Sunday, February 9, 2014

10 classic albums that sound different on CD.

For a lot of us crate diggers, the transition to CD in the late 1980s was both a blessing and a curse.  The convenience of the CD format made it easier for some people to get an entire listening experience, especially when double albums like Funkadelic’s “America Eats Its Young” or the Crusaders “Southern Comfort” are finally easy to play in sequence.

But the CD thing also made listening to the album a more rewarding experience, from the great visuals of the album art, to the extra sparkles that came from the lp sound, not simply from the scratches on the disc.  Often the sound is still brighter on my lps than the CD’s.

After years of listening to some great funk & soul in both formats, there are a few tracks that are glaring in the contrast from lp to CD, both good and bad:

Here are the most memorable to me:

1) Parliament Live: P-Funk Earth Tour (1977).  When the 2lp came out when I was in high school, I was thrilled, only to discover that the mix was hella murky on lp.  It would be another 15 years before the CD reissue would “fix” the sound and deliver a much brighter mix.  You can finally hear the Mike Hampton guitar solo on “Dr. Funkenstein” live.  This is one instance when the CD was an upgrade sound wise from the lp.  But you don’t get “Fantasy is Reality” on the CD, so you are missing something.  And of course you don’t get the crazy Dr Funkenstein poster and Iron on T-Shirt Transfer!

2) Similarly, I always tripped on how murky Stevie Wonder’s 70’s albums sounded.  Particularly Fulfillingness First Finale and Songs in the Key of Life.  But the 2000 remaster of “Songs …” (thanks Harry Weinger) brings out all kinds of new layers on songs like “Another Star” and “All Day Sucker” that I never heard before on the album.  In this case, the CD is a great new treat.

3) Brick “Good High”  (1976) This was always one of my favorite creative funk records back in the day, and I had to wait a hella long time for the CD reissue on Wounded Bird in 2011.  Unfortunately by then I had already converted my lp to an mp3 album – And that still sounds way brighter than the new CD.  That was a big downer.   I don’t know what was missed but something is flat on all the tracks.  You can compare the versions from the Greatest Hits versions of “Dazz” and “Good High” to that disc and it won’t feel good.

4) Collectibles has always had a shaky reputation when it comes to putting classic soul on CD.  Maybe it is because other labels will remaster tracks and Collectibles appears to just take a tape and put it directly to CD.   That was the case when they did Slave’s two albums “Hardness of the World” and “The Concept,” two of the wildest funk albums ever created, put on one CD.    I really wanted The Concept so I could put all 9 glorious minutes of “Stellar Fungk” on the radio with all the spacey sounds (and Steve Arrington’s other-worldly percussion!) nice and clean for a change!  But no, the sound is gloomy and murky to the point where I’m still playing my lp or mp3 from my lp on the radio.

The tough part with this is that Rhino did a best of Slave featuring Steve Arrington that really brought to life “Stellar Fungk” and “The Party Song” – but cut them way down to fit single versions on the CD comp.  So you can easily see how hot the Rhino mix is versus the Collectibles mix.  So I’m still pining for a sparkly clean version of Stellar Fungk.

I wasn’t impressed with that 5CD Album Series release either.  Coulda given a mug some sparkle on their funk.

5-6) Earth Wind & Fire: Gratitude and That’s the Way of The World.  Somehow the CD manufacturers just don’t know what to do with EWF and their style of putting silly interludes all over their albums.  Do we track them as individual tracks?  Or blend them into main tracks, therefore messing them up for those of us making mixes.   Or do we just delete the sounds altogether?

On “Way of the World” on both my CD’s the first piano interlude in front of “All About Love” is gone altogether.  Just like it never happened. WTF?  That song is magic, for a reason, because of Larry Dunn’s weird piano/synth tripping, the lovely song enjoys a special place “inside” EWF’s jazzy world, but not on the CD.   Poof.  Some industry hack just distorted the vision of Maurice White.  Also, the 2 minute piano/synthesizer vamp at the end is stuck on the track, so if you only want the ballad, too bad, you get: no mellow intro but you have to get the long outro. 

