Thursday, July 31, 2008

Beck - Modern Guilt (LP, 2008)

Maybe even Beck felt The Information was a tad lengthy. Here we find him going in the exact opposite direction, crafting a ten song record that clocks in at just above a half hour and, by benefit of being devoid of any fluff or filler, flies by.

When "Chemtrails," the third track on Modern Guilt, showed up on the web about a month before this came out, I wasn't too excited about it. I wasn't planning on it, though. I'm not a huge fan of Danger Mouse (for no real good reason), and when I heard he was handling most of the production for this one, I made note of my preformed hesitance. So, when "Chemtrails" ended up being a bit ethereal for my tastes, I was mentally preparing to pooh-pooh the whole affair. But I was still going to buy the shit out of it.

And buy the shit out of it I did. Maybe it was my unsubstantiated yet fully formed preconceived notions spilling forth, but on the first few spins through, nothing caught me. I let it sit for a night. The next morning I was playing side one while scrambling some eggs, and it caught me. I listened to side two on the way to work (seriously, the album is this short) and realized it was all sinking in: this is a damn fine slab o' wax.

It's as grown up as Beck has ever been, but that's not saying much. And it doesn't matter anyway. The songs are there. They don't jump out at you like a lot of his other stuff (aside from the instantly catchy "Gamma Ray"), but that's what makes the tracks even more solid and speaks to some surefire staying power. "Chemtrails" is a better song than I initially assessed, but it's still probably my least favorite. The opening track "Orphans" features Cat Power on the chorus (she's on "Walls," too), but just barely. And this subtle approach carries over into a lot of the aspects of DM's production. The songs initially sound really simple, but when you give it a good headphone listen there's plenty of little things that jump out.

This record is still really brand new at this point, so I'm curious to see how kind the years will be to it. Will this be a detour, or is this the new Beck? I'd guess detour, but either way, he hasn't got me worried yet.

"Gamma Ray"

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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Beck - The Information (CD, 2006)

This is a huge album. Beck went all out for this one, attempting to make this record a complete experience, and you have to at least give it up for his ambition. Aside from the blank cover (stickers included!) that encouraged the listener to get involved, the CD came with a DVD that included videos for every song on the record. On top of that, the actual music here can be dense, intricate, and almost exhausting. But it's also really, really good.

I was listening to The Information while I was driving around today, and really feeling like I deserved a kick in the ass for not playing it more in the last year. I bumped the shit out of it when it came out, but it, like many of my records, got lost in the shuffle (literally; damn you iPod!) and it's been stagnant on the shelf for far too long.

I think the whole production of it all turned some folks off to this record (not that it wasn't popular), as it was a lot to take in. I realized today, and I'm a bit embarrassed to admit this, that I'm not as familiar with the last few tracks on this record as I would like to be. This is Beck's longest album, and it feels like it. But, in fairness, most of that is due to the final track, "The Horrible Fanfare/Landslide/Exoskeleton," which clocks in at a trying 10:36. The preceding 14 songs are, in comparison, not nearly as demanding. In fact, there's a heaping handful of appropriately succinct cuts here that stack up with some of Beck's finest work.

After the opener, the slightly lackluster "Elevator Music," we get the one-two punch of "Think I'm In Love" and "Cellphone's Dead," two tracks that sound like they were culled from the ashes of Odelay. It sprawls from there, going out on limbs ("Strange Apparition") and reigning it back in ("Nausea"), all while keeping the vibe peripherally trained on the prize. The approach works, and through some wise sequencing of the songs, it continues to do so for the duration.

Like I said, it's a dense one, and before I start dry-humping Nigel Godrich's production techniques again, I'll take it in this direction: Beck sounds like Beck on this album without trying to sound like the Beck of old. He's loose, but he's focused. The lyrics are back, and the off-kilter drum kicks are back, clunkier than ever, but making complete sense.

My only beef: they released a "deluxe" version of the record like four months after the original came out. After all the hoopla with the initial release, I thought that was pretty weak. Which is why I never bought it. If I remember correctly, it contained a bunch of remixes, and I was pretty remixed out at that point. But I plan, someday, to welcome these remixes into my life.

"No Complaints"

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Beck - Guerolito (LP, 2005)

Beck is no stranger to the remix, but up to this point in his career, the reworked joints had been relegated to b-sides and import only tracks. Why he felt the need to release an entire album of 'em for Guero, I'm not sure. It doesn't end up being a bad thing, as the collection succeeds in producing some smooth tracks, benefiting from source material that seems to be tailor-made for being broken down and put back together rather easily.

But is it even really a Beck album? I mean, sure, they're still his songs, but he's not the one doing the adjusting. Whatever, he's left the task in the hands of some ample knob twisters, and like I said, it works out well enough. None of the remixes are half-assed, and some of them are really quite ambitious.

I didn't like the Octet remix of "Girl" the first few times I heard it, but it's grown on me. It's kind of cool to hear the poppiest song on the record broken down to almost an unrecognizable state. Some aren't as gutsy, but the ones that are end up being the most memorable. Adrock's remix of "Black Tambourine" is sparse and vacant, hitting hard with glitchy bass and some video game-ish keys. It's Beastie-esque, but it sounds plenty Beck appropriate as well.

Some put their own stamp on the tracks, with mixed results. The Diplo remix of "Go It Alone" comes off as the laziest of the bunch, and a bit corny. But, it's preceded by what in my opinion is easily the strongest track on the record, El-P's remix of "Scarecrow." The dense and dark drums are unmistakable, hitting with that slightly distorted and cinematic effect that pops up on a lot of his recent work. Hearing the trademark sounds of both artists butting heads and then joining forces is pretty damn cool.

