Monday, December 23, 2013

The Deluxe Edition: The Compact Disc’s Ultimate Legacy

For years now, the tech-heads have been telling us that the compact disc is dying. Assuming that to be the case — CD sales are down, used CD sales have flatlined, vinyl LP sales are on the rise, and on-line downloads continue to dominate the market — maybe its time to pay tribute to the CD before it’s too late, and acknowledge a relatively short but productive life.

CDs ushered in radical changes in music packaging and consumption, from the artwork to the sound, and eventually to piracy. The growing pains, at least from the first two, were offset in large part by the sheer capacity of the compact disc. A typical LP was about 20 minutes per side, meaning maybe 40 minutes of music per album. Maybe less. A standard CD, meanwhile, holds about 80 minutes of music, which allows double LPs to be released on single discs, but also allows single LPs to be expanded by adding outtakes and alternate tracks from the original recording sessions, all on one disc.

This bonus material ultimately grew from expanded single discs to a proliferation of box sets and deluxe editions. Box sets did not start with the CD, but the smaller packaging and expanded capacity enabled box sets to flourish in the CD age. Box sets allow record companies to release an artist’s entire catalogue, or huge chunks of it — plus outtakes, alternate tracks, rehearsals, demos, and live versions — all in one tidy package. Box sets often include video DVDs, plus books with photos and detailed liner notes.

For those interested in a less sprawling and more focused package than the box set, there is the deluxe edition, usually a single album expanded into two or more CDs, jammed with extra material, including expanded liner notes. The deluxe edition is probably the CD’s greatest contribution to record collecting. There are some absolutely incredible and essential deluxe editions out there, including, in alphabetical order:

At Fillmore East, Eat A Peach and Brothers And Sisters by the Allman Brothers Band
Blind Faith
Sweetheart Of The Rodeo by the Byrds
Eric Clapton and 461 Ocean Boulevard by Eric Clapton
Disraeli Gears by Cream
Layla by Derek And The Dominos
Copperhead Road by Steve Earle
What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On by Marvin Gaye
Benefit by Jethro Tull
Elton John and Tumbleweed Connection by Elton John
Burnin’, Catch A Fire, and Exodus by Bob Marley & The Wailers
McCartney, Ram, Band On The Run, Wings Over America and McCartney II by Paul McCartney
Damn The Torpedoes by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Exile On Main Street and Some Girls by the Rolling Stones
My Generation, Sell Out, Tommy, Who’s Next and Quadrophenia by the Who
Car Wheels On A Gravel Road by Lucinda Williams
Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. by Dwight Yoakam

That’s a very incomplete but extremely impressive list, all highly recommended, with new reissues being added all the time. In fact, two essential deluxe editions hit the racks this fall: Moondance by Van Morrison and Muswell Hillbillies by the Kinks.

Originally released in 1970, Moondance is Morrison’s signature album and one of the best rock albums of all time, a bouncy, jazzy contemplation of spiritualism, mysticism and personal redemption. Self-produced, Moondance was Morrison’s first commercially successful album, and the first he released after moving to Woodstock, N.Y., in 1969. A top-rank vocal stylist who’d already recorded iconic songs with Them (“Here Comes The Night,” “Mystic Eyes,” “Gloria”) and as a solo act (“Brown-Eyed Girl”), Morrison’s vocals on Moondance are especially powerful, soulful and evocative, maybe the best of his storied career.

The reissue of Moondance is available as a four-disc set with a DVD, and a two-disc deluxe edition, the second disc of which includes alternate versions of eight of the original album’s 10 tracks, highlighted by a 10-minute “I’ve Been Working.” The entire album was remixed for HD and then remastered. The resulting sound is as exceptional as the music itself.

Muswell Hillbillies is a great overlooked classic. Coming at the end of a remarkable creative arc by the Kinks — an arc that also included The Village Green Preservation Society in 1968, Arthur (Or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire) in 1969, and Lola Vs. The Powerman And The Moneygoround, Part 1 in 1970 — Muswell Hillbillies arrived in stores in 1971, the Kinks' first album on the RCA label, and if anything it only raised the creative bar on its predecessors.

In writing the songs for Muswell Hillbillies, Ray Davies used a pastiche of American roots music to paint a Davies family portrait centered in the Muswell Hill suburb north of London. The Davies moved to Muswell Hill from the working-class inner-city neighborhoods of London when Ray was a teenager, and they struggled to fit into the more middle-class environs north of the city. Those struggles are the narrative of the album. Alcoholism, incarceration, eating disorders, the plight of the working man, mental illness, Davies addresses them all with his typical penetrating humor and satire.

The bonus disc from Muswell Hillbillies includes three outtakes from the original expanded CD, plus three alternate tracks, one demo, two 1976 remixes, and three live tracks from the Kensington House in 1972. Among the gems on the second disc is the previously unreleased outtake “Lavender Lane,” a second track featuring the notorious Rosie Rook from the album’s title song. As is the case with the remastered Moondance, the re-digitalized Muswell Hillbillies sounds immaculate.

So that’s two more deluxe editions to add to your collection, classic albums with lots of extra goodies to digest. And remember, it never would have happened if not for the compact disc.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Some Unexpected Love For Gene Clark

Of all the musicians who’ve fallen through the cracks over the years, few, if any, ever fell as far or as often as Gene Clark. During a career that spanned more than 25 years, Clark flirted with success often, only to find obscurity each and every time.

