Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Elvis Costello 4: Get Happy!!

Armed Forces was successful, but a handful of PR mistakes collided to derail any momentum Elvis Costello had gained in America. With the exception of a few scattered singles, his career never really recovered on this side of the pond.

Back home in the UK, he he produced the excellent first album by The Specials, then decamped to Holland with the Attractions to work on his next album. This time the influence was a stack of Motown and Stax 45s, with the ska and dub sounds of the Specials hanging over the edges. With ten songs crammed onto each side, Get Happy!! delivers a hell of a bang for your buck.

Despite the misleading back cover listing that swapped the sides, “Love For Tender” sets the pace with pointed puns and breakneck speed, followed by the contrast of the softer soul in “Opportunity”. Such give and take between styles continues throughout the side, with no noticeable repetition. Nearly every song has something to offer: “The Imposter” would give him a pseudonym down the road; “Secondary Modern” goes back to soft soul to complain with a few British expressions to confound Americans; “King Horse” is a showstopper with Pete Thomas clever using one part of his kit at a time for accents and Bruce Thomas all over his fretboard. “Possession” and the one-man-band “New Amsterdam” ape the Beatles without stealing, while “Men Called Uncle” (singular on the original LP, not plural) nods at pop art with its throwback title and tight structure. “Clowntime Is Over” is another showstopper of a performance, and “High Fidelity” takes his wordplay and vocal ability to even higher levels. And that’s just side one.

Side two is virtually bookended by a couple of obscure R&B covers: Sam & Dave’s “I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down” is about twice as fast, while “I Stand Accused”—which Elvis probably heard by the Merseybeats—is also given an amphetamine kick. “Black And White World” crashes its way through to “5ive Gears In Reverse”, both showcases for Steve Nieve on the Hammond B-3, but Bruce inserts some very deft lines himself, and dominates the dub-tinged “B Movie”. “Motel Matches” works in a reference to Sam Cooke for a near-ballad, while “Human Touch” is near ska. “Beaten To The Punch” is a great trashy tune, complete with Stax-style guitar solo, just as “Temptation” directly quotes Booker T & the MG’s. And again, even though the cover said it ends side two, the true finale is the pointed, passionate “Riot Act”, the angry suicide note that closes the album.

While the original LP boasted twenty tracks, each of the reissues has trumpeted a similar abundance. The Ryko version was packed to capacity, adding ten B-sides and/or demos (most of which were familiar from Taking Liberties), plus an unlisted snippet of the demo for “Love For Tender”, which cut off abruptly. In a nod to the original back cover, the track list was printed in reverse order. The Rhino version included a whopping fifty tracks on two discs—the original LP on one, with the Ryko bonuses (including the complete “Love For Tender” demo) and additional outtakes, demos, and live tracks, pretty much grouped in that order, on the other. The new (to us) alternate takes are especially fascinating, as they provide a bizarro version of the album that’s more modern ska than classic soul, except in the case of “B Movie”, which is the opposite. There are even three songs that would eventually be redone for his next album; plus, the demo for “Seven O’Clock” has lyrics that would end up in another song there too. (Keep listening at the end of the disc for a clever radio ad.)

The extras give a glimpse at more of the influences that shaped the album, as well as some one-man-band tracks that kept collectors busy when they had been released on EPs or as B-sides. But even taken on its own, Get Happy!! is truly one of his best.

Elvis Costello & The Attractions Get Happy!! (1980)—5
1994 Rykodisc: same as 1980, plus 11 extra tracks
2003 Rhino: same as 1994, plus 19 extra tracks

Monday, April 28, 2008

Buffalo Springfield 1: Buffalo Springfield

They were together for approximately two years, during which they released three albums and Neil Young quit twice. But the moderate success of Buffalo Springfield led to the emergence of Crosby, Stills & Nash, Poco, country-rock in general, and Neil’s own dizzying career.

