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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

GRATEFUL DEAD - WAKE OF THE FLOOD

Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab MFSL 1-366 (2011, Dec)
Originally on Grateful Dead (1973, Oct.)
 


Evaluated by Claude Lemaire

Rating: 8.0/ D+ (Side A); 9.0/ A (Side B) 

Category: country/folk/progressive-art-folk

Format: Vinyl (180 gram LP at 33.33 rpm)

Musicians:


Grateful Dead

  • Jerry Garcia – guitar, pedal steel guitar, vocals, production
  • Donna Jean Godchaux – vocals, production
  • Keith Godchaux – keyboards, vocals, production; lead vocals on "Let Me Sing Your Blues Away"
  • Phil Lesh – bass guitar, production
  • Bill Kreutzmann – drums, production
  • Bob Weir – guitar, vocals, production
Additional musicians
  • Bill Atwood – trumpet
  • Vassar Clements – violin
  • Joe Ellis – trumpet
  • Martín Fierro – saxophone (alto, tenor)
  • Sarah Fulcher – vocals
  • Matthew Kelly – harmonica
  • Frank Morin – saxophone (tenor)
  • Pat O'Hara – trombone
  • Doug Sahm – bajo sexto
  • Benny Velarde – timbales

Recording Engineer – Dan Healy 
Mixing Engineer – Tom Flye
Remastered and lacquer cut by Krieg Wunderlich at Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab in Sebastopol, CA.                        
Pressed by – Record Technology Incorporated in California.

Artwork – Rick Griffin


http://www.mofi.com/product_p/mfsl1-366.htm

There are not many rock bands that will go the extra mile to achieve great sound not only in the studio but at the concert venue throughout their careers. British stalwarts Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Pink Floyd readily come to mind, so do the Grateful Dead on this side of the Atlantic. Though at first glance it may be tempting to comparatively pair the Brits because of their country of origin and often cited 'progressive' ties; instead a closer inspection reveals that the latter two share more in common than one might think.  


Just like The Pink Floyd, The Grateful Dead - as both were known prior to dropping the adjective - formed in 1965 and released their debut LPs in the first half of 1967; a period of tremendous flux in culture and values, deeply reflected within the music. Whereas Floyd stood out from the blues based rock largely dominating the Kingdom, by cultivating a following in the underground scene in clubs such as the Countdown and the UFO; the Dead could be found jamming at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco just a few blocks away from the famed street corner of Haight and Ashbury. In their own ways, both were at the forefront of the psychedelic movement with Barrett & co. exploring the more experimental side of the equation while Garcia and friends tended towards the improvisational facets found in free jazz, acid rock and the bay area jam bands.


But by the end of the 1960s, the peak popularity of the psychedelic era had already passed, leading most of the bands to abandon ship or move onto greener pastures. Britain's big three innovators - The Pink Floyd, The Nice and The Soft Machine - gently transcended from psyche to 'spacey' art rock, progressive and jazz fusion respectively. In America, perhaps counterintuitively, they did not follow such a route. Instead of reaching for sofisticated new territories, bands such as The Byrds, Country Joe & The Fish and CCR returned to their roots embracing more earthy paths, the likes of country, folk and 'swamp'.


On that note The Grateful Dead were no different; starting in June 1970 with Workingman's Dead [Warner Bros. WS 1869], the first to carry a complete virage into country and folk followed within a few months by the musically excellent and sonically outstanding American Beauty [Warner Bros. WS 1893 or Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab MFSL 1-014]. After a couple of live albums, the Dead returned with their sixth studio LP - Wake of the Flood - originally the first of many released on their own record label Grateful Dead Records [GD-01], distributed at the time by United Artist.


Engineers Dan Healy and Tom Flye respectively recorded and mixed the band in August 1973 on 24-track analog - the new 'gold standard' at the time and still to be reckon with today. The original mastering engineer is not credited though it was mastered and cut at TLC - The Lacquer Channel in Sausalito which prominently featured producer and sound engineer Stephen Barncard who had worked on American Beauty. The first vinyl runs were done at the Monarch Record Mfg. Co. pressing plant in L.A. On this release, engineer Krieg Wunderlich remastered and cut the new lacquer from the original 2-track master tapes at Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab in Sebastopol, CA.

 
American artist Rick Griffin - known for his San Francisco psychedelic posters, underground comic counterculture and associated Grateful Dead LP artwork - designed a beautiful front cover bathing in earth tones of ochre, seafoam and maroon with MoFi's hued-matching band tastefully added at the top while prolonging the black frame all around. The back cover also replicates the original but with the song titles printed in black added in the top left corner and MoFi's usual credits and info in smaller print further down. Consistent with the front, a top band is repeated plus the universal barcode with MoFi logos occupying the bottom black strip. Contrary to many of their regular series, this release did not benefit from a gatefold jacket 'makeover'.


