Just Played: A Column About Vinyl Records #20

Just Played: A Column About Vinyl Records #20

Your regular guide to the vinyl marketplace...

As we begin the run in to the festive season, new releases are a little thinner on the ground and the spangly deluxe sets are starting to put in an appearance. The delays for vinyl pressings keep coming and uncertain times lie ahead, most notably for the smaller labels. Now, more than ever, it’s important to pay for the music that matters most to us.

With that in mind, it helps to know which titles are worth the outlay, right? Allow us…

Freshly Pressed:

There were those in the otherwise always entirely positive Twitter universe who raised a few eyebrows when Coldplay announced their new album with a relatively short lead time prior to physical copies appearing on shelves. It should be said, labels are booking slots months in advance and allocating according to their priorities, so there’s no evidence of subterfuge here. Perhaps of more interest was the news that ‘Music Of The Spheres’ would be pressed on recycled vinyl, using offcuts of varying hues to produce a sort of ‘infant after five minutes with a set of paints’ colour. Having seen several, the effect is rather underwhelming but, unusually for coloured vinyl, it’s not about what it looks like.

The recycling doesn’t stop there, with chants of ‘olé olé, olé olé, Coldplay, Coldplay’ worked into ‘Infinity Sign’, a track which apparently attempts to imagine what a festival on another planet might sound like. Quite. I’ve long since made my peace with the band and their unashamedly feel good crowd-pleasing knack for unifying melodies, but this is a strange album. ‘Higher Power’ still stands up amongst company and BTS have served their purpose in delivering global number one positions, but this record rings hollow to about the same extent that ‘Ghost Stories’ felt endearingly sincere. It’s an Optimal pressing which sounds pretty good. The first copy we tried was warped and a little noisy, but a second was flat and largely quiet. The cut is as open as you’re likely to get such polished songs to sound and the die cut sleeve is lovely. Musically inessential, sadly.

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The official bootleg series is a long-running and often-rewarding project for Bob Dylan fans, unearthing all sorts from a catalogue that is already pretty substantial. Vinyl editions have varied, with different quantities from the super deluxe CD sets making it to the twelve inches. This time around, there’s a standard double LP edition plus a Third Man Records box which pretty much divide the contents of the more compact-sized set between them. Completists will be a little frustrated but the more casual fan should find much to enjoy in the svelte highlights collection of ‘Springtime In New York: The Bootleg Series Volume 16: 1980-1985’.

With a beautiful fold-out sleeve, wide-spine, spot-varnish and 28 page luxurious booklet, the production values are high end and the sound of the Sterling cut and MPO pressed vinyl is excellent. A very minor patch of non-fill noise on side 4 aside, the copy Just Played experienced was pretty much silent. Centred around 1983’s ‘Infidels’, it captures a period where Dylan began to agonise over the relevance of his sound, just like so many other established artists in that tricky decade. As the opening track - an alternate take of ‘Jokerman’ – demonstrates, the overdubs weren’t always wise and there’s plenty of magic in these glimpses of a different path.

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Perhaps the most high-profile example of the increasingly common ‘digital-first / vinyl eventually’ strategy that current limitations are forcing upon labels, Taylor Swift’s first release in her series of re-recordings, ‘Fearless (Taylor’s Version)’, finally gets a 3LP pressing. The discs are, quite loosely, gold coloured and the pages of the CD artwork are tiled disappointingly on the inside of the triple gatefold sleeve. But how does it sound?

Well, by now you’re probably well aware that the recordings are pretty faithful, but there’s some suitably intriguing bonus material included to take this to six sides. The pressing itself is cut at Sterling and done through Optimal. With only a few bursts of minor surface noise, it was a marked improvement on the ‘folklore’ and ‘evermore’ vinyl editions and hopefully a sign of things to come for the rest of this project, given ‘Red’ is due next month. ‘Love Story’ still sounds magical, even with a little of its original naivety transformed into a richer tone. Pricey, but very well done.

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Those primarily familiar with Yann Tiersen for his early Noughties soundtrack work may be a little surprised by his latest studio outing, which has more than a little of the Erased Tapes feel to it, despite being released by the lovely folk at Mute. If reverb washed soundscapes, flicks of percussion and a little light transcendence is your sort of thing, then ‘Kerber’ could well be for you.

