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Saturday, April 21, 2012

PIXIES - SURFER ROSA

Originally released on 4AD (1988, March)
Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (2011)
reissue MFSL 1-296

Rating: 9.5/ A

Category: Alternative / Garage Rock / Power Pop
Format: Vinyl (180 gram LP at 33 1/3 rpm)

Musicians:
 
  
. Black Francis - Vocals, guitar
. Kim Deal - Bass guitar, backing vocals (credited as Mrs. John Murphy on "Gigantic")
. Joey Santiago - Lead guitar
. David Lovering - Drums


. 'Produced' and Recorded December 1987 at Q-Division in Boston, Massachusetts by Steve Albini
. Mastered and lacquer cutted at Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab in Sebastopole, CA by engineer Shawn Britton on the "Gain 2 System"
. Pressed at RTI in California
Sleeve Art Direction and Design - Vaughan Olivier at 23 Envelope
. Photography - Simon Larbalestier



This review is best viewed as the first of a two-part; the second being the complementary follow-up Doolittle [MFSL 1-309]; although never putting out a bad album, both of these Pixies releases are generally regarded as their finest work.


The Boston quartet made its first appearance on the scene with the 1987 mini-LP Come On Pilgrim [4AD MAD 709], produced by Gary Smith.


Sandwiched, so to speak, between the U.K. Alternative sounds of the 1980s and the soon-to-be Seattle Grunge sound of the 1990s, the band's unique style ushered in a welcomed return to the high energy acoustic power pop of The Knack and wild zaniness of The B-52's but with the added rawness of hardcore punk; thus paving the way for Nirvana, Nevermind and 'company'. 


Throughout music history, the pendulum has swung back and forth between states, countries and oceans. Thus it was inevitable that after the better part of the British-dominated 1980s with bands as diverse as The Cure, The Smiths, The Sisters of Mercy and Bauhauss on one side and The electronified Human League, Depeche Mode, The The and New Order on the other; the commercialized 'spandexed' glam or hair metal coming out from L.A. and N.Y.C. in the corresponding decade was in dire need of a no-nonsense creative 'shake-up'. Pixies - along with noisier contemporaries Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. - would serve that bridge and 'wake-up call' well.


Although both Serfer Rosa and Doolittle reissues would have made perfect sense coming out on the more eclectic Silver Label series from MoFi; at least we have the added benefit of a heavier vinyl pressing which does not automatically guarantee a superior sound but all else being equal should diminish warpage concerns and increase perceived value. 



Not having the original pressing of Serfer Rosa, I limited my evaluation to this reissue. MFSL have done a superb job artistic wise; like many of their reissues, they created a gatefold jacket where one was not offered on the original at the time. MoFi's 'ORIGINAL MASTER RECORDING' signature top band, this time in copper is particularly well chosen in hue to match the sepia-tone framed pictures on the front and back cover; the beautiful white background enhancing even more so, the contrast effect.


By reprinting the original inner sleeve inside the sturdy heavy carton, it provides long term protection and adds great value and tactile satisfaction. Inside, the record is housed in their flexible anti-static rice paper 'Original Master Sleeves'. In addition, a folded light carton with 36 album covers and various products brings further record protection. The 180 gram heavy-weight LP is pressed at RTI in California. It was flat, black and shiny with nice groove etchings representing the different dynamic shadings. A small but deep scratch at the very end of track-2 on side A was the lone blemish on an otherwise perfect pressing. The words ''Zoink!'' on side A and ''Oh my golly'' on the flip side along with SRB can be seen inscribed in the 'dead wax' lead-out groove. As per usual with MoFi, the new label does not try to reproduce the original (in this case 4AD) but instead is plain black with silver writing.

Mastering and cutting engineer Shawn R. Britton chose a groove spacing travel of just over 3 1/8 inches on side A and 3 1/4 inches on side B; equivalent to 4.8 min./inch and 5.5 min./inch of linear cutting displacement respectively. With roughly 15 min./side A and 18 min./side B, there should be no problem regarding bandwidth and cutting level for the chosen speed. MFSL's use of half-speed mastering/cutting will also reduce distortion in the highest frequencies while extending them also, by doubling the time the cutter head has to trace the groove.

Loyal readers know that I am often critical of post-1980 recordings but MoFi's reissue of The Cars' 1981 Shake It Up [MFSL 1-325] along with a few other exceptions nearing the late 1980s renewed hope that not all is lost from that period. Then again, none of the above were released 'smack dab in the middle' of that decade when everything seemed to unravel. Of course it also helps when production and engineering duties are credited to ex-Big Black and - at the time - future Shellac leader Steve Albini, who basically repudiated the de facto working procedures of the times; i.e. overdubbing, overproduction and all things digital.


In fact 'production' credits on the jacket are somewhat misleading whenever Albini is hired; for his studio approach is more akin to an 'audio-high rez, high contrast-photographer' than a 'creative painter'. And 'hired' is indeed the correct wording here; for contrary to many in the business, he refuses on principle from taking any royalties from future sales, charging a flat daily fee only. Somewhat unorthodox, but then again Steve Albini has always been an unorthodox player - in all its senses - as member of a band or when dealing in the music biz. Interestingly the Nirvana-esque link I alluded to higher up is solidified by Albini's presence, for the latter was responsible in part for the change in direction and rawer sound of the Washington trio's 1993 In Utero [Geffen DGC 24607].


He recorded the tracks at 2-Division in their hometown. As customary with MoFi 'post-Anadisc' output, this was 'cut' rather low in level.

