Just Played - A Column About Vinyl Records #11
As thoughts turn to lists, lifting of lockdown and a very curious Christmas, there’s still time for one more dive into the world of vinyl releases for 2020. Traditionally a time of year of reissues and deluxe editions as gift-buyers are targeted, this month’s content certainly skews to the past.
There’s plenty out there to enjoy and a few cautionary tales along the way. Look out for a detailed look at a high-end vinyl cleaning option in the near future too.
While a rather more niche concern these days, it is always a delight to learn of a new Elvis Costello release. Trying to navigate his appearances on vinyl has become something of a minefield. Mobile Fidelity delivered a largely splendid reissue programme over the previous decade, while Universal pumped up some often slightly noisy rack-fillers of the same titles. More recent records can be rather hard to find and his last set, 2018’s ‘Look Now’, sounded pretty horrible in its digital mastering and the vinyl wasn’t much better.
Thankfully, the news is far better on this curious, diverse and absorbing new album. Recorded in multiple locations around the world and completed in these Covid times, it mixes spoken word pieces with jazzy swoons and the lop-sided rhythms that defined 2002’s ‘When I Was Cruel’. It’s not perfect, but it’s great fun and this vinyl edition is one you can trust. Relatively dynamic, pretty quiet and on two discs to give the tracks some breathing space, it’s only the artwork that lets it down.
Try closer ‘Byline’ if you need persuading.
- - -
- - -
One of the defining musical moments of lockdown was the unexpected release of Taylor Swift’s ‘Folklore’ album, recording remotely and largely with The National’s Aaron Dessner.
Now, nobody needs to be told what it sounds like at this late stage, but the vinyl releases have finally arrived. And there are quiet a few available after a multi-format operation that appears to have sparked some sort of crazed competitive urge in Paul McCartney for his imminent ‘McCartney III’ album.
For this review, your intrepid columnist ordered the ‘In The Weeds’ edition which arrived on a nice shade of green. Pressed at GZ and pretty quiet on playback, the mastering is loud. Really loud.
Despite cranking tracking force back and forth to give it the benefit of the doubt, I couldn’t get it to play through numerous tracks without distortion on the vocals – although at the heavier end it was almost eliminated. It’s a real shame because the CD can sound pretty decent and there’s plenty of space in the recording. Quite why anyone would then want to crank it for the vinyl is beyond me.
The same cut is used across all European pressings, so it’s unlikely to be avoidable.
- - -
- - -
Another lockdown highlight came from the unashamedly cathartic run of Kitchen Disco Instagram streams provided by pop-perennial Sophie Ellis-Bextor, who has now released a slightly wonky greatest hits that assembles a vast array of chart-bothering bangers from the Noughties alongside some of the highlights from more recent albums ‘Wanderlust’ and ‘Familia’. To these are added several judicious covers – Pulp’s ‘Do You Remember The First Time?’ originally for 6 Music, New Order’s ‘True Faith’ originally for Radio 2 and a very on-brand take on Alcazar’s ‘Crying At The Discotheque’.
Released on several different colours by Cooking Vinyl, this 2LP set marks the first time on the turntable for a number of those early singles, whose parent albums emerged during the height of the CD era. Across two mostly quiet discs seemingly pressed via The Vinyl Factory, the sound is pretty pleasing. Not sure about the re-recorded version of ‘Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love)’, mind you.
Pete Paphides’ Needle Mythology label has featured previously in this column for its superlative approach to reissues, including Tanita Tikaram, Ian Broudie and Robert Forster. However, a chance conversation has resulted in its first all new release and it is pretty special.
A remarkable collaboration between Catherine Anne Davies, better known as The Anchoress, and Bernard Butler which hadn’t quite found its place in the world was shared by the latter with Paphides, whose desire to put it out there was unstoppable. As is fast becoming the hallmark of the label’s discs, it is a dynamic and involving cut which has been pressed through The Vinyl Factory. From the striking artwork to the majesty of tracks like ‘Sabotage’ and album highlight ‘In Memory Of My Feelings’, this almost-lost treasure needs to be heard.
- - -
- - -
One of the more curious items in the Just Played mailbag this month was a two-track 12” single of Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark’s ‘Enola Gay’. This burnt-red coloured, half-speed cut, Optimal-pressed disc will set you back £15 and, in return, you will receive two new mixes of the famous single.
