Friday, June 20, 2008

All inside your file, the good and the bad.

As a nation gears itself to see Heath Ledger's final (full) performance when "The Dark Knight" hits theaters next month (okay, so a lot of people would've seen the movie anyway, but let's not kid ourselves into thinking there won't be a morbid curiosity group checking it out), it's now more apparent than ever -- death sells.

It's been a known commodity in the music business for sometime now, especially in the rap world, where I *believe* Tupac has been more prolific since being murdered than he was in his lifetime. The Beatles weren't the first artists to salvage unused demos to produce new material, but the fact that the Beatles did it, like always, made it mainstream, en vogue and highly lucrative.

Indeed, if you read any musician's obituary and it contains the phrase "working on an album at the time of his death," the reader should never think, "What a shame that we won't get to hear that music." They should expect a new album within six months. Hell, even Nick Drake, dead for 34 years, has been releasing new material in the last few years. In today's day and age, it seems, no offhanded demo recording is ever going to remain unclean and unreleased.

For this month's Friday Five, we look at five of the nicer songs to be released by an artist after their time on Earth had expired.

The Friday Five

Dancing Beyond the Grave: Posthumous Pop

Brian Wilson (feat. Carl Wilson) - Soul Searchin'
Alright, alright, Brian's not dead, but since his brother Carl, who succumbed to the effects of lung cancer in 1998, takes lead vocal on this song, it counts. "Soul Searchin'" was a song that Brian wrote for the Beach Boys in 1996 and while Beach Boys attempts at the song have flooded out in bootleg form, no official version was ever let go. Wilson also handed the song over to soul legend Solomon Burke who did his own version of it on his 2002 album, Don't Give Up on Me. But still in possession of tapes with Carl's voice, Brian decided to give his deceased sibling one last good airing as a part of his semi-disastrous Gettin' In Over My Head album. It's kind of a slipshod record in whole -- Brian insisted on doing all the vocal harmonies himself, and while that's not a bad idea on paper, the fact that his voice today isn't that of his in 1966 or so kind of mired things. Thankfully, Carl's voice aged like a fine wine and "Soul Searchin'" proved to be one of the very, very few highlights of the album. Then, thankfully, Brian released SMiLE and everyone forgot about this album.

Elliott Smith - Coast To Coast
Debate as to whether From a Basement on the Hill should have ever even been released steamed on among Elliott's friends and fans following his suicide in 2003. He was working on a double album, but was having disputes with his label about it -- he'd already burnt away previous attempts at the album (including one with Jon Brion, with whom he had a falling out in 2001), and much of the last few years of his life were spent in a bit of a drug-addled mess. When the album was released with 15 tracks on a single disc in 2004, it sounded quite bleak, but... it probably would've if he were alive anyway. Those that worked on mixing the tracks after he'd died insisted little to nothing was added to what Elliott had left behind -- they were just mixed and cleaned up for release. Who knows if this is what he'd have wanted, but I love this opening song and the cryptic message to his fans, family and maybe those left to work on the album -- "If you can't help it, then just leave it alone. Leave me alone. Yeah, just forget it."

George Harrison - Rising Sun
It was George who noted when the Beatles were working on "Free as a Bird" and "Real Love" in the mid-90s that he hoped someone would do the same to his crap demos when he died -- turn them into hit songs. Obviously, it was likely said in George's typical dry humor, but George had been working on a proper album prior to his 2001 death, and old buddy Jeff Lynne and George's son Dhani stepped up to finish off all the tracks for a suitable 2003 release, Brainwashed. This isn't the album's finest moment, but it may be one of its most regal, as George's basic guitar, vocal and ukulele tracks not only got full on accentuation, but also a bit of orchestration to boot. The fact that Brainwashed served as not just a posthumous collection of bits and pieces, but a worthy follow up to Cloud Nine says a lot for Jeff and Dhani.

Ian Dury & the Blockheads - Dance Little Rude Boy
When he was diagnosed with cancer in the late 1990s, it wasn't at all surprising that Dury didn't pack it all in but opted instead to keep working at full throttle. This was, after all, a man who'd overcome a lot in his life -- including a childhood near-fatal bout with polio and had done the impossible for many elderly artists; produced an album of new material in 1999 (Mr. Love Pants) that rivalled the best stuff from his late 1970s/early 1980s heyday. Not keen to stop touring, writing or recording, Dury quickly set to work on new stuff, but his health declined quickly and he was left too weak to do vocals on some of the tracks he'd written before passing away in 2000. The Blockheads and producer Laurie Latham lovingly finished off the album, after Dury's wife Sophy found a list of songs under the headline Ten More Turnips From the Tip among Ian's papers after his death. This fantastic opener showed Ian undeterred by his illness and in as good a form as he was on "Wake Up and Make Love with Me" back in 1977. No trace of remorse or sadness, but it made listeners really realize what a wonderful talent they'd lost.

Pete Ham - Makes Me Feel Good
When Badfinger's driving force took his own life in 1975, his band were at a low point, in fantastic debt and under management contracts that looked near-impossible to ever escape. Anyone remotely familiar with the band's story knows just how tragic it is, but thankfully they gathered some ridiculously devoted fans, one of whom, Dan Matinova made it his life's work to tell the story and preserve the band's music. Matinova released two discs worth of Pete's home demos recorded between 1967 and 1974 and even employed some of Pete's old friends and bandmates to lay down some new parts to spruce up proceedings. This cut, originally demoed in 1968 and spruced up by Matinova and co. in the late 1990s, opened up 1999's Golders Green compilation and although only 1:47 in length, it begs the question as to why it never made it onto a Badfinger album. This is perfect pop music right here.

Enjoy the weekend. I hope I haven't made you too morose.



Blogger Jerry said...

Pete Ham was a great talent.

2:44 PM  

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