Sunday, September 21, 2014

Review: 'George Harrison: The Apple Years 1968 – 75'

With his primal screams, avant gardism, agit-prop politics, and insistence that he is a tusked marine mammal, John Lennon has the reputation for being the “weird” Beatle. All of that may change with the release of George Harrison: The Apple Years 1968 – 75. Those unfamiliar with the less traveled nooks of George’s catalog may be shocked by its scary synth experiments, culture-clashing soundtrack, unabashed spiritualism, and an LP made while the singer was suffering from a severely shredded larynx.

Unlike John and Paul, George did not make a lot of overly familiar albums at the beginning of his solo career. Each housing a huge number one hit, All Things Must Pass and Living in the Material World are as well known as it gets (and I hadn’t even heard Material World before now). His first two albums, Wonderwall Music and Electronic Sound, are downright obscure, and for obvious reasons. The Meditative Beatle’s second album collects a pair of bizarre and very different Moog synthesizer experiments. The first, “Under the Mersey Wall”, is pure sci-fi movie soundtrack with strays blasts of humor. At one point, some 3D crackling will make you check to see if your stereo equipment is malfunctioning. At another, he starts to play “Yesterday” only to end the melody by noodling back off to the cosmos. The other track, “No Time or Space”, is a much tougher listen, George’s synth simulating gunshots, squalls of white noise, laser beams, and sirens. It’s as assaultive and angry as John’s most throat-ravaging screams. So much for that meditative reputation.

Wonderwall Music, the other true curio in this eight-disc box set, is a much more delightful surprise. For a goofy little period-piece film that few people saw, George composed some outrageously gorgeous music that mostly spotlights his raga obsession but also dallies with baroque pop, acid rock, music hall, psychedelia, Mellotron mood music, Moody Blues romanticism, tape loops, and avant garde collages. Wonderwall Music is a lovely encapsulation of all the things that made mid-sixties music wonderful and its artist doesn’t even sing or play a note on it.

Then came the record that everyone heard, and deservedly so, because All Things Must Pass is the greatest pop album of the seventies. George’s first “proper” solo album is a triple-LP stuffed with all the superb songs for which there was “no room” on those John and Paul dominated albums, produced with grandiose splendor by Phil Spector. Living in the Material World is very modest by comparison, its first side resembling origami swans: plain paper folded prettily. The second side is much more substantial, and transforms Material World into a record really worth hearing. The thumping title track, the whispering “Be Here Now”, and the swirling “Try Some Buy Some” are some of the best songs of George’s solo career.

Things get odd again with Dark Horse. Musically, it’s George’s most lighthearted album yet, but his strained, hoarse singing knocks it off kilter and he often waxes bitter, even pitching a bit of mud at his ex-wife Pattie Boyd and her new beau Eric Clapton in a jerky cover of “Bye Bye Love”. So what could have been too polished and poppy ends up more fascinatingly crazed. Plus the title track, “So Sad”, “Maya Love” and “Far East Man” are all really good songs (for those who wish to hear George sing “Dark Horse” with all his vocal powers intact, there’s the demo included as a bonus on this disc). The brainless single “Ding Dong, Ding Dong” and “Haris on Tour (Express)”, which sounds like a seventies sitcom theme song, are not.

Almost all traces of weirdness are scrubbed away for the final CD in this set. Extra Texture (Read All About It) is too bogged down with mid-tempo, easy listening epics. The closing track, a fairly rollicking tribute to the Bonzo Dog Band’s “Legs” Larry Smith, is a welcome change of rhythmic pace but it isn’t bonzo enough. Only the Spector-esque “You” (rescued from an old session for Ronnie Spector), the self-quoting “This Guitar (Can’t Keep from Crying)”, and the slinky “Tired of Midnight Blue” stand out.

The final disc is a DVD that collects bonus video content from previous incarnations of All Things Must Pass, Living in the Material World, and The Concert for Bangladesh, as well as a silly promo video for the silly “Ding Dong, Ding Dong”. Olivia Harrison directed a new seven-minute, semi-animated video promo film for this release too. None of this stuff is exactly essential viewing, but I thought it was a nice precursor to listening to the CDs, offering tantalizing tastes of a lot of music I’d never heard before.

All of the CDs are collected in mini-LP covers, though ones that don’t attempt to slavishly recreate the originals (alas, All Things Must Pass is not in a mini box, but Extra Texture has its textured sleeve) and include informative booklets with the exception of All Things Must Pass, which has a repro of the LP’s lyric poster instead. Most of the discs also feature bonus tracks, Wonderwall Music and Living in the Material World having the best of the bunch. Unfortunately, All Things Must Pass copies the track line-up of the album’s 2001 edition, which means its bonus tracks are bunched at the end of disc one, thus disrupting the album’s flow if you’re not quick to hit the “stop” button after “Run of the Mill”. The best move would have been to mimic the triple disc format of the original album and place the bonuses at the end of the disposable “Apple Jam” disc, or at least follow the format of its 1988 CD incarnation and split the two discs between the LP’s sides C and D, placing the bonuses at the end of the second disc. Fortunately, this new All Things Must Pass does not mimic the flat sound of the 1988 CD or the harshness of the 2001 one. Newly remastered from the original analog tapes, it is warm and detailed, as are the other discs in this nicely packaged set. 

Get George Harrison: The Apple Years 1968 – 75 on here:
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