Just Played: A Column About Vinyl Records #17

Just Played: A Column About Vinyl Records #17

A fresh take on the vinyl marketplace...

It continues to be a strange time for this beloved format. As well as the ongoing issues with lead times for new releases meaning indie labels are currently booking in orders for spring of next year, the same circumstances are making it almost impossible to keep in-demand titles in the racks. This column’s advice is not to get too caught up in the short-term frenzy and avoid the escalating marketplace prices from people trying to cash in on this situation. It’s rare for a label to instantly delete a title upon release and a quick message via their socials will normally confirm that they’re stuck in a hellish queue waiting for new stock some time just prior to Christmas 2022.

Doom and gloom aside, the height of summer plays host to the second and final instalment of this year’s Record Store Day Drops and, as ever, the team behind it and some of the labels involved have sent us a few review copies so as to give you a taste of what to expect. Let’s start there, but keep reading for news of some remarkable reissues later on.

Record Store Day 2 Preview

While Gwenno and Rose Elinor Dougall have both gone on to produce numerous impressive solo records, their early days as members of The Pipettes are still worthy of note. One of the very best pop albums of modern times, ‘We Are The Pipettes’ was originally released fifteen years ago. While it didn’t quite propel the trio to stratospheric heights, those who heard it loved it. Pitched as an update of the early Sixties girl-group genre but ultimately an exercise in almost implausibly consistent melody, it remains a classic to this day.

Memphis Industries have opted for a polka dot picture disc format for this reissue, taking inspiration from the band’s outfits on the cover. While this might initially seem like a cause for caution, all is not as it seems. Sure, it does sound a little like a jumbo jet is pretty much permanently in the distance during quieter passages, but the vinyl master is a genuine night and day upgrade on the scratchy, distorted shitshow that was the original. Trust us, we’ve just played them back to back. A picture disc done through Pallas in Germany is also quite a rarity so, although the format warrants reservations, this is about as well done as any ever could be.

Crucially, it will put ‘Pull Shapes’, ‘Why Did You Stay?’, ‘Judy’ and the simply spectacular chorus of ‘Because It’s Not Love (But It’s Still A Feeling)’ back in people’s ears and offer unmitigated euphoria during dark times. Bookmark the page – this column is wholeheartedly recommending a picture disc. Just this once.

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The good folk at Marina Records have released some quite magnificent music over the years, including The Bathers, Roddy Frame and several splendid volumes of The In-Kraut series. Having started in 1993, they were at the centre of that decade’s indie explosion and, in 1996, released an outstanding compilation entitled ‘In Bed With Marina’. For RSD 2021, it makes its debut on vinyl as a double disc set, with a striking gatefold and comprehensive sleeve notes.

Classic non-album Shack single ‘Al’s Vacation’ is always a welcome presence and the ‘Grand Prix’ era Teenage Fanclub b-side ‘Some People Try To Fuck With You’ is every bit as melodically beguiling as you would expect. Serial band-hopper Malcolm Ross’ cover of The Beach Boys ‘Heroes & Villains’ is gloriously entertaining, sounding not unlike previous collaborator Edwyn Collins who is also present with ‘Just Call Her Name’, a late Eighties b-side which warrants re-examination.

The accompanying notes are infectiously exciting without feeling like insincere hyperbole creeps in. Pretty much silent across all four sides, this Optimal-pressed twenty-four track set is a veritable treasure trove and one of the below the radar treats to seek out from the RSD boxes.

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American singer-songwriter Jesca Hoop has released five studio albums to date, most recently 2019’s striking ‘Stonechild’, as well pursuing a side-project of acoustic reinterpretations of each record in chronological order once some time has passed. 2007 debut ‘Kismet’ was retooled in 2013, while 2009’s ‘Hunting My Dress’ became ‘Undress’ in 2014. Next up is 2012’s wonderful ‘The House That Jack Built’, emerging on white vinyl for RSD as ‘The Destruction Of Jack’s House’.

