Saturday, 3 September 2016

Vinyl (Window) Shopping in Italy

You go to Italy for the culture, the food and wine, the architecture, the sunshine, the dramatic hand gestures, the excellent standard of driving, not to buy records. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, record shops are very thin on the ground, and secondly, vinyl (when you can find it) is expensive. Holy shit, is it expensive!

This summer, the Shelf-Stacker clan hit Puglia, deep in Italy's heel. I was resigned to a two week vinyl detox - not a great hardship considering everything else this beautiful country has to offer - but I nevertheless managed to stumble upon two record shops. One (Detroit Rock City in Gallipoli) was closed, the other (Discoshop Detommaso in Monopoli) might as well have been. Not that it isn't a great little shop, but the UK's weak pound, courtesy of the Brexit vote, hasn't exactly taken the edge off the crazy vinyl prices in Italy. Discoshop's owner handed me a delicious stack of under-the-counter vinyl porn including titles by Le Orme, Premiata Forneria Marconi, Banco del Mutuo Soccorso, Franco Battiato, Claudio Rocchi, New Trolls and Saint Just. Most of these rare LPs - all original pressings - I'd never seen in the flesh before, but with prices ranging from 40 euros to 2,000 euros - ouch! - I had to walk away. However, not before the owner obligingly spun a copy of Il Balletto di Bronzo's Ys LP for me (500 euros if I remember correctly). I knew straight away that I needed to own a copy of the LP. Not that copy, obviously. I've since settled for a 2014 reissue which is sonically stunning and with meticulously reproduced gatefold artwork.

Ignore any reviews you've read comparing Ys to Emerson Lake & Palmer - lazy comparisons like that are as likely to turn people off as steer them towards this classic album. Sure, there is keyboard virtuosity throughout, but Il Balletto di Bronzo's LP is considerably more focused and experimental than anything ELP ever released, avoiding any of the Benny The Bouncer / Are You Ready Eddy?-style knockabouts that sullied many of ELP's albums. If you love challenging progressive rock with a psychedelic twist, this one's for you. What struck me most when I first heard Ys is the intensity and focus. That and the phenomenal musicianship. God knows what the album's about, but whatever it is, the band really means it. From the run-in on side one to the dead wax on side two the listener is treated to eerie female wailing, a smorgasboard of synths and keyboards from squelching Moog to baroque spinetta and haunted dancehall piano, impassioned vocals minus the stagey theatricality that mars some european progressive music, deeply hypnotic bass grooves, urgent snare-fixated drumming, trippy stereo panning, angular guitar lines and searing lead breaks. I love it!

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Jonathan Wilson @ Union Chapel 09/06/16

Jonathan Wilson played the final date of his solo acoustic tour on Thursday night at the Union Chapel in Islington, North London. Music aside, the night promised to be something special because it was taking place in what has to be one of the most beautiful venues this country has to offer. The Union Chapel is a concert venue, arts centre, homeless project and - yes - a fully-functioning church. There is something quite magical about experiencing music in a space dominated by a rose window, flickering candles and a gothic pulpit. Whether you're a believer or not, the environment lends a spiritual ambience to proceedings that the average sticky-floored bingo hall is sorely lacking.

Filling the Special Guest slot for Wilson's tour was LA-based singer-songwriter Omar Velasco who uses a foot-operated sampler to create loops of his own playing, creating a fuller and more involving sound than you might expect from one man and an acoustic guitar. Velasco's songs offer a Latino slant on the Laurel Canyon sound that informs much of Wilson's repertoire. Hardly surprising as Velasco's day job is that of Wilson's right-hand man in his full electric touring band.

Although billed as solo and acoustic, Jonathan Wilson was variously supported by a string quartet and sidekick Velasco for much of his performance, allowing him to switch between acoustic guitar, telecaster and piano. For the first of two encores, the legendary Roy Harper joined Wilson onstage. If locked down Californian jam band grooves, rural hippie funk and David Gilmouresque guitar are your bag, you owe it to yourself to give Jonathan Wilson a listen.

There was a scrum for the merchandise stand after the gig, largely because of the promise of a seven inch single featuring a pair of tracks (Your Ears Are Burning / Sing To You) from Wilson's 2007 CDr-only release Frankie Ray. Limited to just 300 copies, all signed by Wilson, I'm chuffed to have one in my paws.

