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Friday, August 29, 2014

The Black Crowes: The Southern Harmony And Musical Companion

THE BLACK CROWES: THE SOUTHERN HARMONY AND MUSICAL COMPANION (1992)

1) Sting Me; 2) Remedy; 3) Thorn In My Pride; 4) Bad Luck Blue Eyes Goodbye; 5) Sometimes Salvation; 6) Hotel Illness; 7) Black Moon Creeping; 8) No Speak No Slave; 9) My Morning Song; 10) Time Will Tell.

It is hard to argue with an album that shot four singles into the #1 «mainstream rock» chart position, and made it all the way to the top of the charts in 1992 despite neither being a hair metal album, nor a grunge album, nor a Whitney Houston album. It must be a masterpiece, right? One of those traditional rock'n'roll records that's really got it made, breathing new life into the old form and proving that rock'n'roll always smells, but never dies?

All right then, let's start from the beginning. ʽSting Meʼ opens the show with a nasty distorted riff, soon joined by keyboards, lead guitar (from new member Marc Ford), and a supporting female choir for extra gospel power. It's crunchy, powerful rock'n'roll, right? Well, I don't know, but no matter how many times I try to get my heart a-goin' to this song, I feel like there is some key element that is totally missing. It's odd, really — there's a riff, the lead vocalist is singing his heart out, the lead guitarist is blueswailing like crazy, the guitar tones are excellent, and yet the song still drifts by without touching a single nerve. How could that be?

Let's move on to ʽRemedyʼ. This little monster was an even huger hit, and it rocks with the same energy and conviction as ʽSting Meʼ, but throws in a funkier groove, so all the cool black people can join in the fun. But no dice — all I feel is that it is every bit as musically impotent as its pre­decessor. It's got all the formal qualifications, but it doesn't come alive. What the heck?..

My best guess is that over those two years, the Robinson brothers have evolved as arrangers and maybe even as performers, but they're still fucking shitty songwriters as far as I can see. That riff which opens ʽSting Meʼ — it seems technically all right, but it doesn't communicate any parti­cular feeling. I mean, compare it with, say, Keith Richards' riff that opens ʽCan't You Hear Me Knockin'ʼ: that one immediately gave an idea of «don't you mess with me» — free as a bird, dirty, and dangerous. The riff of ʽSting Meʼ, in the meantime, does not suggest anything except «hey, we've actually managed to come up with a riff that nobody did before» (and for a good reason). Besides, once the vocals kick in, it sinks into the background, and the average listener probably ceases paying attention to the musical elements of the song at that point.

Basically, this is the kind of gut reaction I get from every song on here. The rockers all sound technically great, with expert guitar playing and tasteful production. The ballads are all formally soulful, loud, screechy, but never submitting to the disgraceful «power ballad» format (power chords, strings, pompous attitude, all that shit). It should all be good, but there isn't a single «really good» song on here. I have no problems with using it as a background accompaniment, but all the songs ultimately just stick in one big greasy ball of loud distorted guitars and a guy who wails and yells his way through the songs like he's really got something to say, but he just ain't gonna get my attention that way.

A couple of times they come close: if pressed hard to choose one favorite tune, I'd probably go with ʽBlack Moon Creepingʼ, if only because the main distorted metal riff, the accompanying talkbox lead part, and the swampy harmonica generate a unique-sounding trio. But if the goal here was to conjure some sort of voodooistic atmosphere, what with much of the lyrics referring to black magic and stuff, it is as much of a failure as everything else. Maybe it's just the singer's fault: Chris Robinson always tends to sound like a really irritating next door neighbor, his basic emotional range limited to one (1) effect — annoy the living daylights out of you (ʽSometimes Salvationʼ is the worst culprit, a tremendously draggy ballad if there ever was one).

Although this album is usually regarded by fans as one of the highest points of the Crowes' career, I cannot and will not share the respect — I give it a thumbs down and state that, in my humble opinion, this is one of the phoniest, draggiest, most boring «rock and roll» albums I have ever heard in my life from a critically acclaimed «not-too-mainstream» artist (by which I just mean that the Black Crowes, like them or not, belong in an entirely different category from the likes of Bon Jovi). And the best song on the album is the closing anthem ʽTime Will Tellʼ, because it was written by Bob Marley, who, unlike the Robinson brothers, actually knew how to stuff his soul into formally captivating pieces. The rest of these tunes I really don't care if I never get to hear again. Some guy with a similar mindset to mine called them «truck driver material», but I think that by generalizing, he really offended the truck driver elite — the really cool guys that prefer to blast ʽHigh­way To Hellʼ, which is a better song than all of this drivel put together.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Björk: Post

BJÖRK: POST (1995)

1) Army Of Me; 2) Hyper-Ballad; 3) The Modern Things; 4) It's Oh So Quiet; 5) Enjoy; 6) You've Been Flirting Again; 7) Isobel; 8) Possibly Maybe; 9) I Miss You; 10) Cover Me; 11) Headphones.

