Friday, August 29, 2008

Nick Drake 7: Family Tree

Because Nick Drake’s official catalog was so small and finite, fans naturally clamored for any other music he played that they could find. Bootlegs of home recordings, copied from cassettes gifted by Nick’s parents to occasional pilgrims to their home, made the rounds, their tentative performance quality and dodgy sound kept them from being little more than footnotes. Yet, even into the new century, converts had to have them.

Around the time that Made To Love Magic was released, the estate announced another planned companion album of sorts, which emerged after a three-year gap. More of a gamble for non-fanatics, Family Tree collected a variety of these home recordings—two of which had been included on Time Of No Reply, and welcome here in their absence since that album’s deletion. They even took the bold step of including performances by Drakes other than Nick to show his “musical education”. He duets with sister Gabrielle on a rendition of “All My Trials”, and there’s a brief Mozart trio piece with Nick on clarinet and his aunt and uncle on viola and piano respectively. Mother Molly’s “Poor Mum” is suggested as a template for “Poor Boy”, which it isn’t, while “Do You Ever Remember?” is a sad reverie used to close the disc. (More complete collections of Molly’s recordings have been issued for those looking to dig deeper; frankly, they’re quite charming.)

Fully half of the tracks are folk and blues covers, showing the development on his picking style. Along with the usual suspects, like “Cocaine Blues”, he was not unusual among young folkies who were fascinated by Jackson C. Frank (“Here Come The Blues”, “Blues Run The Game”, “Milk And Honey”), Bert Jansch and John Renbourn, Dave Van Ronk, and Bob Dylan (“Tomorrow Is A Long Time”). There are oddities: “Time Piece” is a brief monologue delivered to the accompaniment of a metronome, while “Paddling In Rushmere” is a children’s piano exercise that dissolves in giggles after 24 seconds.

He’s somewhat tentative on those, but most listeners would be more fascinated by his otherwise unreleased originals, like “Blossom”, “Rain”, and especially “Bird Flew By”, which is played way too fast. (The curious should seek out Drake disciple Scott Appel’s superior arrangement on his Nine Of Swords album; also, a piece Appel adapted as “Far Leys” is included here in the form of a minute-long instrumental called “Sketch 1”.) “Come Into The Garden” appears first as a teaser at the start of the disc, then again in a full version toward the end. “Been Smoking Too Long” and “Strange Meeting II” appear in even better quality than before, the latter including some intro chat and a restored segment where he lost his place. “Day Is Done” and “Way To Blue” come, once again, from Robert Kirby’s dorm room, likely to give him an idea how to arrange them in the studio.

As it represents a mere smattering of what had been circulating for years, Family Tree is only necessary if you’ve already inhaled everything else and have to have more. It didn’t have everything, of course, but the estate didn’t owe us anything in the first place.

Since we gotta mention it somewhere, the Fruit Tree box was reissued shortly after this album came out, pared back to just the three original albums, supplemented with a DVD featuring the A Skin Too Few documentary. (A few years earlier, the three albums had been repackaged with unique outer sleeves that were attractive, but hid the actual cover artwork, just as the 1993 Jimi Hendrix reissues had.) Six years after that, Tuck Box offered the three albums plus Made To Love Magic and Family Tree in a package designed to look like the parcels containing cakes and sundries Molly would ship to Nick in his boarding school days. As far as the estate is concerned, his legacy consists of these five albums, and nothing more.

Nick Drake Family Tree (2007)—3

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Neil Young 10: Long May You Run

Despite having already aborted two CSNY albums—and Crosby & Nash keeping busy together—Neil perversely began showing up at solo gigs by longtime nemesis Stephen Stills, who by this time had sunk to irrelevance. His increasingly dull albums were littered with salsa-flavored keyboards and percussion, which unfortunately permeate Neil’s songs here on Long May You Run, a needless duet album credited to The Stills-Young Band.

The rather trite title song has become so overplayed over the years that its sentiments barely resonate today; it is, after all, a song about a car. While “Midnight On The Bay” has its moments, they are few and far between, while the similarly themed “Ocean Girl” lifts the chorus from the rare “War Song” single from 1972. “Let It Shine” sounds remarkably like a Crazy Horse track with Stills’ voice and noodling overdubbed and mixed too high; it even predicts Neil’s fascination with classic cars. “Fontainebleau” is probably the best track, with good guitar work and dynamics, but is sorely underdeveloped with a set of lyrics devoted to lambasting the Miami hotel of the same name.

Stills didn’t have a lot in the hopper, but that didn’t stop him. “Make Love To You” is just uncomfortable when he repeats the intention “to make you feel all right… all night” on every chorus. “Black Coral” is interesting musically but for the constant timbales, and he should leave the nautical imagery to Crosby. “12/8 Blues (All The Same)” is a little too literal a title, but at least it doesn’t use standard changes. His best offering is “Guardian Angel”, sequenced well at the end, but it sounds too much like songs he’d already written.

We do hear Neil singing and playing on Stills’ songs, but so what? With the exception of the title track, it seems clear that he gave the bare minimum of effort to the project, in that much better songs were saved for his own albums, or left in the vault. By the time the album came out, Neil had already bailed on the Stills-Young Band tour to work on his own again. On top of that, the harmonies Crosby and Nash had been asked to add throughout had been wiped—maybe because Neil knew the songs didn’t deserve them? The album’s rating is only as high as it is because of Neil, and that’s not saying much.

