Friday, December 11, 2009

Michael Fremer Review

I am very proud to continue our feature (look for this every Friday), music reviews that are written by the senior contributing editor of Stereophile magazine- Michael Fremer. It has been a pleasure to speak with Michael and learn more about audio sound and equipment. In fact, his new DVD, "It's A Vinyl World, After All" has hit the shelves and is selling out very quickly. This is a must have for anybody who loves vinyl, it is a true masterpiece.

Various Artists (new reissue)
A Christmas Gift to You From Philles Records

Sundazed LP 5323 180g mono LP

Produced by: Phil Spector
Engineered by: Larry Levine
Mixed by: Phil Spector and Larry Levine
Mastered by: Bob Irwin (LP cut by "WG/NRP")

Review by: Michael Fremer


The classic Phil Spector Christmas album is Sundazed’s holiday gift to us all. Mastered in glorious mono from the original mono master tape (remember: Phil didn’t do stereo so if you see “stereo” on the jacket, it’s fake stereo, though I heard there was a 1974 “stereo remix” but given how Spector recorded I can’t imagine from what source tracks such a mix could have been assembled).

Phil used jingle bells and such when recording secular teen love songs so the move to Christmas wasn’t particularly difficult. And who better than a New York Jew to produce such a timeless Christmas classic? After all, Irving Berlin wrote “White Christmas,” and Mel Tormé (Melvin Howard Torma) co-wrote “The Christmas Song” (“chestnuts roasting on the open fire”). And don’t forget, the guy whose birthday everyone is celebrating was also one.

And what better place to record a Christmas album than Los Angeles? Well, I can name ten, but what better studio to record a Phil Spector album in than Gold Star? I can name none.

And what worse day to release a cheery Christmas album than Novemberr 22nd, 1963? There are no worse days, so the album, like the president, stiffed (sorry, I couldn’t help myself but I wish I could have).

Few copies sold of such a wonderful record means original pressings are rare and expensive. Apple reissued with a different cover and name in 1972 and that time it went into the Top Ten and deservedly so.

So here’s Sundazed’s gift to you with the original Philles cover and all of the great tracks recorded by Phil’s outstanding artist roster.

The Ronette’s “Frosty The Snowman,” and “Santa Claus is Coming To Town” might be my favorites and the latter is the foundation for the E-Street Band, but there’s really not a bad track on the album. The strings and baritone sax provide warmth, the percussion and castenets the icicles and the big wobbly vibratos the soul. Such a classic combination! You know the guy who wrote and sang “To Know Him is to Love Him” knows how to pour on the sap!

Spector places the vocals way above the background mass of strings and percussion and Hal Blaine’s drums are in another time zone but that just adds to the vast holiday cheer this album produces every time you play it$#151at least until you get to Phil’s sign-off at the end of side two. It sounded creepy back in 1972 when I first heard it but now given what’s happened to poor Phil it sounds creepy squared.

I compared this reissue cut from the analog tapes with the digitally remastered LP included in the out of print ABKCO Phil Spector Box Back to MONO (even though the box says “mastered in analog” that referred to the analog tapes being used to produce the digital master) and the Sundazed reissue is clearly the winner in terms of crystalline clarity and that certain pleasing piercing quality to the vocal mix that’s supposed to cut through on an edge without slicing your eardrums. The digitally remastered box set version is thicker and not as pleasingly icy-clean.

However I was a bit disappointed by a lack of bass heft on some of the big drum “thwacks” that the box set version has. Whether that was someone goosing up the bottom end there, or cutting a bit off here, I don’t know. Accurate or not, I like it.

Still, overall the new Sundazed reissue wins the clarity and transparency race and that’s more important if you want to hear into the Spector wall and pull out all the candy-elements.

Even the 180 gram pressing, which I assume is from United, Nashville is good. Non “no-fill” and no noise. Maybe Sundazed’s Bob Irwin is finally whipping that woefully sloppy joint into shape?

