If there is any one person who has worked harder to bring back vinyl than Jack White, let me know, I’d love to do a column about them. His Third Man Records has issued the entire White Stripes back catalog and all of Jack’s side projects. They have also done many new bands and specialty projects. Pretty amazing for a company that started out as a warehouse in Detroit, that was basically meant to store Jack’s stuff. Ben Blackwell, who began as an unpaid intern whose job was cataloging all the White Stripes vinyl and Jack’s record collection, eventually became the man in charge of the vinyl side of the company when it moved to New Orleans. As a record collector of the first order himself, he has worked with Jack to make vinyl something that people want and need.
I mentioned before about how when The Master of the Needle Drop did his drop of Icky Thump, I was a little stunned at how different it was from the CD version. The digital sound was fucking loud and I don’t mean a little loud, it seemed to be set at least twice again what the album was. Now for most of you, that’s not really a big deal, but how do you appreciate the subtlety of the music when you have to fight with it? With the album, I can turn it from soft to as loud as I want with my controls and get what I want out of it. I was surprised that someone who was as picky about their sound as Jack White would let there be such a huge discrepancy in the two formats.
Then the MND told me about a conversation on a forum that is run by one of the master sound mixers. The forum is for audiophiles and has threads where collectors have shootouts with the best picture disks or someone will post their absolutely complete collection of everything that Journey has released in every format ever, with a ranking as to what sounds best. Periodically the owner of the forum will start a thread about a project he worked on and the process involved. One day the topic was the vinyl version of Icky Thump.
He started out with the fact that Jack White gave him an older rather obscure tape medium. Before he could even get started he had to go through the tape and create all the markers that he would need to do the mixing. Kind of a reinventing the wheel situation. Which was where things got interesting in the thread, because Jack came in to defend himself. Since I’m getting most of this second hand, my impression is that Jack felt that he had provided the proper tools needed and I suspect that being Jack he probably recorded everything on the old style tape because he thought it would add some kind of authenticity to the record. This is, after all, the man who played concerts using ribbon mikes where the musicians could only control the volume by moving back and forth.
What was interesting to me more than anything else, was his admission that he had bowed to popular pressure to release the CD at the louder levels. It was put out at a time when so many CDs especially by major rock acts were set at ridiculous levels. Here is a man who has consistently stood for doing things his own way and even he fell prey to the pressure to make digital recording smack people in the ears. Still, he wanted the vinyl to be something special so he took it one of the best in the business even if he did make the man’s job more difficult than necessary.
I have handed the MND any number of albums that took serious work on his part to get that perfect needle drop. Some of that is his perfectionist nature but all too often it’s me finding a slightly tattered copy of Blue Oyster Cult and looking at him with puppy dog eyes. He cleans it up and makes it sound practically new. Then there are the albums where I get messages that consist mostly of long strings of swear words. Case in point the Lazaretto Ultra Vinyl.
Okay, I might be exaggerating just a sconce at his frustration level. Still, in the process of creating an album that was absolutely unique, Jack managed to make a record that takes the highest level of patience for doing needle drops. That said, Lazaretto is a beautiful piece of wax. One side look like a super clean high gloss regular album while the other has been done in a flat matte black so it looks like a brand new 78 album might have looked back in the day. Side one is fun since it plays from the inside out and when it gets to the end it hits a locked groove so the needle plays the same set of sounds over and over. Can you see why doing a needle drop of that would a serious pain in the ass? The MND was kind enough to only let it run for about 2 minutes just give me the sensation. There’s more fun on side two with the first song, Just One Drink having two different intros, one electric and one acoustic, depending entirely on where you drop the needle to start the record. Being the methodical man that he is, the MND did drops for both versions.
There are two songs hidden under the label, one set at 78 and the other at 45, making the album the only one to have songs at all three speeds. If you get the album, they sound very much like old records did, and can be played right through the paper. So after all that, they decided we really haven’t done enough. So they hired Tristen Duke to etch a hologram into the dead wax. When the album is playing you can shine a light and see an angel. Why yes, it is freaking amazing. For more information check out this:
I tend to be about the music when it comes to buying vinyl. Having a picture or colors is all well and good but the sound is what’s important. Of course, Jack put as much thought and effort into the songs as he did the vinyl. The mixing job is sweet and has a depth like you wouldn’t believe. Jack went out of his way to make this album sound like something special. You can crank it all the way up to 100 and not hear the slightest bit of distortion. It’s as if he went to a bunch of wizards and said “I want you to open your dusty tomes, wave your elder wands, disturb your elemental familiars, and do whatever it takes to make the sound perfect.
