The Rolling Stones in High(ish) Resolution

The Rolling Stones in High(ish) Resolution

Written by Tom Gibbs

I’m focusing on several “high resolution” releases by the Rolling Stones from different periods of the band  that have just been made available for streaming playback on Qobuz and Tidal. Most of these were released as double CD editions a few years ago, and may have been available for streaming elsewhere, but this is the first time they’ve been made available at anything approaching high resolution sound. And three of the four releases include a generous selection of bonus tracks accompanying the studio versions.

The Rolling Stones  Sticky Fingers (Deluxe Edition)

What more needs to be said about Sticky Fingers? This was the first full studio album following the departure of Brian Jones from the lineup, and the first opportunity for his replacement, Mick Taylor, to really strut his stuff. A period of transition for the Stones, but one of their biggest selling and most memorable albums ever, where the band really stretched their capabilities musically into previously uncharted territory. And certainly Mick Taylor’s kind of jazzy sensibilities really helped shape the overall new sound of the band. Sticky Fingers is top-five in the Stones catalog without a doubt, right up there with Exile on Main Street, Beggars Banquet, and Let It Bleed.

Last year’s release of the 50th Anniversary Edition of Let It Bleed gave me high hopes that the 24/96 streaming version of that record would be the definitive one we’d been waiting for, and hopefully with a plethora of bonus material. No dice — the new master was compressed as hell, and the sound quality wasn’t any improvement over the ABKCO SACDs, which I currently feel are the finest versions that currently exist of that period of the Stones. And the 50th Anniversary Edition came with zero bonus material. Nice.

So how does the new streaming version of Sticky Fingers compare? First of all, any hopes that it would also appear as a 24/96 release was quickly dashed — the Deluxe Edition is only available in 24/44.1, so the argument that these releases are high resolution is marginal at best. And right out of the gate, my volume maxed at about one/third lower on the scale compared to my typical listening — this release is as compressed (or more!) than the aforementioned Let It Bleed. And I thought the sound had a bit of an edgy treble presentation — this isn’t an audiophile experience by any stretch of the imagination. And that’s not to say that the Stones albums from this period were audiophile classics; far from it, but I really feel that if the remastering hadn’t been compressed to death, there’d be a lot more dynamic range. And it wouldn’t have hurt them to attempt to give the new Deluxe Edition a bit more of a liquid midrange presentation.

If you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Stones fan, you probably already have the CDs, so you know that the one reason to get or listen to this set is the pretty generous bonus material. Which includes some alternate versions, as well as some live material from that period of the band — although the CD set includes a full disc of a 1971 live date from Leeds that was originally broadcast on the BBC. That concert footage isn’t present on the streaming release for some curious reason, although the equally compelling live tracks from 1971 at the Roundhouse offer some of the best live Stones sound of that era, probably easily bettering the sound from Get Your Ya-Yas Out.

The alternate takes include a version of “Brown Sugar” with Eric Clapton (!) on guitar — which is a really interesting comparison to the more fully fleshed-out album version. There’s an “unplugged” version of “Wild Horses” which doesn’t include the electric guitar solo in the center of the song, but is still very enjoyable. And there are alternate versions of “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” which is a kind of proto-alternative to the album version, as well as an extended jam version of “Bitch,” with some really nice Mick Taylor guitar work towards the end of the cut — he really shows what an excellent addition to the band he was. An alternate version of “Dead Flowers” rounds out the studio outtakes. The live tracks from the Roundhouse set all document the current version of the band’s takes on notable tunes from the Let It Bleed era, like “Live With Me,” “Honky Tonk Women,” “Love In Vain,” and “Midnight Rambler.” A classic version of “Stray Cat Blues” is thrown in for good measure.

All my listening was done on Qobuz — I’ve been having some recent problems with streaming my Tidal subscription via my music player, Roon. While Sticky Fingers (Deluxe Edition) won’t supplant any existing versions of the material strictly in terms of sonics, it’s definitely worth having for the pretty extensive bonus material. Recommended.

Universal Music/Polydor Records, CD (download/streaming from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube)

The Rolling Stones  Some Girls (Deluxe Edition)

1978’s Some Girls found the Stones at a point where they were trying to establish to the rock world that they were still relevant; disco was on the airwaves just about everywhere, and punk rock was pushing many mainstream rock acts out of the forefront. Mick Taylor had departed by this point, and new guitarist Ronnie Wood would bring a bit of punk sensibility to the Stones’ overall sound. But the album’s first single, “Miss You” — which is easily one of the best disco songs by any act, ever — would prove to the record-buying public that the Stones could still hang in there with the best of them. While many seem to think that Some Girls was quickly thrown together by the group, I think the actual truth of the matter is that the record is probably the last truly, fully-formed album the Stones released. And that was over forty years ago!

Despite the fact that this version is actually much closer to being truly high resolution at 24/88.2, Some Girls (Deluxe Edition) still suffers from the same ailments that trouble the Sticky Fingers release. The sound quality is anemic and lightweight, with a harsh treble presentation — yeah, I know, it really sucks for true fans. The new edition was remastered by Stephen Marcussen (he handled the remastering chores for a couple of these Deluxe Edition releases) — he got his first job as a janitor at Richard Perry’s Studio 55 in Los Angeles, where he worked his way up through the system and eventually worked on albums over a twenty year period from artists as diverse as Stevie Wonder, REM, Prince, Tom Petty, Frank Zappa, and the Stones. I consider a lot of those albums as pretty primo stuff from a standpoint of sound quality from the seventies through the nineties, so I’m basically mystified as to why these remasterings sound as lackluster as they do. Of course, none other than Bob Ludwig remastered Sticky Fingers, and it sounds terrible too — I guess there’s something in the water these days.

