The Beatles and Esher Demos
The Beatles and Esher Demos

Fortunately for me, a buddy of mine turned me onto the Beatles when I was but a wee boy of 10 years. I knew we were onto something right away. I didn’t realize then that everyone on Earth who’d been introduced to their work already knew that they were onto something too. It felt like a personal revelation to me. A door had been opened, and a new dimension had been divulged. I’m only half jesting. It was big. Abbey Road was the first album that whisked me away on some sort of magic carpet ride and showed me the view from on high. But the White Album was the one that grabbed me by the collar and drug me through a gauntlet of sonic traumas. It hurt so good. I couldn’t have articulated it then, but I was really turned on by the scaled back production on the White Album in comparison to the more produced fare that bore George Martin’s more conspicuous signature. I would trend in that direction right up until present day. I like things stripped down. I want to get close to the bone. The Beatles and Esher Demos 4-LP box set does that. In major ways.

This is a 50th Anniversary set with a new stereo mix of the original album by Martin’s son Giles. I prefer it to the original stereo mix.I prefer almost anything to the original Beatles stereo mixes.And I still won’t be reaching for the new stereo mix in lieu of the version I picked up during the mono reissue campaign of a few years back. Mono’s where it’s at…

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Unless you have access to the acoustic demos that the band made in George Harrison’s living room on a 4-track tape recorder in the late ‘60s! Holy Moses! An acoustic version of the Beatles White Album??!! I’ve never used so many exclamation points!!! We’ve never had a more direct line on the machinations at play between Paul, George, and John. The way they build tension and momentum by altering their guitar attacks mid-song. The lyrical phrasing that would develop between the demos and the final work. The humor and outright silliness that was revealed in the later Anthology sets is back on display as the lads’ goof their way through some “alternate” lyrics and between song banter. Percussion is scaled back to a minimum, so Ringo devotees may be left cold. But not Polar Vortex cold because his contributions are made that much more apparent by their scarcity. The idea of an acoustic version of “Yer Blues” would have been plenty on its own. (What would “Helter Skelter” have sounded like with an acoustic arrangement? It’s tragically absent.) Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” is found in its infancy here as “Child of Nature.” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” almost sounds like it’s being performed on a ukulele. It might be. There’s so much here to explore. So much greatness.

And the pressings are phenomenal. The liners are cool. The original poster and pictures are included. The packaging is bulky, the box is big. Apparently, the demos have been in circulation for decades, but they’ve never been dressed up and taken out of the mansion until now. They’re as fresh as the day they were born. The estate got this one all the way right. Such a blast…

Songs for Judy
Neil Young
Songs for Judy
Shakey Pictures Records

Speaking of often bootlegged stripped down performances by Rock and Roll Royalty that are finally seeing official release… 

Neil Young recently released an album of live solo acoustic numbers from his 1976 tour. He called it Songs for Judy. Because he rants about seeing Judy Garland in the front row at a show on that tour, and those responsible for this collection opted to release that bit of stage banter as a “song” on this album. Which is cool enough, I guess. But that’s not where the real action’s at.

These performances are smoking. Neil was bringing the goods in November 1976, it seems. He’d come out and play a set by his high and lonesome before Crazy Horse would join him for a second set of the hard stuff. This was shortly after Neil bailed mid-tour on Stephen Stills by telling his tour bus driver to head home in the middle of the night between gigs. He’d also just made the solo studio recording, Hitchhiker, that was finally released as part of Young’s Archive series in 2017. He was on a literal and figurative roll. As best I can tell, Songs for Judy was mixed from a board feed and front of house tapes. The thing about Neil is that he’s a legendarily straight shooter. It says right on the outer cover that this set was mastered from 176/24 digital whereas the bulk of his Archive releases have been straight analog affairs. So, there you go. I only wish that all vinyl releases were so transparent. Sonically and with regards to sources, pressing plants, etc.

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Anyway, this one’s a winner. “Mr. Soul” is a standout. As is “Campaigner,” which addresses Tricky Dick Nixon’s own soul. Neil unleashes his typically plunky, thumpy, slappy acoustic stylings throughout the bulk of the program, but there’s some banjo, piano, and organ action too. And harmonica. Naturally. Which might be the one word that best sums up what I find so engaging about Neil Young’s playing. The guy’s a natural. This stuff seems to just ooze from his very being without any filtration or artifice. I mean, if you’d never heard Neil Young and you opened your mouth to sing and his voice came out… you’d be alarmed, right? Because it’s atypical. More to the point, it’s outright weird. But it’s Neil’s. And he lets it roam free, uninhibited. I didn’t quite know what to think when I heard it as a kid watching Rust Never Sleeps on HBO. But I watched it a lot. Again, and again. 

