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Tuesday, April 7, 2020

A Silver Mt. Zion: He Has Left Us Alone But Shafts Of Light Sometimes Grace The Corner Of Our Rooms...

A SILVER MT. ZION: HE HAS LEFT US ALONE BUT SHAFTS OF LIGHT SOMETIMES GRACE THE CORNER OF OUR ROOMS... (2000)

1) Broken Chords Can Sing A Little; 2) Sit In The Middle Of Three Galloping Dogs; 3)  Stumble Then Rise On Some Awkward Morning; 4) Movie (Never Made); 5) 13 Angels Standing Guard ʼround The Side Of Your Bed; 6) Long March Rocket Or Doomed Airliner; 7) Blown-Out Joy From Heavenʼs Mercied Hole; 8) For Wanda.

General verdict: GY!BE-lite for those who cannot or will not emotionally afford a symphony of a thousand — actually, a pretty viable alternative.

Not everybody knows that in between themselves and their various friends and relations, GY!BE have had approximately fifteen billion musical side projects going on over the past twenty years, in all sorts of imaginable and unimaginable configurations. Many of these projects existed solely for the purposes of being able to put out records with titles even longer than those of the regular GY!BE, but some actually had agendas of their own, and it would be irresponsible to just brush all this stuff off without listening. However, seeking them out one by one, and diligently reviewing all of them would take an extra lifetime, so I am going to focus on just a few which were arguably more important than others — those involving the bandʼs founding fathers and representing significant artistic variations while still preserving the base musical philosophy of GY!BE itself. And those which at least have Wikipedia pages of their own or something like that, because I donʼt really take pride in digging deeper than everybody else.

The first, and arguably the most important, of these side projects was A Silver Mt. Zion, later to be known as The (or Thee) Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra (plus or minus Tra-La-La Band), since it was led personally by Efrim Menuck, and the first lineup of this new band consisted of Menuck, GY!BE bassist Thierry Amar, and GY!BE violinist Sophie Trudeau, with just a few additional musicians on a handful of tracks. Menuck founded the band so he could test out ideas that would allegedly be unsuitable for the GY!BE format — essentially, I believe, he wanted to spend some time working in a more minimalistic, chamber-like environment, without all the monumentality of proverbial GY!BE crescendos.

At the same time, even the title of Silver Mt. Zionʼs first album is sufficient to understand that the basic vibe of this music would remain relatively unchanged. If anything, it is even closer to GY!BEʼs early beginnings (ʽThe Dead Flag Bluesʼ, etc.) than Lift Your Skinny Fists — more of that quietly mournful post-apocalyptic music frozen in a no-longer-inhabited world of dust and ashes, rather than the epic create-and-destroy-and-create-again musical waves of GY!BE at their orchestral peak. The pompousness of the albumʼs title is ever so slightly deflated upon learning that the record was dedicated by Menuck to the memory of his dog, recently deceased from cancer, but only very slightly — after all, Dog is God, isnʼt it? In addition, Menuck has stated that the record was supposed to have a specifically Judaistic feel, which, I think, stems more from the overall by-the-rivers-of-Babylon mournful vibe rather than from specific music elements, but then I am not the best connoisseur of Jewish religious music in the world, and I can only swear by my intuition that the music here is far more reminiscent of Góreckiʼs Third than any Jewish laments Iʼve ever heard. Not that it really matters.

The record itself is pretty good, though not quite the devastating tragic masterpiece as initially suggested by its musical themes. Menuck himself does not play that much guitar on it; instead, he embraces the piano, and most of the tracks are essentially a dialog between his modernistic / minimalistic piano playing and Sophie Trudeauʼs equally minimalistic violin lamentations, sometimes joined by Amarʼs sparse, jazzy bass plucking. Only one track feels like a slightly alleviated take on the classic GY!BE vibe — ʽSit In The Middle Of Three Galloping Dogsʼ, with Aidan Girt providing drum reinforcements, is the closest they come here to an actual GY!BE crescendo, though most of the crescendo effects are only provided by Girt himself and by Sophieʼs complex violin overdubs.

Judging the quality of the individual tracks is hard, and perhaps should be a better job for those with a heavy interest in contemporary classical music; my vague opinion is that the Menuck-Trudeau collaboration is competent and generates genuine serious atmosphere, but most of the tracks end up rather interchangeable, and the entire album works great as a mood-setter on a gray and depressing morning, with endless slow rain turning the ground to mush in front of your window, but not so great as a collection of individually memorable tracks with outstanding musical themes. At the very least, something like that see-sawing violin rhythm rocking the boat on ʽSit In The Middleʼ is more like a sad lullaby than a mind-blower of ʽStormʼ or ʽSleepʼ caliber, if you know what I mean.

Two quite unusual tracks, however, are sandwiched in the middle. ʽMovie (Never Made)ʼ is a rare example of a lyrical rant, delivered by Menuck to a quiet piano and bass musical background (no violin this time, or it would have drowned out his message) — itʼs not every day that you get to hear the guy singing, and maybe it is a good thing, because he sounds just like a generically over-emotive indie kid, but it is still interesting to hear him deliver his cryptic lyrics which go from Jewish references (dancing the horah on Mount Zion) to creepy visions of revolutionary violence ("letʼs televise and broadcast the raping of kings").

