Thursday, August 22, 2019

Joanna Newsom: The Milk Eyed Mender (2004)

(Drag City)


Those with cynicism can view it as a California story through and through -- Joanna Newsom came up as the privileged offspring of two hippie-ish doctors who forbade her from most modern media and got her classically trained on the harp. She was a Waldorf student and went to college for composition, joined a band, then dropped out and drifted and, moving to ever more elaborate harp-based folk songs, recorded a couple of crudely formed but ambitious EPs that circulated among friends and colleagues and got her a deal with the renegade indie Drag City, who released this debut album; and at barely 22, playing songs she'd been working up since she was a teenager, she managed to make a cultural splash not just in folk but in indie rock circles and generally managed to quickly become rendered as a sort of lifestyle brand by those who understood, and (just as loudly) by those who didn't. What a story, the "special" reasserting their special-ness.

Except that the record is also, thanks in part to the practice runs of those two private CDRs, an instance of everything coming together -- musically, vocally, melodically, lyrically -- in the hands of a master, and I will not apologize for calling her one nor will I ever regret doing so, whose assurance comes from not just seemingly limitless technical capacity but from a degree of maturity that isn't frequently heard in the lyrics and music of those many times her age at the time. Hers is not an intellectual, stuffy music that conjures up thoughts of purist classical ambition or (at this stage) prog rock; it is, to its core, human and fragile -- but also uncommonly poetic and emotional in ways that mine a certain richness that calls back to the basest, purest feelings of ancient songform.

Much of it is her voice: an unorthodox, colorful instrument undaunted by its technical limitations, and rendering all of her early music incredibly distinctive by default. (While more nuanced and in some ways equally powerful today, her voice has inevitably taken on a different, less strident character since she undertook surgery on her vocal chords in the late 2000s.) Like few other singers of her generation, her evocative work as a vocalist fully reframes the ideas she carefully establishes in her writing; to even call it an acquired taste is missing the point, because like that of Bjork or Yoko Ono or even Bob Dylan, that voice is part and parcel with her storytelling craft. A version of "Bridges and Balloons" sung by an ordinary, conventional singer wouldn't make any sense, because it earns so much of its power and grace from every crack and harsh modulation Newsom generates, mutating and enhancing her own stunning melody. But her generosity and singularity as a performer asserts itself elsewhere as well, as it would continue to in the remainder of her output to come; it is the brand of music, like Dylan's or Leonard Cohen's, that invites the most personal kind of relationship, and is specifically fashioned both to immensely delight its creator and also to leave enough space for highly specialized deliverance for those who are invited into it.

The almost mystical experience conjured up by "Bridges and Balloons," one of many songs on this and future records to lean upon ocean imagery, is as heavily controlled by Newsom's very consciously naive, unchecked vocal articulation of Bridge to Terabithia childhood fantasies as it is by the artful, eloquent words themselves; years later it could still be her most instantly stirring and kind recording, suffused with longing and a strange variety of wisdom to emanate from such a young person whose early life had, by all outside indicators, been relatively sheltered. Yet that very conflict seems in some way to tell the full story: it is by looking outside herself into an unfamiliar, unexplored, nonexistent worlds that Newsom acquires the experience to tell her strange, cockeyed folktale, and to hopefully include us as "the ones to've seen."

For me personally, "Bridges and Balloons" was the introduction, back in the days when I discovered music by leaving browser windows from internet radio stations open, and like everyone else I immediately found the voice jarring and compelling -- it seemed that it could be as likely that of an old woman or a young child, and part of me was disinterested in finding out which. More importantly, I was haunted by its unashamed sense of genuine beauty -- which I believe is also one reason that The Milk Eyed Mender captured the indie rock zeitgeist at the time, the fatigue from years of disaffected sneering, by then co-opted by corporate labels with the Killers and such, giving way to material like this and Funeral that opened so-called "college music" up to heretofore uncool moments of unfettered expression. It also called to mind things like Elizabeth Cotten and the Carter Family, without really resembling either (although you should notice that a version of the British-to-Appalachian folk song "Three Little Babes" is buried on this album) except in the sense that they found such beauty in an ethereal, earthy conglomeration of music and pure sound that could feel almost accidental -- as though the songs could only come from the earth itself, devised by no human, but also couldn't possibly be part of the world we knew. And it additionally seemed infinitely, wistfully, desperately sad. The song is under four minutes, but there were whole universes contained in it: glee and passion, but regret and seclusion too.

The Milk Eyed Mender thus became for me (though not until sometime in 2008) what Noah Baumbach once remembered David Bowie's Let's Dance being for him: a record on which I initially couldn't even hear a single one of the songs apart from the first one. I just couldn't get over "Bridges and Balloons," as occasionally happens to me (most recently with "Cattails" by Big Thief, and concurrently at the time with "For the Widows in Paradise, for the Fatherless in Ypsilanti" by Sufjan Stevens), and played it until I all but knew it backwards, before I could even think to move along to the other songs; and no matter, they were there when I needed them.

