Friday, July 26, 2019

The Beatles capsules: remixes

As if the exhausting number of "alternate mixes" of Beatles music actually released in the '60s wasn't enough, we now have the revisionist history to contend with; below we've chronicled the compilations that have tried to correct flaws of vintage stereo mixes and give the Beatles' work a modern push, though what we find over and over again (as with the '70s remixes on Rock & Roll Music) is that the tastes that give rise to these altered versions tend to date more quickly than the scrappy but durable '60s mixes. That said, I'm not opposed to the idea in principle, and I think Yellow Submarine Songtrack and bits and pieces of Love work pretty well. I do think it's interesting, however, that the widespread urge to remix older music seems to concentrate almost exclusively on the artists that demonstrably need the least amount of help to appeal to new generations of fans. At any rate, these alternative approaches are generally fun and interesting to hear, if nothing else.

Please note that I've reviewed Rock & Roll Music, the American edition of which contains some songs remixed by George Martin, as part of the general pre-'87 compilations page, while the Pepper and White Album remixes (and probably any subsequent remixes of the albums in a similar format) are acknowledged as part of my pages on those respective Super Deluxe boxed sets.

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The Beatles: Help!/Rubber Soul - 1987 Remixes (EMI 1965/1987)
During the 1987 campaign issuing the Beatles' catalog on compact disc for the first time, George Martin was displeased with and put a stop to the use of the stereo mixes of Help! and particularly Rubber Soul, which admittedly is one of the more half-assed mixing jobs in the Beatles' catalog, with a lot of hole-in-the-middle "wide stereo" mixes that hard-pan vocals to one side and instrumentation to the other for no clear reason. His objections to the stereo Help! are harder to understand, but in any case, rather than issue these CDs strictly in mono as he'd insisted on for the first four LPs, which in the case of Rubber Soul would've been ideal -- and Martin said in an interview that he wanted to release the entire catalog in mono only and only did otherwise in a bow to commercial pressure -- he took the extra months leading to the second wave of CD releases to completely remix these two albums. The resulting "alternate versions" are not so alternate all these years later; in fact, they've completely replaced the original stereo mixes in the Beatles' canon, despite their low sampling rate and very 1987 attachment to now-dated reverb and aural cushiness. Meaning to emphasize the virtues of the CD format, Martin went too far for that particular brand of slick appeal; the clarity and shimmer are nice, but the tracks lose a great deal of life in the translation. It would have been wiser to leave things alone, or better yet to push for a complete catalog release of both mono and stereo mixes to begin with. The 1987 remixes remove the edge from these recordings and excessively "modernize" them; they're better than nothing, sure, and we all lived with them for a long time, but it's absurd that after all these years, these two key albums -- including one of the band's undisputed masterpieces -- are primarily sold in lower-quality versions than everything else they released. We're quite lucky that Martin deemed the mixes from Revolver onward "good enough."

The story should end there, but doesn't; on the otherwise competent 2009 CD remasters, Martin's increasingly antiquated remixes remained the widely available versions of Help! and Rubber Soul. It turns out that this wasn't the fault of the team of engineers in charge. During one of his various Beatles-related projects, Martin's son Giles sent an inquiry to Apple about using the original tapes of these albums as a source rather than the low-bitrate digital remasters, but was told Apple's policy dictated that because George Martin had considered these mixes definitive, they were now "the" only official mixes that could be utilized. Giles checked with his dad to find that he himself, twenty years down the line, did not even recall constructing the remixes! But the "policy" remained immobile, so across every streaming service and just about every Beatles disc or new vinyl record you can buy that contains this content, apparently Help! and Rubber Soul are doomed to be stuck in 1987 forever, and for no good reason. One pleasing sideline, however, is that the 2009 remaster campaign did manage to find a place for the original 1965 stereo mixes, flawed as they may be: tucked onto the tail end of the CDs for Help! and Rubber Soul housed in the boxed set The Beatles in Mono. So ironically, these most flawed titles among the '87 catalog now are the only Beatles albums to have received what should have been the uniform idea all along: single discs with the mono and stereo mixes presented consecutively. Is that so hard? Apparently. When you have the rights to literally the most valuable catalog of pop music in the world, is it really that hard to put it out in the world without issues? Again, apparently, yes.

The Beatles: Yellow Submarine Songtrack (Apple 1965-68/1999) [r]
Commemorating the DVD release of the film in 1999, this revision of the Yellow Submarine album removes the score and adds every Beatles song heard in the film, even those -- like "Think for Yourself" -- that only appear for a few seconds. The recordings have been brightly remixed (the first time such a project was undertaken for general audio release rather than a video or DVD) and sound quite good; for new fans, at least, this is the ideal way to get the four new songs from Yellow Submarine, though the original LP is not without merit (as noted in my review, the score is itself very good), and of course these aren't the "canon" mixes for whatever that's worth. Honestly these 1999 mixes sound a bit better to me than some of the more deliberately divergent Giles Martin retakes of the catalog currently making the rounds, though the purpose is obviously different.

The Beatles: Let It Be... Naked (Apple 1968-70/2003) [c]
This is the most pointless of all official Beatles releases promoted as containing "new material." Ostensibly it's a case of the remaining Beatles finally "finishing" the Get Back album that became Let It Be, nixing Phil Spector's editing and overdubs and streamlining and cleaning it up as if it were a canonical Beatles album (not a "new phase" one as described on the back of the original LP). The issue is that this task was already undertaken quite well by Anthology 3 seven years earlier, and it did so while bringing a wealth of actual new music into official release; that expansive set allowed us to hear most of the key tracks from Let It Be, often in better performances and uniformly with none of the extraneous distractions that marred canon tracks like "The Long and Winding Road" and "I Me Mine." Still, an official release of one of the Glyn Johns assemblies of Get Back might have made sense; what we get instead is simply a rearrangement of Let It Be that uses the exact same performances as the original releases with three exceptions: "The Long and Winding Road," "Don't Let Me Down" and "I've Got a Feeling" (the latter two edited from multiple performances from the Apple rooftop on January 30th, 1969) but excludes the Spector overdubs as well as the incidental dialogue. For the most part, this makes the record totally arbitrary, a vanity project that, apart from the one complete new performance ("Road") really provides nothing new and isn't genuinely true to the Beatles' mission of the time, since its wonky mastering takes pains to make these songs sound "of a piece" with other Beatles recordings rather than distinctively raw as the title seems to promise. There's a second disc of "fly on the wall" material meant to throw a bone to that spirit of live-in-the-studio mayhem, but it's just an incoherent mess. You'd think that, by 2003, Apple would've gathered that this sort of half-measure wouldn't be well-received by fans; it's now on the streaming platforms, but still sits awkwardly in the band's discography. On most of the recordings the compilers have taken more away than they've added, which they seem only have done to be able to call all of them "previously unreleased." I'm willing to concede two points, though: the new "Road" is nice, as actual new Beatles music nearly always was and is; and the inclusion of "Don't Let Me Down," the finest song from the sessions, even if in an inferior version, corrects one of the most misguided choices Spector made for Let It Be. This does also boast probably the most flattering mix of the canon version of "Across the Universe"... but the song still doesn't belong with the Get Back material, and the Anthology 2 version is far superior. At a total of 54 minutes spread across two discs, the whole thing feels like a waste. Thankfully, it was one of the last times the Beatles' catalog would suffer such a strange indignity.

