Friday, March 28, 2008

Elvis Costello 1: My Aim Is True

From that grainy cover photo of a spotty, knock-kneed geek, My Aim Is True establishes a persona for the man who took the stage name of Elvis Costello, and it’s a persona he’s been trying to ditch ever since. The album, recorded in spurts with the unlikely backing of a California band that would one day mutate into Huey Lewis & The News, presents a portrait of an angry young man who can’t understand why his attitude puts people off. It’s an image that would resonate with many who would spend the next thirty-plus years hanging on his every spit-out word.

While several tracks had appeared as singles prior to the album’s release, their inclusion here enhances the overall quality. “Welcome To The Working Week” is something of an overture, crashing into place and setting the stage, followed by the musically diverse romantic commentaries of “Miracle Man” and “No Dancing”. “Blame It On Cain” is nice and bouncy with a good singalong chorus, despite the abstract lyrics. “Alison” remains a tender favorite to this day, extraneous guitar lines notwithstanding, and undoubtedly causing discomfort for countless women finding themselves the object of unwanted lust. After that, the pub rock of “Sneaky Feelings” is a mild letdown. (On the US LP, the striking “Watching The Detectives” single closed side one, channeling television through white reggae.)

Opening side two, “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes” is another terrific singalong with mildly impenetrable lyrics and a chiming backing. The anti-fascist “Less Than Zero” would confuse many American listeners, prompting a new set of surreal verses for that audience’s benefit down the road. “Mystery Dance”, with its retro-rock feel and itchy mood, remains one of the best commentaries on sexual education and the lack thereof. The pub rock sound returns on “Pay It Back”, and “I’m Not Angry” is the very definition of irony, musically and lyrically. The surreal train journey in “Waiting For The End Of The World” nicely bookends the album.

My Aim Is True is a strong debut for what would be a varied career. Nick Lowe’s production balances the vocals and backing well, though one still wishes for the tighter sound the Attractions would bring to his later albums.

The album has now been reissued three times, with varying success. The Rykodisc version had the same sequence as the UK LP, with “Watching The Detectives” at the end. A hyped gap of silence set up the bonus tracks, starting with the “Radio Sweetheart” B-side and the countrified “Stranger In The House”, originally released as a giveaway single. The rest of the program consisted of what the compilers termed “pre-professional” recordings. First there’s “Imagination (Is A Powerful Deceiver)”, a crooner recorded with early band Flip City, followed by six songs recorded in his bedroom. Along with early versions of “Mystery Dance” and “Blame It On Cain”, the otherwise unreleased but excellent “Cheap Reward”, “Jump Up”, “Wave A White Flag”, and “Poison Moon” provide a peek into his development as a songwriter, as various lyrics would be recycled down the road.

When Rhino took over the catalog, it was one of the first albums to be expanded again. This version offered the original LP (plus “Detectives”) on one disc, with the nine extra Ryko tracks on the other, along with early versions of two songs that would be on his next album, and two key live performances: his cover of Bacharach and David’s “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself” and a rewrite of “Less Than Zero”.

Only six years later the Hip-O label gave it another “Deluxe Edition” in the form of yet another two-CD set. This time the LP plus “Detectives” were followed by four so-called “outtakes” (but none of the “pre-professional” recordings) from the Rhino version, and eight unreleased demos. Four would be redone for the album, but “Blue Minute”, “Call On Me”, “I Don’t Want To Go Home”, and “I Hear A Melody” were new to most ears. The second disc contained a complete 1977 concert, with selections from the soundcheck, including songs yet to be recorded, and performed by Elvis with his new band, the Attractions, of whom we would be hearing lots, lots more. (We also hear a lot of their backing vocals, which would not become a staple of their shows.) This Deluxe Edition is recommended for diehards who don’t mind buying the album an additional time, but the “pre-professional recordings” on the Ryko and Rhino versions make them preferable.

Elvis Costello My Aim Is True (1977)—4
1993 Rykodisc: same as 1977, plus 9 extra tracks
2001 Rhino: same as 1993, plus 4 extra tracks
2007 Hip-O Deluxe Edition: same as 1977, plus 35 extra tracks

Friday, March 21, 2008

Beatles 7: Help!

Having lost money on the last film, this time Capitol made sure they had the distribution rights to the Help! soundtrack. The album follows the example set by A Hard Day’s Night—using all of the British side one, with equal time given to interspersed selections from the film score composed by Ken Thorne, elbowing George Martin. In fact, the first thing we hear is an uncredited snippet of the “James Bond Theme” before crashing into the title song.

