John - Greatest Hits
by Greg Smith
Yellow Brick Road
Be Continued Box Set
Yellow Brick Road
I know what you're thinking. "Greg must have gone nuts! There's six CDs involved in this review." Well, you may be right, I may be crazy. But what this lunatic was looking for was the best sounding Elton John releases I could find. The earliest available CDs of his material were some of the most awful digital works you will ever hear, which isn't surprising. It's the really popular artists that had their work released in that format first, back in the days where very little was done to make a good digital master. Things had been continuing to improve, but recently there's been an unpleasant twist.
The DCC release of his Greatest Hits, a compilation first released in 1974 of selected tracks from his first few albums, doesn't actually contain my favorite Elton John songs from this era. There's more of a pop slant to this subset that isn't quite to my taste. But regardless of what you think of the criteria used for selecting the music, there is no doubt that DCC's mastering gives us one of the best sounding version of these songs ever released on compact disc. Unraveling the messy history of Elton John CDs is a long process that starts at the self-titled Elton John album.
When you hear the first CD release of "Your Song," it's hard to concentrate on what the music sounds like. The recording hiss is so oppressive it drowns out many of the finer details. I'd prefer not to even talk about this one much; it's just plain awful. The version of the song included in the To Be Continued (TBC) box set is much better, with the hiss magically exorcised. There's also better solidity to the vocals, and the piano is more easily discerned. The acoustic guitar part in particular is really pulled out of the sonic quagmire. DCC's version of this song is easily the best of the lot, with improved separation between instruments making everything sound quite distinct. And the soundstage is blown wide open.
"Border Song" also suffers from endless hiss, along with very poorly defined vocal harmony. The relationship between Elton and his piano is very unclear, which is quite sad. The TBC version of this song again clears up the hiss, and better resolves the edges of the piano's sonic envelope. DCC really makes this track come alive. The piano is suddenly in a realistic space, and it's actually obvious that Elton is playing with both his left and right hand! The vocals are similarly improved, with an echo that's missing on the earlier releases.
Moving on to Honky Chateau's "Rocket Man," there's still a little hiss on the original CD release, but decent resolution on the piano and vocals. The cymbals are really nasty, though, like they were coated with sandpaper when struck. The box set release makes the drums sound like real instruments again, while clearing up the hiss some and bringing out more of the room sound. DCC really takes this song to a new level. There is a full body to the piano and cymbals are finally well resolved. The sound is smoother all around, with firmer bass. It's enough to make me want to buy an airline ticket, but I suspect that's more Madison Avenue's influence than DCC's.
Now we move on to songs from the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album, which has the distinction of the being the first remastered thing I ever bought. See, the original CD release of this one was sold on two discs, matching the original LP, so it cost big bucks. It sounded bad, too. Mobile Fidelity noted that both LP sides would fit on a single CD, so they packed it in and knocked the fidelity up a notch to boot. Even though it cost twice as much as a regular CD, that was about the same price as MCA's two disc set, so it was a no-brainer. MoFi's mastering has a bit of an edge over the TBC version of the title track, with a bit more oomph to the bass guitar and kick drum along with better cymbal definition. DCC had a few more years to work on their digital conversion, and that results in a big improvement in how real the orchestral portions of the song come out. All the other instruments come out sounding better than the earlier releases, too.
There's been another release of GYBR since DCC's, and this is where the problems start. Apparently MCA, realizing that the Elton John catalog was due for a freshening, decided to go all out on the remastering job. Not being smart enough to leave well enough alone, they called in producer Gus Dudgeon to help modernize the master tapes and release them on the Rocket label. He was heavily involved with restoring the faded master to make a better release, which apparently involved a whole lot of digital processing. This is never a good sign. Things turned out pretty well on the title track; it's not quite as nice as DCC's version, but it's better than MoFi's much older version.
"Bennie and the Jets" starts with a crowd clapping. Not that you can really tell from the version on the box set, which is quite artificial. It's also a bit harsh and painful to listen to, like a TV that somebody turned up the sharpness button on because they think it works better that way. Mobile Fidelity turns the people assembled back into a genuine sounding crowd. Plus, the bass is restored. DCC does the clapping mass of folks even better, while really giving a hearty growl at the bottom end that's missing on the earlier versions.
This is where the changes that went into the new Rocket remaster get insidious. First off, the crowd doesn't even sound as good as MoFi's release. Even worse, the vocals are moved way forward with a totally different room sound. Elton isn't sitting behind his piano and playing anymore; he's up in front of the band now. In addition, the cymbals are in your face and overly detailed. That's right, folks, this song has been sweetened. The natural presentation of the original release is lost, replaced by a tweaked version that existed only in Gus's head until recently.
Moving on to "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" on the To Be Continued set, we find the return of the nasty sounding cymbals. Mobile Fidelity's version gives a more natural balance to the top end. You can really make out the interplay between the electric and bass guitars much better. DCC pushes the presentation to an even higher level, with a serious kick on the kick drum. The cymbals sound even better, too. The new Rocket release continues to disappoint. The nasty cymbals, banished from the well made versions, are back to assault your ears. The instruments are totally screwed up. They sound louder, yet the edges are rolled off.
DCC makes a very fine sounding Elton John CD. Their versions of these classic hits make me long for a full remastering of all his albums by somebody competent. Instead, what we find are a new line of CDs that are butchered by processing. My advice is to snap up as many of the Elton John discs as you can from companies like DCC and Mobile Fidelity. I've already started hunting down even the out of print ones before they all disappear completely. I often hear people suggest that paying big bucks for remastered CDs right now is silly, because we'll soon be getting even better versions on DVD or some other superior medium. Well, when it comes to Elton John (or The Who, whose discs have also been tarnished by remixing recently), this is not a good strategy. You can bet that future official releases are going to be based on Gus's tweaked masters instead of the original ones, which are becoming increasingly fragile as time goes on. Right now may be the last time ever to pick up a permanent copy of these artists' music in a format faithful to the original release. Don't forget to grab DCC's Aqualung while you're at it; there's another one that the big record company just can't get right.
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