The Beatles: Love (Apple 2006)
I don't really care for mashups, but this elaborate soundtrack constructed by George Martin and his son Giles for the Beatles-oriented Cirque du Soleil show in Las Vegas does have its moments of clever interpolation: a deconstruction of "Lady Madonna" actually finds previously obscure hooks in that everpopular chestnut, and the magical progression of "Strawberry Fields Forever" from demo to final stages compressed down into a five-minute montage coheres impressively. The first time you listen, there's something revelatory about hearing the "Tomorrow Never Knows" drums underneath "Within You, Without You," but that miracle seems to fade with repeated exposure as the experience totally undercuts the brilliance of both songs, and the fit isn't as snug as the Martins want it to be. That sort of overreaching ambition is a bit of an outlier, really; the generalized problem with Love is that it's unexpectedly boring, with many songs (like "Help!", "Eleanor Rigby," "Yesterday" and "A Day in the Life") left nearly untouched, while at other points the thing becomes an unbearable cacophony of cross-referenced gibberish (the insane fusion of "Drive My Car"-"The Word"-"What You're Doing" sounds like a nightmare of the Beatles collectively having a stroke, and fusing "Come Together" with "Dear Prudence" almost couldn't be more of an obnoxious idea). The best of what Love offers to the world comes out of its more tasteful experiments: we finally get the second half of "I Am the Walrus" in glorious stereo (it was mixed as such for the Anthology DVD as well, but not quite so adventurously), and George Martin's new string arrangement for the Harrison demo of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" is unorthodox and lovely. It all probably sounds fine at the show, but as a listening experience, it seems to pander a little and fills the needs of neither a glorified greatest-hits package or of a cop to "modernizing" the Beatles, in which case its DJing goofoffs already sound more dated than the original records anyway. (Note: the digital releases of this album add a couple of bonus tracks. I've never heard them and don't much care to seek them out, making them the only officially released Beatles recordings I feel comfortable skipping, because I don't see this as a really important corner of the Beatles' output in the first place.)

The Beatles: 1+ (Apple 1962-70/2015) [r]
The greatest hits package 1 was originally issued in 2000, switched to a digipack format shortly after the 2009 remasters were released, and finally made its way to the streaming services with this new version in 2015, which had the stereo tracks (all but the first three) remixed by Giles Martin. This is easily the best version of the disc, in whatever form you hear it; Martin's tasteful mixes effectively modernize the flawed stereo versions of these songs, giving them a fuller, more enveloping and detailed sound that makes you wish you could hear his take on the rest of the catalog, and of course he's subsequently begun that process with Pepper and the White Album. (It should be noted, however, that Martin's improvements are less substantial in those cases; most of the Beatles' singles weren't mixed to stereo at the time of their original release, so the afterthought mixes made later frequently tended to lose some of the distinctive flavor of the songs in question.) Martin is well aware of the central fallacy of this compilation in the first place, that the mixes it included weren't really the Beatles' hits, and he does his best to approximate the intensity of the mono mixes while spreading them to two channels (or to six, on the DVD/Blu-ray editions). He succeeds moderately on most of the tracks; his will probably remain the best in the very poor stack of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" stereo attempts, but he really shines on the likes of "Paperback Writer" and "Eleanor Rigby," vastly improving on those deeply inadequate stereo tracks, centering the vocals on "Eleanor Rigby" and regaining the psychedelic effects of "Paperback Writer." The only jarring mixes are those of "Hey Jude," which distractingly fusses with the levels of the singalong chorus on the fade, and the Spector-enhanced "The Long and Winding Road," which couldn't have been salvaged anyway. Not all of the changes seem necessary but very few are distracting, and along with the more flamboyant Yellow Submarine Songtrack, this overall is probably my favorite of the Beatles' remix projects to date.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

The Beatles: The Beatles [White Album] 50th Anniversary Super Deluxe (1968)


(Apple 2018)

RECOMMENDED

Unless you count a few extra acoustic strums on "A Day in the Life" and various video tidbits, no "new" Beatles music of any significance appeared legally between 1970 and 1994, at which point there was an outpouring in the form of Live at the BBC and the three Anthology albums plus their attendant CD singles. We had bootlegs, of course, with all the caveats of quality, inconsequentiality and dubious origin thereby implied. But according to those who would know, Anthology was meant to be the cap on the story; the barrel had been scraped, the lid was back on and never to be removed again. Afterward we received bits and pieces; Let It Be Naked boasted about one and a half performances new to disc and Beatles Rock Band a few fragments mostly of dialogue, while in the meantime, discarding the sudden appearance of a strange version of "Yellow Submarine" in the early 2000s, several Sgt. Pepper multitracks in 2007, and various bits and pieces of horribly recorded but rare live shows, even the unofficial well had dried up sufficiently that the 2009 discovery and leak of a clean recording of take 20 of "Revolution" -- previously audible in the background of Yoko's tape-recorded rants and musings -- was not merely the stuff of hardcore fan discussion but made actual headlines.

That sea change in the way the Beatles' music has been processed and appreciated probably plays a role in how their catalog has been treated since 2013. For all the scattered and mostly absurd talk about whether their "legacy" will survive the dying off of their original fanbase (as a millennial silent film buff who knows people ten years younger than me with crushes on Buster Keaton, I have to admit rolling my eyes a lot at this nearly psychotic overprotection of cultural totems), Beatles ephemera is now hallowed ground as their work has come to be seen as major art of the twentieth century if not the legendary soundtrack, with built-in criticism, to a stymied but full-hearted revolution. You could argue on one hand that transferring Beatles appreciation to college classes robs the whole enterprise of much of its point, and much of its freshness, but you can't really blame people: sometimes you're faced with something truly undeniable, and the Beatles have been that thing now for half a century, and their constant presence in Our World is unlikely to fade even as we lose the men themselves. (We've already lost, in the past twelve years alone, so many in their periphery: Neil Aspinall, George Martin, Geoff Emerick, Cilla Black, Allan Williams; hell, Alex Mardas!)

At some point in the mid-2010s, with the help of George Martin's son Giles and Apple's new president Jeff Jones among others, Apple Records finally caught up with this perception and began to venture out with the kind of archival releases they once claimed would never happen. Bootleg Recordings 1963, while a modest and barely publicized release, presented a fascinating and surprisingly complete portrait of the early Beatles in sparkling quality. On Air brought the raw rock & roll of their BBC sessions back to the foreground. Sgt. Pepper got its lavish boxed set at last and treated diehards to the meticulous deconstruction they'd yearned for ever since the Beach Boys' records started getting such scholarly dedication in the '90s.

But none of this quite stood up to the Super Deluxe edition of the White Album, issued to mark that watershed record's fiftieth anniversary in 2018. The Beatles' label had thus far mostly been doing more or less what had long been expected and demanded of them: everything on streaming services, check. Mono records finally on CD and (maddeningly briefly) vinyl, check. Hollywood Bowl back in the marketplace, check. The Christmas records commercially released for the first time, albeit in appropriately small quantities, check. And Pepper with a remix and a modicum of interesting session material, check. But in the case of this White Album release, suddenly the crew got generous. This is a six-disc collection, and if you don't count the audio Blu-ray that includes the uncompressed mono mix, it's devoted almost exclusively to material that has never been released before: a full remix of the original album itself, the beloved Esher demo tape in its entirety, and then three full discs of outtakes, almost none of which has ever been heard even by hardcore bootleg collectors. And unlike Pepper, this record wasn't recorded piecemeal, so these are real and complete performances. In other words, this is easily the largest collection of "new" Beatles music we've ever gotten at one time. Having lived through the Anthology releases and waited for each of them excitedly, I can verify that there quite simply was never a more exciting time to be a fan than the White Album reissue campaign, short of being there for Beatlemania itself.

