Monday, June 30, 2008

Beatles 17: Let It Be

Released in conjunction with the film and after Paul had told the world he’d left the band (the last Beatle to actually leave but the first to mention it to the press), Let It Be is something of a letdown after the majesty of Abbey Road. The novelty of an album of new songs recorded “live” doesn’t always light a fire under these songs, and the result is less a grand finale than a postscript to such an amazing run. Still, with few exceptions, the performances and mixes here are superior to any other attempt at the same songs, so it is what it is.
After John’s weird announcement about Charles Hawtrey and deaf-aids, “Two Of Us” gallops by invitingly. Then it’s up to the roof for “Dig A Pony”, edited for some reason to exclude the “all I want is you” intro you hear in the film. “Across The Universe”, from two years earlier, finally appears, covered in Spectorian syrup. “I Me Mine” rocks just fine without John, and “Let It Be” delivers the grandeur Paul intended. “I’ve Got A Feeling” and “One After 909” provide more rooftop excitement, but it’s immediately derailed by the utter horror of “The Long And Winding Road”. “For You Blue” and a questionable mix of “Get Back” bring the proceedings to an uneasy close.
There were genuine creative sparks to be found during the month of filming and recording that went into this album—a full sixteen months before its eventual release—but unfortunately, we might have been better off had we not been promised so much. (It also didn’t help that John’s early 1970 single, the classic “Instant Karma!”, had been recorded and released with the same speed and excitement Paul had intended for what turned into Let It Be.)
The initial UK album package included a book of grainy photos and obtuse text in a flimsy case; it was reissued without these in late 1970 mirroring the US gatefold and red apple label. The LP was later widely counterfeited, so many of the copies found in bargain bins in the late ‘70s may not be authentic. (It was reissued on Capitol in the early ‘80s without the gatefold sleeve, but reproduced the photos on the inner sleeve and even included a large poster of the front cover, which was nice of them.)

Some 33 years later Paul spearheaded the release of Let It Be…Naked, a strangely timed attempt to present another perspective on the album. The songs were remixed—some from alternate takes—for a comparatively clean sound; all of the audio-verité comments that were scattered throughout the original were also removed. (The so-called “fly on the wall” bonus CD contains 21 minutes of dialogue and snippets from the first two weeks of the project.) “Dig It” and “Maggie Mae” were cut in favor of “Don’t Let Me Down”, but the highlight is arguably a completely new mix of “Across The Universe” that builds gently from John’s unplugged opening.
The new version does provide a fresh look at the songs and the sessions, but doesn’t succeed at all as a replacement for what was already set in stone. To get a truer, more full picture of the album’s evolution, you’ll still need the original LP as released in 1970 and available on CD, as well as Anthology 3 and some other recordings not available at your local chain, namely the complete rooftop performance and the two proposed Get Back album sequences prepared by original producer Glyn Johns in May 1969 and January 1970. From there you can compile your own ideal sequence, and just like a single-disc White Album, good luck coming up with something that will please everyone.

