The Sultans of Swing

Harry doesn’t mind if he doesn’t make the scene. He’s got a day time job; he’s doin’ alright…or maybe he’s stuck at home quarantined like so many of us. But hey, there’s always a bright side, right? Sheltering in place, staying at home, etc – it gives us a chance to be with our families and pets; and our records of course!

Working from home has given me the opportunity to finally do an A/B comparison that I’ve been drooling over since the original announcement that Mobile Fidelity was going to be releasing Dire Strait’s back catalogue in their 45rpm Gain 2 Ultra Analog series. It only took a few years for it to actually happen, and a few extra months for me to realize these had started shipping to actually grab one! Part of the reason I’ve been wanting to do this comparison and review is because of the history of great sound from Dire Straits. Mark Knopfler was/is known as a stickler for sound quality, and his playing style (he reportedly never uses a pick, preferring to use only his finger/fingernail/thumb to pluck to achieve maximum control over tone) is just so conducive to great recordings. Obviously it also helps that I like the songs and music he makes, but even if it isn’t your bag, I have to imagine most audiophiles could appreciate good, clean, sound regardless of their genre preferences.

For the last decade, my go-to copy of the Knopfler-led band’s debut/self-titled album has been the 2009 Bernie Grundman cut. It’s a pressing that constantly makes my list of “top sounding, affordable, albums” – it can still easily be had for $25 or less. Grundman, one of the best mastering engineers in the game, did his usual wonders with this one. It was sourced and cut from the original analog tapes (you can not go wrong with a Grundman AAA title), and was pressed at Pallas (which at the time was my #1 favorite plant, and still is #2 or #3 behind QRP and maybe RTI).

So, while I’ve been eagerly awaiting the MoFi pressings, I haven’t been terribly upset with sticking to my ’09 cuts. However, that calm and patience quickly faded when I was finally able to pull the trigger and order the full set of the Dire Straits MoFi titles – I couldn’t wait for the mailman to show up with my way-too-heavy package from MoFi’s parent, Music Direct. I ripped that thing open like a 5 year old on Christmas desperately grabbing for a new set of Legos, and the first thing I did was to move my table’s belt to the 45rpm setting and spun the Self-Titled album through maybe 3 or 4 times straight, without breaks or switching to something else. I was absolutely FLOORED by the sound quality. It probably would have been a good time to do a shootout between the two copies then. But, nope, I was greedy with my ears and so I had to wait until a literal pandemic forced my attention back to the task I was aiming to accomplish for years. Whoops.

Anyways, I’ve finally had time to A/B this, so I made sure to tune up all of my equipment – I cleaned my plinth, rebalanced my tone-arm, cleaned the stylus (highly recommend the OnZow ZeroDust), and cleaned both records. The equipment used is as follows:

  • Turntable – Pro-Ject Debut Carbon w/ Acrylic Platter
  • Cartridge/Stylus – MoFi Electronics UltraTracker; nude elliptical stylus
  • Phono Preamp – Parasound PPH100
  • Receiver/Amp – Marantz SR7000 (using Direct mode for analog inputs)
  • Speakers – Klipsch KG4
https://i.imgur.com/i0Avhcz.jpg

I decided that I would focus on comparing 2 tracks between the records; first being the well-known and timeless ‘Sultans of Swing’ and the second being the opening track ‘Down to the Waterline’. I chose these because on each copy, these tracks are the first of a single side (Sultans is B1 on the 2009, and C1 on the MoFi; Waterline is A1 on both). This helps in negating some of the potential distortion with tracks as you move closer to the runout (inner groove distortion or “IGD” is not really a problem on either of these copies, but in a shootout like this I wanted to hold all things constant as much as possible). The order of listening was: 1) Sultans (2009), 2) Sultans (MoFI), 3) Waterline (MoFi), 4) Waterline (2009). This order created a way to handle a first-impression bias, and made it a bit easier in changing speeds just 2 times.

I went into this knowing it would likely be a really tough competition. Yes, the MoFi has the added benefit of being cut at 45rpm; there are tangible benefits to that and they are audible. But the Grundman mastered release is just SO dynamic that I wasn’t sure how it could possibly be topped. Well…I found out pretty quickly. The 2009 pressing absolutely SMASHES from the first kick of Sultans, and the bass is incredibly detailed and full, but the MoFi pressing takes the highs to another level and brings out that incredible control over tone that Knopfler has with his guitar. It wasn’t so much that I was noticing new details – I feel like any hidden details that were previously hidden were revealed when I first spun the Grundman cut – but it was as if the final layer of a thin curtain between me and the band in the studio was finally (and suddenly) removed. The clarity was remarkable. Instrument separation was enhanced to the point of the imagining being scary-real. I played Waterline on the MoFi, and nearly got lost and let the next song – ‘Water of Love’, a great tune – play before I realized I had to switch. Going back to the 2009 cut wasn’t necessarily a “downgrade” as much as it was just hearing things with a slight filter on it. Not a bad filter, but a filtering that just left me feeling slightly unfulfilled after having such a revealing listening session.

All in all, the MoFi was the hands down winner, and I’m shocked to say that and that it was so abundantly clear. Now, that said, the MoFi isn’t going to be for everyone. If I had to nitpick, the 2009 cut has better bass and low end. It’s not a huge gap by any means, but it’s there. Ultimately, to me, I could do with a slightly diminished low end for what I gain in the mids and highs with the MoFi. I’ll also say that I had a VERY slight pre-echo on Sultans with the MoFi that I did not with the 2009 cut. Not a huge deal to me. But where this will be decided for most is the cost. As I noted before, the 2009 cut can be had for ~$25; whereas the MoFi lists at $50. That’s a huge price difference, and while I personally feel that the MoFi wins handedly, we’re working at margins that are already thin to even the most critical audiophile. So, use your judgement on this one. I’d assume this experience goes for the entire Dire Straits catalog, though I haven’t done the A/B’s yet for Making Movies, Communique, or Love over Gold. On Brothers in Arms (yeah, I still want my MTV and very 80’s-ish sounds) I’d actually recommend the Stan Ricker 2LP over the MoFi or Grundman; but that’s just personal preference. I don’t love that album much anyways. But for the rest, you have some great options, and can go with a more budget option with hifi sound or the premium version with even hifi-ier(?) sound. I love when there’s so many good options like that!

Anyways, thanks for reading my ranting and raving. Let me know if you have any questions about anything I wrote or anything you think I left out! Cheers, and stay healthy!

The Man Comes Around

Today (February 26th, 2020) would have been Johnny Cash’s 88th birthday, and so I’m spinning one of my favorite albums (in my entire collection, not just his discography) in tribute. This isn’t your granddad’s Cash, but no doubt he’d be able enjoy it – as would your father; it’s an album for the whole family as it transcends genre and eras of music.

2014 Remastered Vinyl Release

Released as the 4th entry in his American Recording series (which started out by recording in Rick Rubin’s living room), The Man Comes Around was recorded at the label’s studio and release in 2002; just one year before Cash’s death. Even in the end, Cash delivered a stunningly beautiful and haunting record; one that gives me chills every time I spin it. The recordings are mostly cover songs, with just 3 originals by Cash out of the 15 tracks, but these aren’t your run of the mill covers – he truly made these songs his own. The album is also a who’s-who of famous musician after famous musician. Fiona Apple, Don Henley, and Nick Cave make vocal contributions; John Frusciante of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ fame and Tom Petty & The Heartbreaker’s guitarist Mike Campbell provided guitar tracks. In all, The Man Comes Around features songs by Nine Inch Nails, Simon & Garfunkel, Sting, Depeche Mode, The Beatles, The Eagles, and Hank Williams.

