Classic Rock Review

The home of old record and bootleg reviews…

Jeff Beck Blow By Blow & Wired (1975 & 1976)


In the annals of British rock guitarists it is hard to escape the spectre of Clapton, Page and Beck, a great triumvirate, linked not just because their axe-wielding has left a considerable mark on both sides of the Atlantic, but also because they all shared roots with the same band. In the pre-psychedelia years, when white men confirmed that the blues was not actually beyond them, the Yardbirds managed to recruit three of the outstanding amplified pickers of that generation.

Yet the years have been kinder to the man they called God, richer to the fellow who forged Led Zeppelin once the New Yardbirds had run out of steam. Jeff Beck has instead remained a marginal figure, a guitarists’ guitarist maybe but no longer in the same division as his illustrious ex-colleagues, a Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame inductee but a player whose rock’n’roll fame is rather in the past. But fame can be a curse — Clapton and Page have hardly escaped the scars of celebrity — while a well-founded reputation can bring accolades that are no less deeply felt, just quieter and easier to bear. Don’t look Beck, as they might say.

By the middle Seventies, Beck had followed the rock fairground as electric blues became heavy metal or progressive rock and seemed to have found his niche. The eponymous group he led and the supergroup doodlings with former Vanilla Fudge supremos Tim Bogert and Carmen Appice had established large live followings.

So it was something of a surprise when Beck switched horses and decided to record an album of jazz-tinged instrumentals, perhaps to remind people that his Fender was not merely a war machine but an instrument capable of subtleties and that he was an instrumentalist with more than just blues riffs in his travelling case.

The result was 1975’s Blow by Blow to be followed the next year by Wired and, surprise, surprise, Beck’s creative diversion proved a great deal more than just an artistic success. The two long players became the two best-selling records of his career and really set the tone for his subsequent musical life — the rock antics were largely left behind and his journey as an fusion interpreter of quality commenced.

Fair enough, the time was ripe for this side-track. John McLaughlin had brought the grain of the guitar to Miles Davis’ amplified experiments before forming the Mahavishnu Orchestra, a band who blended the virtuosity of jazz with the worlds of rock, funk and the East. Frank Zappa, too, had taken rock licks into a higher universe in a string of post-Mothers space-trips. So perhaps Beck’s shift was just a case of Zeitgeist fever.

Whatever, for Blow By Blow, Beck was re-united with Max Middleton, keyboards man with his earlier self-named combo, and brought on board bassist Phil Chenn and drummer Richard Bailey, both of whom had worked out with the white British soul singer Jess Roden. The results were more promising than anyone could have hoped to expect.

Underpinned by a solid, unfussy rhythm section, Beck proceeded to weave a spell on a potent range of self-penned and out-sourced tunes. The guitarist and pianist shared composing honours on the opener, the sleek syncopated funk of “You Know What I Mean”, but changed gear on a reggae-fied re-make of the Lennon and McCartney classic “She’s a Woman”, slinky, sexy and distinctively branded by the talking guitar synth, a fresh weapon and rather in vogue that season. Peter Frampton had adopted the very same voice tube around the same time.

But the Beck album, overseen by the production skills of one George Martin, was about much more than technological gimmickry. He had also enlisted a writer at the height of his powers, Stevie Wonder himself, and the sinuous phrasing of “Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers”, deliciously fringed by Middleton’s electric keys, showed the band leader off at his very best. Wonder also threw in the Monk tribute “Thelonius”.

By 1976, the scene had changed. The Mahavishnus line-up had been re-jigged and Beck would be the principal beneficiary, engaging synthesiser master Jan Hammer and also adding the new Orchestra drummer Narada Michael Walden to his crew. The results, aired on Wired, were consequently rather different.

Hammer became writer-in-chief and his electronics coat almost everything in an artificial varnish; the clear, uncluttered lines of Blow by Blow, with Beck very much the featured artist, had been consumed by Moog trills, lean guitar lines submerged in the glutinous washes of the ex-McLaughlin sideman — Hammer blows, if you like.

Wired is not unlistenable by any means but played side by side with the earlier work-out, it has a cloying quality, redeemed occasionally on the Middleton penned “Led Boots”, the Hammer-less “Head for the Backstage Pass” and the Mingus celebration, a re-hash of “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”, itself a farewell to Lester Young.

In short, these re-issued, re-mastered volumes, draw attention to the changes that were infecting the jazz-rock interface at this time. The synthesiser, enormously versatile yet plastic in tone and timbre, had become the fashionable tool of fusion and by the second disc Beck’s instrumental voice is no longer centre stage — to the album’s detriment.

February 24, 2011 Posted by | Jeff Beck Blow By Blow, Jeff Beck Wired | | Leave a comment

Jeff Beck Wired (1976)


Take a look at your favorite album’s cover. The album cover to many often seems like just a picture of the artist, perhaps a nice looking one. Most album covers just seem to blend in with the crowd, however, true originals seem to stand out. Sgt. Pepper’s comes to mind, with it’s vibrant colors and assortment of many people, not just the band. Jeff Buckley’s Grace also comes to mind, with a portrait of Jeff, mic in hand, ready to sing his heart out. Wired is another one of those album covers, and is almost instantly recognizable by many music fans. The image of Beck and his Stratocaster seemingly moving at lightning fast speeds in a shade of blue stands out to others.

Wired was Beck’s first foray from his blues/Yardbirds roots into the world of electronic music. There is a lot of synth on this album, and Beck merges the digital sounds with electric guitar seamlessly. The result? It’s your judgement call.

