Friday, May 30, 2008

Beatles 14: Yellow Submarine

Despite minimal acting contributions from the band, the animated Yellow Submarine film was a rousing success, and would indoctrinate new Beatle fans for years to come via television reruns. Naturally, there was a soundtrack album, but those looking for all the songs from the film (culled from several earlier albums and singles) on a single disc would have to wait until 1999.

The album was identical on both shores (with the exception of some front cover text and the back cover notes) and followed the US soundtrack tradition by including George Martin’s orchestral score, which took up the whole of side two. This was his most successful yet, with clever musical twists recalling specific scenes; “Pepperland” is an especially lovely melody in its own right, while “March Of The Meanies” is suitably suspenseful.

Side one offers only the four new songs from the movie, with the title song and “All You Need Is Love” as bookends. It’s something of a booby prize for George, the cacophonous “Only A Northern Song” having been bumped from Sgt. Pepper and the psychedelic jam “It’s All Too Much” not even considered for Magical Mystery Tour. “All Together Now” is another simple but fun one from Paul, while “Hey Bulldog”, recorded while they were filming a promotional clip for “Lady Madonna”, gives John a chance to rock.

The LP was released intact on CD twenty years later on the same day as the White Album CD, leaving many fans scratching their heads as to why the four new songs weren’t simply postponed for inclusion on Past Masters, but more on that later. (A five-song EP—with the four new songs plus “Across The Universe”, of all things—was sequenced for release in early 1969, then cancelled.) It remains one of the least popular Beatles CDs.

When the film underwent a major visual overhaul to coincide with its 30th anniversary, the advertising wizards decided to prepare a companion album that would include every song from the film. Yellow Submarine Songtrack was very well received, if strangely sequenced. Overall, the sound is beefier and nicely complements the brilliant colors of the restored video. Having been restored to its proper place in the film, “Hey Bulldog” was the emphasis track, and was even promoted with re-edited footage from the old “Lady Madonna” promo clip to sync with the recording. A new mix of the title track brings out more sound effects and John’s responses on the last verse.

At only 45 minutes, the feeling remains that there should have been more here; for instance, “It’s All Too Much” is still missing the extra verse heard only in the movie. And even though the film includes a five-second snippet of harmony rehearsal for “Think For Yourself” as well as the intro from “Love You To”, that doesn’t quite justify the inclusion of both here as complete songs. (The same could be said for “Baby You’re A Rich Man”, which was truncated in the film, but we like it anyway.)

The Beatles Yellow Submarine (1969)—3
The Beatles
Yellow Submarine Songtrack (1999)—4

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

George Harrison 1: Wonderwall Music and Electronic Sound

Not counting Paul’s soundtrack to The Family Way, which was largely facilitated by George Martin, George Harrison was the first Beatle to put out a solo album. (He was also the first Beatle to utilize the Apple label as an outlet for his extracurricular work.) Wonderwall Music was released in late 1968, and Electronic Sound followed in May 1969 on the short-lived Zapple label. They are perfect examples of albums no one would care about if George’s name wasn’t on the cover.

The soundtrack to a film that, again, got attention mostly from George’s involvement, Wonderwall Music consists of music played by lots of people besides George, and most likely not even specifically composed by him. But to his credit, he took the opportunity to present a collection of Indian music (much like Peter Gabriel would do twenty years later) along with some more standard rock fare with trippy psychedelic overtones that meshes neatly with the fake ragas. Among the standout rock tracks is “Red Lady Too”, which is based around some faux-baroque piano arpeggios. “Skiing” most likely features Eric Clapton, while “Party Seacombe” has a pleasant groove, with processed voices. “Drilling A Home” has echoes of Harrison fave George Formby, with a trad-jazz loop that had been part of an early mix of “Flying” from Magical Mystery Tour. “Wonderwall To Be Here” has a mournful melody that now bears a resemblance to King Crimson’s “Epitaph”, while “Dream Scene” is a montage that suggests George may have had more in common with “Revolution 9” than he’d like to admit. (One of the drummers used throughout the album is Ringo; see if you can pick him out.)

As a whole it’s not altogether unpleasant, if one can handle the occasional solo by that violin that sounds like a sick cat. We like the album a lot, but it’s not for everybody. (When reissued in the first Apple CD rollout, it included glowing liner notes by Derek Taylor, which, like most of his latter-day writings, are a pretty strong advertisement not to take acid. The 2014 edition added three tracks: “Almost Shankara”, an outtake from the India sessions; “In The First Place”, the George-produced single by the Remo Four lost and then included with the DVD of Wonderwall; and most tantalizingly, the original backing track for “The Inner Light”.)

While Wonderwall Music seems to have remained in George’s heart throughout the years, he barely mentioned Electronic Sound since its first appearance. One reason could be that one whole side was supposedly an extemporaneous performance by Bernie Krause, only to be credited to George (sound familiar?). Or perhaps it was always intended to be disposable. Musically, there’s not much here at all. There are some sinister sounds, jarring swooshes and the occasional flatulent outburst throughout both sides; in time the average Moog user would use these effects sparingly rather than try to sustain a full-length album with them.

