Author Archives: Mark Smotroff

Why Did I Wait So Long To Buy A Classic XTC Vinyl Reissue?

I finally had some spare change around and decided to spring for a copy of an album I already own on LP, CD and Blu-ray Disc.  Oranges & Lemons by XTC was one of the finest releases of 1989 if not the finest, finding our heroes from England delivering joys that followed naturally after the success of 1986’s Todd Rundgren produced masterwork, Skylarking, and the two surprise hits issued under the alias The Dukes Of Stratosphear

Back in the day, I didn’t take it for granted that this album was going to be as great as it was after Skylarking.  Even though the band was well into their career, it would have been easy (and understandable) for the group to suffer a sort of “sophomore slump” after that album. I mean, just stop and consider how many great recordings they made from Drums & Wires onward — that is quite a trajectory! But the group rose to the challenge and crafted a worthy follow up that went beyond in some ways.  

When  Oranges & Lemons was released, I initially bought it on CD (domestic US) which I liked. I later found a UK CD which I liked better still. I eventually found the fancy Mobile Fidelity edition CD. I also have an original US vinyl pressing on Geffen Records. Save for the vinyl, all those earlier editions I pretty much purged when the CD-plus-Blu-ray-Disc set was released, featuring not only remastered Stereo versions of the album but also a wonderful multi-channel surround sound mix. I reviewed that version back in 2015 (which you can click here to read if you’d like to catch up on what the fuss is about).  That out-of-print set is obviously a bit on the collectible side already as it is going for some heady coin on Discogs! 

So… I hope my XTC fan-boy card won’t be revoked because I held off on buying this reissue of Oranges & Lemons on vinyl for some months now (I’ve followed a similar path for Drums & Wires and Black Sea). I just didn’t feel I really “needed” the vinyl reissue.  But I kept hearing rapturous reports about it from XTC fans on social media so I decided to finally spring for it. 

So what is different this time around. Well… simply comparing oranges to oranges (bad pun intended), the new edition makes the old U.S. pressing sound like it was mastered off a rather harsh, compressed tape of the  album.  As we have learned from XTC’s remasters of its other albums  — pretty much everything from Skylarking onward — those master tapes sounded a lot better than the CDs and vinyl editions back in the day led us to believe. Were they compressed more in the vinyl disc mastering process?  Possibly. Were the CDs mastered poorly back in the day?  Perhaps. Was there some inadequate digital processing along the way? 

I could speculate but I won’t waste the energy. I’ll just report that if you like your XTC on vinyl, you owe it to yourself to get this new remaster of Oranges & Lemons. Especially if all you have is the original US vinyl or a CD, there is much more detail and presence of the band performing in the studio.  Little details like the guitar “stings” in the chorus of “Cynical Days” just jump out more vividly.  Pat Mastelotto’s drums sound quite huge and distinct on this new version.  All the vocals are richer and warmer. Actually, overall the whole album sounds warmer, richer and rounder compared to the US vinyl edition.

For those wondering, yes, the 200 gram black vinyl is very quiet and well centered. All is well on that front…

The cover art on the new Oranges & Lemons is also not only improved over the original, but it is different! Significantly different, actually.  The printing is far superior over the original Geffen edition — all the colors pop better! — and the artwork is even expanded a bit (the oranges and lemons in the lower left of the cover now bleed outside the confines of the border and wrap around the edge of the gatefold spine. The back cover is a completely different photo from the sessions too and I prefer how the tracks are listed on the cover stacked vs. sideways like the CD edition. 

All in all, I am super glad got the Oranges & Lemons reissue. As much as I love the Blu-ray edition — which includes the original mix in 192 kHz, 24-bit fidelity as well as the new Steven Wilson Stereo and 5.1 Surround Sound remixes — it is nice to have the album vinyl, which is probably closer to how Andy Partridge and the band originally envisioned it in the first place.  This is a welcome addition to my collection. 

Original Resource is Audiophile Review

Sweet Unreleased Reggae Sounds Score On Ethiopian’s Return Of Jack Sparrow

I admit to being something of a novice when it comes to truly deep knowledge of reggae and ska music. Once I get outside of the basic sphere of Bob Marley & The Wailers, Burning Spear, Jimmy Cliff, Toots & The Maytals, Delroy Wilson, U-roy and some others, my knowledge falls off dramatically. Then there are the English artists that emerged in the wake of the punk and new wave movements such as The English Beat, The Specials, The Selector, Linton Kwesi Johnson, etc. That said, I’ll add a heartfelt “mea culpa” ahead of time if I make any glaring errors here!

I first became aware of a group of artists from a label called Nighthawk Records just a couple of years ago when the good folks at Omnivore Recordings sent me a handy and quite wonderful sampler of the label’s work. There is an interesting back story there so you should click here to jump to my earlier review to read about its genesis. Recently, the label sent me a previously unreleased album by one of these artists, Ethiopian — aka Leonard Dillon — and from the first listen toThe Return Of Jack Sparrow I’m finding this music immediately welcoming.  