Monday, 9 May 2016

AKARMA Records - Buyers' Guide

The subject of vinyl reissues is a thorny one. I've stated my ambivalence towards them before in these pages, but whatever their shortcomings, there's no escaping the fact that, unless you have bottomless pockets, seeking out original copies of every rare LP on your wishlist is a non-starter. Thankfully there are small, independent labels offering us the chance to get hold of albums (the originals of which were often released in miniscule quantities) in our favoured format, for twenty quid or less. Is it too much to ask that these labels find good quality audio sources for their reissues, put some effort into reproducing the original artwork, and pay the musicians their royalties?

One label whose name crops up regularly in debates over the pros and cons of vinyl reissues is Akarma. Confusion reigns over whether Akarma is a legitimate label, or a shady, money-grabbing enterprise dealing in pirate pressings. Interestingly, Discogs doesn't list Akarma releases as unofficial, but that shouldn't necessarily be taken as proof that the label is whiter than white. From what I understand, because the label is based in Italy, where a quirk of copyright law means that Akarma is not operating illegally by reissuing LPs without the copyright holder's permission, the label is 'legitimate'. However, acting within the law and being morally upstanding are not necessarily the same thing. There are numerous reports of artists complaining that their albums have been re-released without permission or remuneration of royalties. Sadly, the modest quantities of product shifted by small, independent labels makes chasing them through the courts financially unviable, particularly if they are based in another country.

To add to the uncertainty over the true nature of Akarma, Discogs includes a label profile written by Jo-Ann Greene for GOLDMINE, May 12, 2006 (Vol 32. No 10 . Issue 673), which reads more like an Akarma press release than an objective journalistic appraisal of the label. At no point in her piece does Greene address the legitimacy of Akarma's releases or the sources that it uses to master its reissues, preferring to give marketing manager, Guglielmo Pizzinelli, a platform for a spot of unchallenged, self-serving PR.

In a typically gushing statement, Greene asserts that you "can’t appreciate the beauty and the attention to detail involved until you actually encounter Akarma vinyl," and that "the label has gained as many high marks for art work as for the equally high-caliber remasterings, with Akarma’s releases instantly identifiable by their sheer beauty alone." I'm sure Pizzinelli couldn't have said it any better himself. What a bunch of sycophantic guff! No wonder then that record buyers continue to be confused about the legitimacy of Akarma's releases and the quality of their pressings.

Perhaps it's unfair to single out Akarma for criticism, as they are just one of the many players in the dubious reissues field, particularly as, to their credit, the packaging on their LPs is often of a remarkable quality: every nuance of the original artwork faithfully reproduced, right down to textured sleeves and embossed lettering. They put more effort into providing a desirable, tactile product than most of the major labels. It's just a shame that the reproduction of the music rarely matches up to the quality of the packaging.

Although I have every sympathy with musicians who find themselves stiffed by record companies, as a record collector, my overriding concern is for the quality of the product that is offered for sale. If the major labels were more on the ball, and weren't so contemptuous of both artists and customers, they could kill off dodgy reissue labels overnight by putting out legitimate, high-quality pressings of the many obscure albums that music fans are crying out for. A market clearly exists. Whether this would result in a steady stream of royalties for the artists is doubtful, but at least the record-buying public might get to hear reissues mastered from the original analogue tapes or, at the very least, from hi-resolution digital files, instead of from dodgy CDs or via knackered vinyl needledrops.

Buying Akarma releases is a lottery: I own one or two that, in the absence of an original pressing for comparison, are hard to fault; others are borderline unlistenable. Which of Akarma's releases is worth buying, and which should be avoided? With their large and highly desirable catalogue, there's plenty of scope for chucking cash away on a complete turkey. Please, if any owners of Akarma LPs are reading this and could take the time to leave a comment about specific titles, this post might serve as a buyers' guide for the label: a one-stop database for fellow vinyl enthusiasts interested in finding out about Akarma's mastering and pressing quality. I'll start the ball rolling with details of the titles that I own. I hope you find it useful.

Arcadium - Breathe Awhile
Single, heavy card sleeve. A nice clean, quiet pressing, but cut 'hot', so it's a pretty shrill listening experience.

Bodkin - Bodkin
Single sleeve housed in an elaborate and utterly ludicrous six panel cardboard crucifix featuring a burning goat. Plays well enough, but the source used for the master is very noisy, especially on B1. I'd happily forego the over-the-top packaging in exchange for decent sound.

Buffalo - Only Want You For Your Body
Gatefold sleeve with lyric insert. Decent sound reproduction, if a little 'flat' and digital sounding.

Earth and Fire - Earth and Fire
Gatefold sleeve. Sound is very good, but a bit brittle and digital.

