I like stuff.
Anyone who has known me for any length of time can back me up on this. I have a lot of stuff. I have so much stuff that moving is problematic – last time I did it, I needed a pretty large truck, not for furniture or anything like that, but for stuff. CDs. Comics. DVDs. Stuff.
People are often amazed at how many CDs I buy on a regular basis. I try to keep these people from sensing the true depth of my obsession. For example, I will hardly ever reveal the fact that I have bought many, many albums twice, and sometimes three times, for what might seem to others as the flimsiest of reasons.
For one thing, I’m an old-fashioned packaging guy. I have mentioned this numerous times before – I just have the collector gene. I don’t know where I got it from, since neither of my parents have it, and none of my grandparents, as far as I can tell. I like being able to line up an entire body of work, in similar-looking packaging, and proudly display it as part of a collection. In fact, I am such a collector that any hole in that body of work drives me nuts.
I know, for instance, that I will never own Rochester, the limited-edition U.S. tour live album Marillion made in 1998. The only pressing was sent specifically to fans who donated money for that tour, and the band has promised it will never be re-released. Fine. But if I want to obtain one on eBay, it will cost me well in excess of $100. It’s a live album. I have probably 75 Marillion live albums, including a few from the Rochester tour. I’m not missing anything when it comes to the music. Still, I want this thing, because there’s a hole in my Marillion collection where it should be.
This year, I bought physical release copies of both Nine Inch Nails albums, Ghosts I-IV and The Slip. Technically speaking, I already owned both – Trent Reznor made them both available for free/cheap download off of his website. And yet, I wanted the packaging. I didn’t relish the idea of burning CD copies and printing off cheap covers just to display the albums on my shelf. Flimsy reason? I guess. But I’m happy I bought both.
Quick digression. There are a couple of reasons that the actual CD version of The Slip is worth having, to me. Of course, there is the artwork and the liner notes. The cover image is the same one that came with the download, but nicely printed onto a digipak, and the booklet is a good reference for who played what. The physical release comes with a DVD of the band performing several Slip songs live, and that’s a nifty bonus too.
But the big reason, which I won’t be able to explain fully to those of you who’ve grown up in the age of iTunes, is that the album is mastered.
What does this mean? Well, when I downloaded The Slip, it arrived as 10 separate audio files. I loaded them onto my iTunes and listened away. However, iTunes decided for me the amount of space between the songs, and whether the linking sections would actually connect. It was like listening to 10 distinct pieces of music, whereas listening to The Slip on CD is like hearing a cohesive suite. Opener “999,999” now segues beautifully into “1,000,000.” The transition from “Lights in the Sky” to “Corona Radiata” is exactly how it should be. The songs flow and blend, and it makes an incredible difference to me.
The new age of digital delivery doesn’t take this into account. Most of the great records of the last 40 years have benefited tremendously from careful mastering. Imagine “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” not segueing perfectly into “With a Little Help From My Friends.” Imagine The Dark Side of the Moon split into 10 different audio files, with spaces between them. (You can cut the space down to almost nothing in iTunes or other players, but there’s still a space – the sound doesn’t bleed over.) Mastering is becoming a lost art, and I think people will miss it, even if they don’t realize what it adds.
The Slip contains the loudest and most danceable guitar-industrial noise Reznor has made in a while, especially “Letting You” and “Discipline,” but as it progresses, it becomes more complex and moody. “Echoplex” and “Head Down” spin mid-tempo webs of electric guitar before “Lights in the Sky” drops the pace entirely for a dark piano number.
I still quibble with Reznor’s decision to sequence the two long instrumental tracks together. “Corona Radiata” is a nice drone, but goes on a little long – it sounds like an outtake from Ghosts I-IV, to be honest. And “The Four of Us Are Dying” doesn’t pick the momentum up at all. Closer “Demon Seed” is a little too sloppy and disorganized to bring it home, which is a shame. After a strong start, The Slip seems to lose its way, and never quite regains it.
Is The Slip worth buying twice? Well, not really, but let’s be honest – I didn’t buy it the first time, either. The free download was, to me, like getting a sneak peek at a work in progress, and the CD is the real deal. Of course, I have bought both Pretty Hate Machine and The Downward Spiral numerous times, for new remasters in new formats, so I certainly wouldn’t put it past me to shell out for The Slip again in the future.
Yes, you read that correctly – I’ve re-bought albums I already own for newly remastered sound. It actually makes a huge difference, and often, the improved clarity comes with extra goodies, like a second disc of rarities or new packaging. Case in point – I’ve just bought the first three U2 albums, Boy, October and War, for a third time each. (Once on cassette as a young’un, once on CD, and now on brilliantly remastered CD.)
It strikes me that there’s an entire generation of kids now who hear new U2 music and don’t understand why they were such an important band. Over time, the four lads from Dublin have settled into their journeyman role as pop stars, writing good (and sometimes great) radio singles and being content with changing the world in small ways. But when they started out, they were one of the best arguments for the transformative power of music. They were out to set the world on fire, and no one could argue that they didn’t fiercely believe in every note, every word they played.
