Author Archives: Mark Smotroff

The Story Of Herbie Hancock, Vinyl Me Please Boxed Set Part 4: The Piano and 1+1

Today in my listening report to the new Vinyl Me, Please box set called The Story Of Herbie Hancock we’ll explore two very different side of this influential artist’s career.  If you missed the first portions of this review series, please click here and here and here for Parts 1 & 2 & 3 respectively.  

The Piano

One of the enlightening things about exploring this boxed set is the discovery that Herbie had many albums released only in Japan. The Piano, from 1979, is one of them and artistically I can’t understand why this album was put out in the United States back in the day. 

I mean, sure it was a far cry from the jazz-fueled funk of Head Hunters and Man Child, but I would think that some of Herbie’s fans would’ve loved this, his first and only solo acoustic piano recording.  

The good news is that we can re-discover this wonderful album today here in the states. According to his website, a “‘Direct-to-Disc’ recording technique was employed, meaning that Hancock had to consecutively play three to four songs live in one take, making sure not to exceed the maximum recording time of 16 minutes. For most musicians, the conditions would be an impediment, but Hancock seized these severe limitations as a challenge and opportunity to focus his creativity.”

The title of The Piano tells you exactly what to expect: Herbie Hancock playing solo in all his glory. Here he tackles many favorite standards including: “My Funny Valentine,” “On Green Dolphin Street” and “Someday My Prince Will Come.”  Side two is filled with four equally intimate and mesmerizing originals including “Sonrisa” which later appeared on the 1+1 collection, and “Harvest Time” (which was recorded by Flora Purim’s sister Yana in the late 1980s).

The fidelity on this recording is quite fantastic. I inquired about the source used in making this disc and found out from the Vinyl Me Please folks that while The Piano was indeed recorded direct to disc, a safety tape copy was made back in the day. That original tape copy was transferred to a new tape for the purposes of creating this set and from which Bernie Grundman cut new lacquers for this release. Purists will thus be happy to know this is still an analog recording and while it is arguably a generation down from the master disc, it is still fantastic sounding plus we get the benefit of Mr. Grundman’s mastering expertise to bring out the most from this music. Someday I’ll be curious to hear an original Japanese pressing of this to compare and contrast.

Happily, the album is well centered and dead quiet which is essential for music like this. At risk of sounding like a broken record, I still find it a wonder that this album didn’t get any sort of release in the United States back in the day (especially given that he put out an acoustic piano duets album with Chick Corea around that time). 

1+1

This is there all digital recording in The Story Of Herbie Hancock boxed set and it is notable for several things. First and foremost, it doesn’t sound or even feel remotely digital. Proof that with proper recording techniques and good mastering digital recordings can sound real good (sorry analog purists!).  Secondly, as far as I can tell this marks the first time this 1997 album of duets by Hancock with longtime friend and bandmate Wayne Shorter has appeared on vinyl.  

As with the other releases in the set, the quality on this release is very high, pressed on thick dark 180-gram vinyl that is well centered. I can’t emphasize this enough because with music like this where you have pure saxophone and acoustic piano playing, with long held notes and such, any imperfection would ruin the music, causing it to sway in and out of tune.  

The performances are exemplary of course, with the two artists playing off one another, inspiring melodic development and even taking some chances which mostly work really well. I’m especially fond of Wayne Shorter’s Satie-esque “Aug San Suu Kyi” but this is one of those albums that is best experienced as a whole… many musical riches will emerge with each listen. 

And, that is really the essence of Herbie Hancock’s music, in a way. Timeless, challenging and beautiful sounds that give you rich rewards for the price of your attention.  You should listen…

Original Resource is Audiophile Review

Why Are The Violent Femmes An Important American Music Band?

I remember trying to explain to a friend in college why he needed to listen to a band called The Violent Femmes.

“They’re fun,” I said.

My friend, who had not fully embraced punk and new wave by that point gave me that dubious questioning look to which I replied something like: ‘Really… they are like a punk folk rock trio.’

Then I played him a track from their first album and I think my friend was immediately into it. 

At that moment, it would have been handy if I could have given him a “greatest hits” album but in 1983 those hits hadn’t really happened yet. There was just that first album. But what a debut it is with instant classics like “Kiss Off,” “Blister In The Sun” and “Gone Daddy Gone.”  But there was much more to come…

Fast forward five albums and twice as many years later and the band issued a nifty compilation called Add It Up (1981-1993). I thought this was only on CD by then.  Apparently, it did get a vinyl release somewhere (I only see copies from Greece on Discogs!) but it must have been pretty limited as I never saw a copy anywhere. Now, celebrating the band’s 40th Anniversary, this indeed handy hits-and-more album has been issued in vinyl and I couldn’t be happier.

As an end-to-end listening experience, Add It Up (1981-1993)is remarkably coherent given it was made from a variety of sources including demos, spoken word “interstitials,” phone messages, live recordings and outtakes as well as fan favorites.  

The vinyl is dark, thick and well centered  so all those check marks tick off just fine. Craft Recordings did a nice job on the packaging as well. Perhaps my only complaint is that the inner-sleeves seem a bit tight on the records and sounded a little grainy pulling them out, so I worried about possible scratching (easily resolved by putting each disc in their own new sleeves, but be aware of this if you decide to get the album). 

