Just Played: A Column About Vinyl Records #22

Just Played: A Column About Vinyl Records #22

A festive round up...

I know, I know.

It’s barely been a few weeks since the previous column but there’s no point giving you a last minute festive gift-buying guide at the end of December, is there? It has been a turbulent time for vinyl fans and manufacturers alike, but there have still been some wonderful releases. As well as perusing previous editions for some of 2021’s highlights, you can find a few additional treats below which have hit the racks just as the year prepares to breathe its last.

May you have a musical Christmas, free of scratches, non-fill and edge warps. See you back here in 2022?

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Freshly Pressed:

Fans of Paul Weller vinyl have been spoilt over the past twelve months. The reissue programme resumed, ‘Fat Pop’ appeared in myriad versions including a largely excellent 3LP box set and now ‘An Orchestrated Songbook’ provides a record of a unique performance from the Barbican in May of this year. Arranger and conductor Jules Buckley brought together Weller, long-time band member Steve Craddock and the BBC Symphony Orchestra for a beautiful hop around this remarkable catalogue.

You may have witnessed the show when it was broadcast on the BBC earlier this year, but Matt Colton’s mastering really puts you in the room on this double vinyl pressing. Celeste, James Morrison and Boy George deliver fine guest appearances, but the real magic here is that lightly weathered, never more soulful voice. It’s accentuated by the swelling but rarely overbearing arrangements which offer new ways to look at old friends. ‘My Ever Changing Moods’ is transformed but still joyously familiar, while ‘English Rose’ soars unexpectedly at its midpoint.

While these versions may not replace the originals as your favourites, this is far more than a curio. As Weller continues a tremendous run of form, it’s pretty clear that his heart and soul go into anything bearing his name right now. Unusually for his music on vinyl, this one is pressed at Takt in Poland. The stiff and sturdy cardboard gatefold has an eight-page booklet glued into its centre and the discs played almost silently across four sides after a clean. Plain paper inners felt a little cheap considering the otherwise luxurious tone, but proceed with confidence on this special release.

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When this column normally covers Demon Records releases, they tend to be buried treasure from the Nineties indie scene. Not so on this occasion. The label were caught out by the incredible demand for their picture disc LP release of Hey Duggee’s ‘The Greatest Woofs’. Fans of the show – under-fives and parents thereof – are well aware of the tendency of the show’s creators to crowbar all kind of pop culture references into proceedings and the veritable banger ‘Stick Song’ has had its fair share of attention online.

But would putting twenty-three excerpts from across three series of the programme appeal to the nation’s record buyers? In short, yes, as you may have to hunt high and low to pick one of these up this side of Christmas. A repress will follow but that is not a quick and easy process right now. Made at GZ, it has some light clicks here and there, as one might reasonably expect for the format, but the noise floor is low and the dynamics on the tracks are really good. The album certainly sounded better via this release than when streamed. In addition, side B has a zoetrope effect to it which can be fully enjoyed with a third-party app that will cost you the best part of a fiver. It does look tremendous once you’ve got it up and running, mind.

However, it felt only right to invite a guest reviewer to assist me with this one, given the source material and the time of year. My five year old daughter described it as “the best record in Daddy’s collection” and said that “normal records are not as good because we can watch it and listen.” There was some suggestion that it might be better than The Beatles, but that could be an early act of rebellion in response to excessive attempts at indoctrination on my part. Fun for all the family, if you can find a copy.

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One other new release which has proved an unexpected delight this month is a collection entitled ‘Home Compilation – Volume 1’, assembled by Ali Tillett from music promotions agency Warm. With his industry on pause as a result of the global pandemic, Tillett looked to create an artistic reflection of the intimate lives we were all forced to scrutinise in such detail. It was placed upon the turntable with no preconceptions or awareness of what might lie ahead, but its evocative meditation on the world around could be exactly what is called for in the festive lull between the big day and a new year.  

