Jean Michel Jarre – Rarities, Oxygene, Equinoxe, and Magnetic Fields

If you want to understand Jean-Michel Jarre, then you cannot ignore his teacher of three critical years, Pierre Schaeffer. A French musician and giant of the avant-garde scene, the musique concrète pioneer is largely responsible for the musical structures of modern electronica and hip-hop. Musique concrète takes an acousmatic sound approach—that is, you hear the sound but you might not necessarily know its source. Schaeffer lived to play with sounds, and 5 ētudes de bruits/ētude aux objets serves as a superb demonstration of his practice. Indeed, Schaeffer loves to see how sonics interact and react with each other, and how listeners respond to this sequence of noises. As for melody? What melody?

Effectively two works on a single LP, Side A’s 5 ētudes de bruits stems from 1948 and sounds it. The master is clear and content concise, but you get the obvious impression that it’s an archival piece and demands to be listened to as such. The master’s quality far exceeds the capability of the original recording, which is sometimes deficient and distorted, especially in the upper-mid regions.

The flip side finds material captured in 1959. Now that tape enters the equation (as well as improved studio facilities), the quality dramatically improves, making the subtle and startling effects of ētude aux objets more immediate and engaging. The purpose seems to force bystanders to ask, “What comes next?” A playful and often witty recording, the LP teases the senses. Once it finishes, you might feel like a lab rat in a scientific experiment.

Enter Jarre and his new compilation, Rarities. Presented in an attractive gatefold package, the archival LP takes the listener from Jarre’s leaving of Schaeffer’s classroom to the verge of his breakthrough composition, Oxygene. There’s never any doubt that he’s a Schaeffer disciple. The technology might be more advanced, but the musique concrète style drenches the opening “Happiness Is A Sad Song.” While unusual for Jarre, it’s complete with a vocal track, albeit with unintelligible gibberish. An increasingly nightmarish composition, it gives way to the more melodic “Hypnose,” which follows a krautrock arrangement. Organic instruments add a completely unexpected pastoral vibe. The quality of both the mastering and pressing retains a 60s-style analog warmth.

Jarre’s experimental melange continues as the LP progresses. Dabbling with aural flavors as diverse as the technology of the time allowed, he mixes the organic with early electronica. Tempos and mood vary, and it’s not until 1970’s “Windswept Canyon,” the first track on Side B, that Jarre stumbles upon a settled form. Sweeping synth effects play around the bass percussion and arrive at a soft melodic center; the bones of his now-familiar style coming together. Despite various creative hiccups, Jarre is once again drawn back to this newfound approach on 1972’s “Black Bird” and 1973’s “The Burnt Barns.” As the music moves through the 70s, the vinyl mastering maintains reproductive quality that, over such diverse sources, is equally consistent and appealing.

Oxygene, the first of three popular Jarre LPs remastered on vinyl for the first time since their original release, and mastered by the man himself, stands as the artist’s commercial breakthrough. The 1977 release is deservedly viewed as a classic, but the reissue initially doesn’t hit you between the ears. On the contrary, it sneaks up on you, and takes a few seconds to notice that the new mastering introduces a rich, silky smooth, deep chocolate flavor. Two minutes in, a deep bass sequence provides a more rounded low-frequency response than the original. It soon becomes obvious that the original recording is pregnant with silent distortion—the most insidious of varieties, and the type you only know is there only once it has been removed.

Dynamics are also enhanced, and the upper-midrange far superior, particularly given the newly uncovered synth elements. Sure, you could demand more—clarity, bass structure, pizzazz. But doing so would be a tad churlish. This LP takes its place as the best version of Oxygene on the market, leagues better than the original.

One year removed from Oxygene, Equinoxe continues the former’s bubbling synth washes and complex electronic multi-layering. The original pressing doesn’t sound right, especially in the upper mids and treble areas that, again, seem drenched in distortion—the same sort that hampers Oxygene. However, bass is solid, and for an early electronic piece, the soundstage commendable. On the reissue, bass plumbs new depths, and while the introductory synth work doesn’t extend the soundstage, it certainly makes better use of it. Upper mids offer greater transparency, allowing for a greater flow of information. Attention is drawn to different areas of the mix, making the melodic aspects surprising, fresh, and rebalanced.

1981’s Magnetic Fields, provides many magical moments. The recording is quite aggressive in its upper mids and treble attack, with a steady and persistent undulation that doesn’t offer respite. The original suffers from a forwardness and stumbles due to blundering, bloomy-ridden bass levels.

The new pressing brings a sense of calm—not unlike a mother arriving home to a house full of chaotic children, taking over from a flailing father, to not only control wayward energy but direct and put it to good use. Here, the upper mids and treble are steered to provide often-startling high-frequency effects. Bass is largely mellow and structured. Still, like the other LPs, more work could have been done to tighten here and push the envelope there. Nitpicking aside, the reissued Magnetic Fields is a joy to hear, offering a highly immersive experience, especially at high volumes. — Paul Rigby

For all: Dreyfus 180g LPs