The age-old question -- what's an album and what's EP, really? -- gets a considerable workout this month, with multiple "albums" clocking in under half an hour, and one at just two minutes longer than the EP at the head of the post. My only canonical answer is: it's whichever the artist says it is. So All Delighted People (59 minutes)? EP. ye (23 minutes)? LP. The artist creates their own moral universe.
Wussy: Getting Better (Shake It EP) [r]
A modest band whose best work can pack unexpected power, much of it in the singing: listen to Lisa Walker's cynical resignation on the titular Beatles cover, and Chuck Cleaver's terrified, shaky but articulate passion on "Nomenclature." And the Walker-led "Runaway" is just a beautifully brisk stab in the heart, but it can't redeem the extremely bad idea "Retarded." For those of us who appreciate Wussy more in small doses, three of these four will be just the thing.
Pusha T: DAYTONA (Def Jam) [hr]
In the spring of 2018, an increasingly divisive public figure named Kanye West holed up somewhere in Wyoming and produced five seven-song, twenty-minute albums in rapid succession, each with a different credited artist; this odd format lent itself to the most confident work West has produced in five years. The first and -- by universal consensus -- best of them is Pusha T's bare, stark third LP, which isn't the long-awaited Big Statement that T's been promising for half a decade but might be stronger than that less modest creation ever could be. Push still talks the guff about dealing more than any rapper of his generation who isn't currently behind bars, and some of his lyrics are as confused and embarrassing as his current producer's -- I'm still trying to understand the verse about janitors and Matt Lauer -- but the brutality and brilliance of this shot in the dark is tough to shake. It opens with a rant and rave set against Halloween party store sound effects and holds its grip thereafter as we're led further into the mire, though as vividly and confidently as Push delivers his celebrations of That Life (and you can sense that self-satisfaction is soon to become a problem with this one), you can be forgiven for barely hearing him over the infinitely evocative music: "The Games We Play" transforms a noodling guitar sample into outrageous backwoods funk, "Hard Piano" is like zombie Late Registration with strings and a half-snoozing Rick Ross, and "Infrared" offers a creepy-crawly fade to black well matched with its apocalyptic subject matter (the continued, inexcusable success of Drake). At worst, West's work here is merely an adventurous building up of old techniques, but at best, it's simultaneously ominous as hell and impressively elegant, defying (or maybe demonstrating the virtues of) its slapdash creation. But let's not make this a Kanye lovefest; his guest verse here is nothing special, despite a long-awaited NKOTB reference, and Push himself is what keeps me coming back to "Come Back Baby"; after a bit of "King Heroin"-style sampled addict pep talk, we get one of the most belligerently amoral drug songs in hip hop history, with a trademark yeuuugh and "We buy big boats, bitch I'm Sinbad" and "Dapper Dan" rhyming with "Zatarain's," and Kanye would never tell us any of this because how could he? But it's rock & roll indulging us yet again in the fantasy of total irresponsibility, and you won't understand why that's so liberating if you're determined not to but if you know you know.
LUMP (Dead Oceans) [r]
The premise here is that heretofore average singer-songwriter Laura Marling has recorded an album of baroque pop arranged and produced by Britfolkie Mike Lindsay; I can't speak for the latter but the result barely resembles any of Marling's previous work as far as I can tell, and I'm hesitant to declare Lindsay's instrumentation as the reason Marling's relatively thin voice suddenly sounds sumptuous and overwhelmingly communicative (one precedent is her older lullaby "Always This Way"), but whatever has ping-ponged the two into this level of inspiration is welcome. The dirge-like "May I Be the Light" is made hypnotic by its tense electronic undercurrent (later there's "Hand Hold Hero," which could practically be Venetian Snares), and there are Echo and the Bunnymen and Shakespeare's Sister and even Eurythmics textures (see the aptly titled "Curse of the Contemporary") that don't violate the half-hour's general timelessness. And Truffaut nerd that I am, I like that they put the credits in as spoken word on an actual song, an overdue cop to common decency in the streaming era that sounds very Black Box Recorder and futuristic to boot.
