Author Archives: Mark Smotroff

Yes… No… Maybe… Is Colored Vinyl Really That Bad? Part 2

Every now and again an audio-centric person on social media raises the specter of hatred towards the much beleaguered — and simultaneously much loved — form of long playing records commonly referred to as simply “colored vinyl.”  These are LP records which are molded out of colorful variants of the vinyl plastic formula other than black (which itself is a color added in to the basic non-colorized formulations). Sometimes they are standard weight, other times they are 180-grams heavy and even more.

Some of you who are new to collecting records often ask me “why all the hatred toward colored vinyl?”   I thought I’d take some time to share some stream-of-consciousness thoughts and reflections (ie. shorthand for this isn’t tightly edited!)

It’s complicated, as they say…

In Part I of Yes… No… Maybe… we looked at so called “virgin” vinyl and explored some nuance between opaque and translucent colored variants. If you missed that part, please click here to catch up.

Here in Part 2 we’ll look at multi-color and picture disc variants and then offer a list of some good sounding and good looking colored vinyl albums you may want to keep an eye out for….

Multi-Color Vinyl  

Multi-color splatter vinyl can be problematic, especially when there are too many colors or the manufacturer’s mix clear with opaque colors. Don’t get me wrong, I think they look super cool. However, because of the combination of an opaque color in a bed of clear or other transparent vinyl, surface noise seems to be mostly inevitable. 

This was very apparent in my recent purchase of a deluxe edition of the A Charlie Brown Christmas TV soundtrack  (“snowball” limited edition, click here to read that review). Yet oddly enough, the beautiful orange / yellow splatter edition of the new Jazz Dispensary release Orange Sunset sounded  just fine (click here for that review).  While it is hard to make a definitive statement, based on these experience my gut instinct tells me that — again, perhaps — if the whole splatter process is done with opaque colors it can work OK.

One of the worst splatter colored vinyl albums I own is also one of the coolest looking: an import by Roxette’s Per Gessle’s other band (Gyllene Tider) which a friend gave me. It was so noisy it was sounding bad on his mid-century Zenith console stereo’s automatic changer! They sent him a new copy so he gave me the old one. Looks super cool in its rich red with black and white and gray striations, but…well… it is perhaps one rhinestone too many… This one actually has some pits in it which apparently was a problem that came up in this pressing plant’s process with these different colors

Yet… I have a tri-color deluxe edition by indie rock legends Sebadoh and it sounds fine (but it is not splatter) so that is a curious. It has the disc broken up into thirds of red, blue and yellow.

Picture Discs

Picture discs are typically the worst! But they too have a cool history worth noting too dating back to the early 1930s! Seriously, check the picture of the incredibly rare Paul Whiteman picture disc I picked up (for free!) at an estate sale earlier this year (it spins at 33 1/3 RPM, 20 years before the LP format was finalized!). An amazing piece of music history, apparently RCA was experimenting with bringing out a long playing format just as The Great Depression was kicking in, so the format never had a chance to kick in. So, any long playing albums from that period are rare — and promotional albums like this one are rarer still!

But I digress… recently I’ve been surprised how good some picture discs sounded, especially when compared to noisy messes like the original Curved Air picture disc from 1970 (widely considered the first rock music era picture disc). 

Two recent picture disc albums I have reviewed were pressed overseas and were generally thicker than other picture discs I’ve seen and owned before (save for that Paul Whiteman disc!).  

So perhaps they are using more clear vinyl over the picture image and thus enabling a better quality pressing? I don’t know.  They still weren’t perfect but they weren’t unlistenable, I’ll put it that way. Actually, they sounded quite good!  Click here to read about David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold The World picture disc and here for The Rocky Horror Picture Show

Cheap Vinyl, Sloppy Pressings, Non-Fill and Other Problems

Just because a record is on black vinyl doesn’t guarantee it will be quiet. Cheaper and recycled black vinyl can be noisy. Poor pressing plants that don’t pay attention to details frequently deliver non-color LPs that are just as riddled with pops and other anomalies. Heck, I’ve even had “nice” (and not cheap!) 180-gram audiophile pressings from good labels and made at prestigious plants, peppered with pops and “pfffffst” due to non-fill issues. 

All this said, should colored vinyl go away? No way, says this man who still hopes to issue a colored vinyl pressing of his old band’s last album (recorded in a hybrid analog / digital mix at The Plant Studios in Sausalito!)!  

The thing about colored vinyl that many audiophiles seem to have forgotten — or perhaps never really cared about — is that it is FUN! And, for a younger audience just getting into vinyl fun is a big part of the experience, not just sitting and listening in a light-controlled, optimized tech cave reveling over transparency, soundstage and such. 

