Next week’s SOW will spotlight a track from the new Amy LaVere album (Stranger Me, July 20). I can say this with 99% certainty, because I’ve heard it, and it’s terrific, and I’m excited about it. Barring calamities involving me and my typing fingers, we’ll celebrate that release next week.
In the meantime, let’s celebrate the Black Keys, Robert Johnson, and a new old trend.
Song of the Week: Black Keys, “Remember When (Side B)“
Maybe it’s something, maybe it’s nothing. Maybe it’s a New Thing, or maybe I’m just now noticing it. But it seems like a lot of bands are putting out two versions of one song. If this is happening more frequently, what accounts for it? And, if artists are controlling (and paying for) their creative process, what’s their reason?
To answer these questions, I dug a little deeper. After exhaustive mental research (read: thinking for ten seconds about which artists in my iTunes have alternate takes of songs), here is my personal history with this phenomenon:
1) Robert Johnson’s collected works have alternate takes of several songs. Because Johnson’s body of work and catalog of recordings was so limited, every cut of every song was deemed important enough for release. If you’re the father of modern blues and you only recorded forty-one tracks, guess what: they’re all for sale.
2) I have an alternate take of “Times They Are A-Changin” by Bob Dylan. I’m not sure how, or why, but I think it was a bonus track on Love & Theft.
3) The Stones included some alternate takes with the re-release package of Exile On Main Street.
4) Radiohead cut two versions of “Morning Bell,” one for Kid A, one for Amnesiac.
4) My Morning Jacket’s “Touch Me I’m Going To Scream” comes in two “parts.” Pts 1 & 2 quasi-bookend Evil Urges.
5) I own two versions of Amy LaVere’s “Washing Machine.” The first was originally released on Anchors & Anvils, the second was dubbed “Reloaded” and re-cut along with other songs.
6) The Black Keys’ “Remember When” Sides A & B are (you guessed it) side-by-side on Attack & Release.
7) Cory Branan’s next album will feature two cuts of the same song, frequently listed on YouTube as “Survivor Blues.” Or so I hear.
And so on. If you’re scoring at home, #1-3 are supplemental songs for past albums by canonical artists. They’re a way to sell more records; more specifically, they cajole a superfan into buying the same album again. Those alternate takes were released more for commercial purposes than artistic purposes, with admitted overlap. (There’s plenty of artistic gold to mine when comparing takes of “Love In Vain Blues.” Pretty sure Greil Marcus once wrote 20,000 words on it.)
But #4-7 were mostly included by artists who were putting an album together at that moment. They made a decision while paying for studio time and conceiving the album as a thematic whole that, yes, two versions of one song was worthwhile.
How come? And if this is happening more frequently, why?
Financially, it costs less than ever to produce a high quality recording. So, artists are freer to experiment when working out each song.
Artistically, who knows? In Radiohead’s case, the arrangement of each “Morning Bell” matches the overall sound of its respective album. Kid A‘s version is mechanical, even-keeled, deliberately paced; Amnesiac‘s is ethereal, dramatic, breathless. MMJ’s dueling “Touch Me’s” vary slightly, but importantly: Pt 1 asks to be touched, Pt 2 begs not to be. The list goes on.
In both cases–and in every case–we can dream up a million reasons for these alternate takes. They’re fun to think about, and debate, and compare. And maybe that, more than anything else, is the reason for their twin existence.
Which version of “Remember When” do you prefer? For those who know Attack & Release as a whole, how do they work on the album?
I’ll start: I prefer “Side B,” for myriad reasons. Rather than outlining them academically, allow me to summarize and move on: it effing rocks. But that’s just me.
As for the second question, the album’s first half (which ends with “Remember When (Side A)”) seems to deal with the ways lovers mistreat each other. It outlines lies, betrayal, deceit, destructive behavior, etc. It’s frenetic and rocking. “Side A” closes this half as a subdued, bruised, and battered reflection on what’s happened, and what used to be. The album’s second half is more about the fallout. It’s slower, reflective, vulnerable, and disarmed. “Side B” kick-starts it with a high-energy assault. In other words, both versions of the song provide a counterpoint to their half of the album. “Side A” is a somber meditation after a whirlwind of activity; “Side B” is a whirlwind of activity that precedes a somber reflection.
What do y’all think? Let me hear it…