Just Played: A Column About Vinyl Records #15

Just Played: A Column About Vinyl Records #15

The latest essential releases to hit the record racks...

Pressing plants are backed up at unprecedented levels with many labels getting quoted times of six to nine months to receive stock of their new releases, while unexpectedly successful titles rapidly vanish from the racks as a normally straightforward repress takes an age. Never has it been more helpful to know which titles are worth picking up close to release and this column is very happy to oblige.

There’s plenty to pick over this month, including several hotly anticipated titles which have been flying out. The weeks leading up to Record Store Day are often a little quiet for independent shops, with people stashing the cash ahead of a budget-breaking trip to their local.

However, if you’re up for some counter culture, read on.

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Going Round Again

When a reissue programme is as good as the one bestowed upon PJ Harvey’s catalogue, it can be easy to become blasé about each new addition. With the current vogue for classic albums to be reissued just to alter the colour of the disc rather than the quality of the audio, the novelty of opening a sensibly priced, beautifully pressed and standard black vinyl edition of a greatly in demand title has yet to wear off.

We’re now up to 2004’s ‘Uh Huh Her’ and its accompanying demos. As with its predecessors, the main album is emboldened by escaping the digital version that so many of us have been accustomed to in lieu of an original LP. Once again, it is a tactile delight, evoking the records from vinyl’s wilderness years, while the separate release of the early versions is another welcome curio for the collection. ‘The Letter’, for example, has yet to fully gain its sense of claustrophobia in that form, propelled by a swishy drum machine. The insight, after all this time, continues to be one of the great delights of this series.

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The forthcoming refresh of ‘The Peel Sessions 1991-2004’ collection is similarly satisfying, collecting together a selection of performances in tribute to the radio great. Peel is present in the artwork, resplendent in some of his trademark baggy shorts, and Harvey’s handwritten words reiterate that she “she sought his approval always. It mattered. Every Peel session I did, I did for him.” That sincere commitment is writ large in these visceral takes on familiar songs. All three titles are near silent Optimal cuts with open, involving soundstages.

The standards remain very high indeed. 

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Spiritualized vinyl has never been the easiest thing to collect. Early titles were long out of print, originals of 1997’s ‘Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space’ and 1998’s ‘Royal Albert Hall, October 10 1997 Live’ were prone to noise, some off-centre copies proved a problem for 2001’s ‘Let It Come Down’ and then notorious American reissue label Plain delivered versions that were rather less than essential. Finally, an authorised reissue programme is underway on Fat Possum Records and it will work through the studio titles up to that turn of the millennium album.

With alternative artwork and the option of a white variant, the project commences with their debut, ‘Lazer Guided Melodies’. It follows the original approach, which presented the music as a 2x45rpm set, and this edition has been produced from a half-speed master cut at Alchemy. Having compared it with a UK original, it’s clear that the sonics have been taken seriously here and are at least a match for that 1992 edition. However, Memphis Record Pressing have manufactured both the white and standard versions, housing the discs in a gatefold sleeve that is frankly disappointing.

Both pockets bow open with the discs inside and yet both inner sleeves are a tight fit. This has resulted in many people receiving copies that are, to varying degrees, warped. The white vinyl Clash listened to had edge warps on both discs but this didn’t affect playback. Several lengthy cleans removed most surface noise, although this release isn’t as quiet as you might hope for such an eagerly anticipated reissue. In short, the music sounds as good as it ever has but it might take you a couple of attempts to arrive at a copy with which you’ll be happy.

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Since her untimely passing in 2011, not all Amy Winehouse releases have been equal. Half-speed cuts of her two albums are worthwhile, Miles Showell doing his best with the modern masters, but numerous box sets including a hugely expensive set of 7”s haven’t always felt like they were enriching the legacy. However, ‘Amy Winehouse At The BBC’ is a joy from start to finish, converting to vinyl a 2012 release that mixed DVDs and a CD. Pulling together radio sessions, appearances on Later and Jools’ Hootenanny and an in concert recording for BBC One from 2007, it is able to include some collaborations and covers that are a little less well known. ‘Don’t Go To Strangers’ and, particularly, ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ with Paul Weller are a real pleasure, while ‘Lullaby Of Birdland’ for Radio 2’s The Stables is a reminder of what a quite phenomenal musical force Winehouse could be.

