For decades now, Stevie Nicks fans like me have been passing around demos for her dozens and dozens of unreleased songs. She’s a very prolific writer, but on a Fleetwood Mac album she shares with two other writers, she might get to release 3 songs every 3 years. Her solo career opened the gates a bit more, but even that was derailed after a while by her long tranquilizer addiction, her commitment to Fleetwood Mac recording and touring, and her difficulty finding a producer who would enhance her rough work rather than distorting it. Meanwhile, that meant that there were all these great songs from the 70s and 80s that never found a home.
She kicked the tranquilizers in the mid-90s, but it wasn’t until 2010 that she formed a musical partnership with Dave Stewart (formerly of The Eurythmics) that made her excited about recording again. And in 2014, with Stewart and longtime guitarist Waddy Wachtel as co-producers, she released an album that fans had been waiting for: studio recordings of a bunch of those long-lost demos. Ironically, while I always felt a little bad about the bootlegs, it was their presence on YouTube which reminded her of the songs’ existence in the first place, and inspired her to re-record them.
The resulting record 24 Karat Gold: Songs From The Vault, is almost everything I hoped it would be. Nicks’ re-recordings of her old songs can be a mixed bag, especially when Lindsey Buckingham is producing. On the Say You Will Fleetwood Mac album from 2003, there were several songs that I’d loved for years, but on some of them, particularly “Smile At You,” I still much prefer the demo. On the other hand, her new version of “Goodbye Baby” (known to fans as “The Tower”) had an unbelievably emotional hushed vocal, and despite some kinda banal new lyrics, was a marvelous version of the song. (Though the demo is still one of my all-time favorites.)
Her solo stuff tended to fare better, and both Trouble In Shangri-La and In Your Dreams had excellent versions of previously unreleased songs. 24 Karat Gold is a whole album of that stuff, and for the most part, it is wonderful. Hearing propulsive full-band versions of previously bland or poor-quality demos is a revelation, and many of the songs are vastly improved by this treatment. Also, pieces of tunes that seemed half-formed are now fleshed out and clear. The only thing I wish is that for some of those songs which already had a very good demo, we could somehow have a vocal from the Stevie of the era in which they were written. Nicks’ voice has grown deeper and throatier over the years, and while it suits many songs, it doesn’t suit all of them.
So that means it’s time for another taxonomy:
Songs that outshine the demos
- “Starshine”: I love what Dave Stewart and Stevie do with this song. The demo always seemed fine to me, but I never really connected with it. This version, though, makes it all clear, the way it builds up to a shouted “wrong!” – it’s a cautionary tale about cheating, told from three points of view. Fantastic beat, groovy solo, joyful vocal. Just a great, tight track.
- “Mabel Normand”: This is one of the most dramatic improvements. The demo is muttery, meandering — almost unlistenable, for me. I was quite surprised to see it in the track list, but here it sounds awesome, and tells a clear, compelling story. Normand takes her place alongside Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich as celluloid heroines who Stevie identifies as kindred spirits and inspirations.
- “Blue Water”: Quick sidebar story here. This is one of the first Stevie demos I ever heard, back in the pre-Internet days. My freshman year of college, I went to NYU and learned to prowl all the record stores in lower Manhattan. I was stunned to discover bootleg records filed right alongside regular releases, especially since I’d worked for a suburban record store my last year of high school, where no such thing would ever be permitted. So when I saw these albums called “Uncirculated Rumours” in the Stevie section, I snatched them right up, and heard my first unreleased songs — this one and a few others, most of which still have not seen the light of day. “Blue Water” always felt a little blah to me — nice melody repeated a lot. The song is still the same, but a studio gloss and an assist from Lady Antebellum does wonders for the tune.
- “All The Beautiful Worlds”: This is another one that always felt kind of ethereal to me in its demo form — my mind would always wander when I heard it. Now, when I heard it again after searching for the YouTube link, I think perhaps it may have been a victim of a poor transfer. Many of these demos came to me via cassettes that were god-only-knows how many generations removed from their master copies, and consequently sounded quiet, muffled, and flat. It didn’t matter to me when collecting them — better a crummy tape of a new-to-me Stevie song than no copy at all! But over time, some of them started to feel a bit more skippable to me. In any case, this studio version brings a vibrancy to the song that I never heard in it before.
- “24 Karat Gold”: What a wonderful choice to lead with that strong bass line, then layer in the mystical-sounding Fleetwood Mac guitars. When Stevie sings “Set me free, set me free” on the demo, it sounds like a plea. On this track, it sounds like a demand, and the song is far stronger for it. This is a perfect example of a song she’s grown into — her voice today makes it sound like wisdom and reflection, whereas before it sounded more like abstract storytelling.
- “If You Were My Love”: This is a pretty simple song, musically — a picking pattern on the guitar with a fairly repetitive melody on top of it. On the demo it sounds kind of barely-there. This version, though, takes that basic skeleton and adds lots of cool ornamentation — background vocals, strings, extra guitar parts, harmonies. Fleshed out like this, it becomes much more enjoyable.