Listening to ʽArmy Of Meʼ, I was once again reminded why I generally feel cold about most instru­mental electronic music, but have nothing in general against the use of electronics in an «art pop» song, context, among other things. Electronic melodies / loops / samples on their own have this «inorganic» feel; they can paint a vivid, realistic picture (usually having something to do with robots, astral space, or nanotechnologies), but they cannot serve as a proper reflection of the human soul (when was the last time you actually cried to something by Aphex Twin?). However, when electronic elements are combined with human soul elements, the result can be staggeringly great — like a confrontation between the organic and the inorganic, where it does not even matter who wins (based on the outcome, the piece can qualify as comedy or tragedy).

ʽArmy Of Meʼ samples John Bonham (the drum part from ʽWhen The Levee Breaksʼ), throws in an almost industrial bassline, and adds swooshing synth effects — but this cold, heavy, sensually unpleasant atmosphere would just be atmosphere if not for the vocals, which seem to be fighting against the onslaught. The question is — is the music supportive of the threatening "and if you complain once more, you'll meet an army of me" chorus, or is the chorus fighting the music? I like to fondle the latter choice — that the brave little Björk is arrogantly bluffing against unsur­mountable odds, singing as she is against that bassline than in tune with it. The electronic arrangement can then be regarded as a battleground: with the aid of Nellee Hooper, Björk meticulously puts up these impressive, but lifeless paysages, and then hops across from one end of the frame to another, not to «breathe life into them», but to grace them with her own life, so to say. This song, as well as several others on this album, represents one of the finest syntheses of electronic music and «living spirit» I've ever heard.

If I had to choose just one album to represent «the true Björk», Post would be it. It is all over the place, it is in constant search of itself, it is relatively accessible, and, most importantly, it does not show an artist losing her head over the unexpected immensity of her talent. In fact, no better de­scription can there be of the big difference between Post and Homogenic than simply a request to compare the album covers. On Post, you see a human exploring a psychedelic world. On Homo­genic, you see a psychedelic pseudo-human exploring one of its artificial creations (a faux-Japanese environment). Both albums are fabulous, but when it comes to really loving my Björk, I prefer a human avatar, not a distant idol.

For one thing, that human avatar gets us such delights as ʽIt's Oh So Quietʼ (a cover of an old Horst Winter tune, best known for the 1951 Betty Hutton version) — goofy theatrical jazz with an immense joy-punch packed in; or the quiet chamber music piece ʽYou've Been Flirting Againʼ, which shows how a cello can be a girl's best friend in a psychologically difficult situation; or ʽPossibly Maybeʼ, a song that I'm sure Billie Holiday would love to have covered, given the right circumstances — such frail, elegant melancholy, perfectly integrated with the icy electronic keyboards. They are all weird, eccentric compositions, but they are also all deeply human and very easy to relate to, though not all at once (due to the great mood diversity).

Even when she does drift off into fantasy land, like on the «mythological» ʽIsobelʼ, a portrait of a mysterious being stuck somewhere between Sleeping Beauty and Shelob, the required effect is achieved with a catchy chorus, a lush orchestral arrangement, and vocal harmonies with just a tiny trace of dissonance. Plus, there is always this «childish» approach, so that when she sings ʽmy name Isobel, married to myselfʼ, you get a clear vision of an imaginative kid living out a complex fantasy, dancing it all the way to school to those merry trip-hop rhythms.

She can be cold and distant, of course, as early as on ʽEnjoyʼ, a song that rocks heavier and breathier than anything else here, while Björk's vocal inflections and the occasional brass notes make the atmosphere comparable to Portishead's second album. But it is not really typical of this particular album. Much more typical is something like ʽHyper-Balladʼ, whose lyrics pack all the important ingredients: "living on a mountain" (where else?), "little things like car-parts, bottles and cutlery" (no great artist can get by without paying homage to the little things), "I go through all this before you wake up" (because there's definitely gotta be a me and there's definitely gotta be a you), and "I imagine what my body would sound like slamming against those rocks" (be­cause nothing helps as much to get beyond your cumbersome ego as hypothetically contem­plating suicide every once in a while). All of this delivered in the usual childlike voice and set in an electronic soup that eventually goes techno-beat-ish on us (without a particularly good reason, I'd say, but somebody must have thought it added «development»).

