The Beatles – Abbey Road – Anniversary Edition
When the Beatles Sgt. Pepper 50th Anniversary remix/remaster came out in 2017, I have to admit….I was, at the least, skeptical. Should we be messing with history like this? I mean, yeah, there was the Giles Martin/Beatles Love thing, which was pretty amazingly well done, but it was essentially a completely new experience for Beatles fans. But to go in and completely remix an absolute classic like Sgt. Pepper—that was darn near blasphemy, right? The rationale was that all the Beatles’ albums up to a certain point had been recorded basically with mono sound in mind, and that the stereo mixed LPs were essentially an afterthought. Here was an opportunity to correct for obvious mistakes in the stereo mix, as well as take advantage of making the new stereo remix really pop.
And it most definitely popped! I was shocked that the new remix was….as enjoyable as I found it to be, but the element of the remix I found most striking was the clarity that was now heard throughout. Most surprisingly, I found myself ultimately in complete approval of the new remix; at the very least, even if it didn’t replace the classic original, it would be an interesting companion to have in the library. And I mostly found that same sentiment to be true for the following year’s release of the remixed/remastered The Beatles (the White Album), which I had always felt was a bit congested throughout. The newfound clarity of the mixes struck me as very refreshing, and perhaps more true to the Beatles’ original intent—a modernization of the sound, if you will. The Beatles was the last album that EMI simultaneously released in both stereo and mono mixes, so that was probably it for the updated stereo remix rationale, right?
So imagine my surprise when the 50th anniversary edition of Abbey Road was announced—it was never released in mono—this might be a potentially slippery slope Giles Martin was now taking us down! And to add to my trepidation, before having heard a single note, Copper editor Bill Leebens had attended a release event featuring the new LP version on a cost-no-object analog setup. And roundly condemned it. Well, crap! Knowing that I definitely needed to hear this, I headed straight to the listening room where I was able to hear both the Tidal MQA Version (and later in the day) the Qobuz 24/96 version. I found both versions very similar in character, with nothing that I felt stood out significantly between them in terms of the overall sound.
What I did find was that I totally enjoyed the greater clarity of the new mix; I found it to be a really remarkable enhancement that made me want to lean closer into the mix to hear the newfound details. Example: on “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, as the opening guitar signature fades into silence, on the original, you’re instantly met with the wall of amplifier feedback that’s almost constantly full-on during the first part of the song. In the new mix, the feedback’s still there, but just not as dominating of the overall sound as on the original. I know the feedback was probably completely consistent with Lennon’s intent, but I still prefer the sound of the new remix—it flows a bit better. You then go from the heaviest Beatles’ song ever into “Here Comes The Sun”, and the increased clarity in Harrison’s guitar and vocal delivery is simply staggeringly good. The harpsichord accompaniment and Lennon’s vocal on “Because” also have an amazing clarity; the sound takes on an almost extradimensional character. All of the overdubbed vocals in the opening chorus now are more clearly defined in the space, giving the song a much bigger overall presentation—and that synth figure near the middle is absolute ear candy.
And when you get into the Abbey Road “medley”—which has always struck me as a tad congested—that newly imbued clarity is oooh so very welcome. The piano on “You Never Give Me Your Money” and “Golden Slumbers” emerges from a much blacker background; any noise that was present in the original is now nonexistent. Paul’s voice on “Golden Slumbers” takes on an almost magical character. Ringo’s drum solo on “The End”—the drum solo that launched the careers of a thousand would-be drummers—takes on a more dimensional, palpable character in the new mix. You can virtually see his drum kit sitting in front of you at the listening chair. And the mix of the voices near the end of the tune is once again, well, nearly magical.
Some may call it blasphemy, but I have to give this one the full rubber stamp. Very highly recommended, and if you have the opportunity to hear the higher-res versions on either of the streaming services, by all means do so!
