Saturday, October 26, 2019

Kanye West: Late Registration (2005)

(Def Jam)


Feels pretty weird to miss 2005 in any way at all -- it was a time when we were all stuck in newly validated dystopian Bush-land and steeped in the most useless of our many useless wars, the year of Katrina, and for me personally, I was working in food services and in a relationship that was enjoying a very brief respite from crumbling around me. Life now is a lot better. But as my thirties have battered me physically and got me clamoring to live in every moment, I do find myself occasionally reaching out to remember something I do associate with my early twenties: the feeling of promise and full-color giddiness, letting my mind wander because I didn't have quite so much to fuss over and worry about, and as laughable as it sounds, nothing brings back the midpoint of the last decade quite like an album I didn't even own at the time, Late Registration.

I didn't need to own it, of course, to know its major songs -- and at the time I didn't particularly like any of them, but they wafted around me, were totally inescapable, defined the grit and the inevitability of life going on with what I now see as a perspicacious expressive power. If you know the bangers, you know what a sharp and fertile period this was for Kanye West, superstar anew, victory lapping just a year after the debut, even indulging a little with the star-studded cameos and the big-budget videos and such, and beginning to dominate the dialogue of hip hop in a way no other so-called "alternative" rapper had. His singles in this early period were unstoppable: clever, radiant, oddly vulnerable, but confident and fully engaged. But yes, when I hear them I just hear that time, and I'm wrestling with how much of a compliment that is -- but I think it's a high one. Because hearing this today it's really striking, and I would say that's in large part because it's so hard to imagine this version of West ever gracing us with his presence again.

West's eagerness to please on his first three albums is remarkable considering his reputation ever since; even though his considerable ego already pays a role in his persona, as of '05 his dominant energy is still an affable confidence that emphasizes his position as a regular dude who loves his mom, loves his work and has some issues. Lord, what a relief to remember that at some point the guy resembled a human being, a flawed public figure who wore his heart on his sleeve in a way that seemed raw but not troubling -- before unfathomable riches and unchecked, titanic self-loathing swallowed him, which was already happening even on some of his good records, before he went full Slow Train Coming this year. And his quality control at this stage was almost unimpeachable, fused with the adventurousness of hiring an unorthodox collaborator like Jon Brion, whose indie rock bona fides are a stronger showcase of West's musically ominvorous impulses than the iconic Adam Levine cameo. That said, Levine's chorus on the splendidly shambolic "Heard 'Em Say" is as much a haunted evocation of its summer as Mary Wells' "My Guy" or Mariah Carey's "Always Be My Baby" were of theirs.

It seems like there's a contradiction here; West in this era was more appealing, more "one of us," because he seemed less self-aware, but also more conscious of expressing complete thoughts. The essence is that maybe, or even probably, West's "self," the inner life he was exploring, was just more interesting then. Hardly unique to him. He had a personality. His thoughts on politics and race, spread all over this record, were somewhat coherent. (Remember that this was the year in which he called out Pres. Bush on live television.) He put as much energy into making this a cohesive album as he now does in the discs he produces for other artists, while conversely tossing off new music under his own name with only a modicum of careful attention. Back then his flaws seemed to magnify his appeal instead of pointing to his towering distance from everyday existence.

I'm sorry. So far I haven't talked enough about Late Registration in this supposed review of it. But it's a record that writes its own story; supplementing it with anything seems kind of useless. The four opening singles are glorious, peaking with the exquisitely constructed and still shocking "Gold Digger," all brilliant and offensive laugh lines and empathetic narratives bringing not just Ray Charles' "I Got a Woman" (interpreted by Jamie Foxx) but Kurtis Blow's "The Breaks" into a still-new millennium. West is a rapper and at this stage a good one, but he is also a master of the pop record; the hooks and indulgences alike have the force of a lightning strike, and nothing packs the mental dance floor like the "get down, girl" head-shake on "Gold Digger."

Following the hits (the others are "Drive Slow" and "Touch the Sky," in which Lupe Fiasco figures, still so promising and clear-eyed), the record leaves both instantaneous pleasure and the body-driven chaos of The College Dropout behind to launch into vibe territory. "My Way Home" is built from a sample of Gil Scott-Heron's shattering "Home Is Where the Hatred Is," and West (producing solo) is so taken with the source that he lets it play out nearly unchecked for the second half of the very brief song, not the last time the great poet would be given center stage on a West record. That's the Common cameo, but "Crack Music" reframes the concept of "I Used to Love H.E.R." as a drug rather than a sex metaphor, and it might have become a street anthem if it weren't so thorny and profane. "Roses" (with a complex lyric about grief and health care) "Addiction" and "Bring Me Down" (with an outstanding vocal by Brandy) burrow further into a surprisingly potent darkness, some of the most emotionally complex hip hop of the period.

