ABBA Returns!

If you haven’t heard already, last week’s huge music news was that everyone’s favorite Swedish pop group from the 70s and 80s has reunited! Not only with one but two new songs, with a new album coming in early November!

So let’s take a quick listen to the two new songs that are already getting airplay and millions of YouTube plays:

“I Still Have Faith in You” is an absolutely lovely ballad that, no lie, actually made me think, Wow, this could be a great solo centerpiece for a jukebox musica– oh. OH. Right. [It took me a moment to remember Bjorn and Benny pretty much instigated the modern stage musical style in the first place with Chess! Heh.] [ANYWAY.] This is my favorite of the two, as it really sets the tone of not only “hey, we’re back!” but “it’s been so long, can we still do this”. And they pull it off PERFECTLY. From the quiet and plaintive beginning to the determined finale with its breathtaking layered vocals, this song is absolutely flawless. And it’s definitely going to be used for stage auditions, no doubt.

The video for this one’s interesting in that it starts off as a chronological montage of the band members from their childhoods to starting the band to their worldwide success. We’re treated to wonderful (and lovingly remastered) footage of backstage preparations, meeting fans, recording in the studio, and even snippets of some of their iconic music videos. And right about 3:30 in, the song breaks down to a quiet solo refrain (“do I have it in me?”), as we see footage of the foursome once again heading towards the stage…only to see what is a stellar use of amazing computer-enhanced imagery, with the foursome on a new stage, singing this new song while appearing as themselves at their commercial peak. This hints at what will be a special London show, where they’ll be performing songs old and new while being motion-captured as their younger selves. It’s extremely joyful and reverent, especially as we realize the song isn’t just about the band themselves but their own fans.

And the other new song, “Don’t Shut Me Down”:

Okay, just in case you’d forgotten this is the ABBA we all know and love, we’re treated to a nice little musical prologue that sets the scene…only to hit us broadside with a piano glissando and a groovy mid-tempo disco beat right out of “Dancing Queen.” This one is proving to be the radio hit due to its more classical pop format, and also that it really does sound like a song from Arrival or The Album. It’s super catchy and danceable and lyrically clever without being a pastiche, further proving just how strong Benny and Bjorn’s songwriting chops truly are.

If these two songs are any indication of what the new album Voyage will sound like, sign me up because I’m already a fan. Well, I’ve been an ABBA fan since I was a kid, having constantly borrowed the albums from my older sister who was an even bigger fan back in the day. [For the record, my favorite album of theirs is Arrival and song is “SOS”. That song just has the most amazing chord progression.] I’m definitely looking forward to it.

Letting It Be

So this year’s Super Deluxe Beatles Reissue box set will be their final released album, Let It Be. It’s one of the most written-about, bootlegged and debated projects of their entire career, and that’s a hell of a lot for a project that lasted less than a month.

For years I only knew about the Beatles discography in a chronological order, and even though I knew this project took place before the recording and release of Abbey Road, there was a sense of finality to this record that was hard to miss. It wasn’t until I did the Blogging the Beatles series a few years back that I really took the event chronology seriously and revised my thoughts about the record.

I first saw the film back in the early 80s over my cousin’s house when it was on The Movie Channel, and like Yellow Submarine, I’d recorded it onto cassette so I could listen to it again at a later time. I’d bought the record at the local department store not that long before so I knew the songs. By the mid-80s I knew about the numerous bootlegs that had come from those sessions, thanks to Charles Reinhart’s You Can’t Do That!: Beatles Bootlegs and Novelty Records 1963-80, which I’d bought around the same time.

But what about the whole Get Back/Let It Be project, anyway? Is it really as bad as John Lennon made it out to be in his 1971 bile-fueled Rolling Stone interviews (“[Phil Spector] was given the shittiest load of badly-recorded shit with a lousy feeling to it ever, and he made something of it”)? Well, in all honesty, I think it was an interesting project that could have been a lot better and helped turn the corner in their career as a band…if they and those around them had given the band a decent hiatus. And I’m not talking a few weeks off, I’m talking maybe a few years, like most bands do nowadays between records. Give them time to be people. Do a solo record or two. Learn how to be human again instead of an icon. Sure, it was a different time and a different place and expectations were absurdly high. They’d just finished recording and releasing The Beatles just a few months earlier just after their India trip, along with the release of the Yellow Submarine movie, and by all accounts they should have taken that overdue vacation.

And yet, only months later they were back together, kicking out all sorts of ideas to top themselves once more. A return to touring? Their semi-live performances of “Hey Jude” and “Revolution” for their proto-music videos had inspired Paul and John more than they’d expected. But Ringo was already starting his film career, working with Peter Sellers in The Magic Christian (thus their hanging out at Twickenham), and George wasn’t keen on being shifted around all over the place like a few years earlier. Eventually they decided to have themselves filmed to perhaps be used as a television special.

