Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Other Record Store Day 2011 Releases

Generally, I try to keep things positive here, so in that spirit I wanted to point out a few of the Record Store Day 2011 releases that do look cool to me, and that I will pick up if I can.

The one I really want is the Television Live At The Old Waldorf 2 LP set. This was originally released as a 5,000 copy limited edition CD by Rhino Handmade several years ago. It promptly sold out, and I really regret missing the boat on it the first time. It is available as a download from iTunes (and probably other places), so the music is available. But for me, music on a hard drive never totally cuts it, and damn it, I want this on LP. Am I a hypocrite for wanting this on vinyl (even though I have the music in some form already) while criticizing the Beach Boys 78 RPM set? Possibly. But, want it I do. (In the words of the great philosopher David St. Hubbins: "It's such a fine line between stupid and clever.") Live At The Old Waldorf is limited to 3,000 copies, so hopefully my local record store gets a copy or two.

Another interesting looking release is Big Star's Third (Test Pressing Edition). For those who don't know the history of this album, it originally appeared as a very limited edition test pressing that was never released commercially. Several years later the album was issued by PVC on LP with a different track listing and song order, but many prefer the way the album was originally intended to be sequenced. If I can find this, I'll buy a copy, but it's limited to a pressing of 1,000. I expect this one to be difficult to obtain and quickly fetch big collector dollars on eBay. Such is life.

Another promising release is a new single by The Fleet Foxes, "Helplessness Blues" b/w "Grown Ocean," I have no idea if either of these songs will show up on their upcoming album release, but I am very much looking forward to hearing new music from this band.

Finally, there is Rhino's "audiophile" reissue of Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, pressed as both a 2 LP 45 RPM set and a standard 33.3 RPM set. I think this is only getting grouped in with Record Store Day releases by circumstance because it was supposed to have been released years ago, but got held up for one reason or another. The LP was cut by Steve Hoffman and Kevin Gray (who cut the best sounding version of Joni Mitchell's Blue I have ever heard, along with many other fantastic sounding LPs).

Much as I respect Hoffman and Gray's work, I'm a little nervous about hearing this album remastered, because I love how the original LP sounds so much already. When I drop the needle in the groove of the original album a million memories and sensations from 1977 wash over me. It's like my own personal 33.3 RPM time machine. The sound of this one really defined its era, for better or for worse (I love it). Still, I'm looking forward to hearing this album presented in a different way (I imagine with no compression and limited EQ). I don't doubt the 45 RPM version will sound spectacular, but I really don't care for 45 RPM sets (the sides are too short), and have an order in for the 33.3 version instead. The 33.3 version is not a limited pressing, so it should be no problem to get a copy. The 45 RPM set is limited, so if you want it, act fast.

There are some other releases that look interesting, but that I will probably pass on.

It's good to see The Flaming Lips first 5 Warner LPs get reissued on premium vinyl (especially given what some of the original LPs go for on eBay), but I'm not made of money, and will happily settle for the CDs I already own.

Shuggie Otis's Inspiration Information: World Psychedelic Classics 2 is getting a limited 2 LP repressing by Luaka Bop. I already own a copy of that, and can't recommend it highly enough. The 2 LP set I own sounds much better than the CD to my ears (less compressed, less harsh EQ, etc.). And, of course, the music on this release is absolutely essential; funky, soulful, weird, inventive, passionate, it is absolutely one of my all time favorites, and the Luaka Bop set also adds the best tracks from the nearly as good Freedom Flight. Grab one if you can!

It also looks like the dB's have a new single coming out called "Picture Sleeve" as well, hopefully that means there will be more new music from this legendary combo around the bend.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Record Store Day 2011

Like many things that started out as good ideas, Record Store Day has (in my humble opinion) gotten extremely lame less cool as it has become increasingly institutionalized. Case in point; one of the big, exciting, must-have Record Store Day releases this year is a 78 RPM version of The Beach Boy's "Good Vibrations"/"Heroes And Villains."

What started out as a well-intentioned celebration of an important but struggling institution has devolved into little more than an orgy of collector fetishism. I mean seriously, what is the point of a 78 RPM version of "Good Vibrations" other than to have a 78 RPM version of "Good Vibrations" that you can show to your friends and say "Look! I have a 78 RPM version of 'Good Vibrations'! It plays at 78 RPM!" And if your friends are really nice people they will pretend you have a really cool, unique and important cultural artifact, but trust me they don't really care because all you have is a pointless commodity fetish.