At the end of the day comes the music and here the watch word is, indeed, fun! 

If you like The Violent Femmes, you should definitely get Add It Up (1981-1993). If you are just getting into the band, this is actually not a bad place to expand your horizons after getting the first album. One of the best debuts ever, it remains an essential of ‘80s rock. This music holds up and feels timeless, relevant and delivering an alternative life viewpoint that is important to at least understand if not embrace. I get all that from a three minute pop song?  You bet!  

Original Resource is Audiophile Review

Record Store Day Triple Vinyl Treat: Chicago/The Blues/Today!

I’ve long known about (and been a fan of) the Harry Smith Anthology Of Folk Music from the early 1950s which is highly regarded as a major influence on thousands of musicians in the 1960s. Much of the music in that fabulous set was connective tissue pulling together musicians who emerged in the psychedelic movement — from The Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead and Quicksilver to  Janis Joplin and many others.

What I somehow missed was that in 1966 Vanguard Records put out a kind of equivalent series of albums covering the Chicago electric blues scene, called Chicago/The Blues/Today! The original album series of three individual LPs have become sought after collectors items commanding significant dollars on websites like Discogs and Popsike. For Record Store Day, these individual albums have been neatly compiled into a handy triple-gatefold package.

The set was curated by musician, author, historian and producer Samuel Charters who brought numerous notable Midwestern blues artists together to record short sets showcasing the then-modern electric Chicago blues sound. The result was a batch of sizzling recordings including by Otis Rush, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Homesick James, Walter Horton, Otis Spann, Jimmy (aka James) Cotton and Willie Dixon. 

The album may have helped turn late-1960s and ‘70s stars onto these sounds but more importantly it likely helped bring some much needed notoriety to established American blues musicians who were being overshadowed by rising stars. 

Certainly, the British blues movement was already afoot by that time this album was released. The Rolling Stones recorded at Chess Studios in Chicago in 1964 and 1965 and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers were already making waves with its shining star Eric Clapton that year as well.  The Lovin’ Spoonful was exploring its electrified jug-band folk-blues-rock out of New York and by 1965 The Butterfield Blues Band was already making waves with their first release on Elektra Records. 

So it is great that Vanguard issued this set bringing much deserved attention the music and these musicians. This is kind of an audio encyclopedia of blues form including now-classics such as “It Hurts Me Too,” “All Night Long,” “Rocket 88,” “Dust My Broom,” “I Can’t Quit You Baby” and many others. I’m still wrapping my head around all this music so no deep favorites have emerged although I really liked Otis Rush’s “Everything Going To Turn Out Alright” which feels pretty much like an instrumental version of “I Think Its Gonna Work Out Fine” (the first Grammy nominated hit by Ike & Tina Turner, later covered by Bruce Springsteen in concert in the 1970s)

This new edition features all-analog mastering from the original stereo tapes by Kevin Gray at Cohearent Audio, pressed on 180-gram black vinyl at MPO in Europe. The sound is terrific and the pressings are well centered and quiet.  The album includes the original album liner notes and cover designs of the original issue — each inner sleeve is effectively a reproduction of the original LP cover — and there is an updated essay from the 1999 CD edition. 

All in all, I really like Chicago/The Blues/Today!  If you missed it on Record Store Day, do try to pick up a copy as its a great addition to any basic blues collection.

Original Resource is Audiophile Review

Record Store Day Preview: Jazz Dispensary’s Dank D-Funk Blend, Vol. 2

I’ve written about the fine Jazz Dispensary sampler series from Craft Recordings in the past. These are thoughtfully curated collections of rare funky soul-jazz sides culled from the label archives of parent company Concord Music which controls the catalogs of Fantasy, Prestige, Milestone, Fania and many other labels. 

Why do you need to own these collections? Well as a budding collector of soul-jazz and groove jazz titles from the ‘60s and early ‘70s I can attest to several things:  

  1. These albums are often hard to find and if you do they can be pricey in decent condition
  2. If you do find them used, they are often in “well loved” to downright beat up and abused condition. These records were great party albums often played on average to low quality automatic record changers of the day, so people grooving and dancing to the tunes didn’t much think about taking care of their vinyl.  and… 
  3. Many of these albums are good but usually have one or two standout tracks which is what DJs tend to zero in on, those grooves with the killer beats and drum breaks and a combination of strong songs and good production vibes. 

So, the concept underlying Jazz Dispensary’s series is useful. It gives you the intrepid soul-jazz collector a chance to hear some of these great grooves in a form that makes for a fun party album in its own right, without breaking your bank for pricey rarities.  On this latest edition, guest curator Doyle Davis (of Grimey’s, a used records and books store in Nashville) offers up a second dose of his Dank D-Funk Blend

While the first edition focused on the Prestige Records vaults, The Dank D-Funk Blend, Vol. 2 taps into other labels in the company’s roster.

You’ll hear the Afro-Cuban beats of Ray Barretto’s peace love plea “Together,” Charles Earland’s fiery “Letha” and Leon Spencer groovy take on Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me.” Esther Marrow breaks out a funky “Things Ain’t Right.”