Inside, the record is housed in their flexible anti static rice paper 'Original Master Sleeves'. In addition, a folded light carton comprising 36 album covers adorns the outer sides while CD's, SACD's and various products are featured on the inner sides, bringing further record protection. The heavy-weight LP is pressed at RTI in California. Both sides were flat, shiny lustered and deep black, i.e. visually perfect and reassuring for the eyes. As per usual with MoFi, the new label does not try to reproduce the original (in this case Grateful Dead) but instead is plain black with a silver top rim. Inscribed in the dead wax on both sides are 'kw @ MoFi' for MFSL's cutting engineer initials. Wunderlich chose an equal groove-spacing travel of 3 1/4 inches for both sides, leaving approximately 3/8 inches between the last note and label which is pretty much the minimum if to avoid severe stylus/groove distortion. With roughly an equal 22 1/2 minutes of music per side, this translates to just under 7 min./inch of linear cutting displacement. This verges just beyond the accepted 20 min. per side time limit for 33 1/3 rpm before significant sound compromises start to be felt in bandwidth and/or cutting level though softer program material will be less demanding than strong dynamic bass content. MFSL's use of half-speed mastering/cutting technique and typical lower cutting level will also reduce distortion in the highest frequencies and extend them by doubling the time the cutter head has to trace the groove.


"Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo" opens side A. The level cutting is a bit low as we have come to expect from a MoFi, so do not be shy of turning up the volume. If you are more familiar with the Dead's earliest period, you may be in for quite a surprise. Gone are any psychedelic references, replaced instead by a loose laid-back country vibe. Contrary to many recordings where the lead vocal or guitar soloist dominate the mix; here, as in typical - democratic - Dead character, every instrument is on a plain level field, reaffirming their egalitarian philosophy right down through the mix. American swing and bluegrass fiddler Vassar Clements' violin sounds oh so sweet, completely devoid of any grain and making it a true delight for the ears. Towards the end, the backing chorus comes in augmenting the stage. The general sound is warm and soft, supported by mild 1970-ish 'cushiony' compression; as such elevating your tonearm's VTA will help sharpen a bit the kick and overall tone envelope. Musically it is not my 'cup of tea' or make that 'moonshine' but the sound is pleasantly good nevertheless.

"Let Me Sing Your Blues Away" continues in the same vein both musically and sonically in a 'sloppy' laid back country feel featuring sax - a rarity in this musical genre. Nearly on par with the previous track.

The relaxed "Row Jimmy" has nice tone color regarding the guitar and interesting female back vocals but is let down by soft sounding drum toms yearning for better articulation. In both rating aspects, this is the least impressive song of the LP.

Fortunately the very smooth "Stella Blue" reverses the trend with the best track of side A. Lovely back vocals; wide dynamic range with lots of contrast; deep bass; excellent crispy presence on the guitar; this last one sharing ambiant touches with some of Floyd's David Gilmour stylings. This vinyl side was noise-free and perfect all the way.


Flipping to side B: "Here Comes Sunshine" is again smooth with good punchy kick and snare, sounding dry and warm as many studios of that decade were heavily carpeted in rugs and absorption material. Vocals are also very well recorded. On equal footing with the previous track.

From the very first notes, "Eyes Of The World"'s melody borrows from Marvin Gaye's 1971 classic "What's Going On" [Tamla TS-310 or MFSL 1-314]. As opposed to the preceding tracks, this one boasts a faster tempo, is lighter and more transparent. The exquisitely recorded guitar plus its chorus effect is incredibly limpid. The soundstage is wider; cymbals are finer in detail but still sweet plus lots of great vocal harmonies. All of the above lead me to pick it as the best track of the album in both criteria and worthy of demo material.

"Weather Report Suite" is the closing track of the album and is structured in three flowing parts: "Prelude", "Part I" and finally "Part II (Let It Grow)". The former features peerless panned guitars with impeccable finesse in the top end; pretty much the best I have encountered on record and owing as much to the original tape recording than to Krieg Wunderlich's skill using MoFi's half-speed cutting method - those that possess true super-tweeters will be rewarded. The melodic string riff remind me of The Rolling Stones "Angie" released barely two months prior to this LP. The kick drum is big and fat sounding; country slide or steel guitar hints at future Gilmour playing such as on Wish You Were Here [Harvest SHVL 814]. Floating panoramic backing vocals grace the splendid mix. A slow rising crescendo of hymns conjures up the sun relief after the flood. This soon changes style to a more progressive-art-folk form bearing harmonic influences from CSNY, The Guess Who's "No Time" from American Woman [RCA or Cisco Music LSP 4266] and America's self-titled debut [Warner Bros 2576 or Friday Music FRM 9001]. Trumpets, saxes and harmonica bring another dimension and feel to this explorative piece. Second best song of the album presented in superb sound. The RTI pressed vinyl maintained its perfect silence throughout.


