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Saturday, July 7, 2018

Chic: Chic-ism

CHIC: CHIC-ISM (1992)

1) Chic Mystique; 2) Your Love; 3) Jusagroove; 4) Something You Can Feel; 5) One And Only One; 6) Doin' That Thing To Me; 7) Chicism; 8) In It To Win It; 9) My Love's For Real; 10) Take My Love; 11) High; 12) M.M.F.T.C.F. (Make My Funk The Chic Funk); 13) Chic Mystique (reprise).

General verdict: A poor stab at modernization - long, languid, and lifeless.


In all honesty, I fail to understand any «artistic» appeal of dance-pop past its heyday — let us define it approximately as the time period from early Chic to early Madonna — because, once dance-pop completely loses that tiny precious spark of rebellion and defiance (stemming from the simple fact of the music doing something new and provoking) and becomes pure rhythmic enter­tainment for the feet, there is absolutely no reason to ever return to it. Those early Chic records, if you listen to them even today with open ears and open minds, all have that spark. Even if they did not know it, they were looking for freedom with those albums, and found it.

Fast forward now to the early Nineties, and witness Nile and Bernard, missing the good old days so badly, reforming Chic — with new leading ladies Sylver Logan Sharp and Jenn Thomas — and setting out to remind the world once again of how it used to be. From a nostalgic point of view, Chic-ism is everything you asked for: hot, funky dance grooves with powerful vocals, repetitive hooks, chugging bass, scratchy guitars, and a small infusion of sexy love ballads to complete the picture. Overlong, perhaps (sixty minutes is way too much for a Chic party), but such was the trend in the early CD era, and besides, they did have to somehow compensate to the fans for sitting out an entire decade.

The real problem is not the length, though; the real problem is that there is no spark. It might be hard to get that point across, considering that they really, really try to get all the classic ingredients right. But just throw on the opening ʽChic Mystiqueʼ, with its traditional title, tradi­tional bass groove, traditional walk-all-over-you horns, traditional singalong girl chorus, etc., and see if you can get the same thrill for it that you probably can from ʽLe Freakʼ or ʽEverybody Danceʼ. Guitar and bass are locked in mechanistic, never-changing patterns here, so typical of the new school of R&B that completely wipes out the player's identity — which is perfectly under­standable if we're talking Mary J. Blige, but not if we are talking about a couple of guys who, fifteen years earlier, set out to prove that disco music need not really be faceless. In all honesty, while you can certainly tell that this funky groove was played by professionals, ʽChic Mystiqueʼ is a track that totally does not warrant the presence of such greats as Rodgers and Edwards.

The reason why this album turns out to be so long is that the boys are hardly trying: more than half of its dance-oriented tracks sound exactly the same (ʽChic Mystiqueʼ segues directly into ʽYour Loveʼ without me ever noticing that), and the absolute majority sound as if Nile and Bernard hopped around some trendy clubs, listened to some hot dance acts, went "cool! these cats don't even have to write interesting melodies for the crowds to dig 'em", then proceeded to the studio to take advantage of this observation. The only thing necessary was to ensure that the old fans would be pleased, too, so we have all the gimmicks of old, including innumerable self-references like ʽChicismʼ, with fake audience noise and imaginary glitter falling from the sky.

Even the ballads (ʽOne And Only Oneʼ, ʽTake My Loveʼ) largely recycle the old templates. Jenn Thomas has a powerful set of pipes that she is not afraid to use on ʽTake My Loveʼ, but the song's only idea is to loop its title into an endless invocation that soon becomes annoying, and eventually — obsessive and creepy. An additional problem is that a powerful set of pipes, too, does not automatically transform into an interesting personality. At the very least, here was their chance to get back in touch with Norma Jean Wright, and they failed to deliver.

Of course, this would not be a properly contemporary album, either, if there was no flirtation with hip-hop on record: ʽSomething You Can Feelʼ features a properly urban delivery from a little-known rap starlet (Jennece S. Moore, a.k.a. «Princessa») — and if there is something I can feel, it is that the track feels even more forced and unfunny than the last time they tried to rap (on Believer). In the end, this is just a lose-lose situation: the nostalgic appeal of the record gets canceled out by the stiff production and the inability to make the best of recent trends in R&B (not that I could offer any helpful suggestions here), and the modern elements remain inefficient just because they really want you to kowtow before them simply because they're freakin' Chic, raised from the dead. Alas — no deal. 

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Talking Heads: '77

TALKING HEADS: 77 (1977)


1) Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town; 2) New Feeling; 3) Tentative Decisions; 4) Happy Day; 5) Who Is It?; 6) No Compassion; 7) The Book I Read; 8) Don't Worry About The Government; 9) First Week/Last Week… Carefree; 10) Psycho Killer; 11) Pulled Up.


General verdict: An album that marks the beginning of a new era in music, so we might as well pardon the fact that many of its individual songs tend to fuse into one gloriously paranoid mess.


The sternly informative title of the band's debut sort of seems to suggest that they were releasing it for their own «in crowd» — like a yearly digest, so that all those in the know would clearly understand what it is that separates Talking Heads '77 from Talking Heads '76 or Talking Heads '75. Actually, there was something: the Heads had only just added Jerry Harrison to the line-up, setting the stage for some of the most fascinating guitar weaving techniques known to mankind and significantly raising the stakes when compared to their first set of demos that they had recorded for CBS back in 1975. But who would really have guessed that outside of the immediate radius of CBGB? So, chalk this one up to the usual adorable arrogance of David Byrne. Like, what, you are in 1977 already and you mean you have never heard of Talking Heads? So, like, maybe you're still proudly wearing your dirty Woodstock underwear or something?..

It does seem odd, though, that after years and years of mostly relistening to Fear Of Music and Remain In Light, now that I am throwing on this debut again, it seems so... slight in comparison. Like a Please Please Me to whatever would come later (implying that it took the Heads at least a year or two less to traverse the road that separated them from their peak than it took the Beatles; though, admittedly, their personal distance from the foot of the hill was just a tad shorter). It is still a very good album (the Heads never really made a bad record), and it establishes the basic Heads formula as perfectly as could ever be asked for a debut album, but at this point in history it could still be possible to not take the band too seriously.

