Saturday, March 28, 2020

Yo La Tengo: Summer Sun (2003)


(Matador)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

The months that passed between the seismic jolt of 9/11 and the dawn of the futile, deadly Iraq War felt impossibly cold and lonely. Say what you will about the way that society has fragmented in the era of social media, but one undeniable benefit of it is that very few of us are forced to feel wholly isolated by our dread and distrust at the direction of the world. Despite the fact that the war George W. Bush and his criminal cohorts from Dick Cheney to Joe Biden voted for and/or manufactured says more about American destiny and more about the dire state of our democracy, with consequences that have rippled down longer and more persistently in the last seventeen years, 9/11 was a unique moment -- as the current COV-19 pandemic will also prove to be -- in the sense that it was unignorable, and seemed to cast everything else in our lives in "before" and "after" terms. What made the period so desperately sad and still, I believe, the darkest that many of us have lived through is that it quickly became clear that terrorism was being made to function as an excuse, as a way of furthering agendas that right-wing zealots had been longing to institute, with very little opposition. The scenario was created in which there was only a binary of "with" or "against" America; communication, even with loved ones, became impossible.

And it was merely setting the table for the fragmentation and misery that has continued ever since, as the moral universe shifted and the darkness of the fascist underbelly of American capitalism came out into the clear daylight; I would never argue that things are materially better except in the sense that waking up every day feeling endlessly disgusted and like you're going insane no longer makes you a pariah. Still, anyone who lived through that first year will undoubtedly recall how traumatic and colorless it all was, the pandering of institutions still determined to fire up consumerism, the Barney and Friends-like coddling of ugly, empty sentimentality. Culturally it felt like the end of so many things that had made life interesting, and not as a result of the attacks themselves but as a result of the jingoistic, racist response to them and the way they were parlayed into a blank check for warmongering. For all the empty chatter about being there for one another, the spirit of community, joy and rebellion that once was rock & roll abruptly fell away. If you were just entering adulthood at the time, certainly if it happened simultaneously with illness and estrangement from family, it felt like you had become untethered from everything familiar -- and all the while, you were forced into hearing the empty pablum of P.O.D., Toby Keith and Enya endlessly repeated. It was the death of love, the death of art, the death of critical thinking, the death of introspection.

***

By the end of 2002 New Jersey's Yo La Tengo were not quite an institution yet despite having been performing for nearly twenty years. They had carved out a comfortable existence as a cult act well away from the mainstream and operated unmistakably on their own terms, but articles about them were not yet suffused with dewy-eyed prattling about how they were "elder statesmen." Indeed, their lineup had only been stabilized with the addition of bassist James McNew for a decade. Nevertheless fortune seemed to be smiling on them; their last two records, issued in 1997 and 2000, had warranted highly visible praise in major outlets and sold briskly at a time when indie rock still operated within its own shadow economy. 2001 had brought their first eight-night Hanukkah showcase at Maxwell's in Hoboken, a soon-to-be legendary tradition in which the band and various guests performed a full residency on all eight nights of the holiday, plumbing the depths of a catalog that could handle it. The stage was being set for a world in which Yo La Tengo were unquestioned as community leaders of their own parallel conglomeration of music makers and fans, but it was not yet a given that they deserved a default sense of reverence and respect.

There was still some derision of them as a "critics' band" or a band whose work spoke stricly to impassioned record collectors. Perhaps there still is now, but the flowering of the internet has allowed a more nuanced sense of their character and creativity to dominate the discourse about them; there will always be people who absolutely will be incapable of understanding what Yo La Tengo is about and what they're actually doing (broadly: whatever they want), or people who simply refuse to understand it. The difference in the early 2000s was that Yo La Tengo still had no choice but to coexist within a "college music" landscape whose face had changed radically from the years when they were opening for the Sundays and My Bloody Valentine and sharing a label with indie breakthroughs Pavement and Liz Phair. The immediate post-9/11 period of alternative rock was dominated by the violently expressive, often transcendent expressions of shouted youthful bliss emanating from the New York clubs; and, domestically and internationally, self-impressed parodies of new wave derived from the emptily snide works of groups like the Faint, eventually to be parodied by mainstream radio in the Killers era. The radio was a hellscape of the confused aftermath of third-generation bubblegum grunge and faux-punk. Yo La Tengo fit into none of these arbitrary universes, a fatal condition in a moment when "scenes" all of a sudden seemed to mean everything again. Into this environment the band launched a record that perplexed certain members of their own audience and much, if not most, of the larger indie rock sphere; it was dubbed Summer Sun, a title some interpreted as ironic given the laconic and melancholy nature of the music but that in various other ways seems perfectly accurate to its sullen, stormy mood.

Georgia Hubley's mother Faith, the brilliant filmmaker, animator and editor, died a few days before the first run of Yo La Tengo Hanukkah gigs. In Hubley's own memory, her mother's loss lingers over Summer Sun; Ira Kaplan, her husband and bandmate, would eventually classify the record as one about "coping," presumably with personal as well as worldly losses. In advance of the record's release came a 12" single comprised of four acerbic versions of Sun Ra's absolutely brutal Reagan-era free-jazz anthem "Nuclear War"; reviews interpreted it as a coy joke and failed to discern the anger and pain that drove the project, which serves even now as a searing piece of righteous pop art, kicking against the invisible sources of our collective misery. The world suddenly seemed to be moving at warp speed. Yo La Tengo recorded the album that followed in Nashville with Roger Moutenot, returned to Hoboken to play a second year of Hanukkah shows (this time with such illustrious guests as David Byrne, Ray Davies and, unforgettably, Ronnie Spector), then went back to Nashville to mix the album for an atypically rushed release. Kaplan would cite this as a stressful time for the band, but none of the strain is evident in the music. Rather than a work of art that succumbs to grief, which wouldn't necessarily be abhorrent or inappropriate, it is a record that intimately courts, engages and forges a complex interplay with love and loss, an island of beauty and sane relief in a hungover, unsafe environment. It could have come into existence at no other time, but its utility as an embrace of unforced feeling has not been distorted by the myriad ways the world has changed since that specific moment.

And how does that manifest musically? Generously, to say the least. This is an album that, to ears trained by a certain kind of pop music, nearly overflows with secrets and pleasures. Running along simultaneously with the layering and intricate quiet of And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out as well as the flirtation with electronics from the I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One-Sounds of the Sounds of Science-Danelectro era, Yo La Tengo here present themselves as the nearly exclusive grownup inheritors of Phil Spector's ideas about detailed, overwhelming sheets of sound as a tool of soulful expression. In its impeccable combination of pop thrills and morose moodiness, Summer Sun evokes a willfully closed-off world and the discovery of an introspective universe opening up, like putting your head underwater and finding everything renewed. If it is indeed a cathartic moment of coping, it's as profound as they come. The comfort and kindness it captures were evident in the first track the band chose to release near the beginning of 2003, "Don't Have to Be So Sad," which superficially resembles some of the whispered confessionals of the last album. A closer listen, however, reveals the breadth and variance of a full-fledged soundscape that would have been hard to imagine when Yo La Tengo were still lumped in with the shoegazers barely ten years before this. It's still identifiably them -- piano, drum machines, keyboards all put across the unmistakable cadence of their irresistibly poetic melodies and riffs heretofore typically confined to guitars-bass-drums (and feedback) -- but doubles down on mood in a fashion that's initially off-putting and finally breathtaking; and the moment when Kaplan takes the microphone at last with a husky, almost desperate-sounding "you and me," feels like the culmination of every second in his life, their life, our lives, all of which could be pared down to that one simple phrase even though it's just the beginning of a sentence about a goldfish pond. Frankly, if Ira Kaplan's recorded legacy was the way he emits those three words, he'd deserve to be as important to rock & roll as the Edison kiss is to cinema.

The second song released on the band's website, as well as to the scattered radio stations still willing to pay attention to Yo La Tengo at this stage, was "Little Eyes," an even more densely-layered creation that came off like an electrical storm heard from under water, with Hubley's propulsive drums matched in urgency by one of her clearest vocals to date. Despite the way it sounded like something as otherworldly and mysterious as the Rite of Spring sequence Hubley's father John animated for Disney sixty-three years earlier -- Kaplan's squalls of guitar noise sounding like animal cries, the band careening through an impossible night -- in terms of melody and lyric, comfort and kindness continued to reign here. In what would eventually appear to be a theme of the album, Hubley sings to console, to encourage a reawakening. The words -- which sound like they were probably Kaplan's, though this is hard to verify -- are vague but telling, and via Hubley prop the song up with their warmth. A couple of tracks later, on "Today Is the Day," Hubley returns in an more reflective tone, singing words (almost certainly hers, but again, this is impossible to know for sure) that are simultaneously even more mysterious and even more inescapably personal. On this song, the equally elaborate soundscape is slower, more mournful, the desolate guitar hook at its center providing what feels almost like a bodily lift from the haze around it. She sings about specific events that seem to fade into the ether even as she recounts them. The details -- a rusty car, a sister accepting blame, being too old to stay up late -- are well enough established that the dots connecting them aren't needed to establish their importance. They grow more distant each time you hear the song again, and she seems more unsure about them; it's a song that could have been formed only by some kind of indescribable love, but the starkness of its sense of loss, however maturely expressed, only ever grows more evident; and in a way, it seems surprising that a person so private and guarded would allow us to hear it. (Nowadays she is, perhaps understandably, reluctant to sing it live.)

Yet if "Today Is the Day" is -- at least in this version -- perhaps the saddest song in Yo La Tengo's catalog, it's also one that feels so open and inviting that its shimmering regret is irresistible, a haunted night one cannot stay away from, maybe because it sounds like a memory narrated from a very different present. When Kaplan conquers depression directly on "Season of the Shark," the title referring to a wave of national news stories about shark attacks from just before 9/11, it is to chide and cheer with inspirational advice ("I know it's hard, I know that it's that way for everyone") while also offering a shoulder and support so sincerely that his once wildly out of character openness (compare the mildly smarmy Ira of vintage YLT ballads like "Lewis" and "Something to Do," always ready with a kick-in-the-ass barb after an expression of feeling) could move you to tears when you realize how deep it runs, and how perfectly modulated his vocal delivery of it is. (It's not the first Kaplan vocal this effortlessly tender. In particular the Fakebook version of "Did I Tell You" qualifies, but that's an example of him looking inward, not dispensing a direct plea of encouragement as he does here. Perhaps the best analogy is the band's 1997 version of "By the Time It Gets Dark," which of course they didn't write.) The simplicity of the song as a composition and a recording, particularly on an album rife with elaborate sonic tricks, only furthers the sensation that it's a kind of pulling back of the curtain.

It's James McNew, however, who comes in with the unexpected money shot on his second lead vocal on a Yo La Tengo album, the song that ties all of the instincts that seem to be driving Summer Sun together into one elegant, awe-inspiring piece of pop mastery. Of the many things "Tiny Birds" has to offer in its lush, intimate contract with its listener, the confidence and perfection of McNew's delivery of its closing line -- "till there's nothing left in the world to make you cry" -- is perhaps its greatest gift. The song's sheer sound, however, and the forceful fantasia of its composition, provide a sort of Rosetta stone to what makes Summer Sun such an impressive work and one that stands so far apart from the rest of Yo La Tengo's genuinely thrilling catalog. With nothing more than the traditional three-person lineup, the group manages to evoke the room-sized complexity of the Wrecking Crew and their work on the baroque Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys records, one reason the album's title may not be so ironic despite the mood. Instruments run together to create new instruments, and recordings seem beholden less to conventional rock or pop form than to the emotional state they seek to capture; it is a whole world of sound harnessed to emotion so pure you could call it emphatically teenaged if it weren't basically universal. And its many interlocking pieces all are separately engaging but coalesce beautifully into a whole, fusing into a song as delightful in its sadness as in its earnest joy at the act of creation. There was nothing quite like this on And Then Nothing, which had plenty of layers but was comparatively built on ideas cascading incidentally; every second and element of "Tiny Birds" feels deliberate and properly tweaked, and this largely extends to Summer Sun as a whole, which is why it still sounds different than any other Yo La Tengo album.

