Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The Beatles: Revolver (1966)


!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

The Beatles' creativity during the mid-'60s was unstoppable -- undeniable, even, and within the rock & roll idiom it had virtually no precedent, not least because no one had reached the point in their career when such restlessness was matched with such automatic validation of ideas. The Kinks, the Beach Boys and Bob Dylan, among a few others, hit the same point in their careers around the same time but somehow, then as now, the Beatles' work feels different: it's even more confident, controlled, effortlessly inventive than that of their peers -- and yet, even stranger (in the context of pop) as well. What makes an album like Revolver happen? If we knew for sure, they'd be more common, but a few things are worth diving into when we look at the record.

Each of the Beatles' albums up to this point had been a step forward from the last but a reasonably smooth transition at that. Rubber Soul was surely the best of the first half-dozen, and arguably their best ever, but even it wasn't entirely an upheaval of its predecessor, Help!. The folk-rock predictions were there, John Lennon and Paul McCartney's lyrics and melodies were already reaching their height of sophistication on songs like "Help!" and "I've Just Seen a Face," and sure, the songs were stronger and certainly more mature on average on Rubber Soul, but the production values and overall sound remained similar. Not so for Revolver, their seventh LP. It is, it seems, an effortlessly huge stride into orbit, both in composition and recording, and can now be seen as the beginning -- and best example -- of the band's psychedelic period; in addition, to this day it remains the greatest showcase ever of the talents of one Paul McCartney.

There is little doubt that more experimentation went on with the sheer sounds of recording during the Revolver sessions than at any other point in the history of studio-driven rock music. It's the first Beatles record, and probably the first record by anyone, that was considered by the band impossible to play live and as such was looked upon as something entirely separate from their live act; concerts had come to bore and fill the band with dread anyway, so the idea of laying down songs that relied heavily on varispeeding and other trickery would no longer have seemed a hindrance to them, and as always happens when a medium is in its formative years, the sheer excitement of playing around with the format as no one had previously thought to still retained its novelty for even so intelligent and creative a band as this. Drugs were undoubtedly a factor too, but so they were on Help! and Rubber Soul; to go back briefly to the mention of the Beatles' artistic peers, none of the other landmark albums of 1966 approached the material in quite the same way, with the Kinks' Face to Face coming closest at least in the deceptive sense that its songs are equally ambitious and inspired, if more skilled than emotionally honest. Brian Wilson's theme was the ornate abandonment of rock instrumentation to cast out demons; Bob Dylan's was exhaustion; the Stones' was grit; but the Beatles' goal seemed strictly to be to find a new approach to their music that would excite them, and their solution was to use the studio and what then felt like its limitless possibilities (despite the creative impositions of four-track tape) as their primary instrumentation, and to do so mostly as a unit (discarding "Love You To" and "Eleanor Rigby") -- a natural expansion, but a radical and arguably sudden one.

As noted, no Revolver songs were performed on the Beatles' American tour that coincided with the album, which would turn out to be their final series of live performances. Truth be told, it would have been possible to present a few of the album's songs on stage, primarily Lennon's: "I'm Only Sleeping," "And Your Bird Can Sing," "Doctor Robert," perhaps even "She Said, She Said." But what would the response have been? The band seems to be several steps ahead of their audience here, and together with Rubber Soul, the sense one gets is of a band that's grown past their original objective, so much so that a schism between artist and fans would seem almost inevitable; except somehow, the Beatles are the one band whose followers seemingly grew up along with them, and vice versa. Pet Sounds would be misunderstood and would sell poorly; and while Blonde on Blonde was celebrated, it marked the end of the first phase of Bob Dylan's career; and the Byrds and the Kinks would never resume their early commercial success as their music bloomed outward. The Beatles, however, managed to mark the point at which the idea of "rock" became something for the sophisticates, something people "wrote about" and thought about, and did so, it seems, without missing a beat. It was luck, for one thing; luck was the great theme of the Beatles' career. Despite their brilliance, they enjoyed an uncanny knack for meeting the right people at the right time. And their ruthless quality-control dictated that the silence after Revolver -- which was, unusually, accompanied by a single comprised of two left-field and nevertheless wildly successful songs from the album -- would increase its gravity, build anticipation and prepare the audience for a change in the way they were thought of, a trick that wouldn't have worked if Revolver in particular had not set the stage so well.

Because of the wild sonics it brings forth, it is the sound of Revolver that sticks to you initially, not so much the songs; in this respect Revolver is reminiscent of the Beatles' most universally celebrated longplayer, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, released a year later. From this point onward, every Beatles recording sounds as if it could very easily burst from the radio today. Such is the innovation of George Martin and his four faithful soldiers. Indeed the person who is most on a creative roll throughout these tracks is not any of the Beatles so much as it is their producer. Revolver is a masterpiece, but it may well be his more than the Beatles'. He gleefully puts hard rock into claustrophobic compression in "Taxman," and evokes the creeping, crawling electronic unknown in the droning "Tomorrow Never Knows." Never before was every single track on an album so far into a world of its own, lending the record an almost circular feel in its two divisions (hence the title, perhaps?). Klaus Voormann's beautiful drawing-collage adorning the cover of Revolver is black and white, but thanks to Martin every single note of the music inside is shimmering with brilliant color. Somehow he puts into his aural textures things that logically can't be expressed in audio: the drowsiness of "I'm Only Sleeping," the warm ecstasy of "Here, There, and Everywhere," the drug-induced misery of "She Said She Said," the oceanic simplicity of "Yellow Submarine," the triumphant bliss of "Got You Get You into My Life" and "Good Day Sunshine." The notion that George Martin was merely an interpreter is disproven here, for Revolver demonstrates that he is a musical genius himself, matched only by Brian Wilson in his ability to render pop music as an unfathomable kind of singular expression that can't be duplicated in any other medium.

However, the main difference between Revolver and Pepper is that you could completely strip the production away from Revolver, making it a sequel of sorts to the much more simply arranged Rubber Soul, and still have outstanding music. These are classic songs beyond any doubt. Just as Soul was John Lennon's finest hour, with his heart on his sleeve in "Norwegian Wood," "Girl," and "In My Life," Revolver is full of utterly mind-blowing work from Paul McCartney, whose own prowess as a songwriter is given a phenomenal monument here that could never be undone by decades of "My Love." His most famous contribution to the record, "Eleanor Rigby," paints a convincing character portrait that could in some universe feel right at home on Face to Face, except that rather than capture his characters' plight -- and the plight, it seems, of loneliness in general -- with some sort of cheeky ironic distance, he lends it a poetic urgency. No Beatles song to date had sounded so adult, so pressing, so important, yet with a real kind of feeling and empathy at its center. Paul genuinely does seem to look outside himself for these stories of the isolated Rigby and the silent priest Mackenzie, even if he did take the name from a grave he recalled seeing, and each time he slightly falters in his lyric, the melody and the raw feeling of John Lennon's backing vocal rescue it, make it a piece. In addition, the song goes beyond even "Yesterday" in abandoning the rock-band structure, choosing instead a startling, Bernard Herrmann-inspired string ensemble that completely avoids the saccharine nature of so many orchestral pop arrangements; the stark cleanliness of the recording and of the band's vocals circumvent any charge of pretension. The song is simply too direct, and too elegant, to allow for such accusations.

If anything, however, McCartney's other song about loneliness here is even more of an achievement. "For No One" is a sequel of sorts to "I'm Looking Through You" and conversely to "We Can Work It Out," purportedly about "another argument" (his words) with then-girlfriend Jane Asher. But even set against an outstanding cut like "I'm Looking Through You," which is one of the greatest breakup songs in rock & roll, he demonstrates several leaps forward here, at least lyrically, in the sense that the words seem to reflect a far more advanced age than Paul's (23 at the time of recording). The couple in the song, one desperate to communicate and the other desperate not to, are as persuasive a portrait of a crumbling marriage or affair -- despite the spareness of the words -- as a pair from an Albee play. Ray Davies would experiment in years hence with this sort of slice-of-life drama about fallings-out and misunderstandings across years -- "Two Sisters," for instance -- but the ingenious economy of Paul's lyrics, which manages to put across a great depth of pain with very little extraneous information, and the perfection of his weary vocal on the track, again render it unique with the help of Martin's baroque arrangement, performed strictly by Paul (on several instruments), Ringo Starr (percussion) and Alan Civil (the oddly devastating French horn solo).

In instances like these it's harder than ever to reconcile the Beatles' recorded output with the "mop tops" out on the road; indeed, the U.S. cover of the "Eleanor Rigby"/"Yellow Submarine" single seems bizarrely ironic: a symbol, however lovely, strictly tied to the '60s set against music that -- in the former case, at least -- now exists above and beyond any notion of time or era. It's as though they were continuing to evolve but sending out old husks of themselves to perform, and it's little wonder that the practice would very soon come to an end. (Ironically, largely because of the Beatles' own influence, rock audiences would soon be ready for the kind of concerts that would have better suited to the Beatles than their slavish twenty-minute runthroughs of the old hits; they never enjoyed this as a band, perhaps more than anything because of a reluctance to revisit the trauma -- and, from the books I've read, it really was trauma -- that they'd endured as a massive chaotic touring act.) All the same, it should be recalled that in 1966, the Beatles -- and certainly Paul McCartney -- were on the absolute tip-top of the world, were at their peak as artists and arguably were well aware of it. This is reflected in Paul's other three truly great songs of the album, which capture a moment of blissful, loving optimism that retains its power to charm and infect across all the intervening decades.

You could turn just a few knobs on "Good Day Sunshine" and probably make it intolerable, or at least cutesy in exactly the McCartney way that would bring us the likes of "Bip Bop" and "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and, well, "My Love." But it's another case in which the Beatles' slightly oversized ambitions make their work truly sublime; with no one besides themselves to determine what is and isn't acceptable, they find some in-house way of beautifully conveying absolute joy (in a way John Lennon on his own, for one, never could) without cloying; and because the rest of the band still has a say, the song has a mild, psychedelic weirdness, especially in the fade, and a complete absence of smirk. In this song, showtune piano and all, the act of being happy-go-lucky (and probably high) is serious business, not to be mocked. The Lovin' Spoonful's "Daydream" and the Young Rascals' "A Beautiful Morning" can only wish in vain; they're fine songs, but do you ever really think they're truly serious about the lovely sunny times they're promoting?

