Labels We Love – Mercury

The “Not-So-Golden-Age” of RCA, Mercury, London and More

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Another in our ongoing series of Random Thoughts on issues concerning music and recordings.

We ran into a number of copies of this title that had what we like to call that “Old Record” sound, which is surprisingly common on even the most revered Golden Age labels, RCA included.

No top, no real bottom, congested climaxes and a general shrillness to the sound — we’ve played Living Stereos by the dozens that have these shortcomings and many more.

Some audiophiles may be impressed by the average Shaded Dog pressing, but I can assure you that we here at Better Records are decidedly not of that persuasion. Something in the range of ten to fifteen per cent of the major label Golden Age recordings we play will eventually make it to the site. The vast majority just don’t sound all that good to us. (Many have second- and third-rate performances and those get tossed without ever making it to a shootout.)

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Tears For Fears – The Seeds Of Love – A Near Perfect Pop Masterpiece

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The band’s MAGNUM OPUS, a Colossus of Production to rival the greatest Prog, Psych and Art Rock recordings of all time. (Whew!)

When it comes to Genre Busting Rock I put this album right up at the top of the heap, along with several other landmark albums from the Seventies: Roxy Music’s first, The Original Soundtrack, Crime of the Century, Ambrosia’s first two releases, The Yes Album, Fragile, Dark Side of the Moon and a handful of others.

The Seeds Of Love is clearly the band’s masterpiece, and being able to hear it on a White Hot Stamper pressing is nothing short of a THRILL.

I have a long history with this style of Popular Music, stretching all the way back to the early ’70s. I grew up on Bowie, Roxy Music, 10cc, Eno, The Talking Heads, Ambrosia, Peter Gabriel, Supertramp, Yes, Zappa and others, individuals and bands that wanted to play rock music but felt shackled by the constraints of the conventional pop song. Nothing on Sowing the Seeds of Love fits the description of a Conventional Pop Song.

Which albums by The Beatles break all the rules? Side two of Abbey Road and the whole of The White Album, which is why both are Desert Island Discs for me. Can’t get enough of either one.

The Discovery of a Lifetime

When I discovered these arty rock bands in my early twenties I quickly became obsessed with them and remain so to this day.

My equipment was forced to evolve in order to be able to play the scores of challenging recordings issued by these groups and others in the ’70s. These albums informed not only my taste in music but the actual stereo I play that music on. I’ve had large dynamic speakers for the last four decades precisely because they do such a good job of bringing to life huge and powerful recordings such as these.

Tears For Fears on this and their previous album continue that tradition of big-as-life and just-as-difficult-to-reproduce records. God bless ’em for it. (more…)

Stravinsky / The Firebird / Dorati – A Mediocre Mercury Golden Import

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A mediocre reissue from Philips, bad enough to qualify for our Hall of Shame.

This is some truly dead as a doornail sound, sound which is not remotely competitive with the real Mercury pressings we’ve played lately. The FR pressings of the recording can be phenomenally good.  Even the later M2 pressings from Philips can be excellent. There is a commentary on this blog about them. Look under Dorati or Stravinsky.

Back in the ’80s and ’90s I actually used to like some of the Golden Import pressings.  That was a long time go, and thankfully our playback system is quite a bit more revealing than the one I had back in those days.

After playing literally tens of thousands of records since then, my critical listening skills are better too.

Now when I play these imports, they sound veiled, overly smooth, smeary and compressed, not too different from the average Philips pressing, which of course is what they are. They’re all pressed by Philips from the Mercury tapes.

Sadly, not much of the Mercury Living Presence sound has survived.

They’re good for audiophiles who care more about quiet surfaces than good sound.  We are firmly staked to the opposite side of that trade-off. Quiet vinyl means nothing if the sound is poor.

Our advice: Don’t waste your money.

Sarah Vaughan – At The Blue Note

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

A superb copy with top quality sound throughout. This album has the same track listing as the rare ten-inch ‘The Divine Sarah Sings’ but with a few extra tracks included. (more…)

Bose Salutes the Sound Of Mercury Records (Along with Some Audio Lessons Learned Long Ago)

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This Factory Sealed Bose / Mercury Demonstration LP is autographed by none other than Amar G. Bose. The autograph reads “To EMI, with regards and best wishes, Amar G. Bose.”

Bose may not have ever made very good speakers, but they sure knew good recordings when they heard them. This LP has excerpts from some of the top Mercury titles, including music by Copland (El Salon Mexico), Kodaly (Hary Janos Suite), Mussorgsky/ Ravel (Pictures At An Exhibition), and Rimsky-Korsakov (Russian Easter Overture).I played one of these Bose records years ago and was surprised at how good it sounded. The transfers of the Mercury tapes were excellent! I guess that makes sense — if you want to show off your speakers you better use a well-mastered record for the demonstration.

