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Thursday, October 2, 2014

Björk: Medúlla

BJÖRK: MEDÚLLA (2004)

1) Pleasure Is All Mine; 2) Show Me Forgiveness; 3) Where Is The Line?; 4) Vökuró; 5) Öll Birtan; 6) Who Is It; 7) Submarine; 8) Desired Constellation; 9) Oceania; 10) Sonnets/Unrealities XI; 11) Ancestors; 12) Mouth's Cradle; 13) Miðvikudags; 14) Triumph Of A Heart.

Can you say «I am a huge Björk fan, but I hate this album» without running into an oxymoron? Very very clearly, Medúlla is exactly the kind of album she wanted to make in 2004, an album over which (like over everything else) she had full creative control, and an album that nobody could not call «bold» and «adventurous». So how could a huge Björk fan hate this album? Would it not be like saying «I'm a good Catholic, but I really hate Holy Communion?»...

To get a serious answer, let us think of it this way. There is no doubt that Björk's greatest and most unique asset is her immediately recognizable voice and the way she uses it — love it, hate it, but you will not confound it with anything else in the world: people who are only familiar with the artist on a, let's say, vaguely tangential level will always remember her as «that amazing / annoying singer» first and foremost. But this tends to overshadow her other strengths — namely, that she is also a gifted songwriter and arranger, and that she is an extremely talented «advocate of beauty», being one of the very few people in the 1990s who managed to find a completely fresh, mind-opening way to convey the sense of beauty. Mind-opening, yes, but also generally accessible — once you manage to overcome the first shock, getting to like records like Post, Homogenic, or even Vespertine is really not that hard.

The biggest mistake of Medúlla, I think, is in that Björk oversetimated her own talents, and de­liberately threw herself off balance. As unique as that voice is, it is a big, big question whether anybody really wants, or needs, to listen to a whole album of Björk singing close to accappella — or, in extreme cases, listen to an album of a million billion chopped-up Björks interacting with each other like a flock of drunken birds on a wire. The experience is about as weird as the cover of the album, and seems more like a deliberate provocation than a sincere experiment.

There is no doubt that a lot of work went into the album. Each of the tracks is very carefully put together, with multiple samples arranged in rhythmic, often symmetric patterns, while the pri­mary vocal melodies still explore relations between harmony and dissonance like they did when she was still a part of The Sugarcubes. The problem is that this is the first time in Björk history where it gets really hard to discern any substance beyond the form. The album may be brave enough to invent its own sub-genre (call it «math-vocalize» if you wish), but inventing a vital genre does amount to a little something extra than just the classic manner of «putting things on top of other things». And I struggle in vain to find that extra — and while I struggle, the vocals just grow more and more and more irritating, until we're almost in Yokoland.

Some of the comparatively more «normal» songs clearly indicate that talent has not abandoned the lady: ʽWho Is Itʼ, for instance, would not be out of place on Vespertine: deceptively released as the album's lead single, it is one of those intimate love songs, with a little bit of accompanying paranoia, that could well be taken with you inside the «cocoon». But most of the time is being spent bending that talent out of shape: melodies are distorted, twisted, superimposed in brutal ways that require a complete reevaluation of your musical preconceptions. Are you ready to come out with such a reevaluation, or are you not?

Something like ʽAncestorsʼ, one of the key tracks on the record (because Björk herself said that the album title should represent the «5,000 year-old blood that's inside us all»), may be taken as the ultimately diagnostic element. «Loving» it is hardly possible, or at least, natural — taking it as a sonically symbolic representation of the various biological and cultural strains hidden out there in our DNA and our brain tissue is possible, but if so, Medúlla becomes a «performance act», a purely brain-oriented venture that, frankly speaking, reeks of gimmickry and self-indul­gence. As far as I am concerned, all these guttural noises and dissonant notes only serve to irritate the senses — for a genuine summoning of the «beast within», you're on far more secure territory with Iggy Pop and the Stooges than these ridiculously scattered quacks, roars, and wails (for that matter, ʽColdsweatʼ by The Sugarcubes did far more to remind me of the «5,000 year-old blood» than any of these tracks).

The ultimate downside is that, for all of its «boldness», Medúlla gives nothing essentially new. If you took any of the classic Björk albums, stripped them naked of their instrumental melodies, and then hacked up and interspersed the vocal harmonies, that'd be Medúlla in a nutshell — the only difference being that it is Björk herself here, deconstructing her own music. Yes, I admire her iron will and her decision not to stagnate / grow old / fade away at any cost, but you know, be­hind the superficially groundbreaking textures of Medúlla there might actually lurk a subcon­scious fear of not having anything more to say.