Felt - Felt
Single sleeve. The sound quality is great on this LP, but there is a noticeable wow on the second of the four tracks on side one. The stylus sits rocksteady in the groove, so I assume the wow originates in the playback of whatever source Akarma used. Shoddy!

Indian Summer - Indian Summer
Gatefold sleeve. Fantastic sound. If it's a digital source, Akarma have done a good job of warming it up for vinyl. There seems to be a slight bias in output to the left channel in parts. Recommended!

Leaf Hound - Growers of Mushroom
Gatefold sleeve. Decent sound reproduction, if a little 'flat' and digital.

Room - Pre-Flight
Single sleeve. Clear, dynamic, warm airy sound. If it's not from an analogue source then whoever transferred it from digital did an impressive job. Recommended!

Salem Mass - Witch Burning
Textured single sleeve. Despite buying this new and sealed, my copy has noticeable distortion on A2 and A3, and the over all sound is a bit lean.

Still Life - Still Life
Gatefold sleeve. Nice clean pressing and convincingly fat and analogue-esque sound reproduction. Recommended!

Wizard - The Original Wizard
Textured single sleeve with textured band biog insert. Good clear, rich sound reproduction. Recommended!

Writing On The Wall - The Power of the Picts
Textured, silvered single sleeve. Nice, clean pressing. An enjoyable listen, but lacks the depth and warmth you'd expect from vinyl. A digital transfer no doubt! Cautiously recommended.

Zior - Zior
Gatefold sleeve. Sound repro is a bit 'hot' and 'toppy'.

PLEASE share your experiences of Akarma vinyl. Thanks!

Monday, 1 February 2016

Back In Black

In case anyone out there was wondering, I haven't abandoned my blog. I've been busy with other writing and just haven't found the time. But, with so many of my musical heroes checking out recently, I feel bad about not marking their passing. Lemmy and Phil 'Philthy Animal' Taylor, David Bowie, Paul Kantner, Chris Squire, Glen Frey, Jimmy Bain, Michael Brown, Daevid Allen, Demis Roussos... the list goes on. And I'm not joking about Demis Roussos being a hero either - have you ever heard Aphrodite's Child's 666 album? - a nightmarish psych-prog classic. This is my French pressing with the Vertigo swirl labels. Lovely!

Keep my blog bookmarked; I'll be back soon.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Random Record Review: The Doors - The Soft Parade (1969)

Dismissed by Rolling Stone magazine upon its release as “musical constipation”, The Soft Parade has never had it easy. An inability to take risks and develop musically is surely a greater signifier of musical constipation than the rampant experimentation on display here. Part of the initial animosity towards the LP was based on the fact that five of the nine tracks on offer had already been available on 7”. From a 21st century perspective, where albums are exhaustively mined for hits, this criticism hardly stands up. Robbie Krieger said of The Soft Parade that “we liked it, but no-one else seemed to,” and Morrison bemoaned its lack of a “unified feeling and style”. What do they know! Artists are inevitably too close to their work to gauge its worth without their opinions being tainted by the trials and tribulations of the recording process and the mauling of critics.

The record’s sleeve is striking in its simplicity: a long-shot of the band huddled around a camera which, like the band members’ gazes, focuses squarely on you, the record buyer. Are The Doors scrutinizing their audience, trying to size them up? For much of their career the band had appealed as much to a pop audience as to the acid-dropping hippie revolutionary, so trying to second guess the expectations of such a diverse fan base was all but impossible. What better excuse to give their creativity free rein?

With The Soft Parade, Morrison had finally, explicitly revealed himself to be the counter-culture Sinatra. Always equal parts crooner and blues howler, Morrison’s regard for the Italian-American singer was well established. His suggestion that Sinatra record a cover of You’re Lost Little Girl in the light of his troubled marriage to Mia Farrow fell on deaf ears, but would undoubtedly have been an inspired song choice for Old Blue Eyes.

So, what of the music? For many, the most contentious aspect of The Soft Parade’s sonic tapestry is the introduction of, and heavy reliance on, horns and strings. And certainly, the opening horn blast of Tell All The People must have been a shock to long-term fans. Sinatra’s influence on Morrison is immediately obvious. However, within  the soulful lounge-rock stew is a potent, Robbie Krieger-penned call to arms.

