Joe Jackson • Look Sharp!

A&M/Intervention Records IR-005
180-gram LP
1979/2016

Music

Sound

Joe Jackson • I'm The Man

A&M/Intervention Records IR-004
180-gram LP
1979/2016

Music

Sound

Joe Jackson • Night and Day

A&M/Intervention Records IR-003
180-gram LP
1982/2016

Music

Sound

by Roy Gregory | August 19, 2016

ack in November 2013, I wrote a blog that listed a dozen under-appreciated rock/pop classics, albums that offer superior music, superior sound and the greatest superiority of all, absence from the audiophile treadmill of repeat plays and painful over-familiarity. These were albums that contained genuinely great music captured by good recordings. Not necessarily audiophile in nature, these discs nonetheless embodied the energy and drive, or delicacy and intimacy, that result in special records. Consisting of several pairings, one of the key combinations was Joe Jackson’s Look Sharp! and I’m The Man, two albums that capture the best of the British New Wave, lyrically, musically and in performance terms.

This might be hometown familiarity speaking. Joe and the boys were an ever-present part of the live-music wallpaper while I was at college, but then The Cure, The Banshees and The Attractions were too, if on a more revolving basis, so he had plenty of competition for my attention and affections. Even so, there was always something special about Jackson, be it his Royal College of Music (think: Julliard) piano training or the gawky emotional awkwardness he captured so tellingly in his lyrics, a perfect match for his gawky, awkward appearance. Joe Jackson was the consummate outsider -- and, boy, did he make that count, reflected in the quality of the material and playing on these albums.

As good as those early pressings were (and they really were), if ever albums deserved not so much an audiophile makeover as a really well-executed cut and pressing, one that gets every last bit of energy, sweat and angst off the tapes, then these are them. Which is exactly what Intervention Records has done. In keeping with the label's performance-first philosophy, these repressings are all about staying true to and expanding on the originals, rather than sanitizing or sweetening them. What’s more, you don’t just get Look Sharp! and I’m The Man; also re-released is the 1982 album Night and Day. All are pan-flat 180-gram discs superbly cut by Kevin Gray from the analog master tapes and pressed by RTI. As with previous Intervention releases, the obvious care and attention that have gone into the records themselves has been mirrored in the sleeves: sumptuously printed glossy gatefolds for I’m The Man and Night and Day, a beautifully realized re-creation of the rare original matte sleeve for Look Sharp!.

Let’s make no bones about it -- these are some of the best-sounding reissued albums I’ve ever heard. I have a whole variety of early pressings for all three titles with which to compare them, as well as the well-regarded MoFi Night and Day [Mobile Fidelity MFSL 1-180]. The Intervention pressings stand head and shoulders above the alternatives -- all of the alternatives -- despite the fact that those early pressings are in many cases pretty impressive. The big exception to that is Night and Day, where the early pressings were congested, lacking bandwidth and immediacy. This makes the Intervention pressing seem all the more impressive, the comparison with the MoFi even more interesting. There’s no question that the MoFi is a significant improvement over the original, but then the bar was set pretty low. How low only becomes apparent when you listen to the Intervention disc. It makes the MoFi sound small, distant, flat, dynamically compressed and lacking in bottom-end energy. Instead, you get immediacy, a real sense of intimacy and presence from both the vocals and the band, scale and complexity from the piano, weight, depth and drive from the bass.

But where the Intervention pressing really scores is in terms of the percussion that’s so much a part of this album’s arrangements. Not only is it present, it’s persistent, locking in the rhythms and accenting the tracks, bringing an unmistakably American flavor to the music, a clear indication of Jackson’s Ellington obsession and a precursor to his later trajectory -- Body and Soul and the Summer in the City live album for starters. The dynamic freedom makes the key piano parts more expressive, their dynamic shadings more emphatic, and where the MoFi’s upper mids and top are smoothed, glazed and softened, both the piano and percussion have realistic attack and energy, without ever becoming painful or strident. What sets the Intervention Night and Day apart from the other pressings here -- indeed, what sets all of these releases apart -- is the musically engaging combination of energy, immediacy and intimacy. Instrumental detail and texture are natural and unforced, and phrasing, flow and diction on vocals pull you in and sweep you along.

While Night and Day has plenty of room for improvement, I’m The Man is the best-sounding of these albums in its original form. No doubt helped by the quality of the tapes and the simpler, more direct arrangements, as good as Night and Day sounds in its Intervention Records incarnation, for me I’m The Man is the sonic star. It’s tempting to say sonic and musical, but in this case it simply wouldn’t be true. The across-the-board quality of the songs and playing on all three albums is so consistently excellent; from the raw edges of Look Sharp! to the upbeat, uptown sophistication of Night and Day, there really isn’t a weak track here. Back that up with the sheer musical integrity and solid physicality that come from a great pressing and any one of these discs can take on all comers.

In part, this sense of substance and presence (as well as the easy rhythmic flow) comes from the bottom end of these albums. All three go significantly deeper and with far greater pitch definition, texture and power than other pressings. Anybody familiar with Jackson will know not only that bassist Graham Maby has been the one ever-present in every Joe Jackson lineup, but just how important he is to the music as a whole. Jackson’s arrangements are often built on the basis of a traditional jazz trio, with piano, bass and drums -- even when additional instruments are added. The newfound depths in the musical nether regions reveal purpose and substance that bring new foundations to the drive, energy and intent that have always characterized these albums. Just listen to "Sunday Papers" or "It’s Different For Girls" to hear not just what I’m talking about but how big a difference is made to the sense, presentation and musical impact. Listen to the way a track like "Slow Song" builds to an almost orchestral majesty and how "Steppin’ Out" takes on a new sense of pace and momentum. At the same time, the languid tempo of "Geraldine and John" or "Fools In Love" gains temporal confidence and security.

If you are familiar with these albums, the Intervention Records pressings will be a revelation. If you don’t know them, then you are in for a treat. It’s not often that real-world, mainstream music gets recordings this good. With subtlety and substance, intimacy, impact, power and attitude to burn, these are records that can make your audio system sound just like a band -- and a really great band playing great songs at that.

Intervention’s avowed intent is to give the full audiophile-pressing treatment to real music. With these three albums, they’ve excelled themselves. If you are thinking of buying just one -- don’t! You (and your system) need all three -- like a scuba diver needs an aqualung. Joe Jackson has long deserved his day in the hi-fi sun; now it's here -- and how.

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