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Critics' Choice
BOX SET AS STORYTELLER: HEARING DYLAN, BEATLES & HENDRIX ANEW
11/9/18

By Phil Gallo

The explosion of boxed sets and expanded editions of classic albums that we expect every fourth quarter gets a bit of a jolt this year. Not just because of the superstar names among the releases—The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix—but in the ambition of the sets to go beyond alternate takes and live tracks.

The box sets related to Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, The Beatles’ “White Album” and The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Electric Ladyland are no ordinary packages. They have a mission—a goal to tell a story of how an album was made from the sketches forward to the experiments in the studios to how these decades-old tapes would sound with the aid of modern technology.

In each set, the listener is treated to a bit of myth-busting in the original album's story. The Apple/Capitol/UMe five-CD plus one Blu-ray version of The Beatles strips away the notion that John, Paul, George and, on occasion, Ringo, were working in isolation, a group album in name only. Instead this set, released today, reveals a quartet forging a new way to work that begins with fully structured demos and time in a studio to toy with textures, non-rock influences and instrumentation. It was their first album without manager Brian Epstein and, ultimately, their first to stretch beyond the regimented system of producer George Martin.

“We were striding out in new directions with a map,” Paul McCartney writes in the expansive book that houses the discs. Best evidence to his point: The included version of George Harrison’s glorious “Not Guilty” is Take 102.

The 27 songs that constitute the Esher demos, named for the town Harrison was living in at the time, reveal the sharpness of their songwriting skills; the three CDs of session outtakes display how far they were willing to try new ideas, everything from playing “Revolution” at different speeds, intensifying the grit in “Cry Baby Cry” and “Helter Skelter” or seeing how to properly capture the poignancy of “Good Night.” The original release is presented in a new mix from Giles Martin and, much like his work on Sgt. Pepper, the instruments sound cleaner and the voices are moved closer to the center and away from the edges of the sound field.

The six-CD Columbia/Sony Legacy Dylan box, which came out last week, reveals how prepared he was to make an acoustic album when he entered a New York studio in 1974 armed with songs such as “Idiot Wind,” “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Buckets of Rain.” The original recordings, raw and often emotional in a way that was camouflaged by added echo in the official Blood on the Tracks, sound rehearsed and ready to go. The decisions that lay ahead were mostly about phrasing, lyric editing and accompaniment.

Of all of Dylan’s Bootleg Series, this is Vol. 14, this one reveals the greatest sense of purpose at the starting point: There are no dramatic tempo changes or reshaping of songs, just the fine-tuning of 10 of the best songs in his oeuvre. It allows the listener to imagine how different the album might have been were it issued at the speed of the recording—tapes were sped up about 3%—minus the echo engineer Phil Ramone added and with just Tony Brown’s bass behind Dylan’s voice and guitar. The only flaw in this vital collection is the lack of unused Minneapolis recordings, seemingly gone forever.

The Hendrix set, too, provides us with a new starting point for the best album of his short career. Electric Ladyland, the fable goes, owed to Hendrix inviting musician friends into the studio for jams, shunning bandmates Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell and tirelessly reaching for “perfection” before giving the OK to press the vinyl.

On the three-CD/one Blu-ray Experience Hendrix/Legacy release, also out today, his demos recorded solo at New York’s Drake Hotel and, with a band, at Sound Center Studios and the then-brand new Record Plant reveal the solid foundation he laid before exploring the new directions he would take with the trio. Jimi’s voice is so extraordinarily relaxed on the demos; the guitar playing is never less than stellar.

The set includes two intense “Rainy Day, Dream Away” jams, a 10-minute effect-free “…And the Gods Made Love” and a sensuous solo “Gypsy Eyes” plus a live recording from the Hollywood Bowl that provides a contrast between the Experience as a live act and a studio band.

With so many classic albums hitting their 50th anniversary in the next few years, one has to wonder how many albums could stand up to this scrutiny. How many albums were the result of magical moments in the studio and how many were the result of hours of experimentation, rewrites and, as we see in Dylan’s use of studios in New York and Minnesota, a change of scenery?

It’s probably an anomaly that three boxed sets offering this type of insight show up at one time. They had stories hidden in the vaults and fortunately the overseers—Jeff Rosen and Steve Berkowitz for Dylan; Jonathan Clyde and Guy Hayden for The Beatles; Janie Hendrix, Eddie Kramer and John McDermott for Hendrix—were able to tell each one beautifully.