Here are selected reviews from Goldmine’s January 2017 issue:
Who Can I Be Now? (1974-1976)
Parlophone (12-CD/13-LP box set)
Compared to its predecessor, last year’s “Five Years” megabox, this second set of Bowie reissues feels considerably lighter weight — not in terms of content, or even heft. Last time, however, served up six studio albums, two live doubles, and a double disc of rarities, leaving room for just one “duplicate” — a hitherto DVD-only remix of “Ziggy Stardust.”
This time, just three regular studio albums (“Diamond Dogs,” “Young Americans” and “Station to Station”), two live sets (“David Live” and “Nassau Coliseum ‘76”) and a single disc of rarities are joined by alternate versions of both “Station to Station” and “David Live,” and “The Gouster,” a “previously unreleased” album that shows what “Young Americans” might once have been. Or does it?
Bowie’s summer ’74 Sigma Sound sessions, at which the “Young Americans” album took shape, have long fascinated fans and collectors for the sheer wealth of unreleased material produced; not only the brace of epic ballads (“Who Can I Be Now” and “It’s Gonna Be Me”) that were scrapped to make way for his later dalliance with John Lennon, but also such epics as“After Today,” Bruce’s “It’s Hard To Be a Saint in the City,” a disco revamp of “John I’m Only Dancing,” “Lazer” and “Shilling the Rubes.” Most of these have since seen the light of day in one form or another, but the latter pair have remained tantalizingly unreleased ever since.
Tantalizing, because “The Gouster” is titled from the last named song, yet the song itself is absent from here. So is the unheard “Lazer,” so are “After Today” and the Springsteen cover. True, the mixes here are for the most part hitherto unheard (and well worth hearing, too), and it’s bound up in a delightful looking sleeve. But just seven tracks feel more like an uncompiled compilation than an unreleased album, and what other reports seem to believe is this box’s most important asset in fact turns out to be its most dispensable. Because everything else here is sensational.
Yes, you do need two versions of “David Live,” one recreating its original double album shape, the other adding the bonus tracks that highlighted its 2005 remastering. Yes, you do need two versions of “Station to Station,” because Harry Maslin’s 2010 remix always deserved more than a simple berth in the parent album’s deluxe reissue. And yes, you do need the rarities package because where else can you find all the era’s single edits filed together in one place, including both the original 45 mix of “Rebel Rebel” (making its digital debut here) and the U.S. promo revamp?
The genius of “Diamond Dogs” needs no introduction, but the uncensored sleeve and the brand new
remastering both amplify its brilliance. “David Live,” in either form, offers a worm’s eye view of the artist in transition, from apocalyptic rocker to blue-eyed soul boy; “Station to Station” (again, either version) catches the continued progression from Philly to Berlin, and the accompanying Nassau album may drag on a bit in places, but nevertheless opens with one of Bowie’s greatest concert renderings of “Station to Station” itself.
Add a beautifully pieced together booklet, mixing great illustrations with period interviews and reviews, plus fresh words from producers Maslin and Tony Visconti, and “Who Can I Be Now?” is suddenly revealed as everything it ought to be, and then some. It’s a fitting successor to “Five Years,” and a thrilling preface to the next box (Berlin). Most of all, though, it’s a gripping listen in its own right.
— Dave Thompson
You Want It Darker
Columbia (CD, LP)
“I’m ready, my Lord,” Cohen, age 82, sings on the title track to his haunting farewell to this world. It was released only weeks before his Nov. 7 passing. Like David Bowie, who died last January, Cohen had kept his pending demise out of the public eye, ultimately opening up to us through song.
On eight poems set to music by Patrick Leonard, cynicism, self-criticism and the blossoms and briars of lasting love entwine with Christianity, his family’s Judaism and his adopted Buddhism. This devastating 36-minute set can be prayer and meditation as well as conversation with God, a lover or maybe both. He seems to be saying “so long” to Marianne Ihlen, his long-ago muse, who died in July. We hear no fear. Even as death drew nigh, he kept his noirish humor, adapting “Battle Hymn Of The Republic” (“As he died to make men holy, let us die to make things cheap.”). He speaks of truths that cease to be truths and belief systems that justify the slaughter of others.
Like on 2014’s “Popular Problems,” quiet production enhances his messages. The title track opens liturgically and ends by sampling the cantor at his boyhood synagogue in Montreal. Bits of French chanson-like soprano balance his somber baritone that conveys the wisdom of a sage. “Traveling Light” has an aura of late-night blues musing with moments of gypsy violin as he bids au revoir to a woman he’s loved or maybe to us. Elsewhere, he resignedly sings, “I’m leaving the table. I’m out of the game.”