Now that A Christmas Gift For You is out again all analog on vinyl, it will definitely be a merry Christmas!

Copyright © 2008 & Michael Fremer - All rights reserved

How Records Got Their Groove Back

Yet another intriguing article about vinyl (it is all over the news and Internet), but we vinyl collectors already knew that. This one os from the AARP Magazine issue for Jan, Feb 2010.

How Records Got Their Groove Back

As CDs fade away, there's a new vinyl answer

By Bill Newcott

"They lied to us, man," he said.

Flipping through old vinyl albums at a used-record shop, I did what anyone does when a fellow human bares his soul: I ignored him. "They said CDs would sound better," he persisted. "They lied!" He rapped a vintage Ramsey Lewis album on the edge of the bin, like a gavel, releasing that distinct scent of dust and decomposing cardboard.

"I got rid of my record player. I let my records go. And they never even bothered to bring back half of my old jazz albums. Not half. It was like they hooked us, and then they gutted us."

It was a spontaneous outburst, but the gist of it I've been hearing for years among frequenters of the vinyl bins: despite the advantages of compact disks (CDs) over vinyl—you'll never hear a CD pop or click, and you can access any track instantly—the supposed perfection of the format was overstated. Of course, the companies were just as over-the-top about LPs. Here's a quote from my vinyl copy of Tony [Bennett]'s Greatest Hits, Volume III: "You can purchase this record with no fear of its becoming obsolete in the future." Pioneer audiophiles felt that way about Edison's cylinder phonograph of the late 1800s and the 78-rpm shellac disks of the early 20th century. And even as the "never obsolete" vinyl promise was being made in the 1960s, guys in lab coats were dreaming up cassette tapes and eight-track tape cartridges.

Then came the CD in the mid-1980s, and everyone knew that vinyl's days were numbered. But like those ancient tiny mammals that predated the dinosaurs—and then kept skittering around the feet of T. rex and his pals—vinyl never completely disappeared: throughout the '90s, hip-hop DJs spun vinyl disks, manipulating the turntables by hand for musical effect.

Now record companies are making money from vinyl again: vinyl-record sales soared 89 percent in 2008, while CDs, falling prey to Internet downloads, continued to trudge down the road to extinction. Music giant EMI has rereleased some 65 classic albums on vinyl, including acts ranging from Frank Sinatra to the Beastie Boys. U2's newest album (No Line on the Horizon), Bruce Springsteen's latest (Working on a Dream), and Harry Connick Jr.'s Your Songs have all done brisk vinyl business.

And it's not just a generational thing. Newer acts such as The Killers and Ryan Adams are finding an LP audience as well, offering vinyl and MP3-download versions of their latest releases as a single package. In fact, whereas Borders and Best Buy stores have been reducing their CD space, both retailers have installed new vinyl-LP racks.

The Sound of Silence

It wasn't the sound that sold us on CDs—it was the absence of it. Your first CD experience was probably a lot like mine. I was working at a tabloid newspaper in Florida, and one day the publisher called me into his office. "Siddown," he barked. As always, I did as I was told. He just sat there staring at me, cigarette aloft in one hand. Then, suddenly, the crashing opening chords of Tchaikovsky's Capriccio Italien came barreling out at me from two large speakers. I leaped to my feet, as if to escape. My boss clapped his hands and laughed, sending ashes flying.

"It's the silence," he said gleefully. "A record warns you something's gonna happen with all the noise it makes. But this is a compact disk. When it's quiet, it's damn quiet."

Maybe too quiet. Even after CDs nudged vinyl out the record-store door in the late 1980s, enthusiasts stuck to their position that vinyl's sound reproduction was ultimately more satisfying than digital's. Warmer is the word used most frequently, and Jason Boyd, who oversees vinyl-record production and sales for music giant EMI, tried to explain it to me.

"The imperfections of the sound—the low ends—are sonically appealing," Boyd says. "CD is most pristine. But vinyl has the warm, full sound of the music. The cracks and the little imperfections that pop up seem to enhance the music. It's a way of experiencing music rather than just consuming it."

