Thursday, May 7, 2020

Leonard Cohen: The Future (1992)


(Columbia)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

The news of Leonard Cohen's death in 2016 broke one day after Donald Trump's election to the United States presidency; however, his life had actually ended three days earlier. Cohen breathed his last unaware that fascism was coming to power in his adopted country -- or perhaps it's just as likely that he knew it was going to happen before any of the rest of us did. The following Saturday, the wheezing Baby Boomer relic that was NBC's zombie sketch comedy Saturday Night Live -- which had embraced Trump as a guest host one year prior but now feigned outrage at his empowerment -- opened with Kate McKinnon, dressed up in her signature role as Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, incongruously singing Cohen's "Hallelujah" at a piano, intended apparently simultaneously as a tribute to Cohen and an uninquisitive requiem for the failures of the Clinton campaign. "I'm not giving up," she announced at the end, "and neither should you." Giving up what, one wondered, along with what degree of good fortune gave her the option to make that decision.

"Hallelujah" is a song from Cohen's 1984 album Various Positions that he never really recorded properly apart from some fine live performances; it became more famous (and more publicly palatable) in reverent covers by a wide range of sullen singer-songwriters ranging from John Cale to Rufus Wainwright to Jeff Buckley, enhancing its simplistic beauty while robbing it of Cohen's swagger, and ultimately became Cohen's signature track, replacing his debut single "Suzanne" as the one song of his that people broadly tended to be familiar with. If SNL's producers had really wanted to tip their hats to Cohen and give a taste of his worldview while coalescing with a snapshot of a nation and world that now sat on some incomprehensible precipice, they might well have had McKinnon take to the bench to croon "The Future" instead.

Whereas "Hallelujah," at least in the more familiar versions, traffics in biblical imagery and the not uncommon Cohen ideal of passionate trembling before beauty -- though not absent of wit or cynicism, it is a song of reverence -- "The Future" is a song about the world crumbling, a prophecy in which the singer is so traumatized by what he has seen laying ahead ("I've seen the future, baby, it is murder") that he pleads the universe for a return to what we once thought were catastrophes and tragedies (from the crack epidemic to the Berlin Wall) because "things are gonna slide in all directions" and soon, there "won't be nothing you can measure anymore." Though not dissimilar in affect from the pessimism exhibited in 1988's "Everybody Knows," which similarly forecast a surveillance state and a class aware that the end was nigh and intending to ignore it, "The Future" feels less paranoid, more directly angry, more matter-of-fact. Like a coolheaded Johnny Rotten, Cohen locks into a groove and runs down the chaos, madness and genocide of the years to come: pestilence, misery, systemized warfare, the dominance of the sneering, a world on fire, Charles Manson as artistic influence, white men dancing, and all traces of organic life sucked into a black hole, beauty and truth along with them -- the only survivors the cockroaches, human and non, who will use what's left to act out de Sade.

It sounds like a news report from a couple of years from now, and Cohen felt comfortable not hedging his bets because he was aware that the things clarified by the Vietnam War, deregulation, fundamentalism made his visions all but inevitable. It's likely that the song's prescience will outlive all of us. (In fact, if people keep going to the fucking park in the middle of a goddamn pandemic, it almost certainly will.) So imagine, for a moment, McKinnon taking to the airwaves on November 11th, 2016 on a live feed -- a less meaningful action than it was a few decades ago, but at least she'd be knocking a few comfortably aging marrieds onto their fainting couches -- and spitting this out, actually confronting the reality of what Donald Trump's election represented but did not originate, and then crying out "live from New York, it's Saturday night." Would it have been a revolutionary gesture? Of course not. We're fucked no matter what our "satirists" say on the TV. But it would have been something more than a comforting lie, and it would have been perceptive and challenging and deliriously funny, and would have made Cohen (himself sick to death of "Hallelujah" by 2009) smile from beyond; it would also have been the only actually meaningful response. Anything else, like what actually happened on the air, is pablum from airheads.

If Cohen had never recorded another album, as was perhaps intended at the time, The Future could well have stood as his final and most lingering statement: the articulation of an entire worldview in all its inherent contradictions, each facet confronted with a full and unwavering focus. This thorny and uncompromising record that was released when he was 58, over twenty years after the beginning of his career as a folk singer, will conspicuously dominate any list of his greatest achievements in songwriting. In a discography with multiple peaks, it is the peak, the one in which his every whim is so inspired and his instincts serve him so well that it nearly feels criminal he can sound so relaxed about it all.