It’s interesting to note that Beatles legend George Martin produced on this album along with Blow By Blow. Bruce Dickinson, of Blue Oyster Cult Saturday Night Live fame, produced the remaster. It’s also interesting to note that this is the first album cover that Beck has appeared with a Stratocaster on, with his others being Les Pauls.

The album starts off with Led Boots, and it’s very clear that this song is very electronically influenced. There is a main synth riff repeating over and over, and Jeff playing over it. This song seems to give Beck’s guitar a more electronic sound. It’s not distorted, but it seems to sound like an effect on a synth. Whatever sound, it sounds good, and Beck’s soloing is phenomenal.

Come Dancing is a funky song, with a groovy beat and sparse guitars. This however changes when Beck rips into a distorted solo, which literally notes a complete change of direction of where Beck was taking this. No longer is this song electronically dominated with Beck’s stacatto guitar lines as a linear note, this turned into a real rocker. It breaks into a short interlude and Beck begins to start ripping again until the eventual fade out.

Goodbye Pork Pie Hat is a Beck masterpiece. It begins with some slow bends and is a step away from the previous two songs. No longer are the funky drumbeats and keyboards present, but just Beck and some slow blues. This song continues in this pattern. Drums enter, and Beck starts ripping it up. His way of expressing emotions through vibratos are present here, and you can just imagine Beck, standing on stage, just playing the hell out of this song, until the final cymbal hit fades out.

Head For Backstage Pass is like the first 2 songs, but it seems like a disco song at first. With it’s moderate tempo and groovy feel, one can definetly dance to this number. Beck’s tone here is impeccable, and almost indescribable. It’s a real treat and one of my favorites on the album.

Blue Wind starts off with some light ride tapping, then bursts out into a fast pace duel between Beck and… himself? He solos for a bit, then plays a rhythmn section. Lather, rinse, repeat. Overall, this song is very fast paced and a fun listen.

Sophie is the longest song on the album and one of my favorites. With a frantic lead guitar line, pounding drums and some very interesting hooks, this song is a nice listen to, albeit a bit long.

Play With Me starts out with a synth riff and a fill. It then turns into another electronically oriented rocker orchestrated by the mighty Beck. Becks’ tone is simply superb here, again. Near the end of the track, Beck begins to play fast. One begins to wonder how he was able to pull all this off without using a pick, especially getting the tone he is. This song is a clear precise attack of a solo.

The final track Love is Green starts out with double tracked guitars, some soft piano and a relaxing bass riff. It’s very relaxing to listen to. A synth-like guitar line comes in and adds that little more to completely fuse the workings of electronic music and a classical composition together. An excellent closing, and one of the best tracks on here.

Wired is a good album, although some might turn a blind eye to it because A) it has the word ‘jazz’ in the genre title and B) it’s all instrumental, if you couldn’t tell. This may turn off some non-avid music fans from it. If you’re looking for a awesome guitar oriented album that fuses a lot of different genres together, check this out.

February 24, 2011 Posted by | Jeff Beck Wired | | Leave a comment

Paul McCartney Good Evening New York City (2009)


When it comes to a Paul McCartney concert at a sports venue in 2009, you know what you’re going to get– a little Wings, maybe some solo stuff, a whole lot of Beatles, and some stadium-sized production values, with a fair helping of do-you-feel-like-I-do stage banter. The CD portion of Good Evening New York City cuts to the quick, however, omitting as much banter as possible despite being spread out over two discs. At first, this seems to defeat the purpose of the live-concert-on-disc experience. Without the between-song bits, listeners are left with highly energetic and ruthlessly faithful takes on well-worn songs that more often than not fail to live up to their studio counterparts.

In the case of the truckload of Beatles tunes essayed over the course of Good Evening, the qualitative gap between Citi Field and Abbey Road can be Grand-Canyon-esque. Some might chafe at the decision to use of synthesized strings and horns over actual catgut and brass during tunes like “A Day in the Life”, “Got to Get You Into My Life”, and “Eleanor Rigby”, but that’s as much a matter of logistics as anything– recreating those bits of music for a country-spanning stadium tour might be a task that’s too Herculean for even someone of McCartney’s stature. As for the Wings tunes: old standbys like “Band on the Run”, “Jet”, and “Live And Let Die” are about what you’d expect, as is the sappy/heartfelt dedication to Linda McCartney, Red Rose Speedway’s “My Love”. A pleasant surprise is “Mrs. Vandebilt”, a jaunty Band on the Run cut that might surprise folks that only think of the more famous Band singles when considering Wings.

As contrarian as it might seem to say, McCartney and friends sound their best when they sidestep the greatest-hits cavalcade and give the audience something a little different. These offbeat selections certainly don’t get the same reception as the more famous tunes, but it’s nice to see McCartney give some of his more recent work a proper airing. He actually dips into that well after the first two songs of the show, following up “Drive My Car” and “Jet” with “Only Mama Knows” from Memory Almost Full and the title track from Flaming Pie. For “Only Mama Knows”, the replacement of the original’s real strings with canned ones is actually an improvement, and hearing someone of McCartney’s advanced years sink his teeth into this sordid little ditty about airport-lounge hook-ups is a pleasant surprise. The same goes for “Flaming Pie”, with the live version injecting the song with a sense of playfulness that the version recorded for the album sorely lacks.