Boyd is probably right. But here's my theory: it's the unique imperfections of each vinyl record that make it irreplaceable. After enough plays, a record becomes a fingerprint of your listening experience. Just about everyone who owned the Beatles' White Album wore the thing down to a nub. Your copy, like mine, is a crackling mess through "Cry Baby Cry"—but then it becomes a mint-condition collector's item the moment that unlistenable jumble of sounds the Lads called "Revolution 9" fades in.

Indeed, all of our records carry an indelible personal stamp: the skip on your copy of The Dark Side of the Moon that results in Roger Waters's repeating "Money!" over and over…the holiday album you still play despite the damage it sustained in that unfortunate 1962 Christmas-tree pine-needle accident...the Shari Lewis record you kicked off the turntable while you were dancing, so now Lamb Chop repeats herself, like Rain Man.

See Me, Feel Me

Even the nonlistening rituals of record ownership are burned into the memories of everyone who ever had a collection. Need proof? Head down to a music store and buy a record—most larger shops now have at least a small vinyl section. The rest will come naturally: bring the record home (on the way, I guarantee, you'll admire the cover artwork). Now slip your thumbnail into the cellophane sheath, right at the album's business end, and slide it along. Feel that flutter in your stomach as the album opens? You're remembering what it's like to access your music with a single, graceful stroke—instead of peeling, stabbing, cutting, and finally biting your way into a CD jewel case. Now slide out the inner sleeve. There she is: the proud, black thing of beauty, her label winking at you through the sleeve's center hole. As you extract the disk from the sleeve, you'll find you haven't forgotten how to hold it safely: your thumb at the ridge, the label resting on your fingers. If you're lucky enough to still have your turntable, you'll deftly center the record on the spindle. Best of all, the disk won't hop into a drawer and disappear into a box, like a CD. It will stay right there in plain view, singing to you at a steady 33 1/3 revolutions per minute.

Then there's the structure of a two-sided album. In the old days, records were programmed in two acts: Side One and Side Two. Someone who's never flipped an LP would be mightily puzzled over the lyric at the end of Side One on the Carpenters' fourth album, A Song for You: "We'll be right back /After we go to the bathroom." On my favorite album, Electric Light Orchestra's Eldorado, Jeff Lynne ends Side One on a chord progression that is left unresolved until Side Two.

Your Song

In my world, digital and vinyl have found a way to coexist: when I'm on the subway, or walking on a bustling city sidewalk, the slightly shrill digital music flowing through my earbuds seems appropriate. At home, however—where I'm bathed in the warmth of family and familiar surroundings—the sounds from my old record player seem to float from room to room, filling every corner with aural incense.

"Vinyl will never be mainstream again, but it's a growing niche," says Michael Fremer, senior contributing editor for Stereophile magazine. (He owns 15,000 vinyl records.) "When a former vinyl listener reconnects, he or she says, 'I remember that sound. That's what I'm missing!' And a new generation is discovering that vinyl sounds better and represents tunes sequenced as the artist wishes, rather than as a series of random events.

"I doubt kids will look back in 50 years and say, 'I remember when I downloaded that!' The forward-looking young people are going for vinyl editions of their important music."

The End

Those of us who fell for the Great Lie will never fully recover. My distraught friend from the used-record store is right: we'll spend the rest of our days trying to re-create our old collections, Ancient Mariners roaming the earth, our MP3 players slung about our necks like albatrosses.

But there will be the inevitable reunions with long-lost LP friends, the rush of anticipation when the needle hits that groove, and the exquisite moment when the music plays, warm and full, punctuated with the pops and crackles of passing time.


A vinyl record, properly cared for, can certainly last your lifetime and probably your kids and grandchildrens as well.  Where will that song you downloaded two weeks ago be?  There is something to be said about actually owning something, something tactile, long live vinyl!

