Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Bob Dylan 58: 50th Anniversary Collection 1964

Another Christmas present arrived from Bob Dylan in the form of the third limited-release collection of copyright busters. This time, nine LPs cover the extraneous material, filling in the holes around the one album he recorded in 1964, and the performances already available on various Bootleg Series. This stuff has long been documented, and one wonders if the producers merely follow the lead of certain websites.
A single visit to the studio in June was the source for Another Side Of Bob Dylan, and two sides’ worth of outtakes from it form the centerpiece of this set. Two incomplete, forced takes of “Black Crow Blues”, both on the guitar, demonstrate why the one on the album has piano. A 44-second excerpt of “Mr. Tambourine Man” seems to be included just because it can be, but four separate takes of “I Shall Be Free No. 10”, some with different words, show both how and why it was edited on the LP.
A tape recorded with Eric Von Schmidt (the blues guitar player he’d met in the green pastures of Harvard University) spans three sides and follows the pair running through blues riffs, R&B covers, silly impromptu songs and what appears to be the first recorded performance of “Tambourine Man”. If you’d rather hear him spar vocally with Joan Baez, four tinny “duets” are placed where they belong.
The rest of the material chronicles various live performances, beginning with a short set from Canadian television that closes with a nice version of “Restless Farewell”. Two of the records cover a London performance two years to the day before the notorious “Albert Hall” concert, recorded in excellent quality. “Walls Of Red Wing” and “Eternal Circle” are the rarities here, along with another “Restless Farewell”. The concerts on either side of the Halloween Philharmonic Hall show are, unfortunately, barely listenable; the intercom-quality sound in Philadelphia obscures the crowd’s laughter at “I Don’t Believe You” and their wonder at “It’s Alright Ma”, and renders the variations in “Talkin’ World War III Blues” inaudible. The California shows are a bit clearer but marred by the taper’s conversations. These would never have passed for official releases, so having them here to “protect” their copyright is laughable.
Somewhere out there somebody spent lots of money on one of the thousand copies of this set, and generously shared it over the Internet. Some people will buy anything.

Bob Dylan 50th Anniversary Collection 1964 (2014)—
CD availability: none; LP only

