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Sunday, February 18, 2018

Sufjan Stevens: Songs For Christmas

SUFJAN STEVENS: SONGS FOR CHRISTMAS (2006)

Noel: 1) Silent Night; 2) O Come O Come Emmanuel; 3) We're Goin' To The Country!; 4) Lo How A Rose E'er Blooming; 5) It's Christmas! Let's Be Glad!; 6) Holy Holy, Etc.; 7) Amazing Grace.
Hark!: 1) Angels We Have Heard On High; 2) Put The Lights On The Tree; 3) Come Thou Fount Of Every Blessing; 4) I Saw Three Ships; 5) Only At Christmas Time; 6) Once In Royal David's City; 7) Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!; 8) What Child Is This Anyway?; 9) Bring A Torch, Jeanette, Isabella.
Ding! Dong!: 1) O Come, O Come Emmanuel; 2) Come On! Let's Boogey To The Elf Dance!; 3) We Three Kings; 4) O Holy Night; 5) That Was The Worst Christmas Ever!; 6) Ding! Dong!; 7) All The King's Horns; 8) The Friendly Beasts.
Joy: 1) The Little Drummer Boy; 2) Away In A Manger; 3) Hey Guys! It's Christmas Time!; 4) The First Noel; 5) Did I Make You Cry On Christmas Day? (Well, You Deserved It!); 6) The Incarnation; 7) Joy To The World.
Peace: 1) Once In Royal David's City; 2) Get Behind Me, Santa!; 3) Jingle Bells; 4) Christmas In July; 5) Lo! How A Rose E'er Blooming; 6) Jupiter Winter; 7) Sister Winter; 8) O Come O Come Emmanuel; 9) Star Of Wonder; 10) Holy, Holy, Holy; 11) The Winter Solstice.

General verdict: Santa Sufjan is coming to town, and for those of us who still celebrate Christmas, he's A-OK.

I confess that, going against my own rule of thumb, I have only managed to listen to this behe­moth once — after all, it is a whoppin' two hours of Christmas music, and it's not even Christmas season at the moment. It might have been easier to make five separate short reviews for the five Christmas EPs that Sufjan had diligently and meticulously presented for his fans from 2001 to 2006 (for some reason, missing 2004) before merging them all together in this one mega-package; but such an approach might make Sufjan look like a professional Christmas caroler, occasionally diverting the audience with a few minor side projects (Illinois, etc.), and make me look like I'm taking the message of Roy Wood's ʽI Wish It Was Christmas Every Dayʼ way too seriously.

In any case, my lack of diligence may be redeemed by an overall positive evaluation: ironically, this was the easiest and most enjoyable collection of Sufjan Stevens tunes I have had to sit through so far. The man may be a formulaic and mono-moody songwriter alright, ambitious be­yond actual capacity and smooth beyond reasonable tolerance, but in the context of Christmas celebrations, all of this actually plays to his advantage. I mean, all this time I have been talking about pixie dances in the everglades and about teddy bears playing chimes in dollhouses — well, in a way, that is what Christmas is all about, and Sufjan fits right in here: gimmicky enough to give the old standards some new spins, but not arrogant enough to spoil the Christmas mood with too many modernist or avantgardist deconstructions.

Each of the five volumes is a mix of traditional carols and Sufjan originals, with the latter gradu­ally taking over the former so that Joy, the last volume, is almost completely comprised of new music. If you wanted to, you could easily isolate the originals and end up with a full extra CD of new music — but you shouldn't want to, since the very idea is to integrate the old with the new, and some of the arrangements that Stevens comes up with for the oldies are just as important to the experience as his own songs. As usual, many of them are based upon drones / vamps with endless repetition of the same chord, but at least now you can explain that away as imitations of sleigh bells. Santa has a long journey through snowy roads ahead of him, after all.

In between standards, Sufjan weaves in occasional humorous vignettes — ʽGet Behind Me, Santa!ʼ, in particular, is a funny dialog between Santa and a protagonist who is sick to death of the Christmas season ("I don't care about what you say Santa Claus / You're a bad brother breaking into people's garages"), presided over by a poppy horn riff that might, in fact, be more memorable than any such stuff on Illinois. There is also a bit of space for intimate sentimentalism: ʽDid I Make You Cry On Christmas Day?ʼ is a song of semi-repentance for a strained relation­ship, with a tender falsetto chorus that is more oriented at people listening in dark reclusion than people having fun over a family Christmas dinner.

Most of the tracks are reasonably short, too, which is a plus in my eyes, since I have never con­sidered Stevens to be a master of extended mesmerizing codas. The most obvious exception is ʽStar Of Wonderʼ off the last EP, of which he probably thought that its piano-based groove, when properly sprinkled with additional kaleidoscopic bursts of falling stars, made for a good hypnotic experience. It really does not — the production, as is usual with Sufjan, does not have sufficient depth, and the "I see the stars coming down there..." singalong harmonies are too wispy and ghostly; but if we are just talking straightahead Christmas ambience, why not?