The Stills-Young Band Long May You Run (1976)—2

Monday, August 25, 2008

Who 4: Magic Bus

They’d been picking up a cult following thanks to their live show, but in the era of the high-speed mid-‘60s release schedule, the Who were woefully behind. Their American record company wasn’t helping either.

The Magic Bus—The Who On Tour album was a particularly stupid idea, made worse by not even giving the audience what they needed. Three of the songs were already on Who albums, and the selection of stray B-sides was pretty arbitrary. It does have one version of “Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde”, John’s reaction to rooming with Keith, which was ignored in the ‘90s catalog revamp. “Call Me Lightning”, “Pictures Of Lily” and the so-called title track were all singles, included along with two Ox B-sides (“Someone’s Coming” and “Doctor Doctor”) plus a few tracks from a year-old British EP. Given the selection of tracks that could have been included—perhaps prohibited by ongoing legal disputes—a much more enjoyable album could have been compiled but wasn’t. (The UK Direct Hits collection, released around the same time, came closer as more of a best-of compilation, but still missed the mark widely.)

The biggest offense of the album was the subtitle, which misled fans into thinking it was a collection of live tracks. The band had considered releasing such an album, from such hip venues as the Fillmore East, but hadn’t been satisfied with any of the results. Looking back, it’s hard to say whether it would have made a difference. This album killed very little time, and the band needed to make a splash soon, or die trying.

The Who Magic Bus—The Who On Tour (1968)—2
Current CD equivalent: none

Friday, August 22, 2008

Led Zeppelin 4: Led Zeppelin IV

A pivotal scene in Fast Times At Ridgemont High features Damone giving Rat what he says are key seduction tips. The final touch, he says, involves putting on “side one of Zeppelin IV.” The next scene shows Rat and Stacy riding along to the tune of “Kashmir”, which isn’t on the album. The question remains: did Rat get it wrong, or was it the filmmaker’s goof? Whatever the case, the band’s fourth album, which doesn’t have a title, is what rock snobs could call a seminal album.

“Black Dog” begins with a sound akin to a machine being wound up manually, then that voice hits us. With all the spot-on stops and starts, this one is just riveting. The solo over the fade is one of Page’s best. “Rock And Roll” doesn’t let up the attack at all, and sounds like it could have been recorded 15 years earlier—or at least 15 minutes after it was written. We’d come to expect a slow blues burner at this point, but now it’s something different: “The Battle Of Evermore” seems to have some Tolkien undertones, and is another late bloomer. Sandy Denny’s piercing voice meshes perfectly with Plant’s on this spooky tale of something or other. “Stairway To Heaven” is still pretty incredible after all these years, and expertly orchestrated. (It used to be that whenever your local rock station had one of their three-day weekend countdowns of the greatest songs of all time, “Stairway” was always a lock for first place. Now it’s a race to switch the station whenever it comes on, and one that gets skipped on CD.)

“Misty Mountain Hop” brings a funky electric piano vibe for a change to start the second side. With even more Tolkien references, it’s very evocative of a sunny afternoon relaxing in the park, with your only cares being whether the beer will run out before dusk. Failing that, it also works well if you’re sitting on a porch in winter pre-dawn, in a car, at the office or anywhere the groove takes you. “Four Sticks” apparently got its name from the number Bonham used, and is the least successful track on the album. (A version recorded later with native musicians in Bombay is much more effective in capturing the sense of exoticism, but wouldn’t be released for decades.) “Going To California” is a direct cousin to side two of Zeppelin III, evoking the spirit of Joni Mitchell beautifully. “When The Levee Breaks” has that much-imitated drum sound exploding from the other side of the hall, and is as successful a blues lift to close the album as any. The backwards effects work and the way the chords are turned against each other makes it much more interesting than your average 12-bar. The “guitar-falling-down-the-stairs” ending is also a favorite moment.

If you’re going to start with one Zeppelin album, you might as well make it this one. And if you don’t like this, don’t bother with the rest of them. (The Deluxe Edition offers an alternate version of the album, with rich instrumental mixes of “Going To California” and “The Battle Of Evermore”, a working mix of “Four Sticks” that includes a count-in—good luck trying to keep up—and negligibly alternate mixes of everything else.)

Led Zeppelin Led Zeppelin IV [aka Zoso, Untitled, Four Symbols, The Runes Album, etc.] (1971)—4
2014 Deluxe Edition: same as 1971, plus 8 extra tracks

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Yardbirds 6: Live Yardbirds

Once Led Zeppelin had become a worldwide sensation, Epic Records realized they had a live recording of the Yardbirds’ final incarnation as a quartet from 1968 sitting in their vaults. After beefing up the mix with unconvincing audience atmosphere (according to legend, from a sound effects LP featuring ambience from a bullfight), the concert was released as Live Yardbirds! Featuring Jimmy Page, to the guitarist’s immediate displeasure—partially because the fourth Zep LP was due out shortly. This and any subsequent reissues were quickly recalled, making actual copies rare, but commonly pirated and bootlegged. Its mass unavailability was a shame, because what one could hear of the show was quite entertaining, the band mixing some of their hits with a couple of tunes from the recent flop Little Games.

