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Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Cat Stevens: Roadsinger

CAT STEVENS (YUSUF ISLAM): ROADSINGER (2009)

1) Welcome Home; 2) Thinking 'Bout You; 3) Everytime I Dream; 4) The Rain; 5) World O' Darkness; 6) Be What You Must; 7) This Glass World; 8) Roadsinger; 9) All Kinds Of Roses; 10) Dream On (Until...); 11) Shamsia.

Perhaps Yusuf thought he'd gone too far in the «flashy» direction with his return to the world of big neon lights; in any case, the follow-up to his comeback is significantly more low-key, retur­ning us to stripped-down times when it used to be just Cat and his acoustic guitar, and everything else was strictly secondary. We still have strings, and rhythm sections, and backing vocals, and even horns on occasion, but they never drown out the basics — and he further accentuates this with the album title and cover, implying that, when all is said and done, Cat-Yusuf is essentially a wise old street busker, and only those few intelligent souls whose instincts are attuned to the words of the wise will bother to stop and listen for a few minutes — for the rest, these sounds will simply blend in with the background noise.

I regret to say that on this occasion, I have not properly managed to ascend to the status of the chosen few. While the material here is definitely comparable with the «average» Cat Stevens balladry of the classic years, nothing has either the immediately captivating nature of ʽMiddayʼ or the curiously experimental nature of ʽThe Belovedʼ or the «odd factor» of ʽDon't Let Me Be Misunderstoodʼ. The nature of most of the songs is still calm and pensive rather than turbulent, which is good, because this serenity and peacefulness seems to come very naturally to the aging Cat-Yusuf these days; but unless you are able to slip into the state of a little kid cuddling up on his grandfather's knee and taking in the words of wisdom, or, perhaps, unless you are a grand­father yourself, it will not be easy to assign the record to any specially marked shelf in your memory closet.

The record is very clearly structured around the lyrics this time — little parables or allegories, occasionally confessions, heavily influenced by Arabic and Persian religious and literary tradi­tions, but, ultimately, with relatively simple morals: the central point of the opening number, ʽWelcome Homeʼ, is that "time rolls on, ain't no good to sit and moan", but musically, well, the song could have been written by anybody — probably was, a couple dozen times already — and so, unless you find consolation in the subtle and exclusive magic of the minimalistic slide guitar overdubs, there is nothing but Cat-Yusuf's intangible charisma to feed your pleasure centers. And it's not as if he's lost any of it (inshaʼallah, his voice is pretty much immune to the ravages of time), but it's not as if all those years of religious devotion made it all that more mesmerizing, either. More calm and peaceful he may be, aye, but the «Majikat» stays the same.

Actually, as fun as it is to drop an occasional chuckle about Yusuf's Islam, the idea of putting together the basics of British medieval folk / piano pop and African-American acoustic blues, then cross them with elements of Arabic music and insert some second-hand Sufi wisdom sounds pretty cool; what surprises me is that Roadsinger has way too much Cat Stevens and way too little Yusuf Islam to make a difference — and what surprises me even more is feeling that this is a flaw of Roadsinger, not a virtue. For instance, ʽWorld O' Darknessʼ, dedicated to the fate of Shamsia Husseini, a girl nearly blinded by Taliban goons for attending school in Kandahar, is technically a dark medieval-stylized ballad (with a fairly bad, Eighties-adult-contemporary key­board solo at the end) — with no Eastern musical elements in sight, sympathetic in tone but simply not too interesting in composition or execution. (For that matter, a return to the same theme in the guise of ʽShamsiaʼ, a brief instrumental to close the album, is more curious — a tiny chamber piece with romantic strings adorning Cat's piano — but also totally a Western thing).

Then again, it's okay. After all these years, we see that Cat Stevens is really the same ʽRoadsin­gerʼ that he used to be — aw hell, maybe his embracing of the Qur'anic way of life was just an excuse to skip the Eighties (I, for one, am very much glad that we never got to have a 1986 Cat Stevens album), and then only those 60s/70s stars who did make their 80s albums had to atone for this by making something better in the 90s. And here we have him now, just making more of those acoustic ditties about being completely lonely (title track), always misunderstood (ʽEverytime I Dreamʼ), and still hopelessly romantic at heart (ʽThinking 'Bout Youʼ). He just seems to accept this peacefully now, rather than complaining about it, implying that religion and old age do not make your problems away — you just learn to live with them. Not an amazingly mind-blowing lesson, but at least it is delivered in a non-obnoxious way.