I suppose it also goes without saying that, since the material covers a five year period, you will see some signs of Sufjan's musical evolution — particularly noticeable if you play Noel and Joy back-to-back: the first EP is quite minimalistic, relying more on banjos and acoustic guitars for accompaniment than anything else, whereas the last one is in full-fledged Illinois mode, with multiple overdubs of keyboards, strings, woodwinds, and whatever else is available. However, on the whole the transition is so gradual that if you choose to listen to all five EPs in a row, like I did, you might not even notice it. Sure, Sufjan's arsenal of musical technologies may have increased significantly over the years, but his butter-smooth personality has remained stable and monolithic: from the opening anthemic declarations of ʽO Come O Come Emmanuelʼ to the closing anthemic declarations of ʽHoly, Holy, Holyʼ we witness the exact same rock-steady meekness of spirit — which gets so annoying on so many of the man's Big Artistic Statements, but seems so adequate on his Christmas offerings.

Bottomline predictions: if you like Sufjan Stevens in general, you will like Songs For Christmas in parti­cular. If you consider Sufjan Stevens a Holy Man of God, you will play Songs For Christ­mas at least once every year. And if you are indifferent to Sufjan Stevens, but Christmas has some sentimental value for you, you might want to try and give this one a spin — it is quite a possibility that Sufjan's way into some people's hearts might lie through their chimneys.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Radiohead: Hail To The Thief

RADIOHEAD: HAIL TO THE THIEF (2003)

1) 2 x 2 = 5 (The Lukewarm); 2) Sit Down, Stand Up (Snakes & Ladders); 3) Sail To The Moon (Brush The Cobwebs Out Of The Sky); 4) Backdrifts (Honeymoon Is Over); 5) Go To Sleep (Little Man Being Erased); 6) Where I End And You Begin (The Sky Is Falling In); 7) We Suck Young Blood (Your Time Is Up); 8) The Gloaming (Softly Open Our Mouths In The Cold); 9) There There (The Boney King Of Nowhere); 10) I Will (No Man's Land); 11) A Punchup At A Wedding (No No No No No No No No); 12) Myxomatosis (Judge, Jury & Executioner); 13) Scatterbrain (As Dead As Leaves); 14) A Wolf At The Door (It Girl. Rag Doll).

General verdict: No better way to fight The Enemy than weep into your sleeve to a bunch of MOR grooves, eh?

Some of the readers might suspect that my falling out with Radiohead, rapidly accelerating since Kid A, is simply due to an organic «rockist» rejection of electronic textures. But just as it was never a sin for somebody like, say, Pete Townshend to immerse himself in the magic of the syn­thesizer after years of playing Guitar God, so Radiohead's transition to a new type of sound was never a sin in and out of itself. And if all sorts of pop bands, from Portishead to Broadcast, could organically and emotionally integrate analog and digital, why couldn't Thom Yorke and his bunch of gloomy progressives?

Hail To The Thief is usually discussed in the context of Radiohead taking a wary step back, and reintegrating their dashing achievements with some of the more traditional elements of a rock band, so you might want to make the prediction that my assessment of this «comeback» would be more positive. And you'd be right — at the very least, it is certainly an improvement over the killing-me-bluntly, bored-robot-on-pension atmospheres of Amnesiac. But... not by much. Alas, the miracle has not happened. OK Computer was a balloon full of hot air; Kid A was the same balloon with a freshly punched hole; Amnesiac was the aftermath of the punching; and with Hail To The Thief, it kind of sounds as if they were trying to re-inflate the balloon, but forgetting to patch up the hole before doing so.

Like many other records of the same period, Hail To The Thief was inspired by the rise of neo-conservatism, Bushism, Iraq war etc. — art tends to thrive in and on hard times. Whether this inspiration truly matters is, however, debatable: Radiohead had been a gloomy, pessimistic team from day one, and it is dubious that their OK Computer-era vision of the world could be signi­ficantly exacerbated by ongoing events. At the very least, if you listen to all their records in a row outside of historical context, I doubt that Hail To The Thief will elicit any kind of "oh, now they are really sad and pissed off!" reaction. Actually, I'd even like to forget about this myself, because it is very difficult and unnatural for me to think of Radiohead as a «protest band». The artistic persona of Thom Yorke is not that of a protester — it is that of an anguished weeper, and I'd rather have him weep in anguish over global causes than picking local ones.

But fine, let us accept that contemporary events at least gave the band some fresh food for artistic thought, and even pulled them out of a bit of songwriting rut in which they'd found themselves after Kid A. How are they cooking that food? Sure, Hail To The Thief is a complex, multi-layered record that has a little bit of everything that used to make Radiohead great or at least intriguing. But everything that there is here has already been done before — and better. For all my reservations about Kid A / Amnesiac, the band was pushing forward there, astounding their fans with results that nobody could have foreseen. Hail To The Thief, in comparison, clearly marks the waterline where Radiohead slid off the cutting edge.