Summing up, Wake of the Flood is more representive of the second period of the Dead and will appeal to those whose musical tastes embrace more country and folk than to the Jefferson - Hendrix - acid rock trip which is not that surprising given that this is 1973 and not 1967; an 'eternity' in music history. By the same token, the sound aesthetics are perfectly conformant with the time period. As with Priscilla Ahn's A Good Day [MFSL 1-363], mastering and disk-cutting engineer Krieg Wunderlich did another fine job on this reissue upholding the original's excellent recording. As my ratings below suggest, I much preferred the second side for its musical direction which lessened the country flavoring.

____________________________________________________________________

PUGS & CROWS - FANTASTIC PICTURES

Self released (2012) 

Evaluated by Claude Lemaire

Rating: 5.0 - 6.5/ A  

Category: independant rock/avant-garde jazz/fusion/progressive

Format: Vinyl (140 gram LP at 33.33 rpm)

Musicians:

  • Cole Schmidt's - guitar
  • Catherine Toren - piano
  • Meredith Bates - violin
  • Russell Sholberg - double-bass
  • Ben Brown - drums
Additional credits:
  • Sheldon Zahardo - recording engineer at The Factory in Vancouver, Canada
  • Chris Gestrin - additional recording at Public Alley 421, mixing and mastering
  • Jeremy Crowle - artwork


'Whatever you write, please don't categorize us under jazz' - was guitarist and composer Cole Schmidt's sole request last July 3rd when he handed me a copy of his most recent music project: Pugs & Crows' Fantastic Pictures which won a Juno award for 'Instrumental Album of the Year' (2013). At first glance this may seem a bit odd given that the band had just completed a one hour outdoor set at the world-renowned Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. But as anybody who has set foot at the ever popular jazz fest will tell you, 'music fest' would be a more honest if less 'hip' name to define the broad programming this 34 year edition supplied. Owing reference to its original jazz roots, the annual 10 day event has long ago expanded its repertoire to a vast array of music styles, so much so that one would be pretty closed-minded not to find something worth investigating.


As a long time fest-follower and audiophile, I have discovered early on that the 'best - outdoor - view soundwise' is up close, stage left or right; 'bypassing' to a large degree the multi array PA system. This yields a more natural, intimate and dynamic performance. And such was the case with my first encounter with Pugs & Crows. In addition to the aforementioned Schmidt, the Vancouver-based quintet comprises Catherine Toren on piano, Meredith Bates on violin, Russell Sholberg on double-bass and Ben Brown on drums.


The latter - just a few feet away from my standing position - provided a particularly enthralling rhythmic tour de force both sonically and artistically. In no way should you infer by this that he overshadowed the rest of the band, only that I have a weak spot for captivating drummers. In fact each member left a convincing impression of knowing exactly what and when to play, displaying great authority of their chosen instrument and seamlessly blending together as one unit.

Musically, the group combines diverse elements of instrumental independant rock; exploratory avant-garde jazz with 'prepared piano-like' stylings; dissonant and minimalist violin loop patterns; fusion and progressive structured compositions. At times, Schmidt's experimental surf twang guitar drive, reminded me of Marc Ribot's signature work on John Zorn's Zevulun with the Bar Kokhba Sextet from disc 2 of The Circle Maker [Tzadik TZ 7122].

 
So in effect we are quite far from any form of 'traditional jazz'. Exceptionally for one song, guest singer Debra-Jean Creelman added a touch of Argentinian-tinged waltz, somewhat akin to a female version of Canadian singer-songwriter, musician and poet Leonard Cohen; not surprisingly knowing she just finished reading the latter's writings. A former member of Mother Mother, Creelman had collaborated with the band on their 2009 debut album Slum Towers.


The album was recorded in June of 2011 at the Factory in Vancouver, Canada by engineer Sheldon Zaharko. Additional recording was done by pianist, multi-keyboardist, composer, engineer and producer Chris Gestrin at Public Alley 421, who has worked with some of the big names in jazz and avant-garde such as Dave Douglas, Gary Peacock, David "Fathead" Newman and Peggy Lee just to name a few. In addition, he is credited with the mixing and mastering of the album.

Jeremy Crowle's front cover artwork features a picture of several tight-knit tree trunks in a dark lit forest with what appears to be a teenie weenie gorilla staring at us right under the 'R' of 'Pictures'. The back cover keeps it simple with the song titles and minimal credits printed white on the black background. The LP is housed in a semiglossed, semirigid grayscale printed inner sleeve reprising the nature theme with the chopped tree trunks seen from above the black background. Care should be taken during normal removal and insertion not to scratch the vinyl surface with this type of sleeve. The labels also pursue the above thematic with no added text whatsoever. The 140 gram (approx.) LP was flat and 'square-sided', with no 'scuff marks' or 'bluish' hues. Though black, it did not convey the luster sometimes found on 180 gram premium audiophile pressings, nor did the groove patterns exhibit large and deep dynamic shifts worth 'drooling' over.

