Monday, July 16, 2018

The Beatles: Rubber Soul (1965)


(Parlophone)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

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


(bootleg [3CD])

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 7, 2018

The Beatles: Help! (1965)


(Parlophone)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Help! is the first Beatles album that feels unfinished, which is perhaps because its songs -- again split in half between material from the film of the same name and new album-only cuts -- mark a distinct turning point in the band's career. A slight feeling of discombobulation results, with some cuts forging completely new territory and others that can seem like pale imitations of the Beatles circa 1963 except somewhat forced and overproduced.

Virtually everything included on either side of the album is enjoyable, but a few songs have a kind of fluffiness unknown on the prior four Beatles LPs (not to mention their singles), a few of the sugary McCartney-led covers ("Till There Was You," "A Taste of Honey") notwithstanding. Rigid format duties are adhered to, but never again -- Help! is the last time the Beatles included covers on an album, and really, what else could do they do after Beatles for Sale? A tepid take on Buck Owens' "Act Naturally" is the rigid backdrop for the obligatory Ringo lead, and he's out of his league here. Larry Williams' "Dizzy Miss Lizzie" boasts a lovely guitar sound but never takes off, and has the doubly unfortunate position of closing the album and coming after, well, "Yesterday." Thus, the problem with the post-mania Beatles: on the sparse occasions when they want to rock & roll the way they used to, they demonstrate that the manic, dirty energy of their heyday has left them behind.

They have ways of dealing with this. Witness the whole of Beatles for Sale, and the advance single from this album, "Ticket to Ride." Lopsided and seductive, it rolls along loudly, but it is not akin in many ways to the pop music churned out by the Beatles through mid-1964. They're finding new ways to have fun, which is precisely why despite everything, Help! is endearing even in its weaker moments, and infectious as its best. But it's not the easiest adjustment, and John and Paul respectively come up with the by-the-numbers "You're Going to Lose That Girl" and "Another Girl," both of which yearn for the Shirelles and Eddie Cochran of their youth but come up empty; they're just devoid of sincerity and spirit of any kind. They're not charmless, but they make the album seem like that much more of a learning experience.

The big-budget four-track superstar production doesn't help. Stereo sound does this music no favors... it sounds slick, contrived, and overblown more than you'd expect possible for an album of 1965. [Note: At the time I wrote this, I was only intimately familiar with the album's original CD release, which uses George Martin's reverb-laden, sterile 1987 remix, hence this accusation; the original 1965 stereo version is oddly balanced at times but far less dated.] Even "Tell Me What You See," not a bad song even if it does resemble a slowed-down "I Want to Hold Your Hand," finds a pleasant John-Paul ballad pushed over the edge into sugary Chad & Jeremy territory... and without the aid of strings!

All of the above problems -- keeping in mind that none of those songs or performances except "Act Naturally" are bad at all -- are cancelled out by three cases in which the production works beautifully. The sound is aurally huge, creating an almost baroque effect on Paul's prototype-disco "The Night Before," George's gorgeous "I Need You," and John's almost subliminally blissful "It's Only Love." It helps that all three are leaping with sunny pop hooks, and that the first two are accompanied by happy memories of a phenomenal sequence in the film Help!. The record also provides a first for George Harrison: he contributes two songs this time around -- "I Need You" and "You Like Me Too Much," which has the guitarist overreaching a bit on vocals but features a good band performance. The lyrics (and title) are obnoxious, but oh well. Neither song is as strong as "Don't Bother Me," but they can easily claim to be on a par with John and Paul's weaker cuts this time out, and "I Need You" eclipses several of their offerings.

And then there's "Yesterday." Paul's most alluring melody ever -- it came to him in a dream, presumably of the kind unlikely to strike us mere mortals -- sounds a toll against his haunting lyrics with perfect synchronicity. Alas, despite its enduring popularity, t's not the masterwork it could be; George Martin, in one of his less admirable moves, puts strings on it, and really awful, schmaltzy strings at that. (Paul is right to bitch about what Spector did to "The Long and Winding Road" but is this much less a crime?) The song is still one for the record books if only for the startling, ghostly tale it generates and the way it turns youthful longing into a sophisticated, universal emotion; if you want to really hear the song, hear Ray Charles or Tammy Wynette sing it. But even in the Beatles' solo-Paul rendition, it takes the audience manipulation in pop of the early '60s to a new level while remaining a personal experience beyond the reach of the generally desired (or at least presumed) impact of a rock & roll record. It also marks the beginning of the Beatles' being thought of as more than mere "rock stars."

For my money, though, anyone who honestly believes "Yesterday" to be either a perfect pop song or Paul's best one has never heard "I've Just Seen a Face," which is just before it on the album and is still lingering by the time the record ends. There's nothing cloying or obvious here, and it's direct enough to exist wholly outside the plane of the British Invasion universe and the cultural mushroom cloud of the '60s. Moreover, its sentiments are franker, less studied, their spontaneous joy more powerful than the more famous song's poetic despair. Unlike "Yesterday," it is a joyful, unapologetic rock & roll ballad, with leaping percussion and guitars and wordless intensity, all in an ecstatic love song. Which is the stronger recording, forty years later?

Neither if you let John Lennon in the house. With "Help!" he does the unthinkable: he upstages "A Hard Day's Night" in the strange miniature subcategory of film title songs. But more importantly, he creates the Beatles' most personal, undiluted, and electrifying single outside of his own "Strawberry Fields Forever" two years hence. Lennon's vocals here are exhilarating... you can feel the importance of the song and its lyrics to a lost, terrified man, and it's a hell of a statement coming from one of the world's most famous people. Everything clicks, as it does so often with the Beatles, but it's clear whose song it is and whose it isn't; the seeds are planted for the group's undoing already. "Help!" will be remembered long after "Yesterday," if there's any justice in the world.

Help! is also home, incidentally, to what gets my vote as the most moving song in the Beatles' catalog. It is credited as a nod to Bob Dylan, but it has a depth and immediacy that could belong only to John Lennon. Whether you take "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" to be a veiled message about homosexuality directed toward manager Brian Epstein or a typically wounded relationship ballad -- a more verbose "Yesterday," if you will -- the heart-wrenching acoustic guitars and the beauty of the words don't lie. As on "Help!," John Lennon's voice is a magnetic instrument, every syllable drowning in nuance, quiet agony, and thrilling elegance. One second of his vocal is worth a thousand pictures.

Hearing Help! with a more than passing familiarity of the Beatles' history and output, one could easily figure out its placement as the album between Beatles for Sale and Rubber Soul even without the aid of books and copyright dates. It's the clearest possible stopgap between those two masterpieces, and unquestionably lets in some artistic fatigue for the first time while forging ahead in unexpected, endlessly surprising ways. For a bridge between two great and powerful recordings, though, it's a hell of a fine LP on its own, warts and all.

***

[Slightly altered version of a review first posted in 2003.]

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

The Beatles: Purple Chick deluxe- Beatles for Sale (1964)


(bootleg [3CD])

RECOMMENDED (rating reflects the outtake material, not the original album, which is an A+)

The main thing that Beatles for Sale, as a listening experience, proves today is that conventional wisdom is deeply unreliable; the stereo mix is markedly superior to the mono. Admittedly one reason the latter comes across badly is because of weak mastering; the original 1987 CD is dire, and the 2009 mono disc is only a little better, but pop on a copy of Sean Magee's 2014 master and the room fills up. (As an aside, I vividly recall buying this album on CD in the 1990s -- it contained the last few Beatles songs I hadn't heard yet, because I'd never found Beatles VI on vinyl or cassette -- and noticing even then that I felt like a sheet had been laid over the music. It sounded as if something was wrong with the sound.) In general, however, Beatles for Sale and Help! suffer from the muddiest mono mixes in the Beatles' catalog, and while Help! is compromised in the canon now for reasons we'll get to later, Beatles for Sale is stereo boasts remarkable clarity and beauty. The Purple Chick disc offers a wonderful opportunity to compare the two versions directly. The main thing about the stereo is how previously unnoticed detail just leaps out, some subtle (the guitar interplay on "I'll Follow the Sun") and some obvious (the instrumental arrangement of "I Don't Want to Spoil the Party" is brought far enough up in the mix to actually be heard), while hearing the rip of a late '70s Parlophone pressing provides a great chance to live inside John's ferocious vocal on "I'm a Loser," or his sly sneaking in of the word "black-beat" on "Rock and Roll Music."

