Revinylization #3: Analogue Productions, Blue Rose Music, Mobile Fidelity

In the January 2020 Stereophile, I described my transformation from John Fahey skeptic to John Fahey fan; suffice it to say, the late guitarist was far from the only musical artist whose work I came to enjoy only after a number of failed attempts. Another was the English band Yes, which I saw in concert in 1977, at New York's Madison Square Garden: I was so bored by the many lengthy instrumental solos, each one remarkable only for the sheer number of notes being squirted at me, that I literally nodded off. (In my defense, it was also very warm in there.)

Today, having been exposed to the group's pre-1977 catalog, my appreciation for their ability to craft eccentrically interesting pop records has grown. And no better example exists than their fourth studio release, Fragile, which mixes solo pieces by each of the band's five members with four group efforts, the latter including the megahit "Roundabout."

Originally released in 1971 on Atlantic Records, Fragile has now been reissued by Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab as an Ultra-disc One-Step pressing, on two 45rpm LPs (UD1S 2-012)—in which incarnation it sounds absolutely glorious. Studio trickery notwithstanding—including apparently heavy compression on Bill Bruford's drum kit, an artistic decision that was very much the style of the day—this One-Step release offers dynamic, colorful sound, notable especially on the electric bass stylings of the late Chris Squire. Surfaces on my own ultraflat, ultraclean Ultradisc were crazy-quiet. As a bonus, the new MoFi set comes with an eight-page booklet with photos of the band members and two additional works by cover artist Roger Dean. The set is expensive at $125 but nevertheless offers good value: If the Ultradisc One-Step Fragile were a big-budget movie, it would be the kind where you can see every penny on the screen.

In that January column I also trotted out the descriptor punk folk, then in reference to John Fahey. In fact, the first time I saw those two words strung together was in 1979, in reviews devoted to the fresh-faced singer-songwriter Steve Forbert, whose sophomore album, Jackrabbit Slim, had just been released. Like other troubadours with both an acoustic guitar and a harmonica holder—do they even make those things anymore—Forbert cut his teeth at the folk clubs of New York City. But by the time he did so, those clubs were transitioning into new-music venues, none with a bigger bang than CBGB, the punk palace whose name originally stood for Country, BlueGrass, and Blues. The "punk folk" label—and God knows, magazine writers love labels—was reinforced by the cover art for Jackrabbit Slim: a semi-colorized B&W photo of the clean-shaven Forbert wearing a black leather jacket and striking an unabashed Elvis-esque pose.

320revinyl.forbert

In December 2019, to mark the 40th anniversary of the album's original release, Blue Rose Music released a limited-edition Jackrabbit Slim LP on bright red vinyl (BRM-1037). No, it isn't punk in the least; if anything, the production aesthetic of the original recording is rather too slick. But to hear it anew is to be reminded of Forbert's easy gift for crafting catchy chord progressions and melodies (a gift that, alongside his flexible, sweetly gravelly voice, endures in Forbert's present-day work). And the album's hit, "Romeo's Tune," belongs in the collection of every pop fan.

"Roundabout" and "Romeo's Tune" have been on my radar for decades, but I confess my ignorance of jazz singer Helen Merrill—or so it was until a couple of weeks ago, when Chad Kassem of Acoustic Sounds sent me a test pressing of his forthcoming reissue of her eponymous 1955 debut LP (EmArcy MG 36006/Analogue Productions AAPP 127). To say I was impressed is an understatement.

320revinyl.merril

The album was recorded in December of 1954 by the legendary Bob Fine, at Fine Sound Inc., 711 5th Avenue in New York. Merrill, then only 24, was backed by a combo that included Clifford Brown on trumpet, Oscar Pettiford on bass, and pianist Jimmy Jones, with arrangements by Quincy Jones—himself a mere 21 years old at the time. The mono sound is on the (pleasantly) dry side and very forward, with taut-sounding drums and bass and an intimate vocal sound that at times comes close to being overly sibilant but never quite carries out the threat. Merrill's intonation isn't always spot-on (as in the intro to "Yesterdays"), but there's something about her voice—an odd combination of breathy innocence and husky-toned experience that pulls me in time after time. (In "Don't Explain," she intones the word quiet in a manner that could launch any number of ships.) And Clifford Brown's trumpet is, as one might expect, perfect.