The highlight of the concert’s eclectic first-half could be a moving emotionally overcome performance of Tug of War’s “Here Today”, a song written shortly after John Lennon’s death that can still get something in a listener’s eye. McCartney also gives the crowd pleasing versions of Flaming Pie’s “Calico Skies” (one of the better ballads in Macca’s post-Beatles catalog) and the mandolin-driven iPod-shilling single from Memory, “Dance Tonight”, as well as two songs from the Fireman’s Electric Arguments.

After that album’s “Sing the Changes” gives way to “Band on the Run”, though, the concert becomes pure fan service, which, if you can come to terms with some of the show’s aforementioned shortcomings, isn’t half bad. There are some speed bumps along the way, like the treacly “Day in the Life” / “Give Peace a Chance” medley, and a totally duff sped-up and blister-free outro tacked onto an already lackluster run through “Helter Skelter”. On the other hand, “Hey Jude” gives listeners a more palatable sing-along moment, the band rocks more much convincingly on “I’m Down” and “Paperback Writer”, and Macca’s tribute to George Harrison (a take on “Something” that begins with McCartney strumming a ukelele gifted to him by Harrison, with the rest of the band gradually entering the fray as the performance transforms into the version of the song most fans recognize) is the highlight of the entire show.

So while the audio portion of this package loses something in the translation from event to document, the performances are good enough to make some listeners wish they were there to witness the spectacle, which is really all one could ask from a set like this. One would think that the live DVD packaged with Good Evening would make that regret grow a little fonder. One would probably stop thinking that after hearing Alec Baldwin’s hopelessly portentous introductory voice-over. (If Baldwin’s introduction doesn’t wear down your resolve, his equally bombastic outro, paired with a somewhat scary “message to Paul” from an overamped fan, will no doubt do the trick.)

In case you’re not up on your Beatles history: One of the biggest concerts in the Beatles’ career took place in 1965 at Shea Stadium, home of Major League Baseball’s New York Mets. The McCartney concert documented here takes place across the street from that site at Citi Field, the current home of the Mets. Shea Stadium was closed in 2008, with one of the more notable non-baseball events that year being a Billy Joel concert that featured a McCartney cameo. (Joel’s cameo in Good Evening, adding a little extraneous piano and belting to “I Saw Her Standing There”, was McCartney’s way of “bridging the gap” between Mets homes old and new.) In his introduction, over a slow-motion montage of the events in question, Baldwin recounts these factoids with the gravitas that one would expect from a speaker documenting an actual important moment in history (or an NFL Films highlight package), not a prohibitively priced rock concert. There’s also the matter of Baldwin, and McCartney, repeatedly talking about the July concert “opening” Citi Field. While even diehard Mets fans might agree that the music at these McCartney shows was probably the best thing played at Citi Field in 2009, the Mets celebrated the field’s official opening day way back in April, and played plenty of baseball prior to Sir Paul showing up.

Once the concert actually starts, it’s all fine and good so long as the camera stays trained on the stage. However, for the purposes of this DVD, there were multiple cameras scattered through the stadium, allowing fans to film the concert from their vantage point. It’s a nice idea in theory, to make fans feel part of the event and to give those at home a sense of what it was like to be there. That sort of footage makes for great viewing during some of the sing-alongs, or when the stage pyro goes off during “Live and Let Die”. But when the folks in the editing room decide to cut away from the group to show fans dancing in the concourse area, screaming, or sharing some awkward PDAs with innocent bystanders and/or offering their thoughts on how awesome and amazing the show is, it’s a bit distracting.

The only showy directorial flourish that the Good Evening DVD manages to pull off is, on paper, the most questionable one. During the performance of “I’m Down” (one of the songs played by the Beatles during their Shea show), the film flips back and forth between the modern-day footage and film of the Beatles playing the same song during the Shea concert. There’s a slight disjoint in switching between the elder Paul and his much younger counterparts, never mind the atmosphere of the two shows– the Citi Field crowd isn’t lacking for enthusiasm, but they’d need a lot more sugar in their diet to match the unfettered frenzy that the Shea crowd achieves. As McCartney recounts between songs, the band could barely hear themselves over the Shea crowd, thanks in no small part to having their performance pumped through the stadium’s rickety PA system. The performance footage definitely corroborates that– McCartney breathlessly screams out the song’s words, while Lennon and Harrison convene near an electric piano, offering their harmonies in a state of shock and awe, and with Lennon giving the keys a pounding worthy of Jerry Lee Lewis. It’s a shame that the filmmakers couldn’t (or wouldn’t) offer more footage of the Shea show as a bonus to this package.

If anything, one of the pluses of these crowd inserts is they distract from McCartney’s cornier bits of stage patter, as well as some of the more regrettable images used as backdrops. This isn’t to say that it’s not fun to hear McCartney talk about how a faux-classical guitar lick he and Harrison used to play as teenagers became the basis for “Blackbird”, or to see footage of the Band on the Run cover-art photo shoot play behind the band on the big screen. It’s just a bit of a bummer when Macca resorts to tried-and-true Pavlovian call-and-response between-song shtick while switching between instruments, and even the most zealous Obama supporter would probably find it a bit much to see the President’s visage drawn and redrawn in twinkling multi-colored lights during “Sing the Changes”. Of course, touches like this– the banter, the backdrops, the shots of the crowd– are endemic of what Pitchfork’s Stuart Berman called “McCartney’s unwavering dedication to maintaining his cheery, ‘cute one’ persona.” To expect anything different at a show of this magnitude, or of a document of said show, would be expecting too much. But where the music in Good Evening manages to mostly please without much compromise, the visual documentation of said music bends over backwards to make itself palatable to only the most fervent of fans.

