Monday, June 30, 2008

Beatles 17: Let It Be

Released in conjunction with the film and after Paul had told the world he’d left the band (the last Beatle to actually leave but the first to mention it to the press), Let It Be is something of a letdown after the majesty of Abbey Road. The novelty of an album of new songs recorded “live” doesn’t always light a fire under these songs, and the result is less a grand finale than a postscript to such an amazing run. Still, with few exceptions, the performances and mixes here are superior to any other attempt at the same songs, so it is what it is.

After John’s weird announcement about Charles Hawtrey and deaf-aids, “Two Of Us” gallops by invitingly. Then it’s up to the roof for “Dig A Pony”, edited for some reason to exclude the “all I want is you” intro you hear in the film. “Across The Universe”, from two years earlier, finally appears, covered in Spectorian syrup. “I Me Mine” rocks just fine without John, and “Let It Be” delivers the grandeur Paul intended. “I’ve Got A Feeling” and “One After 909” provide more rooftop excitement, but it’s immediately derailed by the utter horror of “The Long And Winding Road”, utterly drenched in strings, choir, and harp. “For You Blue” and a questionable mix of “Get Back” bring the proceedings to an uneasy close.

There were genuine creative sparks to be found during the month of filming and recording that went into this album—a full sixteen months before its eventual release—but unfortunately, we might have been better off had we not been promised so much. (It also didn’t help that John’s early 1970 single, the classic “Instant Karma!”, had been recorded and released with the same speed and excitement Paul had intended for what turned into Let It Be.)

The initial UK album package included a book of grainy photos and obtuse text in a flimsy case; it was reissued without these in late 1970 mirroring the US gatefold and red apple label. The LP was later widely counterfeited, so many of the copies found in bargain bins in the late ‘70s may not be authentic. (It was reissued on Capitol in the early ‘80s without the gatefold sleeve, but reproduced the photos on the inner sleeve and even included a large poster of the front cover, which was nice of them.)

Some 33 years later Paul spearheaded the release of Let It Be… Naked, a strangely timed attempt to present another perspective on the album. The songs were remixed—some from alternate takes—for a comparatively clean sound; all of the audio-verité comments that were scattered throughout the original were also removed. (The so-called “fly on the wall” bonus CD contains 21 minutes of dialogue and snippets from the first two weeks of the project.) “Dig It” and “Maggie Mae” were cut in favor of “Don’t Let Me Down”, but the highlight is arguably a completely new mix of “Across The Universe” that builds gently from John’s unplugged opening.

The new version did provide a fresh look at the songs and the sessions, but was no replacement for what was already set in stone. To get a truer, more complete picture of the album’s evolution, you’d still need the original LP as released in 1970 and available on CD, as well as Anthology 3 and some other recordings not available at your local chain, namely the complete rooftop performance and the two proposed Get Back album sequences prepared by original producer Glyn Johns in May 1969 and January 1970. From there you could compile your own ideal sequence, and just like a single-disc White Album, good luck coming up with something that will please everyone.

Speaking of which, once Apple started issuing 50th anniversary expansions of the band’s albums, any excitement over the inclusion of “new” music was always tempered by what was missing. Considering how much of the Let It Be material had been bootlegged over the decades, unless a package containing every recorded moment was made available, such an installment would be underwhelming. The simpler two-CD expansion in what they called the Special Edition contained 14 tracks from the larger set, which ran to five CDs plus a Blu-ray (with a book, of course). In addition to a new mix of the album, two discs covered various outtakes and jams—which could have easily fit on one disc — while a fourth disc contained one of Glyn Johns’ first assemblies of the Get Back album, and a fifth contained a whopping four songs to comprise the Let It Be EP: two Glyn mixes from 1970 and two modern Giles Martin mixes. (Listening to the more sluggish takes Glyn chose for his sequence makes it clear why the band let it sit for so long. Yet for what it’s worth, his mixes of “Across The Universe” and “I Me Mine” are now our preferred versions on our so-called “ideal sequence”.)

Certainly, the package was also designed to coincide with The Beatles: Get Back, Peter Jackson’s eight-hour documentary reevaluation of the sessions, which shone a light on the bigger picture and, particularly, the more fun aspects of the sessions, despite what the original Let It Be film and subsequent interviews would have us believe. And for the most part, we do experience the joy of performances and discovery. (A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, after all.) The “rehearsals” disc includes items recorded early on at the film studio, including attempts at later solo tracks “All Things Must Pass” and “Gimme Some Truth”, as well as a few songs that would make it to Abbey Road. There’s even a charming performance by Billy Preston on “Without A Song”. There is some overlap with Anthology 3, which was already 25 years old when this set came out, as well as some of the snippets on the “fly on the wall” disc from Naked, but absolutely new is the peek at “Wake Up Little Susie” that prefaced one of the 1970 takes of “I Me Mine”. The only heretofore unreleased number from the rooftop is the first take of “Don’t Let Me Down”, featuring John’s stellar botch of the last verse.

The remix of the album proper is striking in places, such as “Across The Universe”, which keeps the Spector choir but brings out elements previously hidden, like the wah-wah guitars. Similarly, “The Long And Winding Road” is given more room to breathe, but it still has too much goop. Those who’d never heard any bootlegs may be intrigued by the Glyn Johns sequence, given that many of the takes are different from those on the final album. Plus, the packaging includes the original cover art, as well as Tony Barrow’s planned liner notes for the first time ever.

The missed opportunity of what the 50th anniversary edition could have been was underscored in January 2022 when Giles Martin’s mix of the complete rooftop performance—which he’d diplomatically said was pointless to exist as an audio artifact when the Jackson documentary presented the visuals—was released for streaming, but not for download or physical purchase, to coincide with an IMAX presentation of same in select theaters. Running a little over 38 minutes, it includes all the music we’ve heard and then some, including their reel-change jam on “God Save The Queen”. While the gig, like all of the Jackson documentary, is exhilarating to watch, surely the music could have been included on its own disc, perhaps after moving the four songs on the so-called Let It Be EP anywhere else in the set.

