Friday, June 28, 2019

The Beatles: Bootleg Recordings 1963 (1963)


(Apple 2013)

RECOMMENDED

2013 was the biggest year for "new" Beatles music in nearly two decades; assuming we don't count remixes and remasterings or the deconstructions on Rock Band, after the mid-'90s heyday of Live at the BBC and Anthology, the only complete track put out by the band that was previously unissued (if not unheard) was an alternate take of "The Long and Winding Road" on Let It Be... Naked. But suddenly in '13, the floodgates opened with the two-disc On Air compilation, followed at the end of the year by this mysterious curio, a disorganized gathering of items from the Beatles' first full calendar year as EMI recording artists, initially released for only 24 hours exclusively on iTunes, that accidentally makes one of the strongest cases ever for their consistency as a live band.

The original logic behind the release was as a copyright extension package, similar to curios put out by the Beach Boys and Bob Dylan and meant to allow rights-holders to retain their stake in music recorded fifty years ago and to prevent public domain releases of the unissued material in Europe. As it turns out, the copyright law was more complicated in Europe than was then supposed, so further no-frills copyright extension packages have not been forthcoming. For those who've pored over unauthorized Beatles ephemera for years, Bootleg Recordings 1963 isn't exactly a revelation, but the fidelity is (for the most part) greatly improved from the boots, sometimes with previously mono-only takes now heard in stereo and such. And we must think also of early-period Beatles fans who never had time to investigate the darker corners of the fandom, for whom this set might well have been a marvel if it had been more widely or longer available (and eventually it was, now back up for purchase on iTunes).

Bootlegs have long been the elephant in the room in Beatles fandom, so it's rather strange to see their existence so openly addressed by the cover of this release, until we remember that the actual reason most of the Beatles' circulating studio outtakes are out in the world is rumored to be down to one John Lennon, who is known to have been an avid tape and record trader in the 1970s. The title is appropriate insofar as unlike the Anthology CDs, this set -- which runs over two hours -- makes no attempt to "cohere" for a general audience or to encourage fluid listenability. It's an archive dump, more or less strewn together in three divisions -- studio sessions then BBC performances then a couple of demos -- and then in semi-chronological order. The only odd element of this is that what's been chosen for inclusion, and what's been left off, seems almost random; why three performances of "There's a Place" from the Please Please Me sessions but only one of most other cuts? (The collection doesn't duplicate anything already included on a previous official release, so the relevant outtakes of "I Saw Her Standing There" and "One After 909" and the errant BBC performance of "Devil in Her Heart" from the "Baby It's You" single aren't here.) That goes double for the huge number of BBC performances included, another boon for fans but failing to gather all of the 1963 performances missing from either prior BBC compilation, which seems strange -- why include such a large selection, with many repetitions, and not go whole hog? If the compilation was never exactly meant for general release or interest, that only furthers the mystery.

Still, this is a surprisingly fun collection of material. The highlight reel of Please Please Me is essential for those who love that album as much as I do. "There's a Place" reaches for its finalized magic sans harmonica but doesn't quite make it. "Do You Want to Know a Secret" sounds a little more raucous with extra backing vocals on this earlier take. "I Saw Her Standing There" is engagingly sloppy; the bass even drops out altogether at one point. The differences in "Misery" and "A Taste of Honey" are harder to scope out (a lot of echo on the former). Moving past the LP, we can hear -- if in less detail than on boots -- how much trouble the band had getting "From Me to You" down, as it never stops sounding stilted. The included work on "Thank You Girl" gives us its alternate title ("Thank You Little Girl") and precedes John's switch to all he's gotta do from all he wants to do (shoutout to Gia Gunn). I like how frayed John's vocal is here, especially toward the end of the second included take when he really strains for a soulful moment, a nice bit of business on such an innocuous song. The session for "One After 909" and attendant breakdowns are presented with less editing and more detail than on Anthology 1; and we get an older "Hold Me Tight" with a drier mix... but I still wonder where the other off-the-wall outtakes from this period are that we know to exist, like George's listless "Don't Bother Me."

The bulk of the collection is composed of more BBC tunes, a sort of extension of the On Air two-discer from a few months earlier with much more variance in reproduction quality, but with the advantage of no interruptions from dialogue or interviews. This is actually more like listening to one of the old-school BBC bootlegs than to a curated official release; I lost count of how many versions of "A Taste of Honey" are on this. But these are great raw live takes of these songs mostly sans audience; if not for the rough-hewn quality of the tape itself, I'd probably prefer this version of "Too Much Monkey Business" to the one on Live at the BBC, and I favor this "A Shot of Rhythm and Blues" regardless. Other highlights here are a very bouncy version of "Do You Want to Know a Secret," a particularly raucous "Roll Over Beethoven" that should've been on one of the standard compilations, two takes on "You Really Got a Hold on Me" that are both lovely, a solid "Money" and a nicely snooty, almost punkish "I'll Get You" (of all songs), with its bristling "oh ya!" chorus. "All My Loving" demonstrates the band's aptitude at sounding professional and alluring without the aid of studio slickness and production (and on certain versions of "Love Me Do," "Please Please Me" and "She Loves You," they do the same even with a roomful of screamy teens), and "Long Tall Sally" -- heard a year before the band officially recorded it -- was never played better by the band or sung more uproariously by Paul.

Yes, there are repeated songs, as noted, but this ends up really selling how good the band was capable of being night after night, performance to performance; and remember that these BBC broadcasts were in addition to their studio work and regular concert gigs. Despite the modesty of this material, it very handily gives the lie to any notion that the Beatles were anything less than the best of the best at delivering concise, felt rock & roll in their heyday. I listen to this mess of sonically lacking miscellany and what I hear is a fucking great band, in fact the greatest; and if their many circulating live shows (Star Club, Stockholm '63 and Atlanta '65 aside) never gave me the feeling that I desperately wished I could have seen them, this stuff certainly does. To watch this band bulldoze through some of their best songs and these excellent covers? Sign me up.

