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Wednesday, September 8, 2021

DIVING INTO DISCO - PART2

 

For Part-1: http://soundevaluations.blogspot.com/2021/06/diving-into-disco-part-1.html

The Origins

The Beat... 

That unrelenting rhythm that keeps us alive–that reminds us...We Are Alive! It races when we are excited to meet someone new. Its pounding pulse is primal. It is the backbone behind all forms of dance music, and the primary ingredient that defines disco. But disco didn't magically materialize out of thin air, on a feverish Saturday Night at New York City's Studio 54. There were dancers gracing dance floors well before John Travolta shook his booty in his famous white suit. To better understand how we got there and beyond that, we must go back in time to the beginning of the Beat.

As far back as Ancient Rome, galley rowing relied on a steady meter to roam the seas. Fast forward to the mid-17th century where captured Africans stolen from their homes and sold into slavery to colonial America–soon to become the United States–started to incorporate work songs in their routines. These slave songs or "sorrow songs" served several purposes: to establish a rhythmic workflow in the cotton plantation fields of the south to increase production, as well as provide some glimmer of hope to quell the deep despair within them–this by means of communicating subversive messages, dealing with the daily trials and tribulations, and reconnect spiritually with their African homeland. 

This could manifest itself via a call and response pattern. Going back many centuries, call and response was already widespread in African culture encompassing many customs and practices before taking root in segregated fields of southern states. It is part of the fabric of future branches of African American music genres emerging between the 17th and 19th century–such as spirituals, gospel, and blues, along with their many derivatives. This traditional means of expression, be it in the form of field hollers between slaves, or preacher and choir between pulpit and pews; carried on through to the end of the civil rights movement with classic tracks such as "Respect" and "Say It Loud – I'm Black and I'm Proud". 

It found favor also in the chain gang prisoner work songs, and exists to this day in U.S. military training songs. While 17th to 19th century European classical music championed string ensembles, complex orchestral development, dynamic expressions, and vast tempo variations; African American music instead prioritized percussive, rhythmic, and groove-based aspects. At times, improvisation would appear, eventually finding its way at the heart of jazz in the early-1900s.

Although Edison had invented his phonograph back in 1877, permitting primitive acoustic recordings–first on tinfoil and later on wax cylinders–for the very first time, it wasn't until a decade later that Berliner perfected his flat-disc gramophone, eventually allowing easier duplication and mass production of shellac records near the turn of the century. He moved to Saint-Henry in Montreal, Québec registring the company name as the Berliner Gramophone Co. in 1909. The most popular format was the 10-inch 78 rpm. 

Because of its high-speed rotation and relatively 'large-track' groove space, most recordings averaged around the 3 minute mark, with 12-inch 78s providing about 4 to 5 minutes tops–both formats limiting performances to a single song. In that sense, the latter can be considered as the ancestor of the dj maxi-single introduced in the 1970s. Now you may be wondering why is this historical event so important to disco's origins, as the medium, in and of itself, saw all genres of music benefitting from its invention. The answer lies in the fact that often times, classical, blues, and jazz for example, are superior or more enjoyable seen playing live in concert than on record, and would have surely survived just the same, whereas with disco, it is the exact opposite. Because of its studio-driven construction, it is best served on record on a good audio system rather than live, and would never have seen the light of day without it. Think about it: You never hear anybody boast that they have tickets to an El Coco concert! But on record well...welcome to 'paradise'.

By the mid-1920s, as electrical recordings replaced acoustic recordings for better bandwidth and improved fidelity, the first selectable coin-operated jukeboxes were filling juke joints as African Americans jitterbugged to their favorite songs, independent of a live band, and at the time of their choosing–the audio equivalent to our modern "Netflix-like" streaming service. 

In the early-1940s as the big band era was in full swing, the Third Reich worried the West was winning hearts and minds of their youth via American jazz records and the Western way of life. Swingjugend or Swing Kids in Germany as well as Zazous in Nazi-occupied France, formed a counter-culture, clandestinely reuniting in bistros and basements–sometimes aligned with members of La Résistance. Soon swing clubs and places like La Discothèque–supposedly situated on rue de la Huchette in the Quartier latin–equipped with a jukebox or a simple turntable plus some swing records, served as a makeshift club where patrons partied away; a temporary refuge from reality, and a rudimentary rave literally underground, undertaken five decades earlier. As the Allied forces ended the European theatre of World War II in 1945, Major Jack Mullin of the U.S. Army Signal Corps on assignment in Frankfurt, Germany, brought back to America two Magnetophon reel-to-reel tape recorders, and with financial help and the backing from singer Bing Crosby, convinced Ampex to manufacture the first American mono magnetic tape recorder 'Model 200' in 1947. 

Later improvements in the early-1950s followed with multitrack recording directly-inspired by inventor and guitarist Les Paul experimenting with "sound on sound" techniques. This added flexibility was essential in the development of disco as the latter, as previously mentioned, is multilayer-crafted from the bottom-up as opposed to classical, blues, and most jazz records, where musicians play together in 'live in studio' or 'live in concert' session takes.

A parallel determinant development in 1948 was the introduction of the 10-inch and 12-inch microgroove LP (long-playing) record by Columbia, allowing a much longer time limit vs the older 78s–approximately 23 minutes per side depending on cutting level and bass content. This also afforded disco–and of course all musical genres–much greater creative canvas control over the competing 3 minute single.

In the next chapter, we pursue our journey examining the closer relatives to disco.  So Get Ready, so Get Ready!

