WORLD’s 2018 Books of the Year
She Remembers Everything (Deluxe Edition)
On this album’s second song, Cash commits herself to doing what she does best: exploring “the undiscovered country between a woman and a man.” Not that it’s her only terrain. “8 Gods of Harlem” addresses (with help from Kris Kristofferson and Elvis Costello) disquiet on the inner-city front, and the title song finds her (with help from Sam Phillips) exploring the undiscovered country within herself. But the male-female vortex keeps drawing her back, as do Americana musical settings that throw her melodies into evocatively shadowy relief.
Hearts of Glass
Beth Nielsen Chapman
Chapman’s lyrics are so forthright, her chord progressions so inevitable, and her singer-songwriterly voice and instrumentation so unassuming that it’s easy to miss the telling details—her rhyming “diving headlong off the overpass” with the album’s title in “Epitaph for Love” or the sandwiching of the abusive-marriage sketch “Rage on Rage” (one of several rerecordings) between the bouncy “Enough for Me” and the sweet “You’re Still My Valentine.” Then there’s the ghostly coda that stands athwart her maudlin-bound Alzheimer’s song, whispering “Stop.” It’s stunning.
Look Now (Deluxe Edition)
Elvis Costello & the Imposters
Twenty years after his Burt Bacharach collaboration Painted from Memory, Costello reignites the torch that he’s obviously still carrying for his nonagenarian hero. Bacharach co-wrote only three of these songs, but all of them (with the exception of the Costello/Carole King outlier) bear traces of his sense and sensibility. Still, the album belongs to Costello, who hasn’t corralled this many instantly memorable melodies or—maybe because the lyrics rank among his (or Bacharach’s or King’s) most natural and sympathetic—sung this naturally or sympathetically in years.
Although “We Will Rock You” and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” have been excised from the Live Aid performance that’s this album’s obvious selling point, they do appear elsewhere in the program (the former in a clever studio-to-live splice). On the whole, however, like the film to which they function as an approximate soundtrack, the proceedings recycle highlights and skim a surface long familiar to cognoscenti. And, also like the film, the tale that lies therein is every bit as cautionary as it is celebratory.
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One sign that gift-giving season has arrived is the release of critically acclaimed rock ’n’ roll albums in boxed, freshly remastered, multidisc editions tantalizingly marketed as the best-ever way to experience the music contained therein. It’s an impression cemented by the enthusiastic reviews that inevitably flood the relevant publications and that get collated into verbal highlight reels for the packages’ Wikipedia entries.
What almost no one will admit is that often much of the material in these box sets tends to be either inferior to what has long been available on the “official” versions or redundant, and that after you’ve plowed through all of the alternate versions, rehearsal takes, and other arcane offerings once, you may never want to hear them again.
Buyer’s remorse has been known to ensue.
The compilers of the Super Deluxe Editions of John Lennon’s Imagine: The Ultimate Collection (Capitol) and the Kinks’ The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society (Sanctuary/BMG) (in commemoration of the latter’s 50th anniversary) have taken this phenomenon into account and made slimmed-down, wallet-friendlier versions of their respective projects available.
In the case of Imagine, the decision was wise. With the exception of its head-in-the-clouds title track, the album still retains its political, personal, and/or philosophical acuity despite the 47 years that have elapsed since its initial unveiling. The six-disc Super Deluxe Edition’s multiple takes, incomplete versions, and alternate mixes (which only make you say, “Why, yes, that one does sound a bit different”) water down the effect.
Imagine’s effect is worth experiencing at full strength. The song “How?,” for instance, could pass for a pop-level distillation of G.K. Chesterton’s oft-quoted statement about the uselessness of the word progress (“Progress takes for granted an already defined direction: and it is exactly about the direction that we disagree”).
And both the two-disc and the single-disc editions of the “ultimate” Imagine include among their “singles and extras” the song “God Save Us” (aka “God Save Oz”). From its playful musicality to its invocation of a Deity with whom Lennon was known at least briefly to be friendly, the song makes imagining there’s no heaven seem dull by comparison.
The single- and double-disc editions of The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, on the other hand, don’t so much preserve and refurbish the original’s unique charms as whet the appetite for more. It’s an appetite that the Super Deluxe configuration’s five CDs, three LPs, three 7-inch singles, one 52-page book, and assorted swag succeed in appeasing.
About those unique charms: In the wake of the Kinks’ having gotten themselves banned from the United States after their first stateside tour in 1965, Ray Davies doubled down on his Englishness, writing songs based in part on his memories of the people and the places that he’d known and loved (or at least closely observed) while growing up. Recording began in 1966 and ended 23 months later.
The lyrics were specific and sharp, funny and sad (sometimes in the same line), the music rollicking, the melodies indelible. No two songs sound alike, yet each enriches the others. And, as the Super Deluxe box attests, there was more material where those came from.
Strictly speaking, some of it falls outside Village Green’s chronological parameters (“Where Did My Spring Go?” and “When I Turn Off the Living Room Light,” for instance, were both recorded in 1969, the previously unreleased “Time Song” in 1973). And, of course, there’s surfeit.
But it’s really wonderful surfeit.
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Love and Wealth: The Lost Recordings
The Louvin Brothers
The Louvins recorded these 29 demos for other country performers. As Ira says in his spoken intro, they “done the best [they] could,” meaning, among other things, that they did not scrimp on their high-lonesome vocal harmonies. The gospel songs reflect the brothers’ hardscrabble, Alabama-Baptist upbringing. The courtin’ songs do too, even if their propriety was more honored in the breach than the observance. The sharpest 1:50 of comic relief reflects (and lampoons) the widespread post-Depression misconception that television sets were a must.
King of the Road: A Tribute to Roger Miller
As befits an homage to a tunesmith known for his sense of humor, King of the Road begins with the tribute’s subject getting laughs from a crowd with “My name is Roger Miller, probably one of the greatest songwriters that ever lived.” What’s even funnier is that, at least on the basis of these 31 performances, Miller might not have been joking. True, he probably should have said “one of the greatest country songwriters that ever lived,” but even Huey Lewis, Ringo Starr, CAKE, and John Goodman (!) deliver.
Muscle Shoals: Small Town, Big Sound
One critic has written that this album’s 21 guest vocalists breathe new life into the 15 FAME Studios highlights on which they’re featured. If anything, though, it’s the highlights that breathe new life into the singers. You think Steven Tyler’s pipes are shot? Listen to “Brown Sugar.” You think Kid Rock’s a poseur? Listen to “Snatchin’ It Back.” One could go on—about Alan Jackson’s “Wild Horses,” for instance, or Eli “Paperboy” Reed’s “Steal Away,” or about how Michael McDonald should consider recording the entire Etta James songbook.
The more comfortable that this recently married house-concert troubadour gets in the studio, the larger the role that details such as background vocals (“One More Step [Pacific Ave.]”), piano (“Drunk on Love”), stereo guitars (“Train Song”) play in defining his still predominantly acoustic sound. If he isn’t careful, he’ll soon have raised his fans’ sonic expectations to the point that he’ll have to travel with a band. Not a big one, of course—just one capable of reproducing his latest five-song EP’s quietly optimistic newlywed aura.