Pulling together work by artists like Roisin Murphy’s recent producer Crack’d Man, Coyote, Fug and Ewan Pearson’s World Of Apples project, the collection is meticulously held in place by a selection of field recordings. Gary Moore, of Springwatch and Autumnwatch fame, has captured a variety of habitats relevant to the theme of each of the collection’s four sides.

Whether focused on ‘Harbour & Estuary’ or ‘Woodland & Forest’, these tracks veer across genres, nudging neo-classical, lounge-jazz and ambient amongst many others. Gareth Fuller’s artwork completes the project and it’s something which is best listened to in its entirety. Optimal in Germany have done a fine job of the near silent pressing. Visit Warm Agency’s Bandcamp page to sample it and, one would imagine, subsequently purchase it as soon as you get a chance.

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Going Round Again:

Some artists really suit the box set format. Their albums demand to be listened to in their entirety, their outtakes offer fascinating insights and their live performances take the music to different, no less beguiling places. Matt Berry is one of those musicians, and ‘Gather Up’ is every bit the delight you might expect it to be. Covering a decade of recording for Acid Jazz, it selects highlights from his numerous releases and pulls together rarities from a wide array of sources and projects.

The eye-catching artwork sets the tone for a luxurious item, comprising five LPs, a charming hardback book, two art prints and a certificate of authenticity signed by the man himself. The first two records, also available separately as a straightforward retrospective, serve to emphasise how consistently excellent Berry’s work has been. The euphoric ‘October Sun’ and absolute genius of ‘Medicine’ from ‘Kill The Wolf’ nestle comfortably alongside a strident ‘Take A Bow’ from ‘Phantom Birds’ and the shimmering stop-start rhythm of ‘Obsessed And So Obscure’ from ‘The Small Hours’. Avoiding chronology and, wisely, opting for mood, the selection is hugely successful.

The listener then arrives at the ‘Rarities And Unreleased’ collection, which mixes acoustic versions, outtakes and even several songs from a 2010 Myspace EP. It’s all over the place and utterly charming, creating as it does a curious sense that you’re snooping on a songwriter at work. While it isn’t quite deserving of a Peter Jackson trilogy, it does provide enthralling and substantial backstory for the dedicated fans. Northern Soul stomper ‘Catch Me In Time’, featuring Geno Washington, is only a few tracks away from a somewhat surreal extemporised version of the original ‘Blankety Blank’ theme. Delightful.

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‘Phantom First’ is an alternative account of 2020’s ‘Phantom Birds’, a less phantasmagorical album by Berry’s standards. Using demos which didn’t all make the transition to the fully-formed release, it provides bizarro versions of cherished tracks. While this column wouldn’t necessarily suggest it surpasses the original, it does offer compelling insight and moments of giddy delight when veering off unexpectedly. It’s a demo set which proffers a genuinely different perspective, something which can also be said for the final record, ‘Live At A Festival’.

With five pieces from three festivals, it does an admirable job of capturing the life-affirming presence of Berry and his band the Maypoles in full flight. Listening to an almost eight minute long version of ‘Solstice’, you realise it’s actually about ninety seconds shorter than its recorded version as a result of its frenetic stage rendering. The only complaint is that this section of the project is too short.

Steering clear of excessive compression and limiting, Berry’s music has always tended to sound a little quieter when played next to other artists but it always ensures impressive vinyl cuts which can handle some volume. This set, close to selling out at time of writing, is pressed at GZ and sounds great. There was a little light surface noise on a couple of discs and one had an edge warp which looks worse than it sounds. These are relatively minor frustrations, pushed into the background by the wonderful music, although a 4CD equivalent is available for those wanting a cheap, fuss-free alternative. The archival content throughout the book, with an accompanying retrospective written by Chris Catchpole, is carefully assembled and the whole package is a genuine treat. One with which to improve somebody’s Christmas.

