Just Played #13: A Column About Vinyl Records

Just Played #13: A Column About Vinyl Records

Your essential guide to the latest physical releases...

In the months ahead, we will see what impact the state of suspended animation that defined 2020 has had upon the release schedule of 2021. This column expects an even greater surge in deluxe reissues given the relative ease of production. News has already started to emerge, however, about delays in the manufacturing and release process thanks to the glistening sunlit uplands of Brexit.

With increased delivery times from certain EU plants, many labels are switching to the limited options closer to home and this is leading to sizeable lead times for established plants like The Vinyl Factory in the UK.

Regardless of the uncertainties ahead, there have already been many titles of interest put in the racks over the past two months, so let’s take some time to evaluate a tempting selection.

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Going Round Again

The increasing appetite for beautiful vinyl reissues which prioritise sound quality is an obvious source of joy for this column and the world of jazz has been leading the way over the past couple of years. As well as a recently commenced and very promising Acoustic Sounds series plucking desirable titles from Universal’s vast catalogue, the Blue Note Tone Poet series is the gold standard of how to put records back in the racks with purpose. Cut from the original analogue tapes and, in most cases, enveloped in tip-on gatefold sleeves awash with stunning session photography, this project continues to prioritise albums from the legendary label’s remarkable history which tend not to be the usual headline grabbers.

Lee Morgan’s ‘The Rajah’, Donald Byrd’s ‘Byrd In Flight’ and McCoy Tyner’s ‘Tender Moments’ are recent highlights. Cut by Cohearant Audio, pressed at RTI and largely silent, these discs present the music with precision and a sense of studio space. While the approach to soundstages was unusual on those vintage recordings, the positioning of the instruments really does allow everything to rise up into the room and you will struggle to put these on in the background.

The accompanying Blue Note Classics series presents stone cold belters like Cannonball Adderley’s ‘Somethin’ Else’ and Lee Morgan’s ‘The Sidewinder’ via the same audio team, but pressed at Optimal and about a tenner cheaper. These sound similarly splendid, but be wary of the staggeringly static white paper inner sleeves in which they arrive.

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In such company, billing an item as the ‘Ultimate Edition’ is a bold play, but that is the tag attached to a 2LP and bonus 10” reissue of KT Tunstall’s 2007 album ‘Drastic Fantastic’. As an artefact, it’s aesthetically pleasing with the main album on white, bonus tracks on purple and a quartet of remixes on the fluorescent orange smaller disc. There’s nothing in the way of new sleevenotes but a varnish effect on the cover has its charms. The pressing itself is rather perfunctory. As is the case with so many digital files given a standard DMM cut, the sound is boxed in, lacking some mid-range and quite heavy on a bloated bottom end. In a shoot-out with the same songs streamed at CD quality through the same amp and speakers, I actually preferred the digital. It has been done through GZ and took a few cleans to render it relatively quiet, but that doesn’t make much difference when the sound itself is nothing much to shout about.

Some acts have a discography that seems to be wheeled out in one version or another every couple of years. After Mobile Fidelity dug out The Band’s original master tapes in the early years of the previous decade, the Back to Black campaign from Universal delivered some cheap and cheerful GZ cuts in 2015 only for a deluxe reissue campaign to then commence with ‘Music From Big Pink’ in 2018, followed by their self-titled album in 2019.

It’s now the turn of ‘Stage Fright’, which is available in a variety of formats including a super deluxe box containing CDs, vinyl, blu-ray for high-resolution audio and a bonus 7”. A standard LP version has also been produced, following the remixed, remastered and revisited tracklisting provided for this latest raid on the vaults. A quiet and full-bodied Optimal cut, the album itself now has a much punchier opening with original initial pair ‘Strawberry Wine’ and ‘Sleeping’ closing the record in lulling fashion while ‘The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show’ and ‘The Shape I’m In’ are now the curtain raisers.

The standard vinyl is well done and sounds excellent, but it’s hard to figure out the intended audience. Obsessed enough with the album to want to hear it remixed and reworked? You’ll be wanting the deluxe box. Casual catalogue purchaser? You’re unlikely to want a revised version of history. Still, nicely done.

