11 reasons you must listen to Prince’s Around the World in a Day

When Around the World in a Day was first released in 1985, the music biz was not set up for a binge-watching generation of media consumers. They took their damn time, hyping a record for months before it came out, and teasing us with a single that got played on the radio for six long weeks before we could get the new album or CD.

Prince had just come off Purple Rain, the album, the movie, the tour, the four top-10 singles including two #1s. With Purple Rain, he established himself as one of the great pop stars of the era who could run with Michael Jackson, Madonna and Phil Collins. He filled the airwaves and our Walkmans with catchy, funky-ass grooves we adored.

Then came the interminable wait for him to get off the road, recover, make a record, and for the music-biz hype machine to reload. After what seemed like an eternity — we were all dying for new Prince to drop — came “Raspberry Beret.” Wow! Its unforgettable chorus framed a coy-yet-self-effacing tale (“Built as she was, she had the nerve to ask me if I planned to do her any harm”) about that quirky girl who walked in through the out door.

As a teenager, I could relate. I wasn’t working in a five-and-dime store like the narrator, but I was working in a small-town mom-and-pop grocery store. Close enough. During the summer, I’d see dozens of her kind, tanned and bored, coming in for a bag of chips. Or sodas. Or smokes.

We had to wait six weeks for the album to come out after this tantalizing foretaste of the followup to Purple Rain. We were almost crazy with anticipation of its release, ready to throw down with more Minneapolis synth-funk pop and get the party going again.

When Around the World In a Day finally came out, much to the distress of those of us looking for more upbeat danceable pop tunes like “Take Me With U” or “Let’s Go Crazy,” were instead served a weird set of quasi-psychedelic hippie shit, capped with the awkward free-jazz devil-and-angel romp of “Temptation” that ends with Prince being sent to hell to pay for all his pervy fantasies. Clearly, “Raspberry Beret” was the best of the lot, and it was all downhill from there. It was a drag. A disappointment. A weird left turn from 1999 and Purple Rain. A sometimes difficult listen.

That was then. Recently I’ve revisited Around the World in a Day, listening over and over, on the phones, in the car, on the turntable, wherever.

I’d kept it around over the years, even picking up a vinyl copy on one of my record-store sojourns, but never really revisited it much over the decades. Turns out this record I’d chalked up as an experiment gone bad is, in hindsight, pretty fantastic.

Prince Around the World in a Day vinyl recordBut enough of my story. This post is all about why you should get into this record if it somehow escaped your collection. Or, if you’re a longtime Prince fan but haven’t picked it up in awhile, why it’s worth revisiting, particularly on vinyl:

  1. The Revolution’s still at their peak. Prince fans know each of his bands have their charms, but there’s nothing like your first. Wendy and Lisa are here, doing their semi-disengaged-yet-cool Wendy and Lisa things, especially on “Pop Life.” They worked in perfect deadpan contrast to Prince’s whirling dervish.
  2. Sheila E’s here, too, on “Pop Life.” Any record with Wendy and Lisa and Sheila E on drums qualifies as peak Prince, period.
  3. “America.” Definitely a precursor to the song “Sign o’The Times,” Prince’s USA hasn’t changed much, as we will hear politicians in this election year talk about the same problems he sang about 35 years ago. Like Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” it’s an anti-anthem whose groove totally would have fit on 1999. Don’t let today’s self-described patriots in on the joke.
  4. It gave rise to the legend of Paisley Park. Little did we know at the time that the peaceful refuge Prince sings about in this song would become his brand, his home, his studio, and ultimately, where he passed away a victim of the drug culture against which he railed in several songs.
  5. It was a wireframe for Sign o’The Times. Sign was a masterpiece. The half-formed characters here led to, for example, more fully developed ones such as Cynthia Rose in “Starfish and Coffee.” You can hear in songs like “Tambourine” the beginnings of Sign’s legendary genderfluid Camille alter ego.
  6. Speaking of “Tambourine”: That bass groove is straight out of the James Brown playbook. Oh my gosh it is fun-ky.
  7. “The Ladder.” This at first may have seemed like a cheap remake of the song “Purple Rain,” a throwaway aimed at the pop charts. Now with the perspective of Prince’s whole catalog, we can see it clearly bridged the song “Purple Rain” and “The Cross,” Prince’s slow-burning signature song from Sign. He got there from here.
  8. The psychedelia kinda grows on you. In 1985, the flutes, Mellotron-esque synth effects, Indian drone of the title cut, tambourines, and the finger cymbals were so passé that we held our noses. Fairlight synthesizer post-disco, Depeche Mode and stripped-down stuff like INXS’s Kick were hot at the time; Around the World in a Day made us groan. But Prince got the last laugh: this record aged a lot better than the aforementioned pillars of 1980s radio and video.
  9. He gets his Jimi Hendrix on. Prince was part Jimi Hendrix at times, part James Brown at others. While listening to “Temptation,” just focus your concentration on just the guitars. Amazing work.
  10. It sounds better on vinyl. Vinyl isn’t always better for 1980s records. Sometimes, they sound thin, probably because digital was coming in and LP mastering was an afterthought. That, and the vinyl was thin junk. This one, however, sounds great. At least my pressing does, played on my vinyl-attuned rig.
  11. The record jacket is amazing. I never got this on vinyl until a few years ago; I’d had it on cassette and CD before. The trippy Jim Warren gatefold art inside and out is fantastic, and the record label (pictured above), when spinning, is a trip unto itself.