The Beatles Let It Be (1970)—
2021 Deluxe Edition: same as 1970, plus 14 extra tracks (Super Deluxe edition adds another 31 tracks plus Blu-ray)
The Beatles Let It Be… Naked (2003)—
The Beatles
Get Back: The Rooftop Performance (2022)—4
Current availability: streaming only

Friday, June 27, 2008

Paul McCartney 1: McCartney

With his band all but finished, Paul had to find out if he could work alone. So he recorded McCartney all by himself, predominantly at home, with only some musical help from Linda. It was a bold move, and one that would leave an irreversible mark, whatever the outcome.

Any preconceptions as to his direction are nailed into place by the artwork and song titles. The overlying strategy here was simplicity; anyone expecting a full-blown sequel to Abbey Road would be sorely disappointed. “The Lovely Linda”, which opens the album, was apparently made up to test the equipment, and never went any further. “That Would Be Something” starts out great, then beats the idea into the ground with absolutely atrocious drumming. “Valentine Day” has a snappy surf soundtrack feel—and remember, he’s playing all the instruments. “Every Night” is the first tune on the album we can consider a McCartney classic; the production lives up to the song too. This could have been a hit single. Fans of a certain generation may recognize “Hot As Sun” from its use (at 45rpm) for the theme to the Popeye & Friends TV show in New York, so to those ears it may sound too slow. That song goes right into “Glasses”, a barely noticeable atmosphere (possibly an influence on Eno?) which then changes abruptly into a few bars of the unlisted “Suicide”, supposedly written with Sinatra in mind. The absolutely gentle “Junk” was written before the White Album was recorded, and is another one of his prettiest melodies. The extremely likable “Man We Was Lonely” features Linda on prominent harmonies. It’s just neat. Not bad for an album side.

But “Oo You” starts side two with a rocker that only has the riff to recommend it—the lyrics and drums are just horrible. “Momma Miss America” has the same hideous drums, but it’s redeemed by some screaming guitar and keyboards, being another surfing instrumental in two parts. “Teddy Boy” was too cute for the Get Back project, and while this version is more finished, it still doesn’t work here. “Singalong Junk” is a longer, Muzak or karaoke version of the gem on side one, with Mellotron strings that make it even more gorgeous than the vocal version. “Maybe I’m Amazed” sneaks up on you in the intro, then kicks right into gear. It’s another single that never was, and the best song here, one you wish didn’t end—especially since the percussion workout and heavy breathing of “Kreen-Akrore” follow it. Not a good ending.

It’s hard to believe that such a big fuss came out of such a small thing, but at the time, it was taken to be Paul’s big declaration of independence, the music he left the Beatles for. Taken at face value, it’s not horrible. He certainly should get respect by including so many instrumentals and having the capability to play all the parts. He would seesaw between the off-the-cuff and polished-gem approaches throughout his career, with widely varying results. While lambasted at the time, it’s gained stature as a fine album considering all that came afterwards. McCartney is still a pleasant listen, and worth hearing over and over as long as you always forego “Kreen-Akrore”. (In hindsight it would seem that most of the polished songs only came to fruition after a certain “Instant Karma!” single, involving two of his mates, was recorded and released quickly, to much acclaim. His petulance about not having to delay its release date to avoid glutting the market can also be understood when we consider how many extracurricular Lennon records had been flooding stores over the past 12 months without question.)

While many of his later solo albums would be augmented with bonus tracks—usually B-sides and whatnot—in the CD era, it wasn’t until round two of the Archive Collection that McCartney got this kind of upgrade. However, that term is negligible. For the first time we could hear the rest of “Suicide”, or at least what was left at the end of that particular reel. Unfortunately, the snippet that made the album is still the best part of the performance. “Don’t Cry Baby” (basically an instrumental “Oo You”) and “Women Kind” are the other “outtakes” from the album; the rest of the 25-minute disc is devoted to live versions of some of the album tracks performed in 1974 and 1979. (Of course, you could have shelled out another forty bucks for the Deluxe Version, which added a DVD and a book.)

Paul McCartney McCartney (1970)—
2011 Archive Collection Special Edition: same as 1970, plus 7 extra tracks (Deluxe Edition also adds DVD)

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Ringo Starr 1: Sentimental Journey

For the first fourteen or so years of this forum, our sole entry for Ringo Starr’s solo work began thusly:

It’s high time we address a major conundrum of such a chronicle as this: How does one explore the solo careers of the Beatles while excluding Ringo? Easy, says Everybody’s Dummy. Impossible, says everyone else who’s undertaken such an assignment. But let’s be reasonable here; very little Ringo did after 1969 stands up with the efforts of the three songwriting Beatles, and the little that did usually had the help of one of those Beatles, and probably George. So to be fair, here’s a look at Ringo’s Apple output. There’s little need to go further.

But because we like to educate, illuminate, and encompass as well as entertain, the self-styled luckiest man in showbiz is getting more complete treatment, starting here. His post-Beatles career may not be as stellar as the others’, but he still put in his time, and he deserves better than a single post. (Besides, we’ve typed more words on lesser figures, and way worse albums.)

As the future of the band was in doubt come late 1969, Ringo was justifiably concerned as to how he’d spend his time henceforth. Acting was a possibility but not a given, and unlike the other three he didn’t do much songwriting, and didn’t have a backlog of tunes waiting to be heard. So he turned to a pet project he’d considered from time to time.

Sentimental Journey was a collection of old standards, the type of songs his mother and stepfather used to enjoy singing at gatherings and at the pub depicted on the cover. Each track was arranged big band-style by a different musician, from buddies like Klaus Voormann and Maurice Gibb to more known entities as George Martin and Quincy Jones. Some are straightforward, some are horribly dated, and most sound like the fare one would hear on any TV variety show of the time. And each one was sung by Ringo, as only he could. He didn’t even have to play the drums.

