Just Played: A Column About Vinyl Records #19

Just Played: A Column About Vinyl Records #19

Our monthly look at the vinyl marketplace...

Regular readers will no doubt be comforted by how many publications have recently picked up on issues around vinyl manufacturing, both in terms of timeframe and quality control. It seems that such concerns are becoming rather less niche as delays mount and labels are routinely having to adopt a digital first, physical later strategy.

Don’t be surprised to see increasing numbers of limited cassettes and deluxe CD editions in the tricky months ahead. The excessive demand for the already-at-capacity plants continues to make vinyl purchasing a bit of a minefield right now, so sit back and let Just Played sift through plenty of the current crop for you.

Freshly Pressed:

Saint Etienne’s latest, ‘I’ve Been Trying To Tell You’ is something of a departure from their more recent releases, opting to fully submerge themselves in the bleary pop landscape of several decades ago. Using samples that populated daytime radio during the New Labour era, they paint watercolour washes of times gone by. A woozy, lulling capacity to both ensnare and slightly unsettle the listener makes for a unique record that gradually reveals its charms. The initial uncertainty needs to be ridden out, a process eased by watching the accompanying film of the same name which offers a nostalgic travelogue that glories in homespun beauty.

The murky sample of Natalie Imbruglia’s ‘Beauty On The Fire’ which loops through ‘Pond House’ appears to be emitted from a submerged radio – fitting considering the source material’s original video – while elements of the Lighthouse Family and Tasmin Archer may not be quite so obvious to all. From the striking artwork on in, PVC sleeve aside, this is an aesthetic delight. Demand coupled with the current pressing limitations met that, incredibly, different cuts were made via GZ, Optimal and Vinyl Factory. Having sampled the latter’s clear vinyl and Optimal’s black, this column would urge readers towards the second of those. The soundstage felt a little more controlled on that pressing and the clear version had a little bit more surface noise. Most striking, however, was the different space on each side used up, with Optimal favouring much more dead wax than The Vinyl Factory. Whichever variant attracts your cash, and there are a few, this record has true staying power. 

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After the wonderful songwriting of last year’s ‘Unfollow The Rules’, Rufus Wainwright has opted to release a live recording from a concert broadcast during the initial lockdown. Appending ‘The Paramour Sessions’ to its parent album’s title, it draws on those new songs along with several previously unreleased pieces - ‘Treat A Lady’ and ‘Happy Easter’ - and a stately but sparse take on ‘Going To A Town’.

It’s a captivating listen for Wainwright fans, offering some alternative angles from which to view these tracks. Strings are foregrounded with no drummer in sight. ‘Peaceful Afternoon’ is a good starting point if looking to compare these performances with the originals. A clear vinyl disc done through Precision Record Pressing in Canada - an outreach of GZ - it is largely quiet, if a little sibilant closer to the centre. An endearing distraction.

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While her brother opts for a pared down live performance, Martha Wainwright returns with her first studio album in five years, ‘Love Will be Reborn’. Her magnificent voice, rich but raspy, evokes PJ Harvey on ‘Getting Older’ and is offered only hushed support for the raw narrative of ‘Report Card’. With songs reflecting on grief and separation, these are lyrics that simply can’t pass you by. The vinyl cut is fairly dynamic and opens up the instrumentation pleasingly. It’s not the quietest, however, suffering from light surface noise at times. The sleeve states that it was made in the UK, but it’s not entirely clear where. Our best guess would be Diamond Black, but this will have to go down as one of those rare ones that got away.

2018’s ‘Golden Hour’ took Kacey Musgraves to new heights, delivering a true pop breakthrough for the already established country artist. Its follow up, ‘Star-Crossed’, has been highly anticipated as a result and its recent arrival prompted much excitement and the inevitable split of opinions. As another of this month’s featured artists found, the cycle of expectation and disappointment is as strong in music reviewing as it ever was. Already tagged as a divorce album, lyrically exploring the good days and subsequent more problematic ones of a marriage, Musgraves’ latest is largely excellent. Early teaser track ‘Justified’ set a very high bar though.