What brings us back to earth is the all-star murderer's row of "Diamonds of Sierra Leone" and "We Major," collaborations with Jay-Z and Nas (both in 2005 still bigger stars than Kanye, so it seemed more significant then), both of which have aged poorly and attained a degree of bloat that threatens to derail the record. This is especially true of "We Major," an unfocused half-decent rant that does not deserve seven and a half minutes of our attention, but even the pretentious classic "Diamonds," revolving around a predictable Shirley Bassey sample and one of Jay's last verses that qualifies as truly arresting, feels hopelessly out of place. Already, rock star arrogance is worn dreadfully by Kanye, who never learned to speak the language of the hard-living sexually virile blues man, always too much of an angsty dork. (This is the reason all of his best anthems are either self-critical or play as fantasies even from the mind of a celebrity.)

Everything comes back around with "Hey Mama," a brilliant and gorgeous dedication to Donda West that is now very difficult to listen to but retains its immediate pleasure as a sincere, charming and beautifully constructed hip hop ballad. The indulgences of "Celebration" and "Gone" (while the latter is a slightly odd finale) feel more satisfying because "Hey Mama" precedes them, puts them in context, tells us a great deal about who this man is. In the end, it's not only that this often delightful record reels us in because of its music; it's because West's messaging is so honest, and so not the ravings of someone whose world is incomparable to our own. In its modesty, the record almost effortlessly achieves transcendence that would be out of reach to anyone who let it all get to him the way Kanye West has. According to him this is the Devil's music. I wonder when the last time he listened to Late Registration was. I wonder if he's jealous of it.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Which racist do you want on your bank note?: September 2019 music diary

I was promoted at work this month (thank you, thank you) and now that I am RUNNING A DANG LIBRARY I was unable to file a planned review of the new Beatles Abbey Road set, which I wanted to do fairly quickly in order to stay caught up as I reach the home stretches of that Essentials discography project. I will write it up and post it at some point when there's downtime in the next month or so.

Sheer Mag: A Distant Call (Wilsuns Recording Co.) [hr]
I was initially skeptical -- as this band of working class heroes has vaulted backwards from thrash to punk to power pop and finally to classic rock, spilling hooks and classically tasty guitar licks all the way, it was a concern that the emotional nuance and rebellion was fading away in an onslaught of Cheap Trick and Thin Lizzy-isms; "Steel Sharpens Steel" was undeniable, but it was also placed pointedly at the beginning. The lifeline remained Tina Halladay, whose lyrics and vocals plunder through veneer and vulnerability over personal loss and defiance with wondrous, almost singular (for this specific subgenre of anthemic bar-sleaze) elegance. And as the deeper essence of the record was emerging, I caught them playing most of its songs live and, yes, I was then convinced. There was never any debate that it's a lot of fun, but Matt Seely's powerful lead guitar and the rhythm section really have crafted a series of irresistible rock performances, more focused than before; and if you miss the boundary-stretching of Need to Feel Your Love, which memorably touched on a disco sheen that only the lovely "Silver Line" evidences, the out-of-nowhere post-punk finale "Keep on Ruinnin" should compensate. There were fears all the way back to the EPs that this was inevitably going to be a short career, that this kind of specific vision couldn't properly sustain, but so far this band is proving flexible and inflexible in precisely the right ways.

Jay Som: Anak Ko (Polyvinyl) [hr]
An enormous step forward from the promising but limited Everybody Works, this finds the now in-demand producer Melina Duterte returning to her singer-songwriter well with much more variance and ambition than before while retaining the intimacy (love those White Album double track vocals) that made material like "Bus Song" so infectious. Anak Ko veers to more modernist influences than its predecessor and wears them proudly; it opens with winning, subtle dance music before moving to surprisingly deft Paisley Underground jangle and shoegaze on the new transportation narrative "Superbike," eventually all the way to countrified grunge, of all things, on "Get Well." The Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie-like trip hop sensuality on "Tenderness" and extensive layering on "Devotion" demonstrate why her sonic wisdom is already sought after, matching lovely soft rock guitar with persuasive percussion. The soundscapes being crafted are more than functional, they can be hypnotic (as on the title cut), but everything serves the song, and melodic pop like "Nighttime Drive" and "Crown" would bring the people in even if far less confidently presented. Best of all, there is exactly the right amount of music here -- it's singular and individual but attests loudly to its place in a longer narrative -- and overall is a deeply pleasing, modestly ambitious record.

Kano: Hoodies All Summer (Parlophone)
London grime pioneer's latest is a quintessential example that reminds me why the genre's never really worked for me. The production and beats are all superb, but the jagged MCing, convincingly and righteously angry as it is, feels too musically disconnected and never attains any sense of actual groove, which stops it from communicating as strongly as its far-reaching intentions deserve. Oh well.

