Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Beatles: Magical Mystery Tour

Review #36
Artist: The Beatles
Title: Magical Mystery Tour
Format: LP
Label: Capitol Records
Year: 1967
Songs: 11

The Magical Mystery Tour LP is the only American Beatles release that has become the canonical version. This record, if you aren't familiar, features the music from their very unusual film of the same title, as well as a number of tracks previously released as singles. The British version of this was actually a double ep that only featured the songs from the film and excluded the singles. With every other Beatles record, when the cd versions came out, they were all the original British versions. But not Magical Mystery Tour.

Perhaps that's because this is such an excellent collection of songs. In fact, for a long time, this was my favorite Beatles record. From the infectious pop of the title track, to the strange abrasiveness of "I Am the Walrus," to basically all of the singles that make up side B, this record is both fun and interesting from beginning to end.  As a teenager, I declared Harrison's "Blue Jay Way" to be one of the Beatles' only bad songs.  But I've since warmed to it.

The absolute highlight of this record, in my view, are two songs on side B that were originally released as a single together, "Penny Lane," and "Strawberry Fields Forever." In my last post, I described the "Hey Jude/Revolution" single as the pinnacle of the Beatles' catalogue. If that is so, then this single is a close second. These songs, both about actual places from the band's history, are classics that really showcase Lennon and McCartney's differing but complimentary styles. "Penny Lane" is a pure McCartney pop gem. Catchy and fun, but also well crafted and innovative in its own way, "Penny Lane" is one of McCartney's best compositions. "Strawberry Fields Forever," by contrast, is clearly Lennon's work--slightly dark in its sound, with lyrics at once absurd and profound, and unusual instrumentation and production to give the song a surreal and slightly spooky quality. Both are fantastic in their own way and for some reason feel as if they were always destined to be paired, in spite of the their differing sounds.

"Strawberry Fields Forever" is also a crucial piece Paul is dead conspiracy lore. Near the end of the song, a muffled John Lennon can be heard saying "Cranberry Sauce." This was misheard as "I buried Paul" and taken to be yet another piece of evidence that McCartney had died and been replaced by a look alike.  But don't get me started on that.

The LP version of this record is especially worth having for Beatles enthusiasts and collectors because inside it's gatefold cover it includes an illustrated storybook of the film, complete with very 1960s artwork, and also some photographic stills from the movie. Good fun.

In short, Magical Mystery Tour is a great record. The movie is not for just anyone--it's pretty weird and also dull at times (I like it anyway) but the record is essential.

Here's the title track, with video as it appeared in the film.

Total songs listened: 467

Friday, July 22, 2011

Frank Friday! Frank Sinatra: Come Dance With Me

Review #35
Artist: Frank Sinatra
Title: Come Dance With Me
Format: LP
Label: Capitol Records
Songs: 12

For pure fun Sinatra tunes, it's hard to beat Come Dance With Me. This is one of my favorite records to put on when I have people over for dinner. It's upbeat swinging Frank Sinatra in top form. There's not a bad performance on this record (although I'm not terribly fond of "Baubles, Bangles and Beads" as a piece of music), and while I personally am a fan of Frank's more melancholy numbers, this is a great record for entertaining guests because it stays up-tempo all the way through, slowing down only for it's closing tune, "The Last Dance."

The most interesting thing about this record is that it's a bit of a concept album. Most of the songs on the record are about (or at least mention) dancing. In addition to the title track and "The Last Dance" it features, among others, swinging renditions of "Dancing in the Dark," "I Could Have Danced All Night," and of course, "Cheek to Cheek." It's kind of a cool idea and somewhat ahead of it's time to connect the songs on the record thematically like this.