The recordings from the Twickenham Studios are loose and meandering due to the soundtrack being recorded on a Nagra tape deck instead of a professional studio one and left running all day long. They were only there for two weeks, but most of the bootlegged material seems to stem from that time. Some of it is well-known: the “Commonwealth”/”Enoch Powell”/”No Pakistanis” riff that morphed into “Get Back”, the countless oldies covers they played to pass the time, and of course That Argument between Paul and George. Thanks to the Let It Be movie, we’re kind of led to believe it was a tense and angry time, though to be honest that tension rarely shows in the music itself, and Peter Jackson’s upcoming miniseries promises to show there were a lot of happy times as well.

Unhappy with the chilly and cavernous film studio, they took a week off, met with each other at George’s house to talk out some personal issues, and headed to their newly-complete Apple Studios on Savile Row. These recordings comprise the tighter, more complete songs that made the final album, as well as the famous rooftop performance that took place on the next-to-last day of the project.

The Super Deluxe box, which drops October 15, has been a source of a lot of debate between music blogs, Beatle podcasters, and even fans. For a project that had a ridiculous amount of source material, the box set remains conservative: A 2020 remix/remaster done by Giles Martin, the first producing attempt by Glyn Johns (he did two), an EP of related non-album remixes for completeness, and two cds of sessions and outtakes. Some feel they should have provided so much more, considering.

My take? I think it’s just the right size. I haven’t heard every single Nagra/Apple recording out there, but I’ve heard enough to know that, like the previous special editions, there’s a point where some of it really is not worth the effort. Never-completed songs that last less than thirty seconds, loosely played covers, and a lot more talking than you think. I mean, if you’re really hankering for that uber-completeness, look for the insanely involved A/B Road, an 83-cd bootleg from Purple Chick that features nearly a hundred hours of recordings.

Perhaps John wasn’t too far off when he called it “badly recorded shit”, but perhaps it was actually because so much of it essentially a weeks-long jam session with very little aim or reason to it. The Beatles were insanely creative and productive when they put their minds to it, but they (especially John) could be insanely lazy and dithering when they weren’t in the mood, especially by that point in their career. And they really were desperate to take a long overdue break by then.

Listening to the original 1970 album now, it still feels like it has a bit of finality to it, but a positive finality, of wanting to end on a high note, even if they had to dig through the source tapes to find it. While Abbey Road was the proper send-off on a high-quality, high-moment note, Let It Be was the final relaxed exhalation.

Favorite Albums: Think Tree, ‘eight/thirteen’

I never really got along with my freshman year roommate in college for various reasons and we rarely had anything in common except certain tastes in music. We both leaned heavily towards college radio and things alternative. He was quite a bit more into the indie scene than I was — he went to all the shows whereas I was just fine sitting alone on my bed with the headphones on listening to it — but occasionally our paths crossed and we introduced each other to different bands.

Think Tree was one of his favorites that he foisted upon me pretty early on, and I loved them immediately. They were a local Boston band that defied any easy description; they seemed to embrace the same gloomy semi-industrial sound of Nine Inch Nails (but without the apocalyptic nihilism), the off-kilter humor and weirdness of Butthole Surfers (but without all the body-horror jokes) and maybe even a bit of the musical ubernerdiness of Wire (but without getting too arty about it).

“Hire a Bird” was their first official single, dropped at the tail end of 1989, and it was a huge favorite of the college radio stations, as well as both WBCN and WFNX, who had always gone out of their way to champion any local band with pride. It’s definitely a weird song but it’s catchy as hell. Singer Peter Moore delivers his vocals with an affected hillbilly grampaw lisp (something he’d do for most of their first album and live sets), over a bed of Will Ragano’s acoustic guitar, Jeff Beigert’s popping percussion, and the samples and synths of Paul Lanctot and Krishna Venkatesh. The resulting din is so off-kilter yet weaves around itself so perfectly that it works. And surprisingly, the song is a highly poetic sermon about the dangers of environmental disaster, with a semi-hopeful ‘at least we’re trying to fix it all’ chorus. The final sample that ends the song, lifted from the football game scene in Robert Altman’s MASH and taken completely out of context to underscore the song’s theme (‘we are our own enemy’), was the icing on the cake.

It took nearly a full year for the band to finish off and release their first album eight/thirteen, but it was highly anticipated by the local fans and stations. Record delays are always a dangerous thing, because when they are finally released, the scene that the record would easily fit into often no longer exists in that form. There are so many excellent albums out there that never quite reach their full potential due to fans having moved onto the next sound or scene. [This, alas, would happen to Think Tree themselves when they spent nearly two years between this and their second album Like the Idea, which is great on its own yet failed to find interest in a scene now obsessed with grunge and Britpop.]

