Just Played: A Column About Vinyl Records #18

Just Played: A Column About Vinyl Records #18

A look at the vinyl marketplace...

A crunch point is on the horizon for vinyl sales given the recent news that the materials for coloured pressings have been depleted. While plenty of existing orders will still be hitting the shelves over the next few months, thereafter things will be a little less splattery, split and swirly.

While your humble correspondent has no great love for any of those effects, numerous conversations with the proprietors of our beloved indie shops suggest that those vibrant variants are what bring the customers to the yard. If a standard black release is issued alongside one of these multi-coloured beacons of collectability, it will almost always sit, unloved and collecting dust while the other edition flies out.

Will fans of pretty things switch over to the hard stuff once supply gets slashed? Only time will tell. To return to the present, the traditional summer lull seems less noticeable this year, with much to tell you about in this month’s column.

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Freshly Pressed:

Barbra Streisand makes a second raid on the vaults for ‘Release Me 2’, which traverses six decades of studio time and assembles a collection of previously unreleased recordings. Featuring duets with Willie Nelson, Barry Gibb and Kermit The Frog, it’s a surprisingly coherent set thanks to Streisand’s remarkable vocals. A four page set of sleevenotes offers detailed insight around these songs’ creation and the vinyl master is full and open, despite the vast array of sources. Being a Sony/Columbia release, it has been done via MPO and the copy we sampled looked a little murky but largely played well. Some non-fill on side one was jarring, so you might need to tread carefully.

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If the famous Kill Bill track (‘Battle Without Honor Or Humanity’), Oasis’ ‘Fuckin’ In The Bushes’, and David Holmes’ Ocean’s Eleven accompaniment had a union in the aforementioned hedgerow, the resulting progeny could well be the emphatic thrust of Adam Gibbons’ ‘The Last Bastion OST’. Having previously operated under the name Lack Of Afro, this record called for a different approach. The soundtrack to an imaginary film, the premise allows Gibbons to rattle through a full box of tricks.

Opener ‘Here We Go’ is perilously close to pastiche but it is done with such clear enthusiasm and excitement that it’s hard not to be swept along. ‘Getting Intimate’ does exactly what you’d expect, with swooning strings arriving at a delicate conclusion. And, here’s a little experiment for you. Imagine the sound of a track called ‘Tooling Up’ in your head right now. You’re right, I just know you are. Available as a red GZ vinyl pressing, it’s pretty quiet and sounds solid if a little busy at times. A quirky curio which is worth sampling prior to purchase.

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Forty-nine years on from his debut, and six after his last, Jackson Browne returns with ‘Downhill From Everywhere’. Such a lengthy timeframe means that this isn’t another lockdown record, capturing a sparkling chemistry between a joyously tight band on songs about inclusion and personal understanding. Likely a name you’ll recognise without necessarily owning a stack of his records, 1977’s ‘Running On Empty’ perhaps the one to make it through, his run on the Asylum label is well worth exploring. Although his current lyrics tackle entirely predictable world issues, Browne’s music has grown with him and there’s no desire to try and sustain the illusion of youth. While no great departure from what’s gone before, it is a fine sounding album and a very well assembled vinyl package.

The distinctive cover, featuring a shot from Edward Burtynsky’s ‘Shipbreaking’ series, is perfect for the size afforded it by this format, while the discs held within the pleasingly sturdy gatefold are pressed through Pallas and have a bewitching control of the bass and drum sound. This is best demonstrated on the ebb and flow of ‘Until Justice Is Real’ and the skittering percussion of ‘The Dreamer’.

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Demon Music’s middle aged men making compilations department has struck gold twice this month, with the extension of series from Gary Crowley and Eddie Piller. Legendary BBC DJ and gleefully infectious enthusiast Crowley, returns to his ‘Lost 80s’ endeavour, digging out more gems from a decade whose musical history has been somewhat sanitised over the years. Some artists will be more familiar than others, but part of the joy of these two discs is getting that sense of absorbing a very carefully assembled compilation whose creator knows exactly how many risks can be taken without losing the listener. The Style Council, Altered Images and Fine Young Cannibals rub shoulders with the short-lived Wide Boy Awake and The Higsons, the oft-mentioned but less played early band of legendary comedy writer Charlie Higson. Mastered at Alchemy and pressed to clear vinyl by GZ, this vinyl edition offers a pretty pleasing platform for a fascinating selection.