That's even true of the opener "Beach Party Tonight," a recording so vague it fails to assert its shape even after hundreds of listens, despite which it manages to set the mood effectively. Its fullness of environment is no less pronounced than on the immersive "Today Is the Day" or the lovely ten-minute lounge-jazz showpiece "Let's Be Still" which uses Other Dimensions in Music to fill out its mondo space-pop credentials. (This song more than any other seemed to particularly infuriate the album's detractors, evidently who never chilled out to retro bachelor pad elevator music and therefore cannot verify that in the right moment it sounds wonderful, or perhaps unabashed "beauty" was simply too uncool.) The band's instrumentation and experimentation are complemented by the addition of a piano (Faith Hubley's) that springs up everywhere but particularly drives the instrumental "Georgia vs. Yo La Tengo" and the disorienting, uniquely fussy and pop culture reference-heavy "Moonrock Mambo," materially changing their sound and providing an impetus for both fun and pathos heretofore unexamined. The drum machines and keyboards aren't so new; as noted, flirtation with electronics had begun to take hold around the time of "Moby Octopad" and the Autumn Sweater EP with its freeform remixes, but never before had they added up to the foreboding peculiarity of "Nothing But You and Me" (maybe the first song the band did not even attempt to duplicate on stage, instead singing lightheartedly along to a tape recorded backing track) or to the indescribable sweetness and sensuality of the extended ancedote "How to Make a Baby Elephant Float." And the band's organ had been a fixture as long as McNew, even inspiring a song title in 1993, but was never so gainfully employed as on the "We Can Work It Out"-meets-"96 Tears" gem "Winter-a-Go-Go," another contradictory seasonal number with a breathtaking Georgia vocal and a splendidly thorny arrangement that generates spy movie dreams at the same time that it suggests something warmer and more tangibly longing in its lyric and vocal.

Viewed in terms of sheer songcraft, this is an impossibly high level of material; given that it's almost by definition an album about vibes and mood, that feels almost like an embarrassment of riches -- it never hurt Painful that it wasn't filled with Supremes-like hooks -- but it allows the record to become almost impossible to wear out, because not only are its sounds and sonic caverns a source of endless fascination, the songs themselves are as durable and pleasurable as the highest level of AM radio Brill Building pop music. Even among Yo La Tengo's gaggle of great records, there isn't another one -- at least, not one that isn't composed mostly of covers -- that generates so much simple pleasure out of mere composition. Coming on the heels of a record that had been built on songs designed to sound like intimate confessionals, the lyrics on Summer Sun frequently boast a directness that coincides well with the immediacy of style; they'd arguably never been as straightforward again as they are on "How to Make a Baby Elephant Float," about inside jokes, and "Don't Have to Be So Sad," about cheering up a depressed lover. Ira Kaplan admitted feeling like the spotlight was on their words a little more directly than usual, with pressure mounting for the first and only time as they committed to a follow-up to a distinctively successful and singular record in their catalog, and you can detect a slight self-consciousness in those songs, the accusation being that they are attempts to evoke the effortlessly naked mood of "Our Way to Fall" and "The Crying of Lot G," but less so in songs like "Today Is the Day," "Season of the Shark" and "Tiny Birds" which are no less comforting in their gentle kindness.

As always, though, Yo La Tengo's real bid is to exist out of time, away from the context of what they'd been up to three years earlier, and they find waltzing transcendence in the end, with their achingly poignant country-rock cover of Big Star's "Take Care," sung by Georgia, fitting in both its mournfully begrudging hopefulness and its stark survey of an abandoned destiny. Covering one of the saddest songs by the writer of "Back of a Car," the singer of "The Letter" matches well with the conflicted use of "summer" as a linchpin. Like Brian Wilson, Alex Chilton celebrated community and isolation in equal measure in his music; both were haunted and preoccupied by the experiences and disappointments of adolescence in a way that Yo La Tengo are not, or at least haven't been since the 1980s ("A Shy Dog," "Crispy Duck"). But the associations of joy and despair they reckon with in the music that influences them here presumably come about because of the way that depression and grief reignite the oversized feelings of those times: the intensity of longing to connect and the intensity of isolation, both concerns that almost wholly populate this collection of songs as never before. This sense of focus both musical and lyrical is hard to miss, and impressive; it's also very much not in the typical vein of Yo La Tengo.

Summer Sun was the first Yo La Tengo album since 1992's under-distributed May I Sing with Me not to be met with uniform accolades on release; moreover, it was received as a mediocre entry in their catalog or, at best, a mixed success by nearly every then-major outlet from Pitchfork and Rolling Stone to the briefly influential All Music Guide. Perhaps more damning was that fans seemed equally disappointed with it. (Yo La Tengo acolytes have never been particularly well organized but there were a few active fan webpages at this stage.) What the band and the album's advocates heard as an impressive leap forward in crafting a cohesive, immersive set that served equally well as a mood album and as perhaps their most consistently masterful set of songs to date was instead derided for an absence of change-of-pace moments like the screaming rocker "Cherry Chapstick" from the prior album; the record was criticized both for lacking guitar music and for leaning on influences that were at the time considered out of vogue, not so much the Beach Boys and Phil Spector (although other bands like Beulah had been ignored for similar reasons) as easy listening, lounge-jazz, Jack Nitzsche. Always celebrated for being restless and unpredictable, Yo La Tengo now found the chickens coming home to roost because they weren't being unpredictable in exactly the "correct" way to appease the hip contingent. The frustrating conclusion one had to draw was that indie heads were as fussy and limited in their musical imaginations as the populists in the mainstream ClearChannel galaxy they so loved to deride; indie sincerity would prove all right as long as it had the bombast of Canada's soon-to-be-exploding Arcade Fire, but catch yourself flaunting the endless pleasures of an immaculately produced 45 and you were yesterday's news.

In fact, the band had deliberately chosen to design this album differently -- they recorded more fast songs than they had for the last LP, but ultimately chose to lop all three of them off for an EP release later in 2003 (the excellent Today Is the Day). Two, "Styles of the Times" and "Outsmartener," were boisterous, blistering rockers. The other, "Today Is the Day" in its original incarnation, had more of a "Barnaby, Hardly Working" amped-up ballad eneergy, so it was slowed down and rerecorded for the album to create consistency of sound and mood, an album in the classic sense. Kaplan remembered: "We made a decision at the last second just to leave the loud songs off. We were looking at the material we recorded and just trying to put out the best record that we could. At a certain point, we just thought it seemed right to put out the quiet ones. I've been aware that there's been some surprise about that and people saying it's even quieter than the last record, which has sort of taken me by surprise." The precarious situation for indie rock at the time meant that poor reviews would directly affect sales; the lack of hype around the record clearly hurt it, and sadly Yo La Tengo took it to heart at least in the sense that with a couple of exceptions, most of its songs have not made regular setlist appearances since the tour supporting it in 2003 and 2004. Ironically, the band would eventually return to the notion of recording full albums of pleasingly quiet music and would seemingly have far less trouble selling it, because by the time of Fade and There's a Riot Going On they would indeed be Elder Statesmen, their shows populated by fans ready to be hypnotized by whatever the band deigned to serve them, not the scene kids who wouldn't shut up during the colorfully moody, whisper-delicate shows at the 40 Watt Club in Athens and the Orange Peel in Asheville in 2003.

What all this points to is the sheer radicalism of the existence Yo La Tengo have carved out as a band. Being a fan of alternative rock you're surely familiar with the seen-it-all hanger-on who walks in any room with any band playing and has his entire existence validated by the idea that he has figured it all out within seconds: the aesthetic, the pallette of influences, the image being propagated. Yo La Tengo has been plagued almost from the beginning with a whole world reciting the "oh, I get it" chorus, despite the fact that you almost certainly don't get it, "it" being the fact that music itself is such a lifeblood to these three that it has to encompass every aspect of who they are, and truly understanding them requires you to take the leap of accepting that they do not sound like one given thing or fall under one given category, but that the conglomeration of ideas, influences and impulses becomes the sound. There is a strange need among critics and casual fans to box the band in as "cute," almost an emotional stunting of them by their audience. You see it constantly with the dismissal of the anger in some of their (especially Kaplan's) singing and performing, the unwillingness to permit not just their occasional fury but their humor as well. But these myriad emotional dimensions allow them to seem to some of us like people we almost know; the vulnerability they thereby expose (they really do tell us quite a lot about themselves, including within the silence of what they don't say) creates a given-and-take that is so fragile and so valuable. And Summer Sun feels like a check-in from them to us -- to see if we're all right -- and an important one, and one that richly deserved to be received on that basis rather than whined about because there wasn't a "Sugarcube" on it. It comes from a moment when everything was basically ruined, and you couldn't seem to escape the fear of your own part in ruining it, and to hear its out-of-time seasonal symphonies to life going on somehow didn't necessarily tell you things were going to be OK -- because they weren't -- but it did remind you that there was some kind of warmth still existing somehow out there in amidst all the confusion.

***

To get briefly personal, Summer Sun has been a constant in my life since its release in April 2003, when I was still getting used to being a directionless adult, working a food services job and spending almost all my free time obsessing over '60s pop music, and I have to confess that I was more bothered by its critical reception than I have been by that of any other record whose actual publicity cycle I was awake for. Like so much that was going on in 2003, it really did feel on a daily basis like I was going insane as I grew further and further into the nooks and crannies of the record and felt more and more propped up by it, and as the reviews and comments continued to roll in, nearly all of them incomprehensible to me. It certainly put me off staying on top of the world of indie music commentary for a decent while. I first saw the band live that September in Asheville, and was bewildered by the yawning reception they received. Validation finally came when Robert Christgau awarded it an A, but he talked little about the music in his long analysis of Ira and Georgia as people. But perhaps the essence of this record, which is still one of the best of the century, is that its basic communicative power to me -- coming on the heels of another album that had been so vital to me at an equally turbulent time -- can't really be reduced or explicated by other people's experiences of it. I hope I've captured here even a touch of how good it's made me feel through the last seventeen years.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

New Music Report #1

REPORTS ON THE CUTTING EDGE OF THE POP SCENE FROM THE NATION'S LEADING EXPERT, NATHAN "THE INTIMIDATOR" PHILLIPS

These are all releases from the last quarter of 2019, but I'm tweaking the format on new music posts here a little. The emphasis of this blog is shifting back to giving me an outlet to write about my favorites, largely 20th century stuff, but capsules and very short takes dedicated to new albums will continue on an irregular basis along with annual best-of lists and the other obligations to continuing to check in on and pay attention to current releases, which does remain important to me as your curator. These posts will be numbered, not tied to a specific time period, and will show up every third or fourth time you hear from me. This first post basically continues the format as it used to stand for the monthly dispatches, but after this, I generally won't bother doing complete capsule reviews of records I don't particularly like by artists I don't know. So it will mostly be the regular recommendation gazette, plus the continued regular followings of musical careers that have mattered to us in some capacity over the past decade. (In other words, the only detailed pans will be for performers I actually respect.)

