Just Played: A Column About Vinyl Records #6
Regular readers may recall that the last standard instalment of this column started by considering the doom and gloom facing the record industry because of a fire at a lacquer factory and rising wholesale prices. Scant mention of a global pandemic in that one, so the debate around our mystic qualities is firmly settled.
A special edition followed with words from a number of independent retailers on how they were managing, which mainly boiled down to shedloads of mail order on whatever was still being released. And so, with a number of record shop doors creaking forth once more, you find Clash picking out some fine releases from across the lockdown period for your potential purchase.
The music keeps on coming, with plenty of delayed releases soon to land, but the next couple of months will be incredibly difficult for shops with restricted footfall. Your local indie will gladly supply you with whatever might appeal from the records reviewed below and, hey, you get some more vinyl.
Snap, Crackle and Pop
I suspect that now remains very much not the time to be trying to campaign for the use of poly-lined sleeves as standard, despite their capacity to reduce early doors issues with new pressings. Frazey Ford, a former member of Be Good Tanyas, has recently put out her wonderful third solo record. Her previous two, ‘Obadiah’ and ‘Indian Ocean’, are firm Just Played favourites and ‘U Kin B The Sun’ does not disappoint.
Continuing the Muscle Shoals sound of her last release, Ford’s voice is utterly captivating here again. The pressing is, frustratingly, solid but unspectacular and prone to some low level surface noise. If you have the means to sneak it out of its clingy, static-heavy sleeve and give it a thorough wash before playing, you stand the best chance of a problem-free listen.
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It used to be the case that the nice little money spinner of an anniversary reissue would come with a remaster or some unreleased material. These days, for many, it seems that all is needed is to bung it out on another colour. If you’re really unlucky, the decision will be made to go for some sort of split or splatter effect and then farmed out to, the afore-mentioned in this column, GZ Media in the Czech Republic.
And so it proves for the ten year reissue of The National’s ‘High Violet’, originally available on a serviceable but not spectacular purple pressing that was so limited you could buy it for about four years after release.
It is one of my absolute favourite albums of all time and you don’t need me to tell you what it sounds like, musically. However, to commemorate its decade a new vinyl edition has been released, featuring the original expanded edition bonus CD audio now available in the twelve inch form and tucked inside a triple gatefold sleeve. All three discs are available in a variant that I maintain looks like someone has tried to clean the original purple pressing with wood glue. Given its origins, I probably would clean it to reduce the low level surface noise, but I’d probably steer clear of that method. There will, however, be more on record cleaning in a future column.
With no discernible improvement in the vinyl mastering, songs that have been available for yonks and a not especially aesthetically pleasing presentation, I’d save the close to £40 (!!) this will set you back, if I were you. It pains me to say that. It is ‘High Violet’ after all.
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And, speaking of anniversary editions and pain, I recently reviewed the deluxe, 27 year anniversary reissue of ‘Gold Against The Soul’ by Manic Street Preachers for Clash and had to endure some of the worst remastering I have heard in many a year. I’m pleased to report the vinyl isn’t quite so harsh, although it physically couldn’t be otherwise the thing wouldn’t play. The soundstage remains a little flat and intense moments end up a little shrill. It is a long, long way from the dynamic sound of the original pressing.
Given that the CD book and vinyl together will set you back around £60, anyone still interested in a copy of this less-than-stellar Manics record should punt on an original to actually ‘enjoy’ the music.
Just as this column was receiving its final polish, the new Phoebe Bridgers album, ‘Punisher’, arrived. You’ll know by now that it is a fabulous record, building on what made her debut great while adding textures and variety that are instantly beguiling. Sadly, you might also know that the pressing has not been a triumph.
Her label Dead Oceans, as part of the Secretly Group, has a reputation for variable vinyl and this one is a stinker. One record shop I spoke to has already had multiple complaints and the online forums are awash with people bemoaning its incessant surface noise and warping.
Clash’s indie store coloured vinyl edition has a mild warp and surface noise from the second the needle lands. Hopefully there are quiet copies out there and the matter will be addressed, as a record this good needs a pressing that does it justice.
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Norah Jones seems perpetually pursued in the UK by the smooth jazz label with which her solo debut, 2002’s ‘Come Away With Me’, was so successfully marketed into every supermarket, home store and easy listening radio station playlist. It’s a warm and inviting recording to this day, but it marks only the very start of the incredible catalogue built up by one of the finest living jazz vocalists we have.
Her music has always incorporated soul and country influences too and ‘Pick Me Up Off The Floor’ is no different in that regard. It is wonderfully recorded, with a full, absorbing soundstage and cut to vinyl with skill for Blue Note. Time to revisit, certainly.
One of the musical totems of lockdown has been Tim Burgess, record shop lover, member of The Charlatans and relentless enthusiast. His infectious love of listening and sincere positivity has driven his rightly beloved listening parties to unthinkable heights and offered community in times of isolation.
