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Craft Recordings' Record Store Day 2020 LPs

12-07-2020 | By Tom Gibbs | Issue 112

Record Store Day—or RSD as it's commonly known among aficionados—typically takes place twice a year, generally around April and October. RSD piques the interest of every vinyl hound in the US—and worldwide, for that matter—and generally brings a slate of releases that are widely varied in approach from record label to record label. Some labels focus on releases of remastered or otherwise updated versions of catalog titles that maybe haven't had a vinyl release for a prolonged period—or ever. Others offer what are known as RSD Exclusives, which are titles that have never been released, in any legit physical format, or have been created especially for Record Store Day. RSD Exclusives regularly feature official releases of bootlegs—generally offered in the finest sound quality and packaging those LPs have ever enjoyed. RSD generally offers something for just about everyone, and rabid collectors hover over their laptops in anticipation of the advance release announcement.

So welcome to the least typical year ever, 2020. RSD was delayed twice this year because of the global pandemic, and it finally took place on what's known in the US as Black Friday—the day after the Thanksgiving holiday. Craft Recordings originally had a slate of five releases scheduled for RSD Black Friday, but due to unforeseen circumstances (we'll blame it on 2020!), all five didn't all make it into the stores this year (the George Thorogood 4-LP live set is still awaiting shipment). Craft Recordings is part of Concord Music, which owns the vast Fantasy Records catalog, and two of their RSD offerings were culled from that treasure trove of jazz greatness. I ended up with three titles; Orange Sunset from Jazz Dispensary, which is a new compilation in an excellent series of jazz / funk / fusion Fantasy label tracks from the mid-seventies. The 45 RPM single, Christmas Time Is Here, is culled from Vince Guaraldi's classic A Charlie Brown Christmas LP. Craft's remaining RSD title, Georgia metalcore group Norma Jean's Meridional, originally appeared on the Razor & Tie label, which also falls under Concord's umbrella.

There are a number of fairly high-profile independent record stores in the metro Atlanta area, and most of them participate in Record Store Day. And while I've seen blocks-long lines waiting for stores to open on RSD, I've also seen quite a few desirable titles still on the shelves days (and even weeks) after RSD is over. And now (especially in the pandemic), a lot of online retailers participate in RSD afterwards, if not on the day and date. So even though Record Store Day is already over, there's a pretty good chance these titles might still be available somewhere out there. Good hunting!

Jazz Dispensary, Orange Sunset

Jazz Dispensary specializes in supplying albums of infectious fusions of funk, jazz, and soul tunes that are collected as compilations from the vast catalog of Fantasy and their associated labels. They also reissue notable full albums from those same labels that are either sorely overdue for a repress, or are seriously underrepresented in the label's current offerings. While the focus is heavily on LP reissues, Jazz Dispensary is also now offering their titles through the major streaming services. So if you absolutely (and unfortunately) miss out on a physical copy of this excellent LP, you can still luxuriate in its riches, with multiple streaming options via Qobuz up to 24/192, and an MQA version available on Tidal. 

Orange Sunset is a collection of soulful seventies jazz / funk from the likes of David Axelrod, Merl Saunders, Funk, Inc., Johnny Hammond, and the Blackbyrds. The album was produced by David Axelrod, the Mizell Brothers, and Dale Warren, and all tracks were remastered from the original analog tapes. Most of the seven tunes here are driving and rhythmically propulsive, featuring blistering bass and drum tracks with appropriately funky guitars (from the likes of Johnny Guitar Watson!), peppered throughout with staccato horn sections. While I'm pretty sure I'd never heard any of these tracks prior to getting Orange Sunset, each has an aura of almost instant familiarity. It's kind of like hearing a really cool, obscure tune from the latest Quentin Tarantino movie; it's funky, hip, and you just have to find out who laid down those very solid grooves. 

The packaging for Orange Sunset is stellar, to say the least; it was designed by musician and artist Dana Falconberry, and features a really cool embossed image on a heavy, tip-on album jacket. The heavy inner sleeve is also very cool, with a huge Jazz Dispensary logo on one side, and there's a plethora of information about the album's production and multitude of personnel on the flip side. The record was pressed by MPO in France, and features a cool orange sunburst pattern swirled into opaque yellow 140 gram vinyl. Based on looks alone, the level of collect-ability for this title is through the roof; add in the sterling performances, and it becomes the complete package. Previous Jazz Dispensary compilation LPs routinely sell for 4-6x their original MSRPs online. If your soul is in need of medication, Jazz Dispensary has the pill, and it just might be Orange Sunset.

Norma Jean, Meridional

Metalcore band Norma Jean is from Douglasville, Georgia, a northern Atlanta suburb that's only a stone's throw from where I currently reside. In its original incarnation, the band was known as Luti-Kriss, and were something of a Christian metal band. As the band began to move into a more mainstream metal approach, Atlanta rapper Ludacris suddenly exploded onto the scene, and Luti-Kriss soon transitioned to a new band name: Norma Jean. The band has undergone a serious number of personnel changes over the years, with none of the original members still around from when the band first surfaced around 2000, and no fewer than fourteen group members having come and gone over a twenty-year period. The current line-up features long-time lead singer Cory Brandan and lead guitarist Grayson Stewart, who's been with the band since 2019. Current touring members of the band include Clay Crenshaw on guitar, Johnny Muench on bass, and Matt Marquez on drums; this has been the band's arrangement for a couple of years now. 