Once I did make it to the second track, there was more reason yet for me to celebrate. "Sprout and the Bean" immediately reasserts how far this album pushes beyond folk music into its own stunning, cordoned-off variety of soul, even as the pure pleasure and beauty of Newsom's harp playing, the curling elegance of the rhythm and melody she has written for it, and the infinite nuance in her voice represent perfectly well the outgrowth of deep inspiration from minimalism. Like many of these songs, it exclusively features herself and her harp, though her voice is tracked several times on the chorus; and like just as many, it is purely mesmerizing. The songwriting is flawless, not just the perplexing but deeply troubling lyric -- full of white coats, miserable sleeps and danger -- that's interpreted by many fans as a predecessor to her more direct abortion song "Baby Birch," but in the rhythmic trickery of the voice's intricate meddling with the harp, with the drama extracted from each careful word, with the heart-stopping downward chord shift on the second verse an unlikely peak. And, of course, Newsom's unapologetic strain that betrays so much.

It felt at the time like this was some of the most private music I'd ever heard, like a true self-exorcism, right up to the sense that some of Newsom's words had a meaning that only she could possibly reach or comprehend; there were other singer-songwriters who had done this, but nearly all with more conventional instrumentation or less elaborate compositions that lent themselves almost naturally to a more communal experience. Yet simultaneously, Newsom's records have never had the distancing effect that "fussy" music from Scott Miller to King Crimson to Dirty Projectors tends toward, more like the curious, off-kilter intensity of Brian Wilson's work, which would create new populist excitements by finding new detours, would even create new instruments by merely combining them. What's more remarkable yet is how, like Wilson, Newsom seems to render all consciousness of her ingenuity moot, in favor of the sheer joy and warmth of listening -- that's what makes this pop music rather than an intellectual exercise.

And in turn, nearly all of these songs feel now like classics, and frankly did not take long to feel like that in the first place, certainly not to me; I suppose the joys of "Cassiopeia" (like many of these songs, a reprise from one of her CDR demos) are comparatively limited, and its lyric feels atypically slight, and that the best moment of the ghostly "Swansea" is its rabbit-friendly paean to chewing. Otherwise, from the quizzical and tough "Book of Right On," exploring the contradiction of dominance and submissiveness and thereby overflowing with sensuality, to the echo chambered, impeccably judged melody "Calm, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie" that contains yet another of Newsom's subtlest, most gorgeous hooks at the end of the verse, these are songs that operate at a level of shocking confidence and virtuosity, as shown by the pride and ease with which they now stand beside much of the material of three subsequent and increasingly grand albums by the now-veteran.

Confronted with something like the lullaby "Sadie," with total unfiltered vulnerability in its vocal and lyric about death and loss, you wonder -- much as you do when hearing the melody swell up on "Cosmia" from Ys -- how a person writes stuff this beautiful. How does a person write "And all that we built, and all that we breathed / And all that we spilt, or pulled up like weeds / Is piled up in back, and it burns irrevocably / And we spoke up in turns till the silence crept over me"? That is Cries and Whispers in a couple of seconds; that is bereavement, all too well-defined. Even at her earthiest and most playful, on the vaudevillian "Inflammatory Writ," she sings about a lack of creative confidence and you just have to laugh. It all has such a supernatural, overwhelming force. The arrangements, the recording, all that is simple -- would never be so simple again, in fact, starting with the recruitment of Van Dyke Parks for strings in 2006 -- and maybe that's the essence, that the closeness we feel to these songs is born of their intimacy, which also renders it impossible to deny their nearly magical, hypnotic pull.

"This Side of the Blue" is my favorite Joanna Newsom song; it saved my life sometime in 2009. That may be a slight exaggeration; I don't think I was that close to the brink -- but I still instinctively finding myself wanting to credit it, because the night it suddenly reached me felt very very important. Without having a close line-by-line understanding of its sly commentary on existentialism (Newsom dropped out of college; I didn't go in the first place), its basic point still got through and throttled me: its laughing over the sheer absurdity of reality while accepting its limitations and the limits that handicap every one of us in embracing the totality of our weird experience of life, the shrug in Newsom's voice when she announces that "it's all that you can do." It felt like it transcended day-to-day life while somehow processing, digesting, challenging every bit of it. Like the art for which I felt the most gratitude as a teenager, it penetrated an apathetic bubble and completely refocused me. I was inarticulate in the face of it, but deep down I knew what it was telling me. It is the kind of work, like a Hopper painting, that causes you to see the banalities of life altogether differently, or to approach the source of one's despair with a kind of philosophical fearlessness. The song felt smarter, braver than everything; and its relative modesty made it more so. ("'En Gallop" betrays a similar fixation upon acceptance -- in contrast to the later desperation to preserve and persevere on Divers, an album in which the fact of love is present over and above the wondering about it -- and also boasts one of Newsom's most beautiful pieces of rhythmic experimentation, but there's an odd sense that thanks to that extra flourishing, it can't quite compare.)