Electronic Sound is often asterisked on lists as “for completists only”, and justifiably so. It was quietly reissued on CD in 1996, but only in Europe, and not for long. The Apple Years box set would bring it back worldwide, but 45 years after the fact. Luckily, back in the present day, George’s next solo release — his real solo debut — was a much better portrait of his potential.

George Harrison Wonderwall Music (1968)—
2014 Apple Years reissue: same as 1968, plus 3 extra tracks
George Harrison Electronic Sound (1969)—1

Monday, May 26, 2008

Beatles 13: The White Album

The Beatles stayed relatively quiet musically throughout 1968 while being constantly in the news. The year saw exactly two singles plus one double album appear, and Capitol fought the temptation to collect some of the loose ends onto an LP. (Of course, the Magical Mystery Tour album had taken care of the bulk of the recent leftovers.)

At this point in their career the boys were teeming with ideas, and had the pull to cram as much music as they wanted onto wax—in this case, a two-record set in a plain white cover simply titled The Beatles, which was immediately informally dubbed the White Album. If they had the nerve, they could have put out a three-record set, and it would have sold. As it is, one of the ongoing arguments among Beatlemaniacs is how to create the perfect single-disc version of the White Album.

One reason is that there’s so much to choose from, and most of it is really, really good. They’re still using lots of studio tricks, but they’d just come back from India with thirty songs that had been constructed on acoustic guitars. Most of the performances are straightforward rock ‘n roll songs, and the rest are pretty mature ideas from a bunch of kids with nothing but time.

Even with all the music to choose from, the boys took care to sequence the album well. Neither John nor Paul gets more than two songs in a row, George gets a song on each side—and they’re all excellent—and even Ringo appears twice, one of which being a song he wrote all by himself. (He managed to accomplish this even having quit the band for a few weeks during the sessions.) They also put all the song titles with animals on the same side. Yet despite the wide range of styles, genres, and attitudes, plus the isolationist method each used to craft their songs, the album still makes a cohesive whole. (Also, by this time there weren’t any differences between the American and British versions, except for some cosmetic touches in the factory-stamped packaging, which included lovely individual color shots of the boys, plus a fascinating collage of a poster with all the album’s lyrics—save one track—on the other side.)

We fly in with the Beach Boys pastiche of “Back In The U.S.S.R”, slip over to check on “Dear Prudence”, and are jolted into reality with the mythological baiting of “Glass Onion”. “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” is fun despite itself, while Paul turns it upside down for “Wild Honey Pie”. John provides a twisted nursery rhyme worthy of his books in “The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill”, and George shines with “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”. “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” rocks out side one.

“Martha My Dear” isn’t really about Paul’s dog, but “I’m So Tired” is a clever sequel for a guy who used to be only sleeping. “Blackbird” presents a folk allegory before the classical counterpart in George’s “Piggies”, and “Rocky Raccoon” continues the animal theme, kinda. Ringo finally finishes the song he’d started at least five years earlier in “Don’t Pass Me By”, whereas Paul took way less time for “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?” “I Will” is sweet and simple, but John’s tribute to his mother (and Yoko) in “Julia” is the true gem.

Just in case you forgot what a good band this is, “Birthday” and “Yer Blues” positively scorch. “Mother Nature’s Son” is something of a respite before the clanging bell and upside-down rhythm in “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey”. “Sexy Sadie” offers up some dirty doo-wop, but “Helter Skelter” sets everything on fire, just so George’s purposely quiet “Long, Long, Long” can calm things down.

A version of “Revolution” markedly different from that summer’s B-side takes some of the edge off it, and “Honey Pie” is not at all like the preview on side one. “Savoy Truffle” is George’s sax-filled tribute to chocolate and dental bills, and “Cry Baby Cry” is John’s final nod to Lewis Carroll. A spooky snippet from Paul leads into an overheard conversation and a voice chanting “number nine” for eight nightmarish minutes dubbed “Revolution 9”, which finally fade away so Ringo can sing the lullaby of “Good Night”, since nobody else possibly could.

Revolver is the ultimate desert island CD, but if you can bring an album, you could make a persuasive argument in choosing the White Album. It doesn’t get five stars, since too many people would have a justifiable beef over “Revolution 9”. “Birthday” has also worn out its welcome over the years. Would it really be better as a single album? Maybe. But Paul said it best: “It’s the bloody Beatles White Album, shut up.” Okay then.

But how about this: Dear Prudence - Glass Onion - While My Guitar Gently Weeps - Martha My Dear - I’m So Tired - Blackbird - Piggies - Don’t Pass Me By; Yer Blues - Mother Nature’s Son - Sexy Sadie - Helter Skelter - Honey Pie - Cry Baby Cry - I Will. Those are the current Everybody’s Dummy contenders for a single-disc, 45-minute White Album (with “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” backed with “Long, Long, Long” for the concurrent single). And it’s never easy.

A limited CD package that merely replicated the cardboard packaging of the album, with top-loading pockets for the inner sleeves, photos, and poster, was released for the album’s 30th anniversary. But two decades later, a year after Sgt. Pepper was extravagantly expanded for its own 50th anniversary, the White Album got similar lush treatment, starting with a fresh mix. The cheap version added a bonus disc of the so-called “Esher demos”, 27 songs recorded on acoustic guitars and percussion at George’s house the week before the album sessions started, including some that would be held over for future projects. Non-fanatics might have heard some of these on Anthology 3, but here they all were in best-ever sound, albeit arranged in the eventual album order.