This collection is mostly about the Beatles as performers rather than composers, but we're reminded that they were the full package -- which is what gave them an enduring career -- by the closing inclusion of the two of the most long-legendary and genuinely beautiful Beatles bootleg items, John Lennon's solo demos of two songs he gave to Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas: "Bad to Me," on acoustic guitar with what sounds like an overdubbed secondary vocal, and "I'm in Love," on piano. These are both beyond stunning; even more than the other Beatles, Lennon was capable of wringing absolute magic from something so boring and simple as the echoing lavatory in which he's said to have recorded "Bad to Me." His voice on these two demos is haunting in its loneliness; Kramer's renditions find nothing of emotional value in either song, but when Lennon sings them they are transcendent and impossibly powerful. Hearing him play them, especially "Bad to Me" with its lilting, sad "birds in the sky" chorus that sounds so trite on the hit version, all these years after he was taken from us is an emotional rush like few others. The sound quality here is no better than on the bootlegs, but it doesn't matter; now they are out there, legally, for people to hear. For this reason alone, this odd collection is a major blessing to the world.

Friday, June 21, 2019

The Beatles: On Air - Live at the BBC Vol. 2 (1963-66)


(Apple 2013)

RECOMMENDED

After nearly twenty years, Apple made the decision at last to return to the fruitful well of the Beatles' BBC performances, which had in 1994 provided the basis for the splendid and enormously popular release Live at the BBC. As those who collected bootlegs were aware, the Beatles' BBC archive contained another eight or nine discs' worth of material, if not necessarily in sterling sound quality, so there was much clamoring for a follow-up release or even an official complete collection to fully supersede the bootlegs. What we got was another two-hour "best-of" collection of the band's work at the Beeb, and an extremely fun and listenable one, but one that doesn't quite fill all the gaps it could have and still leaves a number of stones inexplicably unturned.

On this second collection, the tracks alternate much more consistently between actual performances and amusing bits of banter among the band and with their usual host Brian Matthew; there aren't many lengthy chunks of uninterrupted music here, which doesn't really violate the purpose of the compilation but does make it a less cohesive listening experience, especially on repeat visits. The switch to a mostly chronological format is welcome, however, with the entirety of the first disc recorded in 1963, the second venturing into the following year, though nothing from after 1964 is presented apart from a few long "bonus interviews" with the individual group members that feature them in a much more relaxed, candid state than is usual for them in this period; among other things, you get the chance to hear evidence of John Lennon's depressing state of mind as of late 1965, when he is clearly floundering for some sort of meaning and having trouble finding it in his new bougie lifestyle. The rest of the dialogue -- plus a cute "Happy Birthday" rendition dedicated to the Saturday Club program -- is worth hearing once or twice, though most of the funnier bits are on the previous volume; the best moments this time come from George and Ringo, the latter accusing John of being "college pudding" and both of them subtly jabbing their bandmates about their lack of involvement in songwriting.

Because Live at the BBC gathered most of the legendary thirty-odd songs that the Beatles performed on broadcasts and never recorded at EMI, there aren't many absolutely "new" songs for us to hear this time out. The exceptions are a rather insipid version of Stephen Foster's "Beautiful Dreamer" inspired by Tony Orlando's 1962 pop version of the song; and a solid John-led take on Chuck Berry's "I'm Talking About You," the song that directly inspired "I Saw Her Standing There." The only remaining BBC-only Beatles songs in the bootleg archives, not counting additional versions of those that have been issued, are the very early ones with Pete Best still on drums: "Dream Baby" and "A Picture of You." One doubts the likelihood of a future official home for these at this point.

That's far from the only act of housecleaning here; some fans may object to the violation of formerly exclusive deep-cut material and/or the duplication of a generally available track, but in my opinion, On Air quite helpfully gathers up two of the extra BBC cuts from the 1994 Baby It's You EP as well as the stray "Lend Me Your Comb" included on Anthology 1 and brings them here where they belong, though it's somewhat annoying that the EP version of "Devil in Her Heart" is replaced here by a different (better) one, making the old EP still essential. (Some fans have theorized that the slightly flubbed earlier take on "Heart" that made the EP was put there by mistake to begin with, since the On Air version from two months later is clearly stronger.) One of those rescued EP cuts is a revelation and the best track on this set, a stunning "I'll Follow the Sun" that runs circles around the more refined master, more clearly emphasizing John's harmony; it's remarkable that this, one of the oldest Beatles compositions of all, retains enough vitality for them that they're still finding new nuances in it as late as 1964.

The cream of On Air is in the canonical Beatles songs (including covers they recorded at EMI, even if it was some time later) that we didn't hear on Live at the BBC; these are consistently a treat, running out of the gate with a lovely "Words of Love" and through enjoyably unpolished versions of much of the first album ("Do You Want to Know a Secret," "Anna," "Please Please Me," "Misery," "Chains," "Ask Me Why," "P.S. I Love You" and a most welcome "There's a Place"). Perhaps excluding "P.S. I Love You," whose lack of formalism here is a big help, none of these will eclipse the studio versions for anyone, but they really attack all of them and it's a joy to hear them in this different, comparatively obscure context after decades of committing the originals to memory. Signature covers "Please Mr. Postman," "Twist and Shout" and "Money" are passionately tackled here, that last one in particular a good showcase of how excellent they were even stripping down a song that they famously rendered apocalyptic at EMI. Since Live at the BBC tended to roll past most of the early hits, it's a great bit of intrigue to hear how they work in a different environment without either George Martin or the screaming audiences that typically accompany live takes; both sides of their two most enduring early singles are here, and while "She Loves You" can't quite overwhelm the stuffiness of its surroundings, "I'll Get You" is lovely here, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" impressively confident, "This Boy" raw and beautiful (as much self-assurance as he lacked about his voice, you can't deny the wow factor of Lennon singing his way through that bridge). Moving into the era of A Hard Day's Night we get a few more welcome rearrangements, though two of them were stage regulars: "If I Fell," "And I Love Her" (robust but delicate here) and "You Can't Do That," which suffers some but not fatally.

