Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Review: 'The Beatles in Mono' Vinyl Box

The world is watching when there’s a new Beatles release, and the most hardcore fans want to make sure that it has been treated with all due respect. Most folks probably didn’t notice when Capitol released The U.S. Albums as a hodgepodge of the mixes that actually appeared on those records and ones pulled from the UK Parlophone records, but serious Beatlemaniacs did and reacted with quite a bit of displeasure. Since it is universally accepted that the Parlophone mixes are the definitive ones, the fanboy outcry over The U.S. Albums had nothing to do with listening pleasure and everything to do with historical accuracy.

Just eight months later, Capitol is dropping another major archival box set, The Beatles in Mono, and this time the label has made sure to cross every historical T. Engineers Sean Magee and Steve Berkowitz have gone to shocking extremes to ensure utter authenticity of all 14 vinyl LPs in this collection. They’ve gone back to The Beatles’ famed Abbey Road stomping grounds to work exclusively with quarter-inch master tapes, referring to the original mastering notes, shunning all things digital. No quality upgrades sacrifice authenticity. I’m not sure what the weight of the original Parlophone records was, but if it wasn’t the 180-grams of these new releases, I doubt anyone but the most dementedly dogmatic will complain.

That quality extends to the beautiful packaging, which includes a heavy flip-top box and a 108-page hardbound book busting with photos and notes that may not offer revelations to those who’ve done their Fab Four homework, but at least do not rehash the notes that adorned Capitol’s 2009 CDs. The epilogue addressing the challenges of returning The Beatles to vinyl is fascinating. Each record also includes a leaflet with up-to-date copyright information since the effort to maintain authenticity means that some of the info on the covers is no longer accurate.

Those covers are generally true to the original releases. I was quite taken back by the oddness of Parlophone’s glossy front covers that wrap around flat back covers. Magical Mystery Tour refines Capitol’s flatter finish with a matte cover.

All nuggets of schwag are included too, which means Sgt. Pepper’s novelty cut-outs, the full-color booklet stapled into Magical Mystery Tour, and the poster and portraits tucked in the pockets of “The White Album”. Pepper has its psychedelic pink inner sleeve, although you’ll probably want to keep the LP in the more protective sleeve also included since the pink one is kind of snug and could scuff the vinyl (in fact, several of the covers are kind of snug too, possibly because they were cut according to original dimensions that do not take the extra thickness of the 180-gram vinyl and padded inner sleeves into account). The earlier covers, however, do not house the original generic Parlophone inner sleeve imploring you to "Take good care of your microgroove records...", which is really the only significant break from authenticity.

All LPs are stored in resealable plastic bags (which I ended up replacing with heftier non-resealable bags because I was uncomfortable passing the covers over adhesive) except Mono Masters, which is too thick to fit in a bag, so it’s shrink-wrapped (as is the book). This album is also notable for how it differs from its stereo equivalent. Anyone familiar with the CD version of this set knows that the three Past Masters tracks never mixed in mono—“The Ballad of John and Yoko”, “Old Brown Shoe”, and “Let It Be”—were replaced with mono mixes of the four Beatles songs unique to the Yellow Submarine soundtrack. The vinyl Mono Masters also differs from the vinyl Past Masters because it expands the double-LP to a triple. It better unites what was originally released as two separate CDs back in the eighties by featuring tracks from both Past Masters Volume One and Past Masters Volume Two on Side Three. Side Five is devoted to the four Yellow Submarine songs, though I thought it might have been cooler to include “Across the Universe” on that side too to recreate the original line up of The Beatles’ concept for a Yellow Submarine EP that was never released.

A release like this always sparks debates on what’s better: stereo or mono. Since the CD release of this set in 2009, critics seem to have been expressing their preference for mono. It’s the way The Beatles, themselves, intended their music to be heard in the days when stereo was still regarded as an audiophile novelty. As I’ve said here on Psychobabble before, I grew up in the stereo age and my ears are kind of trained to prefer it. I’ve been listening to The Beatles in stereo for as long as I’ve been listening to The Beatles. That being said, I’m pretty sure I’d have a mono preference for a lot of these albums if that had been how I’d come to know them. Even after being weaned on stereo I maintain a mono preference for the pre-Revolver albums because they are largely live, raw, raucous Rock & Roll performances that require the power and cohesiveness of mono. As The Beatles became more experimental in the studio, I think stereo better showed off the nooks and nuances of their recordings. I won’t deny that a number of songs were very poorly separated in stereo, particularly on Revolver, which wasted way too much right channel real estate on Ringo’s tambourine. “Taxman” and “Tomorrow Never Knows” are just so much brawnier in mono, though the latter song suffers in that mix because its tape loops were faded in and out too hastily. No matter the differences I still enjoy hearing all these later records in mono, because for someone so used to the stereo mixes like me, they provide opportunities to hear overly familiar music in a totally fresh way. For someone who already has a firm mono preference, these LPs are heaven.

Get The Beatles in Mono on here:

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