Alas, the more I listen to the record, the more I am becoming convinced of this scenario: Medúlla is a certain Björk-specific way of refusing to age gracefully — her personal equivalent of the Rolling Stones' Undercover, as formally dif­ferent as those albums are. On the other hand, this also makes me feel relieved: if this album only pretends to be «bold» and «adventurous», I can still call myself a huge fan of Björk in some respect — a huge fan of her «before-jumping-the-shark» period, that is, whereas Medúlla is clearly on the other side of the shark, and receives a certified thumbs down rating from me. 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Black Sabbath: Tyr

BLACK SABBATH: TYR (1990)

1) Anno Mundi; 2) The Law Maker; 3) Jerusalem; 4) The Sabbath Stones; 5) The Battle Of Tyr; 6) Feels Good To Me; 7) Heaven In Black.

According to Iommi, the 1989-1990 period of the band was heavily influenced by Tony Martin in the following way: (a) for his first batch of lyrics, he thought that Black Sabbath was all about the Devil and stuff, so he accordingly colored the lyrics and atmosphere of Headless Cross; (b) for his second batch of lyrics, they told him he was wrong about the first one, so he thought that Black Sabbath was all about the Vikings and stuff. So, accordingly, he colored the lyrics and atmosphere of Tyr. Or, actually, TZR, because if you read the runes of the title properly, that is what you are going to get, so I assume this is just an abbreviation for Totally Zany Record.

Curiously, Tyr came out in the same year as (a little later than) Bathory's Hammerheart, often called, if not the first, then at least the «quintessential» «Viking metal» album — which, I guess, justifies a comparison between the two, and listening to them back-to-back will clearly show which of the two bands had a clue about how to best combine metallic riffage and production with Scandinavian flavor, and which one had no clues whatsoever. In fact, I couldn't even blame Tony too hard. Here he was, just trying to rig up some new ideas for the next album, and there is this guy bringing him stuff on Valhalla and Odin and all that Wagnerian «paganism vs. Christi­anity» baggage. A simple, hard-working guy from Birmingham could go crazy, you know.

No wonder that Tyr rarely, if ever, comes alive or makes «emotional sense». Pompous, porten­tous, and overblown, it wastes Iommi's talents completely, its main heroes, as before, being Tony Martin and Cozy Powell, and its motto being «more power! more power!». Iommi's riffs aren't that bad (when you fish them out, leave them out to dry, and then do the calculations, Tyr might even come out as an improvement over Headless Cross), but they are indecisive, and most of the time, buried deeply under everything else — drums, keyboards, front vocals, back vocals.

There are three types of songs here. First, so as not to bore the listener completely, there are a couple fast rockers for a change (ʽThe Law Makerʼ, ʽHeaven In Blackʼ), which have nothing to do with Viking metal but are reminiscent of vintage Iron Maiden — except that Iommi has no qualifications to duplicate the skills of Maiden's guitar duo, and Martin, as I already said, is no Bruce Dickinson when it comes to adding snarl to operatic flavor. Even so, these are probably the best of the bunch, if only because it's fun to hear Cozy Powell trying to drive his drumset into the ground at twice or thrice his usual speed.

Second, there are «stately», slowly proceeding, ceremonial chants, sometimes with a ʽKashmirʼ-type flavor — ʽAnno Mundiʼ and ʽJerusalemʼ. These require spiritual submission from the listener, but there is just no way I could respond to Martin's ecstatic "can you see me? are you near me? can you hear me crying out for life?" with a proper "I see thee, I am near thee, I hear thee", because in reality I can only hear him crying out for a living. All of this is stiff, clichéd, and, when you get to the bottom of it, very repetitive and musically simplistic. Where classic Iron Maiden would have a multi-part, compositionally challenging epic, this variant of Sabbath just proceeds along Iommi's usual lines (riff, chorus, riff, chorus), sometimes dropping in a predic­table «soft» acoustic section. Boring.

Third, the «epics» themselves (ʽThe Sabbath Stonesʼ, ʽThe Battle Of Tyrʼ), running longer than everything else, and aspiring to higher status, are impossibly boring. ʽThe Sabbath Stonesʼ is their equivalent of ʽEternal Idolʼ and ʽHeadless Crossʼ, a slab of spooky mysticism that will spook no one, and for most of the duration of ʽBattleʼ, you will actually be waiting for some sort of a battle to begin, only to ask, at the end, «oh, so that was the battle? I thought it was only the village idiot running through the streets, shouting ʽValhalla! Valhalla!ʼ until somebody finally puts him out of his misery». To add insult to injury, they throw in a power ballad, Seventh Star-style — ʽFeels Good To Meʼ, which Iommi himself later apologized a little about, saying that they were in need of a hit single. Guess how hard that one hit.

