Just Played: A Column About Vinyl Records #16

Just Played: A Column About Vinyl Records #16

From pressing plant delays to Record Store Day...

The pressing plant delays we mentioned last month are showing no signs of abating and, as it has at similar pinch points in previous years, the knock on effect to quality control is hard to ignore and even harder to deny. Thankfully, most labels are willing to engage about the situation, but some form of surface noise seems pretty much the norm right now.

Before anyone trots out Peel-isms about life having surface noise, it’s worth noting that such nostalgia-driven comments about used records are very different to receiving new - and very often not at all cheap - products which have pops and clicks right out the sleeve. The especially picky might need to curtail their spending for a while as they’re unlikely to be satisfied all that often. There are outliers, as you’ll see below, but very few of the albums featured this month, even after a lengthy ultrasonic clean, were entirely untroubled by issues.

Anyway, after several delays prompted a new approach in 2020, Record Store Day continues the Drops model for 2021, with one this month and one in July. Deadlines for stock delivery have been tighter than ever but several labels and the wonderful organisers of the day persevered to ensure we could offer a little preview of a few of the titles you can pick up for Drop 1. So, before we get to the rest of the month’s releases, let’s take a little look.

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Record Store Day Preview

Demon Records continue to deliver Record Store Day titles which will delight fans of Nineties indie. The two most notable releases this time around have a more than minor connection. Perhaps most exciting is the first vinyl outing since its original 1998 release for Bernard Butler’s ‘People Move On’. His first solo album, originally on Creation, occupies two territories: luscious, slow-burning folk and more bombastic, truly epic mid-paced rock.

It didn’t set the world alight upon its arrival but has remained fondly thought of since by a select band of fans. This reissue replicates the original artwork fairly faithfully and maintains the double disc format, while switching to exceptionally clear vinyl. It’s pretty quiet overall, although several clusters of low-level ticks were notable over the duration. The sound is largely faithful to what you’ll encounter on streaming services and the original CD release. It was always quite a trebly record with a lean bottom end, most notable on glorious second single ‘Not Alone’. As such, it’s not revelatory – it’s a digital master likely cut via DMM to vinyl at GZ – but it has been done with care and should satisfy those who have long wished for it to be a turntable option once more.

Ever since Demon Records acquired the rights to the catalogue of Butler’s former band, Suede, they have found many and varied ways to repackage and highlight their many triumphs. Last year’s decision to give the previously fan club only compilation ‘See You In The Next Life’ a vinyl debut was rightly lauded, while some anniversary represses have been less essential. This year, the live recording previously issued as the legendary concert video ‘Love and Poison’ emerges as an audio-only release, also as a double disc clear pressing, done through GZ and prepared for the format by Phil Kinrade at Alchemy. 

It looks stunning, assisted by a wide single sleeve with a window aperture capturing a mid-action shot of Brett Anderson. The sound is a considerable improvement on the almost implausibly thin sonics of the original VHS and the original transfer found on the 2011 deluxe edition of their debut album. The whole film has been remastered and can be found on YouTube, should you wish to sample the audio. There’s no great difference between how it sounds there and here, with the addition of a few clusters of clicks at various points. Side B on the copy we sampled was visibly off-centre and hopefully this hasn’t blighted the whole batch. Listen to the switch from verse to chorus in ‘Animal Nitrate’ and you’ll get a pretty clear sense of the limited dynamics and soundstage at play here. Irrespective, it’s another collectors’ piece done with love.

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Remix albums are often rather hit and miss given the lack of cohesion in their assembly, but as a means of unearthing treats you may have missed they can work wonders. Following last month’s splendid half-speed cut of Amy Winehouse’s ‘Live At The BBC’, Miles Showell at Abbey Road applies the same process to a double LP collection of some of the finest reworkings from a heartbreakingly short career.

Pressed at Optimal on transparent vinyl - yellow for disc one and blue for the second - this set sounds far better than one might expect given the mastering of many of her original releases. Hot Chip’s synth-stretch of ‘Rehab’ is still great fun and being reminded of mid-Noughties janglers The Rumble Strips thanks to their indie retooling of ‘Back To Black’ evokes a very specific niche in the concept of nostalgia.

