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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Blind Guardian: A Night At The Opera

BLIND GUARDIAN: A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (2002)

1) Precious Jerusalem; 2) Battlefield; 3) Under The Ice; 4) Sadly Sings Destiny; 5) The Maiden And The Minstrel Knight; 6) Wait For An Answer; 7) The Soulforged; 8) Age Of False Innocence; 9) Punishment Divine; 10) And Then There Was Silence.

Come to think of it, every night with Blind Guardian is like a night at the opera, isn't it? With all that wealth of grand fantasy spectacles they had accumulated by the end of the millennium, the collective repertoire could very well lay claim to its own frickin' Bayreuth Festival. And there is little use in reminding yourself of all the previous people who had used that title, either, be it Queen or the Marx Brothers, because there is no connection whatsoever other than the very idea of a «grand» effect upon the listeners. And if you thought that, perhaps, the Marx Brothers asso­ciation suggests that Blind Guardian have finally begun to take themselves with a grain of salt and a modicum of self-irony — well, Judas Priest have a classic rock recommendation for you.

Although there is no such serious conceptual unity this time as there was on Nightfall In Middle-Earth, for the most part, the album still revolves around a set topical field — mythology, both pagan and Christian, and, to a lesser extent, history, rather than fantasy (only ʽWait For An An­swerʼ, based on Kürsch's own fictional tale, and ʽThe Soulforgedʼ, based on Dragonlance, con­stitute exceptions). If anything, this helps justify the band's position in preserving the grand-epic style of Nightfall — once again, the emphasis is squarely put on «power» and «pomp» rather than heaviness. When it's all over for the first time, what you are going to remember is not the metal riffs, but the huger-than-life choruses, most of which explicitly remind you of the fact that «chorus» and «choir» are originally the same word after all.

Here is a funny trivia tidbit that is not so much typical of the record as symbolic: the very first track, ʽPrecious Jerusalemʼ (as far as I know, marking the first appearance of JC himself as the protagonist of a Blind Guardian fantasy), contains a transparent musical reference to Jesus Christ Superstar — the "risin' up from the heart of the desert, risin' up for Jerusalem" passage brings to mind both the "when do we ride into Jerusalem?" and "roll on up Jerusalem" melodic phrasings from the Andrew Lloyd Webber opera, even if the rest of the song has nothing to do with Sir Andrew, being instead cast in the usual power metal mold. Still, this obvious link with the old art of «rock opera» is quite telling. No wonder the band's original drummer, Thomas Stauch, quit after the album was completed — even within the Blind Guardian camp, not every­body was satisfied with the way things were turning out.

Still, the balance between keyboards, orchestrations, and choral vocals, on one hand, and heavy riffs and blazing electric guitar solos, on the other, seems quite intelligently handled to me. There are a couple «power ballads» here, like ʽThe Maiden And The Minstrel Knightʼ (how come Blackmore's Night have not covered that one yet?), where the balance predictably tilts towards the «light» instrumentation, but this is justifiable — a ballad is a ballad, after all — and besides, the song has the most memorable chorus on the entire album. In anybody else's hands, the mock-Wagnerian solemnity of the choral "will you still wait for me, will you still cry for me" and Hansi's throat-ripping retort of "come and take my haaaaaand!" would just look ridiculous, but these guys now have such a long history of «going all the way to eleven» that it is hard not to get overwhelmed by the results. (Just play 'em real loud, or else you violate the rules of the game).

On the other hand, songs like ʽUnder The Iceʼ, ʽSadly Sings Destinyʼ, ʽThe Soulforgedʼ, and some others formally preserve the core of the Blind Guardian sound. There is an obligatory chugga-chugga thrashing riff, and a thick, melodic, sometimes multi-tracked, often wah-wah-enhanced lead guitar part that are loud enough in the mix so as not to allow themselves to be drowned out in an ocean of keyboards, strings, or choral vocals. And it's not as if the drummer had anything to complain about on his behalf — the tempos are consistently fast and give him all the usual conditions to exercise the traditional sledgehammering style.

The basic problem is the usual one — monotony. After a short while, as the hilarious quotation from JCS fades into history, the songs inevitably begin blending and melding with each other, and this time around, there are no storytelling links to keep them apart. In small doses, the album is perfectly palatable, but you'd really have to be an iron man to sit through this «night at the opera» in one go and get sixty-seven minute of incessant kicks out of it. (Predicting the possible question, yes, this «opera» is far more melodically monotonous and emotionally single-routed than any good classical opera — among other things, Blind Guardian are totally unfamiliar with the principle of crescendo, which they replace with the principle of «and now... switch on THE POWER!!!!!»).

