There is a fine line many an artist of a certain stature inevitably ride at a certain point in his or her career… a narrow path where a career-defining recording can be superseded by alternate recordings leaked out by the label to feed an audience thirsty for more-of-the-same music from the artist they newly love.
At least, that is how it used to be in the days of radio promotion and big time record labels. Some of those albums issued just to the radio stations and industry insiders went on to become classics in their own right, eventually finding their way into fans hands via collectors record stores.
In the 1970s, Back It Up Live (an Authorized Bootleg) by Nils Lofgrin became such a popular thing among fans it prompted the label to eventually issue the live two LP set “Night After Night” (which many hard core fans didn’t think was quite as good as the single disc promo!). A live album by Elvis Costello from a syndicated 1978 Toronto radio broadcast was so heavily pirated over the years that eventually it was released officially in multi-disc CD boxed set issued by Rykodisc (called 2 1/2 Years). Many fans of The Smiths prefer the singles and BBC radio versions of songs which appeared on the 1984 album Hatful of Hollow (itself a top 10 hit on the UK charts!) issued not long after the band’s debut.
Even into the 1990s cool promos popped up periodically in the CD realm supporting certain ascendant artists. One such gem was called Goodfriend, a DJ and fan-club-only companion to Matthew Sweet’s 1991 breakthrough album Girlfriend (widely considered to be one of the best pop rock records of the year and of the ’90s overall). When I first heard Goodfriend (a friend had a copy), I was pretty blown away by it, with its fine alternate versions of songs from the Girlfriend album. But it was the tracks not on the Girlfriend album that made for a jaw-dropping listen including stellar versions of Neil Young’s “Cortez The Killer” and John Lennon’s “Isolation” — these are songs that few covered at that time, or since, frankly.
The alternate versions (live recordings for radio, home studio demos, etc.) of tracks from Girlfriend are spectacular, with that certain special energy not quite captured on the excellent studio release. Part of that energy has to do with the presence of guitarist Ivan Julian, a co-founder of the legendary and influential punk / new wave band Richard Hell & The Voidoids. There Julian picked up the mantle laid down on the original Girlfriend recordings by equally influential session guitarists Richard Lloyd (of Television) and Robert Quine (also from The Voidoids).
So, as with those aforementioned live recordings by Nils Lofgrin, Elvis Costello and The Smiths, these versions are infused with that magic energy that can only happen on stage or when making one’s first home demos (its hard to capture that sort of lightning twice, so demos often have a special appeal, warts ‘n all). There is a also a compelling sort of guitar hero texture gracing these these recordings, even on the acoustic, folkier versions of the songs.
Eventually, Goodfriend was released officially (in 2006) as part of the Sony Legacy series in a deluxe edition two CD set reissue.
And Matthew Sweet fans around the world rejoiced!
So here’s the cool news, kids. Ten years later, on Record Store Day this year, Goodfriend got its first ever formal release on vinyl!
I’ll start this part of the review by stating upfront that the original CD sounded pretty great considering what it was…
Some of the live recordings were recorded by the Westwood One Mobile studio from a 1992 radio broadcast, live at San Diego State University, with back up vocals from The Indigo Girls (Amy Ray, Emily Saliers), Scarlett Rivera on Violin (from Bob Dylan’s legendary Rolling Thunder band!) and alternative rock’s go-to Cello player, Jane Scarpantoni. Some recordings were done at the BBC and for WMMS radio. So these aren’t low budget fan made audience or monitor-mix-off-the-board recordings, kids.
This stuff sounded great on the CD to begin with, even when you turned it up pretty loud.
When turning friends on to Goodfriend, I almost always start by telling them about the Neil Young cover found only here. This version blew me away back in the day and remains a favorite. Why? Because it is the first cover of this song I’ve heard NOT done by Neil Young that rivals Neil’s energy and passion. The interplay of The Indigo Girls’ acoustic guitars with Julian’s searing leads, Rivera’s Violin and Scapantoni’s cello is mesmerizing. The exchange of Sweet’s and Amy Ray’s vocals make for wonderful interplay.
So by now you’re probably wondering how the vinyl version of Goodfriend sounds? Generally, really nice! Since the music comes from a variety of sources, it is interesting to hear the subtle differences come across on vinyl. In general, the LP warms things up a bit (not that the CD was terribly cold to begin with).
My copy is well pressed with only the slightest of issues appearing on Side 4 — which is a wee bit off center, but it doesn’t seem to affect the music too badly except for a bit of audible “wow” on the final track. I heard a couple very brief pops ‘n crackles along the way on that side — that could be dust and static on my end too, I admit. These were nothing major however and its probably not the kind of thing that will drive me to return the album back to the store… These anomalies aren’t bothering me too much yet but we’ll see how I feel next time I play this again (which will be soon!).
]]>Matthew’s gorgeous home demo of “Looking Into The Sun” is one of my all time faves from Goodfriend and the other big reason I jumped at buying the vinyl edition, with its huge sounding acoustic guitars and surf-flavored, reverb-drenched six-string bass flourishes. There appears to be more sonic detailing going on here with the LP version. On the CD the acoustic guitars on this song sound more like they were plugged directly into the soundboard via a bridge pick up on the guitar — a little bit boxy. On the LP I can hear the sound of well mic’d acoustic guitars playing in a room. So some of that sort of fine detail nuance may have been lost on the CD format.
Other tracks such as “I’ve Been Waiting” (recorded at Cleveland’s Empire Club by radio station WMMS) don’t quite fare as well, sounding a bit dense and crunchy on the LP (as it is on the CD); don’t get me wrong, it is a great performance but I can see why the producers didn’t put more material from that show on this collection. It pales sonically.
Wisely, the producers provide levity with another of Matthew’s lovely acoustic home demos (“Winona”). Side Four delivers two more tracks from the San Diego show including a smokin’ version of “Girlfriend” and the aforementioned, and ever wonderful, “Cortez The Killer.”
All in all I am pretty happy with this release. Some liner notes might have been a bonus. And given the price, it would have been nice if it had been pressed on more than standard weight vinyl (especially given the price point). But… those are admittedly perfectionist nit picks. On the other hand, I’m happy (and perhaps even amazed) that this album has seen the light of day at all, so thank you Rhino/Warners for that.
Now it occurs to me that I really need to seek out a copy of Girlfriend on vinyl. Maybe someday soon we’ll get Altered Beast and 100% Fun re-released on vinyl too…
The music never stops …