Vinyl Record Reviews
33-RPM 180g LP
One of the benefits of reviewing records is the chance to hear great music from artists I've never heard of, especially independents. A case in point is this album from Stolen Silver, a Chicago-based band fronted by Dan Myers and Levi Britton: what a refreshingly enjoyable record to listen to this is!
The record, which has an overall rock/folksy feel, opens with the breezy Awake and Alive (a tune that has a sound (especially in the vocals) that to me is vaguely reminiscent of Coldplay), and continues with upbeat numbers such as A River Only Borrows and Blue.
Side two starts with I Stay Lonely, a sad number about the heartache one feels after a failed relationship, but the tone picks up with the next track, Learn to Fly.
Mixed and mastered by John Ovnik (who also plays bass), the sound quality is pretty good, with little evidence of the over compression that plagues many commercial records these days.
I could go on, but I'll cut this short by saying that We Have Everything/We Have Nothing is enthusiastically recommended, so grab your copy of this limited edition vinyl release (which also includes a download code for an MP3 copy of the album; bit of a shame it doesn't include a physical CD, but I understand why) before they're all gone! In the meantime, check out Stolen Silvers' web site, www.stolensilver.com.
City Boys Mike Productions, two 33-RPM 180g LPs
One of the cool things about my job is that I get to listen to a lot of great music to which I wouldn't otherwise be exposed. One more recent example of this is The City Boys Allstars' When You Needed Me, a double album of music that to my ears is a sort of fusion between jazz-funk and R'n'B. However you want to categorise it, When You Needed Me was clearly recorded by a group of talented musicians who were obviously have a great time doing their thing!
The opening track on Side 1, Funky Peaches, is a fun, upbeat number that serves as an introduction to the band (it is also one of my favourite tracks on the album) before the sombre title track starts. A thoughtful piece, When You Needed Me is a song about the regret one feels after letting down a loved one when it's too late to make amends.
The other ten tracks (mostly originals, but including some covers) on the album have the same sort of feel to them. Another track I particularly liked was the cover of Mentor Williams' Drift Away.
The album was mastered by Greg Cabi at Sterling Sound, and has good sound quality. The bass is rhythmic and driving, and (for example) cymbals have a delicate touch. The dynamic range is fine, although I did find the presentation a little flat—that is, very little stage depth. I don't consider this a serious problem though, given the genre of music. On a more positive note, the two vinyl discs are made to a high standard, being pressed on 180 grams of thick, flat, and quiet vinyl.
I don't personally listen to a lot of this style of music, but nevertheless I encourage you to give this one a spin: the sound quality is good and the music will get your foot tappin'! For more information about The City Boys Allstars, check out their web site at www.cityboysmike.com, which includes samples for each track on the album.
Double Cross Productions DCP001, 33-RPM 180g LP
A native of the UK, MJ Nelson has been in and around the music scene since the early 1960's; Rockola is the first of his contemporary records to be made available on vinyl. Consisting of ten tracks (including the instrumental Rock Tango, the music is upbeat and is—to me at least—sometimes a bit reminiscent of the 1950's, with a modern twist. Although not an audiophile spectacular, the sound quality is pretty good. The spectre of over-compression does not rear its ugly head! The record is flat and its surfaces dead quiet.
Analogue Productions/Island Records APP 9135, 33-RPM 200g LP
It's not every day that a new record pressing plant opens, especially one that specifically caters to the needs of vinyl-loving audiophiles. So when word got out that Acoustic Sounds' head honcho, Chad Kassem, was starting a new venture called Quality Record Pressings (QRP) doing just that, vinyl lovers started salivating at the thought of the records that would be pressed there. Kassem was determined that Cat Stevens' Tea for the Tillerman would be QRP's first release, so the hunt was on to find a copy of the original analogue master tapes.
They were finally found and sent to Sterling Sound to cut the masters. Sterling Sound is where the original British Island Records and US A&M Records records were cut by Lee Hulko, and amazingly, Hulko's original mastering notes were located. George Marino, Sterling's Senior Mastering Engineer, performed the mastering duties this time around, after which the masters were shipped to QRP's new state of the art facility where they were plated and pressed by Gary Salstrom and Mark Huggett respectively.
For this first important release, even the packaging received the deluxe treatment: Analogue Productions decided to use a facsimile of the original Island Records gatefold jacket (complete with the glossy outside paper and textured inside paper), eschewing the non-gatefold US version. This attention to detail was even applied to the record label, where the original pink Island label was used. Readers interested in more details of this important release's story should check out this video published by QRP on YouTube, which contains some fascinating behind-the-scenes footage.
