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PERSPECTIVE

Time Is Not on the Side of Long Albums

Many artists are using the increased capacity of CDs to add 20 to 30 minutes of marginal material. It's a major downside of artistic control.

May 21, 2000|ROBERT HILBURN

Maybe the back-to-vinyl advocates are right when they say we were better off before compact discs. But what I miss isn't the so-called warmth of the old 12-inch vinyl records, or even the larger cover artwork. It's the time restraint.

With vinyl, you got about 22 or 25 minutes per side of an album before sacrificing sound quality. Until the CD arrived in the mid-'80s, that meant even the most ambitious artists could give us only about 45 to 50 minutes of music on an LP.

Record artists have always been in love with the sound of their own voices, but now, thanks to the longer CD capacity, they are sharing way too much of those voices with us by regularly delivering albums that run 50 . . . 60 . . . even 70 minutes or more.

The average length of the 10 best-selling albums in the country for the week ending May 7: 59 minutes. Half of the albums run 60 minutes or more--Cypress Hill's "Skull & Bones" (65 minutes), Santana's "Supernatural" (75), Destiny's Child's "Writing's on the Wall" (65), Dr. Dre's "Dr. Dre 2001" (65) and DMX's "And Then There Was X" (65).

They aren't doing us a favor.

Instead of giving us 35 to 40 minutes of their best, artists generally round out the album with 20 to 30 additional minutes--usually by including marginal tunes or by extending the length of tracks far beyond their natural worth.

Can you say "f-i-l-l-e-r"?

It's getting so bad that the industry should weigh the merits of a new advisory sticker: Warning--This CD contains more than 50 minutes of music.

Record companies charge us the same for 70 minutes on a new CD as for 40, so why should we care if there is filler in an album? Can't we just use the skip button on the CD player and avoid the offending tracks?

No--because the artist should do the editing for us. That's an essential part of the creative process.

It weakens an album--and drives away potential fans--when Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor, one of the most talented rock artists of his generation, feels he needs to take an exhausting 104 minutes in "The Fragile" to tell us about alienation and despair rather than the 40 minutes John Lennon needed in "Plastic Ono Band," a 1970 album whose raw emotion was cited by some critics when reviewing "The Fragile."

Similarly, it weakens an album when Don Henley, one of the most accomplished singer-songwriters of the modern pop era, takes 70 minutes to express himself in the new "Inside Job" rather than the 44 minutes his band the Eagles needed in "Hotel California," one of the defining albums of the '70s.

The Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan, one of the most gifted figures to enter rock over the last decade, has given us five albums and they've totaled an astonishing 376 minutes--or about 75 minutes per album. If he had trimmed that output in half, he would have most certainly given us even more compelling albums.

And we are talking about three of our best artists. The degree of filler is obviously more noticeable on extended works by the scores of mediocre artists, from Mariah Carey (last album: 56 minutes) and Korn (66 minutes) to Shania Twain (60 minutes) and Joe (59 minutes).

One way to understand the damage that excessive length can do to a great album is to look at the 1999 reissue of Dusty Springfield's 1969 "Dusty in Memphis"--the sensual, seductive collection critics often mention in connection with Shelby Lynne's soulful "I Am Shelby Lynne," one of the most acclaimed albums of this year.

The original "Dusty in Memphis" vinyl album, which contained the Top 40 hit "Son of a Preacher Man," ran only about 36 minutes.

That seems so skimpy by CD standards that when Rhino Records put together a deluxe edition of the album last year, the label thought it was doing us a favor by adding 39 minutes of music--much of it from subsequent Springfield recording sessions that weren't even in the Southern-fried style of "Memphis."

The result is a package that severely undercuts the emotional impact of the original album. In the deluxe edition, a series of superbly crafted tracks becomes lost in a massively uneven album.

It's a process that ultimately hurts the artist.

If someone with an interest in Springfield's soul-pop approach heard the original "Dusty in Memphis" for the first time today, the chances are that person would want to rush out and buy something else by the late singer. If the same person heard instead the bloated version, he or she might think twice.

If Lynne and co-producer Bill Bottrell had felt compelled to give us 70 minutes on "I Am Shelby Lynne," the odds are that the added music would not have measured up to the standards of the final, 36-minute album. They stopped where they did because they knew they had captured perfectly the emotions of romantic abandonment and resilience they were trying to convey.

More artists need to show that restraint.

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