From the muted intimacy of ‘Camera Roll’ to the auto-tuned reminiscences of ‘Good Wife’, the variety of textures that made its predecessor so appealing is still present and the white Pallas pressing this column sampled sounds wonderful. It’s heartening to see an undeniably mainstream release getting careful approach for this format and the fold out sleeve is an aesthetically pleasing decision. Purchase with confidence.

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As a long-standing Elvis Costello fan, I have come to expect all sorts of curious diversions, live projects and extended reissues. What few will have seen coming, however, is a full re-working of 1978’s storming ‘This Year’s Model’ sung in Spanish by a vast array of current performers atop the remixed and slightly reworked original instrumental masters. By ignoring the not inconsiderable ‘why?’ that hovers over this decision, listeners can enjoy a glorious burst of music that is somehow comfortingly unfamiliar.

Like one of those news stories where someone has a head injury and wakes up speaking a different language, these incredibly well known songs can play on many people’s internal jukeboxes without much effort and the mixing of old and new is a sensory spectacular. ‘(Yo No Quiero Ir A) Chelsea’ and ‘Detonantes’ are particular highlights, but I’ve been genuinely surprised how often I’ve returned to this disc. Manufactured by the still sharp folk at Record Industry, it’s a quiet pressing which sounds excellent. An accompanying remaster of the original ‘This Year’s Model’ has had the same treatment and is also highly recommended. Great fun all round.

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If the instrumental washes in the backdrop of the sublime King Creosote & Jon Hopkins records were to your liking, then a whole album of similarly pastoral ambience awaits with ‘Offworld’ by Cahill//Costello. Guitarist Kevin Daniel Cahill and drummer Graham Costello recorded this immersive, meditative music during a week in the Scottish Highlands last summer. The sounds of nature are evoked with eloquent percussion, while tape loops achieve a hypnotic intensity at times. Mastered and cut by Caspar Sutton-Jones from the peerless Gearbox Records, this Optimal press is as impressively quiet as this music demands.

As your correspondent’s recent review for Clash attested, the latest Manic Street Preachers album is a piano-driven triumph, dabbling in textures of the past and melancholy of the present. Featuring some of their finest songs in many a year, from deceptively buoyant recent single ‘The Secret He Had Missed’ to the gruff ache of ‘Blank Diary Entry’, featuring Mark Lanegan, it is a coherent and beguiling listen. There are a number of vinyl editions out, each playing their part in delivering the band’s first number one album in twenty-three years.

For those who can’t deal with the artwork in a square format, the picture disc edition lops of the corners, while those who find it all too colourful can go for a monochromatic alternative that is exclusive to HMV. A certain substantial online retailer has a yellow version while the far more endearing indies have an edition which contains a bonus 7” of initial teaser track ‘Orwellian’ and its remix by Gwenno. All are cut by Matt Colton at Metropolis and pressed at GZ. The very good news is that this is a much more open and pleasing master than was delivered for last year’s horrific reissue of ‘Gold Against The Soul’ and the music really breathes in this vinyl rendering. It’s the best the band have sounded on wax in an absolute age. The less splendid news is the hit and miss quality control. This column did manage to get an indies edition that cleaned up well and played mostly quietly, but a copy of the HMV edition proved to be scratched and noisy. Purchasers are having mixed experiences, so you may have to be patient to get a good one. Definitely worth the effort, though.

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High Llama Pete Aves has worked with the great and the good down the years, including Lee Hazlewood, Nina Persson and Shirley Collins. Five years on from his last solo effort, ‘Sweet Are The Uses’ features a tribute to a recent collaborator, the late Neil Innes. ‘Muck & Bullets’, the record’s closing track, was one of Innes’ preferred phrases and Aves’ tender vocal affirms his fondness for the legendary Rutle.

