Rock n roll suicide. Point to many of the big careerist musicians worshipped by Gen-Xers and you’ll find wild variations in artistic quality. After knocking the commercial ball out of the park with his first album for EMI, Let’s Dance, David Bowie slipped into a creative coma with the double-whammy of 1) the extraordinarily patchy Tonight and 2) the slap-bass of Never Let Me Down before 3) declaring a return to basics by rocking out with pals on two albums recorded as the equally baffling Tin Machine.
Then there’s Neil Young who took the momentum gathered by After The Gold Rush and Harvest and drove it into the ditch (his words) with Time Fades Away, Tonight’s The Night and (this fan’s personal favourite) On The Beach.
Lou Reed was never the most cheerful man in rock n roll but someone or something must’ve seriously harshed his mid-70s buzz for him to turn the upbeat (but weak) pop sensibilities of Sally Can’t Dance on their head for what is perhaps the single most audience-alienating career move of all time: Metal Machine Music.
From that point on, Reed would prove himself to be the epitome of artistic inconsistency. For every Rock n Roll Animal there’d be a Rock & Roll Heart. For every Transformer, a Lulu; said collaboration with Metallica is possibly the worst – and definitely the last – record made by Reed before liver disease got the better of him in late 2013.
It wasn’t all bad though. Even post Velvet Undergournd, the man made some truly great records. After jumping labels from RCA to Sire (Warner Bros.) in the late eighties, Reed enjoyed a renaissance thanks to a golden run of albums that hindsight reveals as his critical high watermark.
It is to these three albums – nay, classics – that I point today. This month, New York, Songs for Drella and Magic & Loss have been re-released as hi-res downloads via Rhino Records.
1989’s New York is Reed’s best album bar none. It spills with 14 vignettes set in – and about – the city in which he grew up and then set the blueprint against which all future art-rock would be measured with The Velvet Underground.
Pulling up a close second is 1992’s Magic and Loss, an album about the loss of two close friends who’d succumbed to cancer the previous year. It mourns death more than it celebrates life. A party album it is not.
In 1987, Reed reconciled with former Velvets acolyte to record an album about Andy Warhol who’d unexpectedly up and died that very same year. 1990’s Songs For Drella was the result. Two things strike me listening to this album 25 years down the line: 1) it’s far from bleak and 2) it’s very much NOT a rock n roll record. Cale’s piano dominates throughout. Anyone who digs his Fragments of a Rainy Season will find much to their liking here.
Now I know what you’re thinking: you bought the vinyl and then the CD and so – hi-res or not – there’s no way you’re dropping another US$20 on each album a third time, especially not a dynamically compressed remaster. And I hear ya – I feel the same way.
However, it’s not just Lou Reed’s creative output that’s full of inconsistencies, the quality of this recent round of hi-res encoded remasters is all over the shop.
Much of Reed’s 1970s output for RCA has been brickwalled to the bullshit. Take a look at “Heroin” from the recent reissue of Rock n Roll Animal, plucked from HDTracks in 24bit/96kHz:
Here’s “Vicious” from the 2015 version of Transformer (RCA) in 24bit/96kHz. Source: HDTracks.
Not much better. The Dynamic Range Databases puts this version’s album average at 8.
Let’s look at the opening cut (“Romeo and Juliette”) from New York, also a 24bit/96kHz release from HDTracks. Like the two other waveforms that follow, this one was recorded not for RCA but for Warner Bros:
MUCH better. If you care about such things, the dynamic range database reports an album average of 12.
Here’s “Gassed and Stoked”, one of more guitar-grunge-driven songs from Magic & Loss. Again, it’s a 24bit/96kHz encode purchased from HDTracks.
The dynamic range database says yes too: DR = 11.
And finally, this is what “Trouble with Classicists” from Songs for Drella look like. 24bit. 96kHz. HDTracks.
An entry has yet to arrive in the Dynamic Range Database so I analysed it myself with the TT DR Meter for OS X. The result? Album average of 13. Nice.
Most importantly of all, these three albums sound superb dressed in these new clothes. The standout for this listener being the abundance of tone that spills forth from Mike Rathke’s guitar work on Magic & Loss and New York. If you can only afford one, get New York.
Many of us know already that not all hi-res releases are created equal(ly). It’s the master that matters most. Thankfully, the 2010 mastering seen/heard here with Lou Reed’s finest work is good enough to make the corresponding hi-res encodes fully worthwhile – and if you wish to max out on sample rate, 192kHz versions are also available for a few extra bucks more than the 96kHz versions.
Lastly, if you’re still down with ye olde Redbook you can save some coin. Amazon.co.uk are currently selling Rhino’s “Original Album Series” CD box set, which bundles the above three albums with the two that followed (Set The Twilight Reeling and Ecstasy), for a crazy good £11.81. I’m 99% sure these discs are derived from the same masters used for this year’s hi-res releases.