Wednesday, September 9, 2020

The Near 10s

Based on the AM rubric, there are few 10s. The critical consensus is that Sgt. Pepper is the greatest of all rock records, but subjectively there are flaws – "Good Morning" is great Lennon, but a bit lame for perfect. Sally and Peppy, therefore, is a 9, if as close to a 10 as possible (just go with me on this, for now). There are, though, despite the rigors of getting there, plenty of 9s: the debut Crosby, Stills and Nash, Court and Spark, the eponymous Doors LP, Fleetwood Mac's first with Buckingham and Nicks, a myriad of others. Here is the analysis of a few – and yes, another day brings a post of the 10s.

CSN: "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" from Stephen Stills is the folk/rock "Bohemian Rhapsody," as four "movements" are woven into one masterpiece. Often, seven-minute songs are merely three-minute songs painfully dragged out, not so, "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes." Next up is the Nash creation "Marrakesh Express," a hippy odyssey through western Morocco. One can't help but wonder what he was smoking while "blowing smoke rings." Crosby gets in on the act with "Guinevere,” a loving tribute to a modern Gwen. "You Don't Have To Cry" is a melancholy remembrance of Stills former partner (again, Judy Collins) and a lifestyle that "quite nearly killed" him. "Pre-Road Downs" and "Wooden Ships" are folky interludes that lead to the epic "Lady Of The Island." Here may be the weakest production on the LP. "Helplessly Hoping" on the other hand is spectacular. A finger-picking intro gives way to a pained love song. "Long Time Gone" is rumored to be about the murder of the liberal-thinking Bobby Kennedy, which so intricately fits into Crosby’s formula. The debut draws to a close with "49 Bye-Byes," 5:49 of upbeat melody and harmony that, while not as poppy as "Judy Blue Eyes," is equally sophisticated. The perfect album cover doesn't add to the music, but subjectively still plays a role. A must-have LP. Why not a 10? "Pre-Road Downs," "Lady of the Island."

On 1974's Court and Spark, Joni Mitchell is moving away from her singer/songwriter persona. Gone are the acoustic odes to rivers and Woodstock, replaced by a mature take on the complications and pitfalls of relationships and love, and more importantly, if the fight is worth it or not. "I used to count lovers like railroad cars/ I counted them on my side/ Lately, I don't count nothing/ I just let things slide." But don't confuse C&S as a moppy, down-beat ode to loneliness, when it interjects an upbeat, L.A. sensibility and humor with "Raised On Robbery" and "Free Man In Paris" (which details the troubles at the top for record executive David Geffen). The closer "Twisted," a bebop tune made famous by Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, tells the story of a fatalist analyst and his patient, but one is left smiling and snapping fingers nonetheless. The lyrics separate Joni from the other songwriters, the production, suits the mid-seventies L.A. vibe perfectly. The instrumentation is smooth and jazzy as Joni gets a little help from friends like David Crosby, ex-Graham Nash, Robbie Robertson, Larry Carlton, Joe Sample, Max Bennet, Tom Scott, and a dozen others of similar caliber. It is the Joni equivalent of Steely Dan’s Aja. Weakest Tracks: “Raised on Robbery,” while a stellar rocker it is sorely out of place: “Twisted,” a good rendition that seems like filler.

Here's one you may not have expected and one that appears despite a technicality. How do you follow up an album like Sgt. Pepper? Officially, you don’t. You release an EP called Magical Mystery Tour, the soundtrack to the maligned film of the same name. Now, while Capitol Records is oft-criticized for the American issued Beatles LPs (and I champion them often), here was the one release that was truly superior to its Parlophone/U.K. equivalent. Magical Mystery Tour's U.K. soundtrack EP contained only the title song, "Your Mother Should Know," "I Am the Walrus," "The Fool on the Hill," "Flying" and "Blue Jay Way." (A different running order than the American version.) The EP was released as a double 7inch. Certainly, "MMT," "I Am the Walrus" and "Fool on the Hill" are essential Beatles tracks, but the others are soundtrack fare and "Your Mother Should Know" is a "When I’m 64" rip off. What elevates the American version to a 9, of course, is Side Two. Parlophone/Beatles' policy was to never release a hit single on an LP after the fact. Capitol did not adhere to that unwritten rule and another Beatles 9 was released. Side Two of MMT is a perfect album side with five Beatles standards: "Hello-Goodbye," "Strawberry Fields," "Penny Lane," "Baby You're a Rich Man," and "All You Need is Love." Three of those were No. 1 singles and "Strawberry Fields" would have been, as well, but was released as the double-A side of "Penny Lane." Without the instrumental "Flying" and the weak "Your Mother Should Know," Magical Mystery Tour would be an AM10.

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