Led Zeppelin: I, II & III (2014 Remasters)

Led Zeppelin: I, II & III (2014 Remasters)

Has any music reviewer ever missed the mark more than John Mendelsohn in his 1969 Rolling Stone critique of Led Zeppelin’s scorching, finely honed debut? After calling the album self-indulgent, he labeled Jimmy Page “a very limited producer and a writer of weak, unimaginative songs” and dismissed Robert Plant’s “strained and unconvincing shouting.” The album, Mendelsohn concluded, was “a waste.”

OK, everybody’s entitled to one mistake. But when the group returned just 10 months later with the equally potent Led Zeppelin II, Mendelsohn was back too, this time with a sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek review that, for example, mocked Page as “the absolute number-one heaviest white blues guitarist between 5’4” and 5’8” in the world.”

Lester Bangs—who took over Rolling Stone’s Led Zeppelin beat to critique its third album—was only slightly more enthusiastic. After labeling various tracks “production-line Zep churners” and “lethally dull,” he allowed that “much of the rest” of the third LP was “not bad at all.”

The magazine did eventually wake up. In 2003 it called Led Zeppelin’s debut “astonishing” and placed it at No. 29 on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. Led Zeppelin II (which Rolling Stone now said “opens with one of the most exhilarating guitar riffs in rock & roll”) came in at No. 75. (Led Zeppelin III didn’t make the list, though some people have come to regard it as the best of the three albums.)

Happily, many music listeners instantly heard what Rolling Stone’s original reviewers missed: this was primal, blues-influenced rock and roll from a uniquely talented quartet. All three albums sold well from the start, and today they remain key elements in the catalog of a hugely important band that has sold more than 300 million LPs and CDs.

In fact, these albums are so well known that it’s hard to imagine there are many rock fans who aren’t now familiar with them. It’s also unlikely that there are many serious Led Zeppelin enthusiasts who don’t already own them.

This presented an obvious challenge to the group’s label—the same challenge that has recently faced other labels, all of which seem to think one key to saving the record business is finding new ways to sell old music to well-heeled baby boomers who already own it. The standard solution appears to be to combine remastered versions of original albums with a ton of bonus material.

That’s exactly what we have here, along with a mind-boggling array of consumer choices for each of the three albums. You can opt for a single remastered CD; a single remastered LP on 180-gram vinyl; a two-CD or two-LP set, with the remastered album augmented by bonus content; or digital downloads of the remastered album and/or the bonus content. There’s also a “super deluxe” boxed set that includes the CDs, the vinyl, access to the downloads, a print of the original album cover and a hardbound book.

So should you take the bait? As with most reissues of this sort—such as the recent deluxe editions of the Who’s Tommy, Van Morrison’s Moondance and the Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat—it all comes down to the extent of your fandom. If you’re a casual admirer who already owns the original CD versions of these albums—or such earlier repackagings as Led Zeppelin Boxed Set, Led Zeppelin Remasters, The Complete Studio Recordings or Mothership—you may understandably see little need for this newest upgrade. But if you love the band, as I do, one listen should be enough to justify the price of at least the deluxe CD editions.

As the titles above suggest, this is hardly the first (or even second) remastering of the three albums, but Jimmy Page’s latest effort—which involved transfer of the original analog tapes to a higher-resolution digital format—does result in a notably fuller and warmer sound than on prior releases. Moreover, the bonus tracks on the group’s debut—a recording of a widely bootlegged October 1969 Paris concert—are terrific.

The companion discs with Led Zeppelin II and III are less crucial; as is often the case with bonus content on reissued albums, you can see why most of it didn’t make the original release. Most of these tracks are experiments—less than fully formed early versions. Still, they offer insight into the group’s creative process and it’s fascinating to hear some of the different paths the band might have taken with these songs. You’ll also find such surprises as “Jennings Farm Blues,” a fine instrumental progenitor of “Bron-Yr-Aur-Stomp” and a medley of blues classics, “Keys to the Highway/Trouble in Mind.”

Led Zeppelin’s label has announced that the reissue program will continue with remastered, expanded versions of the group’s six remaining studio albums. I can understand why some people might say “enough already!” But I, for one, can’t wait.

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Ellliott Murphy: Intime—Songs from the Kitchen, Vol. 1

Intime—Songs from the Kitchen, Vol. 1

Don’t ask me what number album this is for rock singer/songwriter Elliott Murphy—I lost count years ago. All I can tell you is that it’s the 36th one in my collection, and I know I’m missing a few. The guy is incredibly prolific, so much so that he must have decided it was time to rush out this five-song EP, lest his fans wonder what happened to him: after all, he hasn’t put out a full-length album since way back in 2013. (Murphy has also found time to write a lot of prose over the years; in 2012, he penned the foreword to my book Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.)

He is nearly as consistent—and consistently underrated—as he is productive, so it’s no surprise that this package is worth hearing. The music is engaging and beautifully played by Murphy and his longtime cohorts, including most notably guitarist Olivier Durant. That said, there’s nothing here that’s quite as lilting or catchy as, say, “Irish Eyes” or “Come On Louann” (both from 2001’s Soul Surfing) and nothing as hard-rocking as the bulk of 2009’s Alive in Paris. That is perhaps by design, though: this is clearly intended to be an introspective and intimate package, and the mood leans heavily toward melancholy.

The lyrics evidence Murphy’s penchant for inventive wordplay but also his tendency in recent years to be rather abstruse. He seems to be singing to himself throughout much of this album and doesn’t appear particularly focused on making sure his audience has much idea what he’s talking about. But he’s clever enough to get away with that much of the time; like Dylan’s lyrics, Murphy’s frequently prove memorable despite the fact that you don’t know exactly what they add up to. Other times, though, they sound as if he’s making them up as he goes along, resulting in stream-of-consciousness lines that are fun albeit less than profound. Consider: “Walking backwards into the abyss/A New York bagel, that’s what I miss.” Also: “The higher we go, the lower we fall/Pinky Lee and the Taj Mahal.”

