Saturday, October 27, 2018

The Beatles (1968)


(Apple)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

The bare white is a mask for the chaos waiting within the jacket, the combustion and electricity of the discs hidden by neutrality. Blistering, expansive, confounding and unsympathetic to explanation, it's a record of brilliantly uncontained impulse. The package's nonchalance seems well prepared for the controversies it would ignite and had already greeted, from serial killers to wives to fuming band members and producers. The final result is one that stands apart from anything else the Beatles released, particularly in their later period. The guard that tends to stand so solemnly between band and audience is absent, the rigorous control of output along with it, so that the album, deliriously eclectic and seeming -- on the first few listens -- maddeningly disorganzied, seems like maybe the truest document of these four men ever put on record.

"Four men" and not a band because, in most respects, this isn't a Beatles album as the term was previously understood. That they chose to title it with their own name almost seems to indicate a recognition of irony. It's not simply due to the fact that each member steps up to the microphone and the others -- often only one or two or even none of them -- function as a backing band, because let's not forget that the Beatles were really John Lennon's band early in their career. What it amounts to is the shock of the degree to which the synchronicity and energy that once seemed to be second nature to the entire band, functioning as a single unit, has faded. They sprawl in at least three different directions. The songs don't even grapple with the same themes anymore, and for certain the tracks on this sprawling double album aren't as directly personal as the early Beatles. In the complications it embraces, however, lies something even deeper.

Each Beatle's indulgences are stressed here, but fortunately they were all in a creatively fertile state of mind. George's songs are preachy but funny, John's are anthemic and naive but moving, Paul's are silly but cutting, and Ringo is Ringo but he's also Ringo. The worst tendencies of each Beatle aren't here because they hadn't yet succumbed to them, but every quirk of Lennon's seemed to irk McCartney and vice versa, while both got on George's nerves and all three bitched enough to make Ringo walk out for a few days. Yoko having a bed in the studio somehow didn't even things out, and the increasingly vocal George Martin was beginning to have reservations about the band's material. The songs were mostly a result of an extended hiatus in India after Brian Epstein's death, and there were tons of them, the list stretching to a Brill Building-sized catalog in itself. The only solution for these four territorial men was to create a massive two-record set encompassing everyone's work but, of course, mostly John and Paul's. Martin was adamantly opposed to the idea of a double album and was convinced several selections should have been left off entirely. He had never been so wrong about anything before.

The White Album, as it's known, was something no member of the band was entirely happy with, but it's perfect in a sense they couldn't possibly discern because it exists away from their standards. It's the sort of music they'd never made before and had perhaps no interest in making. The production retains an experimental edge but takes a back seat to the songs, which are neither typical songwriterly fare or the pseudo-poetic surrealism the Beatles had popularized of late. Many of them possess a sharp, (marvelously) mean-spirited satirical edge that make the Kinks' most vindictive songs seem trivial and overwrought. Of course, other tracks on the album are nonsensical rockers, some are ethereal ballads, some seem like practical jokes. There's nothing tying them all together except the random, tangential connections they suggest. The tracks don't consistently segue, but they ebb and flow, winding along in links that seem almost organic, haphazardly thrown around but growing along one another like twisting vines. The tapestry gives the ninety-minute album a unique sense of journey. This extra touch is precisely what an album with thirty songs desperately needs.

Paul has the most consistently entertaining material, opening the record with the audacious Beach Boys-Chuck Berry parody "Back in the U.S.S.R." He's never been funnier than on this album, his mocking edge at its sharpest. It's difficult to discern if some of his songs are send-ups or not: the sliding riff rocker "Birthday," the over-the-top bubblegum of "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," the brief failed experiment "Wild Honey Pie," the antiquated but fun ballads "Martha My Dear" and "Honey Pie," and "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?," which is either a snoozing waste of space or a missile launcher directed against the Rolling Stones and other cock-rock pioneers. McCartney's apathetic anything-goes stance could be a protest against years of fame and expectation, or it could just be his state of mind at the moment. The product of it is riveting either way.

"Rocky Raccoon" is obviously off-the-cuff -- and hilarious -- but it continues to show a man more willing to hide in the ridicule of clichés than to expose his own emotions. Even the quiet, moving "Blackbird" is a metaphorical, classically pretty song John Lennon would never write, from the same school as "Mother Nature's Son," scenic and melodic but again seeming to expose no more of its author than "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?". He's impenetrable... with two exceptions, and these are noteworthy because they mark a unique moment in Paul's career.

"I Will" and "Helter Skelter" couldn't be more different, but they are McCartney's best songs of the period. The former is a touching love song that hides behind nothing and, at less than two minutes, never contemplates wearing out its welcome. It doesn't even seem trite in retrospect following the next song, John's devastating "Julia." And "Helter Skelter" stands as one of the latter-day Beatles masterpieces, its guitars rolling and stuttering in a way both erotic and repellent, the lyrics consumed with desire and forgetting wholly about logic and coherence in the process. For four minutes or so, Paul almost sounds like a rock & roller, and the Beatles roll with it, culminating in the impossibly intense climax.

Ringo, the man who, at the close of "Helter Skelter," screams in pain, offers his first solo composition. "Don't Pass Me By" is sincere country in direct contrast to "Rocky Raccoon" but the sequence seems quite natural, and the song is surprisingly good, helped by wall-of-sound production that has Ringo at his best, ignoring drum conventions while singing his heart out. He does the latter again on the silly "Good Night," John's intentionally overproduced LP-ending track that does take on a degree of poignance after listening to the whole of the White Album, but infinite irony when laid up against its immediate predecessor, "Revolution 9."

Perhaps because of the length, George is more a presence here than on any other Beatles record. All four of his songs are good, even with "Piggies" a bit inconsequential -- the James Brown explosion "Savoy Truffle" is a stronger novelty -- and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" nearly crushed by ponderous arena-rock guitar theatrics from supreme showoff Eric Clapton. But the tense, barely audible, breathtakingly dynamic "Long, Long, Long" is a forward-looking masterpiece that nearly tops "Within You Without You" and "What is Life?" in the Harrison catalog and sounds like nothing else the Beatles ever laid down; it's one of the few times George really compels as a singer and as a writer completely in touch with his genuine emotions, soon to be joined by "Something."

He remains a minor character compared to Paul and John, though, and indeed John on this album is still recovering from a severely aloof phase and no longer has the power or presence to be identifiable as the band leader or even its main creative force. Not one of his songs is even slightly weak, however. Only twice does he take Paul's all-a-big-joke veneer, on the wicked self-parody "Glass Onion" and grandly colorful "Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill." Otherwise, he populates his compositions with himself more than on any LP since Rubber Soul. The gentle, triumphant, ever so slightly ominous "Dear Prudence," the album's finest song, cannot be denied as one of his most uplifting works ever, while the delicate "Julia" may be the most personal song he ever wrote, so much so that it can be a harrowing, difficult listen. Even the lighthearted "Happiness is a Warm Gun," a lavishly fragmented piece that was later imitated by Paul on "You Never Give Me Your Money," is in sonic terms a close match for the lurching, painterly "Strawberry Fields Forever." Even in the backseat, Lennon was a consistently demanding and rewarding performer.

