Music Reviews: U2’s ‘Joshua Tree’ Gets the Big Box Treatment (Again), plus Chris Smither, Dale Boyle, and Naked Sun

Joshua Tree by U2

Not every album that reappears in a lavish, dramatically expanded boxed version deserves this treatment, but U2’s powerful and cohesive The Joshua Tree sure merits its recently released 30th-anniversary Super Deluxe Edition. On one of its most famous songs, Bono sings “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” yet musically, this is the LP where U2 found exactly what they were looking for. Commercially, too: The Joshua Tree, which Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois produced, was the fastest-selling album of all time in the U.S. when it debuted here in March 1987. It topped the charts, went on to sell 25 million copies worldwide, earned an Album of the Year Grammy, and turned the group into superstars.

One listen tells you why. In fact, you don’t have to venture beyond the first three cuts to sense that something really powerful is going on here. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” “With or Without You,” and Where the Streets Have No Name” were all major hits (the first two of these topped the charts), thanks to anthemic melodies, gripping performances, and intense, introspective lyrics,

While “Running to Stand Still” mentions “the needle chill,” you wouldn’t know that it’s about a heroin epidemic in Dublin unless you’d read that somewhere.

Politics and social issues permeate the album, which has been said to reflect American themes and to be influenced by time the band spent in the country. In fact, some of the songs have nothing specifically to do with the U.S., but the vastness of America, the ambitions and adventurousness of its people, as well as the country’s evil undercurrents, are recurring themes.

Probably by design, the lyrics tend to be subtle rather than overt. While “Running to Stand Still” mentions “the needle chill,” for example, you wouldn’t know that it’s about a heroin epidemic in Dublin unless you’d read that somewhere. Nor would you know that “Bullet the Blue Sky” addresses U.S. military intervention in El Salvador’s civil war in the 1980s. Also non-specific are “Exit,” which was reportedly inspired by Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song; “Red Hill Mining Town,” which is about a UK miners’ strike; and “Mothers of the Disappeared,” which concerns political dissidents murdered in Argentina.

But you don’t have to know the inspiration for these lyrics to appreciate their intensity. In fact, the lack of specificity contributes to the universality of these uniformly poetic and profound lines; and combined with the music—which draws on influences ranging from the Velvet Underground to the Beatles and Stones to Irish roots music—they convey a search for love, truth, and a moral compass. The Edge’s guitar pyrotechnics are consistently elegant, and the bass and drum work of Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen provides a pulsating foundation for Bono’s passionate and other-worldly vocal work.

This is actually the second Joshua Tree box—a 20th-anniversary collection appeared in 2007—and it picks up some material from the last one, including the earlier package’s remastered version of the original album; liner notes from critic Bill Flanagan; and some outtakes and B-sides, such as “Silver and Gold,” from Sun City—Artists United Against Apartheid, with Bono and Keith Richards; the frenetic “Spanish Eyes”; and ”Drunk Chicken/America,” which features a snippet of Allen Ginsberg reading from Howl.

But even if you have the 2007 set, you might be tempted to upgrade, because this one—which arrives in a heavy-duty vinyl-LP-sized slipcase—adds quite a bit. The most notable fresh carrot is a high-octane 77-minute, 17-track previously unreleased 1987 New York Madison Square Garden concert. Apparently, the show was edited to fit on a single CD, as several songs from the show are missing; but the disc does include nearly all of the numbers  from Joshua Tree plus such earlier triumphs as “Pride in the Name of Love” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” Other highlights in the concert include a pair of medleys—one that combines Joshua Tree’s “Exit” with a bit of Van Morrison’s “Gloria” and one that weds “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” to Bob Marley’s “Exodus.”Joshua Tree box

The package also incorporates previously unavailable outtakes, B-sides, and remixes, among them an alternative mix of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”; a folio of eight LP-jacket-sized color pictures of the band by Anton Corbijn; and an 84-page hardcover book of black-and-white photos by the Edge that seem redolent of Ansel Adams’s work. The photos are good but the main attraction here is obviously the music—particularly the remastered 1987 album and the concert recording.

Since this box set delivers so much, it might seem petty to want even more, but I do wish the compilers had been able to include a 5.1 Blu-ray audio mix of the album and also a high-quality period concert video. The latter may not exist, as the best U2 could come up with for the 2007 reissue was a DVD of footage from a 1987 concert that had reportedly been videotaped, not filmed. As for a surround-sound mix of the original LP, well, maybe they’re saving that for a 40th-anniversary box.

Chris Smither’s ‘Call Me Lucky’

Call Me Lucky by Chris Smither

On Call Me Lucky, one of the best records of his more than half-century career, folk-blues singer-songwriter Chris Smither delivers 16 performances on two discs (though it could easily have been one; the total time is 61 minutes). The set includes eight originals, five of which each appear in two radically different versions; also here are readings of Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene,” the Beatles’ “She Said She Said,” and the Mississippi Shieks’ classic “Sittin’ on Top of the World—all of which do what covers ought to do: make you hear the song in a new light.

Most of the originals are introspective and melancholy: A typical line, from “Nobody Home,” goes, “I used to have a house and a spouse, now it’s hers instead / I thought I had a friend…but I think he’s dead.” And later in the same song: “It’s getting hard to maintain connections in a personal way / Everybody wants to text me cause they ain’t got nothin’ to say.” Even the title track, whose moniker suggests an upbeat tale, turns out to be the opposite: “They call me lucky but I don’t know why / I ain’t been lucky since the day you said goodbye.”

It’s a measure of Smither’s talent that you can’t tell whether he was really suffering when he made this album or just playing roles. Either way, his vocals and melodies are captivating and the lyrics sound fresh and evocative. The icing on the cake is the fine instrumentation from Smither and a five-man backup group that features instruments ranging from violin to electric kalimba (a type of African thumb piano).

Also Noteworthy

War with Shadows by the Naked Sun

The Naked Sun, War with Shadows. This first full-length album (following two EPs) from Philadelphia’s Naked Sun is a lilting folk-rock gem, bolstered by dynamite vocals from frontman Andrew Wesley Harris, emotional lyrics, and fine musicianship. The group cites such influences as Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and My Morning Jacket; I also hear just a hint of the Jayhawks. The record sounds to me like something out of the sixties, so I wasn’t surprised to read in the accompanying press release that at least two of the songs were crafted with the help, respectively, of “a little LSD” and “an intense LSD trip.” The good news for non-users is that you don’t have to take anything to appreciate the results.

Gasoline by Dale Boyle

Dale Boyle, Gasoline. I don’t usually review EPs—there just isn’t time, with all the full-length CDs I have to consider—but I’ll make an exception for the Montreal-based Dale Boyle’s five-track Gasoline. Like the Naked Sun (see above), Boyle lists Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty among his influences, but I think better reference points might be John Mellencamp (whose longtime drummer Kenny Aronoff plays on this disk) and Steve Earle. Boyle has a compelling voice—vocally and lyrically—on the four hard-rocking originals here, which benefit from his ringing guitar work; he also offers a distinctive cover of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold.”

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