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Wilco – Cruel Country (vinyl take)

January 26, 2023

When it comes to issuing vinyl, the challenges of the Covid supply chain disruption are exacerbated by the music industry’s overall incompetence. There are not enough vinyl record factories to meet demand despite a decade-long trend that vinyl is a “thing.” Therefore, some artists are impatient and focus on the digital/steaming release and then put in their order for vinyl. I appreciate the artist’s urgency to get music in front of their fans. I also appreciate the delay between digital and vinyl as it allows me to get familiar with the album and determine if I am really committed to owning the vinyl version.

I love streaming, but I also love vinyl. I mostly listen to music via streaming services – even on my home stereo. My bias towards streaming is due to convenience. It is obviously great when you are on the go, but with the right streaming service and the right equipment, you can get audiophile quality out of a streaming service. I use Tidal’s MQA via a Bluesound Node – it sounds fantastic. This post is not a record review, but rather a comparison of digital to vinyl releases of an album. I am not someone who passionately believes vinyl is better than digital or that digital is better than vinyl. It depends – in a 2021 post on the Bluesound Node streaming device I said:

Since I am focused on streaming and I am a vinyl guy – which sounds better vinyl or digital? I can give you a definitive answer: it depends on the specific recording. How an album was recorded, how it was mastered and how it was transferred to the final state (a vinyl record or a digital file) can make a vinyl record sound better than the digital file and vice versa. Don’t forget your mood upon listening. I find I am a more attentive listener with vinyl because the format demands more engagement: pull the album off the shelf, clean it, drop the needle, flip the record, etc. But in general, a well recorded digital album (and most everything recorded in last 20 years is a digital source anyway) that has been well mastered to digital generally wins over its vinyl sibling. Ultimately the last steps in production is an art form. Those final steps in the production to form the final product, whether vinyl or a digital file, are an artistic expression too. They are susceptible to the skills and taste of the engineer. All that being said, I love vinyl and despite the great sound and convenience of the Bluesound NODE 2i, I will not be giving up on vinyl any time soon.

When vinyl is well done it is worth the expense and the inconvenience. When it is well executed – it often is not – it is a great experience. When a recording artist gives a shit about vinyl (vs. money-grab merch), they will make an effort:

  • Creating a unique vinyl mix that is sensitive to what vinyl is good and bad at
  • Stamp the vinyl in cool colored wax – although this is more about vinyl as a fetish collectible vs. a superior audio media
  • Great packaging – the vinyl format allows enough space and purchase price to do some creative presentations – (not much has been done with the digital medium and CDs were just too small to do much creatively)
  • High-quality pressing (the rarest of successes – most new vinyl is not carefully pressed resulting in surface noise)

I fell hard for Cruel Country when it was digitally released in late May 2022. I loved Wilco’s full-scale embrace of country music, albeit with Wilco’s unique take on country music. It ended up as my number two favorite album of 2022. As soon as Wilco announced the vinyl release I pre-ordered it. The vinyl was released on January 20, 2023.

The vinyl mix sounds fantastic – I am hearing things I missed on the digital/streaming version. It is luscious with a nice wide stereo sound stage. The guitars sound especially good. Comparing it to the digital version (Tidal Master/MQA) I find the digital a bit harsh vs. the mellow warmth of the vinyl. The digital soundstage slightly compressed compared to the vinyl. The wax is not as pristine as it could be (see Blue Note’s Tone Poet series for the gold standard) – although it is generally quiet, it does have pops and clicks. Despite the surface noise I prefer the vinyl version.

I love vinyl sides that are appropriate in length; too many new vinyl records are 2 or 3 songs on each side. Cruel Country‘s sides are 4 to 6 songs. Wilco must have thought through the song sequencing in advance to be ready for vinyl as there are no awkwardly short sides. The 21 songs are nicely paced across 4 sides.

One of the clever packaging decisions was to include postcards that have the lyrics and credits on the other side of the postcard. Another is the cover doily image is expanded on the inside gatefold with the song titles. The photos of the band members on the album sleeves have a deliberate old-time photography feel.

Inside gatefold
Inside gatefold closeup
Back cover
Record sleeves
Record sleeves
Vintage postcards
Reverse side of postcards – lyrics and credits

In general, Wilco has met my expectations of a good vinyl release: unique mix, great packaging, beautiful red and blue wax, and great sound that offers something different from the digital release. I would recommend this vinyl edition despite pops and clicks. However, the digital version (even the Spotify version) is well executed – the differences between the high resolution stream and the vinyl is very slight. Wilco really knocks it out of the park with the vinyl packaging. If you are a Wilco obsessive the vinyl is must have.


From → Music Reviews

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