Friday, December 26, 2014

Bob Dylan 57: Basement Tapes Complete

Only a year after one of its finest installments, Bob Dylan’s occasional Bootleg Series maintained its quality by revisiting one of the most beloved and mysterious eras of his career. Volume 11 served up two discs of unadorned recordings, alternates and true rarities from the series of sessions known as the Basement Tapes, in excellent sound, with no after-the-fact overdubbing and no Band-only tracks. And to beat that, a deluxe edition offered everything captured in those sessions with Bob present, 139 tracks in mostly chronological order. (The timing was particularly apt, as the project was revealed and released right around the time of another album involving long-lost lyrics.)
For those seeking only a taster, The Basement Tapes Raw is two hours of arguable highlights, focusing on completed songs and less on the “jam” aspect of the sessions. Here, finally, in one tidy package are some truly legendary tracks in pristine sound. Neither “Silent Weekend” nor “Get Your Rocks Off” seems finished, but Dylan’s laughter on the latter makes it worth the listen. The first take of “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” sports a truly surreal batch of alternate lyrics, while take two of “Too Much Of Nothing” is more straightforward than the chromatic experiment that made the 1975 album. The amateurish trombone all over “Don’t Ya Tell Henry” makes it clear why it was left alone till now. “Sign On The Cross” manages to stay mesmerizing over seven slow minutes, and “All You Have To Do Is Dream” has the potential of a wonderful pop song, whatever “floor birds” are. And while “I’m Not There” made its legal debut in 2007, it’s great to have this fascinating tune back alongside its brothers (including the close cousin “I’m Alright”).
The armchair Dylanologist has to have everything, and The Basement Tapes Complete does offer hours of listening pleasure, though not everything deserves more than one play. A 12-string acoustic guitar is hard to get into tune in the first place, much less when it’s being strummed by someone for whom pitch is already elusive. The compilers did do us a favor by putting the “least listenable” of the tracks on the sixth disc; besides not being recorded as well, with a particularly distorted electric piano guiding the way, there’s little hidden treasure here. Also, these were a bunch of guys in their 20s, basically playing hooky, so some of the goofiness doesn’t translate. But when they do catch fire, its wonders to behold.
There’s already been a lucrative cottage industry based around picking these sessions apart, and many of the mysteries will never be solved—mostly because nobody was anal enough to note dates, times, locations, who was playing what, etc. Some insist that “Garth’s order” isn’t to be trusted, but there is some structure to it, as successive performances are heard to go increasingly off rails. We can also hear where the focus switched from playing whatever struck to trying to arrange brand new songs. Having multiple takes of several songs will inspire further argument as to which is “best”. (And to think “Tiny Montgomery”, of all things, was the earliest track considered worth selling, appearing a whole disc away from the next one, “Million Dollar Bash”. From there, he doesn’t let up until disc five.)
The mystique of the sessions remains, mostly because it’s still not clear why all this was preserved on tape in the first place. Remakes of “One Too Many Mornings”, “It Ain’t Me Babe” and “Blowin’ In the Wind” suggest possible preparations for a stage performance. His Nashville Skyline voice surfaces a few times. The preponderance of country & western covers puts Self Portrait in yet another light, and makes Robbie Robertson look especially petty for claiming that it was The Band who “taught” Dylan all this music, instead of the other way around. How come he never went back to “One Man’s Loss”, “Lock Your Door” or “Wild Wolf”? Was it all recorded before John Wesley Harding? And what the hell was his fascination with “Spanish Is The Loving Tongue”, anyway?
We can be thankful that this weary world can finally hold not only a completed Beach Boys Smile CD, but a Basement Tapes collection that surpasses even the most revered bootlegs. Now fans had a very wide bridge from Blonde On Blonde to John Wesley Harding, and it only took 47 years.

Bob Dylan & The Band The Basement Tapes Complete: The Bootleg Series Vol. 11 (2014)—4

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Elvis Presley: Christmas Album

While a glance at the budget cassette rack this time of year made it seem like the King of Rock ‘N Roll recorded ten different Christmas albums, that was a misleading implication thanks to RCA’s incessant repackaging of their biggest star. There were ever only two albums, recorded 14 years apart, give or take a single here and there. Even after the catalog was streamlined in the ‘90s, the same music has appeared again and again, sometimes with hideous results.
Of those two albums, the first is the best, recorded the year before Elvis went into the Army, never to return. But even that was a repackage of sorts, with eight new holiday tracks supported by the four songs from that year’s Peace In The Valley EP of gospel music. While not strictly Christmas music, they present a side of Elvis Presley that was perhaps his truest. Indeed, his gospel recordings rank among his finest performances. “(There’ll Be) Peace In The Valley (For Me)” is a wonderful group vocal, and once you get past the mawkishness of “I Believe”, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” and “It Is No Secret (What God Can Do)” provide pure serenity.
But it’s still the rocking half that people remember, and for good reason. Besides having Scotty Moore, Bill Black and D.J. Fontana holding up the beat in back, this was the debut of Leiber & Stoller’s “Santa Claus Is Back In Town” and the snappy “Santa Bring My Baby Back To Me”, both unmistakably Elvis. In between there’s “White Christmas” a la the Drifters, a swaggering “Here Comes Santa Claus”, “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” and his wacky update of “Blue Christmas”, with that yodeling backing making it more “blue” than sad. The much calmer “O Little Town Of Bethlehem” and “Silent Night” begin side two, for a better transition to the gospel tracks.
Elvis was more of a singles artist than an album artist, but the care put into this original sequence underscore what was lost anytime the contents were shuffled, reshuffled, augmented and diminished time and time again. The least intrusive ones usually pair it with 1971’s Elvis Sings The Wonderful World Of Christmas. Coming from the Vegas jumpsuit years, it’s not completely awful, but over the top and insincere, about as preferable to the ‘50s Elvis as latter-day Bing Crosby is to “White Christmas”. Left in its intended state, Elvis’ Christmas Album demonstrates what made him so special, especially to those of us who weren’t around before he became a caricature.

