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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Bruce Springsteen: The Ghost Of Tom Joad

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: THE GHOST OF TOM JOAD (1995)

1) The Ghost Of Tom Joad; 2) Straight Time; 3) Highway 29; 4) Youngstown; 5) Sinaloa Cowboys; 6) The Line; 7) Balboa Park; 8) Dry Lightning; 9) The New Timer; 10) Across The Border; 11) Galveston Bay; 12) My Best Was Never Good Enough.

Perhaps another solo acoustic album, a return to the simpler-than-simple values of Nebraska, was precisely what Bruce needed at the time — to help cleanse out some of that «generic rock» and «adult contemporary» residue that had accumulated to disturbing levels over the previous ten years. Maybe so, and maybe it is even so intricately construed that there would be no Rising without Tom Joad, no reconvening of the E Street Band after a fresh start, and, oh gosh, no Tom Morello fireworks on subsequent live and studio reinventions of the title track. And you have to admit, Tom Morello fireworks are exciting, even if you find them silly.

Nevertheless, to like this album you have to be very, very warm to the idea of solo acoustic Springsteen — without the pop-rock hooks, without The Big Man, without the devilish energy, and, I have to say, without most of the things that make a Boss out of a mere Bruce. Yes, «naked Bruce» is a very positive, humanistic soul, and his spiritual connection to Tom Joad and all those waiting for the chimes of freedom is natural and almost certainly sincere. But last time I checked, The Ghost Of Tom Joad was billed as a new musical album with twelve new songs on it, and this is what we are here for, songs. Melodies. Moods. Chords. And a little freshness.

Instead of this, we get hardcore — real hardcore. Aside from the instrumentation, which is actu­al­ly a little less sparse than on Nebraska (some occasional percussion, some occasional accor­deon, and a lot of hazy, foggy synthesizer background, fortunately, pushed very deep in the back­ground so it does not even begin to threaten to overshadow the gentle guitar picking), this is a record that serves one and only one noble, but narrow purpose: make you, the listening receptacle, deeply feel the sad and lonesome plight of the common man. First, the ghost of Tom Joad is summoned as a non-living witness (and potential protector), and then, one by one, we go through a gallery of characters, already known to us all too well, I'm afraid — but this time, there is no getting away from the characters, because nothing stands in the way between them and you. No­thing except a little bit of soft, quiet guitar plucking to get you in the mood. Well, there has to be some difference between listening to this record or to an audiobook version of Grapes Of Wrath (personally, I'd still prefer the latter).

Okay, so it might be fine not to have any original melodies. A few of these songs are almost exactly the same, and many more just recycle the chords of gazillions of folk tunes that people were composing and re-composing before Woody Guthrie, after Woody Guthrie, and being Woody Guthrie. It is not technically impossible, though, to reinvent these melodies one more time in some new context. But that is not Bruce's point here — no, the point is to strip them down to the barest of the bare, cut straight to the heart and stay there, wiggling the knife a little to the left and a little to the right, until the very end. The problem is, when you just do it like that, the process is not very interesting to watch.

It is useless to discuss these songs one by one: all of them set and hold exactly the same gray melancholic mood, mixing a little bit of hope for a brighter future to the desolation and despera­tion of present conditions. Are the lyrics any good? Sometimes they are, sometimes they aren't; even for an undoubtedly talented person such as Bruce, it gets hard to find new ways to state the same common old truths (so sometimes he resorts to almost literally quoting Steinbeck). It really does not matter, though: be they randomly strung together bunches of dusty clichés or a genuine verbal revolution, they are always delivered in exactly the same way, and you know what way it is. The way you'd expect a singer to sing after he'd just finished unloading a couple of trucks or climbed out of a coal mine. Nothing bad about that, but... maybe not for 50 minutes without a single second of respite.