Johnny Cash in Rick Rubin’s home studio

The album opens with the title track, just one of the three Cash originals featured. The song is littered with references to the Bible’s Book of Revelation (including Cash speaking some readings from Revelation in the intro and outro of the tune). It was originally written a few years prior to the album’s release, but was reworked in 2002. It was one of the last songs Cash ever wrote. Following that, the 2nd track is arguably the song that re-launched Cash into stardom for a new generation, and has been used countless times in movies and television since its recording. Hurt, originally written and performed by Trent Razor and NIN for their 1994 album The Downward Spiral, also featured a music video released in 2003 that featured images of Cash’s life – it was named the best video of the year at the Grammys and CMA Awards. When approached about the idea of letting Cash record the song, NIN’s Razor said he was flattered but was concerned that the idea was a bit of a gimmick. That changed when he saw the video and heard the song. He was quoted as saying:

I pop the video in, and wow… Tears welling, silence, goose-bumps… Wow. I felt like I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn’t mine anymore… It really made me think about how powerful music is as a medium and art form. I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in, totally isolated and alone. Somehow that winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era/genre and still retains sincerity and meaning – different, but every bit as pure.

The next highlight of the album comes in the form of a duet with Fiona Apple on Bridge over Troubled Water. Cash’s ashy and stone-like vocals, opening with “When you’re weary; feeling small” set the tone until the beautiful, flute-like, voice of Apple comes in. It’s a perfectly mis-matched pairing of voices that works incredibly well…so well, in fact, that it was nominated for a Grammy in 2003 for the best country collaboration. Flipping to side B, we open with a Sting cover, I Hung My Head; a track String wrote as a dedication to the TV westerns he loved as a kid. The real gems on this side of the album, though, are Depeche Mode and Beatles covers. Personal Jesus had never rocked so hard as it does with an acoustic guitar and Johnny Cash telling you to “pick up the receiver, I’ll make you a believer”. Side B closes with “In My Life”, which I personally love as a closing track to disc 1. Many people feel Disc 1 is superior to the second in the double album, buy MAN you are sleeping on the second half of this album if you skip it. It opens with a Tex Ritter song that can only be described in a visual that was incredibly famous of Johnny Cash – giving you the middle finger. As it goes, “and I hate you one and all, damn your eyes!” – Sam Hall is one of my personal favorite Cash tracks of all time! The goodness doesn’t end there, as track C2 is a beautiful cover of the traditional ballad Danny Boy. Get out the bagpipes and a box of tissues for that one.

https://i.etsystatic.com/13321089/r/il/ab4ccc/1138392482/il_570xN.1138392482_1jlq.jpg
“Sheriff, how are you – damn your eyes!” (“Sam Hall”; Tex Ritter)

I could probably talk endlessly about each song, analyzing the lyrics and comparing Cash’s version to the originals, but I’m not sure there’s enough characters allowed in a single post for that. But I do want to talk specifically about the vinyl release itself. The version pictured above is from the 2014 remastered release series. The sound quality on all of the remastered entries in the American Recordings series is gorgeous. Though recorded digitally, the best sound available is on the analog format. Rick Rubin did a remarkable job getting these tracks captured, and vinyl fans were blessed by the graces of mastering engineer Chris Bellman working on this project (with Rubin supervising). As a bonus, the US versions were platted and pressed at QRP – the pressing plant used for Analogue Productions and Vinyl Me, Please (Classics) released; known for superior quality control. EU versions, however were pressed at GZ Media, which is not as well regarded as QRP. If you’re in the market for this album, make sure you aim for a US pressing! Bellman noted, back in 2014 on the Steve Hoffman Forums, that there were actually 2 sets of lacquers cut for this – one for QRP and one for GZ. Now, I haven’t heard any complaints about the cut from GZ (though I have heard issues about surface noise and quality defects), so I can’t say if one lacquer cut is better than the other – but I’d still suggest going with the QRP pressing to be safe.

Between the excellent recordings, the song selections, the guests, Cash’s performance, and the quality in the 2014 vinyl release – this is one of my favorite albums in my collection and probably the one I’ve spun the most often over the past 5+ years. So, again, I’m celebrating Mr. Cash much in the way I celebrate his music nearly every week; I’m going to be spinning this album on repeat all morning! Happy Birthday to the bad ass Man in Black!

If You Get Confused, Listen to the Music Play

A week or two ago I posted about my complete Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab collection of Grateful Dead titles on Instagram & Reddit. I’m back with more Dead because, with the addition of MoFi’s Blues for Allah release, I was able to finally do an A/B comparison with my favorite Dead studio title – Blues for Allah. I’ve gone through many copies of this album over the years; from a 1975 US 1st pressing in VG- condition to the 2017 Rhino release that was initially only available in the Record Store Day box set.

2017 Record Store Day Box Set

I actually ended up sticking with the Rhino release because to my ears it sounded wonderful and the media condition on the 1st press was creating too much surface noise. I sold the original pressing and keep only the Rhino, but I was always looking for something compare it against. For the longest time I had my eyes set on the 2011 release from the now defunct Audio Fidelity label. Prices always seemed to be north of 3 figures and I never felt the need to spend that much, just for the sake of doing an A/B, as I was already really happy with the sound on the Rhino copy. That said, when Music Direct’s 2019 catalog came out and had a photo of Blues for Allah with the “Original Master Recording” on the jacket, I lost my shit! I called Music Direct that day and asked to pre-order. After roughly 1 year of waiting, it was finally released; and it sounded absolutely stunning. I was still curious how it stacked up against the Rhino, although I had my suspicions how this would end based on past similar comparisons I’ve done.

A complete collection of Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab’s Grateful Dead titles

Before I start comparing the two pressings, I wanted to share a bit about the album itself. Released in the early fall of 1975, Blues for Allah was the first studio release after the band had announced the then-indefinite hiatus from live touring. A small departure from their previous albums, where songs that had matured on the live stage were recorded for an album, “BfA” contained songs that were mostly written and developed in studio sessions in the early part of ’75. The album featured a mix of new genres and styles from lead guitarist Jerry Garcia, and marked the band’s most commercially successful album at the time; reaching as high as number 12 during a 3 month stint on the Billboard charts. The album was far more experimental than earlier albums like American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead (both which were based in the band’s late 60’s/early 70’s folk rock era), featuring elements of jazz and a slight dose of psychedelic rock. The album opens with a continuous flow of music from the segued Help on the Way -> Slipknot! 1st track, and seemingly morphs directly into the extremely catchy Franklin’s Tower. This is the first track that really gripped me on the album the first time I ever listened to it; with its repetitive refrain “roll away the dew”. The bouncing guitar riff featured throughout this tune was apparently inspired by Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side, and once you know that you can’t unhear it! This opening segue makes for a perfect comparison track across the two pressings. What makes these perfect demo tracks to compare is that they will both start on the outer edge of the LP; chances of any IGD (inner groove distortion) will be limited – it won’t be something I have to adjust for in my analysis/rating. On both the Rhino and MFSL releases, these are tracks A1, A2, A3. Here are some details about each pressing below:

2017 Rhino Release

  • Pressed By: Record Industry
  • Masterd By: David Glasser
  • Release Notes: 1LP at 33 & 1/3rd; housed in single pocket jacket, inside generic poly innersleeve