One song obviously stands out head and shoulders from the crowd, and if you know anything about Talking Heads at all, I need not even mention which one it is. Everything is strange about that song, starting with the fact that it is literally made by its first five seconds — one of the most instantly memorable and thoroughly ominous bass lines in rock history — and that those five seconds aren't even all that typical of the Talking Heads sound, because that bass line is not funky at all: more like «martial pop», hammered out by Tina Weymouth with as much brutality as can be transferred to a couple of fingers, but then it takes two more guitar players to take it up to the Modern level, and usher in a new era of musical conscience in the process.

What is it that ʽPsycho Killerʼ really does to the organism? It is certainly not a «creepy» song of the ʽMidnight Ramblerʼ variety — Tina's bass is its only genuinely menacing component, and once Byrne's and Harrison's guitars start to do their jerks and perks around it, the atmosphere is very quickly rerouted to something lighter (though the bass always keeps that menace in the background). But that choppy, scratchy, syncopated, high-pitched guitar sound steadily reminds me of one thing — alarm bells — and this is precisely what the Heads came here to do to us. Taking the musical arsenal of the past decade of largely African-American innovation, they are turning it around and showing how that weird, mystical, dangerous funky sound is actually symbolic of what goes around — how perfectly it describes and how aptly it adapts to the feeling of insecurity and paranoia that haunts so many of us in this post-industrial-whatever society. "I can't sleep 'cause my bed's on fire / Don't touch me I'm a real live wire" — those words are the perfect counterpart to that bass and to those guitars, and they might have never sounded sharper than in '77, even as they remain 100% relevant in 2017 and beyond.

There is no reasonable explanation to why so many lyrics are in French, or to why there is that Otis Redding-inspired "fa fa fa fa" bit in the chorus, but David Byrne is not a cryptographer, and, in fact, according to his memories, he was really writing a song about «just» a serial killer, never intending it to be deeply symbolic or anything. Fortunately, he did not succeed. Serial killers are boring, after all, and Mick Jagger and Alice Cooper had already told us everything about serial killers that we needed to know. But instability, insecurity, paranoia, madness in general — that is pretty much an inexhaustible topic, and the Heads' marriage of pop and funk gives it a spin that creates the ultimate New Wave track: ultimate in part because, unlike so many other New Wave tracks instantly dated by their production gimmicks, this one is all about the rhythm, the har­monies, the feels, and it plays out as fresh in the 2010s as it did forty years back. (For a laugh, check out the 2017 crap pop hit ʽBad Liarʼ by Selena Gomez that «samples» the bass line — as ridiculous as it gets, for sure, but without an ounce of «retro-flavor» to it).

Now comes the expected cold shower: not a single other song on Talking Heads: 77 sounds as immediately awesome as ʽPsycho Killerʼ — even if it could be argued that all the other songs on Talking Heads: 77 more faithfully represent the stereotypical Talking Heads sound than ʽPsycho Killerʼ does. With less prominent bass, funkier rhythms, somewhat whinier, more capricious vocals, and more pronounced influences from playful Caribbean genres, these remaining ten songs paint a slighter, more frivolous picture of an intelligent, but indecisive young guy trapped in modern life's intricacies and complexities. The guy in question, impersonated by David Byrne, is so nerdy, so jerky, so afraid of society and at the same time so strongly attracted to it that it all sounds like a parody of some Woody-Allenish stereotype — but when you think of it, there hadn't really been that kind of anti-hero in pop music prior to the appearance of Talking Heads. There are influences and predecessors, for sure: from the shy humility of Ray Davies to the frustrated stutter of the early Who to the comedic psychologisms of Randy Newman... and yet, here we have a radically new type of act, not yet polished to perfection but already so resplen­dently bizarre that it is easy to understand why, despite all the contemporary critical acclaim, the Heads had to struggle so hard to find a commercial market while retaining artistic integrity: instead of playing «pop», they play «anti-pop», and in that line of work it might have been much harder to find a market in 1977 than it was for Jethro Tull prog to find a market in 1972.

The worst thing that can be said about the album (and, running slightly ahead, it applies even stronger to their sophomore effort) is that the Heads' style, while so strikingly distinct from any­body else's, tends to get monotonous fairly quickly. Byrne always plays the exact same character, the scratchy twin guitars mostly just scratch their ways through the songs, and since in those pre-Brian Eno days the production remained rigidly minimalistic (the band worked with producer Tony Bongiovi, who had previously overseen two Ramones albums), the only thing that occasio­nally spices up the sound is Jerry Harrison's pleasant, but unexceptional keyboard playing. Throw in elements of self-repetition (ʽPulled Upʼ is essentially ʽUh-Oh, Love Comes To Townʼ sped up), and it is not difficult to see why only ʽPsycho Killerʼ and nothing else would remain in the band's setlist by 1979-80. And, speaking of setlists, once you hear the live versions of some of these tunes on the The Name Of This Band... retrospective, you will very likely never want to go back to the studio originals anyway — much of the Heads' primal energy and army-style tightness was inexplicably rubbed away when it came to fleshing out the studio takes.

But if taken one by one on their own merits, most of the songs do their humble jobs pretty damn well. ʽUh-Oh, Love Comes To Townʼ opens the record on an almost exceptionally joyful note: if Talking Heads are the Beatles of New Wave, then this is their ʽI Saw Her Standing Thereʼ — Byrne's explosive discovery of that funny feeling, of course, discovered in that unique Byrne way ("where, where is my common sense? how did I get in a jam like this?") and, perhaps sarcasti­cally, given a slightly sunny, nonchalant feel by Harrison's «Caribbean» keyboards. ʽNew Feelingʼ is the paranoid antidote — the first announcement of the arrival of classic Talking Heads nervous tension, set to a panic-attack riff that, interestingly, rips off The Doors' ʽMy Eyes Have Seen Youʼ (no idea if this was intentional or coincidental, but some of Jim Morrison's reactions to women must have been quite close to David Byrne's); even more interestingly, the music here is like one part Keith Richards, one part ska, and one part funk — not as much defying genre con­ventions as failing to recognize their existence in the first place. And it all fits.