"Clap Hands," a track that was left over from the original session, is thrown on at the end here, and it doesn't end up being completely out of place. It's a bit scatterbrained, and the intentions meld well with the rest of the cuts. Overall, it's a solid companion to an album that felt like it needed another little push. And they kept the songs in the same order, which makes me happy because I appreciate consistency.

"Scarecrow (El-P Remix)"

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Monday, July 28, 2008

Beck - Guero (CD, 2005)

This time around, the word on the street (pre-Beck release) was that Beck and the Dust Brothers were teaming up again. That's right, the winning team that brought us Odelay were getting the ol' band back together, so to speak. We were excited. We knew it wouldn't be anything short of brilliant, that it was going to be the kick in the ass the music world needed, that Beck would ride in on his horse and show us all, once again, just how the fuck this whole thing was done. We expected a lot. We expected too much.

This is only part of why Guero is disappointing, but it's worth mentioning. I had actually said things like "Man, I hope he and the Dust Brothers do another record" or, sheepishly, "Man, I don't get just, like, you know, when something works, why not just keep doing it again?" So, yes, I was looking forward to it. Too much, like I said. The early reviews were good, but not great. It ended up being pretty much the same deal with the record.

There is a point in a lot of artists' careers when you get the distinct vibe that they are doing (and whether this is intentional or not, we'll never know) impressions of themselves. Like they're trying, and not in a blatant and obvious way, to recapture something that's not there to capture. Beck never really fully treaded into this territory, but he came closer than he ever should have on Guero. And you could argue it's almost like he was trying to recreate individual songs. "E-Pro" is "Devil's Haircut." "Broken Drum" is "Steal My Body Home." "Go It Alone" is "Derelict." And "Rental Car" is somehow "Black Tambourine" which is somehow "E-Pro."

I'm simplifying and exaggerating this entirely too much, but you see what I'm saying. We got the old Beck back. But it seemed like he was going through the motions. The lyrics, while witty at times, were lackluster overall. And even the Dust Brothers seemed like they hadn't dug nearly as deep into the crates for what we thought would be a endless abyss of unidentifiable samples. I swear they sample and distort the opening guitar lick from "American Woman" on "Black Tambourine." Weak.

The shining moment in this uneven record is "Girl," a supremely catchy and single-worthy track that shows us Beck's still got it. And he does. I may sound like I hate this record, but I don't. Far from it. It may not be my favorite, but I think it's just me. I built it up in my head, getting a pedestal ready for it before it even had a release date. What can I say, I'm easily excitable.


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Sunday, July 27, 2008

Beck - Sea Change (LP, 2002)

Beck's first album of the new millennium surprised us all, once again putting the party on hold in favor of calmer tunes that were conspicuously devoid of samples, grooves, and even the slightest tinges of humor or playfulness. Exacting and deliberate (in the best sense of both words), this collection gave us unfiltered access to what was really at the heart of all this chaos, and we finally found out what we had long suspected: Beck had feelings.

By all credible accounts, the unflinching and dour sentiments of love lost found herein can be attributed to a huge transition in Beck's personal life (hence the title), which is openly apparent by even a quick glance at the song titles. The majority of the tracks are certainly classifiable as acts of catharsis, and it's a method which Beck had successfully employed on some of his previous records (see: "Truckdrivin Neighbors Downstairs (Yellow Sweat)" from Mellow Gold) but never in such a deeply personal way. While it may have strayed too far off the beaten path for some (what is with these fickle fans?), for most folks, it worked perfectly. And when I say "most folks," I mean "every girl I know who has ever taken the time to really get to know this great record."

There are a lot of important bands that have written and recorded, while in the midst of personal strife and turmoil, some really great breakup records. I'll be coming across a handful of 'em in the course of digging through my music, and I think this is the first one really worth adding to the list. The breakup record is one of my favorite things in music. They're usually uneven, sometimes regretfully open, often mean. I'll find time to annoyingly postulate on this later, because I could go on for far too long. Just know that if you're ever at the end of a long and trying relationship, this is one of those records that's there for you.

I don't want to get on the Nigel Godrich train of humpery, as it's way too full already, but as a producer, the man knows what he's doing. These songs are flushed out perfectly, more than worthy of a solid headphone listen. This is probably most easily observed in the reworking of "It's All In Your Mind," a song from the mid-90's that Beck released as a 7" post-One Foot In The Grave. The version here is given a tasteful string treatment and ends up being, while structurally and lyrically the same, a completely different experience. And it fits the theme of the album perfectly.

I have to be in the right mood (depressed) for this one, but when that time comes, this is good record to have around. I was dating a girl around the time this came out, and when she made a mix that prominently featured "Lost Cause" as the opener and "Already Dead" somewhere in the middle, I knew we were through. I guess it works both ways.

So, you know, watch out for that.

"Guess I'm Doing Fine"

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Saturday, July 26, 2008

Beck - Midnite Vultures (LP, 1999)

While this record was still being touted by some as the real follow-up to Odelay, enough time had passed that most people couldn't have cared less to size up a new Beck album in such terms. While Mutations was a stellar album, we (as usual, I mean me) had played the shit out of it, milked it for all it was worth, embraced its barrenness, and were ready to feel good again. We wanted the Beck of old to make his triumphant return, to drop some nonsense while (as much as I hate to say it) rocking the party with his unmistakable brand of sophistication. And he did. Oh, he did.

Midnite Vultures has become a divisive album, not hugely, but enough so that I think it's worth mentioning. For some, it's one of Beck's best records (I fall in this camp), for others, it comes across as kitschy and hackneyed, an obvious and half-baked homage to Prince and other dance/sex acts of the 80's. I don't think I'm overstepping my bounds when I say that the latter group here are half-wits who wouldn't know a good time (or a great album) if it kicked them in the back of the head while they were masturbating to overwrought Pitchfork reviews.