Monday, September 18, 2017

The Chantays: Waiting For The Tide

THE CHANTAYS: WAITING FOR THE TIDE (1997)

1) Killer Dana; 2) Green Room; 3) Smokin' Da Pipe; 4) Bailout At Frog Rock; 5) Dances With Waves; 6) So. Cal. Jungle; 7) House Rock Rapid; 8) Nightstand; 9) Clear The Room; 10) Descanso Daze; 11) Crystal-T; 12) Pipeline (unplugged).

Perhaps somewhat dissatisfied with the quickie-style recording of Next Set, the three remaining Chantays put their shit together one more time and, three years later, came out with another effort: longer, more ambitious, containing more original material and, probably, their last, since nothing else has been seen from them over the next twenty years, and with Brian Carman's passing in 2015, the story of The Chantays is probably over for good now. As it is, Waiting For The Tide — still waiting after all those years, that is! — is a fairly compelling swan song for them.

Recorded in a proper studio over a certain period of time (rather than just «live») and released on the independent Rocktopia label, this album, if anything, shows that The Chantays were at last beginning to slowly catch up with the times. If Next Set still had them firmly grounded in the early Sixties, with only the added benefit of better production, then Waiting For The Tide has them aiming for... the Seventies, I guess, with a muscular update of the surf-rock sound that takes advantage of all sort of cool innovations in tone, volume, and effects that made up the Seventies' glam-rock and hard rock scene. As in, ʽKiller Danaʼ now sounds like a frickin' Wings cover of a Chantays song — which is quite amusing, by the way.

ʽKiller Danaʼ and ʽBailout At Frog Rockʼ are recycled from Next Set, but largely just because they were new compositions that the band wanted to re-record with even better production and a bit more muscle. Everything else seems to be brand new, the only complete throwback to the past being yet another version of ʽPipelineʼ that closes the album — this time, in full-out acoustic mode, a very pretty arrangement that completely preserves the melody and energy of the original and, perhaps, even adds a pinch of soft lyricism (as well as making the Mexican roots of the song far more obvious than they used to be). And, in solid Chantays tradition, most of the album rocks: only ʽNightstandʼ, a slow ballad unnecessarily spoiled by cheesy adult-contemporary synthesizers in the background (a short trip back into the future of the Eighties?), acts as a breather, though, frankly, The Chantays are not that beastly when they speed up to truly require a breather, and their sentimental compositions were never as fun as their surfing anthems.

And these new anthems are fun! Even more heavily influenced by Mexican music than before, but poppy as hell (ʽGreen Roomʼ would be easily embraced by indie-pop acts all over the world, what with its chugging rhythm caught somewhere in between The Jam and Lindsey Buckingham), true to their titles (ʽDances With Wavesʼ, probably a pun on Kevin Costner, has a tricky rhythm that really does feel like a dance with waves), and offering intelligent variations on familiar themes (I think they took the first chords of ʽSo. Cal. Jungleʼ from Fogerty's ʽOld Man Down The Roadʼ, then turned it into something completely different).

The added length (most of the tunes now run over three minutes, and some get close to the 4-minute mark, which, for The Chantays, has the scope of a frickin' prog-rock epic) may be a little treasonous in relation to classic surf ideology, but is usually justified, i.e. this is not just a matter of useless repeats: ʽCrystal-Tʼ, for instance, is four minutes long because they felt it necessary to accommodate two «modernistic» guitar solos (probably by new band member Ricky Lewis?), one in pompous blues-rock mode and another one incorporating a bit of arpeggiated shredding, some­where in between Mark Knopfler and Eddie Van Halen, though, of course, more timid than either. Surprisingly, these passages feel perfectly at home with the main surf riff — either the guy gets his tone just right, or the mix hushes him down to just the right degree.

I believe that I will go all the way with a thumbs up here: clearly, this is not a record that I will ever put on again of my own free will (we all have much better things to do than revisit comeback albums by one-hit surf-rock wonders, right?), but the creativity and energy of these old guys as they continue to spice up their classic formula deserves respect — and the album is totally fun while it's on. It is probably a good idea that, satisfied with their result, they did not embark on any further adventures (like continuing to catch up with trends and introducing elements of synth-pop, grunge, IDM, and hip-hop, tempting fate all the way up to their own Stalingrad); as it is, The Chantays will just live on in our memories, still waiting, waiting, waiting for that tide.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Gene Clark: Gene Clark With The Gosdin Brothers

GENE CLARK: GENE CLARK WITH THE GOSDIN BROTHERS (1967)

1) Echoes; 2) Think I'm Gonna Feel Better; 3) Tried So Hard; 4) Is Yours Is Mine; 5) Keep On Pushin'; 6) I Found You; 7) So You Say You Lost Your Baby; 8) Elevator Operator; 9) The Same One; 10) Couldn't Believe Her; 11) Needing Someone; 12*) Tried So Hard (alternate version); 13*) Elevator Operator (alternate version); 14*) Only Columbe; 15*) The French Girl; 16*) So You Say You Lost Your Baby (acoustic demo); 17*) Is Yours Is Mine (acoustic demo).

