Posted in Album Reviews

Nirvana – Bleach (20th Anniversary Edition) (2009)

Bleach

September saw the 30th anniversary of Nirvana’s landmark second album, Nevermind. The album changed the music world, brought the alternative sound into the mainstream, and made singer Kurt Cobain into an icon.  The album knocked Michael Jackson off the #1 spot on Billboard’s album chart on its way to selling over 30 million units worldwide. Two years before that, for a mere $606, the band recorded it’s debut Bleach with Jack Endino producing and Chad Channing on drums for most of the tracks. While initially selling just 40,000 copies, the album has gone on to sell over a million and it’s 20th anniversary edition adds a Portland concert recorded a few months after the album was released.

The first single released was a cover of Shocking Blue’s 1969 “Love Buzz”.  An inauspicious start for the band but has the fine bass sound of Krist Novoselic that sounds similar to The Offspring’s “Come Out and Play”. The single is one of the highlights of Bleach. “School” features a hard guitar riff that captures the “grunge” sound in full force as Cobain sings about “no recess”. The ferocious “Negative Creep” walks the line between punk and metal while first song “Blew” adds in fuzzy guitars and bass.  

The most familiar song for most listeners would be the original version of “About A Girl” that would later open their legendary MTV Unplugged show in 1994.  The track is a standout with a bit more tune and melody plus clean production.  The song is in stark contrast to the more sinister sound of “Floyd the Barber” whose lyrics are about being murdered and raped by characters from the Andy Griffith Show and “Paper Cuts” where Cobain sings about being locked in a basement with blacked out windows.

While the album does have it’s moments, it is letdown at times by the drumming of Chad Channing that seems to speed up in places. Three of the tracks have Melvins drummer Dale Crover sitting in. While recorded for cheap, it often shows in the production that doesn’t always bring out the best in the music.  On “Scoff” there is a great guitar riff that could have been turned into a more compelling song but instead gets buried.  While Cobain’s songwriting certainly improves, having Dave Grohl join the band and the production smarts of Butch Vig really do help elevate the band into a whole other level.

The live album captures the band in full flight with several tracks from Bleach and also adds several songs that would later appear on the compilation Incesticide.  The Vaselines’ cover “Molly’s Lips” gets an airing as does “Been a Son” and hard riffing “Dive”.  “About a Girl” appears in a sped up form, with Cobain’s voice straining to hit the notes before ending the concert with the growling, bass heavy “Blew”.

Bleach – 7/10

Live – 6/10

Posted in Album Reviews

The Beatles – Let It Be Special Edition (2CD Deluxe) (2021)

Arguably, The Beatles’ Let It Be album released in 1970, is the fab four’s most controversial album. Recorded before Abbey Road but released after, it has long been associated with the documentary of the same name that filmed the fraught recording sessions that did not depict John/Paul/George/Ringo as the close knit group many assumed. Eventually, the tapes were left for Phil Spector to sort out which caused another storm in the group when orchestras and choirs were added to several backing tracks which niggled at Paul McCartney for so long that he eventually released Let It Be… Naked in 2003. Starting in 2017 with the Sgt Pepper album, Giles Martin has been reworking the last albums by The Beatles in newly mixed stereo editions tied in with unreleased alternative takes.

Musically, the songs on Let It Be are a curious bunch.  The album contains three massive singles and another one of their most famous songs. The most famous single is the iconic McCartney sung title track that appeared to him in a dream about his long deceased mother. Strong in religious overtones, it is hard not to get wrapped up in the emotion of the track that seems much longer than it’s 4 minutes. Influenced by transcendental meditation, Lennon’s “Across The Universe” is reportedly one of his proudest lyrics that get amplified by the celestial strings and choirs.  Starting off with “Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup”, the track adds the sung mantra “Jai Guru Deva, Om” before the famous “nothing’s gonna change my world” line that gets repeated several times.

The final track of the album is “Get Back”, a worldwide #1 single that grew out of a jam session. The song is carried by Ringo Starr’s chugging rhythm, some fine lead guitar playing from Lennon, and Billy Preston’s swinging Rhodes piano solo that is one of the most memorable moments on the album. To the hardcore fans, the single that is most remembered as one of the main arguments of latter day Beatles is McCartney’s “The Long and Winding Road”.  With the tapes left behind for Spector, he adds his wall of sound to Macca’s simple tune.  While it does add a whole lot of orchestral gloss to the song, it also likely made it accessible to the older generation pushing the song to #1 in North America and acts as a wistful final moment for the band that would soon break-up.

