Sunday, September 27, 2009

EP Review: Get Stricken!

"I'm the surefire cure to the angst you endure / So take me in without warning and call the doctor in the morning" (from "Stitches")

Norristown, PA, a scenic train ride from Philadelphia, is home to an up-and-coming bunch of rockers known as Reality Stricken. The title of their latest EP, Signal Fire, is fitting because.....this stuff is hot!

Every track on this EP leaps out of the speakers with enough force to blow down an entire block of rowhomes. This is the real rock sound of today, with big, loud riffs and chords, massive drums, and huge walls of shouted vocals. These guys are clearly in it for the love of music; nowhere on this EP will you find them watering down their style with poppy hooks and mundane lyrics just to get a hit. Instead, all of these songs are intricately constructed and arranged, with lyrics that challenge you to think without beating you over the head. Lead singer Steve Angello has an edge about his voice which is hard to describe and even harder to ignore. He gives an already powerful band an even more distinctive character. The songs on this EP are not only well-chosen, they're impeccably well-produced and recorded thanks to Chris Badami.

There is simply not a dull moment on this record, and by the time it's over you'll be cheering for more. All you can do is hit "Play" again. With releases this good, it's about damn time that the Philly-area rock scene got its due.

For music and more information:

Copyright © 2009 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.
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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Beatlemania Remastered - Part Two

See Part One for the introduction. And now, the individual reviews:

Please Please Me

Abbey Road had four-track recording capabilities, but all The Beatles were allowed to use was lousy two-track -- hence the binaural stereo soundscape. And some of the selections on this album were intended only as singles when the Fab Four laid them down in the studio: recorded in two-track to get a good balance on the mono mix used for the singles. In those days, recordings intended for singles would often be mixed and mastered in mono and then the multi-track session tapes required to make a stereo mix would be reused, discarded, lost, or destroyed. If the time came for those singles to reappear on a stereo album, the stereo pressings of the album would use alternate takes, fake stereo versions, or true stereo mixes that were somehow pieced together from whatever tapes remained. The Beatles were not immune to this! Thus, the stereo edition of their first album included fake stereo versions of the songs from their first EMI single, "Love Me Do" and "P.S. I Love You." Mercifully, the new CD includes these tracks in mono. But the album's title track was not spared. Mind you, the song "Please Please Me" does not appear in a fake stereo mix. It's true stereo, alright, but based on an inferior alternate take (in which there is a painfully obvious lyrical flub), with the harmonica passages cut-and-pasted from the mono version into the right channel. This is the atrocity I used to hear on oldies radio and I couldn't stand it as a teenager! I haven't grown any fonder of it now; if you want the correct version (the mono!) in clear sound quality, it's most readily available on the mono box set or the ubiquitous 1962-1966 CD comp from 1993.

Another issue with the Please Please Me album is that most of it was recorded in a marathon style throughout a single day. The remastering makes it clear just how raw The Beatles' voices were during these sessions, and did I mention that John had a bad cold? On the remaster of "Twist and Shout," you can hear how much John struggled, both because of his cold and because it was the last song they recorded that day.

So is this remaster too much of a good thing? Not entirely. Primitive though the mixes may be, the level of detail in the sound allows you to hear just how skilled these guys were as musicians even in this early stage. And the rawness is strangely charming, like you're at a show and these guys have been singing and playing non-stop all night long. Also, these mixes have not been soaked in echo like a lot of the US releases of the early Beatles, so they're crisper than what many of us Americans are used to hearing. You get to hear that less really is more on "There's A Place," and you can appreciate just how hard Ringo could rock (even as a singer!) on "Boys." "P.S. I Love You" is simply a revelation, with the distinct percussion parts finally being discernible from each other (Ringo was left to shake maracas while session man Andy White took over the drums).

The final analysis: If you love the early Beatles, you should get this remaster. If the middle or later Beatles are more your bag, you might not even like this album, so hearing it in remastered form probably won't change your feelings.

A Hard Day's Night

Well, this is the ultimate Beatlemania album, isn't it? But does the remaster do it justice? Let me see if I can answer that question in a classy, dignified manner.