Gene Clark did not really have enough time with The Byrds to establish himself as a significant frontman in the people's eye — too much of it was simply spent standing out there, shaking an unimpressive tambourine and contributing one of several group harmonies; and out of the band's early A-sides, the only Clark-penned song, ʽSet You Free This Timeʼ, scored the lowest on the charts, so, ultimately, only the most astute of the band's fans could have correctly sensed his crucial importance to the band's early period. But he was indeed the first Byrd to be marked with a strong sense of songwriting individuality — preceding David Crosby by at least a couple of years, not to mention a couple extra pounds of intelligence (sorry, Dave!) — and so it was pro­bably inevitable that he would also be the first Byrd to leave the band and start a solo career. (Stage fright and fear of flying are also given as reasons for his quitting, but I guess all of this is really related in the end).

Clark's solo career has always been a hipster's delight: here is a guy who possessed all the know-hows of his original band, yet never achieved (or even strived for) serious commercial success, and cultivated a far more reclusive, solitary image than his bandmates. He did, in fact, spend a large part of 1966 in seclusion, before eventually realising that he had no choice other than to get back into the musical business, and signing up with Columbia for a solo deal — thus becoming one of the first former members of a major rock band to start his own solo career (I think that, technically, only Alan Price of The Animals precedes him in this), and unquestionably the first former member of a major rock band to proudly release his solo debut at the same time (February '67, in this case) as his former band. (A typical opinion is that sales of the record suffered precise­ly because of its simultaneous release with Younger Than Yesterday, but I do not think it could make that much of a difference — after all, if you enter a music store and have to choose between Gene Clark and The Byrds, how is this different from entering the same store on a different day and having to choose between Gene Clark and, say, Jimi Hendrix, or The Beatles?).

Anyway, truth of the matter is that Gene Clark With The Gosdin Brothers is a very lovely (and tiny — less than half an hour long!) record, but it does not exactly show you a Gene Clark that would be significantly improved over, or even just different from, the Gene Clark of ʽI'll Feel A Whole Lot Betterʼ or of ʽSet You Free This Timeʼ. Aided here by some of his Byrds pals (Chirs Hillman plays bass, and Michael Clarke shares drum duties with session players such as Jim Gordon), a big chunk of the Wrecking Crew, and those Gosdin brothers (a country and gospel singing duo with whom the Byrds had already been friends since the early Sixties), Gene delivers a set of folk-pop and country-pop numbers that, some say, pioneer the country-rock twist of the late Sixties, but, as far as I'm concerned, are really a logical and organic continuation of the schtick that Gene had been doing with the Byrds from the very inception. After all, these diffe­rences are subtle — we all know, for instance, that Sweetheart Of The Rodeo is considered to be almost a «revolutionary» album in the genre, but play it back to back with Mr. Tambourine Man to somebody not well-versed in the differences between country-western and, say, Appala­chian folk, and he will never sense much of a gap here.

The charm of the album, however, lies not in its being revolutionary, and not even in its song­writing: from a melodic standpoint, Gene Clark is not much of a genius, and a lot of these tunes rely on stock phrasing from folk, country, and blues-rock — to the extent that two of the songs (ʽIs Yours Is Mineʼ and ʽElevator Operatorʼ) have the exact same introductions, albeit played in a folksy, jangly manner on the former and in a rock-out manner on the latter. The charm lies in Gene Clark's personal charisma, and his ability to perfectly integrate his handsome and intelligent vocals into equally handsome and intelligent musical arrangements.

Thus, the opening number, ʽEchoesʼ, is not so much of a song as it is a long poem, somewhere midway between Dylan and Van Morrison, set to a baroque-influenced arrangement of wood­winds and strings floating above its folk-rock underbelly. Put out by Columbia as a single, it probably had no hopes due to a concise lack of anything resembling a hook — perhaps they thought the flutes and strings would give it a ʽWalk Away Renéeʼ look, forgetting that the Left Banke actually had a singalong chorus as well — but it did well enough in confirming Gene's reputation as a visionary musical poet, revealing a stream-of-consciousness approach that would have probably been judged as way too extreme for the Byrds (although Crosby was already beginning to follow the same path at the time). For the record, Leon Russell himself is respon­sible for the string arrangements here, and he did a great job ensuring that they sound lush and expansive without being too sappy or corny.

