We looked at Dylan’s latest archival box set release, The Cutting Edge, here recently, and it was a winner. So much so that it spurred me to action on a MoFi title that I’d been meaning to get around to for a while.
Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan
Highway 61 Revisited
Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab
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I’m talking about Highway 61 Revisited. It played a major role in The Cutting Edge’s outtakes and alternate versions along with Blonde On Blonde and Bringing It All Back Home. Those three albums rank right up there for the Best Sequential Triumvirate in Rock ’n Roll history, folks. Don’t debate me on this, please. There are other nominees in the category with names like the Beatles, the Stones, CCR, and… that might be about it. Folks worked fast in the ‘60s, and the three Dylan records were all recorded and released in less than a two year span. That’s bonkers. Let’s see…

“Like A Rolling Stone” kicks this one off. That tells a helluva story in and of itself. That one shattered notions of what a “radio song” could be as far as texture, subject matter, and length were concerned. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to hear it upon initial release. Must have been zesty, that’s all I can say. But the other songs on Highway are equally ridiculous. Every damn one of them. In fact, “From A Buick 6” might be the least recognizable of the lot to Dylan enthusiasts. And it’s great. But even casual fans are going to know most every one of the other tunes by name. It’s a ridiculous roster that includes “Ballad Of A Thin Man,” “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” and “Tombstone Blues.” Then, there’s the title track. Get a little picture of that, why don’t you? I’ve heard bands come close to getting the Stones’ sound by playing in open G tuning. I’ve heard them approximate the Beatles’ harmonies, and CCR’s tone and energy, but I’ve never heard anyone approach the sonic storm that Dylan kicked up in this brief era. Pete Seeger might not have thought much of it at the time, but even he came around in the end. If you didn’t have a dog in the Folk fight of the time, I’d imagine that the sound was more accessible to you right out of the box. My dad doesn’t participate much in anything that doesn’t happen in his living room or on a golf course, but he had the time of his life watching Dylan perform at Birmingham’s City Stages Festival way back on 05.16.03. What I’m trying to say here is that there’s something for everyone in these grooves whether they know it or not. Folks might say that they don’t enjoy Shakespeare, but I think they’re wrong. I think they do, and they just don’t know it yet. I feel the same about Bob Dylan. And that’s just how it goes.

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These records are pristine, the packaging immense, and the grooves wide as the discs were cut at 45rpm. Pair Dylan’s MoFi titles with his mono box set from a few years back, and you’ve got yourself an encyclopedic knowledge of some of the most compelling popular music ever made. Get them all. Thank MoFi later.

Madvillain
Madvillain
Madvillainy
Stones Throw Records
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There are few things in this world that I appreciate more than a well-crafted Hip-Hop record. I’m talking about the kind you can drop the needle on, and then forget about the whole thing. Let the MC’s rhymes and the producer’s beats take you away. Similar to my issues with the Grateful Dead, I sometimes have difficulties finding albums that play out as a cohesive whole without filler or fluff. None of these concerns are in play when it comes to Madvillain’s Madvillainy record. Madvillain is a duo consisting of MF Doom on the mic and Madlib behind the board. The album, originally released in 2004, was recently reissued by Stones Throw Records so it is readily available again. The reader would be wise to take advantage…

This record is – simply – a masterpiece. Madlib’s production work is so new and so nuanced that the record feels totally original while simultaneously working within the recognized framework of the Hip-Hop genre. There are no hooks or choruses anywhere to be found on either side of both discs, and thus – far from being off-putting – actually serves to draw the listener’s attention in. MF Doom’s lazy rhymes and laconic delivery feel like water assuming the shape of its container. You’ll lose the thread just as certainly as you’ll feel like you have it tied up after a cursory listen. A closer inspection reveals layers and depths (both lyrically and instrumentally) that are easily missed on the first pass. Lyric sheets and headphones may be required to effectively plumb these depths. I am almost certainly biased by the fact that Doom references some of my favorite rhymes in the history of Rap (“Stairy-airy-yo!”) while somehow also touching on some of mine and my friends’ most ludicrous inside jokes (which shall remain inside). Historically speaking, Madvillainy was one of the first releases to get shelved due to an advanced online leak. The principles revisited the project a couple of years later and ultimately released a revised edition which is alleged to involve an adjusted vocal delivery on Doom’s part. However it all shook down, the listener won in the end. This record hasn’t aged a bit in 12 years. If you’re looking for an entry point to the world of Underground Rap, Madvillainy is your portal. Get on it.

