Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Review: 'The U.S. Albums' by The Beatles


No band’s discography has spent as much time under the geek microscope as The Beatles’, and when Capitol/UMe announced that it would finally release all of the Fabs’ major American releases on CD for the first time, the questions and concerns started flying freely across the vast online wasteland. Would they be faithful to the original Capitol (and in one case, United Artists) albums, complete with unique mixes, duophonic disasters, and all that awful reverb A&R guy Dave Dexter, Jr., applied to numerous tracks? How closely would the packaging replicate the originals? And so on and so on.

I did my best to address some of these issues a couple of weeks ago in my review of a twenty-five track sampler Capitol/UMe sent out in advance of the proper box set’s release. Because of the particular tracks the label selected to represent the big box, I actually couldn’t address much. Well, now I do have a copy of The U.S. Albums, and all is clear.

So, yes, the advance word is true that all duophonic mixes have been replaced with proper stereo ones culled from the 2009 Parlophone remasters. Dexter’s unnecessary reverb has been wiped from the story. Those seeking to recreate their memories of huddling around stereo hi-fis and spinning Yesterday… and Today for the first time in June 1966 will find the experience quite different this time. And so on and so on.

The U.S. Albums has now been available for over a week. There have been numerous reviews posted elsewhere and unbelievably in-depth discussions on message boards. Let’s assume my fellow purists have gotten most of the belly aching out of their (our) systems and focus on what’s here, because despite its divergences from total purity, The U.S. Albums is a pretty beautiful box set.

First, let’s look at that 1966 hodgepodge Yesterday… and Today. Yes, those reverb-saturated duophonic mixes of “And Your Bird Can Sing”, “Doctor Robert”, and “I’m Only Sleeping” have been replaced by the proper stereo remasters from 2009. The accompanying booklet is very up front about this and the decision to give listeners the best listening experience possible (you may recall that when the first Capitol Albums box set was released in 2004, the majority of reviewers, who’d probably never heard these albums on vinyl, complained cluelessly about the poor sound of the duophonic and echoed-up tracks). However, the mono versions of these tracks are the unique American mixes. This should have been a given for “I’m Only Sleeping”, which differs very noticeably from its UK counterpart (the backwards guitar snippets used in the verses are totally different), but Capitol/UMe might have gotten away with slipping on the 2009 mono mixes of those other tracks, which feature much subtler differences (in the U.S., “And Your Bird Can Sing” had slightly louder hand claps during the guitar solo and “Doctor Robert” had slightly louder vocals and a slightly more complete ending). It is impressive that no cheating was done with these tracks. The U.S. stereo mixes of “We Can Work It Out” and “Day Tripper” are also subtly different from the UK ones and are also preserved on The U.S. Albums. Other immediately noticeable unique mixes—such as the extended edit of “I’ll Cry Instead”, the stereo “Thank You Girl” with its extra harmonica, and the stereo “I’m Looking Through You” with its false start—are intact too.

So is the packaging, which completely blows away the Capitol Albums box sets with their tacky looking sliding boxes that inevitably made the CDs spill out on the floor and their mini-LP sleeves of thin cardboard that did not completely replicate the original covers. The U.S. Albums boasts slavishly faithful (yes, Help! is a gatefold; yes the inner sleeves are crowded with ads for other Capitol releases), sturdy cardboard sleeves. Yesterday… and Today is packaged in its butcher sleeve with the replacement “steamer trunk” cover included as a sticker that can be pasted over it just as Capitol did back in ’66. Each CD also includes a plastic sleeve to protect the discs from getting scuffed on the paper inner sleeves and a good quality plastic resealable plastic bag not likely to tear as quickly as, say, the flimsy ones in Led Zeppelin’s 2008 Definitive Collection box.

So to reiterate what I said in my review of the sampler, The U.S. Albums will disappoint those who want utter authenticity. Those who want as close a reproduction of those old American albums as they’re going to get with supreme sound and packaging, those who don’t mind hearing “I Feel Fine” pop up on Beatles ’65 without so much reverb that its magnetic guitar riff is nearly indecipherable, will be most pleased.

Get The U.S. Albums on Amazon.com here:

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