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  • Writer's pictureNeil Rajala

SHORT TAKES #11: Random Bits

Okay, time to bash out a few musical things rattling around my head lately. A couple of these topics were going to be their own post at one point, but a good rule of thumb for me is if I get bored in mid-post there’s not as much to say about the subject as I thought. So those shrunken bits and a couple others appear here. Trust me, shorter is better.

• My So-Called Digital Life: I know I’ve carped about digital music a few times over the course of this blog, but the truth is I’ve embraced music in its 0s and 1s form pretty much since its arrival. Here’s a quick recap of the three phases of my digital life. And who knows, there may be a fourth before I shuffle off.

Phase One: CDs. I embraced the arrival of the new format for all of the things it promised – portability, ease of storage, durability, and, of course, “perfect sound forever.” If that last one had proven to be true, I may never have gone back to vinyl. But it wasn’t. I still own hundreds of CDs, I play them in my now-anachronistic car player, and when I want music to soundtrack something else I’m doing and don’t feel like stopping every twenty minutes. I even occasionally burn one these days, but I never buy them anymore.

• Phase Two: Downloads. Aaaargh, me hearties, my days of pirating. I dabbled in the early days of online file sharing, when Napster and Limewire took hours (or days) to download a crappy mp3 version of music I wanted to hear but couldn’t afford. It wasn’t enough fun in those days to do it a lot. Then bit torrents found their footing, computer DL speeds increased, file quality improved, and CD burners could handle a wider array of digital music formats. It was off to the races. The glory days of sites like Pirate Bay (still alive, somehow), Kickass Torrents,, and Trader’s Den allowed me to gather up and burn to CD all the music I wanted to hear and share, both official releases and bootlegs. That bit torrents existed in a legal gray area and made the whole thing kinda exciting and swashbuckling was a bonus.

• Phase Three: Streaming. And now it’s the era of digital music streaming - anything anytime, anywhere - and you’d have to pry my Qobuz account from my cold, dead fingers. I can call up pretty much any album or song I can think of (and I can think of a lot) and listen through wireless headphones, my car’s Bluetooth connection, my portable Bluetooth speaker, or my home stereo system, all in CD-quality sound at least. It’s an embarrassment of riches to somebody who used to scrape together enough change from my paper route as a boy to buy the occasional 45rpm single. The old cassette mixtape has been replaced by the Qobuz playlist in my life. In fact, I call my most-used Qobuz playlist mixtape because it’s where I throw killer older songs and exciting discoveries. mixtape is nearly 300 songs at this point, an endlessly entertaining radio station.

• Bill Berry: So who is this guy, and why did the roof collapse on R.E.M.'s albums after he left? That's a question I've pondered ever since Bill, the drummer, left the band after 1996's New Adventures in Hi-Fi. Full disclosure, I'm a huge R.E.M. fan. I consider them one of the finest rock bands this country has produced, on equal footing with my beloved Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. I'm intimately familiar with every R.E.M. studio album from their first to their last, the live albums, and the compilations. One thing I considered "cool" about them was the fact that every original song on every album had a shared songwriting credit, all four members got equal royalties regardless of who contributed what. I have to confess, my own internal sense of the band's creative process was that Stipe, Buck, and sometimes Mills were the chief creators, Bill Berry their gifted drummer. I had no facts to base that impression on, it just seemed liked the way rock bands typically worked.

Bill left R.E.M. in 1997 following some health issues, including suffering an aneurysm onstage in Europe. R.E.M. made five more albums before they called it quits, and while there are songs and moments I like on all five, none of them come close to the musical and emotional magic of their previous catalog. I came to realize that Bill played a much bigger role in focusing their creativity and sculpting their content than I had imagined. They became a creative collective missing an important voice - a car missing a spark plug, if you will. I still don't know exactly what role Bill Berry played in the creation of a catalog of music I love - the credits don't give us specifics and the band never offered up details in interviews - but I'll continue to ponder this enigmatic figure in rock history.