Lastly, Apple also incorporates alternative performances of some of the songs introduced to the Beatles' official repertoire with the first BBC album,: "Lucille" (here with weird guitar solo), "The Hippy Hippy Shake," "Sure to Fall" (this version slightly better than the Vol. 1 rendition), "Glad All Over" and "Memphis" will seem interchangeable with their counterparts on the '94 record to most fans. The surprisingly polished and intriguing "I Got a Woman," a very different performance from the Lennon-centric one that opened Live at the BBC, is another matter, and along with "This Boy" it's probably the most interesting track uncovered for On Air, with an arrangement that seems carefully worked-over and almost country & western, as if the song could have been considered for Beatles for Sale later in the year. Oh, and Ringo is safely in the lead vocal chair for "Honey Don't" here, but the performance is almost identical to the For Sale rendition. The collection closes oddly with the same performance of "I Feel Fine" from Live at the BBC but with a different lead vocal (John overdubbed the one on the previous set); rumor suggests this was a last-minute substitution for a silly performance of "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport," cut because of the abuse allegations against Rolf Harris in the lead-up to the release.

On Air was a very welcome and happy release for fans like me who treasure the early Beatles; its chief flaws are mostly academic, and taking the entire breadth of the two Apple BBC releases together, you end up with a wonderful representation of the Beatles as a tight, joyously devoted live band, a picture that isn't really available anywhere else. Several songs here have no actual live recordings anywhere in the archives, and even when they do, there's no better way to hear the Beatles interpret their own work in this era, usually raw and without overdubs, and almost always without the intrusion of young loud audience members bleeding their way into the microphones. I also really like the bits and pieces of sweeping history here: the long interviews that capture the Beatles as of the waning days of the Mania period, and the amusing bits of their conversation with Matthew during the first American trip plus the hype about their forthcoming Royal Variety performance a few months before that. But having said all this, I can't unreservedly recommend this collection to casual fans the way I can with Live at the BBC, which was so rich with unique songs and at times was nearly as good in terms of selection and performances as a canonical EMI Beatles album. (I probably like it more than Help! these days, to be totally honest.) The quality of the performances is somewhat lesser overall -- which makes sense, given that the best BBC material was deliberately used on the original collection -- and there's too much incidental filler for it to avoid status as a "fans only" selection.

If the intention, then, was to summarize the Beatles' recorded legacy at the BBC rather than to provide a definitive and complete collection of it, On Air still disappoints, and not just for the very minor issue of the "Devil in Her Heart" fiasco or the exclusion of the historically vital 1962 performances with Pete Best still in tow; it comes extremely close to collecting every canonical Beatles song the band performed at the BBC with Ringo, but irritatingly stops just short, failing to include exactly four that all exist in strong performances, in all but one case with reasonably good sound quality: "I Call Your Name," "I Should Have Known Better," "I'm Happy Just to Dance with You" (all 1964) and "The Night Before" (1965, though this tape is rather poor). Were these held over for a potential third volume? Under that theory, Apple would be getting so close to a complete BBC set -- over halfway -- that the haphazard release methodology would just seem silly. To me, the ideal would have been the two-disc "cream of the crop" set issued in 1994 with maybe a few On Air cuts (certainly "I'll Follow the Sun" and "I'm Talking About You") gathered in lieu of some of the dialogue sequences, followed by a large-scale complete BBC sessions set. In this era of copyright extension sets, super deluxe editions and Bob Dylan's exhaustive bootleg series, it seems increasingly clear to me that such an official release may one day be possible. (Later in 2013, even more early BBC takes made their way out on the iTunes release Bootleg Recordings 1963; see our review of that release for details.) In that case, I'm afraid it's likely to render On Air a bit of a silly curio; but for now, it's another way to hide in the wonderful moment when the Beatles really held the world in their collective palms.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

He's beautiful and I'm annoyed: May 2019 music diary

Based on what I can verify through rudimentary research... median age of Charly Bliss: 25. Median age of Big Thief: 29. Median age of the National: 43. Median age of Ezra Koenig: 35.

The Mountain Goats: In League with Dragons (Merge) [r]
Unless I'm too unschooled on tabletop RPGs to know what I'm talking about, which is quite likely, John Darnielle seems to have given up on making this a concept album about Dungeons & Dragons past the cover and title, with the songs as varied and rich in subject matter as on the relatively concept-free Heretic Pride -- people operating past their prime are a recurring motif, but then, aren't they always. (I thought All Eternals Deck, which this record's title cut would have been at home on, was also an album with no overarching theme and embarrassingly said so in print, but now I believe it's overwhelmingly fixated on death.) They're also slicker and more full-sounding than ever thanks to producer Owen Pallett, who occasionally takes things a little too far; "Sicilian Crest" carries its canned fake triumph all the way to a bad adult contemporary station, while a few cuts, especially piano power ballad "Possum by Night" (which is about exactly that) and the Ozzy Osbourne tribute "Passaic 1975," fall into an uncomfortable blandness that lamentably has become somewhat routine on the Goats' Merge albums. However, for the most part, these are fine distinctions and this is Darnielle being Darnielle -- and, increasingly, Jon Wurster being Jon Wurster ("Done Bleeding" and "Younger" both center him gloriously) -- and the songs uncover themselves effortlessly with time. Darnielle somehow continues to evolve as a singer long after most rockers, especially indie rockers, give that up: the gaming chronicle "Younger" plays with a tone of simultaneous peace and insistence, as befitting someone who is doing something relaxing to them that they're nevertheless extremely competitive about, and the melodic "Clemency for the Wizard King" has him playing intriguingly with a hushed tone that has an entirely different emotional essence than the one he exhibited on Get Lonely; this is followed on with palpable, narratively telling detachment on the verbose, mournful "An Antidote for Strychnine"... but all of these are incremental and faint progressions on things the band has done before. The wildly engaging "Going Invisible 2" sounds actually new thanks to Pallett's spare treatment of what amounts to an assertion and rejection of creative identity in a thrillingly anthemic format, in which Darnielle finds a wavering but explosive strength in his voice we haven't heard in this capacity before.

