The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part LXXXIV: A Light in the Attic
When it comes to vinyl reissues, some people get it and some people don't. For example, over the last few years, I've received many complaints about some record labels that are using the same digital masters for their LP's as their CD counterparts. So basically, you're getting all the sound qualities of digital in an analog format, which defeats the purpose of buying an LP in the first place. You're basically getting CD sound with all of the added artifacts of surface noise, pops and clicks and wow and flutter. It's hard to convince vinyl newbies about the joys of LP's when this is what you get.
On the other hand, some companies get it completely. They search for original master tapes, hire the best remastering engineers and deliver a beautiful product that shows analog at its best. I have to admit that it's hard to tell the difference between the two approaches, especially since no one is slapping "Cut from the same digital masters as the CD" on the LP covers. It requires a little research to find the good stuff, and endless hours of reading audiophile forums, websites and magazines.
Light in the Attic Records, a relatively new and small outfit, gets it. Based in Seattle and founded by a true music lover named Matt Sullivan, LITA is dedicated to "placing as much emphasis on releasing quality reissues as developing new talent." They are also active in producing live shows and promoting those artists. While LITA has been around for almost a decade (they started producing LP's in 2002), they're just starting to gain some momentum in the U.S. after releasing a series of reissues from such compelling artists as Serge Gainsbourg, Jim Sullivan, Wheedle's Groove, Michael Chapman, Mercury Rev and Kris Kristofferson.
I first learned about LITA from my vinyl-loving friend Brian Weaver. He told all about the search for the master tapes for Jim Sullivan's lost 1969 classic UFO. Jim Sullivan's story is one of those great rock and roll legends, a mysterious tale of a gifted songwriter, relatively unknown to the masses despite a sterling reputation among Southern California beach clubs, who disappeared off the face of the earth during a 1975 trip to New Mexico. Jim was last seen around Santa Rosa, where he was pulled over by two New Mexico state troopers who might have been suspicious of a large, 6'4" ponytailed "hippie" who was known for not taking shit from anyone. While the troopers were quickly investigated and cleared, Sullivan's friends remain suspicious to this day.
The other theory about Sullivan's disappearance, which is far more interesting, has to do with the subject matter of UFO and how it may have predicted his fate. Sullivan was always one of those people who looked to the skies and wondered who else out there was staring back. Many of his lyrics suggest this longing, and more than one person has posited that his disappearance—where his car was found out in the desert with his clothes, his wallet, his LPs and (most notably) his guitar—may have a more celestial explanation. LITA sent someone out to investigate the legend and to find the original master tapes. The blog entries concerning the search are very intriguing and are included for the most part in the absolutely wonderful packaging of the LP. The master tapes were never found, which means that the LP reissue doesn't contain the greatest sound quality (although LITA did attempt to extract the best possible results from a seriously flawed copy through careful remastering), but Sullivan's songwriting talent shines through.
My next exposure to Light in the Attic was the superb reissue of Serge Gainsbourg's Histoire de Melody Nelson. Before this reissue, this 1971 concept album was only available in its original French version, which did not offer English lyrics. If your French was good enough to decipher Gainsbourg's deep, whispered readings of this funky tale of a brief encounter between a rich man and a 16-year-old girl in London--which, strangely enough concludes with a meditation on African "cargo cults"--you could probably discover the exquisitely poetic undercurrents. Most people were left out, however, and Melody Nelson never acquired the classic status in the US that it had in the rest of the world. Now you have the lyrics in both French and English, thanks to LITA and their commitment to extraordinary packaging.
Fortunately for LITA, quality masters were used and the sound is far superior to that of UFO. Gainsbourg's back-up band, composed of some of the best session musicians of the era, lay down some fascinating grooves. The full orchestration will remind you of Beck's Sea Change, which was indeed inspired by this album. The only qualm I have with this recording--and it's not LITA's fault--is that the band is rather low in the mix while Gainsbourg's voice is very high. That means you'll crank up the volume to hear the music only to be overwhelmed with Serge's booming, God-like voice after the intro. Even with that minor quibble, I love this album and recommend it highly.
My next encounter with LITA's catalog occurred when I went to visit Whetstone Audio, a hi-fi store here in Austin. Brian DiFrank, the proprietor, is also a local drummer in the Austin music scene, which means he has darned good taste in music. He started playing some ‘70's-style funk for me, and I noticed that the sound quality was as good as the performances. That's when I was introduced to Wheedle's Groove, a collective of funk and soul musicians from Seattle who have played together for decades. LITA has actually released two LPs from Wheedle's Groove--a compilation of 18 rarities called Wheedle's Groove: Seattle's Finest in Funk & Soul 1965-1975, and a new recording of nine songs called Kearney Barton, which was named after the legendary producer who put the project together. Both are outright amazing LP's.
Many record labels are charging an arm and a leg for their quality reissues, and they don't feature the same level of care when it comes to either the packaging or the pressings. More than once I've paid $30 to $50 for a so-called audiophile pressing only to discover it's cursed with an above-average amount of surface noise. Every LITA LP I've purchased is a quiet, almost pristine pressing. Best of all, LITA only charges $15 or so for single albums via their website. A handful of double LPs I've spotted are just $20. I purchased the first two albums in local Austin record stores for just $18. A new CD can cost you that much, and it won't bring you the same level of analog joy.
If you're a true vinyl lover, record labels such as Light in the Attic deserve your love. We need more LP releases that are handled with this much care, and for a very reasonable cost. I hope you'll check them out.
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