The second compiler returning to a well-received concept is Eddie Piller, who delivers another 27 tracks culled from the 92 songs on the initial 4CD set of ‘The Mod Revival’. Volume 1 of the vinyl edition accompanied that more substantial but smaller disced release last year and it was so well received that a further selection has made it to red and blue wax. Plucked from a considerable range of sources, the audio quality understandably fluctuates a little but the discs themselves – GZ again – are fairly quiet and allow the listener to get lost in the atmosphere so well crafted by Piller. The line from Inspiral Carpets to Ocean Colour Scene is made clear, while Daggermen’s ‘Ivor The Engine Driver’ sounds more like an old garage recording rather than a mid-Eighties indie-soul strut. If you liked the first set, this will give many more of the same thrills.

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Surely, the decisions around vinyl variants of Laura Mvula’s Mercury Prize nominated and long-awaited third studio album ‘Pink Noise’ would be a no-brainer? Yes, you guessed it, they opted for a translucent orange limited edition. And a picture disc. To be fair, there is also a translucent pink pressing fairly readily available so I should probably dial down my snark. Mvula’s story – dropped by Sony despite Mercury Prize nominations and an Ivor Novello award and then picked up by Atlantic Records – is quite something and ‘Pink Noise’ is a real statement.

Awash with Eighties synths and rhythmic shifts evoking Michael Jackson in his pomp, these ten tracks are meticulously crafted and consistently excellent. There’s no filler here, such is the sense of a new era being embarked upon. Indeed, the noise sometimes feel more purple than pink, such is Mvula’s evident love of Prince. Amongst nods to ‘Off The Wall’ and ‘Kiss’ comes a guest appearance from Biffy Clyro’s Simon Neil which works better than logic suggests it should. Electronic pop isn’t always well served by modern pressings, but this has been done right via Optimal and the soundstage is full and the bottom end very carefully controlled.

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On their 2018 debut record as Lump, Mike Lindsay and Laura Marling demonstrated a promising interplay over a small but appealing collection of songs. It arrived with minimal fanfare, charmed pretty much all who heard it and then normal business for each resumed. Lindsay’s Tunng put out the magnificent ‘Songs You Make At Night’ followed by a multi-media project about death. Marling released 2020’s early-lockdown surprise ‘Songs For Our Daughter’, one of her very best.

And yet, Lump returns and this time it feels more substantial, built around a cohesive and beguiling body of work. The methodology, as Marling again intones over the final moments, remains the same: Lindsay conjures soundscapes ready for some lyrical and melodic inspiration to strike his collaborator. That it works this well speaks to the magic of what the project does for each artist, Marling often sounding completely unlike she does on her solo records. The mantra of the title track is compelling if a little unsettling, while Metronomy fans will likely enjoy the burbling layers of ‘Paradise’. The woozy, wonky closer ‘Phantom Limb’ might well be their finest moment to date, but there’s plenty to choose from here.

There are several vinyl editions available, including a deluxe set with extra art and a die-cut sleeve. Thankfully the disc in that edition is black, although for this column we sampled the indies exclusive edition which looks like someone dropped a dollop of wet plaster onto an aquarium. ‘Turquoise and white swirl’ apparently, and presumably linked to the artwork. Cut by Barry Grint at Alchemy and pressed at Optimal, the sonics are excellent. There were a few clicks and pops here and there, even after a clean, but it seems logical to deduce that this particular variant might be more prone to a little noise than others.

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Fans of Friday night Top Of The Pops repeats will have recently experienced Jim Bob in his role as frontman of Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine at the turn of the Nineties. Despite several reunion tours, said device turned out to be arrestable and he has a lengthy solo career to his name also. The latest addition to which is ‘Who Do We Hate Today’, hot on the heels of 2020’s well-received if less well-titled ‘Pop Up Jim Bob’. As the name of this new release indicates, many of the lyrics take a satirical swing at modern life with a marginally more languid delivery than in his USM days.

