Thursday, September 10, 2009

Does the old really sound new again? (a Beatles audio adventure)

Didn't think I'd let this one go, did you?

Okay, so a day after waxing poetic about the Greatest Rock Band In The History Of The Planet (okay, Led Zeppelin is close), I had to go to the local Big Box Retailer to sample some of the wares myself. After all, in this day and age of bland all-digital recordings recorded by bland digital bands, all processed, Autotuned, limited, clipped and compressed to the very depths of hell, I looked forward to hearing high-quality masterings of high quality recordings of even higher quality songs. Yes, from what I've heard so far, the newly remastered Beatles catalog is worth the hype.

Now, I did have a choice. The entire lineup was available in different forms. So, do I splurge on the stereo box set that has everything? Or do I buy them individually (which would have been virtually the same price anyway), and hence avoid paying for stuff I didn't care about, like the remastered filler-packed Yellow Submarine (1999's totally remixed Songtrack version is much better)? Or do I splurge on the mono box set, which, as pointed out yesterday, features the songs mixed the way the band members wanted them). The point was moot anyway, since all copies of the stereo box were snapped up already. Forget the mono set - that sold out weeks ago. Fine, I guess, since my money's a bit funny these days. So I came up with a different approach. I'll treat myself with one at a time. I'll enjoy them individually, rather than become overwhelmed with a massive set. I started with three. Of course, they would have to include some of my current favorites. First up was 1969's Abbey Road, which was the one I was initially most curious about. I also opted to counter it with an earlier work, 1966's classic Revolver. And, since Best Buy was offering the two-CD Past Masters for the same price (I'm convinced it was a pricing error on their part), I had to get it. Plus, Past Masters, which compiles all of the band's non-LP tracks, spans their entire career, so it is a very good sampler for the curious. Taking my newly-obtained discs home, I was also keen to compare them to other versions I had (including the original 1987-88 CDs and subsequent compilations, such as the "Blue" and "Red" best-of sets, 2000's 1 set, the Capitol Albums box sets from 2006 and even distinctive remix sets such as Yellow Submarine Songtrack and Let It Be... Naked--can you tell I'm a bit obsessive about this?). So, here we go.

The remastered Abbey Road, the first album mixed only in stereo, got the first spin. And it is, plain and simple, amazing. The first song, "Come Together" rips your head off and blows you out of your seat. The sound is much fuller and more vibrant than the original 1987 CD. It's even better than the earlier remastered version on 1. The most powerful song on an album full of great music. The Abbey Road engineering team really did their job here. "Here Comes The Sun" has much more life, and is as warm and dreamlike as the song itself. And then there's the rest of "Side 2" (referring to the original LP). This mostly consists of the elaborate 'monster medley' put together mostly by Paul McCartney and producer George Martin (John Lennon always bitched about it), and it all leads up to the album's ultimate money shot -- the raucous jam "The End", which starts with the only true drum solo by Ringo Starr (who absolutely detested solos, and had to be talked into it). Afterward, each of the other band members rip into guitar solos, first McCartney, then George Harrison and finally Lennon. The version on the 1987 disc was okay, but the new master absolutely smokes! Finally, as perhaps the first 'hidden track' ever included on any album, the very brief and humorous "Her Majesty" kicks in, and the new master is less harsh-sounding than the on the 1987 disc. In addition, I was happy that the remastering engineers decided not to overkill the tapes with too much noise reduction software. Tape hiss is evident on this CD, which ran counter to the late-80s idea of getting rid of as much hiss as possible, a process that also took a considerable amount of musical detail with it. This time, we hear it all, and that should please many Beatles purists.

The packaging for the CD is quite beautiful. Gone is the brittle plastic jewel case and sparse liner notes of the original disc. This one, like all the other remasters, is packaged in an attractive tri-fold cardboard digipack, making each CD look and feel like a mini version of the original LP sleeve. A nice touch. Each CD includes an extensive booklet featuring new (and sometimes old) liner notes and TONS of great pictures from that period (Abbey Road even includes samples from their last official photo session, taken by (but not credited to) McCartney's photographer wife, Linda. Older record buyers may even recognize the front and back cover shots of the long-deleted Hey Jude compilation LP. Abbey Road, as with as the other discs, includes a 10 minute 'mini-documentary' (in QuickTime format, playable only on a computer) that features film clips, studio chatter and even interviews with the band members and Martin. Since Apple Corps. opted not to pad each album with excessive amounts of outtakes, demos and whatnot (not wanting to distract from the intent of the original releases), the embedded video, along with the print material, are appropriate substitutes. They're not distractions to the album itself.