While I am not going to mention every track, it is worth noticing how many «love songs» there are: compared to future releases that would concentrate more and more on the "tense and nervous and can't relax" personality aspect in relation to the world at large, '77 dwells a lot on girlfriend issues, which is, perhaps, also somewhat responsible for the monotonous feel of the album. Aside from ʽPsycho Killerʼ, the only other big exception is ʽDon't Worry About The Governmentʼ, possibly the second best track on the album, for which I have always had a special kind of interpretation (most people think that it is about a politician or a CEO, but I think that the best way is to think of it from the perspective of a lunatic locked away in a madhouse — then the lines "my building has every convenience, it's gonna make life easy for me... loved ones visit the building..." take on a completely different attitude, and doesn't David actually sound like a mentally deranged patient here, rather than a politician or a CEO?); but regardless of how you might want to interpret it, it is the closest that Byrne ever got to the «little man» style of Ray Davies, and the creepiest he ever got in his cuddliness.

The thing is, from the get-go this band was too smart, too cynical, too bleak to engage in acts of pure, unadulterated, tonge-out-of-cheek happiness. Just as ʽLove Comes To Townʼ seems to open the album on a happy note (but leaves it hanging), so does ʽPulled Upʼ seem to close it with a frantically life-asserting message of gratitude, but the guitar melodies that drive it are so funny, the vocal delivery so exaggerated, the words so ridiculously overblown ("I cast a shadow on the living-room wall / Dark and savage with a profile so sharp"), that it cannot be perceived as anything other than a vicious parody on the corresponding attitude — actually, screw «parody», because that word would diminish the song's importance. ʽPulled Upʼ is not happy pop: it is depressed and confused pop on steroids and a wild assortment of energy drinks. (As is, for that matter, most of the material produced by the Heads.) It is also a deeply satisfying conclusion, significantly hookier and punchier than most of the other songs here, and a good remedy if, like me, you thought that the record tended to slightly drag in the middle.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Chicago: Chicago VI

CHICAGO VI (1973)

1) Critics' Choice; 2) Just You 'n' Me; 3) Darlin' Dear; 4) Jenny; 5) What's This World Comin' To; 6) Something In This City Changes; 7) Hollywood; 8) In Terms Of Two; 9) Rediscovery; 10) Feelin' Stronger Every Day.

General verdict: I guess this is pretty much like your sixth album is expected to sound, unless you're David Bowie or Tom Waits... you know.


Despite some changing circumstances (for instance, the fact that the album was recorded in Guercio's new studio in Nederland, Colorado, rather than in New York City), the difference between Chicago V and Chicago VI is relatively nominal. Still short, still dominated by Lamm, still continuing the transition to a softer and smoother sound — although, all things considered, I think that I would recommend VI over V anyway, even if this time around there is nothing to take the place of ʽA Hit By Varèseʼ and prove Chicago's weakened, but ongoing allegiance to the experimental schools of music-making.

By this time, critical thinking had decidedly turned against Chicago, prompting Lamm to begin the album with an angry response to the critics — "what do you want, what do you want, I'm givin' everything I have, I'm even trying to see if there's more locked deep inside". (For some reason, he preferred to arrange it as a heart-on-sleeve piano ballad, so if you do not take note of the title, you may easily mistake it for a rant against an ex-lover). Naturally, the response did not work well, and the lyrics themselves only do an easy job of setting the band up for a new round of retorts and sarcastic puns. However, neither this song nor most of the others on the album are worth hating or despising: at this point, the band still works as a well-oiled machine, and the grooves they keep pumping out often succeed in elevating mediocre songwriting.

For instance, Pankow's ʽJust You 'n' Meʼ, the album's second and most successful single, starts out as a typically bland Latin ballad with the usual annoying vocals from Cetera, but midway through it picks up pace and steam, and eventually the brass riffs begin to walk all over you with the very best manner of Chicago's tightness and braggadocio: not for long, and we still have to return to the ear-withering "you are my love and my life and you are my inspiration" bit before the end (what I'd give for an extended instrumental coda instead!), but it is this kind of develop­ment that separates Chicago, even at the beginning of their downward slide, from genuine mediocrities. A cheesy ballad invades your personal space, ignorable and pitiful; then, suddenly, something lively and exciting springs up to life, and you're all like, «hey, perhaps I was wrong to give up on these guys so soon».

Pankow also wrote the first single, ʽFeelin' Stronger Every Dayʼ, which they also used for the position of hope-giving grand finale — and again, despite all the cheese, its sped-up, boogie-soaked finale, with piano and horns rushing forward in perfect unison, is infectious just because of the general tightness and energy. Next to it, Terry Kath's only contribution to the album, the jazzy ballad ʽJennyʼ, is very disappointing: no memorable guitar lines, slight energetics, and it seems like the man put most of his strength into coming up with the hookline "there's always someone waiting just to shit on you", which does not work anyway because strong language does not come easily to Chicago. The best thing about the song is its solo section, with several over­dubbed slide guitars «drizzling» away in a psychedelic style — but on the whole, the album continues the trend of diminishing Kath's role in the band.

As for Lamm, he is still trying, particularly on the second side of the LP, where he contributes a couple attempts at social commentary — ʽSomething In This City Changes Peopleʼ puts the blame for broken relationships on "flashing cars and money, funny faces, egos magnified", and ʽHollywoodʼ continues the subject by lambasting the glitzy Californian lifestyle (and they lived happily ever after in their hidden log cabin deep in the woods, alone with Nature, away from all sins and temptations of corrupted society... NOT). Needless to say, musically these songs do not feel at all like poisonous social critique — in fact, they are among the album's weakest material, just a couple of limp soft-rock compositions with nominally pretty harmonies: ʽSomething In This Cityʼ could appeal to major fans of Crosby, Stills & Nash, and ʽHollywoodʼ only begins to show marginal promise toward the end, when the rhythm section kicks into gear — Cetera's bass pumping on that coda is amazingly fast and fluent — by which time you have already probably been wondering for about three minutes whether yoou should not have thrown on some Steely Dan instead of these guys.

