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The Rockologist: Macca In Mono And Other Pitfalls Of Remastered Recordings

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Familiarity sells records.

For proof of this, look no further than the endless stream of repackaged, remastered, and in far too many cases, regurgitated deluxe reissues and boxed sets of classic albums by legacy artists — mostly from the sixties and seventies rock eras.

They just keep on coming, with no foreseeable end in sight.

When remastered deluxe sets are done right (see Neil Young’s Archives Volume 1 and Bruce Springsteen’s The Promise: The Darkness On The Edge Of Town Story), they can be a real treat for fans, offering up a pirates chest of previously unheard treasures like rare tracks and unseen DVD/Blu-ray concert footage.

Unfortunately, even the great ones can fall victim to a case of the record company going to the well one too many times though. The back catalogs of Elvis Costello and David Bowie for example, have by now been mined to the point of redundancy. In other cases, even the most seemingly well intentioned ideas can prove ultimately pointless.

For example, all the overdone four disc set devoted to Pet Sounds — Brian Wilson’s sixties masterpiece with the Beach Boys — really succeeded in doing was proving that the original was just fine as it was, thank you very much.

But when a remastered, or otherwise “enhanced” deluxe recording is treated with the loving care it deserves, the results can be pure magic. Last year’s remastering of Band On The Run as part of Paul McCartney’s ongoing “Archive Collection” was a perfect case in point.

On its three disc version, the original recording is balanced nicely by a generously selected second disc of rarities and outtakes, as well as by a bonus DVD featuring rare footage from the studio and live onstage. The remastering of the actual Band On The Run album, overseen by Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick and Macca himself, likewise hits the mark.

The two most recent entries in McCartney’s “Archive Collection,” are however a decidedly more mixed bag.

First, the good news.

For the remasters of his two most famous “solo” albums, McCartney and McCartney II (Sir Paul plays every single instrument on each), Macca once again oversaw the project, so at least you know the loving care department has been covered. The packages are also very nicely done, mostly recreating the original fold out sleeves of the originals in the CD booklet, along with a few extra photographs. So far, so good.

But there is simply no way around the flat sound heard on the remastered version of Macca’s classic McCartney. The music on McCartney’s first solo album sounds just as good today, as it did back when it was first released in the wake of the Beatles breakup. The really great songs on this album like “Maybe I’m Amazed,” “Every Night,” “That Would Be Something” and “Man We Was Lonely” have only improved with age. Even the seemingly knock-off instrumental pieces like “Kreen-Akore” have a certain charm to them (overlooking the fact that they seem to be there for no other real reason than to show off McCartney’s chops as a one man band).

I just don’t remember this album sounding anywhere near this low-fi dull when I first heard it though. Maybe this is because the “do-it-yourself,” homemade nature of the original recordings don’t really lend themselves to the digital transfer process — I’m really not sure. But on the remaster, the recordings are so “clean” sounding, they sound as though they have had the life sanitized right out of them.

The drums and bass tones yield a low, dull thud, and there is so little definition elsewhere I had to check my speakers to see if the left and right channels were working properly. The vocals and guitars are on top as they should be. But everything else is so evenly and flatly distributed in the mix, the recording almost sounds like it was sound proofed.

Honestly, this sounds like McCartney in mono.

The extras on the bonus disc of McCartney are likewise disappointing. Most of the material, taken from sources like the oft-seen and heard One Hand Clapping and Live In Glasgow, has been previously issued on other remastered McCartney albums. Clocking in at just 25 minutes, the running time of the second disc also comes off like a bit of a cheat. Sorry, but I gotta’ call it like I hear it here.

Truth is, I really had hoped for more with this one. But I still have to label the remastered two-disc version of McCartney as a mild disappointment.

Fortunately, the remastered sound on McCartney II is a bit better than on that of its predecessor. The bad news here is the McCartney II album itself is also the far less superior of the two, taken from a purely musical perspective. The fact that the sound here is a notch above, only serves to further demonstrate the technical inadequacies of the other.

Not that McCartney II is a bad album, because it’s not. It’s just that outside of maybe “Coming Up,” there are nowhere near as many memorable songs as on the 1970 original. If anything, Macca is to be commended for doing something this experimental at the time. From “Coming Up” on down, McCartney II also proves that Sir Paul had his ear finely tuned to the syntho-wave sounds of its eighties day.

The stuff found on the bonus disc of rarities is especially revealing in this regard. It varies wildly from the beautiful Richard Niles arranged orchestration of “Blue Sway,” to the comparatively simpler holiday message of “Wonderful Christmastime” (continuing a long standing tradition of Beatles Christmas songs). Other outtakes from the period like “Check My Machine” reveal that McCartney was nearly as obsessed with electronic advances in music technology as Neil Young was at the same time with his own Trans.

The difference is that Macca was much quieter about it. The one thing for sure here is that the outtakes and unreleased songs on the remastered McCartney II certainly reveal another side of the normally perceived to be much more musically conservative Paul McCartney. For this reason alone, the remastered McCartney II is a definite keeper.

As for the actual album?

It’s a decent, if not quite perfect representation of exactly where McCartney was at when the album was originally recorded. The sound is also quite a bit better (perhaps owing to the more advanced studio technology at the time it was originally made), than on the (musically speaking anyway) much more memorable McCartney album.

At the time it was first released, McCartney II was widely regarded as an artistic comeback for the former Beatle, and this certainly shows in pop gems like the aforementioned “Coming Up” and the Kraftwerk inspired “Temporary Secretary.” Likewise, Macca shows he can still deliver the token syrupy ballad with “Waterfalls.”

But there are precious few songs as memorable as “Maybe I’m Amazed” here. Which is a shame because the recording on this remastered album is so much better than on 1970’s far superior album McCartney.

It’s still a little flat sounding, but in this case eighties synths appear to win out over the DIY technology of seventies home recording. But the main pull of McCartney II remains the extras, which simply kick the crap out of those found on the remastered McCartney.

In fairness, I haven’t seen the DVD/Blu-ray footage on the even more souped up versions of these remastered albums. But the audio versions nonetheless fall a little short.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.