‘Shona Is Dating A Drunk, Woman-Hating Neanderthal Man’ is perhaps a little too on the nose but those wanting to try and uncover light in the dark of the past eighteen months will likely find themselves smiling at ‘The Summer Of No Touching’. The song’s narrator is drawn from the gargantuan pool of internet conspiracy theorists, stating “I get my facts from whatever David Icke says and from old rock stars from the 1990s.” This DMM cut via Takt could be a little quieter but it sounds solid and, rather amusingly for an album concerned with the imminent demise of civilisation as we know it, the gatefold sleeve contains a full size, glossy 2022 calendar using the record’s artwork. Bravo.

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The notion of a fully completed but ultimately unreleased 2010 album from an artist no longer around to approve or veto its release is not one that instantly inspires faith. The obvious questions around its initial residence in the vault need early answers, especially given that the artist in question, Prince, delivered a vast array of not always excellent late-period records. However, ‘Welcome 2 America’ is, quite simply, brilliant. From its artwork on in, it is a very, very good album. It even has a brilliant etching and vinyl etchings are almost uniformly utter shite. Honestly, the fourth side is a piece of art in itself.

While the state of the nation feel to many of the lyrics ends up a little dated thanks to its lengthy route to his fans, he still manages to reference Google without doing a Kasabian and making me want to vomit my entire soul out through my eyeballs. This record has summer coursing through its veins, ‘Running Game (Son Of A Slave Master)’ comments on the machinations of the music industry over effortlessly light guitar licks, while ‘Yes’ would make a perfect, bombastic live set-opener. There are shifts in pace and tone, but ‘Welcome 2 America’ is a fairly upbeat and uncharacteristically concise set.

On top of everything else, this record has been beautifully mastered by Bernie Grundman and cut to vinyl with its dynamics fully intact. It’s hard to imagine that having been the case if it had been released when it was made, given the relatively recent retreat from the battlegrounds of the loudness wars. A largely quiet MPO double disc pressing: this, unlike his other work from that year which was given away free with a newspaper, is a keeper.

Bristolian Yolanda Quartey, now better known as Yola, may have previously caught your attention during her time in Phantom Limb a decade or so ago and she also leant her vocals to work with Bugz In The Attic and Massive Attack. However, her solo career is elevating her to deserved greater heights. 2019’s ‘Walk Through Fire’ is a phenomenal burst of Memphis-powered soul with an embarrassment of melody that is driven by Yola’s staggering voice. It was one of my records of that year and I never miss a chance to recommend it to people – so consider that done.

The 2021 follow up is entitled ‘Stand For Myself’ and picks up where that sensational debut left off. Produced again by The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, these twelve tracks mix heartache and vibrant heartbeats deftly. The stately ‘Great Divide’ swings with oomph, gradually ascending to a gospel high while ‘Whatever You Want’ has a nagging country rock charm. The true highlight is ‘Dancing Away In Tears’, with its burbling Seventies synths and triumphant falsetto chorus. The vinyl is done right, a little spot varnish on the cover an endearing touch, while the disc inside has been pressed in Germany through Pallas from a lacquer cut by Ryan Smith at Sterling Sound. Several different colours are available but what really matters is that the music can be cranked up and fully enjoyed.

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Going Round Again:

It is rather fitting that some of Matt Berry’s earlier albums are getting the reissue treatment from Acid Jazz, given that even when they were brand new they already felt like remarkable discoveries from the turn of the Seventies that had been dug out of storage by a lucky collector. His unashamed embracing of the sound and recording methods of bygone eras has often made his music a joyous and direct feelgood hit for the listener. While he has also pursued more experimental diversions at times, his catalogue has largely been rooted in sweeping, psychedelic, melodic folk-pop. Two of his best have been out of print for some time so it is pleasing to see them returning to the racks at a reasonable price.

