To Be Determined

Three Hits and a Big Miss!

The StoogesThe Stooges (50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition)

When the Stooges burst onto the scene in 1969, they had a much-deserved reputation as an incendiary live act. Along with Ron Asheton’s fuzzed-out guitars, brother Scott’s pounding, primordial drums, and Dave Alexander’s blistering bass, their shows were also filled with the increasingly insane stage antics of Iggy Stooge (soon to be Iggy Pop). Yeah, Ig owed a lot of his swag to mimicry of an early Mick Jagger, but he was very quickly forging his own identity and solidifying that of the band. So when they convened in New York at the Hit Factory in April of the same year, it soon became obvious that producer John Cale—despite the coolness of his Velvet Underground credentials—just didn’t get them. At all. To complicate things, Iggy showed up with only five songs—which were the staples of their concert repertory: “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” “ No Fun,” “1969,” “Ann,” and “We Will Fall.” Iggy has basically come clean over the years about the quality of Stooges songwriting: the songs all had about two minutes of song structure, compounded with limitless opportunities for impovisation.

When the guys from the record label made it clear that only five songs wouldn’t quite cut it, Iggy lied through his teeth and told them that they had “lots more songs.” Overnight, they wrote three additional songs, “Real Cool Time,” “Little Doll,” and “Not Right,” which were all played for the first time the following day live in the studio. Ultimately, everything worked out okay in terms of the length of the album, but Elektra chief Jac Holzman rejected Cale’s overly compressed final mix. Iggy and Holzman combined to create the mix that eventually made it onto the record; already, Iggy was beginning to exert creative control for the Stooges. The biggest complaint with Cale’s session tapes was that he took an incredibly energetic live act and made them seem almost anemic in the studio. Regardless, this album and the Stooges next two have become proto-punk landmarks, and created the template for much of what was to come when the punks revolted near the end of the seventies.

The 2-disc version of The Stooges (50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition) contains a new 2019 remaster of the original album’s eight tracks, imparting to them a newfound clarity that’s a stunning improvement over any previous version. It also contains the original John Cale mixes, which had also been released on the 40th anniversary disc. But there were issues with the tape speed then that marred that release even further; it’s been fixed here, but, well, they still sound just as compressed as they did back in the studio in 1969. There are plenty of outtakes and alternate takes; Stooges fans and completists will revel in the riches of this outstanding set. I did all my listening to the 24/96 MQA version on Tidal; the sound quality was exemplary—for an album as raw and crudely recorded as this one.

That said, it’s such an influential album; it definitely deserves a place on everyone’s record shelf. In my current frame of reference, this is not an album that I pull out with regularity; I have to admit that I found the official release mix a little stilted towards the left channel for my tastes. The original John Cale mixes—on the other hand—while not having the level of clarity of the Iggy/Holzman mix, offer better balance to the instruments in the soundstage. Ron Asheton’s always over-the-top guitar is firmly anchored on the left; brother Scott’s relentless drum kit is very solidly to the right, with Iggy and Dave Alexander right in the middle. In the Iggy/Holzman mix, Ron is still on the left, but Alexander is on the right, with Ig and Scott in the middle; it just seems unbalanced during playback. Aside from the heavy level of compression used by John Cale, I actually find his mix to offer a better portrayal of the band, even though Iggy and Jac Holzman definitely had different thoughts on that matter.

Despite being a mixed bag soundwise, if you’re a fan, this is the version you should be listening to. Recommended.

Rhino/Elektra Records, 2 CDs (download/streaming from Amazon, Tidal, Qobuz, Apple Music, Spotify)

 

The Rolling StonesLet It Bleed (50th Anniversary Edition)

Let It Bleed marks a major point of demarcation in the history of the Rolling Stones. Founding member and principal mischief maker Brian Jones would only play on two of the album’s tracks and would mysteriously die a few short months before its release. New guitarist Mick Taylor would join the group during the recording, also appearing on just two tracks. Mick Taylor managed to hang around for the next five years and five remarkable albums, departing in 1974 and clearing the way for the Ron Wood era to begin. But Taylor appeared on such classics as Get Your Ya Ya’s Out, Sticky Fingers, Goat’s Head Soup, It’s Only Rock and Roll, and Exile on Main Street. Let It Bleed was also notable in that it was the last album to appear on the ABKCO label, and it was the absolute pinnacle of that tumultuous period for the Rolling Stones. Afterwards, the Stones’ later catalog titles would bounce from WEA to CBS/Sony to Virgin and back-and-forth for decades to follow.