Unfortunately, I do not subscribe to the idea that anything (a) acoustic, (b) relating to the plight of the simple person, (c) «composed» and performed by Bruce Springsteen should automatically be praised to high heaven because it is so sincere, emotional, and deep. Sincere, perhaps; but way too predictable and formulaic to deserve to be called emotional, and «deep» only if you have had no prior experiences with folk music whatsoever. Moreover, I have a gut feeling that with the level of the man's undeniable talent, he could crank another Ghost Of Tom Joad maybe once every couple of months, and would we be supposed to cheer every single goddamn time? My decision, made up a long time ago, still stands: Bruce Springsteen has too little diversity, subtlety, or (very importantly) sense of humor in his bones to make successful acoustic albums. At least Nebraska had an element of surprise to it (and, actually, some bits of composing — ʽAtlantic Cityʼ alone is worth Ghost in its entirety), but this here is just totally pedestrian stuff, and my conscience will not bother me if I reinforce a thumbs down judgement here. Just do yourself a favor and go read (or re-read) some Steinbeck instead. Or hear the electric version of the title track with Morello — at least, you know, that's entertainment.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Brinsley Schwarz: Brinsley Schwarz

BRINSLEY SCHWARZ: BRINSLEY SCHWARZ (1970)

1) Hymn To Me; 2) Shining Brightly; 3) Rock And Roll Women; 4) Lady Constant; 5) What Do You Suggest; 6) Mayfly; 7) Ballad Of A Hasbeen Beauty Queen.

I like it how the band was named «Brinsley Schwarz», even if all the songs were actually written by Nick Lowe. But, to be fair, «Nick Lowe» sounds far less cool than «Brinsley Schwarz»; in fact, I don't even think that anybody's first reaction to the name of the band would be «oh, that's pro­bably the name of one of the guys in the band», because there's just no way in hell that any single living person could have a name like «Brinsley Schwarz». Of course, guitarist Brinsley Schwarz had exactly that name, which makes it all the more exciting, and in 1965, he had formed a band called Kippington Lodge, which made the phrase «Hello, I'm Brinsley Schwarz from Kipping­ton Lodge» the coolest thing on Earth since any number of lines from select Dickens novels. After the band's first singles flopped, though (they were written in the regular Britpop style after the Kinks and the Small Faces, and did not manage to be distinctive enough), Kippington Lodge was abandoned in favor of something more ambitious and less overtly English — and, after all, Schwarz is not much of an English family name, anyway.

Most people are introduced to Brinsley Schwarz by means of the label «pub rock», which was attached to them around 1971 and never really meant much of anything other than playing in pubs rather than large entertainment venues. Personally, I have always misunderstood «pub rock» as something down-to-earth, rowdy, and bawdy — anything from ʽHonky Tonk Womenʼ to Slade and Geordie — but even if you reject that definition and go along with just the «small scale» aspects of pub rock, it is still hard to view Brinsley Schwarz's debut album as anything of the kind, since it is clearly a very ambitious, if not a very successful, project.

In a nutshell, Brinsley Schwarz tries to combine country, folk, and «progressive» influences from both sides of the Atlantic — like a softer, smoother, subtler version of Traffic, largely avoiding that band's blues, rock, and R&B roots while still trying to hover in the air several feet above the label of «easy listening». They have this laid back, clean, professional, intelligent, if not all that exciting, sound going on, and sometimes they actually even manage to sound like early Yes — mainly on ʽLady Constantʼ, the first of the album's two epic pieces. At other times they manage to sound almost exactly like Crosby, Stills & Nash, which isn't actually that surpri­sing if you remember that early Yes covered the Byrds' ʽI See Youʼ and that the distance between American folk- and country-rock and early British progressive rock actually used to be much smaller than its subsequent Tarkus-ization would lead us to believe.

This is all interesting in theory, but in the boiling-bubbling musical explosion of 1969-70 Brin­sley Schwarz were not the only player in this game, and as nice as this album is, the songs just do not make that much of an impression. The band's harmony singing is pretty and sometimes down­right angelic, but hardly exclusive, and both The Byrds and CS&N were there before. The hooks on the shorter songs are about as strong as on the average Traffic songs — variations on roots-rock themes with little emotional depth, since both the playing and the singing are usually kept in check and restrained (the fastest and most energetic song on the album, ʽMayflyʼ, is still played as if they were afraid to wake up the neighbors or something). And, worst of all, there is hardly any distinct personality behind the songs and the album in general — you can tell that they're really trying, but it is much harder to tell what they're trying or why they're trying it. The simple answer that they just like «soft rock» is no more going to cut it than if they just liked hard rock. I did spend some time trying to locate that one special angle, but no dice.