It is not merely on "The Future" itself that he confronts the dread of reality, the doom of the forthcoming, but on "Waiting for the Miracle" -- his most convincing electronic groove slow-burn aside from "Everybody Knows" -- and "Closing Time," both among his most extraordinary songs, he somehow manages to find a way to greet and embrace inevitability as a glorious counterpart to life itself. "Miracle" is seduced by a latter-day love affair with a mixture of gratitude and resignation, with no ecstatic promise beyond the experience of a shared decline, in which Cohen spots a distinct kind of lustful dignity: "we've been alone to long / let's be alone together / let's see if we're that strong." Apocalypse still hangs over it all; he shares no expectations of joy, but finds something that merits survival. Thriving amid unyielding disaster is also the theme of "Closing Time," which could well be Cohen's most evocative lyric of all; it is certainly the prime example of song in which he has a great deal to say and uses every possible moment to do so, never wasting a single word. In the manner of the greatest poets the lyrics create their own music, to which he seems to respond almost incidentally:

So we struggle and we stagger
Down the snakes and up the ladder
To the tower where the blessed hours chime
And I swear it happened just like this:
A sigh, a cry, a hungry kiss
The gates of love, they budged an inch
I can't say much has happened since
But closing time


Cohen's singing, aged and more ragged even than on I'm Your Man, the album on which he finally shed his old troubador voice once and for all, and frankly more so than on his work within the first several years of his 2000s comeback, welds itself to this melody and lyric. There are several points on this album, the title cut included, when he seems like never before to be enjoying the all but unrelated rhythms and tin-can grooves surrounding him, leaning into his hipster old-man persona a bit in a way that's both indulgent and earned, therefore totally forgivable and charming. That sudden subservience to even heavily processed and artificial music, much (but not all) of it played by other people, marks the final phase of Cohen's transition from a traditional singer-songwriter format, a changeover that began with Death of a Ladies Man and had almost taken complete hold with Various Positions... but which here, at last, he seems to fully and unabashedly embrace. One assumes that's the reason the album contains a cover -- for the first time on a studio LP (discarding Cohen's arrangement of "The Lost Canadian" on Recent Songs) since "The Partisan" in 1971; and not even just one cover, but two -- and is the only Cohen record to contain an instrumental, his own ambient piece "Tacoma Trailer."

It's also why it's significant when Cohen clearly feels so strongly about the words to "Closing Time" that he seems, at a few points in the song, to be completely overtaken with passion, thoroughly destroying the apathy with which he began the evening and laying down some of the most moving vocals of his career while audibly straining (and succeeding) to overwhelm the very acquired-taste canned country sound that surrounds his words and music. Listen to his voice on the lines "there's a voice that sounds like God to me," or "we're lonely, we're romantic," or the song's thesis statement, "I lift my glass to the awful truth / which you can't reveal to the ears of youth / except to say it isn't worth a dime." Though he's drowned out by the female chorus just afterward, the lyrics that follow those lines are among the most irresistibly rendered in the catalog:

And the whole damn place goes crazy twice
And it's once for the devil and it's once for Christ
But the boss don't like these dizzy heights
We're busted in the blinding lights
Of closing time


It's no controversial statement that Cohen is among the few performers in the rock or pop or folk idioms who can make you swoon or completely thrill you with a masterful turn of phrase, the way Cole Porter or Irving Berlin once did. The clear contemporary analogue is Bob Dylan, but during this period when Dylan wasn't writing much of anything, Cohen was at some sort of zenith as a writer and lyricist. No one else would conjure up a stanza like "it's coming from the sorrow in the street, the holy places where the races meet / from the homicidal bitching that goes down in every kitchen / to determine who will serve and who will eat." That's from the album's most sharply satiric song "Democracy," the deadpan-sarcastic flipside to "The Future"'s snarling fatalism, which catalogs the emptiness of political transformation in a country with as dark a past as the United States, democracy rising up "from the fires of the homeless, from the ashes of the gay." In all the song's flagrant Churchill-quoting heralding of a new age, one could mistake it for a sincere bow to the hope of upheaval in the 1992 elections, but for the last verse wherein -- again prophetically -- he lays out the situation in which all of us are truly and forever stuck:

I'm sentimental, if you know what I mean
I love the country but I can't stand the scene
And I'm neither left or right
I'm just staying home tonight
Getting lost in that hopeless little screen
But I'm stubborn as those garbage bags
That time cannot decay
I'm junk but I'm still holding up
This little wild bouquet