February 24, 2011 Posted by | Paul McCartney Good Evening New York City | | Leave a comment

Paul McCartney Memory Almost Full (2007)


Paul McCartney is truly in a class of his own, but not always for the right reasons. The enduring cultural importance of his accomplishments– and the fact that his private life still moves tabloids in the UK– affords him a greater stature than your average classic-rock icon. His formidable bank balance suggests that his ongoing recording and performing career is motivated by something more significant than financial gain, but unlike fellow 60s survivors Bob Dylan and Neil Young, McCartney’s senior years have not produced an album to challenge the notion that all his best work is decades behind him.

He came close with 2005’s mostly acoustic Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, a deliberate and welcome retreat to the homespun simplicity of his 1970 self-titled debut. But while Chaos may have been the best album of his post-Wings career, it still felt a touch too familiar to constitute a Time Out of Mind-style late-career surprise. You have to wonder if McCartney’s unwavering dedication to maintaining his cheery, “cute one” persona negates the sort of sobering introspection that aging rockers often require to create revelatory, relevant albums in their sixties.

That McCartney’s latest album is being released through an exclusive retail agreement with Starbucks only serves to reinforce the most damning stereotypes about him: he’s too safe, too typical, too square. And on first song “Dance Tonight” , he plays right to latte-swilling crowd, with an egregiously innocuous mandolin-folk hootenanny (“Everybody gonna dance tonight/ Everybody gonna feel alright”) custom-built to have his target demographic tapping along on the steering wheels of their Beemers. It’s perhaps the least exciting, least arousing song about moving to music since Genesis’ “I Can’t Dance”. But as Memory Almost Full plays out, you get the sense that by opening the album with this trifle, McCartney is perhaps intentionally pandering to those stereotypes, and that “Dance Tonight” could very well be a sitting-duck decoy for an album that turns out to be a lot more idiosyncratic than its coffee-chain marketing plan suggests.

For one, McCartney isn’t just writing love songs here; he’s writing sex songs. Take the boudoir-bound white soul of “See Your Sunshine”, which, if you can forgive the lame mad/sad/glad rhyme scheme, could be the smoothest (read: horniest) thing he’s written. And if “Only Mama Knows” plays like a standard-issue rocker– a less fun “Junior’s Farm”, to be exact– it could be the first song he’s written about trolling airport lounges for one-night stands. All of which would suggest that Memory Almost Full is Macca’s post-Heather rebound album. As he insisted in last month’s Pitchfork interview, his recent, media-saturated divorce proceedings had no bearing on the songwriting, much of which predates Chaos. However, at this stage in his career, one of the most daring things McCartney could do is show us that even the eternal thumbs-aloft optimist we see hamming it up at photo-ops and awards-show presentations can occasionally crack under the scrutiny. The stress seems to show on the opening line of “Ever Present Past” (“I’ve got too much on my plate/ Ain’t got no time to be a decent lover”) but the song turns out to be just another reminiscence for the good ol’ days, albeit with a perky new-wave rhythm that’s almost novel enough to make you overlook the fact the song lacks a real payoff chorus.

These songs comprise Memory’s patchy first half, betraying the album’s piecemeal recording process. But even these unremarkable turns are dotted with interesting production quirks (the tremolo-heavy guitar fuzz on “Ever Present Past”, the foreboding string sweeps that bookend “Only Mama Knows”) that suggest a more mischievous spirit lurking behind the pedestrian songwriting. Thankfully, McCartney’s oft-overlooked eccentric streak is given freer rein on the album’s second half, which feels far more cohesive and substantial thanks to an Abbey Road-like aversion to between-song gaps and an affinity for choir-like vocal effects that momentarily turns the enterprise into a Queen album. In particular, “Mr. Bellamy” rates as a worthy addition to his canon of stodgy-English-folk character studies, colored by baroque flourishes, baritone backing vocals and a coda reminiscent of the eerie, dying moments of “Magical Mystery Tour”. McCartney can be guilty of tripping the light bombastic (see: the squealing guitar solos on overblown power ballad “House of Wax”), but he also knows when to keep it lean and mean: “Nod Your Head” sounds like “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road” as remixed by Sonic Youth, a blues goof given a palpably more threatening edge by a spark-shower of abrasive feedback textures.

Piano ballad “The End of the End”– an uncharacteristically somber meditation on looming death– is being positioned as Memory’s defining moment, but the obligatory string-section swells and a too-cute whistling solo detract from its affectingly melancholic melody. For a more honest portrait of Macca ’07, look to Memory’s best (and loopiest) song, the self-effacing retro-culture commentary “Vintage Clothes”. The sprightly piano intro initially suggests a rewrite of Fleetwood Mac’s “Say You Love Me”, but its West Coast idyll is soon pushed askew by a skittering dub break and subliminal synth/bass frequencies; top it off with some vintage Wings-style harmonies and you’ve got a prog-pop triumph just waiting to be to covered by the New Pornographers. Sure, the song’s opening salvo (“Don’t live in the past”) is a bit rich coming from someone who still makes millions by singing 40-year-old songs in sports arenas. But for the two minutes and 21 seconds it takes for “Vintage Clothes” to traverse its shape-shifting universe, the sentiment rings true– because the song proves that McCartney still knows the difference between just singing about the past and measuring up to it.

