Things that make you go, “Hmmm.”
The best I can say about this project featuring new remixes and production of favorite tracks by The Beatles is that it has some wonderful moments. The worst I can say is that it has some bloody awkward moments. In the end, perhaps the biggest issue here is that ‘Love’ is neither one thing nor the other. It isn’t the long-awaited multichannel versions of the original tracks that audiophiles have been dreaming of for quite some time now, though it comes very close to being that in a few places. Nor is it an outright new composition built from fragments of Beatles songs, though it also approaches that in a few places. I, for one, would much rather hear one or the other. But, instead, we are given this at times intriguing, at times frustrating stop-gap which is designed to bridge those two currently dry stream beds.
The whole project developed from a request for a Beatles score for a large Cirque du soleil production, so it is at least excusable in the sense that it had a practical application, regardless of what listeners who don’t attend the circus might want to hear. Legendary producer George Martin – the original producer of most of The Beatles’ songs – decided to take on the project with the assistance of his son, Giles Martin. Indeed, Giles seems to have been the driving creative hand at the wheel, matching up unlikely loose ends from original tracks and even provoking his father into composing new backing string tracks for use with an early demo of George Harrison’s ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ the one thing that makes this album indispensable to fans, whether they like the rest of it or not.
It starts with the delicate sounds of birds, over which the a capella vocals of ‘Because’ are heard, without instrumental accompaniment. The pauses between phrases are lengthened, and the reverb turned up to give a sort of dreamy medieval cathedral feel to the vocals. Then an upwelling of sound slowly builds to a peak (in fact, it is the final, fading piano chord from ‘A Day in the Life’ played backwards), only to be abruptly cut off by the opening anticipatory chord from ‘A Hard Day’s Night’. That is immediately followed by Ringo Starr’s drum solo from ‘The End’, here looped to become a new rhythm track for ‘Get Back’ with the orchestral ladder from ‘Day in the Life’ showing up in the background, along with crowd noise, making the whole enterprise into a sort of meta-commentary on the fame of the original group. This all segues smoothly into ‘Glass Onion’ with fragments of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ mixed in. This approach was no doubt desirable for the soundtrack of the live Cirque du soleil show, though its lack of breaks can get tiring.
If it all had continued at that level of creativity, I would be more inclined to praise the whole affair, but problems soon arise: The string quartet closing of ‘Glass Onion is ostensibly meant to set the stage for the quartet used as the backing instruments in Paul McCartney’s ‘Eleanor Rigby’. Other than both being quartets, however, the two fragments don’t really have much in common. Thus we get the first awkward join. The good thing about ‘Eleanor Rigby’ here is the multichannel mixing, with McCartney’s vocal in the center front channel, with one quartet player per each of the four other main channels. While this demonstrates the pleasing possibilities of a multichannel mix of the original tracks, it is also worth pointing out that despite Giles Martin’s comments about how fresh the original tracks sound, they don’t sound especially fresh here, presumably due to the amount of processing the Martins did in order to adapt them. They appear to have used all the modern technology at their disposal to alter pitch, pace, and tone. While the current technology is far more subtle than the sort of studio special effects used back in The Beatles’ own day, it still has a tendency to distort the original tracks, sucking the vitality out of them in the process, fixing the sounds in an airless amber. Bob Dylan’s albums have come up so freshly in high-resolution reissue simply because the processing – then and now – was so minimal. The studio experimentation of George Martin and The Beatles may preclude ever hearing their tracks in such freshness, but the new processing here further exacerbates the problem.
My least favorite element of ‘Love’ appears next, as Lennon’s tender song ‘Julia’ is chopped up to provide a segue into ‘I Am the Walrus’. The sound of children playing, overrode by a siren leading into distortion is probably a meta-commentary about Lennon’s tragic childhood witnessing of his mother’s death when she was hit by an automobile on the street while he watched from the door. Fair game? Perhaps, but not as a lead-in to ‘Walrus’, which Lennon saw as little more than a throwaway experimental track. Whatever the case, the new production is minimal here, mainly consisting of giving the background oddities slightly more prominence and more use. The surrounds are used effectively, with low strings on the right and with high strings and brass on the left. The chanted laughs are quickly bounced around the surrounds, exactly the sort of effect Lennon would have enjoyed. In short, despite the maudlin intro, this track is brilliantly done, and it shows the delights a fine multichannel version of the Beatles catalogue could bring. It closes with the finest segue of the album, with the static and noise swelling up and somewhere along the way imperceptibly becoming crowd noise, setting the stage for a largely untouched ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’.
