Genre – Soul / R&B

Otis Redding – The Dock of the Bay

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  • A stunning copy of The Dock of the Bay — Triple Plus (A+++) on the first side and Double Plus (A++) on the second
  • A well-recorded album, with sound that’s incredibly big, rich and Tubey Magical yet still clean, clear and spacious
  • About as quiet as we can find them, Mint Minus to Mint Minus Minus throughout – most copies we see are just wrecked
  • “…this is an impossible record not to love … Cropper chose his tracks well, selecting some of the strongest and most unusual among the late singer’s orphaned songs…” — All Music

This vintage Atco pressing has the kind of Tubey Magical Midrange that modern records cannot even begin to reproduce. Folks, that sound is gone and it sure isn’t showing any sign of coming back. (more…)

Sly and The Family Stone – Stand

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  • With stunning Triple Plus (A+++) sound on the first side and Double Plus (A++) on the second, this copy will be tough to beat!
  • Tired of the crude, congested, hard, harsh and otherwise unpleasant sound of most pressings? We have the answer
  • Stand, I Want To Take You Higher, Sing A Simple Song, Everyday People, You Can Make It If You Try — what a killer lineup of songs!
  • 5 stars: “Stand! is the pinnacle of Sly & the Family Stone’s early work, a record that represents a culmination of the group’s musical vision and accomplishment.”

Good News

Finally, a White Hot copy of Sly’s classic Stand album from 1969, one of the few times that this album has EVER sounded the way it is supposed to! Man, most copies of this album just plain suck — sonically of course.

Both sides here have lively punchy drums; a big soundfield, front to back and side to side; tonally correct vocals (which obviously are key and sound edgy and thin on most copies), and real resolution to the sound overall, not opaque and blurry as would be expected from most greatest hits compilations. Also just as importantly you lose the sibilance most copies suffer from and the smear on the horns goes away, thank goodness.

Finding clean copies was quite difficult; it took us a long time to get enough to play, and, as we said, most pressings are dreadful. Those of you who like to read our commentaries and play along at home are going to have a rough time with this title. We sure did, until we got it figured out. Now it’s easy as pie.

TRACK LISTING

Side One

Stand! 
Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey 
I Want To Take You Higher 
Somebody’s Watching You 
Sing A Simple Song

Side Two

Everyday People 
Sex Machine 
You Can Make It If You Try

AMG 5 Star Review

Stand! is the pinnacle of Sly & the Family Stone’s early work, a record that represents a culmination of the group’s musical vision and accomplishment. Life hinted at this record’s boundless enthusiasm and blurred stylistic boundaries, yet everything simply gels here, resulting in no separation between the astounding funk, effervescent irresistible melodies, psychedelicized guitars, and deep rhythms. Add to this a sharpened sense of pop songcraft, elastic band interplay, and a flowering of Sly’s social consciousness, and the result is utterly stunning.

Ray Charles – The Genius of Ray Charles

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  • One of the few copies to ever hit the site and boy is it KILLER — Triple Plus (A+++) sound on the second side and Double Plus (A++) on the first
  • The sound is incredibly rich, full and Tubey Magical with tons of energy and a nice extended top end
  • Robert Christgau noted that “Charles tried many times, but except for Modern Sounds, he never again assembled such a consistent album in this mode.”
  • “Charles’ voice is heard throughout in peak form, giving soul to even the veteran standards.”

Tom Dowd engineered on Ampex 3 Track through an All Tube chain (this is 1959 after all), Quincy Jones did the arrangements, and Ray sang the hell out of this great batch of songs — all the ingredients in a recipe for soul are here.

Top tracks on the first side: Let The Good Times Roll, It Had To Be You and When Your Lover Has Gone. (more…)

Earth, Wind, Fire and the Neverending Search for Balance

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Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises. As is usually the case when plowing through a big pile of copies, we learned pretty quickly that what makes the sound work is having these two qualities in balance:

1) Richness / Smoothness 
2) Transparency

When the vocals are thin and pinched, as they often are, the resulting edginess and harshness in the midrange take all the fun out of the music. Every track has group vocals and choruses, and the best copies make all the singers sound like they are standing in a big room, shoulder to shoulder, belting it out live and in living color.

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 and their voices (and brass) start to take on a lean or gritty quality, the party’s over.

But richness and fullness are not enough. They must be balanced with TRANSPARENCY. (more…)

David Bowie’s Young Americans – What to Listen For

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Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises with advice on what you should be listening for when critically evaluating your copy (or ours) of the album.