I still support Record Store Day in concept because real record stores are a dying breed, and I love record stores. But the concept and the reality seem more and more at odds with each passing year. When I recently stopped into my local, genuinely independent, record store (In Your Ear in Warren Rhode Island), the owner was unsure how many releases he would actually be able to get because the regional, medium-sized chain, Newbury Comics (which isn't even really a record store, but a lifestyle and accessories shop that happens to sell some records) gets priority from the people who run Record Store Day.

I'm eager to know if any of my readers actually really want the 78 RPM "Good Vibrations" (and not just because you think you might be able to sell it at a profit on eBay--see poll at right). Is a 78 RPM version of "Good Vibrations" the thing that will finally fill the hole in your life that you were always vaguely aware of, but never could fully articulate until you learned that Capitol records would be producing a special, limited-edition, 78 RPM edition of "Good Vibrations" exclusively for Record Store Day 2011, or will it just be another piece of junk that sits in your closet?

Oh yeah...the fourth annual Record Store Day will take place on Saturday, April 16, 2011. Support your local independent record store!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Neil Diamond Bang Alternatives

If, like me, you recently picked up Neil Diamond's The Bang Years: 1966-1968 on CD and found yourself disappointed with the sound quality (personally I find it way too bright and compressed sounding), what are your alternatives?

Unfortunately, none of them are perfect. The very best I have heard this material sound, strangely enough, is on an LP compilation distributed exclusively by the Columbia House Record Club on the Frog King label in 1978. Back then a mere penny (or whatever the deal was in 1978) could get you excellent sounding versions of 12 of Neil's biggest hits for Bang Records. However, the versions on this compilation are not exactly the original hit versions of the songs. They are stereo remixes with some added overdubs. Still this LP, mastered by the great Bernie Grundman, sounds excellent and is very enjoyable to listen to even if it lacks a certain faithfulness to the punchy sounding 60s hits. There's more "space" between the sounds here than on the mono mixes, and the instruments and vocals sound highly resolved and articulated, whereas on the mono mixes you get a bit more of that squashed "wall of sound" effect.

A very similar LP called Classics: The Early Years was issued by Columbia in 1983, and later reissued on CD. The CD is still available. I can't vouch for the mastering of this title, but my understanding is that it mostly features the same mixes as the Frog King LP, with the exception of "Kentucky Woman" which is presented in a true stereo remix on the Frog King LP and in a fake stereo remix on Classics. But be warned, while the cover (somewhat misleadingly) says "Original Hit Recordings," these are definitely stereo remixes, not what you would have heard on the radio circa 1966-1973 when these songs originally charted. And more importantly, it only gets you 12 songs.

Another option that gets you more songs (21 in all) is the 1973 Bang Records 2 LP set Double Gold that I mentioned in my previous post. Unfortunately, I have trouble recommending this set on sonic grounds as well. Many (not all) of the tracks are featured in annoying "fake stereo" mixes that really don't sound very good.

Another good choice is the 3 CD In My Lifetime box set that was released by Sony in 1996. While it only features 11 of Diamond's Bang recordings, they are presented in their original mono single mixes and were mastered without the artificial brightening and excessive compression that mars the new set. Used copies of the box can be found cheaply, and of course you get many of the later hits like "Sweet Caroline," "Cracklin' Rosie" and "Forever In Blue Jeans" as well. I'm not crazy about all of the later material, but I still consider this an essential purchase. If the current CD only sounded as good as the Bang era cuts do on the box set, I would have been very happy.

Still that leaves you missing a lot of great songs from the Bang era. You could try picking up original mono pressings of Neil's first two albums The Feel Of Neil Diamond and Just For You. But finding original mono copies of these LPs in anything resembling good condition is a very difficult (not to mention pricey) proposition. Additionally, a few of the songs on the mono LPs feature different mixes from the hit single versions. Stereo copies are somewhat easier to find, but the original stereo mixes are drastically inferior to the later remixed versions. "Solitary Man" in particular features a horrible "ping-pong" stereo mix that really distracts from the song.

Which leaves us with.....