Not that they had any obligations: after all, you could say the same thing about The Beatles after Sgt. Pepper, because, frankly, how much cutting edge is there in the White Album? It's just a collection of very good songs, that's all, certainly nowhere near the level of musical innovation seen in contemporary Hendrix, Zappa, or Led Zeppelin releases. And so it was with Radiohead: after a groundbreaking streak extending from The Bends to Kid A, they could certainly allow themselves to just relax and write songs the way those songs came into their heads, without giving much of a damn about whether they were still stretching out to new horizons or not. But this also means that the songs have to be... well, you know. And are they?

As we get into the sphere of the personal, I am sorry to say that, once again, not a single one of these tunes does anything for me except being «listenable» and «atmospheric». Soft or hard, light or heavy, sentimental or aggressive, the music on Hail To The Thief altogether gives the impres­sion of pale-shadow-afterthoughts to everything that came before it. All the ingredients are there; they simply never come together in a satisfactory manner. Doing a song-by-song run­through would be too painful; I will simply illustrate the feelings (or, rather, lack thereof) on a few select examples, starting with the album's four singles.

ʽThere There (The Boney King Of Nowhere)ʼ was the first out, probably because of its slightly tribal groove and heavy emphasis on the guitars. Said to be influenced by Can, Siouxsie & The Banshees, and the Pixies, it is a stuttery, heavily syncopated rocker that has neither the precision and ruthlessness of Can, nor the theatricality and aggressive energy of Siouxsie, nor the humor and absurdity of the Pixies. The grumbly, repetitive guitar riff is a poorly adapted companion to Yorke's nasal falsetto (as an example of how such things are done right, take Tom Waits' ʽGoing Out Westʼ which boasts a slightly similar percussive groove, but where everything clicks because all the instruments and vocals are in tune with each other); the vocal part lacks any interesting dynamic shifts (a.k.a. «hooks»); and by the time the song kicks into high gear, with Greenwood letting loose some of his guitar demons in classic Bends mode, my lack of interest has become so total that the effort is wasted — too bad, because some of those climactic guitar overdubs kick notarially certified ass.

The second single was a return to acoustic form — ʽGo To Sleepʼ, alternating between 4/4 and 6/4 to take the fun out of your toe-tapping, is a bass-heavy neo-folk freakout with a clearly spelled out political message ("we don't want the loonies taking over"). We certainly do not, but instead of putting the loonies to sleep, it nearly succeeds to do the same thing for me — the guitar melody of the song is repetitive, monotonous, and bluntly refuses to employ any variations or flourishes that would deviate it from the formula; and try as he may, but Thom Yorke has spent so much time whining that when the need finally arises to send out a few angry barks, he cannot mobilize the necessary resources for this.

So perhaps the opening number, ʽ2 x 2 = 5 (The Lukewarm)ʼ, released as the third single, might remedy the situation? Hardly. Its opening melody is played in a fairly typical picking style for Radiohead (think ʽStreet Spiritʼ); midway through, it becomes a heated-up alt-rocker with para­noid overtones, but never properly picks up steam because the acoustic basis does not allow it to, and also because Yorke's "you have not been payin' attention" bit is ugly as hell. Not desperate, not thunderous, not aggressive — at best, you can take it as part of his «mental patient» persona, and I just don't feel that he is as credible in it as he is in his «desperate romantic» guise. ʽLuke­warmʼ is a perfect subtitle for it — lukewarm it is, as is everything else on the album.

ʽA Punchup At A Weddingʼ was the fourth (promotional) single, and it is probably the best of the four, but that is not saying much. There is a meaty, blues-based bass / piano groove at the heart of the song, but it does not go anywhere in particular (other than being reinforced with somewhat comically-sounding heavy guitar «grunts» midway through) and, once again, offers nothing by way of vocal hooks other than a few more examples of Thom's familiar falsetto. Worst thing is, there is nothing truly punchy about this song. The lyrics sound like they want to tear George W. Bush and his friends a new one — "you had to piss on our parade... hypocrite opportunist, don't infect me with your poison" — but the music has no energy, bite, or venom to it whatsoever. Perhaps if they were willing to go along with this funky spirit, they should have, you know, invited some actual funk session musicians to play on it? Because the song just drags.

I do believe that is enough for now, because I could probably write up similar impressions for any other song on here. Some have industrial overtones (ʽMyxomatosisʼ), some are purely atmo­spheric ballads (ʽWe Suck Young Bloodʼ — actually, that song has at least some symbolic value, because Thom's terminally-ill delivery emphasizes the ridiculousness of the situation in which the old and obsolete feed on the hopes and futures of the newer generations; still lethargic, though); all share such common values as feebly depressed mood, repetitive sonic patterns, lack of vocal hooks, and a feeling of «I've heard this before, and it used to be much better».

It does feel more cohesive and purposeful than Amnesiac, and it has a smaller percentage of songs about which I openly wish that they'd never corrupted the fabric of space and time. But a small part of me even secretly wishes that it would be crazier than Amnesiac — with an album like this, active hatred might even be preferable to bored indifference. Hail to the new Radiohead, the only band in existence endorsing musical sleeping pills as a weapon against The System.

