Just Played - A Column About Vinyl Records #10

Just Played - A Column About Vinyl Records #10

A look at the latest vinyl releases...

Three Record Store Day drops have occurred and a Black Friday list has emerged for the end of November. The deluge of deluxe editions and catalogue reissues has commenced, competing to be part of people’s gift-buying plans for the festive season.

But record shops are once again being caught in a variety of different lockdown scenarios, whether that means fully closed in Wales or subject to dramatically reduced footfall in tier 3 cities, and they are in need of our support through some further tricky months ahead.

As ever, this column has taken the time to listen to many of the latest releases in the hope of giving some practical advice on where best to deploy a few quid.

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Snap, Crackle and Pop

The debut solo album by The National’s Matt Berninger, ‘Serpentine Prison’, has much going for it from a vinyl perspective. The wonderful artwork by Michael Carson looks imperious in this format, while the mastering by Greg Calbi at Sterling Sound is full-bodied and open. Production and arrangements from Booker T provide the finishing touch for this selection of hypnotic slow-burners.

Leaving aside the questionable decision to offer a deluxe edition which only appends six covers via a second disc for the not-insignificant £50, the pressing – through GZ in the Czech Republic - is imperfect. After trying three copies, all given thorough ultrasonic cleans prior to going anywhere near the turntable, I managed to find a relatively quiet one, but music this luscious warrants near-silent playback.

Not a disaster, but much more faff than should really be the case.

Freshly Pressed

Remarkably consistent Scottish indie charmers Travis return with ’10 Songs’, a very fine set which largely fluctuates between uplifting mid-paced melodic balm and keening, open-hearted melancholia. Fran Healy’s voice continues to delight and tracks like ‘Nina’s Song’, ‘The Only Thing’ and ‘No Love Lost’ are some of their finest songs to date.

Released as a standard vinyl pressing and a deluxe 2LP set including a bonus disc of the whole record in demo form, the cut is a pleasing listen. Coming through Takt in Austria and presented on red for the main album and blue for the demos, both discs had a little light surface noise at times but were mainly quiet.

While the cover is striking at this size, the overall packaging is a little underwhelming for a deluxe set. Presumably some pretty colours were meant to take care of that.

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Having recently had the pleasure of chatting with Kate Stables for this very publication, there was a little additional anticipation around putting the fifth album by This Is The Kit, ‘Off Off On’, er, on to the turntable.

A DMM cut through Optimal, it sounds wonderful, taking the striking layers of sound from the recording and presenting them across a broad but engaging soundstage. The jazzier intensity of ‘Slider’ has a taught, hypnotic bottom end and the vocal textures of the title track are beautifully defined. Splendid artwork too.

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New Welsh label, Gwent Music Collective, has recently released the debut album by Newport’s Stay Voiceless, ‘Lies To Tell Your Children’. A raucous, pulsing collection of impassioned polemic, musically it sits somewhere between Feeder and Therapy, with some early stadium-rock Manics melody in there for good measure. Although a little slushy on the percussion, the white vinyl edition sounds pretty powerful and is a mostly quiet GZ cut. Packaging is pretty bare bones, although the record sleeve is not easily forgotten once seen.

While certain legacy artists are content to sit back on past glories with deluxe box sets and incessant multi-coloured vinyl reissues, others clearly have an appetite for making their latest music something special too.

Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Letter To You’ is not cheap - north of £30 for three sides of music and that eternal disappointment, the etching – but it is housed in some of the finest packaging this column has witnessed for a new release in some time. Twenty albums in, there are no great musical surprises on a record which is as pure a distillation of his core sound as one might imagine, but the transparent vellum inner sleeves and accompanying sixteen page booklet are a tactile delight.

Reprinted handwritten lyrics and snow-flecked photography are elevated to something luxurious by this attention to detail. A mostly quiet, fairly dynamic cut through Sterling Sound seals the deal. It’s unlikely to win him any new fans, but those who are already fond will feel especially spoilt. A masterclass in how to justify the ever-increasing price of new records.