Later on, verses and choruses begin to appear, but compared to Gene's Byrds material, they all seem low-key and suffering from a lack of dynamics — nothing like, for instance, the group harmony punch that cuts across the verse of ʽI'll Feel A Whole Lot Betterʼ and provides a hefty conclusion to the soft sarcasm of the first three lines. Compare this album's ʽThink I'm Gonna Feel Betterʼ, dealing with pretty much the same feeling but having nothing like that punch (it does have a key change from verse to bridge, but it doesn't do the song much good) — a far inferior folk-pop ditty here, though the vocal sentiment is still adorable.

Repeated listens bring out patches of cool musical ideas here and there; for instance, the «wag­ging», spiralling lead guitar lines on ʽIs Yours Is Mineʼ, rolling across the sharp main bluesy riff, surprisingly predict the guitar gymnastics of Television on ʽMarquee Moonʼ (and whoever said Television weren't influenced by classic country-rock?), and the dirge-like procession of ʽThe Same Oneʼ, lulling you with its monotonous jangle, is interrupted now and then by an almost dangerous-sounding downward bass/guitar drift — a bit of proto-Sabbath doom atmosphere making a surprising guest appearance on what began as a meditative mournful performance. But you do have to hunt for them, and unless you are already sold on Gene's voice and style, you will probably not be inclined to delve into such intricacies — especially since for every one non-stan­dard musical move, you will have two or three generic country or blues-rock riffs.

The hardest rocking number is ʽElevator Operatorʼ, whose title currently has the disadvantage of sounding similar to Aerosmith's ʽLove In An Elevatorʼ — but Gene uses his elevator for meta­phors of turbulent relationships rather than sexual fantasies, and lands a tune that is also, elevator-style, caught somewhere between the Beatles' and the Stones' respective floors (the basic melody is close to ʽTaxmanʼ, the harmonies show traces of Beatlesque '65-'66 psychedelia, but the guitar tones and solos are far closer to the Richard/Jones line of work). It is decent enough, but feels a bit lonesome surrounded by all these baroque ballads and fast country-poppers. The theme is pretty much the same, though: stay away from mean bitches. And by «mean bitches», I assume he is really referring — meta-metaphorically — to some of his former bandmates rather than his former (or current) love interests. I mean, "s/he was an elevator operator, s/he had her ups and downs" could just as well refer to Roger McGuinn, no?

In the end, the record is certainly a must for all Byrds / classic country-rock-with-a-slightly-baroque-and/or-psychedelic-twist fans, but I could not define it as some sort of «lost classic»: to do so requires falling in love with Gene Clark, the loner, the visionary, the poet, the troubadour, on the same level that people fall in love with their Nick Drakes or their Syd Barretts, and the man is just a tad too smooth for that. Which certainly does not prevent the album from getting its thumbs up, because how could a young, romantic, solo-going Gene Clark not be altogether love­ly all the way back in 1967? Even if that special something that he took away with him from The Byrds needed The Byrds — and certainly not The Gosdin Brothers, whose contributions to this album, in my opinion, certainly do not deserve any special mention and only reflect a degree of friendliness on Gene's part — to set it truly aflame, it is very comforting to see it still giving off some treasurable warmth for some time afterwards.

On a technical note, the expanded CD reissue of the album, despite bringing its running time up to a respectable 42 minutes, is hardly essential — with a few alternate takes, acoustic demos, and only two really new extra songs (one of them a pretty, piano-based rearrangement of Ian & Syl­via's ʽThe French Girlʼ) that do not provide any special insights. For big fans, however, this will be an extra 15 minutes of pleasant prettiness — and on the acoustic demos, you get to really feel how Clark's vocals merge with the Gosdin Brothers into one (although why should they?).

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Bent Knee: Bent Knee

BENT KNEE: BENT KNEE (2011)

1) Urban Circus; 2) I Don't Love You Anymore; 3) Funeral; 4) I've Been This Way Before; 5) After Years Of Love; 6) Little Specks Of Calcium; 7) Styrofoam Heart; 8) Nave.