Those who have accepted the endorsement will be sleepily happy to know that the expanded version of Hail To The Thief (2009) adds a few B-sides (such as the humorously titled ʽPaperbag Writerʼ — unfortunately, just as comatose as all its better known brethren), as well as the entire Com Lag EP from 2004, which includes some remixed and live versions of Thief numbers. No separate review will be provided for this entity, for understandable reasons.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Joy Division: Les Bains Douches 18 December 1979

JOY DIVISION: LES BAINS DOUCHES 18 DECEMBER 1979 (2001)

1) Disorder; 2) Love Will Tear Us Apart; 3) Insight; 4) Shadowplay; 5) Transmission; 6) Day Of The Lords; 7) 24 Hours; 8) These Days; 9) A Means To An End; 10) Passover; 11) New Dawn Fades; 12) Atrocity Exhibition; 13) Digital; 14) Dead Souls; 15) Auto­suggestion; 16) Atmosphere.

General verdict: A kick-ass slab of prime Joy Division live power — just a little too short for perfection.

So much of the officially and semi-officially released Joy Division archival material is prime sonic crap that Les Bains Douches squarely falls in the «where have you been all my life» cate­gory. After all the audience-recording quality stuff that was made available on Heart And Soul or as bonus packages for other albums, all of a sudden, in 2001 we get nine tracks and thirty-six minutes of live Joy Division in their prime — in fabulous sound quality, at least when compared to everything else. The mix is a bit rough, the balance between the band and the audience is not perfect, but for the first time ever (discounting some of the radio sessions that were recorded in studio environments), you actually get to hear the guitar, the bass, the drums, and the vocals as connected, but separate entities, loud and clear. Why, of all places, this had to be a small dance club in the heart of Paris, converted from an older public bath facility (hence the name), remains a bit of a mystery — but at least it had some great acoustics to it.

Even better, the band was hot on that particular night, playing well-tested material from Un­known Pleasures along with a few newer tracks from the upcoming Closer with such verve that the show occasionally seems almost oriented at traditional «classic rock fans» than modernist New Wavers. It does not take more than the first track to understand the difference — ʽDisorderʼ, opening both Pleasures and this concert, sounds like two completely dissimilar entities. Morris and Hook, in particular, are energetic beasts in this setting, rather than a couple of Kraftwerkian robots under Hannett's titular supervision; and Sumner's guitar tone can't help but be thicker and gruffer in order to hold its own against the power punch of the rhythm section. Does this make the live versions better? No — it simply makes Joy Division qualify for that small category of rock bands whose «live face» and «studio face» emphasize different strengths and aspects of their songs; and if we have their producer to thank for it, well, this is who we are going to thank.

Among the various highlights here is ʽShadowplayʼ (simply because it is probably my favorite JD song, and it makes me happy every time they do it justice); a noisy, over-the-top, and fairly rare performance of ʽDay Of The Lordsʼ, not as Sabbath-esque as in the studio version, but drowning the audience in non-stop barrages of power chords; and a «tempest take» on ʽA Means To An Endʼ, where even Curtis is infected by the vicious and violent playing style to the point of showing a few teeth — his "I put my trust in you!" here is the implicit equivalent of "I put my trust in you, BITCH!!", and he even pulls that off convincingly. A relative lowlight is ʽLove Will Tear Us Apartʼ, but only because Sumner's synth is horrendously out of tune — and so loud and whiny that it brings an unnecessarily amateurish flavor to the concert. But it is possible to learn to live with that once the original shock has passed.

Sadly, the entire show, or the entire salvageable part of the show, was so short that the album had to be beefed up by tracks from two other performances (in Amsterdam and Eindhoven) — quite comparable in the level of energy and dedication, but not in terms of sound quality: these last seven tracks are murkier, dirtier, and more reminiscent of what we already knew. Their inclusion does make the whole experience more comprehensive, throwing in Closer-era material like ʽAtrocity Exhibitionʼ and soulful favorites like ʽAtmosphereʼ; but only the tracks from the real Bains Douches, I am afraid, will warant repeated listens. Still, even a half-hour show in profes­sional sound quality from these guys is a blessing — and considering how few classic live albums there are in general from the «Silver Age of Rock Music», Les Bains Douches, despite coming twenty years late to the party, might make a strong contender for the top five.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

King Crimson: Earthbound

KING CRIMSON: EARTHBOUND (1972)

1) 21st Century Schizoid Man; 2) Peoria; 3) The Sailor's Tale; 4) Earthbound; 5) Groon.

General verdict: Awful sound quality, odd selection of material, and head-scratching historical importance.

Clearly, this is one of rock music's most historical ironies — that the gloriously gargantuan live biography of King Crimson (as of 2017, counting so many hours of officially released material that listening to King Crimson should be added to the list of best-paying, and also most dangerous, jobs in the world) should begin with a record captured on cassette tape, in such lo-fi quality that it would rank dishonorably even on any given list of contemporary bootlegs. As we all know, the early Seventies were a period of great excess, with classic double and triple live albums from all the best and worst progressive rock outfits of the time — and with both the old and the new lineups of King Crimson enjoying a pretty solid onstage reputation, one could certainly hope to get a package that would put Yessongs, or at least Genesis Live, to shame.