My conception of beauty has changed over the years. Consistently. But there’s always been room for honesty and truth, and that’s what Ol’ Neil offers. He’s one of my guys. I check in with his older recordings regularly, and he keeps giving us more. His Archive series is a gift. Songs for Judy is a worthy addition. It will reward multiple listens. Let’s hope we get an installment that documents some of those Crazy Horse sets soon…

Jeff Tweedy - Warm
Jeff Tweedy
dBpm Records

I read a book recently that was amongst the funniest I’ve encountered. It was also poignant, concerned with death and illness, but mostly living and making one’s way through a challenging world while remaining true to one’s self and the body of people that make up a collective life on this planet at what seems like an especially strenuous moment in Sapiens history. It was Jeff Tweedy’s memoir. I recommend it. To anybody, whether they are Wilco fans or not. For perspective on what it means to be self-aware and what it takes to achieve that, if nothing else. If one is driven to write songs and they’re interested in a workman’s take on the craft, the book is essential.

Tweedy’s new solo record is made up of songs that serve to illustrate some of the book’s more salient points or events. It seems almost like a companion to the book. It occurred to me after reading the memoir, and with a nudge from George Saunders’s liner notes for this album, that Tweedy’s body of work could be a roadmap that elucidates some of his techniques for getting through it all. Life, that is. And death. But the map is not explicit. It kind of points you in a direction, but the destination is hazy. Maybe. Or I might be imagining the whole thing. We all might be imagining everything. And Tweedy has honed the occupation of expressing his imaginings to a fine point. Enough of a point to draw blood with, to pen an unflinching lament with, or to produce an unconditionally inclusive invitation to dance with. Sometimes in the same song. Oh, yeah. The record is called WARM.

And it is. Lots of sliding, bending guitar notes. The drumming (by Tweedy’s son, Spencer) is on the gentler side of the Rock spectrum. The vocals are mostly unaffected, sometimes conversational, occasionally hushed – almost whispered. And there’s a strummed acoustic throughout the program that serves as a sort of sonic North Star. It’s a quick, cogent listen. It sort of floats into the room and hangs out there with only a couple of noisy freak-outs to jar the listener’s attention at just the right time. It rewards repeat visits, takes time to reveal itself. Like life.

I had tickets with two friends to see Tweedy and Saunders live “in conversation” recently. Then, a mutual friend of our trio passed away, and we all booked flights to get home for the funeral. I flew separately but with the knowledge that we were all together, and that we’d soon be reunited with friends and faces that we’d not seen in years, but that we’d never really left. We’ve all been in this together for the long haul, and sometimes we forget, and then we’re reminded. Somehow, it feels like that all ties into the book and the album. WARM is a lovely place to be. Just what I needed. I could probably speak for the lot of us, whether we realize it or not… Sometimes we need a reminder.

(In loving memory of the Snarling’ Dog, John “Randy” Baggs, and in tribute to his adoring, spectacular family.)

JWhite Denim - Stiff
White Denim
Downtown Records

And now for something completely different…

I guested on a friend’s internet radio show a few months back, and he played a White Denim tune. I remember liking it and going home to add an album of theirs to my wish list for further exploration later. Later is now. The album is Stiff. I mean, the name of the album is stiff. The record itself is neither stiff than one would expect from a record.

