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Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Carpenters: A Song For You

CARPENTERS: A SONG FOR YOU (1972)

1) A Song For You; 2) Top Of The World; 3) Hurting Each Other; 4) It's Going To Take Some Time; 5) Goodbye To Love; 6) Intermission; 7) Bless The Beasts And Children; 8) Flat Baroque; 9) Piano Picker; 10) I Won't Last A Day Without You; 11) Crystal Lullaby; 12) Road Ode; 13) A Song For You (reprise).

My original review of this album was surprisingly cruel — or perhaps I did get mellow as time goes by, after all? Not sure how it happened, but now that I am giving A Song For You another chance, it is not clear even to myself how a Carpenters record without a single Bacharach tune on it, but with at least one Leon Russell and one Carole King original, could get such a low assess­ment. Of course, it is just another Carpenters album, which means there is no escaping mushy fluff at times, but it does host some of the duo's loveliest moments as well; released at the height of the soft-rock era, it is almost inevitably infected by a certain psychological subtlety that was omnipresent in 1970-72, and then, as the formula became a formula, pretty much evaporated from the spirit of long-haired dudes and dudettes with acoustic guitars and pianos.

A whoppin' half of the songs from here were released as singles (most of them high-charting ones), but, funny enough, not the title track — the most serious and solid composition on here, and another great vehicle for Karen to apply her talent. Like ʽSuperstarʼ, the song clearly must have meant much more to its composer and original singer than to Karen Carpenter, but she does a fine job adapting it to a womanly perspective, and she is believable when she sings "I've been so many places in my life and time", even though most of these places were in Connecticut and California. Heck, she even sounds believable when she sings "I've made some bad rhymes", even though she hadn't made any rhymes. The important thing is, she gets this message of repentance and redemption through pure love across in a clean, accessible, and realistic manner, without underdoing it or overdoing it — perfect phrasing all way 'round. The moody sax solo, lacking in Leon's stripped-down piano version, complements her appropriately.

The biggest hit was ʽTop Of The Worldʼ, featuring the duo in their countriest mood yet, with Nashville pro Buddy Emmons on pedal steel and Karen probably sporting her jauntiest cowgirl hat in the studio. The original intention was to use this Richard original as a (filler?) track on the album, but they changed their minds after Lynn Anderson had a hit with the song on the country charts — surprisingly, general pop audiences were only too happy to snap it up with Karen on vocals, perhaps seeing her presence as an excuse to satisfy their internalized country fetish. There is not a lot of space in this happy country romp for Karen's brooding melancholia, but she does at least as good a job with it as Lynn Anderson, sounding slightly more serious and stately in her own way. But on the whole, it is probably good that they did not latch on to this success and make a complete transition to country(-pop): pledging allegiance to cotton fields and rodeos would have ruined the last shreds of their credibility.

Of the other singles, ʽIt's Going To Take Some Timeʼ is nice, but completely unnecessary, since it is all but impossible for Karen to improve on Carole King's personal delivery (cute flute solo, though); the theme song for Stanley Kramer's Bless The Beasts And Children is lush, formless schlock, with the likes of which Karen can do very little; and the cover of Ruby & The Roman­tics' ʽHurting Each Otherʼ is too pompous and overblown to truly make one feel sorry for its protagonists. On the other hand, the obligatory Nichols/Williams contribution ʽI Won't Last A Day Without Youʼ has the catchiest chorus of 'em all; and ʽGoodbye To Loveʼ seems to be one of the finest songs Richard ever wrote — an elegantly flowing proto-ABBA ballad with a couple of brilliant fuzz guitar solos by guest star Tony Peluso; apparently, those solos were the reason that (a) some adult contempo­rary radio stations refused to play the song because of its «hard rock» content, and (b) some critics name it as the first, or at least the prototypical, «power ballad». Both points are fairly ridiculous (no ballad with Karen on vocals can be a true «power» ballad, because her strength is in subtlety, not power), but the solos are truly good, working as faithful outlets for burning emotion that is only subtly hinted at in the vocals.