The Beatles Let It Be (1970)—
The Beatles Let It Be…Naked (2003)—

Friday, June 27, 2008

Paul McCartney 1: McCartney

With his band all but finished, Paul had to find out if he could work alone. So he recorded McCartney all by himself, predominantly at home, with only some musical help from Linda. It was a bold move, and one that would leave an irreversible mark, whatever the outcome.
Any preconceptions as to his direction are nailed into place by the artwork and song titles. The overlying strategy here was simplicity; anyone expecting a full-blown sequel to Abbey Road would be sorely disappointed. “The Lovely Linda”, which opens the album, was apparently made up to test the equipment, and never went any further. “That Would Be Something” starts out great, then beats the idea into the ground with absolutely atrocious drumming. “Valentine Day” has a snappy surf soundtrack feel—and remember, he’s playing all the instruments. “Every Night” is the first tune on the album we can consider a McCartney classic; the production lives up to the song too. This could have been a hit single. Fans of a certain generation may recognize “Hot As Sun” from its use (at 45rpm) for the theme to the Popeye & Friends TV show in New York, so to those ears it may sound too slow. That song goes right into “Glasses”, a barely noticeable atmosphere (possibly an influence on Eno?) which then changes abruptly into a few bars of the unlisted “Suicide”, supposedly written with Sinatra in mind. The absolutely gentle “Junk” was written before the White Album was recorded, and is another one of his prettiest melodies. The extremely likable “Man We Was Lonely” features Linda on prominent harmonies. It’s just neat. Not bad for an album side.
But “Oo You” starts side two with a rocker that only has the riff to recommend it—the lyrics and drums are just horrible. “Momma Miss America” has the same hideous drums, but it’s redeemed by some screaming guitar and keyboards, being another surfing instrumental in two parts. “Teddy Boy” was too cute for the Get Back project, and while this version is more finished, it still doesn’t work here. “Singalong Junk” is a longer, Muzak or karaoke version of the gem on side one, with Mellotron strings that make it even more gorgeous than the vocal version. “Maybe I’m Amazed” sneaks up on you in the intro, then kicks right into gear. It’s another single that never was, and the best song here, one you wish didn’t end—especially since the percussion workout and heavy breathing of “Kreen-Akrore” follow it. Not a good ending.
It’s hard to believe that such a big fuss came out of such a small thing, but at the time, it was taken to be Paul’s big declaration of independence, the music he left the Beatles for. Taken at face value, it’s not horrible. He certainly should get respect by including so many instrumentals and having the capability to play all the parts. He would seesaw between the off-the-cuff and polished-gem approaches throughout his career, with widely varying results. While lambasted at the time, it’s gained stature as a fine album considering all that came afterwards. McCartney is still a pleasant listen, and worth hearing over and over as long as you always forego “Kreen-Akrore”.
While many of his later solo albums would be augmented with bonus tracks—usually B-sides and whatnot—in the CD era, it wasn’t until round two of the Archive Collection that McCartney got this kind of upgrade. However, that term is negligible. For the first time we could hear the rest of “Suicide”, or at least what was left at the end of that particular reel. Unfortunately, the snippet that made the album is still the best part of the performance. “Don’t Cry Baby” (basically an instrumental “Oo You”) and “Women Kind” are the other “outtakes” from the album; the rest of the 25-minute disc is devoted to live versions of some of the album tracks performed in 1974 and 1979. (Of course, you could have shelled out another forty bucks for the Deluxe Version, which added a DVD and a book.)

Paul McCartney McCartney (1970)—
2011 Archive Collection Special Edition: same as 1970, plus 7 extra tracks (Deluxe Edition also adds DVD)

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Beatles 16: Hey Jude

By early 1970, “unalbumized” Beatle tracks had once again piled up, and once his negotiations with Capitol had been finalized, new “manager” Allen Klein took the opportunity to put together a quickie release that served the same purpose as such old collections as Something New and Beatles VI. Originally called The Beatles Again, the new album was immediately renamed Hey Jude in honor of the first song on side two.
Amazingly, this was the first Capitol LP availability of “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “I Should Have Known Better” from nearly six years earlier; those fresh-faced nuggets open the program. The bulk of the remaining tracks are singles from 1968 and 1969 that fit better with the rather dour-looking contemporary cover photos from what turned out to be their last official photo sessions as a band. “Paperback Writer” and “Rain”, being from the middle period, still connect seamlessly with the later material, providing a bridge from the early innocent days to the period of experimentation. The album definitely rocks, from those 1964 and 1966 singles to “Lady Madonna”, “Revolution”, “Don’t Let Me Down”, George’s unfairly overlooked “Old Brown Shoe” and even “The Ballad Of John And Yoko”.
As a mop-up collection, the album did the trick, collecting various recent singles unlikely to appear on the mutating Get Back/Let It Be album, which was due within a few months. Yet there were still a few unique tracks scattered throughout the boys’ career that would stay uncollected for some time yet. The odd selections notwithstanding, Hey Jude became another popular title, leading to its eventual British LP release in the late ‘70s. But while a similarly offhand compilation like Magical Mystery Tour sat comfortably in CD racks between Sgt. Pepper and the White Album for 25 years, Hey Jude was ignored as a separate entity, and sat on the wish list for many American consumers until the “U.S. Albums” rollout in 2014. (In the meantime, for those wishing to compile their own, all but the two 1964 recordings were included on Past Masters Volume Two.)

