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Archive for April 2nd, 2012

Review: Tom Northcott, “Sunny Goodge Street: The Warner Bros. Recordings”

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Extra!  Extra!  Lost Folk Singer Found!

His name is Tom Northcott, and had things turned out a little differently, he might be remembered in the same breath as Joni Mitchell or Gordon Lightfoot, fellow Canadian troubadours.  After founding the Tom Northcott Trio, he headed for California during perhaps the most fertile period ever for creative, boundary-breaking musical exploration, the mid-1960s.  Northcott opened for The Who, The Doors and Jefferson Airplane, and was signed to Warner Bros. Records.  He gained solid regional airplay and a minor chart entry in the U.S., but his music never struck the same chord in America as in his native Canada.  In the early 1970s, Northcott retreated from the music business to practice law, returning only sporadically.  Thanks to the team at Rhino Handmade, however, the fresh and inventive music he created in his heyday is available once more.  Sunny Goodge Street: The Warner Bros. Recordings (Rhino Handmade RHM2 524879) brings together twenty long-lost tracks on one CD.  Is it sunshine folk?  Is it baroque coffeehouse?  This genre-defying and blissfully offbeat music speaks for itself.

Northcott was supported by a virtual “Who’s Who” of the L.A. scene, including Harry Nilsson, Leon Russell, Randy Newman and Jack Nitzsche, all under the watchful eye of Warner Bros.’ supreme A&R man, Lenny Waronker.  He stood apart from many of his contemporaries, though, by his reliance on material from outside songwriters.  Though an accomplished composer and lyricist with six self-penned tracks included here, Northcott was launched by Warner Bros. as an interpretive singer in an era when the rules were being rewritten on the spot.  Young men, armed with guitars, had little need for the songs coming from New York’s Aldon or Los Angeles’ Metric offices.

At the heart of Sunny Goodge Street is the 10-track Best of Tom Northcott, a Canada-only LP release.  It included a number of Northcott’s American single sides such as Harry Nilsson’s “1941” and a version of the Donovan song that gives the new Rhino anthology its title.  One month prior to the May 1967 release of Northcott’s “Sunny Goodge Street,” Leon Russell and Lenny Waronker had crafted the immaculate title track to Harpers Bizarre’s Feelin’ Groovy, and Russell is also responsible for the most vividly imaginative arrangements here.  The ornate, dreamy take on “Sunny Goodge Street” is even more far-out than “Feelin’ Groovy.”  The song is dramatically reinvented from Donovan’s slow, lysergic original, with Russell layering on a shimmering harp, calliope, accordion, strings, horns and background vocals in a beautiful cacophony.  Did Russell take his cue from the lyric’s “strange music boxes sadly tinkling?”  There are some similarities to Judy Collins’ earlier version of the song, but the vision of Northcott, Waronker and Russell is strikingly original.  The luscious orchestration contrasts with the impressionistic and vaguely disturbing words:  “On the firefly platform on sunny Goodge Street, violent hash-smoker shook a chocolate machine, involved in an eating scene/Smashing into neon streets in their stonedness, smearing their eyes on the crazy cult goddess, listenin’ to sounds of Mingus, mellow fantastic/My, my, they sigh!”  Northcott recalled in 1997 that Glen Campbell, James Burton, Larry Knechtel and Jim Gordon, all of the “Wrecking Crew,” all played on the song.

Perhaps proving the old adage that one must know the rules before breaking them, Russell ironically made his own solo career on stripped-down, raw and visceral rock and roll, the complete opposite of the style he supplied on songs like “Sunny Goodge Street,” John Hartford’s “Landscape Grown Cold” and Harry Nilsson’s “1941.”  Northcott, alas, didn’t find the same kind of success with “Landscape” that Glen Campbell did with Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind.”  James Burton fronts the Russell arrangement on dobro.  Nilsson’s “1941,” a sad and personal tale of one family’s history repeating itself, is adorned by Russell’s grandiose orchestra which embraces the song’s circus setting.  Northcott supplies an imploring vocal, and the resulting production is less delicate than Nilsson’s stately 1967 original.  “1941” cracked the U.S. pop charts at No. 88, and another Nilsson song, “The Rainmaker,” was issued the following year.  Jack Nitzsche was responsible for the quirky arrangement on Northcott’s version.

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Written by Joe Marchese

April 2, 2012 at 13:13

Barenaked Rarities Arriving in May

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Canadian rockers Barenaked Ladies are releasing a compilation of outtakes and rarities that, fortunately, more or less lives up to the title.

Stop Us If You’ve Heard This One Before!, a counterpoint to last year’s Hits from Yesterday and the Day Before, features 12 tracks, only two of which have ever seen the official light of day. (Those tracks are a remix of megahit “One Week” and “Yes, Yes, Yes,” a bonus track on some versions of the band’s 2003 album Everything to Everyone.)

The remainder of the album is mostly split between studio outtakes from the mid-2000s, (“I Don’t Get It Anymore,” “I Can, I Will, I Do,” “Long While” and “Second Best” date to the Everything sessions, while “Half a Heart” and “Adrift” ended up re-recorded for 2006’s Barenaked Ladies Are Me) and live tracks from the early ’90s (including a cover of The Beastie Boys’ “Shake Your Rump”).

The band, whose last album All in Good Time (2010) was the first without founding member Steven Page, will embark on a summer tour with Blues Traveler, Big Head Todd & The Monsters and Cracker in July and August. Stop Us hits stores on May 8. Hit the jump for the full track breakdown.