In addition to the romantic elegance and the slushy schlock, the album features bits of unneces­sary silliness (ʽIntermissionʼ — "we'll be right back after we go to the bathroom"; its chief purpose is not so much to let us know that Carpenters can harmonize like the Beach Boys as it is to let us know that Carpenters, like regular mortals, are endowed with urinary tracts) and goofi­ness (the Richard-dominated interlude ʽFlat Baroque / Piano Pickerʼ, an educated musical joke that probably needs somebody like Saturday Night Live-era Bill Murray to make it work), but they are short, and sometimes they almost seem necessary to cut through some of the schlock. On the whole, though, the tone of A Song For You is set by the spiritually heavy title track — re­prised at the end so the framework could be complete — and despite the goofiness and the happy tunes like ʽTop Of The Worldʼ, most of the time the album wades through sorrow and melancho­lia, culminating with ʽRoad Odeʼ, not the best song here but certainly the most depressed one. Naturally, simply being sad and depressed all or most of the time does not necessarily make for a great album, but this is the best possible state for Karen as a performer, and from that point of view, A Song For You is one of the band's most adequate and well-rounded records, though, clearly, not at all free from poor musical choices and fluffy soapiness. At least ʽA Song For Youʼ, ʽGoodbye To Loveʼ, and maybe even ʽTop Of The Worldʼ, for a happy change, should clearly make it to that top-notch compilation — the rest is up to you.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Cat Stevens: Buddha And The Chocolate Box

CAT STEVENS: BUDDHA AND THE CHOCOLATE BOX (1974)

1) Music; 2) Oh Very Young; 3) Sun/C79; 4) Ghost Town; 5) Jesus; 6) Ready; 7) King Of Trees; 8) A Bad Penny; 9) Home In The Sky.

Almost as if he suddenly woke up and became terrified at what 1973 did to his ego, Stevens hur­riedly backtracks — and ends up with a far more predictable, but just as problematic sequel to Catch Bull At Four. Paul Samwell-Smith is back in the producer's seat, the trusty old band with Alun Davies at the forefront is restored, and Jamaica is abandoned in favor of good old London. We are also back to the custom of weird album titles: this one, apparently, is due to Cat finding himself traveling on an airplane with a statuette of Buddha in one hand and a box of chocolates in the other, and implies being caught in a gap between the spiritual and the material. Although, it might be argued, the real Buddha would just wince back at him and ask, hey Cat, are you sure you can truly tell one from the other?

The main problem is that he got so busy telling one from the other, he hardly even noticed that he'd come out with one of his weakest albums to date. By this time, he'd graduated to Mr. Spiri­tual Incarnate, and where his records from the early 1970s could qualify as bold anti-commercial artistic statements (ironically, they sold pretty well), this record is largely a collection of sermons where the man frankly does not give a damn about anything else — be it catchy pop hooks or challenging chord sequences. He may have gone back to shorter songs, but at least the ʽForeigner Suiteʼ was not so utterly loaded with pretense as these tunes, where he comes forward as some master guru — and, let me add, without truly deserving it. In fact, this is the first record to contain Cat Stevens songs that I openly consider detestable.

Fortunately, that opinion does not concern the album's only single and Cat's last big original hit, before his commercial fortune abandoned him completely: ʽOh Very Youngʼ, sometimes called Stevens' response to ʽAmerican Pieʼ (since it also takes Buddy Holly as its pivot character), is a short and harmless acoustic ballad that implicitly suggests God might be a big fan of ʽWords Of Loveʼ (well, not exactly, but you can read the lyrics that way if you wish to). The preachiness is present here, too, but at least it has a decently written chorus; that said, I can certainly think of some better songs written by James Taylor, and that thought alone makes me shiver.

But almost everything else is simply dreadful: raw, poorly slapped together melodies that Cat tries to fatten up with ecstatic arrangements and vocal deliveries that suggest spiritual enlighten­ment, but ring hollow. ʽMusicʼ is a gospel-rock construct where Stevens tries going black once again, and the results are pitiful when viewed in context. ʽJesusʼ sounds like he's talking to the little kids again, so let us keep this one for the kindergarten hour. (As a sidenote, I will mention that the subject matter of the song — the unity of all religions — is the same as in George Harri­son's ʽLife Itselfʼ; the difference between the two is that Harrison fully redeems himself with the brilliant melodic lines in the opening thirty seconds of the song, a short, but beautiful guitar journey that is fifty times as spiritual as any of the words these guys come up with).

Worst of the lot is ʽKing Of Treesʼ, an eco-anthem that drags on for five minutes without any­thing interesting going on — the only thing that is supposed to attract attention is the tension and worry in the singer's voice as he violently and vehemently protests against cutting down trees, laying down the roads, and, I suppose, also against putting up the cozy Sound Techniques Studios where the album was recorded. Again, it is not the naïve, but admittedly sincere nature-loving lyrics that are embarrassing (although I would say that Joni Mitchell's ʽBig Yellow Taxiʼ at least has more original imagery): it is the fact — okay, the suspicion — that the song was quickly thrown together around the lyrics, not the other way around. And ultimately, all the talents of Joanne, Judy, Sunny, Ruby, Barry, Joy, Brigette, Suzanne, Jacqui, and other family-deprived singers recruited by Cat to give him gospel choir support go to waste.