Essentially it still functions as merely a verbal introduction to the albumʼs centerpiece, ʽ13 Angels Standing Guard ʼRound The Side Of Your Bedʼ — regardless of whether you like or hate it, it is most certainly the one track here that you will not soon forget. Built around a rhythm track of treated vocal samples, it builds up in intensity with the gradual addition of Trudeauʼs violin overdubs, but the main focus is always on those wispy sighs and moans, with a «lead vocal» that rises in pitch from «angelese» to «chipmunkese» and, depending on your perspective, will come across as either ultra-heavenly or thoroughly ridiculous, the best thing about it being that you can shift your perspective any time, like in an optical illusion. I guess we could technically define the compositionʼs genre as «New Age», but with particularly strong emphasis on «New», because it will wreak havoc on your eardrums rather than placate them like a well-behaved New Age track by the likes of Enya typically should.

The rest of the album is nowhere near as experimental, because, as I have already said, most of these tricks you have already experienced on early GY!BE records. Still, I am a big admirer of Sophie Trudeauʼs violin work on the whole, and the record went down really easy on me — I certainly get the point of segregating a «mini-GY!BE vibe» from the pack, and I also appreciate that they settled for a relatively brief running time (a more minimalistic approach, after all, does require a more minimalistic presence in the spacetime continuum as well) — 47 minutes is just the right time to spare on a solitary cosmic lament about the end of the world as we know it. 

Sunday, April 5, 2020

David Byrne: American Utopia

DAVID BYRNE: AMERICAN UTOPIA (2018)

1) I Dance Like This; 2) Gasoline And Dirty Sheets; 3) Every Day Is A Miracle; 4) Dogʼs Mind; 5) This Is That; 6) Itʼs Not Dark Up Here; 7) Bullet; 8) Doing The Right Thing; 9) Everybodyʼs Coming To My House; 10) Here.

General verdict: A record that is supposed to make you feel happy, but instead makes you feel confused... and this would have been a compliment in 1979, but not in 2018.


David Byrne has been so active and so much around in the first two decades of the 21st century that it is actually surprising to realize that American Utopia is his first proper solo album of new material in fourteen years — everything since Grown Backwards has been either soundtracks, or collaborations, or guest appearances. Even on this album, most of the songs are co-credited to David and Brian Eno (two to David and electronic artist Daniel Lopatin), but at least the album as a whole is not attributed to the two of them, which is understandable, since American Utopia is very much Byrne in spirit and relatively little Eno.

One of the reasons is that, as the years go by, David seems less and less interested in making «pure» music and is more and more slipping into the Wagnerian spirit of Gesamtkunstwerk, something that had already become fully manifested in the era of Stop Making Sense and True Stories and has now become the norm for the man — American Utopia was announced as part of a much larger multi-media project called Reasons To Be Cheerful (title borrowed from Ian Dury) and was very quickly transformed into a Broadway musical that had itself a nice little run from late 2019 to early 2020, shutting down right in time for the COVID-19 disaster. Speaking of which, the album should play right up 2020ʼs general alley — allegedly it is all about staying cheerful and optimistic in the face of terrible odds, something that was fairly characteristic of Byrneʼs art from day one but is now directly pronounced rather than just hinted at.

Although from a purely musical standpoint, the album is highly eclectic and its tunes are difficult to assign to any particular genre, it is clear that musical structures and arrangement details here are secondary to the artistic message — itʼs just the way David has always worked and you will neither catch him pandering to any particular trend nor dumbing down the music to amplify its mass appeal. For instance, ʽGasoline And Dirty Sheetsʼ will combine Indian sitars, country-western harmonicas, old-fashioned New Wave guitars and new-fashioned drum programming to the point where all this synthesis leaves you confused and disoriented; but whether all this kaleidoscopic mush actually has a point, and whether the music in this song really «matters» next to its lyrics, is quite debatable.

Maybe it was the collaboration with St. Vincent that rubbed off so seriously on David, but the problem remains the same as it was with Love This Giant — I respect the work that went into the making of this album, but I do not properly feel it. At the core, these are fairly accessible pop songs, often with catchy choruses and shit, but if their point is indeed to transmit a feeling of hope and optimism in the midst of troubled times, I must confess that I sense neither too much trouble nor too much happiness in the music. Good case in point: ʽEvery Day Is A Miracleʼ, where the somewhat somber verses are supposed to contrast with the somewhat cheerful chorus. Lyrically, the song is astute and occasionally hilarious, right from the point where David reflects on what Heaven should look like for a chicken ("...and God is a very old rooster / And eggs are like Jesus, his son"). But musically, the verse is reduced to a few rumbly bars of synth-bass and the chorus is just a limp ska pattern whose melody might just as well be played by a bunch of automatons. It is loud enough and you might be tempted to sing along to "every day is a miracle, every day is an unpaid bill", yet nothing in the song either creates real tension or relieves it. Itʼs just a song, no better or worse than a million other ones.

I think that the only number on American Utopia where I smelled the faintest glint of tension was ʽItʼs Not Dark Up Hereʼ, with its jumpy change of tone from verse to chorus and mildly spooky "HEY!" that changes the discourse from protagonist to his imaginary-hallucinatory conversation partner in the skies above. It does not hurt, either, that the song is driven by paranoidally funky guitars, not unlike in the good old days — yet even so, thereʼs light years of distance between the spookiness of this chorus and something like, say, ʽMemories Canʼt Waitʼ or ʽSlippery Peopleʼ.

