Thursday, August 15, 2019

I gotta be there, I wanna do something: July 2019 music diary

Note #1: I will not be grading or reviewing Purple Mountains as I had planned to, because as an outsider to the Silver Jews and David Berman's work it strikes me as strictly gauche to conceive of attempting to put his final album into a capsule review-sized box which would inflict nothing of any significance upon the world in the context of an entire human life that touched a great number of people I personally know. Friends who have been impacted by Berman's death speak with the most moving sincerity of an artist whose work meant the world to them, and the sheer fact of that means more than anything anyone who approaches this with greater distance could possibly say. Moreover, the intimacy of Berman's rapport with people I like and/or love makes it impossible to approach this with the necessary neutrality anyway. Seeing someone greeted by much of the world with open arms but still in so much pain that he would make a move of such crushing finality, and knowing the intricacies and unknowable things that would be involved in such a decision (if it can even be classified as a decision, something of which I'm skeptical) just leaves me wanting to say nothing less trite than: if you are hurting, or grieving, please don't try to do it alone. No human heart can take it, even a weathered one.

Thom Yorke: ANIMA (XL) [r]
The first thing to say is how much better this is than the last Radiohead album, while also being much more of a piece with his day-job band's output (therefore more appealing) than any of Yorke's prior solo material save the surprisingly enjoyable Suspiria score. With nine songs in 47 minutes, it's not particularly discursive, and amounts to the most playful electro-pop Yorke has put his name on in a great many years, with a decent bit of synthetic jamming and few signs of the insanely worked-over pretentiousness of Radiohead's worst work, plus plenty of the lovingly off-the-cuff beauty of their best. The beautiful, disorienting "Dawn Chorus" is stargazing shit that would leave Brent DiCrescenzo drunk and stoned and babbling, while "Not the News" achieves enough of a narrative to evoke Yorke emerging from some sort of gorgeous ethereal murk. The record does meander some, serving more as good atmosphere than anything more or less than that, with little spikes of humor (a song called "I Am a Very Rude Person"; accounts differ) and menace ("this is when you know who your real friends are") but it's not easy to imagine a typical Radiohead fan failing to get a kick out of it all.

Freddie Gibbs & Madlib: Bandana (RCA) [r]
Gibbs races through this faster than Wile E. Coyote; "Freestyle Shit" and "Crime Pays" sound like fun thanks to the sensory-overload combination of Gibbs' gleefully amoral rhymes and Madlib's head-spinningly restless production. The latter track in particular ingeniously combines '70s quiet storm and lite jazz with the feeling of a pedestrian sitcom about day to day lives and coke dealing in the Midwest, or something. The only shit is that Madlib isn't really ahead of the pack anymore, he's mostly twisting knobs for his own (and Gibbs') benefit and not stretching anyone's ideas of what this music does. While the throwback is charming, it's also obviously regressive in a variety of ways (the stoner rap of "Cataracts" could've been on a Curren$y tape ten years ago), and the brightest spots toward the end are Anderson .Paak's Kendrick-infected verse on "Giannis" (not that Kendrick is New School either at this juncture) and the apocalyptic gigantism of "Education." It's a great night out, at any rate.

MIKE: Tears of Joy (10K)
Respectable and creatively restless but not the least bit entertaining, because MIKE simply doesn't have enough of a personality to carry its sonic ambitions. You have to be more than half-awake to be good at this kind of thing.

Rhye: Spirit (Loma Vista EP) [r]
An extra half-hour of the godly horniness that flows out of Mike Milosh and whoever's turning the cranks like so many obscene bodily fluids. I've heard it all before but I still love it to death.

Jesca Hoop: Stonechild (Memphis Industries) [r]
This Santa Rosa native was swept up in the late 2000s indie folk revival but is only now, at age 44, really getting her moment. Her voice doesn't seem as singular as it once did, content now to vacillate between a traditionalist singer-songwriter posture with a militantly twee, art-teacher quality and an occasional specific resemblance to Joanna Newsom. But the songs and the atmospheres are a great leap forward here, starting out spooky and ethereal but also utterly confident on "Free of the Feeling." At its loveliest ("Passage's End," the sweetly propulsive "Outside of Then") it's fragile without becoming sentimental, and if not for Big Thief recording a whole album transcendently fusing haunting, desolate forest tones with tough-minded indie rock, "Footfall to the Path" would be the fake Appalachian folk song of the year.

Moodymann: Sinner (KDJ) [r]
Veteran Detroit DJ's latest fine batch of club digressions sometimes has the crate-digging enthusiasm of Donuts, sometimes sounds like a Deee-lite album, both highly agreeable ambitions.

Mannequin Pussy: Patience (Epitaph) [r]
Verbose, riff-heavy Philadelphia punks offer nothing you've never heard before, really, but nothing you'll be sorry to hear again.

The Flaming Lips: King's Mouth (Warner Bros.) [r]
Warner still lets these cats do whatever the hell they want, including this storybook concept thing with Mick Jones, of all people, in the Jack Rieley role and a lot of chilled-out soundscapes similar to the last LP. You won't listen to it much but you'll feel all right whenever you do, especially if you're not in any condition to drive. God bless them.

Maxo Kream: Brandon Banks (RCA) [r]
A Texan and a former Crip, which informs the hedonistic, harsh quality of his second album -- which, from our angle as rap consumers, is lovably chaotic and playful, engaging and lively in a way that can't help but evoke nostalgia for a carefree time when we were all watching cats threaten each other on TV; but regardless of thematics, don't underestimate what a rush it is to hear someone still totally high on the rhythmic thunder of his own voice, a hypnotic drive you can feel down to your core. Emekwanem Biosah's note of lyrical distinction is that he's reflective and brash in pretty equal measure (listen to "Bissonnet"), writing letters with a pen and telling comparing stories while indulging in violence as burlesque, violence as obligation to an audience, boasting "i ain't a fuckin' rapper I'm a fuckin' gravedigger." (Important note: that's rhymed with "masturbator.") Oddly, he falters the most when he attempts to combine these impulses into the Lou Reed-like sob story character sketch "Brenda," about a single mom mistreated by every man in the phone book whose life gets harder every day; inspirational sentiment: "Brenda been through a lot / now she sellin' her twat / she's a prostitute thot." A huge well of producers conglomerate into a mid-'90s mush ("Change" essentially is Bone-Thugs) that's appealing up to around the 2/3 mark, with the occasional shot of dissonant psychedelia. In other words, there's nothing modern about it -- that's why Schoolboy Q, such a bore on his own stuff, sounds like he's set up shop and found his home at last on his verse. But no question about it: "She Live," with a supreme guest appearance from Megan Thee Stallion and a gigantic, stark bass beat evocative of 1980s dub riddims, is a fucking titanic blast; and this verse of "Dizzy Draco" is, as the kids say, giving me life: "I had a job at Panera Bread, I took that work to work / I was sellin' niggas bagels, I was sellin' niggas Percs." Not even Pusha T could make it sound so romantic.

Peter Perrett: Humanworld (Domino) [hr]
It's deeply unfair that a guy like Perrett can sound like he's never even laid down since his heyday, after 67 years of ruthless attack upon and abuse of his own body, and over three decades after the dissolve of his definitive vehicle the Only Ones, an all-timer for fans of alternative pop at its most melodic, witty and sincere. The second record from a refreshingly celebrated and assured comeback hits a bullseye as these things go; it's not an exaggeration to say it stands proudly with the best work in his veteran master's history, and frankly, it's impossible to fathom how in the hell he does it. The legit full-on rock production on "I Want Your Dreams," riddled with thorny backing vocals and towering, ringing guitars certainly helps the sense of timelessness and, to be honest, ingratiating eccentricity. The rocky relationship chatter on "Once Is Enough" isn't the most inspired, but the pleasingly apocalyptic production more than takes hold, and Perrett's voice -- both literally and poetically -- is consistently challenging and provocative, full of the nuanced observation of someone who is absolutely not at rest. His protest riffs on "War Plan Red" make fiery power out of neutered cluelessness about how to improve the world we're living in. "Walking in Berlin" sounds like an immediate classic, a treasure worthy of the Only Ones; "Love's Inferno" is chaotic and beautiful. Some of the songs sound conventional. Some of the words ring slightly false. But some of them are "I'm gonna sleep on a bed of nails never to wake up" ("Believe in Nothing"). And some of the conventional songs, like "Master of Destruction," conjure up nothing so much as jealousy that any aged-out rocker asshole is able to make ancient texts sound fresh and totally engaging again. Where on earth did this come from!?

ALSO RECOMMENDED:
Lee "Scratch" Perry: Rainford (On-U Sound) [grandpa still knows more about the groove than we do; "Makumba Rock"/"Cricket on the Moon"/"Autobiography of the Upsetter"]
Sacred Paws: Run Around the Sun (Merge) [Scotland's own Katrina & the Waves (or Bow Wow Wow) lays claim to Eurovision for the next dozen years; "Brush Your Hair"/"What's So Wrong"/"Shame on Me"]
Bedouine: Bird Songs of a Killjoy (Spacebomb) [in the words of Leonard Cohen: "That's pretty... That's pretty too."]
Dylan LeBlanc: Renegade (ATO) [Louisiana alt-country boy whose songs all sound the same, and are all beautiful, and I'm a sucker; "Lone Rider"/"Born Again"]

ALSO RECOMMENDED FOR THE AMBIENT FILES:
Kevin Richard Martin: Sirens (ROOM40) [Novant Health Care continues its reign of terror taking over every nonprofit medical facility in the Southeast]
Sarah Davachi: Pale Bloom (W.25th)

FURTHER INVESTIGATION TO COME:
* Andre Bratten: Pax Americana
Night Moves: Can You Really Find Me
Felicia Atkinson: The Flower and the Vessel
Trash Kit: Horizon
Pere Ubu: Long Goodbye
Ada Lea: What We Say in Private
Beyonce: The Lion King- The Gift

REJECTS
Julia Shapiro: Perfect Version
The Black Keys: Let's Rock
Kokoko!: Fongola
The Soft Cavalry
Mark Mulcahy: The Gus
Banks: III
Tony Molina: Songs from San Mateo County [NYIM]
Ider: Emotional Education
Sum 41: Order in Decline

ORPHAN TUNES:
Julia Shapiro "Shape" [Perfect Version]

Note #2: This weekend was scheduled to bring us the first draft of my Favorite Albums of the 2010s list plus a nice little essay about the whole confusing mess of a decade. However, even slightly cutting back on how much re-listening I was doing (I will do a more complete pass at a later date, when I can actually incorporate 2019 stuff) hasn't prevented me from falling behind on it. So this weekend you'll get a different post I meant to write and publish a million years ago and got sidetracked, and hopefully about a week after that I will have the big list post ready. End transmission.

