Robbie Basho – Song of the Avatars: The Lost Master Tapes [Tompkins Square]
Though often grouped with such fingerstyle virtuosos as John Fahey and Leo Kottke, the late Robbie Basho‘s style was, to say the least, more esoteric than that of his American primitive guitar cohort. At one point a student of Ali Akbar Khan, Basho had high aspirations: he wanted to create an American raga system, hoped to elevate the profile of the steel-string guitar, and never dwelled too long on any one style, drawing on philosophy and artistry from around the world—sometimes in retrospectively questionable ways—and executing with breathtaking technique.
Fiery, lush, deeply passionate strumming, often in conjunction with his melodramatic croon, marks the previously vaulted Basho recordings on Tompkins Square release Song of the Avatars, 54 tracks of Basho. Eerie blues wailing (“If I Had Possession”) sits alongside sublime proto-psych folk musings (“Autumn Child”) and mystical ballads (“Califia”), along with so many ornate Basho creations. The release includes pages of photographs and detailed notes, adding to our understanding of the famously shy artist.
Love him or hate him (and good luck feeling anything in between), Basho continues to draw new posthumous disciples entranced by his intensely spiritual commitment to never-before-made music. For old and new followers, Song of the Avatars is a gift, a much-needed addition to the Basho canon. – Adriane Pontecorvo
The Beach Boys – Feel Flows: The Sunflower & Surf’s Up Sessions 1969–1971 [Capitol]
The “countercultural revolution” of the late 1960s left the Beach Boys in a very difficult position. Their very name represented a suddenly obsolete conception of adolescence. Their long-gestating 1970 album, Sunflower, was a total commercial bomb, failing to hit even the American top 100. However, even critics at the time recognized it as an artistic triumph. With an increasingly unstable Brian Wilson keeping a lower profile, Sunflower featured key contributions from each of his fellow band members, including in the songwriting department.
The songs and production were forward-facing without sacrificing the intricate melodies and rich harmonies that had made the Beach Boys famous. After a rough interim, the Beach Boys were once again in a position of waiting for the listening public to catch up. And the public did, making the following year’s almost-as-good Surf’s Up a hit. Feel Flows compiles the original two albums and adds a plethora of extra material, expanding the set to either two or five discs. There are scores of good-to-great songs that never made it onto the albums as well as mixdowns that highlight those indelible harmonies and painstaking production techniques.
In hindsight, this period might well have been the Beach Boys’ collective artistic peak. Indeed, the surfeit of talent and quality material was so great that, aside from some live recordings, each of Feel Flows‘ 133 tracks is revelatory for any music fan, making it the rare deep dive that everyone should take. – John Bergstrom
The Beatles – Let It Be (Special Edition) [Universal Music Group]
There’s a strange contradiction when it comes to this particular entry in the Beatles‘ series of remixed and massively expanded anniversary reissues. Let It Be is usually considered the group’s least essential album, but this means it’s also the one that has the most to gain from remixing. Consequently, the buzz around this 50th (strictly speaking, 51st) anniversary edition is even great than that which greeted 2019’s Abbey Road remix. The group, their fans, and innumerable media commentators have always been ambivalent about Phil Spector’s maximalist arrangements and his ‘more is more’ production credo.
The over-sweetened angel choir on “The Long and Winding Road” is a case in point. In 2003, Paul McCartney’s first attempt to fix this arrived in the form of Let It Be… Naked, which eliminated almost all the Spector-isms. Unlike that project, this one doesn’t ditch Spector’s titivations which, after all, weren’t entirely without merit; it simply makes them a little more discreet. The result doesn’t elevate the album to Abbey Road status, but it brings it closer. The subtle remixing by Giles Martin and Sam Okell attempts to place the album at a halfway point between its original state and Let It Be… Naked.
The principal bit of fan-bait in the super-deluxe edition is the mythical Get Back album, the record that Let It Be would have been had Phil Spector not come on board. Produced by Glyn Johns in 1969 but abandoned when three-quarters of the group found it unacceptable, it languished on the shelf while the Beatles focussed instead on creating Abbey Road. Only the title track, backed with “Don’t Let Me Down”, came out, via a single in early 1969. When Johns created a second Get Back mix in 1970, this too was rejected. Presented here is the 1969 version. Listening to it 50 years later, it’s hard not to wonder why, from the hours and hours of recordings, Johns chose such brash, messy takes; this sounds like an out-of-practice band’s first rehearsal. It’s more a fascinating historical document than a fully realized album.
You don’t get everything with this package, despite its breadth and running time. Only some of the famous Savile Row rooftop concert is presented. Clearly, the rest is being held back for another bit of fan-rinsing further down the line. If the rehearsals, jams, studio chatter and Get Back album don’t interest you, you can acquire the remixed Let It Be on its own.