February 24, 2011 Posted by | Paul McCartney Memory Almost Full | | Leave a comment

Jimi Hendrix Live At The Fillmore East (1999)


During the weekend that ended the ’60s, Jimi Hendrix played a series of shows at the legendary Fillmore East with his new bandmates, Buddy Miles and Billy Cox. But instead of providing that turbulent decade its swansong, Jimi launched into the ’70s headfirst. The concerts elicited from Hendrix a sound distinctly removed from his work with the Jimi Hendrix Experience and the last album released during his lifetime, Band of Gypsys. Though the music created those nights would, along with the work of Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield, provide the foundation for ’70s funk and soul music, Hendrix himself would be dead five short months later.

While Band of Gypsys adequately captured the stellar new material featured at those celebrated shows, Live at the Fillmore East, a two- disc set released earlier this year, expands that documentation, placing Jimi’s newer work properly alongside standards such as “Stone Free” and “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).” The result is an intriguing, newly angled look at Jimi’s last, but bright, light. The band’s performance is intricate yet emotive throughout, shifting tempos in a heartbeat and deftly playing keep- along with Hendrix’s astounding guitar work. Here, his musings, stripped of the pop pretense of his work with the Experience, combine his blues roots with the funk, soul and improvisational jazz elements floating around New York at that time. He was unpredictable throughout the weekend, exploding from tense, tentative picking to forays of sonic splendor, only to return again. As a result, his new direction is as readily apparent in the euphoric ten minutes of the aforementioned “Stone Free” as it is on the earthy “Power of Soul.”

The dawn of the ’70s also witnessed another change in Hendrix, as his writing moved more in line with his heady, spiritual playing. Tracks like the album’s lamenting masterpiece, “Machine Gun,” “Hear My Train a Comin'” and “Earth Blues” show Hendrix the Songwriter as bared of psychedelia as his guitar work. This simple union of words and music shroud the album in the overriding frustration and confidence of the times. Gone are Jimi’s coy jokes, replaced with directives, visions and cries for help.

If you have yet to hear these shows and consider yourself at least remotely attracted to the concept of the guitar as a musical instrument, I say to you: “Get your ass to the record store, directly!” Live at the Fillmore East is the rare documentation of pure musical genius creating, a work in process in the most visceral, vibrant sense of the phrase. Hendrix took everything that came before him and transformed it into everything that followed. These shows are ample evidence as to why. The only question remaining is posed to those already in possession of Band Of Gypsys: is it worth the price of admission? Well, does the prospect of another two discs of that album’s pure power and passion sound good to you? It sure does to me.

February 24, 2011 Posted by | Jimi Hendrix Live At The Fillmore East | | Leave a comment

Neil Young: Archives Vol 1 (2010)


In the wake of Bob Dylan’s successful 1985 expanded anthology Biograph, it seemed like every rock artist of note was lining up for CD box-set canonization. And true to his reputation as a futurist, David Bowie tried to outdo them all with 1989’s Sound + Vision, which supplemented the usual greatest-hits-plus-rarities format with a bonus disc of visual content that would showcase the glorious new CD-Video format. There was only one problem with his attempt to revolutionize the box set: no one knew what the hell a CD-Video disc was, let alone owned any kind of device that would allow one to view it.

It was around this same time that Neil Young started talking up an ambitious career-retrospective project called Archives, and given the amount of unreleased songs Young routinely dusted off in his concerts, fans had come to expect nothing less than a parallel-universe repertoire every bit as rich and deep as his official one– a Decade to last for decades. But as gleaned by anyone who’s gone to a Neil Young show expecting to hear the hits but treated to an hour of Greendale instead, being a Neil fan requires a certain amount of patience. Twenty years since its first public mention, Archives has gone on to usurp even Chinese Democracy as the ultimate lost-album punchline. But the long-delayed arrival of this first volume seems less a matter of archeology as technology. And like the Bowie box, there’s some confusion about how exactly you’re supposed to use the thing.

Neil Young is an odd sort of perfectionist, favoring a raw immediacy in his recordings that often means leaving the mistakes in for purity’s sake, but he’s obsessed with making sure those mistakes are mixed and mastered to sometimes unattainable standards of fidelity. (He refused to release arguably his finest album, 1974’s On the Beach, on CD until 2003 for this reason.) So it appears that the advent of Blu-ray HD audio technology was the missing piece that has allowed Neil to realize his multimedia masterplan for Archives. What little public comment he’s made about Archives’ release has taken the form of evangelical praise for the medium, urging fans to adopt the new technology like a Best Buy salesman working on commission.

The first volume of Archives arrives as a 10-disc set, spanning the first 10 years of Young’s career and, somewhat confusingly, three different formats. For the most ardent audiophiles, there’s the $300 multimedia-enhanced Blu-ray edition that includes six compilation discs; the previously released Live at the Fillmore East and Live at Massey Hall; an additional solo concert recorded in 1969 at the Riverboat coffeehouse in Toronto (though it boasts a tracklist similar to last year’s Live at Canterbury House set, also included here as an unlisted bonus throw-in); the first DVD release of Young’s infamous tour-documentary-cum-existential-road-flick, Journey Through the Past; plus online-update capabilities through which users will have access to more material.

For equally fervent fans (and Pitchfork reviewers) with inferior home-entertainment set-ups, there’s a $200 version boasting all of the above musical and multimedia content in a DVD format. And for those who just want some Neil on-hand in the car to soundtrack future road trips forevermore, there’s a basic eight-disc $100 CD box with all the tunes but none of the extras. (All versions come with mp3 download codes, though we all know how Neil feels about iPods.)