Friday, August 2, 2019

The Beatles: Complete Home Recordings (1963-69)


(bootleg [4CD])

!! CAUTION !!

A hodgepodge for completists only despite the presence of a few errant moments of sublime beauty, this collection -- which technically has two additional discs, made redundant by the bootleg Strong Before Our Birth and the 2018 official release of the Esher demos -- tidies up one of the main categories of Beatles music or semi-music missing from the Purple Chick compilations, namely their various private home tapes and amateur recordings spreading from the beginning to the end of their career. If you've been exposed to the lovely John Lennon demos of "I'm in Love" and "Bad to Me" via Youtube or on Apple's Bootleg Recordings 1963 release, or to Paul's stunning version of "Goodbye" that remains the greatest unreleased recording in the catalog as of 2019 (it's an obvious candidate for release and was up for inclusion on Anthology 3 but got vetoed for not being Beatley enough), you may expect to be treated to a bunch of gorgeous if muddy-sounding stripped down takes on classic Beatles and ancillary material. Unfortunately, this really is a scraping-the-barrel situation; not many of the Beatles' home demos that would actually interest most of us have escaped into the public sphere, and many of the scraps that did emerge were of such abysmal quality as recordings, as music, even as history that they constitute some of the least worthwhile Beatles bootleg material in existence.

Kicking off in 1963, we quickly find "Bad to Me" and "I'm in Love" to be by far the highlights of the early Beatlemania-era recordings on offer. Those are accompanied by a tape made by John of his wife Cynthia and infant son Julian interacting; it's inconsequential and creepy, and much better than what follows: an interminable gathering of inexplicable goof-offs from the lads and one Gerry Marsden from the summer of '63, which has them bouncing off the walls foolishly, reading Bible passages ironically and singing gospel tunes -- and all in a barely audible condition such that you can't actually make out the content of what's being said, only the procession of hammy "funny voices" delivering it. Then, prepare to be riveted with several minutes of Marsden and Paul McCartney wandering around asking strangers for directions; it's truly fucking fascinating, geez I hope they found the "parallel road." (John, stripping away all celebrity mystique once and for all and turning into your nervous dad on the road: "we should've been there at 4:00 and it's twenty to five!") There's a little more clarity in a recording of Paul reading nursery rhymes to an unknown child, plus a long sequence -- interrupted by random fragments of recorded-over stuff -- of the gang hanging out, listening to what sounds like Herb Alpert or similar mondo-lounge music and chit-chatting. Probably a fun time, and nothing we ever needed to hear.

Back to music, sort of, with Paul wailing over a radio blaring "Over the Rainbow" and "Tammy." Some fragments and instrumentals follow on from there; there's a Mediterranean-style single guitar instrumental, a generic Chuck Berry ("Havana Moon") burlesque, a weird amateurish Greek thing, a bad attempt at jazz with Ringo in tow, and something uncopyrighted the compilers have called "Rockin' and Rollin'" that seems to consist of Beatles jamming to celebrate someone's acquisition of a new tape recorder that will allow them to play around with overdubs at home. It's dreadful but kind of fun; they're certainly better at this kind of haphazard chaos than they were in 1960, and the really stupid lead vocals are enjoyably unguarded. Plus somebody's got a horn!? The only other songs from this mess that can be identified are a very hard to recognize demo of "Michelle," a poor take on the Academy Awards antique "Three Coins in the Fountain," and from August, some interesting rudimentary demos of "Don't Bother Me," terribly recorded and unfinished (only the bridge is close to done) and eventually overtaken by guitar noodling, but still intriguing and well worth hearing. For the record, all this is sourced from tapes that were auctioned off on seemingly shady pretenses by a chauffer named Alf Bicknell. We should thank Bicknell for bringing our heroes back down to earth; it was once hard to imagine anything tangentially related to the Beatles being so dull.

'64 fares little better. The tail end of the Bicknell tapes does offer some sweetly minimal Lennon runthroughs of "If I Fell," on which he audibly strains his voice while trying to figure out the vocal melody and tosses in an unconscious precursor to "Imagine" plus a fragment of "I Should Have Known Better." A Paul acetate demo of the tremendously bad "One and One Is Two," ultimately recorded by the Strangers, prompted Lennon's remark "Billy J. [Kramer] is finished when he gets this song," though indeed it turns out the tune was below even Kramer's standards. "Talking Guitar Blues" is out-of-tune skiffle via Ernest Tubb. Otherwise from this year we just have some radio appearances -- amusing as ever, with George gagging on Ringo's line and John emphatically promoting a Top Gear episode with "we gotta keep telling them, you know what they're like!" plus George reading out in German on Radio Luxenbourg -- and Paul goofing on Bach. The offerings for the next year are even more scant; 1965 provides only a lovely but cut-short fragment of "We Can Work It Out," 45 seconds of Paul's work in progress before Lennon added his input, which also goes for the minute-long instrumental demo of "Michelle," a song whose earlier genesis is already heard on the prior disc of this compilation.

It all gets a little more interesting in 1966; some fans will be worn out by the sheer quantity of John Lennon homemade wackiness on this disc, but in contrast to much of the Bicknell pap this is truly significant material in a historical sense. First of all we get to hear the switch from "He Said, He Said" to "She Said, She Said" and the attendant progression of a quizzical folk-rock number becoming something much harder and more ambiguous, with adventurous chord changes and considerable enthusiasm, plus some juicy tossed-off lines like "you're making me feel like my trousers are torn." Next up is a long collection of recordings of John playing with his brand new Mellotron, and he behaves about the same as all of us when we get a new toy, which means the whole thing is pretty insufferable but also suggestive, in that it makes you want to play around with one of the old machines yourself. And where better than an off-the-wall Beatles bootleg to make a strange discovery about a completely different band? We learn here that the Kinks' "Phenomenal Cat" ('68) opens with a straight recording of one of the factory-included Mellotron samples! Most enigmatically, John at one point pulls out and plays with a tidbit of the "Think for Yourself" vocal recording that was later used in Yellow Submarine and famously slipped out on boots in the 1970s, almost surely via Lennon, who clearly had a copy in his possession for some reason as early as 1966. The question is why, but we should know better than to harp on that.

The remainder of the second disc is comprised of lots and lots of "Strawberry Fields Forever," preserving what seems to be the complete collection of demos John made of the song; and while it's a taxing experience in terms of time and quantity, the song itself never gets old, perhaps the definitive example of a durable Beatles composition that's undiluted by any sort of repetition or -- on the master recording -- studio trickery. The evolution is stunning, John's performances are beautiful (there's even electric guitar on some of the demos) and it's privileged moment to witness this moment of inspiration occurring. Heartbreaking at the outset in its sheer intimacy and articulate anxiety, it gets dreamier later when he employs the Mellotron. He also experiments with everything he's learned so far about backwards talk, tape loops and overdubbing. (An intrepid bootlegger attempted to mix one of these to stereo, but the results are just odd.)

Disc three, and 1967, open with further documentary audio of John Lennon playing and writing at home, and this of course remains the best variety of material you can find amid the junk-shop pilings. His early "Good Morning, Good Morning" is modest and likable, driven by piano and what apparently is a Mellotron percussion sample. "Across the Universe" is very skeletal at this stage, just the "j'ai guru dev" bit but with no lyrics, again on piano and Mellotron. "You Know My Name," which he can't seem to get the hang of, apparently sprang from the ashes of an unfinished piece called "She's Walking Past My Door," which sounds similar to some of his solo work but is in such early stages that it's hard to tell what he was up to. "You Know My Name" is just a dirgelike chant, and it seems he never intended it very seriously, which isn't surprising given what it turned into. Paul's only demo this round is for "Step Inside Love," recorded at his Cavendish house, which is elaborate enough to be double-tracked and seems quite lovely despite the slightness of the composition -- but the terrible recording quality, likely several generations removed from a tape or acetate, does it in.

The next strange detour is music that actually was officially released in a fashion; the Beatles composed and performed the soundtrack to Magical Mystery Tour themselves. Obviously it consisted largely of their own new songs plus a few external tidbits by the Bonzo Dog Band and Arthur Wilkinson & His Orchestra, but the group or some configuration of the group also crafted some incidental music that seems to have been made at someone's house, probably John's (in addition to "Shirley's Wild Accordion," produced by John Lennon at EMI). This is mostly electronic meandering that reinforces the inescapable truth that the Beatles were not George Martin, nor Ken Thorne for that matter. But the most prolonged of these tidbits, "Jessie's Dream" (from the famous and atypically inspired "spaghetti sequence"), is somewhat interesting, credited to the whole band like "Flying" and similar in its reliance on oddball vocal exercises and the Mellotron -- though it's most appealing largely because of the genuinely funny and weird Lennon dialogue from the film that's laid over it. Speaking of weird, from this period there is a radio skit labeled "All Together on the Wireless Machine," but its origins are dubious and in most hardcore circles is no longer presumed to be Beatles-related at all.

