Monday, November 6
Love? Or Like? Or Worse?
That picture is the cover of The Beatles "reimagining" coming out on November 21. For those of you unfamiliar with this project, it is 20-something songs that serve as the "soundscape" for the latest Cirque de Soleil Vegas extravaganza. Original producer George Martin & his son Giles (reports are it was mainly Giles) have mixed a bunch of songs together - the first legal Beatles mash-up/sample - and I'm concerned. Though I expect the audio quality of such a project to be top notch, I cringe at some of the press release examples:
"If you can imagine 'Strawberry Fields Forever' beginning with John's original demo before going into an early take of the song and then climaxing in a musical collage including the piano solo from 'In My Life' and the harpsichord pattern from 'Piggies' and lots, lots more--or 'Get Back' prefaced by the 'Hard Day's Night' opening guitar chord, the guitar and drum solos from 'The End,' and segued into 'Glass Onion,' you will begin to get the picture."
I can imagine these things, but I'm having a hard time imagining they're any good. Fortunately for me, I have heard a four song sampler from this album, though they fade before segueing into the next track so I can't judge the "soundscape" concept, or the sequencing.
The tracks I've previewed - at admittedly low quality - are "Lady Madonna", "Octopus' Garden", "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps". My first thought is that it isn't horrible. Though that seems damning with faint praise, I had such trepidation about the project that instant hate was my expected reaction.
"Lady Madonna" opens with a bit of "Why Don't We Do It In The Road" (Ringo's drums are pretty distinct) and uses the "ba ba ba ba" backing vocals from the original to guide us into "Lady Madonna" proper - maybe a different vocal track? - which carries us along into the guitar from "Hey Bulldog" and a guitar solo I can't place. A few other stray pieces (some organ I'm not placing), a couple of god-awful saxophone stabs. Solid, though it doesn't add or displace the original in any way. Good as remixes go.
"Octopus' Garden" is one of those throwaway Ringo tracks that are unfairly derided - yes it is silly, but The Beatles were not afraid of silly. Here we start with the strings from Paul's treacly "Good Night." Ringo seems slowed down - strange - they've split the lines a bit so it may be mainly that the flow is different. A little touch of "Yellow Submarine" in the background as the song kicks in. The drums sound really good on these tracks. during the solo they've mixed John saying assorted words, "Late. Beautiful," over the solo. It is driving me nuts that I can't quite place the chuka-chuka guitar bit right before the song fades into the guitar intro of "Sun King." I'll get it eventually. Less interesting than "Lady Madonna."
"Strawberry Fields Forever." I've heard plenty of demos, various takes and mixes of this over the years. This sounds a great deal like what George Martin was doing with it in the Anthology videos, where he isolates and plays different sections and versions. It builds to where you expect it to go before layering other things onto it - I feel I should note the clarity of the little backwards tape bits is crisp as a New England morning in autumn - the "Sgt. Pepper" trumpet fanfare into "In My Life" (the piano bit mentioned above), then "Penny Lane" and its coronet, the aforementioned "Piggies", a touch of the crescendo of "A Day In The Life" as recurring background unification, the "hela heba heloa" vocals from "Hello Goodbye" running it aground at the end.
I'll end with "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" (henceforth WMGGW, not to be confused with WWJJD, or What Would Joan Jett Do), for it is a different beast from the prior songs. Here is the biggest rework - we start with just George's underrated singing and his sublime guitar playing. Yet when one expects a band we get strings; big, overwrought strings. I don't have the slightest idea where these are from, as generally "big strings" were used in Paul's deeply moronic and simplistic paeons to nothing in particular (have you ever listened to Eleanor Rigby and given a shit for the titular woman? Ever? Crusty bag, symbol of crusty bags the world over. The visuals chosen to accompany it in Yellow Submarine are perfect - cardboard cutouts with cardboard cutouts layered as backdrops to provide depth. The Mantovani string quartet George Martin pasted in is auditory cardboard. ), and damned if I still don't block those puppies out of my consciousness. I only know the previously mentioned "Good Night" because I didn't know it for years and years. As a child, the cassette I had of The White Album didn't have this song because it didn't fit on the tape. I didn't hear it until High School, so it is still one of the "new" Beatles songs for me. Now back to WMGGW - that's it. George solo performance, plus strings of boredom. This was my fear - a horrible eructation as opposed to the somewhat clever mash-ups and reworkings of the prior songs. I can imagine this serves a purpose in the Cirque de Soleil performance; a change of tempo, an auditory break, probably as accompaniment to a solitary clown, miming the death of a flower, it's fading bloom and decomposition leading nicely into the questioning nihilism of "A Day In The Life" (WMGGW is sequenced right before this in the album).
Overall a mixed bag. The sound is great - The Beatles catalog is due a proper mastering, as the best recordings I've heard are MP3 files made from immaculate high grade vinyl (yes they sound beter than the cds). Three of the tracks are well done, if not revelatory of any new insights into how damn good The Beatles were. The fourth? A shiver, a shame. Letting people hear how good the song was even in a demo-like solo state is wonderful, but the cloying, choking strings are a travesty. Sucker I am, I still want to hear the whole thing.
CORRECTION: It has been pointed out to me that "Good Night" was a John Lennon song. It seems in my desire to paint Paul with a treacly brush, I have missed badly. Instead of correcting the post, this correction is to remind me to be less of a all-knowing gasbag. The song is still overblown tripe, however. And I hold Paul & George Martin response for introducing John to the Mantovani strings.