Regardless of the format, each version of Archives makes the same convincing case: For Neil Young, the years of 1963 to 1972 were marked by a rapid maturation and a series of successful stylistic reinventions that rivaled the Beatles. Starting out as the surf-rockin’ frontman for Winnipeg garage combo the Squires, he quickly transitioned into the folkie busker cutting early demos of “Sugar Mountain” for Elektra Records in 1965; the wide-screened psychedelic visionary in Buffalo Springfield; the savage electric warrior of 1969’s Crazy Horse debut, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere; the heroic hippie wingman for Crosby, Stills and Nash; and then the country-rock traditionalist of 1970’s After the Gold Rush and 1972’s Harvest. On top of summarizing a tidy 10-year span, Archives Vol. 1 ends symbolically with Neil at his commercial peak, before a growing disillusionment with rock stardom and the death of close friends would usher in a more darkly compelling phase of his career.

But while they’re paying the least amount of money, the CD-box purchasers may feel the most short-changed, as Archives is not quite the vault-clearing revelation that fans may have been hoping for. Of the advertised 43 unreleased tracks, most take the form of alternate mixes or live versions of familiar material, ranging from the subtle (a cavernous mix of “Helpless” that enhances the song’s hymnal qualities) to the substantial (early stripped-down versions of “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” and future On the Beach track “See the Sky About to Rain”). But as Archives attests, the lack of true, unheard rarities can be explained by the fact that Neil’s been pulling from his mythical stash of lost songs since the mid-60s, padding his 70s and 80s releases with songs (“Winterlong”, “Come on Baby Let’s Go Downtown”, “Wonderin'”) written during this early era.

So in a purely musical sense, Archives’ real selling point isn’t so much the tracklist as the remastering. And make no doubt about it: Next to the budget-line CD issues that Reprise rushed to the market in the late 80s, the new versions sound spectacular, breathing new life into these old warhorses. (The swirling symphonics of Harvest’s “A Man Needs a Maid”, in particular, beg for a big pair of headphones and an easy chair.) However, one can’t help but question why these remasters can only be accessed via an expensive box set rather than through individual album reissues. With so many songs here already familiar to even the most casual classic-rock radio listener, the most illuminating moments on Archives come from the less celebrated tracts of his career. For one, the Squires tracks provide not just a time-capsule snapshot of Neil’s first recording forays; rather, songs like the wonderful “I’ll Love You Forever” provide glimpses of an unrealized future as a Beatlesque balladeer. (Alternately, the twangy instrumental “Mustangs” could pass for vintage Meat Puppets.) And if the turn-of-the-70s triumvirate of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, After the Gold Rush, and Harvest became the go-to soundtracks for America’s post-hippie hangover, Neil’s comparatively overlooked 1969 self-titled debut feels all the more contemporary for being excluded from that classic-rock holy trinity, boasting a soft-rock lushness that– in light of psychedelic successors like the Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, and Sparklehorse– has proven as influential as any album in his canon.

But as Archives’ multitude of newspaper clippings and radio interview excerpts explain, it was Neil’s dissatisfaction with that first album’s textured production and mastering that made him go folk/rock (not to be confused with folk-rock), and though they’re already been released, the Massey Hall and Fillmore sets still represent this era’s purest manifestations of those acoustic/electric extremes. The 1969 Riverboat disc, however, is less about what Neil does during the songs (acoustic readings of his first-album and Springfield catalogues) as between them: he talks. A lot. So much so that the these between-song “raps” constitute their own bonus feature on the Riverboat disc– perhaps inspired by one-time tour-mate Thurston Moore’s similar verbal deconstruction of a Venom live album– with a stream of amusing anecdotes about groupies, drugs and the Guess Who. In the same sense, Archives is ultimately less interesting when seen as a compilation of music than as a digital storehouse of a man’s complete life and work.

Taken individually, the reams of extras that accompany every track on the DVD/Blu-ray editions– candid photos, original handwritten lyric sheets, radio-promo spots, newspaper clippings, tape-box doodles, and so on– may not seem like a compelling reason to pony up for Archives’ enhanced options. But cumulatively, they chart an evolution as intriguing as that heard in the songs. Given that Neil’s become rather media-shy in his old age, Archives provides an opportunity to track his transformation as a public figure through the many newspaper articles and radio-interview clips gathered here, from the wide-eyed teenager promoting his club night in the Winnipeg daily to the disgruntled Buffalo Springfield exile trashing Jimmy Messina’s mixing job on that band’s last record (early evidence of Neil’s notorious audiophilia) to the self-described “rich hippie” contemplating the peculiarities of fame just as Harvest is about to make him a superstar.

And the (mostly hidden) video teases sprinkled throughout the set– like CSNY performing “Down By the River” on a David Steinberg-hosted teen dance show, or rare glimpses of the long-gone Riverboat– culminate with a treasure trove of footage on Archives’ final disc. Here we get a series of intimate interviews conducted during Harvest’s farmhouse recording sessions, as well as Archives’ most amusing easter egg find: a 15-minute sequence where Neil discovers CSNY bootlegs during a record-shopping trip circa 1971, sparking a heated argument with the store employee that culminates in Neil walking out of the shop, bootlegs in hand, without paying for them. (The sequence is especially resonant in light of Neil’s recent endorsement of Warner Music Group pulling all their artists’ videos off YouTube.)

