July 15, 2010

Blast from the Past: An Ode to Liner Notes: A Casualty of the Digital Music Age

  In our continuing series, Blast From the Past, we bring you a story written for Issue No. 9 from March 2006 (to download the whole issue, click HERE). Apparently, I am not the only one feeling like we have lost something in the translation to digital. To this day, in conversation or on Facebook, talk of liner notes comes up and they are recalled with fondness and a wistful hope for their return.


We’d like to thank liner notes for all the great memories and for teaching us a few things about music

  A couple days ago, I was listening to Patty Griffin’s “1,000 Kisses” album and my daughter became interested in the lyrics.
  She began browsing the CD’s booklet. “Did Patty draw the pictures in here, Dad?,” she asked? It reminded me how much I like – and miss – album liner notes.
  This isn’t the first time I have come to this sad conclusion. When records were replaced by CDs there was an outcry that the reduced size of recordings would destroy the “art” of the album— which it did.   There was truly something great about being able to discover a band’s personality by browsing an album while you were listening to the music.
  Inside, you might find a collage of photos taken while the band was recording the album, the lyrics of each song, who played on the songs, or maybe even some written nugget of information that gave color or insight into the band. It was also where you’d discover trivial details that made you a “real” music fan: Duane Allman played slide guitar on Eric Clapton’s Derek & the Dominos album “Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs” or the fact that Muddy Waters’ songs were actually written by McKinley Morganfield, which later you learned was Muddy’s real name.
  Finding those morsels about a musician or band in the small print was the best part, and made you feel like you “knew” them.
 On Laurie Geltman’s “No Power Steering” album, she thanked a bunch of first-name-only folks, Dr. Altoids, the Geltmans, and “anyone else who’s given us a place to crash or picked us up on the side of the road.” OK, it’s not vital information, but it does give you a sense of her personality.
  With CDs, you could still find that information, albeit in even smaller print. It was not nearly as intimate to sit down with a 5-inch square booklet to check out the band photos, and at times it took a magnifying glass to read lyrics and other information. But at least the information was still available.
  Now comes downloadable music, and the end of music packaging.
  As many of you know, I’m a huge fan of downloading music. I do it all the time and love the convenience, the cost savings, and even the online searches for nuggets not available on albums or lesser known bands and musicians.
  But despite that joy, there still lingers a sadness from losing some of the intrigue I got from spending time with the liner notes.
Jazz, I believe, may be hurt the most from this loss because jazz musicians tend to play with many different pairings rather than stay with one band. Unlike in rock, it is much harder to keep track of who is playing on what album. Joshua Redman’s “Wish” album features Pat Metheny, Charlie Haden, and Billy Higgins. I know that because the album cover tells me so.
  The iTunes version of the album does not mention the supporting players. If I had bought Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” by download, I may never have known that John Coltrane played on the album. When I borrowed the original album from the library, I remember pouring over the sleeve notes to see who else played on it.
  That information today is readily available on the Internet, and I’m sure some eager music fans will take the time to research it, but I worry that the average kid listening to the album for the first time
would not take the time to find out such details.
  There is some hope on the horizon though. A company called TuneBooks has begun to produce “digital liner notes” for certain albums sold on iTunes.
  According to its website (www.tunebooks.com), “TuneBooks combines traditional visual elements — liner notes, cover art and band collateral — with custom-designed interactive art and media to create a new visual experience.”
  The company produced such materials for the Click Five, the Darkness and Prodigy.
  While it will never take the place of the visceral experience of sitting alone, headphones on, scouring the inner depths of an album jacket for clues to your favorite band, I am hopeful that liner notes will not disappear forever. And when the next youngster is turned on to the Beatles’ “When My Guitar Gently Weeps,” they will read somewhere on its liner notes (digital or otherwise) that helping out on guitar was none other than Eric Clapton.

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