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Sarah McLachlan: Freedom Sessions
To the extent that the goal of this review is to help you decide whether Freedom Sessions is a recording you would wish to possess and/or listen to frequently, I can be unusually confident and succinct. If you do not currently own and adore Sarah's third album, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, you should not buy this. If you do currently own and adore Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, and only regret that you can never again hear it for the first time, you should buy this.
To the extent that I write reviews because I love writing about music, though, I have several other things to say.
First, the explanation. Freedom Sessions is a nine-song, 38-minute alternate-universe reworking of Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. Most of the versions here are early demos of the songs that, in their meticulously detailed studio guises, would make up the album. There's "Plenty" done almost entirely as a voice collage; "Mary" with just piano, acoustic guitar and a little bit of percussion; "Good Enough" with several tracks of synthetic orchestra over the voice-and-piano demo; "Hold On" with just Sarah at the piano; "Ice Cream" in its casual performance incarnation, with Sarah playing guitar, band keyboardist David Kershaw playing bass, and band drummer Ashwin Sood singing backup and providing a little brushed-drum rhythm; and "Ice" with Sarah playing a feedback-heavy electric guitar. There are also full-touring-band versions of "Elsewhere" and Tom Waits' "Ol' 55" (the one song here not from FTE), and, after a bit of silence to fool the five people left in the world who haven't learned that when a CD keeps counting even though no noise comes out it means that there's more music hiding on it, yet another version of "Hold On", this one a stark, clear rendition with sketchy acoustic lead guitar, shuffling drums and bass, and Sarah sounding uncharacteristically, and arrestingly, unsteady on vocals.
To dedicated Sarah McLachlan fans, the ability she shows here to reinterpret her own work will come as no particular surprise. Her singles are festooned with remixes, radio performances and live recordings; she followed her second album, Solace, with a live EP; and even Fumbling Towards Ecstasy itself had two versions of the opening track, "Possession". Indeed, the nine non-album releases I have with Sarah's name on them feature exactly no original Sarah McLachlan compositions. It's pretty hard for me to imagine anybody who would consider buying extraneous McLachlan items complaining about this state of affairs, though. You almost haven't heard a song of Sarah's until you've heard it at least two ways. By themselves, each version is impressive, but hearing a song done different ways suddenly makes plain how deeply involved Sarah is with her own songs.
In fact, this involvement makes Freedom Sessions an especially appropriate release to complement the seemingly endless tour that, nearly a year-and-a-half on, found itself in Boston again last night. The first time I saw Sarah on this tour, it was exactly one year ago this issue-date. At that point Fumbling Towards Ecstasy was a few months old at home in Canada, and just newly available in the US. The crowd was passionate and the band was impressively polished, but the venue was cozy (in a dilapidatedly baroque way). Last night (I'm writing this on the 22nd, so last night was Tuesday), the band was unearthly, the venue was larger and more dilapidated (actually, it was a different venue; I doubt you could expand the Somerville Theater without it simply disintegrating completely, and there's not a whole lot of dilapidation leeway in it, either), and the crowd was enraptured. And, for full parallelism, Freedom Sessions came out a few months ago in Canada, and goes on sale domestically the day this issue reaches the net.
Freedom Sessions acts as a tour souvenir in part literally, as the two band songs mark the first recorded appearance of the incomparable six-piece band she's been touring with. More than that, though, the never-ending tour has meant that Sarah has lived with these songs on a day-to-day basis for nearly a year-and-a-half, not even counting the time it took to write and record them to begin with. After all that time, it seems unjust that the only recorded evidence of them should be from so early in their existences. Thus these other versions, without literally being the live ones, nevertheless show that the songs are very much live creatures, not at all frozen in their album guises.
The Comsat Angels: Unravelled
The alternate-version parade continues with this 1994 collection of recordings done by the Comsat Angels for Dutch radio in late 1993 and early 1994. As I noted last week, the Comsat Angels' early work proper remains marooned in record-company vaults, but the band seems determined to exploit the radio-sessions loophole to its fullest. This album actually concentrates on newer material, with two new songs ("SS100X" and "Audrey in Denim") and four from the My Mind's Eye era ("Beautiful Monster", "Field of Tall Flowers" and "Always Near" from the album, and the b-side "Storm of Change"), but also features Chasing Shadows' "The Cutting Edge", Fiction's "After the Rain", Sleep No More's "Our Secret", and the single tracks "Eye of the Lens" and "Citadel".
