Saturday, November 15, 2014

Stevie Nicks - 24 Karat Gold (2014)

Given the long breaks between Stevie Nicks' studio albums over the last two decades, I never expected that only three years would pass between In Your Dreams and her next offering, 24 Karat Gold. It's a pleasant surprise, but this also isn't a standard solo album. To come up with the material, Nicks mined her backlog of demos - including songs written as early as the sixties - and properly recorded fourteen of them. A rerecording of "Twisted" and a cover of a Vanessa Carlton song bring the track total to sixteen. That's a generous offering by any definition.

24 Karat Gold's title and the sub-title ("Songs From the Vault") wisely steer us away from going into the album thinking about these songs as what they really are: outtakes. Or actually even worse than that: songs that never made the cut to potentially become outtakes. Nicks wrote almost all of these tracks at least three decades ago, recorded demos for them, shared them with her many musical collaborators...and yet they never once passed muster to be included on any Fleetwood Mac album or on any of her own seven solo albums. They also weren't chosen for b-sides, extra tracks on greatest hits compilations, content on her extras-laden 1998 boxed set Enchanted, or give-aways to dubious movie soundtrack albums. This would seem to not bode well for the quality of the material.

This is especially true since Nicks - who is a brilliant songwriter - has not batted 100 over the course of her career (no one does). Even the most rabid fan can point to misses Nicks has unwisely committed to vinyl. "Paper Doll" from The Chain was a half-baked mess, "Fire Burning" from The Other Side of the Mirror was hopelessly self-indulgent, and "Jane" was the sappy closer to Street Angel. Nicks' worst moment, "When I See You Again" from Tango in the Night, was so dreadful that you wondered what magic spell the Welsh witch cast on Fleetwood Mac to ram it down their throats. If the content of 24 Karat Gold didn't get chosen over these tracks, then how good could any of it be?

The thrill and impressive impact of 24 Karat Gold is in being bowled over by how fantastic these songs are. Every songwriter should dream of having outtakes (or non-starters) of this quality. The sprawling album kicks off with a bang through one of many positively stellar moments: "Starshine". This sassy rocker has a seventies' boogie vibe that easily conjures images of Nicks prancing and cavorting around the stage at the height of her powers. Another stunner is the title track, whose stinging, ominous guitar work is underlined by Nicks intent singing and then softened by the lush harmonies she and her back-up singers weave.

As "24 Karat Gold" closes and you're wondering how on earth it never got recorded, Nicks fires off three more killer tracks in a row. "Belle Fleur" has all Nicks' captivating drama and mysticism flowering within catchy melodies and then slathered over urgent guitar work. Synth-tinged "All the Beautiful Worlds" is a darkly mysterious incantation with a truly satisfying hook. Then, backed only by a piano, Nicks wails out her anguish and fears ("what will become of me?") in the totally relatable lyrics of the heartfelt "Lady". It's a four-track roll that would have been a highlight on any of her classic eighties albums (Bella Donna or The Wild Heart). Other top-notch tracks include twangy rocker "Watch Chain", the likely-about-Lindsey musings of "Hard Advice", gently grooving "Blue Water", and the upbeat pop-rock of "The Dealer".

Tally that up and you have over half of the sixteen-cut album composed of tracks that match her very best recorded material. That's enough to place 24 Karat Gold with Nicks' top recordings. However, in addition, the remaining tracks betray little overt weakness. "She Loves Him Still" and "If You Were My Love" are beautiful ballads, although the latter probably meanders a bit much for a non-Nicks fan. "Mabel Normand" has an edgy sting one doesn't usually hear from Nicks, and "Cathouse Blues" is a light-hearted take on Laura Nyro. In each case, these tracks were clearly not included on her solo albums or anything by Mac for stylistic, not quality, reasons.

There are a few tracks on 24 Karat Gold that suffer by comparison with these other songs. For example, this is third version of "Twisted" Nicks has released and, while it's a great song, the overly Byrds-ish guitar arrangement detracts from the song's 'Stevieness'. Another another hidden gem would have been a better choice. The cover of Vanessa Carlton's "Carousel" is merely competent. Which brings us to "I Don't Care". This is the only song on the album that I haven't warmed to. I love the energy and how it rocks, but it just seems overlong and aimless and I always seem to end up skipping to the next track long before it's over.

Another plus of this album is the way Nicks steps up to the plate vocally. It's unavoidable that listeners will regret Nicks didn't record some of these songs when she was in finer voice, but she certainly doesn't short change the material. Her energy and commitment are admirable and compelling. It makes one wonder if the whirlwind studio sessions that gave birth to this album drove Nicks to record her vocals more like a live performance than a studio recording. That kind of energy certainly shines through.

Beyond the music, 24 Karat Gold is being released in a beautiful format. A large (not quite album-sized) sleeve holds the CD and a thick booklet with the lyrics and a slew of polaroids Nicks took of herself over the years. Apparently, Nicks' work is being shown at a gallery in New York. While I wish she had included the year each song was originally written, the packaging itself is fantastic and well-worth the purchase for a fan. I appreciate the packaging all the more because I remember when buying music involved the visual aspect of album artwork and even the texture of the contents. I miss this quite a bit, and that makes this release extra-special.

As 24 Karat Gold makes its mark, Nicks joins the reunited Fleetwood Mac for a tour and, it seems likely, a new album. It's clear Nicks' late-career renaissance shows no signs of ebbing. "What will become of me?" indeed.

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