Friday, August 7, 2015

Tony's Picks - The Beach Boys

It’s all Carol’s fault.  One Sunday morning not too long ago we were watching CBS Sunday Morning, just like we do practically every Sunday morning.  I say it’s her fault because she records it on the DVR and we watch it after we get up for the day.  This particular show had a blurb on Brian Wilson.  There’s a movie out about two periods in his life called Love & Mercy.  Someday I’ll see the movie, even though I already know the story line.  Having seen the feature about the movie, it got me thinking about the bits of his music that I like.  There’s more to Brian Wilson’s music with the Beach Boys than just girls, cars, surfing, and the beach.  Long ago, I used to think “every time I hear the Beach Boys I thank God for The Beatles.”  Then I heard Pet Sounds, which Paul McCartney says heavily influenced the making of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  A handful of very personal songs from Pet Sounds are here [and without a surfing/beach/car song in sight].

California Girls [Summer Days (and Summer Nights), 1965] – Brian Wilson cites this as his favorite Beach Boys song.  Allegedly the music came to Brian Wilson after taking his first acid trip.  The Wrecking Crew is all over this one.  This is where Brian Wilson starts to rely more and more on the Wrecking Crew to make Beach Boys records while the rest of the band was on tour.

Do It Again [20/20, 1969] – After years of not singing about girls/cars/surfing/etc, here’s a back-to-basics blast of nostalgia.  Check out the funky echo delay on the drums at the beginning.  Brian Wilson said in the 20/20 liner notes that he wanted his falsetto to imitate the sound of a trumpet.  The Beach Boys’ career as a nostalgia act begins here.

Don’t Worry Baby [Shut Down Volume 2, 1964] – Here Brian Wilson channels Phil Spector’s production Be My Baby.

Please Let Me Wonder [The Beach Boys Today! 1965] – Harmonies galore!  This song just sounds great with the fat bass sound and the guitar-organ interplay.

The Warmth of the Sun [Shut Down Volume 2, 1964] – Several years ago Capitol Records released a Beach Boys compilation with the imaginative title of Beach Boys Classics, but these classics were selected by Brian Wilson himself.  Most of the tracks he selected are well-known, others not so well-known.  In the liner note for this album, he wrote that he came up with this song the night JFK was assassinated.

The Little Girl I Once Knew [Single, 1965] - I want to get Carol Kaye’s bass sound that I hear on this song.  Production on this song is the link between what started on Summer Days (and Summer Nights) and the quantum leap in production of Pet Sounds.  My only gripe about this song is Mike Love’s incessant bow-bow-bow-bow background vocals.

Wild Honey [Wild Honey, 1967] – After the über-productions of Heroes & Villains and Good Vibrations, Wild Honey sounds like a demo in comparison.  Carl Wilson sounds like he’s having a blast singing this.  I think they recorded this one in Brian Wilson’s pool.

Sail On, Sailor [Holland, 1973] – Blondie Chaplin has the lead vocal here.  Dennis Wilson had the first go at it, then Carl.  Carl wasn’t satisfied with either attempt and suggested Blondie give it a try.  It worked rather well.  Once the hook gets in your head, it’s hard to get rid of it.

Cabin Essence [SMiLE Sessions, 2011 and 20/20, 1969] – For the Beach Boys, this song written in Brian Wilson’s sandbox is as weird as it gets.  Van Dyke Parks wrote the words, and he has no idea what they mean.  No wonder Mike Love was so confused about their meaning.  There are three distinct parts – “Home on the Range”, “Who Ran the Iron Horse”, and “The Grand Coulee Dam.”  Apparently the Iron Horse bit was about the Chinese guys who worked to build the Transcontinental Railroad.  Done as a waltz, the Beach Boys chant “who ran the Iron Horse” over and over with a six-string bass played with very fuzzy tones for accompaniment.