Actually, I do not want to put this record way too down, but it is hard to find kind words for pseudo-epic stuff like ʽBallad Of A Hasbeen Beauty Queenʼ, which simply has no reason to exist in a world that already has Van Morrison in it. After a brief and boring hard rock intro (for a change), the thing becomes a slow country-rock shuffle that tries to be psychologically deep and aims for a musical crescendo, but all they really have at their disposal is an organ player and a lead guitarist who are either too afraid or too shy to let their hair down, spending fruitless minutes trying out generic lead lines and finally just turning up the volume for the last «climactic» verse of the song. And the singer? Nick Lowe has a pleasant, intelligent tone when he is humming under his nose, and an ugly way of nasal screaming when he is going «all out», and by the time the climax has, you know, climaxed, he still has not convinced me that he just managed to tell me something important, deserving of ten minutes of my time.

In the end, it all boils down to a few nicely shaped country-pop(-rock?) tunes like ʽShining Brightlyʼ and a few moments when the sunny-day-laziness of the tune can actually seem like cynical wisdom (ʽRock And Roll Womenʼ). But only somebody who, incidentally, feels really tired of the insane, aggressive musical dynamics of the late Sixties / early Seventies could pro­bably «love» this album — and even when I get those inclinations myself, I'd still rather take some guy who is very deliberate about getting away from all the hullabaloo, like J. J. Cale, over this half-hearted attempt to be «humble» and «progressive» at the same time, where the two ten­dencies just outcancel themselves rather than complement each other.

Thumbs down, then, if not necessarily accompanied with any hard feelings. Ironically, this is probably the same decision here that was made by contemporary British critics — some of whom felt themselves pressured by the so-called «Brinsley Schwarz Hype», instigated by their manager Dave Robinson, a good example of why it is fruitless to seek direct correlation between publicity and critical / public recognition, bypassing real musical merit. Fortunately for us, this was not the end for Brinsley Schwarz: in retrospect, their career, curve-wise, is somewhat similar to their contemporaries Mott The Hoople, who also began with a «promising failure» of a self-titled al­bum around that same time, yet ultimately managed to find themselves at a later date.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Bark Psychosis: Hex

BARK PSYCHOSIS: HEX (1994)

1) The Loom; 2) A Street Scene; 3) Absent Friend; 4) Big Shot; 5) Eyes & Smiles; 6) Fingerspit; 7) Pendulum Man.

Even if I hated this record and this band, it would still be worth reviewing for two things alone. First, Bark Psychosis were originally formed in 1986 as — get this — a Napalm Death cover band. Second, eight years later, when their full-length debut finally came out, their music was dubbed «post-rock» in Mojo magazine, and this is where the term, now much more commonly associated with better known acts such as GY!BE and Sigur Rós, allegedly had its true begin­nings. To go from «grindcore» to «post-rock» in less than a decade, and not for any sort of com­mercial or fashionist decision, but simply obeying the tug of one's heart — well, this is definitely something that merits respect.

The band itself was largely the brainchild of Graham Sutton, a smart and sensitive kid from Hackney, and Hex was far from his first offering to the world — before that, the band had pro­duced several singles and EPs, including the 21-minute long track ʽScumʼ, which gained apprai­sal in 1992: this really was their first attempt at a musical «post-rock manifesto» of sorts, and the ideas invested in that track found further development in Hex, a collection of lengthy, mean­dering, and sometimes almost purringly soft... songs? jams? textures? soundscapes? whatever. «Post-rock» was originally defined as «non-rock music played using rock instrumentation», but that is a vague definition — and although, in retrospect, the roots of «post-rock» are usually seen in the classic albums of Talk Talk, Bark Psychosis really sound nothing like Mark Hollis and the gang. They sound closer to Hollis and the gang than to Godspeed You! Black Emperor, that is for sure. But not close enough.

The big reason why an album like Hex is revered in certain critical circles, yet has never mana­ged to become as popular as those Talk Talk records, is most probably because it is unassuming. Listening to Spirit Of Eden, you get a very clear sense of being involved in something grand, like the early stages of some terraforming process — the compositions are wholesome, slowly unveiling before your eyes and aspiring to tremendous seriousness (you could argue whether or not they actually get where they're going, but Mark Hollis' stature as a musical prophet remains undiminished by these arguments). Sutton, on the other hand, has no such aspirations: his music is almost always subdued, its ambience is never betrayed by crescendos or climaxes, and if the listener needs to be shaken up a little, well, the harshest that Hex can get is by means of some crunchy jolt from a distorted jazzy bassline — quite a long distance, isn't it, from your everyday Napalm Death standards?

