BIG WAX BUILDUP

IS VINYL REALLY THE CHOICE OF A NEW GENERATION OR ARE PEOPLE JUST WAXING NOSTALGIC?

Remember that TV mail-order albums like Country Gold and The Best of Floyd Cramer were available on almost-obsolete eight-track cartridges well into the Eighties? Now the Nineties has its version of this phenomenon: Recent TV titles like Soft Rock of the '80s and The Best of John Denver are being offered on two long-playing records.

That's right, records. As in vinyl.
Far from going the route of the eight-track, vinyl LPs seem to be getting a second wind. And the revival is not just courtesy of hard-core collectors. What's breathing new life into the format is the growing number of young fans plunking down cash for limited editions of LPs by bands such as Dinosaur Jr, Helmet, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins and, most of all, Pearl Jam.

The Seattle sons' recent single "Spin the Black Circle" screams simplistic instructions to new convertees on how to operate a turntable. But even with Eddie Vedder championing the format, young Pearl Jam fans aren't about to be weaned from CDs by something round, black and stuffed in a 12-by-12-inch sleeve, are they?

The current issue of Rolling Stone magazine cautiously calls the renewed interest in vinyl a "minor comeback." It reports that vinyl sales rose dramatically--by 80 percent--in 1993 and '94, translating into "0.2 percent of all configurations [sold]--about 900,000 units." Hardly Thriller, but enough activity to get Tower Records and Sam Goody, two of the country's largest retail music chains, to stock hefty vinyl sections again, something that seemed impossible a couple of years ago.

If trend watchers look to New York for a harbinger of things to come, things are looking good for our flat, grooved friend. "It's only a matter of time before vinyl becomes the viable format it once was," predicts Lou Cioci, an optimistic buyer for Subterranean Records, long a mainstay for vinyl collectibles and bargain prices in New York's West Village. "Major labels are moving to 7,500 to 10,000 copies pressed for many artists' releases--that's a dramatic jump from the paltry 2,500 copies pressed for Neil Young's Ragged Glory in 1990. It's only going to get bigger."

Consider Pearl Jam's current best seller, Vitalogy, which practically flew out of stores in its limited-edition-vinyl form. "During its first week of release, Soundscan registered 38,000 units sold just for the vinyl," points out Cioci. "Take into account all the mom-and-pop stores like us that specialize in selling vinyl and don't have a Soundscan, you can probably double that figure and you wouldn't be far off the mark."

Yikes! That wasn't supposed to happen! When the majors discontinued releasing vinyl in 1988, everybody was expected to ditch their turntables and replace their LP collections with digital replicas. Many did, but guess what? Other people bought those used turntables and albums at giveaway prices and kept on buying vinyl. Take Dave Walker, a 25-year-old assistant manager at Tempe's Zia Record Exchange. In just two years, he's amassed an instant vinyl collection--a whopping 1,100 albums. This compared to his modest collection of 300 CDs, which takes up the same amount of shelf space as his vinyl.

"I actually can't afford a huge CD collection," Walker says, laughing. But economics, an attractive feature when considering vinyl, isn't the only plus. "There's so much music out there that's never re-pressed on CD," he says. "Novelty records, soundtracks, jazz titles, lounge music--that's the biggest attraction for me, and a lot of other people, too. I see people every day buying CDs and vinyl simultaneously, be it our used LPs, new limited editions or the seven-inch single."

Another record-store employee with a passion for grooved black plastic is Stinkweeds Record Exchange's Clay Wells, 19. Unlike most of his teenage contemporaries, he didn't grow up buying CDs. "I've been buying vinyl here at this store since I was 12. Vinyl's a lot more fun to collect. You get the bigger picture, the gatefold sleeve. It's more hands-on. CDs are just too small."

Is bigger really better? Does size really count? When it comes to a 12-inch record versus a 4.5-inch CD--if appearances count for anything--the answer is yes. Remember how menacing and larger-than-life the Stones looked on the old Out of Our Heads cover, with the camera exposing every zit and clogged pore on Keith Richards' face? Album covers were an integral part of the image-making process. By comparison, the Out of Our Heads CD cover seems little more than a snapshot with a price code and a bunch of song titles. There's a certain lived-in warmth attached to a big, battered album cover that a sterile little CD jewel box will never attain; maybe it's a little too much technology for such a human thing as music. "You feel like you should be sitting at a computer terminal when you're listening to them," offers Wells.

Lest you think that's a tad too superficial a reason, Wells, a jazz buff, says he really prefers vinyl because of the vibrations. Vibrations? "It may sound hokey, but it's true. Music sounds purer on vinyl, because the needle is running on the groove and the vibration creates the sound, like plucking a string causes a sound."

Several months ago, during an interview on another topic, former Byrds leader Roger McGuinn gave an even more scientific explanation as to why so many people prefer analog over digital. "Analog sounds warmer. Digital sound fools your ears into thinking it's continuous, but there are a lot of holes in it. It's 44.1 thousand holes per second, but still, there's 44.1 thousand holes in it."

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