Just Played: A Column About Vinyl Records #14

Just Played: A Column About Vinyl Records #14

Rating the best physical pressings on the racks...

Record shops are open again. No, really. With all due caution and adhering to current guidance, it is possible to flick through the racks, ogle the covers and even purchase music in a face to face fashion once more.

So, you’ll be wanting some tips on what to pick up, I imagine? There’s plenty of variety in this month’s selection and it’s a pretty safe bet you’ll find something to appeal amongst these paragraphs.

A quick nod too to the Record Store Day team who recently published the list for the 2021 drops, taking place in June and July. More on that nearer to the events, but finding out which retro pop smash is getting an outing on a picture disc this time is another sign of nature healing.

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Going Round Again

Regular readers will recall recent raving about the Two-Tone vinyl reissues project that has included half-speed 2x45rpm editions of The Specials’ first two records, a 7” box set and several crucial contemporary compilations. All have been a delight, but it’s especially welcome to have the studio albums of that scene back in print and done to a high standard. Next up is The Selecter’s 1980 debut ‘Too Much Pressure’, with a half-speed cut via Alchemy and pressed at Optimal in Germany. The sturdy sleeve perfectly replicates the iconic artwork of an anguished rudeboy and the package is completed with a bonus 7” replica of the 1979 single which preceded the album, ‘On My Radio’.

Given that the album was essentially a recording designed to capture the band’s spectacular live form, the job of this pressing is less to separate out layers and more to accurately and emotionally capture the visceral delights of Charley Anderson’s bass and Desmon Brown’s blistering Hammond organ. It opens with distinctive single ‘Three Minute Hero’ and the quality is maintained throughout, taking in their reworking of ‘My Boy Lollipop’ as ‘My Collie (Not A Dog)’ and the frenetic ‘Murder’. A couple of brief moments of distortion likely prompted by the recording aside, this is another triumph for a superlative reissue series.

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Almost four years since his untimely passing, the first posthumous record from Chris Cornell, ‘No One Sings Like You Anymore – Vol. 1’, receives a physical release after emerging with little warning via digital platforms just prior to Christmas. A collection of covers recorded over a number of years for various different projects, it is afforded a silent Pallas press from Germany with decent separation. A few tracks appear a little focused on the mids at the expense of the rest, but this seems to be a mastering decision rather than anything to do with the vinyl cut.

Some songs suit his inimitable growl more than others, the album’s title proving entirely apt but evidence within demonstrating that he doesn’t manage to make all of these songs his. Lennon’s ‘Watching The Wheels’ is a very neat fit for his delivery, whereas ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ feels a little like one of those over-emoting grey t-shirted dads on The Voice.

One for the fans only, but done with great care.

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The erratic but often excellent catalogue of Bobby Womack is always ripe for a revisit. The last time any great focus was applied coincided with the release of his final studio recording, 2012’s ‘The Bravest Man In The Universe’, which had been masterminded by XL’s Richard Russell and Damon Albarn. It was a final chapter for an artist with a checkered history who had a fairly inconsistent discography behind him, often pursuing songwriting ahead of recording.

A period at the start of the Seventies, when signed to United Artists, yielded ‘Communication’ and the triumphant soundtrack to ‘Across 110th Street’ and then, following another fallow time, the dawning of the Eighties brought about a transformation to the modern chart soul sound of the time which was captured in two well-regarded records: ‘The Poet’ and ‘The Poet II’.

Both have been remastered by Abkco in time for the fortieth anniversary of the release of the first in that pair. The artwork is well replicated, right the way down to the centre-labels on the discs, featuring the designs from the US releases on Otis Smith’s newly-formed Beverly Glen Records. The sonics are pleasing, ‘The Poet II’ comparing very favourably to an original UK Motown pressing this column had to hand. Arguably, it surpasses it, with a more substantial sense of the mids and bottom end without bloating on the bass.

In short, songs like ‘Secrets’, ‘If You Think You’re Lonely Now’ and the glorious duet with Patti Labelle, ‘Love Has Finally Come At Last’, are sounding about as good as they ever have after some meticulous treatment of the original masters. There is, unfortunately, a but. Both of the titles received for review are a little noisy, even after several deep cleans. They have been pressed through GZ in the Czech Republic and housed in the dreaded glossy printed inners. While the detritus cleans off and the noise isn’t consistently intrusive, it’s a shame that a few little details were missed.

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The Captured Tracks label has developed quite a reputation across its thirteen years, during which it has maintained a remarkably rapid release schedule and brought to our attention such wonders as Molly Burch, EZTV and Mac DeMarco. Those who purchase a fair bit of US produced vinyl are aware of the variable quality contained in those white paper sleeves with the curved corners. Thankfully, for a warmly endearing retrospective of the home recordings by American DIY songwriter Linda Smith, you’ll receive a flat, quiet pressing which leaves the focus solely on these four-track and eight-track tape recordings.

