When I first started collecting “original” pressings of favorite records back in the mid-1970s, it was primarily because I had discovered that these early editions frequently sounded better than reissues of the period. There were many reasons for this beyond the scope of this review but my underlying sentiment always was : IF reissues of albums like Frank Zappa’s Freak Out (a record which changed my life upon hearing it in 7th grade) could sound as good as the original pressings, I might never have become a so called “record collector,” an aficionado of rare vinyl and all that good stuff.
Sadly, however… for many, many years… reissues of older albums often didn’t sound all that great and thus I became a pretty serious record collector seeking out original pressings wherever I could as I built out my collection. This issue has improved quite a bit in the past 10 years or so, and in very recent times some smaller labels have emerged which are firing with all cylinders on, putting out compelling new editions that can rival and possibly surpass the originals.
The new reissue of NRBQ‘s 1969 Columbia Records debut, out now from Omnivore, is one such case, sounding arguably as good as the original and in many ways better. So much so, I am questioning whether I even need to keep my old early 70s pressing of the album (my copy is not one of the “two-eye” editions).
Kudos must go out to the team which worked on the restoration of this recording including Norm DeMoura at Harmonium Studio, Haydenville, MA) and mastering engineer (and uber NRBQ fan!) Gary Hobish of A. Hammer Mastering. Together, they have created a 21st Century edition of NRBQ’s still astounding debut that is at once true to the original yet which sounds like a layer of gauze has been removed from the recording. Don’t get me wrong: this new edition still feels like my old LP pressing of the album — which was originally engineered by the legendary Eddie Kramer (Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Kiss etc.) — but is simply sounding much clearer and more detailed.
According to NRBQ co-founder Terry Adams: “We did this album on a 12-track recorder at the Record Plant with Eddie Kramer engineering. We didn’t believe in doing a song more than once. This was how the band sounded on the night it was recorded. A couple of days later it would’ve been a whole different record. I like what they did with this new EQ remix. It sounds like how we felt.”
There is a warmth here on both the LP and CD that is palpable, a more sympathetic presentation of the music than my original copy, delivering improved dynamics, air and overall presence. You can feel the difference on the horns and harmonicas and acoustic guitars (check out “C’mon If You’re Coming” for a handy example). When you get to the side two opener “Stomp” the kick drum on this reissue pushes out some serious air from the speakers. When I put the CD version of the NRBQ reissue in my computer to hear it played via a Mytek DAC, I was super pleased to hear pretty much the same great sounding recording — albeit in 16-bit, 44.1 kHz CD quality — but with none of the usual harsh edged digital artifacts that drive me a bit batty at times when listening to digital music. A basic CD can sound respectable if the source materials are good and if the tape transfers as well as disc mastering are handled with care.
This fine slice of rock ‘n roll history is now ripe for a new generation to discover. How many debut albums put out on a major label do you know of which the gap between legendary early rocker Eddie Cochran (“C’Mon Everybody”) and jazz visionary Sun Ra (“Rocket #9”)? And those are just the first two songs on the album! At the time of its release, NRBQ must have well challenged a few listeners as the band switches up styles from track to track, yet it works incredibly well as an end-to-end listening experience. The only artist I can think of who comes close to what these folks do (especially at this time in history) is Frank Zappa. Heck, you’ll even hear some chiming power pop tucked in there — “You Can’t Hide” is a song which would sound great on an alternate universe mashup of The Stones’ Between The Buttons and The Monkees Headquarters.
When listening to NRBQ, expect to traverse the melodic cosmos across early rock ‘n roll, jazz-fueled swingin’ ‘n bluesy jams, quirky bluesy walks, front porch country folk and all around jaunty-jolly rollicking rhythmic pop music fun.
Did I miss anything there?
This new Omnivore Records reissue of NRBQ’s debut is a joy…. but, go give it listen for yourself. And, if you are not familiar with NRBQs music, there is a fine highlights collection out from Omnivore — as well as a rich cross section of the group’s catalog — which you can stream up on Tidal, showcasing many sides of this band’s wonderment.
C’mon if you’re comin’ …