They were something of a counterpart to the Byrds in that they had something of a vocal blend, but were more rounded as musicians. Rather than a distinct single instrument a la the 12-string Rickenbacker, the Springfield sported the dueling lead guitars of Stephen Stills and Neil Young, who both wrote their own songs as well. Richie Furay was the best singer of the three, resulting in great harmonies, and bassist Bruce Palmer and drummer Dewey Martin provided a powerful rhythm section.

However, while the music on their self-titled debut is certainly catchy and influential, the songs only hint at each writer’s potential. The production throughout is shackled to a fairly typical mid-‘60s California sound not unlike the first Monkees LPs, but a lot of albums sounded like that then, and considering the two “producers” were also Sonny & Cher’s managers, the boys would have to wait until their next album to really stretch. (And boy, did they.)

Stephen dominates side one, showing his knack for catchy pop songs off the bat with “Go And Say Goodbye” and “Sit Down, I Think I Love You”. “Leave” is almost punk garage (Velvet Underground, anyone?) with lots of manic soloing. “Hot Dusty Roads” is an awkward attempt at wordplay filling empty lyrics, done much better with “Everybody’s Wrong” and “Pay The Price”. Despite a menacing intro, “Baby Don’t Scold Me” is more garage pop, with a cute quote from “Day Tripper”.

Neil provides the balance, and the two he sings aren’t overtly indicative of where he’d go. “Burned” is average, with a honky-tonk piano that wasn’t on too many pop songs in those days, while “Out Of My Mind” illustrates his discomfort with this whole fame thing. Of the rest, Richie sings the sweet “Flying On The Ground Is Wrong” and “Do I Have To Come Right Out And Say It”, which sound more like his eventual style than Neil’s. The hidden gem here is “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing”; also sung by Richie, it’s an early example of Neil’s tendency towards major 7th chords and 4/4 against 6/8 time.

Not long after the album was released, Stephen wrote a single called “For What It’s Worth”, which immediately became a huge hit and established his legacy as a songwriter. With no follow-up album close to being ready, the label simply reissued Buffalo Springfield with the single as the lead track, rejigging the track order slightly and dropping “Baby Don’t Scold Me” altogether. (It wouldn’t reappear until 1997, when the album was reissued with both the mono and stereo versions on a single disc.)

Buffalo Springfield Buffalo Springfield (1966)—

Friday, April 25, 2008

Elvis Costello 3: Armed Forces

At this point in his two-year career, Elvis Costello was poised for worldwide superstardom. The novelty of his name had dissipated casual listeners, and his output was keeping up the pace of his tours. And then, as the man himself has said, he screwed it up completely, mostly by being generally disagreeable to the press and specifically via a certain punk in drublic incident.

Armed Forces was the product of several trips across America in a tour bus, with such disparate sounds as Iggy Pop and ABBA in the tape deck providing the soundtrack to the observations from the window seat. There are a few more keyboard sounds in the mix, but the lyrics are as nasty as ever. (After all, the original title of the album was Emotional Fascism.) The pop touches keep the album from being as immediately abrasive as This Year’s Model, but there’s still plenty of anger bubbling beneath the shiny surface.

The brilliance begins in the first track, “Accidents Will Happen”, the opening line of which is “Oh, I just don’t know where to begin.” (This is his third album in a row that starts off with his voice alone for a few notes.) “Senior Service” would seem to be a pun on the cigarette brand to comment on the British welfare system, which would be doubly confusing to American listeners, but they were likely enraptured by the “Dancing Queen”-inspired intro to the equally pointed “Oliver’s Army”. “Big Boys” and “Green Shirt” are further dizzying feats of wordplay accompanied by catchy melodies, while “Party Girl” shows a little tenderness through the Beatlesque fade.

“Goon Squad” continues the martial theme in another excellent arrangement that highlights the band, and “Busy Bodies” returns to his other theme of unrequited lust. “Moods For Moderns” isn’t more than a groove, but it gets more interesting during the verses. “Chemistry Class” is a good slow burner, complete with a joke edit on the word “accidents” reminding you what album it’s on, while “Two Little Hitlers” expertly melds political and romantic references. In the US, in an excellent swap, the album ended with a cover of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding?” that has since become the standard rendition. (We particularly like the little “yang” of the guitar after the final chorus.)

