deluxe and delightful

Seems that there’s a prevalence of deluxe edition CDs these days, just as vinyl is making a comeback as well. One might hope that the prominent programming and emphasized physicality – spiced up packages and annotation, plus relevant bonus material – reaffirms the integrity of the album in the download era. One might hope, but the probable truth is that suckers like me, who already adored the original albums, are the main purchasers of the deluxe releases. Here are a few recent indulgences.

EXILE ON MAIN STREET: I bought the two-disc edition of this Rolling Stones classic. There’s also a single disc version of the main album with no bonus material, and a super deluxe edition with CDs, LPs, a DVD, a big book, a pregnancy test kit, a tuft of Ron Wood’s hair, etc. The main album is remastered in line with other Stones reissues from 2009 – louder, brighter. I swear I’m hearing parts I’ve never heard before in this, but I’m also keeping the 1994 Virgin issue, which still sounds revelatory and retains some of the mythic murk that defined the album. (By the way, I can vouch for the 2009 Universal remasters of Black and Blue, Some Girls, Emotional Rescue, and Tattoo You. A couple of the others don’t sound very pleasant.) The bonus disc contains discarded tracks from the time, some with recently added vocal overdubs. The first two tracks “Pass the Wine” (what a groove!) and “Plundered My Soul” are as good as the best of the Stones in the ‘70s; the remainder not so much. To hear Keith’s sloppy vocal on a run-through of “Soul Survivor” instead of Mick’s is nothing short of blasphemy. The booklet has some credit errors, and the photos omit Wyman and Taylor whenever possible. No essay either on this monumental record. I suppose that was reserved for the super deluxe edition. As were the wacky postcards. Apart from that peripheral stuff, I like this set a lot.

SOME FRIENDLY: The Charlatans knocked me out with this 1990 album. It’s akin to the music the Stone Roses were making around the same time, and while the Charlatans don’t have the same melodic depth, they do have a Hammond organ, which brings some classic-rock and/or R&B weight to the arrangements, and a tight rhythm section that occasionally veers away from the stiff Manchester beat. Some Friendly remains a catchy record to this day, and the reissue clarifies and thickens the sound without being much louder than the original CD. The bonus disc is a treat, containing several non-album tracks and cool alternate versions. Great to have all these goodies in one place, and it’s like they made this deluxe edition just for me. A+.

FABLES OF THE RECONSTRUCTION: I’d already enjoyed the REM deluxes for Murmur and Reckoning, where the remastered albums sound good and the bonus disc concerts are okay. (They’re of ‘you had to be there’ quality, as the band plays energetically, but they sound pretty much the same from song to song, and Stipe is not a real singer who can consistently hit notes.) Fables changes the routine a bit in that the package, instead of a convenient gatefold, is now a little poster-stuffed box with the discs in separate sleeves, and the bonus disc contains the entire album plus other songs in demo form. Fables echoes the Stones’ Exile in the way its reputation comes from its murky atmosphere, and that’s retained in the remaster, where the bass, drums, guitar, and voice take turns being as indistinct as possible. But a new clarity illuminates certain moments, and it makes for the most satisfying version of this album I’ve heard. The bonus demos, on the other hand, are loud and claustrophobic, and not very interesting to me in a musical sense, either. Usually I like demos, and the sketchier the better, if they offer insight to the creative process. But these with a couple of exceptions are so close to the album versions, or simply inferior to the album versions, that I’m not too intrigued.

The arty booklet is a little weak, and nowhere except on the CD itself and the outside sticker is there an accurate tracklist for the main album. Anyway, this feeds my nostalgia for the REM of old, back when their simple folksy rock was positively infused with the mists and maxims of the ghostly south. Murmur stands as a moody masterpiece still, with Reckoning a solid follow-up. Fables has a few of my favorites (gravity, life, auctioneer, good advices) scattered amidst dreary filler. How unique and mysterious these guys were before they gradually “came out” as a pop-conscious group, exhausting their resources and fancying themselves political geniuses.

COULDN’T STAND THE WEATHER: Though not a Stevie Ray Vaughan diehard, I’ve always admired his visceral approach to the blues – like Hendrix, he has a a lightning rod grip on the guitar – and this is my SRV album of choice. The 2010 Legacy Edition adds eleven extra tracks to the original album; some of these were previously released elsewhere, but why complain when you’ve got an ace album followed by choice cuts like “Come On pt.3”, “Empty Arms”, and “Little Wing”. The remastering is not as punchy as I’d like for this kind of music, but the tendency for many 1980s recordings was to have a lot of reverb in the mix, and that’s what you get here, a lot of remastered air, and not always much separation between the instruments. Nonetheless, it’s clear with tight bass and sounds better than any previous issue I’ve heard. The bonus disc contains a live set from the Montreal Spectrum in 1984 (about a month after King Crimson recorded Absent Lovers there). Again, I could use more oomph in the mix, but the performance rocks, so pretend it’s a bootleg and it’s okay. The booklet contains a lengthy article with reminiscences by Tommy Shannon and Chris Layton, the Double Trouble rhythm team.

KIND OF BLUE: As if there weren’t enough editions of this Miles Davis milestone in existence, the two-disc Legacy Edition was released in 2009. My preferred KOB for years was 1994 gold Mastersound disc, which still sounds great to me. Then I got the same tracks in the complete Miles and Coltrane Columbia box of 2000. The Legacy Edition’s mastering is of warm audiophile quality, although to be honest it’s not very different from my gold disc, depending on how much you want to nitpick the nuances of this elegant recording. The bonus tracks following the main album include an okay alternate of “Flamenco Sketches” and a superfluous series of false starts and “studio sequences”. I’d rather they just compressed a few of them into one track. Plus, if you include studio chatter for the sake of it, how about raising the volume so the voices are more audible?

Anyway, the reason I bought this is because the second disc contains the wonderful 1958 recordings of “On Green Dolphin Street”, “Love for Sale”, “Stella by Starlight”, and “Fran Dance” that never constituted a proper Miles album. Thus one of the main reasons to buy the Miles/Trane Columbia box has disappeared; all one really needs are the remasters of Round About Midnight and Milestones plus this Kind of Blue set to cover all the studio goodness of that period. The second disc also has a lengthy live version of “So What” from 1960 where Coltrane goes to town. All in all, Kind of Blue is still one of the most poised, on-the-money jazz records ever made, and with a few bonus tracks of equal caliber, this is the version to get.

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