Wednesday, February 19, 2020

New Music Report #1


These are all releases from the last quarter of 2019, but I'm tweaking the format on new music posts here a little. The emphasis of this blog is shifting back to giving me an outlet to write about my favorites, largely 20th century stuff, but capsules and very short takes dedicated to new albums will continue on an irregular basis along with annual best-of lists and the other obligations to continuing to check in on and pay attention to current releases, which does remain important to me as your curator. These posts will be numbered, not tied to a specific time period, and will show up every third or fourth time you hear from me. This first post basically continues the format as it used to stand for the monthly dispatches, but after this, I generally won't bother doing complete capsule reviews of records I don't particularly like by artists I don't know. So it will mostly be the regular recommendation gazette, plus the continued regular followings of musical careers that have mattered to us in some capacity over the past decade. (In other words, the only detailed pans will be for performers I actually respect.)

I will continue exclusively to cover studio albums in these posts, although I'll often have a couple of quick notes on other things. In this case: I haven't typed out a review yet but the Beach Boys' annual archive dump this year amounted to just three songs (now available on all your streaming services), one of them the horrifying bootlegged curiosity item "Over the Waves"; I don't quite know how to catalog this -- an EP? a compilation? -- but I will add a brief response to the Beach Boys discography soon after you read this. Also, an enthusiastic recommendation here for Courtney Barnett's MTV Unplugged album, which like so much of her career thus far is inspiring and layered and never takes the easy way out, rearranging several of her best songs and closing out with a perfectly stunning Leonard Cohen cover.

Here are my last album reviews for 2019. The overarching theme is "I give up." Embarrassed to say I had this post basically ready for several weeks and never got around to formatting it; meanwhile Beatles stuff I didn't intend to put up yet got posted automatically because I didn't realize the dates I'd set for them were so close. Fear not, this isn't entirely turning into a Beatles blog. (A Dylan blog? Well, we'll talk. Watch the Netflix doco if you haven't.)

Kanye West: Jesus Is King (Def Jam) [r]
[Long, heavy sigh.] I don't think this is a bad record. I'm not even sure it's not a better record than Slow Train Coming, or The Life of Pablo. At this stage, with Kanye West's public personage never more insufferable, I will go ahead and tell you I don't think he can make a bad record, or maybe more accurately, an uninteresting one. This is respectable, it's honest (if it weren't honest, it wouldn't be so completely fixated on how religion has benefitted West personally as opposed to why it matters beyond his personal borders), it's hooked on minimalism -- though it does feel a lot longer than it is -- and it's brilliantly produced. The touches of apocalypse on "Selah" echo the happier-for-Kanye times of 2004, "Follow God" has more eyes and ears on it than all the Youtube rants it vaguely approximates combined, and the central joke of "Closed on Sunday" is somewhere on the humor level of Joe Biden's stump speech but West repeats it so incessantly it becomes hysterical. There's club stuff later, Atari skating rink shit, sort of Kanye business as usual except no "explicit lyrics" until it comes in for the home stretch and starts unleashing his most unfiltered paranoia yet. "God Is" is almost undeniably an outstanding piece of music -- the sampling, the production, even West's slightly awkward vocals -- and leads into a pair of tunes that evoke Nine Inch Nails and "Night on Bald Mountain." Again, it's slim, it's weird, it's audacious, the Jesus stuff is icky, but this is honestly more effort and distinctiveness than most superstars are serving up after almost two decades in the spotlight.

King Princess: Cheap Queen (Columbia)
Mikaela Straus was born the year teen pop began to reassert its dominance in America, and her music demonstrates the way that the money-grubbing adolescent charms of that music has assimiliated in what is essentially fridge-buzz adult contemporary -- the best, most idiosyncratic song on her debut album is the one that runs under a minute and a half -- spotty, grown up, vaguely alt-leaning, decent, but also homogenized. We've reached the point when a singer-songwriter can sound like her work was written and vetted by a committee, and can you blame her? It's in the blood now, the water, whatever. Anyway, this has some nice sounds and grooves; "Hit the Back" is kind of Shura-esque.