For the longest time, Armed Forces had only been reissued twice. Rykodisc’s CD again followed the UK sequence, which had the hideous “Sunday’s Best” in the middle of what was side two, followed by “Peace, Love And Understanding”, some B-sides (all album outtakes), and the three tracks from the Live At Hollywood High EP that had been included with the first pressings of the LP. The Rhino version followed the Rykodisc sequence up through “Peace, Love And Understanding” on one disc, while the second disc had the Ryko bonus tracks, two alternate takes, and further performances from the Hollywood High concert in their original sequence. (The full show was eventually released on its own, as was the concert that offered the solo version of “Chemistry Class” that closes the second Rhino disc.)

A full decade after its older brothers had undergone their third expansions, Armed Forces was treated to a “Super Deluxe Edition” as fascinating as it was infuriating. The set was only released on vinyl—three LPs, three EPs, and three singles (repeating three songs from the album proper, with “Peace, Love And Understanding” on the flip of Nick Lowe’s “American Squirm”, on which he was backed by the Attractions rhythm section). The package also included notes and ephemera packaged as “comic books and pulp novels”, all for a highly inflated price that defied all but the fanatic rich to afford. (The set was also made available for streaming and download, but with none of the notes.)

All of the bonuses from the Rhino version were carried over, along with a couple repeated from the deluxe edition of This Year’s Model. (That meant the Hollywood High portion was again abridged.) Musically, the most interesting aspect of the set was the three discs gleaned from three different concerts, all previously unreleased (save one song from a Get Happy!! reissue and two from an official DVD). Besides presenting the Attractions in all their splendor, even yelling backing vocals, we get a sampling of several Armed Forces tracks that preceded the album’s release, as well as pre-studio versions of things like “B Movie”, “Opportunity”, and “I Stand Accused”. Nick Lowe himself even turns up to offer harmonies on “Peace, Love And Understanding”. Of course, we also get multiple runs through the likes of “Pump It Up”, “Lipstick Vogue”, and “Watching The Detectives”, but this was when they were still fresh.

As far as the original album is concerned, the nod goes to the US version, which also sported a different cover to the UK version’s marauding elephants. Besides, anyone would take such an anthemic closer as “Peace, Love And Understanding” over “Sunday’s Best”. But with all the different versions, Armed Forces is still classic power pop.

Elvis Costello & The Attractions Armed Forces (1979)—4
1993 Rykodisc: same as 1979, plus 9 extra tracks
2002 Rhino: same as 1993, plus 9 extra tracks
2020 Super Deluxe Edition: same as 2002, plus 27 extra tracks

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Elvis Costello 2: This Year’s Model

Now armed with a band of his own, Elvis Costello hurdled the sophomore jinx with a set of songs inspired by—according to him—a new life on the road, the Rolling Stones’ Aftermath and a rhyming dictionary. This Year’s Model offers much of the same approach as My Aim Is True, but gets heat from the three guys who were arguably the best backing band on the planet. The two Thomases (Bruce on bass, Pete on drums) were not brothers, but were locked as tight as any rhythm section should be. Classically trained Steve Nieve, barely out of his teens, colors the stereo picture with manic organ swirls and occasional piano. And of course, they had those incredible songs to play with.

This album runs the gamut from punk energy to catchy pop with a few anthems in between. The urgency of the music matches the attack in the vocals, helped by Nick Lowe’s simple, highly competent production.

The pounding “No Action” provides another crashing opening, with the Attractions at full throttle. “This Year’s Girl” is another indictment of fashion modes, while “The Beat” is more repetitive on the surface with some forced rhymes, but listen for Bruce’s terrific bass fills. The track’s shortcomings are more apparent when followed by “Pump It Up”, a caffeinated update of “Too Much Monkey Business” and “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. (Its own influence would endure ten years later when The Escape Club had an international hit with the soundalike “Wild Wild West”.) That onslaught is tempered by the piano driving “Little Triggers”, but it’s back to thrash with the Stonesy, paradoxical “You Belong To Me”.

