Just Played #4: A Column About Vinyl Records

Just Played #4: A Column About Vinyl Records

The new releases and re-issues that populate the vinyl landscape...

The early months of 2020 have provided the backdrop to rather mixed fortunes for vinyl as a format.

Phoenix-like high street retailer HMV has cranked prices on its catalogue titles by an average of £5 prompting shock and disappointment from loyal customers. Meanwhile, a fire at the Apollo/Transco facility in California, one of two global manufacturers of the lacquers used to cut vinyl, has resulted in a great deal of catastrophising and hand-wringing about the future of the format.

It’s hard to offer much hope or reassurance on the first issue, but one hopes that if the much vaunted slogan ‘HMV Loves Vinyl’ is actually true then prices might return to a level at which customers might be able to share said love.

As for the latter, it’s not quite the doomsday portent that some are fearing. Vastly experienced vinyl cutter and all-round audio authority Miles Showell is far more phlegmatic about the whole situation. “Apollo/Transco only had 20-30% market share in Europe, MDC of Japan have the rest. I have heard plans are in the air to try to get lacquers made in Europe, but nothing concrete yet. I suspect it will be a bigger problem for the American cutting studios; Apollo/Transco had a far bigger market share there.”

In the meantime, many are wondering if the direct metal mastering approach, which doesn’t require these lacquers to cut a vinyl disc, may take centre stage. Without inducing a coma with technicalities, there are many who criticise the sonic signature of this method and, while it can sound good, DMM is often associated with some fairly cheap and cheerful product.

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There are times, dear reader, when one might wonder why we’re bothering with the whole vinyl revival in the first place. Some labels are so determined to simply get albums back out there on the beloved wax simply for the purpose of saying they’re available again that any semblance of quality product goes out the window faster than you can say fluorescent splatter vinyl.

These past few months have provided this column with some of the finest releases we’ve yet covered and some of the very worst. As prices continue to rise, is it too much to ask for a record that has been mastered to best suit the format? For a record that isn’t covered in dirt fresh out the sleeve? For a record with artwork that doesn’t look like it has been scanned in at a low-resolution and with no further regard to the original?

Plenty of labels are still doing it right, but the purpose of this column is to highlight the highs and the lows.

Brace yourself.

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Snap, Crackle and Pop

The trio of Embrace reissues, picking out their highly sought after first three offerings, has been highly anticipated by a small but devoted section of the indie music-loving public. The originals were lovely packages, with wonderful imagery across the 1998 debut ‘The Good Will Out’ and an interesting semi-gatefold approach to ‘Drawn From Memory’ and ‘If You’ve Never Been’ with a thin fold revealing an inner pocket for the disc.

Most of this has been dispensed with for these budget reappearances, with almost entirely redone artwork for their first album and the fold out sleeves no longer present for the latter two titles. The artwork is far less vibrant and then there’s the music. ‘The Good Will Out’ isn’t particularly bad, spread across two discs and with a little more groove space to work with, but it’s not especially good either. It sounds hemmed in and doesn’t leap from the speakers like the splendid original.

The copy of ‘Drawn From Memory’ that was received for review took five minutes to clean into a remotely playable state and the disappointment intensified once it was on the turntable. Muddy, harsh presentation was deeply off-putting, blurring the soundstage of ‘Save Me’ and wrecking the percussive majesty of ‘Hooligan’. Add in the torrent of pops during the title track that made it seem like ‘Fireworks’ had migrated from the debut – yes, that is an exceptionally niche Embrace-specific joke – and this is a disaster.

‘If You’ve Never Been’ needed similar cleaning but had a little less surface noise. Sadly, it still sounded pretty lifeless. If you’ve always wanted them on vinyl but don’t actually care what they sound like, then cough up your £50 and think no more about it.

Otherwise, seek out originals or stick with the CDs. Simply not worth the bother.

Sadly, this isn’t the only woefully orchestrated reissue of recent times. The turn-of-the-millennium slow-burning success of David Gray’s ‘White Ladder’ was quite a story, coming after three albums that had failed to leave much of a mark and left their creator without a deal.

Initially self-released, his fourth gradually gathered momentum and the single ‘Babylon’ made it unavoidable. A very endearing, understated combination of folk and delicate electronic programming, it is an often affecting record which suffered a little from its eventual ubiquity.