All in all, TZR is a bona fide candidate for «worst album ever to be associated with the name of Black Sabbath», closely approaching Seventh Star in that respect. No respectful fan of Odin's court will want to fall for this tripe — last I heard, the Valkyries were on the line and reported that they never ride out for anyone who tries to make his connection through Tony Martin, who can't even spell three runes right before embarrassing himself. Thumbs down

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Bo Hansson: Magician's Hat

BO HANSSON: MAGICIAN'S HAT (1973)

1) Big City; 2) Divided Reality; 3) Elidor; 4) Before The Rain; 5) Fylke; 6) Playing Downhill Into The Downs; 7) Findhorn's Song; 8) The Awakening; 9) Wandering Song; 10) The Sun (Parallel Or 90 Degrees); 11) Excursion With Complications.

This is one of those classic situations where one tries to correct the balance between accessibility / entertainment and complexity / intellectualism and may end up pushing the slider too far in the opposite direction. On one hand, Magician's Hat, Bo's second foray into the world of progres­sive instrumental exploration, takes reasonable precautions to protect itself from the vicious sarcasm of critics crusading against starry-eyed idealism and fanboyism — namely, although quite a few of its tunes could have easily been slipped onto the previous record without anybody noticing, there are no direct references to Lord Of The Rings, and the compositions are open to any sort of unrestricted personal interpretations. That is probably good.

What is probably not so good is that Magician's Hat sounds awfully scattered and even less focused than its predecessor. Some of the reviewers define it as a «folk-prog» album, others de­scribe it as moving away from folk influences and more into jazz-fusion territory, still others just say that «this is great music that takes you to another dimension» without even trying to specify what sort of dimension that might be. The logical truth is that Magician's Hat is all these things — «folksy», «fusionesque», «otherworldly» — and more; and also, unfortunately, that this is not the kind of diversity that makes a whole lot of sense. As pretty as these soundscapes are, the album has not managed to override the «pleasant background music» tag that my subconscience has slapped on it during the very first listen.

Case in point: the epic-length ʽBig Cityʼ which, in its original form as ʽStorstadʼ on the Swedish edition, ran for 11 minutes, then was cut down to 7 on the international market release, then, finally, was restored back to full duration on the CD edition. I'd like to call the track «epic», but that would mostly refer to the sheer running length and the number of different «movements» — if that is enough, so be it, but normally, «epic» also surmises the idea of power, rising and falling dynamics, build-ups, crescendos, climaxes, etc., whereas ʽBig Cityʼ just sort of... trots along, sometimes a little faster, sometimes a little slower, mutating from blues-rock to choral folk chant to bossa nova to samba to fusion to a bit of avantgarde, being all over the place but fairly low-key most of the time. Not only does it not give out the impression of a ʽBig Cityʼ (more like a bunch of very small ones that you pass by in an old car at half-speed), but there are also next to no memorable themes — it is like a mediocre jazz album, with professionally set grooves and com­petent, but never too enlightening solo improvisations.

As we move away from the lengthy suite and into the realm of shorter tracks, things do not get better — because giving the short tracks separate names does not change the fact that the rest of the album is essentially just more of the same stuff. Every now and then, you do meet up with an interesting theme (ʽPlaying Downhillʼ has a curiously constructed brass/organ jazz melody that seems almost mathematically explorative), but, like fireflies, the interesting ones light up and fade away just as quickly as the uninteresting ones. Hansson has a ton of ideas in store for the album, but he gives poor ones as much space as rich ones, and almost never takes the time to prove that melody so-and-so actually needed inventing.

Some might see this as a challenge, and set themselves a worthy goal of learning to hum all the 20+ melodies of Magician's Hat, so as to easier win friends and influence people. I, however, seem to suffer from attention deficit syndrome in this situation, and keep on seeing all this as the result of dissipation of focus — professional instrumental noodling whose lack of conceptual purpose strips the music of the necessary energy. You know it's not really a good sign when the album's most memorable moment is basically a musical joke  — in this case, ʽExcursion With Complicationsʼ, which begins as a somber bluesy march, dominated by doomy organs and stern, electronically treated solo guitar, and then transforms into a New Orleanian piece of carniva­lesque boogie-woogie, thus ending the album with the author's tongue sticking out.