Of course, the big reason to indulge in listening to these tracks is for the bonus material, which adds a dozen outtakes from the Some Girls original sessions, which include old-school type rockers like “Claudine,” “So Young,” “Keep Up Blues,” and “Tallahassee Lassie.” The Stones try their hands again at country-rock with tunes like “Do You Really Think I Care” and “You Win Again,” and of course, Keith gets another vocal turn with the tear-jerker “We Had It All.” All very interesting, but the country-tinged tunes make it pretty clear why “Far Away Eyes” ended up making the cut for the studio release — it’s definitely the strongest of the tracks. The bonus tracks wrap up with the piano-boogie of “Petrol Blues,” which hearkens way back to the Stones’ earlier days.

My biggest disappointment with this Deluxe Edition — strictly from a standpoint of content — is that with all the included bonus material, they chose not to include the extended, disco single version of “Miss You,” which is definitely the definitive version of the song. Oh, well, despite the negatives, if you haven’t heard the bonus material here, this release is still recommended.

Universal Music/Polydor Records, CD (download/streaming from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube)

The Rolling Stones  Tattoo You (Remastered)

1981’s Tattoo You was basically released at a point where the Stones just took a lot of unreleased tunes from albums as far back as Goat’s Head Soup and Black and Blue, and as relatively current as their previous disc, 1980’s Emotional Rescue — and then reworked them to create a new album. Only two new songs, “Neighbors” and “Heaven” were actually recorded for the album; everything else had new vocal tracks and occasional instrumental embellishments added to bring the original tunes up to date. Shockingly, it was the dawn of the MTV era, and Tattoo You was all over the airwaves, with videos for “Start Me Up,” “Hang Fire,” and “Waiting For a Friend” getting prominently featured on the fledgling network. Which helped their record sales immeasurably!

This remastering is strictly that — it’s not a Deluxe Edition, and there’s no bonus content. Bonus content usually consists of unreleased tracks from the original sessions, and with these tracks all being reworked from a variety of albums, that pretty much explains why no bonus material was available for this release. Tattoo You is presented here in 24/44.1 sound for the first time; you’d think that would signal an uptick in the overall sound quality. Unfortunately, that’s not the case; also mastered by Stephen Marcussen, the sound is just as compressed here as the other releases in the series, and the overall sound is earmarked by a very brittle, lightweight quality that has a harsh and overly emphasized treble response. I know the Stones were never known for audiophile quality recordings, and this one really punctuates that impression, regardless of how great an album it is from a performance standpoint. YMMV, but personally, I’d pass.

Universal Music/Polydor Records, CD (download/streaming from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube)

The Rolling Stones  Exile On Main Street (Deluxe Edition)

Exile on Main Street occupies an unusual position in the Stones catalog; rated by Rolling Stone Magazine as number seven on their list of 500 greatest rock albums of all time, it’s widely considered The Rolling Stones’ best album — especially by Stones fans. From an audiophile perspective, however, it’s also regarded as perhaps the worst sounding Stones album of all time. Regardless, it’s still revered by Stones fans as the pinnacle of their creativity. Some of the tracks were culled from the album that preceded it, Sticky Fingers; the balance were recorded at a chateau in France that Keith Richards had rented as an escape for the band from England’s brutal tax laws. Apparently, the band owed quite a bit in taxes, and had blown through the money that had been set aside for their increasing tax obligations. They essentially escaped to France to avoid having the British government seize all their assets. The Rolling Stones mobile truck was on site for technical purposes, and members of the band and their entourages all lived in the chateau while the recording took place. By all reports, copious amounts of drugs were ingested by group members during the sessions that often ran into the wee hours. Eventually, some final work was done on the resulting album during some sessions in Los Angeles.

Often described as a “murky” album, in terms of its sound quality; there’s a ton of information out there that implies that at the time of the original double LP pressing, the vinyl being used by the pressing plant was sourced from recycled materials. And was of exceptionally inferior quality; ground up bits of record labels could be clearly seen in the vinyl pressings. That very well may be, but over the course of almost fifty years of pressing and repressing, then mastering and remastering, I can’t begin to describe how many complaints I’ve heard about the generally abysmal sound quality of just about every reissue of Exile. When you take into consideration the sound quality of Sticky Fingers — which has never been considered anything approaching audiophile grade, it’s pretty easy to extrapolate that it’s very likely a combination or less than perfect source tapes and poor execution of the LP and/or CD pressing.

The Deluxe Edition contains additional tracks from the original session tapes; they’d been previously released when the CD reissue was released in 2010, but the current version marks the first time they’ve been made available for streaming in anything approaching high resolution sound. Which, unfortunately, is only 24/44.1, and the sound is about on par with the other three releases reviewed here, which means that it’s heavily compressed and exhibits the same harshness of treble shared by the others. I’ve heard from a variety of sources that the best available versions of this record are from SHM in Japan; there’s a CD that sells for about $25, and an SACD that sells for about $60. While I haven’t heard either, reliable sources say they’re the very best you can get, and well worth the asking price, especially to hear this classic album in first-rate sound.

The real reason for listening here is for the ten additional tracks included as bonus materials. I’ve often heard that, if you’re a Stones fan, Exile is your favorite album, or you’re not really a Stones fan! And the bonus tracks definitely give you some insight into the development of some of the songs that eventually ended up on the album — it’s a great glimpse into the creative process of the Glimmer Twins. Recommended, in spite of less than perfect sound. With classic, first-rank Rolling Stone tunes like “Rocks Off,” “Rip This Joint,” “Tumbling Dice,” and “Happy,” there’s a lot to like here.

Universal Music/Polydor Records, CD (download/streaming from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube)

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