I will not even try to discuss the rest of the songs. Melody-wise, even after four listens to this short collection of songs I cannot remember any of them. Lyrics-wise, they go from ecological rants to odes of salvation to condemnations of socialites (ʽA Bad Pennyʼ) that do not mean any­thing unless they are being put to good music. Perhaps the only exception is the lightweight ʽGhost Townʼ, a bit of harmonica and slide-driven country-rock used by Cat as an excuse to name some of his deceased favorites, from Chico & Harpo all the way down to Anne Boleyn. But it is clearly a throwaway, although it certainly does not offend me the way ʽKing Of Treesʼ does with its puffed-up seriousness.

Bottomline is: this time around, the man honestly does not even try. He used to fiddle about with odd combinations of folk melodies and Latin rhythms, dabble in medieval balladry, translate his verses into Latin, send cryptic messages that were a chore to decode, but here he just says to hell with it, assembles himself a gospel choir and presumes that as long as he preaches peace, love, and humility, this should be enough for anybody who is ready to follow. Well guess what? In this context, I definitely choose the chocolate box over Buddha. Thumbs down.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Champion Jack Dupree: Forever And Ever

CHAMPION JACK DUPREE: FOREVER AND EVER (1991)

1) They Gave Me Away; 2) Hometown New Orleans; 3) Skit Skat; 4) Poor Boy; 5) Forever And Ever; 6) Yella Pocahontas; 7) Third Degree; 8) Dupree Special; 9) Spoken Introduction; 10) Let's Talk It Over.

Same producer, same musicians, same studio, same artist at more or less the same age — see previous review. This one, on the whole, is slower: the only fast boogie number is ʽSkit Skatʼ, where the Champ indulges a bit in fun, but unimpressive scatting (he ain't no Ella Fitzgerald, after all), plus the wild, tribal, politically incorrect groove of ʽYella Pocahontasʼ, meshing together bits of Bo Diddley with elements of the Creole skit ʽOoh La Laʼ that he'd recorded decades ago. All the other songs are slow blues numbers, the most striking of these probably being a cover of Eddie Boyd's ʽThird Degreeʼ — alas, much as I sympathize, a cover that would be utterly des­troyed in three years by Clapton's version on From The Cradle (I do have to wonder if he'd had a chance to be inspired with this version at all, since many of the licks played here by Kenn Len­ding find faithful, but superior, equivalents in Eric's performance).

At least this time we receive our «marking time» number: ʽHometown New Orleansʼ, predictably set to the melody of ʽSweet Home Chicagoʼ, symbolizes Dupree's triumphant re-entry into his town of origin — one last time before the final kick. I only wish the accompanying musicians would have been more enthusiastic about it, instead of sounding like working for money and little else. Too bad he could not involve Dr. John, at least, since the role of the piano player was already occupied (then again, a duet between the Champ and the Doctor might have broken up the boredom quite efficiently).

Other than that, Lending's guitar skills may be appreciated finer than usually on the long opening number ʽThey Gave Me Awayʼ (really subtle, thin, fragile tone on some of these licks, though still utterly Claptonesque), and Dupree's skills as a piano player are at their best on the aptly titled ʽDupree Specialʼ, where, midway through, he launches into a couple of nimble and fun solos that are more playful than technically perfect, but playfulness is his strong spot, and even if he ain't no Artur Rubinstein at age eighty, hearing him engage in a bit of ivory silliness at a time when most of his contemporaries would be fading away in nursing homes is still heart-warming. And this, I think, is the best possible conclusion for a laconic review like this.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Yardbirds: Roger The Engineer

THE YARDBIRDS: ROGER THE ENGINEER (1966)

1) Lost Woman; 2) Over, Under, Sideways, Down; 3) The Nazz Are Blue; 4) I Can't Make Your Way; 5) Rack My Mind; 6) Farewell; 7) Hot House Of Omagarashid; 8) Jeff's Boogie; 9) He's Always There; 10) Turn Into Earth; 11) What Do You Want; 12) Ever Since The World Began; 13*) Psycho Daisies; 14*) Happenings Ten Years Time Ago.

The first Yardbirds album to be properly conceived and recorded as an album, rather than a bunch of disconnected singles, was supposed to be simply titled Yardbirds — fate, however, has deter­mined that it be forever known as Roger The Engineer, after a short clarifying scribble by Chris Dreja who wanted all the world to know that the grotesque figure on the front sleeve was Roger Cameron, the band's audio engineer. Unfortunately, as tempting as it is to imagine the album as a conceptual rock opera about the adventures of a humble studio technician in the psychedelic age, this is not to be, because The Yardbirds were simply too disjointed and confused to care about any sort of cohesiveness and conceptuality. Instead, Roger The Engineer is a total mess, retro-oriented one minute and sloppily futuristic the next one — a potential disaster turned into a glorious delight because of the presence of at least one musical genius in the group, and also because it was friggin' 1966, when «messy» and «visionary» were just two sides of the same coin.