The album may hold up to repeated listens, I guess, if one deals with the fact that this is «prog-rock» with the «rock» component surgically extracted and dissolved in acid — as was the case with its predecessor, you'd better get yourself all comfortably relaxed to enjoy its smooth, inob­trusive hooks, atmospheric echoes, and tasteful, but uneventful soloing (including lots of guitar parts, which are now at least as prominent as the keyboards). Unfortunately, few of us will pro­bably have the time to determine just how much Magician's Hat reflects subtlety of vision rather than lack of vision. And it goes without saying that, having originally come out in 1972 (under the Swedish title Ur Trollkarlens Hatt), the album would be very quickly quenched by Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells — where most of the pieces of the puzzle would logically come to­gether, instead of being lazily scattered around, as they are here.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Blue Öyster Cult: Agents Of Fortune

BLUE ÖYSTER CULT: AGENTS OF FORTUNE (1976)

1) This Ain't The Summer Of Love; 2) True Confessions; 3) (Don't Fear) The Reaper; 4) E.T.I. (Extra Terrestrial Intelligence); 5) The Revenge Of Vera Gemini; 6) Sinful Love; 7) Tattoo Vampire; 8) Morning Final; 9) Tenderloin; 10) Debbie Denise.

Sometimes live albums are just live albums, and sometimes live albums mark off, or summarize a certain period — been there, done that, recapitulate, draw a line, time to move on. This is one of those cases: the Blue Öyster Cult of Agents Of Fortune is not the Blue Öyster Cult of Secret Treaties or any previous records. Goodbye, heavy metal — hello, pop rock.

Of course, it's not as if the band had always been a stranger to «softer» forms of music: from ʽRedeemedʼ to ʽWings Wetted Downʼ to ʽAstronomyʼ, their repertoire had frequently had its nods to folk, art-pop, and «progressive» styles. Nor is Agents Of Fortune completely devoid of riff-based tunes: ʽTattoo Vampireʼ has a riff as gritty as anything they'd done previously. But it would be futile to deny that the accents have seriously shifted — with the band being more pre­occupied with melody and harmony now, rather than the good old kick-ass routine.

Case in point: if there is one logical predecessor to the album's big hit song and the one number that is today most commonly associated with Blue Öyster Cult — ʽ(Don't Fear) The Reaperʼ — it would hardly be any of the hard rock bands, but rather The Byrds circa 1966-67. Buck Dharma's famous «jangly» riff is like a minor variation on the riff that opens ʽSo You Want To Be A Rock And Roll Starʼ, and the gentle folksy harmonies, culminating in the simplistic la-la-las of the chorus, sound as if coming straight out of sunny California, rather than the twisted, post-modern alleys of New York City. Add to this that Roeser envisioned the song as a fairly straightforward invitation to get rid of the fear of death — nothing ironic in that — and the "seasons don't fear the reaper" line, with its associations with ʽTurn! Turn! Turn!ʼ, and there you have it. Oh, and don't forget all the raga influences in the guitar break, too, which just about clinches it.

Why the song became such a big hit and such a ubiquitous staple is hard to tell — it was popular way before Will Ferrell and co. immortalized it for the hip crowds in the «more cowbell» SNL sketch, but I am not altogether sure that the cowbell itself could have had such a hypnotic effect on the public. Maybe its «optimistic melancholy», embodied in Roeser's unusually tender singing, filled in some sort of spiritual niche that was empty in 1976, or something. It is a good enough folk rock song, for sure, but hardly a classic example of «The BÖC Special» — knowing the band through this tune is a bit like knowing The Rolling Stones through ʽMiss Youʼ (which, I guess, could also be quite an option for a young person circa 1978).

Now if we take ʽThis Ain't The Summer Of Loveʼ, now we're talking: for all the difference that Agents Of Fortune makes, it opens in classic-traditional fashion, with heavy distorted guitars, eerie grinning vocals ("this is the night we ride!"), and a mock-apocalyptic message that is only a little bit set back by the raucous barroom-rock abandon of the chorus — the hookline is delivered by a bunch of bozos who've had one too many, rather than the Four Horsemen in their prime. You should not read too much profundity into the song — by 1976, everyone in the world knew fair well that «the summer of love» had ended with Altamont seven years back, or so they said — but this is not to say that the song has no snap, or has that snap misplaced. Most importantly, they can still generate that snap through music rather than words: the heavy riffage on ʽTattoo Vampireʼ, for instance, is so much more engaging than the silly lyrics about the protagonist's adventures in a tattoo parlor that the song may have worked better as a mean, fast-paced, athletic instrumental. (On the other hand, the endless references to vampires, daggers, demons, and flying skulls do a good job of directing one's mind to various «dark» associations for the music — otherwise, it might just as well be a modernistic tribute to Link Wray).