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Demon Music continues to scratch the reissue itch that other labels can’t reach with a compact collection of The Love Affair and Steve Ellis’ output. A British pop-soul act from the late Sixties, you’ll likely know their biggest hit ‘Everlasting Love’ which commences side one, but this also features some of their first frontman’s solo recordings on the second side and thoughtful sleevenotes from Ellis to put it all in context.

The Love Affair’s final single in their first formation was shelved after his departure, but an original acetate of ‘Time Hasn’t Changed Us’ has been dusted off and restored as best it could be so as to be present here. While it’s far from crystal clear, it possesses a wonkily endearing charm. Mastered at Alchemy and pressed to strong tea (though allegedly gold) coloured vinyl by GZ, it’s a package which both looks and sounds pretty decent. A good clean resulted in fairly quiet playback, vintage acetates aside.

The output of Be With Records is always deserving of your attention. A reissue label driven by one man with eclectic and impeccable taste, it has a knack of finding hugely desirable but largely overlooked gems and giving them a fitting restoration.

‘Feelings’, a jazz-funk library record attributed to Jay Richford and Gary Stevan, is one of their finest choices to date. Taut, melodic and cinematic, this music deserves to be available in a high quality edition and this Record Industry pressing rights the wrongs of a few previous reissues. Fans of Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield and a general state of euphoria should snap this up, housed once again in the sleeve which accompanied its initial Italian release in 1974 and remastered from the original analogue tapes. Those names may not mean much and are believed to be pseudonyms for Italian composers Stefano Torossi and Giancarlo Gazzani whose contracts would have complicated its arrival in the world if they had taken ownership at the time.

This one is understandably flying out and, if you struggle to locate it, rest assured that a re-press is due in May.

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After some well-reviewed reissues of his early Keen releases, Sam Cooke’s legendary 1964 outing ‘Ain’t That Good News’ is the next to make a return, via what appears to be a straight import of a US release from late 2020. Matrix info suggests it uses the same parts as its previous 2014 Record Store Day reissue, but not necessarily through the original plant. Whatever the specifics of that particular mystery, the crucial detail here is that it sounds wonderful. The bass notes touch your soul and Cooke’s voice is irresistible. The rhythmic joy of ‘Good Times’ and ‘Another Saturday Night’ is mixed with the utter perfection of ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’. Every home should have one.

When remastered reissues of The National’s first three releases were first announced, I’ll confess to a little scepticism. A variety of editions have emerged from their original label Brassland since their career accelerated with 2010’s ‘High Violet’, including multi-coloured ornaments from the US subscription service that curiously thinks ‘vinyl’ is a verb. Were there that many people crying out for these versions? The Brassland copies sounded solid if unspectacular and were serviceable rather than silent, so there’s definitely scope for some polishing.

Now, we are provided with Abbey Road remastering of the audio and quiet Optimal cuts for their self-titled 2001 debut, 2003’s ‘Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers’ and 2004’s ‘Cherry Tree EP’ which neatly bridged the gap from those early years to the 4AD era which commenced in 2005 with the majestic ‘Alligator’. Seemingly retailing with most indies around the £16 mark for the two albums and £13 for the EP, these are firstly noteworthy for their accommodating prices and secondly for their exquisite sound. All three are an improvement on previous versions and ‘Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers’ is especially striking, now possessed of musical nuance where previously it was a little cluttered. Highly recommended. Now, please do ‘Alligator’ and ‘Boxer’ like this next, 4AD. They need it.

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The psychedelic country rock alchemy that emerged from flown Byrds Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman’s work in The Flying Burrito Brothers is always ripe for rediscovery. Those with deeper pockets may be more inclined towards 2017’s increasingly scarce all-analogue reissue via Intervention Records, but this is a none too shabby budget alternative. The replica sleeve is done to a decent standard and the quiet GZ pressing comes in a poly-lined inner. It clearly uses a dynamic source, with the soundstage suitably taut. The different layers of their aching take on ‘Dark End Of The Street’ are arrayed before the listener, fluid but not too forensic.