I will continue exclusively to cover studio albums in these posts, although I'll often have a couple of quick notes on other things. In this case: I haven't typed out a review yet but the Beach Boys' annual archive dump this year amounted to just three songs (now available on all your streaming services), one of them the horrifying bootlegged curiosity item "Over the Waves"; I don't quite know how to catalog this -- an EP? a compilation? -- but I will add a brief response to the Beach Boys discography soon after you read this. Also, an enthusiastic recommendation here for Courtney Barnett's MTV Unplugged album, which like so much of her career thus far is inspiring and layered and never takes the easy way out, rearranging several of her best songs and closing out with a perfectly stunning Leonard Cohen cover.

Here are my last album reviews for 2019. The overarching theme is "I give up." Embarrassed to say I had this post basically ready for several weeks and never got around to formatting it; meanwhile Beatles stuff I didn't intend to put up yet got posted automatically because I didn't realize the dates I'd set for them were so close. Fear not, this isn't entirely turning into a Beatles blog. (A Dylan blog? Well, we'll talk. Watch the Netflix doco if you haven't.)

Kanye West: Jesus Is King (Def Jam) [r]
[Long, heavy sigh.] I don't think this is a bad record. I'm not even sure it's not a better record than Slow Train Coming, or The Life of Pablo. At this stage, with Kanye West's public personage never more insufferable, I will go ahead and tell you I don't think he can make a bad record, or maybe more accurately, an uninteresting one. This is respectable, it's honest (if it weren't honest, it wouldn't be so completely fixated on how religion has benefitted West personally as opposed to why it matters beyond his personal borders), it's hooked on minimalism -- though it does feel a lot longer than it is -- and it's brilliantly produced. The touches of apocalypse on "Selah" echo the happier-for-Kanye times of 2004, "Follow God" has more eyes and ears on it than all the Youtube rants it vaguely approximates combined, and the central joke of "Closed on Sunday" is somewhere on the humor level of Joe Biden's stump speech but West repeats it so incessantly it becomes hysterical. There's club stuff later, Atari skating rink shit, sort of Kanye business as usual except no "explicit lyrics" until it comes in for the home stretch and starts unleashing his most unfiltered paranoia yet. "God Is" is almost undeniably an outstanding piece of music -- the sampling, the production, even West's slightly awkward vocals -- and leads into a pair of tunes that evoke Nine Inch Nails and "Night on Bald Mountain." Again, it's slim, it's weird, it's audacious, the Jesus stuff is icky, but this is honestly more effort and distinctiveness than most superstars are serving up after almost two decades in the spotlight.

King Princess: Cheap Queen (Columbia)
Mikaela Straus was born the year teen pop began to reassert its dominance in America, and her music demonstrates the way that the money-grubbing adolescent charms of that music has assimiliated in what is essentially fridge-buzz adult contemporary -- the best, most idiosyncratic song on her debut album is the one that runs under a minute and a half -- spotty, grown up, vaguely alt-leaning, decent, but also homogenized. We've reached the point when a singer-songwriter can sound like her work was written and vetted by a committee, and can you blame her? It's in the blood now, the water, whatever. Anyway, this has some nice sounds and grooves; "Hit the Back" is kind of Shura-esque.

Miranda Lambert: Wildcard (Sony)
Never sure what to say about these country albums; thankfully this is probably the last time I'll have to try to review one. This seems perfectly fine to me, and while it rarely asserts itself to these ears, I appreciate the hard-won life advice of "It All Comes Out in the Wash," the anticarceral feminism of "Way Too Pretty for Prison" and the new wave influence of "Track Record." But I'm so clearly not a part of this audience, I can't really endorse or condemn.

Sudan Archives: Athena (Stones Throw) [r]
Debut from L.A.-based singer-songwriter Brittney Parks relies equally on her violin virtuosity and an attraction to experimental R&B. There's not a lot going on but it sounds good late at night, especially if you're not sober.

Michael Kiwanuka: Kiwanuka (Interscope) [r]
On a rampage, having a great one, artistically engaged and totally floating in space with no outside intrusions. Best songs: "Living in Denial" and "Hero."

Earl Sweatshirt: Feet of Clay (Warner Bros.)
A ripped-up postcard from Earl, like entering a very heated conversation midstream. Seventeen minutes feel like ages. For what it's worth, this is weirder music than anything on any indie label at the moment.

Bonnie "Prince" Billy: I Made a Place (Drag City)
Will Oldham, total lifer, total institution, wailing tunes and sharing rants in the movies, you know all this, but it maybe bears asking how much the Folk Wing of the college-indie rock metaverse is comprised of people who secretly wish they were back at home cranking John Denver records on the turntable. Oldham's latest is inoffensive until it simply goes on too long, with reasonably happy memories of Loudon Wainwright and Cat Stevens and Richard Thompson and Oar, a jaunty opener, a lovably intimate second cut and some pleasing female co-vocals. There are also some really stupid lyrics, some bad Dylan, some melodies you swear you've heard before... but what do you say? It's a nice voice I reckon ("Mama Mama") and it's some guy playing guitar.

Leonard Cohen: Thanks for the Dance (Columbia) [hr]
Times have deteriorated, and the late Cohen's scraps are more interesting than the stuff Oldham gathers in a walled garden and hires a PR department to flog mercilessly; that goes too for most of Oldham's peers and younger, from Phil Elverum to Snail Mail; it's not their fault, it's just a fucking embarrassment, Cohen barely even breathed into a microphone to create this brief collection of fragmented, incomplete ideas surrounded by absorbing production and old ideas and it still ruins everything anybody might try to do in his wake. There's a song that's shaped by some verses he casually slipped into the microphone at a press conference a few months before his death; the music that surrounds his words thanks to producer-composer Adam Cohen is basically generic atmosphere, you can still vaguely make out the ambiance of the room and the whole thing is a fairly awkward concoction and it beats the living shit out of Sun Kil Moon's entire body of work. Cohen dicking around, at death's door, unaware that he is even making music is more impressive than if Car Seat Headrest was given a MacArthur Genius grant and spent it creating a new kind of music no one had ever heard before. Father John Misty should retire because his life is pointless. We should all retire. We should all retire and listen to this absolute asshole body us all with something called "The Night of Santiago," corny and silly and romantic, because it is more touching and effective than any artistic thought or impulse that will ever be generated from our foolish little heads. Beck guests on this. I think Feist or someone does too. Nobody cares. Cohen grunts and snarls and talks and that's all the fuck we care about, that's the only substance there is to anything. Respect to an absolute God. I miss him so much, and hearing him here is very cathartic.

Davido: A Good Time (RCA) [c]
U.S.-Nigerian singer updates "worldbeat" for the confines of R&B radio with all the short-sighted commercialism thereby implied. His performances are enthusiastic. The writing is generic, the production sometimes effective, and the album is much too long.

Tinashe: Songs for You (s/r) [r]
Jumping ship from the A-list to delve into her own ecosystem, this major talent could benefit from more outside editing but there's a lot to love here, especially the acid nocturne of "Save Room for Us" and the towering sound of not giving a fuck on "Perfect Crime."

WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
The regular feature in which I check the Discogs pages of everyone who got an exceptionally positive review here in the last ten years to see if they came out with something and I missed it. This time out I ended up with quite a few collabs and mixtapes and oddities but seemingly only one legitimate studio album:

The Last Poets: Transcending Toxic Times (Ropeadope) [r]
Not as vivid, and a little bit of a retread, but of course engaging.

In terms of shorter form releases, I ran into a couple of mild mediocrities from artists who did better work this year:

Samiyam: I Got Shit to Do (s/r)
Curren$y/Freddie Gibbs/Alchemist: Fetti (Jet Life)

And while some may disagree, I personally think consistency is a fine trait for a musician, so I will note that all of the below releases feature the artists in question doing exactly what you expect of them and doing it well.

Samiyam: One on Each Planet (s/r EP) [r]
Curren$y & Statik Selektah: Gran Turismo (Jet Life) [r]
Iglooghost, Kai Whiston & BABii: XYZ (Supernature) [r]
Songhoy Blues: Meet Me in the City (Fat Possum EP) [r]
Surfer Blood: Hourly Haunts (Persona Non Grata EP) [r]
My only minor notes here: the Samiyam has some genuinely freaky sounds on it, and the Surfer Blood disc is quite lovely, full of songs that sound like covers but aren't.

ALSO RECOMMENDED:
- The Menzingers: Hello Exile (Epitaph) [I'm kinda getting emotional here, man]
- Chromatics: Closer to Grey (Italians Do It Better) [like so many houseguests, incredibly fun for the first few hours; "On the Wall"/"You're No Good"/"Closer to Grey"]
- Homeboy Sandman: Dusty (Mello Music) [oft engaging, oft poetry-slam dumb, always impressive sonically]

ALSO RECOMMENDED FOR THE AMBIENT FILES:
- Bill Orcutt: Odds Against Tomorrow (Palilalia)
- Penguin Cafe: Handfuls of Night (Erased Tapes)

REJECTS:
Kelsey Waldon: White Noise/White Lines
Lightning Dust: Spectre
Julien Chang: Jules [NYIM]
Garcia Peoples: One Step Behind [NYIM]
Battles: Juice B Crypts

ORPHAN TUNES
Battles ft. Merrill Garbus "Last Supper on Shasta" [Juice B Crypts]
Tame Impala "Patience" [non-LP single]
Tierra Whack "Only Child" [non-LP single]
Vince Staples "So What?" [non-LP single]
Wye Oak "Fortune" [non-LP single]
Rolling Blackouts C.F. "In the Capital"/"Read My Mind" [non-LP singles]
Pusha T ft. Ms. Lauryn Hill "Coming Home" [non-LP single]
Charly Bliss "All I Want for Christmas Is You" [non-LP single] {Mariah Carey cover}

OLD ALBUMS RATED (NOT REVIEWED) LATELY
Courtney Barnett: MTV Unplugged: Live in Melbourne (Mom + Pop 2019) [hr]
Curtis Mayfield: Curtis (Curtom 1970) [hr]
Derek and the Dominoes: Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (Polydor 1970) [-] {Still just can't.}
Flying Lotus: Presents INFINITY Infinitum Maida Vale Session (Stranded 2010/2019) [r]
Frank Sinatra: In the Wee Small Hours (Capitol 1955) [r]

My very late 2019 list is forthcoming, followed by a revised decade list that will incorporate those results, with lots of other, more carefully written stuff in the interim. Let me know if you have any questions.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

The Beatles capsules: EPs and CD singles

THE UK EPs

The Beatles: Twist and Shout (Parlophone EP 1963) [r]
The EP market was relatively important in Britain in the early 1960s, a sort of compromise for kids who wanted more than singles but couldn't afford longer-form releases, though it would waver as the Beatles' career went on; but in 1963, all but two tracks from their debut album Please Please Me would make it to budget-line mono-only 7" releases with four cuts each. This first venture into the market repackages the last four selections on Side Two of the LP; it sold briskly -- making the top ten singles chart in Britain -- and boasts iconic cover art, making a pseudo-A side out of one of the band's most popular covers (and a later smash hit in America, where it was issued by Vee Jay's Tollie subsidiary as a single). That signature performance and "There's a Place," one of the best and most energized songs in the Beatles' entire catalog, are joined by two of the slightly less memorable cuts from the record, Paul's schmaltzy version of "A Taste of Honey" and the George-sung love ballad "Do You Want to Know a Secret." Both are solidly atmospheric, just not nearly as strong as the mainline Lennon-dominated tracks. Note that two of the songs on this EP would be enormous hits when released as singles in America the following year. Also note cover art so distinctive that Capitol of Canada recommissioned for an album.

