Unbiased reviews of new vinyl releases, audiophile reissues, and more

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Sneak Preview: Big Star -- #1 Record and Radio City 150 gram vinyl -- Are these the best vinyl reissues yet?

After several years of being out of print, Big Star's debut, #1 Record and their follow up, Radio City will again be available on domestic U.S. vinyl.
Approximately two weeks ago, Classic Records announced that on April 7, both releases would be reissued on their new proprietary 200 gram Clarity vinyl formula. Almost immediately thereafter, listings for standard weight versions from Concord Music Group, which owns the rights to both #1 Record and Radio City, as well as the rest of the Stax catalog, began appearing within online audiophile catalogs.

4/13/09 UPDATE
: Classic Records has now confirmed that their releases and those from Concord share the same mastering done by Chris Bellman, of Bernie Grundman mastering.

Recently, I had the fortune of acquiring copies of each of these standard weight releases from Concord. In anticipation of reviewing these reissues, I pulled out and listened to a variety of earlier pressings of each record, including the vinyl reissues from Akarma and Big Beat, as well as the 2004 hybrid SACD two-fer.

Very special thanks goes to vinyl guru and owner of The Analog Room, Brian Hartsell, who was kind enough to loan me his mint original Ardent vinyl of both titles. In reviewing the Concord reissues, I primarily compared them to the original Ardent vinyl.

Brian Hartsell (second from right,
with Steve Hoffman, Stan Ricker and others)

Despite being budget priced, Concord pressed these titles on fairly heavy vinyl, which is most likely in the range of 150 grams. My copies, in keeping with what has become the norm with today's vinyl, contained various stray marks--none audible, however. The covers are printed on fairly heavy card stock and every detail of the original Ardent covers has been faithfully reproduced. The only sign that these reissues are not originals is a small licensing blurb at the bottom of the back covers. Even the barcodes are affixed to the shrink, avoiding the uglying of the otherwise fine reproduction of the originals.

Big Star released its first record, aptly entitled #1 Record in 1972. Chris Bell and Alex Chilton shared the vocal duties and each played guitar; Andy Hummel played bass; and Jody Stephens played drums. #1 Record sold less than 5,000 copies, in large part due to bad distribution by Stax Records, which primarily specialized in soul music. Not long after the release of #1 Record, tensions among the band members and the personal demons of Chris Bell caused him to leave the band. He returned for a short time during the Radio City sessions, only to leave again before its release and to refuse any credit on the record.

Radio City suffered a similar fate as did its prececessor, again barely selling 5,000 units. As a result, original Ardent vinyl of both titles is extremely difficult to come by. There have been numerous vinyl and digital reissues over the years, inspired in large part by the resurgance of the band in the Eighties and the cover of September Gurls by The Bangles in 1986.

Both of these recordings--and especially the debut, are notorious for their bright, jangly sound. The challenge for every mastering engineer involved with these recordings has been to find some bottom end and tame the highs just enough, but not so much as to depart from the original intent of the artists. I believe that one of these reissues has done just that.

The Big Star #1 Record Lineup

From the first cut on #1 Record--Feel, it is obvious that this is a new mastering. There is a decent bottom end and the song retains its bright overall character, yet the top end isn't overly strident. There is a problem, however, with the midrange, which is lacking compared to the original Ardent vinyl, and electric guitars never sound as realistic as they do on the original pressing. Other rockers don't fare any better. When My Baby's Beside Me and Don't Lie to Me have a fullness to the bottom end not heard on the original Ardent. Once again, however, it comes at the expense of a scooped-out midrange. The original Ardent is much better balanced and has a nice, full midrange that allows the listener to hear the organic crunch of the electric guitars and the complex timbres of the vocals.

Acoustic numbers don't fare much better. Thirteen, a sweet, acoustic ballad that never comes across as syrupy, has better bass on the acoustic guitar than the original, yet again the scooped mids impart a thin quality to the vocals. The original Ardent vinyl simply delivers a fuller vocal, and conveys it with way more emotion and complexity. I'd want an original pressing for this song alone. Try Again, another acoustic ballad, suffers the same fate. The increased bottom end fattens up the acoustic guitar, but the vocal, which is the focal point of the song, lacks the complexity and emotion that can be heard on the original pressing.

