Hey! Rotate This. 015

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

“This is gonna replace CDs soon; guess I'll have to buy The White Album again…."
   – Tommy Lee Jones, Men In Black.

The practice of bands and labels re-issuing material after it has reached a certain vintage isn't uncommon. In fact, it's been happening for years and makes very good business sense; from a psychological standpoint, rock n' roll has always been a youthful medium which means the younger demographics purchase the most of it, the most regularly. By the same token, one of the key tenets of rock n' roll has always been one of youthful rebellion which basically implies that no kid would be caught dead buying a record that their Dad liked when he was young; somehow it would seem contrary to the passive rebellion against old values that rock n' roll has come to represent. That's where reissued titles come in. The releases appeal to a broader demographic spectrum; Dad will buy it – perhaps because he's battling a midlife crisis, or perhaps it's a sign of lasting fan appreciation and he wants to refresh his music collection with material he knows he likes, but in the newest format – and his kids will buy it because it's really good music released in a form that isn't instantly identified with pop.

That's the ideal thinking anyway. In truth, that logic only goes so far – one glance at the release schedule of any major label in recent history will illustrate that the number of reissued titles is on the rise. The scope of artists is broadening too; in addition to a crew of proven sellers like The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix, the last two years have seen reissues from artists including Beck (both Odelay and One Foot In The Grave have been re-released in the last two years), the Meat Puppets, The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (re-releases of several key albums including Now I Got Worry and Acme have been scheduled for release in 2010, beginning with the Dirty Shirt Rock 'N' Roll compilation to be released on March 30th), Nirvana (both Bleach and Live At Reading were released last year), The Replacements, The Vaselines, The Butthole Surfers and Santana. Why? In some cases, the releases are based on a desire to keep the albums in print and not let the catalogue languish into oblivion. In some cases, the decision to re-release is made by the band; they either have ownership of their own masters (this is the case with Jon Spencer Blues Explosion) or are embarked upon an endeavor to buy all of their masters back from the different labels that originally released their records (this has been an ongoing project for the Butthole Surfers) and want to make them available on new release shelves again to entice buyers without having to pay a cut of the profits to someone else. It sounds cold to say that the bottom line is, well, the bottom line in some cases, but everyone has to make money – everyone has bills to pay – and allowing material to sit fallow when it could take a more active roll in sustaining those that made the art seems silly doesn't it? In addition, there is historical merit to many releases and it would be tragic if they fell completely by the wayside or were simply relegated to fodder for the National Archives.

Then there are those catalogues that get spruced up or re-placed in plain view for other, less than artistic reasons. As everyone knows, the music industry has suffered some losses over the last few years, and the situation has become just desperate enough that reissuing records has become the preferred method of diffusing the costs associated with nurturing new talent or, in some cases, the financially stable substitute to nurturing new artists or, finally, for padding bank accounts if the artist or association with which he/she is associated has concerns about their financial security. That's when things can become a bit shady and the terms 'remixed' and 'remastered' can become a bit subjective. As with anything else, the potential buyer has to exercise responsible research skills to see if a reissue is the right purchase for them.

That probably sounds more sinister than it needs to. Depending on the listener, any reissue can be a great experience but, to paraphrase Animal Farm, some are greater than others. The difference depends entirely upon what the listener is looking for – but that doesn't mean someone can't help shine a little light on the differences or point out what to expect. The tenor of each reissue is different; some changes can be subtle, some are significant and some additional songs and other accoutrements get added, but each has its strengths and weaknesses. What follows is a sampling of select material to illustrate the differences.

Artist-Engineered Reissues

Some of the recent re-releases to come out are genuine attempts to reignite interest in the material being presented or to titillate long-time fans with new takes on older stuff. Bands like NoFX have been doing this sort of thing for years (that band's 7” Of The Month Club promotion featured different versions of many of the songs that would eventually appear on Wolves In Wolves' Clothing, and several of the vinyl editions of NoFX' full-length albums feature different mixes from their CD counterparts) so it's not uncommon at all, but there is a difference made when the artist originally responsible gets behind the board to remix: often a lighter hand is taken in the re-production. It is done with care and gentility because the musician in question usually has a better idea of what should be changed than some outside source would. Take the forthcoming Jon Spencer Blues Explosion reissues for example – as an exercise in careful work, the remastering job (done by Spencer himself) is evident, but doesn't smack listeners over the head. Listen here:

Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – “Chicken Dog” – from Now I Got Worry, 1996
Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – “Chicken Dog” – from Dirty Shirt Rock 'N' Roll compilation, 2010

In this case, the difference is simple, not radical and pretty gratifying isn't it? Each instrument and vocal steps forward and doesn't fall over itself to express the difference between one version and the other. The differences are there, but (and this is the case with the rest of Dirty Shirt Rock 'N' Roll too) many of them are perfectly reasonable; levels are balanced out, edges are more cleanly defined. In the case of Dirty Shirt Rock 'N' Roll, new technology is used to spruce up the song, but not so much that it crutches on technology.