Side two fades in on a strange combination of feedback and backwards voice before “Hand In Hand” continues as a more standard track. “Lip Service” crackles with catchy pop, but the burbling organ of “Living In Paradise” hasn’t aged very well, mirroring “The Beat” somewhat. This is forgiven by the dizzying drums that kick off “Lipstick Vogue”, an absolute tour de force of a band performance. Here in the US, the album ended with another anthem in “Radio, Radio”, which takes on a favorite sore subject.

Whether taken song by song or as a whole, This Year’s Model is a very satisfying listen. Elvis still performs these songs onstage today, and for good reason. While his debut startled listeners, it’s arguably this album that gets held up as his greatest success, and the one against which any of his other “rock” albums are matched.

In a disturbing trend, the album has also been reissued several times, none of which filled a CD to capacity. The Rykodisc version followed the UK sequence, which included the single “(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea” as the second song on side two and ended with the mildly menacing “Night Rally”. After the requisite silence gap came “Radio, Radio”, plus the B-side “Big Tears” and “Crawling To The USA”, which was recorded over a year later and included on a movie soundtrack. Another gap prefaced three demos: two songs that would make the next album, and the unfinished two-chord ramble “Running Out Of Angels”.

Rhino’s version followed the same sequence as the Ryko up through “Radio, Radio” on one disc, and began the second disc with the extra Ryko tracks. Two more “demos” recorded for a radio session were previews for future tracks, but more welcome was the B-side cover of the Damned’s “Neat Neat Neat”, recorded on the “Live Stiffs” package tour. A version of Ian Dury’s “Roadette Song” wasn’t as interesting as the two alternate takes of album tracks, but the BBC take of “Stranger In The House” with the Attractions is the best version.

The Hip-O “Deluxe Edition” confusingly included the same contents of the Ryko version along with four of the Rhino extras (and “Tiny Steps”, which had been a bonus track on a different album altogether) on one disc, paired with a disc containing a complete 1978 concert. This theater show is not identical setlist-wise to a club show recorded a week later, though “Less Than Zero” already has its alternate lyrics. It’s a little less raucous, and notable for a solo encore that was a preview of his next album (and already used as a bonus track for that one). As nice as these bonuses are for collectors, they’re merely a footnote to the album’s original 11 (or 12) tracks.

For some reason, Elvis bankrolled a re-imagining of the album in 2021, wherein the original backing tracks were remastered for even more clarity, but the vocals were added karaoke-style in Spanish by native speakers. Spanish Model was joined on the shelves by another edition of the original album, again using the original UK sequence with “Big Tears” and “Radio Radio” tacked onto the end.

Elvis Costello & The Attractions This Year’s Model (1978)—5
1993 Rykodisc: same as 1978, plus 7 extra tracks
2002 Rhino: same as 1993, plus 7 extra tracks
2008 Hip-O Deluxe Edition: same as 1993, plus 22 extra tracks
2021 remaster: same as 1978, plus 3 extra tracks

Friday, April 18, 2008

Beatles 9: Yesterday And Today

It’s safe to say that over the years, most people have been more interested in collecting various versions of this album’s sleeve in various states than they have been in actually listening to the contents. Without going into immense detail, some bright bulb at Capitol actually went along with the band’s notion that cover art depicting the lovable moptops in bloody smocks and maniacal grins holding slabs of raw meat and burnt, decapitated baby dolls was a good idea. Within days of being shipped by the truckful, “Yesterday”…And Today was recalled and redistributed with a cover photo that was just as hideous, but for less lurid reasons. So in addition to having some new music to ingest, kids could keep busy trying to peel back the clean cover to get to the image hidden below. That’s why today it’s hard to find a vintage copy that hasn’t been all torn up. All this because, once again, Capitol didn’t want to wait two months for the next proper Beatles album, already in progress.