The 1968 portions of this collection overlap a bit with the Christmas and Kinfauns tapes reviewed elsewhere. Only about a third of what remains will interest most fans. For the devoted few, there is a lengthy freeform home tape (which may not even be from 1968 but it is in the neighborhood) from John, again playing around with the Mellotron and this time with Ringo occasionally in tow, but it's a little more amusing than the drudgery of some of the earlier recorded samples of his and the others' dicking around. Collected under several different titles but really comprised of one long session of toying with the synthesizer's samples and improvising vocals (spoken or sung) on top of them, the highlights here include Ringo's narration about "the Edgehill Country Club" and John's impromptu emceeing of a "Cuban music" recording: "we've got a swinging little trio... bass, maracas and bass." More historically significant but even less listenable is the famous and oft-booted "India tape," some hippie-dippie stuff periodically interrupted by Wolfman Jack narrating the proceedings years later, with the Beatles (sans Ringo) gathered round along with Mia Farrow, Mike Love, Donovan and others singing public domain faves like "Jingle Bells," "She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain" and, perversely making its second appearance in the Beatles' recorded legacy, "When the Saints Go Marching In." They also jam out "Blowin' in the Wind" and, after scaling down a bit, a stupid rock & roll Brian Wilson pastiche called "Spiritual Regeneration" (its fusion of Beach Boy harmonies and phony relevance reminds one of nothing so much as that band's embarrassing "Student Demonstration Time," had it been written in time for Beach Boys' Party!) then -- once John's safely out of earshot -- they sing Happy Birthday to Mike Love. I have no real basis for this but I strongly suspect that Love's memory of "cowriting" "Back in the U.S.S.R." is drawn from a vague recollection of "Spiritual Regeneration," which is like a very dumb version of "U.S.S.R."... but may draw some attention from new fans since it's something akin to a lost Beatles original (plus Donovan and the Lovester). Speaking of false memories, Geoff Emerick's claim that "Blackbird" was recorded (later in 1968) outside of EMI Studios with actual real bird sounds is newly amusing in light of this take that's absolutely awash in the sounds of wild fowl.

But as for the stuff you actually want to hear from '68, meaning the legitimate demos: "Hey Bulldog" is faint and tentative (it sounds like a child is crying in the background, but I have no clue who that would be) and embodies only the "you can talk to me" portion, here "she can talk to me." There's a sequence dedicated to "Cry Baby Cry" in the process of being composed, with John picking out the melody on piano and trying several approaches with it; oddly enough, one quickly abandoned version is arranged on an electric guitar with the words screamed out, which is potentially interesting, but he doesn't get more than a few seconds through it each time and quickly gives up. "Julia" is a heavy presence (different from the Esher demo), but already polished despite the early absence of lyrics, and its chords apparently fascinated John as he used them on three different songs he started writing in this period, the others being "Look at Me" and (his half of) "I've Got a Feeling." "Look at Me" is quite raw here, with John's vocal more obviously pained than on the double-tracked master from John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970). Inevitably, "I've Got a Feeling" consists only of the "everybody had a hard year" bit, which sounds almost mournful in this context despite light accompaniment from Yoko Ono -- though at one point I swear he says "everybody got a soft drink." Lastly from John's department, there is "A Case of the Blues," the rare Lennon song that never quite got finished despite a lot of potential; the lyrics are rudimentary but the performance is solid and engaging, a nice bit of stripped-back rock & roll.

John dominates the remainder of this compilation, save the diverting George-Bob Dylan collaborations "Nowhere to Go" and "I'd Have You Anytime," but there's one extremely important exception. If Complete Home Recordings were the only context in which you could hear Paul's beautiful "Goodbye," an acoustic demo for Apple artist Mary Hopkin, that would be plenty of reason to seek it out. Thankfully, it's so famous and popular that its unreleased status is nearly beside the point; it's as ubiquitous on the web as if it had been a hit single, and it easily would've been given the opportunity. Hopkin's stilted, gaudy version may as well not even exist. "Goodbye" is prime White Album-era Paul McCartney, lilting, deceptively simple, gorgeously sung -- he may not have a more moving, controlled vocal on record -- and all but undeniably touching. Totally absent of the winking ironies and self-conscious cleverness of so many of his Beatles songs from this era, this is a pure expression of love that sounds absolutely unforced; in some ways it feels as sincere and unguarded as John's "Julia." Perhaps "I Will" is close to its peer as a love song from Paul at a turning point of his life, but somehow this one feels deeper and more substantive. That it was a private tape of a song intended for a woman to sing has unintended positive effects as well; surely the fact that it wasn't meant for mass consumption contributes to the track's feeling of spotaneity, which only emphasizes what a masterful composer, singer and guitarist he was as a young man, giving ammunition to the theory that Paul's worst enemy was his eagerness to please everyone. Secondarily, even though it's matter of practicality that the "lover" in the song is a man, there's something moving about hearing Paul McCartney belt out what amounts, in letter if not spirit, to a same-sex love song. Of course that soldiarity is unintentional, even if Paul may agree with the resulting sentiment, but then again this is the band that covered the Shirelles' lusty "Boys" without changing most of the words.

Nothing else on the entire compilation stands up to "Goodbye" (or "Bad to Me," which I'm disregarding as a point in its favor since it's since been released), much less anything that follows in the run through 1969, which is exclusively Lennon-related material, very little of which is noteworthy. It's interesting to hear demos of "Don't Let Me Down" (only the "nobody ever loved me" section at first, then a recording built around "I'm in love for the first time..."), "Cold Turkey" (on which John Lennon sounds totally broken, like a starving, braying animal), "Because" (haunting but very incomplete, and showing off Ono's heavy involvement in its creation since it comes from one of the Bed-Ins), "I Want You" (very raw and limited, almost scarily intense) and especially "Oh Yoko" (just busking but kind of fun, already a lovely song, and capping with an out-of-nowhere reference to A Hard Day's Night, the film: "why don't we do the show right here??"). But these are very short extracts; the bulk of the 1969 material comes from the Lennons' publicity-heavy trips to Amsterdam and Montreal and doesn't have a lot to do with the Beatles, though as audio verité I suppose it has some purpose. I quite appreciate the performance-art aspects of John and Yoko's public persona in the late '60s but the emotional limitations of that corner of the Beatles' legacy certainly becomes apparent when laid against material like "Goodbye," and although Lennon would craft some stunning music in his shatteringly brief solo career, the demo of "Woman Is the Nigger of the World" just points up all the shortcomings and indulgences that would hinder him in the absence of the other band members; it's a lame version of a lame song, delivering a lack of judgment in such a brilliant figure that's worthy of some variety of existential despair. There are bright, funny moments too, but rarely are they musical; someone pesters John to play a bit of his "new song," and in response he coughs and hacks his way through the one-line chorus of "Don't Let Me Down" before admitting he "can't remember" the rest of it, a wonderful moment of anti-humor. And hey, he also busks through the already-released "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" and works out the basics of "Give Peace a Chance." However, far more of these tapes are occupied by weird nonsense like Akiva Nof belting out "Jerusalem" as if it's the ashram all over again, John and Yoko leading a horrendous singalong called "Radio Peace," more unlistenable Kenny Everett bullshit, and an eight-minute ball of nothing called "Message to Japan," which is nothing but John playing Beatles songs on his acoustic guitar (no singing) while Yoko stumbles through a speech in Japanese.

This bootleg is the kind of item that, when you first hear about it after entering the world of underground Beatles minutiae, sounds like it must be a holy grail of sorts, and actually hearing it is always a quick trip down to earth -- that excludes "Goodbye," sparklingly clear (tape drag notwithstanding) and a buried treasure that might be the only non-canon Beatles track that actually brings back that inscrutable feeling of hearing their classics for the first time and then somehow loving it more every time one listens to it again. But it's obviously the exception; nothing else here even comes close in its quality of presentation, and only the low-quality (and available elsewhere) "Bad to Me" is nearly as inspired. In some ways the whole shebang is an object lesson for those of us who've been crowing for years that everything should be released; in the absence of the restraint and curation that comes with official Apple product, should we be careful what we wish for? If we're being honest, though, even consumer-conscious (?) bootleggers who want only to organize the backdoor catalog for the masses are limited by what's made it "out there." We're thankfully no longer in an age when we all risk being ripped off by our fandom, at least by anyone besides the Beatles themselves. If we really were to hear the "complete" home recordings of the Beatles in the '60s, I suspect we'd find a lot of things that would, to put it technically, blow our fucking minds. In essence, it's good that this is out there, but for anyone who's enough of a completist to download and archive it, just don't get your hopes up. But as we've already said, if you haven't heard "Goodbye," get thee to Youtube or your torrent service of choice immediately, and let's all hold our hands and hope that it finally gets out into the marketplace in 2019.

Friday, July 26, 2019

The Beatles capsules: remixes

As if the exhausting number of "alternate mixes" of Beatles music actually released in the '60s wasn't enough, we now have the revisionist history to contend with; below we've chronicled the compilations that have tried to correct flaws of vintage stereo mixes and give the Beatles' work a modern push, though what we find over and over again (as with the '70s remixes on Rock & Roll Music) is that the tastes that give rise to these altered versions tend to date more quickly than the scrappy but durable '60s mixes. That said, I'm not opposed to the idea in principle, and I think Yellow Submarine Songtrack and bits and pieces of Love work pretty well. I do think it's interesting, however, that the widespread urge to remix older music seems to concentrate almost exclusively on the artists that demonstrably need the least amount of help to appeal to new generations of fans. At any rate, these alternative approaches are generally fun and interesting to hear, if nothing else.

Please note that I've reviewed Rock & Roll Music, the American edition of which contains some songs remixed by George Martin, as part of the general pre-'87 compilations page, while the Pepper and White Album remixes (and probably any subsequent remixes of the albums in a similar format) are acknowledged as part of my pages on those respective Super Deluxe boxed sets.

***

The Beatles: Help!/Rubber Soul - 1987 Remixes (EMI 1965/1987)
During the 1987 campaign issuing the Beatles' catalog on compact disc for the first time, George Martin was displeased with and put a stop to the use of the stereo mixes of Help! and particularly Rubber Soul, which admittedly is one of the more half-assed mixing jobs in the Beatles' catalog, with a lot of hole-in-the-middle "wide stereo" mixes that hard-pan vocals to one side and instrumentation to the other for no clear reason. His objections to the stereo Help! are harder to understand, but in any case, rather than issue these CDs strictly in mono as he'd insisted on for the first four LPs, which in the case of Rubber Soul would've been ideal -- and Martin said in an interview that he wanted to release the entire catalog in mono only and only did otherwise in a bow to commercial pressure -- he took the extra months leading to the second wave of CD releases to completely remix these two albums. The resulting "alternate versions" are not so alternate all these years later; in fact, they've completely replaced the original stereo mixes in the Beatles' canon, despite their low sampling rate and very 1987 attachment to now-dated reverb and aural cushiness. Meaning to emphasize the virtues of the CD format, Martin went too far for that particular brand of slick appeal; the clarity and shimmer are nice, but the tracks lose a great deal of life in the translation. It would have been wiser to leave things alone, or better yet to push for a complete catalog release of both mono and stereo mixes to begin with. The 1987 remixes remove the edge from these recordings and excessively "modernize" them; they're better than nothing, sure, and we all lived with them for a long time, but it's absurd that after all these years, these two key albums -- including one of the band's undisputed masterpieces -- are primarily sold in lower-quality versions than everything else they released. We're quite lucky that Martin deemed the mixes from Revolver onward "good enough."

