Tuesday, December 11, 2018

In the middle of the middle of the night: 2018 new release rush

Slightly behind schedule with this, which may mean midweek rather than this coming Sunday for my year-end albums list, which at this writing I have not even started. You can expect songs to be up over the weekend. I was knocked out of whack slightly when Capitol abruptly regaled us with about 70 unissued Beach Boys tracks last Friday, with a live collection expected to follow; when I can carve out some extra time, likely over Christmas break, I'll add reviews of those to the BB archives. In other, more personal news, we saw the Mountain Goats at the tucked-away Haw River Ballroom last week, and for once, it may be an experience I'd like to keep to ourselves... at least my impressions of it (there is, of course, a recording of it circulating). But I may change my mind.

Thom Yorke: Suspiria OST (XL) [r]
The first Yorke solo material that's felt as inspired in places as his work with Radiohead (there were some decent songs on The Eraser) was a commissioned project, the score for Luca Guadagnino's remake of Suspiria. It contains a few slow, beautiful pop songs that feature Yorke singing as gorgeously as ever, and the balance of it is comprised of ambient, occasionally unnerving instrumental pieces that deliberately place menace up against immersive loveliness. At various times one thinks of the "found" scores for Stanley Kubrick's films, and at one point of the Police obscurity "A Kind of Loving," a horrifying rock instrumental for the soundtrack to Brimstone & Treacle overlaid with the sounds of a woman's bloodcurdling screams -- perhaps the only way the Police will ever sound like they "got there first" over a member of Radiohead. The second half is a bit tangential and repetitive, but the entire two-disc collection is a deep-dive pleasure. The highlights among the conventional tracks are "Suspirium" (driven by a lovely piano trill that sounds very un-horror movie), "Has Ended" (menacing, slinky slow rock) and "Unmade" (a hell of a melody and Yorke's finest vocal in years); my favorite instrumentals are the abstractly beautiful "The Jumps," and "Volk," which sounds like a rejected theme tune from Tales from the Crypt. It's just like Yorke to throw us off with both the creepy-crawlies and a warm blanket on the same release.

Robyn: Honey (Interscope) [hr]
It's twenty years since "Show Me Love," the all-ages generosity of which was hard to hear at the time with the international shift toward radio pop, but that same generosity backgrounds her eight-years-coming follow-up to Body Talk, a record that indulged in personal catharsis, irony, and ruthless individualism. Not that those things are absent here, but on top of its keenness to sideswipe you and run away at just forty-odd minutes (Body Talk was 61), it feels like a record built for comfort without compromise; hiding behind no facade but also never denying the basic mechanics of the commercial bliss it seeks. The easiest comparison is to listen to "Fembot," and follow it with "Human Being," which adopts the same sort of conceptual notion but runs an emotional gamut that once might have occupied three different (perfectly good) tunes in the old days. Her voice is pained, but not in pain; you don't see strength only in rising above it all anymore ("Call Your Girlfriend," the still-unbeatable "Dancing on My Own"), you just weep while dancing. Honesty is the record's kink, and honesty is at the core of the best sex, the best romance, and the best pop. Ergo, there's a lot more groove than hook here -- the kind of songs on which you wait eagerly for the verse as often as the chorus, when they're even structured that conventionally to start with -- which is why "Missing U" towers even in its unfulfilled tension. And why "Honey" is improbably glorious even though it sounds like it's coming from across the street, at the place you wish you were. Even at her most playful, she seeks an unorthodox route to what finally is unvarnished life happening, like the conversational lyrics that scan magically on "Send to Robin Immediately" and "Beach 2k20," or the addictive monotone that drives the throwback Euro "Between the Lines" right into its incongrous vocal hook and the insanely, wonderfully off-key club synth, right into the realm of what the Olympics called "an awful disease" forty years before "Show Me Love." The whole second half of the record is like a damn drug, building to a finale that's such a classic Robyn anthem you wonder if you dreamed all this, but you didn't. You were there, across the street. Because it's in the music.

Nao: Saturn (RCA) [r]
An artist who continues to get better and better, singing splendidly and wrapping around the winding melodies throughout this record, and really crossing over into the realm of true unfiltered communication thrice, once (on the title cut) with the help of Kwabs during a song that sounds like Kwabs which means it sounds like a '90s slowjam crossed with hi-NRG, once (on "Gabriel") with pounding, whizzing production that sounds like a state-of-the-art mass transit system in operation, and once (on "Yellow of the Sun") with bass and with the strangely erotic turn of phrase "paradise-ice-ice."

Julia Holter: Aviary (Domino)
Inspired in part by Alice Coltrane and Mary Carruthers, this is essentially a ninety-minute experimental prog installation that is going to insist upon your full attention in its sub-narrative treatise on memory, pain and bird sounds. Everything you can lob against it is likely intentional: that the performances meander, that it seems too dense to get hold of, that it's sprawling and stark in a way that's frequently off-putting. Then there are personal issues, like I don't really care for Holter's voice, but that's on me rather than her. You might like hypnotic music, but "Everyday Is an Emergency" might be overboard for you; you might like PJ Harvey's recent music or even Kate Bush's or Scott Walker's or Bjork's and "Underneath the Moon" might still be beyond the pale as far as military dirges applied to pop music. You might like Danny Elfman's film scores but "In Gardens' Mutants" might still be a little too much hot-air orchestration that never leads anyplace. Or it might not. To this listener, it grows monotonous and when it does come back to life sort of ("Les Jeux to You," which has a beat) it's in a decidely cerebral, "adult art class" manner. Still, maybe it won't cross these lines for most, and while it all just seems like too much, it remains an impressive creation.

Vince Staples: FM! (Def Jam) [hr]
Vince Staples doesn't give a fuck except about his craft, and you can hear this in the way he melds his defiant sarcasm (the hilarious "Get the Fuck Off My Dick" didn't make it to the LP) with the imparting of sheer classic hip hop pleasure via his impeccable, broad-minded taste in hooks, beats, grooves. His twisted, stern flow is still formidable and harsh, yet this is a record about ground-level culture and populist communication, a celebration of a city (Long Beach) and of the very thing white critics wrote off more than a decade ago: radio. Yet radio is still capable of being a unifying force when it escapes corporate clutches, and this record nods to its place in individual lives, soundtracking and lifting up day-to-day life. The songs strive toward a certain mid-2000s hood anthem quality, built around minimalist chants ("Outside!") and instantly addictive choruses ("Run the Bends") and, when he allows it, a big dumb beat ("No Bleedin'"). Still plenty of irony, though -- "Feels Like Summer" seems mostly to be at a loss to convince itself that the sun and the sweltering heat provide any kind of an escape at all, and "Don't Get Chipped" actually glances toward Staples' straight-edge beliefs on a chorus by Jay Rock, hardly ordinary subject matter for a rap record. Through and through, he's brutal with distance and finesse and no great need to convey any sort of all-knowing swagger, and he still won't fuck with fame: "white man wanna take from me, hey / white fans at the Coachella, hey." By the way: Van Morrison, Val Lewton, Vanessa Redgrave, Verna Fields, Vera Miles, Valerie Bertinelli, and...

Boygenius (Matador EP)
A supergroup comprised of Lucy Dacus (sweet!), Phoebe Bridgers (can take or leave) and Julien Baker (ehhhhhhh) does pretty much what you'd expect, with Dacus pulling down hardest on the singing and Baker's outrageously bleak lyrics still tainting everything including your formerly nice afternoon. It's pleasant, because all three are good singers and players and at least OK writers (Dacus is an excellent writer but I don't hear a lot of that coming through here), but will probably only work for those who are actual fans of at least two of them; naturally they're not saving their best material for a stopgap project like this.

Maria Muldaur: Don't You Feel My Leg (Last) [hr]
The horniest album out this year and that includes Rhye and CupcakKe. 75 year-old Muldaur is an eclectic folksinger known for her work with the Grateful Dead who's won awards for her forays into trad blues, but this is a jazz record comprised of hot cover versions of relatively obscure New Orleans blues lifer Blue Lu Barker, whose peak recordings (and the majority of those included here) date from the 1930s and '40s. Both names are new to me, and it's hard to imagine a lovelier introduction. Muldaur's exposure of this music's timelessness also amounts to a harnessing of the other great insurmountable universal truth, something about flesh and desire. So from the raunch of "Georgia Grind" to coy remarks about trading husbands ("he can love us both, it's all right with me") to the Big Sleep-worthy metaphors about the bow-legged daddy riding his horse all day to sisterly advice of not letting others know how good your man is in bed ("if he's got good rhythm always say he's wrong") to the delightful groping rebuke of the title cut, these are songs whose blood flows with sex and undiminished thirst, and as such they become an affirmation. The skeletal arrangements build on the blues without overwhelming it, and while the filthy barroom backing vocals are just distant and vital enough to make every kind of age and distance irrelevant, to invite us in as participants ("she can do the apple jack" -- "oh no she can't" -- "oh yes she can," goes the call-and-response), the real star is Muldaur, whose response to aging is not to ignore it but to revel in the inevitability of decay, and to promise that she just like her pal Barker will be there in the coffin, "joint at my head and a roach at my feet," fucking and full of malarkey right up to the sunset, celebrating her man who's got "the greatest rhythm stick in town."

Laura Jane Grace & the Devouring Mothers: Brought to Rot (Bloodshot)
Grace is best known as the leader of Against Me!, for whom contentment is not just a difficult proposition but an unmarketable one, but when traveling under her own name she tracks no less angst, even if her particular targets here seem more specific, her scorn both scarier and more poignant with age. If the intent was to "walk away from the hate I carry," it doesn't seem to have worked, especially on a rant about Chicago that pretends to be a joke and then slashes at a city and an ex so viciously it becomes disturbing, though it also suggests what Car Seat Headrest might sound like if fronted by an adult. "Airplane Song" -- one of many noun songs comprising this suite -- probably goes deepest inside, with a diatribe about marrying an actor just to be the bigger person when they have to snog other actors for the sake of cinema. Unlike on Against Me!'s engaging but samey punk rock, there's more range here than you initially hear -- "The Friendship Song" is almost rockabilly, and/or a 1950s dance novelty -- but I find myself preferring the cover provided by the noisy band, though more power to anyone this comfortable exposing their neuroses. And while Grace's vocals seem to lag behind her lyrics at times, her guitar playing is consistently very good; "Valeria" could be a lost Walkmen riff.

The Wave Pictures: Look Inside Your Heart (Moshi Moshi) [hr]
Don't take this as a complaint because it isn't, but this maddeningly pretty, winning, warm and open-hearted record marks the first time that Dave Tattersall's lyrics were almost entirely drowned out for me by the Wave Pictures' music; not that both elements aren't working at their primal best, but this time around the songs are so giddily beautiful that it seems unnecessary even to look past the glorious sing-song choruses (even one about Spider-Man, kind of) long enough to locate the animals (alligators on "Close Your Eyes Mike"), observations and expressions of undying, spiritually enriched love in the words. There's no use pretending to objectivity when it comes to this band anymore; I love them so incredibly much and would give a hell of a lot to be able to see them perform. The specific concept of their two albums this year was derived slightly from the limited-edition A Season of Hull of a few years back: written and recorded very simply and informally in very little time, at what sounds like a delightfully disorganized session among good friends ("doo wop spinning on the turntable / everybody I love is here") with perhaps a few supplementary substances involved -- certainly a lot of laughter, at any rate, but maybe just the energy of the moment was the drug. The song about getting out and cutting loose, "Dodge City Blues," is as goofy as it gets, but it also points at the true singular depth of all this: that these people dicking around are capable of producing so much of what the average dicking around cannot; it's as though music, sweet sweet music, is seeping in from the walls around them. The thing is you wish you were there. Brushes with Happiness captured a bleary-eyed late night with captivating accuracy, but this rowdier companion sets out fully to embrace the world with upbeat rock & roll and irresistible pop. There are ballads, and convicted and meaty odes to losing someone ("Brian" is heartbreaking) and damage to be undone, but generally the mood is sprightly even when the world threatens to intervene, and that's what makes the whole exercise worth performing.