In the end, while I cannot for the life of me properly badmouth any of these songs for any specific sins, I still cannot help but view American Utopia as an artistic failure. It is clearly a conceptual project that must have meant a lot to David at this point, but even a weakass Talking Heads album like True Stories ended up making more sense and providing more emotional release than this collection of well-crafted, but ultimately cold and limp songs. Certainly the words deserve to be studied, and I am glad to see Byrne, at the age of 66, in such fine vocal form and with so many different ideas, even when they are derivative or ineffective. And perhaps in the context of his Broadway show, interspersed with genuine Heads classics, they do make better sense. But for now they do nothing to dissuade me from the opinion that Byrneʼs spark of genius went extinct somewhere around the time of Look Into The Eyeball, and that not even a global pandemic or a worldwide economic crisis will be enough to rekindle it at this time. 

ProjeKct Two: Live Groove

PROJEKCT TWO: LIVE GROOVE (1999)

1) Sus-tayn-Z; 2) Heavy ConstruKction; 3) The Deception Of The Thrush; 4) X-chayn-jiZ; 5) Light ConstruKction; 6) Vector Shift To Planet Detroit; 7) Contrary ConstruKction; 8) Live Groove; 9) Vector Shift To Planet Belewbeloid; 10) 21st Century Schizoid Man.

General verdict: A somewhat compromising live album that seems to make less of a point than its studio predecessor; still fairly powerful in certain spots.


As of now, no fewer than twenty-six different live shows by ProjeKct Two are available for purchase through DGMlive, and while it could be considered a respectable and devoted move on the part of Only Solitaire to give each and every one a thorough analytical check-up, I am not yet sure that such an expenditure of energy would bring final and permanent balance to the cosmos. Consequently, for now I will humbly limit myself to just a few words on Live Groove, the very first commercially released album by ProjeKct Two which was originally available as a part of the ProjeKcts boxset, or as a stand-alone title in Japan (where else?).

The first thing you see is that none of the tracks here overlap with Space Groove — but a few actually overlap with the soon-to-be newest incarnation of King Crimson, such as ʽDeception Of The Thrushʼ and the ʽConstruKctionʼ pieces (ʽLight ConstruKctionʼ would be reworked into ʽConstruKction Of Lightʼ, while ʽHeavy ConstruKctionʼ would later lend its title to the first live album from 2000). This is quite telling, since the basic idea of the ProjeKcts was to never repeat anything twice in the exact same way; yet it also means that this weirdly unique sci-fi vibe that the band had going on Space Groove is not felt nearly as strongly on the live release, much of which is more in line with traditional KC-type improvisations.

One thing that puzzles me is that only the regular ProjeKct Two trio is credited on the album, with Belew indicated as responsible for electronic drums; however, at least two of the tunes, the opening ʽSus-tayn-Zʼ and the title track, clearly feature four instruments — two guitars, bass, and regular, not electronic, drums, which actually sound like Bruford, not Belew. Was there some mix-up? is this really ProjeKct One material that somehow found its twisted way onto a ProjeKct Two album? I am quite happy to hear both of these jams, with «sus-tayn» really playing a large role throughout (actually, the main rhythm groove is exactly the same on both tracks), but it probably wouldnʼt have hurt to clarify this in the credits.

Other than that, itʼs fairly heavy business as usual, with Fripp and Gunn regularly laying on thick, crunchy layers of almost grunge-like atmosphere (ʽHeavy ConstruKctionʼ indeed); whether Belewʼs electronic drumming agrees with this atmosphere or not is up to the listener to decide, but I suppose that it is, to a large extent, responsible for why the final results still feel «weird» rather than «ass-kicking» (well, that and all the effects that make Frippʼs guitar, every once in a while, metamorphose into a symphonic orchestra or a prepared piano). When the band slows down, it is time for synthetic experiments — ʽDeception Of The Thrushʼ combines the robotic industrial pace of ʽIndisciplineʼ with fuzzy atonal solos that sound straight out of 1974 — but while they are all atmospheric and listenable, once again, I wouldnʼt go as far as to suggest that the stunned audiences were witnessing the birth of some new musical genre here.

Most interesting is the inclusion, at the end, of a very special rendition of ʽ21st Century Schizoid Manʼ — not so much the song itself as part of the ʽMirrorsʼ section, played with the aid of Adrianʼs «V-drums», Treyʼs bass, and (supposedly) Frippʼs guitar which has this time been rigged to sound like chimes. Itʼs just a short two-minute long segment, appended to the main bulk of the show like some sort of ʽHer Majestyʼ-style musical joke, but it is pretty symbolic of the ProjeKctsʼ burning desire to change as many rules as possible while still retaining the Crimsonian essence in everything they do. Not that the piece, by itself, does anything other than demonstrate what we already knew well enough (namely, how insanely cool and catchy that jazzy mid-section is), but, well, a surprise is a surprise even if it does not have any particular meaning.

On the whole, this is hardly the ProjeKctsʼ shiniest moment — sort of a half-assed compromise between the completely different sound of Space Groove and a regular King Crimson jam — but for those interested in the «road to the Double Duo», it might be one of the most important ProjeKct releases. 