Taken together, Archives’ musical and visual material form as complete a picture of Neil Young’s early years as the most die-hard fan could hope for. But therein lies the fundamental flaw of Archives on DVD– you can’t take them together. Each track is housed in a virtual file folder that allows you to play the audio track or scour the bonus content; there is no way to do them simultaneously. So your options are either to let the music play uninterrupted (while your screen displays serene film loops of spinning record players and reel-to-reel machines), or exit “play” mode and silently sift through the extras– without being able to actually listen to the song those extras are meant to contextualize. It’s like being told that your computer can run iTunes, or your web browser, but you have to shut down one to use the other. It means you end up spending as much time fiddling with your DVD menu controls as enjoying the material you’re trying to access. You have to spring for the Blu-ray to access different pieces of media simultaneously.

Brian Eno was recently quoted as saying that if the practice of selling music in physical form is to continue, the emphasis will have to shift from the content to the form, to enable a unique user experience that can’t be replicated with the click of a mouse. Archives constitutes a bold step towards this new paradigm, where the delivery system is as much in service to the supplemental materials as the music that ephemera serves to canonize. And for all its multimedia chicanery, Archives ultimately seeks to reassert an old-fashioned mode of attentive listening and engagement that’s been mostly lost as music becomes a WiFi-streamed soundtrack to some other activity. But if Neil expects his fans to retain their enthusiasm for future volumes (particularly when the focus shifts to his erratic 80s output), he’ll need to make that immersion process more fluid, less disruptive. Certainly Archives’ first volume contains enough audio and visual stimuli to keep a Neil Young fan busy till the next edition arrives (presumably) in 2029. But that’s as much a comment on the impractical, time-consuming interface as the content itself.

February 24, 2011 Posted by | Neil Young Archives Vol 1 | | Leave a comment

Neil Young: On The Beach/American Stars ‘n’ Bars/Hawks and Doves/Re-ac-tor (1974/1977/1980/1981)


There are few musical artists who need the old canonization speech less than Neil Young. With his reputation preserved amongst us youngsters as the Godfather of Grunge (apparently based on little more than a predilection towards flannel), he’s already known by all as the hip great-uncle amidst the Woodstock era’s senile grandparents. Still, attention must be paid to the most impressive feat of Young’s career: an all-but-perfect streak of very good-to-excellent albums that spanned an incredible, and unparalleled, eleven years. To put it another way, from 1969-1979, Neil Young was rock’s Joe Dimaggio.

Which makes it especially cruel that, for years afterward, Neil’s eccentric skepticism about the auditory worth of the compact disc format kept many of those albums out-of-print. So it’s somewhat ironic that now, in the dying days of the digital disc, Reprise Records has finally convinced their stubborn client to allow for patching up most of these holes, rescuing four albums from obscurity and bootleggers. Fancy remastering, fancy packaging: who cares? I can finally retire four crackly vinyls to wall-decoration duty.

The most criminal omission by a long shot was On the Beach, the 1974 disc that represented Young’s last ramp-up before his masterpiece, Tonight’s the Night. Recorded with help from The Band’s crack rhythm section and colorful multi-instrumentalist hick Rusty Kershaw, On the Beach is one of the few from Young’s catalog that doesn’t land easily on either his country or hard-rock piles. Three song titles with the word “blues” give you an idea of the mood, but hardly prepare you for the bleak anger of “Revolution Blues” or “For the Turnstiles”, post-apocalyptic visions as eerie as any of 28 Days Later’s scenic pans. The real engine of the album’s brilliance, though, is the trio of slow, long, lonely hotel room folk songs that closes out the album, peaking with Neil’s “Desolation Row”, “Ambulance Blues.” To hear them is to know that Jason Molina goes to bed each night caressing a copy of this record.

The stark tone of On the Beach was only carried over to one track from 1977’s American Stars ‘n’ Bars, the creepily lo-fi “Will to Love”. What fills the remainder of the album is a sort of buffet-style Neil Young, offering up choice leftovers from various failed projects of the era. The peak, of course, is “Like a Hurricane”, perhaps one of the finest examples of Neil’s willfully untechnical guit-hartic playing style, a chord progression that induces string-popping frenzy in his live shows to this day. But also making appearances are Skynyrd Neil, slashing country-rock lines through “Bite the Bullet” and Farm Aid favorite “Homegrown”, and Sensitive Poet Neil, revisiting Harvest seasoning with “Hey Babe” and “Star of Bethlehem”.

Unfortunately, reclaiming that Harvest mood is what chokes the majority of Hawks & Doves, notable for being the dashed-off post-Rust Never Sleeps album that breaks his streak of excellence, and not much more. Other than faux-traditionals “The Old Homestead” and “Captain Kennedy”, this 1980 release captures an uncharacteristically tentative Neil, clearly unsure of whether to develop quirky singalongs like “Lost in Space” or plastic soul like “Staying Power” (an early harbinger of his recent unbecoming Motown romanticism). Young can’t even seem to stay on task thematically here, sequencing the patronizing “Union Man” before “Comin’ Apart at Every Nail”‘s fanfare for the working man. Consider that the title track is brimful of pro-American nationalism from the Canadian-born songwriter, and you’ve got a good idea of just how confusing an effort Hawks & Doves can be.

