Buying albums

I went to J&R Music today to buy some actual albums (new ones by old acts: U2, Van Morrison and Bruce Springsteen, as well as an old Brian Eno collaboration that’s hard to find in its original form at a reasonable price.

This is an increasingly rare experience, even for me. I buy a lot of music online nowadays. I like the instant gratification, and I like being able to find what I’m looking for without having to go to half a dozen stores.

Of course, you can’t go to half a dozen stores anymore to look for albums. Tower is gone, both Virgin Megastores are closing, the HMV store disappeared years ago, lots of smaller outlets are gone, and for the most part to buy CDs nowadays you have to go to places like Circuit City or Barnes and Noble or Borders which have terrible selections and outrageous prices. But J&R was there first, and they’re still there, and they still have an impressive selection and people who know about music, not that they’re particularly nice. They also have great prices — I used to tell people in the Borders at the World Trade Center that they could save a dollar per block per album by walking over to J&R. The U2 album was $6.99; I think the last time I paid that for a new album I was buying the new Cars album at Record Baron on Staten Island.

Or I could have been buying albums by any of the people I bought albums by today. Honestly, these albums all sound like what they are: mediocre releases by aging (or aged) artists. I doubt I would have even bought them if not for my completist instincts. They’re not bad but not very exciting. I am glad to see U2 and Eno and Daniel (now billed as Danny????) Lanois and Steve Lillywhite all working together again, but this is nowhere near as interesting as The Unforgettable Fire or War were. The Springsteen is perfectly serviceable but pales in comparison even to non-canonical Springsteen classics like Tunnel Of Love or The River. The Van Morrison album is quite frankly sad, a live re-creation of one of his greatest albums, Astral Weeks. It’s an attempt to recapture spontaneous magic that happened 40 years ago between a unknown and somewhat paranoid young songwriter and brilliant older jazz musicians who were required to record in a separate room. It’s not reproducible by a cantankerous old superstar with a band of hired guns attuned to his every querulous move.

I have owned the beautiful After the Heat, recorded in 1978 by Brian Eno with Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius, for many years, but I wanted a digital copy of it and gentle electronic landscapes are not well-suited to digitization from LPs, no matter how well taken care of they were.

So despite the nostalgic feeling of going to the store and buying new albums, taking them home and unwrapping them, I’m less excited by the music I bought today than the edgier and more interesting music, by younger people, that I buy at shows or download. I don’t feel that the death of the record labels or traditional music retail outlets store is bad for music. In some ways it’s an improvement; before the advent of emusic or Amazon or iTunes or CD Baby it was harder to find music, especially unpopular music, and when you did find it, it was expensive. And that extra money didn’t go to the musicians.

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