I really loved the title track of Pleasure’s 1977 LP Joyous, one of those groups I’ve never heard of before or even seen out in the wilds of crate digging.  Cal Tjader surprisingly good cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” gives way to  Pucho & The Latin Soul Brothers 1968 smoker “Heat!” 

There is even a solid Johnny “Guitar” Watson tune here from 1973 — “You’ve Got a Hard Head” — before he descended into the the disappointing DJM Records disco era.

All tracks on The Dank D-Funk Blend, Vol. 2 are reportedly mastered from their original analog tapes. The only one of these I already had in my collection is the Pucho track which sounds very comparable to my original pressing, with perhaps a bit more crisp detail on the high end. It is also mastered a bit more quietly than my original pressing so I had to turn up my amp a bit after switching albums. 

The Dank D-Funk Blend, Vol. 2 is pressed on surprisingly quiet and — happily —well centered orange-red swirl, fire-colored vinyl which was made at Memphis Record Pressing.  A limited edition of 3800 copies, The Dank D-Funk Blend, Vol. 2 is packaged in a quite stunning jacked featuring embossed artwork by Argentinian artist Mariano Peccinetti, who designed the previous volume’s cover.  

The Dank D-Funk Blend, Vol. 2 is a fun jam. Put it on your Record Store Day list and be sure to grab a copy if you can. 

Original Resource is Audiophile Review

Record Store Day Preview: Van Dyke Parks & Veronica Valerio Rediscover America On Culture-Bridging New Vinyl EP, CD & Stream

When I first read that there would be a new Van Dyke Parks (VDP) collaboration recording coming out I got excited. When I learned the cover art was being created by Klaus Voormann, I started buzzing. Then, when I first heard the advance CD, I was mesmerized both by Veronica Valerio’s voice, the strong melodies within and how VDP wove wonderfully unconventional yet somehow traditional, haunting orchestral arrangements in and around it all.   

I have since played Van Dyke Parks Orchestrates Verónica Valerio: Only in America many times and realize that what is especially exciting about this music is that it bridges cultures with one foot in the past and another in the future. While it sounds very much like VDP, because of the collaboration it all feels fresh.

It is important to recognize that this album was crafted during the pandemic, making its creation extra special, not only breaking down cultural barriers but also breaking down the walls of isolation. In VDP’s words: “This is a shared vision of what America is all about. I’m trying to learn how to cross the aisles in my work and I’m exploring with the freedom that Verónica has allowed me.”

Verónica Valerio is a singer, songwriter and harpist born in Veracruz, Mexico. There she studied music and later in New York. She has lectured at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. She has performed her music around the world, anchored in the son jarocho musical style.  According to the Wiki this: “represents a fusion of Spanish (Andalusian and Canary Islander) and African musical elements, reflecting the population which evolved in the region from Spanish colonial times.”

This is all really important as Van Dyke Parks Orchestrates Verónica Valerio: Only in America sounds quite unlike any Spanish language recording I’ve heard before, yet it sounds familiar at the same time. It has elements of styles I have heard but ultimately there is a distinctive ebb and flow, perhaps due to to Valerio’s vocal phrasing and harp playing which VDP responded to in collaboration. From the press materials, again we gain some insight to their approach from VDP:

“We got this record done with a fabulous group of string players — all long-distance. In quarantine! In isolation! She would send me a voice and a harp. Or maybe voice, harp and percussionist or violinist. And I would surround that with a chamber orchestra — seven strings, five woodwinds, so forth. Amazing adventure for me.”

And it is this adventuresome spirit where VDP’s arrangements lift off into the stratosphere, making this music at times sound like a soundtrack to an alternate universe version of Disney’s Coco. I mean that in the best possible way (I loved Coco!)

“Cielito Lindo,”with its periodic hip hop-esque beat-drops could be a dance track in a perfect world.  “The Flight Of The Guacamaya” has a lovely lilt and the hook on “Camino A Casa” could be a hit. While opening track “Veracruz” felt to me like a love letter to Ary Barrosa’s classic “Brazil,” it was actually written years earlier by Agustín Lara (I learned something new today!) 

VDP has explored this creative approach over the years, no doubt, but this collaboration is even more outside the box than others I’ve heard (a good thing!).  For those of you who know VDP’s albums, imagine if Spanish-leaning songs like “Palm Desert” and “Public Domain” (from 1967’s Song Cycle) went on a deep cruise along the coast of Mexico.  

You can also hear hints of this on his 2019 collaboration with Gaby Moreno called Spangled! but even that feels a bit reigned in, tied to time and space. Tracks like “Wedding In Madagascar” and “Money Is King” from 2013’s fabulous Songs Cycled pre-echo this direction where the vocals dance around the time signatures like a jazz musician improvising around the song’s changes (click here for my review of that fine album). 

This music on Van Dyke Parks Orchestrates Verónica Valerio: Only in America  is at times even more whimsical and percolating, sweeping you along like if Thelonious Monk was bounding down a rapids in Rio Bravo del Norte in a tire tube while playing along to Charlie Parker With Strings.