The Beatles Hey Jude (1970)—5
UK CD equivalent: A Hard Day’s Night/Past Masters

Monday, June 23, 2008

John Lennon 1: Live Peace In Toronto

After three albums of “unfinished music”, Live Peace In Toronto was the first of John’s “journalistic phonographic” endeavors to appeal to his mass audience, simply because—compared to his other experiments on wax with Yoko—it was the first LP that contained music remotely similar to that heard on Beatles LPs. It is truly a snapshot of a moment in time; the band rehearsed on the plane to Toronto, and how he got Eric Clapton to play lead guitar is still one of rock’s great mysteries.
Being part of a ‘50s revival concert, it only makes sense that John starts off with “Blue Suede Shoes”, “Dizzy Miss Lizzie” and “Money”. He kept it simple and sounds happy, if nervous. “Yer Blues” works, being the only song John had previously performed in front of an audience since 1966 (at the Rolling Stones Rock And Roll Circus, with Clapton in tow). “Cold Turkey” sounds a bit tentative compared to the single version which hadn’t even been recorded yet, and he wraps it all up with “Give Peace A Chance”, not even bothering to duplicate the original lyrics, though Clapton does get to sing backup.
Then Yoko steps to the front “to do her thing all over you”; it’s a safe bet most owners of this LP rarely played side two after the first purchase. She shrieks over bludgeoning riffs and feedback, a performance that’s much more interesting to watch than it is to listen to; by the end you can see John glare at the crowd while Yoko continues to scream.
The recording itself is pretty hot, and John’s nervous energy keeps the listener riveted. It’s much too short, of course, but it’s still pretty cool that it exists at all. John and Yoko had already decided that their every move be documented, but hadn’t figured out what constituted “newsworthy” or could potentially embarrass them. (Case in point: The calendar, included in the first LP pressing and reproduced in the CD booklet, contains some unique pictures and captions, but also sports one uncomfortable close-up of the couple’s puffy, heroin-addled faces.)
Basically, they came, saw and conquered, and Apple finally had a solo Beatle LP go top 10. In John’s case, the fourth time was the charm. (We can’t stress this enough: if you’re looking for melodies, you really don’t need to bother with Two Virgins, Life With The Lions or Wedding Album. If you want unlistenable albums in your collection to impress your friends, then go right ahead. You’ve been warned.)

The Plastic Ono Band Live Peace In Toronto (1969)—

Friday, June 20, 2008

Neil Young 6: Harvest

Harvest goes with its true predecessor, After The Gold Rush, like peanut butter goes with jelly. Each is fine on its own, but incredibly satisfying to hear back-to-back.
“Out On The Weekend” begins with a standard chord change, similar to “Down By The River”, but as soon as the steel guitar kicks in (and get used to it—Ben Keith played with Neil up to his dying day) it goes somewhere else entirely. This song as a whole develops a story and a picture—he’s packing it in, buying a pick-up and leaving town but can’t stop thinking about her. The harmonica solo tries to put across what he can’t seem to say. The title track is very country and nice to sing along with; it’s clear why this album was such a middle-of-the-road success. “A Man Needs A Maid” has a pretty piano line, but possibly too personal, since he actually did see a movie and fell in love with the actress. From the London Symphony Orchestra, the trip to “Heart Of Gold” is a pleasant transition. (This song sat in the middle of “Maid” in its earliest live performances, and works much better on its own.) He’s still searching, even if at 26 he wasn’t so much getting old as outliving some of his contemporaries. “Are You Ready For The Country?” sounds like a threat, but the performance just barely qualifies as country. This recording fits the photo of the band in the barn on the album cover, and is another Neil tune that’s a verse too short and fades too soon.
“Old Man” is gorgeous, and you don’t have to be 24 to appreciate it. With its symphonic “bam, BAM” introduction, “There’s A World” doesn’t really make sense or fit. “Alabama” seems to be cut from the same cloth as “Southern Man”—nice backup from Crosby and Stills here. “The Needle And The Damage Done” would make a lot more sense within a few years when he’d record, shelve and then release a whole album about drug abuse and his poor junkie friends. The applause cuts right into the first crashing chord of “Words”. The different time changes keep you stumbling while you try to tap along with it. Anyone who calls this a country album obviously hasn’t listened to the whole thing.
Harvest is another true satisfier, especially in the context of everything else he’d done in the same three-year period. It became a hit on the back of “Heart Of Gold”, and perhaps only half of those initiated would keep up with him for the next forty years. It would be hard enough to follow him for the next five.

