Originally released on Radar
Rad 14 (1979, Jan.)
Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab
reissue MFSL 1-331 (2010, July)
Rating: 8.0 (Side A) 6.5 (Side B) / C
Category: artsy pop-rock
Format: Vinyl (180 gram LP at 33 1/3 rpm)
This review is the second of a two-part; the first covering 1978's This Years Model [MFSL 1-330].
As iterated in part one, Elvis Costello did not nor does he more today fit easily in any neat category. Ironically musicians normally hate the latter while music collectors and critics never seem to tire of them. For a fan it can be either frustrating - when you love the artist's latest album and they suddenly change directions - or inspiring that the artist is challenging him or herself and their hard-won audience.
Produced by Nick Lowe, Armed Forces is the third of five consecutive albums supervised by the 'grand daddy' of England's late 1970s turn-around. Whereas This Years Model was basically sparse-sounding, this time around Lowe was after a bigger 'artsier' sound. Though it is the first to be credited with The Attractions, it is in fact the second one recorded with this group. Roger Becherian was kept on as recording and mixing engineer - and would reprise that role for the next three albums - while the band was booked at Eden Studios in London for six weeks starting in August through September 1978. In a SOS interview, he admits that he enjoyed far more working on this album than This Years Model or the following Get Happy! with everybody involved believing this would be the breakthrough Elvis needed.
After a year of intense touring, the Attractions were well primed for a return to Eden, now sporting a 32-channel custom board patiently built up by Becherian with the help of studio founder and technical director Mike Gardner and technical engineer Chris Glass. By doing so and 'chosing custom' over API, MCI or Neve, the money saved went on to pay for arguably more important priorities such as hiring experienced acousticians and architects for the main studio, overdub booth and control room. In the studio the group basically retained the same layout as the previous album i.e. in a semi-circle. Contrary to expectations - given the 'artsier' direction and production - generally the band was captured in one whole take with minimal overdubs or insertions after selecting the best out of two or three runs. The Armed Forces sessions were recorded on a 24-track Ampex MM1200 running at 15ips with Dolby-A as the chosen noise reduction; a far cry from the rudementary 8-track down at Pathway Studios in North London used during the recording of his debut My Aim Is True [MFSL 1-329]. Interestingly four Revox recorders played a role as reverb and tape delay along with numerous plate and spring reverbs that came in handy on vocals. Some classic DBX and Urei compressors were solicited at times. Becherian stuck pretty much with the guide mike - a Beyer Soundstar with plenty of EQ - as Elvis' main mike, after the 47 kept cutting out on his vocals louder peaks. AKG's D25 & 451, Beyer 201, classic EV RE20, Neumann's U47 & 87 and Sennheiser 441 catered to Thomas' drumkit; even a pair of Coles 4038 figure-of-eight ribbon mikes were creatively deployed to capture rumble and spatial ambience. British/Scottish Lockwoods + Tannoy Ardens monitors on the previous release were now replaced by American JBL 4350s.
Contrary to This Years Model [MFSL 1-330], I did not have an alternate pressing to compare with so I evaluated it on it's own terms. Just like the previous reissue, MoFi follows the original U.K. graphic order keeping the 'Elephants' on the front cover instead of relegated to the back as in the U.S. version. In addition at the top is the 'ORIGINAL MASTER RECORDING' trademarked-cyan band, to match the sky at the top of the illustration. The MoFi's back cover reprints mostly the normal U.S front cover. MFSL's default 'framework' and barcode are added as usual. Inside the rigid gatefold, Elvis is seen suspended over a pool on the left while on the right, standing with The Attractions plus the song titles arranged around them. Strangely or perhaps simply to add their own touch, MoFi has reverse the dual color scheme pattern framing both preceding pictures which originally made up the LP sleeve.
Turning our attention to the reissue: inside, the record is housed in their flexible anti-static rice paper 'Original Master Sleeves'. In addition, there is a folded light carton illustrating 42 album covers and various products. All this serves as providing long term protection, satisfaction and great value for the true record collector; as usual with MFSL quality of packaging is high. The 180 gram heavy-weight LP is pressed at RTI in California. It was perfectly flat, black and shiny. 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.
Mastering and cutting engineer Shawn R. Britton utilised 3 1/16 inches on side A and 3 1/2 inches on side B for roughly 17 min. of modulation for side A and 19 min. for side B equivalent to 5.6 min./inch and 5.4 min./inch respectively of linear cutting displacement; pretty much optimum in this situation. MFSL's use of half-speed mastering/cutting and typical lower cutting level will in theory 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 "Rogo" on stamper A and some tiny heart symbols on stamper B as well as SRB.