Friday, April 3, 2020

Pink Floyd: Is There Anybody Out There? The Wall Live

PINK FLOYD: IS THERE ANYBODY OUT THERE? THE WALL LIVE (1980-1981; 2000)

1) Master Of Ceremonies; 2) In The Flesh?; 3) The Thin Ice; 4) Another Brick In The Wall, Pt. 1; 5) The Happiest Days Of Our Lives; 6) Another Brick In The Wall, Pt. 2; 7) Mother; 8) Goodbye Blue Sky; 9) Empty Spaces; 10) What Shall We Do Now?; 11) Young Lust; 12) One Of My Turns; 13) Donʼt Leave Me Now; 14) Another Brick In The Wall, Pt. 3; 15) The Last Few Bricks; 16) Goodbye Cruel World; 17) Hey You; 18) Is There Anybody Out There?; 19) Nobody Home; 20) Vera; 21) Bring The Boys Back Home; 22) Comfortably Numb; 23) The Show Must Go On; 24) Master Of Ceremonies; 25) In The Flesh; 26) Run Like Hell; 27) Waiting For The Worms; 28) Stop!; 29) The Trial; 30) Outside The Wall.

General verdict: Needs video.

The most awful thing about Floydʼs legendary live Wall shows from 1980–81 is that, apparently, no high quality footage was ever captured — whatever remains, as you can easily see from YT videos, is barely watchable. Of course, Rogerʼs several solo-based stagings of the album, one of which has already been reviewed, are a partial remedy for this travesty, but only partial, because it is one thing to watch The Wall as a bona fide musical, replete with a motley assortment of musical guests of widely varying quality, and it would be quite another thing to watch it as the freshest chapter in the personal history of Pink Floyd while it still existed as a band (despite Rick Wright being already denominated to the status of «supporting musician»).

The audio tapes from the show did survive; but it does make sense that they were not released upon the completion of the project, and I do not even think there were any such plans — as we know all too well, the classic Floyd line up did not think much of the idea of live albums, given how important the visual aspect was for their live activities. So it was not until the year 2000 that these tapes were dug out, brushed off, sorted out, and transformed into a record that promised to bring you all (well, half) of the value of the classic live Floyd experience — a reasonable time gap, given that loyal fans had probably worn off twenty copies of the studio Wall in twenty years and were fully prepared for something slightly different.

As it happens, my warning is fully predictable — Is There Anybody Out There? is a record that will only appeal to the seasoned fan. First, its very nature is that of a self-contradictory compromise: on one hand, it claims to be a genuine live experience, but on the other hand, its tracks are put together from more separate parts than a John Entwistle bass guitar — almost every song is dated to at least two or three different shows, either because producer James Guthrie embarked on a typically Floydian perfectionist cruise, looking for musically ideal bits, or because some parts of the tapes had degraded in quality. Quality control does take care of that issue — without the accompanying notes, youʼd never know it wasnʼt all just one show — but the other issue is that it all sounds largely and inevitably inferior to the studio version, and that issue cannot be taken care of by any means, be it editing, mixing, or magic.

On a purely formal level, The Wall Live is a more complete Wall experience than the studio version, because lack of the 2-LP time limit had allowed the band to reinstate certain bits that were cut off from the final release. Unfortunately, Roger and David were pretty good at cutting off, and the reinstated bits feel superfluous. The short ʽWhat Shall We Do Now?ʼ, bridging the formerly startling and disturbing sonic gap between ʽEmpty Spacesʼ and ʽYoung Lustʼ, is two minutes of mediocre arena-rock (ʽYoung Lustʼ is arena-rock, too, but at least it is parodic / ironic arena-rock, whereas this thing is just a technical interlude). ʽThe Show Must Go Onʼ restores an earlier cut verse — oh, what a joy. ʽOutside The Wallʼ is the worst of them all, having become a hillbilly campfire song with overdubbed pretentious narration, instead of its enigmatic quietness and looping tricks on the original album. And there are also ʽThe Last Few Bricksʼ, a medley of several musical themes from the albumʼs first part, played onstage by the musicians as the wall was being completed, brick by brick — something that, quite clearly, only works together with the hypnotic spectacle of the band being gradually hidden from your eyes by all the white stuff. In the end, none of these tracks make the experience better, and some of them make it worse.

Of all the performances here, arguably the only one that made me sit up and take notice was ʽRun Like Hellʼ — "this is for all the WEAK people in the audience!". Somehow, the level of mean aggression required for this tune was seriously upped, perhaps due to Gilmourʼs guitar sounding harsher and crisper than in the studio — and the song gets an incredibly weird instrumental section here, with elements of almost free-form jazz chaos as guitars and pianos clash with each other in dissonant madness. ʽComfortably Numbʼ, on the other hand, did not yet have the proper time to transform itself into an end-of-the-world anthem that could function separately from the album itself, and Gilmour, standing on top of the wall, plays it relatively safe and close to the book (though I am sure many fans will prefer this early, fuzz-drenched reading of the closing solo to the more straightforward guitar-god-show-off it would become in the post-Waters years).

