R.E.M. offers 45 rpm vinyl

The new R.E.M. album comes in several formats, including long-playing 45 rpm vinyl, which apparently sounds better than 33 1/3.

I have a theory about indie rock hipsters: you can tell how old they are by which R.E.M. album they say was "the last good one." Specifically, it was the last R.E.M. album that came out before they turned 22, the age at which most four-year college students graduate.

Will that be CD, CD+DVD, or CD+45 rpm double LP?

That puts me squarely in the Green camp. And in fact, while their next two albums made R.E.M. a household name, with songs like "Losing My Religion" (from Out of Time) and "Man on the Moon" (from Automatic for the People), I didn't like them. I don't really know why, except that Michael Stipe was no longer mumbling and his voice was mixed above the guitars, and MTV played them too much.

But I'm not a real hipster because I've bought and liked a few R.E.M. albums since then, and I love their 2001 studio album, Reveal, which places me in a very select group. (The album sold about 415,000 copies in the U.S. as of early 2007, according to Soundscan figures reported by U.S.A. Today--a great figure for most bands, but well off R.E.M.'s multiplatinum peak.) The trick was buying it on vinyl: when I heard the CD, I was lukewarm about it, but the record was on sale for $10 at a local Tower (remember those?) and so I bought it, figuring it would go nicely with all my other R.E.M. LPs. One night I couldn't sleep, so I played it for the first time at low volume at 4 a.m. It sounded completely different, with more solid bass and much better stereo separation, allowing to hear some interesting sounds buried in the mix.

This weekend, I went record shopping. I knew I was going to buy the new R.E.M. album, Accelerate. Being smart digital-age capitalists, the band (or Warner Bros.) is offering the new album in several formats, knowing that longtime fans might be willing to shell out a few bucks extra for something beyond the standard CD. The record store where I shop had the CD for $18--expensive for any new release, especially one I was buying mostly on spec. (I'd only heard the first song, and liked the loud guitars.) They also had a CD/DVD pack--the DVD includes a 46-minute film and extra music--for only $30. And, like Wilco and some other bands, they had a vinyl version with the entire CD included for downloading purposes, and this package also cost $30.

Remembering my past experience, I picked up the LP. Then I read the label closely and saw that it was to be played at 45 rpm, not 33 1/3 like most of the 12" LPs out there. According to a sticky label, the band did this "because sound quality matters." This was the first time I'd ever heard that 45 rpm LPs are supposed to sound better, but apparently it's old news in jazz, as record labels have re-released tons of classic jazz records on 45 rpm 180-gram vinyl. I haven't found a good technical explanation for why this is the case, but apparently spreading the same music over a longer curve makes the stylus track more accurately.

Unfortunately, my turntable has no button to switch speeds. Instead, I have to remove the platter, which is about 3/4" thick and made of heavy glass, and manually move the belt to a different setting. Then repeat the process before I play my other records, which are nearly all at 33 1/3 rpm. I'm too lazy--heck, I don't even like the fact that most LP sides are only two or three songs long nowadays, meaning that I have to bounce up and down every 10 minutes or so to flip the record. So I put it back and sprung for the CD instead.

Of course, if R.E.M. had been really finicky about sound, they should have released Accelerate as a 45 rpm LP with a blank underside, as apparently the flat surface adheres to the turntable better, eliminating certain unwanted vinyl resonances.

The album? So far, I've only listened to a few tracks, but I like what I've heard. It's loud and aggressive with lots of guitar, like 1994's Monster but more punk. But I haven't given it the 4 a.m. test.

 

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