The title is deceptively aggressive, given the nature of its sound. Recorded in Hoop’s home studio prior to Christmas 2020, it’s fascinating to hear an artist exploring their own work from such a distance. ‘Peacemaker’ and ‘D.N.R’ are particular highlights in this form and the Pallas cut manages to preserve the acoustics of the intimate recording. 

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One of the recent highlights of the RSD lists has been the Miles Davis outtakes series, plucking some prime cuts from each of the Complete Sessions box sets for his run of Columbia albums. 2019’s ‘Early Minor’ related to ‘In A Silent Way’, 2020’s ‘Double Image’ drew from the ‘Bitches Brew’ sessions and for 2021 it’s the time of ‘Jack Johnson’. ‘Champions’, pressed on yellow vinyl via MPO, is a blistering slice of some of Miles’ funkiest work.

Instrument separation is superb and bottom end definition is tight, the natural decay of the notes on the trumpet right there in the room. It’s hard to disagree with Davis’ own summary of opener ‘Duran (Take 4)’ which he concludes by exclaiming “this is some raunchy shit, y’all.” While the full set is highly recommended, this is a neatly curated sample which concludes with a squally excerpt from ‘Right Off (take 11)’ driven by a burst of Herbie Hancock magic. A must-buy title this time around.

Having ended a lengthy sabbatical with 2019’s ‘Cause And Effect’, Keane offer up a small selection of additional material from that well received return. This four track pink vinyl 12” contains fully finished title track ‘Dirt’ and three demos recorded around the same time. The one completed piece is at least the equal of the high points of that comeback album, unmistakeably Keane and benefitting from an Abbey Road master and an Optimal pressing. Indeed, such sonic treatment is consistent across the disc with the notional demos sounding pretty fully realised. ‘Burning The Days’ has a naggingly simplistic chorus and evokes the early years of The Killers while ‘November Day’ unleashes Tom Chaplin’s voice atop a sparse synth shimmer. The copy this column sampled was mostly quiet apart from, one assumes unintentionally, a patch of noise caused by some, ahem, dirt embedded in the disc. Pricey, mind you, at £20. 

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The soundtrack to 1971 movie ‘Harold and Maude’ feels like an ideal RSD release. Pulling together tracks from Cat Stevens’ 1970 albums ‘Mona Bone Jakon’ and ‘Tea For The Tillerman’ alongside two then new compositions, ‘Don’t Be Shy’ and ‘If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out’, it has only ever been available in this format once previously and that extremely limited 2007 edition is long gone. Available on either yellow or orange vinyl, it has been remastered at Abbey Road and pressed at Optimal.

Although the packaging features a new cover design, the sleeve and inner are rather sparse and don’t add a great deal of detail to the set. That said, most will be here for the music and the selections in this form work well, the soundtrack exclusives making entirely consistent bedfellows with their more well-known colleagues. The sound quality is excellent, delivering a precise and expansive soundstage while maintaining some of the historical earthiness. 

In recent years, the people of exemplary taste over at Dead Oceans have released several new albums by British folk artist Bill Fay, whose self-titled 1970 debut and 1971 follow-up ‘Time Of The Last Persecution’ have long been held in high regard by a small but devoted audience. His label at the time, Deram, dropped him after they failed to gain hoped for traction and, some late-Seventies recordings which surfaced in the mid-Noughties aside, he wasn’t heard from again until 2012’s beautiful ‘Life Is People’.

Reissues of that initial pair have been few and far between, the second album only returning to vinyl once via the poorly regarded 4 Men With Beards imprint in 2013. An original could set you back four figures and so, finally, Universal have seen sense and given it an Abbey Road remaster before issuing it for Drop 2. A GZ cut in a poly-lined inner, it doesn’t quite scale the heights of the 2020 RSD folk titles like Mellow Candle’s ‘Swaddling Songs’ which was cut at Gearbox and pressed at Optimal. Which is not to say this is bad, but there is a little surface noise here and there and the soundstage is good rather than great.

Those who have waited some time for this will still be pleased and if Fay is new to you, be sure to sample tracks like ‘Til The Christ Comes Back’ and ‘Come A Day’ to get a sense of what you could be enjoying by Saturday evening.