The 2019 remastered version I checked out was the 24/192 MQA version on Tidal; I don’t have access to 24/192 MQA playback, so it was downconverted to 24/96 for all my listening. It’s also available as a CD and LP, and there’s also a massive box set Super Deluxe Edition which consists of 2 LPs; one remastered LP in stereo and one LP in mono. Also included are two hybrid SACDs; one that contains the 2019 remastered stereo SACD version, and a CD layer of the remastered stereo version. Also included is a strictly mono hybrid SACD version with a CD layer that’s also strictly mono. There’s also a casebound coffee table book, a replication of the poster that was included in the original LP release, and three limited edition prints. Plus a 7-inch vinyl single of “Honky Tonk Women” (with Mick Taylor on guitar), backed with “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” In an age where the Beatles are releasing Super Deluxe Editions of their great albums, why shouldn’t the Stones follow suit, right?

The big difference is that the Beatles boxes contain a treasure trove of alternate takes, demos and never-before-heard material bound to delight completists. What—aside from the casebound book and the mono versions and the seven-inch vinyl—do you really get for your money with the Stones’ box? Nothing, really—aside from the remastered sound, courtesy of Bob Ludwig. Yes, that Bob Ludwig. But no alternate takes, no between-takes chatter, no extra material of any sort. Apparently the Stones have the final approval on anything that ABKCO produces, and they refused to authorize any extras on the Let It Bleed box set based on their still-tempestuous relationship with the label. So the sound has been remastered, but not remixed in the same way that has made the Beatles’ 50th Anniversary reissues such a complete pleasure to listen to.

So how is the sound? I have to admit that Let It Bleed is far and away my favorite Stones album, and it would take quite an improvement to better the sterling sound of the 2002 SACD reissue on ABKCO. Listening to the Tidal version, right out of the gate, I felt that Keith’s guitar and Charlie Watts’ drumkit had significantly more punch, as well as Mick’s vocals being a bit more present in the soundstage. I grabbed the 2002 SACD and popped it in for comparison, and, yep—a healthy dose of compression has been added to the new 2019 remastering. Not the compression of death that has killed a lot of recent remasters—this is a Bob Ludwig remastering job, mind you—but it became very quickly, very abundantly clear why everything seemed so much punchier than before. The 2002 SACD, on the other hand, seemed much more organic and analog in its presentation, and much more akin to listening to my original LP. I had to dial back the volume on the Tidal/MQA version significantly to match volume levels with the SACD for comparison purposes.

I’d have to pass on this; especially with the absence of any bonus material, there’s no compelling reason from a sound standpoint to own any version of this release. And unless you’re dying to have the coffee table book or the mono mixes, who needs to spend all that cash on an album that is bettered by a previous release? YMMV.

ABKCO Records, CD/LP (download/streaming from Amazon, Tidal, Qobuz, Google Play Music, Apple Music)

 

Nick Cave & the Bad SeedsGhosteen

Nick Cave’s Ghosteen is a landmark of sorts for him; it marks his fortieth year in the music business—boy, that doesn’t seem possible! And it’s also is the first album he’s written and recorded in the aftermath of the death of his teenage son Arthur in 2015. Easily the most poignant album of his career, much of the record is a meditation on death, mourning, and grief, and serves as somewhat of a travelogue, mapping how Cave has processed his emotions into his current reality. Ghosteen is alternately contemplative and comforting, and sometimes downright distressing—there’s a shocking range of emotions on display here.

Ultimately, though, Cave seems to have found some level of solace in Ghosteen. There are two parts to the album; Part One consists of eight songs where Cave explores how he has learned to cope with bearing the unbearable. Part Two is constructed of two longer set pieces connected by a spoken word bridge called “Fireflies.” While parts of this album are very dark indeed, those moments are often tempered with the light of acceptance that his life is evolving—and he’d better get on with it. Most of the songs do not directly address his son; they’re more figurative and metaphorical in nature.

In the opener, “Spinning Song,” which, strangely, is a song about Elvis, he sings a hopeful chorus of “Peace will come in time for us.” You can’t help but get the sense that Cave really wants to believe this. In the song “Bright Horses,” which has a beautiful piano accompaniment, you get the feeling that perhaps he might not have reached such an elevated level of acceptance, and that his son will simply get off the approaching train at the station. And there are numerous references to Jesus and God, yet not so much that he’s embracing religion, but rather abandoning his faith and looking for anything to fill the gaping void his life has become. But in the spoken word “Fireflies”—which is one of the most beautifully written existential pieces I’ve ever heard—Cave admits that “Everything is as distant as the stars; I am here, and you are where you are.” Surely neither Sartre or Camus ever wrote more beautiful words.

