Friday, August 22, 2008

185. The Beatles: Past Masters Volume Two (1988)

And now we conclude (for real) our journey through the catalog of a little-known '60s band I've recently discovered.

I didn't lie. Abbey Road was the last Beatles album to be recorded and Let It Be was the last album they released. Like its predecessor, Past Masters Volume One, this is a mop-up compilation, capturing the non-album singles the band released during their brief time together. Volume Two covers the years 1965 to 1970.

Once again, as I write about the songs, I'll pair them up the way they were released as singles.

First up is a double A-side (which basically means the band couldn't decide which song was better), Day Tripper and We Can Work It Out. These two songs were released simultaneously with the Rubber Soul album. In doing a brief bit of research I was stunned to find out that these songs were basically "forced." The label requested a single independent of the album, and thus Lennon and McCartney had to come up with some songs on demand. The fact that they're both outstanding is a testament to talent. Day Tripper is a spirited John composition about a girl who's only in it for thrills and We Can Work It Out is Paul's pop baroque plea for peace.

Paperback Writer led the next single, in 1966. After Nowhere Man, it's the second Beatles song to not be about romance. Instead, Paul tells the speedy tale of an aspiring novelist. It's one of McCartney's most lyrically intriguing songs, told in the form of a letter to publishers and featuring a nesting doll moment (the son of the main character in the novel aspires to be a writer just like the narrator of the song itself). Plus, I'm always a sucker for those high harmonies. The B-side was Rain, an obvious harbinger of John's psychedelic period. Lots of tape speed effects were used on the song, including a trippy backwards final verse.

At this point, we witness a curious time jump; the year 1967 is completely unrepresented in this collection. Did the band just slack off that year? No, but Magical Mystery Tour already did fans the favor of collecting that year's three singles: Strawberry Fields Forever / Penny Lane, All You Need Is Love / Baby You're A Rich Man, and Hello Goodbye / I Am the Walrus.

Past Masters Volume Two picks back up 1968, pre-The Beatles, with the bouncy Lady Madonna. Featuring a kitchen sink approach with brass, honky-tonk piano, and off-kilter background vocals, the song is an interesting commentary on motherhood, especially from a man who lost his mother as a boy. B-side The Inner Light is another George Harrison-loves-India song. It's notable for the fact that none of The Beatles played instruments on it; Indian musicians laid down the instrumental tracks and George sang on it. And to think The Monkees got so much flak for doing the same thing!

The other post-MMT, pre-The Beatles single is Hey Jude / Revolution, showing just how especially fertile of a time this was for the lads. The former is a singalong lighter-waver that McCartney wrote for Lennon's son Julian about his parents' failing marriage. The former is a reworked version of the song Revolution 1 on the The Beatles. I say reworked because though it was released in advance of the album, this single version was last to be recorded. In my opinion it's much preferable to the shoobie-doo-wop slow take on the album. Instead, it's a barn-burning screamy rocker that suits the lyrics and eliminates the wishy-washiness.

Next comes my favorite Beatles song ever. The Ballad of John and Yoko was released after the Let It Be sessions but before Abbey Road, and in truth only features half of the band: John and Paul. The two made the song in one session, John taking over Harrison's guitar and Paul taking over Ringo's drums (reminds me of the statement John Lennon made when asked if he thought Ringo was the best drummer in the world; he replied, "He's not even the best drummer in The Beatles!"). The lyrics are autobiographical, telling of John and Yoko's whirlwind wedding and the Bed-In for Peace that followed. When John and Paul harmonize it makes me sad they couldn't have worked out their differences. The B-side is a splendid George Harrison tune, Old Brown Shoe, which is leagues better than either of his Let It Be Songs. The tune shows off the strong instrumental chemistry between the four Beatles.

Finally, we get to some repeats. The second half of Volume Two features three slightly different versions of songs from Let It Be. If you ever wondered what Get Back sounds like without Billy Preston's thrilling piano solo, well, here you go. Its B-Side is a sublimely seductive John Lennon joint called Don't Let Me Down, which does feature Billy Preston. Also, if you wondered what Across The Universe sounded like before Phil Spector got ahold of it, it's right here to be enjoyed. Despite the animal sounds that open the song, it's a much better version.

