Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On turned fifty last year, and I almost whiffed on the anniversary edition that Universal released as part of the celebration. Although, it’s hard to use the term “celebration” in direct context with Gaye’s painting of a soldier who returned from war to face a crumbling society that sees him as expendable. There’s fortitude within the confusion. Perseverance if not outright resilience. But not a celebration. Maybe in the music, but not in the message.
And the bleakness and beauty is sharpened by the knowledge that the issues described 50 years ago are still prevalent today. Hanif Abdurraqib’s essay in the liners describes this much more eloquently than I ever could. My view is somewhat obstructed. His seems panoramic. I look forward to exploring his work more thoroughly. His notes are vital to this stellar reissue.
The 50th Anniversary take on What’s Going On was mastered by Kevin Gray. The marketing language, as is so often the case these days, is hazy. “Direct to analog mastering,” which is a little less… direct, I’d say, than “lacquers cut from the original analog tapes.” Not that this is paramount, really, but people who are in the habit of plunking down today’s prices for an ostensibly well-made record like to know these things while the powers that be would prefer very much that we not know what’s going on. I heard Kevin Gray himself say that he is contractually forbidden from publicly divulging this type of information. So, that brings us to…
… the fact that I happen to have a flawless copy of MoFi’s take on What’s Going On handy for comparison. Speaking of slanted marketing strategies. I’m receiving notifications, both written and electronic, advising me that I have recourse for having purchased many MoFi records under false pretenses.
A shootout reveals, perhaps unsurprisingly, that Gray’s mastering resulted in a richer, more natural sound. There’s a brightness to the MoFi version that I might not have noticed without the newer version for comparison. Gray’s sound is thicker and heavier, but not in a “wet blanket over your speakers” sort of way. Both versions are engaging, and both demonstrate great clarity and separation. Both place the musical accents – hand claps, finger snaps, shakers, bells – in precise locations across the sound stage, and Gaye’s voice is predictably dead center. MoFi’s brings him all the way to the edge of the apron, almost in danger of falling into the orchestra pit. I find the Gray cut groovier, and more relaxing. Gaye’s voice seems more integrated into the mix. I almost made it through the entire focused listen without singing along, but “Inner City Blues” got me. It always does.
This brings us to the material…
Which we surely don’t have to delve too deeply into, right? The album is a masterpiece. One of those that you never question for being consistently towards the top of almost every reputable “Best Ever” list. There are themes throughout, and variations on each that swirl and swoop and dive before soaring towards space. Away from the fragmented architecture of the inner city by any means necessary. The risk of self-destruction is imminent, and one is left to understand the impulse toward that. The cover images of Gaye standing in the rain serve as a summation. His somehow still dry shirt stands in for his clarity of vision. He’s clearly confused by what he sees, but his eyes have 20/20. His high-definition reports from the frontline leave the listener decomposing in the rubble. The string arrangements sweeten the medicine, but the message does not waver.
Perhaps you could make the argument that “Save the Children” is a bit melodramatic, but this effect has undoubtedly been heightened by the fact that we’ve witnessed politicians of a certain bent wailing about “the children,” and their need for protection for so long that an eye roll at the mention of saving them might seem appropriate. Especially since those same wailers often seem so determined to ruin the same ecology we’ll leave for those same children. If this specific song didn’t age as well as the rest, it’s our fault, not Gaye’s.
There’s a second disc in the Anniversary Edition with stripped versions of certain songs, instrumental and mono mixes, and demos. No rational listener is going to turn down the chance to hear Marvin Gaye harmonize with himself a cappella. If you want to get a little closer to the bone, this is your shot. I actually played the bonus material first.
The Anniversary take was pressed at GZ, which is a drag. It’s not egregiously bad, but there is some noise in spots, which is not the case with the MoFi version. I don’t run for the hills at the very mention of GZ as I once did, but they’re inconsistent and rarely great. Vinyl Me, Please manages to squeeze some blood from that rock somehow, but I question the decision to use them for such a weighty work as this. Still very much worth having, and still readily available. I’ll likely reach for this one first and hold onto the MoFi version as full coverage insurance. I’m stoked to have both.
Has any artist been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with a shorter resume than the one Bill Withers used? We could debate the legitimacy of the institution based on who’s in and who’s not, but they got it right when Mr. Bill waltzed through the ballroom in 2015. I mean, his music doesn’t really scream “ROCK ’N ROLL,” but that’s only tangentially part of the criteria. Clearly. Abba is in there. And Bon Jovi.
Anyway, Withers released two strong studio efforts to kick off his career, then a brilliant live release from a show recorded at Carnegie Hall. His third studio offering is really great too, but no one cared. He basically got into the Hall on the strength of two albums, the second of which is noticeably more formidable than the first. That one is Still Bill. It’s a monster. But even within the confines of that album, we’re really only looking at two songs that penetrated the popular consciousness. And one of those went way deeper than the other.
I’m basically making the argument that Bill Withers was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on the strength of “Lean On Me.” And I think that’s apt. A blogger I follow recently suggested that we make it the United States National Anthem. Not that it’ll ever happen. It’s too good of an idea, and there are too many really rich folks invested in keeping things just the way they are to allow such brilliance to occur. I wouldn’t even blink if it happened. I’d love it. The song is so simple in structure, and so massive in its emotional heft. It’s like it sprung up from the Earth fully formed, ready to transport. It’s basically a modern Gospel standard. Everyone loves it, including you.
