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 today’s instalment, we’re taking a look at the recently released twentieth anniversary edition of a key album from Smog mastermind Bill Callahan.
Bill Callahan is one of relatively few singer-songwriters of his generation to enjoy an even greater stature now than during the ’90s. With last year’s Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest’ confirming his continuing ability, now seems like as good a time as any to revisit one of the key releases of his early career: 1999’s ‘Knock Knock’. Released at a time when he was performing under the Smog moniker, ‘Knock Knock’ is arguably the definitive document of Callahan’s style at the time. It’s a curious set of songs, yet also a starkly engaging one; key to this eclectic selection is a sense of playful sonic exploration but there is also a vein of resonant, emotionally candid honesty that lends the album a considerable impact. ‘River Guard’ and ‘Teenage Spaceship’ establish his talents as a writer capable of capturing a fragment of time and expressing it with total clarity. The deftly melodic yet ultimately understated arrangements he sets his musings to only serve to accent the raw power of his words and emotive yet often unassuming voice. For those only passingly familiar with Callahan’s work, ‘Knock Knock’ offers an accessible entry point to his sizeable discography that’s also debatably as good as anything he’s written since.
To mark ‘Knock Knock’s twentieth anniversary back in 2019, Drag City opted to remaster and reissue the album, making it available again after some time of inaccessibility. As we noted in our recent Vinyl Corner feature on Om’s ‘God Is Good’ (which you can read here), one of the most unusual and admirable traits of the label is their refusal to rehash their classic catalogue with the pointless rereleases that now constitute the bulk of many labels’ outputs. This rereleased version of ‘Knock Knock’ marks something of a departure from tradition for Drag City, then, but it’s a very welcome one as the new mastering brings a degree of definition and clarity to the album hitherto unheard. As the large hype sticker on the shrinkwrap proudly proclaims, this version of ‘Knock Knock’ has been half-speed remastered by Abbey Road’s Miles Showell. His is a name likely to ring bells for those who’ve had their finger on the pulse of pulse of vinyl-reissuedom for the past few years; he’s been half-speed remastering albums at the rate of knots for most of the 2010s and the past few years in particular have seen his sonic style grace some very high-profile major label releases. There’s good reason for all of this: he knows what he’s doing. The half-speed mastering process yields exceptional results when coupled with good quality masters and an engineer who knows their trade and, in the case of ‘Knock Knock’ both are present and correct. Accordingly, the sonics here are very impressive; Callahan’s voice rings out with an authoritative presence and the guitars chime with an impressive realism. The record itself has, as per usual for Drag City, been pressed by Record Technology Incorporated. We’ve always spoken highly of their work and ‘Knock Knock’ is no exception. The noise floor is low and surfaces are notably clean, although we will say we did pick up on a little surface noise at points. This is almost inevitable, however, considering the subtle, whisper-quiet arrangements and muted performances found on the album’s sparsest moments and, pivotally, the generally very clean pressing and sumptuous mastering ensures that this is the ideal way to hear the album.
Although Drag City evidently went to great effort to ensure that the sonics are significantly improved to the twentieth anniversary edition of ‘Knock Knock’, the packaging and presentation remains faithful to the original release. The sleeve itself is manufactured from mid-weight card and it’s a standard-width non-gatefold design. Although not remarkable in design, it is certainly of more than sufficient quality and the print definition is great throughout – the back cover is a little blurry by nature but it certainly looks as good as it can. The record itself is found in a generic, non-polylined inner sleeve. It would have nice to have seen a polylined sleeve included as these paper sleeves offer no protection to the record and, indeed, often leave paper debris on the surfaces which needs to be removed with a carbon fibre brush before use. The album does include two inserts; the first is a small double-sided fold-out insert with lyrics and an image of Callahan. The second is a credits insert; it’s one of the smallest inserts we’ve ever seen but, of course, its inclusion is a welcome bonus and one not present with the original release. As is often the case with Drag City releases, the barcode is also attached to the shrinkwrap rather than printed onto the sleeve itself which, as always, is an appreciated and considerate choice.
Smog’s ‘Knock Knock’ is an important moment in the story of the ’90’s alternative rock scene and Drag City’s half-speed remastered twentieth anniversary edition offers the definitive way to hear it. Newcomers should start here but even those with a long-time familiarity with Smog are likely to find much to enjoy in this sonic sprucing.
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!