If you aren’t familiar with Ethiopian, some information from Omnivore’s website may prove enlightening:

Reggae legend, Leonard Dillon, known as the Ethiopian, was the founder of one of Jamaica’s premier ska, rocksteady, and early reggae sensations The Ethiopians, but got his start under the name Jack Sparrow. His early solo Jack Sparrow single efforts, some backed by The Wailers, didn’t yield any hits and prompted him to form a group, The Ethiopians, where he found his first success. So popular was their track “Train To Skaville,” that The Ethiopians were able to tour beyond Jamaica and they headed to the U.K. in 1968. “Train To Skaville” sold over 50,000 copies in Jamaica and made a slight appearance on the U.K. charts where it left a lasting impression. So much so, it was later covered by The Selector during the ska revival during the early ’80s.”

Even though The Return Of Jack Sparrow was recorded in the mid-80s, what I love about this is that the production aesthetics are not pinned to that time (a phenomenon which ruined my taste for “new” (if you will) reggae of the period. So this is a welcome treat. Also, many of the song arrangements have happy surprises of not only vocal harmony but fresh compositional leaps which keep the tunes from sounding same-y (an issue with some reggae artists, I must say)

Ethiopian’s vocal approach reminds me of what might have happened had Richie Havens made a record backed by The Wailers.  No gated snare drum sounds here folks — just classic reggae vibes revolving around strong melodies and arrangements. 

The black vinyl pressing on this two LP set is real nice, dark and well centered.  The sound on some of the album is perhaps my only nit in that it has some tell-tale artifacts on some tracks, leaving a bit of fuzzy crunchiness around the vocals in particular. It is not awful so once you get used to the sound its not a problem, but do be aware of what to expect. The phenomenon seems to be less prominent on the second disc so perhaps my copy has a pressing anomaly, I’m not sure. Either way, this is not a huge deal breaker for me. 

Ultimately, the joy of The Return Of Jack Sparrow is about the songs and there are many gems here such as the fun “Train To Skaville” (obviously a remake of the early hit) and the hopeful “I’m Gonna Take Over.”  Its a shame this album wasn’t released back in the day (apparently the label ran out of money so it sat on the shelf after  completion).  I love how the slow slinky groove of “Flirty Flirty Guys” envelops the sweet melody and storytelling like a glove. A love song of lighthearted jealousy, this song could easily be turned into a Hank Williams-esque country classic, so strong is the simple structure of the tune.

And then you’ll hear things like “Lets Together Again” with its badass opening riff this side of The Grateful Dead’s version of “Hard To Handle.” The a-cappella version of “Heavenly Father” — just before the album-closing full band version of the song — is a stunner. 

And so it goes on The Return Of Jack Sparrow by Ethiopian & His All Stars. If you love classic sounding reggae and rich ska grooves, this may be a good jam for you to check out. In my book, this one’s a keeper. 

Original Resource is Audiophile Review

Did I Really Need To Buy This Classic Jazz Oliver Nelson Vinyl Re-issue?

After I bought the fine re-issue of Oliver Nelson’s classic 1960s jazz album called The Blues And The Abstract Truth I had a moment of so called “buyer’s remorse.” Not that the album was especially expensive….  actually… in the grand scheme of things it was relatively affordable compared to an original pressing on the collector’s market.

So, what was the reason for this sad feeling, you ask?  

I did not have any problem with the sound quality on it or the production: in keeping with the majority of Acoustic Sounds and Tone Poet reissues which Universal has been releasing, this one is excellent. The album is well centered and the 180-gram black vinyl is dark and dead quiet (manufactured at Quality Record Pressing).  Additionally the laminated cover production is outstanding, reproducing the rare first edition version of the album art which has a decidedly different — and indeed more abstract — design.  At the time of this writing, there was one Stereo original of The Blues And The Abstract Truth for sale on Discogs at present going for around $60; there were two Mono editions available, starting at $100. 

So getting a really high quality new edition of that earlier version of the album was very appealing and given that all those production checklist items lined up like ducks in a row,  there are no problems or issues to report. 

End of review, right?

Almost.  I really didn’t have much more to add because, like Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and Mingus’ Ah Um, The Blues And The Abstract Truth is pretty well known and established as an important and fine jazz recording. Heck, if you haven’t heard it just reading the list of players on it should pique your interest: Bill Evans, Roy Haynes, Eric Dolphy, Paul Chambers, Freddie Hubbard and Oliver Nelson.

So, what is my problem, you ask?  

Something was gnawing at me… and I didn’t know what it was… Something which in fact kept me from writing this review for a couple of months. Then yesterday I re-read an article I had just written (!) last week on the topic of record collecting, exploring why some of us are so into this hobby. 

Just reading a story separate from when you are writing it can add some mile-high perspective… 

So, re-reading my little “thought piece” — called Why Do Record Collectors Quest For Original Pressings? — it dawned on me exactly why I bought this album and why I was subsequently feeling odd about it. 

