As I noted in the introduction to Club TBVO, writing my TBVO columns has underscored that -- while there's much to be said for the convenience of our streaming era -- the best sounding version of an album is, more often than not, still contained on physical media. Ebay and, especially, Discogs have made tracking down even the rarest physical media infinitely easier than before, too.
But there are certain items that, even in the vastness of the interwebs, are impossible to track down, despite the fact that they must exist somewhere. (I'm still trying to lay my hands on a physical copy or bit-percfect transfer of the MFSL PCM VHS/Betamax of Donald Fagen's The Nightfly, which exists but doesn't even have a Discogs entry! A sealed copy sold on Ebay for $1,000 in 2017.)
There's also something to be said for walking into a record store and finding a gem in the flesh, even if it's one that you could've bought online. First, there's that moment of recognition. "Here's that release I've been looking for! Wow! I can't believe they have it!" Then there's the fact that you get to actually inspect the copy yourself, rather than taking a seller's description on faith. Finally, you also might end up getting it for a bargain price, in contrast to the internet, where (for better or for worse) "what the market will bear" tends to operate more strictly than in the murky world of brick-and-mortar shops. A few weeks ago, I had one of those experiences.
Shortly after moving to Charlottesville, I began checking out its two main record stores: Plan 9 and Sidetracks. Especially for a small town, these are two superb stores with excellent selection, even in the (possibly passé or possibly rebounding) CD format. Both get most new releases, with Sidetracks tending to do slightly better at stocking obscure rock releases. However, Plan 9 usually has the better used selection and (when it comes to both new and used) has a simply world-class Soul and R&B section. Over the years, I've found great stuff at both stores. At Sidetracks, I've bought a slate of pristine out-of-print Van Morrison remasters, along with a sealed copy of the rare Yes 1972 tour box set at a price far below what I would've had to pay for a new copy online. At Plan 9, I've pocketed more obscure out-of-print and Japan-only Funk releases than I can count, along with oddities like a promo-only Donald Fagen interview disc and a great KTS label The The live bootleg.
But this local CD bin-diving also brought one near-miss that I couldn't let go. At Plan 9, I came across a copy of the 1990 MFSL release of Rod Stewart's Every Picture Tells a Story. This is a classic album. Subjectively, I love it. Historically, it's significant. Practically, there are many, many masterings. In other words, it checks all of the boxes as a certain future TBVO. At the time I came across the MFSL, I'd already bought a half-dozen versions of Every Picture Tells a Story. I'd also heard a rip of the MFSL I'd found online (more on the ethics and perils of this later), so I knew it sounded great. The price was fair. Buying the disc at Plan 9 was a no brainer. Alas, I opened the jewel case and discovered that someone had performed the once fashionable but pointless practice of coating the edge of the disc with an "audiophile" permanent green marker. The store offered to give me a discount on it, but I decided I wanted an un-"improved" disc.
Since then, I've looked for the MFSL CD of Every Picture Tells a Story at every record store I've visited. We're talking dozens of stores across multiple years, including a trip to the (wonderful) Austin Record Convention with my lifelong best friend (the one that I used to visit CD Warehouse with constantly in high school and who still has the collecting fever, too). Yet, I never came across another copy of Every Picture Tells a Story. Sure, I could've bought one on Discogs. But I just couldn't bring myself to click "purchase" when I'd been so close to an in-person find. However, after years of fruitless searching, it was getting to the point that I was ready to buy it online. The hope of finding one in a record store had receded.
That all changed a few weeks when my wife and I took a trip to Chicago to visit friends. There, I stopped at Reckless Records. Naturally, I scooped up a bunch of cheap Van Morrison and Steely Dan early pressings, hoping (as always) to discover a unique mastering. As I was getting ready to check out, I realized that I'd neglected to do my obligatory Every Picture Tells a Story search. At most stores, "audiophile" pressings are placed behind the counter, or at least displayed. That's how I immediately spotted the markered copy of Every Picture Tells a Story at Plan 9. It's rare to just find out-of-print (and usually more expensive) MFSL or DCC discs in the bins with run-of-the-mill recent remasters. As I sauntered over to the "Stewart, Rod" card, I thought to myself, "Wouldn't it be funny if this was the place that finally had the MFSL disc, and you almost walked out without looking?"
Sure enough, there it was! Not only that, it looked as though it had barely been touched since its release in 1990. Nary a scratch or scuff. The price, while slightly higher than the cheapest (uncertain condition) copies online, was more than reasonable. I added to my pile and strolled to the front desk, grinning ear-to-ear (not that anyone could necessary tell below my KN95).
It may make me a dork to say so, but it was exhilarating to find that copy of Every Picture Tells a Story. Moreover, unlike the CDs I buy online, which tend to blend into an indistinguishable mass of "stuff that gets set on my porch," I'll always remember exactly when and where I got this superb copy of a classic album.
The TBVO on Every Picture Tells a Story is coming. I have no idea whether the MFSL is the best-sounding digital version. It has stiff competition. But it sure was fun to find.