Tag Archives: the Beatles

Let It Be: Redux

let-it-be-album-cover copy

Author’s Note: In the Oscar nominated film Boyhood, Mason Senior, played by Ethan Hawke, gives his son a mix CD entitled The Black Album. On it, he explains, is a mix of all the best songs recorded by Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr in the decades that followed the band’s break-up. Hearing this explanation frustrated me because for over a year I’ve been planning to create a similar list (although much more specific), and I realized that my idea wasn’t quite as original as I had once thought. I decided I’d better write this post before Boyhood takes the “Best Film” award this weekend and everyone and their mother goes and sees the film.

Let’s make something clear form the outset – Let It Be is not a classic album. Heck, it’s not even a great album. Songs like “Across the Universe,” “Get Back,” “The Long and Winding Road,” and “Let It Be” are certainly excellent songs that belong in the pantheon of the band’s biggest hits, but once you get beyond these classics, you’re left with an album of filler. The members of the band would probably have agreed with this assertion. Lennon himself described the recordings as “the shittiest load of badly recorded shit with a lousy feeling to it ever.”

Despite their reservations, the band, which happened to be on the verge of breaking up, were forced to gather leftover material from their botched documentary, Get Back, and piece together an album in order to relieve contractual obligations. As a result, you get two tracks that clock in under a minute and a handful of sloppy blues songs. Even the songs that live on in infamy are swathed in unnecessary orchestral swells as a result of Lennon asking Phil Spector to come in and try to rescue the shambolic tapes that remained.

The Get Back Sessions, or Lennon called them, "The shittiest load of badly recorded shit with a lousy feeling to it ever.”

The Get Back Sessions, or as Lennon called them, “The shittiest load of badly recorded shit with a lousy feeling to it ever.”

What bothers me more than the lackluster songs on Let It Be is the fact that John, Paul, George and Ringo all released solo albums that same year – 42 original songs that could have been used on Let It Be instead of their own projects (at this time, the members of the band had become very territorial with their songwriting, and the one-time collaborative spirit was all but dead).
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Mad Men – Tomorrow Never Knows

“When did music  become so important?” This is a question Don Draper posed to his young, swinging wife Megan a few weeks ago on the critically acclaimed television show “Mad Men.” Not only was it a curmudgeonly, elder statesman complaining about the misplaced values of the youth, it showed a man caught adrift in a sea of change, simply trying to understand when and how the world was pulled out from under him. Only a few years earlier, Don reigned supreme in the world of cool.  He could be found mingling in the West Village with beatniks and gypsies or taking an unannounced month off from work to enjoy the swinging life of the California coast.  Yet, even in these exotic ventures, Don’s motives were never to be a part of a scene; usually, he just wanted to bed another woman.

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The Grammys.

As Christina Aguilera stood at mid-field last weekend preparing for her Super Bowl flub of the national anthem, the announcer echoed in the background “Grammy award winning artist Christina Aguilera!” I giggled to myself finding this supposed “honor” to be a joke.  The Grammys are about as respectable as Brett Favre’s dick pics. But this did make me wonder if the Grammys have always been so misguided.  With another year of lackluster Super Bowl commercials, I soon after found myself researching the award’s history in the Album of the Year category (the only category that really matters), and what I found is that the Grammys were NEVER good. There is a pattern of ineptitude that reaches back all the way to the Grammy’s beginnings.

In the 1960s Frank Sinatra won album of the year three times, Barbara Streisand won in 1964 with the cleverly titled “Barbara Streisand Record”, and Bob Newhart won in 1961 (yes, a comedy album won album of the year).  I have no problem with old blue eyes, but think of all the classic albums of the 60s not represented here.  No “Pet Sounds”; no “Are You Experienced?”; no “Highway 61 Revisited”.  Dylan wouldn’t win the award until 1998 – inexcusable.  The Beatles were possibly the only deserving winner of the 60s with “Sergent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in 1969, but even our cherished Beatles struggled to gain love from the Grammys with this being the only album of the year award they ever won.

