Lou Reed stands for lot of things to a lot of different people... but one thing he was to the audiophile community, believe it or not, was a champion for great sound.
From his earliest records with the Velvet Underground which pushed the limits of studio creation capturing hushed-whisper vocals, ear bleed amplifier/guitar distortion and oversaturated magnetic analog tape, to his experiments with Binaural recording (Street Hassle), Lou has always been an experimenter and a visionary. And, from my perspective, by the 21st Century he seemed well into the latest recording techniques and on something of a quest for pure guitar and amplifier tone. His first album of the new Millennium was called Ecstasy and in many ways it is the finest example of that quest, yet it only came out on CD here in America. It was also Lou's last full solo album that wasn't based on a collaboration. It rocked madly, a dark exploration of the rocky-wondrous roads leading to, from and around relationships. There is some classic Lou here, songs that stand proudly alongside Lou's best loved and (perhaps) more famous works (think New York, The Blue Mask, Street Hassle, Berlin, etc.)
Ecstasy has just been issued for the first time on vinyl in America for Record Store Day and the reviewing experience has been interesting. When I first heard this album was coming out on LP, I pulled out my old CD to reaquaint myself with the music as it had been a while... As CDs go, this is pretty good sounding one... Lou and Mike Rathke's guitars bite real hard on opening track "Paranoia, Key of E" while Fernando Saunders' super sub flavored bass tries to keep up with them.
Then I went up on to Tidal where I found Ecstasy streaming at 24-bits and 192 kHz. Thats a pretty high bar, on paper at least! Happily, it sounds punchy and bright with the guitars on that same track sounding warmer and more natural, slashing while delivering more amplifier tone and studio feel. Here Saunders' super low bass takes center stage where it was missing on the CD, rumbling like a boom box low rider car on a Saturday night in San Francisco's Mission district.
My expectations were now even higher for the vinyl version which apparently only came out on that format in Germany back in the day. In fact, the new Record Store Day edition has labels that look like a German pressing (with the GEMA markings on them). Interestingly, the mix on vinyl plays a quite differently than either the CD or Tidal versions, with Tony "Thunder" Smith's drums being more apparent. The guitars bite a little harder like the CD and Saunder's bass doesn't push the low end quite like the 24/192 stream. Yet, when you get to tracks like "Mad," the horn sections pop really nicely, rounding out and warming the flavor of the mix.
Tony Smith's hand percussion on the title track is really nice where you can feel the slap of his hands on the side of a conga (or whatever it is they are slapping on there). Laurie Anderson's rich violin swells are lovely and haunting here. On the 24/192 stream, this sonic experience is even more natural sounding. Saunders' fretless bass solo at the end of the song shines here as well.
Yet on a track like "Future Farmers Of America" Lou's vocals sound much better on the LP than the MQA stream, which for some reason sound a bit wooshy. Here on the vinyl they sound tighter and more natural. There are no doubt pros and cons to both versions.
The 180-gram black vinyl is quiet and well centered. The track running order is a little different than the stream or CD, probably out of neceessity placing the 18 minute "Like A Possum" and "Rouge" on their own Side C, followed by "Rock Minuet," "Baton Rouge" and "Big Sky" on Side D.
The question of course remains: do you need to get Lou Reed's Ecstasy on vinyl LP records? Well, if you only have the CD and don't like or have access to Tidal streaming in MQA format, then probably yes. If you have a Tidal subscription and MQA decoding capabilities (you need a special DAC to handle that process), Ecstasy is one of those rare gems that sounds pretty fantastic. If you like your Lou Reed on vinyl, well then you'll need to pick up Ecstasy at your favorite independent music store for now; they pressed 7500 copies apparently so chances are you'll be able to order this online eventually without too much hassle.
Either way you go, Ecstasy is arguably the last essential Lou Reed album of his career and is a richly rewarding listening experience if you like his music. I was fortunate to see Lou on this tour at a concert that was recorded and released commercially. So if you like this material on Ecstasy, please seek out the Lou Reed Live at Montreux DVD which is fantastic. Maybe I'm just biased here since I was at this show but when I put that DVD on my home theater system in 5.1 surround, well it rocks just beautifully.
As I was writing this I started to wish they would remaster the Montreux concert on Blu-ray. Well, poking around on Amazon I see it HAS been so I just ordered a copy (a combo package with the Transformer / Classic Albums documentary, click here to jump to it). I'll let you all know how the Blu-ray is in a future review! Stripped down and amped up, Lou and his band were on fire on this tour so I know it is great document of the moment any way you get to see / hear it. Again, if you are a Lou fan and this album, the live Montreux concert is an essential. Get it!