I have an old version of the “Way of the World” CD that put the piano/synth intro to “All About Love” at the end of the previous track “Happy Feelin’” which meant that Happy Feelin’ in a mix would go into a piano ballad before the track ends, making a mess of the mixes I was trying to make with that song.

Gratitude was almost as bad, as the intro to “Sun Goddess” is messed up.  Most of us OG’s love hearing the nice intro:  “Right now, we have a special song for you, a song we recorded with Ramsey Lewis…”  and then it kicks into the jam.  That is one of the most memorable moments of a legendary live album.  For the CD the track kicks in right on the song, and the dialogue is stuck at the end of “Devotion.”  That means, if you want to play “Devotion” live in a mix, you also have to listen to the Ramsey Lewis intro before the song cuts out. 

They did put that crazy riff that comes just before “Cant Hide Love” on the last side of the lp, on the CD and it is tracked by itself, which was a good idea.  An idea that should apply to all EWF interludes; make them all separate tracks, period.

7) “Aqua Boogie” on Motor Booty Affair.  When I came across “Motor Booty Affair” for the first time in 1978 it was one of the greatest surprises!  I didn’t know Parliament was coming out with something new, and I was still swimming in the P, with One Nation Under A Groove and Bootsy’s latest “Player of the Year” still making noise.  So I copped that disc and ran home and played the whole thing!  I couldn’t believe how trippy, liquefied and stanky the album was, and Aqua Boogie was just on another level, with the final ripping groove turning a mutha out!  But dang it faded out hella quick!  As it turned out, the lp LISTED the song at 6:43 but it was about a minute shorter.  It always bugged me out.  Nevertheless the song was psychedelic p-funk perfection, so I wasn’t trippin’…

But when the CD came out in 1990 I was stunned to hear the final minute of Aqua Boogie in all its super stankiness, and sloppiness.  I figure it was faded on the lp because that underwater bird (performed by who?...) kinda lost his breath in that final minute, and the perfection of the arrangement is somewhat lost.  Maybe that was the case, maybe it was just a ghost in the machine…

8) Spider on Herbie Hancock’s “Secrets” album.  This has always been one of my all time favorite jazz funk albums, and “Spider” is to me a masterpiece of precision stank funk hiding on a jazz album.   Herbie’s ability to put a serene sheen on the gangly spidery groove has always been hypnotic to me.  The ending, in a splash of synthesizer splatter is also a memorable jazz funk legendary moment.  But when I rushed out to buy the first CD reissue, there was a “glitch” in the end of Spider, as if the “tape” had folded as it was being digitized.  A funk buzzkill if there ever was one.

So I figured it was just a bad CD, and I bought another one, same glitch.  Dang.  Glad to know that used CD’s are always being bought & sold, but I really wanted that Spider to come out clean.  Many of those mid 70s albums have been remastered and completely upgraded sound wise, but not Secrets.  Still waiting.   Fortunately one can download “Spider” from itunes from a “Greatest Hits” and it sounds fine.  Or better yet, crank the original album!

9) Sometimes CD reissues come with sound that is way too hot & loud, like my best of the Emotions, and my best of Mother’s Finest.  Sometimes CD reissues come in way too low, like for some reason a lot Al Jarreau, my Gil Scott Heron “Pieces of a Man” comp, and my Quincy Jones “Mellow Madness” CD from Japan.  For a long time there was no real standard for what level to put the lp out on CD.  Drove me nuts trying to make a radio mix.

10) Does anybody else remember when CBS messed up and put the “alternate” Fresh album by Sly & the Family Stone out?  That was a trip.  Apparently it was murkier and trippier than the album most of us knew and loved anyway.  I believe it is what Sly gave originally to the label, and somebody decided to mix it again after Sly handed it in.    

Any other big surprises?

10 Excellent takeaways from Undercover Presents Stand!

10 Excellent takeaways from Undercover Presents Stand!

On Sunday January 19th, over 100 musicians gathered together at the Independent in San Francisco for the finale of three nights of a presentation of every track of Sly & the Family Stone’s groundbreaking 1969 album Stand! I was honored to be a part of the festivities, giving some Sly knowledge, hanging with the brilliant and buoyant musicians, and acting a fool during the finale on stage!

