Being an artist is kind of like being a blogger – it takes a healthy dose of vanity to be able to pull it off. Musicians and internet wankers alike survive on the belief that what they have to say is worth being heard. Oh sure, some of what drives us is the need to express, but anyone in either field who says they don’t want to be listened to or read is either lying or legitimately kooky.
So along that vein, the multiple-record album must be kind of like the week-long blog feature: it takes that vanity to an almost absurd extreme (sorry Myles).
Multiple-record albums don’t happen as much as they used to, but you can thank technology for that. The compact disc – with its 72 minute running times – has made it so that some classic double albums, like London Calling, now fit on one record instead of two. But that extra time hasn’t stopped some legitimate double – and in the case of Joel Plaskett’s Three, triple! – records from being made.
My steadfast belief is that the length of the vinyl LP – roughly 40 minutes – still remains the ideal length for a record. Maybe I’m biased because so many classic records fit that mould, but it seems that 40 minutes of music represents the average for quality output that most artists can put together between albums. Moreover, 40 minutes is completely listenable start-to-finish in one sitting; any more than that, and the complete experience becomes complicated, time-wise.
That’s not to say that there aren’t some truly great long records, but on average the advent of the compact disc hasn’t been kind to the album as a singular statement. When economics take over – put as many songs as possible to up the “value” quotient – the number of “take it or leave it” or just “leave it” tracks tends to increase dramatically.
So given that the odds of filling two or three discs full of top-quality material are near-insurmountable, how does an artist pull off a double or triple record (or even just a 74-minute classic)?
If you’re going to be vain enough to take up that much time of your listeners’ lives, the only way to pull it off is to wholeheartedly embrace the vanity. The White Album, London Calling, Sign o’ the Times…the greatest double albums ever made all succeed not in spite of their lesser, more experimental tracks but because of them. Volume is the whole point of the exercise; you need to be able to pull off the indulgences with class otherwise the whole ordeal fails.
I’m still living with Plaskett’s Three, and I’m more or less enjoying it. Sure, he hasn’t filled three entire discs of music (each record is only just over 30 minutes) but releasing 27 tracks is clearly an exercise in sheer volume. In amongst putting some genuine classics to tape – looking at you, “Run Run Run” – Plaskett has totally embraced the toss-off nature of the multiple-disc record with a number of fairly disposable folk/country songs that one could take or leave, but which feel like they add something to the album’s character.
Having said that, I kind of wish that Plaskett had decided to push the walls of the folk/country box a bit more, as he did with some of the more interesting tracks on La De Da. There’s only a few songs like “Drifter’s Raus” that feel like they’re playing with sound instead of just playing with genre. That lack of sonic variety leaves Three feeling like one of those long albums that I’ll forever wish was shorter or edited down.
Along those lines, I’m reminded of one of my favourite features from the now-defunct music webzine Stylus called “Playing God,” where their writers would take records and re-edit them, throwing in b-sides or removing tracks that just didn’t work. More often than not, they attempted to take famous double albums and turn them back into one solid record. Check out their archives page for all of their re-imaginings.
Anyone actually re-edited an album along those lines?