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Friday, June 15, 2012

PIXIES - DOOLITTLE

Original 4AD CAD 905 (1989, April)
Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (2011)
reissue MFSL 1-309

Rating: 8.0 / B+ (MoFi)
Rating: 7.5 / B+ (4AD)


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,
. Joey Santiago - Lead guitar, backing vocals
. David Lovering - Drums


Additional musicians:

. Arthur Fiacco – cello on "Monkey Gone to Heaven"
. Karen Karlsrud – violin on "Monkey Gone to Heaven"
. Corine Metter – violin on "Monkey Gone to Heaven"
. Ann Rorich – cello on "Monkey Gone to Heaven"

. Written by Black Francis
. Produced and Engineered October 31, November 23, 1988 by Gil Norton at Dowtown Recorders, Boston, Ma.

. Assisted by Engineers Dave Snider and Matt Lane
. Mixed by Engineer Steve Haigler at Carriage Studios, Stamford, CT.
. Mastered and lacquer cutted at Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab in Sebastopole, CA by engineer Rob LoVerde on the "Gain 2 System"
. Pressed at RTI in California
. Art Direction and Design - Vaughan Olivier at 23 Envelope
. Photography - Simon Larbalestier



This review is the second of a two-part; the first covering their 1988 debut album Surfer Rosa [MFSL 1-296] and everything surrounding it; roots and influential impact included. The latter is - prior - recommended reading for better understanding. 

I bought my 'Made in England' pressing (in reality pressed at MPO in Averton, France) of Doolittle [4AD CAD 905]not too long after the original's initial release. Contrary to the norm at the time, the album stood out not only for its superior musical compositions and arrangements but equally for its superior sound quality. As a 1980s 'Alternative' album it no doubt made my Top 10 list. Apparently others seem to share a similar opinion; for in 2009, the band began a European tour followed by a U.S. circuit and finally a few Canadian cities were added in spring 2011 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Doolittle; performing the album in its entirety and maintaining the original song order (like Kiss did with the Alive! tour and Rush with Moving Pictures and many others mostly emanating from the 1970s). Little details that are important for us 'pre-historic' music listeners but might as well be foreign to any of today's aleatoric-shuffled 'track jumpers'. In this age of 'instant-anytime-anywhere', the mere concept of recreating the original feeling of listening to an entire album without changing the song sequence (at a live concert no less) seems about as archaic as 'sitting in front of the tube', waiting for NBC's Thursday night prime-time line-up to begin at 8pm.

On this third Pixie release, the band changed producers once more. As opposed to Serfer Rosa, where engineer Steve Albini left his (non-interference) stamp by 'studio-stripping them naked', here they took another direction and went with British record producer and engineer Gil Norton who had previously worked on what is arguably Echo & the Bunnymen's strongest effort, 1984's Ocean Rain [Korova]; 4AD was certainly looking for a more 'traditional' producer's approach for this LP. The fact that they stuck with Norton for two further albums - 1990's Bossanova [4AD CAD 0010 or MFSL 1-311] and 1991's Trompe le Monde [4AD CAD 1014] - implies that whatever friction existed between Francis and Norton (regarding song layers, tempos and lenghts), both parties found enough common ground to make it work. Interesting is the 'delta factor' between Pixies, Nirvana and the common link uniting them - Albini. As alluded in part one; the band's second release Surfer Rosa - which later influenced Nirvana - was engineered and '(non) produced' by Albini while Nirvana's second release - the breakthrough Nevermind - was studio-produced by Butch Vig. Only after, did they 'dump him' and revert to a more 'purist' approach for their third release - In Utero - by hiring Albini while Pixies and 4AD had done the opposite two years prior.

Like Surfer Rosa, Doolittle was also recorded in their hometown; this time at Downtown Recorders, Boston, M.A. on 24-track analog and later mixed at Carriage House Studios, Stamford, C.T. The label must have pinned their hopes on this one, effectively quadrupling the budget to forty thousand dollars compared to the previous album; this excluding producers fee. 4AD afforded Norton the luxury of two assistant recording engineers plus two second assistants onto the project; a far cry from Albini's modest methods.