He’s also released his best solo album to date, by some distance. ‘I Love The New Sky’ is a melodic onslaught with enveloping layers of sound and a willingness to hop nimbly across a variety of styles. His emphatic vocals are well-served by the arrangements of Grumbling Fur’s Daniel O’Sullivan and so many hugely endearing nods to pop culture past. This record grows in stature with every listen.
The only pressing currently is a splatter job via GZ that has surprisingly little surface noise. You’ll be wanting this one in your collection, so clean it and you should be OK.
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Just before we all started wiping down all of our purchases, Cornershop unveiled another excellent album. Its momentum was sadly stifled somewhat by record shop counter recommendations being muted but it’s not too late to be good to yourself. Quietly releasing hugely infectious, often euphoric indie rock for a number of decades, they have delivered a real treat with the double vinyl set of ‘England Is A Garden’.
Pitching somewhere close to glam-jangle, it offers a representation of modern Englishness imbued with elements of nostalgia alongside the unavoidable sense that parts of the titular garden might be wilting.
Available in several coloured vinyl combinations, listeners need not fear as this is an excellent mastering awarded a decent pressing. In the early days of lockdown, your correspondent found themselves reaching for quite a lot of Radiohead, safe in the knowledge that anything too ebullient would be unbearably jarring.
At the end of April came that latest Ghostpoet album, ‘I Grow Tired But Dare Not Fall Asleep’. In terms of tone, it is imbued with a similarly claustrophobic intensity to previous collaborators Massive Attack’s ‘Mezzanine’ and lyrically focused on mental health and the glistening dystopia of our technology-reliant lives. Having written, arranged and produced the record himself, Ghostpoet has left nothing in the tank and it shows. It’s a remarkable record that perfectly captures its time of creation.
Thankfully, Play It Again Sam have ensured an excellent vinyl edition with an intensely controlled bottom end that does this music justice. One of the great musical moments of lockdown has been Bandcamp’s regular focused days, with some generating donations to good causes and others seeing them give their share of takings straight to the artists.
As well as discovering all sorts of things I’d previously missed – listen to Sault now, honestly – Clash has been reminded to pick up things that had fleetingly caught the attention previously.
Welsh wonders Seazoo have – with apologies to Limmy – released one of the sounds of the summer with their aptly titled album ‘Joy’. It’s such a wonderfully vibrant album that this dependable curmudgeon is willing to concede that the orange colour of the vinyl actually suits the music. Angular indie pop with plenty of this column’s beloved jangle abound. This record makes things better. And we need more of that, right? Sample ‘Honey Bee’ now and then buy the record while the limited stock remains.
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Domino’s Weird World label is home to a remarkable range of artists and chief amongst them is Wilma Archer, previously known as Slime. ‘A Western Circular’ is one of this year’s very finest slow-burning delights. It features guest vocals from Samuel T Herring from Future Islands, Sudan Archives, MF Doom and Laura Groves, all of whom are interwoven across a meticulous soundstage that suits life on your turntable. A record battling with the opposing forces of life and death that took years to complete, this is quite unlike anything else mentioned in this column.
There’s a soulful undercurrent that pulls in elements of jazz, hip-hop and alternative rock across its forty minutes which coheres successfully on this high calibre vinyl outing. Switch from ‘Last Sniff’ to ‘Cheater’ and you’ll get a sense of the range here. There’s a clear pressing which sounds stellar if you like your discs to sparkle a bit.
I know you didn’t ask, but Ed O’Brien has always been my favourite member of Radiohead. Regularly comes across as a nice bloke, lovely hair and those backing vocals on stage. Oh! When news came of his debut solo album under the almost impenetrably cryptic name of EOB, there was much excitement at Just Played Towers. Quite how much the recycled packaging contributes to the mildly wince-inducing price of the vinyl pressing, Clash is unsure, but it sounds great.
There has been some grumbling about hints of early Nineties U2 on ‘Olympik’ and speculation around his status in the industry trumping his tunes, but it’s gone down very well here. The meditative build-up of ‘Brasil’ sounds huge on this system and the Ulrich Schnauss influences he has explained when playing live are evident on several occasions. If you can get past the price, there’s plenty to enjoy.
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Going Round Again
Having previously raved about the quality of the first few reissues on Pete Paphides’ new Needle Mythology label, I was delighted to receive two Robert Forster titles he put out just as lockdown descended. It would be a great shame for them to be lost to the mists of time, so allow me to nudge you in the direction of these new editions of the first two solo efforts from the former Go-Between.
Now thirty years old, ‘Danger In The Past’ is a sweepingly melodic collection that largely escapes the trappings of its era through a reliance on evocative acoustic guitar and resonant piano. The odd skittering drum burst awakens the memories of curious hair, but this a very sharp set for the first independent steps from band life.