The balance of the instrumental tracks are a matter of personal taste. “From Me To You Fantasy” and “The Bitter End/You Can’t Do That” utilize Beatle melodies for “suspense” effect. “In The Tyrol” features a Wagner overture, immediately bringing to mind one of the film’s skiing sequences when heard in any other context. But this album does mark the first appearance of Indian instruments on a Beatle record, with “The Chase” and “Another Hard Day’s Night”—a particularly clever medley of three songs from the first movie played on sitars and such.

As for the songs themselves, they’re a strong bunch. John dominates here, with the classic title track and the overtly Dylanesque “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away”. “Ticket To Ride” was already a smash hit single—and justifiably so—and “You’re Going To Lose That Girl” sports more of their trademark call-and-response harmonies. Paul contributes “The Night Before” and “Another Girl”, as well as the lead guitar on both the latter and “Ticket To Ride”. And in case you haven’t sat through the credits of the film, “I Need You” is by George Harrison.

The inner gatefold has lots of pictures and gibberish related to the film, and semaphore experts have confirmed that the figures on the front cover say nothing. Still, the enhanced packaging is a fitting match for the movie itself, which is highly recommended viewing once you’ve seen A Hard Day’s Night and are craving a shot of glorious technicolor. (As some people had such emotional attachment to the movie soundtrack, sitars and all, they likely snapped up its limited release as part of a box set in 2006, and/or the mass-market version as part of the “U.S. Albums” in 2014.)

The Beatles Help! (1965)—
UK CD equivalent: Help! (Beatle tracks only)

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Beatles 6: Beatles VI

Capitol couldn’t wait until August for the next Beatles album, so true to form, they cobbled a stopgap to get a two-month jump. “Eight Days A Week”, with its groundbreaking faded-in introduction, had been siphoned from Beatles For Sale as a hit American single in February, and now it was a featured track on June’s Beatles VI. The title was intended to set the record straight as to which label had the last word on official LP releases; not counting The Beatles’ Story, this was their sixth album on Capitol.

It was technically more ’65 than its predecessor, to be honest. The remaining tracks from Beatles For Sale are included here, in typically shuffled order, along with five early escapees from the recent Help! sessions making their worldwide debut. The contents are rounded out by the recent B-side “Yes It Is” (“Ticket To Ride” being saved for the upcoming Help! soundtrack) and the Larry Williams cover “Bad Boy”, which was allegedly recorded with the US market in mind and wouldn’t appear on British vinyl for 18 long months.

The album kicks off Paul’s stellar vocal on “Kansas City”, meshed with Little Richard’s “Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!”, and doesn’t let up from there. The country sound of “I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party” and Buddy Holly’s “Words Of Love” fits with the R&B of “Bad Boy” and another Larry Williams song, the frantic “Dizzy Miss Lizzy”. “What You’re Doing”, “Every Little Thing”, and “Tell Me What You See” are buried gems, and George works on his songwriting with “You Like Me Too Much”.

This is a strong set, and is a prime example of the timeless universality of Beatles music, to the point where American consumers would gladly purchase a CD version of Beatles VI. But while we were shackled to the British standard, these eleven songs were spread throughout three CDs (or as one of a pricey four-CD set) until the “U.S. Albums” rollout made it widely available again in 2014.

The Beatles Beatles VI (1965)—5
UK CD equivalent: Beatles For Sale/Help!/Past Masters

Friday, March 14, 2008

Beatles 5: The Early Beatles

By the end of a very busy 1964, Capitol had won their lawsuits against Vee-Jay, Swan, Tollie and all the other labels that had spent the year reselling Beatle product, so The Early Beatles appeared in March of 1965. For reasons related to publishing costs, Capitol insisted on putting only eleven songs on their albums, so this one includes all but two of the remaining tracks from Please Please Me (“I Saw Her Standing There” having already appeared on Meet The Beatles!; “Misery” and “There’s A Place” wouldn’t appear on a Capitol album until 1980).

At the time of its release these songs were already two years old—an eternity on the pop charts. But the album still manages to convey the excitement that made their first two singles and subsequent debut such a success in the UK. There are rockers and torch songs, covers and originals. All four Fabs get to show off their voices, and while John’s sore throat colors most of his spots, particularly on “Baby It’s You”, there’s no denying the ache of “Anna” or the power of “Twist And Shout”. (And why did Ringo have to sing about “Boys” anyway?)