Okay, maybe you're only going to "get" this if you're seduced by the stripped-back, intimate aesthetic and unashamedly classic (but eclectic!) base of influences that color all of their work -- they occupy a niche, and do it masterfully -- but I'm only saying that because I'm officially supposed to, when really I think songs like the magnificent L'Atalante-like "Hazey Moon" with its joyous refrain and the delicate, lite Africana of "Sugar" could save the world if you let them. Like guitar solos? Fine, "Roosevelt Sykes" hits outta the gate with a gorgeous one. Like unkempt, raw rock & roll? "House by the Beach" has you covered. Believe in the grand truth of simple "Sweet Jane" chords, a great hook and saucy barroom backing vocals? Try "Shelley," and then try the title cut, and if you don't think it could have been popping eagerly out of a long-ago AM radio ready to hold you till kingdom come, we're just on different wavelengths.

Rosalia: El Mal Querer (Sony)
Serious-minded stuff from the young revisionist Flamenco singer who hails from Catalonia; this second full-length, four songs on which have gone top ten in Spain, has acquired international attention and doesn't sound at all compromised to me, borne out by its apparent debt to 14th century Occitan literature. Yet I also can't hear the innovation in it, and grow tired of it more quickly than I should at just half an hour. The usual caveats about language and genre barriers apply, but regardless of that I need something to resonate with me as music first, and this doesn't.

Pistol Annies: Interstate Gospel (RCA) [c]
Nor does this. I worry these reviews are a broken record when it comes to contemporary country (which I don't uniformly dislike; First Aid Kit, Colter Wall, Lydia Loveless all move me to various degrees) -- the issue here for me is that there's not a single moment on this album, the return from a long hiatus for the supergroup that contains Miranda Lambert among others, that surprises me even a little -- and I've gone pretty deep with it, enough to have the simplistic, worn-out "Sugar Daddy" pretty well memorized, and same for the melancholic empowerment anthem "When I Was His Wife" and the cheerful one, "Got My Name Changed Back," their narratives coyly coinciding with tabloid fodder. There's no use in me telling you that the voices come off as hollow to me or that the songs feel uninspired when the issue clearly is that the jolt of the unexpected and inventive is something I passionately seek in new music, and that nothing about this lyrically or musically goes anywhere that I wouldn't expect from you telling me "here is a new album by Pistol Annies." Interstate Gospel is such a great title, and the idea of bitter divorce music sounds enticing; but nothing intriguing or even particularly tolerable is done with these conceits in this space. While we're ranting: the celebrated subject of "This Too Shall Pass" sounds like one shitty relationship.

The 1975: A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships (Polydor) [c]
Any random five-song sample could give you a totally different impression than any other, but any way you slice it, this British quartet is so proud of their crossover appeal as "mature" progenitors of forward-thinking pop that they seem utterly convinced it exuses their anonymity as writers and performers. There are some decent ballads, some totally lame ones, and some that sound like Peter Cetera. There's dumb vocoder shit, dumb spoken word shit, slightly less dumb trip hop shit; it's overwhelming when taken together, built on the illusion of having something to say that nevertheless aligns it with pure populism, but in the end it's all hot air even at its best. It likely sounds prescient and fearless on the radio, but that just tells you how awful the radio is.

Jeff Tweedy: Warm (dBpm) [r]
The sound of a hero trying hard, harder than he has in at least seven years, and confidently flailing. He sings well, the record is stylistically indistinguishable from post-2002 Wilco, and the main progression on their last few slapdash albums is that its mood is more consistent. It does seem like he saved the "adult" impulses that longtime fans whined about during the Whole Love campaign for this project so that the babies could have their lazy rock songs; stocking up all the ballads without a break, though, does them few favors. It's a sleepy, indulgent affair all told, but it touches brilliance here and there. A ghost is born on the finale, "How Will I Find You," which conjures up Tonight's the Night and White Album memories; speaking of which, "Let's Go Rain" could be the finest Paul McCartney busk since "Goodbye" or maybe, generously, "Jenny Wren." And maybe this is too personal, but somehow -- and Tweedy has done this to me before -- "we all think about dying, don't let it kill you" was something I needed to hear today.

Earl Sweatshirt: Some Rap Songs (Columbia) [r]
Yeah yeah, Kanye West's irrelevant now, no one cares, moment's passed, and yet! Mr. Sweatshirt begs to differ with his twenty-minute collection of "Bound 2"-style, slightly J Dilla-influenced fuck up beats that transform tinkling pianos into the most ominous, threatening sound in the aural lexicon. Maybe it's a coincidence, who knows. ES, or at least his rhyming persona, has always come across to me as an unstable pessimist; he doesn't compromise his tone here, but he doesn't go quite as deep into his own psyche as was once the norm, and it seems a healthy change. Still, like all of us, he's stuck in Trump land, and there's a hint of trouble when he talks about the minute since he heard applause. "The Mint" is surprisingly pretty, "December 24" is humble and harsh, and "Veins" is probably the best, but if the incomplete-by-design vibe of so many recent hip hop records didn't suit you, this won't either. It's tough but withholding, and we're not necessarily being given the full story.

The Mountain Goats: Aquarium Drunkard's Lagniappe Session (Merge EP) [r]
The Goats' second stopgap EP this year, this one consisting of three covers that John Darnielle makes totally his own -- the best comes from Bon Iver, of all people, while Procol Harum guitarist Robin Trower also figures; Darnielle never gets any easier to pin down -- while continuing the stretching of his vocals that began to take hold on Goths (barely sounding anymore like the impassioned, thin-voiced cassette junkie who, like Tom Verlaine, seemed almost overcome by his own words), and makes us more excited yet for the new material he promised us at the show to be forthcoming. This band is now best, it seems, when they find ways to escape the baggage wrought by their cult -- and for sheer unpredictability, their work over the last two years has been a huge new step. I just hope he doesn't pull a Dylan and start delving full-time into other people's songs, even though he's already better at it than Dylan.

Colter Wall: Songs of the Plains (Thirty Tigers) [hr]
It's always tricky to sing the praises of something whose entire aesthetic cries throwback, nostalgia, particularly nostalgia for an un-lived time. Leon Bridges' first record was more baked in the past than his second, but the songs were strong enough that it all clearly went deeper than the gimmick. Ditto with Colter Wall, a gravel-voiced 23 year-old from Saskatchewan whose mode of country is bare and lonely by necessity; it's simply the best way for his unforgettable singing to stretch itself, and for him to exorcise his insular demons. The record sounds uncannily classic without being pastiche or burlesque, but there's no reason to believe it comes about this purposefully rather than by necessity -- stripped of every kind of embellishment, his songs feed off the empty space with an irresistible mixture of absolute confidence and unchecked vulnerability. "Plain to See Plainsman" could be a traditional folk song, or it could be a future standard; the lonely cowboy song "Calgary Round-Up" features yodeling and still manages to sound timeless rather than old-fashioned; and with its working class hero riff, "Manitoba Man" suggests chops and a base of influences that go beyond his most obvious model, Johnny Cash -- though, again, the uncanny resemblance to Cash is so organic on something like the painful slow burn "Wild Dogs" you practically believe it could just be a coincidence, like an accident of the spirits, even though of course we know that's impossible but it sure is amusing to think about (and you can apply it to his apparently huge audience, too). Plus how great it is to listen to somebody who isn't even fully aware of what he can do yet? It's really fun to hear Wall taking stock of his voice's outer limits on "Thinkin' on a Woman." The reason all this succeeds, in the end, is that these intellectual measurements of Wall's artistic abilities melt away as soon as the record is put back on -- it works for the moment, almost any moment, and its darkness and monochromatic pleasure are fully credible all on their own.

***

WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
The annual check-in with works I missed from throughout the year by artists I love, or whose new output I highly praised at some point from 2008 to now.

Anthony Joseph: People of the Sun (Heavenly Sweetness) [r]
Missed this because, in my usual fashion, I got hooked on an artist that American pubs basically refuse to cover, considering him "spoken word" if they consider him at all. Unfortunately this is less resonant for me than Joseph's last two releases -- less musically exciting and pure than Caribbean Roots, and a bit less poetic and discursive than Time; but Joseph's eloquence and delivery are as striking as ever, and it's a thrill to hear him perform. The major issue is that in a very Roots-like gesture he spends much of this record abdicating the stage in favor of a few less compelling artists, so our time with him is precious here, and it's no coincidence that the best and loosest cut, "He Was Trying," leaves us swirling around the man himself, alone with a sparse bass-heavy arrangement, talking and singing with romantic urgency through a story about emotional burdens, broken love and cycles of violence and neglect. As on all of his best work, it's as if you feel the course of history -- not history of war and strife and violence but history of the personal relations and small-time betrayals between people, the timeless version of history -- picking you up and tossing you around. Regardless of its stand within his discography, you should hear this record -- it will move you.

Cities Aviv: Raised for a Better View (s/r) [r]
Fascinating to hear in light of how experimental music and hip hop have sorta-kinda caught up with what Cities Aviv was doing in 2014, but at the same time you could just as easily put on Come to Life and get the same effect. Gavin Mays is still as adventurous a spirit as rappers or producers ten years younger than he is, and he doesn't suffer here for artists like London O'Connor picking up the same unpredictable underground beat. The album is a marathon of strange loops that at its best seems to form the four walls of the night, like the most atmospheric dance music, or like what knob-turners like AraabMuzik spend whole careers trying to pull off. The stormy and foreboding "Age" tells the full story; Mays sounds amazing and high and low, getting feeling out of chaotic tones that don't seem to imply anything, his mumbles and shouts running a gamut of the mournful and beautiful like a whole narrative unto itself, especially when he repeats "it's a goddamn shame" and hopes you'll figure it out. Drugs or none, it's music that feels infinite, and some of the rest carries through with that promise -- "Weight" is like being caught in a spin cycle, lifted off the ground out of control, and then there's a bunch of numbers and "woke up with a heartache." "Turn to Smoke" has that weird Quiet Storm Captain EO sound only the tape is about to snap in two. "Turn to Smoke" is catchy but there's nothing to catch, it's just half-formed. "White people tryna hit me with some baggage." "Blurred" sounds like he's sinking and so am I. Spanish (?) guitar in right channel. "Series of Exits" has a cryptic but warm voicemail just like Kendrick Lamar's good kid, m.A.A.d city or Yo La Tengo's "Here You Are," and owes a debt to John Coltrane's "Naima." It doesn't go further than Come to Life but nor have I. This is part of a body of work. Listening to Cities Aviv is like finding an old VHS tape and you don't have the remote control anymore so you can't adjust the tracking, and then the VCR breaks.