Beginning with a welcome from Keith Relf and a riff soon famous from “Dazed And Confused”, they plow through “Train Kept A-Rollin’”, then manage to make a medley out of “You’re A Better Man Than I” and “Heart Full Of Soul”. What comes next is likely what most worried Page: the Yardbirds version of a song they then called “I’m Confused” to differentiate it from the song it was stolen from, but still maintaining many of the elements of the track that would close side one of the first Zeppelin album. “My Baby” was a mild hit a couple of years earlier for soul shouter Garnet Mimms, and would be later recorded by Janis Joplin; here it’s an exercise in staying in sync with the time changes.

Relf asks the crowd to help out with the “heys” on “Over Under Sideways Down”; whether they comply is hard to tell under all the fake applause. “Drinking Muddy Water” is prefaced by an explanation of the detuned guitar, and a similar boast sets up “Shapes Of Things”, wherein Page replicates Jeff Beck’s original solo while sneaking in his own flourishes. He plays “White Summer” mostly by himself, the rhythm section joining in ably here and there. Finally, “I’m A Man” is dragged out to twelve minutes, incorporating the riff from “Over Under Sideways Down” and a violin bow solo, and Relf muttering some mystical lyrics (“Deep within the turning sands of inspiration…”?) before the drone goes back to the main riff via a detour that today sounds like parts of “How Many More Times”.

Besides being historic, captured a mere five months before Led Zeppelin as we know it was formed, Live Yardbirds! was still a fine showcase for the man Relf dubbed “Jimmy Magic Fingers, the Grand Sorcerer of the Magic Guitar.” The band was pretty good, too, when you could hear them.

And only a half-century later, one could. Soon after Jimmy managed to expand the Zeppelin catalog in record time, he and the surviving Yardbirds approved an officially restored version of the album without the extra sound effects, but also with some of Relf’s stage patter removed. Packaged as a double album, even though it could have fit on a single CD, and extravagantly priced accordingly, Yardbirds ‘68 also included about 20 minutes of previously booted “studio sketches”, including an early version of what would one day be better known as “Tangerine”.

The Yardbirds Live Yardbirds! Featuring Jimmy Page (1971)—3
2017 Yardbirds ‘68: “same” as 1971, plus 8 extra tracks

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Led Zeppelin 3: Led Zeppelin III

With its songs taken from various singalongs around a campfire in the Welsh countryside, Led Zeppelin III evokes autumn even more than its predecessor. The packaging even reflects something of a rural influence, with a psychedelic wheel suggested by a crop calendar. Beyond that, a step back to acoustic sounds made it more of an experiment, and one that was necessary to remind the boys where they came from, as well as suggest ideas for the next one when they got around to it.

Having fallen into a pattern, this one starts with the relentless pounding of “Immigrant Song”. With Plant wailing his version of the Get Smart theme, one is less in the mind of fjords and Vikings than hallways with automatic doors. It’s still a great tune. “Friends” sounds like a cocktail party in the first moments, and then that sinister modal acoustic strumming starts with scarier strings beneath. The nightmare swirls into the slide opening for “Celebration Day”. It’s such a joyful sounding tune, even if one doesn’t know what he’s so happy about aside of joining the band. “Since I’ve Been Loving You” is a slow, burning blues, and one of their best. It sports great use of minor chords, a distinct descending riff and a touch of the recently departed Janis Joplin on the vocal. “Out On The Tiles” pummels its way to the end of the side with a chorus that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the rest of the tune. Listen for a rare spoken appearance by Jimmy at the start of the second verse.

“Gallows Pole” is a folk tune as old as the hills, and this arrangement still conveys the spooky image of a noose against cloudy gray skies. Hey, there’s a banjo mixed in with all those guitars. Is that a fiddle? Nope, it’s just Plant. “Tangerine” continues the acoustic feeling, with a tender love song from the pen of Page, of all people. The pedal steel guitar is really used well here. “That’s The Way” is a hypnotic folk song about young love lost as well as dirty rivers. Either way, it’s ethereal and haunting and sucks you in every time. “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” is a fun departure back home, and really is a love song to a dog. “Hats Off To (Roy) Harper” is the least successful tune here—a lot of mewling in a blues style over an interminable slide backing, but it fits the formula.

Led Zeppelin III offers a little more variety, yet is still a classic. It may well be their most underrated album, and offers a lot to satisfy the casual listener looking for the hits. Tellingly, when Page and Plant reunited for their mid-‘90s spurt, it was these songs that made up their springboard.

The bonus audio added to the Deluxe Edition brought a couple of “new” things to those of us who hadn’t amassed hours of outtakes thus far. Drier mixes of “Celebration Day”, “Gallows Pole” and “The Immigrant Song” (notice the article) intermingle with instrumental takes of “Friends” and “Out On The Tiles” (when it was still called “Bathroom Sound”). The first take of “Since I’ve Been Loving You” shows how close they were but not quite, while an early mix of “That’s The Way” has dulcimer in place of the electric interludes. A slow acoustic medley of “Key To The Highway” and “Trouble In Mind” is cut from the same cloth as “Harper”, but the most fun track is “Jennings Farm Blues”, an electric instrumental version of “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” from the previous December. The digipack even has a working wheel.