Elvis Presley Elvis’ Christmas Album (1957)—4

Friday, December 19, 2014

Beach Boys 15: Christmas Album

Like any red-blooded American boy, Brian Wilson loved Christmas. Likely influenced by Phil Spector’s album as well as their own “Little Saint Nick” from the year before (think a thematic cross between a little Deuce Coupe and a certain sleigh), The Beach Boys' Christmas Album was released a month after their live album, Capitol having zero qualms about loading up the shelves with their artists.
Five of the songs are Brian Wilson originals, played (most likely) by the band themselves. “Little Saint Nick” is still the best meld of the holiday spirit and the band’s brand. “The Man With All The Toys” has a jarring hiccup of a supporting part, “Santa’s Beard” and “Merry Christmas Baby” present Mike at his most nasal, while Al is credited with lead on “Christmas Day”. Outside of the occasional quote in a guitar solo, these are pop tunes with specific lyrics. Based on these it’s just as well that Brian didn’t try to write a whole album of Christmas songs, else his nervous breakdown might’ve been sooner or more severe.
To complete the album, the rest of the program consists of holiday favorites given lush, Four Freshman-style arrangements, much more typical of Johnny Mathis. Brian sings a couple of the prettier ones alone, but they all come together for the likes of “Frosty The Snowman” and “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”, the latter with an unfortunate “circus” motif in between verses. They give their best blend to “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”, and bury some a cappella gymnastics under Dennis’s “special” spoken message over “Auld Lang Syne”.
Despite the promise of side one, this is not a rockin’ Christmas album, yet it does provide an interesting transition to the more advanced music Brian would create in 1965. The album never really went out of print, and even appeared on CD a few times with varying bonus tracks. At the end of the ‘90s, Ultimate Christmas more than doubled the original lineup with further extras, most notably “Child Of Winter”, a standalone single from 1974, and selections from the band’s aborted 1977 Christmas album. One of these, “Santa’s Got An Airplane”, updated the mode of travel with help of the unfinished late-‘60s track “Loop De Loop”. “Winter Symphony” is a promising Brian Wilson that could stand to be slower and not as busy. There’s even a rare Dennis Wilson recording for that cult base. As with most Beach Boys music post-Endless Summer, these later tracks are simply not as strong as the prime material from the original era. (Their a cappella rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer”, the B-side to “Little Saint Nick”, hasn’t been included on any of these CDs since 1991, but has turned up elsewhere.)

The Beach Boys The Beach Boys' Christmas Album (1964)—3

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Sting 11: If On A Winter’s Night

Way back in 1985, as the singles from The Dream Of The Blue Turtles piled up, Sting recorded an arrangement of the relatively obscure carol “Gabriel’s Message” as a B-side. It gained more exposure a couple of years later as part of the first Very Special Christmas charity album, and with its sparse presentation, even with layered vocals, it has remained a welcome holiday favorite.
The same song opens If On A Winter’s Night…, but it’s a brand new performance that sets the tone for the rest of this not-exactly-Yuletide-themed album. He uses the same breathy, sonorous tone that made his lute album such a tough listen; in the days of vinyl, you’d check the player to make sure it was at the correct speed. The photos of him with his masculine, full beard as he stands in a bulky sweater — reminding one of that professor character Will Ferrell used to play on SNL, talking about his “lover” and gorging himself on goat meat — contemplating either the snow outside or the guitar in his hand, give the game away.
These songs just seem so overdone, even with such humble instrumentation. Even when he does something relatively straight, like the old chestnut “Lo, How A Rose E’er Blooming”, he sinks it with a four-line monologue in the middle that would embarrass Barry White. His wordless vocal interlude on “The Snow It Melts The Soonest” is therefore welcome, as it doesn’t sound like he’s doing a character, or auditioning for a movie role, as demonstrated by his lugubrious reading of “Now Winter Comes Slowly”. “The Burning Babe” comes closest to the Sting of old, with jazzy drums, soprano sax and a decent vocal.
The gushing liner notes, describing how and why the album was recorded, don’t really give much insight as to why he chose what he chose other than they sounded like winter songs. He re-does “The Hounds Of Winter” from his last good album, for no other reason as that one word in the title, or maybe to ensure some publishing royalties. As most of these are traditional songs, he could use the coin. Speaking of which, “Soul Cake” is the wassail song as established by Peter, Paul & Mary; “The Hurdy-Gurdy Man” is not the Donovan song, as that would have been a stretch.
All the way through If On A Winter’s Night… is the nagging thought, “This would be so much nicer if he wasn’t on it.” If you’re looking for yuletide music with an English folk lilt, this isn’t it. As a Christmas album it falls short, and as a Sting album it’s just too precious. Better it be considered a winter album; musically, of course, it’s lovely, and that’s what makes it so frustrating. Subtle hurdy-gurdy, Northumbrian pipes, delicately plucked guitars and other gentle touches often show the potential so often stomped over like so much snow from boots out in the hall. It’s therefore best enjoyed in the background when you’ve finished shoveling out your driveway, since it won’t inspire you beforehand.

