Genre – Rock – Singer / Songwriter

Carole King – Tapestry – Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?

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Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises with specific advice on What to Listen For (WTLF) as you critically evaluate your copy of Tapestry.

Notice how the third track on side two, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, which Carole wrote when she was only eighteen and which became a big hit for The Shirelles, is actually the best sounding song on the entire album.

I have a theory that this song was recorded toward the end of the sessions, and the reason it sounds so good is that it took them until then to figure out how to do it. This is no Demo Disc by any means. The recording itself seems to have shortcomings of every kind from track to track. Perhaps as they made their way through the sessions they were learning from their mistakes, mistakes that no one could go back and fix without starting from scratch all over again, and by the time they got to this track they had it all figured out. Of course that is just a guess, nothing but speculation on my part. Regardless of the cause, see if you don’t hear what I’m talking about. 

What to Listen For (WTLF)

One of the most telling qualities that the best copies displayed is the ability to hear through the mix to Carole’s piano, which is often placed toward the back of the mix, underpinning the music, not playing a prominent role. The best copies really let you follow her all the way through every song, no matter how quietly she is playing or how far back in the mix she may be. If the pressing has a thinner sound, obviously it’s easy to pick up on the precussive nature of the instrument. The trick is to hear the full range of notes, and for that you need fullness and transparency.

Carole, We Love You

We went nuts for this album during our big shootout. Since most of the time we’re playing testosterone-fueled, raging classic rock, it was a nice change of pace for us — and certainly easier on our poor eardrums! Our man JT makes an appearance playing acoustic guitar on a number of tracks, most notably You’ve Got A Friend, and his pals Russ Kunkel and Danny Kootch turn up too, with Kootch handling most of the electric guitar duties.

What’s surprising, if you haven’t played this album in a while, is how good non-hit tracks like “Home Again” can be. But there aren’t many of those non-hits on this album, and that’s a good thing; almost every song was a hit or received a lot of radio play. The quality of the material is that good.

Joni Mitchell – Court And Spark – Rating the DCC LP

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Sonic Grade: B

The DCC — Not Bad! 

Steve’s version is very musical; it’s rich and natural sounding, which of course makes it very enjoyable. You can do a lot better but you sure can do a lot worse. Opaque, veiled, lifeless, dull sound is the norm for Court and Spark — most copies are dead as a doornail. If they’re not dead, they’re likely to be thin and gritty. The DCC is a big improvement over the average domestic pressing. (The original Brit imports are fairly competitive with the DCC; the later Brits with the K catalog numbers suck as a rule.)

The Nautilus Half-Speed is pretty but lifeless, like so many of their pressings. I would grade it about a C. Don’t waste your money.

But Nothing Beats a Hot Stamper, Right?

Right.

As we are so fond of pointing out, the real thing just can’t be beat. Now is this a case where a little bump around three thousand cycles is fooling us into believing we are hearing more breath in Joni’s voice, more space around her piano? Is it adding more definition to all the instruments in the wonderfully complex orchestral passage at the heart of Down to You? Is that what it is, a click or two on the old Equalizer?

We’ll let you be the judge. We obviously don’t think so. Our Hot Stamper copies do everything better. The bass is better: tighter, punchier, with more note-like definition. The top end is better: more extended and airier. There’s more weight to the lower mids and upper bass without sounding overly rich or bloated. It can’t all be caused by a 3k bump then, right?

Right.

Now that we’ve addressed that logical fallacy, let’s talk about some of the real issues at play with Court and Spark.

Vinyl Issues

It is the rare copy that plays Mint Minus on either side. Most are Mint Minus to Mint Minus Minus, and almost every copy has some noise at the beginning of side one, which as you recall opens with a solo piano.

This Copy Rocks

This copy has it all: the kind of transparency that allows you to see into the soundfield like never before; presence and immediacy in Joni’s breathy, emotional vocals; air and ambience around all the instruments; and tubey magical guitars. (Listen especially to the electric guitar on Down To You. That’s the sound we love here at Better Records! Even if your system is all transistor, that guitar will sound like you own the best tube equipment in the world.)

But not tubey mush — the trumper on Trouble Child has a nice clear tone to it, with its leading edge transients rendered correctly; not the smeary sound of an old Mac, but the clarity of transistors. On the same record!

We Know That Sound — It’s The Master Tape!

What you hear is the sound of the real tape; every instrument has its own character, because the mastering is correct and the vinyl — against all odds — managed to capture all (or almost all; who can know?) of the resolution that the recording had to offer.

Bottom Line?

It’s awesome. One of the handful of records by Joni that belong in any serious record collection, and an absolute must own for audiophiles.

Jackson Browne’s Late for the Sky – This Kind of Clarity Quickly Wears Out Its Welcome

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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 Late for the Sky. 

It’s not easy to find copies that get the tonal balance right the way the best copies do. Most err in one of two ways — either they’re rich, full and a little veiled, or they’re clear and transparent, but leaned-out and boosted.

The clear ones of course are the ones that initially fool you — they present an illusion of transparency because everything is easy to hear right from the get-go, but they quickly wear out their welcome with their more “modern”, leaner sound.

The choruses are telling here. With so many background singers, the size and weight and energy of the singers only comes through on the copies that are full and rich.

What Else to Listen For (WETLF?)

The jug on Walking Slow — you gotta love it!

Jackson Browne’s Debut – What to Listen For

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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 Jackson Browne’s first (and best) album. 