Yet casting this as an album -- or a career -- that is about lyrics would be short-sighted. The thinness of the production on Cohen's albums of this period, which made them sound slick and anonymous at the time, terribly dated a few years later and now impenetrably cool yet locked in fleeting style, is beside the point not just because the words and ideas are masterful but because the melodies, the singing, the performances are. Cohen does much more than just deliver the songs like some Brill Building demo artist, which unfortunately is more or less his legacy in some quarters. (But then, the same is true of Dylan; how many people have tried to tell you he's no singer?) The range of emotions on I'm Your Man was already extraordinary, romantic or broken as often as confidently mysterious, but it deepens across the spectrum here. Cohen was in a fresh relationship during the writing of the album, and this sparks an embrace of sensuality that remains infectious all these years later. His own composition "Light as the Breeze" is his most relaxed and wise celebration of the flesh, while he finds a considerable undercurrent of romance and carnality in his lovely version of Marlena Shaw's "Be for Real" (written by Frederick Knight, thanked by name in the recording itself) and an astoundingly funky breakdown of Irving Berlin's "Always." (On that last performance, the microphones for the backup singers are left on and mixed at full volume throughout, so that the listener can be privy to their firsthand responses to Cohen's vocals.) Even "Waiting for the Miracle," for all its shrouding of darkness, possesses a slinky and impressively bottom-heavy groove that addicts and remains welcome for seven full minutes.

All the love and sex that colors this experience of course is an intentional counterpoint to the bleakness that pervades The Future, but neither matter tempers the other, nor is it meant to. When he announces on "Closing Time" that "the awful truth" is nothing finally worth uncovering, it is a resignation that feels like a celebration, the same kind of contradiction as "looks like freedom but it feels like death." Cohen is acknowledging the misdirection and folly of being young while suggesting it constitutes a cycle of inevitability whose crushing disappointments are worth experiencing as much as bemoaning. In "The Future," his pronouncement that "love's the only engine of survival" is a plea for sanity at the same time that it's a retreat, a back turned deliberately toward a world in chaos; perhaps he meant the line as a statement that love could conceivably incite redemption for the doomed and miserable, but its more pertinent application seems to be in the quest is to subsume and preoccupy oneself with matters like those in "Always" and the abandon that's lifting the whole bar off the ground in "Closing Time."

In these ways the record feels exactly like the rebuke of modernism and civilization it would ultimately turn into, whether it was consciously intended as such at the time or not. The begrudging optimism on "Anthem," the album's most reverently beautiful and hopeful song, is of course a balm after a fashion; it's comforted so many since its release with its hymn-like chorus reminding us that "there is a crack in everything / that's how the light gets in." But just as much of the song feels like the final parting shot of someone who has realized the cycle to which we have surrendered ourselves offers no conceivable escape, or as Cohen put it two decades earlier, "carries no survivors." The holy dove "is never free," he now tells us, and he lends censure to "that lawless crowd" and "the killers in high places [who] say their prayers out loud." It is a statement less, finally, of faith than one of clarity, because like the "Democracy" narrator who doesn't leave home on election night, it's a suggestion that our destiny, regardless of what we conceive of as our power, is in the hands of those with no interest in our continued existence. The crack won't expand; it's just all we really have to look for. In Cohen's eyes we are all Kenji Mizoguchi's aged concubine in The Life of Oharu whose life is a cascading procession of tragedies, rejections and losses: as the planet goes up in flames around us, the only path is detachment: a true merging with the darkness.

When we say "detachment" here it means more than just sounding cool while singing about the 1992 post-Rodney King riots; it means a oneness with nothing. In Buddhism, Taoism and other Eastern religions it is the renunciation of suffering through the rejection of expectation. The Future certainly does not renounce lust within its text, but its embrace of cheerful frivolity does amount to an analogy for the unresolvable limitations of physical life. The world is so mad that it causes Cohen essentially to go quiet, to parrot the words of Irving Berlin and then to offer no words whatsoever -- and these choices have the feel of a protective wall. Separation from thought, therefore separation from harm, therefore peace are tenets of Zen Buddhism; after The Future, Cohen would retreat to the San Gabriel Mountains and become an ordained Zen Buddhist monk, as the student of Kyozan Joshu Sasaki (who would ultimately be accused of inappropriate sexual conduct, which is implied in Cohen's Book of Longing to have precipitated his exit from the temple). It lasted around five years before the life of a Monk became intolerable for him, but that it happened at all tells us much about Cohen's mindset in this era. Looking back today, it's hard to disagree when taking in the full breadth of our reality that there is no "way out," only the chance of a walled-off, thoughtless existence: Nekkhamma.