Next up for listening was Revolver, considered by many to be their best work. This is where the Beatles really started to get psychedelic, a year before Sgt. Pepper came out. Although the original CD issue isn't that bad, the remasters do go a bit further. The new version seems to really bring out the band's rockers, and the leadoff track, "Taxman" is no exception. The intro, complete with a count-in and coughing, makes it sound as if we're in the Abbey Road control room in 1966. The original mix of "Eleanor Rigby" is presented here (unlike the redone remix on Yellow Submarine Songtrack that features the string section in true stereo), but that's an unfair comparison. Apple Corps. was adamant about remaining faithful to the original George Martin master tapes (with minor tweaking and appropriate equalizing), rather than a radical remix from the multitracks, so that's what we get here. And it still sounds good, though it could spur further debate among fans divided on whether everything should have been totally remixed (I get a feeling that these types of projects are in the distant pipeline). The same could also be said of "Yellow Submarine", given a more deluxe treatment on Songtrack. Still, this version here is nice and crisp, and the outrageous effects stand out (they obviously had a lot of fun recording this one).

"Here, There and Everywhere" is perhaps the best love song ever written by McCartney (and even he cites it as a personal favorite). That's not to minimize "Yesterday", but it says more about this one. The spare instrumental backing and three-part harmonies do shine more on the cleaned-up version, but the remastering makes the already loud lead vocal sound louder. To be fair, it does sound as if were intended to be this way (at least in the stereo mix). Still, it's a much cleaner sound. "She Said She Said", "And Your Bird Can Sing" and "Dr. Robert" are the rockers on the album that really pop in cleaned-up form. The piano and drums on "Good Day Sunshine" pack more punch and clarity here, and we get a much fuller sound, a drastic improvement over the original CD. We get into the real meat of the CD as we approach the end. McCartney's Stax soul ode "Got To Get You Into My Life" is brassier than ever. The horns really stand out on this one, as does the other instrumentation. The next song, the finale, is still the best. "Tomorrow Never Knows" was actually the first song recorded for the album, and on the new CD, it sounds better than ever. From the pounding drum track to the chopped up tape loops to the backward guitar solo and Lennon's effects-heavy vocal, this gives further proof for people who claim this as one of the Beatles' finest songs. The remastered version is even better than expected.

This CD also includes photos, liner notes and a mini-doc. The liner notes may not reveal much to hardcore Beatleholics who have already digested all of the various biographies, chronologies and whatnot, but could be of great interest to casual fans.

Finally, in this listening session, we get to Past Masters. As I said before, this completist collection of non-LP singles, b-sides, EP tracks and other previously-released curiosities serves as a nice introduction to those wondering what the hype is all about, and when played side-by-side with the original 1988 CD issue, shows how far remastering technology has come. This version sounds way, way better, noticeable even to non-audiophiles. This two-disc set (originally issued as two separate volumes) spans the band's entire career, reaching all the way back to 1962. Here, we get the earliest mono and stereo tracks, along with later hits like "Hey Jude" and the single version of "Let It Be" (minus the tacky Phil Spector orchestral overdubs). The set leads off with their very first single, "Love Me Do", which is very different than the take featured on the Please Please Me album. Unlike the album version, which features a session drummer (Martin was still unsure about the just-acquired Starr), this one has Ringo pounding the skins. Now, at the time of this recording, EMI typically did not save old outtakes or multitrack tapes, and they seemed to lose ones they didn't consider to be very important at the time. Hence, the tape for this debut single was essentially lost. The best-available master source was actually a pristine mono 45 RPM record, so this is essentially a vinyl rip. Nonetheless, it's historical significance is heavy, justifying its inclusion. And it does sound as good as can be. "From Me To You", another early single, is very tinny sounding in the two track stereo version presented here, but stands tall compared to the muddy-sounding version on the 1988 CD. In fact, all of the early stuff on the new version of Past Masters is more vibrant here. "She Loves You" and its original flip-side, "I'll Get You" are presented in mono, as no multitracks are known to exist (the closest we get is a German re-recording of the former, which is, interestingly enough, presented in stereo). Still, compared with the original CD, it packs way more punch, and gives an example of what the remasters of the mono tapes sound like. Yesterday, I voiced my opinion that the early two track recordings (and some of the later multitrack stuff) sound better and pack more punch in their mono mixes. Compare the English and American versions of "She Loves You" as a testament to this. The mono does sound better. I also have long felt that the stereo version of "I Want To Hold Your Hand" sounded too busy and lacked the impact of the mono. Obviously the engineers felt the same way, as the remastered stereo version has a somewhat less cluttered effect.