However, the absence of a vinyl release at the time has long been noted and the time has finally come to address that issue. Sadly, the mastering is atrocious, with audio cranked up to a level that ensures noticeable distortion on numerous tracks, especially ‘Sail Away’, ‘My Oh My’ and the worst offender, ‘Silver Lining’. Stream the digital master and you’ll hear it straight away. For reasons unknown, this woeful treatment of the music persists on the double white vinyl edition and renders the whole project a complete waste of time.

Save yourself £25 and stick with the original CD.

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Freshly Pressed:

Thankfully, there’s still plenty of genuinely exciting releases still being manufactured with all due care and attention. In January, Alice Boman’s majestic ‘Dream On’ was unleashed on transparent yellow vinyl that is near silent and sensitively cut so as to present the hushed, glistening synths, burbles and beats that make up a beguiling debut. It quietly crept into the world at the start of the year but it is a beautiful record that will appeal to fans of Mazzy Star, Aldous Harding and Stereolab alike. Start with ‘Wish We Had More Time’, ‘Don’t Forget About Me’ and ‘The More I Cry’.

XL Recordings have always been serious about the 12” format and do not disappoint with their cut of the superlative reworking of Gil Scott-Heron’s ‘I’m New Here’ as ‘We’re New Again’ undertaken by Makaya McCraven.

A soulful, jazzy reupholstering of the original tracks that were largely the brainchild of label owner and producer Richard Russell, the presence of artists from Chicago’s remarkable International Anthem label – honestly, buy anything with their logo on it and you’ll be in safe hands – provides a guarantee of quality. McCraven is a drummer and producer who renders a 2020 evolution of the musical landscape Scott-Heron inhabited the best part of fifty years ago.

A silent pressing that lets this exceptionally moving music breathe.

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Having run his own label, Buzzin’ Fly, you would expect Ben Watt to know a thing or two about releasing vinyl and so it proves with his fourth - and finest to date - solo outing, ‘Storm Damage’. Cut by the aforementioned Miles Showell, the soundstage is precise and involving, doing justice to the urgency of tracks like ‘Summer Ghosts’ and ‘Figures In The Landscape’, while providing adequate space for the timeless ‘Irene’.

The debut album by Keeley Forsyth, ‘Debris’, caught the eye for both its arresting artwork and its intriguing backstory. More commonly known for her acting up until now, Forsyth has a voice like a mournful violin that seems to come from very deep within. It is formidable, remarkable and unique. Recorded after a period of illness that took its toll, there is a stark honesty to these songs that makes for an intense and compelling listen. While the final track may be called ‘Start Again’, it does little to release the tension.

A sparse album requires a quiet pressing and The Leaf Label do the honours here.

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The Secretly Group of labels – Secretly Canadian, JagJaguwar and Dead Oceans - have had a bit of a reputation down the years for variable vinyl quality. Anyone who has tried to assemble a comprehensive collection of the late Jason Molina’s peerless work will have encountered their fair share of scuffs, whooshes and crackle along the way.

However, in recent years things have improved notably and this column is delighted to recommend the Dead Oceans pressing of the third instalment of Bill Fay’s late-career renaissance. His somewhat weathered vocals continue to delight on a set that is his most delicate and low-key to date. Fay’s piano is at the heart of these largely uplifting meditations on life, filtering and focusing on the positives during a time of profound negatives. ‘Love Will Remain’ is a starkly beautiful starting point for the curious.

Completing a trilogy of albums produced by Stuart Price, the oldest Pop Kids in town returned as the Pet Shop Boys reminded us all why they are still a vital presence in the music landscape. ‘Hotspot’ truly is their finest album in over twenty-five years, melding the introspection of ‘Behaviour’ with the hooky bangers of ‘Very’.

After some ill-advised coloured vinyl offerings that prioritised aesthetics over what turned out to be quite crackly sound for the ‘Super’ campaign, it’s obvious that all is well this time around from the second the stylus hits the first moments of opener ‘Will-O-The-Wisp’. A warm but rhythmically complex soundstage is delivered and allows delights such as ‘Happy People’ and ‘Monkey Business’ to leap out of the speakers, with the strings on the latter gloriously rich and defined.

The slower pace of ‘You Are The One’ and ‘Burning The Heather’ is no less well served by this vinyl cut and the enigmatic artwork suits the format too. Essential stuff.