I was questioning my own intention for purchase. You see, I have a perfectly great, and pristine, third or fourth pressing of The Blues And The Abstract Truth from around 1968 (it is on the red-ringed Impulse Records label, which has the much revered  run out groove stamp from Rudy Van Gelder’s studio, affirming that it is among the best available versions).

So, again, Mark what was your problem, you ask?  (this time understandably a little annoyed) 

Well, doctor… ummm, I mean… Dear Readers of Audiophile Review… you see, my purchase of this new version of the album was a total impulse buy – – no pun intended. The rationale ultimately was for me to do a review. But I found there wasn’t much to say.  Some of you might argue there still isn’t!

I really didn’t need to buy it. I simply was curious to hear this new version. And, I wanted to own the original cover design for my collection, with that original orange label design from the early 60s.  

Given that finding an original copy of The Blues And The Abstract Truth is a next to impossible task at any sort of reasonable price, having this re-issue in hand is arguably the next best thing. 

In some ways it might even be better. This is one of those editions where they seem to have nailed it, so the album sounds quite similar to my 1968 edition.

Oliver Nelson for the win!

So am I upset that last year I blew $50 in store credit from some old albums I traded in to get the 1968 copy?  Heck no! It is a beautiful copy.  In fact I’m glad I have it to be able to compare and contrast with this new reissue.  And, now my inner completist collector can rest easily knowing we have both versions to enjoy and appreciate.

So there you have it: I’ve given some of you justification to buy a record even if you don’t really need it!  

If one copy of The Blues And The Abstract Truth is good, two copies are better, right?

Maybe. Maybe not.  What would you do?

Original Resource is Audiophile Review

Two New Releases From XTC’s Colin Moulding & Andy Partridge, Explored

I made one mistake when listening to the new EP by Andy Partridge of XTC: I read the wonderful liner notes before playing it for the first time in the car on CD (yes, I seem to own one of the last of those automotive dinosaurs apparently). 

Normally, reading the liner notes might not be a bad thing but in this instance, it sort of tinted my already rainbow-hued glasses a bit with the artists’ fascinating background on how these four new songs came to exist.  You see, the recording is called My Failed Songwriting Career and features tracks crafted for — and rejected by — other artists. 

So, me being me, I immediately jumped into spot the influence mode and didn’t fully “hear” the songwriting within. I liked My Failed Songwriting Career a bunch but wasn’t connecting immediately. I waited a couple of days and played the vinyl version of the EP and — voila!— I felt the music, just hearing Andy Partridge in all his XTC-riffic wonderment pouring through my speakers, fresh as a daisy, welcoming me with open arms.  

And you know what else I heard, reading between the grooves? My Failed Songwriting Career could easily be the roots of a new 21st Century XTC release.  It has a raw beauty that recalls moments across XTC’s many classic albums, from Nonsuch to Wasp Star and even on to the beloved Dukes of Stratosphear recordings (25 O’Clock, Psonic Psunspot).  

Andy doesn’t tell us exactly who these rejected songs were for and I’m kind of glad for that since I won’t be able to judge their bad taste. And I can simply thank them for allowing us — the XTC fans of the universe — to rejoice in having some new XTC-leaning music for us to dance to around our personal maypoles.

“Maid of Stars” sounds to my ear like something that might have fit on Nonsuch or the lush quiet of Apple Venus.  “The Mating Dance” could have fit on Wasp Star sandwiched between the closing double whammy “Church Of Women” and “The Wheel and Maypole.”  Actually, if I might don my poor-man’s-Todd producer hat , I can almost hear “Mating Dance” segued into “The Wheel/Maypole.”

“Great Day” is the McCartney-esque flavored tune which could have fit on any number of XTC albums.  “Ghost Train” might have been a rocker for Green Day or The Futureheads but after thinking about that for maybe 23 seconds, I just hear it as a ripping XTC song waiting to happen. 

My Failed Songwriting Career feels like anything but a failure.

I don’t consider getting to write songs for The Monkees any sort of fail. As the hip kidz say sometime: “just sayin’…”

XTC’s other founding member and hit-songwriter-in-his-own-right, Colin Moulding has a fine new EP out as well out called The Hardest Battle. This too feels like it has been farmed in the XTC dreaming fields, a lush plum prime for the the tastiest of pop pies. If Colin’s title track was on an album with Andy’s “failed” tracks, it would have fit neatly between “Ghost Train” and “Great Day.”  “Say It” is one of those lovely floral, whimsical-wonderful Colin tunes initially issued in 2005 as a bonus track on the Apple Venus boxed set from 2005. For those of you wondering what it sounds like, this fine “original version” echoes the vibe of “Frivolous Tonight” from that album

Of course at the end of the day, wishful, ever-dreaming fans like myself can’t help but imagine how these tracks on The Hardest Battle and My Failed Songwriting Career might have sounded had the whole band gotten together to make a new XTC album.  I know, I know… I’ve heard the “it’ll never happen” comments from numerous naysayers… But y’know, I’ve made it through my life hanging onto my dreams.