Some repetition is inevitable, but even ‘Rehab’ only appears once per disc across this three LP set. Cut, once again, by Showell at Abbey Road and pressed at Optimal, this is a very fine release. The oversized triple gatefold sleeve is sympathetically constructed, paying tribute to Winehouse with an array of images from the performances and providing all of the track info for those keen to pore over this superlative anthology. Considering the array of sources and the original release of this project, the sound is pretty uniform and discs are largely quiet. Priced sensibly and done with care, this is a keeper.

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Not a column goes by without something intriguing getting dusted off by a rejuvenated Chrysalis Records. This time a Philly soul story is told by collecting together recordings that were originally issued as four singles by The Nat Turner Rebellion and a number of other tracks that had been earmarked for a never-released full length album. ‘Laugh To Keep From Crying’ wears its Sly & The Family Stone influence proudly on several tracks, including opener ‘Fat Back’ and ‘Right On We’re Back’, as well as marking the 1831 rebellion by enslaved Virginians organised by the man whose actions gave the group its name. It doesn’t cohere as a set given its disparate origins, but the shifting soul styles are still captivating. Mastered by Ryan Smith at Sterling Sound, cut at Alchemy and pressed at Optimal, this is as good as these until recently forgotten recordings are ever likely to sound.

Twenty-five years on from its original release, The Future Sound Of London’s ‘Dead Cities’ finally returns to vinyl. Awash with samples and featuring early work by 21st century ambient overlord Max Richter, this brooding album counterbalanced the irony and anthems of the contemporary indie scene of the time. Following the relatively sedate 1994 set ‘Lifeforms’, this album was dark and oppressive in its conjuring of a decayed landscape. There’s no denying that plenty of the broken beats at play here date the record, but it remains an ambitious and intense work that still resonates now.

The melding of programming, external audio sources and acoustic instruments necessitates a meticulous and spacious vinyl master. There’s no bloating of the bass and the treble is very well controlled. With faithfully restored artwork and a masterful cut, done via Abbey Road and pressed through Optimal, this should ensure those who’ve had quite the wait to put this on the turntable feel like it was worth it.

Snap, Crackle and Pop

The departure from hair-dye coincided with something of a creative rebirth for Tom Jones. Approaching his 81st birthday, he has just achieved a UK Number 1 album with ‘Surrounded By Time’. The latest in a string of records recorded with Ethan Johns at the controls, it is their most stylistically varied collaboration to date. Jones has been honest in recent interviews that he’s quite happy to cede control of the specific sonic templates deployed, as long as he’s satisfied with his vocals.

A twitchy but nimble take on Cat Stevens’ ‘Pop Star’ and a stomping retooling of Malvina Reynolds’ ‘No Hole In My Head’ highlight the playful confidence of the record. One of the most notable pieces is ‘Talking Reality Television Blues’, which is more than mildly indebted to Radiohead’s ‘I Might Be Wrong’. It’s a blistering six-minute plus spoken word track, originally by Americana writer Todd Snider, which takes aim at the route from Reality TV to the White House. Michael Kiwanuka’s ‘I Won’t Lie’ is given an endearingly sparse reading, Johns having worked on the original also.

A double disc set mastered and cut by Matt Colton at Metropolis, it sounds excellent. The GZ pressing however, replete with the notorious printed inners, needs a thorough clean and even then still suffers with intrusive noise at times. Having tried several copies which all suffered with similar issues, it might be one to avoid for the inpatient. Especially as it’ll set you back £30 for the dubious privilege.

Freshly Pressed

The ever-captivating catalogue of the Athens Of The North label has expanded once again with a record by Warren Hampshire. One of The Bees and a multi-instrumentalist more recently known for some bewitching collaborations with British jazz luminary Greg Foat, this solo effort, ‘Language Of The Birds’, was completed over several years at the close of the last decade. Partly inspired by walks in nature, for which it is a perfect accompaniment, the glacial evolution of pieces like ‘Then It Was Gone’ and ‘From Lonely Hours’ will be hugely appealing to fans of Virginia Astley, the former’s meditative state possessing a little ‘In A Silent Way’ energy too.

