January 2021 Rock/Pop Record Reviews

Beabadoobee: Fake It Flowers

Dirty Hit (16/44.1 streaming on Qobuz). 2020. Pete Robertson and Joseph Rodgers, prods.; Joseph Rodgers, eng.

Performance ****

Sonics ***½

In 2017, Filipino-British songwriter Bea Kristi wrote a love song called “Coffee” and sang it into her phone, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar. She added simple backing vocals and posted it on YouTube, calling herself Beabadoobee. 300,000 views later, she signed with indie label Dirty Hit. She has since delivered several EPs, each more techno than the last. Her lo-fi roots dissolved, but Fake It Flowers, her first full-length album, leaps a few decades back in musical time.

Although grunge and emo flourished before the 20-year-old was born, Kristi takes to these 1990s genres like they’re her birthright. There’s even a track called “Emo Song,” with the circumscribed pitch range and rhythmic perpetual motion you’d expect from a punk revival band. Kristi has a heavier groove at the ready, in the powerful bass of “Worth It,” while “Together” basks in the overanalytical nervousness of a Suzanne Vega song.

For all its retro feel, this album is a long way from the folkish simplicity of “Coffee.” The lilting “Further Away,” despite acoustic strumming at its core, relies on electronic effects, building into a shimmering swell painfully overblown with high frequencies. Kristi invited some previous collaborators to help with the sound production, which otherwise is effective: Pete Robertson, drummer for The Vaccines, played several instruments and arranged while acting as co-producer with engineer Joseph Rodgers.

Grunge and its subgenres captured a particular flavor of teen angst, one that eventually appealed to the masses despite being labeled “indie.” Fake It Flowers offers up a taste to the new generation.—Anne E. Johnson


Adrianne Lenker: Songs and Instrumentals

4AD 4AD0302CD (Auditioned as 16/44.1 stream on Qobuz; also available on LP). 2020. Adrianne Lenker and Philip Weinrobe, prods.; Philip Weinrobe, eng.

Performance ****

Sonics ****

Songs and Instrumentals are a pair of solo albums, sold as a set, by Adrianne Lenker, singer and guitarist with indie folk-rock group Big Thief. Although she has been making solo recordings since she was 13, in 2004 this release shows she has developed into a songwriter of intense emotional power and poetic insight, even, or perhaps especially, via the bare-essentials combination of one voice with acoustic guitar.

That voice is thin yet incisive and as dexterous as a scalpel; it digs into melodies, cutting them open and laying bare her reactions to relationships. Like many gifted songwriters, she uses her most personal experiences and observations to reveal universal truths.

She overdubs vocals and guitar to further disperse the imaginative scenes in the lyrics of “Ingydar.” The gentle percussiveness of “Dragon Eyes” brings to life a quiet domestic moment, comparing that microcosm with the way “the coastline is shaped by the wind.”

Instrumentals includes two lengthy meditations. “Music for Indigo” has the relaxed forward motion of a stroll down a country road. “Mostly Chimes” explores resonant properties of chords; wind chimes take over. It’s restful but doesn’t have the impact of the songs.

Recorded in a one-room cabin in western Massachusetts on an Otari 8 Track, this project derives much of its intimacy from its sound production. Engineer Philip Weinrobe has preserved extraneous noises—a creaky chair, buzzing string-plucks. The result is music as a natural phenomenon. Nowhere is this approach more poignant than on the song “Come”: We can hear the rain.—Anne E. Johnson


Prince: Sign “o'” the Times (Super Deluxe Edition)

Warner Records R2 628756 (CD/DVD). 2020. Prince, Michael Howe, prods.; Coke Johnson, Susan Rogers, engs.

Performance *****

Sonics ***

Warner Records and The Prince Estate have been doing an unexpectedly tasteful job of reissuing the pop master’s work. There’s an eye on profits to be sure: The expanded reissues since Prince’s death have clearly been aimed at a broad audience but with enough additional material and shelf-candy packaging to satisfy fanatics. But there’s substance, too.

This eight-CD reissue of 1987’s Sign o’ the Times (also available as an LP-DVD set) is easily the poshest set they’ve put out yet. Remastering provides a new clarity, even if the tracks don’t all leap from the speakers as one might hope. Sonically, it’s an uneven album and always will be. But a great album sounding better is still a happy occasion. It’s by Prince’s volition and genius that it hangs together as a singular (if sprawling) statement.