The Beatles: The Beatles' Hits (Parlophone EP 1963) [r]
Well, "straightforward" is the only word for this one -- it's exactly what the title says, a Beatles greatest hits package as of, uh, September '63 and originally intended to come out before Twist and Shout. ("She Loves You" was still on the charts so didn't qualify for the momentum-killer of an EP release.) It has the first three singles plus the b-side of the third, "Thank You Girl." "Please Please Me" is by far the best track and "From Me to You" never has seemed adequate as a follow-up despite its popularity... but there's no use denying that this is a totally charming eight minutes of entertainment, and like many of these 7" EPs, it explains the heft and novelty of Beatlemania well enough that a future civilization encountering it and no other evidence of the phenomenon would at least get the idea. Note that the cover art was basically recommissioned in America for Introducing the Beatles. Version notes: this is "Please Please Me" in mono with no vocal flub, "Thank You Girl" with no extra harmonica, "From Me to You" with all the harmonica, and "Love Me Do" with Andy White on drums. Authenticity! (Mostly.) (I have to admit, however -- I really miss the extra flourishes in the stereo "Thank You Girl." Sue me!) Incidentally, since the classic explanation for EPs is as a stopgap for those who didn't want to buy albums, I have to wonder what the point was of packaging tracks that were available on singles in this manner... but the thing went Silver all the same.

The Beatles: No. 1 (Parlophone EP 1963)
That's right, a fourth (fifth, if you count Get Back) release whose cover features the band in that same pose on the EMI staircase, though this is an outtake from the same session. Released just three weeks before the Beatles' sophomore album With the Beatles, which would consist entirely of heretofore unheard material, this EP squeezes out the last bit of blood from Please Please Me, representing nothing more than the first four songs from the longplayer: "I Saw Her Standing There," "Misery," "Anna" and "Chains" in their standard mono album mixes -- an interesting cross section: two covers, two originals, two John leads, one Paul, one George. It's great music, obviously, but it's a basically pointless entity since it just makes you want to sit through the rest of Please, without even the dubious novelty of a divergent tracklist. And across the annals of history's many never-requested sequels, it may be significant that Parlophone never bothered with a The Beatles, No. 2, though this did apparently sell by the bucketload. My goodness, "Anna" is an exquisite performance, isn't it? Anyway, at least the label was done plundering the first LP...

The Beatles: All My Loving (Parlophone EP 1964) [r]
... or were they!?!? Released two days before the Beatles staked their claim on American popular culture with their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show (which they coincidentally would open with this EP's title cut), this odd little number pairs two standout songs from the recent (and single-free) With the Beatles with two cuts recorded all the way back in '62 and incorporated on Please Please Me, which creates a bit of disconnect when two of their most sophisticated recordings to date ("All My Loving" and "Money") are heard in conjunction with the comparatively flaccid "P.S. I Love You," from their very first single... though John's early b-side "Ask Me Why" still holds up in all its plaintive naivete, then and now. As usual these are mono, so you're getting a less chaotic "Money" than you probably remember. Still, three terrific songs and one decent one, presumably not bad for however much this cost.

The Beatles: Long Tall Sally (Parlophone EP 1964) [A+]
On the other hand, this all-original item is really and truly part of the Beatles' canon; Past Masters be damned, it is a transcendently great record all its own, the band's first EP of entirely new content. You can nitpick, of course; there weren't really any dedicated sessions for it -- the songs were chiefly recorded for the American market, three are covers and one is a spectacular original that John somewhat bizarrely gave away to Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas -- and you can grab all of its contents on any number of other releases now, but this lovely 7" slice of madness is the ideal way to hear them. It's unquestionably one of the greatest EPs ever released, with four sterling, hyped-the-fuck-up Beatles rock & roll classics. Okay, fine, "Matchbox" is kind of a mess in mono, but don't be a dickweed, just switch it out with the stereo mix and let Ringo have one of his finest recorded moments slathering his winning self all over the Carl Perkins classic. Hearing the EPs in sequence, this isn't just a leap forward in terms of it featuring content that isn't already ubiquitous in the standard catalog, but also in the sense of the band's obvious confidence and untouchability. Even now, it sounds like eternal youth on fire, and such passion too.

Paul's one-take wonder of a vocal performance on the boisterous title cut is his final answer to John destroying "Twist and Shout" a year earlier; the energetic covers of Larry Williams' "Slow Down" -- one of the best rockers in the catalog -- and Perkins' "Matchbox" reassert the band's status as rock & roll titans through and through. But if you think John's vocal on "Slow Down" is shattering -- and it is, with the same character of lust and desperation heard on the long-unreleased version of Little Willie John's "Leave My Kitten Alone," and leaving Williams' original floundering (unlike the great Arthur Alexander, Williams is a bit of a curious choice for a Lennon obsession; while not bad and clearly gifted, he comes across to me as a bit of a road-company Little Richard) -- wait till you get to the Beatles' definitive version of the original Lennon composition "I Call Your Name," better known as sung by others for some ungodly reason. It's quite frankly one of the most impressive and alluring pop songs ever put on tape in my opinion, and it doesn't hurt that Lennon's vocal on the track is one of the finest moments on record by rock & roll's best white singer ever. "Mother" is probably its only competition in terms of capturing the sound of his own tortured exorcism. The ska-like instrumental break, too, must count as the most inspired, perfect moment in any of his songs. The whole recording is dynamite, and the pacing never flags across the rest of the record or from the other three cuts being joined by such a masterpiece. In evaluating the Beatles' repertoire in sequence, you're missing an enormous piece of the story if you move straight from With the Beatles to A Hard Day's Night without pausing here. If you don't feel like programming Past Masters to make this work, there was a handy (and overpriced) Record Store Day release of the EP a few years back that should still be in some abudance online. It's rather surprising that Twist and Shout, not this disc, was the Beatles' top-selling EP.

The Beatles: Extracts from the Film "A Hard Day's Night" (Parlophone EP 1964) [r]
Parlophone began a practice here of delaying EPs until quite some months after a corresponding album came out, perhaps to let sales of an LP run out the clock before trying to push supplemental packages, but thanks to the sheer popularity of the Beatles' long-playing records, that along with the general downturn in audience size for the format began to circumvent the previously dependable popularity of these EPs. A Hard Day's Night, film and LP, had come out in the summer of 1964 -- this and its sister disc below were issued in November, and the songs were basically old hat, but infallible material all the same. No sensible person could argue with any chance to hear "I Should Have Known Better," "If I Fell" or "And I Love Her," and "Tell Me Why" is only an insignificant step downward. If you bought the two singles from AHDN, I guess you could pick this up and say you had all but one of the film songs, but then, wouldn't it be cheaper to buy the fucking album?

The Beatles: Extracts from the Album "A Hard Day's Night" (Parlophone EP 1964) [r]
Four tremendously good-to-great songs -- again, "When I Get Home" is slightly below the caliber of "Any Time at All," "I'll Cry Instead" and "Things We Said Today," but not offensively so -- but this is even more pointless than the Extracts from the Film release, since the hypothetical 7"-only buyer would find "Things" a redundant inclusion having been a b-side. Perhaps as a result (and its hideous cover art couldn't have helped; there's a substantial collector market for these EPs because they're mostly lovely to look at, but this is the one exception), this sold poorly compared to the other AHDN EP released the same day, and in fact was the weakest seller in the Beatles' entire UK catalog up to this point.

The Beatles: Beatles for Sale [No. 1] (Parlophone EP 1965) [r]
Seems like an innocent enough continuation of protocol until you notice the release date of April 1965, four months after the album of the same title was issued, and just three days ahead of the first single from the band's next project, "Ticket to Ride." The product feels like quite the afterthought. As usual, though, the songs are undeniable: the first two selections from side one of BFS, "No Reply" and "I'm a Loser," both gorgeously morose Lennon lamentations, and then two upbeat numbers: the respectably fired-up rendition of Chuck Berry's "Rock and Roll Music" and the American #1 hit "Eight Days a Week." But who was this for?

The Beatles: Beatles for Sale No. 2 (Parlophone EP 1965)
This time the track selection is as strange as the release date -- June 1965, with Help! on its way to theaters and record stores -- and I don't care how much money you saved by picking this up instead of the LP, three minutes fifty-one seconds for an entire side doesn't qualify as "extended" anything. "I'll Follow the Sun" is a sweet trifle but it's only 1:46 and it's followed on with "Baby's in Black," which while an admirably macabre song isn't exactly one of the signature songs from this album, even though the Beatles got a strange thrill out of constantly playing it live. Side B is a little better, with the fine if straightforward Buddy Holly cover "Words of Love" and a return to the well of Lennon's folk-rock miseries via "I Don't Want to Spoil the Party"... but there was plenty of material to make this a more appealing release, preferably not six months after the songs were new. The audience for this kind of thing was rapidly diminishing; quite simply, Beatles fans already had this stuff and had had it for a while.

The Beatles: The Beatles' Million Sellers (Parlophone EP 1965) [hr]
Of the Beatles EPs populated by existing, already released material, this is the best -- chiefly because it serves something like a direct and obvious purpose especially in conjunction with the earlier The Beatles' Hits. It gathers their four biggest singles from mid-1963 to late '64, "She Loves You," "I Want to Hold Your Hand," "Can't Buy Me Love" and "I Feel Fine," and in doing so nails a batting average that could make any self-respecting rock band envious. It's a welcome ten-minute shot of some of the most exciting rock & roll ever recorded, many decades later it still sounds fabulous, and in contrast to virtually every Beatles greatest-hits, its energy doesn't flag. It knows of no world after Beatlemania so it stands as a perfectly encapsulated, enshrined-in-gold moment. As noted with Hits, a Martian who'd never heard of these Beatle characters might want to start here. Stunning cover, too.

A housekeeping note: does this EP qualify as a "new release" for 1965 (in which it actually competed for the Christmas market with Rubber Soul and the "Day Tripper" c/w "We Can Work It Out" single), or is it a compilation despite containing only four songs? I lean on it as an original release and date it as such, since technically most of the Beatles' EPs were previously released material, and since it was once common for old songs to be recommissioned as singles and to sometimes become hits ("Tears of a Clown," for instance). But it's a gray area, and the kind of thing we here at The Only Engine lose sleep over!

The Beatles: Yesterday (Parlophone EP 1966)
Makes perfect sense on the face of it: "Yesterday" had quickly become one of the Beatles' most beloved songs, would eventually perhaps be their best-known recording, and had been a #1 hit in the U.S. when Capitol chose to issue it as a single in the summer of 1965. (The Beatles did not want this to be a single and didn't approve of the decision but could do little about it -- same situation as with "Eight Days a Week," "I'll Cry Instead," "Do You Want to Know a Secret?", "Twist and Shout," "Nowhere Man," "The Long and Winding Road," etc.) So why shouldn't it have enjoyed extended life in the UK as an EP with three other cuts from the same album, Help!...? Why indeed, except that putting it out nearly a year later, in March 1966, with Rubber Soul already having rendered Help! a distant memory, probably circumvented any potential interaction of note with the public; and maybe it could have done well with better selections showcasing the other three Beatles than Ringo's dreadful "Act Naturally," George's slightly icky "You Like Me Too Much," and John's lovely but slight "It's Only Love," all selections from the already plodding second half of the LP. Little wonder that despite the widespread popularity of the title song, the disc didn't sell in signifiant numbers and would prove the penultimate Beatles EP comprised of earlier-recorded tracks. Also, when I was complaining earlier about artwork on one of the EPs, I forgot how ugly this one is.

