I’d challenge anyone who’s not impressed by Love. In 2006, more than 30 tracks from the Beatles’ coveted catalog were specially mixed for a Cirque de Soleil stage production. The Beatles’ producer and arranger, Sir George Martin, and his son Giles conceived a stunning song cycle that, in execution, set a precedent for re-contextualizing a musical act’s body of work. Weaving together three dozen songs from the Beatles’ extensive song library is not a light undertaking and the Martins should be commended for their incisive ability to derive fresh meanings from standards like “Yesterday” and “Here Comes the Sun”. Most impressive is the overlay of different sound designs: how the harpsichord from “Piggies” and the coda of “Hello Goodbye” bubble underneath the strings and drums of “Strawberry Fields Forever”. To appreciate Love doesn’t take much work. Just press play.
The Beatles - Love teaser
Texas Thunder Soul 1968-1974
(Now-Again; US: 25 Jul 2006; UK: 24 Jul 2006)
Houston, TX’s Kashmere High School undoubtedly played host to some of the most supremely funky school assemblies from 1968 to 1974. Like many other school stage-band leaders of the time, Conrad O. Johnson recorded his prodigiously talented band, both in the studio and live, and had the results pressed on limited LPs and 45s; unlike some band leaders, Johnson welcomed the current funk trends into the program’s fold. The band’s free-flowing swing builds gradually throughout the years documented on the disc of studio recordings in this two-disc reissue set (the other disc documents a live show), starting off with the rigid cop-show schematics of “Boss City” and eventually blowing the gymnasium roof off with atomic funk feasts like “All Praises”, “$$ Kash Register $$”, and “Do Your Thing” (dig the maniacal fuzz-faced guitar solo on the latter). The kids in the Kashmere Stage Band would have inspired James Brown to launch into one of his mid-song filibusters, had he ever played with them; they inspire the rest of us to abject surrender, to stunned disbelief, to unending happiness.
- “I Wish” [MP3]
Born in Oklahoma, Karen Dalton moved to New York City in 1960 to become a regular in the Greenwich Village folk scene. While uncomfortable with the comparison, her Billie Holiday-esque voice was one of the most revered of the coffeehouse stages, and earned notable fans in Bob Dylan and Fred Neil. Not a songwriter herself, Dalton was more an expert interpreter: her often-haunting translations of songs and heartbreaking delivery have continued to influence countless others in the new folk scene of today. While a timid performer, she was even more hesitant to enter a recording studio and, as such, few recordings exist of Dalton’s work. In My Own Time was her only official studio album, laid down over a six-month period in a Woodstock studio and released the following year. Sadly, problems with drugs and alcohol would prevent her from properly promoting the album; the album and the artist essentially slipped off the radar altogether soon after. Often referred to as Dalton’s “lost record”, the album was properly reissued this year with updated liner notes and comments from fans like Nick Cave and Devendra Banhart to finally shed some light on this extraordinary lost treasure.
Karen Dalton - God Bless the Child
- “Katie Cruel” [MP3]
Sounds from a Bygone Age: Vol. 2
(Asphalt-Tango; US: 9 May 2006; UK: 6 Mar 2006)
Listen to the Bygone Age series and you’re hearing the sound of a hermetic world being rescued from possible oblivion. These recordings were made in Communist Romania and meant for domestic consumption only. After the 1989 revolution the country opened up, influences from the outside crept in, and the scene altered; the musicians were dying, and the recordings might have sunk into neglect. Asphalt-Tango is the first western label to have given them any serious promotional backing. The results are superb. So why single out Vol. 2? Vol. 1 is all about the instruments, and in Vol. 3 the focus is on the singing, but Vol. 2 gives you the best of both worlds. Puceanu has a voice of cream and honey, and the band gallops next to her with the panache of men who recognize their own expertise and know enough to be proud of themselves. It’s terrific stuff.
- “Sa te ajunga dorul meu” [MP3]
My Life in the Bush of Ghosts
(Nonesuch; US: 11 Apr 2006; UK: 27 Mar 2006)
This welcome reissue of the collaboration between two of pop music’s most cerebral artists showed just how far ahead of the game they were. The overall feel was that of station-surfing on a vast radio as they sampled a range of diverse voices, religious incantation, and even a recording of an exorcism, to a background of richly textured ambient electronica and complex beats. The origins of the music of the Future Sound of London, the Orb, and Boards of Canada could be found right here in this dizzying cocktail of global sounds and looped samples. Often credited with inaugurating the popularization of ‘World Music’ that grew during the 1980s, there remains throughout the album a genuine fascination with the exotic, esoteric, and unknown that steers clear of either patronizing or diluting the source material. The reissue came with seven bonus tracks of a generally high standard, and was a thrilling lesson in genre-pushing, intelligent, and downright funky music.