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Value for money is less evident for the deluxe edition of the new Gorillaz set, ‘Song Machine: Season 1: Strange Timez’, which pulls together a diverse array of collaborations previously drip-fed to us across the year. Musically, it is mostly wonderful: Peter Hook’s unmistakable bass takes ‘Aries’ somewhere stratospheric, ‘Chalk Tablet Towers’ weaves St Vincent around one of Damon Albarn’s languid pop vocals while album highlight ‘Désolé’ features the incomparable Fatoumata Diawara.

As well as the obligatory slightly-unhinged, every-track-on-a-7inch-single credit card disturbing super deluxe set that costs £200, a ‘standard’ deluxe edition delivers two LPs and an extended CD in a hardback book with additional artwork and three prints. Is it worth the best part of £60? Of course not, as pleasant as it is for a quick browse.

Most frustrating is the decision to house both vinyl discs in shiny paper sleeves glued inside the covers at each end. Light surface marks are unavoidable and, while this Optimal cut sounded great, a little light noise here and there is noticeable. Single disc editions, minus the bonus tracks and on a variety of colours, can be found elsewhere if the price is not to your liking.

Going Round Again

Continuing the exceedingly satisfying work done for ‘1999’ in 2019, Warner Music have given the deluxe treatment to Prince’s 1987 masterpiece, ‘Sign O’ The Times’.

Completists will already have been seduced by the 8CD/1DVD deluxe book edition or even the 13LP/1DVD box set, both of which add in two full live recordings and 45 tracks from the vault on top of the remastered main album and various single mixes and edits which are themselves gathered for a slightly more accessible 4LP slim box version. From the embossed title atop the vivid colours of the artwork on the lid inwards, it is another beguiling set.

We are not alone in wondering if this latest cut may well be the best ‘Sign O’ The Times’ has ever sounded on vinyl. A shootout with an original was far from clear cut, but the middle range is especially enveloping on this new release. The Optimal cut is also wonderfully quiet and the inner sleeves offer lyrics and crisply restored artwork aplenty. Not cheap, but no corners cut here.

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Does the world need another edition of ‘(What’s The Story) Morning Glory?’ on vinyl, I wonder? Well, in honour of its 25 year anniversary it has returned to the racks in both picture disc and silver vinyl formats.

Famously a pretty horrifically mastered album, debate has raged in recent years about the least worst way to listen to Oasis’ Britpop behemoth. For the purpose of this review, a Damont original pressing and a 2009 reissue were compared to the current silver edition. Each has a different sonic signature: the original is more open but lacks a little bottom end, the 2009 adds a more muscular bass sound but pulls in the mids and this new version, while a relatively quiet pressing seemingly through Takt, is a little one dimensional despite delivering reasonable detail from the rhythm section.

As collectors’ items, they’re nicely done and different images adorning the triple gatefold make for an alternative reading of history, but sonically this isn’t an improvement on what’s gone before.

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BMG have compiled a substantial Ian Dury retrospective with the not-especially inspired but ultimately forgivable title of ‘Hit Me!’ The 3CD edition takes quite a run through his career, from early recordings with Kilburn and the High Roads up to the turn of the millennium. A white vinyl 2LP set cherry-picks twenty belters from the latter half of the Seventies and adds in some charming sleeve notes from comedian, writer and occasional Blockhead himself Phill Jupitus.

The mastering is excellent and this quiet pressing through Takt gives just the right sense of drive to ‘Billericay Dickie’, ‘Reasons To Be Cheerful (Part 3)’ and ‘Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll’. An excellent primer, affectionately done.

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Just as the last column was being put to bed, a pair of RSD Drop 2 titles landed and, given they can still both be purchased via independent stores selling online, it would be remiss of this column not to comment on them, even though it is now some weeks after the event.

Firstly, the ten year anniversary edition of Ellie Goulding’s excellent debut ‘Lights’ arrived as a 2LP set cut by Miles Showell at Abbey Road and pressed via Optimal in Germany on recycled vinyl. The outer sleeve is also on recycled cardboard and it is sealed by a paper sticker rather than shrinkwrap. These commendable efforts aside, it is sonically satisfying and serves as a welcome reminder of the pure pop thrills of those early songs. However the recycled materials may be used in the process, playback is quiet and dynamic. Not cheap, but very well done indeed.