2019 Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab Release

  • Pressed By: Record Technology, Inc. (RTI)
  • Mastered By: Krieg Wunderlich
  • Release Notes: 2LP at 45RPM as part of MoFi’s Gain 2 Ultra Analog series; limited to ~4,000

Before doing any listening, I took both albums to a local record store that has a an Audio Desk Systeme (a really expensive ultrasonic record cleaning machine) to have them cleaned. I put each into a new MoFi inner sleeve for safe and clean keeping. Then, before dropping the needle, I thorough cleaned the plinth to remove all dust, and used my Onzow ZeroDust to clean my stylus. My equipment used is as follows:

  • Turntable – Pro-Ject Debut Carbon w/ Acrylic Platter
  • Cartridge/Stylus – MoFi Electronics UltraTracker; nude elliptical stylus
  • Phono Preamp – Parasound PPH100
  • Receiver/Amp – Marantz SR7000 (using Direct mode for analog inputs)
  • Speakers – Klipsch KG4

As noted above, I was going to focus my testing first on the 3 segued tracks. The dueling elements between 2 electric guitars playing separate riffs, and a really funky baseline, make for a unique listening experience; but this is also where mastering is going to be hugely important. If properly mastered and fully dynamic, you should be able to separate each guitar and pull out the bass. If it is not, the guitars will sound muddy and will begin to bleed into one another.

I started with the MoFi (initially forgetting to put my speed to 45rpm, and wondering for that initial second why everything sounded odd), and I was first caught by how little surface noise there was on the lead-in track. Usually you expect some level of hiss or a pop, but there was none to be found. Kudos to RTI on that one! The song began and I felt the volume was slightly low, so I turned the receiver up 2 clicks. Jerry’s guitar with it’s signature envelope-filtered sound is what grabbed me the most on first impression. The tone was crystal clear and you “feel” it right there in the room. I turned my attention to the second guitar which is isolated to the left channel for all of the first portion of the segue trio. It too was really clear, though I found it was probably mixed just slightly too low – it can get lost on occasion under the baseline…which brings me to my next observation. The bass on this MoFi release is absolutely WONDERFUL! It’s big, bold, and round while retaining clarity and realism. After a couple listens I decided the bass was probably the MVP of the MoFi copy. As Help on the Way -> Slipknot is about to transition to Franklin’s Tower, there’s a tambourine that I’m not sure I’ve ever fully heard (or payed enough attention to). It’s something that likely gets buried without good mastering; being cut at 45 doesn’t hurt the ability to retain dynamics, either. By time Franklin’s rolled around, I was dancing in my seat. Elements of an organ are nicely layered, and that tambourine sticks around. But it’s still the “jumpy” riff (the one mentioned about that supposedly was intended to mirror Walk on the Wild Side) that carries the song and music. With side A completed, I put away the MoFi LP, reset my turntable speed to 33 & 1/3rd, and put the Rhino press on the platter.

Upon dropping the needle, there was definitely some surface noise. I had never really thought anything of it, but I think after listening to the MoFi it just seemed like there was a bit of excess surface noise. When the music began, I immediately flinched because the output was much louder than the MoFi and I had to turn down the receiver 5 clicks. With the volume levels more or less equalized to what I had used for the prior version, I noticed the same thing – Jerry’s guitar just sounds so damn real. I’m going to chalk this up to a factor of being a great source recording since both releases were very impressive in this area. Once again, I still felt the left channel’s guitar to be slightly buried, though on the Rhino pressing the bass is a little more mild; so it does quite get lost in this version. I did feel that some minor details were lacking, though. The biggest thing that stuck out to me was that the aforementioned tambourine does really get muddied on this LP. I can hear it, especially being more aware of its presence now, but it is nowhere near as clear as it was on the first go-round. What was really impressive on this, though, is how clean the vocals come through. I felt the MFSL copy maybe could have mellowed the vocals a bit – they came across on the hotter end; not quite “harsh” but not “smooth” either. On the Rhino release, they have a silk-like quality about them (especially on the final track I compared, Franklin’s).

All in all, this ended up being much closer of a contest than I expected – though I really shouldn’t have been that surprised. When I did my 4-way comparison of American Beauty, I was shocked by how well the Rhino release of that album stacked up. It was far and away the only thing that went toe to toe with the 45rpm MFSL; not even the original 1979 MFSL could compare. Ultimately though, like that prior shootout with a Grateful Dead album, the 45rpm cut from MoFi was just too tough to beat. It really has everything you want in an audiophile release – clear and liquid-like guitars, great separation to allow small elements to shine through, and full/round bass. It does come with a premium price tag though, and that’s like a decision point for many people. Do you spend $50 on the audiophile grade album, or spend less than half that for the version that nearly stacks up to that lofty level of the audiophile grade release? Ultimately, it’s great for Dead Heads and vinyl lovers alike that there’s the options to choose from. High end sound quality is rare enough these days, so to be able to choose between two versions of an album that are in-press and widely available is a great thing! If you’re looking to save some change – go for the Rhino – you will NOT be disappointed in the slightest! But if you have the change to spare and you’re looking for the absolute top-end version; it’s the MoFi.

One last bonus note – the MoFi may be strongest on a tune I didn’t compare between the two. The Music Never Stops is one of my all-time favorite Dead tracks, and the dry saxophone in that track is absolutely breath taking on this release. The realism is unparalleled. I’ve been here endlessly replaying that track while writing this, tapping my foot constantly. When you hear a good song, and the sound quality is good, it’s almost impossible for me not to have some sort of physical reaction wanting to move to the music. I once was told, while demoing audio gear, that you can judge how good the quality is by whether a person taps a foot/nods their head/etc. Even if the music is not an artist/genre/song they like, when a person hears good quality sound to a beat or rhythm, it’s almost impossible to not have a reaction to that. And I wholly believe that!

Anyways, hope this wasn’t too long winded, and I hope that some got enjoyment out of this (I know my ears did doing the listening!)

If you liked this, check out my American Beauty review if you haven’t already (linked above), or some of my other previous reviews and write-ups:

Dave Brubeck Quartet Jazz Impressions of Japan | De La Soul 3 Feet High and Rising | Father John Misty Pure Comedy

West meets East: Impressions of the November 2019 Vinyl Me, Please Classics Release

“The tunes in this album are personal impressions from the Quartet’s tour of Japan, Spring 1964. No one in a brief visit can hope to absorb and comprehend all that is strange to him. Sights and sounds, exotic in their freshness, arouse the senses to a new awareness. The music we have prepared tries to convey these minute but lasting impressions, wherein the poet expects the reader to feel the scene himself as an experience. The poem suggests the feeling.” – Dave Brubeck, 1964


Earlier this week, I excitedly rushed home from work after getting notice that my most recent Vinyl Me, Please shipment had arrived at my doorstep. I’ve been a continuous subscriber to the Essentials “track” for 3 months now, though I think I’ve actually swapped for other albums all but once (this month, I stuck it out for QOTSA’s Songs for the Deaf), and I’ve been an on-again/off-again subscriber since Demon Days dropped in 2017. This was my first time actually adding a supplemental track, and I did so for 2 reasons. First – last month, I swapped out of Flaming Lips for Art Blakey and was absolutely floored by the mastering and pressing quality. I’ve long been a vocal advocate for all-analog vinyl releases (I actually pressed VMP’s CEO on that topic when he did an AMA a year or so back) and I was very happy when the Classics subscription launched and went on with mostly (all?) AAA releases. The second reason I added the Classics track this month was because it was from the Dave Brubeck Quartet. For those uninitiated with Jazz, let me clear something up for you: if you have the chance to add more Brubeck to your collection; you do it without hesitating!

