Tuesday, February 21, 2006
Is the "White Album" Too Long?
Can paring down a Beatles' classic make it a better album?
In all of Rock and Roll, there is no album quite like the Beatles' self-titled 1968 release, otherwise known as the "White Album." Only the Beatles could have the audacity and confidence to not just release the first double album of rock, but release it with a generic white cover and no more description than the band's name.
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Like all the Beatles' releases, the White Album was instantly a classic, and no one can deny its place in the great Beatles canon. Yet from the beginning, the album has sparked controversy - did the Beatles release a double album to more quickly fulfill their contractual obligation, and is there a "better" White Album hidden within its thirty tracks?
To imagine any of the White Album deemed "unnecessary" or "filler" seems blasphemous to most Beatle fans. Indeed, even the "filler" of most Beatles albums is far superior to most other bands most essential tracks. Yet many fans and music critics agree, as great as the White Album is, it may have been better if the Beatles "trimmed the fat" to one lean and powerful single album.
So because I like to play "record producer" every now and then, I'm going to pretend I'm George Martin and I have to whittle the White Album down to fourteen songs. I'll take it track by track:
"Back in the U.S.S.R.": A great opener and a parody of Chuck Berry's "Back in the U.S.A." Definitely a keeper.
"Dear Prudence": A softer more whimsical John Lennon writing a song about Mia Farrow's younger sister. This is a really good song, but not great - scrap it.
"Glass Onion": Lots of self-references to other Beatles songs - some really good stuff. Keep it.
"Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da": Silliness from Paul McCartney - entertaining, and showing a lighter side of the Beatles, but with only fourteen slots, this one has to be scrapped.
"Wild Honey Pie": Barely a minute long - does this even count as a song? Sounds like the Beatles snuck into the recording studio during an acid trip. Scrap it.
"The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill": Lennon at his sarcastic best - I like it, but this song marginally gets in.
"While My Guitar Gently Weeps": Even without the guest guitar solo by Eric Clapton, this is easily one of the best songs ever written by the Beatles. That it's a rare George Harrison tune makes it even more valuable, one of the most essential tracks of the album.
"Happiness is a Warm Gun": Kind of like three little songs stuck together, this is a great composition by Lennon - a keeper.
"Martha My Dear": A sweet love song by McCartney, even if it is to his sheepdog - a keeper unless I run out of room.
"I'm So Tired": Another great Lennon composition, but I'm afraid there's just no room - scrap it.
"Blackbird": A brilliant acoustic number by McCartney - a must keep.
"Piggies": Poor George Harrison, he gets so few tracks I'd hate to cut one, but this has to go. Maybe I can substitute "Not Guilty" off the Anthology 3 CD, which was recorded during the White Album sessions.
"Rocky Raccoon": A tongue-in-cheek attempt at a country song, it goes.
"Don't Pass Me By:" While maybe a weaker song, Ringo Starr gets so few vocals and even fewer writing credits, so for these reasons alone, it stays.
"Why Don't We Do It in the Road?" Hmmm, a minute and a half of McCartney singing the title question... I don't think so.
"I Will": The type of sweet sentimental love song the Beatles became famous for, a keeper.
"Julia": A gentle reflective John Lennon singing about his mother - how could I reject this?
Crap! I've only covered the first disc and I already have ten slots filled!
"Birthday": Far too catchy to reject, a must have.
"Yer Blues": Gritty angry Lennon, I can't let this go - I'm dropping "Martha My Dear" and picking this up.
"Mother Nature's Son": Another great acoustic number by McCartney. Under other circumstances a keeper, but I'm running out of room.
"Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey": The Beatles at their hyper best - did the ever rock harder? A definite keeper.
"Sexy Sadie": Lennon takes a disillusioned jab at the Maharishi. One of my least favorite tracks on the White Album - scrap it.
"Helter Skelter": In answer to my earlier question - yes the Beatles did rock harder, right here! After hearing the bluesier, "slow burn" version on Anthology 3, it was hard for me to decide which I liked better, but who can forget Ringo's defiant cry of "I got blisters on my fingers!" at the end?
"Long, Long, Long": A spiritual Harrison tune, it unfortunately gets the axe because there just isn't enough room.
"Revolution 1": Another casualty due to length more than anything else - besides the harder, sped up version appears on Past Masters, Volume 2.
"Honey Pie": Much better than "Wild Honey Pie," this jazzy '30's throwback just can't make the cut.
"Savory Truffle": Don't know if I'm a sucker for Harrison tunes, or Clapton's guest solos, but I scrap "Yer Blues" for this.