Sinatra's performance is spot on on this record. The man was in many ways in his prime when this recorded, and the vocals have that uniquely Frank-Sinatra-cool attitude that characterizes the best of his swing material. Backing him up are trumpeter Billy May and his orchestra, who collaborated with Sinatra on several other records, some which will appear later on this blog.  May and his band play good, solid swing, which should come as no surprise given that Billy May was part of Glenn Miller's band for a while and also worked with, among others, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nat King Cole. Interestingly, along with other film and television work, Billy May also composed some of the music for the 1960s Batman television show.

This to me isn't Sinatra's most compelling record, but it's definitely one of his most fun.

Come dance with Frank Sinatra.

Total songs listened: 456

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Beatles: Introducing the Beatles

Review # 34
Artist: The Beatles
Title: Introducing the Beatles
Format: LP
Label: Vee-Jay
Year: 1964
Songs: 12

I don't have too much to say about this one because, in some sense, I've already reviewed it. Like The Early Beatles, this is a U.S. release of the songs that appeared on the Beatles' first UK LP, Please Please Me. Released on Vee-Jay records in 1964, this record was the first release of Beatles material in the United States, preceding Meet the Beatles (the U.S. equivalent of the band's sophomore effort With the Beatles) by a few weeks. Capitol Records had initially been uninterested in releasing these songs, as the Beatles were still an unknown commodity in the U.S. a that time. Introducing the Beatles was available for a fairly short time because it soon became apparent to the folks at Capitol that they wanted these songs on their label after all. Thus, this is a highly sought after collector's item, especially if you can find a stereo version.

My copy is almost certainly a counterfeit.  This record was already a scarce and desirable commodity by the late 1960s, and bootleg versions of it were produced throughout the 60s and 70s. I did a little research on how you can tell the fakes and found 1) if it says it's stereo (mine does), it's probably a fake because so few stereo copies were made, 2) if you can't see George's shadow, it's probably a fake (you can't see it on mine, but the sleeve is so worn that it's hard to tell), and 3) if the title and the band name are on opposite sides of the spindle hole, it's probably fake (as is the case with mine). But, that's what you get for a  $1.29 at a thrift store. It's still cool to have a copy.

Interestingly, the Vee-Jay record featuring the songs from Please Please Me is actually more similar to the British release than is the Capitol version.  The songs on Introducing the Beatles are actually in the same order as on Please Please Me, however, like the Capitol release, tracks have been removed (in this case "Love Me Do" and "P.S. I Love You"). Another oddity on this record is that the songwriting credits on the original songs all go to "McCartney-Lennon" rather than "Lennon-McCartney" as they would appear on every other Beatles' album.

Total songs listened: 444

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Alex Stenweiss Obituary

Hey everyone,

My friend Colin sent this to me and it seemed appropriate to post here, even though it's not a review.

The originator the album cover recently passed away.  The idea that a visual accompanies a collection of songs is taken for granted today, but once upon a time it was a revolutionary idea.

Check it out.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Beatles: Hey Jude

Review # 33
Artist: The Beatles
Title: Hey Jude
Format: LP
Label: Apple Records
Year: 1970
Songs: 10

In what must have been February or early March of 1996, I was shopping for a birthday present for my dad. He had recently bought a truck that had tape deck in it, which his previous vehicle hadn't had, so I decided to get him a tape to play on his drives to and from work. At the time, all I listened to really was novelty bands and didn't really know anything about music. So I went to the music section at our local big box store and started looking for something I thought he'd like. I ended up picking up a copy of the Beatles' Hey Jude album. But before I gave it to him, I opened it up and played it myself. Life would never be the same.

I made a copy of the cassette and played it incessantly for about a week, and then set out to grow my collection at first mostly by getting stuff from the library and copying it, but eventually by buying all the Beatles' cds. By the summer of that year, I had gone from listening to nothing but novelty bands to nothing but the Beatles, who in turn opened the door to the Byrds, Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkle, the Doors and other contemporaries. That same summer, I found my dad's old guitar in the garage and began the process of learning to play. I quit buying comic books and stared buying cds and musical equipment. By the fall of that year, I was making my first (failed) attempt at putting together a band. And it all started with Hey Jude.