That was all well and good, but a mere trifle compared to the Deluxe Edition, which came in the form of a gorgeous hardcover book—numbered, of course—with a Blu-ray disc with the requisite 5.1 surround mixes and even the mono mix, and wonder of wonders, three more CDs of session outtakes, most never even bootlegged. These traveled the whole length of the project, beginning with the ten-minute take of “Revolution 1” that would become the basis of that track as well as “Revolution 9”. We get to hear works-in-progress of most of the album, as well as “Hey Jude” and “Revolution”, early versions of “Good Night” with guitar and harmonies, more of the sequence that led to “I Will” and the “Can You Take Me Back” snippet, 13 minutes of “Helter Skelter”, a surprising jam on “Let It Be”, and most of all, audio evidence of all four guys actually enjoying themselves and each other. For balance, the set closes with peeks at “The Inner Light”, “Lady Madonna”, and “Across The Universe”, helping to present a wider picture of the band in 1968.

Naturally, this is only the tip of what was recorded, as the book tantalizingly details other takes, and the compilers were careful not to repeat too much from Anthology 3. There are those who will not die happy if they don’t hear the 27-minute version of “Helter Skelter”, and some video material would have been nice, but now that one of the most famous double albums has been tripled in size, it’s moot.

The Beatles The Beatles (1968)—
2018 50th Anniversary Edition: same as 1968, plus 27 extra tracks (Deluxe Edition adds another 50 tracks plus Blu-ray)

Friday, May 23, 2008

Elvis Costello 6: Trust

Trust followed a period of doubt, disenchantment and introspection (not to be his last) that was only slightly reflected in the lyrics. Elvis wrote some of the songs on piano—which pervades throughout the album—and pulled a few from his teenage notebooks. The words are more oblique than ever, and many struggle to fit inside the measures. His voice is a little deeper, and a little weary. It’s still a terrific album.

“Clubland” was the current single, and opens the proceedings with a sinister tone. “Lovers Walk” and “Strict Time” turn the New Orleans sound of the Meters upside down. Big numbers like “You’ll Never Be A Man”, “White Knuckles” and “From A Whisper To A Scream” (featuring Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze on dueling vocals) make one sigh with relief that such bile is directed at someone else. “Shot With His Own Gun” is a hypnotic murder mystery without a discernable plot. The solo finale, “Big Sister’s Clothes”, is a disguised attack on Margaret Thatcher—also not to be his last—while “Fish ‘N Chip Paper” and “Pretty Words” (featuring the most economical overuse of crash cymbals on any rock album) bemoan the degradation of society. “Watch Your Step” is a weak variation on “Secondary Modern” (from Get Happy!!) but the prize goes to “New Lace Sleeves”, easily one of Elvis’s best songs and one of the Attractions’ best performances.

As good as the original album is, the Rykodisc reissue made it even better with an excellent selection of bonus tracks, all but one of which were also included on the later Rhino version. Either reissue is essential for the inclusion of such gems as “Black Sails In The Sunset”, “Big Sister” (a ska version of the album closer) and even Elvis’s own fabulous version of “Sad About Girls”, one of the better songs from the Attractions’ “solo” album from a year earlier.

Elvis Costello & The Attractions Trust (1981)—5
1994 Rykodisc: same as 1981, plus 9 extra tracks
2003 Rhino: same as 1981, plus 17 extra tracks

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Beatles 12: Magical Mystery Tour

The soundtrack to a TV film initially slammed as indulgent, Magical Mystery Tour was issued in the UK as a deluxe double-EP set complete with psychedelic booklet. EPs have long been popular merchandise with a distinct demographic in Britain, but the few tries Capitol had made with the format failed completely. Americans liked 45s, and happily bought full-length albums with all the hits, especially with the quality of Beatles music. So this time, Capitol took all six tracks from the British set and added five extraneous singles sides from the year, making for a very cohesive album. The title track, like “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane”, had been started during the Sgt. Pepper sessions, so all the disparate songs from a very productive year fit well into the fuzzy, trippy mix.

One thing that pervades this album is fun. With the possible exception of “Strawberry Fields” and George’s “Blue Jay Way”, all the tracks deliver a sense of warped playfulness, for possibly the last time in their career. (Considering it was all for a project Paul alone seemed excited about, that says something for their camaraderie.) John delivers some of his more creative work, with “I Am The Walrus”, “Baby You’re A Rich Man”, “All You Need Is Love”, and the masterful “Strawberry Fields”—all compact classics—while Paul indulges his silly side, with “Hello Goodbye”, “The Fool On The Hill”, “Your Mother Should Know”, and “Penny Lane”. Even the simple instrumental “Flying” fits with the rest of the program.

For once it could not be argued that Capitol was onto something. The expanded LP was a concept that worked so well it was eventually released officially in the UK after years of import sales, and even issued in other countries preferring the LP format. It was also included in the late-‘80s CD rollout, and remains in the official Apple-approved catalog today. If you enjoy Sgt. Pepper, you need Magical Mystery Tour; together they give you everything else the boys did in 1967. And chances are, it will enjoy more spins in your CD player than its big brother. (As for the film itself, let’s just say it’s got its moments.)

