Tuesday, September 29, 2009

CD Review - Beatles Past Masters Remastered

My music listening has been focused on three bands for the past couple of weeks: Porcupine Tree (last four studio albums), Ace Frehley (latest album, Anomaly) and The Beatles (all the remastered CDs starting with Rubber Soul). Yeah it’s a weird mix but it keeps by brain moving. Today, I wanted to post some thoughts on The Beatles Past Masters double CD.

They had the concept right with this one. Instead of dividing Past Masters into two CDs like they did in the 80s, they turned it into a double CD set. And since Past Masters is basically all of The Beatles’ singles grouped into one package, it’s kind of like a greatest hits collection too.

You see, back in the 60s, the artists felt that it was a rip off to put the songs they released as singles on their albums too. So, you had to buy Hey Jude/Revolution or Rain/Paperback Writer on a single to get it, and it wasn’t on any of their British LP releases. In the US of A, however, the record company would rob tracks off of the British LPs, combine them with the singles and give us extra "full length" albums like Something New, Yesterday…and Today, The Beatles Second Album etc. I was very confused when the original CDs came out, as they followed the British LP format and none of those weird American compilations were available. But of course it was much better because that is how the band wanted it in the first place.

When the Beatles’ work first came out on CD, Past Masters was how they got those singles into our hands, since they weren’t on any of the British studio albums.

So, anyway Past Masters is a good concept and the remastering as with the other albums sounds killer. Trouble is, on the first disc, the sharpness of the audio betrays that the band was still finding its feet in the studio. Yeah I am being blasphemous. But here it is – for the first couple of albums and the first batch of singles on Past Masters, the band was better at songwriting and singing than playing. The vocals are insanely impeccable from the first verse of the first single, Love Me Do. And all of the A sides of the singles are incredibly well written pop songs, which is why they all went to number one.

But the songs are in very primitive stereo and so the vocals are in one speaker and the band is in the other. As Pete Townshend infamously said in a 1965 interview in the movie The Kids Are Alright, “If you listen to the Beatles backing tracks without the vocals, they are actually pretty lousy.” I think he’s right. Fix the balance on your stereo so you can’t hear the vocals on She’s A Woman. Lennon is all over the place rhythmically, and hits quite a few clams too. It’s actually nice to hear them be so human…

However, the latter half of disc one and all of disc two is really what we buy this set for. Here is where you get the hits like Day Tripper, We Can Work It Out, Rain, Paperback Writer, Hey Jude, Revolution, Lady Madonna, Don’t Let Me Down and The Ballad of John and Yoko. And here is where the remasters once again make the hair stand up on end. This is where McCartney started honing his super melodic bass style and the band pushed the envelope in the studio with distortion, backwards vocals etc. The band is tight and confident with all the time in the world to get it right, where the first CD songs were recorded under record company pressure to get the next single out.

As with the White Album, Lennon’s rhythm guitar really shows through. He had a killer, chunky tone and style that I am only now starting to really appreciate, now that I can hear it so clearly – check Get Back to see what I am talking about. All that chunky playing and those little counter-fills in the chorus is Lennon, as are the solos. Harrison does very little on the song – you can see that on the video from the rooftop concert where this was recorded.

Also, Lennon and Harrison (but I think it was mostly Lennon) had the grungiest rhythm guitar tone on the block, in songs like Revolution and Day Tripper.

I always knew McCartney was (is) one of the best bass player alive. Hearing him this clearly is a pure joy. Just check out Paperback Writer and Rain. Chunky guitars and pumping bass, with those incredible Beatles riffs and vocal harmonies. And I am not sure I have ever even heard the bass part in Lady Madonna. Wow.

Also, as with the White Album, I hear all sorts of stuff that the grooves of vinyl and/or the shitty 80s CDs hide, like little noises on the vocals mics in the beginning of the singalong in Hey Jude, or the band screwing up the words in the overdubbed lyrics to From Me To You and I’ll Get You. I love shit like this.

Bonus? You also get the very funny You Know My Name (Look Up The Number) that sounds just like a Monty Python skit set to music. If you have the album ‘1,’ you already have a lot of these songs. But if you don’t, it’s a great addition to the collection.

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