September 29, 2009

Review: Velvets | Big Star | Feelies | Pixies

The Beatles weren’t the only trendsetters whose work reissued in September. Their legacy goes without saying, but there’s an influential underground that musicians and record geeks look to that has been –- until the internet, at least –- a sort of shared secret code. This month, there have been a few reissues of bands that represent the missing links between the Beatles and modern/indie/what-we-used-to-call-college rock.

The Velvet Underground practically pioneered the underground leaping from a springboard of some simpler '50s/'60s early pop song structure and launching themselves forward into the avant garde and sometimes backward into the primitive. “Heroin” came out the same year as Sgt. Pepper, and though it was weirder and less accessible than The Beatles's stuff, it has had an impact just as deep. The Velvets already have a comprehensive box set out there, 1995’s Peel Slowly and See, that contains all of their original albums plus singles, demos and live tracks. It is essential. Still, though, this new Sundazed box of reproduction 7” vinyl singles is awfully tempting.

Big Star were, I guess, what happened when you took '60s pop and gave it bigger amps and distortion pedals, and moved it to Memphis in the early '70s. Which is to say, big rockers and tearjerker ballads, all with amazing harmonies. Criminally under-appreciated in their time and suffering their share of turmoil (though not nearly as much as their British power pop brethren Badfinger), their influence has nonetheless been well-documented; Cheap Trick, REM, The Replacements, etc., etc., yadayada… Anyway, after a recent lackluster reissue of the two-fer of their first two albums (the same shoddy artwork, one non-essential bonus track, no thanks), the new box set Keep Your Eye On The Sky is a long time in coming and is finally a release worthy of their legacy. Rhino is really, really good at this reissue business and this set is packed with demos, alternate mixes, and a live disc, and sounds amazing and is simply a must-have.

The '80s gave us The Feelies, who took elements of all of the above, added a healthy dose of post-'70s druggy New York jitters and made it all uniquely their own. How lucky are we that they have recently reunited (their show at the Roxy last year was a highlight) and are (supposedly) working on new material? Like Big Star and so many other influential bands, The Feelies’ catalog was out of print for a long time surviving mostly in used vinyl racks (scarce in its own right) and through online traders. 1988’s Only Life, their third album, was quietly (and we think un-officially -- ed.) reissued last year on the Water label and is findable, but good luck finding any official online recognition of its existence.

So, finally, the band’s seminal 1980 debut, Crazy Rhythms and its follow-up, The Good Earth have been reissued by Bar None, with bonus tracks and everything. Though they are unlikely to be as scrutinized for their sound as the Beatles reissues, these albums have been re-mastered from “digital sources” as the original master tapes could not be located. I’m not entirely sure what that even means, and I have only heard mp3s (from official sources, deadbeats) so can’t comment on the CDs or the vinyl. They sound good to me -- they seem to have a bit more life than what’s been available. They’ve taken a novel approach to their bonus tracks: they want the albums to stand on their own, so the bonus tracks are not on the CD, but available by download with a provided code. According to the press release, they are only going to add a couple of the bonus tracks to the digital versions, so I’d say go with the physical formats. These cats are old school.

You are definitely advised to make sure you get all of the Crazy Rhythms extras simply to hear the demo of “Moscow Nights,” which is even more propulsive than the album version. The demo for “The Boy With The Perpetual Nervousness” has a bit of a darker vibe, though is no less manic. The original single version of “Fa cé-La” is rawer than on the album, and you can hear that the band have not missed a step with the pair of live tracks from DC's 9:30 Club from earlier this year that round out the set. There’s also a reverse bonus track of sorts: the album originally contained their cover of “Paint It, Black,” but it was added by the label without their consent, so they’ve left it off here.

The Good Earth
bonuses include another track from the 9:30, plus the non-album tracks from the 1986 EP No One Knows: their straightforward cover of the Beatles “She Said, She Said,” and their hyper cover of Neil Young’s “Sedan Delivery.”

Tickets are already on sale for The Feelies return to our fair city on November 22nd to open for Sonic Youth at the Wilbur. Hopefully, they’ll try out some new stuff –- singer and lead guitarist Glenn Mercer’s 2007 solo album Wheels In Motion and bassist Brenda Sauter’s 2006 Superbus album with her band Wild Carnation were both great records, so they collectively still have a lot to give.

Not having much more to give, apparently, are the Pixies. At the end of the '80s and into the '90s, the Pixies perfected the soft strum/screaming guitar dynamics (before Nirvana et al merged it with metal) combo with melody and wacko lyrics that influenced another few generations. Look, I LOVE the Pixies and have been a huge fan for a long time, and I was beyond excited to see the first round of reunion shows –- I saw a few of them. But they’re starting to wear out their welcome, aren’t they?

They tour for the money, and have not claimed otherwise, but this latest round of Doolittle shows and, especially this frivolous Minotaur box set is really pushing it. Seriously, guys -- $200 for four and a half albums? Or $500 for the super-duper version? Sure the CDs are gold, and that’s good because, well, I don’t know... Maybe you can recoup the price at Cash4Gold?

I’m happy that they too have been getting the attention and accolades that they richly deserve and were just starting to get when they broke up after touring with U2 in 1992, but if you’re going to keep this going, make a new record already. -- Michael Piantigini

The Feelies: Internerds | MySpace | YouTube | at Bar None Records
Glenn Mercer: MySpace | YouTube | at Pravda Records
Wild Carnation: Internerds | MySpace | YouTube
Big Star: Internerds | MySpace | YouTube | at Rhino
Velvet Underground: Internerds | MySpace | YouTube | at Sundazed
Pixies: Internerds | MySpace | 4AD | Facebook | Minoutaur

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