Advice – What to Listen For – Track by Track

Graham Nash – Songs for Beginners – Listening in Depth

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Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises with advice on What to Listen For (WTLF) as you go about critically evaluating your copies of Songs for Beginners.

This is one helluva well recorded album. Most of the credit must go to the team of recording engineers, led here by the esteemed Bill Halverson, the man behind all of the Crosby Stills Nash and Young albums. Nash was clearly influenced by his work with his gifted bandmates, proving with this album that he can hold his own with the best of the best.

Some songs (We Can Change The World, Be Yourself) are grandly scaled productions with the kind of studio polish that would make Supertramp envious. For me, a big speaker guy with a penchant for giving the old volume knob an extra click or two, it just doesn’t get any better.

Others (Sleep Song, Wounded Bird) are quiet and intimate. Their subtlely is highlighted by the big productions surrounding them. This is that rare album in which every aspect of the production, from the arrangements to the final mix, serves to bring out the best qualities in the songs, regardless of scale.

The recording is of course superb throughout, in the best tradition of Crosby Stills and Nash’s classic early albums: transparent, smooth and sweet vocals, with loads of midrange magic ; deep punchy bass; lovely extension on the top to capture the shimmer of the cymbals and harmonic trails of the acoustic guitars; with the whole balanced superbly by one of our all-time heroes, Glyn Johns. (more…)

Jethro Tull’s Stand Up – Listening in Depth

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Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises

It’s very common for pressings of Stand Up to lack bass or highs, and more often than not they lack both. The bass-shy ones tend to be more transparent and open sounding — of course, that’s the sound you get when you take out the bass. (90 plus percent of all the audiophile stereos I’ve ever heard were bass shy, no doubt for precisely that reason: less bass equals more detail, more openness and more transparency. Go to any stereo store or audiophile show and notice how bright the sound is.) 

Just what good is a British Classic Rock Record that lacks bass? It won’t rock, and if it don’t rock, who needs it? You might as well be playing the CD. (more…)

Billy Joel – 52nd Street

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52nd Street

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A distinguished member of the Better Records Rock and Pop Hall of Fame.

Both of these copies have one killer A+++ side and one that just didn’t impress us, so we’ve paired them up to give you the best sound we possibly can for the entire album! This is in our opinion the Best Sounding Billy Joel Album, and when you hear this pressing you’ll understand exactly why. Super open and transparent with real detail and texture, they just don’t get any better than this. (more…)

Traffic – John Barleycorn Must Die

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John Barleycorn Must Die

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  • A stunning copy of this Traffic Classic with Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) sound from first note to the last 
  • Both sides have the vintage analog sound we love – rich and smooth, with plenty of Tubey Magic, bottom end weight and studio space
  • Arguably their best album, certainly their most groundbreaking, original and involving – Low Spark would rank a close second
  • “…the band sounds utterly grounded. As the grooves percolate effortlessly along, it becomes clear that unity, not any technical skill, is what makes the music levitate.”

This killer United Artists LP has the sound we love on Barleycorn (and pretty much any Classic Rock album from the era). It’s rich, smooth, sweet; in short, it has the sound you find only on the best vintage vinyl.

Note that we do not say “original” — some of our highest scoring copies were on the second, plain brown label. We believe the term vintage is more accurate. “Old” works well too for that matter. Stick with the stuff from the ’70s and you’ll save yourself a lot of grief (not to mention dough) chasing after the kind of analog sound that is found practically nowhere else. (more…)

Eno – Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy

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A distinguished member of the Better Records Rock Hall of Fame.

This is Eno’s Masterpiece as well as a Desert Island Disc for yours truly. On the right pressing this is a Twisted Pop Demo Disc like nothing you have ever heard. If you have a big speaker and the kind of high quality playback that is capable of unraveling the most complicated musical creations, with all the weight and power of live music, this is the record that will make all your audio effort and expense worthwhile.

That’s the kind of stereo I’ve been working on for forty years and this album just plain KILLS over here.

Art Rock

That being said, it may not be the kind of thing most music loving audiophiles will be able to make much sense of if they have no history with this kind of Art Rock from the ’70s. I grew up on Roxy Music, 10cc, Eno, The Talking Heads, Ambrosia, Supertramp, Yes and the like, bands that wanted to play rock music but felt shackled by the chains of the conventional pop song. This was and still is my favorite kind of music. (more…)

Steely Dan – The Royal Scam – Turning Aggressive Energy into Pure Excitement

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The Royal Scam

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Presenting another entry in our extensive Listening in Depth series.