Oneohtrix Point Never: Age Of (Warp) [r]
This doesn't sound as good in the cold light of day as it did when I drove through a lightning storm while playing it, mostly because our boy Dan can't resist throwing in the hideous vocodered James Blake shit at several intervals. Neverthless, I appreciate the opening callback to the Orb, and I like the way Lopatin uses samplers and keyboards to deconstruct familiarity so that the songs attain their off-kilter quality by being very close to comfortingly nostalgic: soft rock pulled apart on "Toys 2," roller-rink arcade pop on "Warning," electrified worldbeat on "RayCats," and an ITT Tech commercial on "myriad.industries."
Natalie Prass: The Future and the Past (Caroline) [r]
A massive 180-degree move away from Prass' older work; if you're cynical you say "new label," or you're more honest with yourself and say she's been listening to Michael Jackson and Adele and Sade a lot, and maybe we all should try that. Major hooks everywhere ("The Fire"), and the pacing is solid (one of the euphoric highlights, "Ain't Nobody," is held off for the end) with plenty of well-crafted pop intricacy ("Short Court Style"). On the whole it swings a little too heavily toward power balladry for my tastes but even at that I dig the lonely intimacy in the way Prass' vocals are performed and recorded.
Neko Case: Hell-On (Epitaph) [r]
Case may be the artist I respect most who hasn't actually put out an album that I especially liked; the biggest problem is that I routinely come in expecting the unchecked passion she lets hang out on the New Pornographers' records, and for one reason or another she's reluctant to cut loose that way on her own stuff. In terms of its sound, her latest record is a step down from The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight (2013), despite the fact that things have gotten worse; it's just a little more bland and conventional, but as always, there are gems to be discovered among the songs themselves. There are two A.C. Newman cowrites, and one of them -- "Gumball Blue" -- soars thanks to a great, reassuringly sad vocal and arrangement; I wish they'd collaborate so closely more often. The rest seldom gets beyond the wall of restraint she puts around herself on these records, but the towering "Bad Luck" is a triumph because it doesn't hedge like most of her attempts at full-on country. The rest is uniformly decent and pleasant, with "Last Lion of Albion" catchy enough to rise above and her lyrics (especially on the other Newman collaboration, "My Uncle's Navy") an asset everywhere; indeed, maybe the solution to both these artists' problems is for Case to take over on the Pornos' lyrics, at least as an occasional antidote to Newman's word-salad surrealism? Just a thought.
Kanye West: ye (Def Jam) [r]
Trained to expect the worst not only by reviews but by West's erratic behavior over the last few years, I ended up being relatively pleased at first; most of the lyrics are more baffling than full-on embarrassing, and despite being increasingly cocooned from normal day-to-day existence he still occasionally delivers a divine moment of sarcasm, a solid joke (the one about focusing on two things at once is pretty good) and the apt description of his "shaky ass year" that suggests more than a modicum of self-awareness. Plus, as others have said, it's foolish to try and pretend any of us are up to the task of a comprehensive interpretation of West's mind or what he's trying to do with it, not least because the other music he issued this month (see above and below) implies he's still perfectly capable of a kind of artistic focus he now chooses to deny for the records under his own name. My inclination is to believe that the shoddy, extemporaneous nature of all this is the point, but that doesn't make it successful -- and sadly, it seems more hollow once its provocations are more familiar. "I Thought About Killing You" begins as confrontation, fizzles into slam poetry; clearing the cache enough to hear it on its own terms again is impossible, and at the record's too insubstantial to offer any rewards for trying (though not in terms of length; its brevity is actually welcome). West continues his recent interest in recapturing the old trademarks with a couple of classic soul experiments ("No Mistakes" and "Ghost Town," the latter of which is probably the best cut thanks in large part to the excellent guest vocals by the young rapper 070 Shake, who also partly redeems the horrendously misjudged "Violent Crimes"), and one weird groove ("Wouldn't Leave") that sounds actually new even as the song gets mired in relationship bullshit. West's state of mind and his attempts to mold it into traditional storytelling are at least interesting if not actually strong -- his contention of mental illness as a brand of superheroism is both timely and disgusting -- and there's something highly comic about his implicit insistence (belief?) that the bizarre situations he's narrating are some sort of universal yeah-we've-all-been-there parable, as when he raps about his wealthy in-laws getting uptight over his incendiary, senseless statements to the media. It's tone-deaf rock star shit rendered as avant garde performance art. The beats are often as good as ever. The songs don't wear out their welcome. Even his vocals are probably as impressive as they've ever been. But either he's slumming it, or he's taking an extremely long view that we can't yet understand, which does us no good right now.