As David Bowie did with his swan song, Leonard Cohen left this world as a champion. — Bruce Sylvester
Warner Bros. (Deluxe Edition Vinyl + 3-CD, DVD Set)
If you’ve never heard this album, or are undecided about buying it, you should read the liner notes first. There you will learn that it’s “lovely,” it’s “gorgeous,” it’s “graceful,” it’s beautiful”… and you’re still only halfway through the third sentence, in a hailstorm of hyperbole that — were we feeling cynical — might also feel just a shade desperate. Like, you may not think much of this album, but really, it’s very good. Honest!
And it is. But “Mirage,” the Mac’s first album of the ‘80s, and their first in three years too, is also the sound of a band breaking apart, and only reconvening, as Lindsay Buckingham shrieks early into the live disc, to prove that they’ve not broken up.
It’s a beautiful box, designed to match perfectly those that accompanied the deluxe “Rumours” and “Tusk,” and containing a similar welter of extras — the original album on CD and vinyl, a disc of out-takes and early versions, a live show and a 5.1 remix. And that latter really hits the spot, so skillfully rendered that even the album’s weakest moments (“Empire State” paramount among them) sound sensational.
Which is good, because that was the album’s sole intent. In songwriting terms, Mac were now firmly entrenched in their later-Beatles-phase, all three main writers working so independently of one another that it’s a band album in terms of sheen and production alone. Buckingham and Stevie Nicks’ contributions all feel like they’ve spun off an impending new solo album; Christine McVie’s as though they’re awaiting one.
Which is not to say they’re not good songs — Nicks’s “Gypsy” would have dignified “Tusk”; Buckingham’s “Eyes of the World,” “Oh Diane” and “Can’t Go Back” likewise. McVie turns in one of her all-time best Mac compositions, “Love in Store,” and of course “Hold Me” was as massive a hit as you could hope.
But still the whole thing feels scattered and lacking in unity, an impression that the band members’ own comments (elsewhere in the essay) reinforces, and the alternates disc only amplifies. Early versions of the album songs do indeed feel early and sometimes shapeless, and most of the out-takes were deservedly so. (Most, but not all. “Cool Water” is fabulous.)
Things do perk up for the live show, particularly if you overlook the absence of all but three of the dozen tracks from “Mirage” in a magnificently hits heavy set; and again, the 5.1 mix is superlative, papering over all the original album’s cracks with much of the vibrancy and cohesion that the original album could not capture.
Longtime Mac fans love this album, and there is much to love, because in many ways its greatest sin is that it isn’t “Rumours,” “Tusk” or the White Album. The less committed, however, tend to pass it by — hence, presumably, the liners’ insistence on telling us how beautiful it is. How graceful, gorgeous and lovely. In truth, however, all you really need to do is play the surround sound, then track back through discs three and two. It’s still not as good as its predecessors. But it’s a lot better than you might remember.
— Dave Thompson
ANATOMY OF A SONG
By Marc Myers
Grove Press (Hardcover)
In Marc Myers’ first book, 2012’s “Why Jazz Happened,” there was a six-page section entitled “What ‘Alfie’ Was All About,” which included interviews with Burt Bacharach and others. That format, plus the writer’s ongoing column in the Wall Street Journal, is the basis for his new book, “Anatomy of a Song,” which chronologically covers 45 songs from the ‘50s through the ‘90s, generally split into seven page chapters, where the first page is a deep introduction of the artist and song, followed by six pages of interview responses.
We find out that rare singles gave artists their first exposure to their future hits. Elvis Presley’s first exposure to the Mark James composition “Suspicious Minds” came from Memphis producer Chips Moman playing him James’ uncharted single version of it on the Scepter label.
Three of The Doors were interviewed about “Light My Fire.” Robby Krieger said that cutting his lengthy guitar solo from the single version was initially “gut-wrenching,” but he ended up liking the single version better, saying that it “snapped” and reveals the lo-tech trick that producer Paul Rothchild employed to make the recording a bit faster.
When John Sebastian was challenged to write The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Darlin’ Be Home Soon” for the film “You’re a Big Boy Now,” he claimed, “It raised my game to be in Francis Ford Coppola’s league.” He said that he later loved the Woodstock audience’s applause for this song at the end of the ‘60s.
These highlights plus much more from the other 42 chapters make Marc Myers’ “Anatomy of a Song” the most revealing and entertaining compilation of short stories on popular music we have seen this decade.
— Warren Kurtz
WITHOUT GETTING KILLED OR CAUGHT: THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF GUY CLARK
By Tamara Saviano
Texas A&M University Press (Hardcover)
“When journalist/record producer Saviano told her friend Clark (1941-2016) that she wanted to write his biography, the grand old man of Americana songwriting had the strength and honesty to advise his friends to tell her everything, to not hold back. In his words, “I’m not out to rewrite the truth.” His songwriter/artist wife Susanna (1939-2012) opened up her years of journals. There was little or no effort to sugarcoat anything.