Indeed, (in the words of their press release) Parks “plays” an orchestra in his role as arranger.”  As someone who studied under Aaron Copland, collaborated with Brian Wilson and arranged for no less than  Harry Nilsson, Little Feat, Ry Cooder and Joanna Newsom, Van Dyke Parks has few peers in this universe.  He has scored and acted in numerous film and TV projects and even conducted The Kronos Quartet in a live performance of the acclaimed Big Star’s Third concert tour. 

Parks own recordings are a template for this always-expect-the-unexpected musical mindset — his music is gloriously melodic, ever-surprising structurally and always compelling lyrically.  

And it is at this crossroads of highly individualistic orchestral composition and internationally grounded pop song craft that makes Van Dyke Parks Orchestrates Verónica Valerio: Only in America such a joy.  And, if these two artists can create four songs of such beauty working together remotely, just imagine what may happen if they hopefully get together in person to flesh out a full album experience.

Van Dyke Parks Orchestrates Verónica Valerio: Only in America is being released this week by BMG/Modern Recordings and will be available as a 10-inch vinyl EP as well as digitally.  My copy of the EP came perfectly centered, dead quiet and spinning at 45 RPM so it sounds quite lovely. You can also hear this music up on Qobuz streaming in 24-bit, 48-kHz HiRes format (click here) and on Tidal in MQA format (click here).

Finally, here is some sweet icing on the cake. As I mentioned earlier, Klaus Voormann designed the cover art. Yes, this is the same Klaus Voorman who designed The Beatles’ Revolver album cover — for which he won a Grammy that year! — and played on numerous solo Beatles releases!  I didn’t realize until now that he also designed the cover for VDP’s 2019 collaboration with Gaby Moreno, ¡Spangled! .

To some of you this may not seem like a big deal, but as a fan of both artists who come from different sides of the planet and the music world — Voormann initially emerging into public view from the Beatle-verse (if you will) and VDP from the West Coast/Beach Boys scene — it is pretty fantastic when you learn that they are friends.  And that sort of connectivity kind of fits perfectly in the global village within this album. (Note: special thanks to VDP for providing Audiophile Review with this wonderful photo of the two artists together!)

You should get Van Dyke Parks Orchestrates Verónica Valerio: Only in America.  Scroll down for some samples of their music.

Original Resource is Audiophile Review

Record Store Day Vinyl Preview: Harold Land’s Westward Bound!

Westward Bound! is a new release on the Reel-to-Real label being issued for Record Store Day later this week. The limited edition two-record set features under-appreciated saxophonist Harold Land leading a series of smoking jazz combos in live performances originally broadcast on KING-FM during the 1960’s in Seattle, Washington. 

Listening closely to the fire and intention on these recordings — made between 1962 and 1965 — you realize these weren’t just pick up groups behind Mr. Land. He had pulled together special assemblages which included the great Hampton Hawes on piano, Philly Joe Jones on drums as well as Monk and Buddy Montgomery (Wes’ brothers!). 

Still, I suspect some of you might be asking: Just who is this Harold Land?  From the official press release we learn:

“Born in Houston and raised in San Diego, Harold Land established himself as a jazz star with four EmArcy albums in the tenor chair of trumpeter Clifford Brown and drummer Max Roach’s celebrated ‘50s quintet. Based in Los Angeles from the mid-‘50s on, he worked fruitfully as a leader, recorded regularly with big band leader-arranger Gerald Wilson, and played behind such giants as Dinah Washington, Wes Montgomery, Thelonious Monk, Les McCann, and Hampton Hawes. In later years he forged fruitful alliances with trumpeter Blue Mitchell, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, and the Timeless All Stars.”

If that is not enough then consider what Sonny Rollins – who replaced Land in the Brown-Roach combo – has to say about him (also from that news release): “Harold Land was one of the premier saxophonists of the time. He was one of the best… He was a great player, one of my favorites.”  

Going back to that fire I mentioned, I hear echoes of classic be bop forms here on Westward Bound!, with tastes of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker melded with that cool-West Coasting vibe ala Gerry Mulligan and Shorty Rogers. 

The title of Westward Bound! isn’t totally lost on me as Land had an album out in 1960 called Eastward Ho! featuring sessions in New York. These performances were recorded for broadcast on the radio live from the opposite coast at Seattle’s legendary Penthouse

Thankfully, the original tapes have been preserved nicely over the years and this new special edition was mastered by Kevin Gray at Cohearant Audio. These monaural recordings are remarkably full bodied with a nice balance to all the instruments yet also a good sense of room ambiance and three dimensionality. 

The vinyl pressings are excellent, dark, thick 180-gram vinyl, well centered and dead quiet which is important for a recording like this where there are moments of hushed quiet. There is a certain ambiance of the venue apparent on the recording which the LP captures nicely.  It is unsettling how small the crowd is there in the venue but the band plays its heart out, probably knowing they were being broadcast to a broader audience on the radio. 

You get one shot to make an impression when it comes to radio!

Some of my favorite tracks on Westward Bound! are the perky “Beepdurple” (form 1962) and the beautiful take on “My Romance.” I especially like the interplay of pianist Hampton Hawes and bassist Monk Montgomery in this 1964 performance. The song builds up from a hushed start of just piano and bass but escalating to quite a swinging epic with Land soaring over it all. Yet they bring it back down with Hawes gently supporting Montgomery’s soloing. There is a nice sense of group dynamics going on here. 