"Cry Baby Cry": I really like this pseudo-lullaby by Lennon. I'll cut "Bungalow Bill" for this.
"Revolution 9": I'm convinced Lennon snuck this into the master tapes while the others were all out to lunch. Maybe he threatened to bring Yoko Ono around more often if they didn't keep it on. Utter drivel.
"Good Night": A sweet closing vocal for Starr on the original album, it is still a definitive example of what "filler" means. There's no room for it on my disc anyway.
Now I'm not saying that the fourteen songs I picked would make a better "White Album," and their order of appearance would most certainly have to change - but I do believe they are the cream of the crop. It is hard to imagine what the White Album would sound like if reduced to just one disc, but I think everyone agrees, with a little more editing, the Beatles could have made a great album even better.
If you are like me, you too can play George Martin and edit your own version of the "new" White Album ("whiter and brighter!"). Let me know what you come up with.
Thursday, February 16, 2006
Muleskinner: The Bluegrass "Supergroup"
One-shot band leaves indelible mark on music history
Though not a term used often with bluegrass, Muleskinner was the first and possibly the only supergroup of the genre. Formed somewhat ad hoc - the band was created in 1973, when Richard Greene, formerly of the country-rock band Seatrain, was asked to put together a band for a special show with legendary bluegrass artist Bill Monroe by a local California public TV station.
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Greene, who played fiddle, gathered fellow Seatrain member Peter Rowan on lead vocals and guitar, Bill Keith of Kweskin's Jug Band on banjo, David Grisam from the band Earth Opera on mandolin, and Clarence White, recently released from the Byrds on lead guitar.
The idea behind the show was that Muleskinner would play a set, then Monroe and his band would play, and the two would jam at the end. Greene, Rowan, and Keith all had been members of Monroe's Blue Grass Boys backing band during the mid-sixties - so it was kind of the "Father of Bluegrass" being honored by his "sons." But Monroe's bus broke down and Muleskinner had to perform the whole show on its own.
The result was phenomenal and the band was immediately given a one-album contract by Warner Brothers. The self-titled album has gone in and out of print and is now currently available under the aptly titled CD, A Potpourri of Bluegrass Jams. Much like the set they played for the special, the songs they chose for their only album relied heavily on covers of Bill Monroe classics and traditional bluegrass tunes. But Muleskinner also infused elements from Rock, Country and Jazz, releasing the first bluegrass album to include drums.
Potpourri is so great - it can turn even the most casual bluegrass listener into an instant fan. From the opening jangle of "Muleskinner Blues," Muleskinner grabs the listener's attention and never lets go. Richard Greene's fiddling has to be heard to be fully appreciated and Clarence White continues to amaze with his guitar prowess. While it's hard to pick out favorites, "Opus 57 in G Minor," a stab combining classical with music bluegrass is a standout, as is the country gem "Runways of the Moon."
All the musicians are at their peak, and Rowan's voice is well suited for the material. One can't help but wonder what would have happened had Muleskinner continued. Unfortunately, a few months after the album was released, Clarence White was killed by a drunk driver. The other members continued to pioneer country and bluegrass and occasionally worked together, influencing the new generation of bluegrass bands.
Muleskinner did release another album - or rather a soundtrack of the TV special was released, so the band actually has two CDs available. Only two tracks overlap, so it is almost like having two records by this ground-breaking group. Unlike other "supergroups" Muleskinner lives up to its reputation - fans of bluegrass, country, country-rock or music in general should not be without this band.
Thursday, February 16, 2006
Ray Davies releases first solo album
It's hard to believe, but Ray Davies, leader and chief songwriter of the Kinks, is releasing his first proper solo album at the age of 61. Though Davies has done several solo projects since the Kinks last album, 1993's Phobia, was released, Davies Other People's Lives is his first album of all new material.
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Of course, the last anyone had heard from Davies prior, was the infamous shooting incident in New Orleans, where he chased a mugger and received a bullet in his leg for his troubles. Knowing that Davies is a very personal writer, one might suspect that this event influenced some of his songs, but Davies actually had finished the album before this event.
I have not heard much from the new CD, as it is due out February 21st. However I have heard the single "Thanksgiving Day," which contains much of the introspection fans of Davies and the Kinks have grown to love. Other People's Lives should contain much of what we've come to expect from one of the best songwriters of the Rock era.
By the way, the Kinks have never officially broken up, and rumor is they still have a contract for one more record, but with Davies now releasing a full-fledged solo CD, don't expect him to reunite with brother Dave (who's still recoving from a stroke) any time soon.