Unravelled also serves to introduce the band's two new members. Apparently, original bassist Kevin Bacon has finally departed to pursue his acting career full-time (that's a joke, but if he did want to act in the US, would he have to call himself "Kevin Bacon U.K."?), and Terry Todd has replaced him. Guitarist Simon Anderson is the other new arrival, and he appears to have assumed all the guitar duties, at least for live radio-session work. The band absorbs these personnel changes with no evident adverse effects. Indeed, I'd listened to the album several times before I read the liner notes closely enough to discover the substitution. Whether this is more a reflection of Terry and Simon's successful integration into the band, or simply my inability to differentiate properly, I can't really be the judge.
Whichever the case, the Comsat Angels sound, as they always do to me when nobody is trying to turn them into A Flock of Seagulls, fantastic. The acoustic versions of "After the Rain" and "Beautiful Monster" that open the album are especially haunting, as is the piano-and-voice version of "Field of Tall Flowers". Both the new songs bode very well for the next album. The only two tracks whose inclusion puzzles me are "Eye of the Lens" and "Citadel", as both of these are plugged in performances that were also done on the BBC-Session album. I would have picked two that didn't overlap, though the performances here are, admittedly, quite different from the earlier ones.
(Note to Crisis for future pressings: the extra "l" in "Unravelled" is a generous, but unnecessary, touch.)
various: Columbia Records Radio Hour, Volume 1
While I'm on the subject of radio sessions, there's been a spate of good various-artist ones in the past year, mostly concentrating on the folkish portions of the spectrum. This one, compiled from a label-sponsored Sunday morning series with MTV-Unplugged pretensions, has neither the depth of KCRW/LA's Rare on Air, nor the breadth of KGSR/Austin's Broadcasts, but fans of certain artists may be very interested and, perhaps, pleased.
If the album belongs to any one artist, it's Bruce Cockburn. It opens with him and bassist Rob Wasserman doing captivating versions of "Lord of the Starfields" and "Lovers in a Dangerous Time", and closes with Lou Reed and Rosanne Cash joining the two of them for Bruce's "Cry of a Tiny Babe". Not only is the Cockburn/Wasserman dynamic impeccable, but Cockburn is a little more inclined to rock normally, which make these acoustic versions more special than in some of the other cases here.
The straightest folk material is the three-song run by Shawn Colvin and Mary Chapin Carpenter. Shawn does her own "Polaroids", is joined by Mary for "Shotgun down the Avalanche", and the two then swap mics for "Come On Come On", the beautiful title track of Mary's 1992 album. They both sing and play well, and sing and play well together, but these versions just don't strike me as that different from the ones I already knew. Shawn sings backup on the album version of "Come On Come On", so not even that touch is new. I don't know what James McMurtry's music usually sounds like, but my impression from his two songs here is that it probably usually sounds a lot like this. And while it looks intriguing on paper to have David Byrne singing with Rosanne Cash on one of her songs, in practice I'm not sure I feel his vocal presence is a positive factor.
Stranded among the artist blocks, which I can't help but attribute to the label not having nearly as much good material to draw from as a non-partisan radio station, the single songs by Darden Smith and Peter Himmelman are almost inherently incongruous. Darden's is good-natured and not to my tastes. Peter's, "Raina", is a quiet solo performance that I really like a lot, though it's disconcerting how much parts of it sound like Cat Stevens.
No compilation would be complete, of course, without something I have to program over. Here, that office is filled by two Leonard Cohen songs. I know Cohen is well-regarded, but I'm afraid that while he's singing I'm completely incapable of having any thought other than "On helium, he'd sound normal!" I also have to grit my teeth for a bit during the parts of the concluding Cockburn track when Lou Reed is gamely lunging for the tune, but perhaps you will react differently.
Runrig: Transmitting Live
Switching to full-fledged load-up-the-trailers-and-book-the-stadiums concert albums, this is another 1994 UK release just making its way to me. Runrig's first live album, Once in a Lifetime, may well get my vote for the best live album of all time, so I was looking forward to this new one with very high hopes. The hopes weren't unsullied by apprehension, though, as Runrig's style has evolved quite a ways since the four-square Celtic dance-rock that was their mainstay circa 1988, and I wasn't sure how well their current atmospheric mysticism would come across on a live album.