Curren$y: Air Freshna (s/r EP)
[opens window] Keep it down out there! [closes window]

Daniel Avery: Slow Fade (Phantasy Sound EP)
Aside from the album cut (this presaged Avery's excellent Song for Alpha), this set of leftovers fails to burrow into a proper groove except the long "Radius," and even it only gets there at the end.

Iglooghost: Steel Mogu (s/r EP) [r]
Iglooghost: Clear Tamei (s/r EP) [r]
Pretty much just like the LP, which means they're delightful, and maybe easier for some folks to take at less obnoxious length.

The Jayhawks: Back Roads and Abandoned Motels (Legacy)
What drew me to this band even in the middle of their late-career slump was the surprising quality of the songs, though I feel like Peter Buck's production might also have made a difference; on this follow-up to the one that got me, the songs just aren't there. Nobody's fault, it happens, though the irritating, schmaltzy obviousness of the album title suggests they're haunted by the same temptation for the Rote that plagues almost every other branch of country music, including the alt variety.

Titus Andronicus: Home Alone on Halloween (Merge EP)
Seems like a pretty thin excuse for Patrick Stickles to lay claim to Merge catalog number 666. Not only is the cover a joking revision of the album artwork for A Productive Cough, the title cut is just that record's "Home Alone" with ominous sound effects added. There's also an extra Dylan cover (of his unreleased Gaslight-era "Only a Hobo," no less, passionately but badly sung by Stickles), and a bona fide sixteen-minute outtake called "A Letter Home" whose Halloween connection is tenuous at best. This just points up what a blessing it is that Stickles reined in his long-windedness for the album this time.

Mr. Twin Sister: Salt (s/r) [r]
Trippy, erotic, casual, lounge; still feels like amiable wheel-spinning, though one of their recent 12" singles (see below) is perhaps their best recording to date.

Vessel: Queen of Golden Dogs (Tri Angle) [r]
Spent a lot of time trying to get friends into avant shit to listen to the remarkable Punish, Honey and was excited to discover there was a new release. The problem is that this is too conventional, moving away from the abrasive minimalism that made him intriguing, but for sheer listenability and gutsiness it's still a cut above most experimental material that gets press.

ALSO RECOMMENDED
Cat Power: Wanderer (Domino) [relieving to hear this voice again; the stripping back of her arrangements is the right move, too; "In Your Face"/"Wanderer/Exit"]
St. Vincent: MassEducation (Loma Vista) [what's going on when the minimalist revisions of songs are less claustrophobic?]
Graham Parker: Cloud Symbols (100%) [I must've been sleeping when Parker turned into the fat-and-happy Nawlins songman; "Girl in Need"/"Every Saturday Nite"/"Ancient Past"]
Empress Of: Us (XL) [a full 180-degree for me, with better beats and -- more importantly -- real live hooks; "Love for Me"/"Everything to Me"/"I've Got Love"]
Exploded View: Obey (Sacred Bones) [new score for Metropolis coming soon]
Swearin': Fall into the Sun (Merge) [wow, emo lives, often transcendently; "Dogpile"/"Smoke or Steam"/"Anyway"]
Matthew Dear: Bunny (Ghostly) [pulsating, glitchy hedonistic rave that's eventually a party you're ready to leave -- thanks largely to Dear's fun but tiresome vocals that feel like Nicolas Jaar and Owen Ashworth rolled into one weirdo -- until Tegan & Sara show up to bail you out; "Bad Ones"/"Echo"/"Can You Rush Them"]
Georgia Ann Muldrow: Overload (Brainfeeder) [so formidable and well-contained in its weirdness it feels like you need a degree to listen; the singing is the whole journey but the barren rhythms tell us more, as do the completely left-field nods to Mancini and Bacharach; "Play It Up"/"Vital Transformation"/"Bobbie's Ditty"]

REJECTS:
Kristin Hersh: Possible Dust Clouds
Mudhoney: Digital Garbage
Cut Copy: Haiku from Zero Remixes EP
The Last Poets: Understand What Black Is Remixes EP

ORPHAN TUNES:
Andrew Bird "Distant Stations" {Mountain Goats cover} [I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats]
Azealia Banks "Treasure Island" [non-LP single]
Ciara ft. Tekno "Freak Me" [non-LP single]
Courtney Barnett "Houses" {Elyse Weinberg cover} [Spotify Singles series]
Cut Copy "Ocean Blue" [non-LP single]
Kendrick Lamar ft. SZA "All the Stars" [Black Panther OST]
The Mountain Goats "Song for Sasha Banks" [non-LP single]
Rhye "Summer Days" [b-side]
Mr. Twin Sister "Power of Two" [non-LP single]
Vince Staples "Get the Fuck Off My Dick" [non-LP single]
Yo La Tengo "Time Fades Away" {Neil Young cover} [Spotify Singles series]

OLD ALBUMS RATED (NOT REVIEWED) THIS MONTH:
Nina Simone: Wild Is the Wind (Philips 1966) [hr]
Kaki King: Glow (Velour 2012) [r]
Kaki King: The Neck Is a Bridge to the Body (s/r 2015) [r]

Sunday, December 2, 2018

The Beatles: Purple Chick deluxe- Abbey Road (1969-96)


(bootleg [3CD])

RECOMMENDED

The most entertaining and purely listenable of all the PC deluxe online-only bootleg editions of the Beatles' canon albums is the one constructed for Abbey Road, less because of any unusual quantity of material that's slipped out from those sessions than because what does exist is so interesting, often to an extent that overwhelms dreadful sound quality, and because the material is less repetitive than usual. It's also a comparatively quick runthrough; since Abbey Road was only ever mixed in stereo, there's no need for multiple versions of the album, and there are few alternate mixes to speak of since the Beatles' status by 1969 ensured their releases worldwide were essentially uniform. (The only difference between my U.S. and UK editions of the vinyl album is that the former lists the 23-second final track, "Her Majesty," on the back cover.) This also goes for the contemporary single, "The Ballad of John and Yoko" b/w "Old Brown Shoe."

Abbey Road's legend precedes it: it's the final triumph of the Beatles, recorded after the Get Back debacle, reuniting them with the titular studio (Get Back was recorded at Twickenham Film Studios and at the new Apple studio on Saville Row) and with the control room fully commandeered by George Martin, with whom relations are said to be strained in the later stretches of the White Album sessions; Glyn Johns had engineered Get Back (though Martin was also present and working). The suggestion is of a harmonious final victory lap, with all bittersweetness thus implied; it's also the most professional-sounding Beatles album, recorded on eight-track with synthesizer and string flourishes and an unusual degree of studio-concocted sweetness -- detail, too, with the band's almost flawless rhythm section never more out-in-front. It's a big crowd-pleaser, and a big totem for the final days of the group; hell, you can even clearly hear Ringo's voice in the four-way chorus of "Carry That Weight."

PC's mission here also encompasses the two "new" Beatles songs released in 1995, "Free as a Bird" and "Real Love." As explained in our reviews of the Anthology releases, these were built around old home demo tapes by the late John Lennon, filled out and elaborated upon by the remaining Beatles and producer Jeff Lynne. PC offers John's incomplete recordings and several steps in the process and well as variants on the finished singles. Without question, excluding Lennon's magnificent solo piano rendition of "Real Love" which was already available elsewhere, this is the least interesting part of the set -- while these must dutifully be counted as Beatles songs and aren't without their charm, they don't feel properly like a piece of the "canon."

Much of the rest is fascinating. Stripped-back mixes of performances issued on Anthology 3 (George's solo demos of "Old Brown Shoe" and "All Things Must Pass"; Paul's of "Come and Get It") are intriguing, although most will understandably prefer the properly mixed released versions. Meanwhile, the early solo George "Something" gets the opposite treatment, with rather corny overdubs not heard on the official disc, to its considerable benefit. George's soulful vocal on this acoustic take on the song has always struck me as more spontaneous and striking than on the actual release, which was also true of his initial recording of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."

There's some marginal stuff dedicated to "The Ballad of John and Yoko" (mixing out most of the instruments leaving what amounts to an acoustic take), "Oh! Darling" (an entire long, meandering vocal overdub session that will be catnip to Paul fans) and "Octopus's Garden" (a few slight variants missing certain overdubs, which may improve the track for some). We get to the good stuff with "You Never Give Me Your Money," an outtake of which boasts a beautiful vocal from Paul and devolves into an interesting jam with lots of organ and uncharaceristic bouncing around. It's fun to hear "Carry That Weight" without guitar, overdubs and finished vocals; more fun yet to hear a very loose take on "Maxwell's Silver Hammer."

However, take 37 of "Something" is more representative of what little we know about the mood of these sessions, in which steely focus and a kind of brooding inevitability seem to have been omnipresent -- it's the master, unmixed with prominent organ and piano, but it devolves into a remarkably dour jam session that's drab but oddly appealing and casts a bit of doubt on the marital bliss of the preceding song then cuts out very abruptly, not unlike "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" but perhaps not by design. These versions of "Come Together" (with the great loud, funky Lennon vocal and a rather stultifying blues-rock coda) and "Ain't She Sweet" (depressing and wonderful) were included on Anthology 3; it's surprising that the full "Something" was not. ("Because" and "The End" offer further duplications of the official release.)

The centerpiece of Abbey Road is of course the medley, which is also the centerpiece of this bootleg insofar as it prompts some of the most intriguing "new" material for fans; we get a complete rough monitor mix, in very poor quality but full of tweaks and unfinished elements that are very much audible. It's not unlike the Peter Sellers tape of the White Album sessions, with countless deviations from released material that will endlessly hypnotize hardcore fans but aren't necessarily obvious or easy to lay out. There are additional backing vocals on "You Never Give Me Your Money," a stark organ used as transition to "Sun King," more Lennon ranting in "Polythene Pam," no strings yet and what seems to be a different lead vocal on "Golden Slumbers," and no vocals at all on "The End." And in another rough mix herein included that may in fact be fake but let's just believe for the moment that it's genuine, the short Paul dick-around "Her Majesty" is restored to its original placement between "Mean Mr. Mustard" and "Polythene Pam," smoothly enough explaining where that supposed missing note went.

The third and final disc is mostly academic, just alternate mixes and documentary clips and heavily processed Anthology versions; most of it is comprised of material already well represented on the previous CD, with the exception of the '90s material, none of which will entice much -- it doesn't have any fly-on-the-wall tidbit of the actual sessions, though if you wondered how Kevin Godley of 10cc would sound when singing "Real Love," it's your lucky day. It's important to remember that, while this collects some of the most fun unissued Beatles ephemera, the Purple Chick compilations are still intended as archives and not as cohesive listening experiences. The last studio session with no missing Beatles was on August 20th, 1969, working on "I Want You"; their last photo session was a few days later, after which it's unknown if they all were ever in the same place again at all. Various configurations would gather at the studio in the next few months, but after the final Beatles session in early 1970 (for "I Me Mine"), the story proper came to an end, Abbey Road standing as the impetus for their last happy if uncomfortable hours as a real band. It's likely that within a few years we'll get to learn a lot more about what was going on in these final days of all four Beatles playing together, but for now, this glimpse at the last hurrah of 1969 gives us plenty to chew on.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

The Beatles: Abbey Road (1969)


(Apple)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

There are a lot of things you can argue with about Abbey Road, the Beatles' penultimate studio album and the last one they recorded; but in this case even more than Sgt. Pepper, laying out and identifying the flaws paints you as a petty and joyless individual. From a cynical standpoint, the record sounds like high-and-mighty rock stars casting their celestial powers with immunity, but the great paradox of the Beatles is that they thought they were incredible ("the best fucking group in the goddamned world," as John Lennon put it), and they were correct. Hence, more fun to listen to than any other Beatles album, this singalong amusement park ride is guarded and calculated, but never claustrophobic. Its faults do not become clear until after it has faded; and strangely, even if its songs and music are settled and closed-ended in a way that the White Album and Get Back never were, its magic never fades, perhaps because it is the most populist creation in the group's discography -- keyed to the pleasure of the broadest possible audience.