In a decisive departure from past times, all the material here was written by the band members themselves — which, naturally, ensured that much of it was very derivative in terms of basic melody, since the creative instincts of most of The Yardbirds did not venture too far away from their R&B foundations. However, after two years of distinguished service they were capable of an occasional great riff; of cool ideas on atmospheric overdubs and psychedelic sound effects; and of projecting their eclectic experience onto LP territory, as just about every sub-genre that was explored on their 1965-66 singles is also represented on the album, from bone-crushing hard rock to sinister Gregorian chants to top-of-the-line blueswailing.

The album gets off to a solid, but inauspicious start: ʽLost Womanʼ is merely another in a stable line of their R&B rave-ups, with a noisy, but not too ecstatic crescendo in the middle and a memorable rolling bass line from Samwell-Smith. Possibly not the best way to immediately make an impression on the progress-spoiled audiences of '66 — ʽOver Under Sideways Downʼ would have made a far more efficient opener: the combination of a rousing "hey!" and a snakey Indian-inspired riff from Beck (incidentally, a similar pattern, but played already on a real sitar, can be heard on Harrison's ʽThe Inner Lightʼ two years later) sounds really novel even for The Yardbirds, as does the marriage of a catchy-bouncy pop melody in the verse with the somber Gothicness of the "when will it end?" reprise. Throw in a bunch of lyrics that deal with liberation, hedonism, and retribution, and all of a sudden, the song stands out as a laconic artistic masterpiece from both the formal and the substantial points of view.

This is the frustration and the charm of Roger The Engineer — you never know what's coming next, a predictable reenactment of some long gone glory or a dazzling futuristic twist. Sometimes both of them come within the confines of the same tune: ʽThe Nazz Are Blueʼ begins as the 5,000th rewrite of Elmore James' ʽDust My Broomʼ, but quickly turns into a playground for some provocative guitar experimentation from Beck that remains exciting to this day (ah, that sweet sustained note at 1:24! it is also interesting that Jeff takes a rare lead vocal on the song himself, something that he would very rarely follow up on in the future). Sometimes the odd twist ends up sounding stupid, at least in retrospect: the contorted Oompa-Loompish Africanisms of ʽHot House Of Omagarashidʼ, made to look even sillier by the «bubbly» effect (are we supposed to have visions of five live Yardbirds, all plucked and boiling in a steamy cauldron?), can hardly be saved even by Beck's shrill psychedelic solo.

But then you also have The Yardbirds surprisingly successfully competing with Manfred Mann in the «ironically sunshine pop» category (ʽI Can't Make Your Wayʼ, whose bounciness makes it a prime candidate for Britain's slyest pop sellout to cover); engaging in melancholic piano Brit-pop with a music hall flavor (ʽFarewellʼ); expanding the borders of heavy rock with a simple, proto-metallic descending fuzz bass riff (ʽHe's Always Thereʼ); capitalizing on the success of ʽStill I'm Sadʼ with another moody piece of Gregorian chant (ʽTurn Into Earthʼ); and pretty much inventing classic Black Sabbath with the first part of ʽEver Since The World Beganʼ: "Ever since the world began / Satan's followed every man / Trapping evil if he can / I tell you now his greatest plan" — tell me, with a straight face, that these lyrics have not been written by Geezer Butler and have not been delivered by Ozzy Osbourne. Okay, so they weren't, but that is the entire Sabbath formula, in a nutshell, over one minute, just without the heavy riffs. Come to think of it, even the unexpec­ted transition into a fast rave-up is Sabbath-like to a certain degree, considering how the bad boys of Birmingham liked to introduce boogie bits in their slow metallic drawls.

Keith Relf, predictably, remains the weakest link. Nice guy overall and a competent singer by the book, he remains incapable of injecting the songs with strong emotion or distinct personality, and this is, perhaps, the harshest blow to the potential of Roger The Engineer — it is all but impos­sible to get deeply involved in them, unless they are flat-out instrumentals (ʽJeff's Boogieʼ). But, in all fairness, this whole thing should have really been credited to «The Yardbirds Featuring Jeff Beck», or even «Jeff Beck and The Yardbirds», the same way John Mayall's Bluesbreakers were smart enough to put «With Eric Clapton» on their quintessential record from the same year — and once you have settled into accepting the vocals as largely a side accompaniment for the lead guitar, rather than vice versa, Roger The Engineer will be on the verge of slipping into the masterpiece category. Because, truly and verily, some of the most outstanding pre-Hendrix era guitar work can be found here, be it the spiralling Indian riff of ʽOver Under Sideways Downʼ, or the beastly sustain of ʽThe Nazz Are Blueʼ, or the finger-flashing arpeggios of ʽJeff's Boogieʼ, or the sick acid tone of the six-string on ʽHe's Always Thereʼ — the first, and one of the finest, full-scale demonstrations of the genius of Mr. Beck.

