Record Time is Paste’s monthly column that takes a glimpse into the wide array of new vinyl releases that are currently flooding record stores around the world. Rather than run down every fresh bit of wax in the marketplace, we’ll home in on special editions, reissues, and unusual titles that come across our desk with an interest in discussing both the music and how it is pressed and presented. This month that includes the first official release of the Fab Four’s Christmas fan club singles, a slick remastering/repackaging of a power pop gem and a full album cover of a post-punk classic.
The Beatles – Happy Christmas Beatle People!: The Christmas Records (Apple/Universal)
Beatles fans have had a great 2017. Earlier this year, they were gifted a truly special edition re-release of the Fab Four’s 1967 classic Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the inauguration of a SiriusXM channel devoted entirely to the group and its members’ solo work. To cap it all off, Beatlemaniacs are finally getting an official release of the much-bootlegged Christmas records that the band released to its fan club every year from 1963 to 1969. And it comes in the form of a handsome boxed set, with the original flexidiscs now turned into colorful 7” singles.
Like the Sgt. Pepper’s set, the Beatles’ staff went to great pains to make this as alluring as possible. Each single is a nice primary color (or is pressed on clear vinyl) and housed in heavy cardstock recreations of the original artwork. They also did a mostly-great job making the material on each one sound great, which is some achievement as they had to Frankenstein’s monster together the tracks from various sources: the original master tapes where they could be found, copies of the original flexis and other bits of audio that the Beatles and their producers used. I say “mostly” because the 1966 record is mastered so quietly that it’s almost inaudible at times. Cranking up the volume helped a bit, but also amplified the noise prevalent with colored wax.
The rest, though, sound spectacular. The could’ve been a holiday hit “Christmas Time (Is Here Again)” from the 1967 disc bursts forth grandly, as does all the wonky collage work and psychedelic inspiration of the final two singles. Even with that one bad apple, Happy Christmas is a wonderful document of the Beatles at their loosest and goofiest, when the warm glow of the holiday season found them brushing off the strain of being the biggest stars on the planet, if only for one recording session.
The Pharcyde – Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde: 25th Anniversary Edition (Craft Recordings)
1992 was one of the key moments in hip-hop’s steady march toward being the defining artform of our modern era. Dr. Dre released his first solo album The Chronic, Sir Mix-A-Lot hit the top of the Billboard charts for five weeks with “Baby Got Back” and bona fide classics were dropped by Gang Starr, Beastie Boys, EPMD and Diamond D. Riding into the party, zonked out on psychtropics and warped funk records, was The Pharcyde, an L.A.-based group who snuck another gem into that year with their debut Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde. It’s a record whose concerns are simple: getting a girl, getting high and talking oodles of smack to your buddies. But they are turned into something like art thanks to crackly, soulful production from J-Swift, Slimkid3 and L.A. Jay, and the arch, unusual way that the rappers (Slimkid, Bootie Brown, Fatlip and Imani) attack each tune. They shout. They squeal. They rap against the beat with the gumption of a jazz soloist. It’s a combination of thoughtfulness and who the fuck cares-ness that not even the Pharcyde could recreate on subsequent albums.
This new re-release of Bizarre comes on the heels of a lot of variants that have hit record stores shelves in the 25 year since. We’re talking cassette reissues, a boxed set of 7” singles, a three-CD set from 2012 and a two-LP edition from The Bicycle Music Company that was released just last year. This new version from Craft Recordings is available as a double CD as well as a thick five LP set that gives you the original album on colored vinyl and recreations of the 12” singles taken from the album (“Ya Mama,” “Otha Fish” and “Passin’ Me By”). It certainly looks great with a fresh take on the original artwork and some pitch perfect liner notes from journalist Jeff Weiss. The records are a different story. The pressing I’ve listened to is so unevenly mastered; the skits and interludes on the album are weirdly low in volume compared to the often sharp, clear and bass-heavy tone of the songs. The variation even extends to the 12” single of “Passin’ Me By,” as the a-side has a weird muddiness that completely disappears on the flip (three versions of non-album track “Pork”). That may be fine for background listening during a party or hangin’ with friends, but is ultimately frustrating as a close listen.
Frankie Rose – Seventeen Seconds (Turntable Kitchen)
One of the hottest new services for record collectors are the vinyl subscription clubs that have been popping online. Most offer simple variations on the same idea: special version of new or reissued records done up on colored wax with little treats like the cocktail recipes and framable prints that come with each package from Vinyl Me Please.
The most novel of the bunch is Turntable Kitchen, a Seattle-based company that has a variety of delightful deals like a subscription that brings a bag of coffee beans and an exclusive 7” single to your door every month. Their most ingenious offer though is the Sounds Delicious series, a club that releases limited edition records featuring a current artist covering a full album from the past. To date, that has included Ben Gibbard performing all of Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque and Yumi Zouma covering the second Oasis album.
