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Saturday, June 1, 2013

ELVIS COSTELLO - THIS YEARS MODEL

Columbia (1978, March)
U.S. pressing JC 35331

Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (2011, June)
reissue MFSL 1-330

Rating: 7.5/ B (MoFi)
Rating: 7.5/ B (Columbia)


Category: New Wave/pub rock
Format: Vinyl (180 gram LP at 33 1/3 rpm)

Musicians:


Vocals, guitar: Elvis Costello
Piano, organ: Steve Nieve
Bass guitar: Bruce Thomas
Drums: Pete Thomas
Lead guitar: Mick Jones on "Big Tears" 

. Written by Elvis Costello
. Produced by Nick Lowe 

. Engineered by Roger Bechirian at Eden Studios, London.
. Mastered and lacquer cutted at Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab in Sebastopole, CA by engineer Shawn R. Britton on the "Gain 2 System"
. Pressed at RTI in California
. Photography - Chris Gabrin


 
This review is the first of a two-part; the second covering his 1979 follow-up Armed Forces [MFSL 1-331].

'Next phase, New Wave, dance craze, anyways, It's still rock and roll to me'. Forgive me Billy but even if your name is Elvis, dress like Buddy and burst onto the scene in 1977, it ain't rock and roll to me, nor new wave or punk for that matter.

Don't you just hate it when a new artist emerges out of nowhere but you just can't seem to pin him down. That's pretty much what happened circa 1977 when a skinny 23 year old Declan Patrick MacManus, resurrected the long gone Cricket master - at least visually that is. Too polished to party with the punks, yet too spontaneously wild and brazen to be cast as art rock or progressive; the raw energy of the London scene was all there, but minus the Pistols' and Clash's 'no-future' natural negativity.



Mainly guitar driven with the occasional piano and 'cheesy' organ thrown in, Costello's debut album My Aim Is True [U.K. Stiff SEEZ 3] far from being traditional hard rock, did usher in a sort of 'new wave-old wave' oxymoron while all along keeping somewhat of a distance from the newborn - New York centered - New Wave scene. While borrowing from power pop on occasion, his unorthodox compositional style, lies in the roots of punk by way of the U.K. pub rock scene. In reaction to the highly complex symphonic, bombastic prog movement, groups like Dr. Feelgood and musician-producer Nick Lowe delivered a rawer 'back-to-basics' R&B sound; paving the way for the simpler, thrashier punk anarchists just around the corner.

 

Produced by Nick Lowe, This Years Model is the second of five consecutive albums supervised by the 'grand daddy' of England's late 1970s turn-around. Though not credited, it is the first one recorded with his new group - The Attractions - retaining only Steve Nason aka Steve Nieve on piano and organ from his debut release. Even Lowe who had participated on one song on the latter, confined his role strictly as producer on this second release. Engineer Roger Bechirian recorded them onto an Ampex tape deck at 15ips during 11 days in late 1977/early 1978 at Eden Studios in London and would continue in that role for the next four albums.


I compared this MoFi reissue with the first U.S. pressing on Columbia (from now on referred simply as 'the U.S.'); I did not have the original U.K. Radar Records pressing - mastered and cut by 'Porky' - as an extra counterpoint.


For the front cover, MoFi wisely opted to go with a reprint of the original U.K. LP instead of the U.S. version; the difference lying in Costello's pose behind the tripod-mounted camera plus the right-sided vertical color-bar strip. In addition at the top is the 'ORIGINAL MASTER RECORDING' trademarked-orange band, blending perfectly with the original orange title lettering. At first glance it looks as if the extreme left side is missing but in fact, being a gatefold jacket, the graphic simply 'wraps around' to the back. The U.S. is a standard issue jacket.



The MoFi's back cover graphic is sligthly altered when compared to the U.S. The room and angle shot are identical with the band striking alternate positions and slight variations in curtains and furniture. MFSL's default 'framework' and barcode differs also from the U.S. and U.K of course. Inside the gatefold is a reprint of the original inner sleeve's front and back cover.


With its rigid slightly-glossed cardboard, the MoFi reissue blows away the U.S. Columbia and most probably the U.K. Radar. All this serves as providing long term protection, satisfaction and great value for the true record collector; as usual with MFSL - impressive! Take note that this reissue adheres to the U.S. version and not the original U.K. song tracking which means that "(I Don't Wan't To Go To) Chelsea" is absent whereas "Radio Radio" is present.

My U.S. vinyl copy is extremely thin and flimsy, no more than 120 gram I estimate and rests in the aforementioned sleeve. 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 36 album covers and various products brings further record protection. The 180 gram heavy-weight LP is pressed at RTI in California. It was perfectly flat, black and shiny. Again there is no contest; the older U.S. Columbia is simply out of its league pressing wise. As per usual with MoFi, the new label does not try to reproduce the original (in this case Radar) but instead is plain black with silver writing.