But the bulk of the record is far softer than that — you have your Band-style ʽTrue Confessionsʼ, dominated by honky-tonk piano and oddly plaintive vocal harmonies resolving in a falsetto hook; your arena-rock-oriented ʽExtra Terrestrial Intelligenceʼ, with bombastic guitars and anthemic choruses (all that's missing is a stadium and a neon-lit flying saucer landing in the middle); more falsetto harmonies on ʽSinful Loveʼ, mostly memorable for its bizarre refrain ("I love you like sin, but I won't be your pigeon"); more cowbell on ʽTenderloinʼ, where Eric Bloom suddenly decides to introduce a little bit of croon into his vocals and the whole thing ends up sounding like a slightly toughened up Billy Joel rocker; and ʽDebbie Deniseʼ, which is their softest album closer since ʽRedeemedʼ — pop harmonies all around and a chorus that, from my perspective, borders on sea shanty (or maybe it is just because I keep mishearing the "where I was out rolling with my band" line as "where I was a-rowin' with my band").

This should not, however, be taken as a criticism, for one simple reason: most of these songs are fun. They are imaginative, intriguing, (sometimes) lyrically challenging, memorable, and, most importantly, they come alive — it's almost as if the band were temporarily rejuvenated by gaining the right to step away from the hard rock formula and explore some contiguous territory. I mean, they even get Patti Smith to not only continue supplying some of the lyrics, but — now that her own musical career had kicked off with Horses a year ago — actually acquiring the right to duet with them on one of the tracks (the vampire anthem ʽRevenge Of Vera Geminiʼ): regardless of whether you are partial or not to the idea of Patti's warbling voice echoing Bloom, this is evi­dence of the band frantically searching for new solutions.

It all smells of a little campiness, where even ʽThe Reaperʼ might eventually begin to look like a parody on the «serious life-and-death message» song than the real thing, but ideologically, the album is not all that different from the early «meta-rock», «post-modern», «intertextual» etc. BÖC — most of the songs really work whichever way you want them to work, so that ʽVera Geminiʼ may look creepy one moment and hilarious the next one. In any case, ʽReaperʼ or no ʽReaperʼ, the record as a whole is a success, hard as it is to understand exactly what is so special about it. Maybe it's just that whole aura, a mix of sleaze, sarcasm, and «modernist spirituality», and the amazing discovery that it still stays relevant and involving even as the band rejects the gritty hard rock stomp as the primary means for conveying it. Thumbs up.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Anni-Frid Lyngstad (Frida): Shine

FRIDA: SHINE (1984)

1) Shine; 2) One Little Lie; 3) The Face; 4) Twist In The Dark; 5) Slowly; 6) Heart Of The Country; 7) Come To Me (I Am A Woman); 8) Chemistry Tonight; 9) Don't Do It; 10) Comfort Me; 11*) That's Tough.

If you manage to disregard the cheeky album cover (okay, so the world was living in the era of ʽPhy­sicalʼ back then), Shine is actually a very strong, engaging, even «experimental» pop album. Why it bombed on the charts, turning Frida off recording for more than a decade and off English-language recording almost forever, is unclear. One guess is that the world was shaking off the «ABBA cobwebs», setting the band aside as obsolete fluff until the 1990s revival — thus, even though only one song on Shine really sounds like classic ABBA, Frida got the boot simply for being Frida. Another guess is the opposite one: Shine is so different from ABBA that Frida's veteran supporters, constituting the bulk of the buyers, were turned off by the sound.

And no wonder: this time around, the producer is Steve Lillywhite, who was, back then, one of the hottest things in town, masterminding cutting-edge albums by Peter Gabriel, U2, and whoever else wanted to make use of the latest developments in studio technology in order to record some­thing dark, freaky, unsettling, or futuristic. The assembled musicians also represented «the new breed» and had already made big names for themselves: Tony Levin of King Crimson fame is on bass, Mark Brzezicki of Big Country fame is on drums, and singer-songwriter Kirsty McCall supplies much of the material, often co-written with Simon Climie, the man who'd later become known for the «Climie Fisher» duo (and then for the next stage of ruining Eric Clapton's solo career with atrocious albums like Pilgrim, trying to modernize the unmodernisable — but that would be a long, long time away: here, the guy just plays synthesizers).

