I’ve got a confession to make: I just listened to Big Star’s first two albums on vinyl for the first time today. I’ve had the music on CD for years, but never came across an affordable original pressing of the LPs. These albums are the holy grail of all things power pop for some people, and collector’s shops know it; alternately, the LP reissues over the years often seemed of dubious quality and composition.
So, I settled for the CD until something better came along (a 1992 two-fer combining both albums on one disc, put out by Fantasy Records).
Something better finally has come along!
It began several years ago when a new label emerged called Omnivore Records, which surprised a whole bunch of people with its stellar Record Store Day (RSD) recreation of the original test pressing of the elusive Big Star Third album — a release that disappeared so fast I don’t know anyone who got a copy.
Fortunately, I got the second edition of this stunning package, which the label issued by mail order for those of us who missed it the first ’round. This time it was pressed on ultra-spiffy clear vinyl. Frankly, I was happier to have this edition than the black vinyl. And, it sounds fantastic.
Fast forward to RSD this year: Omnivore put out another colored vinyl Big Star gem, the stunning soundtrack to the just-released documentary film about the band, Nothing Can Hurt Me. It comes on glorious semi-translucent (quasi-opaque?) 180-gram orange-amber vinyl and sounds fabulous… revelatory, even!
These aren’t throwaway takes; this album features intriguing alternates and new mixes made for the movie. It sounds huge in a way I hadn’t experienced before — the music just jumped out of the speakers, rich with teaming-chiming guitars. Big Star’s music is of a kind where you can feel the guitar strings being strummed, with a distinct clarity between twangy electrics and rich acoustics.
In fact, this distinction was so apparent on the soundtrack album that I realized that it was high time for me to get a copy of those elusive first two Big Star albums on vinyl for the collection. The question remained: which versions do I get? I had read about a pricey pair put out by Classic Records (which you can still get from their website). But I decided to do a little research and found a forum on Steve Hoffman’s website containing extensive threads discussing this exact conundrum I was experiencing. Saving you a lot of time, I am here to tell you that the general consensus among the participants on that thread is to skip the pricey Classic Records pressings and go for the cheaper reissues on Ardent Records (now owned by Concord Music).
Not being able to find the Classic Records pressings in the stores around here so far, I did in fact buy both #1 Record and Radio City for $12 a piece, sealed, from Amoeba Records and they are pretty much exactly as people on the Hoffman forum had described: Both records sound quite clean and clear, if a little cleaned up mastering-wise (fewer harsh edges than the CD — the original mixes were apparently that way, with lots of angular guitar tones emanating from amplifiers and acoustic strings alike). Both albums are generally well centered. If I have one complaint, it’s that they are perhaps a little less than perfect when it comes to the actual quietness of the vinyl — there is some apparent surface noise in super quiet moments on the disc and between tracks. Regardless, the important distinction with all this is that apparently, again, according to the thread on the forum, both the Classic Records issue and the Concord Music edition were pressed from the same stampers. Thus, apart from the noise floor of vinyl, they should be the same.
So the question for you to consider is whether that difference is worth the extra $20+ per disc? It is a good question, and I do not really have an answer. So far, I’m pretty happy with these Ardent pressings put out by Concord Music, especially since they accurately reproduce the original album art and the the original label design — as a collector, this makes me happy.
For now, I’m okay with these. If I find the Classic Records pressings at a discount price, I might spring for them out of curiosity.
(a) to find a pair of nice original pressing, perhaps promo copies
(b) to get the colored vinyl pressings of #1 Record & Radio City I’ve read about
(c) someday Omnivore Records saves the day by issuing definitive authentic remasters of these albums up to the fine standards they have been setting for their other releases.
That would be some kind of Big Star bliss, don’t you think?
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Mark Smotroff is a freelance writer and avid music collector who has worked for many years in marketing communications for the consumer electronics, pro audio and video games industries, serving clients including DTS, Sega, Sony, Sharp, AT&T and many others. Mark has written for EQ Magazine, Mix Magazine, Goldmine/DISCoveries Magazine, BigPictureBigSound.com, Sound+Vision Magazine and Audiophilereview.com. He is also a musician / composer whose songs have been used in TV shows such as Smallville and Men In Trees, as well as films and documentaries. Mark is currently rolling out a new musical he’s written. You can reach him via www.smotroff.com