The songs of eight/thirteen feature the best of their live set of 1988-90, hitting all their heights and highlighting their car-crash style. Sometimes it’s serious and gloomy, other times it’s funny and poppy, sometimes it’s both at once. Songs like “The Lovers” are goth dance, while songs like “Memory Protect” hint at the sample-heavy clang of Einsturzende Neubauten or Test Dept.

I got to see Think Tree a few times live during my college years, and I firmly believe that was their best platform, as they put on a raucous, hilarious, and completely bonkers show every single time. You never knew what was going to happen, or what the hell Moore was going to sing or chant about next (he had a brilliant ability to riff a wild fire-and-brimstone sermon like a demented Elmer Gantry, especially on songs like live favorite “The Word”). They would sing about prehistoric monsters (‘Iguanodon’), strong women of the wild west (1992 single ‘Rattlesnake’) and the strangeness of religions (‘Holy Cow’, another live favorite with its wonderful chorus “you worship the thing that goes moo!”) and whatever else they could think of and make it sound both freakish and fun at the same time. It was like watching a band that would have fit perfectly on The Adventures of Billy and Mandy. Album closer “The Moon” (formerly the b-side to the “Hire a Bird” single) is a perfect example of this.

Moore has recently dropped a few Bandcamp releases from the band over the years, with two live rarities albums in 2020 and a demos-and-b-sides rarities album this year (fittingly, all of them dropped on August 13). eight/thirteen is still available for streaming and downloading elsewhere, though Like the Idea is still a bit harder to get due to it having been released on Caroline Records. Most of their songs are available on YouTube, alongside a few interesting rarities like a Dutch TV appearance. Moore would continue his musical career (and his musical oddness) under the name Count Zero and even popped up as a bandmate for Blue Man Group! This album does remain quite the oddity but it’s still one of my favorites from my college years.

Spare Oom Playlist, August 2021 Edition

Taking a break from my mixtape posting shenanigans to bring you a bunch of the tasty new goodness I’ve been listening to over the previous month.

Ty Segall, Harmonizer, released 2 August. Ty is a fascinating musician that pulls off being weird and poppy at the same time. This was an unannounced surprise release recorded during the pandemic, so it’s definitely a bit more muted than his previous records, but just as entertaining.

BLACKPINK, THE ALBUM [JP Version], released 3 August. I don’t follow too many K-Pop bands but this is one I do, and their tunes are all full of sugary fun. This is a Japanese-language version of their 2020 debut.

George Harrison, All Things Must Pass: 50th Anniversary Edition, released 6 August. George’s third solo (and first commercial) album remains one of my top favorite post-breakup albums by the Fabs. This has been getting some sniffy reviews by some of the music blogs, but I have to respectfully disagree with them; the original had been drenched and drowned in that Phil Spector chamber sound and really dated the tracks, and I find the new 2020 Giles Martin mixes to sound infinitely better. They sound so much clearer and brighter now!

Jungle, Loving in Stereo, released 13 August. The band’s third outing is just as funky and groovy as ever. They’ve always kind of reminded me of Daft Punk by way of the Brothers Johnson, and that’s certainly a good thing.

Angel Olsen, Aisles EP, released 20 August. Olsen surprises everyone by lightening her usually rough exterior with a wild left turn into 80s nostalgia, covering five new wave classics. This could have easily been a terrible career idea, but she pulls it of wonderfully with creativity and humor.

The Joy Formidable, Into the Blue, released 20 August. The band continues their noise fest with a strong and solid record that’s been getting some decent play here in Spare Oom over the last week!

Halsey, If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power, released 27 August. This one intrigued me as she’s teamed up with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who’ve been putting out amazing (and often creepy) soundtrack scores together over the last decade or so. Halsey’s soft vocal delivery works perfectly playing off the twitchy Reznor/Ross electronics.

Supergrass, In It for the Money: Deluxe Expanded Edition, released 27 August. Yes, I will always look for a reason to post That Video With Supergrass On Pogo Sticks. I love this record because of its experimentation; they still maintain the punky goofiness of 1995’s I Should Coco but they’re already leaning towards the UK psych rock of their 1999 self-titled album.

CHVRCHES, Screen Violence, released 27 August. A welcome return after an extended hiatus, their latest further explores their darker and stronger sounds and comes up with some amazing aural landscapes. Well worth checking out.

Toad the Wet Sprocket, Starting Now, released 27 August. So wild that this dropped thirty years to the day since their breakthrough album Fear, which got a ton of play on my stereo and Walkman during my college years! They’ve returned with a lovely record and even managed to get none other than Michael McDonald on one of the tracks!

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As I’ve mentioned quite often in the past, September is considered the start of Q4 in the music biz so I’m expecting some super awesome records to come out within the next couple of months. See you soon!