Surf’s Up [SMiLE Sessions, 2011, & Surf’s Up, 1971] – Van Dyke Parks wrote the words for the music that was supposed to become SMiLE.  These particular lyrics are impenetrable. When Mike Love asked Parks what they meant, Parks couldn’t tell him because he claimed he was stoned when he wrote them.  It’s all stream-of-consciousness stuff.  But, in this song the phrase “Surf’s Up” is a double entendre.  Not only did it mean what it usually means [the surf is up, time to go surfing!], it also meant the era of the Beach Boys singing about surfing are over.  Brian Wilson is in full Vienna Boys Choir mode in some parts.  Soon Mike Love and the rest of the Beach Boys not named Brian Wilson lost their patience, and Brian Wilson lost his mind. 

‘Til I Die [Surf’s Up, 1971] – Brian Wilson is in a very downer mood here.  Here he meditates on his insignificance on the planet.  He’s “a cork on the ocean…a rock in a landslide…a leaf on a windy day.”  One lyric caught me by surprise with its brutal honesty – “it kills my soul” and how “I lost my way.”  For a guy with mental illness problems, these are very lucid, self-aware statements to make.

Heroes & Villains [Smiley Smile, 1967] – After all these years, I still have no idea what this one is about.  Who are the villains – the government who wanted to draft baby brother Carl to go fight in Vietnam, the record company, or the voices in Brian Wilson’s head?  All I know is the vocal bits [between the verses] over the harpsichord are very trippy.  The vocal harmonies are stunning, despite Jimi Hendrix think the group was a “psychedelic barbershop quartet.”

God Only Knows [Pet Sounds, 1966] – Carl Wilson’s finest vocal.  Brian called it a great love song, just not one sung to a person.  The multiple voices at the end of the song singing “God only knows what I’d be without you” over and over again can’t help but make one smile.

Sloop John B [Pet Sounds, 1966] – As the Beach Boys’ resident folkie, Al Jardine suggested to Brian Wilson the idea of recording this folk song.  He liked the Kingston Trio’s take on this 1927 West Indies tune and thought the Beach Boys should have a crack at it.  This has another great bass part from Carol Kaye.

Wouldn’t It Be Nice [Pet Sounds, 1966] – The opening salvo from Pet Sounds [Hal Blaine’s drums sound like a cannon shot], this has always been in my Top 5 of favorite Beach Boys songs.

Good Vibrations [Single, 1966] – Their best – ‘nuff said.

Girl Don’t Tell Me [Summer Days (and Summer Nights), 1965] – Carl Wilson’s first lead vocal, and it’s a good one.  Not only is it his vocal, he’s singing solo.  The Beach Boys, and not The Wrecking Crew, play on this track.  Listen closely and you’ll hear similarities to The Beatles’ Ticket to Ride.

Let Him Run Wild [Summer Days (and Summer Nights), 1965] - The Wrecking Crew is all over this one, too.  Phenomenal harmonies abound here.

I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times [Pet Sounds, 1966] – Brian Wilson laments that he is a misfit.  Sometimes I feel very sad…where can I turn when my fair-weather friends cop out…

I Know There’s An Answer [Pet Sounds, 1966] – But what is the question?  It began life as Hang On To Your Ego, a song with the same verses, but a different chorus. 

Caroline, No [Pet Sounds, 1966] – Brian Wilson sings solo about a sweet girl who turned bitchy.  It’s so hard to watch a sweet thing die…

Strange World [That’s Why God Made the Radio, 2012] – The best material from the final Beach Boys album comes in the last four songs, of which this one is the first.  Here, Brian marvels at the “uninvited people who’ve lost their way” while at the Santa Monica Pier, and sings to someone [presumably his wife] about how he can’t imagine life without her. Sunday morning/Skies so blue/Yo te amo/Means I love you… This would not be out of place if it was on Brian’s Lucky Old Sun album.  LA is a strange world indeed.

From There To Back Again [That’s Why God Made the Radio, 2012] – Al Jardine and Brian Wilson split lead vocal duties.  The closing suite about loneliness and aging begins here.

Pacific Coast Highway [That’s Why God Made the Radio, 2012] – As Brian Wilson drives down the PCH, he opines “Sunlight’s fading and there’s not much left to say/ My life, I’m better off alone.”