So, what sort of music should one expect from a group named «Bent Knee»? My first answer would probably be «jazz fusion», because this is the kind of thoroughly meaningless title that we typically encounter on all-instrumental records by them jazz wankers. However, once you learn that the name is actually an amalgamation of the names of the group's leaders — guitarist Ben Levin and keyboardist/singer Courtney Swain — the answer is probably going to shift to «indie pop», because only (or at least, mostly) indie pop artists engage in that kind of silliness mixed with gratuitous egotism.

Odd enough, while Bent Knee are certainly much closer to indie pop than to jazz fusion, their project is far more ambitious than simply making music according to one or two set formulas. After all, they came together in the Berklee College of Music, which, according to the Wikipedia description, "offers college-level courses in a wide range of contemporary and historic styles, including rock, flamenco, hip hop, reggae, salsa, and bluegrass", and one would be sorely disap­pointed if the alumni of such a wonderful place would waste their tuition fees on anything less than Comprehensive and Total Eclecticism. In other words, Bent Knee make music that is all over the place — so all over the place, in fact, that they will always have a hard time trying to make us understand what exactly is it all about.

In simple terms and in the first place, it is probably all about the vocals of Courtney Swain, which happen to be the first attention-grabbing component of the record. Timbre-wise, she reminds me most of Beth Gibbons, with whom she shares similar levels of intensity and knife-sharpness; on the other hand, she is much more of a «rock» singer than Beth, and often shows a pissed-off, hysterical side that is more reminiscent of that other Courtney... (I do so hope that hard drugs are a no-no at the Berklee College, but Swain looks perfectly healthy to me). It is on the more quiet numbers, such as ʽFuneralʼ, where she tends to fade into the background: her lyrical side is com­petent, but unexceptional, and she is truly at her best when her bandmates start lighting up the little pieces of paper between her toes. They also like to put subtle, Björkish electronic effects on her vocals sometimes, or run them through an echo chamber for an even more epic reaction, which is fine enough if the source vocal is already powerful on its own.

As for the music, Bent Knee is hard to categorize in any other terms than the general designation of «indie rock», whatever that term is supposed to mean in the 2010s. Thus, ʽUrban Circusʼ opens proceedings in near-classic «industrial» mode, with distorted factory-level power blasts against which Swain's desperate voice is battling as against prison bars. It's like the gloom of classic Portishead, enhanced by the cling-clang of classic Nine Inch Nails, though not as deep penetra­ting as either: Bent Knee have the typical «college kid» problem in that, as artists, it is hard for them to go all the way — they are, apparently, a bunch of deeply normal and well-meaning young people, greatly moved and influenced by their moves and influences, but not as deeply disturbed and wasted as any of those influences. Still, the very first track shows that they know how to create a good old ruckus, and how to make the listener pay attention by cleverly using the loud-quiet dynamics, integrating acoustic and electronic elements, and merging together elements of ye olde blues-rock, noise, and avantgarde jazz.

Perhaps their biggest mistake is in trying to make themselves look «darker» than they actually are. Most of the songs have a sweeping tragic feel; most of the lyrics are about relationships gone wrong and the cosmic consequences of that; most of the time Courtney Swain sounds either angry at her man, sad about her man, or crazy because her man drove her to it. It rarely seems sincere, and the overall feel is more theatrical, reaching vaudevillian peaks when they actually go for straightahead vaudeville — once, on the crazy polka number ʽI've Been This Way Beforeʼ — but always feeling like they are just putting on a show for us even on the most «intimate» numbers (the acoustic ballad ʽAfter Years Of Loveʼ, which eventually grows into a lushly psychedelic Floydian meadow of chiming pianos, slide guitars, and distant vocal harmonies). Nevertheless, almost everything they do is interesting at least in some respect: every track shows either musical or, yep, theatrical creativity.

Thus, ʽI Don't Love You Anymoreʼ in its first fifteen seconds combines impressionist piano playing, synth-pop, and «heavy industrial blues-rock» — with the guitarist throwing in a flashy Van Halen-esque guitar solo, and Swain's multi-tracked vocals raising fifty times more hell around her imaginary lover than, say, a Taylor Swift could do with an army of producers behind her back. On ʽLittle Specks Of Calciumʼ, they invent a cozy little twee-pop melody only to de­construct it to total minimalism, and then follow it up with a moody dialog between incompatible lovers ("but you are frozen... cold... frozen... cold..." — "and you are burning me alive! you are burning me alive!") that is a great find by itself (I only wish they could have found a better musi­cal realisation for it, with two counter-motifs, perhaps, rather than this monotonous industrial pump). And on the album's longest track, ʽStyrofoam Heartʼ, they combine everything they got (gorgeous singing, hysterical singing, beautiful harmonies, ominous harmonies, romantic piano rolls, heavy metal, and mourning woo-woo-woos that seem incidentally ripped off from Radio­head's ʽStreet Spiritʼ — which reminds me that I probably did not yet mention Radiohead as a serious influence on these guys, but then, should I really have?..).