The worst is saved for last: a fourteen-minute epic (ʽAnd Then There Was Si­lenceʼ) about the fate of Cassandra, which somehow feels longer than the entire first act of Ber­lioz's Les Troyens — for all of its numerous melodic changes, nothing truly interesting ever happens throughout the song, and I have no idea whatsoever why it needed to be 14 minutes long in the first place. And instead of a proper bang, it ends in... a fadeout, with a corny synthesizer solo striving for orchestral gran­deur? What an embarrassment, really. Without this track, A Night At The Opera could have been poised for at least a minor thumbs up, keeping in mind the unabated energy levels and the cleverness of the instrumental mix and the sheer overwhelming strength of Hansi's vocals. With this track, A Night At The Opera moves dangerously close to a failed experiment — an attempt to outdo themselves in the «grandeur» department without being able to come up with any new substantial trick to successfully complete that attempt.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Bonnie Raitt: Give It Up

BONNIE RAITT: GIVE IT UP (1972)

1) Give It Up Or Let Me Go; 2) Nothing Seems To Matter; 3) I Know; 4) If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody; 5) Love Me Like A Man; 6) Too Long At The Fair; 7) Under The Falling Sky; 8) You Got To Know How; 9) You Told Me Baby; 10) Love Has No Pride.

No attempts at tweaking the formula here, just tightening it up by hiring even better musicians, writing one more song than the last time around, and possibly playing a bit more electric guitar, too, although it is hard to guess who is playing what without the individual credits for each song, considering that no less than six different guitar players are listed in the notes. These are all just subtle nuances, though, so do not let the album cover shift (from dark living room to sunny countryside) fool you into imagining that something major has changed.

Bonnie's songwriting abilities have not improved by much — and, to tell the truth, they would never improve by much — but you still gotta admire somebody who has the gall to write a song in the near-authentic style of 1920s vaudeville (ʽGive It Up Or Let Me Goʼ) and then immediately follow it up with a song written in the near-authentic style of Carole King (ʽNothing Seems To Matterʼ — transpose that guitar melody to piano and you'd be able to sneak the song on Tapestry without anyone noticing). The third song, ʽYou Told Me Babyʼ, is written in the near-authentic style of blandly-friendly Californian blues-rock, I think, but it is really not so much a «song» as an excuse to trade some classy guitar licks between two or three guitarists in the coda.

The covers, like before, are split between forgotten golden oldies (Sippie Wallace's ʽYou Got To Know Howʼ), classic R&B (Barbara George's ʽI Knowʼ), and contemporary material, with the balance seriously tipping now in favor of the latter — not necessarily to the benefit of good taste, since there is just a tad too much sentimental melodrama here; certainly ending the record with an honest-to-goodness, but way too emotionally puffed-up ʽLove Has No Prideʼ is not a great choice compared with ʽWomen Be Wiseʼ on Bonnie Raitt. Still, at least she is still diligently splicing quotas: other than sentimental ballads, there are also tough blues-rockers (ʽLove Me Like A Manʼ) and upbeat country-rockers (Jackson Browne's ʽUnder The Falling Skyʼ), and ʽToo Long At The Fairʼ is at least one song that transcends sentimental clichés and, aided with some lush singing and a carefully engineered crescendo, rises to nearly epic heights.

But on the whole, it seems clear that Bonnie Raitt's second album predictably confirms what was already suggested by the first one — namely, that she is a competent, likable, respectable blues mama who is not afraid to dig all the way down into the roots and the original functions of the blues (one of which is just sheer entertainment), and that everything else, whether she likes it or not, comes across as more of a concession to modernity. ʽGive It Up Or Let Me Goʼ, with its self-confident swagger, jazzy flavor, and cocky slide guitar playing, is the album's best performance, the rigid 12-bar blues of ʽLove Me Like A Manʼ, which she sort of sings like a man, comes second, and Wallace's ʽYou Got To Know Howʼ, putting the final touch on Bonnie's fully solidified «wise woman» image, comes third. The more emotional and psychological she gets, though, the less use there seems to be for this music — in light mode, there's always Carole King, and in heavy (emotionally, not musically, that is), there's always Joni Mitchell.