Dealfeayo Marsalis on New Orleans jazz, and the vinyl renaissance

When I travel to New Orleans, it’s my custom to book bed-and-breakfasts in the Garden District instead of staying at the cookie-cutter hotels downtown. Well, it used to be B-n-Bs; today it’s all Airbnbs or Vrbos. When I reserved one last November, I went to give up my credit card and oh my gosh! It was run by Delfeayo Marsalis. At first, I thought it was some sort of scam, or maybe a rental management company using his name. Nope.

It was indeed Del’s place. We chatted a bit on the website’s messaging system about check-in and logistics, and I finally mustered up the courage to confess I was a longtime fan. Always the gracious host, he let me twist his arm and agreed to sit down for an interview for Fluckwittery.

New Orleans jazz is a particular strain. Beyond the second-line beat, how do we know it when we hear it?

Delfeayo Marsalis: New Orleans music is more rooted in what we would consider funk. You go back to someone like Jelly Roll Morton, and much of his music is based on a groove. So, at a certain point when swing was introduced, more of what is swing is identified as jazz, so, we always say the swinging ,which is the basic pattern, chang-chang-a-lang, that kind of groove.

New Orleans music, first of all, is major key, and not minor tonality. And it is sometimes referred to as happy jazz. So, the elements would be the groove, major key, and it puts you in a good mood. The specifics of it — like on piano for example — it’s a combination of the Spanish tinge and the rhumba.

Another aspect — not all New Orleans music is the same — but is what we call the “big four,” which is the accent on the fourth beat. But it’s always rooted in the groove.

What differentiates New Orleans funk from Parliament-Funkadelic, or “Jungle Boogie” and other popular ’70s funk?

New Orleans was the basis for most of it. So just like Louis Armstrong and the early New Orleans sound — Freddie Keppard, King Oliver — once it moved to different places, then you hear individuals who were giving their interpretation of what that is.

What makes New Orleans the most unique city in America, still, is that we have kept more African traditions than any other city in the country. That goes back to the way the music makes you feel. It’s directly related to the Africans’ interpretation of what is important about music.

So many times we try to describe music in technical terms, but the idea of how the people are down here, very warm in the idea of the southern hospitality. That’s African, that’s straight out of kind of the African handbook. So I’d say that that’s an extra crucial element to it, not only the Africanism, but just the kind of the spirit of the music.

Having studied [European composers such as] Beethoven, Stravinsky, Bach and Monteverdi…that feeling that you get from jazz when it’s played correctly, does not exist in the European tradition.

I was reading an article saying something to the effect that classical music was the greatest music ever because of its range of emotion. It does have a wide range of emotion, but there is something [about] the human existence it doesn’t get. It doesn’t get the 20th century human the same way. When you hear that feeling of Duke Ellignton’s jungle sound or Louis Armstrong, it hits you inside a certain kind of way. The classical music tradition just is not those roots.