So it came as no surprise that from the get-go, the drum intro on "Bone Machine" had all the hallmarks of Albini's positive thumbprint possessing an all too rare hint of the Real Thing resonating in a semi-reverberant acoustic field instead of an - all too common - isolated plexiglas booth. Good deep thumping got my woofers fully energized. Realistic non-distorted vocals captured with a rawness rarely heard on record; this rawness or 'nakedness' refreshingly permeated throughout the recording, 'disrobing' the instruments and players of studio gimmickry. If one were to judge a book by its cover, this promised for a good read; file it in category true-life portrait.

"Break My Body" sounded a bit compressed although knowing that Albini does not use compression on guitars nor the 'main mix' - only 3 or 4 dB on the bass player - so it is probably a question of less dynamics in the actual live playing. That said this is still a fairly good sounding, interesting track. A few repeated 'vinyl ticks' could be heard due to the previously noted scratch in the last bars of the song right up to the first notes of the following track.

"Something Against You" sported incredible drum impact; natural sound. Guitars and the rest were loud and static in level.

"Broken Face" is rather hardcore, quite abrasive and linear in style.

"Gigantic" opens with solo electric bass recorded with such rare natural tone it reminded me of an actual bass player playing in the same room proving that not only does Albini know how to mike a drumkit but that bass-guitar does not have to play second fiddle. Even though credited to 'Mrs. John Murphy', in reality it is co-written by bassist and singer Kim Deal - panned right of center and natural - on what became their first single and one of their biggest hits. Nice dynamic shifts bring contrast to the mix. Great punchy kick drum. Only minor let down is, this is one very repetitive ending.

Side A comes to a close with "River Euphrates". Good 'live sounding' drums. Singer and guitarist Black Francis is left of center. The B-52's influence - especially a la "Rock Lobster" from their 1979 debut [Warner Brothers or MOFI 1-004] - can be heard in Francis' vocal delivery. Some very slight surface noise could be detected during lower passages and the coda. If side B maintains the same high level of quality this will be one very interesting reissue.

Flipping sides and things are certainly off to a great start with "Where is My Mind?" Superb acoustic guitar, extremely natural sounding 'dry' drumkit with impressive rendering of kick, snare and hi-hat. Same goes for the vocals, which following Albini's winning recipe, are usually the only tracks to be individually compressed and later overdubbed to the live instrumental playing direct to tape. Lovely top octave detail, clean yet warm. Panned electric guitar with natural 'crunch' like in real life and indicative of superior harmonic content due in part to MoFi's proprietary 'Gain 2 System' half-speed cutting. This track was even superior sonic-wise to any one on side A.

"Cactus" has to my knowledge the most outstanding and realistic 'rock' drum sound ever put on record displaying clean natural tone impact on snare and all toms, floor included with deep felt lows. Electric guitar excellently captured and rendered. This is one of the best tracks of the album. Definitely 'Demo' worthy.

"Tony's Theme" is very 'B-52ish' in vocals and guitar a la "Private Idaho" from 1980's Wild Planet [Warner brothers or MOFI 1-014]. Great punchy, warm kick and electric bass plus crisp close-miked vocals. On par withthe first track on this particular side.

"Oh My Golly!" sums up pretty much my reaction to once again outstanding true to life sounding drums; dynamic and powerful with uncanny hi-hat and drum impact. Surprisingly this is countered by top end finesse in acoustic guitar. Another 'whopper' track!

"Vamos" starts out with a minute or so of rough language uttering again and again 'You fuckin' die' with a rare frankness in timbre. This is followed by incredibly dynamic kick drum impact and a versimilitude in distorted electric guitar. Boasting an accelerando 2/4 'looped' beat; panned psychedelic-like reverbed distortion; outstanding top end; very refined, delicate, low level mixed, acoustic guitar. Add a rudimentary 'shouty' vocal and you've got one heck of a tune; also 'in nomination' for best track of the album.

"I'm Amazed" keeps on amazing me as the drums keep getting more and more impressive in their dynamics, making me jump out of my seat! Such a rare breed indeed.

Last but not least, "Brick Is Red" will have me sounding like a broken record but yes this also could be the best 'rock' drum sound ever put on tape and MoFi gets it right on record. Impressive and surprisingly detailed acoustic guitar strumming and on top of that, on the - unfavorably situated - last track nonetheless; now that is what I call mighty fine groove cutting.

In the end, not once did I experience any listener fatigue, clearly refreshing after hearing so many modern fare provoking just the opposite and validating one more time, that heavy compression plus hard limiting is the main culprit in deteriorating music recordings. Albini knows it, Bob Weston reaffirms it and many producers and engineers should follow or at least take a page out of his tried and true recipe book; their 'plat de résistance' would maybe not come out as dull and tasteless. Sure there still remains and probably always will be, differences between the live experience and a 'rock' recording be it on vinyl, CD or hi-rez digital formats and in some instances that is not detrimental to musical enjoyment; in fact it can even be better balanced and certainly less dangerous for our delicate eardrums than trying to reproduce 110 dB or more of blasting Pearls, Zildjians and Marshalls with total accuracy. And there lies the fine art of capturing the essence of a live band while cleverly 'molding the clay' to a reproducible near-facsimile of the real thing. Such is the case with Albini's Serfer Rosa and with Shawn R. Britton's ever so slightly warm remastering; everything is spot on. If you are looking for even more rawness, then any one of Shellac's four LPs is your ticket to audio nirvana.

Summing up, this first Pixie reissue by Mobile Fidelity makes a convincing argument that when using the Original Master Tape, recorded by an original 'master' engineer the likes of Steve Albini or studio partner - and Shellac bassist - Bob Weston, that MoFi's half-speed mastering/cutting method even at 33 1/3 rpm gives a run for the money to competing 45 rpm releases cut in real time. You owe it to yourself to possess at least one 'rock' recording that many (unfortunately) tend to qualify as lo-fi when in reality this is more hi-fi than 99% of what's out there or ever was.
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