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 side-by-side
comparison between an original and a reissue of Frank Zappa’s ‘Hot Rat’s, we’re doing the same with his 1968
doo-wop parody outing ‘Cruising With Ruben And The Jets’.
Frank Zappa’s work at large is something of an acquired taste, but certain of his albums earn this tag more than others. ‘Cruising With Ruben And The Jets’, his 1968 album with The Mothers Of Invention, is one such title. Zappa’s lifelong love of doo-wop was influenced by his listening habits as a teenager, and it’s a style he sporadically returned to throughout his career, often in a way that blurred the line between parody and homage. On ‘Cruising…’, however, he and The Mothers come as close as they ever did to making a “straight” doo-wop record. The album’s purposefully cheesy lyrics of teenage love gone sour can just as easily be read in seriousness as in humour – which is actually one of the album’s strengths. Bar the wilfully ludicrous melodrama of ‘Stuff Up The Cracks’, the album succeeds as an unironic tribute to the golden age of doo-wop as much as it does a tongue-in-cheek send-off of its clichés. Whichever way the album is taken, a keen sense of fun is palpable throughout. While ‘Cruising…’ lacks the kind of panoramic ambition that made the rest of the 1966 – 1970 Mothers Of Invention albums so genuinely masterful, it still has plenty of charm of its own.
We’ve got something special lined up for today’s feature. We’ve done duals before on Vinyl Corner – comparisons between various pressings of the same album – but never one on this scale. We’re going to compare 1968 US and UK 1st pressings, a 1971 UK 2nd pressing and a 2016 reissue for this showdown. First things first, a basic ground rule: we’ll be focusing on mastering and sonics here, not surface noise. There’s no way that even a clean fifty one year old LP can hold its own against a brand-new reissue in that respect, so we’ll leave it at the mastering instead. By the ’70s, Zappa had gained enough resources and traction that he could usually be recorded in extremely high quality, and his recordings from that era almost always sound glorious. That was a luxury not always afforded in the ’60s, however, and ‘Cruising…’ is not the best sounding album he ever helmed, although it doesn’t sound bad by any means.
Starting off with the US original, things are… surprisingly underwhelming, actually. Considering that this is very likely the version the version the band themselves would have ended up with for their own personal collections, the sonics are rather muted and pallid on this edition. Percussion – sharp and snappy on this album when heard under the right conditions – falls flat here, and the thick vocals harmonies don’t glow in the quite the way they should. It’s certainly “warm” – to employ that classic audiophilia adjective – but that warmth comes at the cost of the most of the album’s definition and poise. It sounds acceptable, but not much better. Avoid.
By comparison, the UK original issue fares better but perhaps goes too far the other way. The “warmth” so apparent in the US original issue is largely gone here; the sound is far less veiled and the harmonies and drum work come through with a clarity mostly lost on the US original. By the same flip of the coin, the sound is almost sterile on this pressing. The bass is largely AWOL, the mids are muted and most of the focus has gone towards the trebles, which – although admittedly impressive – are given focus at the cost of everything else. On an album so vocal-centric, this makes some degree of sense – but it’s still not ideal. An improvement over the US original, but there’re better versions out there.
Next up we have a 1971 UK reissue from Verve’s ‘Select’ reissue series, in which they picked primed titles from their back catalogue to put back into print. It’s hard to know quite what kind of magic dust they peppered the master tapes with when preparing this reissue, but – whatever it was – it paid off handsomely. Everything that was wrong about the previous issues is put right on this pressing, and then some. The soundscape is beautifully balanced; taking album opener ‘Cheap Thrills’ as an example, the bass has its own space and remains defined and audible without ever bleeding into another instrument’s area. The artfully-plonked piano positively pops out of the mix, bringing it to centre stage and giving it a degree of definition that eludes every other version of the album that we’ve heard. Drums are finally as impactful as they always should have been and the intricacies of the vocal parts are revealed in a way that they never quite were with the original releases from either side of the Atlantic. Glorious stuff.