The result is a bona fide synth-pop album (with very limited guitar presence) that takes the already dark overtones of its predecessor and compacts them into something even more emotio­nally disturbing. The title track's release as a single must have confused audiences, because it is not at all clear what it is — a simple love ballad, or a tale of an unhealthy psychoaddiction? The "you give me love, you make me shine" chorus, with its high uplifting harmonies seems to sug­gest the former, but the unexpectedly dissonant bass chords, the ghostly harmonies, the aggres­sive drum patterns, the sickly "you give me love, you give me love, you give me love..." repe­titions, it all suggests probing certain subconscious depths that are way below «fluffy lightweight romance» levels. This fluctuation between the light and the dark throws you off balance and prevents easy pigeonholing — hence, perhaps, the hesitation to buy up extra copies.

The one small «giveaway» to ABBA fans was certainly not enough to compensate. ʽSlowlyʼ, which Frida actually accepted from Benny and Björn (so, for all purposes, one might count it as a legitimate ABBA song), is awash in typically ABBA vocal hooks, tailored to Frida's abilities: a «multi-movement» ballad going through several layers of the emotional spectrum (the way she brings it all around with her velvety delivery of the title is gorgeous), and, for that matter, showing that the ABBA pool was anything but spent in the early 1980s. Still, just one song, and it comes on after the album's «creepiest» number: ʽTwist In The Darkʼ, contributed by songwriter Andy Leek, is like a slightly more accessible Melt-era Peter Gabriel track — big booming drums, ghostly keyboards and backing harmonies, and a menacing hookline. Now it's never really as threateningly Freudist as the description makes it out, but it's still fairly serious: if you liked the «darker» elements of The Visitors, this is a logical development.

Less stunning, but still catchy highlights include ʽOne Little Lieʼ, a lively synth-rocker with a rather gratuitous, but harmless, Beethoven lick in the intro, and ʽHeart Of The Countryʼ, contributed by Big Country's own Stuart Adamson. Individual disappointments would be limited to ʽDon't Do Itʼ, a rather shapeless ballad with nowhere-going echoey guitar used purely for at­mosphere — written by Frida herself, and maybe she shouldn't; and ʽCome To Me (I Am A Woman)ʼ, another ballad, this time, an even gentler and adult-contemporarier one, but it wouldn't be as embarrassing, I guess, if only Frida did not sing the chorus as "come to me, I am woman" (without the article!), which, if your English is on an okay level, gives the oddly dumb impression of "me Tarzan, you Jane" and dumbs down any hopes at romance.

Still, in terms of our general expectations, Shine is a relative masterpiece — nobody would demand a genuine Peter Gabriel-level record from an ABBA singer, no matter who the producer is, if the songwriting remains in the hands of a bunch of pop-oriented outsiders, but they come as close to this result as physically possible, and with a rather natural grace. Many people have floundered in the transition from «typically 1970s» to «typically 1980s» music: Frida clearly understood how not to flounder, and thus, it is actually a little distressing that she had all but severed her relations with the music industry from then on — unlike Agnetha, who eventually succumbed to DianeWarren-itis, Frida seems like the type who could have preserved a modicum of good taste throughout the decade (yes, sometimes my inner optimist does manage to beat up my inner pessimist).

But then, it does not make much sense to talk in «ifs»: the truth is that Shine was Frida's last internationally-oriented album, and she only made brief occasional returns to the public eye since then. One more Swedish-language album followed in 1996, and that was it. Should we lament the missed opportunities or appraise the humbleness and modesty? I guess we'd need to at least be close friends or something to answer that question. In the meantime, Shine gets an expected thumbs up rating — if you like tasteful synth-pop, and can stand the idea of it being slightly blemished by superficial sentimentalism, this record is made for you. Additionally, it is the last ever album to feature a song written by Benny and Björn and sung by one of the ABBA girls — most likely, this should wrench a commitment out of some people at least. 

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Blackmore's Night: Fires At Midnight

BLACKMORE'S NIGHT: FIRES AT MIDNIGHT (2001)

1) Written In The Stars; 2) The Times They Are A-Changin'; 3) I Still Remember; 4) Home Again; 5) Crowning Of The King; 6) Fayre Thee Well; 7) Fires At Midnight; 8) Hanging Tree; 9) The Storm; 10) Mid-Winter's Night; 11) All Because Of You; 12) Waiting Just For You; 13) Praetorius (Courante); 14) Benzai-Ten; 15) Village On The Sand; 16) Again Someday.

