Decade songs list and November finale delayed but coming soon. 2019 year-end stuff when I can.
Tegan and Sara: Hey, I'm Just Like You (Warner Bros.) [r]
A bout of introspection that's also culminated in an NYT bestseller has sent these 39 year-old vets and lifestyle icons back to the earliest demos they recorded as clearly precociously gifted high schoolers. Think of the Everly Brothers' Roots, with more hooks and, no shit, more attention to the alienation that would've come from being a pair of queer adolescents in the mid to late-1990s; hitting the middle of life can focus the mind in unexpected ways, and this is an act of empathy directed both toward themselves and out into the world. The Nirvana-derived song structures and the arrangements' sympathy to them are charming and require no apology. But I must tell you, I miss the rethought launch into full-fledged dance music from their last two records, which were what finally hooked me on them in the first place. Musically this is much like the earlier work I always filed away as solid but somewhat pedestrian.
- Highlights: "Don't Believe the Things They Tell You (They Lie)"
The New Pornographers: In the Morse Code of Brake Lights (Concord) [r]
After about four attempts I started to find my way into parts of this. It needs to be said that it would be nothing without Neko Case except another arch, annoying Carl Newman solo album. His lyrics have become more eccentric, more willfully obtuse and cerebral (the central motif on "Colossus of Rhodes" is "we've had break-ins before / we've had break-ins before," delivered with unwarranted gusto; another song peaks with a loving sing-song collective around "fuck you!"; and I mistook one chorus for a repetition of "chef salad" and was almost surprised when I was wrong), as though Colin Newman (no relation) circa 1988 tried to write songs for a reimagined ABBA. Like Whiteout Conditions, the record continues the trend formerly limited to his solo albums of cluttering up the songs too much until there's no way to hold them all in your head enough to find them pleasurable. That said, eventually there are some catchy, dramatic evidences of past glories, Case and Kathryn Calder, still Newman's good soldiers, redeem several songs by being willing to go all big and silly, and the occasional rollicking ballad is a bit of a relief from the too-muchness of it all. It's probably better than the last one. I still miss Bejar (who cowrote one cut, though you can't really tell), but I don't know if he'd really help much.
- Highlights: "Falling Down the Stairs of Your Smile"; "Colossus of Rhodes"; "Higher Beams"
Girl Band: The Talkies (Rough Trade) [c]
A particular kind of blast-from-the-past irony informs this Dublin quartet, who start being irritating with their name alone -- all of them are men, and isn't that clever! What will they think of next! It's the old-fashioned late '90s sheen of smug, superior disaffection. I wasn't into it then and it still sucks now. Give me pop, give me emo, give me a hundred things I don't like but hate less than this end-of-history, above-it-all bullshit that takes every single incorrect lesson from Marquee Moon and Pink Flag and even the Fall. I know these are not fresh criticisms, but this isn't fresh music either.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: Ghosteen (s/r) [hr]
A missive from the other side of the mortal line that defined Skeleton Tree; these songs were initiated and completed well after the 2015 death of Cave's son Arthur, whose loss haunted but did not initially trigger the earlier record. The band's 58 year-old keyboardist, Conway Savage, died as these latest sessions got underway. All this upheaval resulted in Cave writing more impulsively than has long been his well-structured procedure, and it's created some of the warmest but also most harrowing music released by any major artist in recent years. It lacks the morbid playfulness of something like David Bowie's Blackstar, but its existentalist wisdom and overwhelming sense of shimmering, pensive beauty give us something else entirely; but like Blackstar, it is an album that cannot be heard in fits and starts -- it demands full attention for the breadth of its considerable running time. But the rewards are bountiful, wrapped up in a mournful, hypnotic opera with unspeakable richness and power.
- Highlight: "Ghosteen Speaks"
DIIV: Deceiver (Captured Tracks) [hr]
Led by troubled pseudo rock-star Zachary Cole Smith, this band is old enough to have been catapulted into the bloghype lo-fi indie pop scene of the early 2010s but young enough to have failed to reap even the perfunctory benefits enjoyed by the likes of Drums, Beach Fossils, Real Estate, Best Coast and Surfer Blood. They seem to have attained an unexpected cult following thanks in part to their melodramatic, mockumentary-like failure to deliver album number two in a prompt manner, and now have -- post-rehab, evidently -- rebranded as a timeless shoegaze unit, feeding themselves an elder-statesman mythos they never exactly earned. Nevertheless, the music is remarkbly good: derivative (Kevin Shields, and who was more derivative in the first place, smiles ghostily upon everything but especially "Between Tides"), breezy, glorious and ceaselessly engaging. You don't have to want to love the shit out of it or even respect it, but like some back-from-the-dead angst-ridden Billy Corgan rampage, if you love American indie rock as a sound above all else, there's very little possibility this will fail to sound extremely lovely to you, and not just in the going-through-the-motions fashion of a nostalgia trip. It's delightful.
- Highlights: "For the Guilty"; "Like Before You Were Born"
Danny Brown: uknowhatimsayin? (Warp) [r]
Brown is still the most singular and multifaceted rapper working today, and arguably just as artistically ambitious as Kendrick Lamar without the frequently audible juggling of audience expectations. His distorted, unfocused and obsessive follow-up to Atrocity Exhibition, dispensing with the conceptual rigours of his last two albums, finds him in an atypically relaxed but still tirelessly creative frame of mind. Hearing him next to a Run the Jewels guest spot on "3 Tearz" makes for a rude shock; no disrespect meant to Mike and El-P, working class heroes for sure, but they sound like antiques when laid up against Brown's constantly mobile intensity as a performer, not to mention his taste in sounds, stories, ideas and outré production ("Combat"). A track like "Savage Nomad" with its cascading of warring beats over verses that are intentionally undercut by Brown's own sense of presentation and irony twists down horrific pathways few other pop musicians could muster up. And as usual, there's no nailing him down as either a manic sleaze merchant or the catchy, wise model of good sense on the title cut; he is so dedicated to avoiding coherence that it's hard to know how to file this record away.