And since Brian Wilson came back from the great beyond to complete SMiLE… and since I got to see Emitt Rhodes in one of his last public appearances with a great band performing his songs… then I’ll keep on wishin’ and hopin’ that our heroes from Swindon will find some happy common ground to get back to doing what they do best…

“You may say I’m a dreamer but I’m not the only one…”

Original Resource is Audiophile Review

Who’s On First? Charlie Brown & Vince Guaraldi Glow On Baseball Green Vinyl

When a spiffy new “green grass” colored vinyl copy of the original soundtrack to A Boy Named Charlie Brown arrived in the mail, I had to think for a few moments: why now?  This is a special edition featuring the core Peanuts gang in living color emblazoned on bubblegum trading Baseball cards (included with the album). 

Then the ball dropped from on high hitting me on the head like Charlie Brown on a good day:  its Baseball season! 

(woo hoo!)

No, but seriously, I actually do like Baseball but I have not been following the teams for ages.  

Anyhow, this new version of A Boy Named Charlie Brown is a very welcome addition to the collection for numerous reasons. First, the all analog mastering by Kevin Gray at Cohearant Audio sounds very very nice. The recording feels a bit bolder — and louder — than my 1964 original and the separation sweetly distinct, somehow seems a bit tighter yet maintaining that early widescreen Stereo vibe of the period. While there is no doubt a brighter presence to the new edition than my original it still sounds like the original so it was very easy to get used to and enjoy.  No problems there.

The thick, (I assume) 180-gram dark green translucent vinyl pressing (a Target exclusive) is happily quiet and well centered. So all this is good as well.  

Because there have been numerous variants of this album over the years, I thought it’d be helpful to run through them in case you go out shopping for this and get confused (and it is easy to do so with this album!). 

In 1964 Vince Guaraldi’s sixth album was issued titled Jazz Impressions of A Boy Named Charlie Brown. This was the soundtrack to an unreleased documentary called A Boy Named Charlie Brown. Got that?

in 1972, the album was reissued with a shortened title A Boy Named Charlie Brown and sporting new cover art similar to the new edition shown here. The subtitle was at that time listed as “The Original Sound Track Recording of the CBS Television Special.”  The label on the physical record, however, still says Jazz Impressions of A Boy Named Charlie Brown

Still with me? Hang in as there’s more…

Many years later it was reissued again with the Baseball themed cover art and the A Boy Named Charlie Brown title but now the subtitle was reduced simply to: The Original Sound Track Recording.


In 1969, a separate and different album on Columbia Records was issued called A Boy Named Charlie Brown but which features different songs and dialogue as well as compositions by the Sherman Brothers (yes, of Disney fame). Guaraldi’s music is peppered around that release. The soundtrack album was called A Boy Named Charlie Brown: Selections from the Film Soundtrack issued on the Columbia Masterworks label. There was apparently a full length film at the time (as opposed to the shorter made-for-TV specials). 

Anyhow, this is all quite a bit of record industry near skullduggery but perhaps it was just the nature of the times/place. 

So going back to the new reissue of A Boy Named Charlie Brown at hand, the big question is do you need to get this edition?  If you are like me and only have the original 1964 edition, I would certainly recommend getting this new edition.  It sounds great and finding clean originals are not all that easy to come by — I’ve upgraded my copy numerous times over the years.  Plus, unless you are a completist (like me) the new cover art is arguably better than the 1964 edition.

So, who’s on first? Charlie Brown and Vince Guaraldi, that’s who!

Original Resource is Audiophile Review

Why Do Record Collectors Quest For Original Pressings?

There is a phenomenon among some collectors of vintage vinyl record albums to seek out the earliest possible pressings (or “editions” for those of you out there reading new to this hobby). There seem to be multiple reasons for this… 

Some audiophile collectors like them because in theory they are the closest to the original master recording back in the day and many will pay premium coin for a pristine copy.  A snapshot of a moment in time, this lets you hear the music as originally cut and presented to the universe. This is before the pressing “stampers” (used for mass duplication) became worn out and new ones had to be made (thus the notion of a “second” pressing).  And this is well before any degradation of the magnetic master tape from decades of remastering — and perhaps even remixing. Magnetic tape wears out over time naturally and with repeated use (especially if the tapes haven’t been cared for properly, which happened a lot back in the day).

Some collectors like the original incarnations of the album because of (for lack of a better phrase) what I’ll call visual aesthetics. So for example, the first pressing of Frank Zappa’s Freak Out album included a mailing address on the inner gate fold where fans could write to receive a special bonus (a “Freak Out Hot Spots” map for LA). This was deleted on later pressings.  

