Lenny Kravitz was one of my favorite artists of the 1990′s, becoming aware of him initially as Romeo Blue because of his companionship with actress Lisa Bonet, and then when he released music under his real name upon being signed to Virgin Records. Let Love Rule was massive, it coincided with the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Love and people were going bonkers, leading critics to calling him retro and the next John Lennon or Bob Dylan. People were waiting for him to hit a massive sophomore slump because as much as he was loved, there were many haters who felt he was worthless and nothing more than someone cashing in on the sounds of the past. Granted, this was nothing new compared to many artists who had done the same thing, and people refused to even pay attention to him or his music. Yet when he released Mama Said in 1991, it was obvious he was ready for the long haul and fight, but as his famous mom once said, “but I’m always on the run”.
While a 20th anniversary would have been more apt, Kravitz has chosen to honor the album this year with a 21st anniversary deluxe edition of Mama Said, and what a deluxe it is. This edition contains the original album, remastered for a new generation, plus loads of extras. If you listened to and/or collected Kravitz’s music as I used to, that meant having to buy CD singles, 12″ singles, imported singles, and more if you wanted everything he released within the experience of an album and all of its singles.
When Kravitz dropped “Always On The Run” as the album’s first single, it was the funky rocker people loved. It featured a mean solo from Kravitz’s classmate, Slash, and beefy horns from Karl Denson and friends, and it fully explained lessons passed along from mom to son before the song switches mood and ends with a slight ode to Stevie Wonder‘s “Superstition”. The second single from the album was the most successful of the batch, “It Ain’t Over Til It’s Over”. It’s hard to tell if people loved the slightly sad story, the nod to 70′s soul, or because it had to do with the falling apart of his marriage with Bonet, but its huge success is the reason why it’s one of Kravitz’s songs that you’ll still hear on the radio at any given time today. “Stand By My Woman” showed that Kravitz was willing to show support for a love, and if she’s willing to make herself known, he would prove it.
In the United States, Mama Said was limited to only three singles but other countries released a few more. At this point in music history, MTV was the dominant force of popularity for music, so for a lot of casual music fans, those three singles were it. Yet if they went to buy the full album, they would discover an incredible set of songs that showed the strength of his songwriting, playing (many of the tracks are true solo songs, with him playing all or the majority of the instruments). This includes great songs like the Curtis Mayfield smoothness of “What Goes Around Comes Around”, the very laid back “More Than Anything In This World” (which would have sounded perfect in 1971 with its extreme panning final mix), “Stop Draggin’ Around”, an ode to his daughter called “Flowers For Zoë”, and the fight-for-power groove of “What The Fuck Are We Saying”. The music showed shades of what made Let Love Rule great, but managed to cater to his love (some say fetish) of his influences of soul and pop, circa late 60′s/early 70′s.
Now the extras. One of my favorite songs from the album experience was the non-LP “Light Skin Girl From London”, which definitely belonged on the album and it’s now nice to hear it within the context of the rest of the songs. There’s also a great instrumental version of “Always On The Run” for people who wish to do their own version karaoke style. Then there’s an unreleased track called “Riding On The Wings Of My Lord”, which fits in with the wealth of unreleased material that Prince has done throughout his career. The song sounds unfinished but it could have easily been released as is or if it developed a bit more, it would have been welcome on the final album. There are also eight live tracks that were spread across different 12″ and CD singles, all showing how great these songs sounded live and how crowds responded to them: very favorably.
Now the downside. Since all of the released songs were remastered, I was curious to hear how they compared to the original 1991 releases. “Fields Of Joy” immediately sounded louder and clean until half way through, then things started sounding “clustered”. This was made evident in “Always On The Run”, where some of the elements sounded way too loud to my liking. I realize that we, as listeners, have the option and obvious freedom to use the volume knob to control what we take in, but it sounded like it was done with brickwall limiting. I decided to do a quick comparison of “Always On The Run” between the original 1991 CD and this 2012 and the visuals confirms it.
(Click image to see a larger version of this comparison.)
The top WAV file is of “Always On The Run”, ripped from the 1991 Mama Said CD. The bottom is from the 2012 Mama Said deluxe edition. The sonics and dynamics are pushed up to the extreme to make the entire song “uniform” throughout. Perhaps this was created for those who choose to rip the CD or download the MP3′s of this, so as the saying goes, it was “remastered for iPod”, thus a forced need to be louder. Kravitz was someone who was very aware of his surroundings in the recording studio, and what he did on everything he produced was make things sound great, a true “classic album” sound. If you look at the top WAV files, it shows that there’s a bit of room between the peaks and valleys, the song has room to breathe. The 2012 remaster not only looks forced, but it sounds forced too. Even a track like “More Than Anything In This World”, which had a distinct separate sound between left and right channels, has the right channel maximized and it’s just not as good soundwise as the original.
Pro: if you want a quick chance to obtain all of the bonus material that comes with this, picking up the 21st anniversary deluxe edition of Mama Said is definitely worth the price. However, for my money, if you want a fantastic album that sounded good to begin with in its original state, hunt down the original 1991 CD pressing, or the MP3′s that are sourced from the original CD’s, as they are not hard to find.