But even this creates ethical concerns for the wrestling that are unanswerable, including the inconsistencies that manifest on this record: how can love be "the only engine of survival" if the only path to perfection requires the repudiation of all pleasure and sensuality? That's why The Future is not an illustration of a philosophy, spiritual or otherwise, but the representation of a worried mind in totality, within and without the context of violent unrest. In the years to follow, riddled with the travails of a crooked accountant, disillusionment with life in the Mt. Baldy Zen Center, and an unexpected outpouring of creativity, Cohen would return and continue writing and touring until his death. He was destined to waver at times from the kind of harshly focused messaging of this album and its unapologetic embrace of anger, hedonism and grace all at once, but the individual records he would eventually issue afterward each seem like a further, if not closer, examination of some tenet within this one, their conflicts forever dangling. He's no longer here for whatever guidance he'd probably refuse to offer, but maybe it would behoove us all to remember in this moment -- and presumably for the moments that remain -- that the only logical answer to anything that confronts us as people or as a society may be the lack of an answer. We could do worse, though, that the one prompted on "Light as the Breeze" by a lover and her body: "for something like a second," he sings, "I'm cured and my heart is at ease." We've seen the future, yes, but it mustn't be all that we see.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

New Music Report #2: 2019 favorites


I didn't expect to be unleashing this modest list of albums and songs from the previous calendar year under these circumstances (or at this late date) but I'm sure you'll agree that circumstances in general are currently rather unprecedented. This will be a straightforward post and won't have a lot of context, but you can flip back through the archives to find out my deeper thoughts on these releases and tunes. This is the format that year-end posts will follow from now on (and they will tend not to appear before December 31 though typically not quite this late either); there will be another major change but I'll explain that later.

My process for making the list was the same as it's been the entire time I've run the blog; for the songs list, I shuffled a huge playlist of every song I found notable throughout the year (limit three per album) and kept a vague ranking in mind. This year I was much less scientific about it because the premise of this blog now is to give me a break, not to require one. For albums, I keep a draft of a ranked list that's updated all year and then listen to the records in reverse order, on vinyl if possible (which these days it usually only is with the very top tier), and adjust the sequence as needed.

There was a bit of an upset this year, if something so undramatic as my personal preferences can be called an "upset." Big Thief's U.F.O.F. spent much of the year as my top choice but, as much as I love it overall and as smitten as I am with the first half, something didn't feel quite right as I went through one last listen -- and then as I idly ran through my list of A-grade albums, the one I suddenly found sparking the most enthusiasm in my memory was Young Enough by Charly Bliss, and the idea of placing it as the album of the year suddenly felt extremely correct. It's not just an expression of faith in a band but in the future; the record gets stronger every time I hear it.

This wasn't a spectacular year musically but it was a good one; they always are. I do not think anything here will threaten the upper reaches of my decade lists when it's revised to include 2019 material in an upcoming post, but that shouldn't be taken as a negative; even the most inspired shiny new thing can't fully compete with music I've forged a relationship with now for years. Future years will be more idiosyncratic by necessity -- I probably won't be able to declare them good or bad qualitatively because I'll be so much more selective about what I hear -- but the annual lists will continue to happen, just a bit more modestly. At any rate, here goes.

