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Music Review: U2 – The Joshua Tree
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U2 - The Joshua Tree CDU2 – The Joshua Tree
MFSL Gold Ultradisc II
Expanded Remastered
2-Disc Edition
Island
Available now

U2‘s The Joshua Tree was an epoch in American musical consciousness. But the album is such a big deal in rock history that you probably already know that … everyone does. It’s the album that contains the two songs that put the band on the mainstream map — “With Or Without You” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” When the chance to review the remastered version came up — with an extra CD of unreleased songs — I jumped at it.

While I hate non-standard CD packaging because it makes storage annoying, I’ve got to hand it to them: it’s beautiful. There’s a hardcover 32-page booklet, with top-loading cardboard sleeves at the front and back for the discs, that fits into a hardcover slipcase. The printing is black and metallic gold ink on sturdy, coated matte paper that doesn’t crimp or show fingerprints like most glossy CD inserts do. It looks great and should stand up well to repeated perusal.

Inside is a mercifully restrained introduction by VH1 Sr. VP Bill Flanagan at the beginning, and notes from U2’s guitarist The Edge about each song on the bonus disc at the end. In the middle are the lyrics to each song and accompanying discographic fetish information, like catalog number, chart positions, and which singles each track appeared on. This archival data is tastefully handled in that it’s uncluttered and out of the way if you don’t care, yet clearly visible if you do. Pictures of the band are interspersed throughout. A+ for design and relevant information.

Now down to business: the music. Comparing the original and remastered versions turned out to be a confusing experience. While I was really happy with some of their decisions, I was baffled by others.

Remastering is not going back and creating a new, from-scratch mix of the individual session tracks. The mastering process is done on the final mix and is ideally fairly subtle, so don’t expect the differences to jump out and punch you in the face.

First, the good… The trend in mastering these days is, and unfortunately has been for some time, to make the record as loud as humanly possible. This is done by using a compressor to steamroll the living piss out of the music until it sounds flat and dead. Music is a naturally dynamic thing, some parts are louder than others. This is not bad, it’s the way most music is! The compressors make everything much closer in volume, which creates technical and creative problems. What happens when you want to play louder to emphasize something when the softest parts are already at maximum volume? You’ve got nowhere to go! I’m pleased—nay, fuckin’ stoked!—to report that they didn’t do this when they remastered this album. The Joshua Tree is a dynamic album, played mostly on “real” instruments (which tend to be more dynamic than synthesized sounds), and taking the contemporary approach would have choked the life out of it. It’s louder than the original, but not excessively so, and it was done in a way that appears not to have sacrificed any of the sonic breathing room that the music needs.

Some of the tracks sound crisper, clearer, and more articulate in the mid-highs. Have a listen to the beginnings of “Red Hill Mining Town” and “Trip Through Your Wires” for examples.

The last two tracks, “Exit” and “Mothers of the Disappeared”, start at slightly different places than they do on the original.

And now, the bad… some tracks have the bass cranked up too high. This album never had that much high end, and with none to balance it, the extra bass sometimes sounds goofy. It’s fine, and even helpful on some tracks, but it took “Mothers Of The Disappeared” — which was warm and bass-heavy, but just on the good side of the line — and turned it into a cartoonishly lumpy tumor that’s sure to wreak havoc with and sound like shit on most sub-thousand dollar speakers.

The first second of “One Tree Hill” has an oddly muffled crunchy sound in the left channel. I’m not sure if it’s a processing artifact introduced during remastering or a problem somewhere else in the reproduction and playback chain, but I can’t detect it on the original, and it probably shouldn’t be there. It’s fairly quiet, but it makes me wonder how it got missed.

The second disc of unreleased music is interesting. I realize that calling it that is rather non-committal and possibly unhelpful, but I simply haven’t lived with it enough yet. It’s clear why most of it didn’t make the album, not because it’s bad music, but because most of it isn’t in the brilliant, distilled form as the material on the released version. It’s like getting a look at a visual artist’s sketch books, where the pieces stand up on their own, but are clearly studies for what became the final works when compared.

It’s interesting to hear the roots of The Joshua Tree, but I’m not sure how it fits into the rest of the album yet. I’ve been listening to this record since it came out 20 years ago. Being almost 32 years old, this music is woven through the experiences of nearly two thirds of my life. That’s a big thing, and it’s going to take some time to really figure out if and how this material can fit into that, or if it’s enjoyable but separate music. All I can tell you right now is that while it’s not as energetic or polished as the album, the first few tracks in particular have a dose of Chris Isaak lushness (while still definitely being U2), and I like it a lot. “Wave Of Sorrow (Birdland)” is particularly good. The music was recorded 20 years ago, and the vocals recently. It’s worth reading The Edge’s notes on this one. It’s a fitting bookend, and the track I can musically see fitting into the original release the best. The last vocal verse doesn’t fit as well, but it’s a great song. As is mentioned in the liner notes, you can hear the different avenues they were exploring and can easily imagine The Joshua Tree having gone in different, though probably no less good, directions.

To buy or not to buy? If MP3s are your main thing, I wouldn’t pony up on the basis of the remastering. Most of the differences are subtle and will likely be smeared away by the compression. It’ll be a little louder, and the bass on “Mothers Of The Disappeared” will probably be problematic, but you probably won’t notice much else. The same goes for cars and other environments with a lot of ambient noise.

It’s a harder call if you’re a careful listener, particularly if you have a nice stereo that’s capable of revealing the subtleties. All in all, I’m not sure the original was broken enough to justify the confusingly inconsistent “fixing” it got. I don’t know which version I’ll end up listening to from now on, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up being the old one.

The unreleased material is absolutely worth it in my opinion. It’s not just some random crap only a mother could love, or useless unless you’re an obsessive collector, it’s good music in its own right that’s accessible to newcomers and die-hard fans alike. I can tell I’ll be listening to this for years to come… chewing satisfaction goes on and on. Buy it for this.

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