A Record More Than a Record

Sometimes one wants to tell the world about something that one is really excited about, and then one pauses and wonders if there is any universality whatsoever in that thing. I am that one right now.

I have a good friend who loves listening to music as much as I do. Although we both have a lot of recordings in our collections, the intersection of our musical tastes is quite small, but we talk about what we are hearing, and what makes a great recording, in sonic terms, in almost identical language. When he plays something for me, whether I latch on to the music or not, it always sound great. But, as I said, if he is blue and I am yellow in our music collections Venn diagram, the green area is barely visible to the naked eye. We are different, if equally ardent, cats when it comes to music.

It is from this, and other similar experiences, that I am assessing how to describe what I am excited about, but here goes. If you are a passionate pursuer of any pastime, hobby, collection, whatever, which leads you to have or experience more than a few examples, you no doubt develop favorites. If you read my Musing “Merle and the Mystery” or my review of Gram Parsons’ “Grievous Angel,” both on this site, you will realize that I like Gram’s music wildly out of proportion to the mere six records he had significant input to by the time he died at 26 in 1973. He is, very surely, a favorite of mine, but it is the “wildly out of proportion” part that leaves me wondering about my mission here.

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I first thought I would write a really enthusiastic review of a new version (a “remastering”) of The Flying Burrito Bros. “Gilded Palace of Sin,” suggesting that everyone should own this record. Then I realized that this is probably the seminal recording of my late high school years, the time when I, as a budding music lover, began to develop more mature tastes- the first music that I remain close to to this day. As I say in my “Grievous Angel” piece, when I first heard “Gilded Palace…”, I was a MESS. There are a few somewhat fluffy or upbeat songs on here, but even those have an undercurrent of deeper emotion than they seem to at first blush. But the bulk of it? Oh, man. It hurts! And I discovered that I really loved painful music.

But enough about me, and Gram. As much as I like him and the Bros., I harbor no illusions that the music is universal. The fact that it is so critically important to me because of when it came into my life and the inexplicable hold it took almost guarantees that it isn’t. I can’t even articulate what its power is over me.

For the rest of this, I’m going to ask you to substitute and envision a very favorite recording of a very favorite piece of music of your own, because I believe, going forward, we may be in universal territory, or at least the near suburbs. What arrived today is the new Intervention Records vinyl of “Gilded Palace..”. I decided, after cleaning and LASTing it, and then listening to both sides (it FLEW by! Dang, this record is not long enough.) that it may very well represent the single most “medium transcending” improvement to a recording I have ever heard.

I have been able, albeit going back a long way, to spend some time in recording facilities where music performances are laid onto analog tape. I have made a recording of a friend of mine in such a facility performing his own songs, and then subsequently observed the mastering process up close and had the results pressed onto vinyl. Hearing a live mike feed and the master tape that comes from it sort of sticks in your head, etched forever. Thus, one of the highest praises I can give a “play it at home version” of a recording (LP, CD, high res file, etc.) is to say it makes me think of those etched-in-the-brain master tape experiences.

Because I am nutty for GPoS, I have numerous versions. My original A&M, a second pressing; a first press I found many years later (sounds noticeably better); several other A&M’s grabbed whenever encountered at used record stores; the Four Men With Beards vinyl redo from a decade ago (sounds sanded way too smooth); and several CD-based reissues of different pedigrees. I began to feel I was, in a way, triangulating in on what the music actually sounded like based on my mind mixing all the attributes, and trying to edit out the liabilities of these many different recordings. I found out today I wasn’t within a million miles.

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I found out because Shane Buettner at Intervention Records apparently screwed up and shipped the master tape to Ultra Fidelis. From the opening stylus cue (sorry, I can’t say “needle drop”), I had the sensation that it was 1969, and I was transported to the recording venue and allowed to watch one of my very most favorite recordings being made. All of the bad sound, all the artifacts that I thought I had pegged, finally, to the master tape, vanished. The digital version ones, but also seemingly all the phono-based ones- gone! This recording, so close to my heart, had always sounded small, cheesy, unkempt, and thus slightly annoying, despite my love for the music, but not anymore.

I actually had an experience that happens once in a blue moon for me- the hallucinatory thought that if I looked over at my equipment rack, there would be a big old two-track Ampex spinning 10.5″ reels at 30 ips rather then a 12″ LP. And I had that thing that is what we are always trying to achieve in our work at Ultra Fidelis: “people in the room,” and one of those people was Gram, and all this from a master tape that I never, in all my born days, had any clue had it in it.

When this happens with one of one’s foundational records, life is good, really good, and it has staying power. I’ll be high on this for a long time. And that’s the universal part- hearing your music at its best takes both great hardware and great software, and when they come together, for a music lover, there is little better in life.

One of the things that disturbs me about digital files I make from my CD’s is that there isn’t even a metadata field in the ripping programs for “label.” This is, after all, the brand. As I gained knowledge and built my music collection, it was often an important factor in choosing what to add. Now, it’s vanishing. I am not necessarily suggesting that you get a copy of Intervention’s “Gilded Palace of Sin,” although if a few thousand of you did, it would warm my heart, but again, I have no idea if the music will do for you what it does for me, or anything like it. What I am saying is keep a very close eye on Shane’s label. Check out everything Intervention has done and will do, and if you are anywhere near a fan of a record they reissue, buy it unquestioningly. They are gems. Actual records of what went down in front of the mikes. I’m hoping he calls me and asks, “Okay, what are your favorite 1500 or so master tapes that you feel haven’t been done justice yet?”

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