In the first two parts of our review of The Beatles' White Album 50th Anniversary boxed set (coming out this month), we took a fairly in-depth look at the new Surround Sound mix and a relative overview highlights peek at the massive collection of outtakes, alternates and demos (in case you missed them, click on the underlined text to jump to them). In this portion of our review we will explore the sparkling new Stereo remix which populates two CDs and part of the Blu-ray Disc in the collection.
For those late to this party (#ICYMI for those who follow those sorts of social media inspired hashtag cues), we are discussing the fabulous new multi-disc collection celebrating The Beatles' legendary officially-eponymously-titled 1968 LP -- renamed by fans The White Album -- which gives listeners a mother-lode of 1968-era Beatle joys to explore. In addition to a CD of long sought-after demos produced at George Harrison's home by the band prior to heading into Abbey Road Studios you get an additional three CDs of session outtakes and alternate versions. You also get a pretty fantastic Blu-ray Disc containing the original Mono mix and the sparkly-shiny new 5.1 Surround Sound mix in high resolution 96 kHz, 24-bit fidelity. That Blu-ray also contains the fine new Stereo mix also in high res, created by producer Giles Martin (there are two standard resolution CDs containing it as well).
Now, unlike Sgt. Pepper where there was a pretty obvious need to present the music in a bigger manner than had been previously possible in Stereo, The White Album was already a pretty wonderful high fidelity listening experience in its original Stereo mix. Not perfect, but it generally sounded excellent (which you couldn't always say about its predecessors Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour, at least here in America). So, the producers had to have some very good reasons for trying to tackle this one in order to bring new light to a beloved and revered classic.
And for those of you who feel that remixing something as sacred as a Beatles recording is a bad thing, please remember that the original will always be the definitive mix. This is simply a new way to appreciate your favorites and it helps to preserve this music for the future before the tapes deteriorate and can't be salvaged (magnetic tape falls apart eventually).
Before getting into the review, I have to share some thoughts that arose while listening to The Beatles' White Album 50th Anniversary boxed set with fresh ears for the first time realistically since the Beatles In Mono box set. I'm really taken with just how timeless this music remains.
Consider that just four years before The White Album The Beatles were wowing the world with "Mersey Beat" anthems like "She loves you, yeah yeah yeah..." Their sound launched a (likely) million imitators, beginning a brave new wave of pop music songwriting innovation the world arguably had never really experienced. It was a perfect storm of Baby Boomer generational ascension, widespread technological sophistication (radio, TV, etc.) and of course the right musicians (The Beatles) at the right time crafting the right songs supported by the right promotion (Brian Epstein).
Every band or artist who came up in The Beatles' wake pretty much had decreasingly progressive returns success-wise and for a good chunk of time everyone in the music world was judged against The Beatles' output (in some ways they still are!). The Beatles set the bar real high, so high that many still struggle to come up with anything close to their level of engagement. Few composers could match what they accomplished in that short span of time the band existed. So, it is all pretty remarkable when you stop and think about that.
Now, let us zip back to 1968 and once again The Beatles were signaling artistic sea change, both in production style, lyrical content and songwriting structure. Try to imagine what it might've been like to be a musician working in those times, a period when you've just gotten your head around Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour and the whole psychedelic movement. And then just as you put out your fabulous new album inspired by that music, you discover that 1967 psychedelia has become almost passé as 1950s "Doo Wop" and music was again was shifting to new vistas that were both heavier and lighter. Heavy metal screamed its first scream around this time from the guitars of Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles own "Helter Skelter." And yet, simultaneously there were some significant artists who were taking a much needed fresh breath of country air, finding their true roots: The Band (Music From Big Pink, also celebrating its 50th Anniversary, reviewed here) and Dylan's John Wesley Harding. Richer production design became the new rising sun. Hendrix was right there with Electric Ladyland. And the Beatles were right on that cutting edge with The White Album.
Ok, enough societal and industry perspective, by now you are probably wondering just how the new Stereo mix sounds?
Well, the first and perhaps most important thing I can complement Producer Giles Martin on is that this new mix sounds like The White Album. Everything is no doubt clearer. There are some new details apparent you might not have noticed before or which were perhaps buried do to mixing circumstance of the times. But for the most part this new 2018 remix sounds like how The White Album should sound! It is akin to that leap many of us made the first time we watched a favorite movie on Blu-ray after seeing it only on DVD or VHS previously.