Anyway, the really big difference between Debut and Post is that the latter sheds some of the former's kiddie joy and adds some morose maturity, but it is a kind of depth that does not come (yet) at the expense of accessibility. Words like «depressed» or «somber» do not do justice to this music — Björk is still quite a party animal, it's just that she's got her own party, to which we are all invited only if we learn and accept her wacko rules. An «intraverted extravert», or something like that. When she sings "My headphones / They saved my life / Your tape / It lulled me to sleep", it looks like she really means it — basically, life begins when you put on your head­phones, not blast it all out across the street. Or maybe that's just what I'd like to think. Regardless, a big thumbs up to this colorful, meaningful, deeply creative and unusual musical world. And, most importantly, so personal and human — I'd love to love, say, the Animal Collective for their electronic wizardry with the same strength, but ultimately they just produce these heartless abstractions, so, as Ray Davies said, "you keep all your smart modern freak folks, give me Björk Guðmundsdóttir". Or something to that end, anyway.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Black Sabbath: Live Evil

BLACK SABBATH: LIVE EVIL (1982)

1) E5150; 2) Neon Knights; 3) N.I.B.; 4) Children Of The Sea; 5) Voodoo; 6) Black Sabbath; 7) War Pigs; 8) Iron Man; 9) The Mob Rules; 10) Heaven And Hell; 11) Sign Of The Southern Cross/Heaven And Hell (cont.); 12) Paranoid; 13) Children Of The Grave; 14) Fluff.

Two strange things, both marked with the tags «Black Sabbath» and «live», happened prior to the release of Live Evil. The first was Live At Last, a compilation of old live recordings with Ozzy from 1973, released in 1980 without the band's consent by their former manager Patrick Meehan. The recordings were all right, actually, but since the band originally decided not to use them, Tony was understandably pissed off about the incident. Second, in early 1982 Ozzy, going through his batshit-and-doveshit crazy stage, decided to release a solo live album that consisted of nothing but Sabbath songs, and Tony was understandably pissed off about that Brad Gillis guy trampling on his classic riffs.

So, operating in vengeful mode, Tony gave the green light to the release of Black Sabbath's first «proper» / «officially sanctioned» live album — one on which Ronnie James Dio would have the right to not only sing new material, but the old classics as well. Naturally, this would have to be a double album (what with the band's impressive backlog and all), and naturally, it would have to prove, once and for all, who was the real master of his domain. Unfortunately, the album pola­rized the audience in a way that Heaven And Hell could not — up to this day, the debate about whether or not Ronnie should or should not have put his mark on Ozzy-era classics is still raging like there was no tomorrow. Then again, it is always pleasant to see just how much Black Sabbath still lives on in the hearts of the old and the young alike.

One thing that Live Evil does show, quite obviously, is that Ronnie was no Ozzy when it came to establishing the share of one's presence in the band. Ozzy, when on stage, always seemed a little (or a lot) stoned, seriously enthusiastic about the music, but also mindful of the fact that he was only one out of four — a fact that was all too easy to be mindful of since those four guys started off together as equals. Ronnie, on the other hand, clearly viewed the stage — just as it was in the old Rainbow days — as a battlefield, where the winner took it all. And subsequently, Live Evil is all about Ronnie James Dio. The stage banter. The singing, so loud it occasionally drowns out Tony's metal guitar (!). The incessant ad-libbing and posturing, often performed on top of Tony's classic riffs, so that anybody who has the misfortune of choosing this album for an introduction to the Sabbath sound will know the band as «the one with that Valhalla guy» rather than the world's most amazing riff machine provider.

But you know what? I don't care, and you shouldn't either. I find Ronnie's big ego, so amusing to behold in such a tiny body, at worst hilarious, and at best awesomely overpowering. Yes, every once in a while you get the urge to strangle the little guy, especially when he is wailing right on top of the ʽBlack Sabbathʼ tritones. Yet he seems so sincere, passionate, and ferocious in his stage attitude that anything can be forgiven. Of course, the difference between Ronnie and Ozzy is heaven and earth (heaven and hell?), but there is at least one additional justification for Ronnie's almost grotesque «oversinging» on the classics — to tell the truth, all those early Geezer lyrics are so atrocious that you either have to be Ozzy to sing them in an appropriately stoned manner, or, if you are Ronnie, you just have to add a twist and a flourish to each word so that the listener be overwhelmed by the twists and flourishes rather than be stumped by the idiocy of it all.