...collecting the original 45 RPM 7" singles. Many of them can still be found in excellent condition for reasonable prices. I've picked up a few already, and while no one will confuse these with fussy "audiophile" recordings, they sound great nonetheless. These songs were mastered loud (although not nearly as loud as the new CD) and have a "punchy" AM radio quality to them. While there is some distortion inherent to the mixes, it's a friendly, euphonic, analog, tube-driven kind of distortion, not the hard, brittle, digital sounding distortion I hear on the new CD (or perhaps it is a matter of the compression and bright EQ taking that euphonic tube distortion and making it sound hard and brittle... I'm afraid I can only speculate.) So while the original 45s have some distortion in them, they sound very exciting and alive, as did the best pop music of that era.

Of course there are frustrations with collecting 45s. Off center pressings are more the rule than the exception in my experience. Sometimes they look fine when examined visually, only to reveal serious damage when placed on the turntable. And, of course, listening to them will never be as easy as putting on a CD, or even an LP for that matter. Still, if you want the authentic sound of these hits, I think this is the only way to go.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Capitol Records to Release Beach Boys Version of SMiLE

Capitol records has announced that they will release The Beach Boys' lost SMiLE album sometime in 2011. According to Billboard, "the project will be released in three versions: a two-CD set, an iTunes LP digital album and a limited-edition boxed set containing four CDs, two vinyl LPs, two vinyl singles and a 60-page hardbound book written by Beach Boys historian Domenic Priore." (No bonus points for guessing which one I plan to buy.)

Of course the SMiLE album was never actually completed, and to what extent it was close to being finished has been subject to much debate among Beach Boys fans over the years. For what it is worth producer Mark Linett, who also produced Brian Wilson's re-recorded solo SMiLE album, says in an interview with Billboard that "all of the tracks were recorded," but "a lot of the vocals seem to not have been completed."

My own feeling is that it was no coincidence that Brian finally completed SMiLE as a solo album at the same time that ProTools became ubiquitous in the recording and mixing of popular music. Much has been made of Brian's mental state as the SMiLE project fell apart, but on some level I believe that it took recording and mixing technology 35 years to catch up to the music Brian was hearing in his head circa 1966-67. So while we'll never know exactly what SMiLE would have sounded like if it had been completed in 1967, that may well be because it was impossible to complete as Brian envisioned it with the technology available at the time. But this new release will undoubtedly get us much closer to what was in Brian's head back then. Exciting news!

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Neil Diamond - The Bang Years 1966-1968

Neil Diamond's recordings for Bert Berns' Bang Records label have a tortured release history, so it is good to see the release of the 23 track The Bang Years: 1966-1968 CD on Sony Legacy, a long-promised, but much-delayed, collection. The set presents nearly all of Diamond's Bang recordings in their original, rockin' mono mixes (but omits two Bang era tracks, "Shot Down" and "Crooked Street," for reasons I am not entirely clear on).

I primarily know these songs through a 2 LP set released by Bang in 1973 called Double Gold. Double Gold, while containing some great music, is a fairly thorough butchering of Diamond's early hit records. It features a couple mono recordings, some of the inferior stereo mixes, some horrible sounding fake stereo remixes with annoying panning effects, and some mono recordings that have had (unnecessary) stereo overdubs added to them.

Confused? That's okay, someone named K.F. Louie has done an admirable job of sorting out the whole mess with a handy chart and track-by-track analysis. Many of the tracks were also re-released on Early Classics on the Frog King label and Classics: The Early Years on Columbia. These LPs featured remixed stereo recordings (also with added overdubs), and while they sound good in their own right, they're identifiably different from the classic "hit" versions of the songs. The In My Lifetime box set corrected some of these errors by presenting 11 Bang era tracks, plus an alternate take of "Cherry, Cherry" in their original mono mixes with no overdubs, and sounding very good indeed.

Despite its sonic flaws, Double Gold presents a very compelling portrait of the artist as a young man. "Cherry, Cherry," "Solitary Man," "The Boat That I Row," "Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon," "I'm A Believer,"  "Red, Red Wine," "Kentucky Woman," and others are classic tracks, strongly rooted in the Brill Building tradition, but also seriously rock and roll as well. Even if you think (as I do) that Diamond went off-track later in his career, the greatness of this material is hard to deny, and Diamond more than earned his reputation as "The Jewish Elvis" with these recordings.

As much as I would like to say this new Sony/Legacy release finally rights all the historical wrongs done to Diamond's Bang recordings, I can't quite bring myself to say so. The music has been mastered too loud and too bright, as if the producer decided the material needed to sound more "contemporary." Despite these flaws, it still sounds much better than most of the material on Double Gold, but unfortunately not as good as the same material on In My Lifetime.