More powerful yet is "Got to Get You into My Life," a Motown-inspired flip-side of sorts to "For No One." The story's gone around for years that the song is about weed; maybe, fine, whatever, but its profundity certainly doesn't come from that. Again, so much of the power here is in Paul's singing: he sounds positively infected with love, or lust, and a drive to pursue it -- the simpler, prettier "I've Just Seen a Face" found this same voice in him, but on this song there's no reason to hold back behind a folky arrangement. Martin provides horns and the band's as loud as can be, and at last his unhinged soul voice finds its proper place: in a song about the absolute, insane glee of falling for somebody, rendered with a poetry and eloquence that wouldn't have felt possible in the Beatles' music just a couple of years earlier. (Not one of Paul's tracks, performances, productions on Revolver could have existed on any prior Beatles album, nor any of George's; and only a couple of John's could've.)

That same eloquence then captures a more adult topic yet: that of enduring love. "Here, There, and Everywhere" is Paul McCartney's best song -- not his best song on Revolver or his best song with the Beatles, just his best song. It's a strange, hypnotic recording that yearns to evoke early doo wop in its simple, almost claustrophobically ghostly arrangement -- Paul's vocal is dry, intoxicated, the others' backing smoky and enigmatic. Lyrically, it's as wise beyond its years as "For No One" with the opposite frame of mind, exploring the comfortable, continued miracle of a long-term relationship -- arguably before he'd experienced any such thing or had any great reason to romanticize it. It's likely his best lyric, its repetition of the three title words somewhat evocative of Lennon's brand of wordplay, but altogether unmistakably Paul's work and nobody else's. (Lennon's own well-justified admiration of the song was something Paul long treasured.) Paul would always cite the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows" as his inspiration, but his own song is less angsty, more unconditional.

Unfortunately, while the Beatles' two primary songwriters were both operating at their highest level on Rubber Soul, in the interim John Lennon seems to have regressed just as much as Paul McCartney has advanced. His songs for Revolver are not bad, but in comparison to Paul's, they tend to stumble aimlessly and sound, for lack of a better word, drugged. If Paul's embrace of substances causes him to expand and "turn on," so to speak, John correspondingly, well, tunes out. His often droll, odd compositions are livened up, though, by Martin's playful tinkering, which enliven a dryly lethargic, cynical lullaby ("I'm Only Sleeping") and a pair of terrifying rockers that display the mental agony of substance abuse: "She Said, She Said" and the one-chord "Tomorrow Never Knows." In both cases, the songs would be lesser works without the producer's bells and whistles, but that doesn't make them less impressive as records. But "And Your Bird Can Sing" is charming, nonsensical Byrdsian filler, "Doctor Robert" a tepid, directionless drug song (literally; it's about the dentist who slipped him LSD), and with the exception of the sublime "Rain," relegated to a b-side, even the best of John's songs from this period sound like the works of someone who desperately needed a break, particularly when looked upon in comparison to Paul's Revolver material, or to his own triumphant songs from Rubber Soul or of course almost any of his earlier songs for the band. (Fortunately, a vacation was just what he and the band would be given in the latter half of 1966, and he would return with one of the finest songs in popular music, though he would never again dominate the Beatles' records the way he once had.) John and Paul wrote "Yellow Submarine" together for Ringo to sing, and it's another instance of a throwaway rendered oddly infectious by George Martin's input, which must assuredly be the reason they thought enough of the novelty to make it a single.

In addition, elsewhere on the disc, George Harrison reaches an early peak with his sardonic "Taxman," a rocker that sounds bold and forward-thinking as the album opener, and while "I Want to Tell You" is well-sung, well-recorded (incredibly modern-sounding, in fact) gibberish, he also offers one of Revolver's most impressive moments of innovation with "Love You To," another song that foregoes rock music almost totally, here in favor of classical Indian instrumentation (Harrison had been learning the sitar since the previous year, audible on "Norwegian Wood") for a recording that, even more than the otherwise superior "Eleanor Rigby," sounds audacious and improbably stimulating in the context of a rock album -- not the last time the Beatles (and Martin) would pull such a stunt.

Glorious as it all is, the magic of Revolver is all in its multifaceted, more artful than psychedelic, soundscapes that seem to stretch forever in all directions and have no qualms about letting you in on their Technicolor secrets; as ever, the Beatles render even their highbrow and hotly ambitious impulses universal by the feeling of warmth and invitation they bring to their records -- they ingratiate at exactly the points that a lesser band would alienate, and it's hard to name another rock band of any era with such a capability, precisely what would carry them through so many brilliant records from here to the end of their career. A lot of this, again, is George Martin. As when he took Lennon's requests for "Tomorrow Never Knows" to heart -- that it sound like the terrific announcement of some impossibly distant voice from on high -- Martin approached the Beatles' material with immense sympathy. He knew that great records are made with production as an embellishment to wonderful music, not music written solely for its production. In some ways, though, he was merely keeping pace with the Beatles' ever-progressing talent in making their music accessible even in its oddest moments, and Revolver manages to be avant garde without overriding the band's staggering immediacy. In other words, it's weird, yet it's pop. Hell, it's more than either of those simple terms can describe. You can call the next record their signature acheivement in the LP form if you like, but Revolver is the Beatles' most accomplished piece of art.

Of course, the specific and heady logic of the day -- swinging London, the drugs, the encroaching of genuinely new ways of thinking within and without youth culture, and the misshapen allure of the creepy tape loops on "Tomorrow Never Knows" or raga sounds on "Love You To," so unlike anything heretofore declared "rock" -- dictated some of these impulsive responses. As noted above, rock music was now something to be taken seriously, and is there not something deeply troubling about that? For all the Beatles' obvious exhaustion and impatience to "move forward," there's a kind of surrender in the push away from rock & roll and toward art. It's not that Revolver isn't great and profound, it's that With the Beatles and A Hard Day's Night were equally so, and the logical conclusion of the elevation of the Beatles' mid-'60s output moves in one direction toward the drudgery (Genesis, Yes, etc.) and liberation (Bowie, Roxy Music, etc.) of "art rock," in another toward a strange dismissiveness of black music -- the music that specifically inspired the Beatles to perform in the first place and would remain their touchstone, obviously outside of the 1966-67 period and more subtly so even then -- that, for whatever sonic modesty it may possess compared to the studio trickery employed here, has more to say more eloquently than can be provided for by any number of tape loops. This was by no means the Beatles' intention, at least I see no reason to think it was; their experimentation is not a rejection of the supposedly simple and carnal -- in some ways their later songs are simpler, in composition terms, than their "teenybopper" numbers -- but a restless probing much akin in some ways to, if far less adventurous than, John Coltrane's Ascension and Om, or to the passionately confrontational avant garde of Yoko Ono that would soon be issued on the Beatles' own record label. They did not make it exclusionary or snobby, the press and audience did that; they only expressed what they were feeling at the time, and sunshine or not, in the moods and doubts of some of the songs of Revolver, you can hear that the world is starting to come crashing in: not the world of 1967 and flower power, but the world that would consume and destroy it, which they -- or John, at the very least -- seemed to hear before anyone. The Beatles' best work had been vibrant, ecstatic, a boundary-smashing embrace of freedom. Revolver is varied in its moods, but on balance it is unnerving -- and somehow no less vibrant, honest and inspirational than what had come before.


[A second revision of a review first posted in 2000 (!), then updated in 2003; almost certainly the oldest thing I will *ever* post here]

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Yoko Ono: Between My Head and the Sky (2009)



After John Lennon's death, Yoko Ono released three albums in quick succession: her masterpiece Season of Glass (1981), then the slick, new wave-influenced It's Alright (I See Rainbows) (1982), and in 1984 the collaboration with her husband that had been in progress at the time of his murder, Milk and Honey. Afterward her work became more sporadic: the anti-Regan conceptual record Starpeace, and ten years later the alt rock-flavored Rising; then finally, for Capitol Records, the mostly ignored Blueprint for a Sunrise (2001). Everything else was a packaging of older, unreleased material (A Story) or a remix record (Yes, I'm a Witch) until Ono's son, producer-performer Sean Lennon, elected to reactivate the Plastic Ono Band name and take a new, modern approach to Ono's recent compositions for his own Chimera Music label. Between My Head and the Sky, the first result of the new arrangement, feels like a new beginning, or at least a new run of ideas, for Ono. For the first time, it seems as if music has transformed itself to meet her ideas rather than the other way around, and for the first time since the early 1980s, she here presents a completely successful and well-executed album: not part of a musical, not an art piece of some sort, a forward-thinking, avant garde-leaning rock record that, were it released by someone fifty or more years younger, would have been hailed as a riveting new voice.

Sean's clever approach is essentially not to apologize for his mother's music, but also to give it the audience it fully deserves by really engaging with it in production and performance terms. "Waiting for the D Train" is both a pure, searing guitar workout and a direct fuck-you to anyone who tunes in and immediately decides they don't like Ono's voice. He immediately nods to Ono's enormous club audience with "The Sun Is Down," with its "Born Under Punches"-like synth line, and defies you not to hear accessibility, excitement, enrichment in what she's doing. Ono goes to town on both songs, but clearly the rejuvenation is in this astoundingly perfect sonic home she's suddenly been given: you wonder why it's taken so long for somebody to record her properly again. And then, not wishing to dominate, Sean gives Ono the entire stage for one of her best songs ever, "Ask the Elephant," a philosophical and adventurous, and infinitely charming, Q&A session that effortlessly parades the great artist's open-armed freethinking. It's as if the years since Fly and Approximately Infinite Universe have evaporated, or -- as brilliant as those albums are -- as if they never happened in the first place, for even the scant evidences of apology and bids for commercialism on Universe, or the evidence of her collaborators on Fly and Plastic Ono Band, aren't here: on this record everything revolves around Yoko Ono's own sensibility and skill set, and if it's less confrontational than Fly, that's only because the music is moving with her even more proficiently.