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Tuesday, June 8, 2021

DIVING INTO DISCO - PART 1


Introduction

Hi, my name is Claude and I'm a... disco addict. There I said it, now that wasn't so awful after all. Truth be told, I never shied away from admitting my lifelong disco dependency to strangers for I was always an unabashed member of the disco brigade. But from what I've gathered from friends and acquaintances, choosing a musical identity wasn't so easy for many music and audio enthusiasts who, in their formative years, felt torn or tormented; peer-pressured to choose one camp over another. Indeed growing up in the 1970s to early-80s, you were either casts as a freak, rocker, mods, punk, or new waver.

Luckily, living on my metaphorical desert island, surrounded by strong opposing tides, I was able to explore and navigate the competing cultural currents of the day. I suspect many young straight guys were wary to openly embrace disco, choosing to remain in the closet musically speaking; since the genre was closely associated with gay subculture, some perhaps feared being labelled at school or having their masculinity questioned by their school peers. 

By happenstance, the proto-pride stride took shape with the emancipation of the gay liberation movement–itself fueled by the Stonewall riots of June 1969–in tandem with the rise of underground clubs and discothèques.


Had Stonewall happened a decade earlier, music from the British Invasion might have served as the soundtrack for their struggle.
 
There always has been great reluctance recognizing disco as a legitimate art form. While classical, jazz, and rock have historically been coveted by critics as classics, disco seems to suffer from the Rodney Dangerfield Syndrome. This may be due in part to the fact that contrary to prior genres, disco did not feature many megastars or cult heroes, cultivating complex personalities or rambunctious behaviors ending in tragic stories, constantly circulating news cycles and outlets. Rather, with the exception of a few disco divas, this was primarily a producer-driven medium, background-built, layer by layer, in the studio instead of live on stage. One could invite comparison within the jazz scene, where the big band swing era reflected a more a highly-controlled format focusing on the composer-arranger-ensemble triad, whereas in the following bebop era, gifted musicians and artists improvised in live performances, making them the focus of attention. 


Another myth that we need to debunk is that disco does not have any redeeming value, that it is a fast food product, disposable, discarded, and forgotten. In reality there are a great number of classic disco songs that, like fine wines over time, have aged gracefully–and no, I am not talking here about "Dancing Queen", "Y.M.C.A.", and "I Will Survive". The trouble is that in the pre-internet days, you had only two broadcast mediums from which to get your music: television and radio. In the case of the former, there were a few very short-lived disco shows that aired during the genre's heyday, while in the latter's case, as far as where I lived is concerned, only one FM station–CKMF 94.3–played disco, from 5pm to 8pm on weekdays, and 9pm to 3am on Saturdays, this circa 1976 to 1982.


Compare that with Montreal's CHOM 97.7 that was all rock 24/7 from 1969 onward and still plays a mix of new and classics to this day, and that goes a long way in understanding how mentalities and culture can be shaped and long lasting. Now imagine just for a moment if we would have had a 24/7 disco/dance-oriented station still in operation today giving as much airplay to Donna Summer and Barry White as Pink Floyd and Led Zep benefited from, the genre might have gotten more of what Aretha kept preaching about.
 
Disco often gets a derided for its simplistic and repetitive lyrics. No argument from meon that front. Basically you can condense the genre's favorite themes and titles to the following: babe, baby, beat, boogie, booty, dance, dancing, disco, get down, get up, love, lust, and sex. But just as you don't go buy or praise a Bob Dylan album for vocal range delivery, nor a Ramones album for its guitar virtuosity, you don't dig a disco track for its lyrical prose or content. There is no deep meaning behind Musique's 'Push Push' "In the Bush", just as James Brown can repeat a zillion times "Get Up, Get On Up", "Soul Power", and "Hot Pants" in a single song in order to create a vibe. You want inspiring thoughtful words? Cat Stevens and Carole King are more your ticket–which I love equally for those reasons. Disco, on the other hand, offers so many other things: lush arrangements, progressive sonic envelopes, driving toe-tapping rhythms, sensual vibes, unforgettable funky riffs, and much, much more that is there to be discovered.
 
If you are an audio enthusiast, this gives you another worthy reason to embark on this adventure. You see, just like jazz, disco is generally very well recorded and mastered on vinyl, much more so than other genres, but unlike jazz and rock, prices on the second-hand market are usually quite lower and even reasonable, especially these last years when vinyl resale prices have skyrocketed everywhere. Just make sure you stay away from the majority of the reissues and stick instead with the original pressings; when it comes to disco, with few exceptions, you won't find quality all-analog reissues from the top remastering labels such as MoFi and Acoustic Sounds–they don't cater to this smaller niche market. I believe it is high time to give this neglected genre its proper due, and allow it to take its honorable place in music history.

In the next chapter, we'll examine the multiple roots of disco. Hope you hop on board the disco train for the exciting ride. Booooard!

For the translated French version, visit: https://www.pmamedia.org/fr/accueil/plongeons-dans-le-disco
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Monday, May 10, 2021

SIX-PACK SPRING SUGGESTIONS

Chosen by Claude Lemaire 

For this first spring installment, I selected six albums from three different eras and genres. What they have in common is that they are all musically excellent in their own right, but save for the first selection, they deserve much better sound quality. 

As always, if you find my recommended pressings too expensive, you can usually replace them by other more affordable pressings but be aware that the sound quality may differ quite a lot from my sonic descriptions and be wary of any digital intermediates in the complex chain.


1- Donna Summer – Four Seasons of Love. Casablanca, Bellaphon – NB 7036 (Ger.), Durium Marche Estere – D.AI. 30257 (Ital.), Casablanca – NBLP 7038 (Oct. 1976), 33 1/3 rpm. Genre: Euro disco.