Ultimately, I feel forced to return to Pankow and state that, at this time, he is the best... well, if not song-writer, then at least groove-churner in the band. The best song here is ʽWhat's This World Comin' Toʼ, not because it asks us the question, but because it sets up a tight, exciting white-funk groove with the horns doing an admirable job of walking all over it. The last couple of minutes, with all the band members equally active at their instruments, is one of the last truly great jams in Chicago history — I feel very sorry that they did not dare stretch it out, because this is the one time that they were truly in the zone during those recording sessions. In a perfect world, this should be placed on any «Best-of-Chicago» compilation instead of the limp pop ballad hits, because this was really the band's true strength: loud, flashy, multi-instrumental jams with so many individual minds molded into one glorious collective whole. And while the market ate them up back at the time, it is only fair that we extract all those glorious, but forgotten moments from the past and give them a proper chance.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

King Crimson: Three Of A Perfect Pair

KING CRIMSON: THREE OF A PERFECT PAIR (1984)

1) Three Of A Perfect Pair; 2) Model Man; 3) Sleepless; 4) Man With An Open Heart; 5) Nuages; 6) Industry; 7) Dig Me; 8) No Warning; 9) Larks' Tongues In Aspic Part III.

General verdict: Not a highly innovative, but still musically satisfying conclusion to New Wave Crimson.


Technically, the «three» in the title should be the exact same as the «three» in the title track — "she" ("is susceptible"), "he" ("is impossible"), and that elusive third element which always has to be there to break up the perfect correlation, or complete the imperfect triad, whichever angle you prefer. But it is also hard not to correlate the title with the fact that Three Of A Perfect Pair con­cludes the early Eighties trilogy — even if there is little evidence that Fripp intended this album to be the last one during the 1983 sessions. Because it, too, can be seen as one last comple­ment to the formula that was worked out and perfected with Discipline and Beat. Bringing nothing radically new to the table, it does a good job at taking that formula to its logical extremes — the artistic difference between ʽMan With An Open Heartʼ and ʽIndustryʼ stretches out longer than any two points on Discipline or Beat, and, perhaps, that is precisely the point that Three Of A Perfect Pair was supposed to illustrate.

Allegedly, the decision to put «pop songs» on the first side and «avantgarde experiments» on the second one was intentional — so that the fans could take a better look at the two different faces of King Crimson and understand which one they loved best, or, more properly, understand that there was really no internal contradiction between the two. Not everyone did; since most of the fans did not exactly flock to Fripp for «pop» reasons, some of the songs on Side A have the dubious dis­tinction of finding themselves among the most despised numbers in the KC catalog — with poor Ade Belew and his pop fetish taking most of the blame for that, even if Fripp is officially credited as a co-writer on everything (and it is not highly likely that anything could sneak its way onto the album without direct approval from the Overlord).

In any case, material such as ʽMan With An Open Heartʼ is perfectly valid — a catchy, well-written, definitely-not-unintelligent piece of New Wave pop, with a slight touch of Far Eastern influence for its main melodic hook and some gorgeous skating-on-thin-ice interplay between the two guitars; as for the romantic (and, technically, quite pro-feminist) lyrics, ʽMatte Kudasaiʼ had already shown that a heart-on-sleeve attitude would be a permanent fixture of this King Crimson as long as Belew stayed on in the band (plus, lines like "she could be sleeping in the comfort of another bed, it wouldn't matter to a man with an open heart" are actually ambiguous and could be attributed to family problems rather than noble attitude). ʽModel Manʼ, conceived in much the same manner, is less efficient because it does not have a clear hook — more about the lyrical message (Belew's own take on ʽIt Ain't Me, Babeʼ, essentially) as the band just hops around the groove without too much passion.

The title track, however, is where it's really at. Take away the vocals and you have yourself another perfectly jaw-dropping ʽDisciplineʼ-style jab at spinning a geometrically arranged guitar cobweb — with a proto-dial-up-modem guitar solo to boot (reminiscent of Belew's work on Remain In Light's ʽBorn Under Punchesʼ). Throw in the vocals, and it becomes an instantly memorable and even potentially moving pop song — delivered by Adrian in a mournful and empathetic mood that perfectly agrees with lines like "they have their cross to share" and "they make a study in despair". It is on tracks like these, really, where your last doubts about the potential humanity of King Crimson's instrumental style should dissipate: it is not easy to make math-rock sound as if it actually means something (beyond, you know, math), but at their best, the Fripp/Belew team could point your emotionality in the right direction — and now, all of a sudden, those guitar cobwebs seem like a great metaphor for complicated human relations.

Another great achievement, in a completely different subgenre, is ʽSleeplessʼ — one of the scariest tracks in King Crimson's entire repertoire, though, admittedly, it would take a live per­formance to truly bring out all of its potential terror. Unlike the Larks / Red Crimson, the Discipline-era Crimson weren't so keen on nightmare-oriented stuff: ʽSleeplessʼ, too, came around more by accident, after Tony Levin had stumbled across that deep-driving bass pulse, but the rest of the band understood that here was a chance too good to waste, and rallied around the man to create one of the greatest anthems to the «Nightmare of Insomnia» ever written. Slow it down a bit, fiddle around with the tonality, make the vocalist sound on the verge of suicide, and you have a Cure classic. Don't do anything, and you have... I'm not even sure what you have, but it's awesome, especially late at night when it's ghost time, and these four guys take you on a speedy, jarring, relentless trip through the heart of Ghostland. At the very least, if we are talking straightforward «psychedelia», ʽSleeplessʼ has to be at the very top of the genre when it comes to King Crimson tackling it (to clarify: Fripp's «mathematical» approach to music-making is not what I would typically associate with classic psychedelia, but every now and then he and his pals fuck with your mind on a more atmospheric, aural-painting level — ʽSleeplessʼ, to me, seems like one of the few KC tracks that could have successfully been covered by other artists, because it is less dependent on Fripp's unrepeatable idiosyncrasies).

Next to these achievements, the second side of the album, although less «accessible» by itself in layman terms, actually seems somewhat more traditional — in fact, its would-be conservatism is indicated by the title ʽLarks' Tongues In Aspic, Part 3ʼ given to the last track. Even if they are now a completely different unit from what they used to be, that instrumental shows clear melodic and structural proximity to the original ʽLarks' Tonguesʼ (particularly Part II), as if Fripp had suddenly woke up and remembered that the thread binding together the different stages of King Crimson has to be thickened, or people will think of the name King Crimson as usurped by out­siders. Nevertheless, for all its pragmatism, ʽPt. 3ʼ is still great fun: not nearly as hell-bent as the 1973 recordings, but just as kick-ass, and with an electronic / industrial cloaking for the new age. Also, for all its avantgardism, the main riff is surprisingly poppy in nature — hummable, danceable, and more bent on strict musical discipline than terrifying atmosphere.