Even though the kids had most likely bought all these songs already—despite Capitol’s belief that the cachet of having them on their label made them somehow extra-special—the album managed to chart. And it’s still a great set of tunes. The song order is shuffled, with “Do You Want To Know A Secret” ending the program instead of “Twist And Shout”, which comes right after the opening “Love Me Do”. In between it pretty much follows the 1963 sequence: George sings about “Chains”; “Ask Me Why”, “Please Please Me”, and “P.S. I Love You” show off their first singles; “A Taste Of Honey” keeps it in the cabaret. But since all the songs come from the same period it’s still cohesive. However, the cover art features the photo from the back cover of Beatles For Sale, an anachronistic trend that would continue for most of their 45 picture sleeves as well. (To their credit, the liner notes were practically apologetic.)

So with this album, were the Americans finally caught up with the Brits? Hardly, as we shall soon see. (With the band’s insistence on keeping the world to their wishes, this was one of the few America-only albums that could be easily replicated with a single CD in the UK sequence. Still, fanatics might have appreciated the mono/stereo mixes included in 2006’s Capitol Albums, Vol. 2 box, and argued over the mixes used for the “U.S. Albums” version released in early 2014.)

The Beatles The Early Beatles (1965)—4
UK CD equivalent: Please Please Me

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Beatles 4: Story and ‘65

A variety of fly-by-night companies had been putting out so-called interview records since February 7th, so Capitol decided to jump in with their own “definitive documentary”. Narrated by three soundalike LA DJs, The Beatles’ Story throws us right into the eye of Beatlemania’s storm, with the occasional respite in soundbites from the boys and snippets of songs. A live performance of “Twist And Shout” from the Hollywood Bowl can be heard briefly, but most of the incidental music is courtesy of the Hollyridge Strings, Capitol’s house Muzak orchestra, who often had their albums spotlit as “more great Beatles albums for your collection” on contemporary back covers. The track titles are fairly negligible except when dealing with each member, while the gatefold cover features black-and-white photos from the Washington Coliseum concert and the JFK press conference. This two-record set totals roughly 50 minutes and has endured as a collectors-only piece, and never appeared on CD until its inclusion as part of the U.S. Albums box set (and not available separately, unlike the rest of that box). As Beatles trivialities go, it’s not essential.

Two weeks later, the first American Beatle Xmas season arrived with a brand new worldwide hit single: “I Feel Fine” and “She’s A Woman”. Both were featured on the brand new Beatles ‘65 with gobs of reverb under the supervision of Dave Dexter, Jr. Most of the other tracks come from the Beatles For Sale LP, which was waiting under most of the Christmas trees in the UK. Even after all these years, many longtime fans continue to equate the holidays with the Beatles.

Such nostalgia and the similarity to Beatles For Sale make ‘65 a collection that has aged well. The country sensibilities and world-weary tone in such songs as “No Reply”, “I’m A Loser”, “Baby’s In Black” and “I’ll Follow The Sun” are intact. Ringo and George get the spotlight on a pair of Carl Perkins tunes, “Honey Don’t” and “Everybody’s Got To Be My Baby”. The hit singles and even “I’ll Be Back”, left over from A Hard Day’s Night, where it was the perfect closer, fit neatly with the other tunes. And your dedicated correspondent may be the only person on the planet who likes “Mr. Moonlight”, though we can all agree on “Rock And Roll Music”. (Cover tunes had become necessary if they were going to get an album out by year’s end.)

It’s a solid if short set; none of the Capitol LPs released before 1967 broke the 30-minute barrier save The Beatles’ Story. The liner notes didn’t improve at all, yet somehow they balance the photos of the boys holding umbrellas, rakes and large metal springs. (It’s supposed to illustrate the four seasons. Get it?) The reverb-heavy mix made its official digital-era debut in a limited box set in 2004, before the 11-track sequence was again part of the “U.S. Albums” releases ten years later.

The Beatles The Beatles’ Story (1964)—
UK CD equivalent: none
The Beatles Beatles ‘65 (1964)—5
UK CD equivalent: A Hard Day’s Night/Beatles For Sale/Past Masters

Friday, March 7, 2008

Beatles 3: A Hard Day’s Night and Something New

United Artists had agreed to distribute the Beatles’ first film so they could get the soundtrack LP rights, not thinking that this phenomenon would last the year. Their version of A Hard Day’s Night was a mix between eight songs from the British LP interspersed with four laughable George Martin orchestrations that should offend jazz purists and Beatlemaniacs alike. The lush “And I Love Her” lends itself to Muzak, and the wacky waltz interpretation of the title track is just plain weird. To this day “This Boy” is still referred to on occasion as “Ringo’s Theme” due to its use in the film and on this album.