To that end, Ronnie delves into ʽN.I.B.ʼ with such abandon as if he really were Lucifer, or at least that werecat creature that Michael Jackson turns into in the ʽThrillerʼ video. The performance is so over the top that it is frighteningly hilarious one minute, and then hilariously frightening in the next one — he's really ripping the throats out of those words. When we get to ʽBlack Sabbathʼ, instead of Ozzy's paranoid madman we see a genuinely possessed spirit, somebody who's sold his soul to the devil not one hour ago. And who but Ronnie could growl the "I AM IRON MAN" bit without the special metal effect on the vocals and it would still come out ironish? Just to experience that guy sweat it out is... quite an experience, and I see no reason whatsoever to stand firmly on any one side of the debate. Of course, those are interpretations, and one has no more reason to listen to Ronnie sing ʽWar Pigsʼ or ʽChildren Of The Graveʼ than to, say, Ray Charles sing ʽYesterdayʼ or Paul McCartney sing ʽWords Of Loveʼ — but in all these cases, a certain reason does exist, and what Dio does to these Ozzy songs looks perfectly legit to me.

Probably the only grave misfire is ʽParanoidʼ, a song that Black Sabbath Mark II still felt obliged to perform before the expecting fans but also one which, with its speedy melody and personal lyrics, simply could not yield to a Dio reinterpretation. He simply does not know what to do with the song, whose tempo gives him no time to properly savor any of the syllables, and delivers it in the usual devilish growl, well fit for every other tune but not for ʽParanoidʼ. Then again, it's just three minutes, and you really can't call yourself Black Sabbath and not do ʽParanoidʼ in a Black Sabbath live show, Ronnie or no Ronnie, so we will just have to live with that.

As to what concerns the new material from Heaven And Hell and Mob Rules, it is usually done in close accordance with the originals — ʽHeaven And Hellʼ being the big exception, as it was restructured in order to spotlight Tony's numerous soloing exercises. He plays lots of alternately «brutal» and «melodic» passages, none of which defy imagination, but he's got enough crafts­manship and he never sticks around one particular key for too long to induce boredom, so I guess that ʽHeaven And Hellʼ, with its leisurely pace and adaptable structure, is indeed the best choice to «feature Mr. Tony Iommi». The rest mostly feature Mr. Ronnie James Dio, always eager to prove that it is his apocalyptic vision, and nobody else's, that is now the dominant force in this band. Oh, for the record, ʽN.I.B.ʼ does not feature the introductory solo by Mr. Geezer Butler (so much for the «Geezer Butler!» introduction from Ronnie), but ʽWar Pigsʼ does feature an unne­cessary drum solo from Mr. Vinny Appice, Bill Ward's replacement and a somewhat weak link in this show, but not so much because of poor playing (the playing's ok) as rather because of a fairly tinny sound to the drums, so that it is hard to take them seriously.

Speaking of which, the album itself allegedly went through a whole series of transformations, not the least of which was the infamous rumor that Dio was secretly tweaking the final mixes in order to bring his voice even more to the front — a rumor that he violently denied but which I personal­ly have no trouble believing, and which added to the ongoing rift between him and Iommi. Later on, the album was released on CD in abridged form, then reinstated, then remixed with either more or less audience interaction (I don't remember which), then reinstated again, but I guess that, one way or the other, I am listening to the «real thing» in the end, whatever «real» might be. In any case, Live Evil certainly deserves a thumbs up, despite the mucking-up of ʽParanoidʼ, the tin drums, and the abysmal front cover which, if I am correct, actually tries to depict the protagonists of Black Sabbath songs — I'm sure I recognize the war pigs, but is that an Iron Man or a Neon Knight in front? Or an amalgam of both? Whatever. Gimme a Bill Ward in tights and an Ozzy in platform shoes over this cartoonishness any time of day.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Bloodrock: U.S.A.

BLOODROCK: U.S.A. (1971)

1) It's A Sad World; 2) Don't Eat The Children; 3) Promises; 4) Crazy 'Bout You Babe; 5) Hangman's Dance; 6) American Burn; 7) Rock & Roll Candy Man; 8) Abracadaver; 9) Magic Man; 10) Erosion.