Talking of confrontation, though, this is one, but not in the way one expects if one isn't familiar with Ono's previous music -- and that seems to be the primary audience she and Lennon have in mind, even if the record's also a pleasure for those of us who find riches in her catalog. The confrontation is her age, and the fact that it fails to stop her from proceeding with unflagged energy. The confrontation is her very presence, and that her music requires no accommodation -- that, in some sense, she was right from the beginning and that her art has now obviously proven itself ahead of its time. But "confrontation" still seems like a rude word for such great thrills as are on offer here. Several of the songs Ono wrote for the project are ballads and atmospheric pieces, albeit striking ones, but when it snaps back into gear it really commands the attention: "Hashire Hashire" brings the funk like nothing on Double Fantasy ever could. The title track, filled with her delightful grunting (her vocals throughout the record are uncompromised, ageless, brilliant), is a bass-driven fuzzed-out Led Zeppelin idea taken to a sublime conclusion no lumbering classic rock group could allow. "Watching the Rain" starts out with what seem to be keyboard effects inspired by a Pong arcade before falling into one of the most ambitious and lovely songs in her catalog, and one that fully demonstrates the awe-inspiring efficiency of her collaboration with her son -- the song becomes rain, becomes the moment she wishes to explain and capture.

After everything settles, there are still shards of the past: the hypnotic piano on "Higa Noboru" evoking "Mrs. Lennon," the abstract, Fly-like "Moving Mountains," and the unbroken optimism and acceptance of "I'm Going Away Smiling" and "Ask the Elephant!", the hints of despair and grief that come through in Ono's harder-edged vocal performances. The surreal thing is, unlike nearly everyone else who was releasing records in the '70s, Ono's music's "past" and "future" seem like a continuum -- her work hasn't become less ambitious or risky with time, it has simply become more refined and focused. In this third act of her career, she can only be declared an international treasure -- yet there's no reason to give this any kind of allowances for her legendary status. It's a record that bubbles over with youth and excitement. And while "rock & roll" once seemed so reductive a descriptor for her unclassifiable, genuinely innovative work, it now seems like the only word for it... because it's a medium that has, as John Lennon predicted, expanded to incorporate her and her immense influence. But has it "caught up" with her? Of course not. Never.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

The Beatles: Purple Chick deluxe - Rubber Soul (1965)

(bootleg [3CD])

RECOMMENDED [grade for this bootleg, not the album Rubber Soul]

In 1965, the Beatles grew up. It surely wasn't a sudden, abrupt movement for them -- not the way it felt, or feels, to us. There is of course evidence earlier in their recorded output of what's bound to happen: the traces of anguish throughout the album A Hard Day's Night and the song "Help!", the intoxicating, poetic romance of "I've Just Seen a Face," the melancholy textures of Beatles for Sale. But after a career of incremental evolution, Rubber Soul is such a massive, stunning leap away from what then was the perception of who the Beatles were and what they did for a living, bearing almost no superficial resemblance to any of their previous work on LPs or singles, that it can feel like a line drawn in the sand.

The Beatles themselves, consciously or not, reinforced that sensation with the help of George Martin and (to a lesser extent) EMI. In the United Kingdom, it was the second Beatles album entirely free of covers, and Help! would remain the last LP they issued with any non-originals (unless you count the brief extract of the traditional "Maggie Mae" on Let It Be). Apart from the possibly satirical "Drive My Car," it's also free of any "teenybopper" extracts, moments of simple catchphrase-driven pop along the lines of their previous hit singles. For the most part, the album is comprised of heartbreakingly sincere, captivating original portraits of love and loss -- sometimes acerbic, sometimes warm, always deeply compelling -- by John Lennon, for whom the record is an unqualified triumph (discount "Wait," whose stilted urgency evokes Motown, and "Run for Your Life," a nasty confession of abusive tendencies, at your own risk, for without them "In My Life" and "Nowhere Man" cannot be truly authentic); and stark depictions of relationship turmoil by his partner Paul McCartney, who seldom let an audience of millions see directly into his soul the way he did on "I'm Looking Through You" and "You Won't See Me," his two big showpieces here ("Michelle" be damned; it's excellent, but not a spot on those two). Even George Harrison contributes a credibly plaintive expression of unrequited love on "If I Needed Someone," even if the arrogance so often imbuing his lyrics doesn't entirely go away even then; and Ringo, for his part, sings more sweetly on the country music homage "What Goes On" than anywhere else on record.

The change of image goes beyond the album's content to its promotional and supplemental ephemera: the cover, the four of them glowering down from some untouchable height (actually distorted from a normal photo into a psychedelic yet minimalistic pose that's somehow evocative, in colors and facial expressions, of the record's largely muted but incalculably inspired acoustic content), couldn't be farther from the mugging of Help!. Serious as they'd looked on Beatles for Sale, they still looked like boys -- boys who'd seen a lot by now, but boys all the same; now they appear just barely human, separated from us by more than mere fame and experience, and John's stare directly into the camera serves as an oblique challenge. They still played it relatively safe on the radio, with a simultaneous double-A of songs excluded from the record, and yet you could tell a major difference even from the markedly sophisticated singles they'd issued prior in 1965, "Ticket to Ride" and "Help!"; "Day Tripper" is a brilliant but classically structured rocker, even if its sneering confidence obliterated most everything else on the charts at that moment, while "We Can Work It Out" provides a stark preview of the unsettlingly specific but curiously universal conflicted-love songs Paul was to spend the next two years laying out and exploring. In America, the division was made clearer still, with "What Goes On" and "Drive My Car" excluded from the running and an even heavier emphasis on quiet acoustic pop music interrupted by sudden bursts of Elizabethan beauty (George Martin's piano solo on "In My Life," of which more in a moment) and unrepentant anger (the electric guitar breaks on "I'm Looking Through You"); there, the progression from frivolity seemed even clearer, with the album preceded by a goofball soundtrack record and some nutty concoction called Beatles VI, which hardly could have seemed less coherent as an artistic creation in comparison to this.

What we learn from Purple Chick's deconstruction of Rubber Soul, though, is that the division is more organic than it seems from all outward appearances then available; the contrast with the band's stage act, slogging through old material night after night to crowds that can't hear them, is indeed shocking... but there's every reason to believe that the frustrations of playing live fed into the need for the Beatles to find far more creative fulfillment in the studio than was available to them elsewhere, and the sheer radicalism of unleashing such a remarkably mature and intelligent album on a market in which it had very little precedent outside of Dylan is now hard to fathom as something they might just elect to do, and as something the public would be so quick to accept and embrace (indeed, it directly inspired Brian Wilson to begin work on Pet Sounds, and while Ray Davies denies paying much attention to what the Beatles were doing at the time, it's extremely difficult to imagine Face to Face existing without Rubber Soul). The sessions for the record on this collection depict a band still in transition, still not quite convinced it's okay not to constantly goof on everything, still just kids (all 25 and younger), but kids at the helm of something that feels -- tantalizingly, now -- bigger and more powerful than any of them. And identifiably, by the way, the same kids that killed it every night in Hamburg five years earlier, now still tirelessly ambitious and finding new ways to express it.

The definitive version of the Beatles' most beautiful album is the mono mix -- now, always, forever. There has never been a satisfactory stereo mix; the original 1965 stereo album suffers from the same bizarre balancing as Please Please Me, except now without the excuse of being a twintrack recording. In 1987, George Martin remixed the record and unfortunately added layers of reverb and now-dated "modernizing" effects that, while subtle, color the now-canonical version as a failed experiment; unfortunately, this is the version of the album that streams everywhere and is most widely distributed on CD and (now) vinyl. To those of us who grew up with Rubber Soul in stereo, mono is an absolute revelation, and not just because of weird quirks like Paul's single-tracked, intimate vocal on "You Won't See Me," the coughing in "Norwegian Wood," the longer fade on "I'm Looking Through You" and little flaws on "What Goes On" and "Michelle." Rather, it's because the entire record is vastly more enveloping, a major achievement of George Martin's in rendering its largely skeletal arrangements into room-filling lushness that never overreaches with the kind of schmaltz he fell back on for "Yesterday" one album earlier. "Nowhere Man" suddenly surrounds you more than it ever could with the separation of elements wrought by multiple channels; and the crunching, grinding guitar on "Think for Yourself" isn't cut at the knees by being shoved over stage left. The only distraction with the mono Rubber Soul is the piano part on "Drive My Car" sounding distinctly spliced-in, like a transmission from a different room; that aside, it's truly definitive. "Day Tripper" too is lovely, warm and organic in mono (though there is also, included here, an alternate stereo mix for the U.S. Yesterday and Today album that exhibits these same qualities, and better balance and sound than the canon stereo version), but the same can't be said of "We Can Work It Out," which is nearly drowned out by a tambourine overdub that sounds like a cricket and is easier to cope with in stereo. That song's U.S. stereo mix (prepped, it seems, for the Yesterday... and Today stopgap LP) is also a bit of a curio, with the harmonium bumped up and sounding strange.

The first two discs offer the usual mix oddities gathered from around and about: the American stereo mix of "The Word" is surprisingly different from what we're familiar with, rebalanced in a way that changes the song's character, and not to its detriment. We also get the famous "false starts" on "I'm Looking Through You," which were long seen as adding to the off-the-cuff charm of the American stereo Rubber Soul; and, from the same release in mono, a bit of extra echo on Paul in "Michelle." And among the modern DVD remixes are great versions of "We Can Work It Out" and "In My Life" (the latter is perhaps a bit too slick), and a dreadful one of poor "Day Tripper," which can't seem to be left alone. (We also get -- superfluously -- what are evidently early mono mixes of both sides of the single from the BBC, with an audience present, for a special program on John and Paul's career as songwriters.)

The lone unreleased song to surface on these sessions is the "Green Onions"-derived instrumental "12-Bar Original," which was eventually issued in severely truncated form on Anthology 2, where it seemed to stop the fun dead in its tracks; the original track is four minutes longer and, while one can appreciate the accusations that it's a terribly dull failed jam session, at least the presence of the loose jamming justifies the song's existence more cogently than an attempt to cut it down to the size of a 7" from the period. Besides, Anthology edits out the best part, a great, wildly distorted guitar solo evocative of Dave Davies (I can't seem to conclude whether this is John or George; I lean toward the latter, though it's alleged that John did play some lead guitar at this session). The session disc offers two additional takes, one an unnumbered excerpt in a monitor mix and one a false start that John openly addresses as his own fault, in a bit of personal progress from earlier sessions.

