So, by now you've heard about the new gadgets 'n gizmos by the only computer company that matters (who makes the computer that I'm writing this review on). It's all very cool and so on and so forth... But perhaps the most interesting and most unsettling part of the event was how Apple and U2 conspired to give us all a gift of a free album.
Yup. Free. No charge. No catches, seemingly. Even for someone like me who admittedly does very little downloading via iTunes (or other download sites, for that matter -- I'm not a big fan of heavily compressed audio), they certainly made the process uber easy! Once I figured out that I had to formally log in to iTunes to get the album, all it took was one click and in a matter of seconds I was listening to the new U2 album playing natively on my computer.
Lets get the record reviewer stuff out of the way since that is what most of you are here for... How does it sound? The music sounds good, modern day stripped down 'n rockin' U2 with cool hooks and enough atmospherics to please even the most calloused of early fans.
Sonics wise, however, the album sounds as if you are listening to a heavily compressed radio stream via the internet.
And that, I think, is the point of this whole exercise.
Now, I pretty much hate listening to streams because they usually sound a whole hella boxy and then once you hear them they tend to disappear. Audio fidelity is sometimes also impacted by the quirks of the ISP and your internet connection. Usually the music has been compressed to death so much it is akin to listening to an transistor AM radio like I used to have when I was a very little kid.
That said, the songs better be pretty kick ass to survive that sort of treatment.
Offering the instantaneous free download of the stream (which is essentially what they did) gets around that issue of the ISP problems.
Push a button. Zip! Its there on your computer. Hit play and rock out. The ISP can't complain that the streams are tying up their servers. And more importantly, they can't charge for extensive streaming that way.
I'm in the midst of my first listen to U2's free new album Songs of Innocence as I write this, so it is way too early to determine whether the tunes will make the cut alongside other U2 faves. I think there ARE some nice songs here but when I turn up the sound I get the distinct sense I'm not getting the full sonic picture. Cymbals sound like little clinks, bass is murky. Vocals are kinda phasy and processed.
But the underlying music sounds like it might be quite good.
This is the 21st century equivalent to when radio stations started playing whole albums in the golden days of late 1970s FM radio. I heard many new albums that way and admit that I even taped some off the air to play until I could save up money to BUY the album.
There in lies the curious part of this experiment. For U2 -- arguably one of the biggest bands in rock and roll history -- they are pretty much assured that when the album becomes available in a more ... er... shall we say.... "robust" medium for the audiophile or even just those of us who want something a bit more than an cheesy fidelity-compromised download, they will sell a fair amount of physical product.
But what about for the independent artist struggling to get by who has put in lots of time and money to make their first recordings available. Do they just give everything away? That is kinda what's been happening folks in many ways.
I am currently working on a remaster of my old band's last album now (www.ingdom.com) and the 96 kHz / 24-bit remaster done by our original engineer Justin Phelps (Cake, Joe Satriani, etc.) sounds awesome. It is done and frankly kicks some righteous ass (if I do say so myself). However, I've been trying to figure out the best way to get it out to the musical universe.
Should I just give the album away digitally and try to sell some T-shirts to help pay for the costs of the remastering and marketing the album?
Even though a track from the album ("Better Don't Do") was used in an episode of Smallville back in the day ("Truth" episode), I have no pipe dreams that this album will sell a bazillion copies. Still, I'd like people to be able to discover and enjoy it for the ages. I may have no other choice really. I want the music out there for the world to discover. Because I still believe in it and the power of music to change people's lives.
U2 still believes in that, otherwise they wouldn't be doing what they are doing. They have all the money they could possibly need and want. But they continue onward and now are giving something back to the fans.
Throwing us this bone of a new album for free is pretty cool. Many of us will buy it regardless when it becomes available in a physical format or a higher resolution download.
That Songs of Innocence sounds at first pass like a good album is even better. I like "Volcano" and "Raised by Wolves" a bunch and opening track "The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)" is real solid (I hesitate to call it fun as its a tribute to the fallen) with its call-and-response chant chorus hook. "The Troubles" immediately got me with its John Lennon-esque string arrangements.
I just want to hear it all in fuller fidelity now.