The album, which is pictured above, is 1964’s Jazz Impressions of Japan. This was the 3rd of 4 albums from the Quartet in the “Impressions” series. The others were, in order, “U.S.A.” (1957), “Euraisia” (1958), and “New York” (1964). At the time of the release of “Japan“, the Quartet was made up by Dave Brubeck on piano, Paul Desmond on alto sax, Joe Morello on drums, and Eugene Wright on bass. This was the most well-known iteration of the group, with Brubeck and Desmond being original members, and Morello and Wright joining in 1957 and 1959; respectively. The compositions and recordings were heavily influenced by their time spent in Japan as part of the US State Department’s Jazz Ambassadors program in the late 50’s/early 60’s. The program was intended to improve the image of the United States throughout the world during the Cold War. Other “ambassadors” included Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, and Duke Ellington. Many would recognize the iconic photo of Satchmo playing in front of the Sphynx, which was taken during his 1961 tour of Africa as part of the program.

The album blends folk melodies of Japan, utilizes the Eastern scale, and borders on exotica at times; but it still retains the anti bebop/hard bop signatures of West Coast Jazz, which Brubeck was the poster child of (quite literally, appearing on the cover of Time in ‘1959). It was a true “East meets West”, in the most delightful of ways. From the opening of “Tokyo Traffic”, with Morello’s woodblock hits and gong-work, you feel as if you’ve warped from a university jazz hall to the center of a bustling Asian metro; if not with a hint of stereo-typed perceptions of what Asia was to Americans at the time. But as the song continues, you are brought right back to your western comforts, with Desmond smoothly interpolating “God Rest Ye Merry gentleman”. On the album goes, with only the tune “Zen is When” stepping slightly into a more “exotican” sound. The album is pure bliss to listen to, but as the VMP liner notes indicate, this album is a little under-loved. It was just one of over 2 dozen albums that would be released and tied to Brubeck’s name. It seems to have been lost a bit in the shuffle, even by Brubeck and the Quarter themselves, as only the final track – Koto Song – became a standard tune for the group in future performances and recordings.

The vinyl release this month became the first time the album was reissued on the format since 1980, and just the 3rd time being reissued since the original 1964 release. VMP had Ryan K. Smith cut the lacquers from first generation master tapes at Sterling Sound, and the album was pressed at QRP – all of which generally makes for a high-quality release. RKS is one of the better mastering engineers in the game, and QRP is far and away the best pressing plant going right now. The scans used for the album jacket actually appear to have printed artificial ring-wear (visible on the bottom-center part of the jacket), but the resolution is quite nice. The labels on the wax are the classic Columbia “2-eye”; noting “360 Sound”. The disc comes in QRP’s branded poly-inner sleeves and the vinyl appears to be thick; 180g weight. It’s a fairly premium-feeling package, which is very nice at the $23 price-point for an add-on subscription. As I sat down to give it a first listen, I took out the listening note (a very nice touch, I might add), and read a bit before dropping the needle.

The equipment I played the album on is as follows:

  • Turntable: Pro-Ject Debut Carbon w/ Acrylic Platter
  • Cartridge: Ortofon 2M Bronze, nude fine-line
  • Phonostage: Parasound PPH100
  • Receiver: Marantz SR7000 (using Direct mode for analog inputs)
  • Speakers: Klipsch KG4

As the needle dropped, surface noise was virtually non-existent. There was, however, some decently audible tape-hiss once the track began. This is one of the down sides to an analog format and analog source – you have degradation in source quality over time and if you do not bring digital elements into the process, you will replicate that degradation into your lacquer. It’s a trade off, and in this case I think it is worthwhile, because as the music started I was awed by the “realism” of the sound. Morello’s woodblocks sounded incredibly life like, and the gong’s ring was fully audible and un-distorted. I’ve long maintained that many percussion instruments, like a gong or any drumkit cymbal, are some of the most difficult instruments to completely and naturally replicate on a consumer-level media format. But when it is done right, the result is magical to hear, and it really completed the “in the room” feel of a well mastered record. The amount of detail on this album is quite impressive – it’s a testament to the record itself, but also to Smith’s mastering. There are multiple times when you can hear Wright’s bass strings being plucked, as well as an instance when you can hear wood creaking (I think it is from the bass, but it could also be the floor, or perhaps another instrument). Again, this all adds to the realism in sound. All in all, it is a wonderful representation of an underappreciated album by legendary musicians. The folks at Vinyl Me, Please hit a homerun with this release (and special shoutout to u/storfer, who I understand is the mastermind behind the Classics track).

Unfortunately, the VMP pressing of this has since sold out. But, if you are interested, I would highly recommend giving the album a listen on your streaming platform of choice. If you like it, you can generally find original pressings in decent condition for reasonable prices. It would be worth every penny, in my opinion!

Anyways, thanks for reading, I know this was a bit long winded but I wanted to share my thoughts because I was pretty stoked about this one! If you liked this write-up, check out some of my others:

De La Soul 3 Feet High and Rising | Father John Misty Pure Comedy | Grateful Dead American Beauty | Cab Calloway

Looking for the Veedon Fleece, yeah

Some would call this a forgotten classic. But if it was barely recognized at the time of its release, can it really be considered “forgotten”? Perhaps it’s better to say that it was an overlooked gem, at the time, and since has failed to get the rightful praise it certainly deserves.

Pictured is the recent Vinyl Me, Please Record of the Month (February) release of Van Morrison’s 8th solo studio album, Veedon Fleece. This marked the first time the album had been reissued in roughly 30 years. It was first pressed at the time of the album’s release in 1974, again in the US in 1987, and then finally a trio of EU pressings in 1989…and then nothing for 30 years! While early copies are not as hard to track down as one might expect for an album with such limited pressings, they certainly don’t come cheap. A VG+ condition Terra Haute US 1st press can fetch $50+ in most cases. So this definitely was in need of a modern reissue, so good on VMP for landing on this title for their subscription service!

Certainly a core reason for such a lack of reissues has to do with the fact that this album flew under the radar at the time of its release – coming out just a few months after Morrison’s excellent live double album It’s Too Late to Stop Now. It marked the end of an extremely productive era for Morrison, which began with Blowin’ Your Mind (1967), continued through with the extremely well known Astral Weeks (1968) and Moondance (1969), and ended with this under-appreciated masterpiece. It preceded a lengthy gap of 3 years before Van would release another album (aptly titled A Period of Transition). Veedon Fleece was also a marked change from prior albums, ditching some of the peace/love and standard rhythm and blues that many had grown accustomed to in favor of a more celtic-acoustic sounds. It was in many ways autobiographical; written shortly after his divorce with Janet Planet. In all, it’s a sometimes-beautiful, sometimes-haunting, album that rivals Astral Weeks in its stream of consciousness from the Belfast Cowboy.