I’ve met fans of colored vinyl out in the wilds of record collecting and while combing the racks at places like Amoeba Music.  People enjoy colored vinyl records and they don’t particularly worry so much about the noise floor issues and such. The color variant add a visual appeal to the record playing process, something with which the digital streaming services haven’t been able to really compete..  

If you are playing things on a newer entry level record player — or even a retro-hip mid-century modern console stereo — the pressing quality is indeed generally less of an issue. 

For my Audiophile and “industry” friends out there reading this (and perhaps grumbling a bit), one other thing to consider about colored vinyl: if it turns out that colored vinyl is the “trojan horse” that gets a new generation back into music, actively listening to whole albums and aspiring toward better sound quality than MP3s, Spotify and YouTube, isn’t that a good thing? I think so!

It presents a fresh opportunity to sell-in and excite a new generation of listeners to the joys of collecting and owning pre-recorded music in a physical form. 

I think its a win win scenario for everyone. 

That said, there ARE some good sounding colored vinyl pressings out there.  By no means definitive, these are just some current favorites, mostly-opaque colored vinyl pressings which sound real good and may be fairly easy to find. Click on any underlined/highlighted titles here to jump to reviews I may have done on them:

Nickel Creek’s This Side, Why Should The Fire Die? and their self titled debut (Craft Recordings)

The Beatles, The White Album (UK edition on Apple Records circa 1978)

Miles Davis, Kind of Blue (oddly enough, its a Sony Legacy, Music On Vinyl version, 180-gram) 

The Helio Sequence, Negotiations (Sub Pop Records)

Flaming Lips, At War With The Mystics (Warner Brothers Records)

Lou Barlow,EMOH (Merge Records / Newbury Comics)

Various Artists, Orange Sunset (Jazz Dispensary/Craft Recordings/Vinyl Me Please)

Bernard Purdie, Purdie Good, Jazz Dispensary (Jazz Dispensary/Craft Recordings/Vinyl Me Please)

Television, Live at the Old Waldorf (Rhino Records, Record Store Day edition)

Brian Wilson & Van Dyke Parks, Orange Crate Art (Omnivore Recordings)

The Police, Synchronicity (A&M Records, Quiex vinyl)

Jerry Garcia, Reflections 

Jerry Garcia, Compliments of Garcia

Elton John, Madman Across The Water (UK edition on DJM Records)

Elton John, Tumbleweed Connection (UK edition on DJM Records)

What are some of your favorite colored vinyl releases that sound as good as they look? Let us know below in the comments section.

Original Resource is Audiophile Review

Yes… No… Maybe… Is Colored Vinyl Really That Bad? Part 1

Every now and again an audio-centric person on social media raises the specter of hatred towards the much beleaguered — and simultaneously much loved — form of long playing records commonly referred to these days as simply “colored vinyl.”  These are discs molded from vinyl variants beyond basic black (which itself is a color added in to the basic non-colorized formulations). Sometimes they are standard weight, other times they are 180-grams heavy or more.

Some of you who are new to collecting records often ask me “why all the hatred toward colored vinyl?”   I thought I’d take some time to share some stream-of-consciousness thoughts and reflections (ie. shorthand for this isn’t tightly edited!)

In short: “it’s complicated,” as they say…

Virgin Vinyl

Many audiophiles prefer so called “virgin” (non recycled) vinyl which is more likely to be “dead quiet” and sonically transparent.  The underlying concept is that you want the “noise floor” of the disc to be so silent that the sense of playing the physical record itself effectively disappears, leaving just the music to tempt your ears.  

There is a perception — some of it well deserved and based in fact — that colored vinyl is noisier than black vinyl, thus making the noise-floor unacceptable for some listeners. Indeed, I have spoken with engineers at vinyl pressing plants who have confirmed that some colored vinyl variants can be noisier. 

This is especially noticeable if you have a super-duper high-end turntable with a very fine stylus. Heck, I don’t even have a super-duper turntable as far as many audiophiles are concerned — yet it is a very respectable Music Hall MMF 7.1 — and I can certainly notice differences in pressing quality on this unit very clearly (actually, I can notice differences on all of my turntables and cartridge variants but I’ve spent many years listening intently and experimenting with how these things interact)

But here is the rub and this is where the “rule” of black vinyl only falls apart for me: these days, I get many brand new black vinyl records that are often as noisy as colored vinyl. 

So what gives? 