If I lack a bit of enthusiasm for some of Beck's recent output, it's because of records like this. He is capable of taking music and knocking its dick in the dirt, of making a record that on paper sounds like a terrible idea but ends up solidifying his genius. This is the Beck we all want to remember.

So clearly, I'm a fan. When I listen to tracks like "Mixed Bizness," I don't have any problem remembering why. Lines like "She's always cold lamping/ Visine at the canteen" are just ultra dope, sung with a conviction that should assuage anyone's reservations that this might be some sort of derailed Rick James tribute. Need more proof? Listen to "Get Real Paid." Yeah, the one where hes says "Touch my ass if you're qualified." That's a good time, my friends. If you don't think so, I can't help you. But you should probably listen to the Beatles-esque melody of "Broken Train," let it seep in and overtake you, just to make sure you're not a hollow-eyed bore.

The casual fan will refer to this album as "The one with 'Debra' on it," but I implore you, don't be that person. We all listened to that song way too much when this came out, and really, this song is to blame for the misclassification of this album as a jokey dance party parody record. Don't get me wrong, I love the song. But do yourself a favor: if you're planning to put this on at a party, play the preceding track "Pressure Zone" before you get into "Debra." It's an oft-overlooked Beck classic and will (and I still hate to say it) rock the party more than sufficiently.

Then, by all means, sing along with "Debra."

"Broken Train"

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Friday, July 25, 2008

Beck - Mutations (LP, 1998)

When word started making the rounds that Beck was releasing his follow-up to Odelay, the news was generally received with ecstatic glee, which was quickly quelled by an odd disclaimer: this was not to be the actual follow-up LP, instead it was more of a collection of relatively hasty recordings meant to tide us over until Beck could release a polished and proper full-length. So, we didn't expect much, but we were excited nonetheless. (and when I say "we," I think I mean "me.")

Whether intentional or not, these slightly lowered expectations made Mutations sound even better upon first listen, not that it needed any help. This is a great record, one that was only considered less than an actual Beck album before everyone heard it. People still consider it some sort of intentionally mellow sidestep that allowed Beck to purge some jangly joints from his overcrowded head, but the record's not nearly as subdued and skeletal as some folks would have you believe. Yes, the tempo and abrasiveness are toned down in comparison to Odelay, but the songs aren't one-offs that got thrown into a half-assed package in an attempt to strike while Beck's iron was still hot. The tracks are fully realized, layered with clicks and clacks of percussion that add texture and depth to songs that must have been equally stunning when performed by just the man and his acoustic.

This is probably Beck's only album where he peaks early, but "Cold Brains" is too good not to be the opener. I have listened to this song literally hundreds of times, and I may never get sick of it. "We ride disowned/ Corroded to the bone" is, while a bit dramatic when taken out of context, just a fucking perfect refrain for this song, and it adds a potent and stage-setting tone for what follows. I'm speaking generally about the remainder of the record, but what immediately follows is what was considered, at the time (remember this was pre-Sea Change), one of Beck's most sincere and heartfelt ballads, "Nobody's Fault But My Own." It follows in the decaying footsteps of the previous track, still strangely adding imagery focused on death, and not the sarcastic kind we might have expected from him at the time. This was a big step for Beck, and it forced a shift in his listeners as well: we had to really accept the fact that he wanted to be taken seriously.

I didn't have a problem with it. In fact, looking back and knowing what was to follow this, you can put it together and realize it was a brilliant move. We'll get to that...anyway. I guess "Cold Brains" and "Nobody's Fault..." were released as singles, but "Tropicalia" was the only one I remember getting a whole lot of airplay. In true Beck form, it was probably the weakest song on the record, but it was easy to stomach and had a peppier feel than a lot of the other cuts.

And yes, this is one of the albums I own on both LP and CD. I bought the vinyl when it came out, which was a good move. It came with a bonus 7" that has some non-album tracks and a sweet oversized booklet wrapped around it. Not bad. I have no idea where I got the CD.

"Cold Brains"

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Beck - Odelay (Deluxe Edition) (2xCD, 1996/2008)

If anyone still needed proof that Beck wasn't a flash in the pan, Odelay was it. It's one of the most important (and best) albums of the 90's, and it couldn't have come at a better time. It was 1996, and post-grunge shit rock bands like Bush and Seven Mary Three were beginning to get way more attention than they ever deserved. Beck got us back on track, giving us a record that was both smart and fun, with dense but breezy beats that effortlessly matched his off-the-cuff lyrical style perfectly.

The record sounded nothing like any of his previous output, and I remember being taken aback at how precise and clear the album was. The grooves were synced, the vocals sounded deliberate, and even the noisy portions were corralled in before they split your ears open. Producers The Dust Brothers must have had a lot to do with this, though I've never been sure exactly how much of this record is them and how much is Beck himself. To me, the music (aside from maybe "Ramshackle") sounds like pure Dust, but who knows. Who cares. I do know that I saw Beck during his tour for this record, and when he played "Novocaine," I decided then and there that it was the greatest song in the history of music (I've since relented a bit on my staunch opinion of it's supreme excellence, but I'm still a big fan).

This is one of those records that really encompassed my life for a good year. "Where It's At" was on the radio (inside the milk cooler I was working in) A LOT that summer, and in the fall it turned to "Devil's Haircut." The funny part was, those were the two weakest songs on the record. Tracks like "Hotwax" and "Readymade" are the reasons this album will remain Beck's crowning glory. They're catchy but coarse, too distorted or twangy to get the radio play, but his vocals and lyrics are just untouchable on 'em. I mentioned "Novocaine." Dear lord. And there's "Jack-Ass." If you can think of a more beautiful song with two chords and the word "ass" in the title, I'm all ears.