It comes across, actually, extraordinarily well. This album will never supplant Once in a Lifetime in my mind, as I doubt the band could ever intentionally recapture the oddly stiff exuberance and the joyously funk-less stomping drive of the earlier album's performances of "Dance Called America" or "Protect and Survive", but it's clear that Runrig have matured on stage as well as in the studio, and even in their calm phase there aren't that many bands that excite me more than Runrig.
To put this in context, I should be clear that I am a confessed Scot-o-phile. How much actual Scottish blood has survived this far down the McDonald line I couldn't tell you, but something powerful inside me stirs when I hear bagpipes, and I literally don't understand how anybody could not find the sound exhilarating. Big Country, my favorite band in the whole world, were for a time the reigning kings of distinctly Scottish rock, and when they moved on to other things, Runrig took over. (And now that Runrig, too, has moved out into the broader world, the crown seems to have passed to Wolfstone, whom I consider worthy heirs.) As of their last two studio albums, though, Runrig were moving away from their village-dance roots in the pursuit of music that combined their rock drive with some of the atmospheric intensity of Clannad and Capercaillie, in order to render Wonder in song form. To most of the Runrig fans I've encountered, this hasn't been seen as a good thing, but I happen to disagree with them. I've been known to make the preposterous claim that the last Runrig studio album, Amazing Things, is the single most life-affirming art work I know of. Make of that what you may.
So, personally, I think Transmitting Live is marvelous. I'm very pleased to get live versions of Amazing Things' "The Greatest Flame", "Ard" and "Pog Aon Oidche Earraich" (did I mention that they sing in Gaelic sometimes?), and The Big Wheel's "Edge of the World" and "Flower of the West" (the former of which was the first Runrig song I ever heard, in the gift shop at Castle Eileen Donan, Scotland's Most Photographed Castle, a title we helped it preserve). "Every River", "Only the Brave" and "Precious Years" represent Searchlight, the other studio album recorded since Once in a Lifetime, and the band dips further into their past for "The Wire", from 1985's Heartland, and "Alba", from 1987's The Cutter and the Clan. The real treat for me, though, is "Harvest Moon", a song that appeared originally on the Capture the Heart EP, which I half think I just have fond feelings for because it reminds me of Big Country's EP Wonderland.
For those of you not already Runrig converts, though, I don't think this is the place to start. Once in a Lifetime remains to me the definitive Runrig entrance point. If it doesn't move you, probably none of their work is going to. And even if it does, I think you're best off extending your range outwards from there, chronologically. The stylistic development from Searchlight to The Big Wheel to Amazing Things, in particular, is just too significant to have obscured for you by jumping to this amalgamation of stages before hearing the originals. This album is a gift to the faithful, but I suspect only the truly faithful will appreciate it.
Including, emphatically, me.
The Who: Live at Leeds
When the Who originally put out Live at Leeds, I was three years old. At least half of these songs, in fact, are older than I am. Growing up I wasn't even a Who fan, leaving that job to my best friend Mike. You didn't escape the Who where and when I grew up, though. They were rock; the standard against which a "rock concert" was judged was The Who at Texas Stadium. So between nostalgia, some musical taste-shifting, having listened to Jam and Cavedogs records a lot, and my abject weakness for box sets, I ended up buying the Who's 30 Years of Maximum R&B last year. This, in turn, has converted me at long last into at least something of a Who fan. So as MCA slowly doles out spruced up reissues of the Who's catalog, I plan to follow along. The first item in this program is this majorly reworked new edition of Live at Leeds.
As a quick glance at the back of the CD will reveal to those of you who remember what the original record consisted of, this edition is about twice as long as the original. As the liner notes explain in detail, the album now represents all the non-"Tommy" parts of the set, with a few minutes of "Tommy" excerpt thrown in for flavor. Why people didn't miss "I Can't Explain", "Tattoo" and "I'm a Boy" on the original, I don't know, as I can't imagine the album without them. Perhaps even more significant than the added material is the exquisite remixing and remastering by Andy Macpherson and Jon Astley. I don't have the vinyl to do an A-B comparison with, but the sound on the CD is amazing, and the crackles that the LP label explained were normal have here been totally eliminated. The extensive liner notes provide background on every song individually, and include pictures of all the original package's artwork. Like Rykodisc's Elvis Costello reissues, this is one that you almost have to buy even if you don't particularly like the artist, just to support reissuing done right.
But I still wish Jon Astley would make more records himself.
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