Before anything else gets said, it should be mentioned that this is a great road album. Driving, biking, walking, whatever; it’s the kind of record that pushes you forward. And isn’t that really one of the highest compliments you can give?
This January reissue of the Doors’ last and maybe best album might seem completely unnecessary—there’s already a remastered CD readily available. But actually, Rhino’s version is the first L.A. Woman that leaves the original album untouched. When the Doors’ catalogue was reissued five years ago, the band chose to remix and tinker with L.A. Woman, adding and cutting from a few tracks and including unused instrumental parts instead of leaving these versions as bonus tracks (as on all the others). I can’t speak for you, but I generally hate it when they do this. It screws with a piece of cultural product in a way that feels like they’re trying to whitewash mistakes or (more likely) trying to earn some extra hype $$$. (This is probably a good time to say that it’s possible to care about music to an unhealthy extent.)
Rhino’s version not only keeps the original mix intact, but also includes 51 minutes of bonus material that’s actually a lot better than you might think. I wasn’t expecting the world from the additions. With the exceptions of the rote throwaway “She Smells So Nice” and the over-noodled “Rock Me” jam, they’re all alternate takes of songs that made it onto the LP. And to the casual fan, most of the bonuses don’t vary enough to be worth a full-on hunt. But for anyone who treasures this material a little more than average, this is surprisingly interesting stuff. The alternate versions of “The Changeling”, “Riders on the Storm”, “Car Hiss By My Window” and the inimitable title track intensify the close, “sitting in the studio” feel without hurting any of the grander imagery. You can pretty much figure out why the band chose to leave these takes off the album: Morrison’s voice is mixed a bit loud in the alternate “Changeling”. John Densmore’s dusty drumming is sometimes a little sluggish in the alternate “Cars Hiss By My Window” (he goes for a slightly louder splash in the last 30 seconds and doesn’t quite time it properly, even accepting his syncopated tendencies). Yet even those let out some great details that aren’t available on the album. The tired, drunken giggles leading into “Cars Hiss By My Window” explain some of the song’s dusty, intimate sound, and the mixing of Morrison’s vocals allows his opening scream in the bonus “Changeling” to sound outright awesome. The studio banter is entertaining as hell. Morrison prefaces “Changeling” with “I hate to spook anybody, but this is my favorite number. Play your ass off, boy.” Bottom line: whether you’re a casual fan or a more obsessive one, this is the definitive issue of L.A. Woman.
Then there’s the original album. Calling it the band’s best might be arguable, but it’s certainly their least dated. The music itself has a friendly, communal feel that seems worlds removed from the in-your-face pretension of earlier work. Morrison is less showy in his lyricism, stating more than prophesying, and where even the great debut had some fairly goofy indulgences, the more conventional blues of L.A. Woman helps Morrison keep the album—at 48 minutes, their longest—running pretty smoothly the whole way through, and with a minimum of eye-rollers. Their formula is a practiced one by now, executed efficiently, propulsively, and often cheerfully (the last minute of “Hyacinth House” alone is sunny like nothing they’d done before), and anyone who’s turned off by the decadence of “Light My Fire”, “The End” or “When the Music’s Over” might be surprised at how tight and punchy this material is. Even the particularly long songs, “L.A. Woman” and “Riders on the Storm”, never get boring because they either swell naturally (in the former’s case) or make use of gorgeous pings and glistens that intensify the imagery (in the latter’s case).
This was the first Doors album to have a hired bassist playing the full way through, which means (among other things) that keyboardist Ray Manzarek—crucial as his bright psychedelic tones were to the group’s sound—could now be more textured and spontaneous without sounding disjunct from Morrison’s growly exclamations or guitarist Robby Krieger’s stinging step-downs and slides. The boogie-woogie back-and-forth piano of the title track or the chorus hook of “Love Her Madly” (their last big hit) provide a more comfortable, mellower playing ground. Voices and guitar licks rise in and out where you don’t expect them, which lends a sense of constant shift even to the songs that rely on one central riff or bass line (witness the building menace of “L’America”).
Sometimes the band overestimate their jamming abilities. “Been Down So Long” and especially “Crawling King Snake” could’ve been tightened-up without losing any fire, and none of these musicians were virtuosos. Morrison’s delivery of “Hyacinth House” and even “Love Her Madly” is a bit lethargic and flaccid, and there’s still some laughable lyricism—”his brain is squirming like a toad” is a real dud. But each track’s method of letting you slip gradually into the groove like a warm bath—no morbid pun intended—makes even some of the more extravagant parts sound bad-ass. (“This is the land where the Pharaoh died.”) The famous “Mr. Mojo Risin” section in the title track (still pretty amazing that the anagram fit the man so perfectly) works because it’s pitched like a unifying mantra. Where a few years earlier the band might’ve tried to milk the “sonic boom” lines in “Cars Hiss By My Window”, here Morrison just gives a matter-of-fact “boom,” and it hits harder as a result.
Thanks partly to the studio banter in the bonus tracks, you can almost see smiles on the non-singing faces here. The group seem content with themselves, getting a kick out of watching their crazy frontman burn through his excess and waiting to see where they’d go next. L.A. Woman is a great travel album because it hits the ground running—or at least strutting. It’s as if Morrison woke up after a wild night and hit the road. He’s gruffer now, and less “literate”. Sinful? Maybe. But there’s no remorse, or at least not nearly enough to hold him down. As David Fricke wrote for the liner notes, “Morrison was ascending, proud and renewed, eager for the unknown ahead.” Of course, we know now that this “ascent” didn’t peak. But Morrison was so unabashedly “live fast, die young” in his worldview that he anticipated the end before anyone. The best road trips are the ones you barrel through without regret.