This is some high energy stuff, y’all. What little research I’ve done about the band taught me that they unveiled a new guitarist and drummer on Stiff. Way back in 2016. I think they’ve released at least another album since then, but I think the song I liked was on this one. I can’t keep up. Some of this stuff is hyperactive. Like, Skynyrd speed stuff. Not kidding. I know it’s lazy, but I can’t help it. The easiest way for me to describe what I’m hearing is to relate and compare it to what I’ve heard before. And, in addition to Lynyrd frigging Skynyrd, I’m hearing the technical virtuosity and clean production values of Steely Dan. There’s a tune called “Ha Ha Ha Ha (Yeah)” that almost sounds like the band sampled some weird take on “Immigrant Song.” The singer sounds a little or a lot like Dan Auerbach to me. I like bands that name songs “There’s a Brain in My Head.” This band is especially enamored with parenthetical additions to their song titles. Five of the nine songs on Stiff involve parentheses. Some of the songs involve an updated Vox organ sound, which I think is groovy because the band is from Austin, so it feels like a nod to Doug Sahm and Augie Meyers to me. There’s a pronounced Soul slant in spots, mostly from a vocal angle. Especially on “Take It Easy (Ever After Lasting Love).” Not unlike WARM, the album happens, then it’s over before you can get a handle on it. So, you play it again. Despite the outright terror inducing cover art, I’ve reached for this record as often as any other over the past few weeks. Initially because I found it too overwhelming to absorb, and I knew I was going to write about it, so I’d better try harder. But then because I liked it.

Which brings us to present day. Now is later. I’m curious about the White Denim band. I find myself wondering what they look like in person and onstage while performing. What’s their show like? I still don’t know. They opened a Wilco show I saw once, but I didn’t get there in time to check them out. I would’ve if I’d known then what I know now. They recorded a live set at Third Man a while back, so they’ve been running with the right crowd. This is not the same old crap. The music was well recorded, and the record well made. I don’t know what the others sound like, but I’m all in on Stiff. Looking forward to learning more about the White Denim band.

Sir Douglas Quintet - Live from Austin, TX
Sir Douglas Quintet
Live from Austin, TX
New West Records

Speaking of Austin, Texas and Doug Sahm and Augie Meyers…

We explored Doug Sahm’s entry in the Live from Austin, TX series here at Secrets just last November. That one was recorded in 1975, and I liked it. Mostly because it involves Doug Sahm, and I’ve never heard anything by him that I outright disliked. But he was prolific, and he worked for many years, and I’ve not canvased his entire catalog yet. He made his radio debut as a child prodigy at the age of five years, for crying out loud. He released his first single when he was 11. But most of us know him as the party starting, earthquake making, hip shaker stimulator from the Sir Douglas Quintet. And as a renowned solo artist who collaborated with a roll call of Rock and Roll royalty. And later as the leader of the Tex-Mex all-star Texas Tornados band. Dude got around. That’s all I’m trying to say.

The Sir Douglas Quintet recorded an installment of the Live from Austin, TX series in January, 1981. Which was not my personal favorite era for popular music or visual art or literature or television or cinema. This would be as good a time as any for me to discover a Doug Sahm recording that I’m not onboard with, but that little bit of unpleasantness has still not come to pass. “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened…”

I prefer this performance, recording, and pressing to the Live from Austin set from ’75, I’ll say that much right now. I was most familiar with the songs from the earlier set, but the latter day Sahm stuff that comprises the ’81 show rocks really righteously. Not a hint of the Un-Rock to be found in these grooves. And they are grooves. Augie Meyers is the lone holdover from the original Quintet, and his Vox organ is never hard to find. He’s right out front, and even takes the lead on his own “Goin’ Down to Mexico.” The performances from ’75 are looser, bordering on unruly at times, which is compelling when kept within certain parameters. The ’81 set nails that formula though. It sounds like the kind of party where someone might split their pants on the dance floor and must live through the relentless teasing about their tiger striped Speedo for the rest of their days. Raunchy enough to turn the squares off, but safe enough to not send those of us with self-destructive tendencies over the edge or back to rehab.

“96 Tears” and “Groover’s Paradise” are standouts. The classics like “Mendocino,” “At the Crossroads,” and “She’s About a Mover” are perhaps a little better represented on this set than they were on the ’75 show. If you’re a Doug Sahm fan, or if you’re looking to get learned, I’d suggest the 1981 set over the one from the mid-70s. Weirdest thing I’ve ever typed. That Doug was full of surprises, I reckon.

The three sides on these two discs are well pressed, and the sonics on this recording are livelier and more detailed than on the earlier one. I had a little no-fill issue with the ’75 set, which is the only such concern I’ve encountered on any of the Austin records in my collection. This one restores and maintains my faith in the series. It’ll stand up fine next to my most prized Sahm titles. Highly recommended for those who like their Rock and Roll a little loose in the loins and rougher around the seams.