First pressings of The Velvet Underground’s self titled debut album are coveted — the one with the peel-able banana on the cover which many fans consider something of a “holy grail,” if you will — because the back cover photo was changed due to a lawsuit, resulting in an instant collector’s item.  Bob Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde had a inner gatefold photo changed as well for similar reasons but that version seems to be of less interest to people these days…

Or, take the case of a rare Bill Evans record that I found at a thrift shop recently which has smaller size label (which were used by some record companies in the 1950s and ‘60s). Some folks get off on these little details.

And, yeah, I’m one of those folks… actually, I am kind of all of the above and more…

Even though the Evans album is not in perfect condition I will keep it (at least until I find a better upgrade copy) because I know it is perhaps as close as I’m going to get to hearing that music on a first pressing. 

Recently, I was telling a non-collecting but music appreciative friend about the Bill Evans record and he asked, sincerely: why was I excited about this? He wanted to know if it was simply the potential resale value of the record? He was trying to get at the essence of why I was excited by owning a true first pressing in almost any condition.

This exchange got me thinking about our motivations as music fans and led me to write this little thought piece to see what you — Dear Readers — think about this. 

If I had to prioritize these points I would probably say in the instance of this Bill Evans record excitement-wise, it is as much about the visual aesthetic of owning that first edition — and all that comes with it including artifacts of inevitable wear and tear — as well as to hear what the album sounded like in 1961. I can use my imagination to listen through the sounds of wear to imagine what a crisp original pressing might sound like. And in those instances where the disc sounds good, that will often prompt me to more actively seek out an upgrade copy… its a process, folks.

I would certainly love a better condition copy which I hope to find some day at a price that won’t bankrupt me. But, at least now I have a benchmark to refer back to which I can judge future pressings against. Even with the ticks and pops of this well worn and played record, the basic grooves are still in remarkably good shape and the record plays through quite clearly, especially when I’m using my mono cartridge (if you want to understand more about that phenomenon, click here to read the article I wrote about the Denon DL-102 cartridge some years back).

In a way, I am a bit like my mother who was always trying to get her cooking to emulate the original source of her inspiration for certain dishes. If she could’ve recorded her taste buds for later playback I’m sure she would have – can you imagine what it would be like to have a taste recorder that allows you to capture in playback flavor? Can you imagine having a smell recorder that allows you to capture and playback smells?

But I digress…. 

That is kind of what audiophiles are trying to do with sound. In our minds when we listen to this recording we can taste the performances if the recording is good enough. We can feel the vibe of the recording studio and the air around the players on the session.  We can put ourselves in the fifth-to-tenth row, dead center in a concert hall for a good orchestral recording — the sweet spot in many theaters.

I know that I am not alone in this next notion: even from the scratches ’n scuffs we might find on a used record we can feel the joy that the original owners of this record might have had from playing it over and over on their players back in the day…  This is especially true when I find an old  — I call it — “well loved” jazz or soul album…. or some ‘60s psychedelic record that has seen a lot of action yet is still enjoyable after being cleaned.  I just know these albums were cherished back in the day and part of the original owner’s lifestyle.  

I often joke about this to other collectors commenting that if these albums could talk they’d have lots of stories to tell us about what they’ve been through. And that alone is something I’ve come to respect and cherish as a visual aesthetic in my collection.

I think one reason that some of the recent reissues from Universal Music (Tone Poet and Acoustic Sounds series) and Craft Recordings have been so successful is that they have struck a strong balance between audiophile authenticity and original pressing visual aesthetics. I have explored many of these releases here on Audiophile Review (search for key words such as Blue Note, Impulse and Verve records to find them) and most times it is this combination of great sound with the authentic look and feel of the originals that make these reissues so appealing to collectors. With some of these albums being rare as hen’s teeth (if you’ll pardon the cliche), the reissues are the next best thing for most of us who can’t afford to spend an entire paycheck on one rare album. We effectively get the look, the sound and the feel of the originals in our hands.

In their own way, I understand this language of record collecting. It speaks to me.

How does it speak to you?

Original Resource is Audiophile Review

Guided By Voices Cheer Clang Clang Ho Via New Cub Scout Bowling Pins Band

Have you ever wished that your favorite bands could be someone else for a moment in time?

There is something of a tradition for this in popular music across the decades, with artists assuming alternate persona’s to allow them to create music outside the constraints of what their fan base expects.  These projects can run from humorous to completely serious.  In the 1950s, conductor Paul Weston and his wife, acclaimed singer Jo Stafford wow’d many with their off-kilter (and off key!) duo Jonathan and Darlene Edwards.  Paul McCartney stealth-fully issued an album of easy listening big band arrangements of his 1971 hit album RAM under the guise of Percy “Thrills” Thrillington.

The Rolling Stones would sometime play club gigs as The Cockroaches over the years. Elvis Costello has released records as “The Imposter” and with T-Bone Burnett as “The Coward Brothers.” Heck… Neil Young didn’t even bother creating another face for his side projects, startling many fans (and his label) in the 80s with so called  “uncharacteristic” releases like the synth-pop-esque Trans and the rockabilly gem Everybody’s Rockin’. And in the mid-1980s, England’s XTC raised the bar very very high with its Dukes Of Stratosphear recordings, an imaginary band that perfectly encapsulated much — if not all — of 1960s psychedelic pop and rock in one fell swoop, from The Beatles to The Byrds to The Beach Boys and more.

