If you’re a music lover who is older than 35 or 40, you’ve probably joined the Columbia House Record Club at some point in your life. I joined for the first time back in 1976, when I was barely a teen and had just purchased my very first turntable—a Soundesign all-in-one with a BSR changer that cost me a whopping $49.95. I know it was ’76 because my first “Selection of the Month” was Bowie’s Station to Station, and that’s when it was released. To this day it’s still my favorite Bowie album, and not just because I’ve owned it longer than any other album in my collection.
Over the years I used and abused Columbia House. First, I learned to quit as soon as I filled the membership requirements, usually buying three or four albums at full (aka incredibly inflated) price over the next couple of years. I’d immediately re-join and get those twelve new LPs for 99 cents. After I while, I figured out that you could maintain two or more accounts at the same time using another name—I used other family members, girlfriends, spouses, ex-spouses or completely fictional characters. This allowed me to pick more than one favorite musical genre so that my Selection of the Month would always be varied, and it also allowed me to build my LP collection (and later, my CD collection) rather quickly for a minimal amount of money.
I eventually gave up on Columbia House when I learned that they were selling special “club versions” of popular releases. I learned this while trying to sell off some of my collection at used CD stores—they didn’t accept the club versions because they were usually inferior. That could mean everything from poor digital transfers from manufacturing plants in third-world countries to truncated versions that were missing entire tracks. I quit Columbia House for good, and never looked back.
Newvelle Records (website), a jazz label in France, is also a music subscription service—albeit at the opposite end of the spectrum compared to Columbia House. A one-year subscription to Newvelle’s service is a lofty $400, and for that amount you receive a new LP every other month. That means each album is an equally lofty $66.66…if you could purchase it that way. But you can’t. You need to purchase an entire year’s worth of their new recordings.
So what makes Newvelle so special that you would want to invest $400 without having a chance to preview these releases? This mission statement can be found at their website:
“We set out to build a series of records, of all new music, that cut no corners sonically or artistically. Each year Newvelle records and releases 6 records, exclusively on vinyl and with curated artwork and literature. We built a model that treats musicians right and uses the full available canvas of vinyl to make something unique and beautiful.”
That’s an admirable way to treat the artists, especially in an industry that possesses the reputation it does. In exchange, these artists agree to a window of several years where Newvelle has exclusive right to sell these albums in these special vinyl versions. That seems fair as well. But how does this business model benefit the consumer?
That’s easy. Newvelle LPs sound absolutely spectacular in every way. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
A few months ago I was contacted by Elan Mehler, co-founder of Newvelle. He simply asked if he could send out an album to check out, and of course I said yes. Mehler is a jazz pianist as well, having played in New York City for 12 years before moving to Paris in 2010. A couple of weeks later I received an LP in the mail, shipped from France in a very sturdy and multi-layered carboard shipping box. The album was Andy Zimmerman’s Half Light. The gatefold album cover was equally sturdy and featured a beautiful painting from Maciej Markowicz, and the record sleeve featured a short story from Ingrid Astier called “Mirages.” The vinyl inside was heavy and clear.
Andy Zimmerman, Half Light
I wound up reviewing this album for Positive Feedback back in June, which you can read there. I summarized this gorgeous-sounding album as follows:
“That said, it all comes down to your dedication to the vinyl medium or your love of jazz. I’m not being hyperbolic by stating that this is the type of LP I would play at trade shows, along with all my original Three Blind Mice LPs and UHQRs and other unicorns, to get people into the room and ask “What is this? It sounds terrific!”
Yes, Half Light sounded absolutely wonderful in every way. The pressing was whisper-quiet and the tactile feel of each performer, as well as the air and space around each instrument, leapt out at me while I was listening. In addition, the music was moving and beautiful in every conceivable way. Zimmerman’s quartet lacked percussion, so these original compositions had a soft, sad aura that made me drift away in a purely contemplative state during each and every play. My review, however, headed toward the inevitable conclusion of whether or not this album was worth $66 or, more accurately, a $400 leap of faith, and I have to admit it was difficult to make that decision based on a single LP. I generally don’t have a problem paying $55 or more for one of Chad Kassem’s 45rpm 2-LP reissues for Analogue Productions since each one has become part of my regular vinyl rotation. On the other hand, some of those recent “one-step” LP pressings from other labels can cost you $100 or more and so far I’ve been ambivalent about adding them to my collection.
I concluded in the review that on its own, Half Light was well-worth the asking price. I wasn’t so sure about the rest of the deal—I didn’t even learn about the whole subscription service until I was finished with the review and looked up the price and ordering information. What if you subscribed to Newvelle and you started receiving your bi-monthly records and one of them was a complete dud? What if you just hated the music based on your own personal preferences? I suppose you could turn around and re-sell it on eBay, but I’ve come to the part of my life where I no longer want to sell off parts of my LP collection. Been there, done that, and now I find myself longing for old records that I sold off in the heat of the moment. I know I’m over-thinking this, but that’s what music lovers do.