The thorough, well-illustrated bio’s title is a line from “L.A. Freeway,” one of his earliest successes. Though they wound up in Nashville, he and friend Townes Van Zandt won acclaim as Texas songwriters. Clark was a master of succinctly getting to the heart of our joys, sorrows and memories, no matter how simple (“Home Grown Tomatoes”). We meet the people who inspired his songs: his progressive-minded father (“The Randall Knife”), his grandmother’s boarder Jack Prigg, who’d helped Clark’s dad pay for law school and then became the old man befriending young Guy in “Desperadoes Waiting For A Train.” We see some songs in his orderly handwriting as well as a printed version of an early ode to his hometown (“Monahans”) that he never thought merited recording.
Guy and Susanna Clark were called the F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald of Nashville. Their relationship with Van Zandt was complex. Her journals show decades of love she shared with him. Guy sometimes felt like an outsider since they were smarter than he was. He met her while dating her sister Bunny Talley, whose 1970 suicide brought them together in grief. The family even showed Saviano Bunny’s farewell message: “At this point this is the honorable thing I can do.”
— Bruce Sylvester
Roar/Columbia Legacy (CD/LP)
Summary: With his weathered tenor and Josh Ritter’s partnership in songwriting, Grateful Dead survivor Weir sings of his personal demons and the ghost towns of America’s mythic frontier. Reflections of traditional folk and cowboy songs grace this understated gem with traces of 1970’s “Workingman’s Dead.”
ALL NIGHT LIVE, VOLUME 1
Mono Mundo/Thirty Tigers (CD/LP)
Genre: Cuban/American Party Rock
Summary: Cuban horns and dance rhythms mix with Bakersfield guitar riffs on this 78-minute concert blast from the Grammy-winning Mavericks. Guitarist Raul Malo’s huge golden tenor has rock/operatic vestiges of the late Roy Orbison.
WINGS: THE COMPLETE SINGLES 1966-1974
Summary: Over a brief career ended by heroin at age 28, soaring-voiced Tim Buckley (father of short-lived Jeff Buckley) morphed from poised folk baroque to jazz to gutsy blues rock. Like Jim Morrison, he exuded sensuality. Good interview in the intense CD’s booklet.
SHOVELS & ROPE
New West (CD/LP)
Genre: DIY Post-Punk Americana
Summary: Writing all songs and playing all instruments, this raucous South Carolina husband/wife duo can do faster without louder and then turn quietly acoustic. “Sunny side down” is the motif as they warn about a Civil War battlefield and elegize a loved one with “shrapnel in his sound.”
IN THE NOW
Summary: At age 70, the Bee Gees’ last man standing has a softened voice and still exciting writing (here with his sons). “The end of the rainbow is near,” he muses. Intelligent arrangements smoothly glide from disco undertones to soft romanticism to mature rock.
TIME STAND STILL
Concord Music Group (DVD)
Summary: This RUSH “retirement” documentary is an intimate affair, with its profound look at how the band’s fans have driven the buzz of a nearly 50-year career. The DVD package serves the film much more than the big screen (as proven by Fathom Events one-day movie theater affair last month) — it connects inwardly and leaves a door open that this will not be the last time you’ve heard from RUSH.
Culture Factory (CD Reissue)
Genre: ‘70s Rock
Summary: Once in a blue moon Culture Factory misses the mark (i.e., Trump and Clinton picture discs for the election?) but the LP reissues of the underrated band Rare Earth proves once again the record company’s ability to consistently hit the bullseye for collectors and audiophiles. The glorious sound of Rare Earth’s mixture of ‘70s musical elements stands out best with “One World” — especially on this limited edition vinyl replica, audiophile recording. There’s so much more to this album than the 1971 hit “I Just Want to Celebrate” and this Culture Factory release really brings that into distinction.
Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Live, Volume 3
Time Life (Vinyl LP)
Summary: Besides the appeal of the limited edition white/black marble swirl, this series of classic Rock Hall induction ceremony sets are on vinyl for the very first time. This volume’s jams of Carl Perkins, Keith Richards and Paul Butterfield (“Blue Suede Shoes,” 1987) or Eric Clapton, Robbie Robertson and Bonnie Raitt (“Sweet Home Chicago,” 2000) are hard to beat. Then there’s Traffic performing “Dear Mr. Fantasy” in 2004. And it does sound so much more authentic on vinyl.
Culture Factory (CD Reissue)
Summary: The acoustic-driven “Gasoline Alley” deserves as much credit for its nuances as “Every Picture Tells a Story” does for its rock hits. Check out renditions of “It’s All Over Now” or “Only a Hobo” (a fine Dylan cover), and now you can listen to them in high definition sound (96KHz/24-Bit) thanks — once again — to Culture Factory. Oh yeah, and this release also has an embossed cover!
— Patrick Prince