time and was able to give it a spin on my parents’ turntable. It turns out to be a pretty good tune, which you can also purchase on iTunes. Which I did. Buy it again, that is. Because now that I’m back in the UK, I don’t have a turntable anymore, and even if I did, I would still want to have the song on my computer so I could shuffle into the deck with the rest of my music. (I’ll summarize the 1500-word PopMatters review — it’s a top notch album. If you liked them before, or you like any kind of harmony-laden power pop music, you’ll like this too.)

I bought several other CDs recently, and now that I’ve ripped those into my computer too, I’m left wondering why I felt I needed to own these physical, plastic entities, since they will more than likely sit on the CD shelf collecting dust most of the time from now on.

On the one hand, there is still something about cracking open a new album, smelling the fresh paper and ink, and reading the liner notes. And album covers are a viscerally important part of the experience. I also object to the restrictions on paid, downloaded music (although eMusic, to which I recently subscribed, is a notable exception). I like to customize mix CDs that I make for friends just so, adjusting the timing between tracks, something I can’t do in iTunes. But I can’t burn songs I’ve purchased from iTunes using other programs without a complicated rigamarole.

On the other hand, CDs have never been such a fantastic medium. There are those infernal plastic cases that break if you so much as look at them funny. The album art has never had enough room to breathe in those twelve centimetre covers — try picking up an old LP and notice how much more impressive the cover seems. They also don’t actually sound that great in the greater scheme of things, and they get scratched eventually.

What is a poor music lover boy to do?

Recently with a program called CoverFlow, I’ve rediscovered the joy of “browsing” my albums. It’s like using a virtual thumb to flick through your vinyl covers. It’s almost better than trying to sort through real plastic CD cases. Listening to tunes on shuffle can be rewarding sometimes, but CoverFlow has reminded me that you lose something by never giving albums a chance to present themselves in full.

This may seem obvious, but we’re really at a transition point in the history of recorded music. When CDs and computers first started to mesh, artists experimented with extended discs that included some video content or some esoteric multimedia experience designed to complement the CD. You don’t see many of those around anymore, suggesting that was a failed experiment. For one, at that time, most people were still listening to CDs on their CD players, not on their computers. It felt foreign and silly to put a CD into a computer just so you could see a digital-watch-sized grainy video.

Now that situation has changed. The compact disc is due for retirement as it becomes less and less relevant to the act of listening. We just don’t need the plastic anymore. For some people (and depending on the artist), the music may be enough, and for that electronic downloads really are the way to go. For those craving a stronger experience, the answer is still up in the air.

What if instead of a plastic CD case with liner notes, we purchased an elegantly-printed book to accompany the music? Recently, I received as a birthday gift a CD of songs carefully culled from the year of my birth (1978 if you’re curious). Aside from being a nice collection, the CD came on the inside cover of a hard-cover book with photos and essays about the music and the culture of the time. Way nicer than some flimsy liner notes.

Of course, I don’t expect a book with every album. No need to waste the forests of the earth on another one-hit-wonder top-40 artist. That said, it’s fairly ludicrous that nobody has yet come up with a reasonable way to present the words and pictures one would normally find in an album electronically. Why can’t I download an album with the liner notes? With the lyrics? With the photos? It isn’t exactly rocket science — showing words and pictures on a screen. We’ve even got this crazy thing called “the Web” to do it fairly painlessly. And yet so far the best anyone has come up with is a digital-watch-sized album cover in the corner of my iTunes app.

The future’s out there somewhere, if only someone would find it.



Found your site while trying to find the lyrics to the “bonus” track, High Art, Local News. Your article took the words right out of my mouth. I myself, born in 1969, have an album collection numbering about 1000.

I’ve always thought there was a distinct two-sidedness to albums that is severely missing from CDs. Each side seemed to tell a unique story. I’ve also noticed that no one knows the names of tracks any more - people commonly refer to loving “track 5” or something. On vinyl, we actually knew the names of the songs.

The good news is that the new model of purchasing music (namely by individual song, electronically), I think a whole new perception of music is becoming commonplace. People seem to actually know song names again. However, the nature of album music, I think, is gone forever. Songs have to stand on their own merit.

I still do enjoy buying entire albums rather than individual songs - Morrisey’s latest, New Pornographers, Death Cab, etc. For those groups who offer more than the one hit wonder or latest hip-hop anthem, there is still much to be appreciated in all the songs by an artist.

— Scott | Oct. 25, 2005 — 11 PM

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