When he wants to bruise, he scars. "I'm So Tired" is a brief cut of magnetic, horrifying power, "Sexy Sadie" a character assault in the Dylan vein, infuriating and electrifying in its casual slaughter. Dylan is namechecked in the White Album's most addictive cut, "Yer Blues," a mammoth rocker with boiling rage that's a close match for "Helter Skelter" if it's not superior and features some of Lennon's greatest, most aggressive guitar playing outside of Yoko Ono's "Why." He can have fun, too; the twisted fable of "Cry Baby Cry" carries one of his best setups, and the ringing, furious "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey" is the Beatles' most exciting pure rock & roll performance on record since perhaps the Hard Day's Night era.

John's, and the album's, most memorable and fascinating cut is the one everyone else including the producer wanted cut from the running. The sound collage "Revolution 9" is long, frightening, funny, and truly briliant, showing a band that, in the end, was not unwilling to leap into a grand risk and came out of it with a piece of work unique in their genre. Those who regard "9" as an abortion or a black mark on the Beatles' record would do well to listen with their ears instead of their precedents. Supremely ahead of its time and -- unlike most avant garde pieces -- worth hearing again and again, it documents and magnifies a world of chaos in a still-striking manner that can become almost therapeutic.

Even if all four Beatles never stood by this album, even if its very slapdash presentation seems to represent an instant rebuke of its own excesses (recalling Epstein's terrified request for brown bags to put over the front of Sgt. Pepper), it presents parts of them that we would never see again amid the familiarity of a returning favorite, and for that reason it's invaluable both on its own and as insight into a group that made such a difference in its time. But there's more to the White Album than historical document; more than anything else they released, it's alive. Too varied to ever grow tired, too unresolved and strange to ever stop at least partially confounding us, it's somehow unified in its lack of unity. Like so many of the greatest rock albums, it couches genuine eccentricity in the universal rhetoric of pop, and the cumulative impact of its messiness speaks loudly and uniquely; even if it's not really the same band that recorded Rubber Soul, it's a culmination of the same narrative, and to me at least, the greatest long-form achievement within that narrative.

***

[Expanded a bit from a review first posted in 2003.]

Monday, October 22, 2018

Our midnight world, just me and you: September 2018 music diary

Blood Orange: Negro Swan (Domino)
Massively disappointing, the exact opposite trajectory for this artist from what the last two records would've led you to hope. It's a bland, faceless neo-soul record very occasionally interrupted by a jam (the Miguel-like "Chewing Gum," the droning "Charcoal Baby," plus respectable misses like "Minetta Creek," the sound of R&B faintly heard from across the street), more often interrupted by the most annoying current trend in R&B, the sanctimonious and contrived-sounding recordings of faux-spontaneous, like, "inspirational" chatter from various people, filled with buzzwords that, however helpful they may be in the presnt moment ("spaces" is the one that gets my goat for some reason), will sound as bizarre and cultish as Est in twenty years. Not to sound like a conservative commentator, and I'm sure I will to some of you. This is partly the influence of A Seat at the Table, but those interludes were brilliant, cleverly interpolated and had reason to be on that record. Here they are distracting, pointless, and ill-matched with middle-ground songs about waiting for the headache to go away. You'd almost give anything for the old days of the obnoxious rap skit; those usually sucked but they had a tiny bit more entertainment value if no more re-listenability. The music isn't bad, simultaneously taking cues from quiet storm and the lushest '90s soul, and it all fades into an agreeable busk at the end, but where's the fire? I understand not feeling up to having fun at the moment but this dude doesn't have the chops or the mystery to be goddamn D'Angelo.

White Denim: Performance (City Slang) [r]
Eclectic classic rock jammers, hailing from Austin and industry vets now (they've backed Leon Bridges), seem at first glance too annoying to take seriously with, on this goround, their Ty Segall-like pseudo-blooze and psychedelia, and the often pompous, irritating vocals. The enjoyably showy guitar playing is agreeable enough to distract for a time, indeed just enough time for the songs and production to fully seduce you. Songs like "Double Death," "Moves On" and "It Might Get Dark" (which sounds uncannily like some lost early solo George Harrison cut) are insanely convincing as pastiche, like they're beamed in from alternate-history AOR stations, and there's no denying that they're pretty great pop music on the whole. "Good News" even has a sweet John Sebastian lilt about it. It greatly confuses me how much I enjoy this.

Troye Sivan: Bloom (Capitol) [c]
Youtube star -- the album cover is a very strong "am I supposed to know who this is?" trigger -- based in L.A. (of course), has been on Ellen and Fallon a few times, flirts with late-nite EDM on the two most accomplished songs here (the admittedly infectious "My My My!" and its marginally less adolescent clone "Lucky Strike"), which won't prepare you for the nauseating familiarity of everything else on offer from Sivan's stable of song-factory composers and producers, and his singing is all over the map on top of that. I don't believe the articles about younger generations not having sex but finding out that this is considered erotic music by the poptimism knuckleheads sure makes me wonder.

Anna Calvi: Hunter (Domino) [r]
As brutal as it looks on the outside -- like a non-ironic Andrew WK -- but ever so tightly controlled, the third album by this formal but confrontational British singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist has virtuoso, starkly recorded guitar and numerous PJ Harvey echoes, plus provocative lyrics delivered nicely by her room-filling, operatic voice and much giddy wrestling with identity, gender, sexuality. From track the first she sings of "walking and talking as a man" and later commands "don't beat the girl out of my boy"; look, we all love Bowie, but not all of us can make something this engaging out of it. The music draws from unexpected sources later on, like disco and jazz, but never loses its addiction to the hypnotic urgency of the clean classic rock that gives Calvi's work its sense of largeness.

Idles: Joy as an Act of Resistance (Partisan) [r]
Second record from unapologetic barroom Bristol punks comes out of the gate sounding as muddy and unfinished as Protomartyr, as rude and indulgent as Sleaford Mods, and singer Joe Talbot sounds occasionally like Paul Weller trying to tap into the hardcore market. It's all very British and very throwback -- fuckin' 'ell it's Fred Titmus and all that. Underneath the stultifying (if sometimes amusing) self-seriousness, though, along with the sense that they're not nearly as young and badass as they want to sound (the contrived finale has Talbot repeatedly chiding "keep going! keep fucking going! smash it! ruin it!" but we're so used to his sarcasm that it just sounds like someone winning at bingo), there are shots of politically sound wit confronting and rejecting the inevitable skinhead contingent. The catchy, thrashy "I'm Scum" offers the instantly immortal "I don't care about the next James Bond / he kills for country, queen and God / We don't need another murderous toff." Only a little less perfect is "whitey wants his country back / fifty-inch screen in his cul-de-sac." "Danny Nedelko" narrates the worldwide refugee crisis less artfully than Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever but no less compassionately, and with relentless bass and a Pavement reference besides. Worldly lads, they cover Solomon Burke -- quite well -- and riff on Hemingway too. They come down hard on toxic masculinity with the one-two punch of "this is why you never see your father cry" and "I kissed a boy and I liked it." So these are responsible punks, sliding sometimes into Cowboy Mouth-like motivational speaking, other times allowing a short enough break from attacking bourgeois complacency, racism and homophobia to give vent to something as funny as "Love Song"; without hearing the way Talbot sings it you can in no way comprehend how funny "look at the card I bought / it says I love you" is. It all gets a bit old and ordinary when you're not completely in the throes of the moment they're making, but it's all respectable and probably necessary, the kind of reclaiming of aggressive but good-hearted maleness we know from Killer Mike, Joe Strummer, etc.

