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Two anniversary CD sets make for a strong 2017

This year's Beatles and Beach Boys CD sets were perfect examples of how to celebrate a music anniversary.

By Gillian G. Gaar

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Capitol/UMe (2 CDs)

5 Stars

You have to hand it to the Beach Boys; they’ve been better at handling their catalogue than their Capitol label mates the Beatles. There were the “two-fer” CD reissues, featuring two albums, bonus tracks, and liner notes. There were single disc mono/stereo album reissues. Box sets on “Pet Sounds” and “Smile.”

The latest reissue takes an in depth look at the post-“Smile” period of 1967, which saw the release of “Smiley Smile” and “Wild Honey.” The albums saw the group getting back to being more of a band, as opposed to the “Pet Sounds” and abandoned “Smile” sessions, where most of the music was provided by studio musicians.

“Wild Honey” is presented here in a crisp new stereo mix (the “Wild Honey” portion of “1967” is also being released on 180-gram vinyl). But what will make fans really want to go out and pick this up are the 54 previously unreleased songs that make up the bulk of the release.

There are alternative versions of songs from both “Smiley Smile” and “Wild Honey,” mostly complete tracks, though some are composite “session highlights” versions. It’s still fun hearing Carl Wilson work on his stellar vocals for “Wild Honey” and “Darlin’,” while hearing the group work on their singing on “Mama Says” is great fun; at one point, a voice is heard saying “Let’s get our ass in gear in do it!”

The set features a number of live tracks, as well as the never released “Lei’d In Hawaii” album. The recordings of the band’s August shows in Honolulu were deemed unsuitable, so the group re-recorded the tracks in the studio, planning to simulate a “live” atmosphere by adding crowd noise. The band still doesn’t sound terribly engaged; perhaps that’s why it wasn’t released. But it’s still interesting to listen to, especially considering the choice of covers (“The Letter” and “With a Little Help From My Friends”).

The set closes with two outstanding tracks; a solo version of “Surf’s Up” recorded during the “Wild Honey” sessions, and an a capella mix of “Surfer Girl” from the “Lei’d In Hawaii” session. Both emphasize the Beach Boys’ greatest strength; their exquisite vocals. This era’s been overshadowed by “Pet Sounds” and “Smile”; it’s well worth rediscovering.

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Apple Corps. Ltd./Capitol/UMe

5 Stars

The Beatles planned the initial release of their catalogue on CD around the 20th anniversary of “Sgt. Pepper,” so it’s not a surprise that they pulled out the stops for the album’s 50th anniversary. At the time of its original release, “Sgt. Pepper” was a landmark achievement, and no other Beatles album has had the same kind of cultural impact. And for this anniversary, the stereo version of the album’s been remixed. Did it need to be — especially after how the 2009 CD reissues were hailed for their superior quality?

A cynic might say it’s because they had to think of some way to get people to buy the album yet again. Let’s leave that aside for a moment. This is a release put together with care. From the lenticular slipcase to the CDs packaged in sleeves each featuring a different picture from the cover photo session (a nice touch). The accompanying book, recording details, essays and rare pictures, is also excellent.

In the book, producer Giles Martin (son of original Beatles producer George Martin) justifies the new remixing by noting that the original stereo release was “mixed very quickly.” Certainly the differences between the new remixes and the earlier stereo versions are clearly apparent. Since there was no need for the tape reduction mixes that had to be done in 1967 due to working with 4-track machines, there’s greater separation, as the different tracks now have room to breathe. You hear things in the backing track — drums, harmonies — that weren’t nearly so sharply defined as before.

The downside is that by leveling the playing field, the mixes now sound too noisy, too busy (at least to these ears). As author Jerry Hammack, working on a book on the Beatles’ recordings, notes in a blog posting, “In the new remixes, our ears are flattened by an equality between elements.” We’ve gained something with these new remixes, but we’ve lost something as well. They’re different, but are they an improvement? That’s a debate that’s going to supersede the “mono vs. stereo” debates.

There’s a wealth of goodies on the other CDs, and happily, unlike the “Anthology” versions, most tracks are complete takes, not composites. Some of this material has appeared on the collector’s circuit, but not in such pristine condition. There are first takes of over half the album’s tracks, giving you a real insight into how “Pepper” came together from the ground floor up, the studio chat further letting you experience the Beatles as a working band. We finally get to hear the “hum” the group originally wanted to end the album with (though if you want to hear it right at the end of “A Day in the Life” you’ll have to buy the vinyl edition). And including “Strawberry Fields Forever” underscores just how much of the innovation on “Sgt. Pepper” started with that track (you follow its development in Take 1, 4, 7, and 26); “Penny Lane” is included as well.

You also get the full album in mono, along with a few mono tracks, while the DVD/Blu-ray features the 1992 “Making of Sgt. Pepper” doc, and a variety of High Resolution Audio and 5.1 Surround Audio mixes.

In short, yes, the Super Deluxe version is well-worth purchasing. It’s the kind of set that makes you wish they’d do this with every Beatles album.