What better way to start off this Six-Pack Spring Suggestions' edition than with Donna Summer sensuously singing "Spring Affair" from her fourth LP Four Seasons of Love. Now most people presume this is her third release which is quite understandable given that her debut Lady of the Night was never pressed or released worlwide, and once you hear it, you'll probably agree why they chose so. Having no disco or ground-breaking tracks per see, I suggest skipping over it. One thing that is not in dispute is that FSOL was the first of four concept albums, generally well received, though not as transformative and popular as the previous two, nor subsequent four. It no doubt draws inspiration, at least conceptually, to Vivaldi's famous four concerti The Four Seasons, composed around 1717. The original pressing included a four-fold calendar for 1977 depicting Donna in seasonable attire. Another departure from the previous two LPs–where one 17 minute or so hit song occupied the entirety of side A–here we have two tracks sharing side A, with three others sharing the second side, and in both instances, the songs segued into the next. The best track remains "Spring Affair", but "Summer Fever", Autumn Changes", and the country-tinged soul ballad "Winter Melody"–released as a second single from the LP–are all quite excellent in their own right. This is followed by a reprise of the main track in shorter form mimicking the return of spring after a full year. Accompanied by The Munich Machine, it was produced by Giorgio Moroder and Pete Belotte, and arranged by Thor Baldursson. Engineer Juergen Koppers recorded it in August and September 1976 at Musicland Studios in Munich, Germany, while Giorgio handled the mixing. My copy is the US first press, probably cut by Alan Zentz, which sounds nicely balanced with just a slight lack of top octave energy, leading to a roundish bass and warm low-mid. I do not have the original German–which I speculate would be more defined but perhaps cooler-sounding–nor the Italian pressing on Durium which I often prefer overall.
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2- Donna Summer – Once Upon a Time.... Atlantic – ATL 60 132, NBLP 7078-2 (Ger.), Casablanca – CA. LP 5010, CA. LP 5011 (distributed by Durium S.p.A) (Ital.), Casablanca – NBLP 7078-2 (Nov. 1977), 33 1/3 rpm. Genre: progressive Euro disco, electro disco.

Once upon a time there was... an extraordinary musical fairy tail high, that unfortunately was hampered by disappointing sound quality. Such is the case with Donna Summer's sixth, and most progressive, pioneering album of her career. She developed the idea with Joyce Bogart–Casablanca founder Neil Bogart's wife–and manager Susan Munao. This was the first, and one of the rare disco double-LP releases ever conceived. Though not uncommon in the rock arena–especially for "live albums" or prog projects–but almost non-existant within disco. Donna would duplicate the feat on two other occasions; excluding Greatest Hits compilations of course. The fact that she did pull off this outstanding release at the time is noteworthy. Three out of the four sides is monumental material, about as daring and progressive as the genre permitted while still remaining disco at its core, and most of the songs seamlessly segue into the next on the three disco sides–side C being boring ballads, and is the exception. The title track opens the Cinderella story with a slow majestic instrumental intro comprising piano and sweeping strings until the rapid-paced rhythm explodes with Donna delivering the goods, walking us "Faster and Faster to Nowhere". Side two is definitely the most ambitious avant-garde electro disco material she ever put forth. Of course the latter was only possible thanks to Giorgio's visionary mindset and extraordinary talent. Following in the footsteps of his ground-breaking "I Feel Love" and "From Here to Eternity", released a few months prior; here he presents us with the cathedralesque "Now I Need You" segueing into the typewriter-organ-wall of sound "Working the Midnight Shift". Surprisingly and unfortunately the following "Queen for a Day" disconnects from the former two tracks, which breaks the electronic vibe. The final side beautifully culminates with "Rumour Has It", "I Love You", and no surprise "Happily Ever After" as any great fairy tail must end. Engineer Juergen "Quantity" Koppers, assisted by Gerhard Vates, recorded and mixed it–presumably between December 1976 and April 1977–at Musicland Studios in Munich, Germany. Günther F. Pfanz lacquer cut the German Atlantic pressing–a German Casablanca pressing also exists. Chris Bellman and Brian Gardner mastered and cut the US pressing at Alan Zentz Mastering in California. The Italian pressing is non-credited. I have all three of the above plus a UK [Casablanca CALD 5003] and a Canadian [NBLP 7078] and all are below average in sound for a Summer or disco release, showing signs of compression,  and lacking warmth and punch in the bass and kick drum. The least compromised of the lot in tonal balance and top end detail is the Italian pressing, followed by the US. If ever there was a superb disco album in need of a decent all-analog remastering, this is it. Unfortunately I wouldn't hold by breath waiting for such a reissue to surface. MoFi, Analogue Productions, Craft? Anybody listening?
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3- The Savage Resurrection – The Savage Resurrection. Mercury – SR 61156 (March 1968), 33 1/3 rpm. Genre: psychedelic, acid rock, garage rock, blues rock, hard rhythm and blues.

