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An expanded new edition helps us rediscover the band's 1967 masterwork.
In 2006, the Beatles coaxed producer George Martin out of retirement to remix and rearrange several of their iconic songs for Cirque du Soleil's Las Vegas stage production Love. Martin, though, had a worry: At age 80 his hearing had turned difficult, and so he brought in a collaborator: his son Giles. The younger Martin had produced classical music, as well as recordings by Kula Shaker, Jeff Beck, Elvis Costello and Kate Bush. "He's my ears," George Martin said. What ears they turned out to be: Giles recombined parts of many of the Beatles' songs into a mash-up of the band's audio history, sometimes encapsulating much of it in a single song. "Get Back" opened with George Harrison's memorable thrum from "A Hard Day's Night" and Ringo Starr's drum prologue from "The End," caught sight of an overpassing jet from "Back in the U.S.S.R.," pulled in part of the audience's expectant murmur from "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" and borrowed a bit of the orchestral swell from "A Day in the Life," landing on John Lennon's "Glass Onion."
The results proved radical and revelatory and conveyed how resilient and exciting the band's music remains – and how beautifully and imaginatively George Martin had produced it all in the first place, working with four-track recorders and inventing new sounds and technology. With Love, Giles Martin did what nobody had ever done successfully before: He reconfigured the Beatles' sounds into an alternate soundmap, making it plain these decades old songs still had revelations and delights for contemporary ears. When Love was over, you didn't want it to be – much like many viewed the Beatles themselves.
Now, the surviving band members and their legatees have authorised the reconsideration of a major canonical work: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, originally released 50 years ago on June 1st, 1967, in England, and the following day in the U.S. The new Pepper comes in various packages: single and double CDs, a deluxe box of four CDs and two DVDs (containing videos and 5.1 surround mixes of the original album), as well as a double LP that, like most versions here, includes several of the album's original developing and alternate tracks. All editions feature a stereo remix by Giles Martin (George Martin died in 2016, at 90) and Abbey Road audio engineer Sam Okell. The ambition might seem a bit of a risk or even redundant. After all, Sgt. Pepper has been considered by many as not just rock's greatest moment, but also as a central touchstone for the 1960s – an exemplar for a generation that was forging new ideals, and granting themselves new permissions, including the use of psychedelic drugs. The Beatles had already done a lot to make that change possible, but Sgt. Pepper – coming along at a time when many thought the Beatles superfluous, in the face of other new adventurous bands and records – crystallised it all. Langdon Winner later wrote in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll: "For a brief while, the irreparable fragmented consciousness of the West was unified, at least in the minds of the young."
Additionally, Sgt. Pepper's groundbreaking sonics – its mix of pioneering textures, complex composition and inventive recording techniques –also won the album standing as a legitimate art form that revised and extended classical music's archetypes. (This achievement also imbued much of rock itself with a new prestige and aspiration.) In part, the unprecedented acclaim resulted from Paul McCartney's insistence on the album as a conceptual song cycle that existed as a whole entity: The Beatles, posed in ornate Victorian brass-band military costumery on the cover, were playing a fictional band, singing from perspectives free of any indebtedness to their prior musical sensibility and well-established images. (Ringo Starr later described it as "a bunch of songs and you stick two bits of 'Pepper' on it and it's a concept album. It worked because we said it worked.")
But that was 50 years ago. A lot changed – including the Beatles, who ended acrimoniously in 1970. What can we learn now from Sgt. Pepper's new incarnation? As it turns out, Giles Martin reveals considerable new wonders – particularly in his stereo remix of the original album (which appears in all the new editions, and as a standalone disc and digital download). The remix, in fact, provides a long overdue epiphany. Martin observes in his liner notes: "The original Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was primarily mixed as a mono album. All care and attention were applied to the mono LP, with the Beatles present for all the mixes. ... Almost as an afterthought, the stereo album was mixed very quickly without the Beatles at the sessions. Yet it is the stereo album that most people listen to today." In other words, popular music's most elaborate and intricate creation – and one that helped end the mono era – wasn't made to be heard in stereo.