Elsewhere on this largely quiet GZ cut, there are strong echoes of Bill Fay’s excellent pair of Deram albums from the early Seventies, take ‘Plenty More Fish In C’ as a particular example. ‘One Hit Wonder Why’ has a belting chorus and winningly wry lyrics, flitting between swaggering riff-rock and aggressively double-tracked spoken word verses. While that is an immediate treat, the album as a whole is a real grower. Free CD with the vinyl too – bargain.

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While a new album from Toyah may not be headline news these days, the good folk at Demon Records have confidently delivered a ‘Space-Grey’ vinyl edition of her latest set, ‘Posh Pop’, and there’s much to enjoy here. The influence of David Bowie abounds, evoking the sounds of ‘Scary Monsters’, ‘The Next Day’ and ‘Blackstar’ at various points. The songs are strong and hooky, Toyah’s voice in fine form as she continues the crowd-pleasing run of form that was so loved during her lockdown videos with husband Robert Fripp. A GZ pressing, it is largely quiet with clearly defined bass and mids. It’s a little lacking in the top end but tracks like ‘Space Dance’ and ‘Barefoot On Mars’ can still impress.

Bristolian funk-soul hip-hop duo The Allergies have developed a loyal following over the past decade, including plenty of 6Music support and rapturous responses to feel-good festival sets. Their latest album ‘Promised Land’ feels slightly ill-served by an October release, so perfectly suited to a sunny day is its ethos. Pressed on translucent pink vinyl via Optimal, this cut has a magnificently precise bass sound and an open, spritely percussive soundstage.

Enhanced by a stash of deftly deployed samples and assisted by live regulars Andy Cooper and Marietta Smith, the core pair of DJ Moneyshot and Rackabeat really know how to build a mood. By the time ‘Move On Baby’ kicks in towards the end of side one, the urge to dance is irresistible. A largely quiet offering which presents a range of sources and layers with clarity and cohesion, this is a little gem to light up the autumn gloom.

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No serious record collection is without at least a few remarkable Mr Bongo reissues. Long established as one of the finest labels for dusting off classic funk, soul and jazz, they also put out new projects and two such titles have just made it into the racks this month. The first, ‘The Globeflower Masters Vol 1’ by Glenn Fallows and Mark Treffel wouldn’t sound out of place alongside some of those vintage triumphs. Taking its cues from Axelrod, Gainsbourg and Morricone amongst others, it has a lavish instrumental library music feel that is pretty immediately inviting. The keys on the record defy gravity, melting in the air before you. If those influences appeal, be sure to give it a listen; ‘Scene In Roma’ is as good a place as any to dip in. Mastered at Finyl Tweek and pressed at Optimal, the vinyl sounds excellent despite the copy we played being very marginally off-centre.

The second new Mr Bongo title is technically a reissue, giving a wider audience to a 2020 College Of Knowledge release by The Pro-Teens’, ‘I Flip My Life Every Time I Fly’. Hailing from Melbourne, this mysterious group features numerous local musicians under slightly grating pseudonyms. Get past the wilfully unrepresentative sleeve and playful nomenclature and you’re left with an infectious, soulful hip-hop record. From Mildlife to Curtis Mayfield, these tracks tap into a rich continuum of trippy funk. ‘Ya Gotta Love This City’ feels like the soundtrack to a lopsided car chase, while ‘Greta Thunberg’ languidly builds upon a stuttering rhythm with some woozy synths. As with Fallows & Treffel, this is a great sounding Optimal pressing and well worth seeking out now that Mr Bongo have given it a wider outing.

While the arrival of the new Lorde record was met with the entirely predictable wave of thinkpieces about how she hadn’t made the album that many felt they deserved, most people missed the marketing initiative that, with a little work, could be the key to solving the vinyl production. The ‘discless format’ of ‘Solar Power’ was some printed matter and a high-resolution download of the music packaged in a cardboard box rather than, apparently, adding to the CD landfill of the future. Well, a similar logic applied to a 12x12 sleeve could spare some pressing plants their current blushes. Like a picture disc without the bits of plastic either side of the paper middle, perhaps. Anyway, we probably shouldn’t give them any ideas.