Nevertheless, the album is consistently listenable: with so many people around and such relative­ly complex, yet seemingly spontaneous, arrangements, Give It Up generates a loose, good-time, friendly atmosphere that not many «generic» blues-rock records can offer with such ease. Addi­tionally, you get Paul Butterfield himself blowing his harmonica on a few tracks (ʽUnder The Falling Skyʼ), and some really tight brass players jazzifying the proceedings along the way. So, nothing too special in the grand scheme of things, and not even necessarily an improvement on her first try, but still well worth an empathic thumbs up, I'd say.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Bob Marley: Exodus

BOB MARLEY: EXODUS (1977)

1) Natural Mystic; 2) So Much Things To Say; 3) Guiltiness; 4) The Heathen; 5) Exodus; 6) Jamming; 7) Waiting In Vain; 8) Turn Your Lights Down Low; 9) Three Little Birds; 10) One Love / People Get Ready; 11*) Roots.

I am pretty sure that this album would have been impossible without Marley's brush-with-death experience in late 1976. With a miraculous escape like that, you start thinking, quite naturally, of all the things you have not yet completed in your life — you get an incentive to accelerate, to realize your grandest ambitions, no matter how much energy and spirit it costs you. So, perhaps Exodus is not necessarily the best Marley album lying around, as critical ratings often evaluate it (and it is even more absurd to call it «the best reggae album ever», because Exodus honestly does not give a damn about what musical style it was accidentally cast in). But it is quite clearly the «biggest» Bob Marley album, in scope and in execution; there is no use denying that the man set himself pretty high marks here, and there is no need to insist that he did not manage to hit most of them as best he could.

Exodus means Moses, and it is this album that turned Bob Marley into a modern-day Moses indeed: particularly the first side, all of which is structured like a multi-part sermon from the most esoteric depths of the Old Testament. "There's a natural mystic blowing through the air / If you listen carefully now you will hear / This could be the first trumpet / Might as well be the last". The musical backing is nothing particularly special — sparingly minimalistic, but with a neces­sarily ominous ring to the bass, and most of the overdubs (guitar, occasional brass) have been pushed way back into the mix: this helps generate the impression that the man is somewhere over there (on Mount Sinai, perhaps, receiving the latest instructions from Jah), letting you, the listener, in on his serious conversation — and the rest of the crowds are someplace down there. Waiting for the trumpets and all.

Although the first four songs are all good, in reality they all sound like honest-to-God dress re­hearsals for the title track. At 7:40, it is the longest track so far on a Wailers album, and its epic length is not accidental: most of the actual musical secrets of the groove are disclosed within the first minute already, but, like all great grooves, it is supposed to put you in a state of trance that you'd wish could last forever. The combination of stinging wah-wah guitar, that ominous bass, and the funky brass section that almost seems temporarily loaned from Sly & The Family Stone is quite worthy in itself, but it is the vocal shamanizing that pushes the whole thing over the top. Did Bob Marley truly believe that, like Moses, he could rally the people around him, leading them out of «Babylon»? (Should be «Egypt», of course, but it's all the same to them Rastas any­way). Even if he was naïve enough to believe that, the ensuing idealism, bottled in this track, still suffices to give you a spiritual jolt — maybe not strong enough to set you on the proper path of demolishing Babylon, but enough to make you go out and feed a homeless kitten or something.

The song is not even properly a «reggae» song, more like a reggaeified funk vamp, full of grim determination that is as far removed from the usually more relaxed atmosphere of reggae as pos­sible. There is one motto throughout — "move! move! move! move!" — echoing around the room like a retranslation of Jah's own command, and you can just feel that crazy, but disciplined drive urging and urging you on. The heat that is generated by the moment is on a James Brown level, but James Brown, even at his very best, was an entertainer, not a prophet, and his trance inductions could only be called «religious» figuratively, whereas ʽExodusʼ is indeed a religious musical ritual that even Moses himself could appreciate. Easily the most single powerful track of 1977, a year that was fairly ripe on powerful tracks — but no anthem from the punk or New Wave crowds could pack that much depth.

The second side of the album intentionally brings the level of tension down: not only are there some tender love songs, but even the political ones, like ʽOne Loveʼ, are delivered in a more lyrical and friendly key. There is ʽJammingʼ, which has always seemed like a fairly tame and unimpressive little ditty next to ʽExodusʼ to me — go figure why it has become so insanely popu­lar, but I guess that the majority of the population can't take it as heavy as ʽExodusʼ, and needs something lighter and catchier for their personal freedom anthem. If anything, I like ʽThree Little Birdsʼ with its nagging little keyboard riff, more than ʽJammingʼ, maybe because it is so simple and childish in every aspect of its execution that it comes out as more adequate — a simple love message for a simple song. Then again, it really makes no sense to compare.

