Friday, July 10, 2009

No Longer in the Shadows

George Harrison

Let It Roll: Songs by George Harrison (EMI)

As noted by others, the formidable composing team of Lennon and McCartney made George Harrison only the third best songwriter in the Beatles. Being limited to a couple of songs per album must have been particularly galling for the “Quiet Beatle,” especially when he wrote gems like “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Long Long Long” on the White Album, or “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun” on Abbey Road.

Once liberated after the breakup, however, Harrison made up for lost time by releasing the gargantuan three-LP set, All Things Must Pass, in 1970, which contained the first Beatles solo #1 hit, “My Sweet Lord.” In the years since (and before his death in 2001 at age 58), Harrison's career became increasingly spotty, as the new greatest-hits compilation, Let It Roll (redundantly subtitled Songs by George Harrison), shows.

Let It Roll collects 19 Harrison tracks--16 from his solo years and 3 from the Beatles days--all re-mastered and sounding better than ever. The trio of Fab Four tunes--“While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun”--are culled from the seminal Concert for Bangladesh album which, along with his first solo LP, gave Harrison his highest profile as an ex-Beatle. The powerful performances, which include a sizzling Clapton solo on “Guitar,” give a glimpse of Harrison's strength as a live performer, something which many were unable to experience (he last toured the U.S. in 1974, and toured Japan with Clapton's backing band in 1991).

The 16 solo tunes vary wildly in quality, as they run the gamut from number-one singles to rare instrumentals (“Marwa Blues,” a tasty, Grammy-winning guitar workout from his final CD, 2002's Brainwashed), with a sprinkling of minor hits thrown in. The weight is heavily (and smartly) on All Things Must Pass, with the anthemic “My Sweet Lord,” funky “The Ballad of Frankie Crisp (Let It Roll),” the stately title tune and the epic “Isn't It a Pity?” (which, at seven minutes of constantly building drama, owes an obvious debt to “Hey Jude”). “What Is Life,” a catchy Top 10 rocker, is also included, but several outstanding songs off the album are missing, notably the off-the-cuff charmer “Apple Scruffs,” the gorgeous Dylan-penned “If Not for You,” and one of Harrison's most charged musical homilies, “Beware of Darkness.” Of course, if you're any kind of fan at all, you already own All Things Must Pass.

After that monstrous success, Harrison's hit singles and number-one albums became rarer, but those few big hits are included on Let It Roll. The 1973 follow-up (and final #1 LP) Living in the Material World yielded another huge smash, “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth),” whose timeless sentiment would sound opportunistic from any rock star other than Harrison, who was fairly quiet on the American charts until 1981, when his paean to the recently murdered Lennon, “All Those Years Ago,” shot up the charts. Its peppiness is belied by Harrison's cleverly cutting lyric, which he re-wrote and pasted to the upbeat tune following Lennon's death; it was a Beatles reunion of sorts also, with Ringo on drums, and Paul and Linda on backing vocals.

In 1987, Harrison had its biggest success since All Things Must Pass when Cloud Nine was released, which included his number-one cover of Rudy Clark's “Got My Mind Set on You” (written in 1962), and the Beatles pastiche “When We Was Fab.” Today, these Jeff Lynne-produced songs sound frightfully dated, filled with Lynne's typical studio gimmicky: Harrison seems like an artist unsure of his own “sound,” so he took a ride on the Lynne gravy train. Harrison's Cloud Nine songs have always been interchangeable with those of the Traveling Wilburys and Tom Petty's Full Moon Fever, all (mis)produced by Lynne. The only artist to keep his own musical personality when pitted against Lynne's knob-twirling in the studio was McCartney on 1997's Flaming Pie.

Rounding out Let It Roll are cheerful tunes like “Blow Away,” “Cheer Down” and “This Road,” the latter also from Brainwashed, Harrison's swan song. Minor hits like “Crackerbox Palace,” “Dark Horse” and “You” are missing, but does anyone really miss them? More conspicuous by their absence are “Bangladesh,” the charity single Harrison recorded in 1971, and his 1973 New Year's novelty song, “Ding Dong Ding Dong,” both of which are difficult to hear otherwise.

In sum, Let It Roll is a reminder of Harrison's legacy as singer, songwriter and guitarist, but the CD is most useful as a prelude to the long-awaited re-release of the Beatles' albums in remastered editions in September. That countdown's already underway.

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