In a world of downloadable MP3 music files and streaming audio, what accounts for the lasting allure of the vinyl record?
Part of it really is the sound – do not get your hardcore vinyl man started on the ineffable, broad-spectrum warmth of the analog recording. But any list of selling points for the old-school LP should also include its cover art. For decades the album cover was, like the comic book, a vital popular art form; for every American able to correctly identify Caravaggio’s “Basket of Fruit,” probably 10,000 can name that banana from “The Velvet Underground and Nico.”
And if an album you love can bookmark a chapter of your life, its branding image can conjure the moment you first heard the music. To your humble reviewer, circa 1976 will always look like Mapplethorpe’s black-and-white portrait of Patti Smith on “Horses,” the poet staring evenly into the camera with her jacket slung over her shoulder. Someone could put together a trendy gallery show of “Iconic Rock ‘n’ Roll Album Art,” and no doubt someone has.
With apologies for the long build-up, the collection of album covers on exhibit this month at Donkey Coffee and Espresso is not that show. It is, however, well worth a look.
In selecting for the exhibit, local vinyl collector/dealer/aficionado Paul Tescher has favored the spacey, the folkie, the psychedelic, and the broadly hippie-ish. Many of the albums date from the 1960s, and the moon was surely in the seventh house when some of these covers were conceived; think fat balloon letters, drooping mushrooms and gauzy butterflies, surrealist graphics a la Dali or Escher, twining foliage and stoneground vibes.
It seems a safe bet that being too commercially obscure didn’t keep anyone out of this show; your reviewer – known in some fast circles as a pretty eclectic dude pop-culture-wise – recognized only five of the artists on display (The Fugs, Nektar, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Leo Kottke and Blue Cheer.)
Though Tescher admits to a fondness for the music of groovy bands with names like Shiva’s Headband and Sweet Smoke, he says his criteria for inclusion were more about visual than musical aesthetics.
“The whole thing was how they looked together,” he explains. “I make jewelry, and I play with color. Sometimes I’ll make necklaces that have all different color beads. I basically chose very colorful covers, with a few for contrast with black covers, and just strung them together.” He also thought it would be fun to feature artists “that most people had no idea even existed.”
A selection this size, in any case, represents only a microscopic sampling of Tescher’s wide-ranging and e-freakin-normous album collection, largely amassed since the 1980s. That’s when he first sent away for some record catalogs, then began trading with dealers around the world. At some point he noticed that records being offered for sale at 20 bucks could sometimes be found in second-hand shops for pocket change, and got into dealing himself.
Full disclosure: An attempt to interview Tescher in a focused way about the show quickly devolved into a mutual enthusing over the bizarro goodies to be found in thrift-store vinyl bins. But you don’t need to be a used record hound to appreciate the ornate illustration (and catchy title) of “Mirror Image: The Electronic Sitar of Clem Alford,” the totally far-out amoeboid lava-lamp montage (and equally catchy title) of “The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band: Part One,” or the shambolic dress-up tableau of the Fugs’ “It Crawled Into My Hand, Honest” (a third catchy title, come to think of it.)
So take a stroll around the back room of Donkey and see what you’ve been missing with your iTunes and your Spotify. And if the idea of vintage vinyl sparks your fancy, you can email Tescher at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call him at 740-591-4604. You might want to clear off some shelf space first.
Special note: Tescher will play temporary DJ at an opening reception for the LP cover exhibit next Thursday, Jan. 24, from 5-7 p.m. at Donkey Coffee. He will talk about how he learned about and acquired the LPs on display, plus play some of the displayed music on his portable record player.