GRANT me the chance to abuse a quasi-religious idea. We are at the end of days. Music is not well. Bad retro has taken over, and when that happens you have to know that it's fatal.
While I'm busy lamenting here, The Replacements are at the top of Metacritic's list of best album releases with a reissue of their Tim (1985). Metacritic awards it 99 out of 100 points, which more or less amounts to total deification.
But in 1985 Tim was more feeble than a pole dancer at closing time and this release, with 50 previously unheard tracks, seriously makes me wonder about Metacritic's place in the evolution of humanity.
Among the top 10 biggest achievers on the Metacritic list are two other totem poles of retro terror: The Who's Who's Next / Life House and the third volume of the Joni Mitchell Archives.
Please bring the Stroh rum and make me drink the whole bottle.
No one disputes that Who's Next (1971) was a masterpiece. Even fewer will find fault with the idea that Life House (recorded 1970-71, finally issued in 2000 as The Life House Chronicles and now re-doctored) was an interesting dystopian vision that provided good material from which The Who could distil the songs of Who's Next.
But to repack it all into 11 CDs now and think we're going to be grateful to know exactly how brandy messed up Pete Townshend's head in 1971? What next?
The Joni Mitchell Archives Vol 3: The Asylum Years (1972-1975) consists of the music Mitchell made after her 1971 smash hit Blue, ending with the turnabout Court and Spark (1974) and its immediate aftermath, which produced music she would release on The Hissing of Summer Lawns in 1975.
She left Los Angeles in 1971 and moved to a remote stone house in the forests of British Columbia in Canada. In this seclusion, she realised the new music she was writing was not suitable for solo performance. She needed a band. She didn't know it at the time, but she was on her way to becoming a jazz chick.
The Joni Mitchell Archives Vol 3 contains five CDs and is the most erotic thing that could ever happen to a true Mitchell admirer. Listen to the 96 tracks and firmly believe that the daughter of Zeus descended from Mount Olympus in an orgiastic flight of creativity. But it made me long for the days when dentists still used laughing gas to anaesthetise people. Circa 1972-1975, quite coincidentally.
Only suitable for the safe
The crux of the problem, as illustrated in all of these cases, is that music that was not ready for release in their time is now only of academic interest. You can satisfy your curiosity but you always come back to the thought that the artists at the time judged correctly and packed the goodies away in the safe.
The guy who best exemplifies this retro phenomenon is Neil Young. Has there ever been an artist who made so much money in his old age by issuing his false starts?
Young is notorious for the uneven quality of his albums. The ones where all the tracks are of exceptional quality are rare. His last almost satisfactory album was Harvest Moon from 1992 — and that was a retro yearning back to 1972's Harvest.
Then there are all the albums he made in the 1970s but decided he could do without: Homegrown (made after he broke up with Carrie Snodgress), Hitchhiker and Chrome Dreams. Of course he looted them for his albums of the late 1970s and 1980s.
But it wasn't until the last decade, with a new wife in tow and so many financial obligations, that Young decided to finally share them with his legions of admirers. Only problem is that they all sound old now. Old and boring.
Had he decided to take his secrets with him to Jesus, we wouldn't have noticed by now that the Gheorghe Zamfir of depressive angst forfeited his claim to eternal fame by not releasing the albums when they meant something in the larger framework of deep music.
Retro has a different, much more horrible face. It's the one you experience when you listen to Stairway to Heaven, Comfortably Numb or Bohemian Rhapsody for the 88,000th time. You can try, but you'll never hear that music fresh again. And the poor befuddled Roger Waters recording Dark Side of the Moon once again to prove beyond all doubt that he has lost it? I wonder if he knows that he sounds like someone trying to suck water from a dried-out teabag.
A couple of exceptions
I had to think hard and could only find a few examples. Retro can only be acceptable if it sounds new. Therefore: Richard Hawley and especially the James Hunter Six.
Hawley was once Pulp's guitarist and a studio musician in the Jimmy Page tradition. Due to scars on his upper lip (the result of operations to correct a cleft palate) he was initially not stage-friendly.
But he has retro pedigree. His godfather is Joe Cocker. His father and mother, Dave and Lynne Hawley, were in The Whirlwinds, who in 1962 came second to The Beatles in a major British talent competition.
Hawley's father taught him to play the guitar. Richard can be heard on albums by Lisa Marie Presley, Shakespears Sister, Arctic Monkeys, Manic Street Preachers, Elbow, Duane Eddy and Paul Weller. And on nine glorious solo albums, on which his baritone voice takes you back to the crooners of the 1950s. His singing hero is Lee Hazelwood, and it shows.
The James Hunter Six is a Valiant with completely different hubcaps, to quote rugby player Helgard Müller. Hunter's speciality is rhythm and blues but he sings in a distinctive soul style. He plays guitar but the musicians of the Six include several brass players and there are rarely only six of them.
What makes his albums different is the fact that Hunter firmly believes in monophonic sound. To hell with stereo. Van Morrison is his great mentor, but that's not why I heard of him. It was because I got curious when I heard Hunter play guitar under the pseudonym Seth Panduranga Blumberg for the Bangladeshi rock group Shonar Bangla Circus.
Do you now understand what the spirit of good retro is?
James Hunter Six:
James Hunter Six:
♦ VWB ♦
BE PART OF THE CONVERSATION: Go to the bottom of this page to share your opinion. We look forward to hearing from you.