Top Artists – Cat Stevens

Cat Stevens – Catch Bull At Four Magic Stampers

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  • With two shootout winning Triple Plus (A+++) sides, this early UK pressing is As Good As It Gets!
  • Bigger, more dynamic, more lively, more present and just plain more EXCITING than anything we heard – that’s why it won our shootout  
  • This one can show you the sweeter, tubier Midrange Magic that we is the hallmark of all the best Cat Stevens’ recordings
  • Many of Cat’s best songs are here – Can’t Keep It In, Angelsea, 18th Avenue, Freezing Steel and more
  • “Celebrated and adored for his sanguine lyrics and irresistible hooks, Cat Stevens was one of the rare singer-songwriters capable of composing genuinely optimistic songs that didn’t leave a sappy residue in listeners’ ears.”

The Magic Stampers

As is sometimes the case, there is one and only one set of stamper numbers that consistently wins our Catch Bull At Four shootouts. We stumbled upon an out-of-this-world copy of the right pressing about two years ago, a copy took the recording to a level we had no idea could even be possible. (We were going to give it Four Pluses, and probably should have, but cooler heads prevailed.)

Since then we have had many copies come in, but none that could compete with the Magic Stamper pressings. And the best part of this story is that, no, the best stampers are not 1U, or 2U, or even 3U. In other words they are far from the stampers found on the earliest pressings. That’s one reason it took us so long to discover them, because they are much less commonly found than pressings with the earlier stampers. By the time these later pressings were mastered, pressed and released, the album’s biggest selling days were over. For all we know this cutting may have been done just to keep the record in print, possibly undertaken many years after its initial release.

Who knows? Who cares? What difference does it make?

Well, it does serve to make a point near and dear to our hearts: that the idea (and operational premise of most record collectors) that the Original Is Always Better is just a load of bunk. It might be and it might not be. If you want better sounding records you had better open your mind to the idea that some reissues have the potential to sound better than even the best original pressing of the album.

Of course this is nothing but bad news for the average audiophile collector, who simply does not have the time or money to go through the hassle of buying, cleaning and playing every damn pressing he can get his hands on.

But good news for us, because we do.

What do the best Hot Stamper pressings of Catch Bull At Four give you?

  • Energy for starters. What could be more important than the life of the music?
  • Then: presence and immediacy. The vocals aren’t “back there” somewhere, lost in the mix. They’re front and center where any recording engineer worth his salt would put them.
  • The Big Sound comes next — wall to wall, lots of depth, huge space, three-dimensionality, all that sort of thing.
  • Then transient information — fast, clear, sharp attacks, not the smear and thickness so common to these LPs.
  • Tight punchy bass — which ties in with good transient information, also the issue of frequency extension further down.
  • Next: transparency — the quality that allows you to hear deep into the soundfield, showing you the space and air around all the instruments.
  • Extend the top and bottom and voila, you have The Real Thing — an honest to goodness Hot Stamper.

What to Listen For (WTLF)

This copy has the kind of sound we look for in a top quality Cat Stevens record: immediacy in the vocals (so many copies are veiled and distant); natural tonal balance (most copies are either bright or dark; ones with the right balance are the exception, not the rule); good solid weight (so the piano and toms sound full and powerful); spaciousness (the best copies have studio ambience like you would not believe); and last but not least, TRANSPARENCY, the effect of being able to see INTO the soundfield all the way to the back, where there is plenty going on in this remarkably sophisticated studio recording.

Huge Size and Space

One of the qualities that we don’t talk about on the site nearly enough is the SIZE of the record’s presentation. Some copies of the album just sound small — they don’t extend all the way to the outside edges of the speakers, and they don’t seem to take up all the space from the floor to the ceiling. In addition, the sound can often be recessed, with a lack of presence and immediacy in the center.

Other copies — my notes for these copies often read “BIG and BOLD” — create a huge soundfield, with the music positively jumping out of the speakers. They’re not brighter, they’re not more aggressive, they’re not hyped-up in any way, they’re just bigger and clearer.

