To Be Determined

Finally, A Stones Reissue Done Right, and Three Other Winners!

Issue 120

The Rolling Stones – Goats Head Soup 2020 Deluxe Edition

Late 1972 found the Stones in a period of serious transition; after the monstrous success of Exile on Main Street, they were ready to begin work on the next record. The band was still essentially exiled from the UK because of their tax problems, and Keith Richards couldn’t manage to find any country other than Switzerland who wouldn’t kick him out because of his high-profile drug problems – and he freaking hated Switzerland! It finally became apparent that they could all congregate in Jamaica without problems, so they all flew into Kingston, to start recording what came to be known as Goats Head Soup in November of that year. Keith loudly expressed his gratitude to the Jamaican government for allowing him into the country!

The studio atmosphere was quite different from what they’d come to expect while recording in London; a lot of session musicians from the islands and several African nations were usually in the studio, and available to augment the group sound as needed. And the usual suspects such as Ian Stewart, Nicky Hopkins, Bobby Keys, and Billy Preston were also on hand to provide keyboards and horns to the mix. For some reason, Bill Wyman only played bass on three tracks, but Keith and Mick Taylor covered for him on the remaining tunes. Long time producer Jimmy Miller also came along; Goats Head Soup would serve as his final production credit on a Rolling Stones album. Unsurprisingly, he and Keith had developed pretty serious drug problems, and apparently Mick had had enough by the time the album sessions had concluded. Some additional work was done on the album at Village Recorders in LA and Island Studios in London (apparently, they’d ironed out their tax issues with the British government by this point).

Goats Head Soup was a stark change thematically for the band from Exile, which was essentially maybe the best party record ever. There were darker, moodier songs like lead track “Dancing With Mr. D,” “Winter” and “Can You Hear the Music,” in addition to the album’s first single, “Angie,” a really moody piano-based ballad. “Can You Hear the Music,” with its flute and percussion intro actually kind of hearkened back to the time when Brian Jones was still alive and in the band. There were a few upbeat tunes as well; the second single “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)” was a great song, and a really big hit, and “Silver Train” was a pretty great rocker by Keith, even if he’s not in perfect voice. And “Star, Star,” is a great little Chuck Berry-esque paean to groupies. It got the Stones in a bit of trouble later with its in-your-face use of colorful language; (You’re a starf*cker, starf*cker, starf*cker, starf*cker, star!) which got edited out of the eventual CD releases, until the late-nineties Virgin remasterings. I guess by that point the prevailing attitudes with the censors had relaxed a bit.

There’s a pretty deep divide among Rolling Stones fans over their records; either you feel that Exile is their greatest record ever, or the alternative is: you’re not really a Stones fan. I hate that kind of mass categorization; while I would never deny Exile’s greatness, Goats Head Soup is a fine album on its own merit, even if it falls somewhere outside the norm for a Rolling Stones record. I bought this album at the time of its release when I was fourteen; I spent countless months sitting, listening to it over and over again over a pair of Koss Pro 4AA headphones, dissecting the songs and really getting into the music. It might be my favorite Stones album of all time.

In terms of the quantity of music on a deluxe edition reissue, the Stones have really outdone themselves with this one. In addition to the remixed and remastered basic album tracks, there’s an entire disc of demos, alternate takes, and previously unheard outtakes, along with another full album that officially releases the full “Brussels Affair” 1973 concert for the first time, in superior sound. I think the record company has somewhat come around to some of the criticism leveled at the sound quality and rather barebones nature of the last couple of big Stones reissues, and Goats Head Soup 2020 Deluxe Edition is being offered in a variety of choices that should satisfy the buying needs of everyone out there. There’s a 2-CD or 2-LP base package that features the remixed and remastered album plus bonus tracks, as well as multiple CD/Blu-ray/LP sets of varying configurations that feature the additional live tracks along with other bonus materials. There’s also a “Super Deluxe” edition that combines everything into one big box; if you’re a true fan, and a completist, prepare your wallet for a rather large dink.