I was duped into buying my first real audiophile speaker, Infinity Monitors, when the clever salesman played Sheffield’s S9 through them. I bought them on the spot. It was only later when I got home that none of my other records sounded as good, or even good for that matter. That was my first exposure to a Direct to Disc recording. To this day I can still picture the room the Infinity’s were playing in; it really was a watershed moment in my audiophile life.

And of course I couldn’t wait to get rid of them once I heard them in my own system with my own records. I quickly traded them in for a pair of RTR 280DR’s. Now that was a great speaker! 15 panel RTR Electrostatic unit for the highs; lots of woofers and mids and even a piezo tweeter for the rest. More than 5 feet tall and well over 100 pounds each, that speaker ROCKED.

This was the mid-’70s, 40+ years ago, and I am proud to say I have never owned a “small” speaker since. I’ve heard a lot of them — some good, most of them not so good — but that’s a sound I personally could never live with. Especially if you are trying to play large orchestral works like those found on this LP. Small speakers just can’t move enough air to bring this music to life in any way that gives meaning to the term Hi-Fidelity. (more…)

Gould / West Point Symphony / Fennell (SR 90220)

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RFR-3/RFR-1. Quiet and Near Mint! Superb sound.

Explosive, dynamic, big sound. The music on side 2 by Bennett is especially enjoyable.

Performed by the Eastman Wind Ensemble under the direction of Frederick Fennell. This performance also includes Bennett’s ’Symphonic Songs For Band’, Williams’ ’Fanfare and Allegro’, and Work’s “Autumn Walk”.

Bon Jovi – Slippery When Wet

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  • A KILLER copy of this Hard Rock classic from 1986 with Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) sound or very close to it on both sides
  • We guarantee there is dramatically more space, richness, vocal presence, and performance energy on this copy than others you’ve heard, and that’s especially true if you made the mistake of buying whatever mediocre pressing is currently on the market
  • 4 1/2 stars: “Slippery When Wet wasn’t just a breakthrough album for Bon Jovi; it was a breakthrough for hair metal in general, marking the point where the genre officially entered the mainstream… the best-selling album of 1987, beating out contenders like Appetite for Destruction, The Joshua Tree, and Michael Jackson’s Bad.”

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City Boy – Young Men Gone West

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  • Super Hot Stamper or better sound on both sides of this Arty Glam Rock album
  • Produced by Robert John “Mutt” Lange before he hit it big with Foreigner and Def Leppard
  • As far as I know Mr Lange never produced an album that sounds this good
  • Plenty of Tubey Magical richness, which only the UK Vertigo pressings seem to have

Like many of my personal favorites, this is a band that never caught on in the states. I saw them live back in the late ’70s and thought they were killer — they reminded me of a more accessible version of 10cc. They write amusingly witty, clever lyrics and mate them to catchy melodies with lots of pop hooks, all produced with meticulous care and engineered with top audiophile sound.

They might fit in the general category of Glam Rock, owing, as they do, so much to Supertramp, Badfinger, Queen, 10cc, Ziggy-period Bowie and the like, but even as I write that it seems unfair to the band, which had a unique style all its own, worthy of the respect and admiration due any of these artists (well, maybe not all the respect, but some of it anyway). Fortunately for us record lovers, this is their best album. (more…)

Mendelssohn / Scotch Symphony & Fingal’s Cave / Dorati – Our Shootout Winner from 2011

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A distinguished member of the Better Records Orchestral Music Hall of Fame.

The sound of this Super Hot Stamper side one came as a bit of a surprise to us. It’s so BIG and RICH — this is a Mercury? It sounds like a good Decca/ London.

It’s actually instead a bit of a hybrid. The recording takes place in a famous London hall with superb acoustics (Walthamstow Town Hall) in which the Mercury recording team merely set up their usual three mics and recorded to half-inch tape. Gone is the dryness and upper-midrange nasality of so many Mercury’s; no doubt that sound was caused in large part by the halls in which they were recorded.

This is some Tubey Magical Decca orchestral sound from 1956, here on a Colorback early Mercury pressing. Go figure.

Side One

With a grade of A++ this side was KILLER. A little smear but so rich, musical and enjoyable you will find yourself lost in the performance. The London Symphony is hard to beat.

Side Two

A+ for the fourth movement of the symphony, with more smear than we heard on side one. Fingal’s Cave Overture sounds better though, more like side one. We gave it an A++ grade.

This is a truly wonderful copy of one of the rarest and best Mercury recordings. (more…)

Rush – 2112 – Our Shootout Winner from 2014

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

We just finished our first ever shootout for the classic 2112, and here’s a wonderful copy with two impressive sides! We’ve collected a bunch of these over the years — it took ages to find pressings that delivered the kind of sound our customers expect from a Better Records Hot Stamper. Most Rush records sound godawful, but this one actually has the potential to be amazing — as long as you’ve got the right copy! (more…)