Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The Beatles: Magical Mystery Tour (1967)


(Capitol)

RECOMMENDED

The first major Beatles project initiated entirely without the involvement of their late manager Brian Epstein, and the first seen at the time as a complete misstep by critics and the few fans that witnessed it (though time has been relatively kind to it, less because of its actual quality than because it is Beatles product) was the TV special-cum-midnight movie Magical Mystery Tour, an aimless sixty-minute avant garde road film of sorts "written" and "directed" by the Beatles themselves. It's unimaginably odd, and in a more labored fashion than something more professionally constructed and similarly anarchic like the Monkees' feature Head, or for that matter the Beatles' own manic comedy Help!, because Richard Lester and Bob Rafelson were actual filmmakers and the Beatles were not. Handicapped further by its initial broadcast in black and white when its psychedelic textures are intensely reliant on color, the film was immediately decried by the British press and only saw the light of day in America in the following decade when it enjoyed an El Topo-like second life as a stoner cult fixture. Like most films that earn such a distinction, it's bemusing for a time and is certainly something hardcore Beatles fans should see, but in the end it really isn't very good at all, and the band probably deserved some blowback for it.

The music that accompanied MMT was another matter; while far from their most inspired material, the six new songs were generally an enjoyable sort of Sgt. Pepper burlesque or companion. Apart from one modestly brilliant contribution each from John and Paul, it's coasting Beatles, but still solidly good and entertaining Beatles, and the songs found their ideal release in the UK as an exclusive double EP, their second proper EP of original material after the exquisite Long Tall Sally three years earlier. In 1967 and today, the EP release is the ideal way to hear this material, but over in America, where Capitol and United Artists had made a habit of filling out Beatles soundtracks with instrumental scoring of little interest to teenage fans, consumer advocacy abruptly became the order of the day. Capitol ended up piling all of the new soundtrack songs on Side One of a "new" LP and neatly rounding out the rest with everything else the Beatles had released in the calendar year of 1967, meaning the three singles that were neither on Sgt. Pepper nor part of the Magical Mystery Tour TV project. (This amounted to five songs because the b-side of "Hello Goodbye" was MMT's "I Am the Walrus.") In the years that followed, the resulting package became popular enough as an import in the UK that it eventually became the definitive, "canonical" release of these songs in the standardized Beatles catalog... but it's revisionist history to regard it as an actual studio album, situated between Pepper and the White Album.

Yet according to Apple Records, revisionist history wins the day; the Beatles' own label now views this release as part of the "core catalog," which is unfortunate because as an album it's a woefully inadequate experience that does no favors to the better material it contains, and comes off as a grab bag; much like the rest of the U.S.-only Beatles albums like Beatles VI and Hey Jude, its primary function now is nostalgia for listeners who are either old enough to have grown up with these configurations or grew up cheap enough (a la yours truly) to be stuck with yard sale LPs rather than compact discs. In order to conform with the Beatles' own specifically ordained status quo and for the ease of cataloging their main releases, I'm listing this as a studio album, but it should be noted that -- in 1967, in Great Britain -- it was originally no such thing by either planning or happenstance. And the crudeness is obvious when you compare the album's sequencing, construction and logic to any of the LPs the Beatles and George Martin actually crafted (solely excluding Yellow Submarine).

All that said, as I write this and for the past thirty-odd years, the Magical Mystery Tour album is the way most listeners come to know this music, so it's the most logical place to tackle the songs therein. Four of the six cuts from the film would be middle-tier Beatles filler in any other context, but collectively they do function well as a kind of sardonic rebuke to the psychedelic period, and George Martin as usual uses them as a springboard for some engagingly neat tricks and genuine experimentation. Written by the entire band, the elevator music instrumental "Flying" is the most significant, and successful, of the record's disorienting mood pieces, designed for a discolored travelogue montage in the film and cresting along with choral melodies and unusual organ sounds before closing with a mellotron drone likely too oppressive for the easy-listening set.

Moodier yet, and also scarier, is George's repetitive, hypnotic "Blue Jay Way," a pure-atmosphere song that's actually about something as mundane as friends getting misdirected while trying to find the house, but treated with actively terrifying effects on the backing vocals, disruptive phasing on the drums and the "Flying" organ converted to a funeral setting. Harrison also sings it exceptionally well, gradually locating a pleading and despair in his voice that would seldom find vent until much later in his solo career. The song has none of the philosophical heft of "Within You, Without You" or even "Taxman" and it doesn't give much evidence that Harrison took the Magical Mystery Tour project all that seriously, but it's a damn sight better than "Only a Northern Song," and few Beatles recordings are creepier... though one of its strongest competitors is trailing just two cuts behind. Buried under its spectacular procession of effects and chaotic embellishments, Lennon's "I Am the Walrus" is something like a passage from In His Own Write set to a hard rock backing, a brilliantly playful succession of surrealist images that serves as a semi-sequel to "Strawberry Fields Forever" in its wildly ambitious production as well as its harking back to its composer's childhood (via his fixation on the works of Lewis Carroll) while also providing some of the first evidence of John's gradual emergence out of his two-year funk, and a return to writing meaningful material for the Beatles. It's the best of the film songs, nearly by default, and one of the Beatles' most challenging and multifaceted recordings. And it too, whispers and buried vocals and deathly chanting and all, is magnificently eerie.

Eerie, too, is Paul's remarkably dark character sketch "The Fool on the Hill," a song too smart and uncharacteristic to have gotten itself buried in such an obscure spot in the Beatles' discography. Away from the comfortable scholarship of "Eleanor Rigby" or the self-deprecation of Lennon's similar outcast in "Nowhere Man," McCartney casts a pall over this stark, mysterious portrait of an inexplicable menace with an unforgiving circular melody. The hero, or villain, of this song has no great power beyond his ability to unnerve by his mere solitary presence, and Paul skillfully weaves a narrative of a weakness that the Fool exposes like the silent Holy Man in Black Narcissus: "they can tell what he wants to do." The lyric does stumble toward the end by making its imagery unnecessarily concrete: "they don't like him," or worse yet, "he knows that they're the fools." Nevertheless, its unresolved darkness, and Paul's obvious belief in the song's depth and beauty, give it a spiritual essence and enigma that make it stand out far beyond anything else here save the very different but equally provocative "Walrus."

Apart from "The Fool on the Hill," Paul's contributions aren't quite up to his efforts on the last two albums, even though he almost single-handedly initiated the TV project, but his strange newfound vindictiveness can chill you a bit, especially as he seems to be openly rejecting the personage he'd just embraced on Pepper with songs like "Lovely Rita" and "When I'm Sixty-Four." Such pleasantness is temporarily behind us; "Fool," of course, is not a friendly song despite its oblique, almost stubborn loveliness. And while a very superficial glance at "Your Mother Should Know" or "Magical Mystery Tour" may remind someone of Paul's typical pro-granny BBC gregariousness, both are in fact among his most steely-eyed, nasty little compositions, carrying forward perhaps from the more pointed humor of "Paperback Writer"; had he spent a bit more time fleshing them out they could conjure up the upended kiddie sarcasm of Roald Dahl or Shel Silverstein. "Your Mother Should Know" is, in the end, a bit lazy and bored-sounding (though the corresponding sequence in the film, with the Beatles doing a very stilted MGM-style cabaret dance number, is amusing) though it's arranged with aplomb and is ruthlessly catchy. You need only read the lyric as prose to get the idea of how completely over itself and hipper-than-thou it means to be, and somehow despite the context the title continues to sound like an insult: "Let's all get up and dance to a song that was a hit before your mother was born, though she was born a long long time ago. Your mother should know." We're a long way from the pleasing, even moving textures of "When I'm Sixty-Four," which despite being a verbose joke really got at something about the passage of time; a song like "Your Mother Should Know" isn't reaching for that, or for perhaps anything beyond the audience's recognition that the Beatles are in on the "joke." There's no sense of discovery or fun because discovery and fun are, in essence, being mocked.

