AC/DC – Back in Black (24/96 Edition)
Early 1979, AC/DC was in the studio working on their sixth studio album Highway to Hell with legendary producer Eddie Kramer, who had been assigned to them by Atlantic Records. Atlantic was hoping for AC/DC to finally make the commercial breakthrough they were so seemingly close to, but things weren’t going too well in the studio; the band members absolutely hated Eddie Kramer’s style and especially his demeanor towards the band. They secretly recorded six songs, and sent the tape to producer Robert “Mutt” Lange, who agreed to take over production of Highway to Hell; the record went on to crack the English and US top twenty, with platinum sales in the UK, and eventually going 7x platinum in the US. The stage was set for AC/DC to finally hit the big time!
Unfortunately, singer Bon Scott didn’t get the memo; a few months later, the following February (1980), he went on a drinking binge after visiting a London club, which left him dead at age 33. There’s been a fair amount of controversy surrounding the actual details of his death; reportedly, he was so drunk that he was left in his Renault 5 by a friend and found dead there the following morning. Others who claim to have been present dispute that version of the story, but the coroner’s report listed the causes of death as “acute alcohol poisoning,” and “death by misadventure.” Rehearsals for the next album had only just begun; the remaining members of AC/DC were grief stricken, and at first decided they couldn’t carry on, but soon started auditions for a new vocalist. They quickly settled on British vocalist Brian Johnson, who had been singing for the group Geordie, and actually sang a few AC/DC covers in Geordie’s regular club sets. Anyway, the rest is history; with Mutt Lange again at the helm, Back in Black has become the second biggest selling album of all time, going 25x platinum in the US.
I was reading an article online on an audiophile website recently, where Back in Black was described as the “perfect album for auditioning a good stereo system.” The author actually went in depth, describing the differences in all the various LP and CD releases, and offering his opinion as to which offered the very best sound quality available. They ended up choosing the current Sony/Columbia group of releases, which have almost all been made available for digital streaming over the last year or so in high resolution, 24/96 sound. With the exception of Back in Black — which was just released on Qobuz — and Highway to Hell, which is still awaiting a high resolution release.
So how does Back in Black sound in 24/96? I didn’t have a current Sony CD pressing; I only had my mid-nineties Atlantic CD, and I didn’t have an LP either. Surprisingly, I thought the Atlantic CD pressing sounded almost the equal of the 24/96 file; usually I expect an uptick in sound with a high-resolution file, but that’s not always the case, and I don’t believe it is here either. The 24/96 Qobuz file was somewhat more compressed, though not as badly as the recent batch of “high-res” Rolling Stone reissues — the sound quality here was actually pretty good, if not completely great. I don’t really listen to Back in Black regularly; it’s on the flash drive that’s inserted into my car’s stereo, and various tunes from the album pop up periodically during random play. My car stereo tends to exaggerate the bass content somewhat — I probably have the bass slightly jacked up to overcome road noise in the car’s passenger compartment. That said, I kind of felt that on my home system, the bass was a bit lacking with the 24/96 file, but then, it was just as lacking on my Atlantic CD version. Even with dual subwoofers, my home system plays very true in terms of bass content; if there’s prodigious bass — you hear all of it. This is definitely one of those albums that would benefit from a system with tone controls! Anyway, I took a listen to some of the other 24/96 AC/DC titles in the Qobuz library, and the results were much the same as with this one — I guess, at this point, we should just be happy that they’re even available at all for streaming. Recommended.
Columbia Records, (download/streaming [24/96] from Qobuz, Tidal)
Samantha Crain – A Small Death
Singer/songwriter Samantha Crain is of Native American/Choctaw descent, from Shawnee, Oklahoma; she’d been touring extensively for about ten years, promoting her personal brand of Americana music with the likes of groups as diverse as First Aid Kit, Neutral Milk Hotel, The Avett Brothers, and Brandi Carlisle, to name a few. She was seemingly on an upward arc, and was receiving extensive critical praise for her 2017 album You Had Me at Goodbye, when her career became seriously sidelined by injuries sustained in a series of automobile accidents. Her recovery was extensive, and she was bedridden for a period of time; that time alone allowed her to work through certain aspects of her life, helping her deal with an excess of emotional baggage stretching all the way back to her childhood. Her healing process continues through this excellent new album, A Small Death, where she digs deeply into the wealth of new material made available by her many months of extensive contemplation regarding the human condition, as well as her approach to exorcising her own personal demons.