Led Zeppelin Led Zeppelin III (1970)—
2014 Deluxe Edition: same as 1970, plus 9 extra tracks

Monday, August 18, 2008

Led Zeppelin 2: Led Zeppelin II

Certain albums are encased in a time and place, and Led Zeppelin II is autumn. Maybe it’s the brown cover. Maybe it’s the fact that it came out in the fall. Maybe it’s the “leaves are falling” lyrics here and there. Whatever the reason, that’s where it is.

Led Zeppelin’s cleverly titled second album came closely on the heels of their first, recorded on the fly between gigs at home and in America, and the progress shows. With a chuckle from Robert, “Whole Lotta Love” stutters into gear with a riff that would be copped worldwide. The middle section with the Theremin screams wild sex on acid, complete with the unmistakable sound of a man slamming his hand in a car door. It comes back to square one, then takes us out on the fade with alternating channels. “What Is And What Should Never Be” uses major-sixth chords for a jazzier feel on a romantic stroll, and the subtle slide on the solo fits like a glove. Another end section also jumps from speaker to speaker without being silly, back in the days when engineers still enjoyed panning. Following the pattern set by the debut, “The Lemon Song” expands on an old blues tune while stamping it their own. It’s pretty ordinary until the rave-up, but the whole lemon-squeezing concept isn’t as racy today. “Thank You” comes floating in, and it’s the first song of theirs that could be considered wimpy, yet they manage to pull it off.

Side two kicks off with “Heartbreaker”, a sloppy guitar showcase. The lyrics are inconsequential—it’s the fretwork we’re here for. After a Yardbirds detour right out of “I’m A Man” we return to the beginning, then it’s straight into “Living Loving Maid (She’s Just A Woman)”. This is a pop song, plain and simple, and could have gone Top 40 if they’d let their record company release singles. “Ramble On” sports their first nod to The Lord Of The Rings, and it works on that level. The extra long fade features lots of intertwining voices to keep you interested. “Moby Dick” starts with a rather lumpen riff, then leaves for the drum solo—fine when you’re in the mood for it, but tiresome otherwise. “Bring It On Home” also mirrors the first album by ending on a direct blues cop. Plant does a questionable impersonation of a caricature by the tracks, blowing his harp, waiting for a train. Just when you don’t care, the main section takes off, full on for an excellent ending.

Led Zeppelin II is a little harder all around, and gets fewer points only because it’s being played somewhere on Classic Rock radio as you read this. And the overblown shrine on the inner gatefold is pricelessly stupid. But it’s essential to the story, so it’s a must-have, even if you won’t play it as much down the road.

The “companion disc” to the Deluxe Edition offers about 30 minutes of alternate mixes and backing tracks, giving something of a glimpse into how Jimmy built the tracks. “Whole Lotta Love” is an early rough mix without most of the guitar, and even lacking the title phrase, which would have made it much easier for Willie Dixon to sue them and sooner. “Heartbreaker” is another early mix with a much sloppier middle solo, while “What Is And What Should Never Be” and “Ramble On” lack the heavy panning that would help them stand out down the road. “Moby Dick” is reduced to merely the musical riffs, but the most fascinating piece is saved for last. A never-before-heard, unfinished track called “La La” is a surprising slice of pop, mostly organ and acoustic, with some tasty electric chords and a tempo change. It provides a nice contrast to an album mostly known for being loud.

Led Zeppelin Led Zeppelin II (1969)—
2014 Deluxe Edition: same as 1969, plus 8 extra tracks

Friday, August 15, 2008

George Harrison 3: The Concert For Bangla Desh

At this point folks had good reason to wonder if all of George’s albums would be issued as three-LP boxed sets. In his defense, it’s not all him being pompous, for the six-sided format works very well presenting the music from this historic show in concise chunks that make sense. This unexpurgated, real-time document spotlights all of the performers from the evening.

The Concert For Bangla Desh starts with the anticipatory sound of the crowd, followed by somebody singing “on with the show” opera-style. As soon as the mumble builds to a roar we know George has appeared. After quietly thanking the audience and preparing them for Ravi Shankar’s set, Ravi himself lays down the rules for paying attention to Indian music. The 26 minutes that follow build slowly and deliberately to a rapturous finish, and as essential listening as anything else in the box.

Side two kicks off the rock portion with a fast-paced “Wah-Wah”, followed by “My Sweet Lord” and “Awaiting On You All” missing some of the words. Billy Preston showboats us out with “That’s The Way God Planned It”, which is easier to listen to than it is to watch. Ringo gets big cheers for getting most of the way through “It Don’t Come Easy”, and George lets Leon Russell take a verse of “Beware Of Darkness”. The band is introduced one by one, followed by a blistering Eric Clapton guitar solo on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”. Leon tries to turn the place into his very own juke joint with a narcissistic mutation of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Youngblood”, redeemed by a gentle “Here Comes The Sun” with Badfinger’s Pete Ham on second acoustic.

