April 1999

Don McLean - American Pie
Mobile Fidelity UDCD 728
Originally released: 1971
Remaster released: 1998

by Greg Smith

Sound Quality ***

Comparison Releases:

Born on the Fourth of July (Soundtrack)

Sound Quality **

American Pie and Other Hits
CEMA S21-56683

Sound Quality **

[Reviewed on Gold CD]The box from Mobile Fidelity arrived just as I was leaving. I pulled out my Leatherman and hacked it open when I got in the car. Having never actually heard the full American Pie album before, just portions of it, I decided to play that first. As I'm crossing Manhattan on my way to work, I get diverted from my usual route because there's a street closed. So I was driving down 42nd Street the first time I ever heard "Sister Fatima," where the lyrics state "and on 42nd Street, a shop that sells flowers is her palace." Freaky, huh? It was a slow trip, so I was still stuck in traffic when the disc ended. I started it over and slipped into reviewer mode while listening to the title track. Having heard that song dozens of times on my car stereo, both via regular radio play and from CDs, it was easy to start drawing premature conclusions about the remastering quality. After making a mental list of recording flaws, I mulled the results over while starting a third play of "American Pie." Wait a minute -- my list seemed suspiciously familiar. Oops. I had re-compiled the problem areas of my car stereo!

I never thought I'd hear American Pie presented so well that I could use it to pick out equipment problems. The CDs I have containing the title song are so bad that I usually prefer a compressed version on the radio. The CEMA American Pie and Other Hits release was the first McLean purchase I ever made. What a rip off! It includes the 4:09 long single version of "American Pie," not the full 8:38 long one. I couldn't believe it. Searching for CDs containing all of the music eventually led me to the soundtrack for the Oliver Stone movie Born on the Fourth of July. That's got some other good tunes on it as well: "Brown Eyed Girl," "My Girl," and "Soldier Boy" for starters. Don't get too excited if you see additional songs you like on that soundtrack, though; "A Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall" and "Born on the Bayou" are both mediocre covers, not the much better originals. On to the sound-quality comparisons.

"American Pie"

  • Fourth of July: It's unusually quiet for a 1971 recording. Oh, I get it -- that's because all the high frequencies are rolled off. While the quiet opening doesn't sound too bad, once the song gets going the dynamics and energy of the music are lost. The disclaimer on the disc states "This Compact Disc contains program material transferred from analog tape and therefore may contain some tape hiss and other anomalies..." Don't you go blaming the analog master tape for the crappy sonics, you bums; nobody is fooled.
  • Hits: Sure, this one is noisy, but the piano is back! There's actually some high-frequency content to the guitar as well. This version sounds like a typical 1971 recording. It's fun music, but it doesn't sound particularly good.
  • MoFi: The noise level here is between the other two, and it isn't too obtrusive. The piano notes sound like they're coming from a real instrument this time around. While things are still a bit thin on the bottom, there are new instruments I'd never heard before coming out of nowhere. Amazing.


  • Hits: The guitar is, for lack of a better word, cheesy. McLean's vocals sound OK; they're nothing special. There are more instruments that come in near the end of the song, but it's tough to figure out what they are -- the low-level resolution is that poor.
  • MoFi: There's really a sense of power to the vocals that comes through with this remastered version. The guitar strings are very fleshed out. Ah, that stuff at the end? Some soft stringed instruments playing a bit of an orchestral section. They aren't clobbered by noise and mastering grunge on this version.

The liner notes for the MoFi release are very complete. Full lyrics are included, and there's a Hopalong Cassidy poem and picture in the middle. Three pictures of McLean playing can be found, along with a five-page discussion of his career written by Bruce Eder.

Easy call this month -- if you want to hear any of the songs from American Pie on CD and you don't want them to sound awful, you must buy the Mobile Fidelity version of the album. While it's still somewhat limited by the quality of the master tape, it's considerably better than I ever would have believed this recording could sound.

P.S. If you want to ruin your enjoyment of the song, I recommend becoming obsessed and trying to figure out just exactly what "American Pie" is about.

www.mbhs.edu/~bconnell/cty/american-pie.html is a good place to start.

www.rockhall.com/educate/lssnplan/lesson34.html even shows how to teach a class on the subject.

And if you want to ruin even more songs by over-analyzing them, try www.wpe.com/~musici/songs.htm, where an enormous number of lyrics are dissected into themes. It's a very interesting read.