These seven pieces require a good pressing and the black vinyl Optimal cut that we played was near silent over both sides. The space around the sounds at the start of ‘Ar Maner Kozh’ is delicately sculpted before the listener, opening up a soundstage which remains dynamic and defined throughout. The title track is a multi-act triumph, pitting emphatic, cascading piano against glitchy noises. Field recordings play their part here and across an album which offers balm as the weather turns hostile.

It has been quite a while since the last standard studio release from Efterklang. Nine years on from ‘Piramida’, have they still got it? The answer is a resolute yes, with an especially strong side A on ‘Windflowers’, their first for City Slang. Casper Clausen’s often mournful but irresistible vocals float out of these songs, a very welcome old friend. ‘Hold Me Close When You Can’ will also draw in old Bon Iver fans feeling a little left-behind, while admirers of Justin Vernon’s more recent work will enjoy the delicate disco of ‘Dragonfly’.

It’s a clear vinyl edition in an impossibly glossy sleeve and with an accompanying lyric sheet. It is presumably pressed at Optimal, given City Slang’s preference, although it’s hard to be certain. It’s a largely quiet, fairly open sounding cut, keeping the high end in check during the shimmering electronic parts. It’s not ‘Magic Chairs’, but then not much is.

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Snap, Crackle & Pop:

Regular readers of this column will know how much we have enjoyed many of the recent mostly analogue Blue Note reissue series, both the Tone Poets and the Classics. While the former have Stoughton tip-on sleeves and are pressed at RTI, the latter are housed in standard sleeves and made at Optimal. Although the sound quality is excellent across the board, the prevailing concern around the Classics is about the frequent presence of non-fill on the discs. Jazzers across the world have noted the distinctive dashed white lines in the grooves of their copies and heard the tell-tale ripping noises when sitting back for an all-analogue delight. Why it is proving so common with this series is a mystery and good copies of each title do exist but, having tried Duke Pearson’s ‘Merry Ole Soul’ several times, they’re not always easy to find. The mastering and cutting of these releases remains superb, but this particular aspect of quality control is getting many fans justifiably exercised. Here’s hoping for a solution soon.

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Going Round Again:

Few musicians split opinion like Robbie Williams and the news that his first two albums would finally be making an appearance on vinyl was more ammunition for those dismayed about the current backlog. However, given it has been over twenty years since their original releases on CD and their role in establishing Williams as one of the defining figures of Nineties and early-Noughties pop, it might realistically be asked why hasn’t it been done sooner? Williams’ vinyl has largely been excellent down the years, with ‘Sing When You’re Winning’, ‘Escapology’ and ‘Intensive Care’ all sounding especially great.

“Life Thru A Lens’ and ‘I’ve Been Expecting You’ are both given the gatefold sleeve treatment, with artwork reproduced to a pleasingly high standard throughout. The vinyl cut appears to be done at GZ, who also pressed these, although the recent George Harrison reissues highlighted that some titles cut by Abbey Road – Geoff Pesche has created these vinyl masters there - don’t always have such info in the runout groove. After a clean to remove the white lines of doom where glue and paper fragments have been deposited on the disc, they play pretty quietly. The sound quality is reasonable given the compressed sources that were en vogue at the time. The soundstage is sharp around the edges but a little dense in the mid-range. A welcome arrival on vinyl, but not quite the tour de force they might have been. ‘No Regrets’ is still an absolute giant of a song, regardless.

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Ever since the deluxe, remixed reissues of The Beatles’ catalogue commenced with ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ in 2017 there has been a clamour for similarly plush vinyl sets to match their CD brethren. For 2018’s ‘The Beatles’ set, the Esher Demos were packaged with the main album is an aesthetically pleasing but far from complete edition and 2019’s ‘Abbey Road’ delivered all of the music on vinyl but lacked the enjoyably plush hardback book available elsewhere. Pleasingly, the fans’ cries have been heard and the ‘Let It Be’ set delivers exactly what has been requested.

A die-cut, glossy box houses 4LPs, a 12” EP and a 100 page 12x12 book that is arguably the definitive version of this expanded set, feeling rather more high-end than the CD equivalent. Featuring half-speed mastered vinyl cut by Miles Showell at Abbey Road, these Optimal pressings are each housed in poly-lined sleeves and then slipped into their own relevant artwork. The demos, out-takes and jams double disc collection allows for an alternative cover to be created using the apertures in the outer box, while a version of Glyn Johns’ 1969 mix of the abandoned ‘Get Back’, admittedly with a few 1970 snippets flown in, finally makes an official appearance on vinyl.