Apple Records/Capitol/EMI, CD/LP (download/streaming from Amazon, Tidal, Qobuz, Google Play Music, Apple Music, Spotify)
Sturgill Simpson – Sound & Fury
Michael Lavorgna turned me onto Sturgill Simpson’s album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, and I’ve been a huge fan ever since. Sturgill Simpson presents himself as a sort of “I don’t give a damn what you think about anything” kind of artist who follows his own muse, and not any kind of trend that might be going on in Nashville or country music, and actually pretty much thumbing his nose at the country music establishment. Metamodern Sounds was filled with hard livin’/hard lovin’/hard partyin’ hardcore country classics, but also mixed things up outside the box, with the inclusion of an almost tender version of the 1980’s When In Rome classic “The Promise”. And the album’s closer, “It Ain’t All Flowers”, offered up a healthy dose of 1970’s psychedelia that could very easily have become one of the defining songs of the generation. The “hidden track” that follows, “Pan Bowl”, is perhaps the most honest and tender recounting of one’s childhood I’ve ever heard on record. His guitarist on the album, Estonian expat Laur Joamets—whose come to be known around country circles as “Lil’ Joe”—is one of the most exciting guitar players to surface in recent years in any musical genre. What’s not to love?
His next album, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, followed in pretty much the same mold, but Simpson this go around added a horn section to many of the songs. Which left me with mixed feelings about the album; I didn’t feel the horns really worked on the recording. But I did see them live a couple of times afterwards, and the horn section was an incredible addition to the band’s live sound, lending a vitality and immediacy to the songs that was sorely missing from the album. Of course, Laur Joamets’ guitar was the runaway star of the show—he’s a truly talented and incredible player, and ninety percent of the reason I’d love to hear this band live again.
So when I recently found out about Sturgill’s new album, Sound & Fury—zow—I’ve gotta hear this! What, wait—Laur Joamets is no longer with the band? Whaaaaaaat? Yep, Lil’ Joe is now touring with nineties southern rockers Drivin’ and Cryin’, and Sturgill Simpson has taken on the lead guitar role himself. Bummer, but what the heck, might as well take a listen anyway!
Well, a bit of a listen is about all that it took for me. Simpson took a completely different path here, recording the entire album in Detroit, and commissioning a bevy of Japanese Anime artists to create an anime film to accompany the release. Again, whaaaaat? I’m now no longer seeing Sturgill Simpson as a revolutionary, but more as a control freak. This album is a complete freak show, having zero resemblance to country music of any kind, with more a seventies/eighties rock vibe complete with disco-ish pounding bass, heavy use of synthesizers, heavily fuzz-toned guitars, and all of Simpson’s otherwise earthy and authentic vocals are heavily processed. And sorry, Sturgill, but this album desperately needed Laur Joamets’ guitar to have any chance of pulling this off. I’d pass if I were you. This is one cacophonic mess of an album.
Elektra/NEK, CD/LP (download/streaming from Amazon, Tidal, Qobuz, Google Play Music, Apple Music, Spotify)
John Coltrane – Blue World
For the second year in a row, another “lost” John Coltrane album has surfaced that features the classic Coltrane quartet lineup with McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and the irrepressible Elvin Jones on drums. Although this new release, Blue World, is much less of an album proper than other Coltrane releases. Somewhere between the recently completed sessions for 1964’s classic Crescent album and the recording of A Love Supreme, Coltrane had been contacted by French-Canadian film director Giles Groulx. Would Coltrane’s group have any interest in contributing to the soundtrack of Groulx’s upcoming release, Le Chat Dans le Sac? Apparently Groulx was completely enamored with Coltrane’s music, and felt his contributions to the soundtrack would be essential to his very French New Wave film. The film was still in the editing stages, and neither Coltrane nor any of the band members had seen any of the film’s footage, or knew much of what the film was even about!
The recording sessions took place at Rudy Van Gelder’s New Jersey studio, with Giles Groulx present during the recording. The entire 37 minutes of music was recorded in a single day, and Groulx departed the same day for Quebec with the tapes in hand. Eventually, only ten minutes of the music from these sessions was used in the film, and the film barely made a blip on the American filmgoing consciousness. Very little of the music here hadn’t already been recorded by Coltrane’s quartet in past years, and with the sudden celebrity of the rapidly approaching A Love Supreme, these sessions were essentially forgotten.