I compared this MoFi reissue with the original 'Made in England' MPO (Moulages et Plastiques de l'Ouest) pressing on 4AD; I did not have the original U.S. Elektra pressing as an extra counterpoint. While I often find some minor differences in hues, in this case both front covers were color-matched to near-perfection with the 'ORIGINAL MASTER RECORDING' trademarked-copper band, perfectly integrating in a symbiotic way on the original's top copper background, thus maintaining all of the latter's graphic dimensions - kudos. The back cover is close also but slightly less saturated and a bit shrunken to adapt to MFSL's default 'framework'. The artistic department at Mobile Fidelity went out of their way to present as complete a reissue as can be by creating a true gatefold jacket when none existed at the time and inserting - in the 'left hand' opening - a beautiful high quality 16-page 'album size' booklet containing seven sepia-toned pictures plus lyrics, that was only available in limited edition at the very beginning of its initial sortie. Inside the gatefold, a reprint of the back cover credits, over an artistic-appropriate background, is tastefully presented on rigid slightly-glossed cardboard. All this providing long term protection, satisfaction and great value for the true record collector; visually very impressive.

The original PMO-pressed vinyl weighs approximately 150 gram, looks fairly standard and is housed in a semi-rigid black, grey and off-white unlamented linen-effect textured paper, displaying the identical but smaller art-pics of the above mentioned booklet.

Turning our attention to the reissue: inside, the record is housed in their flexible anti-static rice paper 'Original Master Sleeves'.In addition, a folded light carton with 12 album covers and various products brings further record protection. The 180 gram heavy-weight LP is pressed at RTI in California. It was quite flat, black and shiny. A few small 'non-threatening' scratches on track-2 of side B was the only quibble on an otherwise perfect pressing. 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.



The JA etched in the 'dead wax' of the original lacquer most probably indicates 'cut' by engineer Jack Adams. The 4AD PMO pressing used only 2 3/4 inches of lateral modulation on side A leaving close to 1 inch of 'dead wax' and 3 1/4 inches on side B choosing to stay rather far away from the smaller radius of the inner-groove. This will in theory reduce high frequency distortion but consequently limits the lower frequencies amplitude and reach, which are intrinsically related to cutter-head displacement. With roughly 18 min./side A and 21 min./side B, the latter is pushing it a bit for sufficient bandwidth or cutting level for the chosen speed. This, equating to roughly 6.5 min./inch on both sides.

Mastering and cutting engineer Rob LoVerde went the other way, choosing a groove-spacing travel of just over 3 inches on side A and just over 3 1/4 inches on side B (leaving barely over 1/4 inch of 'dead wax'); equivalent to 6 min./inch and close to 6.5 min./inch of linear cutting displacement respectively. This favors better bass but is 'playing with fire' for the other end of the spectrum regarding the last track. Luckily, MFSL's use of half-speed mastering/cutting and typical lower cutting level will also reduce distortion in the highest frequencies and extend them by doubling the time the cutter head has to trace the groove. It will be interesting to compare these two opposite 'cutting' approaches, notwithstanding the differences stemming from mastering EQ's choices.


To start the 'match', I cued up the ol' 4AD to refresh my memory. As expected "Debaser" came out sounding pretty darn well for a recording of that era - remember we are talking 1989 and not 1959 DuNann/Contemporary 'perfection'. What stands out immediately is the punchy kick and groovy bass working in tandem, paired with a good helping of fine treble detail manifested in the tambourine. There is some compression present but it is quite tolerable and overall the tonal balance is quite satisfying. Switching over to MoFi brought out a smidgen more bottom supporting more the fundamentals rather than the harmonics in the kick and bass forming the rhythmic drive. A slight reduction in treble and top octave - a dB or two - lessened the tambourine in the mix and subjectively added a faint veil or lack of transparency in that region. Both masterings sounded good but on this track I hesitantly lean towards the 4AD.

"Tame" is in an even tighter race. The 4AD again displayed punchy kick drum and bass coupled with good dynamic shifts between the smoother drum and bass parts and the more aggressive guitar-driven riffs of which had nice lively 'edge'. The MoFi showed a bit more bottom but less attack on the beater, similar - to a small degree - to stuffing a pillow inside the kick drum; deadening the harmonics and shortening the resonant decay. Thankfully the aggressive part of the song remained about exact. So here it is a very 'close call' and I have to say it is more of a tossup than anything else; either one is equal and excellent in music and sonics.

"Wave of Mutilation" is more compressed than the first two tracks. The 4AD is weak in the bass and quite aggressive in the treble. MoFi is a hair less compressed, still hard in the treble but a tad more balanced; this time getting the nod for this admittedly below average track in sound as well as composition.