- Highlights: "Combat"; "uknowhatimsayin?"; "Savage Nomad"
Wilco: Ode to Joy (dBpm) [hr]
Their best in more than a decade, and their first truly exceptional release since The Whole Love, a fine record which it significantly betters; you're never sure how fair you're being when you watch a band of this caliber release material that's lackluster by their standards, but all it takes is a bona fide hero move like this to reassert why this now stands as a legendary group. They've never sounded more attuned to one another, Nels Cline as locked into the moment as John Stirratt and Glenn Kotche, Jeff Tweedy operating the usual levers but never showing off or raising his voice, and everyone so committed to capturing this specific mood you could hear a pin drop. So what is the mood? It's gentle and felt, even pretty, but also hardened. It's unapologetically old, and unapologetically current. Some songs are classic Wilco with classic Wilco choruses ("Before Us," "Hold Me Anyway" and "White Wooden Cross"). Some stab and hurt like the corrosive, loving, tough "One and a Half Stars," and others plod and drone but find whole new avenues and dimensions in their doldrums ("Quiet Amplifier"). Tweedy's dour but optimistic, at times preoccupied or hypnotized. Cline, Tweedy and Pat Sansone's guitars shimmer ("Love Is Everywhere"), but the titular joy here is designed to reveal itself gradually, and eventually what sounded like appealing muck for all its clear-eyed intensity becomes a series of cathartic peaks tied to memories the songs themselves willed into existence. It is a performance akin to Tonight's the Night or New Adventures in Hi-Fi or the White Album. That said, if you don't get "Everyone Hides" immediately -- out-of-the-way hotel room music, a complete creation, lovingly sung -- I don't know what you want from rock & roll.
- Highlights: "White Wooden Cross"; "Everyone Hides"; "Quiet Amplifier"
Angel Olsen: All Mirrors (Jagjaguwar)
She still doesn't do much for me, though repeat listens made it seem less bad and at least admirable in its competence.
Big Thief: Two Hands (4AD) [r]
Their second album this year is much more status quo than U.F.O.F. and feels like a relatively straight-ahead folk-leaning rock album and even sort of a relic of a different stage in indie history. "Regrets" is the only song that could've fit on the last record, though you do get why it wasn't quite on the right scale; still, its gentle, home-fried feeling is pleasing and has the weight of history over it. The other songs are at best when they're basically showcases for Adrianne Lenker's vocals, which are given much more freedom to let loose here; I'm glad U.F.O.F. was so unerring in its precision, because it played more to the band's strengths. However, the poetic and unhinged "Not" is really masterful, "Those Girls" cops a good riff from Radiohead who copped it (unknowingly?) from Yo La Tengo, and "Forgotten Eyes" bursts out with explosive yearning that explores a band dynamic that almost seemed beside the point on the previous record. There's no way this can stand up to one of the most urgent and delicate folk-rock records of the decade but, hey, electric guitars are fun too.
- Highlights: "Not"; "Forgotten Eyes"; "Those Girls"
Fantasia: Sketchbook (Rock Soul) [r]
Don't give a fuck -- she still rules, is one of the classiest singers we've got, and her records are consistently likable. The verbose confidence, wise and tough radio balladry and the occasional tearjerker moment is all expertly crafted and charming. The T-Pain cameo is dreadful, wrecking a solid quiet-storm homage, but you won't catch me with much worse to say here than that.
- Highlights: "Fighting"; "Looking for You"; "History"
Kim Gordon: No Home Record (Matador) [r]
Maybe it's because I was never more than a casual admirer of Sonic Youth, but both Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon's initial solo contributions sound substantially more energized and vital to me than The Eternal. Gordon's record scores big as avant garde in its first half, wears out its welcome a bit when it goes for vibes, but in general is exciting and formidable.
Richard Dawson: 2020 (Weird World) [c]
Newcastle art freak folk. This absolutely sucks.
clipping.: There Existed an Addiction to Blood (Sub Pop) [hr]
If the thousand yard stare in Daveed Diggs' steely, unflinching vocal delivery doesn't do it for you, fine, but for me, whether he's distorted beyond recognition or screaming in your ear, he's still one hell of a compelling performer, especially in tandem with the head-spinning inventiveness of the avant garde, drugged-out textures surrounding him. This is clipping.'s most harrowing, apocalyptic and versatile work to date. It doesn't shoot for the same coherent narrative thread as Splendor & Misery despite its cinematic aspirations, though it does feel at times like the disembodied soundtrack to a giallo picture. The dream interludes suggest Jenny Hval with an even more macabre sense of humor, but what makes clipping. consistently unnverving is that they're so intense you never quite know if they're just having fun or not. And "Run for Your Life" (with a great verse from La Chat) boasts an aural trick I can't say I've ever heard before. But sure, it's all novelty and not real hip hop, fine, whatever.
- Highlights: "Nothing Is Safe"; "Blood of the Fang"; "Run for Your Life"
Vagabon (Nonesuch) [r]
Her major label debut is the most alternative of alterna-R&B I've heard in a while, though it leans less on indie-friendly atmospheres than did her respectable Infinite Worlds. With a couple of exceptions and one unexpectedly relentless beat, this is packed with performances more calmly beautiful than particularly distinctive, although I like Laetitia Tamko's voice a lot -- it's unique and hard to pin down but also almost cosmically reassuring.
- Highlights: "Every Woman"; "Full Moon in Gemini"; "Water Me Down"
Floating Points: Crush (Ninja Tune) [r]
Lovely textures and beats but not much that's really unusual here unless you're super fond of headphones, where the stereophonic mysteries deepen and can be quite engaging. It's pretty much the same deal as last time, which isn't so bad!
JPEGMafia: All My Heroes Are Cornballs (EQT) [hr]
Third album from Baltimore experimental wizard Barrington Hendricks, who proves everything by having nothing to prove, is sort of like if Odelay was as imaginative and breathless as I thought it was when I was 15. It's a flood of jokes and non sequiturs and self-challenges that slides in nicely with recent avant-rap manifestos from Injury Reserve and clipping. but is, honestly, quite a bit humbler and wittier, with a distinctively personal flavor so much alt-rap carefully skirts. The best comparison I know of is the underrated London O'Connor; I hope some of JPEG's thot army gives him a listen.