If I would love to hear more material like the previous couple of tracks, I would like to hear less like the following one: This mash-up uses ‘Drive My Car’ with the guitar solo from ‘Taxman’ and then uses the whole rhythm track and harmonic base for the vocals of ‘The Word’ and ‘What You’re Doing’.
It’s very clever and ingenious, the way they stitch it all together. Of course, one could say the same about Dr. Frankenstein and his creation.
Next comes ‘Gnik Nus’ which is simply ‘Sun King’ played backwards over a sitar-drone. Simple and effective, very Beatlesque. Then comes a rather over-processed ‘Something’ with more emphasis on the backing strings and drums and less on the guitars, leading into another chop-job transition. This time the victim is ‘Blue Jay Way’, incorporating bits of ‘Nowhere Man’ and God only knows what all other miscellaneous noises. This brings us to what starts off as an intensified bit of psychedelia, with Lennon’s classic, ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite’ a deliriously spooky song based on the verbage Lennon found on an old poster advertising a circus. (No bonus points to anyone who predicted the inclusion of it in Cirque du soleil’s show.) The new production adds to the background antics without detracting from the spirit of things, and the multichannel mix delights in sending the splintered calliope backing track on flights around the room, roaming from channel to channel. So far, so good, eh? But, man, a good trip can turn into a bummer real fast. It all runs headlong into the grinding instrumental dirge from the end of ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ spiked with fragments of ‘Helter Skelter’. Bad trip! Who knows what the body count would have been if Charles Manson had heard this track instead of the original ‘Helter Skelter’. It’s like a bad drug experience where you want it to stop and you want to be sober, but you look at the clock and realize it’s going to be around for a while. Or so I’m told.
The bad trip abruptly cuts off, and we get a mere second of winter wind to clear the air. That doesn’t do it, but the subsequent song, ‘Help!’ is left largely intact, and it does the job nicely, again providing a good example of how surround mixes for these songs could be done. That is followed by the pointless use of the guitar intro to McCartney’s ‘Blackbird’ to lead into ‘Yesterday’. When the quartet enters, they are in the front channels, with McCartney’s vocal in the center, and the surrounds are used only for ambiance. Next up is one of the most publicized things from this production, a version of Lennon’s masterpiece ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ assembled from even more takes than the original studio version. The original studio version was a miracle of production as George Martin was given the job of stitching together two different takes in two different keys at two different speeds. With the technology at hand, all he could do was speed up one, slow down the other, and hope to find a magical medium where they would both match tempo and pitch. Remarkably, he found it. The newly produced version here includes sections from Lennon’s original demo of the track, along with earlier takes, as well as the familiar later takes. Granted, with digital technology, the mixing and matching is not as difficult as it once was, but it is done here quite effectively, preserving more of the spirit (and more of the heavy drumming of Ringo Starr) of the familiar takes, long favorite listening material in their various bootleg incarnations. Again, the backing tracks fly the room here, and I stopped counting after fragments of at least six other songs appeared during the noisy closing section of the song. I was disappointed, though, that the Martins didn’t take the opportunity – at least for the album release, if understandably not for the Cirque du soleil show – to suddenly drop the noise to nothing for us to hear Lennon’s silly muttering of “Cranberry Sauce” in the background, which in 1968 set off the strange rumor of Paul McCartney’s demise when the phrase was mistaken by addled fans as being “I Buried Paul.” A sudden drop from noise to the phrase by itself, plain as day, and then back to the noise would be just the sort of comedic commentary Lennon would have loved. Ah, well, a missed opportunity for a bit of fun.