In all, the musical genre that Hex comes closest to, outside of «rock», is arguably lounge jazz — with slight touches of R&B, chamber/dream pop, and New Age. It is one of those works-better-at-night records that requires getting into a certain lazy, hazy, dreamy mood which can carry you away; anything other than that and most of the compositions will look extremely boring, since, you know, this is not Talk Talk; this is a record that focuses on abstract beauty without getting too emotional or overworked about it. «Musical hooks» do not exist in this place — all hints at sharpness of sound have been meticulously eradicated, replaced by smoothness and fluidity that work at a strictly subconscious level, provided they work at all. And yet, at the same time this is not just a collection of trance-inducing grooves: as a rule, these are multi-part, dynamic compo­sitions that know how to shift melodies and tempos. For instance, ʽThe Loomʼ begins as a roman­tic piano-and-strings ballad, then adds polyrhythmic percussion, then adds ambient keyboards, then drops pianos and strings, then adds a noisy coda that may or may not resemble the actual sounds produced by a power loom. ʽA Street Sceneʼ begins like a soft jazz piece with energetic percussion, adult con­temporary synths in the background and noisy feedback in the middle ground — but it ends almost without any percussion at all (just a few cymbal clicks), as a mini­malistic guitar piece with some keyboard ruffles around the edges. And this is totally typical of the rest of the album as well.

I must confess to a primitive sort of reaction: everything on Hex sounds «tepid» to me, too much going on for me to treat it as a quintessential ambient record, but way too little to get me genuine­ly involved and moved. Had Sutton and his backing band displayed just a tad less creativity, we could all just agree that they tried to make a generic smooth jazz album with guitars and electro­nics, and the results were predictably yawn-inducing. But the internal dynamics of the composi­tions is so utterly undeniable that I almost feel bad for not «feeling» this all the way through; the concept of the album, in fact, sounds much more exciting on paper than when you listen to this stuff in real time. In all, this is tons more creative than Sade, but if you were to make a desert island choice, you'd have to go along with ʽSmooth Operatorʼ, because Hex is just no soundtrack for survival on a desert island.

Nevertheless, judging from a sheerly intellectual side, the record is an undeniable thumbs up all the way through — in fact, if you have not developed sufficient respect for it by the third listen, I would advise coming back to it over and over again, just because it is so full of nuances. I mean, who knows, it might actually be one of the biggest musical riddles of the decade — in terms of how many different genres it borrows from and in terms of the final meaning of this synthesis. It is rock, it is prog, it is jazz, it is ambient, and it is also none of these, so what is it? And what exactly could, or should, it trigger in our minds once the spell finally begins to work? Count me genuinely befuddled, and I usually give out thumbs up when I'm befuddled, just to be on the safe side. Unless I prefer to abstain, but that usually happens with records that defy the notion of melody, whereas Bark Psychosis have the highest respect for melody.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Brian Jonestown Massacre: Aufheben

THE BRIAN JONESTOWN MASSACRE: AUFHEBEN (2012)

1) Panic In Babylon; 2) Viholliseni Maalla; 3) Gaz Hilarant; 4) Illuminomi; 5) I Want To Hold Your Other Hand; 6) Face Down On The Moon; 7) The Clouds Are Lies; 8) Stairway To The Best Party In The Universe; 9) Seven Kinds Of Wonderful; 10) Waking Up To Hand Grenades; 11) Blue Order / New Monday.

According to Hegelian dialectics, Aufheben («picking up» or «canceling») is the process that takes place when a thesis is confronted with an anti-thesis — presumably followed by synthesis. This either invites a dialectical approach towards understanding this album by The Brian Jones­town Massacre, or it could mean that Anton Newcombe once took a German dictionary off the shelf, opened it on a random page, and let Fate decide to guide him through to a connection with Hegel — because, let's face it, Hegel was a fairly psychedelic guy, despite all the formal-logical trappings. And yes, you guessed it — Hegel could be just as boring as The Brian Jonestown Mas­sacre, and he could be just as proud of it, too.

If I think really, really hard, I could actually lead myself towards understanding Aufheben (the album) as a synthesis of sorts — it is, indeed, a cross between the dark groovery of the band's last two albums and their earlier, softer, limper homage to Sixties' psychedelia. A song like ʽI Want To Hold Your Other Handʼ, for instance, would be totally out of place on My Bloody Under­ground, and even though its association with the Beatles ends with its name (in the time that it takes Anton to get his point across, John Lennon would have had the time to hold your hand, hold your other hand, hold your legs, hold all the other parts of your body, and dump you for Yoko Ono), it does bring us back the old personality of Anton Newcombe, one that we'd almost forgot­ten with all that po-mo weirdness of killing Sgt. Pepper with Russian lyrics.

