Henley - The End of the Innocence
by Greg Smith
One of the things you inevitably end up coming to terms with if you're both a rock music fan and an audiophile is that many of the albums you purchase will sound bad. The unfortunate side effect of the close look into a recording your high-resolution system gives you is that errors in production or mastering are thrown right in your face. One of the major schisms that divides my rock music collection is whether a particular CD is suitable for playing on my big home system. Many aren't. For the last few years, the popular solo discs from Don Henley have been banished to my second system: the car stereo. I reach for them when I'm about to hit the road, never when I'm about to sit down on the couch. After seeing how Mobile Fidelity polished up Building the Perfect Beast last year, I couldn't resist trying out their new release of The End of the Innocence.
Starting off with the title track, we find reasonably good sound quality on the original CD, but the piano sounds a bit fake. What's the point of having Bruce Hornsby stop by to play on your album if you're going to make him sound bad? The remastered version really revives the sound of the piano, while taking a bit of unpleasant emphasis off of Henley's vocals. The deep bass is firmed up a touch as well. "How Bad Do You Want It?" asks the second song. Bad enough to spend bigger bucks on a gold CD? If you like this track, that's quite a good idea. The 1989 release features really harsh and grating sound throughout. MoFi's version is considerably smoother, while still having better resolution of detail and slightly tighter bass.
On the old silver CD, "The Last Worthless Evening" opens with a clear acoustic guitar and continues with sound eliciting few complaints. The occasional cymbal crash does sound a bit muffled, though. The newer version restores realism to the drums all around, including a bit more body to the kick on the lower frequency percussion. The guitar is quite a bit more alive, and again there's a welcome bit of smoothing all around.
Even though minutes in New York are the same length as anywhere else (I've checked), "New York Minute" still manages to tell an involving story. The sound quality on this track is probably the best overall. But I noted a bit of compression on the louder parts of the song, where instruments and vocals sound a bit clipped. The remastered version still sounds a little bit limited in that regard, but it's much better. This is particularly impressive when you note that the average volume level of the gold CD is at least 1dB higher. The sense of a physical recording space is broadened, and there's a sharpening of the cymbal hits. You can't help but like the considerable extra power present in the bass guitar notes as well.
"Little Tin God" has always been one of my favorite Henley tracks, despite the fact that I'm normally less impressed with his songs when they're filled with political commentary. I can't help but wonder what rides would be like at the "Six Flags over Jesus" theme park. The upbeat music is hampered a bit by a somewhat flat presentation. The even more enjoyable remastered version presents a wider soundstage, and the guitar solo is really brought forward into your listening room. Instead of drums that are a bit toy-like, there's a realistic edge. And having a bit of extra thump in the bottom end doesn't hurt either.
After comparing the full set of tracks on The End of the Innocence, I find that there's a common pattern that appears. The songs obviously intended for release as singles, like "New York Minute" or "Heart of the Matter," sound much better than those destined for lesser fame. While some of this is inevitably due to more intense production work, the fact that this quality gap narrows considerably on the new version points toward mastering as a major factor. This makes perfect sense. The mastering engineers at Geffen, like those at any large record label, are under considerable pressure. If something is going to be skimped on and not optimized fully, you can bet it's the music predicted to be less popular. Because they release a comparatively small number of discs, Mobile Fidelity can dedicate weeks to a mastering job. The industry standard for this kind of work at a bigger company is at most a couple of days.
When I drag the gold CD of End of the Innocence along into my car, the differences are subtle, except when it comes time to try and put the disc back in the lift-lock jewel box (a dangerous process at highway speeds). It's only when I unleash the CD on more serious equipment that I really appreciate how improved things are sonically. When I spin the audiophile hype wheel for this one, I get back "like a veil was removed" as an accurate description of the upgrade. Thanks to Mobile Fidelity, Don Henley has now made his way back into regular home listening again, and I'm quite pleased with the transition.
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