Miranda Lambert: Wildcard (Sony)
Never sure what to say about these country albums; thankfully this is probably the last time I'll have to try to review one. This seems perfectly fine to me, and while it rarely asserts itself to these ears, I appreciate the hard-won life advice of "It All Comes Out in the Wash," the anticarceral feminism of "Way Too Pretty for Prison" and the new wave influence of "Track Record." But I'm so clearly not a part of this audience, I can't really endorse or condemn.

Sudan Archives: Athena (Stones Throw) [r]
Debut from L.A.-based singer-songwriter Brittney Parks relies equally on her violin virtuosity and an attraction to experimental R&B. There's not a lot going on but it sounds good late at night, especially if you're not sober.

Michael Kiwanuka: Kiwanuka (Interscope) [r]
On a rampage, having a great one, artistically engaged and totally floating in space with no outside intrusions. Best songs: "Living in Denial" and "Hero."

Earl Sweatshirt: Feet of Clay (Warner Bros.)
A ripped-up postcard from Earl, like entering a very heated conversation midstream. Seventeen minutes feel like ages. For what it's worth, this is weirder music than anything on any indie label at the moment.

Bonnie "Prince" Billy: I Made a Place (Drag City)
Will Oldham, total lifer, total institution, wailing tunes and sharing rants in the movies, you know all this, but it maybe bears asking how much the Folk Wing of the college-indie rock metaverse is comprised of people who secretly wish they were back at home cranking John Denver records on the turntable. Oldham's latest is inoffensive until it simply goes on too long, with reasonably happy memories of Loudon Wainwright and Cat Stevens and Richard Thompson and Oar, a jaunty opener, a lovably intimate second cut and some pleasing female co-vocals. There are also some really stupid lyrics, some bad Dylan, some melodies you swear you've heard before... but what do you say? It's a nice voice I reckon ("Mama Mama") and it's some guy playing guitar.

Leonard Cohen: Thanks for the Dance (Columbia) [hr]
Times have deteriorated, and the late Cohen's scraps are more interesting than the stuff Oldham gathers in a walled garden and hires a PR department to flog mercilessly; that goes too for most of Oldham's peers and younger, from Phil Elverum to Snail Mail; it's not their fault, it's just a fucking embarrassment, Cohen barely even breathed into a microphone to create this brief collection of fragmented, incomplete ideas surrounded by absorbing production and old ideas and it still ruins everything anybody might try to do in his wake. There's a song that's shaped by some verses he casually slipped into the microphone at a press conference a few months before his death; the music that surrounds his words thanks to producer-composer Adam Cohen is basically generic atmosphere, you can still vaguely make out the ambiance of the room and the whole thing is a fairly awkward concoction and it beats the living shit out of Sun Kil Moon's entire body of work. Cohen dicking around, at death's door, unaware that he is even making music is more impressive than if Car Seat Headrest was given a MacArthur Genius grant and spent it creating a new kind of music no one had ever heard before. Father John Misty should retire because his life is pointless. We should all retire. We should all retire and listen to this absolute asshole body us all with something called "The Night of Santiago," corny and silly and romantic, because it is more touching and effective than any artistic thought or impulse that will ever be generated from our foolish little heads. Beck guests on this. I think Feist or someone does too. Nobody cares. Cohen grunts and snarls and talks and that's all the fuck we care about, that's the only substance there is to anything. Respect to an absolute God. I miss him so much, and hearing him here is very cathartic.

Davido: A Good Time (RCA) [c]
U.S.-Nigerian singer updates "worldbeat" for the confines of R&B radio with all the short-sighted commercialism thereby implied. His performances are enthusiastic. The writing is generic, the production sometimes effective, and the album is much too long.

Tinashe: Songs for You (s/r) [r]
Jumping ship from the A-list to delve into her own ecosystem, this major talent could benefit from more outside editing but there's a lot to love here, especially the acid nocturne of "Save Room for Us" and the towering sound of not giving a fuck on "Perfect Crime."

The regular feature in which I check the Discogs pages of everyone who got an exceptionally positive review here in the last ten years to see if they came out with something and I missed it. This time out I ended up with quite a few collabs and mixtapes and oddities but seemingly only one legitimate studio album:

The Last Poets: Transcending Toxic Times (Ropeadope) [r]
Not as vivid, and a little bit of a retread, but of course engaging.