Prices for the original mono LP reach into four-figure territory, so news of an affordable reissue is very good news indeed. Torch on.

COMMENTS
jeffhenning's picture

...there have been a couple high resolution digital re-issues of "Fragile" in stereo and surround that will never wear out since they are on DVD or Blu-Ray.

The first is the DVD-audio version that came out in 2002 and the second being Steven Wilson's remix on Blu-Ray that hit in 2015.

Owning both and just recently redoing my surround system with KEF LS50's and Rythmik subs, these are both sitting on my "surround to listen to" pile.

Even though Mobile Fidelity has, most likely, made the best vinyl records ever, they are not in the same league as high resolution digital. If you love it, fine. Me, sorry, I've had MoFi records wear out or get random, new "pops" (impulse noises) during plays and it sucks. And those pop noises never leave. Vinyl, being a physical medium, wears out.

You like VHS tape/vinyl, I like Blu-ray's. It's that simple in both audio and video.

I recently had a conversation with a vinyl fan about the latest Slash live album. His vinyl cost $40. My Blu-ray with hi-res audio and video cost less than $20 and I know it sounds better... and, oh, yeah, will not wear out after 30 or 40 plays.

It's great that MoFi is still around and putting out stuff like "Fragile". The sad part is that it's a low value proposition for the end user.

One more thing: vinyl records are a waste of resources and not the least bit "green".

Tromatic's picture

That you, tonykaz?

jeffhenning's picture

The plastic jackets can most likely be recycled, but they probably aren't. Same with the shiny discs.

All the paper can be reclaimed.

That disgusting black vinyl turd? That, I believe, has no way to be recycled other than being ground up and added to asphalt and that's a big may be.

Also, look at how much product goes into creating a vinyl album.

The last few releases I've gotten are from HD Tracks so there is no media other than the internet and my SSD.

I don't think you've given this much thought.

funambulistic's picture

https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/02/streaming-music-isn-t-as-green-as-you-might-think-here-s-why/

Just sayin'...

jeffhenning's picture

Since I work for a fairly large data processing company, I understand that getting the bits from their servers to my home network is not without its impact.

That being said, the negative impact can be reduced to about nil.

For example, almost all of Apple's data centers run on alternative energy. These things are enormous and all over the place. The same could be done for large networks as a whole.

Everything involving this can be made much more efficient and carbon neutral, but it's not happening overnight.

Every point in that article is valid, but it will no longer be in the future as renewable energy and nuclear fusion take over.

Unfortunately, in the short run, downloads, are our best "green" option and those sources are not as all-encompassing and encyclopedic as I'd prefer.

I just retired an old, slow, HD-based NAS server with a dual bay Synology DS218 NAS and a couple of Mercury terabyte SSD's. The old NAS was incredibly slow and it was not very quiet.

The new NAS makes several orders of magnitude less noise (my fridge is on right now and, in comparison, I might as well have a Harley idling in the room). Also, it could be good for a few decades since the only moving part is the exhaust fan (I may unhook it). The only bottleneck is the gigabit Ethernet connection, but the thing can also work with USB 3.

This new drive has serious longevity and, set up with a RAID 0 config, the speed is blistering.

The best thing is that it only uses about 10-15 Watts (5 when idle).

I wish all audio companies offered this level of value and performance. Very few do.

Awsmone0's picture

It was my understanding PVC was easily recyclable and has been since the 1970s at least
https://www.vinyl.org.au/sustainability/recycling

jeffhenning's picture

I have no doubt that PVC can be recycled and recycled well, but records are not the type of PVC that is used pipes and such. That hasn't been the case for about ever.

I don't doubt that albums can be recycled, but does any company want to? With no financial incentive, they won't

The depressing fact is that only about 20% of the plastic we make gets recycled. The rest gets dumped or incinerated.

People are going insane over the Coronavirus, but are blissfully unaware that almost every human on the planet has PFOA in their bodies. It's the main ingredient in Teflon. It never breaks down and we have no idea what diseases it causes at small levels. At large doses, it's really nasty cancers and birth defects.

And let's not forget that everyone now eats about 5 grams of micro-plastic every month. What's that doing to us?