It’s a beautiful album which necessitates a quality pressing and, thankfully, AOTN are a label committed to getting such things right. This Optimal pressing, cut at Timmion in Finland, is near silent and it presents a broad and balanced soundstage that serves this music perfectly.

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The woozy, electro-R&B pop of Luwten was new to me when her latest album was sent my way. ‘Draft’ is a slow-burning delight driven by Tessa Douwstra’s deft and soulful vocals. The insistent rhythm of ‘Stopwatch’ is a particular highlight, with other more languid tracks comparing favourably to Richard Russell’s Everything Is Recorded project. An aesthetically pleasing A5 lyric booklet is tucked inside some striking artwork. The cut is pretty open but prone to some light surface noise. It’s a GZ pressing with a card inner, so a decent clean does a reasonable job of reducing the distractions from this excellent music.

Three years on from 2018’s unconvincing ‘Move Through The Dawn’, The Coral have returned with possibly their finest release to date. ‘Coral Island’ is loosely themed around different seasons in a seaside location, songs woven together by spoken language excerpts from a work of fiction entitled ‘Over Coral Island’, written by the band’s keyboard player, Nick Power. Such stitching is atmospheric but don’t go thinking this is some impenetrable concept album. As we said in a recent review, this is a record perfectly designed for vinyl.

The 2LP set, pressed at Takt in Poland and silent other than a couple of slightly noisy run-in grooves, sounds fulsome and maintains decent separation during the jubilant jangle of ebullient highlights ‘Change Your Mind’ and ‘Take Me Back To The Summertime’. There are nods to the frenetic psych of their early output alongside more melancholic mid-paced treats like ‘Strange Illusions’. James Skelly’s voice only seems to be improving with age and such is the quality of the songwriting that a double album at this stage in their career is most welcome.

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Actor, writer and musician Matt Berry has amassed quite a catalogue during his ten-year association with Acid Jazz Records. 2013’s ‘Kill The Wolf’ is a particular delight, destined for a ‘buried treasure’ rediscovery in the years ahead. It’s a psych-folk triumph and its fans will be excited to get their hands on his latest release, ‘The Blue Elephant’. Drums aside, Berry plays everything on these fifteen tracks that were recorded during 2020’s curious summer. Farfisa organ, Moog and even a Wurlitzer all add to the sense that this record somehow has a lineage in the fringes of the music scene at the turn of the Seventies.

The swaggering bombast of ‘Now Disappear’ is beautifully presented, its array of textures all discernible amongst the heft, while ‘Life Unknown’ is a woozy, stop-start sensory rush. Frustratingly, for an album so clearly aligned with an era of esoteric vinyl releases and with self-painted artwork to match, the standard black edition sampled for this column, pressed at GZ, is notably edge-warped and troubled by a frustrating amount of surface noise across both sides. Those who believe that’s all part of the charm might be able to discount it as verisimilitude for an album beamed in from another age, but it’s hard not to wish that an artist so keen on the format and a label as clued up as Acid Jazz could at least opt for poly-lined inner sleeves to give the music a chance to enter the world unsullied. As ever in these situations, you might find a satisfactory copy if you’re willing to try a few, but it shouldn’t be this hard. 

Scottish indie rockers The Snuts recently topped the UK album chart with their debut ‘W.L.’ The vinyl cut finds Matt Colton at Metropolis gamely manhandling a fairly unforgiving master into the grooves which have been manufactured at Optimal in Germany. Clash sampled the standard single disc black version, but there are five – count ‘em – variants available as well as a double disc special which spreads the main album over three sides and then adds some bonus bits.

In between marvelling at the capacity to blend most of the Radio X playlist into one record, listeners will note that there’s only minimal surface noise and Colton’s typically masterful touch has ensured an absence of inner groove distortion despite the particularly stuffed seven-track side A. ‘All Your Friends’ is especially heavily indebted to the Arctic Monkeys and much of the rest is sun-kissed, inoffensive big-field guitar rock which is not without a little charm.