The story should end there, but doesn't; on the otherwise competent 2009 CD remasters, Martin's increasingly antiquated remixes remained the widely available versions of Help! and Rubber Soul. It turns out that this wasn't the fault of the team of engineers in charge. During one of his various Beatles-related projects, Martin's son Giles sent an inquiry to Apple about using the original tapes of these albums as a source rather than the low-bitrate digital remasters, but was told Apple's policy dictated that because George Martin had considered these mixes definitive, they were now "the" only official mixes that could be utilized. Giles checked with his dad to find that he himself, twenty years down the line, did not even recall constructing the remixes! But the "policy" remained immobile, so across every streaming service and just about every Beatles disc or new vinyl record you can buy that contains this content, apparently Help! and Rubber Soul are doomed to be stuck in 1987 forever, and for no good reason. One pleasing sideline, however, is that the 2009 remaster campaign did manage to find a place for the original 1965 stereo mixes, flawed as they may be: tucked onto the tail end of the CDs for Help! and Rubber Soul housed in the boxed set The Beatles in Mono. So ironically, these most flawed titles among the '87 catalog now are the only Beatles albums to have received what should have been the uniform idea all along: single discs with the mono and stereo mixes presented consecutively. Is that so hard? Apparently. When you have the rights to literally the most valuable catalog of pop music in the world, is it really that hard to put it out in the world without issues? Again, apparently, yes.

The Beatles: Yellow Submarine Songtrack (Apple 1965-68/1999) [r]
Commemorating the DVD release of the film in 1999, this revision of the Yellow Submarine album removes the score and adds every Beatles song heard in the film, even those -- like "Think for Yourself" -- that only appear for a few seconds. The recordings have been brightly remixed (the first time such a project was undertaken for general audio release rather than a video or DVD) and sound quite good; for new fans, at least, this is the ideal way to get the four new songs from Yellow Submarine, though the original LP is not without merit (as noted in my review, the score is itself very good), and of course these aren't the "canon" mixes for whatever that's worth. Honestly these 1999 mixes sound a bit better to me than some of the more deliberately divergent Giles Martin retakes of the catalog currently making the rounds, though the purpose is obviously different.

The Beatles: Let It Be... Naked (Apple 1968-70/2003) [c]
This is the most pointless of all official Beatles releases promoted as containing "new material." Ostensibly it's a case of the remaining Beatles finally "finishing" the Get Back album that became Let It Be, nixing Phil Spector's editing and overdubs and streamlining and cleaning it up as if it were a canonical Beatles album (not a "new phase" one as described on the back of the original LP). The issue is that this task was already undertaken quite well by Anthology 3 seven years earlier, and it did so while bringing a wealth of actual new music into official release; that expansive set allowed us to hear most of the key tracks from Let It Be, often in better performances and uniformly with none of the extraneous distractions that marred canon tracks like "The Long and Winding Road" and "I Me Mine." Still, an official release of one of the Glyn Johns assemblies of Get Back might have made sense; what we get instead is simply a rearrangement of Let It Be that uses the exact same performances as the original releases with three exceptions: "The Long and Winding Road," "Don't Let Me Down" and "I've Got a Feeling" (the latter two edited from multiple performances from the Apple rooftop on January 30th, 1969) but excludes the Spector overdubs as well as the incidental dialogue. For the most part, this makes the record totally arbitrary, a vanity project that, apart from the one complete new performance ("Road") really provides nothing new and isn't genuinely true to the Beatles' mission of the time, since its wonky mastering takes pains to make these songs sound "of a piece" with other Beatles recordings rather than distinctively raw as the title seems to promise. There's a second disc of "fly on the wall" material meant to throw a bone to that spirit of live-in-the-studio mayhem, but it's just an incoherent mess. You'd think that, by 2003, Apple would've gathered that this sort of half-measure wouldn't be well-received by fans; it's now on the streaming platforms, but still sits awkwardly in the band's discography. On most of the recordings the compilers have taken more away than they've added, which they seem only have done to be able to call all of them "previously unreleased." I'm willing to concede two points, though: the new "Road" is nice, as actual new Beatles music nearly always was and is; and the inclusion of "Don't Let Me Down," the finest song from the sessions, even if in an inferior version, corrects one of the most misguided choices Spector made for Let It Be. This does also boast probably the most flattering mix of the canon version of "Across the Universe"... but the song still doesn't belong with the Get Back material, and the Anthology 2 version is far superior. At a total of 54 minutes spread across two discs, the whole thing feels like a waste. Thankfully, it was one of the last times the Beatles' catalog would suffer such a strange indignity.

The Beatles: Love (Apple 2006)
I don't really care for mashups, but this elaborate soundtrack constructed by George Martin and his son Giles for the Beatles-oriented Cirque du Soleil show in Las Vegas does have its moments of clever interpolation: a deconstruction of "Lady Madonna" actually finds previously obscure hooks in that everpopular chestnut, and the magical progression of "Strawberry Fields Forever" from demo to final stages compressed down into a five-minute montage coheres impressively. The first time you listen, there's something revelatory about hearing the "Tomorrow Never Knows" drums underneath "Within You, Without You," but that miracle seems to fade with repeated exposure as the experience totally undercuts the brilliance of both songs, and the fit isn't as snug as the Martins want it to be. That sort of overreaching ambition is a bit of an outlier, really; the generalized problem with Love is that it's unexpectedly boring, with many songs (like "Help!", "Eleanor Rigby," "Yesterday" and "A Day in the Life") left nearly untouched, while at other points the thing becomes an unbearable cacophony of cross-referenced gibberish (the insane fusion of "Drive My Car"-"The Word"-"What You're Doing" sounds like a nightmare of the Beatles collectively having a stroke, and fusing "Come Together" with "Dear Prudence" almost couldn't be more of an obnoxious idea). The best of what Love offers to the world comes out of its more tasteful experiments: we finally get the second half of "I Am the Walrus" in glorious stereo (it was mixed as such for the Anthology DVD as well, but not quite so adventurously), and George Martin's new string arrangement for the Harrison demo of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" is unorthodox and lovely. It all probably sounds fine at the show, but as a listening experience, it seems to pander a little and fills the needs of neither a glorified greatest-hits package or of a cop to "modernizing" the Beatles, in which case its DJing goofoffs already sound more dated than the original records anyway. (Note: the digital releases of this album add a couple of bonus tracks. I've never heard them and don't much care to seek them out, making them the only officially released Beatles recordings I feel comfortable skipping, because I don't see this as a really important corner of the Beatles' output in the first place.)

The Beatles: 1+ (Apple 1962-70/2015) [r]
The greatest hits package 1 was originally issued in 2000, switched to a digipack format shortly after the 2009 remasters were released, and finally made its way to the streaming services with this new version in 2015, which had the stereo tracks (all but the first three) remixed by Giles Martin. This is easily the best version of the disc, in whatever form you hear it; Martin's tasteful mixes effectively modernize the flawed stereo versions of these songs, giving them a fuller, more enveloping and detailed sound that makes you wish you could hear his take on the rest of the catalog, and of course he's subsequently begun that process with Pepper and the White Album. (It should be noted, however, that Martin's improvements are less substantial in those cases; most of the Beatles' singles weren't mixed to stereo at the time of their original release, so the afterthought mixes made later frequently tended to lose some of the distinctive flavor of the songs in question.) Martin is well aware of the central fallacy of this compilation in the first place, that the mixes it included weren't really the Beatles' hits, and he does his best to approximate the intensity of the mono mixes while spreading them to two channels (or to six, on the DVD/Blu-ray editions). He succeeds moderately on most of the tracks; his will probably remain the best in the very poor stack of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" stereo attempts, but he really shines on the likes of "Paperback Writer" and "Eleanor Rigby," vastly improving on those deeply inadequate stereo tracks, centering the vocals on "Eleanor Rigby" and regaining the psychedelic effects of "Paperback Writer." The only jarring mixes are those of "Hey Jude," which distractingly fusses with the levels of the singalong chorus on the fade, and the Spector-enhanced "The Long and Winding Road," which couldn't have been salvaged anyway. Not all of the changes seem necessary but very few are distracting, and along with the more flamboyant Yellow Submarine Songtrack, this overall is probably my favorite of the Beatles' remix projects to date.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

The Beatles: The Beatles [White Album] 50th Anniversary Super Deluxe (1968)


(Apple 2018)

RECOMMENDED

Unless you count a few extra acoustic strums on "A Day in the Life" and various video tidbits, no "new" Beatles music of any significance appeared legally between 1970 and 1994, at which point there was an outpouring in the form of Live at the BBC and the three Anthology albums plus their attendant CD singles. We had bootlegs, of course, with all the caveats of quality, inconsequentiality and dubious origin thereby implied. But according to those who would know, Anthology was meant to be the cap on the story; the barrel had been scraped, the lid was back on and never to be removed again. Afterward we received bits and pieces; Let It Be Naked boasted about one and a half performances new to disc and Beatles Rock Band a few fragments mostly of dialogue, while in the meantime, discarding the sudden appearance of a strange version of "Yellow Submarine" in the early 2000s, several Sgt. Pepper multitracks in 2007, and various bits and pieces of horribly recorded but rare live shows, even the unofficial well had dried up sufficiently that the 2009 discovery and leak of a clean recording of take 20 of "Revolution" -- previously audible in the background of Yoko's tape-recorded rants and musings -- was not merely the stuff of hardcore fan discussion but made actual headlines.