Meridional is the band's fifth studio release, and was their first for the Razor & Tie imprint. The album's title comes from terms used in astronomy and cartography, in which "meridional" refers to moving in a southerly direction on the globe. This is particularly appropriate for a band that is essentially a "southern" metal band. Three other brief musical interludes on the album include "Septentrional" (northern), "Oriental" (eastern), and "Occidental" (western), all further enhancing the astronomical leanings of the album. The driving "Deathbed Atheist" was the big single from the record, and was even used in a clip from a music video that advertised the album on television—you don't see too many advertisements for metalcore bands on television!

The record came at a time of transition for the band, and the aftermath of its 2010 recording marked the departure of several longtime members, making vocalist Cory Brandan the only member present at the album's recording still with the band. Meridional is widely considered to be Norma Jean's breakout record stylistically, and was recorded in Atlanta at Glow In The Dark Studios; Jeremy Griffith was at the controls as the album's producer. The record reached No. 45 on the Billboard charts at the time of its release, and was showered with significant praise by metal critics everywhere. All Music's review of Meridional described Norma Jean as "a band that has really hit its stride creatively, taking the techniques it has developed and putting them all together into one enjoyable package." The record shows the band's embrace of Metalcore and Mathcore fundamentals expanding to include the use of keyboards, acoustic guitars, and percussion effects, giving the band an almost prog-like sound at times. This is the album that elevated them to a higher position among the ranks of metalcore bands.

Craft Records' RSD release celebrates the album's tenth anniversary, and marks the album's first LP repressing since its original issue in 2010. Featuring two 140 gram LPs in translucent, marbled turquoise vinyl, the LPs were pressed by MPO in France, and they're beautifully done. The heavy jacket features the original's striking artwork on a tip-on type, gatefold outer sleeve, with heavy inner sleeves featuring more of the cool album artwork, along with lyrics and extensive credit information. As with the Jazz Dispensary LP above, marks for collect-ability based on looks alone is a 10/10, but the sound quality of the LPs is also very close to perfection, making Meridional a very desirable record package for collectors and fans alike. This is a good starting point for those looking to delve more deeply into Norma Jean's music; the remastered tracks haven't made their way onto the streaming services yet, but you can at least check out the original release files as well as the bulk of their back catalog.  

Vince Guaraldi Trio, Christmas Time Is Here (7-inch Single)

The 7-inch single of Christmas Time Is Here is taken from Vince Guaraldi's A Charlie Brown Christmas, which is the second biggest selling jazz album of all time. The single is also being issued in conjunction with the 70th Anniversary of the Peanuts cartoon strip. The A Side features the album vocal version of the tune—which has become a de facto Christmas standard—while the B Side features an interesting alternate vocal take. While the single is definitely just a trifle of sorts, it's still very cool, especially pressed in translucent green vinyl. It's actually 45 RPM, and the center hole is even sized to fit right on your spindle, so there's no need for a pesky adapter for your turntable. And the very cool printed record sleeve is fitted with a perfectly sized polyvinyl outer sleeve for protection. All in all, it's quite the collectible!


The sound quality of the LPs (and the single!) was absolutely superb throughout the entire experience. The vinyl for each release was perfectly flat, and there was virtually no surface or groove noise. My listening was done through my usual analog front end, which features a ProJect Classic turntable fitted with a Hana SL moving coil cartridge, with the signal fed into a Musical Surroundings Phonomena II+ phono preamp that's powered by a Michael Yee linear power supply. That signal is then fed into my PrimaLuna EVO 300, EL-34 based tube integrated power amplifier; the sound gets output via my Zu Audio Omen loudspeakers. I chose the tube amp's ultralinear setting, which I felt offered a touch more midrange presence that benefitted all three releases. 

No MSRPs were given for any of the items under review, although I've seen prices for Orange Sunset around $25 online, with the 2-LP Meridional selling for around $30. The Vince Guaraldi single should sell for considerably less (>$10). These are spectacular album packages; the albums themselves are pressed in beautifully colored vinyl—but you have to get a bit deeper within the grooves to get the full picture of how valuable and musically satisfying these LPs can be. If you don't want to bundle up and hit the road, at the very least, do a quick internet search to try and locate them. You won't be disappointed. Very highly recommended!

Jazz Dispensary: Orange Sunset. 140 gram yellow/orange sunburst colored-vinyl LP.

Norma Jean: Meridional. 140 gram translucent turquoise marbled colored-vinyl 2-LP set. 

Vince Guaraldi Trio: Christmas Time Is Here. Green translucent vinyl 45 RPM single.   

Available from Craft Recordings.