This is probably as good as it gets — or, at least, as diagnostic as it gets, so if you want to give Lord R. and Lady C. one lucky chance, Fires At Midnight might be your best bet. Not only is it as stylistically diverse as the duo would ever get, but it also achieves a stable balance between the «folk» and the «rock» visions of Blackmore as applied to his dabblings in past times with good companies. Which, simply speaking, translates to «it's still cheesy, but not as boringly cheesy as it used to be». There's even some bark-and-snap to it now.

Most importantly, Blackmore seems to have finally adapted the art of writing faux-medieval ballads to his trademark fiery style: almost as if he were a little tired of the exaggerated courteous gallantry of his previous two efforts, quite a few of these new compositions put their trust (and their thrust) in «power». ʽWritten In The Starsʼ opens the album deceptively, with some nearly accappella singing from Candice — but that is just the intro: at 1:05 into the song, the electric guitar kicks in with some heraldic chords, the martial drums and horns join in the attack, and the whole thing becomes a darkly romantic gallop, highlighted by ecstatic electric leads. No huge surprises on the whole, but this hint at «hidden menace», tragedy, and toughness is definitely something that neither ʽShadow Of The Moonʼ nor ʽUnder A Violet Moonʼ possessed.

Where royalty was earlier represented by Britain (Henry VIII), we now turn to Spain: the title track is credited as a reworking of a composition originally by Alfonso X of Castile, although we may safely assume that the guy was not quite as skilled at the electric guitar as Mr. Blackmore, his disciple, who turns most of the song's second part into a polygon for unleashing some long-missed amplified pyrotechnics at the listener. I am also quite unsure if Alfonso el Sabio actually made a provision for shawms in his original composition, but whatever be the case, they fit in well with this rather paganistic pandemonium. As simple and repetitive as the main melody is (which is not very surprising for a 13th century dance melody), they handle the build-up pretty well, and it does inspire Blackmore to go fairly wild on the guitar, though, of course, not full-out wild — even in a moment of ecstasy, the medieval minstrel should never forget that he does not have proper access to the whammy bar, since it has not been invented yet.

Other medieval heroes honored on the record include the obscure Dutch legend Tielman Susato, honored with renditions of the lyrical dance ballad ʽI Still Rememberʼ and the ceremonial, horns-driven ʽCrowning Of The Kingʼ (a little too pastoral, atmosphere-wise, but then again, we're talking 16th century here, when «pastoral» and «court» were not always that far removed); Jeremiah Clarke, whose famous ʽPrince Of Denmark's Marchʼ is adapted for a more lyrical pur­pose as ʽWaiting Just For Youʼ; the already previously honored Michael Praetorius, whose ʽCouranteʼ is played by Ritchie on basic acoustic guitar; and the long-forgotten medieval Jewish klezmer Hrodebert Zimbarman, whose woodwind-heavy gallant dance melody ʽDie Zeiten, Sie Ändern Sichʼ is usually better known to modern audiences through a corrupted neo-folk perfor­mance by one of his immigrant descendants; fortunately, we have Lord R. and Lady C. to thank for restoring the courteous authenticity of this fine, fine composition.

That said, unless you dig deep into the credits, it is quite impossible to distinguish the «authentic» material from the Blackmore/Night «originals» — the former pieces are always rearranged for the duo's usual style, and the latter are probably only «original» in the sense that they do not directly transpose the chord structures of the old musical pieces they are based upon... then again, con­sidering that Blackmore's collection is said to consist of about 2000 CDs of Renaissance music, I think that the man himself would not be able to tell whether a particular «original» of his has been directly lifted from somebody or influenced. So, for instance, the up-on-your-feet and dance-in-joy ʽHome Againʼ, containing either the catchiest or simply the most repetitive refrain melody on the album, is marked as a «Blackmore/Night» composition, but I couldn't believe for one moment that that melody was invented by Ritchie — it just sounds like a melody that must have been in good use in village dance traditions for at least half a millennium or so.

Anyway, this is not the point. The point is that, despite some inevitable filler (again, it runs over an hour, when some of the more same-sounding tracks could have been trimmed), Fires At Midnight crackle with more enthusiasm than the previous two records, and some of that enthu­siasm even rubs off on Lady C. — she sounds positively glowing on the weird Anglo-Japanese hybrid ʽBenzai-Tenʼ, an ode to a Buddhist goddess sung with Sherwood Forest harmonies (I count this as Blackmore's personal revenge on the world of J-Pop). While it would be too much to talk of stylistic revolutions or uncovered musico-semantic depths, Fires At Midnight finally fulfills the original promise, and honestly, professionally, and creatively delivers «Ersatz Enter­tainment», an embarrassingly guilty pleasure if there ever was one. Thumbs up and an overall recommendation — but do promise to at least check out Gryphon as a proper antidote for the cheap thrills offered by our little travelin' minstrel show. 