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Both discs in this set could use a little help, honestly. Stones Throw has enjoyed a little more mainstream success since Madvillainy’s original unveiling, but I doubt they’re solvent. It still feels like an independent organization. To that end, there are some minor pressing issues along with a notable lack of extras included in this package (lyric sheets, download codes, etc.). But the work transcends all that. A car alarm went off on my block while I was meditating on Madvillainy last night, and I thought it was on the record. I was actually disappointed when it was turned off. Madvillainy is the type of record that offers new, novel experiences like that. Those don’t come around often…

Otis Redding
Otis Redding
Otis Blue
Analogue Productions
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Unfortunately for me and my wallet, I’m a huge fan of the Criterion Collection and Janus Films. Their Blu-Ray releases are like film school in a box, and their audio and transfers are always first rate. To that end, I picked up their single disc version of Otis Redding and Jimi Hendrix’s sets at the Monterey Pop Festival as filmed by D.A. Pennebaker. The Hendrix set is fun. It’s the one where he lights his guitar on fire, and leaves a smoldering crater in the stage that the Who had to try to fill as headliners. The Redding set is a life changer. His energy and that of his backing band, Booker T and the MGs, is so combustible that all of Northern California could have burnt up that night, and I bet everyone in attendance would have been happy to go. It’s the kind of thing that makes you laugh hysterically with tears streaming down your face. Or maybe I’m nuts. Regardless, I was super excited to see that Analogue Productions was taking a swing at Otis Blue on double, 45rpm vinyl. It goes without saying that they connected. It didn’t quite make it over the fence, but they got a bases clearing, solid stand-up triple out of the deal, I’d say. I’ll take it. All day.

I really wish they’d done the mono version, but AP went with stereo. Not only that, but Redding’s vocals are heavy in the right channel which creates an unbalanced sort of effect in my room. Don’t get me wrong, any time you have Otis Redding singing to you with such great clarity and depth, you should rejoice. Even if the whole thing were in a single channel, I’d be tempted to go for these discs. Beyond that minor quibble, this release is pretty stellar. AP is really proud of their pressing plant. They advertise it with each release. It is not my favorite of all time, but these discs are pretty perfect. There’s some hiss in the tape, but I’ll deal with that in lieu of denigrating the quality of the overall experience in the interest of removing it. Throwing out the proverbial baby with the bath water, as it were. I have an original, hissy Robert Johnson record that sounds way better than the “cleaned up” versions of his work that saw wide release in the early ‘90s. I expect that this is as good as Otis Blue gets. Unless they do the whole thing over again with the mono version. Sundazed did one a while back that I probably should have held onto. I feel like this record is the kind that you can easily justify having multiple versions of. I don’t have many of those in my collection, but I have three copies of Blonde On Blonde (mono, stereo, UK stereo), two of It Still Moves (an original and the recent mulligan they took on the original), monos and stereos of Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, and an original Being There along with the reissue from a few years back. All of those releases are worthy of the extra space required, and Otis Blue certainly would be too.

This is from the Atco archives, and AP is doing Dr. John’s Gumbo from Atco soon. It would be really exciting to learn that AP had gotten some sort of contract for the Atco catalog. I’d freak out. Let us pray.

R.L. Burnside
R.L. Burnside
Mississippi Hill Country Blues
Fat Possum
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I met R.L. Burnside for the first time after one of his shows in Atlanta during the Olympic games of 1996. I’d run over to Blind Willie’s to catch his set after seeing Al Green at the Tabernacle. It was a good night. I’d see R.L. many more times in various spots around Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia, North Carolina, and once in Chicago. I could never get enough. Some buddies of mine brought back a CD from their European extravaganza that I hadn’t been able to join in on around this time. It was from the Netherlands, and was on the Swingmaster label. Fat Possum, I guess, picked up the rights to the release sometime later, and now we have Mississippi Hill Country Blues readily available on vinyl in the U.S. for the first time that I’m aware of. This is cause for celebration.

These recordings were made in the early ‘80s. Burnside would achieve greater popularity in the mid-‘90s via his recordings with his longtime guitar slinging partner, Kenny Brown, and his grandson, Cedric, on drums. But these acoustic, unaccompanied takes give the listener a greater understanding of R.L.’s music which could seem unhinged and gloriously chaotic in full-band configurations. Some folks might even be able to tease out some of his guitar work after taking in these stripped-down versions of some of his most popular tunes. I can’t. He’s too damn good. Too slick and too nuanced for my meager abilities. And that’s all on full display here. The version of “Shake ‘Em On Down” on Hill Country has way more in common with Fred McDowell’s original version than the electrified romp that would become one of Burnside’s touchstones later. “Skinny Woman” provides the listener with a more linear perspective on how that song developed into the powerhouse that it would become. There are 16 songs in all, which is three less than there were on the CD that I got from my friends. Unfortunately, some of those songs were amongst my favorites in Burnside’s catalog. Not to worry. This is the kind of record that you can put on at any time, in any company, in any mood. You’ll be transported, I promise. Just be mindful of where you’re transported to. If you find yourself in Holly Springs, Mississippi, my advice would be to act right and look alive. Cedric has his thing together over there now, and he’s spreading the Gospel across the globe. All the way to the Grammy awards. His granddaddy would be proud, I know.

If you’re a fan of Hill Country Blues, this is a record you need in your collection. Everyone knows what came out of the delta, but fewer are familiar with the trance inducing, swirling cacophony that went on closer to Memphis. The single record is well-pressed, and the set comes with a download coupon. Fat Possum gummed up the artwork with a tacky banner across the front cover’s top touting the label’s 25th anniversary, but we can live with that. Check out these acoustic readings of some of R.L.’s most well loved songs and hear for yourself. You’ll be glad you did.