Newsom's albums always come fitted with handy climaxes, although this one may come slightly too early: "Peach, Plum, Pear" is perhaps the most immaculately constructed of all her creations in the sense of arrangement and recording, advancing leaps and bounds over her earlier, much more tentative demo of the same song; on 2002's Walnut Whales it's keyboard-driven and functions as a bit of a simpler (and rather amateurishly sung) distraction between two more elaborate compositions, but in its revised form -- with a hypnotic, high-pitched, cheerfully strange chord progression repeated endlessly on her harp, and with vocals audibly overcome with the very emotional openness carefully sidestepped on "This Side of the Blue" -- it is, for an artist to whom language remains so important, a recording that renders language nearly obsolete. You needn't study its witty, sharp, erotically suggestive and eventually quite raw lyric to uncover its yearning for a long-gone love affair, whose origins are clearer -- as they always are -- than its evolution and murky finish, despite the nursery-rhyme irony of the title and closing phrase. Every misplaced use of "childlike" or "elvish" or whatever else in armchair analyses by outsiders to Newsom's work disappears in any kind of relevance when presented with the enthusiastic pain and directness of every word she sings roughly from "I am blue / and unwell" onward; and to this day, her low, wounded, melodically heartbreaking reading of "you've changed / soooome" may be her greatest moment as a singer -- and for me, one of the most deeply touching moments in music of this century.

Beyond these rationalizations, The Milk Eyed Mender conjures up these memories -- as does all of Newsom's music, but none of it with this degree of built-in nostalgia and pining -- because it is designed to cultivate that kind of a rapport. It's extraordinary because nearly all of its tracks are rendered as simultaneously sophisticated, infinite in their depth of curiosity, and tremendously pleasurable and immediate in their impact; the sizable cottage industry of lyrical analysis that's sprung up around Newsom is amusing because, as with Bob Dylan or John Darnielle, it serves a worthy purpose while also kind of missing the point: that the cornucopia of words and music, the way these words are sung, tells us infinitely more than any annotation could. Newsom delivers her imagery as much through sound, voice, music as through her words, as fiercely provocative as those words can be. As a result The Milk Eyed Mender is mysterious and alluring but never distancing or pretentious; more importantly, to return to it is to experience a whole cycle of evocative thrills, with so much still yet to discover, so much life left for it to illuminate. As if I weren't already grateful enough.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

I gotta be there, I wanna do something: July 2019 music diary

Note #1: I will not be grading or reviewing Purple Mountains as I had planned to, because as an outsider to the Silver Jews and David Berman's work it strikes me as strictly gauche to conceive of attempting to put his final album into a capsule review-sized box which would inflict nothing of any significance upon the world in the context of an entire human life that touched a great number of people I personally know. Friends who have been impacted by Berman's death speak with the most moving sincerity of an artist whose work meant the world to them, and the sheer fact of that means more than anything anyone who approaches this with greater distance could possibly say. Moreover, the intimacy of Berman's rapport with people I like and/or love makes it impossible to approach this with the necessary neutrality anyway. Seeing someone greeted by much of the world with open arms but still in so much pain that he would make a move of such crushing finality, and knowing the intricacies and unknowable things that would be involved in such a decision (if it can even be classified as a decision, something of which I'm skeptical) just leaves me wanting to say nothing less trite than: if you are hurting, or grieving, please don't try to do it alone. No human heart can take it, even a weathered one.

Thom Yorke: ANIMA (XL) [r]
The first thing to say is how much better this is than the last Radiohead album, while also being much more of a piece with his day-job band's output (therefore more appealing) than any of Yorke's prior solo material save the surprisingly enjoyable Suspiria score. With nine songs in 47 minutes, it's not particularly discursive, and amounts to the most playful electro-pop Yorke has put his name on in a great many years, with a decent bit of synthetic jamming and few signs of the insanely worked-over pretentiousness of Radiohead's worst work, plus plenty of the lovingly off-the-cuff beauty of their best. The beautiful, disorienting "Dawn Chorus" is stargazing shit that would leave Brent DiCrescenzo drunk and stoned and babbling, while "Not the News" achieves enough of a narrative to evoke Yorke emerging from some sort of gorgeous ethereal murk. The record does meander some, serving more as good atmosphere than anything more or less than that, with little spikes of humor (a song called "I Am a Very Rude Person"; accounts differ) and menace ("this is when you know who your real friends are") but it's not easy to imagine a typical Radiohead fan failing to get a kick out of it all.

Freddie Gibbs & Madlib: Bandana (RCA) [r]
Gibbs races through this faster than Wile E. Coyote; "Freestyle Shit" and "Crime Pays" sound like fun thanks to the sensory-overload combination of Gibbs' gleefully amoral rhymes and Madlib's head-spinningly restless production. The latter track in particular ingeniously combines '70s quiet storm and lite jazz with the feeling of a pedestrian sitcom about day to day lives and coke dealing in the Midwest, or something. The only shit is that Madlib isn't really ahead of the pack anymore, he's mostly twisting knobs for his own (and Gibbs') benefit and not stretching anyone's ideas of what this music does. While the throwback is charming, it's also obviously regressive in a variety of ways (the stoner rap of "Cataracts" could've been on a Curren$y tape ten years ago), and the brightest spots toward the end are Anderson .Paak's Kendrick-infected verse on "Giannis" (not that Kendrick is New School either at this juncture) and the apocalyptic gigantism of "Education." It's a great night out, at any rate.

