by Michael Goldberg
Monday, November 24, 2003
Revisiting Let It Be
Is the stripped-down and rearranged album an improvement, or much ado about nothing? Plus reviews of albums by Oranger, Miles Davis, Brando, Stephin Merritt.
It's been a long time since I've listened to an album by The Beatles. I played their recordings so many times when I was a kid that I hit the point of being just totally burned out on their music. But the release of Let It Be... Naked has found me listening to both the original Let It Be album and this new version, which strips all of Phil Spector's additions from the tracks, rearranges the track order and removes two songs, while adding one that wasn't on the original release.
I remember, back in 1969, reading press reports (probably in Rolling Stone) about how this album was going to be a return to the rawer rock 'n' roll that preceded such albums as Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Magical Mystery Tour, The Beatles (AKA "The White Album") and Abbey Road. That sounded good at the time, and, to me, made sense in the wake of Dylan's John Wesley Harding and The Band's Music From Big Pink. The '60s were over, psychedelia was becoming passé, and a return to basics was the mood of the day at least for some of us.
The release of Let It Be in 1970 coincided with the arrival in the U.S. of the "Let It Be" documentary. Watching the film at the time of its initial release, I thrilled at seeing The Beatles work out songs in the studio. Certainly the album itself sounded much more "produced," the songs fleshed out with Spector's string overdubs and other touches. It wasn't really that return to basic rock I'd read about. Nonetheless I thought it was a wonderful album.
Listening to it this afternoon, I still feel that way. The songs themselves are uniformly strong (yeah, the title track and "The Long and Winding Road" are a bit sappy, and that's OK), but there's also a "Beatlesque" quality to both the production and those bits of dialogue, intros and outros that, combined with the songs, make the album a classic.
When one listens to an album 100 times, perhaps more, the song order becomes a crucial part of the experience. One expects the album to open with Lennon's verbal intro, "I dig a pygmy...," before the group plunges into "Two of Us," followed by "Dig a Pony," "Across the Universe" and so on. It sounds "right." Beatles albums, even the early ones, were more than a collection of songs. They sounded like considered works of art. There was a balance, a symmetry to the albums and the way the songs fit together. And those "bits" preceding or following certain songs added both an intimacy and a taste of The Beatles' humor to the album.
Let It Be... Naked completely rearranges the song order. Where Let It Be ended with "Get Back" (only without the false start and without the final bit where Lennon says, "I'd like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves, I hope we passed the audition"), this album starts with it, and ends with "Let It Be," which was placed in the middle of the original album. While "Dig a Pony" remains the second track on both, ... Naked places "For You Blue" at track three where Let It Be features "Across the Universe." "Dig It," which was a silly John Lennon interlude but one which added to that very Beatlesque quality I spoke of earlier is gone. So is "Maggie Mae." In their place is the very excellent "Don't Let Me Down," although any serious Beatles fan already has it (it was the flip of the "Get Back" single, and appeared on The Beatles 1967-1970 compilation).
In terms of production changes, what is most immediately apparent (beyond the fact that all those intros and outros are gone) is the elimination of the strings that Spector added to "Across the Universe," "The Long and Winding Road" and "Let It Be." Are the songs stronger without the strings? Not really. It's a matter of preference, and it's hard to know at this point whether I'm simply familiar, and thus more comfortable, with the original productions of these songs, or they're really better.
Still, it is fun to hear these somewhat stripped-down versions of such wonderful songs on ... Naked. I don't have to make a choice. I've got both albums, and depending on my mood, can now turn to one or the other. And as I listen, right now, to ... Naked it's hard not to smile when I hear "Don't Let Me Down," with its marvelous Lennon vocal and simple but powerful melody. And "Across the Universe," with just an acoustic guitar and Lennon's vocal for much of the recording no strings, and for the most part, no weird sounds in the background is heartbreaking.
Oranger, Shutdown the Sun (Jackpine Social Club): One band that has certainly given the Beatles catalogue a thorough listen is San Francisco's Oranger, whose third album, Shutdown the Sun, was released at the end of September. The group also brings to mind Big Star and the Beach Boys, but they don't really sound like any of those bands. Some of their songs feature odd psychedelic effects that don't quite sound like anything I've heard before. Standout here is the title track, which has an infectious melody and unforgettable chorus. This is the kind of pop music that some rock bands have made since the early '60s. You probably know by now if this is your kind of thing. If it is, Oranger is certainly for you. The album currently comes packaged with a 34-song bonus disc of "rare and unreleased" recordings made between 1998 and 2002.
