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One part of his brain is a genius, but he can only focus on one thing. He wasn't able to negotiate his way through school, but he can sit and read seven books in a day. -- Ali, on Bono

Column: off the record..., vol. 8-300

off the record, from @U2

Well, I know "The Ballad of Ronnie Drew" has been out for about a month, but we haven't tackled it yet here. At the risk of getting yelled down for being a fool, I really liked the track. Like I still can't get it out of my head. It was the same way with "Window in the Skies." I know there are plenty of folks out there that feel "Window" is about the biggest wad of cheese U2 has ever worked on, but it's so catchy! I think of those strings and the falsetto of the chorus and BAM, it's with me for the next seven hours.

"The Ballad of Ronnie Drew" has done something similar to me. Bono and the Edge wrote it along with Robert Hunter (Grateful Dead) and Simon Carmody (a friend of Bono and Gavin Friday), and you can hear the lust for a hook in almost every note. The chorus is simple, but its melody lodges itself in your mind. When Bono starts listing off the Dublin street names in the bridge and the full voices of the Band of Bowsies start harmonizing and building to the crescendo, it sounds so joyous and pure. It also avoids that horrible trap that most tribute songs fall into of leaving the listener thinking, "That's...just...awful." It's got its own personality and, above all, it's fun. It's a celebration, not a memorial.

I know that compared to what we usually get off their albums, "The Ballad of Ronnie Drew" is maybe worth being a b-side for a single. But whenever U2 is in that quiet before the storm of releasing their next album, as they seem to be at the moment, we've got to take whatever we can get to fix the jones. Some genuine positives came from the recording. It got Shane MacGowan of the Pogues sounding more coherent than he has in ages. It got Bono and Sinead O'Connor -- who have a bit of an off again/on again friendship from what I gather -- singing a verse together. It was a good showcase for Bono's voice, which sounds stronger than it has in quite awhile. Larry has gotten rid of that slicked-back grease job of a hairdo he wore for most of the Vertigo tour and has started looking 14 again. We get to hear U2 perform a song that sounds a bit more stereotypically "Irish" than their standard material. Most importantly, all the proceeds are being donated to the Irish Cancer Society. That alone makes it worth buying the CD and importing it if you're not Irish (which isn't your fault) rather than just snagging a free MP3 from wherever.

Here's a link to the live performance of the song on the Late Late Show. It's a pity it cuts off right when Ronnie Drew himself is about to talk, but it's still fun to watch the band playing together with their fellow Irish musicians.

So, we've all heard them: the occasionally entertaining but mostly horrible "tribute" albums that seem to be flooding the market these days, even if the artist is barely out of diapers. I mean, seriously, I really like the Arctic Monkeys, but do they need tribute albums already? Of course these albums are little more than money-making schemes. Sure, there are the occasional offerings that are a tad bit interesting. Tiffany singing "New Year's Day" and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra performing "Even Better Than the Real Thing" spark a bit of perverse curiosity. However, after nine Pickin' On U2 albums, when they're playing bluegrass versions of "I'm Not Your Baby" and "Father Is an Elephant," you know they're stretching.

I thought I'd heard the worst of them. Ho-boy, was I wrong. I was going through the MP3s Amazon has for sale recently. Amazon doesn't actually have the rights to sell U2's albums and such yet but they still have managed to accumulate more than 400 U2-related tracks. Here are a few of the horrors they're offering:

One by U2 Tribute Band

So Cruel by the Vitamin Spins

And my personal favorite:

All I Want Is You by Steve Lieberman, the Gangsta Rabbi.


Lastly, I know all the audiophiles who are reading this are going to be thinking, "no duh" when I say this, but to all those folks who have become enamored of the idea of the compressed audio file as I have, please go back and reconsider how you've ripped your music and how you listen to it. For a while, I ripped my CDs as 128 kbps MP3s. They were small enough to be easily transportable/e-mailable and, considering the headphones I used, sound quality wasn't the big priority. Since then, I've been re-ripping my CDs at higher and higher rates. I'm at the point now where I rip all my music as 256 kbps AAC files. I'll probably go higher before too long.

I know it's easy to brush off the quality change when you're listening through ear buds or if you've got limited space on your MP3 player, but seriously, it is so worth it to upgrade. For a band as detail-conscious and precise as U2, it is a really rewarding experience to listen to a high-quality audio track of their music when you've forgotten what the CDs sound like. I'd always heard a quiet vocalization after the tempo beats at the beginning of "Lemon" but it wasn't until recently that I realized it's Brian Eno saying, "Start." I can hear Larry's "oh, s**t" in "The Unforgettable Fire" (0:05 into the song) much more clearly, as well as the person saying "happy" in "Mofo" (2:16 into the song). Heck, I just realized a week or so ago that there are more vocals in "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" that come after the final chorus. Near as I can tell, this is almost entirely due to listening to the files at a higher bit rate and with better headphones.

Someday I'll get one of those 160 gig iPods and re-rip all my U2 as 50 meg wav or flac files or some other format that has almost no compression and therefore loses almost nothing. Until then, I will rip them at the highest level that's feasible for what I've got. I recommend that you do the same. U2 give their songs such depth and so many levels. In making them ready to be played on my U2 iPod, I lost track of that a bit.

© @U2/Ryan, 2008.