Well, like everything in the universe there are multiple causes.  Part of it comes down to the pressing plant, the quality of the vinyl formulations they use and quality controls employed in production. Entities such as Quality Record Pressing (QRP), Record Technology Inc. (RTI) and Pallas (based in German) are generally highly regarded and thus are used by many of the best labels.  These records can cost a little bit more (a lot more if you go to very high end limited editions) but are generally worth it as you can hear on recent releases on the Blue Note Tone Poet and Verve Acoustic Sounds reissues.

Opaque vs. Translucent?

Lately I’ve been noticing that the color of the vinyl isn’t quite as important as is it’s clarity, at least as far as modern vinyl pressings go. Opaque colored vinyl tends to sound pretty much just as nice as black vinyl for the most part. Transparent colored vinyl tends to be pretty quiet to but there again, lately I’ve notice that some can give the recording a somewhat harder-edged sound. 

This was very apparent in the deluxe edition of the newest album by The Flaming Lips, American Head, which came as a two LP set in two different colors. The opaque purple disc sounded quite nice (as modern, probably digital, recordings go) and fairly round, nearing an almost warm sonority. The translucent teal-colored disc however gave the music a somewhat harder edged sound. As I also had a black vinyl variant of the album on hand I could compare and hear that both discs there sounded pretty much the same as the purple one. (click here to read that review) 

Clear vinyl pressings tend to sound good without any outward issues impacting the music negatively.

One of my earliest colored vinyl purchases, a late 1970s UK edition of The Beatles’ White Album still sounds quite fantastic!  It has become quite a collector’s piece these days (click here). 

A few years ago I found one of the rare 1976 promo copies of ELO’s A New World Record which sounds excellent, arguably better than the regular copies of the album as pressed by United Artists Records at the time. I just learned as I was finishing up this article that early copies of ELO’s Out Of The Blue (including the blue vinyl editions) were half-speed mastered by Stan Ricker who later went on to work with Mobile Fidelity! (who knew!?)

If you can find clean original copies of Fantasy Records pressings from the 1950s and ’60s, some of those can sound great. The challenge is finding a good one. Stereo pressings were often pressed on blue vinyl and the Mono ones were red.  I found an incredibly clean copy of Dave Brubeck’s Brubeck A La Mode (from 1960 which apparently was issued in Stereo in 1962) and it sounds wonderful, rich and warm and even pretty quiet as far as noise floor issues go! 

Vince Guaraldi’s albums on Fantasy were often on colored vinyl  but the challenge these days is finding those elusive nice copies as his most desired titles were popular party records (Black Orpheus, A Charlie Brown Christmas) or were just very early in his career (such as Vince Guaraldi Trio, his debut from 1956)

I have been collecting original UK editions of Elton John’s early albums and many of those are on a rich red or dark green colored vinyl but you can only really tell when you hold them up to the light (note: the vinyl color can vary depending upon what sort of light you hold it up to, fluorescent, LED, incandescent, etc.). 

In the 1980s, Warner Brothers Records issued many of its promo editions on “Quiex” vinyl, some of which appear purple when held up to the light. A&M Records also issued a number of releases on Quiex including some of the later albums by The Police. Quiex vinyl generally sounds excellent, quiet and it doesn’t seem to color the sound of the recording adversely from what I’ve heard.

Recent opaque vinyl pressings I’ve been sent for review courtesy of the Vinyl Me Please subscription club have been mostly excellent, pressed at RTI with strong attention to quality controls.  I reviewed a fine super deluxe box set of theirs — The Story of The Grateful Dead — and was generally very happy with what I heard from a noise and pressing standpoint (or perhaps I should say, wasn’t hearing!). 

I’m just starting to explore new editions from the Jazz Dispensary subsidiary of Craft Recordings — which come pressed on colored vinyl in conjunction with Vinyl Me Please. So far, these seem solid including Sorcery by Jack DeJohnette and Where I’m Coming From by Leon Spencer.  Reviews to come!

In Part II of  Yes… No… Maybe… we’ll look at multi-color and picture disc variants and then offer a list of some good sounding albums you may want to look for….

Original Resource is Audiophile Review

Lou Donaldson’s Mr. Shing-A-Ling Jams On Blue Note Tone Poet Reissue

Some of you know by now that I’m a bit of a crate digger. Actually, I am a pretty serious one, building much of my collection from garage and estate sales, thrift shops, flea markets and antique / curio shops.  Necessity being the mother of invention, growing up I didn’t have much money so that route really helped kickstart my passion for music and record collecting. Even now as an adult, I enjoy the challenge of the treasure hunt, going out looking for bargains where ever they may arise.  It is a process that keeps things fresh for me. 

