I thought I didn't care about the Beatles remasters. The soon-to-be-not-current CD issues always sounded fine to me [a bit quiet in this modern age, sure, but that's nothing the volume knob can't fix], they were being presented in kind of terrible tri-fold digipaks which I loathe, and there is little to nothing in the way of new material to be had in the set. The only thing I was marginally interested in - the mono mixes - are only available in an expensive box set that is a bit out of my price range for something I'm only slightly curious about. And really, I don't listen to the Beatles often enough to upgrade 7 or so albums at $12 a pop. [I really have little to no interest in early Beatles - I can get all the fix I need on the Past Masters set thank you very much - so I'd only be getting 'Rubber Soul' on up through 'Abbey Road' plus Past Masters, really. 'Let It Be'? Eh, no thanks.]
This all changed last week when I listened to the Beatles version of "Blackbird" back to back with the Dandy Warhols slaughter of it. [I appreciate the story behind it - applaud it, even - but it's shit.] Wow, the Beatles version sounds pretty terrible doesn't it? Maybe these do need a clean up...
There was no shortage of hyperbole-filled reviews to be found on the internet - of the individual albums, of mono-vs-stereo, of do you need to upgrade?, of is the mono box worth it...you name it, it was out there. I'll admit, I totally got caught up in the hype - plus, who doesn't love a good reissue campaign. So I got myself on board for it...after the mono boxes were long gone, of course, but apparently we'll be getting more, non-numbered editions later in the year so I can wait.
Thursday at work we got our copies of 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band', 'Abbey Road, 'Rubber Soul' and, er, 'Help!' in. Copies I could hold in my hand but couldn't have. Them being that close yet so far away only made me want them more, of course...
On the way home from work Monday, I stopped by an indie notorious for breaking street dates and there they were - all of the remastered albums ready for me to purchase. Slightly more expensive than they would be in a few days, but I needed something to hold me over. The double albums - the ones I want most, of course - were considerably more expensive than the rest so those weren't an option. The albums I could get even cheaper at work come Wendesday were also out, which left me with the choice of 'Revolver' or 'Magical Mystery Tour'. I chose the latter for sentimental reasons and - let's be honest - because I enjoy it way more than the kind of overrated 'Revolver'. [It's inconsistent folks, come on. 'Rubber Soul' might not reach the heights but it's a more solid listen over all and you know it.]
I got in the car and put it on, expecting to be blown away. Aaaaand, I wasn't. Sure, it sounded a little better but was it a total revelation like some reviews wanted me to believe? No. Of course, we're on a relatively crappy car stereo system here, maybe it'll be better at home. Except as the album went on, it started to get more and more impressive. The title track is still covered in a layer of haze - part of its charm, really - but "The Fool on the Hill" is crystal clear and sounds better than it ever has. "Flying" packs far more of a punch than I ever knew it had. "Blue Jay Way" goes back to the haze, but "Your Mother Should Know" was truly a revelation. Always kind of a non-event for me, it has a real zing on this new reissue that almost makes it a whole new song. The bass really does pop, as cliched as that is to say.
At home, I put it on a stereo with good if not great Sony speakers. Now it made sense - the album sounds amazing. The haze still hangs over the album - or, at least, half of the album - because it's supposed to be there. You take that away and you totally kill the songs.
A third listen to the album on iPod headphones - again, good but not great - revealed a bit of a mixed bag and the argument for mono vs stereo totally made sense. The stereo separation on tracks like "I Am The Walrus" and "Strawberry Fields Forever" reveals the inner workings of the tracks and take away from their magic - on this new remaster on headphones, the separation is striking to the point of distracting and almost ruin the songs, particularly "Strawberry Fields Forever". It takes away and punch it has and makes it sound like a bunch of unrelated parts playing together at the same time to make a bit of an unholy racket rather than one of the greatest psychodelic-pop songs of all time. Ditto for "Baby You're A Rich Man". I imagine cluttering them all back together on a single mono-track will benefit them greatly as it will retain their mystique, though I have to wait on that one until the production lines can churn out some more sets.
On the flip side, the slick Paul McCartney numbers sound even more amazing on headphones. "Penny Lane" is MASSIVE as every element gets breathing room and you can hear each crystal clear, yet they come together to raise the song to a new level - something I think the mono version will miss out on. [Again, wait and see...follow up post to come!]
"I Am The Walrus" on headphones - that was the key track and the best way to gauge your interest in the mono/stereo debate. According to the liner notes - which themselves are interesting if a bit slight, but then again how much more can be written about the Beatles output? [Yes, I get it.] - they couldn't reproduce the radio fade ins/outs for the stereo mix so they created a "false stereo" mix by double tracking the mono mix halfway through the song. You can totally hear it - halfway through when the first King Lear line pops up there is an audible change in fidelity and the whole sound of the song changes. Prior to that you've got the "Strawberry Fields Forever" dilemma I described above going on. At that moment, everything snaps together and the masterpiece that is the song reveals itself as everything is firing together. Amazing. That then changes again near the end of the song as they decided - for some reason - to then snap back out of fake stereo and just fade the mono track back and forth between the two channels, giving you an odd bouncing effect.
Those two-ish mono-minutes in "I Am The Walrus" are what you need to decide how dedicated to the whole project you are. Myself, I was on eBay checking out box set prices. A bit more than I want to pay - I guess discovering new sounds via the stereo mixes will have to tide me over - not entirely a bad thing.