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There has been a little intrigue around the studio albums set ‘G Collection’ from Gorillaz. Given the variety of editions to emerge in recent years, especially in the case of ‘Demon Days’, which pressings would be used and would there be anything to lure the completist? Let’s tackle the second question first. There are no bonus tracks or discs here – it does exactly what it says on the tin (or slipcase) and collects together the albums in one convenient location. If you’re happy with your copies of these six records – ‘The Fall’ is sadly omitted given its on-the-road creation – then this is quite an outlay for a largely plain black box.

The info on the back lists the set as Made in Germany, which is mostly true. It was certainly assembled there and most of the titles are Optimal versions of one sort or another. However, ‘Demon Days’, pressed at GZ for its initial reissue via Vinyl Me, Please and for subsequent wider releases, has not been redone for this set. The Czech Republic-pressed 2018 edition – cut by Barry Grint at Alchemy - used in the box we sampled cleaned up near perfectly and had barely a click on four sides. There was no sign of the locked groove which has affected some editions on ‘All Alone’. The mastering is not quite on a par with the 2005 original, a little squashed at points and without such an open top end, but it’s a solid copy of an essential record.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, more recent albums ‘Humanz’, ‘The Now Now’ and ‘Song Machine’ are represented here in their standard, thoroughly listenable vinyl editions and no re-cuts have occurred. 2010’s often magnificent ‘Plastic Beach’ looks to be made with original parts based on the matrix info, matching one of the original variants in this column’s racks. Curiously, therefore, it doesn’t use the 2019 reissue cut and one wonders why it was redone several years ago. It sounds tremendous to these ears, ‘On Melancholy Hill’ one of those songs that has always been presented best in its vinyl incarnation and the four sides are once again near silent.

Artwork looks good across the titles, although some sleeves are on thinner card stock than their originals and the odd disc in Just Played’s set had a very minor warp. The self-titled debut is still in a gatefold but, for some reason, the front section is sealed and both discs are housed in the back. The original cut is still being repurposed, although it sounded slightly more sibilant than an original. As an all-in-one solution, this box definitely does a job, but its price point – around £150 - doesn’t reward a bulk purchase as you should be able to put these titles together for ten to twenty quiz under that without too much shopping around. Still, a very welcome reminder of a pretty remarkable body of work.

Going Round Again

The always exemplary PJ Harvey reissue programme has now reached 2007’s ‘White Chalk’. As ever, it stays true to the originals in terms of replicating the artwork, both with regard to content and the finish. For this release, it also maintains cutting the main album at 45rpm. Those who were there the first time around will likely recall that it was a pretty noisy pressing, all the more noticeable given the relatively sparse gothic soundscapes at play. Thankfully, the high standards of this campaign extend to such matters and nobody felt the need to replicate the volley of pops and clicks that came free with the 2007 edition.

Driven by piano and a little oppressive in the wrong mood, this is a starkly compelling record. Most recall it for featuring a vocal style at the upper end of Harvey’s range but, with distance and in the context of her releases since, it arguably fares better in 2021. The gradual uprising from the skittering rhythm of ‘Silence’ sounds glorious on vinyl and the intricate positioning of the soundstage on ‘The Piano’ is especially notable. Once again, the demos offer fresh insight although this is less profound than on previous releases given the arrangements and method of composition. The demo disc this column listened to wasn’t quite as quiet at the album proper or previous titles, but hopefully it’s a rogue copy as both have been done at Optimal, as ever.

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Delight abounded last year as the Joni Mitchell Archive programme began with early sessions and live recordings collected in a CD box and selected aspects of this issued on vinyl. As the second set looms on the horizon, the first set of studio reissues arrives with ‘The Reprise Albums (1968 – 1971)’. Housed in a striking box featuring a contemporary self-portrait are the remastered albums ‘Song To A Seagull’, ‘Clouds’, ‘Ladies Of The Canyon’ and ‘Blue’. The first of those has also been remixed at the insistence of Mitchell herself. Matt Lee’s work on this does open things up, bringing the vocals into focus, but it feels a little sterile by applying modern methods and stripping out some of the original tape noise.