Sting If On A Winter’s Night… (2009)—

Friday, December 12, 2014

Stomu Yamashta: Go

Steve Winwood was relatively quiet in the years following the end of Traffic, before gearing up for the solo career that would ultimately bring him a higher love. His first real project was a rather adventurous one, and one that still dwells in relative obscurity today.
A truly odd gathering of musicians, Go was billed as a collaboration between Japanese percussionist Stomu Yamashta, Winwood and Santana drummer Michael Shrieve, in that order. As if that wasn’t enough, their eponymous album also included contributions from Tangerine Dream’s Klaus Schulze on synthesizers, Pat Thrall and Al DiMeola on lead guitars, Junior Marvin from Bob Marley’s Wailers on rhythm, Traffic’s Rosko Gee on bass, backing vocals by Thunderthighs, and string arrangements from none other than Paul Buckmaster. Taken all together, Go melds jazz fusion, synth prog, and even, given the year, disco for an end result that should fail horribly, but doesn’t.
Like all concept albums, good or bad, there’s a story, which isn’t easy to follow considering that it begins on side two. Lyrics for all tracks save one are credited to Michael Quartermain, if that is his real name. And even once you get the story (travel through space and time, good vs. evil, what is the nature of man, how can you mend a broken heart and so forth) you don’t really care; it’s the music that matters.
A suitably spacey intro brings in “Solitude”, which turns into “Nature” in time for Winwood’s first, tentative vocal. Similarly, “Air Over” is a setup for “Crossing The Line”, a more straightforward rock song. “Man Of Leo” is pretty dated funk, but some typical tasty Hammond organ work, melding to DiMeola’s solo workout for “Stellar”, punctuated by seemingly random clanging that will inspire fans of Blazing Saddles to exclaim “The sheriff is near!” The story presumably ends with the extended extraterrestrial effects of “Space Theme”.
Lots more space sounds dominate side two, through “Carnival” which is meant to evoke Stravinsky, but might be better appreciated with “Atom Heart Mother” or “Saucerful Of Secrets” as a point of reference. Winwood returns halfway through the side with some truly mushmouthed vocals on “Ghost Machine”, a brisk number that ends almost as quickly. “Surf Spin” floats around to set up “Time Is Here”, an aimless jam for a “seize the day” message, while “Winner/Loser”, credited solely to Winwood, has a contemporary Elton John vibe, but also sounds the most like the natural follow-up to the last Traffic album.
Most of the participants would go on to perform and release the suite (in its correct order, with extended solos) for the self-explanatory Go — Live From Paris, and most save Winwood would return on Go Too. The albums have appeared on CD, sometimes combined into a complete set, but the original LP, with its wonky sequence and booklet, is still preferred.