Hey Jude is mostly a compilation of Beatles singles spanning from 1966 to the band's dissolution, plus two songs from the Hard Day's Night soundtrack.  This was not really a proper Beatles' album in the sense that the band never intended it to exist as a full length collection of songs, and I don't believe it was ever available in the UK. Today it's not available at all, although most of the songs from it can be found on Past Masters Volume 2, a more comprehensive collection of singles.  Interestingly, the sleeve for this record features photographs from the Beatles' last ever photo shoot together, which took place at John's house in August of 1969.

In spite of this record's lack of cannonicity, it is in any case an excellent collection, featuring some of my all time favorite songs, including the title track and "Revolution," two songs that appeared on the same single and which John and Paul are said to have butted heads over which was to be the A-Side.  John, apparently, considered "Revolution" to be one of the best songs he'd ever written (I can't disagree), and was none too keen on it taking the back seat to a song Paul had written for his ex-wife Cynthia and son Julian, who he was at that time leaving for Yoko Ono. Paul felt very passionate about "Hey Jude" (originally "Hey Jules") as well, and understandably so.  These two songs, in many ways to me, represent the absolute peak of the Beatles. To this day I vacillate as to which I prefer. They're both A-sides, as far as I'm concerned.

Other highlights include the fast (and in some ways downright punkish) "Paperback Writer," "Lady Madonna," and the passionate "Don't Let Me Down," although it's hard to even narrow it down because to me, every song on this record is fantastic.

Two amazing tracks:

Hey Jude & Revolution

Total songs listened: 432

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Beatles: The Early Beatles

Review # 32
Artist: The Beatles
Title: The Early Beatles
Format: LP
Label: Capitol Records
Year: 1965
Songs: 11

The Beatles' first album, Please Please Me, was a big hit in the UK in 1963. But it didn't come out in the US until 1964, and even then it came out on a small label and under a different name. It was not until 1965 that the Beatles' US label, Capitol Records (a holding of EMI, the label the band recorded on in the UK) would release these songs as The Early Beatles. Following a practice I mentioned in a previous review, three songs were left off the original British album album ("Misery," "There's A Place," and "I Saw Her Standing There"), allowing them to be released on other records or as singles. The 11 remaining songs were also re-ordered. So, while the songs here are the same as on Please Please Me, this is truly a different album.

Recorded in 1962, these songs capture the Beatles as they were in the early days of their career: a good little rock band with a few new ideas and a lot of talent, but still in a nascent stage. They knew how to harmonize and how to play rock 'n roll in style that was heavily influenced by their 1950s favorites like Buddy Holly. They had written a few catchy tunes. But they were not yet legends, by any means. They were just a good band made up of four young guys from Liverpool. In the early 1960s, it was still not common practice for bands to play mostly their own material, and as such, while there are a number of Lennon-McCartney tunes on this record, there are also several covers, such as "Boys," originally performed by the Shirelles and sung here by Ringo in one of the odder moments of record. It's catchy and fun, but both lyrically and musically clearly a song written for a girl group, and the decision to record it for their first album is an interesting one. Some of the lyrics are changed to suggest a heterosexual relationship ("my GIRL says when I kiss her lips...") but it still includes a chorus in which Ringo sings about boys over and over, which you couldn't really change without it being a different song. Perhaps foreshadowing the cultural boundary pushing the Beatles would do in the years to come, they are not held back from performing this song in spite of what might be perceived by some as a trangression gender norms (or, maybe I'm reading too much into this because I'm a grad student).

Probably the best known tunes on this record are the title track, "Please Please Me," and the Beatles' cover of "Twist and Shout," originally recorded by the Isley Brothers. These songs, more than the others on the record, point to the solidifying of the Beatles' early sound and would continue to be part of their live set for years to come.

