Listen to the Lion

A whole bunch of things just came together.

Stereophile Magazine made Van Morrison’s “Too Late To Stop Now, Volumes, 2, 3,  4 & DVD” the “Record of the Month” in the new issue, thus informing me that it existed, to my great shame and embarrassment.  I’m supposed to know these things!

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The Audio Research PH9 phono preamp passed its 450th hour of at least being on, some good portion of that spent with signal going through it, yesterday.  It should be primed and ready.

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Luke brought me a copy of the newly re-released “Too Late To Stop Now” (volume 1, I guess, which it did not have to be called back in 1974 when it first came out) on vinyl (Sony Legacy) today.

I rode my 1977 Trek road bike this morning before meeting Luke at Ultra Fidelis and the temperature was in the low 60’s when I left.  Bracing as Bruichladdich.

 

The coincidence of these things has put me right in the mood to listen to music.  The air, and also the light today, are whispering that Summer’s days are numbered.  Oh, sure, we’ll likely have some more scorchers or near ones, but today is more than a reminder that it won’t be too long before indoor music listening season is in full swing.

I have been poring over the V 2/3/4 “Too Late…” recently.  I love this music.  And I have for a long time.  I told a couple friends about the release and how excited I was about it, and one of them texted back “Not a big Van fan.”  I thought about it.  Hmm, I’m not either, I guess.  The ratio of his music that I find essential to that which I can easily ignore is pretty low.  But the good stuff is GREAT.  And nothing stops Volume 1 from being one of my favorite records.  In fact, I would be hard pressed not to contend that Side 4 is the best live side of an album I can think of right now.

So, of course I’m interested in Volumes 2, 3 & 4 of this stuff.  I can’t get enough.  But the “autumnality” of today and the arrival of this third version of Volume 1 inspired me to host a good old shootout among my V1 vinyl versions, to wit-

Original 1974 Warner Bros. release, bought originally by me when it originally came out.  It’s well traveled and played.  The inner sleeves say “KMAL 6-27-80” in my handwriting which means I cleaned it on the Keith Monks Audio Ltd. record cleaning machine we had at Audio Emporium way back when.  I treated it to its second bath and a LAST Record Preservative application today.

Fairly recent (don’t remember the year) Back To Black (henceforth B2B)/Polydor/Exile issue I bought several of when they became hard to get a few years ago.

2016 Sony Legacy/Exile release I received today.  I used to work, a long time ago, in record retailing and, very briefly, wholesaling.  Back then, I was up on my label families, but I have no idea how a record that came out originally on Warner Bros. was next released on Polydor and is now ended up in the house of Sony, but there you go.  And when did Exile enter the picture?

I decided to use “Listen to the Lion” as my comparo-track because, well, why not?  Once I play a track off side 4, I have to play the whole thing starting from the beginning, but “…Lion”, which ends side 3, can just stand alone.  And it really represents everything this recording can do.  Dynamics, space, tonal colors, but mostly emotions.  And the way it just fades away to nothing until the woman in the audience decides it’s over and utters, “All right!”  It’s perfect.

How did the different versions fare?  I’ll cut to the chase.  I remembered liking the B2B issue better than my original when I got it and that holds today.  It’s bigger, meatier, and yet more subtle.  Van’s voice and the rest of the Caledonia Soul Orchestra, especially the saxes (Van himself plays one on this track) and cymbals, especially, of the drum kit, are just right.  The proscenium and ceiling of the stage take over my room and present the performance with a degree of vividness and “they are here” that are breathtaking.  If you just read the lyrics to this song (I did it on line today to verify this), they read like something you would never want to hear lest you die of the monotony.  Hearing them performed by Van and the Orchestra on this pressing is transcendent.  Chills?  Check.  Tears?  Held in check, but just.

I played the new Sony one next, after treating it to the same bath and LAST protocol all records get here.  Wow.  A lot less good.  Hard to see people in the band, er, Orchestra.  Stuck together, two dimensional cutout paper dolls in a not very spacious space largely devoid of air.  Neither are they here, nor I there.  Van’s voice is not quite shrill, but much less fleshed out.  And the cymbal sounds, so dark, rich and present on the B2B pressing, could almost be machine-made here.  But saddest is that the players seem to have lost some of their commitment to the music on this very committed music.  On the plus side, surfaces were dead quiet, significantly better than the B2B, and it wins authenticity points by maintaining the triple gatefold cover from 1974 whereas the B2B dumbs it down to double.  

On to the original.  Wow again. A lot of surface noise, somewhat debilitating in such subtle and dynamic music, but the sound is quite good.  Like a slightly thinner, but maybe more lithe version of the B2B.  The end is a bit of a letdown as some details are lost to surface noise, but overall quite satisfying.  

Until I put the B2B record back on.  Oh, nope.  It’s better in every way.  Every bit as lithe when it needs to be, but significantly more substantial all the time.  This is the one we played all four sides of after the AudioQuest event at the store, when Steve and I sang harmony, fueled by Founders Centennial, for over an hour.  It’s addictively good.  Maybe Scott has a white label promo that beats it, but I’m thinking it would take that, if even.  There’s just so much meat on these bones.

What I also learned is how incredibly great the Audio Research PH 9 is.  It engages in a way my 8 simply doesn’t.  And it makes short work of comparing pressings without ever failing to let me drift away with the music.  Even the Sony pressing was a delight, although a relative one, because the PH 9 was in the mix, letting me hear maximum music and minimum medium.  That’s what great phono preamps do- turn those 12″ vinyl discs into near master tapes and unlock the magic of the performance.  Closer, closer, closer we get.

Finally, I reaffirmed what a great record this is.  Perfect for tuning up your soul for the coming music season.  I’m hoping to get back out on the bike tomorrow, but for sure I’ll spend some time listening to music.  One more spin through George Crumb’s “Music for a Summer Evening” before it becomes downright inappropriate.

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