The complementary single on the table this time out is the superb "I Feel Fine," backed with "She's a Woman"; both songs were released in America drenched in echo, rumored to be the result of George Martin providing heavily reverbed custom mixes for Capitol to which Dave Dexter then added even further reverb. Those are the strangest of the alternate mixes here; there is, admittedly, a kind of dramatic heft to the American single version of "I Feel Fine" that makes it sound towering and vast, a My Bloody Valentine-like wall of sound, but that only serves as a distraction from the pure beauty and brilliance of the song itself, whose magnificent riff and traces of impatient strangeness don't need additional trickery. The already thin "She's a Woman" suffers even more, sounding like the song is being played in a cave several hundred miles off, and while it's not here, you should try to get through the Capitol fake stereo "duophonic" mix of this remix on the Beatles '65 album sometime.

Also on offer on discs one and two: some Anthology remixes, including a very lovely mix of "I'll Follow the Sun" and a dreadful one of "Rock and Roll Music." Plus the major outtake from these sessions, the soaring "Leave My Kitten Alone," in its proper mono mix (distorted into duophonic on Anthology 1) and in the fabulous DVD stereo mix. (Note that PC includes a couple of minor oddities in with the regular tracklist here as well. "I Feel Fine" comes complete with the mysterious whispering that opens the track on the UK 1962-1966 "red" album, and "Mr. Moonlight" has a slightly longer outro heard originally on the U.S. contraption Beatles '65. The outtakes disc also encompasses the errant count-in that made it into some later official releases of "She's a Woman.")

The outtakes on the third disc are often remarkable, and come to us in terrific sound quality, presenting the most wide-ranging portrait of a Beatles album's creation since the leaked-out session tapes from Please Please Me. Eight takes of "I'm a Loser" provide a glimpse of the band getting used to the track; the first take, a breakdown, has what sounds like a completely different arrangement. We're privy to the beginning of a conversation about changing it but jump straight to a redesigned intro on take 2, which is complete but looser, less dramatic, more desperate than the master (and has someone quietly mouthing the future guitar solo on the break). George Martin sounds slightly annoyed, George Harrison never seems "ready," John keeps changing his mind about the key of his vocal (this also happens on "I Feel Fine" later on) and alters lyrics a few times ("I should have known I would lose in the end," frankly a better line than the one he ultimately went with), and blows takes several times because of being too close to the microphone and "popping." One of the complete takes, number six, is the angriest of the lot and adds a new dimension to this mournful, magnificent song.

The sessions included of "Mr. Moonlight" (in two different mixes, oddly), "No Reply," "Kansas City" (superior to the released cut) and "Eight Days a Week" (in some ways, also better than the song they released, and certainly more sonically interesting, though less vocally rich) were officially released on Anthology 1. What's quite surprising, though, are the things that weren't: take eleven of "What You're Doing" is a surprisingly new experience, a bluesier, harder-rocking arrangement with additional harmony vocals that could easily warrant official release. The intriguing sixth take of "She's a Woman" (in stereo in a rather lopsided mix, and better-balanced but shorter on an acetate rip also included) shows off the Beatles and Paul in particular delving full-on into R&B, with a wild and ragged vocal that smacks of Wilson Pickett and even, at times, Prince; the weirdest element of it is that it seems to come out of nowhere, and while the band follows him willingly into a hot mess of a jam, it seems almost like an act of frustration against the boredom inherent to the song. No doubt "She's a Woman," as released, has its merit as a quick and dirty, skeletal Beatles b-side, Paul's "plastic soul" idea in full force, and an example of amusingly dumb but crafty lyrics, but twenty minutes of its incessantly simplistic non-riff can make you want to lie down for a while, so you can't imagine how the band itself must have felt. Nevertheless, this version is really unlike anything the Beatles ever released, and they acquit themselves well as a blues rock unit, ahead of their audience as usual, in 1964!

We're also privy to what sounds like most of the takes of "I Feel Fine," but the band is much more confident about it, right down to the opening feedback squall which is nearly identical on each take (and, it couldn't be clearer, was very much not an accident). The highlight is hearing the master take, the ninth, without its fade. The third disc closes with some session snippets, some doubled superfluously because of slight differences in the Anthology DVD mix; it seems unnecessary, and with the 2009 release of Beatles Rock Band, is also of course incomplete. "Leave My Kitten Alone" also shows up in (apparently) the lost mix for the abandoned 1980s Sessions album. All in all, the only flaw here is that more from these sessions hasn't made it out into the world to make the picture more complete. How cool would it be to hear "I Don't Want to Spoil the Party," "Baby's in Black," "Honey Don't," "Every Little Thing" in progress? Perhaps someday...

The Beatles: Purple Chick deluxe- A Hard Day's Night (1963-64)


(bootleg [3CD])

RECOMMENDED (rating reflects the outtake material, not the original album, which is an A+)

Here's where things get interesting; hopefully you can excuse the geeking-out tone of this post and many of those to follow, which are totally separate from my extremely level-headed and not at all fannish descriptions of more canonical Beatles recordings! A Hard Day's Night, the album, contained A- and b-sides of both contemporary singles, so the supplemental material under consideration here is instead the magnificent Long Tall Sally EP (as well as the silly German-language novelty single versions of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "She Loves You"). Needless to say, this collection captures at the Beatles at their almost unquestionable firing-on-all-cylinders peak, at least in terms of their life as a fully functioning rock & roll band. So even at its most marginal, the material here is nearly invariably a joy to listen to, even if you're not an absolute nutter.

The MFSL stereo master of the album isn't as strong as the subsequent 2009 remastered version, disregarding the CD's slight tape waver on the opening cut; but the mono transfer here is far stronger than the compact disc I grew up with. (It never made much sense that this and Beatles for Sale were initially, in 1987, issued on CD is mono only, as both are four-track recordings that aren't compromised and awkward in the manner of the first two LPs; of course, all the album should've been put out in their original stereo and mono mixes in the first place, but the past is the past, innit.) If you have the 2009 CD versions of these early albums, none of the PC discs are -- in terms of their presentation of the original music -- particularly essential, though the sonic quality of the stereo Please Please Me and some of the singles does provide a huge jolt. Still, it certainly is convenient to have both mixes in one place, and you wonder how in the world EMI (now Universal) never ran with the idea themselves.

Thanks to a lot of quirks in the Beatles' extremely heavy 1964 release schedule, there are a good number of alternate mixes of some of the songs from this period, several of them quite striking for one reason or another: the Capitol mono version of "And I Love Her" allows us to hear Paul's voice single-tracked, which enhances the underlying emotion of that lovely song that may have been the victim of mild overbaking on the regular mix; similar vocal differences mark the "When I Get Home" from the mono Something New. The American mono of "Any Time at All" is weird, with more guitar in the bridge, and the "I'll Be Back" from Beatles '65 is even weirder, marred by what seems to be a tape speed glitch; but the crown jewel here is the mono U.S. mix of "I'll Cry Instead," with an entire extra verse -- not an edited repeat to stretch the time out, as is sometimes reported, but an extension of the released performance, which makes one of the album's best tracks even better, heftier. The theatrical version of Richard Lester's film A Hard Day's Night mostly used the released mono mixes, but a significant exception is "Tell Me Why," which appears to have an entirely different vocal from the extract that made it to the print and is presented here. (We also get "Train Music," the amusing bit of generic rawk on the radio the band listens to early in the movie.) The EP tracks are a roller coaster ride; the vocals and cowbell in "I Call Your Name" are different on all four mixes (U.S. mono and stereo, UK mono and stereo) for who knows what convoluted reason; and "Slow Down" sounds extremely half-assed in stereo compared to its ferocious mono mix, while "Matchbox" is exactly the opposite.

Then there are the questionable little pieces of trivia, like a foreign single version of "And I Love Her" that repeats a few riffs and various mixes from VHS and DVD releases down through the years, sometimes interspersed with pesky voiceover; PC can't be faulted for not being thorough, even if they're not exactly perfect at gathering absolutely everything. They also include the Anthology mixdowns of outtakes that appear more logically on the third disc, which is sort of appealing since this album's sessions yielded no major discarded songs, so the radically different alternate takes are a welcome thing to have tacked on for casual listening.

For the non-casual types, though, there's disc three, a comprehensive overview of pretty much every fragment from Beatles sessions in the first half of '64 that's ever leaked out. Many of these really are just fragments, mostly pieced together from funny bits of talk and portions of breakdowns offered on the Anthology documentary; but a few are complete performances, and are often intriguing. There are four takes of "Can't Buy Me Love," only one incomplete (and one the complete master), proving itself the rare example of a song the Beatles overworked a bit, as the early takes -- despite dreadful guitar solos -- are fresher, looser, bluesier than the final single, which is the weakest of their singles from the time by some distance (but still terrific, of course). I used to think "And I Love Her" (represented here by the Anthology 1 outtake, take 2, with drums and electric guitar) was another example of this but I've grown to really deeply love the master in recent years, but this is still one of the Beatles' most fascinating alternate versions of a classic despite the flubs. "You Can't Do That" is somewhere between; more on both of those in the Anthology 1 review.