Land’s own “Trippin’ The Groove” is a fun swinging blues that launches off a zippy little sax run hook. The band manages to be playful without (no pun intended) tripping one another up on the signature change ups. 

Westward Bound!will be available at most independent record shops that carry jazz on Record Store Day.  This is a good one if you like Land’s playing and enjoy live recordings from that period. 

Original Resource is Audiophile Review

The Story Of Herbie Hancock, Vinyl Me Please Boxed Set Part 3: Future Shock and Live Under The Sky

In today’s installment of my listening report on the new Vinyl Me, Please box set called The Story Of Herbie Hancock we’ll explore two very different sides of this influential artist’s career.  If you missed the first portions of this review series, please click here and here for Parts 1 & 2 respectively. I’ve never owned either of these albums previously so I’m relishing the joy of discovery — part of what this set is about!

Future Shock

This album was a big big hit back in the day with its MTV breakout smash “Rockit,” a platinum bestseller. Future Shock was an early hybrid which helped to signal a sea change of mainstream respectability for the then-new forms of music which were still emerging: Hip Hop and Rap.

The thing I didn’t realize back in the day was that this album was co-created with the influential New York underground group called Material which included now legendary bassist and producer Bill Laswell. Listening in 2020 hindsight Future Shock totally fits in with the aesthetic of Laswell’s early Material albums including the classic from 1982, One Down.

Not surprisingly Future Shock has a very distinct period vibe revolving around early drum machines and Fairlight sequencer synthesizer sounds. So, don’t expect to hear an ‘80s version of Head Hunters because this album is about as different as night and day. That said there are still some really cool things on it such as “Autodrive“ and “Earth Beat.” 

For all its computer-driven essence, happily Future Shock sounds remarkably warm all things considered. It was recorded on analog tape so there’s a certain vibe here that disappeared as later digital workstations and computer-based programming became the norm. 

While it is still not my favorite Herbie Hancock record, I can see why it was included in the set. From a historical perspective, it is important to understand Future Shock. And “Rockit” is still a fun track — the video actually holds up quite well after all this time (see below)

Live Under The Sky

As live albums go, Live Under The Sky sounds wonderful and is mastered beautifully, with a rich presence for all the instruments. It is sourced from master digital audio according to the VMP website. The band is on fire from the start and you can feel the connectivity between these musicians. 

Amazingly, the 1979 concert was recorded at the out-of-doors Denen Coliseum and the band played through a heavy downpour.  Judging by fan response during tracks like ”Domo,” they could care less about the weather! It was all about the music and the band rose to the occasion. 

The recording quality and performance are excellent. The only thing I don’t quite understand is the track listing — this is one of those rare moments in the boxed set that seems to be bit incomplete and even confusing.  

One new song was apparently added to the set list which I assume is “Eye Of The Hurricane” (which originally appeared on Maiden Voyage) — looking online I see that it was not on the original release of Live Under The Sky. The official website says that the song was not recorded at the time! 

So, perhaps a tape was found or maybe it was somehow damaged at the time and later was repaired digitally. I’m just guessing here. But, in adding that one track they also seem to have deleted the closing medley of “Stella By Starlight / On Green Dolphin Street” found on the original CD.

So while Live Under The Sky is great, it is also technically incomplete; deep fans will probably want to pick up the CD as well just to have everything. The album was apparently released on vinyl in the U.S. with a very different cover design, so if you have that version you have the original closing tracks. 

There is also a two CD version of Live Under The Sky out with 11 previously unreleased tracks! That version seems fairly complete so, again, hardcore fans will want to seek that out (if they don’t have it already!).

One odd little detail on the cover art for this release which was recorded by Sony and issued on the CBS / Sony Records label.  Yet, in the lower right hand corner of the album is a Verve Records logo. Not sure if this is a printing error or a reproduction of a Japanese edition. Whatever it is, it makes this VMP’s The Story Of Herbie Hancock that much more distinctive. 

In the upcoming final installation of this review series I’ll wrap things up exploring he final two releases this set: The Piano and 1+1.  See you next week!

Original Resource is Audiophile Review

The Carpenters: Making The Leap From Singles to Surround Sound

Editor Note: This article was originally published in June 2013 but has been updated for our new website

About a year ago, one of my music buddies and music making co-conspiritors (ie. we play in bands and write songs together) who is particularly fond of “sunshine pop” told me a strange story about a recording he was seeking. Friends often come to me with requests but this one seemed odd as it involved one of the biggest selling pop acts of all time.

He explained that he was having trouble finding a compilation in the digital world of the original single mixes of hits by The Carpenters. Most of the collections apparently feature remixed and updated versions of the hits, not re-recordings but different approaches to the mixdown that read unfamiliar to some people who remember a certain sound they heard on the radio back in the day.

Now, whether you like the Carpenters or not is not really relevant here, but you should keep reading because this story gets kind of interesting. And, perhaps, you just might be intrigued enough to actually go back listen (as I did) more closely to what Richard and Karen Carpenter accomplished during their run up the charts — a lush blend of pop music that arguably picked up and carried the mantle of rich harmonies (alongside other confections like The 5th Dimension, The Partridge Family, The Cowsills, and even The Archies – really!) after The Beach Boys and Crosby Stills & Nash became FM radio staples and until later groups like Abba took hold of the torch. 