The average RCA copy of this album is bright, grainy and hard to some degree, like most RCA pressings I come across. If you’ve been stuck with an average copy, you’re not going to believe how smooth and sweet the best ones sound. 

This is one of my favorite Bowie albums. Nobody seems to care about it anymore. They dismiss it as disco junk, but it actually has some of his best music on it. I especially like the song Win. David Sanborn’s saxophone sounds like it’s coming from 60 feet behind Bowie, a nice effect.

Both sides here are AGAIG — As Good As It Gets, Master Tape Sound. The overall sound is open, spacious, and transparent with lots of DEEP bass. You can easily pick out all the background vocals, and Bowie’s voice sounds just right. The strings have amazing amounts of texture — you can really hear the sound of the rosin on the bow. The highs are silky sweet and the bottom end is punchy and powerful. You won’t believe how superb the cymbal crashes sound — you’re right there in the room with these guys! (more…)

War – Why Can’t We Be Friends?

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  • A stunning sounding copy and the best to hit the site in many years — Triple Plus (A++) sound throughout
  • Both sides here are incredibly lush, big and spacious with a huge bottom end, no smear and tons of energy
  • Extremely quiet for this title — Mint Minus to Mint Minus Minus
  • “Cut from the same cloth as the band’s 1973 Deliver the Word LP, War’s 1975 Why Can’t We Be Friends? is a masterpiece in its scope and breadth.” – All Music, 4 Stars

Low Rider sounds AWESOME on this one. This is the kind of record you can take to any stereo store or audiophile friend’s house and bring their stereos to their knees. Audiophile systems are rarely designed to play this kind of music at the levels it demands, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be. Records like this are the challenge we audiophiles need to make our stereos even better. When the music is this good it’s worth the effort!

Tonality Is Key

Tonality is key to the sound of any Hot Stamper, and this is no exception. The vocals are rich and full — so important! — with airy extension on the percussion that brings out all the harmonics and gets them right to boot. (Proper tape hiss is a dead giveaway for that quality.) The sound of the cowbells and timbales driving so much of the beat here are about as well recorded as any I have heard on a pop record. If you need more cowbell, this record has what you’re looking for.

If you have a Hot Stamper pressing of course. If you don’t, you still get tons of bass; almost every copy had plenty of bottom end. It might not be as note-like or punchy as the bass on the best copies, or go as low, but it’s good enough to get the job done.

But what exactly is The Job that needs doing? What is the record trying to do? What happens on the killer pressings that doesn’t on all the others?

Shootouts Tell You What to Listen For

As usually happens in these shootouts, we learned that there’s so much more to this album than just big bass. What really makes this music come alive on the best copies was the result of two qualities we found were in fairly short supply:

(1) Richness 
(2) Transparency

When the vocals sound thin and pinched as they do on so many copies of this album, possibly the result of the grainy crap vinyl UA is infamous for, that sour sound takes all the fun out of the music. Many tracks have group vocals and choruses, and the best copies make all the guys sound like they are standing in a big room, shoulder to shoulder, belting it out live and in living color. These are not classically trained singers. These are guys who love their music, who make up in enthusiasm what they lack in polish. I say more power to them. Smoke ’em if you got ’em and turn it up!

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 and their voices start to take on a lean or gritty quality, the party’s over. (Seriously; this album has a party atmosphere; it’s overflowing with fun energy. If you can’t play it loud enough to rock because the sound is fighting you with every click of the volume knob, what is the point of playing it all?)

Transparency and the Feeling of Reality

That’s one thing we learned from our shootout. The other was the importance of TRANSPARENCY. 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, timbales over there), but the transparency of the killer pressings makes them sound like they are all in the same room playing together. You hear their grunts and laughter way back in the mix, just as if you were at one of their concerts. (Which, considering all the drums and percussion, must have been an absolute blast!)

TRACK LISTING

Side One

Don’t Let No One Get You Down

This track has a fairly quiet intro, just guitar and bass, which is not exactly an ideal match with the UA vinyl that these original LPs are pressed on. There will always be some surface noise at the start, but once the rest of the band comes in, there’s so much going on that the surfaces are no longer much of a problem.

Lotus Blossom
Heartbeat
Leroy’s Latin Lament: Lonnie Dreams
The Way We Feel
La Fiesta
Lament

Side Two

Smile Happy
So
Low Rider
In Mazatlan
Why Can’t We Be Friends?