Lana Del Rey: Norman Fucking Rockwell! (Interscope) [r]
A catalog of tortured intimacies from a writer who's serious about paring down a complex inner life into language that's almost flippant in its simplicity. It's California through and through, some conception of fantasy laziness that's less about eternal youth than about the fallout from figuring out its limits, 20/20 (or Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere) more than Surfin' U.S.A.. Still not sure about her vocals, or even some of the lyrics; there's a kind of icily sulking sameiness to the thing (not unique to this artist!) that doesn't really work for me -- but there's a certain weird thrill in hearing someone reclaim Sublime from the stoner bros (do they even deserve it?), and you can sense the intensity of the kind of relationship with audiences the whole thing has cultivated in the last two songs (plus "Mariners Apartment Complex"), which are unquestionably sublime. And despite its placid tempo and the often glacial arrangements, the entire hour-plus is never anywhere close to dull, its vocal distortions and sweeping emotional crescendos well-placed and well-chosen.

Whitney: Forever Turned Around (Secretly Canadian)
You can make a case that this comparatively down-tempo, pretty but superficial country-rock suite is a bold move from a band (a Smith Westerns offshoot) that shot out of the gate with so vibrant a power pop concoction as Light Upon the Lake three years ago. But you can make a stronger one that, like most bands propagating this style historically and now and always, they just gave us every bit of what they had the first time and now the best they can offer as a cop to the past is the nice, nostalgic horn-driven "My Life Alone." And I feel like I'm still too young to cast back fondly on stuff that happened three years ago, but maybe I'm just deluded.

Black Belt Eagle Scout: At the Party with My Brown Friends (Saddle Creek) [hr]
Second album from Portland-based Native American singer-songwriter Katherine Paul eschews lo-fi in favor of sweeping, bottom-heavy, dramatic depth -- sad, strong songs of everyday emotional catharsis that have an often eerie, occasionally almost mystical quality (see opener "At the Party"), just as often capture the open-ended, tense excitement of a night drive ("My Heart Dreams"). Paul's own production and arrangements (listen to the way the drums take over "Run It to Ya") are immersive, her vocals melancholic and brutal, the entire record absorbing even in its less intense moments. The songs often settle into lyrical and musical brooding before bounding unexpectedly in another direction with rattling momentum. "I Said I Wouldn't Write This Song" is the perfect match of riff with melody and sentiment, and "Half Colored Hair" is something Michael Stipe might have called a "gut-splitter" in 1988: deliberate, breathless and obviously deeply felt. A record you can imagine carrying with you for some time.

Ezra Furman: Twelve Nudes (Bella Union) [r]
Once again, I prefer the platonic theory of this album to its actual execution, mostly because I think his inward-looking work is stronger than his conceptualizing and activism... and yet it's clearly an act of messy and new bravery to harness this raw, quick, thrashing rock & roll for calls to action of this specific sort, in this specific sociopolitical era. And when the shapeless, loud "Blown" -- sounding like the lowest of lo-fi 7" releases of early, seamy garage punk -- opens with a "trans power" shout, daring anyone to question, object or even wander past with distant bemusement, it is a moment of unalloyed jubilation. An accomplished music historian like Furman knows what he's doing; his reverence for the form is what causes him to know exactly how to use the "Sympathy for the Devil" lick in "Calm Down aka I Should Not Be Alone" to deny any potentially complacent audience the escapism of distance that's so inviting to, well, music historians -- middle-class, middle-aged, middle-voting listeners who may at best take pains to correct pronouns while recoiling at the idea of actual organization and social progression. As Greil Marcus recently wrote, punk isn't something a specific generation created, it's something each generation finds, and this began even before we had a name for it, even before it was associated with a specific sound and style. "The kids are just getting started," Furman warns, and these "kids" are not the arm-crossing kids of Win Butler's semi-nostalgic memories, they are as engaged and disgusted as the grimy working class punks of the Clash's "Career Opportunities." They look different, they feel different, but they know the same language, and in this respect Twelve Nudes is the perfect rock & roll album, because it establishes why this music more than any other facet of youth culture is so long-lived and so continually vital: because it's so readily mutated.

