Tuesday, September 8, 2009


This is the day The Beatles reclaim their legacy (as if they were ever remotely in danger of losing it) via the release of the remastered catalog on Apple/Capitol and the unveiling of the much-ballyhooed MTV/Harmonix game The Beatles: Rock Band.

If you’re actually (gasp) paying for updating your Beatles collection from the wretched 1987 CDs and want to get the most bang for the buck, start with the absolute essentials (in chronological order): A Hard Day’s Night, Rubber Soul, Revolver, The Beatles (a.k.a. the White Album) and Abbey Road. At Christmastime, ask Santa for Beatles for Sale, Help!, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Past Masters. Then fill in the holes with Please Please Me, With the Beatles, Magical Mystery Tour and Let It Be. The primary lure of the Yellow Submarine soundtrack, which contains six Beatles songs and seven pieces of George Martin’s score, is the scalding John Lennon rocker “Hey Bulldog.”

For full immersion, I humbly suggest you run, don’t walk, to the nearest retailer (preferably an honest-to-God record store) and peel for the superb, ultra-cool box set The Beatles in Mono, plus the stereo-only Let It Be and Abbey Road. You’ll then own the mixes as personally overseen by the Fabs and producer Martin. (The mono Past Masters includes “Hey Bulldog” and the other Yellow Submarine entries, which weren’t originally album cuts.) That said, you can’t go wrong with Big Black—the stereo box set in its eye-catching, glossy monolith of a container.

If you still need persuading as to why you need this music, allow me to cherry-pick from some of the early reviews I enjoyed. There are persuasive arguments for both mono and stereo versions, as you'll see by scrolling down to the last two quotes...

Peter Aspden in the Financial Times: “The important thing is that it doesn’t disappoint. There is greater clarity, warmth and balance on these versions than has ever been possible before. To listen to them is to rediscover a canon of work that will also, once more, find fresh disciples… By paying proper respect to pop’s greatest opus—the packaging, which includes mini-documentaries on computer files, is exemplary—we have nowhere left to go: this is the end of the record collection era… Buy and listen to any of these CDs, and then try watching The X Factor or American Idol. You will realize that the Beatles remasters are the requiem for an art form. And that their final song—‘The End’—was meant to be taken literally, after all.”

Allan Kozinn in the N.Y. Times: “The most striking and consistent improvements are a heftier, rounded, three-dimensional bass sound, and drums that now sound like drums, rather than something in the distance being hit… Probably the most revelatory of the new transfers is the stereo White Album. From the opening jet engine effects on ‘Back in the USSR’ to the final orchestral chord on ‘Good Night,’ this album now leaps from the speakers. Gentler songs like ‘Julia’ and ‘I Will’ have a lovely transparency, and hard rockers like ‘Yer Blues’ and ‘Helter Skelter’—as well as John Lennon’s quirky vision of dystopia, ‘Revolution 9’ — have a power and fullness unheard until now.

Abbey Road also benefits considerably. The clearer instrumental profiles serve this rich-textured album beautifully: ‘Sun King’ and ‘Here Comes the Sun’ are unusually supple; the vocal on ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’ no longer has a shrill edge, and Lennon’s proto-Minimalist ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ has never sounded more mesmerizing. Nor has the group’s valedictory jam in ‘The End.’

“And if you are cherry-picking among these reissues, the two-CD singles compilation Past Masters should be near the top of your list. The stereo mixes of these songs are often less hard hitting than the mono singles were, but the remastered versions, with their enriched bass, palpable drum sound and improved sense of vocal presence, no longer sound anemic. You find yourself discovering textural details (the percussion overlay in ‘She’s a Woman’ is one such surprise) that show how imaginative the Beatles’ arrangements are.”

Mark Edwards in The Times of London: “Time and again, on album after album, I felt as if I were listening to music I’d never heard before… I expected to be thinking things like: ‘Well, they’ve really brought some crispness to the hi-hat on this one.’ What I didn’t expect was to be blown away by the music all over again.”

Chris Riemenschneider in the Mpls-St. Paul Star Tribune: There's simply a lot more oomph in the discs now. Rockers such as ‘Yer Blues’ and ‘I've Got a Feeling’ sound as if they come bleeding out of the speakers. More tender fare such as ‘Here, There and Everywhere’ and ‘Norwegian Wood’ also have more of a crisp, warm sonic panache. Extra geek-out value can be had by the mini-documentaries included with each album about its making, plus expanded liner notes and photos. Listening to the more experimental (read: more drug-influenced) albums such as Yellow Submarine and Magical Mystery Tour—which are hardly among their best collections songwriting-wise—is especially more gratifying, boosting them back to the wild aural experience associated with modern recording innovators such as Grizzly Bear or TV on the Radio.”

Randy Lewis in the L.A. Times: “In general, the music sounds like an aural scrim has been lifted. Everything has become cleaner, fuller, the dynamic range—the difference between the loudest and softest sounds—has been expanded, vocals sound more immediate. The old ‘Twist and Shout’ sounded almost tinny next to the opened-up sound on the remastered version. The sound of McCartney's fingers plucking the strings of his acoustic guitar as he sang ‘Yesterday’ become more tangibly percussive, the tone of his voice and the guitar more open. George Harrison's ‘Taxman’ benefits from more visceral punch from Ringo's drums.”

Anthony DeCurtis in Rolling Stone: “One tip for deep-pocketed fans: The 12-CD The Beatles in Mono box set is more than a collector's indulgence. The warmth and punch of early albums With the Beatles and Beatles for Sale evoke the experience of first hearing songs like ‘All My Loving’ on the original vinyl. But in stereo or mono, these albums have finally received the treatment they deserve.”

Rob Harvilla in the Village Voice: “Speaking personally, I would rather this transaction take place in stereo. The argument for its opposite as The Way They Intended You to Hear It is a valid one: As the dominant format of the time, way more attention was paid to the mono mixes all the way up until Abbey Road, whereupon they were dumped entirely... But through headphones especially, the warmth, fullness, clarity, grit, etc. of those first four records (on CD in stereo for the first time!) is startling. Yes, John had a cold while recording Please Please Me; yes, the phlegm is almost audible, or you can almost convince yourself it is. (And yes, that's a selling point.)

“Not to say the unearthliness of those early highlights—the hymnlike elegance of ‘If I Fell’ (Paul's voice doesn't even crack in mono!), the sweet Motown worship evident in With the Beatles' gorgeous cover of ‘You Really Got a Hold on Me’—suffers much in either format. On the later, weirder records, that's less true: The mono version of the White Album is immediately disqualified, as ‘Helter Skelter’ doesn't have the part at the end where Ringo screams, ‘I GOT BLISTERS ON MY FINGERS!!’ Doing extensive, deep-concentration, track-by-track, side-by-side comparisons of the two Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band iterations is a particularly hallucinatory way to spend an afternoon, but you can only listen to ‘She's Leaving Home’ so many times before your heart breaks.

“Hardcore audiophiles with money to burn are not begrudged the impulse to own both boxes—the Beatles are basically a one-band justification for being a hardcore audiophile in the first place. But Ringo's blisters aside, it comes down to personal preference, headphones vs. speakers, being bowled over vs. being surrounded, so on and so forth. Choose a side. We're in a recession.”

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