It looks like I'm going to need to track down mono versions of the Bang LPs, The Feel of Neil Diamond and Just For You, if I want to hear this material sounding its best. I guess there are worse things I could have to do.

Update: The more I listen to this, the less enamored I am with the sound quality. There is a very hard, edgy quality to it that I do not find appealing at all. It sounds to me like the upper midrange has been boosted a lot, creating a sound that is excessively bright. I picked up a few 45s and they sound much nicer. The CD is more dynamically compressed than the 45s, but not by a huge amount (typically around 2 to 3 dB louder on average).  I guess it was too much to expect them to get this 100% right after such a long wait, especially given the checkered release history of this material.

Neil's liner notes are very thoughtful and frank. He talks at length about the critical role Ellie Greenwich (RIP) and Jeff Barry twice played in getting his career started, showing faith in his abilities when no one else did. He also gives them the credit they deserve for the critical role they played in the studio to help shape these songs into hit singles.

Friday, March 04, 2011

NPR Story - Slow And Steady: Vinyl Survives

I was working on a post on how many of the recent "vinyl revival" news stories that have been popping up over the past few years bug me, when I came across a very good story from NPR called "Slow And Steady: Vinyl Survives."  NPR gives a reality-based account of the recent increase in vinyl sales, along with a thoughtful analysis of why many people still find the format appealing in the year 2011, despite the fact that there are more convenient and cheaper options available to today's music consumer.

The NPR story contains an implicit critique of one of the things that really bothers me about so many other stories devoted to the recent growth in vinyl sales:
"In recent years some headlines have cast an increase in sales for vinyl LPs — once considered a casualty of the CD era — as something like a beacon of hope for the struggling music industry. The reality isn't all that rosy. Though vinyl sales grew by 14% in 2010, according to Nielsen SoundScan, they still counted for less than one percent of the year's total album sales."
That is a critical point that is often overlooked. Despite the "spectacular" rise in vinyl's popularity, it still accounts for less than 1% of all albums sold. Vinyl records are very much a specialist, niche, format, and likely to remain so in both the short and long term. Anyone who suggests otherwise is either dreaming or being dishonest. One year growth of 14% sounds spectacular when taken out-of-context, but there are numerous reasons why that growth is unlikely to be sustained long-term that have to do with both the physical reality of pressing records and format demographics, which the NPR piece covers quite nicely.

I highly recommend checking out this story because it avoids the cliches and hyperbole that plague so many of the other recent stories I've seen/heard/read. Rather than point out each of those stories specifically (there are a lot of them), I've created a handy parody that summarizes them instead:

Anchor: "Remember the good old days when you listened to scratchy vinyl records instead of CDs or downloads? Well those days are back!" [Cue sound effect of tonearm skidding across a record.]

Reporter: "While CD sales are down again this year and digital downloads are flat, there's one format that is experiencing amazing growth, and it represents the music industry's last, best hope: the old-fashioned vinyl record." [Again, cue the sound of tonearm skidding across a record, because you just can't use that baby enough.] "That's right, according to Soundscan, vinyl records experienced a remarkable 14% growth in sales last year." [At this point, be sure to neglect to mention that they still accounted for less than 1% of total album sales in 2010.] "And it's not just weird, aging baby boomers fueling this spectacular growth, it's weird young kids too."

[Cut to a socially maladjusted looking kid in a record store.]

Kid: "Vinyl is like cool and stuff. And it sounds way better than CD or MP3, it's, like, warm. MP3 isn't even really music. I hate MP3. And I hate the kids at my school. I spend all my money on vinyl."

[Cue clicking and popping vinyl noise sound effects.]

Reporter: "Vinyl's true believers say that the abhorrent noise that all sane people jettisoned the moment the CD hit the market is part of the 'special warmth' that makes it so appealing to them."

[Cut to a picture of a record spinning on a Crosley all-in-one record player that you can buy at Bed Bath & Beyond for $50 ($40 if you remembered your 20% off coupon) while Deep Purple's "Smoke On The Water" plays in the background.]

Reporter: "Yes, in today's high-tech, hurry-up world, the losers who are falling behind are finding comfort in the nostalgic glow of noisy records."

Anchor: "Thank you Sacha. Tomorrow night, we document the extreme psychological duress of Wall Street C.E.O's who are unfairly being asked to give back their bonus money after crashing the world's economy."

Okay, I exaggerate a little. But check out the NPR story, it's actually quite good.