Indeed, even the album's heaviest track, ʽIndustryʼ, is not so much brutal and scary as it is just... adventurous. I have seen somewhat indifferent fan descriptions of the track as a special effect show without too much substance, and while this may be technically correct, it should not take away from the cold and relentless power of the main groove (a flawless musical depiction of the slow and complex pulse of a giant robotic factory), around which Fripp and Belew weave an atmosphere of musical gaseous clouds, fumes, sparks, and coolant leaks (turning it into a veritable musical antipode of ʽNuagesʼ, the heavenly-psychedelic instrumental that closes the first side). But it would be hard for me to imagine the track as a subtle-symbolic artistic condemnation of the ongoing mechanization-robotization of society — this is more about the frightening, yet exciting marvels of technology than about any menace stemming from it. After all, these guys love technology, and occasionally, they even anthropomorphize technology: ʽDig Meʼ, a song whose broken, twisted, and perverted riffage makes me think of a Captain Beefheart influence, is Belew's sentimental ode to a rusty old car, somewhat moving in a strange Belewable way. How­ever, its somewhat forced marriage of an anthemic pop chorus ("I'm ready to leave...") to the almost atonal, disorienting verses may not be to everybody's liking.

If there is one single downer to all of this, it is only the realization that all of these songs, quite literally, would become far more presentable, energetic, tight, and impressive in concert: chances are high that after hearing the versions of ʽLarks' Tongues In Aspic, Pt. 3ʼ and ʽSleeplessʼ on Absent Lovers, you will never want to go back to the studio originals again. In fact, while King Crimson have always excelled live, I would hypothesize that in no other era of their existence, before or after, would their studio creations seem so pale and fragile compared to a great night live. Quite possibly, this was due to the fact that the recording process had become even more dependent on testing out all sorts of technological gadgets, only a few of which they were able to take with them onstage — and had to compensate by putting a bit more muscle to it. But if you really love technological gadgets, and appreciate the New Wave era more for its collection of peculiar and unusual sonic textures than for its innovations in the realms of melody and harmony, then the Discipline trilogy might just be the culmination of all things you were looking for — and Three Of A Perfect Pair the, er, apex of that culmination. It does everything there was to be done, completes everything that could be completed, and totally justifies Fripp dismissing the entire band soon afterwards. Besides, given all the surrounding circumstances, I am not sure it would have been a good idea to keep up a King Crimson going through the mid-to-late Eighties; perhaps it was safer even for somebody like Fripp, with his generally high immunity to musical diseases, to sit this one period out.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Cream: Disraeli Gears

CREAM: DISRAELI GEARS (1967)

1) Strange Brew; 2) Sunshine Of Your Love; 3) World Of Pain; 4) Dance The Night Away; 5) Blue Condition; 6) Tales Of Brave Ulysses; 7) SWLABR; 8) We're Going Wrong; 9) Outside Woman Blues; 10) Take It Back; 11) Mother's Lament.

General verdict: Psychedelic blues-rock has never been more catchy, intelligent, AND, most importantly, bittersweet than this.


Few things illustrate that unique magic of 1967 better than the creative process that resulted in the first track on Disraeli Gears. In the beginning... well, not really in the beginning, but somewhere in the middle of the road, there was a Junior Wells / Buddy Guy reworking of the old blues standard ʽHey Lawdy Mamaʼ that they recorded for Junior's 1965 classic LP Hoodoo Man Blues: a cool, upbeat blues-rocker, made somewhat special by the combination of Junior's idiosyncratic harmonica style with Buddy's chuckling-chugging electric guitar. Good enough for 1965 — but not something that couldn't have been recorded in 1964... or even 1963... or...

...anyway, it got picked up by Cream soon after they came together, and was played in much the same variant, only without the harmonica, in concert (you can hear an early version on the BBC Sessions). Nothing special, either — Eric Clapton still in his Bluesbreakers shoes. As they went into the studio in mid-'67 to put it to tape, though, the song had changed drastically, mostly under the influence of several outstanding Albert King singles such as ʽCrosscut Sawʼ. Eric was now in his Albert King period, playing thinner, sharper, edgier leads; but together with Jack, they were already thinking as well about how to make the formula less formulaic — how to latch on to that «frightening» component of classic blues and make it even more explicit. So you get the electric ZAP! ZAP! ZAP! from the rhythm guitar, and you get the don't-mess-with-me gruffness of the bass guitar, and you get the tricky drum pattern that transforms the regular 4/4 into something more somber and ritualistic.

But you are still not quite there, because in the end this ʽLawdy Mamaʼ, as heard on the Live Cream record, is still primarily a blues tune. Enter Felix Pappalardi, a 28-year old freelancer with a keen eye and ear for new trends in contemporary music, and his wife, Gail Collins, a skilled lyricist with a tiny strain of proto-Stevie Nicks in her — and the transformation is complete. A new production style is upon us: echo, fuzz, reverb, «woman tone», all conspiring to turn the song into a mind-bending witchy brew. And with that, come new lyrics, still in touch with the old blues foundation, but just as strongly in touch with the psychedelic era — "she's a witch of trouble..." (old school) "...in electric blue" (new school), "she's some kind of demon" (old school) "...messin' in the glue" (new school). And the vocals? Eric now delivers most of them in a seduc­tively dangerous falsetto, a perfect contrastive fit for the still-ZAPping rhythm guitar. The only thing that still directly ties the song to the past is the guitar solo — a deadpan, though slightly more sharp and complex, Albert King imitation. Everything else has been turned to glittery, otherworldly magic. Take the polish off, of course, and the blues foundation is as plain as day; but why should you want to take the polish off? The old ʽLawdy Mamaʼ played with your feels; the new one takes you to a different reality.