I did all my listening through the 24/96 digital stream from Qobuz, through my PrimaLuna tube amp, playing into the Zu Audio Omen loudspeakers, and the sound quality was nothing short of superlative. I really found the 24/96 stream to possess a great degree of warmth and clarity, with transparency on par with my 1973 original LP (which still sounds remarkably good!), and I really didn’t feel that the overall sound had been compressed nearly as much as I found to be true of the recent reissues of Let It Bleed and Exile. The unbelievable quiet in songs like “Winter” and “Can You Hear The Music” is absolutely stunning.

Goats Head Soup has been unfairly maligned in terms of sound quality, based strictly on a couple of poor-quality CD reissues in the nineties – it’s a really great-sounding record, and this is especially true of the 24/96 digital files. Among the trove of bonus tracks included, there are three very different takes of the song “Scarlett,” which feature a rare appearance by Jimmy Page; I’ve listened to all three repeatedly, trying to figure out which one I like the most! And the live concert material is also outstanding; the 1973 European tour would be the last one to feature guitarist par excellence Mick Taylor, who was a great addition to the band for the five albums spanning his tenure. His playing here is absolutely stellar; there’s a really superb rendition of “Midnight Rambler,” where he and Keith trade wicked licks throughout the song’s slower, central section, while Mick growls and howls in the background. Unlike most of the Stones live albums from the period, the sound quality here is very good!

Goats Head Soup 2020 Deluxe Edition is a very good album from one of the Stones’ classic periods, presented with a plethora of bonus material, and all in really great sound. Very highly recommended!

Polydor/Rolling Stones Records, 3 CD/ Blu-ray/ 2LP (download/streaming [24/96] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon Music, Google Play Music, Spotify, YouTube, Apple Music, Pandora, Deezer, TuneIn)

 

PJ Harvey – To Bring You My Love – Demos

Polly Jean Harvey’s 1995 release of To Bring You My Love was actually her first proper solo outing following the demise of the PJ Harvey Trio; the album was met with strong critical praise and good commercial success. And is widely considered to be her breakthrough album artistically; the lead single, “Down By The Water,” received extensive airplay on both radio and MTV, bringing her music to a much wider audience. At the time of its release, the album went Gold in the UK, peaking at number 12 on the English charts; it also did respectably well in the US, reaching the number 40 position on the charts. That success hasn’t diminished in the least; over the last couple of decades, the album has sold in excess of a million units worldwide. To Bring You My Love has been placed on Rolling Stone’s list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

Dame Polly Jean Harvey, MBE [Most Excellent Order of the British Empire] – having been recognized by the Queen in 2011 for her service to not only the music industry, but also for her charitable efforts – has always been at the forefront of alternative music, ever since her arrival on the scene in 1988. She’s the only musician to have won the coveted Mercury Prize twice, in 2000 for the album Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, and again in 2011 for Let England Shake. And of late, she’s been releasing the demo tapes from many of her groundbreaking albums; now, we have To Bring You My Love – Demos, which gives us a surprisingly fully-formed, hyper-edgy preview of the outstanding studio tracks. I found it really instructive to flip back-and-forth between both albums to get a clearer view of her artistic process.

I’ve loved PJ Harvey from the first time I heard her; I think she captures the essence of what most men who have an appreciation for alternative rock think a female rocker should offer: a voice that in a heartbeat goes from a guttural growl to an absolute scream, and a raw, primal, almost hyper-sexualized approach to hard rock. And it doesn’t hurt that she’s a multi-instrumentalist that literally kicks ass on just about anything she happens to be playing – she’s the total package, and that only earns her an even higher degree of respect. I only thought To Bring You My Love was raw and primal, until I heard this album of demos – she takes raw to an all new level on the demos, making the studio tracks seem perfectly polished in comparison. When she screams – as she does on a number of the tracks – I have to admit, my knees nearly buckle; it’s exhilarating to listen to! I really wasn’t expecting to enjoy this collection as much as I have.

The 24/96 digital files from Qobuz are outstanding; there’s a trace of hiss, which is to be expected: these are demo tapes, after all! No worries – this album comes highly recommended!