Pallett's other main utility is emphasizing the full band's rock-steady, increasingly polished arrangements; "Younger" is so full of disparate elements -- piano hook, propulsive guitar, slick backing vocals, saxophone solo -- it becomes amusing how fans once thought "Autoclave" (2008) was as busy and studio-bound as the group was ever going to get. And while subtler, "Done Bleeding" isn't much more direct, with the producer making so much of its simple hook and pleasing buildup. Two jaunty songs, one whose title invokes Waylon Jennings, even bring in pedal steel; and "Doc Godden" boasts Spanish guitar and sounds as lovably out of place as "Shelved" did on Goths. The emphasis on the individual elements and interplay of an unerringly solid band ensures that the record is great fun to listen to even when its songs hang back a bit, though it's still kind of a relief when everything gets stripped away enough to return to the roots of a dark, rollicking, oddly catchy number about something exceptionally unpleasant: a Forensic Files-evocative crime scene functioning as the same sort of oblique simile as weapon-lugging trucks on the border between Greece and Albania, all with the inspirational chorus "Bring in the cadaver sniffing dog." Ladies and gentlemen: the Mountain Goats.

Aldous Harding: Designer (4AD) [r]
New Zealand native's third album will get short shrift in indie-folk world thanks to its release in close proximity with the similarly bare-sounding and pretty Big Thief album (below), but Harding's voice is a bit more upfront and assertive; "Fixture Picture" sets the tone with its faint catchiness and considerable dignity, while the title track brings things around to more versatile territory with its appealingly lush sound and unexpected horns. The guitar playing is frequently exquisite ("The Barrel," which also adds a pleasing low-toned male-female interplay on the vocal a la "Past the Mission") and the songwriting engages for the most part; there's a bit of a Sufjan Stevens melody on the piano-driven "Treasure." It eventually gets a bit repetitive, and her voice doesn't have the same appeal at the range she explores on songs like "Damn," which suffers from a lackluster piano centerpiece but does get redeemed by some lazy New Orleans horns. But it stays transfixing at least through the midpoint.

Kevin Morby: Oh My God (Dead Oceans) [c]
Morby's never been interesting and now that he's doing M. Ward nursery rhymes he's become ridiculous, rhyming "moat" with "boat" and channeling Everclear in a maudlin sound collage of children and women thanking God, and the record feels comically overlong despite coming in under fifty minutes. By track ten or so I'm in disbelief that he's still fucking going, and there's quite a bit left at that point! Respect for setting this to music, though.

The Tallest Man on Earth: I Love You. It's a Fever Dream. (Rivers/Birds)
I heard "Kids on the Run" (2010) a few days ago and suddenly realized, that extreme outlier from Kristian Matsson's second album set the tone for what's now his entire career: soupy balladry and war-torn vocals, and a mostly sidelined or absent guitar. There are enough good songs and performances on his fifth LP to make it an improvement on the Boss-like Dark Bird Is Home, but nearly every time there's a touch of the stark, unadorned mystery of his early work -- usually a little broad and obvious melodically (title track) but occasionally fine even in that department -- something adulterated and disruptive comes in: a damn orchestra, a power chord-flaunting rock band, even the revenge of the "Kids on the Run" piano. So it's all acceptable but anonymous, slowed down too much into placid old age -- he's six months older than me so I guess this is life now? -- and even when he's running through some basically classic folk ("There's a Girl"), the material is still thin and I feel like I'm, I dunno, listening to the radio in the garage. It's Saturday afternoon homeowner rock; "memories of being young," indeed. One exception to all this is "Waiting for My Ghost," on which the integration of harmonica actually sits peaceably with one of his better new songs. Even then, the biggest problem of low-tempo sluggishness never disappears except on "I'm a Stranger Now," which could have easily been a song from one of his first three albums and doesn't get around to fucking it up. I guess it's ominous in a way that I'm already in the position of telling an artist my age that he's past his prime except when he evokes the old stuff. Life goes on...

Big Thief: U.F.O.F. (4AD) [hr]
The least New York-sounding New York band of our time, this folk troupe tapers down their crowd-pleasing impulses and ironically ends up crafting their most distinctive and accessible album yet, marked by the same general hushed intensity as before but accompanied by thrilling spaciousness and detail as well as a vocal sweetness that borders on harsh, confronting where the old records shrank. Adrianne Lenker carves out a presence with a truly eccentric voice that's difficult to grasp in the aural space at first until its language becomes clear and it starts to weave around you seductively, magically. Her and Buck Meek's intertwining guitars ring, chime and grind through a litany of stark riffs while producer Andrew Sario wants to establish a sense of place, and does so as adeptly as a Stax or Sun single, or the Beatles' Please Please Me or Great Lake Swimmers' debut: for all its intimacy, the sound can feel remarkably limitless, or it can be airless and claustrophobic ("Terminal Paradise"). Still, the record forges its identity through melodies that tease and deny (the watery, dreamlike title cut) and its repeated challenges to complacency; opener "Contact" settles into its own calm bleakness before breaking into a series of bloodcurdling screams and intrusively sharp guitars like the Police's "A Kind of Loving." (That's the only real sign of the "rock" half of folk-rock apart from the memorably freaky and circular "Jenni" and the slightly less successful, mood-breaking "Strange.") You can fall over yourself proclaiming vocal comparisons to Joni Mitchell or Kate Bush or Meg Baird but even on the most explicitly Mitchell-like "Orange," Lenker still comes off as an original, her emotional delivery both hauntingly delicate in its affect and unerringly tough in its directness; actually, I'm reminded a bit of Jeff Mangum on the scattered new songs he played on Neutral Milk Hotel's Aeroplane tour. She has that same instinct to strip songs down to their wounded, almost primitive essence ("From") but doesn't shy away from the unpredictable nooks and crannies of something like "Betsy." This enchanting craftiness peaks with the gorgeous and mysterious "Cattails," which almost feels like a lost Carter Family number; you can all but see the Great Lakes scene she takes pains to set in her lyric. The record ends a little abruptly; "Magic Dealer" seems anticlimactic and sputters out into silence, but almost everything before it is so striking and shockingly vivid it doesn't really matter.