Some people complain that Exodus is too glossy — that they like their Wailers «raw», not pre­pared carefully in the studio according to some particular technological recipe. I do not buy this accusation, and neither should anybody: by 1977, Bob Marley was anything but committed to the formulaic demands of «hardcore reggae», yet at the same time he had lost none of the fiery spirit of old — if anything, that attempt on his life only rejuvenated that spirit — and if Exodus sounds overproduced to you, well, so does Pink Floyd, and we have never found that aspect of their sound to be a problem. On the other hand, the «gloss» and all the extra overdubs really help to overcome the sometimes uncomfortable simplicity of the basic groove and push the songs to­wards masterpiece status on the strength of their atmosphere.

Listen, for instance, to ʽThe Heathenʼ and to whatever Julian Jr. Marvin, the band's new lead guitarist, is doing out there in the background, sometimes sending out small, compact thunder­balls of distortion and sometimes letting go with killer screeching blues-rock leads, and how Tyrone Downie begins his part with simplistic three-note synth phrases and then gradually buries himself in some real crazy jazz-fusion stuff. Or how Julian adds some lovely country guitar licks to ʽTurn Your Lights Down Lowʼ, a song that brings Marley dangerously close to «adult contem­porary» (or, at least, some really boring 1970s R&B) but keeps its distance because of the devotion of the nuances of the indivudual players. That may all be «gloss», but unless I am in some very special mood, I will take that gloss over Lee ʽScratchʼ Perry's minimalism any regular time of day. Deep bass groove, after all, is not the only possible way to worship Jah.

In all possible respects, Exodus is an outstanding record that goes way beyond the basic values of reggae as a musical genre and/or of Rastafarianism as a religious ideology. It is a triumph of in­spiration and active drive, a certain spiritual push-up that Marley would not be able to replicate ever again (in fact, and perhaps to his honor, he did not even try). Not the best place to come looking for hooks — Catch A Fire or Natty Dread would be more obvious choices; not the best place to understand what the hell is «reggae» supposed to mean (since, even technically, about half of this album is not really reggae); but just a great place, no doubt about it, if you're looking for a little outside aid to charge up your batteries. Exodus, movement of Jah people, the works. Major thumbs up guaranteed.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Blue Öyster Cult: Heaven Forbid

BLUE ÖYSTER CULT: HEAVEN FORBID (1998)

1) See You In Black; 2) Harvest Moon; 3) Power Underneath Despair; 4) X-Ray Eyes; 5) Hammer Back; 6) Damaged; 7) Cold Gray Light Of Dawn; 8) Real World; 9) Live For Me; 10) Still Burnin'; 11) In Thee.

Say, it's a new Blue Öyster Cult album, and perhaps I'm «damaged», but I like it. It is not really a proper «comeback» album, because, as it happens, the band never truly went away — they just stopped producing new music for a while, but the original duo of Bloom and Roeser, usually combined into the original trio with Lanier, never really split, continuing to tour on a limited scale and quietly biding their time. That time finally came in 1998, with a new record deal with the indie label CMC, and a new traditional collaboration with one of the pulp fiction guys: John Shirley, specializing in cyberpunk sci-fi and other stuff that I have little interest in. I do have some interest in moderately successful career rejuvenations by oldies' acts, though, and Heaven Forbid, while certainly and predictably not on the scale of BÖC's classics, passes the test — as surprising as that is.

First and foremost, it sounds good, and that is what counts. Almost no synthesizers (gone are they together with the Eighties); healthy, grumbly, nicely distorted heavy metal tones, occasionally lapsing into pop metal style, but usually reminiscent of the band's classic sound; great drumming from Chuck Burgi; unspoiled powerhouse vocals from Bloom — I have not a single complaint about how the record has been produced. In fact, come to think of it, they haven't sounded that well since at least Fire Of Unknown Origin... hmm, perhaps even earlier. Okay, so perhaps the iron Teutonic grip of ʽHammer Backʼ pushes them a little farther into Accept territory than us conservatives would have desired, but they understand how to handle this approach, and make the song kick as much primal ass as any Accept clone would.