Music News & Notes

The Beatles Have Best Selling Album of the Decade

Our good friends at AntiMusic are reporting that The Fab four are still pretty damn fab. At least with people who buy music according to the following Rolling report:

Over three decades after their breakup, the Beatles still released the top-selling album of the 2000s. The Fab Four's greatest hits compilation 1 sold over 11,448,000 copies since its release in November 2000 according to Nielsen SoundScan's decade-end sales numbers. Eminem was the 2000s’ top-selling artist with 32.2 million combined in sales, plus two albums in the decade’s Top 10. The Beatles claimed Number Two with 30 million.

Soundscan's Top 10 Selling Albums of the 2000's

1.1 - Beatles (11,499,000 copies sold)
2.No Strings Attached - *NSYNC (11,112,000)
3.Come Away With Me - Norah Jones (10,546,000)
4.The Marshall Mathers LP - Eminem (10,204,000)
5.The Eminem Show - Eminem (9,799,000)
6.Confessions - Usher (9,712,000)
7.Hybrid Theory - Linkin Park (9,663,000)
8.Human Clay - Creed (9,491,000)
9.Oops!…I Did It Again - Britney Spears (9,185,000)
10.Country Grammar - Nelly (8,461,000)


SLASH - New Album Release And Tour Set

SLASH (VELVET REVOLVER, ex-GUNS N' ROSES) has issued the following Twitter update:

"Driving around listening to the analog mixes of my solo record, I gotta say it sounds awesome. The whole self titled record was recorded analog. It will be released March/April - tour starts around then too. It will be released in all formats including vinyl."

Slash will be released in Europe via Roadrunner Records. A release date for other territories will be announced soon.

As previously reported, the first single from Slash's upcoming solo album will feature OZZY OSBOURNE on vocals. Other guests who will appear on Slash include ALICE COOPER, Lemmy Kilmister (MOTÖRHEAD), former Guns N' Roses men Duff McKagan (LOADED), Steven Adler and Izzy Stradlin, Dave Grohl (FOO FIGHTERS), Flea (RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS), IGGY POP, KID ROCK, CHRIS CORNELL, Myles Kennedy (ALTER BRIDGE), Stacy "Fergie" Ferguson (BLACK EYED PEAS), MAROON 5 singer Adam Levine and WOLFMOTHER's Andrew Stockdale.


Midlake announce limited-edition vinyl release and UK tour
Texas band head to the UK early next year

Midlake have announced details of a limited-edition 12-inch vinyl release featuring two new songs.

There will only be 500 copies of the record, which features 'Acts Of Man' and 'Rulers, Ruling All Things', available from December 14. Both songs will feature on Midlake's forthcoming album 'The Courage Of Others' (released on February 1).

Midlake tour the UK and Republic Of Ireland in January and February.


Iron Maiden, Rammstein, Stooges, Mötley Crüe for Sonisphere Festival 2010

Iron Maiden and Rammstein have been announced as headliners of the UK leg of the Sonisphere Festival next summer.  The Knebworth House event will also feature Alice Cooper, Mötley Crüe, Iggy And The Stooges, Anthrax, The Cult and Slayer.

Rammstein's appearance will mark their first ever UK festival show.

Sonisphere takes place between July 30 and August 1 next year.


Bon Iver releases live charity album 'A Decade With Duke' also features Justin Vernon's high school jazz band

Bon Iver has released a recording of a charity show at mainman Justin Vernon's old high school in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.  Called 'A Decade With Duke', the album is a collaboration between Vernon and jazz ensemble Eau Claire Memorial Jazz 1.

Featuring songs from Bon Iver's critically acclaimed album 'For Emma, Forever Ago', such as 'Lump Sum' and 'For Emma', the album also sees Vernon performing jazz classics such as 'Lady Is A Tramp' and 'Bewitched'.

Vernon did the show to help raise money to send the jazz band to New York to take part in the Essentially Ellington competition, where they came third.