The most substantial outtakes that have slipped out are for the songs "A Hard Day's Night" and "I'll Be Back," the former offered in both monitor mixes and in much clearer form; in this case, their commitment to tightening the song pays off substantially, and it's quite engrossing to hear their process, as the song transforms from an informal runthrough of sorts to one of the most immaculate yet tough-minded pieces of pop ever recorded. "I'll Be Back," while an unheralded masterpiece itself, doesn't have the same earth-shaking vitality about it, calling forward instead to the folk-rock predictions of Beatles for Sale... but nothing from the "Hard Day's Night" session quite matches the stunning moment when the band abruptly hits on the idea of changing "I'll Be Back" from 3/4 to 4/4, and as if by magic the song becomes the song.

From there we mostly deal with extreme minutiae -- who really cares about the slight differences between the Anthology DVD and VHS mixes? -- and stuff that was eventually released (the sublime demo of "You Know What to Do" and the demo of "No Reply" on which they can't stop laughing about the line "your face"), though one somewhat entertaining sideline is the studio performances the band lip-synced to on Around the Beatles, sort of a last hurrah for their era as mere rock & rollers, with blasts from the past that sound surprisingly antiquated in this context, not least because of how mechanically they're performed: "Twist and Shout," "Roll Over Beethoven," "I Wanna Be Your Man," "Long Tall Sally," "Boys" and a bizarre medley of several early singles. Of course, on stage, the Beatles would keep playing most of these songs for two more years, but the disconnect between their stage act and their studio work is somehow even clearer when the sound is this clean. The cover of the Isley Brothers' "Shout" is somewhat pleasing, and offered here in its less awkward and unedited mono mix; more about it, sonic problems notwithstanding, when we cover Anthology 1.

Much of the Beatles' story -- many of the parts of it that have passed into legend, that is -- is about fragmentation. A Hard Day's Night, despite but also because of how centered it is on John Lennon's singing and songwriting (given that he was, in the beginning, the undisputed band leader), is the pinnacle, the capturing of the Beatles' real moment, when everything seemed possible. They were too restless for it to continue unabated. But across the songs examined and dissected here, it really feels like they'd mastered every dimension of what they could be in their initial incarnation, and had fulfilled every goal they'd had from their beginnings in skiffle and their early mastery in Hamburg. And on "Shout" there's an opportunity that exists nowhere else in their recorded legacy: at some point, each of the four of them is singing lead, with the others right behind.

The Beatles: Purple Chick deluxe- With the Beatles (1963)


(bootleg [3CD])

The stereo mix of With the Beatles, transferred here from the somewhat controversial "audiophile-oriented" MFSL releases of the early '80s, isn't quite the dynamic, bottom-heavy revelation that Please Please Me is; while both albums are obviously superior in mono, the second album is monumentally so, though certain cuts like "All I've Got to Do" and "All My Loving" have some extra life in the stereo mixes, and the closing cover of Barrett Strong's "Money" is only definitively heard in the louder, more dangerous stereo variation, which thanks to some extra piano reverb sounds like it's clawing at the walls whereas the mono is, John's vocal aside, comparatively polite. PC enhances the LP's tracklist with a whopping three singles covering the rest of 1963: "From Me to You"/"Thank You Girl," "She Loves You"/"I'll Get You" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand"/"This Boy." Stereo improves the first of those slightly but doesn't help the A-side's status as the weakest of the early Beatles classics; the mono mix of "Thank You Girl," a better song, has an oddly unfinished feel, missing several signature overdubs that are especially familiar to American listeners. Because of a fiasco with the original tapes, which never have been recovered, "She Loves You" and "I'll Get You" don't exist in stereo, though a couple of vintage attempts at faking a mix are dutifully documented here. "I Want to Hold Your Hand" never did find its vitality when divided into two channels despite several tries, with one here each from 1963, 1966 and 2003, the best being the newest because it attempts to lift some of the inexplicable mania of the mono single. "This Boy," with announcement leader preserved, sounds quite good in stereo, being one of the earliest four-track Beatles songs.

The major outtake considered for this volume is "One After 909," which gave the Beatles a major headache during the March 5th session and was left incomplete; PC edits together a stereo mix and incorporates the mono edit from Anthology 1, which is where you can read more about this surprisingly terrific version of this particularly malleable song. Alternate stereo mixes uncover some slight futzing around with editing and emphasis on the single tracks, the hot items being the edit of "One After 909" from the unissued Sessions album (there's also what seems to be a mixdown of take 2, for unclear purposes), and the sole album cut: the unedited "All My Loving" with the unexpected hi-hat intro, which first surfaced randomly on a foreign collection called Beatles Greatest and is a good way to make your Beatles mixtape just that slight bit less conventional.

Most of the actual With the Beatles sessions are lost, the only such incident in their catalog. However, the sessions for both sides of the "From Me to You" single have leaked out in almost complete form, and impeccable quality, with apparently every take of "From Me to You" on the third disc here (takes 1, 2 and 5, the first a breakdown because Paul hears "talking" and John hears "a whistle," made it to Bootleg Recordings 1963). Stripped of its opening harmonica, the intro sounds like lite jazz, and the Beatles have already mastered the song by the time they present it to George Martin, so there's not a lot of narrative here, but if you're the type who needs some verité audio of the Beatles at work, this is your moment; the overdub sessions are weirdly entertaining, with a few extremely strange ideas like an ominous opening vocal hum floated and disregarded. To someone who isn't a great fan of the song it all sounds like a bunch of desperate attempts to make the track more compelling, but then, it went #1 and people loved it then and still love it. "Thank You Girl" gives additional opportunities for banter, and for Paul to explore the bluesier side of his vocal approach, but there are a lot of false starts; takes 1 and 5 were eventually released officially. As presented unedited, these sessions are seriously great insight into the Beatles' process as of early 1963, especially on "Thank You Girl," with still a great deal of inter-band discussion on the arrangement, led by John, and some genuinely funny (and, here and there, slightly tense) moments.

"One After 909" runs with this same feeling by preserving all of the frustration of the peak early days of mounting Beatle-oriented madness, and you can hear the stress much more clearly on the full tape than you can on what Anthology 1 chooses to preserve, John asking George "what kind of solo was that?" (it really is pretty bad) and demanding to know if Ringo is out of his mind because he's drumming too hard. Then when John himself fucks up, he instantly goes on the defensive. Even though they can't fully crack the song, though, when in unison they really sound impeccable, as you'd expect.

The scattered recordings of WTB sessions that have survived are, of course, fascinating, especially if you know the relevant songs extremely well. (The tantalizing-sounding "Piano-Drum Instrumental" is, alas, just a warmup goof; sadly, we've long since heard just about every real Beatles song there is to hear.) The best of them are monitor mixes, which means they are extremely rough and poorly recorded, but they manage to preserve some modestly remarkable moments here -- namely, a "Please Mister Postman" with a more tentative, uncertain vocal by John and differing instrumentation, and a more abrupt ending; two takes of "It Won't Be Long" with different vocals and vastly different drum patterns. George sounds oddly defeated about "Don't Bother Me" before it's even laid down; the arrangement is still being adjusted but it already sounds mostly well-formed and the performances, his included, are fine, but he ends one take with a sarcastic remark about "rock & roll" and never seems to acquire any sort of enthusiasm for his own song (he continued to speak dismissively of it years later, for whatever reason; it's actually one of his finest numbers and fits very well in with the rest of the LP).

Finally, emerging from the monitor abyss with what seems to be the complete session for the remake of "Hold Me Tight" (a remake because it was attempted for Please Please Me and set aside, not the greatest vote of confidence); I've always liked and defended this Paul song but it can be fairly stated to be one of the less luminous originals on the album, and I won't go to bat for it with quite the conviction I will for "When I Get Home" one LP later. You can hear the Beatles struggling to really make it sing, and Paul having a lot of trouble making its strange climbing and swooping melody fit his voice. (Phil Spector heard potential in it and made it into a dandy single for someone called the Treasures, included on the Back to Mono box.) A particularly great moment is when a series of false starts culminates in Paul flubbing an early line and, in perfect Noel Gallagher fashion, spitting out "ah, bloody hell," immediately followed by the next take number being jokingly shouted from the control room. You have to turn the volume up a bit but throughout these sessions you can hear some trivial but intriguing interactions among the band and sometimes with George Martin; hardly anything earth-shaking, but plenty that will give some extra documentary glimpses into their day-to-day operations.