When you name someone who really embodies New Orleans music, my family would not really be that. We’re from New Orleans, obviously, but we play more modern jazz. It would be Fats Domino, James Booker, Professor Longhair, Dr. John. Today it would be Trombone Shorty, the guys who come out of that funk tradition.

I love my folks [like] Parliament in the funk. My point is, when Louis Armstrong came out and the other guys took it, that funk from New Orleans, once it spread out, it became reggae, ska. You can hear all of those sounds in the early New Orleans music, and it’s just another culture’s — or another part of the country’s interpretation — of what that is. Like the Motown scene. That’s definitely New Orleans, straight up New Orleans.

Do you listen to vinyl, and it is part of the music you’re putting out?

I used to listen to vinyl a lot. It’s regrettable that none of my albums have not been released on vinyl yet, with the sound quality that I made. But as a producer, I take the sound quality and the packaging, very seriously. I’m going to put some vinyl out probably by next year.

Why do you think vintl has made such a strong comeback after being dead so long

Being analog, vinyl has the wider dynamic range than digital. The human ear can hear
the high highs and low lows, whereas digital doesn’t get a high high or the low low, it gets just the high and low, right?

You put a CD in and it sounds really clean and it’s really good. But it doesn’t have the same range. Whereas you have the album and an album that’s recorded analog. And you crank that bass it’s for real? We feel it, it’s not pretend bass, it’s the real deal. So I think that’s really the appeal. Americans are enamored with the bass, moreso than the European tradition.

Delfeayo’s Uptown Jazz Orchestra performing at Snug Harbor in New Orleans, November 2019.

What’s the story behind your Wikipedia page talking about the “dreaded bass sound,” anyway?

I just put a mic in front of the bass instead of the direct signal, it’s more difficult — I’ve been using more bass-direct lately because of the volume.

It started off as a joke. Branford did a Downbeat article when he was first played with Sting, and he mentioned me. He mentioned that I was at Berklee trying to develop a microphone capture more bass, which was that wasn’t accurate. I was at Berklee, but I wasn’t making microphone [laughs]. But there was a guy that wrote into Downbeat and said that “Branford has to accept it! Bass-direct is here to stay!” and he was really defensive. So as a joke on the next CD, Renaissance, we said “This was recorded without usage of the dreaded bass sound.” It was a complete joke.

After that, we just kept putting it on there, it became this thing. It’s like, “no bass-direct!”
The whole movement started off as a joke.

Does the vinyl renaissance help you as a musician? How long do you think it will last?

No, but only because of the the cost of vinyl. I don’t see that being lucrative. Well,
it could [drive new fans to shows who discovered us on vinyl], but I don’t think so. I think it is it’s almost like a novelty. It’s easy to sell you know, maybe 100 copies, maybe even a couple of hundred, but I don’t think we will ever see 10,000 albums being sold. Maybe Beyoncé or whoever, I don’t know.

It’s not only the cost of manufacture, but when you deal with vinyl there’s so much more that you have to deal with — a certain percentage of breakage in the returns, and then you have the freight and the weight. Whereas with CDs, you just don’t. And companies are trying to make the music so that it just disappears. Now you have the MP3, you have it on your iPad, your iPod, your iPhone.

Delfeayo Marsalis’s Jazz Party

In the 1980s, growing up in an Ohio farm town, the jazz sound mesmerized this fumbling (still fumbling, four decades later) musician, playing keyboards in the high-school jazz band. While running through pat charts of Glenn Miller and other big-band standards, deep down, I suspected there was more to jazz.

“At least they were playing that,” Delfeayo Marsalis said, in all seriousness, when I told him a little about myself, interviewing him for Fluckwittery at his home in New Orleans’ Garden District late last year.

At the time modern jazz seemed to be at loose ends, with the cool-era greats slowing down and ’70s fusion running its course. Hair-metal and synthesizer drones ruled the pop charts. Jazz was not cool to the average music consumer. It was kinda hard to find, as many people had tossed out their record players, but the compact disc was just coming into its own.

Then the Marsalis family bum-rushed the scene. Trumpet god Wynton came first, playing classical and jazz, demonstrating acute academic understanding of anything he touched. Branford and his sax came next, evangelizing the art of the funky jazz jam with his crack band backing Sting on his post-Police records, most notably on the 2-LP Bring on the Night live set.

