Sunday, September 20, 2009

Finally, Pitchfork: A Band Worth Reviewing

I was wondering if Pitchfork was going to make any sort of acknowledgment of the Beatles remasters. Boy, did they ever. Last week we were treated to a brand-spanking new review of each release (apparently no one at Pitchfork had reviewed any of them already). Rather than try to play the obnoxious Gen-X contrarians, the writers mostly fall over themselves trying to toss superlatives at this music. Hey, if I usually spent my time reviewing Scarlett Johansson/Pete Yorn collaborations, I'd probably be excited about a chance to pontificate on the wondrous depth of a certain Liverpudlian discography too. I find the ratings curious but not outrageous. Tom Ewing gives the early Beatles albums ratings like 9.3, 8.8, and 9.7. Sure, I guess. Scott Plagenhoef doesn't mess around and simply gives Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour all a 10.0. Honestly, if these albums are not a 10.0, then what albums are? Mark Richardson mercilessly dishes out a 9.1 for Let It Be and a 9.2 for Past Masters, but saves the big Ten-Point-Oh for The White Album and Abbey Road. Of more interest than the ratings are the reviews themselves, which I think do a nice job of offering a fresh perspective on these canonized warhorses - something Pitchfork usually tries way too hard to do with '60s re-issues, but here they try just hard enough.

I don't know if I agree with Tom Ewing on Please Please Me being a better album than With The Beatles, but I like his reasoning:

Rather than an accurate document of an evening with the pre-fame Beatles, Please Please Me works more like a DJ mix album-- a truncated, idealized teaser for their early live shows. More than any other of their records, Please Please Me is a dance music album. Almost everything on the record, even ballads like "Anna", has a swing and a kick born from the hard experience of making a small club move. And it starts and ends with "I Saw Her Standing There" and "Twist and Shout", the most kinetic, danceable tracks they ever made.

The "evening with the band" feel makes Please Please Me a more coherent experience than other cover-heavy Beatles albums: Here other peoples' songs work not just as filler, but as markers for styles and effects the band admired and might return to as songwriters. McCartney, for instance, would go on to write songs whose drama and emotional nuance would embarrass "A Taste of Honey", but for now he puts his all into its cornball melodrama, and the song fits.

He also nails the appeal of A Hard Day's Night as a pure piece of mind-blowing Beatlemania (although I could do without some of the pseudo-industrial adjectives like "steamroller," "gleaming," and "blast"):

But the dominant sound of the album is the Beatles in full cry as a pop band-- with no rock'n'roll covers to remind you of their roots you're free to take the group's new sound purely on its own modernist terms: The chord choices whose audacity surprised a listening Bob Dylan, the steamroller power of the harmonies, the gleaming sound of George Harrison's new Rickenbacker alongside the confident Northern blasts of harmonica, and a band and producer grown more than comfortable with each other. There's detail aplenty here-- and the remasters make it easy to hunt for-- but A Hard Day's Night is perhaps the band's most straightforward album: You notice the catchiness first, and you can wonder how they got it later.

Scott Plagenhoef essentially toes the party line on Rubber Soul and Revolver, although I don't know if agree with him that "McCartney ... oddly comes off third-string" on Rubber Soul (were George's two songs really better than Paul's four?) or that "She's Leaving Home" is the second-best song on Sgt. Pepper. He seems to be a big fan of this tune:

"A Day in the Life" has only grown in estimation, rightfully becoming one of the most acclaimed Beatles tracks. "She's Leaving Home", by contrast, has slid from view-- perhaps too maudlin to work on classic rock radio and too MOR for hipster embrace, it was nevertheless the other headline track on Sgt. Pepper's when it was released. The story of a runaway teen, it misses as a defiant generational statement in part because it's actually sympathetic to the parents in the song. In the second verse, McCartney defies expectations by not following the young girl on her adventure but keeping the track set in the home as her parents wake to find her goodbye letter.

In the end, we learn "She" left home for "fun"-- a rather churlish reason, and when paired with McCartney's simplistic sentiments in "When I'm 64" (the aging couple there will be happy to "scrimp and save"), the young girl seems more selfish than trapped. In fact, for a group whose every move was a generational wedge, and for such a modern record, the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's is oddly conservative in places: "Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite" takes inspiration from a Victorian-era carnival; "When I'm 64" is a music-hall parody that fantasizes about what it would be like to be the Beatles' grandparents' age; "Fixing a Hole" has a rather mundane domestic setting; the fantasy girl in "Lovely Rita" is a cop.

This "conservatism" Plagenhoef describes is party what I think has helped Sgt. Pepper age so well; it is not, in my opinion at least, a "naive, peace and love, hippie album," as some people have sneeringly complained, but a more multi-faceted view of the modern world. I'm also not sure that "the group's every move was a generation wedge" or that the most notable aspect of "Fixing A Hole" is its "mundane domestic setting" and not its poignant analysis of interpersonal relations. But at least Plagenhoef is trying. Witness his attempt to quantify the exact number of " moments in pop music history in which you can mark a clear before and after": "In the UK, it's arguably happened only five times, and on just four instances in the U.S. (Thriller here; acid house and punk there, and Elvis everywhere, of course); in both nations, the Beatles launched two of those moments." Well, OK, if you say so buddy.