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Before we consider their latest release, this column considers it a public duty to advise readers that if they haven’t yet picked up the 2018 vinyl remasters of Teenage Fanclub’s Creation Records years, especially ‘Grand Prix’ and ‘Songs From Northern Britain’, that this would be a very wise thing to do before they disappear like the originals. Sensibly priced and sonically splendid, they can form the bedrock of any fine collection.

Here in 2021, minus Gerald Love and with the addition of Euros Childs, the latest incarnation of the band have finally released the pandemic-delayed ‘Endless Arcade’. Previously the band’s albums have tended to be a three-way dialogue between the songwriting of Love, Norman Blake and Raymond McGinley, guaranteeing that there had to be a shift in the dynamic with the personnel change. Blake and McGinley take six songs each, ‘Warm Embrace’ and ‘The Sun Won’t Shine On Me’ unmistakably the work of the former and ‘Everything Is Falling Apart’ and ‘In Our Dreams’ the same for the latter. There are several variants with die-cut sleeves but Clash sampled the standard black edition and found it to be reasonably dynamic and open, with the vocals given plenty of headroom. The Optimal pressing is solid, with a little light surface noise at points.

French dream-pop fans – hey, aren’t we all? – will be swaying wistfully to the delights of Requin Chagrin’s new record, ‘Bye Bye Baby’. Delivering a sound which melds Beach House, sixties girl groups, Metronomy and insistent motorik, these ten songs are well served by this excellent vinyl pressing through MPO in France. The guitars are vividly drawn and synth layers hover rather than blending in. Marion Brunetto’s third album under this stage name has been attracting plenty of attention and tracks like ‘Love’ and ‘Déjà Vu’ should be sufficient to catch your ear.

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When New Order’s 2018 Alexander Palace show was broadcast on Sky Arts last month, an outpouring of warmth was thrust in their direction as a gig-going public ached with nostalgia for communal euphoria. Bernard Sumner’s occasional, entirely unselfconscious yelps of “woo” coupled with his flailing, excitable limbs demonstrated his love for the riffs and refrains that shaped a generation. The full performance is now available on Blu-ray, CD and triple LP as ‘Education Entertainment Recreation’. The whole lot can be picked up in an attractive if costly deluxe box which opts for a clear variant for the vinyl as well as adding a hardback book and a selection of prints.

Clash spent some time with the standard black pressing of the set, which neatly splits the career-spanning setlist into six distinct sides. The mid-range on these largely quiet Optimal pressings is well carved out but the bottom end is a little bloated at times, perhaps intentionally echoing the effect of witnessing New Order in a cavernous venue. The performance is excellent, the odd vocal honk aside, finding the band in great form. The transition from ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’ into ‘Vanishing Point’ is every bit as exciting as Side E’s remarkable run of ‘True Faith’, ‘Blue Monday’ and ‘Temptation’. However, it might be argued that the visuals and light show, combined with hi-res lossless audio, make the Blu-ray a beguiling option for this particular release. With a flimsy cardboard slipcase and a sheet of foldout sleeve notes, the 3LP edition doesn’t necessarily feel like the best value at £60. Compare it to 2019’s ‘So It Goes’ collaboration with Liam Gillick, with the same number of discs, a decent booklet and a far sturdier outer box for a tenner less, and it’s a little frustrating.

Just as the last column was being put to bed, the latest offering from Needle Mythology arrived. ‘The Obvious I’ is both the second Ed Dowie album and the second new release by a label more associated with reissues. When their boss, Pete Paphides, opts to put out something contemporary, it has to be pretty special. Richard Dawson-esque falsetto layers combine with chiming synth lines, most notably on the title track. Some of the harmonies, with a little reverb but much less than on his debut, evoke early Beta Band. That said, no matter which reference points are likely to hook you in, it’s worth giving this album a listen as there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself stumping up £20 soon thereafter.

The high quality artwork, Abbey Road cut and Vinyl Factory pressing combine to make an exquisite package for a tremendous album. The record’s lilting textures are utterly hypnotic and it’s a heartening reminder that exceptional editions can be done for very normal prices where there’s a will.