Without Sting, Branford’s band had their own popularity arc. I somehow scraped together enough quarters to see them when they played at my college, Ohio University. Ellis, the father, was a University of New Orleans professor during this period, but also found time to record his music.

Their records even made their way to rural Ohio, and were my gateway drug to the broader jazz world. Used record stores today usually have some Marsalis records in their jazz crates. Post LP-era Marsalis recordings can be found in the CD stacks (if you run across Wynton and Willie Nelson’s live set Two Men With the Blues, it’s a freaking riot). All are worth checking out, if you’ve got even a teaspoon of jazz appreciation in your veins or, if you are like 1980s me, beginning your explorations.

Listening to those guys led to the appreciation of Miles, Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Diz and Bird, Herbie Hancock, Ahmad Jamal, Dexter Gordon, and on and on and on. Later, a soul-jazz thing took root, too, as I ran down piano and Hammond B3 organ players from Oscar Peterson to Les McCann to Ramsey Lewis and Jimmy Smith, Groove Holmes, Jimmy McGriff, Brother Jack McDuff, Shirley Scott and many more.

Hearing Wynton play his reinterpretation of “When You Wish Upon A Star,” specifically, pried open my brain and made me want to hear more jazz. Branford playing “St. Thomas” and Wynton’s “Cherokee” made me run down everybody else’s version of those songs I could find.

In the early 1990s, Jay Leno took over Johnny Carson’s seat on late-night TV. Branford was Leno’s new Doc Severinsen, and continued our Marsalis jazz educations weeknights in our living rooms at every commercial break.

Younger brother Delfeayo, a trombonist by trade, produced Branford’s records at his Columbia Records peak. I came to appreciate him later in the 1990s, as I visited New Orleans and fell in love with the city, its food, its music, its culture, its Louisiana spirit.

On one of these trips, my wife Kate and I went to Snug Harbor down on Frenchmen Street to catch Delfeayo, who was playing with a quartet or quintet at the time. Jason, yet another Marsalis brother, was on drums. We didn’t know much about Delfeayo, but with that last name, it had to be good, right?

Oh, yes. The gig blew us away. First off, the piano player was late, stuck in a hotel gig downtown. But Ellis happened to be there, picking up food to go. Seeing Delfeayo was short a pianist, he strolled up to the stage, set his to-go bag on top of the piano, and started playing. It didn’t matter that Ellis was in sandals, shorts and a madras shirt while the others were in perfectly fitted suits; when he took command at the keyboard, the others stood up a little straigher at attention. After a few tunes, the regular piano player came in — wearing full tails — and Ellis took his leave, food in tow.

Such are the experiences that a jazz fan remembers, always.

Delfeayo is part showman, part educator, and part businessman, always putting a record producer’s attention to detail on everything he does. His Uptown Jazz Orchestra, a little big band, has been together since 2008 and is tight, perfectly rehearsed, and plays a blend of standards, original compositions, tributes and jams. When they’re in town, they play regularly at Snug Harbor. I had the privilege of seeing the band in New Orleans last November and then again at the Iridium on New York last month.

Delfeayo Marsalis taking a solo turn at the Uptown Jazz Orchestra’s January 2020 show in NYC at the Iridium.

They have fun, stretch out in hot solos, and yet…Delfeayo pauses between songs to set the context of each, explaining how Roy Hargrove, Basie, and a host of others who came before are worth remembering — and reimagining. He sneaks in Marsalis family jazz education while bringing down the house with equal parts funk and swing. There’s no weak spot in the lineup; each player blows with withering abandon.

The group’s new recording, Jazz Party, comes out this week, a blend of New Orleans party music and headier stuff that pushes jazz forward while invoking those 20th-century greats.

“Raid at the Mingus House Party,” a cacophonous rave-up with a second-liney New Orleans beat, perfectly catches the zeitgeist of what Delfeayo’s trying to accomplish: Onstage, he introduces it as a tribute to Mingus. Yet it thoroughly captures today’s life, “like opening a lot of windows on your internet browser,” he says, testing how many different melody lines at once the human brain can keep track of.

“The answer is ten,” he says. “Maybe eleven.”

