The soundstage and depth on our Hot Stamper copies is HUGE — this is without a doubt the most spacious recording by James Taylor we’ve ever heard. If you want your speakers to disappear, replaced by a huge studio full of musicians playing their hearts out, this is the album that can do it. But of course there’s a lot more to the sound of the best copies than a big soundstage. Tonality is key.
As usually happens in these shootouts, we learned that there’s so much more to this album than just great songs. What really makes this music work on the best copies was the result of two qualities we found were in fairly short supply:
(1): Correct Tonality.
Most copies have a phony MoFi-like top end boost in the 10k region that we found irritating as hell. The longer we listened the less we liked the copies that had that boost, which adds a kind of “sparkle” to cymbals and guitars that has no business being there.
Now if you’re a MoFi fan and you like the boosted highs that label is famous for, don’t waste your money buying a Hot Stamper copy from us. Our copies are the ones with the correct and more natural-sounding top end. The guitars will sound like real guitars and the voices will sound like real voices.
(2): Lower Midrange and Bottom End Weight
When the vocals sound thin, bright and phony, as they do on so many copies of this album (partly no doubt the result of the grainy crap vinyl Columbia is infamous for) that hi-fi-ish sound takes all the fun out of the music. Many tracks have background vocals and big choruses, and the best copies make all the singers sound like they are standing in a big room, shoulder to shoulder, with the full lower midrange weight that that image implies.
The good copies capture that energy and bring it into the mix with the full-bodied sound it no doubt had live in the studio. When the EQ or the vinyl goes awry, causing Taylor and crew’s voices to take on a lean or gritty quality, the party’s over.
Transparency and That Feeling of Reality
Transparency is always a big deal on pop recordings like this. Of course this has to be a multi-miked, multi-tracked, overdubbed pop record — they don’t make them any other way — but it doesn’t have to FEEL like one.
When you get a good copy it feels like all these guys are live in the studio. They may have their own mics, and are certainly being placed artificially in the soundfield to suit the needs of the track (kick drum here, hand-claps over there), but the transparency of the killer pressings makes them sound like they are all in the same room playing together, clearly occupying their own share of the space in the studio.
This is one of our favorite Taylor albums here at Better Records. It’s the last album by the man that bears any resemblance to the genius of his early work. It’s steeply, steeply downhill after DLHW. (Case in point: His specials for PBS of the last few years are a positive cure for insomnia, with every song slowed down and all the energy drained from the material.)
But he still had fire in his belly when he made this one — one listen to Stand and Fight is all the evidence you need; the song rocks as hard as anything the guy ever did. (And it’s got plenty of cowbell, always a good sign.)
…along these lines can be found below.Transparency, the other side of the Tubey Magical Richness coin, is key to the better pressings of this album as well as many of our other favorite demo discs.
Here are more records that will help you avoid listening for phony detail when evaluating equipment or tweaking your system.
The most important advice on the site can be found under the heading The Four Pillars of Success.
Record shootouts are the fastest and easiest way to hone your listening skills, a subject we discuss often on the site and directly address in this commentary from way back in 2005.
Here are more entries in our ongoing Shootout Advice series.
Her Town Too
Hour That the Morning Comes
I Will Follow
Believe It or Not
Stand and Fight
Only for Me
That Lonesome Road
James Taylor bounced back from the spotty Flag with this all-original album led by his collaboration with J.D. Souther on “Her Town Too,” his biggest pop hit since “Handy Man,” and his biggest non-cover hit since his first, “Fire And Rain,” in 1970. Also included were “Hard Times” and “Summer’s Here,” not to mention the unusually impassioned “Stand And Fight.”
Another was that new co-producer Brian Eno brought a musical unity that tied the album together, especially in terms of the rhythm section, the sequencing, the pacing, and the mixing. Where Talking Heads had largely been about David Byrne’s voice and words, Eno moved the emphasis to the bass-and-drums team of Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz; all the songs were danceable, and there were only short breaks between them.
Byrne held his own, however, and he continued to explore the eccentric, if not demented persona first heard on 77, whether he was adding to his observations on boys and girls or turning his ‘Psycho Killer’ into an artist in ‘Artists Only.’ Through the first nine tracks, More Songs was the successor to 77, which would not have earned it landmark status or made it the commercial breakthrough it became.
It was the last two songs that pushed the album over those hurdles. First there was an inspired cover of Al Green’s ‘Take Me to the River’; released as a single, it made the Top 40 and pushed the album to gold-record status.
Second was the album closer, ‘The Big Country,’ Byrne’s country-tinged reflection on flying over middle America; it crystallized his artist-vs.-ordinary people perspective in unusually direct and dismissive terms, turning the old Chuck Berry patriotic travelogue theme of rock & roll on its head and employing a great hook in the process.