It’s the bonuses that sell the box, though: B-sides, remixes, two full concerts (one audio, one DVD), and 45 unreleased tracks that no one but Prince would call “unfinished.” (If he were still with us, we wouldn’t be hearing them.) The live DVD doesn’t quite feel like a final edit. It’s a multi-camera shoot with good video quality and great audio—the channel fades suggest it’s taken off the soundboard—but the cameras wander, and there are no audience mikes, making the room feel a bit empty.

Whether or not Sign is Prince’s best album, it was a major statement in the half-decade that began with Purple Rain and represented his most fervent and arguably most successful period of work. This new, 12-hour edition, is the strongest testament to his genius yet in a single package.—Kurt Gottschalk


The Rolling Stones: Goats Head Soup 2020 (Deluxe Reissue)

Rolling Stones Records/Polydor 00602508850325 (3 CDs, 1 BRD). 1973/2020. Jimmy Miller, original prod.; Giles Martin, Craig Silvey, remix engs.; Emily Lazar, Greg Calbi, mastering engs.

Performance ***½ (***** for the live CD)

Sonics ****

For this mediocre 1973 album, the Rolling Stones have released perhaps their most deluxe reissue packages. Under review is the version with four shiny 5″ discs (three CDs and a Blu-ray disc with surround/Dolby Atmos mixes plus 24/96 2-channel audio plus three videos). There is also a 4-LP version (mastered from digital sources), a less-deluxe 2-CD set, a 2-LP version, and, exclusively at the Rolling Stones store, a single-LP-plus-7″-single issue. There’s even a cassette reissue for those who like to play in the brackish end of the fidelity pool.

Goats Head Soup is not a worthy successor to the Stones’ prior release, Exile on Main St. It’s not a “hidden gem …in plain sight,” as suggested by Ian McCann’s opening essay in the beautifully illustrated hardcover book built into the luxuriant album packaging. Aside from that overwrought description, McCann’s essay is a good deep dive into the sessions, especially the initial tracking at Dynamic Sounds Recording in Kingston, Jamaica. There are many good photos of the band at work.

For the Goats Head Soup sessions, Keith Richards was not his best self. Beset by a spiraling heroin addiction and mounting legal problems, he is absent on some tracks. Producer Jimmy Miller, who parted company with the Stones after this album, also fought drug addiction. Credit where it’s due: Miller had had a mostly fantastic run with the Stones, dating from Beggars Banquet, but it ended here.

Net-net, the songs are mostly lackluster, with exceptions. The album was a commercial success, yielding the AM radio hit, “Angie,” which sounds maudlin and schlocky 47 years on. (To my ears, “Winter” is a better slow ballad, with a soulful solo by guitarist Mick Taylor.) Other highlights include “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker),” a funky tune telling of a “poor boy” “shot down” by the police—eerily relevant today. Even though the lyrics are hokey like a cheap horror flick, I can’t help liking “Dancing with Mr. D,” mainly for Mick Taylor’s slide guitar.

The second disc is filled with “bonus material,” mostly half-baked demos and run-throughs. It ends with fully formed but rejected 1973 mixes of three album tracks by Glyn Johns.

So far, this is not a strong endorsement.

Luckily, there is an actual gem hiding in plain sight: CD 3, Brussels Affair (Live 1973). Hardcore Stones fan will recognize the title. It was in print briefly as a “from the vaults” CD after bits and pieces circulated for years on various bootlegs. (Perhaps the most famous of those bootlegs was titled Bedspring Symphony.) Recorded October 17, 1973, at Brussels’s Forest National Arena, and later mixed by Bob Clearmountain, the energy leaps from the speakers, sure to convince even skeptics that this band once really was “The Greatest Rock’n’Roll Band in the World.”

More than half the liner notes, 66 pages, is a lavishly illustrated essay by Nick Kent, “Make You Scream All Night—The Road to Brussels Affair (Live 1973).” In terms that vividly match the bright color photographs, he describes the Stones on tour at a peak of talent and excess. Absorbing Kent’s chapter while listening to the live CD is quite the multimedia experience.

Giles Martin’s remixes clarify and modernize the studio album’s sound. Alas, the pandemic prevented the record company from hosting a public demonstration of the Atmos surround mix. The 5.1 surround mix accentuates details in the mix, but it does not strengthen the songwriting.

For the hardcore Stones fan, this reissue is worth owning as a spiffy physical artifact, plus the live CD and the Giles Martin remixes are worth hearing. The casual Stones fan who doesn’t desire a handsome box set on their shelf should at least stream the live tracks to get a taste for what all the fuss over this band was about in the 1970s.—Tom Fine

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