The non-credited cutting engineer, chose an identical groove-spread of 2 3/4 inches for both side A and side B begging the question was this a 'blind auto-cut' or was it really determined that this was the best spread based on the sourced music spectrum and not just the time criterion used as basis. Lacquer and stamper inscription had 'PUG001' etched in the dead wax. With approximately 17 minutes of music on both sides this translates roundly to 6.2 min./inch of linear cutting displacement and being under the typical 20 minute recommended limit for a 33 rpm of 'average level' cutting should not pose any problem. The pressings were done at Samo Media.


Starting on side A at an average cutting level; Brown's brief snare roll crescendo leads us into "Rats That Now Star". From the first bars, we are plunged into a Zorn-like atmosphere as previously alluded to in their live performance. Surf guitar and violin playfully interact; the - prepared perhaps - piano joins in with dissonant dialog; violin veers from arco to pizzicato plus drum punctuations throughout the track, complement several staccato dynamic bursts. The overall sound is somewhat roomy and slightly distant especially so the drumkit, sounding further back than the rest with the double-bass mostly too low in level and definition, making him hard to follow. There is a lack of intimacy and frequency extremes are a bit curtailed, leaving a mild midrange predominance.

Engineers Zaharko and Gestrin seem to have strived for a sound that approaches what one could hear live acoustically in a small semi-reverberant venue but with the listener in the eight row instead of the first row. Not being present at the recording I can only venture a guess but it almost sounds like a two or minimal ambiant mic setup. Although this can at times yield great results - as I have personally confirmed so in the past - placement is paramount, be that musicians as well as mics. On the positive side, it does not sound very compressed so dynamic swings add a nice liveliness which is all too often missing in modern recordings. There are some similarities also with the 'Chicago style' of raw recording as practiced by Steve Albini and others but with less proximity and realism. In a nutshell, a great composition and performance but only fairly good sound.

"Hibernation" changes style completely toward a smoother, eventually jazzier vibe. Guitar, violin and piano play in unison, the latter beautifully rendered by Catherine Toren. Unfortunately the drum with 'wishy-washy' cymbals is too far in the mix robbing it of impact - even more so after witnessing Brown's intensity and complexity in concert. The musical structure metamorphoses towards a freer style impro bordering on contemporary inklings. Musically on par if not better still than the opening track. Too bad that the sound - even more mid dominant - is a notch lower.

"Sam and Sara" is very exploratory and contemporary sounding in the intro with Asian plucked string influences thrown in followed by a cyclic guitar pattern. Drums and violin embark on this rather 'heavy' progressive vibe that tends towards a noisy, close to saturation, more compressed sound. Dirty and grainy cymbals cause some ear fatigue. The double-bass is again hard to follow. The outro is similar in nature to the intro, this in effect closing the 'loop'. Another splendid adventurous composition held back by so-so sound; this one being the lesser sounding of the album. Vinyl was quiet the whole side.

Flipping to side B:

"Talkin' Fish Instead" has the violin and piano playing in perfect unison in a 'busy' syncopated syntax until it switches to a general détente before the primary riff reappears and idem with the secondary pattern. Cymbals are much better rendered with top end details more present than the previous side. Everything is tonally better balanced with nice dynamic shadings. Superb jazzy piano playing by Toren, exploiting its keyboard fully and later veering to a more contemporary school. In the final measures, a long crescendo conducts us to an abrupt coda reprising the main intro riff. I found this track to be the best of the album in composition, performance and sound quality, approaching a 4 on 5 for the latter; a far cry from the previous track. So the inquiring mind wants to know: was this the same engineer(s) and if so, then there is a clear lack of consistency at some point in the 'sound chain'.

"We Must Befriend the Ice Queen" follows with the violin, sweeter sounding in the high register, deftly running on this faster 3/4 meter. The drum shows better bottom weight for the kick and top end for the cymbals contrasting with the first side. Bates' violin is lovely adopting a more manouche style until a 'violent storm' of noise crescendo metamorphoses into an industrial avant-rock sound followed by abrupt ending; a hair below the previous track in both criteria.

"These Fantastic Pictures", the title track, closes the album. It starts out as a ballad with guitar and violin soon joined by all. A counterpoint of instruments dialoguing in pizzicato becomes almost cacophonic in tension then back to the intro riff culminating with the band softly singing "These fantastic pictures on the wall will fall" in a light humored tone. This side was also devoid of any surface noise.


To conclude, Pugs & Crow's Fantastic Pictures lives up to its name: a two-dimensional sound portrait of a fantastic three-dimensional band that I had the privelege of discovering live in action. This is regrettably a recurring reality in many genres when listening to a recording of a band after watching the real thing and wondering why could they not capture the energy and sound that they got, despite the pressure and time constraints of a live setting vs the studied studio scenario? Or is that ironically the answer to my question - just imagine you are playing live and hit record, and 'it's a take everybody', errors and all. Or, do what Eddie Kramer brilliantly did with Kiss for their breakthrough landmark 1975 LP Alive! [Casablanca NBLP 7020]. After three unsuccessful studio albums, he recorded them live in concert and later overdubbed some or several parts - depending on interviews - and remixed it as if you were getting the real thing or feel in your living room and fooled everybody for many years. You may have noticed that I did not mention often Sholberg's double-bass contribution on the record, for the simple fact that he gets overlooked in the recording and mix and should not in any way diminish his musical importance. A last recommendation I would offer and this applies to many promissing independant bands is: leave the mastering stage to a third party; an experienced 'outsider' engineer will bring the project a global objective perspective and a polished cohesive sound that an insider will often miss on inferior speakers.

