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Wednesday, January 28, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 22.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Vinyl Cave: Mono vs. stereo with Brute Force, The Electric Prunes, The Electric Flag, Merle Haggard, Simon & Garfunkel, Buffy St. Marie

You can tell it's been busy here around the Vinyl Cave, as I haven't had time to focus on one album enough to write anything longer than a paragraph! So, here we go with another round of compare-and-contrast, super-nerd style.

Brute Force: Confections of Love
As an album I've been championing since first hearing it several years ago, it was heartening (and somewhat of a surprise) when Confections of Love was officially reissued on CD at the end of last year. Before finding out about the existence of his debut LP, Brute Force (a.k.a. Stephen Friedlander) was a name I'd seen show up for years here and there on usually intriguing '60s singles; "Noboby Knows What's Going on in My Mind But Me" by The Chiffons is one good example. After hearing the inimitable creation that is Confections, there was no going back on full Force fandom. However, all I could find for years was the mono version; despite the fact that the album came out toward the end of the mono era (it turns up among the March 11, 1967, new releases in Billboard), the stereo version has been strangely hard to find. Normally I wouldn't mind that too much, but as the album is full of inventive arrangements and features top-notch production by John Simon, I thought the stereo might be worth checking out.

That hypothesis was proven when I finally tracked down a stereo copy, as one can really pick up what's going on in the layered arrangements more clearly than on the mono. Confections of Love is unique and not necessarily for all tastes, but any listener interested in '60s pop music should hear it at least once. For a basic idea what it sounds like, imagine if Frank Zappa had employed studio musicians and made an album poking fun at/paying tribute to the various sorts of schlocky pop-masquerading-as-rock most usually being recorded by Columbia in the mid-'60s -- and as a topper, somehow managed to get Columbia itself to release it. Ultimately, it's a collection of catchy pop songs both silly and sublime, sometimes at the same time. (Columbia, 1967; CD release on Bar/None, 2010)

The Electric Prunes: Underground
Easily the Prunes' best album, Underground was one of the last projects with full creative participation by the original/"classic lineup" band other than their stunning final single, "You Never Had it Better." (According to their website, some of the group did play on parts of third album "Mass in F Minor," but since the whole thing was created by David Axelrod that's sort of beside the point anyway.) Relying less on outside material than their debut, Underground is an eclectic pop-psych masterpiece, ranging from the hard fuzz-tone raga rock of "Hideaway" to the countryfied "It's Not Fair" to various points in between. The mono and stereo also sound significantly different; like Jefferson Airplane's Surrealistic Pillow, this is an album that has a far more direct, non-reverbed out mix on the mono. As the drier mix also loses some of the punch of the group's inventive studio effects, Underground is worth owning in both formats. There aree also occasional differences in what's actually included in the mix, such as extra backing vocals in stereo at the end of "The Great Banana Hoax." (Reprise, 1967)

The Electric Flag: A Long Time Comin'
I've always been annoyed by the occasionally muddled sound quality of the stereo mix of the Flag's debut album. Just one example is the heavily panned echo on the tambourine in "Groovin' is Easy," which actually makes it sound like there's an extra tambo playing off time in one channel. Commercially, there wasn't a mono version of A Long Time Comin', but Columbia produced some "Special Mono Radio Station Copy" discs around this time, and there is one for the Flag. While it does take care of some of the weird reverb problems, it sounds like this album is probably just a dump down of the stereo mix to two tracks, with the attendant problems that creates (essentially, even more muddy/flat sonics on some songs). So while "Groovin' Is Easy" sounds better, this mono is one for the "neat but unnecessary" file. As far as the music ... well, you can't go wrong with these players (Mike Bloomfield, Buddy Miles, Harvey Brooks, Barry Goldberg, Nick Gravenites, etc.), though there's no earth-shattering songwriting going on. That being said, "She Should Have Just" sonically and musically sets the template for the Dap Kings, several decades earlier. (Columbia, 1968)

Merle Haggard: Branded Man
A classic early Haggard album, Branded Man is another case where the mono version is a late enough release to be more obscure than the stereo. Somewhat surprisingly for a '60s country release -- and despite the fact that the stereo I have is in much worse shape than the mono -- the stereo is resoundingly the version to get, with crisper sound quality overall, including better bass response. It's a fairly typical '60s mix (guitars panned to either side, vocals down the middle), but the music is unadorned enough that it works in this context without being distracting on headphones. On the other hand, the mono mix leaves the band sounding tinny and compressed (it's often like they're at the other end of the hall from Merle), so it may be just a dump-down of the stereo mix to one track. No matter what version one is listening to, there's no quibbles about the songs here, a rock solid mix of originals by Haggard (with co-writers Red Simpson, Tommy Collins or Bonnie Owens), other songs by Collins, and a couple now-classics by outside writers. (Capitol, 1967)

Simon & Garfunkel: Sounds of Silence
S&G's breakthrough was put together quickly in the wake of the massive success of Tom Wilson's surprise folk-rock re-imagining of the title track, which had initially been released in its original acoustic form on the duo's debut album the previous year. I've always loved the huge reverb of the mono singles versions of the songs on that album, and the mono LP uses some of those mixes along with following that sonic path on a couple other tracks as well (best heard on "We've Got a Groovey Thing Goin'" and "Somewhere They Can't Find Me). The mono LP version of the title track also does the best sounding job of combining the original acoustic track with the rock backing.

There's also one major track difference to report, as "Richard Cory" has an extra high backing vocal part that is mixed out of the stereo. Elsewhere, despite the album's quick genesis, the mono versions are fairly well matched to form a similar overall balance to the stereo; the mono is just punchier, often a lot crisper sounding, and -- conversely to the singles tracks -- features less reverb than the stereo. The stereo version, however, is not a bad mix and certainly a more consistent-sounding one than the mono. Sounds of Silence is an album that was pressed in such huge quantities, however, that it can be hard to find an original copy of either version that's not either worn out or pressed using worn out stampers. Side note: There are also a number of cover variations between the first and later pressings. (Columbia, 1966)

Buffy St. Marie: Fire & Fleet & Candlelight
I've never actually compared a Vanguard release all that closely for differences in the stereo or mono versions, but what I expect is typical was borne out by this one: There's not much to report here, as both sound great. The mono is perhaps a bit drier sounding (less reverb); the separation of the stereo mix is advantageous for the tracks with more elaborate arrangements, which gives that version a slight edge. (Vanguard, 1967)

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