MIKE: Tears of Joy (10K)
Respectable and creatively restless but not the least bit entertaining, because MIKE simply doesn't have enough of a personality to carry its sonic ambitions. You have to be more than half-awake to be good at this kind of thing.

Rhye: Spirit (Loma Vista EP) [r]
An extra half-hour of the godly horniness that flows out of Mike Milosh and whoever's turning the cranks like so many obscene bodily fluids. I've heard it all before but I still love it to death.

Jesca Hoop: Stonechild (Memphis Industries) [r]
This Santa Rosa native was swept up in the late 2000s indie folk revival but is only now, at age 44, really getting her moment. Her voice doesn't seem as singular as it once did, content now to vacillate between a traditionalist singer-songwriter posture with a militantly twee, art-teacher quality and an occasional specific resemblance to Joanna Newsom. But the songs and the atmospheres are a great leap forward here, starting out spooky and ethereal but also utterly confident on "Free of the Feeling." At its loveliest ("Passage's End," the sweetly propulsive "Outside of Eden") it's fragile without becoming sentimental, and if not for Big Thief recording a whole album transcendently fusing haunting, desolate forest tones with tough-minded indie rock, "Footfall to the Path" would be the fake Appalachian folk song of the year.

Moodymann: Sinner (KDJ) [r]
Veteran Detroit DJ's latest fine batch of club digressions sometimes has the crate-digging enthusiasm of Donuts, sometimes sounds like a Deee-lite album, both highly agreeable ambitions.

Mannequin Pussy: Patience (Epitaph) [r]
Verbose, riff-heavy Philadelphia punks offer nothing you've never heard before, really, but nothing you'll be sorry to hear again.

The Flaming Lips: King's Mouth (Warner Bros.) [r]
Warner still lets these cats do whatever the hell they want, including this storybook concept thing with Mick Jones, of all people, in the Jack Rieley role and a lot of chilled-out soundscapes similar to the last LP. You won't listen to it much but you'll feel all right whenever you do, especially if you're not in any condition to drive. God bless them.

Maxo Kream: Brandon Banks (RCA) [r]
A Texan and a former Crip, which informs the hedonistic, harsh quality of his second album -- which, from our angle as rap consumers, is lovably chaotic and playful, engaging and lively in a way that can't help but evoke nostalgia for a carefree time when we were all watching cats threaten each other on TV; but regardless of thematics, don't underestimate what a rush it is to hear someone still totally high on the rhythmic thunder of his own voice, a hypnotic drive you can feel down to your core. Emekwanem Biosah's note of lyrical distinction is that he's reflective and brash in pretty equal measure (listen to "Bissonnet"), writing letters with a pen and telling comparing stories while indulging in violence as burlesque, violence as obligation to an audience, boasting "i ain't a fuckin' rapper I'm a fuckin' gravedigger." (Important note: that's rhymed with "masturbator.") Oddly, he falters the most when he attempts to combine these impulses into the Lou Reed-like sob story character sketch "Brenda," about a single mom mistreated by every man in the phone book whose life gets harder every day; inspirational sentiment: "Brenda been through a lot / now she sellin' her twat / she's a prostitute thot." A huge well of producers conglomerate into a mid-'90s mush ("Change" essentially is Bone-Thugs) that's appealing up to around the 2/3 mark, with the occasional shot of dissonant psychedelia. In other words, there's nothing modern about it -- that's why Schoolboy Q, such a bore on his own stuff, sounds like he's set up shop and found his home at last on his verse. But no question about it: "She Live," with a supreme guest appearance from Megan Thee Stallion and a gigantic, stark bass beat evocative of 1980s dub riddims, is a fucking titanic blast; and this verse of "Dizzy Draco" is, as the kids say, giving me life: "I had a job at Panera Bread, I took that work to work / I was sellin' niggas bagels, I was sellin' niggas Percs." Not even Pusha T could make it sound so romantic.

Peter Perrett: Humanworld (Domino) [hr]
It's deeply unfair that a guy like Perrett can sound like he's never even laid down since his heyday, after 67 years of ruthless attack upon and abuse of his own body, and over three decades after the dissolve of his definitive vehicle the Only Ones, an all-timer for fans of alternative pop at its most melodic, witty and sincere. The second record from a refreshingly celebrated and assured comeback hits a bullseye as these things go; it's not an exaggeration to say it stands proudly with the best work in his veteran master's history, and frankly, it's impossible to fathom how in the hell he does it. The legit full-on rock production on "I Want Your Dreams," riddled with thorny backing vocals and towering, ringing guitars certainly helps the sense of timelessness and, to be honest, ingratiating eccentricity. The rocky relationship chatter on "Once Is Enough" isn't the most inspired, but the pleasingly apocalyptic production more than takes hold, and Perrett's voice -- both literally and poetically -- is consistently challenging and provocative, full of the nuanced observation of someone who is absolutely not at rest. His protest riffs on "War Plan Red" make fiery power out of neutered cluelessness about how to improve the world we're living in. "Walking in Berlin" sounds like an immediate classic, a treasure worthy of the Only Ones; "Love's Inferno" is chaotic and beautiful. Some of the songs sound conventional. Some of the words ring slightly false. But some of them are "I'm gonna sleep on a bed of nails never to wake up" ("Believe in Nothing"). And some of the conventional songs, like "Master of Destruction," conjure up nothing so much as jealousy that any aged-out rocker asshole is able to make ancient texts sound fresh and totally engaging again. Where on earth did this come from!?

