Brilliant Corners #4: Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue

It turns out that PVC, or polyvinyl chloride—the stuff used to make Starbucks gift cards, imitation leather wallets, inflatable pool unicorns, the pipes under your sink, and Billy Idol’s pants—is also the main ingredient in phonograph records. And today we’re living in the silver age of PVC. Not the golden age, since records are no longer the dominant medium for recorded music, but these days we’re lucky to again have access to a remarkable amount of music stamped on top-quality hot plastic.

Better still, as listeners have become more knowledgeable and demanding, vinyl releases have become more scrupulously sourced, pressed, annotated, and packaged. Many of today’s records show an unprecedented level of care and transparency about their production—and sound terrific to boot. Some of these new records happen to contain old music, and a listener interested in buying a classic jazz title like, say, Sonny Rollins’s Way Out West has more choices than ever, ranging from the helpfully ubiquitous to the thrillingly exotic. Thanks to online resources like Discogs, they can choose between a wonderful-sounding 1957 original on the Contemporary label, a still-superb mid-1970s Contemporary reissue made with the original stampers, a delightful 1988 Japanese reissue from Victor, a 1992 Analogue Productions reissue mastered by Doug Sax, a 2003 version from the same company mastered at 45rpm by Kevin Gray and Steve Hoffman, a 2018 set with an additional LP of outtakes from Craft Recordings, and last year’s two highly limited reissues from the Electric Recording Company in the UK—one mono, the other stereo—that are currently averaging more than $600 on the resale market. These are only a few of the available options, and no doubt more will be released in the fullness of time.

In practical terms, this abundance means we are awash in great-sounding copies of landmark records. Consider the reissues of The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society (BMG/Pye Records/ABKCO BMGAA09LP), John Prine’s eponymous first album (Atlantic RD1 19156), Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue (Columbia/Legacy 88697680571), and John Coltrane’s Giant Steps (Atlantic 75203) currently residing on my shelf. The original versions of these records are difficult to find in good condition and range in cost from pricey to midlife-crisis insane. And in the case of Giant Steps and the Prine album, the first pressings don’t sound all that great anyway. The four reissues, mastered by Kevin Gray at Cohearent Audio, sound excellent, and, except for the Kinks record, can be had for the price of two tickets to see Puss in Boots: The Last Wish at your neighborhood cineplex. If only in regard to new vinyl, it is a quickening time to be alive.

At this point, attentive readers will begin to suspect that the preceding burst of sunshine is bound to be followed by some bitching. As it happens, the subject of this screed concerns those in the online vinylsphere who claim that today’s reissue companies are creating the best-sounding, definitive versions of a whole range of records from the golden age of the 1950s and ’60s. This opinion is echoed by certain audio writers and the copywriters of the companies themselves, some of whom will have us believe that the mastering engineers and technologies of the golden era were downright primitive compared to the technological wizardry and knowhow available to us now.

To get the obvious out of the way: In some cases, the online commentariat is correct. Outside Japan, the practices of the record industry in the 1970s and ’80s were particularly dire, and even in the golden age record bins were loaded with mediocre-sounding product. Just listen to original US pressings of Bill Evans on Riverside, Aretha Franklin on Atlantic, Dionne Warwick on Scepter, or Johnny Cash on Sun. In many cases, reissues have improved on the sound of this wonderful music.

But to my ears, many of the records from the 1950s, ’60s, and even early ’70s remain the zenith of recorded music on vinyl. I’m talking about the output of not only celebrated companies like Blue Note, Impulse!, Contemporary, RCA, Columbia, Decca, EMI, Mercury, and Capitol but also Reprise, United Artists, Warner Brothers, Elektra, ABC, A&M, CTI, Monument, Hi, Stax, Chess, Vee Jay, Duke, and others. The titles from some of the smaller companies aren’t going to impress anyone looking for transparency or neutrality, but an early-1960s Bobby “Blue” Bland release from Duke or a Jimmy Reed title from Vee Jay can teach us a lot about presence, physicality, chunk, color, and sheer excitement. And the best-sounding of these postwar records—the work of engineers like Rudy Van Gelder, Roy DuNann, Fred Plaut, Kenneth Wilkinson, Lewis Layton, C. Robert Fine, Bill Porter, and John Palladino, working at a time when LPs were the lingua franca of reproduced music—often make for astonishing listening.

For me, this realization took hold about 25 years ago after an encounter with a disconcertingly young guy who was selling some old Blue Notes on a blanket in Washington Square Park in lower Manhattan. He said they’d been given to him by his grandparents, which sounded like bullshit, but my curiosity got the better of me and I walked away $2 lighter with a beat-up copy of Sonny Rollins (Blue Note BLP 1542, sometimes called Sonny Rollins Volume 1). Years later, I figured out that what I’d bought was an original 1957 deep groove mono, recorded and mastered by Rudy Van Gelder in his parents’ living room in Hackensack, New Jersey, and pressed at Plastylite a few towns away in North Plainfield. But later that afternoon, when I lowered the record onto the platter of my forest green Rega Planar 3, all I knew was that it was scratched, scuffed, and dirty. Sure enough, after I lowered the needle, a sandstorm of noise crackled from the speakers. Which didn’t prepare me for the music that kicked in a second later: outside of a real performance, I’d never heard anything so vivid, colorful, big, and physically palpable. It had a level of realism I simply hadn’t encountered—it sounded undeniable, as though etched in stone. The groove noise didn’t detract from this sensation.

That nearly 70-year-old record still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, though my system has changed drastically. And today, my collection includes many other titles with that ultra-vivid Mount Rushmore sound: Canções Praieiras, a 10″ of Dorival Caymmi’s ballads of Bahia from 1954 (Odeon LDS-3.004); an original mono copy of Elvis’s His Hand in Mine (RCA Living Stereo LSP-2328); an early Parlophone pressing of the Beatles’ Rubber Soul (Parlophone PCS 3075); the Louvin Brothers’ Ira and Charlie from 1958 (Capitol T910); a 1961 Ray Charles and Betty Carter (ABC-Paramount ABCS 385); and a first German copy of Kraftwerk’s Trans Europa Express on the band’s Kling Klang label (Kling Klang 1C 064-82 306) are just a few that come to mind. As well as more 45s than I can mention here.

What I’m hearing on these old slabs of PVC is tonal density aligned with saturated color, dynamic kick, and the sensation of air being pressurized in the manner of actual music, which I think of as presence. And here’s the thing—I have yet to hear that sound from a reissue, no matter the source or cost. These days, many reissues cater to the concerns of contemporary audiophiles by offering more bass, a smoother and more neutral tonal balance, and an effect Herb Reichert calls “sparkle,” which you can hear particularly well on many Mobile Fidelity LPs. And of course, new releases go a long way toward satisfying the listening public’s Torquemada-like preoccupation with eliminating surface noise.

Yet to me, the reissues lack the uncanny realism of the best early pressings. Looked at more analytically, what I’m not hearing on these records is that density and saturation as well as a stratum of low-level information, particularly ambient information, that some listeners describe as “hearing the room.”

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