Few saw it coming. Even fewer believed it would ever happen. But the analog resurgence remains in full swing, showing no signs of letting up more than five years after making such big waves that those in the mainstream media and major record labels started paying it heed. The numbers don’t lie. In 2010, vinyl sales increased 14% over the then-record 2009 totals, and that doesn’t even tell the entire story. Many LP sales aren’t tabulated as they are sold by Web and mail-order companies like Music Direct. Indeed, we would know better than anyone.
We’ve always preferred the warm, involving, and transparent sound wrought by a record’s grooves. We love the full-size album art, gorgeously produced inserts, life-like gatefold sleeves, activity of placing the needle on the vinyl, watching it spin, and being transported to the artist’s universe. And apparently, many people—and more everyday—share our passion.
Since 1988, Music Direct has been helping music lovers all over the world find the best vinyl, turntables and other audio equipment. Our philosophy is simple: It’s the Music That Matters. We never gave up on vinyl, and now that it’s thriving again, we couldn’t be happier. We want to share our experiences with you which leads me to this column—and first, a little about myself.
I’m a full-blown audiophile in every sense of the term. I’d be even if I wasn’t part of Music Direct. And while I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I own six different copies of Steely Dan’s Aja, I was weaned on a diet of vinyl at a very early age. My Uncle Rickey had a giant vinyl collection and instantly instilled in me a tremendous passion for music. I still remember my very fist turntable: a compact console from Sears. The turntable and speakers were covered in denim. Hey, it was the late 70s! I also had a penny taped to the headshell to keep it from skipping. Sound familiar?
Of course, I’ve since upgraded my system more than a dozen times and now own my own giant record collection. Yet I still get the same chills down my spine. Nothing gives me the kind of emotional response I get when listening to music that I really adore—and that happens whether I’m listening in the car, on a tiny radio, or through my iPod. No one needs to invest a fortune to be moved by great music, although my reference system constantly raises the hairs on my arms. I love discovering new sounds and profess to a deep affection for the classics (late 60s and 70s rock). Because of this, I feel extremely fortunate to be a part of this industry and have the opportunity to get to hear so much great new music at work. It’s a fantastic job if you can get it!
So, when PSTracks asked if I would be interested in writing about new music releases, I jumped at the chance. This column will touch on some of the best re-issues, great new music, and a few duds. I’ll focus on vinyl but will also periodically discuss digital releases. I’ll write about labels, mastering engineers, and other cool subjects related to the music to which we listen. After all, who needs audio gear without a great music collection? While I’ll try to keep the column balanced, Mobile Fidelity is extra special to me. Apologies if you detect a slight slant in coverage. But enough about me. Let’s get to the music.
Imagine being in a group in which every single individual was experiencing the trauma and pain associated with the ugly dissolution of a relationship. That two of these very relationships were between couples in the band. Talk about a nightmare scenario; the atmosphere around Fleetwood Mac was about the furthest thing from what should’ve surrounded a chart-topping group, particularly in the party-minded 70s. But no matter how large, no mountain of cocaine or cabinet of booze could’ve put a positive spin on such circumstances.
Yet the band pushed ahead. Namely, John and Christine McVie, already split by the time of the recording and barely on speaking terms; guitarist Lindsey Buckingham and vocalist Stevie Nicks, former lovebirds who brought their own baggage; and Mick Fleetwood, severed from his wife and kids. They all channeled their personal heartbreak, frustration, sorrow, anger, longing, and scarred hope into emotionally penetrating songs whose lyrics, feelings, and harmonies speak directly to any human who’s ever dared to love—and lose.
Most artists wouldn’t be strong enough to endure amidst such a toxic environment. No wonder the members almost went crazy seeing their visions through. During the initial sessions in Sausalito, California, Christine McVie and Nicks lived separately in condos while their male counterparts holed up in a house. Wonder who took care of the dishes and laundry over there? By Fleetwood’s own account, the band teetered on the brink of losing its collective mind. At one point, the sextet spent four days tuning a piano—a tale that further belies the genius wrought by Rumours.
Indeed, given the contentious state of affairs and communication breakdowns, Fleetwood Mac understandably elected to scrap much of its initial output, leaving behind the drum tracks and starting almost everything else anew. This approach presented yet another problem: The changes and subsequent redubbing and overdubbing of instruments threatened to destroy the master tapes, which engineers worried were fraying, possibly destroying months of work. But fate had other plans. The fact that Rumours remains one of the best-sounding rock albums ever made in spite of the band’s chaotic chemistry and recording methods only adds to its mythological bigger-than-life status. Of course, it isn’t bigger than life; it’s about so much of our own life experiences. And that’s precisely why Rumours still resonates.
“I know there’s nothing left to say/Someone has taken my place” announces Buckingham on the record’s first line during the aptly titled “Second Hand News.” From the start, we know we’re listening to a man who’s been though what we’ve all faced at one time or another. Unrequited romance, spurned advances, and the difficult process of letting go and moving on coarse throughout the record’s deep grooves. Yet there’s an undeniable undercurrent of optimism, the music never beholden to negativity or despair, the rich arrangements and memorable melodies luring us in for even closer looks as they snag our senses and refuse to loosen their grip.