Ghosteen can be something of a difficult listen; the darkness of the album’s instrumentation weaves an often very ghostly tone (no pun intended)—and though Nick Cave is expressing his own raw emotions, there’s a certain universalness here that we can all embrace. Death—and how it impacts the human condition—is something that has touched virtually all of us. Ghosteen may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for fans of Nick Cave, it’s essential listening. Recommended.

Ghosteen Records, CD/LP (download/streaming from Amazon, Tidal, Qobuz, Google Play Music, Spotify, Deezer, Apple Music)

 

Miles DavisRubberband

After decades with Columbia, Miles Davis shocked the jazz world and signed with Warner in 1985. He then convened at several studios in North Hollywood with co-producers Randy Hall and Attala Zane Giles, where, over a period of several months, they worked on the jazz/funk/pop/soul opus Rubberband. Ever the chameleon, Miles never wanted to linger too much in the past, and wanted to play music with a current crop of young cats; music that he hoped would be embraced by the youthful masses. Miles was really taken by funk, pop, and (in its infancy) hip-hop trends of the mid-eighties, and he wanted to create an album that fused his classic trumpet stylings with the cool sounds of the day. Miles’ plans for the album would  feature a heavy emphasis on vocals, and the session tapes included work from guitarist Mike Stern and drummer Vince Wilburn, Jr., who also happens to be Miles’ nephew. Warner Jazz mogul Tommy LiPuma was curious about the progress of the Rubberband sessions; Miles was very enthusiastic about the results, and outlined his plans to bring in vocalist Chaka Khan on several of the tunes. LiPuma was less than ecstatic with the results to that point, and the project was permanently shelved. Miles’ debut album with Warner went on to become Tutu, but a number of songs from the Rubberband sessions became staples of his live sets over the upcoming years.

The incomplete Rubberband tapes lingered in a Warner vault, essentially untouched for over thirty years, although there were whispers of a great “lost” Miles Davis album. And some of Miles’ solos from the session were bastardized from their intended context and dubbed into the posthumous release of Doo-Bop in 1992. In 2017, session drummer Vince Wilburn, Jr. met with original producers Hall and Giles, and they were able to determine the whereabouts of the original tapes. Work was begun on an EP featuring the title track and four other tunes; it was eventually released in 2018 on Record Store Day. The reception was so overwhelmingly positive they decided to continue with the original tapes for a full album release. Everyone involved with the project has been ecstatic with the results, and Rubberband is a welcome addition to Miles’ already impressive catalog. This year has welcomed several important discoveries and the subsequent release of long considered “lost” performances from the likes of Coltrane (Blue World) and Miles that have shocked the jazz world with their freshness and vitality.

Working with the original session tapes, guests artists ranging from vocalists Lalah Hathaway (daughter of Donnie Hathaway) and R&B singer Lidisi were brought in to handle the vocal tasks originally earmarked for Chaka Khan. Randy Hall and Attala Zane Giles played many of the instrument fills where needed throughout the album, including bass, guitar, keyboards, synthesizers, and drum programming. But the real focus and star of this album is Miles’ trumpet runs and fills, which help make Rubberband a complete artistic triumph on every level. Highlights for me were both opener “Rubberband of Life” (featuring Lidisi on vocals) and the closer “Rubberband,” which bookend the album; “Rubberband” features a scorching guitar solo from Mike Stern. “So Emotional” is a ballad-tempo song that features a beautiful vocal from Lalah Hathaway, and “Paradise” has a funky, calypso-beat that’s darn-near irresistible. “Echoes in Time/The Wrinkle” is a nine-plus-minute set piece that echoes back a bit to Kind of Blue, before going full-on funk. All in all, a pretty amazing reconstruction of a great album.

I did all my listening via the 24/96 MQA version from Tidal. The sound quality of the performances here is surprisingly good for nearly thirty-five year-old tapes; yes, it’s obvious from the volume settings I chose that some compression has been employed—but it hasn’t been compressed to death. (Like some releases from some of the poster boys for this kind of thing, courtesy of Rick Rubin et al and the “loudness wars.”) Miles’ trumpet has a very live, in your room quality, and only occasionally is he mixed overly prominently as compared to the levels of the other players. Oh, and the bass content of this album will either shock or delight you; my twin subs—especially the REL—shook my entire house furiously. Definitely recommended.

Rhino/Warner Records, CD/LP (download/streaming from Amazon, Tidal, Qobuz, Spotify, Deezer, Google Play Music, Apple Music)