U2 changed things by sheer force of will, and not just politically speaking. Before them, no one sounded like U2. Now, you can’t go six months without hearing another band aping their style.
I’m not sure if even listening to these three records would explain it to those who grew up with Pop and Zooropa. But give them a try anyway, because if you haven’t heard them, you just don’t know what you’re missing. And these spiffy new packages are the way to go. First off, the remastering is amazing. It was overseen by The Edge himself – and if you want proof that the former David Evans is an incredibly well-respected guitar player, consider that he’s gotten away with calling himself The Edge for more than 30 years now – and the clarity is astonishing.
Not only do these albums sound better than they ever have, but they look better too. The new remasters are packaged the same way as the Joshua Tree deluxe edition from last year – hardcover book, gorgeous slipcase. The liner notes and essays are wonderful, and Edge’s commentary on all of the bonus tracks is indispensable. Oh, yeah, bonus tracks – a second CD in each package, overflowing with goodness. B-sides, unreleased outtakes, crisply recorded live cuts, the works.
Boy is just an incredible record. “I Will Follow” remains one of U2’s most piercing anthems, kicking things off with a skyward shout, and the tight, pulsing, bloody superb drama-rock that follows never flags until the end. “Out of Control.” “Stories for Boys.” “The Electric Co.” “A Day Without Me.” These are the songs on which U2 established their sound, and hearing the evolution on the second disc is revelatory. The U2 style didn’t spring fully formed, and here you can experience them finding themselves, on the way to being the biggest band in the world.
Hearing it in this format didn’t really change my already high opinion of Boy, but my thoughts on October and War have definitely shifted. I’ve always thought of October as the dreaded Sophomore Slump, a hastily-made follow-up under difficult conditions that didn’t produce quite the results anyone wanted. Bono’s lyric book was stolen shortly before the band hit the studio, so he had to wing much of this record, and he turned to straight, on-the-nose Christianity. The songs have always sounded half-finished to me, the album a blemish on the early catalog.
But hearing the remastered version has shown me how wrong I was. October is a rough, gritty, beautiful record, ragged in all the right places. Turns out they’re still finding themselves here, and by stripping away all forethought and just blazing through it, they made perhaps the purest U2 album of them all. The opening five tracks are unassailable, especially “I Fall Down” and “Fire.” And with “Tomorrow” and the title track, Bono and the boys created what is probably the most gorgeous seven minutes of their lives.
What did the trick for me was listening to the bounty of live tracks on the bonus CD. The October songs live are simply amazing – I don’t think this band has ever been tighter, or scrappier. The experience is revelatory. October is the sound of a band fighting for its life, and they would never have to struggle this hard again.
Now, I’ve long considered War my favorite U2 album. It was one of the first I heard, and it contains “New Year’s Day,” still the best song they’ve ever written, as far as I’m concerned. It’s an important piece of the band’s history, as its success meant the difference between recording another album or getting day jobs.
But you know what? Listening again, it just isn’t all that great. The high points are stratosphere-high, especially “New Year’s Day” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” the songs that put U2 on the map. But the album is overproduced, and listening to it in sharply remastered form drives that home. Every live version of “Sunday” is better than the one that kicks off War, with its too-complex arrangement and out-of-place strings. And studio experiments like “Seconds” and “The Refugee” only drag the album down.
This should have been a focused attack, 10 sharp songs like “Sunday” that coalesced into a perfect whole. Instead, it’s full of diversions and songs that go nowhere, like “Surrender.” On the plus side, I was stunned to recall how chilling and gorgeous “Drowning Man” is, and how forceful “Like a Song…” becomes by its end. But overall, War gets a B-minus from me. It’s good, but not as fantastic as I remembered, and not nearly as grand as the albums directly before and after it.
The bonus disc doesn’t help. Easily the weakest of the three, the War disc is crammed with remix after remix of “New Year’s Day” and “Two Hearts Beat as One.” Hearing one clubby dance mix of my favorite U2 song was bad enough, but here are two long ones in a row, plus two other mixes of the same song. The B-sides are no great shakes, and the disc inexplicably ends with live tracks from Boy and October. Like the album it accompanies, this disc could have been so much better.
Still, I highly recommend these new packages, which finally give U2’s back catalog the attention it deserves. A similar package for Under a Blood Red Sky is planned for September, and hopefully The Unforgettable Fire, Rattle and Hum and Achtung Baby won’t be far behind. I’m very much looking forward to having a complete set of these beautiful remasters on my shelf.
A case like U2’s remastered catalog is, I think, understandable. I’m doing the same thing with the Cure’s ongoing remasters project – they sound better, they look better, they come with tons of music I don’t already have, and they line up nicely in my collection. But there’s another reason, an x-factor if you will, why I would buy albums twice. This one I just can’t logically explain – it’s simply loyalty. If I want to support a band, I’ll pick up re-releases of records I already have, especially if the money goes straight to the musicians.
This is financially idiotic, but it makes me feel sort of noble. And usually, the new versions will be ever so slightly superior to the old versions, so I can convince myself it’s not a waste of money. For instance, I’ve just bought the new version of the 77s Christmas record, Happy Chrimbo, because the new one comes in a jewel case with better artwork. The original release arrived in a cardboard sleeve with a sticker. The music’s the same, but the packaging is better, and the money goes right to Mike Roe and the band.