Perhaps that's been Sgt. Pepper's unlikeliest secret, though for those who compared the original mixes over the years the difference was noteworthy: The mono version hit harder, sounded fuller, whereas the stereo soundstage diffused that force. You hear it from the start: The mono version of the title track jolted full-force, particularly in the collusion of Paul McCartney's bass and Ringo Starr's storming drums. Martin has said that in attending to the new album's mix he was aiming for a "3-D mono" rendition – and he has achieved it. The titular opening track finally jumps out of the speakers in a more centralised stereo: It's sharp, vivid, forward leaning – the sound of a big band doing very big things and not fucking around about it one bit. Indeed, everything here is more vibrant and forceful; it's for the ears of today. Ringo's three-beat drum salvo that launches the chorus in "Lucy in the Sky" now gives new gravity to the song's hallucinogenic imagery and chimerical whirl; "Getting Better" has an aggression that belies the song's title claim, making clearer the idea that this is a song about a fucked-up man contending to overcome himself and confessing his flaws and confusion; "Good Morning Good Morning"'s horns and relentless rhythms propel the distress implicit in John Lennon's vocal (Lennon later said he was going through a personal hell as the Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper, and this song reflects that); and "A Day in the Life" acquires even more frighteningly palpable depth. The song has always stood outside of Sgt. Pepper's phantasmagoria. It was a vision of dreams, death, chaos, revelation, and it held and scared us as it faded into a final oceanic piano chord, reverberating around a room of keyboards. That moment now holds and scares even more; its finality sounds boundless.
Extra discs in the various Pepper packages consist mostly of the album's tracks in development (the fourth of the six-disc box showcases mono versions). It's particularly fascinating to hear the simple and spare origins of John Lennon's "Strawberry Fields Forever" (recorded for the album but released earlier in February 1967 as a single, along with "Penny Lane") and "A Day in the Life." Both songs sound abstracted and simple at their outset, then grow otherworldly; they are mesmerizing transfigurations, and they transmute right before our ears. Some songs arguably benefit from their fundamental, pre-effects treatment: "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" is spookier in its Take 4 version, and much warmer in Take 7, with McCartney's pumping bass steps and Ringo's razor-sharp cymbal accents. Similarly, newly released takes of "With a Little Help From My Friends," "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," "Lovely Rita" and "Fixing a Hole" demonstrate that before curlicues and overdubs were added there was still a quartet sensibility at the heart of most of this music (The Beatles never would have made this music had they kept touring, but contrary any claims, they could have effectively played almost everything here live and stripped.) You especially feel the band as a tight unit in "Getting Better," "Good Morning Good Morning" and the blazing "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)."
By contrast, "She's Leaving Home" which featured Paul and John's voices accompanied by a string nonet but none of the other Beatles. (The song's writing credit now appears solely as Paul McCartney's. Several other credits have shifted as well: the title track, along with "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," "When I'm 64," "Good Morning Good Morning," "With a Little Help from My Friends," "Getting Better" and "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" appear as McCartney-Lennon creations, rather than the more familiar Lennon-McCartney attribution. "A Day in the Life" shows as Lennon composition, while "Lovely Rita," "Fixing a Hole" and "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)" appear under the original Lennon-McCartney arrangement.) George Harrison's "Within You Without You" stands outside the Beatles. Harrison set aside his guitar, instead playing sitar and conducting Indian classical musicians while George Martin conducted a conventional classical string section. "Within You Without You" was derided by some as tedious and preachy, but it has weathered beautifully. Sgt. Pepper has often been characterized as a gestalt: a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts. But Harrison's Hindustani song and Lennon's "A Day in the Life" proved the exceptions. "Within You Without You"'s message of transcendence and unity – and of haughty judgement – was, as one critic observed, the conscience of Sgt. Pepper. "A Day in the Life," the album's closer, dispelled the whole fantasia that had come before. It was haunted – the ghost that outlasted the dream.