The U.S. stamper's groove spacing uses up 3 3/8 inches on side A for roughly 17 min. of music and only 2 7/8 inches on side B for 16 min. of music; equating to approximately 5 min./inch and 5.6 min./inch respectively; more than doubling the dead wax on the second side. The latter will in theory reduce high frequency distortion but consequently limits the lower frequencies amplitude and reach, which are intrinsically related to cutter-head displacement. The U.S. Columbia mastering engineer is not mentioned anywhere.


Mastering and cutting engineer Shawn R. Britton chose a similar groove-spacing 'pattern' of just over 3 1/4 inches on side A and 2 7/8 inches on side B equivalent to 5.2 min./inch and 5.6 min./inch respectively of linear cutting displacement, also leaving more 'dead wax' on the second side. As noted above, while keeping the modulation far from the label has some advantages regarding high frequency cutting and playback tracking, I fear that the penalty may lie in the bass slam and extension. In theory I would have preferred a 'middle ground' around 3 to 3 1/8 inches. Of course reality sometimes shows us otherwise. 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. Engraved close to the label are the words "Pump it up" on stamper A and "Radio" on stamper B.
As with the past KC & S.Band, Cars, Pixies and Stevie Wonder reviews, I did a song by song 'A/B' comparison with the 'original' pressing followed by the reissue (MoFi); level-matched and VTA readjusted every time. 


"No Action" makes a great album opener owing much to The Who's earliest period with Attractions' drummer Pete Thomas borrowing heavily from Keith Moon's exuberance, confirming the former British quartet's influential mark on the punk and power pop movements. Costello solos first passed the starting line in the left speaker when the band enters with force in a hurried energetic pace unleashing the guitars. Interesting back-vocals interact with the lead. On the U.S., there is some compression present, mids tend to predominate the spectrum and the mix lacks punch in the kick and bass. The general 'picture' is mostly of a non-over-processed sound though not as 'raw' as an Albini recording. Joe Jackson's 1979 I'm The Man [A&M AMLH 64794] comes to mind in style and sound; i.e. fairly good but improvable. The MoFi is typically cut lower; even more so than usual at around 6 to 7dB soundmeter-measured at the listening chair. There is a bit more bass and a touch warmer - which is welcome; slightly descending in tonal balance and top octave but not to the point of sounding veiled. Overall the reissue bringing some improvement over the stock U.S., thus favouring the MoFi.    

"This Year's Girl" contrasts with a smoother tempo with New Wave-ish organ perhaps influencing Split Enz's "I Got You" from 1980's True Colours [Mushroom Records L37167]. This one sounds much better than the previous track. The U.S. has good deep reaching lows; drum toms have dept; soundstage is wide and transparent; good shaker and tambourine detail; panned back-vocals and well balanced non-agressive mix. The MoFi has a better punchier kick; crisper guitar in the intro; bass line is a bit more solid; back-vocals and soundstage seem a bit less spread-out making everything more centered. The EQ direction leans more towards greater tone than soundstage dimensionality, due in part to a bit less top end detail. So I would declare both pressings equal but different.

Once again Steve Nieve's organ playing on "The Beat" brings some New Wave textures to this midtempo track though the song structure is more a mix of rock and rocksteady. The U.S. features great rhythm articulation plus warmish kick and lows during the intro and verses; however when the chorus comes in, the sound takes on a louder aggressive stance with the upper mids predominating - losing the great tone - and a 'bathroom-sounding' ride cymbal. The MoFi's lows and drumkit is more intimate, a bit warmer, fatter and less articulate. Thankfully the chorus sounds less aggressive than the U.S. keeping more its bass in the mix and a hint of a 'veil' on top. A close call but I'll give it to the MoFi by a whisker.

On the energetic "Pump It Up", the intro probably inspired The Knack's power pop anthem "My Sharona" from 1979's Get The Knack [Capitol SO-11948]. The U.S. has good drum and bass; snare is compressed with some distortion on overtones and there is smearing in the vocals and highs. The MoFi's intro is more intimate; deeper bass in the drumkit; cleaner vocals and snare with the overtones significantly better and less smearing in the treble. Advantage: MoFi.

The bluesy "Little Triggers" starts with a piano fade-in. The U.S. shows impressive deep lows; cymbals are sweet; the drum toms occupying a wide space, displaying great resonance. The excellent mix also has nice dynamic shifts. The MoFi not surprisingly is a bit warmer, refined, sweet and solid with minor improvements most notably in the treble. Nod goes to the reissue.

