I’ve gone on record as saying that I do not think it is the Beatles’ strongest batch of songs by a long shot. And I am not backing off of that at this stage of the game. Not after that vinyl mono series, they unleashed a couple of years back. That was the first time that I actually felt like I was hearing the Beatles as they were meant to be heard. And it was the first time that I all the way understood folks’ affinity for Sgt. Pepper’s. As the liners to the 50th anniversary remix acknowledge, the original stereo mix was an afterthought in 1967. Stereo is clearly ubiquitous today, and so George Martin’s son remixed it. And this set includes alternate versions of each song in order. That is not true. Let’s see…
I’ll say right off the bat that Giles Martin’s stereo mix is way less distracting and silly than the original. The newer sound is much more balanced, and much less gimmicky. Today’s listener could be forgiven for not realizing the depth of trickery and innovation that was needed to produce the original work on a four-track machine. I doubt that there are limits on numbers of tracks now at all. I grew up listening to the ‘80s CD version of Sgt. Pepper’s and I loved it until adulthood when I finally began to notice how crappy all of the hard panning made the material sound. I have no stereo version for comparison, but this take is much less annoying. Way more subtle, infinitely more listenable. I prefer the mono.
The "alternate versions" are actually more like the original versions with layers peeled back and stripped away. They’re not essential for the casual fan, but Sgt. Pepper’s freaks probably need all of this in their ears. And it is a Beatles cover band’s Valhalla. I’d never noticed that Queen borrowed so liberally from “Getting Better” when they were building “You’re My Best Friend.” The piano parts sound note for note to me, and even the tone is remarkably similar. There are instrumental versions of some tunes, and the bonus material reminds me of the Anthology sets that the band released around the turn of the century. It is as if Sgt. Pepper has its own Anthology.
This set comes with copious liners, including a little essay by Sir Paul himself. He explains that he was on a plane with a roadie who asked him to pass the “salt and pepper” during an in-flight meal. McCartney misheard, and thought the dude said something about “Sergeant Pepper.” From there, he concocted an alternate band based on the Beatles’ four members’ distinct personalities, and they wrote all this material from that band’s point of view. They would come up with backgrounds for each member and the whole shebang. There are also bits written about the historical significance of the original, the outtakes versions (or whatever we’re calling them), and a write-up on the iconic cover. Lots of cool info for the obsessed to pore over.
The two discs are well pressed (though not quite as silent as the mono reissues), you get all the candy that came with the original, the expanded liners, and audiophile grade inner sleeves. If you are a Sgt. Pepper’s fan, this is a no brainer. There is a ton to explore…
I have all the respect in the world for Radiohead. Seems like they’ve conducted their business on their own terms, and that they have complete artistic license without any executive’s input. So I’ve been told. If Dylan was right, and a person really is successful by doing whatever they want in between waking and sleeping, then I would imagine Radiohead is amongst the most successful bands around. I am woefully uninformed about their music. Even I am astounded at how long I have managed to go without familiarizing myself with their material. They’ve not penetrated my Popular Music Forcefield. We had reviewed The King of Limbs, and I like it still, but Radiohead heads have assured me that it is not representative of the band’s sound. Maybe A Moon Shaped Pool is. I like it just fine.
A King of Limbs it is not. And maybe the band doesn’t have a representative sound. Maybe that’s the point. But somehow, A Moon Shaped Pool is much closer to what I think of when I imagine listening to Radiohead based on the bits and snippets I have absorbed over time. I’m into it. That Thom Yorke guy can do some singing, man. His floaty high notes are restaurant quality. “Daydreaming” sounds so much like a Classic Neil Young tune that I assumed it really was during my first couple of passive listens. That is an anomaly. The album casts a wide sonic net. Sounds like the band landed on some mysterious, beautiful, strange planet, and returned with this bounty of dreamy tunes. A buddy of mine sent me a video of Yorke and guitarist Jonny Greenwood playing “The Numbers” as a duo with a couple of quiet electric guitars and a rudimentary electric drumbeat, and it was astounding. The album version is much bigger with a string section and the whole bit. It is admittedly great despite my aversion to Rock Strings, but I am really in awe of the video. Radiohead is certainly not reliant on the technology and electronics they so famously employ. The songs would (and in the case of “The Numbers” absolutely do) stand up without it. The band members’ individual talents are much easier to appreciate on Moon Shaped Pool than on King of Limbs, that’s for certain. It’s a pretty perfect marriage of lush orchestral arrangements and organic instrumentation with electronic embellishment. I would imagine a project of this scope could fly south in a hurry in less capable hands. And I’m certain I wouldn’t want to be there to hear it, but you gotta acknowledge when someone gets it right. It would be like finding a seafood or barbecue chain that was actually as good as your local joint. This band pretty much conquered the world, but they didn’t do it by churning out the same old Top 40 crap. I don’t know if any of these songs are on the radio, but they’re certainly among the best songs on the radio if they are. The band played in support of this record at one of my favorite (small-ish) outdoor venues recently, and I didn’t know it was happening until the day prior. Whiff! I’ll keep my eyes peeled henceforth.