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The sad passing of Afrobeat luminary Tony Allen last year was marked by a number of online tributes, such as circumstances dictated, but something more lively and visceral is still needed. While we await such gigs, the next best thing is surely this final studio album, ‘’There Is No End’. Functioning as band leader to a revolving door of hip-hop talent, such as Sampa The Great, Lava La Rue and The Koreatown Oddity, the one constant is Allen’s peripatetic rhythmic drive.

This double vinyl set is a 45rpm cut with gorgeous gatefold artwork that has been pressed at GZ. A quick clean and it sounds wonderful, a rich bottom end with the necessary clarity for the great man’s performances. Tsunami, a young rapper from Los Angeles, puts in a captivating, understated turn on ‘Très Magnifique’ that serves as a perfect example of the platform afforded by an artist who is so often described as a mentor by those with whom he worked. Recommended.

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It’s fair to assert that Field Music don’t make bad albums, but it’s still worth highlighting the considerable quality of their latest, ‘Flat White Moon’. Shimmering opening track ‘Orion From The Street’ features cascading piano lines which array themselves in the soundstage before you, wider percussive aspects framing a sensory carnival. The detail is taken very seriously indeed and it’s noticeable just how alive the bass and acoustic guitar sound across the whole record.

‘Not When You’re In Love’ comes on like ‘I Am The Black Gold Of The Sun’ before frenetic percussion makes full use of the stereo spectrum. The Brewis brothers’ consistently inventive capacity for building an angular musical landscape is remarkable and the clear, near silent vinyl Optimal cut that Just Played has been playing frequently truly does their work justice.

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Buying St Vincent albums on vinyl hasn’t been that straightforward in recent years. Anyone who made the mistake of going near the PVC-sleeved deluxe pink vinyl edition of ‘Masseduction’ will recall split edges and noisy discs, while the original gatefold version of the self-titled album prior to that was awash with white lines of paper and glue particles which left their mark. Interestingly, when the stripped back piano ‘MassEducation’ retooling was released in 2018, the label opted to use Pallas and Record Industry rather than their usual GZ.

For ‘Daddy’s Home’, things revert to the latter for the pressing. However, the matrix info reveals that they have pressed a Chris Bellman cut that was originally plated at Pallas, and it has been done pretty well. After a good clean, there was only occasional light surface noise and the mastering is a delight. The clarity of the Wurlitzer on the title track is glorious, while the soundstage as a whole is pretty dynamic and clearly defined. ‘The Melting Of The Sun’ is particularly expansive in its positioning, seeming to reach out to the centre of the room and fully escape the speakers. The artwork is also a treat, the inner sleeve patterned like the wallpaper on the photo which adorns the foldout lyric sheet.

Independent stores have a clear variant but we tested the standard black edition. It could be a little quieter, but it’s sonically very pleasing indeed.

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At The Front Of The Racks

As part of last year’s Record Store Day drops, Paul McCartney’s solo debut, ‘McCartney’, received a fiftieth anniversary half-speed mastering for vinyl. That edition, produced by the aforementioned Miles Showell at Abbey Road, received favourable notices in this column but it was unclear if this was the start of a series or a one-off. Confirmation of the former comes as similar treatment is applied to 1971’s Paul and Linda McCartney set ‘Ram’. At the time of the archive edition’s release in 2013, audiophiles were full of discussion around notorious phase issues relating to the stereo master and whether this could ever be addressed. Knowing that the half-speed process involves creating a digital master from, in this case, the original ¼ inch analogue tapes, one wonders if something has occurred in that process that makes this new version absolutely magical.

Having gone back and forth between the archive edition and this new release numerous times, the latter is a definite improvement and one that should secure this series’ future. Cue up the clanging guitars and rasping vocals of ‘Monkberry Moon Delight’ or the euphoric layers towards the end of ‘Long Haired Lady’ and this absolutely captivating cut will show what it can do. An entirely superfluous OBI strip accompanies a neatly replicated gatefold sleeve and faithful, if not especially deluxe, paper inner. The real selling point with this Optimal pressing is the sound and, whether you want a sonic upgrade or have yet to make this spectacular album’s acquaintance, it’s hard to imagine you being disappointed.

All of the titles reviewed above were cleaned before playback using the ultrasonic record cleaning machine, Degritter. A full review of its capabilities can be found in a previous column.

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

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