Legacy

I’ve been thinking lately about the legacy of some of my favorite bands.  I’ve recently started following Art of Noise on Instagram, who are currently at the planning and prepping stages of an upcoming tour.  The other week I downloaded the new album by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.

This year we’ve seen new releases by The Godfathers, Daniel Ash, The Feelies, Wesley Stace (aka John Wesley Harding), Peter Murphy, Depeche Mode, The Jesus & Mary Chain, Wire, Clan of Xymox, Robyn Hitchcock, Slowdive, Blondie, Erasure, The Charlatans UK, Alison Moyet, Ride, Cheap Trick, Public Enemy, KMFDM, Sparks, The Waterboys and Living Colour.  And there’s still three-plus months to go in the year, with more new releases by classic bands coming up.

It occurred to me that many of these bands are from the first generation of 70s and 80s rock and its multitudes of subgenres, or their slightly younger siblings.  We still have some musicians from the original rock wave of the 50s and 60s — Ringo Starr has a new album coming soon, and Paul McCartney is still on tour, for instance, and recently-passed Chuck Berry had a new album out as well.  One has to remember that rock music as we know it really is a young genre compared to other popular and fringe music out there.  We’re still seeing it grow and evolve.  We’re also still seeing some of the old vanguard putting out albums.

My fascination here isn’t just that many of these bands were my favorites when I was in high school thirty years ago, and that I’m just reliving my youth in my own pathetic way.  I’m also fascinated that these bands are still going strong, still providing their signature sounds, still touring, still releasing.  Some of them may have taken an extended hiatus for various reasons (Ride’s last album was in 1996, for example, and they split almost at the same time it came out), but upon their return, fans both old and new rejoiced.

I’m fascinated by the legacies of these bands, because I’m living during their tenure.  I’m watching and listening to their history as it happens.  It’s that ‘I was there’ moment — it’s my own Woodstock remembrance, in a way — and I love that I’m a part of it in my own way, as a listener and as an owner of their recordings.

Finest Worksongs: REM

Thirty years ago this month, REM released their album Document.  It’s the one that contains their two hits that still get consistent plays on the radio to this day (one of them for somewhat trollish reasons, I’m guessing!), “The One I Love” and “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)”.  It’s also the first REM album I actually bought, if you can believe that.

Of course, I’d known REM quite early on.  I remember MTV playing “Radio Free Europe” in its early days.  I remember “So. Central Rain” and “Pretty Persuasion” getting a lot of airplay on WAAF and WAQY.  Even “Driver 8” and “Can’t Get There from Here” got minor play.  And “Fall On Me” was a big college radio hit as well as a staple on the early days of 120 Minutes.

Document was, to date, their most commercial sounding album, and the last for the indie label IRS Records.  They’d release one final record, the singles/rarities album Eponymous, before signing to Warner Bros Records and releasing Green in late 1988.

Interestingly, Document is also the first place I’d heard a Wire song, “Strange”, which was from that band’s seminal Pink Flag album.  REM’s Michael Stipe was one of many musicians in the punk and college rock genre that sang the praises of Wire.  By the end of 1989, I’d have nearly all the Wire albums to date in my own collection, declaring them one of my top five favorite bands.  In early 1989 I and a few of my friends went to see REM at the Worcester Centrum, with a relatively new folk duo called Indigo Girls as the opener.  Suffice it to say, I also became a huge fan of that band.

For a short time in the late 80s, I was obsessed by REM.  I was definitely a fan of their early years, especially once I dubbed my the first four albums from my friends.  I was a mad fan of Green as well — still am, to be honest — even while others complained that they’d sold out and become ‘rockstars’.  They definitely epitomized that Athens GA sound that’s not quite country, not quite folk, not quite rock, but everything in between.  And not a day would go by where I wouldn’t hear one of their songs on a college radio station.

I was a passing fan of 1991’s Out of Time, but by then their sound had evolved to a point where the songs didn’t quite gel with me anymore.  I’d still follow them and pick up their albums, but after 1992’s Automatic for the People I was more of a song fan than an album fan of theirs.  It wasn’t until their last few albums, 2008’s Accelerate and 2011’s Collapse into Now that I became an album fan again.

I do come back to them occasionally, especially if they’re played on the radio or if I see one of the band members surfacing here and there.  [Michael Stipe, now wearing a full-on white Jethro beard, pops up in the news now and again, and Mike Mills is frequently spotted on Twitter.]   They’re part of a fond memory of that era of late 80s college rock and close friendship for me, but they’re also amazing musicians as well.

Blogging the Beatles: Sgt Pepper’s Deluxe Edition

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First off, a few notes:  Since I’ve already gone over the actual music on the original album and the Strawberry Fields/Penny Lane single here a good few years ago, I’ll be dispensing with that and talking about the sound of the remix.  Secondly, I’m going over the big box set and not the 2-disc version that’s also available.

