Soul / R&B

Stevie Wonder – Fulfillingness’ First Finale

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  • Finding the right balance between Tubey Magical Richness and Transparency is the trick, and we think this copy strikes that balance as well as any pressing we’ve heard
  • Boogie On Reggae Woman and You Haven’t Done Nothing were the big hits but the other tracks on the album are where the real Stevie Wonder MAGIC can be found
  • 4 1/2 stars [but we give it 5]: “The songs and arrangements are the warmest since Talking Book, and Stevie positively caresses his vocals on this set, encompassing the vagaries of love, from dreaming of it (“Creepin'”) to being bashful of it (“Too Shy to Say”) to knowing when it’s over (“It Ain’t No Use”).”
  • We’ve recently compiled a list of records we think every audiophile should get to know better, along the lines of “the 1001 records you need to hear before you die,” but with less of an accent on morbidity and more on the joy these amazing audiophile-quality recordings can bring to your life. Fulfillingness’ First Finale is a good example of a record most audiophiles don’t know well but should.
  • If you’re a Stevie Wonder fan, and what audiophile wouldn’t be?, this title from 1974 is clearly one of his best, his two best in our opinion, just a tad behind his masterpiece, Inner Visions
  • The complete list of titles from 1974 that we’ve reviewed to date can be found here.

We’re big fans of Stevie here at Better Records, but it’s always a challenge to find good sound for his albums. Tons of great songs here, including the ones everybody knows, Boogie On Reggae Woman and You Haven’t Done Nothing. Both sound WONDERFUL on this pressing.

But…

For the first time in my life, over the course of the last five years or so I’ve really gotten to know the album well, having found a CD at a local store to play in the car (and now I also have a cassette to play in my Walkman while working out).

I’ve listened to Fulfillingness’ First Finale scores of times. I now see that it is some of the best work Stevie Wonder ever did, right up there with Innervisions and ahead of any other Stevie Wonder album, including Talking Book and Songs in the Key of Life.

The best songs on the album to my mind are the quieter, more heartfelt and emotional ones, not the rockers or funky workouts. My personal favorites on side one are: Smile Please. Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away, Too Shy to Say and Creepin’, which, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, are all the songs that weren’t hits.

On side two the two slowest songs are the ones I now like best: It Ain’t No Use & They Won’t Go When I Go (famously and brilliantly covered by George Michael on Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 in 1990). (more…)

Sly and The Family Stone – Greatest Hits

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  • An INCREDIBLE pressing of this nearly perfect Sly record, with Nearly Triple Plus (A++ to A+++) sound throughout – just shy of our Shootout Winner
  • The sound is huge – big, wide, deep, and open, with a punchy bottom end and rhythmic energy to spare, as well as cleaner, smoother, sweeter upper mids and a more extended top
  • You will find real high-resolution sound on this pressing, not the congestion, opacity and smear you would expect from a greatest hits compilation
  • 4 1/2 stars: “This summarizes their first four albums perfectly, adding the singles ‘Hot Fun in the Summertime,’ ‘Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),’ and ‘Everybody Is a Star,’ possibly the loveliest thing they ever recorded… Greatest hits don’t come better than this — in fact, music rarely does.”

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 the opacity and blur you would expect from a greatest hits compilation.

Also, and just as importantly, you lose the sibilance most copies suffer from and the smear on the horns goes away, thank goodness.

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Sade – Stronger Than Pride

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  • INSANELY GOOD Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) sound throughout, making this one of the best copies to ever hit the site — exceptionally quiet vinyl too
  • The better copies such as this one have the uncanny ability to bring a living, breathing, oh-so-sultry Sade Adu (age 29) right into your listening room
  • This import – forget the veiled, closed-in domestic pressings and whatever crappy Heavy Vinyl poseur may be in print – will bring Sade to life right in your very own listening room
  • “Sade demonstrated some intensity and fire on her third release… she had more animation in her delivery on such songs as ‘Haunt Me,’ ‘Give It Up,’ and the hit ‘Paradise.'”

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Prince – Around The World In A Day

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  • This original Paisley Park pressing boasts excellent Double Plus (A++) sound or BETTER from start to finish – exceptionally quiet vinyl too
  • These sides are BIGGER and RICHER and have more of the rock solid energy that’s missing from the average copy
  • Clean and clear and open are nice qualities to have, but rich and full are harder to come by on this record – but here they are!
  • “It wasn’t remotely a sequel to Purple Rain. On first listen, it was instantly clear that the album was a dramatic left-turn, with none of the flashy guitar and few of the pop hooks. The sound was bright and sweet, as opposed to low-end raunch. If Prince had streamlined and rocked up his approach for global domination, now he was creating something more intimate, cerebral, and challenging… a brave and deeply personal project, exploring sounds and ideas that were almost shocking coming from a pop icon at his peak.”

The best copies sound pretty much the way the best copies of most Classic Rock records sound: tonally correct, rich, clear, sweet, smooth, open, present, lively, big, spacious, Tubey Magical, with breathy vocals and little to no spit, grit, grain or grunge.

That’s the sound of analog, and the best copies of this title have that sound.

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The Vintage Sound of The Genius After Hours

charlgeniusMore of the Music of Ray Charles

Yet Another Record We’ve Discovered with (Potentially) Excellent Sound

Proof positive that there is nothing wrong with remastering vintage recordings if you know what you’re doing. These sessions from 1956 (left off of an album that Allmusic liked a whole lot less than this one) were remastered in 1985 and the sound — on the better copies mind you — is correct from top to bottom.