The Beatles Magical Mystery Tour (1967)—5

Monday, May 19, 2008

Neil Young 1: Neil Young

Having developed a taste for the studio while working with Buffalo Springfield, Neil Young threw himself into his first real solo album (as opposed to simply writing and producing his own songs for Springfield albums). Neil Young has a lot of elements that would reappear down the road, but mostly shows he hadn’t figured out his own sound yet. His voice, in particular, is hesitant, almost trying to croon.

The album opens with “The Emperor Of Wyoming”, a country instrumental with lush strings. “The Loner” has scarier strings, and introduces the distorto-compressed guitar sound that permeates the rest of the album. “If I Could Have Her Tonight” starts nicely, and is almost immediately blown out the door by the urgency of “I’ve Been Waiting For You”. To this day “The Old Laughing Lady” is hard to hear and slow as molasses, features female vocals and strings that make one want to sleep with the lights or the TV on.

Side two kicks off with another instrumental (“String Quartet From Whiskey Boot Hill”) that Neil didn’t even write, for a song he hadn’t finished. It somehow flows nicely into “Here We Are In The Years”, an early meditation on ecology undermined by his unsure vocal. “What Did You Do To My Life?” sounds a lot like the other songs on this album, and is followed by the superior “I’ve Loved Her So Long”. After all these short tunes, “The Last Trip To Tulsa” still gets points for being what it is: a solo acoustic performance with lyrics too weird to be considered surreal. At nine minutes it takes up a good chunk of time and the imagery doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it’s still kinda funny, and the extreme strumming keeps you from tuning out. And then it just ends.

Neil Young is not his worst album, but it would be far from his best. Even he knew it, and matters weren’t helped when the first pressings were subjected to an experimental mastering process that was intended to make it more easily compatible with both stereo and mono outputs, that still being a thing in those days. That gave him an excuse to remix it, but ultimately it’s not the sound that let him down. Yet for all its tentativity, the songs have endured, and he would continue to play them over the decades, honing them into arrangements more true to himself.

Neil Young Neil Young (1968)—3

Friday, May 16, 2008

Elvis Costello 5: Taking Liberties

With the differences between American and British versions of his first three albums, plus several B-sides and EP tracks taking up space in the import racks, Elvis had amassed more than enough for a “rarities” compilation. The UK version (Ten Bloody Marys & Ten How’s Your Fathers) was initially released only on cassette, but Columbia in the US put a little more interest into the Taking Liberties LP. Each boasted twenty songs—just like Get Happy!! And of course, the albums were different: Ten Bloody Marys sported the three singles added to the US albums (“Watching The Detectives”, “Radio, Radio” and “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding”), while Taking Liberties includes “Night Rally”, “(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea”, and “Sunday’s Best”. Well, two out of three ain’t bad.

Some of the songs made it all too clear why they’d been left off albums, but those who hadn’t been chasing down singles and imports had several new favorites to smile about. “Radio Sweetheart” and “Stranger In The House” give hints of a Nashville influence that would resurface all too soon, while a brief solo “My Funny Valentine” and the aching “Just A Memory” show his sensitive side. An alternate take of “Clowntime Is Over” cuts the pace in half, and is arguably as good as the standard version. “Big Tears” and “Tiny Steps” are similar B-sides as good as their A-sides. Any band would be happy to have leftovers of this quality.

While Taking Liberties is out of print (as is Ten Bloody Marys), it was made available as a digital download in September 2008, and the seventeen common songs can all be found on various Rykodisc and Rhino versions of My Aim Is True, This Year’s Model, Armed Forces, and Get Happy!! (The Hip-O Deluxe Editions of My Aim Is True and This Year’s Model include some of these tracks as well.) The six swapped songs from the first three albums are on their respective CDs, reissued by Hip-O in 2007.

Elvis Costello Taking Liberties (1980)—
Current CD availability: none; download only

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Beatles 11: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

It has become cliché to call Sgt. Pepper the greatest album of all time, or even the Beatles’ best album. Musically, it’s average and wincingly dated. However, as a cultural touchstone, it’s incredibly important, so the musicality is probably moot.

Case in point: soon after the start of 1967, the boys’ label got nervous, as there hadn’t been a single since the previous August, and both of those tunes had also been on Revolver. George Martin begrudgingly removed the completed tracks “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” from the running for the album the boys were in the process of recording, resulting in one of the greatest 45s ever. (In fact, if you’re listening to the albums in order to get the full picture, do not proceed from Revolver to Sgt. Pepper without listening to “Paperback Writer”, “Rain”, “Penny Lane”, and “Strawberry Fields”, in that order, first.)

It’s impossible to fathom how much different Sgt. Pepper would have turned out had those songs been left on; as a result, the rest of the album got some breathing room. But if you haven’t heard this album, you need to hear that rushed single first. It had appeared at a time when the moptops had been out of the public eye for what had been an incredibly long time for the era, and when they did emerge, it was with this weird single accompanied by images of the Fabs in—gasp!—mustaches. Once you hear the planet whence came “Strawberry Fields” and “Penny Lane”, it makes more sense that with this album they were trying to do something different.