I picked up the Deluxe Edition when it was released earlier this year, and I'm not super impressed with it. I already had a bunch of the songs (on singles, I don't cheat with zip files of obscure tracks like the rest of you lazy downloading chump-o's), and the ones I didn't have were cuts like the "Where It's At" UNKLE remix, which is 12 and a half minutes long and unwisely kicks off the second disc of the set. Ballsy. But, if you've never heard "Feather In My Cap," "Strange Invitation," or "Brother," you're missing out on some great '96-era Beck that you need to make a part of your life.

Very soon. Make it happen.


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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Beck - One Foot In The Grave (LP, 1994)

1994 was a big year for Beck. This ended up being his third release, a collection of (mostly) folk songs recorded in Calvin Johnson's basement with a bunch of dudes who would end up being NW rock semi-legends (Scott Plouf is everywhere, you just don't know it). That's part of why I love this record so much. It's Beck's link to the Northwest, and plus, I just find it really odd and cool that he put out an album on K records.

This one's decidedly more mellow than Stereopathetic and way less polished than Mellow Gold, with a lot of the songs not being a whole lot more than Beck, his guitar, and some rattly percussion. Aside from "Burnt Orange Peel," which throws some distortion and speed in for a minute and a half, the record maintains a fairly subdued and morose mood throughout. Considering that it was recorded during the winter in an Olympia basement, that makes perfect sense. It sounds cold and wet.

"Asshole" seemed to be the lone track on this album that Beck played live in the years that followed his initial success, but I could be wrong about that. I know a lot of these weren't popping up on his post-Odelay setlists, though. It's a shame, because there's some great material here.

A few of my favorite tracks are, oddly enough, the ones that feature Calvin Johnson on backup vocals. He's not my favorite singer, but when mixed with the comparative cleanliness of Beck's vocals, it really fills the sound out. "I Get Lonesome" is sparse instrumentally, but the vocals expand it, with Calvin's voice making sure the bottom end is taken care of. But the real gem is the last track, "Atmospheric Conditions." This one's almost more of a duet, with Beck and Calvin's vocals mixing with twangy distorted guitar, clacky drums, and some odd slide something or other. And the lyrics, at least the ones I can understand, are great.

A lot of folks really cling to this early Beck stuff, and as I get older, I feel like I am becoming one of them. Part of it's the time period and the memories I associate with it, but I think it also has to do with the lo-fi simplicity that he used to embrace and has since given up on. I listen to tracks like "Painted Eyelids" and realized I could use some more shit like that on my shelf.

"Atmospheric Conditions"

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Beck - Mellow Gold (CD, 1994)

If any song ever reeked of one-hit wonder from the get-go, it was Beck's "Loser."

In the early to mid-90's, my brother and I religiously watched "Bohemia Afterdark," a local video showcase that featured, strangely enough, indie rock and hip hop. A lot of people didn't care for that format, but it was perfect for us. It aired late at night, so we would tape it and watch it on Sunday mornings. Plus, we liked to have the videos on VHS so we could watch the shit out of them. Anywho, this was where I first heard/saw "Loser," and subsequently, Beck.

The song was instantly infectious, something that I'm sure we rewound right after the first time we watched it. It was too good. I hoped it would stay underground so I could latch onto it and make it my own (this was really what the 90's were all about), but I think I heard it at a party the next weekend. I wasn't surprised. It was blatantly anthemic, a song that appealed to those who wanted to embrace its irony and those who didn't care to dissect it at all. I was sadly in both camps, depending on how many beers I had ingested at the parties where it was blared on a loop.

So, like I said, the fact that the song caught on with our proudly disenchanted generation was no surprise. The surprise was that tracks 2-12 on the record were just as good, if not better, than the ubiquitous single. "Loser" had some stamina, but we played it too much. Everyone played it too much. Skipping past it at the start of the record ended up being a sweet move, opening up a wholly unexpected Beck who was just as effective with an acoustic guitar as he was with his bozo nightmare raps. I can still listen to "Pay No Mind (Snoozer)" and enjoy the eff out of it. How he pulled off the "giant dildo crushing the sun" line is still a mystery to me. Really, that should have ruined it. But, alas, it only made it better.

This is not to say that the record turns into a folk fest after "Loser" fades out. "Beercan," the second single from the record, fuses many of the same elements as the first hit, and probably led to even more people thinking of Beck as a one-trick pony. But, its pop jangles are sandwiched between the almost grating distortion of "Sweet Sunshine" and the jarring elegance of "Steal My Body Home," a song that, to me, stands as one of Beck's finest, especially amongst his earliest output.

And, it always kills the dance party, which is never a bad thing.

"Steal My Body Home"

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Monday, July 21, 2008

Beck - Stereopathetic Soulmanure (CD, 1994)

Beck's early career is a lo-fi mess of haphazard singles, independent releases, and a major label debut that was way better than anyone figured it would be. It starts here, with a collection that (probably unintentionally) makes a great introduction to the man and his music. All the trademarks of 90's Beck are here: the spastic noise, the acoustic dark folk strummers, and the simple but quirky tunes that were destined to end up on mix tapes everywhere.

So, needless to say, this one is all over the place. While "Puttin It Down" sounds like it was recorded on a boombox, "Crystal Clear (Beer)" and a handful of other tracks seem to have been treated to some semi-professional production techniques. It doesn't take long to figure out that while young Beck might not be the most proficient guitar player, he more than makes up for it with the melodies and lyrics. While the words may be nonsensical, they sure do sound great within the song, and this was really his early strength. That, and trying really hard to emulate the diction and abrasive nature of an old blues man. It's clear he knows he's not pulling it off, but his vocals on songs like "Rowboat" are still effectively eerie without verging on being unintentionally sarcastic.

