Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Cd Review - George Harrison "Living In the Material World"

This is a killer album - possibly my second favorite Harrison release, though that's a toss-up with "Brainwashed." For whatever reason, "Material World" gets forgotten - probably mainly because it followed up the epic "All Things Must Pass" and how could it possibly have lived up to those expectations?

Well, maybe back in the early '70s, but all these decades later I think it's only fair to judge the album on it's own terms. The lyrics do get a little heavy on the religion - which may or may not be an issue for you. "The Lord Loves the One (That Loves the Lord)" is every single bit as heavy-handed as the title would suggest - but the music is great, so it doesn't especially bother me. George did all his own lead guitar playing on this album, as opposed to his last, and he is far and away in a different league than during his Beatle years (he was just beginning to reach his mature style in '69). Even more striking than the guitar playing is the passion singing George musters on "The Day the World Gets Round" - though obviously never possessing the range and power of Lennon or McCartney, on this track he is every bit their equal for expressiveness.

This isn't really a rock album - most of it is down-tempo and rather mellow. But not without exception: the title track chugs along at a good clip (the Indian-music-themed bridge, "In the spiritual sky..." is drop-dead gorgeous) and "Don't Let Me Wait Too Long" is one of the most commercial-sounding pop records George ever did. Speaking of pop singles, "Give Me Love" was a deserved number one hit single. Oh, and "Sue Me, Sue You Blues" cuts a surprisingly deep groove - GREAT slide playing from George on that one.

The only clunker for me is "Try Some, Buy Some" which I understand was originally recorded by Ronnie Spector and George re-used the same backing track. Something like that. I don't care about the backstory all that much, however, because it just isn't all that good a song.

Here's where things get a little complicated: whether to go for this deluxe boxed version or the single disc version. For the vast majority of people, I'd say hte single disc will more than suffice. Both of them have the same two bonus tracks - each previously released as b-sides, but making their CD debut. "Deep Blue" is is a good bluesy track, I believe it was an expression of grief following the passing of George's mother. The A-side was "Bangla Desh," so far only available on The Best of George Harrison. I was disappointed at it's exclusion, but I guess there must be other plans for it. The other B-side is "Miss O'Dell" which is a fantastic George song, perversely marred by hysterical laughter from none other than George himself. It's funny to hear initially, until A) you realize how good the song is and B) you watch the DVD.

The DVD is frustrating because it should be the main attraction; the most compelling reason to shell out beaucoup bucks for this deluxe version. The DVD is too short, but the problems go beyond even that. First up is a Live In Japan performance of "Give Me Love" - fine, that makes sense and it's nice to see (though the complete concert will hopefully be released someday, at which point this one song will be redundant). There are two bonus tracks on the DVD that play over slide-show images. These should have been bonus tracks on the CD, if you ask me. What I was getting at about "Miss O'Dell" earlier is that the song appears on the DVD as well, in an alternate take with no laughing! I really truly wish this version had also been featured on the CD. The second song is a demo of "Sue Me Sue You Blues" which is quite extraordinary - just George singing over his acoustic slide guitar playing - and is sounds like something off an old Mississippi Delta blues recording from the '20s! Okay, okay - I'm not a blues expert (I wish), so Mississippi Delta might not be the correct comparison. But my point is, this sounds a lot like an old vintage blues recording - and NOTHING like any George playing I've ever heard. It's awesome, and I really wish it had been on the CD (and I really, REALLY wish I could hear the rest of George's demos for this album!). Outside of that, there is a very unusual 'music video' of the album's title track that shows footage of the vinyl record albums being pressed and packaged.

So get this album if you like George Harrison and/or the Beatles, but be forewarned: this version is a bit too expensive considering what the extras are.

DVD Review - "Lou Reed's Berlin"

More than three decades after its original release, Lou Reed has finally made good on a long dormant plan to adapt his 1973 album Berlin for the concert stage. In December, 2006, Reed spent five nights performing the album's ten songs for an appreciative New York City audience. The event was filmed for a theatrical release, directed by Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), and the DVD of that film, Berlin is now available. The results are decidedly mixed: great music, but flawed visual presentation.

Performing Berlin live was certainly a good idea. Along with 1992's Magic and Loss (a masterful song cycle about the death of two friends), Berlin is Reed's most cohesively structured lyrical narrative. The story is simple: two lovers marry and have children, though drugs, violence, and infidelity eventually ruin their lives. Musically, the album is a bit of an odd duck in the Lou Reed canon.