An interesting note: everyone talks about how bad the CD versions of the Beatles records sound, leading to the albums all being remastered and reissued quite recently. Having grown up largely on the cds, I could never really hear the "bad" sound, because I had little basis for comparison. But I listened closely for it as I played the LP version of The Early Beatles and there is actually quite a difference. The harmonies and backing vocals in particular stand out much more clearly on the vinyl version and the sound is just richer (although that may be partially a feature of my record player, a big wooden console unit that makes everything sound better).

Everyone's heard most of these songs I think, but here's the Beatles' version of "Boys," in case you haven't.

Total songs listened: 422

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Beatles: Alpha Omega

Review # 31
Artist: The Beatles
Title: Alpha Omega
Format: LP (X4)
Label: Audio Tape Inc.
Year: 1972
Songs: 60

Hello readers. Sorry it's been a while, but I've been very busy and took a while to get through listening to to this one. I've heard all of these songs a million times before, but in the spirit of the project, I thought I ought to play them all anyway.

I love the Beatles, always. But for whatever reason, maybe because it was the summer of my 16th year that I first got really invested in the Beatles and rock music more generally, the Beatles always sound best to me in the summer. There will be a lot of Beatles reviews on this blog before I'm done with it, but this one is by far the most expansive of the Beatles' recordings I own. This unauthorized 60 song collection spans the Beatles' entire catalogue, from their first record to their last and even a few songs recorded by Lennon, Harrison, and McCartney early on in their post-Beatle careers.

The songs on the record are thrown together in no particular order, bouncing randomly from With the Beatles era tracks to Magical Mystery Tour to Abbey Road and back again.  I wouldn't personally have put this collection together in this way, but I will say this: it really gives you a sense how incredibly diverse and inventive this band was. There will never be another band like this, a band which wins the hearts of so many while pushing a genre, and indeed, an entire culture forward. John, Paul, George, and Ringo were a magical combination that combined musical proficiency with brilliant songwriting and an ability to experiment with new sounds, and hearing so many of their songs from so many different records really highlights this. If it offered nothing else of value, rock 'n roll as a musical form would be validated by the Beatles' catalogue alone.

So that's enough of me gushing about the Beatles. You'll get more of it in the next few reviews as I go through all the Beatles vinyl I have. What about this particular release?  You may be thinking: "I have never seen/heard of this before."  Well, aside from this copy, which was given to me by a friend's parents shortly after I first discovered the Beatles and wouldn't stop talking about them, neither have I. And that's probably because, according to my internet searches, this was an unauthorized bootleg that was sold only via mail order using late-night TV ads for a brief period in the 1970s.

It's an odd little collection that no one who was actually associated with the Beatles or Apple records would have put together. Aside from the unusual ordering of the tracks and the presence of post-Beatle tunes such as "Bangladesh," recorded live at Harrison's famous benefit concert and Lennon's beautiful manifesto "Imagine," there are a couple of other strange features as well. There seems to be some reverb added to some of these recordings, and the vocals are sometimes difficult to hear. The Sergeant Pepper theme cuts off abruptly right before "Billy Shears" is sung, because the song as it appears on the album transitions immediately into "With a Little Help from My Friends," but does not do so on Alpha Omega. This choice is particularly strange given that the song does appear on a later disc, so there's no apparent reason why these tracks were broken up.

The version of "Help!" that appears on this record is also unusual, as it has an intro attached to it that sounds like James Bond Music. Apparently, this was how it appeared on the original American release of the Help! album. Capitol records in the U.S. would often shave tracks off of the Beatles' releases so they could use them to release more albums that collected these tracks. This was a practice that went on until Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band came out in 1967. Apparently (and I didn't know this because when these albums were released as CDs, they were all the original British versions), the songs removed from the Help! album were replaced with soundtrack music from the film, including the 007-ish intro to "Help!" that appears on Alpha Omega.

