Friday, May 8, 2015

Early Takes Volume 1 - George Harrison

Early Takes Volume 1
George Harrison
Universal Music Enterprises  B0016735-01

I have to admit that I bought this mostly out of duty rather than any expectation it would be good.  The Beatles are my favorite group and have been since I was a child, but I've always been lukewarm (at best) towards Harrison's solo career.  I enjoyed the documentary film that inspired this record so I bought this and what a pleasant surprise.  It is a collection of Harrison's demo recordings mostly from "All Things Must Pass."  I figured the raw recordings would expose Harrison's feeble vocals which Phil Spector dressed up with tons of reverb on "All Things Must Pass."  It is just the opposite however.  Freed from Spector's meddling and production tricks, the songs come to life.  Harrison's singing is not great, but the intimacy and warmth of the recordings make them more engaging and moving.  This is evident right from the opening track, "My Sweet Lord."  I've never liked the song much and hearing it so often on the radio through the years, I've basically stopped paying attention to it.  The naked demo version just has a rudimentary rhythm track and some acoustic guitar placing all the focus on Harrison who sounds inspired and impassioned.  The song is shorter than the finished track and doesn't feature all that Hare Krishna stuff at the end, which I consider an improvement.  "Run of the Mill" is even more stripped down, just Harrison and an acoustic guitar.  His vocal is a little ragged but I like it.  The early take of "I'd Have You Any Time" sounds similar to the finished version minus all the reverb and fussiness.  Its immediacy and feeling are enhanced as a result.  Next up is a cover of Bob Dylan's "Mama You've Been On My Mind" which never made it to vinyl.  The song suits Harrison's voice very well and the intimacy and breathiness of his vocal track make the song one of my favorites on the record.  The side ends with a cover of the Everly Brothers' classic "Let It Be Me."  I would have figured it would be terrible, but it is quite lovely.  Harrison double tracks his vocal to create a harmony vocal similar to the Everlys' recording.  Again his vocal is gentle and breathy bringing out all the tenderness in the song.  I'm completely charmed by it.  Side two opens with "Woman Don't You Cry For Me" which appeared on "Thirty-Three & 1/3."  The song has a country-blues sound on the early take that I greatly prefer to the slickness of the released version.  "Awaiting On You All" has a thunderous sound on "All Things Must Pass" which I think overwhelms it and distracts from its message.  I don't really care much for that message but this early take delivers it a whole lot clearer while still retaining some rock power.   The demo version of "Behind That Locked Door" features some wonderful pedal steel guitar work from Pete Drake and a heartfelt vocal by Harrison that really impresses me.  The demo version of "All Things Must Pass" is for me the most revelatory track on the album.  The release version is over-produced and Harrison's vocal sounds inadequate and feeble for the majesty of the song.  The simplicity of the demo allows his vocal to shine and I find the song very moving.  The album concludes with a demo of "The Light That Has Lighted the World" from "Living in the Material World" an album that I have never liked.  I wish I could say the demo salvages the song, but I don't think even a great singer like Aretha Franklin could make me care about this song.  The demo is an improvement but I still don't like it much.  There you have it, nine fine tracks and one not so fine, easily my favorite Harrison solo album.  It is probably unfair to judge an artist by work that was never intended for public hearing, but for me this album changes the way I view Harrison.  I've always felt he was a limited artist and a weak singer, but now I think he was more of an artist who was poorly served by his vision.  I could blame Phil Spector, but Harrison is the guy who brought him in.  Harrison sought that grandiosity and epic scope, but I think he should have reined in his ambitions and trusted in the beauty of his music.  The intimacy and gentleness of this album are the ideal setting for his talents.  Instead of imitating John Lennon, he should have emulated Nick Drake.  If I have any complaint about this album, it is that it is too short.  It is barely 30 minutes long.  Given that is labeled "Volume 1" I assume there are plenty of other tracks in the vault.  Instead of hoarding them for future volumes they could have stuck 4 or 5 more on this album and brought it up to proper album length.  Recommended to fans of the Beatles' "Anthology" albums.

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