The sound is largely excellent, with barely a click across ten sides. The new remix of the main album by Giles Martin and Sam Okell fine tunes the soundstage, tames some of the Spector orchestration and generally adds a little body to the mid-range without bloating the listening experience. While a little brighter, ‘Get Back’ is a fascinating disc to finally put upon the turntable. Offering a rough and ready document of the period that is soon to be massively expanded upon by the Peter Jackson series of the same name, it is a visceral, joyful and notably unvarnished perspective on the band’s dynamics. It’s not difficult to understand why it wasn’t released at the time, but in our contemporary quest for any and everything Beatles, it has much to offer.

The only slight downside is the ‘Let It Be EP’ which occupies the space in the box many had expected to be filled by the rooftop concert. Instead, new mixes of the single version of the title track and the oft-covered and still marvellous ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ take up one side, while Glyn Johns versions of ‘Across The Universe’ and ‘I Me Mine’ are on the other. This latter pair have more than a whiff of the bootleg about them, ‘I Me Mine’ in particular being awash with various intrusive noises which don’t allow for an especially pleasing listen.

However, this is minor nit-picking for what is a good example of what can be achieved when labels and project managers listen to feedback. Of course, there are hours and hours of recordings from that era which could have featured and CD listeners may have a point about the bonus discs being crafted with vinyl playback times in mind but, for this format at least, it is the highlight of an already greatly enjoyable reissue programme to date.

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Having had a snazzy blue edition for RSD in July, a standard black vinyl pressing of Ennio Morricone’s tremendous soundtrack to ‘The Blue-Eyed Bandit’, known as ‘Il Bandito Dagli Occhi Azzurri’, is a welcome addition to the racks. Atmospheric widescreen jazz is the not entirely predictable order of the day, composed mainly in 5/4 and fluctuating between the evocatively sinister and the stridently propulsive.

Pressed in Italy, although at which plant is anyone’s guess, this is a largely quiet disc with decent dynamics and a beguilingly open soundstage. Emphatic sleevenotes from Enrico Pieranunzi and Franco Nero complete a thoroughly enjoyable package. As the former notes, “never again would Maestro Morricone use the jazz language in the many soundtracks he subsequently composed.” In a world where we’re meant to be excited about already available reissues appearing in yet another new colour variant, this is a refreshingly vital and unusual dig into the mists of time.

The Spaceman Reissue Programme from Spiritualized reaches its fourth and final title with ‘Let It Come Down’. Just Played is especially fond of this album, finding its bombastic arrangements and orchestral decadence all very charming. While for a number of listeners it was something of a, forgive me, come down from the dizzying heights of ‘Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space’, for others it was a confessional, melodically melancholic explosion of songwriting which rewarded repeat listens. The original vinyl edition sounds wonderful and was always going to be a high bar against which to judge this new attempt.

Once again cut by Barry Grint at Alchemy, seemingly plated at Memphis Record Pressing and pressed to ivory coloured vinyl by GZ, this remastered version isn’t going to reduce the value of the original. The bass is especially bloated at points, making the more cacophonous moments feel like an onslaught rather than emotive outpourings. It serves to remind the listener that they are in the company of a manufactured product rather than being swept away with the artistic expression. This is music on a scale that should transport you, dissolve the speakers and get in your head. While there are still some moments, the overwhelming sense is that nuance takes a bit of a backseat to heft.

The artwork is excellent, repurposing the mould from the original limited edition CD case and the heavy duty cardboard sleeves are satisfyingly substantial. The audio quality, however, while not terrible is far from definitive and the regular issue of intermittent surface noise which has dogged this entire series is, sadly, once again present.

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This column previously featured the early releases by Precious Recordings Of London, a reissue label delivering deluxe 2x7” sets of carefully selected BBC Radio sessions, replete with new sleevenotes and arty postcards. Well, their fifth title, Blueboy’s John Peel Session from December 1994, is now available. An indie-pop act who knew their way around a cello, they were Sarah Records favourites whose debut album ‘If Wishes Were Horses’ is well worth seeking out.

These four tracks split neatly into two pairs. The first 7” contains the sparse beauty of ‘Toulouse’ and the never before released ‘Good News Week’. The second disc has the much more ragged jangle of ‘Dirty Mags’ and ‘Loony Tunes’, both uncannily evoking mid-nineties evenings on Radio 1. Pressed at GZ and with an accompanying lossless download, it’s another fine offering from Precious Recordings and a great sounding tribute to an oft-overlooked band and the DJ who championed them.