Many of the studio nuances are unknowingly or inevitably lost in transition — for instance, my favorite song on the album, ʽDonʼt Leave Me Nowʼ, is nowhere near as efficient live, because they cannot reproduce that hypnotic, climactic sustained guitar-vocal unison in the coda. The solo in ʽAnother Brick In The Wall, Pt. 2ʼ is extended by having a second guitarist take after David (Snowy White, I presume), which does not make for a particularly great contrast. All in all, there are plenty of small differences, but these are mostly for enthusiasts to spot, and even if some of them turn out to be more true to the vision of Roger Waters than, say, Bob Ezrin, it still only goes to show how much of the magic of Pink Floyd was generated inside the studio and how hard it was to bottle that magic and carry it intact to the stage.

That said, The Wall is The Wall, and at the very least you do get to hear it live without all the guest stars — when you can have Gilmour himself for ʽYoung Lustʼ, whoʼd want Bryan Adams? If you are a major fan of the album, this live companion is still a must-own. But ultimately, it will just serve as an indirect memento of one of rock theaterʼs most important and inventive events, in the absence of a high quality direct memento of such. 

Monday, March 30, 2020

Elvis Presley: Pot Luck

ELVIS PRESLEY: POT LUCK (1962)

1) Kiss Me Quick; 2) Just For Old Time Sake; 3) Gonna Get Back Home Somehow; 4) (Such An) Easy Question; 5) Steppinʼ Out Of Line; 6) Iʼm Yours; 7) Something Blue; 8) Suspicion; 9) I Feel That Iʼve Known You Forever; 10) Night Rider; 11) Fountain Of Love; 12) Thatʼs Someone You Never Forget.

General verdict: Some really bright pop moments, interspersed with schlock as usual but still enough to make this LP into a relative highlight of Elvisʼ Nashville era.


ʽPot luckʼ: «a situation in which one must take a chance that whatever is available will prove to be good or acceptable». Whoever thought of this title for Elvisʼ third proper LP in the 1960s must have been a pretty acidic fellow, because at this point in the Kingʼs career, your chances of falling upon a minor pop gem or a boring piece of derivative schlock were split around, Iʼd say, 30-70 or something like that. Fortunately, despite the half-ironic, half-cringeworthy title, Pot Luck With Elvis was actually an improvement over Something For Everybody, let alone the increasingly corny soundtracks — and not just because his team had the good sense to abandon the «ballads on one side, pop-rockers on the other» principle, but also because they seem to have briefly forgotten the much more troubling «good stuff for singles, bad stuff for LPs» principle.

More precisely, Pot Luck happens to be dominated by the Doc Pomus / Mort Shuman creative duo (4 songs out of 12, with another one co-written by Doc with Alan Jeffreys), and with these guys in charge, you can be sure that not everything will consist of inferior retreads of older classics. Admittedly, even some of these songs are not entirely original: for instance, the bridge section of ʽGotta Get Back Home Somehowʼ sounds way too close to the bridge section of ʽHis Latest Flameʼ — but the main body of the song is closer to a grand-style country-western reimagining of ʽI Feel Badʼ, with martial drums and saxophones really kicking it up. ʽNight Riderʼ, whose main melody is a sax-driven variation on ʽWhatʼd I Sayʼ, is also a minor highlight, letting Elvis combine old school hip-gyrating magic with an insinuating drawn-out invocation fit for some jazz-pop diva like Peggy Lee.

Best of the bunch are two songs that were inexcusably passed over as singles until two years later, when Terry Staffordʼs own version of ʽSuspicionʼ began climbing the charts and the Elvis team belatedly understood what a chance theyʼd nearly missed. ʽSuspicionʼ is a classic of the early R&B genre, melodically similar to the likes of ʽStand By Meʼ but really gambling it all away on the tempo-shifting hook in the chorus — that closing "suspicion... why torture me?" bit with the downward-sliding bass line that plumps you back into the verse melody is one of this albumʼs two tastiest hooks. The second one, of course, being the triumphant upward climb and smooth landing of the chorus to ʽKiss Me Quickʼ, which, based on structural similarities, can be defined as an attempt to remake ʽItʼs Now Or Neverʼ in a more playful, less sentimental manner — same rhythm, same arpeggiated guitar, but a completely different resulting feel, and totally free of accusations of Nashville boys stealing the Italian manʼs music this time. Delightful.

The presence of all these good-to-excellent numbers on the record is enough to redeem its many continuing and predictable flaws — such as the presence of ʽJust For Old Time Sakeʼ, a bland and boring shadow of ʽAre You Lonesome Tonightʼ; ʽIʼm Yoursʼ, whose sugarized country waltzing is such a far cry from the tasteful musical understatements of ʽBlue Moonʼ, long gone by; and ʽFountain Of Loveʼ, a corny, generic Mexican-style serenade which only lacks a sombrero and a bad Spanish accent to be complete.

However, the difference between corny and touching is often very, very subtle, and while most of the ballads on this record are easily dismissable, one should definitely not miss a hint at real human feeling in the albumʼs closing number, ʽThatʼs Someone You Never Forgetʼ — even the songwriting credits here should be enough to raise some eyebrows, being split between Elvis himself and his bodyguard, Red West (one of the three that would be fired in 1976 for trying to shield the man from drug abuse). Allegedly dedicated to the memory of Elvisʼ mother, it is a quiet, echoey acoustic ballad whose vocal inflections are totally different from Elvisʼ common style at the time — listen to that voice almost thinning out and breaking up in the middle of each line, creating the impression of tearless crying without any show-off-ey over-emoting; clearly, this is the mark of a very special occasion, and the song might have, perhaps, been even more effective without its backing vocals and angelic chimes.