The thing that jumps out at me most on this new Stereo remix included in The Beatles' White Album 50th Anniversary boxed set is the rhythm section which appears much more vivid and dynamic. Ringo's drums are beautifully round and full, with attention to detail I never fully noticed before. Paul McCartney's colorful bass lines are buoyant, bouncy and bubbling over with purpose. All this was there on the original mix, but it wasn't as immediately evident.
Just listen closely to John Lennon's songs like "Everybody Got Something To Hide Except For Me and My Monkey' and watch (yes, watch, with your mind's eye) as you hear McCartney's bass rock in lock step with Ringo's kick drum and snare through all those quirky time changes. Listen closely for Sir Paul's little high-on-the-fret-board doubled-up little fills which propel the song along at key moments. Now you can really very easily make out that sort of detail. The instruments are extremely present.
It was all there on my earlier vinyl pressings for sure. In case you are wondering, I have several copies of The White Album including the respected 1978 UK white vinyl version and a very early, low serial number US edition. But now the details are much more apparent without detracting from the feel of the original album. If you are a Beatle fanatic like me in addition to being an audiophile, you can have some fun going back and forth exploring the differences between the Blu-ray and your original LPs.
McCartney and Ringo's rhythm work is perhaps at its finest on "Cry Baby Cry" where they are in tight sync on every stutter and stammer which makes this song unique in almost frightening synergy -- these guys were completely connected at the hip in that sense. Little colorations like McCartney's "whoop whoop" Bass punctuations which push the song along are now super apparent where as before they were just almost a sonic afterthought in the background.
Going back to a point I brought up in the first part of this review series -- where I quote a description of the album's genesis from the official press release -- I do think that details we are hearing now are not only the full recording but also more of the sound of The Beatles playing as a band in the studio.
Revisiting that quote: "The Beatles' approach to recording for 'The White Album' was quite different from what they had done for 'Sgt. Pepper.' Rather than layering individually overdubbed parts on a multi-track tape, many of the 'White Album' session takes were recorded to four-track and eight-track tape as group performances with a live lead vocal.... This live-take recording style resulted in a less intricately structured, more unbridled album that would shift the course of rock music and cut a path for punk and indie rock."
That's a big deal and indeed that is one of the benefits of this new mix which arguably presents more of sound of The Beatles playing as a band in the studio than earlier versions.
I marvel over the iconic nature of Paul's Bass work on "Dear Prudence." Ringo's High Hat cymbals are right there to the point where you can hear them decay as he lets them ring against one another. There is an overall clarity which is appealing. On "Sexy Sadie" the backing vocals have never sounded so crisp to the point where you can make out every word they are singing.
Again, to my ear -- and I've been listening to this album since I was about eight years old when my older brother first brought it home back in the day -- this new remix sounds like The White Album but with a layer or three of gauze removed from it. The guitars are fuller, the separation seems more distinct. And all of the Beatles' vocals are more up front. Giles Martin seems to have struck a very appealing balance because everything is more precise, yet it still has that rough hewn feel which made The White Album such a revelation back in the day.
Another wonder in The Beatles' White Album 50th Anniversary boxed set has been my increased appreciation for George Harrison's now-classic "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." Beyond all he went through to get this song shaped for the ages, this performance is one of the most legendary within the entirety of The White Album. The Beatles' playing as a band is spectacular and their guest lead guitarist, Eric Clapton, put his heart and soul into creating a solo of solos for the ages. It was an instant classic, channeling Harrison's emotions and on this new remix it just bleeds forth out of the speakers, sending a direct shudder down my spine.
I would be remiss if I didn't discuss the overall package you get with The Beatles' White Album 50th Anniversary boxed set. First off, expect to get a large form hardcover coffee table sized book which houses all the CDs and the Blu-ray in each of their own White Album-like slip cases. You get terrific recreations of the original posters and photograph inserts. And in the book's 160-plus pages you'll get loads of information, track-by-track annotation and some incredible photos from the period.
Probably the only surprising thing that was missing, actually, was that there was virtually no information on the surround sound mix, which is... well... curious. But other than that, this is pretty near as perfect a collection as you could want about The White Album. You get an inside look at how the album was made and you get to hear it in both the original Mono incarnation which The Beatles themselves worked on as well as the brand new Stereo and Surround Sound mixes. And all of these version are presented in high resolution fidelity, delivering a shimmering new look at this classic of the Beatles and of pop music in general.