Stomu Yamashta/Steve Winwood/Michael Shrieve Go (1976)—3

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Jethro Tull 6: Living In The Past

Now that they’d gotten very far away from their roots, it was time for Jethro Tull to look back. Living In The Past first arrived in a thick cardboard package, like old 78s used to, with a booklet of photos showing how the band had changed from album to album. Along with familiar hit singles from the albums, various non-album tracks helped sweep up anything that might have gone missing, and demonstrate their progress—particularly in America, where some songs were making their vinyl debut.
Beginning appropriately with “Song For Jeffrey”, several early singles get wider exposure, from what sounds like an electric mandolin on “Love Story” and the reverent yet cautionary “Christmas Song”. The collection’s title track has since become an FM radio staple, if one can imagine a 5/4 tune with a flute part that quotes from “You Really Got Me” becoming a hit. “Driving Song” is a blues shuffle, and “Bourée” represents the second album.
The sinister “Sweet Dream”, made more unsettling by the trumpets, gives way to the more swinging “Singing All Day”. “Teacher” represents Benefit, while “Witch’s Promise” points to the English folk sound where they were headed next. The Americans could now enjoy the tightly intricate “Alive And Well And Living In” (in place of “Inside”), more so than the celeste-driven “Just Trying To Be”.
What was side three presents two selections from a Carnegie Hall concert, and recorded very cleanly, we might add. “By Kind Permission Of” is a mostly-solo piano medley of familiar classical themes and blues clichés, joined here and there by Ian’s flute, the band coming in at the very end. “Dharma For One” is extended for even more soloing.
Sporting the appetizing image of “the excrement bubbles”, “Wond’ring Again” was a predecessor to “Wond’ring Aloud” from Aqualung; here it’s followed by “Hymn 43” from that album, while the Brits got “Locomotive Breath”, which would have been preferred. The balance of the set presents the Life Is A Long Song EP; the title track, the nostalgic “Up The ‘Pool” and the grateful “Nursie” make it a less labored alternative to the sound of Thick As A Brick, while “Dr. Bogenbroom” and the instrumental “For Later” pick up the pace in between.
Because of the differences between the UK and US lineups, and future attempts to squeeze everything onto a single CD, several editions of Living In The Past have emerged over the years. But whatever the sequence, the first-time listener (guilty) will be pleasantly surprised at the new sounds, the “hits” kept to a minimum. And because it covers the arc of five albums, there’s not a lot of sameness over the two LPs.