This back story tends to overshadow the fact that it’s still an interesting album. The single pairing of “Day Tripper” and “We Can Work It Out” got simultaneous worldwide release at Christmas, but their non-appearance on the American Rubber Soul proved that the Capitol marketing department was not ruled by any set strategy or logic; hence it’s nice to have them here. “Nowhere Man” had been pulled from the British Rubber Soul for use as a late-winter single, and it was included here along with the previous summer’s “Yesterday” (not released as a single in the UK until 1976) and their Ringo-sung B-sides (“Act Naturally” and “What Goes On”) as well.

Using those remainders from Help! and Rubber Soul, plus the previous holiday single and three tracks from the upcoming Revolver, the album covers a wide spectrum, from experimental Pop Art to the slush of the title tune. It’s those new tracks—“I’m Only Sleeping”, “Dr. Robert”, and “And Your Bird Can Sing”, all three surreal Lennon compositions making their exclusive worldwide debut—that give this album its edge. Add the stellar chromium shine of “Nowhere Man” and “If I Needed Someone”, and the album forms a bridge of sorts between Rubber Soul and Revolver, arguably making the transition less jarring. (However, Capitol took a gamble by not including “Paperback Writer” and “Rain”, the current worldwide single; see previous statement regarding marketing genius.) For all that, it manages to succeed. Even if some of the songs were over a year old.

Those who did appreciate “Yesterday”… And Today for its musical merit certainly welcomed its inclusion in the 2014 “U.S. Albums” rollout. Not only did it include all the songs in both mono and stereo, but it also came in the original cover with a sticker included of the new cover, making it a neat mini-replica. We haven’t heard if anyone’s pasted theirs on.

The Beatles “Yesterday”… And Today (1966)—4
UK CD equivalent: Help!/Rubber Soul/Revolver/Past Masters

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Nick Drake 3: Pink Moon

The music on Pink Moon, Nick Drake’s stark third album, is generated by only his vocal and guitar, with one brief and simple added piano passage. The words are just as stark, but that’s not to say the images displayed are clear-cut.

The deceptively cheery opening of the title track lulls the listener into a pastoral country scene (extended in the famous Volkswagen commercial). His moon is foreboding, hinting at certain doom; whatever it is, all he tells us is that it’s “gonna get ye all”. Something’s about to go wrong, and it’s not going to be pleasant. “Place To Be” has a pretty swingset opening, suggesting a wistful longing for the simplicity and carefree, lazy days of childhood, where he was shielded from the “truth hanging from the door”. What starts out as a reverie of youth is transformed after the variation in the interlude into either pining for an estranged lover (if you’re a romantic) or the pit of addiction (if you’re not). An excellent illustration of his genius simplicity, “Road” is a repetitive guitar piece with an equally repetitive vocal. He asserts that he knows the sun isn’t shining, so don’t try to tell him otherwise. His glass is half-empty. Easily one of his best, “Which Will” is an example of a list that works. It’s quite a heartbreaking portrait of the jilted lover asking simply where his beloved will go, do, and choose now that her life doesn’t revolve around him. By the end the questions become firm, almost scornful; less a query and more of a challenge. As instrumentals go, “Horn” is brief, simple again, and highly effective. The melody seems so familiar, almost a fanfare had it been played on an actual horn instead of two strings on the guitar. As an interlude, it distracts us from what’s next, another minor-key worrisome admission. “Things Behind The Sun” starts ambiguously with a suspended 2nd chord, the type that could go into a major key, but here chooses the minor instead. A rarity for Nick, it’s in standard tuning, albeit capoed, yet he still finds unusual fingerings and voicings within the structure. Typical of his work, the words carry a lot of alliteration and assonance. The mood alternates between reassurance and caution, telling himself to guard against change but stay open for beauty, to cover weakness and show strength despite what others say. “The movement in your brain sends you out into the rain” suggests the possibility of exploring the outside world to escape the downward spiral of isolation, but it also hints of teetering on an insanity so potentially dangerous to others that he’s best locked away.

