It doesn't matter what you think of The Nation or its Washington editor, Chris Hayes. This is not the place for politics. But Hayes said something the other day that got me thinking about . . . Beatles CDs. To keep things apolitical here, I'll simply report that he said a certain recent news topic was "a fascinating case study" in how a certain something "is able to just wrench things from the fantasy world and make them fact by repetition."
So I'm thinking . . . those 1987 CDs that everyone believes are "brittle" and "shrill," not just considered against today's best discs but also judged solely on their own: Does everyone believe that "fact" merely because it has been repeated for so long?
I, for one, having overseen (and contributed to) in-depth reviews of the original CDs in High Fidelity magazine in 1987 and '88, don't remember the entire catalog sounding so lousy back then. And I certainly haven't recoiled each of the many, many times I've replayed and enjoyed those CDs in the ensuing 22 years.
So, again, I'm thinking: Has anyone else really listened to those CDs lately? Did Record Collector and USA Today conduct A/B comparisons to actually, you know, compare the sound of the old and new CDs? We know Uncut didn't for its cover-heralded "Definitive Review!" because it admitted as much; rather, it auditioned just the remasters in "a 14-hour listening session at Abbey Road Studios." Hmmm, not much of a controlled review situation, that.
I undertook my review the only way I know how: listening and relistening for days and days. Which meant listening to everything in full - not just mono and stereo but old and new. And that meant doing direct A/B comparisons (mono to mono, stereo to stereo) of the old and new CDs - not just random selections but every track on every album.
Here are my notes on Album 1, Track 1, "I Saw Her Standing There." Mono, 1987: "Brittle? Shrill? No! Fine bass." Mono, 2009: "Actually slightly narrower, but overall, close." Listening to the rest of those Please Please Me CDs, I found the "brittle and shrill" fact to be a myth. This was also the case for the old and new mono CDs of A Hard Day's Night where the 2009 version actually sounded duller on tracks like "If I Fell" and "I'm Happy Just to Dance with You." Many times throughout the catalog, though, I found myself jotting down variations on that first "overall, close" while A/B-ing songs: "very close," "tough call," "basically the same," "nearly identical." And, while loving the new CDs in general, I remained happy with much of the sound on many of the old CDs.
Catch those hedges? "Much," "many." Does that mean I witnessed my own artgallery sponge baths, my own dirty-window openings onto newly Fab Goghs? Yes! On the 1987 mono CD of With the Beatles, "Hold Me Tight" is tight indeed - as in constricted, as in heard through a cheap little transistor radio - whereas the new mono CD allows the song to breathe. Similarly dramatic improvements surface in later comparisons in stereo, from the now more natural harmonies isolated in the right channel of "If I Needed Someone" and the reborn bass of "Don't Pass Me By" to the perked-up percussion on Abbey Road - be it the especially clangy bang of "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" or the crisper hihat and deeper toms of Ringo Starr's drums for most of the album.
Some of the biggest differences can be heard by going back to the 1987 Past Masters CDs. There, the mono mixes of the German versions of "She Loves You" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand" sound so comparatively thin and trebly - dare I say "shrill"? - that they're nearly unlistenable. On the other hand, the old stereo "Get Back" is so bassy and muffy - "dead, sapped of punch and energy," I noted - that I had to write "Yikes!" when treated to the 2009 remaster's sharpness and clarity, as if that proverbial veil had been lifted from the recording.
As for the much-discussed digital limiting added to the stereo CDs, that has mostly turned out to be much ado about nothing. Time after time in my A/B comparisons, levels remained close enough to be of no concern. I did notice a boost in "Eleanor Rigby" (most likely to compensate for the mix's hard left/right split), and as heard on hushed songs like "Julia" and "Long, Long, Long," louder isn't really better. Only on three Let It Be tracks does the sound get out of hand, from the too-raucous-for-a-shuffle "For You Blue" to the near-fatiguing climaxes of "I Me Mine" and "I've Got a Feeling" You want a Bottom Line? These new CDs do sound excellent - even if, in some cases, they're simply matching or slightly besting the old CDs. No worries, then, because after all, the music comes through vividly for a catalog from the 1960s. And, in the end, these are . . .
Twickenham Film Studios, 1965: Ringo shows everybody!
Not a bad bunch of songs. All I've got to do now is quote John Lennon from a radio show, as included in one of the mini-docs: "And now we're going to play a track from Magical Mystery Tour, which is one of my favorite albums because it was so weird. 'I Am the Walrus': one of my favorite tracks, because I did it, of course, but also because it's one of those that has enough little bitties going to keep you interested even 100 years later."
We've got 60 more years to go. We shall continue to have fun, eh?
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