The title track is fairly indicative of the album as a whole, and re-establishes his “aw, shucks” brand. (The arranger was Richard Perry, who will loom large in the near future.) It’s also the highlight of both sides, as the schtick wears thin. His first pitch limitations are all over “Night And Day”, double-tracked on “Blue, Turning Grey Over You” and the banjo-laden “Bye Bye Blackbird”. McCartney is listed as the arranger for “Stardust”, but it’s more likely George Martin, who also did “Dream”. “Whispering Grass” is mostly harmless, but “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You” is the absolute pits. The rest of the tracks aren’t really worth discussing, except that they’re not quite as bad as that.

Without realizing it, Sentimental Journey proved Ringo was a trendsetter, being the first rock star to go the standards route one day trod by Linda Ronstadt, Rod Stewart, and Bob Dylan; even Paul McCartney wouldn’t do his own take for forty years. But at the very least, it’s a vanity album, something he could have given his mother for her birthday rather than foist on the public during a busy Beatle release schedule. The question remains: how often did she listen to it, assuming she did?

Ringo Starr Sentimental Journey (1970)—

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Beatles 16: Hey Jude

By early 1970, “unalbumized” Beatle tracks had once again piled up, and once his negotiations with Capitol had been finalized, new “manager” Allen Klein took the opportunity to put together a quickie release that served the same purpose as such old collections as Something New and Beatles VI. Originally called The Beatles Again, the new album was immediately renamed Hey Jude in honor of the first song on side two.

Amazingly, this was the first Capitol LP availability of “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “I Should Have Known Better” from nearly six years earlier; those fresh-faced nuggets open the program. The bulk of the remaining tracks are singles from 1968 and 1969 that fit better with the rather dour-looking contemporary cover photos from what turned out to be their last official photo sessions as a band. “Paperback Writer” and “Rain”, being from the middle period, still connect seamlessly with the later material, providing a bridge from the early innocent days to the period of experimentation. The album definitely rocks, from those 1964 and 1966 singles to “Lady Madonna”, “Revolution”, “Don’t Let Me Down”, George’s unfairly overlooked “Old Brown Shoe”, and even “The Ballad Of John And Yoko”.

As a mop-up collection, it did the trick, collecting various recent singles unlikely to appear on the mutating Get Back/Let It Be album, which was due within a few months. Yet there were still a few unique tracks scattered throughout the boys’ career that would stay uncollected for some time yet. The odd selections notwithstanding, Hey Jude became another popular title, leading to its eventual British LP release in the late ‘70s. But while a similarly offhand compilation like Magical Mystery Tour sat comfortably in CD racks between Sgt. Pepper and the White Album for 25 years, Hey Jude was ignored as a separate entity, and sat on the wish list for many American consumers until the “U.S. Albums” rollout in 2014. (In the meantime, for those wishing to compile their own, all but the two 1964 recordings were included on Past Masters Volume Two.)

The Beatles Hey Jude (1970)—5
UK CD equivalent: A Hard Day’s Night/Past Masters

Monday, June 23, 2008

John Lennon 1: Live Peace In Toronto

After three albums of “unfinished music”, Live Peace In Toronto was the first of John’s “journalistic phonographic” endeavors to appeal to his mass audience, simply because—compared to his other experiments on wax with Yoko—it was the first LP that contained music remotely similar to that heard on Beatles LPs. It is truly a snapshot of a moment in time; the band rehearsed on the plane to Toronto, and how he got Eric Clapton to play lead guitar is still one of rock’s great mysteries.

Being part of a ‘50s revival concert, it only makes sense that John starts off with “Blue Suede Shoes”, “Dizzy Miss Lizzie” and “Money”. He kept it simple and sounds happy, if nervous. “Yer Blues” works, being the only song John had previously performed in front of an audience since 1966 (at the Rolling Stones Rock And Roll Circus, with Clapton in tow). “Cold Turkey” sounds a bit tentative compared to the single version which hadn’t even been recorded yet, and he wraps it all up with “Give Peace A Chance”, not even bothering to duplicate the original lyrics, though Clapton does get to sing backup.

Then Yoko steps to the front “to do her thing all over you”; it’s a safe bet most owners of this LP rarely played side two after the first purchase. She shrieks over bludgeoning riffs and feedback, a performance that’s much more interesting to watch than it is to listen to; by the end you can see John glare at the crowd while Yoko continues to scream.

The recording itself is pretty hot, and John’s nervous energy keeps the listener riveted. It’s much too short, of course, but it’s still pretty cool that it exists at all. John and Yoko had already decided that their every move be documented, but hadn’t figured out what constituted “newsworthy” or could potentially embarrass them. (Case in point: The calendar, included in the first LP pressing and reproduced in the CD booklet, contains some unique pictures and captions, but also sports one uncomfortable close-up of the couple’s puffy, smack-addled faces.)

Basically, they came, saw and conquered, and Apple finally had a solo Beatle LP go top 10. In John’s case, the fourth time was the charm. (We can’t stress this enough: if you’re looking for melodies, you really needn’t bother with Two Virgins, Life With The Lions, or Wedding Album. If you want unlistenable albums in your collection to impress your friends, then go right ahead. You’ve been warned.)

The Plastic Ono Band Live Peace In Toronto (1969)—

Friday, June 20, 2008

Neil Young 4: Harvest

Harvest goes with its true predecessor, After The Gold Rush, like peanut butter goes with jelly. Each is fine on its own, but incredibly satisfying to hear back-to-back.

