To Be Determined

Two Outstanding New Releases…and a Repackage of a Great One

Joni Mitchell – Archives – Vol. 1: The Early Years (1963-1967)

Joni Mitchell is one of the rare folk artists from the late sixties whose first few albums eschewed covers of all the traditional folk warhorses, and concentrated entirely on her own compositions from the get-go. You almost get the impression from albums like Song For A Seagull, Clouds, and Ladies of the Canyon that at the point of her first release in 1968, she emerged from the womb as a fully-formed singer/songwriter. Who else in the realm of folkdom, besides maybe Bob Dylan at the point of his first album, was writing and recording all their own songs? And Joni managed to somehow make it late into the twilight of her existence here on earth before finally caving and allowing the release of any recordings that predated her official album releases — which are very telling of who she was in those extremely formative years. If you’re a Joni Mitchell fan, this is an absolute treasure trove — virtually none of the five discs worth of material here has ever seen the light of day. They include no fewer than two dozen Mitchell originals that have never been previously heard. Hearing the contents of Archives – Vol. 1: The Early Years (1963-1967) is revelatory, and pretty much like winning the Joni Mitchell lottery.

The five-disc set covers a four year period; early on, Joni had been befriended by local Saskatoon, Saskatchewan DJ, Barry Bowman, who made in-studio recordings of her at local AM radio station CFQC. At this point, she’s known as Joni Anderson, and she plays and sings nine folk songs that were composed by folk singers like Merle Travis and Albert Frank Beddoe; seven of the songs were strictly from the canon of traditional folk offerings. The tapes were thought lost until being rediscovered by Bowman’s ex-wife in 2015. The first track, Joni’s take on the classic “House of the Rising Sun,” is maybe the single best track on the entire collection — you’re immediately struck with the impression that this girl is going places. Her voice here — light years away from the two-pack-a-day smoking habit that followed her throughout her mature career — is shockingly lyrical and crystalline. How Bowman managed to not leave mid-recording and find someone from a record label to hear this greatness for themselves — and immediately sign her to a contract — is beyond belief. Other highlights from this segment include the traditional tunes “Anathea” and “Molly Malone,” where Joni’s singing offers vocal theatrics that are unlike anything from any other female folk singer from that era — she effortlessly reaches upper octaves that would completely elude her in less than a decade.

Disc One continues with a live performance (from Joni’s personal archive) a couple of years later at the Half Beat Club in Yorkville, Toronto, where she offers vocal introductions and live takes of many of the songs she sang in Saskatchewan in 1963. Her vocal theatrics are still absolutely effortless, but she shows a considerable growth in the maturity of her stage banter and the presentation of the songs, along with her acoustic guitar playing. With songs that by now she’d performed countless times over a relatively short period. The last three songs on the disc are performances recorded live in 1965 in her parents’ living room.

Disc Two opens with a three-song tape that Joni recorded for her mother Myrtle Anderson’s birthday (also in 1965); among the songs is Joni’s classic “Urge For Going,” which would eventually get a studio recording during the Blue sessions. Although it didn’t make the final cut of the album, it would become a perennial concert favorite, and the version heard here clearly shows the genesis of Joni’s songwriting style that crystalized during the mid-sixties. The disc continues with a five-song demo that Jac Holzman of Elektra Records recorded in Detroit. The maturity of the songs here for the yet-unsigned Mitchell is little short of incredible — the opening “What Will You Give Me” shows Joni’s voice already beginning to morph into the more familiar tone of her first few albums. There are additional demos and home recordings here, along with a couple of small segments recorded for the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), but the real highlights of Disc Two occur during the live songs recorded live in 1967 at the 2nd Fret Club in Philadelphia. Where Mitchell plays her own songs live, including stellar and fully-formed versions of the aforementioned “Urge For Going” and especially “The Circle Game,” which would become one of her biggest songs and one of the cornerstones of her album Ladies of the Canyon, which really put Joni squarely in the public consciousness in 1970.

Disc Three continues with more live recordings from various sets of the Philadelphia 2nd Fret shows, along with a variety of demos and home recordings; most notably recordings made for the Folklore program that aired on Philadelphia’s FM radio station, WHAT. Songs from Joni’s canon that begin to make appearances in her performances include “Song For A Seagull,” “Both Sides Now,” and “Morning Morgantown.” But one of the standout performances is the rare (at this point in her career) cover of the Neil Young song “Sugar Mountain,” which was recorded during one of the Folklore segments. It’s a much more upbeat take compared to Neil’s dour and subdued approach to his most important early song.

Disc Four starts with more home recordings, then the remainder of the disc and all of Disc Five covers three sets that Joni recorded live at Canterbury House in Ann Arbor, Michigan, also in 1967. The sets all include mature versions of many of Mitchell’s most important early songs, and the tapes were also thought to be lost; amazingly, they were discovered in 2018 by the Michigan History Project. The Project also discovered a ton of Neil Young tapes from the same era, but that’s a story for another day! Anyway, Joni tears through classics like “Chelsea Morning,” “Conversation,” “Michael From Mountains,” “Little Green,” and of course, “The Circle Game.” There are spoken introductions to almost all the songs, and this is one of the most thrilling aspects of this box set: getting to hear Joni Mitchell’s own words, enlightening us to the circumstances and meanings of some of her formative early music.