Whether any of these versions surpass the originals is doubtful – although I have a special place in my heart for Skeewiff’s mix of ‘You Know I’m No Good’ - but there’s much to enjoy and it all serves as yet another celebration of some of the finest songs of the modern era. Not too drastically priced, very well manufactured and sounding excellent, this strikes us as prime RSD product.

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2003’s oddities collection, ‘Here Comes That Weird Chill’ found Mark Lanegan in full Tom Waits mode, with industrial percussion and rasping vocals combining to intriguing effect. A Captain Beefheart cover, ‘Clear Spot’, feels entirely in keeping with the atmosphere being crafted here. A thirty minute selection of recordings made around the same time as 2004’s imperious ‘Bubblegum’, and conceived initially as a single release for that album’s ‘Methamphetamine Blues’ that grew and grew, it hasn’t been available on vinyl since its original 10” release. 

Expanded to the full twelve inches and cut at 45rpm by Optimal, this magenta coloured pressing sounds excellent. It’s not without a few frustrating pops here and there, but the soundstage is remarkably expansive for such a rowdy recording. More than just a tick in the box for the obsessives, this is one to have on your ‘see what takes my fancy’ list for the big day. - Continuing to be tremendously unpredictable in their approach to Record Store Day titles, Cherry Red have included amongst their pile for this drop an expanded reissue of Toyah’s 1981 EP ‘Four From Toyah’. It’s now eight, with early versions of EP tracks ‘Angels and Demons’ and legitimate chart smash, ‘It’s A Mystery’ added alongside ‘Jack & Jill’ and ‘The Merchant & The Nubile’. The packaging is a delight, splitting the four photoshoots of Toyah used on the original front cover over all four sides of the outer and inner sleeves, using alternative takes of those distinctive looks.

Inside, the GZ-pressed vinyl is described by the press blurb as “jungle green” to match Toyah’s face paint in one image, but I suspect most readers would opt for ‘mint’ when browsing the adjective drawer. The remastering is easy on the ear and, after a decent clean, the disc was fairly light on surface noise. This fine curio accompanies the label’s deluxe reissue of Toyah’s 1980 album, ‘The Blue Meaning’, which should be the next stop for anyone wanting more.

As part of a much wider catalogue reissue programme, Demon have opted to commit The Bluetones’ 2010 album, ‘A New Athens’, to vinyl for the first time. Fond as I am of the band, especially their first two records, it doesn’t seem entirely unfair to suggest that this is a less than essential set of songs, an impression not helped by the repetitive mundanity of the lyrics to opener ‘The Notes Between The Notes Between The Notes’. That said, it has been dusted off with love and the artwork from David Fawcett is rather striking now freed from the confines of a small plastic box. A blue GZ vinyl cut with only light intrusions, it’ll keep the completists happy. Do keep an eye out for a forthcoming CD box set collecting their first three albums and a wide selection of bonus tracks from the era. 

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The expensive Chemical Brothers 12” is something of a Record Store Day tradition. To be fair to them, they do take their vinyl seriously and such is the case with ‘The Darkness That You Fear’. Cut by Mike Marsh at The Exchange and pressed at Pallas, it delivers a quiet, forthright soundstage which keeps tight control of the all-important bottom-end. Layer separation is fittingly hypnotic and the recent teaser track for their forthcoming album is very well served.

There’s an actual b-side too, featuring the debut of ‘Work Energy Principle’. A shimmering, squelchy belter, it is peppered with some hard-panned percussive sounds which reach out far and wide into the room. At the best part of £20, it’s not cheap but it is very well done.

Another 2010 release making its debut on vinyl via Demon Records is Ocean Colour Scene’s ‘Saturday’. Coloured reissues of their two most successful albums, ‘Moseley Shoals’ and ‘Marchin’ Already’, were hugely in demand during RSDs gone by but one suspects that a smaller if no less appreciative audience will be keen to pick up this soulful and frequently ebullient record. Given a neon green pressing to match the artwork, this fairly quiet GZ cut definitely sounds different to the digital versions out there. Where they tend to be rather shrill and trebly, this cut addresses the bottom end but is a little subdued up top. It’s definitely the better of the two options, but not quite as rounded as the album’s fans will have desired. Side two opener, ‘Magic Carpet Days’, is an infectious stomper that is ripe for rediscovery, should you wish to do your research.