And it is magic -- a career summary of sorts that makes clear the Beatles' awareness that their story was finished, or more appropriately, complete; if only other guiding lights of the '60s had reached similar conclusions around this time. (One reason for the Beatles' prolonged reign as the most popular band in rock past or present is that they knew when and how to leave their audience in a permanent state of yearning.) After being semi-estranged from the group during the Get Back project, George Martin was brought back into the fold and with his help, the Beatles cast it all as a nostalgia trip, a sort of clip show of everything the band (and their producer) had accomplished and were still capable of doing. You get the straight-up rock & roll, though maybe too little of it, the wicked humor, some friendly experimentation, and lots of tracks that segue and slide in and out of attention at will, sending hearts back to the mind-expanding summer of '67 when a world had opened up that already seemed to be fading after just two years. There are probably traces of every other Beatles album somewhere in this one.

Side One offers most of the conventional songs -- two of John's, two of Paul's, one each from Ringo and George. Side Two, aside from Harrison's breezy and moving "Here Comes the Sun" and Lennon's gorgeous but overly precious "Because," belongs to Paul almost fully, if not in terms of the makeup of its compositions or performances then certainly in its overall thrust. Here is the famous "Abbey Road medley," with its eight-song rollercoaster of unfinished ideas and minor puff pieces -- the emptying out of their notebooks another signal that they were packing it in -- built into a stunning crescendo for the band's entire career. Lennon's songs are funny but fluffy with conviction, the best being the energetic "Polythene Pam," initially -- like "Mean Mr. Mustard" -- written in India and demoed for the White Album but never finished; the medley concept made such an act superfluous. McCartney's portions are either bizarrely endearing ("You Never Give Me Your Money," "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window") or unabashedly schlocky (the beautiful melodrama "Golden Slumbers")... and yet, somehow, the whole thing not only comes off, but comes off beautifully.

"You Never Give Me Your Money" in particular, despite fragmentation that calls the scourge of the "rock opera" to mind at one end and the glories of the more languid and perverse "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" at the other, occasions what may be the most purely emotional moment in the band's catalog, certainly in Paul's career, which is impressive in a song whose overall meaning amounts to nothing much: this is when Paul adopts his bluesy Elvis voice to announce with wistful but unflappable assurance that "soon we'll be away from here / step on the gas and wipe that tear away / one sweet dream came true today," and for just a moment, the direct connection of all this to the bleak slide from the '60s on into the '70s, from the Beatles to Watergate and Vietnam and arena rock, ceases to matter and Paul seems to be communicating completely out of time, talking to any of us and all of us, assuring us that we can go on, which -- as the prospective fan grows older -- becomes increasingly important. To return to this moment is to access a hopefulness and charge that we are sometimes lulled into thinking is only accessible in our youth. Like the Beach Boys at their best, the song dares to look ahead by looking backward, and does so with unfaded defiance. Fine music was in Paul's future, but never a moment of such unforced and ageless romance, never one that swells the heart and forces it open like this. There are similar moments of odd transcendence in "Bathroom Window," all of them in the performance itself; Paul's ability to tap into his reserves of feeling in a singing voice that can sometimes seem all too calculated enlivened the already brilliant "Penny Lane" and the otherwise goofy "Lovely Rita," and it reappears here when he comes across as sounding absolutely free of himself, free of any baggage, when singing utter nonsense like "though she thought I knew the answer / well, I knew but I could not say."

The b-movie director Edward D. Wood Jr., or at least the biopic about him directed by Tim Burton, had an unconscious point about the worst ideas being the best ones if they're presented with the right enthusiasm. The Beatles, of all people, have the dubious honor of making that clear by stacking drunken inanities like "Sun King," "Carry That Weight" (which occasions a clever reprise of "You Never Give Me Your Money") and "The End" together until they add up to something. It is strictly a studio triumph, of course, all the tweaking and knob-twisting of Sgt. Pepper perfected at an almost inhumane, overly professional distance, but a hell of a hummable one. And when taken as an elegiac look back at who the Beatles had been and who they became, the entire piece is touching in a way it could never be if divorced from the full context of the band's story. Please Please Me and Sgt. Pepper, in other words, are what make the medley work.

That said, it's now clear that Side One is the more consistent of the two divisions, at least when you break its individual songs out of this context. It offers the album's most substantial composition and greatest performance -- John's wounding "Come Together," a gloriously played Chuck Berry homage that slows down and amps up until it sounds like total sleaze, infectiously so, and fulfills the promise of "The Word" by featuring the writer's best-ever sloganeering (with a side of the sublimely absurd), "Give Peace a Chance" and "All You Need Is Love" be damned -- and throws bones both to the Beatles' sophisticated followers in George's lovely, undeniable (if overproduced) classic "Something" and to the fans of dirty-ass rock & roll with Paul's "Oh! Darling" and John's "I Want You (She's So Heavy)." Vocally, the former is flawless; musically, the latter is. Both men could write far better songs than this, however, and Abbey Road often seems like a gigantic curtain hiding people who are saving their best ideas for when this gig is finished. (Unfortunately, "Oh! Darling" is one of the last good ideas Paul would have until 1973 or so.) "Something" is a notable exception, and prompted the band's first A-side that wasn't a Lennon-McCartney composition, eventually becoming an actual standard. Like several of George's other songs from this era, it's better stripped down in an acoustic version that was eventually released in the '90s with a much looser, more soulful vocal from George; but it's foolish to deny how effective the master recording is as a grand, deeply felt piece of soft pop. And for once, neither it nor "Here Comes the Sun" (a more appropriate home for the album's atypical gloss) comes equipped with any of George's odd cynicism and scorn toward the women he sings about. The corner he has turned, it seems, is allowing himself to be seduced.

Ringo Starr, curiously but as on Sgt. Pepper, supplies the most human touch of all. His second full-fledged composition "Octopus's Garden," though it's clearly "Yellow Submarine Mark II," is surprisingly magnetic and may have more lasting appeal than anything here aside from "Come Together." That's in part because of the sheer force of enthusiasm, and Martin's litany of sound effects helps elevate it, but it also fits the ecstatic mood of the record in a manner that "Yellow Submarine" didn't, never quite gelling with the druggy paranoia of Revolver. Surprisingly, the lyrics add a great deal to this; a fantasy of "no one there to tell us what to do" is one thing, but longing for people to live in circumstances "knowing they're happy and they're safe" gets at something deeper, a utopian ideal that must have seemed attractive to the sickly boy who'd grown up to be a working class musician and eventually an endlessly mobbed rock star, but resonates even more to anyone in the Beatles' far-flung audience for whom "safety" is an inherently beautiful concept. In the end, it's a childlike dream that matters more than its obvious, more famous antecedent because it's secretly about something obviously more real, and therefore more touching.

I'm even partial to "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," a music-hall routine backgrounding another of McCartney's long-winded articulate jokes, this one a black comedy that with a few twists could well have turned into his "Lady Godiva's Operation"; it's less a song than a loopy comedy sketch, so it's no wonder Lennon hated it (though his participation certainly sounds enthused enough), but could any band except the Beatles twist what amounts to a murder ballad into a grinning, playful singalong without alienating anyone?

None of the Beatles really appear to be running out of steam, bored as they may have been with the outlet by now; the reason they come across as more buoyant here than on Get Back is perhaps inherent to the flaws of that concept, though it's more likely that the writing was on the wall for them and that Abbey Road was produced, played, written the way it was and in a mood of relative peace because it was known, or at least suspected, that it was a last hurrah for the Beatles as a unit. At any rate, they continue to be wholly devoted to their craft. George Martin's work has evolved yet again, and it's surprising that the Beatles signed off on the record's extremely polished nature due in part to the new eight-track tape machine at the studio; they had rebuked the slick, overly professional sound of the pre-fame records they made with Bert Kaempfert and Tony Sheridan for Polydor in Hamburg, but Abbey Road is no less slick, which does slightly hamper its vitality even as it affords new opportunities like the entrance of surprisingly tasteful Moog overdubs and the most flattering stage George Harrison had for his guitar work on any record up to this point. If some tracks can be sugary and overblown when you listen too closely, the extra space also allows something like the harrowing conclusion to the eight-minute "I Want You" to sound as apocalyptic as "Revolution 9" with only the power of a stack of guitars and white noise in tow. Martin must have been in heaven with the possibilities eight-track offered for his ornate, baroque pop ideas on Side Two, but it's hard to miss that the greater difficulty in crafting Revolver and Sgt. Pepper, and their harder, rawer sound, make those records considerably more exciting than this one.

But again, Abbey Road isn't meant to move further down the road. It's a celebration of the road itself. It sounds like it was meant to be "a suitable ending," and it is -- slightly corrupted by the flawed epilogue Let It Be, but thematically flawless in the way it presents itself as a specifically sanctioned finale to the Beatles' story. Paul had asked George Martin if they could make a record "the way they used to," and Martin agreed on condition of basic obedience. Had they not pulled themselves together long enough to make this happen one last time, the Beatles' legacy might have always seemed somehow incomplete. But they did, and it doesn't.

***

[Expanded from a review originally posted in 2003.]

Sunday, November 18, 2018

War is over (if you want it): October 2018 music diary

If you were one of those people who wished it could be (1968 again) and didn't care to look in on new music at all but wanted just to dwell on the past, you'd nevertheless certainly have no shortage of exploring to do this autumn with massive archive dumps from the Kinks, Bob Dylan, John Lennon and of course the Beatles. I'm not even touching the Lennon, Dylan and Kinks stuff yet but lifelong passion couldn't keep me from carving out time for the new collection of White Album outtakes and they are indeed lovely, putting forward a whole new narrative about that era of the band and about what happens to be my favorite of their LPs. It's also wonderful to have perhaps the best Beatles bootleg item of all, the Esher demos, finally out in the world in complete form officially. A full-fledged review of the super deluxe boxed set will have to wait -- it's in the Beatles queue, as it were, and I'm still debating whether I need a physical copy of my own; I skipped the Pepper set except electronically and haven't regretted it yet -- and I haven't even listened to Giles Martin's new remix as of this moment, but you can expect a dissertation on the matter in due time. That long blues-dirge "Helter Skelter," the Elvis cover and the instrumental proto-new wave version of "Me and My Monkey" are giving me all kinds of much-needed life, though. For now, it's back to modern-day obligations, and we seem to be winding down a bit, or maybe I'm the one who's doing that...