In terms of shorter form releases, I ran into a couple of mild mediocrities from artists who did better work this year:

Samiyam: I Got Shit to Do (s/r)
Curren$y/Freddie Gibbs/Alchemist: Fetti (Jet Life)

And while some may disagree, I personally think consistency is a fine trait for a musician, so I will note that all of the below releases feature the artists in question doing exactly what you expect of them and doing it well.

Samiyam: One on Each Planet (s/r EP) [r]
Curren$y & Statik Selektah: Gran Turismo (Jet Life) [r]
Iglooghost, Kai Whiston & BABii: XYZ (Supernature) [r]
Songhoy Blues: Meet Me in the City (Fat Possum EP) [r]
Surfer Blood: Hourly Haunts (Persona Non Grata EP) [r]
My only minor notes here: the Samiyam has some genuinely freaky sounds on it, and the Surfer Blood disc is quite lovely, full of songs that sound like covers but aren't.

- The Menzingers: Hello Exile (Epitaph) [I'm kinda getting emotional here, man]
- Chromatics: Closer to Grey (Italians Do It Better) [like so many houseguests, incredibly fun for the first few hours; "On the Wall"/"You're No Good"/"Closer to Grey"]
- Homeboy Sandman: Dusty (Mello Music) [oft engaging, oft poetry-slam dumb, always impressive sonically]

- Bill Orcutt: Odds Against Tomorrow (Palilalia)
- Penguin Cafe: Handfuls of Night (Erased Tapes)

Kelsey Waldon: White Noise/White Lines
Lightning Dust: Spectre
Julien Chang: Jules [NYIM]
Garcia Peoples: One Step Behind [NYIM]
Battles: Juice B Crypts

Battles ft. Merrill Garbus "Last Supper on Shasta" [Juice B Crypts]
Tame Impala "Patience" [non-LP single]
Tierra Whack "Only Child" [non-LP single]
Vince Staples "So What?" [non-LP single]
Wye Oak "Fortune" [non-LP single]
Rolling Blackouts C.F. "In the Capital"/"Read My Mind" [non-LP singles]
Pusha T ft. Ms. Lauryn Hill "Coming Home" [non-LP single]
Charly Bliss "All I Want for Christmas Is You" [non-LP single] {Mariah Carey cover}

Courtney Barnett: MTV Unplugged: Live in Melbourne (Mom + Pop 2019) [hr]
Curtis Mayfield: Curtis (Curtom 1970) [hr]
Derek and the Dominoes: Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (Polydor 1970) [-] {Still just can't.}
Flying Lotus: Presents INFINITY Infinitum Maida Vale Session (Stranded 2010/2019) [r]
Frank Sinatra: In the Wee Small Hours (Capitol 1955) [r]

My very late 2019 list is forthcoming, followed by a revised decade list that will incorporate those results, with lots of other, more carefully written stuff in the interim. Let me know if you have any questions.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

The Beatles capsules: EPs and CD singles


The Beatles: Twist and Shout (Parlophone EP 1963) [r]
The EP market was relatively important in Britain in the early 1960s, a sort of compromise for kids who wanted more than singles but couldn't afford longer-form releases, though it would waver as the Beatles' career went on; but in 1963, all but two tracks from their debut album Please Please Me would make it to budget-line mono-only 7" releases with four cuts each. This first venture into the market repackages the last four selections on Side Two of the LP; it sold briskly -- making the top ten singles chart in Britain -- and boasts iconic cover art, making a pseudo-A side out of one of the band's most popular covers (and a later smash hit in America, where it was issued by Vee Jay's Tollie subsidiary as a single). That signature performance and "There's a Place," one of the best and most energized songs in the Beatles' entire catalog, are joined by two of the slightly less memorable cuts from the record, Paul's schmaltzy version of "A Taste of Honey" and the George-sung love ballad "Do You Want to Know a Secret." Both are solidly atmospheric, just not nearly as strong as the mainline Lennon-dominated tracks. Note that two of the songs on this EP would be enormous hits when released as singles in America the following year. Also note cover art so distinctive that Capitol of Canada recommissioned for an album.