I did take the time to compare this new reissue to the hybrid SACD two-fer and I am certain that this is a new mastering, and not simply the digital master pressed to vinyl. If you already have another vinyl copy of #1 Record, I cannot recommend buying this one. If you have the hybrid SACD two-fer and find it overly bright, you might want to try this out for a different flavor. But be forwarned, the mids are seriously scooped and you will want at least one copy of this essential music that still has them intact.

Radio City [Vinyl]

You've read this far, and you're still waiting for some good news--well, here it is. The cd and SACD two-fers sometimes make it easy to forget that #1 Record and Radio City come from distinct sessions. Not only does #1 Record have more ballads than the rawer, harder-edged Radio City, but it is also a brighter overall recording. Nonetheless, both recordings are notorious for their bright, at times strident tone.

Where the attempt at fattening up the sound of #1 Record failed by doing so at the expense of the midrange, Concord has given us a near-definitive version of Radio City that more than does justice to the artists' intent.

Concord's reissue of Radio City has a bottom end that is bigger and fatter than any of the previous issues of this album. The top end, while maintaining the bright signature of the band, is never strident or overbearing. And, unlike the reissue of the debut, the midrange is for the most part, completely intact.

While I always felt that there was a difference between the first two records, this reissue makes it clear that Radio City simply rocks more. And once again, a comparison to the hybrid SACD two-fer immediately comfirmed that this is a new mastering, rather than a vinyl pressing of the 2004 digital master.

Mod Lang, a raw, guitar-driven rocker that starts the second side, sounds warmer than it has on any other issue, and the crunchy guitars come through with a true, organic tone that can't be found anywhere on the earlier #1 Record. That's right, the mids are there. Daisy Glaze almost sounds as if it has been re-mixed as the increased bottom end brings Jody Stephens' drum kit to life as I've never heard it before.

She's a Mover, cranks out its power pop perfection with riffing power chords and highly articulated drum work by Jody Stephens, again bolstered by the fuller bottom end. Finally, September Gurls has never sounded better. The signature, bright, jangly guitars are accompanied by a surprisingly great bottom end and the song never sounds overly strident on top.

Although less of a ballad album than its predecessor, the acoustic based songs fare well with the new mastering of Radio City. I'm in Love With a Girl, a ballad in the same vein as #1 Record's Thirteen, is sonically everything one would have hoped for with the reissue of Thirteen: great articulation in the acoustic guitar, never too bright, and a complex, emotion-filled vocal. Another ballad, What's Goin Ahn, also sounds much more balanced than anything from the #1 Record reissue, and while the vocal lacks the last degree of midrange magic found on the original Ardent, it sounds very realistic and never suffers.

The Radio City era Big Star trio

This 150 gram regular vinyl pressing from the Concord Music Group is a very, very good sounding pressing of this essential record. The bottom end heard on this reissue brings the music to life in a way that hasn't previously been accomplished. The bright character of the music has been retained, yet the top end is never strident. Finally, the all-important midrange, while not always quite as full as on the original Ardent vinyl, faithfully conveys the organic crunch of the guitars and the complexity of the vocals.

While the original Ardent vinyl of this title is very good, and even bests the reissue slightly in midrange magic, the smoother highs and fuller bottom end found on this reissue result in an album that rocks with even more raw energy and impact than the original, and will become my go to copy of this record.

Highly Recommended


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reviews! Any idea who mastered these? Any deadwax clues?

quietlyconscious said...

Hey thank you for this excellent review. Do you know if these are from the same source as the new Classic reissues? Can you tell if they are from master tapes?

My Vinyl Review said...

Neither of these reissues from Concord Music Group contain any mastering information or credits. The deadwax for each album simply has the Ardent catalog number, followed by an "a" on side one and a "b" on side two.

Concord Music Group, which produced these 150 gram reissues actually owns the original master tapes for each release. Whether they actually used them, we can't be sure of at this point. I am convinced, however, that the source used by Concord for these reissues was NOT the digital master used for the 2004 SACD two-fer, as these vinyl releases sound far different.

Classic has advertised that they are using the original analog tapes for their versions. Classic would have had to go through Concord to obtain those original tapes.

Anonymous said...

Ughghe. And here I spent over $80 for (the Classic editions) something I could've obtained for far less - - and with less than satisfactory results . . . and I *HAVE* the original Ardent pressings!. Sheesh.

My Vinyl Review said...

Further Update: In an email response to a member of the Steve Hoffman Forum, Classic Records has confirmed that the mastering used on the Concord releases and the Classic Releases is indeed the same mastering from Chris Bellman.

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