Like his Pepper remix, Giles Martin's revised take on the stereo White Album caught lots of flack among some fans, especially the sort of older grouches who are very uptight about the fact that the U.S. Albums box didn't incorporate all the old "fake stereo" mixes. I know the White Album like the back of my hand and to my mind, the remix is excellent and stunningly immersive (listen to "Dear Prudence"): it's respectful and detailed and underlines the record's brilliance as an eclectic cycle of ideas, a documentary about a band that can perform and enrich any kind of music it dreams up. The only gaffe is "Long, Long, Long," which is made too loud and upfront here; and it's slightly disappointing that we didn't get a truly batshit new take on "Revolution 9," obviously a very difficult track to remix, though I understand it's quite a trip in 5.1. (I'm sadly not equipped to check.) I don't understand the protests to the new mix, especially because on the many occasions in which I pulled up this version to consult while working on this review, I don't think I successfully accessed it on Spotify a single time without first accidentally reaching the standard version. If you're seriously worried about this, please go to bed.

Following this subtle reimagining of the Beatles' best album, the third disc offers what was formerly more than likely the best Beatles bootleg, and certainly the most historically significant aside from Get Back. Sampled heavily on Anthology 3, the May 1968 Esher demos long served as a whole lost Beatles album of sorts, recorded at George's house and comprised of acoustic performances of the songs (mostly written in India) that would eventually comprise the White Album as well as a few that would appear on Abbey Road and some eventual solo albums. These are more than simple runthroughs thanks to the presence of subtle overdubbing, stereophonic sound and multiple takes. To us as listeners, they provide spare beauty as a listening experience as well as a fascinating alternative interpretation of now-intimately familiar classic songs. In the same way that George's solo acoustic versions of "Something" and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" completely twist around our emotional responses to those touchstones, these demos reveal the infinite possibilities that surrounded almost all of the music the Beatles were writing during this period, together and (mostly) separately.

In other words, these songs are astoundingly durable, which is made more impressive by the audibly off-the-cuff nature of the recordings; they know no one's listening, and yet they're still this good, which is horrifying for us mere mortals. The highlights are innumerable. Thankfully, this disc covers all of the songs that were brought out at the sessions so we can hear early stages of their progression. (A couple of tracks are lifted from different takes than the old bootlegs of the Esher demos, but the differences are mostly minor, and the recording quality is a quantum leap above what we previously had.) John Lennon has the most trouble taking the scenario seriously, as you will note when the otherwise ethereal "Dear Prudence" bursts into a spoken-word explanation of how Prudence Farrow went "completely berserk under the care of Maharishi," or when he's unable to hold to any serious pose during Paul's beautiful rendition of "Junk," which otherwise sounds better here than it would on his solo debut McCartney. But he does rein it in eventually, and this does sound overall like a group recording rather than a series of individual solo ballads.

Paul is the consummate professional, of course; "Blackbird" is almost identical to the studio version -- though, to be fair, so is "Julia," double tracking and all. More intriguing, though, are the songs that actually achieve emotional depth that the masters don't. "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" and "Bungalow Bill" gain a lot from spontaneity, "Honey Pie" from being straightforward and not such a throwback, "Rocky Raccoon" from an unexpected sincerity; they're not so smarmy here, even though said smarminess would help the album find its identity as leaning heavily on burlesques of various musical genres. "Piggies" too is almost gentle in this guise, and "Yer Blues" -- again, seemingly before it was arrived at as a potential satire of blooze-rock -- sounds like completely straightfaced country blues as sung in an unadorned setting.

There are a lot of Harrisongs brought out to play on the demo tape; on top of the aforementioned we get a stark rendition of "Sour Milk Sea" and the creepy organ-driven "Circles," which -- almost as afterthoughts -- therefore become the first new Beatles "originals" released in over two decades. "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" has a busier riff at this point that would be wiped in the solo Abbey Road recordings then fussed with again for the record. "Not Guilty" also shows its face here before its ill-fated Abbey Road sessions, which would result in hours of unused takes that would go nowhere, as likely as not because of resentment and jealousy on the part of his bandmates; George didn't release the song until 1979.

Except for "Cry Baby Cry," "Julia" and "Revolution," John's songs do not seem quite as fully formed as Paul's, but less because of inefficiency than because he expects to complete them as a matter of course within the studio walls. (One exception, the lovely "Child of Nature," was never fully recorded by the Beatles and instead got rewritten brilliantly as "Jealous Guy," one of the finest ballads from his solo career.) "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" is a bare skeleton of its eventual final form, with only the "I need a fix" and "Mother Superior" sections already in place; interestingly, "I'm So Tired" at this stage embodies what would become the climax of "Warm Gun" plus a bridge that sounds like John's humorous spoken interlude on the old 1960 home recording "You'll Be Mine." And "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey" is little more than a chant. All that said, "Revolution" may be the best of the demos and improbably offers us a third distinct version of a song that one wouldn't necessarily think of as quite so malleable; actually, its spirit may be somewhat incongruous with its lyric, a tension Lennon would experiment with unsuccessfully on Some Time in New York City. It's a bouncy delight all the same, a sort of campire version of the song that in-the-know fans have long treasured.

Across the remaining three discs, there is very little that has been booted; in fact, a fun side effect of the Super Deluxe set is that it doesn't even actually render the underground Purple Chick twelve-disc collection of White Album odds and ends remotely obsolete. There's been a lot of talk about how this set presents the White Album sessions in such a good light, as if it was all fun and sunshine when we know for a fact that tensions were mounting (largely, not entirely, due to external pressures growing out of the band's founding of Apple) and there was open hostility between the band members and further open hostility directed outward toward the EMI crew. (Geoff Emerick quit working with the Beatles altogether during the sessions.) Really, the outtakes -- which, remember, can't possibly reveal everything that was happening -- serve to fairly counterbalance the conventional wisdom about the White Album's origins, and maybe it swings too far in the other direction. But what the new-to-us material proves beyond a shadow of a doubt is how fucking great the Beatles were, even at "rest."

The session material is offered up basically in chronological order, as indicated by the fact that it doesn't flow particularly well. I would divide it all roughly equally into "good," "essential/interesting," and "superfluous/redundant." Not surprisingly, there's almost nothing I'd call bad, and the only potential exception is an off-the-cuff jam so I'm really not casting shade at the Beatles but rather the compilers in that case.

We'll start with the good stuff. "Revolution 1," which kicked off the sessions, begins the story; fans demanded the now-legendary take 20, which leaked out to the internet in 2009 and is a truly remarkable recording providing an account once and for all of how the track devolved into the nightmarish "Revolution 9," but instead they got the slightly earlier take 18 which is missing a few backing vocals and some other interesting experimental elements. The essence is here though, and so are John's immortally creepy repetitions of "it's gonna be alll riiiight," a sentiment it was never more difficult to believe, and this performance makes us doubt he does either. This is the Beatles' adventurousness and eclecticism in ten-minute microcosm.

Ringo appears on the microphone soon afterward for "Good Night," which improbably offers some of the biggest surprises on the entire set; in addition to Ringo's charming foul-ups on the vocal ("Daddy went a bit crazy!") there are variants that exhibit it as a much prettier, more delicate song than, once again, John and George Martin's deliberately over-the-top Hollywood treatment on the LP. Take 10 has a lovely guitar bit and improbably lovely vocal harmonies -- all this is likely to really turn around many opinions of this song, which always gained much of its meaning and importance strictly from its placement on the record. (Take 22 is the same one from Anthology 3 but now unedited, and with a good perspective offered on everyone's participation.)

Of the many moments of brilliant band interplay across this compilation, the highlight might be the instrumental backing track of "Me and My Monkey," which reveals the song underneath the bells and screaming as an incredibly propulsive piece of prototypical New Wave. Second to that is the legendary twelve-minute "Helter Skelter" (this arrangement is said to have stretched to twenty-seven minutes in one performance), which seems like indulgent wankery at first but really soars as an extremely tense slow burn and a fine jam, if you're attuned to it; it's made sublime by the Neil Young-like guitar trickery and, especially, Paul's killer vocal performance, which is electrifying every time he hits his guttural peak on the chorus.