Lee "Scratch" Perry: Rainford (On-U Sound) [grandpa still knows more about the groove than we do; "Makumba Rock"/"Cricket on the Moon"/"Autobiography of the Upsetter"]
Sacred Paws: Run Around the Sun (Merge) [Scotland's own Katrina & the Waves (or Bow Wow Wow) lays claim to Eurovision for the next dozen years; "Brush Your Hair"/"What's So Wrong"/"Shame on Me"]
Bedouine: Bird Songs of a Killjoy (Spacebomb) [in the words of Leonard Cohen: "That's pretty... That's pretty too."]
Dylan LeBlanc: Renegade (ATO) [Louisiana alt-country boy whose songs all sound the same, and are all beautiful, and I'm a sucker; "Lone Rider"/"Born Again"]

Kevin Richard Martin: Sirens (ROOM40) [Novant Health Care continues its reign of terror taking over every nonprofit medical facility in the Southeast]
Sarah Davachi: Pale Bloom (W.25th)

* Andre Bratten: Pax Americana
Night Moves: Can You Really Find Me
Felicia Atkinson: The Flower and the Vessel
Trash Kit: Horizon
Pere Ubu: Long Goodbye
Ada Lea: What We Say in Private
Beyonce: The Lion King- The Gift

Julia Shapiro: Perfect Version
The Black Keys: Let's Rock
Kokoko!: Fongola
The Soft Cavalry
Mark Mulcahy: The Gus
Banks: III
Tony Molina: Songs from San Mateo County [NYIM]
Ider: Emotional Education
Sum 41: Order in Decline

Julia Shapiro "Shape" [Perfect Version]

Note #2: This weekend was scheduled to bring us the first draft of my Favorite Albums of the 2010s list plus a nice little essay about the whole confusing mess of a decade. However, even slightly cutting back on how much re-listening I was doing (I will do a more complete pass at a later date, when I can actually incorporate 2019 stuff) hasn't prevented me from falling behind on it. So this weekend you'll get a different post I meant to write and publish a million years ago and got sidetracked, and hopefully about a week after that I will have the big list post ready. End transmission.

Friday, August 2, 2019

The Beatles: Complete Home Recordings (1963-69)

(bootleg [4CD])


A hodgepodge for completists only despite the presence of a few errant moments of sublime beauty, this collection -- which technically has two additional discs, made redundant by the bootleg Strong Before Our Birth and the 2018 official release of the Esher demos -- tidies up one of the main categories of Beatles music or semi-music missing from the Purple Chick compilations, namely their various private home tapes and amateur recordings spreading from the beginning to the end of their career. If you've been exposed to the lovely John Lennon demos of "I'm in Love" and "Bad to Me" via Youtube or on Apple's Bootleg Recordings 1963 release, or to Paul's stunning version of "Goodbye" that remains the greatest unreleased recording in the catalog as of 2019 (it's an obvious candidate for release and was up for inclusion on Anthology 3 but got vetoed for not being Beatley enough), you may expect to be treated to a bunch of gorgeous if muddy-sounding stripped down takes on classic Beatles and ancillary material. Unfortunately, this really is a scraping-the-barrel situation; not many of the Beatles' home demos that would actually interest most of us have escaped into the public sphere, and many of the scraps that did emerge were of such abysmal quality as recordings, as music, even as history that they constitute some of the least worthwhile Beatles bootleg material in existence.

Kicking off in 1963, we quickly find "Bad to Me" and "I'm in Love" to be by far the highlights of the early Beatlemania-era recordings on offer. Those are accompanied by a tape made by John of his wife Cynthia and infant son Julian interacting; it's inconsequential and creepy, and much better than what follows: an interminable gathering of inexplicable goof-offs from the lads and one Gerry Marsden from the summer of '63, which has them bouncing off the walls foolishly, reading Bible passages ironically and singing gospel tunes -- and all in a barely audible condition such that you can't actually make out the content of what's being said, only the procession of hammy "funny voices" delivering it. Then, prepare to be riveted with several minutes of Marsden and Paul McCartney wandering around asking strangers for directions; it's truly fucking fascinating, geez I hope they found the "parallel road." (John, stripping away all celebrity mystique once and for all and turning into your nervous dad on the road: "we should've been there at 4:00 and it's twenty to five!") There's a little more clarity in a recording of Paul reading nursery rhymes to an unknown child, plus a long sequence -- interrupted by random fragments of recorded-over stuff -- of the gang hanging out, listening to what sounds like Herb Alpert or similar mondo-lounge music and chit-chatting. Probably a fun time, and nothing we ever needed to hear.