And just in case that's not bad enough, in normal wear and tear, car tires and brakes are giant sources of particulate pollution that we breath, drink and eat. No one has seriously looked into that yet, but I doubt that extra butyl rubber in our guts and lungs is a good thing.

As a species, we have been sowing the seeds of our own destruction. Producing more vinyl and plastic is not helping that.

While I enjoy collecting discs, I will be very happy for physical media to go extinct. That will be a great day for humanity.

mauidj's picture

are we still harping on with this vinyl hate?
Wear out after 30 plays??? What are you using...a knitting needle? A blunt one at that!
BTW...can I show you some of my "perfect sound forever" CD's that will no longer play due to the rot that attacks so many of them. Including a dead Original Master Recording Gold version of Meddle. So as for never wearing out. That's complete garbage.

jeffhenning's picture

Like drive belts, tires, magnetic tape and even a diamond stylus in a phone cartridge, vinyl recordings wear out.

If you believe they don't, I guess you live in a universe without friction or entropy. And also never bought an early 70's RCA David Bowie recording pressed on DynaFlex vinyl.

Having suffered through vinyl for the first 30 years of listening to music and, in 1989 (or so), having a truly lovely sounding MoFi "Sgt. Pepper's" pressing get a nasty pop happen during "Life in the Day", I was done with it 30 years ago. And, then that "pop" turned into a skip. Fantastic for an album I paid $25 for in 1988.

As to your point about optical discs aging, sorry that happened to you, but that has not happened to me. Not once. I just checked my copies of "David Live at the Tower Philadelphia" on CD from Rykodisc and the DVD-Audio by Virgin bought around, respectively, their 1990 and 2005 release dates.

They both look and play perfectly.

Perhaps you either live in an environment that oxidizes the CD plastic or they were not as good as advertised or a combination of both.

Regardless, that disc didn't wear out, it aged badly because of poor production.

My dear, departed step-dad lived a hundred yards from the Atlantic Ocean (were everything oxidizes) for decades with cheap CD players and he never had this problem. The CD's were fine. The salt air eventually killed all of his electronics prematurely.

If you weren't around 40 to 50 years ago to experience how badly records sounded after 20 or 30 plays, you really don't have much to comment on.

And only a dimwit would think that a knitting needle would fit in a LP micro-groove recording.

Topher's picture

It sounds like you're trying to convince yourself more than any of us, Jeff. I get it, format anxiety is real, but a nice column from Art about new and upcoming vinyl reissues isn't the place to argue it.

jeffhenning's picture

Format anxiety! Hilarious!

No, I have no anxiety what so ever about vinyl vs. digital. That war has been over for several decades and vinyl has lost badly. Waiting to see those new stats from 2019 were vinyl has edged up slightly to finally break the 20 million mark for total sales on the year?

It's made even more pathetic by the fact that everything on vinyl comes from digital.

You are watching an old 27" Sony Trinitron with a VHS tape made from a digital 4K master.

The only emotion I have is pity. Sorry for your life.

Awsmone0's picture

All physical media only make up 10% of sales now
Streaming totally dominates the market
Only amongst physical media is LP growing up to 19.1 Million
All other physical media is declining though Cđ still has double LP sales
Music videos of what ever format is also declining and is only 1.3 million

jeffhenning's picture

... I wouldn't be buying media either.

When $15 or $20 per month gets you access to a library of 5 million (or more) recordings, buying discs is now just the parlance of the old time collector. That would include me.

The one stat that is interesting is that CD's still out sell vinyl 2-to-1 in units, but gross sales according to price have them around even. Vinyl albums are now ridiculously expensive.

When I stopped buying vinyl albums 30 or so years ago, they were generally around $10-12. CD's were around $20. That's been flipped.

I just got the import "booklet" release of Prince's "Sign o the Times". All I wanted was a Blu-ray, but it comes with DVD's of the same material as well (actually, 4 total discs since two are the main program of each variety and then two of the bonus material). I know what I'll be queueing up when I've built out my Atmos system.

It seems impossible to just buy one disc anymore in the digital realm. I want just a Blu-ray, but get CD's and/or DVD's that I'll never really use.

One lovely thing is that the media racks at the back of my listening room are great as sonic diffusors. They make the room sound fantastic. You can't get that from a download!