The title cut seems instantly disposable by design, molded by Paul's bombastic lampooning and a suggestion of menace -- "coming to take you away" -- that locates the dark side of the "we'd like to take you home with us" declaration on "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." Indeed, this song is thematically a rewrite of that one, albeit considerably less cuddly; one thing that runs through the entire Magical Mystery Tour project is a pointed absence of the Beatles' usual warmth, as if they're bent on becoming ruthless satirists of their own boredom. The work doesn't seem drug-addled at all, like Revolver sometimes did, and the frequently snotty tone would end up serving them well on their next major project. In music and film both, it's frequently hard to understand what tone the Beatles are actually driving at, which is unsettling; a full-on glimpse in their collective psyches seems to suggest that they are not really figures for us to trust with our hearts and minds at this point. This emotional aloofness has its place but it certainly undercuts the content of the second half of the record, which despite all dating from slightly earlier in the same year comes off as virtually incompatible.

Capitol opens Side Two with what was then the newest Beatles hit and all but inarguably the worst single they ever released, "Hello Goodbye." You wonder how it existed on the other side of a 45 with "I Am the Walrus" without causing some sort of a combustion. This is a song even less carefully thought-out than "Your Mother Should Know," although the band and Martin play and produce the living shit out of it, enough for it to practically strong-arm its way to the top of the charts. McCartney seems to have composed the song explicitly just to get the Beatles back on the radio (Sgt. Pepper had no singles and "All You Need Is Love" was already getting long in the tooth) and it is indeed the most nakedly dull kind of empty flexing of pop hook-muscles, matched by an egregiously stupid lyric worse than anything on the band's early puppy-love singles like "She Loves You." But even if it wasn't, producing "She Loves You" as if it were a track from Sgt. Pepper wouldn't have worked, would in fact have removed every ounce of energy from the record; and at least the relationship in "She Loves You" was more complex than an aimless argument over a greeting. As it stands, this is kid's stuff, and awful kid's stuff at that, hollow and soulless (a shameless promo film had the Beatles, with no apparent irony, performing the song in their Sgt. Pepper outfits while hula dancers paraded around behind them). It's essentially a prediction of some of McCartney's worst post-Beatles singles, the kind of material he pushed when he just wanted to demonstrate he could get something catchy and insipid on the radio with a wave of his hand. (The similarly infuriating "All Together Now" was consigned to throwaway status, but they probably could've made that one a hit too.)

In its fashion, "Hello Goodbye" is calculated enough to call the sneering tone of much of Magical Mystery Tour into question, but it has nothing on what Capitol programs next. "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" absolutely don't belong here. They are both sides of quite possibly the greatest 7" rock single ever pressed. It feels like a strange indignity to review them as a part of this album, where they are surrounded on one side by a frivolous embarrassment and on the other by an innocuous b-side. But this is the official "home" now for these songs, which rightfully should be heard as a stopgap between Revolver and Pepper while also being a cut above nearly everything on either album. The single marks the specific moment in the Beatles' catalog when their restless experimentation, George Martin's bottomless skills, and their genius as composers of rock & roll came together to create something of a distinct and undeniable piece. John Lennon's "Strawberry Fields Forever" is confusing, ponderous, rambling, surreal, and insanely beautiful. Paul McCartney's "Penny Lane" is simply a work of irresistible, sophisticated pop genius which captures childhood in glorious full color and is in its own way as personal as the flipside. The abilities of the two men are laid out perfectly here -- neither ever sang with such freedom and passion again -- with the band dynamic and their relationship with Martin firmly in place. These breathtaking songs and recordings are the essence of who the Beatles were, what they were capable of, and arguably the absolute apex of the heights they climbed. Having them share a record with songs recorded much later, when so much had happened and changed, causes two things to happen: it trivializes them, robs them of their singular entity in the same way that putting the EP songs on the first half of an album violates their essence; and it makes everything else on either side of the record, including even "I Am the Walrus," sound thin and dumb.

Capitol's Frankenstein creation under the Magical Mystery Tour title concludes with the Beatles' big Summer of Love single, the last record they released before Epstein's death, before their India adventure began, before the wheels began to come off their once infallible enterprise. We start with its amusing if inconsequential b-side "Baby You're a Rich Man," a novelty number with lyrics about a man who keeps money in "a big brown bag inside a zoo" that is both the only song on Side Two of this album that fits tonally with the songs from the MMT film and is a clear carryover from John's bewildering run of half-assed lyrics from the Revolver-Pepper era. (His moments of real focus in these years came either when he was focused on something besides being a Beatle, as with "Strawberry Fields," or when he had considerable help and enthusiasm from Paul, as with "A Day in the Life.") In mono, at least, the song is another magical dreamlike George Martin creation, for which it deserves some notice, and John's opening line at the very least is profoundly evocative (just ask Vincent Bugliosi and David Fincher): "how does it feel to be one of the beautiful people?"

Martin also deserves the lion's share of credit for making the A-side happen; "All You Need Is Love" was written by Lennon specifically for the Beatles' entry in Our World, the first global live television broadcast, in which they and their producer were tapped to represent the UK and chose to mark the occasion by recording their new single live in front of the entire world. The logistics of pulling this off were nightmarish in expanse, and the Beatles and Martin deserve credit for going all-in with it. Heard outside the context of the Our World telecast, the song seems terribly insubstantial and its awful, wacky title speaks for itself (where are all the people who complain endlessly about "imagine no possessions" for this one?), but one saving grace it has that "Hello Goodbye" doesn't is that it was intentionally written to have the simplest possible language and message for the sake of its worldwide audience... which doesn't make it any more appealing as a song or a record rather than just a bravura achievement. Hell, "Yellow Submarine" was a better novelty song; but what's worse is that a slightly younger or older Lennon could have written a song that would have been worth the whole world tuning in for. What we get in the end is one of Lennon's weakest songs, within or without the Beatles; without the ironic subtext or pot-stoked enthusiasm of "The Word," it's John in preaching philosopher mode with an empty-headed slogan at his side, and the fact that "Baby You're a Rich Man" seems to make fun of the same thing doesn't really help him make his point.

That same sort of directionless contradiction mars this package as a whole. Looking just at the hodgepodge of three A's and one b-side on the second half, the Beatles sound like too many different bands, and not in a great way, cynically coasting then later stumbling over their sincerity but also sending themselves up and then, when the curtains part for "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields," finally revealing a truth and grace that are alien even to the relatively strong EP/film songs on the other side, all of which are -- it must be said -- intentionally serving a narrative and tone that has nothing to do with any of these singles, and shouldn't be considered alongside them. But this problem of identity does seem to be something that temporarily throttled the Beatles just after Pepper; Mark Lewisohn's books document how their recording sessions in the summer of 1967 seemed to completely lose purpose and focus. The garish cover design on both EP and LP says something about how confusing it all must have felt. Are they just being weird? Are they making fun of themselves? Are they being themselves? It seems miles away from the sweet weirdness and ambitious depth of Pepper, which had given them a social status that should by now had still been fresh to them. Were they just that restless? It's as if they are out to sabotage themselves, a condition that Capitol's plundering around and tinker-toying their masters obviously irritates.

Like the film, then, Magical Mystery Tour as an EP and this grab bag of songs from the last half of 1967 -- the pre-Pepper single excluded -- come off as rather cold and forced, if still often engaging. Sonically, at least, you can still count on them; George Martin's production is a delight from start to finish, consistently surprising and entertaining. But that's the kind of thing you expect from a TV series, not a rock album, and in terms of their direct emotional connection to the listener, this is a moment when the Beatles are, to quote another icon from 1967, drifting.

***

[Contains some extracts from a review posted in 2003.]

Monday, September 17, 2018

The Beatles: Purple Chick deluxe- Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)


(bootleg [5CD])

The Purple Chick volume dedicated to Sgt. Pepper is the most extensive yet, chronologically, with five full discs dedicated to the album and supplemental content; but it's also arguably -- in 2018 -- the most superfluous, since Pepper is the only Beatles album so far to get a deluxe treatment officially, as of the record's fiftieth anniversary last year. And with that said, genuine Beatles outtakes from 1967 are already thin on the ground because of the changes in the Beatles' working methods. Still, not everything saw an official release in 2017, so from an archival perspective it's still nice to have this material all gathered in one place. In this entry I will do my best to lay out what is still unique to the bootlegs, and what you can hear more clearly on the official boxed set.