Forty years after its original release, Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys have created an extended version using the original multi-track recordings and an alternative, slower take which aims for an ambient feel. The pressing is excellent but one struggles to see the point. Hot Chip have done a genuinely interesting remix to accompany the project but for reasons that are possibly beyond the fathoming of a mere mortal, that isn’t actually included here.
Snap, Crackle and Pop:
The opening of the Joni Mitchell archives could only ever be a cause for celebration. When news emerged of early recordings and live performances forming the first CD set, it was also announced that several parts of the box would appear as breakout vinyl editions. ‘Early Joni – 1963’ and ‘Live at Canterbury House – 1967’ are both excellent, offering a fascinating insight into the formative years of one of the finest musical talents of all time. The packaging is pleasing, with stiff cardboard of the tip-on ilk and poly-lined inner sleeves.
However, somewhere along the way with these GZ pressings, the noise has crept in. It’s not especially loud, but there were clusters of clicks on numerous sides of records which feature fairly sparse recordings.
Several visits to the ultrasonic cleaner couldn’t shift it and it does rather beg the question of why bother delivering supposedly deluxe vinyl sets to accompany the boxes if the actual sonics aren’t going to be up to scratch? A particularly frustrating situation for such nevertheless wonderful music.
Going Round Again:
British Sea Power possess a fairly formidable catalogue that stretches back over the past seventeen years. Having reissued their debut in 2015, it is now the turn of 2005’s ‘Open Season’ to get the deluxe treatment. Having been expanded to a double LP, the main album is pressed on blue vinyl while the bonus tranche of sessions and rarities is a picture disc that can be used to create a zoetrope. Nope, me neither.
Inevitably, the picture disc sounds fairly unpleasant and provides plenty of rumble below the music. Presumably the audio quality wasn’t a priority as nobody opts for that format if aiming for a satisfying listening experience. As for the still charming original album, the cut is quiet and clear but the mastering leaves a fair bit to be desired.
While comparing various tracks between the reissue and an original, it was especially obvious that the dynamics of ‘Please Stand Up’ had been lost. Where the 2005 shifts up a gear, the soundstage has been normalised for the new cut and it is a fairly flat listen. It’s far from a disaster but, coupled with the admittedly rather pretty zoetrope picture disc idea, you might be best advised to keep hold of your cash.
- - -
- - -
Just prior to lockdown, this column had a rather dispiriting encounter with reissues of the first three Embrace albums. Noisy, squashed-sounding budget pressings, they were a case study in how not to cater for the huge demand for vinyl editions amongst fans of Noughties indie.
Thankfully, Craft Recordings are at the helm for the next pair, ‘Out Of Nothing’ and ‘This New Day’. The latter is a great improvement on the original vinyl, with a much more balanced and nuanced soundstage across a quiet disc. Unfortunately, it’s still the same music which was a rather limp retread of its career-rebooting predecessor. Indeed, ‘Out Of Nothing’ sounds excellent and serves as a reminder of the joyfully direct approach the band found with ballads ‘Looking As You Are’ and the Chris Martin-penned ‘Gravity’, the mid-paced euphoria of ‘A Glorious Day’ and the robust stomp of ‘Ashes’.
Originally a slightly noisy double vinyl release that never sounded all that notable, this single disc refit has been done properly. Cut at Metropolis and pressed through MPO, it’s as good as it has ever sounded.
Having tackled the first round of Spice Girls reissues previously, it seemed only right to spend some time with the first appearance on vinyl of ‘Forever’. Packaged in a gatefold with four accompanying art prints, it’s an appealing prospect for the fans. A mostly quiet GZ cut can be found within which sounds solid to these ears, despite never being an audiophile recording. It lacks the killer singles of the earlier albums, ‘Holler’ not having aged all that well and the ‘2 Become 1’ aping schmaltz of ‘Goodbye’ proving pleasant but inessential. Still, completists will be pleased.
The highs and lows that can be experienced when purchasing a title that has long been out of print are a troublingly frequent occurrence now. A great reissue and all is well, a sub-standard job and nobody else will be able to do a version for a few years while the license expires. Twenty years on from its last UK vinyl release, BMG are putting The Kinks’ ‘Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One’ back in the racks in a variety of versions.
As well as a deluxe CD box, the main album is given an analogue master by the legendary Kevin Gray at Cohearant Audio for a gatefold vinyl outing pressed at GZ. Not having an original for a direct comparison, it’s hard to say how necessary a re-purchase it might be, but it sounds pretty impressive as it is.