- Highlights: "BBW"; "Papi I Missed You"; "Free the Frail"
- Rapsody: Eve (Jamla) [my queen is Marlanna Evans from Snow Hill; "Ibtihaj"/"Whoopi"/"Cleo"]
- Brockhampton: Ginger (RCA) [my advice: stop thinking and enjoy]
- Missy Elliott: Iconology (Atlantic EP) [Slum Village memories but more please]
- Joan Shelley: Like River Loves the Sea (No Quarter) [Louisville folkie goes sweet and slow]
- Tinariwen: Amadjar (Epitaph) ["Madjam Mahilkamen"/"Mhadjar Yassouf Idjan"]
- Chrissie Hynde: Valve Bone Woe (BMG) [cheap tactics that work on me; "Caroline, No"/"No Return"]
- Pharmakon: Devour (Sacred Bones) [honestly, respect to one of the realest ones out there]
- Sampa the Great: The Return (Ninja Tune) [Sydney-based Zamibian rapper's material slaps like crazy but the LP goes on twice as long as it should and, really, I don't think you get to mock the "introspecive interlude" trend and then run full-bore into it; "Diamond in the Ruff"/"Heaven"/"Final Form"]
RECOMMENDED FOR THE AMBIENT FILES:
- Sirom: A Universe That Roasts Blossoms for a Horse (tak:til)
FURTHER INVESTIGATION TO COME:
* Bill Orcutt: Odds Against Tomorrow
Chromatics: Closer to Grey
The Menzingers: Hello Exile
Kelsey Waldon: White Noise/White Lines
Penguin Cafe: Handfuls of Night
Lightning Dust: Spectre
Julien Chang: Jules
Garcia Peoples: One Step Behind
Battles: Juice B Crypts
Homeboy Sandman: Dusty
Frankie Cosmos: Close It Quietly
Tanya Tucker: While I'm Livin' [NYIM]
Modern Nature: How to Live [NYIM]
HTRK: Venus in Leo [NYIM]
MUNA: Saves the World [NYIM]
Bat for Lashes: Lost Girls
Velvet Negroni: Neon Brown
Vivian Girls: Memory
North Mississippi Allstars: Up and Rolling
Feet: What's Inside Is More Than Just Ham
Empath: Active Listening - Night on Earth [NYIM]
Carla Dal Forno: Look Up Sharp
Kacy & Clayton: Carrying On [NYIM]
Common Holly: When I Say to You Black Lightning [NYIM]
Bodega: Shiny New Model
White Reaper: You Deserve Love
Jacques Green: Dawn Chorus
The Muffs: No Holiday [NYIM]
Refused: War Music
Caroline Polachek: Pang
Jimmy Eat World: Surviving
Foals: Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost, Pt. 2
Mark Lanegan Band: Somebody's Knocking
MUNA "Number One Fan" [Saves the World]
OLD RECORDS RATED (NOT REVIEWED) THIS MONTH
Charles Mingus: Mingus Ah Um (Columbia 1959) [hr]
Tuesday, November 26, 2019
Monday, November 11, 2019
RECOMMENDED [with reservations]
Certain aspects of the Beatles' story after Brian Epstein's untimely death reveal, after the fact, how much he had really been at the heart of their quality control and decisionmaking. It's true that their actual records didn't really suffer, thanks in part to George Martin's continued presence in the studio, but the entire Apple fiasco, for instance, demonstrates a lot of heart and a lot of good ideas but very little self-control. The same for the Magical Mystery Tour project, the completely all-in then thoroughly disgusted attitude toward India, and the loss of control and harmony within their personal relationships. Some would argue that even the White Album reflected a kind of artistic self-indulgence that would've been unthinkable under Epstein's regime. (I disagree for two reasons: one, I don't think that record's supposed indulgence, if that's even what it is, hurts it; two, Epstein was somewhat apprehensive even about the comparatively lean but still outré Sgt. Pepper.) And it's doubtful that the haphazard way in which Yellow Submarine was handled -- with the Beatles totally disinterested and offering up some of their weakest scraps of material, then belatedly regretful after the film turned out to be rather great -- would have met with the late manager's approval.
But none of the Beatles' "cock-ups," to use a phrase Paul enjoyed, have the outlandish severity of the so-called Get Back sessions from January 1969; again, they had ample good intentions: running with the White Album's emphasis on pure songcraft and occasionally raw-sounding guitar music over production stunts and drug-addled concepts to craft new material stripping the sonic adornments completely in favor of a return to "good old rock & roll," simultaneously filming the project to present the process itself and climax with a one-off return to live performance. But these plans hit a wall of asleep-at-the-wheel cluelessness in terms of practicality. There were several ways to make this idea work: for one thing, they might have dismantled the jumble of ideas by quickly recording a nasty, classic, slightly heavy rock LP and then later returning to the idea of filming themselves at work and perhaps separately considering the live concert. Maybe use two of these notions, or even just one, and leave the others for later.
But much more importantly, the cogent, logical route would probably have been to take some sort of a break before this undertaking, which meant in theory to be a quick-and-dirty rush job but turned out to be massive and bulky in execution. The White Album -- with its thirty songs a nearly thorough cleaning out of the backlog, certainly for John and Paul if not George -- had only just been completed in October, released in late November, and here were the Beatles up at (by their standards) the crack of dawn the week of January 1st at Twickenham Film Studios, forced to undergo the normally private rehearsal procedure with an entire film crew present (led by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who'd made excellent promo films for "Hey Jude" and "Revolution" that the band and Paul in particular had loved), the original plan for videotape and a smaller crew having been curtailed. Except "forced" is the wrong word -- the Beatles, perhaps less in their position as a band than in their status as heads of Apple, tyrannically demanding new product from themselves, chose to do it all this way: the tight schedule came from the looming threat of Ringo departing to make The Magic Christian with Peter Sellers, and the hated setting and nature of the sessions as well as its timing on the heels of an ambitious and wildly successful double-album (and, for what it's worth, a soundtrack record with four more new songs, out this same month) was a concoction they arbitrarily brought on. The primary engineer of the plight was Paul McCartney, who'd taken on a leadership role during this period as much because of a vacuum created by three relatively apathetic bandmates as his own theoretical bossiness, but it put him in a ready position to be resented all the same.
