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Back from the dead:

The music of the dead is proving to be a big draw this year, as evidenced by the successful chart showings of recent compilations by Elvis Presley and the late Kurt Cobain’s influential band Nirvana. Such compilations tend to be grand exercises in compromise – too much esoterica will turn off casual fans, while not enough rarities will disappoint hard-core followers. When sales are not the primary concern, however, truly great offerings can be released from our departed musical heroes. Such is the case with recent releases by George Harrison and Jeff Buckley.

Though he will forever be known as one fourth of the ever-popular Beatles, George Harrison had his own distinct personality and musical style apart from his mates John, Paul and Ringo. The most spiritual of the Beatles, George was responsible for turning many a young ear on to Eastern philosophy, religion and sounds. This aspect of George’s life always came through in his solo work, and it is as strong as one would expect on “Brainwashed” (Dark Horse/Capitol), the album he left us as his last musical word.

The album was mostly finished before he died from cancer a year ago, but the job of completing the project for release was left to son Dhani and longtime friend and musical associate Jeff Lynne. The result is a record that sounds as if George never left.

From the start, George’s philosophy drives the record, reminding the listener, on the first track, “if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” From here on out, George keeps revisiting spiritual topics in a variety of ways: humor (“P2 Vatican Blues (Last Saturday Night)”), sad and quiet introspection (“Stuck Inside a Cloud”) and biting cynicism (the title track). More secular moments occur on a jolly, jaunty cover of the old pop and jazz standard, “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” the sadly beautiful love song, “Never Get Over You,” and the stunning instrumental, “Marwa Blues,” featuring strong-as-ever guitar phrasing by George.

Even though “Brainwashed” is without a doubt an album created by a man knowing he was going to die, there is still a feeling of peace and love that permeates the record. It is comforting in its finality, knowing how much care went into the creation of these excellent songs, from their composition to the production and mixes. No expense was spared in the packaging, either: the handsome digipack CD case is also sold in a limited box that includes a poster, DVD, ‘Dark Horse’ sticker, and guitar pick. The vinyl LP also faithfully reproduces all the graphics of the limited edition CD box set. Beyond all this extra special care, George’s classic humor is what ultimately makes this album so welcoming: read the front cover and spine… it says “Brainwashed by George Harrison.”

The much younger but continually revered Jeff Buckley also is the subject of a special edition box release, which should be welcomed by his fans. Buckley died tragically five years ago while swimming in the Mississippi river during a break from recording his second album.

Buckley’s second album would be released posthumously as “Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk.” Being that his career was so brief, it has been difficult to satiate the appetites of his fans. The latest Buckley release finds a way over this hurdle by presenting five hard-to-find import EPs as a handsome box set called “The Grace EPs” (Columbia).

Buckley’s import EPs are treasure troves of live performances, and as listening to them proves, his live performances were nothing short of transcendent. Worth the price of admission alone are two very different performances of the “Grace” album’s opening tune, “Mojo Pin.” The first is fairly close to the studio rendition, while the second features a stunning extended improvised intro. Elsewhere, covers of Van Morrison’s “The Way Young Lovers Do” and Big Star’s “Kanga-Roo,” among others, show Buckley putting his own unique stamp upon the music he loved with his beautiful, soaring tenor.

The five EPs – “Peyote Radio Theatre,” “So Real,” “Live from the Bataclan,” “The Grace EP,” and “Last Goodbye” are all packaged in individual paper sleeves, reproducing the original graphics of the releases. The five sleeves and a booklet of liner notes all fit into a slipcase enveloped in photos of Buckley. Although the set is not perfect – the EPs are relatively short, “Kanga-Roo” is included on two of the EPs and some songs are presented in their familiar “Grace” album versions – from an historical perspective, the package is superb in its preservation of original graphics and running order. Collectors will notice, and they will be pleased.

December 9, 2002
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