That sea change in the way the Beatles' music has been processed and appreciated probably plays a role in how their catalog has been treated since 2013. For all the scattered and mostly absurd talk about whether their "legacy" will survive the dying off of their original fanbase (as a millennial silent film buff who knows people ten years younger than me with crushes on Buster Keaton, I have to admit rolling my eyes a lot at this nearly psychotic overprotection of cultural totems), Beatles ephemera is now hallowed ground as their work has come to be seen as major art of the twentieth century if not the legendary soundtrack, with built-in criticism, to a stymied but full-hearted revolution. You could argue on one hand that transferring Beatles appreciation to college classes robs the whole enterprise of much of its point, and much of its freshness, but you can't really blame people: sometimes you're faced with something truly undeniable, and the Beatles have been that thing now for half a century, and their constant presence in Our World is unlikely to fade even as we lose the men themselves. (We've already lost, in the past twelve years alone, so many in their periphery: Neil Aspinall, George Martin, Geoff Emerick, Cilla Black, Allan Williams; hell, Alex Mardas!)

At some point in the mid-2010s, with the help of George Martin's son Giles and Apple's new president Jeff Jones among others, Apple Records finally caught up with this perception and began to venture out with the kind of archival releases they once claimed would never happen. Bootleg Recordings 1963, while a modest and barely publicized release, presented a fascinating and surprisingly complete portrait of the early Beatles in sparkling quality. On Air brought the raw rock & roll of their BBC sessions back to the foreground. Sgt. Pepper got its lavish boxed set at last and treated diehards to the meticulous deconstruction they'd yearned for ever since the Beach Boys' records started getting such scholarly dedication in the '90s.

But none of this quite stood up to the Super Deluxe edition of the White Album, issued to mark that watershed record's fiftieth anniversary in 2018. The Beatles' label had thus far mostly been doing more or less what had long been expected and demanded of them: everything on streaming services, check. Mono records finally on CD and (maddeningly briefly) vinyl, check. Hollywood Bowl back in the marketplace, check. The Christmas records commercially released for the first time, albeit in appropriately small quantities, check. And Pepper with a remix and a modicum of interesting session material, check. But in the case of this White Album release, suddenly the crew got generous. This is a six-disc collection, and if you don't count the audio Blu-ray that includes the uncompressed mono mix, it's devoted almost exclusively to material that has never been released before: a full remix of the original album itself, the beloved Esher demo tape in its entirety, and then three full discs of outtakes, almost none of which has ever been heard even by hardcore bootleg collectors. And unlike Pepper, this record wasn't recorded piecemeal, so these are real and complete performances. In other words, this is easily the largest collection of "new" Beatles music we've ever gotten at one time. Having lived through the Anthology releases and waited for each of them excitedly, I can verify that there quite simply was never a more exciting time to be a fan than the White Album reissue campaign, short of being there for Beatlemania itself.

Like his Pepper remix, Giles Martin's revised take on the stereo White Album caught lots of flack among some fans, especially the sort of older grouches who are very uptight about the fact that the U.S. Albums box didn't incorporate all the old "fake stereo" mixes. I know the White Album like the back of my hand and to my mind, the remix is excellent and stunningly immersive (listen to "Dear Prudence"): it's respectful and detailed and underlines the record's brilliance as an eclectic cycle of ideas, a documentary about a band that can perform and enrich any kind of music it dreams up. The only gaffe is "Long, Long, Long," which is made too loud and upfront here; and it's slightly disappointing that we didn't get a truly batshit new take on "Revolution 9," obviously a very difficult track to remix, though I understand it's quite a trip in 5.1. (I'm sadly not equipped to check.) I don't understand the protests to the new mix, especially because on the many occasions in which I pulled up this version to consult while working on this review, I don't think I successfully accessed it on Spotify a single time without first accidentally reaching the standard version. If you're seriously worried about this, please go to bed.

Following this subtle reimagining of the Beatles' best album, the third disc offers what was formerly more than likely the best Beatles bootleg, and certainly the most historically significant aside from Get Back. Sampled heavily on Anthology 3, the May 1968 Esher demos long served as a whole lost Beatles album of sorts, recorded at George's house and comprised of acoustic performances of the songs (mostly written in India) that would eventually comprise the White Album as well as a few that would appear on Abbey Road and some eventual solo albums. These are more than simple runthroughs thanks to the presence of subtle overdubbing, stereophonic sound and multiple takes. To us as listeners, they provide spare beauty as a listening experience as well as a fascinating alternative interpretation of now-intimately familiar classic songs. In the same way that George's solo acoustic versions of "Something" and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" completely twist around our emotional responses to those touchstones, these demos reveal the infinite possibilities that surrounded almost all of the music the Beatles were writing during this period, together and (mostly) separately.

In other words, these songs are astoundingly durable, which is made more impressive by the audibly off-the-cuff nature of the recordings; they know no one's listening, and yet they're still this good, which is horrifying for us mere mortals. The highlights are innumerable. Thankfully, this disc covers all of the songs that were brought out at the sessions so we can hear early stages of their progression. (A couple of tracks are lifted from different takes than the old bootlegs of the Esher demos, but the differences are mostly minor, and the recording quality is a quantum leap above what we previously had.) John Lennon has the most trouble taking the scenario seriously, as you will note when the otherwise ethereal "Dear Prudence" bursts into a spoken-word explanation of how Prudence Farrow went "completely berserk under the care of Maharishi," or when he's unable to hold to any serious pose during Paul's beautiful rendition of "Junk," which otherwise sounds better here than it would on his solo debut McCartney. But he does rein it in eventually, and this does sound overall like a group recording rather than a series of individual solo ballads.

Paul is the consummate professional, of course; "Blackbird" is almost identical to the studio version -- though, to be fair, so is "Julia," double tracking and all. More intriguing, though, are the songs that actually achieve emotional depth that the masters don't. "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" and "Bungalow Bill" gain a lot from spontaneity, "Honey Pie" from being straightforward and not such a throwback, "Rocky Raccoon" from an unexpected sincerity; they're not so smarmy here, even though said smarminess would help the album find its identity as leaning heavily on burlesques of various musical genres. "Piggies" too is almost gentle in this guise, and "Yer Blues" -- again, seemingly before it was arrived at as a potential satire of blooze-rock -- sounds like completely straightfaced country blues as sung in an unadorned setting.

There are a lot of Harrisongs brought out to play on the demo tape; on top of the aforementioned we get a stark rendition of "Sour Milk Sea" and the creepy organ-driven "Circles," which -- almost as afterthoughts -- therefore become the first new Beatles "originals" released in over two decades. "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" has a busier riff at this point that would be wiped in the solo Abbey Road recordings then fussed with again for the record. "Not Guilty" also shows its face here before its ill-fated Abbey Road sessions, which would result in hours of unused takes that would go nowhere, as likely as not because of resentment and jealousy on the part of his bandmates; George didn't release the song until 1979.

Except for "Cry Baby Cry," "Julia" and "Revolution," John's songs do not seem quite as fully formed as Paul's, but less because of inefficiency than because he expects to complete them as a matter of course within the studio walls. (One exception, the lovely "Child of Nature," was never fully recorded by the Beatles and instead got rewritten brilliantly as "Jealous Guy," one of the finest ballads from his solo career.) "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" is a bare skeleton of its eventual final form, with only the "I need a fix" and "Mother Superior" sections already in place; interestingly, "I'm So Tired" at this stage embodies what would become the climax of "Warm Gun" plus a bridge that sounds like John's humorous spoken interlude on the old 1960 home recording "You'll Be Mine." And "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey" is little more than a chant. All that said, "Revolution" may be the best of the demos and improbably offers us a third distinct version of a song that one wouldn't necessarily think of as quite so malleable; actually, its spirit may be somewhat incongruous with its lyric, a tension Lennon would experiment with unsuccessfully on Some Time in New York City. It's a bouncy delight all the same, a sort of campire version of the song that in-the-know fans have long treasured.

Across the remaining three discs, there is very little that has been booted; in fact, a fun side effect of the Super Deluxe set is that it doesn't even actually render the underground Purple Chick twelve-disc collection of White Album odds and ends remotely obsolete. There's been a lot of talk about how this set presents the White Album sessions in such a good light, as if it was all fun and sunshine when we know for a fact that tensions were mounting (largely, not entirely, due to external pressures growing out of the band's founding of Apple) and there was open hostility between the band members and further open hostility directed outward toward the EMI crew. (Geoff Emerick quit working with the Beatles altogether during the sessions.) Really, the outtakes -- which, remember, can't possibly reveal everything that was happening -- serve to fairly counterbalance the conventional wisdom about the White Album's origins, and maybe it swings too far in the other direction. But what the new-to-us material proves beyond a shadow of a doubt is how fucking great the Beatles were, even at "rest."

The session material is offered up basically in chronological order, as indicated by the fact that it doesn't flow particularly well. I would divide it all roughly equally into "good," "essential/interesting," and "superfluous/redundant." Not surprisingly, there's almost nothing I'd call bad, and the only potential exception is an off-the-cuff jam so I'm really not casting shade at the Beatles but rather the compilers in that case.

We'll start with the good stuff. "Revolution 1," which kicked off the sessions, begins the story; fans demanded the now-legendary take 20, which leaked out to the internet in 2009 and is a truly remarkable recording providing an account once and for all of how the track devolved into the nightmarish "Revolution 9," but instead they got the slightly earlier take 18 which is missing a few backing vocals and some other interesting experimental elements. The essence is here though, and so are John's immortally creepy repetitions of "it's gonna be alll riiiight," a sentiment it was never more difficult to believe, and this performance makes us doubt he does either. This is the Beatles' adventurousness and eclecticism in ten-minute microcosm.

Ringo appears on the microphone soon afterward for "Good Night," which improbably offers some of the biggest surprises on the entire set; in addition to Ringo's charming foul-ups on the vocal ("Daddy went a bit crazy!") there are variants that exhibit it as a much prettier, more delicate song than, once again, John and George Martin's deliberately over-the-top Hollywood treatment on the LP. Take 10 has a lovely guitar bit and improbably lovely vocal harmonies -- all this is likely to really turn around many opinions of this song, which always gained much of its meaning and importance strictly from its placement on the record. (Take 22 is the same one from Anthology 3 but now unedited, and with a good perspective offered on everyone's participation.)

Of the many moments of brilliant band interplay across this compilation, the highlight might be the instrumental backing track of "Me and My Monkey," which reveals the song underneath the bells and screaming as an incredibly propulsive piece of prototypical New Wave. Second to that is the legendary twelve-minute "Helter Skelter" (this arrangement is said to have stretched to twenty-seven minutes in one performance), which seems like indulgent wankery at first but really soars as an extremely tense slow burn and a fine jam, if you're attuned to it; it's made sublime by the Neil Young-like guitar trickery and, especially, Paul's killer vocal performance, which is electrifying every time he hits his guttural peak on the chorus.