And it’s true—the title track is definitely a jump from their usual sound, and then they turn the proceedings over to Ringo (“With A Little Help From My Friends”). Then they take us on a sped-up trip to Wonderland with Alice courtesy of the initials L, S and D, and deliver the one song that could be mistaken for a Beatles single (“Getting Better”). “Fixing A Hole” is one of the darker McCartney tunes, followed by the completely dour “She’s Leaving Home”. Just when you’ve forgotten you came to see a show, Lennon drags you back to the psychedelic circus with “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!”

George gets to kick off the second act with an Indian lesson (“Within You Without You”), and then Paul gives a scary foreshadowing of his inescapable music hall tendencies (“When I’m Sixty-Four”). “Lovely Rita” is a wonderful exercise in making a song out of absolutely nothing, with a total disregard of a rhyme scheme, followed by another example (“Good Morning, Good Morning”). A reprise of the title track reminds us why we’re here, and it all comes down to the apocalyptic closer (“A Day In The Life”), which is still a stunner over forty years later.

None of their intended LP canon had made it over the pond intact until Sgt. Pepper, and even that was missing the dog tone and inner groove in the US. But henceforth, all of the British LPs and singles would survive the trip across the Atlantic for the rest of their recording career, though Capitol would still find a couple of ways to put more product in the stores.

Various elements aligned for the EMI marketing department to use “It was twenty years ago today” when Sgt. Pepper became available on CD, and three decades after that, it became the first album in the Beatles catalog to receive a deluxe, standalone upgrade. The album got a brand new stereo mix in 2017, and was packaged in a double-disc set with an “alternate” version of the album, based on early takes, plus new mixes (and outtakes) of “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields”. Those extras, however, were selected from two discs’ worth in the Deluxe Edition, which also included a fourth disc containing the original mono mix plus further rarities. And a DVD and Blu-ray with a 5.1 surround mix plus the 1992 Making Of Sgt. Pepper and promo clips. And a book. And a replica of the “Mr. Kite” poster. All packaged in a facsimile of an EMI tape box, inside a lenticular slipcover.

Even though Sgt. Pepper is not one of our go-to Beatle albums when we’re in the mood, the Deluxe Edition is indeed wonderful. The new stereo mix brings out the bass and drums, as well as elements that were more prominent in the mono mix, for a clearer audio picture. Paul’s voice is the correct speed on “She’s Leaving Home”, but John still sounds like a chipmunk on his songs. The compilers were smart to avoid slipping “Strawberry Fields” and “Penny Lane” into the sequence, but more than make up for it by including four essential early takes of the former (making the single version sound very slow by comparison) and two of the latter. Unlike on Anthology 2, we hear complete original takes and mixes, not combinations of several. That means “A Day In The Life” without Paul’s bridge and no orchestra, “She’s Leaving Home” with extra flourishes between verses, “Within You Without You” before its orchestra was added, and so on. We even get to hear a few stabs at the proposed “hum” ending for “A Day In The Life”, which today sounds like an om chant. In most cases, they released the right mixes the first time around.

But also unlike other “sessions” boxes, it doesn’t include every single take. It also omits “Only A Northern Song”, which was rejected early in the recording process, and the infamous “Carnival Of Light” track that’s supposed to be cacophonous and bizarre. And surely they could have found a version of “Penny Lane” with the extra trumpet coda that didn’t sound like a worn-out 45?

In hindsight, Paul emerges dominantly on the album, his keyboard skills having been well-honed, with John and particularly George not able (or allowed) to keep up. The influence of Pet Sounds is more obvious on the instrumental tracks, and by gosh, these guys were a good band, even on stuff they didn’t dream of playing onstage.

The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)—4
2017 50th Anniversary Edition: same as 1967, plus 18 extra tracks (Deluxe Edition adds another 34 tracks plus DVD and Blu-ray)

Monday, May 12, 2008

Buffalo Springfield 3: Last Time Around

By the time their third album came out, Buffalo Springfield had finally finished for good, the songwriters already looking for greener pastures. Last Time Around was spearheaded by engineer Jim Messina—who was also one of the rotating bass players in the band’s final days—and culled from over a year’s worth of scattered sessions.

Neil Young seems to barely appear on the album; in the telling photo on the cover, he’s pointedly facing away from the other guys. Yet the first two songs come from his pen. “On The Way Home” would be revisited to much better effect in his acoustic sets over the years; here Richie Furay sings it over a dated pop arrangement with bad horns. “It’s So Hard To Wait” is co-written with Richie, with a lot of jazz blues chords and a horn arrangement that would suit Billie Holiday. Stephen Stills is mostly improving, with “Pretty Girl Why” another jazzy gem, followed strongly by “Four Days Gone”, a poignant monologue by someone trying to escape the draft. Messina’s “Carefree Country Day” is the first sore thumb, but Stephen comes back strong with “Special Care”, a one-man collaboration with Buddy Miles on drums.

The other sore thumb is “The Hour Of Not Quite Rain”, which was the winning poem in a contest run by an LA radio station, the prize being that it was set to music by the Springfield. Richie does his best with it; who else would? “Questions” is another strong Stills tune, which would evolve into another classic a few years later. “I Am A Child” is Neil’s only lead vocal here, and foreshadows the country sound of his first real solo album. (He was still finding his voice.) It seems lots of folks were writing songs called “Merry-Go-Round” in those days, and Richie’s is a good try except for the trite waltz segue that always reminds us of bad Blood, Sweat & Tears. While Stephen’s other contributions demonstrate the sublime aspects of his style, one annoying trait comes through on “Uno Mundo”, merely the first of many misguided Latin excursions over the decades. But “Kind Woman”, which features future Poco bandmate Rusty Young on steel guitar, points a clear direction to Richie’s next step.