serpentwithfeet: soil (Secretly Canadian)
Baltimore's Josiah Wise is a literal child of the Gospel who uses the traditional textures of religious music as an act of self-discovery, and his experimental songs explore sexuality with almost unheard-of frankness, at least for a gay R&B singer whose directness and complete recasting of ideas about sensuality have little precedent in pop music. His delivery rambles, a sort of cross between Xiu Xiu and Michael Stipe circa "Hairshirt," over songs that often feel incomplete, which for me is more of a block to hearing the appeal than the well-wrought themes, which include some of the most beautiful lyrics and singing about ejaculation that I can recall. It can be operatic and wacky ("cherubim"), and it can sound like a Disney movie ("waft"), and it suffers from a good deal more boredom than you hope it will.
Jorja Smith: Lost & Found (Famm) [r]
British R&B star in the making collaborated with Drake and Kali Uchis; her debut album carries pleasant echoes of the latter's Isolation, though it's more relaxed, professional, very much a late-night-at-the-bar record. A large gang of producers and writers do their stuff on Smith's perfectly toned singing (she sounds more than a little like Rihanna), discovering the loveliest sounds on the kalimba and bass thump-driven "February 3rd," the frayed and beautiful "Wandering Romance," and the major hook-ridden "Teenage Fantasy," the best part of which may be its charming fade on which Smith abruptly drops her defenses. And while I rarely see call for such optimism these days, the fact that such an unguarded element made it in makes me wish we'll hear more like "On Your Own," a Dido-like big urban UK romance wherein Smith makes no bones about showing the full cornucopia of her origins. By default, though, the attention-grabber is "Blue Lights," a strong, assertive, absorbing protest groove: "better run when you hear the sirens come" is really the thesis statement of the decade.
Virginia Wing: Ecstatic Arrow (Fire) [r]
With propulsion right out of the gate, this Manchester synthpop duo hedges on nothing. Their music dares to imagine an unfettered feminist society the way Yoko Ono did on Feeling the Space, so no wonder "Glorious Idea" sounds like a throwback to Ono's dance records of later years, with spoken vocals that will -- depending on your scope of influence -- remind you of "Vogue" or a Whatchamacallit ad from the late '80s. The immersive, tricky, beautiful "Relativity" futhers along the '80s alienation, and "Pale Burnt Lake" calls up one hazily remembered Depeche Mode remix or another. Along with U.S. Girls, this new fashioning of synthesizer pop as a new realm of political music makes an intriguing, welcome twist that could easily be a movement. And somewhere out there I hope Rob Sheffield is thrilled that his favorite format of band-unit is making an assured comeback, only now with direct protests against the idea that the voiceless male involved is calling all the shots from far in the rear of the stage.
Snail Mail: Lush (Matador)
The second half of the 2010s has pretty well flooded us with dirgey singer-songwriters with an extremely narrow range of vocal approaches; somehow I'm tempted to at least partially blame Jens Lekman, Josh Ritter and Sharon Van Etten, but without the oversized praise handed to the likes of Julien Baker or Snail Mail's Lindsey Jordan, it's unlikely anyone would even connect any dots here, unless you're the kind of asshole who just doesn't want women to play guitars and sing anything. Jordan's music is modest, clearheaded in its approach, unassuming even. It also gets old very, very quickly if you're not in its target audience; and let me remind you quickly that I don't tend to be super-fond of the wave of "classic" singer-songwriters of the 1970s either. There's a certain whiny lilt in these vocals that sounds like a million other people, just like the affected, faux-sensitive croon of the Cat Stevens-Jimmy Buffett-James Taylor-John Denver-Jim Croce class. Like so many others, Jordan's songs and lyrics sound a lot smarter than they really are when you examine them closely; the most passionate, crafty selection "Pristine" offers little real insight in its perception of a broken relationship, perhaps because -- gulp -- it's written by a teenager and is, let's face it, written for teenagers. Were I someone else entirely, I might find something I needed in it, and I don't think it's Snail Mail's fault I'm not someone else, but it's not mine either.