Unfortunately, Yessongs had not yet been released at the time, and many bands were still heavily restricted by limited budgets and technological deficiencies. This did not apply to King Crimson all the time, and, frankly, now that we have many more documents from the 1971-72 tour coming up (such as the ones represented on the Ladies Of The Road package, for instance), it is unclear to me why, of all things, it had to be these tapes, handpicked from a selection of US shows in February / March '72, to be approved for official release, with Fripp granting his consent. Actual­ly, even Atlantic Records declined to distribute the album on the American market at the time; and Fripp himself has allegedly strived since then to delete it from the catalog — to no avail, because Crimsonians may allow themselves to forgive, but never to forget.

Anyway, here it is. The band only allowed itself a single album, with emphasis on improvisation and experimentation — only ʽ21st Century Schizoid Manʼ got permission to participate in this as a proper representative of KC's studio catalog, plus a faded-in snippet from ʽThe Sailor's Taleʼ that is fairly indistinguishable from the band's improvisational pattern anyway. ʽGroonʼ had also been released previously as the obscure B-side to ʽCat Foodʼ, but this particular 15-minute version has more to do with drum solos and instrumental ruckus than the studio original. The one thing that tied together all of King Crimson's lineups — namely, that the band's life on stage must be a dynamically evolving event, quite separate from its studio creation — is firmly in place here; on the other hand, the minimalistic packaging of the record, in stark contrast with the colorful album sleeves from the previous years, indicates a move to a more austere aesthetics — not sur­prisingly, coinciding with Fripp's decisive break-up with Sinfield over the artistic direction of the band. From now on, Spartan style would be typical of most, if not all, KC sleeves.

On the whole, the Burrell / Collins / Wallace line-up of King Crimson, while probably the weakest in terms of internal cohesion and energy in the band's entire history, still managed to kick plenty of ass on the stage. Problem is, even if we manage to get over the cardboard-ish sound quality (which no modern-age remaster can properly overcome), the «new» music here is simply not all that interesting. In particular, ʽPeoriaʼ and ʽEarthboundʼ are little more than decent, mid-tempo, chuggy, abrasive funk jams (sometimes with Boz rather comically scatting across the melody) that could have been generated by at least a couple dozen heavy rock acts at the time — you certainly do not need to have Robert Fripp in your band to play that kind of stuff. More than anything else, it shows the technical and visionary limitations of Fripp's colleagues: Boz could hold that groove, but not run with it, Collins was a fairly traditional sax blower, and Ian Wallace was... well, no Bill Bruford when it came to putting a mathematical spin on the art of drumming.

That said, this incarnation worked pretty damn well for ʽ21st Century Schizoid Manʼ: Burrell added a gargly roar to Lake's end-of-the-world vocal bravado, Wallace added power and volume to Michael Giles' fussy drumming (though I'd call him a somewhat sloppier drummer than Michael on the whole), and Fripp's dueling with Collins reached a whole new level of hystrionics. Even the lo-fi production somehow adds to the charm of this particular performance — raw, dirty, mucky, probably just the way that the Schizoid Man would love it himself. As great as the next version of King Crimson would turn out to be, their variant of the song would end up somewhat more stiff and sterile than the glorious chaotic nightmare captured on Earthbound.

And yet, this does not even begin to explain why 15 minutes of this short record is given over to ʽGroonʼ, more than half of which consists of a drum solo — and a drum solo that simply shows Ian Wallace to be a disciple of Ginger Baker, except for the very end when he complements the drumming with psychedelic electronic effects (that sound like crap anyway). In the future, Fripp would either eliminate the need for drum solos completely or at least approach it far more crea­tively (three drummers!), but this particular performance almost seems imposed on the band by the average requirements of the epoch. As, for that matter, is some of the full-band instrumental jamming, as well. Just not the kind of stuff that would make them stand out from the rest of the pack, guns blazing and all.

Something deep down in my heart even tells me that this might have been Robert's intentionally sour put-down of his own band — that the release of Earthbound somehow gave him a docu­mental justification for letting everybody go home and taking some time to refresh, renew, and reboot. With time healing the usual wounds, subsequent archival releases of material from the same tour eventually restored a bit of justice, and the 1971-72 KC is still an unerasable and integral part of history, but I do agree with Fripp that it had to go, if ever King Crimson was to ever rise up to the challenge of making another album as mind-blowing and revolutionary as In The Court. If ever, in fact, King Crimson were to save the face of the entire progressive rock genre, still going reasonably strong in 1972 but already on the verge of sinking into its own quicksand. One thing is for certain — there's no way they'd do it with Boz and Mel.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Syd Barrett: Barrett

SYD BARRETT: BARRETT (1970)

1) Baby Lemonade; 2) Love Song; 3) Dominoes; 4) It Is Obvious; 5) Rats; 6) Maisie; 7) Gigolo Aunt; 8) Waving My Arms In The Air; 9) I Never Lied To You; 10) Wined And Dined; 11) Wolfpack; 12) Effervescing Elephant.

