Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Compilations, Reissues, EPs, Soundtracks, Etc.

10) Joe Jackson Trio - Live Music: Europe 2010 (Razor & Tie)
All the stylistic changes Joe Jackson has undergone throughout his career have led to him doing very different tours each time he hits the road. He always uses changing lineups of musicians and comes up with rather interesting rearrangements of songs from his catalog. He started documenting these changes in 1988 with Live 80/86, which featured three different arrangements of “Is She Really Going Out With Him?”  Live 80/86 is one of the best live albums ever released, and the three live albums Jackson released since then have been just as outstanding. Live Music: Europe 2010 continues that trend, showing Jackson playing a mix of songs from four different albums along with covers of songs by The Beatles, David Bowie and Ian Dury. Jackson’s underrated piano playing comes to the fore on this cross section of material done with his original rhythm section, especially on Night and Day tracks like “Chinatown” and “A Slow Song.” And the guitar-less “Sunday Papers” takes on a swinging jazz vibe that shows once again that Jackson is the best reinterpreter of his own material

  9) Foo Fighters - Medium Rare (Rosewell/RCA)
Foo Fighters know how to do covers right. They usually put enough of their own spin on a song so it doesn’t sound like a carbon copy, yet they retain what made you like a song in the first place. Sometimes they do it so well that they end up having a radio hit, such as Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” (one of the Top 20 covers of all time, I believe) and Prince and the Revolution’s “Darling Nikki.” Medium Rare collects those tracks and 11 more the band has recorded over the years—and puts them only on vinyl. And since I usually only listen to vinyl at my house, it was a must-have when it was released on Record Store Day this year. It was worth buying just for the two previously unreleased covers—Thin Lizzy’s “Bad Reputation” and The Zombies wedding staple “This Will Be Our Year.” If this collection had been released on CD, I could see the Foos version becoming a standard at nuptials pretty quickly. (If vinyl isn’t your thing, the compilation did come out on CD in the UK. Good luck finding it, suckers.)

  8) The Jayhawks - Tomorrow the Green Grass: Legacy Edition (American/Legacy)
Any serious Jayhawks fan needs to get this reissue. The 19 previously unreleased demos on this collection show the songwriting chops of Jayhawks frontmen Gary Louris and Mark Olson really starting to take flight. The two amazing things about these “Mystery Demos”—as they were dubbed when bootlegs started circulating in 2002—is that 1) half of them were recorded before the band’s 1992 album Hollywood Town Hall was released, and 2) these comprise less than half of the 46 tracks Louris and Olson demoed in 1992. This batch of songs has resonated through their careers. They ended up being distributed to the original Tomorrow the Green Grass album; a couple of Olson’s post-Jayhawks solo efforts; the 2007 Louis/Olson duo album Ready for the Flood; two Golden Smog albums; the Jayhawks anthology that was released two years ago and this Legacy Edition. I’m surprised they needed to even write new songs for The Jayhawks reunion album Mockingbird Time that was released this fall. 

  7) R.E.M. - Lifes Rich Pageant: 25th Anniversary Edition (Capitol/EMI)
As I write this I’d say that Lifes Rich Pageant is my favorite R.E.M. album. (That might change by the time you get this in the mail, who knows.) So I was rather intrigued to hear the second disc in this package that has 19 demos R.E.M. made in Athens, Georgia before they went to record in the spring of 1986 with producer Don Gehman in Belmont, Indiana. As demos go, these are some rather polished recordings. The most fascinating part is hearing how Michael Stipe’s lyrics changed and how much more to the forefront his vocals became on the completed album. The remaster of the original album on the first is definitely an upgrade upon the original CD I bought during my first week of college in 1987. And it includes a reprint of a poster I totally remember seeing in someone’s dorm room in college—a black and white picture of the band, looking like they’re ready for a fall day, with the their name and the words “Walked. Swan. Hunted. Danced. Sang.” in blue lettering right above their heads. Ooh, such sweet, sweet nostalgia.

Life’s Rich Pageant is the album that saw R.E.M. began their takeover of mainstream rock. They did this, simply enough, by making a mainstream rock album. Producer Don Gehman made John Mellencamp’s finest albums, and that rock solid sound is all over here. Gone are the mumbles, but not the odd lyrics (“Bury Magnets/Swallow the Rapture”…huh?) from Michael Stipe. Peter Buck turns up the guitar a bit more, while Mike Mills and Bill Berry just thrash on songs like “Begin the Begin” and “These Days.” And Berry’s drums punch through with a clarity that was lacking on Murmur and Reckoning. Pageant also has my favorite R.E.M. song of all time, “Fall on Me,” which should have been their breakthrough hit, instead of “The One I Love” the following year. And how could anyone not like an album that closes with a cover song as goofy as “Superman?” The little twangy musical bridge in it still makes me giggle today.