Go get the record. It’s polished, smart, variegated in sound and style, and infused with New Orleans energy. And of course, produced by Delfeayo with an assist from Branford. That means, while it’s not yet out on vinyl, the recording will make your audiophile rig reveal all those nuances sometimes lost listening to so many dusty grooves of well-loved wax.

Next: An interview with Delfeayo Marsalis on what makes New Orleans jazz so recognizeable.  


Why vinyl sounds different: Pete Weiss Q&A, pt. 1

Pete Weiss is a guitarist, bandleader and label owner as well as a veteran New England studio engineer and producer. His Weisstronauts have toured the U.S. on and off the last two decades, and his Verdant Studios in Vermont hosted many artists’ recordings. Weiss also prepares vinyl masters for Run Out Groove, a fascinating low-run vinyl label that polls subscribers on which out-of-print, new-to-vinyl and previously unreleased records to release. Titles range from rare soul reissues to new creations such as an MC5 compilation.

This is the first of three Q&As, talking about vinyl aesthetics and the reasons this old, formerly dead format continues to attract new listeners — many of which were born after the 1980s, when CDs replaced vinyl as the dominant music format. Part 2 talks about the Weisstronauts’ recent Flat Bottom Cold Greaser recording, and Part 3 digs into the Weisstronauts, Run Out Groove topics, and Weiss’s connection to Grammy magnet, Memphis producer and vinyl specialist Jeff Powell and Sam Phillips Recording Studio.

Mojo: Vinyl’s renaissance continues. Why is that, from your perch in the biz as a full-time studio guy?

Pete Weiss: I don’t think there’s one answer to that. You hear the younger generation has discovered it for the first time; I think they are reacting to cloud-based media, and are embracing and enjoying a new experience to them — holding physical media.

Not only that, but large physical media that’s analog, that can degrade slowly and has large artwork. So it’s something to behold and enjoy more as a listening ritual — you force yourself to get into an active listening state, rather than just throw something on as background music. It becomes a ritual: You take the record out of the sleeve, you clean the dust off, you make sure your turntable is tuned up. There’s more steps than turning it on and hitting a button.

What is the difference between vinyl sound and a high quality digital file — not counting the horrible scratchy streams and super compressed files?

Do you want the technical answer or the metaphysical answer?

The Weisstronauts’ 3-guitar attack. Weiss is the Mark Mothersbaugh-looking guy in the middle.

The people reading this aren’t the same people you talk to in your Tape Op interviews, they’re listeners, not studio denizens.

I’ll try to answer that with a nod to both. Technically when you listen to a record, it has a frequency range similar to the real world, in that it theoretically reproduces very low frequencies that we cannot perceive and very high frequencies we can’t perceive. But they are rounded off.

So if you think of a graph of low to high frequencies that we can hear, there’s the midrange, which we definitely can hear. To the right on the graph, into dog-listening land, it kind of rounds off. Then when you go to the left — things that whales and elephants can perceive — it tails off as well.

In digital, there’s no tail-off. When digital technology was developed in the 1970s and 80s, it was decided, “Well, the human ear can’t receive anything below 20Hz or above 20,000Hz so we’re going to do a brick wall of the frequency response.” So CDs and MP3s go up to a certain high frequency and low frequency and there’s absolutely nothing above and below that.

You would think that would be fine, because we can’t perceive something above or below those frequencies, but there’s evidence that suggests that the frequencies that we can’t hear do affect the lower frequencies we can hear — they sort of dovetail and interact.

If those super-high frequencies and super-low frequencies are missing altogether, there’s something kind of like an “uncanny valley” that we perceive. Something’s wrong, not quite real. In the real world, these frequencies exist. Even if we can’t perceive them, they affect us in ways we don’t quite know. For those to exist in vinyl — even though they’re sort of rounded off because of technical limitations — there’s the suggestion that vinyl can sound more comforting because it’s more realistic to how we perceive it in the real world. Rounded off, not truncated.

This sounds pretty subtle and subconscious, as opposed to a huge difference.

I don’t want to come off as a purist one way or another. CDs can sound awesome. I listen to CDs a lot. I think a lot of vinyl sounds kind of crappy because it’s not prepared correctly — or it’s scratched [laughs].

There’s no shortage of used vinyl out there, and that’s awfully fun when you’re on a budget. You can go into a good record store with a $20 bill and you can afford to take a chance on five or six records and give it a shot.

