23 December, 2014

The Bonus Discs - New deluxe

On October 13th last year, I went to my nearest record store which, thanks to modern technology, is now a bit over an hour’s drive away. I had been reliably informed that the particular chain had a habit of placing stock in the racks as soon as they received it rather than keeping it embargoed until the official release date. I had nothing else to do that day and it was worth it to have the new Paul McCartney album as soon as it came out.

By coincidence, my dearest happened to be in the US at the time, so I asked her to bring my back the Target exclusive version with a bonus DVD. There were other editions exclusive to other big box stores in the US but she wasn’t near any of them. No doubt, there were fans who grabbed them all. Being a bit of an audio nerd, I also bought the high-resolution version from HD Tracks for the greater dynamic range. I didn’t bother with the standard edition – and seriously, who does this? Who thinks to themselves, “I’m going to buy the new album by one of my favourite artists, but I’ll save a couple of dollars by getting the version that has three less songs on it,”? Still, the beancounters at MPL and/or Starbucks clearly thought it was a good idea so what do I know?

So this deluxe edition is actually my fourth copy of New.
Hello, I’m Bill and I’m a hopeless fanboy.

It’s not that the album isn’t worth buying more than once – it’s excellent. There are four separate producers, including two second-generation Beatles producers; Ethan Johns, son of Glyn who worked on Let It Be, and Giles Martin (if you don’t know who his father is, then I’m very disappointed in you). As the DVD reveals, the original intention was to try out these producers – the others being Paul Epworth and Mark Ronson – and see who he actually wanted to make an album with, but having done a whole record’s worth of material, the album was compiled from all four sets of sessions. Despite the contrasting styles, the album flows extremely well. Somehow, it doesn’t suffer from the too-many-cooks problems that made Flowers in the Dirt, which was also promiscuous with producers, sound like less than the sum of its parts.

On the whole, the DVD is good value, with nearly two hours of material. The documentary on the making of the album is quite insightful and rather cleverly plays the complete album through the program. The middle of the disc compiles just about all the promotional junkets for the album, the most interesting of which is Bang & Olufsen interview. There are short pieces on the talk shows and pop-up gigs he did, but they don’t include any of the actual interviews or performances. Show Paul arriving, waving fans, gushing host, two seconds of performance, Paul shakes hands and leaves. Repeat seven times.

Johnny Depp sitting.
The DVD concludes with four official videos plus behind-the-scenes documentaries for three of them. The first compilation of McCartney promotional clips was called The McCartney Years. If there’s ever a second volume, they could almost call it Johnny Depp Sits On Things.

Johnny Depp Sitting. Again.

This deluxe edition also comes with a bonus audio disc that includes four live tracks recorded in Tokyo, and three unreleased studio tracks. The three new songs are decent, but wouldn’t have fitted the flow of the album proper.

Worth paying extra for?  If you don’t already own the album, it’s totally worth paying extra for, but who are we kidding? If you have the slightest interest in this deluxe edition, you already have the album so the question is if it’s worth buying a second time.

The way I usually look at deals like this is that most fans who are interested in the extra discs would gladly pay $25 for them as a standalone release, so why complain about getting a spare copy of the main album to play in the car or where-ever? The other side of that coin is, why bother including that redundant copy of the album when anyone who is interested is bound to have it already? I think the answer to that question is obvious: This way, it counts as sales of the New album rather than as a separate release.

Milking it? Well, yes and no. The 7 tracks on the additional audio disc are all perfectly decent B-sides. If New had been released 15 years ago, there would have been three or four singles released off it, each with two or three additional non-album tracks. Fans would have diligently bought them, spending about as much as the price of this deluxe edition, and getting a redundant, if not butchered copy of each A-side. Now that the market for physical singles is essentially dead, those extras are marketed differently.