Oddities aside, this really is a nice snapshot of the Beatles' catalogue. Long ago, a friend and I were talking about which Beatles' albums we had.  He said he had, among others, "the Greatest Hits... whatever that means. Everything they wrote was a hit so I can't see how you'd even decide." Fair enough, but if you could make that call and weren't worried about how many songs to include, you'd probably end up with something pretty close to what appears on Alpha Omega.

I found a version of "Help!" with the spy music intro.  Check it out.

Total songs listened: 411

Monday, July 11, 2011

Bauhaus: Weniger Ist Mehr

Review # 30
Artist: Bauhaus
Title: Weniger Ist Mehr
Format: LP
Label: none (unofficial release)
Year: 2006
Songs: 10

 Weniger Ist Mehr is an unlicensed collection of rare tracks by goth/post-punk icons Bauhaus. If you aren't familiar with Bauhaus, they are considered by many to be the first ever goth band, and are probably best known for their ode to the star Universal Studios' Dracula, "Bella Lugosi's Dead."  A British band that formed in 1978, the early Bauhaus songs like those that appear on this record reflect the band's musical lineage. Many of these songs were essentially a distinct, dark, and often creepy take on the British punk sound, with the influence of the first record by the Damned being perhaps the most apparent to me. This record features some rare tracks by the band, the bulk of which are live studio tracks recorded in 1979, and originally released on a cd accompanying a book about the band entitled Beneath the Mask.

Many of these tracks are songs that even a casual fan of Bauhaus would recognize, like "A God in the Alcove" and "Dark Entries," although the recordings are more raw and stripped down than those the band commercially released. Generally, these are good recordings, different enough from the commercially released versions to be worth owning, but not departing drastically from the sound of final versions. The one possible exception is the slowed down version of "Telegram Sam," a cover of a song by Marc Bolan from T-Rex.  Bauhaus's version of this song has always been one of my favorites in their catalogue, but the version that appears on this record seems to lag behind and lose steam a bit due to it's slower pacing. Highlights from the record include the crushing dirge "Nerves," the spooky "Hollow Hills," and the energetic version of "Dark Entries" found on this record.

By far my favorite track on this record though, and the one I actually bought it for, is the band's tongue-in-cheek cover of the 1960s Christian rock hit, "Spirit in the Sky." The band delivers the song sparsely while Peter Murphy recites the lyrics in a perfect deadpan, sometimes slightly drawing out the syllables:

"I'm going up the spirit in the sky... it's where I'm gonna go when I diiiie."

The songs just drips with understated bad attitude until the climax, when Murphy lets loose with crazed shrieks of "Jeezess! Jeeeezzesss!"  A coworker of mine introduced me to Bauhaus by playing this song for me back in the 90s. I didn't really care for goth stuff at the time, but I loved this, and I searched in vain for a copy of of it until a couple of years ago when I found my copy of  Weniger is Mehr. If you're a Bauhaus fan, I'd call this record an essential supplement to their regular albums.  But if you're not a fan, well, this record might be a good way to become one.

Check out "Spirit in the Sky."

Total songs listened: 351

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Bob Sharples: Battle Stereo

Review # 29
Artist: Bob Sharples
Title: Battle Stereo
Format: LP
Label: London
Year: 1964

Technically, this should be filed under "S" I suppose. But I file under "B" for a couple of reasons.  First, on the off chance I ever want to actually listen to this, I'm more likely to remember the title than the name Sharples. Second, Sharples is the director of this record, but there's no indication who is actually performing these songs, and when I don't know the artist, I file things by title. So filing it under "S" is probably technically correct, but I keep this in "B" so I'm reviewing it now.

I don't remember exactly how or why this record came into my possession. It might have been something I picked up with the idea of using it for samples on one of my own music projects, but I'm really not sure. It's a collection of martial music from various wars, beginning with the Revolutionary War and ending with World War II. Alongside the music, throughout the record, are battle sound effects and famous speeches pertinent to the various wars.  It's a weird record.