BEST ALBUMS OF 2019
1. Charly Bliss: Young Enough (Barsuk) A
2. Big Thief: U.F.O.F. (4AD)
3. Ibibio Sound Machine: Doko Mien (Merge)
4. Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba: Miri (Out Here)
5. Andrew Bird: My Finest Work Yet (Virgin)
6. Wilco: Ode to Joy (dBpm)
7. Little Simz: Grey Area (Age 101) A-
8. Denzel Curry: ZUU (Loma Vista)
9. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: Ghosteen (s/r)
10. Loyle Carner: Not Waving, But Drowning (Virgin)
11. Brittany Howard: Jaime (ATO)
12. Hot Chip: A Bath Full of Ecstasy (Domino)
13. Tyler, the Creator: IGOR (Columbia)
14. Sarathy Korwar: More Arriving (The Leaf Label)
15. DIIV: Deceiver (Captured Tracks)
16. JPEGMafia: All My Heroes Are Cornballs (EQT)
17. Peter Perrett: Humanworld (Domino)
18. Jenny Hval: The Practice of Love (Sacred Bones)
19. Black Belt Eagle Scout: At the Party with My Brown Friends (Saddle Creek)
20. Leonard Cohen: Thanks for the Dance (Columbia)
21. clipping.: There Existed an Addiction to Blood (Sub Pop)
22. Jay Som: Anak Ko (Polyvinyl)
23. Sheer Mag: A Distant Call (Wilsuns Recording Co.)
24. Jenny Lewis: On the Line (Warner Bros.)
25. Chastity Belt (Hardly Art)
26. Robert Forster: Inferno (Tapete)
27. Karen O & Danger Mouse: Lux Prima (BMG)
28. Injury Reserve (Loma Vista)
HONORABLE MENTIONS (B+/B)
29. Beirut: Gallipoli (4AD)
30. Chromatics: Closer to Grey (Italians Do It Better)
31. Pharmakon: Devour (Sacred Bones)
32. Megan Thee Stallion: Fever (300)
33. Julia Kent: Temporal (The Leaf Label)
34. Swervedriver: Future Ruins (Rough Trade)
35. Lana Del Rey: Norman Fucking Rockwell! (Interscope)
36. Flying Lotus: Flamagra (Warp)
37. Jesca Hoop: Stonechild (Memphis Industries)
38. Amyl and the Sniffers (ATO)
39. Curren$y & Statik Selektah: Gran Turismo (Jet Life)
40. Bill Orcutt: Odds Against Tomorrow (Palilalia)
41. Young Thug: So Much Fun (Atlantic)
42. Jayda G: Significant Changes (Ninja Tune)
43. Jessica Pratt: Quiet Signs (Mexican Summer)
44. Tinariwen: Amadjar (Epitaph)
45. Thom Yorke: ANIMA (XL)
46. Ride: This Is Not a Safe Place (Wichita Recordings)
47. Rapsody: Eve (Jamla)
48. Jamila Woods: LEGACY! LEGACY! (Jagjaguwar)
49. Feels: Post Earth (Wichita Recordings)
50. Dylan LeBlanc: Renegade (ATO)
51. The Mountain Goats: In League with Dragons (Merge)
52. Michael Kiwanuka: Kiwanuka (Interscope)
53. Deerhunter: Why Hasn't Everything Already Disappeared? (4AD)
54. Sampa the Great: The Return (Ninja Tune)
55. Ezra Furman: Twelve Nudes (Bella Union)
56. The Menzingers: Hello Exile (Epitaph)
57. Kedr Livanskiy: Your Need (2MR)
58. Fantasia: Sketchbook (Rock Soul)
59. 21 Savage: I Am > I Was (Epic)
60. Ezra Collective: You Can't Steal My Joy (Enter the Jungle)
61. Lee 'Scratch' Perry: Rainford (On-U Sound)
62. Nerija: Blume (Domino)
63. Billie Eilish: When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? (Interscope)
64. Sneaks: Highway Hypnosis (Merge)
65. Maxo Kream: Brandon Banks (RCA)
66. The Comet Is Coming: Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery (Impulse!)
67. Objekt: Cocoon Crush (PAN)
68. Sharon Van Etten: Remind Me Tomorrow (Jagjaguwar)
69. Danny Brown: uknowhatimsayin? (Warp)
70. Quelle Chris: Guns (Mello Music)
71. Angelique Kidjo: Celia (Verve)
72. Homeboy Sandman: Dusty (Mello Music)
73. Carsie Blanton: Buck Up (s/r)
74. Leif: Loom Dream (Whities)