This out-of-touch voting continued through the 70s with the awards beginning to insult the art form that is the album by awarding a live album (“The Concert for Bangla Desh”) and a soundtrack (“Saturday Night Fever”).  I’m sorry, but neither of these should even be considered albums of the year. I’m sure the Bangla Desh deal was a good cause, and yes, “Saturday Night Fever” had some toe-tappers for the times, but album of the year? How much thought goes into basically making a disco mix-tape? Stevie Wonder won the award three times in the decade, which is all fine and dandy, but you won’t find any Neil Young (he’s never won any AOTY Grammys for his solo work),  no David Bowie (ditto), no Black Sabbath (do I even need to say it?), and no Velvet Underground (…you guessed it).

(Also no Springsteen, Zep, Floyd, Stones, Kinks, Who, Mitchell, etc, etc, etc…)

In the 80s, they got their heads on straight for a couple of years, giving the award to John Lennon in ‘82 for “Double Fantasy”, to Michael Jackson in ’84 for “Thriller”, and in ’87 when they gave it to Paul Simon for “Graceland”.  But these classics are over-shadowed by probably the worst decade of Grammy winning mishaps that included George Michael, Toto, Lionel Richie, and Christopher Cross (although Mr. Cross did have stiff competition in 1981 with Barbara Streisand and Frank Sinatra – Grammy zombies!).

In the 90s they figured things out, right? Wrong. This was the decade of awarding “Unplugged” albums, two of them in fact (and no, it wasn’t Nirvana or Alice in Chains).  How can the album of the year be a recording of old dudes (Tony Bennett and Eric Clapton) performing their greatest hits acoustically?!  You will not find one “grunge” album in the award’s history during the 90s, which makes sense, right? Who needs Nirvana when you’ve got “The Bodyguard” soundtrack? Plus, weren’t the 90s truly defined by Natalie Cole, Bonnie Rait, and Celine Dion?

The 90s also brought in another horrible pattern: the guest appearance album.  In the past 20 years, artists like Quincy Jones, Santana, Ray Charles, and Herbie Hancock have each won for “albums” comprised from buffet-style track lists,  a series of songs featuring a wide array of guest singers.  Once again, I’m not saying these albums are necessarily horrible, and I understand this is a starting line-up for the rock-and-roll hall-of-fame (another confused music entity), but do they really fit the definition of what makes a great album?  Does the voting committee even know what a good album is?

I’ll say it again: they are out-of-touch. And last year showed the award reach an all-time low with a ballot that consisted of Dave Matthews Band, Lady Gaga, The Black Eyed Peas, Beyonce, and Taylor Swift (where’s Barbara Streisand when you need her?). Swift won the award because, really, what’s more thought-provoking than an album based on the trials and tribulations of a teenage girl.   This year is not much better with Lady Gaga making a second appearance alongside Katie Perry, Lady Antebellum, and Eminem.

But there is one beacon of hope on this year’s ballot: Arcade Fire’s “Suburbs”.  Some may disagree with me that it’s the best album of 2010, but I doubt anyone in their right mind would argue that it’s not the best in this line-up of hacks. Many writers believe Eminem will win which is hard to imagine considering “Recovery” isn’t even the best rap album of the year (Kanye West, The Roots, Big Boi).  But then again, it wouldn’t be surprising if he won based off the voters past penchant for awarding artists who are over ten years past their prime.

You may ask why I even care. The Grammys have always be pointless; why would I even want Arcade Fire to win? Part of me doesn’t (it’s become almost an insult; a scarlet letter).  Then again, the thought of an album off of Merge Records getting a Grammy? That would represent something big, an indie label winning the top award, a sign to  the major labels that there end is near. Artists no longer need radio or MTV to succeed; thanks to YouTube, iTunes, Pandora, internet radio, and a plethora of other technological advances, people finally have the ability to decide what’s good on their own.

But I’m not filled with pure hate here for the Grammys. In fact,  I’d like to see the Grammys become respected like the Academy Awards. When the Oscar’s list of the best films comes out, many rush out to see all the films before the awards. Can you imagine the same happening in response to the Grammys? The Academy Awards ability to build this excitement for their nominees is due to the fact that they don’t nominate films based on popularity; they nominate them simply on content. What a concept.