“Out On The Weekend” begins with a standard chord change, similar to “Down By The River”, but as soon as the steel guitar kicks in (and get used to it—Ben Keith played with Neil up to his dying day) it goes somewhere else entirely. This song as a whole develops a story and a picture—he’s packing it in, buying a pick-up and leaving town but can’t stop thinking about her. The harmonica solo tries to put across what he “can’t begin to say”. The title track is very country and nice to sing along with; it’s clear why this album was such a middle-of-the-road success. “A Man Needs A Maid” has a pretty piano line, but possibly too personal, since he actually did see a movie and fell in love with the actress. From the London Symphony Orchestra, the trip to “Heart Of Gold” is a pleasant transition. (This song sat in the middle of “Maid” in its earliest live performances, and works much better on its own.) He’s still searching, even if at 26 he wasn’t so much getting old as outliving some of his contemporaries. “Are You Ready For The Country?” sounds like a threat, but the performance just barely qualifies as country. This recording fits the photo of the band in the barn on the album cover, and is another Neil tune that’s a verse too short and fades too soon.

“Old Man” is gorgeous, and you don’t have to be 24 to appreciate it. With its symphonic “bam, BAM” introduction, “There’s A World” doesn’t really make sense or fit; even Neil agreed it was “overblown. “Alabama” seems to be cut from the same cloth as “Southern Man”, with even more finger-pointing and nice backup from Crosby and Stills. “The Needle And The Damage Done”, recorded live, would make a lot more sense within a few years when he’d record, shelve and then release a whole album about drug abuse and his poor junkie friends. The applause cuts right into the first crashing chord of “Words”. The different time changes keep you stumbling while you try to tap along with it.

Anyone who calls this a country album obviously hasn’t listened to the whole thing. Harvest is another true satisfier, especially in the context of everything else he’d done in the same three-year period. It became a hit on the back of “Heart Of Gold”, and perhaps only half of those initiated would keep up with him for the next several years; it would be hard enough to follow him for the next five.

By the time of its 50th anniversary, Neil’s own Archives mission was competing with what the labels wanted to do; he’d already released several “official bootlegs” of shows from 1971. But because Harvest was considered A Big Deal, it got more than the two outtakes stuck on the end of the After The Gold Rush anniversary set. For one, it was given a nice package with a book including liner notes and pretty photos from Joel Bernstein. Two DVDs were included—one containing a new film called Harvest Time that documented many of the sessions, incorporating some material that had already been in Journey Through The Past, the other the footage from his much-booted BBC-TV performance in February 1971. The audio from this also got its own CD in the set, with each intro rap banded separately, as did a three-song EP (because it’s SO important to match the vinyl component of these sets precisely) of Harvest Outtakes. Previously exclusive to the Archives site, “Dance Dance Dance” features Tony Joe White on lead guitar, and “Bad Fog Of Loneliness” appears to be the same one from the first Archives box, but thankfully “Journey Through The Past” is a previously unheard alternate take. Granted, all of the audio, old and new, could have been squeezed onto a single CD, and surely both DVDs could have been combined on one disc too, but that’s the way these things go with golden anniversaries. (And a few months later an otherwise unheard take of “See The Sky About To Rain” was added to his website; while nice to hear, it should have been in the set we’d already bought.)

Neil Young Harvest (1972)—
2022 50th Anniversary Edition: same as 1972, plus 11 extra tracks (and 2 DVDs)

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

CSN 3: 4 Way Street

The egos within Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young ensured that any unity would be threatened, particularly when they grew into such a successful concert draw. But first they had to find a new rhythm section after dumping both Greg Reeves and Dallas Taylor. Calvin “Fuzzy” Samuels and Johnny Barbata learned their parts, and are featured on 4 Way Street, a double live album basically designed as a corporate response to bootleggers. While occasionally grating, it’s a pleasant time capsule, with several songs predating their studio releases, and others unique in their own rights. (A lyric sheet was included, which was nice.)

The discs are evenly split between the acoustic “wooden” portion and electric showboating, with mostly equal time given to the four composers. The program fades in with the coda of “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”—supposedly because the full Woodstock performance of the song had just been released on that movie’s soundtrack album—before Neil is introduced. “On The Way Home” is very well restored in this format, leading into a creaky “Teach Your Children”. Crosby and Nash come off only mildly stoned; David delivers a transfixing solo “Triad”, and the dynamic duo combine for a lovely pass at “The Lee Shore”. Graham pounds the piano through “Chicago” to end the first side.

He opens side two with “Right Between The Eyes”, a treacly number thankfully left aside. Neil’s subdued takes of “Cowgirl In The Sand” and “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” rival the studio versions and are worth the price of admission, especially since Stephen derails his own sweet piano version of “49 Bye-Byes” with a diversion into a variation on “For What It’s Worth” copyrighted as a ranting “poem” called “America’s Children”. The gang comes back together for “Love The One You’re With”, to the crowd’s delight.

The electric half is nearly as democratic, but doesn’t show off the alchemy of the instrumental interplay as much as how loud they could play. “Pre-Road Downs” churns by, and “Long Time Gone” gains a little in the live setting. Unfortunately “Southern Man” and “Carry On” drag on for thirteen minutes each. Both sides of their standalone single are played—Neil’s reaction to the Kent State shootings in “Ohio”, and Stills’ “Find The Cost Of Freedom” sending the crowd to uneasy slumber. (Both were eventually available in their studio incarnations on 1974’s So Far cash-in collection, while “Ohio” would feature on Neil’s Decade set.)

Some twenty years later, in the wake of the trio’s retrospective box set, Graham Nash chaperoned an upgraded 4 Way Street for the album’s CD debut, adding four tracks to the acoustic portion, each solo performances. Once again, the choices were democratic: he plays the Hollies hit “King Midas In Reverse”; David offers up a gorgeous “Laughing”; Stephen’s “Black Queen” is repeated from the box set, giving collectors another chance to hear him admonish the crowd for laughing at his bluesy vocalizing. Once again Neil steals the show, with a strange but successful medley combining “The Loner”, “Cowgirl In The Sand”, and “Down By The River”, running ten minutes.

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young 4 Way Street (1971)—
1992 remaster: same as 1971, plus 4 extra tracks

Monday, June 16, 2008

Elvis Costello 9: Punch The Clock

The early ‘80s brought out the best and worst of some music veterans—the latter particularly when they surrendered their craft to “production value”. Elvis was hardly immune; having enjoyed some recent records by the likes of Madness and Dexy’s Midnight Runners, he enlisted contemporary hitmakers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley to give his latest batch of tunes a chartbound sheen. The results, as heard on Punch The Clock, were mixed.