The last and most colorful — at least, in regard to the sleeve — album by the original Bloodrock, before Rutledge and Pickens left the band to a cruel and miserable fate. No major changes in style, but you can see a slight increase in the number of tracks, which indicates the transition to a more compact, less epic scale of things. Even the longest song here, ʽMagic Manʼ, is not a spooky Gothic phantasmagoria à la ʽD.O.A.ʼ or ʽBreach Of Leaseʼ, but a restrained, collected blues-rocker, the most «phantasmagoric» piece of which might be the opening electric piano solo (si­milar in style to and possibly influenced by Ray Manzarek's solo in ʽRiders On The Stormʼ, though, naturally, nowhere near as brilliantly constructed).

The thing is, with this record Bloodrock seem to be taking their «social duties» more seriously than ever — song after song carries a flash of some apocalyptic vision or a scrap of some prophetic message. With Bloodrock's lack of proper atmospheric skills, these messages never carry the convincing force of a ʽGimmie Shelterʼ or a Dark Side Of The Moon, but at least it helps Rutledge, Pickens, and Co. to preserve the «snappy» attitude of their best efforts so far and deliver the goods with enough energy and feeling to shoo away Mr. Languid Boredom.

Not that I could name any particular highlights. For some weird reason, the most memorable bit on the album for me has always been the maniacal laughter fit at the end of ʽAmerican Burnʼ which I have always associated with the album sleeve (which, when fully spread, depicts a very green Mephistopheles embracing the Capitol with one hand and performing lobotomy with the other) even without realizing that the lyrics of the song are indeed referring to the same cover. Which is a little embarrassing, since the song is riff-based, after all, and should be memorable for its twin guitar/organ melodic line instead. But it isn't.

Still, we could at least namedrop ʽDon't Eat The Childrenʼ, a fairly upbeat and jolly tune to be matched with such a title, especially when it comes to the fussy honky-tonk piano solo; the harsh funk-rocker ʽRock & Roll Candy Manʼ; and the closest thing here to an actual «epic» — ʽHang­man's Danceʼ, which borrows the chords from the coda to Yes's ʽStarship Trooperʼ but puts them to different use, replacing the beauty-focused futuristic gaze of Yes with a grittier, more grounded perspective on current things (not that Bloodrock ever created anything as breathtaking as ʽStar­ship Trooperʼ, but at least they tried).

But in the end, my thumbs up for this album would be explained not by any individual songs, but rather just by the record showing some character. It's all mild and never rocks you to the core, yet most of the songs are infused with a mix of sadness, anger, and irony that you wouldn't expect from a completely «generic» American hard rock album. The lack of a single distinctive «peak» like ʽD.O.A.ʼ may actually help things — the music here does not get by on goofy (gory) gim­mickry, but rather on this sense of sadness that subtly inhabits the melodies and even Rutledge's vocal deliveries, which get progressively less brawny and more tragic. As it is, USA may not be a great album, or it may not even be Bloodrock's best album, but it may be that one Bloodrock album which has finally found itself a general purpose. Ironically, God (or Mephisto) simply would not have that, so USA would also be the last LP from classic era Bloodrock as we know it.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Blossom Toes: If Only For A Moment

BLOSSOM TOES: IF ONLY FOR A MOMENT (1969)

1) Peace Loving Man; 2) Kiss Of Confusion; 3) Listen To The Silence; 4) Love Bomb; 5) Billy Boo The Gunman; 6) Indian Summer; 7) Just Above My Hobby Horse's Head; 8) Wait A Minute.

Is this really the same band that was ever so clean but two years ago? Looks like somebody de­cided to get dirty after all. The drummer is different, but other than that, it's all the same guys writing and performing the songs — yet apparently, they have switched to heavier stuff, and I might mean that in reference to chemical substances, too. No more whimsy, afternoon tea, and music hall; we are going hard and heavy all the way, and if you want my opinion on what is the closest prototype of this sound, I'd say... early Chicago. (Incidentally, Chicago did release their debut LP in April of 1969, and If Only For A Moment dates from July of the same year.) Or any of those loud, lumpy 1968-69 bands who took after Hendrix but couldn't get their psychedelia to properly roll, rather than just rock, and ended up sounding like World War I-era tanks next to Jimi's elegant cruiser models.