While high fidelity is not the concern given the method of their creation, they are able to transport the listener back to the woozy indie jangle of the late Eighties. ‘Till Another Time: 1988 – 1996’ selects twelve tracks from a number of self-released cassettes. Opener ‘I See Your Face’ will scratch a C86 itch while ‘A Crumb Of Your Affection’ makes sense given the fact that Smith at one stage recorded a cover of ‘Do You Know The Way To San Jose?’ That sense of classic songwriting runs through this unique collection. From Dionne Warwick to Hope Sandoval, with plenty of stops along the way, this is a captivating project upon which you’d be wise to take a punt.

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This column doesn’t cover many non-album vinyl titles, so those that do make it tend to be pretty special. Precious Recordings of London is a new label established to release vintage but less mainstream BBC sessions. Each title spreads a session over a double 7” gatefold edition, packing in postcards of contemporary art and insightful sleeve notes to contextualise the audio. They are a collector’s dream, using colour coding on the sleeves to highlight for whom the sessions were recorded and offering a lossless download of the material for free.

Their first four hugely enjoyable and wonderful sounding releases are from The Jasmine Minks and BMX Bandits. GZ pressings in plain paper sleeves, they are mostly quiet and provide dynamic bursts of irresistible session energy. Each act gets a pair of titles here, the former from a Peel Session in February 1986 and a Janice Long session from November of that year, while the latter revisit two Long sessions, one from June 1986 and the other from April 1987. Although recently reformed, at the time of these BBC sessions Creation’s The Jasmine Minks were on their second and self-titled album of sprightly indie rock. BMX Bandits, meanwhile, were just starting out and fashioning their wonky jangle as they went. In short, some wise choices for the initial releases, but this series has the potential to become a regular delight. Seek them out before they inevitably become hugely collectible.

Chrysalis’ recent run of impressive reissues continues with an expanded take on Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel’s ‘The Best Years Of Our Lives’. Obviously, THE HIT is here and sounds excellent but the wonderfully woozy ‘It Wasn’t Me’ swirls out of the speakers, its various layers afforded their own distinct position. The whole thing has a broad and open soundstage, with tight bass and nimble percussion. A selection of not especially remarkable additional bits culled from a 3CD edition that came out in 2018 fill out a bonus disc, but the album itself is a fine bit of work. An Alchemy cut mastered from the original 1970s quarter inch production tape, it is a double LP set through Optimal on translucent orange and blue. This edition is a quiet and dynamic pressing, demonstrating the requisite love and attention that should be the bare minimum for reissue projects.

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Snap, Crackle & Pop

Those who lived through the protracted fade of the Britpop era may recall a curious repackaging of Travis’ debut album, ‘Good Feeling’, which occurred after the triumphant chart performance of its follow up, ‘The Man Who’. Opting for a photo that evoked a boy band trying to toughen up their image and a font for the band name which bizarrely avoided both the original logo and the diagonally pleasing option that had graced that successful second album. Despite this shambling, ill-advised reformat, whoever took on the job still managed to match the typography for the record’s title from one version to the next, which is more than can be said for the 2021 reissue which largely restores the original design but clearly on a budget. Printed on a cardboard stock that evokes the tube from a loo roll, the artwork is less than sharp and the aforementioned lettering leaves a lot to be desired.

But what of the sound? Well, the mastering is fairly easy on the ear and possibly a little more balanced than an original copy with which it was compared. However, the gains at the lower end have boxed off the highs slightly, giving the 1997 disc the edge still. Another unfortunate factor here is the choice of printed gloss paper inners for a GZ pressing. Seasoned purchasers – and Bobby Womack reissue fans - will be aware of the final line of white detritus that so often accompanies this combination and so it proves on this occasion. Several lengthy cleans in the Degritter ensured playback is reasonably quiet, but listeners shouldn’t need to go to these lengths to play a new record. Compare it to the excellent Embrace reissues that Craft put out last year and you have to wonder why they took a different approach this time. To disappoint with both the disc and the sleeve is an undesirable double whammy, particularly given a £20 price tag.

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Freshly Pressed

There are albums, dear reader, for which the first listen is a curious mix of emotions. Spacious, delicate and precise recordings can simultaneously wow one’s heart and make the brain flutter. The realisation that it is a keeper can be rapidly offset by a fear that the vinyl edition might not be much cop. I know, fling your disparaging hashtags my way and tell me to get over myself but just remember that you’re reading a column which specifically explores this topic. After the less-than-stellar pressing afforded their 2014 delight, ‘Familiars’, the return of The Antlers was cause for such mixed emotions.