Side five is a big deal for a lot of people, as it consists of Bob Dylan sounding just like he did before he went electric, helped out by George, Ringo and Leon. That leaves a very short side six: “Something” gets a tender reading, leaving “Bangla Desh” itself to close out the show. And no one seems to know what the deal is with that gibberish at the very end.

A full-fledged tour behind All Things Must Pass would have been appreciated, especially considering the aplomb with which the assembled managed to treat the material on short notice. So it’s great to have this album as a souvenir. Despite the altruistic intentions, the album went through the usual record company wrangling before its initial release, and again when it came out on CD. When the film arrived on DVD in 2005, the album was remastered and reissued with a new cover, with the afternoon performance of Dylan’s “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” added as a bonus track.

George was batting a thousand at this rate, gaining a reputation as both a generous and savvy bandleader. We could only hope it would last.

George Harrison & Friends The Concert For Bangla Desh (1971)—4
2005 reissue: same as 1971, plus 1 extra track

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Paul McCartney 3: Wild Life

With his new freedom, Paul wanted to accomplish a couple of things: he wanted to have a regular band to play gigs, and he wanted to create his own brand of music without laboring over it, like Dylan did. Having Got Back more or less with his first two solo albums, he felt he could economize yet still maintain personal satisfaction. So he kept Denny Seiwell from the Ram sessions, called Denny Laine (whom he’d known from the Moody Blues), rehearsed a few weeks with Linda stuck behind a pile of keyboards, and Wild Life, credited to Wings, was the apparent result.

If this album never came out, people would be clamoring for it today as a lost jewel. Instead, it was unleashed as a bold new beginning, and landed with a dull thud. “Mumbo” kicks it off mid-jam, with Paul so excited he can’t stop yelling nonsense over both of the chords. This style had already worn out its welcome on McCartney, but it gets worse. “Bip Bop” isn’t too far removed from “That Would Be Something” in its simplicity, but these lyrics are even less deep. It’s rumored that the words were actually inspired by one of his infant children; one truly hopes that’s not the case. “Love Is Strange” is the first inoffensive track, and as it turns out, it’s a cover. (It had started out as a Wings original until someone pointed out to Paul that it sounded like the Mickey & Sylvia tune, so he did the right thing and finished it that way.) The title track starts nicely, then dwindles into an interminable dirge over three chords about the “aminals [sic] in the zoo”. This would be mentioned in later years as a signpost for their vegetarian sloganeering, but odd at the time since it decries “political nonsense in the air”.

With more of a focus on songs as opposed to jamming, side two is better, but not by much. “Some People Never Know” is actually a pretty sweet song, but stuck next to “I Am Your Singer” it’s getting tiring to hear Paul and Linda coo at each other. (You’ll note that none of George and Ringo’s wives sang on their solo albums.) There’s a brief unlisted guitar piece that would later be revealed as a snippet from “Bip Bop”, and is an improvement on the monstrosity on side one. “Tomorrow” is a hidden gem; great tune, great sound, all good. This leads nicely into “Dear Friend”, supposedly leftover from the Ram sessions, and is a regretful letter to John. It’s a haunting tune, even if he couldn’t come up with any other chords or words. But rather than end it like that, we get another snatch of melody, this time some screaming guitar from “Mumbo”.

So out of all that we have less than one side’s worth of decent McCartney music. “Tomorrow”, “Dear Friend”, “Love Is Strange” and “Some People Never Know” are the best songs here, and would have made good singles, which became a regular thing now that the band was in place. Wild Life is hardly Paul’s worst album, but it was not a promising start for his group. He would tour universities and Europe behind it in an effort to build both his confidence and his repertoire. But as for standing up next to John and George, it was looking like he’d made a big mistake going on his own.

The initial CD got points for including a few stray tracks: “Oh Woman, Oh Why” (the B-side to “Another Day”, since consigned to the Ram reissue, where it belongs); the 1972 Wings single “Mary Had A Little Lamb” (the nursery rhyme with new music by Paul, and somehow still charming); and its B-side, “Little Woman Love”, which was left over from the Ram sessions. When its time came around for the Archive Collection, the only single of the era that was included was both sides of the “Give Ireland Back To The Irish” single, making their digital debuts in America. The balance of the bonus disc was filled with various home demos recorded with Linda (and the kids), an unused edit of “Love Is Strange”, plus a couple of stragglers from Ram: the lovely but unfinished “When The Wind Is Blowing” and another mix of “The Great Cock And Seagull Race”. The only outtake featuring the band as billed would be “African Yeah Yeah”, which is worse than “Mumbo” and “Bip Bop” combined. (The Deluxe Edition offered rough mixes of the main album tracks, plus a DVD and the usual ephemera.)

Wings Wild Life (1971)—2
1989 CD reissue: same as 1971, plus 3 extra tracks
2018 Archive Collection: same as 1971, plus 17 extra tracks (Deluxe Edition adds another 8 tracks and DVD)

Monday, August 11, 2008

John Lennon 3: Imagine

John called this album “‘Working Class Hero’ with sugar on it” in response to those who found it “nicer” (read: “better”) than the previous year’s stark and harsh Plastic Ono Band. The most overt difference between the two is simply the production, or more specifically, the strings. Overall he’s just as angry at the world on Imagine, and just as insecure about his identity.

