Last weekend, my wife and I took a trip up to Newport, Rhode Island, to spend some time at the beach.
We got some sun, we ate some seafood, we drank some pretty terrible local beer, and we visited one of my favorite landmarks: The Music Box.
I’ve essentially made a trip to the Music Box once every summer since I was about 14, and though it has expanded its reach beyond music and video over the course of the last decade-and-a-half (if you notice on the store’s official website, they also sell sports memorabilia and “gourmet food”), it remains a good old-fashioned record store at its heart.
I almost always go in looking for a handful of specific things—for no other reason than tradition, I always pick up a copy of the new Warped Tour compilation, as I have been buying those things since they’ve been called Punk-O-Rama; this time around, I was on the hunt for the Flaming Lips’ Heady Nuggs, a limited-edition Record Store Day collection of the group’s first five Warner Bros. albums on vinyl—and also for some browsing: Whenever I visit a new city, I always try to seek out a used record store to dig out soundtrack compilations from ’90s teen movies, which I constantly purchase on the cheap for reasons I’ve lost track of.
The Music Box did not disappoint (though they were playing Train’s cover of “Umbrella” on their in-store sound system, which bummed me out profoundly). I walked out with the Lips set (at a fantastic price) and a promotional compilation of Lollapalooza performers from 1994, which includes tracks by Green Day, L7, Nick Cave, Stereolab, and the Breeders.
But the most thrilling moment of the afternoon was completely unexpected. While I was thumbing through some used soundtracks (alas, they didn’t have anything I didn’t already own), I spotted a piece of album artwork that caught my eye. Sitting in the A’s was the latest release from a band called Alestorm, who I had no knowledge of prior to noticing the cover of their latest album Back Through Time.
Based on the image on the front, I assumed they were some sort of epic metal band, and the list of song titles (including “The Sunk’n Norwegian,” “Death Throes of the Terrorsquid,” and, most importantly, “You Are a Pirate”) revealed that they apparently existed in a one-band genre called pirate metal.
This sort of thing used to happen to me all the time. I spent the better part of my teen years wandering around music stores (I could ride my bike to Coconuts and Lechmere in Manchester, Connecticut, and when I finally got my license I had access to the much cooler, indier Record Express in West Hartford and Music Outlet in Enfield), and I would often take these trips with no real shopping agenda.
But whenever I came across a staff recommendation or a great album cover or even a compelling title, I allowed myself to make a spur-of-the-moment purchase. Hartford radio was weak (we didn’t get a modern rock station until way late, and college stations weren’t the kind that played Pavement), and I wasn’t resilient enough to stay up and watch 120 Minutes, so my avenues of discovery were somewhat thin. Outside of reading music magazines, allowing myself to be randomly inspired while walking among the racks seemed like the only reasonable way to discover new music.
Obviously, this was in the era before the Internet, and by the time I arrived at college in the fall of 2000, I could generally sample whatever I wanted to before buying it. It made for more reasonable spending habits, but it also took a bit of the fun and thrill out of fishing for new music. The possibility of finding something great or compelling was enough to keep me coming back, because in my mind, the next great band I loved was already at my fingertips. It lead to a lot of regrets (I really should never have bought that Babylon Zoo album), but it also gave me just as many things I loved (I picked up Archers of Loaf’s Vee Vee based on its entrancing cover; it became my favorite release of 1995).
Sadly, I did not purchase Alestorm’s Back Through Time, though I regretted it almost immediately. The whole experience bummed me out for a number of reasons, mostly because it made me feel less adventurous but also because it made me feel kind of old (writing this blog post hasn’t helped either; reading the whole thing back, I realize I talk about the past as though I listened to music via a crank-powered Victrola).
But for a fleeting moment, I got back that thrill I used to feel when I was taking adventures into the unknowns of the music universe. Nostalgia can be a toxic thing, and I normally gag at the idea of paying homage to the past simply because it’s the past, but sometimes you have to treat yourself to a little backward-looking thrill.
So I ask you, readers of the Music Mix: Do you still go to record stores? Did you ever go to record stores? And do you have any great tales of discovery from your crate-digging past? Give a shout-out to your local joint and wallow in a pit of nostalgia in the comments below.