There are moments that allow even those of us who count this as our favorite Beatles album to mourn the sweeter, less sardonic record we now find hiding in these songs. Not that "Martha My Dear" is a bitter song at all on the White Album, but it's calmer and sweeter here sans production adornments and general busyness. Before a wonderful alternate take of "Long Long Long" that has George's vocal more intimate and direct and is derailed only by some dicking around on his part during the bridge, he conjures up memories of the band's gentle welcoming of Donovan this same year: "here we go lads," he says. "We're not really what we make out to be." Of course the sweetness doesn't hide on "I Will" -- one of the most sincere and lovely moments in the band's catalog -- but in the spirited, stripped-down session that produced it, with Paul, John and Ringo in high spirits, we get a glimpse at the mood and cooperation that was possible when they still worked at it, giggling even at the lamest of Paul jokes. (Emerick once said that one, two or three Beatles was a dream scenario, but as soon as all four were in the room starting in late 1967, the tensions became unbearable.) Paul slips at one point into an ancillary "Blue Moon," his voice heavenly right up to the point where he fucks it up. And we can also mourn the album Get Back/Let It Be could have been if they'd really been able to commit themselves to the original idea behind it, which was never more arrestingly captured than on a blistering version of Elvis' "(You're So Square) Baby I Don't Care" that's so energetic and vicious you absolutely yearn for it to go on longer than a minute.

In contrast to Paul and George, John's songs seemed always to be still finding their place and essence by the time during the Beatles' studio time, but the evolutionary process demonstrated here -- as usual -- produces some incredible abandoned notions and works-in-progress along the way. There's a great "Revolution" rehearsal resembling the demo; "Cry, Baby, Cry" acquires extra, human character in this performance, which leans into a ponderous bluesiness and a loose feeling replete with John fumbling the lyrics (there's a "seance... for a seance"). "Dear Prudence" is the master stripped to just singing, drums, guitar and a bit of piano, with no bass or production sheen, and it remains a breathtaking performance; it's truly amazing to hear John's vocal in relative isolation.

As contemporary as a lot of the White Album still sounds, the Beatles and especially John periodically stumbled during the sessions on some remarkably innovative sounds, many of which have remained in the Abbey Road vaults all these years. "Glass Onion" is just a backing track with guide vocal, but that muddle of motivations gives it a very contemporary, "college rock" feeling. Take 19 of "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" sounds like Lennon entering Lou Reed territory through very rough, contemplative singing that changes the whole character of the song and gives it a mournful quality entirely missing from the master, along with the harder-rocking abrasiveness, no longer hidden behind the vocals, in the instrumentation. "I'm So Tired" is rawer and looser here -- listen for some engagingly warm communications between John and Paul -- and one remarkable take adds answering guitar and backing vocals, plus, well, a bit more of John's fake drunk chatter that was mistaken for him mumbling "miss him, miss him" in regard to the supposedly deceased Paul McCartney. (There is an outtake on bootlegs with further embellishment that's quite odd and unsettling and I wouldn't have minded hearing it in better quality.) Finally, "Across the Universe" is heard here in its sixth take -- halfway between the second take from Anthology 2 and the two masters -- and it's not as lovely as take 2 but still better than either of the "official" versions or even the long-abandoned mono would-be single mix.

All that by itself would make this set worth the purchase for enthusiasts, but there's even more, although what follows is unlikely to really capture the interest of casual fans; the above would all be worthwhile listening for just about anyone, but here is where things get a little more intricate and where a number of readers will start skimming.

Again, part of the purpose of this session material is less to offer impeccable new music than to present the case that we've interpreted the Beatles' White Album era all wrong. Now that the two surviving Beatles and most others involved are in their twilight years, they seem to want to present a redemption narrative; and of course, given what we're allowed to hear in this context, there's obviously truth in it. The Beatles are depicted as cooperative and interested in improving things, and a lot of these moments also have a nice, humanizing effect on people we're tempted to see at this point as sort of distant and godlike. For example: during the representative sample of the long "Blackbird" session (which you can hear a lot more of on bootlegs), you get Paul speculating on "which voice" he should use; or there's George humming "Getting Better" just before an unrelated session; and John, ever the showman, requesting that the others "feel it" when they get started on "Sexy Sadie." Or best of all, George Martin informing Paul after a few runthroughs of "Mother Nature's Son" that there were "a couple of nice ones, and a lot of ones where you fucked up." Cheeky bitch, indeed!

Lots of outtakes here are either mostly interesting in a historical sense or are less than radical variants obviously placed to represent songs that didn't need a lot of "working out" at EMI. Take "Sadie," which is heavier on drums and has dryer instrumentation but is identifiably mere steps away from the canon. An alternate take of the Clapton-soaked arrangement of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" breaks down because of George's vocal when he, in his words "tried to do a Smokey and I just aren't Smokey" but it's close to fully realized as it exists on the album. "Helter Skelter" gets a solid, almost-there performance and boasts some clips of Paul having fun with the vocal slapback. The unedited mix of "Yer Blues" with the guide vocal throughout -- so that the whole song sounds like the end of the master, on which John's vocal eerily seems to continue from a considerable distance, a moment I always loved even though it was evidently a mistake -- is the kind of archival curiosity that would never have made an official release twenty years ago, but it's fascinating to hear the mild secrets it unfolds: the lyrics being unfinished at this stage, some extra guitar that later got mixed out, and the ending proceeding without the intentionally jarring edit on the master, a longer jam in its place. And "Julia," which was already quite polished at Esher, is here in a brighter, strummed variation featuring nice interplay between John and George Martin. We also receive proof at last that the orchestral extract "A Beginning," rumored to have been tossed onto Anthology 3 to give George Martin a piece of the pie on songwriting royalties, really was once intended as an intro to "Don't Pass Me By," where it doesn't work at all. It's the same performance as the master with faders up so there's fiddle all over it, weird prominent bassline, and Ringo's spoken portion which provides its working title "This Is Some Friendly."

Among the more intriguing departures, there's probably nothing that will strike anyone as much as the wilder excursions on Anthology 3. The acoustic "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" reappears, as if even the Beatles themselves now realize it's the only proper way to hear this song, now with harmonium. There's another very raw early attempt at "Hey Jude" with Paul's inspirational sentiment "unnnnngh unnngh unnngh ungh-ungh-ungh-unnnngh." Along similar lines Paul leads the band through an extract of "St. Louis Blues," and I like this kinda hot kinda music but it's pretty innocuous. Paul's pretty modest on the alternate "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?" but it's pretty much identical in its approach to the outtake from Anthology. And in John's corner, we get a sloppy "What's the New Mary Jane" on which he's far too impressed with the humor of his own lyrics (it sounds like something off one of the later Christmas flexis here, and I love the more complete version issued before) plus a mostly acoustic "The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill," which has a bit of peaceful back-and-forth among the band, producer and Yoko Ono, likely included just to prove such a thing was possible.

When the tracklist for this release slipped out onto the web, fans were most psyched up about the inclusion of a 1968 version of "Let It Be," dating from earlier than anyone knew it had been attempted. It's extremely rough around the edges but quite a privilege to hear, coming off as more of a rock song -- really, just a jam -- and featuring the "brother Malcolm" (referring to Mal Evans) lyric in lieu of "mother Mary." This too feels like something that would've been rejected from Anthology and dismissed as slight if it had somehow made it, but now it feels like a modest revelation, though it's not likely to become a regular part of most fans' Beatles repertoire.

Elsewhere, Martin and the gang do a bit of housecleaning on this deluxe set, for which I'm quite grateful; they offer up cleaner mixes of the previously released alternate version of "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" (which, when it was scrapped and remade, became the first unreleased Beatles track to use session musicians) and the outtake "Not Guilty," whose exclusion from the White Album never did make sense in the first place. Both songs sound better and fresher without the echo-laden rechanneling done for the aborted Sessions album that made it onto Anthology 3. Surprisingly, one of the few other moments of anything like overlap with that release is "Rocky Raccoon," and that's a case in which the alternate take is no longer edited, now featuring a lost coda with further extemporaneous lyrics from Paul; that they're pretty desperate -- Paul could be funny, but not on the spot like John -- doesn't detract too much from the chance to hear a complete performance finally.

Lastly there are some items that, in my heart of hearts, I don't think we really needed... and it's this that keeps me from thoroughly recommending this package to casual fans despite the presence of maybe two discs of splendid material out of four. I've never felt that "track-only" mixes of Beatles songs were particularly revelatory; there are exceptions, but most of these are not -- they are occasionally interesting ("Back in the U.S.S.R." heard at the original speed with George muttering along, the single version of "Revolution" showing off its searing velocity, "Birthday" showing off a chiming character we didn't know it had, and "The Inner Light," included prior to this on a Harrison compilation, offering a rare portrait of George as gifted arranger) but feel too much like filler on a release that hardly needed it. Also: from one of the many moments of idle tomfoolery of the "I Will" session comes the off-the-cuff medley "Step Inside Love"/"Los Paranoias," heavily edited on Anthology and now presented in painstakingly complete form -- unfortunately, "Los Paranoias" is insufferable, already bad enough on the old release and here staking a claim now that it goes on for fucking ever as perhaps the lamest thing the band has ever actually released. Speaking of "goes on forever," while I understand being curious about "Can You Take Me Back?", the semi-song by Paul that joins "Cry Baby Cry" and "Revolution 9" together on the LP as a thirty-second fragment, we really are given nothing new by its full 2:22 expanse because it's so painfully repetitive and obviously wasn't intended for release at full length.