With backup musicians like Lillie Mae Rische playing fiddle and mandolin for songs that have a distinctive sound, this album majorly benefits from analog. Her lilting vocals particularly come across well on this cut and the country style of songs like Temporary Ground are perfect for vinyl. Having seen them do the same song live, I have to say this comes pretty damned close. Even on songs like High Ball Stepper that are more about the electronic power and ripping sound, the analog does them all kinds of favors. Vinyl gives those mad pterodactyl calls room to climb and not just bust your eardrums. It’s incredible stuff.
If you haven’t heard The Dead Weather please, please let me sell you on them. There are super groups and then there are groups like The Dead Weather. When you have talent like Jack White, Allison Mosshart (The Kills), Dean Fertita (Queens of the Stone Age), and Jack Lawrence (The Raconteurs) it’s more like a small bomb going off. The story is that when The Raconteurs were on tour in Nashville, Jack lost his voice so they asked Allison to step up to the mike. It worked so well that Jack asked her to cut some songs at Third Man Records. They ran into Dean and the rest is history. While that is a great story, there is a part of me that can’t help wonder if anything is ever that simple.
They have only put out two albums so far. Sea Of Cowards and Horehound, both of which I recommend unreservedly. After hearing the CDs, I knew that Jack would be up to his old tricks and the vinyl would have to be better, so I ordered them from Third Man. This is where the story get interesting.
Horehound was perfect. A two album set with only three sides cut so that there was plenty of room for the songs, and the fourth side done in a pretty etching of the cover. Allison’s voice cuts through the bullshit with Jack backing her up but not getting in the way. Dean runs guitar riffs that move from sludgy to scream. Jack Lawrence’s bass gives soul to the band in the way that bass should only when the devil owns it. And all the way through there is Jack White’s drumming, just holding it all together. Songs like Will There Be Enough Water just reach out and grab you with its bluesy mournful feels. It’s a little hard to believe they recorded this in thirty days, it feels like something that was worked over for months, or even years.
Then there was Sea Of Cowards. The beginning of it all was when the MND sent me a message that the record was bolloxed and I would have to send it back. Okay well, shit happens. So I sent an email to Third Man asking what the procedure was for a defective album. Their reply was a touch surprising. They wanted me to take a video of the problem. The MND did a WTF but made the video of Allison repeating the same word over and over because of a fold in the wax. After emailing to Third Man, the immediate response, we’re so sorry, send it back and we’ll replace it. I’m sure in bigger cities there are places where you can buy record shipping boxes no problem. Anchorage, Alaska is not one of those cities. I wandered around for a couple of days trying to find someplace that would sell me one and discovered there is no place in town that carries them. Lucky for me I had ordered albums from Blackheart Records (another column coming up) and used the box from that. After I sent Sea back I mentioned the problem to the owner of Obsessions Records and he said that if I ever needed one to let him know. Once again, that is why you buy local as much as you can. You can’t that kind of great customer service off the net. Support your local record store.
After getting the now flawless copy of Sea of Cowards, the MND sat down to cook up another fine needle drop. Which was when I got another one of his grumpy messages. Apparently Jack had decided to segue every song together and the time stamps weren’t the same as on the CD, so the MND had to do it entirely by ear. Now if he hadn’t told me that, I wouldn’t have known because it sounds perfect. He does admit that it turned out better than even he expected and at this point considers the needle drop to be one of his finest.
It’s a little hard to believe this is the first album by The Dead Weather. They sound like a band who have been together for years, playing in gritty dive bars and at any venue that would have them. Songs like Hustle and Cuss are blues by way of 70’s punk. There is even a mix of electronica and sludge in The Difference Between Us. The album is a constant mash up of styles that leads to something completely unique. The song that drew me into their world was Die by the Drop. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to that song and it still sounds new and dangerous. I’ve listened to the CD version at least 40 times and now to the analog version a dozen. Jack pulled his trick of making the analog just a little better, even to the point of tossing a extra music in to keep things interesting. And, of course, there are under label songs on the album as well, though they are pretty much throw aways. I’m a huge fan of The Dead Weather and I’m a even bigger fan of them on vinyl. The Dead Weather have a new album coming out in September 2015 called Dodge and Burn. I will be buying it on vinyl of course. Not sure if I want to go with the yellow vinyl with black debris but damn it looks cool.
I am looking forward to what Jack White has up his sleeve next. Whatever it is, it won’t be boring and it will sound good.