Album reviews: The Beatles - Sgt Pepper's 50th Anniversary, Alt J - Relaxer, Dan Auerbach - Waiting On A Song

Also Benjamin Booker, Thea Gilmore, and Roger Waters

Andy Gill
Thursday 01 June 2017 08:14
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The Beatles, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Deluxe Edition)

★★★★★

Download: A Day In The Life; Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds; Strawberry Fields Forever; Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; She’s Leaving Home; Good Morning Good Morning

It was 50 years ago today… yet oddly, it’s taken until now to hear the out-takes appended to the new stereo mix of this most influential of Sixties artefacts, offering intriguing glimpses of a band bristling with invention. It’s like peeling back a corner of the album to see how it found its ultimate form.

In the case of take 9 of the title track, that means brusquer riffing, with no horn overdubs but harmonies already right on the money. A brief discussion of its merits precedes an early piano instrumental of “With A Little Help From My Friends”, before a playful organ flourish heralds a “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” featuring John’s verses but no choruses. Denuded of its most forceful element, this leaves the song, glittering with electric harpsichord and sprouting otherworldly imagery, all the more enchanting.

Like several of these works-in-progress, it’s a first take; and like the album as whole, it reveals the diverse brilliance of Ringo’s contributions in all their splendour: there are so many innovative sounds fighting for attention on Sgt Pepper, from strings and sitars to harmonium and harpsichord, that it’s easy to overlook just how extraordinary his drumming is throughout. He may have lacked the jazz chops so prized at the time, but hearing his parts in these pared-back arrangements, it’s clear that Ringo had a unique grasp of timbre, texture and timing, and a quirkily inventive approach to drum figures designed to animate each song in the most productive way possible. It’s impossible to hear these out-takes and not come away with increased respect for him.

Elsewhere, an instrumental first take of “Getting Better” is largely unrecognisable, an amorphous body thus far lacking a skeleton. By contrast, the harp and strings instrumental take of “She’s Leaving Home” lends it something of the character of a Schubert lied, its melancholy beauty just waiting to cloak human sadness in unbearable poignancy. The vocal takes to songs like “Fixing A Hole”, “Lovely Rita” and the reprise of “Sgt Pepper” are more jaunty, presaged and peppered with banter, in-jokes and nonsense – before the latter, a possibly over-relaxed Paul marvels at “all the shapes around the studio, the bobbles and bumps there”.

But as with the original album, it’s a remarkably accomplished first take of “A Day In The Life” that’s the standout here, with roadie Mal Evans counting the gaps till Paul’s (absent) vocal sections, and the closing monumental chord represented by a giant collective “Ooooommm” that perfectly evokes the era’s mystic-psychedelic zeitgeist.

Completing the disc are several versions of “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” which further indicate the creative malleability in operation, along with a new mix of the latter which, in its enveloping ebullience, represents the most successful of the new stereo mixes completed for the project. Overall, the album offers a surprisingly successful transformation that somehow enables one to hear this most familiar of material as if through new ears, a remarkable achievement in itself.

Dan Auerbach, Waiting On A Song

★★★☆☆

Download: Waiting On A Song; Malibu Man; Shine On Me

The range of Dan Auerbach’s production interests – from Dr John to Lana Del Rey – indicates the breadth of The Black Keys’ frontman’s musical interests, to which this second solo album adds a further few wrinkles.

The title track, with its tart guitar work and lines about “pickin’ [and] strummin’”, suggests that his current hometown Nashville is exerting its country influence on the blues specialist. But delve deeper, and you’ll hear a wealth of predominantly Seventies influences that collectively give Waiting On A Song a retro-yacht-rock character, particularly the droll character-study “Malibu Man”, whose blend of mild funk, strings and horns recalls Hall & Oates.

Auerbach’s touch is precise and measured: “Shine On Me” sounds like a George Harrison out-take, while the kitschy-corny “Livin’ In Sin” (“Your touch is electrical/I’m so susceptible”) recalls The Beach Boys circa 15 Big Ones. But there are threads of sly invention woven throughout, most notably the unusual alliance of dobro slide and Bacharach horns that lifts “Wildest Dreams”.

Roger Waters, Is This The Life We Really Want?

★★☆☆☆

Download: The Last Refugee; Is This The Life We Really Want?

Roger Waters’ first new work in 25 years bristles with echoes of former obsessions, from childhood anxieties and the lingering fallout of the Second World War, to the numbing effect of TV. References to xenophobia and “a nincompoop becomes the president” lend the title track a veneer of contemporaneity, but these wounds clearly run deep.