The songs — that's a different matter. The songs are not too memorable, and it would have been a total wonder if they were. It's not that there aren't any hooks: it's simply one of those records that may enthrall while it's on, and then quickly evaporate when it's off. But that in itself is already a sign of some progress. And then there is at least one song here that is totally on par with the clas­sics: ʽCold Gray Light Of Dawnʼ, a grim, dusty slab of doom-laden-rock, burns with terrifying implied threats as properly as anything they'd done earlier. The "you can't hide the truth, hide the truth anymore" bit at the end of the chorus hits hard, as does Buck Dharma's soloing throughout. I sure wish they'd re-record some of the Imaginos material in the same style.

A couple other songs seem to have been written by Roeser in «heartfelt» mood as well, and I think that ʽHarvest Moonʼ and ʽLive For Meʼ, reflecting Buck Dharma's trademark «heavy lyri­cal» style, both have potential; at the very least, there is no denying a certain mournful nostalgic pull of ʽHarvest Moonʼ, whose verses, with Roeser recounting the imaginary losses borne by all sorts of people, are actually emotionally superior to the chorus. Then again, I guess that, as Buck Dharma grows older, his little death-and-misery fetish must only get stronger and stronger. So more songs about famine, devastation, and nuclear fallout, please.

As for such simpler, less moody, more directly hard-rocking tracks as ʽSee You In Blackʼ, ʽPower Underneath Despairʼ, ʽDamagedʼ — well, they're okay. Catchy choruses, not too catchy riffs, and an atmosphere that never gets too out of bounds ("I'm damaged, and I like it, I live for rock'n'roll" is as close as they come to «campy» here, but it's not that bad when it's taken at such a fast tempo and with such a cocky-funky attitude). Nothing to go bananas over, but nothing to seriously complain about, either.

There is some playing around with their own legacy here that we could all do without — for instance, there was no need to name one of the songs ʽStill Burnin'ʼ, as it is not even stylistically similar to ʽBurning For Youʼ (it actually sounds more like a Van Halen tribute), and the decision to finish the record on a live acoustic performance of ʽIn Theeʼ is a dubious one: it's a nice per­formance, but gestures like these inevitably bring on associations with creative burnout — all the more surprising since, on the whole, Heaven Forbid shows that the band, on the contrary, has somewhat picked up steam after a decade and a half of drifting around in a figurative sea of radioactive waste. But then I suppose that it is really hard to avoid the temptation to fall back upon auto-quotations when you want to remind your old fans what was it that was great about you in the first place. Even if you do stupid things in the process.

Anyway, a pleasant minor thumbs up here, and a rock-hard recommendation for the seasoned fan. Also, there are two alternate album covers for the record: the normal one features a horribly mutilated guy with a glass eye and half of his face burnt, and the ugly one features Morgan Fair­child following printed instructions on how to probe her patellar reflexes with a steel-cast female gender symbol (or so I read). Thank you, Blue Öyster Cult, for proving in such an innovative manner that «freedom of choice» remains more than an empty idiom in 1998.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Bears: Eureka!

THE BEARS: EUREKA! (2007)

1) Zelda Fitzgerald; 2) Veneer; 3) On; 4) Troubled Beauty; 5) Normal; 6) We Never Close; 7) Think; 8) Keep Your Own Counsel; 9) Idiot In The Sky; 10) Doodle; 11) Comin' Round The Mountain.

This must be some sort of tradition for The Bears now — alternate the release of one really fun pop album with the subsequent release of a really lacklustre one. You'd think that in between the six years that separate Eureka! from Car Caught Fire, the band members would have had the strength to come up with another fine batch of tunes — instead, what you get is about thirty minutes worth of something seriously undercooked, unmemorable, and just plain boring.

I have no idea what happened, but these ten songs (eleven, if you count the pretty, but fully dispensable cover of ʽComin' Round The Mountainʼ) do not move me in the least. The band is still there in its proper incarnation, with all four members dutifully supplying more or less equal shares of songs as they did on Car Caught Fire, but they are really boring, and I do mean really. This time, it all sounds like one of those yawn-inducing moralistic records by the Barenaked Ladies — every single song. Even Belew's three songs are generally subpar: ʽDoodleʼ has some funny falsetto harmonies, but is melodically repetitive, just a lazy vamp on a single jumpy-jerky distorted riff, and the other two sound like outtakes from some uninspired King Crimson session.

Most importantly, it's as if the fun factor was never there in the first place. This is serious-faced «intellectual pop» with a social / environmental message, mostly, but if it's intellectual, then where is the intellectual wish to come up with something new? For each of these songs, there are two or three Bears songs alone that say the same thing, let alone the output of other artists, and say it with more verve and energy. Eureka!? Really? As far as I understand, the exclamation that adequately conveys the atmosphere of the record is Oh, Shhhiiii...