There aren't many sources of bickering more iconic in Beatles fandom than the discussion of which classic mix of Sgt. Pepper one prefers: the band-sanctioned mono mix or the somewhat slicker stereo version? There's plenty to be said for each of them, truthfully. I like how much rawer and more immediate the album sounds in mono, but some of its effects lose a bit of their punch without multiple channels to play with; the more robust rock songs, like "Getting Better" and "Fixing a Hole" and the title cut, sound fuller and healthier in mono, but then again, "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" -- a song I never fully "got" outside of its reconfigured context in Yellow Submarine -- acquires more spacey magic than it ever demonstrated in the form I grew up with. Speaking of that, for those of us reared on the CD masters, the mono is notable for providing a new way to hear music we otherwise know back to front. I wouldn't go so far as to say I strongly prefer either mix; I lean toward stereo, but I'm glad to have both. The same goes for the attendant single, "Strawberry Fields Forever"/"Penny Lane"; both songs sound terrific in mono and stereo, but mono is more accurate in the sense that those are the mixes that became hits at the time.

Among other genuine remixes from the master tapes, we're provided the relevant songs from the 1999 remaster of the Yellow Submarine film, this and that from the Anthology videos, and several available mix variations for "Only a Nothern Song" (none of which make it good), plus a couple of complete variants on "A Day in the Life" providing us with the unedited acoustic guitar intro. The mono disc adds the U.S. promo of "Penny Lane" that adds the closing trumpet solo, a touch (first widely available on the American Rarities album) that I always liked, though others feel it makes the track a bit too cute. Speaking of cute, there's inexplicably a version of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" made apparently for Yellow Submarine and then discarded, with alternate lyrics sung by actor Dick Emery as Jeremy Hillary Boob in the film. Its deletion was probably wise.

Moving on the outtakes, Purple Chick divides them into an outtakes disc for the single, an outtakes disc for the album, and a disc of monitor mixes and other fragments. Most everything on that last disc is only for the most obsessive of obsessives, like the painstakingly extensive documentation of every attempt at a stereo mix for "A Day in the Life" and some out-of-context extracts of George Martin fiddling with the knobs for a TV documentary.

PC covers the entirety of the evolution of "Strawberry Fields Forever," a complex and brilliant record constructed -- though it wasn't really planned as such -- in increments. Unlike the official Pepper box, PC has all of the known takes, including false starts, and like the released version, it restores the beautiful backing vocal overdub to the eerily beautiful take 1, which had been strangely excluded from the same track's appearance on Anthology 2. The slow, lethargic take 4 is the next complete take, and take 6 is a PC exclusive, but it's really just the more widely available take 7 without a few overdubs. PC also separates the drum track used to make the coda and edit piece at the end of the single, and dissects the "fast" version a bit more completely. That same "fast" version -- take 26, in the final analysis -- is an absolute wonder, and was my favorite unreleased Beatles track until it found its way out to the public in 2017. It's amazingly kinetic and now stands as, along with "It's All Too Much" and "Tomorrow Never Knows," the truest piece of psychedelic rock the Beatles recorded. The PC cuts frequently have additional count-in or studio chatter, but for the most part you can now get the essential parts of the "Strawberry Fields" sessions from the 50th Anniversary release.

The creation of "Penny Lane" was a bit more conventional. PC duplicates Anthology 2's offering of take 9 with a different horn section and also has fourteen minutes of the overdub session for said horns, plus yet another alternate mono mix (RM8) with different supplemental instrumentation overdubbed; this did not make it to any official release. "A Day in the Life," the first album track undertaken, is enhanced on the official Apple release -- PC's versions of takes one and two are shorter, though PC adds take 4, a false start, and an early mono mixdown plus an isolated piece of the closing piano chord. Take 9 of the song "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" is the same as the released version except with no overdubs and a longer, awkward ending; this ended up being used on the 2017 discs as well. Neither this song nor "Good Morning, Good Morning" offers us anything here that the official discs don't have. And so it goes for the rest of the outtakes, with PC really just consolidating what was made available on Anthology 2, periodically adding some isolated bits of chatter, sound effects or other ephemera.

The monitor mixes dip into a lot of very minor variants that, again, won't be of interest to most listeners except those who want to research a day in the life of George Martin at the board in the studio. So ultimately, the only thing you're gaining by seeking out the bootlegs of Pepper material is the chance to hear an even more extensive rundown of all of the many speed and performance variations "Strawberry Fields Forever" went through on its way to the final release, and even that distinction is now dubious. But this isn't PC's fault; there just wasn't very much significant material recorded at these sessions that was radically different from the actual releases. And what did exist was mined quite adequately in 2017.

One interesting exception is that, sometime in the late 2000s, several four-track masters of songs from the Pepper album leaked out, which gave the opportunity for straight transfers of the individual multitracks. These are quite fascinating, and not likely candidates for official release, and they will be examined separately on our page of bootleg capsules.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)


(Parlophone/Capitol)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

The art of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is not really in the LP itself, it's in the Beatles' ability to turn their eighth album -- their first after their retreat from touring -- into an "event." The publicity generated, reviews exploding with hyperbole and generations raised on the idea that this was unquestionably the crowning moment of pop music, seems as orchestrated as the strings on "She's Leaving Home," because what seemed revolutionary and daring in 1967 can now come across as positively quaint. It's hard to know how to tackle a record with its level of notoriety, and with a legendary status that embodies as much pushback against its pedestal as in favor of it; in contrast the other great '60s touchstone, Pet Sounds, it can be tricky to find yourself in this record.

My first exposure to Pepper (on headphones, at least, which made all the difference) was on cassette in the early 1990s, and while I already knew the most culturally ubiquitous songs from the Blue Album and from the film Yellow Submarine, I recall being genuinely dazzled by how adventurous and ambitious an experience it was, as exciting in its fashion as "I Want to Hold Your Hand" yet in such a different, seemingly more studied and intellectual manner. As I grew older, the record took an almost inevitable backseat to Rubber Soul and the White Album, but it still impressed me, arguably more than it actually moved me. And I was hearing it more than two decades after the fact, with a slew of contemporary references diluting it, which indicates that much of its central appeal is intact when divorced of its original context. There was a time when the cult around the Beatles' particular kind of cute psychedelia in their 1966-67 work grew so noxious to me that it was tempting to puncture the Pepper myth (and indeed, it felt important to do so), and yet the album's charm is inescapable, its joy absolute, its status as a totem and a kind of peak in the Beatles' story undeniable. And after fifty years its sonic vitality, humor and amusement-park eclecticism remain deeply engaging.

Perhaps the simple, earnest nature of the music underneath the fancy wrapping is the reason it feels necessary at times, even for a hardcore Beatles fanatic, to kick back against Pepper's mythos. I tend to think, however, that the stronger discomfort comes from the impact the album had on the industry as a whole and the rock LP specifically, in large part because nearly all of its influence was negative. Laid against earlier Beatles albums, other albums of the mid-'60s (especially soul albums), and other examples of the psychedelic magnum opus that have stronger, riskier ideas that go beyond the superficial dressing-up of a relatively innocuous set of songs, it can be downright frustrating that this record -- fun and ceaselessly entertaining as it is -- is the one that convinced the stuffy larger world that Rock was now Art, in the process pointing the way to the ponderous world of prog rock and emptying out a nation full of crude garage practice spaces in a heartbeat, celebrating the confines of the studio as the inarguable essence of rock. It sounds strange to consider Pepper a masterpiece, which it arguably is, and also be maddened by the fact that A Hard Day's Night (or I Could Never Love a Man the Way I Love You or Forever Changes, if you prefer) isn't self-evidently superior to everyone who hears them both. If you're presently in this mindset -- and hey, I sympathize, as I've gone back and forth on this matter many times in my life -- then maybe it would be helpful to place the record in a more intimate context, to look at it in terms of who and where the Beatles were at the end of 1966.