On the plus side, “Everyday I Write The Book” was a huge hit worldwide, complete with a wacky video depicting Charles and Diana as bored newlyweds. Two of his more inspired creations were frontloaded with political overtones that unfortunately still resonate today. “Shipbuilding” is an indictment of the Falklands War, originally written for and recorded by Robert Wyatt, but here with a gorgeous but brief and processed Chet Baker trumpet solo. “Pills And Soap” is a Casio-with-drum-machine demo embellished by Steve Nieve and released as a quickie single credited to The Imposter. However, most of the rest of the album favored a mix that brought the incessant female backing vocals and the TKO Horns section to the forefront, making it hard to hear those catchy melodies. The effect is akin to having too much ketchup on your cheeseburger.

And those melodies do exist; you just have to listen really closely. “Let Them All Talk” blasts from of the speakers with all the air the horns can muster. (Besides being unintentionally hilarious, the extended remix isolates some elements of the track that are otherwise buried.) “The Greatest Thing” goes way too fast and through too many key changes to handle the words, with an uninspired horn part that apes “In The Mood”. “The Element Within Her” features excellent dynamics in between the repeated “la la la” choruses, but “Love Went Mad” is a little too noisy, despite some clever harmonies.

Another track with blaring horns, “TKO (Boxing Day)” doesn’t follow through on the puns of the title. But “Charm School” is one of the more palatable tracks here, despite the occasionally strained lyric, and one of the few that benefits from the layers, to the point where you don’t even mind the steal from “Theme From Summer Of ‘42”. “The Invisible Man” is nearly redeemed by its chorus, but it’s just too busy. “Mouth Almighty” and “King Of Thieves” are both catchy in their own ways, the latter with mock-regal embellishments. The “Candy Man”-style arrangement of “The World And His Wife” makes for a big ending, but obscures the plot.

Punch The Clock is a pop album, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but some of us were hoping for something more aggressive. Even the album title suggested he was merely going through the motions.

The Rykodisc reissue included two of the better B-sides of the period, “Heathen Town” and “The Flirting Kind”, which Elvis says he considered adding to the album after its initial release. “Town Where Time Stood Still” and “Shatterproof” are somewhat wordy demos, while live versions of “The World And His Wife” (here played acoustic) and “Everyday I Write The Book” (in a wonderful Merseybeat arrangement) gave insight into the less labored origins of those tracks.

The Rhino reissue went even further to create nearly an alternate album, adding a whole pile of acoustic demos that show off his improved piano skills, and more than suggest he should have stuck with his initial instincts instead of eyeing the charts. (They did replace those live tracks on the Ryko with studio alternates, but brought “Seconds Of Pleasure” forward from a previous upgrade.) There’s also “Baby Pictures”, a teasing studio snippet of a song played live exactly twice before being abandoned. Two songs from a BBC session further show his irritation with current politics: “Big Sister’s Clothes” is more overtly sung to Margaret Thatcher in a medley with the English Beat’s “Stand Down Margaret”, and he either heard Percy Mayfield’s “Danger Zone” from the writer’s original or the earlier Ray Charles B-side.

The balance of the disc is filled with tunes from a live radio simulcast. “The Bells” is another Hey Love soul classic, while the other songs feature the TKO Horns, and rather unobtrusively, and The O’Jays’ “Back Stabbers” serves as the intro to “King Horse”. Given the quality of the recording, it’s another archival concert that deserves to be released in full but probably never will be. (It should also be said that this disc would have been a perfect place to include the horn-driven one-off single “Party Party” but for EC’s ongoing stated abhorrence of the song.)

Elvis Costello & The Attractions Punch The Clock (1983)—
1995 Rykodisc: same as 1983, plus 7 extra tracks
2003 Rhino: same as 1983, plus 26 extra tracks

Friday, June 13, 2008

Neil Young 3: After The Gold Rush

Even while keeping busy with CSNY, Neil spent much of 1970 working on his own album. Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten had already developed a heroin addiction, putting that band into disarray and jeopardizing their immediate contribution to Neil’s work.

The resulting album, After The Gold Rush, is a schizophrenic collection with a lot of styles all over the place that all sound like him. “Tell Me Why” is a fine starter, asking the immortal question if it’s hard to make arrangements with oneself. The title track is one of two hit songs that feature a French horn solo (the other being the Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”). The line about “getting high” still draws cheers today, though he’s been careful to update the time frame in which Mother Nature is said to be on the run. “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” is still a favorite, even if it seems to be missing a verse. “Southern Man” comes stumbling in like a drunk at a banquet. Reminiscent of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, it blasts on through, and then we get the simple four-chord, four-line “Till The Morning Comes” twice through. (David Bowie borrowed its inspiration for “Kooks”, right down to the trumpet.)

Side two starts with “Oh Lonesome Me”, a country chestnut taken at half the speed of the original that sounds like Neil wrote it himself. “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” is inscrutable—what with old and/or dead men lying by the sides of roads and castles turning—but excellent. “Birds” is another heartbreaker, all piano and shaky harmonies and much too short. “When You Dance I Can Really Love” sandblasts away the tears with the euphoria of watching a lovely girl dance. Senses tingle, mountains crumble and that incessant piano pounds all over the fade. The ambivalent “I Believe In You” is one of the few tracks that features Crazy Horse, but the finale is “Cripple Creek Ferry”, a harmless singalong going down the river as we wave goodbye. (Notice how his previous solo album had epic side-closers, while these sides end with afterthoughts in comparison.)

Between this and CSNY he was seemingly on his way to superstardom. If you hate Neil’s voice, you’ll hate this album. But if you can take it, you’ll learn to love every single track.