This would have been a good record to review a few days ago on July 4. It begins with stirring drum roll and someone pretending to be Paul Revere, shouting "The British Are Coming! The British Are Coming!" If you think too hard about this, it doesn't make such sense for Revere to be shouting this, as the colonists at this point would mostly have still considered themselves British, and indeed, historians, from what I understand, take issue with this popular depiction of Revere's famous ride. But I digress. Another odd moment for me was during the Civil War portion of the record in which the band strikes up "Camptown Races," which I know best as a song performed by the Frogtown Ramblers.  Was this really a battle song? I looked it up, and apparently it was. I have a hard time imagining men rushing into the heat of battle singing "doo dah, doo dah, oh the doo dah day," but apparently this was indeed a Civil War song.

This is a strange, war-glorifying record.  But one thing that's kind of cool about it from a conceptual perspective it is that, according the liner notes, the various songs actually transition back and forth to indicate the significant victories and defeats of each war, and sometimes actually compete directly with each other for just a few seconds as one rises and the other falls.  So, in the Civil War section of the record for example, the music alternates between "Dixie" and "Battle Hymn of the Republic" in ways that are supposed to be timed to indicate union and confederate victories, and of course concludes with a great swelling version of "The Battle Hymn."

Wars recreated on this record include the American Revolution, the Napoleonic-Russian War, the American Civil War, the Crimean War, World War I, and the World War II (specifically the Battle of Britain). Whoever put this together really knew their wars and their martial music. This includes a lot of tunes that everyone would recognize, but also less familiar ones like France's "Aupres de ma Blonde," from WWI.  It also includes "Deutschland Uber Alles," a song which, if I'm correctly informed, is still illegal to play in several European countries.

So, from a historical standpoint, this is kind of an interesting record I guess, and the concept of the record is executed well.  But it glorifies war far too much for my tastes. This is the first time I've played the whole thing and I can't imagine doing it again any time soon.

Total songs listened: 341

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Batman & Robin: The Official Adventures of Batman & Robin

Review # 28
Artist: Batman & Robin
Title: The Official Adventures of Batman & Robin
Format: LP
Label: Leo The Lion Records
Year: 1966
Tracks: 3

It would be inaccurate to talk about "songs" on this record, since it's a story record not a music record. That said, it contains three separate stories with pauses between each, so I'm going to count this as three songs.

My copy of this record, unfortunately, is in terrible condition. It's scratched and has something smeared on the A-side. It's barely listenable, actually. The kid who owned this must have listened to it a lot.  But as a long-time Batman fan, I can't bear to part with it, and for the purposes of this blog, I gave it a spin.

The three stories on this record are "The Legend of Batman and Robin," which tells the "true" story of Batman and Robin's origin, "The Penguins Plunder," in which the Penguin hatches a plan to make Batman endorse his new brand of umbrellas as part of a convoluted scheme to rob a resort for millionaires, and "The Joker's Revenge," in which an escaped Joker seeks to kill the judge who convicted him by disguising himself as Commisioner Gordon. Each features a full cast, music, and sound effects. If I had had this as a kid, I would have played it over and over again, reveling in Batman and Robin's "battles against the evil forces of society."

These stories have the feel of  campy 1960s era Batman.  The stories are absurd, with the Joker story actually drawing off the plot of an episode I remember from the old TV show starring Adam West and Burt Ward, in which the Joker creates a utility belt of his own to thwart Batman. The record also employs the theme song of the old show, which was my first introduction to Batman. While the actors are different, the acting also has the feel of the television show, with lines delivered in an over-the-top melodramatic fashion. The one actor who seems somewhat miscast is the Joker, who seems to have a faint British accent. I'm not sure if this is because the actor was actually British or if this was just his dramatic annunciation, but Joker just feels a little too proper or something as a result.

For its time, this record is fairly well done. It's ridiculous, but only in the ways you would expect a children's Batman record from the 1960s to be.  It's a fun piece of comic book memorabilia, but probably not a record I'll be playing again any time soon.

Total songs listened: 335