The trouble is, whether he’s claiming he could have done a better job than God in “Deja Vu”, or criticising our adherence to abundance in “Broken Bones” – pretty rich coming from the man who toured The Wall around the world – he just sounds like a grumpy geriatric for whom age has brought little of the reflective wisdom of Leonard Cohen.

By far the best piece here is “The Last Refugee”, an ominous evocation of a refugee father’s painful plight; but as throughout the album, Nigel Godrich’s production leans too heavily on collaged radio fragments, which tend to swamp the sombre grace that is its most noble characteristic.

Alt-J, Relaxer

★★★☆☆

Download: House Of The Rising Sun; 3WW; Adeline

Relaxer is effectively Alt-J’s folk album: still studious and tending towards complexity, but here tempered by a rootedness that snags emotions more directly.

This is most readily discernible on their transformative version of “House Of The Rising Sun”, heralded by wan pump-organ and related in a calm, earnest tone over gentle guitar and strings. Tragic but warm, it replaces the usual cautionary tone with a melancholy fatalism that’s utterly beguiling. Elsewhere, “Adeline” includes a reference to “The Auld Triangle” lurking within its shimmering strings, while “3WW” employs the band’s complex, multi-voice technique on a trad folk-style lyric: set to clicks and ticks and quietly echoing curlicues of guitar, it’s an exercise in poised determination that brings the best out of lines like “I just want to love you in my own language”.

Voices are crucial, too, in loosening the stays of other songs: the Franz Ferdinand-esque “Deadcrush” arrives via cartoonish falsetto, while an affected delivery veneers the twang’n’swagger of “Hit Me Like That Snare” with welcome irony.

Thea Gilmore, The Counterweight

★★★★☆

Download: Reconcile; Fall Together; New; The War

On her best album in years, Thea Gilmore darts back and forth between sharp, intelligent pieces on dark themes – depression, loneliness, murder – and more positive songs about love and hope. Though even the latter temper the enthusiasm with doubt, as in her befuddlement at writing “Another Damn Love Song”: “I’m not meant to be this light/I’m sarcasm and dynamite”.

“Slow Fade To Black” characterises depression as a sort of occupying force, its arrangement of piano, strings and fatalistic beat embodying the lurking portent, just as the piano rocking back and forth through “Fall Together” evokes the wretched, knee-clutching torment of the emotionally ravaged.

At her darkest, Gilmore offers astute reflections on the Orlando club massacre and Jo Cox’s murder in “Johnny Gets A Gun” and “The War”, balanced by the exuberant rebirth of spirit celebrated in “Sounds Good To Me” and “New”. Best of all is “Reconcile”, which presents a sour survey of dubious modern with engaging pop charm: in any decent world, it’d be a summer stadium anthem.

Benjamin Booker, Witness

★★★☆☆

Download: Motivation; Witness; Believe

Faced with the usual second-album song drought, Benjamin Booker last year moved temporarily to Mexico City to recharge his creative batteries. But he came to realise that he was actually trying to escape the endemic racism of his homeland.

It’s this epiphany that drives Witness, an attempt to fulfil James Baldwin’s invocation to faithfully represent one’s existence. Accordingly, the title track draws on gospel traditions to confront police killings – “Not everybody that’s brown can get the fuck on the ground” – while in “Overtime” and “Believe”, Booker expresses the desire for faith and direction in a rootless world.

The grungey “Right On You” opens the album with a welter of guitar noise and drums conveying the confusion of his flight south of the border, a mindset more calmly addressed over the acoustic guitar and cello of “Motivation”: “Am I making good choices? Am I made out of stone?”. Important issues, dealt with on Witness via a musical palette drawing equally from blues, punk and T. Rex.

Cody Chesnutt, My Love Divine Degree

★★★☆☆

Download: Africa The Future; She Ran Away; Image Of Love

Cody Chesnutt shares many of the same misgivings as Benjamin Booker – though being close to twice his age, he draws on classic funk and soul influences rather than Booker’s raucous stew of rock, punk and blues.

His forte is the kind of slick, itchily rhythmic guitar lick that drives “She Ran Away”, a retro-soul exercise on which he laments how “the conversation got so strong she ran away”, whatever that means. It’s a wonderful, infectious cut, but Chesnutt just can’t let it go, extending it beyond seven minutes via amorphous mumblings about waterfalls and a closing tribute to “Ethiopia, Eritrea, all over my mother”, a restatement of the cheerleading “Africa The Future” which opens the album.

But it’s indicative of the taste for extemporisation – elsewhere reflected in the funeral lamentation “Bullets In The Street And Blood”, which yokes an explicit message to a desultory instrumental drift – which renders this album less compelling than 2012’s Landing On A Hundred.

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