Once it had become the style, After The Gold Rush was begrudgingly granted an upgrade for its golden anniversary. This merely entailed the addition of two outtakes of “Wonderin’”—one of which had already been released on the first Archives box set. The vinyl edition had them on a separate 45, while the CD tacked them at the end following a 30-second gap of silence indexed as a standalone track titled “[Break]”.

Neil Young After The Gold Rush (1970)—
2020 50th Anniversary Edition: same as 1970, plus 2 extra tracks

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Beatles 15: Abbey Road

1969 was a wacky year for the Fab Four. While the Get Back project limped along, several singles appeared, both under the Beatles’ name and that of the Plastic Ono Band. But Capitol held off from their instincts, and waited to release their next album as they’d intended. Not even close to the elaborate packaging of the last few, Abbey Road is the simple yet elegant finale to what Derek Taylor called the twentieth century’s greatest romance, and it’s hard to imagine how they could have possibly followed it up. They didn’t have to, anyway.

The standard view is that each side was the respective work of John and Paul, who seemed further apart than ever at this point. But that’s easily dismissed, because if John wanted nothing to do with Paul’s side, why would he have contributed four songs? And how would he ever have allowed “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” to stay on “his” side?

Paul can probably take the most credit for this album existing, as he was always the one keen to get his songs recorded, and worked closest with George Martin to get the sounds on tape. His songs on side two are much more palatable than either “Maxwell” or even “Oh! Darling”, which sounds like he spent about five minutes on it. It’s the second side that’s his triumph, from the pointedly personal “You Never Give Me Your Money”, which sets the suite in motion, through “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window” and ending with “Golden Slumbers”, “Carry That Weight”, and “The End”, with its glorious three-Beatle guitar duel and Ringo’s only (begrudging) drum solo. Even “Her Majesty” serves a purpose—a nice afterthought, and something to hum to kill time while waiting to reboot your computer. Paul’s writing had certainly matured over the years, though those expectations would set him up for criticism once he was on his own and didn’t have the other three to impress. (He also nicely allowed many of George’s lead guitar extemporizations.)

John managed to hold his own, despite the distractions of Yoko, his peace campaigns, and his own solo output. “Come Together” opens the album with a creepy menace to go along with the white-suited hairy guy on the cover. He continues the hard rock with “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, which builds steam until the plug’s kicked out, only to have a variation on the riff turn up on “Because”. The lush and liquid “Sun King” lyrically echoes George’s song, filtered through Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross”. He even allows his sense of humor to return with “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam”, two leftovers from India that fit like a glove into the second side’s suite.

The secret weapon, of course, is George, who was virtually bursting with great songs by now but was only allowed two here—the aforementioned “Here Comes The Sun”, and the immortal “Something”, which both John and Paul agreed was the best song on the album. (They were right, of course.) George also had a lot to do with Ringo’s “Octopus’s Garden” coming out as well as it did—not just the guitar parts, but most of the changes and half of the harmonies. (Speaking of the harmonies, the boys’ angelic blend is all over the album, on practically every track.) As it turns out, Ringo blew the bubbles through a straw, not George.

So what’s so good about this album? They truly went out on a high note. The overall sound is slick, and that’s not meant in a bad way. But just as they looked very different on the cover, the sounds they made had evolved too—just enough to fascinate those who’d been following the story and wondered, “What will they sound like this time?” Bands rarely have that effect on their audiences anymore, which is the 373rd reason why the Beatles were so damn good.

Right on time for its golden anniversary, Abbey Road followed Sgt. Pepper and the White Album onto collectors’ shelves in expanded editions. Once again the original stereo mix was upgraded to a wider palette, bringing out the drums better and shining light on some instrumentation, particularly in the Moog parts. A double-disc version included an “alternate” version of the album, culled from demos and alternate takes, some of which are breakdowns, but of course we had to shell out for the big box with a Blu-ray, book, and a third disc of further goodies. Demos of “Something” and “Come And Get It” appear in different mixes from those on Anthology 3, and Paul’s demo of “Goodbye” for Mary Hopkin makes its official debut. Earlier takes of “The Ballad Of John And Yoko” and “Old Brown Shoe” are included in context, along with an trial edit of the side two medley (with “Her Majesty” jammed in the middle) and strings-only versions of “Something” and “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight”. We also finally get to hear the proper ending of “She’s So Heavy”, as an earlier rough mix continues past the abrupt edit of the LP version.

While not as revealing as the previous 50th Anniversary sets, it is interesting to the band actually playing (and singing) live for the basic tracks, and sometimes all four Beatles in attendance. It even sounds like they were enjoying themselves. And with Giles Martin at the helm, the package is a loving tribute to his father, who loved his “boys” so much.

The Beatles Abbey Road (1969)—5
2019 Anniversary Edition: same as 1969, plus 17 extra tracks (Deluxe Edition adds another 6 tracks plus Blu-ray)

Monday, June 9, 2008

Elvis Costello 8: Imperial Bedroom

Magazine ads for this album suggested it would be considered a masterpiece. While most wouldn’t fall for such hubris, one thing that permeates throughout Imperial Bedroom is elegance, from the pompous title to the production assistance from onetime Beatle engineer Geoff Emerick. Steve Nieve steps up with unique brass and string arrangements throughout, along with his own quirky keyboards.

“Beyond Belief” kicks us off with a tension that a drunk Pete Thomas spends the track trying to kick through, in an amazing performance. Starting with this unstoppable locomotive there is an amazing breadth of material here. “Tears Before Bedtime” is a Nashville leftover here given a more jokey arrangement, while “Shabby Doll” is another song accusing someone of something horrible. He used to snarl; now he seethes. “The Long Honeymoon” is one of many portraits of a damaged marriage, and its unsettling delivery and Parisian slash cocktail touches in the arrangement are kicked aside by the cacophony that opens “Man Out Of Time”, which smooths out into a tour de force of a performance before closing on the same cacophony. “Almost Blue” was written after completing the album of the same name, with the style of Chet Baker in mind, who would one day record it without EC’s knowledge until after he’d died. It’s an absolutely gorgeous heartbreaker, and one of his best vocals. It’s deflated by the mocking soap opera of “…And In Every Home”, the most “baroque” song here, thanks to its Masterpiece Theater-style brass arrangement (though its plot is more reminiscent of Crossroads or Coronation Street).