Touch Me, the first single from the LP, is a jazzy, swinging tune with deft organ / drum interplay. Morrison sounds bored, or perhaps just drunk, but there is no denying how infectious the tune is. Shaman’s Blues has a sound that is instantly recognisable as The Doors. The horns have taken the night off, a darker, more intense Morrison is in the vocal booth and Robbie Krieger’s labyrinthine guitar, Ray Manzarek’s carnival organ and John Densmore’s inch perfect jazz drumming combine in a waltz-time concoction that must surely have been a huge influence on The Stranglers' Golden Brown. 

Do It would be as throwaway as many reviews suggest if it were not for the usual telepathic interplay between drums, organ and guitar. Easy Ride is a drunken Benny Hill Show hoedown and not nearly as bad as that description might suggest, whereas Wild Child has that woozy, unsettling, hypnotic, off-kilter rhythm of classic Doors. What am I saying? This is classic Doors. Morrison’s commanding voice is beautifully complemented by Robbie Krieger’s haunting, stoned slide guitar. The horns make their return for Runnin’ Blue in which fiddle and mandolin combine with Krieger’s hillbilly vocal for a love it or loathe it chorus. A middle eight that’s as dark as the chorus is hokey make this a song of contrasts (and so much the better for it.) Wishful Sinful is more wistful than wishful, with a string section lending a melancholy beauty to the piece. Someone in The Doors camp had almost certainly been listening to what Arthur Lee had been doing on Alone Again Or.

The centrepiece of the album is the title track. Clocking in at just shy of nine minutes, it is an unhinged, Morrison-penned album-within-an-album. Following the dreamy Wishful Sinful with The Soft Parade demonstrates just how masterful the track sequencing is on this LP. Only by listening to the album as a whole can it really be appreciated. iTunes cherry picking cannot do it justice. The track starts with a Morrison rant against delusional God-bothering (“you cannot petition the Lord with prayer”), then tumbles into a harpsichord lullaby which in turn morphs into a lysergic funk interlude before reverting to jazzy lullaby mode. The darker side of Morrison returns with some exquisitely obtuse lyrics (“the monk bought lunch”)  beneath which John Densmore’s drums steer proceedings towards a conga and organ groove-fest. Morrison becomes increasingly strident and impassioned over the band’s dirty, swamp-funk backdrop until his multi-tracked vocals, sounding like the bickering voices of a schizophrenic, take the song to its climax: “when all else fails we can whip the horse’s eyes and make them sleep, and cry” intones the Lizard King in gloriously cryptic fashion. What does it mean? Who cares? Would you really rather hear another lyric about how my baby done me wrong? This track is a true nugget, and not of the turkey variety either!

In the context of Janis Joplin’s post-Big Brother recordings and what Arthur Lee was doing in Love, The Soft Parade album makes perfect sense. Sadly, Jim Morrison’s reputation as an incoherent, drunken buffoon probably did more to harm critical perception of The Doors than their most challenging music ever could. Would The Doors’ body of work really have been enriched if this LP had never been made? Absolutely not! It would be much the poorer for its absence.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Tonar Wetgoat Vinyl Hygiene

It's hard to get too excited about a record cleaning brush, but if you're in the market for a brush to wet-clean your records, this could be of interest to you. Those of you who have read my review of the Moth Mk II Pro record cleaning machine will know that I have been using a Parastat record cleaning brush with my RCM. Whilst this has been very effective, I always wondered what reasonably priced modern brushes were readily available, and how they might compare.

There are dozens of brushes on the market, all with their own loyal supporters. Most of these I have rejected either because they are prohibitively expensive or because they wouldn't suit my cleaning regime on a practical level. I need a brush that is not only the same width as an LP, but that has similar dimensions to the slot on my RCM's vacuum suction pipe. I vacuum my brush clean and free of dirt and excess moisture after cleaning every side of vinyl, to avoid any cross-contamination; if the brush's bristles won't fit in the vacuum slot, then they're not going to get very clean. The Parastat satisfied this requirement, and so does my new Tonar Wetgoat cleaning brush. It's amazing how many supposedly purpose-made brushes don't.

The Tonar brush looks as attractive as could be reasonably expected of a mundane tool. At least the manufacturers have made an effort with the business-like colour and logo. Ergonomically, the Tonar brush is well designed: its generously-sized handle is comfortable to hold and helps to ensure that it doesn't slip from your grip during use. It could have been improved further by rounding off the sharp edges and corners of the brush's plastic body, but with careful use this shouldn't pose any problems.