All this effort would have been for nothing if the sound quality of the finished product wasn't up to snuff. From the very first few seconds of the opening track on side one, Where do the Children Play?, it was clear to me that QRP have done a fantastic job of this release, one of which they can be proud. The sound quality is much better than my early (but not, I think, original) Island pressing. Not only is the bass more deep and full, the treble is more airy and extended. And the detail! Little details, like the sound of the plectrum hitting the guitar's nylon strings just before you hear the sound of the string itself, are present in abundance. There're certainly more low level details on this version than on my Island version.
The sound can get perhaps a touch strident on the loudest passages, but these are very few and far between and I think the better option (the other being to lower overall levels, potentially masking some of the dynamics and low level details that make this record so wonderful). Talking of dynamics, one thing occurred to me while I was listening to Tea for the Tillerman: it was mastered at 33 RPM, rather than 45 RPM. When I asked Chad Kassem about a 45 RPM version, he didn't rule out the possibility, but stated that any 45-RPM release would "probably be a few years away".
The record is flat and its surfaces dead quiet; with its very high sound quality, great music, and impeccable packaging, Tea for the Tillerman—QRP's first title—is a must-have, and earns my highest recommendation!
Speakers Corner/Mercury Records SR3-9016, six 33-RPM 180g LPs
My intoduction to Bach's music was courtesy of my dad, via Wendy Carlos' Switched-On Bach, and later from Sky's brilliant take on Toccatta from their second LP, unimaginatively called Sky 2. Eager to increase my exposure to Bach performed on traditional instruments, I decided to try this boxed set.
On six sides, this boxed set contains the complete version of all six of Bach's suites for unaccompanied cello. The music is as beautiful and technically compentant as I'd hoped, and I even learned the identity of a couple of pieces of music I'd liked as a child but never found out what they were (especially the Bourrees movement of Suite No. 4 in E-flat).
Originally recorded in 1965, the sound quality on these albums is quite superb (although one might argue that a solo cello probably isn't the most challenging of recording subjects!). Judging by the soound, I'd say these albums were closely miked, enabling the minutest detail of Starker's playing to be captured.
One potential probalem with the sound is this: for much of the recording a rumbling sound can be heard. At first I though my pressing was defective, but I quickly realised that it was sound on the recording that was being reproduced (an observation that was confirmed by the quietness of the dead wax at the end of the side). Because it's quite a deep sound (my guess is fan noise from the recording environment's air conditioning, or passing traffic), I think this issue will only be noticable enough to be intrusive on a wide-bandwidth system with good bass response. That said, it's not that bad, and doesn't intrude so much as to spoil one's enjpyment of the music.
While not totally silent, the record surfaces are quiet, and all the records in my set were nice and flat. Bach Suites for Unaccompanied Cello comes in nice presentation box complete with detailed notes (including some new material written by Starker himself especially for this reissue). All in all, Speakers Corner have done a fine job and I enthusiastically recommend this one!
Speakers Corner/RCA Victor LSP-3957, 180g LP
Born in Puerto Rico, and raised in NYC's Spanish Harlem, Jose Feliciano is a prolific recording artist with well over 60 albums (in both English and Spanish) to his credit. His most famous recording (arguably) is Feliz Navidad, and every radio station around gives this classic a fair bit of play uring the Christmas season. His arrangements on The Doors' Light My Fire have made this a perennial favourite amongst many as well, including yours truly.
As a long-time fan of this amazing artist, I jumped at the chance to purchase this recording in glorious 180-gram virgin vinyl, and I will say right up front that it was well worth the price. Not only is the vinyl super quiet and aurally vibrant in every regard, Jose has made these songs his own. His unique vocal stylings, absolute mastery of the guitar, and obvious passion for his craft have given him the ability to tackle these classic songs with aplomb and confidence. Not once did I long to hear these songs by the original artists: the interpretations are that good!
The song selection on this 1968 album includes hits by the aforementioned The Doors, The Beatles, The Mamas & The Papas, Gerry & The Pacemakers, Brazilian performer/songwriter Jorge Ben of Mas Que Nada fame, and a Burt Bacharach/Hal David composition. I'll let you decide if he made these songs better, but I am of the opinion that they stand equally side-by-side.
Reprise Records 520206-1, two 33-RPM 180g LPs
I've been a fan of Mark Knopfler's music since the early Dire Straits days, so I leapt at the chance to get my hands on a copy of Get Lucky, Knopfler's sixth solo album (if we ignore his original sound track records and two EPs), recently issued by Reprise Records.