There are moments that allow even those of us who count this as our favorite Beatles album to mourn the sweeter, less sardonic record we now find hiding in these songs. Not that "Martha My Dear" is a bitter song at all on the White Album, but it's calmer and sweeter here sans production adornments and general busyness. Before a wonderful alternate take of "Long Long Long" that has George's vocal more intimate and direct and is derailed only by some dicking around on his part during the bridge, he conjures up memories of the band's gentle welcoming of Donovan this same year: "here we go lads," he says. "We're not really what we make out to be." Of course the sweetness doesn't hide on "I Will" -- one of the most sincere and lovely moments in the band's catalog -- but in the spirited, stripped-down session that produced it, with Paul, John and Ringo in high spirits, we get a glimpse at the mood and cooperation that was possible when they still worked at it, giggling even at the lamest of Paul jokes. (Emerick once said that one, two or three Beatles was a dream scenario, but as soon as all four were in the room starting in late 1967, the tensions became unbearable.) Paul slips at one point into an ancillary "Blue Moon," his voice heavenly right up to the point where he fucks it up. And we can also mourn the album Get Back/Let It Be could have been if they'd really been able to commit themselves to the original idea behind it, which was never more arrestingly captured than on a blistering version of Elvis' "(You're So Square) Baby I Don't Care" that's so energetic and vicious you absolutely yearn for it to go on longer than a minute.

In contrast to Paul and George, John's songs seemed always to be still finding their place and essence by the time during the Beatles' studio time, but the evolutionary process demonstrated here -- as usual -- produces some incredible abandoned notions and works-in-progress along the way. There's a great "Revolution" rehearsal resembling the demo; "Cry, Baby, Cry" acquires extra, human character in this performance, which leans into a ponderous bluesiness and a loose feeling replete with John fumbling the lyrics (there's a "seance... for a seance"). "Dear Prudence" is the master stripped to just singing, drums, guitar and a bit of piano, with no bass or production sheen, and it remains a breathtaking performance; it's truly amazing to hear John's vocal in relative isolation.

As contemporary as a lot of the White Album still sounds, the Beatles and especially John periodically stumbled during the sessions on some remarkably innovative sounds, many of which have remained in the Abbey Road vaults all these years. "Glass Onion" is just a backing track with guide vocal, but that muddle of motivations gives it a very contemporary, "college rock" feeling. Take 19 of "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" sounds like Lennon entering Lou Reed territory through very rough, contemplative singing that changes the whole character of the song and gives it a mournful quality entirely missing from the master, along with the harder-rocking abrasiveness, no longer hidden behind the vocals, in the instrumentation. "I'm So Tired" is rawer and looser here -- listen for some engagingly warm communications between John and Paul -- and one remarkable take adds answering guitar and backing vocals, plus, well, a bit more of John's fake drunk chatter that was mistaken for him mumbling "miss him, miss him" in regard to the supposedly deceased Paul McCartney. (There is an outtake on bootlegs with further embellishment that's quite odd and unsettling and I wouldn't have minded hearing it in better quality.) Finally, "Across the Universe" is heard here in its sixth take -- halfway between the second take from Anthology 2 and the two masters -- and it's not as lovely as take 2 but still better than either of the "official" versions or even the long-abandoned mono would-be single mix.

All that by itself would make this set worth the purchase for enthusiasts, but there's even more, although what follows is unlikely to really capture the interest of casual fans; the above would all be worthwhile listening for just about anyone, but here is where things get a little more intricate and where a number of readers will start skimming.

Again, part of the purpose of this session material is less to offer impeccable new music than to present the case that we've interpreted the Beatles' White Album era all wrong. Now that the two surviving Beatles and most others involved are in their twilight years, they seem to want to present a redemption narrative; and of course, given what we're allowed to hear in this context, there's obviously truth in it. The Beatles are depicted as cooperative and interested in improving things, and a lot of these moments also have a nice, humanizing effect on people we're tempted to see at this point as sort of distant and godlike. For example: during the representative sample of the long "Blackbird" session (which you can hear a lot more of on bootlegs), you get Paul speculating on "which voice" he should use; or there's George humming "Getting Better" just before an unrelated session; and John, ever the showman, requesting that the others "feel it" when they get started on "Sexy Sadie." Or best of all, George Martin informing Paul after a few runthroughs of "Mother Nature's Son" that there were "a couple of nice ones, and a lot of ones where you fucked up." Cheeky bitch, indeed!

Lots of outtakes here are either mostly interesting in a historical sense or are less than radical variants obviously placed to represent songs that didn't need a lot of "working out" at EMI. Take "Sadie," which is heavier on drums and has dryer instrumentation but is identifiably mere steps away from the canon. An alternate take of the Clapton-soaked arrangement of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" breaks down because of George's vocal when he, in his words "tried to do a Smokey and I just aren't Smokey" but it's close to fully realized as it exists on the album. "Helter Skelter" gets a solid, almost-there performance and boasts some clips of Paul having fun with the vocal slapback. The unedited mix of "Yer Blues" with the guide vocal throughout -- so that the whole song sounds like the end of the master, on which John's vocal eerily seems to continue from a considerable distance, a moment I always loved even though it was evidently a mistake -- is the kind of archival curiosity that would never have made an official release twenty years ago, but it's fascinating to hear the mild secrets it unfolds: the lyrics being unfinished at this stage, some extra guitar that later got mixed out, and the ending proceeding without the intentionally jarring edit on the master, a longer jam in its place. And "Julia," which was already quite polished at Esher, is here in a brighter, strummed variation featuring nice interplay between John and George Martin. We also receive proof at last that the orchestral extract "A Beginning," rumored to have been tossed onto Anthology 3 to give George Martin a piece of the pie on songwriting royalties, really was once intended as an intro to "Don't Pass Me By," where it doesn't work at all. It's the same performance as the master with faders up so there's fiddle all over it, weird prominent bassline, and Ringo's spoken portion which provides its working title "This Is Some Friendly."

Among the more intriguing departures, there's probably nothing that will strike anyone as much as the wilder excursions on Anthology 3. The acoustic "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" reappears, as if even the Beatles themselves now realize it's the only proper way to hear this song, now with harmonium. There's another very raw early attempt at "Hey Jude" with Paul's inspirational sentiment "unnnnngh unnngh unnngh ungh-ungh-ungh-unnnngh." Along similar lines Paul leads the band through an extract of "St. Louis Blues," and I like this kinda hot kinda music but it's pretty innocuous. Paul's pretty modest on the alternate "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?" but it's pretty much identical in its approach to the outtake from Anthology. And in John's corner, we get a sloppy "What's the New Mary Jane" on which he's far too impressed with the humor of his own lyrics (it sounds like something off one of the later Christmas flexis here, and I love the more complete version issued before) plus a mostly acoustic "The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill," which has a bit of peaceful back-and-forth among the band, producer and Yoko Ono, likely included just to prove such a thing was possible.

When the tracklist for this release slipped out onto the web, fans were most psyched up about the inclusion of a 1968 version of "Let It Be," dating from earlier than anyone knew it had been attempted. It's extremely rough around the edges but quite a privilege to hear, coming off as more of a rock song -- really, just a jam -- and featuring the "brother Malcolm" (referring to Mal Evans) lyric in lieu of "mother Mary." This too feels like something that would've been rejected from Anthology and dismissed as slight if it had somehow made it, but now it feels like a modest revelation, though it's not likely to become a regular part of most fans' Beatles repertoire.