Jlin: Autobiography (Planet Mu) [r]
Pretty much a Jlin demo reel, a groovy package embodying her whole bag of tricks to date with the usual immersive sonic challenges and restless, furious sampling and creativity. It doesn't reveal anything new, but there's a reason: rather than a conventional studio album it's a soundtrack of sorts for a Royal Ballet dance suite, so it amounts to something like Jean Vigo's Taris, a great artist working on commission and using it as an opportunity to experiment while delivering for her own brand and portfolio. As such, it's a must for those who loved Black Origami and/or Dark Energy but we'll have to wait a bit longer to learn where she's going to take us next. This does make me want to see the Wayne McGregor piece it's meant to accompany, though.

Tim Hecker: Konoyo (Kranky) [r]
The first Hecker release I've heard that I found more than just tolerable; that may not speak well of my taste in adventure, as it's clearly his least ambitious and most conventional work, with a laid-back and almost soft rock-evocative sound despite its wordless, often unmusical ambiance, as if someone took away all the singing and instrumentation on a Chris Isaak album and left only the vibes.

Phosphorescent: C'est La Vie (Dead Oceans)
I really hate Matthew Houck's appearance (fair game because his damn face is plastered across the front of this), persona, vibe, lazily button-pushing derivative sound, so it frustrates me to the extreme that this is basically competent alterna-mood music with textures that capture the hopeless late night feeling of the stuff that made me feel comforted in my echo chamber of depression as a teen, though specifically it calls to mind the masterfully miserable one-shot with the long title I don't feel like looking up by Primitive Radio Gods. I never heard that album but I was told it was garbage and completely avoided living up to the sound of the radio song. Well, I guess now we get to hear a whole full-length record of it, and divorced from major label marketing to boot, so if this is your scene I'm not going to yell at you about it. "New Birth in New England" is perfectly lovely junk, '70s adult contemporary AM filtered through the Postal Service.

Fucked Up: Dose Your Dreams (Merge) [r]
This sprawling, sonically varied punk rock paean is the easiest time I've had with a Fucked Up release so far, whatever that means. Abraham's vocals continue to grate, but he isn't always the one singing, and when he is it's often the not-entirely-unappealing sound of somebody screaming over Owen Pallett's string arrangements. The mixture of voices helps a lot, not just the MVP backup singing but lead spots like Jennifer Castle's country rock interlude "Came Down Wrong." Like Titus Andronicus (newly labelmates), the group offers as dynamic a sound as we get from punk rock, much less from hardcore; like Titus Andronicus, at their best they are triumphant and defiant in their pain ("Joy Stops Time"). With touches of new wave ("Normal People"), shoegaze (the complicated, beautiful "How to Die Happy") and the occasional Medieval-sounding guitar lick ("Tell Me What You See"), plus a title track that sounds like Hall & Oates reimagined Pretty Hate Machine, there's something here for everyone, which is a good excuse for how ridiculously long it is; the entire album has a cumulative and welcome vibe of rejuvenation. It's never going to be a part of my day to day life, but still, well done.

Twenty One Pilots: Trench (Atlantic)
Won a Grammy before I'd so much as heard of them, and I wasn't alone -- that particular event prompted Ann Powers to tweet about how the number of people making similar remarks were very clearly betraying the absence of young teenagers in their lives. It wasn't any more off-the-wall, in its fashion, than Arcade Fire winning, when a lot of us rejoiced and pointlessly mocked the people who were wholly clueless about what had just happened and why. Twenty One Pilots, meantime, are no more brainless and dunderheaded than the lazier end of what passed for modern rock when I was in high school -- the waning days of mall punk, the very early days of emo -- and there's no point chattering about being "too old" when, in fact, I remember feeling completely baffled when I first walked into a Hot Topic in 2001, at age 17, and had heard of almost nothing being played or peddled. Presumably, if you're older or younger than me and are a music nerd now, you could tell the same basic story. In other words, very little has changed, and this safely bland, fake-socially conscious duo from Columbus are more or less just a stopgap between the craftier pop world and whatever mature interests and eventual nostalgia they will set off themselves in their audience. I listened to this, found the vocals annoying, the music competently catchy, the production antiseptic, and the whole thing devoid of any kind of appeal I'm going to remember, but that's because I'm not who it's trying to capture, and I don't have the basic interest in mainstream rock past or present to warrant any intellectual or emotional attachment like I might have with bubblegum or R&B targeted to kids. My response is the same as it is for Justin Bieber or Backstreet Boys (who had great songs) or Panic! At the Disco or the fucking Archies (who didn't), just thank god it's not whatever mean-spirited dullards are analogous to Limp Bizkit, the Knack, or the Eagles who are capturing the hearts and minds of the young.

Elvis Costello: Look Now (Concord)
I like Costello but I'm not part of his cult; however, I'm part of others and so I understand how this works -- those who worship him at his best will find plenty of note here, while the more casual followers will stick their noses in, recognize that he's still at work and still recognizably Elvis Costello, and move on. From my distance the one thing that sticks out at all is "Suspect My Tears," and that's because it sounds convincingly like bottom-of-the-barrel AM sleaze circa 1978, the ubiquity of which seems to be precisely what "Radio Radio" was decrying.

Daniel Avery: Diminuendo (Phantasy Sound EP) [r]
Not sure how effective the sneak-attack release strategy is when you're not on Beyoncé's level, but this is a nice and immersive supplement release, the second short-form set this year from the prolific DJ; it's scarier, more assaultive than his excellent album Songs for Alpha and clearly aims for a livelier setting despite its often brooding textures. It's '90s rave with 2010s drugs.

Sheck Wes: MUDBOY (Interscope) [c]
This 20 year-old Harlem rapper's debut, riding in on an inept top-ten hit from last year, is aimed specifically enough at naughty high schoolers that it would never have been on my radar if not for an outrageous rave in Pitchfork recently; it's beyond insipid in its rote, amateurish "hard" chanting and the lazy muck of its dank, bleak Soundcloud beats (see "WESPN"), and lacks the wit of fellow acquired-taste weirdos like Young Thug and Lil B. I don't think hip hop is dead or in trouble but people talk about the indulgent, stagnant, circling-the-drain feeling of rap ten years ago and then praise this? Then again I wasn't much for trap in the first place -- never even liked Future, who was nothing if not a nightmarish minimalist whose stuff could have all sorts of sociological claptrap positive and negative read into it -- and who am I to say "Mo Bamba" is a laughable dirge if I'm listening to it while sitting in my office drinking Diet Pepsi with a cat in my lap? Sheck Wes isn't selling this crud for just any setting, he wants to pump you up, and for what it's worth I can't think of any form of rock music designed to pump me up so thoughtlessly and primordially that I don't hate. (Remember Fang Island? Remember "We Will Rock You"?) Fortunately, our guy has a built-in explanation for the monosyllabic pap that's supposed to be a whole lot of nothing, say the defenders, that's occasionally interrupted by the serious self-regarding "commentary" plugged by the other defenders: "Why I say bitch so much? Let me explain it. It's the only word... where I can feel and hear all my anger. It don't got nothin' to do with like bitches. It's just, bitch! Bitch!" Naughty by Nature's etymology digressions at least rhymed, and Ice-T's "bitch" tirade was at least funny. But I'm so old I don't know who 21 Pilots are.

Neneh Cherry: Broken Politics (Smalltown Supersound) [r]
"Broken" is the right word for this shambolic series of wavering vocal rants, weird production choices and half-songs that spin their wheels on invisible chords and often go full minutes without anything resembling a hook. It's daunting and addictive at its best; when she does go pop, like on "Natural Skin Deep," she overruns the track with so many intrusive sound effects (your ride's here) and mocking tricks it seems to dare you to enjoy yourself. It's the opposite of Tierra Whack's album, which gave you so many ideas and refused to run with any of them; this expounds at great length on its most unappealing tangents, punishing instead of just challenging. It's not avant garde exactly -- too exacting in its message, too thrilling in its delight at its execution; too much Sly Stone, baby -- but an artist dismissed in the mainstream as a one-shot going off like this is certainly braver by orders of magnitude than whatever, hmm, Nada Surf is up to (if anything).

Yoko Ono: Warzone (Chimera) [r]
I don't know if this will be Ono's last studio album. I hope it isn't, because the original material on her last two had such vitality that I don't want her to cap off a brilliant musical career spanning six decades with a revision of old music, similar to past remix and cover-oriented projects but in this case with actual re-recordings and rearrangements. Nevertheless, there are far worse ways for her to send us away than with a breathtaking version of her late husband's signature song "Imagine," in a performance of grace and stark hesitation that brings out all of the complications and yearnings that Phil Spector drowns out on the original recording. This track isn't just a bookend to Imagine, John Lennon's 1971 album that was reissued in a lavish deluxe package this fall; nor is it just a bookend to Ono's uncomfortably public entrance into household-name status that began fifty years ago with her whispering into a tape recorder at Abbey Road, as also suggested on a lavish deluxe package out this fall, and capturing the meaningless ire of a racist, misogynist, possessive public that that had already spent five years turning a gifted band into dogs rolling over for them (an almost inevitable consequence of just how gifted) -- I haven't checked online to see who is outraged by this new "Imagine" and how much, but I'm sure it's quite delicious. No, this is a bookend to a united front, a story, a message that goes back even further, back before Ono's experimental films and art and performances and back even beyond the '60s, to Lennon sixty years ago on a stage belting out "Puttin' on the Style" and living-emitting the first traces of a philosophy of performance, liberation and abandon that no lyrics, hackneyed or precise, could ever wholly capture -- no longer alive to impart that message, he implicitly trusts his wife with it, and she carries it on into the darkness, and whatever you think of both of these people, that fucking means something. I don't mean the lyrics, I mean the absolute conviction of what was behind them in the specific moment they were being delivered by first one vessel and now another, and how any great song affords such rich opportunities for true artists like these to surrender, command, and live inside a song; she makes it so much her own, without ever discounting the ghost in the room, she could be some alternate-universe Billie Holiday, or Angelique Kidjo fusing the abstractions of "Crosseyed and Painless" with experience: lost my shape, indeed.

As for the rest, only four tracks are revisions of songs that come from stronger albums: "Now or Never" from Approximately Infinite Universe, "Woman Power" from Feeling the Space, "Why" from Plastic Ono Band and "I'm Alive" from Between My Head and the Sky; these also tend to be the highlights, with the interesting exception of the title track which opens the record in a moment of discord and chaos and was originally recorded for the multimedia New York Rock project. The rest focuses heavily on the mostly forgotten 1985 Reagan protest album Starpeace, and while these versions sympathetically given a skeletal modern twist by Ono (coproducing with Thomas Bartlett, who also contributes piano and progamming) improve on the originals in this case, they're not among her best work, but it's understandable that she focuses on them because of their politics, antiwar messaging and optimism. Like the sloganeering and aforementioned, fearless performance-of-self she initiated with Lennon, it's all inarticulate and messy but it couldn't possibly be more timely to the world we now live in, and because her vocal power is undiminished -- has, if anything, gotten stronger and harder to shake or escape in her eighties -- she is right in front with playfulness and confidence that breathe new life into the songs, even if no moment resonates quite like the new, chillingly urgent meaning the line "I hope someday you'll join us" now has. Because if they don't join us, where does that leave us?