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Going Round Again:

Having served up a genuinely rather decent vinyl reissue of the Spice Girls’ debut, ‘Spice’, back in 2016, Virgin have now turned their attention to 1997’s ‘Spice World’ which is a little less magnificent but does contain the absolute stone cold classic, Motown-pilfering ‘Stop’.

It has been done on the cheap and you’ll need to clean it several times before putting it anywhere near your turntable but, taken at face value, it’s an enjoyable if inessential burst of nostalgia, not just for this particular band but also the generic soulful electropop filler that dominated Nineties pop albums.

Plus, you can fully appreciate the lyrics of closing track ‘Lady Is A Vamp’, and I quote directly from the inner sleeve: “Elvis was a coola shaker, Marley, Ziggy Melody Maker.” Quite.

Similarly budget is a reissue of their ‘Greatest Hits’ which squeezes far too many songs onto two sides of vinyl, both in terms of groove space and quality control. Stick to the initial pair of studio albums if you’re not so po-faced that you’ve scrolled past this in pursuit of lads with guitars. Away to Absolute Radio with you.

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Universal are offering up some frankly magnificent Sam Cooke reissues at the moment, including 1958’s ‘Encore’ and the following year’s ‘Tribute To The Lady’. Pressed by Optimal in Germany, housed in poly-lined inner sleeves and with artwork that doesn’t look like it’s been scanned in by a fuzzy-eyed intern on their first day unlike so many revisited titles, these are a pleasure to encounter.

Cooke’s vocals breathe and fill the room while the orchestration sits naturally around him for delights like ‘When I Fall In Love’, ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me’ and ‘God Bless The Child’. Exceptionally well done records which leave a lingering query about why the same company doesn’t apply the same standard to all of its catalogue releases.

A full-length review of Supergrass’ ‘The Strange Ones’ box set has already appeared on Clash’s site, but it’s worth referencing its vinyl portion once again. There were those, amongst whose number this column belongs, who questioned why on earth a career retrospective would represent out of print but in demand albums in the picture disc format. I’m not sure any of us have been especially dissuaded from this mindset in the time since release, but one assumes it was a cost-cutting exercise.

They don’t actually sound too bad, with the relatively dynamic mastering present on the CDs a sign of the approach to the 12” cousins. Now that they’ve got the parts to press those albums again, they may as well bung them out on black wax too, right?

After two substantial box sets rounded up the first twenty-three years of Bruce Springsteen’s career, the vinyl reissues of what follows are left to stand alone. No bad thing for those who want copies of ‘The Rising’ and ‘Devils & Dust’ but can take or leave multi-disc live sets.

Firstly, the mastering and vinyl cuts by Chris Bellman are excellent. The former has a muscular rhythm to it, elevating Springsteen’s post-9/11 reflections to aural nirvana while the latter serves to assert the quiet brilliance of its delicate, fragmented and often folksy follow up. Secondly, after the unfathomable decision to make the last batch via GZ in the Czech Republic which led to many complaints about surface noise and filthy vinyl, Sony have seen sense and used the Record Industry plant in the Netherlands.

Reasonably priced and splendidly pressed, these are a real joy.

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At The Front Of The Racks:

Most sonically satisfying of all the titles to traverse the Just Played racks these last couple of months has been the Happy Mondays reissue campaign by London Records.

The artwork has been replicated by the original Mancunian art team, Central Station Design, meaning vivid gatefolds for ‘Bummed’ and ‘Pills ‘N’ Thrills and Bellyaches’ (although this is new for the former and the latter features the revised cover that came to supplant the original) and a transparent plastic slipover sleeve for ‘Squirrel And G-Man Twenty Four Hour Party People Plastic Face Carnt Smile (White Out)’. All of which is lovely, but would mean very little if they had been crafted to be looked at rather than listened to.

Rest easy, they are consistently excellent and ‘Pills ‘N’ Thrills’ surpasses the already decent Warner reissue from five years ago. All three aforementioned titles sound vibrant but not harsh, plenty of bottom end but far from boomy. The same can also be said of the fourth title, 1992’s oft-forgotten ‘…Yes Please!’

Add in some lively liner notes from various luminaries who were there at the time, including Miranda Sawyer and John Robb, and these are a very welcome celebration of a band who shone pretty brightly for a time.

The column will return in the week before Record Store Day with information about some of the big releases that will help you decide exactly when you’ll need to dig out your camping chairs.

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Words: Gareth James (For more vinyl reviews and turntable shots, follow @JustPlayed on Twitter)

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