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

Monday, August 24, 2009

SNEAK PREVIEW: The Black Crowes -- The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion 180 gram vinyl

In 1992, at the height of the grunge movement, one band could be counted on to release a straight-ahead rock album in the tradition of The Rolling Stones, The Faces, and the Allman Brothers. That band was The Black Crowes. Led by brothers Rich and Chris Robinson, The Black Crowes originally broke onto the rock scene in 1990 with their highly successful debut album, Shake Your Moneymaker, which spawned two number one album oriented rock hits--their cover of Otis Redding's Hard to Handle, and the acoustic ballad, She Talks to Angels.

Their followup effort, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, was released in 1992, and is widely considered by fans to be their best. It took the band to even greater heights than their first, garnering them four number one album oriented rock singles: Remedy, Sting Me, Thorn in My Pride, and Hotel Illness.

Southern Harmony was originally released on compact disc, and although it was also pressed on vinyl, very few copies ever made it into circulation, thus, U.S. pressed vinyl copies are quite rare. Given the recent resurgence of the vinyl format, Southern Harmony was a natural choice to be reissued.

Rich and Chris Robinson

The 180 gram vinyl package, released by Plain Recordings, is unfortunately deserving of the "Plain" label. The cover is made of standard weight card stock, the vinyl is housed in a plain paper sleeve, and the lyric sheet contains low-resolution photos of the band. The vinyl disc itself, which feels all of the stated 180 grams, is of lower than average quality.

The shop where I purchased it was kind enough to open three copies, and all three of them were marred with significant marks and blemishes. Upon playing the disc, surprisingly none of the marks were audible, and the album, which mostly consists of loud, rocking songs, did play without surface noise. Even the softer passages played quietly.

I pulled out my original cd copy for comparison with the vinyl. Southern Harmony is a guitar based blues rock album, and Rich Robinson and Marc Ford's guitars dominate the mix. A great deal of the allure of the record, however, lies with the other disparate elements, such as the harmonica, dobro, organ, and gospel-inspired background singers. And the original compact disc never really fully showcased these elements.

The Black Crowes

This vinyl reissue sadly sounds like they did not go back to the original tapes, but instead lazily used the 16/44 digital master already in existence. The electric guitars are thick and syrupy, sounding just like the Gibson and Fender guitars played through vintage tweed Fender and Marshall tube amps favored by Rich Robinson. Soundstaging is decent, with good channel separation and Chris Robinson's vocals mostly centered between the two speakers.

The sound, unfortunately often gets muddy, with the thick-sounding midrange of the guitars dominating the mix and resulting is an overall muddy, congested sound. The bass also tends to sound undefined, for the most part, and the midrange-dominated mix simply crowds out the highs and lows. Acoustic moments, such as the intro to Thorn in My Pride fair better, however, you're still left yearning for something that this reissue can't deliver.

As the vinyl revival has gone into full swing, vinyl buyers have to be more and more careful with their purchases. This release appears to me to be a badly produced, lazily mastered, and shoddily pressed offering. In other words, a real missed opportunity. Perhaps, Mofi, Audio Fidelity, or Classic Records will pick this one up and do it right. I can only recomend this pressing of this essential rock recording if you don't own a cd player or are a collector who simply must have this title on vinyl and can't find an original. Otherwise, save your money.


moog said...

Any idea how the original vinyl press of this album sounds? Same as the re-issue?

d.edlen said...

Shoot. Been waiting for these. Next to Amorica, this is my favorite album from my wife's teenage obsession. It figures though that second tier bands and their second tier albums would get second tier quality for reissues. And I've noticed a bunch of reissues having left over vinyl stuck to the record, sometimes interfering with the pressing or scratching it in the packaging.

Means I don't mind using them for my art though! Now I'll get to paint Chris finally!


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review. Terribly disappointing, this could have been a stellar reissue.

Dale Nixon said...

Actually Rich Robinson seldom, if ever, used a Marshall on recordings, and I'm not sure that it's fair to hypothesize that the label used a 16/44 master for transfer; or that utilizing such a master would somehow make the release "inferior" to the CD to which it was compared.

Yes, it'd be nice for everything to be on 200g Steve Hoffman/Kevin Grey mastered vinyl with thick cardstock covers and vinyl as black as desert oil. But the analog world does not and should not solely revolve around $50+ releases. Blemishes that don't affect play? Been around since the start of vinyl...

My Vinyl Review said...

Dale: Feel free to do your own comparison and report back with your results.

Leighton said...

Are other releases from plain recordings suffering from similar lousey sound quality? I nearly purchased a copy of this album but noticed the cover image was of low quality, had mybe been rescanned and enlarged from a cd cover, and even worse: jpeg artifacting was apparent so the image had been compressed at some stage. I didn't buy it supposing that the vinyl was probably as lacklustre as the cover reproduction. Thank you warning bells.

Chewie said...

I notice that they keep pushing back the date on the other albums that are planned for release on vinyl.

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