Sgt. Pepper's moment – its glimpse of a Garden of Eden, its florid sensibility, its depiction of "Cellophane flowers of yellow and green/Towering over your head" – could not hold. Bob Dylan moved back to folk music late that same year with John Wesley Harding – never once touching psychedelia – and the Rolling Stones reasserted rock & roll as a gritty, edgy, blues-based vocation with "Jumpin' Jack Flash," in April 1968. The Beatles were chagrined. The year following Sgt. Pepper's release, Lennon himself deprecated it as "the biggest load of shit we've ever done." By 1969 the Beatles had adopted a new motto: "Get back to where you once belonged," and proceeded accordingly, until they fell apart. Even so, the album itself never fell from its pedestal. It has always been seen as an unsurpassed milestone. Not so much for its psychedelic vision, rather for what it set loose in form, cohesion, texture, layers, adventurism, technology and utter boldness. Those possibilities bore fruit across the breadth of popular music, in Born to Run, Around the World in a Day, OK Computer, Yeezus, Lemonade and To Pimp a Butterfly, among countless others. Also, George Harrison's "Within You Without You" opened ears not only to Indian sounds but to widening vistas of world music. We live in soundscapes now that Sgt. Pepper helped lay the groundwork for.
Above all, though, the album represented accord and imagination as means to enlightenment – a last bulwark of agreement before the dark set in. We have lost a lot since the summer of 1967, including any more chance of being naïve. But now, thanks to Giles Martin, we can hear the Beatles' apogee as it was always meant to be heard. That won't save the world, but it can still beguile us, and that remains a generous miracle.
Note: There have been some questions about the reconfigured songwriting credits as they were itemised in the review. iTunes' composer column lists the writing credits for the main disc of the 6-disc of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Deluxe Edition) as they appear in this review. Other editions of the 50th Anniversary sets – including the 2-disc and iTunes download versions, and the mono disc in the box set – retain the traditional credits of Lennon/McCartney for all songs, with the exception of "Within You Within Out You," by George Harrison.
Main illustration by Goni Montes.
Black Keys man leaves the garage for some country-pop sunshine.
You already know what this will sound like, right? Swampy blues-rock rhythms, fat and fuzzy riffs and howling vocals, all covered in a slick of garage rock grease. I mean, it's the singer-guitarist from the Black Keys, after all.
Well, you're wrong. Auerbach has done what few guys in well-known bands do – he's made a solo album that isn't just a pale facsimile of his regular gig. He does it in a couple of ways. Firstly, he collaborates and plays with some names that help him change his game – 70-year-old country songwriting royalty John Prine puts his smart storytelling stamp on seven co-written songs; Duane Eddy (yes, Duane freaking Eddy!) twangs away on two tracks; two members of the Memphis Boys, the house band on hits by everyone from Elvis to Neil Diamond, are behind him.
And secondly, he makes Waiting On a Song unfold like a Seventies AM radio station playlist, when country, soul, blues and pop mixed things up with warm and sparkling results. The title track, with its Motown bass line and chiming glockenspiels, is a song about trying to write a song; "Malibu Man" is tricked out with countrypolitan strings and horns; and "Shine On Me" chugs and hums along like a Jeff Lynne-produced slice of Wilbury-like pop. And that Mark Knopfler-esque guitar? Well, that would be Mark Knopfler. Yes, Mark freaking Knopfler!
The star's second album is a sprawling breakup epic full of dystopian synth-pop realness.
It makes sense that Halsey proclaims herself a "Marvel nerd," because she definitely nailed the origin story. Born in 1994, just a couple of weeks after Biggie dropped his debut Ready to Die, she blew up into an out-of-nowhere pop icon with her breakout hymn "New Americana," speaking for a new generation of electro-angst youth: "High on legal marijuana/Raised on Biggie and Nirvana." Halsey keeps levelling up her pop-rebel game, being her own loud and messy self in public, with the sass of a confessed "fucked-up stoner kid" who grew up as a suburban Jersey girl named Ashley Nicolette Frangipane and renamed herself after a Bed-Stuy L train station. Bisexual, biracial, bipolar, but definitely not buying your next drink, she comes on like God's gift to hashtags, almost daring the straight world to keep underestimating her.