Interestingly, the concurrent single at the time was ʽSheʼs Not Youʼ, another Doc Pomus song (allegedly co-written with Leiber and Stoller) which is not at all superior to either ʽKiss Me Quickʼ or ʽSuspicionʼ — in fact, itʼs a fairly simplistic piece of slowed-down country-boogie with nowhere near the hook potential of those other two songs. Somehow, quality control was slipping in this respect, too, though the song still dutifully climbed up to #5 on the charts. Still, better this way for all of us LP fans — it is absolutely no fun, I tell you, to waste time on albums that are intentionally comprised of nothing but filler. At least this time around, we do have ourselves a bit of actual pot luck. 

Sunday, March 29, 2020

The Strokes: Room On Fire

THE STROKES: ROOM ON FIRE (2003)

1) What Ever Happened?; 2) Reptilia; 3) Automatic Stop; 4) 12:51; 5) You Talk Way Too Much; 6) Between Love & Hate; 7) Meet Me In The Bathroom; 8) Under Control; 9) The Way It Is; 10) The End Has No End; 11) I Canʼt Win.

General verdict: Same as before, but slightly less intense, slightly more philosophical, and much more indicative of this bandʼs limitations.

This is one more of those albums which, though not altogether boring or repulsive by any means, is tough as nails to write about if you want your writing to make any sense or have any usefulness at all. In a way, it is quite telling that the first lines to be sung by Julian on the first track on the album go "I wanna be forgotten and I donʼt wanna be remembered"... oops, "reminded" actually, but from the very first listen I got this ingrained as "remembered" and thatʼs the way it is going to stay for me, because this is what Room On Fire is: a decent record that sounds so goddamn much like a pale carbon copy of Is This It, it is almost like a textbook-oriented definition of «sophomore slump».

Scuttlebutt says the band conducted its original recording sessions with none other than Nigel Godrich, the wizard behind classic Radiohead magic — but, apparently, he was not able to hit it off with Casablancas, and in the end the band returned to their original producer. I do not know whether we should be happy or sad about this, because if Godrich was indeed trying to give the Strokes a «Radiohead touch», the results might have turned out seriously grotesque — then again, they might have ended up far more interesting than the expectedly bare-bones and, by now, fairly predictable dry-cleaners production style of Gordon Raphael; the most surprise you are going to get out of this is the occasional synthesizer-like effect on the lead guitar, e.g. ʽ12:51ʼ which is made to sound like a stereotypical Cars track, albeit even more sanitized.

Other than that, Room On Fire simply repeats the original formula of alternating between loud, but not aggressive mid-tempo to slow-tempo guitar-based pop-rockers, written from the same post-modern perspective of an NYC hipster with serious relationship problems. Since I cannot for the life of me identify with this perspective, and since the artistic personality of Julian Casa­blancas gets me indifferent at best and annoyed at worst, all I can do is try to concentrate on the music — like, are there any interesting guitar riffs? do the grooves make me want to headbang? does the twin guitar interplay brighten my mood? that sort of thing.

From that simple stance, ʽWhat Ever Happened?ʼ is quite a disheartening opener, because it puts the Strokes into flat-out shoegazing mode, just vamping out on one chord in total prostration mode, where even Julianʼs gurgling scream feels like a robotic, sleep-walking accompaniment. ʽReptiliaʼ is much better, picking up tempo, churning out a simple, but distinctive and memorable punk-pop riff and then reversing its tonality for the refrain. ʽAutomatic Stopʼ has a nice moment when the lead guitar comes in to weave a plaintive woman-tone melody in between the choppy syncopated reggae-pop chords of the rhythm, but you still have to chase the song for chemistry, rather than having it chase you in person. ʽ12:51ʼ is probably the best of the lot, because the melodic hook is doubled on vocals and that quirky synth-guitar at the same time. ʽYou Talk Way Too Muchʼ is boring; just how long is it possible to go on switching between those A and E chords, over and over and over again?..

Re-emerging back from the simple virtues and just as simple flaws of individual songs into the bigger picture, I would say that Room On Fireʼs principal crime is that it tries to be a little more moody and sentimental than its predecessor — now the songsʼ main reason for being so simple is not because these New York City lads just want to have some fun and get back to their roots, it is more like because they do not want to over-complexify things when telling you about their troubles. I do realize this is a gross generalization — Is This It was far from a completely blunt and mindless record, just as Room On Fire is not exactly a thirty-minute long metaphysical treatise. But the overall atmosphere, with its minimalist melodies, pensive lyrics, ever so slightly slowed-down tempos and mechanic singing, shows that The Strokes are already trying to jump over from their Please Please Me phase into at least their Rubber Soul one, and thatʼs way bigger a leap than such a band could ever handle. In their own words, "good try, we donʼt like it, good try, we wonʼt take that shit". 

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

David Byrne & St. Vincent: Love This Giant

DAVID BYRNE & ST. VINCENT: LOVE THIS GIANT (2012)

1) Who; 2) Weekend In The Dust; 3) Dinner For Two; 4) Ice Age; 5) I Am An Ape; 6) The Forest Awakes; 7) I Should Watch TV; 8) Lazarus; 9) Optimist; 10) Lightning; 11) The One Who Broke Your Heart; 12) Outside Of Space & Time.