Plagenhoef and I are more in agreement on the accidental but nonetheless immensely rewarding merits of Magical Mystery Tour (Jason be damned), which is perhaps not a"major" album, but somehow manages to be delightful precisely because of its "lesser" nature, as it catches the late-period Beatles essentially coasting on transcendence. Here are a few large excerpts of his passionate defense:

The remaining four songs released exclusive to the EP are low-key marvels-- Paul McCartney's graceful "The Fool on the Hill" and music-hall throwback "Your Mother Should Know", George Harrison's droning "Blue Jay Way", and the percolating instrumental "Flying". Few of them are anyone's all-time favorite Beatles songs, only one had a prayer of being played on the radio, and yet this run seems to achieve a majesty in part because of that: It's a rare stretch of amazing Beatles music that can seem like a private obsession rather than a permanent part of our shared culture.

Of the three singles, the undisputed highlight is "Strawberry Fields Forever"/ "Penny Lane", John Lennon and Paul McCartney's tributes to their hometown, Liverpool. Slyly surreal, assisted by studio experimentation but not in debt to it, full of brass, harmonium, and strings, unmistakably English-- when critics call eccentric or baroque UK pop bands "Beatlesesque," this is the closest there is to a root for that adjective. There is no definitive Beatles sound, of course, but with a band that now functions as much as a common, multi-generational language as a group of musicians, it's no surprise that songs rooted in childhood-- the one experience most likely to seem shared and have common touchpoints-- are among their most universally beloved.

In almost every instance on those singles, the Beatles are either whimsical or borderline simplistic, releasing songs that don't seem sophisticated or heavy or monumental (even though most of them are). In that sense, they're all like "All You Need Is Love" or childhood memories or Lewis Carroll-- easy to love, fit for all ages, rich in multi-textual details, deceptively trippy (see Paul's "Penny Lane" in particular, with images of it raining despite blue skies, or the songs here that revel in contradictions-- "Hello Goodbye"'s title, the verses in "All You Need Is Love"). More than any other place in the band's catalogue, this is where the group seems to crack open a unique world, and for many young kids then and since this was their introduction to music as imagination, or adventure. The rest of the Magical Mystery Tour LP is the opposite of the middle four tracks on the EP-- songs so universal that, like "Yellow Submarine", they are practically implanted in your brain from birth. Seemingly innocent, completely soaked through with humor and fantasy, Magical Mystery Tour slots in my mind almost closer to the original Willy Wonka or The Wizard of Oz as it does other Beatles records or even other music-- timeless entertainment crafted with a childlike curiosity and appeal but filled with wit and wonder.

On the whole, Magical Mystery Tour is quietly one of the most rewarding listens in the Beatles' career. True, it doesn't represent some sort of forward momentum or clear new idea-- largely in part because it wasn't conceived as an album. The accompanying pieces on the EP are anomalies in the Beatles oeuvre but they aren't statements per se, or indications that the group is in any sort of transition. But if there was ever a moment in the Beatles' lifetime that listeners would have been happy to have the group just settle in and release songs as soon as possible, it was just before and after the then-interminable 10-month gap between the Revolver and Sgt. Pepper's. Without that context, the results could seem slight-- a sort-of canonized version of Past Masters perhaps-- but whether it's an album, a collection of separate pieces, or whatnot matters little when the music itself is so incredible.

Thank you, Scott. Finally, Mark Richardson has some nice observations on Abbey Road:

One more "like we used to" was how Paul McCartney framed it to producer George Martin; a chance to make a "good album" was George Harrison's take. They were hoping to bounce back after the serious downer that had been the Get Back sessions, which, months after they wrapped, had yet to yield an album anyone was happy with. But what "like we used to" meant, exactly, was rather hard to pin down: The Beatles' life as a band was so compressed, with such a massive amount of music and change packed into a short time, that there was never a single moment that could be used as a reference point for what a Beatles record was supposed to be. So when they returned to the EMI studios on Abbey Road in summer 1969, it wasn't clear how it would go. They still weren't getting along; their musical interests continued to diverge; John Lennon didn't really want to continue with the Beatles; Paul McCartney did, but on his own terms, which meant that he set the pace and got what he wanted. Though it was unspoken, they all had a good idea that this could really be the end. So what now? One more, then.

And what a finish. The Beatles' story is so enduring in part because it was wrapped up so perfectly. Abbey Road shows a band still clearly in its prime, capable of songwriting and recording feats other groups could only envy. Working for the first time exclusively on an eight-track tape machine, their mastery of the studio was undeniable, and Abbey Road still sounds fresh and exciting 40 years on (indeed, of the 2009 remasters, the improvements and sonic detail here are the most striking). Even if it's ultimately the Paul McCartney and George Martin show, as demonstrated on the famous second-side medley, everyone brought his A-game. Where Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band strained for significance, The Beatles was schizophrenic, and Let It Be was a drag streaked with greatness, Abbey Road lays out its terms precisely and meets them all. There's not a duff note on the damn thing.

Other bands wished their last album was this perfect. Oasis, I'm looking at you. Finally Mark makes an unintentionally revealing comment:

The Beatles' run in the 1960s is good fodder for thought experiments. For example, Abbey Road came out in late September 1969. Though Let It Be was then still unreleased, the Beatles wouldn't record another album together. But they were still young men: George was 26 years old, Paul was 27, John was 28, and Ringo was 29. The Beatles' first album, Please Please Me, had come out almost exactly six and a half years earlier. So if Abbey Road had been released today, Please Please Me would date to March 2003. So think about that for a sec: Twelve studio albums and a couple of dozen singles, with a sound that went from earnest interpreters of Everly Brothers and Motown hits to mind-bending sonic explorers and with so many detours along the way-- all of it happened in that brief stretch of time. That's a weight to carry.

In other words, the difference between music released in March 2003 and music released in September 2009 is ... what, exactly?

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