Back to music, sort of, with Paul wailing over a radio blaring "Over the Rainbow" and "Tammy." Some fragments and instrumentals follow on from there; there's a Mediterranean-style single guitar instrumental, a generic Chuck Berry ("Havana Moon") burlesque, a weird amateurish Greek thing, a bad attempt at jazz with Ringo in tow, and something uncopyrighted the compilers have called "Rockin' and Rollin'" that seems to consist of Beatles jamming to celebrate someone's acquisition of a new tape recorder that will allow them to play around with overdubs at home. It's dreadful but kind of fun; they're certainly better at this kind of haphazard chaos than they were in 1960, and the really stupid lead vocals are enjoyably unguarded. Plus somebody's got a horn!? The only other songs from this mess that can be identified are a very hard to recognize demo of "Michelle," a poor take on the Academy Awards antique "Three Coins in the Fountain," and from August, some interesting rudimentary demos of "Don't Bother Me," terribly recorded and unfinished (only the bridge is close to done) and eventually overtaken by guitar noodling, but still intriguing and well worth hearing. For the record, all this is sourced from tapes that were auctioned off on seemingly shady pretenses by a chauffer named Alf Bicknell. We should thank Bicknell for bringing our heroes back down to earth; it was once hard to imagine anything tangentially related to the Beatles being so dull.

'64 fares little better. The tail end of the Bicknell tapes does offer some sweetly minimal Lennon runthroughs of "If I Fell," on which he audibly strains his voice while trying to figure out the vocal melody and tosses in an unconscious precursor to "Imagine" plus a fragment of "I Should Have Known Better." A Paul acetate demo of the tremendously bad "One and One Is Two," ultimately recorded by the Strangers, prompted Lennon's remark "Billy J. [Kramer] is finished when he gets this song," though indeed it turns out the tune was below even Kramer's standards. "Talking Guitar Blues" is out-of-tune skiffle via Ernest Tubb. Otherwise from this year we just have some radio appearances -- amusing as ever, with George gagging on Ringo's line and John emphatically promoting a Top Gear episode with "we gotta keep telling them, you know what they're like!" plus George reading out in German on Radio Luxenbourg -- and Paul goofing on Bach. The offerings for the next year are even more scant; 1965 provides only a lovely but cut-short fragment of "We Can Work It Out," 45 seconds of Paul's work in progress before Lennon added his input, which also goes for the minute-long instrumental demo of "Michelle," a song whose earlier genesis is already heard on the prior disc of this compilation.

It all gets a little more interesting in 1966; some fans will be worn out by the sheer quantity of John Lennon homemade wackiness on this disc, but in contrast to much of the Bicknell pap this is truly significant material in a historical sense. First of all we get to hear the switch from "He Said, He Said" to "She Said, She Said" and the attendant progression of a quizzical folk-rock number becoming something much harder and more ambiguous, with adventurous chord changes and considerable enthusiasm, plus some juicy tossed-off lines like "you're making me feel like my trousers are torn." Next up is a long collection of recordings of John playing with his brand new Mellotron, and he behaves about the same as all of us when we get a new toy, which means the whole thing is pretty insufferable but also suggestive, in that it makes you want to play around with one of the old machines yourself. And where better than an off-the-wall Beatles bootleg to make a strange discovery about a completely different band? We learn here that the Kinks' "Phenomenal Cat" ('68) opens with a straight recording of one of the factory-included Mellotron samples! Most enigmatically, John at one point pulls out and plays with a tidbit of the "Think for Yourself" vocal recording that was later used in Yellow Submarine and famously slipped out on boots in the 1970s, almost surely via Lennon, who clearly had a copy in his possession for some reason as early as 1966. The question is why, but we should know better than to harp on that.

The remainder of the second disc is comprised of lots and lots of "Strawberry Fields Forever," preserving what seems to be the complete collection of demos John made of the song; and while it's a taxing experience in terms of time and quantity, the song itself never gets old, perhaps the definitive example of a durable Beatles composition that's undiluted by any sort of repetition or -- on the master recording -- studio trickery. The evolution is stunning, John's performances are beautiful (there's even electric guitar on some of the demos) and it's privileged moment to witness this moment of inspiration occurring. Heartbreaking at the outset in its sheer intimacy and articulate anxiety, it gets dreamier later when he employs the Mellotron. He also experiments with everything he's learned so far about backwards talk, tape loops and overdubbing. (An intrepid bootlegger attempted to mix one of these to stereo, but the results are just odd.)

Disc three, and 1967, open with further documentary audio of John Lennon playing and writing at home, and this of course remains the best variety of material you can find amid the junk-shop pilings. His early "Good Morning, Good Morning" is modest and likable, driven by piano and what apparently is a Mellotron percussion sample. "Across the Universe" is very skeletal at this stage, just the "j'ai guru dev" bit but with no lyrics, again on piano and Mellotron. "You Know My Name," which he can't seem to get the hang of, apparently sprang from the ashes of an unfinished piece called "She's Walking Past My Door," which sounds similar to some of his solo work but is in such early stages that it's hard to tell what he was up to. "You Know My Name" is just a dirgelike chant, and it seems he never intended it very seriously, which isn't surprising given what it turned into. Paul's only demo this round is for "Step Inside Love," recorded at his Cavendish house, which is elaborate enough to be double-tracked and seems quite lovely despite the slightness of the composition -- but the terrible recording quality, likely several generations removed from a tape or acetate, does it in.