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HMV’s centenary ‘1921 series’ of releases continues apace, and several caught this columnist’s eye. Firstly, Greg Moore at Finyl Tweek has produced a fresh cut of 808 State’s ‘Ninety’, an iconic release in the history of electronic music. Following quickly after the chart smash ‘Pacific’ – or ‘Pacific State’ as the single was titled and ‘Pacific 202’ as it appears here – the album was widely lauded and even achieved an elusive 10/10 from the NME.

While its representation of the techno and house landscape of the time dates it a little, it’s a capsule of a transformative and revolutionary time in music which remains fascinating and, frankly, great fun. This new edition is open and rhythmically nimble, with the bottom end well-controlled. While packaging isn’t especially fancy, it has the obligatory HMV obi-strip and the disc is pressed on electric pink vinyl via GZ. After a clean, playback was pretty quiet and, with the most recent reissue having been some five years ago, this is a welcome reminder of a classic.

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Also appearing as part of this series is Bobbie Gentry’s ‘I’ll Never Fall In Love Again’, originally a 1970 UK release which shuffled and expanded an album known in the US as ‘Fancy’. Opening with Bacharach and David’s sensational title track, the quality doesn’t drop as her ear for a tremendous cover is impressive. This is one of a number of recent, and very welcome, reissue titles for Gentry which have been overseen by Andrew Batt. The producer and archivist delivered one of the finest CD box sets of recent years, ‘The Girl From Chickasaw County’, which should be the next port of call for anyone bowled over by this selection.

Now retired, having barely released a note for half a century, Gentry’s legacy is defined by a period of under five years. Her nuanced, smoke-curled vocals are perhaps at their finest on this set. ‘Fancy’, her one original on the record, is a passionate, evocative narrative which will appeal to all fans of Clarence Carter’s ‘Patches’. Mostly recorded in Muscle Shoals at the legendary FAME studios, this music needs attention to detail and Batt has ensured this at every turn. Pressed at Optimal, the new edition has plenty of space around the instruments and, while it can’t quite capture that magical soundstage of records from the time, it’s an excellent option to hear this wonderful music at an affordable price.

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It is unlikely to be a controversial opinion to suggest that the new edition of Frank Zappa’s ‘200 Motels’ may not be the easiest entry point for those unfamiliar with his work. A soundtrack of sorts to a 1971 musical film of the same name, which loosely channels the chaos of life as a touring musician, this set is erratic and eccentric. Which is not to say that is atypical for Zappa, but ‘Hot Rats’ and ‘Chunga’s Revenge’ are waiting in the racks for those looking to ease themselves in.

The fully initiated, however, should be pretty happy with this package. Available on limited edition red and standard edition black vinyl, it features a new remaster and cut from the legendary Bernie Grundman. The soundstage fills the room, venturing far beyond the speakers and delivering a balanced vocal presence that allows this curious set to breathe. The Optimal pressing is largely quiet and is augmented by replicas of the original booklet and poster. While some fans have quibbled about the EQ on previous versions, this certainly sounded vivid and involving to Just Played’s ears.

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Five years ago, one of the biggest hullabaloos around the 2016 variant of Record Store Day was prompted by news of reissues for the early releases by Kings Of Convenience. 2001’s ‘Quiet Is The New Loud’ and 2004’s ‘Riot On An Empty Street’ had long been out of print on vinyl and their mellifluous acoustic layers were ideal for the format. While the cuts were decent, GZ’s quality control at the time left a fair bit to be desired and your correspondent ended up returning his copies after several attempts.

Twenty years on from the release of that magical debut, they are both issued again after even those reissues started to gain in value. These are new GZ cuts which are, again, well mastered and adept at keeping a lid on the potentially lively highs. There is a little more sibilance than is ideal, but the music – ‘Toxic Girl’ and ‘I Don’t Know What I Can Save You From’ especially - still stands tall.

Frustratingly, the same shiny paper inners have been used and the old white lines of doom were present on both titles that Just Played sampled. With some lengthy cleaning, they played back reasonably quietly, but the low levels ticks were just on the cusp of distracting and any purchasers should tread carefully.

