By Dave Thompson
We're thrilled labels are bringing vinyl back, and we're even happy to pay a premium. But flimsy cardboard covers and brand-new records filled with scratches and scuffs isn't what we had in mind.
First, thanks to everyone who took the time out to respond to our previous questions regarding your own expectations and conclusions from recent vinyl re-releases. Asked whether a new vinyl reissue should be pressed from its original analogue masters or if the manufacturer should instead employ the best-quality-possible digital remaster, customers were adamant that only the original — or as close as possible — analogue tapes should be employed. Retailers, on the other hand, noted that the more modern bells and whistles attached to a disc, the better its chance of selling to the general public, as opposed to committed vinyl fans. Despite my gloomy assertions last issue, the magic words “digitally remastered” still have considerable cachet.
We saw the same split with the second question: Collectors want the original album to be as close as possible (i.e., identical) to its original release; retailers, and presumably the aforementioned “average” buyers, too, want the CD bonus tracks, as well. And that one, at least, is readily dealt with. It has, in fact, been common ever since Rykodisc remastered the David Bowie catalog back in the early 1990s: the original album on one disc, the bonuses on another. Easy. Of course, that’s so long as they, too, are mastered from the original tapes.
But the biggest responses came to the third question: Whether 180-gram/heavyweight vinyl actually makes a difference to an album’s sound and pressing quality, or if it’s just another gimmick, sort of the 21st century equivalent to the colored vinyl and picture disc mania of the late 1970s and 1980s.
Rob Coyle, of Coyle’s Odds and Ends Collectibles in Shelbyville, Ind., is one reader — and retailer — who firmly answers “no” to the first half of that question.
“We cringe every time someone opens certain records in the store. I have seen VG pressings come out of a brand new Adele ‘21’ LP,” Coyle said. “Mumford and Sons was not any better. These pressings are blatantly mishandled during manufacturing. We have seen multiple fingernail scratches, scuffs that run along all tracks — you name it, I have seen it. Being a big collector of ’60s to ’90s records, I buy a lot of sealed original records from conventions where I set up. I have never opened a sealed [vintage] record that looked as bad as these new pressings do.”
I have to concur. Exhibit A: Fat Possum’s 2011 release of T Rex’s “Zinc Alloy and the Hidden Riders of Tomorrow” that skipped first time out of the shrink wrap. Exhibit B: Sony’s reissue of Lou Reed’s “Rock n Roll Animal” with a big, fat warp. Exhibit C: A copy of Van Der Graaf Generator’s “Pawn Hearts” from 4 Men With Beards that just didn’t have that “unplayed vinyl” sheen that is one of the (admittedly idiosyncratic) delights that we associate with collecting records.
Admittedly, I have other albums on the same labels that arrived problem free. But the point is, when you lay out your $20-plus for a brand new LP, that’s what you expect it to be, visually as much as actually. Anything less than that, and you may as well have bought it used, or sought out an original pressing. (We’ll set that topic aside for another column.)
But there is even more at issue here than the vinyl quality for today’s new vinyl buyers, Coyle says.
“The covers are the attraction. The younger demographic collects them like baseball cards,” he said. “These things are made of the flimsiest stock they can find. Unless you bought something from the guys at Music Matters at $50 a pop, or Neil Young’s ‘Psychedelic Pill’ at $80, you got a crap cover.”
He cites covers for three recent Rolling Stones vinyl offerings — “Some Girls,” “Live In Texas ’78” and “Live at the Checkerboard Lounge” as especial disappointments.
“Seriously, a tri-fold cover that the minute you tear off the shrink and put the album on, the cover starts going into convulsions,” Coyle says.
Running to check my own copy of the Texas live album, I find he’s right. I have a battered vintage copy of “Got Live If You Want It” that holds its shape better.
All of this is very gloomy sounding, and, of course, it is always easier to complain about something than to praise it. Indeed, several readers pointed out that we should be grateful there’s even enough vinyl on the market today to sustain a regular column in a national magazine, while others suggested that part of the fun comes from learning which labels to avoid, which to pursue and which to watch with hopeful anticipation.
