MUSIC REVIEW: JEFF BECK - TRUTH (SACD, AUDIO FIDELITY 2017)
U.S. label, Audio Fidelity, have come up with two rather tasty slabs of classic rock with which to wind the year up.
'Best of Scorpions' by iconic German band Scorpions, holds up the hard rock end of things, but for this review, the Jeff Beck debut solo album 'Truth' gets the cold metal stethoscope of time applied to the lily-white, hairless chest of sixties British rock.
The Audio Fidelity releases throughout 2017 have been very much a mixed bunch. Some obvious audiophile fare such as Weather Report and Return to Forever were mixed with questionable choices such as the Blue Cheer grunge classic 'Vincebus Eruptum,' through to the shiny 'Prog-lite' of Styx and the brittle 'AOR' of Asia.
I do understand the move to the more guaranteed sellers, somewhat confoundingly, stellar releases from the past few years, such as the definitive issues of Boz Scaggs, Warren Zevon, etc, were very slow sellers, and for the most part, still in print from various retailers for not many dollars.
I should note that 'Vincebus Eruptum' is a solid gold favourite of mine; every strangled, tuneless vocal, every lumbering bass line, every moment of sonic sludge is firmly embedded in my cortex, but even I doubted that it needed an upgrade. For the uninitiated, Blue Cheer was the original band that went 'one louder.' Sonic abuse is its own reward.
JEFF BECK - 'TRUTH'
AUDIO FIDELITY - STEREO HYDRID SACD.
AFZ269 released November 2017.
Original Release: July 1968
I find my memory does an odd time-bend when I consider this the debut Jeff Beck album. It has certain qualities that have me placing its release two years earlier than it was.
I think the actual production values are part of the confusion. The album, in large, was recorded during a pair of two-day sessions under the auspices of producer Mickie Most.
Mr. Most was undoubtedly a well-regarded professional, but his track record tended to skew towards a poppier clientele with polished sound being a primary goal. The list and range of artists he worked with is extensive and perhaps surprising.
Another factor would be the 'let's set up in the studio and do it live' ethos; sometimes it works, sometimes it's a train wreck. It must have had Mr. Most reaching for the sherry bottle.
But an even more pressing concern was the fact that none of the band were songwriters, so the resulting set list is a rather endearing grab bag of old, new, borrowed and blues.
This, in my faulty recollection, places it at the very beginning of the nascent blues explosion in the U.K. circa 1965/66.
You hear varying levels of sophistication in production values, very inconsistent choice of material, and playing that ranges from rough to sublime.
Indeed, everything one may expect from a trendsetting album at the sharp end of a burgeoning era in rock music.
When I check the timeline, however, this does not hold up, although I suspect I am partially right. If I understand correctly, Beck's Bolero as offered here, is a stereo mix of the tune dating from 12/07/1966, initially appearing as a mono B-side
Shapes of Things is a rejigged take on the classic Yardbirds tune from '66, which Beck may or may not have played on.
The one offered here dates from 14/05/1968.
Now am I wrong to suggest that these two tracks and Greensleeves are definitely Mickie Most productions, echoing the more production-canny values of those years? The remaining tracks are, well, perhaps self-produced, but engineered by the illustrious Ken Scott?
As I listen, I get the strong impression that by the time the '68 sessions were in progress, Beck had the control, and maybe Mr. Most was largely 'hands off.'
I am probably wrong, but I am calling it like I hear it.
Jimi Hendrix had emerged with Hey Joe almost a full 18 months beforehand, going on to release 'Are You Experienced' and 'Axis: Bold as Love' in rapid succession. 1968 saw the release of the mighty 'Electric Ladyland.'
Cream had unleashed 'Fresh Cream' in December 1966, followed on by 'Disraeli Gears' and the half live-half studio confection of 'Wheels of Fire' in 1968.
So at the time of its release, 'Truth' was up against 'Electric Ladyland' and 'Wheels of Fire'.
But it did beat Led Zeppelin by six months, and that is a whole story right there.
