Although vinyl LP sales hit a 28-year high in 2016, tallying $416 million in sales. CD sales, while still much larger, decayed as digital downloads, and then streaming, displaced physical media. Vinyl has spread from independent record stores to major retailers, from independent labels to the majors, and from reissues to new releases. Even novelty picture discs are making a comeback. And whether this is a transitory hipster fad, or a long-lasting inroad into the psyches of digital natives, it provides an interesting intersection between format and material, providing a medium for reanimating not just the music, but the experience of catalog material.
Varese Sarabande, an independent label whose work is split between film scores and pop music reissues, has spanned the LP, CD, MP3 and streaming eras. Tracing its lineage back to the early ‘70s classical label Varese International and a late-70s merger with the Sarabande label, the combined Varese Sarabande, in addition to releasing modern film soundtracks, sources reissue material from a number of catalogs, and is distributed by the Universal Music Group. Each of these recent album reissues is pressed on 180 gram vinyl, with the original, full-size front- and back-cover art, and in a couple of cases, bonus tracks.
Wynn Stewart – The Very Best of Wynn Stewart 1958-1962
Varese’s vinyl reissue of their 2001 CD compilation is unusual, in that it was originally released on CD, making this vinyl reissue really a first pressing. That said, the eighteen tracks provide an excellent introduction to one of the Bakersfield Sound’s primary architects. Alongside Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, Stewart shares credit for creating the west coast country sound. Harder hitting than then-contemporary Nashville, and with some sting from electric guitars, Bakersfield planted the seeds for later country-rock marriages and any number of alt.country roots revivals.
Stewart’s sound, especially his singing, had a drama that neither Owens or Haggard matched. From his earliest rockabilly work (represented here by 1958’s “Come On”) to fiddle-and-harmony driven weepers (“How the Other Half Lives” and “Wishful Thinking”), and country pop (“Above and Beyond (The Call of Love)” – a hit for Buck Owens), Stewart ranged over a variety of styles and emotions with incredible ease. His chart success was sporadic, but the brilliance of his recordings was anything but. These tracks were cherry-picked from his years with Jackpot and Challenge, and provide a terrific sampling of his early work.
Dobie Gray – Sings for “In” Crowders That Go “Go Go”
The son of sharecroppers, Dobie Gray launched two iconic singles in a career that spanned more than forty years, and included numerous lesser-charting highlights. This 1965 album for the Charger label was his breakthrough, capitalizing on the minor success he’d generated with 1963’s punchy “Look at Me” by launching Billy Page’s “The ‘In’ Crowd” onto both the pop and R&B charts. The album includes the lower-charting follow-up “See You at the ‘Go-Go’,” but is stocked with superb album sides written by Gray and selected from period songwriters. Jackie DeShannon’s “Blue Ribbons” stands out with its Brill Building feel, as does the autobiographical “In Hollywood,” the country-gospel waltz “That’s How You Treat a Cheater” and the euphoric “Feelin’ in My Heart.” Gray is equally at home with crooned pop, string-lined ballads and up-tempo R&B, lending the album a see-what-will-stick variety. Varese’s reissue augments the album’s original dozen tracks with the soulful non-LP single “Out on the Floor.” This is a sweet treat for lovers of mid-60s pop, soul and R&B.
Aaron Neville – Tell It Like It Is
Aaron Neville’s 1966 album debut is both his most famous and his most obscure. Famous, because the title track remains his most emblematic hit, and obscure because other than a low-profile 1990 reissue and abbreviated collections, Neville’s recordings for Par-Lo have never received the archival treatment they deserve. Varese’s vinyl reissue isn’t the complete Par-Lo recitation one might dream of, but it does return the original eleven tracks (including two swinging George Davis instrumentals) to vinyl with a pair of bonuses: a stereo version of “Tell It Like It Is” and the B-side “Those Three Words.” Neville’s tiny label couldn’t capitalize on the single’s meteoric success, and quickly fell into bankruptcy. Neville recorded a few singles for other labels, but it wasn’t until he united with his brothers in the 1970s, and guested with Linda Ronstadt at the end of the ‘80s that his profile really took off. Those who know Neville for his softer hits of the ‘90s may be surprised by his early New Orleans soul sides. Now who will put together the complete Imperial, Minit, Par-Lo, Bell and Safari collection?
John Phillips – John, The Wolf King of L.A.
Following the 1969 break-up of the Mamas & Papas, Phillips quickly began working on this 1970 solo release with many of the same ace Los Angeles studio musicians who’d backed his group. Though it didn’t gain much traction at the time – in part due to a reported lack of promotion – it’s country-rock sound remained fresh, and the album’s reputation has grown over the years. Though it had been reissued in the UK in 1994, its critical re-evaluation was spurred by Varese’s bonus-laden 2006 edition. Varese’s LP reissue puts the album back on vinyl for the first time in more than forty-five years, with the original ten-track lineup.
For those accustomed to Phillip’s background singing in the Mama & Papas, his voice may be higher than you would have guessed and without the star quality of Cass Elliot or Denny Doherty. Still, he was an evocative singer, and his songs offer up a melancholy in keeping with the post-Altamont transition from the 1960s into the 1970s, and his personal transitions from group leader to solo artist and from husband to singleton. The album’s lone U.S. single, “Mississippi,” charted in the Top 40, but left album dwelling at the bottom of the Top 200. It’s a wonder this didn’t become a freeform radio staple alongside other FM favorites. But it’s not too late, and the full-sized cover gives you a place to clean your pot.
Linda Ronstadt – Silk Purse
Originally released in 1970, Ronstadt’s second solo album was reissued on CD in the mid-90s, and then seemed to have fallen out of print. Varese remedied this with a straight-up CD reissue last year, and now reaches out to vinyl collectors with this LP edition. The album bubbled under the Billboard Top 100, but managed to launch the single “Long, Long Time” into the Top 40. Recorded in Nashville, Ronstadt mixed pop and country material, including Hank Williams’ take on the Tin Pan Alley standard “Lovesick Blues,” Mel Tillis’ “Mental Revenge,” Goffin & King’s “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” (which bubbled under the Top 100) and Dillard & Clark’s “She Darked the Sun.” Ronstadt returned to California for her self-titled third album, but this Southern sojourn was an important way-point in her development from a singer in the Stone Poneys to a full-blown solo star. Varese’s 180 gram vinyl reissue includes the album’s original ten tracks, and reproduces the original front and back covers. [©2017 Hyperbolium]