Whether you are buying the CD or downloading a digital copy, make sure that it is (admittedly, a rare) edition that also adds one slightly later single as a couple of bonus tracks — ʽPsycho Daisiesʼ, the B-side, is a Chuck Berry pastiche with angry garage rock guitar splattered all over it, but the real deal is ʽHappenings Ten Years Time Agoʼ, the only A-side of theirs that features dual lead playing from Beck and the freshly joined Page and remains one of the quintessential psyche­delic tracks of 1966 — in fact, the chaotic, earth-rattling solo in the middle is one of the very few instances of a typically Hendrix-like sound prior to Hendrix, although its most memorable ele­ment is probably the fussy descending guitar riff, which, to me, seems borrowed out of the Link Wray or Duane Eddy textbook, but transferred to a whole new level of intensity (those guys would probably just use the «toppling» chords as a gimmick, whereas here they are put at the skeletal center of the song).

Together with ʽShapes Of Thingsʼ, this song was The Yardbirds' best bet at becoming messiahnic prophets for their generation — with epic and ominous declarations like these, even the lack of a great lead singer was not much of a problem — but, alas, this was not to be because, so it seems to me, nobody in The Yardbirds ever had anything resembling a cohesive, transparent «vision» for the band's music. Roger The Engineer is a clear example of that — it's a mish-mash and a hodge-podge, often brilliant despite the intentions of its authors rather than according to them, or so it reads to me. Naturally, a thumbs up rating is self-evident here, but I also understand why the album never managed to become a timeless 1966 classic along the same lines as contem­porary albums by the Beatles, the Stones, the Beach Boys, or the Kinks. Fortunately, it has always enjoyed a cult status among connoisseurs, and let us keep it that way.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Anna von Hausswolff: Ceremony

ANNA VON HAUSSWOLFF: CEREMONY (2012)

1) Epitaph Of Theodor; 2) Deathbed; 3) Mountains Crave; 4) Goodbye; 5) Red Sun; 6) Epitaph Of Daniel; 7) No Body; 8) Liturgy Of Light; 9) Harmonica; 10) Ocean; 11) Sova; 12) Funeral For My Future Children; 13) Sun Rise.

Many, if not most, of the reviews of Ceremony use words like «dark», «Gothic», and «ice queen» — which is quite understandable for a record made by a Swedish femme fatale, with song titles such as ʽFuneral For My Future Childrenʼ and a grim, almost hellish photo of one part of a church organ on the front sleeve, the church organ being her primary instrument of choice for most of the songs. Now I do not know if this album is really «great» or just another minor varia­tion on the soul-seeking singer-songwriter saga, but I do know the most interesting thing about it — formally, it deserves all these epithets, and yet, at the same time, it feels totally light, lively, and, in some ways, even cheerfully optimistic to me.

It is no more «dark», in fact, than the average organ fugue or vocal cantata from J. S. Bach: just because the airwaves happen to be choked up by somber overtones from metal pipes, and the lyrics deal with issues of suffering and repentance, this does not imply glorification of the Dark on any rational level. And just because on her second album Anna von Hausswolff has expanded beyond the fiefdom of the personal into the realm of the universal does not imply that she inevitably has to sing and play about the upcoming end of the world. On the contrary, darkness is seen by her as something fairly casual, almost like an acceptable prerequisite of the light — and, as you may notice, for all the morbid imagery in the song titles ("epitaph", "deathbed", "funeral") there are a few important references to "light" and "sunrise" as well.

That this is a musical record first and foremost, and a theatrical one-woman show only in the second place, is immediately made clear by the first two tracks — ʽEpitaph Of Theodorʼ is com­pletely instrumental, and the epic ʽDeathbedʼ is only interrupted by a brief vocal interlude in the middle, so that for the first ten minutes you do not have any singing at all. According to Anna herself, she was more influenced by the drone metal scene (e. g. Earth) than her female peers in the singer-songwriting department, and it shows: ʽEpitaph Of Theodorʼ is slow, draggy, minima­listic, cherishing slowly congealing atmosphere over dynamic musical development — but if you are scared / bored shitless of drone metal for its colorless heavy guitar palette, have no fear: the church organ is a marvelous replacement, and, what's more, somehow she manages to find her own way for tuning and processing it, so the old instrument takes on a new life, reimagining itself as a synthesizer (note: sometimes she actually plays real synthesizers, and it is not always easy to distinguish one from another). Eventually, some guitars drop in, but they are not metal guitars: one of her session musicians plays a mean pedal steel that adds an element of serene, angelic beauty to the stern solemnity of the first part.