It was a recipe for disaster, and in many ways it turned out to be just that: the Twickenham days were long and uncomfortable. George Martin was only sporadically present, with Glyn Johns unofficially taking the helm as "balance engineer"; although none of the recordings made at the film studio were intended for official release apart from the actual movie print itself, this still underscores how many jarring changes were happening at once -- the Beatles had always been a very insular unit, and if the virtually constant presence of Yoko Ono during the White Album sessions (John's fault for not upholding the band's boundaries, not hers) hadn't been enough of a burden for their continued professional relationship, the deliberately prying eyes of Lindsay-Hogg's cameras and all the attendant chilliness of working on a soundstage nearly broke them. When Ringo departed during the White Album sessions, it had been a wake-up call and a hiccup; you could view it as a growing pain, and it ended with an open-armed act of love on the part of the Beatles toward their drummer. When George left during Get Back due mostly to continued arguments with Paul and the problems of communicating with John (one bandmate talking too much, one not nearly enough), it not only was viewed with immediate cynicism and derision by at least one bandmate, but his tentative reentrance into the fold -- with a contentious staff meeting at Ringo's house and then his sudden reappearance with the conciliatory move to the new Apple Studios to make the actual record -- was shown little fanfare as all, just sheer apathetic business as usual.
And did we mention that Apple Studios, while a better environment in most superficial ways, was a botch job by the great "Magic" Alex Mardas, a purported expert who scarcely knew what he was doing judging by the end results? The film crew's tapes still ran all the time and caught everything, but for the proper studio takes, rental equipment had to be carted in from EMI, and even that was a crudely rigged hassle, and with the room not soundproofed, climate control proved impossible -- this record was doomed to be recorded in all the freeze of a London January. All in all, the only unqualified pleasure the band experienced was the presence of Billy Preston, an old acquaintance they'd made when they opened for Little Richard way back in 1962, during the last weeks of the sessions. Preston's calming amiability and brilliantly loose, soulful keyboard playing vastly enhanced both the mood and the music. (Along with making his own fine records later on for Apple, he came with a rich history of lighting up other people's records, Ray Charles and Sam Cooke in particular; Cooke gets so excited about Preston's work during his version of "Little Red Rooster" that he calls out the then-teenager by name.) And the only moment of classic, starry-eyed Beatles triumph is the compromise gesture -- all talk of the Roundhouse and the African temple as venues for their comeback gig long since sullied, chiefly by George -- of the spontaneous-looking (but actually carefully planned) concert on the roof of the Apple building, which admittedly turned out to be a stroke of actual magic, a final proof of the Beatles' stunning vitality as a live band, and a tantalizing hint at what could have been possible if they had gone on the road again.
Even the material, by the Beatles' standards, was a bit wanting, without enough strong songs to round out one of an LP of the length of one of their classics. The eventual released album had to be filled out with an extension of George's trifling "I Me Mine" and the long-gestating and previously released (in a different form) "Across the Universe," and lest we forget, "Get Back" itself was already over a year old by most folks' standards by then. John, apparently hooked on heroin during the sessions, is back to his Revolver-Pepper phase of slumming it -- but again, so quickly after his many tour de force contributions to the White Album, who could blame him? -- and only provides us with the sickly-lean "Dig a Pony," various weak jams like "Dig It," a complementary back half to Paul's "I've Got a Feeling," and to be fair, one of the greatest songs any of the Beatles ever wrote and subject of some of their strongest, most felt performances, "Don't Let Me Down"... which, in a crushing bit of cruel irony, didn't make it to the final album, though it did find outlet as the b-side to "Get Back" shortly after the sessions wrapped. It's telling that one of the best songs added to the canon was "One After 909," one of the first things John and Paul wrote (possibly as early as the year they met), attempted then discarded at EMI in 1963, and actually the outgrowth of a whole lot of nostalgic noodling with oldies by themselves and others, the sole initially released evidence of the longing, often inept trips down memory lane that occupied the days at Twickenham and Apple.
George's songs, the other being a bouncy blues jam called "For You Blue," are scarcely better; he ran through "All Things Must Pass," another gorgeous song with his typical chronically asshole-ish lyrics, and "Isn't It a Pity" at some length but both were set aside for his proper solo debut the next year. So ultimately, as in so many other ways, this is the Paul McCartney Show -- and he does step up to the plate, with a set of songs (heavily influenced, it seems, by American soul music of the period) marking a sincerity he'd largely shirked for several years, forgoing the verbose sardonics of his White Album material with the sole intersections between these conflicting styles being the first single "Get Back," the phoned-in absurdity "Teddy Boy" and the saved-for-later "She Came In Through the Bathroom Window." Otherwise these are some of the loveliest songs in Paul's catalog, marked by the emotions of a man newly in love and one who is finally processing the death of his mother after constantly moving without a breath for more than ten years: "Two of Us," "Let It Be," "The Long and Winding Road" all poignant stops on the road to his possible masterpiece in this vein, "Maybe I'm Amazed," plus the exceptionally credible hard rocker "I've Got a Feeling." These recordings also mark what may be Paul's peak as a controlled, confident, emotive vocalist -- as much as it may have irked the others that he had his eyes on the prize, so to speak, his consciousness of delivering powerfully resonant music is obvious everywhere, and you end up feeling some sympathy for his inability to get the others to keep up, even as we realize that other, more ominous factors (mostly business, but also personal) were driving that problem.