Various artists, Livin', Lovin', Losin': Songs of the Louvin Brothers (Universal South): I first heard a song written by the great country duo, the Louvin Brothers, on Gram Parsons' final solo album, Grievous Angel. His cover of "Cash on the Barrelhead" fit so comfortably with the mostly original compositions on that album that I had no idea at the time how much Parsons' own sound owed to Charlie and Ira Louvin. They scored a string of country hits between 1955 and the early '60s; Ira's drinking led to the duo splitting up in late 1963. Recently, I picked up When I Stop Dreaming: The Best of the Louvin Brothers, and was just floored by both the songwriting and the performances. Which brings me to Livin', Lovin', Losin', which pairs up country and a few pop singers in duos to cover 15 Louvin classics. These range from James Taylor and Alison Krauss doing "How's the World Treating You" to Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell covering "My Baby's Gone." Others on board include the late Johnny Cash and Pam Tillis, Merle Haggard and Carl Jackson, Dolly Parton and Sonya Isaacs, and Linda Ronstadt and Carl Jackson. With traditional old-style country accompaniment, the versions of the Louvins' songs are uniformly strong here. But then that probably says as much about the quality and durability of the songs themselves as it does about the performers. It would appear to be difficult to fuck up a Louvin Brothers song.
Brando, 943 Recluse (Recordhead & Mr. Whiggs): Beautiful, at times ethereal, and at other times raging, off-kilter guitar rock. These days, Brando, who formed in 1991 in Bloomington, Indiana and went through many, many personnel changes, now consists of vocalist/guitarist Derek Richey, who writes all the songs, and an ever-expanding group of musicians he works with when recording. On the 16-song 943 Recluse things get raw and rowdy with "Seine to the Rhine," indie pop-like during "Abby Laine" and just plain amazing on "Designed for Operations," a song with one of those choruses that makes you feel like you've reached Nirvana when it kicks in. This is "indie rock" (a sound, not just a way to describe corporate-free music) the way Pavement's crooked rain, crooked rain, GBV's Bee Thousand and Death Cab for Cutie's The Photo Album are indie rock. Mysterious and absorbing.
Miles Davis, The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions (Columbia): The original 1970 release A Tribute to Jack Johnson remains one of Miles Davis' most underrated albums. So listen up! That album is a masterpiece loud, impolite rock that even the most jaded punk or indie rocker would dig. Without Miles' ecstatic trumpet lines, you'd not even consider that the hardboiled music on that album was jazz. But the clash of British guitarist John McLaughlin's guitar and Miles' forceful soloing results in a music unlike anything that had come before it. A Tribute to Jack Johnson consists of just two tracks. When it was originally released on vinyl, there was one per side, each an extensive jam.. Side one contained the 26-minute, 52-second "Right Off" (clearly Davis' joke on the then in-vogue slang term "right on!") with the 25-minute, 34-second "Yesternow" (Miles said the title came from his hairdresser) filling up side two. The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions contains all of the music Davis recorded at studio sessions between February 18, 1970 and June 4 of that year; most of it is previously unreleased. Attending nearly all the sessions was McLaughlin, who can be heard on most of the five discs of music contained in this amazing set. By including all the takes of various jams we're able to hear Davis and his musicians finding their way to a new kind of jazz-rock.
Stephin Merritt, Pieces of April (Nonesuch): My favorite song here is "You You You You You," which is sung by Squirrel Nut Zippers vocalist Katharine Whalen. That song first appeared on The 6ths' 2000 release, Hyacinths and Thistles, as did another song included on the soundtrack to the "Pieces of April" film, "As You Turn to Go." The 6ths are, of course, a Merritt side-project in which he enlists guest artists to provide vocals for his compositions. Three of the songs here are drawn from 69 Love Songs, the three-CD set from Merritt's other "group," the Magnetic Fields. That leaves the other half of the album for previously unreleased material. That said, this is a wonderful, coherent and consistent album of often sad (but occasionally humorous) indie pop. Still. Every time I hit track 10 and that single acoustic guitar begins "You You You You You," I'm pulled into another world. The song rides on one of those infectious melodies, like the ones that ran through Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville. The whole thing is just Whalen singing over that acoustic guitar. The lyrics would be sappy and clichéd if sung by a Celine Dion. But Whalen makes them feel like they're being expressed (and the sentiments expressed, felt) for the first time. And the thing is, in life, there are a lot of things that are clichés, but at the same time are totally unique. Like the first time you fall in love, and how that feels. Well, how it felt for you was probably just as "special" and unlike anything you'd ever experienced before as it was for me. That's what "You You You You You" reminds me of. And if you're not already a fan, this album is probably the place to start your Stephin Merritt obsession.