The writing, unfortunately, wavers; Furman's first three post-Harpoons albums used pop language to exhume demons even if they sometimes lifted their basic forms wholesale from his beloved older records, sources of comfort he's quite ready to recontextualize as needed, but his anxieties and close connection with the work made that phase of his career haunting in its directness and grace. Somehow, as a storyteller or as a news reporter, he seems less infallible, and his energy isn't convincing enough to completely hide the skeletal song ideas populating the record; Furman's understandably ringing alarm bells at this stage -- he does have a personal stake in the state of the world -- and he keeps dropping lyrics that drip with his usual off-kilter genius ("nobody cares if you're dying till you're dead"; "the kind of sex you want is the kind they'd like to make illegal") and finds time to cop a bit of doo wop with the southern-tinged "I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend" and revive the alternative nation with the unabashedly vicious "Rated R Crusaders," but there is no total escape from the crush of pastiche. Perhaps because the mood is so dour, the conviction occasionally feels strained. He's not wrongheaded or misguided about anything -- and yet, it's alarming how empty "what can you do but rock and roll?" can feel as a response to the oppression of our current moment. That isn't his fault; it's the rest of the world that's let him down. It's my fondest hope that this record quickly becomes dated and Furman returns to the raw, painful wit of introspection or even the self-actualizing of something like "Body Was Made," but it seems just as likely that we'll look back on this as prescient and I'll deeply regret this review.

Young Thug: So Much Fun (Atlantic) [r]
Not as funny as he used to be ("I can eat you like hibachi cause you're bad bad bad," o RLYYYY?), but he sounds like he's having a good sleazy time playing Atari and while indistinct, this sounds amazing on good speakers and will make you feel either much older or younger than you actually are.

Raphael Saadiq: Jimmy Lee (Columbia)
53 year-old neo-soul titan from Oakland, one of the architects of the R&B radio sound of the 1990s (and co-vocalist of Tony! Toni! Toné!); his latest record is sweet-natured but dated and excessively friendly, and despite pleasantly jazzy arrangements, the vocals are coming off as oddly rote and strained.

The Highwomen (Low Country Sound)
Knew this was a "supergroup" without looking it up and without knowing who any of these people (Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris and Amanda Shires) are, because you just don't name your band/album "the Highwomen" unless that's where you're going with it. Anyway it's fine, and very long. "I listen to vinyl for the scratches" is a good line.

Jenny Hval: The Practice of Love (Sacred Bones) [hr]
Has the feel of a charming art project, with the exotic intensity of something from Laurie Anderson but with the theatrical orchestrations (and therefore, pop amusements) of John Cale or Kate Bush -- it's less a square peg in a musical hole than Blood Bitch and clearly has more replay value, but doubles down on an equally strange mood, complete with Haxan-like cover art. A telling extract of dialogue focuses on childlessness resulting in a feeling of being an "antagonist" in the human race's narrative but also toys with the language of humanity itself being a "virus," which is my inclination. There is much to uncover, and much intrigue, in this dense half-hour, but there are also immediate joys in the form of the trance beat driving "Ashes to Ashes," the spectacular layering and complexity of arrangement on the transportive finale "Ordinary"... but there is more to hear, more fears and more joys, every time through.

(Sandy) Alex G: House of Sugar (Domino) [r]
Alex G's energetic eclecticism calls Beck Hansen to mind less because of his wide range of interest than because it seems like a way to avoid doubling down on the one thing at which he truly excels: magically plodding folk songs hooked on riffs and feelings and violins. This record's "Bobby" sequel is "Southern Shy," which is lovely. Elsewhere, he can toss pleasing guitar and a pretty melody on something called "Cow," evoke Tom Petty on "Sugar House," and waste the gorgeous verses of "Bad Man" on a facile climax. The problem is that so many of these are just sketches; the vibe on "Taking" is very specific but it's half-formed, and you need only to look at how quickly the artist hops from one idea to another to get the sense that you're listening in on classwork or an abstract therapeutic exercise. You'll keep "Hope" and "Gretel" -- loose, vague and phantasmagoric -- with you, but hunting through a short album for these treasures shouldn't feel so much like work... and maybe it won't if you're a Frank Ocean fan.

Sam Fender: Hypersonic Missiles (Interscope) [r]
There are so many albums that basically sound like this floating around, though this one (debut from pop singer-songwriter who's already found considerable success in England) has more grit than usual, sort of an arena alt-rock corporate fantasy: media-ready, heartless and stable. "The Borders" sounds like the Alarm or something; I always hated the Alarm, but somehow that comes as a respite now. "You're Not the Only One" proves that the sax solo is back in vogue as basic feature of the populist hit-factory sound. I dunno, I just don't really mind it, and it's not boring; if anything, it's a fairly interesting snapshot of where the popsphere stands at the moment, and strongly implies that guitars aren't destined to be extinct from the actual charts, at least in Europe.

Charli XCX: Charli (Atlantic)
Years on the verge of doing something great but the moment is already over and she's boring now. It sounds like a Billie Eilish album, all that watered-down SOPHIE vibe. "I feel so unstable," etc.

Chelsea Wolfe: Birth of Violence (Sargent House) [c]
Monotonous and endless. Nothing else to say.

Gruff Rhys: Pang! (Rough Trade)
One of the more creatively ambitious castaways from the '90s Britpop peak (I mean, compare whatever Liam Gallagher is doing), Rhys coasts through some productions by the young producer Muzi from South Africa and sings his latest batch of songs in Welsh. It's oddly disorienting, but not particularly appealing, but I'm not really a strong fan even of the Furrys, so I'm not really qualified. I do like "Ol Bys / Nodau Clust" a lot.