Released both physically and digitally, the CD is only available from Brickhouse Music, Morgan Music, and from the Volume One office in the Eau Claire area. For those outside of Wisconsin, a digital copy is available from various online retailers.


Elvis Costello set to release new live album 'Live At Hollywood High' to be released in January

Elvis Costello has announced plans to release the second in his 'The Costello Show' live performance series.  Entitled 'Live At Hollywood High', the 20-song album is taken from Costello's gig at the school in Los Angeles in June 1978.

Released on January 11, the record will include songs from early albums 'My Aim Is True', 'This Year's Model' and 'Armed Forces'.

'Live At Hollywood High' follows on from the reissue of 'Live At The El Mocambo'earlier this year, and future releases for the series are set to include performances from the Royal Albert Hall, reports Billboard.


Neil Young | Gary Burden Get Grammy Music Nomination For Package Design

LOS ANGELES (Top40 Charts/ R. Twerk & Co.) - Gary Burden's design of the Neil Young Archives, Volume 1 has been nominated for a 52nd Annual Grammy Award in the Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package category. Lead art director and designer Gary Burden, R. Twerk & Co., says he had "no idea 'the archives' were entered into the awards, so it was a huge surprise when we received a phone call and learned we were nominated. This is just so cool and I am really happy for Neil, too." This is Burden's fourth Grammy nomination for design. Burden, representing his company R. Twerk & Co., has received three other Grammy nominations for 'Best Package of the Year.'

The long-awaited Neil Young Archives, Volume 1 (1963-1972) is a deluxe boxed set. It was conceived as a time-capsule of Neil Young's musical and personal journeys from 1963 to 1972. The elaborate box contains multiple cds/dvds/bluerays (depending on the version, there are three), a replica of Neil Young's revealing personal journal with a faux embossed leather cover, and a "stash" box (look in the corners for reproductions of pot seeds). The box was designed to last a long time, and also designed with sustainability in mind. "The Mohawk paper we used is FSC-certified, recycled with PCW content and made with windpower," said Burden.

Burden and Neil Young have been collaborating on album cover art for more than forty years and have become lifelong friends. They still enjoy working together and are currently at work on Volume II, and a myriad of other packages.

Gary says he will 'definitely' be going to the Grammy Awards in January, "It is very cool that the years of work Neil, my wife Jenice and I put into the packaging of Neil's archive is recognized by my peers as being worthy of a Grammy. I immediately recalled my first Grammy nomination in 1969 for Richard Pryor's comedy album. I went to Western Costume to rent an outfit. I got a tuxedo with sequin lapels and stripes on the trousers that was made for Elvis Presley. It fit me perfectly. Sweet!"

Gary Burden started designing album covers at the suggestion of Mama Cass after he did a short stint as an architect, designing Cass' home. Shortly thereafter, Burden had designed Joni Mitchell's "Blue" cover, albums for Steppenwolf, Three Dog Night and The Mamas and the Papas all of which went gold and platinum. Burden created Crosby, Stills and Nash's first album cover artwork, The Doors' "Morrison Hotel" and four album covers for the Eagles including "Desperado," several for Jackson Browne, Judee Sill, Laura Nyro, and many others even making a cover for Zydeco artist Clifton Chenier.


Handwritten Song Lyrices Up For Auction

Want to own the origianl handwritten lyrices for the classic cut "Wild Thing?" A long list of artists have contributed handwritten and signed lyrics to some of their greatest songs to the Americana Music Association for a December 14 benefit auction, including Chip Taylor's "Wild Thing." Those donating lyrics include Dolly Parton (I Will Always Love You), Willie Nelson (On the Road Again), Robert Plant (Please Read the Letter), Peter Frampton (Baby I Love Your Way), Emmylou Harris (Tulsa Queen), Phil Everly (When Will I Be Loved), J.D. Souther (Faithless Love), John Prine (Angel From Montgomery), John Oates (She's Gone) and many more.

Currently, the Plant lyrics are the high bid receiver at $925. To see the full list and the current bids, go to the American Association website.