Going Round Again

One of the most consistent reissue programmes of late, alongside PJ Harvey’s remarkable work, is that of the 2 Tone label’s output. From a deluxe 7” set, through the first two albums by The Specials and taking in several crucial compilations, the latest stop on this exhilarating ride is a pair of studio albums by original Ska star Rico. Having become an honorary member of that aforementioned band towards the end of the Seventies, his trombone playing was a distinctive part of ‘Ghost Town’, which is also back out there in its 7” and 12” incarnations once more.

Quickly established as part of the label’s family, he released ‘That Man Is Forward’ in 1981. As with previous titles, this has been cut at half-speed by the Alchemy mastering team at AIR studios and pressed at Optimal. The vivid and sturdy sleeve is a sensory delight and a primer for what lies within. Working in Jamaica with a very fine squad of the country’s musicians, including Sly & Robbie, Rico heads up a session that sounds utterly joyful. Listeners may recognise ‘Chang Kai Shek’ as it was played live, on occasion, by The Specials, and something of their DNA is there in this performance.

1982’s ‘Jama Rico’ is similarly endearing, with a similar team on board but recording split between Jamaica and London this time. The languid ‘Love and Justice’ is a particular highlight and an ideal checking in point if you wish to try before you buy. That said, given the people and plants involved in returning these oft-overlooked albums to vinyl, it’s hard to imagine anyone feeling disappointed with either title. Another triumph.

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Universal have recently reissued a batch of albums by Traffic in cheap and cheerful editions pressed at GZ. Firstly, the mastering on those titles this column sampled was decent, presenting the music vividly and with an engaging but not overly forensic separation. 1970’s ‘John Barleycorn Must Die’ possesses the swagger and energy that their particular brand of folk-psych-jazz-rock needs and, perhaps thanks to the poly-lined inner sleeve, it has a pretty much silent background too.

The issue, with this title and others in this run such as ‘The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys’ and ‘Shoot Out At The Fantasy Factory’, is the packaging. Leaving behind original gatefold designs and deploying the wrong Island designs on the labels will get under the skin of a certain type of fan. That said, they’ve almost certainly got enough copies of these excellent albums to keep them happy. For those new to this music, the price and sound quality are the primary concern and both deliver.

The communal joy of BBC4’s Top Of The Pops re-runs was one of the more soothing elements of the past year of lockdowns and the like, social media uniting people as they discussed the music scene’s transition from the end of the Eighties to the rather wobbly early days of the Nineties. Amongst the artists caught up in people reminiscences were Deacon Blue. It won’t be too long before those repeats catch up with the singles from their 1991 album, ‘Fellow Hoodlums’. To mark its thirtieth anniversary, Sony have decided a reissue is in order.

Cut by Barry ‘Bazza’ Grint at Alchemy and pressed to bright yellow vinyl by GZ, the sound is excellent. Compared to the rather thin original master that can still be found on those new-fangled streaming services, this is a rich, absorbing listening. Where their trademark piano can seem quite cold and clinical on some versions, here it truly sounds like a 3D instrument and notes decay palpably in the air before you. Things get a little more congested towards the end of each side and, as is the theme of the month, there’s a little surface noise here and there but this is a fine reissue. A lovely replica of the original 7x7” lyric booklet is included also.

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A sizeable chunk of Frank Black’s vast catalogue has been making its way to vinyl of late. Many of his releases from either side of the turn of the millennium missed out on this format when first issued and so Demon Records have taken it upon themselves to do the honourable thing. The latest batch includes 2004’s ‘Frank Black Francis’, which melded a collection of 1987 demos to fresh acoustic reinterpretations of Pixies songs, 2005’s Nashville collaborations set ‘Honeycomb’ and 2006’s double album ‘Fast Man Raider Man’, for which Black assembled an all-star cast from the worlds of soul and country.

Mastered for vinyl at Alchemy and with carefully expanded artwork, this project is being done with the fans in mind. Sonically, these three titles are all well cut, even if it’s less obvious on the first of the trio given its sources. Perhaps the most impressive touches are found on the warmly inviting palette of ‘Honeycomb’. Black’s take on ‘Dark End Of The Street’ has an unexpected innocence to it that blindsided your correspondent after all these years. Unfortunately, it was also the noisiest of these three GZ-pressed titles. Given the attention to detail with all other parts of the process, there’s still much to commend and perseverance should ensure you get quiet copies.

