Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Beatles Box Set, The Beatles In Mono, 2009

This one has been a long time in the making. I decided that I should review the newly mastered Beatles catalog and evaluate them for myself. I’ve been listening to the new Beatles remasters in both stereo and mono, and comparing to earlier CDs as well as vinyl copies. This has been happening on and off since late November, and I’m now ready to draw some conclusions. Well, sort of conclusions, anyway.

For those of you who don’t appreciate the weird permutations that are the Beatles catalog, a brief review. In the 1960s the original Beatles LPs and singles were released in the UK by Parlophone. The same music in different packaging configurations was released in the US by Capitol (VeeJay released the first Beatles singles and LP in the US, but Capitol got the distribution deal rather quickly, and reissued all of the VeeJay material later). The Beatles LPs in the US and the UK were quite different all the way until Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the first LP to be released with the exact same songs and running order in the US and UK. In 1987 when the Beatles catalog was at last released on CD, the UK LPs were released on CD worldwide. Also in 1987, the two-CD Past Masters sets were established, which collected singles and EP tracks that never made it to a UK LP. Many of the Past Masters tracks had been LP tracks in the US. Since 1987 the entire “official” catalog consisted of 16 CDs, the 13 original UK LPs (with the White Album on 2 CDs), and the 2 Past Masters CDs. Since 1987, quite a bit of “new” and recycled material has been released, including the three 2-CD Anthology sets of outtakes, demos and alternates, the Live At The BBC 2-CD set, and the recent (2004) release of the Capitol Albums Vol. 1 and 2, two 4-CD sets that present the pre-Sgt. Pepper material as it was packaged in the US, with each LP in both stereo and mono versions.

And now for the 2009 CDs. All of the original material from the 1987 CDs that was included in the 1987 Box Set is here in the new Box Set, in newly remastered stereo using the original master tapes as a guide. There are mini-documentaries on each disc that tell about the recordings and include Sir George Martin’s own personal recollections. There are nice sleeves and both original liner notes and newly written recording notes, again with Sir Martin’s input. Just to confuse things, there is also a Beatles In Mono box set that collects all of the LPs that were originally mixed for mono (you don’t get Abbey Road or Let It Be, which were only ever mixed in stereo). You get mono mixes of Sgt. Pepper and the White Album that you’ve probably never heard. Finally, in 1987 George Martin remastered Rubber Soul and Help! because he didn’t like the original 1965 job. The 1987 mixes are presented on the stereo box, but the mono box includes both the mono mixes and the original 1965 stereo mixes of Help! and Rubber Soul.

All of this material has been painstakingly restored. The original master tapes were cleaned up and transferred to a high resolution digital format, and then the digital copies were remixed to enhance their sound, correct any mixing and tape errors made in the original mixes, clean up any noise (there was plenty), and finally the high-resolution digital files were taken down to the Red Book standard CD 16 bit, 44 kHz file format. What, no SACD? No Blue Ray Audio or DVD-A? No. But there is a limited edition USB format that delivers all the box set goodies as well as all the music in 24 bit FLAC files. So if you’re using a computer as a music source and can handle higher resolution audio files, the USB version would be the best sound possible right now. I have not heard the USB version, so I can’t tell you how good it is.

So what sounds best? Should you replace the box set of 1987 CDs? Should you buy the mono or the stereo box? Should you even care at all? These are the questions we hope to answer.

I purchased the new Beatles In Mono box set. I bought it because I was interested in hearing the mono versions of the later records, and because the mono versions of the earlier records always sounded better to me than the stereo versions. Also, I own stereo versions of just about everything on vinyl. I have good condition vinyl copies of Let It Be and Abbey Road, so I didn’t need those. I borrowed my friend’s copy of the new Beatles stereo box set, and I’ve listened to every version I have on hand of each record, including vinyl and several of the 1987 CDs that I own or borrowed from the library.