Halsey shows off all her wild musical ambitions on Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, a bold second album that consolidates all the strengths of her 2015 debut Badlands. It's her sprawling science-fiction breakup tale, indulging her taste for wide-screen melodrama – she begins the album by reciting the prologue from Romeo and Juliet, introducing a tale of star-crossed lovers trying to break free from the fatal loins of their families. (Halsey even has a line from Romeo and Juliet inked on her arm: "These violent delights have violent ends.") But of course, in her hands, it turns into the story of a restless young pop star who jets around the world, leaving shattered hearts in her wake, yet still can't find true love, admitting, "I have spent too many nights on dirty bathroom floors."
Halsey keeps Hopeless Fountain Kingdom moving, going for adult dystopian synth-pop realness. She's out to make damn sure nobody mistakes her for some harmless starlet who served as sultry hook girl on that Chainsmokers hit; she shakes off that image like she's dumping a mattress she stole from her roommate back in Boulder. Hopeless Fountain Kingdom sounds more like Trent Reznor's "Closer" than the Chainsmokers' – with flourishes of industrial clank and guitar grind in "100 Letters" ("I find myself alone at night unless I'm having sex"), "Heaven In Hiding" or "Alone." Her Shakespeare-as-Depeche Mode concept holds up even as the tracks jump from one usual mega-producer suspect to the next – Gregg Kurstin to Benny Bianco to Lido.
She duets with Migos' Quavo in "Lies," which presents both sides of a strange relationship gone off the rails, as she sneers, "Are you misled?/I gave you the messiest head." "Good Mourning" is an odd one-minute interlude with a little kid saying, "All I know is a hopeless place that flows with the blood of my kin." "Bad at Love" is a Kiss-worthy tour of beds she's wrecked around the world, from "I got a boy back home in Michigan/And he tastes like Jack when I'm kissing him" to "Got a girl with California eyes." Most daringly of all, Halsey strips down musically to lean on her voice in the vulnerable piano ballad "Sorry," where she worries whether she'll ever like herself enough to let anyone get close to her. She's hardly the first twenty-something pop upstart to face this dilemma. But judging from Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, Halsey could go anywhere from here.
First album in six years from Byron singer-songwriter.
A glance at the people Pete Murray has worked with on his sixth album – Trials (A.B Original), producers Tony Buchen (Montaigne) and One Above (Hilltop Hoods) – might suggest a drastic sonic change from the Byron singer-songwriter. Camacho isn't that big a left-turn, though there are production tweaks on songs like "Connected" that until now wouldn't have been associated with Murray's cruisy vocal croon. Camacho is at its best when Murray throws in a few surprises – see the tasty horns in "Give Me Your Love" – but such moments are more the exception than the rule. Still, Camacho is reliable and solid, which has always worked just fine for Murray.
Melbourne folk-rock duo take a synth-pop turn with hit and miss third album.
Tailing a yearlong sabbatical in Berlin, Punchbuzz marks a sonic expansion for Husky Gawenda and keyboardist Gideon Preiss. While the textured jangles, ethereal chill and lush folk-rock tapestries of Forever So (2011) and Ruckers Hill (2014) remain, the challenge here is disentangling them from so many fluting, spiking, tumbling synths.
Husky are just one of countless folk-rock acts to veer into the synth-pop wilderness. But for every likeable about-face – see Sweet Jean's Monday to Friday (2016) – there's a flawed experiment that proves style is apt to smother substance – as in the Paper Kites' twelvefour (2015). Much like the latter album, Punchbuzz is a 10-track meditation on staying up late. While visiting drummer Arron Light and bassist Jules Pascoe ground proceedings solidly, Gawenda's songwriting founders amid the album's decided busyness.
There's plenty of bustling urgency in "Shark Fin", yet Gawenda's lyrics seem almost incidental by contrast – in keeping with its vaulted, cavernous quality, "Punchbuzz", too, rings strangely hollow. Lead single "Late Night Store" is the album's strongest entry – if largely for the phrase "the soft machinery of your heart".