There remains the issue of appearing to fiddle the sales figures but again, this isn’t really anything new. Back in the 90s, it wasn’t unusual for a single to be released on two different CDs, sometimes three, each with different bonus tracks. When the hardcore fans bought all versions, the title registered two or three sales for one buyer. A little detail that is rarely mentioned about the time Blur and Oasis went head-to-head releasing new singles on the same day is that while Blur may have beaten Oasis to Number 1, Country House was released on two CD singles, Roll With It was only released on one.

If you’re the kind of fan who is happy enough to have the regular album, you won’t miss anything that’s on the additional discs here. If you’re the kind of fan who has to have everything, this deluxe edition rewards your additional investment.

22 November, 2014

The Bonus Discs - Wings at the Speed of Sound

The remaster of the second album by what is generally regarded as the ‘classic’ lineup of Wings sounds just as good as its predecessor. Steve Rooke, Guy Massey and Simon Gibson have excelled themselves here. There is a real intimacy to the sound, even on the big arrangements like Silly Love Songs and Beware My Love.
The remainder of the deluxe package is a little disappointing. This is not so much a reflection on this particular edition as it is on the whole notion of massive boxed editions of single albums. The B-sides of the singles released off Wings at the Speed of Sound were also album tracks and evidently everything that they recorded for the album was released at the time. It makes sense given that the album was recorded between two tours, but it does mean the cupboard is almost bare when it comes to previously unreleased goodies to fill the bonus disc and DVD.
The bonus tracks that were on the initial CD release, Walking in the Park with Eloise, Bridge on the River Suite, and Sally G have been removed now that they’re available on the bonus disc of Venus and Mars. I heartily approve of stripping the albums back to their original track-listings. I find it annoying when the album reaches its natural conclusion and then a few B-sides play. It’s much better to shift them to separate discs.
However, having moved those three tracks to the album closest to when they were recorded, all that’s left are demos.

The “John Bonham version” of Beware My Love has already been milked for all it’s worth. The truth is, it’s not a complete version of the song but a first-take demo that happens to have John Bonham (who was a big fan of Wings’ drummer Joe English) sitting in on drums. It’s interesting but not quite the meeting of 70s giants it’s been made out to be.

The other most interesting demo on the disc is probably Paul’s vocal version of Must Do Something About It - a greatly underrated song of McCartney’s. It’s the finished backing track with Paul doing a guide vocal for Joe, who sings on the album. What’s most interesting about it is how dull Paul’s vocal is. Seriously, that’s not a criticism. Everyone knows Paul can sing the hell out of a song but rather than sell the song himself on the guide vocal, he gives only enough to show how the song goes and leaves it to Joe to do the vocal interpretation. It may come as something of a surprise to those who have Paul pegged as a control freak.

On the DVD? Well, not a whole lot. There’s the original promotional film for Silly Love Songs which has not been remastered, so there’s some added retro authenticity. The only other content is two short tour films, Wings Over Wembley and Wings in Venice. Wings Over Wembley is supposed to be a record of Wings’ three dates at Wembley arena at the conclusion of the 1976 world tour. The film is introduced as an “impression” of those dates and unfortunately, that’s all it is. All it shows is a few snippets of interviews and soundchecks. The film has been edited down from its original version and it beggars belief that they wouldn’t include the full version.

The book is as beautiful as always. It includes plenty of previously unpublished photos, including plenty from the 1975 Australian tour. Paul evidently has very fond memories of being here. HINT HINT!

The bulk of the written content is taken verbatim from an interview in which Paul actually seems rather reluctant to participate. The banal nature of the questions might have had something to do with that. I am sure you will be just as surprised as I was to learn that She’s My Baby is about Linda and the “Phil and Don” mentioned in Let ’Em In are the Everly Brothers. The most insightful part is the reflection on Jimmy McCulloch’s two Wings songs both being songs to himself warning of his self-destructive behaviour.