Thirty-one years after it first appeared in the world, The Black Crowes’ debut, ‘Shake Your Money Maker’, has had a deluxe CD reissue and a fresh vinyl cut. Prepared at The Bakery in Los Angeles and pressed at GZ, it has been remastered from the original source. It sounds open and dynamic, ensuring that when those drums kick in on ‘Twice As Hard’ there is an audible uplift. If you’ve been enjoying BBC4’s TOTP 1990 repeats and swaggering, piano-assisted stadium rock doesn’t bring you out in hives, then there’s plenty of nostalgia to be mined from these grooves: start, of course, with ‘Hard To Handle’. The packaging is bare bones and a little flimsy, but the disc is done right.

Snap, Crackle & Pop

You’ll likely already know that The Weather Station’s ‘Ignorance’ is one of the finest records to emerge in 2021 so far. Tamara Lindeman leads this Canadian band which has hitherto delivered endearing but conventional folk music. However, from opener ‘Robber’ which evokes the sonic palette of Bowie’s ‘Blackstar’ album onwards, it’s evident that their sound has evolved. Programmed beats and synths are woven into these songs, making for a hypnotically propulsive record about heartache.

It gets better and better with every listen and it deserves an impeccable vinyl pressing. Sadly, that is not the case on this Memphis Record Pressing effort. Having tried several copies of the standard black edition, the surface noise was the biggest concern from dirty looking, pitted vinyl which also came with a free edge warp.

The mastering is great, but this level of noise – even after several cleanings – is just poor.

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Freshly Pressed

The continuing creative urge at the core of Tindersticks is a regular delight, resulting in some additional late period delights since the 2008 re-boot with ‘The Hungry Saw’. Anyone who purchased their previous album, ‘No Treasure But Hope’, on vinyl will likely be a little trepidatious this time after widespread issues with noise plagued rather delicate music. Fear not, however, as ‘Distractions’ is a very well cut and splendidly pressed affair via Optimal. Take care removing it from the potentially problematic paper inner and give it a clean if circumstances permit so as to ensure the quietest possible background for these seven glorious songs. Opener ‘Man Alone (Can’t Stop The Fadin’)’ may be eleven minutes long but it doesn’t feel like its sprawling or noodly, instead proving oddly confrontational at times and robustly hypnotic. It’s hardly standard fare and a very fine statement of intent. As with the rest of the record, rhythm is tight and engaging while the vocal sound sits naturally in the room rather than pulling you back to the speakers. Most definitely safe to proceed.

Leeds trio Nervous Twitch recently released their self-titled fourth album via dependable indie label Reckless Yes who, incidentally, offer an alluring membership package for those keen to assist the smaller organisations during these difficult times. Surf-rock pop-punk that occupies the middle of a venn diagram containing Kenickie and Y Niwl, with copious nods to Helen Love and The Ramones too, this is, in short, great fun. The white vinyl pressing comes via GZ and, following a lengthy clean, is relatively quiet in playback. It captures the raw urgency of their performances and can handle a decent increase in volume, which you’ll be wanting to apply about thirty seconds into opener ‘Count Your Blessings’. If you’re tight for time, sample ‘Tongue Tied’ and thank us later.

Five years on from her last, American jazz artist Melody Gardot returns with ‘Sunset In The Blue’. A wonderfully dynamic recording which evokes the standards, it is imbued with a bossa nova spirit that is often beguiling. The guitar sound is rich and alive, the highlight of an impressive soundstage. More delicate moments like the title track and a bare take on ‘Moon River’ necessitate a silent background which isn’t quite the case with this GZ pressing. A decent clean removed most of the light noise, but the decision to opt from printed inner sleeves on an otherwise deluxe jazz release seems a little self-defeating. Thankfully, in evidence of better decision making, the bonus track featuring Sting that is appended to some editions is mercifully absent from this set.

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Burbling modular synth energy radiates from ‘The Strange World Of Stefan Bachmeier’. A compilation featuring the polished and re-edited highlights from three previous cassette releases via enthusiastic indie label Spun Out Of Control and curated by Stephen Buckley aka Polypores, this red vinyl pressing has been done by GZ and is housed in a poly-lined inner sleeve which ensures that playback is largely silent. You’ll do a twitchy double-take the first you hear the tape appear to falter rather charmingly during ‘Phosphorescence’ and ‘One Road Out’, while the manic stomp of ‘Destroying The Bridge’ is wonderfully infectious. Eric Adrian Lee’s striking sleeve art completes an attractive package. Be sure to check out the label’s recent release, ‘Cybernetic World’ by Proto Droids too – disco-pop delights abound.