As we travel further into the Beatles career, we get quite a jolt from McCartney's rip-roaring Little Richard imitation on "Long Tall Sally", originally released in England on a four song EP. The other three tracks from this EP, remakes "Slow Down" and "Matchbox" and the original "I Call Your Name" also have more clarity and impact here, making me realize that this must have been one of the greatest 7-inch EPs ever released, something the original Past Masters didn't do. With all the iconic hits on this disc, ironically, it's oft-ignored "Long Tall Sally" that really stands out so far. Wow. Just wow. It only gets better. "I Feel Fine", with what is believed by many the first-ever inclusion of intentional feedback on a pop record, packs a wallop. And it sounds terrific in stereo. The early rockers do pack more punch on the remastered disc (as witnessed by McCartney's voice-shredding "I'm Down" that closes Disc 1, but so do Lennon's tender ballads, "This Boy" and "Yes It Is". The instrumentation has more life and emotion, as do the delicate three-part harmonies in these similar-sounding songs. All in all, the new-and-improved Disc 1 makes the 1988 Volume 1 seem like a sonic travesty. If you're looking to really update your Beatles catalog, but are a bit stubborn about forking over the money, I would certainly recommend this one.

Disc 2 certainly ain't bad either. Everything shines in remastered form. Prior to purchasing it, I set one song in particular as a benchmark, namely McCartney's 1966 hit "Paperback Writer". As originally intended, the bass would be loud. Loud enough to, in the words of McCartney and Starr, make the needle jump off the record. And that was the problem. The typically reserved EMI engineers were a bit scared to put out a song that would obviously cause record players to skip (remember, this is the vinyl era we're talking about), even though McCartney protested that he had heard a record at a club the other day that had tons of bass, and that American labels were also putting out bass-heavy records. Luckily, a 20 year-old Abbey Road engineer named Geoff Emerick, who had just started working with the band, got the concept, going so far as to convert a loudspeaker into a bass mic. Needless to say, the song kicks ass on the new CD, and most certainly will give subwoofers a workout. In fact, all the songs on this CD have more prominent bass than in the original issue, in addition to greater depth and clarity with the other instruments and vocals. Rockers like "Revolution" decimate any hard rock record made today, and even lower-key songs like "Hey Jude" and the single version of "Let It Be" become even more intimate. And then there's Harrison's oft-overlooked Indian-flavored b-side, "The Inner Light", which here becomes a tasty sonic treat. It actually sounds quite beautiful here, better than I remembered. Now, the Beatles throughout their career wisely refrained from releasing outright bad songs (some of the discards can be found on the Anthology discs), though the whimsical closing track, "You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)" (which languished for a few years before being released as the b-side of the "Let It Be" single) could qualify as such. Inane and self-indulgent, though in a somewhat charming way, the release of this is evident as to the state of the band circa late 1969, where the band members obviously didn't really give a shit anymore about what was released in their name. The song was originally mixed only in mono, hence its inclusion in that form here, but does indeed wear the evidence of a sonic upgrade. However, another (longer) version of the song can be found (in a stereo mix!) on Anthology 3.

So, you may be tiring of me waxing poetic about music that's nearly a half-century old. And trying to justify buying new versions of old stuff I've already bought. But as I said before, at a time when music sounds more and more mechanical, phony, contrived and over-processed, it is a nice feeling to hear great rock n' roll music sounding the best it possibly can. Perhaps it could serve as a reminder to modern artists, producers and engineers that clipping the hell out of their music to make it sound louder and proceeding to compress it into sonic garbage is not the way to make it sound good. For further examples of this, look no further than the Beatles' re-released catalog.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to buy The White Album. Or should I get Sgt. Pepper? Choices, choices...


Russ/rfduck said...

Excellent reviews! I can't wait to get more of the remasters myself (I've only bought Sgt. Pepper so far).

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