Thursday, 22 November 2012

"Hats" by THE BLUE NILE (2012 Virgin/Linn Records 'Deluxe Edition' 2CD Reissue and Remaster) - A Review by Mark Barry...



"...I Know A Place...Where Everything's Alright..." 

I can't be rational about "Hats" - few who love THE BLUE NILE can be. But little will prepare fans for this beautifully remastered reissue of their 1989 masterpiece - sonically up there with the very best 2012 has to offer. Here are the finite details...

Released Monday 19 November 2012 in the UK - "Hats" by THE BLUE NILE on Virgin/Linn Records LKHCDR 2 (5099901730029) is a 2CD 'Deluxe edition' Remaster/Reissue and plays out as follows:

Disc 1 (38:48 minutes):
1. Over The Hillside 
2. The Downtown Lights
3. Let's Go Out Tonight
4. Headlights On The Parade [Side 2]
5. From A Late Night Train
6. Seven A.M.
7. Saturday Night
Tracks 1 to 7 are their second album "Hats" - released October 1989 on LP, MC and CD in the UK on Linn Records LKH 2. The first CD issue carried with it a single page inlay with virtually no details and sound quality that was good rather than great. This is the first remaster of the album - handled by Calum Malcolm (a member of the original line-up and long-time Producer for the group) along with Band members Paul Buchanan and Robert Bell (US customers should use the barcode number provided above to get the right issue when searching on Amazon.com).

Like the other title in this reissue campaign (their debut "A Walk Across The Rooftops" from 1984) - the remaster is again breathtaking. The danger would have been to amp everything up - but it's not like that. It's subtle, clean and beautifully realized. "Hats" was put out initially on Linn Records - Linn were (and still are) a high-end turntable manufacturer - and audio quality is their 'thing'. Well those initial production values have served this subtle remaster well - because the detail now is fantastic.

As the echoed drums of "Over The Hillside" fade in with that synth and drums - the smack is immediate - 'so' sweet. It continues with the album's first hit "The Downtown Lights" (later covered by Rod Stewart and Annie Lennox) - when the guitars begin to crescendo towards its six and half minute end - it's so much more powerful. But then comes the album's first real moment of magic - the hurting yet gorgeously romantic "Let's Go Out Tonight" - a song I've seen people cry to when I was at their live gigs. The slow trumpet and acoustic sounds swirl around the room - "...why don't you say...what's so wrong tonight..." - beautifully done - a song that was old now made new again (lyrics from it title this review).

The kick out of the bopping "Headlights On The Parade" is again amplified - especially the bass and walls of synth-counter-melodies that arrive when Buchanan sings the chorus. But then comes the two album sleepers which in my opinion benefit the most from this sonic upgrade - "From A Late Night Train" and "Seven A.M." - their ethereal and aching nature suddenly feel more poignant than ever - so deftly handled. And last - probably everyone's favourite - the impossibly gorgeous "Saturday Night". By now my stroke-addled eyes are bloodied and the cheeks puffy - I'm mush for this song. I fell in love with my wife and partner of 23 years to this melody - walking down streets with my Sony Discman singing "...an ordinary girl...can make the world alright...meet me outside the cherry lights...you and I walk away..." I defy the hardest of hearts not to be moved by it.

But again (like "A Walk Across The Rooftops") the packaging and bonus disc are a combination of missed opportunities and genuine discoveries. The minimalist gatefold card digipak is pretty for sure (the internal flaps are the plain blue colour of the sleeve too) - but the 16-page booklet is fluffy and vague rather than being informative. There's a series of colour photos from the time - but with no history - no liner notes - no lyrics - no input from the band - not even any real info on the 'bonus' stuff (the last page literally). Frankly - an acknowledged masterpiece like "Hats" deserved a little more effort than this. But things improve a lot with some shocking new discoveries on the 'bonus disc'...

Disc 2 - Bonus Disc (33:19 minutes):
Exclusions first - the 'Bob Clearmountain Remix' of "Headlights On The Parade" and the beautiful duet with Rickie Lee Jones on "Easter Parade" (both tracks on the 12's and CD singles of 1990) are missing. The non-album track "Halfway To Paradise" and the Edit of "Saturday Night" that were on varying CD singles are both AWOL too. But what is on here is surprisingly good...

Track 2 is "Christmas" - a Previously Unreleased five-minute studio song. There's no annotation as to where it came from and its hissy - but its also pretty - lyrically festive as the title suggests. But if I'm to be honest - I don't think it's as good as the previously unreleased track "St. Catherine's Day" on the "Walk" reissue (which sounds suspiciously like an outtake from the "Hats" period - perhaps put on there to bolster up proceedings). Having said that - and having lived with it a day or two now - it's gently growing on me. Fans will make up their own mind of course...

Track 6 is "The Wires Are Down" - a six-minute non-album song that turned on the 12" and 3" CD single of "The Downtown Lights" in 1989. The sound quality on that was always weedy - here its remastered form is an absolute revelation. Suddenly sounding all grown up - "The Wires Are Down" is a genuine bonus track now - and one of the highlights on Disc 2. But there's even better...

Although not stated as 'new' - Tracks 1, 3, 4 and 5 are previously unreleased versions. First up is "Seven A.M. - Live In The Studio". Fans will know that there was a non-album version on the 1990 "Saturday Night" CD single called "Seven A.M. (Live U.S.A.)" - this is NOT that track. "Live In The Studio" is a fully-fledged new version with fabulous sound quality. Track 5 is a "Live In Tennessee" version of "Headlights On The Parade" recorded with Larry Saltzman, Steve Gaboury and Nigel Thomas on some unknown date. Again - it is well recorded - and a good version with crowd appreciation at the end. But then comes the real prizes - two new versions of people's favourites - "Let's Go Out Tonight" and "Saturday Night". They're called "Vocal 2" in each case and offer early versions of the songs - the "Saturday Night" take in particular hears Buchanan go off into lyric rapping at the end and accentuates the strings throughout - it's properly gorgeous. Joyful surprises...

To sum up - the remaster of the original album is an absolute triumph - 10 out of 10. Ok - the side is let down somewhat by the bare-knuckles packaging and those sloppy omissions on Disc 2 - and it doesn't take a Mensa membership card to work out that the playing times of both discs could have been amalgamated into one (with more added on too) - and the second disc could have been a DVD featuring those rare videos - but - and I must reiterate this - what's on offer is superb - and worth the upgrade.

"Hats" has been name-checked by influential music-industry-types and world-famous musicians for decades now as their 'what to grab when the bomb drops' album - and I'm thrilled to say that this 2CD reissue of it does that affection genuinely proud. Melodious, sad and life affirming - "Hats" is a beautiful thing. And it's just been made better.

Now if we could just get those stroppy Scottish buggers to tour again...

PS: there is also a 2CD Virgin/Linn DELUXE EDITION of "A Walk Across The Rooftops" - their debut album from 1984 - and "Peace At Last" from 1996 (originally on Warner Brothers) - see separate reviews...

1 comment:

Mark Barry said...

Excellent review - even if I say so myself

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