The Beatles: Nowhere Man (Parlopone EP 1966) [r]
My vote for the best-looking of all the Beatles' EPs, with the band looking hip beyond all logic in Revolver-era garb in the gardens at Chiswick House where the memorable videos for "Paperback Writer" and "Rain" were shot. Plus that Yesterday and Today font! It's a fine smattering of songs from Rubber Soul too -- Parlophone ambling to catch up with Capitol again by centering the U.S. hit "Nowhere Man" but this time wisely cutting Capitol's b-side "What Goes On" and instead gracing us with a Paul-centric triad of "Drive My Car," "Michelle" and "You Won't See Me" -- but again, made its way to stores seven months after the album, so that the packaging was really the only selling point. Whether because the Beatles began asserting more control over their output around this time or because Parlophone realized the commercial uselessness of continuing the old record company standard operating procedure for EPs, this was the last time an EP of lopped-off songs from a given album was routine for the Beatles' catalog, and the format overall effectively died in the UK not long after this. That said, the Beatles would have one more released flirtation with the EP, but a hugely unorthodox one.

The Beatles: Magical Mystery Tour (Parlophone EP 1967) [hr]
The Beatles' TV special slash third film Magical Mystery Tour, a famous flop that aired on the BBC in black & white on Boxing Day 1967, was mostly a dog but boasted one innovative facet that went over well: the issuance of its six soundtrack songs as a lavishly packaged double-7" EP with a colorful booklet. This is still the definitive way to hear these six ambitious, innovative tracks, whose status as Pepper deitrius doesn't sting as much in this stand-alone format as it does when padded out in the U.S. (and now, the CD and streaming-era Beatles canon) to become a full-fledged studio album. The sequencing is also superior to the album, with the two eeriest tracks -- "I Am the Walrus" and "Blue Jay Way" -- each given their own full side of vinyl and therefore unexplained and undiluted by anything before or after.

Side One pairs the sardonic title cut with the equally sour "Your Mother Should Know," confining all of Paul's smugness to one five-minute block where it's really quite tolerable; it certainly carries the confusingly smarmy tone of the special itself rather well, as though the Beatles wanted to engage with genuine surrealism and/or Ealing Studios-like satire but were too afraid someone was watching to fully land in either sector. John's "I Am the Walrus," also positioned as the b-side to the equally contradictory "Hello Goodbye," basically blows the rest of the material away for sheer ambition and joyful wordplay alone, but Paul's "The Fool on the Hill" is its nearest competitor, a truly fine piece of poetic atmosphere that only stumbles slightly thanks to some less than impeccable lyrics. The instrumental "Flying," written by the whole band, is an enjoyable diversion; and George's "Blue Jay Way" belies its goofy origins -- it really is about some friends getting lost while heading to his house -- thanks to George Martin, who crafts it into one of the most layered and disturbing pieces of material in the Beatles' catalog. The whole EP functions not only as the best face you could put on this whole project and a really delightful souvenir of something deeply flawed (they considered taking the same approach with Yellow Submarine in 1968, but those songs weren't nearly as consistent), but as an ideal showcase of Martin's ingenuity as a producer, and a much more logical stopgap between Pepper and the White Album than the Capitol longplayer of the same name. (However, grudgingly aligning with the Beatles' official Core Catalog, I have analyzed these songs at more proper length in my review of that version.) If you want to hear this in its original configuration on vinyl, the 2012 blu-ray/DVD boxed set of the film includes a nice-sounding replica with both 7" discs and the original booklet as a bonus.

THE U.S. EPs
Note: I don't have any of these and haven't actually heard them, but going by what I can discern about mixes and such from online I am going to review them anyway, because I am a boorish American who thinks he knows everything.

The Beatles: Souvenir of Their Visit to America (Vee Jay EP 1964)
The EP format was nearly irrelevant in the U.S.; Elvis Presley issued some of his movie soundtracks exclusively as EPs, but even those didn't exactly set the world on fire. But leave it to the struggling Vee Jay label, once one of Chicago's best independent R&B labels along with Chess, to find every possible way to cash in on the tiny sliver of Beatles material to which they'd stumbled upon the rights during the period when Capitol was exercising first refusal. This was released a bit too late (March '64) to actually function as a "souvenir of their visit to America," though it was apparently advertised in trades during the world-shaking event itself. If you liked the Beatles enough to send your card in and order it, though, you almost certainly already had these songs ("Misery," "A Taste of Honey," "Ask Me Why" and "Anna," all from Please Please Me and therefore their own U.S. counterpart Introducing the Beatles, and all four also coincidentally reused on British EPs) and despite Vee Jay ballyhooing in the trades that it was "the EP that's selling like a single... at single record prices," it remains an obscurity in their discography, though easier to find than the two Capitol discs below.

The Beatles: Four by the Beatles (Capitol EP 1964) [r]
The first of two attempts by Capitol Records to make even more money off Beatles fans by pushing an EP of their music in the '60s, this was part of a series that also included a similar release of similar title and cover art by the Beach Boys. The four songs, all from With the Beatles and the surrounding period, and all readily available on Capitol LPs already, were chosen because they were the A- and b-sides of two Capitol of Canada 45s that had become popular as imports: "All My Loving" b/w "This Boy" and "Roll Over Beethoven" b/w "Please Mr. Postman. That last one was everywhere in the States; I found one at a yard sale in the early '90s and have seen many in 7" bins over the years; one thing I've never seen is this EP, which was manufactured and sold in such low numbers that it scarcely ever turns up. It's one of those curious little fetish objects that would be cool to hold in your hands, especially if you feel irrational love for those orange and yellow Capitol swirl labels, but there's little musical purpose to it. Great songs, though.

The Beatles: 4 by the Beatles (Capitol EP 1965)
Capitol called this a "super single," not an EP, but you could've fooled us since it follows the exact same premise and format as all their other EPs. It appears to be a dartboard selection of Beatles for Sale and hence Beatles '65 songs, all but one of them covers, and none of them save the original ("I'm a Loser") truly among either record's highlights. This seldom turns up with its cover in good condition, and as with its predecessor, I've never actually seen a copy; but it was once reported in one of the truly obsessive corners of online fandom that it boasts four uniquely "Dexterized" mixes of these songs. For the unitiated, that's shorthand for Capitol A&R man Dave Dexter, who apparently felt that the way to make the Beatles songs resonate with the American market was to drench them in reverb, as heard on the appallingly weird-sounding U.S. single release of "I Feel Fine" among others. (A #1 on both sides of the Atlantic, that nevertheless was pretty much a different song to American and British fans.) So while the EP wouldn't contain actual official unique mixes of these songs, just an addition of extra wetness to the mixes brought over from England, one operative in the field has claimed that Dexter did a once-over on these tunes to make them even hotter for the prospective singles market... all to no avail. This can't be verified and would be of extremely limited interest, but it may be a reason for absolutely unhinged (no judgment) completists to track it down.

THE CD SINGLES
(These won't be conventionally graded.)


"Baby It's You" (Apple 1963-64/1994)
"Free as a Bird" (Apple 1963-95/1995)
"Real Love" (Apple 1965-96/1996)


Accompanying the first two of the Beatles' big archival releases in the 1990s were these CD/7" singles, sometimes billed as EPs though that's really something of a misnomer because in every conceivable sense they are conventional 1990s singles, and it's basically a matter of semantics anyway; the CDs paired the A-side tracks from Live at the BBC, Anthology 1 and Anthology 2 with otherwise unissued contextual runoff material from those same sets. (The 7" singles for "Free as a Bird" and "Real Love" only kept one b-side apiece, while the vinyl version of the "Baby It's You" CD5 retains all four.) "Baby It's You" is well-chosen as it's one of the loveliest tracks from Live at the BBC. It was nice at the time to get bonus material associated with that compilation, although the subsequent On Air has made two thirds of the b-sides redundant (the stunning "I'll Follow the Sun" 11/17/64 performance and the fairly typical one of "Boys" from 6/17/63), so the only reason to track it down now is if you have no other means of hearing the 7/16/63 version of "Devil in Her Heart," which is full of weird vocal flubs and I suspect was probably chosen for this disc by mistake to begin with.

Neither "Real Love" nor "Free as a Bird," though both are nice enough songs in their original Lennon solo configurations, have aged very well; the music video for "Bird" is excellent, but both suffer from the dated '90s adult contemporary production brought in by Jeff Lynne. And unfortunately, as tantalizing as it seems to have six more Beatles outtakes, the b-sides aren't particularly revealing. The best "Bird" offers is the sloppier ninth take of "I Saw Her Standing There," which gave the master its count-in; a procession of outtakes of "This Boy" is thrown in for those who enjoy hearing the Beatles screw up and laugh at each other, with the flubs largely centering around the difference between "this" and "that," though the nearly complete take 13 offers an interesting variant on John's vocal melody during the bridge. "Christmas Time (Is Here Again)," from the 1967 fan-club flexi (so not period-appropriate to Anthology 1), was always a bad song and remains one even in this shorter edit. Meanwhile, none of the three bonuses for "Real Love" are anything you badly need, with both "Yellow Submarine" and "Here, There and Everywhere" mere remixes of released tracks, though the former has the faders up so we can hear all the sound effects (which are horribly annoying and render the song nearly unlistenable) and the latter partially employs an unreleased guide vocal by Paul before pulling the "Yes It Is" trick of transitioning into the master. Lastly there is the Hollywood Bowl 8/30/65 version of "Baby's in Black," which has subsequently been released elsewhere, though this doesn't edit out John's smarmy remarks about waltzes, which are the only thing about this entire disc that isn't disappointing.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

The Beatles capsules: the American LPs



This page exists solely as a symptom of my lifelong disease of Beatles completism, though I hasten to add that obsessing over Beatles minutiae is also a source of great comfort and mental stability for me, and I say that without irony. The Beatles' discography was standardized worldwide in 1987 to (mostly) reflect their original British releases, but before that, American fans -- and those in other countries, but America most famously -- had a much messier and more confusing set of records and tapes to contend with. Capitol adapted the band's albums to fit the U.S. standard of shorter LPs with generally twelve tracks rather than fourteen, they padded things out and retreaded singles, and used their own wild and wonky sequencing, album art and album titles while also at times issuing different mixes. Some of said mixes were terrible fake stereo or mono fold-downs, some simply added reverb to existing masters, and some were actually provided by George Martin. All this is described below. Note that again, these are by no means essential releases for any normal person, but it can be interesting for harder core fans to hear things the way they were processed in America at the time, or at least to learn about this alternate-universe version of the same discography. Most of the really significant alternate mixes are included on Purple Chick's bootleg expansions of the individual LPs, and I've addressed them in my reviews of those collections as well.

As a reference, I have included tracklists for each record that indicate which mixes are used; I used the invaluable Usenet Guide to Beatles Recording Variations to keep track of this often confusing situation. "Canon mix" refers to the widely available version of a given song issued as part of the band's standardized CD and digital catalog, with the exception of the tracks that originated on the British albums Help! and Rubber Soul, in which case I refer to the original 1965 UK mixes as "canon" rather than the now-standard 1987 remixes.

