Music Week's round-up of the latest album reissues and catalogue releases, including Nirvana, REM, Marillion, Jon Savage and more...
MTV Unplugged In New York (25th Anniversary)
When Music Week caught up with Biffy Clyro frontman Simon Neil to discuss how they prepared for their own MTV Unplugged set, he admitted there was one past performance in particular that haunted him ahead of the event. It was one so perfect, he explained, it almost made him wish they hadn't accepted MTV's offer. It was, of course, Nirvana's legendary 1994 unplugged show. “It was such an integral part of my education as a musician,” Neil said. “At that point, I liked Nirvana because they were noisy and abrasive. I was too young to think there was any kind of sophistication to them – it was the energy and aggression that appealed to me. Watching Unplugged made me think of songs in a different way.” Simon Neil was not the only one transfixed by the sound of Nirvana ditching the distortion. Indeed, the superlative nature of Nirvana’s Unplugged set has long become part of rock mythology. Words on this landmark show haven’t exactly been in short supply for the past quarter century, but perhaps a quick snapshot of some of the accrued praise will suffice: Possibly Nirvana’s finest live performance! A brilliant demonstration of the elemental strength and beauty of their songwriting! A perfectly preserved artifact of 90s culture! Kurt Cobain’s perfect pause at the end of Where Did You Sleep Last Night? is one of the most powerful moments in live music history! The list goes on, and deservedly so. Memorable not only for the elegant way Nirvana stripped their music back but also Kurt Cobain's deadpans between songs ("This is off our first record, most people don't own it"), the original recording still validates all of the praise above. It’s the additional content compiled here for its 25th anniversary, however, that will prove to be the real draw for fans. Contained within the gorgeous silver foil flecked packaging is both the original release and five rehearsal performances previously only available as part of the DVD release. What it amounts to are versions of Come As You Are, Polly, Plateau, Pennroyal Tea and The Man Who Sold The World presented in much rawer, stop-and-start form, replete with occasional instructions and, in the case of Polly, some belching. Naturally, they are not possessed with the same grace as those performed during the real set, but to dwell on that is perhaps to miss the point. Here we gain a wonderful insight into the band's preparatory mindset – the nerves, the search for perfection – ahead of one of the defining moments of their career. It remains an absolutely essential release. (George Garner)
Monster (25th Anniversary Edition)
Monster has always occupied a peculiar space in REM’s discography. Never exalted like, say, a Murmur, Out Of Time or Automatic For The People, nor particularly held up as a fan favourite like New Adventures In Hi-Fi or outright derided like Around The Sun, instead Monster was, well… different.
And this was largely by design. After the phenomenal success of Out Of Time and Automatic For The People, REM were ready to pursue new sounds: a bit of glam here, a bit of alt.rock there. Suffice to say that radio at the time wasn’t exactly calling out for this type of song from the band that gave us Nightswimming and Everybody Hurts. Though the passage of time has revealed it be less of an experimental curveball than it felt in 1994 – this was, after all, never a band who were going to recycle their old ideas and bash out a track called Losing More Religion – it remains sonically unique in their catalogue. And often overlooked. For a long time, there has been a small but dedicated sub-sect of REM fandom championing Monster and, as this 25th anniversary edition proves, they were right all along.
While this excellent reissue features a completely new remixed version by Scott Litt – as well as previously unreleased demos, live recordings, video footage and new liner notes – it’s the remastered original that proves to be the most compelling draw. The fuzzed-up rock of What’s The Frequency, Kenneth? may be the album’s calling card, but it’s the more muted strains of You, Strange Currencies and Let Me In that steal the show. Indeed, in the case of the latter – a haunting song dedicated to the late Kurt Cobain, and recorded using the grunge star’s guitar – it is one of the greatest songs of REM's career.