But the Beatles recorded so much during their grueling sessions in January '69 that you actually can construct an impressive collection of material from one angle or another. Phil Spector and Glyn Johns tried their hand at it officially -- the former's attempt is song-oriented and pleasurable but compromised (string arrangements colliding with extracts of judiciously "unedited" conversation) and fails to come off as a complete construction; the latter's is more satisfying but also more interested in the vibe of a (concocted) atmosphere of a relaxed, casual Beatles rock & roll session than in presenting the group's songs at their best. Let It Be Naked would eventually attempt to tackle the whole creation as if it were a normal Beatles album, only to use inferior mixes and over-familiar takes while placing all too much unavoidable emphasis on the relative paucity of good material. (You sort of need the ancillary evidence of original concept, as Johns provided and Spector ineptly pawed at, to make this work.)
Nearly everything you'd need to offer up your own interpretation of the Get Back project is in this legendary CD bootleg, offered up from equally legendary unauthorized label Vigotone in the 1990s, which at the time was the biggest collection of Get Back material that had ever appeared in the marketplace; constructed from stolen mono Nagra reels and full of the attendant slate calls, beeps and unwelcome noises, concentrating heavily on music rather than dialogue, it's a massive boxed set (sixteen discs, seventeen if you count its obligatory inclusion of the first unissued Get Back album master) that nevertheless isn't as overwhelming as the later complete 83-disc dump of the Get Back tapes, most often circulating under the name A/B Road (and fuck me if I'm not going to try to tackle it early next year because I love you all and hate myself). There are a few significant, fan-beloved performances missing -- some wonderful variants of "Two of Us" and (believe it or not, since there are so many versions of it here) "Get Back" and the legendary jam "Watching Rainbows," for example -- but nothing you can't easily dig up elsewhere, and more than enough to give you a representative cross-section of what the Beatles achieved, or didn't achieve, during this floundering month, and more than enough to chip away until you find the perfect playlist for your own personal Get Back.
The only problem is, well, actually listening to it. Even compressing 100-odd hours down to sixteen, there's still a lot of repetition here; from a certain angle, it's a privileged experience to hear the Beatles' normally carefully secluded methodology of bearing down and bearing down and bearing down further on each song until it's absolutely perfect and tight and magically precise, a crucial element of their studio work that couldn't ever have been easy to achieve, even when they were experimenting heavily with multitrack tape and varispeeding during the Geoff Emerick era. It's a pity that we only have this verité experience on what amounts to some of the Beatles' most lackluster material. And if you're in the mood to listen to the Beatles, let's be honest, it's very rarely even Let It Be slash Get Back itself, despite its occasional shining moments of uncollected, off-the-cuff beauty, that you're going to reach for, much less hours and hours of recording sessions from same. One exception is if you're particularly fond of early rock & roll, as I am, in which case you can get a considerable kick out of the Beatles' reverence for that material and out of hearing them attempt to align with its principles -- but even then, the joy is more theoretical than anything since the band were in such relative interpersonal duress by this period. (Yes, I realize the sessions weren't as painful as is often stated, and you can hear plenty of instances of them working well together here, especially later on in the month, but the mood is unmistakably dour compared to other studio outtakes in the vaults; I'd liken it more than anything to the vibe of their 1966 live shows -- a slog with the scattered bright spot -- except these tapes are obviously better-recorded and have a greater variety of material.) As was noted by critics at the time, what's so painful about the Let It Be project is that it's such a great idea -- The Beatles Get Back! -- and except for the glorious moment on the roof on January 30th, it just doesn't live up to the promise of that idea, and with just a few tweaks and compromises it could have been so much better.
But again, saddled with this amount of music of such varying quality, there's a reason Glyn Johns was so excited to shape it all and a reason Peter Jackson is currently having a presumptive blast doing the same: you can sort of give this whole morass whatever message you want by being carefully selective. Yet who apart from the true unstoppable Beatles obsessive -- the sort who's willing to listen to horrible quality monitor mixes for hours on end -- has time for that shit? Nobody, and that's where I come in. I will walk you through some of the highlights of these highlights, and some of the lowlights of the highlights too, going disc by disc. Some of this information may prove redundant next year when Apple reaches these sessions in its vault-scraping campaign, but I doubt much of it, and I assume Thirty Days is always going to be one of the more popular Beatles boots for the shape it attempts to give all this stuff, so I hope you will find the following handy. Presumably I will go into more detail on the individual session dates when I spend next January inebriated and listening to / logging A/B Road.
Just as a reminder, these aren't super formal notes, just some thoughts and an attempt to help give some shape to all this.
DISC ONE: Jan. 3rd (with a bit of Jan. 6th)
- Nothing here from the first day of sessions, which as I remember (I did listen to the first few discs of A/B Road at one point) is mostly uneventful anyway.
- "Adagio for Strings" is Paul solo on piano, probably waiting for others to show up.
- We get a very early "Let It Be," mostly just piano and humming with some unfinished lyrics; we now know that Paul had toyed around with the song a bit during the White Album sessions.
- A shambolic cover of Bo Diddley's "Cracking Up" that briefly comes together sets the stage for the rock & roll covers to come. This is followed with several more of the legendary oldies that peppered the sessions: everyone does Elvis impressions on "All Shook Up" which segues right into "Your True Love." There is then a "Blue Suede Shoes" much more barren and impromptu-sounding than the performance that made it to Anthology 3, plus a very very slow "Three Cool Cats," an interesting arrangement that they picked back up again late in the month. Finally for now, a cool jam on "Lucille" reminds us of how fascinating it is that the Beatles had by now met and even played with nearly all of their idols and influences.
- The oft-bootlegged Paul-sung version of "I'm So Tired" sounds mostly like a joke, and ends with him imitating the record's coda, popularly interpreted as a "Paul Is Dead" clue. The White Album is fresh on everyone's mind, with John making fun of the "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" lyrics: "Charlie has a number in the [unintelligible] and lordy lordy does he have a bag of [bones?]"... "Desmond has a sparrow in his pocketbook," etc.
- Sloppy but interesting cover of "Third Man Theme"; George does rather well on it.
- The skeletal, more upbeat early "Don't Let Me Down" is jarring without Billy Preston.
- "I've Got a Feeling" is already pretty well-formed, including John's half ("everybody got a hard-on"); this is a nice low-key runthrough.