Last Time Around isn’t as obvious a title as Cream’s Goodbye, even if the gatefold design included the cover photo scattered into tiny sections. We’d’ve preferred the band had a better finale. But as already mentioned, the story of the Buffalo Springfield was merely a prelude to so much else.

Buffalo Springfield Last Time Around (1968)—3

Friday, May 9, 2008

Nick Drake 6: Made To Love Magic

The Internet did a lot to spread the word about Nick Drake and his music, but once Volkswagen stopped running their “Pink Moon” commercial, there hadn’t been much to add to the story. That changed in 2004, with the release of Made To Love Magic.

The album was designed as a belated companion to Way To Blue, and something of an overhaul of Time Of No Reply. It covers much of the same ground as that album—with six identical tracks—but just enough to make it different and frustrating, yet still essential for the Nick fanatic. With seven out of 13 songs previously unheard, it’s not entirely redundant, but it did mess with what had been a pretty tidy legacy.

“Magic” is a completely new version of “I Was Made To Love Magic” that retains the vocal from the original take, and adds a newly recorded arrangement originally composed back in the day by Nick’s friend and arranger of choice, Robert Kirby. Purists may cry foul, naturally, but these strings do suit the song better than the original, ultimately discarded accompaniment, giving the song something of a lift. Similarly, “Time Of No Reply”, which was just fine as is, was also embellished by a newly recorded Kirby arrangement of the same vintage. “Three Hours” is an earlier alternate from the Five Leaves Left sessions, featuring Reebop Kwaakhu Baah (later of Traffic) on congas and an unknown flautist, and provides a fresh view. “River Man” is a 1968 solo demo, the earliest recording of this song, captured on a tape of a performance in Kirby’s dorm room at Cambridge. “Mayfair” comes from the same tape, and doesn’t sound as bashful as the Time Of No Reply version. (“Joey” and the alternate “Thoughts Of Mary Jane” are the same takes we’ve heard, the former with the flub in the final verse intact, though the latter is faded for some reason. Also, “Voice From The Mountain” is retitled “Voices”.)

But the big news was saved for the end. While preparing this set, the engineer let the tape run on after an alternate version of “Hanging On A Star”—a striking, hypnotic take from the last sessions, and included here at the expense of the one we already knew—and another song was discovered. No notation of it was on the box, and so remained unknown for 30 years. Fragments of other ideas had emerged from his bootlegged home recordings, but “Tow The Line” was truly the Holy Grail—an actual unreleased Nick Drake song, never heard before. While hardly destined to replace any other as someone’s favorite, it is certainly of a piece with the other 1974 recordings, and very welcome. If you listen closely at the end, you can hear him putting his guitar down for a fitting conclusion: the absolute last recording of Nick Drake.

As wonderful as Made To Love Magic is, it sadly obliterated Time Of No Reply, which had some excellent tracks now available nowhere else. At 42 minutes, there’s plenty of room here for more. But hindsight can be a pain, and had that collection not existed, we could find little fault with this. And we really don’t.

Nick Drake Made To Love Magic (2004)—4

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Nick Drake 5: Way To Blue and A Treasury

From the start, Nick Drake was championed by his producer, the legendary Joe Boyd, who ensured Nick’s albums stayed in print via his Hannibal Records imprint. A distribution deal with Rykodisc in the early ‘90s resulted in the albums on CD in improved quality over their original budget releases a few years earlier in the U.K. He also took the opportunity to curate a compilation of music culled from the four albums.

Way To Blue is presented as an “introduction” to Nick Drake, which is a tall order. But if anyone could distill two and a half hours of known official Nick recordings to a single CD in a fresh sequence, it would be Joe Boyd. Five songs each from the first two albums are shuffled among four from Pink Moon and two from Time Of No Reply—one of which is “Black Eyed Dog”, in a bold move.

Considering the quality of the music to begin with, Way To Blue certainly delivered on its agenda. It sold very well through the rest of the ‘90s, particularly in the wake of the “Pink Moon” Volkswagen commercial. But in 2004, in conjunction with another catalog revamp, a collection called A Treasury appeared in something of an attempt to upgrade Way To Blue, which didn’t need it, even in the SACD format. This was compiled by the estate, swapped out a few songs, and—most maddeningly—included a hidden track at the end of the European pressings. “Plasir D’Amour” was a brief instrumental recorded during the Pink Moon sessions but deliberately left off that album; it’s best known to Americans as the melody to Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling In Love”. By then there were other, more convenient places to put this, and it was frankly careless of the estate, which has generally avoided exploitation, for not making it easier and cheaper for fans to find. Of course, whatever causes anyone to find and then ingest all of Nick’s music is a good thing.