There are many others if you dig around a little bit into an artist’s history.

Arguably the King Of Alternate Personas, the leader of Guided By Voices — Robert Pollard — has a long history of creating often compelling new fronts for his music and outside collaborations issued under band names such as Circus Devils, Boston Spaceships, Teenage Guitar, Cash Rivers & The Sinners, Ricked Wickey, ESP Ohio and even under his own name. The latest in this grand continuum is called Cub Scout Bowling Pins which has recently put out its first full length album, titled Clang Clang Ho

From the Rockathon Records website we get some insight into the album’s intent: 
“Cub Scout Bowling Pins hop in the “Magic Taxi”, turn on the AM radio and time travel forty to forty-five years back in time. The project is mysteriously presented, but it’s a thinly-veiled alias of the ridiculously prolific and talented Guided By Voices. Minus the usual punk and prog influences, there are strong whiffs of bubble gum, psych and soft rock with sugary doses of ornate baroque pop. Long renowned scholars of rock, the Ohio players have occasionally worn their influences on their sleeves, but this time they seemingly have their jackets on inside out.”

In bowling terms, Clang Clang Ho is a total winning strike, no spares remaining.  I first heard Cub Scout Bowling Pins on an EP the group issued earlier this year which came out coincident with a new Guided By Voices album (Styles We Paid For). I reviewed the EP at the end of my review of that album (I liked the EP as much or even more than the album, click here to read it).

Clang Clang Ho is a trip through familiar sounds put through a pop supermarket blender as only Robert Pollard could. There are bubble gum touches, very distinct Pete Townshend guitar textures, and vocal twists which evoke no less than Eddie Vedder channeling Buffy Sainte Marie (be prepared for a mad vibrato on some tracks that would make Bryan Ferry envious).  

All this is constructed in distinctly Pollard-ian fashion, much like his print collages which adorn many of Guided By Voices’ albums — flavors and textures collide, as rhythms and song structures take surprising side turns. There are moments where little music tidbits jump out of the mix that are so distinctive I wonder if they might be samples — there is an electric guitar bit that sounds like something from  a Buffalo Springfield track while another riff feels like a Pete Townshend reference (think how Pete was playing on John Otway’s “Louisa On A Horse”)

Some of my favorite tracks on Clang Clang Ho already sinking their earworms into my brain are the tangy neo-pop “Magic Taxi” and the hard rockin’ “Sister Slam Dance” which feels like some sort of mash up of Savoy Brown, Mountain and The James Gang by way of Grand Funk Railroad. “Space Invaders” has a baroque Harpsichord on it and strummy acoustic guitars with a melody at times which reminds me of Donovan’s “Happiness Runs” 

“Competitor” is one of my favorites, a stop-start mini-rock-opera that takes you from Marvin The Martian tweaking out in interstellar space to a Grateful Dead moment into a thrilling Keith Moon-esque conclusion. This leads into the absolutely wonderful “She Cannot Know” which echoes Crispian St. Peter’s “I’m The Pied Piper,” complete with little flute-like hook signatures by way of Jimi Hendrix’s version of Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower.” 

Your experience may vary.  I find Clang Clang Ho a whole lotta of fun to listen to.  The vinyl pressing is just fine, dark black, quiet and well centered.  Even though its no doubt recorded in the digital realm, you can turn this up  — and you should — to appreciate its many textures.  

Do you need Clang Clang Ho in your collection? I think everyone does. 

1,2,3… this is the place to be…

Original Resource is Audiophile Review

Is Brenda & The Tabulations The Band To Make You Subscribe To Hi Res Streaming Services Like Qobuz?

Some of you know that I have this love affair with this group that only put out two albums in the later part of the 1960s called Brenda and The Tabulations. They were a bit more than one hit wonders but outside of the Philadelphia area and people who are into vintage soul music, they’re not extremely well-known. 

Accordingly their albums are quite rare and talk still command significant dollars on the collectors market. I’ll put it this way: I have looked for their albums up and down the West Coast and even in some pretty heavy collector shops when I’ve asked about these records I get that “are you crazy?” look. Some have even laughed in my face!

I’m not kidding here folks.

Oddly, as rare as these records are they are not super in demand, so while the albums are expensive online, its not like certain titles which are so elusive they command prices of $500 or more.

Now, you can find her 45 RPM singles with relative ease on the used market. I picked up one over the weekend at a garage sale for 33 cents! But if you want the albums on vinyl, you’re probably going to have to spend a few bucks (in nearly 20 years of searching I have only found one utterly trashed copy in California, in a thrift shop in Palm Springs for 99 cents!).

Or, you can just subscribe to the streaming service called Qobuz, where I discovered last week they were streaming much of Brenda’s catalog. 