• To 45 or not 45: This one speaks to the vinyl collector geeks out there, a.k.a. my tribe. In order to get the "best" sound from a record (and charge the most money for it) specialty pressing labels are cutting audiophile editions of classic albums at 45rpm, just like the old singles we used to stack on a record player or load into jukeboxes. Why? The thinking behind it is that the wider grooves of a 45rpm pressing allow more of the music's dynamic range to be embedded into the vinyl slab, which your turntable's needle will pick up and, in theory, make an album you've heard a thousand times sound richer and reveal nuances you never heard at 33rpm. Does it work? I have a few 45rpm special editions, five I can call to mind, and I have to say yeah, it does. I know I've never heard other copies of Dire Straits or Dylan's Oh Mercy or Nilsson Schmilsson that sound like my current ones. But they're pricey as hell, and the difference isn't so remarkable that I find I can resist them pretty easily. A fun, but very occasional treat.

What's sparking a lot debate about them (besides the prices) are the short album sides 45rpm mastering demands. If you have an album that was a single LP back in the day, it'll be a 2LP set with two or three songs per side at 45rpm. The wide grooves just take up too damn much vinyl space to work their magic, you'll be getting up to flip or change the album a lot. Quite a few social media vinyl influencers simply won't buy them because the inconvenience outweighs the sonic improvement. I have to say I land mostly in their camp, if my whole collection was cut at 45rpm that would be a private vision of hell. I'd get my exercise, but an element of deep musical focus would be lost. Still, listening to one every so often is an enjoyable novelty. To my ears, the technology works.

• My 10 Most Played LPs: A YouTube thread that caught fire in recent weeks among record collectors and reviewers. Instead of the typical "best," "favorite," and "must own" lists, content makers have been getting down to brass tacks and listing the ten records they truly play the most in real life. What are your fall-backs? What do you throw on the turntable when you're really not sure what you want to listen to? Which LPs are your musical comfort food? I thought that was an interesting distinction between intellect and emotion, so here goes: ten I spin often when I don't know what to spin. The list could certainly be longer, but these ten sprang to mind immediately and I'm going with my gut. They're in no particular order, and I'll leave the commentary to anyone who might have something to say about them.

01 Miles Davis, ‘Round About Midnight

02 Elton John, Honky Chateau

03 Sade, Diamond Life

04 The Rolling Stones, Black and Blue

05 Roxy Music, Avalon

06 Silly Wizard, Wild & Beautiful

07 Robbie Robertson

08 Supertramp, Crime of the Century

09 Rickie Lee Jones, Pirates

10 Yellowman, King Yellowman

• Jaime Royal "Robbie" Robertson, 1943 - 2023: Late-breaking, and most unwelcome, news. I can actually recall when and where I first heard his music. In the U.P. village I grew up in there was an empty storefront on the main street. Full glass panel front windows on each side of the entrance, wood floors, high ceiling with hanging lights. It looked like a building you'd use as an old-timey general store or mom-and-pop hardware if you were shooting a period movie. When I was in junior high, a beneficent resident put pool tables, pinball machines, and most importantly, a jukebox in that space and gave the village a teen and pre-teen hangout space. I remember all these decades later with great fondness. On that jukebox was "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," a decent hit at the time. I loved it for reasons I couldn't have put into words then, but looking back I remember it sounding majestic and panoramic compared to the other pop singles of the day. It was telling a story as compelling, and more literal, as "American Pie," another huge hit in the hangout.

That song didn't make me a fan of Robbie, specifically, or The Band in general. It was just another awesome radio song in an era full of them. I really latched onto The Band years later in their role as Bob Dylan's back-up band on his Before the Flood live album in 1974. From there, I went back in time to hear their earlier stuff, with and without Bob, and followed their careers, especially Robbie's, closely from then on. He was the compelling star of The Band's magnificent final act, The Last Waltz, and his first two solo albums, Robbie Robertson and Storyville, remain some of my most played records. His coiled-spring electric guitar style is instantly identifiable and completely unique. A brilliant songwriter and music arranger, as gifted at scoring films as he was at rock and roll. It's probably wrong to say he'll be missed by the current music scene, he hasn't been on anybody's commercial radar in decades, but he'll be remembered and appreciated always by folks like me who were moved and changed by his music. Godspeed, Robbie.

(P.S. Robbie's memoir Testimony from 2016 is a very fine read)

EARWORM: "Soap Box Preacher" - There are a thousand choices but I wanted to pick a gem that not enough people have heard. From his second solo album, with a perfectly haunting Neil Young backing vocal.

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