The album's back-end is tellingly confounding. While the icy "Cracks in the Pavement" draws winningly on pastoral folk and glacial closer "Spaces Between Heartbeats" could be a lost, lyrical Vangelis theme, the engaging strangeness of "Flower Drum" is buried beneath cascading keys.
Jack Antonoff uses joyously maximalist pop to deal with loss.
Jack Antonoff is a maximalist kind of guy, as both a member of fun. and on his own as Bleachers. He's said Gone Now is an album about loss and how to move on. He moves on by gloriously over-sharing and layering synth-pop on baroque pop on Eighties rock and on and on. He adopts Springsteen-esque grandeur in "Dream Of Mickey Mantle (Rolling Thunder)", Peter Gabriel's big, tribal pop in "Everybody Lost Somebody" and Simple Minds' shimmer and shudder in "Don't Take the Money", a co-write with Lorde. And there are melodic and lyrical motifs that he echoes across various tracks, giving the whole thing the feel of concept album or pop opera.
UK singer-songwriter sticks with the tried and tested.
Ben Ottewell's solo career has rarely strayed far from the campus-friendly, blues-informed folk-rock that rocketed Gomez to fame in the 1990s, and his third LP does not buck the trend. These world-weary songs are occasionally syrupy ("Walking On Air") though his capacity for urgent, incisive songwriting does emerge on "Own It" and "Lead Me". A Man Apart is, however, a bit too pleasant overall, the more insipid tracks approaching the grey banality of someone like Joseph Arthur. Furthermore, the growly vocals of Ottewell's youth continue to give way to a smoother, more generic trill, taking him further into the middle of the road.
UK future-folk trio's third LP is a collage of absurdity and beauty.
Who'd have thought that "House of the Rising Sun" could be the masterstroke on any album this far from pre-jazz New Orleans? alt-J's majestically ebbing and simmering version is more palimpsest than cover, its melody melted like candlewax and its story warping halfway into a dream of birds and forest fire.
It's folk, see – but it's a long, long way from (trad.) As a joke that's pretty clever, but it's the emotional immediacy of the experiment, with its plaintive pump organ and cathedral-load of classical guitarists and ravishing swells of strings, that defines another victory for this post-nu-everything trio from Leeds.
The way they seamlessly dovetail that with the sneery Syd Barrett rant of "Hit Me Like That Snare" is typical of their audacity. "Fuck you! I'll do what I want to do," goes the refrain. And they do, weaving jibberish and wolf howling into the thwacking electro-buzz of "Deadcrush" and then night-swimming into the haunted nylon strings of "Adeline".
Little of this is heralded by the mesmerising dervish groove, fragmented word pictures and accumulating sonic weirdness of the stunning opening track, "3WW". And after all the silliness and poignancy, nothing quite prepares us for the vaulting choral-folk architecture of the climactic "Pleader". Pastoral and electronic, daft and devastating, Relaxer is another welcome sigh of loosening bonds.
Striking metalcore at its aggressive, meaningful best.
On their fourth LP, Byron Bay's In Hearts Wake balance brute force, sophisticated melodies and poignant themes. Equally heartfelt and heavy, Ark's core theme is humanity's connection to water. The notion floods all aspects, from track names ("Waterborne") and nautical lyrics to charitable intent – they've teamed with nonprofit Tangaroa Blue to promote environmentalism through music; namely, cleaning up polluted Australian waterways. From the dizzying convulsions of "Warcry" to the soaring "Arrow", the clean, melodic moments are as arresting as its high-octane peaks. In Hearts Wake firmly cement themselves as one of Australian metal's greatest.
Marathon quests of intensity and articulation.
There's a striking savagery to guitarist Jenny McKechnie's lead vocals that can eclipse the other elements at play in Cable Ties. But the Melbourne trio prove just as hard-hitting instrumentally – and lyrically – on their debut LP, ploughing intensely through marathon jams fired by classic post-punk and riot grrrl. "The Producer" skewers coke-snorting knob-twisters, "You Can't Hold My Hand" is almost danceable in its frenetic drive, and there's crucial open space to buffer the volcanic catharsis of "Fish Bowl". Between the horizon-chasing pulse of "Wasted Time" and "Paradise", Cable Ties draw us deeper into an album that's all about muscle with a message.