General verdict: A last-minute nursing assistant attempt to squeeze genius from madness.

Surprisingly, Syd's second and last studio album, sanctioned by EMI in light of the positive response to Madcap, actually sounds a little more like a regular pop/rock record than the con­fused mess that Madcap represented. Doubtless, this has to do with the slightly more cohesive nature of the recording sessions: spread over five months rather than an entire year, and with a permanent backing band, which included Gilmour, Wright, and Jerry Shirley on drums, plus a couple guests here and there. This does not mean that Syd himself was in much better shape: according to David's and Rick's memories, the sessions largely consisted of them following Syd around and trying to bottle up occasional flashes of genius emerging from the general decay — with mixed results, to say the least.

They did eventually come up with the idea of laying down their own basic tracks and letting Syd play or sing against them, which explains why so many songs this time around have steady rhyth­mic grooves that you can tap your foot to — one reason, perhaps, why some people prefer Bar­rett to its predecessor. The problem with this, of course, is that you can never tell if the final result was something that Syd really wanted himself; but, clearly, it was either that or nothing, and overall, I remain amazed at the kind of sacrifice these guys were making for their poor old friend — more artistically satisfying, perhaps, than changing the diapers on an immobilized patient, but also far more depressing.

That said, it is interesting that the three tracks laid down during the first session, February 26, are almost normal — even Gilmour reportedly noticed that and became afraid that they were losing the «Barrett-ness»... so he immediately rushed out and got Syd a pack of Mandrax, just to make sure. (Well, I did make up that last part, so don't get any ideas). ʽBaby Lemonadeʼ and ʽGigolo Auntʼ could have both made excellent singles, with their upbeat attitudes, catchy choruses, and clearly, if briefly, returning Mother-Goose-on-speed spirit. Granted, ʽGigolo Auntʼ runs out of lyrical ideas midway through and becomes an extended blues jam, with Syd in surprising control of his electric lead (Gilmour restricts himself to bass), not quite able to come out with a smoothly flowing solo, but at least consistently staying in key and sometimes churning out «biting» licks that clearly show the spirit was still there. The first half, however, is a nifty little Brit-pop nugget, once again touching upon the complicated and rather psychotic relations between Syd and the female sex: that line about "I almost want you back" is subtly cutting, as it encapsulates the man's tormenting indecisiveness about everything.

On the opposite side of the fence from ʽBaby Lemonadeʼ and ʽGigolo Auntʼ is ʽMaisieʼ, a dark, gloomy blues tune that is essentially Syd's personal tribute to Howlin' Wolf — he even adopts the deepest, bassiest tone that he is capable of for the performance. The groove is never allowed to develop into anything larger than just a groove, but it is interesting to see Syd actually doing impersonations: judging by the style of Madcap, you'd think that theatrical artistry would be the very last thing on his mind at the time. Yet he was strong enough to put on a couple faces for these sessions, and pretty cool faces at that — I'm sure Captain Beefheart, of all people, would have appreciated the grumpy grumble of "Maisie... Maisie... bad luck... bride of a bull...".

As time went by, though, control and focus were inevitably lost, and already tracks like ʽLove Songʼ and ʽIt Is Obviousʼ sound like unfinished ramblings, hastily molded into some sort of shape by the rhythm session of Gilmour and Shirley but, perhaps, more treasurable to us in their rawest form — a hypothesis that you can verify for yourself, since the CD edition of Barrett comes loaded with bonuses, including early acoustic takes on both of these songs and more. Both of them are really just okay in any form, but the man did hit the nail on the head with ʽDominoesʼ: the single saddest moment of this entire record is hearing Rick's quiet, mournful organ swirl by as Syd utters the line "you and I... you and I and dominoes..." Somehow that one line just perfectly captures the idea of total isolation and seclusion, more so than ʽDark Globeʼ or ʽLate Nightʼ, just by way of its tranquil melancholy and obedient submission to one's doom.

One might take offense at Gilmour and Wright's decision to end the album with ʽEffervescing Elephantʼ, a brief nod to circus / music hall music with lyrics that would make Dr. Seuss blush; however, they did so more or less in their own tradition (ʽBikeʼ, remember?) — one final bit of deflation always works wonders for serious statements, and, who knows, perhaps they saw the song as a good luck charm of sorts: with Syd actually writing at least a few songs on general absurdist themes rather than about his own sorry condition, one could entertain a very weak hope that one day he'd be strong enough to snap out of it...