The album starts out with a couple dark, but not too bass-heavy grooves: ʽPanic In Babylonʼ is set to a cool, steady rock beat with Near Eastern woodwind overtones (a little reminiscent of old Hawkwind experiments in such mergers), and ʽViholliseni Maallaʼ has a Finnish title because the lead vocals are gallantly ceded over to Eliza Karmasalo, who must be Finnish (I suppose) and who lends the track a certain clichéd coldness, while in the background the band is entertaining us with chiming guitar leads, and occasionally a Robert Smith-style melancholic, echoey guitar line will break through the clearing as well and send you on a gloomy trip down memory lane. Both tracks sound fine, but... lightweight — like Air or some of those other atmospheric, psycho-adult-contemporary entertainers that understand beauty, but do not strive for the whole depth of it. But that's okay, we can take it. We have long since given up on the idea that Anton Newcombe could lead us into the promised land anyway.

From there on, we just keep drifting between these steady rock beat grooves and throwbacks to 1966 (sometimes very harsh throwbacks — ʽStairway To The Best Party In The Universeʼ, de­spite the title, steals its sitar riff from the Stones' ʽPaint It Blackʼ rather than from Led Zeppelin... ah crap, I'm getting really tired of jotting down all these combinations), but on the whole, the record does not shoot for the same kind of thoroughly unpredictable weirdness as its predecessor. There are some leisurely, «retro-progressive» (hey, nice word) flute-and-sitar instrumentals like ʽFace Down On The Moonʼ; some pastoral themes with swooping strings to disorient your brain (ʽThe Clouds Are Liesʼ); and some tracks that are seriously messed up with vocal overdubs (ʽSe­ven Kinds Of Wonderfulʼ, where they seem to be singing in French, but it is really hard to tell be­cause the polyphony is so overwhelming).

I like the way it all sounds — even if the weirdness and the heaviness have been toned down, the album only rarely reminds me of the irritating laziness of past BJM «masterpieces», and at least all of the grooves have their legitimate emotional interpretations, if you care enough to wait for them to come to you. But in the process, it kind of seems as if The Committee To Keep Music Evil once again started lagging behind on its primary purpose, and that the momentum gained by Newcombe with his «snarling» approach began to dissipate once more. All the same, I would like to extend a thumbs up to the album — certainly not because of its gimmicky aspects (which are negligible, anyway, compared to Who Killed Sgt. Pepper?), but... well, just because. I think I have the same type of reaction to late 1970s Hawkwind: pleasant, inoffensive, toe-tappy, mildly catchy, mildly mysterious stuff. Goes easy on the ears.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Built To Spill: Ultimate Alternative Wavers

BUILT TO SPILL: ULTIMATE ALTERNATIVE WAVERS (1993)

1) The First Song; 2) Three Years Ago Today; 3) Revolution; 4) Shameful Dread; 5) Nowhere Nothin' Fuckup; 6) Get A Life; 7) Built To Spill; 8) Lie For A Lie; 9) Hazy; 10) Built Too Long (parts 1, 2 & 3).

The classic associations that usually spring up in any account of the story of Built To Spill are Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. — two of the major «ugly-guitar-sound» combos of the Eighties, both of which transparently influenced Built To Spill, the former in terms of freedom of sound and expe­rimental approach, the latter in terms of «dirty jamming» which, in turn, goes all the way back to Neil Young, Pete Townshend and the like (echoes of whom are also sometimes heard in the music — ironically, one of the kick-ass riffs upon which they stumble in the ʽBuilt Too Longʼ jam happens to be the riff that Pete often played live in the jam section of ʽMy Generationʼ).

Curiously, though, my first association with these guys concerned neither Sonic Youth nor Dino­saur Jr., but rather a somewhat more distant and less frequently quoted relative — Television! If anything, Built To Spill for the 1990s (and this is especially obvious on this first, and still very much derivative, album) were exactly what Television were for the 1970s: a small-format, but large-ambition band, with a vision expressed through a haughty, sternly determined manner of singing and all sorts of challenging guitar interplay, combining elements of folk, punk, drone, blues improvisation, and noise. In other words, grand prog-rock deconstructed to fit the limita­tions of a small guitar-based combo — something that must probably require a lot of clout and a lot of skill to do right.

