With the sheer quantity of music available on streaming services, there’s not much of a logical reason to buy physical media anymore. And yet vinyl thrives: It’s fun, it looks and sounds great, and it usually holds its value. Most new vinyl records nowadays cost little more than CDs did in their heyday, although some are given the deluxe treatment—180 gram, colored vinyl, half-speed mastering, and so on—which raises the price tag further.
While 180 gram and colored vinyl are essentially novelties, the records themselves remain a mixed bag, with excellent product sharing bin space with slapdash work at your favorite record store. So how do you know if that fancy new reissue is worth the extra cash? A perfectly pressed new record is becoming something of a white whale these days; warps, digital intermediaries, and sloppy mastering/pressing jobs can ruin a premium product. These are some recent, expensive reissues in the new bins now—are they worth it?
Gillian Welch, The Harrow and the Harvest (Acony)
Gillian Welch and her partner-in-crime David Rawlings have made a big to-do over their first foray into vinyl, claiming they waited years because they wanted to do everything “just right.” (They’re even touring solely to promote this re-release; see our show preview here.) The new vinyl edition of 2011’s The Harrow and the Harvest comes in a fancy printed jacket with enhanced artwork; it also comes with a seriously inflated price tag. The mastering is incredibly well done, and the disc has impressively silent backgrounds—important for acoustic-based music of this nature. The all-analog mastering chain gives each of these songs a warm, three-dimensional quality that comes alive in your living room.
However, all the fancy artwork and vintage equipment mean nothing if quality control is not up to snuff, and my new copy of Harrow came out of the shrinkwrap with a really nasty looking scuff across two tracks on Side One. I didn’t see any monkey business on the jacket or inner sleeve, suggesting that the damage happened during pressing or packaging. (The plant in question is Quality Record Pressings, which touts audiophile-quality product but has a slightly checkered reputation among vinyl snobs.) The record is otherwise close to flawless, which makes the scuff all the more of an ear-sore. To be fair, this reissue has gotten good marks in other quarters, and you are likely to not have the same problem I did.
[UPDATE: I've since received a replacement copy from Acony, and it is excellent. All evidence points to my problem with the first one being a total fluke—this is a well-made record.]
David Bowie, A New Career in a New Town 1977-1982 (Parlophone)
The third giant box set in Parlophone’s expansive treatment of David Bowie’s back catalog reveals the cynical, cash-grabby nature of some of these reissues (to be fair, this multi-box project was initiated before Bowie’s death). The new one covers some of his most critically acclaimed work—namely the trio of albums he recorded with Brian Eno (1977’s Low and “Heroes” and 1979’s Lodger). The package also includes 1980’s excellent Scary Monsters, 1982’s Baal EP, a bevy of single edits and sundries, a new (and not terrible!) remix of Lodger from producer Tony Visconti, a four-song EP that rounds up all the foreign-language versions of “Heroes,” a handsome hardcover book, and bafflingly, two copies of 1978’s live album Stage (one of which has a few more tracks).
Some Bowie fans will be over the moon with this. But others—say, those who can’t pay top dollar for what essentially boils down to four albums—have to wait a few months for the individual discs to be issued separately. The problem? Some of the material is exclusive to the box, like the remixed Lodger, which is probably the only disc wanted by hardcore fans who bought multiple copies of this stuff over the years. And the presence of two near-identical versions of Stage is enraging, serving no purpose but to blow up the price.
Parlophone pulled a similar trick with the last Bowie box, Who Can I Be Now (1974-1976), which had a fascinating rough-draft version of Young Americans you couldn’t get anywhere else, and two fucking versions of David Live. To make the double-dip issue worse, Parlophone issued a never-before-heard live show from the same era (Cracked Actor) mere months after that box came out. In a just world, the Cracked Actor set would have taken the place of one of the David Lives. And with last week’s online appearance of three 1978 live tracks from Berlin to promote this box’s release—tracks that do not appear anywhere inside this box—one can only suspect they will pull a similar trick with a full Berlin live set in a few short months. But hey, two Stages, everybody!
Still, these boxes—which appear on CD as well as vinyl—are nice-looking things, coming in sturdy slipcases and pressed on quiet, thick vinyl. But the mastering of Bowie’s catalog has always been something of a mess in the digital era, with inferior reissues on Rykodisc and EMI clotting his legacy. (If you ever want to die a slow death, ask an audiophile about the original ’80s-era RCA CDs of Bowie’s albums.) These new versions, digitally sourced, have more than their share of problems, too—most notably, there’s an offensively bad audio dropout midway through “Heroes” that already has Amazon customers giving the box one-star reviews.
Will you give a shit about any of this? Maybe not. Most casual listeners may not even notice these shortcomings. But these reissues are meant to be the last word on Bowie, the definitive editions of these historic pieces of art. And they’re just a little... off. But if they keep making them, I will keep buying them and complaining about them.
[UPDATE: Due to widespread complaints about the dropout during “Heroes,” Parlophone has announced that they will, at some point, be making new copies of the “Heroes” album without the error. Those with proof of purchase of the vinyl or CD set will be able to get a replacement disc, although details have not yet been provided. Digital copies should already be corrected.]
Brian Eno, Here Come the Warm Jets, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), Another Green World, Before and After Science (UMC/Virgin)
In addition to his heavy presence on the Bowie records mentioned above, a portion of Brian Eno’s own catalog—his four superb “rock” albums from the 1970s—have recently reappeared on vinyl in deluxe format. Each album was mastered at 45 RPM instead of 33, and subsequently split across two pieces of vinyl instead of one. It could be argued that this allows for greater fidelity and a stronger signal—at 45 RPM, the needle moves over the information more quickly, and the grooves can be spaced further apart, which allows for louder volume. Additionally, these were mastered at “half-speed,” which theoretically makes for a clearer, more accurate high end, although it must make for a weird listening experience in the mastering suite. As a bonus, a CD-quality download is included with each record, as is a very silly certificate authenticating the mastering process.
The Eno reissues—I’ve tested Taking Tiger Mountain and Before and After Science—have their pros and cons. It sucks to get up twice as often to flip a side, but Taking Tiger Mountain had long sides to begin with and benefits sonically from having the extra room. And the sound, by and large, is excellent, although mastering engineer Miles Showell cut the discs from high-resolution digital transfers rather than the original analog tape. (An all-analog chain is preferable in this writer’s opinion, but sometimes the condition of the master tapes doesn’t allow for it, as was likely the case with the Bowie box set.)
In fact, the sound on Taking Tiger Mountain is so successful that few shortcomings are all the more irritating. With the extended treble, one can hear the deterioration of the tapes quite clearly on tracks like “The Fat Lady of Limbourg” and “China My China,” when the high whoosh of Eno’s drum machine flickers and flutters. Even worse, “The Great Pretender” has a few instances where the sound wobbles and wanders toward the right speaker, as if the left channel were cut off. Whether this is due to the tape’s age or some other problem, it should have been fixed in digital before Showell cut to disc. Lastly, there are intermittent clicks on the closing tracks on both albums, and they just happen to be mellow songs that point forward to Eno’s ambient work that require a totally quiet backdrop. This noisy interference is a pressing error, and giving the records a proper clean didn’t solve the problem either.
Still, these are great albums and the pressings have their positive attributes—notably, a rich and detailed sound for the majority of their playing time. Also, original copies are becoming hard to find, especially in America. However, the buyer should be aware that presales for significantly cheaper, single-disc versions of these same albums just popped up online, so it might be worth waiting.