This is about a non-record store day release I picked up on Record Store Day. Yes, I actually do shop for other things on Record Store Day, not just the special exclusive releases. And I frankly haven’t seen a review of this album yet anywhere, so I figured it was high time for one as its a very special recording.
But first, take a moment to listen to this song before reading on…
When music people think of Apple Records, they understandably think of The Beatles. But there are some amazing gems the Fabs got behind, which unfortunately got lost in the shuffle during their break up and the subsequent legal and management disaster that Apple became.
So, on Record Store Day, I picked up a new remastered CD copy (reissued in 2010) of an admittedly lost classic on Apple Records by the great Mary Hopkin called Earth Song, Ocean Song. ”Mary WHO?,” you say? Baby boomers, listen up and set the wayback machine for AM radio when you heard the hit singalong song called “Those Were The Days” all the time — and it sounded better every time you heard it, an unusual breath of fresh air amidst the increasingly harder and brooding late ’60s rock sounds on the airwaves. It was an oddly Beatlesque production, yet it wasn’t The Beatles.
THAT was Mary Hopkin.
For all you non boomers, one of the first signings and releases on The Beatles’ Apple Records label, Mary Hopkin was nurtured along by Sir Paul McCartney (who had arguably the best pop sensibility of the group). When I was a little kid, I had a couple singles by Mary Hopkin and later when I got heavily into collecting all things Beatle related, I obtained copies of her albums on Apple Records. One of these albums was particularly beautiful and remains one of my favorites.
Two years after the hits (she had a great followup with the McCartney-penned “Goodbye”), her second official album, Earth Song, Ocean Song, was released, and from what I can ascertain was promptly forgotten. That’s a tragedy, since the album is a stunner, featuring very heartfelt interpretations of songs by Gallager & Lyle, Tom Paxton, Cat Stevens, Ralph McTell, and others. This is very much a record in the singer-songwriter mode of the period (think James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Seals & Crofts) except it has a distinctly British twist, with haunting cellos and violins. Additionally, the album boasted quite progressive production effects for the period, such as phase shifting and dramatic use of echo chambers this side of Phil Spector and post-Pet Sounds Brian Wilson, making the album sound much more etherial than most of the U.S. singer songwriter types.
This is a good time to point out that this album was produced by Tony Visconti, who many know from his work with Marc Bolan’s T-Rex and a fellow named David Bowie. So if you really want to put this album in context, break out your copy of Bowie’s Man Who Sold The World and T-Rex’s Electric Warrior (yeah, the one with “Get It On (Bang a Gong)” and some of the early Strawbs recordings). Then also put on post-Zombies solo recordings by singer Colin Blunstone (which hit the top of the UK charts) and early Elton John albums, which featured gorgeous string arrangements, and you can see that the Brits were onto something keen here — bridging the gap between folk, pop, classical, and psychedelia (and arguably setting the stage for a singer like Kate Bush to emerge about five years later). Underscore the fact — as detailed lovingly in the liner notes to the 2010 reissue — that Visconti and Hopkin fell in love during the making of this record, and you can understand why the results came out so special.
Making it all the more a crime that more people don’t know about it! (And, thus, back to my review)
So how does it sound? Well, I spent some time last night comparing a few of my favorite songs from each version: album opener “International,” “How Come the Sun,” and “Earth Song.”
The 1971 US pressing Apple Records LP sounds quite good on my Music Hall 7.1 turntable, but like a lot of early-’70s domestic Apple Records releases, the vinyl has a bit of boxy sound to it, perhaps due to the quality of vinyl used, or maybe it was new compressors and EQ applied to the recording. I really don’t know. (Tony? If you are reading this, any thoughts on that will be much appreciated!) Add to my woes a slightly off center pressing, and the LP takes another hit. It may stay in the collection however due to the lovely textured cover and large scale album art, though.
The first CD version (16-bit mastering, circa 1991) sounds pretty good, too, but it has a bit of a noticeable edge on the instruments and Mary’s voice.
The new 24-bit remaster sounds much much better. Mary’s voice is huge and round, the cellos sound remarkably full, and Tony Visconti’s shimmering production shines with little details I missed on both earlier versions (heavily echo-laden tambourine hits on “How Come The Sun” send shudders down the spine, and it gets quite lost on the U.S. LP version… as do the phase shifted choral layering of multiple Marys on the bridge, and huge Roger McGuinn-esque acoustic 12-string picking). The separation seems a bit more precise on the new CD than even the LP.
Why why why isn’t this album out on a high resolution format like SACD, DVD-A, or Blu-ray? It deserves it.
Until that time, however, if you want to get this album — and I do heartily recommend you do! — pick up the 2010 CD reissue, as it sounds great and has nice bonus tracks on it. I am very happy with it but I will be keeping my eye out for a UK LP pressing to hear if that sounds significantly better than the U.S. pressing (typically they did back in the day, FYI).
Now check out some more tunes by Mary Hopkin:
“Goodbye” was Mary’s last big single (not on Earth Song, Ocean Song) but worth watching and listening to, since its a great tune and you see Abbey Road-era Paul McCartney coaching her on the tune (which he wrote):