The Beatles: The Beatles' Hits (Parlophone EP 1963) [r]
Well, "straightforward" is the only word for this one -- it's exactly what the title says, a Beatles greatest hits package as of, uh, September '63 and originally intended to come out before Twist and Shout. ("She Loves You" was still on the charts so didn't qualify for the momentum-killer of an EP release.) It has the first three singles plus the b-side of the third, "Thank You Girl." "Please Please Me" is by far the best track and "From Me to You" never has seemed adequate as a follow-up despite its popularity... but there's no use denying that this is a totally charming eight minutes of entertainment, and like many of these 7" EPs, it explains the heft and novelty of Beatlemania well enough that a future civilization encountering it and no other evidence of the phenomenon would at least get the idea. Note that the cover art was basically recommissioned in America for Introducing the Beatles. Version notes: this is "Please Please Me" in mono with no vocal flub, "Thank You Girl" with no extra harmonica, "From Me to You" with all the harmonica, and "Love Me Do" with Andy White on drums. Authenticity! (Mostly.) (I have to admit, however -- I really miss the extra flourishes in the stereo "Thank You Girl." Sue me!) Incidentally, since the classic explanation for EPs is as a stopgap for those who didn't want to buy albums, I have to wonder what the point was of packaging tracks that were available on singles in this manner... but the thing went Silver all the same.

The Beatles: No. 1 (Parlophone EP 1963)
That's right, a fourth (fifth, if you count Get Back) release whose cover features the band in that same pose on the EMI staircase, though this is an outtake from the same session. Released just three weeks before the Beatles' sophomore album With the Beatles, which would consist entirely of heretofore unheard material, this EP squeezes out the last bit of blood from Please Please Me, representing nothing more than the first four songs from the longplayer: "I Saw Her Standing There," "Misery," "Anna" and "Chains" in their standard mono album mixes -- an interesting cross section: two covers, two originals, two John leads, one Paul, one George. It's great music, obviously, but it's a basically pointless entity since it just makes you want to sit through the rest of Please, without even the dubious novelty of a divergent tracklist. And across the annals of history's many never-requested sequels, it may be significant that Parlophone never bothered with a The Beatles, No. 2, though this did apparently sell by the bucketload. My goodness, "Anna" is an exquisite performance, isn't it? Anyway, at least the label was done plundering the first LP...

The Beatles: All My Loving (Parlophone EP 1964) [r]
... or were they!?!? Released two days before the Beatles staked their claim on American popular culture with their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show (which they coincidentally would open with this EP's title cut), this odd little number pairs two standout songs from the recent (and single-free) With the Beatles with two cuts recorded all the way back in '62 and incorporated on Please Please Me, which creates a bit of disconnect when two of their most sophisticated recordings to date ("All My Loving" and "Money") are heard in conjunction with the comparatively flaccid "P.S. I Love You," from their very first single... though John's early b-side "Ask Me Why" still holds up in all its plaintive naivete, then and now. As usual these are mono, so you're getting a less chaotic "Money" than you probably remember. Still, three terrific songs and one decent one, presumably not bad for however much this cost.

The Beatles: Long Tall Sally (Parlophone EP 1964) [A+]
On the other hand, this all-original item is really and truly part of the Beatles' canon; Past Masters be damned, it is a transcendently great record all its own, the band's first EP of entirely new content. You can nitpick, of course; there weren't really any dedicated sessions for it -- the songs were chiefly recorded for the American market, three are covers and one is a spectacular original that John somewhat bizarrely gave away to Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas -- and you can grab all of its contents on any number of other releases now, but this lovely 7" slice of madness is the ideal way to hear them. It's unquestionably one of the greatest EPs ever released, with four sterling, hyped-the-fuck-up Beatles rock & roll classics. Okay, fine, "Matchbox" is kind of a mess in mono, but don't be a dickweed, just switch it out with the stereo mix and let Ringo have one of his finest recorded moments slathering his winning self all over the Carl Perkins classic. Hearing the EPs in sequence, this isn't just a leap forward in terms of it featuring content that isn't already ubiquitous in the standard catalog, but also in the sense of the band's obvious confidence and untouchability. Even now, it sounds like eternal youth on fire, and such passion too.