Despite some sonic reserves, Sheldon Zaharko and Chris Gestrin presented nonetheless a non-processed and low compressed recording that; combined with the strong compositions, arrangements and musicianship on this album, makes me urge you to seek out and explore this adventurous quintet at home and better yet live.
____________________________________________________________________

JIMI HENDRIX - PEOPLE, HELL AND ANGELS

Experience Hendrix L.L.C. (2013, March)
Sony Legacy 88765419021


Evaluated by Claude Lemaire

Averaged Rating: 7.8/ B
Rating: 5.0 (TRK4) - 9.3/ D - A+

Category: Blues/Acid/Psychedelic/Soul/Funky/R&B/-Rock
Format: Vinyl (2x200 gram LP at 33 1/3 rpm)


Album Credits: 

Primary musicians

  • Jimi Hendrix – guitars, vocals, (bass guitar in track 9)
  • Billy Cox – bass guitar (tracks 1, 3, 4, 6–8, 13)
  • Buddy Miles – drums (tracks 1–5, 10, 12, 13)
  • Mitch Mitchell – drums (tracks 6, 7, 9)
  • Juma Sultan – congas (tracks 3, 4, 6, 7, 12)
Additional musicians
  • Larry Lee – rhythm guitar (tracks 6, 7)
  • Jerry Velez – congas (tracks 6, 7)
  • Stephen Stills – bass guitar (track 2)
  • Lonnie Youngblood – vocal & saxophone (track 5)
  • Rocky Isaac – drums (track 8)
  • Al Marks – percussion (track 8)
  • Albert Allen – vocal (track 11)
  • Jame Booker – piano (track 11)
  • Gerry Sack - triangle & mime vocal (track 6)
Production personnel        
  • ProducerEddie Kramer, Janie L. Hendrix*, John McDermott
  • Engineer, Mixed ByEddie Kramer
  • Engineer [Second]Spencer Guerra
  • Engineer [Assistant]Chandler Harrod
  • Recorded At Record Plant, N.Y.C.; Sound CenterThe Hit Factory; Fame Recording Studios   
  • Mixed AtCapitol Studios; Clinton Recording Studio; LAFX Studios; Legacy Recording Studios    
  • Mastered ByBernie Grundman
  • Lacquer Cut ByBernie Grundman
  • Pressed By Quality Record Pressings
  • Design Phil Yarnall, Smay Design


Pacino and DeNiro, Lennon and McCartney, Giorgio and Donna, Bacharach and Warwick - all convey the importance of cultivating a great team and to that we can add Hendrix and Kramer and...Marino?



Yes, the late mastering and cutting engineer George Marino who passed away in June of 2012 was as much a fixture in the winning team to reissue with honor the Legacy of the rich Hendrix catalogue as was having on board the original mixing engineer of the famous Electric Lady Studios.



And as I have stated many times in the past, Eddie Kramer is simply one of if not the best rock engineer-producer of all time. Sadly but understandably to continue these historic releases, finding a worthy successor to Marino was a key priority for all parties concerned.



Enter veteran mastering engineer Bernie Grundman into the picture. Well known in audiophile circles for remastering and cutting Classic Records' reissues of the famed RCA Living Stereo catalogue. Add to that many Verve, Columbia and Blue Note jazz titles as well as iconic rock albums of the past analog years and more current releases either through ORG or regular 'non-audiophile' labels. It seems safe to assume that his 'wax' calendar appears booked solid.


 

But on top of that, there are two other changes to take into consideration relating with the prior Experiencing Hendrix vinyl releases: pressing plant and vinyl weight. While RTI in California and 180 gram were the past de facto choice; this latest release is the first to be manufactured by Quality Record Pressings and weighs in at a hefty 200 gram. The latter is rarer but comparable to the older MoFi 'ANADISQ 200 series' as well as some of the later Classic Records' QUIEX SV-P releases a few years before folding. How these three new factors of the equation come into play will be interesting to judge on the final sonic footprint.

Contrary to popular belief, I have found no direct correlation between heavier vinyl weight and higher sound quality; in fact on some aspects such as 'bass bounce' or low frequency 'elasticity' I find that stiff 180 gram and more so 200 gram vinyl tend to be less satisfying than lighter pressings; perhaps due to the different decay, natural resonant frequency and vinyl impedance of the physical medium. Case in point are the vastly opposite sound from MoFi 'ANADISQ 200's - which I found tended towards a stiff harder bass vs their earliest thin JVC Japanese pressings; a fine example being Gino Vannelli's Powerfull People [Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab MFSL 1-041] that has incredible creamy deep lows and dynamics.