Vampire Weekend: Father of the Bride (Sony)
What's left of this once-zeitgeisty unit on the occasion of its major label debut, following the departure of musical backbone Rostam Batmanglij, throws the entire kitchen sink at a distant dartboard. It's an assaultive approach to reinvention, a double album (more like albummer, right guys?) that's not so much bloated as... overstimulating. The tone is confused, the attitude is weird, there's sunny-side-up pop but also strangely mournful country, and it may or may not essentially just be Ezra Koenig on the process of growing up, losing your band, getting married, having kids. He talks about shirking lyrical obscurity but the title alone invites almost endless questions about purpose and thematics: is the father of the bride Quincy Jones? Spencer Tracy? Ezra himself (in the James Whale sense)? With the sheer volume of material, there's a lot of difficulty getting a handle on how to even think about this music, aside from one common denominator: it all suffers from too much studio tweaking, on tunes that finally don't feel like much of an evolution or the work of much of a band. Rostam's aural busyness was baked into the songs. The random orch hits, awkward layering of noises, between-verse sounds of puttering around in the studio, and pointless augmentation of Jenny Lewis autotune, for a few examples, communicate a certain wrongheaded desperation to entertain; it makes the simpler songs, particularly the three country duets with Danielle Haim, suffer badly because they end up sounding so slight you grow suspicious of what their skeletal, plaintive lyrics are really getting at. There's a certain freedom Koenig understandably finds when he strips everything away like this, like Paul McCartney crooning away on "The Lovely Linda," but there's also an audible, slavish reverence to domesticated convention and infuriating cutesiness ("We Belong Together," bizarrely cowritten with Batmanglij, on which pots and pans are predestined to make a go of it but alas cannot coexist), like Paul... well, you know.

The thing is, whereas McCartney thumbed his nose at the outside world (ex-bandmates inclusive) upon finding his private bliss and then got lost in the trite, happier-than-thou trappings of trying to communicate it, Koenig's instincts serve him better, and his popcraft hasn't left him either. The ideal modern Vampire Weekend song may indeed be the Wings-like "Bambina," which runs under two minutes but is complicated and memorable; and speaking more generally, his lyrics remain good, grown up, scared and interesting. Even on the swooning opener "Hold You Now," there's something haunting about the story he's telling us: of romance spanning a lifetime but still hitting a wall, of the endless labyrinthine stories we tell of our own lives. And he continues to pile references to references on top of references to try and explain a worldview in progress, this time including references to Vampire Weekend itself which are at least less clumsy than Arcade Fire's invocation of Funeral on "Creature Comfort": he reprises the key line "I don't want to live like this, but I don't want to die" from "Fingerback," a moment that despite myself I almost never could resist belting out along with him, and I'm mildly annoyed that it gets recycled into a celebratory chorus all its own on "Harmony Hall," yet 27 million Spotify plays can't be wrong. Though its upturned guitar sound is sweet, "This Life" struggles with his tendency to make ordinary sentiments sound like they're hiding something, until they collapse under their own emptiness and -- especially -- Ariel Rechtshaid's fussy production, which places too much emphasis on every awkward moment. "How Long" has lots of hooks and goes for imitation Rostam. And those are the sanctioned iconic moments on this thing! Actual progression shows up here and there: the stronger, more unresolved melody on "Unbearably White" is welcome; and while "Sympathy" has the feel of an afterthought, its Latin-derived sound also breaks some of the monotony. "My Mistake" is shapeless but actually enigmatic and, when divorced from context, reveals itself as a standout, and even its closing saxophone break is well-placed. The two Steve Lacy guest shots, "Sunflower" (a rewrite of the Inspector Gadget theme song) and "Flower Moon," use jam bands as their basis and deserve some attention for being actively different and more unabashedly pop, though the former does blather on a bit in its scat-singing interlude. Most of the final quarter, alas, is depressingly forgettable, though they never did really know how to end albums; it's all so Normie even when it's decent, and the filler tracks on the first half -- the slackening "Rich Man" making very clear the band's inability to locate the strength and passion of something like "Taxi Cab" again -- wouldn't be so offensive if one got the sense that there was any credible reason for the band to overload the marketplace with so much stuff. There's something poignant about Koenig trying so hard to keep this beloved brand going, but the degree to which it really is now a (highly bougie) brand, and how they're finally upholding all the accusations leveled against them when they surfaced a dedcade ago, is mildly disturbing.

Charly Bliss: Young Enough (Barsuk) [hr]
This is a joyous occasion even if you were fully sold on them already thanks to the irreverent, addictive Guppy two years ago: it is punk rock growing up in all the right ways. Taking cues from various bands they loved in high school that could never dream of recording anything so delightful in their lives (Fountains of Wayne, Weezer, Panic! at the Disco), they add a lot of texture and moodiness to their raw, bashed-out sound while retaining their basic fast-and-loud dynamism. From the start with the instantly iconic "Blown to Bits," the stage is set by huge riffs, giant hooks, audibly increased confidence on the part of the entire band, who seem at last to be catching up with the unpredictable, well-controlled emotional arcs of singer-guitarist Eva Hendricks, who can't be denied as the spotlight hog of the century here, and I doubt the band would disagree with me that she merits every bit of the attention. To hear her impeccably expressed, universal angst laid against these lovable pop constructions is to feel something like young again, easily as much as Surfer Girl or "Hot Fun in the Summertime." (Jealous, too; all my generation got was, like, Len. And LFO.) As fiercely pleasurable as this music is -- going so far as to evoke the Cars on the smartly syncopated "Chatroom" -- it's also tough-minded and relentless, with compelling stories ("Camera"), elegant simplicity that never stoops to pandering or unintelligence (the circular "Hurt Me"), and unexpected grace notes that can be roaring, dramatic and brief like "Fighting the Dark," or sprawled-out and grown up and hurting like "Young Enough," all cases in which they remain utterly credible and inviting. In an alternate universe, "Hard to Believe" would've been the biggest rock radio hit of the year. In any universe including ours, this wonderful album reasserts that rock & roll will always be a young person's game, and thank heavens for that.