The rest of Let It Be is more of a hodgepodge of tracks including “Dig It” and the folk song “Maggie Mae” that both clock in at under a minute each.  Neither of George Harrison’s tracks are his best but “I Me Mine” focuses on egos which is an interesting comment in the shadow from the songwriting team of Lennon/McCartney.  “For Blue” is a fine bit of blues rock that gets lost between the orchestral flourishes of “The Long and Winding Road” and one of the band’s finest rock songs, “Get Back”.

The album tracks that do stand out include the first track, “Two of Us”. Seeing the band get back to it’s roots of Lennon/McCartney duetting into the same microphone, the track is reportedly about Macca and wife Linda but could easily be associated with his relationship with Lennon. As internal tenstions rise in the band, it’s hard not to hear their relationship laid bare in the lyrics, “you and me chasing paper, getting nowhere/on our way back  home…. You and I have memories/longer than the road that stretches out ahead”.  “I’ve Got a Feeling” uses tidbits of three different tracks that come together to form a belter, with Macca sounding like a preacher on the opening lyric and Lennon singing that “everybody had a good year”.

As it is, Let It Be is hodge podge of smash hit singles, a few good tunes, and several forgettable ones. It’s regrettable that this is the final statement from the greatest band of all time in that they released an album that feels mostly thrown together with a lack of flow in several spots.  Still, it’s hard to dismiss an album with four of the band’s most memorable tracks. While Let It Be is a hard album to love, it’s also one that does surprise in certain spots with a few fine performances.

The two disc edition adds a second disc of alternative takes from the sessions and oddly enough, sounds like the more cohesive album. Stripped of the controversary and aura of the released album, the alternative takes sounds like a legendary band playing a few great songs together.  Highlights include the chatter before Macca belts out “Let It Be” and a version of “The Long and Winding Road” that leaves off the Spector overdubs. “Across the Universe” appears in a Glyn Johns 1970 mix that also leaves out the gloss while “Don’t Let Me Down”, that was inexplicably left off the album, shows up in the version from the famous rooftop performance. The album tracks have a looser feel with “For You Blue” appearing earlier and fits in better with the tracks surrounding it.  There is a joy on disc two’s performances that really carry it as a standalone product and one that is a helluva lot of fun to listen to.

Let It Be – 9/10

Let It Be Outtakes – 9.5/10

Posted in Album Reviews

Kacey Musgraves – star-crossed (2021)

star-crossed

The last time listeners heard from Kacey Musgraves she had just married her husband and released the critically acclaimed galactic country album, Golden Hour.  Fast forward a few years later and newly divorced, Musgraves has released star-crossed. An album whose theme is one of a “modern tragedy”.  Co-produced and written with the same Golden Hour team of Ian Fitchuck and Daniel Tashian, star-crossed is a well crafted album of modern country that adds soul and R+B to the mix.

A flamenco style acoustic guitar is heard on the title track, one that describes a relationship like listening to an audio play where Musgraves “moved out of the home we made and gave you back your name”. Flashbacks abound on songs like “Good Wife” that rewinds the relationship story and adds a dose of soul in the chorus.  “Camera Roll” sees Musgraves looking back at old photos but not wanting to delete them.  A theme of wishing things were different pops up several times including on the acoustic lead “Angel” but on tracks like “Justified”, Musgraves turns the tables that she acted the way she did based on the circumstances.

star-crossed is a finely tuned album for dopamine pop hits but there is a little something in each track that makes it standout.  It’s only a handful of songs, like third single “Simple Times” that sound like they were tailor written to be a radio hit which ends up sounding like many other artists. It’s on tracks like the slinky R+B of “Breadwinner” and the jazz flute solo of “There Is A Light” that really sets Musgraves apart. The album closes with the Spanish language classic, “Gracias a la Vida” where the team adds scratchy record effects to make it sound like it was released in the 1960s. While it will be hard to top the success of Golden Hour, on star-crossed Kacey Musgraves continues to experiment while not forgetting her pop country roots.

8.5/10

Posted in Album Reviews

Belle & Sebastian – What To Look For In Summer (2020)

What To Look For In Summer (2Cd)

2020 was a strange year for musicians who instead of hitting the road were instead stuck at home making meditation videos. In lieu of touring, Belle & Sebastian released live album, What To Look For In Summer. The tracks were taken from the band’s 2019 world tour and their Boaty Weekender cruise that they organized and headlined. The double album covers songs from the band’s debut Tigermilk through to the EP collection How to Solve Our Human Problems.