Viewed as a whole—and, with all respect to the phenomenal strength of the singles and individual tracks, Rumours is nothing if not a true album in the literal sense—the 1976 blockbuster is a conversation. On the penetrating “Go Your Own Way,” the back-and-forth exchange between jilted sweethearts Buckingham and Nicks plays out like thousands of similar dialogues before and since, the grief, sadness, defeat, and wounded demeanor ringing out as universal truths. And so it goes: The beautiful albeit scathing autobiographical “Dreams,” consoling yet slightly condescending “Don’t Stop,” and assertive “The Chain”—distinguished by one of the most recognizable rhythmic breaks in history—all conversing with us, as if everything is just between the listener and the band.
Which is why, after waiting years for the label to get it out on vinyl, Warner Bros.’ 45RPM set on two LPs is the way to hear Rumours. While the standard single-disc LP is great at $25, the $45 45RPM 2LP set is absolutely the finest version you will ever hear. Beware: Rumor (no pun intended) has it that a European version of the 45RPM edition not cut from the original tapes is finding it way to America. The US version is cut by Steve Hoffman and Kevin Gray in the US and pressed at Pallas, Europe’s best pressing plant. You’ll find “KrG&SH@ATM” etched into dead wax and “Made in the USA” in tiny print on the lower right-hand corner of the back of the jacket (even though it’s pressed in Europe) of US copies. By contrast, the European version says “Made in the E.U.” on the jacket. So, make sure the copy you purchase is from a reputable dealer.
Who was this hot-shot guitarist? How did he manage to milk those tones from his Fender Stratocaster? What had this guy already been though in life to be able to so convincingly convey a soulfulness that seemed to come from the bowels of his very existence? Those were my thoughts more than 25 years ago and remain so today. I could hear the similarities to Jimi Hendrix but there was more to it: A red-dirt Texas blues attitude, a jazzy flair gleaned from heroes such as Grant Green and Charlie Christian, a bad-ass swagger pulled from the great R&B session bands, and a gritty originality that took the form of pyrotechnic fills, scorching solos, and wink-and-a-smile vocal deliveries accented with a canyon-wide drawl.
It’s long been said that mining harsh realities, societal oppression, and personal troubles allows the blues to liberate listeners from their own problems and, by extension, infuses audiences with a feel-good spirit. Vaughan goes a step further, often beginning with euphoric moods—witness “Love Struck Baby,” “Pride and Joy,” “Scuttle Buttin’” or any number of his upbeat songs—and proceeding to take us even higher until we’re on Cloud 9. As for the guitar work? Recognizable from the first piercing note. Each string bend and swiped chord goes straight to my soul. And Mobile Fidelity’s hybrid discs leave nothing to the imagination—and in this case, that’s a good thing!
Mingus convinced the powers that be to change the label’s normal “The New Wave of Jazz is on Impulse!” tagline to read, “The New Wave of Folk is on Impulse!” He dubbed his talented ensemble—a cast that counted pianist Jaki Byard, saxophonist Charlie Mariano, and guitarist Jay Berliner—a Folk band. And he got his way with the arrangements, guided by horn charts and then-pioneering dubbing techniques. I always notice that each of the four songs contains the word “Dance” in the title. It may be the record’s most obvious trait—this is jazz that transcends common logic, blows ambition sky high, ignores established rules, and invites you to move along as the leader guides you on a journey through undiscovered lands. Analogue Productions has reissued some killer classic jazz over the years, but this 180g 45RPM 2LP effort stands amongst the audiophile imprint’s all-time best efforts. If I had to own just one Mingus album (and thankfully, that isn’t the case), this is it.Low’s new C’mon—a prospect made more intriguing by the fact that the LP was recorded in a converted church. Husband and wife Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, respectively, have teamed together in the band for nearly 20 years. And it shows, via seminal chemistry, taut playing, and sonic foreshadowing.
Fittingly, the songs largely address matters related to long-term relationships. Yet it’s the beautifully aching harmonies and delicate, acoustic-based frameworks that keep bringing me back. And that production: You’ll wish all records were recorded in churches. There’s a tremendous sense of atmosphere, presence, and tonality. Wilco fans, take note: Guitarist Nels Cline guests on “Nothing But the Heart” and lays down sublime passages. Highly recommended on vinyl—but you knew I’d say that. The CD is great, too, for all the digiphiles out there.
“Experience” discs encompass the original album and a second disc containing previously unreleased live and studio fare. The multimedia-oriented “Immersion” sets correspond to their name by adding demos, extra live material, surround mixes, visual matter (such as promotional videos, short films, documentaries, concert footage), and more! Plus, the enlarged boxes hold replicated tour memorabilia, photos, coasters, books, art prints, and other collector items. I can’t wait to see live performances from 1972 and 1974, and to sit down and compare the five different mixes available on Dark Side of the Moon. And that’s just the third disc! Get your black lights ready.
Need I say more? Yes: All three of the aforementioned Floyd efforts are coming on vinyl, too. The fun starts in late September. Thanks for reading!