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

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Smiths: The Queen Is Dead -- 180 gram Rhino Vinyl Reissue

Rhino continues its vinyl campaign with a foray into Eighties alternative territory, with reissues of the four proper studio releases from British indie band, The Smiths. Here, I review their 180 gram reissue of the band's third and most commercially successful studio record, The Queen is Dead.

Anyone who was in college or university in the U.S. or Great Britain--or followed indie rock in the Eighties, surely listened to The Smiths. A bona fide phenomenon in The U.K., The Smiths, led by Morrissey on vocals and Johnny Marr on guitar, Andy Rourke on bass, and Mike Joyce on drums, were arguably the most influential group to come out of England in the decade. Morrissey's sexual ambiguity, tales of angst and alienation combined with Marr's organic, guitar-driven sound presented a compelling alternative to the synth-dominated popular music of the day and propelled them to the top of the alternative indie rock scene. To this day, The Smiths still enjoy a steady cult following.

The Smiths originally signed with the British independent label, Rough Trade Records, and all of their records would be released on that label in the U.K. In the United States, Sire Records would release everything except for Hatful of Hollow, which was available as an import only. While the U.S. Sire vinyl was good enough to satisfy the majority of college students and others wanting copies to play in their dorm rooms, serious fans of the band as well as collectors soon realized that the original U.K. Rough Trade vinyl sounded significantly better. Whether better tapes were used or the mastering techniques were different, the U.K. Rough Trade pressings sound more natural-- especially in the midrange, have more detail, and are more balanced sounding records than their Sire counterparts.

Original Rough Trade vinyl pressings of The Queen is Dead, originally released in 1986 and considered by many to be the band's crowning achievement, sound particularly good. These UK pressings, which can be difficult to find in the U.S., have a full midrange absent from the Sire, which allow Marr's blistering guitar work on songs such as Bigmouth, to be fully articulated. Given the wide dissatisfaction with the U.S. Sire vinyl (and compact discs), these Rhino vinyl reissues have been highly anticipated, with many hoping that they would sound closer to the original Rough Trades. While this particular effort doesn't necessarily sound any closer to the original Rough Trade, it does sound considerably better than the original Sire.

(The Smiths: Andy Rourke, Morrissey, Johnny Marr, Mike Joyce)

Rhino 180 gram vinyl
The heavy, 180 gram vinyl arrived flat, clean, and played silently, with virtually no noise to speak of during playback. The gatefold cover is made of standard weight cardstock and includes a replica of the original inner sleeve, in addition to the poly-lined paper sleeve housing the disc. I definitely prefer these paper sleeves to the stiff, rose colored poly sleeves often used by RTI, which have a tendency to leave marks on the vinyl. One minor quibble with the packaging is that the group photo and lyrics are on the wrong sides of the inner gatefold, when compared to the original Rough Trade gatefold. Other than that one misstep, Rhino did a fine job with the packaging and especially the vinyl itself.

The Sound
The Rhino vinyl fattens up the sound significantly compared to the Sire, with a solid bottom end that was never present on the Sire or the Rough Trade versions of this record. The increased lows and lower-midrange fullness, however, come at the expense of the upper-midrange and high end frequencies. There is no question that this new Rhino vinyl pressing is a very good sounding record--it has nice solid bass, full lower mids, and highs that never sound harsh or strident. The problem is that this vinyl remaster departs too much from the original sound of the album.

And, although the hype sticker states that the Rhino vinyl was produced under the supervision of Johnny Marr, it sounds like it was mastered by someone unfamiliar with the record. Although I obviously wasn't there for the recording of the album, I was there when it was originally released, and the urgency and edginess of this music was--and still is dependent upon the upper mids, which strongly convey Marr's chiming guitars and Morrissey's biting vocals. While this new mastering really shows off the silky sounding guitars in songs such as Cemetary Gates, other more rocking numbers, such as Bigmouth or the title track, just don't have the bite of the Rough Trade and come off as too polite on this remaster.

While the overall tonality of this remaster is in many ways better than the too-thin-sounding Sire, I certainly wouldn't trade in my Rough Trade original. I do suspect that there will be many who really like this vinyl remaster, especially if you've only heard the Sire, or if you're particularly sensitive to high frequencies. Nevertheless, it is simply too much of a departure from the original Rough Trade sound for me to recommend it to anyone unless they suffer from tinnitus or are simply too lazy to hunt down a UK original.


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