General verdict: A curiously clumsy pop artefact whose pretense does not at all seem to match the emotional power and meaning of its melodies. In other words, "I respect this, but it sucks".

Since I have no immediate plans to cover the colorful career of Annie Clark, a.k.a. St. Vincent, and since this album is genuinely a balanced collaboration between her and David Byrne, we might just as well file this under Byrneʼs discography for the moment. As we know, David is a big fan of joint projects, and some of his past collaborative activities clearly show why — My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, for one thing, is a classic that did require the joint talents of Byrne and Eno to deserve that status. But as the new millennium came into being, and with it, the added yearning to stay «relevant» in the world of artistic evolution, it is only natural that he would begin seeking out younger collaborators from the next generation.

On paper, St. Vincent might look like the perfect choice — she is young enough to be Davidʼs daughter, she is an unconventional pop artist with a predilection for all things weird and eccentric, and she has been compared to just about everybody in the art-pop world, from Bowie to Kate Bush and beyond. Taking the vintage boomer madness of David Byrne and synthesizing it with the fresh millennial creativity of St. Vincent seems like an instant-win formula, and such is the impression that you get from reading quite a few glowing reviews in the mainstream press — yet on the whole, the reaction was mixed, and the album never got truly enshrined as a classic for either Byrne or Annie Clark... and I think I can see why.

Love This Giant is definitely very «creative». The basic idea, suggested by St. Vincent, was to write a set of pop songs around brass-based arrangements, because... because why not. This does give an aura of relative sameness to the proceedings, but since the brass melodies themselves follow all sorts of different patterns, from classic R&B to Latin to marching bands to Radiohead-style freakouts (think ʽThe National Anthemʼ), this is not a big problem. The songs themselves are complex, twisted artefacts, with intricate and unpredictable combinations of brass, drums (largely programmed), synth bass, convoluted vocal overdubs from the two main singers, and surprisingly little guitar, in spite of Annieʼs well-advertised mastery of the instrument. It is hard to define their relative genres and even harder to ascribe specific meanings to their vividly impressionistic lyrics. But isnʼt that a sign of elusive genius?..

Actually, not quite. As the songs slowly sink in, listen after listen, I begin to understand that this is the kind of record that I, at best, will remember with polite respect, but not with the kind of emotional admiration that my conscience reserves for true genius. Like most other acclaimed art-pop wizards of the 2000s, such as Sufjan Stevens (whose touring band Annie was actually in before embarking on a proper solo career) and Joanna Newsom, St. Vincent is one of those Artists who spend way too much time wiring up the neon lights to the big A — instead of, at least sometimes, just cutting loose and telling things the way they are. Whenever she takes the wheel on this album, I definitely get that she is trying to do something, but I almost never get what it is exactly that she is trying to do; and when I do seem to get it, it turns out that I have to think about it rather than feel about it, which is simply not the way that genius art works. It does not help, either, that she has a fairly common singing voice and that, whenever she does get to play the guitar, she is quite mediocre at it (I know that Annieʼs guitar playing is sometimes toted as iconic for female players, but I am not sure how anybody seriously familiar with the story of guitar playing from Hendrix to Belew to Prince to, say, Marc Ribot could characterize her work as anything but amateurish in nature).

Still, passable singing and guitar playing do not matter much if the songwriting and general artistry are top level, and these songs are not top level. All are credited jointly to David and Annie, and there is a visible effort to somewhat synthesize the styles of the two, but, at the very least, they are still separated by who takes lead vocal on what, and it also seems as if St. Vincent is really, really, really trying to out-weird David at his own game, so the Byrne-led songs actually sound a bit more conventional, both melody-wise and lyrics-wise, than Annieʼs. What is worse, with all due respect to those who are sick and tired of the word «chemistry», there is about as much of it in between the two artists as the album cover, on which they look like two long-lost separated members of the Addams Family, suggests.

The record does set out with a bit of a promise: ʽWhoʼ is a good example of a Byrne dirge, with a touching vocal melody that goes from confused verse to plaintive chorus — except that Annieʼs melismatic bridge of "who is an honest man?" does not fit in well, sounding more like a random interpolation from some other song (say, about a cheating lover or something) than part of an ongoing dialog between the two protagonists. Actually, there is very little dialog between Byrne and St. Vincent anywhere on the album: every once in a while, they sing a few lines in unison, usually with one singer clearly overshadowing the other, and thatʼs it. The record feels more like a Meistersingersʼ competition than a truly joint project.

On the St. Vincent side, a typical song will be something like ʽIce Ageʼ, with its metronomic mid-tempo rhythm, quietly and inobtrusively bubbling brass riffage, and unconventionally accentuated words ("oh dia-MOND... all unbutTONED..."). Stare at the lyrics long enough and you will get the idea that the song is about an emotionally obstructed partner, but the idea is not at all supported by the music, which, at best, sounds like inoffensive jazz-pop on tranquilizers. Did I say there is no chemistry between St. Vincent and Byrne? Well, much of the time there is even no chemistry between St. Vincent and the music that backs her up: the potentially gorgeous Cocteau Twins-ish falsetto refrain of "we wonʼt know how much we lost until the winter thaws" loses its impact in the company of that ugly synth bass line and those meandering, decidedly un-romantic brass patterns. Unconventional experimental patterns like these are scattered all through the album, but rarely, if ever, end up making much emotional sense.