This, in a nutshell, is what's so cool about Disraeli Gears, the only album by Cream that can be directly and unequivocally called «psychedelic» (Wheels Of Fire would only retain bits and patches of this atmosphere, not to mention that Bruce and Clapton were already clearly heading in different directions by that time). Like The Rolling Stones, like The Hollies, like a thousand other British bands sucked inside that vortex in 1967, Cream were entangled in the psychedelic revolution by accident — all they really wanted was to propagate the values of blues (and, to a smaller extent, jazz) music without being hardass-conservative about it; and if you are not being hardass-conservative about something, you will roll along with the times, want it or not.

Hence, Disraeli Gears, an album whose very title came along by accident (a mispronounced take on derailleur gears from one of the band's roadies) and probably left stupefied even all those people who are quite familiar with the history of 19th century Britain, let alone those who are only capable of getting an association with Israel or just stare at the title with complete bewilder­ment. A record with its own unique sound, influenced by many but reproduced by none; a record that feels slightly wiser, more introspective, more restrained, more ironic, than most of its com­petition (including both The Beatles and Hendrix); a record where the combination of a modest, but brilliant blues guitarist, a melancholic, but hard-working jazz bassist, and an eccentric, but iron-disciplined drummer brought about an almost mathematically perfect formula for the ultimate Apollonian psychedelic experience — as opposed to the typically Dionysian psychedelic experience of just about everybody else (Beatles excluded, but The Beatles' brand of psychedelia was generally much lighter and more «child-like»).

It will probably also go down in history as the single least generic-12-bar-blues-oriented project that Eric Clapton has ever been involved in — although I, for one, would not necessarily judge this as an obvious virtue. Altogether, there are but two standard blues tunes here, and we have already seen the miraculous transformation undergone by ʽStrange Brewʼ. The other one, ʽOutside Woman Bluesʼ, remains more traditional: lifted by Eric from a 1929 record by Blind Joe Reynolds, it even preserves the original's distinctive slide guitar riff playing off the vocal lines, although application of the «woman tone» still gives the phrase a much more psychedelic flavor. However, everything else has been reworked: a new syncopated rhythm guitar track (also based on the same ZAP! technique as ʽStrange Brewʼ), Jack's free-flowing jazzy bass, and Ginger's calm, disciplined, but complex drum rolls that keep drawing attention away from the string players — generic 12-bar blues had rarely been this exciting.

On the whole, however, Disraeli Gears is more of a landmark in the evolution of hard rock (and, consequently, heavy metal) than generic blues-rock. While it may be hard to observe the direct influence that Hendrix had on succeeding waves of hard rock bands (for most of whom he was more of a symbol/mascot than a guitar teacher), the direct influence of something like ʽSunshine On Your Loveʼ can hardly be denied — we can probably find dozens of songs that had adopted its riff as their foundation (at the moment, the clearest example in my head is Black Sabbath's ʽN.I.B.ʼ, but I'm sure there are others). In fact, the very art of the «massive», «elephantine» riff driving the song probably originated with ʽSunshine Of Your Loveʼ — we can find plenty of great rock riffs in previous years, but I have a hard time thinking of one that would boast this kind of thickness, stability, sheer epicness: the slow, lumbering, brutal monster at the heart of the song that makes all of its other aspects look insignificant in comparison.

The difference between Cream and Sabbath, though, is that Sabbath would use slow, lumbering, brutal riffs to construct slow, lumbering, brutal moods: ʽSunshine Of Your Loveʼ, in comparison, is really a romantic tune, one that never pretended to expressing any other feels than love and longing and yearning and... okay, that line about how "I'll stay with you 'til my seeds are dried up" does suggest something pretty physical, but still, the odd disbalance between the innocent lyrics and the ominous riff (it really used to creep me out a bit when I was little) remains an intriguing feature. Perhaps Jack and Eric still felt uncomfortable, at that point, to be writing songs about sex that would openly and unequivocally state so — a taboo soon to be broken with ʽWhole Lotta Loveʼ and the like — and so it came about that one of the heaviest numbers of 1967 took on the guise of a nearly elegiac, romantic serenade.

But ultimately, what makes Disraeli Gears truly lovable is that behind all the professionalism, behind all the psychedelic flavor, behind all the innovative riffage, behind all the fluctuation between bluesy, jazzy and poppy structures lies a sensitive soul. Fresh Cream, for all its merits, was an album that was hardly endowed with a lot of personality — it was too much of a «let's take all those awesome influences and take it from here» record, a starting point that showed promise but did not yet fully deliver the goods. Disraeli Gears is where Jack Bruce arrives as a successful artist, and the entire team (not just Eric and Ginger, but also Pappalardi, Gail Collins, and lyricist Pete Brown) rallies behind him to help maintain and solidify that personality. Disra­eli Gears is not a concept album, but it is an escapist album — like Piper and like Electric Ladyland, it is busy constructing its own alternate universe for you to take refuge in when the going gets too rough. In this world of pain, see, we're going wrong, so take it back, take that thing right out of here and dance the night away. With some tales of brave Ulysses, if possible.

For that matter, ʽDance The Night Awayʼ, to me, is unquestionably the best song on the album today — not ʽSunshineʼ, not ʽUlyssesʼ, but this unabashedly poppy, and also unbelievably sad ode to disillusionment and reclusiveness. The verse melody, punctuated by Eric's power chords and Ginger's resounding tom-toms, has the protagonist blindly circling around, bumping into corners — then, in the chorus, Clapton launches a guitar rocket across the sky, reaching higher and higher with each new refrain until it finally (probably) disappears out of view somewhere beyond the horizon: "dance myself to nothing, vanish from this place" indeed. It's one of those brilliant combinations of words and music where sadness and joy are so tightly intertwined that you can offer half a dozen different emotional interpretations of what is going on, from orgasmic to suicidal; not even the best psychedelic music of 1967 could consistently contain that many different layers of meaning.

Songs that are less ambivalent can still retain a degree of uniqueness: ʽWe're Going Wrongʼ is a deeply internalized lament, musically engineered in such a way as to picture a genuine emotional thunderstorm — Ginger's ferocious pouncing, Eric's angry power chords and desperately high-pitched blueswailing solos — over a slow, almost ceremonial tempo and vocals that suggest an atmosphere of deep mourning rather than tumultuous aggression. Nowhere near as explicit in its bleakness as, say, contemporary Doors material, ʽWe're Going Wrongʼ manages to build up a wall of dreariness that is just as successful (if not as titillating) as ʽWhen The Music's Overʼ. And maybe the song is not even about the end of the world — maybe it is about the end of a romance, or about the future of Cream themselves — but who could doubt that "I found out today we're going wrong" could not be applicable to every single year so far after 1967, especially when set to those deep earth rumblings generated by Eric?

