There’s a fun sense of discovery when it comes to vinyl.
My partner and I have had a record player — nothing fancy, just a basic, push-“start”-and-it-plays model — for about a month now.
And we love it.
It’s not just the physical connection to recorded music that vinyl offers — the fun of holding a heavy circle of music in your hands, being able to visually discern the tiny grooves that the turntable transforms into sound — or the ability to appreciate album art on… an actual album. Our trusty Audio-Technica has also given us an excuse — nay, an imperative! — to peruse local record shops for used records. And boy, have we.
Since we’re Seattle residents, there are plenty of options for this. Everyday Music in Capitol Hill, Daybreak Records in Fremont, Bop Street in Ballard, even shops like Porchlight and RPM that offer the ultimate combo: a coffeehouse (or, in the case of RPM, a pizzeria) and record shop in one.
Ballard’s Sonic Boom might be my favorite, though. The always-interesting, seemingly-always-bustling store has an ample selection of both new and used vinyl, and it was there that I came across the record that really inspired this blog post in the first place: E. Power Biggs Plays Scott Joplin on the Pedal Harpsichord: Volume 2.
This combination blew me away. The ragtime music of Scott Joplin has always been, in my mind, the domain of upright pianos or perhaps small brass ensembles, not of the harpsichord: the plucky ancestor to the piano that diminished in popularity centuries before Scott Joplin was even born. And E. Power Biggs! In my imagination, he is sitting at a pipe organ in the grandest cathedral in heaven, expertly unraveling a toccata and fugue by Bach or rattling the windows in the final movement of Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony. Playing Joplin takes him from the choir loft of the early 18th century to the dive saloon of the early 20th: not necessarily a bad shift at all, but certainly an unexpected one.
But the album is delightful.
The jaunty syncopations of Joplin are bright and mischievous on their own, regardless of instrument, but combine them with a harpsichord, and an almost too-precious whimsy emerges from the pairing. The music seems to be winking at the listener, as if it knows full well of the incongruity of the combination but is proceeding joyfully, anyway. It’s charming in the same way that an ensemble of cellos playing Metallica is charming.
And while I’m grateful this record exists, I’m also very aware that I would likely never have discovered the recording without the impetus of a turntable sitting at home.
It’s not that there aren’t ample opportunities to discover new music in the digital era: it’s that those opportunities are both overwhelming in scope and tend to be safe and familiar.
With a monthly subscription to Apple Music on my iPhone, I have millions of songs literally at my fingertips, whenever I want. And to be clear, it’s great: I’ve used Apple Music to explore dozens of albums I might not have listened to, and likely wouldn’t have bought outright, otherwise. But many of those songs or albums are by bands that I already know, that I seek out, or that have been carefully selected by Apple’s secret-sauce algorithms to resemble artists I already know or would seek out. Apple Music, like Spotify or Pandora — or, for that matter, Facebook or most personalized tech these days — crafts its offerings to match what I already like.
Obscure recordings are available in the mix, sure, and genres that I wouldn’t normally seek out are still very much at my disposal. But there’s a careful process of selection and curation that happens before my finger even approaches the icon to launch the Music app.
Walking into a record shop and thumbing through a stack of $2 used vinyl is a different type of discovery, entirely. The curation has been driven not by machine learning or preference-matching algorithms but simply by the availability of records that can still make a decent sound when the needle meets the vinyl. So in the space of a few feet, you have 30-year-old pressings of Monty Python sketches rubbing shoulders with Japanese imports of Dave Brubeck live in Kyoto. And once in a while, you get ragtime on a harpsichord.
There’s a beautiful sense of chaos in record stores. And I can’t wait to see what I’ll discover in them next.