That isn’t to say I don’t like spending some money on a nice reissue from time to time, within reason. The recent Tone Poet and Acoustic Sounds reissue series from Universal Music have been inspiring developments, generally offering very high quality reproductions of classic vintage Jazz titles for a price that won’t break the bank. Many times these reissues are easily on par with the originals and in some regards they are much better. I’ve reviewed a handful so far this year and have yet to be disappointed. 

Click on the titles following to read my reviews of: Duke Ellington’s Money Jungle, Sam Rivers’  Contours and Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson, Getz / Gilberto, Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, Jackie McLean’s It’s Time! and in his 1956 debut, Introducing Kenny Burrell

One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that when a new reissue series appears, original pressings of rare albums start to appear out in “the wilds” of collecting. This phenomenon has afforded me an opportunity to somewhat affordably compare and contrast so called “OG” pressings with the reissues (as I did with some of the reviews above, notably the Kenny Burrell debut which is a pretty rare one to find in any condition).

All that said, in 2019 I started picking a number of Lou Donaldson albums on Blue Note after years of rarely seeing these albums around. And, sure ‘nuff, it turns out some of these have been reissued via the great Tone Poet series. Most of these I’ve heard thus far have been remastered by Kevin Gray at Cohearent Audio and the albums pressed on 180-gram vinyl at the prestigious RTI plant. 

Donaldson’s late 1960s albums tend to be soul jazz groove affairs and there is no doubt in my mind these albums were ideal party music for the swingin’ jazz heads of the period.  Thus finding clean condition copies is not an easy task for a reasonable price. 

Mr. Shing-A-Ling is a fun album with a pretty killer band including Lonnie Smith on Organ and one Leo Morris on Drums (aka Idris Muhammed).  My original Blue Note pressing sounds remarkably good given its age and condition.The vinyl quality was still OK at that point in Blue Note’s history, having been purchased by Liberty Records so the sound was still pretty rich as these releases go. 

The new edition, most importantly, sounds like Mr. Shing-A-Ling should sound. There hasn’t been any effort to modernize the sound or equalize it madly and that is a good thing. 

Perhaps the only difference is actually offers a bit more open high-end perspective than my original. There is some more air to the new one generally the overall vibe is really quite similar with some caveats.  

For example, on the opening track “Ode To Billy Jo” the high end instrumentation like the sizzle on the cymbals during is very nice. However, the mid ranges feel somewhat harder edged than my original. Jimmy Ponder’s guitar solo sounds a little less round than the original and drummer Leo Morris’ (aka the future Idris Muhammad) tom tom hits present a bit less of the flex of the drumsticks hitting the drum heads than on the original.  

But this kind of aural microscopy is an exercise in splitting very fine hairs folks… in general, this one sounds quite close to my original.

This is not entirely surprising but one can’t take these things for granted. The folks at Blue Note Tone Poet are clearly trying to be as authentic as possible while opening up some new vistas that may have been compromised out of necessity back in the day due to limitations of average turntables back in the day.  Since modern turntables and cartridges generally boast more wide range capabilities, there is no reason for the albums to be reigned in. 

One last thing of interest is that this is the first Tone Poet reissue I’ve seen where the cover design is near identical to the original. So don’t expect a fancy gatefold design for Mr. Shing-A-Ling which was originally a single pocket design. But it is a nice thick cover with beautiful laminated artwork, so in that sense it is indeed a better edition than the original.

All in all, this Mr. Shing-A-Ling reissue seems like another Blue Note Tone Poet winner. A fun and previously challenging to find album reasonably priced and in nice condition, now within reach for every jazz fan and collector.

Original Resource is Audiophile Review

A Holiday Playlist For You

Some of you know that among the many music sub-genres I collect, holiday recordings are one of the most fun niches for me.  My fascination with this began during College when I realized there were missing holiday tracks on singles and a plethora of different new wave and even punk compilations started appearing in stores (and on my turntables). 

Of course The Beatles had their fan club Christmas records and The Beach Boys’ their now-classic holiday album. Phil Spector’s legendary A Christmas Gift For You album is perhaps the granddaddy of them all, at least as far as rock oriented pop music goes.  When one of my favorite bands, XTC, issued a holiday single as “The Three Wisemen,” I was hooked. 

For a while I even made a holiday mix tape for friends each year. Nowadays I celebrate the season by crafting a “record tree” from a stack of colorful (not necessarily holiday oriented) colored vinyl records.

