Music News & Reviews

Critic's picks: The Beatles, 'The White Album,' 'Abbey Road,' 'Past Masters'

To give proper attention to the avalanche of Beatles reissues that hit stores this week, one would require an inexhaustible budget (retail prices for the stereo and mono box set collections are about $250 each), a week or so to studiously compare the original 1987 CD editions to the new versions, and an audio system peerless enough to detect the more modest nuances these sparkling new recordings undoubtedly have.

Sadly, none of that was available on this end. So instead, we're whittling down the appraisals to three entries in the reissue series: The Beatles, aka The White Album, the band's fractured 1968 double-record opus and its last album to be released in mono; 1969's Abbey Road, the final Beatles recording, although not the last to be released (Let It Be was in 1970); and Past Masters, originally two albums issued in 1988 that mostly gathered Beatles B-sides (there were many) and non-album singles (there were even more, most notably Hey Jude), now issued as a two-CD set of mono and stereo goodies.

First things first: The new editions make you appreciate the 1987 versions again. Sure, their mixes now seem dated, even flat. But elements like hiss and tape speed were seldom an issue — although the more scholarly of Beatles geeks insist the original stereo mix of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, a record made in mono, amounted to heresy.

Nonetheless, when the plane touches down at the onset of Back in the U.S.S.R. to kick off The Beatles, the clarity is remarkable. Throughout, the album's guitar sound, which was a selling point of the original CD versions, remains full and confrontational. But the rhythm tracks — particularly ones that involve piano, bass and good ol' Ringo's drums — come alive. Examples: the tac piano and accordion in Rocky Raccoon, the withdrawn rhythmic wheeze under John Lennon's I'm So Tired, the celebratory percussive rattle of Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey and, to a lesser extent, the distinction between strings and vocals as Ringo closes the album with Good Night (although, to be fair, much of that charm was initiated by the stereo mix).

The stereo masterwork Abbey Road sounds like a million bucks with a clarity that the original CD mix only partially captured. Lennon's estate should be ecstatic over this one, as it is his electric performances that benefit the most — namely, the hazy psychedelic rocker I Want You (She's So Heavy), the second-side suite's Mean Mr. Mustard and Polythene Pam, and even the trippy hit Come Together. But what cooks under Lennon's tight-fisted vocals, especially the lean, almost cautious bass and drum lines, seriously boosts the newly complete sound. That said, Lennon's glorious vocal orchestration on Because and Sun King sounds even more wondrous.

Past Masters is the curiosity as it is the only way many fans can get even a partial glimpse of the band's glorious mono recordings (the complete mono albums are available only as a boxed set, while the stereo albums can be purchased separately). Unfortunately, From Me to You and Thank You Girl now substitute stereo mixes. Still, the stereo-conceived Hey Jude now sounds like the hippie tent revival it was always meant to be.

New mixes for a new Beatles age? Essentially, yes. But these recordings were perfect before. Now, for a price, they simply unveil another shade of their inherent greatness.