The real trick with this album is in striking the right balance between richness and presence. A White Hot Stamper from years back made me change my mind about this recording. I used to think it was dull, but I was wrong. I used to think that even the best copies of this recording sounded rolled off on the top end. I no longer believe that to be true. On the best pressings the top end is correct for this music.

It took the right pressing to show me the error of my ways. (more…)

Rickie Lee Jones on Rhino Heavy Vinyl – Not My Idea of Good Sound

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Sonic Grade: C

We were fairly unimpressed with the Rickie Lee Jones on Warners that came out a few years back. It has that phony Modern Mastering sound we find so unappealing on the Rhino reissue of Blue. (We seem to be pretty much alone in not liking that one, and we’re proud to say we still don’t like it. Hey, play The Blue Game and maybe you’ll see why.)

We liked the new Sweet Baby James Hoffman and Gray cut. We note in our review that “Hoffman and Gray can take pride in this Sweet Baby James. It’s some of the best work I’ve heard from them to date. If more DCC and Heavy Vinyl reissues sounded like this, we wouldn’t be so critical of them. Unfortunately they don’t, and there are scores of pages of commentary on the site to back up that statement for those of you interested in the subject.”

We went on to say “The amazing transparency and dynamic energy of the best originals will probably never be equalled by an audiophile pressing like this. (It hasn’t happened yet and we remain skeptical of the possibility.) Considering that this pressing is sure to beat most reissues, imports and such like, we have no problem heartily recommending it to our customers, especially at the price.” (more…)

The Piano Stylings of Carole King on Tapestry

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One quality that we had no trouble recognizing on the better copies was TRANSPARENCY. The more transparent copies made it possible to hear through the mix to Carole’s piano, which is usually placed toward the back of the mix. There it serves to underpin the music, playing more of a supporting role than a leading one, very unlike the piano on a Joni Mitchell album for example. 

The best copies let you easily follow Carole’s playing all the way through every song, from start to finish, no matter how quiet her part or how far back in the mix she may be placed.

If the pressing has a thinner sound obviously it becomes easier to pick up on the percussive nature of the instrument and “see” it more clearly. However, a thin piano tone on this album is the kiss of death. The best copies allow you to hear the full range of notes — including those played with the left hand — and for that you need both richness and transparency.

This is a tricky balancing act; rarely in our experience do any two copies find precisely the same balance throughout an entire side. (more…)

Carole King – Tapestry – An Album We Are Clearly Obsessed With

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TAPESTRY is an album we admit to being obsessed with — just look at the number of commentaries we’ve written about it.  

We love the album and we hope you do too. If you have some time on your hands — maybe a bit too much time on your hands — please feel free to check out our commentaries.

This link will take you to all of our other CAROLE KING albums.

Tapestry Testimonial

… I felt the earth move under my feet with this record …

Our good customer Roger (and, if he keeps this up, a future editor-at-large) recently purchased the cheapest Hot Stamper Tapestry ($150) from our mailing. As is his wont he proceeded to do his own shootout with the CBS Half-Speed. We told him in our listing it wasn’t any good but we’re glad to see he didn’t take out word for it. There is no subtitute for hearing a record on your own stereo, good or bad. (The record, not the stereo.) (more…)

Cat Stevens Asks: Light, Medium or Heavy on the Congas?

Teaser and the Firecat

 

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During the shootout for this record a while back we made a very important discovery, a seemingly obvious one but one that nevertheless had eluded us for the past twenty plus years (so how obvious could it have been?). It became clear, for the first time, what accounts for the wide disparity in ENERGY and DRIVE from one copy to the next. We can sum it up for you in one five letter word, and that word is conga.

The congas are what drive the high-energy songs, songs like Tuesday’s Dead and Changes IV. Here is how we stumbled upon their critically important contribution.

We were listening to one of the better copies during a recent shootout. The first track on side one, The Wind, was especially gorgeous; Cat and his acoustic guitar were right there in the room with us. The transparency, tonal neutrality, presence and all the rest were just superb. Then came time to move to the other test track on side one, which is Changes IV, one of the higher energy songs we like to play.

But the energy we expected to hear was nowhere to be found. The powerful rhythmic drive of the best copies of the album just wasn’t happening. The more we listened the more it became clear that the congas were not doing what they normally do. The midbass to lower midrange area of the LP lacked energy, weight and power, and this prevented the song from coming to LIFE the way the truly Hot Stampers can and do.

Big Speakers

For twenty years Tuesday’s Dead has been one of my favorite tracks for demonstrating what The Big Speaker Sound is all about. Now I think I better understand why. Big speakers are the only way to reproduce the physical size and tremendous energy of the congas (and other drums of course) that play such a big part in driving the rhythmic energy of the song.
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Listening in Depth to Paul Simon – Still Crazy After All These Years

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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 critically evaluate your copy of Still Crazy After All These Years.

As well-produced, well-engineered Pop Albums from the ’70s, the very best copies can proudly hold their heads high. Wait a minute. Our last commentary noted what a mess most of the pressings of this album sound like, with so much spit and grain. Have we changed our minds? Well, yes and no, and as usual we make no excuses for having changed our minds. We call it progress. (more…)

Listening in Depth to James Taylor – Sweet Baby James

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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 critically evaluate your copy of the album.

This White Hot Stamper is GUARANTEED to BLOW YOUR MIND, as James himself so famously sings on Steamroller here, and you can be sure that he never heard it sound any better on playback than it does here. This is truly Master Tape Sound — transparent, present and Tubey Magical, the kind of sound that only the best pressings from the era can lay claim to. If you’ve got the stereo to play it, this record may become your new favorite Demo Disc. Yes, it’s that good. (more…)