Just Played #3: A Column About Vinyl Records

Just Played #3: A Column About Vinyl Records

A festive round up...

The tree is up, Bublé is racking up the royalties and you’re keen to buy some music for a friend or loved one. Record collectors are notoriously tricky to purchases gifts for, not least because they’re so often in their local shops that it’s hard to keep track of what they’ve already got.

So, with that challenging task in mind, here’s an extra instalment of Clash’s vinyl column designed to help with that process. Below, you’ll find some recent releases and very fine reissues given a spin, along with some more deluxe titles for those in need of something special.

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Freshly Pressed:

The debut EP from Welsh folk singer Osian Rhys is a small but perfectly formed 10” delight that won’t break the bank but will melt the heart. Lead track ‘The Ballad Of Mr Withers’ is an enveloping, wistful and luscious piece of music quite unlike anything you’ll have heard this year. It feels like it has been beamed in from forty-five years ago and, as such, warrants the vinyl experience of a beautiful sleeve and a wide, warm soundstage. Grab it now and show off in a few years’ time when it’s going for £100.

fHaving been released in twenty nine different CD editions when it first emerged, Taylor Swift’s ‘Lover’ has finally put in an appearance on vinyl. Despite a price that is anything but budget, the pressing is a fairly no frills affair. A gatefold sleeve contains lyric-coated inners and coloured vinyl. One is opaque pink, the other transparent blue; both are a little noisy.

Having been pressed via GZ in the Czech Republic, it took a couple of attempts to get a copy that played fairly quietly and wasn’t warped. The music sounds like it has a little more breathing space compared to the digital releases, most notable on the wondrous percussion of the title track. Given the complications, perhaps not one to purchase as a gift.

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Similarly, and technically breaking the format of this column briefly, Sony’s reissue campaign of Prefab Sprout’s delightful catalogue has been done through the same plant and Clash’s copy of ‘Steve McQueen’ had a fair bit of intrusive noise. ‘Protest Songs’, however, was near-silent and the mastering is wonderful. A little of roulette involved, but if you strike lucky, you’re in for a treat.

The rather curious artwork for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ majestic ‘Ghosteen’ is even more thought-provoking at 12x12 size. After the disastrous early pressings of 2016’s ‘Skeleton Tree’ necessitated a repress, the quality control on this one has been meticulous and it shows.

The mastering is exceptional and quiet discs were necessary for music which demands no interruptions. Thankfully, it delivers and features intriguing inner sleeves which are poly-lined but still have lyrics printed upon them. An innovation which anyone who loathes their rough, static and coarse paper cousins will be keen to see rolled out elsewhere.

It’s a very fine example of how to deliver a modern release on a vintage format and closer ‘Hollywood’ is so hypnotic, you’ll put it straight back on again when it finishes.

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Another double vinyl delight comes from Richard Dawson, whose ‘2020’ album has already been rightly proclaimed as a chronicle of our divided times. Glossy artwork, the remarkable lyrics in a very agreeably sized font and two perfectly pressed discs make for a vital title. It’s hard to imagine anyone not being instantly thrilled with it and, as always with Domino, it’s not excessively costly.

The final new release up for consideration is a timely set from an American folk-pop stalwart entitled ‘The Holiday Sounds Of Josh Rouse’. Early copies feature a bonus disc of demos and covers such as Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’. It’s an endearing, easy-going collection that is recommended if you want something crowd-pleasing without resorting to Mickey Bubbles.

The festive theme extends to the main album being pressed on red vinyl, although the unintentional fake snow effect caused by all of the loose paper detritus inside the sleeve is something we can all do without. It’ll need a clean. And another clean. But then you’re good to go.

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Going Round Again:

It has been a predictably rich time for titillating reissues as labels ensure their most desirable product is in the racks ahead of those key shopping weekends.

Universal have dusted off Mark Hollis’ self-titled 1998 solo album, which missed out on a vinyl edition altogether when initially released and suffered at the hands of a widespread pressing defect when finally given the twelve inch treatment in 2003. The only reissue prior to this one came in 2011 out of Ba Da Bing! in the US which was far from perfect. Nevertheless, its value skyrocketed in the light of Hollis’ passing in February of this year.