A Small Death was self-produced by Samantha Crain, and was recorded in 2019 in the Lunar Manor Studio in Oklahoma City, with Brine Webb and Eric Wofford at the controls. Most of the songs are presented in a fairly traditional guitar, bass, keyboards, and drums framework, with a horn section that augments several of the tunes. While much of the album lingers in a folky, singer/songwriter, Americana kind of groove, a few of the songs are pretty intense, and the entire album is filled with the passion and honesty of someone who’s endured a great deal of personal difficulty and anguish. The opening “An Echo” deals with a trip to visit her mother, who was in prison at the time (and apparently, throughout a lot of Samantha Crain’s formative years). “My mother, at the prison in Topeka; she’s asking ‘What’s the matter?’ As we stare into the vending machine, I can’t say the things I need to. I’m just an echo bouncing off the glass into our likeness, whatever that is.” “Constructive Eviction” has a really great horn section at the tail end of the song, and “Garden Dove” is a driving, propulsive tune that really highlights Samantha Crain’s smoky soprano voice. “When We Remain,” which Crain sings in both her native Choctaw language and English, is an absolute delight to listen to. “When we remain, we will be the flowers and the trees and the vines that overcome the forgotten city.”
My listening was done with the excellent 24/44.1 digital stream from Qobuz; this is a remarkably well-recorded album, and the sound quality is absolute ear candy. And the subterranean bass content throughout the album is almost unbelievable; on the song “Holding To the Edge of the Night” my twin subs shook with fury, adding an interesting perspective to an otherwise delicate and contemplative tune. For an artist who previously was completely off my radar, and on an indie record label I’d never heard of, Samantha Crain’s A Small Death is an exceptional artistic achievement, and a remarkable musical event. Very highly recommended!
Ramseur Records, CD/LP (download/streaming [24/44.1] from Qobuz, Tidal, Bandcamp, Amazon, Google Play Music, Pandora, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)
Courtney Marie Andrews – Old Flowers
Courtney Marie Andrews is another singer/songwriter who’s been completely off my radar, though she’s been performing and recording now for almost a decade. Originally a touring member of the band Jimmy Eat World, she was their keyboardist and backing singer prior to the release of her debut album, 2010’s No One’s Slate is Clean. Falling somewhere between the Country and Americana genres, she’s been praised for her songs by the likes of Rolling Stone, Stereogum, American Songwriter, and NPR, who placed her on their “ten favorite albums of 2016” list. Old Flowers is her seventh studio release, and her fourth on the Fat Possum imprint, and the songs here strike me as much more folkish than country. Andrews sings with a very sweet soprano voice, and her songs have a very endearing quality, despite the fact that the new album is all about love and loss — it’s not exactly the most cheerful album of 2020!
Old Flowers deals with the dissolution of a nine-year relationship Andrews was involved in throughout her twenties, and basically documents her process of working through the heartbreak of a love that’s been lost, and learning how to simply live for today and carry on. She likens the album’s title to a scrapbook of pressed flowers; they may be dried and no longer pristine, but in looking at them, you can still see through to their original beauty. And as such with her songs, which, while they may no longer quite encapsulate what she was going through at the time, the listener can still get a good mental picture of what those moments meant to her. The album was originally meant to be released earlier in 2020, but not unlike so many works in this time of the pandemic, had its release date delayed, mainly because most independent record stores were still closed at the time, and there were pressing plant delays for the LPs that were to accompany the early release. Regardless, the initial LP pressing has completely sold out, so there’s some good news!
Videos for “Burlap String” and “It Must Be Someone Else’s Fault,” the album’s first single, were advance-released in June, and Rolling Stone praised Andrews for her “clear as a bell” voice, comparing her with the likes of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell with regard to the quality of her songwriting and vocal delivery. As she desperately searches for understanding of everything that’s befallen her in “It Must Be Someone Else’s Fault,” she proclaims, “Feels like I’ve gone crazy, like the women in our family usually do/We can’t seem to keep our heads on long enough to make it through.” Even though the material for most of the songs is basically depressing, Andrews never seems to wallow here, and the songs are often very uplifting. The one exception is “Carnival Dream,” where late in the song, the overly-repeated refrain “I may never let love in again,” just gets hammered into us a few times too many.
Qobuz’s 24/88 digital stream was both lyrical and dynamic; this is a really great sounding album of folk-inspired, often liltingly graceful pop. But at the same time, the bass content was seriously impressive, especially on the opening cut, “Burlap String,” which literally shook the walls of my home, even at pretty reasonable listening levels! If the whole folkie/singer/songwriter/confessional oeuvre falls into your wheelhouse, Old Flowers just might be the ticket. Highly recommended.
Fat Possum Records, CD/LP (download/streaming [24/88] from Qobuz, Tidal, Bandcamp, Amazon, Google Play Music, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)
Fleetwood Mac – Then Play On (2013 Remaster/Expanded Edition)
Fleetwood Mac’s third studio album, 1969’s Then Play On, has a storied place in the band’s canon of recordings; many fans and critics alike consider it the band’s very best work. Fleetwood Mac, like so many other English blues-based bands, grew out of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers; Peter Green filled in for Eric Clapton for a series of dates, and when Clapton departed to form Cream, Green became his permanent replacement. Not long after that, Green, Mick Fleetwood, and Jeremy Spencer decided to split and form their own band, and thus Fleetwood Mac was born. John McVie and Danny Kirwan joined just prior to the sessions for Then Play On; and while Fleetwood Mac was definitely Peter Green’s band, he was very generous with the spotlight, giving Danny Kirwan a generous amount of space to contribute songs, and the guitar lead on “Oh Well,” which was released as a single just prior to the album’s street date.