- There's a bit of a music-hall vibe to this first-week take on "One After 909," which for now seems pretty spontaneous, probably well in advance of it actually being considered for the record. One of the most intriguing (and for historians, helpful) elements of the Get Back sessions is John and Paul's habit of trotting out ancient compositions of theirs from their old '50s - early '60s notebooks and their very earliest days as collaborators and working musicians. "Because I Know You Love Me So" is a delightful example; John doesn't remember "If Tomorrow Ever Comes" quite as well, though he does join Paul after a bit, and both of them barely recall "Won't You Please Say Goodbye."
- Sam Cooke's "Bring It on Home to Me" is tackled as a dirge. The Beatles seem deliberately aimless at this juncture, with so many off-the-cuff jams like this; George takes the lead on "Short Fat Fanny" and on a barren but fun version of Marvin Gaye's "Hitch Hike," which segues into the "Hitch Hike"-influenced Beatles cut "You Can't Do That," the solo of which George is able to recall almost immaculately. On the onetime Cavern staple "Hippy Hippy Shake," Paul is super in control and everyone else... tries.
- Southern folk song "Midnight Special" predates Creedence's version by a few months. The 1916 standard "What Do You Want to Make Those Eyes at Me For?" is largely unknown to American rock & roll fans but had been a major hit in the UK in 1959 when recorded by Emile Ford.
- There's a heavily electric "All Things Must Pass" with what sounds like harmonium accompaniment.
- A very early, piano-heavy rendition of "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," with Paul's sardonic vocal making more of the murderous subject matter but boasting less irony than the master.
- Two jams close us out, one rather Booker T.-like and one labeled "You Wear Your Women Out."
DISC TWO: Jan 6th-7th
- It wasn't called for often in their career, but the Beatles were quite capable of solid jamming, as heard on the "My Imagination," "Woman Where You Been So Long" and "Oh Julie, Julia" riffs here. They're not revelatory, but they're certainly not the sludge that's sometimes reputed.
- Another oldies roll call. Chuck Berry's "I'm Talking About You" is just vocals and a wah wah pedal, which overwhelms many of the remaining songs. "Sure to Fall" is a mess but "Money" actually goes kind of hard. Later, a weird country version of "Rock and Roll Music" leads into another run of decade-old classics.
- The durability of "Don't Let Me Down" is remarkable, here and all over the collection. It already swings on this goround. The incessant beeping from the tape leaders or whatnot is very annoying, though.
- A soulful, rollicking variant on "Two of Us," another song that proved itself highly malleable to the Beatles' experiments.
- We get a nice, tough, surprisingly complete "Across the Universe" that's very different from any released take.
- Very skeletal version of future George Harrison solo cut "Hear Me Lord."
- Speaking of which, the attempt to adopt "All Things Must Pass" continues; this variant has weirdly prominent drums but a pleasing three-part harmony on the chorus.
- Early, barren-sounding "Long and Winding Road" with Paul alone on piano.
- Also very early: "Golden Slumbers" and "Carry That Weight" are already fused together at this stage.
- The rhythm of "Get Back" is slowly coming into focus.
- Interesting early, introspective version of "She Came In Through the Bathroom Window" (you'll know the arrangement from Anthology 3.
DISC THREE: Jan 8th-9th
- A piano improv opens the disc accompanied by a host of "good mornings" and such.
- There's a music-hall variant on "Stand by Me" with a highly annoying operatic Paul vocal. Other covers: Carl Perkins' "Tennessee," a nice take on Jerry Lee Lewis' "Fools Like Me," and "You Win Again" slowed down to a crawl. "Suzy Parker" is bare but fun. Cliff Richard's pre-British Invasion staple "Move It!" probably improves on the single and segues into "Good Rockin' Tonight." Lennon takes on cockney grandma mode for "House of the Rising Sun," which is nonetheless sort of fun.
- After a false start, "Two of Us" sounds kind of like "Get Back" ultimately would here, then is later heard in a rollicking rock & roll version with close harmonies well worked out but still destined to be improved.
- A very hard, screamy version of "Don't Let Me Down" -- "a sincere farewell from Rocky and the Rubbers."
- Slightly acoustic treatment on the riff from "I've Got a Feeling" plus a "good morning" scream from Paul. Another take also starts quiet but John ruins it with "weird voice."
- They're still fucking around with "Mean Mr. Mustard"; it's clearly just a novelty at this point (and forever, really).
- "All Things Must Pass" is still full band with drums, the harmony continuing to increase in sophistication.
- Still working the Anthology 3 arrangement of "Bathroom Window," here with interesting guitar work that isn't audible on that outtake.
- There's a version of "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" (opening up with some silly whistling) on which, improbably, John sosunds msore enthused than Paul.
- The time signature is evidently still a work in progress on "I Me Mine"; the guitar is a little more mystical at this stage.
- This disc climaxes with the infamous "no Pakistanis" version of "Get Back," a pointed response to Enoch Powell's rhetoric that was quickly discarded, probably because it risked being misunderstood. We also get the baffling "Get Off White Power," a rant-and-rave jam that seems cut from the same cloth. The political mood continues with "Commonwealth Song"; with all this anti-Powell sentiment, it's funny that their buddy Clapton would turn out to be such a fucking racist cunt.
- Odd to hear "Across the Universe" sung by John in his "everyday" voice, kind of droning and "guide vocal"-style; this take also incorporates some experimental guitar and Paul harmonies. This song had been in the can for some time (recorded nearly a year earlier at Abbey Road) so it's interesting that they were still working on it.
- Rockabilly lives: "For You Blue" into "Honey Hush" into "For You Blue." Sure would've liked to see what would have made it to a setlist on that late '60s Beatles tour that never happened.
DISC FOUR: Jan. 9th-15th
- The last disc that focuses on the Twickenham rehearsals, taking us to the point of George Harrison's temporary departure.
- "Rambling Woman" is just solo vamping with some aint vocals.
- A lovely, very basic cover of Dylan's then-new "I Threw It All Away," though it's a bit hard to hear the vocals. This is followed by a stunning version of the long-unissued Dylan obscurity "Mama You Been on My Mind," one of the best buried treasures in this set.