Kadhja Bonet: Childqueen (Fat Possum)
A lush California pop album, nothing groundbreaking but pretty dreamy, all flutes and mysticism and hushed urgent vocals and mild Enya vibes, though it's ominous that the most groove it kicks up is on a lite-jazz song called "Mother Maybe."
Gruff Rhys: Babelsberg (Rough Trade)
Surprised to be telling you that this is somewhat enjoyable, at least as long as you turn your brain off and remember it's goofball cotton candy for people who dug Britpop the same way Them Crooked Vultures were for people who dug sniffing glue. It's all orchestral swinging London mod shit, readymade for a character in an early 2000s Wes Anderson picture to have very pointedly spinning on a turntable. Unlike a lot of throwback pop, this at its best -- "Same Old Song," "Limited Edition Heart" -- has a certain directness in its "classic" sentiments and hooks to avoid copping to irony or sentimentality. If Belle & Sebastian released it (and you bet they'd build up to a duet with an actress -- Lily Cole -- called "Selfies in the Sunset") you'd file it away as part of a continued decline; it's all so relaxed and lazy in the end, right? Or am I just writhing in negative vibes?
Kids See Ghosts (Def Jam) [hr]
Kid Cudi and Kanye West have been perhaps the biggest rappers in history to open up about their own struggles with mental illness, dramas that have played out in uncomfortable proportions on the public stage. This collaborative album of Prozac anthems, dramatic stagnation and joyous woe -- another seven-track twenty-minute opus from West's Wyoming cycle -- is about as productive a reclaiming and revisionist narrative of the resulting tension as can easily be imagined. Cudi has traditionally been a serviceable rapper whose verses continue to be solid and professional here, but the star inevitably is West; yes, he follows up his verse earlier this year about park beautification with one in which he rhymes "brrr-ah-da-da-da" with "brrr-ah-gat-gat-ga" (only Pusha T actually delivers a coherent verse on the opener "Feel the Love"; read that again: Pusha T provides the most coherent verse on a song) but his production is routinely breathtaking and may justify the usual lofty all-timer claims if you disregard all the collaborative credits. "Fire" deviates brilliantly from off-the-wall sea chanty to ethereal finale; "4th Dimension" and "Reborn" are both hot, addictive beats in the most forward-looking, classically appealing sense; and the unhinged, unsettling title song is the freakiest and most impressive psycho-minimal construction of West's career since Yeezus (and it boasts his best verse since that era to boot). It seems that Cudi's ambitions, for all his more modest gifts, have brought out the thirst of the new again in Kanye, much as the opportunity to construct a complete mythology and odyssey on Pusha's album resurrected his best impulses. The record really doesn't have time to get indulgent ("Reborn" runs 5:25) and given West's public image of recent years, its ideology is remarkably consistent: "through with mixed messages," "might need an intervention," "keep moving forward," "I don't feel pain anymore / guess what baby, I feel freeeee." It's troubled, haunted, a mess. It sounds real.
Leon Vynehall: Nothing Is Still (Ninja Tune) [r]
British downtempo house DJ's debut full-length is like emerging from underground after a rainstorm, then slowly retreating.
Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever: Hope Downs (Sub Pop) [hr]
The characters, thoughts, chords and melodies put older bands trading on the same scope of jangle pop influence to shame; they already break my heart three minutes in with the painfully vivid lost-love-and-complacency ramble "Air Conditioned Man," followed on with the wisely frightening pre-apocalyptic "Mainland." The three gifted songwriters feeding off and competing with one another all sound like they're home. The riveting guitar interplay, minimal, seamless and razor-sharp but barely shy of miraculous, makes Real Estate sound like a lengthy joke somebody played on you. Yes, they betray the strong influence of fellow countrymen the Go-Betweens; and yes, their music will be well-nigh irresistible to that group's dogged acolytes. (The Pavement fan in me sneers at everyone who tries to sound like Pavement. The Go-Betweens fan in me swoons whenever anyone cares enough to try to sound like the Go-Betweens, and perhaps no one has ever sounded as much like them -- like Robert Forster specifically -- as they do on "Exclusive Grave" and "How Long?".) But they have the chops and they have the songs, two elements that transcend some phony notion of authenticity or originality. In just 35 minutes, there's so much to explore. It's tougher than the EPs; it's better too; even if it can offer nothing as bold and stunning as "Tender Is the Neck," its pleasures are more indefinite, hazier, heftier. Deadpan ferocity here, Replacements-like urgency there, unresolved riffage here, the faint touches of impassioned punk ("Talking Straight") there, and then wildcards: totally unexpected syncopation ("Bellarine"), and the middle-eight of "Mainland" by itself could merit the buzz. Craziest of all, it gets stronger as it goes (and that's even before you listen repeatedly and get totally seduced by innumerable nooks and crannies), so that the reflective, pretty pop of "Cappucino City," absolutely assured and present, opens the fraught tension up like a rose. The record's a gift from rock & roll itself, and simply gorgeous.
SOPHIE: Oil of Every Pearl's Un-Insides (Future Classic) [A+ (originally hr)]
Music can sound old and still deeply compelling, as above; or it can sound like nothing you've ever heard before -- like nonverbal free association -- and make you suddenly conscious of what a privilege it is to live in a future that would permit it. SOPHIE's a producer whose work for various mainstream artists (freaks like me might remember her for Vince Staples' "Yeah Right," which was the sound of being put through the same kind of wringer) gave faint suggestions of her LP's ruthless unpredictability. It is an immodest revolution; it means to startle, beginning with the hilariously jarring jump-cut from the deceptively gentle pop "It's Okay to Cry" to the hostile and mad "Ponyboy" and the mocking hyena beat of "Faceshopping," which fuses the itch-scratching intensity of Crystal Castles with the infectious hyperspeed of Iglooghost. Somehow it gets stranger from there, slipping once in a while into a docile moment that's then yanked from under you like the mattress in a post-coital eviction notice. There's even a Kate Bush song, kind of ("Is It Cold in the Water?") and a moment of immersion therapy ("Infatuation") before "Pretending" shoves us through the feeling of blacking out into an uneasy ambiance, rife with crying and horror. A good indication of how little we can trust this music is that "Immaterial" sounds as though Outkast's "B.O.B." is trying to bust out of it before it goes drugged-out speed addict balls to the wall. "A Whole New World" beats you into submission with its childlike hi-NRG, terror and obnoxiousness, until your only choice is to marvel at the sheer glory of it all. The pacing of the entire album is wild, up to its broken down disappearance into the walls at the conclusion; it's tense precisely because it isn't relentless. Demanding, progressive, brilliant -- this is the sound of 2018 that we don't want to admit we're all hearing.
Nas: Nasir (Def Jam) [hr]
Even more of a conceptual grab bag than ye, but maybe more than any of the other albums in the Wyoming cycle this plays to the strengths of both West and his star attraction of the moment: Nas can run self-evident circles around Kanye West as an MC even today -- he's both more eloquent and more formidable as a performer -- and even when he's on his most tiresome bullshit (the goofy anti-vax verse on "Everything," which isn't the first time he's gone on that particular rant) he's still compelling, commanding and even funny. The messaging isn't always on the other side of Mars, either, with the confrontational opener and closer "Not for Radio" and "Simple Things" stepping further into America's state of political insanity and its systematic disenfranchisement of its people than West would dare without someone holding his hand. But West more than pulls his weight; the skittering, stark, terrifying "Cops Shot the Kid" is one of the most innovative recordings in the whole month of recordings -- and, improbably, this album's biggest hit despite its flagrant middle finger toward commercial appeal (West would do so much better if he shunned the outside world consistently, not just for show); "White Label" takes the opposite tactic, resembling something from the Blueprint era, but is no less impressive. Even the frustrating "Everything" has a magical hook provided by West and The-Dream, who also trills a piano and croons through "Adam and Eve." Low-key but compelling, the record rewards continued attention and comes off as a surprisingly successful mutual pushing forward by two masters of their form, who for the most part seem aware of their heights and limits.