These two records are very well pressed with nary a tick or pop to report. The grooves aren’t crammed, the artwork is cool. The insides of the outer cover are printed, as are the inner sleeves. Download code included. Songs are great. Production is righteous enough. Hats off. Looking forward to the forthcoming OK Computer reissue…
Tom Petty’s Echo is a mystery to me. I think it’s objectively great, while others seem to have barely noticed that it was ever released at all. I never see any Echo songs included in Petty’s live setlists, and this is reputedly because Petty doesn’t care to revisit the era that spawned the work. Sad stuff was afoot. But here is something exciting: the original vinyl release was mastered from digital sources while the one we’re here to discuss was mastered from the original analog tapes. Same for Wildflowers, but that one hasn’t been reissued on its own yet. You still have to buy a box set to get it, but I hear that should not be the case for long. Until then…
Echo was originally released in 1999. That’s amazing to me. It’s closer to being 20 years old than it is to being 15. A friend of mine who passed away around that time turned me onto it, and it’s held a special place on my shelf ever since. I think the record involves some of Petty’s best songwriting, and the production is not quite as glistening as what you would expect from such a sonically dead epoch. The reissued version is especially transparent and warm, which really brings out the beauty in the acoustic passages and quieter moments. There are fair amounts of both on Echo. The title song is an especially taut gut punch, and unfortunately, my reissue has some distortion in that specific track, which is a major league bummer. Other standout songs include “Billy The Kid,” “Swingin’,” and “Room At The Top.” The former tunes address falling down, being knocked down, being down, and getting up. The latter is just a beautifully engaging ballad, which kicks the album off before opening up with some weightier drums and some Mike Campbell guitar freakouts that wouldn’t be out of place on some late-era Wilco work. I’ve heard Echo compared to Blood On The Tracks, but I think that’s a little lazy. Maybe both records address breakups lyrically, but I’m betting that we could find plenty of songs released between those two albums that do too. Sonically, Echo is much more varied and adventurous than what you would find on the Dylan disc, which most assuredly contains no guitar freakouts. If you are a Petty fan, and you are not in the mood to rock all the way out, Echo seems like an obvious choice to me. Peaks and valleys, light and dark. All rolled into one gorgeous, organic package. What’s not to love? (Seriously, if you’re familiar with the album and you have an opinion on it, let us know in the comments. Why does this record seem so forgotten?!)
Here is something weird: the original album was pressed on four sides. The reissue has an etching on side four with the songs crammed onto three sides. Why do you reckon that would be? Are frigging etchings that popular? Did someone buy this set because an etching was involved? Surely not, right? Unfortunately, there is a tradeoff between the reissue’s superior mastering and its inferior pressing. I have both, and I am on the fence about which to keep. It is a nice problem to have, but it would have been nicer if they had gotten this one right. I hope that Wallflowers will be different…
We’ve been checking in on the Fruit Bats every so often here since I fell for their Record Store Day release on Black Friday last year. That one blew my mind, and was likely recorded around the same time they did Absolute Loser. Maybe. They were both released in 2016, regardless. Absolute Loser sits in a space between the looseness of the RSD release, and some of the more layered psychedelia from the band’s Sub Pop titles. Whereas the RSD disc jumped out of my stereo and adhered to my face like that thing in the original Alien movie, Absolute Loser kinda rumbled beneath the surface before presenting itself to me in full like a mega-monster an hour into its feature movie. There are Fruit Bats titles that I prefer as a whole, but Absolute Loser absolutely has some of my favorite Fruit Bats songs on it. Once they take hold, you can’t get them out of your head. Or off of your face, as the case may be. These guys are good.
