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 tradition of including George Martin’s orchestral score, which took up the whole of side two. The score is 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 matches 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 them here as complete songs.

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” may or may not feature Eric Clapton. “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.
As a whole it’s not altogether unpleasant, if one can handle the occasional solo by that violin that sounds like a sick cat. 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: one 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—and 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 packaging.)
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 year after Sgt. Pepper was expanded for its own 50th anniversary, the White Album got similar 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 extra 27 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 from these tracks 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 Magical Mystery Tour 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, which will give you everything else the boys did in 1967. And chances are, it will enjoy more spins in your CD player. (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, Neil threw himself into his first real solo album (as opposed to simply writing and producing his own songs for Buffalo 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. 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. 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. (He must have agreed, since he remixed it after its initial release.) Yet for all its tentativity, it has endured, and is still worth a listen.

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.
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 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. They 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.
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 extra 18 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—pulled 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, but 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 5: Made To Love Magic and Family Tree

Several years before the Volkswagen resurgence, Nick’s producer, the legendary Joe Boyd, put together the Way To Blue compilation, designed as an “introduction” to Nick Drake. It sold very well through the rest of the ‘90s, leading to repackaged versions of the individual CDs with new graphics. The Internet did a lot to spread the word about Nick 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.
This album was designed as a companion to Way To Blue, and something of a reworking 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 maddening, 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. “Time Of No Reply” was also embellished by a newly-recorded Kirby arrangement of similar vintage. “Three Hours” is an earlier alternate version from the sessions for Five Leaves Left, featuring Reebop Kwaakhu Baah (later of Traffic) on congas and an unknown flautist. “River Man” is a 1968 demo, the earliest recording of this song, captured on a tape of a performance in Kirby’s dorm room at Cambridge. “Mayfair” is another demo from the same tape, and doesn’t sound as bashful as the Time Of No Reply version.
But the big news was saved for the end. While preparing this set, the engineer let the tape run on after the alternate version of “Hanging On A Star”—a striking take from the last 1974 sessions, and included here—and another song was discovered. No notation of it was on the box, and so remained unknown for 30 years. While fragments of demos had emerged from the home recordings, “Tow The Line” was truly the Holy Grail—an actual unreleased Nick Drake song. While hardly destined to replace any other as someone’s favorite, it sits well alongside the other 1974 recordings, and is certainly welcome. If you listen closely at the end you can hear the sound of Nick putting his guitar down for a fitting conclusion: the absolute last recording of Nick Drake.

Along with Made To Love Magic, the estate planned another companion album of sorts that emerged after a three-year gap. For fanatics only, Family Tree collects a variety of home recordings—two of which had been included on Time Of No Reply—that represented a mere smattering of what had escaped from the vaults and had been circulating on bootlegs for years. They even took the bold step of including performances by Drakes other than Nick to show his “musical education”. There are a few demos of later album tracks, covers of blues and folk songs by Bob Dylan and Jackson C. Frank, and a few otherwise unreleased originals, like “Bird Flew By”, “Rain” and “Blossom”, but again, it’s only necessary if you’ve already inhaled everything else and have to have more.

Nick Drake Way To Blue: An Introduction To Nick Drake (1994)—
Nick Drake Made To Love Magic (2004)—4
Nick Drake Family Tree (2007)—

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Nick Drake 4: Time Of No Reply

The original version of the Fruit Tree box set consisted of Nick Drake’s three albums, with his four final recordings added to Pink Moon. In 1986, the box set was reissued with a fourth LP, including those four songs. Time Of No Reply has since gone out of print, but is essential for the completist. In addition to those last tracks, the bulk of the album is made up of outtakes from Five Leaves Left and various home demos.
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, understandably cast aside. “Joey” has a very mysterious mood, reminiscent of Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne. The subject described is a guilty pleasure, though it’s hard to say if this siren can be considered a pleasure in the slightest. “Clothes Of Sand” is one of his best. 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. (Part of this was used later in a MetLife commercial, complete 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, and pleasant alternatives to their album counterparts. 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 other home demos make an interesting transition; “Been Smoking Too Long” was written by a friend of his about the dangers of opium, while “Strange Meeting II” dates from the same era, but the sound is better, as is the writing.
The final four 1974 recordings close the collection. “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. “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. “Voice From The Mountain” is a claustrophobic, straitjacketed arrangement in standard tuning, with his rigid fingerpicking a contrast to his more fluid style.
For the longest time, this was the last we heard of Nick Drake. Those wishing to hear more could only turn back to Five Leaves Left.

Nick Drake Time Of No Reply (1986)—3
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

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 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.
And 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 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.
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.)

The Beatles Revolver (1966)—5
UK CD equivalent: Revolver