So what else lies ahead for this seemingly indefatigable catalogue? Abbey Road Studios have been pioneering technology that could allow for the pre-Sgt Pepper Beatles to be remixed. Will this actually happen? Certainly, recent comments by Giles Martin would suggest that plans for Revolver and Rubber Soul are already underway or at least in discussion. – Charles Donovan
Be-Bop Deluxe – Live in the Air Age [Cherry Red]
In the dustier parts of the 1970s, nothing said “contractual obligation” more insistently than a live album. Live! In the Air Age was anything but. Originally released in 1977 and battling against the twin demons of punk and disco, Be-Bop Deluxe‘s in concert release documents Bill Nelson’s pop-prog combo at the peak of their live prowess. Radio friendly (almost) hits, rub up against fan favorites and the occasional sprawling epic in a very pleasing fashion, with Nelson’s virtuoso guitar playing, knitting all the disparate parts together.
This year sees the original single album plus three-track EP swell into the grand poohbah of expanded editions. Got a little time on your hands and an overwhelming desire to play “spot the difference” between eight live performances? Here you go. It’s time and money well spent. It’s also a masterclass in top drawer classic rock. Throw in a live DVD and a legendary John Peel BBC session and you’ve got fun for days. Be-Bop Deluxe managed to be literary, slightly floral, and occasionally funky and still rock harder (and with more accuracy) than the vast majority of their contemporaries. How did they do it? Here’s how. – Ian Rushbury
Brainiac – Attic Tapes [Touch and Go]
On 21 June, to celebrate Record Store Day, Touch and Go Records – the home to the band for its years of finest output – released a pair of limited-run Brainiac double-LPs: a reconsidering of the legend, complete with remastered singles and B-sides, and Attic Tapes, an overflowing collection of Taylor home demos. The former is an engaging listen, a true trip for anyone who missed these guys in their epic prime. The latter, however, is nothing short of brilliant – a glimpse inside Taylor’s working mind, and proof, if any more is needed, that he remains one of the most original and fertile musical minds of the past generation.
Attic Tapes is more than just a serving of half-thought-out or never-cooked Brainiac outtakes – far, far from it. On the double LP, whose carefully sequenced 37 tracks are illuminating in many more facets and ways than one, we see the formation of Brainiac and its wanderlust ascent. (No comment from those wondering where the Wizbangs demos went.) The collection has it all – from fully formed band exercises (“Still Insane Velveteen”, “Toby’s International”, “Signal Flow”, an early take on “Hot Metal Dobermans” titled “Banzai Superstar”) and four-track roots of songs that later fully blossomed (two great takes on “Silver Iodine”, a fuzzy demo of “Cookie Don’t Sing”) to wonderful ephemera, like “Indian Poker Pt. 0″, an early version of “Kiss Me, You Jacked-Up Jerk”, even the origins of some great Taylor synth work (“Dr. Fingers”). – Justin Vellucci
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – B-Sides & Rarities (Part II) [Mute]
Nearly 15 years of lineup changes and recording sessions have produced a host of unreleased songs in Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ canon. In October, the band gathered and released B-Sides & Rarities (Part II). The songs—many of which are previously unreleased studio outtakes and B-sides of singles—are the much-anticipated second installment of the band’s 2005 B-Sides & Rarities collection.
Curated by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, the 27 songs that make up the current album comprise recordings from 2006 to 2020, including the track “Vortex”, which was pre-released earlier this year. The album reveals emotionally concentrated songs about love, death, and God—subjects Cave has often explored. However, the songs feel more thoughtful in this collection, finding Cave amidst the evolution from raw rocker to introspective singer.
A live recording of “Push the Sky Away” with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra is a poignant performance. Similarly, Cave’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Avalanche” (which he recorded for season two of the TV series Black Sails), is quieter and more pensive than the version on 1984’s From Her to Eternity. Cave talked about the songs with affection in an interview on YouTube that came out ahead of the collection: “I always liked the original B-Sides & Rarities more than any of our other albums… There is something, too, about the smallness of certain songs that is closer to their original spirit.”
Many of the B-sides and rarities on this album have been long available on the backsides of singles, soundtracks, and YouTube. However, having the songs packaged together is a welcomed addition to any fan’s collection. A limited-edition seven-LP box set is currently available for pre-order, which includes all 83 songs from both B-Sides & Rarities collections. – Jennifer Makowsky
The Charlatans – A Head Full of Ideas [Then Records]
For a band who were once dismissed as little more than Stone Roses wannabes, the Charlatans sure have overachieved. Delayed a year due to the COVID pandemic, A Head Full of Ideas marked their 30th anniversary with 21 of their best singles. Deluxe additions add demos and live tracks, the latter of which reinforce the British indie act’s reputation as a compelling live act. However, it is the singles that are the heart of the collection.
From the danceable wistfulness of 1990’s “The Only One I Know” to the buoyantly Beatlesque “Totally Eclipsing” from 2017, the Charlatans try out many different sounds and influences, but their sincerity and charisma always come through. Also, whether expressing it through Stonesy groove music, sharp Britpop, or anything in between, the band never lose their foundation in rock and melody. Crucially, their hard-won sincerity and charisma, best represented by frontman Tim Burgess, is evidence of their perseverance through shifting trends, a fickle music press, and the tragic deaths of band members.
Ironically, the no-frills, down-to-earth attitude that makes the Charlatans’ music so great has probably led to their being somewhat overlooked as one of the great British bands of the last 30 years. A Head Full of Ideas is an eminently listenable, totally enjoyable occasion to give them their due. – John Bergstrom