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Jennifer Warnes' Famous Blue Raincoat, Better Than Ever on 1STEP 45 rpm LPs from Impex Records

01-01-2024 | By Tom Gibbs | Issue 131

Impex Records is celebrating the 35th anniversary of Jennifer Warnes' groundbreaking Famous Blue Raincoat with a three-LP, 45 rpm, 1STEP reissue of Warnes' classic 1986 album that has gone on to become an enduring audiophile perennial. For what will surely represent the album's penultimate vinyl release, Jennifer Warnes agreed to supply her personal, first-generation analog mixdown masters (from the original digital recordings) for Impex's new 1STEP edition. None other than Bernie Grundman was entrusted with the labor-intensive process of cutting the lacquers for the 1STEP process at Bernie Grundman Mastering on his all-analog, tube-based cutting lathe. The trio of 180 gram LPs were pressed at RTI using Neotech's VR900BK1 Supreme Vinyl compound; every step of the process was personally overseen by RTI's Rick Hashimoto. This release is strictly limited to 7500 individually numbered pressings; after Bernie Grundman cuts the last set of lacquers for the final pressing run, Jennifer Warnes' analog mixdown master tapes will be retired to the vault forever. Which makes this a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to obtain the finest LP version of this album you could ever hope to own; you can order a copy directly from Impex Records and their partner Elusive Disc HERE.

The Impex 1STEP process employs short, tightly controlled pressing runs that require a new lacquer after each run of 500 LPs. The lacquer skips the usual father-mother process, going directly to a single convert disc to press the LPs. The process dramatically increases mastering and production costs, but also assures greater disc-to-disc consistency within the pressing run. Which allows for a substantial reduction of groove noise, improved retrieval of detail, and deeper, more defined bass. By limiting production complexity to just a single convert disc between the lacquer and the press, groove integrity is greatly improved, non-fill anomalies are diminished, and signal integrity from the master tape to your audio system is significantly increased. Impex's 1STEP process delivers the ne plus ultra experience in limited edition, audiophile LP playback. 

Impex has spared no expense in the design and execution of the impressive packaging. The three 180 gram, 45 rpm LPs are inserted into non-scratch, static-free inner sleeves; they're then inserted along with a deluxe multi-page booklet into a heavy-duty, 4-sleeve paperboard inner jacket. That inner jacket—which features a striking mix of dull and gloss varnish coatings—is then inserted into a tip-on style, leather-textured paperboard slipcase that will protect the integrity of the LPs as well as your investment. The 1STEP logo is gold-foil stamped on the outer slipcase, and the handsome booklet features a distinctive montage of high-gloss varnished photos of Jennifer Warnes, Leonard Cohen, and many of the session principals. Along with lyrics, technical specifications and album credits, additional artwork featuring hand-written lyrics and personal notes, and a doodle from Leonard Cohen to Jennifer Warnes. In cooperation with Kate Stephenson, Jennifer Warnes' personal designer, Impex Creative Director Robert Sliger has given us another beautiful album package that sets the standard for high-end releases. Impex didn't just knock it out of the park with this 1STEP release, they knocked it into another universe!

A Ten-year-plus Love Affair in the Making

My love of Jennifer Warnes didn't come naturally to me; I only had a peripheral awareness of her music before taking a deep dive a couple of decades ago. 1977's "Right Time of the Night" was all over the radio while I was a college student, but I was too deeply entrenched in the music of Yes and King Crimson to even be bothered. Same thing when "I Know A Heartache When I See One" hit in 1979; I heard it everywhere, but it just didn't register in my brain. I didn't really make the connection until I heard Warnes' 1982 duet with Joe Cocker, "Up Where We Belong," from the motion picture An Officer And A Gentleman. That was definitely more difficult to ignore, especially since my friends and I saw the film multiple times upon its release. I was already a fan of Joe Cocker, and hearing the song repeatedly really impressed upon me what a great voice Warnes had. My musical tastes were slowly beginning to expand, and I'd also been building an awareness of Leonard Cohen's music throughout the eighties. Though not enough to realize the nearly angelic voice I often heard in the background of many of his songs was that of Jennifer Warnes. 

As the Eighties rolled along, things began to triangulate rapidly. David Bowie's album Let's Dance (1983) introduced me to guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan; developing an appreciation for SRV led me to the music of Texas guitarist Eric Johnson. That's where I first saw the name of bassist and producer C. Roscoe Beck in the credits for Eric Johnson's Tones (1986); not long after, I read in a music magazine where Roscoe Beck talked about working with SRV and Eric Johnson. He also mentioned another recent project he co-produced with singer Jennifer Warnes, her new album Famous Blue Raincoat. Which was a tribute album of sorts to the music of Leonard Cohen, and also featured Stevie Ray Vaughan on guitar. Hold on just a minute—she was the singer with the really great voice on that Joe Cocker song! Suddenly, all the bits of information about Jennifer Warnes, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Johnson, and Roscoe Beck came together into my new reality: I had to get a copy of Famous Blue Raincoat! Despite my best intentions, life was going on all around me, and having just gotten married, relocated to Atlanta, and soon expecting the birth of my daughter—years passed before I actually stumbled onto a copy at Tower Records. 