2011’s ‘Burst Apart’ is an album that everyone should own, offering a soulful, jazzy indie-Prince approach that still sounds sublime and suited the analogue realm perfectly. 2017’s ‘Impermanence’, a solo effort from beleaguered frontman Peter Silberman, was the product of him reframing his songwriting in light of debilitating tinnitus and revelled in the notion of quiet.

As a result, The Antlers’ ‘Gold To Green’ is similarly muted at points, although the lineage from ‘Familiars’ remains logical. The beautiful gatefold sleeve follows the colour scheme dictated by the record’s title and houses an excellent cut via Optimal. The edition used for this review was the dark green variant but there is also, surprise surprise, a gold version out there too. The lulling, enveloping build towards the end of ‘Volunteer’ will make you long for an overgrown field in which to mooch or laze, while the title track possesses the languid slinkiness that so impressed a decade ago.

The standout is, arguably, ‘Solstice’ which chimes serenely despite a “wo-ah-woah” chorus that feels ever so slightly beset with anguish. Transgressive have delivered a pleasingly affordable, near-silent pressing that does justice to this mesmerising album.

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Sub Pop tend to get it right when it comes to vinyl. From their largely excellent ‘Loser’ editions as an option alongside standard black pressings, to their focus on sound over disc weight and all the way to their tendency to ensure the price is at the kinder end of current trends, they are trustworthy folk. And so it proves with the latest solo offering from Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner under the Flock of Dimes moniker, which is some leap from that project’s debut, 2016’s ‘If You See Me, Say Yes’.

Indeed, ‘Head Of Roses’ is many things all at once, ranging from autumnal folk to glitchy electronica. Compare the psych-rock of ‘Price Of Blue’ with the indie-funk of ‘One More Hour’ to get a sense of what awaits. The striking gatefold contains a nuanced and involving Optimal pressing that opens up nicely with some volume. It’s a record which grows and gathers momentum with every listen and is fast becoming a firm favourite on the Just Played turntable.

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For the best part of thirty years, Luke Haines has been an endearingly direct member of the British alternative music scene, whether operating in The Auteurs and Black Box Recorder or under his own name. Having caught the eye with wilfully provocative subject matter and song titles in the first phase of his career, he seems to have settled into a more idiosyncratic willingness to deliver niche ideas to niche audiences. A concept album about wrestling and a psychedelic rock and roll yarn featuring ‘A Badger Called Nick Lowe’ while narrated by Julia Davis are two of the more memorable recent examples. They’re pretty much always great fun, pitting melody against angular and uncompromising production, but I can’t say that I ever really reach for them again after the initial flurry of enjoyment.

His latest, ‘Setting The Dogs On The Post Punk Postman’, ticks the usual boxes but doesn’t quite reach the highs of some of those previous outings. A recent collaboration record with Peter Buck – ‘Beat Poetry For Survivalists’ - freshened up the template a little and the R.E.M. legend is also present on the opening track here, teaser track and album highlight ‘Ex-Stasi Spy’. As with several other albums already mentioned this month, the album is a GZ pressing housed in a glossy printed inner. The results are as you would expect but the cut itself is also a little frustrating, excessively sibilant and slushy. Hard to tell if it’s a mastering choice or the quality of the source but, whichever way you look at it, it’s a noticeably less high standard of product from the usually excellent Cherry Red.

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From the moment a collaboration between Floating Points, Pharoah Saunders and The London Symphony Orchestra was announced, managing expectations was always going to prove tricky. However, the label Luaka Bop knew that no such dampening was needed as ‘Promises’ is unlikely to disappoint anyone who spends some time in its company. A spiritual, hypnotic and entirely immersive piece spread over nine movements, the vinyl mastering by Chris Bellman is absolutely on the money.

This column was a little frustrated to read in the initial announcement that a limited audiophile edition would be available when the only thing that appeared to differ between that and the standard pressing was the weight. The same parts appear to have been used for the 140g and 180g versions, which means either both or neither are audiophile in their nature. Arguably, the cut is while the pressing is solid. Done through Pallas, one might reasonably expect a silent background, but this isn’t quite the case. While not awash with noise, it’s a little hard to forgive following the pronouncements in the press release. That said, the music is what really matters and it is unequivocally sublime. A fresh run of the heavier edition is due in the autumn, apparently, so hold fire if that’s your sort of deal-breaker.