And most of the time those very special pressings just plain rock harder. When you hear a copy that does all that, it’s an entirely different listening experience.

Vinyl Condition

Mint Minus Minus and maybe a bit better is about as quiet as any vintage pressing will play, and since only the right vintage pressings have any hope of sounding good on this album, that will most often be the playing condition of the copies we sell. (The copies that are even a bit noisier get listed on the site are seriously reduced prices or traded back in to the local record stores we shop at.)

Those of you looking for quiet vinyl will have to settle for the sound of later pressings and Heavy Vinyl reissues, purchased elsewhere of course as we have no interest in selling records that don’t have the vintage analog magic of these wonderful originals.

If you want to make the trade-off between bad sound and quiet surfaces with whatever Heavy Vinyl pressing might be available, well, that’s certainly your prerogative, but we can’t imagine losing what’s good about this music — the size, the energy, the presence, the clarity, the weight — just to hear it with less background noise.

Track Commentary

The Track Listing tab above will take you to an extensive song by song breakdown for each side, with plenty of What to Listen For (WTLF) advice.

TRACK LISTING

Side One

Sitting

This track often sounds a bit flat and midrangy, and it sounds that way on most domestic pressings and the “wrong” imports.

The best imports and domestic pressings are the only ones with the sweeter, tubier Midrange Magic that we’ve come to associate with the best Cat Stevens recordings.

Boy With a Moon & Star on His Head

Another very difficult track to get to sound right. The better copies have such amazingly transparent sound you can’t help feeling as though you really are in the presence of live human beings. You get the sense of actual fingers — in this case the fingers of Cat’s stalwart accompanist Alun Davies — plucking the strings of his Spanish guitar.

Angelsea

This is one of the best sounding tracks on the album, right up there with Cat’s most well recorded big productions such as Tuesday’s Dead, Changes IV, Where Do The Children Play and Hard Headed Woman. On Hot Stamper copies this is a Demo Track that’s hard to beat.

The midrange magic of the acoustic guitars is off the scale. Some of Catch Bull At Four has the magic and some of it does not, unlike Tea and Teaser, which are magical all the way through.

Silent Sunlight
Can’t Keep It In

On the best copies this track is as Huge and Powerful as anything the man ever recorded. It’s another one of the best sounding tracks on the album. On our top copies this is a Demo Track that’s hard to beat.

The midrange magic of the acoustic guitars is off the scale. Some of Catch Bull At Four has the magic and some of it does not, unlike Tea and Teaser, which are magical all the way through.

Side Two

18th Avenue

This track is a great test for side two. The strings should sound silky yet also have nice texture to them. Without proper mastering, the kind that results in midrange clarity and extension on the top, they’ll never sound right.

There’s also a lot going on with the percussion on this track; you’ll need a dynamic copy to really get the full effect. If you have the kind of speaker that can really move some air you are in for a treat with this one.

Freezing Steel

Another great test for side two. The huge drums and chorus at the end of the song are going to be tough to get right if you’re playing the album at the good and loud levels we do.

Again, you’ll need a dynamic copy with plenty of solid deep bass to get the full effect. If you have big speakers that can really move air this track might just rock your world.

O Caritas
Sweet Scarlet
Ruins

Rolling Stone Review

Catch Bull is impeccably produced. Its musical contents are like those of Teaser and the Firecat—simple, short-phrased melodies and spare and vibrant arrangements. There are, however, notable differences between Catch Bull and its predecessor. The instrumental repertoire has been widened somewhat: three cuts make minimal use of a synthesizer, and on four cuts Cat plays piano.

…Happily, the greatest difference between Teaser and Catch Bull lies in the lyric themes of the songs. Though some of the lyrics retain Cat’s fanciful imagery— word poems so dreamily obscure as to defy interpretation—he shows a new emotional directness, especially on side two, the albums “down” side. This is reflected in Cat’s singing, which becomes more assured and more emotive with each album.