We’re not quite done yet, though – we still have the fully analogue Bernie Grundman remaster to look at. Reissued on vinyl in 2016, this version certainly has the credentials to back it up. Not only is the esteemed Grundman at the controls, but the wax itself has been pressed by Pallas, who give a reliably great performance here and press a damn-near perfect LP. The remaster itself is definitely the younger sibling of the original American pressing, which was clearly the benchmark. The sonic aesthetic is broadly similar; both are “warm”, vintage-sounding and unmistakably analogue – as, of course, are all of the issues we’re looking at here. Compared with the outstanding Verve ‘Select’ reissue, this Grundman remaster is once again somewhat veiled; it lacks the punch of the ’71 pressing. It doesn’t kick like a mule so much as a rabbit, and the piano in particular feels recessed and timid compared with the ’71 pressing’s ample bombast and definition. Having said that, this is unmistakably an improvement over both the UK and US 1968 original pressings. The guitar solo on ‘Stuff Up The Cracks’ absolutely roars on this version and the vocals glisten as well. It’s a very respectable showing from Grundman and the Zappa Family Trust, and those looking for a bargain will be pleased to know that this reissue can be acquired rather cheaply at the time of writing. This 2016 reissue certainly comes in at a solid second out of the four, but it’s still little match for the outstanding sound on the 1971 Verve Select pressing.
We’ve got a few versions of the album to get through here, so let’s summarise the basic presentation of each version. By default, ‘Cruising…’ appears in a gatefold sleeve, but not all versions do. Of the four we’re looking at here, all are presented as such apart from the 1968 UK 1st pressing, which instead appears in a non-gatefold flipback sleeve. It’s actually a lovely design, and a unique one amongst the various issues of the album. Flipback sleeves are well loved by collectors but, for those who don’t know, here’s a recap. The design was the popular choice for UK-manufactured sleeves during the ’60s, and saw the front-laminated cover have its conjoining flaps glued to the outside of the unlaminated back cover rather than the inside, hence the phrase ‘flipback’. It isn’t the sturdiest design ever, but it looks great and because of this, the original UK issue is certainly an aesthetically pleasing option if you can find one in clean condition – although such copies are rare and likely to set prospective buyers back a hefty sum indeed. The unlaminated cardboard of flipback sleeves did have a tendency to pick up grime and dirty fingerprints, meaning that most copies are likely to be unattractively discoloured by this point.
The original US design is more traditional; it’s a gatefold, which means that with this release you have the full extent of Zappa’s vision for the album’s presentation, including a colour back cover rather than the monochrome presentation of the original UK version. The paste-on heavy card sleeve is certainly sturdy, but – like so many ’60s and early ’70s US sleeves – it is very prone to ring and shelf wear. Some copies of this version include two super rare A4 inserts, which round off the package nicely but will certainly cost a pretty penny if you can even find them. As with the original UK issue, clean copies will look fantastic, with vibrant colours and great build quality – unfortunately, such examples are also expensive and rare.
Moving on to our favourite of the releases from a sonic perspective, the presentation of the 1971 Verve Select UK reissue is an odd mishmash of US-style presentation with UK-style build quality – which basically means it’s not quite as good as either. It is a full-colour gatefold sleeve but it’s also printed on lightweight card and doesn’t feel as sturdy or well made as the original US issue. It also lacks the unique charm of the single sleeve original UK design. This ’71 pressing is fine in terms of presentation, but definitely the weakest of the pressings we’re looking at. Also, like the UK original, there’re no inserts included – on the bright side, the label does retain the handsome black and silver Verve design.
Last but not least, we’ve got the 2016 reissue. When we compared a 1969 original of ‘Hot Rats’ to the 2016 reissue from the same range as this ‘Cruising…’ reissue, we were thoroughly impressed by the presentation. The story is much the same here; based on the original US design, the reissue cover is a very sturdy gatefold with the thickest spine of any of the four versions we’ve looked at. The cardstock is not actually quite as heavy as the original pressing, but the sleeve is not paste-on, so it should survive the next five decades more gracefully than most originals have this previous five. The spine is bulky and boasts new bold type face that looks great. There is a barcode on the back cover, but that woe is more than soothed by the considerate inclusion of replica A4 inserts. As with the ‘Hot Rats’ reissue, the labels here are based on Zappa’s own boutique ’80s labels and – frankly – they really are quite ugly compared with the sleek, attractive Verve labels found on the vintage issues. While a compelling argument could be put forward for a NM US original being the most attractively presented version of the album, the reality of the matter is such that, for most, the 2016 reissue offers the best bang for buck in terms of presentation.
Our comparisons have led us to conclude that the state of ”Cruising With Ruben And The Jets’ is something of a mixed bag on vinyl. Without a moment’s hesitation we would say that the 1971 UK Verve Select reissue is the definitive version of the album from a sonic perspective, but it isn’t even in the running for being the most attractively presented. For those who value a slick package over having the best sound, it’s the 2016 reissue if you’re on a budget and the 1968 US original pressing if you’re not. Even so, those that really rate that album would do well to pony up the dough for a clean 1971 UK reissue and bask in the definition, focus and clarity of that exceptional pressing – after all, you know it’s good when a fully analogue Bernie Grundman remaster fails to equal it.
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