The good news, then, is that Bent Knee created their own sound; the bad news is that they have not been able to solve the nagging problem — this sound is all too easily decomposed into con­stituents, each of which on its own is ultimately preferable to the synthesis. Yet even so, the band manages to stand out against its peers by taking things to an overall higher level of intensity than most do. And the fact that they have set themselves such a wide territory to cover with their for­mula also made it worth the while to hold your breath and wait for whatever else they might have in store for us. In the meantime, this self-titled debut certainly deserves its thumbs up.


Friday, September 15, 2017

Anaïs Mitchell: The Brightness

ANAÏS MITCHELL: THE BRIGHTNESS (2007)

1) Your Fonder Heart; 2) Of A Friday Night; 3) Namesake; 4) Shenandoah; 5) Changer; 6) Song Of The Magi; 7) Santa Fe Dream; 8) Hobo's Lullaby; 9) Old Fashioned Hat; 10) Hades & Persephone; 11) Out Of Pawn.

Perhaps Hymns For The Exiled did not qualify as a neo-folk masterpiece, but its open outrage at the contemporary state of affairs in the artist's home country did attract the attention of Ani Di­Franco, one of the toughest human right warriors alive in the female domain, and this not only got Mitchell on Ani's Righteous Babe Records, but also helped her get some much-needed promotion: from this point on, critical reviews of her albums gradually become more numerous, and since her kind of art is particularly attractive to critics (unusual voice + intelligent lyrics + acoustic guitars = near-instant win), this means that somewhere in between 2004 and 2007, and particularly with the release of her first album on RBR, Anaïs Mitchell became a local celebrity.

Nevertheless, The Brightness is still a very low-key affair. Acoustic guitar, piano, and some violas and cellos from time to time is all you hear; and furthermore, ironically, The Brightness is much, much less politically charged than its predecessor. Much of it is about Mitchell herself, and some of it is just a series of musical-lyrical vignettes that may be interpreted any way you like. If we are to describe her current sound in «synthetic» terms, it would probably be a combination of Woody Guthrie / early Dylan (in terms of her melodic content; see especially ʽHobo's Lullabyʼ, or that last song which begins with a direct quotation from Bob's ʽSong To Woodyʼ), Leonard Cohen (in terms of her attempting to convey some moral or some mystery by means of some unexpected lyrical parable), and, well, the usual Bush/Amos/Newsom conglomerate — in terms of her being a woman who sings in a strange voice, the «innocent girl soul stuck in an experi­enced woman body».

Not that it hadn't been that way before, but it seems as if The Brightness is her first album on which the style has matured, consolidated, and even fossilized. She is not straining too hard to make a social statement, but neither does she look like a person desperately searching for some­thing. Most of the songs either give advice ("come out, come on, come outside" — the first line of the opening song) or make observations, and a few songs lightly wax nostalgic over the good old days (ʽOf A Friday Nightʼ). There is very little to get irritated about, and even less to get ex­cited about; the question is one of possibly acknowledging and enjoying the record's small and subtle charms, or ignoring and rejecting them altogether.

I will mention a few examples whose subtlety I personally found quite pleasant. ʽOf A Friday Nightʼ (I can very easily picture this one as sung by Joni Mitchell and placed somewhere at the beginning of Blue or her other pre-jazz period records) harbors a cool poetic idea and expresses it with gusto — the climactic end of the song is basically a hopeless plea for the nameless "old poet" to come back so that the protagonist could take on the shapes of all his former objects of description and inspiration ("I'll be a good time gambler, I'll be a restless wife..."); if we take this analysis very very far, we might end up stating that ʽOf A Friday Nightʼ is nothing less than a curtain call on Old World Artistry (but we will not take it that far).

Another definite highlight is ʽHades & Persephoneʼ (apparently, Mitchell thought so herself, or else she wouldn't base her entire next record around it): she uses the Orpheus myth here as a pre­text for having the two protagonists of the song discuss the meaning of life (one of the conclu­sions they reach is that "the earth is a bird on a spit in the sky"; be warned that this is about as deep as Mitchell's philosophy goes, but then, she is really an artist, not a philosopher, so perhaps it'll do), and there is something nasty, urgent, and disturbing in each of her "how long, how long, how long?"'s that Hades and Persephone trade between each other.