As another case in point, I just received copies of five albums by the Levellers, all remastered and spiffied up. The Levellers have long been one of my favorite unsung bands – I was initially introduced to them through Chris L’Etoile, who first played me “The Game” off of their second disc, Levelling the Land. Here was a sound I’d never heard. It was almost punk, but front and center in the arrangement was a flailing fiddle, not just accompanying the driving rock sound but leading it. I quickly bought Levelling (on cassette) and found that all the songs were just as great. And the fiddle wasn’t a gimmick, but an integral part of the band’s identity.
I kept up with the Levellers, buying the next few albums on tape, then upgrading to CD. I’ve already pre-ordered their next one, Letters From the Underground, out in about two weeks. But for about a year now, those five remasters have been calling my name. I’ve hesitated because, apart from the clearer sound and new liner notes, they offer me nothing – I have all the b-sides and bonus tracks already. But hell, they’re a great band, and I want to support them, so last month, I bit the bullet.
The remasters cover the heart of the band’s discography: Levelling the Land, the self-titled album, Zeitgeist, Mouth to Mouth and Hello Pig. These are the albums on which the Levs defined their fiddle-punk-folk style, and then blew it through the sky. More recently, they’ve returned to their roots, but these five records trace their growing confidence, and the height of their sonic exploration. They’re also five must-have albums, as far as I’m concerned – I like them so much, I’ve just bought all of them for the third time.
Levelling gives you the most value for your money. It’s the one record most Levs fans agree is a straight-up classic, with not one duff song. While the debut, A Weapon Called the Word, established them as politically-minded folkies, Levelling shows just how well they can rock without losing that earthy edge. “The Game” remains a favorite, but “Sell Out” is pretty close, and “The Riverflow” isn’t far behind, either. The remastering is crisp, which is good, because the original CD pressing of Levelling was almost inaudible.
The new package also comes in a mini-LP sleeve, bundled with a second disc containing a fantastic live show from 1991. If you’re only going to get one Levellers album, it should probably be this one, and the concert is a nice bonus – the Levs have always been better live than in the studio.
Case in point – their self-titled third album. Equal parts rushed and overbaked, Levellers stretches out sonically (especially on danceable drone “This Garden”) but comes up short on songs, ending up a muddy, uninspiring mess. When the best song on your record is a cover (“Dirty Davey”), it’s time to reconsider some things. The new remaster is a remarkable improvement over the original one, and listening to Levellers with this renewed clarity certainly moves it up a notch or two. It’s never going to be my favorite Levellers album, but at least it doesn’t sound like it was mixed by tone-deaf monkeys anymore.
Form was well and truly returned to on Zeitgeist, a more varied effort that brought the fiddle back to the fore. Honestly, I can’t hear much difference between the old and new versions of Zeitgeist and its successors, but listening to the record again was fun – some of the Levs’ best songs are here, including “Forgotten Ground,” “The Fear,” and the landmark closer “Men-An-Tol.” If you can get two Levellers albums, get this one too.
And then, flushed with confidence, the Levs pushed hard against the constraints of their sound. Mouth to Mouth is a pop album, pure and simple – it’s full of cheery ditties like “Celebrate,” and deals much more with matters of the heart than political causes. It’s also great, especially the second, more experimental half. “Elation” is one of the odder and more beautiful Levellers songs, and closer “Too Real” is six minutes of minor-key awesome.
And then came Hello Pig. I’m not even sure what to say about this one, in many ways my favorite Levellers album. It’s their Sgt. Pepper, an unbroken 13-song pop suite that rides half a dozen new directions into other dimensions. It’s a brilliant piece of songwriting and production, flitting from Lennon-esque ditties like “Happy Birthday Revolution” to noisy swirls of insanity like “The Weed That Killed Elvis,” to breathtakingly beautiful folk-pop songs like “Red Sun Burns.” It’s a Levellers album unlike any other, and if you can only get three of them, try this one.
Of course, Hello Pig was a commercial flop, and even the liner notes refer to it as a noble failure. (They also make mention of its “daft title” and “rubbish cover,” both true statements.) From this point on, the Levs would return to their roots, playing punky fiddle-rock on two subsequent (and pretty good) albums. Make that three, actually, including Letters From the Underground, which sounds so far like a conscious attempt to make Levelling the Land II. We shall see… (Hear more here.)
But I am happy with my reissue purchase, even though it bought me not a scrap of music I didn’t already have. This collector gene is something I just can’t explain – it’s an innate part of me, the desire to own a full set of something in its best possible form. I’ve long since given up trying to understand it. I’m a sucker for bonus tracks and packaging and all of it. The hell with the digital revolution – give me my deluxe remasters in big, beautiful cases, my box sets in ornate outer shells. Give me music with a context, music that is tangible and tactile, music as audio and visual art.
Can I get an amen?
Next week, Randy Newman and Conor Oberst.
See you in line Tuesday morning.