I didn't really to expect to be saying this, but this recent reissue of Elvis Costello's 1980 singles compilation Taking Liberties sounds better than the original pressing. Overall, it is a bit fuller on the mid- and low-end and has noticeable increased clarity on the high end.
Taking Liberties was issued hot on the heels of Elvis' 1980 soul-fired magnum opus Get Happy and bore a similar footprint to that album, cramming 20 songs onto a single album. That they were 20 great additional songs from Costello's incredible initial 1977-80 musical ascension -- mostly B-sides and non-LP tracks from compilations and soundtracks -- made Taking Liberties a great companion listen. That there was some very sympathetic sequencing of tracks made Taking Liberties all the more essential, standing on its own (effectively) as an album in its own right.
All that music in one place, however, came at something of a cost. While Nick Lowe had done a fabulous job producing Get Happy and ensuring that it would sound good on the original UK pressings -- there is even a written note from him on the back cover ensuring this detail -- the US-only release of Taking Liberties was slightly less satisfying sonics-wise. As a hardcore fan, I had most of the B-sides on original UK singles, so I knew what these tracks should sound like. On the original Taking Liberties I suspect that the songs were probably compressed kind of universally to make it easier for LP mastering -- thus while the album was a convenient end-to-end listen, the singles remained the way to go if you wanted to get the complete sonic picture for those songs, spinning at 45 RPM.
Well, whoever did the LP remastering on this new incarnation issued by Universal did a great job! Its a much nicer overall listen. The sound is a bit less compressed, a bit more open and airy on the high end. Little details like drummer Pete Thomas' brilliant cymbal work on "Big Tears" really sparkle on this new version. With 20 songs on a single album, this is no small accomplishment. The album is pressed on thick, dark black, well pressed 180-gram vinyl that is dead quiet when it needs to be (such as in the full-stop breaks on "Tiny Steps").
The drums on the slow alternate take of "Clowntime is Over" sound more alive on the new version, fuller than the somewhat thinner sounding original US pressing of Taking Liberties. There is also no apparent "print through" or "pre-echo" on the haunting organ-and-vocal breakdown in the middle of the song (a sometimes anomaly of analog recording, where a too tightly wrapped reel of tape can "print" sonic information upon itself; this sort of thing can also happen from an LP mastering / mastering issue, sometimes called "groove echo" ). Thus, perhaps (and I'm purely speculating here, folks) maybe-just-maybe the producers really did go back to the individual masters for each song, or at least dug out a better safety copy for this song. All that said, the 12-inch 45 RPM single of "Clowntime..." (B-side on the "High Fidelity" three song EP), remains the definitive listen for the time being.
Now, I have to admit here that the one thing I have NOT done in preparing this review is to compare this reissue to the UK-only equivalent set that was issued back in the day called Ten Bloody Marys & Ten How's Your Fathers. That album, also bearing 20 tracks swaps out a few songs that were initially only available on LPs in the UK with tracks that only appeared on US counterparts. I know, this gets confusing; it was confusing for us fans back in the day trying to keep pace with the barrage of releases showing up in our favorite record stores that carried all the imports and such! Ten Bloody Marys & Ten How's Your Fathers has completely different (not as cool, in my humble opinion) cover art compared to Taking Liberties (thus I never quite felt compelled to shell out the coin for the then-pricey import pressing for tracks I already had on LP and 45s, tho' I eventually got it on CD when I found a used copy).
In a perfect world today, given that music-as-we-know-it lives in a more globalized marketplace these days and that Elvis is -- for better or worse -- what might be considered a so called "legacy" artist, I think that the smart thing to do next with these two releases would be to combine them. Here's my vision for how that might easily work: just as Elvis' prior album Get Happy was finally reissued in its originally planned format of two LPs (5 songs per side), Taking Liberties and Ten Bloody Marys & Ten How's Your Fathers could easily be combined into a nifty two LP set, tagging the three UK-single songs for the last side as tour-deforce closer : "Watching The Detectives," "(What's So Funny About) Peace Love and Understanding" and ending with "Radio Radio." This would make the appearance of those songs extra special -- which were included on Elvis' first three albums in the US (instead of as singles-only as they were in the UK). This would also preserve the awesome transitional integrity of Taking Liberties' sequencing, especially between the paranoid intensity of "Night Rally" slamming into the airy country-western "Stranger In The House."
Dreamtime Moment: You know, if I was producing this imagined hybrid super-deluxe compilation of UK and US editions, I would make at least that last side spin at 45 RPM and at least make sure that those tracks were mastered off the absolute original master tapes, not the compilation assembly reel master that was inevitably created for making the original compilations. Realize that everything here on Taking Liberties is likely at least one generation removed from the so called "master" master tape for each song. In a perfect world, the producers should go back to the master tapes for each song on this set -- digging out the master mixdowns for every B-side, every soundtrack tune, every demo. That is a whole lot of work, time and money Elvis would have to invest in making such a super deluxe version of the set. The final set created in that manner would probably cost a fortune!
But, dreams are a good thing and one never knows what may come true, so I figured I'd share my vision with you, Dear Readers.
Wrapping up, I only have one "ding" to toss out about this reissue and it is admittedly a little nit pick of a detail (one which only the most hardcore Costello of collectors will nod their heads up and down in agreement with me on). For this reissue of Taking Liberties, they didn't reproduce the custom labels from the original version of the album. First pressings of Taking Liberties were issued with a neat, retro-flavored Columbia Records label -- looking more like one of the old 78 RPM discs from the dawn of recorded music. What made it cooler still -- as label mates Rockpile also had a similar label on their Seconds of Pleasure album that year -- was that instead of it reading Columbia, the label read "Costello" on the first side. So, that would have been a nice touch for this reissue but I also can understand Universal not wishing to directly reproduce the iconic branding of a competitor.
The good news for collectors is that original pressings of Taking Liberties will now retain something unique. Thus, if you are one of those completist collectors like me, that means you now have two copies of Taking Liberties in your collection. There are worse things in life to deal with...
If you don't have Taking Liberties or have played out your original, this new version is a solid update worth picking up. Better sound. Great songs. And it is still a whole bunch of fun to listen to after all these years, now sounding better than ever.