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(Capitol 41969 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 11/20/2002)
For those of us of a certain age, it's still hard to believe that the youngest Beatle is no longer with us. At the time of his death, there were reports that George Harrison had virtually completed a new album to be issued posthumously. His son Dhani was working with him, and the senior Harrison was said to be working on the project until days before his death of cancer.
Now, almost exactly a year after the quiet Beatle passed away, his last recording project Brainwashed is out, and it turns out to be a gem. Unlike the contrived and downright embarrassing Free as a Bird constructed around found John Lennon tracks, George's album is very much his own, and his stamp is indelible. His guitar work is some of the best of his career, and while his voice may not be quite as strong at times, there is nothing to be embarrassed about. The CD is also classic Harrison -- the trademark melodic pop sound of the Beatles, combined with George's attraction to Eastern sounds and cultures, plus some of the most thought-provoking lyrics to come from any of the Beatles. The title track, especially, is both acerbic and poignant.
On the CD, George seems very much aware that this was likely to be his final work, and in that context, the entire recording seems to be imbued with a quiet grace, in keeping with his spirituality. Several of the songs are quite philosophical. But there is also a plain old love song, as well as a performance of an old Tin Pan Alley tune that must have meant a lot to him.
As has been the case on some previous post-Beatle projects, Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra, is very prominent, serving as co-producer with George and Dhani Harrison. But this time, Lynne is not as heavy-handed with his often-obtrusive wall-of-sound style. Dhani Harrison and veteran drummer Jim Keltner round out the small group that is heard on most of Brainwashed. It's interesting to note that the preponderance of the instruments on the CD were played by George Harrison himself, including some good bluesy slide guitar, and unexpected instruments like Dobro, banjo and ukulele -- an instrument that his son says George enjoyed playing around the house a lot. According to Lynne and the junior Harrison, most of the songs were in demo form, without a great deal of instrumentation, and most of Lynne, Dhani Harrison and Keltner's parts were added after the senior Harrison's death. But the songs were well-developed compositionally, and George had recorded a number of guitar parts to go with them. And as mentioned, his playing is some of the best of his career, aided perhaps by the relatively relaxed atmosphere of working in his home studio.
Brainwashed opens with a track that is perhaps the epitome of the CD's direction. Any Road is thoughtful and philosophical in its lyrics, and upbeat and melodic in sound. George is listed as playing a "banjulele," presumably a cross between a banjo and ukulele, and also puts in some nice slide guitar work. <<>>
The following track is one of the more lyrically-pointed on the album, P2 Vatican Blues (Saturday Night), which seems to take a jab at organized religion generally. <<>>
Particularly poignant is Looking for My Life, a deceptively happy-sounding song obviously written by a spiritual man facing death. <<>>
Although, George's vocals are in fairly good shape for most of the CD, there are a couple of instances in which his failing health seems to manifest itself in his singing. (Can Only) Run So Far is another song that combines philosophical lyrics with the trademark Harrison melodic appeal. Despite his health, he handles the song reasonably well. <<>>
Those who enjoy both Harrison's guitar playing and his Eastern influence, are in for a treat on the instrumental Marwa Blues, which highlights George's nice guitar work, with hints of Indian sounds added. The piece might have been constructed by Lynne and Harrison junior from some of George's guitar tracks, but it is a nice little pearl, with George's guitar sounding vaguely bittersweet. <<>>
Harrison's guitar work on this CD can get surprisingly bluesy. One track is a straight-out blues: Rocking Chair in Hawaii, based on an old standard, with altered lyrics. From the sound of the vocal, the song might have just been a less-than-serious demo that was tossed off at home, on which Lynne and the junior Harrison built. It's hardly the strongest the CD has to offer. <<>>
Also a bit of a disappointment is Never Get Over You, a fairly forgettable love song on which Jeff Lynne's hand seems a bit too heavy. <<>>
Perhaps the CD's biggest surprise is the old Tin Pan Alley song Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. There is a video of George playing the song with a whole group, including pianist Jools Holland and tuba player Herbie Flowers, so this tune was apparently completed before Harrison's death. The Beatle is heard on ukulele again, in this fun performance, though one, I suppose, could say that the lyrics take on some poignancy given George's diagnosis of cancer. <<>>
The CD ends with its title track, Brainwashed, which revisits a long-time theme of Harrison's -- the hypocrisy and materialism of the world, and a plea for spiritual assistance. It's perhaps the strongest lyrical statement Harrison has made in many years. <<>> But after that philippic, the piece takes a decided spiritual direction to end, with a Hindu prayer recitation by Harrison and his son. It's a touching conclusion to George Harrison's last work. <<>>
The release of a posthumous recording by George Harrison was widely expected, given the material he was known to have recorded. The realization of that, in the form of Brainwashed is a very satisfying recording that holds a lot of poignancy. George's songs are for the most part first rate, and given the context of his failing health and knowledge that his days were numbered, his place in the world, and whatever may come beyond, found their way into the songs, sometimes subtly, and sometimes less-so. George conducted himself with grace, and that is underscored on Brainwashed. While some of the material is plainly less than stellar, Jeff Lynne and Dhani Harrison did a good job of maintaining George's sound, and usually avoided the temptation to make more out of the material than was there. I would say that the CD does well by George's spirit.
From a sonic standpoint, I would give the CD about a "B," partly because some of George's parts had not been particularly well-recorded, which was unavoidable, but also partly because Jeff Lynne's wall-of-sound tendencies were not completely suppressed, and that approach always takes the life out of a recording.
What is likely to be the final musical statement by George Harrison to be issued is both a poignant and uplifting album. It's one that no long-time Beatle fan would want to be without.
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