Suave alt-country doyen shines on seventh long-player.
While confessional has always been JTE's most compelling mode, the Single Mothers and Absent Fathers LPs foundered for want of emotional gut-punches. Couched in the blues ("If I Was the Devil"), trad-folk ("Same Old Stagolee") and the Memphis soul that increasingly dominates his output, Kids is a nostalgia piece (the title track), intensified by an emotive sting as Earle kicks against the pricks of change. Opener "Champagne Corolla" surpasses the humid, soulful heights of 2010's "Harlem River Blues", there's a country-weeper-by-proxy in "What's She Crying For", and a Gospel-hued strut in "15-25". It's Earle's best work in years.
Former 'finger frontman serves a bittersweet breakfast.
How brutal? The sequel to last year's Civil Dusk stutters to life like a sudden wake-up in a prison cell. "Shed My Skin" is a shudder of old demons and "How Many Times?" finds its way into a darker place again. "America (Glamour and Prestige)" is as brutally dismissive as the title implies and "Fighting For Air" seals a broad theme of grasping at straws of redemption in troubled times. The remedy is in Nick DiDia's full, warm, woodgrain production with crafty echoes of classic Seventies Americana from Dylan to CSN, and in songcraft strong enough to warrant the twin-album gambit.
Compelling debut from Cali alt-country singer-songwriter.
"I grew up my father's daughter; he said, don't take no shit from no one," sings Jade Jackson on "Aden", before a wounded fiddle slices open the track's careworn guitars. It's an apt opening salvo for an LP that occupies the sweet spot triangulated by the brash defiance of Lydia Loveless, Nikki Lane in full Western mode (locomotive shuffle "Troubled End"), and the world-weary self-affirmation of Tift Merritt ("Gilded"). Punchy barroom drums and ragged guitar textures ("Good Time Gone") flatter producer Mike Ness (Social Distortion), while Jackson's easy poeticism and vaporous, laconic delivery shine on nostalgia piece "Back When" and "Finish Line". It's a consummate debut.
Melbourne alt-country stylists return with mesmerising third LP.
In four years, the twin songwriting force of Luke Sinclair and Nick O'Mara has matured to a lustrous finish. Richer guitar textures proliferate here, while Sinclair's inflection is charged with uniquely Australian pathos throughout (the title track). There's freewheeling West Coast country-rock in "Nowhere (You Wanna Run)", vital Seventies roots-rock in "Night Wheels", and breathless poignancy in "Dreamer". Lyrically, a minor theme centred on modest hopes and ambitions thwarted casts an affecting light over proceedings ("By Now"). RBE are in good company with the likes of local alt-country luminaries Halfway and Tracy McNeil.
Strange and wonderful neo-folk visions from NZ singer.
Produced by John Parish (PJ Harvey) and featuring turns from Perfume Genius, Party is a mesmerising follow-up to Harding's 2014 debut. A less demonstrative heir to Kate Bush, Harding inhabits nine jaw-droppingly disparate vocal incarnations, delivering crystalline slivers of enigmatic, fragmentary poeticism amid delicate whorls of finger-picking and expressive piano. Childlike innocence is wryly counterpointed with sensuality in the title-track, while Harding summons profound hurt in "Horizon". Save for "I'm So Sorry", which bears the stamp of established collaborator Marlon Williams, it's an album of incomparable quality.
British outfit plunder darkness on debut album.
Hailing from East London, Pumarosa dub their sound "industrial spiritual", and it's not a bad description – the cold, The Cure-meets-Depeche-Mode-in-a-bar-owned-by-Interpol vibe of songs such as "Priestess" is offset by a melodic warmth and energy that prevents the album from veering too far into the insular. Frontwoman Isabel Muñoz-Newsome is a captivating presence, calling to mind a mix of PJ Harvey and Johnette Napolitano, her voice washing over the choppy guitar work of Jamie Neville. Witness the swirling climax of "Honey", a sonic freakout that will leave you breathless.