GRAM PARSONS The Complete Reprise Sessions (Reprise/Rhino)
Theres a strong case behind the theory that all the solo Gram Parsons anybody short of a Nudie-suited obsessive needs can be found on the existing two-albums-on-one-CD issue of GP and Grievous Angel. To those twenty songs The Complete Reprise Sessions adds some fancy packaging (a box, individual cardboard sleeves for each of the three discs, modelled on the original vinyl issues where appropriate, a booklet stuffed with photos, reminiscences and commentary) and a whopping 28 extra tracks, mostly alternate takes of familiar material but also some interview fragments and a radio promo.
1973s GP was the only Parsons solo album to reach the shops during the artists brief lifetime, and for me it remains the best. Though both feature the fire and ice/fiddle and steel vocal duality of Gram against Emmylou, the songs on GP remain fresh and prickly to me, whereas those that make up Grievous Angel seem to have had their rougher edges smoothed away over the years, whether by familiarity or acclaim. For an underdog, GP punches pretty smartly: listen, for example, to the exquisite ache of A Song For You, which takes the pain and regret of leaving and makes it geographical, burns it into the land. The age-old country versus city conflict of Streets Of Baltimore isnt far behind. The narrative of She has always puzzled me is there an element of the benevolent slave owner about it? Parsons himself explains at least some of The New Soft Shoe in one of the interview segments, revealing it to be about automobile pioneer Errett Cord. Rarely have fiddle and steel guitar sounded as tactile as they do here, surely one of the most human sweet and sour timbral combinations in music.
Kiss The Children, written by producer Ric Grech (formerly of Family and Blind Faith), is the sound of a soul on the fast track to self-destruction, evidenced by lines like One more night like this would put me six feet under I wont be able to resist my rage/And the gun thats hangin on the kitchen wall, dear/Is like the road sign pointing straight to Satans cage. Its the inevitability of fate, and the protagonists powerlessness to avert disaster, that makes it so chilling and compelling. Its a theme that reappears time and again throughout GP, and arguably in Parsons own life as well.: two songs later, during, How Much Ive Lied, we hear a man driven by demons not of his own choosing weeping ambiguously One like you should surely be miles and miles away from me/Then youd never care how much Ive lied. And in album closer Big Mouth Blues, This dirty old towns gonna sink right down/And I dont wanna go with it.
The album proper is followed by some promo hoopla. A radio spot advertising the record youve just listened to is interesting from a historical perspective, as are the interview slivers and radio sessions. Its almost painful to listen to him discuss Emmylous singing: Gram sounds so honest and revealing its like hes carving chunks off his soul. Theres some leavening humour as well, though: of The Flying Burrito Brothers he admits I was part of that conspiracy to ruin A&M records. A queasily preserved but brilliant radio performance of Sin City chimes ominously with the themes of GP This old earthquakes gonna leave me in the poorhouse/It seems like this whole towns insane compelled by a power he couldnt control, a reflection of how he lived and how he died.
Grievous Angel, completed by the artist but released posthumously, opens with the epic country boys odyssey Return Of The Grievous Angel, a comparatively rare upbeat and optimistic moment in Parsons discography. On Hearts Of Fire you can hear the singers chemistry fizzing, the listener getting caught up in their coiling, trickling harmonies like a rabbit mesmerised by approaching headlights. Brass Buttons is a tender elegy to Parsons alcoholic late mother The Lemonheads reverential cover version was practically a photocopy and $1000 Wedding models a stately mix of dread and delicacy, the dark side of A Song For You, perhaps.
The forged live atmosphere behind Medley Live From Northern Quebec: Cash On The Barrelhead / Hickory Wind is possibly the entire sets only serious misstep. It mightve been fun for the participants, but now (and maybe even then) burying the performance in catcalls and bottle-smashing seems like an act of cultural vandalism. Love Hurts soon compensates, though, a four minute harmony masterclass. Although Gram and Emmylou maintained eye contact throughout the recording they were singing into separate microphones, and consequently they engage in a ghostly but hot-blooded tussle across the width of your listening room - listen to how their voices practically slither against one another. As a closing statement on a final album, its difficult to imagine one more prophetically apposite than In My Hour Of Darkness. Written about three recently departed acquaintances actor Brandon de Wilde, Byrds guitarist Clarence White and friend Sid Kaiser theres chilling foresight in the lines I knew his time would shortly come/But I did not know just when.
Extras appended to Grievous Angel are limited to an instrumental version of Return Of The Grievous Angel thanks for that, but given how much of the songs attraction lies with the lyrics and the vocals it seems somehow redundant and a few more brief interview snippets.
And then theres a whole other disc called Alternate Takes From GP & Grievous Angel, which contains exactly that. Now, whenever Media Player randomly selects these songs for my listening pleasure it quickly becomes apparently which are the outtakes and why the differences are rarely subtle. Listen to the alternate She, for example: Gram sounds wobbly and exposed compared to the released version, and I dont believe familiarity with the latter is clouding the comparison. Theres some extra dobro daubings on Still Feeling Blue, and Barry Tashian, as befits the song, sounds utterly, hopelessly broken as he duets with Gram on Kiss The Children. Hickory Wind is presented free of the background blah-blah, and models a hypnotic cats cradle of an acoustic guitar intro. Generally, though, the takes presented here are nice to have, but some way from essential.
Thats an assessment that could cover the whole set, in all honesty. If anything Grams genius is diluted somewhat compared to the concentrated shot of brilliance that sustained the original coupling of GP and Grievous Angel. Those albums contain all the solo Gram most fans will need, and everything here that youll keep coming back to.
The Flying Burrito Bros
The International Submarine Band