The album contains multiple takes of a couple of Coltrane standards, “Naima” and “Village Blues”, and also the title track’s clever reworking of “Out of this World”, which had appeared on the Coltrane album from a couple of years earlier. But what makes this album so desirable to fans and Coltrane completists alike is that the versions recorded here are mostly, fully-formed reworkings by Coltrane’s classic quartet. Performances that had all but been abandoned from the ever-forward-looking Coltrane’s live set list, and here’s a chance to hear several of them played by one of the great jazz quartets of all time! The two takes of the classic “Naima” (Coltrane hadn’t yet abandoned it from the live set!) are more lyrical and more perfectly played compared to the original on the Giant Steps album. The title track, “Blue World”, while at only a tad over six minutes, may pale in comparison to the fourteen minutes of “Out of this World” from 1962. But it contains a really great McCoy Tyner mid-section solo, and as the tune comes crashing to a finale, there’s a remarkable bit of blowing by Coltrane, simultaneous with one of Elvin Jones’ trademark, rapid-fire snare lead-outs to a crashing halt. It’s breathtaking, and alone worth the price of admission! And the seven and a half minutes of “Traneing In”—with a nearly three-minute Jimmy Garrison bass solo at the entry—is far superior to the Prestige label original from way back.
Probably since the material was so relatively short time-wise, they decided to include Rudy Van Gelder’s voiced intros to all the tunes; it makes the experience even more authentic. Yes, it’s not a fully-formed album as such, but if you’re a fan of Coltrane’s music—or just great jazz for that matter—it’s darn-near essential listening. I listened both to the MQA version on Tidal and the CD-quality version on Qobuz; I felt the sound quality was very good on both, with perhaps a slight nod going to the higher resolution tracks on Tidal. Highly recommended.
Impulse!, CD/LP (download/streaming from Amazon, Tidal, Qobuz, Google Play Music, Apple Music, Spotify)
Kim Gordon – No Home Record
Hard to believe, but Kim Gordon has been on the music scene—mostly in NYC—for thirty-eight years, and this is her first solo record. Those of you who are fans of the post/punk, alt-noise stylings of Sonic Youth will have plenty of room to rejoice here. And while this is by no means the rebirth of Sonic Youth—Kim’s made it clear that both Sonic Youth and her marriage to Thurston Moore are both over—there’s a lot here that rings with familiarity from that very fertile period of alt-noise history. When Sonic Youth crashed and burned, rather than hang around New York—where she was a post/punk cultural icon—she headed back to California, where she grew up. A new beginning, and this is very much a California album; much of the underpinning of this album feels like an earthquake is about to erupt at any moment.
First of all, I have the new, very cool Magneplanar LRS speakers in for review at my place (one of my other gigs); they’re very honest and truthful flat-panel speakers that cast an incredibly believable image of the performance in your room. I love them! That said, within two minutes of the start of No Home Record, I had to shut everything down and reconnect the Zu Audio Omens, so convinced I was that the mylar panels on the Maggies were about to be ripped from their metallic frames by this incredibly dynamic album! This record needs to be played loud to get the full impact. One of the things I love about No Home Record is that none of the songs fade out, they mostly come crashing down in a haze of static and metallic/electronic noise. All underpinned by Gordon’s subterranean bass thrashings; my REL sub has a 12-inch, long-throw woofer cone, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen (or felt!) as much bass extension as with this album.
This is an unpredictable album at the very least; the opening track, “Sketch Artist”, has multiple time signature and key changes throughout, along with plenty of complete breaks—keeping you guessing all the way. Gordon contributes guitar, bass, and drum programming chores throughout. And Kim’s voice alternates from very breathy, and almost whispery, to full-on, often heavily processed, sometimes with tons of reverb and other effects added. Often sung, and sometimes much more like freely associative spoken word. While some of the songs are drivingly propulsive, and often reminiscent of her work with Sonic Youth, much of this album has a totally hipnotic and trance-like feel to it that makes those comparisons pretty much a non-sequitur.
Highlights: “Sketch Artist”, “Air BnB”, “Murdered Out”, “Don’t Play It”, “Get Yr Life Back”. I like this album more with every play. Recommended.
Matador Records, CD/LP/Cassette (download/streaming from Amazon, Google Play Music, Tidal, Qobuz, Apple Music, YouTube, Deezer, Spotify)