Since my post about Frank Sinatra's "Watertown" album almost… sort of… kind of… well, okay, came straight out and advocated downloading that out of print Frank-o-phile obscurity, this post will argue that sometimes the record industry does come up with some stuff worth buying…
First off, it's bugged me for years –since the Napster days– that the public is willing to put up with crappy sounding MP3 files! I simply do not get it! An MP3 is NOT a digital copy of exactly what's on the CD. Well, that's not quite true because it is a digital copy, it's just a poor sounding one, comparable to, say, a black and white Xerox of an oil painting. It ain't the same thing, not by a long shot. Compare a 128kbps MP3 file of just about any song to the version of the CD and you'll see what I mean. Maybe not on your computer speakers or on your iPod, but on a proper stereo system, even in the car, there's a huge difference.
There's been a little-noticed effort on the part of the music industry to cater to audiophiles in recent years: SACD, DVD-A, and 5:1 surround remixes go quite some distance in stepping it up for those of us who like to kick back, relax and actually LISTEN to our music. But sadly, few seem to care or even to have noticed, although many major artists (The Rolling Stones, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel, John Coltrane, The Kinks, Pink Floyd, Elton John, etc) have had substantial portions of their back catalogs reissued in these formats. These releases have largely fallen on deaf ears as no one seems to be buying them. "Dark Side of the Moon" aside, these steroid-pumped recordings tend to disappear quickly after they've been released.
That's why I've been buying them up whenever I can. Before you know it, these shiny audiophile playthings will be impossible to come by, or at least prohibitively expensive. The day of the CD and DVD is almost over and so it seems unlikely that the music industry will continue to pour money down this particularly niche black hole.
It's a shame the extreme audiophile formats never really took off. I can't tell you how exciting it is to hear a classic like Roxy Music's "Avalon" in a crystalline, swirling surround mix realized by the original production team of Rhett Davies and Bob Clearmountain. Or how insanely three-dimensional the Middle Eastern instruments sound on Peter Gabriel's "Passion" album or about the sense of space around the strings in "Stravinsky Conducts Stravinsky" on SACD. Or how stupendously mind-blowing it is to hear the afrocentric funk of Talking Head's "Remain in Light" coming at you from five different directions. It's all too much!
Often the classic rock era LPs chosen for the surround remix treatment were originally recorded for the 70s four-speaker Quad format and have source tapes tailor-made for the modern effort. For instance, the Allman Brothers can be heard playing discretely in the channels of "At Fillmore East" –it really sounds like you are there– and Tony Visconti had access to his own multitrack recordings of David Bowie's live "Stage" record for the 5:1 version of that album. It's as good of a Bowie concert as we are ever likely to hear, preserved for the ages. Worth paying for? You betcha!
It's incredible how much better these albums sound. Like "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars" on SACD. I am a huge, huge lifelong Bowie fanatic, but I never really liked that album much. I always thought it sounded tinny and puny, especially his vocals — even Mick Ronson's guitar– but the remix (by original "Ziggy" producer Ken Pitt) is simply stunning, muscular and… wildly futuristic. It's like getting a chance to discover it for the first time. I can't stop listening to it.
I could go on and on about this all day and bore you all to tears, but suffice to say if it matters to you that you can hear the sound of Bob Dylan's fingertips as they move across his guitar strings, the sound of Elton John or Carole King's piano peddles or the buzz of Keith Richard's guitar amp, then I highly recommend scooping the soon-to-be-rare audiophile releases up where ever and whenever you can find them because you won't be able to do it for much longer.
(Richard Metzger is a guestblogger)