What's left on this last disc (which encompasses an incredible 64 tracks, though a lot of those are false starts and fragments) is mostly worthwhile for comedic value alone, with extracts of bickering and joking from the sessions for "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "This Boy" lifted from the Anthology DVDs and videos and offering next to no actual music. There's a longer fragment of two takes, one a breakdown, of "This Boy," but these were officially released, if buried, on the 1995 single for "Free as a Bird"; considering how moving the final master is, it's a bit jarring how little the band seemed to take the song seriously, but their in-studio levity was probably just a relief from their punishing schedule at the time. Somewhat more substantial are three attempts at a promotional message the Beatles were to record for EMI in Australia, encouraging them to keep working the band's records; the first stab sounds natural and fine, but George Martin raises some minor objection and lives to regret it, with the four of them immediately losing their focus and turning it into an apathetic joke; the brief two-minute recording closes with a genuinely funny non-contribution from Ringo. You could sometimes mistake all this frivolity for a sign that the whole enterprise was just a bit of a laff, but as on the BBC tapes, the Beatles are exercising an important part of their appeal here, even when (as far as they know) nobody significant is watching.

The obsessive fans-only remarks from the Please Please Me material are more important for this second volume in the deluxe series; this is really more an archival piece than anything you'll want to hear more than once for pleasure. That's not because the performances are lackluster, but because their presentation and preservation (not PC's fault) is so erratic. And the outtake performances that could have some value to more general listeners are monitor mixes that sound quite dreadful. Thus it's hard to know how to rate this; it's indispensable for us nuts who need everything, if slightly less so now that the stereo and mono mixes are both officially out there, but nothing here has the chilling immediacy (forgiving sound quality) of the Cavern rehearsals or Star-Club tapes, nor -- because With the Beatles was recorded carefully over a much longer period -- does it have the excitement of hearing the Beatles lay down a full LP's work in a single day as on Please Please Me, to say nothing of those outtakes' sparkling clarity. So unless you really like hi-hats or you're a completist, this can safely be one of the last PC sets you track down.

The Beatles: Purple Chick deluxe- Please Please Me (1962-63)


(bootleg)

RECOMMENDED [grade reflects the unreleased material only; the album itself, reviewed elsewhere, is graded A+]

The first in Purple Chick's series of unofficial "deluxe editions" of the Beatles albums sets the stage for those to follow, although it's by some distance the shortest of these collections. As quickly becomes standard, it opens with the stereo version of the record plus any major extant outtakes (in this case, the September 4th recording of the George Martin-imposed outside composition "How Do You Do It," released on Anthology 1 and later an inexplicably huge hit for Gerry and the Pacemakers) and then the complete mono album. Other sets typically follow these with stereo and mono alternate mixes of the various tracks that have been released over the years; because the Beatles' first album is a twintrack recording, such mixes are thin on the ground (though there are a few variants, made by George Martin in the '70s and '80s, which go uncollected here, probably a case of the compilers just trying to keep things reasonable), so stereo and mono versions of this record are able to occupy the same single disc.

At the time this bootleg was constructed, the stereo version of Please Please Me had never been issued on CD, and the 1987 mono CD was deemed unsatisfactory by many fans, so PC uses needledrops of top-quality vinyl pressings (for stereo on this outing, the German Die Beatles, which is legendary among fans for its supposed superior quality, apparently due to the newness of the stampers, or something; and for mono, as for most of the PC releases, the red vinyl Japanese set from the early '80s). I'm not much of an audiophile in normal circumstances -- I love vinyl but what I really love is the collecting and ritual more than a huge perceptible difference in sound quality, though I do think drum sounds and other transients audibly suffer on some digital formats -- but I must admit, it's hard not to hear an enormous difference in reproduction quality here. On the headphones especially, this is as good as Please Please Me has ever sounded to me, solely excluding the later 2014 mono vinyl; and I would contend that, even as much as I love my '80s UK vinyl edition, this is the very best way to hear the album in stereo, with the bass sound astoundingly full and enveloping; you barely even notice the oddity of the stereo mix when the music is this immersive.

By "oddity of the stereo mix" I'm referring to the fact that the first two Beatles albums were recorded on just two tracks, meaning that you end up with some major mix peculiarities, drums on one side and vocals on the other, etc.; this album's stereo version is somewhat less bizarre than many other early stereo mixes, like the Beach Boys', because the band recorded the vocals and instruments simultaneously so there isn't that harsh a separation, but some contemporary listeners will still be put off by it. Nevertheless, in either mix the album absolutely thrills and never seems to wear thin or grow old. This unofficial edition allows a unique opportunity not only to witness the frequent superiority of vinyl mastering but also to closely compare the stereo and mono versions of the albums. (A broad summary of these differences and the reasons for them can be found in this blog's review of The Beatles in Mono.) Please Please Me in stereo, again, sounds better than is often reputed and really offers an extraordinary sense of place; if With the Beatles is the sound of a musty club, this is the sound of a band learning to fill any sort of room. Much as you can hear the dreariness and mundane routine in the walls of Decca on the Jan. 1, 1962 recording test, on these songs you can deeply sense the Abbey Road studio itself, and the "sky's the limit" feeling the band's first major recording process entails. Talking of Decca, it's hard to believe this accomplished bunch is even the same band we hear a year earlier on that tape. It's an exciting sensation; there are moments when you genuinely feel as if you're there, with such promise coming to fruition and so much still ahead; this is true in every version of the record but the broader soundstage on "I Saw Her Standing There" and "A Taste of Honey," plus the echoing of the overdubbed celeste solo on "Baby It's You," enhances the sensation considerably despite the artificial nature of the parallel tracks. (Note that "Love Me Do" and "P.S. I Love You," recorded well ahead of the album sessions, only exist in mono and were placed by Parlophone on the original vinyl stereo album in rechannelled "fake stereo" mixes, reproduced here by PC. Additionally, the title track, which also predates the album session along with its b-side "Ask Me Why," seems to be from a different take altogether, despite the flying in of the same harmonica track in stereo and mono. You can tell the difference when John flubs a line, "why do I never even try..," and then loses his voice slightly on the next "come on.") It should be added, however, that there's no comparative weakness on this record in mono, which is probably the definitive version; it sounds spectacular here, with "I Saw Her Standing There" really attacking right off, and none of the feeling of distance that people sometimes seem to sense in mono mixes.

The album is followed here by the so-called "dry" mono mixes of "Please Please Me" and "Ask Me Why," which come from the original Parlophone 7" release and weren't discovered as alternate mixes for a number of years. They lack the prominent echo on the album versions. The difference is more obvious on "Ask Me Why," with the feeling that you're a microphone pressed right up against John's voice, and a general sense of greater intimacy, though most casual listeners will hear no change, which is probably why there's been little effort by Apple to preserve or represent these mixes; the 1992 CD single lacks them, as does every reissue except the 20th anniversary vinyl release of the single, probably the easiest official way to find these now.

The second disc, billed as the "complete" Please Please Me sessions (meaning, complete in terms of what has been bootlegged over the years), continues the other part of the PC tradition, which is to gather all booted and even officially released supplemental ephemera from a given album cycle on these deluxe sets, saving us all the trouble of gathering heaps of out-of-the-way, overpriced luxury items. In an archival sense these are indispensable for fans. As a listening experience they range from taxing to fascinating, often depending on sheer volume; the Please Please Me set falls squarely in the middle, with fans of the band and particularly of this album who are attuned to minor differences likely to have a better time hearing the songs develop than anyone else. The repetition here isn't too overwhelming; multiple solid performances of a song like "There's a Place" or "I Saw Her Standing There" certainly beat a half-hour's worth of the Beach Boys stumbling through their half-hearted "Summertime Blues" cover. The Beatles were better than almost everyone at almost everything, and that includes massive collections of outtakes.

The band's first album was mostly recorded in a single magical session on February 11, 1963, apart from the four songs that had been released as the A- and b-sides of their first two singles, "Love Me Do," "P.S. I Love You," "Please Please Me" and "Ask Me Why." The second disc of the PC set briefly addresses this matter by taking us back to the previous September and incorporating a recording of "How Do You Do It" that lacks the minor futzing around done for the aborted Sessions album and therefore Anthology 1; it's followed by the original 7" version of "Love Me Do," with Ringo on drums, no tambourine, and Paul's slightly more nervous vocal (we talk more about all this on the Past Masters review). Then another Anthology 1 cut, the early acetate version of "Please Please Me"; sadly, the Roy Orbison-inspired slow version George Martin heard and rejected at an earlier session has not survived except in the memories of those involved.