It was with a little trepidation that Just Played lowered the stylus onto the tenth album by the Foo Fighters, ‘Medicine At Midnight’. There’s actually a degree of musical experimentalism at play on tracks like the Arctic Monkeys do Talking Heads burble of ‘Cloudspotter’ and the hushed ‘Chasing Birds’, and this cut via Pallas in Germany is pretty much silent. However, the mastering is hugely frustrating. Given their reputation as a muscular and explosive live band, its baffling why the dynamics have been stripped out of this music even on vinyl. When the drums should pile in, they simply emerge at the same volume as everything else and when a riff accelerates away from the rest of the band its presence is flat and uniform.

The ‘loudness wars’ have long been a topic of consternation amongst fans, but it’s increasingly rare for it to be present on the vinyl outing. Why pay double the price of the CD if the sound is no better? 

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The long-awaited debut album proper from Arlo Parks, ‘Collapsed In Sunbeams’, flew out on vinyl upon release at the end of January. It’s a wonderful pop-soul record with a powerful bottom end that needs a little taming for the analogue realm. Matt Colton at Metropolis has had a valiant effort, although the medium’s inherent tendency to blur heavy bass – often described as vinyl’s ‘warmth’ – means it still feels a little muddy at times.

Just Played has a copy of the red pressing – a picture disc is available for those who don’t play their records – done through GZ, which took a few cleans to tame the surface noise. A fold out poster with accompanying message and a full lyric sheet on the inner sleeve make for a compelling package where the sound is solid if not revelatory.

If you’ve never previously had the pleasure of Camera’s distinctive brand of pulsating, kaleidoscopic motorik then ‘Prosthuman’ is a fine time to get on board. The mechanical clang of ‘Freundschaft’ may call to mind The Cure, while ‘Alar Alar’ has a gnarly dub feel to it. Marking a new chapter for the German band, with adjustments in personnel, there’s still plenty here for the initiated. The distinctive fluorescent orange artwork based on a woodcut has resulted in a similarly coloured limited edition which was the version played for this column. It has a sharp sense of rhythm, a controlled top end and broad but nuanced soundstage. Pressed through Optimal, it’s a silent and involving cut. One for newcomers and the hardcore alike.

At The Front Of The Racks

This column has long been championing the superlative PJ Harvey reissue programme that finally commenced last summer, after fans had waited many years to get her catalogue on vinyl. Excellent mastering, meticulous packaging reproduction and near silent pressings have been standard throughout. Since the last review column at the end of 2020, two further titles have been revisited. ‘Is This Desire’ sounds fantastic and, while I’m not in a position to compare it with an original pressing, it far surpasses my old CD copy. The accompanying demos are predictably squally given the intensity of the main album, but offer an interesting insight.

However, the second album getting this magnificent treatment is 2000’s Mercury Prize winning ‘Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea’ and it is absolutely breathtaking. As mentioned earlier, there are plenty of deluxe audiophile series emerging of late and, more often than not, you’ll have to pay a premium for them. To have this kind of release sitting in the racks at standard price should be a reason to rejoice and it’s hard to imagine anyone being anything other than delighted with their purchase of this edition.

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As has been customary so far, the artwork is vivid and crisp so as to ensure the sleeves are gloriously evocative. Once again, even the weight of the vinyl feels like Island pressings from the turn of the millennium and who would bet against that little detail being deliberate too? If you’ve only ever heard this music via a digital source then brace yourself, as the upgrade is not subtle. On a track like ‘The Whores Hustle And The Hustlers Whore’, the layers of sound open up around the room while the vocal interplay on ‘This Mess We’re In’ between Harvey and guest vocalist Thom Yorke is genuinely moving.

If you’re reading a lengthy column reviewing vinyl pressings, then it’s a fairly safe bet that you’re a firm believer in the power of music to truly elevate the human condition. With this new edition of ‘Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea’, Island Records remove any room for debate. Truly, truly essential.

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 the previous column.

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Words: Gareth James

(For more vinyl reviews and turntable shots, follow @JustPlayed on Twitter)

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