Television did it perfectly all right; as to Built To Spill, while my respect for them even in this early incarnation is enormous, I am not too sure if Ultimate Alternative Wavers, a rather boldly self-aggrandizing title as it is, truly constitutes «great» music. There is no denying the feats of imagination that went into the construction of these songs: this is not «math-rock» as such, since the music does not demand perfect rhythmic precision at each nanosecond, and it is definitely not the «nuts-rock» of Primus, either, but the song structures are quite complex and challenging all the same. The band core, consisting of Doug Martsch on guitar/vocals and Brett Netson on se­cond guitar and/or bass, like to go from folk to rock to funk to noise and back within the same song — this is why the songs usually take quite a bit of time to develop, but this is definitely not wasted time: the only track on which the band members could be accused of a little self-indul­gence is the closing jam ʽBuilt Too Longʼ, whose title is already self-ironic, but even there we have a distinct three-way partition that indicates... well, composition.

On the other hand, the same approach also reveals the major weakness of Built To Spill: a lack of obvious purpose to this music. Sure you could address this criticism to the likes of King Crimson as well, but, first of all, Built To Spill do not rock as hard as King Crimson, second, they do not have as many impressive riffs as King Crimson, and third and perhaps most important, their level of technical mastery, though easily comparable to Television, hardly even begins approaching the Fripp/Belew standards, so you do not have this extra bonus of being totally dazzled by the per­formances, though you might be amused or intrigued by them. These are interesting songs, sure enough, but I have a hard time «feeling» them.

As an example, take the first song, conveniently titled ʽThe First Songʼ because, indeed, it is not easy to come up with a better title. It seems to be a poetic complaint about the hardships of living in a world in which the protagonist does not really belong: "How can I not believe in things that everybody else sees?" The music does seem to be tailored accordingly, with minor key folksy strumming à la Led Zep, woman-tone-heavy electric wailings, and brooding psychedelic solos weeping over each other from two or three different guitars ­— yet somehow none of this trans­lates into conventional desperation that could break your heart. I don't know, maybe it's some­thing to do with Doug's voice, which I find rather bland and «just decent», or maybe it is the lack of a well-defined core theme for the song (they seem to just be happy to move from Led Zep to Hendrix to Television to The Cure and shove in more, more, more without being afraid of dis­orienting the listener — which is exactly, I believe, what is happening), or maybe they don't get the best possible production... anyway, something just doesn't click, as formally cool as the entire experience could be called.

When they wind up the tempo and crank up the volume, like on ʽRevolutionʼ or ʽGet A Lifeʼ, songs whose titles, lyrics and moods «call to action», the overall effect is the same: the music is more complex than on your average Neil Young song, but the cumulative reaction is nowhere near as violent — when Neil really gets into it, it makes you want to kill (with love, of course — what else?), but when Doug and Brett get into it (like on the aggressive solo section of ʽGet A Lifeʼ), it makes you go... «wow, cool sonic overlays, dudes». Like when they solo on ʽLie For A Lieʼ, in these short little «telephonic» bursts of bubbly melody: cute and weird, but not quite as meaningful as, for instance, when Talking Heads do so on Remain In Light songs.

Arguably the most conventional song on the album, a leisurely ballad with a grand lead guitar melody, is ʽHazyʼ, and perhaps not surprisingly, it also has the most soulful and relatable vocal performance from Doug: "Hazy / Just because sometimes you make me crazy" actually gives us a vulnerable human being, and serves as the emotional hub of the album — too bad that it comes almost at the very end, as if they were actually ashamed of having an accessible song like that sitting next to all those feats of imaginative overdubbing.

Do not get me wrong: even without ʽHazyʼ, the album would still get an unquestionable thumbs up from me — just because few of the songs work instantaneously on a «gut level» does not mean that the album as a whole does not work on some other level of conscience. At the very least, in the most formal way it is a real wonder what these three guys have managed to concoct with just the most basic of instrumentation, in an age where «alt-rock» was already beginning to feel a little like a dirty word; no wonder that a cult was rather quickly formed around the band, praising them for salvaging the underground in an era when R.E.M. and Nirvana were perceived as a threat to the underground's very existence as an «underground». To do so, however, they had to produce music that was denser, less easily accessible, and less emotionally devastating — had they done otherwise, you know, they risked selling as many copies as Nirvana, and that would have been the end of small club elitism. Or maybe Doug Martsch could end up killing himself, so thank God for them small record labels.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Billy Bragg: The Internationale

BILLY BRAGG: THE INTERNATIONALE (1990)

1) The Internationale; 2) I Dreamed I Saw Phil Ochs Last Night; 3) The Marching Song Of The Covert Battalions; 4) Blake's Jerusalem; 5) Nicaragua Nicaraguita; 6) The Red Flag; 7) My Youngest Son Came Home Today.