I think I like ʽEpitaph Of Danielʼ even better, though — no idea who the Theodor and the Daniel in question are here, but Daniel gets the luckier deal, with an even prettier pedal steel part: the guitarist may be a big fan of David Gilmour or it may just be a coincidence, but he has a true talent of squeezing emotion out of a limited number of notes. And in both cases, the «epitaphs» are done in excellent taste: stern, but light sorrow overridden with musical hints at The Light Eternal. There is probably not much going on here in terms of active musical innovation, but the sonic palette mixed up by Anna and her associates is fresh, and certainly among the most inspiring ones to come from the 2010s.

The obvious downside is that more or less the same palette is used throughout the entire album, and the entire album goes on for about an hour — not too surprising, considering how long some of the themes have to take in order to unwrap their whole potential. But this I can live with. For one thing, there are a few helpful diversions along the way — for instance, ʽNo Bodyʼ is two and a half minutes of sonically impressive experimentation, an industrial/avantgarde track where Anna is busy farting into the leftmost organ pipe and then catching the exhaust on the rightmost one. Or if she is not, at least it's something from that area; amusing rather than properly terrifying, but an intrigue all the same. And ʽHarmonicaʼ, with its handclap and conga rhythms accompanied by dense synth patterns, is an intrusion onto New Age / World Music turf that does not work as well as the organ-based tracks, but is competent and compatible with the rest.

For another thing, she still has a knack for occasional vocal hooks, although now they are less in the shape of catchy choruses and more in the shape of particularly sharp and beautiful phrasing, like on ʽOceanʼ, whose toppling "I take it ba-a-a-a-a-a-ack, my honor..." lines are head-spinning; or the tense, admonishing "it's written all around" resolution of the verses on ʽLithurgy Of Lightʼ; or the whoah-whoah-ing on ʽFuneral For My Future Childrenʼ, an odd hybrid between her church style and country music, with waltz tempos, a small pinch of yodeling, and a pretty happy into­nation as the lady declares her intention to "bury all my children" — actually, the song is not so much about death inevitable as it is about life eternal, hence all the subtle happiness. She's a strange one, but I admire how she manages to get through all this pretense without becoming truly annoying on the ears or offensive to the mind.

And as for the monotonousness, well, she said it herself that the whole album was to be some­what conceptual and «soundtrackish», with a common thread running through all the songs, and she was pretty right about it, too. I am not sure what kind of movie should have hosted this sound­track — something by Terrence Malick, perhaps? probably would be unwatchable — but since the entire thing has a ghostly atmosphere, let's assume that, in the end, it should be a movie about ghosts. Friendly ones, you know, those who come to you in your dreams and teach you that earthly life is only the beginning of true existence. For what it's worth, by the way, Ceremony gives the impression of being a very Christian album without a single explicit shred of Christi­anity — something that always commands my respect. Even better, I simply like it without putting too much thought in it, meaning a thumbs up from all sides of consciousness. And championing a moderately new kind of sound in 2012 ain't no slouch, either.

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Charlatans: You Cross My Path

THE CHARLATANS: YOU CROSS MY PATH (2008)

1) Oh! Vanity; 2) Bad Days; 3) Mis-Takes; 4) The Misbegotten; 5) A Day For Letting Go; 6) You Cross My Path; 7) Missing Beats; 8) My Name Is Despair; 9) Bird; 10) This Is The End; 11*) Blank Heart, Blank Mind; 12*) Set Me Free.

It is unfair to say that by the mid-2000s, the world did not need The Charlatans any more: even Simpatico, despite the fairly obvious dip in quality, still hit No. 10 on the British charts, indica­ting that the band had become fairly institutionalized, a «second-rate legend» that could, from now on, never worry about starving as long as they periodically reminded the world of their exis­tence. From that point of view, their next move towards the world was actually quite bold: You Cross My Path, their tenth studio LP, was made freely available as a digital download for a few months, before getting a physical CD release. Of course, nasty tongues said this was merely to draw some much-needed public attention to their wrinkled asses, but hey, at least it was a safer and nobler trick than drowning one of the band's members in a swimming pool or something. The album did only reach No. 39 on the charts as a result, though.

