Who says hardcore audiophiles don’t like to crank up the volume, throw open the windows, and let their proverbial hair down every once in a while? I certainly do, especially when the music—and sound—is right. And such a combination has seldom been more ripe for rocking out than on Warner Bros.’ 180g LP Van Halen reissues.
Having come of age in the mid-1970s, no band came close to Van Halen’s potent and fun blend of flamboyance, virtuosity, melodicism, heaviness, camp, and swagger. There was David Lee Roth, an outrageous personality cultivated by a privileged background and handsome looks. With his golden locks, charming smile, bare-chested appearance, acrobatic moves, bawdy demeanor, chauvinistic behavior, buttless chaps, and party-‘til-you-drop attitude, the California gigolo/vocalist stood as the quintessential frontman of an era celebrated for excess. Michael Anthony, the bassist, brought the Gold’s Gym muscle and appetite for Jack Daniels, which became his signature onstage beverage. His rhythmic foil, Alex Van Halen, he with the top of his head wrapped in a bandanna, thumped drums and held his mouth open to underscore the power of each snare and kick-drum hit. Alone, the trio formed quite a cast.
Yet Van Halen would’ve likely been a radar blip without its instrumental and namesake leader, Eddie Van Halen, whose flashy albeit substantive mastery of the fretboard, strings, whammy bar, and effects pedals seemed to emanate from a distant universe. Like no guitarist since Jimi Hendrix, and none since, Eddie ignored the established language and created one of his own—a music steeped in classicism, harmonics, fluidity, intensity, feedback, volume, and two-handed tapping techniques. With a burning cigarette tucked underneath his guitar’s headstock, the Dutch-born savant proceeded to boggle minds with dexterous finger movements and seemingly impossible hand-eye coordination, yielding sounds that nobody had imagined could spring from an electric guitar. The Back to the Future scene in which Michael J. Fox portrays an outer-space visitor and convinces his subject of his made-up alien identity by blaring a screeching Van Halen guitar solo remains poetically apt: Eddie’s styles are not of this earth.
Together, the boys trashed countless hotel rooms, took their pick of thousands of buxom women, enjoyed miles and miles of lines of cocaine, treated meals as if they were liquid happy hours, and carried on with wild abandon. All because they could. From 1978 through 1984, a period during which cheap disco and milquetoast synth-pop largely dominated the charts, Van Halen loomed over it all, the quartet’s records feeding the imaginations of practically every teenage boy and 20-to-30 something male, turning on the ladies, and dominating rock radio. Again, proof of the ensemble’s preeminence and appeal stems from Hollywood. There’s good reason why Sean Penn’s beloved Jeff Spicoli character in 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High blows all his reward money on securing Van Halen to play his birthday. Only one band was good enough for the ultimate happy-go-lucky beach bum, stoner, and surfer. Party on, dude.
Indeed, that’s what the analog reissues of Van Halen, Van Halen II, Women and Children First, and 1984 allow you to do—even if, nowadays, your hair is a little thinner, your bedtime earlier, and your thirst for libations skewed to water. Few albums offer a more open-ended license to pick up an air guitar, dance around the room, and celebrate life’s pleasures. And as carefree as the music might appear (in reality, early Van Halen’s songwriting skills measure up to any of its peers and Eddie’s guitar work remains unsurpassed), these 180g LPs are sonic goldmines. While Kevin Gray mastered the debut from the original master tapes, Chris Bellman performed the honors on the other three standouts. Each one brings the music into laser-sharp focus.
Due to the tapes’ age, Bellman had to bake and put them back together before embarking on the more rewarding part of the job. The toil was worth it. These LPs offer significant improvement on the original pressings in every conceivable area, ranging from bass dynamics to percussive transients to the airiness around vocal harmonies to yes, Eddie’s guitar sound. Each of the musicians receives their own spaces on a drastically enlarged soundstage, and previously veiled details—the realistic revving of the engine on “Panama,” the acoustic wizardry on “Spanish Fly,” the punchy bottom-end of “Everybody Wants Some!,” the explosive runs on “Eruption”—come to the fore, all taking you further into the songs and Van Halen’s escapist world. Bust out a six-pack, fire up the amplifiers, and make your ears ring.
Most people know that the 1980 LP was released here and in the UK as a single-disc, standard 33 1/3RPM pressing. All 20 tracks scrunched to fit onto one LP, 10 tunes a side. Fremer then put me in touch with a friend that he believed owned one of the extremely limited double-LP 45 versions. I called him up, and sure enough, he still had it. A white-label promo with the song titles typed out right on the jackets. He kindly sent the LP to my office so that Mobile Fidelity engineers had a reference from which to work. The contact even sent a personal note about how he knew Costello’s manager in the 70s and how he got his hands on the special pressing. Stories and experiences like this renew my faith in music and remind me how fortunate I am to have this position.
