January 9, 2010

Ode to Liner Notes

My friend Don is into vinyl records. He claims their superiority – “warmer” tone or better mix – over CDs or electronic versions. This may be true in many cases, although it is an argument difficult to prove to those who grew up only listening to CDs or downloads. One area we agree on, however, is that the record sleeve is a disappearing art form. The often wonderful (and in the Fifties and Sixties sometimes hilariously sexy) artwork and design that went into album covers loses a great deal of impact when it goes from something you held in both hands to a thumbnail on your iPod.
Introducing Johnny Griffin     The other loss is the flip side of the album, the liner notes. (Yes, they’re included in CD booklets, but often in an unreadable, small font.) Now that many people download individual songs, we often don’t know who is playing drums or bass behind the album’s main artist, we don’t know recording dates, and we get none of the flavor of the moment that liner notes often provided. For jazz recordings, these things are crucial. Liner notes were often written by leading critics of the day, to place the recording/artist in some kind of context, or by producers or others just trying to push the record. So, they could vary from prescient analysis to desperate attempts to sound “hip.”
     In the liner notes to Introducing Johnny Griffin (Blue Note, 1956), Joe Segal states: “Among saxophonists, Johnny Griffin, by many, is considered to be ‘the man’!” Oh, really. We also find out that Griffin is performing at Chicago’s Flame Show Lounge. The “man” was truly hot apparently.
     I suppose this is indicative of our age. We have access to almost unlimited amounts of information, but the connection to meaning seems to be loosening.


  1. I love my vinyl. I worked in a used record store after college for a while (yeah- I'm old)...I have @3,000 albums right now. I like the sound, I like the liner notes, I like the baffled look my students get when I talk about it. The most recent album I purchased is the heavenly John Coltrane With The Kenny Burrell Quintet, which I ebayed for a buck. Yeah!

  2. Vinyl is actually making a comeback, and not just for sampling.

  3. I also regret the passing of the LP's 'flip side' liner notes but even more the actual flip side of the physical record and 'flipping' it over on the turntable. Side 1/A - side 2/B. I consider it more like act 1 and act 2. LPs were assembled with the sequential pacing of tracks for two sides in mind. Listening to a CD reissue of an LP erases the originally intended time divide between an LP's last track on one side and the first track of the other, altering the listening experience from the original intention of the artist and/or producer. LP sides were usually assembled to be more or less complete on their own since, likely as not, only one side would be listened to at any one sitting. At the least there was the knowledge on the compiler's part that there would be a gap of at least a minute or two between the end of side 1 and the start of putting on side 2. That makes a difference when figuring out where to sequentially place songs on an album.

    Pacing of the original album is further lost with 'bonus tracks', especially 'alternate takes'. Give me the original 30-35 minute LP anytime rather than the listening fatigue that sometimes sets in hearing the same artist(and sometimes the same songs) on a 60-75 minute CD. How many people used to regularly listen in one session to all four sides of a two-disk LP?

    Of course, album pacing today is essentially a moot point with the widespread downloading of individual cherry-picked songs. And even some audiophile vinyl-lovers miss the point of album time and tempo pacing with the vinyl audiophile-market reissues of classic jazz LPs in the 45rpm one-song-to-a-side format.

  4. Not all LPs were put together with the care you suggest, but your point is well taken. The whole idea of an LP "side" is vanishing. Regarding alternate takes, they are sometimes revelatory, but I hate it when they are stuck in the middle of the original song list. At least when they are put at the end, you have the option of not listening to them. I also dislike the inclusion of fragments and false starts. I mean, Thelonious Monk was great, but do I need to hear every last note he played?