I’ve been listening to this release for nearly a month now, just to get used to the sound, and I’d have to say that overall, the remastering/remixing was well done.  It’s kind of hard to say that about the original Beatles oeuvre, considering that nearly all of it was a four-track mix with a ridiculous amount of bouncedown* on many of the tracks.

*Bouncedown = a trick the band and George Martin used to employ to open up track space for more sounds.  A mix would be made for two or three of the four tracks, then would be ‘bounced down’ to the empty fourth track (via copying the master onto a new reel), thus freeing up three new tracks for more instruments.  The upside is being able to fill out the sound; the downside is slight degradation of the sound and possible muddiness in the mix.

One of my friends jokingly asked me if he knew how much Paul paid Giles to pump his bass so high in the mix, and to some degree I can see where he’s coming from.  At this point, Paul would lay down a simple temporary bass track to be recorded over later in the mix when he could add more flourishes.  A song like “Fixing a Hole” is a good example of this; the bass is all over the place on that one, so if your speakers or equalizer are a bit on the bassy side, it’s going to overwhelm the track.  A simple EQ adjustment of my headphones made it sound a hell of a lot better.

Some highlights:

The levels of Ringo’s drums are pushed up a lot more than previous.  This has always been a big issue for me, especially for most of pre-Rubber Soul recordings, as quite often he’d be so far back in the mix that you barely notice him.  His drum work on this new version is now crystal clear and given an added punch, which works to great effect on many of the songs here.

“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” has always been one of my favorite Lennon tracks (not to mention one where I can only name one band whose cover has done it justice), and I love what they’ve done to this one.  The phasing on the vocals (which give it that spinny, whoosh-y sound) are much more pronounced here.

“She’s Leaving Home” is at the correct faster speed that was originally only used for the mono mix.  This version makes it sound like less of a dirge and more of a stage musical performance, and it sounds lovely.  The strings and harp are also clarified here.

“Within You Without You” is as mystical and mysterious as ever.  The only problem I had with the original mix is that it sounded a bit two-dimensional, if that makes sense.  The Indian instruments and the orchestral instruments felt squished together, with George’s vocals kind of thrown on top.  This mix gives the song a hell of a lot more room to breathe and meander.  The two cultures swirl around each other now, and George’s voice is stronger yet retains the tenderness.

The original mix also had some lower-end issues, at least to my hearing.  Both “When I’m Sixty-Four” and Paul’s section of “A Day in the Life” always sounded a bit muddy, as if the bass levels had been pushed up a little higher than necessary.  This has since been fixed for both tracks, thankfully.  “Sixty-Four” sounds less like a well-worn 78 rpm record and more like a live vaudeville performance.  Check out Ringo’s light tapping on his ride cymbal on that one — he does lovely work on it.

“Lovely Rita” – Another song that sounded a mess in the original, but sounds clearer, even though it’s still drenched in echo.  You can hear a lot more of the sound effect silliness on this one now.  I can finally also hear John’s mumble at the end. I can now hear him saying “I don’t believe it.”

And then there’s “A Day in the Life”.  My favorite track off the album, their magnum opus.  It sounds absolutely stunning, especially on earphones.  The orchestra swells are much clearer and wilder.  The final chord is mixed clearer (and you can hear Ringo shifting in his seat just before the final fadeaway).  My only complaint is that Giles didn’t retain the last transition (the ah-ah-ah’s) before John’s last segment.  My favorite part of George Martin’s mix was his gradual lift in volume of the brass and strings as John’s “ahs” fade further into the background; here, they’re mixed to remain in tandem.  Ah well, can’t complain.

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And what of the extra tracks?  First off, the remixes of “Strawberry Fields Forever” (done in 2015 to go along with the release of the 1 cd/dvd remaster) and “Penny Lane” (brand spankin’ new) give the two tracks even more punch than before.

The sequence of the tracks on the extra cds in the box set are chronological, so you truly get to listen to the album as it’s being written, recorded, and put together.  Multiple versions of “Strawberry Fields”, the first on the list, show its evolution from a light track that might have been at home on Revolver to the darker, more ominous track we all know and love.  It’s not until they finish “A Day in the Life” (fourth in line, after “Sixty-Four” and “Penny Lane”) that the album really starts to take shape, and more of the songs start taking on a more common theme or sound.

Also included is the original 1967 mono mix — not the 2009 remaster, but the original 1967 mix as made by the Beatles and Martin themselves — and a few odds and ends, including the extremely rare “Penny Lane” US Mono promotional mix with the extra horn segment at the very end of the track.

Non-musically, the packaging is outstanding!  The hardback book that comes along with it is a wonderfully written historical document of not just the recording sessions but what was going on in Britain at the time, both socially and politically.  The cds and dvds are in a recreation of the vinyl album cover, complete with the lyrics on the back.  A recreation of the original ‘Mr Kite’ poster owned by John and a large advertisement for the album are also attached, as is the original cut-out sheet (featuring sergeant stripes, fake mustache and so on) from the original album.
Final thoughts?  The big box set is definitely for completists, as there’s a lot of repetition; more passive fans will probably want to pick up the two-disc “anniversary edition” that takes the best of the extra tracks (and the two current-mix single tracks).  It sounds great and looks great.  [And of course most Beatles fans are dearly hoping that the other albums get this treatment, though we won’t hold our breath.]  Highly recommended.