As far as the first four LPs go, I listened to the Stereo Box, Mono Box, Japanese Mono Vinyl (these are the Japanese vinyl versions that Michael Fremmer hates because they are mastered from digital files, but they are probably hi-res PCM files because they sound better than the 87 CDs for sure), and various original and reissued American vinyl versions. Please Please Me, With The Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night and Beatles For Sale all sound better to me in their mono incarnations. The mono mixes are more dynamic, and seem to have slightly better bass than the new stereo versions. The new stereo versions are very, very good. The detail is excellent, the noise floor is dead quiet, and they are super-clean. For these records, either the new mono box set or the Japanese mono vinyl copies sounded equally excellent, followed closely by the new stereo versions. In all cases, the American Capitol vinyl copies I had on hand sounded worse than every other version, and like the 87 CDs, sounded dry and thin in comparison to these newly remastered versions in either stereo or mono. The big thing about the mono mixes is that they sound “right”. The Beatles were recording to two-track and four-track tape, and the stereo mixes often have voices on one side and instruments on the other. The mono mixes are more natural sounding, and remind you of the way these songs sounded in cars and on jukeboxes.

The middle period is a bit of a mixed bag, but generally I preferred the new stereo versions of Help!, Rubber Soul, and Revolver. I had the 87 CDs to compare, and the new CDs sound significantly better. Again the 87 CDs sound dry and thin and lifeless while the new CDs are quieter, more dynamic, cleaner and reveal small details in the mix better than the 87 CDs. The bass is up in the mix more than any previous versions, but don’t expect to be wowed by this. The new CDs have more bass, but it’s a very minor effect. Listening to In My Life from Rubber Soul, the new stereo mix really focuses Ringo’s snare drum pops and cymbals, while the new mono mix has less attack on the snare, but more prominent background vocals. An older American Apple label vinyl version has the new stereo’s nice attack on the snare, but the background vocals were harder to separate from each other in the mix. Eleanor Rigby from Revolver was interesting. The new mono mix is really great, and the strings are beautiful. The new stereo mix is cleaner, and again the strings are gorgeous. The 87 CD was harsh and dry in comparison, but an old American Capitol vinyl version had the best bass of the bunch on the cellos, and it also had a nice warm sound that was different, and just as good as the new stereo CD. Of course, this would have been George Martin’s original stereo mix, and the new CD uses his 87 remix. It’s confusing.

This brings us to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Compared to the 87CDs, the new stereo version is cleaner, more dynamic, more revealing. The difference is not night and day, but it is real. The new stereo and mono versions are different, and both sound great. It’s fun to hear the mono mix of Sgt. Pepper, but it’s not as big of a deal as you might think. The stereo is what you grew up with, and it sounds excellent, just like you remembered, but better. The only vinyl version I own right now is a Japanese digital mastered LP, and it sound great too, but the new stereo CDs are the detail retrieval winners.

Magical Mystery Tour benefits from being in stereo. The mono version is interesting, but the stereo separation is an important factor in all the effects that are used on this recording. My original American vinyl version was bettered by the new stereo CD, also.

For The Beatles (aka The White Album) I listened to the 87 CDs, an American reissued “red label” Capitol LP, and the new stereo and mono versions. In this case, my personal favorite turned out to be the vinyl version. Warmer, more organic, a little forward sounding, and great bass. But there were more details in the new stereo version, and it’s clean. The 87 CDs were dry, flat, and one-dimensional. The new mono mix was fun to hear, and really changes a few of the songs on this record for the better. This one is by far the most interesting to hear in mono, even though the stereo mix is the more familiar.

Let It Be sounds great in the new stereo version compared to an original American Apple label vinyl version, and the new version of Abbey Road in stereo bested two very different vinyl versions, with my original American Apple pressing coming real close.
Some of the singles on the Past Masters CDs sound much better in mono, including Long Tall Sally, Slow Down, Day Tripper and Revolution. The mono mixes just sound “right” in a way that again harkens back to the car radio of the sixties.

Conclusions. If you own a good stereo system that lets you hear the difference between well made CDs and crappy CDs, and you listen to your current Beatles CDs with any regularity, then you need to buy new copies. The new stereo box set is excellent. The CD booklets are good, the packaging is good, the mini-documentaries are just OK and mostly a waste of time, but for some less knowledgeable fans, they may add to the experience some.