And by “these guys,” we mostly mean “Eric D. Johnson.” He is the songwriter and arranger, he makes the band go. And they go like the Tasmanian Devil with his ass alight during the “Humbug Mountain Song.” That one will occupy a special place in my memories as my mom and I happened to have a digital copy of this record with us when we were taking a road trip up the West Coast recently and stumbled upon… Humbug Mountain. Hearing this driving song’s banjo groove while looking out of a windshield at some of the most mind boggling scenery I have witnessed etched this tune into the folds of my brain with great permanence. Oregon didn’t get shortchanged on trees, I can tell you that much. And Johnson didn’t get cheated on vocal chops and melodic abilities either. The chops are on full display during “Baby Bluebird,” which is my favorite on the record. It is a ballad. You may cry. I have literally gotten chills, and I use “literally” literally. This is not the 2017 neutered version of “literally” that we are talking about. Those two tunes are the standouts for me, but there is something for everybody, really. “My Sweet Midwest” is a sing-along aided by some guitar work by Neal Casal (Hardworking Americans, Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Ryan Adams) who has been popping up regularly in my news feed these days. “Don’t You Know That” is the perfect closer for a work like this. Gives Johnson one more shot at blowing the top off his microphone before fading peacefully away so that I can get down to the business of anticipating whatever this guy does next. There is a live record out with a few of these tunes on it. I will be exploring that, and then I’ve got to go back in time for more Fruit Bats material. Until the next one. God, I hope there is a next one. I would not be at all disappointed if that happened soon. Like, now. Please.
Absolute Loser is a quick listen, similar to the ‘60s and ‘70s records that so obviously inform Johnson’s writing. It’s a single disc pressed nicely with a printed lyric sheet and a download code. If you have a place in your ears for breezy folk-inspired pop music with some acoustic instrumentation and vocal acrobatics, Fruit Bats might be for you. Come on in.
Dan Auerbach’s first solo record, Keep It Hid, is one of my favorite Rock ’n Roll records of the last 20 years. It was released a little over eight years ago, and I’ve been curious to see what he would do for a follow-up ever since. (As a side note, I seem to remember Keep It Hid causing a rift with Auerbach’s Black Keys bandmate. Seems that dude had not been informed that Auerbach was recording a solo effort at all. At least that is what “they” said…) Auerbach answered recently with Waiting On A Song. He recorded it in his own Nashville studio, and people with names like John Prine, Jerry Douglas, and Duane Eddy were involved. I didn’t have any expectations, really, but I didn’t see this Song coming. If I were Auerbach, I might have waited on another one. But Auerbach is prolific. And successful. And I’m writing about his music, while comparatively few people on Earth have heard mine. I think he is great; I am just not blown away by his latest. He will be back soon enough, I feel certain.
This record feels like homage to some sort of music, or some musical era, that I’m not that familiar with. That is all well and good as I had rather a work stand on its own than have to research context and the like to enjoy it. But I still feel like I missed the Auerbach Boat on this go ‘round, somehow. Maybe this is some sort of “A.M. Gold” kinda deal. It’s pretty dense with layered vocals, chimes, strings, vibraphones, etc. I’ll say right now that I prefer my Rock sans strings, almost always (except on A Moon Shaped Pool). “Shine On Me” should have involved a George Harrison co-writing credit. It sounds very much like something from his Cloud Nine era. “Cherrybomb” is a moody, fun tune. Its vocals are understated, and the music is kinda sludgy and dark, which provides a nice counterpoint to the bubblier material. If I had to wager, I would guess that Auerbach earns more money off of the commercial licensure of his tunes than anything else at this point. And I don’t hear any viable jingles on Waiting For A Song. Maybe if that fizzling candy was advertised on TV or something. Frisbees, maybe. Let’s put it this way: Waiting On A Song is a fine record. I hope Auerbach is proud of it, and that it finds a receptive audience. I’m sure it will. It’s just not my thing. I’m not disappointed that it didn’t sound like Keep It Hid, I just wish it sounded like something I liked a little better. You might like it just fine.
The album has a warm, analog vibe that you would expect from the artist by now. My pressing is great. But… my copy is warped. Warped to the point that my record cleaning machine’s vacuum won’t work on it. My record clamp resolved the issue enough to play the record, but I won’t be keeping this copy on my shelf and I probably don’t feel strongly enough about the material to replace it. I would encourage Auerbach enthusiasts to explore the content online, and then buy the record from a reputable dealer that would refund your money if you get a defective disc. Good luck!