Most audiophiles have probably heard of Qobuz so I’m not going to delve into much detail about the pros and cons of what the service is about beyond the fact that it is one of the places where you can stream in very high resolution. Qobuz delivers CD quality at minimum and much higher if you have a DAC hooked up to your stereo (highly recommended).  I have written about Qobuz periodically as well as their main competitor, Tidal.

Oddly enough Tidal does not have the complete Brenda and The Tabulations catalog streaming (there is one singles collection from the time of their second album only and a later inferior comeback album… more on that one in a moment). Thus, for the sake of focus, I’ll just zero in on Qobuz this time. One last caveat: I did find Brenda on that other big brand-name service but I won’t be talking about them because I don’t like how it generally sounds and I don’t really like how they treat the artists (i.e. they don’t pay musicians very much for the use of the music)

Brenda and The Tabulations were pretty much a singles oriented band and most of those tracks are fantastic. On the first album Dry Your Eyes, the title hit is a slow soulful heart-tugger, drenched in rich echo & eerie organ. 

Be sure to listen to hip-shakers like “Hey Boy” which sounds like it could be outtake from Elvis Costello’s Get Happy album. Also be sure to check out her cover versions including an incredible version of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s classic “Walk On By.” This is a stronger more aggressive arrangement than Dionne Warwick’s original, with Brenda and the band driving a certain sense of streetwise Philadelphia attitude through the song’s heart — that energy is palpable. They also do a fascinating cover of Brian Wilson’s “God Only Knows,” one of the earliest interpretations of that song (originally on The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album) I’ve come across. 

Don’t miss the hysterical-but-infectious novelty track that never became a dance craze called: “The Wash” – – and I dare you to try to not dance around in the room to it.  When listening to that, imagine Debby Harry of Blondie singing the tune — you might be surprised at the similarity in their vocal styles, at least on that song. 

The second eponymously titled album by Brenda and The Tabulations from two years later is a little bit less satisfying on vinyl than the first one as a full album listen as it doesn’t have all the period singles on it. But this is where Qobuz service is useful because they do have an expanded version of the album with period singles streaming there. They also offer a handy compilation that previously was only available on compact disc (click here for that album) called The Top and Bottom Records Singles Collection 1969-1971. This collection delivers all those sides from their work on that label – beautifully produced by the legendary Van McCoy — including “Right On The Tip Of My Tongue,” “A Touch Of You” and “Don’t Make Me Over.”

As you go deeper into Brenda’s catalog you’ll find that there was a comeback album (of sorts) from the mid-1970s on the Casablanca label. That record is a big disappointment as it does not have the original band on it nor does it offer any of the original vibe of the group. Instead it’s rather bland generic mid-70s and mostly forgettable disco. 

But if you listen to those first two albums and the singles, you’ll have most of what you need from the group. Also check out some of the videos that are surface on YouTube which I’ve posted in below.

So, is having access to Brenda and the Tabulations a good enough excuse for you to subscribe to Qobuz?  If you don’t have a CD player and aren’t into collecting rare singles, it might just be…

Original Resource is Audiophile Review

Is Cat Steven’s Harold & Maude Soundtrack A Missing Link In His Vinyl Catalog?

I love much of Cat Stevens’ music from the early 1970s. But, I really love a film from 1971 which featured his music called Harold & Maude. If you don’t know what this movie is about you should pick up the Criterion restoration of this wickedly funny influential film, timeless with poignant storytelling and dark humor.

And somewhere amidst all that, Cat Stevens’ music fit in… quite perfectly. But oddly, his record label at the time never issued a proper soundtrack album. He’d written two new songs for Harold & Maude and it also featured key tracks from his two hit albums from the period.  Those songs for the film songs have gone on to become fan favorites. They were eventually included in a greatest hits collection CD in the 1980s — if I’m not mistaken — but never on vinyl in any widespread manner.

On the most recent Record Store Day, a new vinyl collection was issued featuring pretty much exactly what we needed: a fairly complete soundtrack called The Songs From The Original Movie: Harold And Maude I say fairly complete because as I understand there have been some other collections issued in limited markets/distribution which were arguably a little bit more complete (more on that in a bit). But. for most of us, this new album has all the key songs you really need from the movie, especially “Don’t Be Shy” and “If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out.”

The Songs From The Original Movie: Harold And Maude is fleshed out with tracks from Stevens’ 1970 release Mona Bone Jakon including “I Think I See The Light,” “Trouble” and “I Wish, I Wish,” it also includes tracks from his next smash hit album Tea For The Tillerman includingWhere Do The Children Play?,” “Miles From Nowhere,” “On The Road To Find Out” and the title track.

On Record Store Day this year the soundtrack was put out on a lovely sunshine yellow opaque colored vinyl pressing. Manufactured in Germany, it is manufactured well, being both very quiet and well centered (mastered at Abbey Road Studios). The disc sounds very good. If I have any criticism it is that the album felt a bit bright sounding but I did get used to it after a few listens.