I am afraid there is very little to be said about this album, and what little there is to be said is nearly all bad. Perhaps the best thing is Billy's new lyrics to ʽThe Internationaleʼ, which deem­pha­size the violence of the original and focus on "being inspired by like and love". Not that this really matters any more — who has really given a damn about the anthem ever since the Soviet Union abandoned it in favor of something even more pompous and imperialistic? — but sort of a nice idea, all the same. Couldn't say the same for Billy's vocal delivery or for the mariachi-style arrangement, though: looks like he's still buskin' out there, despite the increased number of play­ers, and if I happened to pass by, I doubt I would have spared a penny. Might even have to go and report them — not for communist propaganda, but just for offending good taste.

I guess somebody must have told Billy one day, «you know, for a guy who's supposed to use music for political purposes, you sure have a lot of songs about chicks on each of your albums», so Billy eventually decided to show his true colors and record at least a small album (an EP, in fact) that would be nothing but political: anthems and workers-rights-ballads all the way, with traditional melodies, but largely new lyrics to, like, bring them more up to date in a world still largely ruled by Thatchers and Reagan-Bushes — whether you're a fan of these rulers (not highly likely if you're an avid rock music listener) or whether you hate them as much as Billy does, it is sort of a logical fact that the most blatant way to stand out against them is sing a Marxist anthem, even if you're no Marxist yourself.

You do not have to do much, really, except just take a glance at the titles — I mean, ʽI Dreamed I Saw Phil Ochs Last Nightʼ, indeed? Sung accappella? At least when Joan Baez did this at Wood­stock with the original, this could make sense to fans of Joan Baez' voice, period. Are there any fans of Billy Bragg's voice out there? (As in — real fans, people who think of him as a unique, outstanding singer, that is, not just people who have no problems with his voice, like myself). If not, well, okay, this is a tolerable, but derivative memento to Phil Ochs. "And did those feet in ancient time"... — in between Greg Lake and Eric Idle, my pop-style associations of ʽJerusalemʼ find themselves exhausted already. ʽNicaragua Nicaraguitaʼ? I sympathize with the people of Nicaragua, but not necessarily with the Sandinistas, and even then, I'm sure they can get along well enough without Billy's support. ʽThe Red Flagʼ? Oh no...

Had this album remained as just an EP, it would have quickly been forgotten in LP-centric disco­graphies, and we would all have been better off. Unfortunately, it was re-released in 2006 as part of a 2-CD edition that also contained the 1988 EP Live & Dubious — a mix of live performances from Berlin and somewhere in the Soviet Union (Lithuania, I believe), where he must have been invited as a Representative of the People, although some of his comments must have rubbed off unpleasantly on the shoulders of Party officials (for instance, having explained why the song is called "Help Save The Youth Of America", he then states that the song might just as well have been called "Help Save The Youth Of The Soviet Union").

So now this thing is very much a regular part of his musical career, and it is probably the weakest link in that career — think John Lennon's Sometime In New York City, but even that album was a groundbreaking, earth-shattering masterpiece in comparison, since Lennon at least composed his own political songs, and came up with all sorts of ideas about how to maximize their effect with various instrumentation and production tricks. The Internationale is as barebones as it gets, and for all of Billy's undisputed sincerity and enthusiasm, he should have probably just released the title track as a collaboration with Pet Shop Boys — I can easily imagine a synth-pop version and a revolutionary (in both senses of the word) video, bringing the man all the way up to the top of the charts and effectively ending Conservative rule for eternity. As it is, the album just gets a thumbs down — I don't even see it having a rallying effect, much less any musical value.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Brian Eno: On Land

BRIAN ENO: AMBIENT 4: ON LAND (1982)

1) Lizard Point; 2) The Lost Day; 3) Tal Coat; 4) Shadow; 5) Lantern Marsh; 6) Unfamiliar Wind (Leeks Hills); 7) A Clearing; 8) Dunwich Beach, Autumn 1960.