Chastity Belt (Hardly Art) [hr]
Another record I initially found incomprehensible that eventually came to feel like a warm bath; my reasons for the first response come because this is truly a mood piece, one that barely wavers in its focus -- it could practically be one single song with the occasional mild variance in riffs. The irony is that I associate I Used to Spend So Much Time Alone more than any other album with the muted sadness and loud disappointment of the early Trump days, but it was in fact recorded before his election; this is the band's actual response, and four albums in it's a major change of pace, doubling down on subtlety as though R.E.M. made Fables after Green. The defiant tower of Julia Shapiro's voice, often so soul-stirring and comforting in its boldness on the last two records, has been measured down to a morose whisper. Lydia Lund's guitar, never more committed to groove, is now crunched in with a wall of sound that resists catharsis. But there is a great deal of beauty in this extended lament; you have to listen closely for some of it. The hooks on "Effort," "Rav-4" and "Apart" are eventually striking in their boldness considering how they initially seem to wisp in and out of earshot. And the lyrics -- hmm, I'm prudish enough about bodily functions to have an aversion to the title of "Pissed Pants" but "You can have everything you've always dreamed of / but first you've got to get out of your head" is probably the sentiment I most needed to hear this month... to say nothing of the howl into the night that ends the record, when Shapiro abruptly seems to discover herself again: "Yeah, I saw it coming. I saw it coming and now it's gone."

Brittany Howard: Jaime (ATO) [hr]
Alabama Shakes are a fine band, but there was never any question that the majority of their appeal sprung from the presence of Howard, and the brilliant singer-songwriter and guitarist's highly personal solo debut is genuinely worth the buzz it's getting. Revolving around adolescent memories, the strange phenomenon of hitting thirty and thoughts of a sister who died young, it's quick, varied, remarkably confident and idiosyncratic in both its vocal and emotional ranges. It's also filled to the brim with dirty pop tunes that flirt with convention while upturning it; most striking is the way that Howard has brought a kind of vocalizing -- a raw, forceful feeling and joy -- to the mainstream that's been mostly absent from radio for decades now. But the album isn't backward-looking either, except perhaps the U2-ish "Run to Me" or the keyboard-driven Gil Scott-Heron rant "13th Century Metal," but even those are stretches. The layered, sophisticated production (handled by the artist herself) underscores just how eclectic these songs are, though at its best the record is pure funk: "He Loves Me" is kinky and glorious, "Tomorrow" is transcendently wild and the guitar on "Baby" gives it sufficient ammo to feel like a song you've been waiting to hear for the entirety of your mortal life. Most of all, it can't be stressed enough what an incredible singer Howard is -- if the amount of feeling in "Short and Sweet" doesn't trip you up, I really just don't know what you want. Whether Alabama Shakes will return is anyone's guess, but this glorious exorcism indicates that we'll be blessed as Howard continues her self-exploration, regardless of the avenue.

The Paranoid Style: A Goddamn Impossible Way of Life (Bar/None)
I like their Twitter account more than the music. Strongly indicates that Elizabeth Nelson and I like lots of the same music, and the same things about said music. Her lyrics are rock and social criticism in song form, and sometimes I find that notion appealing, but the carefully enunciated delivery here isn't to my taste even though the words usually are ("I smoked because of old fiction / I smoked because of Mojo Nixon") and little things like the surf guitar on "Turpitude" ought to send me swooning. The title track, about the Who's fatal Cincinnati concert in 1979, is perversely beautiful. "They weren't screaming for you, they were just screaming." Fuck.

Sarathy Korwar: More Arriving (The Leaf Label) [hr]
An extraordinary procession of ideas, vibes, grooves and post-Brexit protestations in a jazz-fusion context from this London-based Indian percussionist, who employs an eclectic group of poets, singers and rappers to add often fast and ruthless textures to his hypnotic bed of sound. The magnificent results range from the Kuti-like intensity of "Mumbay" to the ethereal, powerful sound of Mirande's voice on "Good Ol' Vilayati" to the scathing anti-colonialist message of Zia Ahmed's spoken word passage on "Mango." The entire record is intellectually rigorous and emotionally revelatory, and not a moment among either its protracted jams or tight constructions is remotely frivolous. It feels like the rhythm of our years in the very best and most terrifying ways.