And this time, things were back to positively normal. No more fiddling around with reggae or other musical genres that The Charlatans felt uncomfortable with — You Cross My Path is just a through-and-through modern pop record, nothing less, nothing more. Distorted power-pop guitars, classic keyboards, straightforward 4/4 beats, disillusioned love lyrics, the works. The whole thing is even more simple and streamlined than Up At The Lake, since the band tends to stay away from funkiness this time around, and makes not the slightest pretense of appealing to contemporary dance crowds: you can dance to most of these tunes, but essentially this is an album to be enjoyed alone in the dark. Or, perhaps, not enjoyed, but merely taken into considera­tion, because the songs are... guess what... not very interesting.

Once again, the listener's general feel towards the record will most likely be determined by the feel towards the opening track. ʽOh! Vanityʼ tells what looks to be a personal message (using a posh-poseur interface to deal with life's troubles? something like that) to a steady beat, a modestly catchy (but very quiet) organ riff, and through Tim Burgess' usual colorless vocals. Again, this is a good song that I wish I could get more excited about, but all the standard blocks apply. Not even the weird talkbox-like keyboard solo can properly save the day: there is not a single ingre­dient here that gets the blood boiling, and Tim's singing nearly puts me to sleep.

The worst thing about it all, perhaps, is that with each passing year The Charlatans find themselves tighter and tighter in the grip of depression, and a mediocre depressing band goes far harsher on one's feelings than a mediocre cheerful one. Titles like ʽMissing Beats (Of A Genera­tion)ʼ are pretty self-explanatory, but even if Tim Burgess' mopey mix of nostalgia and disillu­sionment is technically more realistic and closer to the ground than, say, Robert Smith's end-of-the-world apocalyptic rantings, how could I prefer the former over the latter when the form in which this mix is presented is so sterile? The guitar churns out a monotonously quiet syncopated rhythm, the organ whines out the same repetitive chords, the expressionless chorus winds on and on and on, and the entire band, even if it may have written a potentially promising song, just sounds terminally bored doing it.

On the whole, the record is far more consistent than its predecessor, simply because it makes no stupid suicidal risks, but it does not have even one song of the ʽBlackened Blue Eyesʼ caliber. The only potential standout is ʽMy Name Is Despairʼ, when the band slows down, puts tons of echo on the drums and vocals, throws in a bunch of heavy piano chords, and makes a sort of tribute to Joy Division (the vocals, in particular, briefly remind me of ʽI Remember Nothingʼ). Maybe if the organ weren't so inconveniently happy-sounding, and if the vocalist were closer to Ian Curtis or Jim Morrison, it would have worked. As it is, it is only on the verge of working, lacking that special something which separates professional craft from great art.

And it is true, I cannot deny the professional craft: with decades of experience behind them and a solid sense of taste that had only very rarely let them down, The Charlatans have reached a stage here where they would be capable of effortlessly making «non-bad» records for several more decades to come. Problem is, no matter how much you listen to such records, there is very little chance that any subtle charming nuances — the only ones that make B-grade art worth returning to — are going to jump out at you and make you re-evaluate the whole thing.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Art Bears: The World As It Is Today

ART BEARS: THE WORLD AS IT IS TODAY (1981)

1) The Songs Of Investment Capital Overseas; 2) Truth; 3) Freedom; 4) (Armed) Peace; 5) Civilisation; 6) Demo­cracy; 7) The Song Of The Martyrs; 8) Law; 9) The Song Of The Monopolists; 10) The Song Of The Dignity Of Labour Under Capital; 11) Albion, Awake!.

I always found it hard to comprehend how it is that alt-left, pro-Marxist ideological attitudes so frequently go hand in hand with viciously avantgarde music (and not just music). Punk rock — no problem, this is something with which the suffering working class can identify in a matter of moments. But dissonance, atonality, weirdass time signatures, total disdain for the bourgeois attraction of a pop hook? It only really works with a thoroughly idealized concept of the «new worker», such as might have been entertained by occasional Soviet dreamers in the turbulent 1920s and never ever existed in reality. Instead, the main audience for this kind of music can only consist of relatively well-to-do middle class kids with intellectual yearnings. In between the Clash for the rebels and the Bee Gees for the rest, Art Bears, with their political agenda, never stood a real chance, not even when they pulled their act together and released a thoroughly politicized musical manifesto — right on the heels of their fling with the RIO movement, which never evolved beyond a couple of declarations and a couple of friendly get-togethers.

This is not to say, mind you, that pro-Marxist avantgarde rock has no place in art (or under the sun in general). At least in the case of this last album by Art Bears, it seems to me that ideologi­zation has played a positive role — after the somewhat sleepy Winter Songs, The World As It Is Today sounds almost demonically imbued by a new-found energy, and not just because Dag­mar Krause turns into a raging fury when rattling out Chris Cutler's lyrics, but because Fred Frith, too, seems dedicated here to producing an atmospheric masterpiece of doom, chaos, and atonal apocalypse. The result is a record that is, yet again, nowhere near as diverse or unpredictable as Hopes And Fears, but far more violent and overwhelming than Winter Songs.