Spiritualized: And Nothing Hurt (Fat Possum) [c]
Is this what audio dorks mean when they talk about "listener fatigue"? No longer "space rock" by any comprehensible measure, Jason Pierce's ragtag unit soldiers on with album the eighth, one with nary an original thought in its goddamned head. It's the Lovin' Spiritualized, for the most part. Actually it's just Wilco. Or maybe, here and there, bad Oasis. The uncharacteristic blast of melodic George Harrison guitar lines on "I'm Your Man" is an outlier against music that's almost uniformly slow and insipid. Pierce's voice has become exhausting in its whiny preciousness. The two least irritating cuts, "On the Sunshine" and "Morning After," are both barely disguised clones of his best latter-day tune "Hey Jane," only adding "European Son" bass and a cool free jazz interlude in the latter case, but every repeat listen reveals that there's even less on these songs, or on the rest of the record, to actually hear. It's all just copies of copies of copies.

Yves Tumor: Safe in the Hands of Love (Warp) [c]
If not for the vocals, this session from a hot Italy-based electronic producer might be nice for a casually urgent Saturday night party in the city, but apart from the not-bad, Panda Bear-derived "Noid," the more the sound of the human voice gets centered here, the less tolerable it all becomes. The tracks resemble '90s trance at best (think Paul Oakenfold or Faithless), rap-rock at worst, but they're almost all pretty dumb and silly, and oddly aggressive, in the end.

Joey Purp: QUARTERTHING (s/r) [r]
Joey Purp sounds angrier than he used to, as is the case for probably all of us. The few times he gives vent to the old mumbling goofiness it's on clones of his best song to date, "Girls @"; and he still sounds beholden to trends that might now be a step ahead of him, even though you have to admire him for the way he pulls for himself. Often the best stuff here is from guests. The '90s excess of "Look at My Wrist" -- he has DVDs, baby! -- boasts an odd, engaging guest verse from Cdot Honcho. And the finest track included, "Fessional/Diamonds Dancing" frontlines both Purp's best and most eccentric rapping here and a great, victorious contribution from Queen Key. "Lebron James" sounds like the Tales from the Crypt theme but delivers on none of the promise of its title. Ultimately it's a grab bag, like a lot of modern rap albums and tapes.

The Mountain Goats: Hex of Infinite Binding (Merge EP)
Insubstantial stopgap release is John Darnielle's only real studio offering for 2018; it's not without merit but definitely exemplifies something other than my favorite variety of Goats material, though it will generate some warmth for marking the return of his guitar after Goths -- the electric picking on the opening cut "Song for Ted Sallis" is excellent. This is followed by the starker "Almost Every Door" with a great hushed vocal and a Chumabwamba reference, but the two songs on the back half are pretty forgettable. (Amber commented that one of them sounded like current-decade Decemberists.) But that's really why we have releases like this, isn't it?

Aphex Twin: Collapse (Warp EP) [r]
I suspect this young man, "Richard James," is primed to go far in his field -- this twenty-minute session is filled to the brim with the sort of delightful tweaks, blips and beats so currently popular with the younger set, and dealers can buy the disc with confidence that it will land high on the popularity charts.

The Goon Sax: We're Not Talking (Wichita) [r]
At a half-awake glance this sounded to me like what I expected Car Seat Headrest was when I'd just heard the name, which is an improvement on the real thing but just as naive. Something about the simultaneous pettiness and honesty of the words, though, kept my attention: "Lookin' at my bank account and I'm feelin' lonely cause I've got no money and my TV's not working and I've got no patience cause I don't speak German and now I'm back home and no one's calling but I'm not pickin' up the phone." (And you thought this blog's sentences ran on.) It's standard Twitter mumbling but captures the attendant angst with unusual directness, and further research turned up the fact that this Brisbane trio is led by Louis Forster, son of Robert; if we're going to have a poet laureate of the social media years, it's hard to imagine a better lineage. Still, these are brand new high school graduates and the shots of beyond-years maturity on "Sleep EZ" and the verging-on-brilliant "We Can't Win" are the exceptions, but that's kind of a relief too... especially when Forster and his bandmates James Harrison and Riley Jones evoke the clean, nervous sound of Buddy Holly and the Crickets updated with sensitive striped-sunlight gentleness as much as their (considerably older) peers like Twerps and Courtney Barnett.

Richard Thompson: 13 Rivers (New West) [r]
Thompson's best work in years doubles down on his familiar eccentricity without apology, while also refusing to simply bask in past glories like so many other veteran performers. He doesn't have the gift for the kind of endless invention exhibited by fellow surviving '60s vets Dylan, Ono or (until recently) Cohen; the songs do mostly sound similar, moodly sea shanties and old-world ballads with sharp guitar lines and debts to European folk. What's undiminished are his natural gifts as a singer and guitarist; if he's not the writer and lyricist he once was -- and sometimes he can still jolt you, like when "I wanna make cupcakes with you" is commissioned as a come-on -- his convictions as a performer are wholly intact, which closes much of the gap. The songs are either foreboding and insistent ("Storm Won't Come") or sweet yet aggressive ("O Cinderella," "Do All These Tears Belong to You?"), and share a commonality: an unwillingness to surrender, which may finally be Thompson's greatest weapon in old age, along with his willingness to try and fail. Appropriately enough, "Trying" is a case in point: a slinky bass and terrific chords set a scene that falls apart in a weak chorus that just incessantly repeats the title. Just as often, a well-turned hook or vocal line redeems something relatively poor like the riff-driven "Tears." On top of the pure enjoyment on offer here, he does manage to conjure up a few new classics. Most engagingly weird is the Shoot Out the Lights-like "You Can't Reach Me," which comes on like John Cale covering .38 Special; and the loveliest Thompson tune in more than a decade, the intricately picked "No Matter," which calls up the hard-won optimism of his Fairport years and even comes with real inspiration on tap: "I'm living on fantasy, real life's too good for me / let me disappear from here, and be no one."

Low: Double Negative (Sub Pop) [r]
Prolific midwestern dream pop trio returns with their twelfth album, sixth on Sub Pop, which has garnered their best, highest-profile reviews of this decade so far. Their sound remains a distinctive blend of sophisticated harmonies and a blown-out, maxed-out feeling akin to shoegaze; with one foot in metallic, garish doom and the other in the ecstatic ether, it's a bit like viewing a gorgeous skyline from a drab office building, but as mood music or ambiance it's truly sublime, especially the highlights that find a groove and double down on it: "Always Up" and "Disarray," the latter of which reminds me a little of the Beach Boys' "Til I Die."