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This month’s Demon Records Nineties archive raid goes to Britpop also-rans Heavy Stereo. Fronted by Gem ‘latter phase Oasis and Beady Eye’ Archer, they only managed one studio album during a six year career which never quite saw any of their singles break into the Top 40. Indeed, ‘Déjà Voodoo’ itself only reached number 76, but it still has its admirers. They will be delighted with this dust off, which takes the form of a 2CD deluxe book edition containing B-sides and live tracks or a clear vinyl cut of the main record. - Manufactured by GZ, as ever, the sound is a little narrow and the top end focus of the times is only partially tamed here. At the glam end of the genre, the riffs are pure and simple and the vocals passionate if actually not a million miles away from Archer’s future bandmate Liam Gallagher during the lost years. ‘Chinese Burn’ best demonstrates this, while ‘Cartoon Moon’ is a little like The Boo Radleys covering the Super Furry Animals. It’s a nostalgia-fest with a winning glint in its eye. It’s a solid pressing but one imagines there’s only so much you can do with those masters.

There’s something quite heartening about the slightly bizarre festive Blondie and Fab 5 Freddy 12” release, ‘Yuletide Throwdown’. The original 1981 version, built round the same samples as ‘Rapture’ but at a more sedate pace, is included here, alongside a new Cut Chemist remix which is presented in its full length and edited form. Originally released as a free flexi-disc with a UK magazine, it has been remastered from the original tapes. It’s good fun but possibly not quite enough to warrant the £20 price tag. The artwork is delightful and the vinyl is a fairly quiet GZ cut available in vivid magenta or standard black.

An intriguing 12” curio from Metallica made it to Just Played’s turntable this month. The SebastiAn remix construction of ‘Don’t Tread On Else Matters’ merges parts of ‘Don’t Tread On Me’ and ‘Nothing Else Matters’ from 1991’s self-titled record, more commonly known as ‘The Black Album’. A limited pressing via MPO from Ed Banger Records, it’s a one-sided one track affair with a nifty if entirely ornamental etching on the flip. It serves as a teaser for the sizeable ‘Metallica Black List’ project which features many more collaborations and re-works of material from that album. The first phase has more than a nod to the sheer funk of side one of Bowie’s ‘Low’, while the latter stages add synth trumpets and glitchy beats. It’s bizarrely enjoyable if rather expensive for what it is.

At The Front Of The Racks:

Newcomers to the vinyl reissue game, Plastic Pop Records, have confidently announced themselves with a quarter of Sophie Ellis-Bextor titles, none of which have ever been on this format previously. The first three have now emerged and they are a real delight for fans of these excellent albums. The covers feature delicately deployed spot varnishing and the artwork is vividly replicated to an admirably high standard. This is what happens when true fans get the time and space to do something for the love of it. Given how many albums from this period never made it to vinyl, these reissues could act as the template for how to give many others a second life.

Incorporating colours from the original sleeve, ‘Read My Lips’ is on red, ‘Shoot From The Hip’ on white and ‘Trip The Light Fantastic’ is green. They are all made at GZ but Just Played witnessed no more than a handful of clicks over the twelve sides and the label talk proudly of their meticulous attention to detail when dealing with the pressing plant. Again, there’s a lesson in there for some.

But how do they sound? Pretty good, actually, especially given the era from which these recordings come. The top end is open and the bottom end is controlled, keeping the bass in check and avoiding the slightly smeary mid-range that can happen on such reissues. While it is, naturally, a delight to revisit singles like ‘Take Me Home’, ‘Mixed Up World’ and ‘I Won’t Change You’, it’s a particular pleasure to realise what an excellent, diverse and occasionally quite strange album ‘Trip The Light Fantastic’ is. The disco strings of ‘Me And My Imagination’ are joyous ,while the hiccupping shuffle of ‘If You Go’ feels particularly timeless.

The first pressing of the debut is long sold out, but a repress is due early next year. The other two have recently hits the shelves of your local indie and are highly recommended. In another sign of a quality label, their FAQ pointedly observes that they won’t ever stoke the flipper market by announcing pressing numbers or describing items as limited editions. If there’s a demand, they’ll press it. How we’ve ended up at a point where that seems a novel idea, we’ll never know. Keep an eye on Plastic Pop – they should go far.

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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