Paul's one-take wonder of a vocal performance on the boisterous title cut is his final answer to John destroying "Twist and Shout" a year earlier; the energetic covers of Larry Williams' "Slow Down" -- one of the best rockers in the catalog -- and Perkins' "Matchbox" reassert the band's status as rock & roll titans through and through. But if you think John's vocal on "Slow Down" is shattering -- and it is, with the same character of lust and desperation heard on the long-unreleased version of Little Willie John's "Leave My Kitten Alone," and leaving Williams' original floundering (unlike the great Arthur Alexander, Williams is a bit of a curious choice for a Lennon obsession; while not bad and clearly gifted, he comes across to me as a bit of a road-company Little Richard) -- wait till you get to the Beatles' definitive version of the original Lennon composition "I Call Your Name," better known as sung by others for some ungodly reason. It's quite frankly one of the most impressive and alluring pop songs ever put on tape in my opinion, and it doesn't hurt that Lennon's vocal on the track is one of the finest moments on record by rock & roll's best white singer ever. "Mother" is probably its only competition in terms of capturing the sound of his own tortured exorcism. The ska-like instrumental break, too, must count as the most inspired, perfect moment in any of his songs. The whole recording is dynamite, and the pacing never flags across the rest of the record or from the other three cuts being joined by such a masterpiece. In evaluating the Beatles' repertoire in sequence, you're missing an enormous piece of the story if you move straight from With the Beatles to A Hard Day's Night without pausing here. If you don't feel like programming Past Masters to make this work, there was a handy (and overpriced) Record Store Day release of the EP a few years back that should still be in some abudance online. It's rather surprising that Twist and Shout, not this disc, was the Beatles' top-selling EP.

The Beatles: Extracts from the Film "A Hard Day's Night" (Parlophone EP 1964) [r]
Parlophone began a practice here of delaying EPs until quite some months after a corresponding album came out, perhaps to let sales of an LP run out the clock before trying to push supplemental packages, but thanks to the sheer popularity of the Beatles' long-playing records, that along with the general downturn in audience size for the format began to circumvent the previously dependable popularity of these EPs. A Hard Day's Night, film and LP, had come out in the summer of 1964 -- this and its sister disc below were issued in November, and the songs were basically old hat, but infallible material all the same. No sensible person could argue with any chance to hear "I Should Have Known Better," "If I Fell" or "And I Love Her," and "Tell Me Why" is only an insignificant step downward. If you bought the two singles from AHDN, I guess you could pick this up and say you had all but one of the film songs, but then, wouldn't it be cheaper to buy the fucking album?

The Beatles: Extracts from the Album "A Hard Day's Night" (Parlophone EP 1964) [r]
Four tremendously good-to-great songs -- again, "When I Get Home" is slightly below the caliber of "Any Time at All," "I'll Cry Instead" and "Things We Said Today," but not offensively so -- but this is even more pointless than the Extracts from the Film release, since the hypothetical 7"-only buyer would find "Things" a redundant inclusion having been a b-side. Perhaps as a result (and its hideous cover art couldn't have helped; there's a substantial collector market for these EPs because they're mostly lovely to look at, but this is the one exception), this sold poorly compared to the other AHDN EP released the same day, and in fact was the weakest seller in the Beatles' entire UK catalog up to this point.

The Beatles: Beatles for Sale [No. 1] (Parlophone EP 1965) [r]
Seems like an innocent enough continuation of protocol until you notice the release date of April 1965, four months after the album of the same title was issued, and just three days ahead of the first single from the band's next project, "Ticket to Ride." The product feels like quite the afterthought. As usual, though, the songs are undeniable: the first two selections from side one of BFS, "No Reply" and "I'm a Loser," both gorgeously morose Lennon lamentations, and then two upbeat numbers: the respectably fired-up rendition of Chuck Berry's "Rock and Roll Music" and the American #1 hit "Eight Days a Week." But who was this for?

The Beatles: Beatles for Sale No. 2 (Parlophone EP 1965)
This time the track selection is as strange as the release date -- June 1965, with Help! on its way to theaters and record stores -- and I don't care how much money you saved by picking this up instead of the LP, three minutes fifty-one seconds for an entire side doesn't qualify as "extended" anything. "I'll Follow the Sun" is a sweet trifle but it's only 1:46 and it's followed on with "Baby's in Black," which while an admirably macabre song isn't exactly one of the signature songs from this album, even though the Beatles got a strange thrill out of constantly playing it live. Side B is a little better, with the fine if straightforward Buddy Holly cover "Words of Love" and a return to the well of Lennon's folk-rock miseries via "I Don't Want to Spoil the Party"... but there was plenty of material to make this a more appealing release, preferably not six months after the songs were new. The audience for this kind of thing was rapidly diminishing; quite simply, Beatles fans already had this stuff and had had it for a while.

