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. This time we’re checking out one of 2019’s most significant and poignant releases – the first and, sadly, last album by Purple Mountains.
Of all the many albums we’ve written about for Vinyl Corner, there’s perhaps no other that’s quite as difficult to write about as ‘Purple Mountains’. When the album was announced around this time last year, it marked the unexpected return of ex-Silver Jews’ mastermind David Berman after a decade of musical hiatus. Spirits were naturally high and, when the self-titled debut of his new outfit hit the shelves in July, it confirmed the enduring talents of a singular voice in American alternative music. When the sad news of Berman’s suicide broke less than a month after the album’s release, however, it inevitably cast a long shadow over a great – and now evidently final – artistic statement from the man. Only a little over half a year on from his passing, it’s perhaps too early to evaluate ‘Purple Mountains’ without the addendum of his death but to linger too long on that sad ending would be to do a disservice to this deeply humane, affecting record. A thread of pathos runs through ‘Purple Mountain’s very core, of course – how could it not? But so too is there humour; it isn’t a punishing album and it isn’t unrelentingly grim – it’s deeply sad at times, of course, but also beautiful and often genuinely funny. The arrangements are subtle and sensitive, setting Berman’s musings – often wry, always poignant – to a backing that ranges between surprisingly bouncy indie-folk and lovelorn country rock. No matter what direction Berman took, however, the results were consistently idiosyncratic, engaging and moving. It may never again be possible to hear this final album from David Berman in the way that it could have been taken in those few weeks between its release and his death, but its enduring quality is testament to his ability as an artist.
We’ve reviewed a good number of Drag City titles for Vinyl Corner over the past few years and we’ve always spoken highly of their pressings. The vinyl release of ‘Purple Mountains’ is no exception; it sounds excellent, boasting a low noise floor and tidy surfaces across both sides. We didn’t pick up on any surface noise – however minor – on our copy and the sonics are similarly impressive, which is perhaps unsurprising considering that this release has been pressed by Record Technology Incorporated. They’re one of America’s best pressing plants and their output can more or less consistently be relied upon to sound excellent. The record itself is a solid slab of black wax; by our estimates it isn’t quite a full 180 grams but it certainly gets close. There are some slight surface marks on each side which can be seen if the record is scrutinized under a strong light source but, in all fairness, this is an issue that we’ve come across with most records pressed by Record Technology Incorporated and these marks never affect sound quality or playback. The record also sits flat upon the platter during playback, which unfortunately is not something that can necessarily be relied upon with many modern pressings.
While it’s clear that Drag City put much care into ensuring the quality of ‘Purple Mountain’s playback, such attention to detail is also evident in the packaging and presentation. The cover is a high-quality tip-on affair, fashioned after the heavy-duty sleeves commonly found on US-made vinyl releases from the ’50s, ’60s & early ’70s. Tip-on sleeves have long been an object of collector desire but yet they’re also more expensive to produce and therefore less commonly found than lower quality covers. It’s more than a pleasant surprise, then, to find a tip-on sleeve on such a reasonably priced modern release, as such covers are usually reserved for titles with far higher retail prices than ‘Purple Mountain’s. The art direction is also eye-catching and the print quality is excellent throughout, with bright colours and sharp text. A printed inner sleeve is also included, made from a mid-weight paper stock. It includes handwritten lyrics to the entire album, as well as assorted doodles and credits. It’s certainly a welcome inclusion – and, indeed, something of an essential on an album so emotively and engagingly written – but we would recommend inserting the record itself into a polylined inner of your own for better protection. As with many of Drag City’s releases, the barcode is thankfully placed as a sticker on the shrinkwrap rather than on the cover itself.
‘Purple Mountains’ is a deeply arresting final album from David Berman; by turns both funny and deeply sad, it’s an infallibly human record and, for that alone, it demands the listener’s attention. Drag City’s excellent vinyl release is also impressive, presenting the album in the best possible light with both a great pressing and admirable presentation.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org – it would be great to hear from you!