David Byrne and Brian Eno - Mea Culpa
- Multiple song snippets [Streaming]
And I Feel Fine…: The Best of the I.R.S. Years 1982-1987
(I.R.S.; US: 12 Sep 2006; UK: 11 Sep 2006)
In the mid-1980s, R.E.M. had not yet sold out stadiums, taken over the airwaves, or performed with Bono at benefit concerts. It was just a group of young, smart, rock ‘n’ roll upstarts from Georgia who happened to release album after album of the coolest music of the decade. This year’s collection, And I Feel Fine…: The Best of the I.R.S. Years 1982-1987, is a long time coming, considering most R.E.M. collections tend to focus on its ‘90s hits. The album features 21 of the most worthy tracks from Murmur, Fables of the Reconstruction, Reckoning, Lifes Rich Pageant, and Document, while a second disc (in the collector’s edition only) supplies band favorites, previously unreleased demos, and live recordings. Though most die-hard fans have managed to get their hands on more R.E.M. material than they know what to do with, this album has the potential to seduce new listeners: those too young to know what indie rock sounded like before it was a brand. Classics like “Begin the Begin”, “Radio Free Europe”, and “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” fit well alongside lesser-known gems like the beautiful “Perfect Circle”, the country stomper “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville”, and the raucous “I Believe” (which contains my all-time favorite Stipe lyric: “I believe in coyotes and time as an abstract”). Listening to these songs all together, one can’t be anything but amazed. R.E.M. was, at its best, a band bursting with so much talent that album after album was not only distinctly original, but always distinctly them. It’s been 20 years, but the songs on And I Feel Fine… contain enough energy and brilliance to win over a whole new generation, and remind the rest of us what it takes to be a real rock band.
R.E.M. - Wolves, Lower
(BMG Legacy; US: 13 Jun 2006; UK: 26 Jun 2006)
This splendid two-disc reissue of Matthew Sweet’s seminal alt-rock classic offers a detailed glimpse at one of the most pleasant, not to mention unlikely success stories of the early 1990s. An ingenious blend of power pop and dissonant guitar squalls, Girlfriend was accessible enough to reel listeners in with its ridiculously catchy hooks, yet loud enough to cater to the kids who had just discovered the distorted genius of Nirvana, Sonic Youth, and Dinosaur Jr. With minimal, no-frills production and benefiting greatly from the presence of legendary punk guitarists Robert Quine and Richard Lloyd, Girlfriend is kind of like Crazy Horse-meets-Big Star, melody and cacophony not so much meshing as simply bouncing off one another. The combination remains thrilling today, as Sweet’s gut-wrenching confessional tales (“You Don’t Love Me”, “Nothing Lasts”) are brilliantly offset by awkward come-ons (“Girlfriend”), nerdy odes to comic-book heroines (“Evangeline”), that combination of adult desperation and boyish charm (let us not forget a certain video that introduced animé to Middle America) making Girlfriend all the more appealing.
Matthew Sweet - Girlfriend
Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me
(WEA; US: 8 Aug 2006; UK: 14 Aug 2006)
(WEA; US: 8 Aug 2006; UK: 14 Aug 2006)
Another year, another batch of incredible Cure reissues. This year, we get The Top, The Head on the Door, and Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, along with the long-forgotten relic that is the Glove’s Blue Sunshine, a collaboration between Robert Smith and the one and only Steve Severin of Siouxsie and the Banshees. The relative merits of the albums themselves can be debated (personally, I’ll defend The Head on the Door to the death), but there’s no debating that for any fan of the Cure, these re-issues are nothing short of essential. The demos allow vital clues into the formative stages of some of the Cure’s most revered songs, and the stray rare tracks are always treats, even if the strength of those rare tracks isn’t often in the same league as the albums with which they are now associated. The remastered quality of the albums is fantastic, finally allowing you to put them in a multi-disc changer without having to constantly adjust the volume as the discs change, and the fabulous liner notes only add to the experience. Still, perhaps the greatest achievement that can be said of these reissues is the transforming of the Glove’s one and only album from a deservedly largely ignored one-off to an essential footnote to the Cure’s discography. Hey, Rhino: Bring on Disintegration!
The Cure - In Between Days
After leaving the Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons gave us only two albums before dying of an overdose at 26. His legacy, though, looms large, influencing generations of bands from the Rolling Stones to Whiskeytown. The Complete Reprise Sessions offers those two albums, GP and Return of the Grievous Angel, as separate remastered discs with ten bonus tracks and interview snippets between them, as well as a third disc of alternate takes (including three cuts from 1976’s posthumously released Sleepless Nights collection of outtakes). Sessions is lovingly packaged, containing cardboard mini-sleeve reproductions of the original album covers, and adding a book with essays covering the circumstances surrounding each record. It’s the music that matters, though, and while the outtakes offer no startling revelations, they underscore not only the silky grace of Parson’s music even in its rough state, but also the unmatched rapport between Parsons and Emmylou Harris.
Gram Parsons - Fallen Angel trailer
Speak & Spell
( Sire; US: 6 Jun 2006; UK: 3 Apr 2006)
A Broken Frame
(Rhino; US: 3 Oct 2006; UK: 2 Oct 2006)
This is, once and for all, proof of how inaccurate it is to call Depeche Mode a “synth pop” group or an “‘80s band”. Though issued non-chronologically, these first two salvos of long-overdue remasters include all the band’s seminal albums save 1986’s Black Celebration. 1990’s Violator is the one everyone knows, but take these albums together and you can hear the band outgrow the “synth pop” tag early on, evolving musically and emotionally and incorporating everything from musique concrète and Steve Reich to Eurodisco and Delta blues, producing some great songs in the process. A lovingly crafted, album-specific mini-documentary accompanies each CD, and the 5.1 audio mixes are revelatory. If you’re going to put a label on Depeche Mode, these albums make a good case for “One of the Most Important Bands of the Last 25 Years”.
Depeche Mode - Never Let Me Down Again