This is a monthly series of album reviews I will be doing for DVL Audio here in Canada. I’ll be heading out to a local record store in Vancouver, digging through the bins, and coming up with an intriguing LP to discuss here on Part-Time Audiophile. I’ll never go out with something in mind beforehand, and there is no criteria for whether it’s a new album, an old album, an out-of-print LP, electronic, classical, jazz, punk – whatever – it just has to sound good to me.
I’ll come up with as much of the backstory as I can research, and include a small audio sample for listening. I hope you enjoy reading the reviews as much as I enjoy doing them.
I’m sentimental, there, I said it.
And as someone who grows fond of certain times gone past in my youth (the sky was more blue, the summers were warmer, the light at dawn more ethereal… you get me) I can say without artifice that music triggers some strong memories, and emotions in me. When I saw this slightly dog-eared (and corner-clipped promo copy) LP of Murray Head’s Say It Ain’t So in a bargain bin at a local thrift store I was at once taken back to my parent’s living room in the mid-’70s, where I was often to be found sitting on a big sand-coloured velvet sofa listening to albums while I read or played with Lego. I clearly recall “Someone’s Rocking my Dream Boat” by Head playing through the stereo system while snow was falling outside on some lazy weekend during the winter months.
Head has put out numerous albums over his long, multi-decade career – from the haunting 1972 freshman effort of Nigel Lived to 2012’s My Back Pages – but it’s his sophomore outing in 1975 with Say It Ain’t So that resonated most with me. Even the hit single “One Night in Bangkok,” as catchy as it is, never held me rapt like So did. A&M Records brought hit producer Paul Smith (known by many more for his fame as the bassist, and founding member of The Yardbirds) onboard to helm the LP. Smith has known great success producing albums for the likes of Carly Simon, Jethro Tull, Cat Stevens, and Chris de Burgh.
According to Internet lore, the title track, and the LP’s name came about from Head taking in a screening of a documentary film in 1973 about Richard Nixon, who was in the final, agonizing throes of his presidency prior to resigning amid the political, and legal carnage of the Watergate scandal. Apparently there’s a sequence in the documentary where a newspaper editor is struggling with reconciling how much of his readership still supported Nixon regardless of how damning the evidence was against him (strangely resonant today). The resemblance between the state of affairs with Nixon, and baseball legend “Shoeless Joe Jackson being banned from playing Major League baseball after accusations surfaced that he had accepted a bribe to throw the World Series in 1919 struck the editor as uncanny. Legend has it a teenage fan confronted Jackson after the debacle, and said “Say it ain’t so, Joe.”
Cueing the EMT JSD VM cartridge on the Thales Slim III turntable (after a thorough cleaning on my Okki Nokki record cleaner), and letting it hook into the LP’s title track felt like engaging a time machine. Head’s goosebump-evoking guitar picking that opens up “Say It Ain’t So,” and haunting, lilting voice floated out from between the speakers, and I found myself once again sitting on a big, old sofa with this album playing as grey winter skies looked back at me through my living-room window. The backing vocals of Liza Strike, Sue Lynch, Vicky Brown, and Pam Keevil kept the ice flowing through my spine as the strings arrangement reached a crescendo, and Simon Philips roiling drums brought the whole song crashing down around me. The subtle, melodic playing of the Fender Rhodes electric piano by Brian Johnston that quietly starts “Boy on The Bridge” along with the percussive brush splashes of Gerry Conway’s drum kit continued the spectral nature of this LP’s sound. Head eased me into the storytelling with lyrics like – /there’s a girl on the lake reflecting her thoughts which she kisses away with sighs/ what would you do in this boy’s place? /Move on or compromise?/ Freedom of choice is a helluva burden/ maybe living for kicks is wise/ – which then kicks into a rumbling drum solo, as a keening, bluesy, electric-guitar twang is injected into this soft-rock ballad.
Recorded sample below:
This is in LP that is emotionally involving, and evocative in it’s subject matter with cuts like “When I’m Yours” (featuring deft, textured chord work by Brian Brocklehurst on acoustic bass) that touches on the complexities of attraction, and the interplay of power in relationships, or the languid Marvin Gay-infused soul/funk of “You’re So Tasty” with it’s syrupy guitar treatment, and back-and-forth (or call-and-answer) vocals. Listening to this album through the Thales/EMT front end, with the EMT-specified Auditorium 23 Step-Up Transformer, the Kondo GE-1 Phono Amplifier, and the Kondo Overture II integrated amplifier through my Audio Note AN-E/SPe HE loudspeakers was alternately intoxicating, and exhausting as this is an exceptionally adept system for timbral realism, and subtle acoustic texturing of stringed, and wood-bodied instruments, as well as vocals. Keyboards/piano/organ, and drums in particular possessed a depth, impact, and rich tonal colouration that added warm-blooded realism to every track – more akin to listening to a live event, than a recorded one, hence the ‘exhausting’ part.
If you’re looking for an album to sink your intellectual, emotional, and imaginative teeth into then scan the horizon no more, Murray Head’s Say It Ain’t So ticked all the boxes for me including pressing/production value, as after a clean it played near dead-quiet, and allowed the punchy, gut-wrenching bass, and fluid midrange to anchor the oftentimes falsetto, cloud-like vocals for a most convincing, and concert-like listening session.
- EMT JSD VM low-output cartridge
- Thales TTT Slim-II turntable
- Auditorium 23 EMT Step-Up Transformer
- Kondo GE-1 Phono Amplifier
- Kondo Overture II integrated amplifier
- Audio Note AN-E/SPe HE loudspeakers
- Audio Note Lexus speaker cables
- Kondo ACz-AVOCADO AC/Mains cable
- Kondo ACc-PERSIMMON AC/Mains cable
- Shindo Mr. T Power Conditioner