 
Granted there could be many other technical reasons responsible for this. A more rigorous comparison would be the slight differences in sound between Classic Records' 180 gram and 200 gram reissues of Billie Holiday's Songs For Distingué Lovers [MG VS-6021] made I believe from the same stamper; the heavier one having a bit less air in the top end - even after compensating for VTA. The one clear thing is that the heavier pressings hold the advantage in reducing possible vinyl warpage.


Like the previous LPs - First Rays of the New Rising Sun [Experience Hendrix - Legacy 88697 63403 1] and Valleys of Neptune [Experience Hendrix - Legacy 88697 64059 1] People, Hell and Angels is an official posthumous release approved by half-sister and CEO Janie Hendrix. This latest and - according to Kramer - last studio album, showcases 12 previously unreleased studio recordings that could have been featured on what would have been the follow-up to Electric Ladyland [Experience Hendrix - Legacy 88697 62398 1] originally out in October 1968. Recordings for this new album took place in New York at the following venues: Record Plant, Sound Center, Hit Factory and Fame studios between March 1968 and August 1970; one month prior to his death at only 27 years old.



The superb two-tone gatefold jacket imbues a classic high quality timeless look. Famed British rock photographer Gered Mankowitz's cover art encapsulates to a tee Hendrix's exquisite sense of fashion in one of his famous military-esque jackets with metallic medallion and scarf. Inside the left side is a fuzzy close up of his face while the right side appears to be a backstage shot of him playing guitar. While on the back cover, American rock photographer Chuck Boyd captures the 'guitar God' dressed in paisley shirt along with the song's listing on the right. Included is a high quality 11 1/2" x 12" booklet comprising 8 thick pages with great sepia, b&w and color photos of Hendrix live and in studio with producer Kramer and others beside him. Technical credits and musical personnel followed by historic facts accompany each song. The generous packaging is to be commended even more so at the very fair retail price.



Each thick 200 gram LP is well protected in an anti-static 'archival' sleeve identical to what Mobile Fidelity has been using since many years but naturally with 'Quality Record Pressings' printed on it instead. All sides were perfectly flat, black and shiny with no 'scuff marks' or 'bluish' hues whatsoever as was sometimes the case with RTI pressings. A different background color is chosen for each label; with red, blue, violet and green respectively. Working in Hollywood California at his usual Mastering suite, Bernie Grundman chose a groove-spread of 2 7/16 inches for side A and side B; 2 9/16 inches for side C and a mere 2 1/16 inches for side D, leaving a full 1 1/2 inches of dead wax; of which all 4 sporting the lacquer and stamper 'BG' inscriptions. With 13:20 minutes of music on side A; 14:30 on side B; 15:14 minutes on side C and 9:30 minutes on side D this translates roundly to 5.5 min./inch; 6 min./inch; 6 min./inch and 4.5 min./inch of linear cutting displacement respectively. I would have preferred using up a bit more of the lateral spead - closer to 2 3/4 or just under 3 inches - to take more advantage of the bass possibilities.

As with many Grundman cuttings, he tends to stay further away from the label perimeter - prioritising cleaner top end treble over ultimate bass amplitude and dept - than for example Doug Sax, Steve Hoffman, Kevin Gray and most of MoFi's mastering team; George Marino somehow seemed to fit in between extremes. These highly regarded engineers also cut at a lower level while Bernie's are sometimes viewed as modulated louder or 'hotter'. As with just about everything in life, there are pluses and minuses for both approaches - vinyl noise floor, dynamic range window, cutter head saturation, modulated groove velocity, cartridge tracking limits, frequency bandwidth and side/timing material just to name a few - with their respective proponents naturally defending their own camps. All things being equal, louder cuttings tend to sound more upfront, energized and producing tighter bass with a slightly harder or leaner tonal balance while lower cuttings favor a smoother or softer, laid-back presentation with looser groovier bass and warmer tonal balance but more susceptible to distracting ticks and pops if the music gets low in level. Why such is the case, without hard data to back my hypothesis, I can only speculate that more voltage on the cutter head combined with the RIAA pre-emphasis curve produces greater harmonic production at the output leading towards a predominance of odd over even harmonic distribution.

Before evaluating the sound of People, Hell and Angels, I have to admit that a certain bias on my part worries me that this 'semi-changing of the guard' may not be for the better. I base this in part on my comparison of Hendrix's Axis Bold as Love [Classic Records 612 003] done by Grundman vs [Experience Hendrix L.L.C. - Sony Legacy 88697 62396 1] done by Marino. Now some may correctly point out that this is not exactly fair, for Classic Records were remastering their version directly from the original mono master tapes while Marino under Kramer's guidance were using the original stereo master tapes; both mixes seemingly quite different. Point well taken. That said, while both remasterings were excellent and are worth getting, the latter is to my ears, superior in organic warmth and grooviness and no surprise, stunningly wide panoramically bringing out the psychedelic nature of the recording and the times to its maximum.



