Monday, 13 March 2017

"American Pie" by DON McLEAN (June 2003 Capitol 'Expanded Edition' CD Remaster in Gatefold Card Slv Repro Artwork with Two Bonus Tracks) - A Review by Mark Barry...

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"...Now I Understand What You Tried To Say To Me..." 

Some artists have a gift. Their songs are more than pretty or even beautiful - they somehow find their way into your very soul. New York's DON McLEAN is one of those singer-songwriters - and 1971's "American Pie" will forever be his acoustic-soulful rock-masterpiece.

Some backdrop first - his September 1970 debut album "Tapestry" was originally issued on Mediarts 41-4 in the USA and received hugely favourable reviews but precious little chart action. But akin to his monolithic second LP - his debut had tunes that were undeniably good. So when UA picked up the Mediarts back-catalogue they reissued "Tapestry" in August 1971 on United Artists UAS 5522. That version finally charted December 1972 in the USA on the back of the "American Pie" single and LP success peaking at No. 111. Over in Blighty however - "Tapestry" would not surface until May 1972 on United Artists UAS 29350 - 3 months after the also late British release of the "American Pie" LP in February 1972. “Tapestry" made no impact and UA Britain didn't even try a 45 from it. Which brings us to album No. 2...

Aged only 26 and dedicating his second outing to Buddy Holly (McLean was 13 when the plane that took his Rock 'n' Roll hero's life crashed in a snowy field in February 1959) - "American Pie" was released October 1971 on United Artists UAS 5535. Running to a whopping 8:32 minutes - the album's famous title track was split into two parts for a 45 in November 1971 by UA and given the luxury of a picture sleeve (the album artwork). United Artists 50856 made an immediate impact. So popular was the song that DJs even blanked the 'turn it over' hassle of the single and played the full LP version instead - unheard off for a tune of such length on American Radio. On the back of all this airwave plugging the "American Pie" album entered the US LP charts 13 November 1971 where it began an ascent all the way to Number 1 - staying on the LP charts a huge 48 weeks - almost an entire year.

The UK didn't see the "American Pie" 7" single until early December 1971 and then as a 4-minute edited A-side on United Artists UP 35323 with "Empty Chairs" on the B. It was reissued 21 January 1972 as a two-part single on United Artists UP 35325 – a month before the LP's release in February – and it was this reissued version that hit the charts immediately – eventually rising to No. 2. The albums only other UK 45 was of course "Vincent" with "Castles In The Air" on the flipside - released late March 1972 on United Artists UP 35359 in a picture sleeve. It famously became a UK No. 1 - a poignant ballad that is adored to this day and permanent feature on Oldies playlists.

Which brings by a circuitous route to this rather lovely CD reissue that unfortunately has audio issues on some important tracks. Here are the starry, starry details...

UK released 24 June 2003 - "American Pie" by DON McLEAN on Capitol 72435-84279-2-9 (Barcode 724358427929) is an 'Expanded Edition' CD Remaster with Two Bonus Tracks that plays out as follows (46:23 minutes):

1. American Pie [Side 1]
2. Till Tomorrow
3. Vincent
4. Crossroads
5. Winterwood [Side 2]
6. Empty Chairs
7. Everybody Loves Me, Baby
8. Sister Fatima
9. The Grave
10. Babylon
Tracks 1 to 10 are his 2nd studio album "American Pie" - released 15 October 1971 in the USA on United Artists UAS 5535 and February 1972 in the UK on United Artists UAS 29285. Recorded at The Record Plant Studios in New York in May and June 1971 and Produced by ED FREEMAN - it peaked at No. 1 in the USA and No.3 in the UK. All songs are Don McLean originals except the Traditional "Babylon".

BONUS TRACKS (Previously Unreleased):
11. Mother Nature
12. Aftermath

Original vinyl copies of the LP (artwork and photos by George Whiteman) came with an inner sleeve sporting a photo and dedication to the TV cowboy Hoppalong Cassidy astride his steed Hopper that is reproduced in the centre of the foldout card sleeve. The 12-page booklet in the left flap reproduces the lyrics for the first time and gives a track-by-track breakdown from new interviews with McLean in April 2003 by liner-notes writer PAUL GREIN. Amidst the telling is the recounting of Lori Lieberman's writing of "Killing Me Softly With His Song" - itself a No. 1 for Roberta Flack - a song Lieberman wrote after attending a Don McLean concert in the Troubadour in L.A. – moved to tears on hearing him play "Empty Chairs" from the American Pie LP. There's also a photo of DL on a bench with an old Blues Boy and his acoustic guitar (looks like The Village).

The CD Remaster by DOUG SCHWARTZ was done April 2003 at Mulholland Music in California with one of the Bonus Tracks "Aftermath" mixed by BILL SMITH at Capitol. The sound improvement is immediate when you play that famous opening cut – Paul Griffin's Piano – David Spinoza's guitar licks – much better for sure – clear and warm. But I'd add that there is some serious tape hiss on some of the quieter tracks and typically its on songs people adore like "Vincent" and "Empty Chairs". It’s a warm transfer overall for sure – full of life and air around the instruments - but I’d warn caution. This is a four-star audio listen for five-star material - something I suspect is inherent on the source tapes and couldn't be helped. On to the music and the words...

I’d forgotten about his lyrics – how good they are. "American Pie" – his tribute to the day the music died (3 February 1959) - hosts some great storytelling – the father, the son and the Holy Ghost who caught the last train to the coast – while good ole boys sit drinking whiskey and rye singing... But for me the real magic begins with the truly gorgeous "Till Tomorrow" – as beautiful and as simple a melody as you've ever heard. The album's other monster song is of course "Vincent" - a ballad to the doomed artist - but along with "Crossroads" - both are laden with hiss despite their sweet beauty.

Side 2 opens with a song I played to death back in the day - the uplifting jaunt of "Winterwood". Acoustic guitars and gentle vibes hold up lyrics like " one can take your place with me...there's no place I'd rather be...than it's your place for the night..." This is a song where birds sing hopeful songs on dismal days. I wonder how many men and women have shed a tear to the heartache inherent in "Empty Chairs" - McLean strumming your pain as the lady said ("...I never understood...that although you said you'd go...until you did...I never thought you would..."). Grein reckons that the bopper "Everybody Loves Me, Baby" would have made a great third 45 - I beg to differ - I've always thought it overbearing (although the Remaster is excellent). The trio of "Sister Fatima", the Acapella bareness of the lost marines song "The Grave" and the Traditional cover of "Babylon" take the LP to the finish line - beautiful stuff.

I hadn't expected much from the two bonus cuts - but I'm glad to say that both the upbeat "Mother Nature" (a band number) and the haunting "Aftermath" (an acoustic number that should have replaced "Everybody Loves Me, Baby") act as a perfect end game. "Aftermath" also has gorgeous audio – better than many of the more famous album cuts on Side 1.

"...My sorrow will take wings in the morning..." – Don McLean sings on the Soul touching "Till Tomorrow". Discover why they call this great album an American classic on this lovely and cheap-as-chips CD...

PS: I've also reviewed "Homeless Brother" and the double-live set "Solo"...

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