The second side is dominated by more straight rock, but still retains that elegance we mentioned. “The Loved Ones” and “Human Hands” remain great singalongs to this day, despite their murky subject matter. In both cases Bruce Thomas applies deft bass playing, particularly the chordal touches on the third verse of the latter. “Kid About It” slows things down nicely with a ballad, and the crashing approach of “Little Savage” swings the seesaw back up. “Boy With A Problem” was co-written with Chris Difford on Squeeze, and is something of an interlude before the one-two-three punch of the closing tracks. “Pidgin English” once again laments the degradation of language in modern times, while “You Little Fool” shakes its head at teenage romance through backwards harpsichords. (We really like the wordless harmonies over the fade.) The grand finale is “Town Cryer”, which benefits from the album’s most sympathetic arrangement, complete with strings that carry the album into the sunset for the virtual closing credits.

Over the years Imperial Bedroom has gotten the occasional slag as pompous or overindulgent, but such opinions ignore the excellence and elegance (there’s that word again) of the songs. The album was designed to be experienced as a whole; it even included lyrics for the first time on an Elvis album, printed telegram-style with no punctuation or breaks of any kind. Bizarrely, some of the more challenging tracks were chosen as singles, which didn’t fare well on the pop charts.

Being such a strong, unified album, it was inevitable that the bonus tracks on the Rykodisc reissue would detract from the listening experience. What’s more, some of the better B-sides from the period were not included, but the disc was admittedly filled to capacity, notably with tracks and outtakes from a one-off single. This dearth would be rectified somewhat with the Rhino version, which included most (but not all) of the Ryko bonuses on a second disc that gives a nice peek into the works in progress.

Some of the alternates are fascinating; it’s nice to hear the complete loud take of “Man Out Of Time”, and the so-called “Barry White” version of “Town Cryer” is a scream. “Human Hands” first had a lyric that referred to the drugs wearing off, and “Little Savage” once had a slower, more soulful approach. Others show that he was right to redo them, such as the earlier take of “Beyond Belief” before Elvis modified both lyrics and vocal, which appears here as “The Land Of Give And Take”. The handful of demos demonstrates how much he already had in place before bringing the band in. Rhino also gets points for including the earlier demo of “Seconds Of Pleasure” (which had been on Ryko’s Trust expansion) in favor of the later one now moved to a different bonus disc, as well as a full band stab at “The Town Where Time Stood Still”, but we can probably blame Elvis himself for skipping the noisy take of “Little Goody Two Shoes” for the “Inch By Inch” template included instead.

Elvis Costello & The Attractions Imperial Bedroom (1982)—5
1994 Rykodisc: same as 1982, plus 9 extra tracks
2002 Rhino: same as 1982, plus 23 extra tracks

Friday, June 6, 2008

CSN 2: Deja Vu

Never one to stay in one place, Neil quickly hooked up with Crosby, Stills & Nash—who had already put out one monstrously successful album—in addition to working and touring with Crazy Horse and pushing his own solo career, all in the space of a year. Sooner or later someone was bound to get pissed off, and they did.
Despite the lawfirm-style credits, the ensuing Déjà Vu can hardly be considered a collaboration. As had happened with Buffalo Springfield, each of the guys worked on their own tunes, though David Crosby’s “Almost Cut My Hair” is a live group performance with Neil on one of the leads. (The full take with cold ending can be found on the CSN box set, making one curious about similar tracks from the sessions.) Each of the tracks is the distinct product of its writer’s vision, with only the harmonies or occasional lead guitar to suggest a group effort.

Neil’s voice and guitar only come through on the tracks he did write. With its three chords, fake steel guitar and harmonies that don’t soar, “Helpless” has been a matter of personal taste, but “Country Girl” is another matter altogether. It’s a big Spector studio production—in three parts, no less—that still fits his voice and style like a glove. The “Down, Down, Down” section was adapted from an unreleased Springfield song, taken to the next level by those harmonies. The “Whiskey Boot Hill” section is something of a nod to “Broken Arrow”, then comes the descending minor phrase that turns flawlessly into a major key, and that chorus (“Country Girl (I Think You’re Pretty)”) that must still be going on somewhere. On the record, however, it’s followed by “Everybody I Love You”. While credited to Stills and Young, it sounds a lot more like Stills and Nash; that’s not meant as a compliment.

The “other three” did their part too; Crosby’s title track provides a level of mystery to balance the fuzz of “Almost Cut My Hair”. “Carry On” is a Stills opus in the vein of “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” but with more electricity, starting acoustic and building to pull in a coda borrowed from “Questions” from the last Springfield album. His fingerprints are all over the cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock”, while “4+20” is a solo blues number providing a change of mood. Nash held onto the values of the Sixties on “Teach Your Children” (for which Jerry Garcia allegedly taught himself how to play pedal steel guitar) and “Our House”, about the place he lived with Joni. Both are as classic as they are dippy.

Déjà Vu was another triumph for CSN—at least until they split up—and remains essential for “Country Girl”, available on no other single Neil LP. This album is why people still get excited about any CSNY reunion, and often settle for any combination thereof, but as the four were barely able to catch lightning in a bottle the first time, it’s doubtful the sum will ever equal any of the parts ever again. No matter how many times they go back to the well.