Nick Drake Way To Blue: An Introduction To Nick Drake (1994)—
Nick Drake
A Treasury (2004)—4

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Nick Drake 4: Time Of No Reply

Any success that might have followed the release of Pink Moon was moot, as Nick Drake sank into depression, moved back in with his parents, and barely played any music at all, outside a pair of sessions in 1973 and 1974 where he had to record the guitar parts and vocals separately. These did not lead to a fourth album, and an overdose of a prescribed antidepressant ended his life in November.

His albums never went out of print, and five years went by before the label compiled the Fruit Tree box set consisting of his three albums, with his four known completed recordings from those final sessions added to Pink Moon. In 1986, the set was reissued with Pink Moon in its original sequence, plus a fourth LP, Time Of No Reply, which supplemented those four “new” songs with outtakes from Five Leaves Left and various home demos. (It was also released separately, which was nice of them.)

Those outtakes start the set, and are generally strong. The title track is a classic, with very clear, ringing guitar lines. It’s another pretty, deceptively cheerful-sounding melody. The middle section hints at the turmoil; he has pertinent things to say about the world around him, simple observations, but it seems to him no one wants to hear. However, “I Was Made To Love Magic” was given a dated arrangement with an uncomfortably affected vocal, and understandably cast aside, though a certainly pleasant ditty. “Joey” has a very mysterious mood, reminiscent of Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne. The subject is described as a guilty pleasure, though it’s hard to say if this siren can be considered a pleasure in the slightest. We can understand how and why Nick was so beguiled. “Clothes Of Sand” is one of his best, played in basically standard tuning with the B string tuned down to A for some enticing tones. The images are vague, but the overlying message that just enough has changed to turn everything in its wake upside down is clear. Either the person has changed, or his own perspective has been distorted that he doesn’t recognize what he once held familiar. “Mayfair” is a cute little sketch, possibly the single cheeriest song in his oeuvre. We can even hear him chuckle following a vocal flub before the “instrumental bit”. (Part of this was used later in a MetLife commercial, paired well with the animated image of Snoopy skipping happily across the screen.)

The versions of “Man In A Shed” and “Thoughts Of Mary Jane” included here are more relaxed, almost demos, and pleasant alternatives to their album counterparts; the latter features Richard Thompson on guitar. The home demo of “Fly” appears fully formed as we know it, with chirping birds and breezes taking the place of the keyboard and viola but not taking away the desperation in the vocal. Two earlier demos make an interesting transition. “Been Smoking Too Long” was written by a friend of his about the dangers of opium. The music is very close to Davy Graham’s “Anji”, which was the springboard for 90% of what is considered modern folk music. While “Strange Meeting II” dates from the same era, the sound is better, as is the writing. (And why isn’t he concerned about her “clothes of sand”? Another hidden gem.)

The final four 1974 recordings close the collection. The juxtaposition of these songs with the stark pieces on Pink Moon made some sense at the time, but tarnished the hopeful end of that album. They work much better in this context. “Rider On The Wheel” is very pretty, if a little basic and vague. You can hear just a hint of how weak his voice has become, a clue that is even more revealing in “Black Eyed Dog”. It has simple accompaniment with something of a dulcimer approach, but once he changes the melody in the middle section to a keening wail it’s clear he doesn’t consider the dog an ordinary stray. His delivery of “I wanna go home” is unsettling, and the instrumental break after this admission picks up the pace, distracting him from the turmoil, but as the song ends, the dog is still at his door. “Hanging On A Star” is very much in the vein of the transitional songs on Pink Moon; short and repetitive, yet effective. The middle verse, where he’s left abandoned at sea, is incredibly poignant in itself, made more so by his weary voice. Truly, he didn’t understand why the fame forbode in “Fruit Tree” evaded him. “Voice From The Mountain” has a claustrophobic, straitjacketed arrangement in standard tuning, with his rigid fingerpicking a contrast to his more fluid style. The solo section varies the theme enticingly, in a similar manner to the bridge in “Northern Sky”. Hearing this at the end of the album, one can really sense the strain in his voice.

It’s said that an artist’s entire life goes into the first album, with discarded songs only occasionally being revived down the road. Nick said for each of his subsequent sessions that there was nothing more, which is why few outtakes have emerged from the other two albums. For the longest time, Time Of No Reply was the last we heard of Nick Drake. Those wishing to hear more could only turn back to Five Leaves Left. This album has since been superseded by another, and is now out of print, but it’s still a special collection.

Nick Drake Time Of No Reply (1986)—
Current availability: none

Monday, May 5, 2008

Buffalo Springfield 2: Again

By the time of their second album, the core of Buffalo Springfield was already cracking. Bassist Bruce Palmer was unreliable, to say the least, and Stephen Stills and Neil Young became as competitive as they were prolific. Plus, Richie Furay had started writing his own songs, and good ones, too. The songwriters were also taking control of their creations in the studio, each developing their personalities by leaps and bounds. Buffalo Springfield Again showed what they could do, together and apart.

Neil gets the first shot in with “Mr. Soul”, a paranoid trip through the clubs on Sunset Blvd., with a wonderful riff turning “Satisfaction” upside down and dueling solos. “A Child’s Claim To Fame” is a strong writing debut from Richie, even more so because the lyrics refer to his irritation over Neil’s wavering dedication to the band. (That would be James Burton on the dobro.) Stephen revives the buzz that opened “Baby Don’t Scold Me” and extends it into a feedback drone base for the jazzy “Everydays”, followed by “Expecting To Fly”, Neil’s first really pretty, really sad song, all lush orchestration from Jack Nietzsche. But it’s “Bluebird” that hints at the power of the band as a unit, all those drop-D guitars intertwining, though this studio version detours into a banjo-led coda.