ALSO RECOMMENDED:
- Tunng: Songs You Make at Night (Full Time Hobby) [the beta band]
- Interpol: Marauder (Matador) [the definition of Interpol is "doing the same thing over and over again and wanting the same result"]
- Sauna Youth: Deaths (Upset the Rhythm) [punk is so nice and neighborly these days]
- Paul McCartney: Egypt Station (Capitol) [sings like his life depends on it, writes with imagination but little resonance, but his sheer nonchalant functionality remains a miracle when laid against almost any other '60s rocker, excluding Yoko but including Dylan, whose growl through "Things We Said Today" of a few years back delivers an accidental revelation in this regard; "Hunt You Down-Naked-C Link"/"Happy with You"/"Fuh You"]
- Kandace Springs: Indigo (Blue Note) [these foolish things remind me of you; "Unsophisticated"/"Piece of Me"/"People Make the World Go Round"]
- Lonnie Holley: MITH (Jagjaguwar) [found-art folk artist records weirdest blues album I ever remember hearing, making Willis Earl Beal sound like Ben Vaughn]
- Denzel Curry: TA13OO (Loma Vista) [aggression in search of a target, eventually found but it takes three (brief) discs; "SIRENS | Z1RENZ"]
- Adult.: This Behavior (Dais) [hard house and synthpop melded with aggressive chant-singing, with the occasional twisted and beautiful moment and a song that cops its bassline from Vince Clarke by way of the Kinks -- pure entertainment; "Violent Shakes"/"Silent Exchange"/"This Behavior"]

ALSO RECOMMENDED FOR THE AMBIENT FILES:
- Oliver Coates: Shelly's on Zenn-La (RVNG Intl.)
- Chilly Gonzales: Solo Piano III (Gente Threat)
- Ital Tek: Bodied (Planet Mu) [intensify your routine]
- Sarah Davachi: Gave in Rest (Ba Da Bing!) [all gloom all the time]
- The Field: Infinite Moment (Kompakt)
- Haiku Salut: There Is No Elsewhere (Prah) [feel good lost; "Occupy"/"Nettles"]

FURTHER INVESTIGATION TO COME:
* Kristin Hersh: Possible Dust Clouds
* Cat Power: Wanderer
Exploded View: Obey
Mudhoney: Digital Garbage
Swearin': Fall into the Sun
St. Vincent: MassEducation
Graham Parker: Cloud Symbols
Colter Wall: Songs of the Plains
Matthew Dear: Bunny
Georgia Ann Muldrow: Overload
Empress Of: Us

REJECTS:
Menace Beach: Black Rainbow Sound
Eric Bachmann: No Recover
Cher: Dancing Queen
The Joy Formidable: AAARTH [NYIM]
Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs: King of Cowards
Marissa Nadler: For My Crimes [NYIM]
Jose James: Lean on Me
Lady Gaga: A Star Is Born OST
Marie Davidson: Working Class Woman
Molly Burch: First Flower
Eric Church: Desperate Man
Adrianne Lenker: Abysskiss
John Grant: Love Is Magic
Tom Morello: The Atlas Underground
How to Dress Well: The Anteroom
Cloud Nothings: Last Building Burning
MØ: Forever Neverland [NYIM]
Maribou State: Kingdoms in Colour [NYIM]

ORPHAN TUNES
Maribou State ft. Holly Walker "Nervous Tics" [Kingdoms in Color] {note: this contains a synth sound I recognize from Depeche Mode's "Leave in Silence," thus bias may be in play}

Saturday, November 10, 2018

The Beatles: Yellow Submarine (1969)


(Apple)

Delayed by a few months to avoid competition (?) with the White Album, this film soundtrack is much less a Beatles album than the corresponding packages for A Hard Day's Night and Help!... in England, at least. In the U.S., in order for Capitol to squeeze maximum sales potential out of each and every recorded Beatles track, the soundtracks removed all non-film numbers and padded out the running time with scoring and orchestral tidbits. Ken Thorne's score for Help! was mildly interesting, enough to get partial credit for introducing George Harrison to the sitar, but hardly constituted added value for Beatles fans, a bit like expecting Prince and getting Danny Elfman; on A Hard Day's Night, George Martin's lush instrumental rearrangements of Beatles tunes were the kind of half-baked Muzak that appeals only to sickos like me. (When I was a kid I preferred Martin's strung-out "And I Love Her" to the Beatles'.) But this obviously wasn't Beatles music and, by a lot of standards, was therefore something of a ripoff. Among the Beatles' American soundtracks to this point, only Magical Mystery Tour, issued strictly as an extended-play in England, was padded out with actual songs by the band -- the irony here being that the incidental music in that film was actually their own work but has never been properly issued.

The four new Beatles songs on the Yellow Submarine LP were initially to be given the same treatment; with the bonus of the then-unissued "Across the Universe," a 7" EP was even mastered and prepped for release but was cancelled at what seems to have been the last minute. This would have been a more logical home for these haphazard, relatively inconsequential scraps, which on the album itself are joined not by "Universe" but by the title song, originally from Revolver, and the single A-side "All You Need Is Love," which also figures in the film and, in fairness, had yet to appear on a British LP up to now. It's curious that the Beatles opted to sign off on an album that commits the same basic consumer fraud as the UA and Capitol records from overseas; only Side One is by the Beatles, whose name is plastered on the cover; the rest is George Martin's score for the animated film. It's even more curious that this odd package has retained its place in the Beatles' discography ever since, and officially Apple even considers it one of their studio albums, which is a rather laughable redefining of terms. Further irony -- or, perhaps, an explanation -- is provided by the perverse truth that Martin's half of the record is far stronger than the Beatles'.

It shouldn't have been surprising that just two months after putting out their no-holds-barred double album, the Beatles could only muster up a handful of new tracks, though the rules of quality-of-quantity certainly don't seem to apply to the thinnest, most wanting collection of music they ever released. Three of the four are outtakes from the Sgt. Pepper period and its immediate aftermath, with the upshot that they sound quite anachronistic when hearing the band's output in sequence. The producer of the film Yellow Submarine, Al Brodax, would later complain that he felt he was thrown the bones of rejected material just to be shut up, as the Beatles regarded the contractually-obligated animated feature as something of a nuisance; John Lennon's sole contribution "Hey Bulldog" comes from slightly later (but still pre-White Album, hence just as distant) and reflects a bit more care thanks to its Keith Richards riffage and driving piano, a bit of a silly "Day Tripper" knockoff. While not top-tier material, it's somewhere on a level with the songs they created for Magical Mystery Tour: charming, lighthearted fare with a newly rediscovered zeal -- dating from the tentatively stripped-back "Lady Madonna" period between the psychedelic days and the India trip -- for good old rock & roll. Submarine could have done well with a few morsels of tossed-off, humorous fun like this, maybe comparable to the band's typically strong b-sides from earlier on, but Brodax was right to complain: half the songs he received from the band are genuinely awful.

Paul's "All Together Now" manages to exhibit all of his worst tendencies; it's as bad as "Hello, Goodbye" but thankfully shorter; and the band does seem to be in a less enthused (probably more stoned) mindset for the session. Still, the Beatles fans who see this as more important or vital than "Let 'Em In" are fooling themselves. Being stupid is fine, but cute? Unbearable. Worse, "Only a Northern Song" -- though produced with some audible gusto by George Martin -- is absolutely the worst song George Harrison wrote until Dark Horse, and is in the running as the worst composition released by any of the Beatles in the '60s. The laziness of the songwriting is almost awe-inspiring, particularly the lyrics. "If you're listening to this song / You may think the chords are going wrong / But they're not / He just wrote it like that." "We just play it like that." Excuses, excuses. The melody is typical Harrison: descending notes and a whole lot of self-imposed misery.

Thankfully, Harrison -- this is the only instance when he offers more new material than either John or Paul -- also contributes a much better song, the feedback-filled and power chord-laden "It's All Too Much," a Beatles obscurity that's nevertheless a surprisingly joyous piece of true psychedelia boasting some of its composer's best guitar work on record. The filmmakers wisely used it at the film's exhilarating resolution; accompanied by the visuals, it's a triumphantly delightful artifact of its time that does what nothing else on the Beatles' side of this record manages: it makes you believe for a moment. In fact, while still artistically facile compared to most of the White Album, it's a good enough song that it's quite surprising it has managed to remain almost universally unheralded; the Yellow Submarine album is indeed one of the few effective hiding places left in this catalog. The only caveat, really, is that the released version fades after six minutes, at which point bootlegs allow us to hear that the band proceeds to jam at considerable length, elevating the song a hell of a lot, indulgent as it may be. The Beatles' moment has lasted a long time but they will always be a band of and defined by the '60s, and that's one reason this recording -- which unabashedly celebrates the atmosphere and strangeness of what, by the time it was actually released, was already starting to transform into a bygone time -- is so compelling. It's a pity that the record replaces this climax with the more cloying and obvious "All You Need Is Love," even if it is capable of reaching toward the same sort of curious longing for a brief moment almost none of us now listening ever got to experience.

It's no longer relevant in the streaming era, but back in the CD years, $17 was an absurd amount to pay for four Beatles songs to round out their catalog, unavailable elsewhere until the 1999 release of a remixed soundtrack album with much more generous Beatles content. Everything about this package is a bit off-key and stupid, like the fact that the liner notes are just a perversely hyperbolic review of the White Album (comparing the band to Schubert, of all people); in this case the Americans were less cynical, offering a Tolkien-like explainer of Apple Bonkers and Blue Meanies and other creatures from the feature film. The wise consumer and casual fan is likely to understandably prefer Yellow Submarine Songtrack, gathering every Beatles song heard in the film in newly sparkly mixes, including even those only audible in fragments like "Think for Yourself."

Alas, that doesn't mean this album is devoid of value, even if its place in the "canon" is distinctly undeserved; its artistic virtues, however, have nothing to do with the Beatles. If you are a fan of the genuinely intoxicating feature film, a masterwork of surrealism, resourceful animation and imagination and a true feast for the senses -- so much so that the band was impressed and embarrassed when it turned out their own new songs weren't up to the quality standards of the film -- George Martin's evocative and beautiful score is a must. Skip the Beatles stuff entirely -- it really belongs with Past Masters anyway -- and prepare to be transported. I don't really grade film scores because my standards aren't very well-defined, but I'd rate Martin's work here as operating at the top level of the form; you decide if it's worth the dross, but certainly don't come here expecting the Greatest Rock Band to hold their end of the bargain.

***

[Heavily revised version of a review first posted in 2003.]

Sunday, November 4, 2018

The Beatles: Purple Chick deluxe- White Album (1968)


(bootleg [12CD])

RECOMMENDED

I'm writing this at a great disadvantage, because at this moment -- late October of 2018 -- we're on the cusp of an influx: one of the biggest archival dumps in the entire history of the Beatles on record, which is no small event. The forthcoming White Album deluxe reissue contains not only a new remix of the album and the first official release of the complete Kinfauns demo tape (thus making the review you're reading a great deal shorter), but three full discs of studio outtakes dedicated to this specific LP, the most exhaustive such collection of material in their career to date and a major boon to fans and students of their work. The six discs of Anthology material were a slightly bigger deal, of course, but they did not have the time for such a deep-focused dive into any of their individual albums, and the incremental recording methods of Sgt. Pepper made its outtakes considerably less compelling. Throughout this discography, I've tried not to resort to any redundancy in going over bootlegged material; if something's been officially released, I talk about it when reviewing the project that saw it prepared and sold for the public. Obviously, since the new White Album discs are yet to be issued at the moment, I can't be sure I've mapped it all out perfectly, so if you're reading this in the future and I've not revised it, I apologize for any unintentional overlap. That said, close examinations of the tracklist indicate that Apple has mostly resisted plumbing the material we've already heard, choosing instead to offer performances and arrangements that never made it out to the black market; that means a whole lot of actual new Beatles are on the way, and let me tell you, I am psyched, not least because this is my favorite of their albums.