I embrace all of these formats and see them for their strengths. The strength of a good quality digital recording such as a CD is portability, durability, consistency. There’s a technical limitation with how much bass you can put in a vinyl record, because the needle will jump out of the groove. You’ve probably noticed that vinyl may sound warm and fuzzy, but it doesn’t have that super-low end that we sometimes hear in digital formats. So there are pluses and minuses for each.

What is the future of vinyl? Is it a fad that will go away? What’s driving it? Seems like there’s more to it than frequency response because the kids are picking it up. A lot.

Getting back to the tactile thing and the ritual that you put yourself through to play a record, I think there’s a future for it.

The cynical side of me thinks it’s a fad, and the cynical side of me is concerned about some of the high prices for new vinyl; these $35 super heavy 180-gram pressings make me wonder a little bit. But there’s no shortage of used vinyl out there, and that’s awfully fun when you’re on a budget. You can go into a good record store with a $20 bill and you can afford to take a chance on five or six records and give it a shot.

“Cautiously optimistic,” how about that?

As a bandleader (The Weisstronauts) and a collaborator with other artists (such as Hayley Thompson-King), I see you are putting out your own vinyl. Is that a vanity project, then, or breaking even at least on those investments?

Hayley is, uh, more professionally serious than my band [laughs]. I don’t think hers is a vanity project. It is a calculated business move. Her fans are saying, “When’s the vinyl coming out?” She’s running her own label, it’s difficult because it’s pretty expensive to produce vinyl nowadays. Shipping alone is quite prohibitive. For a Scandinavian tour earlier this year, she wisely had vinyl manufactured in the Czech Republic and shipped within the E.U. — so she didn’t have to ship it from the U.S.

The Weisstronauts LP [Control is in Your Command, a 2012 compilation] — that was closer to a vanity project. We’re a niche group, but the thought was that, at shows….we have seven or eight albums and we’d always get new fans coming up at the merch table and they’d be baffled by all these CDs. “Which one’s the best? Which one should we buy? We just saw you guys for the first time, we loved you, but which one is the best album?” Of course I’m like, “They’re like my children, they’re all great, I love ’em all!” So we put out a best-of. You can’t really call it greatest hits because we haven’t had that elusive first hit yet [laughs], but it gives us an easy answer to that question — the best-of CD.

We’d been together 15 years at that point so we thought we’d splurge and do a limited run of vinyl and maybe a few people will buy it. Luckily, they have. It started with a limited run of vinyl, a vanity thing, but I think we’ve just about broken even six years later. It was a fun experience. Lots of cash outlay, I don’t think we’ll be doing it again unless the demand is there.

Is it hard to get run at a pressing plant when dumb stuff like Lord Of the Rings soundtracks and Taylor Swift is clogging all the bandwidth despite, in my opinion, their not deserving a spot in line ahead of cool indie bands like yours?

I think that’s not as big of a problem as it used to be. Five years ago, there just weren’t as many plants but since then, more cutting lathes have been put back into commission. A few more plants have opened up, and existing plants have expanded.

I think that has eased the pressure. But I remember hearing how Record Store Day would screw everything up. All the major labels would push the indies out of the way and would mess up everyone’s schedules. It seems to me that the waiting time is not what it used to be.

Les McCann Ltd. plays the Shampoo at the Village Gate red vinyl

New vinyl repressings: Better or worse than vintage?

OVER AT THE MOJO INSTA the other day, Bryan, one of my all-time best pals, wondered aloud whether buying new digitally remastered reissues of records is “better” than purchasing originals. What, he asked, was my experience?

I’d just posted the red-vinyl variation — I don’t think it’s a reissue — of Les McCann Ltd Plays the Shampoo at the Village Gate pictured above at a flea market. Nevertheless, it got us talking: When do you upgrade, and what do you upgrade to?

Record people invariably run into situations similar to this: You find a record you want on the racks at your favorite shop. There are two copies, one a used original for $13, the other a new 180g repressing for $20. The vintage record looks pretty good, but it isn’t mint-sealed. Or maybe only the new reissue’s there with no vintage equivalent in a 50-mile radius of the store.