75. Aldous Harding: Designer (4AD)
76. Cate Le Bon: Reward (Mexican Summer)
77. Moodymann: Sinner (KDJ)
78. Lady Lamb: Even in the Tremor (Ba Da Bing)
79. Makaya McCraven: Universal Beings (International Anthem)
80. AJ Tracey (s/r)
81. Shura: Forevher (Secretly Canadian)
82. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib: Bandana (RCA)
83. Dawn Richard: New Breed (Our Dawn)
84. Stella Donnelly: Beware of the Dogs (Secretly Canadian)
85. Priests: The Seduction of Kansas (Sister Polygon)
86. Sacred Paws: Run Around the Sun (Merge)
87. Bob Mould: Sunshine Rock (Merge)
88. Big Thief: Two Hands (4AD)
89. Penguin Cafe: Handfuls of Night (Erased Tapes)
90. The National: I Am Easy to Find (4AD)
91. Ray BLK: Empress (Island)
92. Kelly Moran: Ultraviolet (Warp)
93. Tinashe: A Song for You (s/r)
94. Joan Shelley: Like the River Loves the Sea (No Quarter)
95. Ex Hex: it's real (Merge)
96. Sudan Archives: Athena (Stones Throw)
97. Laurence Pike: Holy Spring (The Leaf Label)
98. Yola: Walk Through Fire (Nonesuch)
99. Czarface / Ghostface Killah: Czarface Meets Ghostface (Silver Age)
100. Chrissie Hynde: Valve Bone Woe (BMG)
101. Mary Lattimore & Mac McCaughan: New Rain Duets (Three Lobed)
102. Kevin Richard Martin: Sirens (ROOM40)
103. The Cranberries: In the End (BMG)
104. Kim Gordon: No Home Record (Matador)
105. Marika Hackman: Any Human Friend (Sub Pop)
106. Sirom: A Universe That Roasts Blossoms for a Horse (tak:til)
107. Mannequin Pussy: Patience (Epitaph)
108. Nilufer Yanya: Miss Universe (ATO)
109. Stephen Malkmus: Groove Denied (Matador)
110. Elva: Winter Sun (Tapette)
111. RAP: EXPORT (Jolly Discs)
112. Mick Jenkins: Pieces of a Man (Cinematic)
113. Carly Rae Jepsen: Dedicated (Interscope)
114. Anderson .Paak: Ventura (Aftermath)
115. Floating Points: Crush (Ninja Tune)
116. Buke and Gase: Scholars (Brassland)
117. Eli Keszler: Stadium (Shelter Press)
118. Nivhek: After Its Own Death / Walking in a spiral towards the house (Yellow Electric)
119. Bedouine: Bird Songs of a Killjoy (Spacebomb)
120. The Japanese House: Good at Falling (Dirty Hit)
121. Sarah Davachi: Pale Bloom (W.25th)
122. Orville Peck: Pony (Sub Pop)
123. Teeth of the Sea: Wraith (Rocket Recordings)
124. Lubomyr Melnyk: Fallen Trees (Erased Tapes)
125. Nick Waterhouse (Innovative Leisure)
126. The Last Poets: Transcending Toxic Times (Ropeadope)
127. Fennesz: Agora (Touch)
128. Pere Ubu: Long Goodbye (Cherry Red)
129. Iglooghost/Kai Whiston/BABii: XYZ (Supernature)
130. Brockhampton: Ginger (RCA)
131. Solange: When I Get Home (Columbia)
132. Tim Hecker: Anoyo (Kranky)
133. American Football: LP3 (Polyvinyl)
134. Lee Fields & the Expressions: It Rains Love (Big Crown)
135. L7: Scatter the Rats (Blackheart)
136. Meg Baird & Mary Lattimore: Ghost Forests (Three Lobed Recordings)
137. Adia Victoria: Silences (ATL)
138. Vagabon (Nonesuch)
139. Kanye West: Jesus Is King (Def Jam)
140. The Flaming Lips: King's Mouth (Warner Bros.)
141. (Sandy) Alex G: House of Sugar (Domino)
142. Avey Tare: Cows on Hourglass Pond (Domino)
143. Tegan and Sara: Hey, I'm Just Like You (Warner Bros.)
144. Weyes Blood: Titanic Rising (Sub Pop)
145. Swindle: No More Normal (Brownswood)
146. William Tyler: Goes West (Merge)
147. Sam Fender: Hypersonic Missiles (Interscope)
148. The New Pornographers: In the Morse Code of Brake Lights (Concord)