The Beatles: The Beatles' Million Sellers (Parlophone EP 1965) [hr]
Of the Beatles EPs populated by existing, already released material, this is the best -- chiefly because it serves something like a direct and obvious purpose especially in conjunction with the earlier The Beatles' Hits. It gathers their four biggest singles from mid-1963 to late '64, "She Loves You," "I Want to Hold Your Hand," "Can't Buy Me Love" and "I Feel Fine," and in doing so nails a batting average that could make any self-respecting rock band envious. It's a welcome ten-minute shot of some of the most exciting rock & roll ever recorded, many decades later it still sounds fabulous, and in contrast to virtually every Beatles greatest-hits, its energy doesn't flag. It knows of no world after Beatlemania so it stands as a perfectly encapsulated, enshrined-in-gold moment. As noted with Hits, a Martian who'd never heard of these Beatle characters might want to start here. Stunning cover, too.

A housekeeping note: does this EP qualify as a "new release" for 1965 (in which it actually competed for the Christmas market with Rubber Soul and the "Day Tripper" c/w "We Can Work It Out" single), or is it a compilation despite containing only four songs? I lean on it as an original release and date it as such, since technically most of the Beatles' EPs were previously released material, and since it was once common for old songs to be recommissioned as singles and to sometimes become hits ("Tears of a Clown," for instance). But it's a gray area, and the kind of thing we here at The Only Engine lose sleep over!

The Beatles: Yesterday (Parlophone EP 1966)
Makes perfect sense on the face of it: "Yesterday" had quickly become one of the Beatles' most beloved songs, would eventually perhaps be their best-known recording, and had been a #1 hit in the U.S. when Capitol chose to issue it as a single in the summer of 1965. (The Beatles did not want this to be a single and didn't approve of the decision but could do little about it -- same situation as with "Eight Days a Week," "I'll Cry Instead," "Do You Want to Know a Secret?", "Twist and Shout," "Nowhere Man," "The Long and Winding Road," etc.) So why shouldn't it have enjoyed extended life in the UK as an EP with three other cuts from the same album, Help!...? Why indeed, except that putting it out nearly a year later, in March 1966, with Rubber Soul already having rendered Help! a distant memory, probably circumvented any potential interaction of note with the public; and maybe it could have done well with better selections showcasing the other three Beatles than Ringo's dreadful "Act Naturally," George's slightly icky "You Like Me Too Much," and John's lovely but slight "It's Only Love," all selections from the already plodding second half of the LP. Little wonder that despite the widespread popularity of the title song, the disc didn't sell in signifiant numbers and would prove the penultimate Beatles EP comprised of earlier-recorded tracks. Also, when I was complaining earlier about artwork on one of the EPs, I forgot how ugly this one is.

The Beatles: Nowhere Man (Parlopone EP 1966) [r]
My vote for the best-looking of all the Beatles' EPs, with the band looking hip beyond all logic in Revolver-era garb in the gardens at Chiswick House where the memorable videos for "Paperback Writer" and "Rain" were shot. Plus that Yesterday and Today font! It's a fine smattering of songs from Rubber Soul too -- Parlophone ambling to catch up with Capitol again by centering the U.S. hit "Nowhere Man" but this time wisely cutting Capitol's b-side "What Goes On" and instead gracing us with a Paul-centric triad of "Drive My Car," "Michelle" and "You Won't See Me" -- but again, made its way to stores seven months after the album, so that the packaging was really the only selling point. Whether because the Beatles began asserting more control over their output around this time or because Parlophone realized the commercial uselessness of continuing the old record company standard operating procedure for EPs, this was the last time an EP of lopped-off songs from a given album was routine for the Beatles' catalog, and the format overall effectively died in the UK not long after this. That said, the Beatles would have one more released flirtation with the EP, but a hugely unorthodox one.

