New Turntable, New (Old) Vinyl

Spring has sprung and it’s time to write again. The world hasn’t quite ended but but I promise to get back to that before long.

In my last post I mentioned the latest Radiohead album, A Moon Shaped Pool. The more I listened the more it seemed like a recording made for vinyl . Which got me talking out loud about wanting to get back into listening to vinyl albums. Which inspired my wife to get me a turntable for Christmas.

I’m now the owner of an Audio-Technica AT-LP60-USB, which allows one to listen to vinyl through (and, if desired, make recordings from) a computer. So far this unit has exceeded expectations. It’s belt-driven (easy installation) and to my relief the table spins at the correct speed — in high school I had a Craig system that played records a hair too fast, enough to be annoying. The stock stylus yields clear, rich playback. The unit comes with a built-in pre-amp, an advantage over comparable models. It’s popular and a big seller, probably the best budget turntable for the investor in audiophile vinyl who wants assurance the player won’t damage his/her records.

Some reviews of vinyl versions of A Moon Shaped Pool pointed at bad pressings with surface noise and skipping. So I decided to use an Amazon gift card to pick up a couple of very different albums: 180 gram reissues from The Jimi Hendrix Experience and a lesser known English band, Slowdive.

img_20170312_152507455.jpgAre You Experienced? is a record my parents would’ve never bought me when I was six years old. Word was out that “Purple Haze” opened with chords that clearly contained diabolus in musica. By the time I was old enough to buy my own albums I was interested in bands like Kansas, Yes, and Pink Floyd. With 2017 would marking the 50th anniversary of the watershed year in pop music I wanted something to commemorate it. I’d heard the title track to Are You Experienced? enough times on album-oriented radio to decide it was a favorite deep cut.

The iconic bright yellow and purple album arrived, appropriately enough, on the first day of daylight savings time (Amazon made good on its promised shipping date, even though it was a Sunday). The 2014 reissue is among the last projects completed by remastering wiz George Marino. There’s minimal surface noise and clear playback with the depth, resonance, and analog edginess Hendrix deserves.

The whole album is an undisputed masterpiece and game-changer in the annals of electric guitar, so there’s hardly a superlative I can offer here that hasn’t been written thousands of times. Apart from the title track and the obvious hits (this is almost a greatest hits record in itself) I especially like dark finale to side A, “I Don’t Live Today” with its pulsating, strobe-like effect of Hendrix’s whammy bar. This LP is the American version, so another favorite “Highway Chile” isn’t present. But that’s hardly a complaint. I can’t wrap my mind around how great this record sounds.

img_20170314_121045.jpgA couple of days later Slowdive arrived. I ordered Blue Day, a compilation of early EP sides from the band’s first run between 1991-95. I discovered Slowdive while getting into Velour 100, a Michigan band which drew “shoegaze” comparisons. After listening to every recording of Slowdive available on YouTube I concluded their EP’s were stronger than their first two LP’s (they later made an excellent experimental third album as their contract expired).

Blue Day (1992) captures Slowdive at their late teen, pristine, pre-LP creative best. They had no producer in the traditional sense; engineer Chris Hufford allowed the band to “explore the space.” The results were arresting. While following the steps of My Bloody Valentine in terms of arrays of effects pedals (hence, “shoegaze”), Slowdive forged their own slow, sad, and gorgeously ethereal sound. Buried under the swirl of effects and distortion were plaintive pop songs. Chief songwriter Neil Halstead had not been allowed to listen to pop records as a youth; he reached into a classical and orchestral background to create something with density.

“Avalyn 1,” the second track on side A, is simple in construction — a repetitive two-chord progression — but important in documenting the moment when Slowdive found their signature sound. The next tracks, “Morningrise” and “She Calls” are among their very best, displaying an almost cinematic intensity.

Why did they quit? The Britpop rivalry between Blur and Oasis erupted; suddenly “shoegaze” was dreadfully out of fashion — or, as Slowdive drummer Simon Scott put it, people were no longer “willing to admit they liked it. Halstead and Rachel Goswell (Slowdive’s female voice) continued as Mojave 3 while the other members pursued other projects inside and out of music. But Slowdive’s music didn’t die. In fact, in their absence it attained cult status. Such was the demand for a reunion that Slowdive reassembled for tours in 2014 and 2015. Now there’s a new album in the offing, and another tour this spring. I’m going to see them in May during one of just eight North American dates. I hope to get close enough to watch guitarist Christian Savill’s technique.

So I’m happy with the turntable and these first couple of high-quality vinyl acquisitions. Hendrix sounds better through headphones while Slowdive is better through speakers — especially Nick Chaplin’s bass — owing, I suppose, to how their respective albums were engineered.

With all the other media available for music I don’t see myself spending a lot of money to rebuild or replace an old record collection (some are still playable). But my short list includes Led Zeppelin (I would argue their best), King’s X Dogman (to compliment Hendrix), Buffalo Springfield Again,  Boards of Canada’s Geogaddi, and that mysterious bootleg of Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii. 

Oh, and that Radiohead LP if they get the pressing right.




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