Beatlemania had hit an ugly dead end in the summer of 1966; between a disastrous tour of the Far East and John Lennon being ostracized in the U.S. by redneck dullards over his mild comments about Christianity, to say nothing of tension with management over the group's airing of opinions about Vietnam, the wealth of success and the terrifying scale of it had led them to exhaustion. At their insistence, then, their calendar was cleared out in the months following their final concert, in San Francisco on August 29th. In the interim, George continued his search for wealthy enlightenment, Paul delved further into the London avant garde scene, Ringo into the beginnings of family life, and John, for his part, actually was prolific in life events during the downtime: he met Yoko Ono on November 9th, went to Spain for his lone non-Beatles acting role in Richard Lester's How I Won the War, and wrote "Strawberry Fields Forever." When the Beatles reconvened on the 24th of November it was to begin work on recording this song and its future flipside, Paul's "Penny Lane," for a prospective album about the band members' collective childhoods. Both songs were lopped off for a single -- probably the Beatles' most remarkable -- and the childhood concept only survived in the ensuing sessions in the form of faint memories of the songs their parents had played had loved, Paul's dad having been a jazz musician, John's mother having been a lover and singer of "old songs." Nevertheless, in both the aborted notion of a childhood album and in the eventual album's loose attempt at establishing an alternative persona for the Beatles, there's no mistaking a feeling of angst among them, a need to escape the image they had spent the early part of their career set up.

Needless to say, they had already accomplished this to some extent with the stark, often foreboding content on Revolver; and you could even read something into the fact that both that album and its equally sophisticated predecessor, Rubber Soul, omitted the Beatles' name on their front covers, as though the band as it was known was something they all desperately wished to escape. And yet when Revolver was released, there was still the humdrum work to be done: the slavish American tour (with only the old moptop numbers in the setlist, save an errant "Paperback Writer"), the attendant PR, the making nice with the mainstream public. When "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" were released on February 17, 1967, the Beatles had been quiet and absent from the public eye for six months, a startling lapse in comparison to the breakneck pace they'd been exhibiting since "Love Me Do" four years earlier. And when they appeared on camera for those songs' promo films with mustaches, a commanding maturity and an unapologetic sense of forward-looking weirdness, they managed to instill shock, to become a story on their terms rather than the public's. (See 1966's flood of controversies, from the Philippines disaster to the Capitol Records "butcher cover.")

The response was magnified with the appearance of the LP on the first of June. By taking on the costume of a second, nonexistent band playing old-timey music and vaguely hinting at a long, storied history mostly left to the audience's imagination apart from scattered and cleverly interpolated details, by exorcising their need to be someone else, they were in fact re-taking control of their own lives and careers, and the contrast was stark: no more touring, a greatly slowed pace of recording and releasing, no more silly movies (well, none like Help!, anyway), and a furthering of their legendary stranglehold on quality control and therefore on their own mystique. It seems to have mostly been a coincidence that, by appearing when it did and from whom, Sgt. Pepper wound up serving as the central soundtrack of the Summer of Love, a temporarily world-stopping moment of adolescent peace and celebration, erotic and drugged and, more than anything, liberated. Pepper didn't harness the energy of the moment on purpose, and some could accuse it of unknowingly riding the coattails of the more directly sympathetic achievements of other bands (there's very little "peace and love" or flower power on any Beatles record aside from the responsive "All You Need Is Love," and essentially none on Pepper), but it defined its cultural moment more than any other Beatles album -- perhaps because its acid-tinged wit and meandering philosophies suggested, as the moment itself did, that the future was limitless. The Beatles didn't appear or play a note at the Monterey Pop Festival, two weeks after the album's release, but in the footage that exists, somehow their existence as teen idols-cum-artistic masters seems to float through the entire event, because with the largest global audience any rock band had ever enjoyed, they had shown what kind of expression and invention was possible.

Despite its PR-encouraged reputation as an effortless flowing creation of one wonderful tune after another, Sgt. Pepper is substantially less cohesive and consistent than Revolver or Rubber Soul, not to mention contemporary albums by the Byrds, Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and even the typically schizophrenic Beach Boys. (Brian Wilson claimed at times that one reason his looser, esoteric Smile was abandoned was that, on hearing Pepper, he felt the Beatles "got there first." But where, exactly?) It also isn't really a "concept album," thankfully; the concept is "there" because, as Lennon later pointed out, they said it was. The songs are tough and smartly fleshed-out, hence the inclusion of a lyric sheet, but there's no more of a unifying theme than there is on Beatles for Sale. Also, virtually every book about the Beatles points out the lack of space between songs. This is patently false: the first song fades into the second song, connected by fake audience noise. Then they drop that... and on Side Two, the last three songs segue. And as noted, while the record is certainly imaginative, flirting with gimmicks without falling head-first into them, it can't properly be called "psychedelic"; albums stretching back to 1966 and even late 1965 display the drugged-up, charmingly dime-store imagination of the times, and by this point, a few bands (the Velvet Underground and Love in particular, and the Zombies soon enough) were making art of it in a way the Beatles never attempted. Following a trend would have short-circuited their energy and intelligence, at any rate, and with subsequent work in 1967 they'd come dangerously close anyway.

So what makes Pepper so special and different, then? If you separate it from all the critical bliss and the reputation it's procured, and from such inevitably wanting comparisons, it could be argued that the pseudonym, the throwback quality of the music, and the intense reliance on production techniques were an expression of a need for renewal, a new beginning, or if you're less generous, a lack of confidence. The complete leap of faith into the arms of producer George Martin indicates a feeling that the current crop of songs would work better with more going for them, creating something intended more as entertainment than as the personal, enthused communication of the Beatles' earlier work. Underneath the surface, though, that lack of confidence is the story, and is self-deprecating and moving. Despite everything, Pepper ends up revealing a lot about the Beatles, or at least about Paul McCartney and George Harrison. This is a second relatively lackluster album in a row for John Lennon, locked away in a cloud of weed and acid, though he does offer a couple of touchstones and some worthwhile prompts for Martin to go to town. His inescapably grand "With a Little Help from My Friends" is a brilliantly written sheepish confession of shyness, sung by Ringo -- whose wavering lends it meaning, Joe Cocker be damned -- in the album's most charming, human moment.

It's all calculated, of course; there's none of the kitchen sink surrealism of some other rock albums from the lofty days of '67, and while you could argue its faux-highbrow sensibility (a sort of lyrical carryover from "Paperback Writer") and a lack of compositional playfulness makes it seem cold and impersonal, it would be short-sighted to pretend that the band's sense of celebration and fun doesn't shine through more than ever, set free by Martin's tinkering and by the act of freeform creation, by the shaky but agreeable notion that they see themselves as operating in a new form rather than just rock & roll, which isn't totally true but may have been necessary for them at this point. No Beatles album surpasses this one for sheer immediacy, for fun, for humor, or for the feeling that they would have exploded if they hadn't gotten it out of their systems.

If Martin functioned as a catalyst for Revolver in its eventual form, he's absolutely integral to Sgt. Pepper; Paul's jingle-like ditty used as the album's theme song launches the producer in the establishment of an ingeniously complete world, with crowd sounds and an echoing dance hall completing the illusion. The Beatles continue as a functional rock band but Martin takes them off on a cloud somewhere. It's impossible to imagine Lennon's strained "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" without him; the thin, fanciful song could easily be cloying, illustrating the limitations of lofty rock-band artiness and of Lennon's depressingly shallow mindset at this point, but Martin needs no persuasion to transform it into another "Strawberry Fields"-like soundscape, even if the contrast with the earlier song remains obvious and stark. Later on, it's not so much that "Good Morning Good Morning" and "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" are bad, they're just far better recordings than they are songs, and listlessly sung to boot (as is "Lucy"): respectively a lazy collection of rock chords and day-to-day clichés, and a generic lampoon of circus music with words lifted verbatim from an antique poster, both of which might be clever ideas coming from someone who hadn't written "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Help!", but both of them transforming into breathtaking works of crafty production. The collage of tape loops and steam organ tidbits that closes "Mr. Kite!" is a vivid nightmare, a painting caught on tape, and a triumph for the producer.