So should you buy this album? That depends. If you’re new to Elliott Murphy, I can think of better places to start getting acquainted. (Try the aforementioned Alive in Paris or Lost Generation/Night Lights, a repackaging of a pair of mid 70s gems.) But if you’re already a fan, by all means add this to the CD pile. It may not be his best, but Murphy doesn’t have to peak out to outshine a lot of the competition.

A final note. When I first saw that the track list included a song called “Every Little Star,” I thought perhaps Murphy had covered Linda Scott’s 1961 pop hit “I’ve Told Every Little Star.” He hadn’t, but it’s not such a crazy idea. In the past, he has done wonderful versions not only of the Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Stolen Car” but of early rock hits like the Everly Brothers’ “Cathy’s Clown” and Buddy Holly’s “Every Day” (the latter on Every Day is a Holly Day, a multi-artist tribute album). Those recordings suggest that a whole CD of vintage rock covers from Murphy would be terrific, so I’m hoping he’ll find time for such a project one of these days.

Hill Street Blues: The Complete Series

Hill_Street_Blues_CastIf you’re enjoying today’s golden age of television drama, you owe a thanks to Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll for blazing a trail that arguably began more than three decades ago with Hill Street Blues. As the new DVD collection of this series demonstrates, the show was as groundbreaking as it is entertaining; and if it doesn’t seem that way to you, you’re probably too young to remember just how revolutionary it was in its time.

When Hill Street debuted on Jan. 15, 1981, nothing quite like it had ever been seen on television; certainly it bore little resemblance to any previous cop show. Instead of focusing on gun battles and car chases, it shined a light mostly on the personal lives of its many characters. Instead of telling one tale that wrapped up neatly at the end of each episode, it offered multiple overlapping and often ongoing stories. Instead of relying on a few stars, it featured a large ensemble of character actors who looked not like Hollywood luminaries but like people you might actually encounter in a city. The program injected more notes of realism by, for example, making extensive use of handheld cameras and including scenes where people talked over each other or where several conversations were conducted simultaneously.

For quite some time, the audience didn’t know what to make of all this. The program tested badly before it debuted and ratings throughout the first season were disastrous. But NBC president and CEO Fred Silverman “got” the show, defended it and renewed it, giving it the distinction of being the lowest-rated program ever to return for a second season. Then came a shelf full of Emmy Awards, which turned things around.

By the end of its seven-season run, Hill Street had become a huge ratings success and had been credited with helping to rescue NBC’s prime-time schedule. It wound up being nominated for 98 Emmys and winning 26, including four for Outstanding Drama Series. Bochco, of course, went on to create such other classic shows as L.A. Law and NYPD Blue, the latter a direct descendant of Hill Street that starred one of its featured characters, Dennis Franz.

In many cases, great films and TV shows have happened only because creators and directors fought with the powers that be, who pushed for something much more traditional. That wasn’t the case here, though: Bochco asked up front for the freedom to develop Hill Street as he saw fit, and he got it. Moreover, he knew exactly what he wanted, right down to the fonts for the title screen at the opening and the theme song, which he has said he felt should be “counterintuitive”—melodic and sweet.

The results of such strong convictions and attention to detail are in this 34-DVD package, which was released on April 29. It comes with a 24-page booklet and includes all of the show’s 144 episodes (four with commentary tracks). There are also several documentaries, with fascinating interviews with Bochco and some of the series’s stars and writers. The only snooze is the “Gag Reel,” ostensibly a collection of humorous flubs: the joke’s on you there, because it’s not particularly funny and is extremely brief. Maybe that’s because the cast was clearly serious about its work and didn’t make a whole lot of mistakes.

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Carrie Ann Carroll: You Should Know

You Should Know“Honeymoon,” from newcomer Carrie Ann Carroll, ranks with the strongest singles I’ve heard in some time. The addictive hook and jangly guitars certainly help but what most makes this number click are Carroll’s intimate vocals and the confessional lyrics, which demonstrate her ability to transform little details from real life into compelling vignettes.

The song—which opens You Should Know, her first full-length CD—is rooted in folk but has a strong pop sensibility. And as it turns out, it tells a true story. As her website explains, she didn’t get the wedding trip she’d planned on when she married Joe Carroll (who produced this collection). Instead, his sister asked to come live with the couple, as she was battling cancer and could no longer take care of herself. So Carrie and Joe flew to California from their home in Austin, rented an RV and U-Haul trailer and drove back to Texas with his sister and all her possessions.

The song finds Carrie behind the wheel of the RV as her husband dozes beside her: “I turn and watch you sleep, I try not to cry / Your sister’s in the back, fighting to stay alive / I wish I could fix it, all I can do is drive.” And she concludes: “This may not be what we planned and it sure ain’t no tropical breeze / But it’s me and it’s you, our honeymoon.” The song sounds heartfelt and confessional and reminds me a bit of another great driving-with-husband track, Lucy Kaplansky’s “Ten Year Night.”

While “Honeymoon” is my favorite tune here, it’s far from the only winner in this collection, which features backup from such veteran Austin musicians as Redd Volkaert and Will Sexton. A cover of Sonny Bono’s “A Cowboy’s Work Is Never Done” seems a bit out of place to me but the rest of the program consists of Carroll originals, most of which have me coming back for more.

Throughout, she avoids clichés as she sings of lust, betrayal, love and disappointment. Some of the tales here may well have sprung from her imagination, but Carroll’s lyrics and vocals will make you feel as if you’ve peeked into her real-life diary. I’m already looking forward to the next batch of entries.