In the same vein, when Liz Phair's Exile In Guyville was re-released in 2008, much of the attention was placed upon the remastering process, but some additional content was added to seal the deal; in this case three additional songs and a DVD documentary about the album hosted and presented by Phair.

In looking at the reissue of Exile In Guyville,  the documentary and remaster are the things to check out. While Phair did most of the writing for Exile In Guyville and Whipsmart before Exile was released [and even one from Somebody's Miracle which was released in 2005, years after the original Girly Sound demos were made –ed] – and those different versions available online, the most significant difference between Exile In Guyville on release in 1993 and Exile In Guyville on release in 2008 is that the songs sound a little warmer and have some of producer Brad Wood's more jagged edges smoothed out slightly; the sound is slightly warmer and richer, but not exponentially so. Presumably, the reasoning behind the re-release of Exile In Guyville had to do with the fact that Phair had just changed labels (from Capitol to Dave Matthews' imprint, ATO) and the original release (which came out on Matador) was in danger of going out of print so re-issuing it made good financial sense.

Is it worth the price of figuratively re-purchasing the album? For some fans, it certainly will be; two out of the three bonus tracks are worth a listen (the “Instrumental” doesn't sound finished) and the documentary that goes deep into the making of the record is very interesting. By the same token though, new fans can check out the original release for a lower price and, if they get hooked, can decide on whether springing for that deluxe edition is for them.

Label-Initiated Reissues

Without meaning to sound like a sycophant, a record label re-releasing deluxe packages of back catalogue material is the most common form of reissue and they're often the most rewarding because fans regularly get the most bang for their buck. Why? Because record labels have a lot of money. They are able to finance the re-issue of proven catalogue sellers and embark upon fantastic remastering endeavors, or route out additional material to add to the release to make it appealing to older fans. A perfect example of this is lies in the Legacy Edition reissue of Santana's Supernatural. In listening, there's no way to argue that the difference in sound quality is negligible, but how much difference could anyone expect there to be? The album was originally released after the proliferation of computer recording thanks to Pro-Tools, had the benefit of top-dollar production and label support when it came out and the numbers prove that; to date, Supernatural has sold twenty-five million copies worldwide. True, the album may have been in danger of falling out of print after ten years (pop does not typically  have that long a shelf life), but a 'remastered re-release' would be silly and insult the intelligence of potential buyers, so another way to get the album back on new-release shelves. In this case, a second disc of extra material was appended to the reissued Supernatural and, to be perfectly honest, that's all it needs; the healthy helping of outtakes, remixes and other unreleased material are actually really good – to the point that it's unfortunate some of them fell by the wayside upon the first release of the album and would be of significant interest to both longer-time fans as well as new, potential ones. Festive songs like the salsa-ed “Bacalao Con Pan,” “Ya Yo Me Cure” and “Angel Love” are the real treasures to be found on Supernatural Disc 2 where, Santana cuts loose and casts some Spanish castle magic as he plays so fast his fretboard might ignite. The Legacy Edition of Supernatural is worth listening to because it represents the best of both proverbial worlds for Carlos Santana; here is the original release that saved the guitarist's career and introduced him to a new demographic, and the outtakes that have more of the guitarist's heart and soul in play than career savvy. In the realm of re-issued releases that have no hope of promising remastering or other studio trickery because they aren't below the modern standard, Supernatural and records like it are about as good as it gets – even if it is just a semantic argument.

By the same token but from a different angle, the remastered re-releases of The Beatles' catalogue are a fantastic study in just how deluxe and remarkable can get. The results of several years of remastering a recreation of music (the whole process is reported to have taken about four years), the reissued Beatles catalogue are regarded as the holy grail of remastered albums, and for good reason; they can honestly be called true and genuine remastered material that adheres to the vision of the band but with all the addition technological advances made as well.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves here. The Beatles are one of those bands that do indeed have a lasting appeal, and that is very representative in how fans have been known to use the new re-releases as an excuse to upgrade their stereos.

The last time The Beatles' catalogue was given a complete overhaul prior to the release on September 9, 2009 was in 1987 when EMI and Apple Corps released the entire Beatles catalogue on CD – sort of. There's no argument that all of the albums fans could have hoped would be there were released – and they even surpassed expectation by releasing the Past Masters set, which included much of the material that had originally been released as singles including “Daytripper,” “We Can Work It Out” and Revolution,” or as compilation tracks like “the wildlife” version of “Across The Universe” in 1988 – but that doesn't mean it was all the albums. What one has to remember is that, at the height of Beatlemania, John, Paul, George and Ringo were on a major label that was attempting to sell the band to the entire world; and they were still ironing out the creases in how that should be done. The answer they came up with, at the time, was to release different titles with different track lists by region. Some singles were compiled and really focused on in different parts of the world – particularly North America – because that's what the label gave them; it was a content versus cost issue that the band found abhorrent but played ball with until they couldn't stand it anymore. As an example, if you can find it, check out the Beatles album cover for an album entitled Yesterday And Today – The Beatles' twelfth North American release – featured the band members posed sitting among a bunch of broken dolls and raw meat; the band's commentary on the butchery their albums endured. With that in mind, the 'great format change' of 1987 represented a few things: first, yes, there was the format change, but also it was an opportunity for the labels to standardize the band's discography. That standardization meant locking in to a set of the twelve titles originally released in the United Kingdom and adding the US album version of Magical Mystery Tour as well as the two Past Masters volumes.