Finally, there's Let It Be again, in a slightly shorter version. The B-Side is the second weirdest Beatles song ever after Revolution 9. Unlike that mess of sound, You Know My Name (Look Up The Number) actually has some charms, with John introducing the lounge-jazz of Dennis O'Bell, who Paul inhabits zestily, before the song breaks down into a Monty Python cavalcade of sounds and a '20s jazz ending. It's a polarizing track among fans, but I love it.

Despite the repeats, Past Masters Volume Two is much superior to its predecessor. It not only provides Beatles completeists with everything they need, but it also holds together as a whole listening experience, allowing the listener one last time to admire the greatness of a little band who could.

Grade: A-
Fave Song: The Ballad of John and Yoko

Monday, August 18, 2008

12 Tributes to Musicians by Musicians

Here's the drill: 12 songs to summarize an artist's career, in chronological order (of course).

Week 24

Confession time: I've run out of artists to profile in this feature. The following would probably just fit better in my Misc. Lists sidebar. But, considering this one effectively marks the death of 12 by... it's somehow fitting to write about tributes that musicians have written for their fallen peers.

As always, leave a comment if you know of other tributes. This was a tricky one...

1. Don McLean - American Pie (found on American Pie, 1971)
Though it expands to provide a brief history of rock 'n' roll, at its heart American Pie is a tribute to Richie Valens, Buddy Holly and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson. McLean makes it personal, recalling his own reaction to the plane crash that killed the three stars: "But February made me shiver / With every paper I'd deliver / Bad news on the doorstep / I couldn't take one more step."

2. Righteous Brothers - Rock & Roll Heaven (found on Give It To The People, 1974 and Reunion, 1990)
Kind of a cheesy song talking about how heaven's "got a hell of a band." But, it's also the most direct and all-encompassing tribute on the list. Bonus points for incorporating lyrics and song titles from the musicians. PLUS, there are two different versions. The original 1974 song gave shout-outs to Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, Jim Morrison, Jim Croce, and Bobby Darin. An updated 1990 version cold-heartedly leaves those six behind in favor of Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Roy Oribison, Jackie Wilson, Ricky Nelson, Marvin Gaye, Dennis Wilson, Sam Cooke, Mama Cass and Stevie Ray Vaughn. Phew!

3. Elton John - Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny) (found on Jump Up!, 1982)
Elton is no stranger to tributes, but he and Bernie did their best work when mourning John Lennon. The song strangely but effectively compares him to a gardener ("some say he farmed his best in younger years / But he'd have said that roots grow stronger, if only he could hear"). The chorus, where Elton calls out for his friend and gets no reply, always gives me chills.

4. Paul Simon - The Late Great Johnny Ace (found on Hearts and Bones, 1983)
Paul uses the common name to mourn the titular '50s R & B singer, John F. Kennedy and John Lennon. The final verse, where he remembers the night Lennon was shot, is supremely effective thanks to its simplicity and lack of sentimentality.

5. Diana Ross - Missing You (found on Swept Away, 1984)
Marvin Gaye, shot dead by his father in 1983, is the subject of this Lionel Richie-written and produced tune. Commercially savvy in that it could easily be a plea to a lover who has gone away (no one wants to be bummed out by their hit songs), the video tells the real story (including some shots of Temptations and Supremes members who have passed on):

6. George Jones - The King is Gone (And So Are You) (found on One Woman Man, 1989)
Like Missing You, The King is Gone uses the metaphor of lost love. However, this one is not so much about Elvis as it is about a man who takes solace in drinking an entire bottle of whiskey shaped like Elvis.

7. R.E.M. - Let Me In (found on Monster, 1994)
Let Me In is a tribute, both lyrically and musically, to Kurt Cobain. Through a sludgy drone of guitars, Michael Stipe offers up oblique lyrics with small bits of clarity that show his true intentions: "I had a mind to try and stop you."

8. Richie Rich - Do G's Get To Go To Heaven (found on Seasoned Veteran, 1996)
Richie Rich pays tribute to Tupac less by addressing the latter's death and more by offering homage to his introspective style. Save the opening line, the lyrics don't even mention Tupac. Instead, Rich contemplates his own mortality and morality.

