OP here. Well, my second (replacement) pair came in. According to the manager, this pair received a personal, periodic inspection from the head of QA during its assembly.
In a nutshell, they are much improved. The finishing is more even, the shoe looks cleaner. The stitching is much improved... stitching no longer veers off in strange directions. The soles are the same thickness, and the sides are actually painted properly this time. They are lasted more properly now, with no weird bulbous spots. They fit quite comfortably compared to the old pair, which is surprising given that they are the same size.
Apparently the cordovan is softer, particular on the tongue. As it was explained to me, leather was/is hung/rolled to loosen fibers. The tongue is indeed much softer, and much more comfortable than before. I wish I had the old pair handy, because this pair has a different look... narrower and more curvaceous I suppose? It definitely looks cleaner.
Not all is perfect. Personal inspection during assembly didn't stop loose threads from jutting out everywhere, several pieces of leather that aren't quite aligned properly, there's one missing brogue punch on the toe cap of the right shoe, and so on. I'd say that whereas the previous pair had the look of a junior high school kid's shoe project, this one looks like the work of a college junior who wants to do well but is in a bit of a rush. In other words, it's much better, but if this weren't shell cordovan, I would have walked out feeling a bit disappointed. However, with the loose threads snipped, and a thorough brushing, they look great!
Needless to say, I'm satisfied and am keeping them!
I'm told that a walnut cordovan cream is coming from AE in the near future.
Edited by swiego - 2/2/12 at 6:00pm