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Written by Mike Duquette

April 2, 2012 at 11:43

Review: John Williams, “Hook: Expanded Original Motion Picture Soundtrack”

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After more than three years of planning, preparing and waiting, audiences finally have a chance to enjoy an expanded edition of John Williams’ score to Steven Spielberg’s 1991 cult classic Hook (La-La Land Records LLLCD 1211). The world had been “getting by,” so to speak, with the Epic label’s original 75-minute CD presentation – a generous offering, to be sure, but one that only sort of did the score justice. While critics remain divided to indifferent on the celluloid continuation of James M. Barrie’s classic Peter Pan, the reputation of Spielberg and Williams’ first collaboration of the ’90s has grown exponentially in the Internet age. As collaborations between the director and composer go, its complexity and majesty have earned it a spot near the scores to JAWSRaiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial in Williams’ canon – so an expanded reissue had all the anticipation and intensity of a Star Wars prequel.

Now that the dust is settled, is La-La Land’s two-disc Hook everything fans could expect? Is it a high watermark in soundtrack reissue craft? Will it open the floodgates for soundtrack enthusiasts everywhere as the version of Hook we’ve all been waiting for?

Yes and no. Yes and no.

As the film score community took to the Internet to share their love for the genre, it became clear that – musically, at least – Hook was far closer to a classic than mainstream audiences would admit. Williams’ gift for leitmotif (the practice of recurring themes to signify certain characters and ideas, exemplified through works by Wagner and Korngold as well as Williams’ own Star Wars scores) was in rare form on the film. He crafted hummable themes for all the major characters – particularly recognizable, we would later learn, as they were conceived as songs for a musical version of the film – and by the end of the film, there were marathon passages of music that presented many of these themes in perfect symmetry.

For example, the final battle sequence in which Peter Pan rescues his children from the clutches of Captain Hook called for nearly 20 minutes of unending music – more than the Williams-scored marathons in Star Wars (the final battle over the Death Star passed 10 minutes) and E.T. (the bike chase sustained 15 minutes). To survive that pace, and to do so with truly moving, fantastical music, solidifies Williams’ genius as not only a mere film composer, but the definitive classical composer of our age. And even knowing only a little about the score from official channels, fans were cognizant of the effort Williams undertook; Spielberg marveled in the liner notes to the original soundtrack that his composer began work on the film having only seen about 45 minutes of the unfinished film (which would stretch beyond two hours).

The density of the score could never have been attained on a soundtrack release at the time. Even at nearly the full length of a CD, the original Hook album missed huge action passages (including much of that final battle) and some tender and heroic cues from Peter’s adventure in Neverland. Other cues were replaced by less effective alternate takes or album versions, as has been the case with countless Williams soundtracks.

Now, La-La Land have become the darling of the film score community for completing what was thought impossible and expanding Hook for a captive audience. Some fans blanched at the announcement that the composer had personally supervised and approved the project; his modest insistences that not every last note of score needed to appear on disc prevented 2008’s Indiana Jones soundtrack box set from being perfect. And, indeed, some of the choices that were made – or rather, retained – at the behest of Williams have struck some as maddening. Nearly every one of the 17 cues from the original soundtrack appear in their original album edits. That means that “You Are the Pan,” the cue which underscores Rufio’s relinquishing leadership of the Lost Boys back to Peter, is combined with “The Face of Pan,” a track that appears in the first half of the film. The film’s prologue cue, used only in the film’s teaser trailer, was inexplicably mis-mastered on the original soundtrack and appears at a slower speed; that has not been fixed, even as it is acknowledged in Daniel Schweiger’s liner notes.

The set’s master stroke, of course, is presenting well over an hour of music that has either never been available (a series of terrible-quality bootlegs over the decades barely counts) or wasn’t used in the film. From the smallest moments – the film ending of the “Flight to Neverland” cue – to the lengthy two-thirds of the climactic battle music getting unearthed from the vaults, it’s a dream come true to have this music on disc. And yet, the presentation of these cuts are more bothersome than minor edits in the program: upon repeated listens, it becomes clear that La-La Land had something of lesser quality than master tapes – likely music-only stems from the film negative – to work with. The difference in sound quality between original album tracks and unearthed material is sometimes too noticeable, as evidenced by strange dips in volume throughout tracks.

It’s really unfortunate that things turned out this way, but it should be stressed that it’s not the label’s fault. They presented the material with the same high standards fans have expected from them for years – it’s just they didn’t have the highest quality to work with. And after a dozen or so listens, I find myself far less flustered as to how things could have gone with this set and far more grateful that a deserved classic score has made it onto CD in style, with an appealing package and great liner notes. (Schweiger finally sets the record straight on both Michael Jackson’s alleged involvement with a Spielberg-helmed Peter Pan project, and shines some light on some of the intended songs for the film, written by Williams with lyricist Leslie Bricusse.)

The execution of Hook may not be what everyone has been waiting decades for. Might a better source be located down the line and released as a more definitive set? Sure, it’s happened before. But why grouse about a less-than-desired but still above-average presentation of a reissue when there’s revelatory music to be heard? On content alone, Hook is arguably the catalogue soundtrack to beat in 2012 – and to listen will be an awfully big adventure.

Written by Mike Duquette

April 2, 2012 at 10:10

Posted in John Williams, Reissues, Reviews, Soundtracks

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