The title track sets the tone for the rest of the album right away, and despite its radio saturation, it remains a lovely song to this day. (And he’s not saying there’s no heaven, he’s just suggesting we think about it. He probably knew just how hypocritical it was for a guy in a huge house on a large tract of land to sing about having no possessions. His next abode was a studio apartment in Greenwich Village, if that helps.) “Crippled Inside” is a jaunty little number, complete with George on dobro and good old Nicky Hopkins on piano. “Jealous Guy” is one of his best; the words, the melody, the sentiment all speak to the hopeless romantic in all of us. “It’s So Hard” isn’t that exciting, but it is short. (It was also a B-side, suggesting that even John knew it wasn’t much.) “I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier” was everyone’s least favorite, but its hypnosis can be appealing if given a chance. Phil Spector gets to go all out on the production here, considering what he wasn’t allowed to do on the previous album.

“Gimme Some Truth” is another great example of how John could put seemingly nonsense words together successfully. It’s a good one for shouting along with your fist in the air. “Oh My Love” conjures images of overcast days walking through the woods. Written with Yoko back in ‘68 with different lyrics, this finished version has a lot more going for it, with the guitar arpeggios, gentle piano and finger cymbals. The subject matter notwithstanding, “How Do You Sleep?” is yet another example of how nasty John could get if poked (in this case, by Paul). The strings are sinister, matched by the guitar and electric piano solos (George and Nicky again). This is followed by the tail-between-the-legs “How?” The melody in particular does a nice job of juxtaposing rises and falls, and it could have easily fit onto the previous album. And possibly the best album closer of his or anyone’s career could still be “Oh Yoko!”, such a happy, stupid song you have to smile, as if that harmonica is still playing somewhere for eternity.

Imagine is John at his most commercial without being stuck in its time. With it he had set another standard that he’d chase for the rest of his life. It’s still incredibly honest, pulling no punches and suffering no fools. His solo career was off to great start; besides, Yoko was recording lots of stuff to be released under her own name, so those of us who just wanted to hear his songs were more than happy. But as he’d point out, he wasn’t in it to make us happy.

The album avoided expansion for quite some time, until Yoko picked 2018 as the year to unleash Imagine—The Ultimate Collection. At its most extravagant level, alongside a pricey coffee table book, the set presented four discs celebrating not only the album itself but everything else John released in 1971, including “Power To The People”, “Happy Xmas”, both sides of the Oz magazine charity single, and the in-studio cover of “Well”, months before he performed it with the Mothers. The so-called “ultimate mixes” give the tracks a little wider aural space, while “elements mixes” isolate certain aspects of the final tracks, such as the strings or Nicky Hopkins’ piano. “Raw studio takes” present each track before overdubs of horns, strings, or reverb. A variety of outtakes show the songs under construction; with “Oh Yoko!” being tackled in one take, it’s represented by a Bed-In era demo. Finally, “evolution mixes” present montages of each track’s development, from initial demo where applicable to final touches, with conversation, interview excerpts, and lots of impatient swearing. (Two Blu-ray discs offer all that, in 5.1 surround, plus two more hours’ worth of other outtakes, elements, and evolutions, and the quad mix. A two-CD set simply offered discs one and two of the big box.) All in all, a nice set, though the many variations on “God Save Us” and “Do The Oz” are torturous. And we can marvel that he spent all that time and effort installing a state-of-the-art studio in his home, only to use it for one album before leaving the country for good and selling the house to Ringo.

John Lennon Imagine (1971)—
2018 Ultimate Collection: “same” as 1971, plus 51 extra tracks (and 2 Blu-ray discs)

Friday, August 8, 2008

Elvis Costello 14: Spike

During his self-imposed sabbatical from recording, Elvis signed a worldwide deal with Warner Bros. and said goodbye to the Attractions, confident that his career was on its way to new heights. And for a while, it sure seemed that way.

Having enjoyed their collaboration on King Of America, he reteamed with T-Bone Burnett to “cast” an album based on the specific needs of each of his new, eclectic songs. But rather than the Americana celebrated previously, Spike boasts arrangements flavored by Roger McGuinn, new pal Paul McCartney, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band of New Orleans, and a handful of traditional Irish session pros—sometimes all on the same track. A fascination with recent Tom Waits records inspired the utilization of odd percussion and similarly unorthodox instruments, adding to the overall clatter.

Despite its atonal, noisy opening, “…This Town…” sports a catchy chorus, impenetrable lyrics, and Rickenbackers played by McGuinn, McCartney, and MacManus. “Let Him Dangle” is almost the opposite, with journalistic verses detailing true crime and punishment, and a chorus that sounds unfinished every time. A hint of the future arrives in “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror”, with the piano contributed by Allen Toussaint in place of the estranged Steve Nieve. As much as the album sounds different from what had come before, it was just as jarring when the straightforward pop-rocker “Veronica”, a McCartney collaboration about Alzheimer’s, actually hit the Top 20. “God’s Comic” is a wry fable sung from the point of view of a failed entertainer who meets God in the afterlife, then the wacky “Chewing Gum” takes the Tom Waits instrumental sound to New Orleans for a wordy tale about a mail-order bride. The tuba provides the bass for a few hilarious transitions, and the song wouldn’t sound anything like this otherwise. It’s a bold transition to the Celtic lament of “Tramp The Dirt Down”, his angriest indictment of Margaret Thatcher yet.

