GRAM PARSONS The Complete Reprise Sessions (Reprise/Rhino)

There’s 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.

1973’s “GP” was the only Parsons solo album to reach the shops during the artist’s 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” isn’t 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 won’t be able to resist my rage/And the gun that’s hangin’ on the kitchen wall, dear/Is like the road sign pointing straight to Satan’s cage”. It’s the inevitability of fate, and the protagonist’s powerlessness to avert disaster, that makes it so chilling and compelling. It’s a theme that reappears time and again throughout “GP”, and arguably in Parsons’ own life as well.: two songs later, during, “How Much I’ve 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 you’d never care how much I’ve lied”. And in album closer “Big Mouth Blues”, “This dirty old town’s gonna sink right down/And I don’t wanna go with it”.

The album proper is followed by some promo hoopla. A radio spot advertising the record you’ve just listened to is interesting from a historical perspective, as are the interview slivers and radio sessions. It’s almost painful to listen to him discuss Emmylou’s singing: Gram sounds so honest and revealing it’s like he’s carving chunks off his soul. There’s 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 earthquake’s gonna leave me in the poorhouse/It seems like this whole town’s insane” – compelled by a power he couldn’t 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 boy’s 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 set’s only serious misstep. It might’ve 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, it’s 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 – there’s 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 song’s attraction lies with the lyrics and the vocals it seems somehow redundant – and a few more brief interview snippets.

And then there’s 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 don’t believe familiarity with the latter is clouding the comparison. There’s 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 cat’s cradle of an acoustic guitar intro. Generally, though, the takes presented here are nice to have, but some way from essential.

That’s an assessment that could cover the whole set, in all honesty. If anything Gram’s 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 you’ll keep coming back to.

The Byrds

The Flying Burrito Bros

The International Submarine Band