After hearing Famous Blue Raincoat for the first time, all the data I'd been compiling for over a decade suddenly started making sense, and my love for this record has taken me down an ever-enduring path of appreciation. And that respect is based almost entirely on my love of Leonard Cohen's songs and Jennifer Warnes' crystalline interpretations; my regard for their brilliance from an audiophile perspective is a very recent occurrence. You can read more about my love for Warnes' music in my recent review of Impex Records' excellent 180 gram reissue of her follow up to Famous Blue Raincoat, 1992's The Hunter, HERE.

Jennifer Warnes, Famous Blue Raincoat. (3) 180 gram, 45 rpm, Impex Records 1STEP LPs, $159.99 MSRP

Jennifer Warnes had achieved a modest level of success throughout the mid-to-late Seventies, with several great songs that charted well, along with her performance of the Academy Award winning song "It Goes Like It Goes" from the 1979 motion picture Norma Rae. Unfortunately, her albums didn't sell particularly well, and she couldn't really cash in on any momentum she might have gained from the popularity of Norma Rae: no soundtrack or single was ever released to the general public. And it also appeared that the head of her record label, Clive Davis at Arista, meddled somewhat in her career; Warnes was really more well known as Leonard Cohen's back-up singer than just about anything else at the time. Initial sessions for another album with Arista yielded several good songs, but the album plans were quickly scrapped. Those new songs were included on the Best of Jennifer Warnes collection (1982), which proved to be her swan song for Arista; upon its release, she was immediately dropped from their artist roster. Encouragingly, "Up Where We Belong" from An Officer and a Gentleman reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100; still, through the much of the Eighties, she was an artist without a record label.

Jennifer Warnes was writing some of her own songs, and during a 1979 tour singing backup for Leonard Cohen, she got his assistance with a new one she was working on, "Song of Bernadette." That experience served as the spark for the genesis of Famous Blue Raincoat, but Arista balked at a tribute album and MCA also took a pass. Upstart Cypress Records (distributed by A&M) decided to take a chance, and the album was recorded throughout much of 1986 at a variety of studios scattered between Los Angeles and New York. The album compiled Cohen's songs from as early as 1969's Songs From a Room ("Bird on a Wire"), 1971's Songs of Love and Hate ("Famous Blue Raincoat," "Joan of Arc"), 1974's New Skin for the Old Ceremony ("A Singer Must Die"), 1979's Recent Songs ("Came So Far for Beauty"), through 1984's Various Positions ("Coming Back to You," "If It Be Your Will"), as well as two songs from his yet-to-be-released I'm Your Man ("First We Take Manhattan," "Ain't No Cure for Love"). Jennifer Warnes and C. Roscoe Beck served as co-producers of the album. 

A diverse group of guest artists joined Warnes in a variety of studio settings, including Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robben Ford, Fred Tackett, David Lindley, and Michael Landau on guitars; co-producer Roscoe Beck and Jorge Calderon on bass; William "Smitty" Smith, Gary Chang, Russel Ferrante, Van Dyke Parks, and Bill Ginn on keyboards and synths; Larry Brown, Lenny Castro, Steve Forman, and Vinnie Colaiuta on percussion and drums; along with Paul Ostermayer and Reverend Dave Boruff on saxophones. A complement of string players and an entire host of backup singers appeared throughout the album, and most noteworthy, Leonard Cohen himself shared vocals with Jennifer Warnes on "Joan of Arc." And helping to provide Famous Blue Raincoat with the audiophile credibility it would eventually receive, none other than Bernie Grundman mastered the original album for both LP and CD.

Upon its release in November, 1986, Famous Blue Raincoat debuted to mixed critical reception; some critics felt Warnes' interpretations and the album's arrangements were somewhat overblown when compared to Cohen's originals (they probably didn't know what to think when Cohen's own synth-heavy I'm Your Man appeared two years later!). Regardless, it sold respectably well in the US where it peaked at No. 72 on the Billboard Album charts, reached Silver sales levels in the UK (peaking at No. 33 on the UK charts), and went triple-Platinum in Canada (where it peaked at No. 8). It has managed to remain in print over the decades, and enhanced reissues from Classic Records, Cisco, and Impex have helped introduce it to a legion of new audiophiles and entirely new audiences.


Regarding Neotech's VR900BK1 Supreme Vinyl Formulation

Impex's Robert Sliger made the following comments about the Neotech VR900BK1 Supreme Vinyl compound used by RTI to press the new Famous Blue Raincoat 1STEP edition: "Impex is proud to use Neotech vinyl formulations in our 1STEP records. We choose the formulation that best suits the tonal and playback needs of each recording, including the startlingly revealing VR900BK1. Neotech developed VR900BK1 by rethinking formulation as well as processing. They took a chemistry-intensive approach to raw material selection in order to eliminate the characteristics…that increase noise in record grooves. They also developed new chemistry that allows the compound to more accurately receive and preserve the grooves. This innovative approach provides ultra-quiet grooves as well as incredibly precise groove definition."