Bryan’s specific issue was that he’d been disappointed with the sound of enough remasters that he’s now hesitant to buy more. Secondarily, it’s hard to figure out which is the better “deal.”

First, determine your tribe

There’s no simple answer, unless you’re narrow-minded for audiophile, collector or scenester reasons and have some sort of credibility fetish that forces vintage-only buying decisions. If that’s you, have fun with that.

Certainly around the web, the lunch-room water cooler and at record stores, there’s a lot of opinion about the sound of digital remastering. Is it thin? is it fakey? is it true to the original? is it destroying the producer’s intention?

All of the above and none of the above.

[Here’s where I hype my next post, in which I interview a studio guru who created vinyl masters for numerous Run Out Groove LP issues and explains the technical reasons why some reissues sound great, and why some don’t.]

My own steez, as one wise record store owner once described it, is “buying the sound.” I’m not a collector in the price-guide sense. This explains how I can have 50-year-old, pristine Small Faces LPs shelved in such horribly water-damaged jackets that my dog, who crunches every shred of paper she finds on the floor for sport, won’t even touch.

There’s no simple answer, unless you’re narrow-minded for audiophile, collector or scenester reasons and has some sort of credibility fetish that forces vintage-only buying decisions. If that’s you, have fun with that.

“As long as it plays pretty good” is my tribe. When I’m dead, I’d love my family to recoup at least some of the five figures I’ve sunk into records, but when they shop the collection around, local dealers will cringe over some records, and they’ll make those slightly disturbing “mmmm” noises on some particularly rare-salable others.

One other caveat: Sound quality varies — and subtle differences harder to hear — from stereo setup to stereo setup as well as from room to room, so don’t let anyone tell you what you hear or don’t hear. Also, to put it politely, we’re all somewhere on the spectrum between perfect hearing and completely deaf. If you’re like me, you’ve been to a concert or two where the volume made Cape Canaveral sound like a babbling brook.

Just saying, don’t be sold an old copy of something at a premium price — or a fancy new reissue of something you’ve already got — because you’re fearing missing out what the cool people are hearing.

Tips for deciding repress vs. original LPs

Here is my personal rubric for buying repressings vs. vintage LPs, pretty much in order of how they occur in the moment. Some of these considerations also come into play when choosing vintage upgrade copies to things already on my shelves:

  1. How much? The discounted-to-$5 new repressing of Charlie Musselwhite’s Southside Band Stand Back! LP was a keeper. I’ve seen vintage copies for $20-$50 floating around. It’s an economic decision to buy uncommon LPs where the vintage versions cost so much more — at least on my salary. I love Prestige, Riverside and Blue Note records from the 1950s; I’ll drop $15-25 for repressings of those old records every day vs. paying the same for harsh-playing originals — or three to twenty times as much (not kidding) for better ones. No brainer.
  2. How good is the music? You’re attached to a record, you love the music. Your copy’s not so great, too many pops and crackles. Repressings guarantee (pretty much) a major upgrade that will make your rig sing. It’s just a matter of how long you want to hold out to find a better vintage copy in your budget.
  3. You are very used to this LP. You grew up with a particular record and know every nuance of the music and production — defects and all — it’s ingrained in your cuticles. Is it worth $20 or more to find out whether or not they ruined it and it sounds too flat, too bright or otherwise “wrong?” Probably not. Stick with the old.
  4. It’s a common record. No. Don’t get a repressing. If your copy doesn’t play well because it’s a late/bad pressing, or because of scratches or other damage, find a replacement.
  5. Flawed original mastering. You love the music but it just doesn’t sound right. Personally, I can’t find a copy or remaster of George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass that doesn’t sound horrible (tinny and muddy at once) to me. The Giles Martin 50th-anniversary Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was revelatory; maybe he can fix ATMP too. I’d buy it.
  6. Colored vinyl. Hey it’s a thing. If it’s something you love…this explains why I’ve got both a regular pressing of Q: Are We Not Men? A: We are Devo! and the Canadian-only gray-marble vinyl, which some Amazon seller was giving away, right? It’s OK to occasionally give into this whim in my book.
  7. International intrigue. Sometimes, Euro or Japanese repressings (some brand new, in-between then and now, such as my 1980s-era Japan Abraxas that blows me away) are made for more discriminating ears than those in the United States. You win.
  8. “Vinyl fiction.” Something didn’t come out on vinyl in the first place, so who cares? Getting  such a record is a historical travesty, so you’re selling out by just acquiring it in the first place. I love Marah and Wilco, and am glad they pushed their originally digital music out to vinyl, even though it might not be the purest purist move.
  9. The label. You were burned once by a repress from this company; stay away. You love something else from that label — take a chance. There are so many boutique labels (and tiny major-label indicias) appearing and disappearing in stores right now, if there’s a record from one that jumps out of your speakers and sends you into a vinyl trance, by all means take a chance on more. Everyone’s ears are different; I will buy in to the “Italian Doxy” label, but vinyl champion Michael Fremer will not. To each, their own.

