December 2023 Rock/Pop Record Reviews

The Beatles: Now & Then (single)
Apple Records (watermarked stream previewed; no catalog number). 2023. Paul McCartney, Giles Martin, Jeff Lynne, prods.; Giles Martin, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

You've likely heard the story. Director Peter Jackson's tech wizards extracted John Lennon's voice from a song demo recorded in the late 1970s using the machine-learning–based "de-mixing" developed for the Beatles' Get Back documentary. Sir Paul McCartney undoubtedly caused agita in Beatles World when, in June, he suggested that "artificial intelligence" was behind a forthcoming Beatles single (footnote 1). His ill-chosen words caused a speculation storm, with some wagging tongues decrying a synthetic, robotic Lennon, reanimated by technology, singing from beyond the grave. McCartney walked his words back. That's not the reality of "Now & Then."

The song was one of four rough demos on a home-recorded cassette that Yoko Ono gave McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr in 1995, ahead of the Anthology project. Two songs, "Free as a Bird" and "Real Love," became mid-'90s singles. They worked on "Now & Then," but mid-'90s technology could not separate Lennon's voice from the loud piano accompaniment. His bandmates put the song aside. They rejected the fourth song. Twenty-eight years later, "de-mixing" technology was able to isolate Lennon's voice, and "Now & Then" took on new life. Co-producers McCartney and Giles Martin added Paul's multi-instrumental contributions, newly recorded drums from Ringo, George Harrison's 1990s rhythm guitar tracks, and a guitar solo by McCartney. Martin added strings.

"Now & Then" sounds similar to the Anthology singles but clearer and more modern. It doesn't break any new musical ground. It sounds nostalgic and somewhat maudlin compared to the rest of the top-40 charts these days, but because it's "The Last Beatles Song," it's likely to be a hit. It's the Beatles after all, reunited over time and space, one final time. In the limited-edition vinyl 45rpm single format, there are two side As, just like they did it back in the day. "Love Me Do," the first Beatles song, is on the other side.—Tom Fine

Teenage Fanclub: Nothing Lasts Forever
Merge MRG842 (LP). 2023. Teenage Fanclub, prods.; David Henderson, Joe Jones, Raymond McGinley, engs.
Performance **½
Sonics ****

What happens when a once-great guitar band that made its name on feedback, ringing chords, and well-built melodies no longer wants to rock? Scotland's Fannies slowly sunk from Creation label stars into an aging band too comfortable making music that's unchanging and inoffensive. On an album aptly titled Nothing Lasts Forever, they have, in a word, become a bore.

The sound here is equally somnolent: manicured, pretty, and oh-so-tame. Oddly, remaining original members Norman Blake and Raymond McGinley are still writing engaging melodies, like "See the Light," that could easily be enlivened by some measure of rhythmic backbone and assertive guitarwork. Yet they consistently choose a wimpy, mid-tempo approach that sounds like B-grade Byrds (lite). And while the Byrds were always in this band's DNA, and the vocal harmonies so central to their sound remain intact, the same can be said about nearly every song here.

The opener, "Foreign Land," starts with a held guitar chord that echoes "The Concept," which opened 1991's Bandwagonesque, yet the song immediately lapses into undistinguished folk rock. "See the Light" and "It's Alright" are exactly the kind of tune they would have once turned into bashers. Here, they trundle along, struggling to keep up a mid-tempo pace. Where the lyrics once brandished inviting if silly nonsense like "Hey, there's a horseshoe on my door/Big deal/And say, there's a black cat on the floor/Big Deal"—that's from "Star Sign"—they now gently and repeatedly assert, "The past's a foreign land/I did my best you understand." (That one's from "Foreign Land.") Albums on which everything is played at the same tempo—ballads, rockers, or some singsong middle ground—fatigue the ear, the brain, the very soul. It's not that every tune should rattle the rafters, but variety would help the Fannies out of their current rut.—Robert Baird

Devendra Banhart: Flying Wig
Mexican Summer MEX351 (LP). 2023. Cate Le Bon, prod.; Samur Khouja, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

For two decades, Devendra Banhart has been releasing sensitive and thoughtful songs with lyrics that are often emotionally driven and sometimes frankly bafflingly surreal. His music has attracted several genre labels, but "Freak Folk" is the one that sticks. Like all labels, that one is somewhat limiting, but it has the advantage of pointing out his psychedelic lyrics and the centrality of his guitar.

Flying Wig, though, doesn't quite fit the pattern. This is, solidly—if one can use such a term for such an ethereal set of songs—an electronica album. To produce the album, Banhart enlisted the skills of Cate Le Bon, who also contributed vocals and played various instruments. Le Bon is usually known for her guitar style, but here it's her synth playing that shapes the music. Banhart has never exactly been known for creating albums to get the dancing going at a wedding reception, and Flying Wig is no exception. The movement is slow, but here, slow doesn't mean boring. This is slowing down the hurly-burly of life, to escape and to dream. Banhart's lyrics are as impenetrable as ever, but Le Bon's lush, trippy production and the sweet poetry of Banhart's vocal give it an exquisite beauty and a contemplative feel. To employ another musical shorthand—of comparisons—this is music Brian Eno might have produced. With the arrival of intermittent guitar, as on "Twin," this music occasionally hints at a subdued Roxy Music ca 1980. On "Sirens," Banhart's voice suggests Bryan Ferry.

But this is no pop album. It is introspective. Some might find it melancholy. But whilst the song "Charger" is reflective, Banhart and Le Bon's shared vocals, and the repetition of "Everything's burning down/ But everything's gone green," create something gently uplifting. That's something that can be said of the whole album.—Phil Brett

Ariel Posen: Reasons Why
Manitoba Film & Music (auditioned as CD; no catalog number). 2023. Ariel Posen, Murray Pulver, prods.; Paul Yee, Pulver, Phil Pelletier, others, engs.
Performance *****
Sonics ****½

Ariel Posen has spent the better part of his career as a highly valued sideman, serving the work of other musicians including, notably, the Bros. Landreth. Steady accolades from musicians including John Mayer, who calls Posen one of his "favorite guitarists," have raised his profile. He has quickly established a presence in the guitar world for his original sound and for music that marries adult contemporary rock with classic blues.

On Reasons Why, across 10 tracks, Posen sings and plays about relationships, forgiveness, and healing. The songs are never too clever, heavy handed, or obvious. Sonically, the drums are fat and firm. The bass provides a great foundation, and the keys are present without being showy. But it's Posen's slide guitar that lifts this from a solid rock record to one you'll want to spin again and again.

Posen is perhaps best known for his tone on slide guitar. His slide sound is vocal and full, largely due to the way he combines his Jazzmaster guitar (with Stratocaster parts sprinkled about), RockSlide, and his main pedal, the KingTone Duelist. Together they create a sound wrapped in the kind of haunting aura you might once have found in an Elmore James or Tampa Red tune. The solo parts have economy, and they never outstay their welcome. They add a kind of grandeur that is rare for any music that plays as accessible pop.

Standout tracks include "Broken But I'm Fine" and "Man You Raised" (co-written with Cory Wong). On that tune, Posen demonstrates that rock'n'roll is far from over, that its future is very secure in hands like his. Just when it seemed that modern-day radio had lost interest in and room for anything guitar-driven, Posen arrived with music that can make even the most stubborn station manager bend, put this on air, and keep it in rotation.—Ray Chelstowski

Footnote 1: See