The self-titled debut and sole album by this San Francisco Bay area quintet is striking not only for its psychedelic sound but also its relative obscurity from fame. Then again, the years 1966 to 1969 offered so many outstanding rock albums and emerging new trends, that these young savages–some even teenagers at the time–got overlooked by the bigger guns in the business. I happened to fall upon the group sporting the colorful psy-artwork, bin-browsing back in the mid-1980s, fetching it brand new for a dollar or two. Though certainly sounding more amateur than the better-known Bay area bands, this perhaps adds to their charm including the raw, unpolished sound. Most of the tracks are excellent, starting with "Thing in E"–the sole single–sounding very groovy and heavily Hendrix-inspired instrumentally, though the vocals lean more towards The Who's "I Can See for Miles" from fall 1967. "Every Little Song" sounds a bit like early-Pink Floyd period–think "Arnold Layne" from March 1967. "Talking to You" taps into Hendrix' heavy blues rock style once again. As its gong fades in plus delicate use of wah-wah pedal, "Tahitian Melody" prepares us for a slow meditative Idian-inspired psychedelic voyage predating Pink Floyd's "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun" from their second album A Saucerful of Secrets from June 1968 [Columbia SCX 6158]. "Jammin'" starts off blues rock, then progresses into more heavily-distorted sound, approaching proto early-Led Zep territory. "Fox is Sick" reminds me of early Cream. "Appeal to the Happy" breaks a bit from the rest, and will appeal more to hard energetic R&B/rock and roll aficianados than the usual LSD crowd. "Expectation"'s intro foresees The Guess Who's "American Woman" from 1970, turning very acidic-psy with the two guitars sounding full fuzztone with lots of presence, dialoguing in each channel playing Arabic scales, making it one of my favorites of the album. Produced by Abe "Voco" Kesh–originally a San Francisco-based deejay–who also produced Blue Cheer's debut and second album, both from 1968. I don't have the original US pressing, mine being the first-press stereo Canadian black label Mercury copy. The sound is fairly good but is a bit compressed and mid-centered, lacking both frequency extremes. Would welcome an all-analog remastering by MoFi or K. Gray's 'touch'.
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4- Alice Cooper – Pretties for You. Straight – STS 1051 (June 1969), 33 1/3 rpm. Genre: psychedelic, acid rock, experimental, hard rock, art rock.

Detroit-based singer Vincent Furnier, better known by his shock rock stage persona and original band name Alice Cooper got his first big break in 1969 signing with Frank Zappa's Straight Records–a small short-lived independant label distributed by Warner Bros. Records. The band's debut LP, sporting the slightly provocative Pulp Fiction cover, did not garner great commercial success when first released in June of that year; remaining under the radar ever since. Things would turn two years later with their third album Love It to Death [Straight WS 1883]. The LP comprises thirteen mostly short tracks . "Titanic Overture" opens the bizarre ride with a short symphonic instrumental intro that could be found on some late-1960s, early-1970s symphonic rock or prog albums. "10 Minutes Before the Worm" is very experimental psychedelic, kind of what you'd expect from the earliest Pink Floyd material such as the middle part of "Interstellar Overdrive" from 1967's The Piper at the Gates of Dawn [Columbia SCX 6157] then transitions to Beatle-type melodies and harmonies laced with strong dissonance. "Swing Low, Sweet Cheerio" changes styles completely, evoking jazzy chords in the vain of The Zombies and The Doors. "Today Mueller" sounds more like mid-60s Beatles. "Living" goes off in another direction making it harder to pin down. "Fields of Regret" gets heavier, experimental-Doorsy, and quite cacophonous some places. The short but excellent "No Longer Umpire" sounds again like The Beatles, but on a bad trip. The eerie "Levity Ball (Live at the Cheetah)" borrows heavily from Pink Floyd's "Astronomy Domine" found on their debut LP, almost proto space rock. "B.B. on Mars" last a mere minute but is in constant flux. "Reflected" was the band's first and sole single released from the album, and bears some foresight into their 1973 hit "Elected" from Billion Dollar Babies [Warner Bros. BS 2685] but the electric guitars have better bite, crunching the psychedelic solos. "Earwigs to Eternity" in its sprint surprises by constantly modulating its pace with vocals doubling the guitar. Lastly, as the title suggests "Changing Arranging" has interesting vocal arrangements lifting the spirit of the song as the drum pummels away alternating between very slow and energetically away. Engineer Dick Kunc is credited. Mastered at Customatrix, a subsidiary of CBS. Pressed at Columbia Records Pressing Plant, Santa Maria in California. The original US pressing is an all-orange label but there are several variations on the pink label, all within the same year–1969. My copy is the 'pink' Canadian first-press. The sound is not that good, being mid-concentrated and compressed, and quite curtailed in the lows and top end. Definitely NOT DEMO-worthy.
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5- Dead Kennedys – Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables. Cherry Red – B RED 10 (UK) (Sept. 1980), I.R.S. Records – SP 70014 (1981), 33 1/3 rpm. Genre: punk, hardcore.

Bridging the gap between Britain's Sex Pistols in the mid-1970s, and America's Rage Against the Machine in the 1990s, California's Dead Kennedys carved out a reputation in the 1980s reuniting aggressive performances with provocative, political, and controversial lyrics. Formed in San Francisco in 1978, the quintet led by singer Eric Reed Boucher better known as Jello Biafra released four studio albums between 1980 and 1986 starting with Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables–perhaps my preferred dish picking from the musical menu. Of course it contains their debut single, the delightfully sarcastic "California über alles"–originally composed for Biafra's former band The Healers–first released on seven-inch format in June 1979 [Alternative Tentacles 95-41]. It centers around a satirical-fictive song based on then-Governer of California Jerry Brown, intertwined with Nazism, and encapsulates the best elements of the group–high-octane energy, powerful guitar, strong vocal delivery, multiple tempo and groovy rhythmic shifts within a same song. The fourteen-track LP includes also their second and third single releases, "Holiday in Cambodia" and "Kill the Poor". All songs range between a minute and a half, and just over four minutes long. Engineer Oliver Dicicco (Norm) produced and recorded them in May and June 1980 at Mobius Music in San Francisco, CA. The first UK pressing was mastered by Kevin Metcalfe, and lacquer cut by George "Porky" Peckham. Plated by Maxwell 'MAX' Anandappa, and pressed by Lyntone Recordings Ltd. in London. The first US pressing on I.R.S. Records was remastered by Paul Stubblebine at A&M Mastering Studios in Los Angeles, CA., and pressed by Columbia Records Pressing Plant, Santa Maria in California. My version is the 1981 red vinyl UK pressing. The sound lacks bass and punch unfortunately. I don't know if the US corrects this problem, which is possible for it was remastered and pressed by different engineers and facilities. This again could make a killer reissue!
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6- Anthrax – Among the Living. Island Records, Megaforce Worldwide – 90584-1 (March 1987), 33 1/3 rpm. Genre: thrash metal.