"Satan Gave Me A Taco" is one of the aforementioned quirky ones, a loose and quick narrative folk jam that barely stops to let you process what's going on. It's fun, but oddly enough doesn't have the same staying power as some of the noisier jams like "Rollins Power Sauce" and "Tasergun." But that could just be me; I listened to that song a little too much in the late 90's. And, if those aren't noisy enough for you, the album has a sweet bonus track of about 15 minutes worth of noise at the end. Not sure if I've ever made it through that extravaganza.

It's really impossible to see where he's headed if you're just talking about this collection of songs, but given access to his slightly later work, it makes perfect sense. "Cut 1/2 Blues" sounds like any of the b-sides from his next albums, and if given a substantial polish job, could've been cutesy instead of clamoring. He was figuring out the formula, and he was almost there.

Not that he needed to hurry, because this one stands alone as a great record.

"Waitin' For A Train"

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Saturday, July 12, 2008

Vacation, All I Ever Wanted.

I'll be taking the next week off from life, so I'm not going to try to get too bloggy. But I'll be back.

In the meantime, I've created a sweet soundtrack to your summer that also happens to correspond to some of the 50-some albums we've discussed so far. It's the official Stallion Alert Muxtape, and you should give it a listen.

Upon my return, prepare yourself for a whole lotta Beck...

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Beatles - 1 (CD, 2000)

I spotted this used for five bucks about a year ago and bought it on a whim, filed it away, and I'm not certain, but I think as I'm listening to it now, that this may be the second time I've played it. Maybe the third.

Like any good Beatles collection, the songs are sequenced in chronological order, but this one makes for a different journey through the career of the band, as it focuses solely on the singles that reached number one. The thing that most folks find interesting about this collection is what made the cut and what didn't. But really, most of the songs you would expect to see here are here, and possibly a few that you might not expect. I wouldn't have thought "The Ballad of John and Yoko" was a number one hit, but that shows what I know, because it was. So it turns out I'm an idiot.

While we've heard all of the songs plenty of times, the accompanying booklet is full of tons of great shots of 7" sleeves from various countries, offering a look at some really rare records and also the ways in which the band was portrayed around the world. Not bad.

And it's guaranteed that your aunt owns this and loves it.


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Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Beatles - Anthology 3 (2xCD, 1996)

This is the sole Anthology purchase I made upon the actual release of the trilogy, although I think my girlfriend at the time had a double cassette copy of 2 (which you'll notice is conspicuously absent from my collection; the usual excuses apply), so I did listen to that one a bit as well when it came out. I still prefer the later stuff to the earlier work, but at the time, I was really into Abbey Road, so I was anxious as all get out to hear this collection.

It did not, and does not, disappoint. The majority of the tracks are demo recordings in various stages of completion, and the sound quality is really fantastic on most of them. The fascinating aspect (for me, at least) of a compilation like this is being able to, by comparing the early takes of songs to the finished album tracks, concretely establish the amount of work that goes into fully flushing out tunes that start, as all songs do, as rough concepts. It also, though I'm not sure how intentionally, adds a soberingly human aspect to songwriters whom many of us have placed on the highest pedestal. That may come at the expense of shattering some people's fabled notions of the group's songwriting process (although I doubt it), but being able to hear the origins of some of the most well-known songs in rock history is more likely to fulfill many a Beatles nerd's secret fantasies.

I'm not even a full-fledged Beatles nerd and I still get really excited about these early versions. Part of it, for me, is the voyeuristic, fly on the wall sensations that the recording inevitably conjures. When you hear Lennon working "Yoko Ono" into an acoustic home recording of an early version of "Happiness Is A Warm Gun," it not only adds perspective as to his mind's focus at the time, but it gives you the feeling that you're privy to something that may have been initially intended to remain private, both musically and personally. Plus, hearing Lennon say "Shit, wrong chord" when he fucks up the beginning of the song adds a level a candor that proves things weren't always bitingly tense during this era.

All the songs you would hope to hear here make an appearance, though it's possible that I'm mindlessly overlooking a glaring omission. There's also plenty of studio chatter to keep things both light and awkward. Hearing Lennon announce that Yoko's divorce is finally official doesn't exactly elicit screams of elation from his bandmates. But hearing the guys jabber with each other is endearing at certain points, strangely uncomfortable in others. Either way, it's interesting.

There's too many good songs to list here, but perhaps some personal favorites: Lennon does an alternate version of "Cry Baby Cry" that manages to focus on his voice in the best possible way, affecting tones that are both eerie and lush. Have I mentioned how much I like that song? Probably repeatedly. His very early, wildly acoustic take of "Polythene Pam" is great as well. Short and sweet. Paul's early versions of "Blackbird" and "Hey Jude" offer some great takes on a few of the Beatles songs that many of us have perhaps heard a few too many times, and Harrison's early acoustic demo of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" is a solid reminder that a great song is a great song, even when it's stripped down to the bare essentials.

Like I needed to tell you that.

"Polythene Pam"

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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Beatles - Anthology 1 (3xLP, 1995)

This is another one of my recent Beatles purchases.

First off, let me say that all in all, I think the Anthology trilogy is really a worthy addition to the Beatles catalog. They unearthed some undeniably rare shit for these collections. They probably aren't for the casual fan, but I think folks who are even relatively curious about behind-the-scenes history of the band can find some intriguing stuff here. And for those who choose to nerd out, the liner notes are extensive enough to get your geek wheels turnin'.