Summer’s Gone [That’s Why God Made the Radio, 2012] – Carl and Dennis Wilson are still dead – “Old friends have gone, they’ve gone their separate ways.  Summer’s gone – it’s finally sinking in.  A reminder of Pet Sounds

Sail On, Sailor [Live] [Live – The 50th Anniversary Tour, 2013] – I saw a YouTube clip of this song with Brian Wilson taking the lead vocal.  I liked it very much, hence its inclusion here.  When it was first recorded in 1972 for Holland, Brian didn’t think he could do it.  Maybe he couldn’t then, but he sounds fine here. Still hard to get rid of the hook…

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Led Zeppelin Remastered [Again]

In 1990, Jimmy Page remastered Led Zeppelin’s entire catalog.  A four-disc box set came that same year.  I bought it.  Some years later, the songs that didn’t make the cut for the 1990 box set were packaged in a two-CD set.  At that time, these remasters sounded much better than what had been on the market since CDs were invented.  In addition to the existing catalog, a few nuggets surfaced.  Hey, Hey, What Can I Do was finally available to those of us who weren’t old enough to buy The Immigrant Song single in 1970 [it was the B-side].  There were a couple of items from sessions at the BBC [White Summer/Black Mountain Side, Travelling Riverside Blues].  There was one song left off the first album [Baby Come On Home].  There was a hybrid mix of two John Bonham showcases [Moby Dick/Bonzo’s Montreux].  As far as unearthed goodies that hadn’t been heard before, that was it.  Given the songs were remastered once, why do it again?  Cynics would boil it down to one word: money.  And they may be right.  I gladly parted with my money to get the new remasters.  There is the lure of the “unreleased” stuff [Why didn’t this stuff come out in 1990?  Hmmm…].  All the cynicism aside, the new remasters sound great.  While the song remains the same, technology has evolved since 1990 to remove extraneous noise [and yes, boost the volume] without making the songs sound harsh and “clippy.”
I’ll forgo reviewing the albums themselves.  Take my word for it – they sound great.  My focus here will be the Companion Discs.  Inside each Led Zeppelin album is the following statement:
“The material on the companion disc presents a portal to the time to the time of the recording of Led Zeppelin.  It is a selection of work in progress, with rough mixes, backing tracks, alternate versions and new material recorded at the time.”
The Companion Discs pretty much deliver as advertised.  That said, some “alternate” versions sound exactly like the original releases, some “rough” mixes aren’t so rough.  The backing tracks without Robert Plant’s vocals are good to listen to [admit it – sometimes his vocals are annoying as Hell…].  The unearthed nuggets are hit and miss.  But all things considered, this reissue series is a Led Zeppelin completist’s dream come true.
Led Zeppelin – the entirety of the Companion Disc is a concert recorded in October 1969 at the Olympia Theatre in Paris.  Included is a fifteen-minute version of Dazed and Confused. Versions of Heartbreaker and Moby Dick [which wouldn’t be released on LZ II until later that month] are also included.  I Can’t Quit You Baby is a little longer than the version found on Coda, but it’s just as intense.  The whole show is intense and worth the purchase.
Led Zeppelin II – lots of works-in-progress contained therein.  My favorite is the instrumental mix of Thank You, which was probably still waiting for Robert Plant to write the words of his first song.  The rough mix of Ramble On is missing some vocal and guitar overdubs, but it’s the same master take.  The same can be said for What Is and What Should Never Be.  Heartbreaker has a different solo from Jimmy Page, and John Paul Jones’ thunderous bass is lower in the mix.  It’s still a great piece of work.  Whole Lotta Love has some slightly different lyrics, some guitar overdubs are missing, as is a good chunk of the middle section freak-out.  Living Loving Maid is a rough mix waiting for vocals.  I feel the same way about it that I do about the finished product – meh.  The significant find on this disc is newly-discovered La-La.  This one is a guitar/organ instrumental, with the organ leading the song.  Jimmy Page sounds like he’s still playing his Telecaster rather than his Les Paul, and adds some freaked-out wah-wah for coloring – very enjoyable.