In short, there is no better way to summarize that awesome mix of colorful psychedelia and existential sadness scattered throughout Disraeli Gears than with the chorus of ʽSWLABRʼ: "you've got that rainbow feel — but the rainbow has a beard". Even the band's sense of humor has a bitterness to it: they let us down gently, with the twin funny pack of ʽTake It Backʼ and ʽMother's Lamentʼ, but ʽTake It Backʼ is funny-hysterical and ʽMother's Lamentʼ is, after all, a moral tale with a sad-happy ending. (Come to think of it, ʽMother's Lamentʼ is just the traditional folk root of ʽDance The Night Awayʼ — "your baby is perfectly happy, he won't need a bath anymore" sits in the same house as "gonna dance myself to nothing, vanish from this place"). This is what separates great psychedelia from run-of-the-mill psychedelia — mixed emotions, no straight answers, an overall subtle intelligence that lets you look at the same song from different angles and shape it in accordance with your own inner world.

Personally, I have not always loved this album — I grew to appreciate it quite gradually, as compared to instant loves like The Beatles or Creedence Clearwater Revival — but even at the tender age of 10-12 I could feel there was something very, very special about it, some sort of odd magic that was not there in anything else I'd heard. That magic was never properly recaptured, though small traces of it can be found on Wheels Of Fire and some of Bruce's early solo albums; apparently, it took a lucky star alignment to produce Disraeli Gears. And this, precisely, is what makes me feel so angry inside whenever I (occasionally) see people dismissing the record as too boring, too bluesy, too unadventurous, too derivative — I mean, just because Clapton refused to maniacally let loose with feedback à la Hendrix or Syd Barrett, preferring cleaner and more restrained tones, does not mean that he was incapable of conveying comparable depth of feeling; and just because Jack Bruce's artistic personality was not as bent on self-destruction does not mean that it was incapable of reaching the same levels of high tragicness. In some respects, I would say that Disraeli Gears relates to Are You Experienced? and the like in the same way as Pet Sounds relates to Revolver — a «cleaner», «calmer», more lyrical take on worldly (and otherworldly) issues that prefers to blow your mind in a subtler, less obvious manner. Strange brew, kill what's inside of you — or, at least, rearrange some of it.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

David Gilmour: About Face

DAVID GILMOUR: ABOUT FACE (1984)

1) Until We Sleep; 2) Murder; 3) Love On The Air; 4) Blue Light; 5) Out Of The Blue; 6) All Lovers Are Deranged; 7) You Know I'm Right; 8) Cruise; 9) Let's Get Metaphysical; 10) Near The End.

General verdict: As close to «The (Not So) Great Lost Pink Floyd Dance Pop Album» as it ever gets.


Sometimes I cannot help feeling that, through some subconscious bond, Roger and David had agreed to turn the Eighties into that one decade that would once and for all decide who of the two could sink to the lowest depths of suckdom. It's not that the music they both made on their own was always cringeworthy on its own merits — in all fairness, it was no better or worse on the average than the output of most of their boomer peers. It is simply that both of them lost all traces of that intangible Floyd magic. Using the same ingredients, pursuing largely the same goals, but no longer fed by the spirit that elevated them high above most of the competition in the previous decade. Tired? Disoriented? Losing focus? Perhaps someday somebody will write a good piece of musico-psychological non-fiction about it. In the meantime, here is David Gilmour's second solo album — of which only a very naïve and easily impressed listener could expect to rectify the wrongs caused by The Final Cut.

Curiously, About Face turned out to be the single most dynamic, «lively» record in Gilmour's career (including the Waters-less «Stink Floyd» period). Since the self-titled album had been written and produced in an era when Floyd was still very much alive, simply as a distracting intermis­sion, it was not until the clouds began truly gathering on the horizon that David began to think more seriously of a possible solo career. And a possible solo career, if it were to be a career rather than a hobby, had to take the pop market into consideration — thus, more vocal numbers, more catchiness, more sing-along bits, more toe-tapping, and a few extra tricks to lure the customer in. Put together the general musical environment of 1984 and the usual personality of David Gilmour (the sad, mopey, introvert, but sentimental blues genius guy), and the results are predictably disappointing, though, perhaps, not downright catastrophic.

As a representative example, let us take ʽBlue Lightʼ, the first single off the album. Naturally, it has a trademark Gilmour element — the echoey, delayed rhythm guitars creating that atmosphere of inescapable doom — but on top of those guitars, you have a lively, funky, robotic brass section dominating the song, so that it ultimately sounds like a cross between ʽRun Like Hellʼ and ʽSussudioʼ. Throw in a few cryptic lyrical lines that could have been written about anybody from Margaret Thatcher ("she steals your savings from under your bed") to Gilmour's wife ("under her mantle you feel safe from the cold"), a trendy musical video with dancers a-plenty, and you get an easy recipe for a bona fide hit song — but one for which there is absolutely no necessity. It has neither the dread of ʽRun Like Hellʼ nor the mindless fun of ʽSussudioʼ: it is a clear example of somebody desperately trying to be somebody else, and even though the song still became a minor hit (hey, it's Dave Gilmour, and you can dance to it!), ultimately it becomes just another brick in the (memorial) wall of The Great Eighties' Artistic Self-Humiliation.

Much more true to the artist's heart was the second single, ʽLove On The Airʼ, one of the two songs on the album for which Gilmour had commissioned the lyrics from Pete Townshend — and the lyrics actually sound as if Pete could have written them after a good, solid listen to The Wall, and who could be a better substitute for Waters in terms of bleak misanthropy (and, more speci­fically, misogyny) than Mr. I-know-you-deceive-me-now-here's-a-surprise? The interesting news is that if you do not concentrate too hard on the lyrics, the song might be mistaken for a heart-on-the-sleeve serenade (when it is really about getting out of love). The not so inspiring news is that the song is not very good — quite a flat and simple acoustic progression whose only attempt at a hook is to raise the volume and pitch during the chorus; little wonder, then, that the song flopped commercially, because... well, you couldn't even very well dance to it.