Not unlike so many classic albums from British bands of the late sixties and the seventies, record companies often jumbled the track lineups with the American release; with Then Play On, they totally jumbled the playing order. And “Oh Well,” which became Fleetwood Mac’s first song to crack the US Hot 100 charts, was included in the US release due to its popularity and with the hopes of selling more albums — even though it was a single and didn’t appear on the official British album release. And also — not at all unlike so many classic albums from the period — the eventual compact disc version of Then Play On arrived in pretty universally acclaimed substandard sound quality. It sounded okay, but not really great; I’ve read and heard a thousand stories regarding “the quality of the master tapes,” etc., so fifty years on, it gets to be pretty difficult to determine what the facts really are!
Apparently, just prior to the recording sessions for Then Play On, Peter Green had started dropping acid fairly regularly, and his behavior and style of dress started becoming more erratic. He’d frequently show up for rehearsals or shows dressed in long, flowing caftans with large crucifixes, and his spirituality suddenly became one of the prominent features of his interaction with the rest of the group (seemed to happen a lot in the sixties and seventies, huh?). When the sessions for the record commenced, he approached the other band members in an attempt to convince them that they should give away any money they might make from the album, and also shed themselves of all their earthly possessions, as well. This didn’t sit too well with the rest of the group; right after the album dropped, Green announced he was leaving the band, right as they were prepping for their first really big US tour. They played some of the shows in the US, with Danny Kirwan and Jeremy Spencer sharing the guitar leads, but prior to an LA show, Jeremy Spencer completely disappeared. The show was a disaster, and it was later discovered that Spencer had joined a cult known as The Children of God! The record company managed to get Peter Green to agree to rejoin the band for at least the tour, but that fell apart very quickly. With the band in complete disarray, their management claimed to have ownership of the “Fleetwood Mac” name, and fielded their own band in an attempt to continue the tour. Of course, lawsuits ensued, and Mick Fleetwood was declared the actual owner of the band name, and we all know where things eventually ended up from there.
One recent morning a couple of weeks ago, I awakened to the sad news of Peter Green’s untimely death, and played my 16/44.1 rip of my Warner/Reprise CD for the first time in a good long while. And realized that the sound quality was indeed pretty awful. Some of the album tracks that had originally been recorded in mono sound had apparently been reprocessed as stereo for the US release; the sound wasn’t horrible, but at the same time, not too great, either. I’d seen the CD release of the remastered version in 2013, but didn’t feel particularly inclined to grab it, what with its typical $30 or so dollar asking price (for the double disc, with lots of bonus tracks). Even though, for the first time, it was being made available in the US with the original British track order — although “Oh Well” and some other material were only being released in the original mono sound. Eventually, it found its way to Qobuz and Tidal in 2018 as a 24/96 digital file, with the complete British album augmented by the three singles released in conjunction with the album in the UK, “Oh Well,” “The Green Manalishi (With the Two-Pronged Crown),” and an instrumental track, “World in Harmony.” I downloaded the 24/96 tracks from Qobuz for $17 — I kind of like to hedge my bets by having a reserve copy in my digital library, just in case the whole digital streaming thing comes crashing down.
And I’m very pleased to say that we’ve now been given the best version of Then Play On that’s ever existed, at least in my book; I no longer have my original LP from back in the day, but I don’t recall it sounding particularly great, either. And my ears have become more finely attuned to the glories of real mono sound; decades of listening to classic jazz titles and mono releases from the likes of The Beatles, Stones, Donovan, Dylan, etc. has given me a completely different framework to now enjoy tunes like “Oh Well” as they were originally recorded. And if you’ve never heard “The Green Manalishi (With the Two-Pronged Crown),” well, it might just be the greatest rock song ever that a whole generation of rock fans have never experienced! In fact, all the Peter Green blues numbers, from “Rattlesnake Shake” to “Show Biz Blues” to “Before the Beginning” all show the power he possessed — despite being obviously physically and emotionally impaired — to deliver authentic blues that made the band the legend they became at the time of this record’s release. The sound quality of the 2013 24/96 remaster is absolutely superlative in every way; gone is the hiss of death that was everywhere on the initial CD release, and all the tracks have an openness and spaciousness that gives an impression of a live performance — the original CD was absolutely lifeless in comparison. Even “Oh Well” — the lone mono track on this set — sounds better than ever. This is definitely how reissues should be done — great job, Rhino and Warner. This set is absolutely essential; if you don’t grab the CD or 24/96 download for your personal collection, at least give it a listen on Qobuz or Tidal. Very highly recommended.
Rhino/Warner, CD/LP (download/streaming [24/96] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube)
Header image: Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Nick Contador.