“Hung Upside Down” keeps it going on side two, the verses sung by Richie and Stephen answering with the choruses. This album’s hidden gem is “Sad Memory”, a heartbreaker from Richie, unfortunately derailed by Dewey Martin’s misplaced Stax soul workout “Good Time Boy”. Things get back on track for “Rock & Roll Woman”, which sports an “inspiration” credit to David Crosby, in a wonderful case of foreshadowing. For the finale, what sounds like a live recording of “Mr. Soul” with Dewey soul-scatting the vocal shifts into the first of several multi-structured verses of Neil’s experimental “Broken Arrow”. The poetic verses are separated by such sound effects as a ballgame organ, military drums, a jazz combo, and a disappearing heartbeat. Heavy stuff.

Even with the band members mostly working separately under the guise of unity, much like the Monkees and even the Beatles would become, Buffalo Springfield Again deserves to be called seminal. It’s a solid step forward, showing great potential for all concerned.

Buffalo Springfield Buffalo Springfield Again (1967)—4

Friday, May 2, 2008

Beatles 10: Revolver

After a two-albums-a-year routine that lasted three years, The Beatles only released one album of new material in 1966. And it was plenty. Revolver slightly predates the psychedelic era, but is already chock full of weird sounds. And that’s only the American version, which was missing three Lennon songs that had already been siphoned off the British version for the Yesterday And Today collection rushed out a few months earlier.

But even without those tracks, the American Revolver comes the closest of any revision to its British counterpart, with all the remaining songs in the same order, and nothing added in. As a result, it’s been a favorite since its first release. The metallic sheen of the music is constant, and while John’s lunacy has been toned down to the two side-enders, all three of George’s songs make it. No matter which version of the album people had heard, the consensus worldwide was that the Beatles continued to evolve, finding sounds no one else had thought of yet.

The first thing we hear is a strange count-in from George, then it’s right into “Taxman”. It’s a powerful performance, from the harmonies to the guitar solo (played here by Paul). George was also responsible for the painstakingly crafted backwards guitar solo on John’s “I’m Only Sleeping”, one of the first of its kind on record. He takes another step towards nirvana on “Love You To”, which features all Indian instrumentation. And he scores a hat trick on side two with the superb “I Want To Tell You”, with its discordant piano and more harmonies.

While George leaned to India, it sounded like John was on his way to the loony bin. “She Said She Said” is a veiled allusion to an acid trip underneath a power pop arrangement, and “Tomorrow Never Knows”—actually the first song recorded for the album—leaves the listener dizzy, with its tape loops of seagulls and that drum part from Ringo that inspired the future trance movement.

For his reputation as a goody-goody, Paul’s stuff is pretty strong, too. In addition to that burning “Taxman” solo, he contributed “Eleanor Rigby”, a pretty mature statement from a 24-year-old and one of the rare cases where they included a current single on an album released the same day. “Here, There And Everywhere” is another one of his most famous songs, and rightly so. Paul’s also (mostly, as it turns out) responsible for “Yellow Submarine”, one of the best stupid songs of all time and a fun performance all around, starting with Ringo’s perfect delivery. “Good Day Sunshine” is still snappy, just as “For No One” is still heartbreaking. And he still swears “Got To Get You Into My Life” is about pot; we suspect acid.

Revolver is the very model of a desert island disc. And since the CD you can buy today (and should, immediately) is the British version, you can cut out the three songs to get the American experience, if you really want. You’re still getting your money’s worth, with no filler. (The “U.S. Albums” version, finally available in 2014, does offer both the mono and stereo mixes, but only of the 11-track sequence.)

After the final four Beatle studio albums were upgraded for their 50th anniversaries with modern mixes and outtakes, Revolver got similar treatment. To the compilers’ credit, the majority of the included session tracks had been previously unheard or even unbootlegged, while the ones carried over from Anthology 2 were longer, and arguably sounded that much better. However, the set also followed the recent trend of having a CD match a vinyl disc in length, so we pay extra for a four-song EP containing the upgraded stereo and mono mixes of “Paperback Writer” and “Rain” that could have been squeezed onto either sessions disc. What’s more, the mono mix, wonderful as it is, of the album could have fit on a single CD with the stereo, even in their 14-track incarnations. But why issue three discs when you can sell five?

Luckily, the music is revelatory. Alternate or working versions of every song on the album (save “Good Day Sunshine”, probably because it was created from a single take) are included, along with the backing tracks for “Paperback Writer” and “Rain”, the latter at its original speed, which sounds just nuts after decades of hearing the single. John’s demo of “She Said She Said” had been circulating, but not his original sketch for “Yellow Submarine” (only the verses, which bemoan how “in the place where I was born, no one cared, no one cared”) nor a later snippet capturing him and Paul whipping it into shape. And of course, the enclosed book provides incredible detail.

The Beatles Revolver (1966)—5
UK CD equivalent: Revolver
2022 Special Deluxe Edition: same as 1966, plus 18 extra tracks (Super Deluxe Edition adds another 20 tracks)