Snap, Crackle and Pop

After an overly hot cut meant that the numerous vinyl editions of Taylor Swift’s first lockdown opus, ‘folklore’, were prone to some pretty unignorable distortion, it was to be hoped that its follow up, ‘evermore’, might have a little more luck. Early signs are that this isn’t the case. Although cut at Sterling, the transparent green, MPO-pressed double vinyl that this column sampled was pretty noisy. These two wonderful albums deserve to be done properly and, taking into account the fairly substantial price tag for each, it’s fairly unforgivable that such big titles aren’t getting decent treatment.

The vinyl masters for both have sounded pretty good, ‘evermore’ perhaps surpassing ‘folklore’ in that regard. However, while the cut itself seemed to be the problem with the first title, this latest release, six months after the songs first emerged, has too much noise to be properly enjoyed. Given that the CDs have decent sonics and cost a third of the price of these disappointing editions, it might be wise to embrace the jewel cases on this occasion.

Freshly Pressed

The new Wolf Alice album really is as good as everyone is saying, and I guess that makes me everyone too now. Given such universal approval, it might be argued that nine different vinyl editions were necessary to cater to a diversity of needs and tastes. There’s even a picture disc edition for people who like staring at records rather than playing them.

Not even a dizzying array of novelty cash-in editions – and let’s not even start on the five different colours of cassette also available to ensure an assault on the top of the charts – can dent the majesty of tracks like folky side one closer ‘Safe From Heartbreak (If You Never Fall In Love)’ and side two’s standout ‘The Last Man On Earth’. This band’s music just keeps getting better, despite their vinyl pressings having already left a little to be desired. And so it remains here, Clash having spent some time with the transparent red variant.

A gatefold sleeve houses a Sterling cut that may well have been pressed through Luton’s Diamond Black. It’s not the quietest cut, as one might expect, with stray pops and clicks at points across the record. The noise is tolerable if frustrating and the vinyl master is solid if unremarkable. A comparison with the Hi-Res digital version didn’t produce a clear winner. Maybe those picture disc folk are onto something after all?

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I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting when the new album by Texas slid out of a slightly mishandled, not entirely protective vinyl mailer recently. ‘Hi’ is a genre-hopping collection which restates the band’s capacity for insistent melody. ‘Mr Haze’ evokes the northern soul stomp of ‘Black Eyed Boy’, while the Wu-Tang Clan attempt to rekindle past glories by assisting on the title track. ‘Just Want To Be Liked’ nods to ‘Back To Black’ territory, while ‘Unbelievable’ is a reminder of the emotive qualities of Sharleen Spiteri’s very fine voice.

Despite fairly unremarkable artwork, BMG have been careful to have the vinyl edition cut at half-speed by Miles Showell and it is a noticeably more satisfying listen than the digital version. Pressed by Takt in Poland, the disc itself could and should be quieter given the effort put in elsewhere.

Kevin Cummins’ frequent collections of music photography are never less than beautiful, selecting prime shots from his years of illuminating the words of the venerable music press. Tomes focused upon New Order and Joy Division are well worth seeking out and his most recent publication, ‘While We Getting High’ which covers the Britpop years, has spawned a compilation album via Demon Records entitled ‘Caught Beneath The Landslide’. The stated objective is to explore the b-sides and bonus tracks of the era, eschewing the Shine fodder for tracks that are a little less well worn.

Heavy users may go straight for the 71 tracks of the 4CD set, while more casual consumers can sample a double vinyl assiette which cherry picks a more modest 26 pieces. An in-house GZ cut that has been well mastered for the task, it squeezes in plenty without sacrificing the sound quality. Blur’s imperious ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’ era b-side ‘Young And Lovely’ and the flipside of Suede’s ‘Metal Mickey’, ‘He’s Dead’, make for a formidable opening pair, with acoustic Pulp, remixed Primal Scream and Blondie-covering Sleeper all to follow.

