The Groove in the Heart

Allow me to get cheesy for a moment. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

For the past six years, my stereo and the records I’ve collected to play on it have been kindred spirits of sorts. No matter my mood, they’ve always had a magical effect. Dropping the needle could lead to any number of things encapsulated on a track: a transcendent melody that put things in perspective if I felt low; a lyric that reminded me I wasn’t alone in feeling certain feelings; a succulent harmony that rang forth in some tonal combination that brightened an already sparkly mood. And let’s not forget about the rhythm.

Records and the sounds existent in their grooves have been there at every moment since I first set up my stereo, punctuating life’s feelings, actions, events. Cooking meant a record was playing. As did writing. And then there were those languid afternoons or slow-boiled evenings where a record felt far more enticing than a movie. Crack open a beer–hello Abita–only to sit back and listen in the way that popping earbuds in and going, going, going doesn’t really let you.

At times the speakers might issue forth Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Edith Piaf or some other classic voice preserved through the decades. Other times warranted The Meters, Beausoleil, The Radiators or some Louisiana style that just fit the sunny afternoon. Donald Byrd or Miles Davis with his “ethos of spareness” provided very different sounds, both incredibly conducive to the creative spirit. Or I’d feel nostalgic for Canada and put on the indie rock that harkened back home: Feist, Broken Social Scene, Land of Talk, and others.

Over the last seven years, vinyl has soared in popularity, reaching over 6 million sales in 2013. Whether vinyl actually sounds better still forms a debate among audiophiles; Mark Richardson of Pitchfork maintains that, whether they’re aware of the sound differentiation or not, people appreciate their records for the unique tangible quality they offer. In an age where CD sales have diminished, the rise in vinyl’s popularity reinforces people’s desire for and excitement about music as a physical object, as an art form beyond the sound itself. Sure, listeners could settle for the convenience MP3s provide, but transience and ease does not always top the stability of a night held in front of a record player. Unlike a true audiophile, though, I am not interested in first pressings, special issues, or any other distinction that makes a record collectible. Besides vinyl’s nostalgic physicality, I’m not there for any other reason besides the music that exists deep down in those beautiful grooves and the experience listening to a record creates.

I want the music and I happen to want it in this particular format. Yes, there’s obviously the sound quality factor (imagined or not) and the signifying cool factor that owning vinyl now often entails (thanks hipsters), but more than those two things, my records mean something else. My records have become akin to friends of sorts, if that’s not overly bizarre way to think of music. In fact, I’ve always likened the way I feel about records to the line in Almost Famous when Penny Lane says, “…if you ever get lonely, just go to the record store and visit your friends.”

She’s talking of course about groupies and their connection to the bands behind the sounds, but the underlying idea remains. If music, as a connective sound that unites the individual into the greater collective experience, creates a bond between listener and melody, harmony, rhythm, and lyric, then why can that bond not be described as a friendship of sorts, one experienced more physically when vinyl becomes involved? Strong friendships reveal things to you about yourself, remind you that you’re not alone in a particular experience, and provide company. I’m over-generalizing here, but I don’t think the two concepts are as distinct as they might seem.

One particular vinyl memory remains permanently etched in my mind, but allow me first to provide you with the necessary background. After living in New Orleans for a year, my landlord’s distaste for paying his mortgage led to the house I rented going into foreclosure. That downturn coincided with an upturn, when I landed a coveted publishing internship in NYC. So I packed away my things and planned my escape. I was at a point in grad school where I could potentially find a job while I finished my dissertation, so the future beyond the internship lay wide open; I wasn’t entirely sure when I’d be back in New Orleans to get the rest of my things.

One week left in New Orleans found me alone in my empty 3-bedroom duplex, my roommate having recently vacated after clearing out his things. Without another person’s hearing to consider, I put on Punch Brothers’ Who’s Feeling Young Now? and twisted the volume knob all the way right. The past few months had kept me so busy that I hadn’t actually listened to the album all the way through, actually sat and listened without doing another task. (That’s the tricky thing about music; it might constantly be playing, but you’re not truly listening.) But on this night, knowing that the sound wouldn’t disturb my now-gone-roommate or my neighbor, who was away at work, I let the sound spill over and poured myself a bourbon. Sitting in the empty living room now pared down to an overstuffed chair and my stereo, I listened to the album, to the progression the band made as they built on song upon song, and the utter flood of sound that erupted at each crescendo. It was an absolutely perfect night spent all alone with one of my friends.

After packing it away that summer, never have I missed an actual object more than I missed my record collection. I, for one, miss my records when they’re not around, even though I have many of those same albums in digital format. Materialism can be hard to avoid in this day and age, and I like to think that my nomadic spirit has curbed such tendencies, because I can’t bring everything with me and therefore try not to accumulate what’s unnecessary. Not so with vinyl. Foregoing my vinyl that summer made me realize how I can’t leave my “friends” behind anymore. When I next move, it’ll be with my suitcase and my extensive collection of music in tow.

Whatever the growing reasons behind the upsurge in vinyl collection, I’m thrilled such popularity has caused vinyl production to become more pervasive than it was, say, ten years ago. More and more contemporary artists are releasing their albums on vinyl, which means I can continue collecting in the tradition of the current trends and my current tastes. Aside from the new, though, records offer access to a more eclectic kind of listening. It was only when I started collecting records that my tastes changed, broadened, came alive. Listening to music has only been amplified by owning a record player and purchasing music for that particular device that I wouldn’t have purchased digitally. Like any musical rogue, I enjoy discovering new artists, songs, or delving deeper into a genre when I go record shopping. I wouldn’t go out of my way to search Spotify for a great deal of the music I purchase on vinyl. It’s a pure game of risk and reward that can only take place–for me–through that medium.

Perhaps, in all honesty, my true affection for records wouldn’t be nearly as strong if I weren’t such a wanderer. Putting down roots, i.e. making friends, only to pick up and leave because school, career, or life takes you in another path means that much of my time involves some degree of being alone. It takes a minute to find your place in a new city, and records bridge that gap. Not only are they the sounds I learn about while living in a city, they serve as the string of memory that forever connects me to the places I’ve lived, traveled and existed. They will forever be my metaphorical friends, because they have been there through thick and thin, always with a note, a beat, a word that pangs out against this often wild existence, linking my now with my then, my here with my there, and forever reminding me that something bigger exists through all that sound.