November 11, 2018
My review focuses principally on the extras that come with the Super Deluxe set. Let me begin by saying that whereas I had ordered the Super Deluxe set for the book and the 3 "Sessions" discs, what I really ended up falling in love with was the remix. From there, I'd say that the rest of the set is "really good" (i.e., definitely worth exploring) but not necessarily "great" (i.e., not worth going into debt over). My actual rating for the book is about 3 and for "Sessions" about 4. Here are some specifics ...
WOW! For some side-by-side comparisons of the remix and the 2009 remaster, check out AntHoney's YouTube video entitled "The White Album: Original vs. 2018 Mixes." Martin and Co. did a stellar job of drawing out the depth and dynamics of each track (i.e., not song, but individual tracks on the original tapes)--which gives the songs new clarity and breathing room and, therefore, dimensionality. At the risk of sounding cliché and/or repeating what other reviewers already have said, it really feels like you are there in the room. Of particular note is the renewed richness of the bass, drums, acoustic guitars, harmony vocals, and string and/or horn sections. The remixes also draw out how the flange was intended to be heard on the left-panned acoustic guitar on "Wild Honey Pie," on the organ during the wine bottle coda of "Long, Long, Long," and on the drums in the false ending of "Helter Skelter" (which also brings the stereo mix more into alignment with the mono mix). The remixes also reveal ear candy that until now had been edited out of a few songs (e.g., a bass phrase that wraps up "Dear Prudence," some guitar noodling as Ringo begins to yell about the blisters on his fingers at the end of "Helter Skelter"). They also accentuate parts that, while always there, until now have been buried under layers of compressed instrumentation (e.g., vocal passages in "Back in the USSR" and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps"; some lead guitar in "Sexy Sadie").
THE ESHER DEMOS
Having been available for decades (between "Anthology 3" and bootlegs/YouTube), I didn't find the Esher Demos as exciting as the "Sessions" discs. Also, I find it problematic that Martin opted to sand off John accidentally playing a G instead of a C while singing "Mother Superior jump the gun" and then exclaiming, "Oh s#!+ Wrong chord!" (on "Happiness is a Warm Gun"). On the other hand, if you have not heard these demos before, do give them a solid listen to get a sense of the foundational visions John, Paul, and George had of their new songs--and, accordingly, a window into their creative process and their individual working styles. Also, I will say that the new clarity from Martin's direct transfer from the open reel tapes in George's estate brought out a lot of nuances in the double-tracking. (And, returning to "Happiness," he made up for his editorial transgression by reintroducing some double tracking that had been removed from the "Anthology 3" version.)
THE SESSIONS DISCS
There are some real gems here. The early takes of several of the songs are structurally closer to the Esher demos--which only suggests how methodically the Beatles worked to formalize the songs once the recordings were underway. My favorites are (a) the Crazy Horse-esque initial run through "Helter Skelter" that has a raw beauty which had been stripped from the more circumscribed "Anthology 3" version; (b) "Good Night" with full-band vocal harmonies (a la "This Boy") and some guitar phrasing reminiscent of what eventually became reworked into "Julia"; (c) John sorting out the arrangement of "Julia" (strummed versus fingerpicked); (d) "Cry Baby Cry" with organ-guitar interplay reminiscent of Procol Harum and Pink Floyd's records from that era; (e) the early takes of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" (with Paul still working out the timing of his piano part) and "Long, Long, Long" (which interpolates another of George's Rishikesh compositions in which he spontaneously recites verbs a la Syd Barrett and then lays the seeds of “My Sweet Lord” on his guitar); (f) highlights from the "I Will" session (including "I Won't," a cover of “Blue Moon,” and the complete "Can You Take Me Back"); and (g) Paul’s baritone Elvis impersonation on "You're So Square" and his early run of "Let It Be" that would have been right at home on The Band’s “Music From Big Pink” (too bad the soul element got bleached out when they revisited the song a few months later). Also, while not necessarily new (i.e., it has been on bootlegs for years), the extended take of "Revolution 1" sans overdubs has some good moments: Paul's allusions to "Love Me Do," John announcing that he'd "had enough" before persisting for several more minutes, and, probably most importantly, the prima materia for "Revolution 9" (including not only John's scatting "riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight" but also Yoko's spoken contributions as well as evidence at the end that Paul was not exactly averse to her input).
A number of other tracks are worth a listen, even if just once. There are songs as we know them but with additional overdubs in place (e.g., "I'm So Tired" with extra guitar, organ, and harmony vocals). The orchestral intro to "Don't Pass Me By" is not new (i.e., it opened "Anthology 3")--but hearing it placed directly before Ringo’s composition gives a clear sense of what George Martin likely had in mind for a follow-up to "Sgt. Pepper" (and, in light of Giles Martin's comments about his father's perspective on the White Album and when juxtaposed with "Revolution" and the initial runs through "Everybody's Got Something to Hide" and "Helter Skelter" on "Sessions" Disc 1, it provides a lot of context for why Martin may have opted to knock off for a couple of months that summer). The guide vocal tracks on "Bungalow Bill" and "Yer Blues" underscore the barely-audible voices that for years have lurked curiously in the background of the final recordings. Likewise, basic tracks of “Honey Pie” and “Savoy Truffle” demonstrate the band’s instrumental versatility while those of "Back in the USSR," "Dear Prudence," "Piggies," "Birthday," and “Revolution” each contain a few flubs that provide insight into why certain overdubs were later added and accentuated in the final mixes. Honestly, I find those imperfections a refreshing antidote to today's climate of pseudo-precision (brought about by pitch correction and lifeless drum machines) insofar as they allow the Beatles' humanness to shine through.