The Beatles: Introducing... the Beatles (Vee Jay 1964) [r]
{Mono, side one, all canon mixes except noted:} I Saw Her Standing There [canon version with count-in edited]; Misery [possible unique mix, longer intro]; Anna (Go to Him); Chains; Boys; Ask Me Why [later pressings only]; Love Me Do [first press only] / {Mono, side two, all canon mixes:} Please Please Me [later pressings only]; P.S. I Love You [first press only]; Baby It's You; Do You Want to Know a Secret; A Taste of Honey; There's a Place; Twist and Shout / {Stereo, side one, all canon mixes except noted:} I Saw Her Standing There [canon version with count-in edited]; Misery; Anna; Chains; Boys; Ask Me Why [later pressings only]; Love Me Do [first press only, mono mix] / {Stereo, side two, all canon mixes:} Please Please Me [later pressings only]; P.S. I Love You [first press only, mono mix]; Baby It's You; Do You Want to Know a Secret; A Taste of Honey; There's a Place; Twist and Shout

The story of how the great Chicago independent gospel and soul label Vee Jay ended up, for about two years, with the rights to the Beatles' early EMI recordings is complicated and fascinating and told extremely well, with rich detail, by Bruce Spizer in his book The Beatles' Records on Vee Jay, available now in lavishly illustrated ebook form on his website and strongly recommended. The short version is that when EMI's American label Capitol rejected the first few Beatles singles and their first LP, George Martin shopped around for a Stateside distributor and Vee Jay, who'd had some great success in the pop market with the Four Seasons and with EMI's British signee Frank Ifield, picked up the option and released the singles "Please Please Me" and "From Me to You" in 1963. Both had some regional success but failed to take off nationwide. ("She Loves You" and its German variant "Sie Liebt Dich" would be issued by a smaller label, the formerly Dick Clark-affiliated Swan Records from Philadelphia, previously best known for Freddy Cannon's classic "Palisades Park.") Then, when the first U.S. major label single "I Want to Hold Your Hand" started to take the country by storm, accompanied by Capitol's huge marketing push, Vee Jay realized they were still sitting on a goldmine in the form of the other masters for the Beatles' first album. The LP had been delayed in 1963 thanks to some unsavory financial practices at the label, and there were now legal questions about their rights to the material, but they threw caution to the wind and got this reconfigured version of Please Please Me onto the marketplace and in record stores nationwide nearly simultaneously, give or take ten days, with the officially sanctioned Capitol debut Meet the Beatles!. Both records were enormously popular and Vee Jay would sell more than a million slabs of Introducing over the next year, on top of milking the material they had for multiple singles (including a #1 hit, "Love Me Do," on the Tollie subsidiary), several strange repackagings of the album and even an EP.

Alas, legal questions about the release continued to dog the label, as indicated by a few oddities. All versions of the album contain two fewer songs than Please Please Me, but which two are missing varies by pressing. The original inclusion of "Love Me Do" and "P.S. I Love You" was stymied by legal action from EMI's publishing arm Aardmore & Beechwood, and they were immediately replaced by "Please Please Me" and "Ask Me Why," though Vee Jay coyly snuck the first version into the stockpile as well. The record was such a rush release that it exists with three different rear covers, including a blank one and one comprised strictly of ads for other Vee Jay albums. Then there's the fact that both Vee Jay and Capitol put "I Saw Her Standing There" on their respective LP releases, a further indication of how much confusion there was around who was actually allowed to release this material. You can read all about it in Spizer's book. The important thing is that Introducing is not really necessary for fans today, since we all have access to the complete Please Please Me. The songs are in the same sequence and have the same exact mixes in both mono and stereo, with just two very minor editing anomalies: the mono "Misery" seems to have the full piano intro from the stereo version rather than just the last three notes, but it's been argued that this means the whole mono record is simply a fold-down (apart from "Please Please Me" which features the correct mono take without John's vocal flub and would be the only inarguable "tell" that the LP was a fold). And, somewhat amusingly, "I Saw Her Standing There" lops off part of the count-in so it sounds for all the world like the record begins with Paul shouting "fuck!" Vee Jay managed to secure permission to keep the record on the market until the end of 1964, and the following year Capitol prepared their own even more cut-down version of the PPM tracks known as The Early Beatles; see below. [Note: Introducing may also hold a claim to being the most counterfeited record in history; if you're a collector trying to determine if a copy is legitimate, Spizer's your man for that too.]

The Beatles: Meet the Beatles! (Capitol 1964) [r]
{Mono, side one, fold downs of Capitol stereo album except noted:} I Want to Hold Your Hand [canon mix]; I Saw Her Standing There; This Boy [canon mix]; It Won't Be Long; All I've Got to Do; All My Loving / {Mono, side two, all fold downs of Capitol stereo album:} Don't Bother Me; Little Child; Till There Was You; Hold Me Tight; I Wanna Be Your Man; Not a Second Time / {Stereo, side one, canon mixes with reverb added except noted:} I Want to Hold Your Hand [fake stereo]; I Saw Her Standing There; This Boy [fake stereo]; It Won't Be Long; All I've Got to Do; All My Loving / {Stereo, side two, all canon mixes with reverb added:} Don't Bother Me; Little Child; Till There Was You; Hold Me Tight; I Wanna Be Your Man; Not a Second Time

The heavily marketed -- "the Beatles are coming!" the ads proclaimed -- Capitol debut looks and sounds explosive, and served as a tremendous soundtrack to the whirlwind two months in which they took the nation by storm, flew to JFK and appeared on Sullivan, but it hasn't aged as well as the British counterpart from which it's condensed, With the Beatles, mostly just because of the slightly disappointing song selection on the back half. Side one is all gangbusters with the American breakthrough "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and its domestic and foreign b-sides followed by the three sterling openers from With: "It Won't Be Long," "All I've Got to Do," "All My Loving." And nothing on the back half is less than very good, only lackluster compared to the murderer's row on the other side with the exception of the stunning "Not a Second Time." These songs all make better sense with the smoky vibe of their proper brethren in the UK sequence, which in volume and set variance approximates a Beatles Cavern set, late '63-style. Still, Dave Dexter (Capitol A&R man and architect of the Beatles' American recorded output) and company knew what they were doing when they put this together, as the record did in fact sell in unprecedented numbers. Capitol also controversially added echo to nearly all of the songs (while even more controversially using "duophonic" -- fake stereo -- rechanneled mixes of "Hold Your Hand" and "This Boy" in place of stereo tapes they hadn't received); the reverb does add a bit of extra power to already exciting recordings, but your tolerance for it will depend on whether you grew up hearing the songs this way. At any rate, unlike some of the later American albums, this one is not just enormously significant as an artifact but is tremendously fun to listen to, especially in tandem with its sequel.

The Beatles: The Beatles' Second Album (Capitol 1964) [hr]
{Mono, side one, fold downs of Capitol stereo album except noted:} Roll Over Beethoven; Thank You Girl; You Really Got a Hold on Me; Devil in Her Heart; Money (That's What I Want); You Can't Do That [unique U.S. mono mix from EMI] / {Mono, side two:} Long Tall Sally [unique U.S. mono mix from EMI]; I Call Your Name [unique U.S. mono mix from EMI]; Please Mr. Postman [mono fold-down of Capitol stereo mix]; I'll Get You [Capitol-made mono remix with added reverb]; She Loves You [ibid] / {Stereo, side one, canon mixes with reverb added except noted:} Roll Over Beethoven; Thank You Girl [canon mix]; You Really Got a Hold on Me; Devil in Her Heart; Money (That's What I Want); You Can't Do That [fake stereo] / {Stereo, side two:} Long Tall Sally [unique U.S. stereo mix from EMI]; I Call Your Name [unique U.S. stereo mix from EMI]; Please Mr. Postman [canon mix with reverb added]; I'll Get You [fake stereo]; She Loves You [fake stereo]

A happy accident of sequencing and commercial opportunism somehow resulted in the most blistering half-hour (actually, 27 minutes) of rock & roll ever laid down by the planet's greatest rock & roll band as of 1964. Cynically rushed out just two months past their American explosion and smugly given a title that's completely inaccurate, and filled out with just eleven songs -- mostly the unused covers from With the Beatles that didn't make it to Meet!, plus three songs heretofore issued in the States by indie labels Vee Jay and Swan and three actual new-at-the-time recordings -- it's nevertheless an unqualified triumph. There's a reason Dave Marsh was able to wring a whole book out of it, and a reason why the Flamin' Groovies and Yo La Tengo have had a field day parodying its iconic cover art. George Martin and the Beatles favored a lot of variance and careful pacing on the Beatles' real LPs over in England; eleven straight hard rockers and R&B numbers wouldn't have likely been viewed by those parties or manager Brian Epstein as a good display of their many strengths any more than a whole album of ballads would have been. Indeed, this very eclecticism is why the Beatles continue to matter so much, but Second Album proves handily that a speedy, powerful, huge-sounding collection of the band's most pounding, propulsive rockers from the '63-'64 period is more than credible, it's actually a stunning display of their unassailable ferocity as a band. There's no quicker way to appreciate just why they made waves here and at home that were incomparable to anything else that was happening, or would happen.

Once again, all of the mixes have been, in fan parlance, "Dexterized" -- beefed up with reverb and a towering sound meant to add to their commercial appeal. It still feels a bit superfluous. Whatever you do with it, the Beatles' version of the Miracles' "You Really Got a Hold on Me" is for instance an almost unrelentingly filthy masterpiece of pent-up tension; and their "Money" howls to the very verge of sanity. These aren't performances that have any interest in matching or bettering the Tamla-Motown originals; they simply show how much and how deeply the band, John Lennon in particular, responded to those records' passion, energy and lyricism. As a happy corollary, hearing this brilliant highlight reel summing up Beatlemania -- and peaking with "She Loves You," which sounds muddy as hell here but still somehow perfect -- makes you want to go and listen to With the Beatles again. This stuff is incredibly addictive, and while I no longer believe quite as strongly as I once did that the Beatles' early work towers massively over their more "adult" material from later on, even if I do still prefer it, I don't think there's anything wrong with labeling this as a snapshot of their very peak as a band. Note that in addition to their own tweaking, Capitol was provided a couple of special mixes for the American market; "Long Tall Sally" and "I Call Your Name" were not yet released in the UK and would be newly mixed for that market when the time came, so both have subtle differences, which are especially apparent in the double tracking, lead guitar and percussion on the latter. The hot-off-the-presses b-side "You Can't Do That" is also reputed to be a unique mix in mono and was apparently made separately on the same day according to studio paperwork, but there are no audible differences.

The Beatles: A Hard Day's Night OST [U.S.] (United Artists 1964)
{Side one, canon mixes unless noted plus instrumental score:} A Hard Day's Night; Tell Me Why; I'll Cry Instead [unique U.S. mono mix from EMI with extra verse]; I'm Happy Just to Dance with You / {Side two, canon mixes unless noted plus instrumental score:} I Should Have Known Better; If I Fell; And I Love Her [unique U.S. mono mix with single-tracked vocal]; Can't Buy Me Love

American teenagers who trotted out to the shops in 1964 to get the album accompanying the Beatles' terrific new movie were given, sure, all of the new Beatles songs in the film plus "I'll Cry Instead" (listed erroneously here as "I Cry Instead"), but rather than the peripheral tracks that occupied Side Two of the British album, the eight Beatles originals were joined by oddball Muzak versions of the band's hits orchestrated by George Martin. Only two of these were actually used in the film, one quite effectively ("This Boy") while the rest just serve as album filler. The record is unmitigated consumer fraud but if you like this era of easy listening and "Beautiful Music" (and don't forget that Beautiful Music titan Bert Kaempfert gave the Beatles a shot before almost anyone else), and of course if you like Martin's kitschy orchestral albums, there's something perversely fun about the release, even though it's obviously pointless today. Martin's "And I Love Her" is especially schmaltzy and glorious... but don't expect the genuine artistry you can find in his Yellow Submarine score; this is all rather goofy stuff with a very, very limited audience. The mono LP uses the regular British mixes except in the cases of "I'll Cry Instead" with extra verse and "And I Love Her" single-tracked, both more conveniently available on Something New (see below). The stereo LP is a total sham; it just uses mono mixes and slightly pans them to one side (except "I'm Happy..." and "I Should Have Known Better" which don't even make that half-assed attempt to approximate stereo), while Martin's recordings are in actual stereo. I suppose you could make the argument that this blatant false advertising beats "duophonic" mixes... but really, it's astonishing that this thing stayed in print as long as it did -- and ultimately made it to compact disc!