Neil Young Harvest (1972)—

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Neil Young 5: After The Gold Rush

Even while keeping busy with CSNY, Neil spent much of 1970 working on his own album. Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten had already developed a heroin addiction, putting that band into disarray and jeopardizing their immediate contribution to Neil’s work.
The resulting album, After The Gold Rush, is a schizophrenic collection with a lot of styles all over the place that all sound like him. “Tell Me Why” is a fine starter, asking the immortal question if it’s hard to make arrangements with oneself. The title track is one of two hit songs that feature a French horn solo (the other being the Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”). The line about “getting high” still draws cheers today, though he’s been careful to update the time frame in which Mother Nature is said to be on the run. “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” is still a favorite, even if it seems to be missing a verse. “Southern Man” comes stumbling in like a drunk at a banquet. Reminiscent of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, it blasts on through, and then we get the simple four-chord, four-line “Till The Morning Comes” twice through. (David Bowie borrowed its inspiration for “Kooks”, right down to the trumpet.)
Side two starts with “Oh Lonesome Me”, a country chestnut taken at half the speed of the original that sounds like Neil wrote it himself. “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” is inscrutable—what with old and/or dead men lying by the sides of roads and castles turning—but excellent. “Birds” is another heartbreaker, all piano and shaky harmonies and much too short. “When You Dance I Can Really Love” sandblasts away the tears with the euphoria of watching a lovely girl dance. Senses tingle, mountains crumble and that incessant piano pounds all over the fade. The ambivalent “I Believe In You” is one of the few tracks that features Crazy Horse, but the finale is “Cripple Creek Ferry”, a harmless singalong going down the river as we wave goodbye. (Notice how his previous solo album had epic side-closers, while these sides end with afterthoughts in comparison.)
Between this and CSNY he was seemingly on his way to superstardom. If you hate Neil’s voice, you’ll hate this album. But if you can take it, you’ll learn to love every single track.

Neil Young After The Gold Rush (1970)—

Monday, June 16, 2008

Elvis Costello 9: Punch The Clock

The early eighties brought out the best and worst of some music veterans—the latter particularly when they surrendered their craft to “production value”. Elvis was hardly immune; having enjoyed some recent records by the likes of Madness and Dexy’s Midnight Runners, he enlisted contemporary hitmakers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley to give his latest batch of tunes a chartbound sheen. The results, as heard on Punch The Clock, were mixed. On the plus side, “Everyday I Write The Book” was a huge hit worldwide, complete with a wacky video depicting Charles and Diana as bored newlyweds. However, most of the rest of the album favored a mix that brought the incessant female backing vocals and horn section to the forefront, making it hard to hear those catchy melodies. The effect is akin to having too much ketchup on your cheeseburger.
And those melodies do exist; you just have to listen really closely. “Shipbuilding” (with a gorgeous but brief and processed Chet Baker trumpet solo) and “Pills And Soap” are two of his more inspired creations, with political overtones that unfortunately still resonate today. “Charm School” is one example of a song that benefits from the layers, to the point where you don’t even mind the steal from “Theme From Summer Of ‘42”. Similarly, “The Element Within Her” features excellent dynamics in between the repeated “la la la” choruses. “Mouth Almighty” and “King Of Thieves” are catchy, but “The Greatest Thing” goes too fast and involves too many key changes to handle the words.
Punch The Clock is a pop album, but some fans were hoping for something more aggressive. Somehow the album title suggested he was merely going through the motions. The Rykodisc reissue includes two of the better B-sides of the period (“The Flirting Kind” and “Heathen Town”, which Elvis considered adding to the album after its initial release). Live versions of “Everyday I Write The Book” and “The World And His Wife” give insight into the less labored origins of those tracks. The Rhino reissue went even further, replacing those live tracks with studio alternates, and adding a whole pile of acoustic demos that more than suggest he should have stuck with his initial instincts instead of eyeing the charts.