As for that third disc, the available sessions for Rubber Soul are only out in the world for our perusal in strange fits and starts, but with the rightly tuned ears they're deeply intriguing at their best. By this point the Beatles were, with scattered exceptions, laying down basic tracks and then recording on top of them, so except for songs that were wholly remade after being nearly complete -- and we have two examples of that here -- there aren't really a lot of "alternate versions" to hear per se, more slight variations and brief extracts of material unintended for public consumption. Start with the first session, for "Run for Your Life," where we get a bit of John playfully chatting about overdubs before we're given about half a full take of the song (the fifth), the main point of interest of which is an echo-drenched, single-tracked vocal on John that sounds like an attempt to pay homage to the song's inspiration, Elvis Presley's "Baby Let's Play House"; like Elvis on that track, Lennon here is manic, and significantly less cold-blooded in affect than on the master.

"Norwegian Wood" -- at this point simply labeled "This Bird Has Flown" -- is one of the two Rubber Soul songs that was drastically remade after being fully recorded and overdubbed. Take 1 of the song was later issued on Anthology 2 but does bear analysis as a fascinating, more sardonic dry run for the more reflective, sad master recording. (That first take is exhaustively documented here, with its dry original mix as well as the Anthology version on top of the "ASP mix" -- what is ASP, you ask? Why, it's an obscure bootleg called Another Sessions Plus that apparently boasted a slightly different mix dutifully canonized here by PC.) Less renowned is the unreleased second take, an extremely weird sitar-heavy arrangement, the entire song bearing a resemblance to the rather crowded bridge on take 1. Finally, the master recording -- take 4 -- is included without editing, so that we get to hear charming guitar false starts and the song tracking all the way to its actual conclusion, one of a number of such privileges on offer here.

The other vast diversion we can hear, as on Anthology 2, is "I'm Looking Through You" in its (now-beloved) intimate, slightly psychedelic alternative arrangement, presented in a rawer mix with leader, hard-panned stereo and weird volume issues... but boosted here by the amazing scream-laden finish by Paul, along the lines of his wilder "She's a Woman" takes, which the Anthology 2 compilers inexplicably faded. This is both one of Paul McCartney's finest songs and one of the most mature, knowing breakup songs in rock & roll, in terms of its flawless verbal and emotional presentation of what a betrayal feels like, a case in which Paul's more sophisticated, carefully engineered, even cerebral impulses as opposed to John's brazenly impulsive ones (the cartoon of a wife-beater on "Run for Your Life") allows him to sound like more of an adult than his partner; because in either version, even if the released master is considerably more passionated and well-considered, its resignation speaking volumes, the experience of losing someone and something previously beloved is palpably rendered as a source of anger and disappointment, sharply contrasted to the pop song's (and Paul's) typical morose lament. The absence of the bridge hurts a bit, but then again, the re-entrance of "the only difference is you're down there" after the instrumental break may provide more emphasis, thus resonance, to that verse in the song. As noted in the Anthology 2 review, I understand why this song was remade and this version discarded, but it's really a pleasure. (Once again, PC also provides both the released mix of this take, prepared for the unissued 1980s disc Sessions, and a very full-sounding sample of the song from a 1980s exhibit at the Abbey Road studio.) The complete recording of take 4, iconic false starts included, is also present here, and once again the absence of a fade lets Paul go on a surprisingly credible R&B tangent. It should be reiterated here: both of Paul's vocal performances on this song are sublime.

Next up chronologically is "Day Tripper," kind of an interesting case; it's another piecemeal recording, but one unusual element is that the bootlegged sessions imply that the master is an edit of two takes: take 1 sounds nearly identical to the released single sans vocals and tambourine (and you can get a full sense of how rocking and tight the performance itself is), with their absence giving an opportunity to hear the distinctive guitar line in all its glory, but the band breaks down at just the point when -- on the single -- you can hear a brief dropout covered up by tape trickery, typically thought to have been a masking of an error on the guitar track. But a close listen to take 3 -- the vocal and percussion overdub, here unfaded -- reveals what sounds like a tape splice at the dropout point. Lewisohn makes no mention of this in Recording Sessions so maybe it's just my ears, but if so, that just points up to how well-rehearsed the Beatles were, since I honestly can't tell that take 1 is a different performance from the familiar one. ("Day Tripper" is also on offer in an alternative monitor mix, which isn't really anything.) The other side of the single seems to have enjoyed a particularly smooth recording process; on the take 1 backing track of "We Can Work It Out," you can really hear how ambitious and unusual the acoustic guitar-heavy arrangement of the song is without vocals distracting. Take 2 provides a dry vocal overdub, and a separate overdub track adds the harmonium, mixed rather loudly with a funeral-like sustained note at the end.

One of the best songs from the Rubber Soul sessions, and one of the best compositions in the Beatles' catalog, is "In My Life" -- arguably the last great, true collaboration between John and Paul, if we're to believe musicologists and McCartney himself that he played a large role in writing its music -- which unfortunately is represented here strictly by some modest delving into the Bach-like piano solo by George Martin, which can here be heard at its original speed, or as presented on the record but isolated, or in an entirely different recording on a Hammond organ. It's interesting but dispensable. (Only the second descriptor applies to the presence here of "Nowhere Man," which is just an isolated instrumental version made very crudely, and "Girl," an instrumental monitor mix which does reveal how hypnotic the song is musically, a precursor to "I'm Only Sleeping," but is quite possibly not genuine and just poorly fan-made.)

Rounding on the third disc is the weirdest Beatles outtake yet, an eighteen-minute fly-on-the-wall document of a vocal overdub session for "Think for Yourself" that captures frequently vulgar conversations among the band -- or at least John, George and Paul -- though they are not entirely unguarded, as they were aware that George Martin was recording this for potential future use, possibly for one of the band's Christmas flexidiscs. (As it happened, a portion of the tape -- rehearsing the "you've got time to rectify" line -- was used in the film Yellow Submarine three years later. It's what the Beatles sing to wake up Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.) You'll gobble this up if you're a certain type of person; if you're a certain other type of person, it will monumentally frustrate you that the tape cuts out every time actual music starts. The most interesting moments are when the Beatles experiment with a major-key version of the vocal. The ugliest is John's unfortunate remark about being shot. John, broadly, is extremely aware of the microphone. He makes some ribald comments about his wife as well, but I've always loved the moment when he rewrites an old chestnut from the Beatles' first album as "Do You Want to Hold a Penis?". Very often in the endless discussions and conversations, they seem to be referring to films they've recently seen or events they've recently attended, and some of their jokes ("I would be pleased to see the earth men disintegrated") are downright impenetrable, though don't underestimate the strange delight in the three of them exchanging renditions of the Woody Woodpecker catchphrase. George tries to keep everyone on task but isn't generally successful (he refers bemusedly at one point to a portion of the song as "that bit that John finally got"). If you've ever wanted to hear the Beatles make dadaist, stoned dirty jokes and say "fuck" a lot -- and who hasn't? -- this is the tape for you. Just don't trust that it's a totally pure documentary moment.

I'll take any opportunity to talk about Rubber Soul as long as anyone will listen to me, and this bootleg has given me an excuse to delve into it some more. I've listened to the album something like four times this week. It never seems to grow old. And these fascinating angles from which to explore it, from which to hear how modestly the Beatles -- the same old Beatles, goofing off as always -- fell into creating such an out-of-nowhere masterpiece, only reinforce the power of the original record. These alternate takes and mixes just make you want to hear the record itself again, which is as good a reason as any to recommend them.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Green dreams were folding over: June 2018 music diary

The age-old question -- what's an album and what's EP, really? -- gets a considerable workout this month, with multiple "albums" clocking in under half an hour, and one at just two minutes longer than the EP at the head of the post. My only canonical answer is: it's whichever the artist says it is. So All Delighted People (59 minutes)? EP. ye (23 minutes)? LP. The artist creates their own moral universe.


Wussy: Getting Better (Shake It EP) [r]
A modest band whose best work can pack unexpected power, much of it in the singing: listen to Lisa Walker's cynical resignation on the titular Beatles cover, and Chuck Cleaver's terrified, shaky but articulate passion on "Nomenclature." And the Walker-led "Runaway" is just a beautifully brisk stab in the heart, but it can't redeem the extremely bad idea "Retarded." For those of us who appreciate Wussy more in small doses, three of these four will be just the thing.

Pusha T: DAYTONA (Def Jam) [hr]
In the spring of 2018, an increasingly divisive public figure named Kanye West holed up somewhere in Wyoming and produced five seven-song, twenty-minute albums in rapid succession, each with a different credited artist; this odd format lent itself to the most confident work West has produced in five years. The first and -- by universal consensus -- best of them is Pusha T's bare, stark third LP, which isn't the long-awaited Big Statement that T's been promising for half a decade but might be stronger than that less modest creation ever could be. Push still talks the guff about dealing more than any rapper of his generation who isn't currently behind bars, and some of his lyrics are as confused and embarrassing as his current producer's -- I'm still trying to understand the verse about janitors and Matt Lauer -- but the brutality and brilliance of this shot in the dark is tough to shake. It opens with a rant and rave set against Halloween party store sound effects and holds its grip thereafter as we're led further into the mire, though as vividly and confidently as Push delivers his celebrations of That Life (and you can sense that self-satisfaction is soon to become a problem with this one), you can be forgiven for barely hearing him over the infinitely evocative music: "The Games We Play" transforms a noodling guitar sample into outrageous backwoods funk, "Hard Piano" is like zombie Late Registration with strings and a half-snoozing Rick Ross, and "Infrared" offers a creepy-crawly fade to black well matched with its apocalyptic subject matter (the continued, inexcusable success of Drake). At worst, West's work here is merely an adventurous building up of old techniques, but at best, it's simultaneously ominous as hell and impressively elegant, defying (or maybe demonstrating the virtues of) its slapdash creation. But let's not make this a Kanye lovefest; his guest verse here is nothing special, despite a long-awaited NKOTB reference, and Push himself is what keeps me coming back to "Come Back Baby"; after a bit of "King Heroin"-style sampled addict pep talk, we get one of the most belligerently amoral drug songs in hip hop history, with a trademark yeuuugh and "We buy big boats, bitch I'm Sinbad" and "Dapper Dan" rhyming with "Zatarain's," and Kanye would never tell us any of this because how could he? But it's rock & roll indulging us yet again in the fantasy of total irresponsibility, and you won't understand why that's so liberating if you're determined not to but if you know you know.

