Monday, November 26, 2007

In Search of Lost Sound

I've been wading through the back end of my music catalog, dusting off CDs I haven't played in years and giving them a spin. It's funny to recall how excited I was to hear my first few CDs from the 80s. At the time, it was remarkable enough to listen to a technology that didn't have tape hiss or platter noise. Twenty years later, the sound quality of most of these discs is lamentable. In fact, there are cases where the record delivered better.

Split Enz is one such band. I happen to think "Hard Act To Follow" (from Waiata or Corroboree) could well be the best-sounding pop single from the whole scad of 80s New Wave acts. I love its frenetic build-up, the galloping coconuts in the background, the paced alteration of synthesizer sound-effects that trickle or tumble to set the mood. And the mood is ... well, it's either delighted or tormented, depending on the listener's point of view. Is the singer's object of affection a "hard act to follow" because she is no longer in the picture? Did she leave because she was fed up with his slightly creepy obsessiveness? Did he crowd her out? Is she still there? Is this his clumsy way of saying, "After you, there's nothing, baby!" Whatever the case, this is not a sweet Beatles-esque ballad -- it has a distinctly uncomfortable edge to it that is all its own.

And darn it if the CD isn't lacking the spacial ambience of the LP. I'm guessing the songs have been compressed to aid speed of CD production. I'm certainly not going to complain about the price of the disc, which even at the time of purchase sold for less than $10. But the final sound is a flat echo of what had once been so encompassing and moving -- further motivation, perhaps, to let the past be the past.

Wait a second: did someone say, "Remixed and remastered?"

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