Once you have travelled long enough in the ambient microcosm, the realisation that not only does it not all sound the same, but that it is actually capable of showing an impressionistic palette as broad as anything else will eventually come. For instance, On Land may seem just like «another Eno ambient album» — but in reality, it sounds like nothing he'd ever done previously. Most of his previous ambient albums focused on minimalistic keyboard melodies — short, meaningful phrases placed under a sonic microscope. On Land, allegedly recorded over a period of three years, was the first attempt to completely break away from that and go further, into the realm of sheer sonic atmosphere that is more hum and noise than melody. Nothing generally revolutionary about that — Krautrock authorities, among others, had pioneered that approach a decade earlier — but somewhat revolutionary on a personal level.

Above everything else, it would be interesting to see how Eno, a guy with a very traditional-emo­tional understanding of music deep in his heart, would handle such a transition to «non-melody»: and indeed, he handles it in the most melodic way possible, if we mean «melody» in its etymolo­gical sense, which is «limb-song», implying a harmonious and logical combination of parts into a whole. If the action of On Land really takes place on land, this is a dark, creepy, uncomfortable type of land — something in between the Forest of Mirkwood and the Misty Mountains, if you pardon my resorting to Tolkien for a second — but also a very naturalistic type of land, every bit as believable as Another Green World, even if this one seems anything but green (and it is no wonder that Eno would go from here straight on to Apollo Atmospheres).

It is curious, though, that many of these tracks are actually named after various locations in En­gland — ʽLizard Pointʼ, ʽLantern Marshʼ, ʽLeeks Hillsʼ, etc. — implying that these are, after all, musically transformed and deconstructed impressions of real landscapes that Eno was familiar with; if so, this is definitely one of the gloomiest depictions of non-industrial England ever put to tape, and one good reason to refuse knighthood for Seigneur le Baptiste de la Salle if the issue ever comes up (that and the man's unconcealed pornography fetish, of course). Even if nothing much really happens on ʽLizard Pointʼ — basically just the wind blowing over some humming synth tones — but midway through, the wind gets joined by ghostly voices, as if it were carrying around the spirits of all those unfortunate who happened to drown there (Lizard Point, the most southerly tip of England, actually has a rather nasty history in that regard).

«Ghosts» are, of course, an almost obligatory presence on almost any Eno ambient album, just because it is so easy to get «ghost tones» out of your synthesizer — but, let's face it, the man has perfect control over his ghosts, and a perfect understanding of what a ghost is all about. Above all, a ghost is not something that is actually supposed to harass you — a ghost usually just floats around, minding its own (rather mindless) business, so neither on ʽLizard Pointʼ, nor on the some­what less creepy, but not less evocative, ʽLantern Marshʼ do these ghosts sound personally intimidating — the ghosts on the ʽMarshʼ are just whistling and hustling past you, creating an illusion of being in a hurry, when in reality they just spin in circles. And in ʽUnfamiliar Windsʼ they just seem to huddle together and hum their own ghostly little requiem, provided it makes sense for ghosts at all to sing their own requiem.

Or maybe not their own. The final track of the album is ʽDunwich Beach, Autumn 1960ʼ — no idea what happened there in 1960, when Brian was just 12 years old (but he did grow up in near­by Ipswich, so perhaps some childhood recollection is involved), but Dunwich itself is a textbook example of the rise-and-fall thing, having once been the capital of the Kindom of the East Angles and having since then deteriorated into a depopulated village due to coastal erosion. The track is as gloomy and fatalistic as (almost) everything else here, lonesome droplets of electronic water trickling down the grooves to a mournful electronic hum — and suggests that the entire On Land be taken as one huge mourn for something. A lost childhood, a lost England, maybe a lost world or universe altogether, something that once stood firm but now is only represented by echoes, murmurs, and wordless ghosts. Once that understanding falls into place, On Land really begins to work as a whole, and scores another non-triumphal triumph for the man.

For the record, Jon Hassell, the famous trumpet player, is present here on ʽShadowʼ, where his sporadic blows are almost unrecognizably merged by Eno with the vague-fuzzy female vocal part; guitarist Michael Brook is responsible for some of the mentioned «droplets» on ʽDunwich Beachʼ; and various frogs, insects, and other organic compounds have also been credited for contributing, although I am not so sure about the royalties. But don't get any ideas — you are not going to get any «nature sounds» stuff here, because everything is processed through the Enochip before get­ting back at you from the speakers, so occasionally you might have a hard time distinguishing the frogs from the trumpets, not to mention guitars from keyboards. Nothing is what it seems, even if at first it may all seem like one big nothing.