Okay, I tried to contain my enthusiasm, but this remaster really is that good. The 1987 CD version sounded lifeless, and even the good stereo remasters of certain tracks on 1962-1966 didn't bring those tunes to life as much as this new CD does. The boys were now recording on four-track and could make more sophisticated records with more careful overdubs and more nuanced stereo mixes -- no binaural here. Listen to John and Paul's thoughtfully-layered vocals on the title track; Ringo's swinging drumming on "Can't Buy Me Love"; George's textured guitar playing on practically every selection. These cuts happened to be well-recorded by the standards of the time; while this remastered version does expose a few inherent flaws (the guitars on "I'll Be Back" never did sound right anyway), it mostly brings out the best in this album. "Tell Me Why," "Any Time At All," and "Things We Said Today" just leap out of the speakers, with both the fun and drama of those songs brought to the fore. And I never realized just how funky "You Can't Do That" was until I heard it here.

I should note that the stereo version of the album is materially different from the mono. You'll notice that the opening harmonica passage on the stereo "I Should Have Known Better" is not as smoothly played as it is on the mono (although it's a great song and recording either way). "If I Fell" has differences in the vocals and if you ask me, the vocals on the mono version are superior, though in both versions Paul's voice breaks on the word "vain" (if McCartney had a hard time hitting that note, you know it's a tough note to hit!). If you're trying to be a completist, you'll need the mono version of this album as well as the stereo.

The final analysis: You're reading this because you like The Beatles, right? Anyone who likes The Beatles should own this CD.

Beatles For Sale

This is probably The Beatles' most maligned album, and it's true that no amount of remastering will make "I Don't Want To Spoil The Party" less depressing or turn Ringo's butchering of "Honey Don't" into a tour de force. But it's still a Beatles album, so it still contains some classics and the 1987 reissue didn't present them in the best light.

Sometimes the stereo mixes on this album are just not as thoughtful as they were on A Hard Day's Night. It's clear in many cases that their main objective with four-track was to have more flexibility in the recording and mixing processes, not to create balanced stereo mixes. Still, hearing "No Reply" in crystal-clear stereo really brings out the darkness of the arrangement, the morbid piano chords and cymbal crashes jumping at you with dramatic intent. "I'll Follow The Sun" sounds warm and spacious, while a seeming throwaway like "Mr. Moonlight" becomes a multi-dimensional listening experience.

"Eight Days A Week" is a delight here. Squashed and warped on the 1987 reissue, it has unprecedented breathing room on this remaster, allowing you to hear how closely twined John and Paul's voices are on this brilliant co-lead vocal.

Then again, "I'm A Loser" just sounds too clean and, as a result, soft. I'm not about to lay down the cash for that mono box set, so the 1987 mono will have to suffice -- it's listenable and unlike the stereo remaster, it has teeth. "Every Little Thing" is also too pristinely remastered, to the point that the vocals hit me right in the head, and not in a good way. The stereo version on The Capitol Albums, Vol. 2 has minor flaws, but it's easier on my ears.

The final analysis: Since it is one of their least celebrated albums, you have to really like it (or at least some of it) in order to consider this remaster a worthwhile purchase. It's worth buying if you really do care that deeply about the content of this album; otherwise, you can live without it.

If you have any comments about these or the other new Beatle remasters, please share them -- but please be civil. Thank you.

Copyright © 2009 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.
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Monday, September 14, 2009

Beatlemania Remastered - Part One

You've seen and heard the fuss by now: The Beatles' catalog has been remastered and reissued! But what's the significance of this? Basically, all of The Beatles' original UK albums, plus the US Magical Mystery Tour album, were released on CD in 1987. The first four albums were released in mono and the remainder in stereo. The CD era was young then, and the sound quality on the 1987 reissues has left many Beatle collectors wanting remasters. There has also been some dissatisfaction with the sound on the two Past Masters compilations of non-LP tracks. Finally, the albums and the Past Masters comps have been remastered.

