Monday, June 17, 2019

Starting Your Collection

50 years ago, we were looking the 60s in the rear-view mirror; the British Invasion, the Summer of Love and Psychedelia were all behind us. Acts like Donovan, Jefferson Airplane and Country Joe and the Fish were at their pinnacle but fading. The Byrds had found new life in country and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young had left their 60s counterparts to find each other. But it was the birth of something new as well, and so as The Beatles gave us Let It Be and Abbey Road, the Stones Let It Bleed and The Moody Blues shed their skin with LPs like On the Threshold of a Dream, so many new artists were on the horizon: Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, Yes, Cat Stevens, Chicago, the Allman Brothers, Rush, King Crimson, Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper – a new powerful force in rock was upon us, the 70s.

And now, particularly with the downfall of iTunes and the 50th anniversary of so many incredible LPs, what a great time for the resurgence of vinyl. Indeed, the sector grew nearly 12% in 2018 with 9.7 million albums sold, making 2018 the biggest selling year for LPs since 1993.

People often ask when they restart their record collection if they should collect new vinyl releases or seek out the original pressings. This is a great detractor when starting out. New LPs and reissues have questionable quality, something you should think about before you plunk down 30 bucks. Some, as in the case of Sgt. Pepper for the 50th Anniversary and the boxed sets are releases that may indeed exceed what they were originally. The sound quality is among the best on vinyl. On the other hand, the latest pressing of Sgt. Pepper is a remix of the original enhancing the stereo and giving a bit more of a modern vibe – I'd go so far as to say it sounds a bit digital. Don't get me wrong, it's a feast for the ears, but as a collector, you may also want to go out and get yourself an original copy for its historic significance and for comparison. And don't forget the mono version, which is what the original mix was and is the ultimate listening experience if you're looking to capture the original sound. See, it's complicated.

On the other, other hand, much of what is released isn't any good at all. Packaging tends to improve, but, for instance, in the case of the 50th-anniversary edition of The Velvet Underground and Nico, this is among the worst vinyl pressings I've heard. The packaging is quite good, and the banana peel is there tempting you to "Peel Here," but if you're seeking the musical experience of one of the great LPs of the 60s, you won't find it here. Buy this one now at the sticker price – less than 25 bucks – and save it for its value as a collectible. A few years from now it will command a hundred dollars, then if you can't come up with the big bucks for a decent copy, stick to Spotify.

For new music, of course, you have no choice but to buy new vinyl, and yet the quality of the pressing still comes into question. And don't be fooled by the myriad of 12-inch 45 rpm pressings that promise, based on the increase in revolutions, to enhance the experience. It may be your only choice, but I don't buy into the increase in quality, particularly when the 45 is pressed on colored vinyl. For the most part, colored vinyl, while cool, just plain sucks. If you're looking for quality sound, stick to basic black. Not to mention how annoying the format is with three songs per side. It's a bit of a sticking point in the vinyl trend: buyers want to buy the LP on vinyl but the quality may be, often is, inferior to the CD pressing or the original. As time goes by, and as vinyl gets more popular, we will have to readdress this.

But I'd be remiss if I left you hanging. And so, I'd like to share five new pressings that are a must have in your collection: No. 1. Jimi Hendrix' Electric Ladyland, a gorgeous package that includes three LPs and video footage, most importantly the beautifully remastered LPs by Bernie Grundman with Linda McCartney's original cover concept. Hendrix' masterpiece, Electric Ladyland is every bit as important as Sgt. Pepper or Pet Sounds. This is the album you get for friends who say, "I’m not that into Hendrix." They soon will be. Aside from Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell, the other two members of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, guest artists include Dave Mason, Al Kooper, Buddy Miles and Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, who acted as percussionist for Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower."

Nos. 2 and 3 are Pink Floyd's The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and A Saucerful of Secrets – the first and second LPs from the band while still with Syd Barrett. The Record Store Day Pressings are amazingly high-quality reissues, both, by the way, in mono. That's a key ingredient here, the quality of the vinyl itself is incomparable and the packaging follows suit. For Piper, a great Hipgnosis outer cover has the instantly recognizable prism photo by photographer Vic Sign within. One would think the photo was edited in the studio, instead, Sign used a Zeiss lens through a prism given to him by George Harrison. For me, the psychedelic era was so underrated with standouts like Surrealistic Pillow by the Jefferson Airplane, Love’s Forever Changes and more obscure works like Of Cabbages and Kings by Chad and Jeremy or Mrs. Butter by The Family Tree, but Pink Floyd, of Course, transcends the genre. And don't think you’re getting anything second best with the mono pressings; Dark Side, Meddle and the rest need stereo and Wish You Were Here nearly demands quadrophonic sound, but Piper and Saucerful are wall of sound giants that don't require any trickery.

No. 4 is Music From Big Pink by the Band. Here is something distinctive with a high-quality mix that is anything but the original. It's a whole different LP that purists may not admire, but audiophiles will. You'll need both versions to make your analysis. As everyone knows, The Beatles paid their dues in the seedy underbelly of Hamburg Germany; The Band, on the other hand, had ten years back up experience before they hooked up with Dylan for the electric tour in 1965 and 6. By the time The Band recorded their first studio album, they had perfected a unique playing style - no one instrument dominating the others; instead there's a sense of impeccable communication that blends the deep groove of blues and soul with honky-tonk piano, rockabilly, loping carnival lines and an amazing blend of voices. The new mix allows the listener a sonic experience that the original pressing wasn't about. For me, a new mix and a new pressing are a hard sell, but Big Pink is a must.

Finally, DeadHeads, anyone, actually, should have a listen to American Beauty, an older re-release that some find issue with; the mix for "Box of Rain" for instance is a bit odd and off-putting at first, but other than that, Bernie Grundman’s remastered American Beauty is that perfect Sunday afternoon lazin’ around LP and the reissue somehow highlights the sunshine. Sit down, light up and enjoy the day. I'm a bit torn, here. That said, part of me wants to say, get the original and wait a couple years; pretty sure there will be a 50th re-release of the Dead's pinnacle studio LP.

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