The Beatles: Something New (Capitol 1964) [r]
{Mono, side one, canon mixes except noted:} I'll Cry Instead [unique U.S. mono mix from EMI with extra verse]; Things We Said Today; Any Time at All [unique U.S. mono mix from EMI]; When I Get Home [unique U.S. mono mix from EMI]; Slow Down; Matchbox / {Mono, side two, canon mixes except noted:} Tell Me Why; And I Love Her [unique U.S. mono mix from EMI with single-tracked vocal]; I'm Happy Just to Dance with You; If I Fell; Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand / {Stereo, side one, all canon mixes:} I'll Cry Instead; Things We Said Today; Any Time at All; When I Get Home; Slow Down; Matchbox / {Stereo, side two, canon mixes:} Tell Me Why; And I Love Her; I'm Happy Just to Dance with You; If I Fell; Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand

The first of Capitol's truly daft LP packages for the Beatles, though in a sinister commercial sense you have to admire the sheer ballsiness of this one: released as immediate competition to United Artists' soundtrack album for A Hard Day's Night, already a bit of naked consumer fraud anyway, while cannibalizing a considerable percentage of its actual Beatles content, and then throwing in the Beatles singing one of their hits in German for literally no conceivable reason. To its credit, it does get closer to matching the tone of the masterful British album than the other label's "soundtrack"; in fact, if not for title recognition, one suspects it would have sold better than its sibling, since it clearly has more bang for your buck sans repetition, with no non-Beatles instrumentals cluttering it. There is considerable humor in the Beatles' massive star power at the time, though, considering that for months they had the #1 and #2 albums on the charts with much of the exact same material. The second big boon with Something New for big fans is that the mono version contains quite a few fascinating oddities, and in contrast to all the piled-on after-the-fact echo on the earlier Capitol LPs, these are variations actually mixed by George Martin and company at EMI. (The stereo LP is less interesting, consisting entirely of the standard mixes, with even Dave Dexter -- despite coyly snatching a coproducer credit -- leaving them alone.)

As on the American A Hard Day's Night LP, "I'll Cry Instead" provides the most noticeable anomaly with an entire extra verse -- not a loop of the song's opening as was often reported by enthusiasts who didn't listen quite carefully enough, but an edit floated in from a different performance. While the add-on is basically redundant (constructed specifically for the aborted idea to use the song in a chase scene in the film), for anyone who treasures the song it's nice to have a bit more of it -- and it made it feasible for Capitol to push the song as a fairly uneventful single release. "And I Love Her" also, as on UA's album, has its character altered a fair bit with the absence of the double-tracking on Paul's vocal (which makes it, in some ways, lonelier and more effective). "Any Time at All" almost wholly mixes out the piano, which is especially evident during the instrumental break; some percussion is also missing. Lastly, "When I Get Home" has some major vocal differences on the bridge, due to John's double-tracking being mixed out on the stereo and British releases. It all makes for a fun bit of scavenging, somewhat redeeming just how goofy the whole entity is as an "album." Cool artwork, too.

The Beatles: The Beatles' Story (Capitol 1964) [c]
Not strictly a Beatles LP -- more a spoken word album with occasional musical interludes from the band and the Hollyridge Strings -- and in fact something I only finally listened to in full for this project, but included here because Capitol has always labeled it as part of their official Beatles discography and kept it in print for decades -- and transferred it to DAT for some unknown purpose in the 1990s -- culminating in a CD release on the Apple label a few years ago. It's a painfully uncool kitsch item useful only as a mirror into the way the straight world viewed Beatlemania as of 1964, primarily as a way of siphoning money from adolescents; there's only scattered talk of music, and a lot more about business and haircuts, though there is a bit of hyperbole about a future in which there will "always be" Beatles fans, which turned out to be prophetic. Still, the occasional kernel of truth in the narrative doesn't make up for the overall superficial nature of the (admittedly handsome) package, and the narration is stilted and unconvincing. It seems like a piece of commercial fraud, but do consider that Capitol was copycatting a similar and apparently somewhat beefier Vee Jay album called Hear the Beatles Tell All. It does boast the dubious honor of being the first ever official Beatles double album, at any rate.

The Beatles: Beatles '65 (Capitol 1964) [r]
{Mono, side one, all canon mixes:} No Reply; I'm a Loser; Baby's in Black; Rock and Roll Music; I'll Follow the Sun; Mr. Moonlight / {Mono, side two:} Honey Don't [canon mix]; I'll Be Back [unique U.S. mono mix from EMI]; She's a Woman [unique U.S. "echo" mono mix from EMI]; I Feel Fine [unique U.S. "echo" mono mix from EMI]; Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby [canon mix] / {Stereo, side one, all canon mixes:} No Reply; I'm a Loser; Baby's in Black; Rock and Roll Music; I'll Follow the Sun; Mr. Moonlight / {Stereo, canon mixes except noted:} Honey Don't; I'll Be Back; She's a Woman [fake stereo made from U.S. mono mix]; I Feel Fine [fake stereo made from U.S. mono mix]; Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby

Again, this is not a defensible package, apart from its rather stylish graphics; it's Side One of Beatles for Sale with the same album's closer, the current single and an errant A Hard Day's Night leftover tacked on. But folks, in fourth grade a few months before I finally joined the space age with my first CD player, I bought a copy of this from a real-life Beatles collector my dad knew and I will never forget what a big impression the first three songs made on me. I knew the White Album and Sgt. Pepper already, but they almost seemed like a different band to me from the Help!-era mop tops; here, the Beatles sounded like their younger selves but the songs they were singing seemed so sullen and grown-up and, well, stark. That carried through for most of the record's songs I didn't already knew ("I'll Be Back" in particular, which is still one of my favorite Beatles songs), and I loved the entire thing. I have no doubt I would have loved it even more if I'd sprung for Beatles for Sale instead... but those positive associations are not meaningless. Because the slowed-down mono "I'll Be Back" sounds like some sort of an error (with odd, wobbling speed that sounds like a tape problem), the most interesting variations are the U.S. single versions of "I Feel Fine" and "She's a Woman," which are positively slathered in echo to a degree that seems very antithetical to the band's intentions; word is it was Martin's attempt to approximate the strange "Dexter"-ized sound of Meet the Beatles! and The Beatles' Second Album. There's some accidental appeal to the American versions, and I don't think it's just because they're the ones I grew up with; obviously I prefer the dryer mixes, but "I Feel Fine" has a rather striking "vastness" here that sort of places emphasis on the Beatles' larger-than-life quality. The vocals sound distant, strange, like some proto-Loveless thing (and with the tape flutter on "I'll Be Back," this is practically Shoegaze '65, am I right folks!?). On the stereo album, these two songs were given "fake stereo" mixes that add even more absurd reverb and sound absolutely dreadful. (Apparently there was a lot of extra reverb thrown onto early masterings of "I'll Be Back" on this LP, but that was eventually repaired.) All that said, at this stage there's no use denying that Capitol's dicking around was getting sillier and sillier.

The Beatles: The Early Beatles (Capitol 1965)
{Mono, side one, all fold-downs of Capitol-made stereo remixes except noted:} Love Me Do [fold-down of fake stereo album version]; Twist and Shout; Anna (Go to Him); Chains; Boys; Ask Me Why / {Mono, side two, all fold-downs of Capitol-made stereo remixes except noted:} Please Please Me; P.S. I Love You [fold-down of fake stereo]; Baby It's You; A Taste of Honey; Do You Want to Know a Secret / {Stereo, side one, all Capitol-made stereo remixes except noted:} Love Me Do [fake stereo]; Twist and Shout; Anna (Go to Him); Chains; Boys; Ask Me Why / {Stereo, side two, all Capitol-made stereo remixes except noted:} Please Please Me; P.S. I Love You [fake stereo]; Baby It's You; A Taste of Honey; Do You Want to Know a Secret

Boasting "NOW ON CAPITOL!" in bold letters on the front as though that were a serious selling point for most consumers, The Early Beatles was the label's reissue and revision of Introducing the Beatles after Vee Jay finally lost the rights to the Beatles' pre-"She Loves You" material in late 1964, thus allowing it to join the rest of the catalog. Apart from the slightly more attractive (though period-inappropriate) cover art, the release is a severe downgrade in every way. For two decades, this was the only way most of the Beatles' Please Please Me album was in print in the U.S., which is quite a cheat because it's such a cynical, whittled-down pale imitation of the real thing, robbed of three of the record's songs ("Misery," "There's a Place," "I Saw Her Standing There"), the last because it had already been on a Capitol LP (Meet the Beatles!), and the others lopped off for a poor-selling single on Capitol's budget Starline subsidiary and never heard again on a long-player until 1980. Capitol's reasoning for shortening the album to this extent is hard to figure. They could have substituted "From Me to You" for "I Saw Her Standing There" (having already put "Thank You Girl" on an album) and had done with the whole shebang, but apparently there were too many other potential opportunities for future money grabbing. The result is one of the shortest and weakest of Capitol's Beatles LPs, though at least the songs do all belong together, and of course are top-tier material in and of themselves, though closing out with "Do You Want a Know a Secret" (a hit single in the U.S., granted) and moving "Twist and Shout" to the forefront is perverse. Capitol didn't promote the record heavily, really intending it as a catalog hole-filler (most fans as of '65 would already have owned the Vee Jay album), which is exactly what makes its lack of completeness so irritating. Dave Dexter also did some twiddling around with the stereo mixes (as far as I can hear they're just volume-boosted, very marginally slowed down, and the two channels are perhaps separated slightly) and the tape copies sound a little distorted. The mono album is just a fold of the stereo record; you can tell because "Please Please Me" includes the stereo-only vocal flub. It's just a weak experience on the whole and there's no compelling modern reason to queue it up.

The Beatles: Beatles VI (Capitol 1965)
{Mono, side one, all canon mixes:} Kansas City/Hey Hey Hey Hey!; Eight Days a Week; You Like Me Too Much; Bad Boy; I Don't Want to Spoil the Party / {Mono, side two, all canon mixes:} Words of Love; What You're Doing; Yes It Is; Dizzy Miss Lizzy; Tell Me What You See; Every Little Thing / {Stereo, side one, all canon mixes:} Kansas City/Hey Hey Hey Hey!; Eight Days a Week; You Like Me Too Much; Bad Boy; I Don't Want to Spoil the Party / {Stereo, side two, all canon mixes except noted:} What You're Doing; Yes It Is [fake stereo]; Dizzy Miss Lizzy; Tell Me What You See; Every Little Thing

Another month, another Capitol hodgepodge with "Beatles" in the title -- the rest of Beatles for Sale (including the Stateside hit "Eight Days a Week") plus some advance non-soundtrack sides from Help!, and the only occasion on which one of these Capitol LPs is a "proper" home for a song, the cover of Larry Williams' "Bad Boy" that was laid down specifically for the American market. ("Dizzy Miss Lizzy" was too but ended up being used on the next UK release.) This was the package that George Harrison once called out specifically when complaining about Capitol's strategy, and it really is the worst of these to date as a listening experience, supplanting Something New because the material is considerably weaker. There are some great songs ("I Don't Want to Spoil the Party," "What You're Doing," "Every Little Thing"), some covers of varying innovation and quality, some oddities and some of the more lackluster originals in the catalog ("Tell Me What You See," "You Like Me To Much"), but "Eight Days a Week" really leaps out as the only burst-out-of-the-speakers classic. Not the best cut here, but the sole relief from what feels like a haphazard gathering of odds and ends ripped of their original context. It's just a further reiteration of how good George Martin was at sequencing Beatles music and putting albums together; none of the British records lacked bite to this extent. One big evolutionary point, though: with the exception of the missing stereo version of the b-side "Yes It Is," these songs all made it to America in their fully intact original mixes. If you consider it as a double album with Beatles '65, it has its utility, or did at one time.

