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Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises with advice on What to Listen For (WTLF) as you critically evaluate your copy of Heart Like a Wheel.
A key test on either side was to listen to all the multi-tracked guitars and see how easy it was to separate each of them out in the mix. Most of the time they are just one big jangly blur. The best copies let you hear how many guitars there are and what each of them is doing.
Pay special attention to Andrew Gold’s Abbey Road-ish guitars heard throughout the album. He is all over this record, playing piano, guitar, percussion and singing in the background. If anybody deserves credit besides Linda for the success of HLAW, it’s Andrew Gold.
In-Depth Track Commentary
You’re No Good
Right from the git-go, if the opening drum and bass intro on this one doesn’t get your foot tapping, something definitely ain’t right. Check to make sure your stereo is working up to par with a record you know well. If it is, your copy of HLAW belongs on the reject pile along with the other 90% of the copies ever pressed.
It Doesn’t Matter Anymore
Amazing acoustic guitars! Lots of tubey magic for a mid-’70s pop album. And just listen to the breathy quality of Linda’s voice. She’s swimming in echo, but it’s a good kind of echo. Being able to hear so much of it tells you that your pressing is one of the few with tremendous transparency and high resolution.
Another superb arrangement with excellent sound. The banjo that opens this track is key — the picking should have a very strong plucky quality, with lovely trailing harmonics, even some fret buzz. So many copies are veiled or blunted sounding; this clearly demonstrates a lack of transient information. The copies without the trailing harmonics lack resolution. Once you hear either of these problems on the banjo, you can be sure to find them on the voices and guitars throughout the side.
That the Cisco pressing doesn’t do a very good job with the banjo should be clear for all to hear. If you want the sound of the real thing only the best Capitol pressings are going to give it to you.
The Dark End of the Street
We love the meaty, dark and distorted guitars at the opening of this one; really sets the tone.
When Will I Be Loved?
This presumptive Hit Single has lots of multi-tracked instruments crammed into its mix, a mix which is ready for radio and plenty processed and compressed to suit the Top 40 format. What that means for us audiophiles is not that the sound will be bad, rather that it will have a set of sonic characteristics in common with most of the original pressings: a little grit, yes, that is to be expected, but what one hears more often than not is a murky, dark, muddy quality to the midrange.
It’s the rare copy that presents a breathy, present , clear Linda Ronstadt on this track. Which is why it’s a great test track. If this track sounds right you can be pretty sure that everything that follows will too (up to a point naturally).
I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love With You)
This track has the lovely and talented Emmylou Harris on harmony vocal. Between her and Linda cthere is a great deal of midrange and upper midrange energy on this track which will tend to strain on most copies.
Is that strain the result of bad mastering? Bad pressing quality? Bad vinyl? Some combination of all three? No one can say, and what difference does it make anyway? The proof of the pudding is in the eating. The proof of a good sounding side two is right there on track three. If there’s anything unnatural in the midrange, this song will not be a pleasant listening experience for you, dear reader.
Keep Me from Blowing Away
Linda’s voice here is sweet as honey. On the best copies this one should sound transparent and quite natural. Linda excels at this kind of song, but she stopped doing material like this soon after this album came out. That’s about the time I lost interest in her.
You Can Close Your Eyes
This is one of my all time favorite James Taylor songs. Linda does a lovely version of it here; a superb arrangement with sound to match. What a great ending for the album, with her old buddies The Eagles backing her up. It really takes you out on a high note.
Val Garay Is The Man
VAL GARAY is the man behind so many of our favorite recordings: James Taylor’s JT (a Top 100 title), Simple Dreams (also a Top 100 title), Andrew Gold, Prisoner In Disguise, etc. They all share his trademark super-punchy, jump-out-the-speakers, rich and smooth ANALOG sound. With BIG drums — can’t forget those. (To be clear, only the best copies share it. Most copies only hint at it.)
I don’t think Mr Garay gets anything like his due with audiophiles and the reviewers who write for them. This is a shame; the guy makes Demo Disc Quality Pop Records about as good as those kinds of records can be made. If you have a Big System that really rocks you owe it to yourself to get to know his work. This is truly a KNOCKOUT disc if you have the equipment for it. We do, and it’s records like this that make the effort and expense of building a full-range dynamic system worthwhile.
To be fair, Heart Like a Wheel is never going to make anybody’s Top 100 Greatest Sounding Rock Records list, and certainly not ours. The other records we mention above clearly sound better than HLAW. Did Garay engineer better sounding recordings as he gained studio experience? Was Hassinger’s role helpful or hurtful? How about Peter Asher’s contribution? Did The Record Plant have better equipment by the time Prisoner in Disguise was recorded?
These questions will probably never be answered. The one thing we do know is that HLAW is not the equal of the better Ronstadts and the killer James Taylor recordings that came along later in the decade. Musically, for Ronstadt, yes. The album is clearly her masterpiece, a Hot Stamper copy of which deserves a place in every right-thinking audiophile’s collection.3