Of course, the sound quality is all over the place, but for a set that’s mostly historical in scope, it’s surprisingly (and consistently) pretty great, especially the home recordings, demos, and radio station, in-studio recordings. And the live recordings — especially those from Canterbury House — are also quite good, considering the vintage. All my listening was done via Qobuz’s 24-bit stream, and the sound was very good on my home system! I have this vision of loveliness of Joni Mitchell from 1969 that’s etched on my brain from a BBC session that aired just after Woodstock’s completion — I’m absolutely in love with that snapshot in time of Joni. If you’re at all a Joni Mitchell fan this set is indispensable and a must-listen; it’s fortunate for fans that she survived her 2015 aneurysm and was able to oversee the production of this set. Very highly recommended!

Rhino Records, 5 CDs (download/streaming [24/44.1] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon Music, Google Play Music, Spotify, YouTube, Apple Music, Pandora, Deezer, TuneIn)

 

Pink Floyd – Delicate Sound of Thunder (Restored/Re-Edited/Remixed)

The undisputed triumph of David Gilmour’s rebranding of the Pink Floyd experience is definitely the release of 1987’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason. Along with the tour that followed its release, and the concert film and album that followed the tour, Delicate Sound of Thunder, Pink Floyd fans definitely registered their votes in the affirmative for this continued version of the band where it really counted — with their wallets.

Following Roger Waters’ departure from Pink Floyd, David Gilmour decided that the band was, indeed, still alive. He started resuscitating the group by rehiring keyboardist and founding member Rick Wright, who’d been fired by Waters in a fit of anger during the recording of The Wall. New sessions soon commenced for the next Floyd album, A Momentary Lapse of Reason. The process was marred by an ongoing lawsuit over the band’s name, which was ultimately decided in favor of Gilmour. Roger Waters’ derision over what he viewed as a diluted version of the Pink Floyd brand continued and he frequently complained loudly in the international press. Nonetheless, the album sold very well, reaching No. 3 on the US Billboard charts and going quadruple-platinum. The ensuing tour played to sold-out audiences worldwide, and footage from a five-night stop at New York’s Nassau Coliseum was assembled into a concert film, Delicate Sound of Thunder. The double-CD release was also a success, reaching No. 11 on the charts and triple-platinum sales levels. A Momentary Lapse of Reason and Delicate Sound of Thunder definitely seemed to validate the David Gilmour vision of a continued existence of Pink Floyd.

I have a great amount of respect for Roger Waters’ creative genius; I just can’t reconcile his lack of enthusiasm for the other members of Pink Floyd, especially considering their significant contributions to the band. The Pink Floyd of David Gilmour, while heavily disparaged by Roger Waters — and somewhat less enthusiastically embraced by the critics — still sold tons of product and concert tickets. With last year’s release of the massive Pink Floyd: The Later Years box set, it was readily apparent to me that the set’s audio and video quality showed serious improvements over any previous iterations of the material I’d had the pleasure of experiencing. That was especially true with A Momentary Lapse of Reason and Delicate Sound of Thunder, where the sound and image quality of the CDs, DVDs, and Blu-rays absolutely blew me away! I sat down with my wife last December to skim through the Blu-ray of Delicate Sound, and ended up watching the entire two-hour-plus runtime — it was spellbinding, to say the least.

Not really considering myself a Floyd completist, however, I could probably get on without the need to own the monstrous box, especially considering its nearly $400 price point. And for those who’d like a chance to experience the spectacle without the expense of the big box, Sony/Legacy has now made that possible with this new release of Delicate Sound of Thunder, which is being made available as 4-CD, 3-LP, Blu-ray, or DVD sets. While I can’t attest to the sound quality of the LPs (my review samples didn’t arrive by my deadline), the 3-LP package looks quite nice and doesn’t appear to be priced too ridiculously. However, the CDs/DVDs/BDs look and sound nothing short of amazing, and are miles beyond any previously released versions. The live concerts drew from much of the music contained in A Momentary Lapse of Reason, as well as drawing from Pink Floyd albums going all the way back to 1971’s Meddle. I wasn’t able to attend any of the concerts back in the day, but the Delicate Sound of Thunder DVD or BD videos give you the closest thing possible to having a front row seat for the show. And the new releases offer extra tracks that weren’t present on the original CDs and DVDs back in the eighties.

While I look forward to the eventual arrival of the 180-gram LPs, those who are mainly into digitally-based sound should at least check out the high-resolution digital versions of Delicate Sound of Thunder available on Tidal and Qobuz. And even though I predominantly see it as more of an audio/visual spectacle, the songs definitely stand up very well to audio-only playback, making the LPs seem even more attractive to me. But if you’re a huge Floyd fan — especially of this version of the band — you simply must see the remastered/remixed/recut version of the concert film, and preferably on Blu-ray. The DVD isn’t bad, and my Sony Blu-ray player upscales everything to 4K, making the DVD look impressively good. But watching the BD disc is an exceptionally immersive concert experience that can’t be missed. Very highly recommended!

