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. Following on from our recent examination of Zorro Five’s ‘Jump Uptight’, we now take a look at another fresh reissue from South Africa’s musical past: a first-time vinyl pressing of a key late 20th-century entry into South Africa’s musical canon.
Long-time readers of Vinyl Corner should by now be closely familiar with Matsuli Music. They’re a label we’ve written about a number of times in the series and we’ve always been impressed by the quality of their releases. Although they’ve always dealt exclusively in South African music, they also tend to err more towards rarities of the distant past than the semi-modern era. They have, however, given a few of the country’s (relatively) recent key albums first-time vinyl releases and the latest addition to that list is Busi Mhlongo’s ‘Urban Zulu’. As this new reissue’s liner notes reveal to those previously unaware, the album – originally released in 1999 – has exerted a significant influence over the course of South Africa’s subsequent music and it isn’t difficult to see why. Mhlongo’s delivery is as confident as it is impactful; her technicality, presence and control, meanwhile, remain impactful even now. Her own searing delivery – often stentorian in its force, despite being backed by a sumptuously melodic array of instruments – is counterpointed well by the greatly effective walls of backing vocals which fill the album. ‘Urban Zulu’ is a very lively record, one which feels both focused and impactful even today.
When we recently dug into the nitty-gritty of Masuli Music’s reissue of Zorro Five’s ‘Jump Uptight’, one of its characteristics which we praised were the glossy, clean surfaces which shone so appealingly when studied in the light. Of course, the sound is always what’s most important with any record but that sense of an appealing visual presence is also important in an age where records are often bought as multi-sensory indulgence in reaction to the one-dimensional experience of music streaming. Although pressed by the same plant which produced that Zorro Five reissue, the surfaces of Matsuli’s first-time vinyl pressing of ‘Urban Zulu’ don’t enjoy that same strong lustre. Indeed, although the record sounds excellent, our copy does bear a fair amount of superficial surface scuffs, which is something of a shame. This is likely a result of the printed card inner sleeve which the record is presented in; although it’s a very welcome inclusion from an aesthetic perspective, it does seem to have somewhat marked the record’s surfaces – at least in the case of our copy. This is certainly not something we would consider to be enough of an issue that we’d steer interested parties away from acquiring this album – not least because its grooves contain deeply vital music well worth getting to know but also because sound quality fortunately remains excellent. The noise floor is low and surfaces are auditorily tidy, with barely a crackle anywhere across either side. For that alone, this Matsuli vinyl pressing does come recommended from us but only with the caveat that the visual quality doesn’t manage to live up to the excellent audio. Sonically, this is an another great release from the label. Where their Zorro Five reissue – which we covered for Vinyl Corner here – was of music recorded a half-century ago, ‘Urban Zulu’ is only some twenty years old, so it benefits from semi-modern technological innovations unavailable in that more distant age. It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that this release sounds so good but – even so – the full yet controlled bass, pocketful vocals and realistic drums make this as much of a treat in its technical execution as it is in its artistic content.
As we’ve noted in past Vinyl Corner examinations of their releases, many Matsuli Music releases are presented in covers fashioned from textured cardstock which feels great in hand. Their vinyl release of ‘Urban Zulu’ is no exception; the substantial cardstock from which its standard-width, non-gatefold sleeve is produced feels sturdy in hand without being so substantial that it would raise the overall price of the release. The original artwork is reproduced in full, its colours and image definition remaining clear despite being fitted to the far larger dimensions of an LP cover than the smaller art of a CD insert. As mentioned before, the record is found within a printed card inner sleeve and this insert is well-produced, with a sturdy cardstock being used in addition to high-quality image definition, full credits and newly-commissioned liner notes exclusive to this reissue.
Busi Mhlongo’s ‘Urban Zulu’ is a vital album within South Africa’s musical story and – even heard outside of its social context – it remains a vital, engaged collection of songs delivered with a balance of gumption and sophistication keen enough to offer a broad appeal. Matsuli Music’s first-time vinyl pressing more than does the album justice, offering a great sounding record and pairing it with illuminating new liner notes.
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 love to see written about here, please get in touch at email@example.com – it would be great to hear from you!