Led Zeppelin III – two goodies are on the Companion Disc.  Jennings Farm Blues is an electric instrumental version of Bron-Y-Aur Stomp.  Apparently they’d done a bit of work on it since it has some guitar overdubs.  Key To The Highway/Trouble In Mind was recorded as an acoustic country blues, the same way they had done Hats Off To (Roy) Harper.  They distorted Plant’s voice the same way as well.  There are instrumental takes [BTW, I like instrumental takes] of Out On The Tiles [titled Bathroom Sound] and Friends.  This version of Friends doesn’t have the drone segue to Celebration Day.
Led Zeppelin IV – there are no previously-unreleased songs on this Companion Disc.  The Sunset Sound mix of Stairway to Heaven has an electric piano higher in the mix, but the drums got messed up.  Recording engineer Andy Johns once said the Sunset Sound mixes being inferior to what was accomplished in England.  There are instrumental versions of two songs – Going to California and The Battle Of Evermore.  The latter is about 90 seconds shorter than the vocal version.  The versions of Black Dog, Rock and Roll and Misty Mountain Hop are the same takes we’ve known for 44 years, minus some guitar overdubs.  When the Levee Breaks is a different mix of the same take.  To these ears it sounds as good as the mix released in 1971.  
Houses of the Holy – The extras on this album are very worthy of the money spent.  The Song Remains the Same is presented here without vocals.  For this song that is a major plus.  The vocals from the original release have always made me wish this was the instrumental that Jimmy Page had intended it to be.  Without the vocals one can hear all the different guitar parts [of which there are many] that Page laid down.  This mix emphasizes Jimmy Page’s abilities as an orchestrator of many guitar parts – a major strength for him as a producer.  This was a sign of things to come on Achilles Last Stand, recorded three years later for Presence.  Like The Song Remains the Same, No Quarter gets the instrumental treatment.  Not all of the guitar overdubs of the finished product are present.  The rough mixes for Over the Hills and Far Way and The Crunge are just that – rough.  They were best used as a reference only.  On the other hand, the rough mixes for Dancing Days and The Ocean are actually better sounding [to my ears] than what got released in 1973.  These mixes sound like they were already finished.  The drums in Dancing Days pack more of a wallop [always a good thing on a Zeppelin release], and John Paul Jones’ keyboards are lower in the mix.  John Bonham’s count in for The Ocean [“We’ve done four already and now we’re steady and then they went ‘one-two-three-four’”] is missing from the working mix, and Plant’s vocals are slightly different.  Other than that, the differences between what was released and the “rough mix” are imperceptible.  The differences between the released version of The Rain Song and the “Mix Minus Piano” are negligible.  The piano is still there, but the channels are switched.  
Physical Graffiti – The original album already had some outtakes from other albums to round out the double LP.  The songs they recorded in 1974 were too much material for a single album but not enough for a double album, hence the addition of the outtakes.  So I didn’t expect much in the way of previously-unheard songs.  There was one song [the long-lost Swan Song] that supposedly never got recorded by Led Zeppelin [but has to be a Page demo somewhere] but ended up as Midnight Moonlight on The Firm’s eponymous album.  That song isn’t here.  There are different versions of seven songs that were released in 1975.  Five of them [Brandy & Coke (aka Trampled Under Foot), In My Time of Dying, Houses of the Holy, Boogie With Stu and Driving Through Kashmir] sound like they’re almost finished.  Houses of the Holy is different from the other rough mixes in the reissue series.  Instead of needing more overdubs, Zeppelin took stuff away from this one.  This version had too much cowbell [and tambourine], and the vocals were pared back.  Driving Through Kashmir is labeled a “rough orchestral mix.”  