“Many of the smaller labels are learning as they go,” wrote one reader, “relying on collector feedback to make the necessary adjustments.”
Another reminded us that if the digital remastering is done sensitively and well, it can sound as good as the original vinyl. A re-pressing of the Rezillos’ debut is a case in point.
And in those increasingly common cases where the original vinyl is itself so scarce that few of us have even seen it, let alone heard it, or the original masters disappeared long ago, or the only cost and time-effective way of reissuing the thing would be via the magic of computerization ... well, what choice is there?
An example. Sleaze formed back in 1975, five teenagers from England’s most southwestern extremity linking in a band whose influences ranged from the glam of Cockney Rebel and the Doctors of Madness, to the prog of Genesis and Peter Hammill, and on to the psychedelia of Hendrix. Slam that combination together, and a truly remarkable sound emerged, one that toured around the immediate locale for a year or so, then bade farewell via a trip to a nearby studio to record five of their best songs. There were only five, because Sleaze did not go in for short, sharp, pop songs. Every track was an epic; every track extended all the players to the limits of their considerable abilities.
Fifty copies were pressed for distribution to the band’s fans and friends, and it is from one of that 50 — whose numbers have certainly been decimated by time and accident — that New York’s Sing Sing label has re-pressed “Sleaze” (www.singsingrecords.com).
A few changes have been wrought. The original release came in a plain white sleeve with a plain white label. The reissue retrieves some photos of the band (which, to be honest, are almost as scarce as the original vinyl) and adds liner notes by singer TV Smith. Yes, the same TV Smith who, two years later, was leading the Adverts to punk rock-shaped glory (and revising one of Sleaze’s songs, “Listen Don’t Think,” as the somewhat less extravagant “New Boys”); the same TV Smith who is now regarded among the U.K.’s most vibrant songwriters and workaholic live performers. In all, it sounds glorious.
“It was a transfer from the original vinyl,” Smith tells Goldmine, “and then some re-mastering ... well, mastering actually, as I don’t think the original actually got mastered.”
So, not all digital remastering is bad. And not all new releases — as opposed to new re-releases — come out of the jacket with war wounds. Some, in fact, catapult you back however many years, to the days when buying new vinyl felt as natural as brushing your teeth.
“A Working Museum” is the latest album by Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby, their third since first combining forces in 2006, but the first to be released (as Eric puts it) “full sized” on vinyl, as well as “miniaturized” on CD. (Southern Domestic, www.amyrigby.com/wrecklessericamyrigby.html).
Like Smith, Eric was a product of the punk era, and there’s an intriguing hypothesis here, that this is where the future of vinyl really lies: at either end of the musical rainbow that began with the advent of punk and reaches across the decades to its progenitors’ current activities. Or maybe it’s just coincidence that the two finest LPs I unwrapped this month happened to hail from the extremes of that arch. Either way, “A Working Museum” could not have been more aptly titled.
There are no marketing boasts on the sleeve, no virgin vinyl or heavyweight cardboard (although you do get a digital download link). Just a hunk of wax that looks like it used to look, tucked inside a sleeve that feels exactly as it used to feel. It’s a proper LP, in other words. And, of course, there are the 11 new songs that remind us of their makers’ individual pasts (Eric’s time with Stiff Records; Amy’s life as a Mod Housewife) and point to the fresh strengths that their partnership has proffered. Certainly they served up one of the best live shows I saw in all of 2012, and so marvelously memorable are the songs that, playing the LP for the first time the day after the gig, I instantly recognized every new song they’d played. Which, I hate to admit, happens a lot less than I’d like it to.
A prodigious writer, fierce music lover and longtime record collector, Dave Thompson is the author of Goldmine’s “Standard Catalog of American Records 1950-1990, 8th Edition” (Krause Publications, http://bit.ly/VjxpkF). Thompson recently completed “Goldmine’s Record Album Price Guide,” 7th Edition, which is due out in spring 2013 and is available to order at http://bit.ly/VjxpkF.