Not only that, but somebody also told them they had to get serious — everybody's doing it and all, so a proper LP striving for artistic recognition has to get away from «frozen little dogs» and make a statement of high social significance. The first song already, as you can tell by the title, is a sarcastic pacifist anthem ("take this bomb, drop it on old Hong Kong" — I'm sure they meant "Saigon", but maybe they got sidetracked by Hoagy Carmichael), and then the «bomb» motive surfaces in a different, but related, context on ʽLove Bombʼ (which we need to make things right), and then they also cover a song by Richie Havens, in the name of peace, love, and understanding. Overall, it's all starting to make sense now.

Unfortunately, this self-conscious transformation into a heavy blues-rock outfit with psychedelic overtones never feels honest — there is not a single song here that would convincingly prove that the Blossom Toes keep on doing, or at least searching for, «their thing». ʽPeace Loving Manʼ, which was the single, is moderately catchy, but instead of an alternately horrifying and optimi­stically soulful anthem to the evils of war of joys and peace, they end up creating some sort of vaudeville number, with horrible vocals on the verses (Brian Belshaw sings them like a terminal stage TB patient with electrodes attached to his toes) and a chorus that still can't help but carry traces of merry music hall. Granted, when you throw in the chaotic bridge sections with «spooky» whispered vocals and shit, the track ultimately emerges as an intriguing musical freak mutant, but since that could have hardly been the original intention (Bonzo Dog Band is not an inspiration for these people), the result is still a failure.

Here is what I really appreciate about the album: the broken riff of ʽBilly Boo The Gunmanʼ, which, together with the cowbell, seems like the forgotten grandaddy of Blue Öyster Cult; the little quasi-Elizabethan guitar dance melody that crops up in the corners of ʽIndian Summerʼ and seems like the forgotten great-great-uncle of Jethro Tull circa Thick As A Brick; and... that's more or less about it. There is a lot of different musical ideas scattered around, but they never combine into anything worth a serious discussion, and the song lengths can be exhausting — nowhere more so than on ʽLove Bombʼ, an «epic» that takes like millions of years to build up... to what? A happy carnivalesque chorus that goes: "What we need is a love BOMB / We don't have any and we need SOME / Easily operated, purified love BOMB"? It doesn't even matter that these lyrics stink to highest of heavens (how does one go about purifying a bomb?); it matters that the chorus in general, music, words, singing, is a laugh rather than a prayer.

Overall, the transformation is a disaster: at least ʽPeace Loving Manʼ and ʽLove Bombʼ are so bad they actually give food for thought and curses, but most of the other songs fall into that most dreadful of categories — «non-descript» — that condemns the record to total oblivion. Even the hard-rocking guitar solos feel like second-hand imitations of Hendrix, Clapton, and the Frisco people, without any success in finding one's own ground. And even if the songwriting on We Are Ever So Clean was never all that good, the album's head-spinning kaleidoscopic programme could easily and harmlessly trick you into thinking those were great songs — here, gruesomely stretched out song lengths and repetitive passages could not even provide a decent soundtrack to a reefer-based experience; thumbs down all the way.

Naturally, the album neither managed to sell nor become any sort of cult favorite — at which point the best thing that the poor Blossom Toes could probably do was to dissolve, so they dis­solved. From then on, you could look for Jim Cregan in the ranks of Family (whom he joined in time to record their last and arguably weakest album, It's Only A Movie), Cockney Rebel (with whom he recorded ʽMake Me Smileʼ), and finally, Rod Stewart (whom he faithfully accompanied all the way down to the lowest depths of his career, Camouflage included). Brian Godding, on the other hand, chose a less flashy pop route and went on to hone his skills in various jazz and prog rock outfits (even including Magma, that enigmatic French band, at one point). Which, I should add, hardly excuses him from the embarrassment of having both ʽPeace Loving Manʼ and ʽLove Bombʼ credited all to himself.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Agnetha Fältskog: Eyes Of A Woman

AGNETHA FÄLTSKOG: EYES OF A WOMAN (1985)

1) One Way Love; 2) Eyes Of A Woman; 3) Just One Heart; 4) I Won't Let You Go; 5) The Angels Cry; 6) Click Track; 7) We Should Be Together; 8) I Won't Be Leaving You; 9) Save Me (Why Don't Ya); 10) I Keep Turning Off Lights; 11) We Move As One.