Bogolu Haranath's picture

This may be a little bit off-topic ........ What DAC(s) are you using? ....... Do they offer any choice of filters? ...... If so, what filter(s), are you using for listening? ...... Just curious :-) ........

jeffhenning's picture

I'm currently using an Emotiva XMC-1 pre/pro so, no, there is no option for the filter type used on the DAC's. I'm hoping to upgrade that to an RMC-1 by this time next year so I can do the Atmos thing and get Dirac Live that runs at 96kHz.

I've been slowly improving the room sound with simple, but effective acoustic treatment before going nuts with the room correction. Since the room started off sounding really good, DSP has been very low on my to-do list.

I certainly wouldn't mind having filter options just for my own morbid curiosity. After seeing all of the tests JA has done with DAC's that offer that, I'm not sure what "filter" camp I'd be in since they all seem to have their drawbacks. Also, I'm not quite sure how valid single sample impulse response measurements are since they don't happen in the real world (no microphone could accurately render one). Even a cymbal strike has a rise time slower than that.

I actually pondered this in a post a month ago and no one had an answer.

Not sure if this is true, but I read something a while ago where a guy stated that room correction software such as Dirac Live actually negates the ringing behavior of DAC filters. It seems rather crazy to assert that, but I don't know enough about the miracles of DSP to say that it's false. Guess I'll have to email Dirac.

I'm hunkered in my surround sound bunker until the end of the current zombie apocalypse. Unfortunately, Milla Jovovich is not here with me.

Cheers!

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Some equipment manufacturers mention, what type of reconstruction filter they have in their DAC ...... Also, they mention about upsampling ....... Your owners manual may mention that ...... Some newer DAC manufacturers are using minimum phase filters for example ........

JA1 not only does impulse response measurements, but also white noise spectrum and frequency response measurements for DACs ...... See, Pro-Ject Pre Box S2 ($400) measurements and Mytek Manhattan II and HoloAudio Kitsune measurements, for example ........ In addition there are several other such examples of JA1's DAC measurements ........

JA1 reviewed NAD M10, which has Dirac Live :-) ........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

BTW ...... I'm not sure about being with some one who practices 'Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu' :-) ........

jeffhenning's picture

...these:

• While single sample impulse response measurements do offer insight into the filter topology, I'm not sure whether they offer any understanding to how the DAC reproduces music

• If you look like Milla or Gal Gadot or Kate Beckinsale, knowing Jiu-Jitsu is icing on the cake

Bogolu Haranath's picture

I agree with you, regarding identifying the filter topology ........ At least the impulse response measurements help us to identify what each of those filters are ....... DAC manufacturers' naming of those filters is confusing, to say the least .........

There seems to be some correlation between reviewers preference for the filters, if they are given a choice ........ They report 'more musical' nature of some filters ........ If you read the reports of the DAC reviews, you will get an idea what filters they choose ........ Seems like none of them choose the standard, conventional linear phase 'brick-wall' filter ........

Regarding martial arts ....... 'Wonder Woman' previously served in the Israeli military as fitness/combat readiness instructor, according to Wikipedia :-) .........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

That 'Fragile' album cover almost looks like Corona virus :-) ........

tonykaz's picture

Mr. Tuchman just now did a YouTube Video of him sculpting a pair of active loudspeakers.

I'm hoping for you ( someone at Stereophile ) to find a way of contacting him so as to tell his fascinating story.

Tony in Venice

Metalhead's picture

The one steps are outstanding. SO HAPPY I scored a Fragile.

LOVE my vinyl and tubes

Happy listening.

Dcbingaman's picture

I am certain that the new vinyl releases of this iconic record are wonderful, however I can't say enough about the Steven Wilson 5.1 remixes of Yes, Jethro Tull and others available on Blu-Ray and DVD-A. The original mixes do NOT compare to the magic Wilson has created in surround sound, and the artists all agree with that. If you want to really experience the way Fragile sounded in Jon Anderson and Co.s heads - get the 5.1 mix and a surround system to play it. You can probably get an even trade for the ridiculously expensive Edisonian vinyl player you have. (I have still THREE of them - I love them for their technology pressed to absurd limits, but they are no longer the best fidelity in the house....I also have an original 1906 Gramophone for the same reasons....)

You won't regret the decision. Almost everything in your vinyl collection can now be streamed from Qobuz at better quality than your vinyl rig. Time to move on....I am just sayin' !!

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