Paul Weller: True Meanings (Warner Bros.)
Weller has been prolific in recent years, this being his sixth LP in just over a decade. Having never warmed at all to the smug and dim complacency of his solo records, I'm quite surprised by the eclecticism on display here, though it's rather baldly something he achieves by sheer costuming. The opener "The Soul Searchers" fuses Leslie Feist with Steely Dan and manages to grow quite haunting, and "Mayfly" is classic needy Weller despite its calm and bluesy vibe. But after that, it's a game of Guess the Veteran Singer-Songwriter Being Imitated -- in order, by my count: Randy Newman, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Richard Thompson, probably Paul Weller somewhere or other, and there's a pretty decent song called "Bowie." The production is lazy and slick in typical classic-rocker fashion, sappy Hollywood strings making an unwelcome entrance eventually, but he really does sing on this record, exercising a throaty conviction almost unrecognizable from his punk years -- and if anything, selling the argument from numerous '70s critics that he was never much of a punk in the first place. The same winning melancholy you hear on later records by the lampooned idols permeates here, especially on "Moving On" and "Wild Horses," and the sobering thought you have is that despite the gulf between their ages, defining eras and experiences, these really are all peers now, aren't they?

noname: Room 25 (s/r) [hr]
Highly distinctive Chicago rapper made waves back in 2016 with her mixtape Telefone; her debut album calls back to early Tribe and Digable Planets in its attentiveness toward jazz and mid-1990s soul music, her attack of evocative words mixed low against an inviting pillow of quiet, groove-based R&B and a touch of '70s Beautiful Music. The unbroken conversational feeling of her rapping is like the hip hop equivalent to Ruth Radelet's undaunted, emotional but never showy vocals for Chromatics; in both cases, it feels like something private we're only reluctantly given permission to hear. The narrative is upheaval, and it's also highly personal, humorous and extremely specific to her own experiences, which are strange, sexy, goofy, intense, and I hope the gawking press attention doesn't make her regret opening up so much. "I know you never loved me but I fucked you anyway" is tossed off like a gag but it's weighted down with pain, curiosity, maybe regret and maybe not, and ends up coming off as devastating. "My pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism" is witty, surreal, but it's also a political statement, and in these times an incendiary one. The layers of intention and meaning come fast and hard everywhere, always without so much as blinking -- "the secret is I'm actually broken," she announces, before placing her own pain in musical context: "Somebody hit D'Angelo, I think I need him on this one." The intensity of an internal conflict born of actual life lived, it isn't self-indulgent, it sounds hard as fuck to put down and deliver, especially with such unerring eloquence and distance, and all while serving up tracks as delicious as "Window" and "Montego Bay" and (in terms of the verses) the MVP "Part of Me." The moment when you feel the world changing under you, though, on "Ace," is when Noname, Smino and Saba work together to push back on mainstream rap (the charting superstars "sound like they wearin' adult diapers"), ticket prices, Republicans, Morgan Freeman, and, well, just let her tell it: "Globalization's scary and fuckin' is fantastic." To quote a much less interesting and inspired artist, I guess this is growing up.

Christine and the Queens: Chris (Universal)
Garish French pop celebrated for no-nonsense, outre identity. Quite apart from such commendable elements, it sounds pretty watered-down to me. The French-language version is a lot more fun than the English, but either way the songs are forgettable.

Advance Base: Animal Companionship (Run for Cover) [r]
The new moniker isn't really new anymore; CFTPA hasn't recorded in nearly ten years now. And Owen Ashworth has settled into a perfectly reliable, oppressively sad groove with each successive record more meticulously depressive and monochromatic than the last. This is a concept album about pets, but really it's about -- as usual -- relationships, typically broken ones. The songs that tower in their fashion, like "True Love Death Dream," are terribly slow; the melancholia is often unbearable, or cathartic if you need it to be, on the likes of "Dolores & Kimberly," "Christmas in Nightmare City" and the slightly countrified "Rabbits." It all sounds like falling snow, with the same hungover dark-night hopelessness as an old Peanuts special, and the same boundless faith in animals, persuasive enough to have him actually barking. Ashworth's arrangements remain deeply evocative, more so than his lyrics that often seem to dip into a depressive chiding that resists poetry ("you could have a real house if you just left New York"), and his continued pulling of old keyboards out of the woodwork remains an engaging subplot. Is that a Rhodes on "Your Dog" and "Bark Bar" or just a fine simulation? Out of nowhere in the middle of all this, he covers the Magnetic Fields' swimmingly blissful "You and Me and the Moon." It comes off well but is such an immaculately composed song that it does point up the limitations of the rest of this material, though no matter, it's still a fine cycle of tunes even if it leads you down a bit of a spiral.

Lyla Foy: Bigger Brighter (s/r)
Foy's debut from 2014 was one of the most underrated albums of recent years; it was so completely ignored that she seems to have been dropped from the Sub Pop roster and is only now following up. What made her work so much stronger than many of the minimalist and far less interesting singer-songwriters who've found success in the years since Mirrors the Sky was the thrilling craftiness of her writing, songs overflowing with hooks and a powerful pop sensibility despite their hung-back, unadorned recording style and her straightforward but evocative vocals, which made up for any shortage of lyrical ideas. On the second record she's still fixated on pop, with traces of R&B appearing on the piano and beat-driven "Bring Flowers," soft rock on "Ice Bar," but the songs are much weaker, preoccupied with circular melodies and structures that fail to offer sufficient variance from track to track. The title cut, lush and sensual and strangely rushed-sounding, is quintessential; and nothing here is bad, but there's usually some caveat: the rather poor Jonathan Donahue guest vocal on the otherwise propulsive "Far Behind You," or the close similarity of "Try My Heart" to earlier material. Several songs sound like clones of latter-day Feist, perhaps because Foy's voice is similar, but it's worth noting that this is not something I ever noticed when listening to Mirrors. "Ice Bar" is the big winner, though; still less intimate than her best songs to date, but boasting a fine refrain and the moody chill of a midnight winter drive.

ALSO RECOMMENDED
- Daniel Bachman: The Morning Star (Three Lobed Recordings) [stark guitar sound combined with intrusive, guttural, feisty atmospheres; "Sycamore City"]
- Israel Nash: Lifted (Desert Folklore) [oft-lovely Neil Young-style pop-folk suffused with romantic haze; "Looking Glass"/"Rolling On"/"Sweet Springs"]
- Ariana Grande: Sweetener (Republic) [millennial pop star seeks out an even balance between the commercial weird and the commercial pleasant dominated by Pharrell Williams' writing and production, never wears out her welcome but the most outrageous cut is the only outright victory -- super-disappointing Missy Elliott verse, too; "The Light Is Coming"]
- Odetta Hartman: Old Rockhounds Never Die (Memphis Industries) [you're extremely unlikely to hear a more likable eccentric in Twenty Eighteen; this is a full-voiced folkie and passionate weirdo, and her second record -- rife with banjos and beats -- is both personable and delightfully disorganized, evoking Ray Davies and Gillian Welch and, hell, Captain Beefheart; "You You"/"Misery"/"The Ocean"]

ALSO RECOMMENDED FOR THE AMBIENT FILES
- Ross from Friends: Family Portrait (Brainfeeder) [and to think my ambient side project under the pseudonym "Schneider from One Day at a Time" never took off]
- Gabe Gurnsey: Physical (PIAS) [tripping in a brightly lit room; "New Kind"/"You Can"/"Heavy Rubber"]
- Felicita: hej! (PC Music)