Loaded with musicians (including horns, a choir, and a ton of session players), it's considerably overproduced. Reed barely plays on the entire record, and the bombast threatens to overwhelm the project. I prefer the stripped down rock of Reed's latter era (especially from 1989's New York and beyond). The music, as presented in the concert film, is an interesting blend, adding substantial rock grit while maintaining the ambiance of the 1973 recording. Reed plays guitar, backed by his longtime rhythm section of Fernando Saunders on bass and Tony "Thunder" Smith on drums. These guys, along with guitarist Mike Rathke, have been touring together since 1996 and are as tight a rock combo as I've witnessed.

Though Rathke is absent, in his place is Steve Hunter. This provides a neat bit of historical continuity, as Hunter was the lead guitarist on the Berlin album (and toured with Reed in the '70s). The main quartet is supplemented by a wide array of musicians, including a horn section, strings, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and backing vocalists. Also present are Rupert Christie on keyboards and Rob Wasserman (Reed's bassist in the early '90s) on stand-up bass.
After a very brief introduction, Reed and company take the stage and perform the album's ten songs in about an hour. The arrangements are tight and Reed is focused in his intensity. As with his entire body of work, those unfamiliar to Reed's vocal style might have to adjust to his delivery. Throughout his forty-odd year career, Reed has defined - perhaps more than anyone in popular music - the "art" of non-singing. As his voice deepened and his range narrowed, Reed arrived at a half-speak/half-sing style not far removed from that of George Burns (albeit much darker).

Though I feel he conveys the emotional content of the songs effectively, there will always be those who can't get past the unconventional vocals. One of the strengths of the performance on this DVD is that Reed invests the lyrics with a deeply felt sense of gravity. His phrasing, often erratic, is more focused than usual. His atonal, distorted guitar soloing offers a dramatic counterpoint to Hunter's cleaner leads. Some songs, like "Men Of Good Fortune," rock drastically harder than the album version. "How Do You Think It Feels" is underscored by an earthy groove - a result of the rhythm section's longtime association.

As for the climatic series of painfully sad songs that constitute the album's final act, a spellbinding atmosphere is cast. Children crying for their mother are heard during "The Kids," as gut-wrenchingly as on the album. "The Bed" is bolstered by Reed's most delicate vocal. And the extended instrumental section of "Sad Song" manages to feel simultaneously celebratory and resigned to defeat. Unfortunately, Schnabel included some rather banal film footage throughout the performance instead of simply trusting the strength of the material. The album's central character, Caroline, is portrayed by an actress (Emmanuelle Seigner). The footage was apparently projected during the songs on curtains behind the stage. These visuals don't really contribute anything valuable. While the overall focus remains on the Reed and the other musicians, I could've done without these distractions. Even worse, Schnabel occasionally attempts a sort of psychedelic approach during portions of some songs, with the picture turning a weird color and going into a strobe-like effect. Why? I guess he thought it looked cool. Thankfully, this nonsense is limited to relatively brief segments. Still, the overall presentation would've been stronger without any of it.

Since the Berlin setlist only lasts about one hour, more material was needed to make this a feature-length film. A little historical context by way of interviews might have been a nice way to precede the concert, or maybe even a little glimpse at the rehearsal process. Instead, we are treated to a mixed bag of encore songs.

Reed dips back into his Velvet Underground catalog for "Candy Says." The lead vocal is handled by Antony Hegarty, who contributes backing vocals elsewhere during the performance. Hegarty has sung this with Reed before (on the live album Animal Serenade), and he has a nice voice. But the mood of "Candy Says" doesn't really fit with the Berlin material. Besides, when I watch a Lou Reed concert movie I want to hear Lou Reed. Next up is a much more recent song, "Rock Minuet," from 2000's Ecstasy.

This is a great song, but for a much better peformance - showcasing Fernando Saunders' incredible bass playing - see Lou Reed - Live at Montreux, 2000. Finally, and inevitably, Reed kicks into "Sweet Jane," over which the end credits roll. "Sweet Jane" is to Lou Reed what "Satisfaction" is to The Rolling Stones. He always plays it, and it's almost always the same somnambulistic reading.

The DVD itself is technically excellent. The widescreen presentation is rich and clear. There is a satifyingly full-bodied Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. The special features are extremely disappointing. There is a five minute excerpt from an interview with Lou Reed and Julian Schnabel, conducted by Elvis Costello, that comes very close to saying literally nothing at all. Besides that, there is the promisingly titled "Berlin On Tour" that turns out to be only six minutes long. Combining some entirely unenlightening shots of stage gear being set up with a pair of 30-second clips of Reed onstage in Europe, this feature is a waste of time. Reed took the Berlin stage show on the road for a European tour in 2007, and this six minute montage (complete with closing credits) is all we get to see. The theatrical trailer is also present to round off a very uninspired set of extras. Berlin is worth a viewing for fans, but it ultimately could've been so much more.