Stephen Holden
Rolling Stone Magazine
November 23, 1972

Amazon Review

Celebrated and adored for his sanguine lyrics and irresistible hooks, Cat Stevens was one of the rare singer-songwriters capable of composing genuinely optimistic songs that didn’t leave a sappy residue in listeners’ ears.

However, even a cursory listen to 1972’s Catch Bull at Four proves that the Cat had seen darkness, too, and that those darker elements had become more pronounced than they’d been in the past. His vocal style shifts from the cool croon that made Tea for the Tillerman and Teaser and the Firecat top sellers to a harsher, almost growling delivery.

The album’s standouts–the wistful reverie “Sitting” and the delightfully infectious “Can’t Keep It In”–are resolute in lyric and melody. Rambling, mystical odes such as “The Boy with a Moon & Star on His Head,” “Angelsea,” and “Sweet Scarlet” offer quaintly romantic imagery and lavishly undulating melodies.

But it’s the mercurial dynamics and driving melody of “18th Avenue (Kansas City Nightmare)” and the bitter conviction of “Ruins” that give the album a backbone and a sense of balance. — Sally Weinbach

Audio Progress

Many copies were gritty, some were congested in the louder sections, some never got big, some were thin and lacking the lovely analog richness of the best — we heard plenty of copies whose faults were obvious when played against two top sides such as these.

Speaking of congestion, it had previously been our experience that every copy of the record had at least some congestion in the loudest parts, typically the later parts of songs where Cat is singing at the top of his lungs, the acoustic guitars are strumming like crazy, and big drums are pounding away are jumping out of both speakers.

The best import and domestic copies in our shootout this time around managed to reproduce all these elements cleanly, on a larger soundstage, with dynamically more energy, sonic firepower the likes of which we have never heard on this album before.

Progress

Of course the reason I hadn’t heard the congestion and the dryness and hardness in the recording is that two things changed. One, we found better copies of the record to play — probably, can’t say for sure, but let’s assume we did, and, Two, we’ve made lots of improvements to the stereo since the last time we did the shootout.

You have to get around to doing regular shootouts for any given record in order to find out how far you’ve come, or if you’ve come any way at all. Fortunately for us the improvements, regardless of what they might be or when they might have occurred, were incontrovertible. The album was now playing at a much, much higher level.

It’s yet more evidence supporting the possibility, indeed the importance, of taking full advantage of the Revolutions in Audio of the last ten or twenty years.

Who’s to Blame?

It’s natural to blame sonic shortcomings on the recording; everyone does it including us.

But in this case We Was Wrong. The congestion and flatness we’d gotten used to are no longer a problem on the best copies. We’ve worked diligently on every aspect of record cleaning and reproduction, and now there’s no doubt that we can get Catch Bull At Four to play at a much higher level than we could before.

This is why we keep experimenting, keep tweaking and keep searching for the best sounding pressings, and why we encourage you to do the same.

Tea for the Tillerman Is an Album We Are Clearly Obsessed With

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TEA FOR THE TILLERMAN 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. 

TRACK LISTING

Side One

Where Do the Children Play? (more…)

Cat Stevens Albums – Lee Hulko Cut Them All – Good, Bad and Otherwise

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Is the Pink Label Island original pressing THE way to go? That’s what Harry Pearson — not to mention most audiophile record dealers — would have you believe.

But it’s just not true. And that’s good news for you, Dear (Record Loving Audiophile) Reader.

HOT STAMPER COMMENTARY FROM JOHN BARLEYCORN

Since that’s a Lee Hulko cutting just like Tea here, the same insights, if you can call them that, apply. Here’s what we wrote: (more…)

Mona Bone Jakon – A Forgotten Classic

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  • You’ll find outstanding Double Plus (A++) sound on this original copy of Cat Stevens’ brilliant third album 
  • The sound is so transparent, open, and spacious that nuances and subtleties that escaped you before are now front and center 
  • When you hear I Wish I Wish and I Think I See The Light here you will understand why we say that this is one of the greatest popular recordings in the history of the world 
  • The original A&M LPs we like are nearly impossible to find with good sound and quiet vinyl – this copy plays quieter than any we currently have in stock
  • “Mona Bone Jakon is a delight, and because it never achieved the Top 40 radio ubiquity of later albums, it sounds fresh and distinct.”

