Monday, September 07, 2009
I remember the Stones reissues coming out in 2002 or 2004 and being blown away by the clarity of the tone and the sounds of fingers on strings...you could almost slip your hands between the layers of the music. That's all I was hoping for.
Then, let me talk about the panic.
At first I panicked about which set to get: The Stereo box or the collector's Mono box. From all early reports from a voice I repsect above nearly all others, the mono mixes have a lot more punch and just better sound, but don't come with a handful of the later albums that were initially produced in stereo, so I went with the Stereo box.
Then I panicked because a buddy told me that EMI (amazingly) did not anticipate the level of demand and did not produce enough of the boxed sets. Holy Shit! I actually took a day off of work to listen to these! I envisioned myself racing from indie store to big box store to (shudder) Wal-Mart (somewhere I would not enter unless I was on fire and they were selling 99 cent water) trying to find the damned thing. Luckily, like a fucking sweet-sweetback pusher on the street who knows your weakness and throws in a little extra, someone came through. He will remain nameless unless he lets me know that I can broadcast his name to the world, at which point I will tattoo his name on my arm.
Finally, I got to one of those rare points where all responsibilities were set accomplished (oh, happy birthday son) and my darling bride shoved me out of the house, saying "You need to be somewhere else. Go. Feel free to come back after dinnertime. I got this."
So I went to a little place I know and plugged Please Please Me into the hi-fi.
Muddy. Too much high-end. Crackling highs. Crunching harmonies. Muddled solos. Snarling bass lines. Pizza-box snare sound. Maybe some tears on the cheek. No no no. Not possible. Another CD drive, that's what we need. Plug in the laptop into the stereo...same scene. Haul the old Sony 200 CD changer from the closet. Ug. No dice. OK, c'mon man...think. thinkthinkthink.
AHA! The Car!
(race out to the car with Magical Mystery Tour in hand)... ahhhhhh "Flying" "Blue Jay Way" "Your Mother Should Know" "Penny Lane"....sounds good. No muddle. No peaking highs. OK. It's just the thrift store/everybody's attic stereo that is forcing this trauma.
Back to home base. OK, laptop with headphones. Plug in. Hmmm...
So this is where I admit some hilarious counter-intuitive nincompoopery on my part.
Hooray for stereo. The ability to separate sound into multiple channels so it feels like you are there maaaaan. Thank you Ernesto Stereo from coming down from that Greek mountain and inventing it. Only ...the Beatles use too much. Sorry Paul and John, sorry Mr. Martin. I know it was cool, and it seemed like a great like a stoney idea to slam all of the vocals into one room and leave all of the instruments in another corridor, but if you are listening in a 1972 Chevy Malibu that only has one speaker in the center of the dash, you lose half the story, and if you are sober and listening on headphones it splits your head in half (without the necessary chemicals to tie all of the pieces together...sorry).
Luckily technology comes to my aid again, and the media playback software Winamp has a 3rd party plugin called "Somewhat Mono" that allows you (the listener) to choose how much stereo split you end up getting. This is how I dove in.
I really wanted to crank up the tunes on a hi-end Maranz tube amp-driven system, but I ended up listening on this laptop with my (actually really good) Sony Fontopia earbuds, and that will have to do.
From the accounts I'd received, it is "a large, vertical set with two stacks of discs in slick cardboard sleeves piled on top of each other" which made me worried that it was packaged like a grocery bag packed by one of those special needs baggers at the local Kroger's... all jumbled in there with the canned goods on top of the white bread
In reality, it ain't so bad. The box is a box. It is meant to hold the digipaks so they can ship to the store OK, then you can put the individual discs on your CD shelf, then wonder what to do with the outside box. It will end up in the basement. One corner will get crushed. If you live in my house, the cat may pee on the box it is in and you'll end up throwing it away.
Is it a gold-and-mahogany gilded box with emeralds the same colour as the Apple logo? No.
Did it get the CDs to my house intact (even though that asshole cut me off as I was driving and it tumbled to the footwell of my car and I thought "Oh shit, I'll be blogging about THIS")? Yes it did. In fact I am in support of boring utilitarian boxes because it makes their banishment to the basement that much easier.
The digipaks are well built, the actual disc (CD) graphics shift from Parlophone to Capitol to Apple appropriately. Did they exactly replicate the LP labels exactly (the little stickers that were pasted on the LPs indicating side 1 and side 2)? I'll be damned if they didn't (or as close as you can get when the A side and B side are on the same piece of plastic). The White Album even has the image of the full apple on the first disc, then the halved apple on the second disc. Nice fucking work, gents.
Each album comes with a booklet of the original liner notes, some new photos and some "Recording Notes" by the blokes that were tasked with the remastering. It has everything for everybody. The generation that picked them up at their local Woolworth's on LP can revisit the liners, and those of us nerdy enough to have read about this entire remastering process can get their jollies over phrases like "Using this take as the master, overdubs of handclaps, timpani and guitar were made on track three and the remaining track was used for double-tracked vocals. The closing guitar coda was added on another day and the distinctive fade-in was created when the song was mixed." Ooooh! Anyone else with goosebumps!?! no? oh...ok.