We really went overboard with the track commentary for this one. This should make it easy for you to compare what we say about the sound of these songs with what they sound like to you on your system, using the copy you own or, better yet, one of our Hot Stampers. 

If you end up with one of our Hot Stampers, listen carefully for the effects we describe below. This is a very tough record to reproduce — everything has to be working in tip-top form to even begin to get this complicated music sounding the way it should — but if you’ve done your homework and gotten your system really cooking, you are in for the time of your Steely Dan life. (more…)

James Taylor – Sweet Baby James

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  • With two seriously good Double Plus (A++) sides, this copy was one of the best we played in our recent shootout – exceptionally QUIET vinyl too
  • Just listen to all that lovely echo – it’s a dead giveaway that both sides have resolving power far beyond the other copies you may have heard 
  • A Top 100 Title, inarguably a Masterpiece – Fire and Rain and Suite for 20 G (one of JT’s All Time Best) are out of this world here
  • 5 Stars: “Sweet Baby James launched not only Taylor’s career as a pop superstar but also the entire singer/songwriter movement of the early ’70s that included Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Jackson Browne, Cat Stevens, and others…”

Vocal reproduction is key to the best sounding copies of Sweet Baby James as it is on so many Folkie Pop Rock albums from the era.

To find a copy where Taylor’s vocals are front and center — which is exactly where they should be — but still rich, sweet, tonally correct and Tubey Magical is no mean feat. Only the best copies manage to pull it off. (more…)

Derek and the Dominos – Layla

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  • With a Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) side one and outstanding Double Plus (A++) sides two, three and four, this copy delivers top quality sound for this famously difficult recording – exceptionally quiet vinyl too! 
  • Some of our favorite Clapton songs are here: Bell Bottom Blues, Tell The Truth, Little Wing, Layla and Have You Ever Loved A Woman?
  • One of the most difficult albums to find audiophile sound for, but a lot easier for us now that we know what pressings can actually sound good
  • Clapton’s greatest album: “But what really makes Layla such a powerful record is that Clapton, ignoring the traditions that occasionally painted him into a corner, simply tears through these songs with burning, intense emotion.”

Outstanding sound for all four sides of this classic album. Unless you plan on playing a very big pile of copies you will be hard-pressed to find a copy with sound like this. (more…)

Airto – Fingers – Truly a Desert Island Disc

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A distinguished member of the Better Records Jazz Hall of Fame.

Fingers is one of our all time favorite records, a Desert Island disc to be sure. I’ve been playing this album for more than thirty years and it just keeps getting better and better. Truthfully it’s the only Airto record I like. I can’t stand Dafos, and most of the other Airto titles leave me cold. I think a lot of the credit for the brilliance of this album has to go to the Fattoruso brothers, who play keyboards, drums, and take part in the large vocal groupings that sing along with Airto. 

At times this record really sounds like what it is: a bunch of guys in a big room beating the hell out of their drums and singing at the the top of their lungs. You gotta give RVG credit for capturing so much of that energy on tape and transferring that energy onto a slab of vinyl. (Of course this assumes that the record in question actually does have the energy of the best copies. It’s also hard to know who or what is to blame when it doesn’t, since even the good stampers sound mediocre most of the time. Bad vinyl, worn out stampers, poor pressing cycle, it could be practically anything.) (more…)

10cc – Deceptive Bends – Listening in Depth

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Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises with specific advice on What to Listen For (WTLF) as you go about critically evaluating your copies of Deceptive Bends.

We’ve long been huge fans of this album both musically and sonically. It’s the kind of recording where the sound JUMPS out of the speakers. It reminds me of Crime Of The Century that way. It’s also one of the most DYNAMIC popular recordings I know of. If this album doesn’t wake up your system, it’s time to scrap it and start over! Musically it’s one of my all time favorite albums, a real Desert Island disc. 

One of the many elements that combine to push this album well beyond the bounds of most popular recordings is the thought and care that went into the soundstaging. Listen to the stereo separation on any track — the sound of each instrument has been carefully considered within the context of the arrangement and placed in a specific location within the soundfield for a reason — usually that reason is for MAXIMUM EFFECT.

That’s why we LOVE 10cc. Their recordings from this era are an audiophile dream come true. Compare that to some of the stereo mixes for the Beatles albums, where an instrument or vocal seems to panned to one channel or another not because it SHOULD be, but because it COULD be. With 10cc those hard-left, hard-right effects make the songs JUMP. They call attention to themselves precisely because the band is having a blast in the studio, showing off all the tricks they have up their sleeves. They want you to get as big a kick out of hearing them as they did conjuring them up. (more…)