There were so many awesome elements to this experience, for instance:

1. Multiple generations of musicians got to not only perform Sly Stone’s music, but to immerse themselves in the prophetic visions and the stylistic range of Bay Area legends Sly & the Family Stone. Each act, each collective on stage was able to process and express Sly’s vision of a "Love City" that took on but went beyond the racial & gender divides of the times, and took us towards a true global love community!

2. The once revered epiphany of the album listening experience was brought back with a vengeance! The entire night was designed for the audience to witness the range, depth, funky thump and cumulative optimism of the entire 1969 Stand! record, which was attained with spectacular results. This will have folks flocking back to the original album all over again - for the first time!

2. Everyone in the place got to witness nine separate finales, as each act just took their sound and Sly’s vision to a Higher level, bringing down the house again and again! So much talent! So much funk! So much love in the house!

The true genius of Sly Stone was revealed by the fact that his work was accessible to musicians from nine different genres, musical worlds, tastes and musical scenes.
They were each reflecting Sly’s vision that "Everybody is a Star," and celebrating "Everyday People" with Different Strokes for Different Folks!

4. The final night was a clean technical sweep, as very few sound problems or glitches delayed any of the sets or transitions. Truly a feat of wizardry from all involved. The Independent never sounded so good! (and I’ve seen some legendary shows there)

5. Original Family Stone members Rustee Allen (bass) and Greg Errico (drums) appeared onstage and not only got the love they deserved, but were clearly moved by the experience, and in no time they FUNKED UP the place with their musical mastery!

6. Dave Moschler’s indomitable genius of drawing together artists from disparate genres into one project - one vision and one creation - was simply a divine stroke. The diversity and the unity all over the building was a soul penetrating experience! So many of us were able to meet and to learn about each other’s works and start new funky networks of our own. Thank U Dave!

7. The Awesome Orchestra Collective’s opening “Stand!” performance was thunderous, while the exhilarating sounds of Soprano Lauren Woody, pianist JooWan Kim and two rappers doing “Don’t Call Me Nigger Whitey” are still in my head; The unforgettable Energy of Zakira Harris’ Afro-Cuban dance ensemble ripping “I Want to Take You Higher” is still bouncing me around; the exquisite polish of Tiffany Austin’s vocals and upright bass player Marcus Shelby’s rendition of “Somebody’s Watching You” was masterful; and the all-consuming, explosive Latin hip hop in Bayonics’ thunderous rendition ‘Sing A Simple Song” was enough to satisfy any music fan – and that was only Side 1 of Stand!

8. The hypnotic, dreamy soul country flavors of the Tumbleweed Wanderers (with Jeremy Lyon channeling Allan Gorrie of AWB) was utterly haunting as they revitalized “Everyday People” in a way that tapped into all of the energy in the room. The disparate spirits became One as they gave love to America’s vast expanse of the human heart; The highlight of the show for many of us was Con Brio’s lead singer Ezekiel McCarter, who channeled a passionate Marvin Gaye on “Sex Machine” and made it his own, while celebrating the original 13 minute masterpiece with a rendition that you never wanted to stop! The increasing funkativity was not lost from Will Magid’s wickedly funky keyboard & trumpet work on “My Brain (Zig Zag)” with bass from Family Stone O.G. Rustee Allen. The party was rocking off the chain when the Jazz Mafia – featuring Greg Errico on drums brought down the house with “You Can Make it If You Try” – and Uriah Duffy’s channeling of Larry Graham to punctuate the ultimate Funk of the whole thing!

9. The all hands - all bands - on deck finale was as transcendent a moment as Bay Area music can deliver! The chaos, the pure joy, the elevated spirits and thunderous funk was a living Monster! That was truly Love City!

10. The heavy lifting of Lyz Luke to bring together the musical talent, the promotional efforts, the venue operations, the merchandizing, and a thousand logistics while remaining cool, calm, lovely and funky onstage and everywhere else set the tone of this unforgettable set!

11. Sly Stone would be so proud of this!