In 1993, Rykodisc Records began a two-year project reissuing the first 11 albums from Elvis Costello.
Never mind that some of these albums had been released only 7 or 8 years prior, and that others, arguably, didn't warrant re-releasing (there's Goodbye Cruel World, which even Costello himself doesn't really like). There was a palpable excitement among Costello-philes.
Each CD contained a plethora of bonus tracks — demos, B-sides, live tracks and the like — along with lavish booklets containing illuminating liner notes from E.C. himself.
What's more, the CDs sounded spectacular; bright and vibrant in the high end, deep and punchy in the low. The fine print of a few of those reissues boasted that the albums were remastered using something called "the latest 20-bit remastering." Hmm, sonic neophytes collectively figured, that must be it.
This past Tuesday, Rhino Records kicked off its own Elvis Costello reissue series. In addition to the first 11 albums (1977-86) originally on Columbia, this series will include the subsequent six Costello recorded for Warner Bros. (1989-1996). And, yes, the discs include bonus tracks and new liner notes by Costello. And, yes, the CDs have been remastered. Again.
Also on Tuesday, over at Legacy Recordings, the reissue boutique arm of Sony Music, that label just re-released and upgraded Simon and Garfunkel's entire catalog — available separately or together in a boxed set. This, even though the duo also had a Collected Works (all the albums stuffed onto three CDs) and another box Old Friends in their discography. It's a less formidable task than Rhino's — five albums to Costello's 17 — and neither are the first artists to have their catalog extravagantly re-presented more than once (David Bowie and Steely Dan to name two; there've also been single albums to get the multi-remaster treatment, like Dusty Springfield's Dusty in Memphis). But the deluge raises the question: How often are music geeks (and maybe even some regular people) going to have to contemplate re-purchasing their favorite records?
On the phone from Rhino's L.A. offices, Senior VP of A&R Gary Stewart sounds palpably ecstatic about the series, even when he's repeating near-verbatim lines from the label's press release announcing it. When the Costello catalog went up for grabs not too long ago, Stewart flew to the singer's home in Ireland with the Rhino sales director, he says, "to convince E.C. that we were gonna approach his records in a nontraditional way… that we weren't going to just strip mine the two or three titles that everybody goes after; that we were gonna look at the entirety of his career."
Unlike the Rykodisc series, the Rhino albums will not be released chronologically, but thematically. The first three releases ostensibly represent Costello the solo artist, with his debut My Aim Is True (1977), Spike (1989) and 1996's All This Useless Beauty (recorded with the Attractions, but they were breaking up. So it's a solo album, okay?). Future series will examine Costello the rocker, Costello the studio auteur, Costello the roots revivalist and so on.
The label's pulled some insightful and extensive liner notes from Costello, lyrics, extra photos and every conceivable annotation of the who-played-what-or-pressed-what-button variety. Perhaps most notably though, it's gone the distance in the bonus track department — so much so that a separate disc is delineated on each package for them. The price? $17.98, the same it would cost to buy a new single CD.
Stewart says the second-disc concept was hatched to give "breathing space" for the bonus tracks' sake. But he also notes, "you can also have the purity of the original record," and that may be the more important benefit. Sure, it's nice getting 14 bonus tracks on Rhino's Dusty in Memphis deluxe reissue, but that album's great partially because it exists as its own entity. The extra tracks come off like, oh, I don't know, discarded footage reapplied to a Coppola movie.
And what about the people who bought those Rykodisc reissues (or, for that matter, the Warner albums, all of which were released during the CD age)? Stewart admits, "If [the extra] items don't provide enough of an allure for one to want to purchase this again, we understand." But, listing again those extra items, he promises, "We intend to work really hard to make people who are purchasing this for a second or third time very happy."
Why do reissues sound so good? What is this bit remastering? Is it the aural equivalent of a car wax, making an analog recording shine like new, the years wiped away by the smooth cleansing of digital technology?