This record is arranged chronologically (thankfully), but before we're treated to the insanely early Quarrymen stuff, there's "Free As A Bird," arguably one of the most talked about and anticipated tracks ever. At first it seemed like it might be a lost Beatles song, but we (people in 1995 who were excited about this release) came to find out that the song began as a solo Lennon demo that was recorded some years after he left the Beatles. The surviving Beatles laid down some stuff on top of it, and there you go. It seemed like a strange thing at the time, and it still feels really out of place listening to it now. It's a fine song, but the original recording made by Lennon just wasn't that good to begin with. I don't know. People seem to have differing opinions about the song. I could take or leave it. I'm not enough of a purist to make a stink about it one way or the other.

I thought the video was pretty sweet, though. I can say that for sure. For 1995 that was some impressive work. Still looks pretty good, and there's lots of little references to catch along the way.

The rest of the record takes us from the very beginning of the group all the way up to "Eight Days A Week." The tracks are interspersed with interview snippets, making it clear that this is a companion to the movie that was being shown on PBS around the same time as this release. I could do without the talking, because while they may be talking about the correlating time period on the record, a lot of the sound bites are from years later, and in my mind, sort of fuck up the chronology of the whole thing. I could be way off. But it bugs me.

Aside from some mildly tedious and trying moments (two different versions of "Eight Days A Week" in a row is a bit much), this record does a fine job of adding even more insight into the origins of the world's most well-known band.

And finally, Pete Best and Stu Sutcliffe get to cash some royalty checks.

"In Spite of All the Danger"

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Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Beatles - Rarities (LP, 1980)

Before the Anthology series and before the internet laid waste to the term "rare," albums like this were a fan's dream. While I'm sure there were bootlegged versions of these songs floating around (and I think some of them just hadn't been released in the US), nothing compares to a solid official release. The sound quality is guaranteed to be better, and in this case you even get some fairly detailed liner notes.

To the casual fan, this might not have a ton to offer, as some of the tracks are just alternate mono or stereo mixes (depending on which format the original track was offered) or versions where a different vocal take was used. The obvious exception here is "Sie Liebt Dich," which is "She Loves You" sung completely (and very convincingly) in German. But, they also do some strange combining of rare versions to form completely new tracks, and with the Beatles, the difference between a mono and stereo mix is huge, so it does make some of the cuts seem like new songs.

The liner notes are key, as they let you know which aspects of the song to concentrate on. Sometimes it's fairly obvious, as with "Helter Skelter," where Paul's vocals sound completely different, or "I'm Only Sleeping" which finds the verses in a different order than the original. Overall, this collection does its duty: It's chronological, detailed, includes some rare photos (the gatefold opens to reveal the infamous "Butcher Cover"), and doesn't waste any space. It's really everything a good rarities collection should be. Looking at it now, I'm realizing it seems like a mini version of the Anthology series.

It's records like this I can point to if anyone asks me why I still own a turntable. It's never been released on CD, and it makes for a great read and a great listen. You can't download that sort of thing, people!

Alright, I'll calm down. And I don't think anyone's ever asked me why I still own a turntable. But if they did...

"Sie Leibt Dich"

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Monday, July 7, 2008

The Beatles - 1967-1970 (2xLP, 1973)

Not a whole lot to say about this one, as it's a greatest hits sort of situation. I'm working on getting the 1962-1966 companion on red vinyl, I just haven't shelled out the dough for it yet. As I've said, my Beatles collection is not fantastic.

I rarely listen to this record, and it's definitely one I have more for show, but there are some things I like about it. It's great that it's in chronological order, and it's great that it includes "Old Brown Shoe."

Trying to pick out the Beatles' best songs is always going to leave certain fans disappointed, which is why this album really isn't great. You can find plenty of songs that didn't make the cut to gripe about, and most fans already own all this stuff.

But that blue vinyl sure is pretty.

"Old Brown Shoe"

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Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Beatles - Let It Be (LP, 1970)

This album is an odd one, at once seeming like a strange afterthought, and yet also a somewhat solemn, appropriate send off to the Beatles. It has always reminded me of Led Zeppelin's Coda, in that it's not a tremendous album, yet it's very good, but it simply exudes an overwhelming sadness that makes it hard to really embrace. Maybe it's just me. Or maybe it's that Phil Spector managed to make this album sound nothing like any other Beatles record.

Either way, this has never been one of the Beatles albums that I've listened to over and over. But, like I said, it's very good. The story behind this record is too long and too well-known to be retold here, so I'll skip that part. But needless to say, the band was at odds, and it comes across clearer here than on any of the other records of their late career. Harrison's "I Me Mine" might not be directly about the infighting amongst the band, but come on. McCartney and Lennon just sound distant, even on the songs they're singing on together. Their songwriting is clearly headed in different directions, but as far apart as they sound, the songs still fit back-to-back well enough.

McCartney really shines on this one, and I've always forgiven him for the corniness and sap of "Two of Us" and the title track (aren't I nice?). Seeing those pictures of him sitting in the studio with Lennon and Yoko on the same's amazing he wasn't ripping his hair out. I'll allow the man some introspection. "Let It Be" is really a brilliant song, and it's effectively heart-rending if you're in the right (or wrong) mood. Conversely, I've always been a sucker for "Get Back" and all the jollies it spews forth. It's a great way to end the record: on a fun, high note.

Now I'm being sappy. Forgive me.

Oh, and Phil Spector's production is ass. I'll leave it at that.

"One After 909"

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Saturday, July 5, 2008

The Beatles - Hey Jude (LP, 1970)

There are three LPs that essentially molded the way I viewed and listened to rock music from an early age. This is the first one. I'll mention the other two when I get to 'em. But this, a compilation of Beatles singles that spans their entire career over two sides of a record, might just be (aside from Elvis) my first real memory of listening to rock and roll.