Tierra Whack: Whack World (s/r) [hr]
Pink Flag and Maurice Williams & the Zodiacs fan that I am, nothing's nearer and dearer to my heart than the idea of a quarter-hour of tantalizing grooves, each immediately ending at the one-minute mark; no repetition, you want to hear that part again, you gotta rewind. Perhaps the element of a specifically ordained time for each song -- the stopwatch factor -- makes it a little more mathematical than spontaneous, but the question is how does it pan out? Some of the songs admittedly are overstuffed -- you can hear this Philadelphia magician almost lose her breath a few times trying to get all her ideas out in the alotted space -- and some are too wispy to fill the full time without padding. But when it works, it works perfectly: a succession of blink-and-you'll-miss-it treasures fully putting across a new voice's entire eccentric, individualistic personality; she talks about creating a world around her ADHD, and she generally succeeds. The opener "Black Nails" sounds like a song that never starts -- a la "Revolution 9" -- but that's quite appropriate if you think of the entire record itself as a song, and an adventurous and enlightening one. The complete creations ("Bug's Life," with intro, buildup and funny, revealing lyric; "Cable Guy," which Frank Ocean would have turned into a throwaway but which Whack infuses with grace, passion and surprising detail; "Hookers," a killer beat that should by all rights be longer except the whole point is it's not) carry the ones that don't quite work, like the Jamiroquai-like "Hungry Hippo" or the vaguely funky but indistinct "Dr. Seuss." That list is short, though, and while things get goofier in the back half -- the playful "Pet Cemetery" toying with sound effects and sporadic bass, sounding a bit like a mutated Sidney Gish outtake, is the top of a heap that includes deliberately terrible Casio country and a "Starfish and Coffee"-like interlude called "Silly Sam" that namedrops Mario and Luigi -- there's a remarkable amount to discover in this scant timeframe. And note that while Whack is credited far and wide as a rapper, what she really is is a singer-songwriter, and a creatively restless one whose every impulse can be cultivated into a highlight; she so rarely employs her MC skill set here that it's jarring when she steps into her low-toned delivery on "Sore Loser." There's new music and there's new music, and Whack (along with SOPHIE) is fully carrying the flag for the latter right now.
The Midnight Hour (Linear Labs)
Lush collaboration between psych-soul producer and multi-instrumentalist Adrian Younge and A Tribe Called Quest DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad seeks a chill jazz NPR crowd much more than either the fun-loving mischievous nostalgics of the Foreign Exchange or the high-minded experiments with hip hop and jazz by Flying Lotus and the like. Rap is limited to a few selected intervals (one almost drunkenly robotic verse by Ladybug Mecca early on is most memorable) and the goal is mostly texture and mood. It can be pretty (the Karolina vocal "Smiling for Me" is Judy Garland stuff) and sometimes catchy (the Cee-Lo guest vocal "Questions," which you'll remember from Kendrick Lamar's untitled unmastered.) but an hour of it gets pretty old, especially when there's no real break in its polite, shiny mood.