The luxurious tip-on gatefolds which house the discs feature delicately restored artwork and make for a pleasingly tactile experience. A celebratory essay from Brandi Carlile is included on arty and substantial paper, reserving the highest praise for 1971’s ‘Blue’. While justifiably revered now, its stock was nowhere near as high upon release and it’s clear Mitchell enjoys witnessing its critical reassessment over the intervening years. That album has been the subject of several audiophile-pleasing reissues in the 21st century and this Bernie Grundman cut seems a little brighter and more forward than the Kevin Gray and Steve Hoffman editions that preceded it. That said, it has a similar feel to a slightly beaten up original we also sampled and is a very fine edition of a true classic.

The other two non-remixed records have similar presentation, ‘Ladies Of The Canyon’ a match for any version this column has ever experienced and ‘Clouds’ holds its own too. The air in ‘Both Sides , Now’, putting you in the vocal booth with Mitchell, is breathtaking and highlights exactly what is, albeit subtly, missing from the new version of the debut. The copy we listened to had some visible non-fill issues on ‘Song To A Seagull’ which produced ripping noises that certainly didn’t help. For what is a very costly deluxe set, this is disappointing, but the other discs – all pressed at Optimal and housed in poly-lined sleeves – are quiet and free of issues.  

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Several months ago, Just Played featured the first of the Spaceman Reissue Programme which is remastering the first four Spiritualized albums and returning them to vinyl. ‘Lazer Guided Melodies’ sounded great but suffered from some terrible packaging that was too tight and prone to bowing. For the second title, ‘Pure Phase’, the issues have been largely addressed and we get a sturdy tip-on gatefold to house the GZ pressing. It’s still a little tight, but the sense of things being rather cheap has evaporated.

Once again, Jason Pierce has opted for alternative artwork and a special edition is available on glow in the dark vinyl. Notoriously a tricky variant, early reports suggest it actually sounds pretty good. This column sampled a standard black edition and pitched it against an original for some comparison. The most obvious difference is the distribution of tracks across the four parts, including a tweak to the running order towards the end. Die-hards will find it odd when sides finish unexpectedly and the ‘wrong’ song opens another but it appears to have been done with sound quality in mind.

The nature of having two simultaneous mixes at play, one for each channel, always meant that ‘Pure Phase’ had a somewhat woozy sonic signature and that remains the case here. The high end and mid-range are largely the same as the original, but a little more bottom end seems to creep in at times. Given the scarcity of originals in decent nick, this series continues to serve its purpose, but its frustrating to once again encounter some surface noise. It would seem that it’s a touch of the classic GZ roulette where issues aren’t consistent and you could well get a perfect one. Keep on trying, as this is a fine job by Fat Possum overall.

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To mark its fiftieth anniversary, several deluxe editions of the legendary Jamaican compilation The Trojan Story have been issued including a triple vinyl set housed in a 12”x12” hardback book. Although a few tracks have been replaced as a result of publishing issues, the majority of this exhilarating label collection remains intact. While Lord Tanamo’s ‘I’m In The Mood For Ska’, Alton Ellis’ ‘Rock Steady’ and Dandy Livingstone’s ‘Rudy, A Message To You’ will rapidly ring bells for most, ‘Give Me All Your Love’ by The Continentals and Winston & George’s ‘Keep The Pressure On’ are among many other less obvious highlights.

As anyone who ever purchased one of the many themed 3CD boxes issued by the label down the years will know, when diving into a Trojan compilation audio quality will always be affected by the source. Bloated stereo, drop outs and distortion are all pretty much par for the course. As such, the fact that these discs have been pressed at GZ and are prone to a little light surface noise here and there doesn’t seem so much of an issue as it might be elsewhere. On a practical note, it’s worth observing that the set ships with the discs in polybags tucked inside the package but not in the actual sleeve sections amongst the pages so as to avoid seam splits in transit. Enjoyable pedantry!

The book is a particular delight in this format, replicating the labels from tape boxes and featuring full colour label shots. A foreword from label biographer Laurence Cane-Honeysett contextualises the set from the perspective of somebody who experienced its impact first hand while former label head Bob Bell offers plenty of insight. Coupled with Rusty Zinn’s exhaustive track notes, it functions as a beautiful celebration of a totemic work of art.