9. U2 - Stuck In a Moment You Can't Get Out Of (found on All That You Can't Leave Behind, 2000)
Stuck... takes the form of a pep talk to a friend who's in a bad spot. Though not directly addressed in the lyrics, Bono has revealed that the song is about INXS singer Michael Hutchence, who died in 1997 under cloudy circumstances. Maybe it's simplistic to reduce the mental turmoil of someone contemplating suicide into a lack of foresight, but the song seems more sympathetic than accusing.

10. Ringo Starr & Eric Clapton - Never Without You (found on Ringo Rama, 2003)
George Harrison's two friends get together on this charming little tune. Ringo offers up sweet rememberances ("You played a beautiful melody / And it keeps on haunting me") and Claption provides Harrison-esque slide guitar accompaniment.

11. Ben Folds - Late (found on Songs For Silverman, 2005)
I love tributes that are written directly to their subjects. In this one, Folds talks to his friend Elliot Smith, who committed suicide in 2003, with reflections affecting ("The songs you wrote got me through a lot / Just wanna tell you that") and unflinching ("Someone came and washed away your hard-earned peace of mind").

12. Rhett Miller - The Believer (found on The Believer, 2006)
Another song written to Elliot Smith, also similarly direct about the depression that he faced ("Had to be hard to keep hating yourself / When these people are so well-behaved"). The end of the song is a fitting mix of post-death platitudes and personal loss: "You won't get nervous / You won't come down / You won't feel helpless / You won't be around anymore."

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

184. The Doors: Other Voices (1971)

I recently wrote about The Attractions making a record without Elvis Costello. That was weird, wasn't it? Well, get this: The Doors made two albums without Jim Morrison following his death in 1971!

Maybe that isn't terribly surprising if you've followed the band at all. Of all the acclaimed groups to come out of the '60s, no other has been less willing to leave its legacy alone. There was 1978's An American Prayer, wherein Robby Krieger, Ray Manzarek, and John Densmore added instrumental backing to recordings of Morrison reading his poetry. In 2002 Krieger and Manzarek joined with Ian Astbury as The Doors of the 21st Century. Now, they're known as Riders on the Storm, with former Fuel singer Brett Scallions on vocals.

If this seems like flogging a dead lead singer, well, it kind of is. Consider that Morrison died in July of 1971, and that this album came out in October of the same year. Maybe the band didn't know what else to do with itself. Perhaps with some time and reflection, the three remaining Doors would have reconsidered the decision to press on. As it is, the album's timing can't help but seem slightly callous and disrespectful, especially considering none of the songs address Morrison's death.

Jim Morrison was an understandably polarizing entity. To some he's a visionary poet and philosopher. To others he's a drunk guy spouting nonsense. But few can argue against his charisma. And few would argue that he transformed the workmanlike jazz and blues tunes of his bandmates into something completely unique. By carrying on without Morrison, Manzarek, Krieger, and Densmore were inviting their lyrics and vocals to undergo brutal scrutiny, and while they don't fail completely, they don't succeed fully either.

See, keyboardist Ray Manzarek is not a bad lyricist; he does a reasonable impression of Morrison's mystical writing style. Unfortunately, on a couple of songs he also attempts to do an impression of Morrison's vocals. The raspy results are strained and painful and end up marring the mildy catchy In the Eye of the Sun, which is otherwise buoyed by Manzarek's familar jazzy organ and a light-as-air guitar performance by Krieger. Tightrope Ride (seemingly about The Rolling Stones' Brian Jones) suffers a similar fate. Thankfully, Manzarek assumes a slightly different, more natural voice on the Latin jazz flavored Hang On to Your Life. Unfortunately, he sounds like Bryan Ferry with a sinus infection.

Robby Krieger's songs present the opposite problem. He's definitely a more gifted singer than Manzarek, with a tenor that recalls Paul Simon. Unlike Paul Simon though, his lyrics are laughable. In fact, maybe humor is what he was going for, with a blunt, tasteless song like I'm Horny, I'm Stoned. Variety is the Spice of Life is worse, a justification of infidelity: "You've gotta try everything once / You better build up your endurance." Maybe it's ironic and tongue-in-cheek, but the lyrics aren't clever enough to put that across. I have no problem with humor in music, but 1) it's a stretch to call these songs humor, and 2) a band whose songs have been used to accompany terrifying scenes of cow slaughter is not where you'd tend to go for a laugh.