“Stalin Malone” is an intricately arranged instrumental featuring the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, with “lyrics” printed on the cover (or in the liner notes on CD and cassette). After an uncertain fade, the almost pastoral sound of “Satellite” wafts in, but turns into a tragic scene, an eerie prediction of the Internet porn industry, with Chrissie Hynde’s harmony an excellent counterpoint. Perhaps to provide relief, “Pads, Paws And Claws” is a twisted rockabilly tribute to his wife Cait O’Riordan, written with McCartney, while the woman herself wrote the words and melody for “Baby Plays Around”, one of the more enduring songs here. Ireland and New Orleans collide on the portrait of the alleged neighborhood witch “Miss Macbeth”, but “Any King’s Shilling”, which tells a wartime short story from his own family history, is flavored solely by Irish instruments. “Coal-Train Robberies” was only on the cassette and CD of this already long album; Elvis himself thought the arrangement sounded the most like the “classic” Attractions sound than anything else on the album, even if the lyrics make little sense. “Last Boat Leaving” was written, along with some other instrumental pieces, for the soundtrack of The Courier, a British crime film that happened to co-star Ms. O’Riordan. Here it provides a melancholy ending, again with a feeling of wartime strife.

Spike was an unlikely hit, and sent new fans back to the catalog. But its overall oddness and forced feeling haven’t kept it in rotation over the years. Still, it was proudly included in the first wave of Rhino reissues, each fortified with a bonus disc. This one begins with twelve demos for the album, showing how much of the decoration he had already imagined. (“Satellite” is performed in four instead of a waltz, and the demo of “Coal-Train Robberies”, while close musically, has a nearly different set of lyrics). Four contemporary B-sides, all covers (of which Nick Lowe’s “The Ugly Things” is the best), are nicely collected for context, and a “vocal” version of “Stalin Malone” merely has the words recited over the track.

It should also be noted that McCartney included several demos and outtakes of the songs they wrote together on an eventual expansion of his own Flowers In The Dirt. While we’re at it, somebody noticed a strange synchronicity in that the first song on Elton John’s 1985 album Ice On Fire is called “This Town”, and the second song on side two of the same album is called “Satellite”. This has to mean something.

Elvis Costello Spike (1989)—3
2001 Rhino: same as 1989, plus 17 extra tracks

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Neil Young 9: Zuma

Having emerged from the darkness that had dominated his last albums, Neil felt rejuvenated when the Crazy Horse rhythm section hooked up with a guitar player named Frank Sampedro. He moved the revived band into a house and rolled tape. The quick result was an incredibly satisfying, underrated gem.

Zuma is a straightforward Crazy Horse album without any real agenda, which is fine. “Don’t Cry No Tears” is a strong opener, with a real pop-friendly arrangement. This was already ten years old when it was released, left over from the old folkie days. “Danger Bird” rumbles quietly in, slow as hell. While other slow songs can be dull, Neil’s best always hold your attention. This one juxtaposes an impenetrable lyric about a prehistoric bird with some rather pointed stanzas about a relationship gone bad (if you listen closely enough on those choruses). “Pardon My Heart” is a nice rumination on what love can do to and for somebody, followed by the sweet hope in “Lookin’ For A Love”. “Barstool Blues” closes this perfect album side, all simplicity with a stretched range.

“Stupid Girl” could have been a lot funnier and much nastier (at least in comparison to the Rolling Stones song of the same name), though it’s tough to get much worse than “you’re really stupid, girl”. “Drive Back” hits with all the subtlety of an alarm clock. This is the macho upside to the hurt elsewhere on the album. “Cortez The Killer” is the first of a long line of songs related to the ordeal of South American Indians over the centuries. While the three chords don’t go anywhere, he lets the words travel time. “Through My Sails” ends the album quietly. This may well be left over from an aborted CSNY project, as evidenced by the harmonies and boat imagery.

While he’s hardly smiling here, Zuma is by far a lot sunnier than his last several albums. It’s as bare-bones as the simple line drawings on the cover, and does the job nicely. It leaves the listener hoping that the demons that had colored his so-called dark period were long gone. But in the meantime, it’s worth several repeat listenings.

Neil Young Zuma (1975)—4

Monday, August 4, 2008

Neil Young 8: Tonight’s The Night

Tonight’s The Night was recorded after the Time Fades Away tour but not released until after On The Beach (as well as a major CSNY reunion tour). It also surfaced at the expense of Homegrown, another album-length project that remained in the can for even longer. With two dark albums to choose from, Neil decided the time was right for Tonight’s The Night and put it on the market, complete with surreal liner notes and an interview untranslated from a Dutch newspaper.