Magical Mystery Tour comes with the whole goofy cartoony TV teleplay that I remember from Pop's LP, and The White Album (oh let's all collectively stop calling it "The Beatles" shall we?) comes with a gatefold with the four dreamy snapshots that were in the LP but also a booklet AND a fold-out poster that has the lyrics on one side and the photo montage (complete with John's sketch of the nude John & Yoko that my brother and sister and I giggled over 30 years ago) that was in the original album package.
There is also a DVD with documentary material about each album. Each of these should be 10 hours long (and still be too short) but are actually just a few minutes long each and were pretty accurately described as "infomercials" about each album. I figure: pick up The Beatles Anthology on DVD and throw it in while you're listening.
Once I got around the technical limitations of the system I was battling with, I started with Please Please Me and picked choice cuts throughout the discography:
At the very very end of "Tell Me Why" on Hard Day's Night there's a great "zip" of the strings that the remasterers recovered.
Of the early Beatles stuff, nothing sounds as good as "Beatles for Sale" featuring my top favorite moptop-era jam "What You're Doing." In this song (which I've listened to 6.8 million times) I'm hearing nuances like piano chords previously buried, and a low hum of a backing vocal in the last verse that was like finding a thousand-dollar bill in your back pocket.
The volume control guitar trickery of "I Need You" on Help! (nerds will know what the fuck I'm talking about) has been tempered in a very respectable way that now sounds like a musical instrument and not a freight train barreling down on your ears. Plus (can I say it?) More Cowbell!
"You're Gonna Lose That Girl" = Latin percussion jam? I never knew it, but there it is.
Oh "Yesterday"...I great, I now want to invent a time machine to go back in time and make out with Paul McCartney. Turns out that if I was alive in 1965 I may have been gay.
My favorite album since the dawn of time is the US edition of Rubber Soul.
In my opinion,
The songs added from Help! (the pleading acoustic "It's Only Love" and the rollicking opener "I've Just Seen a Face") change the entire feel of the album, making it more earthy and textural. By dropping the piano-driven "Drive My Car" and the stark "Nowhere Man," the U.S. edition stands as a much more organic and warm musical whole, enduring as by far the most intimate Beatles album until Let It Be was released in 1970.
So I hand-cobbled the sequence of the stateside version of Rubber Soul and it sounds great. "I've Just Seen a Face" was one of the songs I sung to Hank to try to get him to sleep when he was a babe. It will be the first song played in the Wes Anderson biopic of my life and it really needs to come first.
Ringo's goofy country-rock throwaway "What Goes On" simply sparkles (hey, I admitted to being gay a couple albums ago) with John's accent vocals and George's nimble guitar licks. There are also a bunch of awesome studio mumbles going on the background under everybody's breath. Fuck, man. They were real people with opinions and voices and funny asides to each other while the mic was on.
The fact that they could do so much with a track that was never a number 1 (or even on the radar) shows how much attention this canon got.
Holy shit. "Taxman"...That bassline is incredible. It's like Paul decided "OK, if we're going to launch off the album with a George song, It's gonna fucking tear it up."
"Eleanor Rigby" is the worst offender of the Stereo Discrepancy wars. Some verses are evenly balanced and some have some pretty extreme split.
("I'm Only Sleeping," "And Your Bird Can Sing" and "Doctor Robert" all get skipped because they weren't on the US version that I memorized and whenever they show up it is like when the the nerdy exchange students would show up at your dorm room party..."Yeah, I mean I guess you can come in...or whatever...I guess." I'm sure they're nice songs and have a lot to offer, but they are foreign to me and to you I say good day sir. Sir: I said Good Day.)
That being said, "And Your Bird Can Sing" has a JAM of a vocal harmony in the 'MEEEE"s, and when my Dad was going to school he roomed with a pre-med student that he called "Doctor Robert' so I guess those songs are OK.
"She Said She Said" is an acerbic and raw rip of a song. Matt Knee and I saw a band called Overwhelming Colorfast who was opening up for Medicine(?) Luna(?) Screaming Trees(?) Mercury Rev(?) at The Pig in (fuck me) 1993? and they tore this song apart. I wish their albums were as good as this song.
Ok wait. Let me get this straight: The Beatles released Rubber Soul, then Revolver, then Sgt. Pepper? One after another? All within like a year and a half of each other? Never before and never again will this level of artistic achievement be matched.
"Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite" from Sgt. Pepper is worth the price of admission alone. So many other vocals and guitar parts that were never revealed before! How many people were in this band anyway!!!1!
These later albums end up being a split decision. So much of the engineering and instrumentation were so pioneering to begin with, these advances in mastering are sometimes illuminating and somewhat expected. I'm finding more revelation in some of the earlier "moptop" albums than I am with some of the trippier stuff. That stuff was already incredible to begin with. Still...
"Within You Without You" has so much sitar and cello and tabla and guitar goodness I can barely contain myself. There are these little whispered bits under the music that are chuckling to themselves...I see the giddy face of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi prodding the giggles and mantras...I...I want to give him my money...(ok maybe not, but still).