LUMP (Dead Oceans) [r]
The premise here is that heretofore average singer-songwriter Laura Marling has recorded an album of baroque pop arranged and produced by Britfolkie Mike Lindsay; I can't speak for the latter but the result barely resembles any of Marling's previous work as far as I can tell, and I'm hesitant to declare Lindsay's instrumentation as the reason Marling's relatively thin voice suddenly sounds sumptuous and overwhelmingly communicative (one precedent is her older lullaby "Always This Way"), but whatever has ping-ponged the two into this level of inspiration is welcome. The dirge-like "May I Be the Light" is made hypnotic by its tense electronic undercurrent (later there's "Hand Hold Hero," which could practically be Venetian Snares), and there are Echo and the Bunnymen and Shakespeare's Sister and even Eurythmics textures (see the aptly titled "Curse of the Contemporary") that don't violate the half-hour's general timelessness. And Truffaut nerd that I am, I like that they put the credits in as spoken word on an actual song, an overdue cop to common decency in the streaming era that sounds very Black Box Recorder and futuristic to boot.

Oneohtrix Point Never: Age Of (Warp) [r]
This doesn't sound as good in the cold light of day as it did when I drove through a lightning storm while playing it, mostly because our boy Dan can't resist throwing in the hideous vocodered James Blake shit at several intervals. Neverthless, I appreciate the opening callback to the Orb, and I like the way Lopatin uses samplers and keyboards to deconstruct familiarity so that the songs attain their off-kilter quality by being very close to comfortingly nostalgic: soft rock pulled apart on "Toys 2," roller-rink arcade pop on "Warning," electrified worldbeat on "RayCats," and an ITT Tech commercial on "myriad.industries."

Natalie Prass: The Future and the Past (Caroline) [r]
A massive 180-degree move away from Prass' older work; if you're cynical you say "new label," or you're more honest with yourself and say she's been listening to Michael Jackson and Adele and Sade a lot, and maybe we all should try that. Major hooks everywhere ("The Fire"), and the pacing is solid (one of the euphoric highlights, "Ain't Nobody," is held off for the end) with plenty of well-crafted pop intricacy ("Short Court Style"). On the whole it swings a little too heavily toward power balladry for my tastes but even at that I dig the lonely intimacy in the way Prass' vocals are performed and recorded.

Neko Case: Hell-On (Epitaph) [r]
Case may be the artist I respect most who hasn't actually put out an album that I especially liked; the biggest problem is that I routinely come in expecting the unchecked passion she lets hang out on the New Pornographers' records, and for one reason or another she's reluctant to cut loose that way on her own stuff. In terms of its sound, her latest record is a step down from The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight (2013), despite the fact that things have gotten worse; it's just a little more bland and conventional, but as always, there are gems to be discovered among the songs themselves. There are two A.C. Newman cowrites, and one of them -- "Gumball Blue" -- soars thanks to a great, reassuringly sad vocal and arrangement; I wish they'd collaborate so closely more often. The rest seldom gets beyond the wall of restraint she puts around herself on these records, but the towering "Bad Luck" is a triumph because it doesn't hedge like most of her attempts at full-on country. The rest is uniformly decent and pleasant, with "Last Lion of Albion" catchy enough to rise above and her lyrics (especially on the other Newman collaboration, "My Uncle's Navy") an asset everywhere; indeed, maybe the solution to both these artists' problems is for Case to take over on the Pornos' lyrics, at least as an occasional antidote to Newman's word-salad surrealism? Just a thought.

Kanye West: ye (Def Jam) [r]
Trained to expect the worst not only by reviews but by West's erratic behavior over the last few years, I ended up being relatively pleased at first; most of the lyrics are more baffling than full-on embarrassing, and despite being increasingly cocooned from normal day-to-day existence he still occasionally delivers a divine moment of sarcasm, a solid joke (the one about focusing on two things at once is pretty good) and the apt description of his "shaky ass year" that suggests more than a modicum of self-awareness. Plus, as others have said, it's foolish to try and pretend any of us are up to the task of a comprehensive interpretation of West's mind or what he's trying to do with it, not least because the other music he issued this month (see above and below) implies he's still perfectly capable of a kind of artistic focus he now chooses to deny for the records under his own name. My inclination is to believe that the shoddy, extemporaneous nature of all this is the point, but that doesn't make it successful -- and sadly, it seems more hollow once its provocations are more familiar. "I Thought About Killing You" begins as confrontation, fizzles into slam poetry; clearing the cache enough to hear it on its own terms again is impossible, and at the record's too insubstantial to offer any rewards for trying (though not in terms of length; its brevity is actually welcome). West continues his recent interest in recapturing the old trademarks with a couple of classic soul experiments ("No Mistakes" and "Ghost Town," the latter of which is probably the best cut thanks in large part to the excellent guest vocals by the young rapper 070 Shake, who also partly redeems the horrendously misjudged "Violent Crimes"), and one weird groove ("Wouldn't Leave") that sounds actually new even as the song gets mired in relationship bullshit. West's state of mind and his attempts to mold it into traditional storytelling are at least interesting if not actually strong -- his contention of mental illness as a brand of superheroism is both timely and disgusting -- and there's something highly comic about his implicit insistence (belief?) that the bizarre situations he's narrating are some sort of universal yeah-we've-all-been-there parable, as when he raps about his wealthy in-laws getting uptight over his incendiary, senseless statements to the media. It's tone-deaf rock star shit rendered as avant garde performance art. The beats are often as good as ever. The songs don't wear out their welcome. Even his vocals are probably as impressive as they've ever been. But either he's slumming it, or he's taking an extremely long view that we can't yet understand, which does us no good right now.

serpentwithfeet: soil (Secretly Canadian)
Baltimore's Josiah Wise is a literal child of the Gospel who uses the traditional textures of religious music as an act of self-discovery, and his experimental songs explore sexuality with almost unheard-of frankness, at least for a gay R&B singer whose directness and complete recasting of ideas about sensuality have little precedent in pop music. His delivery rambles, a sort of cross between Xiu Xiu and Michael Stipe circa "Hairshirt," over songs that often feel incomplete, which for me is more of a block to hearing the appeal than the well-wrought themes, which include some of the most beautiful lyrics and singing about ejaculation that I can recall. It can be operatic and wacky ("cherubim"), and it can sound like a Disney movie ("waft"), and it suffers from a good deal more boredom than you hope it will.

Jorja Smith: Lost & Found (Famm) [r]
British R&B star in the making collaborated with Drake and Kali Uchis; her debut album carries pleasant echoes of the latter's Isolation, though it's more relaxed, professional, very much a late-night-at-the-bar record. A large gang of producers and writers do their stuff on Smith's perfectly toned singing (she sounds more than a little like Rihanna), discovering the loveliest sounds on the kalimba and bass thump-driven "February 3rd," the frayed and beautiful "Wandering Romance," and the major hook-ridden "Teenage Fantasy," the best part of which may be its charming fade on which Smith abruptly drops her defenses. And while I rarely see call for such optimism these days, the fact that such an unguarded element made it in makes me wish we'll hear more like "On Your Own," a Dido-like big urban UK romance wherein Smith makes no bones about showing the full cornucopia of her origins. By default, though, the attention-grabber is "Blue Lights," a strong, assertive, absorbing protest groove: "better run when you hear the sirens come" is really the thesis statement of the decade.

Virginia Wing: Ecstatic Arrow (Fire) [r]
With propulsion right out of the gate, this Manchester synthpop duo hedges on nothing. Their music dares to imagine an unfettered feminist society the way Yoko Ono did on Feeling the Space, so no wonder "Glorious Idea" sounds like a throwback to Ono's dance records of later years, with spoken vocals that will -- depending on your scope of influence -- remind you of "Vogue" or a Whatchamacallit ad from the late '80s. The immersive, tricky, beautiful "Relativity" futhers along the '80s alienation, and "Pale Burnt Lake" calls up one hazily remembered Depeche Mode remix or another. Along with U.S. Girls, this new fashioning of synthesizer pop as a new realm of political music makes an intriguing, welcome twist that could easily be a movement. And somewhere out there I hope Rob Sheffield is thrilled that his favorite format of band-unit is making an assured comeback, only now with direct protests against the idea that the voiceless male involved is calling all the shots from far in the rear of the stage.

Snail Mail: Lush (Matador)
The second half of the 2010s has pretty well flooded us with dirgey singer-songwriters with an extremely narrow range of vocal approaches; somehow I'm tempted to at least partially blame Jens Lekman, Josh Ritter and Sharon Van Etten, but without the oversized praise handed to the likes of Julien Baker or Snail Mail's Lindsey Jordan, it's unlikely anyone would even connect any dots here, unless you're the kind of asshole who just doesn't want women to play guitars and sing anything. Jordan's music is modest, clearheaded in its approach, unassuming even. It also gets old very, very quickly if you're not in its target audience; and let me remind you quickly that I don't tend to be super-fond of the wave of "classic" singer-songwriters of the 1970s either. There's a certain whiny lilt in these vocals that sounds like a million other people, just like the affected, faux-sensitive croon of the Cat Stevens-Jimmy Buffett-James Taylor-John Denver-Jim Croce class. Like so many others, Jordan's songs and lyrics sound a lot smarter than they really are when you examine them closely; the most passionate, crafty selection "Pristine" offers little real insight in its perception of a broken relationship, perhaps because -- gulp -- it's written by a teenager and is, let's face it, written for teenagers. Were I someone else entirely, I might find something I needed in it, and I don't think it's Snail Mail's fault I'm not someone else, but it's not mine either.