- “Belle Fleur”: This is probably my favorite example of how this record is just a godsend to fans. “Belle Fleur” was just one of a hundred demos to me, nothing that ever stood out too much. Here, though, it absolutely shines — Stevie and Dave bring out every ounce of the song’s potential, and end up with a fabulous track. I included it in my 2015 music mix, and wrote about it in those notes, so I’ll save the rest for that.
Songs that are about even with the demos
- “The Dealer”: This is a hard one. It’s my favorite song that she hadn’t yet released, and when I heard about this project, I really hoped she’d release it. But part of the reason it’s my favorite is because the demos sound so crazy good, and have such fierce, Bella Donna-era vocals. 65-year-old Stevie is still a great vocalist, but she does not deliver on some of the stuff that 30-year-old Stevie could do. Consequently, the song is a bit slower, with the high notes modulated down, which is really a shame. But still, I love this song, and having a studio version of it is great, even if it lacks some of the power I’d hoped for. I love it too much to say it falls short.
- “Lady”: I knew this song as “Knockin’ On Doors” for ages, and always liked the melody. On the other hand, it always kind of seemed like half a song to me. It’s got a solid chorus, a pretty bridge tune, and a verse. I hoped that a studio version would be more developed, and it sort of is, except what it basically does is repeats that whole thing a few times. It gets a little monotonous, lovely as it is.
- “She Loves Him Still”: Here’s the thing: I just don’t like this song very much. I find the demo almost interminably whiny — it feels like a strung-out, helpless, middle-of-the-night lament from a really dysfunctional person. Here it sounds like a calm, composed lament from a really dysfunctional person. They feel equivalent to me because I really don’t care for either. Kind of wish this one had stayed on the shelf.
Songs that fall short of the demos
- “Cathouse Blues”: The demo to this is one of my favorite Stevie demos of all time, a delightfully different kind of song for her from the Buckingham Nicks period. I love the mischievous edge it has, and her voice on it sounds so young and innocent, which is a great contrast with the lyrics. In the 24KG version, we don’t get that contrast, because her voice can’t sound young and innocent anymore. It’s nice to have it on an official release at last, and the dixieland band portion is a lot of fun, but what a missed opportunity to never have released the song when it could have had maximum effect.
- “Watch Chain”: Kind of the same story on this one, except this time the problem is the production. The original is a Bella Donna-era song with a gorgeous bass-heavy folk rock sound — a very intimate and laid back feeling. Now, I usually like Dave Stewart’s production quite a lot on Stevie songs, but here it lands with a heavy thud. He inexplicably cranks up the fuzz, adding grungy guitars and speeding up the song. Stevie’s thicker current voice does nothing to lighten up the feeling. These musical choices work against the gentle, musing lyrics, and kind of torpedo this version of the song.
- “Twisted”: 24 Karat Gold supposedly focuses on unreleased treasures, but in this case, it’s actually Stevie’s third time releasing this song. It came out the first time on the soundtrack for the 1996 movie Twister, as a duet with Lindsey Buckingham. It was exciting at the time to hear the two of them together — it’d been almost a decade — but the version was really kind of leaden. A better take was released on 1998 Stevie’s box set Enchanted, and was actually listed as a demo. It sounded polished enough, though, that it’s plenty enjoyable to listen to on its own. This version is a little more produced than that demo, and of course Stevie sounds 20 years older. It’s kind of fun to compare them, but I still prefer the one from Enchanted.
Songs that don’t have an associated demo
- “I Don’t Care”: This one was new to me, although I think it’s an old song. It’s kind of a weird outlier for Stevie’s writing, much grittier than her usual mode of expression — thematically reminiscent of “I Don’t Wanna Know” from Rumours. It’s far from my favorite song on the album, but I do like the way it switches from angry to vulnerable and back again.
- “Carousel”: This is a cover of a Vanessa Carlton song. Stevie has seemingly taken Vanessa under her wing a bit, and consequently Vanessa was a part of her life as Stevie’s mother Barbara was dying. In her final days, Barbara just wanted to hear them sing this song, so Stevie and Vanessa sing it on this album as a tribute. It’s a pretty song, and makes a sweet addition to this collection.
- “Hard Advice”: I think this is my favorite of the new-to-me songs on 24 Karat Gold. Who knows what it’s really about, but for me it brings to mind Stevie’s lifelong difficult connection to Lindsey, with the other “famous friend” being Tom Petty. It’s a matter of record that Tom Petty sat Stevie down and gave her some hard advice on her songwriting — that conversation is the subject of “That Made Me Stronger” from Trouble In Shangri-La. I don’t find it hard to believe at all that he told her she needs to get over Lindsey and start writing songs about something new. The lyrics to this one are wonderfully crafted — the “sometimes he’s my best friend / even when he’s not around” shifts focus, first applying to Lindsey and then to Tom. (In my made-up narrative, that is.) There’s also a great subtle callback to “Silver Springs” — “the sound of his voice / well it follows me down / and reminds me” is an affecting reversal of her promise in that song: “I’ll follow you down til the sound of my voice will haunt you.”
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