Alas, that day never came. Who knows what might have become of Syd Barrett, had he actually made it and regained a bit of psychic health? Could he have gone on to become a wise and humble and ironic singer-songwriter, something like a UK equivalent of Randy Newman? Would he have embraced New Wave and hired Robert Fripp to play on his sessions? Or are these idle and meaningless questions, since the man was destined not to outlive the Sixties, having died in spirit, if not in body, around the same 27-year mark as Janis, Jimi, and Jim? Whatever be the case, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett together constitute a short, strange, and — when you carefully consider the context — rather terrifying artistic legacy that, hopefully, will not be forgotten as long as people still cut off their own ears and run around naked in the rain and snow.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Ringo Starr: Sentimental Journey

RINGO STARR: SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY (1970)

1) Sentimental Journey; 2) Night And Day; 3) Whispering Grass (Don't Tell The Trees); 4) Bye Bye Blackbird; 5) I'm A Fool To Care; 6) Stardust; 7) Blue Turning Grey Over You; 8) Love Is A Many Splendoured Thing; 9) Dream; 10) You Always Hurt The One You Love; 11) Have I Told You Lately That I Love You; 12) Let The Rest Of The World Go By.

General verdict: So, not a fan of the avantgarde liaison between John and Yoko? Go back to Ringo singing Hoagy Carmichael, you pop slut!

In the place of the age-old and fairly boring «Paul is dead» conspiracy theory, I offer you a new one: The Beatles were broken up not by the egotism of John Lennon, not by the stubbornness of Paul McCartney, not by the resent­ment of George Harrison, not by the ruthless business deals of Allen Klein, not even by the witchcraft of Yoko Ono. Instead, The Beatles were broken up by Elsie Starkey, who had been patiently waiting for ten years only to plant a carefully planned and perfectly targeted strike at a time when it hit the deadliest — so that her allegedly misled and mis­guided offspring could finally come to his senses and start recording decent music for a change. What else could explain the irrefutable fact that Sentimental Journey, Ringo's grand entry into the world of bearded pop oldies, became the first «properly musical» album by any solo Beatle, even beating McCartney's self-titled debut by about three weeks?.. Nothing, and in a world of simplified logic, this proves the theory beyond the slightest shred of reasonable doubt.

Now, in general, Ringo's solo career should not be slighted too much. Ringo's always had charisma, solid drumming potential, and decent taste in pop music. As a songwriter, he came to the table fairly late and never engaged in the deed too often, but when he did write, he was a bit above average (I mean, you'd have to be mentally challenged to work with John and Paul for so long and not having at least a tiny bit of all that talent rub off on you). And even the very idea of Ringo doing some Cole Porter and Hoagy Carmichael on the side is not abominable per se: his limited singing skills could be effectively attuned for comic effect, which could have been a re­freshing change from hearing so many crooners overkilling the material.

The problem with Sentimental Journey is that no effort was undertaken to try and make it «special» in any way. The one and only gimmick of the album was the idea to give each of the twelve songs to a different arranger — ranging from close allies (Paul himself on one track, and George Martin on another) to more distant friends such as Maurice Gibb to classical-pop digni­taries such as Elmer Bernstein to truly unpredictable choices like Quincy Jones (who, apparently, remembers this incident largely in the context of Ringo not being able to properly hold a simple percus­sion groove — grumpy old man). Unfortunately, it is as if the invisible and terrifying presence of loving Mum haunted the studio day and night, night and day, because in the end, despite heavier orchestration on some tracks and lighter on others, you'd have to be a wizard of perception to tell which track was arranged by Maurice Gibb and which one by Quincy Jones. (Cue: ʽBye Bye Blackbirdʼ begins with a strummed banjo and ʽLove Is A Many Splendoured Thingʼ opens with a bass flourish — your associations?).

Furthermore, Ringo's biggest strength — his friendly goofiness — is totally wasted here, since it is painfully clear that, while he most certainly loves his Mum and probably respects this material, he has very little by way of «true intimate connection» with it. (I mean, if he had, what would be the chances of his joining a skiffle band back in 1957?). He is neither able to sing these songs professionally (which is predictable), nor to put a properly goofy spin on them — the best he can do is try to stay in tune (most of the time) and maintain a moderately cheerful attitude. I'm sure Mum and Stepdad must have been delighted, but the rest of the world could only take this as one further sign of Ringo's general incompetence and lack of direction as an artist.

"The great thing was that it got my solo career moving", Ringo later said of the album himself, which, I guess, is as close to an implicit agreement that the album was shit as possible. Techni­cally, he might be right, because Sentimental Journey sold well — after all, it was a Beatle album, and a Beatle album with no genitalia on the front cover and with an actual, obvious song list on the back cover, which was enough to propel it to #7 on the UK charts, a higher position than any subsequent Ringo solo album with the exception of the self-titled Ringo from 1973. Of course, this does not explain why it could not have been possible to get his solo career moving with something just a tiny bit more exciting than a bunch of boring covers of standards. Neither is it a matter of time healing all wounds: the arrangements and vocal performances remain just as corny in retrospect as they were in innovation-heavy 1970. You'd really have to be in (peace and) love with Ringo to be able to get your kicks here.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Marvin Gaye: How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You

MARVIN GAYE: HOW SWEET IT IS TO BE LOVED BY YOU (1965)

1) You're A Wonderful One; 2) How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You); 3) Try It Baby; 4) Baby Don't You Do It; 5) Need Your Lovin'; 6) One Of These Days; 7) No Good Without You; 8) Stepping Closer To Your Heart; 9) Need Somebody; 10) Me And My Lonely Room; 11) Now That You've Won Me; 12) Forever.