Despite it also being fairly harmful for the environment, Lorde pressed ahead with several vinyl editions of the album. Orange, grey and blue marble are all out there, but your correspondent opted for the standard black. Pressed at Optimal, the cut allows the vocals to really breathe while the acoustic layers that dominate are resonant and, vinyl cliché alert, warm. Sorry. The textures of ‘California’ are superbly rendered across the soundstage and those still hoping to connect with the record after unsatisfying streaming experiences are advised to let their cartridge lose on this format.

Snap, Crackle & Pop:

As this column has developed, more and more readers have reached out to share their experiences and to ask about specific titles. More than any other before it, the new vinyl edition of Supergrass’ ‘In It For The Money’ has really got people talking. Sadly, I can only confirm what so many have been saying about this LP + 12” set. With many fans having waited years for this high point in the band’s history to finally be back on wax, it is such a shame to drop the stylus on this effort.

The surface noise is fairly constant on the copy Just Played received. It’s a Takt cut which, even after a thorough clean, suffers from frequent crackling, sometimes proving very distracting from the music. And that’s the other issue. Whatever has happened with this latest remaster, there is bass bloat and a lack of dynamic range which makes for a very boomy and fatiguing listen.

The original is no slouch and certainly fast out of the speakers, but it stays nimble and distinct. While some instruments, mainly at the high end, remain precise in this cut, much of the middle range sounds like it’s coming through the wall. It’s an odd listen, with some tracks faring better than others. ‘You Can See Me’ still keeps some punch but ‘Richard III’ is a blunt, ugly noise. The bonus 12” is entirely inessential but the attempt to recreate the textured sleeve is reasonably successful. The 3CD mastering is also quite harsh, meaning that this hugely anticipated reissue is best avoided. So frustrating.

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Going Round Again:

The ongoing programme of Super Furry Animals remasters is one of life’s great delights. Meticulous work on the tapes from Kliph Scurlock has previously delivered glorious soundstages for their first four studio albums and it is now the turn of 2001’s ‘Rings Around The World’, one of their most in demand titles on vinyl. Arguably, the best way to consume this series is via the beautiful CD editions, however, which are well mastered and stuffed with previously unheard bonus material.

The vinyl versions use the new masters but haven’t always been the best pressings. After a diversion to Takt for ‘Guerrilla’, BMG return to GZ for this one. Frustratingly, the discs are housed in the glossy printed paper sleeves which have a habit of leaving paper and glue residue on the discs. After a good clean up, the copy Just Played received sounded fairly quiet and allowed Scurlock’s work to shine, the near title track a particular highlight, but we’re aware of people having issues with noise and edge-warping. - As ever with this type of GZ pressing, you might need to mix and match a couple of copies to get a good set. There’s no bonus 7” like the original, largely superfluous as it was, and side C no longer plays from the inside out. Ultimately, the sound is what matters and, provided you can navigate around the pressing flaws, it’s great.

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The stellar work of the Needle Mythology label has featured in this column before thanks to a combination of exquisite taste and meticulous attention to detail. Such is the case with the reissue of 1995’s ‘Heartworm’ by Whipping Boy. The second of three albums by the Irish rock band, it is widely regarded as their peak. While plenty of the riffs could only have originated in the Nineties, some of the orchestral touches and bombastic layers elevate these songs beyond any particular scene. Start with ‘When We Were Young’ and you’ll surely be back for more, even though the music-buying public weren’t entirely convinced upon its original release, landing once everything was over-saturated and lacking subtlety.

The textures here are nuanced and often dark. It’s an affecting record that will likely find legions of new admirers through this labour of love. The new edition, having licensed everything from Sony, has been remastered by Sean Magee at Abbey Road and features ten additional tracks, comprising demos and b-sides. It sounds predictably fantastic but, such was the excitement from the hardcore at this long-anticipated moment in the spotlight, the vinyl sold out pretty much instantly. However, a repress is on the way. Thanks to current circumstances, it should with you by mid-December. Don’t miss it again.