Among the Living is among my all-time favorite metal albums, and in my book, best Anthrax LP period. Pushing forth exciting toe-tapping, aggressive yet catchy metal riffs, the New York City quintet distinguish themselves by reuniting raw elements of speed metal, hard rock, and hardcore punk, all rolled into one. For their third LP, the group alongside executive producer Jon Zazula, joined forces with producer, engineer extraordinaire Eddie Kramer–responsible for some of the best-sounding and important rock releases of the likes of Hendrix, Led Zep, and Kiss–lead singer Joe Belladonna does remind me of Paul Stanley's energy at times. There is never a dull moment in this nine track thrash triumph. Engineers Chris Rutherford assisted by Chip Schane recorded the tracks at Quadridial Studios in North Miami, Florida, while Francis McSweeney mixed it at Compass Point Studios in Nassau, Bahamas. Although Paul Hamingson and Kramer create a driving mean mix, the mastering by George Marino at Sterling Sound in New York is a bit mid-emphasized with some frequency curtailing in both directions, perhaps attributed by the DMM cutting instead of using a lacquer. It is pressed at Specialty Records Corporation in Olyphant, PA. Another album that would greatly benefit from a top-notch analog remastering.
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Thursday, October 29, 2020

SIX-PACK FALL & WINTER SUGGESTIONS

Chosen by Claude Lemaire 
Part-1

For this first fall installment, I selected six album compilations. Usually I am not a big fan of the "Best-of" or "Greatest Hits" compilation format, but if well done, they do serve a pleasant purpose of presenting the music lover with a quick perspective on an artist's or group's vast repertoire when such is the case. 

 As always, if you find my recommended pressings too expensive, you can usually replace them by other more affordable pressings but be aware that the sound quality may differ quite a lot from my sonic descriptions and be wary of any digital intermediates in the complex chain.


1- Elvis Presley – 24 Karat Hits!. DCC Compact Classics – LPZ(2)-2040 (1997), 2x33 1/3 rpm. Genre: rockabilly, rock and roll, blues, rhythm and blues, ballads, gospel, country.

Let's kick off things with the "King of Rock and Roll". Reunited mostly in chronological order on one double-LP–and spanning his RCA Victor period from January 1956 with "Heartbreak Hotel" through "Suspicious Minds" from August 1969–24 Karat Hits! is the perfect Elvis compilation if one wishes only the top hit singles delivered in excellent sound. Remastered and cut by the DCC duo of Steve Hoffman and Kevin Gray, they went to great lengths to use the true mono, two, and three-track tapes to transfer to the master-lacquer instead of cutting from a second or third generation assembly work tape which would have saved time and trouble for them, though therefore paying the sonic price in transparency and presence. Many music lovers may be astonished to hear how well recorded the King can sound when well transferred and played on a good audio rig. Now you would expect that his voice would come out well and naturally it does but what really surprises is the rendering of the back vocal quartet The Jordanaires–almost sounding spooky such is their realism. Along with guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black, the trio formed The Blue Moon Boys in 1954 at Sam Phillips' Sun Studios, soon joined by drummer D.J. Fontana, making rock and roll history. Renowned engineer Bill Porter and Thorne Nogar share most of the recording credits. Severall studios listed including RCA-Victor Studio B, Nashville, TN; RCA-Victor East 24th Street Studio, NYC; Radio Recorders Studio B, Hollywood, CA; American Sound Studio, Memphis, TN, and MGM Scoring Stage, Culver City, CA. The tonal balance is slightly forward in the upper mids giving good presence but may prove a bit problematic on some systems. I did not hear Analogue Production's tripple-LP cut at 45 rpm by George Marino to compare with. The faster speed is theoretically superior and should advantage the latter. I don't know if he remastered it differently than DCC's earlier release but generally he does a great job, and the forum consensus seems to slightly favor the AP over the DCC for having a bit more bass tonally.
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2- Aretha Franklin – Aretha's Gold. Atlantic – SD-8227 (Aug. 1969), Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab MFSL 2-479 (Sept. 2017), 2x45 rpm. Genre: soul, southern soul, R&B, blues, black gospel and spiritual roots, churchy.

If ever there was a Greatest Hits package earning my RESPECT, this has got to be it. Unless you are a devoted die-hard Aretha fan, you'll probably find this compilation of her earliest Atlantic material fits the bill just fine–the only single I felt missing was the funky "Rock Steady" from 1971, recorded nearly two years after this initial release. In effect, between her first signing to the legendary label in early-1967 until barely a year and a half later, the "Queen of Soul" delivered in spades: "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)", "Respect", Dr. Feelgood", "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman", "Chain of Fools", "Think", "You Send Me", "I Say a Little Prayer"; they are all here–in chronological order–and that's just about half of the fourteen memorable classics assembled. Backed by Cissy Houston, and sisters Carolyn and Erma, Aretha is already shining at her peak performance. Engineered by Fame Studio's Rick Hall in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and Atlantic's Tom Dowd in New York, the incredible sound captured and mixed on the studio's vintage Ampex 8-track is breathtakingly vivid, with punch, presence, and energetic force. Contrary to Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound" awash in reverb and purposely monophonic, here the sound is intimate, closely palpable, warm, dry, dynamic, and sharply hard-panned for maximum musical clarity–more akin to Roy DuNann's sonic presentation for Contemporary Records in jazz. Of course this revelatory level of sonic bliss was only lately realized by MoFi's magnificent double 45 rpm release, remastered and cut by 'engineer-Kings' Krieg Wunderlich and Rob LoVerde, and plated and pressed by RTI in California. I don't have the original US pressing but there is no doubt whatsoever that it cannot compete with the MoFi's multiple strengths and technical advantages. Simply put, and strictly confined to this version, this is the best Greatest Hits release you can get for music and sound combined.
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3- James Brown –  James Brown Soul Classics. Polydor – 2391 037, Polydor – SC 5401 (Can.) (Aug. 1972), 33 1/3 rpm. Genre: funk, soul, ballad.
 