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Catherine Anne Davies has found her music subject to a variety of hold-ups in recent years. First came the fantastic collaboration with Bernard Butler that was finally retrieved from the shelf by the Needle Mythology label last year to positive notices in this column amongst many others, while her second album as The Anchoress was delayed as a consequence of the pandemic and only emerged last month. From its striking cover art onwards, it is a remarkable achievement which tackles grief in a way that doesn’t seek to protect or insulate the listener. The confrontation and resultant catharsis are part of its power.

The synth-driven title track’s deliberate juxtaposition of a poppy “do-do-do-do-do” refrain against lyrics like “do you want the marks to prove that you do matter more than he says” is just one example of intricate craft and unrestrained artistry at play. The self-production is entirely fitting for such an honest record and the attention to detail is well-served across an excellent Optimal double vinyl pressing. This is especially important in the album’s latter stages when the arrangements are more sparse, most notably on the truly remarkable ‘5am’ which would only be spoilt by a precis of its message here. Seek it out, take in the meticulous sleeve notes and just listen.

Just as the last edition of this column was being put to bed, it became clear that Mogwai were en route to the top of the UK album chart with ‘As The Love Continues’. The life-affirming campaign surrounding its ascent made it rather tricky to get hold of a copy and so its presence now is a case of better late than never. Given it is arguably their best studio album in at least a decade, it would be remiss of us not to recommend the wonderful Pallas pressing that their label Rock Action opted for. Quiet and dynamic, it allows this mostly instrumental record to unfurl further than its digital equivalents. Their playful side is evident here on ‘Ceiling Granny’ and ‘Here We, Here We, Here We Go Forever’, while the Kraftwerk-esque build of ‘Supposedly, We Were Nightmares’ handles a steep volume increase with ease. Shops are slowly managing to restock after the mail order onslaught wiped them out, so be sure to jump on this if you’ve not yet had the pleasure.

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On occasion, in the process of preparing this column, records are flung my way that take me by surprise. If I’m honest, would I have gravitated towards them if they hadn’t been put in my hands by my heroic postie? Probably not, but allow me to devote a paragraph to a fascinating live record by Canadian metal artist Devin Townsend. ‘Acoustically Inclined: Live In Leeds’ is a 2LP set capturing a solo performance at the City Varieties in 2019, marking the start of a series of releases which will pick over oddities and less conventional recordings in his archive. Townsend’s rapport with the audience is infectious and his seismic vocals are often beguiling. The bombast naturally breaks through at points, sometimes operatic and sometimes a more primal howl. Those tempted to explore will find a largely silent, dynamic Optimal cut which handles these songs very well indeed.

4AD’s strike rate continues to impress, London post-punk types Dry Cleaning having just released their debut album ‘New Long Leg’. The musical interplay between the four piece is joyfully energising and they are poorly served by having this moment in the spotlight while the nation’s venues remain closed and quiet. Seek out video of recent KEXP performances to get a sense of how this band work together and this will also add a little extra valuable context before embracing the album fully. Florence Shaw’s mostly monotone, wry spoken words often paint enigmatic fragments, mixing found phrases with a poetry of everyday life.

The indie-stores-only yellow vinyl cut via Optimal does a decent job of keeping Shaw out of the space of the pulsing rhythm section. So distinctive is the delivery that it can take a few listens to really identify the varied approaches being taken by guitarist Tom Dowse, bassist Lewis Maynard and drummer Nick Buxton. The comparisons with Wire and Magazine make sense, but there’s plenty of genre-hopping going on and closer ‘Every Day Carry’ possesses some of the spectral poise of Mogwai. A quick nod to the label for very reasonable pricing on this one too.

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At The Front Of The Racks While Emil Svanängen’s stage moniker Loney dear may not quite be a household name, those who have encountered him in the past rarely forget his work. A run of gorgeous records during the Noughties – ‘Citadel Band’, ‘Sologne’, ‘Loney, Noir’ and, most notably, ‘Dear John’ – ensured he was one of those artists you heard playing in your local indie store and ended up buying as a result. His distinctive, deceptively nimble vocals can hold an audience in the moment and escape the speakers with a magnetism that is hard to define and harder to resist.

Having label-hopped during his first decade as an artist, Svanängen arrived at Peter Gabriel’s Real World imprint for 2017’s self-titled outing and has delivered what might well be a career best in ‘A Lantern And A Bell’. A near-silent cut through Optimal, mercifully given the music in those grooves, it has been no stranger to the Just Played turntable of late. ‘Mute / All Things Pass’ and ‘Trifles’ both explore tone and intensity to great effect while the plangent tip-toe tune of ‘Go Easy On Me Now’ is accompanied by a staggeringly direct vocal performance that must be heard. Any format will suffice for such magnificent music, but the vinyl has been done very well indeed considering the beautiful nature of the recording.

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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 the previous column.

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

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