The first disc lifts off with crowd favourite “Dirty Dream #2” and 2003 single “Step Into My Office, Baby”.  “Seeing Other People” humorously gets introduced by singer/bandleader Stuart Murdoch as an exploration of “early sexual politics of some of the members of Belle & Sebastian”. An electric guitar riff powers “Wrapped Up In Books” before the first disc closes with highlight “Funny Little Frog” from The Life Pursuit album that gets several whoops from the crowd and terrific backing vocals.

Disc two starts with a couple tracks from breakthrough album If You’re Feeling Sinister including a haunting take on the title track. Ex-bandmember Isobel Campbell gets a shout out at the beginning of early album track “My Wandering Days Are Over”.  The disco gets turned up on “Stay Loose” and the funk turned out on the bass heavy “Poor Boy” with Murdoch and Sarah Martin sharing vocal duties. The disc closes with several classic tracks including “The Boy With the Arab Strap” before Martin brings her best vocal take on penultimate track “I Didn’t See It Coming”.

All fans will have quibbles with some of the track selections but such is the enduring legacy of Belle & Sebastian that virtually all 23 of these tracks could be swapped for others with little dip in quality.  The charm, humour, and musicianship of the band all shine throughout. While nothing will beat an in-person night with Belle & Sebastian, this double disc is sure to delight fans as they wait for the next tour.

8/10

Posted in Album Reviews

Simon & Garfunkel – Bookends (1968)

Bookends (Vinyl)

The Graduate OST released in January 1968 saw Simon & Garfunkel become a very big deal on an album that featured their name in bold print even if they only contributed one new song. But what a song it was, “Mrs. Robinson” would hit #1 on the US singles chart with its full version appearing on side two of the duo’s Bookends album released that April. The single is best remembered from the soundtrack which obscures its lyrics about Mrs. Robinson being in a mental institution and later talks about watching a political debate that claims “when you’ve got to choose/every way you look at it, you lose”.

Bookends got off to a difficult start with producer John Simon (no relation) being brought in to help Paul with a bout of writer’s block before eventually leaving the project, the album was then produced by the duo with Roy Halee. The eventual recording sees the first side contain a concept journey from the start of life through being elderly. “Bookends Theme” is a lovely acoustic number that is interrupted by a dissonant Moog synthesizer slash that announces the arrival of second track “Save the Life Of My Child” that also contains a snip of “The Sound of Silence” amongst the chaos.

“Voices of Old” is a sound collage put together by Art Garfunkel of folks in two different seniors’ homes speaking about life.  This leads beautifully into the guitars and strings of “Old Friends” sitting on a park bench like “bookends”. The title track then reappears at double it’s length as the first version and closes out side one.

Paul Simon describes the second side of the album as “throwaway tracks”, with some dating back to the Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme recording sessions.  “Fakin’ It” is an up-tempo rock song that sees Simon speak of imposter syndrome to a chorus of handclaps. The heavy guitar riff of “Hazy Shade of Winter” took the single to #13 on the singles charts as Simon sounds close to rage that “the leaves are brown/there’s a patch of snow on the ground”. The Bangles would later introduce this song to a whole new generation of fans when their version goes to #2 in the late 80s.  The album ends with the lighthearted single, “At the Zoo”.

The heart of the album is on third track, “America”, an epic of emotion in under four minutes. It has a folky, 60s vibe of discovering America on a Greyhound Bus, a trip that Simon did take with then girlfriend Kathy Chitty. It carefully describes a scene of boredom with a sense of longing in a moment that would rarely occur today in a world with everyone locked into their phones.

So I looked at the scenery, she read her magazine/and the moon rose over an open field….”Kathy, I’m lost”, I said, though I knew she was sleeping/I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why/Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike/they’ve all come to look for America

Bookends is a massive leap forward for the duo and one that was certainly influenced by what The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys were doing with pop songs in the late 60s. Simon & Garfunkel stretch their boundaries to experiment with unique sounds, collages and concepts. While Simon is dismissive of side 2, it’s sound likely inspired a whole crop of 90s alternative power pop bands. While it clocks in at just under 30 minutes – the album’s experiments, enduring singles, and iconic black and white cover art all make Bookends a landmark album.

10/10