Things aren’t much sunnier on the second side. “Know” on paper is as black as it gets here. A shuffling boogie beat under four pissed-off lines framed by the wordless “ooh”s at both ends, this is the closest he gets to blues, and it’s more Delta than Chicago. The hypnotic “Parasite” has a very common chord sequence with voicings that pull it above mere reiteration. The city he documented on Bryter Layter has left him beaten and feeling truly in the way, not insignificant enough to just be ignored, but swatted aside, yet he feels no empathy for people hanging themselves with “rope too short” or dealing with their own day-to-day problems. “Ride” has an almost rocking quality that could easily accommodate a ticking high-hat and snare with “Taxman” bass in an arrangement. Whatever was bothering him wasn’t keeping him from playing at a fluid pace; listen to those fingers go! The beginnings of the vocals have long held notes echoing those in “Know”, and then mimic the guitar parts perfectly with meaningful lyrics to match. (It’s also an interesting juxtaposition on the side: the “Parasite” is asking for a “Free Ride”.) “Harvest Breed” is similar to “Road” and “Horn”, existing just long enough to create a transition. Whatever the harvest breed is, it conjures up images of autumn, and end of the years when living things are cut down or dying, “falling fast and falling free”. “From The Morning” is just as beautiful in its own way as “Northern Sky”, and ends the album on the same glimpse of hope. He looks at the entire day and finds beauty in every moment, in every aspect of every light and shadow, providing a soothing finale to an unsettling record. (Nick’s tombstone even includes words from this song as his epitaph: “And now we rise, and we are everywhere.”)

The story behind Pink Moon is that he recorded it, quickly, and dropped it off at the label office for them to press and release, which they did, happily. At just over 28 minutes it still manages to hold one’s interest, and its economy would be something more “artists” should emulate. (The cover art is just as unsettling as some of the music, with an impressionistic painting that attempted to illustrate some of the song titles on the front and back, the gatefold featuring a photo negative from a commissioned session held at the time. Personally, we’re more enchanted by a now-famous snap from that session of Nick walking alongside a friendly dog.)

Nick Drake Pink Moon (1972)—

Friday, April 11, 2008

Nick Drake 2: Bryter Layter

Having translated his experiences at Cambridge and the English countryside to music on his debut, Nick Drake turned his eye to London. What he found there was alternately enlightening and confusing.

Bryter Layter opens much like his first album, with delicate fingerpicking and warm strings. The instrumental “Introduction” has themes that will turn up two songs later; on further listening you realize the guitar stays the same, while the strings bring the actual melody, the type of thing Brian Wilson would have done. “Hazey Jane II” is the first real song, and frankly weaker than its namesake later on the side. The breathless vocals with the car-horn brass show that he’s definitely in another place, and unsure of his footing, but in the second half of the song he tries to get his bearings and settle in. In “At The Chime Of A City Clock”, he’s still wandering the city streets, then chooses to “stay indoors, beneath the floors” since most people consider him “either weird or lonely”. The chorus has a way of rising, giving the feeling of the brisk breeze on your face through city streets, and the saxophone is a nice touch without being as obtrusive as horns can be. There’s a very effective change after the second chorus, setting us up for the third, quieter chorus and the climax of the final chorus. “One Of These Things First” starts out as a meditation on karma and reincarnation, but soon turns into a list instead of a song, to the point where one might tune out and miss the more effective middle section, which redeems the track. Then “Hazey Jane I” comes cascading in, soon joined by the strings. Whether or not this Jane is the same hazey one as before, or if she’s related to Mary Jane on the first album—the line that suggests she’s “riding a new man” in particular raises an eyebrow—it’s a very gentle song despite the urgency of the guitar, and just gorgeous all the way through.