Ride: This Is Not a Safe Place (Wichita Recordings) [no longer innovators but capable of at least upstaging Kevin Shields; "Future Love"]
Shura: Forevher (Secretly Canadian) ["Religion (U Can Lay Your Hands on Me)"/"Forever"/"Skyline, Be Mine"]

Nerija: Blume (Domino)

* Rapsody: Eve
* Brockhampton: Ginger
* Missy Elliott: Iconology
* Sirom: A Universe That Roasts Blossoms for a Horse
* Frankie Cosmos: Close It Quietly
Tanya Tucker: While I'm Livin'
Modern Nature: How to Live
HTRK: Venus in Leo
Pharmakon: Devour
Joan Shelley: Like the River Loves the Sea
MUNA: Saves the World
Tinariwen: Amadjar
Chrissie Hynde: Valve Bone Woe
Bat for Lashes: Lost Girls
Velvet Negroni: Neon Brown
JPEGMAFIA: All My Heroes Are Cornballs
Sampa the Great: The Return
Vivian Girls: Memory

Taylor Swift: Lover
Redd Kross: Beyond the Door
Tropical Fuck Storm: Braindrops [NYIM]
Shannon Lay: August [NYIM]
Jesse Malin: Sunset Kids [NYIM]
Salami Rose Joe Louis: Zdenka 2080
Sheryl Crow: Threads
The S.L.P.
The Futureheads: Powers
Iggy Pop: Free
Trupa Trupa: Of the Sun
Korn: The Nothing
Mike Patton: Corpse Flower
Alex Cameron: Miami Memory
Metronomy: Metronomy Forever
Devendra Banhart: Ma [NYIM]
Life: A Picture of Good Health
Efterklang: Altid Sammen
Hiss Golden Messenger: Terms of Surrender [NYIM]
Liam Gallagher: Why Me? Why Not.
sir Was: Holding On to a Dream

Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus (Fantasy 1956) [hr]

Saturday, October 5, 2019

The Beatles: Get Back (1969)

(Apple [unreleased]; volumnious bootlegs from 1969 onward)


The Glyn Johns construction of Get Back, before it was rejected by the Beatles and slightly reengineered to better fit with the then-forthcoming feature film and then thrown out entirely in favor of Phil Spector's reimagined version, is a deeply flawed album -- were it in the canon, it would still have been the Beatles' weakest major LP release apart from Help! -- but it's also very clearly a better one than Let It Be. That's thanks in part to nothing fancier than its mere sense of focus: Johns is interested in the band's (or at least Paul and John's) original vision of a rock band's frayed work-in-process with no tracking, no overdubs, no bells and whistles, and he integrates dialogue, aimless studio jams, chaotic covers and flubbed false starts and such to make the strong case that the Beatles' timeless magnetism falls into place naturally.

He also focuses heavily on this being relatively "hard" rock music, at least until the back half of Side Two, perhaps to reassert the band's mettle not as strictly studio wizards but as architects of rock & roll who'd been there almost from the beginning, thus demonstrating the direct lines drawn from classic Chuck Berry and Elvis numbers to the then-explosive movement toward macho blues rock being propagated by the likes of Canned Heat, Led Zeppelin and the band's own racist buddy Eric Clapton. Not surprisingly, while the Beatles with their unabashed pop background (as emphatically worshipful of Carole King as they were of Little Richard) are less than credible as uncritical meatheads on the road to heavy metal, their wealth of unironic appreciation for black music and classicist, liberating rock & roll renders them almost automatically more interesting and soulful than those peers, which is only exacerbated by the presence of the pianist-organist Billy Preston, and their unmistakable, equimonious camaraderie with him, on many of these numbers.

If you're trying to string together a narrative throughline strictly using the Beatles' albums, Get Back as an outgrowth of the White Album and a contradiction of the forthcoming Abbey Road makes considerably more sense than the whiplash of Let It Be following Abbey as it sits in the official discography. Not to say Spector's album doesn't carry an elegiac tone, but how much of that is manufacted by us retroactively? It's always been remarked upon how much Paul resented the goopy strings Spector poured over "The Long and Winding Road," but less discussed is how he must have felt when three of his most personal songs -- "Two of Us" about his romantic relationship with Linda Eastman, "Let It Be" about his late mother and "The Long and Winding Road" his rawest-ever response to loss -- were co-opted semi-officially as narratives about the Beatles themselves, which may add an extra layer for some listeners but still feels rather trite, and seems to rob us of a bit of each song's true resonance. That I assume is why early 1969 is never thought of as one of McCartney's peaks as a composer, even though he really is firing on all cylinders here as both a rocker and as a choked-up balladeer whose passion and directness would perhaps reach its crescendo a year later with the magnificent non-Beatles track "Maybe I'm Amazed," perhaps the last truly perfect (though not the last great) song he would write.