More recently, Turntable Kitchen unveiled a version of The Cure’s sophomore studio work Seventeen Seconds, as interpreted by Frankie Rose and pressed onto a gorgeous piece of blood red vinyl. She and producer/co-conspirator Jorge Elbrecht don’t mess with the formula of these songs much, sticking close to the original arrangements even as they throw a little sunlight and modern synth sounds at them. Somehow it doesn’t deter from the creeping dread and downcast glances that Robert Smith and co. exhibited in 1980. The mood is deepened considerably by the surprisingly great pressing of this record. Rose and Elbrecht’s work comes out full and enrapturing, with her tart vocals cleanly cutting through the mix.
Charlotte Dos Santos – Cleo (Fresh Selects)
Of all the music junkies in Portland, the sharpest ears belong to Kenny Fresh. The young DJ and indie label impresario has been an early adopter of such sonic geniuses as hip-hop producers Knxwledge and Mndsgn, rapper The Last Artful Dodgr and R&B belter SiR, all of whom have released work through his imprint Fresh Selects. As his profile has grown in his hometown and beyond, Kenny keeps his operation lean, releasing work primarily in digital formats with occasional forays into cassettes and CDs.
To date, Fresh Selects has only ponied up for a handful of LP pressings. It happens so infrequently, in fact, that when the label does opt for wax, the implication is that the choice was made because the music in the grooves is something worthy of this special treatment. That’s certainly the case with the future soul album from Norwegian singer/songwriter/producer Charlotte Dos Santos. Her latest album Cleo is one of the year’s most overlooked treasures. The music is unassuming yet insinuating, slipping between the sheets and through the raindrops with ease. It’s references are on the surface (the silken soul of Odyssey flows through “Take It Slow” while “It’s Over, Bobby” uses a slow ‘60s samba beat to send its titular lover packing) but it never feels hampered by nostalgia. True to the name of her label, Dos Santos has created something modern and forward facing.
Sun Ra – Space Is The Place; Silver Apples – Contact (Jackpot)
Jackpot Records, the Portland, Oregon-based music shop, celebrated its 20th birthday this year. Maybe not the grandest of achievements considering the many other record stores dotting the map of this NW city, but still a milestone all the same. One element of their business that has certainly helped keep things afloat is the work that owner Isaac Slusarenko has done reissuing beloved and rare albums and working with local artists to get their work into the world. In the former category, that includes reclusive experimental musician Jandek and punk legends The Wipers. In the latter, we’ve seen the first solo effort from current Death Cab For Cutie member Dave Depper and side projects by Quasi co-founder Sam Coomes.
To round out the year, Jackpot is releasing a pair of avant masterworks from the late ‘60s/early ‘70s: Contact, the second album by psych duo Silver Apples, and the 1972 Afrofuturistic jazz wonder Space Is The Place from Sun Ra and his Intergalactic Infinity Arkestra. While the artists were separated by a few years and some miles (the Arkestra at this time were based in Philadelphia; the Apples were from New York City), their music is two sides of the same Voyager record.
Contact was released in 1969 and, even for an age when psychedelia and experimentation were ruling the day, it felt entirely detached from anything happening at the time. Leader Simeon played a strange electronic instrument of his own creation, throwing down small lightning bolts of tones and oscillations as he speak-sang furious love songs and pinwheel-eyed poetry, while drummer Danny Taylor performed tribal rites in the background. The pair zoomed in on the darkness that burnt the underside of Forever Changes and Waiting For The Sun with no fear and no exit plan. Space Is The Place is far more optimistic, a vision for a better world found within the stars. Yet, this message is delivered throughout by some truly freaky jazz. Tenor saxophonist John Gilmore sounds entirely possessed on these recordings, as if trying to launch the entire recording studio into deep space through the power of his playing. Around him swirls the rest of the Arkestra, chanting, thundering and occasionally swinging with unbound glee. These two records are death knells to the groove of the Summer of Love made by artists that felt like aliens among the blinkered Earthlings that gave up on the messages of peace and equality as quickly as they adopted them.
Marshall Crenshaw – Field Day: Expanded Edition (Intervention)
In the inaugural edition of Record Time, I introduced some of you to Intervention Records, a reissue imprint that specializes in luxe editions of a curious assortment of older albums. At the time, one of the forthcoming releases on their schedule that had me scratching my head was a remastered version of Field Day, the second studio album from power pop virtuoso Marshall Crenshaw. My confusion was that, unlike most reissues, this record is a dollar bin staple thanks to its comfortable sales when it was released in 1983 and the slow slide into cult success of its creator. Was this a necessary expenditure of time and money?
My skepticism is still there, but a few more spins of this record might just wipe all that away. The remastering job by Kevin Gray has given a gleaming coat of paint to these slightly faded tunes. Gripe all you want about Steve Lillywhite’s production work on Field Day, it comes into crystal clear focus here, adding meat and weight to Crenshaw’s jangly love songs. Gray gives the same treatment to the 1984 bonus EP included in the set, which remixes a bunch of the album tracks and tosses in a cover of Elvis Presley’s “Little Sister.” Lillywhite’s somewhat heavy hand gets lifted and the raw punch of these tunes comes alive. I will still deduct some points for the lack of liner notes that could put the album and its creation into historical perspective, but this reissue still scores high.