  6) Pearl Jam - PJ Twenty Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Monkeywrench/Columbia)
I was glad I saw Pearl Jam Twenty in a theater, because the performances director Cameron Crowe chose are pretty great and worth hearing cranked up rather loud. (As for the other parts of the film, I thought there were some things—like the revolving drum throne—that needed to be covered more thoroughly.) This soundtrack wisely collects 14 of those performances, including the great collaboration with Neil Young on his Le Noise song “Walk With Me.”  The second disc of rarities, some of which are in the film, give a good sense of how the band has expanded its’ sonic palette over the past two decades. Crowe knew what he was doing in putting together this Pearl Jam mix. I just wish he’d taken better care of what he chose to cover in the film itself.

  5) The Rolling Stones - Some Girls: Deluxe Edition (UMe)
Let me get the bad part about this reissue out of the way first, in big bold print:


Holy shit, the volume on every instrument is pushed up so loud it sounds like things clip off in songs like “Miss You” and “Respectable.” Artists, do not let Stephen Marcussen and Stewart Whitmore remaster your albums. Never ever. I decided to keep my original rip of Some Girls—from a CD I bought in 1991, I believe—in my iTunes because I don’t fear that it’ll distort and sound like shit. I may have to pump up the volume to match other things in my library, but I’d rather have “Far Away Eyes” not sound like as though it was recorded using a blender.

On to the good stuff. The 11 tracks on second disc are some of the finest Stones leftovers yet. I’m a sucker for when Mick Jagger lets his country side hang out, and that’s on full display on tracks like “Claudine,” “No Spare Parts” and the Hank Williams cover “You Win Again.” And unlike the Exile on Main Street Deluxe Edition tracks, these aren’t over-produced and don’t seem to feature too many current day overdubs. (Although John Fogerty doing handclaps on “Tallahassee Lassie” has to be from today, right?) If Jagger overdubbed any new lead vocals, he did a good job of sounding like himself from 1978. (That is something I would not try to do. I can’t imagine trying to replicate the 1978 me singing along to “Macho Man” or “Calling Dr. Love.”)

  4) Superchunk - Here’s Where the Strings Come In (Merge)
  3) Superchunk - Foolish (Merge)
These are the first two Superchunk albums I owned, and save for last year’s Majesty Shredding, they’re still my favorites in their rock solid catalog. I’d never thought I’d say this about the remastering of albums only 16 and 17 years-old, yet I have to admit these CDs sound better than the originals I bought way back in the day. There’s more depth and warmth to them, which I didn’t think was possible. Both albums come with a great way of delivering bonus material with reissues—card inserts with a password to download all the tracks digitally. Strings has some cool demos and Foolish comes with some B-sides—and both have more installments in the band’s Clambakes live series. Strings gets a bizarre show from 2003 when they band was promoting their rarities collection. Foolish gets a hysterical show from Minneapolis where guitarist Jim Wilbur jokingly insults his bandmates and the audience. I’ve given Foolish a higher rating not on the musical content but due to the great liner notes from one of the funniest people I know (in or out of rock) Jon Wurster. His take on getting courted by major labels before Foolish was recorded is a must read.

  2) Ben Folds - Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective Deluxe Edition (Epic/Legacy)The one disc version of this compilation serves up a fine sampling of Folds’ solo career and his time with Ben Folds Five. But the three disc Deluxe Edition is a must have for anyone that’s been a fan of The Sing Off judge. The three new Ben Folds Five recordings are excellent and give a taste of what their reunion album might sound like. Add in the variety of live recordings (touching upon venues and bands of all sizes) and funny rarities and you have a decent package. What sets Best Imitation above the field is the time Folds took in penning the liner notes. I honestly felt I learned a great deal about him as a person and a musician as I read through the lengthy track-by-track descriptions. (Short version—Folds has a ton of issues, is hugely self-critical of his own work, really was pissed when his second marriage ended and can’t help but tell people where he stole parts of other folk’s songs to shape into his own.) When I do my own Greatest Hits package, I’m hiring Folds to curate it and do the liner notes.

  1) Neil Young - A Treasure: Archives Performances Series 09 (Reprise)
If Neil Young ever gets to the 1980s with his Archives series of box sets (and I’m doubtful of that happening now that he’s writing an autobiography—and I’m sure he’ll go way past the publisher’s deadline on that one), he’ll be hard pressed to top the quality of A Treasure. Drawn from two separate tours (and a TV appearance) with his country band The International Harvesters, this live album has a mix of incredibly strong unreleased material and some fantastic reworkings of songs from Young’s catalog. Tracks like “Amber Jean” and “Nothing Is Perfect” would have given Young a strong follow-up to Old Ways, the 1984 country album that caused Geffen to sue him for making “uncommercial albums.” (Instead, he made an electronic rock record with the guy that wrote Don Henley’s “All She Wants to Do Is Dance.” Go figure.) Some of the first Neil Young bootlegs I bought at Desert Shore Records in Syracuse were from the International Harvesters tour, and I remember their take on Buffalo Springfield’s “Flying on the Ground Is Wrong” being masterful. Thankfully A Treasure has a version of that track, and I’m grateful it doesn’t sound like it’s a 4th generation tape. Or smell like patchouli.

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