The proper way to go about reviewing this album is sifting through the list of people who con­tributed to the songwriting. This time around, perhaps spurred on by Agnetha's proven potential for commercial success on her own, the array of contenders was really impressive: Elvis Costello (a self-proclaimed ABBA fan — ʽOliver's Armyʼ, remember?), Jeff Lynne, Eric Stewart of 10cc (who also produced the album), Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues, jazz guitarist Phil Palmer, and even the songwriting core of the classic Asia team (Wetton and Downes). Understandably, who could resist the charms of that hot blonde ABBA chick? All she needed to do was leave a recording of ʽI've Been Waiting For Youʼ on their answering machine.

So far, so good. Now for the inauspicious news. First, the contribution by Costello — pretty much the only artist of the lot to have anything to do with «cutting edge» in contemporary music — was not used. (Instead, it ended up recorded by Billy Bremner of Rockpile, and, sure enough, it failed to chart — guess those music industry advisor people know their stuff after all). I have no idea whether poor Elvis ended up shredding all of his bedroom and bathroom ABBA posters, but in any case, the decision was a little symbolic: even if the song was not all that great, the fact that Hayward and Stewart got the preference over Costello meant that the lady did not feel comfor­table about overstepping the boundaries of «suave romance».

Second, by 1985 Eric Stewart had pretty much squandered away his reputation, having made the transition from smartass musical innovation to generic adult contemporary troubadouring (and in a year from then, he would go on to produce one of the worst albums of Paul McCartney's solo career — certainly not a coincidence). Of the two songs that he contributes, ʽI Won't Be Leaving Youʼ is a predictably late 10cc-ish corny ballad, more fit for a Disney cartoon than a respectable pop album, and ʽSave Meʼ is a predictably late 10cc-ish corny dance rocker, more fit for a Weird Al satirical cover (if he could only find a hook to latch onto, that is) than a... oh well, you'd have to have an original in order to do a cover anyway, I guess.

Fortunately, we still have old Jeff to count upon for salvation: his ʽOne Way Loveʼ is at least written with a nod to the old Motown and the old ABBA, and has a fun, catchy melody, sup­ported with guitar jangle (in addition to pesky synths) and a sax outro. Hayward's ʽAngels Cryʼ, like any song written by Hayward, is also written with a complex vocal melody in mind, although I certainly wish they'd mixed Agnetha in a better way, with the vocals more upfront and less personality-effacing echo on them. On the other hand, the Asia song (ʽWe Move As Oneʼ) is one of those big fat Asia anthems that has a lot of pomp, but not a lot of interesting substance, and Agnetha lacks the big Wetton voice to make you fall under the illusion that this whole grandio­sity shenanigan really deserves its poise.

Recapitulating, I conclude that out of all suitors, Jeff Lynne is the most easily adaptable to take the lady's hand, but if dark glasses and big beards put her off, Justin Hayward is the second best candidate, whereas Wetton, Downes, and Eric Stewart should have been given the boot right away — certainly they would at least deserve to catch the same train as Costello. But actually, the best track on the entire album is probably ʽClick Trackʼ (co-written by Jack Ince and Phil Palmer), an unassuming pop rocker with sarcastic lyrics and a light, fun, not-give-a-damn attitude, like a slightly more musically conservative Tom Tom Club or something.

Bottomline is, the album's not awful, which is already quite an achievement, given that the record could have been easily filled up with run-of-the-mill power ballads and all sorts of «adult con­temporary» crap. Well, it does have a bit of each, but the general idea — to gather contributions from different established songwriters with different styles — was right, I think, because it at least gives Eyes Of A Woman a flair of unpredictability, so very important for a mainstream pop album. Too bad she didn't get Prince to produce it instead of Eric Stewart, but then, Prince pro­bably likes to accept his royalties in flesh rather than in cash, and Agnetha Fältskog is, above all, a proper, well-behaved lady, not accustomed to grinding with strangers.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Black Box Recorder: The Facts Of Life

BLACK BOX RECORDER: THE FACTS OF LIFE (2000)

1) The Art Of Driving; 2) Weekend; 3) The English Motorway System; 4) May Queen; 5) Sex Life; 6) French Rock'n'Roll; 7) The Facts Of Life; 8) Straight Life; 9) Gift Horse; 10) The Deverell Twins; 11) Goodnight Kiss.

This is like a carbon copy of England Made Me, except this time everything is different. Well, musically the only big difference is that the band relies more on electronics — creatively prog­rammed drums and digital keyboards threaten to push the guitar sound out completely on the first few tracks, although acoustic and electric guitars still find a way to creep in through the back door, eventually. But if you thought this change in texture would make the band sound colder (as a transition to a more electronic sound often does), you couldn't be more wrong.

