By Chris Moore:
In lieu of a video tonight, I’d like to take a moment and review one of the music industry’s favorite ways to make an extra dime on previously released material — also known as “remastered” and/or “reissued” albums. And, just because it feels right, I’d like to incorporate some thoughts on the release of previously unreleased material, or “bootleg,” “b-side,” and/or “rarity” collections.
What is a remastered recording, really? Now, in some cases, a remastered recording can be the most exciting release in an artist’s catalog, particularly for longtime fans and audiophiles. For instance, there really is no substitute for the fully stereo-version of the Beach Boys Pet Sounds. This remastered disc created quite a controversy when it first came out, as you had purists who claimed it should remain mono, as it was originally intended and released by Brian Wilson and the boys. Others embraced the all-new expansion of the sound on this classic album. As for me, I cannot understand how anyone in possession of the Pet Sounds CD could refrain from skipping to track 14 every time to begin with the stereo recording of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” Compared to the mono recordings, the second set of stereo-mixed tracks are crisp and clear as they pop out around your ears. You can hear each instrument and truly appreciate the minute instrumental and harmonic details that are present in this Beach Boys masterpiece, as compared to the mono versions which have a tendency to crackle and feel claustrophobic when turned up to any reasonable volume.
This, unfortunately, is probably the exception in the world of “remasters.”
Beware music fans when you pick up a CD or read online that a disc has been “remastered.” The trick here is to read into the fine print and ascertain to what degree the recording has actually been altered. For instance, the classic packaging/marketing trick has been for a sticker on a CD case to read “Digitally Remastered.” That sounds great! I have to have this new and improved recording for my collection!…
Well, perhaps so, but half the time all this means is that someone converted the analog tracks into a digital format. Depending on the artist, producer, remixer, and age of original recording, there has often been no real improvement to the sound of the recording. I’ve certainly been burned a few times by this “Digitally Remastered” marketing…
That being said, there really are some truly great remastered recordings out there if you’re careful to ascertain the degree of thought and effort that has gone into the apparent “remastering” (Like the re-issue of the main albums in Bob Dylan’s catalog a few years ago — and you better appreciate the improvement in sound quality, because there’s no booklet or bonus tracks to speak of!)
Not to sound bitter here or anything, but reissues can also be just another waste of money. Or they can offer any amazing addition to your collection. How can you tell the difference? Well, here are a few tips:
- If it is a reissue of a recently released album, it’s probably just the same old material with a couple of shoddily recorded demos or tracks that didn’t make it to the album (usually for a reason) attached;
- If it is an album that never made it to CD, then you must ask yourself: How much do I love this artist? If the answer is anything other than “very much,” then stay far, far away from this type of reissue!! On the other hand, if the answer is “very much,” then what are you waiting for? Some of my favorite CD purchases have fallen under this category, most notably Warren Zevon’s The Envoy. I can’t believe that, previous to the reissue of this album in 2003, I wouldn’t have been able to hear such songs as “The Overdraft” or “Hula Hula Boys.”
- If it is a reissue of a live album, you need to seriously question what has been improved since the initial release. After all, what level of improvement can there really be in terms of sound quality? It’s a live album. It better have lots of additional tracks or an amazing, detailed booklet with updated interviews, etc. Johnny Cash’s Live at Folsom Prison reissue is an excellent example of a worthwhile purchase in this category.
- If it is an anniversary edition of a studio recording, some of the same criteria apply as above. For instance, have the tracks been remastered? (I mean, really remastered!) Is there a decent array of bonus tracks added for the collector who already has the original album? Is there a seriously detailed booklet with a decent number of pages? I mean, after all, if this is an album worthy of a reissue, there must be a good deal of back story, historical importance, and/or artists from that band or other bands that are excited and willing to talk about it!
- Finally, there is the enigmatic multiple format reissue. What is this, you may ask? This is when an album or collection of tracks is released and there are multiple options for the consumer. For instance, when Pearl Jam re-releases their debut album Ten later this month, there will be three different packages available. There’s the “Legacy Edition” with two discs — one with the original tracks, one with a newly remixed version of the album by original producer Brendan O’Brien and six bonus tracks. There’s the “Deluxe Edition” with the aforementioned two discs and a DVD of Pearl Jam’s MTV Unplugged performance from 1992. Then, there’s the “Collector’s Edition” with the aforementioned two CDs and one DVD, four vinyl discs (one with the original album, one with the remixed and bonus tracks, two with a live concert), a cassette version of Pearl Jam’s original “Momma-Son” demo, and “Package also includes an Eddie Vedder-style composition notebook filled with replica personal notes, images and mementos from the collections of Eddie Vedder and Jeff Ament, a vellum envelope with replicated era-specific ephemera from Pearl Jam’s early work and a two-sided print commemorating the Drop in the Park concert.” Wow. Now that’s some selection. For most people, the “Legacy Edition” really should be enough. For me, the intermediate Pearl Jam fan (and the ultimate fan of CD packaging), I will consider the “Deluxe Edition” based on the price difference. If it’s a reasonable amount more, I would really be interested to watch the unplugged performance. As for the “Collector’s Edition” (valued on Amazon.com at $124.99), you truly need to be a Collector with a capital “C.” Now, don’t get me wrong; they have really done it up with some amazing elements, but as much as I love and appreciate CD packaging, I’m not about to drop that much money on a single album reissue. If my memory serves me well, this was the price for buying all the Dylan reissues at one point (again, admittedly without any booklet, bonus tracks, or memorabilia to speak of).
Bootlegs (and B-sides and Rarities)
A final category in this collection of corporate cash cows (and music lovers’ delights!) are officially released bootleg recordings. For convenience, I’ll lump in B-sides and rarities. Bootlegs, of course, are tracks that have not been officially released but are circulated underground among fans. Perhaps the most famous release of a bootleg was Bob Dylan and the Band’s Basement Tapes. Worth every crazy, weird minute of sound, my friends! Dylan’s celebrated Bootleg Series is dedicated to releasing unheard tracks and live concerts that have been — almost without exception — wonderful and worthwhile purchases. Again, I would ask that you apply that aforementioned question to the purchase laid out before you: “How much do you like this band/artist?”
Most bands, at some point or another, release a collection of unreleased tracks, b-sides, and rarities. These are sometimes mediocre at best (Hootie and the Blowfish’s Scattered, Covered, and Smothered) with a minimum of only somewhat interesting liner notes. However, these are sometimes wildly fascinating and rewarding, such as the Beach Boys’ Endless Harmony soundtrack, Warren Zevon’s Preludes, or Pearl Jam’s Lost Dogs (the latter incorporating a detailed and interesting read of a booklet).
The trick here, to be repeated once and only once more, is to evaluate how much you like the artist or band, and then to take a calculated risk. In this writer’s opinion, half the fun of surfing the racks (or the web) and buying new albums — whether they be standard releases, remasters, reissues, or bootlegs — is the risk involved. You may be — and perhaps most often will be — unimpressed or only somewhat entertained. But it’s all worth it when you have those moments of revelation as you discover a truly worthwhile addition to your music library!