Saturday, August 16, 2014

Stevie Nicks - Enchanted (1998)

With the seventies line-up of Fleetwood Mac reunited and on top of the charts again with their smash live album The Dance, Stevie Nicks was back in business after a decade of lean years in the studio. That made a new Nicks’ solo compilation a smart marketing move. The snag was, given Nicks lack of top 40 hits since “Rooms on Fire”, her 1991 greatest hits album (Timespace) needed no updating. And, to this day, it still doesn’t.

This must be part of why the powers that be at her label, Modern Records, went with a boxed set. That said, the allure of boxed sets is somewhat mystifying. Fans already have all the music except for the one or two new songs included (which usually aren't anything special). Meanwhile, the casual listener must view a boxed set as expensive overkill. As such, even a life-long fan of Stevie Nicks (like myself), must approach the purchase of Nicks’ three-disc boxed set Enchanted with skepticism. Fortunately, this release is lovingly designed to appeal to Nicks’ fan base. It truly justifies the purchase, while also presenting the best of Nicks’ solo material to draw the less rabid but interested listener. Enchanted did very well upon release, suggesting people were ready for a tribute to Nicks who was – at this stage of her career – assuming her rightful place as a rock legend.

The first two discs of Enchanted focus on her previously released solo material. While the songs are not presented in chronological order, Disc One does draw heavily from her first two albums - Bella Donna and The Wild Heart - while Disc Two leans towards Rock a Little and the work that came after. The casual listener will get almost all of Bella Donna and six tracks off The Wild Heart. Four or five tracks are taken from her other albums but, since these efforts were not as consistent, that’s about right. In short, someone could purchase Enchanted in lieu of Nicks’ solo albums and miss out on very little (see next paragraph for some notable exceptions).

What will appeal to fans about the first two discs is that many of the tracks are alternate takes to the versions on the albums. Given Nicks’ appealing habit of rejiggering how she sings her songs over time, this variation is very welcome to a fan. Nothing strange has been done to the songs. They still have the same sound as the originals, but they have slight, yet notable, nuance. For example, “Leather and Lace” adds a few extra lines to a verse (it might be the single version). Three songs taken from Street Angel – as well as “Rooms on Fire” – are alternate versions. “Whole Lotta Trouble” is the single mix. Further, “Edge of Seventeen” is a live performance from Nicks’ long-lost 1981 White Wing Dove HBO special (it was also the b-side to the single), and “I Can’t Wait” appears in an extended mix lifted from the excellent 1986 maxi-single. There are also a couple b-sides (google the term if you’re a Millennial): “Garbo” was a lovely acoustic ballad on the flipside of “Stand Back” and “One More Big Time Rock and Roll Star” was the b-side of “Talk to Me”. All this makes the first two discs a lot more interesting to a Nicks fan than they would be otherwise.

Even so, what makes Enchanted worth the price of admission to a fan is the collection of unreleased and non-album tracks on Disc Three. Given that much of Nicks’ solo material was released prior to the advent of compact discs and Enchanted was released prior to the digital music era, Disc Three was a way for fans to reclaim all that lost vinyl material without spending piles of money on cheesy movie soundtrack CDs. And there is a lot of great Nicks material in the soundtrack category. Songs like "Blue Lamp", "Battle of the Dragon", "Violet and Blue", and "Sleeping Angel" are just as enthralling as her very best solo work. Even in retrospect, it’s impossible to fathom why “Sleeping Angel” wasn’t saved for The Wild Heart.

In addition to the soundtrack songs, Disc Three includes several demos. These stripped down performances offer a peek into Nicks’ creative process but are also complete enough to be enjoyable listens. It’s not hard to imagine Nicks including these demos to thumb her nose at rock critics who adore painting her as dependent on others (i.e., guys) to turn her musical daydreams into concrete songs. If so, she makes her point. The demos of “Sweet Girl” and “Twisted” are better than the recorded versions released after Lindsey Buckingham got a hold of them. Of course Buckingham contributed to Nicks’ work with Fleetwood Mac, as Nicks readily admits. However, Nicks also states that she is sometimes mis-produced (I’d add over-produced), so the simplicity and intimate energy of these demos is eye-opening.

Disc Three is rounded out with several other goodies. Her energetic performance of "Gold and Braid" from White Wing Dove is included; this is a song she never recorded in the studio. We also get both of her late seventies’ duets outside Fleetwood Mac ("Gold" and “Whenever I Call You Friend”), a Buckingham Nicks track, and her spin on Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’”. The Disc ends with her re-recording the demo version of “Rhiannon” on piano. All said, Disc Three is a powerful inducement to buy Enchanted even if you have all of Nicks’ solo work.

Stepping back, can one quibble with the selection of tracks on Enchanted? It’s a career retrospective so, of course, the answer is ‘yes’. So here I go… Her remix of “The Nightmare” or the b-side “Inspiration” would have been preferable to weak material like “Thousand Days” and “Reconsider Me”. I would have excluded “The Highwayman” in favor of The Wild Heart’s “Nothing Ever Changes”. Song selection from Rock a Little emphasizes material Nicks wrote alone – which makes sense given this is her boxed set – but “I Sing For the Things” and the convoluted “Rock a Little” were just nowhere near as well-written or performed as “Sister Honey” and “If I Were You”. Similarly, the inclusion of “Desert Angel” from Timespace makes sense from a Stevie-as-songwriter perspective, but it’s a weak track compared to something like “Ghosts” from about the same period. On a less subjective note, selecting “Rose Garden” over just about any other track from Street Angel is plain lunacy. “Love is Like a River” or “Listen to the Rain” would have been a much better representations of Nicks’ songwriting chops for a fan or a casual listener.

Quibbling aside, this boxed set was designed to be a fantastic value for the fan in the context of 1998’s music distribution/technology. The dozens of photos and complete lyrics compiled in a storybook format adds a visual and tactile appeal sadly extinct in the iTunes era. In Enchanted, Nicks has created a love letter to her fans as well as a testament to her solo career up to this point.

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