Paul and George's songs need less help than John's. McCartney's "When I'm Sixty-Four" is a literal oldie -- one of the first songs he ever wrote, revised with new, jokey but witty lyrics -- and Martin rises to the occasion of attempting to approximate the cabaret-like sound suggested by the album's wildly busy cover by Peter Brown. While they don't stand up to McCartney's opus of classics on Revolver, "Getting Better," "Fixing a Hole" and "Lovely Rita" are all delightful. "Better" continues his adaptation, audible in "Here, There and Everywhere" and "For No One," to a kind of hard-won adulthood in his songwriting; you can't picture the teenager of "I Saw Her Standing There" writing something so mature, unsympathetic and uplifting (with the help of John's brutal confessional bridge about wife-beating and his "it can't get no worse" rebuke to the title phrase). "Hole" is Paul at his most eccentric and gregarious, beefed up by one of Harrison's greatest guitar solos. And while "Rita" is a throwaway love song with gag lyrics and a gag porno conclusion that predicts "Polythene Pam" in the Beatles' song cycle of crushes on androgynous figures, Paul brings it in for a landing with one of his best, most winning vocals on record, approaching it with the same urgency he lent to "Got to Get You into My Life" and enlivening particularly at the fadeout, when he seems, for whatever reason, to look up at the same infinite sky he sees at the end of "Penny Lane." Similarly, a sweet and simplistic number like "When I'm Sixty-Four" abruptly becomes sad and gorgeous when the Beatles and Martin know just how to perform and record a disarming moment like the 4/4 takeover on "you'll be older too...", when suddenly a fairly silly tune aches with love and loss.

All that said, for the first and only time, George Harrison steals the record from either of the two main composers in the Beatles. The five-minute Indian dirge "Within You, Without You" is the album's greatest triumph and George's finest song ever, solo work included. Its lyrical concepts are weighty and abstract but impressively eloquent, criticizing the same stick-in-the-mud complacency that puts a fire under "A Day in the Life" at the end of the record. Usually a mediocre singer, George here is marvelously controlled and intense. More to the point, the crew of Indian session players craft an irresistible performance that's fascinating, soulful and rhythmically tricky -- and, of course, sublimely played -- while remaining accessible and perfectly in sync with the Beatles' own sound. (It's somehow much less jarring than "Love You To.") There may be no moment in their discography more purely beautiful than the lengthy instrumental break. Harrison's experiments with traditional Indian music could be indulgent and even vaguely exploitative, but here he strikes the note perfectly, and the presence of this brilliant, remarkable song on a Beatles album is something for all of them to view and recall with pride -- and George's taste for experimentation is, as of now, more radical than his bandmates', which adds to the record's overall legitimacy and progressive vision.

In the end, two songs illustrate the best and worst sides of Pepper's approach, for the way that it blows up the Beatles' magnetism and emotional depth to the point that they are more explicit and bombastic than ever. A sad song called "She's Leaving Home" is attempted and is probably the most atrocious cut on any of the group's eleven proper studio albums. It's so saccharine as to be nearly unlistenable -- Martin's strings for "Yesterday" are comparatively subtle; the "Leaving Home" musicians were arranged and conducted by Mike Leander -- and the sort of thing you hoped they'd never do, but it fits in with the thinking-man's approach to their work because it allows easy interpretation without ambivalence or anger. It's just a sad story told in a direct fashion with no disagreeable "rock music" elements to distract from the weepy violins and projectile-vomit-worthy vocal execution. This is the kind of pop the stuffy elder statesmen could appreciate. Not for them the navel-gazing openness of "I'm a Loser" or the irony-free, powerful declarations of "Here, There, and Everywhere." They prefer an overblown song about a runaway that takes the side of the parents until opining bizarrely that "Fun is the one thing that money can't buy."

Yet at the end of the day, all is forgiven via "A Day in the Life," which snaps John Lennon back into focus at last -- though it's a collaboration, with its bridge written entirely by Paul -- and, while it isn't comparable to either "Strawberry Fields" or "Penny Lane" by a longshot, finds the Beatles taking the opportunity for some kind of a satiric, all-encompassing statement of purpose and rebuke of the very mainstream culture Brian Epstein had once meant the Beatles to infiltrate. It's a chilling critique of "modern life," sung from the same outsider perspective via John as "She Said, She Said" and his other recent drug songs. Paul, meanwhile, mockingly interjects with a depressing portrait of the meaninglessly bustling life of the everyday worker, something from which all four Beatles had narrowly escaped and to which, through their upbringing, they still held much sympathy. Like the closing songs on the last two Beatles albums, it feels like a glare into the void, one without the easy respite of a simple answer aside from the hope of being, somehow, "turned on"; Lennon's wish to provide this to the listener is the subject of the ghostliest moment in his incalculably gorgeous lead vocal, and Martin's stroke of genius of dramatizing the song's mixture of despair and mystery with a harsh, building crescendo of monstrous strings (not once but twice) provides its narrative thrust, even if it fails to make Lennon's vague wishes for escape (not just for him but for everyone) any more conclusive. And Lennon and/or McCartney's famous vocal on the bridge tells the same story in a way, but without words, without even the explicit lamenting of the band's thematically similar "Eleanor Rigby." This is a moment when the curtains part briefly and we're permitted a glimpse of what the Beatles really think about the world they float above and survey, and it's an unsettling and powerful picture indeed... and the sort of thing no other band, no other producer, nearly no other artist, could accomplish. "Tomorrow Never Knows" might have been more jarring and violent, but "A Day in the Life" is simultaneously as beautiful and as disturbing as any song ever laid down in the rock idiom.

The best way to describe the whole of Sgt. Pepper, rather than its bravura conclusion, is as an album of moments. A new listener may latch on to the curious thrill of hearing canned people applaud an unheard singer, or to the flanging on "Lucy," or to the amusing march of animal sounds at the end of "Good Morning, Good Morning," but with time it's the strange asides that you carry with you, the bits and pieces when the Beatles are free and unguarded. "A Day in the Life," "Lovely Rita," "When I'm Sixty-Four," "Within You, Without You" and "Getting Better" all are enlivened by such seemingly trivial bits and pieces, those that make them spirited and human; and it's here also that you can hear why and how the record, from so unexpected a source, infected the entire world for a time, and still in some small way continues to do so. It doesn't present the Beatles as they were at their best, no, but it was created with love of a different kind, with a different purpose at a different time in their lives, almost an antidote to everything they'd been through over the preceding decade. The sad epilogue is that it would be, though not their last great album, their last truly focused, harmonious project: a send-off of sorts to the enterprise they had built. The victory was immense and absolute; the record was beloved, championed, taken seriously as a musical event and a communal experience. By the end of the summer, Brian Epstein -- whose influence on Pepper was admittedly far from great -- would be dead and the Beatles would be flailing.

It seems today that Sgt. Pepper, thanks to its its self-contained day-glo artistry and its effect on the misguided notion of the album itself as the essence of pop music's power of expression, is never judged fairly. It's viewed as either a disgraceful, bloated tombstone for rock & roll or as some sort of impeccable statement that can never be duplicated or improved upon. There is some truth to both arguments, and say this much: nothing else like it exists. Such strong reactions have led to a firestorm of emotions from Beatles fans and it's easy to condemn the people with negative viewpoints both as making too much of a mere pop LP and, again, looking at the album through the blurred glasses of retrospect, their opinions therefore rejected and ignored. More realistically, Sgt. Pepper does not allow itself to be viewed in terms of any other time period, for the same reason that the inflated, cultural "legend" of the Beatles has less meaning outside the '60s, a context that is central to fully understanding them. Pepper is a snapshot of its times and is less rich than other Beatles albums in the elements that produce the music we, in our heart of hearts, adore and return to time and time again. But to beat it down is to stubbornly deny its sense of life and the smiles and thrills it can still generate. It's a classic album, a masterpiece of its form, an entity... but it is, resentment aside, an engaging document of a moment -- cultural nostalgia, maybe by design as nostalgia is what prompted its existence -- and in the end it never claimed to be anything more.

***

[Incorporates some extracts from a review posted in 2003.]

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The National: High Violet (2010)


(4AD)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

The National emerged as a sort of antidote to indie rock status quo in the mid-2000s, shirking the irony-heavy disaffected attitude-overload of the New York bands; hailing from the Midwest, they were ordinary-seeming guys with a lot of bluster and passion who liked to rock but made it sound like an outlet for something they were struggling to deal with rather than an end unto itself. You could give a similar descriptor to fellow genre-defining outsiders Arcade Fire, but unlike their Canadian peers, the National weren't youthful bleeding hearts bubbling over with undisguised enthusiasm. They sang songs of anger and resignation, despite their almost ridiculously broad appeal -- both bands would've most likely been consistent FM staples and stadium-fillers a decade or two earlier -- and High Violet marks the point when the resignation overtakes and subsumes them. These are sullen anthems of minor-key life, but they are not hopeless or disgusted, they're agonized with the beauty of their own devastation. Without being actively miserable, the record illustrates a complicated adult world through morose, drunken free association that hides a surprising catchiness and ethereal beauty. And put simply, it's among the most curiously addictive of modern rock albums, vaguely suggesting the subtlety and sophistication of R.E.M., early Van Morrison and Broken Social Scene while actually sounding like none of the above.