The Beatles: Magical Mystery Tour (Parlophone EP 1967) [hr]
The Beatles' TV special slash third film Magical Mystery Tour, a famous flop that aired on the BBC in black & white on Boxing Day 1967, was mostly a dog but boasted one innovative facet that went over well: the issuance of its six soundtrack songs as a lavishly packaged double-7" EP with a colorful booklet. This is still the definitive way to hear these six ambitious, innovative tracks, whose status as Pepper deitrius doesn't sting as much in this stand-alone format as it does when padded out in the U.S. (and now, the CD and streaming-era Beatles canon) to become a full-fledged studio album. The sequencing is also superior to the album, with the two eeriest tracks -- "I Am the Walrus" and "Blue Jay Way" -- each given their own full side of vinyl and therefore unexplained and undiluted by anything before or after.

Side One pairs the sardonic title cut with the equally sour "Your Mother Should Know," confining all of Paul's smugness to one five-minute block where it's really quite tolerable; it certainly carries the confusingly smarmy tone of the special itself rather well, as though the Beatles wanted to engage with genuine surrealism and/or Ealing Studios-like satire but were too afraid someone was watching to fully land in either sector. John's "I Am the Walrus," also positioned as the b-side to the equally contradictory "Hello Goodbye," basically blows the rest of the material away for sheer ambition and joyful wordplay alone, but Paul's "The Fool on the Hill" is its nearest competitor, a truly fine piece of poetic atmosphere that only stumbles slightly thanks to some less than impeccable lyrics. The instrumental "Flying," written by the whole band, is an enjoyable diversion; and George's "Blue Jay Way" belies its goofy origins -- it really is about some friends getting lost while heading to his house -- thanks to George Martin, who crafts it into one of the most layered and disturbing pieces of material in the Beatles' catalog. The whole EP functions not only as the best face you could put on this whole project and a really delightful souvenir of something deeply flawed (they considered taking the same approach with Yellow Submarine in 1968, but those songs weren't nearly as consistent), but as an ideal showcase of Martin's ingenuity as a producer, and a much more logical stopgap between Pepper and the White Album than the Capitol longplayer of the same name. (However, grudgingly aligning with the Beatles' official Core Catalog, I have analyzed these songs at more proper length in my review of that version.) If you want to hear this in its original configuration on vinyl, the 2012 blu-ray/DVD boxed set of the film includes a nice-sounding replica with both 7" discs and the original booklet as a bonus.

Note: I don't have any of these and haven't actually heard them, but going by what I can discern about mixes and such from online I am going to review them anyway, because I am a boorish American who thinks he knows everything.

The Beatles: Souvenir of Their Visit to America (Vee Jay EP 1964)
The EP format was nearly irrelevant in the U.S.; Elvis Presley issued some of his movie soundtracks exclusively as EPs, but even those didn't exactly set the world on fire. But leave it to the struggling Vee Jay label, once one of Chicago's best independent R&B labels along with Chess, to find every possible way to cash in on the tiny sliver of Beatles material to which they'd stumbled upon the rights during the period when Capitol was exercising first refusal. This was released a bit too late (March '64) to actually function as a "souvenir of their visit to America," though it was apparently advertised in trades during the world-shaking event itself. If you liked the Beatles enough to send your card in and order it, though, you almost certainly already had these songs ("Misery," "A Taste of Honey," "Ask Me Why" and "Anna," all from Please Please Me and therefore their own U.S. counterpart Introducing the Beatles, and all four also coincidentally reused on British EPs) and despite Vee Jay ballyhooing in the trades that it was "the EP that's selling like a single... at single record prices," it remains an obscurity in their discography, though easier to find than the two Capitol discs below.

The Beatles: Four by the Beatles (Capitol EP 1964) [r]
The first of two attempts by Capitol Records to make even more money off Beatles fans by pushing an EP of their music in the '60s, this was part of a series that also included a similar release of similar title and cover art by the Beach Boys. The four songs, all from With the Beatles and the surrounding period, and all readily available on Capitol LPs already, were chosen because they were the A- and b-sides of two Capitol of Canada 45s that had become popular as imports: "All My Loving" b/w "This Boy" and "Roll Over Beethoven" b/w "Please Mr. Postman. That last one was everywhere in the States; I found one at a yard sale in the early '90s and have seen many in 7" bins over the years; one thing I've never seen is this EP, which was manufactured and sold in such low numbers that it scarcely ever turns up. It's one of those curious little fetish objects that would be cool to hold in your hands, especially if you feel irrational love for those orange and yellow Capitol swirl labels, but there's little musical purpose to it. Great songs, though.

