Keeping Track: 5 Essential Demo Collections

Keeping Track: 5 Essential Demo Collections

by Chad Jewett

Rites of Spring – Six Song Demo (2012)
For a demo collection to be worthwhile, it should either add valuable context to the official version of the material or it should be compelling all on its own. Six Song Demo, the 2012 release of early recordings from post-hardcore legends Rites of Spring, satisfies both criteria, lending new perspective to the songs that would eventually make up 1985’s Rites of Spring while also offering different ideas, approaches, and sounds not featured on the official full-length. Book-ended by the cartoon-chipmunk sound of a rewinding tape and punctuated throughout by studio chatter, acoustic interludes, and odd effects, Six Song Demo sounds way more like an actual album than its title implies. The band’s performances are sharp and urgent (especially singer Guy Picciotto, who is unbelievable throughout) and what the demo versions lack in clarity they make up for with energy, rendering Six Song Demo less a dry-run of a more perfect later document and more an alternative version, one nearly as rewarding as the official release that made the history books.

Death Cab For Cutie – Transatlanticism Demos (2013)
Delivered as a bonus download to accompany Barsuk’s 2013 reissue of Death Cab For Cutie’s 2003 breakthrough, Transatlanticism Demos are a whole lot more interesting than their unassuming title would imply. Where most bonus-disc demos are usually fairly rote acoustic versions of more familiar final drafts, the demos for Transatlanticism were fleshed-out, compellingly arranged productions in their own right, often complete with different lyrical and melodic choices. Where the official version of “The New Year” offered dramatic bombast, the demo version is an airy, entrancing construction of drum machines, electric piano and an echoed-out Ben Gibbard, a gentle, lush alternative to the outsized final take. The lo-fi click of the beat undergirding the “Title & Registration” demo echoes Gibbards work as All-Time Quarterback, as does the hazy recording of “Lack of Color”. The sharp up-strokes that punctuate the demo run of “Expo ’86” bend that song closer to British Invasion pop, while the early take on “Lightness” combines beat-boxing and drum programming in a way that actually renders the demo more interesting than the album cut. The same goes for “Transatlanticsm”, which is enlivened by its tick-tock drum machine beat and the organs that swirl around its familiar piano chords. If Transatlanticism Demos doesn’t, in the aggregate, beat out the 2003 album, it certainly lends a whole new magic to those 11 songs.

Fugazi – Instrument Soundtrack (1999)
Released as the haunting, evocative soundtrack to the 1999 film of the same name, Instrument combined demos and unreleased recordings from the In On The Kill Taker, Red Medicine, and End Hits sessions to accompany Jem Cohen’s evocative, experimental documentary of post-hardcore godfathers Fugazi. “Okay, the following is for reference only” begins the album, a wink at the “demo” nature of so many of its recordings. But the LP itself is a fascinating, entrancing thing, split between passages of ghostly tension (a demo of “Rend It” delivered by Guy Picciotto in an eerie whisper) and taut grooves (“Lusty Scripps”, “Turkish Disco”). The collection is made all the more essential by the inclusion of two of Fugazi’s most compelling and uncharacteristic compositions. “Little Debbie” is a bizarre, needling garage-punk oddity, with Ian McKaye delivering lines like “Little Debbie’s mom’s gone crazy!” in an animal bark. The mania of “Little Debbie” makes the contrasting gentleness of “I’m So Tired”, a tender, gorgeous piano ballad that arrives two tracks later, all the more stark. Sung with a vulnerability rarely seen in the rest of his work with Fugazi, Ian McKaye offers a narrative of loneliness and isolation (“Out here, Barely see my breath / Surrounded / By jealousy and death / I can’t be reached, only had one call / Dragged underneath, separate from you all” goes the song’s striking opening verse) made all the more moving by the song’s lonesome, ringing piano. Instrument, like the film it accompanies, is an entity unto itself, an essential release even as it bucks against everything that fans had come to expect from Fugazi.

The Beatles – Anthology 2 (1995)
While all three installments of The Beatles’ 1995 “Anthology” Series offer their share of interesting moments and surprising revelations, Volume 2 – which traces the bands work from Help! to just before The White Album – is the most fascinating of the trio. This is mostly due to the fact that Anthology 2 catches The Beatles as they truly invest in the studio as their native environment, the laboratory where their pop experiments would unfold. Thus we get demos revealing the cutting edge work done to produce “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “A Day In The Life” (both rendered in multiple, expanding parts in the collection) and alternate takes that offer visions of what might have been (a sharper, less plush “Your Mother Should Know” and “Hello Goodbye” stand out). The Anthology also offers the clearest glimpse of the Beatles as technicians and as people: the opportunity to hear John Lennon and Paul McCartney struggling with a case of the (chemically-enhanced) giggles during a vocal session for “And Your Bird Can Sing” is both an enthralling glimpse into history and infectious fun.

Spoon – Get Nice! (2007)
Always known as a band with good taste and careful studio instincts, Spoon’s albums reward close attention and nice headphones. You can practically hear the soundboard deliberation of Britt Daniel and Jim Eno on songs like “Don’t Make Me A Target” and “Sister Jack”. Released as a bonus disc to 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, Get Nice! offered an even clearer image of the Austin band’s exploratory approach to the recording studio. And while it’s certainly interesting to hear alternate renderings of “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb” (this one full of cavernous echoes and stomping heels) and Gimme Fiction’s “I Summon You” (all dulcet keyboards and washed-out fuzz), the collection’s neatest moments are the ones where the quartet and contributing producers Jon Brian and Mike McCarthy simply play around, as on the spidery Tom Waits-esque blues of “I Got Mine” or the Beatles-circa-White-Album vamping of “Mean Mad Margaret”. Get Nice! becomes a fascinating glimpse at all of the sonic marble chipped away to make the carefully-designed edifice that was the masterful Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga.

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