Bargain Bin Beauts: Tell Me What’d I Say – The Atlantic Story
Albums that I picked up for a song, but in retrospect, would have paid an arm and a leg for.
ONCE IN A blue moon I find myself browsing zombie-like through the poorly curated and abysmally shelved sale stock at The Warehouse.
It’s not something I’m proud of. For one, I don’t like what the ‘red shed’ has done for small-town NZ, decimating small businesses and bringing tons of Chinese-made junk into our green and pleasant land, most of which presumably ends up as landfill when it breaks or malfunctions shortly after purchase. And I don’t like the way The Warehouse treats music: without a shred of respect. It brings in lots of budget-priced crap (a lot of it featuring re-recorded performances of classic songs or poor masters) and distributes it randomly across its shelves, and it’s a depressing place to shop, because it makes no effort to display anything on the basis of merit. Apart from that, it does the unthinkable: the spines of its CDs and DVDs are almost always upside down and, for me, that makes them neck-wrenchingly dizzying to read.
Clearly, I hate everything The Warehouse represents, so why do I end up flicking through its racks? Well, looking for bargains in an anonymous environment can be therapeutic. I’d rather haunt the sale bins at Real Groovy (a real record store) but it’s often too invasive for my mood. That is, just when I need an hour of honest labour delving into shop-worn stock, I’ll bump into half a dozen friends I haven’t seen for awhile and end up using that precious zombie time on conversations, instead. [I love my friends, but this is my ‘guy in the tool shed time out]. I can rely on The Warehouse for one thing: I won’t bump into anyone I know there, and I can wear any rumpled old clothing assemblage without getting funny looks. It’s also a convenient stop-off on the way home to my semi-rural idyll.
But yeah, probably 80 percent of what I hoped would be Bargain Bin Beauts purchased at The Warehouse have turned out to be turkeys. An example is the 4-CD Julie London set, Eight Classic Albums, which claims to be digitally remastered, and sounds okay until you notice the very discernable sound of needle on vinyl. It turns out that despite the availability of the original masters, the company responsible for this tragedy just took them off vinyl, and used some software to minimise the annoying clicks and pops. (I guess some vinyl-heads might even prefer this ‘sounds like vinyl’, because they can then pretend they’re listening to the real thing).
Bear in mind that I have no problem with albums being carefully rendered from vinyl when the original masters have gone missing – as is the case with the recent reissue of that great NZ band from the 1970s, Waves – but despite the incredibly low price, I felt ripped off by the Julie London set.
And that’s why I’m elated to report the acquisition of an album called Tell Me What’d I Say – The Atlantic Story, from English oldies company One Day Music. This is a double CD issued in 2011 that I picked up for $1.97 at the Red Shed, and it turns out not to be the usual cut-price atrocity exhibition.
Sadly, the liner notes don’t discuss the source tapes or anything about the remastering, but it sounds wonderful.
In the late 1980s I owned a box set containing many of the same songs, oddly enough released through Warners, the owners of the Atlantic audio archive. It sounded like shit: thin, harsh, hardly any bass, almost like you were hearing it from the next room. Really uninvolving. That set got traded in fairly swiftly.
Tell Me What’d I Say, on the other hand, sounds rich and involving, with a full spectrum, curvaceous and enticing analogue-style presentation that brings this music alive.
And that’s the point, surely. We can wank on endlessly about the finer points of sound quality, but really, it’s about hearing something that contains more than just traces of the energy, conviction, joy, sweat and emotion that went into the original performances.
Throughout the two discs, I found myself glued to my seat. Or rather, I couldn’t help moving with the rhythm and the blues. I couldn’t believe the amount of bass response these old recordings contained, or the big sound I was hearing.
I wouldn’t say that the Atlantic vault is my all-time favourite mine of great ‘50s music, but it’s essential to understanding everything else that happened around it, and what came later. Some might find some of this frequently naïve music more than a little bit corny, but who cares? There are 50 songs on these two discs, and they’re not all stoned cold classics, but this selection does contain most of the DNA of the music we take for granted as the bounteous harvest of popular culture 50-something years later, and most of it stands up.
What’s still surprising, amazing, and sometimes hair-raising about all this Atlantic-label music is just how eclectic it is. There’s rhythm and blues, there’s blues, there’s prototype rock and roll, there’s doo-wop, there’s gospel-into-soul, and various mutations thereof, and it’s not all as clear-cut stylistically as some music historians might like it to be.
For instance, there’s Professor Longhair who is synonymous with New Orleans and part of that city’s unique heritage, and the set’s biggest act, Ray Charles, whose music at this stage may have still been heavily gospel-inspired but already felt like it was breaking out into something else, and of course that something else would see him experiment with (god forbid!) country and jazz and more down the line.
I’m not going to get into a blow-by-blow account of the music, because this blog is already blowing out of all proportion. But today’s Bargain Bin Beaut is one of those real finds that puts your faith back into music, and entices you to sit down and groove to a music that still sounds fresher than anything our top so-called R&B stars could muster today. GARY STEEL