The Beatles: Help! OST [U.S.] (Capitol 1965)
{Mono, side one, fold-downs of stereo mixes plus instrumental score:} Help!; The Night Before; You've Got to Hide Your Love Away; I Need You / {Mono, side two, fold-downs of stereo mixes unless noted, plus instrumental score:} Another Girl; Ticket to Ride [canon mix]; You're Going to Lose That Girl / {Stereo, side one, all canon mixes plus instrumental score:} Help!; The Night Before; You've Got to Hide Your Love Away; I Need You / {Stereo, side two, plus instrumental score:} Another Girl [canon mix]; Ticket to Ride [fake stereo]; You're Going to Lose That Girl [unedited version with very, very brief stray sound at beginning; I mean insanely brief, like I-can't-believe-this-is-listed-as-a-variation brief]

I've used the word "fraud" three times already on this page, but to be fair to Capitol Records, in a lot of ways they were just conforming to industry standards of the time; it's only in retrospect that all this seems nefarious rather than just inconvenient. Still, one wonders how millions of fans were subjected to a package like this without instituting some kind of revolt -- maybe this gives a clue to why they didn't succeed in changing the world a few years hence. The seven new Beatles songs in their second film are joined by Ken Thorne's score, which is admittedly a bit more successful than George Martin's for A Hard Day's Night, insofar as it quite cleverly rearranges Beatles songs as dramatic crescendos and at one point transforms "A Hard Day's Night" into a sitar-driven Indian piece. (Like Martin, Thorne actually wrote very little music here.) It's sometimes alleged that Thorne's score led directly to George Harrison becoming interested in the sitar, but I increasingly suspect this is largely apocryphal; still, if nothing else the incorporation of these then-exotic instruments on a mainstream "rock" LP does seem somewhat forward-looking. But that's about it, as far as positive things you can say here. Ahead of its time or not, Thorne's score couldn't have held any interest to the bulk of those buying the record.

The graphics are a bit better than those on the UK album; there's even a gatefold with lots of pix of the hot guys from the film. But you just don't get much for your theoretical money here. One interesting note is that "Help!" is here presented with a dramatic prelude provided by Thorne that's more or less a parody of the James Bond theme. Certain American fans still think of this as the intro to "Help!"; even though it wasn't on the single, it (probably accidentally) got tacked onto the 1962-1966 "Red" album. I used to include the Bond intro when I played "Help!" at my DJing gigs so that if any of the half-dozen people in the room were hardcore Beatles fans they might want my friendship, perhaps even my body. I did not, in the end, meet my wife in this fashion.

The Beatles: Rubber Soul [U.S.] (Capitol 1965) [r]
{Mono, side one, canon mixes unless noted:} I've Just Seen a Face; Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown); You Won't See Me; Think for Yourself; The Word; Michelle [unique U.S. mono mix from EMI] / {Mono, side two, all canon mixes:} It's Only Love; Girl; I'm Looking Through You; In My Life; Wait; Run for Your Life / {Stereo, side one, canon mixes unless noted:} I've Just Seen a Face; Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown); You Won't See Me; Think for Yourself; The Word [unique U.S. stereo mix from EMI]; Michelle / {Stereo, side two, canon mixes unless noted:} It's Only Love; Girl; I'm Looking Through You [unedited version with false starts]; In My Life; Wait; Run for Your Life

Let's put this to bed once and for all: Capitol's condensation of the UK Rubber Soul album is not better than the original, and while I understand feeling that this version more cohesively plays up the "acoustic Beatles" folk rock angle, I strongly object to the whole theory becoming conventional wisdom. On top of being two songs shorter, the U.S. album actually lacks four songs from the original record, replacing two of them with castoff Help! tunes: "I've Just Seen a Face" (which I readily admit fits well) and "It's Only Love" (which is fine but hardly a classic). And the missing songs are not slouches -- "Drive My Car," "Nowhere Man" and "If I Needed Someone" all major, "What Goes On" minor if charming. Moreover, the theory that the rockers are all gone and therefore the experience is more consistent doesn't really hold, with half the songs still being fairly fast and hard-edged. Plus ending the record with the solid but not revelatory "Wait" and "Run for Your Life," uninterrupted here by one of George's most sensitive ballads, feels somewhat anticlimactic. The color scheme on the cover is slightly better than on the original release (and the 1987 CD would go on to inherit it, perhaps unintentionally) and I always really loved the two false starts that open "I'm Looking Through You" in stereo, which add to the feeling of a campire Beatles session even though it's really just the result of an engineer forgetting to cut them off. I enjoy listening to the American album, don't get me wrong, but there's absolutely no question that the UK variant is a better, fuller experience.

The Beatles: Yesterday and Today (Capitol 1966)
{Mono, side one, canon mixes unless noted:} Drive My Car [fold-down of stereo mix]; Nowhere Man; Doctor Robert [unique U.S. mono mix from EMI]; Yesterday; Act Naturally / {Mono, side two, canon mixes unless noted:} And Your Bird Can Sing [unique U.S. mono mix from EMI]; If I Needed Someone; We Can Work It Out; What Goes On; Day Tripper / {Stereo, side one, canon mixes unless noted:} Drive My Car; I'm Only Sleeping [unique U.S. stereo mix from EMI (early pressings use fake stereo)]; Nowhere Man; Doctor Robert [unique U.S. stereo mix from EMI (early pressings use fake stereo)]; Yesterday; Act Naturally / {Stereo, side two:} And Your Bird Can Sing [unique U.S. stereo mix from EMI (early pressings use fake stereo)]; If I Needed Someone [canon mix]; We Can Work It Out [unique U.S. stereo mix from EMI]; What Goes On [canon mix]; Day Tripper [unique U.S. stereo mix from EMI]

The weirdest of Capitol's Frankenstein creations, issued in the summer of 1966 and containing material from three extremely different UK albums -- Help!, Rubber Soul and Revolver -- as well a double-sided hit single and more Ringo lead vocals (two) than any of the band's canon releases. It's as odd a selection of songs as Beatles VI, with leftovers from various releases plus three completed Lennon numbers from the forthcoming Revolver (two of them rather pedestrian), though with two U.S.-only hit singles ("Yesterday" and "Nowhere Man") it might well have seemed like a pop miracle at the time. The biggest problem with the American discography is how it prevents you from getting a handle on the Beatles' actual evolutionary narrative. It makes very little sense for "If I Needed Someone" to coexist with "Act Naturally," or "What Goes On" with "I'm Only Sleeping," etc. The songs are mostly excellent, but it feels like shuffle mode.

That said, as a package this is one of the most interesting of the Capitol LPs; there is first the novelty of its recalled cover, a rather appallingly eccentric bit of pop art popularly known as the Butcher Cover, adorned with Robert Whitaker's avant garde, pointedly satiric shot of the Beatles posing gleefully with baby doll heads and butcher meat. It's one of the best and most genuinely outrageous album covers of the 1960s, and it's a miracle that it made it to stores at all; regardless of its immediate recall, you wonder how on earth anyone at Capitol signed off on it. The Beatles' own approval of it is less mysterious; not only is a handy bit of subversion at a time when they were bristling at the limitations of their role in the universe, it also foretells the dark, cynical sense of humor they would employ on Magical Mystery Tour and the White Album. Its existence is easily the most memorable thing about this collection's existence, though its rush-release also produces a number of interesting features in mix terms. The Revolver numbers sound varying degrees of different from their later UK canon incarnations, particularly "I'm Only Sleeping" whose overdubbed backward guitar wanders unpredictably around the verses. It's all such a weird entity that you barely notice how incompetently sequenced it is.

The Beatles: Revolver [U.S.] (Capitol 1966)
All canon mixes in both stereo and mono - {Side one:} Taxman; Eleanor Riby; Love You To; Here, There and Everywhere; Yellow Submarine; She Said She Said / {Side two:} Good Day Sunshine; For No One; I Want to Tell You; Got to Get You into My Life; Tomorrow Never Knows

Not much to say about this one; it's just Revolver with three songs missing, and my inclination is to say it has no value whatsoever -- it has no unique mixes, no real reason to be considered in lieu of the proper canonical version of the album. But I'll say this: it drops two of the three weakest songs, so there's that. If you switched out "I Want to Tell You" with the missing "I'm Only Sleeping," a part of me might actually favor it, but don't tell anyone. Undoubtedly the oddest thing Apple has chosen to reissue on CD in the modern era.

The Beatles: Hey Jude (Apple 1970) [r]
Only issued in stereo - {Side one, all canon mixes except noted:} Can't Buy Me Love; I Should Have Known Better; Paperback Writer [rebalanced stereo mix]; Rain; Lady Madonna; Revolution / {Side two, all canon mixes:} Hey Jude; Old Brown Shoe; Don't Let Me Down; The Ballad of John and Yoko

The most attractively packaged of all the unique U.S. albums (apart from the butcher cover version of Y&T, naturally), and one of the most sonically bizarre, with two seemingly random A Hard Day's Night-era cuts slapped onto a compilation gathering most but not quite all of the Beatles' non-album cuts from 1966 onward. ("I Should Have Known Better" and "Can't Buy Me Love" apparently find their way here because of their absence from any EMI-controlled LPs on these shores, since both were left off Something New, which still doesn't explain the absence of "A Hard Day's Night." This album marked the American stereo debut of both songs -- and most of the album, actually.) It served as a handy enough compendium, nevertheless, that it became a popular import album in the UK and was eventually released there, where it functioned as a de facto companion to A Collection of Beatles Oldies despite being superseded by the Red and Blue sets. Today, with its mixes no longer special (there is an unusual "Paperback Writer" with reversed channels and some rebalancing that's never surfaced otherwise, but that's not especially important) playing the in-print compact disc of Hey Jude (initially labeled The Beatles Again) feels like you're listening to the second disc of Past Masters while regularly employing the skip button. But it's quite good anyway, and you can tell it was conceived by someone (Allen Klein) with a decent sense of quality control a far cry from stuff like Beatles VI despite the weird time machine effect of the first couple of songs; it's been argued that this allows the disc to provide a good cross section of the Beatles' appeal, and its surfeit of absolutely brilliant b-sides ("Rain," "Don't Let Me Down," "Revolution") certainly makes a strong argument for their infallibility above and beyond virtually any other '60s band. The strangest omission is "The Inner Light," which really seems like it belongs and wouldn't make it to a longplayer until Rarities. Stick to Past Masters unless you're nostalgic or like the photos (which are great).

(Why the everloving fuck did Spector leave "Don't Let Me Down" off Let It Be? Boggles the mind.)

***

Generally that's considered the extent of the Beatles' American catalog in terms of its divergences from the canon, but that's not quite true, though only absolute froot loops like me are likely to catalog the other differences. A new Capitol contract in 1967 prevented the label from altering the band and George Martin's track selections on their LPs, but the U.S. Sgt. Pepper lacks the hidden tone and inner groove; the White Album was unissued here in mono; Yellow Submarine has mythology-heavy liner notes based on the film, an improvement on the British record's White Album promo; Abbey Road listed "Her Majesty" on the back cover; and Let It Be was a gatefold with an ominous-looking red apple on the label. Nothing major, obviously, but worth mentioning someplace, and no doubt collectors interested in the Beatles' American legacy will still want the U.S. versions of those albums from the years prior to the catalog standardization.