Thursday, February 9, 2006
A Billion to One
iTunes giving away iPods again
iTunes is doing it again. Cashing in on the ever popular iPod, Steve Jobs' iTunes once again is giving away a free iPod Nano for every 100,000th song sold on iTunes in attempt to push to the astonishing one billion mark. And the lucky buyer of the one billionth song gets a 20" iMac, 10 60GB iPods and an iTunes gift card worth $10,000 (because one billion apparently is not enough).
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While I would love to get my hands on one of those nifty iPods Nanos (though I would prefer the bigger 60GB number), iTunes still does not offer up enough older stuff for me to take my chances. Maybe the iTunes people will use the proceeds of this drive to aaquire the rights to some more material and actually finish up the "Partial Albums" they now offer (look up the Byrds for example if you don't know what I mean) Heck, Jobs is a baby-boomer, how come he doesn't offer up more from his generation?
If iTunes could offer up the "Nuggets" collections from Rhino (which cover a lot of hard to find 60's garage bands), I bet they could easily coast to one trillion. Until then, the only way to get the obscure stuff is to comb the vast library at Amazon.com or other CD selling sites.
By the way, for those of you who are interested in trying to win the iTunes lottery, as I write, the current number is 957, 679,505 and counting. Good Luck.
Tuesday, February 7, 2006
Byrds vs. Byrds
A look at the two incarnation's of one of America's greatest Rock bands
For most Rock fans, the Byrds are known primarily for their catchy renditions of Bob Dylan tunes and the jangling style of Roger McGuinn's 12-string Rickenbacker guitar. This version of the Byrds essentially broke up in 1968, though another version, the "country" Byrds, continued to play and record until 1972. So different are the two incarnations that to this day some fans still contend the latter day Byrds were not the Byrds at all.
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Technically, there are three versions of the Byrds - the original line up, the Gram Parsons/Sweetheart of the Rodeo group that lasted six months and one album, and the final line-up. The only constant of all three versions is McGuinn.
Fans aren't the only ones who favor the earlier Byrds - David Crosby convinced McGuinn to record a "reunion" album in 1973 with the original line-up to redeem the Byrds name. While it was commercially more successful than Farther Along (the latter-Byrds final album) the reunion album was considered by fans and critics inferior to any of the Byrds other releases. Ironically, the reunited Byrds played songs with a country flavor more compatible with the latter Byrds than their earlier tunes.
Clearly the songs on Farther Along are much different than on Mr. Tambourine Man, but should Roger McGuinn have called it quits for the Byrds in 1968 and called his new band something else? Jimmy Page renamed his "New Yardbirds" to Led Zeppelin in 1969, when the rest of the Yardbirds quit. But Page was not an original member of the Yardbirds, and Led Zeppelin had such a different sound from his old band - a name change made sense.
McGuinn however was an original member, and the sound of the Byrds evolved during his tenure. While the Byrds always dabbled a little with country-styled songs, it wasn't until the Gram Parsons experiment of Sweetheart of the Rodeo, that the Byrds dove deep into the country vein. McGuinn wasn't the only original member at that point - both he and Chris Hillman moved the Byrds into country after the original line-up had dwindled down to a trio the year before. The link between the original Byrds and the final line-up does exist.
To say that the latter-day band was not worthy of the Byrds moniker is an insult to their body of work - while one could argue that Clarence White, Gene Parsons, and Skip Battin did not have the writing skills of Gene Clark, David Crosby, and Hillman, one can't deny the playing skills the later members possessed. And though the later Byrds are known primarily as pioneers of the burgeoning "country-rock" of the late &lsquo -60's and early &lsquo -70's, they also could rock out a lot harder and better than the early band, and even break out in harmony almost as good as the original line-up.
I admit it took me a long time to appreciate the later Byrds, focusing mainly on the days of "Turn, Turn, Turn" and "Eight Miles High." But to say nothing of the Byrds later canon matches up with such classics is to grossly underestimate the Byrds catalog. At a later point, I hope to review Farther Along, as it is quickly becoming one of my favorite Byrds albums (also one of the few later albums I've had the chance to fully listen to). Both versions of the Byrds, by any other name, would still sound as good.
Another Spin is a reworking of an older music column of the Partial Observer, written by my alter-ego, "Dr. Spin."
In Dr. Spin's column I often addressed reader's musical questions, whereas Another Spin will be entirely my thoughts and observations on Rock music and popular music in general, occasionally reviewing albums that I think are worth noting and artists who I feel have been overlooked in the past. Of course, as with any other blog, people can still leave comments. I love to know if you agree or disagree with me."