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A catalogue as extensive and idiosyncratic as The Fall’s takes some management and Cherry Red’s Fall Sound Archive programme is a valiant stab at it. This column has enjoyed some of their previous efforts and a fresh outing for 2001’s ‘Are You Are Missing Winner’ is the latest addition. Presented across two purple and grey split colour vinyl discs, the main album occupies the first and a selection of bonus tracks the second.

The original release was completed in difficult circumstances, hastily assembled thanks to financial constraints. While sparkling production and high fidelity have never been vital concerns for the band, this album wasn’t properly mastered and sounded all over the place. A subsequent reissue attempted to address this but, twenty years on from its troubled arrival, Cherry Red have knocked it into shape. While the bonus tracks will have limited appeal even to the faithful, the ramshackle rockabilly of what marked a fresh incarnation of the band has never been more vibrantly represented. Pressed through Takt in Poland, it’s a mostly quiet set which rights the wrongs of the original in fine fashion.

As ‘Policeman Skank…(The Story Of My Life)’, the opening track from Audioweb’s 1998 album ‘Fireworks City’, emerges from the speakers it feels a little like we’ve hit peak Demon Records Nineties indie reissue territory. If memory serves, it made it to the Radio 1 playlist and captured the scene’s shift towards a groove. That record is now back in the racks in a red edition along with their self-titled 1996 debut on white, both cut at GZ.

Originally released via U2’s label, Mother, this pair of albums offer a portal to another time. As with so many indie records of the period, the first sounds quite thin and even their buoyant take on The Clash’s ‘Bankrobber’ seems quite boxed in. Its follow up, perhaps helped by the additional bottom end afforded it by Stephen Lironi’s broader production, is a much more satisfying listen. Both discs play with only very minimal surface noise and, while they are very clearly digital sources popped onto vinyl, they will serve as welcome nostalgia for a niche but grateful audience looking to relive the era.

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Despite the usual fuss made about normally rather costly all-analogue vinyl reissues, it would seem that a Rhino edition of Milt Jackson and Ray Charles’ remarkable ‘Soul Brothers’ has somehow snuck out largely unnoticed and without too much outlay required. Kevin Gray has produced an analogue mono cut from the original masters and it fills the room.

A glossy tip-on sleeve houses this Optimal pressing, which looks a little bleary on first inspection, isn’t entirely silent but does play quietly in the main. Two friends play the blues, swapping instruments across the tracks and inhabiting these pieces. The jazzier tracks offer a luxurious wallow while the visceral impact of the more upbeat performances highlight why some audiophiles still love their mono cuts. A curiously under-hyped treat.

‘Songs For The Jet Set’ by Drugstore represents a step into the twenty-first century for Demon Records, with the label opting to mark two decades since its emergence with a clear vinyl GZ cut. This edition provides an opportunity for a welcome reappraisal. For many, the band are remembered for “that one with Thom Yorke that got on the Shine compilation”, ‘El Presidente’. While a great song, it wasn’t particularly representative of the band’s sound.

Somewhere between Mazzy Star and Karen Dalton, their airy but meticulously arranged music can be bewitching if caught at the right moment. Isabel Monteiro’s voice is the key to their magic, decreeing the mood of each song and equally adept in full flight as when more restrained and emotive. Curiously, when paired with guitarist on Daron Robinson on ‘The Party Is Over’, they powerfully conjure the early days of The Beautiful South. Although a touch sibilant at points, this edition is pretty light on surface noise and does this music justice.

Snap, Crackle and Pop

From its remarkable cover art to the variety of deluxe editions, the early signs for the new John Grant album, ‘Boy From Michigan’, were promising. Musically, it massively delivers and is right up there with some of his very best work. Occupying a hypnotic middle ground between the Seventies AOR sheen of his solo debut and the textured electronics of more recent records, it is one of the year’s highlights to date. Those who have yet to be swayed or simply never had the pleasure would be wise to stop off at ‘The Cruise Room’ and ‘Rhetorical Figure’ to get a sense of the range on offer.