Josh White
Josh White
Josh At Midnight
Ramseur Records
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I’d intended to review one of the Living Stereo titles that Analogue Productions did this month, but I called an audible at the line of scrimmage to check out Josh At Midnight by Josh White. Something about the album artwork and what little I knew about the artist drew me to the release, and I ordered it from Amazon on a whim. I knew that I’d heard of Josh White before, but I didn’t realize until after I’d ordered the new record that I was familiar with his work via the Folk Box set that I picked up on Record Store Day a couple of years ago. Had I listened to his songs on that set before ordering, I’d have been less shocked by what I heard when I dropped the needle on the Midnight disc. “Shocked” is too strong. I was expecting Deep Blues. I got something else.

I got Folk music, I guess, for those of us who are uncomfortable outside the confines of categories. I always look forward to hearing an unfamiliar take on “St. James Infirmary,” but White’s is way more sanitary than the Son House version that I use as a measuring stick in matters such as these. White’s vocal delivery is probably closer to Al Jarreau’s than House’s. That could create an inaccurate picture of what’s happening on Midnight, I guess. I like the Josh White record just fine, while I’d be okay living out the rest of my days on this rock without ever hearing from Al Jarreau again. Josh White was a close personal friend of FDR’s according to his mile-long Wikipedia page. There’s documented footage of Howlin’ Wolf lecturing Son House about jeopardizing his opportunities for a career revival with his love of liquor. That lecture did not occur in the White House, let’s just say that. What I’m saying is, there’s not much threatening about White’s music unless you’re Joseph McCarthy who put White on the Black List due to his active campaigning for Civil Rights. I came here thinking I was seeing a Film Noir and I got a Rom Com instead. But there’s nothing inherently wrong with Romantic Comedies, you just have to find the right one. And Josh At Midnight might be it.

Amazon delivered a record that had scratches all throughout “Scandalize My Name” and on into “Jesus Gonna Make Up My Dyin’ Bed.” It speaks to the quality of the recording and the material that I opted to have my copy replaced rather than going for a straight return. While the original tapes were most likely not used for this release, it was mastered for vinyl by Bernie Grundman and possesses great clarity if not a ton of depth, scratches notwithstanding. The single, heavy disc was pressed at RTI, and the Stoughton tip-on cover includes song descriptions and an essay by former Elektra records exec, Jac Holzman. It sheds an interesting light on the recording sessions and White’s personality, generally. I recommend this release for Folk collectors unequivocally. “One Meatball” would likely be worth it to them alone. Blues purists may want to look elsewhere. I’m excited about getting a cleaner copy in the mail soon.

  • Michael Jude Galvin

    I have not compared it to the Aanalogue Productions version, but the Sundazed mono version of Otis Blue is spectacular. Highly, highly recommended.

  • Jason Crawford

    Yep. I had that one a while back. I gave it to a friend in a fit of generosity. It’s still available, so I may snag another copy. Like I say, this one is worth having multiple copies of. Thanks for reading!

  • D. Klee

    Hey Jason, nice reviews. After years of writing these reviews, what would you say are the 5 best sounding records you own, for each genre? Make it happen!

  • Jason Crawford

    Oh, man. Damn near impossible. Let’s see…

    Jazz: Coltrane’s Blue Train, Hancock’s Empyrean Isles, Wayne Shorter’s Hear No Evil, (all by Music Matters Jazz), Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus (by Analogue Productions) & probably Duke’s Indigos (by Impex).

    Classical: any of the Living Stereo reissues that Analogue Productions is doing, especially Brahms Violin Concerto by Heifetz & Reiner (review to come).

    Rock & Roll: Big Star’s Radio City (Classic Records), Neil Young’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (from his Archives series), any of the recent Beatles reissues in mono, Nick Cave’s Push The Sky Away, & Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde (by MoFi).

    R&B/Soul: Sam Cooke’s Night Beat (Analogue Productions), Sly’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On (by ORG), Dusty In Memphis (by Analogue Productions), Marvin’s What’s Goin’ On (by MoFi), Dr. John’s Locked Down.

    Folk: The Folk Box (Record Store Day release), John Mellencamp’s No Better Than This, Josh White’s Josh At Midnight (by Ramseur), Dylan’s self-titled (from his recent mono box set), & Emmylou’s Wrecking Ball.

    Country: Patsy Cline’s Greatest Hits (from Analogue Productions), Willie’s Redheaded Stranger (by Impex), International Submarine Band’s Safe At Home (by Sundazed for RSD), Dwight Yoakam’s 3 Pears & Second Hand Heart.

    Not much going on in the way of audiophile action for Hip-Hop records although I have some great Outkast records & Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly is really great.

    Same w/Blues. AP’s take on Muddy’s Folk Singer is great as is Speaker’s Corner’s version of Muddy’s Live At Newport.

    Whew! That was tough. Thanks for the challenge & for reading. We appreciate you being here!

  • Cynthia Johnson-St Denis

    Thanks!!

    Sent from my iPad