And that's pretty much it: most of the album consists of relatively simplistic and usually over­produced rhythmic ballads, interspersed with the occasional quirky and uncomfortable dance-rocker. The overproduction does a disservice to Gilmour's singing voice, blending it in together with the bombastic percussion and cheap synthesizers; and the pop market orientation does a dis­service to Gilmour's guitar playing, too often downplayed because guitar solos were not supposed to be a big market-driving force in 1984.

Much to Dave's honor, About Face is all about doing an about-face, but rarely about downright losing face — ʽBlue Lightʼ is about as close as it comes to that, and even that song is saved by decent lyrics, imaginative arrangements, and the fact that, at the very least, Gilmour is not trying to dance himself in the accompanying video. It is clear that the man is still committed to his ideals of marrying blues music to psychedelic vision, and no amount of electronics or metallic riffage à la ʽOwner Of A Lonely Heartʼ is going to stop him from honoring that commitment. Thus, ʽUntil We Sleepʼ may start the album with a completely stereotypical Eighties' vibe (big drums, crunchy guitars, electronics), but its intentions are noble — a song about vanity and transience of being, with an epic combination of keyboards, guitars, and dreamy inner-demon vocals. Ten years earlier (or perhaps even ten years later), its arrangement might have been more adequate to those intentions. It's only Fate that commanded it to be recorded in 1984.

Unfortunately, the magnificent list of guest musicians on the album — including both tried-and-true rock horses such as Jon Lord and Steve Winwood, and new stars such as Art Of Noise's Ann Dudley — is squandered away under the circumstances. Likewise, Bob Ezrin, co-producing the album with Dave, was unable to put his classic macabre spin on it, either: About Face can be morose and it can be aggressive, but there is nothing here even remotely approaching the spooki­ness and tension of the better parts of The Wall. Worse, its several moments of social and politi­cal activism almost make Dave look like he'd taken a bit of envy to Roger's Final Cuttisms (ʽMurderʼ has him venting some four-year-late frustrations over Lennon's killing, and ʽCruiseʼ is an ironic take on the nuclear shield), but the man has never had true venom running in his blood, and neither being super-angry nor being super-sarcastic comes as naturally to him as it does to his big-nosed partner. (Also, the more he focuses on lyrical subjects, the less interesting his melodies get — ʽMurderʼ sounds like an old Greenwich Village folk ballad).

In short, this whole thing is as «okay» as it gets, but it is hard to imagine who could be particular­ly fond of it these days: I mean, David Gilmour cautiously selling out for peanuts? If you happen to like Dave's solo career in general, About Face will probably be your least favorite of his albums, just because so much of it is «not him». If you are generally bored by Dave's solo career, it is not likely that the upbeat and poppy nature of so many of these songs will be a great relief: clearly, it would make sense to run to a couple hundred other Eighties artists for these values before you realize that yes, even David Gilmour had a little bit of Phil Collins dormant inside him for all those years.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The Chambers Brothers: Feelin' The Blues

THE CHAMBERS BROTHERS: FEELIN' THE BLUES (1970)

1) Girls, We Love You; 2) I Got A Woman; 3) House Of The Rising Sun; 4) Don't Lose Your Cool; 5) Just A Closer Walk With Thee; 6) Blues Get Off My Shoulder; 7) Travel On My Way; 8) Undecided.

General verdict: Another decent bunch of decent outtakes, no more, no less.


Guess what — another Vault Records release, and this time I cannot find any definitive info at all on where and when these studio and live recordings come from... and, frankly, nobody should really care just as nobody gave a damn back in 1970, when the very last thing on anybody's mind probably was to listen to half-decade-old outtakes from The Chambers Brothers' career. (Well, actually, it turns out that Rolling Stone gave the record a glowing review, right at the same time that they were busy trashing Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath).

In all honesty, this one, too, is a mess, as it continues to present The Chambers Brothers as dashing dare-devils, always unafraid of experimenting onstage — regardless of whether the experiment in question would end up boring, embarrassing, or inspiring. The first track is quite seriously inauspicious: ʽGirls, We Love Youʼ is a musical mish-mash of ʽMemphis, Tennesseeʼ and ʽThat's Alright Mamaʼ with new lyrics, a relatively low level of rock'n'roll energy and decent harmonica playing (which is still nothing that even Mick Jagger couldn't do). This is followed by the stupidest intro to ʽI Got A Womanʼ yet (stretching out on the opening "weeeeeeell..." until it becomes offensively out of tune) — fortunately, the main performance mostly redeems for that with some wild Hammond organ improvisation, and the brief inclusion of the chorus to ʽToo Fat Polkaʼ in the middle is actually a funny touch that could have been emphasized more sharply (as it is, most people will probably not even take notice).

The record then arguably hits its peak with the slow-dark-brooding six minute take on ʽHouse Of The Rising Sunʼ — this performance actually earned some gushing comments from the few people that heard it, and the lead / back vocal arrangements are indeed impressive, but the instrumental work seems sluggish, except for the drummer, who is the only band member here trying to rise above the «just sit and play it» approach. Another problem, perhaps, is the lack of context: it is hard to take this version of ʽHouseʼ with all the seriousness it deserves when it is wedged in between so many tracks that rather have a comedic disposition or, at least, a positive outlook on life. (Admittedly, the second side of the LP does feature a cover of Bobby Parker's ʽBlues Get Off My Shoulderʼ — which sounds exactly the same as the cover of ʽHouseʼ, just shorter by three minutes).

In the end, the record's most redeeming quality — typical of all Vault Records releases — is the diversity: we have blues, rock'n'roll, R&B, doo-wop, polka, soul, gospel, in short, a nice mini-ency­clopaedia of everything that was cool about the Fifties. Why precisely we had to get it in mid-1970 remains a bit of a mystery, but that's all water under the bridge anyway. Well worth listening to at least once for a bit of peculiar fun; otherwise, chalk this one up for completists who are on a quest to hear every song ever made performed by The Chambers Brothers.