This is my personal decision chart, not including those “what the hell” days where I have zero restraint and buy everything in the store.

Find your own way through this complicated situation. Just keep one thing in mind: If you spend $18-$40 on a reissue and it sounds bad, take it back to the store and demand a refund. You deserve better, and you might only get store credit back, but at least you don’t have to keep a record for which you paid a premium price. Know your rights, as the Clash put it.

Why vinyl will never die


WHEN BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN sang “57 Channels (and Nothin’ On)” — at some point I will catalog the reasons I’m not a diehard Boss fan, but I’ll give him this — he nailed a perfect cultural take in a moment when our cable-television buffet was beginning its descent into the current thousand-channel Golden Corral of so many Kardashians. And there’s still nothin’ on.

Similarly, one day about five years ago, I was paralyzed by my iTunes. Call it “160GB and Nothing to Play.” One long list, staring back at me. Words. A database. Bereft of a soul, perspective, personality. Bits and bytes, as opposed to music.

Soon after, they (streaming services from Apple, Google, Amazon, Spotify, Tidal, YouTube, Pandora, whomever else) started tracking everything we play. Then they assigned machine-learning AI bots to decide “If you like this, we can root around what rights we own and recommend a kinda-sorta-match.” And selling data points to each other. And building profiles of us, fair or unfair. And dropping ads in our social media and search results. As if simply gutting our privacy wasn’t enough injury, there was one more insult: Charging us for the privilege to rent our music while screwing the artists on the other end by devaluing each play to fractions of a cent.

Are you kidding me?

At that point, I mostly unplugged from digital music, save for occasional MP3s in the car and ’phones while on my daily walks. The lion’s share of listening is vinyl, at home. Why? Because records, shelved, in their imperfection, represent something you can pick up and feel. And choose without punching text into a search field or worse yet, speaking it and hoping speech-recognition and natural-language processing will figure out what you would like to hear.

Records, shelved, in their imperfection, represent something you can pick up and feel. Not a database list.

As the first Fluckwittery interviewee will tell you — a studio pro who isn’t an LP snob and endorses music in all formats — records force active listening to music, something many of us have either lost in the digital era, or never found in the first place. Records exist outside the reach of the digital spies’ tracking mechanisms; no data analytics program will, fairly or unfairly, tag me as a Phil Collins fan and attempt to force the Collins-adjacent Mike + The Mechanics down my throat after listening to a Nursery Cryme LP.

Some people may claim that vinyl sounds better, backing it up with science-based justifications involving human physiology. I wouldn’t know; age and countless nights in rock clubs managed to shear off the edges of my hearing capacity such that these subtle differences are lost on me, so I won’t try and sell that. They may be wrong, but for all I know they may be right. All I know is what sounds good to me.

This blog represents more the cultural side of music that vinyl’s opened (in some cases, reopened) for me than audiophile nerdery — and there will be some of that, too. Discovering artists never heard before, finding out-of-print music you’d never hear on the dominant-streaming-service-du-jour, and for those you can stream, revisiting old favorites one kind-of-knew back in the day but, in the intervening years, one comes to appreciate more fully. Or, in some cases such as Slade’s Keep Your Hands Off My Power Supply, don’t stand the test of time. Those sorts of discussions.

I’ll talk about gear I use, records I play, great stores I visit and share interviews — with musicians, collectors, store owners and people making the vinyl. And there will be some rock-book reviews, too, if we can get to them. So we will, occasionally, veer off the vinyl tracks at times.

Most importantly, there will be old-school rock crit. More on that soon.