Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Beatles vs. Prince: reissues of decade-defining albums

Still cleaning up some 2017 reviews here, including these from last summer: reissues of albums that defined their respective decades. One was much more revelatory than the other.

The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (EMI)

It’s 2017. Why are we talking about Sgt. Pepper’s? In case you’ve been living under a rock, the Beatles’ most acclaimed album turned 50 on June 1. Which meant yet another occasion to trot out the tired cliché that it is somehow the single greatest album of the rock era—even if, as many fans have pointed out for years, it’s not even the best Beatles record.

The marketing ploy clearly works: It’s the third bestselling album ever in Britain, behind only greatest hits collections by ABBA and Queen. And it returned to the charts this week, selling more than 100,000 copies in the U.S. and U.K. in the past seven days. Who’s still buying this album?

For all the praise that continues to be heaped upon it, there is much to blame Sgt. Pepper’s for. For starters, there’s the notion that it is somehow a “concept album”—despite the fact there is absolutely no musical or lyrical coherence to the 13 songs here, and anyone who tells you otherwise is clearly grasping at straws (or really, really high). Since Sgt. Pepper’s, music critics have been trying to bestow undue significance on no end of albums that merely sound important, from Dark Side of the Moon to OK Computer to Funeral. And for better and worse, it gave countless rock bands the idea that strings, brass and exotic instruments instantly make you seem like a better band than you actually are.

The legacy and the legend are problematic, and should be ignored in favour of the sheer pleasure of actually listening to it. Sgt. Pepper’s is, of course, a great album. The question is: do you need to buy it again?

Of course it’s been remastered yet again, and for those who notice subtle differences, yes, it sounds great. For those same fans who study the studio notes to discover recording minutiae, it might be somewhat interesting to hear the alternate takes, instrumental versions, and unadorned basic tracks that peel back the curtain on the making of what we’re told is a masterpiece. It is admittedly interesting to hear, without the string section, the 24-bar dissonant transition between the two sections of “A Day in the Life” (and the one leading to the final chord). But overall they’re really dragging the ditch here: anything that didn’t already surface on 1995’s Anthology is likely not worth your time. (June 8, 2017)

Stream: “Strawberry Fields Forever (Take 26),” “A Day in the Life (Take 1 with Hummed Chord),” “Sgt. Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band Reprise (Take 8)”

Prince and the Revolution – Purple Rain: Deluxe Edition (Warner)

The Vault is open. Yes, Vault with a capital V, long a source of wonderment among Prince fans for what be held in an actual vault inside his Paisley Park complex, which apparently holds enough outtakes that it will take decades for archivists to wade through them. Glimpses into the Vault have been rare: some tracks surfaced on his online-only fan club release Crystal Ball in 1998; he also released a subpar contractual fulfillment album called The Vault in 1999.

But this is the gold mine: unreleased material and outtakes from the Purple Rain sessions, right in the middle of an astounding five years of creative output (1982-87) that rivals only the Beatles. The reason none of this surfaced at the time was that Prince had already moved on, recording almost any day he wasn’t on the road (or shooting a movie). So here we have unreleased pop throwaways like “Velvet Kitty Kat” (not to be confused with, um, “Scarlet Pussy”), showcases for Revolution members Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman (“Our Destiny”), and falsetto ballads that rival “The Beautiful Ones” (“Electric Intercourse”). Then there are repurposed takes on songs we already know, but drastically different and worth the attention of even the most casual fan: there’s a 12-minute version of “Computer Blue” with some of the best guitar sounds Prince (and/or Wendy) ever put to tape, or the piano and synth version of “Father’s Song,” which was repurposed for the outro of “Computer Blue.” Then there’s “We Can F—k,” a track he worked on for seven years before a very different version emerged on 1990’s Graffiti Bridge, featuring George Clinton. Or extended funk workouts like “The Dance Electric” or “Possessed,” which, as usually the case with Prince, are light years ahead of tracks that most ’80s R&B and pop acts would release as lead singles.

You’d be forgiven this was a total posthumous cash grab from his label and estate. It’s not. The artist who once shaved the word “slave” on his face signed a new deal with Warner in 2014 in which he regained ownership of all his recordings for the label; Prince oversaw this project before his death last April. Which is obvious once you hear the attention to detail in bringing these tracks to life; hissy cassette dubs had circulated for years among fans, but everything here is pristine and perfect. And even if you think you never need to hear the Purple Rain album proper again, this is one of the rare remastering jobs that warrants attention. (Unlike, say, [cough] Sgt. Pepper’s.)

A “deluxe expanded” edition includes the well-known B-sides (“Erotic City,” “17 Day” and more) and extended mixes (like the version of “Let’s Go Crazy” that appears in the film) as well as the considerably more superfluous “single edits” of the album’s most popular songs. It also tacks on a long-bootlegged full-length live show from 1985 in Syracuse, N.Y.

Not enough? Rest assured there’s still enough in the Vault to warrant some kind of five-disc 40th-anniversary Super Mondo Extra Deluxe version in 2024. And it will probably be just as great. (July 6, 2017)

Stream: “Computer Blue (Hallway Speech version),” “Father’s Song,” “Our Destiny/Roadhouse Garden”

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