It's not too tasteless or anything — it's vintage Bears, featuring all their trademarks, just none of their spontaneous wit and charm. In such situations, it is very hard to even begin to explain why one record is good and another one is bad, and I am not sure it is worth my time to really strain myself over the issue, so you'll have to just take my word on this. If you like The Bears for their overall style, you will probably want to disagree with me — if you are relatively indifferent to­wards their style, but care about their hooks, you probably won't. It is objectively telling, though, that (a) this record is so very short (so, obviously, they did not have too many ideas when they got together in 2007) and (b) the Bears have not reconvened ever since, even after Belew had finally been fired from King Crimson and gained as much free time on his hands as possible. After all, funny friendly lightning did strike twice on their behalf already, but now it seems like the game is finally over. No hard feelings whatsoever, but a thumbs down all the same.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Blur: Parklife

BLUR: PARKLIFE (1994)

1) Girls And Boys; 2) Tracy Jacks; 3) End Of A Century; 4) Parklife; 5) Bank Holiday; 6) Badhead; 7) The Debt Collector; 8) Far Out; 9) To The End; 10) London Loves; 11) Trouble In The Message Centre; 12) Clover Over Dover; 13) Magic America; 14) Jubilee; 15) This Is A Low; 16) Lot 105.

Probably the closest thing to a «definitive Britpop manifesto» to have gone down in history as such — although one wonders just how much that reputation is due to the now-classic image of the two greyhounds on the front sleeve. Speaking strictly in melodic terms, Parklife offers little progress beyond the earlier established style: the band takes most of its structural cues from the Beatles and the Kinks circa 1966-67, slightly bending them to reflect some echoes of the punk and New Wave era, improving upon the production and taking serious care that the lyrics con­form to modern, not retro, values. But the good news is that the killer hooks keep coming — and that the band itself thinks that they have something important to say with these hooks.

«Keep it simple, but not stupid» is the now-established motto, and there ain't a single Blur track on which it would work better than on ʽGirls And Boysʼ — probably the definitive Blur song in that it will be impossible to forget it once you've heard it, just once. The nagging two-note synth pattern which completely dominates the song is a perfect sense irritator, as is the robotic chorus (for better effect, all of it should be sung in one breath, which is quite a feat, and in perfect Mock­ney, without which it would lose much of the effect): part of your brain will tend to dismiss the song as an exercise in idiocy, part of it will bend towards its inherent catchiness, and still another part will perceive the thinly veiled irony, as Blur declare themselves supreme rulers of the hip young crowds of London and send up so many of these crowds' values at the same time, most importantly, the whole concept of sexual freedom in the New Age of Man.

Then the cynicism gets even hotter on the title track, whose melody goes around in simple, steady, repe­titive circles, just like the figurative park stroller whose casual life is described by the (mostly spoken, provided by actor Phil Daniels) lyrics — note that not a single phrase or word directly condemns or ridicules «parklife», but Daniels' rather comical, puffed-up attitude, and the song's musical impersonation of «simplistic arrogance» make it hard to perceive ʽParklifeʼ as some sort of positive anthem. Rather, it is one of those «deceitful» songs where you make a chorus so catchy, it is impossible for your stadium audience not to sing it as an anthem: "all the people, so many people, they all go hand in hand through their parklife" — nice words, right? But there is not-so-deeply-hidden contempt here, in that chorus, going all the way back to the jolly old tradi­tion of character assassination by Ray Davies (ʽDedicated Follower Of Fashionʼ, etc.).

This formula — a simple, effective guitar melody based on «toughly-popped» chords, spiced up with some sprinkly electronics and an imminent vocal hook in the chorus, and paired with sar­castic situation-observing lyrics — describes approximately half of the songs on the album; to the two big hit singles above add also ʽTracy Jacksʼ, ʽLondon Lovesʼ, ʽMagic Americaʼ (the latter pokes fun at Americaphilia rather than America itself), ʽJubileeʼ, and even the instrumental ʽDebt Collectorʼ, whose bourgeois-gallant waltzing gets a wholly unusual interpretation when you view it in the context of its title. In each of these songs, behind the «modern English cool» façade there is thoughtful, insightful content — and the musical arrangements are complex enough to prevent the possibility of boredom (keyboards, vocal harmonies, special effects): this is electric guitar-based pop rock, yes, but Blur sell their songs as complete multi-layered packages, not as bare-bones ideas fueled only by sheer enthusiasm and arrogance.