Ciara: Beauty Marks (s/r)
Regular readers know I sincerely love Ciara and tend to enjoy even her mediocre music so it's never great fun to slam it, and this latest record, liberated from WMG, actually contains a genuine hit ("Level Up"), though one that's already a year old. It does sound slicker than she has in a while, and there are a few buoyant pop songs ("Thinkin' Bout You" and the bubbly "Freak Me") and odd evocations of "Tom's Diner" and Depeche Mode's "Dangerous"... but there's also lots of somewhat generic club empowerment, and a Macklemore guest verse (ugggggh) so it's kind of a wash. The material is surprisingly stale given how convicted she was about moving out, but I maintain she's still an infallibly engaging vocalist and I wouldn't kick "Trust Myself" out of bed, bath or motor vehicle.

Jamila Woods: LEGACY! LEGACY! (Jagjaguwar) [r]
Woods has grown a lot since HEAVN, which was a free Soundcloud release and sounded like it. By contrast, this largely sounds like something that would have played on a very expensive hi-fi fifty or sixty years ago. It's a name game that comes out swinging, stylish and sensitive on "Betty" and "Zora" and drowns out the Kamasi Washington lite-FM style on the credibly hot "Giovanni," then gradually leans into the less beautiful but no less engaging forms of hi-NRG, trip hop ("Octavia")... and eventually more generic dance music, but nothing we hear is ever less than solid. It's Woods' voice that threads through it, and occupies a room you don't particularly want to leave, with subtle Baduizms here and there on "Sonia" and synth textures that add a touch of menace to an often airtight endeavor. The moments of profanity and cutting loose end up feeling like a relief -- so I look forward to more of that in the future.

The National: I Am Easy to Find (4AD) [r]
Like Sleep Well Beast, this musically is the pretty-and-bleak-as-ever National sound with bonus electronics and even (on the otherwise draggy "Hey Rosey") a bit of trip hop. Unfortunately, its litany of guest vocals by women, despite lending an interesting relief to the band's normally unbroken sensitive maleness, gives it the feel of being a side project rather than a studio album -- something that might be mitigated if it wasn't so long and overbearing that its occasional loveliness gets drowned out. The best song, "Where Is Her Head," sounds like Arcade Fire; the worst one, "The Pull of You," is cluttered with chitchat -- who are they, Vampire Weekend? -- and the rest are generally fine. "Not in Kansas" lovingly references R.E.M.'s Lifes Rich Pageant in a way that feels reverent and genuine, but the Mike Mills serving as producer is not that band's bassist but the writer-director of 20th Century Women, a film everyone reading this should see; as a knob-spinner, though, he's a little too enchanted with John Williams-like choirs for my taste. The lyrics are fine, mostly. The baseline sound remains largely irresistible (see "Oblivions") but with an hour-plus of material it all sounds the same after a while despite the variances in pace and tempo, and you feel like this isn't a band exploring their limits so much as finding them.

Tyler, the Creator: IGOR (Columbia) [hr]
So I won't eat up your evening speculating on whether this is more "mature" or accomplished than Flower Boy, nor will I try and parse out how it sits with an overall career I used to disdainfully ignore, but let's take one look in the mirror and say this: you're an idiot at this point if you don't kneel at the altar of Tyler as a producer if nothing else. "I Think" makes every other futile gesture toward oldschool Kanye soul soundscapes a joke, and it's not Solange that sells that, it's the artist's own totally unassuming matter-of-fact ingenuity, in which he repeatedly -- not just here but across the whole album -- mixes himself into vibrant sonic wallpaper in a way that's both more pointed and more profound than Matt Berninger turning away from his microphone. He sings sometimes, he rambles repetitively other times; he writes pop but not like on the last record. The songs double back on themselves and deny full-on release like all the best jazz and alternative recordings. I don't claim to be an expert on anyone's psyche and won't try to box in what's mostly just a a pleasurable collection of little earthquakes with overbearing hooks, deliberately strained California vibes and smartly judged samples ("Gone, Gone"). At the same time, though, this is about something, and it permeates much more than his lyrics which tend toward sidestepping it anyway. Why the old-fashioned horror movie tropes on the title and cover? Because more than some grunting Screaming Lord Sutch of hip hop, he's a self-lacerating George Romero character whose artistry comes at the price of exposing his own humility and doubt, and it's only by falling back on generosity and examining his own issues and fears, and treating his own sense of self with respect and a distinct lack of bombast, that he's come gradually to be himself: the mild self-criticism and lost voice is baked into who he is right now. And I don't know, maybe it's because I feel like I get that on a personal level, but his snarling, unassuming delivery has become nuanced and deeply engaging and that makes this a head-spinning miniature chronicle of the day to day that it absolutely didn't have to be. But also, just listen to the fucking sounds, to the alarmingly otherworldly and just as alarmingly sensitive "Thank You," or to the delirious irony and idiosyncrasy of "Are We Still Friends?" and you'll find enough that's personal, true and vital to fill plenty of deep thoughts and dark nights.