We move on then to the main February album recording date; a surprising amount of extra material from this day has leaked out over the years, starting no later than 1991, including what seem to be all recorded takes of both "There's a Place" and "I Saw Her Standing There," plus the great majority of those for "Misery." The morning sessions are captured in stereo, allowing for unparalleled clarity. The basic version of "There's a Place" was put in the can in ten takes, including seven complete performances (all quite good; take 10 is the master sans harmonica overdubs); the song is of course magnificent, and the band already seems intimate with it. They're tight and soulful throughout, with only the first take slipping a bit with minor gaffes, mostly in the rhythm section. (The tapes of the afternoon session offer the harmonica overdubs, with which bridges us over into the purely inconsequential completist-only territory. Also, note: in 2013, as part of a short-lived copyright extension initiative, takes 5 (a false start), 6, 8 and 9 were officially released briefly on the iTunes-only release Bootleg Recordings 1963.)

The catalog of takes of "I Saw Her Standing There" (then titled "Seventeen") are much more interesting, especially because thanks to the Cavern rehearsals from a few months earlier and the Hamburg tape from December we have such a complete perspective upon how the song evolved. The first take was used; it's impossible to argue with its forcefulness and spontaneity. But it's remarkable to hear the Beatles still, in contrast with their approach to "There's a Place," playing and experimenting with their approach to the song. Take 2 (also on Bootleg Recordings 1963) offers a bluesier vocal from Paul plus several flubs on vocals and bass, and a much looser instrumental break. Takes 3 through 5 are edit pieces, the first for the end and the latter two meant to revise the instrumental break and guitar solo, which never improved on the first take. Take 6 is a false start in which Paul flubs a line again, even after discussing the lyrics earlier on, then points out that the band is going too fast, a problem that repeats on take 7. Take 8 has a softer count-in and a bass problem. Finally, take 9 -- included, remixed, on the "Free as a Bird" CD single in 1995 -- offers the source of the famous, aggressive count-in on the master recording (spliced onto take 1) but has Paul's voice going too high on the chorus (shades of Decca) and seemingly cracking up afterward. The band never quite recovers and doesn't have a full handle on the performance musically. Later, the disc brings us what we were all waiting for -- all three attempts at the handclap overdubs, including an amusing take that breaks down into applause.

There's a bit less detail on the rest of the tape, mostly mono in the second half, with probably very little else from the day surviving even in the vaults. We get two vocal overdubs, rather than basic takes, of "Do You Want to Know a Secret"; take 7, also on Bootleg Recordings 1963, is intriguing, with the "doo-da-doo" backing vocals kicking off on the first verse rather than the second, some additional vocal contributions from John and Paul on the first part of the chorus, and generally -- with the lack of echo -- a less ethereal sound. They're a bit of a hoarse mess, but the song is overall rawer and less saccharine, and without the fadeout you get to hear its slightly jazzy ending, which is surprisingly satisfying, and probably cut at George Martin's behest. (He argued with their use of a similar ending on "She Loves You" and lost that battle.) The dialogue on these cuts is also entertaining, with John commenting on his inability to climb to George's heights on the chorus, and some back-and-forth with George Martin discussing the change to the backing vocals on take 8, which is the master.

Overdubs for "A Taste of Honey" are the source of the least absorbing dissection on offer here. Take 6, the one later chosen for Bootleg Recordings 1963, sounds almost identical to the master except quite a bit dryer. This is an odd choice for a cover in the first place, but it seems better suited to the band's sound -- especially the bridge, which they tackle tremendously well -- than, say, "Till There Was You." Take 7, again, is the master recording with the backing vocals in place.

Finally we come to "Misery"; the audio evidence of this session isn't quite complete -- we never reach the master -- but we have the first eight takes; the song is neither as rigid as "There's a Place" was by this date nor as malleable as "Seventeen." Take 1 (one of two later officially released on Bootleg Recordings 1963) has a weak guitar intro, but more assertive drumming than on the master. The absence of the piano overdub gives the guitar added prominence, though hearing its thinness on the instrumental break, you understand why George Martin felt the augmentation was needed. (Speaking of Martin, his cheeriness and casual give-and-take with the band are impressive throughout the recordings.) The band's vocals at the end vary, but clearly indicate that they -- especially Lennon -- had something specific in mind. His deep "oooh" at the end of take 1 is very nice; obviously his throat wasn't quite shredded, as it famously would be by take 2 of "Twist and Shout," yet. The intro is a little slower on the second take, John sounding a little more rote and even sarcastic this time (remember, this was very early in the band's experience of repeated takes). The band breaks down in the second verse and there is then some conversation about guitars and needing "a little less bottom." Takes 3 through 5 are all false starts -- a weak intro on take 3, vocal screwups on 3 and 4, and a timing gaffe (while John tries to swing, sort of) on take 5 -- while the next complete take, number 6, follows some discussion about the line "I won't see her no more" and finds guitar and bass slightly out of sync plus another big drum fill in the bridge. There is, again, some interesting vocal experimentation on the outro; John seems to still be feeling it out but has something in mind, as it's conclusively demonstrated that the spontaneous sounding "la-la-la" you can hear in the master's fadeout wasn't spontaneous at all. The other take that was eventually released was #7, which is close to the master but with minor timing problems. Finally, John immediately fumbles the last take that has slipped out, take 8.

We sadly don't get to hear the sessions for other classics on the record, but what is available offers an engaging glimpse into the Beatles' early process. The Please Please Me sessions are only haphazardly represented on the 1963 copyright extension set and barely at all on the Anthology-era releases (the sole outtake that slipped out from the actual album session at that time, take 9 of "I Saw Her Standing There," was slipped quietly onto one of the CD singles from the project). But Please Please Me is a masterpiece deserving of this kind of deep dive, and the detritus from February 11th makes for fascinating listening for the strongest of fans, while PC's comprehensive and well-ordered organization of this material, officially released and otherwise, offers both the best way to hear what has been bootlegged -- as always -- and a unique, privileged perspective on a truly great debut.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Janelle Monáe: The ArchAndroid (2010)


(Bad Boy)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Janelle Monáe Robinson grew up in Kansas City, a working class misfit whose path of dreaming and dedication took her first to drama school in Manhattan then to Atlanta, where her brilliant career began with her appearances on Outkast's final album, Idlewild. That's the only reason the majority of us knew her name when The ArchAndroid showed up in our orbit at the dawn of this decade; true, it had been preceded by an EP meant to introduce its narrative, but this miraculous release -- shephereded by Sean Combs' Bad Boy Records -- stakes as great and all-encompassing a claim on both authority and uniqueness as any solo artist ever has on a debut album. I recall a genuine speechlessness when I first encountered the record shortly after it was issued; the playful, surprisingly ethereal marriage of glam rock, '60s film and lounge music, classic soul with George Clinton-infected Afrofuturism and Isaac Asimov slash Fritz Lang-derived science fiction boasts a weirdness that translates, seamlessly, to universal charm and artistic expertise so persuasive I'm mildly amazed anyone wasn't instantly converted to the artist's cause. And after eight years of living with the album, it still sparkles, and its intensity and sense of constant surprise still remains.

Monáe is not Beck Hansen. She does not cut and paste, or chop and screw; she paints. Her music stands on its own too well to qualify as pastiche; appreciating it doesn't require a prior intimacy with the strange brew of stylistic reference points she pulls from, which is broader and more culturally learned than what we hear on the vast majority of pop records of any period, even though its key intimacy is with pop itself. As such, a similar love of both the kitsch and high art of pop history enhances one's wide-eyed love of the album for sure, but quite apart from that, the earnest nature of Monáe's pure love of her chosen form rings out above all else: the Fairport Convention-Helen Reddy pastoral crooning of "Oh Maker" isn't tempered by irony. Like Yo La Tengo's version of the anti-rock & roll homophobe Anita Baker's "My Little Corner of the World," it breaks down our emotional defenses through the sheer power and directness of its singer's command of the song. The kicking in of a hard beat, and the atonal surrealism of the chorus, mark improbable dots connected in Monáe's head that then extrapolate out in the universe, that make any intellectual separation of "styles" irrelevant.

The favored comparisons among the canon classic albums are Bowie's Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, which fits with the distancing concept and loose narrative; and Prince's Sign o' the Times, for its aural and musical sophistication and the sense that every wildly diverging thing it attempts goes totally airborne. But Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band seems to serve as an even more ideal precedent, given that its "concept" is equally flexible and that its shocking, relentlessly unpredictable eclecticism is meant less to exemplify extant corners of recorded music than to reveal something through them; and more than anything, the albums are kindred in regard to their sense of joy and humor, as well as a surprising undercurrent of melancholy and loss.

