Vinyl Corner is a feature where we take a look at vinyl pressings of various albums and weigh them up to see just how good they sound, how well they’re pressed and what sort of packaging to expect – as well as giving a brief overview of the music itself. For this latest Vinyl Corner, we’re taking things back to 1968 and the height of folksy Psychedelia with Pearls Before Swine’s sophomore effort ‘Balaklava’.
Led by Tom Rapp, Pearls Before Swine were one of the more popular acolytes of the late ’60s psychedelic folk scene in the US. With their first couple of records originally released on the cult ESP Records, they straddled the line between the blossoming independent scene and genuine commercial success (the band were later picked up by Frank Sinatra’s Reprise Records). Indeed, their debut ‘One Nation Underground’ was actually a really accessible example of prime 1967 psych-folk. 1968 sophomore outing ‘Balaklava’ is somewhat of a slow-burner by comparison, comprising of a set of low-key, sleepily psychedelic ballads and highway songs that are often as laconic as the album is brief (it clocks in at just shy of half an hour). Repeat listens are thoroughly rewarded, however; the album soon enough reveals itself to be a genuinely lovely set of songs arranged with delicacy and written with poise. A charming cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’ marks an early waypoint of immediacy in the album, but the whole thing unfolds in time and the record’s brevity ends up being one of its strong points considering that it’s short enough to actively encourage frequent listening.
We’re looking at the Drag City fiftieth anniversary reissue released back in December 2018 here. The pressing itself is sturdy throughout; pressed on roughly mid-weight black wax, our copy sits flat on the platter during playback. Surfaces do bear a few surface marks from new, but these are non-sounding and light, so no harm done there. Sound, in fact, is very clean throughout. Pearls Before Swine always dealt in hushed reveries and genteel psych-folk musings, and that kind of low-volume work can often be a challenge to press onto suitably quiet vinyl. Fortunately, such a task has been more than pulled off here as this reissue boasts really clean playback throughout. The noise floor is minimally audible during the run-ins, but the music is cut loud enough that this is more than drowned out by the time the songs kick in. We didn’t find a single pop or click on our copy and only a few sporadic and minor crackles in the background every now and then. In respect to the pressing, then, it’s good news throughout with this reissue. Finding a cleaner original is likely impossible and with such good performance from this reissue it’s hard not to question why you’d even try. The album also impresses sonically, benefitting from a new stereo remaster. ‘Balaklava’ is a mellow album, so it seems fitting that the sonic presentation on this reissue is itself pretty relaxed though certainly not sloppy. There’s plenty of midrange in the sound here, lending a full, rounded quality to the soundscape. No particular instrument stands out in the mix, but that’s just as well considering the unassumingly laid-back nature of the record. Great stuff all round from this high-quality reissue.
The sound is really impressive, then, but fortunately Drag City manage to keep things just as impressive in terms of this reissue’s packaging and presentation. Buying a copy of this reissue now is as close as most will ever get to taking an original pressing off the shelves back in ’68 – it really feels that authentic. The jacket is a heavy-card paste-on affair in the same style as the original, and the artwork remains faithful as well. Although the record company information has naturally been changed, everything else remains as it would have appeared on the original issue and artwork is high quality throughout, with strong print definition and rich colours doing full justice to the incredible Brueghel hellscape that serves as the album’s cover art. Labels likewise remain faithful to the original issue – bar the change in catalogue number, of course – and they look great. Another thoughtful touch comes in the form of the sleeve being supplied in a resealable plastic sleeve rather than the usual shrinkwrap – a choice likely to prove popular with many, considering all those who suspect shrinkwrap of tightening over time to warp sleeves and perhaps even vinyl. If we were to nitpick, it would have been nice to have seen the record included in a polylined inner sleeve rather than the plain paper one included, but it was loose fitting so safe removal of the record inside did not prove an issue. What is included, however, is a reproduction of a rare fold-out lyric insert found with some copies of the original pressing. It’s a welcome touch that only further cements just how faithful this reissue is. The high quality of the paperstock is a bonus too. Another big plus is that the barcode appears as a sticker on the resealable sleeve rather than on the cover itself – another sign of the care put into the presentation of this reissue.
This is a great rerelease from Drag City. Pearls Before Swine produced some truly intriguing and ethereal work in their time, and this fiftieth anniversary reissue proves a more than ample way to secure this rarity on vinyl. The pressing is clean, the sonics are warm and the presentation is truly excellent. A great reissue.
Enjoyed this feature? We’re always looking for further albums to highlight on Vinyl Corner – and if you have a vinyl release that you’d like to send over so that it can be written about here, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org – it would be great to hear from you!