Elsewhere, Martin and the gang do a bit of housecleaning on this deluxe set, for which I'm quite grateful; they offer up cleaner mixes of the previously released alternate version of "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" (which, when it was scrapped and remade, became the first unreleased Beatles track to use session musicians) and the outtake "Not Guilty," whose exclusion from the White Album never did make sense in the first place. Both songs sound better and fresher without the echo-laden rechanneling done for the aborted Sessions album that made it onto Anthology 3. Surprisingly, one of the few other moments of anything like overlap with that release is "Rocky Raccoon," and that's a case in which the alternate take is no longer edited, now featuring a lost coda with further extemporaneous lyrics from Paul; that they're pretty desperate -- Paul could be funny, but not on the spot like John -- doesn't detract too much from the chance to hear a complete performance finally.

Lastly there are some items that, in my heart of hearts, I don't think we really needed... and it's this that keeps me from thoroughly recommending this package to casual fans despite the presence of maybe two discs of splendid material out of four. I've never felt that "track-only" mixes of Beatles songs were particularly revelatory; there are exceptions, but most of these are not -- they are occasionally interesting ("Back in the U.S.S.R." heard at the original speed with George muttering along, the single version of "Revolution" showing off its searing velocity, "Birthday" showing off a chiming character we didn't know it had, and "The Inner Light," included prior to this on a Harrison compilation, offering a rare portrait of George as gifted arranger) but feel too much like filler on a release that hardly needed it. Also: from one of the many moments of idle tomfoolery of the "I Will" session comes the off-the-cuff medley "Step Inside Love"/"Los Paranoias," heavily edited on Anthology and now presented in painstakingly complete form -- unfortunately, "Los Paranoias" is insufferable, already bad enough on the old release and here staking a claim now that it goes on for fucking ever as perhaps the lamest thing the band has ever actually released. Speaking of "goes on forever," while I understand being curious about "Can You Take Me Back?", the semi-song by Paul that joins "Cry Baby Cry" and "Revolution 9" together on the LP as a thirty-second fragment, we really are given nothing new by its full 2:22 expanse because it's so painfully repetitive and obviously wasn't intended for release at full length.

Still... now we've heard it, I suppose, and I certainly don't want to discourage Apple from doing just what we've long wanted them to do: dump out the archives. I'm extremely pleased with this set and the way it was done, which I think is totally correct and commendable. My only point is that this isn't exactly a Beatles record you'd ideally throw on at a party, it's really something for the true believers to pore over. With that in mind, I had a bit of a giddy moment when traversing through this the first time and making it to the "Lady Madonna" sessions (which don't seem to properly belong, but oh well) only to find that holy shit, people, the Marmite exchange made it to an official release!. I wanted to call everyone I knew and tell them, even though it was 3am and almost none of them would know what on earth I was talking about. A month before this deluxe collection hit the stores and the streaming services, I described the Marmite conversation in my review of the bootleg Magical Mystery Year as follows:

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. [...] 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.

Now, none of that is quite true anymore, and I kind of love that: as of 2018, you can pull up the Beatles' Marmite debate on your streaming service of choice right now, anytime and anywhere you want, in perpetuity; once a calling card of obsessive fandom, it's now part of an officially licensed piece of Apple Records product. The whole world will hear Ringo mumbling "I don't like Marmite" just as in 1994 they thrilled at him announcing that he "like[s] grapes." This weird quirk we all grew so familiar with in our sequestered private worlds isn't so private anymore, even if it's really just a graduation of visibility from frighteningly devoted obsessives to slightly less fanatical obsessives. The world is coming around to our point of view, ladies and gentlemen; soon maybe they'll even put out a limited chrome cassette copy of the Rumitape. It's history, folks, and you just never know.

Friday, July 19, 2019

My body and me, we're just two wild and crazy guys: June 2019 music diary

Things I want to comment on but can't because I'm fucking drowning in stuff (not just music and not just fun) right now: Beyoncé's concert film Homecoming; the massive Radiohead leak of OK Computer sessions followed by the brief official release of same; Prince's Originals, which I've heard bits and pieces of via unauthorized releases like The Work but is of course massively upgraded here; and the expanded repackage of clipping.'s face, which I'll try to take on via Backmasking eventually.

Amyl and the Sniffers (ATO) [r]
Australian throwback punk with touches of ‘70s glam, this is bang on like Sheer Mag down under and boasts shouting, spirited delivery on the part of lead singer Amy Taylor. Gacked on anger, stressed on tick, go fuck yourself. The memorable riffs peak on “Angel,” which is too-brutal melodic pop, and “Monsoon Rock” which is fucking lit; the energy flags later, but not always unenjoyably, with “Got You” credibly frontlining some Deb Harry speak-singing.

Cate Le Bon: Reward (Mexican Summer) [r]
Le Bon, a Welsh singer-songwriter now well established as a leading light of this era of indie folk, is less controlled and therefore, I think, better than oft-named peer St. Vincent — she means to prove less with the phrasing intricacy and smallness of her arrangements. That I don’t especially enjoy her vocal delivery is my affair; these are hypnotic songs that register themselves fully with you even after one exposure. “Daylight Matters,” “Home to You” and the Annie Lennox-ish “Mother’s Mother’s Magazines” all are intimate and driving, lovely in their fashion, in a way that seems confident and unaffected, and for all its repetitiveness “Sad Nudes” drives deep into its groove. A record you could probably get lost in if you needed to, and more generous than usual from the modern-day crop of singer-songwriters.

Mavis Staples: We Get By (Anti-)
Ben Harper produces this time and gets a nice pillowy, minimal sound out of the musicians while Staples commands the stage as ably as ever, though only the first few songs (“Change” and “Anytime” especially) are rousing enough to be memorable.

Flying Lotus: Flamagra (Warp) [r]
Certain things about this record are monumentally fun, not least of them being the usual obviousness that FlyLo is having the time of his life screwing around with archival sound, random noises and provocative guest stars. He is on a bit of a mondo-lounge space age Beautiful Music kick, and even more of an 8-bit video game kick, and this sometimes feels like the Avalanches but scarier. It's a tad too much at over an hour of material, though, especially once it passes the tipping point from surreal meditation to outright noodling. Moreover, it's the kind of record whose peaks knock it off-balance; when the melody kicks in through the Anderson .Paak vessel on "More," when Denzel Curry contributes his fury to an Afrofuturistic Mancini soundscape on "Black Balloons," or when George Clinton proves to Lotus he can still find new ways to unnerve a complacent audience after all these years on "Burning Down the House," when "The Climb" evokes Kaki King via Thundercat, it makes harmless goofiness like the Tierra Wack cameo "Yellow Belly" ("condoms, we got a problem") seem trivial. Still, nothing here errs badly, with distorted earworms aplenty and no shortage of invention. And there's even a Smile homage.

Denzel Curry: ZUU (Loma Vista) [hr]
As unapologetically regressive at times as it is boldly confrontational, Curry's fourth album is a radical shifting of gears from the Floridian rapper's previously broad, semi-abstract aggression in favor of a launching into full-on early 2000s party rap, only with his quick and sharp bars intact. The production, dominated by the Australian collective FnZ, frontlines four-on-the-floor bass and beats with filthy grooves that sidle up to Curry's classic flow with tracks and hooks that are often so unapologetically pop it's almost silly, while never coming across as anything less than incredibly hard-hitting. You might hear better hip hop records this year (Little Simz, Tyler, Loyle Carner), but you won't hear any that bring it so ferciously and immediately, and no less than nonstop at 29:02. Every major cut is a pleasure, and even "Yoo" isn't the lamest skit you've heard by a mile. "Wish" is a big T.I. throwback with a saxophone; "Ricky" is bonkers club music; "Birdz" has Rick Ross wild and wailing; "Carolmart" is dumb and good; and "Shake 88" boasts an Ice Cube-cribbing hook so disgusting it actively itches.