Pepper only had a story insofar as it supposedly consisted of a concert being played by a fictitous band, which meant it really could get away with just being a collection of delectable pop songs. The "plot" of ArchAndroid has a lot more credibility, lifting its essence and (according to Monáe) its moral from Fritz Lang's sci-fi masterpiece Metropolis, a film of almost purely aesthetic pleasures that nevertheless spoke to Monáe at a deeper level as the basis for an allegory about life as a shunned minority. The pleasures and horrors of being an outcast run through all of her work, an appreciation and lament that the alienation she dramatizes sets her apart as a beautiful eccentric not easily understood by authority or (often) peers. As stunning as it is, the bare-bones simplicity of the story of Metropolis (a consequence, perhaps, of its being cowritten by a future Nazi, Thea von Harbou) lends itself more convincingly to pop music than to the screen, where eye-popping special effects have a literalizing effect that never harms ArchAndroid's ability to speak through metaphor, or to allow the listener in the tank for sheer musical thrills to ignore the premise altogether. All the same: Monáe's alter ego here is Cindi, a time traveling android attempting to put a stop to the oppression of the lower classes of workers populating the underground in the film. The album toys with chase scenes and cinematic pacing but the storytelling aspects, as on most concept records, are mostly useful in the "form follows function" sense -- excitement accumulates because of the musical adventure instead of the literary one, but if the beating heart of the android tale is what liberated Monáe and her coproducers to experiment in so many varying guises, it did its job perfectly.

Once the orchestral overture slips abruptly into the slinky bass of "Dance or Die," Monáe's absolute confidence is in evidence immediately; that song's slick funk segues right into the Dusty Springfield-Ruth Brown adventure "Faster," whose left-field, itchy interludes about "just another little weirdo" give you plenty of indication of why Prince idolized Monáe in his final years, if you even needed them. There's no pause for breath whatsoever before the first of the record's Stevie Wonder allusions, "Locked Inside," kicks in, along with the lower registers of Monáe's voice (in many ways this entire album is about that instrument) that the unschooled might have thought had already been fully explored by this point. It's here that her light-footed, full-body presence as a performer is most clearly audible, even without being able to watch her at work; those "crazy/baby" rhymes have all the agility of a Fred Astaire routine.

We did, however, get a chance to watch her during this album's promotional cycle; by many accounts her star-making moment was a legendary appearance on David Letterman's show in which she performed "Tightrope" in full '70s funk regalia, closing out with a humorous but strikingly appropriate nod to the James Brown showcase on The T.A.M.I. Show in 1964. That agility and enthusiasm were in full evidence here, along with the sense that Monáe saw herself completely as an artist who entertained, or an entertainer who makes art; commercial prospects were not the totality of her object, but it was unmistakable that what she meant to impart to the audience in the studio and watching television some kind of major, cathartic pleasure. This generosity was another element to her totality as a performer: she was openly "strange," a celebration of strangeness if anything, and meant to strike us with her refusal to cop to any then-traditional image of pop stardom, yet she was here operating in front of us as a crowd-pumping hybrid of Grace Jones, David Bowie and Peggy Lee, getting a thrill out of the universal fantasy imposing her individuality on the world, an indulgence -- can you call it that if it's so delightful? -- that she fully earned. Incidentally, "Tightrope" -- packaged with one of the last really memorable Big Boi verses and a very "Housequake"-like "shut up!" -- does take a short breath before it starts, in the form of the sad withering dream "Sir Greendown" and, more significantly, the stunning "Cold War," a harrowing but smooth and unstoppable song that lives in memory as a stark ballad but in fact presents its emotion in the rapid-fire batterram sense, accompanied eventually by a video in which Monáe is shown overcome, tears streaming down her face by the time the track ends... and this too is somehow an invitation into the deeper annals of her world rather than a "Nothing Compares 2 U"-like rebuke to the audience staring back at her.

It's easy to glance even briefly at Monáe's psychedelic fixations and musical restlessness and notice how radically she stands apart from the other mainstream R&B of her era (most R&B albums circa 2010 didn't contain backward tracks a la Sandinista!); but this is not an indictment of said R&B, because all it means is that Monáe is trying to do something else that doesn't really fit correctly with any genre specification, in the same way that Stevie Wonder wasn't doing the same thing as Mel & Tim or, for that matter, Al Green. It also doesn't escape worldly sociopolitical concerns; even setting aside the pointed class commentary in the ostensible plot, Monáe's future work would underline the effect being a "weird" kid and a queer black girl in America had on the sensibility already in evidence on her earliest work. Her commitment to these "suites" is obviously a callback to her past as a theater kid, and also to a long-gone era of sometimes comically ambitious rock music; but that commitment is also remarkable in its purity, and in the musical inspiration it provides. The Henry Mancini bass and spy-movie backdrop on "Come Alive" sounds like something from the Ultra Lounge years but also couldn't possibly emanate from any moment before it came into existence; it's too skewed by Monáe's own craft and intution, using art of the past not as a shorthand ticket to a response but as a means of communication, like the peculiarly arid synthpop on Leonard Cohen's later albums, though obviously much more cleverly produced. The early Vince Clarke synthpop sound of "Wondaland" and its childlike chorus, the druggy "Crimson and Clover"-like "Mushrooms & Roses," the space-church anthem "57821" (very much of a piece with "Oh Maker" in its appropriation of defiantly uncool musical forms to craft something that sounds actively new), even the tie-dyed interlude from Elephant 6 hippie funk outfit Of Montreal "Make the Bus": these all feel like facets of Monáe's own personality being brought into the light for the first time; all stick out like weird kids, all are glorious and strange like weird kids' dreams, and all seem like public admissions of something that could get you ostracized from your family or peers in the wrong time and place.

By the time Monáe completely surrenders to the vibe on "Say You'll Go" and then takes us on the absolutely monumental final eight-minute journey "BaBopByeYa," a Wonder excursion circa Fulfillingness as rearranged by Bernard Herrmann and sung by Sarah Vaughan or Ella Fitzgerald with a Sketches of Spain grand finale, it's hard to know how to compress all of your impressions down into a simple line of thought, even if you've heard the album many times. Initially, in 2010 I remember feeling overwhelmed at how impressed I was, and really found it hard to even pick and choose parts of the record to single out -- its effect seemed reliant on context because of the many twists and shocks even if nearly all of the individual bits and pieces were brilliant and unconventional. Even the closest thing on offer to a relatively simple neo-soul romance here, "Neon Valley Street," toys too much with beats and distortions to be reduced to any easy description. But I'd like to offer a couple of strange moments spread around that have come to really speak to me personally, and what I love about them both is the way that, on this album that musically and vocally is such a celebration of nonconformity and absolute confidence, they allow for a bit of a crack in Monáe's exterior, and also demonstrate that she may be as overwhelmed by the music and its surfeit of ideas and enthusiasms as we are.

First, in the space hookah bar chronicle "Mushrooms & Roses," is a sequence in which Monáe's narrator (maybe Cindi, maybe not) is trying to recall the name of a person she used to know in this mythical club. It's part of the narrative, and probably well rehearsed, but it exists apart from the music and sounds genuinely hazy and improvised, as though she were being recorded for Creature Comforts, yet there's some kind of eerie power to her spoken, clipped remembrance, which has the dreamlike tentativeness of Big Star's "Kanga Roo": "I remember one of the regulars, her long, grey hair, beautiful smile and rosy cheeks. Her name slips my mind... Ahhh, her name was... it was..." and then the song kicks back in to announce the name was "Blueberry Mary, and she's crazy about me," but as surreal as the sung portion is, your mind temporarily wanders back to the distorted spoken words a moment ago, which seem like they couldn't be from the same person.