"Accidents Will Happen" opens the album, confirming Lowe's intention of not wanting to produce a rehash of This Years Model. Gone is the rawness and diluted punk attitude' of the previous album; ditto for any New Wave flirtings. Instead fans are greeted by a much more 'studio-polished production' thanks in part by engineer Becherian passing from Eden's 16-track to the new 24-track as well as Costello taking the Attractions towards a less abrasive, more lyrical path. The general sound is both intimate and warm with deep bass coming through at times over the somewhat 'middy' intro and background, all complemented by soft highs.
"Senior Service" continues pretty much in the same vein sonic-wise but with a bit of compression present in the mix. Cymbals are non-aggressive. I found this to be the best track of the album in both departments.
The uptempo "Oliver's Army" is louder and more dynamic than the previous two. Steve Nieve's playing on the vintage Yamaha grand shows nice resonance. Sound is clean, less warm and livelier, nearly equaling the previous track in quality.
On "Big Boys", the main vocal is a bit laidback in the mix; while the panned back vocals are more upfront. There is awesome deep bass and the snare is compressed far in the mix.
Contrast that with "Green Shirt", where the snare comes out much crisper and present. Continuing with the drum, kick is a touch soft on the attack front but the toms are impressive and the cymbals are surprisingly subdued. Nieve's organ is kept far in the mix.
Closing side A is the slower smooth-tempoed "Party Girl". Here we encounter the first sign of sibilance on Costello's vocals most probably due to inner-groove distortion in this case (of course a CD comparison - which I did not have - could dispel my assumption). The piano is presented with nice presence and good weight in the lows, an all too rarity, especially in 'pop' recordings. Cymbals remain far in the mix. Good dynamic punch in the kick-drum adds to pleasure.
All in all the first half of Armed Forces proved to be consistently quite good, mildly warm and soft in the top octave graced by RTI's pressing which was perfectly silent.
Switching sides, "Goon Squad" boasts some different processing starting with reverb applied to main vocals and the ride cymbal decisively cutting more in the mix, contrasting with the first sides dryer presentation and softer shine respectively. Unfortunately the track seems already compressed leading to a lack of warmth. Panned back vocals are close up. Towards the midpoint of the song, there is a nice change of texture with the kick narrow and dead center taking the stage juxtaposed with Costello sounding intimate and dry on the right. Nevertheless, sonically the recording is a notch below the previous side.
"Busy Bodies"' riff borrows a bit from Roy Orbison's 1964 classic "Oh, Pretty Woman" [Monument]. The hi-hat comes out nice, crisp and upfront and cymbals are stronger than on side A. Again overall it is more compressed giving a 'middy' balance lacking bass.
Faster paced "Moods For Moderns" also borrows heavily its riff from The Doors "The Changelling" from 1971's L.A. Woman [Elektra or DCC LPZ 2050] (as did Lipps, Inc in 1979-80 with "Funkytown" [Casablanca] for that matter). Thankfully, sound gets back on track with good punch in kick and snare. Vocals are dryer and closer.
"Chemistry Class" has the floor drums panned, in effect widening the soundstage. Good balance between deep bass and nicely detailed treble marred only by some compression plus reverb on vocals.
"Two Little Hitlers" changes style with a reggae influenced rhythm at first then changing into a more soulful disco pattern. Snare remains crisp but hi-hat lacks top end. While there is good body to be found in the bass it remains veiled in the top end.
Last and least is "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding". This one shows heavy compression at the tracking and/or mixing stage and as a consequence sounds louder, easily causing listener fatigue. At times the drum goes deep which is the only positive point I could find. Costello's voice sounds modified plus there is sibilance and distortion probably due to the 'pinch effect' or the inner-groove limitation; making this track the worse of the album period.
As you can deduce, side B did not stand up as well as the first side at least sonically and I would tend to say musically also.
To wrap things up, this third release is more focused on piano, keyboards and guitar overdubs than driving drums and rebellious rhythmic rancor. I believe MoFi's Shawn R. Britton did a fine remastering job out of a generally fair but unequal recording; I strongly doubt the original U.K. Radar would prove otherwise. Although Armed Forces has its short moments of glory and Nick Lowe along with engineer Roger Becherian certainly demonstrate they are not one to rely on any particular formula - be it musical direction or technical sound - , I preferred the rawness and musical energy of This Years Model [MFSL 1-330] more. Of course if you consider yourself a die-hard Elvis fan (which admittedly I am not) then there is no internal debate, you simply get both or any other of the four reissued by MFSL. _________________________________________________________________________________________