For this release, Vinyl Me, Please pressed this one “emerald green” vinyl – which I feel is a fitting color. They were a bit ambiguous on the mastering component, suggesting it was “remastered from the original tapes a while ago and the label was sort of waiting on the right time to reissue it, so we used that version”. My best guess is that while they did start with the analog tapes at some point, it was eventually cut from hi-res digital, like nearly every other VMP release. This has been a sticking point for me; one that causes a bit of frustration. I noted in my recent review of their release of De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising that I had some dialogue a while back with VMP Co-Founder/CEO Matt Fiedler about it, and he indicated that they do have interest in an all analog release…but the wait continues. More than anything, I’d just like a little more transparency over the mastering/cutting process than what they currently allow. While not technically untrue that it was mastered from analog tapes, it is a bit misleading to leave it at that without noting that there was a digital component. I love everything VMP has been doing – from release selection to packaging – but this is one area I’d like to see some improvement (and also, stop pressing these at GZ Media). All that said, this release still does sound very good. I don’t have an original to compare to, but this copy is certainly passable and better than other streaming/digital versions I’ve listened to. I played this on my setup as detailed in this prior post, and outside of some minor surface noise here and there, there’s not much that I didn’t like. If you like the album, you’ll love the VMP treatment. Below are some photos of what came in the box:


I hope y’all enjoyed the read – let me know if you have questions on the album and this release specifically, or anything about the VMP subscriptions service. I’d be happy to discuss!

Playing Under the Table

If you have followed me on social media or seen any posts I’ve made on Reddit, you may know that I’m a bit of a big Dave Matthews Band fan. I know DMB may not be for everyone – they certainly have their detractors – but even if you are in the camp that dislikes the band I hope you’ll find something here to make this an enjoyable read! So, without further ado, I present: Dave Matthews Band – Under the Table and Dreaming – 2014 Mispressing

Rhyme & Reason, and Origins:

Sometimes an artist or group takes a few albums to find their groove. They utilize studio sessions to craft their signature sound, find a “uniqueness”, a vibe that will separate them from the rest of the jumble of mainstream and alternative music alike. Maybe they strike gold with their 3rd album and finally make it big. We’ve all seen that play out before.

But that story isn’t this one.

By time Dave Matthews Band entered the studio for their first full length album, 1994’s Under the Table and Dreaming, the Charlottesville, VA natives were a hugely populat act with an intense grass roots following. The band had played over 400 shows between 1991-1994, prior laying down tracks for UTTAD (as it is regularly abbreviated by fans). Helping word spread, the band allowed fans at these early shows to tape, and occassionally plug directly into the sound boards, and trade these live shows freely – a tradition that continues more than 25 years after their first performance. This practice also ensured that an extremely large majority of the band’s early shows were well documented. The DMBAlmanac remains the hub for cataloging DMB’s shows.

Contrary to most new albums, nearly every song on UTTAD had been road tested over the course of those early performing years. Some of the songs had even originated as solo tunes Matthews had written while he was still just a bartender at Miller’s in C’Ville. Here he would recruit drummer Carter Beauford and LeRoi Moore – both frequented the stage at Miller’s – and eventually violinist Boyd Tinsley and high school bassist Stefan Lessard. Keyboardist Peter Greisar would also join the band, but left shortly after in 1993. Tinsley, who recently departed from the band after…er, some legal issues…was the last to join and helped define the group’s bluegrass-ish sound with his fiddle; harmonizing at times with Moore’s jazzy saxophone. The group of 5 would hit the studio, along with guitar virtuoso Tim Reynolds, and producer Steve Lillywhite would work his magic.

When they entered the studio, the band’s catalog consisted of roughly 50 songs, so not every tune made the cut. Early favorites like the jam-heavy Seek Up and the crowd favorite Granny were absent. But there was little to complain about when the finished product finally hit. From the opening snare hits of The Best of What’s Around, to the iconic Ants Marching, to the melodic (hidden track) #34; the album was absolute perfection to the fanbase that DMB had attracted. It didnt play too bad with critics either, and it eventually went 6x platinum with over 6M copies sold.

The album remains a staple of live shows, more than 20 years later. While some tracks have stuck around in constant rotation, others have become rarities with fans “hunting” them across multiple shows. After 30ish shows, I finally got my first Lover Lay Down at The Gorge Amphitheater (known as “Heaven’s Amphitheater”, and for good reason!) last summer – I’d be lying if I said I didn’t shed a tear of joy at the absolute beauty of the song’s sax solo. Even more rare, #34 was played the following weekend in honor of what would have been Roi Moore’s 56 birthday. That song has just 25 plays in total.


DMB on Vinyl, a Brief History:

It should be noted that DMB’s vinyl releases have been all over the place. The first full-length vinyl release from the band was 1998’s Before These Crowded Streets, an album pressed during the “dark era” of vinyl where in all likelihood the mastering used for the CD was taken to cut the lacquers. While it is a bit of a holy grail-type item due to the low press count and the decades spent out of press, the upcoming (rumored) remaster will almost certainly blow it out of the water.

From 1999 to 2008, DMB had a grand total of exactly zero full-album vinyl releases. That changed with 2009’s Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King. While the return to the format was welcomed, the execution was poor; to be kind. Most copies have the wrong sides pressed with incorrect labels (the side labeled as side 2 plays the songs that should be on side 3, etc), and at least half were pressed off center. It didnt get better with 2012’s Away From the World – pressed on clear vinyl with serious surface noise issues. Neither of these albums received vinyl specific masters

In between, the Live Trax series was launched on vinyl, to much more positive reception. To date, the first 5 albums of the series have received box set releases, with each having a color and standard black variant. All have been mastered specifically for vinyl from hi-res digital files of the multi-track soundboard recordings and mixes; cut by Scott Hull. The early Record Store Day copies of these sets can fetch some astronomically high values.

Eventually, the band’s management embarked on 20th anniversary releases of previous albums. They started with Remember Two Things and have continued through with the Recently EP, UTTAD, Crash, Red Rocks ’95, and Luther College. Some of these were absolute home runs, like the all analog (AAA) Crash, while others had some issues….


Under the Table & Spinning:

After months of waiting between pre-orders and shipments, copies of the newly pressed debut album were starting to be sent out in the early parts of November 2014. A lot of questions remained about things like mastering engineers and pressing plant location, so fans were eager to get their hands on it to get answers to these gaps in knowledge. Following some of the uneveness of prior DMB vinyl releases, there were concerns that management would drop the ball somehow. Unfortunately, those fears weren’t totally far off.

Upon receiving the album, it was noted that Ted Jensen had mastered the album, and rather than keep an all analog chain they went the hi-res digital route. Jensen’s involvement alone upset some, due to his perceived role in the loudness wars, but to not utilize the master tapes to their fullest and cut all analog seemed like a waste. However, upon first listen of the first disc, things sounded more than fine. Perhaps not an audiophile release, but there were some noticeable improvements over the original CD. Beauford’s drums were clear and present, Tinsley’s violin swooned in and out of songs, both Matthews’ and Reynolds’ guitars intertwined beautifully, while LeRoi Moore’s saxophone stole the show. Everything was great – Finally! A good DMB studio album on vinyl!…only once reaching Side C did things take a bit of an odd turn.

At the end of the song Jimi Thing, there’s a great little sax part that leads the way through the outro of the song. In live settings, it opens the gateway to prolonged jam, and it is essential to the tune. The only problem was that on the vinyl release, that saxophone was gone in the outro. There was nothing in its place besides a drumbeat and some light acoustic strumming. Alas, the wrong masters had been used! This caused an immediate uproar in the fanbase, and the release was immediately recalled from distribution.

It’s unclear how many copies actually made it out of warehouses, but a majority of pre-orders were not filled. Nearly 3 months later, a second (correct) pressing was released to all pre-order holders, and those who received the mispressing were sent a replacement disc 2 that contained the correct version of the song. It was just another footnote in the long and confusing history of DMB vinyl records. One that was a headache to deal with, a bit of a let down, but ultimately an enjoyable release when the dust finally settled. Hopefully it was a lesson to be learned from, and if the AAA release of Crash is any indication; they have. Now we just play the waiting game until Before These Crowded Streets gets its turn in the remaster-spotlight!