Remastered at Abbey Road, this latest edition sounds glorious, capturing the sonic space of this unique recording beautifully. Seemingly, a few early copies had some issues but Clash’s plays like a dream.

Queens Of The Stone Age have been on the receiving end of a reissue programme over the last month or so, with demand outstripping supply for some titles. Your local indie should now be fully stocked, but it’s not hard to figure out why these have been well received. ‘R’, ‘Songs For The Deaf’, ‘Lullabies To Paralyze’ and ‘Eva Vulgaris’ have all been pressed by the dependable folk at Pallas in Germany and offer a sonic experience that opens up otherwise rather dense recordings when consumed via streaming or the humble CD.

‘Songs For The Deaf’ is the highlight, with very noticeable separation on the instrumentation and sufficient dynamics to encourage a little extra volume.

Having put out a very well received half-speed mastered reissue of ‘Amplified Heart’ in the summer, Everything But The Girl recently awarded the same splendid treatment to 1996’s highly sought after ‘Walking Wounded’.

Doing it themselves through Ben Watt’s Buzzin’ Fly label, the duo have got it very, very right. A rather distinctive mix of electronic sounds and soulful pop, it was the album released after the Todd Terry remix of ‘Missing’ had brought massive chart success. The skittering title track confused a few listeners at the time, but the whole set holds up massively some twenty-three years later. ‘The Heart Remains A Child’ is an overlooked treat and these ears have never heard it sounding better than on this superlative reissue. 

Such is the appeal of coloured vinyl that hardy perennials keep getting issued in different permutations. U2 on orange, Joy Division red, Joni Mitchell on, well, blue? Of course, come on down. A recent campaign put the first four Madonna albums back out there on limited clear pressings. The discs themselves use the none too shabby 2012 cuts mastered at Unity in London which are generally praised for their clarity and tight control of rhythm. All of this remains true but you can see your face through them! Lovely stuff.

‘Like A Virgin’ just edged it for me but any Madge fan is likely to be thrilled with these for Christmas. Certainly more than they would be with the mediocre pressing of her vicariously embarrassing new album.

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The good folk at 4AD have done the honourable thing and put Gene Clark’s absolute masterpiece, ‘No Other’, back in the world (check the photo up top). There’s a costly super deluxe set that looks almost distressingly appealing and features all sorts of outtakes, demos and remixes across hybrid SACDs, a bonus 7” and a blu-ray disc. It includes a new, unnecessarily silver vinyl cut, which is also available separately on good old black wax and it makes for a borderline transcendent listening experience.

From its crystal clear artwork to its silent pressing, this is how to do a reissue. Sample ‘Strength Of Strings’ and you’ll have bought it for yourself and everybody else within minutes.

Having spread one of the most-anticipated vinyl reissue programmes of recent times across the course of the year, Stereolab’s expanded pressings of their studio albums from 1993’s ‘Transient Random Noise-Bursts With Announcements’ through to 2003’s ‘Margerine Eclipse’ have been a true delight. They recently concluded with that latter title alongside 2001’s ‘Sound-Dust’.

Tim Gane’s notes have offered great insight along the way, while the bonus LP in each set has broadened the perspective on some fondly regarded records. The hard-panning, or ‘dual mono’ as they would have it, of ‘Margerine Eclipse’ has never sounded better than these latest editions, while the bottom end on ‘Sound-Dust’ is a treat that no audiophiles should deny themselves.

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Snap, Crackle and Pop:

A compilation of Mary J Blige’s 90s hits and highlights sounds like a great idea and ‘Herstory Vol 1’ is peppered with classics like ‘What’s the 411?’, ‘You Remind Me’ and ‘Can’t Knock The Hustle’ featuring Jay-Z.

Unfortunately, as soon as it hits the turntable, the excitement quickly dissipates. It sounds like it has been mastered from low-bit-rate mp3 files with a sonic presentation that is narrow and blocky. It just sounds…wrong.