The Beatles: 4 by the Beatles (Capitol EP 1965)
Capitol called this a "super single," not an EP, but you could've fooled us since it follows the exact same premise and format as all their other EPs. It appears to be a dartboard selection of Beatles for Sale and hence Beatles '65 songs, all but one of them covers, and none of them save the original ("I'm a Loser") truly among either record's highlights. This seldom turns up with its cover in good condition, and as with its predecessor, I've never actually seen a copy; but it was once reported in one of the truly obsessive corners of online fandom that it boasts four uniquely "Dexterized" mixes of these songs. For the unitiated, that's shorthand for Capitol A&R man Dave Dexter, who apparently felt that the way to make the Beatles songs resonate with the American market was to drench them in reverb, as heard on the appallingly weird-sounding U.S. single release of "I Feel Fine" among others. (A #1 on both sides of the Atlantic, that nevertheless was pretty much a different song to American and British fans.) So while the EP wouldn't contain actual official unique mixes of these songs, just an addition of extra wetness to the mixes brought over from England, one operative in the field has claimed that Dexter did a once-over on these tunes to make them even hotter for the prospective singles market... all to no avail. This can't be verified and would be of extremely limited interest, but it may be a reason for absolutely unhinged (no judgment) completists to track it down.

(These won't be conventionally graded.)

"Baby It's You" (Apple 1963-64/1994)
"Free as a Bird" (Apple 1963-95/1995)
"Real Love" (Apple 1965-96/1996)

Accompanying the first two of the Beatles' big archival releases in the 1990s were these CD/7" singles, sometimes billed as EPs though that's really something of a misnomer because in every conceivable sense they are conventional 1990s singles, and it's basically a matter of semantics anyway; the CDs paired the A-side tracks from Live at the BBC, Anthology 1 and Anthology 2 with otherwise unissued contextual runoff material from those same sets. (The 7" singles for "Free as a Bird" and "Real Love" only kept one b-side apiece, while the vinyl version of the "Baby It's You" CD5 retains all four.) "Baby It's You" is well-chosen as it's one of the loveliest tracks from Live at the BBC. It was nice at the time to get bonus material associated with that compilation, although the subsequent On Air has made two thirds of the b-sides redundant (the stunning "I'll Follow the Sun" 11/17/64 performance and the fairly typical one of "Boys" from 6/17/63), so the only reason to track it down now is if you have no other means of hearing the 7/16/63 version of "Devil in Her Heart," which is full of weird vocal flubs and I suspect was probably chosen for this disc by mistake to begin with.

Neither "Real Love" nor "Free as a Bird," though both are nice enough songs in their original Lennon solo configurations, have aged very well; the music video for "Bird" is excellent, but both suffer from the dated '90s adult contemporary production brought in by Jeff Lynne. And unfortunately, as tantalizing as it seems to have six more Beatles outtakes, the b-sides aren't particularly revealing. The best "Bird" offers is the sloppier ninth take of "I Saw Her Standing There," which gave the master its count-in; a procession of outtakes of "This Boy" is thrown in for those who enjoy hearing the Beatles screw up and laugh at each other, with the flubs largely centering around the difference between "this" and "that," though the nearly complete take 13 offers an interesting variant on John's vocal melody during the bridge. "Christmas Time (Is Here Again)," from the 1967 fan-club flexi (so not period-appropriate to Anthology 1), was always a bad song and remains one even in this shorter edit. Meanwhile, none of the three bonuses for "Real Love" are anything you badly need, with both "Yellow Submarine" and "Here, There and Everywhere" mere remixes of released tracks, though the former has the faders up so we can hear all the sound effects (which are horribly annoying and render the song nearly unlistenable) and the latter partially employs an unreleased guide vocal by Paul before pulling the "Yes It Is" trick of transitioning into the master. Lastly there is the Hollywood Bowl 8/30/65 version of "Baby's in Black," which has subsequently been released elsewhere, though this doesn't edit out John's smarmy remarks about waltzes, which are the only thing about this entire disc that isn't disappointing.