However, the songs that carefully lead Parklife over the threshold that separates «simply cool» records from «great» ones are those that add a slight lyrical touch — most importantly, ʽEnd Of A Centuryʼ, ʽTo The Endʼ, and ʽThis Is A Lowʼ, situated respectively near the beginning, middle, and end of the album and giving it three major «pivots» around which revolves all the snappy coolness. ʽEnd Of A Centuryʼ, in particular, is one of my absolute favorites — the greatest, pro­bably, of all of Blur's «compassionate» songs, an ode to all the bored and lonely people that once again honors the Kinks with its ʽWaterloo Sunsetʼ-ish harmonies and melancholic horn solos, and really cuts all the way down to the heart. ʽTo The Endʼ, on the contrary, dips into the influence pool of French pop (the band even involves Laetitia Sadier of Stereolab to sing in her native language), sounding not unlike something out of the soundtrack of Un homme et une femme, although still infected a bit too much with Blur's usual energy.

Finally, ʽThis Is A Lowʼ ends the album on a note that is as far removed from the opening sneer of ʽGirls And Boysʼ as possible — here, Blur plunge into full-scale psychedelic mode, yielding something deep, multi-layered, loud and screechy one moment and soothing the next moment, a song that is more Pink Floyd than Beatles or Kinks; a good example of a situation where «The British» and «The Astral» merge together in one cohesive whole, reminiscent indeed of Syd Barrett, but with its own Nineties' face.

There is no need to religiously adore Parklife or overrate it as the harbinger of the «Britpop re­volution» — at its core, it is really very unpretentious, just a humble tribute to the original Brit­pop, but paid by a bunch of really talented guys who, somehow, while essentially wishing to follow, must have found out, to their own surprise, that they were now in the lead. Which is, really, a pretty damn good situation in terms of creativity, and especially in terms of how well these records stand over time. In 1994, it was unclear whether Parklife would just represent a fad, but twenty years later, it sounds as fun and as fresh as if it were released only yesterday. In fact, I'd bet you anything that at least two or three records like Parklife were probably released yester­day (and the day before yesterday, and the day before that...), because Parklife has not lost its appeal or relevance in the least, and everything that has not lost its appeal or relevance gets cloned on a continuous basis these days, doesn't it? Major thumbs up.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Blondie: Autoamerican

BLONDIE: AUTOAMERICAN (1980)

1) Europa; 2) Live It Up; 3) Here's Looking At You; 4) The Tide Is High; 5) Angels On The Balcony; 6) Go Through It; 7) Do The Dark; 8) Rapture; 9) Faces; 10) T-Birds; 11) Walk Like Me; 12) Follow Me; 13*) Call Me; 14*) Suzy & Jeffrey.

Despite selling even stronger than Eat To The Beat and yielding at least one more iconic Blondie single in ʽRaptureʼ, the band's fifth album was greeted rather coldly by the press — and, in retrospect, seems to have acquired a rather suspicious reputation. Scan the average bunch of people's reactions on the Internet and, even without hearing the album, you will put together a clear picture: on Autoamerican, Blondie try to bite off more than they can chew, going off in a million different directions, but writing dull, bland songs in each one. The fun is gone, replaced by pretense and ambition. This is not the Blondie we used to know and like.

Indeed, it does seem as if something had happened. Judgemental statements aside, Autoamerican is a total downer of an album — in the place of exuberance, arrogance, bright humor, and de­layed-teenage happiness (some of which was still in evidence on Eat To The Beat) comes a record whose brief moments of fun-fun-fun are so brief indeed, they almost seem like ironic auto-send-ups in the overall context. They say sometimes that one of the album's pervasive subjects is cars (the title, the spoken bits in ʽEuropaʼ, ʽT-Birdsʼ, the eating cars bit in ʽRaptureʼ), but that looks more like a coincidence to me. What is really pervasive is an overall sense of gloom; not panick or depression as such, more like a dark, disturbing premonition of some hard times to come. If there is one title here that is better suited for the choice of album title, it is ʽDo The Darkʼ — much more telling than Autoamerican, which really says nothing.