UMC (Universal Music Catalog), CD/LP (download/streaming [24/96] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Pandora, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)

 

Lang Lang – Johann Sebastian Bach: The Goldberg Variations 

I first heard Glenn Gould’s legendary 1955 recording of JS Bach: Goldberg Variations in the late seventies, in a core-curriculum required music appreciation class in my first year of college. It struck a complete nerve with me, even though I was basically an uncultured bumpkin from the sticks of rural North Georgia; I rushed out and bought a cassette copy right away (I had to drive about seventy miles to Atlanta – the ruffians in the record shops in rural Gainesville, GA had never heard of Glenn Gould). Over time, I’ve become something of a Goldbergs (and Glenn Gould) snob, of sorts; you’d probably laugh to see how many different versions of the Goldbergs reside in my digital music library, and now, with Qobuz, the sky’s the limit. I also like Gould’s 1981 revisitation, but, at the end of the day, I still find the 1955 recording the final word, and the version that I compare all others against. That sort of rapid-fire, pianist-on-acid approach of Gould seemed to strike a chord with the record buying public way back in the Fifties; his Goldberg quickly became the biggest-selling classical album of all time.

There’s a circuitous legend that surrounds Bach’s writing of the Goldberg Variations, and how they came to have their current given name; the actual working name of the piece was Aria with diverse variations for a harpsichord with two manuals. Okay, then! Anyway, there was a student of Bach’s named Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, who was, apparently, a very gifted player – he definitely figures in the naming process. Otherwise, there’s a fair amount of scholarly debate regarding the actual intent of the variations. And it’s known that only about one hundred copies of the manuscript for the variations were printed in Bach’s day. With very little performance over a period of almost three hundred years, some of them nonetheless survived until legendary Polish harpsichordist Wanda Landowska made the first recording of them in the early 1930s.

And the variations remained firmly on the periphery of the classical music conscience; that is, until a 22-year old Glenn Gould strolled into Columbia’s NYC 30th Street Studio in early June of 1955. It was hot outside, and Gould arrived wearing a wool tweed hat and a wool overcoat with scarf; removing that, he then removed a wool tweed jacket that was underneath, leaving him with a wool sweater still on in the un-airconditioned confines of the studio. After removing a pill box from his satchel, he snorted a couple of preparations, popped a couple of pills, coughed and wheezed excessively, then pulled out his manuscript of the Goldbergs and began playing. The tapes rolled, and history was made in the process.

I first became aware of pianist Lang Lang in the early 2000s; I’d just seen the movie Shine with its central theme of the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto, and Lang Lang’s 2002 recording of that same work on the Telarc label made a big splash. Suddenly, he was a household name in the world of classical music. He must have a pretty good agent; he’s recorded simultaneously ever since with Telarc (up until their demise), Deutsche Grammophon, and Sony Classical. Anyway, while I’ve had a great deal of admiration for the man and musician, I haven’t always been completely impressed with his recordings; I absolutely hammered a two-disc recording of Mozart by him back in the mid-2000s on Sony Classical. Because, while the studio portion of the disc was superb, I felt the second-disc live recordings had very mediocre sound.

I haven’t followed his career very closely since, feeling that his career became a little showman-like, with his albums being a bit too lacking in focus for my tastes. Regardless, here we are, and it appears that he’s decided to take his stab at the Goldbergs, as most modern pianists also seem to feel compelled to do. The new set is a bit of a curiosity in that it contains two completely distinct recordings of the Goldberg Variations; one recorded live in a single take at the Thomaskirche (Church of St. Thomas) in Leipzig, Germany, and a second recording made in the confines of Deutsche Grammophon’s studio. In the notes for the album, Lang Lang relates that he first played the Goldberg Variations from memory when he was seventeen years old, for conductor and pianist Christoph Eschenbach. And he feels that the Goldbergs, while originally thought of as only a set of complicated practice variations, are perhaps the most multidimensional and exceptionally creative work in the whole of classical piano literature.