Clark was a founding member and the original lead singer for the Byrds, one of the seminal groups in rock history, and was the primary songwriter on their first two albums. Clark left after the Byrds’ second album, mostly but not entirely due to anxiety over flying and touring. Following the Byrds, he embarked on an enigmatic solo career marked by critical acclaim and artistic achievement, but no commercial success whatsoever.

In the end, Gene Clark may have been incapable of handling success, and subconsciously kept it at arm’s length. He experienced stardom with the Byrds and handled it poorly. His reluctance to play the music-business game of touring and promotion always caused problems with the record companies. His self-destructive nature and alcoholism dogged him throughout his career.

Earlier this fall, Four Suns Productions released an exceptional biographical documentary about Gene Clark called The Byrd Who Flew Alone. Produced by Paul Kendall with editorial assistance from sons Dan and Jack Kendall, The Byrd Who Flew Alone covers the essentials of Clark’s life and career. Despite a dearth of video footage, the Kendalls adroitly tell Clark’s story through photos, audio clips, and voluminous interviews with friends, family members, and musical collaborators, including extensive conversations with the three surviving original Byrds.

There are few nits to pick with this otherwise standout film, but here are three. First of all, little is made of the constant and bruising ego clashes within the original Byrds, especially the alleged bullying of Clark by David Crosby. Second, little is said about Asylum Records president David Geffen’s angry reaction upon hearing No Other, Clark’s 1974 masterpiece. Reportedly irate that an album that cost $100,000 to produce yielded just eight songs, Geffen refused to back the album financially after its release, a devastating blow from which Clark may never have recovered.

Last and certainly not least, a little more in-depth discussion about the music itself would have been nice. Clark was an enigma, an artist who repeatedly created masterworks that failed, but we get far more here about the failures than we do about the masterworks.

That’s not much to quibble about. The Byrd Who Flew Alone is must viewing for Byrds fans, and it’s essential for Gene Clark fans.

The Byrd Who Flew Alone has limited commercial availability — it’s not available through Amazon, for instance — but can be ordered directly through Four Suns Productions. It’s well worth the approximately $28 asking price.

Watching The Byrd Who Flew Alone and pondering Clark’s career brings to mind an occasional debate over which former Byrd was better, Gene Clark or Gram Parsons. (In truth, Parsons was never really a Byrd but only a hired hand; as David Crosby so eloquently put it, there were only ever five Byrds.)

On the surface, comparing Clark and Parsons is an apples-and-oranges discussion. Where the two can be compared, however, Clark generally comes out comfortably ahead. Clark was by far the better singer. Parsons could deliver a great vocal performance when he was straight and sober, but he was seldom either. When he was tanked, his voice, thin and wavery to start with, often stretched to its breaking point. Clark’s voice was expressive, rich and full at all times, and he delivered countless mesmerizing vocal performances throughout his career.

Clark also was the better songwriter. Parsons wrote several great songs, but almost everything he wrote was a collaboration and he contributed less than he’s often given credit for on some of his best songs. Clark mostly wrote alone and was unbelievably prolific and poetic. His trademark mix of major and minor chords was usually the perfect vehicle for his eloquent and often spellbinding lyrics.

While both were self-destructive, Clark was more dependable than Parsons, a better bandmate, and is remembered much more fondly by those he worked with, and especially by those who worked with both. Parsons’ trust-fund background left him financially secure but also erratic, irresponsible and unaccountable. His work ethic was poor and he frequently let down those who depended on him the most, right up until his untimely death from a drug overdose in 1973. Clark, despite the commercial setbacks and alcohol issues, always soldiered on and continued to make quality music through the late 1980s.

This is not intended as an exercise in Parsons bashing. He created some brilliant music. He recorded some great tracks with the Byrds on Sweetheart Of The Rodeo (buy the Byrds box sets to hear them all). His early work with Chris Hillman in the Flying Burrito Brothers resulted in one of the first classic country-rock albums, The Gilded Palace Of Sin. His first solo album GP, is outstanding but suffers from weak vocals that undermine an impressive songlist. He corrects that on his posthumous follow-up, Grievous Angel, which includes some of his best vocal performances.

At their best, though, it’s not really close. Clark was more focused and consistent than Parsons as well as the better singer and songwriter. It shows in their recorded output. Clark’s No Other is the best record ever released by anyone credited with being a former Byrd. White Light, released in 1971, isn’t far behind. His first album with Doug Dillard, 1968’s The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark, was an earlier and better country-rock classic than The Gilded Palace Of Sin. His 1987 duets collection with Carla Olson, So Rebellious A Lover, is an overlooked gem.

Despite all of the above, 40 years after his death, Gram Parsons has proven to be far more influential than Gene Clark. Why? Several reasons, but none more important than Emmylou Harris. She was Parsons’ duet partner on both GP and Grievous Angel. That partnership launched her magnificent solo career in the mid-1970s. An iconic artist and a Country Music Hall of Famer, she’s beaten the drum for Parsons for four decades, and it’s paid off in a substantial and often noisy cult following.

Parsons’ influence is very real, yet you can’t be influential if no one ever hears your music. Harris made sure that people knew of Gram Parsons, and the world is better off as a result. It would be nice to see how influential Gene Clark could have become with a high-profile advocate as devoted to the cause as Emmylou Harris. Unfortunately, we’ll never know.