Kate Tempest: The Book of Traps and Lessons (Columbia) [c]
Since 2014 I've been complaining about certain outlets that won't be named maliciously excluding Kate Tempest from rundowns of major artists in modern hip hop; there's been a suspicious resistance to naming Tempest as a rapper, which is a characterization no sane person up to and including Chuck D would doubt or question, instead bizarrely labeling her first two, highly beat-driven records as "spoken word" and continually preceding her name with "author" or "poet," which are true but not the whole truth and not of prime interest to a music publication. (Bob Dylan is an author and poet for chrissake.) That she's white and British is neither here nor there, as none of these same gatekeepers have any issue classifying the Streets or Sleaford Mods as rap; that she's a woman and a lesbian, well, that's another column, but let's just say it felt mighty interesting to read a whole summer's worth of handwringing thinkpieces about Pwr Bttm from "most trusted" journalists who refused to so much as acknowledge that Let Them Eat Chaos was a piece of music. Meanwhile, I've also gotten sick and tired of defending the erudite, brilliant wordsmith Tempest from accusations she was an empty didact whose work was preachy and superficial; the criticism seemingly stemmed from a misreading of tracks like "Europe Is Lost," which is the paranoid rant of an unreliable narrator, and "Tunnel Vision," a summing-up of Tempest's own socialist outlook, as wholly representative of her skill set. (In case you're unaware, she wrote a novel called The Bricks That Built the Houses that's full of cutting prose, vivid characterizations and detail and is as achingly moving as any modern fiction I've read.) So look, in advance, I forgive her as I would any gifted person who moves on with their lives from catering to my own wheelhouse, but I have to admit to you it stings a bit that on her major label debut (although: props in the sense that this is by far the least commercial album she's made), with Rick Rubin of all people in tow, she has recorded what is unmistakably a spoken word album that bears no resemblance -- in beats or vocal patterns -- to hip hop or, frankly, to music; and she spends it essentially yelling at us, with a brief break on the audibly personal "Firesmoke," which not coincidentally is the only inclusion worth hearing more than once. She owes me nothing, obviously, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't kinda feel like an idiot.

Bill Callahan: Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest (Drag City)
You already know my general opinion I'm sure, but since I was flippant last time: Callahan is the 53 year-old icon of home recorded alt-folk who by this point, despite his every word being anxiously awaited in certain quarters, really just coasts on atmosphere and goodwill. His approach to songwriting is remarkably pragmatic: the better and more awake his guitar playing is, the less attention he pays to melody, to singing, or to worthwhile lyrics (which, overall, are the weak point here). While mostly spare, the new record's shapeless and delicate songs occasionally flirt with a more layered and even exotic sound. He writes about how good it is to be writing again. He rhymes "747" with "Heaven." He changes things up a little by inviting backing vocalists into the studio for "Lonesome Valley," which is a welcome distraction that makes it feel like a complete song. Still, taken together the whole thing isn't totally absent of grace and generosity, especially compared to total washouts like Mt. Eerie and Hamell on Trial. Inspirational Sentiment*: "I got married / to my wife."

* r.i.p. Expert Witness/Consumer Guide

Polo G: Die a Legend (Columbia)
Hyped Chicago rapper of the moment is pretty generic I'm afraid, though -- while his flow is awkward and technically lacking, stumbling over the beat on "Dyin Breed" -- he gets points for nonstop speed even as he cops too many tricks and phrases from other MCs. The tracks produced by Ayo are awash in an admirable bleakness while Polo lets it falter into something that ultimately feels surprisingly maudlin, though it's fairly relaxing party music if you keep one eye shut, and with Serious Themes! As a 20 year-old on a major label -- and good for him -- he has reason to feel skeptical of the people who are telling him he's a wunderkind of some sort, and maybe if he outlives their obsequiousness he'll come up with some sort of distinctive identity.

Black Midi: Schlagenheim (Rough Trade) [NO]
Boy this sucks. (I have a foot out the door, can you tell?)

Titus Andronicus: An Obelisk (Merge) [r]
The T-A fan who is a punk purist will be happier with this economical album than with any they've done since the underrated Local Business; but does such a T-A fan exist!? I would think that most of us by this point are fine with Patrick Stickles' attacks of humorous insecurity, best represented here by the dumb and delightful blooze rock parody "My Body and Me." The rest finds him in people pleasing mode, and the results are frequently inspired if just as frequently repetitive or familiar, with both results periodically colliding on single tracks like the power pop "Hey Ma" that throws in a Monitor-style bagpipe solo at the end. There's a run of songs that barely run a minute and have the barren thrash-with-wisdom strength and muscle of Sorry Ma-era Replacements. "Within the Gravitation" is longer only because, like "Pink Flag" or something, it eventually wanders into a sort of sneaky minimal post-punk interlude. But for me this works best at its most off-the-cuff, even if it's a distinctly different (and notably less friendly and weird) kind of off-the-cuff than A Productice Cough, which I still think is one of the most unabashedly "fun" albums of the last ten years -- you could do far worse for your anthemtic punk fix than "Just Like Ringing a Bell," "(I Blame) Society" (which would be "the single" in a different era) and "Tumult Around the World" (which cops a riff from a Supremes hit) -- the latter two of which boast a James Brown-like penchant for catchy sloganeering -- or for heavy filthy riffs than "Troubleman Reunited." It's just, you know, none of it is surprising exactly -- except "The Lion Inside," on which Stickles steps outside himself, sings credibly and feels it, and comes across like what he is: a true original, regardless of what he's doing at any given moment.

Hot Chip: A Bath Full of Ecstasy (Domino) [hr]
In a summer that's found me let down by a distressing number of old favorites who seem to have hit their sell-by dates at last, Hot Chip bring home the Andrew Bird award for completely and utterly blindsiding me with delight long after I begrudgingly wrote them off. With the addition of cutting edge producers Rodaidh McDonald and the late Philippe Zdar (who tragically died in a freak accident on the week this was released), this has a similar shot-in-the-arm feel to Pet Shop Boys' Electric, and quite frankly it often sounds like PSB, only more earnestly romantic than the older institution typically allows. Some of its best songs grew out of a gig working with Katy Perry, and it's perhaps for this reason -- the pressure and excitement of working for an outside artist -- that the record has an energy and playfulness that's been mostly lacking from the now-veteran band's last two records. This is handily their best since One Life Stand and returns to that record's full-fledged danceable kindness, a vibe they generate like no one else within their generation or any. The aptly titled "Melody of Love" immediately makes plain the record's alignment with classic pop, and your chief response is to note how good it feels to hear Alexis Taylor singing to you again, like a burst of fresh air in the midst of dystopia -- well, not even "like" that, pretty much literally that.