It is great to hear these songs in this particular sequence. The album reminds me of many of Neil Young’s recent archival releases of previously unreleased albums which had tracks that ended up on other collections back in the day. The Songs From The Original Movie: Harold And Maude thus becomes an alternate view of some of Cat Stevens best music, presenting it in a new light. 

And.. we finally get “If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out” on vinyl, so that is the big thing for many of us, bottom line.

Now, I have heard from friends that some completists are grumbling a bit out there on the Interwebs about this release. Apparently there was an earlier edition of this recording in a different cover and track listing in 2007 that was very limited in its availability.  They are grumping because there were some bonus tracks there which are not on this new edition and the earlier version included a booklet. 

That original album has become quite a collector’s piece, commanding prices upwards of $500 on Discogs (click here). Adding to the confusion, there was a different version issued in Japan in 1972 which has many of the tracks from the aforementioned Cat Stevens album (Mona Bone Jakon, Tea For The Tillerman) but not containing the two then-new songs made specifically for the film! This obvious cash-in is also something of a collector’s piece, but you’d really need to be a completist to need a copy (click here to see it on Discogs). Oh, and then there is the very limited edition picture disc that is now selling for upwards of $700 on Discogs! (click here).

So you can see all this Harold-And-Maude-Mania quickly descends into hardcore fan madness (and I say that in a lighthearted and loving way as I understand the fan mindset myself).

That said, all this should force you to hit the pause button and ask: Do I really need all of this? The answer to that depends on how big of a fan you are of Cat Stevens and the film. If you like his work on those first three or four albums, you probably should at minimum own this new and relatively affordable version of the soundtrack — The Songs From The Original Movie: Harold And Maude — on vinyl. 

Fortunately, you can find the new Record Store Day edition for a much more reasonable price online (and probably in some of your favorite stores still if you call around), maxing out at under $50. 

Personally, I’m quite happy with The Songs From The Original Movie: Harold And Maude. It is a nice spin which makes for a very happy companion to my cherished Criterion-restored Blu-ray of the movie. 

Going back to my question in the headline at the start of this review: Is Cat Steven’s Harold & Maude Soundtrack A Missing Link In His Vinyl Catalog?  

Yes, I think for some of us it really is… 

Original Resource is Audiophile Review

Willie Nile Rocks The Day The Earth Stood Still on CD, Qobuz and Tidal

If you are familiar with the 1950s sci-fi film classic called The Day The Earth Stood Still, the impact of the lead track and title song from Willie Nile’s like-named new album will resonate. This recording continues a fine trajectory of recordings he has been crafting for the last several years; some might even call it a late career “renaissance” but I don’t think that is the case as he’s been releasing fine music for decades.  Willie Nile has been steadily expanding his audience not only on the East Coast but also internationally courtesy of the Internet.

That said, in these troubled times when new releases from the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones are not as frequent as many of us would like, these grand rock ‘n’ roll recordings from Willie are a welcome part of a rock ’n roll continuum documenting our daily existence on the streets of big cities and small towns alike.

Like most of Willie’s albums, The Day The Earth Stood Still delivers a good cross-section of classic rock ‘n’ roll garage band sounds and memorable songwriting hooks coupled with often clever word play (such as on the near-epic title track). Willie even gets a little on the Stones-funky side on “Time To Be Great” and “Expect Change” (the latter also echoing Combat Rock-era Clash). 

“Blood On Your Hands” finds Willie tight-roping it all down the line to that sweet Stones-meets-Springsteen center stage spot light, all the while delivering a blunt message which you can aim at your favorite crook or political power abuser. 

The Day The Earth Stood Still is mostly chockfull of strong songs of solidarity, hope and love such as “Sanctuary,” the heart-string tugging “I Will Stand” and the poignant album closer “Way Of The Heart.”

Few people could pull off a twisted tale like the wry-smile-inducing rocker “Off My Medication,” as Willie does here.  

I’ve been listening to The Day The Earth Stood Still on CD and it sounds really solid all things considered as modern rock ‘n’ roll records go — full bodied with no off-putting harshness from poor preparation of the digital files (which sometimes occurs when cutting down — if you will — a high resolution 24-bit source down to 16-bit resolution). The album rocks great when listening to it in the car.

That said, you can also find The Day The Earth Stood Still on Tidal (click here) in CD quality and on Qobuz you can hear it in Hi Res format, streaming at 88.2 kHz and 24-bits (click here). Indeed, the Qobuz version offers just that extra bit of better fidelity so when you turn it up you can feel the additional presence of the band and their instruments. 

I suspect some of that extra “muchness” will carry over to the vinyl edition which I hope to get my hands at some point (and when I do, I’ll be sure to give you all an update on this review). 

But for right here right now, if you are ready to put your rock ’n roll shoes on, Willie Nile’s The Day The Earth Stood Still is the ideal dance partner to help you hold strong through the ups and downs of 2021.

Original Resource is Audiophile Review