Am I sorry I bought the Beatles In Mono box set instead of the stereo version? No. I like the mono versions of the first four LPs. They just sound better in mono. I also own vinyl copies of the entire catalog, and they sound almost as good as the new CDs, and consistently better than the old 1987 CDs. The packaging isn’t as nice with the Mono box. You don’t get the individual CD booklets, or the videos, but the booklet that comes with the set is OK.

If you are moving from CD playback to downloading high resolution computer stored music files and using a computer as a legitimate high-end music source component, then the USB stick with 24 bit FLAC files is the best you can do right now, and I’ll bet they sound great. I’d be concerned that an even higher resolution digital format might become available soon, and the USB version is expensive.

If you listen to an iPod mainly or a small one-box type system tucked under the kitchen counter, your 1987 mastered CDs will be fine. Of course, if you’re that person, you wouldn’t possibly have read all the way to here.

The Beatles are back. Again.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Dreaded Tribute Album

There's this very popular packaging scheme that involves getting a group of various artists to cover the songs of a band or songwriter as a tribute to the artist's work. Usually these turn out quite disappointing. Sure, there's almost always a great song or two, but the rest are filler-level at best, and sound as inspired as your average Holiday Inn band on a Thursday.

As with any general rule, there are exceptions. I'm never going to call these records classics, because there are always a few less-than-stellar performances on these things, but the tributes below are all better than most, and all of them have quite a few really excellent songs on them, and not many duds.

Deadicated 1991 Grateful Dead songs performed by Los Lobos, Bruce Hornsby, Elvis Costello, Lyle Lovett, Warren Zevon, and more. The Dead seem like an odd choice because of their own unique style. They wrote many killer songs, and the songs here are very well suited to the artists performing them in almost every case (this may be the most important job in producing one of these records, and is often overlooked). Elvis Costello does a great Ship Of Fools, and Lyle Lovett's Friend Of The Devil is perfect. Los Lobos rock the heck out of Bertha, and Hornsby is excellent on Jack Straw. The Indigo Girls do Uncle John's Band with beautiful, arresting harmonies. Dwight Yoakam's Truckin' is big fun. There are only a couple near the end that don't work, but overall a strong record, and a huge surprise.

Endless Highway The Music Of The Band 2007 I love the Band, and here's another source of great songs. This one has a disparate group of artists and shouldn't work. Besides, who can improve on a Band song? Answer: These artists. The Roches do their three-part harmony to breathtaking effect on Acadian Driftwood. It's the definitive version. Gomez tear through Up On Cripple Creek, Allman Brothers do a wonderful The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, and Lee Ann Womack does the best The Weight since the Band's original. My Morning Jacket, Josh Turner and Death Cab For Cutie all perform well, and Rosanne Cash does a heartbreaking The Unfaithful Servant, maybe even bettering the original again. It's that good.

Common Thread: The Songs Of The Eagles 1993 This was a great idea. Eagles songs performed by country music stars. Really, it's hard to believe it took until 1993 for somebody to do it. Most of the arrangements are true to the originals, so it's really up to the singer to find the song. It happens a lot more than you'd think. Clint Black's Desperado is gorgeous. Alan Jackson's Tequila Sunrise, Diamond Rio's Lyin' Eyes, and John Anderson's Heartache Tonight are also excellent. Trisha Yearwood does a nice New Kid In Town, and Vince Gill turns in the most spectacular, pitch-perfect rendition of I Can't Tell You Why. It's hard to breathe while you're hearing it.

So there's a few tributes that don't make you want your money back. That alone would be high praise in this category, but all three of these are highly recommendable.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Jim O'Rourke The Visitor 2009

Jim O'Rourke's The Visitor makes for a rather difficult assignment, but here goes anyway. I'm not even sure quite how to describe this music to you. The entire record is one piece of music, and it's all instrumental. O'Rourke plays most of it himself, and some reports have said that he assembled the music from snippets of things lying around. That may be true, but what comes out is very much a cohesive work.