Musically brilliant and a quiet pressing, but poorly served by this format.

Boxing Clever:

This time of year always guarantees some special box sets will land on the shelves. The much-hyped ten LP set for Prince’s ‘1999’ has proved so desirable that all stock pressed has already hit the shelves and it’s now out of stock with the label. So, if you’re after a purple-themed, rather substantial gift, act fast.

In the meantime, the rest of us will have to be satisfied with the rather shiny 4LP version which features the new remaster of the double album and two discs of single edits and alternative mixes. The latter are rather inessential, but it’s pretty obvious why the label kept all of the unheard vault material for the considerably more expensive enormo-box. The pressings are great and the main album still sounds fairly imperious, although bass is given prominence over treble, which feels a little tame compared to earlier versions.

The twentieth anniversary of The Chemical Brothers’ ‘Surrender’ has been marked with a 4LP and DVD box, which fleshes out the story via a number of lesser-heard but big-name reinterpretations and a set of previously unreleased ‘Secret Psychedelic Mixes’.

Amongst those hitherto shelved versions is a phenomenal 21 minute take on ‘Out Of Control’ that leaps out of the speakers. Indeed, the whole set sounds urgent and life-affirming across eight sides of perfectly pressed vinyl, courtesy of Record Industry in the Netherlands. The main album is on clear, with the bonus discs on black, and has been mastered at The Exchange, who did the original back in 1999.

The accompanying DVD offers up one of their beguiling Glastonbury performances, while the 12x12 book is a delight. A range of writers help to contextualise the experience, but Jon Savage’s contribution is especially brilliant, featuring his original review and a new postscript. It’s not cheap, but it has been meticulously constructed and will delight the serious fans.

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Just as this column was nearing completion, the second volume of Domino’s magnificent ‘G Stands For Go-Betweens’ career-spanning box set series arrived. From its ornate yellow box inwards, this is a treasure trove. The CDs include demos, live recordings and 28 tracks originally intended as the follow up to ’16 Lovers Lane’. It is one of three studio albums covered by this set, the others being ‘Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express’ and ‘Tallulah’. All three are presented on remastered, heavyweight black vinyl and they don’t disappoint.

With some slightly thin sounding CD reissues having been the only way to access this music for many years, it’s a joy to hear these wonderful songs in such fully-rounded soundstages. Vocals rise up out of the speakers, while the minutiae of the original recordings is there for rabid consumption.

The first one didn’t hang around so, if this is likely to appeal, you need to be quick.

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At The Front Of The Racks:

The 7” box set is a curious beast. Spreading a whole album over this more flighty format always seems odd. A facsimile set of fondly remembered originals can be great, but attention to detail is key and the listening experience is very hands on. But, get the right concept done in the right way and it can feel like a very, ahem, special thing indeed.

Marking the forty year anniversary of the foundation of 2 Tone Records, comes ‘2 Tone 7” Treasures’ a twelve disc ‘box’ set that actually presents the replica records in a retro carry case with PVC compartments. A selection of significant releases – including Madness’ ‘The Prince’, The Beat’s ‘Tears Of A Clown’ and The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’ -have been identified by label and Specials founder Jerry Dammers, who provides a signed insert at the start of the pack. The addition of a branded 7” slipmat is a cute frippery, but the discs themselves are beautifully done.

A combination of punchy but detailed mastering, in keeping with the golden days of the format, and quiet vinyl makes for a very evocative listen. The distinctive label design is always a delight and, while it’s not cheap, it is one of the most lavishly executed reissue projects of the year. An ideal present for the discerning music fan.

Hopefully that offers some options for those in need of gift ideas. Previous columns have plenty of additional selections if needed and your local independent record shop will be happy to dish up further recommendations as they all do so consistently all year round. Hopefully, your Christmases will be full of the black stuff (or technicolour splatter if that’s your thing) and we’ll be back in the New Year when you next need some vinyl pointers.

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Words: Gareth James

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

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