The other RSD title to arrive was the half-speed 50th anniversary edition of Paul McCartney’s solo debut ‘McCartney’, also cut by Miles Showell. After a similar approach was taken to the recent archive collection edition of ‘Flaming Pie’, this cut is arguably the best of all of the modern reissues and holds its own with an original. The space around percussive elements is very clear and McCartney’s voice hovers wonderfully within the soundstage. A formal obi-strip suggests there may be more of these to follow, although the very welcome news of ‘McCartney III’ emerging in December will put the nostalgia on hold for a bit.  

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The final drop happened recently and amongst the concluding set of titles was a 1967 performance by jazz saxophonist Dexter Gordon, entitled ‘The Squirrel’. Previously only on CD, this Danish radio recording from the Jazzhouse Montmartre is a blast. A double LP set pressed via DMM at Optimal, it is quiet and vibrant. Revamped artwork, fresh sleeve notes and excellent mastering make this a welcome reissue during a period of stellar jazz releases across the labels and the decades. One to track down if you missed it at the first attempt.

The announcement of a deluxe, 25th anniversary reissue of Elliott Smith’s self-titled 1995 album was enhanced by the decision to house both discs in a gorgeous artbook, containing a wealth of photographs taken by his friend JJ Gonson and stirring reminiscences from those who knew him best. In addition, scans of handwritten lyrics and a very early live recording make this a true celebration of a remarkable artist. The remastering is delicate and subtle and these GZ pressed discs are both quiet.

The silhouetted interpretation of the artwork on the black book’s cover is neatly done and, in a lesson for the designer of the Gorillaz set mentioned above, while the discs are designed to be housed inside the front and back covers, they have separate inner sleeves and are shipped tucked inside the book so as to reduce the risk of damage in transit. This is a reissue where every aspect of the product has been thought out and the word deluxe is entirely fitting.

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In September, Universal issued a beautiful CD box set of Richard and Linda Thompson’s collaborative work between 1972 and 1982. Featuring thorough essays from Patrick Humphries and Mick Houghton, the set was researched, compiled and mastered by Andrew Batt who produced a similarly stunning package on Bobbie Gentry several years ago. Although some CDs had pressing issues, the music is exemplary.

To coincide, their first three albums together have also been reissued on vinyl. ‘I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight’ is a repress of the 2014 edition that was cut from the original analogue masters and pressed through Record Industry in the Netherlands. It sounds stunning and is a genuine must-have.

While it’s a welcome return to the racks for that supreme cut, it seems curious to do vinyl editions using different mastering to the recent archive project. This continues with ‘Pour Down Like Silver’ and ‘Hokey Pokey’, both freshly cut through GZ from unidentified sources. After a good clean, they both sound solid enough, but not on a par with the pair’s debut.

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Demon Records have invited Acid Jazz founder and compilation maestro Eddie Piller to assemble a substantial guide to the Mod scene, joining the dots from early music by The Jam to a Nineties burst of jazz-funkers the James Taylor Quartet.

A four CD set presents over ninety tracks, while a double vinyl edition plucks 28 highlights across coloured vinyl pressed at GZ. They clean up well and play reasonably quietly, although these DMM cuts don’t sound as dynamic as one might hope for with this sort of material. Containing just enough big names to catch the eye, the infectiously passionate sleeve notes and more obscure treasures ensure this is still worth a listen.

The Peter Gabriel live series that commenced with a reissue of ‘Plays Live’, reviewed in the previous column, continues with ‘Live In Athens 1987’ and ‘Secret World Live’. Both are, once again, cut by Matt Colton while still at Alchemy, and pressed through Optimal in Germany. They are housed in wide, single sleeves with sharp artwork and printed inners. While the absence of gatefolds reduces the sense of premium product, the silent playback of the discs is the key here. That said, the 2012 audio mix of ‘Live In Athens 1987’ used for this edition isn’t especially dynamic and is a rather more fatiguing listen than 1993’s remarkable ‘Secret World Live’ set.

Recorded over several nights in Italy, it mixes the likes of ‘Solsbury Hill’ and ‘Sledgehammer’ with tracks from the previous year’s album, ‘Us’. If you’re not sure how many Peter Gabriel live albums you feel you need in your life, the latter of these two is the best of the series so far.