The record opens with a prelude: "Terrible Love," an unfinished-sounding ragged setting of the stage. But it really begins with the shaky, harrowing introduction of "Sorrow," which reads like a torn-page narrative of someone's life story about being perpetually left behind, and dares to hinge on something as straightforward as "I don't want to get over you." Matt Berninger's vocals, selectively double and triple tracked in unpredictable patterns, have a weathered quality that simultaneously possesses morose, distancing beauty and a warmth large enough to sleep in. Indeed, as the band files behind him with impeccable precision, constantly focusing their efforts to preserve mood and align perfectly with the demands of each given song and the album as a whole (even the angry freakout that opens "Little Faith" is muted), Berninger's voice provides the narrative of the album. There's much stillness and despair but the occasional creeping in of romance, even when he's reciting absurdities like "we'll play nuns versus priests until somebody wins." On "Runaway," he lets the internal drama sprawl out fully and the result is practically Americana, with space for a U2-like buildup but too much mystery to really comply with such convention; and his most eclectic performance on a single song, "Conversation 16," is so controlled that his slightly fevered, confessional repetition of the line "I'm evil" carries more weight thanks to its placement near the end of the album than it would otherwise, just because it shows some willingness to depart from his catatonia. But that song is also quintessential High Violet: its muscular, monochromatic sadness; the intensity of the burned-out, unstated love seemingly at the core of it all ("you're the only thing I ever want anymore"); and the incongruous choral backing vocals of Sufjan Stevens to further the illusion of the bottom falling out of everything.

Yet the National seem reluctant to forecast any such broad, strong movements and transformations, at least consistently. The album's best songs are often propulsive and improbably pleasurable, but also unerring in their tension: never quite exploding, never quite hesitating. Once you've heard "Anyone's Ghost" hundreds of times you can hear that the bridge is written as menacing, and you notice how elaborate the buried strings and voices are behind Berninger's affected, tortured voice, but it's as though they're hiding it behind a thick, foggy veneer -- which makes it all the more impressive how its brilliant fury comes through immediately as a kind of miracle, its intricate construction all but invisible. Haunting as it is, "Afraid of Everyone" is rock music -- but its powerful drums and largeness are like a transparency being placed over the balladry, its cathartic fist-pumping hooks designed for the introverted who'd never dare pump their fists for anything. And the record's two signature songs, nestled consecutively at the center, are as remarkable in their reticence for grandstanding as in the magic of their frozen-in-time moment. "Bloodbuzz Ohio" approaches mastery in the arrangement of its simple three-chord structure -- you've seldom heard such emotional drumming, thanks to Bryan Devendorf -- and in the way that its beautifully vague lyrics are so knowingly sung and written like a "Kanga Roo" for the Great Recession, its pauses audible dips into confusion -- "Lay my head on the hood of your car, I / take it too far"; "I never married / but Ohio don't remember me." (Though, as every review of this album has pointed out, there's nothing at all vague about "I still owe money to the money to the money I owe / the floors are falling out from everybody I know," maybe the defining line of the decade.) And sulking never felt so celebratory, so communal. The tinkling "Lemonworld" is slightly more singular and personal ("I was a comfortable kid, but I don't think about it much anymore"), and again, it's a long time before you pause from appreciating it long enough to understand how it plays you with the unexpected drop to minor key after the cloudy glory of the verses.

High Violet constantly suggests that the National could easily be a million-selling, non-alternative outfit delivering the goods to a huge and disparate part of the population, and some of its power is less in how it defies that -- because it doesn't always do so, and doesn't necessarily indicate that they intentionally want to -- than in how it locates the potential for personal expression in a universal form. "England," after all, is probably the most conventional arena rock song on the record, a full-on baroque beauty that opens up at decisive, carefully engineered moments, but I can't hear it without thinking of my then-girlfriend and now-wife singing along to it, to the point that it sounds incomplete without her voice. But that's me -- and I'm one of the hypothetical people having a private moment in some hypothetical huge crowd at a show-ending encore of the album-ending "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks," an unabashed -- if blackened -- singalong that reaches its zenith with "all the very best of us string ourselves up for love," as wise a portrait of self-destruction and/or the meaning of life as any. Since High Violet the National have continued to release extraordinary music, to be grouchy and difficult to read, and to live life as an atypically successful workhorse band, but eight years down the line this record is still singular as an illustration of its time and -- even though we may already look back on its very different flavor with immense fondness -- the sense back then that we were collectively slipping into some sort of an ether, which we were. It accomplishes all this while asserting itself cogently enough to attain what in indie rock constitutes mass appeal, and the band makes this sound easy... which, the closer you listen, the more you know it absolutely was not.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

What is this crap about 'you've got to live your life while you're alive'?: July 2018 music diary

RIP to a real American hero, Aretha Franklin; I feel satisfied with stuff I've said here over the years about her, and I feel incapable of approaching her legend properly, but I'll most likely post something modest in a few days at my other blog.

Beyoncé & Jay-Z: Everything Is Love (Roc Nation) [hr]
Love, as usual, as an act of salesmanship with a strange sense of brand responsibility -- they only escape coming across as plastic because half the couple is so talented and charismatic and the other half generates nostalgia for the talent and charisma he once emitted. It's not exactly Ashford & Simpson; Jay-Z is a bit player, and in contrast to the closing track "All Night" on the record's narrative predecessor Lemonade, they're belaboring all these points about their infallible relationship -- and the continued lyrical redemption of a now-legendary infidelity -- with such intensity it's as though they're really trying to convince themselves. Still, how can you help but love them? They are America's true first couple, and the millions pay for the best beats in the business. Cool & Dre's "Summer" and "Black Effect" return to the well of classic soul production and the appeal is instantaneous, which may be ironic when laid against lyrics declaring uncharted territory ("never been this far from the shore") but truly can give a sense of relief when you realize some powerful people in this business are out to give the people what they want, and in a healthy dose. Jay is hit and miss, as he's been for fifteen years; "Apeshit" contains his best verse in a while, but he's awkward when interpolating modern club music that's beyond his grasp ("and I'm nice nice nice nice nice nice nice") and evidently his notebook isn't stuffed with enough ideas to prevent him interpolating a whole verse of Common's "The Light." (And why the fuck does he talk about his will so much?) His wife, of course, is light years beyond him and this is her album: she out-Migoses Migos on the black album-like "Apeshit," crafts characters and moods from a voice that contains multitudes, freestyles credibly on "Nice," and on the whole demonstrates a control and authority that remain something to behold. In less well-practiced hands, the specially ordained glimpses into Jay and Yoncé's world could be embarrassing or misguided, but they have a way of making you feel like they're inviting you to share a private moment with them, even though the entire subject of "Heard About Us" is the fact that we really none of us know jackshit about 'em -- which is one of the two statements on the entire record, however delightful it is, that I'm fully inclined to believe. (The other is when Jay announces that being a celebrity "has its perks.")

Kamasi Washington: Heaven & Earth (Young Turks)
Isn't the rattle of your neighbor's garbage can lids enough without having to listen to freaked-out music? Pull yourself out of your old radio routine and get into something nice and sweet. They say many young people will be deaf by the time they're 30. Their own music is doing them in. Life has gotten louder for the rest of us, too. The song bird, the cricket, the soft crunch of snow underfoot are all becoming lost in the roar of the Seventies... Fortunately, there's still one place where you can hear something Beautiful. Hours and hours of it.

The Wave Pictures: Brushes with Happiness (Moshi Moshi) [hr]
Possessed of an eerie calm that can make it seem underwhelming (likely because they're issuing another album in a few months presumed to contain rockers), this almost silenced-to-a-hush cycle of ballads nevertheless gives vent to the usual secrets and passions, gorgeously articulated. It's music of patience: requiring it and dispensing it. Like their vinyl-only A Season in Hull, the album was recorded in a single night live to tape, with all the inherent flaws and distortions, and rarely was the character of an evening so persuasively captured. Catchiest: "Jim," which sings of music itself and slightly bounces; "The Burnt Match," with builds into a singalong. Most atmospheric: "Rise Up," "Volcano," whose stillness is tense and alluring but also completely calming. Best: "The Little Window," a spoken ramble about a wandering through town to recover something lost and an encounter with women boxers in the ring, as evocative as a Hopper sketch, as lonely and full of life as film noir, as grimy as Jerry Lee Lewis live and dangerous.

