Title - 'Steve McQueen [Remastered]' (Legacy)
Artist - Prefab Sprout
Steve McQueen is an album I've been hoping to be re-mastered for years, along with Prefab's other great album, Jordan: The Comeback. Jordan was an incredible album packed with great songs diverse both musically and lyrically. SM was, however, more ethereal in its production with a sound that really has not been duplicated, ever. Most people who listened to their first record, Swoon, are aware that Thomas Dolby, the producer, had an enormous influence on the outcome of SM. Not only is the production different but the structure of the songs is better crafted. Having at first listened to SM as a record, I always felt that the CD version lacked depth. It must be added that the CD version I am used to is the American version of SM (called Two Wheels Good because the estate objected to the title). That version included a fantastic extended version of Faron Young, a great county cover of He'll Have To Go and one more track. When Love Breaks Down is also in an inferior state on Two Wheels Good, being slightly edited and mixed.
Now, more than 20 years after its initial release the album has been re-released, re-mastered by Thomas Dolby himself. The extra tracks from Two Wheels Good are nowhere to be found. That is understandable since Dolby had nothing to do with that production and they were also not really part of the original Steve McQueen release. On a brighter note, the better version of When Love Breaks Down is intact.
Although some recent re-mastered versions have improved the sound quality significantly, often it is simply because the transfer to the CD was initially incredibly sloppy. Despite not being satisfied with the sound quality of Two Wheels Good, I cannot say that it was bad. Many CD releases in their early stages simply were substandard and TWG was actually above the average for that period sound quality wise. This makes the difference even more astonishing. It is as if the music was transferred into 3-D. Not only is there (much) added depth, the clarity and yet softness is way beyond what I am used to. I even suspect that Dolby may have done some subtle re-mixing to obtain this effect because this is better than most productions done even in today's standards. The only re-release that I can think of having been re-mastered closely as well is Fleetwood Mac's recent 2-CD edition of Rumours, but that version was initially transferred in an atrocious manner. This re-mastered version would be worth the price alone.
There is, however, an extra CD included in this release. Paddy McAloon decided to re-record acoustically 8 of the 11 songs from SM, as opposed to the usual demo/different versions/live versions/omitted tracks route. This is admirable both in regards of bothering to set so much effort in a re-release project (recording of the acoustic set took supposedly much longer than the initial one) and also taking the chance re-recording classics that probably are a hard act to follow. What surprised me is how complex the arrangements are. Instead of Paddy strumming through the tracks with a guitar in his hands, most of the songs are complex interactions of guitars woven together. Many of them are also re-arranged in a fashion that they are almost like different songs. This works well on most of the songs but it most be kept in mind that in general people listening to these tracks are biased, being used to the older versions, including me.
The standout track is, surprising, Desire As. The acoustic version is almost unrecognizable from the original one and, dare I say, better than the original one. Another track which falls into that category is When the Angels, a lovely version that brings the text more to life. The two tracks that I feel are lacking are Bonny and Goodbye Lucille #1. Bonny is my favorite Prefab Sprout track, period, so maybe that makes it simply almost impossible for me being unbiased, but the singing is way below Paddy's usual standards and the arrangement lacks cohesion. Goodbye Lucille #1 needed actually more re-arranging because the vocal interaction makes the song special but with only one voice it does not work out. Faron Young has a Western feel in this arrangement and becomes very addictive after a few listens. When Love Breaks Down, however, has a sweet feel, approaching the performance with a gentle approach once again but from a different angle. Trying to maintain an objective stance when listening.
This set, however, is a 5 star project, both sonically and musically and very worth purchasing, both for those who own it already and others who still lack one of the most ethereal and stunningly produced releases in the last few decades.