Some recordings of the Goldberg Variations sound very pedantic and by the numbers; this isn’t one of them. Lang Lang has a complete talent for getting to the heart of the matter, while still administering his usual excess of flourishes. Compared to a very scholarly version, like that by noted Canadian pianist and Bach scholar Angela Hewitt on Hyperion, Lang Lang takes an approach closer to that of Glenn Gould, and doesn’t observe all the repeats and occasionally alters the tempos. Hewitt observes every repeat, and moves at a more historically informed pace; while her version is still quite entertaining and never feels as though it drags, it runs around 55 minutes in length; compared to Lang Lang’s forty minutes or so (Gould clocked in at 39 minutes), which is an undoubtedly elegant one.

The two recordings are very audibly different, although Deutsche Grammophon does a much better job than my recollection of how Sony Classical did with their debacle a decade or so ago with the Mozart album. Sitting, listening, it’s really very interesting to hear how very different the two pianos sound in studio and live recording situations, and to notice the slight differences in the performances. The 24/96 digital sound quality from Qobuz is exceptional, and this set is very highly recommended.

Deutsche Grammophon, 2 CDs/2 LPs (download/streaming [24/96] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)

 

New Order – Substance

New Order rose from the ashes of the band Joy Division. Ian Curtis, Joy Division’s principal songwriter and de facto leader, committed suicide in May, 1980. This happened one day before the band was scheduled to depart for their first US tour, which would most certainly have made them the darlings to the US audiences they’d already become in the UK. Of course that didn’t happen. The remaining members of Joy Division, vocalist and guitarist Bernard Sumner, bassist Peter Hook, and drummer Stephen Morris, added keyboardist and guitarist Gillian Gilbert, rebranding themselves later that year as New Order. This launched a series of critically acclaimed albums, including Movement (1981); Power, Corruption and Lies (1983); Low-Life (1985); and Brotherhood (1986). During the decade of the eighties, they were nominated for and won a slew of both Brit Awards and NME Awards. Their music had a definite post-punk edge, but also something of an electronica flair with a certain amount of danceability.

At some point, Factory Records, their record company, started remixing some of the band’s songs and releasing them as 12-inch singles; New Order soon became the darlings of the dance floor. However, there was a bit of a disconnect between fans of the band’s albums and fans of their 12-inch remixes; there wasn’t any way to really reconcile them between the two distinctly different listening environments. The post-punk crowd would probably never think of setting foot in a disco, and the disco crowd, well – you get the picture. 1987 changed all that, when the 2-CD set Substance was released; it compiled a host of A-side remixes on disc one, along with a parcel of B-side remixes on disc two. The BBC hailed Substance as one of the two best albums of the year, the other one being Sign of the Times by Prince. And they described the opening six tracks of disc one as “as sublime a run as you are going to get in pop music.”

Substance was available on most streaming services up until five years ago, when it was inexplicably yanked; of course, nowadays you have Tidal, Qobuz and the likes, and now the album has just as inexplicably reappeared for digital stream listening this week. New Order fans, let the rejoicing begin!

As a New Order fan from way back (yes, I still have my 2-CD original issue of the now out-of-print Substance), I can clearly answer what the big deal is all about. While the albums are great, and classic, they’re also almost primordial compared to the content of Substance. Which has successfully distilled the essence of the band, while also building in a level of sophistication and irresistible danceability that makes the 12-inch versions of all these songs absolute classics in their own right. Nine times out of ten, if you happen to hear any version of “Blue Monday,” or “Subculture,” or “Shellshock,” or “True Faith” on the airwaves, it’s not the standard LP issue, it’s the 12-in remix. “True Faith” is a case in point – is there a more powerful and potent – yet infinitely danceable tune that exists from the entirety of the eighties? And take “Subculture”: while the album version on Low Life is great, the 12-inch version adds a level of clarity and sophistication previously not heard – not to mention that non-stop chorus of female singers simply pounding the line “One of these day-aaay-aaays!” into your brain. It’s dizzyingly mesmerizing, to say the least.

Even though in lowly 16/44.1 CD-quality sound, the Qobuz tracks are superb, and this collection will dazzle your senses. Very highly recommended!

Warner/Rhino, (download/streaming [16/44.1] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube)

 

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Dave Mitchell.

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