Speaking of cow slaughter, Down on the Farm has a similarly light-hearted nature. It alternates between pseudo-Pink Floyd verses and a hoe-down chorus that reminds me of the music that might accompany one of those '70s video montages of kids running around in a petting zoo they might show on Sesame Street.

If all of this sounds like kind of a mess, well, it is. Listening to the album makes me wonder what other options the Morrison-less Doors might have pursued. Here's what I thought of:

1) They could have disbanded. That would have been understandable, expected, sensible.
2) They could have found a new lead singer, which would have caused some initial backlash, but might have paid off eventually, both musically and emotionally. Bonus if they had retired the Doors name immediately.
3) As the song Ships w/ Sails indicates, the three might have continued on as an improvisational, instrumental jazz-rock trio.

Any of these options would have been better than what actually happened, but that's the kind of lesson history teaches us. The sad truth is that even if Morrison had sung on these songs, there's nothing as plainly thrilling as their best work together, songs like Peace Frog, Hello, I Love You, People Are Strange, or Touch Me.

Unless you have the uncanny ability to listen completely objectively or you've never heard a Doors song before in your life, Other Voices is best left alone.

Grade: D
Fave Song: N/A

Sunday, August 10, 2008

183. The Beatles: Let It Be (1970)

So I bet you're saying, "Wait, didn't you just tell us that Abbey Road was The Beatles final album? What gives? Is this one of those cobbled together posthumous releases?"

Here's what happened. The Beatles convened in early '69 to create a back-to-basics album, just the four of them together in a room full of instruments with the tape running. Unfortunately, the band were lacking in songs and patience with one another. The project and tapes were set aside. They later recorded Abbey Road and called it a career.

What to do with the Let It Be tapes were the source of some acrimony among the band (who at this point would likely have acrimony about where to eat dinner), but ultimately they ended up in the hands of Phil Spector. Yes, I-allegedly-shot-an-actress-in-my-mansion Phil Spector. Did anyone else know he had anything to do with music? I didn't either! Anyway, he was charged with making an album out of the material.

The liner notes indicate that the album "comes with the warmth and freshness of a live performance" but what that really means is that Spector left some studio chatter between songs. In other places he gives in to production excess, belying the original spirit of the whole project. But the problem with Let It Be is not Spector's production, it's that there are only 12 songs and the album still feels padded.

That's not to say that there aren't outstanding individual songs. Opener Two Of Us is a sweet love song, and though it could easily be about a romance, I choose to see it differently. Maybe because it marks the nadir of their partnership, I think it's really about Paul and John, especially when Paul sings, "you and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead." Across The Universe is one of John's best songs, nonsense turned transcendent. Let It Be is a stone cold classic, inadvertently marking the transition out of the revolutionary '60s (think The Rolling Stones' Let It Bleed) into the more subdued '70s.

One After 909 is an early Lennon/McCartney composition, startling but effective in its simplicity. I've Got A Feeling is one of the few later-period Beatles tracks that truly feels collaborative, sporting a catchy McCartney melody and a funny spoken word bridge by Lennon. Also worth mentioning is the earthy organ-playing on the track, courtesy of future Nothing From Nothing hitmaker Billy Preston. Preston is also adds a rousing solo to the rocking closer Get Back.

That's a lot of highlights, and that's what makes Let It Be hard to forget or ignore. But it's hurt by the mediocre remainder of the album, from the sketchy Maggie Mae and Dig It to George Harrison's contributions I Me Mine and For You Blue (especially disappointing after his strong Abbey Road showing). The worst offender is The Long and Winding Road, which like a lot of people, I dislike for its showy orchestrations. But I also have a more personal reason to hate it. I used to work at K-Mart, and I suffered every moment of it. The in-store K-Mart Radio Network played a wide array of mildly bad songs from the '60s - '90s, made worse by the maddening, unyielding (save the holiday season), predictable repetition of them. The Long and Winding Road played every other day at 7:45 p.m. and the song's air of sadness never failed to underscore my own sense of disaffection.

All in all, Let It Be is an unfitting swan song, which I guess is okay since that wasn't what it was supposed to be anyway.

Grade: B-
Fave Song: Two Of Us