First up is 2011’s ‘Witchazel’ which is now available on caramel – if you say so – coloured vinyl. ‘A Song For Rosie’ is awash with enveloping acoustic guitars, a winningly archaic lyric and a vocal style that still hasn’t quite fully marked the distinction between Berry the musician and Berry the whimsical voiceover artist. ‘Rain Came Down’ slinks about for two minutes before ramping up the synths and noodling off into altogether more confusing territory with a not-quite-who-you-think-it-is special guest. It’s a largely quiet GZ cut which does a fine job of delivering this curious album.

The same approach has also been taken with a bottle green edition of 2013’s follow up, ‘Kill The Wolf’, arguably Berry’s finest to date. As idyllic a soundtrack for late August evenings as one can imagine, it nods to the legacy of the British folk scene of the mid-twentieth century whilst dabbling lightly with prog on occasion. It seems impossible that opener ‘Gather Up’ is not a cover, while the lyrical fiddle of ‘Devil Inside Me’ leaps from the speakers. And then there’s ‘Medicine’, a song so catchy it’s hard to be certain you weren’t somehow already singing along during its first chorus. The choice of colour is reasonably fitting given the shades of the album’s artwork, but this is all about the music. Catch it before these join the original copies as highly sought after items.

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It is becoming increasingly hard not to take the PJ Harvey reissue programme for granted, so consistently excellent and dependably frequent are its additions. The latest release is one without an accompanying demos album, her second full collaboration with John Parish: 2009’s ‘A Woman A Man Walked By’. While it might not be anyone’s favourite from her sizeable catalogue, it is proving genuinely fascinating to revisit it all in order but at pace. The slightly looser feel to this material, following last month’s ‘White Chalk’, doesn’t remove the potency of the lyrics.

‘Passionless, Pointless’ is still utterly beguiling, woozy tones setting a tense scene behind the story of a disintegrating relationship: “you slept facing the wall and you wanted less than I wanted.” The mastering for this edition is, as ever, wonderful. Done by John Dent at Loud and then pressed at Optimal, it is noticeably cleaner and quieter than the GZ-crafted original. However, the packaging and design of that twelve year old copy are replicated perfectly and this may well prompt a little re-evaluation of an album which has often been gently dismissed.

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This month’s indie exhumation from Demon Records focuses upon the early years of The Bluetones. Alongside a fairly substantial CD box set collecting all sorts of recordings from the time of their first two albums come the respective vinyl reissues. Most intriguing is the 3LP box set of sterling debut ‘Expecting To Fly’, now extended with an extra disc of accompanying non-album singles and B Sides plus a first vinyl outing for 2007’s ‘The Early Garage Years’ compilation. This latter set brilliantly captures the ramshackle energy and potential of a band about to break through, while the mopping up of the former affords the glorious ‘Marblehead Johnson’ its rightful position amongst these songs.

The sound is clearly digital cut to vinyl and is solid but unspectacular. It’s a bit of a shame, as the main album really soars on the original pressing and this comparison is fairly stark when played next to each other. The sturdy outer box is appealing but the discs are only housed in single, printed paper sleeves inside and so it’s not quite as luxurious as you might hope. Blue (see what they did there) discs pressed at GZ, they’re prone to some surface noise here and there. With a little perseverance, this column would imagine you could ensure an acceptably quiet set if you’re willing to take the time.

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Reissues of solo Beatle records are a regular and often splendid occurrence, whether as part of the Paul McCartney Archive series or the recently commenced Lennon super deluxe boxes. Four years on from a marvellous but costly vinyl programme covering George Harrison’s entire catalogue, it’s time for the fiftieth anniversary edition of ‘All Things Must Pass’, curiously marking five decades since it had been out for a year. As you do. Or it might have just been delayed from 2020 by Covid.

Alongside the standard 2CD, deluxe 3CD and super deluxe 5CD/Blu Ray editions are an array of vinyl versions, with all formats trumpeting a fresh remix of the main album. As well as a conventional 3LP box, you can get the same on green splatter, a 5LP box which adds a selection of the demo material or an 8LP box containing all of the extra material and a rather lovely hardback book. Oh, and don’t forget the ‘uber deluxe’ edition with all the discs, replica figurines from the cover art and some of Harrison’s wood.