The highest compliment I can pay a copy such as this is that it doesn’t sound like a modern record. It sounds like a very high quality mono jazz record from the ’50s or ’60s. Unlike modern recuts it doesn’t sound EQ’d in any way. It doesn’t lack ambience the way modern records do. It sounds musical and natural the way modern records almost never do.

If not for the fairly quiet vinyl you would never know it’s not a vintage record. The only originals we had to play against it were too noisy and worn to evaluate critically. They sounded full, but dark and dull and somewhat opaque (hey, there’s that modern remastered sound we’ve all been hearing for years!).

And although it is obviously a budget reissue, it sure doesn’t sound cheap to these ears.

Tender Loving Care?

Was it remastered with great care, or did the engineer just thread up the tape on a high-quality, properly calibrated deck and say “Nice, sounds good, let her rip.”? Either explanation works for me, because I really don’t care who made the record or how much work they put into it. In the case of The Genius After Hours it seems they found the real master tape and just did their job right, the way mastering engineers — well, some of them anyway — had been doing for decades.

A scant ten years later Bernie Grundman, a true Hall of Famer, started cutting for Classic Records and ruined practically every tape handed to him.

Our explanation? We don’t have one! We played the records and reported our findings. We sold the ones we thought sounded good to us and didn’t bother with the rest.

Just like we’re doing now. The biggest difference here is that we are evaluating a single copy, with these specific qualities, and guaranteeing that you either love it or you get your money back.

Something to Keep in Mind

The first copy of the album I got my hands on and needle-dropped blew me away with its big, clear, solid mono sound. Close to a year later when we had enough copies to do this shootout, sure enough it won. That rarely happens — in a big pile of records there’s almost always something better than whatever we’ve heard — but it happened this time.

Imagine if I had played one of the bad sounding or noisy ones to start with. It’s unlikely I would have been motivated to pursue the title and consequently the shootout we just did would never have happened. Lucky for us all that that first copy was so good.

Side One

Big and clear with a very solid piano and all its harmonic overtones. What piano recording from 1956 sounds like this? None that I know of. And it’s Ray Charles at the keys!

Side Two

The exceptionally dynamic brass that comes jumping out of the soundfield is nonetheless warm and full – what a great sound!

There’s much more space here than on most copies, making it sound less mono.

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Commodores – Natural High

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  • A STUNNING copy of the band’s 1978 release, with Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) sound from top to bottom – exceptionally quiet vinyl too
  • Spacious, full-bodied and Tubey Magical with a solid bottom end and driving rhythmic energy, this is the right sound for this music
  • “… even if ‘Three Times a Lady’ isn’t your cup of tea, Natural High still has a lot to offer R&B fans. ‘X-Rated Movie,’ ‘Such a Woman,’ and ‘I Like What You Do’ are exhilarating examples of hardcore funk, and those who appreciate artists like Heatwave and the Brothers Johnson will find a lot to admire about ‘Fire Girl’ and ‘Flying High’ (both of which are sleek examples of the sophisticated funk style).” 

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Jimmy Witherspoon – Handbags and Gladrags

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  • An outstanding copy with Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) sound or very close to it from start to finish
  • Both sides here are super big, rich and lively with tons of extension on both ends
  • Exceptionally quiet vinyl throughout with both sides playing Mint Minus to Mint Minus Minus

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Flack / Hathaway – Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway

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  • An outstanding copy, with Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) grades throughout, making this the best copy to hit the site in many years!
  • There’s Tubey Magic, sweetness and spaciousness all over this recording – when it all comes together on Where Is The Love, you won’t believe how good it sounds
  • One of our favorite duet albums, Flack and the woefully underrated Soul Man Donny Hathaway are in top form here
  • Allmusic raves: “A duet classic, and perhaps the most popular album Roberta Flack made. ‘Where Is the Love’ dominated urban contemporary radio for almost the entire year, while ‘You’ve Got a Friend’ was just as influential…”

These soulful duets sound wonderful. The best sides are big, bold, open and transparent with a huge three-dimensional soundfield, strong presence, good rhythmic energy, and wonderfully dynamic leads and choruses. (more…)

Bill Withers – Menagerie

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  • With two nearly Triple Plus (A++ to A+++) sides, this copy is close to the BEST we have ever heard, right up there with our Shootout Winner
  • Big, rich and smooth — this is vintage analog after all ** this is just the right sound for this music
  • Includes Withers’ signature hit, “Lovely Day” as well as “Lovely Night For Dancing”
  • 4 1/2 stars: “Where his Sussex material was slyly eclectic, touching on a number of different styles, this album is more cohesive, a smooth album that points the way toward quiet storm while retaining a warm soulfulness, largely due to Withers’ wonderful voice.”

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Earth, Wind and Fire – Raise!

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  • A KILLER sounding copy with Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) sound from the first note to the last
  • These sides are doing it all right — big, full-bodied and wonderfully present with tons of space around all of the players
  • Exceptionally quiet vinyl throughout — Mint Minus to Mint Minus Minus
  • “With each new album, Earth, Wind and Fire remain relatively true to their original sound: elaborate, neatly orchestral funk, influenced equally by American and African sources. But the band also keeps its ear to the radio. Accordingly, Raise! reflects the current wave of street-gritty black pop, from Lakeside to Rick James. Most of the tracks crank up the bass and feature rattling percussion that scrapes against the beat.” – Rolling Stone

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