Using those albums as a template, Apple remastering team set to creating a set of releases that was true to the originals, but also sought to realize different ideas that were beyond previous technological limitations and present definitive works. Because they knew that purists would balk at some of the advances, they produced both mono and stereo releases of all the albums so no one could really have an excuse to cry foul, but the genuinely remarkable sets are those in Stereo format. Particularly on the later albums, there are bits of magic to be found as the reissues re-discover some of the hard and surreal rotating pans on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band or unearth some of the subtleties lost from Let It Be and the White Album. The results are truly flabbergasting as the do give a genuinely new and breathtaking impression of The Beatles as an experimental and creative entity. In the case of The Beatles, while no one can really take away from the quality of the original releases (either on vinyl or 1987-issue CD), the 2009 reissues have an equally revered place in the catalogue because there are honestly some things that went as missing and the updated work handily exposes.

The Beatles – “Revolution” – ripped from 1967 – 1970 (Captol/Apple vinyl release, 1973)
The Beatles – “Revolution” – from Past Masters 2009 reissue
The Beatles – “A Day In The Life” –  ripped from 1967 – 1970 (Capitol/Apple vinyl release, 1973)
The Beatles – “A Day In The Life” – from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band 2009 reissue

The Beatles – “Back In The U.S.S.R.” –  ripped from 1967 – 1970 (Capitol/Apple vinyl release, 1973)
The Beatles – “Back In The U.S.S.R.” – from The White Album 2009 reissue

Frequently Reissued Material

…And then there are the groups and artists that are perfectly familiar with the remastered reissued release. Most regularly, these bands are the ones that grew to prominence in the classic rock era (this list includes Elvis, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, The Doors and more) but no institution is better acquainted with reissuing material than  Jimi Hendrix. Since his passing on September 18, 1970, portions of the guitarist's work have been parceled out in several different formats on several different compilations as well as the three studio albums (and one live album) he made before his passing. To date, Jimi Hendrix' music has been released on all four or the 'big four' record labels in the business – EMI, Universal, Warner Brothers and Sony Music – and probably pirated to dozens of bootleg labels around the world besides.

Simply said, even forty years after his passing, Hendrix is big business and keeps a hectic schedule.

With so much exposure comes the possibility for less than idea release circumstances and dubious creative alterations. Voodoo Soup, for example, has been largely disavowed as a true Hendrix album since its release in 1995 because the contents of it have been reworked beyond the comfort zone of the Hendrix family, fans and Experience Hendrix LLC [the company owned and operated by members of the Hendrix family, Experience Hendrix is the official family company charged with managing the name, likeness, image and one hundred per cent of the music of Jimi Hendrix's legacy –ed] and, certainly, there are other releases in the same boat. Because of that, Experience Hendrix has attempted to standardize the guitarist's catalogue in a similar fashion to what was done with The Beatles' catalogue and continue to issue new recordings that fit and honor Hendrix' legacy.

It sounds very noble and exciting, but it goes further than that too. Over the years, Hendrix' catalogue has been licensed so often and some perfectly legitimate albums have been reissued so frequently that it's difficult to find any difference at all in the content. Take the releases of Band Of Gypsys which came out in 2008 on EMI and now again in 2010, for example:

Jimi Hendrix – “Machine Gun” – Band Of Gypsys, EMI (2008)
Jimi Hendrix – “Machine Gun” – Band Of Gypsys, Sony Music (2010)

…Both of these titles were licensed by Experience Hendrix and they were only released about eighteen months apart so the technology employed to produce them was the same. So what's the difference?

Again, it sounds cynical, but sometimes bills need paying and so releases are made, and sometimes they're done to test the waters of how an agreement is going to work out. Again, it boils down (and this is the case with any reissue) rights and how the business of administration is going to balance. Why else would one be able to find a song like “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” on no less than three major labels since its original release (on  MCA, incidentally) in October, 1968?

Jimi Hendrix – “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” – Kiss The Sky, (Reprise vinyl release, 1984)  
Jimi Hendrix – “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” – Electric Ladyland, MCA (1997)
Jimi Hendrix – “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” – Electric Ladyland, Sony Music (2010)

In cases like this, of course the difference is going to be the technology available to reproduce the music, the medium employed to translate it (CD, cassette, vinyl) and the overall presentation. Will that make one “better” than the others? Certainly it will, but sometimes people also enjoy imperfect article. Because of that, while the newest, most pristine and painstakingly reconstructed albums with digital polish are going to be the best thing going (at least until a new format comes along that trumps it) and many of them are definitely worth hearing, at the end of the day, it all boils down to personal taste. Exercise that the next time you wonder if the latest reissue on the rack is “worth it.”

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