Next we hear one of the most audacious – and successful – stitchings on ‘Love’. We hear the vocal from George Harrison’s ‘Within You, Without You’ backed with the drum track from John Lennon’s ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ then vice-versa, and then finally all mixed together. Certainly an unexpected but quite intriguing meeting of two very different philosophical songs. There is a nice segue into the following ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ including some spattered fragments from the previous track in its remixed psychedelia. The obligatory Ringo track comes next, with his classic ‘Octopus’s Garden’ backed in places here for some reason by the string tracks from ‘Good Night’ which closes the ‘White Album’. The song’s maritime theme is echoed in the new production, which adds in sound effects from ‘Yellow Submarine’, which build up into a rain sound effect that relents, leaving us with a peculiarly skeletal sketch of McCartney’s great rocker ‘Lady Madonna’, backed by claps, drums, and guitars from ‘Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?’ before it slips into its more familiar and far more effective clothes. Amusingly, the guitar at one point unobtrusively transforms into the riff from ‘Hey Bulldog’ before returning to its expected turn of phrase. Next comes a moderately reworked version of Harrison’s ‘Here Comes the Sun’, with a cutting from his song ‘The Inner Light’, used as a transition into a nicely presented ‘Come Together’, which again shows how nice these tracks can sound in advanced-resolution multichannel. Bits of another Lennon song, ‘Dear Prudence’, are utilized there, then it drops rather awkwardly into the ‘Brother Can You Take Me Back’ tag which McCartney wrote for the end of Lennon’s ‘Cry Baby Cry’.
Clearing the air and rocking bold is ‘Revolution’ sounding very fresh in a great multichannel mix without so much processing. The remix clarifies textures and breathes new life into the track. That is followed by another good rocker, ‘Back in the U.S.S.R.’, which features a little more background patter and noise, but is basically left intact. Now comes the gem of the album, an early take of Harrison’s ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ with brand new string arrangement by George Martin, self-stated by Martin to be, after forty-one years, his final arrangement for The Beatles. The take and the arrangement reveal the intimate and touching side of this song, which became a wailing electric guitar solo for guest star Eric Clapton on the ‘White Album’. The gentle side is most welcome to hear, and it makes this release worth having, even for the die-hards who resist seeing any new production to the classic tracks. Simply and movingly, the greatest of all The Beatles songs (in my humble opinion of course), Lennon and McCartney’s ‘A Day in the Life’ segues out of the end of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ and unrolls in all its pensive glory as the orchestral backing goes into the surrounds (more on the left than the right, for some reason). The remix clarifies the song’s textures, and the production rightly leaves the main features alone, only tinkering with minor details. The closing chord is as mighty and final as ever.
Therefore, it seems really crass that this album doesn’t end there, where it should. But that wouldn’t give the requisite happy ending with built in encores, would it? So we predictably enough get the tired old sing-along ‘Hey Jude’, the brief ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)’ to bring the audience noise idea back into the mix, with – of course – ‘All You Need Is Love’ as the ending, replete with fragments of about a billion other Beatles songs floating around in the background. Predictable, and not terribly satisfying, but it suits the modern mythology of The Beatles as bards of the Summer of Love, despite their much wider range, hinted at in other places in this program.
In the end, I can’t completely reject nor embrace this venture. I just hope it precedes a true series of multichannel remixes. The other branch of the stream will take care of itself in due time. The eventual raiding of the Beatles songbook for compositional ideas is a natural and inevitable one. Whether or not the owners of the rights open the songs up for more experimental use like this, it will happen, either on the sly now (as in such projects as Danger Mouse’s bootleg mash-up ‘The Gray Album’) or by future artists working with this material once the songs enter the public domain, as they should, seeing how central this music has become to our modern world. The sound here is good, at times great, compromised only by the heavy processing involved, and it reaches its peak on the relatively untouched tracks, which attractively improve the songs in multichannel. This package also includes a regular compact disc version of the program, which is of much more limited interest, as it lacks the multichannel features, presenting only regular stereo versions of the new productions. There are no supplementary features on the DVD-Audio disc, just an operating screen which lists the titles and allows you to drop to the main menu to find other titles. No videos, no pictures, no lyrics, no audio setup. Both Dolby Digital and DTS are present for those with DVD-Video set-ups, but as my player defaulted to the high-resolution version and there is no way to “force” either low-resolution alternative, I cannot testify to their effectiveness.
For what it is – whatever it is – I guess this is all right. My performance rating naturally reflects the production, not the original performances. And for what it was designed to be, one can’t say it misses its target. But when you look at what the whole thing could have been, in several different ways, all you can do is sit back, puzzled, and go, “Hmmm.”