The other song on Still Bill that’s still milling around our minds is a different monster in comparison to “Lean On Me.” Even I know that it’s not Anthem material. It’s a molasses Funk stew called “Use Me,” and it gets all the way down in the mud. It’s sex on wax, and it sweats like a pimp in church. It’s so good that Mick Jagger was actually able to build a strong solo album around his version of it. With a lot of help, but still… Bill. That’s who Jagger has to thank for the centerpiece of the only really strong work he did outside the hours of his day job over the course of 60 years. Hall of Fame, indeed.
MoFi finally released their version of Still Bill after teasing it for over a year. I’d forgotten that I pre-ordered it, then it shipped to my old address after I’d relocated. Previously, MoFi sent emails to confirm your address on pre-orders, but not this time. I’d imagine that’s due to The Scandal. I’d imagine they didn’t want to give folks a nudge toward canceling their order. Because I’d imagine their lack of transparency has caused a shift in their earnings projections.
I haven’t decided whether or not I’m going to pursue the recompense I’m entitled to for having been deceived. The options are returns for refunds, which I’m certainly not doing, or store credit with proof of purchase, which I might. I’m keeping the records because I like the way they sound. I don’t like being lied to though. Ten percent back in store credit seems reasonable.
Still Bill, like most all of the MoFi titles that I’ve retained over the years, sounds really great. The pressing is flawless, the bass is balanced and silky, and the highs have space to breathe. The gatefold cover is heavy and capable of supporting such brilliant work. “Lonely Town, Lonely Street,” “Who Is He (And What Is He To You)?,” and “I Don’t Want You On My Mind” buttress the more popular songs like bodyguards waiting to pounce on an overeager fan. All tough muscle and love for the subject. The flavors are complex but accessible to the most basic palate. A diet that’s been in play for what seems like centuries.
I’m thrilled to have this one next to my MoFi copy of Live At Carnegie Hall, my Speakers Corner take on Just As I Am, and VMP’s +’Justments. I have MoFi’s Bill Withers’ Greatest Hits en route. If it doesn’t melt in the mail, I’ll have all the Withers I need. All it took to get to Cleveland. Like a devastating right hook that immortalized a boxer, or a buzzer-beating shot for the championship. Still, Bill carries all that history.
I remember seeing the Original Jazz Classics branding sprinkled throughout record stores when I was growing up. “OJC,” for those in the know. I’d already developed a passing interest in Jazz music due to a few titles in my dad’s collection, but I didn’t realize until recently how well-regarded and sought-after many of those titles were. Quite to the contrary, I assumed they were bargain bin selections, cheaply produced, and that they rightfully would have been placed in the “Nice Price” category. (Readers of a certain vintage may relate.)
Upon further review, it seems that many (approximately 90%, according to Steve Hoffman) of the brand’s vinyl reissues were AAA productions, and the releases, manufactured from the early ‘80s and onward, fetch a fair amount of coinage online. As with anything audiophile and/or vinyl, there is dissent (and name-calling), and opinions of wild variance. Surprised?
Craft Recordings recently resurrected the series on vinyl with lacquers cut from the original analog tapes by Kevin Gray and pressings by RTI. On standard black wax! Ding-dong, the witch is dead. As with most anything, the prices are creeping up a little. Craft’s top-shelf productions are no longer the obvious steal that they were a few short months ago. Their pricing, around $40 per single record, is more in line now with the Acoustic Sounds series, the more high-end work by Vinyl Me, Please, and other audiophile reissues of the day. But I’ll say that I have found Craft’s work much more consistent, as far as pressings are concerned, than most other labels, certainly VMP’s (mostly due to warps in that case).
So, I was stoked to see that one of Craft’s first salvos in the series was going to be Workin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet. Because it inches me closer to having what I consider to be audiophile reissues of all of the Quintet’s work. And because the material is great. I’d like to imagine that the folks in charge at Craft surveyed the landscape and identified a need. It appears to me that the last reputable reissue of Workin’ was by the Electric Recording Co., which would have cost at least $400 new last year. Analogue Productions put one out 20 years ago too. Also, pricey now.
This one sounds pretty righteous to my ears. I’m still enamored of Kevin Gray’s work even if some folks have soured on it. I don’t know why that’s the case. Maybe it’s similar to MVP voter fatigue in sports. People don’t want to see LeBron James win it every year, but he almost could. I’m always stoked to see Gray’s name attached to a title. Or Ryan K. Smith’s, or Chris Bellman’s, and often Bernie Grundman’s. Those guys still draw a lot of water in this town as far as I’m concerned.
This one’s a mono-master, which I find pleasing. Especially for titles released around the advent of stereo. There’s a lot of air around the instruments, especially the cymbals. Red Garland’s keys are especially lifelike even if I am plagued by the memory of the Little River Band’s “Cool Change” during the intro to “It Never Entered My Mind.” I can’t help which era I grew up in. I might have to remember it, but I don’t have to like it.
There’s no question about who the star is on this set. Davis’s lines always serve and support the songs with sensitivity and skill. He wafts out of the speaker like a ghost carrying the Wisdom of Taste. Coltrane’s work is assertive and more muscular, of course, and the two together create one of the most distinguished melodic dichotomies in all of recorded music.
And this music was recorded over the course of two mammoth sessions along with the material for three other records! You would think that some compromises in quality would have resulted from the rush, but this is no time for thinking. This music feels relaxed and confident like it knew it would waltz up to its spot atop the pedestal of an entire era of Jazz, certainly, and American music, more broadly. Relaxin’, Steamin’, and Cookin’ too. All superb.
We’re fortunate to have access to a pressing so transparent and flawless as this one. Mine has a bit of noise in the very waning seconds of each side with maybe a note or two left before the dead wax. I’ll take that all day. I’m almost home with regard to this quintet. Still need a copy of Miles. This release cut my list in half. It’s good to be alive.