Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Review - "Live - 50th Anniversary Tour" CD Set

We finally have, over a year after it started and eight months after it ended, an audio document of the 50th Anniversary tour. So how does “Live – 50th Anniversary Tour” hold up? Let’s find out.

I was lucky enough to get a listen to this a day ahead of release date, purely because Amazon delivered it to me early. A nice little bonus for my Monday.

The tracklisting is available in an earlier post here. Suffice it to say, we get a good hunk but not all of the 2012 tour setlist, 41 of 61 songs to be precise. Not too bad overall, considering most shows on the tour were in the 44 to 50 song range. So this does nearly approximate the length of the early shows on the tour. The selection of tracks is endlessly debatable, although a common criticism that I agree with is dropping Al’s “Cottonfields”, and in general an under-representation of Jardine on the set. Overall, the set manages to fit in a good amount of the “rarities” from the tour setlist while also giving us at least one lead vocal from all five guys.

So let’s get to the main issue at hand. Reviews popped up prior to release date intensely criticizing the set, and specifically the heavy use of autotune on the lead vocals and to a lesser degree the general awkwardness and sterile nature of the mix and overall sound quality. After reading a bit of this in the last week or so, I stopped reading and waited to get a listen myself. What’s my verdict? Autotune is indeed all over this thing, most notably on Mike’s leads on a number of songs. It sounds like it is slathered onto pretty much everybody at one point or another, but it’s most notable on Mike’s leads, especially on some of the early songs in the set. Brian gets the treatment too. Marks sounds relatively unscathed on “Getcha Back”, while Al similarly sounds relatively normal as well. Brian’s vocals are all over the place. “Heroes and Villians” is pretty processed, while something like his vocal intro on “California Saga” sounds okay. But yes, the effect is often pretty distracting and kind of embarrassing. Mike in particular sounds like a robot at certain points. Simply put, these guys’ voices are not suited to the use of autotune. They aren’t just flatting one note here or there. Their voices end up being so processed by autotune that it literally goes well beyond “their voices don’t sound as organic anymore” and veers into literally sounding like a robot, almost as if they are singing through a vocoder from the 70’s or 80’s. Brian’s voice in particular jumps around too much to be smoothed out by autotune, so you end up with these jagged, robotic sounds. It was so bad when applied in early shows on the tour that they cleary and obviously stopped using it in the live mix at shows. In any event, some songs sound okay, some a bit processed, and some comically so. It’s really all over the place.

Apart from that, everything else isn’t too bad, just a bit sterile and stiff. The mix isn’t too wet, which I sometimes worry about with modern live mixes. So that’s good. There are occasionally other wonky audio anomalies. The vocals occasionally are somehow double tracked, presumably electronically. This is evident on a few Brian leads in particular, including “Add Some Music to Your Day.” This still sounds better than autotune, but still quite odd for a live release. The most wonky-sounding bits outside of autotune come from, once again, the two tracks off the new album. As I’ve lamented before, I have yet to hear these guys put together a solid live performance of “That’s Why God Made the Radio.” TV performances have sounded rather haphazard, and a few “official” live versions heard on radio broadcasts or live DVD/Blu-ray sound patched together from mixtures of live and studio elements, making the whole thing sound disjointed. On this new live album, they’ve smoothed out the edges somewhat better, but it still sounds really wonky. Elements are seemingly flown in from the studio recording still, and the vocals sound totally out of place mixed in with the live musicians. “Isn’t It Time” is the same. For the sake of accuracy, it is worth noting that while “Radio” was totally live in person at the actual live shows as opposed to augmented with studio elements, “Isn’t It Time” seemed to have bits mixed in from the studio recording when they performed it live at most shows.  I’m not sure why the two “new” songs in particular needed to be constantly fudged with so much. They probably should have just cut these two tracks and given us something more solidly performed.

All of that being said, I don’t think this set is quite trainwreck status. There are some good performances mixed relatively nicely. Marks’ aforementioned “Getcha Back” sounds nice. Al still sounds like Al on “Then I Kissed Her.” Brian, Mike, and Al all take turns to good effect on “California Saga.” “Pet Sounds” sounds just fine (no vocals!). “Add Some Music to Your Day” still is a highlight. “All This Is That” and “Marcella” are cool inclusions that sound okay. The “rarities” are the main highlights of this set.

It is a bit odd that Joe Thomas was apparently quite involved in this release. I say this because outside of his work with Brian and the group, his main apparent work in the last couple decades has seemed to be live music production, including the PBS "Soundstage" show. I've seen several episodes of that show, and the sound always at least seems to be pretty "un-futzed" with and sounds just fine. So it's kind of strange that this Beach Boys release sounds so, "altered", to put it nicely.

As for the physical packaging, the booklet is pretty barebones with a few pics and basic musician and song credits. Something a bit more deluxe would have been nice.

So I would still say the release is worthwhile, and unfortunately as “live” as we’re going to get from an official release. I would still offer a qualified, very tentative recommendation for the set. For me, this isn’t quite up to the level of “boycott” status. I would surely enjoy an unedited, 61-song release with more “honest” sounding performances, but I just don’t know if we’ll ever get such an article.

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