So here are some favorites you may have missed (with notes as to why I included it here).  A few are obvious but sometimes overlooked. Many classics are missing as they are too obvious, so don’t expect to see Bruce Springsteen, Mariah Carey and Jose Feliciano’s terrific hits here. Maybe you’ll find a new favorite from this list. 

Happy Merry! 

Thanks For Christmas, XTC  – The post fab four from Swindon recording under the name The Three Wise Men.  I’ve heard this played on the sound system while shopping in supermarkets in recent years so I guess it has become a modern classic in a way! 

Baby Please Come Home, Darlene Love — A classic. “Nuff said…

Christmastime, Aimee Mann & Michael Penn –  – A dreamy bluesy slow swinger to sip your Eggnog to, set to a Beatle-esque “I’m Only Sleeping” swagger.  I first heard this on the Just Say Noel Xmas CD compilation. 

Jungle Bells, The Four Seasons – Listen closely to the verses to this playful twist on the Christmas classic played in a Jamaican “Ska: rhythm… This was initially released in 1962, six years before The Beatles brought a reggae vibe to the masses via The White Album’s Obla-Di, Obla-Da.

Space Christmas, Shonen Knife – Just wonderful pop punk joy, and the B-side of the single is an audio letter to fans in the style of The Beatles’ Christmas record messages. The cover pays tribute to Phil Spector’s classic Christmas album.

Yuletide Throw Down (Rapture), Fab Five Freddy & Blondie – This was issued as a “flexi disc” in the old Flexi-Pop Magazine. I discovered the track when I picked up a rare promo LP collecting many of the magazine’s rarities.  Another reason I love compilation albums, discovering rarities like this…

Riu Chiu, The Monkees – – I only discovered this little gem in the past five years or so, from their TV show!

Unwrap You At Christmas, The Monkees / Andy Partridge  — XTC’s Andy Partridge wrote a fun tune for their recent Christmas album!

Xmas Hi-Fivories, Ferrante & Teicher – Pioneering players of “prepared piano” in commercial pop music, most people think of John Cage or Brian Eno when discussing this topic. But their early days, these easy listening pop pianists were actually quite advanced and experimental. This 10-inch LP that was issued in 1954 and may be their first or second release. It is quite rare. They have a later 12-inch LP that is also very rare which I have yet to find. Someday…

Christmastime Is Here Again, The Beatles – Their fan club only holiday records have long been revered by fans, pirated by bootleggers and rare originals sold for high prices by record dealers. Thankfully reissued in a lovely boxed set which you can still find out in some stores and on Amazon (click here).  I even reviewed it (click here).  This track is a somewhat unedited version of one of the song snippets that appeared in one of the later period Beatle Christmas records, here from a single B-side around the time of the Anthology album rarities series.

What Sweet Child O’Mine Is This?, The Wonderful World of Joey  – I don’t know much about Joey but I have had confirmation from a trusted friend that he is real as he saw them perform once (and he’s produced some space age lounge recordings). I have one other single by Joey done with iconic 50s TV organist Korla Pandit.  But this little absurdist gem is a doozie!  A musical mashup of the holiday classic “Whose Child Is This?” with Guns ’n Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine” done in the style of a swinging early 1960s Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin or Tony Bennett track backed by a terrific big band. Prepare to have your jaw hit the floor. I found this on an obscure CD single at the old Tower Records and have been a champion of it ever since. 

Father Christmas, The Kinks – an instant classic issued initially as a single in the UK and US, this was The Kinks at their irreverent best, out new waving the new wave with a bit of snotty but heartfelt fun.

Original Resource is Audiophile Review

Dan Penn’s Great New Living On Mercy Album Finally On Vinyl

Several months ago I reviewed a new pre-release CD by Dan Penn, the legendary composer, musician and producer. He is the composer behind classic soul and pop hits like “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” (Aretha Franklin), “Cry Like A Baby” (Box Tops), “It Tears Me Up”(Percy Sledge), “Dark End Of The Street” (James Carr) and “I’m Your Puppet” (James & Bobby Purify).  He also wrote the title track from my favorite album of 2002, Solomon Burke’s Don’t Give Up On Me.

Please click here to read my earlier review for some context for this update on the vinyl version of his newest album.

In short, Dan Penn’s Living On Mercy is a glorious primer on effortless songwriting driven by one of our present day masters. One should-be hit after should-be hit flows out like the sweetest of molasses, track-by-track. These are classic structured soulful pop songs with verses, choruses and bridges, all bearing that timeless, relaxed southern soul groove. 