Elvis Costello & The Attractions Punch The Clock (1983)—
1995 Rykodisc: same as 1983, plus 7 extra tracks
2003 Rhino: same as 1983, plus 26 extra tracks

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Beatles 15: Abbey Road

1969 was a wacky year for the Fab Four. While the Get Back project limped along, several singles appeared, both under the Beatles’ name and that of the Plastic Ono Band. But Capitol held off from their instincts, and released their next album as originally intended. Abbey Road is the simple yet elegant finale to what Derek Taylor called the twentieth century’s greatest romance, and it’s hard to imagine how they could have possibly followed it up. And they didn’t have to, anyway.
The standard view is that each side was the respective work of John and Paul, who were further apart than ever at this point. But that’s easily dismissed, because if John wanted nothing to do with Paul’s side, why would he have contributed four songs? And how would he ever have allowed “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” to stay on “his” side?
Paul can probably take the most credit for this album existing, as he was always the one keen to get his songs recorded. (He also worked closely with George Martin to get the sounds on tape.) His songs on side two are much more palatable than either “Maxwell” or even “Oh! Darling”, which sounds like he spent about five minutes on it. It’s the second side that’s his triumph, from the pointedly personal “You Never Give Me Your Money”, which sets the suite in motion, through “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window” and ending with “Golden Slumbers”, “Carry That Weight” and “The End” (which, despite having a three-Beatle guitar duel and Ringo’s only begrudging drum solo, was all Paul). Even “Her Majesty” serves a purpose—a nice afterthought, and something to hum to kill time while waiting to reboot your computer. Paul’s writing had certainly matured over the years, though those expectations would set him up for criticism once he was on his own and didn’t have the other three to impress. His guitar playing (as heard on “The End” and “Money”) was pretty good too.
John managed to hold his own, despite the distractions of Yoko, his peace campaigns and his own solo output. “Come Together” opens the album with a creepy menace to go along with the white-suited hairy guy on the cover. He continues the hard rock with “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, which builds steam until the plug’s kicked out, only to have a variation on the riff turn up on “Because”. The lush and liquid “Sun King” lyrically echoes George’s song, filtered through Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross”. He even allows his sense of humor to return with “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam”, two leftovers from India that fit well into the second side’s suite.
The secret weapon, of course, is George, who was virtually bursting with great songs by now but was only allowed two here—the aforementioned “Here Comes The Sun”, and the immortal “Something”, which both John and Paul agreed was the best song on the album. (And they were right.) George also had a lot to do with Ringo’s “Octopus’s Garden” coming out as well as it did—not just the guitar parts, but the bubbles through a straw, most of the changes and half of the harmonies. (Speaking of the harmonies, the boys’ angelic blend is all over the place, on practically every track.)
So what’s so good about this album? They truly went out on a high note. The overall sound is slick, and that’s not meant in a bad way. But just as they looked very different on the cover, the sounds they made had evolved too—just enough to fascinate those who’d been following the story and wondered, “What will they sound like this time?” Bands rarely have that effect on their audiences anymore, which is the 373rd reason why the Beatles were so damn good.

