Saturday, September 24, 2016

Review: 'The Rolling Stones in Mono'


Keith Richards is a pretty vocal mono purist, so it must have galled him that The Rolling Stones had been inconsistently represented in his preferred format since the end of its dominance in the late sixties. Their US debut, the UK and US editions of Out of Our Heads, bits and pieces of a few US hodgepodges, and ABKCO’s triple-threat Singles Collection were the only ways to hear the Stones in mono during the CD age. This was a dire situation, because their cro-mag gang rock relied so much on its sonic solidarity. The Stones bled an alluringly swampy murk in which Keith’s guitar was rarely discernible from Brian’s, and Bill’s bass throbbed through their wall of sound as if his band mates had hid his amp under the floorboards. Stereo dilutes that murk, violates its magic. 

That magic is finally back in full frenzy. The 16-disc Rolling Stones in Mono box debuts the complete sixties-catalogue in mono on CD, and for the first time since these albums were released five decades ago, vinyl (the vinyl box includes a coupon for digital downloads of the full set). Although the new LPs and CDs were remastered using the same Direct Stream Digital process as ABKCO’s excellent stereo SACDs released in 2002, they now sound warmer, while alternative soundscapes are apparent on the LPs that have long only been available in stereo. Between the Buttons abounds with differences: the extended ending of Yesterdays Papers”, Keith’s more up-front grunge guitar in a chest-thumping mix of Connection”, and the weirder echo effects and unique theremin squeals in “Please Go Home”. On Flowers, Mick’s improvisations are wilder through the fade of “Ride on, Baby”. The majority of fans who always found Their Satanic Majesties Request to be a cluttered mess will probably dig the fact that details in tracks such as “Citadel” and “The Lantern” are less pronounced in mono. Satanic is the point where I really start to prefer the stereo mixes, and I miss the prominent Mellotron sax in the former and Keith’s absurdly loud lead guitar in the latter…but then again, my opinions on this particular album are not very conventional (in his liner notes, David Fricke even goes so far as to say that Satanic “is no one’s favorite Stones album of the 1960s”… beg to differ with you, Frickey Boy!). With the exception of “Sympathy for the Devil”, Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed were never even given dedicated mono mixes; they appear as fold downs in this set. However, when it comes to early R&B monsters like 12x5 and Rolling Stones Now!, and even more progressive pre-Satanic items such as Between the Buttons and Aftermath, the UK edition of which had been desecrated with a particularly anemic stereo mix, there’s less room for debate. It’s mono all the way even when some of the earlier discs are fold downs of their stereo incarnations.

My only knock against The Rolling Stones in Mono is the packaging. The images on the record sleeves are poor digital reproductions, completely lacking the detail and texture of the originals. All references to Decca and London have been scrubbed from them, and in a stranger move, all times have been eliminated from the inauthentically re-keyed text on the back covers. There’s no lenticular photo on Satanic Majesties, nor does it contain that groovy inner sleeve adorned with pink clouds (Let It Bleed is the only album that has a printed inner sleeve). For some reason, Satanic’s front and back cover images are also blown up to bizarre dimensions. The skinny, softcover booklet has the flimsy feel of an oversized CD booklet. Fortunately, the same cannot be said of the heavy, super-quiet vinyl, and ultimately, the sounds are where its at with The Rolling Stones in Mono, and these sounds will make you run like a cat in a thunderstorm, howl at yer ma in the drivin’ rain, and achieve complete satisfaction. 

(This is a slightly edited version of this review that takes the reader's comments below into consideration.)
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