Yet there’s something wonderful about putting the needle down on side one and hearing that wonderful clang starting the title track. The energy keeps up through “Tell Me Why” and “I’ll Cry Instead” (shortlisted for the film but ultimately replaced in theaters by a reprise of “Can’t Buy Me Love”). George gets “I’m Happy Just To Dance With You”, “I Should Have Known Better” starts side two, and “If I Fell” and “And I Love Her” provide breathers.

While they didn’t gain the rights to the Hard Day’s Night soundtrack proper until the early ‘80s—whereupon it was reissued as is—Capitol was still able to exploit the individual songs all they wanted in 1964. This resulted in three singles containing six songs released within two weeks, simultaneous with the not-quite-accurately-titled Something New. This hodgepodge trumpets the inclusion of five songs from the smash hit movie, and also includes the other half of the Long Tall Sally EP, four songs from side two of the British Hard Day’s Night LP, and the German version of “I Want To Hold Your Hand”.

It’s a lopsided collection all right; the two covers from the EP —“Slow Down” and “Matchbox”—jar with the originals and the German novelty is just plain weird. “Things We Said Today” and “Any Time At All” are wonderful, but “When I Get Home” is one of our absolute least favorite Beatle songs. (“I’m gonna love her till the cows come home”? Really?) The liner notes border on the inane, and a cover shot from the Ed Sullivan show and a growing list of “more Beatles LPs for your collection” tap all the weak spots. (Oddly enough, the two cover songs were released as a single the following month, in a continual attempt to glut the charts. Somehow, Ringo’s attack on “Matchbox” hit #17, and “Slow Down”, complete with flubbed vocals by John, made it to #25.)

The British LP beats both hands down, and not just because every song was written by Lennon and McCartney. (More trivia: that version was one song short of their usual 14 tracks. We would have added “I Call Your Name” had we been consulted.) Of the two American options, Something New gets the nod as being more listenable but—especially considering the absence of the title track and that fantastic opening chord—it doesn’t quite make it as a souvenir from the film, which is mandatory viewing. (While Something New did surface on CD in 2004’s Capitol Albums, Vol. 1 box, the soundtrack didn’t get digitized until its 50th anniversary as part of the “U.S. Albums” releases, alongside Something New.)

The Beatles A Hard Day’s Night (1964)—3
UK CD equivalent: A Hard Day’s Night (Beatle tracks only)
The Beatles Something New (1964)—4
UK CD equivalent: A Hard Day’s Night/Past Masters

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Beatles 2: Second Album

After most of With The Beatles was used for the first album, the rest would turn up on The Beatles’ Second Album, one of the most bonehead titles of its or any day. While Meet The Beatles! showcased the songwriting talents of the Lennon-McCartney team, the leftovers available for Second Album were mostly covers lumped together. They’re all good, of course, but the end result was a less than stellar follow-up.

Here’s where Capitol’s selections start to seem really arbitrary: they included “She Loves You” (a current hit on the tiny Swan label), two B-sides from 1963 (“I’ll Get You” and “Thank You Girl”), “You Can’t Do That” (the B-side of “Can’t Buy Me Love”, the current #1 single not included here) and half of the current British Long Tall Sally EP. It’s an odd set of all uptempo rockers, with sepia-toned photos from the first US visit on the cover—some of which are merely close-ups of hair-covered foreheads. (In fact, many cash-in collections purporting to have Beatle music sometimes sported drawings of hair on the covers to entice the unsuspecting youth.) Still, Capitol can be commended for collecting songs that would otherwise have stayed buried on singles and EPs, even if there wasn’t anything to please the grownups this time.

Ringo doesn’t get a song to sing, but George gets two, on covers of “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Devil In Her Heart”. Paul’s featured doing his best Little Richard on “Long Tall Sally”, but it’s John who gets to really shine on this album. “Money”, “You Really Got A Hold On Me” and “Please Mr. Postman” demonstrate why his is one of the best rock voices ever. And on his own compositions he adds some clever instrumental touches—the ska middle-eight in “I Call Your Name” and the clenched-fist guitar solo in “You Can’t Do That”.

Mathematically, it’s still a good album, but it doesn’t surpass the excellence of the debut. Luckily for everyone concerned, there was plenty more to come, and besides, at this point budding Beatlemaniacs were glad to have anything they could get their hands on. Some of them (not least Dave Marsh, who wrote a whole book “about” the album) positively adored Second Album, reverb and all, and would gladly shell out the bucks for The Capitol Albums, Vol. 1 in 2004 to get it on CD, and maybe even again in 2014 as part of the “U.S. Albums” releases.

The Beatles The Beatles’ Second Album (1964)—4
UK CD equivalent: With The Beatles/A Hard Day’s Night/Past Masters