As with Venus and Mars, there are several pockets with heaps of little trinkets including stickers, tickets, photos and reproductions of handwritten lyrics and studio notes. While it’s very clever that they can copy these pages all the way down to the coffee stains and cigarette burns, it would be much more convenient to simply have them as pages in the book rather than individual objects.

On both Wings at the Speed of Sound and Venus and Mars, all McCartney songs are now credited to Paul and Linda. There’s no indication as to whether this is correcting a historical inaccuracy or whether this is a latter day Lennon/McCartney arrangement, not that it matters either way. The demo of Silly Love Songs does reveal Linda’s contribution.

Worth paying extra for? The remaster is definitely worth it. The additional CD is worth a few dollars extra for curiosity value but the book and DVD? Nah.

Silly Love Songs - initial 1989 CD release
Silly Love Songs - 2014 remaster
Silly Love Songs - 2014 remaster hi-res


16 November, 2014

The Bonus Discs - Venus and Mars

There is a bit of a mythology around remasters. It’s debatable as to whether the average fan is really going to hear the improvement above the confirmation bias of justifying the re-purchase of an album. It’s not that a remaster wasn’t warranted. In the case of Venus and Mars it certainly was. (Ironically, the other Paul McCartney album in the most dire need of a remaster is 2007’s Memory Almost Full, but that’s a rant for another day). I have to say though, with Venus and Mars and Wings at the Speed of Sound, you can believe the hype.

Venus and Mars is one of my favourite albums. I’ve heard it on vinyl, cassette, CD, quadraphonic digitised from 8-track cartridge and DTS-CD, and I can tell you that it has never sounded better. The music just leaps out of the speakers in the way it always should have but never quite did.

On this new version, the bonus tracks that were added to the 1993 CD have been removed. My Carnival and Lunch Box/Odd Sox have been bumped to the secondary CD and Zoo Gang has been removed altogether now that it’s on the Archive Collection version of the more contemporaneous Band on the Run.

The bonus CD starts out with the tracks recorded during Wings Nashville excursion just before going to New Orleans to record Venus and Mars. This is actually the first time the full version of Junior’s Farm has been available on CD outside of Wings Greatest. Its B-side, Sally G, is followed by two instrumental tracks, Walking in the Park with Eloise (written by Paul’s father) and Bridge on the River Suite, originally released as a 7” single credited to The Country Hams.

My Carnival was recorded during the Venus and Mars sessions but was not released until 1985 as the B-side of Spies Like Us (as you do). There are two version of the song here, the completed version and the demo version under the working title of Going to New Orleans (as you do.) Absent is the “party mix” which was on the Spies Like Us 12”. These are followed by yet another version of Hey Diddle, this time mixed by Ernie Winfrey during the Nashville sessions. It does certainly have more of a country feel than the version on the bonus disc of Ram.

For no apparent reason, Soily and Baby Face from the One Hand Clapping film are included on the CD. The entire film was included with Band on the Run four years ago. It’s true that these two tracks have not been released on CD before but so what? They just seem like padding on a bonus disc that is already rich with quality content.

4th of July is a gorgeous acoustic song which is followed by the “old” version of Rockshow recorded in England and the single edit of Letting Go, which has a considerably drier mix.

The DVD is made up mostly of home movies. The recording of My Carnival is interesting mainly because the track is unmixed and we get to hear some parts that weren’t used in the final mix. The section called Bon Voyageur shows Paul and Linda on a river ferry in New Orleans shortly after Mardi Gras 1975. There are occasional snippets of interviews regarding the upcoming recording and Wings are also shown partying with The Meters.

Wings at Elstree is not a concert but rehearsals for the world tour – also home movie footage, edited to include just the songs from Venus and Mars. The audio on this section ranges from acceptable to non-existent, in which case the album audio is dubbed in. The DVD concludes with the 60-second television commercial for the album.

As mentioned at the beginning, a quadraphonic version of Venus and Mars was released on 8-track and subsequently made available as a DTS-CD. It’s disappointing that the quad mix wasn’t included on the DVD the way the Pink Floyd deluxe versions did.