Penn’s rustic and rich voice sounds real good on the CD and streams (on Qobuz and Tidal) in 16-bit, 44.1 kHz resolution, calm and pure like a more robust Eric Clapton from the Unplugged period. You can find the album streaming in CD quality on Tidal (click here) and Qobuz (click here) which is handy. But you’ll probably want to support the artist and track down a vinyl copy of Living On Mercy as it sounds great — and this way this singer-songwriter-producer actually makes some money on it.

Living On Mercy is a pure, clean and organic sounding recording: simple basic drums, bass, guitar and keyboards support and keep the vocals the central attraction. Smooth slow soulful grooves let you hear Mr. Penn’s every word which is important for this type of music. 

Living On Mercy sounds rich and round on LP. I don’t know exactly how it was recorded but poking around the web — I looked at the websites for each of the studios where it was made and they all seem to offer analog multi-track capabilities as well as digital — the odds are that some analog warmth crept into the mix.

However they recorded it, Living On Mercy is elegant and the songs are just plain terrific. These songs have only grown on me since I first reviewed the CD.  Some of my favorites include the hooky “Clean Slate” which I could imagine Solomon Burke doing had he lived. The boogie-woogie flavored “I Didn’t Hear That Coming” is sweet.  And “Things Happen” feels almost like a lost George Harrison song from his late 70s period when he was mining smooth soul grooves ala Smokey Robinson. 

You can find Living On Mercy on Amazon (click any of the titles here in this review to jump to it) or at your favorite music store. The nice thing is that this is a European pressing so the vinyl quality is nice, well pressed and quiet. 

While you are at it, you might want to also order Moments From This Theatre, a wonderful intimate live album by Dan Penn and his longtime songwriting partner Spooner Oldham.  Originally released on CD and DVD back in 2005, it was recorded in 1998 at theaters in the UK and Ireland while they were on tour with Nick Lowe.  A charming and wonderful 14 song set, I can’t wait to get the DVD as it has 22 tracks from a show recorded at St James’s Church, Piccadilly, London

Moments From This Theatre was released on vinyl this year and it sounds really solid as modern digital recordings go. That is due to a combination of no-doubt sympathetic production supporting the nature of the music at hand: Dan Penn’s hearty voice, acoustic guitar and occasional keyboards.  There is not much opportunity for sharp harsh edges to invade the soundscape there!  But really, its all about the music and what a treat this is to hear the writers perform the hit making songs they wrote for others including “I’m Your Puppet,” “Cry Like A Baby,” “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man’ and “It Tears Me Up.” This is classic stuff folks. Get it. 

Original Resource is Audiophile Review

Why You Need To Hear Monty Alexander’s Love You Madly

On the last Record Store Day event of 2020, several fascinating archival jazz releases were issued which I previewed (click here to read that). In that article I promised I would explore the releases there in greater depth, two of which I have done so far (click here for Resonance Records’ Bill Evans Live at Ronnie Scott’s and here for Jazz Dispensary’s Orange Sunset).

Of the three titles from Resonance Records issued that day, Monty Alexander’s music is the artist with which I’m least familiar. 

A personal aside: I remember a friend at the record store I worked in during college played some of Monty’s albums on Pablo Records and (I think) the MPS label back in the early 1980s. And sometimes I’d hear Monty on our college radio station. At the time, the music struck me as nice in a “classic jazz” sense but it didn’t full engage me. Beyond my studies, my head was full of progressive music of the moment  — prog rock to jazz fusion to new wave and punk. When it came to piano based jazz, I was immersing myself in many of the legends like Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, McCoy Tyner and Dave Brubeck (who were then-still-alive-and-well), Bill Evans (who was then recently departed) and Chick Corea (who I got to meet when he played on campus). I later got into Don Pullen and Randy Weston, among others. 

So many pianists, so little time… 

Thus, my focus on Monty Alexander sadly (for me) fell by the wayside. For fans reading this, forgive me for not connecting with Monty’s music previously. I’ve been busy all these years doing my jazz homework (if you will). 

Fast forward to Record Store Day this past November and we have a quite beautiful previously unreleased, super high quality Monty Alexander recording delivered to the universe from the good folks at Resonance Records called Love You Madly. This August 6th, 1982 concert recorded at Bubba’s Jazz Restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, Florida is quickly opening my ears to the joy’s of Monty’s music. I can now fully appreciate where he fits in and how to listen. 

You might notice that I used the word “nice” above to describe his playing and that was not a derogatory remark. Monty’s playing IS nice but its so much more. He is clearly a super accomplished player, straddling many influential styles of the past while finding his own vibe that is… joyous and… well… nice! 