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Black Crowes: Lions

THE BLACK CROWES: LIONS (2001)

1) Midnight From The Inside Out; 2) Lickin'; 3) Come On; 4) No Use Lying; 5) Losing My Mind; 6) Ozone Mama; 7) Greasy Grass River; 8) Soul Singing; 9) Miracle To Me; 10) Young Man, Old Man; 11) Cosmic Friend; 12) Cypress Tree; 13) Lay It All On Me.

By Your Side was good enough to try out a sequel, but still not robust enough to inspire the Crowes for a sequel that would be just as good. It looks like they learned a few things — how to be more tight and snappy, how to give more care to hooklines, how to cultivate a macho image without being too disgusting — but it doesn't look like they had a particularly strong memory for any of them. If the album title is supposed to refer to the Robinsons themselves, well, this is a fairly sluggish pair of lions that we have here for observation.

Trouble begins almost immediately, as the major attractive force of ʽMidnight From The Inside Outʼ is concentrated in its guitar tone — fat, nasty, poisonously distorted — but little else. Slow, cumbersome, tied to a really irksome, meaningless blues-rock riff and not even remotely as «dangerous» as its production should lead you to believe, it is, well, everything that the previous album opener (ʽGo Fasterʼ) was not. And with a stylistically limited band like the Black Crowes, your initial impres­sion of the first song usually colors your impression of everything else.

Granted, the second song and the album's first single, unscrupulously called ʽLickin'ʼ, is an im­provement: a little faster, a little lower, a little sharper, with a guitar tone that almost borders on «industrial» this time — oh, if only brother Chris didn't sound like an ugly moron on the chorus! But he does, and he does it, exercising his capacity for free will (because he can sing normally — he just consciously wants to sound «nasty», like an authentic rock'n'roll hero). As a result, the song sounds gross, stupid, and unfunny. With some good riffage wasted.

Amazingly, as much as I thought I'd never have to say this, Lions is the first Crowes album where the ballads are better than the rockers. ʽMiracle To Meʼ, borrowing some of its acoustic chords from both ʽStairway To Heavenʼ (intro) and ʽWish You Were Hereʼ (main melody), gradually builds up to a sensitive, sentimental chorus whose "be my lover, be my friend, be a miracle to me" seems to work better on a gut level than any of their previous efforts, ʽShe Talks To Angelsʼ included. Even better is the album closer ʽLay It All On Meʼ, whose "come on down crooked man..." finally manages to approach the lazy, post-suffering, seen-it-all, friendly power of the Stones' ballads from 1971-72 — not that it'd seriously stand competition with ʽMoonlight Mileʼ, but perhaps it could stand a few rounds. Chris modulates his voice so that it really gives the impression of a comforting shoulder, and the piano/orchestral backing multiplies the impact and provides the necessary «epic» flavor.

The rockers, in comparison, all tend to lose face once again. Too slow, too generically written, and too fussy — perhaps some of the blame lies with producer Don Was, to whom they may have sucked up after he'd restored the Rolling Stones to their former glory with Voodoo Lounge and Bridges To Babylon. Apparently, though, what worked for the Stones did not work so well for their followers. On By Your Side, the guitar sound was more upfront and more raw; here, the guitars are usually too smooth, too polite, and too overshadowed by the band's unimpressive vocal harmonies and the band's equally unimpressive rhythm section. Only on ʽLickin'ʼ does brother Rich's guitar immediately assault your senses — elsewhere, it tends to limp and hobble rather than directly put the meat in your fridge, if you know what I mean.

I would not call the album «really bad», since the ballads work all right and the songwriting does show that a lot of work went into it (if it didn't, most of this review could be spent mentioning the titles of old blues-rock numbers that the brothers are ripping off, and it wasn't), but ultimately, Lions is unrewarding, and once again makes me forget why it is exactly that somebody could still be interested in hearing the Black Crowes play as late as the 21st century. Oh, and, for that matter, one thing I really hate — other than Chris' singing on the chorus of ʽLickin'ʼ — is the fly buzzing on ʽCosmic Friendʼ: not only is it really annoying (what else would you expect from a buzzing fly?), but it is also gratuitously unnecessary. Come to think of it, «gratuitously unnecessary» is as much of a pleonastic description as the Black Crowes are a pleonastic band.