Let's Eat Grandma: I'm All Ears (Transgressive)
Experimental duo -- childhood besties -- from Norwich, UK who are worth a glance in part because of their association with SOPHIE, who coproduces and cowrites two songs on their sophomore LP, and both are excellent: "Hot Pink" is a balls-to-the-wall triumph, "It's Not Just Me" is moodier, and both are a strong complement to Oil of Every Pearl's Un-Insides with the skittering, charmingly tentative and unfiltered vocals an intriguing contrast to the producer's own vocal work. The rest is much more ordinary dance stuff, most charming when it goes for Berlin-style atmospherics but often sludgy, annoying and slightly on the wrong side of being excessively radio-friendly. "Donnie Darko" is an eleven-minute synth piece peaking with a tranced-out hook that will either be the saving grace or will finally cause you to move on. The whole affair feels like two mismatched records, the first and shorter one more interesting by far.

Lotic: Power (Tri Angle) [hr]
At the current moment it's difficult not to see every piece of fractured electronica in the light of SOPHIE's remarkable breakthrough a few months ago; that's the kind of record that reassigns the role of everything that surrounds it, including music (like the most recent efforts of Jlin and Iglooghost) that appeared prior to it. Lotic is a great example, a Berlin-based producer and DJ whose thoughtful, challenging blend of genres has defined the decade in the dance underground of the German capital. Their debut -- after a few EPs and mixes -- scratches a similar itch to SOPHIE's record, but the differences are telling, namely that Lotic's record is less manic, more focused, more generous but altogether no less impassioned. It is the brilliant, adventurous professional architect to SOPHIE's unpredictable abstract painter. Power gets more accessible as it goes on, bowing out with a group of softly persuasive ballads that are justified wholly by the puzzlingly instinctive rhythms and fragmented eccentricity of what comes before. Its intensity is knowing, complex, intimate, but it will still blow you up and put you back together again differently, no matter what else you've been grooving on this year.

Luluc: Sculptor (Sub Pop)
Third album from this folk-rock duo out of Melbourne, heavy on melody and meaning, low on variance and vitality, but the songs strike you as more felt and crafty than the work of most similar groups that are presently active. I love the very short opening track and admire the pleasantness of the rest, even if I don't really have a place in my life for more of this sort of thing.

Deafheaven: Ordinary Corrupt Human Love (Anti-) [c]
Has no business being reviewed here; another metal band that's strangely often classified as something else, presumably because they're thought to have crossover appeal to non-headbangers, but nah.

Laurel Halo: Raw Silk Uncut Wood (Latency) [r]
Am I allowed to be disappointed here, verging on a sense of betrayal? Laurel Halo's Dust now sounds like it was trying to tell us something, and this is a complete sidestep: an album-length ambient dirge. But its suddenness, its appearance off her regular label, and the description of it as a "mini-album" probably speaks to the possibility it just has a totally different narrative, and it's certainly above-average as atmospherics, full of intrigue... but I hope there is more brain-melting wild shit in her future.

The Internet: Hive Mind (Columbia)
It's not just acoustic strumming singer-songwriters who know how to simultaneously impress us with their competence and bore us to death! The vibe serves its purpose for the most part, but it's in one ear out the other and as Neil Tennant sang long ago, I want to wake up.

Black Thought: Streams of Thought: Vol. 1 (Human Re Sources EP) [hr]
My friends get kind of quiet when I say this out loud but I've long thought Black Thought may still be the best MC currently working: his lyrics and delivery are tough, mature, confident, and wide-ranging -- in fact it's hard to listen to this seventeen-minute download and not just fawn over his flow on a purely technical basis. It's been frustrating as a fan of rap itself how the musical arrangements and, frankly, showboating have overtaken the last several Roots albums -- I often just wanted to hear Thought spit. And this gives him a perfect opportunity, intermingled with a great verse from Rapsody and a reasonably good one from Styles P, but mostly just offering rapid-fire, unstoppable insight and rhythm from Thought himself. The best lyric is on the first cut "Twofifteen" (Philly's area code), with a wizened "what does it all mean" exploration of Kim and Kanye, the election, some references to Hunter Thompson and Sarah Vaughn served with breathless mastery, and the chilly last lines: "So smile and say cheese, we in 2018 / in a pyramid scheme, nightmares and day dreams / from the runaway slave to a modern day king." Musically the standout is "9th vs Thought," half-named for the record's unmistakable producer 9th Wonder; this is heavy jazz, and has some of the first braggadocio Thought's been allowed to expend in a decent while, sick as he's ever been, still speakin' his mind in a different dialect. There's apocalypse in this, as always, but it's an immense relief and a thrill to hear.

Angelique Kidjo: Remain in Light (Kravenworks) [hr]
To my knowledge, the first full-on cover of an album that completely works, thanks to its radical but sympathetic rearrangements of the eight songs on Talking Heads' (and Brian Eno's) most ambitious LP, bringing them -- as if by magic -- back to their roots of African influence while sending them skyrocketing into the present, the future. My first thought is, my god, I hope the band's heard this and realizes how much it affirms what they were going for all along. Few white rock bands' work is as exhilarating and liberating as theirs, largely because of its gradually broadening range of ideas and influences, and the tracks they wrote in 1980 prove durable and gain an extra layer of passion from Kidjo's tough, impassioned performances. Her work on "Crosseyed and Painless" is perhaps the most striking, while her band does their deepest dive into the pure mechanics of "Once in a Lifetime" and "Born Under Punches," and the song that gives you a chill you just can't shake is the prophetic, terrifying, deeply humanistic "Listening Wind." It feels like there couldn't possibly be a more ideal moment for this to exist; shifting David Byrne's words, reinterpreting them, translating them, standing on top of them and exploring them, Kidjo proves herself a maverick and pushes the music in completely new directions, affirming the seriousness and durability of the band's work while wholly recasting it into a new work of art. Simply extraordinary.

***

ALSO RECOMMENDED
- Tracyanne & Danny (Merge) [it's just like a Camera Obscura record: swooning melodies, gorgeous singing, and the perfect opportunity for bathroom breaks when the dude starts singing; "Alabama"/"Home & Dry"/"It Can't Be Love Unless It Hurts"]
- Jenny Hval: The Long Sleep (Sacred Bones EP) [flooded out with beauty; "Spells"/"The Dreamer Is Everyone in Her Dream"]
- Shannon Shaw: Shannon in Nashville (Easy Eye Sound) [premature grandeur; "Freddies 'n' Teddies"/"I Might Consider"/"Goodbye Summer"]
- Lykke Li: so sad so sexy (RCA) [hot '97; "Deep End"/"Hard Rain"]

ALSO RECOMMENDED FOR THE AMBIENT FILES
- Proc Fiskal: Insula (Hyperdub)
- Tangents: New Bodies (Temporary Residence)

FURTHER INVESTIGATION TO COME
* Teyana Taylor: KTSE
* The Essex Green: Hardly Electronic
* Pram: Across the Median
* Buddy: Harlan & Alondra
Arp: ZEBRA
Blawan: Wet Will Always Dry
R+R=Now: Collagically Speaking
The Innocence Mission: Sun on the Square
Charles Lloyd & the Marvels: Vanished Gardens
RP Boo: I'll Tell You What!
Miss Red: K.O.
Pariah: Here from Where We Are

REJECTS
Chvrches: Love Is Dead
J Balvin: Vibras
Aisha Burns: Argonauta
Norma Waterson & Eliza Carthy: Anchor [NYIM]
Jamie Isaac: (4:30) Idler
Erin Rae: Putting on Airs
Lily Allen: No Shame
John Parish: Bird Dog Dante
Olivia Chaney: Shelter
Christina Aguilera: Liberation [NYIM]
Melody's Echo Chamber: Bon Voyage [NYIM]
Sami Baha: Free for All
Nine Inch Nails: Bad Witch
Gang Gang Dance: Kazuashita
Self Defense Family: Have You Considered Punk Music
The Rock*A*Teens: Sixth House
Florence + the Machine: High as Hope [NYIM]
Gorillaz: The Now Now
Jim James: Uniform Distortion
Years & Years: Palo Santo [NYIM]
77:78: Jellies
Bodega: Endless Scroll
Body/Head: The Switch
Cowboy Junkies: All That Reckoning [NYIM]
Lori McKenna: The Tree [NYIM]