Don't get me wrong, Grundman has oftentimes impress me, be it with Holst The Planets [Fidelio Music FALP028], the mono Blue Note series as well as Davis' Birth of the Cool [Classic Records Capitol Jazz T-762], the Mercury Living Presence reissues for Classic and many many more; but when it comes to rock I crave for the typical 'meaty', warm and 'organic' textures that Hoffman, Gray, Sax and - at least regarding Hendrix is concerned - Marino tend to produce. This comes down to a matter of taste. An analogy would be like comparing bridge rectifier choices in amplifier power supplies; some will prefer solid state diodes whereas others will prefer old tube rectifiers and of those the choice then goes down to a 'looser' 5R4 'Potato Masher' or the tighter 5AR4 or something 'midway' like the popular 5U4. In other words: to each his own. Now let's see how the new 'keeper of the flame' turned out after all.


 
From the start of side A, the cutting level is moderately lower than the typical BG cutting level at least for past Classic Records reissues are concerned. "Earth Blues" recorded December 1969, opens the set with a catchy guitar riff and chorus built on an uptempo rhythm section backed by drummer Buddy Miles and bassist Billy Cox. Rather simple and repetitive in structure with no heavy emphasis on psychedelic effects. Excellent guitar tone accompanied by good articulated kick drum though not as groovy 'plump', 'cushiony' as past Marino or even more so Kevin Gray remasterings. Engineer Bob Cotto and Kramer's mix is pretty equilibrated but the soundstage is near mono as opposed to prior psychedelic-wide material such as Are you Experienced [Experience Hendrix - Legacy 88697 62395 1] or the previously mentioned Axis Bold as Love. A strong track for music and sound.

Things change gear with "Somewhere", a slow heavy blues rock. Great wah-wah pedal dissonant leads. Kick drum is thicker, slower and more emphasized in the mix than the previous track; accompanying him on bass is Steven Stills of future C.S.N.Y. fame. Hendrix's vocals have a slight reverb effect. There is an early Led Zep feel in structure and Miles' drums are close in style to Bonham's circa 1971s "Black Dog" from their fourth untitled LP [Atlantic 2401012] but it is worth noting that this track was recorded well before all that way back in March 1968 no less. Likewise sound is dirtier and close to analog tape saturation - another Led Zep trait in those early years - while soundstage is wider. No less than four engineers are credited along with Kramer on the mixing desk. Almost on par with the opening track for both ratings.

"Hear My Train a Comin'" is even more bluesy but still heavyish in rock style. Sound is denser; cymbals are dirtier plus the leads are very dissonant. The latter and backbone rhythm parts become rather repetitive, resembling extended jam sessions typified by the acid rock era at the height of the Haight-Ashbury scene. Engineer Dave Ragno's recording of May 1969 is a bit compressed but still tolerable. Near the coda the vocals get louder and distorted as is commonly encountered in this type of bluesy rock. First instance of slight ear fatigue but nonetheless fairly good in overall sound. Throughout the side, the vinyl remained perfectly silent and free of static and other anomalies of the medium.



Flipping sides and cut a bit louder is a cover of Elmore James famous "Bleeding Heart". The intro has the guitar plus reverb soloing dead center until the a snare roll crescendoes the rest of the trio into a slow blues rock instrumental. Hendrix's vocals and guitar are mixed upfront. Dave Ragno's whole mix has a cold sound to it; kick is 'cardboardy'; cymbals and in particular the ride are not pleasant, lacking extension; everything in fact lacks top end detail. Mono-ish sounds; clearly rough demo sounding; 'not ready for prime time' and quite inferior in music and sound compared to side A and past Hendrix releases to the point of calling it boring. Strangely it was recorded the same day as the previous song. The track ends roughly and I would have recommended skipping it instead of wasting precious wax. A faster paced version previously appeared on Valleys of Neptune which was way better.

With "Let Me Move You", we are back to stereo with warmer, more detailed sound. A mix of funky soul R&B and rock is the resulting sauce. Think James Brown meets The Isley Brothers 'shouts'. Hendrix, having prior collaborated with saxophonist Lonnie Youngblood's as a sideman a few years back, called upon his old pal to pitch in. With vocals and sax that would do proud a JB or Joe Tex single, this is not at all what you expect out of a Hendrix record. The hi-hat is 'dirty'; some mild compression causing a bit of bottom emaciation. John Winfield's funky organ that could fit in a Memphis Stax record leaves the impression that the tape is rolling on an improvised R&B session. Hank Anderson is on bass while Jimmy Mayes takes over Miles' drums. Engineer Gary Kellgren - the founder of The Record Plant - is credited on this so-so sounding track. Dating from March 1969, it marked the first use of the studio's newly acquired 16-track Ampex tape recorder.