The songs take time to settle in but always make wise use of that time, and operate with a consistent nod toward readiness for the floor without disallowing the genuine eclecticism that once marked left-field choices like "Brothers" and "These Chains." A fine example is the Joe Goddard-led "Hungry Child," whose multiple disparate parts seem to magically click together when the beat comes in. "Spell," one of the Katy Perry outtakes, drifts with a ghostly, blissed-out sound familiar from the One Life Stand period but actually boasts more fully developed words and music than most of the very minimalist upbeat songs from that record; the chorus initially seems nondescript, but it's not done yet, and the whole thing takes a neat, vibrant shape whereby there's so much in it yet it never feels busy, which makes Arcade Fire's amateurish stabs at a similar fusion of dance pop with rock & roll redemption sound even dumber in retrospect. The real stunner from the Perry sessions, though, is "Echo," with a seemingly endless wash of hooks behind its PSB-like melody and tricky electronics. Elsewhere, we get the hedonistic nighttime sounds of "Positive," one of the most deeply felt Taylor vocals ever on "Why Does My Mind," a title track that sounds like what Father of the Bride should have sounded like, and broadly a whole lot of music that's consistently pleasing but also bright and modern. That the record closes out with the "I Feel Better" sequel "No God," delivered like a hymn, is some clue to the underlying seriousness of its mission; the record, as the band has pointed out, does not point to the club or to the music itself as an escape but rather as a symbol of coming together -- while making that sound wonderful, progressive and sexy. The world isn't necessarily watching Hot Chip anymore, but Hot Chip are still watching over us, and that makes them a treasure.

The Raconteurs: Help Us Stranger (Third Man) [c]
I really liked the White Stripes back in the 2000s but everything Jack White does now makes me increasingly terrified of what I'll find when I go back and listen to those records again. His other other band's first record in more than a decade runs weakly on classic rock fumes, owning the zeitgeist by sounding like Queen when it's not covering Donovan or shooting more logically for the Rolling Stones -- indeed, the least annoying song here is the Stones-like ballad "Somedays" until its coda when it amps up and turns into the damn Killers, one of the only 2000s radio bands whose hits could be as irritating as "Steady as She Goes." Good thing the lyrics break the monotony with sophisticated character development: "There's a man who lives up the block / and he doesn't even own a clock." Does anybody really know what time it is?

Leif: Loom Dream (Whities) [r]
Never expected this famous onetime teen idol, drunk driver, drug abuser and reality TV host would come back with some wicked minimal ambient soundscapes but, as the Pets.com dog once said, everyone deserves a second chance.

Injury Reserve (Loma Vista) [hr]
Almost comically amiable, extremely online rap trio from Arizona hedge their bets convincingly on fusing the classic sound of an old-fashioned MC crew (Stepa Groggs and Ritchie with a T), who complain about Instagram and can name every file sharing service they've ever used, with adventurous and bizarre production courtesy of third wheel Parker Corey, a certified weirdo whose total lack of deep knowledge of hip hop history is cleverly harnessed by the two rappers in order to render anarchy from wide-eyed cluelessness. It's true that guests like Freddie Gibbs, DRAM and Rico Nasty upstage everyone on the home team handily in technical terms, but that happens even to established legends ("Monster," anyone?), and the front-of-house duo has a good ear for hook-worthy phrases that comes out all over "Jailbreak the Tesla" and "Three Man Weave." Corey's broad, playful impulses would be too much if he were trying to sell them as a creation unto themselves, but they blend enjoyably with the crew's laid-back, sarcastic and occasionally even sentimental ("New Hawaii") style, the album's dichotomies striking enough that it never feels like a mere wavering outsider art version of Jurassic 5 (or "preachy ass niggas out here sounding like a TED talk") even if it has a similar universal agreeability. Indeed, its often inspiring wickedness stems from what feels like a lack of fear and a determination to embrace the stupid ("Gravy 'n' Biscuits," "Rap Song Tutorial," which has nothing on the Roots' rap video manual) and make it addictive. It's not clipping., but that it's far less satisfied with itself may finally be the source of its unusual, unexpected vitality.

***

ALSO RECOMMENDED:
Megan Thee Stallion: Fever (300) [ain't no dick alive that could make her lose her mind; "Cash Shit"/"Money Good"/"W.A.B."]
The Cranberries: In the End (BMG) [not as ominous as I feared, it's really nice to hear Dolores O'Riordan's voice one last time, and as usual she renders transcendence from songs that tend to be no more than passable]
L7: Scatter the Rats (Blackheart) [and as for my own '90s heroes, I wish them health and safety, but a lot of this is too on-the-nose and silly for me, while the dreaded vulnerability becomes them; "Stadium West"/"Holding Pattern"]
Kedr Livanskiy: Your Need (2MR) [weird and lovely and completely inscrutable, like a sensitive Prodigy]
Carly Rae Jepsen: Dedicated (Interscope) [slick and exciting, but feels longer than it is]

ALSO RECOMMENDED FOR THE AMBIENT FILES:
Ezra Collective: You Can't Steal My Joy (Enter the Jungle) [horns, jazz, vibes and apocalyptic L.A. chase scenes, plus Loyle Carner; "Shakara"/"What Am I to Do?"/"Red Whine"]
Laurence Pike: Holy Spring (The Leaf Label)
Tim Hecker: Anoyo (Kranky)

FURTHER INVESTIGATION TO COME:
* Peter Perrett: Humanworld
Lee "Scratch" Perry: Rainford
Sacred Paws: Run Around the Sun
Kevin Richard Martin: Sirens
Dylan LeBlanc: Renegade
Julia Shapiro: Perfect Version
Sarah Davachi: Pale Bloom
Bedouine: Bird Songs of a Killjoy

REJECTS:
[I don't know what the scientific explanation can possibly be, but I swear to christ that there is a glut of awful music at the end of every decade.]
Rosie Lowe: Yu
Mdou Moctar: Ilana (The Creator)
Kelsey Lu: Blood [NYIM]
SOAK: Grim Town
Haelos: Any Random Kindness
P!nk: Hurts 2B Human
Carlton Jumel Smith: 1634 Lexington Avenue
Olden Yolk: Living Theatre
Bruce Springsteen: Western Stars [NYIM]
Earth: Fall Upon Her Burning Lips
Black Mountain: Destroyer
Faye Webster: Atlanta Millionaires Club
Hayden Thorpe: Diviner
Duff McKagan: Tenderness
Richard Hawley: Further
Pip Blom: Boat [NYIM]
Stef Chura: Midnight [NYIM]
Palehound: Black Friday
Santana: Africa Speaks
Aurora: Step 2- A Different Kind of Human
Jonas Brothers: Happiness Begins
Jambinai: Onda
Jake Xerxes Fussell: Out of Sight
Plaid: Polymer [NYIM]
The Divine Comedy: Office Politics
Pixx: Small Mercies [NYIM]
Perry Farrell: Kind Heaven [NYIM]
Lukas Nelson & the Promise of the Real: Turn Off the News, Build a Garden
Psychedelic Porn Crumpets: And Now for the Whatchamacallit
Calexico / Iron & Wine: Years to Burn [NYIM]
Mattiel: Satis Factory [NYIM, but great title]
Madonna: Madame X
Los Coast: Samsara
Bad Breeding: Exiled
Buddy & Julie Miller: Breakdown on 20th Ave South
Fruit Bats: Gold Past Life
Willie Nelson: Ride Me Back Home
Hatchie: Keepsake
Bad Books: III [good grief this is dreadful]
Mark Ronson: Late Night Feelings [NYIM]
Two Door Cinema Club: False Alarm

ORPHAN TUNES
Rosie Lowe ft. Jay Electronica "The Way" [Yu]
Kelsey Lu "Due West" [Blood]
Haelos "Boy/Girl" [Any Random Kindness]

Friday, July 5, 2019

The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band- 50th Anniversary Super Deluxe (1967)


(Apple 2017)

Things got quiet at Apple after the 2013 copyright extension release Bootleg Recordings 1963; in contrast to the busy catalog excavations of other '60s artists, each year passed with no sign of any new glimpses into the Beatles' recorded but unheard legacy. Things got remixed and reissued, at times generously, but there was no invitation into the depths of the vaults with new material, booted or otherwise. Finally, in 2017, came a milestone that not even the most tight-lipped quality control stalwart enterprise in rock & roll could ignore: the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles' quintessential album, Summer of Love totem and onetime conventional-wisdom masterpiece, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Rumors about elaborate deluxe repackagings of the record had come and gone many times over the years, especially in the wake of the Beach Boys' game-changing boxed set The Pet Sounds Sessions, which proved the marketability and scholarly value of such investigations into the mechanics of a classic pop record. But the Beatles and their staff always tended to keep the reins tight on this sort of stuff -- every band member or widow wields veto power, which is why at this writing you haven't seen a reissue of the film Let It Be in almost forty years -- so it was another two decades before something actually happened.