FURTHER INVESTIGATION TO COME
* Adult.: This Behavior
* Maribou State: Kingdoms in Colour
* Menace Beach: Black Rainbow Sound
Tunng: Songs You Make at Night
Interpol: Marauder
Sauna Youth: Deaths
Oliver Coates: Shelly's on Zenn-La
Chilly Gonzales: Solo Piano III
Ital Tek: Bodied
Eric Bachmann: No Recover
Paul McCartney: Egypt Station
Kandace Springs: Indigo
Haiku Salut: There Is No Elsewhere
Sarah Davachi: Gave in Rest
Lonnie Holley: MITH
Denzel Curry: TA13OO
The Field: Infinite Moment

REJECTS
Tony Molina: Kill the Lights
Kathryn Joseph: From When I Wake the Want Is [NYIM]
Gaika: Basic Volume
Our Girl: Stranger Today [NYIM]
Alexander Tucker: Don't Look Away
Nothing: Dance on the Blacktop [NYIM]
The Devil Makes Three: Chains Are Broken
BC Camplight: Deportation Blues
The Lemon Twigs: Go to School
Mark Lanegan: With Animals [NYIM]
Joey Dosik: Inside Voice [*whispers* fuck. off.]
Muncie Girls: Fixed Ideals [NYIM]
Thou: Magus
KEN mode: Loved
The Pineapple Thief: Dissolution
Wild Nothing: Indigo
St. Paul & the Broken Bones: Young Sick Camella [NYIM]
Clutch: Book of Bad Decisions
Mothers: Render Another Ugly Method
Emma Ruth Rundle: On Dark Horses [NYIM]
Guerilla Toss: Twisted Crystal
Wayne Shorter: Emanon [NYIM]
The Dirty Nil: Master Volume
Alejandro Escovedo: The Crossing
Dilly Dally: Heaven [NYIM]
Marc Ribot: Songs of Resistance [NYIM]
Joyce Manor: Million Dollars to Kill Me
Gazelle Twin: Pastoral
Villagers: The Art of Pretending to Swim
Suede: The Blue Hour

ORPHAN TUNES
Our Girl "I Wish It Was Sunday" [Stranger Today]

OLD RECORDS RATED/NOT REVIEWED THIS MONTH
Sun Ra: The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Volume One (Fontana 1965) [hr]
Sun Ra: The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Volume Two (ESP-Disk 1965/1966) [hr]
Nina Simone: I Put a Spell on You (Philips 1965) [r]
Nina Simone: Pastel Blues (Philips 1965) [hr]

Monday, October 15, 2018

Yo La Tengo: I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass (2006)


(Matador)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

[Note: Below, with some hesitation, is my original review of this album from about a month after its release, so please keep in mind the context of the culture in 2006. Then and now, I consider the record a masterpiece, as I did from my very first listen -- something that almost never happens to me, and only has on three occasions since (whokill, Modern Vampires of the City, Yeezus). For me it told two simultaneous stories: one about effortlessness -- the band that can do anything they can think of, like Prince circa Sign o' the Times, or the Beatles circa White Album -- and one about the fierce passion required to create the illusion of effortlessness. That same passion, in retrospect, serves to indicate a well-read consciousness that, beneath the quirks and jokes and personal asides, the anxiety of the Bush era was impossible to avoid, was creeping in to all aspects of daily existence. It has since, of course, taken over, and while all four Yo La Tengo albums since 2006 have had plenty of merit, only their latest, There's a Riot Going On, makes any attempt to contend with the fallout, fear and desperation for hard-won peace in our day to day lives. Domestication in rock music is tricky. It can be treacly, or pedestrian, or even overly didactic. By never resorting to the grandiose or to pretension, an act that would be fatal for any number of other bands for whom ego and loud self-assertion are undeniably integral, Yo La Tengo document a story that seems small at first glance, but really is the ideal expression of the chaos that can occur within a state of relative normalcy, the biting of nails even as you know you are loved. The older I get, the more this seems incredibly profound to me, perhaps because it mirrors my own lifestyle -- which is, I recognize, an extreme degree of privilege -- but also because it reflects an interest and recognition in the value of the mundane that I associate just as strongly with Hollywood comedies of the Depression, the sensation that human experiences both good and bad belong to absolutely everyone.

Talking of growing older, I inevitably disagree with certain comments made in the paragraphs to follow, and I've also edited out a bit of fat. Actually, I've edited out a lot, but not all of it was fat. I originally structured this as both a review of Beat Your Ass and as a confession about some problems I'd been going through in my personal life that I'd been reticent about discussing with friends. Perhaps it's a testament to the record's greatness that I associate it with one of the worst times in my life, probably the worst time, yet I still can't get enough of it; as the song goes, "we were young" and it was nobody's fault, and now it's another lifetime and almost everything that could change long since has. I am not comfortable reproducing that material here, so this is a version I cut down and posted some time later; you can still read the original post at my personal blog if you dig for it, and it's alarming to me how different my outlook on relationships was then. Which I would imagine is why I singled out "Sometimes I Don't Get You," nice as it is, as one of my favorites. ("The Weakest Part" was and remains one of the most beautiful songs in pop music about staying in an untenable relationship.)

At any rate, I grew to like "Song for Mahila" after hearing it live and learning to live inside its sweetly probing guitar lines; and to love "The Race Is On Again" as its Byrds-isms and harmonies became gradually more affecting; and just this year I've started to appreciate "I Feel Like Going Home" at last, thanks in large part to Georgia's vocal. I clearly was already enamored with "The Story of Yo La Tango" in 2006 but I should have said much more about it; this is the kind of song -- not only because of the recording itself but because of performances at many of the nine subsequent YLT shows I've seen -- that has now taken on a real air of importance and history for me, and at this point the snowball effect has left it almost unbearably touching, and it's clearly intended by the band to be a monument of sorts: a slowly building cacophony that seems to be reflecting on the very fabric of the relationship among the people playing it, and maybe those of us listening, and always by the end it seems like a wave made to blissfully wash us away, like "Blue Line Swinger" a decade earlier. It's now almost certainly my favorite song on the album, and -- every time I put myself through it -- a thrilling, cathartic experience, but who am I kidding, so is the entire album.]

***

Quite a few people reading this have grown up at the same time that I have and are therefore presumably at the same state of (im?)maturity as me, so I have a general question for all of you: The older you get, do you find that you understand less what separates the commercial from the uncommercial? I'm just wondering if it's me, or what. When I pull out the new Yo La Tengo record, very unfortunately titled I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass (only their third worst album title ever), I find myself incapable of determining what makes this "indie" and what makes much of what's on the radio "popular." That's because a lot of those things are based on chance, obviously, but it just underlines how little quality or "commercialism" has to do with the distinction. There's a lot of top 40 stuff I like and an overwhelming amount of self-important reactionary "indie" stuff I hate, which is possibly because many of the younger bands have been raised on this notion that good music is somehow an exclusionary notion, that it separates the smart from the dumb or the cultured from the isolated. None of that is true. One of R.E.M.'s least commercial songs ever is their biggest hit. And Yo La Tengo, who may well be the most fulfilling and varied rock band to surface since the '60s, still aren't on the radio and still even have some sort of indie "stigma" that mischaracterizes their audience as a broad group of music store clerks and rock critics. Who invariably are fans, it seems, but that's because their music is hard to resist, to even the seasoned, hipper-than-thou crowd.

