[SoundStage!]The Vinyl Word
Back Issue Article
December 2001

Found on Vinyl: Blue Note 10" Reissues and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion

by Jason Thorpe

I know that it’s not audiophilically cool to admit this, but I’m a bit of a sound-quality snob.

There’s something immediately appealing about a telepathically slick trio, or a hot big band playing their guts out, and a good system helps you get right in the middle of the action. To me, that’s what this hi-fi thing is all about.

But the magic often doesn’t work for me when I listen to older mono recordings. You know the kind -- the piano sounds like it’s in the bathroom under a bunch of towels (piano always seems to suffer the most), and the sound, in general, has that quarter-on-the-headshell tonality. Mono itself isn’t objectionable to me, as I’ve heard quite a few mono discs where there’s still a sense of depth and spaciousness, but, for me, the really old, flat-sounding discs just don’t cut the mustard.

Many people can hear past this deficiency in sound quality, and I envy them their ability. My high-falutin’ standards stop me dead in the water when I play older Charlie Parker and Theolonius Monk recordings, and that’s a shame as the level of playing on some of these records is no less than amazing.

Big Ten Inch Record

I guess that I was set up for disappointment when I picked up two Japanese Blue Note 10" reissues while I was in New Orleans last week (purchased from a neat store by the name of Magic Bus). I must admit that I bought these on impulse, drawn in by the cool Obi strip (Japanese overlay) and the neat, retro look of the covers. Also, the lineups bands were star-studded, and I was willing to take a chance.

I don’t want to dissuade anyone who enjoys these types of records, so right off the bat you should know that these are splendid pressings, in sumptuous packaging. The records are dead flat, silent, and made from fairly heavy vinyl. The liner notes are in Japanese, which, in my opinion, adds to the exotic nature of the albums, and the covers of these LPs, ladies and gentlemen, are glossy and suitable for framing.

But the sound -- it’s not that good considering the quality of other records from this period. Everything conglomerates in the middle in a sort of monophonic stew, and the records sound more like 1940 than 1950. But strangely enough, the more I listened, the less objectionable the sound became. Maybe I am starting to get it after all.

Anyway, the first of the two albums, Bud Powell’s The Amazing Bud Powell [Blue Note LP 5003], is a fairly fast-paced, horn-blowing, piano-slamming session with a stellar lineup that includes Max Roach and Sonny Rollins. After listening to the first track, "Night in Tunisia," I figured that Powell must have chased a handful of bennies with an entire pot of coffee -- it sounds here like he’s being paid by the note. Things settle down somewhat after that, and the pyrotechnics give way to a tolerably fast-paced groove. The cymbals are resolved quite well, but the flat-sounding piano still manages to have a bit of glare that precludes wicking up the volume. A casualty, I suppose, of increasing the resolution in the remastering process.

The other album, Lou Donaldson Sextet’s Volume 2 [Blue Note 5055], is a bit more of a swinging album that has a slightly more spacious feel, both to the sound and the music. Things are a bit more rhythmic here, less old-time bopish, with more attention paid to the space between the notes rather than on packing in as many as possible. I guess having Kenny Dorham, Art Blakey and Percy Heath backing you up wouldn’t hurt anyone’s sense of swing. As far as sound quality goes, the drums are the big winners here, with a sparkling cymbal sound and well-defined snare.

These 10" albums aren’t cheap. I’ve seen them in my local Tower Records for a stiff buck -- the prices are on par with Classic and DCC 12" reissues. That isn’t so bad, really, when you consider the high price of original Blue Notes (I’ve seen some vicious bidding on eBay). I guess what you’re paying for here is uniqueness and a sense of history rather than sound quality.

I’m exploding!

I made another blind purchase recently, this time at Applause Audio here in Toronto. While browsing through some of the records that those crazy kids are listening to (like those from Godspeed! You Black Emperor and DJ Food), I picked up the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s Orange [Matador ole 105-1]. In true magpie fashion, the shiny silver cover grabbed my attention. Rob, the storeowner, saw what I was looking at and told me that I was holding one of this American noise-rock band’s best records.

Be that as it may, this LP is startling, unconventional, somewhat abrasive and yet manages to be quite palatable. I’d describe it as avant-garde guitar rock-phunk with a jazz/hillbilly twist. Aiee! Perhaps you’ve noticed that the listenability of most albums is inversely proportional to the level of aggression. While bands such as Hole or Mr. Bungle are interesting, exciting and provocative, I seldom sit down and listen to a full LP side, let alone an entire CD. The Blues Explosion LP had me paying attention through both sides, which is a rare feat these days for any rock music, let alone something as jagged as this album.

The combination of nuevo-rockabilly and slashing chainsaw guitar work is great, but what really stands out is the group’s ability to bring the tune back home after they send it off into outer space. Coltrane was a master of this, and although I’m stretching the metaphor a bit, JSBE shares a sense of cohesiveness with albums like A Love Supreme. Tough company, that, but it’s this same ability to make a whole out of what might have been a set of fragmented parts that make JSBE a listenable album.

The sound quality here is very good. Each instrument has its own space, and the lack of murk emphasizes the crisp nature of the guitar work. At first I thought that the bass was a little thin, but some deep-fart synthesizer in one of the later tracks slapped that notion down. My version is flat and quiet, with little surface noise and no pops. At $14 Canadian, this record is a great value. Give it a try -- if you dare!

Next time: audiophile jazz pressings from Groove Note!

...Jason Thorpe


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