But confusion was to be the name of the game for Young in the 1980s, a period celebrated for his principled resistance to record company pigeon-holing, but very, very rarely actually listened to. The fourth reissue in this batch, Re-ac-tor, doesn’t quite fall into the gimmick trap that so much of his second full decade’s work did, but the effort is still held back by an unhealthy fascination with using guitars as sound effect generators: machine guns in “Shots”, backfiring cars in “Motor City”, train engines in “Southern Pacific”. Quality of songwriting and fierce playing by Crazy Horse manage to redeem the album, however: “Surfer Joe and Moe the Sleaze” and “Shots” rank as two of his most underrated barnstormers.

To own all four reissues, then, is to witness a couple snapshots of the man mid-streak, and a couple from the immediate aftermath, as he began to slouch towards genre experimentation and respectably above-mediocre twilight. However, all but the most devout Neilologists should forgo the latter two; it’d leave enough money to track down a bootleg copy of Time Fades Away, now the only neglected step-child of Young’s peak period (and despite what you may have heard from Neil himself, one of his best). Although we’d love to see that record in print, too, us superior folk would no longer have anything to lord over the peons. Sorry, Col. Molina, your secret recipe is out.

February 24, 2011 Posted by | Neil Young American Stars 'n' Bars, Neil Young Hawks & Doves, Neil Young On The Beach, Neil Young Re-ac-tor | | Leave a comment

Led Zeppelin BBC Sessions (1997)


Since the many foibles of Led Zeppelin still occupy a reasonable plot of debate sime among my peers, I was delighted to see the BBC Sessions coming out, if only to fuel a few more conversations about John Bonham’s drinking habits. Surprisingly, the reaction among the Led-heds I know has been skepticism. It seems that in the recent years, with the release of several box sets, multi- disc remasters and tribute albums, the Sessions seems only another addition to the slow, odorous Led Zeppelin corporate behemoth. A reaction to the Beatles’ Anthology success, if you will, and just in time for the holidays.

And then there’s that live thing. I had heard, justifiably, that the sound on the Sessions was state- of- the- art for the period, and that the tapes had been meticulously cleaned-up in accordance with the Zeppelin Remastering Bible (Vols 1-34.) We all know that there’s nothing worse than a shittily recorded live show, and this ain’t it. The sound is clean, clean, clean. What does this clean, clean, clean really mean, mean, mean, you ask? Well, it means that this double-disc set of tracks is packed to the gills with tasty little live morsels that rarely get through production of a studio album. The drums stand out beautifully, John Bonham’s “gimme a half- a- beat and I’ll be there” style shining through.

Plant’s voice isn’t nearly as together as on the studio recordings, but he stays within reasonable boundaries, suggesting that they worked hard to make sure that these hugely- popular televised broadcasts shed them in the best light. Any comment about Jimmy Page would be an understatement, so I’ll refrain. And hell, even John Paul Jones at that goofy keyboard, splashing his faerie magic all over the place is rockin’. Overall, you get the Zeppelin sound with the veneer of studio production stripped off. There was no one to play the second guitar or do the voice overdubs, so out they go, leaving raw Zeppelin, in all its bluesy, roots-rock glory.

In short, we got a slice of Rock-N-Roll history. We got high sound quality. We got the titans in great form. And ain’t that enough?

February 24, 2011 Posted by | Led Zeppelin BBC Sessions | | Leave a comment

Neil Young’s Le Noise (2010)

From The BBC

Neil Young now belongs to that rare stratum of artists whose work is no longer judged purely on its merits but on the basis of its status within their catalogue. As with Dylan and Bowie, interest lies not only in whether the latest record stands up to repeated listening, but what it says about them within the context of their career. So when Le Noise was announced, most stories focussed on the fact that it sees the veteran collaborate with Grammy-winning producer Daniel Lanois, previously responsible for records from Dylan (of course), Peter Gabriel and Emmylou Harris, and who here has reduced Young’s backing to (mainly) electric guitar and Lanois’ own “sonics”. It sounded like one for the musos.

But what this means is that when Walk With Me opens the album with one crunching, distorted chord, it sounds like Crazy Horse, his sometime backing band, are about to unleash hell’s fury. Instead, Young’s trademark impassioned whine insists “I’ll never let you down no matter what you do if you just walk me”, while he chops out chords that decay like thunder, Lanois adding a few restrained vocal loops and guitar treatments. There are no drums, no hurricane solos and, it has to be said, no great signs of a melody. In fact this at first sounds as though Young is merely demoing new songs, feeling his way through them, trying to decide whether they would work better if they rocked with a band or instead reached back to the tender acoustics of Harvest. His research appears to have been inconclusive.

This being a Neil Young album, however, it’s worth returning to, and what initially appeared indecisive reveals itself as an experiment in the rejection of standard rock arrangements. Le Noise therefore remains reasonably accessible, Young’s lyrics still as appealingly forthright as his playing, his melodies slowly rising through the unsettling, growling dirge. Hitchhiker sees Young look back over his life atop a bare and formidable landscape; Rumbling is plaintive yet full of an urgent energy, Young’s voice vulnerable but resolute, while Lanois’ greatest contribution is arguably his general absence.

It’s not an easy listen, obviously, but acclimatisation to the unfamiliar, monochromatic sound of such raw electric guitar brings with it the ability to recognise that Young’s songwriting skills haven’t dulled with age. Examined as a part of his overall body of work, furthermore, it’s amongst the more fascinating left turns he’s made, and once again confirms the evergreen restlessness of this gnarly and frequently inspiring Canadian. Once again, he’s not let us down.

February 24, 2011 Posted by | Neil Young Le Noise | | Leave a comment