In comparison with England Made Me, The Facts Of Life is a downright optimistic, positively charged album. Not because England was such an epitome of depression, and certainly not be­cause the band now offers anything like a «happy» view of the world — no, they still sound like the same bunch of resigned shut-ins, with no intention whatsoever to come out into the sun and play the usual game of life. The difference is that, faced with the choice of "kill yourself or get over it", The Facts Of Life makes a clear decision in the direction of "getting over it" (I could not even exclude the possibility that the decision was consciously chosen so as to avoid the tag of «suicide propagandists» that some media sources were only too happy to attach to the band).

In a way, the differences are subtle — and how could they not be, when this is, after all, the same band, with the same distinctive, individualistic vocalist and the same idea that music should be an honest reflection of life itself? But sometimes a spade is just a spade, and when, on the tenebrous ballad ʽStraight Lifeʼ, Sarah coos "it's a beautiful morning, it's a beautiful day", it is un­reasonable to look for any hidden irony. Instead, this is a quiet, self-contained celebration of the «dream home» — separation from all the irritants ("away from alternative culture, transient people coming in and out of our lives...") and chilling out in the safeness and cuddliness of your densely woven cocoon. Irony? More like utopian escapism, if you ask me. Some people actually like to "live in a tin on top of the wardrobe", especially those that are convinced that living anywhere else exposes you to misery and suffering.

If there is one song that I feel reminded of while listening to this album, it is... Bob Dylan's ʽLay Lady Layʼ — the synthesized strings that open ʽThe Art Of Drivingʼ kind of echo those Nashville steel guitars that provide the soft, springy foundation for Dylan's love ballad. I daresay it is just a coincidence, but in reality, the two songs share more than just a couple of chords — both are soft, gallant pleas to the imaginary listener, begging him/her to give in, seducing and becalming the listener. From that point of view, a "stay lady stay, stay while the night is still ahead" is not that different from a "you've been driving way too fast, you've been taking things too far". The entire album is just that — a big old "slow down" message. Slow down, drop out, tuck in, get off, and stay under. There's actual beauty to be contemplated in all this.

To make things more convincing, Nixey shifts her singing technique, melting a few blocks of ice and transforming them to breathy steam — songs like ʽWeekendʼ are purringly sexy, even if the singer immediately issues a warning ("careful not to touch, we've drunk enough"), and few other people could make a repeated line like "Friday night, Saturday morning" sound so mysterious — is it longing? yearning? boredom? hypnotism? whatever it is, it's darkly enchanting, as is ʽThe English Motorway Systemʼ, a Buddhist anthem to the art of existing and surviving on the high­way — especially efficient if you play it back to back with Deep Purple's ʽHighway Starʼ, as an effective illustration of how the exact same object can trigger such different visions. And even if "the English motorway system is an accident waiting to happen", this is not a horrific realisation, but rather just one more of those "facts of life" that you learn in the course of "detached obser­ving". It's a highway anthem all right, yet at the same time it's a song that could have just as well be done by any qualified master of «ambient pop», like Brian Eno.

So as not to fall completely into the trap of discussing lyrics rather than music (and there is a lot to discuss here, believe me), I will just state what seems obvious — the chief musical instrument here is Nixey's voice, through and through; otherwise, ʽMay Queenʼ would be a mere rip-off of the Beatles' ʽDear Prudenceʼ (whose guitar chords it is quite unashamed to pilfer), and ʽGift Horseʼ would merely be a pretty instrumental, stuck somewhere in between New Age, adult contemporary, and baroque pop — it is the singing that transforms them into gorgeous fantasies of romantic escapism. Most beautiful of the lot, though, is saved for last: for ʽGoodnight Kissʼ, Sarah packs so much tenderness that by this time, I believe, every single listener should be subscribing to the Church of Black Box Recorder, buying all their records, stocking up on cereals, water, and toilet paper, and boarding up all doors and windows. "Use your imagination, we can go anywhere" — it's all in the mind, you know.

Of course, if I were hard pressed to only choose one, I'd still go with England Made Me, for all the extra darkness and frost. But The Facts Of Life really dwells in the same darkness and frost: all it does is shine a little light inside the darkness and get a bit of a fire going in the midst of the frost, because, well, you know, otherwise it's "kill yourself" and we don't wanna do that. So es­sentially they just constitute a solid premise and a logical sequel, and the «choice» is a fickle idea anyway — let us just simplify things and go with another thumbs up.