Here comes another wave of revamped discs, but do these upgrades make the grade?
Album Reviews: ‘Loaded: Fully Loaded Edition’; ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’; ‘Rawpower’; ‘Who Are You’; ‘Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde’; ‘The Who by Numbers’
You’ve finally replaced your old LPs with sparkling new CDs. Sonic perfection attained at last? Not necessarily. Stroll through the aisles of your record store, and you may notice your favorite landmark CDs sporting stickers saying they’ve been newly upgraded with ”the original master tapes.” Like a modern-day carny barker, the music business wants you to step right up! Hear improved sound quality! Relish never- before-heard leftovers! Gawk at all-new liner notes and rare photos! Buy your discs all over again!
If it’s easy to be cynical about this trend of extracting even more blood from a stone — Rolling or otherwise — the labels continue to make matters worse. This month, the first three Jimi Hendrix albums will be reissued on CD for the third time — now, they say, featuring superior master tapes. In 1996, Reprise repackaged Joni Mitchell’s first four albums — not with better sound, but with improved artwork. Last year, I replaced my original disc of Stephen Stills’ ’72 rock-Latin-country smorgasjam Manassas with its ”digitally remastered” upgrade. Yes, I did detect a new clarity to the harmonies and guitars — but only when I listened, very intently, with headphones.
True, some revises are absurdly overdue. Compare the initial reissue of the Velvet Underground’s 1970 Loaded with the overhauled one on LOADED: FULLY LOADED EDITION (Rhino). Even though it remains the slightest, most unnaturally sunny record the band ever made, the rejiggered Loaded makes the original CD sound like it was mixed by monkeys. On the new disc, the guitars are as crisp and up front as the vocals, and ”Sweet Jane” and ”Rock & Roll” have been restored to their complete, unedited versions. The new lenticular cover art, which brings to life the steam rising from that subway entrance, now mirrors the smoke that must have emanated from Lou Reed’s ears when he heard the butchered original LP.
The so-so news is that the revamped Loaded is available only as part of a two-disc, $20 list package, the second half of which presents the same songs in alternate takes (e.g., ”I Found a Reason” as harmonica-driven folk rock). File under: Listen once, then file. Speaking of rectifying sonic botches, Sony Legacy will finally unveil (on April 22) an overhauled disc of one of rock’s most exciting, but worst-recorded, audio assaults, Iggy and the Stooges’ 1973 RAW POWER. In past pressings, the guitars were too loud, the drums buried. The remix, supervised by Iggy Pop himself, is as collar grabbing as the Stooges’ skin-scratching rage itself.
The overhauling of the Who catalog continues with recent upgrades of 1975’s THE WHO BY NUMBERS and 1978’s WHO ARE YOU (MCA). The last good albums the band made, neither record is dramatically altered by the slightly improved sound. By Numbers remains an underrated mix of pared-down friskiness and bittersweet introspection, and the orchestral pomp of Who Are You still feels sodden and forced. The bonus cuts are nothing to make Townshend do windmills over, although collectors should relish two of them on Who Are You — ”No Road Romance” (a florid outtake that could have been from a musical about roadies) and a version of the soul-ravaged title epic with a different, self-lacerating second verse. Still, the initial CD releases of both albums featured the shoddy packaging and skimpy credits common to early reissues. The corrected CDs add booklets with extensive essays and photos — disc-respect at last.
To date, the best reissue series has been Sony Legacy’s upgrading of the Byrds catalog, which began last year with remastered editions of the group’s first four albums. The project continues with this week’s release of four more titles. The remix of THE NOTORIOUS BYRD BROTHERS (1968) finally captures the album’s spatial wistfulness and is recommended for fans of the strings-and-things indie rock of Eric Matthews. SWEETHEART OF THE RODEO (1968), the Byrds’ full-twang-ahead drive into country, sounds sharper too, and outtakes featuring Gram Parsons add a rustic postscript. Anyone taken with the ’90s alt-country of Wilco should visit this more authentic Rodeo.
The other discs, DR. BYRDS & MR. HYDE and THE BALLAD OF EASY RIDER (both 1969), are improved too — especially the former, which always suffered from a murky, bad-acid-trip mix. But enhanced audio can’t disguise the fact that both albums are padded with faded-jeans country rock. Rider, at least, has better previously unreleased extras: ”Fiddler a Dram (Moog Experiment)” showcases the band’s progressive mix of folk and electronic music.
No matter the band, bonus tracks are a mixed blessing, often hurting the cohesion of the original work. But every so often, they shed a sliver of new light. Tacked onto the end of Notorious is an unlisted track: a studio rehearsal that turns into a testy intra-band rumble. ”I don’t even like this song,” grumbles drummer Michael Clarke when David Crosby suggests a different rhythm for ”Dolphin’s Smile.” It’s a revealing peek into the creative process — and proof that once in a while, Crosby could at least think straight. Loaded/Fully Loaded Edition: B+ Raw Power: A The Who by Numbers: A- Who Are You: B- The Notorious Byrd Brothers: A Sweetheart of the Rodeo: A Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde: B The Ballad of Easy Rider: B-