So, with the original analog tapes in hand, our engineers were able to best the original 45RPM version and produce what’s indisputably the definitive version of Costello’s R&B- and soul-drenched spectacular. Seriously, you won’t believe your ears. While it’s always gratifying to get immediate feedback from journalists and customers, I’ve seldom seen such instant praise afforded on a reissue. On his Musicangle Web site, Fremer gushes “If you’ve grown up on the original, you will be astonished by the width and depth of the picture, by the dynamic thrust, by the cleanly separated instruments, by the weight of the bass, the shimmer of the cymbals, and the way the effects [producer Nick] Lowe inserts puncture the air.” Equally laudatory, in Issue 38, TONEAudio publisher Jeff Dorgay calls the pressing nothing less than Mobile Fidelity’s “masterpiece.” In that context, I strongly encourage you all to hear all the Costello LPs—My Aim Is True, This Year’s Model, Armed Forces—Mobile Fidelity has revisited. And I’ll further tempt you by hinting that more Costello gems are on the way. Stay tuned.
First off, consider the lineup involved: Saxophonist Nelson, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, alto saxophonist and flautist Eric Dolphy, bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Roy Haynes, and pianist Bill Evans. Then take into account the year, 1961, arguably the golden age of jazz. The one and only Rudy Van Gelder sat behind the engineering console. And the compositions rank among the loveliest ever committed to tape. Not that all of these factors alone guarantee a timeless classic. The namesake players need to be on top of their game and enact cohesiveness that finds the stars gelling as a united front. It all happens. In spades.
Evans, my favorite jazz pianist in history, always put up stellar performances when he steps out of his usual trio setting, but he may never have been better in such a format than he is here. Equally significant, Dolphy ditches his commonplace bass clarinet and picks up the flute instead, lending graceful counterpoint lines. Hubbard, too, significantly contributes to the overall mood with mournful statements and gorgeous contrasts. “Stolen Moments” is alone worth the price of admission; an all-time standard, the minor blues exhibits gorgeous contrasts and mellifluous tones. The degree of intervals, transpositions, and tension throughout the record simply enchants. Actually, this effort would be a great nighttime disc if it weren’t for “Hoedown,” a 44-bar piece that riffs off the opening two notes and gets you up on your feet. Whatever you do, don’t miss it. Available on hybrid SACD and 45RPM 2LP. Need I say which format I prefer? Awesome all ‘round.
Singer/songwriter/guitarist Robin Pecknold is cut from the same old-soul cloth as the legendary Laurel Canyon folk-rock artists that charm so many of us. In terms of group harmonizing abilities, Fleet Foxes drink from Crosby, Stills & Nash’s well while imparting psychedelic, baroque, rock, and blues strains into enchanting originals. Not only has the tunesmithing improved; so has the sextet’s scope and lyrics. Pecknold addresses complex maturation issues without ever resorting to resignation or complaining. He’s at once an amateur philosopher and ardent confessor, and the richly embroidered acoustic-based arrangements—involving strings, zither, dulcimer, wood flute, tympani, clarinet, Moog, tamboura, fiddle, pedal steel, lap steel, upright bass, and more—swathe his organic ruminations in a sound evocative of the most memorable late 60s fare.
Credit also goes to the meticulous production aspects. Fleet Foxes are serious about their craft. As such, the feel, textures, and colors of their instruments abound in analog. These earthy records more than justify ownership of a good turntable. Despite the good-sounding CD, the impact just isn’t the same. Yes, Fleet Foxes receive a ton of press, but this isn’t another instance of hype. Helplessness Blues is the real deal.
Later that night, Buffalo Springfield exceeded all of my expectations. Never did I think I’d hear standbys such as “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing,” “Burned,” and “Mr. Soul” performed by the original members. Everyone was in extraordinary voice, and the physical chemistry wasn’t just for appearance’s sake. Young even wore a fringe leather jacket that looked as if it had been in his closet for the past four decades. He brought the house down with an encore that included a searing “Rocking in the Free World,” with Buffalo playing as if they’d never missed a practice session let alone the last 40-plus years.
As it stands, a handful of California dates and a headlining concert at the Bonnaroo Music Festival represent the only shows the Buffalo were scheduled to play. Let’s hope that common sense and critical response prevails. As one of the most important bands that ever formed, and one that very few fans got to see onstage, a nationwide reunion tour is in order. Trust me: After seeing it, I would’ve paid double the cost if I knew it was going to be that special. Plus, my plea for future dates is partially selfish. I want to see the band again!