One thing that stands out for me in this cluster of albums is the strong influence of psychedelia threaded through the Hendrix and Cream repertoires. Always based in the blues tradition but pushing the limits of composition and complexity of performance.
Most songs written by the artists themselves, with sympathetic production by the likes of Chas Chandler in the early days, Hendrix himself later, or for Cream, Felix Pappalardi giving a timeless feel to some absolute classic albums.
So, to place 'Truth' amongst its contemporaneous releases, well, I think my imagined timeline works the best.
Even Jeff's tenure with the Yardbirds and the exposure to their eastern inflected blues could only hint at what the best of 'Truth' brings forth.
But to my ears, the only two tracks with the whiff of psychedelia about them are the retread of the Yardbirds classic Shapes of Things and the Jimmy Page penned Beck's Bolero.
They date, in the former as a composition from February 1966 and the latter, July 1966, smack dab in the middle of the maelstrom that engendered early Cream and Hendrix.
It is odd that when 'Truth' had its British release, it flopped miserably. It fared much better in the U.S. and found favour in Australia where it was virtually compulsory listening for the educated ear.
Let's have a look at the tracks:
- Shapes of Things - The original Yardbirds recording was released while Jeff was still in the band, but it remains unclear if he played a part in that recording. This version is fairly faithful in both sonic terms and performance.
A very dense but exciting production, this holds up very well even today. The stylistic jump between it and the next tune could not be sharper.
Beck plays the rhythm in the right channel, with slide lines dubbed, and a difficult to identify sound in the mix - perhaps a speed altered guitar, who knows?Left channel features the lead lines, confidently played, nice tone.
- Let Me Love You - Rod Stewart penned, sticking fairly close to the blues template of a certain similarly titled Buddy Guy tune.
Strong vocals, with Rod and Jeff on the right, and rhythm section to the left, further back in the studio. In hindsight, a bit of an endearingly ramshackle effort, production wise.
This new transfer highlights the similarities between Jimmy Page and Beck's phrasing and tone at this point.
Jeff is using a pick, something he later discarded engendering his eventual distinctive style.
- Morning Dew - The Bonnie Dobson classic has had dozens of respectful covers ranging from Tim Rose to The Grateful Dead, and with Rodney bringing the requisite drama to the lyric, Jeff's arrangement can only be described as propulsive.
Class all the way. It features some wayward bagpipes for that extra touch of moistness we all crave.
- You Shook Me - A Willie Dixon cover, this one beats the Led Zeppelin version by six months, and this transfer retains the slinky sexiness of the performance all these years later.
The late Nicky Hopkins (The Tin Man) hits the ivories, and John Paul Jones coaxes some nice drama from the Hammond. Short, sharp and filthy.
- Ol' Man River - is, depending on the day, either sweetly sincere, or gently camp.
Listen for the Dear Boy himself, Keith Moon, on tympanic flourishes. Beck does some very thrilling slide guitar, and again John Paul Jones does his Hammond thing.
Rodney takes the vocal with grace and power - oh how we long for him to tackle epic stuff like this once again. The jump in volume of the bass after the first few notes is clearly discernable.
- Greensleeves - a straight take on the traditional tune, played on Mickie Most's Gibson J-200 acoustic guitar. Mickie would definitely have produced this one.
The 'wrong note' really stands out, but what the hell, it's lovely.
- Rock My Plimsoul - another 'borrowed tune' rejigged, rebadged and worthy of its place. Taking its lead from B.B.King's Rock Me Baby, this is the second time Beck tackled the tune.
This one, taken at a slower tempo, features Micky Waller on drums.
- Beck's Bolero - the stone cold classic instrumental that is both 'of its time' and totally timeless. Penned by Jimmy Page, who plays the twelve string, and graced by Jeff's slides, bends, and thrilling lead lines, this is best heard at maximum volume.
Some of those descending slide lines sound very voice-like.
Special mention to Keith Moon with his war cry and manic burst on his kit ushering in the middle break.