Still... now we've heard it, I suppose, and I certainly don't want to discourage Apple from doing just what we've long wanted them to do: dump out the archives. I'm extremely pleased with this set and the way it was done, which I think is totally correct and commendable. My only point is that this isn't exactly a Beatles record you'd ideally throw on at a party, it's really something for the true believers to pore over. With that in mind, I had a bit of a giddy moment when traversing through this the first time and making it to the "Lady Madonna" sessions (which don't seem to properly belong, but oh well) only to find that holy shit, people, the Marmite exchange made it to an official release!. I wanted to call everyone I knew and tell them, even though it was 3am and almost none of them would know what on earth I was talking about. A month before this deluxe collection hit the stores and the streaming services, I described the Marmite conversation in my review of the bootleg Magical Mystery Year as follows:

We're treated to a complete vocal overdub session for "Lady Madonna," capturing the full process as well as some now-iconic (among bootleg collectors) excess, the famous "Ringo vs. Marmite" exchange whereby, on the first backing vocal track, George munches on chips and discusses "Marmite-flavored ones," an idea which Ringo decries because he dislikes the product. Because subsequent overdubs use playback of this same tape, we hear that same conversation about half a dozen times, along with a bit of goofing off from Paul melodramatically jumping in with the first line of the song in full-on nightclub mode before bursting into laughter. This is a great example of something that separates extremely hardcore Beatles fanatics from the more healthily obsessed; you can know the catalog back to front but it takes a special kind of weirdo to know Ringo's Marmite secret, yet there have been inside jokes about it in the outer reaches of the community for decades now. [...] Beatles fandom is often a source of amusement as much as transcendence, and I have a certain love for strange little objects like the Marmite discussion.

Now, none of that is quite true anymore, and I kind of love that: as of 2018, you can pull up the Beatles' Marmite debate on your streaming service of choice right now, anytime and anywhere you want, in perpetuity; once a calling card of obsessive fandom, it's now part of an officially licensed piece of Apple Records product. The whole world will hear Ringo mumbling "I don't like Marmite" just as in 1994 they thrilled at him announcing that he "like[s] grapes." This weird quirk we all grew so familiar with in our sequestered private worlds isn't so private anymore, even if it's really just a graduation of visibility from frighteningly devoted obsessives to slightly less fanatical obsessives. The world is coming around to our point of view, ladies and gentlemen; soon maybe they'll even put out a limited chrome cassette copy of the Rumitape. It's history, folks, and you just never know.

Friday, July 19, 2019

My body and me, we're just two wild and crazy guys: June 2019 music diary

Things I want to comment on but can't because I'm fucking drowning in stuff (not just music and not just fun) right now: Beyoncé's concert film Homecoming; the massive Radiohead leak of OK Computer sessions followed by the brief official release of same; Prince's Originals, which I've heard bits and pieces of via unauthorized releases like The Work but is of course massively upgraded here; and the expanded repackage of clipping.'s face, which I'll try to take on via Backmasking eventually.

Amyl and the Sniffers (ATO) [r]
Australian throwback punk with touches of ‘70s glam, this is bang on like Sheer Mag down under and boasts shouting, spirited delivery on the part of lead singer Amy Taylor. Gacked on anger, stressed on tick, go fuck yourself. The memorable riffs peak on “Angel,” which is too-brutal melodic pop, and “Monsoon Rock” which is fucking lit; the energy flags later, but not always unenjoyably, with “Got You” credibly frontlining some Deb Harry speak-singing.

Cate Le Bon: Reward (Mexican Summer) [r]
Le Bon, a Welsh singer-songwriter now well established as a leading light of this era of indie folk, is less controlled and therefore, I think, better than oft-named peer St. Vincent — she means to prove less with the phrasing intricacy and smallness of her arrangements. That I don’t especially enjoy her vocal delivery is my affair; these are hypnotic songs that register themselves fully with you even after one exposure. “Daylight Matters,” “Home to You” and the Annie Lennox-ish “Mother’s Mother’s Magazines” all are intimate and driving, lovely in their fashion, in a way that seems confident and unaffected, and for all its repetitiveness “Sad Nudes” drives deep into its groove. A record you could probably get lost in if you needed to, and more generous than usual from the modern-day crop of singer-songwriters.

Mavis Staples: We Get By (Anti-)
Ben Harper produces this time and gets a nice pillowy, minimal sound out of the musicians while Staples commands the stage as ably as ever, though only the first few songs (“Change” and “Anytime” especially) are rousing enough to be memorable.

Flying Lotus: Flamagra (Warp) [r]
Certain things about this record are monumentally fun, not least of them being the usual obviousness that FlyLo is having the time of his life screwing around with archival sound, random noises and provocative guest stars. He is on a bit of a mondo-lounge space age Beautiful Music kick, and even more of an 8-bit video game kick, and this sometimes feels like the Avalanches but scarier. It's a tad too much at over an hour of material, though, especially once it passes the tipping point from surreal meditation to outright noodling. Moreover, it's the kind of record whose peaks knock it off-balance; when the melody kicks in through the Anderson .Paak vessel on "More," when Denzel Curry contributes his fury to an Afrofuturistic Mancini soundscape on "Black Balloons," or when George Clinton proves to Lotus he can still find new ways to unnerve a complacent audience after all these years on "Burning Down the House," when "The Climb" evokes Kaki King via Thundercat, it makes harmless goofiness like the Tierra Wack cameo "Yellow Belly" ("condoms, we got a problem") seem trivial. Still, nothing here errs badly, with distorted earworms aplenty and no shortage of invention. And there's even a Smile homage.

Denzel Curry: ZUU (Loma Vista) [hr]
As unapologetically regressive at times as it is boldly confrontational, Curry's fourth album is a radical shifting of gears from the Floridian rapper's previously broad, semi-abstract aggression in favor of a launching into full-on early 2000s party rap, only with his quick and sharp bars intact. The production, dominated by the Australian collective FnZ, frontlines four-on-the-floor bass and beats with filthy grooves that sidle up to Curry's classic flow with tracks and hooks that are often so unapologetically pop it's almost silly, while never coming across as anything less than incredibly hard-hitting. You might hear better hip hop records this year (Little Simz, Tyler, Loyle Carner), but you won't hear any that bring it so ferciously and immediately, and no less than nonstop at 29:02. Every major cut is a pleasure, and even "Yoo" isn't the lamest skit you've heard by a mile. "Wish" is a big T.I. throwback with a saxophone; "Ricky" is bonkers club music; "Birdz" has Rick Ross wild and wailing; "Carolmart" is dumb and good; and "Shake 88" boasts an Ice Cube-cribbing hook so disgusting it actively itches.

Kate Tempest: The Book of Traps and Lessons (Columbia) [c]
Since 2014 I've been complaining about certain outlets that won't be named maliciously excluding Kate Tempest from rundowns of major artists in modern hip hop; there's been a suspicious resistance to naming Tempest as a rapper, which is a characterization no sane person up to and including Chuck D would doubt or question, instead bizarrely labeling her first two, highly beat-driven records as "spoken word" and continually preceding her name with "author" or "poet," which are true but not the whole truth and not of prime interest to a music publication. (Bob Dylan is an author and poet for chrissake.) That she's white and British is neither here nor there, as none of these same gatekeepers have any issue classifying the Streets or Sleaford Mods as rap; that she's a woman and a lesbian, well, that's another column, but let's just say it felt mighty interesting to read a whole summer's worth of handwringing thinkpieces about Pwr Bttm from "most trusted" journalists who refused to so much as acknowledge that Let Them Eat Chaos was a piece of music. Meanwhile, I've also gotten sick and tired of defending the erudite, brilliant wordsmith Tempest from accusations she was an empty didact whose work was preachy and superficial; the criticism seemingly stemmed from a misreading of tracks like "Europe Is Lost," which is the paranoid rant of an unreliable narrator, and "Tunnel Vision," a summing-up of Tempest's own socialist outlook, as wholly representative of her skill set. (In case you're unaware, she wrote a novel called The Bricks That Built the Houses that's full of cutting prose, vivid characterizations and detail and is as achingly moving as any modern fiction I've read.) So look, in advance, I forgive her as I would any gifted person who moves on with their lives from catering to my own wheelhouse, but I have to admit to you it stings a bit that on her major label debut (although: props in the sense that this is by far the least commercial album she's made), with Rick Rubin of all people in tow, she has recorded what is unmistakably a spoken word album that bears no resemblance -- in beats or vocal patterns -- to hip hop or, frankly, to music; and she spends it essentially yelling at us, with a brief break on the audibly personal "Firesmoke," which not coincidentally is the only inclusion worth hearing more than once. She owes me nothing, obviously, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't kinda feel like an idiot.

Bill Callahan: Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest (Drag City)
You already know my general opinion I'm sure, but since I was flippant last time: Callahan is the 53 year-old icon of home recorded alt-folk who by this point, despite his every word being anxiously awaited in certain quarters, really just coasts on atmosphere and goodwill. His approach to songwriting is remarkably pragmatic: the better and more awake his guitar playing is, the less attention he pays to melody, to singing, or to worthwhile lyrics (which, overall, are the weak point here). While mostly spare, the new record's shapeless and delicate songs occasionally flirt with a more layered and even exotic sound. He writes about how good it is to be writing again. He rhymes "747" with "Heaven." He changes things up a little by inviting backing vocalists into the studio for "Lonesome Valley," which is a welcome distraction that makes it feel like a complete song. Still, taken together the whole thing isn't totally absent of grace and generosity, especially compared to total washouts like Mt. Eerie and Hamell on Trial. Inspirational Sentiment*: "I got married / to my wife."

* r.i.p. Expert Witness/Consumer Guide

Polo G: Die a Legend (Columbia)
Hyped Chicago rapper of the moment is pretty generic I'm afraid, though -- while his flow is awkward and technically lacking, stumbling over the beat on "Dyin Breed" -- he gets points for nonstop speed even as he cops too many tricks and phrases from other MCs. The tracks produced by Ayo are awash in an admirable bleakness while Polo lets it falter into something that ultimately feels surprisingly maudlin, though it's fairly relaxing party music if you keep one eye shut, and with Serious Themes! As a 20 year-old on a major label -- and good for him -- he has reason to feel skeptical of the people who are telling him he's a wunderkind of some sort, and maybe if he outlives their obsequiousness he'll come up with some sort of distinctive identity.

Black Midi: Schlagenheim (Rough Trade) [NO]
Boy this sucks. (I have a foot out the door, can you tell?)

