Two notable repackages -- from California bands who boasted five-part harmonies -- have crossed my desk in the last week or two, and they're both worth your attention.
The surprise here is that the Beach Boys'
"The Warmth of the Sun" is not just another throwaway comp featuring the same old same old. Instead, it's a very well chosen (apparently by whoever is still in the band) anthology of summer-themed songs, with very few of the usual suspects -- okay, "409" is here -- and seven revelatory new stereo mixes of wonderful songs from The Beach Boys Today and Summer Days and Summer Nights, the albums that are Brian Wilson's Rubber Soul and Revolver respectively. There are also some songs from the band's early 70s albums I hadn't listened to in years, and they're all almost serpahically lovely -- in particular Dennis Wilson's lovelorn ballad "Forever" and Brian's still astonishing "Till I Die."
The new Moby Grape best-of "Listen My Friends" is no less welcome, but problematic. The Grape, of course, belong on anybody's list of the Top Ten American bands of the 60s, a staggeringly talented bunch who leapfrogged genres (blues, psychedelia, pop, country), sang like angels and whose best songs, as Greil Marcus famously observed, sounded more like gang fights. They were also famously unlucky, with a notoriously sleazy manager they've been litigating with since forever; thanks to him, Sony's previous two-disc Grape best-of, 1993's Vintage, had been out of print for several years. In fact, before "Listen," none of the Grape's 60s material had been legally available for quite a while.
The problem with the new album is that in its attempt to be comprehensive it gives a somewhat distorted picture of the group's career, which goes like this: Classic first album (every song a gem), ambitious second album (some sublime moments, some filler), overlooked third album (return to form, almost as good as the first) and a contractual obligation turkey (the sound of a band pretty much in collapse). The good news here: the great album jacket Vintage should have had, the first CD appearance of the wonderfully winsome "If You Can't Learn From My Mistakes" (chiming guitar heaven), plus six songs from the first album including the Beatles-on-Meth killer single "Omaha," plus the epochal "Seeing," the Skip Spence masterpiece that Robert Plant covered brilliantly a few years ago. The bad news: A not terribly good song the Grape did for the soundtrack of a justifiably obscure 60s movie pot-boiler and two (at best) forgettable tunes from the aforementioned forgettable fourth album.
The final verdict? It's a mixed bag, but until the first three albums get proper reissues this is an indispensable purchase for anyone not highly perverse of ears.
Meanwhile, to give you a taste, here's a very good live clip of the band playing two songs from the first album at the height of the Summer of Love.
Incidentally, Peter Lewis, the good looking guy on the right singing the ballad, is the son of Loretta Young, one of the great screen beauties of the 30s and 40s. How a Hollywood brat like Lewis wound up in a San Francisco rock band is, like the rest of the Grape's odyssey, an amazing story deserving of a major film biography some day.