Kadhja Bonet: Childqueen (Fat Possum)
A lush California pop album, nothing groundbreaking but pretty dreamy, all flutes and mysticism and hushed urgent vocals and mild Enya vibes, though it's ominous that the most groove it kicks up is on a lite-jazz song called "Mother Maybe."

Gruff Rhys: Babelsberg (Rough Trade)
Surprised to be telling you that this is somewhat enjoyable, at least as long as you turn your brain off and remember it's goofball cotton candy for people who dug Britpop the same way Them Crooked Vultures were for people who dug sniffing glue. It's all orchestral swinging London mod shit, readymade for a character in an early 2000s Wes Anderson picture to have very pointedly spinning on a turntable. Unlike a lot of throwback pop, this at its best -- "Same Old Song," "Limited Edition Heart" -- has a certain directness in its "classic" sentiments and hooks to avoid copping to irony or sentimentality. If Belle & Sebastian released it (and you bet they'd build up to a duet with an actress -- Lily Cole -- called "Selfies in the Sunset") you'd file it away as part of a continued decline; it's all so relaxed and lazy in the end, right? Or am I just writhing in negative vibes?

Kids See Ghosts (Def Jam) [hr]
Kid Cudi and Kanye West have been perhaps the biggest rappers in history to open up about their own struggles with mental illness, dramas that have played out in uncomfortable proportions on the public stage. This collaborative album of Prozac anthems, dramatic stagnation and joyous woe -- another seven-track twenty-minute opus from West's Wyoming cycle -- is about as productive a reclaiming and revisionist narrative of the resulting tension as can easily be imagined. Cudi has traditionally been a serviceable rapper whose verses continue to be solid and professional here, but the star inevitably is West; yes, he follows up his verse earlier this year about park beautification with one in which he rhymes "brrr-ah-da-da-da" with "brrr-ah-gat-gat-ga" (only Pusha T actually delivers a coherent verse on the opener "Feel the Love"; read that again: Pusha T provides the most coherent verse on a song) but his production is routinely breathtaking and may justify the usual lofty all-timer claims if you disregard all the collaborative credits. "Fire" deviates brilliantly from off-the-wall sea chanty to ethereal finale; "4th Dimension" and "Reborn" are both hot, addictive beats in the most forward-looking, classically appealing sense; and the unhinged, unsettling title song is the freakiest and most impressive psycho-minimal construction of West's career since Yeezus (and it boasts his best verse since that era to boot). It seems that Cudi's ambitions, for all his more modest gifts, have brought out the thirst of the new again in Kanye, much as the opportunity to construct a complete mythology and odyssey on Pusha's album resurrected his best impulses. The record really doesn't have time to get indulgent ("Reborn" runs 5:25) and given West's public image of recent years, its ideology is remarkably consistent: "through with mixed messages," "might need an intervention," "keep moving forward," "I don't feel pain anymore / guess what baby, I feel freeeee." It's troubled, haunted, a mess. It sounds real.

Leon Vynehall: Nothing Is Still (Ninja Tune) [r]
British downtempo house DJ's debut full-length is like emerging from underground after a rainstorm, then slowly retreating.

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever: Hope Downs (Sub Pop) [hr]
The characters, thoughts, chords and melodies put older bands trading on the same scope of jangle pop influence to shame; they already break my heart three minutes in with the painfully vivid lost-love-and-complacency ramble "Air Conditioned Man," followed on with the wisely frightening pre-apocalyptic "Mainland." The three gifted songwriters feeding off and competing with one another all sound like they're home. The riveting guitar interplay, minimal, seamless and razor-sharp but barely shy of miraculous, makes Real Estate sound like a lengthy joke somebody played on you. Yes, they betray the strong influence of fellow countrymen the Go-Betweens; and yes, their music will be well-nigh irresistible to that group's dogged acolytes. (The Pavement fan in me sneers at everyone who tries to sound like Pavement. The Go-Betweens fan in me swoons whenever anyone cares enough to try to sound like the Go-Betweens, and perhaps no one has ever sounded as much like them -- like Robert Forster specifically -- as they do on "Exclusive Grave" and "How Long?".) But they have the chops and they have the songs, two elements that transcend some phony notion of authenticity or originality. In just 35 minutes, there's so much to explore. It's tougher than the EPs; it's better too; even if it can offer nothing as bold and stunning as "Tender Is the Neck," its pleasures are more indefinite, hazier, heftier. Deadpan ferocity here, Replacements-like urgency there, unresolved riffage here, the faint touches of impassioned punk ("Talking Straight") there, and then wildcards: totally unexpected syncopation ("Bellarine"), and the middle-eight of "Mainland" by itself could merit the buzz. Craziest of all, it gets stronger as it goes (and that's even before you listen repeatedly and get totally seduced by innumerable nooks and crannies), so that the reflective, pretty pop of "Cappucino City," absolutely assured and present, opens the fraught tension up like a rose. The record's a gift from rock & roll itself, and simply gorgeous.

SOPHIE: Oil of Every Pearl's Un-Insides (Future Classic) [hr]
Music can sound old and still deeply compelling, as above; or it can sound like nothing you've ever heard before -- like nonverbal free association -- and make you suddenly conscious of what a privilege it is to live in a future that would permit it. SOPHIE's a producer whose work for various mainstream artists (freaks like me might remember her for Vince Staples' "Yeah Right," which was the sound of being put through the same kind of wringer) gave faint suggestions of her LP's ruthless unpredictability. It is an immodest revolution; it means to startle, beginning with the hilariously jarring jump-cut from the deceptively gentle pop "It's Okay to Cry" to the hostile and mad "Ponyboy" and the mocking hyena beat of "Faceshopping," which fuses the itch-scratching intensity of Crystal Castles with the infectious hyperspeed of Iglooghost. Somehow it gets stranger from there, slipping once in a while into a docile moment that's then yanked from under you like the mattress in a post-coital eviction notice. There's even a Kate Bush song, kind of ("Is It Cold in the Water?") and a moment of immersion therapy ("Infatuation") before "Pretending" shoves us through the feeling of blacking out into an uneasy ambiance, rife with crying and horror. A good indication of how little we can trust this music is that "Immaterial" sounds as though Outkast's "B.O.B." is trying to bust out of it before it goes drugged-out speed addict balls to the wall. "A Whole New World" beats you into submission with its childlike hi-NRG, terror and obnoxiousness, until your only choice is to marvel at the sheer glory of it all. The pacing of the entire album is wild, up to its broken down disappearance into the walls at the conclusion; it's tense precisely because it isn't relentless. Demanding, progressive, brilliant -- this is the sound of 2018 that we don't want to admit we're all hearing.

Nas: Nasir (Def Jam) [hr]
Even more of a conceptual grab bag than ye, but maybe more than any of the other albums in the Wyoming cycle this plays to the strengths of both West and his star attraction of the moment: Nas can run self-evident circles around Kanye West as an MC even today -- he's both more eloquent and more formidable as a performer -- and even when he's on his most tiresome bullshit (the goofy anti-vax verse on "Everything," which isn't the first time he's gone on that particular rant) he's still compelling, commanding and even funny. The messaging isn't always on the other side of Mars, either, with the confrontational opener and closer "Not for Radio" and "Simple Things" stepping further into America's state of political insanity and its systematic disenfranchisement of its people than West would dare without someone holding his hand. But West more than pulls his weight; the skittering, stark, terrifying "Cops Shot the Kid" is one of the most innovative recordings in the whole month of recordings -- and, improbably, this album's biggest hit despite its flagrant middle finger toward commercial appeal (West would do so much better if he shunned the outside world consistently, not just for show); "White Label" takes the opposite tactic, resembling something from the Blueprint era, but is no less impressive. Even the frustrating "Everything" has a magical hook provided by West and The-Dream, who also trills a piano and croons through "Adam and Eve." Low-key but compelling, the record rewards continued attention and comes off as a surprisingly successful mutual pushing forward by two masters of their form, who for the most part seem aware of their heights and limits.

Tierra Whack: Whack World (s/r) [hr]
Pink Flag and Maurice Williams & the Zodiacs fan that I am, nothing's nearer and dearer to my heart than the idea of a quarter-hour of tantalizing grooves, each immediately ending at the one-minute mark; no repetition, you want to hear that part again, you gotta rewind. Perhaps the element of a specifically ordained time for each song -- the stopwatch factor -- makes it a little more mathematical than spontaneous, but the question is how does it pan out? Some of the songs admittedly are overstuffed -- you can hear this Philadelphia magician almost lose her breath a few times trying to get all her ideas out in the alotted space -- and some are too wispy to fill the full time without padding. But when it works, it works perfectly: a succession of blink-and-you'll-miss-it treasures fully putting across a new voice's entire eccentric, individualistic personality; she talks about creating a world around her ADHD, and she generally succeeds. The opener "Black Nails" sounds like a song that never starts -- a la "Revolution 9" -- but that's quite appropriate if you think of the entire record itself as a song, and an adventurous and enlightening one. The complete creations ("Bug's Life," with intro, buildup and funny, revealing lyric; "Cable Guy," which Frank Ocean would have turned into a throwaway but which Whack infuses with grace, passion and surprising detail; "Hookers," a killer beat that should by all rights be longer except the whole point is it's not) carry the ones that don't quite work, like the Jamiroquai-like "Hungry Hippo" or the vaguely funky but indistinct "Dr. Seuss." That list is short, though, and while things get goofier in the back half -- the playful "Pet Cemetery" toying with sound effects and sporadic bass, sounding a bit like a mutated Sidney Gish outtake, is the top of a heap that includes deliberately terrible Casio country and a "Starfish and Coffee"-like interlude called "Silly Sam" that namedrops Mario and Luigi -- there's a remarkable amount to discover in this scant timeframe. And note that while Whack is credited far and wide as a rapper, what she really is is a singer-songwriter, and a creatively restless one whose every impulse can be cultivated into a highlight; she so rarely employs her MC skill set here that it's jarring when she steps into her low-toned delivery on "Sore Loser." There's new music and there's new music, and Whack (along with SOPHIE) is fully carrying the flag for the latter right now.