The next strange detour is music that actually was officially released in a fashion; the Beatles composed and performed the soundtrack to Magical Mystery Tour themselves. Obviously it consisted largely of their own new songs plus a few external tidbits by the Bonzo Dog Band and Arthur Wilkinson & His Orchestra, but the group or some configuration of the group also crafted some incidental music that seems to have been made at someone's house, probably John's (in addition to "Shirley's Wild Accordion," produced by John Lennon at EMI). This is mostly electronic meandering that reinforces the inescapable truth that the Beatles were not George Martin, nor Ken Thorne for that matter. But the most prolonged of these tidbits, "Jessie's Dream" (from the famous and atypically inspired "spaghetti sequence"), is somewhat interesting, credited to the whole band like "Flying" and similar in its reliance on oddball vocal exercises and the Mellotron -- though it's most appealing largely because of the genuinely funny and weird Lennon dialogue from the film that's laid over it. Speaking of weird, from this period there is a radio skit labeled "All Together on the Wireless Machine," but its origins are dubious and in most hardcore circles is no longer presumed to be Beatles-related at all.

The 1968 portions of this collection overlap a bit with the Christmas and Kinfauns tapes reviewed elsewhere. Only about a third of what remains will interest most fans. For the devoted few, there is a lengthy freeform home tape (which may not even be from 1968 but it is in the neighborhood) from John, again playing around with the Mellotron and this time with Ringo occasionally in tow, but it's a little more amusing than the drudgery of some of the earlier recorded samples of his and the others' dicking around. Collected under several different titles but really comprised of one long session of toying with the synthesizer's samples and improvising vocals (spoken or sung) on top of them, the highlights here include Ringo's narration about "the Edgehill Country Club" and John's impromptu emceeing of a "Cuban music" recording: "we've got a swinging little trio... bass, maracas and bass." More historically significant but even less listenable is the famous and oft-booted "India tape," some hippie-dippie stuff periodically interrupted by Wolfman Jack narrating the proceedings years later, with the Beatles (sans Ringo) gathered round along with Mia Farrow, Mike Love, Donovan and others singing public domain faves like "Jingle Bells," "She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain" and, perversely making its second appearance in the Beatles' recorded legacy, "When the Saints Go Marching In." They also jam out "Blowin' in the Wind" and, after scaling down a bit, a stupid rock & roll Brian Wilson pastiche called "Spiritual Regeneration" (its fusion of Beach Boy harmonies and phony relevance reminds one of nothing so much as that band's embarrassing "Student Demonstration Time," had it been written in time for Beach Boys' Party!) then -- once John's safely out of earshot -- they sing Happy Birthday to Mike Love. I have no real basis for this but I strongly suspect that Love's memory of "cowriting" "Back in the U.S.S.R." is drawn from a vague recollection of "Spiritual Regeneration," which is like a very dumb version of "U.S.S.R."... but may draw some attention from new fans since it's something akin to a lost Beatles original (plus Donovan and the Lovester). Speaking of false memories, Geoff Emerick's claim that "Blackbird" was recorded (later in 1968) outside of EMI Studios with actual real bird sounds is newly amusing in light of this take that's absolutely awash in the sounds of wild fowl.

But as for the stuff you actually want to hear from '68, meaning the legitimate demos: "Hey Bulldog" is faint and tentative (it sounds like a child is crying in the background, but I have no clue who that would be) and embodies only the "you can talk to me" portion, here "she can talk to me." There's a sequence dedicated to "Cry Baby Cry" in the process of being composed, with John picking out the melody on piano and trying several approaches with it; oddly enough, one quickly abandoned version is arranged on an electric guitar with the words screamed out, which is potentially interesting, but he doesn't get more than a few seconds through it each time and quickly gives up. "Julia" is a heavy presence (different from the Esher demo), but already polished despite the early absence of lyrics, and its chords apparently fascinated John as he used them on three different songs he started writing in this period, the others being "Look at Me" and (his half of) "I've Got a Feeling." "Look at Me" is quite raw here, with John's vocal more obviously pained than on the double-tracked master from John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970). Inevitably, "I've Got a Feeling" consists only of the "everybody had a hard year" bit, which sounds almost mournful in this context despite light accompaniment from Yoko Ono -- though at one point I swear he says "everybody got a soft drink." Lastly from John's department, there is "A Case of the Blues," the rare Lennon song that never quite got finished despite a lot of potential; the lyrics are rudimentary but the performance is solid and engaging, a nice bit of stripped-back rock & roll.