Although a song title such as ʽThe Songs Of Investment Capital Overseasʼ is prone to making one giggle rather than sit up and take stern notice, the actual music is nowhere near comical — for­tunately, it is not entirely without its own warped sense of humor, but you will have to spend some time sniffing it out, in certain small corners of the musical arrangements and occasional ironic lyrical twists. As it stands upon first sight, though, the band takes its agenda very seriously, with dramatic piano chords strung together in bass-heavy phrases, waves of amplified piano resonance, and scurrying percussion creating a stormy atmosphere right from the very start — as if they really took that "overseas" aspect seriously, with visions of greedy capitalists crossing treacherous waves in sailships, their holds creaking and straining with chests of money expropri­ated from exploited workers.

Starting from the second track, the song titles get shorter and seem to be aimed at dismantling the propagandist lies behind such concepts as ʽTruthʼ, ʽFreedomʼ, ʽPeaceʼ, ʽCivilisationʼ, ʽLawʼ, and ʽDemocracyʼ. Once again, Krause plays the role of the Sibyl, but this time, a very mad, eccentric Sibyl, who might even resort to long periods of screeching like Yoko Ono's twin sister (ʽFree­domʼ — fortunately, her voice is a little lower than Yoko's) if it helps her get her point across. At the same time, Fred Frith is chopping down the pillars of Western civilization with his threate­ning soundscapes, three key elements of which are the bass section of the keyboard, screechy avantgarde violin playing, and guitar feedback. On ʽDemocracyʼ, in particular, the band raises the biggest ruckus up to date, despite the track being very short: first, we quickly learn that demo­cracy, according to Cutler's words and Krause's dramatic declaration of them, is a venom of scorpions bred from the bodies of a lion and a snake who killed each other, and then, in confir­mation of the judgement, a minute and a half of a musical tempest that pretty much equates democracy with anarchy... except these guys are supposed to love anarchy.

Despite my somewhat ironic assessment of the contents (you guessed, right?), there are plenty of fascinating musical ideas here, especially when the songs pick up steam, which they do quite often: ʽThe Song Of The Martyrsʼ, for instance, has a ferocious bassline accompanying the mes­sage of "things seem worse than ever", and ʽLawʼ is a brief funny snippet of avant-vaudeville, delivering its message in less than a minute's time and in the most hooliganish terms available to anybody with a loud set of pipes and a piano. ʽThe Song Of The Dignity Of Labour Under Capi­talʼ is a hilarious deconstruction of a stereotypical «worker song», culminating in a fulminous battle of two out-of-tune pianos — almost enough to get me thinking that, perhaps, they can't really be too serious about all this. And, according to Cutler, the original lyrics to ʽAlbion Awake!ʼ were so violent that even Krause refused to sing them (eat your heart out, Sex Pistols!), leaving the song as an instrumen­tal cobweb of aggressive, but minimalistic keyboard parts, a more appropriate title for which should have been ʽEverything Is Brokenʼ.

That said, I am not altogether sure that I want to equate the positive effect of this album with the one of Hopes And Fears. In spite of the band's best efforts, the blunt political framework gives the whole thing a comic flavor — sometimes intentional, sometimes not — and the theatrical power of the work is undermined by this confusion. If it is serious, why is it all so over the top? If it is ironic, why is there such an atmosphere of seriousness? At times I begin to suspect that, perhaps, all of this album and not just its last track would have worked better if it were purely instrumental (and note: this has nothing to do with the anti-establishment / revolutionary nature of the lyrics, and everything to do with the ways they are integrated into the music). As it is, this forced marriage of political radicalism and avantgarde musical exploration now seems dated... heck, it must have probably seemed dated even way back in 1981 (didn't Jefferson Airplane, after all, try to do something similar in their Volunteers phase?).

It is unlikely that Art Bears split up due to creative differences — the project was never intended to become a long-term one in the first place — but it might be argued that The World As It Is Today, with its rigid political agenda in danger of overriding the music, got them cornered, and splitting up was the best way to get out of this place. Whatever be, I am not putting the album down: as I said, it can be musically fascinating right down to the point of kicking first-rate avant­garde ass, and the concept as such is at least amusing, if not exactly intriguing. But even so, and even against the potential arguments of the band's hardcore fans, I would insist that it promotes a more close-minded understanding of avantgardism than Hopes And Fears, a record that (per­haps incidentally — but who cares?) was much less afraid to weave together the challenging and the conventional, whereas The World As It Is Today, with its decisive lack of compromise, is not only less enjoyable, but even ends up making less sense.