By Dave Thompson
You can never have too many turntables. One for this room, one for that; one for albums, one for 45s ... how long will it be before someone comes along with a reprise of the old dashboard record players that were the peak of mid-’60s pop-picking automotive sophistication?
Or are they already with us, and it’s just that nobody’s noticed?
Audio-Technica’s ATLP60-BT wireless turntable deploys Bluetooth technology to link stylus with speaker, and so long as your suspension is up to the task (and you don’t mind having to stop every 20 minutes to flip the record over), there’s nothing to stop you grooving to the grooves while you’re grinding through the gridlock.
Apart from the fact that... well, it’s a pretty silly thing to do.
Wireless turntables, on the other hand, are the answer to an awful lot of prayers, including the fact that amps and pre-amps become a thing of the past, along with the need to establish a dedicated listening point.
Basically, any place you can listen to an ipod, you can listen to your records — and, if there is a faint intellectual disconnect between listening to analog sound via the very digital medium of Bluetooth, it’s swiftly remedied when you remember that most modern-day vinyl releases and reissues are likewise derived from digital sources.
Including the newly unveiled Pink Floyd vinyl remasters, dribbling out across this summer, a few at a time until the full catalog lines up on the shelves. At the time of writing, we’re complete through the first four albums — that is “Piper At The Gates of Dawn,” “A Saucerful of Secrets,” the soundtrack “More” and the double “Ummagumma.” Two of which, to be truthful, Spin Cycle is utterly sick of listening to, and two — to be equally honest — probably haven’t been played in several decades.
Back to the ATLP60. In terms of what it does, it’s as close to entry level as you can get without compromising all the reasons why you’d want to play vinyl in the first place. Fully automatic, four frontal buttons control start, stop, the cueing arm and the speed. There’s a lever close to the platter to choose between seven- and twelve-inch discs, and a button that sets up the Bluetooth... anybody familiar with the technology will know what to do with it; for everybody else, there are simple instructions included. Either way, it’s quick and easy. And if you don’t want to go that route, you can just wire the turntable into a conventional amp instead.
Predominantly plastic, it does boast a hefty aluminum platter. The stylus can be replaced for under $25; and in terms of basic construction, it’s more solid than any record player Spin Cycle owned as a teen. It probably sounds better, too… as “Ummagumma” bleeps, burps, buzzes and bellows incomprehensible Pictish imprecations through the air, the first half of Floyd’s most experimental record has all the warmth and depth you would want it to, while the live “Astronomy Domine” that kicks off side three is as punchy as it ought to be.
Obviously those are relative comments — a bargain-basement Bluetooth speaker can scarcely compare with what we might call a more conventional hi-fi set-up. It would also be interesting to hear things through the Bluetooth headphones that Audio Technica also market. But we don’t all have audiophiliac ears, no matter how much we might think we do, and again, if you’re looking to equip, say, a college dorm room, a teenager’s bedroom — or, indeed, your car — with a turntable, the ATLP60 passes a lot of tests. Easy to carry, easy to set-up, fun to listen to — what more could you want?
Well, more about “More” would be a nice start.
For better or worse, the entire Floyd series is digitally remastered from the original analog tapes, but they’ve been done well. If there is any clipping of the higher or lower frequencies, it isn’t obvious; the volume is neither too loud or too quiet, and the vinyl itself is beautifully silent — three areas in which way too many modern pressings fall down.
Indeed, “More” is a great album to test this with, swinging as it does from the near-inaudibility of “Cirrus Minor” to the belligerent roof-shaking frenzy of “The Nile Song,” and it’s rewarding to realize that the mastering takes this into consideration, just like a real analog pressing. In fact, A-B-ing the latest “More” with a scratchy, early ‘70s reissue, the only truly significant difference is the absence of the scratches. Oh, and the aesthetics of the sleeve. Remember how album covers used to have the pasted flap that gummed the front and back together? The new edition prints the seam line, and it’s up to you to decide whether that represents laudable attention to detail, or further evidence of modern-day sloth.
Either way, the music’s what matters and, on the evidence of these two albums at least, it’s come out on top with the Floyd catalog. Let’s hope other, future, reissue programs can adhere to the same standards.
While Pink Floyd repackage their past, The Rolling Stones continue to re-evaluate theirs, as the ongoing series of classic live albums is joined by “Totally Stripped” — a four-sided reappraisal of the mid-90s “Stripped” show that hacks all but one performance (and four further songs) from the original CD, and replaces them with 13 different ones.
Conceived at the peak of the “unplugged” delirium that so marked that particular age, “Totally Stripped” pulls cuts from three of the Stones’s 1995 shows, in Amsterdam, London and Paris — both those that naturally fit the “stripped down” format (“Shine a Light,” “Dead Flowers,” “Faraway Eyes”) and those that you might raise an eyebrow at — “Miss You,” “Midnight Rambler,” “Jumping Jack Flash,” none of which figured on the original CD.
And it’s terrific, a flawless successor to side three of “Love You Live,” or the Marquee 71 show - the sound of the Stones being the Stones, without a supplemental army of back-up musicians, a megadome PA and a crowd the size of a small city. It’s so easy, after all, to write the band off as a circus-tent irrelevance that has devoted the past almost-30 years to sleepwalking through its past, and yeah, it’s 20 years since the original “Stripped” proved they could still cut it when they wanted to.
But “Stripped” itself was all but forgotten until “Totally Stripped” came along (be honest, when was the last time you even thought about it?), and playing the album and watching the accompanying DVD is like rediscovering a side of the Stones that nobody knew was there. Add to that the fact that the vinyl sounds great, and the triple gatefold sleeve looks tremendous, and you really are looking at one of the year’s most indispensable releases.
Where it is joined, for those who enjoy a musical challenge, by two releases from the ever-inventive Cuneiform label. Well, one, because the other is a couple of years old now, but still Jonathan Badger’s “Verse” demands your attention.
A near-instrumental set, “Verse” revolves around a series of heavily treated guitar effects layered over everything from saxophone to cello, flugelhorn to human beat box — and if you know it from the CD, you owe it to yourself to pick up the vinyl, which may not add to the soundscapes themselves, but certainly revels in new warmth.
Discussing one of the songs, “The Bear,” Badger once remarked, ”bears are cuddly but also extremely deadly. Children like to sleep with them.” And that’s the dichotomy that lies at the heart of “Verse,” a summer storm of a record that sends melodies dancing with sonic extremes, snowflakes with volcanic ash. You will love it.
Likewise, if your ears have ever leaned in the general direction of mid-’70s (“Red”/”Starless...”) King Crimson, coupled with the best of Steven Wilson’s less-horseheaded conceits, the latest by prog veterans Guapo. “Obscure Knowledge” offers just three tracks, sensibly titled parts one, two and three, and between them they devour an entire LP, brutal improvisations that lock onto a chosen theme and then take it everywhere.
The medium suits the music. The searing part one, which occupies the whole of the first side, positively rejoices in the time it takes you to flip the record over to allow part two, a suite for haunted woodwind, room to maneuver. And then, all too quickly, part three throws everything into the air, sometimes jazzy, sometimes funky, sometimes just plain tricky. It’s an astonishing experience, all the more so because it feels so absolutely lacking in self-consciousness. And that’s a rare feat in prog of any vintage, but especially in modern climes.
Just remember to play it loud. And if you’ve got some wireless headphones, even louder!