1993’s ‘Calling From A Country Phone’ has been largely forgotten and one suspects its original and ghastly cover art didn’t help. Forster has wisely orchestrated a switch to a rather more fitting design for this release and, as on the debut, the vinyl remastering is wondrous. The songs, even in their most sparse moments, occupy the room, removing the speakers from the soundstage as the best music does. With new liner notes from the artist and a bonus 7’ in each, these are definitive versions of albums which deserve reappraisal.
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This column has previously highlighted the superlative pressing quality of the considerable run of Prince reissues currently in progress from Sony. The most recent offerings include ‘The Rainbow Children’. ‘One Nite Alone’, ‘One Nite Alone…Live’ and ‘One Nite Alone: The Aftershow…It Ain’t Over’.
Clash has listened to 2002’s ‘One Night Alone’, an almost entirely piano-only set with a Joni Mitchell cover and songs that are better than the spelling of their titles suggests. The purple vinyl suffers from a little surface noise, made more notable by the sparse performance. However, ‘One Nite Alone: The Aftershow…It Ain’t Over’ is a delight. A live performance from the same period and a joyous record of his playful almost transcendent stagecraft when in the moment, however late he had appeared on stage. A quick listen to the version of ‘Alphabet Street’ found here and you’ll be hooked. These purple discs sound great, propelling the heft of the band out into the room.
The good folk at Cherry Red continue to get reissues right, despite this column’s noted aversion to the splatter variants of which they are rather keen. Pressed through French plant MPO – check your Nineties vinyl, you know them! – and with attention to detail on the sleeves, it’s clear they know what they’re doing.
Two recent highlights come from Peel perennials The Fall and the early days of the second coming of Buzzcocks.
Since Mark E Smith’s passing in early 2018, it has been odd to adjust to the idea that there won’t be another album and tour by The Fall just around the corner. The regular reissues go some way to plugging that gap and next off the production line is ‘Reformation! Post TLC’ from 2007. Coming after yet another personnel reshuffle, and accompanying implosion, it is far from their finest work. Musically, the backdrop doesn’t quite match the ferocity of Smith’s vocal performance and production couldn’t elevate it from the confusion. However, if you’re in the market for a vinyl pressing – the original is long gone – then this blue and red splatter edition, matching the colours of the artwork, does a find job of presenting the material anew alongside some engaging sleeve notes to add context.
Having split in 1981, the end of the same decade would witness a reunion for Seventies punk luminaries Buzzcocks. They worked up a new set of songs which did the rounds as a demo tape designed to drum up interest. Many of the songs would go onto find homes on later albums, but released together as ‘The 1991 Demo Album’ they offer an intriguing take on the band’s distinctive sound, with traces of C86 and shoegaze in the jangling and thin production.
‘When Love Turns Around You’, which concludes proceedings, is the least murky highlight, but there’s something charming about hearing a concise set of demos in a world that seems obsessed with giving us four discs of every studio dust-up or unsuccessful acoustic noodle. It’s never going to be sonically luxurious, but it’s a stand up pressing of an intriguing curio.
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Another ray of light in lockdown has been 6 Music’s finest, Gilles Peterson, who temporarily had his programme extended on Saturday afternoons and somehow became even more enthusiastic and amiable as he traversed decades by mining his vast collection and the session archives of his BBC shows. It’s not a pursuit he reserves simply for his time on air and has recently established a reissue label, Arc, to return some long lost belters to our shelves.
The second title he has put out is Shirley Scott’s ‘One For Me’, original released in the Seventies on legendary jazz label Strata-East. Self-funded and relatively sparse, it was an act of personal expression, with saxophonist Harold Vick and drummer Billy Higgins assisting Scott’s fluid organ work. The odd tick and pop intrude a little, but it’s a sensitively rendered vinyl master for this supremely involving reissue you didn’t know you needed.
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Front Of The Racks
If you find yourself hovering over the search bar of your preferred online indie retailer, or even tentatively rummaging in your local’s racks, unsure what to make your next purchase, anything on the International Anthem label is a safe bet.
However, one of this year’s finest records so far is a compilation of saxophonist Alabaster dePlume which that label has put out as ‘To Cy & Lee: Instrumentals Vol 1’. A mix of new tracks and remastered older work that only received a limited release, it is an album built for these times, sifting his catalogue for wordless but still lyrical pieces that offer balm to fatigued minds and hope for souls in need of stirring. This hypnotically absorbing music has been pressed at Pallas in Germany and fills the room from its vinyl pressing. THIS is how you do the twelve inch format, folks.
An absolutely essential purchase – no caveats.
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Words: Gareth James (For more vinyl reviews and turntable shots, follow @JustPlayed on Twitter)
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