On the Byrne side, a typical song will be something like ʽI Should Watch TVʼ, another of Davidʼs ironic portrayals of the confused urban dweller; but it has been a long time since David last managed to convincingly act out a paranoid existence, and neither the vocal melody nor the usual atmospheric brass arrangement help the song to become memorable. Sometimes he falls back on classic vocal tricks — ʽDinner For Twoʼ distantly echoes ʽDonʼt Worry About The Governmentʼ, for instance — but doing so does not bring back the energy of classic Talking Heads, not when the music is dominated by this math-rockish approach to brass playing.

Overall, I would not want to make any hasty generalizations, and Iʼd even be totally open to taking some of the nasty things said above back if they ever gave me a second chance — all I can say for sure is that Love This Giant was built upon one daring, experimental idea («let us make an album that has saxophones and trombones as the main instruments and does not sound like Blood, Sweat & Tears!»), and that the idea did not work. It is perfectly possible to teach yourself to love this giant, uh, I mean, album — just latch on to its complexity, its multiple layers, its symbolism, its clear desire to produce something fresh and intelligent — but, honestly, I just do not have that much love in me to forcefully waste it on this kind of record.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Robert Fripp: The Gates Of Paradise

ROBERT FRIPP: THE GATES OF PARADISE (1998)

1) The Outer Darkness I – X; 2) The Gates Of Paradise I – II; 3) The Outer Darkness XI; 4) The Gates Of Paradise III – IV.

General verdict: A farily convincing, but not terribly entertaining, personal look at what the two different sides of the afterlife could be like for all of us. Might work better with mushrooms.


As of now, this is officially the very last solo Robert Fripp album recorded in the studio, and it is very easy to miss it completely in the ocean of late period King Crimson albums, archival King Crimson releases, and ProjeKcts. However, it is a fairly unique project for Fripp — a lengthy, conceptual, and quite ambitious ambient recording whose artistic subject is not that far removed from the interests of King Crimson, yet whose actual execution is quite different from both any type of KC album or even any of Frippʼs previous side projects. The closest analogy would most likely be some of his past Frippertronics exercises from No Pussyfooting and onwards, but The Gates Of Paradise have very little, if any, of those trademark drawn-out howling guitar lines that usually characterize Frippʼs work.

The actual concept, a musical interpretation of the base differences between Heaven and Hell, or, if you wish, Robertʼs musical tribute to the Divine Comedy, is not altogether new. That Fripp is quite capable of creating Bosch-level sonic nightmares (such as he did with Larksʼ Tongues) and Rafael-level sonic idylls (ʽSheltering Skyʼ, etc.), is well known. But here, this is the core focus of the album, and he achieves his goals with fairly unconventional means. I am not sure whether all the sounds we hear are processed guitars or if there is actual synthesizer work involved, but regardless of technicalities, the overall sonic approach here is that of a church organ, with a bit of pianoforte mixed in on the last track. It really feels like we have been temporarily locked in Robertʼs private little church building and he is giving us a tour of the religious possibilities of his brand new organ (if that sounded a bit dirty, Iʼm not holding myself responsible).

Like any ambient album with emphasis on overall atmosphere rather than overall dynamics, The Gates Of Paradise will probably not command your attention through all of its 59 minutes, but, as in many similar cases, the length here is mainly just an auxiliary mechanism to get across the point. Four tracks are interspersed — two dealing with "outer darkness" and the other two with the "gates of Paradise" themselves, with the music naturally being more ominous and aggressive and thunderstormy on the latter and more serene and solemnly resplendent on the latter. The ʽOuter Darknessʼ bits would have ideally fit onto a Kubrick soundtrack, be it Space Odyssey or The Shining: alternating between quietly ominous background hum and all-out sustained ruckus, they may be quite psychologically unstable if listened to in the proper headphones. ʽThe Gates Of Paradiseʼ, on the contrary, is J. S. Bach meets New Age (first track) and John Cage meets New Age (second track), with pseudo-prepared-piano a-plenty introducing a slight touch of actual melody, then melting away to make way for even more peaceful organ textures.

Overall, it is not so much a great album as simply a surprising gesture from Fripp. Severely limited in ideas, The Gates Of Paradise will never stand a chance against classic Tangerine Dream or Klaus Schulze when it comes to electronic or electronically enhanced soundscapes of Heaven and Hell — but in a way, it works as a special sort of meta-artistic self-commentary on Frippʼs own classic legacy. Like, you were wondering if you were really right when your brain came up with all those religious / mythological images triggered by ʽThe Talking Drumʼ or ʽStarlessʼ? Well, this album proves that you certainly were. You were interested in whether the music of King Crimson could ever be directly interpreted in terms of good old Christianity? This album shows that such an interpretation is not impossible.

As to whether Iʼd ever want to listen to the album again... well, maybe on some particularly long and uneventful nighttime air flight, where the listening experience could result in an epiphany or two. As it is, I think that maybe the results would have turned out more interesting if Fripp had brought Eno along one more time — on his own, he is just not as efficient in weaving a fully convincing and addictive atmosphere. But at the very least, a Soundscape is a Soundscape, and the record delivers more or less what it advertises. Nobody ever said, after all, that the afterlife would be particularly full of dynamic events.