Jethro Tull Living In The Past (1972)—

Friday, December 5, 2014

The New Basement Tapes: Lost On The River

Given the development of this unique little album, it’s bound to confuse people who aren’t obsessed with Bob Dylan or any of the participants. (Especially since its release was arguably overshadowed by a product more important to those obsessed.) Basically, it’s new music written to suit a pile of handwritten lyrics most likely dating from prior to the recordings known for years as The Basement Tapes. (Something similar happened in the ‘90s with unused Woody Guthrie lyrics, so there’s another precedent.) The project was driven by T Bone Burnett, so ultimately, it’s a T Bone Burnett album, familiar to anyone who’s heard the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack or Raising Sand, the stellar meeting of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. The New Basement Tapes is the name given to the collective, these song gathered under the title Lost On The River.
They’re not trying to recapture the basement sound of “Million Dollar Bash” or “Please Mrs. Henry”, but living within the country, blues and Appalachian folk that people like Greil Marcus insist inspired the original sessions. Banjo and fiddle courtesy of Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops make this a distinct slice of Americana, and that’s considering that two Brits—Burnett buddy Elvis Costello and Marcus Mumford on leave from Mumford & Sons—are involved. Jim James of My Morning Jacket and Taylor Goldsmith from Dawes round out the group, and everybody swaps instruments when one is needed. (Of course, there’s a deluxe version with five more songs, one per band member.)
As per his recent work, Elvis tends to over-emote and spit. “Six Months In Kansas City” is two songs stuck together, encouraging shouted asides from the rest of the group, but still fares better than “Married To My Hack”. “Golden Tom—Silver Judas” could go on his “Sugarcane” albums, and the lovely melody on his version of “Lost On The River” (denoted “#12”) makes it the keeper of his contributions. (It was a smart move to record several versions of each song to inspire collaboration, and certainly to set up a possible sequel already in the can should demand arise, but the mind shivers at the possibility of stabs at “Hidee Hidee Ho” that didn’t make the first cut.)
Elvis is arguably the biggest “name” here, but he doesn’t nudge aside the lesser-known players. If anything, this album will expose people to them. Jim James already made a stamp as a Dylan interpreter from his appearance in the surreal faux-biopic I’m Not There. Arguably, his songs sound the most like potential Dylan songs, given his voice’s similarity to the Nashville croon. “Down On The Bottom” builds well, while “Nothing To It” is both jaunty and rocking, infused with a wonderful fuzz.
The original basement sessions were a pointed boys’ club, so having a woman sing on these also makes it separate from that established norm. At first appearance Rhiannon Giddens reminds the listener of Natalie Merchant, who appeared on the Billy Bragg and Wilco collaborations on the Guthrie material, but that comparison is grossly unfair considering how much more she offers. She infuses “Spanish Mary” with a melody that Bob would have been happy to pinch himself (and if he keeps making albums, he still might). And her closing take of “Lost On The River” (denoted “#20”) is pleasingly spooky. Taylor Goldsmith’s “Liberty Street” also recalls the Bragg/Wilco project, only because it’s so damn gorgeous, while “Card Shark” sounds uncannily like early Bruce Cockburn. Marcus Mumford’s offerings sound a lot like what’s thus far brought him a fan base; “Kansas City” and “Stranger” are his standouts, the latter a welcome example of Dylan wordplay.
But even though Dylan was the spark for the project, and he did endorse it while keeping his distance, the album is best appreciated out of that context, and for that, it succeeds. To get a better appreciation for their accomplishment, the Lost Songs: The Basement Tapes Continued documentary is rather illuminating, though the staged recreations of the events of 1967 inspire more winces than wonder.

The New Basement Tapes Lost On The River (2014)—4

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

David Bowie 34: Nothing Has Changed

Celebrating fifty years of media manipulation, the Nothing Has Changed compilations capped a fertile period of activity for David Bowie, in which he got lots of press but only appeared in public via the videos for his well-received The Next Day album. We say “compilations” plural because, in an echo of the Best Of Bowie deluge of a different version appearing depending on what country you bought it in, this new set appeared at least three ways, each with a different cover: a three-CD set in reverse chronological order, a two-CD in forward order, and a two-LP version that jumps all over the place. Besides being a nod to the Changes albums (and song) from the RCA years, when it comes to repackaging, nothing has changed.
To entice the Bowie nut who has everything already, many of the songs appear in various edits or remixes. That’s fine if you want the Pet Shop Boys hijack of “Hallo Spaceboy” or the condensed single of “‘Heroes’”, but Bowie’s propensity to release multiple remixes of the same song makes only slightly more sense than the Stones. (Speaking of which, is there anyone out there who thinks the Jagger duet on “Dancing In The Street” belongs on anything purporting to be his “best”?) Nothing from the Tin Machine era is included, leaving a gap but also keeping the sound consistent between the late ‘80s and the early ‘90s.
With all the repetition, there are some interesting, truly rare tracks. “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)” is a lengthy croon over an edgy jazz traffic jam, not unlike Elvis Costello’s experiments in the same Herrmannesque territory. Touted as a “brand new song recorded specially” for the set, he needn’t have bothered. Much more exciting are “Let Me Sleep Beside You”, “Your Turn To Drive” and particularly “Shadow Man” from the unreleased Toy album, begging the question of whether that will ever be released on its own. And for those of us who don’t have anything from before “Space Oddity”, a handful of early singles (sorry, no “Laughing Gnome”) enables the selections to span fifty years.
As ever with these things, Nothing Has Changed is a good Bowie set for the newcomer, and frustrating for the longtime fan. But at least the Stones didn’t put out another hits album this year.

David Bowie Nothing Has Changed (2014)—4