It is the new remix shepherded by Litt that will raise eyebrows. Unhappy with his job first time around, his revised production alters the album considerably – and not always for the better, with What’s The Frequency, Kenneth? inexplicably having one of its central guitar hooks removed. Sadly, this is not the only casualty here. While Michael Stipe’s voice has been raised in the mix and remains a thing of beauty, the overall effect is that some deeply unnecessary audio surgery has been performed. Better instead to listen to the remaster and lose yourself in a record that, hopefully, will now get the respect it deserves. (George Garner)
Afraid Of Sunlight (Parlophone 0190295477219)
Marillion’s eighth consecutive Top 20 album when released in 1995, Afraid Of Sunlight was given a warm reception initially and is now regarded as one of the prog. rock band’s finest. In keeping with its elevated status, it is now the recipient of the deluxe edition treatment, with the release of this 4 CD/1 DVD box set, which is housed in a sturdy binder, which also accommodates a 60 page booklet containing rare photos, artwork and a lengthy, interesting and informative essay. The first CD houses a new 2019 mix of the album by Michael Hunter, who has served as producer of the band’s last three albums, and now adds subtle tweaks to Afraid Of Sunlight. Dave Megan’s original 1995 mix occupies CD2, while the third and fourth CDs capture the band live and in fine form at The Ahoy in Rotterdam, performing most of the tracks from the album, as well as earlier hits like Kayleigh, Lavender and Incommunicado, although of course, it is Steve Hogarth who was their vocalist by this time, whereas Fish voxed the studio versions. The blu ray disc contains Hunter’s 2019 remix in a variety of superior audio forms ((48/24 LPCM stereo remix; 48/24 DTS 5.1 mix; 48/24 LPCM 5.1 mix), nine bonus tracks that previously appeared on a 1999 remastering of the album, 17 previously unreleased jams and early versions, a new 45 minute documentary film and the promo video for the album’s hit single Beautiful. A 5LP version (catalogue number: 0190295477226) of the set with fewer bonus tracks and lacking the video elements is released simultaneously. (Alan Jones)
Jon Savage’s 1969-1971: Rock Dreams On 45 (Ace CDTOP 21559)
One of the best compilations of 2015 was Jon Savage's 1966: The Year The Decade Exploded, a sublime soundtrack to his book about what was a pivotal year in 20th century history. The album did so well that Savage followed up with a similarly-themed releases – all 2 CD sets with 48 tracks - packed with hits and rarities from 1965, 1967 and 1968. Unlike the previous volumes, which featured music from across the genres, the latest edition concentrates entirely on rock and spans three years – and with songs being longer, its cut count dips to 43. The good news is that it is a worthy successor to the previous volumes, with pivotal hits – Norman Greenbaum’s chart-topping Spirit In The Sky, Jethro Tull’s Witches’ Promise, Fleetwood Mac’s Green Manalishi and German band The Rattles’ suitably spoky and nightmarish The Witch among them – punctuating a collection that also gives rare oxygen to Steamhammer’s bluesy Junior’s Wailing, Kaleidoscope’s folk psych. Cut Lie To Me, London psych. rock band The Open Mind’s much-recorded Magic Potion and Delaney & Bonnie’s blue-eyed soul side Comin’ Home. Singles every one, they really capture the era, and are accompanied by a 28 page booklet packed with illustrations and information. (Alan Jones)
Across The Great Divide: Getting It Together In The Country 1968-1974 (Grapefruit CRSEGBOX 061)
Mike Oldfield’s magnum opus and stunning 1973 debut album Tubular Bells was recorded, unlike most albums of its time, not in a city studio but at The Manor, a rural residential recording studio. It was, perhaps, the most obvious example of recording artists retreating from the urban sprawl to nurture their creative spark away from the outside world. Traffic – who had a trio of Top 10 hits and are naturally featured here - were one of the first bands so to do, and before long it was commonplace. Across The Great Divide: Getting It Together In The Country 1968-1974 is an impressive 3 CD, 64 song set that gathers together a wide range of British acts – sixties pop groups updating their sound, cult underground acts, earthy singer/songwriters and experimental groups among them – who did likewise. Housed in a clamshell box, and including several previously unreleased tracks, it is important for Across The Great Divide to have some musical validity, and I’m pleased to say it does. Revitalised chart stars Marmalade (Cousin Norman) and The Tremeloes (Hello Buddy) clearly benefitted from the fresh country air, while future superstars like Rod Stewart (Country Comfort) and Mott The Hoople (Home Is Where I Want To Be) came on in leaps and bounds. Although acts like Byzantium (I’ll Just Take My Time, featuring a young Chas Jankel) and High Broom (It’s A Way To Pass The Time) never made it, they make valuable contributions to this edifying collection whose very existence is a tribute to the fiendish thought processes of the good folk at Grapefruit. (Alan Jones)