AMG Review

(By the way, we agree with practically every word of praise here. This guy is a fan and so are we!)

Cut from the same cloth as the band’s 1973 Deliver the Word LP, War’s 1975 Why Can’t We Be Friends? is a masterpiece in its scope and breadth. And, emerging as the last work the band would do for its longtime label, United Artists, it became a fitting swansong, powering up the charts and giving War its fourth and final number one hit. In recent years, the album has been overshadowed by the monstrously popular bass-beating and bright brass of its singular hit, “Low Rider.”

Indeed, the song would become the band’s signature theme, as the Latino street-cruiser jam quickly became a live set staple and, much later, was reinvigorated through sampling on songs by the Beastie Boys, Stereo MC’s, and Offspring. However, that one track, iconographic as it is, is by no means the only treat onboard Why Can’t We Be Friends? There are far more interesting and superb treats roiling in the wake of “Low Rider.” The snappy title track, which poses the question of the decade and, oddly, closes the album, is a feel-good thumper. Its bright brass punctuation and rakish vocals are wonderfully combined with an absolutely contagious reggae beat.

Then, add the doesn’t-get-much-better-than-that medley “Leroy’s Latin Lament.” Divided into four “songs,” the music swings from the smart vocal opening “Lonnie Dreams” to the effervescent Latin jam of “La Fiesta.” And, of course, where there’s War, there’s funk — this time on the seven-plus minute”Heartbeat.” Wrap it all up with the poignant ballad “Lotus Blossom,” and the result is pretty much perfection. Why Can’t We Be Friends? remains one of War’s truly outstanding efforts, and has become an integral part of the funk genre’s landscape. It also remains the nightcap of their finest hour. War’s ill-timed move to MCA changed the energy and focus of the band forever.

Bill Withers – Just As I Am

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  • Superb sound throughout with each side earning a solid Double Plus (A++)
  • Both sides here are big, open, spacious and super present with a solid bottom end
  • Many of his best songs are on here, such as ’Ain’t No Sunshine,’ ’Grandma’s Hands’ and ’Harlem’. 
  • “In a career laden with highlights and hallmarks in the annals of soul history, Just as I Am gets rather overlooked as one of the best soul debuts ever issued…” – All Music, 4 1/2 Stars

(more…)

Ray Charles – All Time Great Country and Western Hits

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  • A killer sounding copy with Double Plus (A++) sound or better on all four sides!
  • What was especially shocking about this shootout is that in some ways the best sounding copies of the reissue not just equal but best their original album counterparts 
  • Twenty-two songs on two LPs, including huge hits like I Can’t Stop Loving You, You Don’t Know Me, Oh Lonesome Me, Bye Bye Love, and much more – no wonder AMG gave both discs 5 stars
  • This is some big, bold, absolutely glorious Tubey Magical analog – the tape to disc transfer is Hard To Fault (HTF), making a mockery of the audiophile remasters to come

The music is wonderful. Just listen to that swingin’ horn section behind Ray on Hey, Good Lookin’. They are hot! And Bye Bye Love just plain ROCKS. (more…)

Ray Charles – Ingredients In A Recipe For Soul

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  • Insanely good sound throughout with both sides earning shootout winning Triple Plus (A+++) grades
  • These sides are doing it all right — richer, fuller, better bass, more Tubey Magic, and the list goes on!  
  • “The high points are very high — “Busted,” his hit reworking of a composition by country songwriter Harlan Howard, is jazzy and tough, and one of his best early-’60s singles…” – All Music

What the best sides of this Rhythm and Blues album from 1963 have to offer is not hard to hear: (more…)

Bill Withers – Still Bill – Surprisingly Well Recorded Soul

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  • A stunning sounding copy with a Triple Plus (A+++) side two and a solid Double Plus (A++) side one
  • Some of the best soul sound you’ll ever hear — incredibly natural, full-bodied and present
  • Excellent sound for the two hit singles — “Lean On Me” and “Use Me”.
  • Five Stars on Allmusic: “It’s warm and easily accessible, but it has a depth and complexity that reveals itself over numerous plays…”

This killer Sussex pressing was one of the best from our recent shootout. It positively massacred the other copies we put up against it with superb presence, top-notch clarity, full-bodied vocals and driving funky energy. I don’t think you could find a better sounding Bill Withers album no matter what you do. I wish there were more ’70s soul albums that sounded like this. (more…)