The compact disc was introduced in 1982, a shiny savior for audiophiles with limited shelf space. A joint effort between the Philips and Sony corporations, the CD was introduced with a promise of improved sound and portability over those antiquated, cumbersome gramophone records. Well, they lied, at least on the sound portion. But a recent spate of Depeche Mode, Björk and the Jesus and Mary Chain reissues show newer technologies making up for these deficiencies, and that Generation X marks the spot being targeted to support these upgrades.
Since the CD's initial debut, consumers have clamored for the technology's coming-of-age. Original mid-'80s transfers were handled so shoddily that they are notable more for revealing a recording's limitations than celebrating its beauties. The silvery little optical disc that was supposed to eternally solve all our audio woes has been repeatedly accused of sounding cold and been shown to degrade. The current iGeneration has become so acclimated to the CD's over-polished frequencies that it has strayed even further down the spectrum, hungrily accumulating compressed (and therefore compromised) formats such as MP3.
Now, don't misunderstand -- there's much to love about the iPod. It's a snazzy status symbol-turned-standard, and it's certainly the most portable solution for the online tsunami of mass-media consumption. An iPod beats the hell out of lugging some Case Logic point to point. But when it comes time to sit down and listen to an album in its entirety -- the way the majority of reissued material is intended to be heard -- hi-fidelity surround-sound formats such as DVD-Audio, DualDisc and Super Audio are injecting new life into the market.
Initially, jazz and classical music fans drove new audio formats, quickly adopting fledgling technologies. The reason the compact disc was a seemingly arbitrary 74 minutes long? Some documentation says it was to accommodate a complete performance of Beethoven's "Ninth Symphony." Baby boomer classical music fans, their children having flown the nest, were the ones willing to spend $10,000 for a turntable, so why not launch a new format with all new equipment requirements? They'd eat it up like foie gras!
So who do the format wars target after the classical fans? Here's a hint: Dark Side of the Moon sounds trippy as balls in surround sound. That's right, from classical to classic rock, companies have been trying to separate your dad from his money (just like you used to). Now, however, Generation X and the MTV generation have established finances in their own right. And record labels are looking to part the newly flush with their disposable income by rolling out the college-rock-era reissues.
As a figurehead for technology coming into its own, you can't do much better than Depeche Mode. The lads from Basildon, England, debuted in 1981 with dinky-but-catchy synth-pop and little clue as to how to go about things besides aspirations to be the next Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. All that is revealed in the 30-minute documentary on the DVD accompanying the new romantics' reissued debut, Speak & Spell. Each of the inaugural three Depeche Mode remasters -- Music for the Masses and Violator complete the initial trio -- includes a DVD with a short documentary segment (featuring appropriate departed members such as Vince Clarke and Alan Wilder), as well as the entire album plus B-sides in Dolby Digital and DTS surround sound (in this reviewer's opinion, DTS packs superior presence).
These three releases show the pivotal moments of a band that went from pop to ... well, pop, yet managed to become increasingly perverse and undiluted even while emerging as a stadium act. Depeche innovated with the punch of digital/analog hybrids, appropriately, which will be further explored across seven additional remasters that curb you into submission with cascades of synth melody and taut menace in the surround speakers. (A little insider info: The European releases are CD/Super Audio + DVD while the American versions are CD/DVD only, though all enjoy Mute label head Daniel Miller's liner notes.)
As the Depeche Mode reissues literally tell the group's story, the Jesus and Mary Chain and Björk reissues opt to share more figurative evolutions. Each DualDisc (a universal-format CD on one side, DVD on the other side of the same disc) includes the music videos that were produced in the same period as each album. DVD is, to date, the most quickly adopted technology in history, and widespread access to music videos is almost equivalent to an LP sleeve in terms of generational nostalgia. While it's fair to say 5.1 speaker systems have not become nearly as omnipresent as the DVD player, the packages are becoming more commonplace.
This is good news for Björk fans, as the Depeche Mode DVDs and the Björk surround-sound mixes (DTS again) create an amazing sense of clarity and spatial relations (and boom for those with subwoofers) equally valuable for this idiosyncratic Icelander. A pixie who has used anamorphic technologies to kick up quite a ruckus, Björk's seven full-lengths -- available separately or as a pricey boxed set titled Surrounded -- use the surround speakers to position rhythms that transform songs into swelling, irresistible processionals.
Hi-fidelity benefits aren't restricted to 5.1 speakers, however. The Jesus and Mary Chain reissues (to be released July 11) opt to present the shoegaze-pioneering Scottish group's initial five Warner Bros. albums (long out of print in the United States) in "only" advanced-resolution stereo. But the remastering process on Depeche Mode, Björk and the JAMC adds a general looseness and greater definition to the sound, notable even on mere CD.
Beginning with college-rock mainstays the JAMC's 1984 deconstruction debut, you can almost pick out individual hairs in the blissed-out harmonies-meets-Velvet Underground bristle, or at least cause the neighbors' hairs to barb from the exaggerated, corrugated squall. The Jesus and Mary Chain herd feedback like cats, meaning part of the band's allure is how it balanced unpredictable with well-plotted. Sure sounds like a metaphor for technology.
There's a somewhat missed opportunity with these packages as there are no demos, alternative takes or instrumentals to further show the imprint of technology advancing on almost three decades of innovative pop. But perhaps those features could be unearthed when the next generation inevitably adopts a new format.
Thanks for reading, and thanks for the catch!
Tues, Dec 31st. Not 21st.
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