Long-time readers will be aware of the Travis reissue programme and its latest instalment is possibly the finest to date. Once again cut at Metropolis and pressed via GZ, Craft’s new edition of ‘12 Memories’ sounds fantastic. The bottom end is vivid and defined, letting tracks like ‘The Beautiful Occupation’ and ‘Walking Down The Hill’ breathe in a way that anyone only previously familiar with the digital release will find pretty transformative.

Artwork holds up well against its initial incarnation, although there’s a switch from matt to gloss effect. Although there is a white pressing, this column played the regular black vinyl and it was fairly quiet throughout. Still potent first single ‘Re-Offender’ is a taut and involving listen here, with none of that rather smeary bass it has suffered with in the past. Sonically, this edition holds up well alongside its 2003 release, possibly even surpassing it at points. Still not sure about calling a song ‘Peace The Fuck Out’, mind.

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Listening to Miles Showell’s remarkable half-speed cut of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, it makes perfect sense that Matt Berry was a huge fan of this record growing up. Its Seventies folk-rock bombast, mixed with show-tune primary colours, certainly formed part of the palette from which he has painted his wonderful solo career. His love for this rock opera which, of course, spawned the musical, has helped to ensure a deluxe box set and a vinyl reissue to mark its fiftieth-ish anniversary.

With the involvement of writers Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, a full-bodied remaster has managed to maintain the bottom end sound of records from this era and the Abbey Road kit has ensured a sonic marvel. While it may not be an obvious choice, nor an obvious turntable resident for most, it’s a hugely enjoyable listen. There is an online label store exclusive replica edition of the 2LP set which impressively recreates the original fold out sleeve in all of its glorious detail. A mostly very quiet Optimal pressing, it could be a leftfield highlight of your vinyl purchasing year.

The mid-Noughties were awash with ‘The’ bands, all following the definite article with a plural noun when seeking a name. Some of them have aged better than others. Curiously, if you had asked me my thoughts before playing the fifteenth anniversary edition of The Kooks’ ‘Inside In / Inside Out’, I would have recalled it as buoyant, serviceable and occasionally joyous indie pop. From a distance, though, it all feels quite tame now. It’s hard to put your finger on quite why it seems a little thin, but some pretty splendid choruses remain.

This double LP edition is pressed at Optimal and is available in standard black or limited edition red, depending on your persuasion. Playback is largely quiet and the mastering definitely feels more open than on a 2016 cut, although it still feels lacking in bottom end. This is presumably just a case of reflecting the original recording and fans wanting a decent playing copy will be pleased. Things get a little boxed in towards the end of each side and the bonus disc is a curiously sequenced mix of demos, alternative takes and b-sides. Not revelatory, but a marked improvement on the last round of reissues.

At The Front Of The Racks:

With all of the current quality control issues surrounding this beloved format, it is an increasingly common fear that a cherished album won’t receive the vinyl treatment you feel it deserves. Thankfully, every so often, the stars align and something really special lands on your turntable. Such is the case with Domino’s Optimal pressing of the new Villagers album, ‘Fever Dreams’. A sonic tour de force with a keen awareness of the importance of dynamics, it finds Conor O’Brien at his most soulful and it was always going to be quite a demanding album to transfer to vinyl.

The challenge has been met on this glorious pressing, cut at Metropolis. Just Played received the Dinked edition on blue vinyl and with an accompanying flexi-disc, but there are also yellow, red, green and mint variants available alongside a standard black. Whatever colour takes your fancy, it’s the sound that will blow you away. The gradual build of ‘The First Day’ is spellbinding in this format, making it clear early on that this is music which makes the speakers disappear and takes up its own distinct 3D shape in the room before you. The soulful connection of ‘So Simptico’ is rather moving and ‘Fever Dreams’ is as good an argument for why digital recordings cut to vinyl can still be a true delight as anything you’ll find. This is demo standard stuff and a quite sincerely essential purchase.

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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.

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Words: Gareth James (For more vinyl reviews and turntable shots, follow @JustPlayed on Twitter)

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