The Last Poets: Understand What Black Is (Studio Rockers) [hr]
The collective that can lay credible claim (if anyone can) to having invented hip hop in the late 1960s, Harlem's Last Poets return here with their first studio album of the current century, almost simultaneously with the death of founding member Jalal Mansur Nuriddin. It's amazing to compare this to the type of material that tends to be issued by veteran rock musicians: a desperate clinging to the past, a humbled bid for retained affection. None of that shit here -- these battered souls expect you to come to them on their terms and they have much to impart, all from occupying the same unprotected world as any of us. Poets Abiodun Oyewole and Umar Bin Hassan, and poet-percussionist Baba Donn Babatunde, carry the legacy on as if they never stopped, fully prepared and fully resigned for the myriad ways in which they're now performing to a different world, telling the story of all of us with flawless words and infectious music. The engrossing, beautiful record that results is challenging and righteous, never mincing words, but fully allowing for redemption, if nothing else than in the form of music: on the Prince tribute "North, East, West, South" and the valentine to form "The Music," the past and future are a beacon of mutual admiration and respect in all directions; but if you want the world defined with a wisdom and distance unachievable by millionaires like Kanye West and Nas, "Rain of Terror" will get you there and well past it, an unbearably funky rattling off of America's centuries of crime.
- Modern Studies: Welcome Strangers (Fire) [omg it's Locust! no no, the other Locust!; "Mud and Flame"/"Disco"]
- Cut Worms: Hollow Ground (Jagjaguwar) [Herman's Hermits doing Beach Boys harmonies, with carnival-ride sounds; old world woes made new and lilting, and Max Clarke sounds a little like Gram Parsons, but it's all a bit sugary; "Coward's Confidence"/"Don't Want to Say Goodbye"]
- Fatoumata Diawara: Fenfo (Shanachie) [Malian singer-songwriter performed in the film Timbuktu and imparts a message that means to unite more than it means to confront, but inevitably the small helpings of the latter come strongest; "Negue Negue"]
ALSO RECOMMENDED FOR THE AMBIENT FILES
- Venetian Snares x Daniel Lanois (Planet Mu)
- Simian Mobile Disco: Murmurations (Wichita Recordings) ["Hey Sister"]
- Mary Lattimore: Hundreds of Days (Ghostly) [she plays, the harp]
- Gas: Rausch (Kompakt) [heavier than the blackest black metal, and somehow sillier than the proggiest prog rock]
FURTHER INVESTIGATION TO COME
* Tracyanne & Danny
* Chvrches: Love Is Dead
* Black Thought: Streams of Thought: Vol. 1 EP
* Angelique Kidjo: Remain in Light
J Balvin: Vibras
Jenny Hval: The Long Sleep EP
Aisha Burns: Argonauta
Norma Waterson & Eliza Carthy: Anchor
Jamie Isaac: (4:30) Idler
Erin Rae: Putting on Airs
Proc Fiskal: Insula
Shannon Shaw: Shannon in Nashville
Lykke Li: so sad so sexy
Lily Allen: No Shame
Tangents: New Bodies
John Parish: Bird Dog Dante
Olivia Chaney: Shelter
Christina Aguilera: Liberation
Melody's Echo Chamber: Bon Voyage
Sami Baha: Free for All
Speedy Ortiz: Twerp Verse [NYIM]
Charles Watson: Now That I'm a River
Bernice: Puff! In the Air Without a Shape [NYIM]
Wooden Shjips: V.
Ben Howard: Noonday Dream
Roger Daltrey: As Long as I Have You
Uniform: Mental Wounds Not Healing
Boy Azooga: 1 2 Kung Fu!
Matt Maltese: Bad Contestant
Flasher: Constant Image [NYIM]
YOB: Our Raw Heart
Howlin Rain: The Alligator Bride
John Hassell: Listening to Pictures
Petal: Magic Gone
Fantastic Negrito: Please Don't Be Dead
Protomartyr: Consolation EP
Onyx Collective: Lower East Suite Part 3 [NYIM]
Johnny Marr: Call the Comet [NYIM]
Mike Shinoda: Post Traumatic
Culture Abuse: Bay Dream
The Midnight Hour "Questions" [The Midnight Hour]
Charles Watson "You've Got Your Way of Leaving" [Now That I'm a River]
Ben Howard "Towing the Line" [Noonday Dream]
OLD RECORDS RATED (NOT REVIEWED) THIS MONTH
Albert Ayler: Spirits (Debut 1964/1966) [r]
Albert Ayler: Spiritual Unity (ESP-Disk 1964/1965) [hr]
Sunday, July 29, 2018
Monday, July 16, 2018
!!! 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
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
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
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...
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 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.
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.