Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Neil Diamond Bang Alternatives

If, like me, you recently picked up Neil Diamond's The Bang Years: 1966-1968 on CD and found yourself disappointed with the sound quality (personally I find it way too bright and compressed sounding), what are your alternatives?

Unfortunately, none of them are perfect. The very best I have heard this material sound, strangely enough, is on an LP compilation distributed exclusively by the Columbia House Record Club on the Frog King label in 1978. Back then a mere penny (or whatever the deal was in 1978) could get you excellent sounding versions of 12 of Neil's biggest hits for Bang Records. However, the versions on this compilation are not exactly the original hit versions of the songs. They are stereo remixes with some added overdubs. Still this LP, mastered by the great Bernie Grundman, sounds excellent and is very enjoyable to listen to even if it lacks a certain faithfulness to the punchy sounding 60s hits. There's more "space" between the sounds here than on the mono mixes, and the instruments and vocals sound highly resolved and articulated, whereas on the mono mixes you get a bit more of that squashed "wall of sound" effect.

A very similar LP called Classics: The Early Years was issued by Columbia in 1983, and later reissued on CD. The CD is still available. I can't vouch for the mastering of this title, but my understanding is that it mostly features the same mixes as the Frog King LP, with the exception of "Kentucky Woman" which is presented in a true stereo remix on the Frog King LP and in a fake stereo remix on Classics. But be warned, while the cover (somewhat misleadingly) says "Original Hit Recordings," these are definitely stereo remixes, not what you would have heard on the radio circa 1966-1973 when these songs originally charted. And more importantly, it only gets you 12 songs.

Another option that gets you more songs (21 in all) is the 1973 Bang Records 2 LP set Double Gold that I mentioned in my previous post. Unfortunately, I have trouble recommending this set on sonic grounds as well. Many (not all) of the tracks are featured in annoying "fake stereo" mixes that really don't sound very good.

Another good choice is the 3 CD In My Lifetime box set that was released by Sony in 1996. While it only features 11 of Diamond's Bang recordings, they are presented in their original mono single mixes and were mastered without the artificial brightening and excessive compression that mars the new set. Used copies of the box can be found cheaply, and of course you get many of the later hits like "Sweet Caroline," "Cracklin' Rosie" and "Forever In Blue Jeans" as well. I'm not crazy about all of the later material, but I still consider this an essential purchase. If the current CD only sounded as good as the Bang era cuts do on the box set, I would have been very happy.

Still that leaves you missing a lot of great songs from the Bang era. You could try picking up original mono pressings of Neil's first two albums The Feel Of Neil Diamond and Just For You. But finding original mono copies of these LPs in anything resembling good condition is a very difficult (not to mention pricey) proposition. Additionally, a few of the songs on the mono LPs feature different mixes from the hit single versions. Stereo copies are somewhat easier to find, but the original stereo mixes are drastically inferior to the later remixed versions. "Solitary Man" in particular features a horrible "ping-pong" stereo mix that really distracts from the song.

Which leaves us with.....

...collecting the original 45 RPM 7" singles. Many of them can still be found in excellent condition for reasonable prices. I've picked up a few already, and while no one will confuse these with fussy "audiophile" recordings, they sound great nonetheless. These songs were mastered loud (although not nearly as loud as the new CD) and have a "punchy" AM radio quality to them. While there is some distortion inherent to the mixes, it's a friendly, euphonic, analog, tube-driven kind of distortion, not the hard, brittle, digital sounding distortion I hear on the new CD (or perhaps it is a matter of the compression and bright EQ taking that euphonic tube distortion and making it sound hard and brittle... I'm afraid I can only speculate.) So while the original 45s have some distortion in them, they sound very exciting and alive, as did the best pop music of that era.

Of course there are frustrations with collecting 45s. Off center pressings are more the rule than the exception in my experience. Sometimes they look fine when examined visually, only to reveal serious damage when placed on the turntable. And, of course, listening to them will never be as easy as putting on a CD, or even an LP for that matter. Still, if you want the authentic sound of these hits, I think this is the only way to go.

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