The second moment I cherish -- and I can't fully explain why -- comes in "BaBopByeYa." Really, I cherish every second of that masterpiece of past colliding with future, but as the record comes to an unsettling close, there is Janelle Monáe, her voice suddenly as clear as a bell, reciting a poem of sorts with the charisma and nerves of a really talented high schooler at assembly, and the verse she reads takes a remarkable turn from irresistible love and loss -- in the narrative, the ravages of duty and rebellion -- to what sounds like the record's entire thesis: that all of this storytelling is really the way out, the way Monáe can make triumph and justice for herself and her people, and the only way any of us can find genuine redemption and understand ourselves, futuristic robots or not -- an introvert's protest:

I hear echoes of your laughter in the corners of my mind
While I memorize each detail of your intricate design
In your hair there is a symphony
Your lips, a string quartet
They tell stories of a Neon Valley Street
Where we first met
Now somewhere time pursues us
As we love in Technicolor
But I dwell in silence on your words
Which move me like none other
This time I shall be unafraid
And violence will not move me
This time we will relax
This time we will stay in our movie.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Lost in the dark is my favorite part: May 2018 music diary

My schedule could sustain a two-week break for a vacation to the west coast, and it could even sustain a personal tragedy that made it too difficult to focus on this project in the week prior to said vacation; but it finally broke down when I came down with a case of some horrendous virus currently ripping its way through our household. I'm finally about 80% better but it's left me pretty consistently exhausted, so this was prepared and written in stolen moments for the most part, and maybe it's a little terser than usual (?). I'm not going to attempt to compensate for so many things I couldn't control by trying to arbitrarily fit into a schedule, so the posts will be appearing in the middle, rather than the beginning, of the month for a good while. But appear they will.

***

Janelle Monae: Dirty Computer (Bad Boy) [hr]
This maverick's third full-length album finds her skirting the alter egos and sci-fi thematics of its predecessors (though she's explained that it's the creation of another mythology of sorts rather than the thorough rejection of myth), and has her wondering if it's her or her "disguise" that initially inspired adulation; its kink is the stripping away of the distance wrought by "characterization," and by extension its attendant anonymity. You never minded her wilder Fritz Lang fantasies because you knew she was smart enough to be using them as an extension of herself and her own irresistible weirdness rather than a way of hiding. Now she proves it. By themselves, the directness of the sentiments at the core of "Django Jane" and the scathing "Americans" could come off as treacly; but surrounded by the f-bombs, pop hooks and defiant, naked individuality of everything else here, they spell a whole human being who's not just proving what a monster she is in the studio (which she's already done anyway) but also embracing everything about her own sexuality, her R&B background, and her all-encompassing adoration of rock & roll as sustaining, liberating life force -- and all this is played against, and perhaps made necessary by, the dark passage of history we've entered since Electric Lady; there's a sense in which more android dramatics would constitute a kind of betrayal in lieu of the unapologetic (and unapologetically Prince-derived) sexual fluidity anthem "Make Me Feel" or the utterly miraculous campaign song "Screwed," about how fucking it all back down is the only response to everything getting fucked up. Every giddy moment manages to comfort in some way; supposed vulgarity is seldom so cathartic. It's hard to think of an angle from which this falls short -- as pop or R&B or tribute or lament or celebration; maybe there are a few too many ballads stacked up at the back end, but that's scant distraction against what, for my money, is the most affecting and stubbornly optimistic backdrop rendered to date for this horribly unsettling time.

Okkervil River: In the Rainbow Rain (ATO)
Will Sheff takes restlessness to a comical extreme on his increasingly eccentric band's ninth album (fourth this decade, each hemorrhaging audience members), which opens improbably with a bizarre Wikipedia binge about celebrity tracheotomy procedures, a cross between Sun Kil Moon's obsessively detailed chronicles of disaster and death and the song about Gene Loves Jezebel's intricate personnel history on the last Mountain Goats album. The track ends with a description of Ray Davies' childhood medical ordeal followed by an interpolation of "Waterloo Sunset" that could be accused of being as cheap and desperate as what Tom Servo once called "showing a good movie in your bad movie," but then again, it works and is the most disarming moment of beauty and eloquence on the album. Not everything afterward is as indulgent, thankfully, though some of it (the word-salad "External Actor") is even harder to cope with; "Love Somebody" and "Pulled Up the Ribbon" work interesting magic with hooks recycled from '80s FM, though "Don't Move Back to LA" seems to give the biggest clue to the real pulses of Sheff's heart these days, with its bombastic sleaze in turn calling to mind Walter Egan, "Live and Let Die" and Death of a Ladies Man. Aging is a bitch; even Ray Davies was churning out "Juke Box Music" a mere decade after "Waterloo Sunset."

Twin Shadow: Caer (Warner Bros.)
Not substantially weaker on average than his major label debut, but lacking an eternal-youth hurricane megaclassic like "Old Love / New Love" to forgive its marginal, generic nature; while the pop kowtowing on "Too Many Colors" and the Haim collab "Saturdays" convinces and finds time for more characteristic strangeness than the pleasantly straightforward ballads, the closest we get to a reward for our mining here is the stop-start film noir vocal-filter extravaganza "Little Woman," which I'm not convinced is actually good, but it's at least interesting. Kill me dead if the guy can't still sing his guts out, though.

Lake Street Dive: Free Yourself Up (Nonesuch) [c]
Doubles down on all the stuff that was mildly annoying about Side Pony, a whole LP's worth of "Hell Yeah," with that record's faint remaining glimmers of earned exhilaration totally inaudible; they're now a pretty insipid outfit, unfortunately, and you could get diabetes from listening.

Leon Bridges: Good Thing (Columbia)
Serviceable. (What does "loving and hating are such a fine line" actually mean? Even in the context of a really dumb song about how romantic love is only chugging along properly after a "good fight.")

DJ Koze: Knock Knock (Pampa) [r]
Overlong and repetitive but enjoyably blissed out party set, with unlikely guests (Speech! Kurt Wagner! Sophia Kennedy!) and a few Avalanches-sized grooves; the dry, invigorating hangover "Pick Up" is a particular jewel.

Jon Hopkins: Singularity (Domino) [r]
Soft, strange, glitchy, with a bit too much of the first; "Emerald Rush" is a trip though.

Iceage: Beyondless (Matador) [c]
Somehow post-punk, in 2018, seems like the most gutless and facile response to anything, at least in this harmless guise; Elias Rønnenfelt's vocals are fine for fast-paced sloppiness but fill the pegs too precisely when the band slows down and eases into weak art-rock mode. A chore to listen to, but apparently they're professional now; anyway, I don't even like Protomartyr, so...

Eleanor Friedberger: Rebound (Frenchkiss)
She's often a joy to listen to and the songs are intricate and smart, but the tinker-toy Leonard Cohen backing tracks don't really work here and are a strange contrast to the organic glory of her best music.

Willie Nelson: Last Man Standing (Legacy)
Ry Cooder: The Prodigal Son (Fantasy)
Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks: Sparkle Hard (Matador)
Happy Father's Day.

Pinkshinyultrablast: Miserable Miracles (Club AC30) [hr]
The stupid grin on my face as this plays, every time, attests to the indescribable itch scratched by Pinkshinyultrablast, which is extremely specific but also singular; there's no other rock band quite like them. Elements of their sound resemble others, obviously; there's Beach House here and there, and a bit of Human League on "Eray," but the towering vocals and room-filling beauty that makes you believe in sonic heaven is a corner they've really conquered for themselves among their generation, and the exotic textures add a feeling of expanse. The latest album is as good and enveloping as the last two, and if you already love what they've been doing this will appeal just as much; the immediate propulsion and joy on opener "Dance AM" signal the dancier, more New Wave-derived feeling of the rest of the songs, but the basic feeling of racing across the tundra on the best kinds of drugs is carried over from before impeccably.

Beach House: 7 (Sub Pop) [r]
To break into matters of personal bias for a moment, I have yet to fully make sense of what separates "good" Beach House from "bad" Beach House for me or anybody else; Teen Dream seemed soppy and indistinct at the time, Devotion and Thank Your Lucky Stars appealingly raw but also slightly coarse; but Bloom and Depression Cherry, I'm in heaven, a melodic lush drugged-up New Age dream of some sort -- yet put on any song from any of the above on to an untrained non-acolyte and they're unlikely to have the first clue what distinctions you're drawing. 7 works for me sometimes and sometimes doesn't -- not speaking of individual moments or cuts but different contexts in which I've situated it -- and on the whole it seems a little disappointing, despite the Cocteau Twins power ballad atmospheres of its best moments ("Black Car," "Pay No Mind") and the surprising left turns (by this band's standards) you can faintly hear on something like "Drunk in L.A."; all this incremental evolution and the obvious built-in lethargy can plod rather than enchant, can even make you question the whole weird enterprise (if the shockingly boring b-sides collection last year didn't already nudge you in that direction). But as an experiment I put Depression Cherry on and holy shit, everything's there for me just like it was in the first place, yet does someone having the opposite response make sense in some weird way? I suppose, and I even think the tunes on 7 are starting to make their way into my head.