On the packaging side, things have been changed around a little. Rather than a fabric cover, it’s a glossy one with the album art filling the cover. It’s not exactly a hardcover, either. Rather, it’s a perfect-bound paperback, similar to the one that came with Ram, with a hard cover wraparound. Look at the picture and it makes sense.

The content of the book, written by Barry Miles from new interviews with Paul and Denny, is excellent in detailing the Nashville and New Orleans sessions. There are also several pockets inside the book containing photographs, stickers (although not the strip of planets sticker that came with the original), posters and replica tickets. It’s very lavish and well presented, but most of this stuff you’re going to look at once, say “wow, cool!” and then put it away forever. The time and effort could have been put to much better use by remastering the quad version for inclusion on the DVD.

As usual, the deluxe version comes with a code to download all the tracks in 96kHz/24bit high resolution audio.

Worth paying extra for? For the 2-disc, absolutely! For the 3-disc version, well, I’m biased. Being a New Orleanian-in-law, I found the archival footage fascinating but for many, it might hold as much interest as the replica tickets and stickers. 

Listen to What the Man Said - 1993 remaster

Listen to What the Man Said - 2014 remaster

Listen to What the Man Said - 2014 remaster hi-res

“Very good to see you down in New Orleans, man!”


14 November, 2014

Kicking the can down the Rhodes

For those of you who were born yesterday, came down in the last shower, or just arrived from an interstellar journey, Australia’s prime minister Tony Abbott is not the sharpest crayon in the packet. Show me anyone who says differently and I’ll show you someone who has a political agenda. “He’s a Rhodes Scholar!” they will say, but so are Bob Hawke, Bill Clinton, Kim Beazley and Malcolm Turnbull. The difference between Mr Abbott and those other political Rhodes Scholars is that whatever you may think of them, their knowledge and intelligence is self-evident. Their supporters never have to cite a Rhodes Scholarship as a counter-argument to any popular perception that they’re a bit dim.

Abbott’s humble intellect is so self-evident that providing regular updates of examples just seems like piling on. I mean, once you’ve claimed that Australia was “unsettled” before 1788 (um, we don’t regard Aboriginal Australians as native fauna any more, Tony), then failed to learn from the mistake and repeated the comment today, then undiplomatic language about the Russian president and flubbing the rehearsed follow-up line is no real surprise.

Like the “unsettled” idiocy, and his unforgivably ignorant assertion that Australians “admired the skill and the sense of honour,” of the Japanese in World War II (and to think his government complains about how history is taught), once in a while he comes out with a brain fart even lower than our greatly diminished expectations of him.

From the beginning of his time as party leader, Abbott’s opposition to doing anything about climate change has been based largely on the fact that the world’s biggest polluters, the USA and China had no clear policy on the issue, so what could little old Australia do? God forbid we should actually set an example for anyone. Now that Presidents Obama and Xi have announced an accord to reduce carbon emissions, Tony Abbott has lost his best excuse and is left humiliated on the wrong side of history. And when asked about the inferiority, by comparison, of his give polluters a shitload of money and hope they do the right thing “direct action” plan, Mr Abbott said:
“I welcome the agreement. As for Australia, I’m focusing not on what might happen in 16 years’ time, I’m focusing on what we’re doing now.”
So this Rhodes Scholar, this man who received some of the best education in the world, not only thinks that Australia was uninhabited before British settlement, not only thinks that Australians regarded an enemy that worked POWs to death on the Burma Railway and ritually beheaded them when they couldn’t work any more, but also thinks that what may happen in the future has nothing to do with the decisions he makes today.

That’s beyond ignorant, it’s beyond stupid. It almost indicates some kind of mental impairment.

