T-Bone Burnett, “T-Bone Burnett” —When our editor, Howard Milstein asked me to write about 3 best sounding records (irrespective of genre) of audiophile quality, this understated countryish disc was the first one I thought of. Recorded live to analog two-track tape, this all-acoustic session has a presence and open-sounding quality which is note perfect without sacrificing spontaneity. Extremely transparent—you can hear virtually every nuance and string—with superb imaging and instrument separation; this disc effectively recreates the ambience of a large, acoustically perfect concert hall where essentially every string and nuance are recreated in meticulous (but not clinical or over-analytical) fashion. The players, especially Jerry Douglas on dobro, are impeccable and the arrangements are spare and almost drum-less, but full-bodied and well-matched to the material.
Burnett is, of course, a renowned producer who’s helmed seemingly every rootsy soundtrack in existence; his own records (the exceptional “Trap Door” EP excepted) tended towards artsy experimentation and inaccessibility. Here, however, he opts for a stripped-down approach to the material, eschewing the sonic and lyrical ambitions of his other work for an almost-primitive simplicity; songs like “River of Love” and “Little Daughter” are virtually nursery rhymes. The accordion-driven “Annabelle Lee,” by Dylan cohort Bob Neuwirth, is the best thing here, though instrumentals like “I Remember” have a precision and sense of dynamism that I think would actually appeal to classically-trained ears. This is a country record for people who thought they hated country music!
Jesus and Mary Chain, “Psychocandy”- The Reid brothers had one gimmick—to drench simple 60s-inspired pop tunes in layers of guitar feedback and drone—but they deployed it to perfection and, in its own twisted way this 1985 record is as much a sonic landmark as “Dark Side of the Moon” or “Pet Sounds”. Most often described as Beach Boys meets the Velvet Underground, I think a closer referent would be the debut by the Ramones, whose three chord minimalism and garagey posture can’t obscure the catchiness of the songs. Also like the Ramones, they eliminate all the sonic baggage—no solos, no backing vocals—and essentially use feedback as an instrument rather than as embellishment.
This record is all about the mix, a warm thick-textured, mid-focused sludge (there’s virtually no high end) which doses you like a bottle of cough syrup. Nominally produced by the band (though post-punk studio luminaries such as John Loder and Flood are credited as engineers) it’s a giant, genuinely groundbreaking sound, as influential in its own deceptively simple way as Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound and as immersive a record as you’ll hear.
The opener, “Just Like Honey” sets the template—primal pounding drums (ala the Ronette’s) “Be My Baby”, distorted echoey electric guitar and boomy barely articulated bass framing subdued, doleful but surprisingly warm vocals. Imaging and layering are purposely muddled, as if you’re listening to a single instrument rather than discrete parts, but the soundstage is wide and holographic. The songs are short and hooky, with mostly driving tempos (“Surf City” seems to be a pervasive influence), though (as on “Cut Dead”) they periodically tone down the furor and show some almost gentle melodiousness. Surprisingly accessible and tuneful despite its noisy trappings, this is an amazing headphone record.
Freedy Johnston, “This Perfect World”—a cerebral folkie with an noncommercial voice, Freedy Johnston seemed like an odd production gig for Butch Vig following the massive success of his Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins projects.
This record, however, is a sonic tour-de-force—an open sounding, meticulously arranged landscape which typically frames Johnston’s reedy tenor voice and acoustic guitar with cleanly recorded, stinging electric leads, occasionally colored by cello or lap steel. Supported by a virtual who’s who of alternate rock guitar heroes (Mark Ribot, Kevin Salem), the real secret weapon here is ex-Joe Jackson bassist Graham Maby, whose rubbery jazzy style gives a real propulsiveness to the proceedings. Very detailed, uncongested and articulate-sounding, this is what ensemble playing should be—virtuosic yet understated, without sounding precious or twee.
Unlike his work on “Nevermind,” which always sounded a tad over engineered and artificially juiced to me, Vig largely keeps his hands off the dials here and avoids injecting a lot of coloration to the mix; however, there’s a slightly bright, treble-forward signature albeit without glare or digital artifacts. Otherwise, electric guitars and cymbals in particular are very accurately reproduced and bass is tight and free from bloat.
Little of this would matter if the songs weren’t great, which they are. Johnston has a novelist’s eye, with notable economy of language; he writes concise, typically dark character studies about rogues, barefoot whores, abuse survivors and the like; in another context these could be Raymond Carver or John Cheever short stories. Unlike other hyper-literate types, though (e.g. Jmes McMurtry or Leonard Cohen), his melodies are sharp as his lyrics; he ranges broadly from somber but hooky folk (“Disappointed Man”; “Gone Like the Water”), jangly mid-tempo pop (“Two Lover’s Stop”) to almost-rock, as on the reggaish “Can’t Sink This Town” and the sorta-hit “Bad Reputation.” (The title track, about a dying father seeking to reconcile with his estranged daughter, has to be saddest song ever written). Johnston made other equally well-written records, i.e. “Can You Fly” and “Never Home”, but was never produced as sympathetically as here.
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