O'Rourke has been around for quite a while. He has credits on over 100 releases between his many roles. He has made numerous solo recordings, he's produced and recorded others, including a Grammy for producing Wilco's A Ghost Is Born. He was a member of Sonic Youth for several years. He made two records with Jeff Tweedy and Glen Kotchke in a group called Loose Fur. He's made ambient music, noise rock, and oddball pop.

This new one is between ambient music and oddball pop. There are almost jazz-like elements, there are almost classical structural elements. Almost. There are fairly long spells of gently strummed and picked guitars and delicate keyboards, followed by sprightly orchestrated pop passages. Themes fade out to be replaced by new ideas. It is mostly melodic, with only a few dissonant moments. It really plays out like a modern pop symphony. I know that's going out there a bit, and I'm not saying it's Mozart. But it certainly has at least as much depth as some of John Rutter's twentieth century classical music.

If you've got 38 minutes to devote to one piece of music, this is probably like nothing you've ever heard. I don't know if it's "good", or "great", but I liked it, and it certainly is an enjoyable kind of different.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Ray Davies The Kinks Choral Collection 2009

Here's an idea: Take a still active and useful singer-songwriter from one of the great British Invasion bands, have him go into the studio to rerecord a bunch of classics from his own pen with a 65 member chorus and a band of studio musicians, in order to "bring something new to them". It sounds like an awful idea idea on paper, and as it turns out, it's an even worse idea in execution.

I'm not saying that I can't like choral music, but combining it with great old Kinks songs makes way less sense than, say, punk-bluegrass. Something here reminds me of those terrible records of the mid-sixties with the London Symphony recording Beatles songs. This may actually be worse.

The Crouch End Festival Chorus are in good voice, as is Davies mostly, and the recording is good. The band sounds a little homogenized compared to the originals. The choral arrangements are either as good as one might expect, or they're the problem.

Here's the thing. This is a collection of great songs, really great songs, and their original versions are stellar. None of them are in any way improved here. None of them even come out especially "interesting". Most of these gems are made far worse by the addition of a chorus. Village Green is completely destroyed. What on earth do Kinks rockers like All Day And All Of The Night or You Really Got Me need with a sixty-five voice chorus. Even songs that you think might work, like Celluloid Heroes or Waterloo Sunset, they suck, too.

Sometimes a folly is just a folly. This one bites it big time.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Norah Jones The Fall 2009

Four (or five) studio records in, and we get Norah Jones' breakup record. The deeply felt breakup has been the fuel behind some of the finest singer-songwriter fare, and the magic seems to be working for Jones. This is the "different" Norah Jones record, with more guitar (four songs are piano-less), and a new band with a new sound. And what is that new sound? Delicate, intricate, subtle arrangements of good pop-rock-folk songs, with nice accents in the production and the playing. If you've heard recent Shawn Colvin records, that's very close.

The record opens with Chasing Pirates, quite possibly the popiest thing she's ever recorded. You can almost dance to it. Even Though is all sexy, sultry sadness. Light As A Feather is airy and delicate, but with fine ensemble playing. Youngblood is a driving, dark, angry tale of revenge sex. I Wouldn't Need You is a slow burn full of painful longing that sounds like it could be Lucinda Williams, and it's almost that sensual.It's Gonna Be is a stomping mid-tempo rocker that has a killer Jones Wurlitzer electric piano break.

Stuck is a solid rock ballad, with an incendiary Marc Ribot guitar lead. Tell Your Mama is some kind of off-kilter country two-step that works, and the record concludes with Jones' ode to her dog, Man Of The Hour. It's an idea that seems so obvious (the man is dead, long live the dog) I'm surprised we haven't heard it before this . It's cute, and there's some strange treatment of Jones' piano that sounds great.

Back To Manhattan sounds like a song she's done before, but most of the record is fresh. New instrumentation, new musicians, new producer, it all helps keep her often languid work from falling asleep.

So here is another solid Norah Jones record, and beautifully recorded, as usual. The sound is still organic, but with a more electronic flavors than previous outings. It's a really fine pop record by a very talented performer. It's different enough to keep things interesting. Recommended.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Neil Young and Crazy Horse Live At The Fillmore 1970

Part of Neil Young's recent Monumental Reissue Series, this one is really quite fine. It's Neil right around the time of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, and it covers much of that record.