Oh, and Tony? Cecil Rhodes called. He wants his money back.*

(*Line shamelessly stolen from my dearest)


08 November, 2014

The Bonus Discs - The Endless River

I admitted in a previous review of Pulse that I took Roger’s side in the great Pink Floyd schism of the 80s. Blame it on being a self-righteous 16yo at the time that I thought there had to be a “right” and a “wrong” side.

However, I stand by the assessment that the first post-Waters album, A Momentary Lapse of Reason, almost confirmed Waters’ assertion that the group was a spent-force creatively. Despite appearing at the top of the small-print credits of that album, Richard Wright had not yet officially rejoined the band after being kicked out by Waters following the recording of The Wall. (Wright had the last laugh though. Having been demoted to sideman and put on wages for the 1980 tour of The Wall, he was the only member of Pink Floyd to make any money out of the loss-making shows) His contributions, along with Nick Mason’s, to that album were minimal, partly due to being out of practice and partly due to Momentary Lapse being as much a Pink Floyd album as The Final Cut was. Also, the record tried so hard to sound like Pink Floyd that it ended up being a little embarrassing.

It sold by the ship-load though and gave all three the confidence to be themselves a bit more on The Division Bell seven years later.

Many of the songs on The Division Bell were composed the way Pink Floyd used to write in the late 60s and early 70s, by building ideas up from extended jams. It turns out The Division Bell was originally intended to come with a bonus disc of some of these jams. Time got away from them though and the idea was shelved, as was the idea of Pink Floyd as a group at the end of the ’94/’95 tour. They never officially broke up, they just stopped being Pink Floyd. The untimely death of Richard Wright in 2008 after a brief battle with cancer seemed to confirm that they would continue to not be Pink Floyd. That’s why when I first read rumours earlier this year about a new Pink Floyd album, I put them in the same folder that I send alerts about a new John Lennon tour to.

When it was revealed that David Gilmour and Nick Mason were cleaning up and building upon some of these unused jams, the notion of a new album made a lot more sense. It also sounded quite attractive just from that information. Gilmour and Wright continued jamming together until Rick’s passing. A few of those jams are included as bonus features on Gilmour’s concert DVDs and I thought at the time that a whole album of such material would not be unwelcome.

While there have been plenty of modern overdubs added, it’s evident that the music has not been changed too much. The fact that even on the CD and DVD, the tracklist is divided into four sides, tells us that this is going to be old school. The Endless River is a return to pre-Dark Side Pink Floyd – almost all instrumental and with deep but probably meaningless track titles for good measure.

It begins in classic Floyd style with a long, slow fade-in that makes you wonder if this thing is on and to be honest, the second track It’s What We Do does come just a little too close to a Shine On You Crazy Diamond pastiche. In fact, there’s a fair bit of self-reference in the music and it’s hard to tell if and when it’s deliberate or if it’s just the Floyd being Floyd. There are echoes (sorry!) of Us and Them, Run Like Hell, Sorrow, and even Another Brick… Part 3. Although the pieces started as improvisations, they never descend into pointless noodling. Sonically, the album is about mid-way between The Division Bell and Gilmour’s excellent solo album, On an Island.

The one vocal track, Louder Than Words, which closes the album, has Pink Floyd going a bit sentimental for once, but it’s still beautiful. Some might find it surprising that David Gilmour does bittersweet really well.

The main feature of the accompanying DVD is the 5.1 surround mix of the album. More than just a carrot for audiophiles, this is another aspect of Pink Floyd returning to their roots. They were always champions of surround sound. Even though they stopped mixing their albums in Quad when it became clear that not enough people were interested, their live shows were always in quadraphonic since the 70s and Roger Waters’ concerts still are.

In addition to the surround mix, there is 39 minutes of additional music split across video and audio sections. The piece titled Evrika is in fact Wearing the Inside Out in its early stages. The track called Nervana (sic) wouldn’t have really fitted into the main album but the only way to describe it is: It rocks! Even on their least over-thought album in 40 years, it’s refreshing and surprising to see and hear Pink Floyd being a simple rock and roll band for five minutes.