It's instructive to look at the takes Johns uses on his assembly, how they differ from what Spector picked up on, and how he uses them. Famously, Johns had a truckload of tapes to sort through, though he took to the job with great enthusiasm, and the two albums serve as a fascinating primer on how interpretations of gathered material can differ. One of the frustrations of Spector's LP is that he violates the sense of raw, immediate presence and unmasked spontaneity by adding overdubs here and there, and venturing outside the Get Back sessions altogether for some material, but doesn't entirely, so that a few various snatches of dialogue and banter between songs remain, but not enough to make it a part of the record's general conceit rather than just odd. (His transition from John joking around after "Dig It" straight into "Let It Be" remains simultaneously bold and vaguely offensive.) Johns, on the other hand, goes all-out; he seems to want the record as a whole to feel like a single day's off-the-cuff work for the Beatles, capturing on-mike discussions and debates and gags between performances and with songs seemingly appearing out of nowhere. It sounds strikingly unprofessional from a certain POV, but there's no denying that had it been released in 1969 it would have been a rather striking innovation -- the sort of inventiveness of spirit that Let It Be would miss entirely.

Johns opens with an assertion of the Beatles going "back to their roots" by airing "One After 909" from the Apple rooftop on January 30th (Spector used the same version in a different mix); it was a John and Paul song dating from their "eyeball to eyeball" years in the late '50s and even dredged up once before for a studio recording that never made it out (until 1995), and appropriately enough it's followed by two more statements of shambolic purpose. From Jan. 22nd, "Rocker" is a standard jam that slides abruptly into a loose version of the Drifters' "Save the Last Dance for Me" (not one of the better covers from the sessions, but a convincingly spontaneous and thus representative one) and then John's one and only great (or even better than decent) song from these sessions, "Don't Let Me Down," which John somehow would never complain about Spector cutting from Let It Be. This deeply sincere, sensual love song is one of the best cuts the Beatles ever recorded, an almost immaculate sampling of their extraordinary interplay, and there are many fine performances of it from the first half of the month -- then Billy Preston comes in and the song turns into a masterpiece, delving into genuine, unadulterated blues and soul with his influence, and on nearly every performance, John and the other Beatles completely allow Preston's soloing to define the song, which is to its considerable benefit. George Martin had prepared a minimalist mix of one of the versions from the 28th of January for release as a b-side a month before Johns completed this assembly; Johns sticks to the last several songs on his cut and includes an even less polished version from nearly a week earlier, at which point Lennon is still audibly starry-eyed and in awe over Preston's contributions, giving us his Sam Cooke moment with a shout of "Take it, Bill!" just before the closing instrumental break. It's probably as great a rendition as the one on the single, or the rooftop performance in the film; all three are extraordinary moments of pure performance for the Beatles and Preston.

We come next to one of the better versions of John's "Dig a Pony," a throwaway compared to "Don't Let Me Down," though this January 23rd take is arguably stronger than the rooftop version used on Let It Be, and benefits from the fact that the "all I want is..." intro hasn't been cut as it would be by Spector (some agree with his decision and may be right, but I rather like it, and I like very little about this song!). It's a reasonably enthused performance but there's no mistaking its half-assed wordplay and uninspired melody for top-drawer Beatles; the only thing separating it from one of the bones they threw to the Yellow Submarine film is the enthusiasm of their various performances, including George's consistently strong soloing. Johns again sticks to the same day for its very next performance, of "I've Got a Feeling," in a strong, pleasingly raw and rocking variant with great call-and-response work from Lennon that was eventually issued by Apple on the Anthology 3 disc. It's hard to conclude whether Johns or Spector, who goes with a rooftop extract, uses the "better" version since they're both exceptional performances of one of the last great moments of genuine John-Paul collaboration.

Things get a bit less noteworthy for a spell: "Get Back" is the same January 27th performance as the single (which I to this day don't understand; there are at least half a dozen stronger, harder rocking performances of the song, including one in the film and one from the roof on Anthology 3); "For You Blue" is the same take Spector would use, except the latter would have George record a totally new vocal including various ad-libs breaking the monontony of his robotic original lead. And the dreadful "Teddy Boy," a Paul fake-folk trifle he was inexplicably proud enough of to record it himself on McCartney, was (mercifully) cut down a bit and featured on Anthology 3. "Two of Us" is one of the few cases in which Johns makes a significantly worse choice than Spector, who picks a far stronger (though overdubbed) take from the last day of sessions for Let It Be; one wonders why Johns didn't spring for the wonderful rock version heard in the film, which would have fit much more snugly into the overall aesthetic of the sessions, though he is maybe wiser to pair it with the acoustic "Teddy Boy" than Spector was to open the LP with it. Next comes the nadir of John's tomfoolery from this period; he was oddly excited to throw together a brief take on the mythological Liverpool prostitution ballad "Maggie Mae" for the sessions (you can hear him repeatedly reminding the others he wants to get around to it on some of the tapes), but it's really just an energized throwaway that Spector buried on the end of the first side, and the organ-based improvisation "Dig It" -- which Spector also used, though he cut it to less than a minute -- is worse yet, an aimless, opiate-addled jam that could only be seen fit for release by a band paranoid about a dearth of material.