Thirty years after Graham Nash first broached the subject, the album was finally expanded for a deluxe edition celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. Outside of replicating the textured cover and inserting a remastered vinyl copy in the set—as had been Rhino’s MO of late—the package offered a thin booklet plus a disc of demos (seven of which had already been released), another of outtakes, and a fourth of “alternate versions” of nine of the album’s tracks. Surprisingly, given Rhino’s usual discographical detail, there was very little info about the sessions themselves, much less who played what, so Neil’s presence is just as ephemeral here as he was on the original. As for rarities, he only offered an acoustic demo of “Birds” with Graham, which is nice, and an alternative mix of “Helpless” he’d already put out on his own box set. The rest of the rarities show just how prolific Stills was, with Crosby subdued. Listening to the extras would underscore that they put the best tracks out in the first place, except for the bootlegs that sport still-unreleased band takes on “Sea Of Madness” and “Everybody’s Alone”, to name two. Given Crosby’s outcast status among the other three in 2021, it’s astonishing that they gave us even this much.

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young Déjà Vu (1970)—4
2021 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: same as 1970, plus 38 extra tracks

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Elvis Costello 7: Almost Blue

Looking for a change of pace, Elvis took a break from the ever-faithful Nick Lowe and dragged his band to Nashville to record a pile of country-and-western covers that would have been right at home in the redneck bar from The Blues Brothers. Working with the legendary Billy Sherrill, the result was Almost Blue, a collection of songs known and unknown slathered with syrupy strings and female chorus vocals plus a little pedal-steel help from John McFee, who’d played on My Aim Is True. The closest comparison we can find would be Ringo Starr’s similarly arranged Beaucoups Of Blues. Yet it’s still cohesive, thanks mostly to the patient performance of the Attractions. (Strangely enough, the album was a huge hit in the UK, and utterly ignored in the US.)

Tracks like “Sweet Dreams” and “Success” are ideal for crying in your beer, and Steve Nieve positively shines on the piano. “Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down” and the rollicking “Why Don’t You Love Me (Like You Used To Do)”, taken at top speed and over quickly, ignore any threat of a hangover. “Brown To Blue” was not co-written by that Johnny Mathis, but it is one of the sillier hokey tunes here, and makes an end-of-side juxtaposition with the superior “Good Year For The Roses”, which actually charted in the UK. “Sittin’ And Thinkin’” and “Honey Hush” are drunk and stupid, bookending the more emotional “Colour Of The Blues” and “Too Far Gone”. But Elvis saves his best vocals in the middle of side one and the end of side two for a pair of Gram Parsons songs, “Hot Burrito #1” (here retitled “I’m Your Toy”) and “How Much I Lied”.

Despite his overt passion for the music, and the genre as a whole, Almost Blue is still a diversion in the true sense of the word. And coming after the recent bounty of 20-track albums—and this was his fourth album in the space of twenty months—it’s awfully brief at only 32 minutes. We wanted another great album of his own songs, and thankfully, he didn’t make us wait much longer.

The Rykodisc reissue doubled the length of the original album—almost exactly—by adding five live performances from a one-off show that was filmed for a documentary about the making of the album, as well as the harrowing “Psycho” from a one-off show recorded two years earlier at L.A.’s Palomino Club. (Both of these shows included John McFee as a special guest.) Four outtakes from the sessions included two B-sides, plus a stab at “Tears Before Bedtime”, the only original from the sessions. The clear highlight was the live B-side of “I’m Your Toy”, performed with the Attractions and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Robert Kirby. (He, of course, is known to us for his work with Nick Drake; meanwhile Drake photographer Keith Morris did the same for this album.)

The Rhino reissue included even more outtakes from the sessions, four of which had been B-sides stupidly left off the Ryko, and replaced two of the live tracks (likely because they ended up using studio tracks instead) with another cover from the same show. But it did add six more songs from the Palomino gig, including two covers and countified takes of the then-unreleased “Motel Matches” and “Girls Talk”. This disc was also arranged chronologically, and began with his actual duet with George Jones on “Stranger In The House” and an unreleased one with Johnny Cash. And it was packed to capacity.

With so many of the Palomino tracks here (and one elsewhere) one wishes the entire gig could have been released, perhaps as part of yet another deluxe edition or the “Costello Show” live series. But that never happened.

Elvis Costello & The Attractions Almost Blue (1981)—
1994 Rykodisc: same as 1981, plus 11 extra tracks
2004 Rhino: same as 1981, plus 27 extra tracks

Monday, June 2, 2008

Neil Young 2: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere

Coming a mere six months after his debut, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is an exponentially better Neil Young album. For one, most of the singing and playing was done live, or at least sounds that way. This direct approach gave him confidence in his voice, which emboldened the songs in turn. Plus, he’d hooked up with the three guys he’d christened Crazy Horse, who gave him a good, solid—if occasionally sloppy—base on which to build his craft. While only seven songs long, he makes them count.

“Cinnamon Girl” was written about a hot girl walking on a hot city sidewalk, and sounds like it. This tune absolutely sizzles, and the one-note solo is as perfect as the fuzzy ending. The title track has a snappy, not-too-fast country beat and a wonderful harmony by guitarist Danny Whitten, who would be an excellent foil onstage and in the studio. Too bad it’s over so quickly. “Round And Round (It Won’t Be Long)” is tied for the worst song on the album; while it’s still pleasant, it drags for a sleepy stop on the way to “Down By The River”. This is one of two ten-minute side-closers here, and a lot better than it deserves to be. There are only a few chords and another one-note solo, but even on the last fade you want it to keep going.

“The Losing End (When You’re On)” is an authentic original country song with more great harmonies on the chorus. It makes a nice companion to the title track, but stands out for the “all right, Wilson, pick it!” exhortation before the solo. “Running Dry (Requiem For The Rockets)” goes on too long to be interesting, but much like “Round And Round”, here it’s merely a plodding setup before another masterpiece. “Cowgirl In The Sand” begins with some quiet electric picking, then crashes in full throttle. With (again) only a couple of chords and several epileptic solos, it is mesmerizing, and an incredible finale.

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is the first essential Neil album, as it lays the groundwork for the rest of his career. It’s also pointedly credited to him with Crazy Horse, showing he understood how to pay his debts. It is a collaboration that would be explored further.

Neil Young With Crazy Horse Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969)—4