❉ We give you the lowdown on some noteworthy recent vinyl reissues. This month: Pink Floyd, Bowie, Dead Can Dance.
Vinyl has made its comeback, and regardless of whatever dire future prognosis some knive-sharpeners have for the format, the last couple of years have been banner ones for reissues of classic titles on LP record. As a former used-record shop manager, I’m practically obliged to adore vinyl, although I remain firmly aware of its flaws, especially faults with bad pressings such as surface noise and warps on new pressings. Although there are some who seem to think the more crackle, the more “authentic” the sound of the record, I can firmly tell you this is not the case. A fine new pressing will have very few surface crackles remaining after a quick run through a record cleaning machine. Poor vinyl and bad pressing can make the “noise floor” of an LP quickly rise to unacceptable levels for me.
The capsule reviews I’ll present in this column will generally assume that you’re already familiar with the LP’s content, and are more interested in knowing if the new version is worth purchasing. Each will conclude with a quick score of the mastering and pressing quality. If I’ve had to exchange the LP for a new copy because the first was too distractingly defective, that will also be mentioned. I’m not going to get into whether something is analog- or digitally sourced, unless the record truly sounds like crap because of the master that was used. What it all comes down to is how the record sounds to my ears.
DAVID BOWIE – Who Can I Be Now? [1974-1976] (September 2016, Rhino/Parlophone)
As I mentioned last time around, there have now been so many different masterings of Bowie’s work that no one can seem to agree on exactly what any of the songs should sound like. Ray Staff, the talented mastering engineer who worked on the original UK release of ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars,’ and then cut the critically acclaimed 40th anniversary all-analog reissue of it a few years ago, has applied his touch to the albums comprising this second Bowie “tombstone edition” box set, and the result is warm and vibrant magic on the studio albums (‘Diamond Dogs,’ the previously-unreleased ‘The Gouster,’ ‘Young Americans, ‘and ‘Station to Station’ (appearing in both its original and 2010 Harry Maslin remix forms). The set also includes two versions of ‘David Live,’ appearing in both its original 2LP mix version, and the 2005 remix, expanded to three LPs. When this set was announced, there was some criticism of there being two copies of this album included, but the mixes are significantly different, and both are worth having in the set for history’s sake. Finally, the set is rounded out by the inclusion of ‘Live Nassau Coliseum ’76,’ a ferocious radio broadcast and former bootleg widely recognized as one of Bowie’s best live sets, and the singles edits and B-sides mopping-up exercise, ‘Re:Call 2’. The Nassau set has received brickbats in its CD and digital download formats for sounding overly compressed and ‘brickwalled,’ but the vinyl edition lets up on the harsh sound and simply breathes fire in the best way. One caveat, though: The copy of ‘The Gouster’ in my first set was defective, with horrible distortion in the last few minutes of Side 1. This was an obvious pressing defect, and the copy in my replacement box was perfect,but I have to dock a point from what would otherwise be a perfect score.
MASTERING: 5/5. PRESSING 4/5. WORTH BUYING? Look, it’s an expensive box set. I feel it’s worth the money as all the studio LPs sound better to me than their original US pressings, but if you happen to have beautiful original UK pressings of these albums, it’s up to you whether the inclusion of the otherwise unavailable material is worthwhile.
PINK FLOYD – Reissue wave two (September 2016, Sony/Pink Floyd Records US)
Bernie Grundman returns with the next chronological batch of Pink Floyd reissues. (Grundman’s new mastering of ‘The Wall’ escaped into the wild in a limited batch about five or six weeks ago as the 2011 reissue had gone out of print, and sold out immediately almost everywhere … I wasn’t lucky enough to nab one, but supposedly more will show up in November.) What we have with this group of albums is the Floyd’s cohesion into the powerhouse that would produce ‘The Dark Side of the Moon.’ ‘Atom Heart Mother’ and ‘Meddle’ are almost like bookends, with the former starting with a side-long epic, and then a side of pastoral but concise songs, with that order reversed for the latter album. You can sense the Floyd’s confidence growing, to the point they were able to knock out what I consider to be one of their very finest albums, ‘Obscured By Clouds,’ in only two weeks before settling into the studio to create their popularly-acclaimed masterwork. I love Pink Floyd, but this is where their work starts getting truly essential. Just like the last batch, these are beautiful sounding pressings of these albums and deserve a place on your shelf.
❉ Atom Heart Mother – MASTERING 5/5. PRESSING 5/5.
❉ Meddle – MASTERING 5/5. PRESSING 5/5.
❉ Obscured By Clouds – MASTERING 5/5. PRESSING 5/5.
WORTH BUYING? Are you kidding me? Everything about these is fine. Dead-quiet vinyl. When was the last time you heard ‘Meddle’ in a US or UK pressing without crackle or distortion?
Dead Can Dance – Reissue wave one (August 2016, 4AD)
Post-punk. Goth-folk. World Beat. Any number of labels have been applied to the remarkable duo of Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry, No one else has ever quite successfully excavated the same vein of music as they have – although SPK, noted style spelunkers themselves, came closest with their album ‘Zamia Lehmanni (Songs of Byzantine Flowers)’. An ornate and rich re-imagining of different musics from around the world, played with a multitude of rare and arcane musical instruments, Dad Can Dance albums conjure another world so vividly you can almost smell the spiced incense and see the processions of long-dead kings and their courts. Original vinyl pressings of their LPs had been rising significantly in price, with the last set of reissues, released in two box sets about six years ago, going for silly money on websites such as Discogs. The reissuing of their catalog by the 4AD label is a cause for much rejoicing. However, my feelings on the first set of reissues are a bit mixed. The mastering is good across all three, although there’s not much that can be done to bring the first, self-titled album up to a 5, as it’s the most primitive of their recordings and has always sounded a bit thin, with ‘Into the Labyrinth’ sounding possibly better than the Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab version, with a more defined bottom end and a bit mpre clarity between instruments. The problem with the US-pressed versions I purchased is that there’s a bit more vinyl noise than I’d like on all three, presenting as a sort of rising and falling hiss between tracks. This is a pressing flaw and it’s one I hope doesn’t appear on the next set of reissues, due in November.
❉ Dead Can Dance – MASTERING 4/5. PRESSING 3/5.
❉ Spleen and Ideal – MASTERING 5/5. PRESSING 3/5.
❉ Into the Labyrinth – MASTERING 5/5. PRESSING 3/5.
WORTH BUYING? The original indie 4AD pressings also had their own unfortunate issues with surface noise, so it really comes down to whether you need your Dead Can Dance on vinyl. Their music is remarkably well-suited to the silence and clarity of CD. But there’s something magical about holding their LPs sleeves too. By the way, ‘Into the Labyrinth’ now features an entirely different cover and a couple of bonus tracks that had previously only featured on the CD.
❉ Next Column: Several new early Frank Zappa reissues, Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here,’ and the next set of Dead Can Dance LPs.