This album features what I believe is Yo La Tengo's first ever "anthem," "Black Flowers," a march of sorts with cheekily overbearing production and lyrics that is nevertheless given the ring of complete sincerity by bass player James McNew, who lately gets one song per album that generally stands distinctly apart from the material of his cohorts (he sang my favorite song on Summer Sun, the Pet Sounds tribute "Tiny Birds"). McNew's vocal performance makes this track soar, and it does this alone until Georgia joins him at the finale. "Black Flowers" would fit right in on modern rock radio today — McNew's vocal style is in vogue at the moment, something that will probably never happen with neo-Ira or Georgia, as the Velvet Underground have unfortunately proven by failing to ever break the Top 100 — amid many bands who are doing the exact same thing in far less interesting or revealing ways. Maybe "independence" means a lot less than individualism, and that's what makes Yo La Tengo great, what makes Madonna great despite the fact that she sells a lot of records and that's supposed to be bad, what made Brian Wilson great despite all the drugs, what makes Prince great despite the religion. Yo La Tengo almost seem at times to exist in a vacuum, as the Beatles once did. Each album seems a self-contained reaction to little more than the one that came before it. It wasn't always this way.

The ad Ira and Georgia placed in the Voice in 1984 called for guitar and bass players who were familiar with Love, Mission of Burma, and the Soft Boys. In order to be hired, former bassist Dave Rick had to give Love's original name over the phone (the Grass Roots, in case Ira and Georgia ever ask you to join). Yo La Tengo's first record, Ride the Tiger, is in the perpetual shadow of folk-rock and early '80s indie, is produced by Clint Conley of Burma, and features a Kinks cover so reverent as to be almost hilarious, along with Ira's distinctly angry and defensive vocal style, a Lou Reed drawl he developed with considerable ease and nuance on New Wave Hot Dogs (featuring "Lewis," which the Velvets would have slowed down to a crawl and which YLT mercifully doesn't), which nevertheless still has the mandatory Velvet Underground cover, albeit an obscure one beautifully sung. President Yo La Tengo is an even better record, but the band is still making music — as they continue to on Fakebook — for people who already love the kind of music they love.

Whether the hiring of James McNew in 1991 changed their attitude or whether his entrance was just a timing coincidence is hard to figure, but the band's maturity on their next three records was well beyond that which they had previously exhibited (Fakebook having been a covers album for the most part). May I Sing with Me, Painful and Electr-O-Pura are still the most commercial-sounding albums they've made, May I Sing fitting in with the post-Nirvana haze without being able to make the lucrative connections their peers Sonic Youth did at the same time, Painful reversing the My Bloody Valentine concept for a major label and even generating slick videos and a fairly hot-sounding single, and Electr-O-Pura being one of the few records that completely defines the "alternative rock" moment of the '90s. From there onward, the band is in their own universe, developing ideas as if an island, recording every style of rock music that's ever existed and plenty that haven't, one day the loudest band in the world and the next day the quietest. But nowhere is their complete creation of a singular universe clearer than in the singing. Kaplan doesn't belt things out these days, nor does he ape Verlaine or Reed, he whispers sweetly and casually; there are certain songs on the last several albums that would be outstanding even if they were nothing but his voice: "Our Way to Fall," "Last Days of Disco," "From Black to Blue," "Season of the Shark," the actively stunning "How to Make a Baby Elephant Float." Georgia's vocals have become no less assured and for me, she's not just the best singer in the band but maybe in the world, and many would argue she isn't a singer at all. And she can play the drums pretty fucking hard while she does it, too; she did a great "Little Eyes" in Asheville [in 2003] amid the banging and her voice remained remarkably soft and even inviting.

There are also the lyrics. Except on Tiger, the band always had good ones, but their focus has changed. Ira and Georgia were married in the late '80s, but only since the new century rolled around have relationships become his primary focus in songs that seem at times painfully personal, a condition no doubt enhanced by his wife's presence just behind him at the drumkit. "The Crying of Lot G" is, like Lennon's "Well, Well, Well," less a song than a random confession set to music, though Kaplan prefers cooing to John's screaming. It sounds like a song about a fight, though such presumptions may be unhealthy. The trend continued with Summer Sun's delirious collection of love songs to Georgia, from the troubling "Don't Have to Be So Sad" to the sweet "Nothing But You and Me." Going a bit earlier, "My Heart's Reflection" may well be the most moving love song of our time, capturing with VU-like urgency the passionate and complete need for somebody right now, this minute, in total and almost scary conviction. I wouldn't want to assume anything about Ira and Georgia's relationship, now in its third decade, being his subject matter of choice (and maybe hers, in her less oblique material; "Today Is the Day" certainly raises questions), but they could not possibly deny that it holds considerable weight with their image, that it affects the way people listen to their music. Spin's review of one album wondered if "Autumn Sweater" was about them cheating on one another. "It's nice," said Ira, "that people care." Kaplan was also once asked if he minded people asking him about the marriage. "Not if they don't mind me telling them it's none of their business." It isn't, but the way it's captured in the songs is.

Another question. Do you remember a few days ago when I quoted someone saying that the biggest fan of any given artifact is the one least qualified to judge its relevance? I'm about to commit the crime of proving it. I am incapable of being nonchalant or critically sharp on the subject of Yo La Tengo. It is just never going to happen. I am a shameless mound of hero-worshiping dirt here. If this displeases you, skip the rest of this and know only this: As usual, they have surpassed expectations and delivered a nearly perfect A++ record, to my mind their fifth in a row. My Beatles comparisons will only get worse from now on, I'm afraid. So I can't recommend this album highly enough. Now read the review if you want.

The album has what I think instantly has become my favorite first few seconds ever. Georgia beating the drums with the strength of a thousand, Georgia laughing softly if you turn the volume high enough, and then the hardest, dirtiest, most triumphant riff Ira's ever played. We made it, bitches. We are back on the air.

An eternity after leaving Summer Sun with the ethereal, in retrospect ominous cover of Big Star's "Take Care," Yo La Tengo immediately counter anticipations of their demise with this first track, "Pass the Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind." Wide criticism of Summer Sun and, to a lesser extent, the prior album was that it was so bereft of rock songs that the band was sliding into easy listening. This was untrue in either case; Summer Sun was lacking in guitars, but there are many other Yo La Tengo albums with nothing but guitars. As much as I loved Summer Sun, however, even I was relieved by the news that Not Afraid would be a return to the mixture of noises, peace and chaos, that embodied I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, their most eclectic album of all. The consistency of Summer Sun was kept in place by dropping a few loud songs that were subsequently included on an EP, Today Is the Day. While Sun is not to be faulted, it may in fact have faced off nearly all of its critics with the simple inclusion of "Styles" and "Outsmartener," and yet so what? It's perfect the way it is, and now I Am Not Afraid will hopefully allow people to hear it for its own virtues.