However, despite one especially fancy edition – 36 page photo book, lyric booklet, trading cards and art prints – costing around £100, the vinyl has been done via GZ and it’s not without issue. Just Played opted for the standard edition, its printed inners matched with a light spattering of glue and paper detritus across the discs which then need a good clean. Even after a deep bath, things still aren’t quiet. Having tried three copies, this column encountered warps, two of the same disc in one package and some surface noise. It would seem that these are not isolated problems looking at reactions online. A great shame, as this is a wonderful album.

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Freshly Pressed

While lockdown has resulted in many unexpected directions from artists forced to confront their situation, it prompted Noel Gallagher to assemble a best of covering the first ten years of his time with the High Flying Birds. ‘Back The Way We Came Vol 1 (2011-2021)’ is a mostly familiar collection of singles, live favourites and the lead tracks from his recent EPs. The gatefold packaging of the vinyl does justice to the excellent artwork pastiche of the 1969 ‘Best of Bee Gees’ compilation that was always a favourite of Gallagher’s growing up.

It’s a Takt pressing over two discs, available in several colour variations and a picture disc edition, and Just Played spent some time with the standard black vinyl. As is becoming frustratingly common with this increasingly popular pressing plant, there are patches of noise here and there. It’s a shame, as the overall sound of these songs is well balanced and engaging. The proclaimed remaster of ‘Holy Mountain’ doesn’t appear to have made a great deal of difference to these ears, although it’s perhaps telling that such a gesture might be thought necessary only four years after its original release.

A deluxe version appends a curious collection of bonus tracks if you’re so inclined, but it’s hard to imagine a vast appetite for three mixes of ‘Black Star Dancing’ or instrumental versions of key songs. The two new recordings, ‘We’re On Our Way Now’ and ‘Flying On The Ground’, are tracks that Noel has had up his sleeve for a while and feel a little like a step back from his more experimental recent work. That said, the latter of the two is a mid-paced delight which is elevated somewhere special by backing vocals from the trio Roxys.

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‘Europiana’, the seventh album by Jack Savoretti, marks something of a musical shift for one of EMI’s current jewels in the crown. Recorded during the summer of 2020, he suggests that it represents the creation of a new genre. Given that one track, ‘Secret Life’, is a little like Phil Collins covering the Pet Shop Boys for a Hootenanny, this column isn’t quite ready to hang out the bunting for that particular discovery. For the best part of thirty quid, the vinyl edition is solid but unspectacular. Matt Colton at Metropolis has done a decent job of the cut but the Takt pressing isn’t without a little noise here and there and the gloss gatefold appears to exist only to bring us a close up on Savoretti downing some spirits.

Jalapeno Records have recently issued Mancunian soul singer Gizelle Smith’s third album ‘Revealing’. Abandoning a whole set of songs after experiencing the death of her father, Joe Smith of The Four Tops, in 2019, Smith wrote these during a ten-day spell in New York City. Album opener ‘Agony Road’ tackles that raw grief while ‘The Girl Who Cried Slow’ pits an angry lyric against a portentous backdrop.

Side two commences with a supremely well-judged take on Kate Bush’s ‘King Of The Mountain’, the opening track from 2005’s ‘Aerial’. Smith is not only a versatile and compelling vocalist, but also an artist with a forensic sense of the big picture. This very fine album has been pressed for vinyl via DMM at Optimal, but it sounds a little flat and boxed in. The actual disc is pretty much silent and some of the width of the soundstage is intact but the top end is heavily subdued and has all the hallmarks of a bass-focused digital master being put straight onto vinyl. It doesn’t suffer with clipping or distortion, but it just feels a little bloated and that’s a shame for songs this strong.

The neo-classical fan’s lot is not always a happy one when it comes to the analogue form. Atmospheric builds over several minutes are well and good, but press it at the wrong plant and the main emotion you’ll be slowly building in the listener is annoyance. It is a sign of how often these titles suffer that when one is perfect it stands out massively. Such is the case with the new 10” EP from amiina, ‘Pharology’. Originally a chamber quartet who gradually evolved into a string-laden alternative act drawing comparisons with the quieter side of Sigur Ros, this latest release nudges further into what one might consider the Erased Tapes landscape. It’s an elegiac twenty minutes perfectly cut for vinyl.