Those with a lingering fondness for this particular scene will find plenty to enjoy, even if putting singles like ‘Marblehead Johnson’ by The Bluetones and ‘What’s In The Box (See Watcha Got)’ by The Boo Radleys on here somewhat contradicts the notion of exploring obscurities. A wide-spined single sleeve envelops the two discs, each of which occupy inners awash with annotations, reminiscences from some of the artists and an engaging introduction from Cummins. Although a Kula Shaker remix somehow makes the trimmed-down vinyl tracklist, it’s always a delight to hear Kenickie, The Auteurs and Lush in their pomp. Neatly constructed audio nostalgia.

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Within seconds of hearing Knomad Spock’s voice, it’s pretty clear that you’re listening to something pretty special. The delicate, intimate tone has a definite folk feel but the songs on his debut record, ‘Winter Of Discontent’, have a palpable jazz sensibility in their use of space and the presence of the drums. Their skittering presence on ‘Egypt’ is utterly beguiling and, as one might expect from an artist who is also a poet and rapper, the words assert themselves in very deliberate locations also.

Get in quick for one from the hand-numbered initial pressing of 250 copies on Hinterland Creative, which features a separate lyric sheet and a selection of black and white photography to accompany the music. It’s a relatively quiet GZ cut which benefits from a little clean, but this music will cut through any distractions. One to watch, certainly, but also one to listen to right now.

As part of a series of special reissues to coincide with Black Music Month, Rhino Records have taken great care in preparing the previously unreleased recording of one of Miles Davis’ final live performances. Headlining the opening night of the Jazz à Vienne festival on the banks of the Rhône River, Davis is in fairly ebullient form, instantly recognisable atop a band whose sound doesn’t entirely escape the trappings of the era.

Filmed for broadcast, the original tapes have been revisited for this fine sounding set. Mastered at Air Studios in London and pressed at Optimal across four sides of vinyl, it is accompanied by an insightful and meticulously crafted booklet of sleevenotes by jazz authority Ashley Kahn. If you’re new to Miles, there are many, many other albums of his to buy first, but this high quality package is a far more enjoyable listen than preconceptions about this era would imply.

Discovering a record has been released by Memphis Industries gives it an automatic head start, such is the quality of that exemplary indie label. Francis Lung, the current stage name of Tom McClung formerly of Wu Lyf, is about to unveil his second solo album, ‘Miracle’ and it needs no such favours to warrant your attention. The most frequent point of comparison used for his music is Elliott Smith, which is undeniably fair, but there’s also hints of Big Star, Emitt Rhodes, Gorky’s and much, much more in this wonderful album.  

It takes a little time to grow on you, but the vintage singer-songwriter production is masterful and allows these songs to slowly lay siege to your waking hours. ‘Want 2 Want U’ is especially infectious, alongside already released teaser tracks like ‘Blondes Have More Fun’ and the harmonic charge of ‘Bad Hair Day’.

For this column, we received the delightful Dinked edition with an alternative, mirror board sleeve, mint green vinyl and a bonus flexidisc. The song thereon, ‘Internet’, is a beauty which reflects upon our recent circumstances, but flexidiscs have never and will never sound great. The LP itself is an Optimal cut with only a little surface noise. Whichever version you can lay your hands on, be sure to seek it out.

At The Front Of The Racks

Those who purchase plenty of vinyl become accustomed to certain signs that they’re in for a treat. A poly-lined inner, a tip-on sleeve or Kevin Gray’s initials next to the matrix info can all bode well. The size of the deadwax is also of interest – too little and the worries about inner groove distortion are significant and normally well-founded, too much and you’re wondering why they’ve not used the full space available. Some were a little concerned at reasonably substantial runout grooves on the four sides of the new Sons Of Kemet album, ‘Black To The Future’, but they simply tell the tale of a dynamic, meticulous and utterly captivating cut.

Jazz music’s tendency to have loud, emphatic interjections and shifts in pace can make it a bit tricky to commit to wax, but the judicious spread of this wonderful record across a double 33rpm set ensures the bass is controlled but resonant and the soundstage dissolves the speakers. Cutting vinyl is an art and there are still some committed to it. Sterling Sound in the US produced the lacquer and Pallas in Germany delivered this impeccable pressing.

The band’s fourth album has already been justifiably lauded, making greater use of guest voices to amplify messages about the state of the world while still delivering sax riffs to which resistance is futile. Oh, and aesthetes will be delighted to learn that it has the classic Impulse spine design too. When so many are making do, ‘Black To The Future’ demonstrates what this beloved format can still achieve.

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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. 

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

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