Because this album has it all. It's like a reunion with a friend. "Pass the Hatchet" is ten minutes long. It has processed vocals, and handclaps! Yet nearly everything else on the album is even more surprising. Summer Sun managed this the first time around, but Not Afraid continues to catch me offguard after five complete listens. One way in which it has proven Sun detractors correct is that it's the first Yo La Tengo record ever on which the least effective songs (relatively) are almost invariably the slower ones. Meanwhile, the unwieldy 8+ minute jams are, this time, addictive tracks I defy you to skip. These are no "Sunsquashed" endurance tests: "Daphinia" is a beautiful ambient piece, "The Story of Yo La Tango" is unfortunately not a tango but still beyond reproach and dazzling. As for the ballads: "I Feel Like Going Home" and "Song for Mahila" are sweet but mildly trite, "The Race Is On Again" — highly appropriate title notwithstanding — just feels anonymous. But true story: I thought "Season of the Shark" was anonymous in 2003 and I was once bored by the whole of May I Sing with Me. So these feelings will probably change. Still, what is up with the lyrics on "Mahila"? Did Yo La Tengo have to prepare material for a Jerry Lewis telethon? If so, I apologize for this joke.

The rest of the album contains nothing but forward-looking, boundary-stretching but instantly appealing Yo La Tengo, wrapping themselves around every idea with unflappable energy. "Mr. Tough" is insanely cool late-'60s soul with the potential to be world-saving massive; the horns are wonderful, and the bridge, driven by Ira's remarkably emotive piano solo, is glorious enough to knock anybody's defenses down. This and the other songs here are, like "Black Flowers," notable for sounding nothing like Yo La Tengo have ever sounded before. I can't get over the eclecticism displayed by "Mr. Tough"; it's on the level of stuff the Clash did on Sandinista!. Add "I Should Have Known Better," their most relentless rocker in a decade or so, to the list; this one, too, could sell a radio listener on them while defying all logic: the guitars (and organ) are turned up higher than any metal band's [do metal bands have organs?], but James and Ira mumble the words, refusing to look for emotion in the obvious places. "Watch Out for Me, Ronnie," finally, is truly special. Coming from anyone else, this filthy, enormous garage band tune might be precious or derivative, but the commitment to a great, awe-inspiring time here is such that if it's just rockabilly-revival Nuggets stylistics, it jumps to the all-time top of the heap. People have done this before, but nobody has ever put this much behind it, and just as significantly, Yo La Tengo have never done anything like it before. To argue that the placement of something like this on an album and in a catalog full of things with no obvious similarities is to ignore the nature of bands like YLT and the Velvet Underground, who refuse to confine themselves yet rarely stumble in their efforts to unite a hundred years of history under one roof. If anything, Yo La Tengo have been around long enough now that we can safely say they've taken their cause to places Reed and company couldn't have imagined, from undersea documentaries to kids singing "motherfucker" at the top of their lungs. And hey, Yo La Tengo even write their first bit of total hippie shit with the excellent and wildly psychedelic (and jazzy!) "Point & Shoot." Make love not war, indeed!

I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass also contains an interesting quirk that might go widely unnoticed. It's only the third Yo La Tengo album ever that includes not a single cover. It's a kind of irony given how much work is done to make them sound like a band that is only just discovering how they want to make music, so exhaustive is its investigation of genres and ideas. That said, the album's two best songs are pure Yo La Tengo. But again, they jump to the top tier of the catalog easily. The delectable, easygoing "Sometimes I Don't Get You" is soul, beach music, love, and weirdness, as apt a description of the band in general as I can muster up without mentioning feedback, which the song doesn't have. Ira sings it with curiosity that transcends bitterness and resists the temptation to emote excessively over the wondrous Motown bridge. It's funny, it's sad, it's universal, it's so them.

My favorite track for more reasons than I want to count here is "The Weakest Part." What I can decipher of the lyrics are astonishingly personal and lovely, and wise. The song sounds like Brill Building pop, or the Beach Boys, but written by a band that understands these forms intimately. "Beautiful" isn't enough to describe it. I love it because it could not have been written by anyone else, and it could not have been written by the people who wrote it ten years ago. I love the lilting, soft, sexy elegance of it, but I love even more the way the rhythm and drums and muscle drive it forward with strength, the kind of thing so few bands can manage that Yo La Tengo could do in their sleep. I love Georgia's vocals, some of her most expressive ever. I love knowing that it's possible for a band to have been together for twenty-two years and still be improving. I love how this song and the band that performs it make me wish I could do what they do.

In an old review of an unrelated album that I'm otherwise too embarrassed to let anyone see (which, as you now know, is saying a lot), I did say something I still like, which was "The album is like a gift for having survived adolescence." I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, aggressive name aside, is like a gift for surviving young adulthood and sticking it out through today. Snapshots of the last four years that come into my head may be, by some standards, uncomfortably reliant on pop culture and other frivolous things, but I'm not ashamed to tell you that one I never seem to shake is the image of standing at the Orange Peel watching Ira Kaplan attack his guitar during "My Heart's Reflection." There was nothing else in the world at that moment. Sometimes I think there still isn't.

***

[Again, originally posted in 2006, heavily edited circa 2008, and here we are.]

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The Beatles: Purple Chick deluxe- Magical Mystery Year (1967-68)


(bootleg [4CD])

RECOMMENDED

Purple Chick's four-disc collection under the title Magical Mystery Year doesn't correspond exactly to any official Beatles release, but rather as a sort of catch-all documenting the period after Sgt. Pepper and before the formation of Apple Records in 1968. This is fitting because, as Mark Lewisohn and Ian MacDonald have demonstrated, this was really the Beatles' most aimless period of studio work. The songs they recorded in this time ended up being issued as a double-EP (and in a TV special) and on three singles, with the leftovers mostly finding their home as afterthought inclusions on a film soundtrack. In other words, it's a grab bag and it's actually surprising how well it seems to hang together, as Capitol found when their version of a compression of the material in LP format, under the Magical Mystery Tour title, ended up being adopted by the band as a canon product. The post-psychedelic, pure New Orleans piano rocker "Lady Madonna" seems slightly ill fitting apart from its old-timey aspirations, but it aligns more closely with the likes of "Your Mother Should Know" than did "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" (covered by PC as part of Sgt. Pepper).

The Magical Mystery Tour EP (and the two contemporaneous singles) may be the most interesting Beatles project in terms of mix variations, which could be another symptom of how disorganized they were in this period. Stereo and mono mixes often display even more glaring deviations than usual, as do U.S. vs. UK mixes and even film vs. vinyl mixes. PC replicates the mono EP and the mono singles from the time on one disc, and the true stereo versions of all the same songs on another (stereo mixes of many of these cuts were elusive for decades until the catalog was standardized in the '80s, "I Am the Walrus" took even longer in complete form, and a proper stereo "Only a Northern Song" never did surface). One of the many ways in which we can be grateful for bootleggers and for PC in particular is that they're the only way for us now to hear the film mixes (or video mixes, as painstakingly transferred into stereo by Andrew Sandoval) of the songs from the Magical Mystery Tour special. In the particular cases of "Your Mother Should Know," "Blue Jay Way," "I Am the Walrus," and the title track, this uncovers some seriously intriguing variations; "Magical Mystery Tour," the song, has an entirely different spoken introduction -- by John rather than Paul -- that's been totally sidelined on modern releases of the film, including the supposedly definitive DVD and Blu-ray from 2012. These should really be preserved somewhere and it's great to be able to hear them, and compare and contrast with the records.

