Shifting gears in vinyl

Vinyl-philes will forever confidently rattle off the myriad ways in which their musical format of choice is superior to all others. There’s the sound quality argument, which, depending on the day, rests on one of two legs. First, phonograph records achieve the highest fidelity to the original performance — at least as it was captured on master tapes in studio recording. This is something the bits and bytes of a digital file can only approximate. Second are those lovable pops and scratches as the needle makes its way through the groove of the record. Since no two records are alike, this random byproduct becomes part of the listening experience. Meanwhile, digital files offer a soulless level of clarity, from versions 1 through 1 million, that only a computer could enjoy.

Add to this the jacket art, lyrics and liner notes. With their comparatively tiny canvasses, CDs lost out on this big time, while digital files have rendered the bells and whistles of physical packaging expendable casualties of technological advancement. But is it just an accessory or a necessity? For some people, it’s one piece of the artistic presentation, and as such is as important as the vinyl inside.

I can go either way in this debate, but one of the unique features records offer is the ability to alter the playback in a decidedly low-tech manner. The impish experiment of playing a 45 RPM single at 33 1/3 RPM could be an amusing diversion for any youngster interested in, say, making John Lennon sound like an actual walrus. Conversely, on older turntables, you could shift him up into chipmunk range at 78 RPM. And what teenager interested in exploring the dark side could resist disengaging the drive belt and manually spinning a song backward in search of hidden messages?

In a more creative context, there’s a reason turntable spinning, scratching and sampling became such an integral part of hip-hop. Via relatively simple and inexpensive means, you could use existing music to make new music. I’m sure there are sophisticated digital players that offer an unlimited range of playback speed, but the simplest creative tinkering tends to happen on the flip side of the digital revolution.

Case in point: Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” a classic early hit for the country star that resurfaced on YouTube, slowed down to 33-1/3. This is rises above adolescent hijinks. Parton’s songbird voice and the uptempo rhythm of the original 45 keep the song from dropping into unrecognizable sonic depths. But the alteration is significant in ways that are worth pondering. There’s a slow groove not normally found in Parton’s catalog, and a haunting vocal that, while faintly familiar, rests eerily between the male and female, though no less pained in its delivery. And, importantly, this version stands on its own, giving us two songs for the price of one. For all of the wins the digital age has rung up (and there have been many), the advantage goes to vinyl on this one.

Listen for yourself. Here’s the original:

And here it is at 33-1/3:

 

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