New Music for November 13, 2012: Freak Out!

Frank Zappa's family has announced an upcoming new official bootleg series called "Road Tapes," including material not circulating among even the most hardcore of collectors. First up is a 1968 Mothers of Invention show from Vancouver. I don' t know about you, but this Zappa fan is VERY excited about this series.

Also did you know that Mothermania, the original Zappa greatest hits collection (with some different mixes and edits unique to that release) is finally making its CD debut? You can pre-order it from the Zappa website.

While you are at it, pick up the new version of Hot Rats which is reportedly using the original LP mix for the first time on CD - FZ remixed it drastically for the original Ryko CDs back in the day, which was cool, but it still wasn't the mix most of us know and love.

The Explorer's Club has a new single written by NRBQ's Al Anderson. . . and it is FREE to download. Get yer copy here and do check out the band's other fine Beach Boys–inspired recordings.

The Velvet Underground In HD and Mono

Wow! The Velvet Underground is getting some fairly spiffy deluxe treatment this Fall!

In addition to the 6 CD exploration of their first album, out now is a 5 LP box set featuring uber rare Mono versions, in quite accurate reproductions from the good folks at Sundazed. And if that wasn't enough, the equally good folks at HD Tracks have released super high res downloads of two STEREO albums from this period : the first VU album (the one with the banana on the cover) and Nico's first solo album, the lush Chelsea Girl It is these latter two we look at here on S+V this week.

I am not going to go into all sorts of background on the importance of the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed and John Cale or their influence on the world of rock and pop music as that has been covered to death elsewhere. If you don't know who they are, search the web and you will learn. Instead I'll just go into a play-by-play look at how the albums - and relative high resolution 192 kHz / 24-bit downloads - stack up.

Nico's Chelsea GIrl The HDtracks version is quite the stunner here at 192 kHz and 24-bit resolution. It sounds so much fuller than the original US CD issue that I have (and that sounded pretty good actually) but in comparison to the high res version the CD sounds hollowand cold. The sensation of Nico singing on the high res FLAC files is staggering - her voice just jumps out at you on tracks like Jackson Browne's "These Days" and the title track (written by Lou Reed and VU guitarist Sterling Morrison). This is only challenged bythe mono LP version which seems to have less hiss on it for some reason. But, honestly, its hard to compare them as equals since they are both very different creatures and should be judged as such. If you are a fan, you need both. Pure and simple.

The Velvet Underground and Nico The HDtracks version certainly trounces the CD version with more detail yet it is interesting that with the high resolution files you also realize that some of the noise that I always considered as surface noise inherent on my original 1960s blue label Verve Records LP pressing are actually on the original recording! "I'm Waiting For the Man" is pretty stunning with very clear tambourines and a noticeable punch coming from Moe Tucker's bass drum and relentless snare hits. Lou's voice just jumps out of thespeakers. John Cale's bass is rocking hard on this version. I also compared these songs to a 12-inch 45 RPM single version I own, put out by Arista in the UK at the time of Lou Reed's Street Hassle (the A-side of the single). The HD Tracks version sounds easily as good as the 12-inch 45n RPM version of "Waiting For the Man" and "Venus in Furs", actually better with more bass and midrange tones…. It sounds like the mix on the 12-inch has a bit more reverb on Lou's vocal than other versions (making me wonder what this 12-inch was sourced from?).

Of course , this brings us to the Mono mix, which is what the Velvet Underground spent most of their time mixing in the first place - on the new Sundazed reissue it sounds pretty fabulous and is much much fuller sounding than the 2002 CD issue (the first reissue of the mono mix). On this mix, "I'm Waiting For the Man" rocks even harder than the HDtracks version with Cale's bass in lock step with Moe Tucker's drums. You feel the hard edges of the CD version vs. the LP, particularly on John Cale's viola throughout "Venus in Furs" which doesn't pierce the ear somuch in HD. Instead, it sounds like more like a viola, than just a screech - in this instance I prefer the Mono mix much more than even the HDtracks!

