COMMENTARY

A Break from the Political Grind, One Album at a Time

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A friend who works in campaigns recently joked that there ought to be a mandatory, two-week respite from any kind of political talk immediately after Election Day.

Fighting a bad cold and exhausted from what had turned out to be 20 days straight of galloping around the state behind candidates and their campaigns, the idea of a blackout on any sort of political talk had an undeniable appeal.

Above my desk here at PennLive, we have a carousel of TVs tuned to cable news, guaranteeing that my work day is filled with fresh outrages and lower-third crawls trumpeting the latest in not-really-breaking news.

A day or so after Election Day, my cell phone started vibrating nonstop with updates and news about leadership elections in the state House and Senate. I started getting the push alerts about the debate over a Pelosi speakership; the Florida and Georgia recounts, and the emerging contours of the Democratic Blue Wave on Nov. 6.

There comes a point where even the most dedicated news junkie has to put down the remote, put the iPhone on vibrate, and hop off the endless campaign merry-go-round.

So I did. And for two days last week, my world didn't extend much further than a Crosley combination turntable that my wife got me for Christmas about 10 years ago.

My vinyl collection, assembled over 30 dedicated years or so of collecting, takes up a huge shelving unit in my home office. Cassettes and CDs are packed away in huge plastic storage tub with little or no organization. The choices, theoretically, were endless.

But for my two-day holiday from politics, I decided to set some rules for myself: I'd only listen to albums. And they had to cut across genres and generations and decades.

I found myself digging out a Dylan's greatest hits compilation, "This Ain't No Outer Spaceship," by the first-generation Athens, Ga. band Love Tractor, Sinatra's "In the Wee, Small Hours" and others.

You don't have to look far to find essays waxing rhapsodic about the 'warmth' of vinyl, compared to the sterile, digital bits and bytes of the compact disc. News stories about records being the savior of a dying music industry (or not) are equally abundant. And I'm eternally amused by my friends telling me how their kids, unironically, exclusively listen to records (although there is a preponderance of evidence to support the conclusion that aging GenXers like me still remain a core constituency).

For me, though, the biggest difference between vinyl and other recorded media is that it's an active — not a passive listening, experience.

While you can stream an endless playlist to keep you company while you make dinner or putter around the house, you have to get up to turn the record over when it hits the end of the side. That mere physical difference keeps you more engaged in the music. You have to listen. You have to pay attention — even as you pore over the liner notes (its own reward) or get the odd piece of work done.

The records turn into sonic roadmaps as well. Putting on the Dylan compilation prompted me to remember how I'd come by it (yard sale, maybe?). The Love Tractor LP (picked up on a buying spree in grad school in Chicago) reminded me of how how much I loved the first wave of Athens bands.

So I found myself listening to The Method Actors, Pylon, and, of course, R.E.M. (their debut "Chronic Town" EP and a live bootleg of a performance in Durham, N.C, called "Heavenly Time," that I'm pretty sure I bought out of the back of a music magazine sometime in 1984 or 1985).

Listening to Simple Minds brought me to Big Country. The Sinatra records, from my Dad, led me to Basie and to Louis Prima — which was blasting in my living room in the same way it used to echo through my Nonna's house when I was a kid. Over the course of couple of days, I worked my way through a dozen or more LPs.

No cable news. No push alerts.

The campaign stuff and the politics gossip? It was no shock to find that it was all pretty much right where I'd left it, effectively unchanged from the beginning of my self-imposed sabbatical. For a minute, I wondered if I'd missed out on anything crucial.

Then I put another record on.

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