Record Players

Record Players

Round, grooved slabs with punchy inner labels and some heft to them. Hundreds of parallel lines forming bar codes of color on shelves or in crates. Rich, warm sound with crackles and pops of character spreading across the room.

The devotion these sensations inspire is why, unlike every other music medium to date, vinyl records rose, fell and rose again. New Haven was present for vinyl-as-we-know-it’s birth in Bridgeport, where a Columbia Records pressing plant produced the first commercially viable LPs in 1948, and more than 70 years later, city residents are doing their part to keep it alive.

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At Elm City Sounds, now the only record shop within city limits, Chris Della Ragione watches over stacks upon stacks of records, each of them meticulously cleaned and priced. Some perch on the walls, a tableau of faces and colors gazing down at the rest of the collection. On a recent visit, four pickers hunched over their respective rows, animating upon finding a longed-for disc. Two had come in with large dogs, giving Ashes, Ragione’s trusty canine companion, some customers her own size to chat with.

Della Ragione has spent a lot of time with records. “I started out as a collector in the late ’90s, mainly hip hop and reggae. Then in the early 2000s I started producing music, and through producing hip hop I really got into sample culture and record collecting… Then I slowly turned into a dealer, selling privately or online, and in the past couple years I opened the store.” Naturally, he sings vinyl’s praises. “Truly, the sound is superior in many regards. For the nerdy or scientific explanation, it’s an analog, fluid sound wave, where a CD is a digital sound wave broken into bits, which doesn’t sound as good. The way that music has been turned into a commodity today, the vinyl record lets you feel it and the artist is able to express their vision more completely with the complete record and art. As every aspect of our lives is being pushed online more and more, the record pushes back. We’re not ready to just have digital music beamed into our brains quite yet.”

After decades of buying and selling records, Della Ragione says a person’s record collection “gives me a glimpse into a facet of who they are. 80% of people seem to have the same collection, of mostly classic rock—great music that every one should have. But it’s interesting to see the people who are willing to push it further and go beyond that, and really expand into more eclectic territories.” And he’s seen a lot of record collections. “Most of my most interesting experiences have been before I opened the shop, digging all around the country, in basements in the Bronx to farms in Virginia with tractor trailers full of 45s. It’s like pulling a slot machine, and every single record you pull is the spinning wheel, and any next record could be the jackpot. It’s the same serotonin release. It’s kind of addictive, and you keep chasing that.”

Michelle Beaulieu-Morgan doesn’t consider herself a collector, and yet she still beams with pride over her record collection. A DJ on WPKN with her own show, Love & Communication (a nod to the Cat Power song), she has a small but well-curated vinyl collection with deep meaning to her. “My parents graduated in 1976, so they had tons and tons of vinyl. I listened to records all through high school. Typical stuff, like this,” she says, holding up a lightly battered copy of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors. “My dad had the vinyl, and then it became mine.” When she moved to New Haven in 2009, she parted with almost all of it. “It’s hard to carry all that around,” she notes. “I sold all the records except for those that were super important to me.” But then, as in the broader landscape, records made a comeback. “In grad school, I felt the need to buy books to help convince myself I was smart, because I had a lot of anxiety around that as a first-generation student,” she says. “After breakup in 2014, I stopped buying books and started obsessively collecting records. They were liberation from a mindset around the crushing anxiety of books.”

She still finds liberation through vinyl. “With a record, I listen to it, and I love the feeling. There’s some kind of break that cuts up the incessant continuity of time.” These days, her collection is a capsule of the “state of indie music and record labels, 2014 to present.” She shows me 45s with hand-stamped cardboard functioning as cases. “I almost always try to support queer female artists, especially those just starting out. It’s a real look at lesbian subculture.” With this niche interest comes the challenges of being a queer woman in a male-dominated space. “I feel like I don’t even get to claim vinyl collector status, because with it comes a whole set of concerns and terms I just don’t have.” Her priorities are less in the hunting for the next great record find and instead supporting artists. Her collection reflects this, with ample representation of riot grrrl and DIY albums.

Rick Omante, also known as DJ Shaki, takes a karmic yet pragmatic approach to collecting. He used to collect all types of records, but, “after a while, you hit hoarder status. It’s good to be a branch, not the whole library,” he says, adding, “I don’t want to be greedy. A lot of records should be back out there if I’m not going to DJ them.” Spinning vinyl on WPKN and, in normal times, at clubs and bars around New Haven, Omante says his love of music started with a Huey Lewis tape in 3rd grade. After moving from cassettes to CDs, a vinyl experience of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ Natty Dread and Elvis Costello’s My Aim is True changed everything. “I was super familiar with them on CD, but it was shocking how different the remaster made Natty Dread. The CD made it sound more polished, and totally different.” Meanwhile, on the vinyl version of True, “Costello sounds like he’s in a garage band.”

The ultimate result is a passion for collecting vinyl not just stateside but around the world, including Morocco and, most recently, Peru. “Digging in a place like Peru is always an adventure. At the ferias, the flea markets, in the outskirts right by the broken car mirrors, you find the books and the records. It’s there you can find a crate of cumbia that you just can’t find in the states.” His trips to Peru inspired him to create Puro Tayta Shanti, a compilation record of Peruvian folkloric music from the country’s Central Sierra region, where his family is from. “I had roots in that music. My aunt is on the cover of one of the albums. So I wanted to go through the collection and explore this style of music.” And every time Omante drops something onto a turntable as DJ Shaki, he’s sharing his collection with the rest of us.

Before the pandemic, Thursday nights at Koffee? turned the tables and let the public be their own DJs from 6:30 p.m. to close. On these Open Vinyl Nights, you could bring a record or five and queue up on the “open turntable,” playing a side at a time, or you could just sit down and listen to a varied selection of tunes. Coulter Davis, an employee at Koffee?, started the event three or four years ago, but “version 2.0,” with a renewed performance license, started in late 2019. Davis, a musician himself, loves records, with a collection specializing in “lounge funk” and jazz.

Cole Cross, Open Vinyl Night’s other progenitor, kept records of the records, meticulously logging what was played and compiling a Spotify playlist of every song for each night, including the one I attended. His own contributions to the evening were mostly ’80s new wave and adjacent, presenting a contrast with an offering made by regular attendee Jake Radziunas, who gleefully placed the first record he ever owned, Joan Baez’s In Concert, on the turntable. Radziunas, whose tastes span a “wide swath” of music, described himself as a sucker for classic rock and pop punk and said he was looking forward to expanding his budding collection. As albums by artists ranging from The Jam to CAN joined the queue, patrons sometimes checked the rig to see what they were hearing and liking—a sharing both of record collections and, to paraphrase Della Ragione, a facet of who those collectors are.

Written by Allison Hadley. Image 1, featuring Elm City Sounds, photographed by David Zukowski. Images 2, 3 and 4—featuring Michelle Beaulieu-Morgan, Rick Omante and Ashes and friends, respectively—photographed by Allison Hadley.

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