The appeal of The Carpenters’ music is apparent from a 20/20 hindsight historical perspective — something I could not fathom as a little kid in the midst of it all. The Carpenters hit it big just as the whole Hippie / Free Love movement imploded. Icons like Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison were dead as were MLK and RFK.

Nixon seemed more powerful than ever. A generation transitioned into the 70s with minds blown on drugs and bad news, friends lost to senseless war in Vietnam. The promise that they could “change the world” with music was rescinded. The once unstoppable Beatles even broke up. It had to be a harsh bummer of a reality check the first time people heard John Lennon sing on his 1970 solo album: “And so dear friends, you’ll just have to carry on… the dream is over.” 

Accordingly, The Carpenters were probably a breath of sobering positivity for many, reassuring cotton candy soothing heavily frayed nerves. Stellar melodies, outstanding production and easy-to-digest flavors. They were like an old friend at the bar. Those were the days, indeed. 

I grew up hearing the Carpenters plastered all over the radio as a kid so I never felt need to buy their records. Frankly, for the most part it, was decidedly uncool to admit you liked them back then (ah, peer pressure). Its a bit of a shame as little did I know that Carpenters’ records featured many members of The Wrecking Crew, the very same musicians who played on recordings by The Byrds, The Beach Boys, Simon & Garfunkel, and many many others. Knowing this today, I have dug fairly deep into the Carpenters music while looking into this mystery of the missing single mixes. 

Over the year I picked up six (count ’em, 6!) different Carpenters collections, most of which sound fairly similar. The Singles 1969-1973 collection is dramatically revised, with lovely segues and reprises that create a special listening experience unique to that album. But, given the segues, its not really the actual singles some fans want.

I found a promising three CD collection out of Europe which was supposed to have original single mixes on it, only to learn after it arrived — again, reading fan comments online — that someone had put the kabosh and recalled it,  reissuing it with the newer approved mixes.

Mine was the reissue. Dang. 

Then I read about the updated Singles 1969-1981 collection, which promised to be non-segued single-type tracks and which also came in an SACD edition with a brand new 5.1 surround sound mix by Mr. Carpenter. This proved ridiculously elusive, with only pricey versions available on places like eBay for upwards of $100 a pop. Really! Go check it now and see what you find. I was astounded. (Update: click here to jump to Discogs for a search on the title… its still going for crazy money on eBay too)

This past April I found a “bargain” used version of the SACD at Amoeba Records (in LA) for a mere $25 — it has some minor scuffs on it but is otherwise perfect and plays just fine. Score! Finally I would get to hear the elusive but highly regarded surround mix of The Carpenters’ hits. I was not disappointed.

In fact, I like the surround mix so much I have more or less stopped caring about the original single mixes — with apologies to my friend John who started me on this quest —  because 5.1 surround is clearly the way to listen to this music. The densely layered vocal and lush orchestral arrangements envelope you, like jumping into a huge vat of marshmallows ready to make a huge batch of Smores. It is soft, warm, sweet and oh so tasty.

All of this makes me wonder however WHY this recording is so painfully out of print? Obviously, there are legions of loyal Carpenters fans who would love to hear these mixes on their home theater systems. Why not re-release it on SACD or Blu-ray Disc with a bonus DVD including videos (and the surround mixes as well) for those who prefer to watch while they listen? 

You can download the higher (than CD) resolution 48 kHz/24-bit stereo tracks of this collection via HDTracks.com. I haven’t heard them but I would assume they are similar to the high resolution stereo layer on the Singles 1969-1981 SACD. It is also streaming in at 24-bits, 48 kHz resolution via MQA format on Tidal (click here to jump to it if you subscribe) and on Qobuz Hi Res (click here for that).

Whatever the case, until that magical “original singles” collection comes out someday, you should seek out the Singles 1969-1981 collection on CD — or SACD if you have surround sound playback capabilities — or HDTracks download. It is probably the best balance of hits and value — not too long and presenting individual tracks all on one disc for a reasonable price.

 

Original Resource is Audiophile Review

Do I Need To Be Collecting Original Pressings Of Old Records Anymore?

One of the reasons I first started collecting original pressings of LPs when I was but a wee lad in Junior High School was — believe it or not — audio quality. It was the mid 1970s and the oil crisis was on resulting in poorer quality vinyl for new releases. In retrospect, I suspect that the major labels were both growing and starting to feel the pinch of economic responsibility as they were evolving into corporate giants with profit incentives to meet.  So, corners were increasingly cut… at least so it seemed to many of us on the front lines buying records. 

Vinyl quality was often poor, records became thinner, warps more common, album graphics on older titles were compromised, sometimes with washed out printing and reduction of gatefold covers to single pocket budget line editions. 

I had grown quickly frustrated by the preponderance of cruddy quality LPs I was getting even at that early period In my life. Now, it’s not like I had a big fancy uber high end stereo system or anything folks… We had some decent gear around. My older brother had a Fisher 500 receiver and Smaller Advent speakers, for example.  My middle brother was busy experimenting fixing old amps he found on junk day. We also had this futuristic-looking Panasonic receiver with built in cassette recorder around for a while. Plus there was this great old idler drive Rek-o-Kut Rondine Jr. turntable he’d restored a bit (which I eventually used all through college, btw). Still, my ear was pretty keen and I could tell when something sounded good or didn’t sound right.