ORPHAN TUNES
Luluc "Spring" [Sculptor]
Chvrches "Get Out" [Love Is Dead]
J Balvin "Mi Gente" [Vibras]
Jamie Isaac "Maybe" [(4:30) Idler]

Sunday, August 19, 2018

The Beatles: Purple Chick deluxe- Revolver (1966)


(bootleg [3CD])

Revolver doesn't have a properly overarching theme the way Rubber Soul does, nor does it try to sell a "concept" the way the Beatles' next album would, but it does possess a certain unity of purpose (and mood); no two consecutive songs feature the same lead vocalist, hence only two ("Here, There and Everywhere" and "Yellow Submarine") share a composer. There's also the fact that it's extremely weird, at least given that it's an album from the mid-1960s by what was then the world's most popular rock group. Even John Lennon's middling, well-played rockers -- the record's weak link, generally -- have a strange and discordant quality about them, and on his better numbers, he sings very openly about death. "She Said She Said" isn't nearly as thrilling and strange musically as "Tomorrow Never Knows," but it's strange to realize the tormented extremity of what its lyrics (based on a bad trip with Peter Fonda) are saying: "You're making me feel like I've never been born" offers a darker angle to psychedelia than almost anything in, say, the Doors' catalog.

Because the album is so fascinating in musical and production terms, you would hope for a big uptick in the unreleased marginalia presented by Purple Chick at this point; unfortunately, Revolver's outtakes have turned to be among the most adroitly well-mined on official releases, so there is very little here that will not already be somewhat familiar to listeners of the multiplatinum selling (and now widely streaming) Anthology 2 release. That also means this will be a relatively short review, but it's still essential to quickly break down the material presented here for completeness.

As usual, the set opens up with the various mix variations of the album's songs and its attendant single ("Paperback Writer"/"Rain," which preceded it by a few months). The mono mix of Revolver is a carefully considered work of art, strange and off-center and druggy, something that's really emphasized when you compare it to the clarity of something like the Kinks' Face to Face and its touches of more polite eccentricity. (Only the unhinged, raga-like "Fancy" quite approaches the Beatles' blackened intensity.) And talking of open, celebrated, mainstream weirdness, "Paperback Writer" in its mono single version has a compressed, psychedelic, dreamy sound filled with effects, pushing forward the fact that it was (sonically, at least) their strangest single so far, unseating "I Feel Fine." Of course the b-side, "Rain," upstages it considerably, but they're clearly of a piece. In both cases, the now-canonical stereo mixes are like different songs entirely than what sold at the time, and in the case of "Writer," it's to the track's obvious detriment.

Across the album, there are small mono-stereo variations you'll pick up on if you're very familiar with the record (the longer fades on "Got to Get You into My Life" and "Love You To," the earlier percussion on "Taxman"), but in fairness the stereo mix is one of the better ones, and in fact superior in at least one case ("Here, There and Everywhere," which pushes the guitar up a little too much in mono). Still, as usual, the Beatles' and Martin's closer involvement in the once-rare mono mix is amply clear. "Eleanor Rigby" is less haphazard-sounding, Paul's voice coming down from a great height like John's on the album closer; the dream seems heavier. "I'm Only Sleeping" has a real sense of claustrophobia, "Yellow Submarine" is more complete (though its edits are a bit more obvious), and "And Your Bird Can Sing" attains an urgency that helps it.

Next come the officially released alternate mixes, which are interesting if not revelatory; the most endlessly futzed-with cut of all is "I'm Only Sleeping," whose pesky backward guitar lines move around to a different place (like the cowbell on "I Call Your Name") on no less than four mixes: UK mono and stereo, and the U.S. mono and stereo mixes prepped for the stopgap release Yesterday and Today earlier in 1966. Y&T is also the source for a surprisingly divergent version of "Doctor Robert"; the vocals are different (especially on the "well, well, well" interlude, with John much more prominent), the guitars are harsher and the edit goes all the way to the cold ending of the performance. It doesn't do a lot to improve such a lackluster song, but it's at least interesting to hear. (PC somehow misses the U.S. mono version of "And Your Bird Can Sing," unlike the stereo, which is the only time such a major variation gets skipped on one of their releases*; Capitol later rescued it for their boxed set The U.S. Albums but somehow dropped the ball on all three of these unique stereo mixes, which admittedly -- "Sleeping" aside -- are less interesting.)

The most fascinating of the alternate mixes by far is the withdrawn "matrix I" version of "Tomorrow Never Knows," which was strictly used on the first day's worth of UK pressings of Revolver only to be replaced abruptly, with the result that copies of the LP holding it are outrageously rare and expensive. It's not exactly a radical variant, but it's more than subtle -- the effects (tape loops) are very different, there's much more emphasis on the vocal, and more piano at the end of the track. It's neither better or worse than the canonical mono mix, but its almost hostile removal from the catalog is a good little mystery, and it's a privilege to be able to hear it; this is easily its ideal context. (One last oddball item: an unused monitor mix of "Yellow Submarine" with a different dropped-in "performance" after the line "the band begins to play." This surfaced in 2002, making it one of the last "new" bootlegged Beatles items to show up, and for this and other reasons its legitimacy is hotly disputed, but it's appropriate that it shows up here.)

As noted, all of the big-ticket moments on the outtakes disc have been officially released, and with good reason -- they're by and large among the best and most interesting and radical variants we've heard from the Beatles. The droning first take of "Tomorrow Never Knows" -- then labeled "Mark I" -- in heard in the released mix and through a '90s monitor mix wherein George Martin is discussing the track and manipulating it with three Beatles. The Rubber Soul-like pot-stoked take 5 of "Got to Get You into My Life" appears in slightly more complete form than on the Anthology CD. The ridiculously Byrdsy take 2 of "And Your Bird Can Sing" is heard with and without the flubbed vocal track on which the very high Beatles can't stop laughing, extracted here very simply by omitting the main vocal track. (You can do this yourself with Anthology 2 by half-unplugging your headphones.) The slightly different "Taxman" with the "anybody got a bit o' money" vocals and the instrumental track of "Eleanor Rigby" are dutifully included, plus rehearsal and bizarre acoustic version of "I'm Only Sleeping." Then there is the material from the "Real Love" CD5: "Yellow Submarine" with faders up and a silly spoken intro by Ringo, and an alternate performance of "Here, There and Everywhere" with a more relaxed lead vocal. The only bootleg-only stuff here comes from "Paperback Writer" (an interesting sequence of an instrumental false start -- that is one powerful guitar line -- and a nearly complete version of the master) and "For No One," offered in poor quality monitor mixes reconstructing a few in-progress takes, lots of piano and the progressing master. Even hardcore fans will have trouble getting through the raw monitor mixes that close out the disc, which are dedicated to "For No One" and "Here, There and Everywhere" and don't provide much in the way of pleasure or coherence.

As mentioned in the regular review of Revolver, this album's recording process was so spirited and ambitious it's no wonder it was so liberally sampled for the Anthology project, so we can't get too upset that there isn't much left for PC to track down and present to us; this set is most valuable for its presentation of a few '60s alternative mixes, and even those -- with the exception of the "matrix I" edition of "Tomorrow Never Knows" and the lost numbers from the U.S. stereo Yesterday and Today -- are fairly easy to find elsewhere.

[* = Note: The only other two cases of mixes supposedly missing are the U.S. mono version of "You Can't Do That," which sounds no different; and the American stereo "Paperback Writer," which seems to just be a rechanneled and slightly rebalanced mix. PC intentionally disregarded rechannels, fold-downs and fake stereo mixes, as well as mixes and edits made for compilations such as Reel Music that didn't use the original tapes; and George Martin's various '70s and '80s remixes. So "And Your Bird Can Sing" is the only glaring oversight.]

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The Beatles: Revolver (1966)


(Parlophone)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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