The Beatles Abbey Road (1969)—5

Monday, June 9, 2008

Elvis Costello 8: Imperial Bedroom

Magazine ads for this album suggested it would be considered a masterpiece. While most wouldn’t fall for such hubris, one thing that permeates throughout Imperial Bedroom is elegance, from the pompous title to the production assistance from onetime Beatle engineer Geoff Emerick.
Starting with the unstoppable locomotive that drives “Beyond Belief” (courtesy of drummer Pete Thomas, in an amazing performance), there is an amazing breadth of material here. “Tears Before Bedtime” is a Nashville leftover given a jokey arrangement, while “Shabby Doll” is another song accusing someone of something horrible. “The Long Honeymoon” is one of many portraits of a damaged marriage, and its unsettling delivery is kicked aside by the cacophony that opens “Man Out Of Time”, which smoothes out into a tour de force of a performance before closing on the same cacophony. “Almost Blue” is a heartbreaking torch song written for Chet Baker, deflated by the mocking Masterpiece Theater soap opera of “…And In Every Home”.
The second side is dominated by more straight rock, but still retains that elegance. “The Loved Ones” and “Human Hands” remain great singalongs to this day, despite their murky subject matter. “Kid About It” slows things down nicely, picked up by “Little Savage”. “Boy With A Problem” sets up an interlude before the one-two-three punch of the closing tracks. “Pidgin English” laments the loss of language, while “You Little Fool” shakes its head at teenage romance through backwards harpsichords. The grand finale is “Town Cryer”, which benefits from the album’s most sympathetic arrangement (courtesy of keyboardist Steve Nieve), complete with strings that carry the album into the sunset for the closing credits.
The album was designed to be experienced as a whole; it even included lyrics for the first time on an Elvis album, printed telegram-style with no punctuation or breaks of any kind. Over the years Imperial Bedroom has gotten the occasional slag as pompous or overindulgent, but such opinions ignore the excellence and elegance (there’s that word again) of the songs. Bizarrely, some of the more challenging tracks were chosen as singles, which didn’t fare well on the pop charts.
Being such a strong unified album, it was inevitable that the bonus tracks, added on the 1994 reissue, would detract from the listening experience. It also didn’t help that some of the better B-sides from the period were not included. This would be rectified somewhat with the 2002 Rhino version, which put all the bonus tracks (including most, but not all, of the Ryko bonuses) on a second disc that gives a nice peek into the works-in-progress. Some of these alternates are fascinating (the “Barry White” version of “Town Cryer” is a scream), others show that he was right to redo them, and the demos demonstrate how much he already had in place before bringing the band in.

Elvis Costello & The Attractions Imperial Bedroom (1982)—5
1994 Rykodisc: same as 1982, plus 9 extra tracks
2002 Rhino: same as 1982, plus 23 extra tracks

Friday, June 6, 2008

Neil Young 4: CSNY

Never one to stay in one place, Neil quickly hooked up with Crosby, Stills & Nash—who had already put out one monstrously successful album—in addition to working and touring with Crazy Horse and pushing his own solo career, all in the space of a year. Sooner or later someone was bound to get pissed off, and they did.
Despite the lawfirm-style credits, the ensuing Déjà Vu can hardly be considered a collaboration. As had happened with Buffalo Springfield, each of the guys worked on their own tunes, though David Crosby’s “Almost Cut My Hair” is a live group performance with Neil on one of the leads. (The full take with cold ending can be found on the CSN box set, making one curious about similar tracks from the sessions.) Outside of that, Neil’s voice and guitar only come through on the tracks he did write.
With its three chords, fake steel guitar and harmonies that don’t soar, “Helpless” has been a matter of personal taste, but “Country Girl” is another matter altogether. It’s a big Spector studio production—in three parts, no less—that still fits his voice and style like a glove. The “Down, Down, Down” section was adapted from an unreleased Springfield song, taken to the next level by those harmonies. The “Whiskey Boot Hill” section is something of a nod to “Broken Arrow”, then comes the descending minor phrase that turns flawlessly into a major key, and that chorus (“Country Girl (I Think You’re Pretty)”) that must still be going on somewhere. On the record, however, it’s followed by “Everybody I Love You”. While credited to Stills and Young, it sounds a lot more like Stills and Nash. (That’s not meant as a compliment.)
The “other three” did their part too; Crosby’s title track provides a level of mystery to balance the fuzz of “Almost Cut My Hair”. “Carry On” is a Stills opus in the vein of “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” but with more electricity, and his fingerprints are all over the cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock”. “4+20” is a solo blues number providing a change of mood. Nash held onto the values of the Sixties on “Teach Your Children” (for which Jerry Garcia allegedly taught himself how to play pedal steel guitar) and “Our House”, about the place he lived with Joni.
Déjà Vu was another triumph for CSN—at least until they split up—and remains essential for “Country Girl”, available on no other single Neil LP. This album is why people still get excited about any CSNY reunion, and often settle for any combination thereof, but as the four were barely able to catch lightning in a bottle the first time, it’s doubtful the sum will ever equal any of the parts ever again. No matter how many times they go back to the well.

Just before their tour, Neil reacted to the Kent State shootings with “Ohio”, quickly released as a CSNY single backed with Stills’ “Find The Cost Of Freedom”. (Both are available on the So Far cash-in collection; “Ohio” would receive pole position on Decade.)
The tour was a success, of course, and spawned a live album. Released after the four had split, 4 Way Street was a corporate response to bootleggers. While occasionally egotistical and grating, the “wooden” portion is still more entertaining than the electric showboating. “On The Way Home” translates well to this format, Crosby and Nash come off only mildly stoned and Stills is a pompous ass. Neil’s subdued versions of “Cowgirl In The Sand” and “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” rival the studio versions and are worth the price of admission, but “Southern Man” and “Ohio” on the electric half are just plain tedious. (The CD reissue contains some acoustic extras: a strange but worthwhile medley of “The Loner/Cowgirl In The Sand/Down By The River”, along with pleasant contributions by the other three.)