Human right activists will gladly welcome ʽSong Of The Magiʼ, which begins innocently enough as a sad folk retelling of the Bethlehem story, but then, as a morose cello joins the acoustic guitar, suddenly makes a transition to the current state of Israel ("a child is born in Bethlehem... born in a cattle pen... born on the killing floor... waiting for the war... your home is a checkpoint now", etc. etc.). The smooth linkage of Christmas joys with Near Eastern agony is an idea that might work well on paper; unfortunately, sound-wise the song is way too toothless to make much of an im­pression, and I wouldn't probably even have mentioned it if I did not look closely at the printed lyrics at one point.

And that is the continuing trouble: most of these songs are still more interesting for their words than for their melodies. From that point of view, the smooth alliance between Mitchell and Ani DiFranco, one of the world's most ardent warriors but also most mediocre songwriters, is troub­ling: something like ʽNamesakeʼ, with its addition of lite jazz brass, sounds almost exactly like Ani's band at one of their less inspired sessions (and most of her band's sessions sound pretty uninspired to me). Also troubling are such discoveries as the main acoustic melody of ʽSanta Fe Dreamʼ, doubled by the vocals, essentially being a slight variation on Pink Floyd's ʽWish You Were Hereʼ — which is probably why the song made me pay attention, yet never really lived up to that opening flourish of "if it should happen...".

I guess, in the end, the main shortcoming of The Brightness, which it admittedly shares with hundreds of other decent-but-mediocre albums, is that it sounds too intellectualized to elicit some sharp emotional response, but not enough intellectualized to reveal any startling surprises or make you reconsider some of life's truths and lies. But if you set your expectations to nil, then The Brightness will just be a cool old statement of happiness and sorrow from the bright young girl next door. Like, at the end she will give her humble regards to post-Katrina New Orleans, which is just... nice. Even if she has to borrow a bit from Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan to do it, for no apparent reason. Then again, maybe it is precisely the things that she does for no apparent reason that make this record more tolerable and appreciable than it could be otherwise.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Celtic Frost: Parched With Thirst Am I And Dying

CELTIC FROST: PARCHED WITH THIRST AM I AND DYING (1985-1991; 1992)

1) Idols Of Chagrin; 2) A Descent To Babylon (Babylon Asleep); 3) Return To The Eve; 4) Juices Like Wine; 5) The Inevitable Factor; 6) The Heart Beneath; 7) Cherry Orchards; 8) Tristesses De La Lune; 9) Wings Of Solitude; 10) The Usurper; 11) Journey Into Fear; 12) Downtown Hanoi; 13) Circle Of The Tyrants; 14) In The Chapel In The Moonlight; 15) I Won't Dance (The Elders Orient); 16) The Name Of My Bride; 17) Mexican Radio; 18) Under Apollyon's Sun.

The importance of this compilation, originally released in 1992, has now significantly decreased since many of its tracks were dispersed as bonus additions to remastered CD editions of the band's overall catalog. Even in 1992, however, it was a somewhat strange package, interspersing rarities and oddities with an almost random selection of tracks taken from albums all the way back to Mega Therion (but, strangely, not Morbid Tales). Whether the old fans even back then were happy to receive an additional copy of three numbers from Cold Lake and three more from Vanity/Nemesis is a big question. Whether the presence of four previously unreleased songs was enough of an incentive to make them tolerate these additional copies is an even bigger one.

Anyway, here is a brief rundown on these «lost treasures». ʽIdols Of Chagrinʼ is the reworking of a 1991 demo — a slow Vanity/Nemesis-style power metal riff-rocker, with some chords soun­ding dangerously close to AC/DC's ʽRock'n'Roll Ain't Noise Pollutionʼ and the general atmos­phere reminiscent of both AC/DC and Accept (but with far uglier vocals). ʽThe Inevitable Factorʼ is an outtake from Cold Lake, ironically featuring a more memorable riff than most of the regu­lar songs on there, but again spoiled by silly «dying metal Tristan» vocals. ʽJourney Into Fearʼ is a very old outtake (from 1985), and thus, faster, more aggressive, and more fun than all the later outtakes — but nothing in particular here with which you were not already acquainted on To Mega Therion. Finally, ʽUnder Apollyon's Sunʼ (I think they sort of confused Apollyon, the Greek equi­valent of Abaddon, with the god Apollo here, but perhaps this was intentional) is ano­ther demo from 1991, but this time with a more Sabbath-esque riff, and an almost industrial crunch in the middle — melodically, perhaps, the most ambitious of these tunes.