Why not follow up the "Queen of Soul" with the "Godfather of Soul" or Father of Funk, with James Brown's best original compilation on vinyl. Though there have been numerous other more complete compilations available since in different formats, I believe this one here holds the advantage in time and sonics, representing the transition from his mid-1960s funky soul hits to the early-1970s true funk material plus respectively, remaining pure analog–which is not necessarily the case post mid-1980s. Released in August 1972, Brown–and funk for that matter–was arguably at or near the peak of his/its popularity before disco would sweep over the dance floor just two years later, leaving him and many others scrambling to adapt to the changing times where sultry strings and four to the floor would replace tight horns and syncopation. Opening up with his 1970 seminal single "Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine (Part 1)", it includes major funk classics like "Make It Funky - Part 1", "My Part / Make it Funky - Part 3", "Call Me Superbad", "Soul Power", "Give It Up or Turnit a Loose", and 1967's "Cold Sweat" that all sound fantastic with vivid vocal presence, clean funky guitar, and articulated bass, brass, and drums. Plus earlier hits from 1965 like "I Got You (I Feel Good)", "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag", and a year later, the bluesy soul balad "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" which all suffer from excess reverb on the instruments and especially his vocals, giving it a dated cavernous effect. I don't have the original US pressing but my old Canadian first press remains impressive minus the latter noted caveats. Produced by Brown, unfortunately there is no engineering credits listed on the cover.
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4- The Beatles – 1962-1966. Apple Records – PCSP 717 (UK), Capitol Records SKBO 3403 (Can.) (Apr. 1973), 2x33 1/3 rpm. Genre: beat, Merseybeat, pop music, rock, ballad. 

When it comes to die-hard fans, experts, and historians reflecting on a given subject, you'll probably have a hard day's night finding anything more musically dissected than The Beatles–just take the opening chord to the latter song referral for example, which shows how solid, well-founded opinions can strongly differ. Believe me I am none of the above. Don't get me wrong for I do appreciate them for many reasons–none the leasts given their originality in conjunction with several studio advancements aided by producer George Martin–but I am no Fab Four expert. Keeping that in mind, I do have some sonic preferences for certain pressings over others that surely will stun some. Case in point is the 1973 singles compilation of the group's roughly first half-period spanning the years October 1962 to August 1966, aka "The Red Album"–the second-half being covered by the 1967-1970 "Blue Album". One of the things that stirs controversy is the different mixes and EQ choices on some songs between the UK pressings, and the US and Canadian pressings. The majority of the songs are in stereo but a few of the earliest ones are either in fake stereo or re-EQed mono depending on which country edition we are dealing with. Having only the –post 1976–Capitol Canadian pressing at my disposal, I cannot compare with the many other versions, but I can say that putting aside the five or six songs that sound a bit bizarre because of the tricked mixes, I tend to like a lot the EQ choices. Granted they seem boosted in the lows and highs–some characterizing them as having the polarizing "smiley face" curve–but I find the tonal balance better suited to explore the many musical arrangements and details that seem obscured in the mono mixes as well as the more mid-pronounced pressings out there. Sonics aside, the fact that the track selection is choreographed in chronological order illustrates even more the magnitude of sheer creativity, superb song craftsmanship, and tight vocal harmonies the quartet carried out in constant (r)evolution. Having only the top hit singles–pre-1967–reuited on a double-LP and listening in one shot from start to finish is the aural equivalent to binge watching an entire season of a groundbreaking series; shall we call it binge-listening in this case? I am less fond of "The Blue Album" simply because I prefer listening to Revolver and Sgt. Pepper in their entirety being my two favorites, and more album-oriented-conceived or concept than an album of singles. In addition I feel less attached to the post Pepper material.
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5- Pink Floyd – Relics (A Bizarre Collection of Antiques & Curios). Starline – SRS 5071, IE 048 o 04775 (UK), (May 1971), 33 1/3 rpm. Genre: psychedelic, acid-rock, experimental, heavy rock, space rock, jazz-rock.
 
The Beatles were the biggest band coming out of the 1960s. As the latter four went their separate ways, another famous British band pursuing in popularity and originality was Pink Floyd. Formed in London back in 1965, the once quintet turned quartet really grew to greatness, maturity, and prosperity the following decade. Decidedly the 1970s were more associated with the concept album, and Floyd crafted and conquered that market segment with impressive technical wizardry. Prior to these progressive artistic achievements, the group–including for a short span, singer, songwriter, guitarist Syd Barrett–explored experimental psychedelic rock and pop playing at the underground UFO Club along side Soft Machine in Swinging London. Released in May 1971, Relics puts forth a few of the earlier material while the masterful Meddle [Harvest SHVL 795] was being recorded. Appropriately it opens with their debut single, the Barrett-penned "Arnold Layne" from March 1967–which predated–and did not appear on–their debut album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn [Columbia SCX 6157] released later in August. It is followed by the lengthier, experimental, and instrumental "Interstellar Overdrive" taken from the latter LP. Back to Barrett with the shorter "See Emily Play", their second single issued in June. Jumping to side B, among others it contains "Careful with That Axe, Eugene"–a nearly-instrumental acid rock trip, loosely similar to "The End" by The Doors in mood and structure, using the Phrygian mode–as well as "The Nile Song", the band's heaviest song, taken from the 1969 soundtrack More. The sound in generally good, generous in the bass, but begs for more top end energy to air things out, which in turn would provide better stereophonic separation and definition. Regarding the latter, two of the earliest singles–originally only in mono–are reprocessed here in "Duophonic stereo". So this is certainly not demo-worthy but thankfully nor is it thin or aggressive, making it enjoyable just the same.
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6- Various – Disco Gold. Scepter Records – SPS 5120, (June 1975), 33 1/3 rpm. Genre: soulful disco, Philly soul, Chicago soul.