- Blues De Luxe - it has been noted in earlier sleeve notes that this has a resemblance to B.B.King's Gambler Blues.
Nicky Hopkins again shines here, and while it is quite an okay tune for the time, it sounds a bit dated now.
Whoever had the notion to add the fake audience noise should be ... oh, hang on, it was Jeff's idea.
- I Ain't Superstitious - well, this is what blues-rock was all about. Killer riff, maximum swing, and filthy guitar. Maximum joy. It sounds as thrilling today as it ever did. A nod to Howlin' Wolf for inspiration.
'Truth' has always had a side order of controversy attached re the idiosyncrasies of the production; odd mixing choices, some clunky 'drop-ins' and depending on the reissue, the use of NO-NOISE to subdue tape noise.
Of the copies I have, the go-to has been the 2005 Peter Mew transfer, mastered at Abbey Road, with some taste and finesse.
It also has a clutch of demos and b-sides showing the process of recording and track selection, and without too much effort, a listener could resequence a quality disc from what is available here.
The No-Noise twofer from 1991 of 'Truth' and 'Beck-Ola' cops lots of criticism; trying to damp down the tape hiss, but in doing so, knocking off a sizeable whack of instrumental top-end and overall timbral color.
Played back to back with this new transfer, it does sound rather hard and thin.
Overall, the more complex tracks hold up very well, with deft layering, and skillful use of studio applied compression (remember, these were aimed at radio first and foremost).
For me, the blues tracks are intriguing. One can often get a very strong sense of the band standing around the studio playing in real time with Jeff adding some flourishes later.
On a high-resolution system, it works a treat. However, that means if there is a dub added, it hangs there like a fart in a cathedral.
Indeed, the lack of any consistency in production values stands out, spanning as it does 1966 - 1968.
Mastering engineer Steve Hoffman, working on this one for Audio Fidelity, is on record as stating:
Truth has always been a head-scratcher for me. It sounds like ten different songs recorded over a period of ten years by ten different engineers. Hard to figure out how to integrate it into a solid whole. Some of the songs have NO midrange whatsoever and a piercing top end. Others, no top end, and an overbearing unnatural midband. It's a fun project to work on.
For someone of my vintage, this is one of the absolute classics of the sixties. With this excellent remaster, it goes from being a time-locked piece to a work that will appeal to the younger listener who is following the lineage back toward the sources.
For that young listener, the shock of hearing vocals without auto-tune, dud notes, occasional dodgy overdubs and Keith Moon on speed may open up a whole world of listening goodness.
An understanding and appreciation of the length of time and circumstances from earlier to later recordings helps glue the album together.
That said, I do not agree that it should have masterpiece status. It lacks consistency in material and production, with the next album 'Beck-Ola' (1969) arguably a more unified set, albeit, without the highlights of the first set. (Is it just me, or did Led Zeppelin borrow 'Plynth' and rejig it as 'Gallows Pole'?)
Influential, entertaining, at times thrilling, but not a masterpiece. Sorry, Jeff. Maybe 'a flawed gem' is most accurate.
This transfer is excellent on every level. Instruments sound like they should, not approximations. Spatial cues are also more revealing, and the micro details really 'ping.'
Rodneys' voice is richly textured, and there is a palpable sense of enjoyment in his performance. The many layers of the more complex productions are very evident, and the range of tones Jeff produces can be enjoyed in almost forensic detail.
Tellingly, a small sonic detail reveals the big picture here. In past transfers, the tambourine sounded like a thin, random percussion detail, merely marking time. Presented here, it's a distinctive, lifelike rendition of fingers on skin - very, very real.
There is a warmth and depth that finally allows the material to breathe.
The Redbook layer is the same mastering as the SACD with the bonus with the latter being the ability to crank it up. And indeed, we should.
A walking encyclopedia of music, David's broad music knowledge is a valued member to the team. Without music, there would be no HiFi. Look out for his words on current, past and future music, as well as album reviews.
Posted in: Music
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