The album was something of an Irish wake for two close friends: Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and CSNY roadie Bruce Berry, both of whom succumbed to heroin overdoses. The songs neither celebrate nor condemn the drug culture, but merely illustrate it. By the time the album was released, the song order was shuffled for a better flow, but it is still bookended with two similar versions of the title track, which in itself doesn’t live up to the promise of the first few seconds of the first version. But it’s an important song to Neil, who’d play it as many as three times a night at those original shows. The piano-driven “Speakin’ Out” has a barroom charm with fitting solo bursts from Nils Lofgren. It’s improved on by “World On A String”, a much more effective stomper. Just when we’re settling in, “Borrowed Tune” follows, stark and straightforward. He doesn’t even name the song he’s stealing; just admitting it is enough. (By the way, it’s “Lady Jane”, which was indeed by the Rolling Stones.) This recording was from an earlier session but fits so well here, as does the live recording of “Come On Baby Let’s Go Downtown” with Danny Whitten singing and playing lead. (Completists might have already had this song in their collections if they bought the first Crazy Horse album.) “Mellow My Mind” takes out the side, and for all its raggedness it’s great when he strains to hit the high notes on both bridges and fails miserably. Wonderfully ragged, it’s even more amazing that it was covered 20 years later by Simply Red, of all people.

As silly as “Roll Another Number” is, you realize how dark it is in the first verse of the somber “Albuquerque”, which shows the other side of rolling a number. “New Mama” starts out spooky despite its hopeful idea of rebirth, passes through an equally spooky piano section and ends on a major chord. Just as you’re trying figure out what just happened, “Lookout Joe” crashes in. Also recorded earlier, its sloppiness is perfect for this project. “Tired Eyes” is very much an acquired taste, but given a chance you will learn to enjoy the desperate vocals and the storytelling. The cracked voice is a strong part of the picture. The second version of the title song slams the proceedings shut like a piano (or coffin) lid.

This album is basically 45 minutes of rambling, but it’s compelling rambling—a troubled beauty under cracked, dusty glass. Neil has said not to listen to it at 10:30 in the morning, but it can be done. His profile was pretty high again, though he’d solidified his reputation as an eccentric. (For the first fifteen years of the digital age, the in-print chronology ignored Time Fades Away and On The Beach, going straight from Harvest to Tonight’s The Night. Allegedly Neil insisted that they couldn’t put Harvest on CD unless they did the same with Tonight’s The Night; that’s just the kind of guy he is.)

Neil Young Tonight’s The Night (1975)—4

Friday, August 1, 2008

Led Zeppelin 1: Led Zeppelin

The deck was stacked against Led Zeppelin from the get-go. Besides rising from the embers of the Yardbirds, they arrived at a time when the “supergroup” concept had already made consumers wary. But unlike some of those bands—Blind Faith, the Jeff Beck Group and Crosby, Stills & Nash, for example—Led Zeppelin rose to the occasion with their debut LP and enjoyed something else those bands didn’t: longevity. In fact, outside of The Beatles, they’re the only major band of the rock era that never put out a bad album.

“Good Times Bad Times” is a perfect opener to an almost perfect album. It takes a simple chord change and turns it upside and backwards in 2:50. “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” starts off in such a way that we don’t realize new ground is being broken for how music is to be made. This has the balance of light and shade the band envisioned when they first got together. “You Shook Me” may or may not have been recorded specifically to piss Jeff Beck off, but showcases organ and harmonica for variety. It’s also a better demonstration of Led Zeppelin as a band compared to Beck’s group, which comes off more as a guitar-based power trio plus singer. The end piece where the vocal matches the guitar note for note is priceless and should be attempted by no one else. It crumbles down into the menacing bassline for “Dazed And Confused”. Yes, Jimmy Page stole the song from Jake Holmes, but he also improved it. While the original dealt with a bad trip, this is a trip to hell. And that’s a perfect album side.

“Your Time Is Gonna Come” begins side two with an extended organ workout not dissimilar to The Band’s “Chest Fever”; it’s moments like this that show just how valuable John Paul Jones was to the chemistry of this band. It may be the weakest song on the album lyrically, but it’s still great, even with Robert Plant’s Chicano vocalizations. The song fades down into “Black Mountain Side” (descended from the Yardbirds instrumental “White Summer”), complete with tabla. This diverts us long enough before the amphetamine rush of “Communication Breakdown”. Similar to “Good Times Bad Times” in its attack, it also worked well as a concert opener. “I Can’t Quit You Baby” sounds at first like a retread of “You Shook Me”, except for that A to B flat change after each verse that makes it superior. Then it’s right into another deceptively low-key bass intro. “How Many More Times” takes blues clichés from all over the place, as well as Jeff Beck. There’s some bowing in the midsection and Plant extrapolates on a variety of themes. The sleeve says it’s only 3:30, but it goes a full five minutes longer until a gloriously raucous ending.

Led Zeppelin is simply a great album. And while it was only their first, nearly all the ingredients that define their catalog are in place. Such was the economy of the album that 45 years later, Page apparently didn’t find anything from the studio sessions to bolster the Deluxe Edition of the album, choosing instead to devote the second disc to the better part of an October 1969 concert in Paris originally broadcast on French radio. It’s a great show, from “Communication Breakdown” (then including a 40-second “Good Times Bad Times” intro) through a 15-minute “Dazed And Confused”, and nine minutes of “White Summer/Black Mountain Side”. Still, it might have been more historically interesting had they used an earlier show, as opposed to one recorded on the eve of the release of the second album.

Led Zeppelin Led Zeppelin (1969)—
2014 Deluxe Edition: same as 1969, plus 8 extra tracks