"You Belong To Me" closes side A. Sounding very '1960-ish' in style, this one sounds like a ripoff of The Rolling Stones 1965 "The Last Time" [Decca] or The Monkees 1966 Neil Diamond compo "I'm A Believer" [Colgems] and in turn inspiring the J. Geils Band 1981 single "Freeze Frame" [EMI] in its uptempo rhythm and organ. The U.S. has good punch in the kick drum but highs are somewhat smeared. The MoFi's tambourine on the left is much cleaner and better; snare drum dynamics are also crisper and better. Tonal balance is fuller and warmer with a cleaner treble. Another MoFi win.

At the halfway mark the MoFi is in the lead showing a small but consistant sound improvement throughout the side including a dead silent pressing.


 
Flipping sides, "Hand In Hand" opens with a bizarre psychedelic-like intro, laden with phasing EFX. Like the preceding track, there is a 1960s 'twist' to the song. The U.S. sounds great with a warm, transparent and wide tonal balance with superb extension in both bottom and top octaves. Drum sounds are transparent making it the best sounding track of the album both pressings included. The MoFi is a bit more refined in the treble; cleaner; good dynamics but does not reach as deep in the bottom octave; so its close but this time the nod goes to the U.S. at least for my taste.

More than any other track on the album, "Lip Service" easily fits into the power pop paradigm serving base for more poppish material like Cheap Trick's "Surrender" from 1978's Heaven Tonight [Epic JE 35312] and Rick Springfield's 1981 hit "Jessie's Girl" [RCA] as well as certain Pixies songs. Excellently mixed; the U.S.'s tonal balance is spot on with superb deep bass and sweet highs at the other end; equaling the previous track soundwise. The MoFi sports more treble detail; the guitar seems higher in the mix with better strumming but again there is less emphasis in the bass and lower mids, giving a slightly ascending balance. Forced to choose, I would go with the U.S. because I tend to prefer a tonal balance centered on the bass and low mids but others may place more value on the superior treble purity and extension of the MoFi. Like fine wine, a matter of taste.

Next up is the ska-ish "Living In Paradise". The U.S. is veiled with softish bass. Good dynamic shifts with the louder chorus getting aggressive, producing some distortion and smearing in lead and back-vocals. Overall, lacks bottom making it the worse sounding track of the album. The MoFi fares quite a lot better in the treble and transparency department. No veil whatsoever making the ride cymbal superior and stomping all over the U.S. Better, crisper and more dynamic snare; wider soundstage; clearer lead and back-vocals. Big lack of bottom also; too bad because this musical style would greatly benefit from a solid foundation. Though far from excellent still a minor win for the MoFi.

Strangely "Lipstick Vogue" is the third song title in a row starting by 'Li'. The U.S. has an impressive drum roll intro followed by a deep grooving 'cushiony' bass. At times you can really feel the bottom octave rumbling on - an all too rare thing in pop or rock recordings. The snare and top end is a bit compromised by a light veil but nothing to the point of distraction. Dynamics are excellent for this musical type coupled by a very wide soundstage and fine mix; making a close second for best track of the album in sound and the top one music wise. The MoFi eliminates the veil. Sound is crisper with vocals seeming higher in the mix because of more energy in the upper mid and treble. This slight ascending balance produces much better detail on the ride cymbal but the bottom octave is not as prominent and weighty as if a mild low-cut was applied. This in turn lowers the grooviness and heightens the 'upfront' presentation; thus my sonic priorities sway me towards the U.S. I'm reminded of the Stevie Wonder Talking Book comparison I did in September; though to a lesser degree, my sonic impressions mirrowing pretty much the same results then and now between the original and MoFi's reissue.

The catchy "Radio, Radio" closes the album. The U.S. reaches deep in the lows. Unfortunately there is loud compression during the chorus and the cymbal has that 'bathroom' resonance to it. Treble is a bit veiled and smeared. Redeeming itself; soundstage is wide; interesting dynamic shifts and the final drum roll rumbles with good low extension and grip. The MoFi - as is often the case in the side end track - has no or much less veil. The treble detail is superior than the U.S. but a bit edgy also. Concurrent with this side, it lacks bottom and is a bit crisper and ascending especially during the chorus. Note that this side was as 'dead silent' as side A.

Contrary to side A where the MoFi came out on top, here the reverse seems through; my sonic 'tastebuds' favour the ol' - flimsy - U.S. Columbia pressing. Your mileage may vary.

In conclusion, although not an all out rave over some EQ choices on side B; the high quality of presentation, dead silent pressing and worthy improvement on side A, is substantial enough to include MFSL's reissue in your collection. If you do not own one already, I would recommend just the same that you get the U.S. Columbia as a complement to this reissue to get the best of both worlds. As for the original U.K. on Radar - that also could present an interesting third alternative for all the Costello fans out there.

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