But here is the thing I missed in the past: Monty is a fine composer with a writing and performing style that falls somewhere between many of the aforementioned pianists, yet with his own unique twists (more on that in a bit). 

Monty clearly had many fans by the early 80s who were deep believers in his playing.  In fact, this pristine, high quality recording was made as a gift by a fan who happened to be the founder of the influential and legendary Criteria Recording Studios (Bee Gees, Clapton, Aretha, Allman Bros., etc.), Mack Emerman. Recorded on 24-track analog multitrack tape via Criteria’s mobile recording unit, the recording both captures the vibe of the club and the exhuberant upbeat personality of Alexander’s playing and his spirited band. 

The sound quality on Love You Madly is totally audiophile demo worthy, delivering a nice balance of ambient club acoustics and close-microphone precision. If you have ever wanted to listen to jazz piano from “the driver’s seat” in front of the keyboard, Love You Madly will be your jam. Check out this mini documentary that Resonance Records prepared (click here) for a bit more on it.

My copy of Love You Madly is well centered and quiet. The recording is super lush, mastered by Bernie Grundman Mastering and pressed at RTI. This is a lovely album.  

And while there are many familiar interpretations of other composers here including Duke Ellington’s “Love You Madly” which titles the album and the classic “Body and Soul,” it is Monty’s own compositions which have caught my ear.  It really came together for me on Side Two which opens with the beautiful and haunting ”Sweet Lady” that feels almost like a lost Bill Evans tune.  “Eleuthra” mines some Latin grooves but without sacrificing the song for the rhythms.  “Consider” is another beautiful melody.

He even pulls off a hybrid mashup blending in Jamaican flavors with improvisation on the humorously titled “Reggae Later” — and don’t discount that because this tune swings madly. This is a good place to take note of Mr. Alexander’s cultural roots as he grew up in Jamaica, so that Caribbean essence is integral to what he does yet it is integrated with a deep respect for the blues and jazz pioneers who came before. 

Swing is one of the hallmark’s of Monty’s playing. This guy swings madly.  

A two disc set, Love You Madly comes with a 12-page LP sized booklet that is filled with photos and new interviews with Mr. Alexander (conducted by producer Zev Feldman) and even the great pianist Kenny Barron. I’m still working my way though this… 

At the start of this review I mentioned that Monty Alexander’s music was something I was not real familiar with prior to this release. 

Accordingly, and in the best possible way, the best endorsement I can offer here is that I am inspired by Love You Madly and plan to explore more of his albums now. So thank you Resonance Records for this release and opening up at least one mind to an artist who — dare I say — many of us may have overlooked previously. This one’s a keeper.  

My only regret is that its taken me this long to be fully turned on to Monty Alexander’s music. The exciting part is that he has an enormous back catalog to explore. If you, Dear Readers, have any recommendations on where I should begin, let me know below in the comments!).  

Better late than never!  

Hopefully after the Pandemic is over we’ll get to see Monty on tour. 

I, for one, can’t wait. 

Original Resource is Audiophile Review

High Resolution Streaming McCartney III on Qobuz and Tidal

Initially I wasn’t entirely sure about how to approach reviewing Sir Paul McCartney’s new album. But I realized recently that I had a little something to perhaps offer to my friends out there in music appreciation land: perspective

This was prompted by watching an interview with McCartney the other night on a popular talkshow.  Somewhat bemused, I got the sense that the host was unfamiliar with some of the artist’s history even though he did seem to try to come across as being a serious fan (of which I’m sure he is, no disrespect).

I’ve been a fan of Paul McCartney’s music for almost literally my entire life — one of the three earliest memories I have is The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, when I was maybe 3 years old!  So, there are fanboy details which I take for granted and assume everyone just knows. 

Clearly, many people don’t! It has indeed been interesting watching people’s comments on social media. I read one post by someone who was genuinely surprised to learn that McCartney could play all his own instruments… 

So before I get to the new album I’ll mention some things about his old albums which form a loose trilogy of sorts when taken together. For example, one underlying function of McCartney’s first solo album (simply titled McCartney) was to begin to blaze a path away from the universe of The Beatles. It was a bold statement at the time which even shocked some fans. 

There, McCartney showed the world that he could do pretty much everything from playing the drums and lead guitars to all the vocals and even the production. And he did it with fairly bare-bones equipment – – well, bare bones by Beatle standards!  Basic tracks for much of that album were made without a mixing board, he just plugged his microphones right into the back of a Studer four-track multi-track recorder. An unconventional approach for sure, but at the end of the day it accomplished his goal. And while there were some inevitable Beatle-worthy cuts — notably the brilliant instant classic “Maybe I’m Amazed” — much of the album didn’t sound like Beatle Paul McCartney.