All of which is mere preamble en route to evaluating the pressings and sound quality. The new mix, by Paul Hicks - who has worked on the Lennon reissues - and Harrison’s son Dhani is proving understandably divisive. Many had erroneously attributed the original album’s sound solely to Phil Spector and expected this version to remove much of that distinctive wall of sound. However, the artist also had plenty of involvement at the time and this new mix falls between two stools. Bass is smeary and uncontrolled, blurring much of the soundstage, while the high end also feels firmly neutered.

Certain elements, including the vocals, are drawn out for clarity but many of the bigger tracks lose their way. The pairing of ‘My Sweet Lord’ and ‘Wah-Wah’ is an effective demonstration of this situation. The former feels leaden while the latter lacks the ragged, airy edges of its glorious sonic onslaught of old. It’s an interesting way to revisit and explore the record but it’s hard to imagine it exciting listeners more than what was there before. Play this new edition next to the 2017 cut of the original mix and there are no ambiguities.

As for the pressings, every variant has come via GZ and discs are housed in poly-lined sleeves. They are DMM cuts which have, apparently, been done at Abbey Road even though there are no runout markings to denote it. While it seems unlikely that anyone was deliberately avoiding association with this work, the curiously bloated sound largely transfers the effects of the new mix to the old format. You can feel the bass more than you hear it, even via the turntable, and no amount of tinkering could elevate the impact for this column. The 8LP set is undeniably a pleasingly tactile experience, while the 3LP set is faithful in its packaging. However, those looking for sonic perfection should head elsewhere.

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The chronologically averse Travis reissue campaign next alights upon 2007’s underrated ‘The Boy With No Name’. Although it emerged as their turn-of-the-millennium stock was on the slide, the songwriting was incredibly strong, including one of the band’s very finest songs in early single ‘Closer’. Unfurling slowly with sparingly used strings and layers of beautiful backing vocals, it is a hidden gem in their often affecting back catalogue. Add in some tremendous lyrics for ‘Selfish Jean’, nimble bass on ‘Big Chair’ and the shimmering chorus of ‘Colder’ and there’s much to love here.

It compares very favourably with the original pressing, which wasn’t the quietest disc. Artwork has been recreated pretty faithfully, with only a slightly warmer tone discernible. The lacquer was cut by Mike Hillier at Metropolis and it sounds open and balanced. It is different to the sonics of that 2007 edition which was cut by Miles Showell, but equally successful. It certainly does justice to this magnificent album which is ripe for rediscovery. Just like the original, it has been pressed at GZ and comes with a bonus 7” featuring the additional track ‘Sailing Away’. The glossy printed inner means it will benefit from a clean before playback, but our copy had minimal surface noise and the whole package is highly recommended.

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At The Front Of The Racks:

We have lauded superlative reissue label Be With Records in this column previously but they have truly knocked the proverbial ‘it’ right out of the figurative park with their latest selection. Lewis Taylor’s self-titled 1996 debut is a piece of buried modern soul treasure, adored by those who know it but far less well known than it really should be. With a heavy, often guitar-led atmosphere, this psychedelic triumph has shades of Womack, Prince and D’Angelo but it is never in anyone else’s shadow. It’s hard to capture its magic in a few sentences and, if it’s new to you, the best thing to do right now is sample opening track ‘Lucky’. If you haven’t ordered it before its six and a half minutes are up, I’ll be surprised.

The original, single disc vinyl release is none too shabby but it is tricky to track down and costly if you have the good fortune to find it. For its first outing on the format in twenty-five years, Be With have opted to spread this magical music out over four sides. As ever, they have pressed via Record Industry in the Netherlands and it subsequently sounds excellent. Near silent playback benefits an open and precise soundstage. No doubt as a result of the increased groove space, bass is more pronounced on this edition and takes a little getting used to at points. Don’t sleep on a reissue which is sure to become as costly as an original a few years from now.

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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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