Slowthai: Nothing Great About Britain (s/r)
Northampton rapper with an uneasy, messy debut album, basically par for the course in terms of personal statements but boasts at least one cut, "Doorman," with serious punk momentum, a few that constitute obvious noble failures, and lots of padded out material... especially on the streaming sites where it adds six interminable bonus cuts I didn't know weren't part of the album till I checked Wikipedia; after Tyler's 39 minutes it was making me extremely antsy, and I normally wouldn't mention this but I have to get this risible witticism out of my system: "This one's for the ladies / cause they have our babies / and they drive us crazy." The most representative song on the proper LP is "Missing," which is draggy and aggressive and muddy in a particularly English way while feeling a bit too slick to be full-on grime, more like an early 2000s rap rock band's benignly ominous approximation of same. "Peace of Mind" boasts an iPhone alarm and Sid Vicious, but it's on "Toaster" that Tyron Frampton is on to something, contrasting unhinged powerhouse delivery with a calm lush beat; not a new idea, but laid against his voice when it's that off the rails, it keenly suggests the influence of Kendrick Lamar's various laid-on personas while also breaking the mold that sets across the rest of the album, which as on so many modern albums makes a really palpable difference.

ALSO RECOMMENDED:
Jayda G: Significant Changes (Ninja Tune) [the whales' average age was nineteen; "Orca's Reprise"/"Leave Room 2 Breathe"/"Renewal"]
Ex Hex: it's real (Merge) [lost slasher movie soundtrack; "Another Dimension"/"Good Times"]
Quelle Chris: Guns (Mello Music) ["step out daddy long legs, Cab Calloway stride / make a rapper freeze up like I was Zack in Bayside"; "Obamacare"/"You, Me & Nobody Else"/"Straight Shot"]
Elva: Winter Sun (Tapete) [some of her songs still sound like back-of-the-notebook music with front-of-the-notebook words, but one big score on Allo Darlin' here is that the songs the dude sings are actually good too; "Athens"/"Tailwind"]
Orville Peck: Pony (Sub Pop) [goth swagger; "Roses Are Falling"]
Avey Tare: Cows on Hourglass Pond (Domino) [columnated cows domino]
Lee Fields & the Expressions: It Rains Love (Big Crown) ["Will I Get Off Easy"]
Priests: The Seduction of Kansas (Sister Polygon) [lumbering post-punk glory; "The Seduction of Kansas"/"Texas Instruments"]
Anderson. Paak: Ventura (Aftermath) [adorable; "Make It Better"]

ALSO RECOMMENDED FOR THE AMBIENT FILES:
Mary Lattimore & Mac McCaughan: New Rain Duets (Three Lobed) [nice way to calm down]

FURTHER INVESTIGATION TO COME:
* Ezra Collective: You Can't Steal My Joy
* The Cranberries: In the End
* L7: Scatter the Rats
* Rosie Lowe: Yu
* Laurence Pike: Holy Spring
Mdou Moctar: Ilana (The Creator)
Kelsey Lu: Blood
SOAK: Grim Town
P!nk: Hurts 2B Human
Kedr Livanskiy: Your Need
Haelos: Any Random Kindness
Tim Hecker: Anoyo
Carlton Jumel Smith: 1634 Lexington Avenue
Olden Yolk: Living Theatre
Carly Rae Jepsen: Dedicated
Megan Thee Stallion: Fever
Injury Reserve

REJECTS:
W.H. Lung: Incidental Music
BTS: Map of the Soul - Persona
Rozi Plain: What a Boost
The Budos Band: V
Bibio: Ribbons
Shovel & Rope: By Blood
Stealing Sheep: Big Wows [NYIM]
Local Natives: Violet Street
Craig Finn: I Need a New War [NYIM]
Tacocat: This Mess Is a Place
Drahla: Useless Coordinates [NYIM]
Bad Religion: Age of Unreason
Rhiannon Giddens: There Is No Other
Paula Temple: Edge of Everything
Caroline Spence: Mint Condition [NYIM]
The Felice Brothers: Undress
A.A. Bondy: Enderness [NYIM]
Alex Lahey: The Best of Luck Club [NYIM]
Rahsaan Patterson: Heroes & Gods [NYIM]

ORPHAN TUNES:
Stealing Sheep "Girl" [Big Wows]

ARCHIVAL GRADE CHANGES:
Love Is All: Two Thousand and Ten Injuries (Polyvinyl 2010) [hr] -> [A+]

Saturday, June 1, 2019

The Beatles capsules: post-1987 compilations & miscellany

I make the "1987" distinction because that's when the catalog was standardized worldwide to reflect the British discography, and when Apple pretty much became the sole proprietor in the Beatle business; everything below was band-sanctioned to whatever extent the band is still a band. Right now there's not much here, with most later comps being significant enough for full reviews or qualifying more accurately for our page of deliberately divergent remixes, but this page will stand for inevitable future collections and marginalia. To put it more bluntly, here's the stuff that I didn't have anywhere else to put.

***

The Beatles: 1 (Apple 1962-70/2000) [r]
Almost twenty years later it seems so quaint: a greatest-hits collection heavily advertised on TV briefly became a pop culture phenomenon, selling 31 million CDs and revising the Beatles' original spirit as a youth culture touchstone (rather than as mere artists) for what will probably remain the last time, though they did manage to get back in our faces a few years ago when the catalog went streaming. It started a trend, too -- also probably the last time the Beatles will pull that off -- with Elvis, Beach Boys, Stones, even Wings following suit. As a fan, it was fun at the time to see the malleability of the Beatles' music confirmed, and it's especially comforting that George Harrison lived to see it happen. But at the center of this grandiose gesture, this is just familiar music in a fancy new dress -- an attractively minimalist package with decent liner notes, nice reproductions of the old Avedon photos and lots of Helvetica. As for the songs, obviously taken without any context they're almost uniformly phenomenal: "From Me to You," "All You Need Is Love," "Hello Goodbye," and "The Long and Winding Road" are the only bummers for me, and if you're a sane fan of pop music you won't have more than a handful either. However, two things give me pause: one is the impossibility of summing up the Beatles in a best-of. There's a reason the previous best attempt spanned four discs. (One earlier stab at summing things up more concisely, 20 Greatest Hits, felt facile and incomplete; if one just wants to define Beatlemania with the quickness, the old British EP The Beatles' Million Sellers gets it across more charmingly.) Virtually every Beatles album is essential for even a casual rock & roll listener, and so this can only serve as a convenient playlist for reliving their radio impact. Conversely, there is the fact that many of these songs weren't originally on albums, which brings me to my second point: defining the Beatles' legacy as a singles band while limiting the scope to the songs that topped the charts gives an impression that's often woefully incomplete. The most glaring examples are the absence of "Please Please Me" (which was a #1 in England, just not on the chart that later became canonical) and "Strawberry Fields Forever," without either of which any Beatles chronicle feels terribly lacking. Not to mention the oft-ignored fact that, since everything here apart from the first three tracks is in stereo, these aren't even the hit versions of these songs. If you think that's irrelevant, check out our Mono Masters review.