Side two begins with the title track, another instrumental. Neither as dramatic nor moving as the “Introduction”, it leaves one wishing for more to grab onto, or at least lyrics. Yet the idea that things will be brighter later suggests a bit of hope. “Fly” chimes in with a lovely stairstep guitar figure echoed by John Cale’s perfect viola. The words are pleading, with music that gives the sensation of falling or sinking. Notice how he strains at every “please”, and relaxes for every “now” or “come”. It’s set up, and seems just about to resolve, but instead floats away. The only recording of Nick playing an electric guitar, the jazzy “Poor Boy” also seems to be more of a list, but the half-mocking backing vocals (also the only backing vocals in his catalog) keep the song rolling for six-plus minutes without dragging. (“Nobody knows how cold it goes” is right out of A.A. Milne, another touchstone.) “Northern Sky” is one of his loveliest songs, and one of the most hopeful. After all the discomfort of adjusting to the city and the people he’s met and missed, he still finds someone he thinks he can trust, wants to trust. John Cale’s keyboards color the song beautifully, especially the poignant middle section. One might think it really is going to get brighter later. But “Sunday” creeps in with a hint of concern, the minor key and flute carrying this third instrumental, closing the album. A slight buildup hints at a turn for the better, then a pause, but it’s back to the sad, quiet theme from before.

Where the first album was mostly down, which masked the bemusement, Bryter Layter nearly suggests that change is good, and that the journey was worth it, but it nevertheless ends warily. The instrumentals and some similarities between songs suggest a limited well, suggest that it lacks the breadth and spectrum of Five Leaves Left. But that’s how he planned it, and it truly works better as a whole entity, the best tracks illuminated by those around them. (The cover art is another good match. The portrait of the artist on the front is only slightly let down by the dated groovy lettering, and the shot on the back observing the nighttime freeway is another wonderful portrait. In recent years another allegedly proposed cover emerged, and we can’t decide if it’s better.)

Nick Drake Bryter Layter (1971)—

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Nick Drake 1: Five Leaves Left

It seemed as if he just floated in. And then he was gone.

Nick Drake took elements of a variety of influences, from Dylan folk to English guitar, jazz to classical, yet emerged with something somewhat indescribable, something that has to be heard to be appreciated. Five Leaves Left, his debut album, is a showcase for his soft voice and inspired guitar—in several non-standard tunings—and an excellent place for the curious to start.

The opening song, “Time Has Told Me”, is a perfect introduction to Nick Drake. So many of the elements of what he’s about are contained in these four minutes, from the intricate picking to his trademark third-beat phrasing. It’s a deceptively hopeful song, with underpinnings of forbidding amidst the declaration that the narrator has found his soulmate. Equally mysterious is “River Man”, which lopes along in and out of C and C minor in 5/4. We hear strings for the first time, and the effect is very river-like, with sweeping and urgent yet subtle movements. (The arranger was only used on this track; all other arrangements would be pointedly different. Nick could not be accused of repeating himself.) “Three Hours” is almost Indian in flavor, with its droning undercurrent, alternate-tempo midsection and conga from a guy who’d one day play with the Stones. The lyrics are even more impenetrable that the ones that have come before; apparently they make perfect sense if you’ve traveled three hours from London at sundown, which we haven’t. Already three songs in, we’ve heard music that is incredibly unique and different. The dramatic, somber string accompaniment of “Way To Blue” nonetheless provides something of a lift. There is no guitar here; just Nick singing to Robert Kirby’s masterful baroque arrangement. One of his rare songs performed in standard tuning, “Day Is Done” teems with the despair and edgy regret that comes with an unfulfilled day. By this time he has left an impression as something of a mysterious sad sack, the kind girls mooned after on campuses. The strings come to a halt with a slight ritard, closing side one.