Titus Andronicus: An Obelisk (Merge) [r]
The T-A fan who is a punk purist will be happier with this economical album than with any they've done since the underrated Local Business; but does such a T-A fan exist!? I would think that most of us by this point are fine with Patrick Stickles' attacks of humorous insecurity, best represented here by the dumb and delightful blooze rock parody "My Body and Me." The rest finds him in people pleasing mode, and the results are frequently inspired if just as frequently repetitive or familiar, with both results periodically colliding on single tracks like the power pop "Hey Ma" that throws in a Monitor-style bagpipe solo at the end. There's a run of songs that barely run a minute and have the barren thrash-with-wisdom strength and muscle of Sorry Ma-era Replacements. "Within the Gravitation" is longer only because, like "Pink Flag" or something, it eventually wanders into a sort of sneaky minimal post-punk interlude. But for me this works best at its most off-the-cuff, even if it's a distinctly different (and notably less friendly and weird) kind of off-the-cuff than A Productice Cough, which I still think is one of the most unabashedly "fun" albums of the last ten years -- you could do far worse for your anthemtic punk fix than "Just Like Ringing a Bell," "(I Blame) Society" (which would be "the single" in a different era) and "Tumult Around the World" (which cops a riff from a Supremes hit) -- the latter two of which boast a James Brown-like penchant for catchy sloganeering -- or for heavy filthy riffs than "Troubleman Reunited." It's just, you know, none of it is surprising exactly -- except "The Lion Inside," on which Stickles steps outside himself, sings credibly and feels it, and comes across like what he is: a true original, regardless of what he's doing at any given moment.

Hot Chip: A Bath Full of Ecstasy (Domino) [hr]
In a summer that's found me let down by a distressing number of old favorites who seem to have hit their sell-by dates at last, Hot Chip bring home the Andrew Bird award for completely and utterly blindsiding me with delight long after I begrudgingly wrote them off. With the addition of cutting edge producers Rodaidh McDonald and the late Philippe Zdar (who tragically died in a freak accident on the week this was released), this has a similar shot-in-the-arm feel to Pet Shop Boys' Electric, and quite frankly it often sounds like PSB, only more earnestly romantic than the older institution typically allows. Some of its best songs grew out of a gig working with Katy Perry, and it's perhaps for this reason -- the pressure and excitement of working for an outside artist -- that the record has an energy and playfulness that's been mostly lacking from the now-veteran band's last two records. This is handily their best since One Life Stand and returns to that record's full-fledged danceable kindness, a vibe they generate like no one else within their generation or any. The aptly titled "Melody of Love" immediately makes plain the record's alignment with classic pop, and your chief response is to note how good it feels to hear Alexis Taylor singing to you again, like a burst of fresh air in the midst of dystopia -- well, not even "like" that, pretty much literally that.

The songs take time to settle in but always make wise use of that time, and operate with a consistent nod toward readiness for the floor without disallowing the genuine eclecticism that once marked left-field choices like "Brothers" and "These Chains." A fine example is the Joe Goddard-led "Hungry Child," whose multiple disparate parts seem to magically click together when the beat comes in. "Spell," one of the Katy Perry outtakes, drifts with a ghostly, blissed-out sound familiar from the One Life Stand period but actually boasts more fully developed words and music than most of the very minimalist upbeat songs from that record; the chorus initially seems nondescript, but it's not done yet, and the whole thing takes a neat, vibrant shape whereby there's so much in it yet it never feels busy, which makes Arcade Fire's amateurish stabs at a similar fusion of dance pop with rock & roll redemption sound even dumber in retrospect. The real stunner from the Perry sessions, though, is "Echo," with a seemingly endless wash of hooks behind its PSB-like melody and tricky electronics. Elsewhere, we get the hedonistic nighttime sounds of "Positive," one of the most deeply felt Taylor vocals ever on "Why Does My Mind," a title track that sounds like what Father of the Bride should have sounded like, and broadly a whole lot of music that's consistently pleasing but also bright and modern. That the record closes out with the "I Feel Better" sequel "No God," delivered like a hymn, is some clue to the underlying seriousness of its mission; the record, as the band has pointed out, does not point to the club or to the music itself as an escape but rather as a symbol of coming together -- while making that sound wonderful, progressive and sexy. The world isn't necessarily watching Hot Chip anymore, but Hot Chip are still watching over us, and that makes them a treasure.

The Raconteurs: Help Us Stranger (Third Man) [c]
I really liked the White Stripes back in the 2000s but everything Jack White does now makes me increasingly terrified of what I'll find when I go back and listen to those records again. His other other band's first record in more than a decade runs weakly on classic rock fumes, owning the zeitgeist by sounding like Queen when it's not covering Donovan or shooting more logically for the Rolling Stones -- indeed, the least annoying song here is the Stones-like ballad "Somedays" until its coda when it amps up and turns into the damn Killers, one of the only 2000s radio bands whose hits could be as irritating as "Steady as She Goes." Good thing the lyrics break the monotony with sophisticated character development: "There's a man who lives up the block / and he doesn't even own a clock." Does anybody really know what time it is?

Leif: Loom Dream (Whities) [r]
Never expected this famous onetime teen idol, drunk driver, drug abuser and reality TV host would come back with some wicked minimal ambient soundscapes but, as the Pets.com dog once said, everyone deserves a second chance.

Injury Reserve (Loma Vista) [hr]
Almost comically amiable, extremely online rap trio from Arizona hedge their bets convincingly on fusing the classic sound of an old-fashioned MC crew (Stepa Groggs and Ritchie with a T), who complain about Instagram and can name every file sharing service they've ever used, with adventurous and bizarre production courtesy of third wheel Parker Corey, a certified weirdo whose total lack of deep knowledge of hip hop history is cleverly harnessed by the two rappers in order to render anarchy from wide-eyed cluelessness. It's true that guests like Freddie Gibbs, DRAM and Rico Nasty upstage everyone on the home team handily in technical terms, but that happens even to established legends ("Monster," anyone?), and the front-of-house duo has a good ear for hook-worthy phrases that comes out all over "Jailbreak the Tesla" and "Three Man Weave." Corey's broad, playful impulses would be too much if he were trying to sell them as a creation unto themselves, but they blend enjoyably with the crew's laid-back, sarcastic and occasionally even sentimental ("New Hawaii") style, the album's dichotomies striking enough that it never feels like a mere wavering outsider art version of Jurassic 5 (or "preachy ass niggas out here sounding like a TED talk") even if it has a similar universal agreeability. Indeed, its often inspiring wickedness stems from what feels like a lack of fear and a determination to embrace the stupid ("Gravy 'n' Biscuits," "Rap Song Tutorial," which has nothing on the Roots' rap video manual) and make it addictive. It's not clipping., but that it's far less satisfied with itself may finally be the source of its unusual, unexpected vitality.

***

ALSO RECOMMENDED:
Megan Thee Stallion: Fever (300) [ain't no dick alive that could make her lose her mind; "Cash Shit"/"Money Good"/"W.A.B."]
The Cranberries: In the End (BMG) [not as ominous as I feared, it's really nice to hear Dolores O'Riordan's voice one last time, and as usual she renders transcendence from songs that tend to be no more than passable]
L7: Scatter the Rats (Blackheart) [and as for my own '90s heroes, I wish them health and safety, but a lot of this is too on-the-nose and silly for me, while the dreaded vulnerability becomes them; "Stadium West"/"Holding Pattern"]
Kedr Livanskiy: Your Need (2MR) [weird and lovely and completely inscrutable, like a sensitive Prodigy]
Carly Rae Jepsen: Dedicated (Interscope) [slick and exciting, but feels longer than it is]

ALSO RECOMMENDED FOR THE AMBIENT FILES:
Ezra Collective: You Can't Steal My Joy (Enter the Jungle) [horns, jazz, vibes and apocalyptic L.A. chase scenes, plus Loyle Carner; "Shakara"/"What Am I to Do?"/"Red Whine"]
Laurence Pike: Holy Spring (The Leaf Label)
Tim Hecker: Anoyo (Kranky)

FURTHER INVESTIGATION TO COME:
* Peter Perrett: Humanworld
Lee "Scratch" Perry: Rainford
Sacred Paws: Run Around the Sun
Kevin Richard Martin: Sirens
Dylan LeBlanc: Renegade
Julia Shapiro: Perfect Version
Sarah Davachi: Pale Bloom
Bedouine: Bird Songs of a Killjoy

REJECTS:
[I don't know what the scientific explanation can possibly be, but I swear to christ that there is a glut of awful music at the end of every decade.]
Rosie Lowe: Yu
Mdou Moctar: Ilana (The Creator)
Kelsey Lu: Blood [NYIM]
SOAK: Grim Town
Haelos: Any Random Kindness
P!nk: Hurts 2B Human
Carlton Jumel Smith: 1634 Lexington Avenue
Olden Yolk: Living Theatre
Bruce Springsteen: Western Stars [NYIM]
Earth: Fall Upon Her Burning Lips
Black Mountain: Destroyer
Faye Webster: Atlanta Millionaires Club
Hayden Thorpe: Diviner
Duff McKagan: Tenderness
Richard Hawley: Further
Pip Blom: Boat [NYIM]
Stef Chura: Midnight [NYIM]
Palehound: Black Friday
Santana: Africa Speaks
Aurora: Step 2- A Different Kind of Human
Jonas Brothers: Happiness Begins
Jambinai: Onda
Jake Xerxes Fussell: Out of Sight
Plaid: Polymer [NYIM]
The Divine Comedy: Office Politics
Pixx: Small Mercies [NYIM]
Perry Farrell: Kind Heaven [NYIM]
Lukas Nelson & the Promise of the Real: Turn Off the News, Build a Garden
Psychedelic Porn Crumpets: And Now for the Whatchamacallit
Calexico / Iron & Wine: Years to Burn [NYIM]
Mattiel: Satis Factory [NYIM, but great title]
Madonna: Madame X
Los Coast: Samsara
Bad Breeding: Exiled
Buddy & Julie Miller: Breakdown on 20th Ave South
Fruit Bats: Gold Past Life
Willie Nelson: Ride Me Back Home
Hatchie: Keepsake
Bad Books: III [good grief this is dreadful]
Mark Ronson: Late Night Feelings [NYIM]
Two Door Cinema Club: False Alarm

ORPHAN TUNES
Rosie Lowe ft. Jay Electronica "The Way" [Yu]
Kelsey Lu "Due West" [Blood]
Haelos "Boy/Girl" [Any Random Kindness]