The awesomeness of John's "Within You Without You" (transcendental, wordly, I become an transparent eyeball) segueing into Paul's "When I'm Sixty-Four" (Vera, Chuck and Dave) forecasts the inevitable decline of the band. Damn if those clarinets and bassoons don't take you right from Rishikesh to a Liverpool Labour neighborhood in a flash though... Almost as if Paul was saying "Yes yes...mysticism is all well and good, but don't forget, John, your grandmum lived 'round the corner from mine."
Oh man. Let me tell you... I had never heard the creak of the engineer's chair at the end of "A Day in the Life" before (as hard as I strained) and now it is clear as day. Oh, and they kept the "Never to see any other world" bit on the end, in case you were wondering ...what's that? Oh, you weren't? Oh, ok.
Magical Mystery Tour has some under-appreciated tunes on it ("Flying" "Blue Jay Way" "Your Mother Should Know") and they all sound really crisp and great.
I kinda over-listened to The White Album from 1986-1990 (a.k.a. the entirety of high school) and it kinda occupies the same space as Pink Floyd and Nirvana in my brain: Like I dug WAAAYYYY too deep into it and have trouble returning to it again, not because of the quality of the music but because of the emotional heaviness I have attached to it. Still, it sounds so good here...you an still feel the tension beginning, and the bass work on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" actually outshines Clapton's solo. Ferreals.
"Blackbird" sounds fresh and amazing. The percussive foot taps or lap-slaps are right in the room with you. OOh! And did you know that the bass line in "I Will" was not a bass at all? But actually Paul himself going "Doomp Doomp" right in your left ear with his voice? So there you go.
They wisely split it into two albums as it should be.
Oh hello french horns in "Mother Nature's Son"...I didn't know you were hiding back there behind the curtain!
Jesus M. Christ "Everybody's Got Something To Hide" is a JAMMMMM! Ring that bell you crazy fucker!!! (note: I have been drinking bourbon)
(I did not listen to "Revolution 9" ..not since the ..."unpleasantness")
It seems kinda weird that Yellow Submarine came after The White Album, but what can you do?
"Only a Nothern Song" sucks and should not be listened to. Sorry George, I know you're dead and all, but does matter what chord you play and what key you're in...it's called music.
"All Together Now" brings out some weird stuff that I hadn't heard before, but overall I think that the version on the Yellow Submarine Songtrack may in fact be more listenable. This one is a bit too ramshackle and jumbled. It's fun to have a sing-along but those extra voices playing the tambourine and Harpo/bicycle horn on the floor could be dropped back in the mix. "Hey Bulldog" punches you in the tits, though.
There is a bunch of George Martin orchestral score stuff being listened to now and will never be listened to again. On to...
Abbey Road which starts with "Come Together" and is creepy and lecherous and wonderful. Like a Steely Dan song without the jazz. "Because" is equally stark and creepy. There is a great acapella version of this song on the third Anthology:
This information has nothing to do with the boxed set. Just thought I'd share it.
"'Out of college/Money Spent/See no future/Pay no rent/All the money's gone/No where to go...but oh that magic feeling...nowhere to go"
"Sun King" sounds great. The Beatles must've gotten real crickets to record that part at the beginning.
There is usually about a month out of every two years where I think that Let It Be is my favorite Beatles album. It just feels like the last chapter of a series of books that you dearly love (Tolkien, Lloyd Alexander's 'The Prydain Chronicles,' Harry Potter, ummm...that may be it) where you feel like you've been on a journey and maybe this chapter doesn't have the most swordfights or action, but it wraps it all up and it seems like there is a casual resolution in Samwise getting married or the hero returning to normal life.
The Beatles cover some old blues tunes, flash some brilliance ("Let it Be," "Across the Universe," "The Long and Winding Road") revisit the first song they ever wrote, and throw in some studio banter/gooballiness, culminating in the last recording as they flame out on the rooftop of their studio.
This was revisited recently in the Let It Be...Naked release, so nothing here sounds absolutely revelatory, but I will say that there are brilliant pixies that fly around "Across the Universe" lighting John's path with choral voices and a loopy wah-wah, and Paul's glee during "I've Got a Feeling" simply pours through the speakers like an old Play-Doh Fun Factory.
There is also a two-disc Past Masters set that grabs all of the non-album tracks and I'm not convinced that it received the same attention. "She's a Woman" sounds like four (or maybe fewer) guys in separate rooms walking though the song. "Paperback Writer" fares better, but "Rain" sounds a little too brash and one-note, like it is all pouring out of them at exactly the same color and texture, overwhelming the listener.
But seriously, how often do I plan to throw the Past Masters in? Not all that often. They are like a shoebox full of quarters that I would've bitched about if they hadn't been included alongside the gold dollars of the rest of the songs.
And in the end...
I am overjoyed at the purchase and am glad at all of the attention the lads are getting (oh, there's also a video game or something that is coming out). There are little gems in here that nerds like me will be uncovering for months to come...missed notes or studio banter or something.
Could there have been more? Sure. There are shit-tons of outtakes and alternate versions that exist and could've been included, but overall I couldn't be happier.
Even if you have all of these albums on CD already, I recommend re-investing.
And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.