Then there are numerous takes that were already on "Anthology 3" ("Not Guilty," "Step Inside Love," "Los Paranois," "Rocky Raccoon," "Obladi Oblada"). I'm glad they are included in that they boost the comprehensiveness of the set. Plus, I actually prefer to hear them without the artificial conflation of studio chatter borrowed from other takes. On the other hand, after accounting for the previously-released tracks and the relative abundance of basic tracks minus overdubs, we really are left with about only a disc's worth of bona fide NEW material.
But that's not my chief complaint about the "Sessions" discs. Instead, it is the overall dearth of studio chatter. Now, there are some noteworthy moments. George orders a marmite sandwich and coffee from the studio floor, compliments Mal Evans’ choice of incense, observes “all those … amazing changes” in “Bungalow Bill,” and takes back the reins when Paul began to dominate the "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" session with Eric Clapton. John chants his grammar school rhyme about "semolina pilchard and green slop pie all mixed together with a dead dog's eye" to count off "Cry Baby Cry"; ambivalently instructs, “If you think it was good, keep it. If you don’t, scrap it” after a shaky take of "I'm So Tired"; and makes an embarrassed but heartfelt confession that he found it "very hard to sing ["Julia"]." On the other hand, I'm left thinking that CONSIDERABLY more conversation should have been included. To get around the problem of "Anthology 3" (see the previous paragraph), Giles Martin easily could have made an extended chatter compilation (like "Fly on the Wall" on "Let it Be Naked" or the collection of false starts and breakdowns from the Beatles' 1963-64 sessions on the "Anthology" DVD). THAT would have been a perfect way to round out the "Sessions" discs. (It also would have been more fitting. Other than George and Ringo’s brief debate over the merits of marmite, the basic tracks of "Lady Madonna," "The Inner Light," and "Across the Universe" don't add much to the set. While not a distraction, including them on the basis that they had been recorded in early 1968 really makes as much sense as hypothetically tacking basic tracks of "Strawberry Fields" and "Penny Lane" and "When I'm 64" onto the end of a "Revolver" set because technically they had been cut toward the end of 1966.)
This is where my criticism really comes in. Don't get me wrong--there are some nice touches. However, (a) there are too many practical issues with the packaging and (b) there is just not enough new material in the book to justify it constituting over half the price of the Super Deluxe set (i.e., as discussed more below, a download of the whole 6-disc set costs under $67, which is less than half of the $139 I paid for the hard copy set).
First and foremost, it's bad enough that the CDs are stored in cardboard sleeves (which is a recipe for data loss). What's more, the sleeves are flimsy, and it requires quite a bit of effort to remove them from their pockets in the flyleaves of the book without either buckling or tearing some part of the packaging or precariously bending the CDs. My suggestion: If you want the CDs to last, get them out of the book and into jewel cases immediately! Second, while a fair visual touch, the plastic slipcover for the book also is very wobbly and it can be a challenge to get the book in and out. My suggestion: Keep the slipcover off while you digest the set, then put it back on in a couple of weeks when you are ready to put the set on the shelf for a while. Third, overall the book is clumsy, with the oversized pages awkwardly wedged between super-thick cardboard flyleaves plus a pocket for the poster in the back.
As for content, the real drawback is the essays. Paul's introductory remarks sound like they were scribbled hastily as part of his morning e-mail. The notes on the recording sessions don't offer much new insight beyond what has already been said elsewhere for up to a half-century. Now, it IS nice to get some clarification after all these years as to who played what (e.g., that WAS Paul on drums on "Dear Prudence"--as well as on "Don't Pass Me By"). On the other hand, especially with so much new information having recently surfaced about the content of the session tapes, a much more detailed analysis of the making of each song (i.e., what occurred from take to take) seems warranted. Also, with so little studio chatter included on the discs (see above), more dialogue could have been transcribed (or at least summarized) in the book like the folks at Columbia did a few years ago for Dylan's "Cutting Edge" set of 1965-66 recordings.
The book does include a handful of new photos from the Mad Day Out, from the cover portrait sessions (especially of John and Ringo), and from the recording sessions themselves. In particular, there are a few contemplative shots of John and George that nicely match the mood of the songs, and I don't recall ever having seen any photos of Ringo experimenting with a double kick drum by adding the bass drum from his black oyster pearl Ludwig kit to his then-new maple Hollywood set (the one seen in the "Let It Be" film). The pictures of Paul serving as consultant on the photo collage at Richard Hamilton's studio also are interesting. Otherwise, most of these photos are carried over from the Anthology DVD/book/CD or from the 2009 White Album remaster, and the obligatorily-included poster and color portraits are nothing we haven't seen before. To be fair, I imagine they had only so much novel photographic material to work with. But with the essays leaving so much to be desired, I'm ultimately left uncertain whether it was worth $70 to see a handful of new photos, several of which will likely show up on Google Images in the coming months.
Overall, the Super-Deluxe-only materials are ABSOLUTELY worth a good perusal. From there, however, minus the remix and a few stray tracks from the Esher demos or "Sessions," I see most of it ultimately landing on a shelf without being part of a regular rotation. If you are a completist and can afford the whole shebang, go for it! If, though, money is tight, you have two reasonable alternative options. First, if you wish to have a hard copy, you'd be fine just picking up the 3-CD set ($23) for the remix and the Esher demos. Second, if a digital copy will suffice, you can order the download of the complete Super Deluxe set (with the "Sessions" material) for $66.50. From there, my recommendation is to borrow the Super Deluxe set from your local library (if they don't own it, request an interlibrary loan) to get a one-time peek at the book and, if you don't go for the full download, to hear the chronologically-arranged "Sessions" discs once through.
Finally, for the price, I wonder why Amazon isn't offering an Autorip download with the hard copy set?