"Well, I've been down so goddamn long that it looks like up to me..." Jim Morrison knew of what he spoke. When The Doors entered Sunset Sound in November 1970 to record what would become their sixth studio album, L.A. Woman, the quartet was ready for a reboot. In September, Morrison had been convicted on profanity and indecent exposure charges related to a March 1969 concert in Miami. With an appeal in place, he was free on bail. But some radio stations had banned The Doors, and even concert bookings had taken a hit. A new album would have to rehabilitate the band.
Once the Sunset Sound sessions proved to be abortive - the band and Paul Rothchild parted ways with just one full take in the can -the group moved their operations to their own makeshift studio, The Doors Workshop to start anew, self-producing with engineer Bruce Botnick. L.A. Woman would lean even more heavily into the blues than its predecessor, Morrison Hotel. Sadly, it would be the band's final album with Jim Morrison as the singer died in Paris on July 3, 1971, less than three months after its April 19 release. Now, L.A. Woman has been revisited by Rhino as the final (?) entry in the label's series of multi-format CD/LP hardcover collections dedicated to each of The Doors' albums save Strange Days.
L.A. Woman was recorded at the Workshop in just six days, a testament both to the band's work ethic and the album's raw, stripped-down nature. The LP (included on both CD and LP in this collection, as freshly remastered by Bruce Botnick) featured Morrison, guitarist Robby Krieger, keyboardist Ray Manzarek, and drummer John Densmore joined by rhythm guitarist Marc Benno of The Asylum Choir and bassist/Elvis Presley stalwart Jerry Scheff. Botnick's unfussy production gave each bandmate a chance to shine and stretch out without any subsequent orchestration and relatively few overdubs.
While emphasizing the blues and Morrison's wild, unfettered wails on "Been Down Too Long," "Cars Hiss by My Window," and a cover of John Lee Hooker's "Crawling King Snake," L.A. Woman also showcased the group's versatility on both straight-ahead rock ("The Changeling," with its scorching wah-wah guitar) and AM-friendly pop (the immediate, hooky "Love Her Madly"). The sad and desperate yet still abstract "Hyacinth House," with a coolly detached vocal from Morrison, blended The Doors' various influences into a hypnotic whole. The spoken word/sung/instrumental hybrid "The WASP (Texas Radio and the Big Beat)" was composed in the studio to a Morrison poem; it was the only track on which he didn't sing live to the band.
The LP's centerpiece, the nearly eight-minute title track, captured the city's frenetic energy and debauchery ("Well, I just got into town an hour ago/Took a look around, see which way the wind blow/Where the little girls in their Hollywood bungalows?") as well as its mystique ("Are you a lucky little lady in the city of light/Or just another lost angel, city of night?"). Shifting musically as well as lyrically, the song builds to the uninhibited introduction of "Mr. Mojo Risin'," the seeming vehicle for Morrison's dark vision of L.A. with its fire and freeways, motels and madness. One epic might be enough for most albums, but not L.A. Woman. It concludes with an even more incendiary track at over seven minutes in length, "Riders on the Storm." Per Robby Krieger, the supremely moody composition was dismissed by Paul Rothchild as "cocktail jazz," but that description barely scratches the surface. A cinematic soundscape befitting the alternately philosophical and disturbing lyrics is conjured both by Ray Manzarek's evocative Fender Rhodes and Botnick's judicious application of sound effects from an old Elektra compilation. Sadly, it was to be the last song Jim Morrison ever recorded.
Two bonus tracks have been appended to the remastered original album on CD 1 of the box set: the spare demo of "Hyacinth House" first issued in 1997, and Rothchild's never-before-released production of "Riders on the Storm." This Sunset Sound version is almost three minutes shorter than the Botnick version and not as powerful, though the main ingredients of the arrangement and vocal are already in place. Manzarek would refine his solos, Morrison would ratchet up the sinister aura, and the group would swing even harder to create the familiar juxtaposition of eerie calm and ever-approaching menace.
The second and third CDs present about 2-1/2 hours of the L.A. Woman Sessions. Those with a long memory might recall that a 3-CD, 88-track compendium of sessions was mooted by Rhino in 2012. That release never made it to fruition, but the two discs here appear to cover much of the same ground. (The material is indexed differently here, however, with multiple takes contained in each, lengthy track.) Each of the album's songs is represented save "L'America" and "Hyacinth House," and all of these takes have been newly remixed by Botnick and sequenced to best reflect the progression of each song. A program note admits that "your mileage may vary," and that's certainly true. While The Doors recorded L.A. Woman at a rather fast clip, this didn't mean that the songs were finalized in one take. Just witness the almost-half-an-hour and a dozen or so takes devoted to the development of "The Changeling," with the band refining the arrangement as Jim Morrison experiments with varying levels of intensity in his vocals.
Despite the basic composition being intact, the early takes of "Love Her Madly" have an altogether different, and less dramatic, groove. It's also fun listening in as the song is attempted in various tempos, or as Ray Manzarek first hits upon the notion of using piano on the track in addition to organ. Sometimes Manzarek, Krieger, Densmore, and guest bassist Scheff are firing on all cylinders while Morrison sounds lethargic; at other points, the band has difficulty keeping up with his escalating intensity. He even plays around with the lyrics on Take 8, trying "Do you love her madly?" instead of "Don't you love her madly?" Chatter between the band and Botnick is peppered throughout, too. "Love Her Madly" is one of the strongest of these outtake audio montages; close to 30 minutes of the straightforward blues of "Been Down Too Long," on the other hand, is strictly for diehard fans only.
A handful of outtakes are featured on the session discs including the rollicking band composition "She Smells So Nice" and loose, jammed covers of "Rock Me Baby," "Baby Please Don't Go" (a mere blink-and-you'll-miss-it seven seconds' worth!), "Get Out of My Life, Woman," and "Mystery Train" (24 seconds!) that channeled the spirit of The Doors' early onstage performances.
The hardcover-book style format has the LP and a paperback 16-page booklet housed in a sleeve on the left-hand side, while the right side has slots in which each CD is inserted. The book offers commentary from both Bruce Botnick and journalist David Fricke alongside numerous session photos. The CDs are adorned with custom labels, while the LP bears the original Elektra butterfly design.
This 50th anniversary presentation of L.A. Woman may bring this particular series of Doors expanded editions to a close (though the format was never used for Strange Days, leaving a gap on the shelf). One can't reasonably expect the band's two post-Jim Morrison albums to receive the same anniversary treatment, although the Grammy-winning Best Spoken Word Album An American Prayer (1978) featuring The Doors' settings of Morrison's poetry might be an intriguing candidate for reissue down the road. While there has yet to be a definitive, all-encompassing version of any Doors album, with bonus tracks spread across various editions, this L.A. Woman introduces one worthwhile, bona fide rarity with the Rothchild production of "Riders on the Storm" and makes the case for the album's enduring strength.