To quote Steve Martin: Nahhh. Bit remastering? "That's just the sampling rate and the conversion technology," says Bob Irwin, head of the upstate New York-based reissue label Sundazed. While it's gone from 20 to 24-bit these days, all the digital technology in the world doesn't mean jack without the original masters. "If you get your hands on the absolute original master tape, 99 percent of your battle is done," says Irwin, also a contracted freelance producer for Legacy who helmed both the Old Friends box and the new S&G series. Meanwhile, Sundazed, which Irwin started in 1989, has found considerable fortune reissuing everything from Nancy Sinatra to Buck Owens to half-forgotten surf and garage bands of the '60s. They even acquired the rights to release 180-gram vinyl of Legacy's reissues of the Byrds and Bob Dylan.
In the dark days of the '80s, when the record industry was faced, all of a sudden, with the exploding CD industry, the sound quality of older albums pressed onto CD left a lot to be desired. "[Reissues are] a thousand percent better than they used to be," says Jud Cost, a Santa Clara music critic who writes liner notes for Sundazed as well as a reissue review column for the Philly-based music magazine Magnet. "They used to be kind of slapdashed. They would master things from vinyl, if you can believe. Nowadays, companies feel like they have to go back to the original source tapes, which is how it should be."
The improvement of reissues seems crucially linked to the efforts of guys like Rhino's Bill Inglot (who remastered the Costello discs) and Irwin: Gearheads and analog lovers who didn't forget to keep up with the rising technology. Irwin makes the job of reissues producer/label head sound like one for the Indiana Joneses of record geeks. "In the early days, it was road trips. It was a couple of guys in a car driving to Nashville to search through the tape vault — a hand search tape by tape — to find the original Knickerbockers [the '60s frat-rock band] masters."
According to Inglot, the problems in the old days were "not necessarily [that] the people were doing poor work or that the quality of the pressings were poor, but really more just having more time and more ability to better research and find the proper tapes… And the sonics all follow that. Based on that proverb that, you know, there's a certain bodily function that you can't shine."
So how far will this business of re-reissues go? Will 13 years later bring us yet another My Aim Is True? Gary Stewart and Rhino are pretty confident that they've unearthed every rarity possible, so we're safe in that respect. Adam Block, general manager at Legacy, believes the future hedges on "a new form of delivery that dictates the reinvention of the catalog business and catalog marketing," but clams up when asked to place bets on any particular technology. Inglot is more forthcoming, citing DVD audio (marketed by some record labels) and SACD (from Sony, Legacy's owner), as well as downloadable music. But will it cause the seismic shift CDs did? Thing is, consumers will have to like the new technology, and notice the improvement, to want to refurbish their music collection. Inglot says, "I'm somewhat skeptical. 'Cause it's definitely gonna happen. It's like the future of the record business; there's no doubt it's gonna change, but anyone that tells you where they think it's gonna go, they don't really know."
Though it pains the skinflint in me to admit, the Costello reissues are pretty damn fine. The bonus tracks and liner notes are fab. And while it might take golden ears to notice the minute improvements in the sound quality of Spike and All This Useless Beauty, My Aim Is True sounds more vibrant even to someone raised on Rykodisc's version. Inglot stresses that they're not "trying to right wrongs." It's more "a balance between remaining true to the spirit and the sonics of the original record and trying to cross-pollinate that… with the technology that's at hand."
What's important is that the painstaking remastering process lets you hear anew the brash immediacy and sharp-as-nails POV of the ballyhooed classic album. If Rhino can convince more than just Costello's rabid fan base of this, they'll really be on to something.
Says Jud Cost, "To keep great stuff like Elvis Costello in print, you gotta do it again, and [Rhino has] found more things to put on there and made better notes. I don't think it's overkill. Unless they're trying to saturate the market with stuff that's already available. The way they're doing it now, I think, is pretty healthy."