Add to that the thrill thrill of discovery of used record shops as well as thrift shops, garage sales and flea markets and soon I realized that I could stretch my nonexistent teenaged budget quite a bit. 

Then the 1980s happened and the compact disc came along (my first CD player was a Sony CDP 110). But, guess what:  I didn’t purge my vinyl!  One of the first CDs I bought was Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run and I returned it the next day — it sounded awful!  A few other CD purchases made me realize we had a ways to go before the CD would truly deliver on its “perfect sound” promise — digital disc media later improved dramatically with 24-bit mastering, and expanded capacity disc formats like SACD, DVD Audio and Blu-ray). 

Fast forward and here I am decades later still (happily) rooting around in thrift shops and used record stores. I am still collecting vinyl (and some CDs and surround sound Blu-rays when I can). I’m still enjoying the thrill of the hunt for the elusive rarity: from a Beatles “butcher cover” or some rare Blue Note jazz gem from J. R. Monterose (which I found at an estate sale for $2 just five years ago!).  

In the 1980s and ‘90s there was a great series from Fantasy Records called “Original Jazz Classics” (commonly known among collectors as “OJC”). And while those aren’t fancy packages like the new Tone Poet and Acoustic Sounds reissues, they do re-create the original artwork/ labels and tend to be of excellent quality even though they are on standard weight vinyl. From what I have heard from industry friends, much of that series was mastered in the analog realm so there is a genuinely warm and inviting sound there.

The OJC series was a great step in the right direction for creating high quality and affordably priced reissues. I still buy those periodically especially for titles that are difficult to find out in the wilds of record hunting. I recently picked up a mint used copy of a Teddy Charles & Shorty Rogers album from 1956 on an OJC reissue for $10. On all of Discogs there are exactly one original copies of that album available (and it is $200). The last one sold on Popsike went for $141. So, I think I am ok with my OJC edition which sounds terrific.

Especially in the jazz world, the quality of reissues from the major labels have proven to be generally very good in the past couple of years. Universal Music’s Acoustic Sounds and Tone Poet series are excellent as have been many of the reissues from Concord Music’s Craft Recordings series (Prestige, Fantasy, World Pacific catalogs). The latter’s recent Chet Baker reissue series was top notch.  I have been reviewing many of these here on Audiophile Review so do use our search feature to seek out those reviews if you are interested in learning more about them.

As owners of the catalogs of Verve Records, Impulse Records, Decca Records and many others, Universal has hired outside experts from the Acoustic Sounds and Tone Poet boutique reissue labels to curate the reissue series. Most of these are rare enough records that I couldn’t have even begun to even consider getting them in their original form unless I found them out in the wilds of collecting (garage sales, thrift shops, flea markets, etc.).  

These new reissues are often superior to the originals – – many are pressed on 180-gram vinyl, featuring laminated covers, gatefold packaging, original label artwork and most importantly high-quality mastering and pressing, etc.

At least a couple of these reissues have eclipsed originals in my collection in terms of fidelity and almost always in terms of condition. In some instances, I am getting rid of my originals because there is simply no need for it anymore. It is a case by case thing, really. I talk about that at the end of my review of the recent Ray Charles reissue on Impulse Records (click here to read that). I have already purged my “OG” copy of The Band’s Stage Fright because the new reissue is far far superior in every way (click here for my review of that new boxed set)

My Frank Zappa collection is very interesting because the new re-issues are generally excellent, some with expanded versions of the performances, high-quality remastering, great pressing quality and original cover art and so on. Perhaps the only anomaly is that they don’t use the original label designs because those are owned by another entity… I’m OK with that because I could (and probably will) hold onto my originals of those favorite albums. However, when it comes to regular play, some of those re-issues sound at least as good if not better than my originals and will be my go-tos for basic listening.

All this raises a conundrum for me (and perhaps some of you, Dear Readers), thus inspiring this little thought piece here today here at Audiophile Review.  That question is:  with the record labels finally understanding what collectors want and mostly delivering on those demands, do we need to keep searching for certain original editions? 

I probably couldn’t afford buying a whole a whole batch of Grant Green original Blue Notes but the reissues are certainly lovingly crafted. Each sells for about $25-$30 a piece which while not exactly “cheap” (like the $10-15 OJCs) it is also nowhere near as expensive as finding certain first pressings (especially those in great condition).

Whats a dedicated collector to do?

In this instance, I think it would be wise for all of us to be snapping up these great reissues while they last. Original pressings are elusive for a reason. Many from the 1950s especially were produced and/or sold small quantities. I suspect that distribution centered on major Jazz markets of the time (NY, LA, San Francisco, Chicago and some important secondary cities like New Orleans and Kansas City). 

Many of these records were played hard, often beat up on lower quality record players and automatic changers. Many were used in party situations — if some of those albums could talk, I bet they’d have some great stories to tell! 