In other words, Impex Records decision to use VR900BK1 Supreme Vinyl guarantees the Famous Blue Raincoat 1STEP LPs will deliver the finest vinyl playback available for this classic album—ever!


Listening Results

Clicking on my name in the header above will reveal the systems I use for evaluation of music and equipment reviews. I played Famous Blue Raincoat on my all-analog system that features the ProJect Classic EVO turntable that's mounted with an Ortofon Quintet Bronze moving coil cartridge. I have a new PS Audio Stellar phono preamplifier in the system; after a couple of weeks of trial and error, I now have the custom load settings completely dialed in, and my analog playback experience has been lifted exponentially! The signal from the phono preamp is then fed to a PrimaLuna EVO 300 tube integrated amplifier that plays into a pair of new production KLH Model Five loudspeakers. Listening through tubes and classic-design acoustic-suspension loudspeakers gave my listening sessions a very vintage aesthetic but also modern quality of sound. The PrimaLuna tube amp offers triode and ultralinear tube configuration on the fly with the press of a button; the extra punch of ultralinear playback portrayed this lyrical but often dynamic music perfectly.


I can say without hesitation that the VR900BK1 Supreme Vinyl that Impex and RTI used to press the 1STEP release of Famous Blue Raincoat has produced what has to be among the quietest, cleanest LPs I've ever heard. With backgrounds that are blacker than black, and almost deathly silent—the noise floor that Impex and RTI have achieved with these pressings is staggeringly low. My Ortofon Quintet Bronze MC cartridge traced the grooves effortlessly, without so much as a tick or hiccup of any kind—that extraordinary level of analog quiet allows you to hear much more deeply and clearly into the music. 

And that music literally jumps out of the grooves and across the loudspeakers; side one of the 1STEP offers a textbook amalgam of a superb recording, incredible performances, and skillful mastering. Throughout, Jennifer Warnes' crystalline voice possesses a level of palpable, visceral realism that allows you to clearly visualize her in the soundfield. I've always felt that the album's lead track, "First We Take Manhattan," seemed somewhat "soft" on most digital versions¹—not so on the 1STEP LP, where Vinnie Colaiuta's drumming provides a gut punch that's punctuated by Stevie Ray Vaughan's searing guitar work. Colaiuta again hammers out the opening of "Bird On A Wire," as Roscoe Beck's bass plumbs the absolute depths of the KLH loudspeakers' range; Jennifer Warnes' vocal sparkles here like never before. "Famous Blue Raincoat" closes side one; Paul Ostermayer's sax, Bill Ginn's piano, and Roscoe Beck's fretless bass provide the foundation for Warnes perfectly plaintive vocal, and the strings that fill the background add a totally ethereal touch. It's quite literally perfection incarnate.

I don't have access to the highly regarded Cisco Music (Impex Records actually rose from the ashes of Cisco) 45 rpm pressing of Famous Blue Raincoat, but a recent online post compared that pressing with Impex's new 1STEP 45 rpm version. The 1STEP's supremely quiet VR900BK1 vinyl absolutely trounced the vaunted Cisco pressing in every aspect of its presentation. 

Don't Hesitate to Grab This Superb Reissue!

Whereas Judy Collins was the greatest champion of Leonard Cohen throughout the Sixties and into the Seventies, Jennifer Warnes—especially since the release of Famous Blue Raincoat—has definitely supplanted her as the preeminent interpreter of Cohen's music from the Eighties and beyond. The audiophile stature of Famous Blue Raincoat has only grown since its original release: yes, it was an album of great performances in 1986, but it's gained a much wider audience based on its growing reputation as an incredibly well-recorded album in the decades since. Particularly in the aftermath of good LP and CD reissues from Classic Records and Cisco Music, along with excellent reissues from Impex Records that have imbued the album with an enhanced measure of audiophile goodness.

Impex Records' new 1STEP reissue of Famous Blue Raincoat updates an already superb recording, offering improved levels of clarity and musicality that simply defy belief. Yes, that goodness comes at a price; this release takes the $129.99 MSRP of a typical Impex 1STEP and adds a third LP that raises the cost to $159.99. The third LP contains bonus tracks, outtakes, and a live version of "Joan of Arc"—all of which had been subsequently added to CD versions of Famous Blue Raincoat since the release of the harsh-sounding Shout! Factory label 20th anniversary version and beyond. None of the added music is fluff—everything here is totally worth the price of admission, and the improved groove geometry afforded by the 1STEP's 45 rpm sides is further enhanced by Neotech's superb VR900BK1 vinyl. When you add the excellent packaging to the already impressive aural considerations, purchasing this set becomes a no-brainer: just go ahead and grab that credit card!

I give Impex's new 1STEP box of Famous Blue Raincoat my very highest recommendation!

Impex Records


Elusive Disc



All photos courtesy of Impex Records, Elusive Disc, and the author.

¹ That assessment definitely does not include Impex Records 24K Gold CD version!