"Izabella" - which first appeared on First Rays of the New Rising Sun - closes side B with an original syncopated groovy rock structure including an interesting dissonant blues based lead. Cox is back on bass but this time it is Mitch Mitchell that is on 'skins' and Jimi has string company with American guitarist Larry Lee. Kramer's touch brings a more full bodied, meaty tonal balanced mix that some might qualify as warm and 'tuby'. Again some subtle Led Zep influences come to mind but when recorded in August 1969, it is safe to say that it is more the latter being influenced by Hendrix than the other way around. Ear slightly 'full'. Perfect pressing.


 
Moving on to record 2 side C with the cutting level back in line with side A. "Easy Blues" - recorded the same date as the previous track - starts with Cox's muffled bass soloing followed by Lee's jazzy-blues swinging rhythm guitar and Jerry Velez and Juma Sultan's tambourine and 'percs'. Mitch's drums come in strong as his groove accelerates progressing into heavier drum fills and eventually back to a swinging rhythmic feel. The drums are well captured with good tom impact and tone, superb snare textures with good micro-dynamics. Nice warm sound for the lead also. Remaining instrumental throughout, it comes across like an improvise jam to a certain degree. Pretty much on par with side A's two opening tracks.

"Crash Landing" is one of the three best tracks of the album musically and sonically. Dating from April 1969, this "Chicken scratch" guitar funky R&B rock hybrid has definite roots in the psychedelic soul of Sly and the Family Stone. Nice sustained psychedelic leads supported by superb snare drum crispness and fast dynamics, fine hi-hat and warm sound. Engineered by Kellgren and mixed by Kramer. Rocky Issac replaces Mitchell on drums accompanied by Al Marks on percussion and an unknown organist.

The first thing that strikes you when listening to the instrumental "Inside Out" is the enormous resemblance with "Purple Haze"'s riff and what would eventually result in "Ezy Ryder". With Mitchell on drums, Hendrix takes over bass duties on this one. Engineered by Kramer in June 1968, it possesses great snare and tom textures; good slightly 'dirty' hi-hat; excellent balanced mix of course; widely panned overlapping leads; odd complex syncopated structure; warm slightly compressed but retaining superb snare 'snap and pop'. Ends bizarrely and abruptly. By and large this is a stronger side than side B and the most constant in both rating criterias.

The last side starts with the slow tempo "Hey Gypsy Boy" from March 1969. Engineers Kellgren and Kramer provide us with a powerful solid kick and hi-hat with a very natural 'closing' sound and drumstick timbre. Great guitar tone. The whole sound is juxtaposedly intimate and with grandeur. Without doubt the most transparent track of the album and 'demo-worthy' on appropriate systems.



"Mojo Man" opens with a combination of tambourine and horns that are pure proto-blaxploitation - psychedelic soul, mixing elements of The Temptations' "Cloud Nine" [Gordy GS939] and Isaac Hayes' Theme from Shaft [Enterprise ENS 2-5002] as well as his later single "Chocolate Chip" [HBS ABC Records ABCD-874] except that this Mojo was recorded in 1969 and August 1970, one full year before Hayes' soundtrack megahit was released. Superb interplay of guitar and brass arrangements. Albert Allen of the Allen Brothers provides the vocals. The latter changing their name to the Ghetto Fighters. Kramer's engineering provides good treble detail but just misses some bottom weight. Still, one of the best tracks of the album.

"Villanova Junction Blues" closes the project. We are back to a much slower paced bluesy rock instrumental. Ragno's work gives us a strong articulate kick. Too bad the track gets off to a good start but at less than a minute in total length it is way too short in duration. Again both sides of this second LP remained perfectly silent and devoid of artifacts, affirming that on this occasion Quality Record Pressings fully lived up to their name.

To conclude, just like Valleys of Neptune, this latest posthumous LP from the maestro varies somewhat in sound and musical merit, more so than the excellent uniformity found on First Rays of the New Rising Sun of which I consider essential in any worthy collection. People, Hell and Angels does not fall exactly into that category but is nonetheless one of the many interesting albums of 2013 out so far and worth investigating regardless of where you stand on the 'Hendrix fan ladder'. The luxurious presentation alone is a strong enticement; add to that the quality pressing (I could not resist) and general fine rock sound, makes the choice of going with the vinyl version over other formats a no-brainer. As for the choice of 200 gram over 180 gram is concerned, I do believe that it may have played a small part in the overall - tighter - sound, especially the bass signature but further QRP evaluations will be in order to confirm or disprove such conclusions. Finally to the question of does Grundman live up to the high standard set out by the late George Marino? I believe that he came surprisingly close to surpassing my expectations but ultimately I would have wanted a touch more warmth and 'groove factor' injected in and remain curious as to how a Hoffman-Gray or Sax version would sound on future related projects.

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