Much of the video is taking from in-studio cameras during recording. While it’s not the visual feast we have come to expect from Pink Floyd, it’s great to see them at work.

It would be cynical and unworthy to dismiss The Endless River as trawling the archives for some product to release. For all their internal bickering, Pink Floyd have always known how to remember the fallen. The album is first and foremost a tribute to Richard Wright, whose integral contribution to Pink Floyd’s sound was often overshadowed by the clash of egos between Waters and Gilmour. Not only is it a fitting tribute to Rick, it’s probably the most genuinely “Pink Floyd” album since 1975. After so much soap opera, it is an honest and dignified end to their recording career.

Audio: 24bit LPCM Stereo, Dolby 5.1, DTS 5.1 (album)
          LPCM Stereo (additional tracks)
Worth paying extra for? You’re mad if you don’t.

06 November, 2014

There is a difference, Part 3

This was posted to a friend’s Facebook stream today:

Now I am no fan of Julie Bishop and I am pretty sure my friend isn’t either. I have a strict don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy on how people vote, but at a rough guess, I’d say my friend’s politics are fairly similar to mine. That is: fairly centrist by any objective measure but easily branded as left wing for our general opposition to the right.

I used to take umbrage at being branded a leftist since I always considered myself fairly middle-of-the-road politically. I was usually described that way because of my opposition to the authoritarianism and social Darwinism espoused by the modern right (who I refuse to call conservatives because their values have precious little resemblance to classical conservatism). These days, I don’t care. The entire political spectrum has shifted so far to the right over the last 40 years that if being a centrist makes me a lefty to you, fine. Call me a leftist, a progressive, a small-l liberal, whatever. Your label isn’t my problem.

The point is, my friend is no more a fan of the current government than I am.

So the next time someone tells you that each side of politics is as crass and ugly as the other, show them this to remind them that there is a difference.

When Julia Gillard delivered her legendary speech calling out the then opposition leader Tony Abbott for his rampant sexism, both casual and overt, I didn’t see a single Liberal supporter or right wing commentator who had the guts and decency to admit she had a point. Instead, it was Gillard’s fault for playing the “gender card.”

I have no time for Julie Bishop but she deserves better than this. Her personal life is nobody else’s business. I’m not linking to The Age’s article. You can find it yourself if you want to, and shame on you if you do.

My friend’s comment shows that it’s possible to despise everything Julie Bishop stands for, and still admit when she’s been treated disgracefully.
That’s the difference.

31 October, 2014

THE DARK HORSE YEARS – George Harrison

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0002Y69RC/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B0002Y69RC&linkCode=as2&tag=billablog-20&linkId=ZM6MFCXE6Y3GKMMKAs a bonus feature of The Dark Horse Years box set, this was a wonderful addition. Now that it's been released as a standalone DVD, there is something vaguely unsatisfying about it. And it's mainly down to the fact that the program stays true to its brief of being the Dark Horse years which, apart from being the lifespan of George's record label, is a rather curious way of defining his career. It means there's no mention of All Things Must Pass, The Concert for Bangladesh, the Travelling Wilburys or the Beatles Anthology. Okay, so you already knew that, but there's something slightly incongruous about the disc starting in 1976, flipping through to 1992 and finishing in 1987.

That quibble aside, it's quite a treasure trove. We get all the Dark Horse videos, each with a brief excerpt from an interview by means of introduction. The four songs from Live in Japan, remixed in 5.1 surround, only leave you hungry for more. There's also short film on the beginning of the Dark Horse label and a perfunctory piece from the making of Shanghai Surprise, the ill-fated Madonna/Sean Penn vehicle that produced by George.

Highlight: Crackerbox Palace and When We Was Fab, two of the greatest examples of the art of film clips.
Feature: * * * ½
Extras: it's all extras really.
Audio: LPCM Stereo throughout, Dolby 5.1 and DTS on the live tracks