Fortunately "I Bleed" returns the prior higher quality on both levels. A slower tempo'ed song with militaryesque snare and strangely delivered vocals between Francis and bassist Kim Deal. The 4AD delivers very good punch, is tonally well balanced and has certain compression; nevertheless there are interesting dynamic swings in the kick drum at specific places. MoFi's version adds a bit more emphasis on the deep bottom and a bit clearer in the hi-hat, producing a wider 'wall' soundstage, making the former narrower or more 'mono-ish'. Advantage: MoFi.

"Here Comes Your Man" is much lighter in style and dare I say it 'commercial'; a true pop song in writing and execution. Written by Francis when he was a young lad of fifteen or so, it was decided head on that it would be better not to include it on 'Pilgrim not to clash with the more 'punkish-abrasive' direction of the mini-LP. In fact the song could easily pass for a Tom Petty tune or a latterday Velvet Underground track a la "Sweet Jane" from 1970's Loaded [Cotillon]. The 4AD is compressed - which increases with time - with lots of detail accentuation in the guitar strumming, to the point of starting to distort. Also the lack of bottom contributes to a thinner, ascending balance. MoFi turns the table around completely with what seems the best sounding track of side A. Engineer Rob LoVerde astounded me by rectifying the 4AD's above sins. Here we are rewarded with a very impressive deep-sounding 'big' kick drum, excellent tonal balance and good treble detail highlighting the acoustic guitar strumming. Compression rears its ugly head towards the coda also, but it seems less bothersome overall. Bottom line, the MoFi trounces the 4AD.

"Dead" showcases strange song structure sporting 'artistically'-distorted vocals with aggressive dissonant guitars preparing us for the noise rock movement just around the corner by the likes of The Jesus Lizard and the 1990s Chicago scene of Albini, Shellac and company. The 4AD has lots of attack on the kick but is a bit thin on the bottom and compressed in the mids and highs. The MoFi beats the craps out of the former with impressively deep and powerful bass drum; the whole much more listenable. Definitely one of the strong tracks.

The environmentally inspired, slow tempo "Monkey Gone to Heaven" is another of their most accessible songs. It was released as the first single of the album and features two cellists and violinists as guest musicians. The 4AD had no bottom as if a high enough 'low-cut' was engaged at all times. Lots of attack on kick and detail on tambourine leading to a clearer, less veiled sound. More edge on guitar but being the last side-song, sibilance rears its ugly head. The MoFi modulates a bit lower than its previous track - typical cutting trick - to help keep high frequency distortion at bay due to the smaller groove radius. Some compression and bandwidth limitations are also apparent but to a lesser degree thus favoring the reissue.


"Mr. Grieves" politely greets us with a short ska-ish intro, this soon transforming itself in an uptempo raucous drive of clean twangy guitars while alternating with a slower raunchy blues; quite an interesting musical 'ménage à trois'. The 4AD has punchy bass, a superb tonal balance and good startling dynamics between the opposing mentioned styles, making it one of the best sounding tracks of the album. The MoFi's intro is a touch cleaner because of the blacker background of the superbly silent RTI pressing - the percussive conga comes out a bit clearer also. Unfortunately there is less punch in the 60 to 100 Hz region - centering primarily on the kick drum - while the guitars and treble are softer sounding, robbing some of the natural rawness, edge and vitality of a 'rock' band; mirroring some of my perceptions on the opening track of side A. Advantage: 4AD.

If one were to base his or her opinion on only one Pixie song, the barely minute and a half fast-paced "Crackity Jones" could be excused for passing them for a hardcore band. This would have fitted well on 'Pilgrim or Surfer Rosa.On the 4AD, well-leveled aggressive guitars are juxtaposed with excellent punchy and snappy double-kick; sonics are almost on par with the previous track. MoFi's version is not as punchy, lacks a bit of grip with a softer sound, losing some of the dramatic inner-tension. We can speculate that the 5dB lower cutting level (even though manually compensated for during my 'A/B shootout' every time) can soften things a bit, just as a higher 'hot' cutting level will harden things by pushing the 3rd and odd-order harmonics of the cutter head. Finding the 'sweet spot' is difficult and sometimes key in zeroing in on the perfect yin yang of fiery drama and 'organic' relaxation. The previously mentioned shallow scratches were not audible.

"La La Love You" is a very original mid-tempo composition. The 4AD shows lots of emphasis on the 'snap' part of the kick while snare, cymbals and guitar strumming are clearly defined in the balanced mix. Nitpicking, some minute fuzz or dirt around the 8 kHz is hinted at. All in all, equal to the previous track, maintaining a high quality level. The MoFi displays superb deep lows and good kick articulation. Add to this; refined guitar strumming at the other end of the spectrum surpassing the 4AD in the top octave and absolutely perfect tonal balance leading to the second, if not the best sounding track of the LP.