The downside – oh, why must there be a downside? – is a selection of light clicks, despite the poly-lined inner, which adorn side one. Here’s hoping it’s not an issue for all copies.
- - -
- - -
Regular readers will already know about the wonderful PJ Harvey reissue campaign currently being conducted by Island Records. After a breather, it has resumed with 1996’s ‘Dance Hall At Louse Point’, one of a number of her collaborations with John Parish. As ever, the whole package is a tactile delight. The matt brown outer sleeve is faithfully replicated and the disc itself – cut at Loud and pressed at Optimal – somehow feels like a Nineties Island original. A quiet pressing is essential for this record and all is well in that regard.
Once again, the vinyl mastering is fantastic and it offers a welcome reminder of an oft-overlooked record. ‘That Was My Veil’ and ‘Heela’ give a representative sample between them, should you be considering whether to make its acquaintance.
Isobel Campbell’s self-produced third and fourth solo outings, ‘Amorino’ and ‘Milkwhite Sheets’ have long been out of print and, following the February release of her splendid latest album, ‘There Is No Other…’, her current label Cooking Vinyl have given them a much-deserved reissue, with gatefold artwork and largely quiet pressings via MPO. The mastering is spacious and open, letting these carefully crafted songs breathe. ‘The Breeze Whispered Your Name’ on ‘Amorino’ reaches out of the speakers like an enveloping mist of hypnotic sound arrayed across the space before you.
The wondrous instrumental, ‘James’, on ‘Milkwhite Sheets’ sounds like a Robert Kirby arrangement that could slip straight onto ‘Five Leaves Left’. These distant gems have been given a respectful dust off and polish up on this superlative pair of reissues.
The final instalment of the Peter Gabriel live album programme is upon us, with the 3LP heft of ‘Growing Up Live’, recorded during a 2003 tour in support of then recent studio release ‘Up’ and previously issued as a concert film. As with last month’s ‘Secret World Live’, the recording sounds pretty open and the discs can handle some volume. Another Matt Colton cut, pressed via Optimal, the three discs continue the high quality of the previous titles, with a hefty sleeve to accompany.
The oft-overlooked delights of the 2002 parent album are showcased here with fine takes on ‘Signal To Noise’ and ‘Growing Up’, while the euphoric audience participation in the build-up to ‘Sledgehammer’ is a delight. Another triumph.
- - -
- - -
Last year’s 2x45rpm half-speed reissue of The Specials’ self-titled debut, cut by Miles Showell at Abbey Road, was a particular favourite of this column and so the news that the follow up, ‘More Specials’ would be receiving the same treatment was very welcome. Once again arriving in a sturdy and broad single outer sleeve, the never especially crystal clear cover is well replicated and the two discs are quiet Optimal pressings.
The casual listener may consider this a little brighter sounding than its predecessor, but this is entirely in keeping with how it was first released. In a comparison with a 2-Tone original, both demonstrated that focus on the top end but there is noticeably more space around the instruments on this new edition. The easing of the congestion tames the recording and applied consistently across the album it makes for a very satisfying listen. Buy with confidence.
Another 2x45rpm half-speed title to recently hit the racks is the next in the ABBA catalogue reissue programme, ‘Super Trouper’. The series really hit form with the last album, ‘Voulez Vous’, which seemed to offer a substantial sonic upgrade compared to the less immediately exciting duo prior to that. This latest is another absolute treat, with a sharp but substantial bottom end that never smothers the music, but propels the rhythm in joyous fashion.
While this column listens to the titles under consideration numerous times in the writing, it’s very rare that an album concludes and goes straight back on. ‘Super Trouper’, however, warranted an instant replay, so involving and energising is its soundstage. It’s not cheap, but the artwork across the gatefold is vibrant, with some fresh sleeve notes and the standard obi-strip to accompany. The Optimal cut is quiet, letting the mastering take centre stage. ‘The Winner Takes It All’ sounds stratospheric in this form and it’s hard to imagine any listeners not finding much to love in this tremendous release.
As part of the ongoing initiative by Warner Music to try and ensure a new David Bowie vinyl title emerges every single week, the latest project/ruse/fishing expedition is a live box set which you have to buy as a blink-and-you-miss-it partwork. ‘Brilliant Live Adventures’ will, when complete, contain six double-disc live albums covering the period from 1995-1999
. The delays to the next of the career retrospective box sets necessitated an alternative plan and this is it. Three of the titles have already appeared via streaming across the year and the other three are being revealed one by one, as they go up for sale direct from the label. Leaving aside the rather grim sidestepping of the nation’s indies, it’s also a little rich to charge fans separately for the outer box in which to store them all.