Between 1970 and 1974, several songs soon found favor among the nascent discothèque scene, sounding towards some sort of musical hybrid–mostly mixing soul, funk, and Philly Sound in different degrees, thus creating proto-disco underground hits. Disco Gold gathers eight such songs on one album, licensed under the steering Scepter label. The selection is particularly palpitating because of the scarcity of many of the tracks that oftentimes only existed in small run seven-inch singles. In addition, these are longer versions–sometimes twice the original single length–remixed or re-edited by maestro Tom Moulton. The three that stand out most are the Norman Harris-penned and produced "We're on the Right Track" by Ultra High Frequency dating from 1973, along with two incredible penned-productions from Curtis Mayfield–"Make Me Believe in You", obviously borrowing from The Temptations' "Papa Was a Rolling Stone", and "Ain't No Love Lost", both by protégé Patti Jo, from 1973 and 1972 respectively. Moulton's golden touch takes it to another level, making these extended versions, seamlessly combining vocal and instrumental parts, far superior to the shorter singles. Keep in mind that the tracks are kept separate and not intermixed like in a club deejay set, and all are worthy of inclusion. Mastered by José Rodriguez, the sound is uniformly well balanced throughout both sides with good but not outstanding bass, surprising treble transparency for the genre, and a wide soundstage.
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Part-2

For this second fall-winter installment, I selected six soul albums to warm us up through these cooler temperatures and difficult challenging times. Peace to all.

As always, if you find my recommended pressings too expensive, you can usually replace them by other more affordable pressings but be aware that the sound quality may differ quite a lot from my sonic descriptions and be wary of any digital intermediates in the complex chain.


1- Jr. Walker & the All Stars – Road Runner. Soul – SLS 703 (Sept. 1966), Tamla Motown – SS-703 (Can.), 33 1/3 rpm. Genre: funky R&B, Motown Sound, soul.

Walker, well known for his first big hit single "Shotgun" in February 1965, followed up with "(I'm a) Road Runner"–originally on his debut album but now reappearing as the title-track of his second LP. The tenor saxophone reprises also Motown mate Marvin Gaye's 1964 hit "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)". Mixing funky soul with R&B, he solidifies his signature sax sound and style over eleven entertaining short songs. Legendary bassist James Jamerson joins Junior along with James Graves on drums, Willie Woods on guitar, and Vic Thomas on keyboards. A slew of producers contributed, including Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, Berry Gordy, Harvey Fuqua, and future soulful disco singer Johnny Bristol, better known for his 1974 hit "Hang On in There Baby". No engineer is credited but the overall sound is seriously appealing on my Canadian Tamla 'Phonodisc Limited' first pressing with generous warm bass and crisp guitars, sax, and vocals. I don't have the original US Soul pressing to compare with.
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2- Isaac Hayes – Presenting Isaac Hayes. Enterprise – S 13-100, Atlantic – SD 13-100 (Feb. 1968), 33 1/3 rpm. Genre: sultry soul, blues, jazz.

Hailing from Tennessee, the self-taught singer, songwriter, producer, musician, and actor was one of the principle architects of the Memphis sound and Southern soul, spearheaded by Stax, Volt, and Hi records. Along with writing partner David Porter, they composed and arranged some of the biggest soul hits of the 1960s and early-1970s including Sam & Dave's 1967 smash single "Soul Man" to name but one. The following year, Hayes released his debut album–a totally improvised session combining a blend of blues, jazz, and sultry soul–organically original and a precursor to symphonic soul maestro Barry White, a full five years prior to. Produced and supervised by Alvertis Isbell–aka Al Bell–and recorded no doubt 'live' without overdub at Stax Studios in Memphis, TN; the relaxed atmosphere has him talking, singing, and sparsely playing piano, while bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn and drummer Al Jackson Jr.–both from Stax' house band Booker T. & The M.G.'s–spontaneously enter and exit, accompanying him along the way. The latter group's guitarist Steve Cropper and Atlantic's Arif Martin mixed the album's five tracks, keeping the raw realistic recording very intimate, and highly dynamic. It is very impressive-sounding, especially the lightning fast drum strokes panned to the right of the piano which have a natural tom skin resonance rarely heard on record. The only minor quibble would be a slight cymbal lack of finesse. It was released both with the Enterprise logo on the front cover as well as the Atlantic logo at the same time. My copy is the latter, probably pressed by Presswell in Ancora, New Jersey.
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3- Isaac Hayes – Hot Buttered Soul. Enterprise – ENS-1001 (May 1969), MoFi – MFSL 1-273 (2005), 33 1/3 rpm. Genre: cinematic soul, symphonic soul, sultry soul, psychedelic soul.