- Paul sings alone on "That'll Be the Day," a fun contrast to the John-led 1958 Quarrymen version. Also covered: "High Heel Sneakers"; a cabaret version of "Don't Be Cruel" with another of John's weird voices; "Take This Hammer" trad./arr.; and "Hello Dolly," surprisingly straightforward.
- One of the best of the oldies jams from these sessions appears here, the raucous Paul-led "Jenny Jenny"-"Slippin' and Sliding" medley. At one point John makes the same (gibberish?) sounds that precede "Bathroom Window" on Abbey Road; still no clue what he's saying but it may involve Mal Evans' name.
- This "Let It Be" has a nice vocal; Paul fills in a few spaces with scatting and a reference to Record Mirror!
- A super high energy proto-punk "Get Back" (really wish they'd stuck to this arrangement, though the rooftop version is good too), then another solid fast version of "Two of Us."
- "I'm Talking About You" disappoints; it's mostly footsteps.
- John flips out on his bit of "I've Got a Feeling" then starts laughing; "everybody had a socks up," etc. He then uses a super abrasive vocal style on "Don't Let Me Down," kind of a Howlin' Wolf version of the track. The latest iteration of "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" is essentially just Lennon making fun of the song.
- There's a very weird original called "On Sunny Island," evidently made up on the spot. The sense of things falling apart coalesces in a series of particularly aimless improvisations (interspersed with "The Peanut Vendor" and "Brazil") and some conversation during "It's Only Make Believe." Paul and Ringo fool around together on the piano at one point.
- "Back Seat of My Car," future Ram cut, is a Paul solo piano demo that goes on for ages. He also improvs, based on a Brahms melody, on something called "This Song of Love," during which he thanks Michael Lindsay-Hogg by name.
- "Madman" is an actual unreleased Lennon song.
- "Mean Mr. Mustard" here contains the lyrics "such a dirty bastard."
- Closes out with an unstructured rehearsal of "Oh! Darling," not great but slightly interesting.
DISC FIVE: Jan. 22nd-23rd
- We move into the Apple studio. This is procession of jams that are quite fun, with John in great voice, plus the reading of the famous "drugs, divorce and a slipping image" tidbit.
- Billy Preston first appears and "Don't Let Me Down" and "I've Got a Feeling" while "Dig a Pony"... stagnates.
DISC SIX: Jan. 22nd-24th
- Some interesting minor variations on familiar stuff here, but mostly just the Beatles working through and still developing the songs.
- A good four-minute jam at the halfway mark.
- Some lackluster rarities like "Child of Nature" too, although John and Paul do pull out their otherwise forgotten 1950s composition "Fancy Me Chances."
- The rapport between John and Paul, and the intuitive nature of their relationship, couldn't be clearer.
DISC SEVEN: Jan. 24th-25th
- "There You Are Eddie" is a lost Paul song. It's not awful but the rest of the band isn't really falling in line behind him.
- We get a skiffle medley, continuing with the delving into the band's roots. They also dredge up "I Lost My Little Girl," the first song Paul ever wrote but sung here by John -- surprisingly soulful!
- There's a slow blues version of "Bad Boy" and an excellent jam around "Sweet Little Sixteen" and "Around and Around." A spontaneous "Almost Grown" sounds very cool, too.
- "Dig It" sucks so, so much.
- "Get Back" exclamation: "Yeah! Or should I say... no." A long jam on the song later culminates in Paul repeating "get back. Get a job. Go home."
- With Billy Preston in tow, a "Stand by Me" cover is very pretty and fun with a superb John vocal that leads everyone into Arthur Alexander's "Where Have You Been."
- "Two of Us" has gotten slower and sweeter, hence the segue into "Bye Bye Love."
- "I loved that piano the moment that I saw you" - George during "For You Blue."
DISC EIGHT: Jan. 25th-26th
- This CD is repetitive even by the standards of Beatles bootlegs; with the collection already heavily compressed down from a much longer one, one has to wonder why it's arranged in this manner that really precludes listenability.
- Paul says "back to the drudgery" after a Chuck Berry cover and John sounds angry! "It's you that's bloody making it like this!"
- Lots of scatting during these versions of "Let It Be." Also: "in my darkest hour he is sitting on the lavatory."
- A very very early "Isn't It a Pity," which sounds like a tape playback.
- Ringo's on piano, it seems, for a kind of adorable version of "Octopus's Garden."
- They goof around more on some Jerry Lee Lewis numbers.
- This disc contains every second of the interminable "Dig It" with Paul's stepdaughter-to-be Heather crying and wailing all through it. It's so many worlds worse than any Yoko jam or any of the Velvet Underground's shapeless experiments. It's as bad as the endless instrumental noodling the Beatles were recording at home in 1960.
- We find out here that the released "Rip It Up" jam starts out very meandering, though it's more complete than what came out in 1996. It also ends immediately after "Shake, Rattle and Roll," with "Blue Suede Shoes" gathered up from a bit later.
DISC NINE: Jan. 26th-27th (plus one track from the 30th)
- Incredible playing by Billy Preston on "Miss Ann."
- Yet another weird variant on "Let It Be," with Paul singing something like "Oh still my little girl / let it be."
- Compensating for the "Dig It" catastrophe, there's a Yoko Ono-fronted improvisation here.
- John is apparently trying to learn the bass in real time on one of the "Long and Winding Road" takes.
- Speaking of which, why did the compilers put so many versions of that song here and then randomly cut into the master take?
DISC TEN: Jan. 27th
- Another day, another "Let It Be" filled with a bunch of scatting.
- Early attempts at "Old Brown Shoe," which does not seem to be finished yet.
- The six-minute untitled improvisation sounds like "Helter Skelter."
- Treading water here; heaps of "Get Back" versions and too much that's similar to what we've already heard in this collection.
DISC ELEVEN: Jan 27th-28th
- Paul sings "Get Back" in phony German. Very novel! Very hilarious! Paul, you're amazing sweetie. (Okay the spoken adlibs are kind of funny.)