Sony/Legacy Recordings, 4 CDs/3 LPs/BD/DVD (download/streaming [24/96] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Pandora, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)

 

The War On Drugs – Live Drugs

The War On Drugs is a Philadelphia band that has somehow managed to elude my radar up until now. TWOD was formed in 2005 by vocalist/principal lyricist and guitarist Adam Granduciel and lead guitarist and indie phenom Kurt Vile; the two shared a love of Bob Dylan, and used that as a catalyst for the development of  TWOD and Vile’s side project band, The Violators. Vile departed TWOD after the release of the band’s first album, Wagonwheel Blues, in 2008, mainly because he wanted to focus on the Violators and his solo career. Originally a quartet, The War On Drugs has gone through a series of personnel changes over the years, and has also grown in scope to a sextet. The current line up is filled out with Granduciel, lead guitarist Anthony LaMarca, bassist David Hartley, keyboardist Robbie Bennett, drummer Charlie Hall, and saxophonist Jon Natchez. All members contribute to the group’s sound on a variety of other instruments in addition to their primary positions, making TWOD a very diverse band, indeed. After signing a two-album deal with Atlantic Records, the group reached the apex of their popularity with the release of 2014’s album Lost In the Dream, which received a Gold record for its impressive album sales. TWOD soon found itself no longer just playing small rooms, but headlining concerts and festivals, eventually releasing 2018’s A Deeper Understanding, which won that year’s Grammy award for Best Rock Album.

Live Drugs isn’t so much a document of a live performance by the current band; it’s actually more of a byproduct of the current pandemic situation, where Adam Granduciel, in the absence of any current band concerts, wanted to showcase a kind of overview of the live history of TWOD. Focusing on their ascension to concert headliners, which immediately followed the band’s increase in scope from a four-piece act to their solidification into the current sextet status, Live Drugs covers performances taken from a tour that extended throughout 2019 and into early 2020. And as with most touring bands, TWOD live shows often feature expanded versions of songs that have experienced significant growth in meaning since the album versions were originally laid down. Adam Granduciel, when asked about the evolution of Live Drugs, offered the following: “as a band leader, I always want to know where a song can go…even though we’ve recorded it, mastered it, put it out, and been touring on it, it doesn’t mean that we just have to do it the same way forever.”

And although now a major-label phenomenon, The War On Drugs hasn’t abandoned any of their indie sensibilities from earlier in the decade. Actually, I was surprised to find that many of the songs had extended run times, and often featured almost proggish intensity and scope. Live Drugs opens with the driving, propulsive “An Ocean in Between the Waves,” an atmospheric tune that starts with an understated drum beat from Charlie Hall, which is layered with an almost proto-psychedelic guitar figure from Anthony LaMarca. A few bars in, David Hartley’s bass enters full tilt, and the intensity level of Charlie Hall’s drums suddenly are ratcheted upwards as well; the song propels itself instantly from simply an interesting groove to almost anthem-like status. “Thinking of a Place” is one of the songs that kind of gives a glimpse of Adam Granduciel’s fascination with Bob Dylan — his voice kind of has that smoky growl that’s reminiscent of mid-period Dylan — but the song soon takes off in a completely unexpected direction with what is probably Anthony LaMarca’s most stunning extended guitar solo on the entire record. Robbie Bennett’s keys just shimmer throughout, giving the song a gauzy, hazy, dreamlike quality — taking the song down to its lowest point, and just as you’re certain the song’s about to fade out, Granduciel reappears, and the song carries on another inspired four minutes — but never during the song’s nearly eleven-minute runtime does it seem overly long, and you never lose interest. Towards the end, a harmonica figure appears briefly, more firmly cementing the Bob Dylan allusions. It’s an incredible song, and a remarkable musical journey.

“Under the Pressure” opens with another atmospherically nebulous keyboard intro from Bennett, which is soon joined by some stellar guitar interplay between LaMarca and Granduciel. This extends for several minutes, and is one of the hallmarks of TWOD — their impressive use of extended intros and outros that build their live performances into near-anthemic levels with their musical greatness. I really have to admit how very shocked I am that The War On Drugs doesn’t have an even bigger grasp on the public consciousness than they do, so very impressive is their level of musicianship and songcraft. As the song outros with nearly two minutes of guitar and effects from LaMarca and cross-fades into the closing tune, “In Reverse,” the effect is nothing short of mesmerizing.

Live Drugs is also represents a first for me in my experience with digital streaming of music; because the performances are taken from a variety of live recordings and sources, the bit-rates of the files vary significantly throughout the album, from 16-bit/44.1 kHz to 24-bit/44.1 kHz to 24-bit/96 kHz. Regardless of the continual shift in sources from CD-quality to high resolution, the sound quality is never less than superb. All my listening was done via Qobuz, and I was definitely impressed with the consistently great sound. I’m now very primed to start digging into their back catalog of albums. Live Drugs is very highly recommended!

Super High Quality Records, CD/2-LPs (download/streaming [mixed sources] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)