Other than that, you have a few remixed versions (ʽDowntown Hanoiʼ from Cold Lake, for instance) with cleaner and sharper guitar sound, which probably still does not redeem them as much as we'd want to, and a few scooped-up rare jokes, such as the black metal take on the old popu­lar standard ʽIn The Chapel In The Moonlightʼ (from a 1987 promotional EP). It all works fine as a career retrospective, especially if you rectify the dumb running order of the tracks, but not a single moment here is truly eye-opening in any sense: at no stage in their diverse career, apparently, did Celtic Frost produce something so unusual that they would decide to keep it hidden from us until they ran out of new material. Thus, for completists only.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Carpenters: Christmas Portrait

CARPENTERS: CHRISTMAS PORTRAIT (1978)

1) O Come, O Come Emmanuel!; 2) Overture; 3) Christmas Waltz; 4) Sleigh Ride; 5) It's Christmas Time / Sleep Well, Little Children; 6) Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas; 7) Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town; 8) Christmas Song; 9) Silent Night; 10) Jingle Bells; 11) First Snowfall / Let It Snow; 12) Carol Of The Bells; 13) Merry Christ­mas, Darling; 14) I'll Be Home For Christmas; 15) Christ Is Born; 16) Winter Wonderland / Silver Bells / White Christmas; 17) Ave Maria.

If you happen to like your Christmas albums and prefer that the artist respect the source material rather than deconstruct it, reinterpret it, enslave it to his twisted will and sinister purposes, then Christmas Portrait, probably not coincidentally released by Richard and Karen Carpenter on the exact same day as AC/DC's If You Want Blood You've Got It, has a good chance of becoming your favorite Christmas album of all time. They could have expanded upon the cautious experi­mentation of Passage — but given its lackluster chart performance, probably decided that this road was not for them, after all, and decided to apply their musical talents elsewhere. Somehow, they remembered, they hadn't done a Christmas album yet; and since a Christmas album for Carpenters seems as natural as a live album for The Who, or an album about death and decay for The Doors, or an album about merry gay sailors for Elton John, they went ahead with the idea. (Particularly since they'd already written one Christmas song, ʽMerry Christmas Darlingʼ, as early as 1970 — it is also included here, but with a new vocal recorded by Karen).

The specific nature of the duo's approach to Christmas is in the sheer grandness of the project. This is the first Carpenters LP to run over 45 minutes, and the first one to start out with a proper overture — five minutes of orchestral snippets for both performed and unperformed songs. Actu­ally, they recorded enough material for a double album, but wisely decided to hold off, because, you know, people also need some time to eat their turkey. (The rest of it was shelved for six years, only appearing after Karen's death). Even so, what with all the introductions, codas, links and transitions, Christmas Portrait feels more like a coherent «folk mass» of sorts than just a dis­jointed series of Christmas carols, a single lengthy ritual performed conquering-style by Good Christmas Fairy Karen and her loyal band of dwarf and elf henchmen, molded into the shape of a sugary-suave symphonic orchestra.

That said, do not hold high hopes: Richard is a professional and inspired arranger, but his inspi­ration in such matters rarely hovers above Disney levels, and every bit of this music, be it purely instrumental (ʽCarol Of The Bellsʼ, etc.) or vocal-based, is designed for nothing more and nothing less than sentimental family entertainment. Unfortunately, Karen is also helpless to add any extra dimensions in this situation: she is serving here as a conductor of the old-fashioned Christmas spirit and is consciously leaving all of her «dark strains» on the shelf (not that she could be blamed for that — it is awesome when performers try to identify the darker sides of Christmas mate­rial, but expecting non-trivial activities like that from Carpenters is like expecting modesty and humility from The Donald). At least her vocal frequencies and intonations help avoid extra sappiness; but I cannot single out even one song that would strike a particularly vulnerable / sen­sitive string in my own soul. It's all just nice, tolerable Christmas fare.

It is good, however, that most of the songs are short or, if long, actually constitute medleys: this creates a fast-rotating kaleidoscope of sub-moods (giggly, joyful, pensive, solemn, whatever) that, if anything, brings the Christmas ritual to life, so that the whole thing does not come across as too rigid or square. Still, it also pretty much kills off any hopes anybody could have about Passage opening some new stage in the duo's history — and with Karen's rapidly deteriorating condition (not to mention Richard's ongoing addiction to Quaaludes), that history, alas, was already coming to an end.