General verdict: Some terrific singles, surrounded by respectable almost-not-filler. Down with adult standards, long live teen pop!

With all those easy-listening LPs that Motown allowed Marvin to make, it is almost possible to forget the steady line of minor and major hit singles that the man was churning out for the label. It took almost three years for Motown to come to its senses and put out Gaye's second «proper» R&B album — one that collected all those singles in one place. Not that it is hard to understand the logic behind this strategy: 7" singles with teen-oriented music for poor teens vs. LPs with adult-oriented music for well-to-do adults. But what are you going to do when well-to-do adults just cannot be interested in yet another set of passable takes on old standards? You change your strategy — and see it work: How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You became Marvin's very first album to make the tiniest blip on the charts (peaking at #128, but at #4 on the R&B charts).

The track sequencing pulls no punches: the first four tracks are squarely the four Marvin Gaye singles from 1964, in the exact same chronological order, if not necessarily in the order of their respective awesomeness. ʽYou're A Wonderful Oneʼ was somewhat shamelessly credited to Holland-Dozier-Holland, even if its base melody is directly copied from Chuck Berry's ʽMemphis, Tennesseeʼ; however, the standard trick of pairing Marvin's ecstatic vocals with playfully sexy girl backups works as fine as always — in this case, it is The Supremes supporting the idea that "you're a wonderful one" on an aerobics-worthy slice of teen pop. Somewhat more original (or, at least, less recognizable as a direct rip-off) is the title track — slower, more soulful, with lots of help from The Funk Brothers and The Andantes, and unforgettable because of its sloganeering chorus: just tweak the lyrics a bit, and the whole "how sweet it is to be loved by you" thing could be a ready-made church anthem.

Berry Gordy's ʽTry It Babyʼ (this time, with male backup vocals from The Temptations), in com­parison, is a not particularly exciting blues ballad (its most unusual moment comes in the form of a trumpet solo by Maurice Davis — not the most common thing you encounter on a pop single); but the real breakthrough comes with ʽBaby Don't You Do Itʼ, one of the first Marvin Gaye songs that totally blew the minds of young British teenagers — from The Who to Small Faces to, even­tually, even The Band, everybody was covering it, and for a very good reason: it was arguably the most «tribalistic» song released on Motown to that date. Its groove is based on the standard Bo Diddley beat, somewhat smoothed out for pop consumption but still heavy on the loud drums, angry, choppy guitar chords, and syncopation a-plenty. On top of this, Marvin is singing about dejection, desperation, and suicide, going all-out crazy with negative emotions — which, let's face it, is far more appealing to the rebellious teen than gushing all over the place with romantic sentiment. I personally confess that I far prefer the 1971 cover by The Who, with Leslie West on additional guitar — just because all four members of the band perfectly understood all the poten­tial of the respective instrumental parts, and made good on that; on the other hand, The Who's version does not have those delightful hoo-hooing backup harmonies from The Andantes (and it is a good thing that it does not, because they would sound cheesy against the increased heaviness of the track), and we are not going to make a disservice to either Marvin or Roger by comparing their respective vocal strengths and weaknesses.

As good as the singles are, though, the LP is well worth owning in full, because some of the LP-only tracks are quite interesting on their own. Mickey Stevenson's ʽNo Good Without Youʼ has a certain dark moodiness around it, enough to be spotted by the short-lived British band The Birds (Ronnie Wood's musical birthplace) and turned into a classic «nugget». Another Stevenson track, ʽNeed Somebodyʼ (a collaboration with Ivy Hunter), has an oddly distinctive «electro-acoustic» guitar lick that sounds like the prototype of a ringtone or a PC speaker blip in an arcade game — the song in general is pretty standard, but the guitar part really sounds like nothing else recorded at the time, though, allegedly, that does not have much to do with Marvin Gaye's persona. On the other hand, such tracks as ʽMe And My Lonely Roomʼ and ʽNow That You've Won Meʼ are com­pletely made by Marvin's persona: with this kind of material, he is free from any adult-oriented conventions and can allow himself to go mentally unstable, like, well, a normal human being.

There are still a few concessions to easy-listening every now and then, and the closing track, in my opinion, is highly unsatisfactory: ʽForeverʼ is built according to the already obsolete Fifties doo-wop model, which may have still been somewhat operational in, say, 1962, but in 1964-65 seems completely out of place next to far more exciting models. But then again, I am not saying that the LP as a whole is a flawless masterpiece — rather, as a whole it is a qualitative improve­ment on the filler-padded Stubborn Kinda' Fellow, let alone Marvin's cheerless string of Broad­way records, and a generally healthy musical environment surrounding his big single successes.