The Soft Parade is the most debated, and least-loved album in The Doors catalogue proper. This 50th anniversary collection might help its reputation a little, or at least make it more enjoyable for some, thanks to some smart bonus material. The deluxe set features three CDs and the original album on vinyl, a good booklet featuring original engineer Bruce Botnick's recollections and an attractive hardcover package. The best move isn't what they added to the package, but rather what they took away.
First, some context. The problem with The Soft Parade was of course Jim Morrison. By the time the group set out to record, he was in his self-destructive phase, often drunk, and boldly confrontational. The infamous Miami incident happened during this period. He was bothered by the fame and job being the lead voice in a superstar rock band, and his work was suffering. The result was that he didn't have enough new songs for these sessions, so up stepped Robby Krieger, called on to provide four songs plus co-writing another of the final nine.
The other person to step up was producer Paul Rothchild, who followed his instincts, and tried to get the band some more hit singles. So Krieger's songs got a big production treatment, with strings, horns, woodwinds and even bluegrass instruments (on "Runnin' Blue"). It worked in one way, with "Touch Me" a big hit, but critics and many fans howled, as the raw blues were tempered, and Morrison was heard singing with the same session players who might add flourishes to, say, the next Sinatra album.
It wasn't all that bad really, and to my 2019 ears, I hear a bit of Nick Cave in those treatments. But it was a divisive album, and always will be it seems. In a very smart move, what's been removed for this release, at least on disc two, are those horns and strings and things. Calling them "Doors Only" mixes, all the Krieger tracks have been scrubbed back to the basics, and they are quite revelatory. They are not the big, crazy Morrison epics like "The End" but they are quite solid rock songs from the late '60's, and if Morrison had brought more A-list material to the sessions, these would have been a strong counterpoint.
The next great move by the compilers was doing yet another mix, this time invited Kreiger to add brand-new guitar parts to those same songs to beef them up, the idea being that he lost that opportunity with the horns, etc., added in the original sessions. Usually these kind of tricks don't work, but Krieger really came through with some great sounds and solos, and now we get yet another view of what might have been. Really, I've never heard of such a bold move, and it truly does work well. Purists can squawk, but hey, the original album is included on CD and album, so there.
The rest of the bonus stuff is interesting for what it is, but ultimately not great. There's a three-song session when Morrison was missing, Ray Manzarek taking over the vocal duties under his bluesman alias Screamin' Ray Daniels. Manzarek is no singer. It's raw and basically a jam, two blues covers plus one original. That's the only interesting thing here, as its an early attempt at "Roadhouse Blues," but Jim would do it much, much better.
Disc three is a bit of a bust, as it's almost completely taken up by the hour-plus studio workout called "Rock Is Dead." For that, Morrison was in charge, rambling away in his classic diatribe form on many of his favourite themes, while the band plays blues riffs and basically has jamming fun behind him. Thing is, it really didn't come up to his great theatrical pieces, not by a long shot, and I can't imagine wanting to listen to this more than once.
For fans of rock and roll forensics, this is a great way to dig into a beloved band, and see what went into the making of an album, from the raw tracks to the story in the accompanying booklet. Not a bad way to spend a day.