It is really really hard to find any that are in even halfway decent shape that are fairly affordable. Now, I personally don’t mind a light scratch or two… a click here and there, a pop, crackle or occasional snap… I’ve even written about the joys of a Mono cartridge which can minimize the surface noise of certain pre-1958 Monaural records (click here for that article). 

But, if I can get a pristine reissue that looks and feels like the real thing and more or less sounds like the real thing if not better – – and in many cases they do sound technically better because they’re not compressed as much —  then why not just buy them, enjoy them and be done with it?  It makes good sense to me. 

That said, I look forward to seeing you out in your favorite record stores picking up those latest Blue Note Tone Poets, Verve Acoustic Sounds and Craft Recordings special editions.

Grab ‘em while you can!

Original Resource is Audiophile Review

The Story Of Herbie Hancock, Vinyl Me Please Boxed Set, Part 2: Head Hunters & River

In Part One of my listening report on the Vinyl Me, Please (VMP) boxed set The Story Of Herbie Hancock we explored some classic titles including Maiden Voyage (1966) and Takin’ Off (1962). Both of these proved to be excellent sounding editions. We also did a bit of informal price analysis, coming to the conclusion that this VMP set is actually a very good value. If you missed the first review, please click here to jump to it. 

Lets dive back into some more albums in the collection…

Next up is the second Herbie Hancock album I ever heard in my life (also from my brother’s collection), Head Hunters. Released in 1973, this album was an instant classic fusion of jazz, funk, rock and soul vibes — the first jazz album to reach Platinum sales status! It remains hugely popular, but clean originals are not always easy to find. This makes some sense as it was a common party record for sure. 

I know that I had to go through several copies until I found a decent original copy — no universal priced code on the back cover, 1A stampers on both sides, probably a Pittman pressing, for those of you who geek out on those sorts of details — after getting rid of the copy I had through college. Add to that the challenge that 1970s vinyl pressings could have a bit of surface noise due to the oil crisis, though Columbia Records albums were generally good sounding (especially compared to other labels like MCA and Warner/Elektra/Asylum titles).

The best complement I can offer here is that the new VMP version of Head Hunters sounds like Headhunters should sound. That is, it has not been brightened up to sound modern. It sounds very much like my original copy, maybe even a bit better.  

This edition is mastered a little more quietly than the original which has its advantages, leaving more “deadwax” at the end of the sides where distortion is more likely to creep in. So I had to turn up my amp a bit playing this right after my original pressing but things really opened up nicely.  The low bass throbs on “Vein Melter” sound especially…well… throbbing! This is no doubt going to be my go-to copy for regular play (but I’ll likely keep my original given the good copy I have). 

As I mentioned in Part One, the album covers in The Story Of Herbie Hancock are lovely high quality affairs replete with laminated artwork and crafted of thick brown cardboard stock. The cover for Head Hunters is gorgeous and this is arguably a better version than the original pressings which were printed on thin white oaktag stock common to the early 70s, with a flat finish. 

River: The Joni Letters is a beautiful late period tribute to Mr. Hancock’s friend and collaborator, the equally legendary singer, songwriter, performer, Joni Mitchell. For those not in the know, this album won the 2007 Grammy® Award for “Album of the Year,” beating out Kanye West, Amy Winehouse, Foo Fighters and Vince Gill! So, it was an important album. 

I reviewed it when the 10th anniversary editions came out on CD and on vinyl. You can click here jump to that report but in short while I love the music, my experience with the LP edition left something to be desired.  

This new VMP edition is a marked improvement over the original pressing (which was also pressed in the Czech Republic, btw). The dramatic solo piano opening sequence is beautiful, but here on the VMP version the vinyl dead quiet so there is no surface noise detracting from the hushed vibe.  The album is also happily nicely centered (so there are no wavering notes). 

River: The Joni Letters is one of those lovely digital recordings that are so well recorded the instruments sound rich and warm with no harsh edges. I am not a digital hater, as long as it is in the hands of engineers who know how to use the medium, how to mic the instruments and mix them to achieve an idyllic balance between the clarity of the technology yet bringing in the much desired warmth more common to analog recordings.

Like some of the other albums in this series, River: The Joni Letters is mastered more quietly than the originals so there seems to be more air around the music and resonance. 

The vocals sound rounder too here — I especially like how the new mastering treats Tina Turner’s voice on “Edith & The Kingpin,” feeling somehow more pure and airy, less grainy. Wayne Shorter’s saxophones are at times hushed and haunting. Luciana Souza’s take on “Amelia” is mesmerizing despite the only pressing anomaly I have encountered thus far, a very brief and thankfully relatively quiet groove noise (it is not quite a non-fill noise, I didn’t see the tell tale pearl lines in upon visual inspection so perhaps it will work its way out with more plays). 

Vinnie Colaiuta’s cymbals are so perfectly recorded and mixed here, giving you all that lift and chime without getting in the way of the other instruments.

This edition of River: The Joni Letters is a great improvement over the original editions in every way as far as I can tell. It even comes with a nice insert of credits / liner notes and photos which was not included with my original pressing.  I’m very happy that this beautiful album has receive such deservedly loving treatment. 

We’ll explore more on The Story Of Herbie Hancock next week. Stay tuned…

Original Resource is Audiophile Review