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Having been quite the collaborator in recent times, working with Greg Foat and Other Lands, Nick Moore’s latest Linkwood release is a lo-fi electro set, with synths, squelchy beats and a melodic groove. These fourteen pieces seem to mutate according to location, transfixing the listener via speakers and morphing into a compelling soundtrack if taken in-ear or on the move. Given the soundstage and production, this needed the right treatment for its vinyl edition and Athens Of The North deliver once again. An Optimal press with an open soundstage and very minimal surface noise, it simply serves the music. As is increasingly the case with the vast majority of this label’s output, the first stock has flown from the shelves and you may well have to await a repress.

Gaspard Augé is best known as half of French electro duo Justice, but ‘Escapades’ finds him striking out on his own. It is unlikely to surprise you that it is full of bombastic, joyful prog-house. It’s utterly shameless, with so much heart and enthusiasm that it’s hard to be too cynical about its somewhat aged reference points. You’ll feel its pleasures before you can unleash your inner BBC4 Friday night talking head style critique.

Destined to be defined by its bangers, it still has its more introspective moments. The keening harmonies of ‘Captain’ are begging for a slowly-zooming out drone shot of late summer fields to accompany them, while ‘Europa’ recalls Air in moody soundtrack mode as on ‘The Virgin Suicides’. A splendid gatefold sleeve features exactly the artwork you would expect from listening to the record and this MPO pressed disc is almost silent during playback. The soundstage is pretty balanced, although the top end could open up a little. An unexpected gem for late summer atmospherics.

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At The Front Of The Racks

When records arrive garnished with hype stickers proclaiming that the vinyl has been cut from the original tapes via the esteemed Gearbox Records and pressed at Optimal they are met with high hopes. That a label like Universal knows that this process and the declaring of it for potential purchasers matters so much, raises many questions about decisions made for the majority of other releases but we’ll leave that debate for another day. Instead, let’s turn our attention to the true launch of the British Jazz Explosion series.

It was technically premiered in 2019 with Tubby Hayes’ ‘The Complete Fontana Albums’ box set. Having initially retailed at £200, it’s understandable if that particular treasure trove passed you by. However, this series – conceived and curated by Tony Higgins – has been in the making for many years, finally reaching our turntables at a time when high-end jazz reissues are all the rage. The Hayes box is magnificent and, given recent reductions via reputable indie stores, well worth seeking out if these new titles hit the spot. For the full launch, three specific albums get stunning replica reissues alongside a phenomenal compilation: ‘Journeys In Modern Jazz: Britain’.

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As a primer for the vibrant scene of the late Sixties and early Seventies, it is a delight. Stan Tracey, Michael Garrick, Neil Ardley, Don Rendell, Ian Carr and the Mike Taylor Quartet all rub shoulders here. If you were aware of Gilles Peterson’s short-lived but magnificent ‘Impressed with…’ series from the early Noughties, upon which Higgins also worked, then you’ll have some idea of what quality awaits here. The sound of these pieces is special, open and airy with a real sense of the space around the musicians. The accompanying booklet, with exhaustive sleevenotes from Higgins, is an education. So very few compilations have this good a tracklist and such excellent mastering.

For the already initiated – or the quickly addicted – three specific studio albums are also reissued using the original tapes through Gearbox. With restored art, authentic flip-back sleeves and new essays offering context, they maintain the exceptionally high standard of the sampler. Ken Wheeler and The John Dankworth Orchestra’s ‘Windmill Tilter’, The New Jazz Orchestra’s ‘Le Déjeuner Sur L’herbe’ and the Don Rendell Quintet’s ‘Space Walk’ would set you back a good few hundred pounds if you were seized with a desire for originals and it’s hard to imagine – and imagining is all we can do given those circumstances – those discs massively surpassing these superlative editions. They’re not cheap but they are exemplary in the world of vinyl reissues. Where they lead, let’s hope others follow.

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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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