***

GOOD EXTENDED PLAYS IN 2019
Surfer Blood: Hourly Haunts (Persona Non Grata)
Songhoy Blues: Meet Me in the City (Fat Possum)
Missy Elliott: Iconology (Atlantic)
Rhye: Spirit (Loma Vista)
Samiyam: One on Each Planet (s/r)

***

BEST SONGS OF 2019
If you're the type who prefers audio illustrations to miles and miles of lists (and who can blame you?) here is a hopefully competently-flowing playlist I made of the top 25 here: via Spotify.

1. Big Thief "Cattails" [U.F.O.F.]
2. Ibibio Sound Machine "I Know That You're Thinking About Me" [Doko Mien]
3. Ray BLK "Run Run" [Empress]
4. Big Thief "Not" [Two Hands]
5. Charly Bliss "Young Enough" [Young Enough]
6. Chromatics "On the Wall" [Closer to Grey]
7. Rolling Blackouts C.F. "In the Capital"/"Read My Mind" [non-LP single, difficult to choose which side is better!]
8. Loyle Carner "Loose Ends" [Not Waving, But Drowning]
9. Beirut "We Never Lived Here" [Gallipoli]
10. Brittany Howard "He Loves Me" [Jaime]
11. Sampa the Great ft. thando & Krown "Diamond in the Ruff" [The Return]
12. Sarathy Korwar ft. Zia Ahmed "Mango" [More Arriving]
13. Little Simz "Offence" [Grey Area]
14. Andrew Bird "Sisyphus" [My Finest Work Yet]
15. Hot Chip "Echo" [A Bath Full of Ecstasy]
16. Denzel Curry "Ricky" [ZUU]
17. Tyler, the Creator "Gone, Gone/Thank You" [IGOR]
18. Jay Som "Nighttime Drive" [Anak Ko]
19. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib "Crime Pays" [Bandana]
20. Black Belt Eagle Scout "Half Colored Hair" [At the Party with My Friends]
21. Wilco "White Wooden Cross" [Ode to Joy]
22. DIIV "For the Guilty" [Deceiver]
23. Jenny Hval "Ashes to Ashes" [The Practice of Love]
24. Maxo Kream ft. Megan Thee Stallion "She Live" [Brandon Banks]
25. Flying Lotus ft. Anderson .Paak "More" [Flamagra]
26. Ride "Future Love" [This Is Not a Safe Place]
27. Leonard Cohen "The Night of Santiago" [Thanks for the Dance]
28. Ex Hex "Another Dimension" [it's real]
29. Cate le Bon "Mother's Mother's Magazines" [Reward]
30. The Japanese House "We Talk All the Time" [Good at Falling]
31. Rapsody "Ibtihaj" [Eve]
32. Sheer Mag "Keep on Runnin'" [A Distant Call]
33. Peter Perrett "Walking in Berlin" [Humanworld]
34. Deerhunter "Death in Midsummer" [Why Hasn't Everything Already Disappeared?]
35. Jesca Hoop "Footfall to the Path" [Stonechild]
36. JPEGMafia "BBW" [All My Heroes Are Cornballs]
37. Solange "Stay Flo" [When I Get Home]
38. Megan Thee Stallion ft. DaBaby "Cash Shit" [Fever]
39. Kanye West "God Is" [Jesus Is King]
40. Lana Del Rey "Mariners Apartment Complex" [Norman Fucking Rockwell!]
41. Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba "Kanougnon" [Miri]
42. 21 Savage "a&t" [I Am > I Was]
43. Fantasia "Fighting" [Sketchbook]
44. Ezra Collective ft. KOKOROKO "Shakara" [You Can't Steal My Joy]
45. Sacred Paws "Brush Your Hair" [Run Around the Sun]
46. Vagabon "Every Woman" [s/t]
47. Shura "Religion (U Can Lay Your Hands on Me)" [Forevher]
48. Chrissie Hynde "Caroline, No" {Beach Boys cover} [Valve Bone Woe]
49. Jayda G "Orca's Reprise" [Significant Changes]
50. Jamila Woods "Zora" [Legacy! Legacy!]
51. Chastity Belt "Rav-4" [s/t]
52. Lee 'Scratch' Perry "Makumba Rock" [Rainford]
53. Wye Oak "Fortune" [non-LP single]
54. Feels "Awful Need" [Post Earth]
55. Ezra Furman "I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend" [Twelve Nudes]
56. Titus Andronicus "The Lion Inside" [An Obelisk]
57. The Mountain Goats "Going Invisible 2" [In League with Dragons]
58. Julia Kent "Floating City" [Temporal]
59. Amyl and the Sniffers "Angel" [s/t]
60. Sneaks "A Lil Close" [Highway Hypnosis]
61. Robert Forster "One Bird in the Sky" [Inferno]
62. Gruff Rhys "Ol Bys / Nodau Clust" [Pang!]
63. Thom Yorke "Dawn Chorus" [ANIMA]
64. Bonnie 'Prince' Billy "Dream Awhile" [I Made a Place]
65. clipping. "Nothing Is Safe" [There Existed an Addiction to Blood]
66. Jenny Lewis "Wasted Youth" [On the Line]
67. Bob Mould "Sunny Love Song" [Sunshine Rock]
68. (Sandy) Alex G "Southern Sky" [House of Sugar]
69. Danny Brown "Combat" [uknowhatimsayin?]
70. Karen O & Danger Mouse "Ministry" [Lux Prima]
71. Sharon Van Etten "Stay" [Remind Me Tomorrow]