My mom and dad's record collection wasn't huge, but once you flipped past the Mamas & The Papas and the Kenny Rogers, there was some decent stuff in there. When I was old enough to reach the record player, I started digging through the albums. I still have nightmares about the Sha Na Na record I used to listen to all the time. Apparently I enjoyed doo-wop. Anyway. This was the only Beatles record my parents owned. I remember playing it when I was really young, and when I got a bit older and really grasped what it was, it got spun a lot more.

There were a few things that confused me about this record when I was too young to realize what it was really about. First of all, John Lennon looks, to the eyes of a five year old kid, like anything but a rock musician. He looked to me like a religious man, a priest or whatever Father Guido Sarducci was. I think Lennon's holding his belt in the cover photo, but from a distance I always assumed he was clutching a Bible. This makes no sense, but like I said, I was very young. Lennon also just scared me a bit. He looks pissed to be there (he was, this was the Beatles' last photo session) and didn't really give off the "Can't Buy Me Love" vibe that kicks off the album. This leads to more confusion.

If you're going to put together a compilation record that spans a band's career, you've really got to have a younger picture on there to add some perspective. This isn't the only problem with the cover. The songs are listed on the back, but out of order, so you've got to refer to the label when trying to find the song order. Speaking of the label, it lists the title of the album as The Beatles Again. The spine of the cover lists it as Hey Jude. Clearly the whole thing was thrown together hastily.

But, the songs are great. It's probably because I've listened to this more than any other Beatles record over the years, but some of my favorite songs of theirs are on here: "Rain," "Paperback Writer," "Lady Madonna," "Don't Let Me Down," and of course, "Old Brown Shoe." Oh, Harrison shines on that cut. And the good version of "Revolution" is on here too. I'm not a huge fan of "The Ballad of John and Yoko," but it's a good closing track. I've never really liked "Hey Jude." Seems like it's about three minutes too long.

So yes, this was my introduction to the Beatles. And a damn good one. A quick history lesson on the greatest band of all time. I remember listening to "Paperback Writer" over and over, but I could be making that up. To this day, though, that track sticks out for me as very representative of the Beatles sound.

Although it's not really at all.

"Paperback Writer/Rain"

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Friday, July 4, 2008

The Beatles - Abbey Road (LP, 1969)

Although Let It Be wouldn't be released until a year later, most folks agree this is the last real Beatles record. That's my take on it too, but that might just be because their career is rendered even more perfect by that distinction. Having the last song on your last record titled "The End"? It doesn't get any better than that. But, wait. Isn't "Her Majesty" really the last song on Abbey Road? A lot of questions surround this record, and it's what makes it, aside from a collection of phenomenal songs, a great discussion piece.

I have, on more than a few occasions, definitively declared this my favorite Beatles record. The Beatles (The White Album) remains an extremely close second, but in the end (hey!), I always come back to Abbey Road. It's the Beatles' crowning glory, proof that, when all is said and done, they are the best band ever. Only this group of guys could take relationships that were strained to the brink, put their differences aside in the interest of one last hurrah, and have it end like this.

While we get the expected series of songs that are clear harbingers to the solo careers that were already in the works, the sting of bitterness from the previous record is gone. The boys are back to their bread and butter: optimism and love. As for its genuineness, we'll never know. But it certainly feels real. And on top of that, while this could have easily played out as a series of singles, they instead wrap it up with a medley (I guess they call it a suite), combining half-songs and fractured pieces into one of the best sides of a record ever. It's a big part of what makes this record so fantastic.

Harrison gets two of his best songs across here, the perennial favorite "Something" (his first A-side single), and the timeless "Here Comes The Sun," a perfect song to start the monumental B-side of this LP. Ringo even gets in one last Starkey original, the wonderfully out of place "Octopus's Garden." It's arguably the one weak spot in this whole album, but fuck it, it's Ringo. I'm more of a "Don't Pass Me By" man, but hey, that's personal preference.

The second side of Abbey Road is a thing of legend, a collection of melded ditties that are so interlocked with one another in the minds of even casual fans, that they should never have been allowed to be played on a jukebox as separate songs. Have you ever had "Polythene Pam" come on your iPod when you're running the shuffle function? It's jarring to hear it out of context. That's why, whenever possible, I start with "Here Comes The Sun" and just let the whole side play out. I've been doing it for years, and it has yet to get old.

It never disappoints. And, you get to hear Ringo's drum solo.

Which also never disappoints.

"Mean Mr. Mustard" - "The End"

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Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Beatles - The Beatles (2xLP, 1968)

This was my most recent Beatles purchase, so I'm proudly posting the pic on the left, just to make sure you know I have this on white vinyl. Of course, now I still want to get an original copy with a serial number. It's endless...

The first time I heard someone piping up about how this would have made a better single album than the sprawling double LP we have come to know and love, I was a bit stunned. The idea had never even occurred to me. The more I thought about it and discussed it, and the more I listened to the album (it's a college staple, and I had been schooled in its virtues plenty before that), the more I came to realize what an asinine proposal this was. If you were to take a thing away from this LP, it wouldn't be the same.

Say what you want about "Revolution 9," but it's there. It will always be there, that lengthy reminder at the tail end of the second record that reminds us how fucked up this band was becoming. It's almost a shame that the CD generation was able to skip it with a quick press of a button and the mp3 generation probably doesn't even get as far as loading it onto their iPods. Though I'm sure folks in the 60's and 70's got used to moving the needle a few inches toward the inner groove in avoidance, they were without remotes so I bet more of 'em were subjected to it. And make no mistake: "Revolution 9" is a terrible, terrible song. It's an exercise in ego on a scale rarely seen. I just love the idea of it. I really can't believe they actually put that song on a fucking record. No wonder Harrison was quitting the band left and right. He's getting songs shot down, while Lennon is allowed eight minutes to get egregiously masturbatory. It's really something.