If you haven't pulled Everybody Knows out for a while, then you probably don't need this one either. The live recording is superb, and the band smolders and burns its way through a 12-minute Down By The River and a 16-minute Cowgirl In The Sand. Both are excellent, with extended jams that highlight Danny Whitten's telepathic connection with Young, playing on top of the rock solid rhythm section of Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina.

A few "new" songs at the time make the set; Winterlong, and especially Come On Baby, Let's Go Downtown are both solid rockers. The show opens with a hard rocking Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, and the lesser Wonderin' fills out the set.
The record was released on both CD and LP in 2007. It is also included as part of the 8 CD Archives Volume 1. The vinyl is done to perfection by Classic Records, and is highly recommended.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Friday Night

I don't know if anyone wants to read a list of songs, but I find it fun when my friend Cleveland Bob does his Friday Random 10 over at Loud Mouth Soup It's pretty sweet- he does it from his iPod and takes the next ten no matter.

So last year I made a CD called Friday Night. In Cleveland in the 1970s and 1980s Friday night started with Bruce Springsteen's Born To Run on WMMS, and took off from there. I know there's radio stations that program for Friday night today, but when I'm ready for Friday and loosening up a bit, I put that Friday Night CD on. The idea was to play it pretty straight, inspired by those WMMS Fridays, but also adding a few interesting twists that fit the set but were never quite radio staples (or they were just my favorites). It goes like this:
1. Born To Run – Bruce Springsteen
2. Friday On My Mind – Earth Quake
3. Rock And Roll – Led Zeppelin
4. House Party – J. Geils Band
5. Get Out Of Denver – Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band
6. Keep Playin’ That Rock ‘N’ Roll – Edgar Winter’s White Trash
7. You Shook Me All Night Long- AC/DC
8. Open My Eyes – The Nazz
9. Suffragette City – David Bowie
10. Heat Treatment – Graham Parker
11. Rock & Roll – The Velvet Underground
12. Driver’s Seat – Sniff ‘n’ the Tears
13. Don’t Wait Too Long – The New York Rock Ensemble
14. Dancing In The Moonlight – Thin Lizzy
15. Me And The Boys – NRBQ
16. Ships In The Night – Be-Bop Deluxe
17. Honky Tonk Women – Elton John
18. Black Betty – Ram Jam
19. Play That Fast Thing – Rockpile

Friday, January 1, 2010

Drive-by Truckers Brighter Than Creation's Dark 2008

I'd been aware of the Truckers for a while, and they have a bunch of records, going back more than ten years. I finally heard their work on Bettye LaVette's Scene Of The Crime 2007, and that was a killer record, although it was essentially a soul album, and that's not the Truckers' usual path. I'm not sure how I'd describe the Truckers' sound, they are country, punk, rock, southern, gothic. They write great songs, and with three songwriters, the style varies enough that things stay interesting.

And they can be very Heavy. Lyrically, they are strong writers with intense messages. Two Daughters And A Beautiful Wife opens the record on a sensitive note that reminds of early BoDeans. The Righteous Path is a huge song with a great story to tell. There's a stretch of five songs starting with Lisa's Birthday and ending with Checkout Time In Vegas that deals with the fallout at home and abroad from our current wars. It's a heavy trip. But they do it all with talent, insight and unflinching honesty. And they rock those three-guitar jams like crazy.

The record is only slightly brighter than the darkest dark. The glimpses of hope in Perfect Timing, Bob, and The Monument Valley are more than overshadowed by the intensity of Daddy Needs A Drink, That Man I Shot, The Home Front and You And Your Crystal Meth.

So some of the record is just plain difficult to listen to. But when they're rockin', they're hot. 3 Dimes Down, The Righteous Path, Home Field Advantage, and A Ghost To Most are all killer, Neil Young sounding guitar rockers.

At nineteen songs, there could have been some editing. But everything here supports the overarching themes of the record, and they are an exceptionally talented band. Darker and more intense than most of my recommendations. If you're prepared for a wild ride, this band is ready to take you there.