Purple Chick's release is itself a behemoth, a tantalizing twelve discs, though of course it like all of the PC releases is designed by and for completists, so there's a lot the average listener would perceive as redundant or boring. Twelve discs of White Album miscellany isn't, in other words, as amazing as it sounds... but it's still quite fucking cool, and again, it seems that most of it is poised to remain elusive to official release for the time being.

The first four discs are, as usual, the canon material, here covering twice as many discs because this is a double album. The "Hey Jude"/"Revolution" single, the first Apple release, is also included under this umbrella by the compilers. Discs one and two are stereo, three and four mono; famously, the Beatles and especially Paul had caught wind of the more obsessive contingent's tracking and pot-fueled discussion of differences and anomalies between mono and stereo mixes of their work, and on this last occasion (this was the final Beatles album with a dedicated mono mix, though Yellow Submarine saw the light of day as a fold-down and true mono mixes were made for an unissued EP; in America, the White Album only made it to stores in stereo) they evidently sought to have a bit of fun with this by making many of the tracks deliberately different, sometimes so radically so -- most notably in the case of "Helter Skelter" -- that they can barely be considered differing mixes as opposed to full-on alternate versions. The specific alterations are too numerous to lay out, but the general heavier bass and the many oddball exclusions (handclaps on "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" and "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?") or additions (watery effects on the solo in "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," an extra guitar in "Honey Pie") and full-on bizarre divergences like the goofing around with animal sounds on "Blackbird" and "Piggies" and the speed change on "Don't Pass Me By" make the mono version a fascinating and fun listen. It's quite difficult to prefer one over the other when they are so different. (One strange feature of the PC transfer of the mono album is that they do not replicate the one fold-down included, of "Revolution 9." Rumor has it that "Revolution 1" is also a fold, but that's faithfully reproduced.) Also, while not part of the album, "Revolution" is so clearly superior in its raucous mono single mix that even Lennon remarked on it in interviews when complaining that the Blue Album used the comparatively gutless stereo mix.

The two major outtakes from the White Album sessions, "Not Guilty" and "What's the New Mary Jane?" saw release on Anthology 3, but many fans considered those mixes -- prepared for the cancelled 1980s album Sessions -- bastardized, with modern echo effects and strange editing added. Bootlegs have preserved the original versions; in fact there are many versions and mixes of both songs on the collection, and while "Not Guilty" eventually wears out its welcome despite it being very nice to hear the complete version without Geoff Emerick's alterations, "What's the New Mary Jane?" is just bizarre and freeform enough to entertain in all its various iterations. Also presented as an "outtake" but not actually one is "Sour Milk Sea," a fine George Harrison rocker demoed during the Kinfauns gathering and eventually given to singer Jackie Lomax, whose record is a popping, crackling single that somehow went nowhere, but its major significance is that it features all four Beatles plus Eric Clapton and Nicky Hopkins. We'll talk more about that recording in another time and place but on this set, as has been popular practice on bootlegs for a while, we get faked out: Lomax's vocals have been mixed out and Harrison's from the demo awkwardly flown in. It's a bit superfluous but not entirely a bad listen.

A few modern mixes from Love and Anthology follow the first presentation of the album, the most intriguing being the 2007 orchestral version of George's gorgeous acoustic "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" performance, which was already superior in every way to the canonical White Album version and is made even better by a new tasteful, enveloping string arrangement from George Martin -- his last official work before retirement, captured movingly on the documentary film All Together Now. That solo George version of the track is also offered in unedited mono, with his count-in and charmingly jarring coda "let's hear that back!". The only other major extra on the mono discs is a corrective to my only big criticism of the mono LP, the mono mix of "Don't Pass Me By" restored to its correct speed, and it sounds great.

In this spot you would originally have read a few paragraphs about the wonderful Esher demos that compose the totality of disc five, recorded at George's house after the India trip, a rough acoustic gathering of the songs that would later comprise this album plus a few from Abbey Road and even some future solo records, and a fascinating set of "unplugged" alternate versions that are often ridiculously lovely. It's the best lengthy collection of booted, unreleased Beatles music in existence, but as of a few weeks from when I'm writing this, that's poised to change with the entire tape about to find its way to record stores and streaming services the world over; as a result, I'll be talking about the Esher tape in its entirety as part of my review of the deluxe White Album collection when I get to that release. Just one comment, though, is that the demos are so good and engrossing they would've been a major release all on their own, and easily rate "highly recommended" status if taken in separately. (It does seem that the bootlegged demo tape, which was originally sourced from John Lennon's personal copy of the sessions, has a few unique items in comparison to the forthcoming official release, but most are of fairly marginal consequence, and in all cases the official versions appear to be superior and more significant.)

That said, discs six through eight offer an interesting alternative to the officially released session tapes, mostly consisting of material that won't be on Apple's new boxed set, and are both a more haphazard (because of the erratic song selection) and scholarly (because of the volume and extensiveness) lot of music. We start with an inferior version of perhaps the last "new" Beatles bootleg item to date -- manufactured "multitracks" excluded -- and one of the most intriguing, take 20 of "Revolution 1" -- which made it out into the world in much better quality around the time Beatles Rock Band was released, and at a point when even unofficial new material from the Beatles was major news of the world, particularly when it was of this caliber. Take 20 is lifted from the same source performance as the released version of the song but finally explains completely how the chaotic jam and breakdown of the song led directly to the creation of "Revolution 9," and suggests strongly that splitting the two tracks apart wasn't necessarily the best possible decision. (Note: this is the only time you will ever catch me saying even a slight word against "Revolution 9.")

It involves a great number of strange, disturbing overdubs that have a kitchen-sink surrealism but also reflect a level of seriousness, menace and depressive worldliness that reflect how much the Beatles had changed since their last big crop of material, Magical Mystery Tour -- though some of that project's cynicism certainly does continue here. As the music breaks down, chaos ensues and the noise and violence of revolution itself seem to overtake, a drama played out by the sounds and vocals of the Beatles and especially Lennon, to eventually be joined by the tape loops that would comprise the remainder of "9." The version that's currently on Youtube is at the wrong speed, but a little searching should turn the correct one up and you can patch it in to the PC disc, which still has the old bootleg hybrid of the take accidentally captured via playback by Yoko Ono ranting in her Dictaphone in the control room, so her voice overshadows the whole thing -- a specter that itself influenced the final recording. (Take 18, on the new box, is apparently quite similar to this but is missing several overdubs.) It's a remarkable recording, and among the most engrossing, singular and delightfully unhinged Beatles performances ever captured, somehow defining so much about their infinite ambition and capacity for surprise.

As usual we're at the mercy here of what seemingly random extracts have leaked out over the years, keeping in mind that -- judging from the official commentary about the new deluxe box -- even EMI didn't fully know or understand what existed in their vault. So a lot of songs are disproportionately represented, like "Blackbird"; it seems we have almost the entirety of that session, comprised of Paul busking with Ringo and John in close quarters, and an absolute heap of takes, false starts, rehearsals and dialogue, plus an otherwise nonexistent but seemingly sketched-out song called "Gone Tomorrow, Here Today"; for a glimpse inside Paul McCartney's head while hard at work, it's fascinating if repetitive, and at times charming and funny... but as with the later Get Back sessions, it needs to be stressed: these are people working hard at an actual job, and like most actual jobs when it gets down to their nuts and bolts, it's not built to entertain outsiders.

The sixth disc is rounded out with the non-Sessions mix of the alternate take 5 of "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," cutting out a lot of the reverb added in the 1980s by Emerick; "Revolution" appears without its lead guitar overdub; and we get the famous-ish "Peter Sellers tape," a bunch of fragments given to the actor by Ringo and featuring various rough mixes of eventual White Album touchstones, with most of them missing certain elements or offering a subtly different experience, never in especially strong quality; "Blackbird," "Don't Pass Me By" and "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" offer some intriguing moments but not enough to reward extremely close or repeated listening.

The next few discs delve further into marginalia, which in the case of this particular album is not exactly inappropriate. We've heard some of these bits and pieces officially, like Lennon cracking up at some of the "What's the New Mary Jane?" lyrics, and Harrison calling out George Martin for being "very negative" during the "Sexy Sadie" sessions -- this slipped out during the obligatory bit of the Anthology documentary about the tension during this period. Such tensions, by the way, are present here and there in certain moments, but by and large the band still seems to work rather well together apart from some understandable miscommunications and annoyances, most of which aren't easily audible; my thinking remains that the band took out their confusion and exhaustion in musical terms rather than blowing up at each other in the studio -- not to mention the fact that Paul and George both seem a bit too passive-aggressive, Ringo too passive period, to give vent casually to any problems rather than letting them fester and blow up, as evidently happened outside the confines of the studio, or slightly later in the band's history.

"Sexy Sadie" occasions a few weird, jammed-out sidelines, like something called "Fuck a Duckie" that sounds like a murderer flipping out, or like the Beach Boys' "Ding Dang," take your pick. Lennon sings the hell out of an improvisation labeled "Brian Epstein's Blues," which carries a note of tasteless bitterness since it comes so soon after the title figure's sudden death. We don't get to hear the original "Sadie" lyrics, when it was still "Maharishi, you fucking cunt," but John does interpolate the next line, "who the fuck do you think you are?", at one point. Obsessives might end up wanting to crank the dial way up to hear some of the conversations playing out over various monitor mixes. For the rest of us, there's a very dry mix of "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey" that's missing a lot of vocal overdubs and tracking, and boasts some extra screams at the end that sound extra "Revolution 9"-ish, suggesting that the Beatles -- or at least Lennon -- wanted very much to preserve that particular burst of dreadful energy for the very end of the record. There's a discarded organ or harmonium fragment for "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" (take 1, the acoustic version) and lots and lots of goofing off during the "Hey Jude" sessions, captured as well on monitor mixes, including a short take on "St. Louis Blues" that apparently made it to the new box.

Some other intrigue abounds related to "Hey Jude." Many years ago, when I was about eight years old, my dad was friends with a bona fide Beatles collector who let me copy all of his BETAMAX tapes of various Beatles-related visual materials, which is how I saw the last three of their feature films, all of which were then (and one of which remains) out of circulation. Also in the mass were an episode of the godawful Beatles Saturday morning cartoon (the one with "Slow Down," which Ringo (!) sings to a runaway donkey) and, oddly, the then-unreleased Rolling Stones film Charlie Is My Darling, and then a washed-out, tantalizingly inexplicable fragment of what appeared to be the recording session for "Hey Jude." As it turned out, this was a bootleg of a BBC documentary whose cameras in fact captured much of a full day of Abbey Road rehearsals -- on July 30, 1968 -- of the song (which was ultimately recorded at Trident Studios), and all I really had was a small extract. Twenty full minutes eventually made their way to Youtube. But for years I thought I had something really special and unique; you can hear all the musical parts of the video here.