Looking at the record this way, as a sort of «Blondie gets sick» signal, is much better than just coming to it in search of another bunch of stellar pop tunes à la ʽDreamingʼ or ʽOne Way Or Anotherʼ. Diversity, as such, has never been this band's enemy: they were exploring different musical styles as early as in 1976, and if there is a little more experimentation here than usual, why should that be a problem? ʽEuropaʼ, the odd neo-classical instrumental that opens the album, will never be deemed a self-standing masterpiece, but it isn't meant to — it simply provides a suitably moody grand opening for the record. In the short run, it was a miscalculation to place it right at the start: after ʽHangin' On The Telephoneʼ and ʽDreamingʼ as classic upbeat openings, people were certainly not prepared to encounter those morose, slightly dissonant strings and that Pink Floydian guitar riff. But today, we are prepared.

The album's centerpiece is ʽRaptureʼ, which we all know, of course, as (a) one of the first exam­ples of rapping recorded by a white artist and (b) that song about the man from Mars who keeps on eating cars and when he's through with cars he's eating bars. What sometimes escapes our attention is the inherent bitterness in the song — no signs of delight or giddiness or happiness, and a lot of mock-irony that actually overwhelms and downplays the absurdity of the rapped lyrics. The song does not celebrate club life; its robotic pulsation and somnambulant vocals play up its dehumanizing aspects rather than anything else. ʽAtomicʼ — now that was a happy disco song. ʽRaptureʼ is dark, creepy, and much closer in spirit to ʽMidnight Ramblerʼ (come to think of it, the man from Mars might just be a different incarnation of the midnight rambler); and when Debbie seductively croons out "...in raaaaaptuuure..." at the end of the sung part, she really truly sounds like an angel. The death angel, that is.

Speaking of angels, ʽAngels On The Balconyʼ, written by Destri, may actually be the best song on the album — another gloomy, smoky pop song that tries to become more cheerful in the bridge section ("they can still see him singing on the corner...") but fails. Empty theater, after­glow, cold outside, fading memories, ghostly lowered voice, cold backing synthesizers, more Bauhaus than Blondie, but with much more «natural» production. The moderately fast tempo and powerful in-between-verse riff suggest that life is still going on, but there's no getting away from past shadows and closet skeletons, want it or not.

Even when they go retro-all-the-way on our asses and toss off a light, 1920s-influenced vaude­ville number (ʽHere's Looking At Youʼ), catchy as heck and almost hilariously authentically arranged, its mood and tone are still bitter (it's in the «drowning one's disillusionment and per­sonal grudges in a liquor glass» style of delivery). And then there is the gloomy danceable ʽLive It Upʼ ("your old lover's lying in the gutter"), the gloomy danceable ʽDo The Darkʼ (actually, it is one of the happiest songs on the album — using its darkness-evoking lyrics and snake-charming synth lines to titillate rather than to spook), the midnight jazz balladry of ʽFacesʼ, all drenched in some tragic nostalgia... need I continue?

Against this background, ʽThe Tide Is Highʼ, a cover of an old ska tune by The Paragons (here given a far more lush arrangement that almost turns it into a mariachi band tune), sticks out like a sore thumb. Since the people still loved their Blondie when she was happy much more than when she was feeling like shit, they had no problem pushing it all the way up to No. 1 (and, perhaps, subconsciously they were aided by the chorus line "I'm gonna be your number one" as well?), but it is not at all indicative of the overall atmosphere of the record. It's just that they needed a hit, and Mike Chapman obviously felt that the only surefire hit by Blondie is a happy hit, so here it is. It's a jolly good cover, too, but these days it feels a bit... slight, perhaps, against the general heavy weight of the record.

On the whole, I would go as far as agreeing that Autoamerican represents «the beginning of the end». This is an evolved band, one that has already tasted its best taste of happiness and success and is now embracing «post-maturity». This gloomy style does not come to them as naturally as the giddy style of their early records, but it isn't faked, either. The songwriting is kinda limp in places (ʽWalk Like Meʼ, for instance, sounds like a lifeless shadow of their once brashly arrogant approach), but more than half of the record is still comprised of great tunes — also, if you get the reissued remastered version, ʽCall Meʼ, the band's biggest hit single, is on there as well, one of the grandest songs of the disco-rock era, though, like all such specially commandeered songs (for the soundtrack of American Gigolo, in this case), it is rather faceless, though undeniably catchy. In any case, unlike the original band's last album, Autoamerican, whether you like it or not, is an integral and necessary-to-know part of the band's legacy. Personally, I am quite partial to its disgruntled spirit, and have no problem with a strong thumbs up rating — it's not my fault, and, come to think of it, it's not even their fault that somebody would categorically refuse to accept them in any mode other than «power pop», which this record does not even try to be.