Ryley Walker: Deafman Glance (Dead Oceans) [r]
The depression mining the folk-rock field by default is legendary, but even by those standards Walker's mood here -- in writing if not voice -- comes across as frighteningly despondent. His latest song cycle is an extraordinarily sad, radical departure from Walker's base of rootsy, introspective traditionalism, which is a positive change insofar as it sounded like he'd reached the bottom of that particular well last time out. Musically there's adventurousness and experimentation but the starkness of it all can be a lot to take on a particularly dark night... which, honestly, is a surprising issue to have with a Ryley Walker album, so all credit to him.

Courtney Barnett: Tell Me How You Really Feel (Mom + Pop) [hr]
Barnett's first LP was the rare indie rock artifact almost everyone agreed on -- recall that it led to a truly insane, however deserved, Best New Artist nomination at the Grammys (she lost to Mackelomore, or something; I don't know, look it up yourself) -- so this monochromatic, vastly darker and more uneasy sequel stands up as a remarkably bold, Tusk-like follow-up to an attention-grabbing hit. For one thing it eschews obvious catharsis, with a sense even on the 1:50 thrash-scream "I'm Not Your Mother, I'm Not Your Bitch" that the streams of consciousness are now being more carefully controlled and edited, without sacrificing their revelatory potential; Barnett sounds more ferocious than on any of her previous recordings, but the songs she's writing are far subtler, with textures and hooks that require time and even a degree of patience. A throwback stunner like "Charity" is violently interrupted by incongruous rhythm changes, and the instantly iconic "Nameless, Faceless" is fraught with the fear that for the first time, in her righteous dismissal of anonymous critics and indie-blag misogynists, she's turned her increasingly merciless attention directly to those of us listening. No denying that there has been a change in Barnett's demeanor somewhere: a snapping out of something, or a growth into a kind of blunt familiarity with a huge world and with herself in and outside of it? Great as the Atwood-quoting chorus on "Nameless, Faceless" is, you can hear it most clearly in the undaunted confidence of this portion of the same song: "He said 'I could eat a bowl of alphabet soup and spit out better words than you'... but you didn't, and you're kidding yourself if you think the world revolves around you." It isn't a contradiction that this coexists with a surprising amount of empathy for the declared enemies in that song (when she says she's sorry for whatever you've been through, it sounds like she means it even as she's aware she can do nothing to help), or with "crippling self-doubt and a general lack of confidence." But the weariness adds a welcome dimension to Barnett's writing and voice; the tempering of even the thrilling moments on "City Looks Pretty" and the biting back against anxiety on "Walkin' on Eggshells" suggests the numbing effect of being tagged as a universal voice when, as she puts it, you're not convinced you really know anything. In fact, she knows more than me or you, more than most anyone who will write about this album (anonymously or not), and for sure more than Father John Misty or Frankie Cosmos or her own hero and collaborator Kurt Vile, because if any of us could write "Sunday Roast" ("I know all your stories but I'll listen to them again," holy shit) we would... but we didn't.

Parquet Courts: Wide Awake! (Rough Trade) [r]
Even though self-satisfaction still radiates off them like the Pixies suddenly became the Faint, it's time to admit that this bunch has some talent, and an admirable interest in attempting lots of things, even if in doing so they hit the mark less often than their swooning congregation suggests, and even if getting this tolerable required a facelift from Danger Mouse. They come up with a tune so catchy and irreverent and joyous they have no choice but to create some ironic distance by calling it "Freebird II," a joke they then underline gratuitously on the record itself. The dance is less convincing than the punk and the dance is more fun, with the finale "Tenderness" barely sounding like a finished recording but still taking up residence in your head as long as you'll let it. The lyrics are wordy and self-aware and excessively cerebral, like the band.

Playboy Carti: Die Lit (Interscope)
Can't avoid that this bland, robotically muttering Atlanta rapper is just an overhyped label shill when the only noteworthy verse on his debut is a probably heavily bribed contribution from Nicki Minaj, though the Four Tet-like minimal beats are sometimes pleasingly distracting.

Skee Mask: Compro (Ilian Tape) [r]
Ghosts of trip hop, trance and Big Beat abound in this lengthy, engaging electronic set that overall throbs with a certain feeling of urban loneliness -- as did the '90s music that influences it, but now with an even greater and more sobering weight of passed time, loss and yearning for future connection. And some of the grooves feel impressively timeless, like the brief but striking "Rev8617."

Bettye LaVette: Things Have Changed (Verve) [r]
Stay away from her radical interpretation of "The Times They Are A-Changin'" and this Dylan covers album stacked mostly with Dylan songs you've either never heard or don't remember, a plunder of duff albums, outtakes and soundtrack selections in an extremely rich catalog (she can't resist throwing on an "It Ain't Me Babe" but she does right by it), is an enjoyable, soulfully delivered diversion that revitalizes the man's emotional and political messages and wins in a walk in any shootout over Dylan's own recent covers of other people's songs.

***

ALSO RECOMMENDED:
Orquesta Akokan (Daptone) [there's not a woman alive who can resist a man who knows how]
Black Milk: Fever (Mass Appeal) ["True Lies"/"Drown"]
Czarface/MF Doom: Czarface Meets Metal Face (Silver Age) [cartoon all stars to the rescue; "Bomb Thrown"]
Mouse on Mars: Dimensional People (Thrill Jockey) [wacky and inventive, some of the catchiest strangest ambient slash techno slash hybrid whatever in current rotation; "Foul Mouth"/"Dimensional People Part I"/"Sidney in a Cup"]
Sons of Kemet: Your Queen Is a Reptile (Impulse!) [acerbic anti-monarchy concept record reminds us that we shouldn't fight to take our countries back, but to take them forward, and correctly posits mythical replacement leaders; "My Queen Is Anna Julia Cooper"/"My Queen Is Angela Davis"]
Novelist: Novelist Guy (Mmmyeh) [Jeremy Corbyn's very own Killer Mike, a grime MC so likable it's kind of exhausting; "Dot Dot Dot"/"Start"/"Better Way"]

ALSO RECOMMENDED FOR THE AMBIENT FILES:
Chris Carter: Chemistry Lessons Volume 1 (Mute) [not the X-Files guy and not the bestselling author and not the guy from Throbbing Gristle -- wait, wait, hold on, yes it is, that last one, that's the guy]
Rival Consoles: Persona (Erased Tapes)
The Nels Cline 4: Currents, Constellations (Blue Note) [I feel mildly annoyed with myself for how much I enjoy this extremely lite little nothing]

***

FURTHER INVESTIGATION TO COME:
* The Last Poets: Understand What Black Is
Speedy Ortiz: Twerp Verse
Venetian Snares x Daniel Lanois
Cut Worms: Hollow Ground
Simian Mobile Disco: Murmurations
Fatoumata Diawara: Fenfo
Charles Watson: Now That I'm a River
Modern Studies: Welcome Strangers
Mary Lattimore: Hundreds of Days
Gas: Rausch

REJECTS:
* Baloji: 137 Avenue Kanlama
* Alexis Taylor: Beautiful Thing
The Vaccines: Combat Sports
Sarah Shook & the Disarmers: Years
Hinds: I Don't Run
Ashley Monroe: Sparrow [NYIM]
Drinks: Hippo Lite
Half Waif: Lavendar
Forth Wanderers
Van Morrison & Joey DeFrancesco: You're Driving Me Crazy
Grouper: Grid of Points
Lucretia Dalt: Anticlines [NYIM]
Shakey Graves: Can't Wake Up
Frank Turner: Be More Kind
Damien Jurado: The Horizon Just Laughed [NYIM]
Gaz Coombes: World's Strongest Man
Peace: Kindness Is the New Rock and Roll [one of the most heinously awful things I've ever heard]
Brent Cobb: Providence Canyon [NYIM]
La Luz: Floating Features [NYIM]
The Sea and Cake: Any Day
Arctic Monkeys: Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino
Low Cut Connie: Dirty Pictures Pt. 2
Jennifer Castle: Angels of Death [NYIM]
Frog Eyes: Violet Psalms

ORPHAN TUNES:
Alexis Taylor "Oh Baby" [Beautiful Thing]
Hinds "Soberland" [I Don't Run]

OLD RECORDS RATED (NOT REVIEWED) THIS MONTH:
Sun Ra: The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (Savoy 1961) [hr]
Ornette Coleman: Free Jazz (Atlantic 1960 [1961]) [A+]
Charles Mingus: The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (Impulse! 1963) [A+]
Sonny Rollins: The Bridge (RCA 1962) [r]
My Name Is Albert Ayler (Fantasy 1963 [1964]) [hr]
Ornette Coleman: This Is Our Music (Atlantic 1960 [1961]) [hr]