To their credit, they did it right when the time came, and while there was no way that the Beatles' working methods (at least in this period) and relatively primitive recording techniques would ever have allowed for something as intricate and revelatory as The Pet Sounds Sessions, this first full-on deep dive into the pieces, parts, mechanics of a canon Beatles LP serves as a model for future releases of its kind. There were budget CD and lavish vinyl versions of the release, but the most complete edition was a four-disc collector's set formatted in a manner evocative of old bootlegs: two discs containing mixes of complete tracks, and two discs of session material. That last element made this the largest collection of "new" (meaning: not previously booted) Beatles material since the Anthology series. Unfortunately, this distinction is rather deceptive, as you learn once you sit and listen to the session CDs, but we'll come to that in a moment.

God knows why, since previously unheard Beatles session music seems like it should be considered a much bigger deal by any stretch, but much of the fanfare around this release centered on Giles Martin's new remix of the album and its associated single ("Strawberry Fields Forever"/"Penny Lane"), meant to bring the urgency of the mono version -- the band and George Martin's preferred mix -- into the realm of stereo and surround sound, and to subtly update the sound of these songs, giving them a hopefully more robust, "modern" feel. The results are tasteful and mostly well-done, and objectively may even be superior to the original 1967 stereo mix, though sentimentality toward the version most of us grew up with will prevent it from overtaking the old stereo album's place in the canon in the minds of most longtime fans. (Pointedly, the boxed set does not include the original stereo mix at all but does make room on disc four for the original mono releases of the album and both sides of the single; it sounds fine here as usual, with the new remaster placing a lot of emphasis on Paul's meticulously crafted bass parts.)

Still, there's no way to deny that the care taken here and the dynamics, clarity and stunning level of detail give the new mix a nicely rich, full quality that points up some general weaknesses of most of the Beatles' original stereo albums. Martin may be a bit too slavishly devoted to the decisions made in the old mono mix at times -- the presentation of "She's Leaving Home" in its faster speed being the best example -- but he rarely seems to arrive at a certain sound just to be different, or to trip up those who know the record well. His only noticeably bad choice is the dried-out intro to "Lovely Rita"; otherwise the mix stands up just as well as the 1967 versions, but don't tell that to certain hardcore fans who've been out for blood ever since the remix was even announced, much less released. If you actually have the energy to become upset about Giles Martin tweaking Beatles songs to make them sound slightly younger and meatier, perhaps it's time to track down some semblance of a life purpose beyond all this.

The remainder of the set -- in addition to a Blu-ray and DVD and book and all the rest -- is dedicated to two discs of sessions and outtakes, nearly all previously unreleased and mostly never heard on bootlegs either, totalling about 100 minutes. As noted, this seems more generous at first glance than it really is, but this isn't really the fault of the compilers. As Richie Unterberger has pointed out, this is probably the least interesting year of Beatles outtakes, in terms of their radical differences from the finished product; Sgt. Pepper was worked out and recorded piece by piece, so with the exception of "Strawberry Fields Forever," there are not really any "alternate versions" per se from this era -- the band just recorded a rhythm track and refined each song as they went. So instead of straight outtakes of the kind familiar from the Anthology CDs, these are more like works in progress. Apple has done very well to largely avoid overlap with Anthology and even skirts competition with boots for the most part, but nothing can really change the fact that none of this is nearly as fascinating as hearing totally different approaches to the Beatles' material, or Brian Wilson conducting rooms full of brilliant musicians while constructing his teenage fantasies, or Bob Dylan just playing and playing and playing and generating brilliance and a feeling of completeness with every performance.

The basic format is smart enough; with the exception of "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "A Day in the Life," we get one or two tracks devoted to listening in on each song from the record at various stages in their development. At best, this tends to be of primary curiosity to hardcore fans schooled in the minute details of Beatles tracks. It's nice to hear the backing tracks to "Penny Lane" and "Getting Better" (which, sans vocals, sounds like Deerhunter!) and even "She's Leaving Home," but actual drama is thin on the ground here. That said, the "Strawberry Fields Forever" cycle is truly glorious because, as we well know, that song did change radically from first take to last, and every step along the way is fascinating and beautiful in some fashion, with take 26 -- the fast version that was used to construct the second half of the single -- one of the greatest Beatles outtakes of all, and one of their most violently unpredictable forays into psychedelic rock. The moment when the cacophony that closes out the single starts pounding its way in without the respite of a temporary fade is unhinged in the best way; John Lennon's vocals -- across all of the versions of the song here -- are natural, impassioned, angelic. Plus, takes 4 and 26 will be entirely new to most fans who haven't dug deep for the bootlegs.

"A Day in the Life" gets the only other deep dive, with specific emphasis on the end of the song in addition to two proper takes; we get a window into that wildest of Beatles sessions on the night the orchestra was recorded, and the chance to hear them fumble their way through getting the final chord on tape, along with a weird attempt along the way at closing the thing out with a ghostly, Coltrane-like vocal hum. (The last disc throws in a complete early mix of the song with all of Mal Evans' creepily urgent count-down in the place of the later orchestral overdub. There is also a solid piece of ephemera in the form of "She's Leaving Home" with the full extra bars cello at several intervals intact. Unfortunately Apple botches one of the most interesting canonical alternate mixes from the period; the U.S. promo of "Penny Lane" with the extra trumpet ending makes the cut, but was clearly transferred from a scratchy record someone found, rather inexplicably.)

Otherwise, despite the logic of running everything in session order, this feels as slapdash as a bootleg; some of the songs, like "Fixing a Hole," differ only slightly from their released counterparts and feel like desperate inclusions (finally, "Lovely Rita" with a few overdubs missing). If you're familiar with Anthology 2, think of that rather sad version of "I Am the Walrus" that made the cut there and was really just the master without bells and whistles. It's never unenjoyable to hear a Beatles track in progress, but unless you're trying to get a very detailed sense of the order in which each song was put together, you're left mostly just missing the feel and finality of the masters themselves. More fun than the music, honestly, are the scattered windows into the Beatles' regular lives as of 1966-67 through unaltered studio interactions that flare up here and there. For recreational listening to Beatles performances with vocals recorded, guitars worked out and decisions made, this doesn't stand up to the Anthology albums, for all their flaws.

Still, my personal advocation would be that every minute of these sessions should be out there for people to hear if they so wish; at this point, the historical importance of all of the Beatles' sessions seems as obvious to me as that of Bob Dylan's or Miles Davis'. Apple's unlikely ever to go that far, so what we're left with feels a bit like a compromise that few listeners are likely to ever cotton to. But I hasten to add that it was exciting to, for the first time in a very long while, actually have "new" Beatles tracks to hear, and the context in which this set places them is more than ideal. Thankfully, the following year would bring an even more exciting release to which very few of these same criticisms apply. For the moment, fans of Sgt. Pepper will undoubtedly appreciate the deconstruction of the Beatles, George Martin and Geoff Emerick's finely tuned working methods circa '67, and the celebration of Pepper on this scale is obviously very long overdue. I suspect, however, that assuming "Carnival of Light" is as bad as Mark Lewisohn says, there really isn't much else to hear from this era, and therefore this box is as good as it could possibly be.