- The band as a whole is more focused by now; the songs are hitting their final form and the jams have more of a shape -- but are, consequently, less fun to to listen to. The alternate versions are harder to tell apart as the band gets closer to trying to lay their new compositions down once and for all.
- They experiment with going extra hard on "I've Got a Feeling"; Paul later tries a softer blues vocal, which is especially odd on the bridge. Bonus: "On your what?" "On my toes!" "That's very nice for you."
- "Moving Along the River Rhine" is a quite credible number that turns into a blues version of "The Long and Winding Road."
- John tries singing lead on the verses of "I've Got a Feeling"; it's unexpected and rather cool, and he adds some interesting melodic changes.
- John, in sing-song voice after "Dig a Pony": "Iiii think the other one was much betterrrrr / let's do Get baaaack"
- Draggy old man version of "Love Me Do," kind of a Gene Vincent cabaret burlesque thing.
- Paul does the Gorillaz "Feel Good Inc." laugh at the end of one of the "Get Back" takes.
- "Get back and put on your high heeled weater."
- Apparently the single version of "Don't Let Me Down" mixes out or alters some of the vocals; we can hear them on this isc.
- "Don't Let Me Down"; John: "You'd better not after all that."
DISC TWELVE: Jan. 28th-29th
- Did "One After 909" start off as a goof in these sessions like the other very old Lennon-McCartney songs? It sounds like it.
- Billy Preston co-lead vocal on "I Want You (She's So Heavy)"; very swampy and groovy.
- An experiment with bluesier guitar on "Old Brown Shoe" approaches "For You Blue" territory.
- John sings backup on "Something" here.
- It's only a skeleton of arrangement, as it was earlier in the month, but the Beatles' backing vocals on "All Things Must Pass" do sound nice. (John and Paul don't seem to be taking the song seriously, though.)
- John during "I Want You": "Allen Klein's here. Look out!"
- There are now some experiments with making "I've Got a Feeling" quieter. Also a listless (intentionally?) version of "Don't Let Me Down."
- The sessions from the 29th are very (too?) chill and it doesn't sound like Billy is around, though he would be later on in the day.
DISC THIRTEEN: Jan. 29th
- The first "Long and Winding Road" here offers one of Paul's loveliest vocals.
- Future All Things Must Pass track "Let It Down" shows up here in what sounds like a relatively simple arrangement. All Beatles may not be present?
- A much more elaborate, organ-oriented jam on "I Want You," with an amazing vocal by Billy Preston.
- It sounds like John briefly takes the lead on "Something."
- They're still trying to develop "Dig It" into something but it just isn't. John namedrops every song from the Get Back sessions (including "Across the Universe" and "Maxwell's Silver Hammer"!) in this jam.
- We get, of all things, a drone-rock version of "Three Cool Cats."
- During an attempted Chuck Berry cover, John lets loose a "fuck you" then criticizes Paul for "wasting time"!
- One more shambolic oldies medley, this one with "Cannonball" and "Not Fade Away," which leads into nice run of Buddy Holly stuff. "Mailman, Bring Me No More Blues," later released with a lot of editing and reverb, is the obvious highlight, but John sings "Maybe Baby" beautifully underneath the confused guitar.
- Another rare 1950s Lennon-McCartney original in the wild: "Thinking of Linking."
DISC FOURTEEN - THE COMPLETE ROOFTOP CONCERT: Jan. 30th
- One last live triumph for a band that was so often denied the chance to demonstrate their real power on stage once they became famous. Their performance on a cold midday in London atop the Apple building on Saville Row, with Billy Preston in tow, was ingeniously calculated to keep them insulated from anything that could prevent a tour de force climactic moment for the film being shot. Paul even hoped they might get arrested for noise ordinance violations and be able to end the film with that.
- For all the disharmony that existed in the Beatles' unit by now, it simply can't be denied that they sound glorious here, and every fan should hear this in complete form despite the repetition of some songs. (Since the primary object of concern was the documentary, they ran through multiple takes in many cases.) Rooftop versions of "Get Back" and "Don't Let Me Down" have circulated wildly through official channels, and of course "Dig a Pony," "I've Got a Feeling" and "One After 909" made it in this fleetingly sympatico, raw form to the canonical Let It Be album. But everything here is a pleasure. It's an electric moment. What else can you possibly say? The Beatles debuting new material in the most disruptive but oddly private way possible. It's magic, and as so often with this band, iconic and endlessly imitated for good reason. And of course it's the best part of the accompanying film.
DISC FIFTEEN: Jan. 31st
- This final day of sessions has a "last day of school" feeling about it except when they're really focused (and they did lay down some masters on this day). They're generally more relaxed, therefore better, during the jam sessions. There's even a bluesy "Run for Your Life" interpolation!
- Many of these performances are also thoroughly haunting. You hear it every time he sings "The Long and Winding Road." (Takes 15 and 16 are particularly good.)
- Classic Paul quote: "couple of cock-ups in that one."
- "Try a Little Tenderness" gets invoked during a "Lady Madonna" burlesque.
DISC SIXTEEN: Jan. 31st
- Paul singing "I Want You": not great!
- [After some microphone troubles:] "What the fuck's going on? It doesn't matter about popping... popping's in now!"
- John is very impatient to get cracking on "Maggie Mae," of all things. Apparently it's something he really wanted on the album, which means Let It Be Naked would likely have made him very unhappy.
- Some minimal backing vocals on "Let It Be," and we're back to the "Brother Malcolm" lyrics on some takes.
- Choice quotes: "What the shit and hell's going on here?"; "Don't kid us, Glyn, give it to us straight." This is as close as we get to BBC-style interplay at this late date in the Beatles' career, so enjoy it.
- John makes clear his desperation to be relieved of bass duties.
- There is a spontaneous nicely sung version of "Oh! Darling" that, alas, falls apart at the bridge.
- Everyone moves on and the story ends. They would limp along as a band for a few more months and even complete another album, but you get a feeling of real finality here. And you also feel that, blasphemous as it may be, perhaps it really was time.