Favorite Bands: Cocteau Twins

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If I had to pick any one band that influenced my bass and guitar styles the most, inspired numerous plot ideas and settings for my early writings, and always calmed my teenage soul late at night, it would definitely be Cocteau Twins.

I absolutely adored the layered, chiming and heavily echoed guitars of Robin Guthrie, the dual-tone melodies of bassist Simon Raymonde (and even the dissonant meanderings of original bassist Will Heggie, who went on to be part of the band Lowlife), and the otherworldly vocalizations of Elizabeth Fraser.

They were My Bloody Valentine at a much lower volume.  They were Felt with a hell of a lot more ambience.  They were goth without the pretension and imagery.  And they were one of the biggest anchors of the classic 80s sound of the 4AD record label.  When all the music critics described their sound as pastoral, autumnal or dreamlike, they really weren’t trying to be over the top.  They really did sound like the Scottish Highlands on a cool and foggy morning, or a late October in foliage-laden New England.

If you haven’t given them a close listen, especially their dreamier 80s output, I highly suggest it.  It’s quite lovely.

Welcome Back My Friends to the Show that Never Ends

So recently I’ve been reading David Wiegel’s The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock and enjoying it immensely.  Things I’ve learned:

–It’s evident that a few members of Yes either quit or were canned due to insufficient pretentiousness levels.  Tony Kaye was an adequate keyboardist that didn’t play flourishes and got the boot early on.  Rick Wakeman quit out of boredom, and the fact that he had no frigging idea what Jon Anderson was singing about half the time.  Steve Howe actually kind of likes Tormato, their 1978 album that nearly no one else likes, including the rest of the band.  Chris Squire’s bass was, not surprisingly at all, mixed loud, front and center on their first albums.

–Van der Graaf Generator were well-loved, even if their music made no damn sense at all.  The same goes for The Soft Machine.

–Robert Fripp is a genius guitarist…but no one knows what the hell he’s trying to play.

–Greg Lake had an ego about the size of Great Britain.  Keith Emerson not as much, but close.  Carl Palmer just wanted to play his drums.

–Keith Emerson’s famous stage shtick of sticking knives in his keyboard to get sustained sound was originally courtesy of some old Army knives from a roadie named Lemmy Kilmister.

–The guys in Rush write great songs, but they’re kinda sorta meatheads.  Singer Geddy Lee didn’t always know what the hell drummer Neil Peart’s lyrics were going on about, just that they were virulently Libertarian.  [This political bent seems to have faded into the background around the same time Geddy started playing synths on the albums, interestingly enough.]

–The more members Genesis shed, the poppier and more famous they became.  Keyboardist Tony Banks said if they’d called it a day when Peter Gabriel left, they’d have had a significantly smaller fanbase.

–Most bands, when interviewed by Creem magazine in the 70s, would make these wildly erudite but utterly vacuous proclamations about how progressive rock will change the world.

–Marillion singlehandedly brought back prog in the 80s by saying ‘Screw you, we’re going to play this stuff anyway.’

Seriously, though, it’s a fascinating (if slightly sarcastic) read if you’re a fan of the genre.  One of the pleasant surprises is that he does briefly touch on the less famous prog bands, including a handful of non-English bands from Italy and elsewhere.

 

Coming Soon: Blogging the Beatles: Sgt Pepper Reissue Edition

Come on, you knew it was coming. 🙂

I’ve been obsessing about this release since hearing about it some months ago, and since it’s such a landmark album — not to mention this release being the only time so far that a full Beatles album has been given a completely new stereo remix — I think it’s only fair that I give it the BtB treatment, now that I have it my grubby paws.  I’d like to go over what one can expect: the differences in sound between the original mono and stereo mixes, and the new 2017 stereo mix.

[Alas, I do not have a 5.1 sound system so I won’t be able to provide any input on that at this time, though it’s part of the big box set edition.]

Stay tuned!

Boston Rocks

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Speaking of 90s music, I’ve been listening to a lot of stuff lately that came out while I was in Boston, college and post-college.  The city has a fascinating musical history, especially where rock and radio is concerned.  [I highly suggest looking for Carter Alan’s Radio Free Boston: The Rise and Fall of WBCN and Brett Milano’s The Sound of Our Town for a great overview.]  There’s always been a scene of some kind in the city over the years, and it’s always been great.  A lot of it is due to its eclectic mix of blue-collar families and college students.

I was glad to be able to listen to, if not go see, a lot of the local bands while going to Emerson College in the early 90s. Here’s a few of my favorites from that era…hope you enjoy!