John dominates the remainder of this compilation, save the diverting George-Bob Dylan collaborations "Nowhere to Go" and "I'd Have You Anytime," but there's one extremely important exception. If Complete Home Recordings were the only context in which you could hear Paul's beautiful "Goodbye," an acoustic demo for Apple artist Mary Hopkin, that would be plenty of reason to seek it out. Thankfully, it's so famous and popular that its unreleased status is nearly beside the point; it's as ubiquitous on the web as if it had been a hit single, and it easily would've been given the opportunity. Hopkin's stilted, gaudy version may as well not even exist. "Goodbye" is prime White Album-era Paul McCartney, lilting, deceptively simple, gorgeously sung -- he may not have a more moving, controlled vocal on record -- and all but undeniably touching. Totally absent of the winking ironies and self-conscious cleverness of so many of his Beatles songs from this era, this is a pure expression of love that sounds absolutely unforced; in some ways it feels as sincere and unguarded as John's "Julia." Perhaps "I Will" is close to its peer as a love song from Paul at a turning point of his life, but somehow this one feels deeper and more substantive. That it was a private tape of a song intended for a woman to sing has unintended positive effects as well; surely the fact that it wasn't meant for mass consumption contributes to the track's feeling of spotaneity, which only emphasizes what a masterful composer, singer and guitarist he was as a young man, giving ammunition to the theory that Paul's worst enemy was his eagerness to please everyone. Secondarily, even though it's matter of practicality that the "lover" in the song is a man, there's something moving about hearing Paul McCartney belt out what amounts, in letter if not spirit, to a same-sex love song. Of course that soldiarity is unintentional, even if Paul may agree with the resulting sentiment, but then again this is the band that covered the Shirelles' lusty "Boys" without changing most of the words.

Nothing else on the entire compilation stands up to "Goodbye" (or "Bad to Me," which I'm disregarding as a point in its favor since it's since been released), much less anything that follows in the run through 1969, which is exclusively Lennon-related material, very little of which is noteworthy. It's interesting to hear demos of "Don't Let Me Down" (only the "nobody ever loved me" section at first, then a recording built around "I'm in love for the first time..."), "Cold Turkey" (on which John Lennon sounds totally broken, like a starving, braying animal), "Because" (haunting but very incomplete, and showing off Ono's heavy involvement in its creation since it comes from one of the Bed-Ins), "I Want You" (very raw and limited, almost scarily intense) and especially "Oh Yoko" (just busking but kind of fun, already a lovely song, and capping with an out-of-nowhere reference to A Hard Day's Night, the film: "why don't we do the show right here??"). But these are very short extracts; the bulk of the 1969 material comes from the Lennons' publicity-heavy trips to Amsterdam and Montreal and doesn't have a lot to do with the Beatles, though as audio verité I suppose it has some purpose. I quite appreciate the performance-art aspects of John and Yoko's public persona in the late '60s but the emotional limitations of that corner of the Beatles' legacy certainly becomes apparent when laid against material like "Goodbye," and although Lennon would craft some stunning music in his shatteringly brief solo career, the demo of "Woman Is the Nigger of the World" just points up all the shortcomings and indulgences that would hinder him in the absence of the other band members; it's a lame version of a lame song, delivering a lack of judgment in such a brilliant figure that's worthy of some variety of existential despair. There are bright, funny moments too, but rarely are they musical; someone pesters John to play a bit of his "new song," and in response he coughs and hacks his way through the one-line chorus of "Don't Let Me Down" before admitting he "can't remember" the rest of it, a wonderful moment of anti-humor. And hey, he also busks through the already-released "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" and works out the basics of "Give Peace a Chance." However, far more of these tapes are occupied by weird nonsense like Akiva Nof belting out "Jerusalem" as if it's the ashram all over again, John and Yoko leading a horrendous singalong called "Radio Peace," more unlistenable Kenny Everett bullshit, and an eight-minute ball of nothing called "Message to Japan," which is nothing but John playing Beatles songs on his acoustic guitar (no singing) while Yoko stumbles through a speech in Japanese.

This bootleg is the kind of item that, when you first hear about it after entering the world of underground Beatles minutiae, sounds like it must be a holy grail of sorts, and actually hearing it is always a quick trip down to earth -- that excludes "Goodbye," sparklingly clear (tape drag notwithstanding) and a buried treasure that might be the only non-canon Beatles track that actually brings back that inscrutable feeling of hearing their classics for the first time and then somehow loving it more every time one listens to it again. But it's obviously the exception; nothing else here even comes close in its quality of presentation, and only the low-quality (and available elsewhere) "Bad to Me" is nearly as inspired. In some ways the whole shebang is an object lesson for those of us who've been crowing for years that everything should be released; in the absence of the restraint and curation that comes with official Apple product, should we be careful what we wish for? If we're being honest, though, even consumer-conscious (?) bootleggers who want only to organize the backdoor catalog for the masses are limited by what's made it "out there." We're thankfully no longer in an age when we all risk being ripped off by our fandom, at least by anyone besides the Beatles themselves. If we really were to hear the "complete" home recordings of the Beatles in the '60s, I suspect we'd find a lot of things that would, to put it technically, blow our fucking minds. In essence, it's good that this is out there, but for anyone who's enough of a completist to download and archive it, just don't get your hopes up. But as we've already said, if you haven't heard "Goodbye," get thee to Youtube or your torrent service of choice immediately, and let's all hold our hands and hope that it finally gets out into the marketplace in 2019.