A Showdown of Beauties

This is going to be a bit of a long read, so buckle up (or skip down to the winners, it’s okay, we all do it!). I wanted to post something a little special for what would have been Jerry Garcia’s 77th birthday. ’77 was my favorite Dead tour year, for whatever that’s worth, but that’s neither here nor there…for now.

Last year, I finally decided to pick up the latest Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab release of Grateful Dead’s American Beauty, putting the count of the number of different versions of this album in my collection at 4. Clearly, I love this album…a lot! I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s my favorite Dead studio album, but it isn’t far off. It’s very accessible to an outside listener, and has a few songs that would likely be familiar with people who don’t know much of Grateful Dead’s work.

A quick history of how the album came to be for those who aren’t familiar with it. It was recorded just a few months after Workingman’s Dead in the late summer of 1970, and continued the close partnership between the band and lyricist Robert Hunter. Hunter has credits on “Box of Rain”, “Friend of the Devil”, “Sugar Magnolia”, “Ripple”, and “Truckin’”. During the recording sessions the band brought in mandolinist David Grisman to play on “Friend of the Devil” and “Ripple”, and Howard Wales to play keys on “Candyman”, “Truckin’”, and “Brokedown Palace” – both of these guests would later work on collaborations with Jerry Garcia; with Grisman recording 2 albums (a self-titled/untitled release and “Shady Grove”) and Wales featured on the Side Trips Vol. 1 album that was recently pressed for Black Friday Record Store Day. The album also came on the heels of the group spending time with CSNY; who reportedly helped the Dead with their vocal harmonization around that time – this point has been downplayed and confirmed by various members of each band across a few decades. In any event the vocals really shine on this studio effort, and in combination with the more relaxed sound (that was a result from more steel-pedal guitar from Jerry and guest spots from Grisman and Wales), it’s an album that holds up really well from the post-Woodstock era of music.


Given that I have a decent variety of versions of the album, I figured it would be fun to do some A/B/C/D comparisons between them and try to determine which was “best”. Obviously in music “best” is a bit subjective (everyone has different ears and preferences for sound), but in general differentiating “good” sound from “better” sound is not terribly hard to do with a decent set of ears and some critical listening ability. In retrospect, what made this a difficult task was that the original is known to be of really good sound quality while the others are 2 audiophile label releases and another all analog cut from a top-tier mastering engineer. Below are the different versions I have, and some notes on each release:

1970 Warner Bros. German 1st Pressing

  • Pressed by: Teldec-Press GmbH
  • Identifying Traits: “The Grateful Dead” printed on cover, which is laminated. Dark green labels, with center-aligned text (US first pressings have left-aligned text)

Notes about release:

  • No mastering credits are listed for any releases in the first run, but it is noted to be mastered at Artisan Sound Recorders

1979 Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab Pressing

  • Pressed by: Victor Company of Japan (JVC)
  • Identifying Traits: Blue/turquoise “Original Master Recording” band across top of album cover

Notes about release:

  • Half speed mastered & cut from the original analog tapes by Stan Ricker
  • Pressed on JVC’s “Super High Definition Vinyl” compound

2011 Rhino Pressing

  • Pressed by: Record Technology (RTI)
  • Identifying Traits: RTI sticker and rectangular hype sticker noting that it was cut from the original analog masters, along with a Rolling Stones Top 500 review

Notes about release:

  • Remastered from the original masters by Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Mastering
  • Pressed onto 180g vinyl

2014 Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab Pressing

  • Pressed by: Record Technology (RTI)
  • Identifying Traits: Black “Original Master Recording” band across top of album cover

Notes about release:

  • Mastered by Krieg Wunderlich using the MFSL Gain 2 system at half speed
  • Cut at 45RPM and pressed onto two 180g LPs

Before doing any listening, I took all 4 copies into my local shop and had them run it through their Audio Desk Systeme ultrasonic record cleaning machine and then placed each in a brand new MoFi inner sleeve. Then, before dropping the needle, I thorough cleaned the plinth to remove all dust, and used my Onzow ZeroDust to clean my stylus. My equipment used is as follows:


To start my testing, I began with my favorite track – “Ripple”. The song is blissful, has a lot going on “musically”, and allows for good separation of instruments to be heard; being a rather mellow tune. What made it even better for a comparison song is that across all 4 releases, it is always the outer-most track (Song 1, Side B for the 3 cuts at 33 1/3; and Song 1 Side C on the MoFi 45 cut). Being an outer track allows for a deeper cut and better overall sound.

I began with the 1970 original. I noted some minimal surface noise on the lead-in track (I am not the original owner of this – it was purchased used a few years back) which dissipated as soon as the music came in. Immediately I noticed how apparent the bass was; almost to a point of being too much…yet not quite. It was slightly muddled (I couldn’t fully visualize each note being physically played by Phil Lesh), but still very full. When Jerry’s vocals come in with “If my words did glow”, my immediate reaction was that the sound was very life-like. There’s some minor sibilance on the line “simple highway”, but otherwise everything was clear and smooth. As far as instrumentation goes, every instrument is discernable from one another, and Grisman’s mandolin really rings well during the “Ripple in still water” portion; though I did feel that there could have been more separation to give a more real sound to everything.

Next up was the 1979 MoFi. Not a trace of surface noise here; despite not being the original owner. Similar to the German pressing, the bass is very apparent right off the bat. This pressing’s bass is a bit clearer and less overbearing than the 1st press. Vocals again are very life-like, and perhaps a bit closer to the front. No sibilance detected over a few listens. What really shines here is the mandolin. As it built up, I let out an audible “wow!” which caused my wife to look over at me like I was some sort of crazy person.

After listening to the 2 early pressings, I moved on to the reissues. To avoid going in complete chronological order, I went with the 2014 MoFi first. The record plays immaculately – completely flat, and dead quiet. The soundstage on this was so good that I was able to close my eyes and see exactly where each instrument or lyric was coming from. Bass was tight and punchy, vocals were centered and clear, and the acoustic sounded as if it was being played in my living room. I obviously expected this MoFi to sound good, but for a second time in a single sitting I again let out an audible “wow!”. No look from the wife this time; I’d like to think it was because she was as impressed with the sound as I was.

Finally, I arrived to the 2011 Chris Bellman cut on Rhino’s label. Minor surface noise on the lead-in, and 1 decently audible pop/tick prior to the music coming in, but after that it was smooth sailing. I was really impressed with the overall sound of this copy. Whereas I felt the original may have had a bit too much bass, this version brought it down to a reasonable level while still being very full. Once again, the vocals sound great (at this point, I think the credit for that has to go to the source recording more than anything else), and the instruments all have a lot of room to breathe. I found this pressing very easy to listen to and pinpoint detail. Perhaps it was due to being the 4th go-around of the song, but I felt like I didn’t have to try to tune in to specific areas in order to hear them clearly.


I followed a similar process of listening, though changing the order, for 2 other tracks: Friend of the Devil and Truckin’. At this point I felt like I was ready to make some conclusions and rank the albums. So without further ado, below are my rankings and takeaways:

No. 1. 2014 Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab Pressing

  • Not much of a surprise, but the scientific method proved out. Everything is just so good about this release and pressing. It had by far the most depth and the widest soundstage of any of the 4 copies. The music felt real and almost as if you could reach out and grab it. It was my clear cut favorite across all 3 tracks.

