The holidays are nearly upon us, so why not give the gift of vinyl this year? Lots of younger folks (sometimes referred to as hipsters) are looking to get into vinyl, and those dusty old covers of '70s country stars in the Goodwill are looking more and more tempting to your millennial friends and family. The baby boomers in your family have probably long ago gotten rid of their half-busted turntables and have stacks of records in the closet they’d probably want to hear again. A turntable’s the perfect gift for anyone!
So here’s my pick for the best vinyl gift of the season: the Crosley suitcase turntable. I first heard about these from Dom Flemons, who sang their praises as cheap, compact travel turntables. And they are cheap! I got mine half-off at Barnes & Nobles new, which came to $50. I’ve heard of folks who got them for $80 and they can be picked up via Amazon Prime for $70-$80. Pretty great price for a quick turntable fix! The whole thing fits into a suitcase, though standard size LPs do stick out a bit when playing, and everything is self-contained. It’s got built-in speakers, RCA and headphone outputs, and even a USB option that apparently can transfer records to your computer digitally. I haven’t tried that yet, in fact I just unpacked it! The Crosley turntable isn’t perfect. The sound is a bit tinny and 45s can kind of overdrive the sound system. But it’s a great way to add a turntable to a new part of the house or just to give someone a chance to casually play records.
I talked to Flemons and he agrees about these cheap intro-model turntables: "I find the cheap ‘suitcase’ record players are a great way to help the vinyl resurgence. The quality of each model can vary, but they are inexpensive. The technology is old and that happens. Think of an old AM/FM radio. Some last forever and some break. Crosley, Jensen, and Vinylstyle all have great introductory models for the vinyl beginners."
The Crosley was just one part of the Barnes & Nobles major vinyl overhaul that I saw at the store. A big chunk of the store was given over to vinyl turntables (Crosleys), accessories, and stacks of brand-new vinyl, either reissues or new albums. I picked up a reissue of the Grateful Dead's Workingman's Dead for $25 or so that, like a good number of others in the store, was a Barnes & Noble exclusive rerelease. It came in some kind of tie-dyed brown vinyl and suckered me in with its fancy look. It was a fine record, and actually a nice excuse to discover a record of the Dead that I actually liked, but perhaps a bit overpriced. I chatted with the music department head at Barnes & Noble and he told me informally that vinyl had single-handedly rescued their flagging music department. I usually see few people in the record store part of Barnes & Noble, so this was a pretty big and surprising statement! This also helps explain the puzzling factoid that hipster clothing store Urban Outfitters is now the top vinyl seller in the US. Go to any Urban Outfitters store and you’ll see stacks of new vinyl along with stacks of Crosley turntables in special vinyl sections of the store. I can’t vouch for the quality of their vinyl selection, but it’s fascinating to see that vinyl has become a kind of "boho impulse buy" for millenials.
Another option for first–time turntables comes from Third Man Records, Jack White’s Willie Wonka music factory based in Nashville. They’ve partnered up with Seattle and LA based vinyl label Light in the Attic to offer a mini record player for kids, complete with record storybook that plays songs from Woody Guthrie, Nina Simone, and others. It’s cute as apple pie, but the catch is that it’s sold out on Third Man’s site and on back order at Light in the Attic with a January ship date. So not great for Xmas, but still cute as a button!
Once you’ve picked up the cheap, portable turntable, the next step is to get some records, and here Third Man Records has you set. I was just down at their shop in Nashville and picked up a big ol’ stack of their “Blue Series” 7"s, which I love. Here’s how Third Man describes this series: “Singers and bands that are traveling through Nashville, are invited to stop by to record one or two songs at Third Man Studio to be produced by Jack White. The songs are then, as soon as possible, made available on 7” vinyl and digitally on iTunes. The cover photos are taken in third man’s ‘blue room’ photo studio/live venue.” As 7”s, you get two songs total, one on each side, and these little 45s are hummin’! There’s a real live feel to them, and they’ve picked up the strangest and most eclectic group of performers for the Blue Series that you can imagine. They each cost about $6 and can be ordered from the Third Man site. Here are some of my highlights:
Chris Thile & Michael Daves – “Man in the Middle/Blue Night” 7”
This recording came out of the Chris Thile & Michael Daves retro-bluegrass project of 2011. That pairing brought about the absolutely smoking bluegrass record, Sleep With One Eye Open, that hit lots of critics best of lists at the time. That same year Thile and Daves headed into Third Man Records to cut this 7” and fleshed out the sound a little bit. Jack White himself burns on the drums on both tracks. There’s so much energy in these two tracks that it’s a wonder the little Crosley player can handle it. Bluegrass badasses, that’s about what this is. Pick it up!
Pokey Lafarge and the South City Three – “Chittlin’ Cookin’ Time in Cheatham County/Pack It Up” 7”
This was the first Third Man blue series 7” I picked up and it got me going on the whole thing. Pokey howls his way through the great old-time stringband number Chittlin’ Cookin’ Time in Cheatham County, with the band busting into this insane chordal progression towards the end that levels up the whole thing. “Pack It Up”
The Secret Sisters – “Big River/Wabash Cannonball” 7”
Alabama roots country act The Secret Sisters are avowed vinyl fans, even going so far as to title their breakout album, Put Your Needle Down. Here they’ve put together a huge kickass band for their Third Man sessions. Side A’s “Big River” features red-hot guitar solos from Jack White on lead guitar, and some dark, eerie harmonizing. Side B features blasting brass and some great old-school Andrews Sisters kinda harmony on the classic “Wabash Cannonball”.
Laura Marling – “The Blues Run the Game/The Needle and the Damage Done” 7”
British folk singer Laura Marling’s created quite a buzz in the US, and her Third Man Blue Series 7” is just a lovely, stripped-back affair. Really just her and her guitar. She kicks off with one of my most favorite songs, “The Blues Run the Game”. I just heard this one recently on a John Renburn live album reissue (The Attic Tapes)of '60s concert performances that just came out earlier this year on Riverboat Records (it’s a fine holiday gift pick too, I might add…). What a song. Bitter, sad, and somehow kinda badass. It’s from American folk singer Jackson C. Frank, who I need to listen to a lot more. For the B Side, Marling does a raw cover of Neil Young’s “The Needle and the Damage Done.” There’s a bit of sadness in her voice that’s really drawn out in this cover. It’s lovely.
Insane Clown Posse – “Leck Mich Im Arsch/Mountain Girl” 7”
This is definitely the craziest of all the blue series. Jack White picked up juggalo ringleaders Insane Clown Posse when they were in Nashville and brought them by the Third Man office. Who knew what would come out of such a strange collaboration? Whatever you would have thought, I’m sure a strange rap based on the mostly-ignored Mozart composition “Leck Mich Im Arsch” would not be at the top of your list. What a great story behind this Mozart piece too! It was written to honor the first cyborg, a German general who built himself a mechanical arm after he lost his real arm from a cannonball, and who’s battle cry was the infamous “Leck Mich Im Arsch” (Lick My Ass or Kiss My Ass). Side B is “Mountain Girl,” an insane hick-hop song that has them rapping over some sick pedal steel. You just can’t make this kind of thing up!
I hope this column provided some nice ideas for holiday gifts! Here’s a link for each of these:
Crosley Suitcase Turntable: http://www.amazon.com/Crosley-CR8005A-TU-Portable-Turntable-Turquoise/dp/B00990Z4W6
Barnes & Noble Exclusive Vinyl
Third Man Records Blue Series 7"s