For those who've come to know the stereo CDs extremely well over the years, some big surprises are in store; and even more than usual, it should be recognized that the mono versions of the Beatles' 1967 (and early 1968) songs really are their proper, canonical mixes. Like "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and "Paperback Writer," "Baby You're a Rich Man" is simply incomplete without the finishing touches and flanging effects added on the mono 7" single. And "I Am the Walrus" opens up a gigantic can of worms with the variety of mixing and editing choices that change the character of the song a little; the American 45, for instance, has an entire extra instrumental beat before the "yellow matter custard" verse, and the length of the introduction seems to change each time the track is reproduced. (PC also provides the first complete stereo version of the track from the Anthology DVD, though to these ears the Love mix is an even better reconstruction.) The glaring variations extend to the lone 1968 single presented here. The change in "Lady Madonna" is subtle, it's just crunchier and hotter and more appealing in mono; but the last song in George's Indian trilogy, "The Inner Light," has an entirely different (and lovely) intro. (Since this was one of the songs that was once impossible to find in stereo, the version most of us know simply didn't exist in almost any sense until the 1980s, at which point it wholly subsumed all memory of the mono mix.) The aborted A-side of the same single, "Across the Universe," is here in its discarded original mix that was eventually issued officially as part of the Mono Masters set. ("Across the Universe" is a rather complicated beast in the Beatles' catalog, calling up memories of the three extremely similar versions of "Love Me Do" that were recorded on three different days weeks and months apart. There are three distinctive versions of the song officially released by the band, but all three are actually built from the same performance. More on this in the Past Masters review.)

Finally there are the four Yellow Submarine stragglers, which were considered for an EP release along with "Across the Universe" but were never issued anywhere properly in mono apart from the film print. The "mono" versions of the album, only issued in some countries, were in fact just fold-downs. But dedicated mono mixes, of course, were made and would finally find official release on disc in 2009 -- but PC goes one better here, issuing them on this set unedited ("Hey Bulldog" seems to be taken directly from the film because it includes the dialogue and barking effects from that sequence, originally cut from the American print), which is important because it allows for the unearthing of one of the grandest of all Beatles outtakes, the full eight-minute version of "It's All Too Much," the purest piece of psychedelic rock the Beatles ever laid down on tape, which grows magically expansive and unhinged beyond the canonical mix's fade, and preserves additional verses and vocals even beforehand. Even on its regular studio version, the song features some of the best guitar playing in the Beatles' (or George's) catalog, so to get even more of it is a dream.

PC follows all this with two discs of outtake material, though some of it is redundant (with itself and alongside Anthology 2) and just as much will be of interest, as usual, only to the true froot loops among us. It kicks off with an accidental anachronism -- the session extract called "Free Now" that Paul and Super Furry Animals used for Liverpool Sound Collage in 2000; it's since turned out that this actually comes from the Sgt. Pepper sessions (specifically take 9 of the title track), but this wasn't known when the PC compilation was made. Chronologically, next comes the material relevant to "All You Need Is Love," which is quite interesting: a BBC news story offering a fly-on-the-wall account of the anticipatory session prepping the track for live transmission and rush release. (There's also an alternate mono mix of the track with a longer fade.)

Relevant to Magical Mystery Tour itself, there are many interesting minor variants (acetates and such) to the title song, usually with several overdubs missing. Take 8 of "Your Mother Should Know" is quite stark absent of later overdubs, with pure piano and drums, which adds to its feeling of ominous dread while taking a little of the sheen off Paul's sarcasm. Anthology 2 listeners will remember the rawer rock band take of "I Am the Walrus" sans effects and overdubs; there's an even dryer mix here, while PC kindly offers the excerpt from the King Lear BBC performance interpolated on the master, which probably will annoy some people but which I find interesting to finally hear unobscured. Talking of Anthology 2, there are many repeats from that disc here, but one thing that's wholly new to the average listener is the alternative version of "Flying" with weird slide whistles and an even weirder music hall ending, which is actually part of a Mellotron demo tape. There's an extremely long "Flying" as well, this one with rambling flute-like Mellotron noodling from John and Ringo.

Among the strays that persist after that: "Hello Goodbye" without vocals is a marked improvement over the original song; "Christmas Time Is Here Again" -- issued on a fan club flexidisc in late 1967 and eventually let out in edited form to the general public nearly thirty years later -- sucks. Both are excellent examples of the post-Pepper malaise in the Beatles' camp. Much more interesting are a few transitional songs operating between the band's psychedelic period and the beginning of their stripped-back renaissance in Rishikesh. The instrumental version of "The Inner Light" was later officially released on a George Harrison CD, and is also probably a better song without the singing; certainly it seems the most purely beautiful of George's three Beatles tracks that used primary Indian instrumentation. The equally gorgeous "Across the Universe" is on offer in two performances -- the definitive second take, issued on Anthology 2, and take 7, the basis for all other released versions, here in its original speed without the overdubs that have marred it just about everywhere else (Let It Be Naked added echo).

We're treated to a complete vocal overdub session for "Lady Madonna," capturing the full process as well as some now-iconic (among bootleg collectors) excess, the famous "Ringo vs. Marmite" exchange whereby, on the first backing vocal track, George munches on chips and discusses "Marmite-flavored ones," an idea which Ringo decries because he dislikes the product. Because subsequent overdubs use playback of this same tape, we hear that same conversation about half a dozen times, along with a bit of goofing off from Paul melodramatically jumping in with the first line of the song in full-on nightclub mode before bursting into laughter. This is a great example of something that separates extremely hardcore Beatles fanatics from the more healthily obsessed; you can know the catalog back to front but it takes a special kind of weirdo to know Ringo's Marmite secret, yet there have been inside jokes about it in the outer reaches of the community for decades now. These sessions also give a window into the full contents of the "Madonna" tape, including a charming piano false start and further saxophone content closing out the performance.

Beatles fandom is often a source of amusement as much as transcendence, and I have a certain love for strange little objects like the Marmite discussion. I also get a huge kick out of the existence of things that only a very select number of people who've really put in the work of being real nerds will ever understand. An example right here on this set is something called the "Rumi Tape," or (on some boots) "Rumitape." The Rumitape is a cassette of Beatles interviews recorded by Japanese journalists (one of whom was Rumiko Hoshika, hence the name) during rehearsals for "The Fool on the Hill," which the tape then happened to capture and which have made the rounds down detrimental generations upon generations of dubs over the years since, gathered up and sometimes (in the pre-internet age) purchased by hapless hardcore fans yearning to hear a few new seconds of the actual Beatles performing. It's the same phenomenon as the endless monitor mixes of "A Day in the Life" and "For No One," but somehow funnier because it has a name, a name that means nothing else anywhere else, and that only ever refers in the actual world we live in to a scant number of hardly revelatory performances of a relatively unhearalded Beatles song. That's this band for you, they make nutcases out of all of us. Well, some of us.