No. 2. 2011 Rhino Pressing

  • This was the shocker of the comparisons for me. Considering the price tag (recently selling for as low as $13.73), this pressing is an unbelievable value. Chris Bellman, as he usually does, delivered a fantastic mastering effort here that stacks up with those of much higher prices and the original releases. Across the 3 songs played, I had it ranked as #2 on Ripple, #2 on Friend of the Devil, and #3 on Truckin’. If you’re in the market for this album and the 2014 MoFi is out of your price range, this is absolutely the way to go.

No. 3. 1979 Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab Pressing

  • Being placed at #3 should be no indictment of the quality of this release. As I noted above, this album in general is known for good sound and there are many well-regarded releases of it. Where this version excels is the pressing quality (JVC made some great stuff), and how it stayed true to the original “airy-ness” of the original.

No. 4. 1970 German 1st Press

  • Again, this ranking isn’t to say this version wasn’t good…but it just didn’t do anything to stick out as better than any of the others. I know there is a mentality that has prevailed across the decades that a 1st press is always more desirable than a repress/reissue/remaster, but this case just doesn’t fit the mold.

I know this may have been a bit of a long (too long?) read, but I really enjoyed doing the testing comparisons and listening in depth to one of my favorite albums of all time! I hope perhaps this helps those in the market for this album make a choice, and I truly hoped that anyone who made it this far enjoyed reading this.

If you have any questions on the review, methods, equipment, or anything else – feel free to let me know!

Hey Folks, Here’s a Story ’bout Minnie the Moocher

I’m getting my Tuesday morning started off with a great swing-jazz compilation from the Hi-De-Ho man himself – Cab Calloway.

Probably best known for the 1931 classic “Minnie the Moocher”, Calloway’s career spanned nearly 60 years. He was born in Rochester, NY and grew up in a middle class family; the son of a teacher and lawyer. He would eventually end up in college in Chicago, where he got his start in singing and entertaining at a number of jazz clubs in the late 20’s. Here, he met Louis Armstrong, who is said to have taught Calloway to sing in the “scat” style that would eventually become his hallmark.

Cab’s career really took off when his band was tapped to play Harlem’s famed Cotton Club during a touring absence from Duke Ellington’s Orchestra. They were so well received that they became the “co-house band” along with Ellington’s. Boosting their popularity, NBC regularly hosted live-events from the club to a nationwide audience. Arguably the height of Calloway’s musical career came on the heels of “Minnie” being recorded, as it was featured across the country in cartoon shorts with Betty Boop. His success continued through the Great Depression and WWII, during which time he and his band even formed a barnstorming baseball team. Jumping between labels (including ARC, RCA Victor, and OKeh Records), Calloway had over 40 charting singles to his name between 1930 and 1948. His popularity waned a bit after this time, but eventually was rekindled due to his appearance in the 1980’s hit The Blues Brothers; in which he performed “Minnie” with the Blues Brothers as his backing band.

The song “Minnie the Moocher” was largely based, in a lyrical sense, on Frankie Jaxon’s “Willie the Weeper” – sharing a vaudeville style and speaking on the topic of drug addiction. Calloway’s tune is filled with numerous references to drugs – the “bloke named Smokey” is described as “cokey” (referencing cocaine use), and he showed Minnie how to “kick the gong around” (a reference to smoking opium). The song is an overall tragic tale of Minnie’s life (potentially ending in an OD), compared to the (opium?) dreams she has of a better one, and ends with a view of pity – “poor Min, poor Min, poor Min”. The “real” Minnie was supposedly based on a beggar from Indianapolis – Jet magazine reported her death in a 1951 issue. The song and character have had numerous musical and theatrical references over the years, including the aforementioned Betty Boop short, the Marx Brothers’ “Night at the Opera”, and in the cult classic “The Forbidden Zone” (in which Danny Elfman sings a variation of the tune, backed by The Mystic Knights of Oingo Boingo).

The album pictured above is likely the oldest vinyl record in my collection, originally released on Epic’s label in 1956 – making this record ~63 years old! The cover is in a bit of rough shape, and nearly all of the sides have been taped up by previous owners, but the record itself is pretty clean and plays without too much surface noise. The album art was done by famed Brooklyn-born cartoonist Sam Norkin, and features Calloway in his iconic white tux that he wore as band leader during many performances. Unfortunately, a lot of Calloway’s original pressings are extremely expensive if they are in anything remotely approaching playable condition. Here’s to hoping for some nice remastered releases at some point!

Anyways, anyone have any swing-jazz favorites they’d like to recommend, or any 50’s era vinyl records they hold near and dear!? Feel free to share them in the comments!

Edit: bonus video of Dr. House performing Minnie

The Comedy of Man (Started Like This)

Today I figured I’d revisit the record that turned me from someone who had a negative preconceived notion of the artist performing under the name Father John Misty, and turned me into someone that appreciated their music.

If anyone remembers what the online vinyl community was like 3+ years ago (especially Reddit’s r/vinyl), I think many would have shared frustration over the irritating regularity of low-effort, low quality posts. This was before the 300 character rule was instituted for photo/link posts, and the sub was a mess of photos without anything more than a title. We like to complain today about redundant photos of “hauls” laid out on the carpet/bed – but that is a step up from where things were just a few years ago. There was also, between 2015 and 2016, a HUGE influx of posts about this bearded guy “FJM” (or Father John Misty, as I’d later learn what the acronym meant). And when that damn “Honeybee” heart-shaped record dropped for RSD, there was a tsunami of everyone and their mother posting pictures of it. I hated it. A lot of folks on hated it; I certainly never felt alone in that regard. It became a meme-like joke for some, and a hill to die on for others defending it. I was not part of the defenders. I was sick of seeing the same posts over and over, and I was sick of the hipster trash music, which I assumed is what “Mr. Misty”(?) made, everyone was posting about.

Well, it turns out, that when you assume…you can kind of make an ass out of yourself. It took me a long while to move from a hater to appreciate the music. It also took me a while to understand that this guy’s name was not ‘John Misty’ and that he was not a man of God, which the ‘Father’ would suggest. Turns out his name is Joshua Tillman; a much more normal sounding thing to call a person. That helped ease my ire, but it wasn’t until a performance on SNL that I came around. I remember almost wanting to change the channel for the performance and just come back when it was done for Weekend Update, but the remote was either too far away (I’m lazy) or had perhaps indulged a bit too much in a beverage of choice (I had recently discovered the joy of NEIPAs). Once the music started, I was intrigued. I’m a sucker for a good horn section, intricate lyrics with a hint of comedy, and a lead-man playing an acoustic guitar – I am, after all, one of the vinyl community’s biggest DMB nerd fan. The first song FJM played was “Total Entertainment Forever”, a song that discusses the way we distract ourselves from the real world and bury ourselves into entertainment; something that will be enhanced by virtual reality in Tillman’s scene of a dystopian future. I was instantly hooked. I loved that song, and started looking up his other music, and discovered that the tune I had just heard would be on his upcoming album ‘Pure Comedy’:

