Monday, July 30, 2018

U2 – Achtung Baby, Zooropa, and The Best of 1980-1990 [Vinyl Reissues] (Album Review)

Back in April, U2 reissued a trio of albums – Wide Awake In America, Pop, and All That You Can’t Leave Behind – that spanned an impressively adventurous 15-year section of their career. All three albums were brilliantly remastered, pressed on heavyweight vinyl, and packaged with an extra attention to detail that made for a brilliant finished product that shined both musically and visually. Looking to strike twice with the same well-crafted formula, this month finds the band releasing another trio of vinyl reissues – Achtung Baby, Zooropa, and The Best of 1980-1990 – that have been handled with the same care and craft to make this batch boast an equal “must have” aesthetic.

While the first trio of reissues felt like three different snapshots of the band’s multi-persona arc, this newest trio of reissues reflects a more compacted section of their career, specifically the experimental build-up and return-to-form release of their ‘90s output. Achtung Baby was originally released in November of 1991, Zooropa followed closely behind just a year and a half later in July of 1993, and The Best of 1980-1990 (originally released in November of 1998) – while understandably a greatest hits project – served as a nice reminder of the band’s ‘80s musical dominance after the backlash they received from 1997’s largely misunderstood Pop. Taken together, the three releases transport listeners back to a time where U2 tried to test as many boundaries as they could on record and in concert to see how far fans would travel with them, pretty much found the tipping point with Pop, and then reset the playing field with their first ever greatest hits package. It was a great time to be a U2 fan and these gorgeous vinyl reissues serve as both a reminder of their fearless creativity and a heavy-duty upgrade to your record collection.

Achtung Baby not only has the distinction of being the album that had to somehow follow the monster smash of The Joshua Tree (Rattle and Hum doesn’t count as a proper complete studio album), but it has also been a bit of a white whale for many U2 fans looking to own a vinyl copy of the album. Original first-run pressings from 1991 have often fetched triple digits on the secondary market. This new reissue will help remedy that situation for many fans and it does so with impressive touches that could actually enhance the overall experience above the original pressings. This new Achtung Baby reissue features completely remastered audio spread out over two discs of 180g heavyweight vinyl and features strikingly beautiful collaged picture sleeves to house the records. There’s also a nice standalone lyric sheet insert and a download card for all 12 tracks. For pure existence alone, Achtung Baby may end up being the standout pick of the trio for most fans.

After the widespread success of Achtung Baby and the critical buzz of the accompanying Zoo TV tour, audiences welcomed the newest incarnation of U2 so warmly that the band experimented even further (and quicker) with Zooropa – recording the album in short six week session in early 1993. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the album release, so this vinyl reissue goes a little further with the extras – as it’s presented for the very first time as a double LP and it features two bonus remixes making up the fourth side: “Lemon” (The Perfecto Mix) and “Numb” (Gimme Some More Dignity Mix). This one is my personal standout of the batch due to the remastered audio being given more space across two discs and getting the two incredibly cool remixes on vinyl. Plus, the artwork on the cover and on the internal picture sleeves pop so crisply in this layout that it’s easy to get lost in the visuals as the music is transporting you. That may sound a bit clich├ęd but it’s totally true in the case of this reissue. If you only pick up one of the batch, my gentle nudge is towards Zooropa.

How you end up feeling about the reissue of The Best of 1980-1990 is probably dependent upon how you feel about greatest hits packages in general. But make no mistake about it; U2 is a band that not only earned the right to release a greatest hits album, but they also did it in a way that allowed them to be split across decades. The Best of 1980-1990 covers the band’s first decade and includes many of their biggest and farthest-reaching hits from War, The Unforgettable Fire, and The Joshua Tree. Originally released in late 1998, the album served to remind longtime fans of what they loved most about the band throughout the ‘80s (especially if the were having trouble following the Zooropa/Pop trajectory) and it helped bring younger fans they garnered from their newer electronic/alternative/semi-industrial elements up to speed on the band’s previous output. It was a certifiable win-win and the album functions as one of the few greatest hits releases that doesn’t feel like a cash-grab retread. This vinyl reissue of The Best of 1980-1990 is remastered, pressed on two 180g vinyl discs, and housed in a fantastic gatefold outer sleeve with gorgeously printed inner sleeves. Much like the reissue of Wide Awake in America from the earlier batch of reissues, the starkness of The Best of 1980-1990 proves to be an arresting foil against that vibrant aesthetics of the other two releases. The black-and-white photos chronicling the band’s early career contrast really nicely against the gold background splashes and it all works together to set the right context for the compilation of songs.