Apple's criteria for this release meant that any song that "officially" made #1 in either the UK or the U.S. was to be included, neatly coinciding with the ideal running time of a single compact disc. But this also lets in songs that the Beatles never intended as singles but were marketed that way in America, namely "Eight Days a Week," "Yesterday" and "The Long and Winding Road"; admittedly, "Yesterday" probably belongs on any greatest-hits package since it was massively popular and remains likely the most-covered song of the rock era. (My favorite version is Tammy Wynette's; Ray Charles' is good too. I love the song but never thought the Beatles' version lived up to its promise.) It continues to annoy me that, after more than a half-century, no one's ever just put all of the Beatles' 26 official A-sides in one place, in mono, and released them together; the playlist I've made in this format is revelatory in terms of narrative, and doesn't distract with sidelines and gray-area selections like 1 does. You get part of that same remarkable story of a band's development, peak and decline on this disc, but the portions that are missing really hurt -- like watching your favorite film edited for time. Of course, I understand 1 was meant for new and casual fans and thus stereo mixes and only the truly infallible cuts makes some marketing sense, but how much has the spirit of the '60s totally dried up when marketing is our primary concern here? Anyway, streaming renders a lot of this moot, but if you're still in the physical music market, skip this and just get the albums and Past Masters; this isn't exactly a case in which people crow about the album cuts being lackluster compared with the hits.

The Beatles: Tomorrow Never Knows (Apple 1964-70/2012) [c]
The Beatles themselves rebuked EMI's procession of "themed" compilations in the late '70s and early '80s, those with names like Rock 'n' Roll Music, Love Songs, Reel Music and Ballads; understandably, they considered it all rather cheap. But a number of decades later, in celebration of the band's new presence on the Apple iTunes store (their long dispute with the computer company over the Apple trademark finally settled), they essentially approved the same idea themselves with this fourteen-track collection of some of their "harder rocking" songs. Existing only as an iTunes playlist and -- briefly -- a promotionally pressed vinyl LP, it's a totally useless creation meant apparently to keep the Beatles' name lively and valid to "new" fans and to suggest a legacy as edgy rockers that isn't accurate or necessary. Fans needn't bother with it, they have all of it except possibly the versions of "I've Got a Feeling" (from Let It Be... Naked) and "The End" (from Anthology 3); in both cases you're better off just springing for those full releases. So why does this exist? Quotes from Dave Grohl, members of several other mainstream bands, and a couple of token indie rockers accompanying the release are apparently intended to serve the same purpose as the testimonials from the likes of Fred Durst at the time of Let It Be... Naked, but does anyone who'd actually buy this feel impressed by such people? Grohl, after all, is himself at this point a "classic rocker," and one doubts that the Beatles are in any particular need to kowtow to "rockers" -- kind of a niche culture now anyway, right? -- to attract a wider crowd. It is just a silly iTunes thing, after all, but just glancing at it ("file under ROCK," the cover proclaims) you can see it was the result of far too many closed-door meetings about demographics and such. It just seems like a weird gesture from a band whose quality control tends to be so strict, but shortly after this, the reins would be loosened in a positive manner.

The Beatles: Live at the Hollywood Bowl (Apple 1964-65/2016) [r]
At last, the Beatles' lone truly official live album came back into print in conjunction with the Ron Howard documentary about their touring years in 2016; Giles Martin remixed Capitol's three-track recordings to present the music and particularly the vocals with greater clarity. As a result, everyone from CD-buying grannies to neo-nostalgic Spotify teens can hear the shrill sounds of Beatlemania preserved in perpetuity, with the band brilliantly attacking "Things We Said Today," "She's a Woman" and others with relentless speed despite every kind of towering obstacle they confront. Rock & roll and forever-young sexuality live, baby. Apart from the horrible cover art, this supersedes the old LP release quite handily (I do not know whether George Martin's charming liner notes -- in which he recalls his daughter asking him if the Beatles are as good as the Bay City Rollers -- are preserved in the new physical issues) but it still feels a little like a missed opportunity. Rather than comprehensively releasing these three professionally recorded gigs, Giles Martin somewhat obsessively sticks to his dad's volleying back and forth between '64 and '65; I'm all for historical accuracy, but to a live album released with the usual caveats of LP length in 1977? Not so much. Instead he fills out the time with four bonus tracks, two from each year, collecting one errant track from the 1996 "Real Love" single ("Baby's in Black") while cutting out part of John's hilariously snippy intro (alleging that the song is "a waltz, for those of you over ten") for some reason; Lennon's above-it-all ranting is part of the Beatles live experience, goddammit. The others -- "You Can't Do That," fine; "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby," both a bit weak -- seem randomly selected, since we know the shows held other unusual gems like "If I Fell." Martin's justification is probably that the disc was meant, like the original LP, for a general audience of non-obsessives, but I can't see that putting at least two complete shows here would've really turned anyone off. It's not like they were lengthy. Repetitive, yeah, maybe, but imagine how the Beatles felt!