Right off the bat, I want to say this is a work of GENIUS. Cat Stevens made three records that belong in the Pantheon of greatest popular recordings of all time. In the world of Folk Pop, Mona Bone Jakon, Teaser and the Firecat and Tea for the Tillerman have few peers. There may be other Folk Pop recordings that are as good but we know of none that are better. (more…)

Teaser & The Firecat – Time Capsule of Commentaries

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This Hot Stamper listing from 2006 is a Time Capsule of Commentaries of sorts; it contains write-ups from 2006, 2005 and 2002 all rolled into one. Out of sheer laziness we used to leave the old commentary in the listings, sort of like building the new city on the ruins of the old. For those who don’t mind excavating through the Hot Stamper thoughts of the past, please read on. 

Notes from August 2006

DEMO DISC QUALITY SOUND of the HIGHEST ORDER! (more…)

Teaser & The Firecat on Dreadful 25th Anniversary Island Vinyl

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Sonic Grade: F

Hall of Shame pressing.

I remember years ago (1986 to be exact) when Acoustic Sounds was selling the then in-print 25th Anniversary Island pressing (10U, as I recall) for $15, claiming that it was a TAS List Super Disc. If you’ve ever heard that pressing, you know it has no business going anywhere near a Super Disc List. It’s mediocre at best and has virtually none of the magic of the good original pressings. I refused to sell it back in those days, for no other reason than it’s far from a Better Record. I don’t like misrepresenting records and I don’t like ripping off my customers. That pressing was a fraud and I was having none of it. (more…)

This Is Your Idea of Analog?

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Cat Stevens – 200 Grams of Tea for the Tillerman

Dear Record Loving Audiophiles of Earth,

I’m afraid we have some bad news. [This was written back in 2011 when the record came out so it’s hard to imagine that what I am about to say is news to anyone at this stage of the game.] Regrettably we must inform you that the 2011 edition of Tea for the Tillerman pressed by Analogue Productions on Heavy Vinyl doesn’t sound very good. We know you were all hoping for the best. We also know that you must be very disappointed to hear this unwelcome news.

But the record is what it is, and what it is is not very good. Its specific shortcomings are many and will be considered in at length in our review below.
(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.
(more…)

The Mobile Fidelity Hall of Shame

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The MoFi Hall of Shame

40+ strong but the real number would be at least double that and probably more like triple that figure.

But who has time to make listings for all the bad records this label has released?

In case you don’t already know, one of the worst sounding, if not THE WORST SOUNDING VERSION OF ALL TIME, is the Mobile Fidelity Anadisq pressing that came out in the ’90s. If you own that record, you really owe it to yourself to pull it out and play it. It’s just a mess and it should sound like a mess, whether you have anything else to compare it to or not. (more…)

Listening in Depth to Cat Stevens – Catch Bull at Four

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Listening in Depth

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If you’re familiar with what the best Hot Stamper pressings of Tea for the Tillerman, Teaser and the Firecat or Mona Bone Jakon can sound like — amazing is the word that comes to mind — then you should easily be able to imagine how good this killer copy of Catch Bull at Four sounds.

All the ingredients for a Classic Cat Stevens album were in place for this release which came out in 1972, about a year after Teaser and the Firecat. His amazing guitar player Alun Davies is still in the band, and Paul Samwell-Smith is still producing as brilliantly as ever.

In-Depth Track Commentary

Side One

Sitting

This track often sounds a bit flat and midrangy, and it sounds that way on most domestic pressings and the “wrong” imports.

The best imports and domestic pressings are the only ones with the sweeter, tubier Midrange Magic that we’ve come to associate with the best Cat Stevens recordings. (more…)