"No. 13 Baby" is a slow tempo, mostly instrumental track alternating between loud electric guitar and a smoother acoustic side. Both versions were good with the 4AD offering a punchier kick intro and the MoFi, a more refined top end benefitting the acoustic string-strumming. Take your pick.

"There Goes My Gun" is to my taste the least inspiring song of the album. The original 4AD has a thin sound as if a lo-cut was applied, is compressed with an ascending tonal balance making it the worse sounding track of an otherwise well engineered project. Strangely it tends to coincide with side A's "Here Comes Your Man" in physical position vinyl-wise as well as sharing similar sonic aesthetics. The MoFi improves things a bit by going lower in the bass and surprise, better kick. Generally much cleaner and compression seems lessened. Advantage: MoFi.

The original 4AD's "Hey" is very dynamic, with great punch and deep lows. The treble and hi-hat are pretty much well balanced with just a hint of dirt and distortion, warming things up like a subtle tube flavoring; making it hard to beat. The MoFi does just that; with superb deep lows; a wider soundstage; a clean ride cymbal; incredible dynamic swing on snare; many short crescendo bursts and a perfect, creamy-smooth balance. Impressive enough to merit a - rare - perfect score and finding it the best sounding track of the album. Both masterings appeared cut at a slightly averaged lower level.

The only song penned by Fancis and Deal, "Silver" is quite original in style, standing out as a pair of white snickers would, at a royal wedding. With its big thumping bass drum setting the slow pace and dissonant twangy guitars bringing a hill country blues imprint to the track. The 4AD possesses good bass slam and places it front and center. The guitars are distorted to a degree and some minor inner groove distortion overlays the treble. Even so, the sheer bass 'whacks' let you forget or pass over the small irritants. The MoFi has a much wider soundstage, cleaner panned guitars and the bass slam veers more towards the lowest foundation rumbling than the higher punch. Almost too close to call on this one, but forced to choose: the MoFi by a sliver.

"Gouge Away" closes Doolittle with a more conventional 'compo'. The 4AD, as is often the case, is punchier in the bass and kick drum. The top end is veiled, lacking detail - remember we are close to the 21-minute mark - this reduces the stage width, sounding more mono-ish. Distortion increases a bit as we approach the coda. The MoFi has clean, panned electric guitars in the beginning and during the softer parts while the louder parts show the inner groove distortion creeping up, slightly more apparent than on the 4AD. I hypothesize this is mainly due to the 'modulated groove' terminating closer to the label, thus confirming my initial visual worry of 'cutting up' to such a small radius.

Summing up, contrary to KC and the Sunshine Band [MOFI 1-012] and The Cars Shake It Up [MFSL 1-325]where the reissues trounced the original from start to finish, producing a clear-cut winner; this second Pixie reissue by Mobile Fidelity while excellent, does not produce such a 'slam-dunk' outcome. That should not come as such a surprise, because the original import on 4AD (can't vouch for the Elektra distributed U.S. copy) simply was not 'messed up' like so many other 1980s releases; in fact it already held up pretty well. What MoFi has done is improved the visual and tactile aspects over any previous version in a substantial way and with RTI's expertise, provided a superior, thicker, noise-free pressing. Regarding Rob LeVorde remastering; although I preferred certain tracks or EQ choices on the 4AD (mainly for the accentuated punch and drive); by and large he significantly improved the bottom end on most tracks and with the half-speed mastering/cutting method, brought a refinement in the top end that did not exist prior to this reissue. In all fairness, during my evaluation I took several notes and rated every track of both issues individually on a scale of one to ten, added up the total and finally divided by fifteen to get the album average. For those interested: out of a maximum of 150, the 4AD gathered a total of 114, while the MoFi got 119, each roughly averaging 7.5 and 8.0 on 10 respectively. In that respect, the Mofi slightly comes out on top. Ratings varied between a low of 6.0 and a high of 10.

Final thoughts; if you are thinking of getting only one Pixies LP, go for MoFi's Surfer Rosa [MFSL 1-296]; with Albini at the helm and the superb remastering MoFi did, you cannot go wrong. If 'two is in the bag' and you are hesitating between which Doolittle to go with; the deluxe packaging alone would sway me towards the MoFi [MFSL 1-309]. Better yet, try to find a decent second-hand 4AD copy and add it to the above duo and make it a threesome, it's so much more fun.

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