This mono LP is pretty revelatory, actually! If I had to make a choice, I'd pick the Mono LP first to hear precisely whatLou and the band wanted us to hear and then I would go for the HDtracks version for all the fidelity and dynamics and lack of wow 'n flutter from even a slightly off-center LP (that is a bit noticeable on tracks like "There She Goes").

White Light/White Heat The mono mix is more cohesive than the stereo mix. Lou's pounding piano, Cale's bass and Morrison's guitars are all locked in with Moe Tuckers' pulse, and at the end of the title track you are in the heat of the instrumental battle they get into with one another. "The Gift" sounds SO much better than the stereo (which puts the whole rhythm section in one channel and Cale's vocal in the other). Sure, the stereo is great for hearing the details of Cale's storytelling but clearly the Mono version is more cohesive as a listening experience - you can almost dance to it! On "Here She Comes Now" you can actually hear Moe Tucker hitting cymbals! (I never noticed this before!). The ticking sound is more or less lost in the stereo version on the right channel, while in the Mono its more prominent dead center above Lou's voice. Details like that make theMono more definitive given that is more about what the band wanted you to hear.

The Velvet Underground This is a case where there are many key mixes to consider. The stereo mix that most of us know was done by Val Valentin and is a bit brighter than the so called "closet" mix that was issued on first pressings out that first month of release in1969 (preferred by the band, available on the 5 CD Peel Slowly & See box set as well as (in part on) the 3 CD UK set What Goes On, on Raven Records). The Mono mix is closer in feel to the closet mix so that makes it highly desirous. "What Goes On" rocks more in the mono mix with Moe's snare hitting louder and dead center, locking in with Doug Yule's throbbing bass parts.

From what I've been able to find out from various forums online, it seems that this never existed in Mono before - the question remains as to whether it was made from the stereo final mix or is a fresh mono mix made from the original multi-track recordings. TBD on that (we'll keep you posted on what we learn). It sounds good though!!

My only nit ispurely a cosmetic one : original pressings of this album were released on MGM Records (teal and gold swirl), not the Verve subsidiary. It was not out on Verve until the first reissues in the mid 1980s. So, having a Verve logo on the cover and label is nice but not100 percent accurate. BUT (and bless their obsessive hearts!) according to Sundazed's website:

"Before you ask… the reason there are Verve labels on all of these albums is that Universal Music could not extend us the rights to use the MGM / "Lion Head" logo on any of these releases."

Kudos to Sundazed for trying, and also for anticipating this bit of guff from people like us!

1969 This is the other gem on the box set. featuring (apparently) the 10 tracks slated for the 4th album that never really happened (at press time we have written to Sundazed for additional detail but have yet to hear back from them; we'll keep you posted if we learn more specifics). All of the tracks on this album have been put out before on the VU and Another View albums from the 1980's Velvet Underground Mono Box. "Foggy Notion" has noticeably less reverb on the track than the CD from 1985. "Lisa Says" also is way more upfront, akin to the sound of the 3rd VU album. Overall this is indeed a mostly coherent collection (I think the loose jam of "I'm Gonna Move Right In" is a throwaway that could have been replaced by something stronger)

There are a few downsides to the VU Mono Box Set:

  • The covers slide around in shipping and thus can come out scuffed (as mine did). On the flipside, they are not individually shrink wrapped so there is less chance of them being warped from the heat of the plastic.
  • The Banana sticker is not on the first album… it is, however, given to you as a separate sticker (!) which is nice, but that not really true to the original release
  • All the album covers are made of thin oaktag, not heavier cardboard like originals
  • The actual box all the albums come in is pretty flimsy (neat concept but weak execution)

One good thing that all of this ensures for us hard core collectors is that the original pressings will retain their value as originals. Nico in Mono sounds gorgeous; but finding original mono pressings of any of these albums is really hard so this reissue is welcome for most of us. All the pressings are dead quiet and mostly perfectly centered - only one of mine is a bit off center - made from high-quality 180-gram black vinyl.

Get the Velvet Underground Mono Box set and also get the 192/24 HDtracks downloads. Between the two you'll be in pretty good shape for the best Velvets listening experiences to date.