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Bullion “The Beach Boys vs. J Dilla- Pet Sounds: In the Key of Dee”

Bunion
“The Beach Boys vs. J Dilla- Pet Sounds: In the Key of Dee”

Rating: 8

When it first came out, Danger Mouse’s “Grey Album” was pretty innovative. I can’t deny that the idea of taking Jay-Z’s raps and mixing them over the Beatle’s “White Album” was pretty ingenious. But as The Wolf would say, “Let’s not start sucking each other’s dicks just yet.” Let’s be frank: “The Grey Album” was a cute concept; not the earth-shattering work of art that it was portrayed as by music critics (“Entertainment Weekly” named it the album of the year and “Rolling Stone” proclaimed it “the ultimate remix album”). The “ultimate remix album”? Really?

In hindsight, the album consists primarily of Jay-Z’s raps while The Beatles play second fiddle. Often, you can’t even make-out what Beatle’s song is being used, and more commonly, the background music is a garbled distraction with bleeps and squeaks popping out of the speakers sporadically. When you get down to it, Danger Mouse’s mash-up creation didn’t take much talent at all (a lot of patience I suppose).  My friend Tim always joked that he could do the same thing using his basic audio mixing program Acid, although his idea was to mix Jay-Z over Journey (he wanted to call it “Journ-Z”).

You can't deny the possibilities of "H-to the Iz-Open Arms".

Maybe “The Grey Album was the best remix album in the early days of the mash-up, but looking back, Danger Mouse’s opus sounds amateurish.  Since then we’ve seen other DJs take DM’s concept into more interesting horizons. For example, this past year, Bullion released “The Beach Boys vs. J. Dilla”. Instead of just tossing some rapper vocals over remixed audio, British DJ/Producer Bullion has taken two of the best producers of the past 50 years (hip-hop producer J Dilla and the Beach Boy’s mastermind Brian Wilson) and intertwined their sounds in a way that is intricate and refreshing. I should point out now that this actually isn’t even a mash-up. Rather, Bullion took “Pet Sounds” and ran it through his interpretation of J Dilla’s sound; his legacy. It’s more of a re-imagining, answering the question that I’m sure no one has ever asked: “What would it sound like if J Dilla produced ‘Pet Sounds’?”

J Dilla, possibly the greatest hip-hop producer of all time, died back in 2006. Over the past two decades he was involved with albums for some of the biggest names in the rap community: Tribe Called Quest, Redman, De La Soul, Busta Rhymes, etc. Within Bullion’s tweaking of the Beach Boys you hear echos of J Dilla’s classic sound, although it’s impossible to fully capture what J. Dilla did within his production.
Speaking of production, The Beach Boy’s “Pet Sounds” is looked at as a benchmark in the field. This is due to Brian Wilson’s orchestration, complex arrangements, and his vast use of track-layering. It is impossible to overestimate the expansive influence this one album had on music as we know it. “Sergent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” would not exist, and if “Sgt Peppers” was never made…well…there may not be any Nickelback. Paul McCartney went so far as to call it “…the classic of the century”.  Of course, he also said that he’s “…often played Pet Sounds and cried.” Then again, we always knew Paul was a little mary.

Bullion has taken these two classic sounds and created something that tastes refreshing.  In recent years we’ve seen the re-emergence of a focus on vocal harmonies in bands like Fleet Foxes and Animal Collective, and on this album we are reminded that The Beach Boys were mastering this approach decades ago.  While there is the classic B-Boys vocals, there are no rap vocals here. At times it feels like without a rapper spitting rhymes that the songs may be missing something, but then again, the lyrics would only hide the brilliance going on in the background.

Each track runs 2-3 minutes, and this is more than enough. Actually, the album seems to run a bit long. You can only listen to garbled Brian Wilson for so long.  Of course, you can always just listen to the album in pieces, or even better, as background music. If you’re one of those headphone wearing folk who sit and dissect ever nuance of a song, you may be disappointed.

On the album, Bullion doesn’t rely solely on the two producers at hand.  On “God Only Knows” he brings in audio of soul singing sisters, taken from some cover version of the tune, giving the track a GZA vibe.

At times interview audio of Brian Wilson emerge, talking about the spiritual power of music and on “Let’s Go Away for a While” he even pops in to make some producing requests. If you don’t smile when he calls for the drums, you simply have no soul.

No, I’m not going to name this the “greatest mix-tape ever” (that honor goes to the mix-tape I made in 9th grade entitled “Master Scab” featuring Dinosaur Jr AND Fugazi), but I do believe what Bunion has accomplished here is much more complex and intriguing than the pseudo classic “The Grey Album”.

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