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young Déjà Vu (1970)—4
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young 4 Way Street (1971)—3
1992 remaster: same as 1971, plus 4 extra tracks
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young So Far (1974)—

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Elvis Costello 7: Almost Blue

Looking for a change of pace, Elvis took a break from the ever-faithful Nick Lowe and dragged his band to Nashville to record a pile of country-and-western covers that would have been right at home in the redneck bar from The Blues Brothers. Working with the legendary Billy Sherrill, the result was Almost Blue, a collection of songs known and unknown slathered with syrupy strings and female chorus vocals plus a little pedal-steel help from John McFee, who’d played on My Aim Is True. Yet it still sounds cohesive, thanks mostly to the patient performance of the Attractions. (Strangely enough, the album was a huge hit in the UK, and utterly ignored in the US.)
Tracks like “Sweet Dreams”, “Success” and the hit single (!) “Good Year For The Roses” are ideal for crying in your beer, and “Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down” and the rollicking “Why Don’t You Love Me (Like You Used To Do)” ignore any threat of a hangover. But Elvis saves his best vocals for a pair of Gram Parsons songs, “Hot Burrito #1” (here retitled “I’m Your Toy”) and the closing “How Much I Lied”.
Despite his overt passion for the music, and the genre as a whole, Almost Blue is still a diversion in the true sense of the word. And coming after the recent bounty of 20-track albums, it’s awfully brief at about 32 minutes long. He was overdue for another great album of his own songs, and thankfully, didn’t make us wait much longer.
Each of the reissued versions included several songs that didn’t make the original album but had surfaced as B-sides, along with various live tracks from both the period surrounding the original album’s release as well as a one-off show recorded two years earlier at an L.A. bar (with special guest John McFee, of all people). The Rhino reissue included even more of those outtakes and live tracks (although leaving off two from the Rykodisc version), plus contemporary duets with Johnny Cash and George Jones.

Elvis Costello & The Attractions Almost Blue (1981)—
1994 Rykodisc: same as 1981, plus 11 extra tracks
2004 Rhino: same as 1981, plus 27 extra tracks

Monday, June 2, 2008

Neil Young 3: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere

Coming a mere six months after his debut, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is an exponentially better Neil album. For one, most of the singing and playing was done live, or at least sounds that way. This direct approach gave him confidence in his voice, which emboldened the songs in turn. Plus, he’d hooked up with the three guys he’d christened Crazy Horse, who gave him a good, solid—if occasionally sloppy—base on which to build his craft.
“Cinnamon Girl” was written about a hot girl walking on a hot city sidewalk, and it sounds like it. This tune absolutely sizzles, and the one-note solo is perfect. The title track has a snappy, not-too-fast country beat and a wonderful harmony by guitarist Danny Whitten, who would be an excellent foil onstage and in the studio. “Round And Round (It Won’t Be Long)” is tied for the worst song on the album; while it’s still pretty pleasant, it’s a sleepy stop on the way to “Down By The River”. This is one of two ten-minute side-closers here, and it’s a lot better than it deserves to be. There are only a few chords and another one-note solo, but even on the last fade you want it to keep going.
“The Losing End (When You’re On)” is an authentic country song with more great harmonies on the chorus. It makes a nice companion to the title track. “Running Dry (Requiem For The Rockets)” goes on too long to be interesting, but much like “Round And Round”, here it’s merely a plodding setup before another masterpiece. “Cowgirl In The Sand” begins with some quiet electric picking, then crashes in full throttle. With (again) only a couple of chords and several epileptic solos, it is mesmerizing.
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is the first essential Neil album, as it lays the groundwork for the rest of his career to date. It’s also pointedly credited to him with Crazy Horse, showing he understood how to pay his debts. It is a collaboration that would be explored further.

Neil Young with Crazy Horse Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969)—4