Hayes turned up the heat on Hot Buttered Soul the following year with what many consider to be his finest musical moment, along with the Shaft soundtrack in summer of 1971. Indeed, it marks a major musical milestone and evolution in creativity and production aesthetic; not only for Hayes as an artist but for the future of soul music in style, direction, and coming to full fruition in the fast-approaching new decade–not discounting the trip hop movement of the 1990s which would sample his downtempo material. The first thing that surely struck the listener back then was that it featured only four tracks lasting between 5 and 18 minutes long–an unheard practice at the time when most soul songs were still under the four and a half way mark, though this would soon change just a couple of years later. Instead of the unpolished and unapologetic looseness of the preceding debut album, here we encounter something much more structured and varnished, commensurate in scope with a glossy Ian Fleming flick–in fact the hard-panned staccato brass, bolster the wide and deep scene with a shiny Goldfinger ambiance...Mr. Bond. On it, he brings his unique slower interpretation of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "Walk On By"–originally sung by Dionne Warwick in 1964–and solidly nails it. Harold Beane's fuzzy guitar solo evokes the psychedelic sounds of the period. Hayes also offers his version of Jimmy Webb's "By the Time I Get to Phoenix"–a 1967 hit by Glen Campbell. Produced by Al Bell, Allen Jones, and keyboardist Marvell Thomas, and accompanied by The Bar-Kays, it was engineered by Ed Wolfrum and Terry Manning, and remixed by Russ Terrana, Jr. at Ardent Studios in Memphis, TN and United Sound Systems in Detroit, MI. Paul Richmond cut the lacquer at Mastercraft in Memphis, TN. The tonal balance is quite good but has a small tendency towards the treble taking on more emphasis than the bass registers resulting in a sharp sound with great depth and detail but a bit more bass punch would be welcome. Nonetheless, still very pleasant. If my memory is intact, the 2005 MoFi remastered by Krieg Wunderlich was good also, though I can't recall that it was superior, simply an interesting alternative I believe. I have not heard the 2018 Craft remaster [CR00034] by Dave Cooley and cut by Chris Noel to compare and comment.
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4- Barbara Acklin – Love Makes a Woman. Brunswick – BL 754137 (July 1968), 33 1/3 rpm. Genre: Chicago soul, Northern soul, romantic soul, sentimental soul, R&B, ballads.

Isaac Hayes isn't the only soul singer songwriter that reappropriates Bacharach-David compositions. In effect, the album opens with two of these–a cover of Jackie DeShannon's "What the World Needs Now Is Love", followed by Dusty Springfield's "The Look of Love". On her debut album released in summer 1968, the Oakland-born, Brunswick-signed artist, presents eleven soulful songs incorporating beautiful bass, brass, piano, and string arrangements. She sings with great control and class, and her voice is very well captured with wide natural range. Produced by Carl Davis and Chi-Lites lead vocalist Eugene Record, the uncredited musicians and backup singers recall Aretha Franklin's early-Atlantic period in style and engineering choices such as hard-panned drums, bass, guitars, strings, and vocals, bringing great clarity to the musical phrases which I always welcome. The Brunswick tonal balance is simply lovely as is so often the case with this truly historic label going back to the beginning of the twentieth century and recording era. It is pressed by MCA Pressing Plant, Gloversville in NY. Simply an incredible album and ambiance. Barbara Acklin continued to release musically interesting material into the early-1970s until leaving Brunswick in 1973.
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5- The Impressions – This Is My Country. Curtom – CRS 8001 (Nov. 1968), 33 1/3 rpm. Genre: Chicago soul.

Before launching a successful solo singing, producing, and composing career, Curtis Mayfield was the main driving force behind the The Impressions. Stemming from Chattanooga, TN, in 1958, the group soon switched to Chicago whilst for a brief stint, singer Jerry Butler was the lead with Mayfield taking over when Butler began his own solo path two years later. Throughout the myriad membership, they recorded twenty albums during a two-decade run, releasing This Is My Country smack in the middle of the pack in november 1968–the first LP featured on Curtis' own Curtom label. I was lucky to find a second hand copy twenty years ago in a country thrift shop during a sunday stroll where I stumbled upon the Pusherman's prior period. Nine out of the ten short tracks are written and produced by maestro Mayfield, creating a musically-rich driven album. No recording engineer is credited. It was mastered at the Customatrix plant with the lacquer cut at Bell Sound Studios in New York. The sound falls in line with the production style of the late-1960s and what you could expect from a Motown release, which is slighly light in the bass registers while the rest of the spectrum is quite nicely rendered, especially so regarding Mayfield's distinctive vocals. A sleeper of an album worth seeking out.
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6- Stevie Wonder – My Cherie Amour. Tamla – TS 296 (Aug. 1969), 33 1/3 rpm. Genre: soul, pop.

Released August 1969, this was Wonder's eleventh studio album following For Once in My Life [Tamla TS 291]. Of course this is far from his best album, but it is worth having just the same, and is the kind of LP that I like to pull out on occasion when feeling more sentimental than purely funky. The title-track is my favorite song along with his interpretations of The Doors' "Light My Fire", as well as the Johnny Mandel-penned "The Shadow of Your Smile". On some of the twelve tracks he plays his signature harmonica that fameously sealed the deal with Motown signing him at age eleven, and finding success two years later with his first hit single "Fingertips" found on his debut album, 1962's The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie [Tamla TM 233]–as he was known at that time. Produced by Henry Cosby. Funk Brothers' Benny Benjamin on drums and James Jamerson on bass are on the left while guitar, strings and conga are on the right, accompanying Stevie center stage. The sound presentation is kept simple and breathes easily with a natural tone balance and dymamic range for the genre. No recording engineers are credited. Larry Kling cut the lacquer and my copy was pressed by RCA Records Pressing Plant, Indianapolis in IN.
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