But what's really something is how amazing the rest of this record is. If you feel like some of the songs are unfinished, if you don't like the playful feel of some of the lyrics, that's cool. But just know that you're wrong, you don't get it, and you're hopeless. I'm kidding, but honestly, I'm a little suspect of people who don't like this record. It's got something for everyone. I could go on forever (as usual), but there's no need. How about a few of my favorites?

The one-two punch of "Dear Prudence" into "Glass Onion" has always really impressed me. Lennon goes from sincere to dick mode at the drop of a hat. In the end, I think this might be his strongest record. "I'm So Tired" is one for the ages.

"Don't Pass Me By" - Ringo, stepping off the coattails and proving his worth. Like there was any question...

All of Harrison's songs. Bitter and brilliant.

"Helter Skelter." Who would have seen that coming?

And, of course...

"Cry Baby Cry"

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Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Beatles - Magical Mystery Tour (LP, 1967)

I've often wondered, if I had been a teenage kid in 1967, if I would have approved of the Beatles' quick transition into psychedelic rock. Looking at the collection of photos inside this LP, it's hard to imagine some of the outfits and random scenarios (a pencil-mustached Lennon serving pasta with a shovel?) not coming across as self-indulgent and drug fueled. Not having the luxury of being alive when it was actually happening, these are, instead, images I've grown up seeing and never thought to question.

For the record, it's always seemed cool as shit to me. But, it would be great to get inside the head of a fifteen year old die-hard Beatles fan at the time. In hindsight, we know this was a period when the group was breaking new ground in every way, and, despite the inner turmoil that was beginning within the fold, writing some of their best material. I just can't help but think there were some nervous rumblings the first time Paul hopped into the walrus suit.

Obviously it was well received, and that's no shocker. This album is every bit as good as Sgt. Pepper's. "I Am The Walrus" is one of Lennon's finest moments, a song with delicately pretentious lyrics (that ultimately work, of course) and an indelible melody. On a personal note, the way he pronounces "policeman" as "p'leecemin" has always brought me an unexplainable sense of elation. "Blue Jay Way," Harrison's sole contribution here, is a damn fine one. "The Fool On The Hill" and "Your Mother Should Know" show a slightly more mature side of McCartney, which is fine, because he evens it out with the raucous title track. Actually, McCartney really shines all over this one. "Baby You're A Rich Man," which feels like a Lennon track at first (it was), features a fat dose of Paul on the chorus.

The record wraps up with "All You Need Is Love," a track I sometimes wish I didn't like, but can't help favoring. It's helplessly idealistic and a bit repetitive, but damn, those horns get me. When I was a kid (I think I was about 11), I taped a special on TV about the twentieth anniversary of Rolling Stone magazine. It featured an interview with George Harrison, where he recounted a story where someone asked him if he still believed that all you need is love. His answer was "Yes, absolutely." It still impresses me that he hadn't turned out embittered in his older age.

Plus, the footage they showed of Mick Jagger, draped in flowers and hopelessly stoned, singing and effeminately clapping along at the filming of the recording session for the song, is a great source of entertainment for me.

"Blue Jay Way"

Magical Mystery Tour (Remastered)

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Beatles - Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (LP, 1967)

Man, The Beatles really cranked 'em out. Sgt. Pepper's was released less than a year after Revolver, and while they're not a completely different band, any remnants of the Revolver-esque two minute pop ditties are hard to come by this time around.

If anyone tells you this is a "concept record," they don't know what they're talking about. While the title track leads us to believe that's what's in store, especially when it bleeds into "A Little Help From My Friends" after the intriguing introduction of Billy Shears, it ends right there. Sure, there's the reprise at the end, but it's mostly pointless because it doesn't tie anything specific together. Aside from those odd bookends, this is essentially just like any other Beatles record, though it has always held the distinction of being ostensibly more extravagant.

But, I'm not going to hop on my soapbox and tell you that Sgt. Pepper's is overrated. Far from it. It's a brilliant record, I've just never been completely convinced that it's the Beatles' best. But, like I said in a previous post, arguing about the rankings of Beatles albums is, while fun, an impossible conversation to end with both parties satisfied they've made their point. This is one of the great things about the Beatles. Some of these albums are very dear to people, for any number of (usually deeply personal) reasons. And, everyone has their favorite. Take me, for example. I think this is a fantastic record. But if I ranked my favorite (or what I thought were the best) Beatles LPs, this wouldn't be at the top of my list.

Part of it may stem from the fact that "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" is one of my least favorite Beatles tracks. It personifies the one thing I don't like about the Lennon of the late 60's: his nonsensical psychedelic tendencies, thinly veiled as deep lyricism. It works in "I Am The Walrus" (which would show up later that same year) because the song itself is just undeniably infectious, but "Lucy" doesn't break through in the same way for me. I'm possibly missing the point, but if I haven't gotten it yet, I don't think I'm going to.

I think there are a number of reasons why this album resonates with so many people, but one of the most obvious has to be "A Day In The Life." I have to admit, it's a great reason to love this record. If you had to pick a track that summed up the group, there would be a lot of push for it to be this one. Lennon rarely sounds as beautifully eerie, and Paul's jaunt breaks the song open and mends it together all at once. The juxtaposition shouldn't work, but it does. And placing it at the end of the record? It wouldn't have worked the same way if it were anywhere else.

But, you knew all of this already.

Now I'm going to try and figure out why my LP has a Capitol sleeve and an Apple label...

"She's Leaving Home"

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