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The sturdy of wallet may well be tempted by a sizeable super deluxe presentation of the debut album by Gorillaz, marking its twentieth anniversary. Assembled within a hardback book with a folio approach, it comprises eight discs and a gorgeous collection of twenty-seven pages worth of art and ephemera from the era. Tucked inside a cardboard case folder with glossy mugshots of Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett attached, it’s an aspect of the set which might not convince people to stump up the cash on its own, but feels truly special once it’s in your hands.

But what of the music? Well, the first two discs are the main album and appear to reuse the parts from last year’s ‘G Collection’ box set. They still sound strong, but are unlikely to be the main reason for purchasing. Next up is the ‘G Sides’ compilation that first came out on vinyl for RSD in 2020 and appears to be the same excellent pressing from that release. As well as ensuring the Soulchild Remix of ’19/2000’ isn’t missed off, it also features less well-known treats like ‘Ghost Train’ and ‘Left Hand Suzuki Method’.

The remaining five discs are where the faithful will be snared. Despite being a fairly constant presence in the discount racks of the golden age of Fopp, the Spacemonkeyz remix album, ‘Laika Come Home’, has been hugely in demand for many years and this marks its first time on vinyl since 2002. The cut is excellent and, thankfully, the bass is prominent but nimble. This dub rendering of the whole album sounds as good as your correspondent has ever heard it and opener ‘Jungle Fresh’ is a cheerful statement of intent, retooling the aforementioned ’19/2000’ in yet another direction. There are those who are understandably annoyed that this much sought after title is only available in a costly deluxe set, but it’s hard not to imagine it getting a separate release at some point. That said, no such intention has been expressed as yet.  

This is followed by the 2001 Forum gig, originally broadcast live on Radio 1 and dusted off for the Gorillaz website some years ago. While it’s not an audiophile recording, it translates to this double vinyl cut well, capturing an exuberant and slightly naïve early performance. ‘Clint Eastwood’ is incendiary, recalling just how the band monopolised public imagination at the time. Finally, five rough pieces are assembled on the single-sided ‘Demoz’. Backed with an etching and clocking in at well under twenty minutes, it does feel rather slight. Anyone with past experience of Albarn’s demos will know what to expect, ‘Shaga Laga’ a particular highlight, but it feels like a glance at history rather than a full excavation of the vaults. Or should that be vaultz?

The packaging is aesthetically pleasing, with a wide spine featuring a silver foil logo, a pouch for the printed matter and individual, sturdy cardboard compartments for each disc. Black paper inners should really be poly-lined at this price but the Optimal pressings are well done and largely silent across all eight discs. One was a little warped, but it didn’t impact playback. So, it’s not perfect but it is a tactile delight and a bumper document of an essential band finding their feet.

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At The Front Of The Racks:

In recent years, the consistently beautiful catalogue of Kathryn Williams has been a regular companion for this columnist. This was especially true around the release of 2019’s incredible twenty-CD set ‘Anthology’, pairing each studio album with its accompanying bonus material and rarities. Williams simply hasn’t ever made a bad record and each new release is a cause for joy. However, this particular theme and collaboration came rather out of the blue.

A Christmas album is one thing, but a Christmas album co-written with former Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy is quite a distance from Mickey Bubbles territory. It is stunning, rich with imagery and arranged spaciously. The recording captures a compelling soundstage which makes the speakers evaporate and positions Williams’ hushed vocals in a spellbindingly central location. Pick out the backing vocals and subtle Christmas bells on ‘Hang Fire’ or the lulling layers of ‘Apostle’ if you need an entry point.

Mastered by Miles Showell at Abbey Road and cut by him at half-speed, this very limited pressing via The Vinyl Factory is one to cherish. A white label housed in hand-painted artwork by Williams, it is the finest festive release in many a year. Be quick before it’s gone for good.

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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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