Fortunately, Elan Mehler came to the rescue. He was happy with my thoughts on Half Light and thanked me for my time. I responded with a rather tepid “If there’s anything else you want me to review…” At these prices I wasn’t expecting him to send more, but he did. Again, within a relatively brief time, I receive two more releases—Lionel Loueke’s Close Your Eyes and Skuli Sverrisson’s Strata, which is performed with the great Bill Frisell. Three is a relatively small sample size in almost every case, but the albums I now have were numbered 14, 15 and 16 in the Newvelle catalog, basically the last three releases. These come in the middle of the Year 3 of the subscription service—you can still buy complete box sets of Year 1 and Year 2 for the same $400.
Lionel Loueke, Close Your Eyes
Loueke is a guitarist and singer from Benin, and his earthy jazz sets its roots deep in West Africa soil with its dense percussion and polyrhythmic structures. His origins are humble—there’s an old story of him saving money for a year so he could buy his first guitar for $50, only to find that he couldn’t afford to replace the strings when they broke. He soaked them in vinegar to keep them clean and had to use brake cables from a bicycle as replacements.
Despite those vivid memories from his childhood, Loueke has truly developed into an international artist who can dig deeply into every jazz guitar style and echo the distinctive sounds of mentors such as Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea and Jack De Johnette. (The latter has already recorded for Newvelle in past years.) Close Your Eyes starts with Shorter’s “Footprints” with an obviously African motif that features plenty of guttural percussion driving the tempo, and Loueke’s electric guitar jumping and starting out in numerous angles and directions at once. After that, however, he settles into more of that mellow electric guitar sound of Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell (who we will get to in a little bit), a dry wind of a timbre that blows over plains that can be located almost anywhere in the world you desire. By the time he lands on standards such as “Moon River,” “Blue Monk” and “Body and Soul,” you’ll almost feel like these are songs you’re hearing for the first time. “Blue Monk,” in particular, is such an utterly convincing dollop of the blues that you’ll never believe it’s been filtered through a perspective that evolved halfway around the globe.
As with Half Light, this is a simple ensemble that marinates in a huge space—a mere trio with bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland that contains a wealth of tiny, satisfying details. Loueke is famous for experimenting with unique time signatures—he’s known for playing Coltrane’s “Countdown” in 13/8 at 260 bpm, for example. As he moves through this album—which was recorded in a single day, by the way—he’s clearly up for anything. Do you want me to play it like this? Or this? Tell me what you want, and we’ll give it a go.
Close Your Eyes isn’t quite as hypnotic as Half Light, but it’s not trying to be. It’s a masterpiece of fleeting moments and flavors, imbued with the beautiful sounds of humans interacting with their instruments, all flesh and bone touching strings soaked with vinegar and a world of unique experiences.
Skuli Sverrisson, Strata with Bill Frisell
Speaking of hypnotic, I have a confession to make. Duos consisting of an acoustic guitar and an electric guitar simply put me to sleep—and not in a bad way. Over the last couple of years I’ve reviewed a few of these types of recordings, and as long as the two musicians are not indulging in some sort of free-jazz freak-out I’m instantly lost in a sea of bliss. In Strata, there are subtle variations to this combo—composer Sverrisson plays both electric and acoustic bass guitars, and legend Bill Frisell plays acoustic and electric guitars. All four instruments are played so softly, and with such tremendous feeling and care, that I can’t help but drift away, once again, into the proverbial ether.
Sverrisson reminds me of one of my favorite contemporary musicians, keyboardist Lars Jakob Rudjord. Both create gorgeous melodies that are built on simple yet sturdy foundations—it’s less about technical prowess and more about the ability to conjure up specific imagery from concrete times and places. In the liner notes, Elan Mehler comments that filmmaker Jim Jarmusch showed up halfway through the sessions—he’s a friend of Frisell’s—and I instantly imagined these songs placed in the latest Jarmusch film, fitting perfectly with all of the other great music in all the other Jarmusch films. Like Rudjord, Sverrisson creates a music language that has an unlikely visual component that keeps you engaged—even when you’re falling asleep.
While Half Light might still be my favorite overall of the three by just a hair, Strata is the most convincing when it comes to the illusion of live performers in your listening room. Perhaps it’s the beautiful simplicity of these two instruments playing off each other and improvising, and how the physical cues such as fingers on strings and the soft and distant buzz from an amplifier has become so familiar to us. It also helps that once again the pressing is so dad-blasted quiet that it allows so many intangibles to settle into your brain, continuous prompts that let you know this is real music.
Should you join this record “club”?
Now that I’ve heard three uniformly excellent releases from Newvelle, is it time to pony up for a year’s subscription? For me, it’s a resounding yes. That first step is a doozy, meaning $400 is a big commitment if Newvelle’s reflective, emotional approach to recording is something you want to pursue. These three albums I now have are what I call “rainy day” music, and that’s what I love. You might need something with a little more juice.
When it comes to the great recording projects in musical history, however, Newvelle deserves a place near the top. These three albums are all labors of love, carefully rendered—to use Mehler’s word, curated—and represent one of the finest arguments for joining a record club I’ve ever heard.
You can find out more about Newvelle Records by checking out the website at www.newvelle-records.com.