Let it Be Naked (Apple/Capitol 95713)
There's plenty to be cynical about vis a vis Let it Be Naked, from the embarrassing title to the marketing concept, which attempts to sell The Beatles as a clear antecedent to, like, The Strokes and the White Stripes. "Hey, kids!" the album seems to say in desperation. "The Beatles weren't all poppy and shit, they were GRITTY, STRIPPED DOWN ROCK 'N' ROLL!!!!!"
Which is not only baldly untrue, but beside the point. No matter how you try to package 'em, The Beatles are a band of their time. Worth revisiting? Sure. Still unparalleled? Yes. But come on, where would the hippies have been had Capitol Records tried to sell them on, like, Harry James?
"Hey kids!!!" scream the liner notes to Harry James In Hi-Fi Plus Groovy Sitar! "Harry James wasn't all big-band and shit, he was seriously TRIPPED OUT, as this album with overdubbed reverb and sitar attests!"
Hm, once again, I seem to have started a Beatles review only to get lost in the wilderness. Ah well it worked for Christ.
Critics have leapt over each other trying to pick the definitive fight with this album, but they're just barking up the wrong tree. Let it Be Naked might be a little shameless, but it's not sacrilegious, nor terribly misguided. If anything, its principal flaw is that it is not any of the extremely cool albums it might have been.
The original Let it Be was the result of countless hours of contentious and unpleasant recording sessions as the band attempted to "go back to their roots" or some shit, playing once again as a band instead of as a fragmented, studio-only entity. Phil Spector took hundreds of hours of tape and assembled what is a much better album than it ought to have been. Let it Be is rightly beloved for lots of reasons, the songs being some of the group's coolest, and the loose performances still sounding fresh all these years later. It's the only Beatles album where you really get to meet the Beatles, as they were, instead of as legends beyond reproach.
Spector's treatment included some overdubbed orchestrations and choral vocals, none of which really get in the way. Paul McCartney has famously hated the album ever since Spector got his hands on it, and Let it Be Naked returns the record to Paul's vision.
Yes, that's a little dubious, seeing as John and George aren't around to argue, and Ringo will do anything for money. But rather than question the motivations, it might behoove people to simply listen to the disc.
Naked is in some places dramatically different from the original Let it Be, though a casual listener will probably notice nothing beyond a new track order. The album's real reason to exist , no matter what Uncle Paul and the Apple Corp. PR machine might want to be the truth, is that the album sounds fantastic. Beatles fans have been given a gift in this, though I can't say I blame them for looking the horse in the mouth. It's one real whore of a horse.
The new mixes are stunning present, in your face, crystal clear, and on a few tracks thrilling. I've heard the original album hundreds of times, along with scads of session bootlegs, and I still uttered a Keanu-like "Whoa" when the background vocals on "I've Got a Feeling" kicked in. Another true gift: the chance to hear this very familiar music as though for the first time.
The guitars crunch, the drums pounce, background harmonies sparkle, you hear details that were muddied before. A couple of performances are entirely different ("The Long and Winding Road" being the most drastic it's clearly an inferior take to the Spector-ized original version, but hey it's new Beatles music).
So how I choose to see Let it Be Naked is as a cool collection of excellent new mixes. It still doesn't hang together as an album the closest this stuff came to actually gelling was probably on the unreleased Get Back album.
The new track order is completely without flow, and the lack of studio chatter does dampen the off-the-cuff appeal of the original album. These sessions were never about perfection, and Paul's perfectionist hand doesn't quite succeed in closing the door on this album once and for all.
Part of the trouble is that you can't help but keep comparing it to the album you know inside and out. And yes, a better idea would be a Get Back box set with a much broader scope (the 20-minute bullshit session documentary tacked on as a bonus CD makes this all the more frustrating).
Why Capitol continues to try to market Beatles rarities to the mainstream is a complete mystery, when clearly the audience for this stuff is simply the already-devoted. It amuses me to think of Beatles neophytes or soccer-mom-type non-fans picking this up and expecting to get very much out of it. "Oh, I like the Beatles, this looks good."
But in the end, what this is is great goddamn music, and the opportunity to hear it with fresh ears. There's just no need to attack it. All my cynicism died with a single "Oh yeah" at track six, when I suddenly became eight years old again and the Beatles really could do no wrong.
Review by Phil Dominoe