But are they worth the money, especially in this recession?

Let's consider the facts: Past Masters is now a 2-CD set. The new reissues of the individual albums all feature the stereo versions of the albums. They do not feature new remixes; the Help! and Rubber Soul albums are presented in their 1987 remixes, the others in their original mixes. So you get familiar mixes, but they're supposed to sound clearer and livelier than before. For a limited time, the individual CDs contain mini-documentaries that you can view if you have the right computer equipment and software. There is also a stereo box set and a mono box set -- the latter also includes the original stereo mixes of Help! and Rubber Soul. Confused yet?

Personally, I wasn't convinced that I had to replace all of my Beatles CDs with these new remasters. I need to spend my money more practically, anyway. But I've been a good boy with my dough lately, so I could find room in the budget for three of these remasters in particular: Please Please Me, A Hard Day's Night, and Beatles For Sale. On the 1987 reissues of these albums, the sound quality was often muffled, flat, and one-dimensional. Some tracks on those CDs had at least passable sound, but there was a lot to be unhappy with. And they were in mono. Sometimes I prefer mono to stereo, but I like to have the choice.

I will review the new CDs individually, but some general comments first. Sometimes when oldies are remastered, they actually sound worse. Recording technology in the 1960s was nowhere near as sophisticated as it is now, and there are a lot of inherent defects in the sound of recordings from that era. And let us remember that Abbey Road Studios liked to reserve their best recording equipment for easy listening and orchestral recordings; thus, The Beatles and other "beat groups" did not get to make the best-sounding recordings they could make until they were powerful enough to convince Abbey Road to give up the goods. That said, remasters often do have the desired effect of making recordings sound better than ever before, and these Beatles albums both benefit and suffer from remastering.

Since these albums are short in length, EMI and Apple Corps could have included the mono and stereo mixes of each album on each individual CD; instead, one must buy the mono box set. That's simply unfair. And the mini-documentaries are nothing to write home about. Visually, each has a montage of photographs and old film clips. Vintage concert footage is haphazardly synched to studio recordings. You hear the individual Beatles and George Martin reflect on the making of these albums, but you need to rely on your own ears to tell who's who. These docs don't provide much insight that knowledgeable Beatles fans didn't already have. In addition to the original album notes, each CD comes with new liner notes, which are informative but you still have to look elsewhere if you want to dig deep. The packaging is nice, folding out into three parts and ostensibly eco-friendly -- much more pleasing than the original reissues.

See Part Two for the individual reviews. And if you have any general comments about the new Beatles remasters, please share them -- but please be civil. Thank you.

Copyright © 2009 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.
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Thursday, September 3, 2009

A Round of Tributes

This has been a summer of losses in the entertainment industry, and I'm not talking about dollars. A lot of great artists have passed on recently, and I've tried to pay tribute to some of them, but I am only one man!

Last week, fans of classic pop music lost two folks who might not have been household names, but there music sure was widely known. Ellie Greenwich wrote and produced some of the most beloved pop hits of all time. Don't believe me? Take a look. I've mentioned Artie Wayne here before and recommended his blog; well, his Ellie Greenwich tribute has attracted comments from many music business giants who knew her. Check out Artie's thoughts and the responses:

While you're at it, take a look at Artie's tribute to Larry Knechtel, not only a member of Bread but also one of the most prolific session musicians of all time:

If you know me, you know I've been largely avoiding the subject of Michael Jackson on One Note Ahead because, well, you've seen and perhaps been involved in the controversy. I dove headfirst into it myself right after he died and that was a mistake! But today is the date of his burial, which has me thinking about a blog posted in June by Boy Wonder, one of the big names on the Philly music scene. So he incorrectly identified Michael's cause of death; I still think this is one of the more intelligent fan tributes I've seen. And note how he lists "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" twice among Michael's greatest compositions; I'd like to think that's not a mistake.

Of course, there are plenty of other MJ tributes out there (including Artie's), but I wanted to share that one in particular.

That's all for now. Stay tuned.

Copyright © 2009 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.
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