The Midnight Hour (Linear Labs)
Lush collaboration between psych-soul producer and multi-instrumentalist Adrian Younge and A Tribe Called Quest DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad seeks a chill jazz NPR crowd much more than either the fun-loving mischievous nostalgics of the Foreign Exchange or the high-minded experiments with hip hop and jazz by Flying Lotus and the like. Rap is limited to a few selected intervals (one almost drunkenly robotic verse by Ladybug Mecca early on is most memorable) and the goal is mostly texture and mood. It can be pretty (the Karolina vocal "Smiling for Me" is Judy Garland stuff) and sometimes catchy (the Cee-Lo guest vocal "Questions," which you'll remember from Kendrick Lamar's untitled unmastered.) but an hour of it gets pretty old, especially when there's no real break in its polite, shiny mood.

The Last Poets: Understand What Black Is (Studio Rockers) [hr]
The collective that can lay credible claim (if anyone can) to having invented hip hop in the late 1960s, Harlem's Last Poets return here with their first studio album of the current century, almost simultaneously with the death of founding member Jalal Mansur Nuriddin. It's amazing to compare this to the type of material that tends to be issued by veteran rock musicians: a desperate clinging to the past, a humbled bid for retained affection. None of that shit here -- these battered souls expect you to come to them on their terms and they have much to impart, all from occupying the same unprotected world as any of us. Poets Abiodun Oyewole and Umar Bin Hassan, and poet-percussionist Baba Donn Babatunde, carry the legacy on as if they never stopped, fully prepared and fully resigned for the myriad ways in which they're now performing to a different world, telling the story of all of us with flawless words and infectious music. The engrossing, beautiful record that results is challenging and righteous, never mincing words, but fully allowing for redemption, if nothing else than in the form of music: on the Prince tribute "North, East, West, South" and the valentine to form "The Music," the past and future are a beacon of mutual admiration and respect in all directions; but if you want the world defined with a wisdom and distance unachievable by millionaires like Kanye West and Nas, "Rain of Terror" will get you there and well past it, an unbearably funky rattling off of America's centuries of crime.

- Modern Studies: Welcome Strangers (Fire) [omg it's Locust! no no, the other Locust!; "Mud and Flame"/"Disco"]
- Cut Worms: Hollow Ground (Jagjaguwar) [Herman's Hermits doing Beach Boys harmonies, with carnival-ride sounds; old world woes made new and lilting, and Max Clarke sounds a little like Gram Parsons, but it's all a bit sugary; "Coward's Confidence"/"Don't Want to Say Goodbye"]
- Fatoumata Diawara: Fenfo (Shanachie) [Malian singer-songwriter performed in the film Timbuktu and imparts a message that means to unite more than it means to confront, but inevitably the small helpings of the latter come strongest; "Negue Negue"]

- Venetian Snares x Daniel Lanois (Planet Mu)
- Simian Mobile Disco: Murmurations (Wichita Recordings) ["Hey Sister"]
- Mary Lattimore: Hundreds of Days (Ghostly) [she plays, the harp]
- Gas: Rausch (Kompakt) [heavier than the blackest black metal, and somehow sillier than the proggiest prog rock]

* Tracyanne & Danny
* Chvrches: Love Is Dead
* Black Thought: Streams of Thought: Vol. 1 EP
* Angelique Kidjo: Remain in Light
J Balvin: Vibras
Jenny Hval: The Long Sleep EP
Aisha Burns: Argonauta
Norma Waterson & Eliza Carthy: Anchor
Jamie Isaac: (4:30) Idler
Erin Rae: Putting on Airs
Proc Fiskal: Insula
Shannon Shaw: Shannon in Nashville
Lykke Li: so sad so sexy
Lily Allen: No Shame
Tangents: New Bodies
John Parish: Bird Dog Dante
Olivia Chaney: Shelter
Christina Aguilera: Liberation
Melody's Echo Chamber: Bon Voyage
Sami Baha: Free for All

Speedy Ortiz: Twerp Verse [NYIM]
Charles Watson: Now That I'm a River
Bernice: Puff! In the Air Without a Shape [NYIM]
Wooden Shjips: V.
Ben Howard: Noonday Dream
Roger Daltrey: As Long as I Have You
Uniform: Mental Wounds Not Healing
Eartheater: Irisiri
Boy Azooga: 1 2 Kung Fu!
Matt Maltese: Bad Contestant
Flasher: Constant Image [NYIM]
YOB: Our Raw Heart
Howlin Rain: The Alligator Bride
John Hassell: Listening to Pictures
Petal: Magic Gone
Fantastic Negrito: Please Don't Be Dead
Protomartyr: Consolation EP
Onyx Collective: Lower East Suite Part 3 [NYIM]
Johnny Marr: Call the Comet [NYIM]
Mike Shinoda: Post Traumatic
Culture Abuse: Bay Dream

The Midnight Hour "Questions" [The Midnight Hour]
Charles Watson "You've Got Your Way of Leaving" [Now That I'm a River]
Ben Howard "Towing the Line" [Noonday Dream]

Albert Ayler: Spirits (Debut 1964/1966) [r]
Albert Ayler: Spiritual Unity (ESP-Disk 1964/1965) [hr]

Monday, July 16, 2018

The Beatles: Rubber Soul (1965)


!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

"Seduction, not assault." That's the way Greil Marcus described Rubber Soul in 1976. In that sense the album can be seen as a massive turnaround from the first five Beatles albums, even the quieter Beatles for Sale; they all depended on the bombastic qualities of pop form to demand the listener's attention. In the year of the Byrds and Dylan-goes-electric, Rubber Soul found the band expanding on the promises of Help!'s better half by refining their edge to create something more intricate and layered than had been previously attempted. A roar of electric guitars opens the LP, but they're an exception; this is a primarily acoustic, primarily poetic and introspective album.

It's not Simon & Garfunkel, though. It's thoughtful but not showy, revealing and sophisticated but not verbose or pretentious. On the majority of these songs, the Beatles are wry and playful to a degree not approached by anyone else who picked up a 12-string for the sake of folk-rock sheen. The infectiously funky "Drive My Car" and the almost vindictive "The Word" forecast the White Album in their cutting wit. The album closer "Run for Your Life" betters "You Can't Do That" (and equals the Rolling Stones' "Under My Thumb") in its broken, hateful brutality. Otherwise, the record is a subdued affair... but a cathartic, engaging one. Since I've heard this more than any other album (my old cassette is worn beyond recognition), it can be difficult to find any kind of perspective, but I'll try.

The first sign of great change is somewhere in "Norwegian Wood." Aside from the alien sound of the sitar, Lennon's voice is even more resigned than on "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away." His lyrics are bracing, disturbing, sad, and brilliant, some of his best work ever, but as good as they are, it's the music that reveals the nuance of the story he tells, and even on the dark punchline, John's singing seems to surrender to the surrounding ocean of music throughout the brief recording. Its silly parenthetical title notwithstanding, this is a song that impresses on first listen and grows more compelling, even mysterious, with each additional listen. This is what Marcus meant by "seduction."

"Nowhere Man" is lyrically almost trite, but hidden somewhere in there ("doesn't have a point of view") is one man's anguish, a far cry from the warmth and swagger of "Wait," and making no concessions -- infectious melody aside -- to the deceptive radio blissfulness of "Help!". That same man finds a vent on "Girl," which along with "I'm Looking Through You" and "In My Life" is among the best songs in the Beatles' catalog, therefore in rock & roll. "Girl" is pure confessional fly-on-the-wall desperation, sighing and pausing with full understanding of its drama. There's nothing simple about it -- lyrically and musically, it slides gleefully afoul of all classification. And in the last verse, which manages to tackle Catholicism and death, with the subtly manipulative character of the title as a springboard, the drama unfolds into an instrumental break overflowing with tension just before the fadeout. The track is rife with what almost seems like deliberate sexual subtext, from knife-to-butter first second to sharp intake of breath to climax to the juvenile repetition of the word "tit." It ends much too early and offers no neat solution; the end result is even more unsettling than "Norwegian Wood." It's also a character portrait of unparalleled force and beauty.

Few songs could ever begin to stand up to "In My Life," however, which escapes from slick production to provide knockout bass and drums behind the most moving lyric created for any pop song, some of the best vocal harmonies imaginable, and a piano solo that underscores both the energy and the emotion. There is not a second that feels false or unfelt, and it remains unimaginably lovely and disarmingly mature, the full naked exposure of the introspective Lennon who began to reveal himself on "I Call Your Name" and "No Reply," on through "Help!", but only now achieving an unshaken confidence -- you can hear him singing through the words with such clarity, and you can hear his pride, not so much in his lyric as in that lyric's unfettered honesty. It tries to be no one else, and it communicates its sentiment impeccably without any conceit of distance. Almost certainly it's rock's most heartfelt, untainted moment.

Lennon's masterstroke this may be, but the others are far more of a presence than on A Hard Day's Night, which amounted to Johnny & the Moondogs. McCartney in particular is in stellar shape, following hard on his promising songs from the last few albums. (And check out his bass playing on "The Word"!) The enjoyable "Michelle," despite being supernaturally catchy, pales in comparison to Paul's other contributions here. "You Won't See Me" remains one of his greatest songs, swooning as it's helped along with a wonderfully lazy, rolling arrangement by the others. Everyone is at their best; it's possibly Paul's best vocal ever (listen to "I wouldn't mind if I knew what I was missing" and the second "it feeeeeels like years") and offers some of the best harmonies in the band's catalog, and Ringo's drums are as adventurous and beguiling as on "Ticket to Ride," nearly as much so as "Rain." It's also a Beatles song that feels free to take its time, yet never wears out its welcome.