The vinyl reissues of Achtung Baby, Zooropa, and The Best of 1980-1990 have all been remastered, pressed on 180g vinyl, and include a download card for the songs on each album. You can order them all individually here.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Matthew Sweet - 100% Fun [Vinyl Reissue] (Album Review)

A couple of years ago, Intervention Records crafted exceptional reissues of Everclear’s second and third albums (Sparkle and Fade and So Much For The Afterglow), proving that they not only understand that there is a strong market for high quality ‘90s vinyl reissues but that they can also deliver them as a refreshingly stellar product that goes beyond a simple repress. While Intervention often handles a wide variety of genres and eras, they’re readying another set of ‘90s classics to be rolled out over the next few months with their re-release of four Matthew Sweet albums: Girlfriend (1991), Altered Beast (1993), Son of Altered Beast (1994), and 100% Fun (1995). These reissues have all been approved by Sweet himself, are presented in expanded edition double LP format, and are pressed on 180-gram black vinyl.

The first reissue out of the gate is 100% Fun, Sweet’s highest charting album that is best known for its lead-off single “Sick of Myself” (which peaked at #2, also giving Sweet his highest chart performance for a single). Produced by Brendan O’Brien and originally released on vinyl on February 28, 1995 (with the CD version coming out a couple weeks later), 100% Fun featured Sweet at the top of his power pop game. Eschewing the dour, angst-fueled vibes of the second-wave commercialized alt-rock copycats that saturated mid-‘90s radio, Sweet’s nuanced melodic range and sugary pop hooks helped set him apart from the majority of what was categorized as alternative music at the time. The insanely catchy “Sick of Myself” made a huge impact on radio and MTV and Sweet rounded out a busy 1995 with a nice trio of soundtrack appearances (National Lampoon’s Senior Trip, Ace Venture: When Nature Calls, and The Babysitter’s Club) and a memorable slot on the Saturday Morning: Cartoon’s Greatest Hits compilation with his perfectly paired “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?” cover.

Intervention’s reissue of Sweet’s 100% Fun has been masterfully reframed, both sonically and visually. For starters, the album’s 12 songs (plus the 7 bonus tracks) have been fully mastered from the original analog master tapes and are presented on “ultra quiet” 180-gram vinyl. The pressings are super crisp and the quality of the mix seems to heighten as the volume increases. While some vinyl records are known to lose some warmth at higher volumes, both discs of 100% Fun welcome the challenge and shine out brighter the louder you play them. Even in some of the album’s more delicate moments – the Beach Boys inspired harmonic choral outro of “Not When I Need It,” the breathy organ-drum interplay of “Everything Changes” – the inherent surface noise is almost non-existent. Of course, in its most raw and raucous moments – the vibrant guitar squeals of “Sick of Myself,” the psych-blues howl of “Giving It Back,” the groovy growl of “Super Baby” – finds the highs and lows screaming off the wax in the most satisfying ways.

Packaging-wise, the double disc album comes in a fantastic gatefold and feels incredibly durable. The artwork is faithful to the original album (save for the addition of the bonus tracks listed on the back jacket) and features a striking laminate sheen that really brings a new life to the vintage childhood photo of Sweet that envelopes the cover. The “Old Style” gatefold was handled by the famed Stoughton Printing and the impressive quality and attention to detail in the double-pocket jacket mimics the same craftsmanship that is present in the songs. Both aspects being handled so attentively and with such finesse by Intervention make this reissue a true audio-visual feast.

On top of the superb audio and visual aspects of this 100% Fun reissue, Sweet has also included seven outtake bonus tracks that were a part of the original 100% Fun master tapes. Some of them have found their way onto previous releases (“Sense of Adventure” and “Slowly” were bonus tracks on the Japanese import CD, “Never Said Goodbye” was the b-side to the “Sick of Myself” CD/cassette single, “You” was the fourth song on the “We’re The Same” 4-track CD single) and some of them have never been released at all. Either way, all seven tracks are presented in this setting on vinyl for the first time and make up the entirety of the second vinyl disc.

Bonus Tracks:
“Sense of Adventure”
“Breaks My Heart”
“Walk Out” (Alternate Mix)
“Never Said Goodbye”
“Our Song”

The artist-approved expanded edition reissue of 100% Fun can be ordered directly from Intervention Records on vinyl or CD here:

Additionally, you can also pre-order the entire 4-album bundle from Intervention with 100% Fun shipping now, Altered Beast shipping in August, Son of Altered Beast (available for the first time ever on vinyl) shipping in September, and Girlfriend shipping in November.