There's a short burlesque of the song labeled "Las Vegas Tune"; a take that has some vocal mugging from John and George's infamous answering guitar line, subject of a huge rift between him and Paul that may have led to him sitting around chatting during the film clips instead of actually participating in the rehearsals. John and Paul try to break the tension in their usual fashion with facetious arguing and joking; for all their problems down through the years, John seems to be the only person who really knows how to "handle" Paul in his most coldhearted asshole mode, and in turn is the one person who seems able to snap Paul out of it. Across all the session material we have, we rarely come across a situation when John is ornery or unreasonable, his attitude always is to dissipate or break tension with silliness or joking. This probably just means he too had a passive-aggressive streak, as inclined as he often was to speak his mind unfiltered; because in later years he'd always complain that Paul got what he wanted in the studio more often than he did, which baffled George Martin -- undoubtedly because John never fought for the records the way his partner did.

The rest of the actual outtakes are more scattered across the expanse of the eventual two-record set, and even outside of it. We get to hear how George's "Not Guilty," which probably belonged on the album more than "Piggies" and would eventually be rerecorded on one of his own records, the Beatles' version released in truncated form on Anthology 3, dissolves into an impressively hard jam. As if to prove it wasn't just Lennon who could stare into the void with his increasingly unmoored singing, there's a truly hellish vocal fragment of Paul working up his fury for "Helter Skelter," followed by an unedited master of that song missing a few overdubs. Remember the non-song "Can You Take Me Back" buried between "Cry, Baby, Cry" and "Revolution 9"? You can hear the whole thing here, in apparently longer form than on the official deluxe set that's coming, along with some attendant diversions: the kissoff joke "Down in Havana," the released jam "Los Paranoias" that here goes on forever, and "The Way You Look Tonight" refashioned with "I Will" lyrics. We get a fragment of "I'm So Tired," take 14, that's much harder than the released performance, or at least seems so; and while I'm usually not much for monitor mixes, this one is kind of cool, with a crazy guitar-organ opening that sounds amazing and an extra guitar toward the end. The six-disc set out in November includes two takes of "I'm So Tired"; hopefully we'll be getting some of these elements in more audible form.

Such substantial morsels are the exception, but the smaller treasures aren't without appeal. For those of us to whom "Dear Prudence" is -- along with "Long, Long, Long" -- the most sublime moment of the Beatles' finest album, even such tiny revelations as a backing vocal fragment, and a bit of chatter after the fade, or extra vocals on alternate mix (and a lot more processing on John's lead on another early mix) are a joy to hear even if not as much as real outtakes. Other behind the scenes tidbits are a little more superficial but still fun: some weird organ rehearsals, George flubbing his "Piggies" lines ("in the sties with all their baking... fuck") and an unused creepy-laugh overdub for that song, an even creepier organ overdub for "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" with some other additional instruments that render it a bit too busy; and Paul's charming coda to "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?": "Do you think I could do it better?" There are a few rough mixes preserved, including an early "Mother Nature's Son" on which we can hear some Paul laughter and more of the horns. Finally, there's an early stereo mix of "Hey Jude" with a soulful, bluesy McCartney vocal all in the left channel, and a much cleaner, more tinkly-sounding piano; because of the awkward separation of instruments, the sound is overall less robust.

This portion of the set ends with something called the "Postcard Sessions"; what is this? This is the 1968 Beatles, on their very best behavior, chilling with Donovan and playing acoustically for a while, that's what. It's charming but its appeal is probably limited to whatever overlap still exists between big fans of both artists. I like Donovan okay but everybody sounds a little tired and phony here.

Purple Chick gives the last four discs, or two groups of discs each, their own subtitles. Nine and ten are assigned the irresistible label The Beatles Go Too Far, and is primarily concerned with audio evidence of the more avant garde portions of the White Album sessions. While very little of the finished record qualifies as any more avant garde than, say, "I Want to Hold Your Hand," the moments that do reflect those impulses on the part of three of the four Beatles certainly color most widespread memories of the album, and obviously played a huge role in its cultural legacy, in both good and (live shot of Spahn Ranch) bad ways. Nearly the entirety of the ninth disc is taken up with the sessions for take 20 of "Revolution 1" -- the first full track undertaken for the record -- the performances and playbacks of which are captured, it seems incidentally, by Yoko Ono's tape recorder as she dictates her personal diary or various random private thoughts, some of which ("you become naked," etc.) would find their way to the album. While the ethics of hearing this are somewhat questionable, and while most fans will bow out very quickly because there's so much Ono and you have to strain a bit to hear what's interesting about it -- largely a glorified, very very long series of monitor mixes -- to Beatle-heads, for me personally the cumulative effect is unforgettable. Somehow, this random act of rambling while a band plays in the background manages to become nearly as strange, remarkable and oddly admirable a piece of avant garde rock & roll as "Revolution 9" or Two Virgins. It's a completely unintentional (probably) piece of "found art," really, but for this listener it's perhaps the most enjoyable disc in the entire set, next to the now-redundant Esher demos, and of course this is hardly something that's ever likely to see the light of day in an official sense (if Apple even still has access to the raw materials).

What it also offers is a stunningly intimate look at a certain moment in the personal histories of the Beatles, specifically John, and Yoko Ono; she's rather bracing in her frankness, discussing the couple's habits during ejaculation at considerable length and rather condescendingly labeling Paul her "little brother" (I love Yoko to death, in fact I'm a massive fan of her music and think she's seemingly a very cool person, and she and John obviously brought a lot of good out of each other, but you do sort of get why her presence often annoyed the piss out of the other Beatles, right?), and sometimes coming off as refreshingly observant in the way only an outsider can be: "There's definitely something very strong," she says with admiration, "between John and Paul." There's a lot of anxiety about getting the other Beatles' approval, a ship that probably sailed before she ever had much of a chance thanks to John's bullish insistence on her occupation at Abbey Road, but most fascinatingly -- and a bit chillingly -- a lot of fear about the other shoe that had yet to drop in the matter of John's marriage. "I'm nervous right now because I'm always trying to find out when Cyn is coming back," she all but whispers. She spends lots of the time talking directly to John as if he's in the room with her rather than on the studio floor, and occasionally she does interact with him when he drops in the room for a playback -- at one point he takes over the recording for a moment for a slightly patronizing, annoyed-sounding reassurance that he misses her too and can't wait to be done for the day. We have plenty of evidence that John never figured out how to be in a relationship while he was a Beatle, and as amusing as this is, it just furthers that impression. Not that it's all any of our business.

What is our business is "Revolution 9," which filtered and compressed all this into a finished recording that remains one of the most audience-friendly pieces of musique concrete ever released, and one of the most impressively audacious things a mainstream rock band has ever put on an album. And for those of us who love the track -- and if you don't like it, no offense but why are you so boring? -- Go Too Far offers something truly special, an actual "alternate mix" that will really fascinate you if you've wasted as much mental space inadvertently committing the thing to memory as I have, for the many differences in the fidelity, placement and length of the various loops is quite absorbing, and suggests that multiple passes were taken at a good number of elements within the piece.

The other main attraction of Go Too Far is "What's the New Mary Jane?", a delightfully weird creation of John and Yoko's that John at one point wanted to release as a single, one of his more batshit ideas that nevertheless has a certain twisted logic to it if you consider that "Strawberry Fields Forever," in its fashion, was just as weird and was a worldwide smash. The alternate mixes of "Jane" here offer plenty of good times if you're on the song's peculiar, tossed-off wavelength -- another Beatles song it somewhat resembles is "You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)," but it's much more threatening -- and are able to hear it more as a Plastic Ono Band experiment. There's a lot of messing about with it in the alternate mixes, including free-jazz overdubs, some bloodcurdling screaming, a great bit of Yoko vocalizing, and some other eccentric behavior justifying John's Anthology 3-preserved chide "Let's hear it, before we get taken away!" It's all great but the one problem is John laughs too damn much throughout the entire recording and mixing process; it's harder to get caught up in the thing's menacing or totally beyond-the-pale qualities when he thinks it's so innocently hilarious, though conversely one thing many people miss about Ono's art and music is the consierable humor in it, so maybe it's a good thing.

Disc ten closes out with fragments and repeats -- including even more monitor mixes of "I'm So Tired," with another rough vocal track and lots of wavering, seemingly a tape or transfer flaw. "Not Guilty" appears again somewhere around here too. For a song that was trashed after 102 takes, there sure was a lot of business around "Not Guilty."

The last two discs, subtitled Whitecasts, are the most disappointing offered by Purple Chick, probably, and you get the feeling there was some sort of reason they wanted to stretch the thing to a whopping twelve CDs, because none of this stuff really belongs. We get the versions of "Hey Jude" and "Revolution" from the songs' music videos (or, in the parlance of the time, "promo films") which were done in conjunction with a mimed performance on The David Frost Show; they're not really live takes, apart from parts of the vocals (it's very cool, however, to hear the "shoo-be-doo-wop" backing from "Revolution 1" on the fast single version), so they don't honestly need to be here, especially with every single slight variance in their transmissions preserved. You get to hear the Beatles play Frost's theme song, but you can hear and see that on the fine Beatles 1+ DVD and Blu-ray, or hell, on Youtube. Of all the boring and repetitive stuff completists foist upon us in these bootlegs, I might find all this the most mystifying. Five barely different versions of "Hey Jude" and it's not even really a live performance in the first place? I love the song, but that's 35 pointless minutes. (The video is wonderful, but even the two versions of it on the DVD set are kind of a stretch.)

Less repetitive but equally ponderous is the full audio, it seems, of Ringo Starr's 1968 appearance on Cilla Black's variety show; Cilla was a Beatles-associated discovery. She used to be the hat check girl at the Cavern in Liverpool, the band's onetime home base. She was taken under Brian Epstein's wing and became a big star in England, not so much overseas, and her intricate associations with the Beatles continued pretty much permanently. Ringo mugs, chats, reads viewer mail, and sings, and no matter how much you love the old dork, it's all insufferable. Purple Chick doesn't preserve other TV appearances like this in these deluxe sets (there's a second set of semi-associated bootlegs, called "Lazy Tortoise," that's supposed to gather all that loose ephemera), so why this one?

I'm somewhat more understanding of the other big inclusion here, the raw materials from the long-unreleased concert film Rock 'n' Roll Circus commissioned by the Rolling Stones. This has a fine performance of "Yer Blues" by John with Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Mitch Mitchell (from the Jimi Hendrix Experience); it's not really Beatles content, but hey, it's a Beatles song, and it is a good rendition, with John obviously thrilled to sing on an actual stage again, though being the aforementioned Yoko diehard I prefer the throwaway "Her Blues" which features her jamming on typically confrontational vocals with the same supergroup to a pretty enthusiastic reception. Ahead of their time, it seems. The problem is all this repeats multiple times with slight mix variations, and I -- and most of you, I can promise -- simply don't care.

Again without much context or explanation, we also get an interview with John by British broadcaster Kenny Everett, practically a baby at the time, and this is actually fun, though it too is repeated for incomprehensible reasons. John torments Kenny to great comedic effect and drops almost no worthwhile information at all -- probably intentionally -- except that "Don't Pass Me By" is currently being recorded. Lennon is as hilarious as ever, strumming a fretless and singing aimless "theme songs" for Everett. It's maddening and weird and funny and slightly mean, like this bootleg... and hey, like the White Album itself.