That said, grievances aside, the actual releases are proving to be well done. Both ‘Ouvrez Le Chien’ and ‘No Trendy Réchauffé’, from Dallas and Birmingham respectively, are quiet Optimal pressings in inviting gatefold packaging. While the mixes aren’t especially grandiose, the performances are excellent and Bowie fans will surely prefer this to yet another picture disc or multi-coloured reissue of a classic album they’ve already got several times over. Further titles will be released in the next few months and further copies of the outer box will go on sale in the new year.
- - -
- - -
The ever-increasing propensity for super deluxe editions of single albums is resulting in some very expensive shelf-fillers hitting the racks around this time of year. Twenty years after its initial release, U2’s ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’ is the recipient of such treatment. Eleven discs and a hardback book are assembled inside a rather fetching outer box, setting you back just shy of £200. With eleven pieces of Optimal-pressed vinyl included, that doesn’t seem too outrageous in the current market until you realise that five of them are 12”s with eleven largely inessential remixes spread across ten sides. They are presented beautifully, but it’s hard to escape the sense that this particular part of the package is there to nudge the price upwards.
Batting aside concerns over cost, the set is very well made and the records themselves are clean, quiet and well cut. As an album for which this columnist had a sizeable soft spot on release, it is with confidence I can proclaim the double LP presentation of the main release the best it has ever sounded. The compressed digital master of 2000 is replaced with a more open, wider soundstage with some welcome dynamics.
The triple vinyl live album from the Elevation tour holds up well and captures a crowd-pleasing, catalogue-crossing collection of songs that work well together. While it’s a little frustrating that some contemporary alternative versions and bonus tracks don’t make the tracklist, the absence of fresh sleeve notes is less concerning given the genuinely luxurious photo book that completes the experience.
A selection of Anton Corbijn photos from the time are gathered in ‘Walk On – A Travelogue’, with the hand-written annotations making a nice finishing touch. While many will balk at the price and plenty more will feel a little frustrated at it not being truly comprehensive, those who encounter this box will find plenty to love.
At The Front Of The Racks:
Wilco have been in no rush to issue the deluxe editions of their early albums, waiting three years after the expanded sets for ‘AM’ and ‘Being There’ to deliver a 5LP box set of 1999’s ‘Summerteeth’. Having always taken vinyl seriously, their catalogue has long been a joy for turntable enthusiasts the world over.
Seriously, if you’ve never heard ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’, ‘Sky Blue Sky’ or ‘The Whole Love’ on vinyl, go and throw a few quid towards your preferred independent record shop right now so that they can furnish you with the goods. You can thank me later. I accept record tokens.
Are we all caught up? ‘Summerteeth’ was a turning point for Wilco, arriving during some fairly messy times for frontman Jeff Tweedy but marking an expansion in the band’s sound beyond the more Americana-focussed duo with which they had commenced. Ranging from the melodic insistence of ‘A Shot In The Arm’ to the wilfully sprawling ‘Via Chicago’, it is a very fine album indeed. The reflective foil box houses a freshly remastered edition of the main album across two discs which, to these ears, just eclipses the 2009 Nonesuch pressing that was no slouch. The bass is tightened up a little, letting the mid-range really dazzle.
A further pair of records contain a diverse collection of demos, including exceptionally raw prototypes of ‘I’m Always In Love’ and ‘Candyfloss’ and several alternative, rather slower takes on the near title track. They offer genuine insight into the making of the final release and are a fascinating addition. As is the fifth and final disc which contains a recording of an in-store performance that is exclusive to the vinyl version. Entitled ‘An Unmitigated Disaster’, it captures a blighted but endearingly shambolic Tower Records set that was broadcast on a Chicago radio station around the release of ‘Summerteeth’.
Alongside the excellent essay in the sleeve notes by John Mulvey, it offers further context of a period that Tweedy won’t have delighted in revisiting. This, with its warts and all honesty, is how to do an expanded edition for the fans of a record. It’s hard to imagine how it might be improved and the Optimal pressing quality ensures that the only thing you’ll be hearing is the remarkable music.
All of the titles reviewed above were cleaned before playback using the ultrasonic record cleaning machine, Degritter. A full review of its capabilities will follow in the next column.
- - -
Words: Gareth James
(For more vinyl reviews and turntable shots, follow @JustPlayed on Twitter)