The handle of this brush isn't as wide as the Parastat's which means that it can't be stood up when not in use. I always found it useful to be able to stand the Parastat on its spine when I needed my hands free to flip a record over. This prevented contamination of the bristles. The Tonar addresses this problem, after a fashion, by having a stepped body that, when lain logo-side down, lifts the bristles off whatever flat surface the brush is resting on. Whether this is an intentional function of design or a happy accident, I couldn't say.

Of course, the big selling point of the Tonar is that it has goat hair bristles. Being a natural fibre helps to prevent the kind of static build-up often associated with man-made fibres. The bristles are surprisingly soft - they must have come from one easy-living, well-groomed goat! - but seem to find a happy middle ground between being kind to your records and tough on ingrained crud. Because they are shorter than the bristles in the Parastat, this lends them the necessary rigidity and the structural integrity and strength to reach deep into the record grooves. In my experience, the Tonar has occasionally shed a hair, particularly when first used, but these are fine enough to be vacuumed away.

As far as doing what it is designed to do, that is, clean records, I can't see much difference between the results achieved by the Tonar and the Parastat: they both do an effective job. I would guess that the bristles of the Tonar are finer, so perhaps get a little deeper into the grooves, but I'm not hearing any night and day difference between the quality of playback after cleaning with the Tonar as opposed to the Parastat. The biggest difference is one of practicality: with heavy use, the Parastat's wooden body would begin to absorb some of the cleaning fluid from the wet bristles and was prone to swelling. On occasions this necessitated a repair when the handle came apart at its glued seams. There is no such problem with the plastic bodied Tonar brush.

The Parastat has served me well for years. The Tonar seems to be its equal, but only time will tell whether it continues to function at the same high level. One concern is that, being a natural fibre, the goat hair bristles might, over time (because natural fibres are more absorbent than man-made ones), become harder to keep clean. But at £13.99 from various vendors on eBay, giving the Tonar a try isn't going to break the bank.

Monday, 7 September 2015

Haunted By Vinyl Ghosts

On Saturday it was the annual street sale 'round my neck of the woods: a chance for local residents to set up a stall outside their home and sell, well, whatever takes their fancy, so long as it's legal. It's an opportunity to wander the streets, say 'hi' to a few unfamiliar faces, pick up that jar of homemade jam that you never realised you needed and let your kids root through the piles of Nerf guns, Horrid Henry books and loom bands that other people's kids have outgrown. It's a pleasant way of spending an hour which, ordinarily, finds me stocking up on DVDs of films that I've never got around to watching and am too tight to pay proper money for. This year I didn't find any DVDs I wanted. This year I found records!

The kids had got their Nerf guns, Mrs Shelf-Stacker had her jam and, just when it looked like I was going home empty-handed, a box of vinyl appeared, perched on a wall outside the local church. Any fears that I was about to spend a fruitless sixty seconds flipping through James Last and Tijuana Brass LPs were quickly allayed by the sight of Dylan's Blood On The Tracks peeking over the end of the box. It happens so often: I spend ages hunting for an LP, then when I find one (during our holiday to the States in the case of the Dylan classic), another crops up almost immediately, in pristine condition. Still, it had to auger well for the rest of the box, right? Too right!

Unless I needed an upgrade copy, I ignored albums I already owned, and grabbed LPs by artists including Captain Beefheart, Tim Hardin, Jimi Hendrix, The Band, Julian Priester, Jan Garbarek, The Ramones and Bob Marley. Seventy quid for seventeen albums: not give-away prices, but what's that, just over £4.00 each? Even before I got home and checked what Record Collector's Rare Record Price Guide had to say about the Artwoods' Art Gallery LP that made up part of my stash, I knew that it was quite a find. Irrespective of value, I was excited at the thought of hearing an album featuring Ron Wood's older brother, a young, pre-Purple Jon Lord and Keef Hartley. As it happens, I'd landed an extremely well-preserved first pressing of an album that, in mint condition, is worth £700.

But that's just half the story: by a weird and heart-warming coincidence - one that makes me think these LPs were destined to come home with me - it transpires that the gent who sold them to me, lived, some twenty years ago, in the house that I now call home. To think that the sounds on each of these records reverberated around these exact same walls all those years ago! After two decades of having been boxed up and moved from house to house (both here and in the USA), like wandering spirits these LPs have returned to haunt the very rooms where their sonic spell was first cast. It's enough to make me believe that every record has a soul. I'm listening to Jan Garbarek's Dansere as I type this - one of the most haunting and achingly beautiful pieces of music I've heard in a long time - and imagining the bricks and mortar of my man-cave welcoming the vibrations emanating from the disc like long-lost friends.