I ended up pre-ordering the deluxe edition after seeing a video unboxing the contents enclosed, and an impressive looking molten-lava effect on the color pressings. I was, however, a bit wary that the pressings were actually just picture discs to give off that molten look. Many shared that concern, and there was a decent amount of debate on how it would be pulled off. Luckily, though, the effect was pulled off by pressing the album on translucent colored vinyl with splatter pellets added to provide the contrast. You can see this clearly if you hold one of the discs up to a light. I went into the album mostly blind – having only heard 3 songs from the artist in total: “Total Entertainment Forever”, “Pure Comedy”, and a track from his previous album called “Chateau Lobby #4”. Some of my first takeaways were how good the album sounded; not talking about the songs, but the sound quality itself. Upon closer inspection of the matrix information, I saw the initials “CB” etched into the deadwax – indicating that mastering engineer Chris Bellman had cut the lacquer. This was a huge deal to me, but a fact which got relatively little attention by the larger vinyl world. Bellman is one of the best in the game, and his involvement had me pretty excited. I still am not sure if he had any involvement in mastering, or if the album was even mastered specifically for vinyl at all or not, but the sound quality is full and rich. If I had to guess, I’d imagine the album was cut from hi-res digital files and did get a dedicated vinyl master, or at least that’s what my ears tell me. As far as the songs on the album go, they are superb. Tillman is a damn good lyricist, if not a bit of an asshole with his words. One line that sticks out to me as both humorous and biting is the following from ‘The Memo’:

“And as the world is getting smaller, small things take up all your time. Narcissus would have had a field day if he could have got online. And friends it’s not self-love that kills you, it’s when those who hate you are allowed to sell you that you’re a glorious shit the entire world revolves around”.

That line is the folk-rock equivalent of rap’s “spitting hot fire”! My standout songs are the title track, “Ballad of the Dying Man”, and that first one that drew me in; “Total Entertainment Forever”.

The album is strong from front to back, and works as a cohesive concept album that border on “double album” status. And maybe FJM is still hipster trash music; it just might happen to be the best of the best hipster trash there is – and I like it! This album still gets a ton of spin from me, and I still go through the package contents frequently. This release fits the deluxe name in every way, between the beautiful wax, the 4 jacket inserts, and the hard-plastic outer sleeve. Here’s a photo album detailing all that came included, plus the bonus 7″ of “Real Love Baby”.

I’ve become a bit of a fan of Tillman’s work since discovering this album, and now have a fairly complete studio discography – including his work with the Fleet Foxes and all of his Father John Misty releases. I even got a chance to see him live last summer, and he put on a great show! I’d highly recommend checking his music out if you aren’t familiar. Maybe you’ll hate it. But you might not. And one of the best parts of consuming music is having your opinions changed, your horizons opened, and your ears pleased! So give it a shot!

As a parting note, I’ll also HIGHLY recommend his cover of Arcade Fire’s ‘The Suburbs’; it’s excellent! I hope this was an enjoyable enough read! Let me know what you think in the comments, or if you have any suggestions/requests for future reviews!

Welcome to the Daisy Age

Greetings world and welcome to my post of phrase:

After years of wishing and hoping for a reissue, and after a few days earlier this year spent frantically checking FedEx Smart Post (which, contrary to its name, is a terrible shipping method), I finally was able to say I owned a copy of this incredible album! Pictured is the March 2019 Vinyl Me, Please RotM (Essiential’s No.75) release of De La Soul’s debut album 3 Feet High and Rising as part of VMP’s monthly subscription service. This is an album that recently turned 30 years old, and it holds up incredibly well. The album offered a fresh look into what hip-hop could be, that contrasted with the direction the genre seemed destined to be heading. It was released a mere 7 months after N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton dropped and changed the landscape. Instead of the more hard-core subjects of Compton3 Feet High was a loose concept album that featured heavy usage of sampling that almost certainly couldn’t be accomplished today due to rights disputes. Johnny Cash, Steely Dan, Hall & Oats, and The Turtles are just some of the artists the trio sampled across their 24-track masterpiece. There’s a legend-ish story that says that while the Beastie Boys were finalizing their own sample-heavy album Paul’s Boutique that they heard 3 Feet High and almost considered scrapping the material and starting over again – a story which harkens back to Brian Wilson being absolutely devastated after hearing Sgt. Pepper’s during the collapsing sessions of Smile. All told, 3 Feet High and Rising is a celebrated classic album of hip-hop’s formative years, and frequently rates as a 10/10. It’s hard to disagree with that rating even after just 1 listen through the record! Boasting 7(!) singles, it’s an absolute force in music to be reckoned with. Out of the box, the album is stunningly beautiful:

Before I go further, I’d like to add that each record in the photo above is on a felt mat to protect them from the wood they are sitting on, and the album jacket is on a stack of cup holders to raise it above the wax so as to not be resting on them – NEVER sacrifice vinyl just for a picture, folks!

This is now just the 4th time the album has been reissued since its original 1989 release – once in 1991 in Germany, once in 2001 in the US (the first time it was pressed to 2LPs), and then again in 2013 by Rhino in the US & EU. None of these are said to sound very good on vinyl, and finding a good condition copy could set you back anywhere between $60 and well over 3 figures. Vinyl Me, Please noted that this release was remastered from the original analog tapes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it was cut all-analog. In fact, it’s far more likely it was cut from hi-res digital as has been standard practice for VMP. I actually asked VMP’s CEO/Co-Founder Matt Fiedler about the lack of all analog releases back when he did an AMA last year. While I certainly wouldn’t say that you can’t have good sounding records without having an all-analog chain, it is a bit of a bummer that they have so much access to tape and yet are not going AAA with the releases. They did have exclusives in the past that were all analog, like Weezer’s Pinkerton and John Lee Hooker’s It Serves You Right to Suffer, but those were platted prior – by MFSL and Analogue Productions in the cases of the aforementioned. Luckily for VMP subscribers, it does appear they’ve heard the message, and their recent release of Loretta Lynn’s Coal Miner’s Daughter was reportedly an all-analog affair!

All in all, the album sounds very good. I don’t have an early copy available to do an A/B comparison with, but I can’t imagine many people being upset with the sound on this. I listened to the album in full last night on the setup detailed in this previous post. Everything is clean and clear, and there’s an almost shocking lack of surface noise; which is a pleasant surprise given clear vinyl’s tendency to attract a bit more static. I assume it was pressed at GZ Media, which has a bit of an iffy quality control track record (at least in my personal experience), making the pressing quality on this that much more impressive. The splatter looks fantastic, and the packaging is really nice. I do kind of wish they had gone with a gatefold instead of a single large pocket for both records, and it does always irk me a bit when a record comes in a thick paper picture sleeve instead of something poly-lined (oh well, I’ve already put the discs in MoFi inner sleeves). Below are some photos of what came in the package:

All in all, I’d say Vinyl Me, Please hit a home-run with this. It checks off so many boxes that you want to see from a subscription service – a rare record with minimal pressings and high secondary market prices, a great/beloved album that stands up over decades, and an overall well-made product. While I do wish it would have been all analog, I don’t think that takes away too much from the package.

A final note, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it – De La Soul is going through some pretty nasty disputes with their record label (which I will not give the courtesy to name). They put out the following message regarding the upcoming move to streaming platforms for their early albums:

Dear Fans… The music WILL be released digitally. After 30 long years of good music and paying their debt to Hip Hop, De La Soul unfortunately, will not taste the fruit of their labor. Your purchases will roughly go 90% (to the label), 10% De La. Thank you.

This is a real bummer to see. I knew about some of the issues they were having (which had led them to leaking their entire catalog for free online a few years back), but I didn’t realize how horribly they were getting screwed. VMP did, for their part, put out a statement supporting the artist and saying they would do what they could to help out. Hopefully they make good on that and De La can see some more fruits of their labor.

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