Perspective may help the unfamiliar with understanding the shock of that album. Consider that it came out right after The Beatles’ pinnacle that was Abbey Road — still considered to this day by many as one of the best produced albums ever — and right before the super glossy Phil Spector over-produced version of Let It Be. Basically Paul McCartney created the D.I.Y. indie rock album on that first solo album in 1970. It was panned at the time by many critics, but it still became a big hit (#1 US, #2 UK)

Ten years later he put out his McCartney II album which again came at a point where he needed to rethink and reinvent himself, especially after his second band (Wings) had run its course.

While there were some classic Macca melodies — such as the beautiful song “Waterfalls,” the big hit “Coming Up” and the still fresh computer-vibe of “Temporary Secretary” — in general the album didn’t sound like anything that Paul had done in the past. And, yet it somehow fit in and felt right for the times.  Despite negative reviews it did make it to #3 on the charts at one point (for five weeks according to the wiki!)

Fast forward to the end of 2020 and the release of McCartney III, it makes sense that Sir Paul might want to do another album like this especially given the circumstances with the current pandemic. I mean, why not?! He had the time, the songs and recording studio at his fingertips.

I haven’t been able to get my hands on a vinyl copy of it yet but I have been listening to McCartney III on two of the high resolution streaming music services at 96 kHz and 24 bit resolution. It is sounding pretty great all things considered as modern Paul McCartney records go — don’t expect to feel a lot of rich analog warmth to it but that doesn’t make it any less listenable… its just a different texture.

In keeping with the tradition of its predecessors, parts of McCartney III sounds like he is working on reinventing himself. Parts of it sound like things he’s been doing on recent albums like Egypt Station.

To that, Sir Paul has been reinventing himself over his last several albums made with his band and other producers. His album called New was a lot of fun and it boasted some different textures and production styles. I reviewed it when it came out and later when it was reissued (click here). I also reviewed his last album Egypt Station  twice, once for the CD (click here) and later when the vinyl became available (click here).  And if you haven’t heard his collaborations with producer Youth as The Fireman (a project which started in the ‘90s), you might be in for some surprises.  

The point is, Macca has always been pushing his musical envelope and reinventing himself!

If you haven’t heard those more recent McCartney albums you should listen as it will put McCartney III into some perspective and continuum. Either way at the end of the day it’s great that we have a new Paul McCartney album to enjoy as we wrap up this quite awful year.

Some of my favorite tracks thus far include the Beatles-meets-Bowie “Seize The Day” with its lovely mashup of descending chord ideas and Mick Ronson-flavored glam guitar hook ala Macca’s “Hello Goodbye” as well as Bowie’s “Oh You Pretty Things”’ and “All The Young Dudes.”  The opening and closing numbers which book end in the album revolve around a quirky King Crimson-esque acoustic guitar riff. I like the nearly nine minute long excursion that is “Deep Deep Feeling.” 

There are some good rockers that will be cool to hear once Paul can play out again with his great band.  Current McCartney band members Abe Laboriel Jr. and Rusty Anderson add slammin’ drums and rawk guitar (respectively) on “Slidin’.

“Lavatory Lil” is a surprisingly fun one too! 

“Kiss of Venus” is a nice acoustic folk piece which starts off with a finger-picked acoustic guitar figure that reminds me of the kind of back porch blues Hot Tuna’s Jorma Kaukonen lives and breathes, yet he mixes it up with a nifty Harpsichord solo toward the end.  

The album’s initial single “Find My Way” is catchy fun too (again with Harpsichord!)

I have been listening to versions of McCartney III on Tidal (click here) and Qobuz (click here).  Both are streaming at 96 kHz, 24-bit resolution and both sound about the same. As modern (likely) digital recordings go, especially one that was self produced during a pandemic lockdown, this sounds really quite good. But the album is a bit raw, a warts ’n all scenario and that is one of the hallmarks of these Macca solo albums.  It is what it is. 

You can get McCartney III on vinyl, CD, cassette, and even in a special CD songbook package. And of course there are innumerable colored vinyl variants, all of which seem to have sold out so I won’t even bother you with that stuff here. I’ll be sure to do an update for this review as soon as I get my hands on a physical version of McCartney III. But for now, if you like Paul McCartney’s music you’ll probably want to make some time to listen to this new one.

McCartney III is a nice way to end the year. 

Original Resource is Audiophile Review