Continuing the trend established early in his solo career, Get Lucky has a laid back, light rock (almost folksy) feel about it. Many of the songs on this record are personally anecdotal in nature. For example, the second track on side 2 (Monteleon) was inspired progress reports by New York guitar builder, John Monteleon, while he was making Knopfler's Monteleon Isabella guitar. Death and remembrance are the subject of three songs: So Far From the Clyde is about ships that were built in Glasgow and Newcastle being sent to a ship breaking yard in India; Piper to the End was written for Knopfler's Uncle Freddie, a piper who carried his pipes into action and was killed with them in 1940 aged 20; and Remembrance Day is self-explanatory.
Pressed on 180g vinyl with its eleven songs generously spread over four sides, the sound quality of lucky is great for a modern recording: the bass is warm, deep, and tuneful, and the treble is clear without being splashy or bright. A good test for treble purity I like to use is how cymbals sound; on many rock records they sound like a splashy distorted mess, but on good recordings you can hear the way the sound quickly builds up, shimmers for a while, then fades away. I'm pleased to report that Get Lucky is in the latter category. Also, the record surfaces are very quiet.
Packaged in a heavy cardboard gatefold sleeve containing a lyric sheet (but, unlike Knopfler's previous release, Kill to Get Crimson, no free CD to facilitate mobile listening), I enthusiastically recommend Get Lucky, especially if you're a Mark Knopfler fan.
Classic Records/Track Record 613 013/4, two 33-RPM 200g LPs
Originally released in the UK in May 1969, Tommy is The Who's fourth studio album (excluding the compilation albums Magic Bus and Direct Hits). Tommy is a rock opera, telling the story of its eponymous protagonist who becomes psychosomatically deaf, dumb, and blind after witnessing the brutal murder of his mother's lover (in the 1975 movie version of Tommy, it is his father who is killed).
His parents try several cures, including a preacher who believes that Marilyn Monroe can heal and Gypsy, the acid queen. Exasperated, the parents go out and leave Tommy in the care of his relatives. His cousin, Kevin, bullies him and later his uncle Ernie sexually abuses him. Miserable throughout his childhood, the only solace Tommy found was playing pinball. He becomes the world champion, which brings his family fame and fortune.
A doctor advises Tommy's parents that there's nothing physically wrong with him, and that a suitable shock should cure him. This shock finally comes in the form of the breaking of a mirror that Tommy spends his time staring into blankly. Cured of his afflictions, Tommy believes himself to be a new messiah and starts a religious cult based around pinball.
Pressed on two thick 200g slabs of their Quiex SV-P (super vinyl profile) vinyl, Classic Records have done a great job of this release. The gatefold sleeve is made out of thick cardboard and has all the original artwork (including the lyric booklet), although the record pocket is a bit tight. An extra millimetre or two would make removing and returning the records much easier.
As for sound quality, the surfaces are very quiet. Considering the source material (i.e., a late-1960's commercial pop/rock record with no audiophile pretensions), this release compares well to an older pressing I have, having deeper bass and less splashy treble. Imaging is pretty much two dimensional though, with little depth. But that isn't surprising—and is probably to be expected—given the genre.
If you're looking for a pop/rock audiophile spectacular, look elsewhere. But if you're a fan of The Who, you should definitely check this one out.
Analogue Productions/Fantasy Records AJAZ-8431, two 45-RPM 180g LPs
What would the Christmas season be without at least one viewing of CBS Television's A Charlie Brown Christmas? And what would a Charlie Brown special be without a wonderful light jazz score from the Vince Guaraldi Trio? What we have for review here is the Analogue Productions reissue of the soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Lovingly remastered at RTI by Steve Hoffman and Kevin Gray, A Charlie Brown Christmas is one of the fourth set of Analogue Productions' Fantasy 45 Series. Each record in the Fantasy 45 Series is a limited edition of 1,000 copies, remastered at 45-RPM from the original analogue master tapes. Although mastering at 45-RPM results in shorter sides (typically less than 10 minutes each), the sonic improvements are worthwhile.
Guaraldi's piano is wonderfully recorded, as are the bass and drums, and the great sound quality is evident on this reissue. Fortunately, this isn't one of those typical "audiophile" records which has a great recording of mediocre music; from the slightly melancholic O Tannenbaum to the sprightly Linus and Lucy (a personal favourite of mine), listening to each track is a joy.
I have a copy of this soundtrack on CD, and the comparison with this Analogue Productions reissue is laughable. The LP has more detail, body, bass definition, and a smooth, extended treble: it easily trounces the CD. Even my father in law (who is not, by any stretch of the imagination, an audiophile) remarked how much better the LP version was (and was surprised at this revelation).
The bottom line is this: the music is wonderfully enjoyable and the sound quality is great. At $50, this record isn't cheap—but I highly recommend it nonetheless!