The Beatles stereo box set.
Two hundred six songs. Thirteen original albums plus two CDs worth of miscellany. Seven years in the making - the complete recorded works of the Beatles.
View Larger Image
The long-overdue sonic remodel of the Beatles catalog rolls out today. Albums are available individually or in a handsome $259.98 box set that also includes a DVD collecting the mini documentaries that have been added to each of the individual re-releases. There is also a limited-edition box set of the 10 albums that were given separate mono mixes, a real revelation in some cases.
The recordings have long needed an audio face-lift, and the new remasters bring the old analog tapes into the digital sunshine. Now, details stand out that once blended into the background. Over the years, these records have been embedded so deeply into our consciousness that even minor alterations in the relative sound values can be jarring. Did the rooster crowing in "Good Morning" always sound so intrusive?
From a technical point of view, the engineers behind this latest iteration of the Beatles' sacred texts did exemplary work, carefully transferring as much information as possible from the analog tapes into the digital realm. The result is a clean, clearly defined sound, rich with details and carefully balanced spatial relationships. Like an expertly restored soiled painting, the fresh colors and bold strokes stand out vividly. It just doesn't sound like the old records did.
"The Beatles in Mono," the box of Beatles monaural masters, corrects that to some degree. Beatles producer George Martin, who had no experience with rock 'n' roll records before the Beatles, can be forgiven for isolating vocals on one side of the mix and other atrocities common to early pop stereo presentations, especially considering how hot his mono mixes were of early tracks like "It Won't Be Long" or "Hold Me Tight" from "With the Beatles," or "Tell Me Why" and "Any Time at All" from "A Hard Day's Night." Martin continued the practice of separate mono and stereo mixes of Beatles albums through the 1968 double-record set "The Beatles," and some of the later mono mixes on LPs such as "Rubber Soul" or "Revolver" have some surprising sock and clearly benefited from scrupulous work in the studio.
But an uncomfortable air lingers over the fastidiously redone stereo albums. There is too much space in the arrangements. Slight tonal nuances leap to the foreground, carefully etched in the all too familiar production. Recordings are always more than words and music. The way these sounds were recorded and produced stays fixed in our brains as surely as the melodies and chorus lines. These cryogenically preserved 21st century editions are littered with "aha!" moments, some good, some not so good.
It is wonderful to savor lost lambs of the catalog such as John Lennon's "Hey Bulldog," as it is to re-experience the protean joys of the height of the band's rock 'n' roll period on "Beatles for Sale," before the Beatles discovered they were artists. "Let It Be," the album where the lads labored so mightily trying to put some lightning back in the bottle, was not as ruined by producer Phil Spector as many have suggested. In fact, he probably saved it, even if "Long and Winding Road" is a little over the top. Similarly, "Abbey Road," recorded after but released before "Let It Be," is the group's real benediction - a pastiche of outtakes and partly finished songs, stitched together by sheer force of personality and commanding production - even if the seams are showing somewhat more prominently in this latest version.
Of course, the Lennon-Paul McCartney songs hold up. Their durability is nothing short of miraculous. Compared with their '60s peers - perhaps not as melodically sound as Bacharach and David, as rhythmically assured as Smokey Robinson or Holland-Dozier-Holland, as musically fecund as Goffin-King or slyly ingenious as Leiber-Stoller - McCartney and Lennon nevertheless earned their standing as rock's Gilbert and Sullivan.
The albums remain notoriously uneven. Can't imagine why anyone would ever want to hear George Martin's "Yellow Submarine" instrumental score again. "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," revealed in all its digital glory here, sounds more and more like a psychedelic curio. The White Album, for all its grandeur, still also contains "Revolution No. 9."
But when generations ahead look back and wonder about pop music in the latter half of the 20th century, as they surely will, this will be the place to start. These are rock music's shining hours.