But to my mind, "I'm Looking Through You" is tied with "Here, There and Everywhere" and "I've Just Seen a Face" as Paul McCartney's masterpiece. "I thought I knew you / What did I know?" is the best line he will ever read, will ever need to write. Sequenced side by side with "Girl," this illustrates the differences between the songs' composers. "Looking" stabs and concludes while "Girl" contemplates tortuously; Paul's song is the ultimate in pop music's portrayal of the breakup, with an eye to truth and emotion but an awareness nonetheless of the melodrama that drives the end of relationships. Without manipulation, it makes its point unguarded and creates something that, for all its aggression, is beautiful and assured. And there are days in your life when every word feels as if it makes complete sense, demonstrating the Beatles' great lyrical evolution since their earliest days; they'd never write more eloquently.

Harrison's work is scarcely less potent. He offers his best and most vulnerable love song in the oddly personal "If I Needed Someone" and writes one of the band's finest rockers in "Think for Yourself" (first use of the word "opaque" in a pop song?). Ringo even redeems "Act Naturally," shining on the country-western raveup "What Goes On," which he cowrote. This record is an absolute full-band effort, arguably their last unified album in the sense that all four members seem committed to the same basic vision for the album's mood, whereas the two psychedelic masterpieces to follow would almost celebrate their contradictions.

A side note: it's become a popular sentiment over the years to place the American revision of Rubber Soul on a pedestal over and over the Beatles' intended version; Capitol's album -- reviewed briefly elsewhere -- omits four songs, including the major "If I Needed Someone" and everpopular "Nowhere Man," and adds two leftovers from Help!, "I've Just Seen a Face" and "It's Only Love." (It also slightly alters the iconic cover, and in this case it probably is a slight improvement.) The argument is that this variation maintains the record's acoustic-folk theme more gracefully and consistently by dropping two of the louder songs, and also dismissing Ringo and George's relatively tentative contributions. While "Face" is a lovely song that sounds right at home here, it's otherwise hard to sympathize with this viewpoint, since "Drive My Car" is the only song that really justifies the album's title ("I'm Down" and "She's a Woman" both relegated to b-sides), and the hazy shyness of the missing "What Goes On" and "If I Needed Someone" enhances the record's mood perfectly, while "Nowhere Man" captures this moment in the Beatles' history too well to belong anywhere else. Essentially, as usual the U.S. record is a butcher job; an enjoyable butcher job, but a deeply unnecessary thwarting of the band's most cohesive record.

Resigned yet hopeful, Rubber Soul opens the curtain fully on an auspicious, unexplored world for a young band: the sky seems to really be the limit, and in less than three years the Beatles' evolution and quickly advancing artistic and emotional maturity are genuinely breathtaking, even now, even in contrast to either of their last two releases. But while it could be said that the record is a beginning of the ambitious midperiod, in reality, for me at least, it marks a single moment: a moment when the band functioned as a band, when Lennon was stepping down from his throne of power and Paul had yet to take on the position, resulting in a brief and joyous balance. The White Album may be the best work under their name, and A Hard Day's Night their most endearing and vital rock & roll, but Rubber Soul is the peak of everything that made this band great. It was not, by any means, downhill from here, but they would never duplicate or better it.


[Slightly expanded from a review first posted in 2003.]

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The Beatles: Purple Chick deluxe- Help! (1965)

(bootleg [3CD])

RECOMMENDED (rating for the PC outtakes package, not the album)

Help! is arguably the least engaging of the Beatles' LPs from the first half of their career, though it still sparkles at times; and curiously it provides the basis for one of the most fun of these early, lean Purple Chick sets... but maybe it's not such a mystery. As it happens, Help! is the first Beatles album for which songs were properly recorded that really truly genuinely never made it to release (at least until the 1990s), and its sessions also provide a great number of leaked-out minutiae for hardcore fans in unusually high quality. So let's have at it dissecting this thing.

The original stereo mix of Help!, duplicated here from a '70s Parlophone pressing, is markedly superior to the 1987 mix supervised by George Martin for the CD releases, which have now become canon; they're the ones on all the streaming services and newer vinyl releases, but despite some awkward separation the original mix has much more depth and presence, and maybe because of my own history with this album, it just sounds like springtime to me. For completeness PC includes the most obsessive of obsessive details here in the form of the split second of remaining count-in that didn't quite get lopped off the U.S. version of "You're Going to Lose That Girl"; fans who are particularly attached to the Ken Thorne instrumentals and the "James Bond" intro of "Help!" will have to look elsewhere, though. Help! in mono is notoriously washed out and muddy, but I must say that this rip from the Japanese red wax vinyl is the best the mono mix has sounded to me. Yes, the flaws in the record are more apparent, but I hear more clarity and bottom-end here than on the modern CD and LP.

The first two discs are rounded out by five supplemental tracks from the period, two of which were -- at the time and for decades after -- unissued. We'll have to wait for Lewisohn to determine if this has any validity, but I've always guessed that UK fan backlash to buying the same songs twice prompted the Beatles, George Martin and/or Parlophone to insist on unique b-sides for the two Help! singles, hence "Yes It Is" and "I'm Down." There's always been talk of how the Beatles suffered from a deficit of material in the Help! era, resulting in the apparently desperate use of a couple of weak covers on the record -- and some of the film songs aren't that hot either, at least compared to the standards set by A Hard Day's Night. I find this odd myself, since "I'm Down" and "Yes It Is" are to my ears unmistakably stronger than some of the songs that made the LP, and neither of the cast-off outtakes -- "If You've Got Trouble," the Ringo song replaced by the rather dreadful cover of Buck Owens' "Act Naturally"; and "That Means a Lot," a reverb-laden romance given to P.J. Proby -- seem particularly embarrassing to me. Moreover, we know that the underrated "Wait" was sitting around ready to finish. (Part of the feeling of pressure came from scheduling; once shooting on the film started, they knew they would have very little studio time... but apparently there also was a dearth not so much of material as of material they were confident about.) This gets even more complicated because of Beatles VI, a Capitol album from early summer '65 that needed a couple of extra cuts from the Beatles; a telegram later and they got fresh, wild versions of Larry Williams' "Bad Boy" and "Dizzy Miss Lizzie" on their doorstep. The fresher and wilder of these, "Bad Boy," didn't find an outlet in the UK until a greatest-hits package late the next year, while the somewhat less convincing "Lizzie" was thrown on as the album closer. Weird, but what can you say? "Trouble" and "Lot" finally found their way to Anthology 2 in 1996; those mixes were rechanneled stereo and are included here on the mono disc, while the stereo disc offers the complete "masters" without the futzing, though they're not really masters as the Beatles were clearly unsatisfied with both.

These two discs are rounded out with some relatively boring mix oddities -- several mono mixes from the Help! film print, sounding a bit different in some cases (very heavy on the vocals) but not worth any dedicated attention; and the contents of a mono production acetate given to the film crew, which gives evidence that "Yes It Is" and "You Like Me Too Much" were under consideration for the film but provides very little in the way of distinctions that are easy to hear. ("You're Going to Lose That Girl" does have a different, terrible guitar solo and a clean ending.) The usual Anthology mixes round out the discs.

The third disc is a lot of fun for scholars and extreme devotees. "Ticket to Ride" is fun to hear with its uncut ending intact, and the Anthology 2 alternate takes of "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," "I'm Down," "Yesterday" and "It's Only Love" are all fascinating and probably make more sense in this context, but the star attractions are the nearly complete session outtakes for three songs, and a rather peculiar selection at that: "Yes It Is," "Help!" and "That Means a Lot." It's quite instructive to hear the band working their way through how to record and in some cases even properly arrange and finish these songs. John slurs through take after take of "Yes It Is," either attempting a Dylan-like approach or saving his real vocal for the master, while the band works their way through the process of refining the song's instrumentation. John's fumbles and directives are enjoyable as always, and it's worth noting that George Martin seems to really be stepping back and letting the Beatles control the destiny of the sessions by this point. "Help!" stands as an example of the way the Beatles generally recorded in the middle years, laying down a basic track then completing the performance afterward, and we are permitted to hear this outstanding number put together in piecemeal fashion, with vocals and then double tracking and lead guitar following the impressively complex basic track. (I may be an unusually captive audience here, because this is one of my favorite songs by anybody and I think may have Lennon's very best lyric.)

Perhaps most interesting of all is the wealth of rehearsal and session material for "That Means a Lot," which was attempted on two different days and utterly failed ever to satisfy the Beatles or particularly the song's composer, Paul McCartney. As already mentioned, the February version -- a remix of which features on Anthology 2 -- has considerable charm as a lyrically light but musically ambitious ballad that genuinely feels like a solid mid-'60s Beatles track. For whatever reason, they were dissatisfied and took a different, harder, bluesier approach on the remake a month later; the arrangement most closely resembles "She's a Woman," but in the absence of that song's primal bluster, the ragtag garage band approach is harder to justify, and Paul's voice clearly strains on all four included takes; by the end of the fourth he seems obviously to be sick to death of the song, and the others seem to agree. The set is rounded out with what's labeled a "test" but actually consists of the band playing the song intentionally badly while Paul croons and warbles atonally over the top of it -- one of the weirdest unreleased Beatles items and one of the funniest, and clearly an indication that something somewhere, god knows what, made them really dislike this particular song. (I still don't see what makes it "bad" while "Tell Me What You See" and "Another Girl," mildly enjoyable as they are, are "good.")

The third disc closes out with a pointless "outfake" of "Wait," a song that was written and recorded for Help! but finished and released as part of Rubber Soul several months later; it sounds like this was made by goofing around with the OOPS effect you can get by partially unplugging your headphones, or reversing the polarity of your speakers. Pretty dumb, at any rate. Equally dumb -- but packaged here for completeness or convenience -- is the bizarre Anthology 2 remix of "Yes It Is," which starts off with one of the early guide-vocal takes included here and crudely crossfades it into a modern mix of the master take, for genuinely unfathomable reasons.

Despite these complaints, you know what you're signing up for when you download these releases, and Purple Chick couldn't exactly control what leaked out into the bootleg marketplace over the decades, and I think the good portions of what you get here are well worth the effort; the complete session tapes of the three songs that make it here in that context will offer considerable pleasure for the more intense participants in Beatles fandom, and those who just want a clearer picture of how the Greatest Rock Band's studio process worked... and this really is the best transfer I've ever heard of the album in mono, so on this last goround before we hit the real juggernauts, we've got a winner as these things go.