Eleven years ago some rather splendid remasters of the Kraftwerk catalogue emerged on Mute. Crystal clear cuts which delivered a full, balanced sound, the whole series was pretty much essential.

They have been in and out of the retailers’ racks ever since but this autumn has delivered the logical next step in our vinyl fetish culture: the whole lot are now available in thematically coloured editions using the same parts as those outstanding 2009 pressings. You have the option of the original German versions or their English counterparts and, so as to get a sense of the project, this column tried a translucent blue – of course – edition of ‘Autobahn’.

A quick comparison with the 2009 black version demonstrated the sonics are the same and playback was quiet and involving. So, if you like excellent sound but also want to stare at pretty colours, these new editions will keep you very happy indeed. If you’ve already got the remasters, you’re probably fine.

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At The Front Of The Racks

Two majestic reissue campaigns had October sewn up in their own unique ways. Firstly, The Divine Comedy celebrated their thirtieth anniversary with a complete catalogue dust off and a wealth of bonus material to support.

Clash recently spoke to Neil Hannon about the project and spent some time with the resulting 24CD box set. Alongside this, came vinyl remasters for the nine studio albums from 1993’s debut-proper ‘Liberation’ through to 2010’s self-released ‘Bang Goes The Knighthood’. Most had been out of print for an age and a trio of records – ‘Regeneration’, ‘Absent Friends’ and ‘Victory For The Comic Muse’ – originally released by Parlophone have been issued on vinyl for the very first time.

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With Frank Arkwright at the controls in Abbey Road, the sound across these titles is stunning. In shoot-outs between the new versions and originals of all of those previously available on vinyl, the 2020 editions won on every occasion. It’s far rarer than it should be to find remastering that genuinely improves the sound and range of beloved music, but that is the case here. As much as fans will likely prioritise the CD set, these vinyl releases are truly exemplary.

With Kevin Westenberg’s photography on the first five fully restored from his archive, Hannon’s loquacious liner notes printed on the inner sleeves and lossless downloads that include all of the CD bonus material for the relevant album thrown in for free, it’s quite sincerely impossible to find fault with this long-awaited series.

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Almost a year after initial rumours emerged about the second New Order Definitive Edition set, following 2018’s focus on ‘Movement’, ‘Power, Corruption & Lies’ has arrived in a stunning pastel pink box.

Fully remastered from analogue sources, the main album – an undisputed masterpiece – is presented on CD and heavyweight vinyl, again cut by Frank Arkwright and pressed at Optimal. In addition, a second CD of demos and Peel sessions broadens the experience, while two DVDs full of live footage and contemporary documentary ‘Play At Home’ capture a band at the peak of their powers. And Tony Wilson’s cock.

The vinyl edition is a joy to experience, holding its own against a Factory original and possibly even surpassing it amongst the layers of ‘Your Silent Face’. The original artwork, Henri Fantin-Latour’s ‘A Basket Of Roses’, has an added vibrancy too. As with the first box focused on their debut, ‘Movement’, the associated 12” singles from the time period have also been reissued, replicating original artwork and fully remastered by Arkwright.

‘Blue Monday’ has its infamous die-cut design intact, and ‘Confusion’ preserves the embossed title. The day/night pairing of the ‘Thieves Like Us’ and ‘Murder’ 12” sleeves is fully replicated, with barcodes consigned to stickers on the shrink-wrap.

All four share the sonic signature of the parent album’s remaster and, taken together, form a remarkable body of work. The exquisite book which sits in the ‘Power, Corruption & Lies’ box features reverential but insightful words from Dave Simpson, alongside a contemporary piece on a 1983 USA tour from Mick Middles and plenty of assorted ephemera from the era. While not cheap, especially if picking up the quartet of 12” reissues too, this is an immersive and luxurious celebration of a timeless classic that is a product of much love and care. Very highly recommended.

All of the titles reviewed above were cleaned before playback using the ultrasonic record cleaning machine, Degritter. A full review of its capabilities will follow in a future column.

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Words: Gareth James

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

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