72. Pusha T ft. Ms. Lauryn Hill "Coming Home" [non-LP single]
73. Dylan LeBlanc "Lone Rider" [Renegade]
74. Tierra Whack "Only Child" [non-LP single]
75. Priests "The Seduction of Kansas" [The Seduction of Kansas]
76. Rosie Lowe ft. Jay Electronica "The Way" [Yu]
77. Quelle Chris "Obamacare" [Guns]
78. Aldous Harding "The Barrel" [Designer]
79. Anderson .Paak ft. Smokey Robinson "Make It Better" [Ventura]
80. Surfer Blood "Around Your Sun" [Hourly Haunts EP]
81. Injury Reserve ft. Amine "Jailbreak the Tesla" [s/t]
82. Yola "Love All Night (Work All Day)" [Walk Through Fire]
83. Jessica Pratt "Poly Blue" [Quiet Signs]
84. Mavis Staples "Change" [We Get By]
85. Carsie Blanton "Jacket" [Buck Up]
86. Lee Fields & the Expressions "Will I Get Off Easy" [It Rains Love]
87. Angelique Kidjo "Toro Mata" {Celia Cruz cover} [Celia]
88. Swervedriver "Future Ruins" [Future Ruins]
89. Piroshka "Village of the Damned" [Brickbat]
90. Nilufer Yanya "Tears" [Miss Universe]
91. Vince Staples "So What?" [non-LP single]
92. Kelsey Lu "Due West" [Blood]
93. The Comet Is Coming "Birth of Creation" [Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery]
94. Michael Kiwanuka "Living in Denial" [Kiwanuka]
95. The Paranoid Style "A Goddamn Impossible Way of Life" [A Goddamn Impossible Way of Life]
96. Objekt "35" [Cocoon Crush]
97. Tinariwen "Madjam Mahilkamen" [Amadjar]
98. AJ Tracey "Wifey Riddim 3" [AJ Tracey]
99. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds "Ghosteen Speaks" [Ghosteen]
100. Tinashe "Perfect Crime" [A Song for You]
101. Vampire Weekend "Bambina" [Father of the Bride]
102. Durand Jones & the Indications "Don't You Know" [American Love Call]
103. Haelos "Boy/Girl" [Any Random Kindness]
104. Nakhane "Clairvoyant" [You Will Not Die]
105. Billie Eilish "Xanny" [When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?]
106. Stealing Sheep "Girl" [Big Wows]
107. Slowthai ft. Mura Masa "Doorman" [Nothing Great About Britain]
108. Meg Baird & Mary Lattimore "Fair Annie" [Ghost Forests}
109. Mick Jenkins "U Turn" [Pieces of a Man]
110. Buke and Gase "Grips" [Scholars]
111. L7 "Stadium West" [Scatter the Rats]
112. King Princess "Hit the Back" [Cheap Queen]
113. Makaya McCraven "Atlantic Black" [Universal Beings]
114. The New Pornographers "Falling Down the Stairs of Your Smile" [In the Morse Code of Brake Lights]
115. Lady Lamb "Oh My Violence" [Even in the Tremor]
116. Battles ft. Merrill Garbus "Last Supper on Shasta" [Juice B Crypts]
117. Elva "Athens" [Winter Sun]
118. Blood Red Shoes "Eye to Eye" [Get Tragic]
119. Julia Shapiro "Shape" [Perfect Version]
120. Dawn Richard "Spaces" [New Breed]
121. Stephen Malkmus "Grown Nothing" [Groove Denied]
122. Tegan and Sara "Don't Believe the Things They Tell You (They Lie)" [Hey, I'm Just Like You]
123. Tame Impala "Patience" [non-LP single]
124. The Claypool Lennon Delirium "Blood and Rockets" [South of Reality]
125. Ciara "Trust Myself" [Beauty Marks]
126. The National "Where Is Her Head" [I Am Easy to Find]
127. Miya Folick "Stop Talking" [Premonitions]
128. Rita Ora "Anywhere" [Phoenix]
129. Orville Peck "Roses Are Falling" [Pony]
130. M. Ward "Motorcycle Ride" [What a Wonderful Industry]
131. The Tallest Man on Earth "I'm a Stranger Now" [I Love You. It's a Fever Dream.]
132. Julia Jacklin "Comfort" [Crushing]
133. Kate Tempest "Firesmoke" [The Book of Traps and Lessons]
134. Charly Bliss "All I Want for Christmas Is You" {Mariah Carey cover} [non-LP single]

***

Next on the agenda: a masterpiece reviewed at length, followed by an abbreviated List of Lists, and then a further cleaning out of Beatles marginalia in anticipation of the big Beatles discography post and finally moving on to something else! (Although, in this household, do we ever really move on from the Beatles?)

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Yo La Tengo: Summer Sun (2003)


(Matador)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

New Music Report #1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 1, 2020

The Beatles capsules: EPs and CD singles

THE UK EPs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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