“Cello Song” starts side two, and builds a string at a time until suddenly shifting into a new theme on which the rest of the song lies. It’s similar to “Time Has Told Me” in its reassuring hopefulness to the owner of the pale, frail, strange face who he sees as far away from him, but able to lift him to a “place in the cloud”. “The Thoughts Of Mary Jane” is very much in the fey Donovan mode, with a shrill flute in the mix. It’s reminisicent of some of the songs on the first Mary Hopkin album with their delicate, fragile China cup quality. (The Mary Jane here could be a woman, or what he was smoking; biographers lean towards the latter.) Despite its jaunty, almost vaudeville accompaniment, “Man In A Shed” is a fable as old as the hills. It may be his most blatant statement of pining, but it’s hardly the saddest, as you can hear the wink in his delivery. The music on the coda nicely echoes the relaxed opening, with a variation that’s very effective. “Fruit Tree” also starts with a slowly building figure that turns into something else entirely. This rumination on fame, notoriety and lasting memory is rather profound for a 20-year-old that hadn’t become close to a star at this point. Still, we can’t but think he harbored some desire for that hollow, fleeting recognition. With its piano suggesting last call, “Saturday Sun” finishes the album. He lived much of his life in a climate where it rains everyday, sometimes several times on the hour. The sun is a virtual wake-up call, with people rubbing their eyes, realizing what’s changed, what’s gone, what’s really happening. This track is the most like Astral Weeks—one contemporary album to which this album is compared—with its use of vibes and brushed drums. The silly couplet at the end (and again, you can hear him smiling through his vocal) glides though the jazzy rhythm section, and the album floats away.

Five Leaves Left is subtle, yet shows a lot of breadth and depth in its simplicity. That’s not to say it’s simple; it just is what it is and nothing is wasted. It is a nearly perfect album. His music can be considered timeless, yet it was very much a product of its time. Even the cover photos work—the woodsy suggestion on the front, and the passive observer on the back. In both cases, his face is bemused.

Nick Drake Five Leaves Left (1969)—

Friday, April 4, 2008

Beatles 8: Rubber Soul

While this was the first American Beatle album to have a cover and title identical to its British counterpart, the similarity ends there. The US version of Rubber Soul takes ten songs from the UK version (including “Wait”, which had actually been dusted off from the Help! sessions) and replaces each side’s opener (“Drive My Car” and “What Goes On”, neither of which are much of a loss) with a superior orphan from the British Help! (“I’ve Just Seen A Face” and “It’s Only Love”). This is still the way most Americans like to hear Rubber Soul, as the replacements complement the other pot-scented, acoustic numbers.

Ron Schaumburg, author of Growing Up With The Beatles, called Rubber Soul their “wood and smoke” album, for the images it generates of “deep-colored, paneled rooms and warm fires, of wine and haze”. That remains true today, as the new, unique sounds and experimentation—quite groundbreaking for the time—still shine throughout the edited version. But while the English were getting used to having two Harrison compositions per LP, the American thinning process limits George’s input to one (“Think For Yourself”, instead of the superior “If I Needed Someone”); “Nowhere Man” also went under the knife instead of “The Word”. (Also, “I’m Looking Through You” begins with two brief false starts; for this reason the intro on the CD, based of course on the British version, always sounds funny to American listeners.)

So while any version Rubber Soul is undeniably important, there is a lot of affection for the American version. After all, it was also the version that inspired Brian Wilson to record Pet Sounds. Also, fans who’d already inhaled the Help! soundtrack would have been much more familiar with the sound of the sitar than those who’d heard “Norwegian Wood” for the first time and wondered why the guitar sounded so weird.

However, if you bought the CD before 2014, you got the 14-track British version, as the Beatles intended; the 12-track American version was available only in a pricey box released in 2006, until its “U.S. Albums” release eight years later. Either way, you’d still get the unbeatable “You Won’t See Me”, “Michelle”, “Girl”, “In My Life”, “Run For Your Life”, and the other stellar songs above. And you’d get to hear an incredibly mature statement, from a bunch of kids barely in their mid-20s, that’s well worthy of all the praise it’s received as time goes on. And why did Capitol give us 12 tracks instead of the usual 11?

The Beatles Rubber Soul (1965)—5
UK CD equivalent: Help!/Rubber Soul