Maybe Jimmy Page hears something that I don’t, but the “rough” mix sounds exactly like the finished product to me.  Brandy & Coke sounds like the same take as the finished product, only the clavinet is pushed farther forward in the mix.  Robert Plant’s vocals can actually be understood.  Some guitar parts are missing.  Boogie With Stu is another Sunset Sound mix.  The difference is there is more mandolin here than what got released.  Since this song was originally an outtake from LZ IV before it found a home on Physical Graffiti, is it technically an outtake from Physical Graffiti?  I digress…  The very early versions of In the Light [called Everybody Makes It Through here] and Sick Again give insight to how the band created and changed their songs while in the studio.
Presence – the Companion Disc contains mostly works-in-progress, some of which are closer to completion than others.  10 Ribs & All/Carrot Pod Pod (Pod) is a previously-unreleased piano-driven instrumental [it has guitar and drums too].  My favorite alternate version of Presence songs is Royal Orleans – John Bonham sings!  He sings the same lyrics that Robert Plant wrote, it just sounds funnier.  I like it – a lot!  They should have left the Plant version in the can.
In Through the Out Door – the Companion Disc contains all works-in-progress.  But unlike the finished product, you can actually understand what Robert Plant sings.
CodaCoda was a contractual obligation for Led Zeppelin in 1982, a way for them to release stuff that until then hadn’t seen the light of day.  Included were three songs left over from the In Through the Out Door sessions [Ozone Baby, Darlene, and Wearing And Tearing], one outtake from Houses of the Holy [Walter’s Walk], one outtake from LZ III [Poor Tom], a couple of songs from the LZ II era [We’re Gonna Groove, I Can’t Quit You Baby], and one drums-only track for John Bonham [Bonzo’s Montreux].  As it was in 1982, so it is again in 2015.  Coda is the place to find the hitherto hard-to-find stuff from the vault.  Apparently the vault got a lot bigger between 1982 and 2015 because there are two Companion Discs to go with what was advertised at the time as the rest of release-quality Led Zeppelin stuff.  Unlike the previous eight albums, Coda has two Companion Audio discs [Caveat Emptor – the contents of both discs could have easily fit onto one disc with room to spare.  Don’t say you weren’t warned.].
There are extras from each of the first six Zeppelin albums, and there are some orphaned tracks [those not recorded for a specific album] as well.  How does it break down by album?
LZBaby Come On Home, Sugar Mama
LZ IIBring It On Home [Rough Mix]
LZ IIIHey, Hey, What Can I Do, St. Tristan's Sword (Rough Mix), Poor Tom [Instrumental]
LZ IV - If It Keeps on Raining [When the Levee Breaks Rough Mix]
HOTH - Walter's Walk (Rough Mix)
Physical Graffiti - Desire ("The Wanton Song") (Rough Mix), Everybody Makes It Through ("In the Light") (Rough Mix)
Loose Tracks - Four Hands ("Four Sticks") (Bombay Orchestra), Friends (Bombay Orchestra), Travelling Riverside Blues [BBC Session][Live], Bonzo's Montreux [Mix Construction in Progress], We're Gonna Groove [Alternate Mix]
When I first picked up the expanded version of Led Zeppelin III, I was disappointed to see that Hey, Hey, What Can I Do was not on the track list.  It’s inclusion on the extended Coda rectified what I thought was an error.  Maybe Jimmy Page intended it’s inclusion on Coda all along.  There are three jewels on Coda.  I never knew of the existence of St. Tristan's Sword, but was glad to hear Zeppelin jam in the studio as a three-piece.  Given the extra tracks on the expanded LZ III [and Poor Tom from the original Coda], one can see the LZ III period was an especially creative one.  The other two jewels are Four Hands ("Four Sticks") and Friends, both recorded with the Bombay Orchestra in 1972.  These two acoustic tracks with the Indian musicians hint at the “Un-Leddded” direction that was to come for Jimmy Page and Robert Plant some 22 years later.  The blueprint for that project is right here.
Was it worth it to spend the money for the remastered albums and their companion discs?  For me it was, but for those who aren’t completists and only want some of the unearthed stuff, I recommend the following:  Led Zeppelin, Houses of the Holy, and Coda.