Out of that sad detour comes the record's sudden climax, the one-two punch of Paul's anthems "Let It Be" (written for Aretha Franklin to sing, which she did) and "The Long and Winding Road," and perhaps inevitably it's on this last performance that the massive advantages of Johns' approach come into play. Spector really would ruin this song by drenching it with an orchestra, robbing it of the modesty and loneliness of its despair; as heard on the radio in 1970, it must have seemed like the Beatles' worst-ever moment of schlocky melodrama, but as played without Spector's contributions, it's a stunning, impressively desolate creation, as heard when the same take found a home on Anthology 3. "Let It Be" here resembles the eventual Martin-produced single, though I've always quite liked the harsher overdubbed guitar solo on the Spector version. Placing the two songs back to back emphasizes their gracefulness as ballads and strengthens them both. The structure of Johns' album is overall quite impressive; all that's missing is better songs from Lennon, or better acoustic material to place in the run of quieter stuff on Side Two.

Get Back was on the cusp of being released at least twice in 1969, with schedules penciled in, a cover prepared and orders taken, but it was vetoed by Beatles on every occasion, and Let It Be might well have suffered the same fate had there been enough of a unit to protest it by 1970. For years it was a strong candidate for slight cleanup and official release, but Apple took a different and wholly more frustrating approach with Let It Be... Naked in 2003. Not only did this skirt the existence of the perfectly fine Get Back album cover, an ingenious homage to the cover of Please Please Me emphasizing the "back to roots" mythos and all the clutter of disorganized rehearsals, replacing it with a photoshopped monstrosity, it attempted to treat these sessions as though they were those for a regular Beatles album, completely ignoring the unorthodox setup and very different intentions. The songs were processed, cleaned of any evidence of the original "warts and all" purpose, and thereby missed the point just as much as Spector did with all his confusion of motives. Worse yet, it didn't have the good sense to use any of the various alternate takes Johns employed, instead going either with the canonical Let It Be performances or with jarring hybrids of varying recordings from the Jan. 30th rooftop gig. The only new performance was one of "The Long and Winding Road," employed presumably because Apple had already released the Spector-less version a few years earlier; for all the considerable hype accompanying the release, it was shameful that only one actual complete new Beatles performance made it to the public; and thus, Get Back still stands up as a worthwhile candidate for official deployment by Apple in the next year or so as the fiftieth anniversary of Let It Be approaches.


When I want to hear this material, I've long used Get Back as my go-to, but I still find it a bit wanting. Part of this is, yes, that this was a misguided idea, thrown together too soon after the White Album, and the songs -- apart from some of Paul's -- just aren't top-drawer. But I also think one could make a Get Back album that, if not great, might come closer than the other attempts, and with the wealth of material available, there are a decent number of prisms in which we can view the process while still presenting an end result that might be more satisfying than what either Johns or Spector (or Martin, or Apple) was able to give us. I've always been too lazy to make my own personal Get Back, but here's my attempt, allowing myself to violate canon rules a few times by incorporating things that would get worked up on Abbey Road and other official releases:

Two of Us ["rock" version from the film]
Jenny Jenny/Slippin' and Slidin' [studio jam from Jan. 9th]
One After 909
I've Got a Feeling [Glyn Johns version]
Dig a Pony [Glyn Johns version]
For You Blue [Phil Spector version]
I Want You [from Jan. 28th, with Billy Preston co-lead vocal]
Don't Let Me Down [rooftop version (30.06)]
Blue Suede Shoes [studio jam from Jan. 26th]
Get Back [rooftop version from Anthology 3]
She Came In Through the Bathroom Window [slow version]
Stand by Me/Where Have You Been All My Life [studio jam]
Mailman, Bring Me No More Blues [studio jam from Jan. 29th w/o Anthology 3 editing]
Mama, You Been on My Mind [cover of a then-unissued Dylan song, recorded by George on Jan. 3rd]
Because I Know You Love Me So [very early Lennon-McCartney played on Jan. 3rd]
All Things Must Pass [full band version with drums from Jan. 8th]
Watching Rainbows [studio jam from Jan. 14th, for the fans]
Let It Be [Spector album version]
The Long and Winding Road [Glyn Johns version]
Two of Us [reprise, Phil Spector version]

bonus tracks:
I've Got a Feeling [Phil Spector version]
Don't Let Me Down [original b-side]
Across the Universe [Anthology 2 version]
I Me Mine [Anthology 3 version]
Sweet Little Sixteen/Around and Around
Get Back [harder rocking rehearsal from film]
Don't Let Me Down [Glyn Johns version]

sorry, no sale:
Dig It
Maggie Mae
Teddy Boy