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Friday, January 30, 2015

The Boo Radleys: Ichabod And I


1) Eleanor Everything; 2) Bodenheim Jr.; 3) Catweazle; 4) Sweet Salad Birth; 5) Hip Clown Rag; 6) Walking 5th Carnival; 7) Kaleidoscope; 8) Happens To Us All.

Listening to and looking at the Boo Radleys' not-too-promising debut album — shorter than half an hour and only ever released in LP format — one can hardly get rid of the feeling that these well-meaning English lads are far more literate than they are talented. Quite possibly, some kid, or maybe several kids, may have looked at the album cover and asked themselves the question: «What is a Boo Radley?» and «What the heck is an ichabod?» and consequently discover Harper Lee and Washington Irving. (Nothing wrong about a little idealistic dreaming! and I am not be­ing condescending here — hell, I should probably confess that I had no idea who was Bodenheim before stumbling upon the second track here, either).

The songs, however, do not offer much of interest, and the band themselves have tagged these 28 minutes as a purely formative stage, way too much influenced by contemporary noise and grunge bands to have anything close to its own identity. Lo-fi, overloud, and looking as if most of the melodies were thrown together in about two minutes each, Ichabod And I simply does not stand a chance against... well, anything, but most importantly, it explores the same territory that was already thoroughly explored by My Bloody Valentine on their debut and would be explored even more thoroughly on Loveless next year — namely, the idea of marrying «dirt» with «beauty» and turning them into an unseparable Holy Duality where one does not exist without the other.

The idea of combining tenderly lyrical «flower power» vocals of Sice Rowbottom with the jar­ring, crushing guitar drone of Martin Carr is not at all original, but it could work — provided they had discovered how to make the experience memorable, or at least engineered the right balance between these two extremes in the studio. The latter task is tremendously hard (and constitutes, for instance, my biggest issue with the already mentioned Loveless), but it doesn't seem as if they even began worrying about it. The guitars simply stomp in, killing everything that moves (ʽEleanor Everythingʼ and ʽHappens To Us Allʼ, bookmarking the record, are extreme examples of this approach), and the vocals are buried so deep that, by the time you have finally dug them out, your shovels will be dented and your interest dissipated. It does not help that the guitars do not play any interesting melodies and are, at best, sloppified variations on classic Black Sabbath riffs (e.g. ʽBodenheim Jr.ʼ = ʽAfter Foreverʼ, much tortured and disfigured).

Even if the song starts out with a nice little Sixties-style jangle-pop riff (ʽCatweazleʼ), within a matter of seconds it gets drowned in sludge; only ʽWalking 5th Carnivalʼ escapes this cruel fate by reaching a compromise — there will be a nasty-sounding, but distinctive wah-wah riff here, as well as several acoustic-based sections, apart from the regular distorted stuff; ironically, it is also the song with the most boring vocal part on the album...

To put it bluntly, Ichabod And I largely sucks, and the band's decision to bury it right there in Sleepy Hollow is understandable. Now that the era of the Holy Download is upon us, it is not a big problem to bring back the ghost, but there is really no need to hunt for this obscurity unless you happen to be a really big fan of the band and have a scientific interest in their roots. Well, this is one of those «roots-obsessed» high school-level debuts that deserves all the severity of a thumbs down; fortunately, the band's CD-era output would soon prove that the Boo Radleys were ready to work hard on their image, until that whole «scary on the outside / beautiful on the inside» thing actually became real.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Boards Of Canada: Music Has The Right To Children


1) Wildlife Analysis; 2) An Eagle In Your Mind; 3) The Color Of The Fire; 4) Telephasic Workshop; 5) Triangles & Rhombuses; 6) Sixtyten; 7) Turquoise Hexagon Sun; 8) Kaini Industries; 9) Bocuma; 10) Roygbiv; 11) Rue The Whirl; 12) Aquarius; 13) Olson; 14) Pete Standing Alone; 15) Smokes Quantity; 16) Open The Light; 17) One Very Important Thought.

The title of Boards Of Canada's first full-length LP, finally released on a major label and soon made famous around the world, is not just a clever twist of phrase, as is the case with so many «experimental» releases — indeed, this is an electronic concept album, revolving around the idea of child­hood and even actual children, plenty of whom are captured here in field recordings and exploited for sinister Scottish purposes. Ambient synthesizers + soft dance grooves + kid vocal samples = Major Breakthrough in Modern Art, or something of that sort, as most fans and critics will be happy to tell you.

Unfortunately, not everyone is able to share the exuberant joy (of which there is much — I have seen plenty of reactions from people who declare Music... or its follow-up to be the best electro­nic album ever recorded, or, at least, their absolute personal favorite). The problems that were already evident with Twoism remain here exactly the way they were — spicing the grooves up with field samples does little in the way of making them more meaningful or aurally impressive. The landscape is still dominated by soft, inobtrusive, repetitive loops, sometimes reasonably short but often going on for 5-6 minutes without much in the way of development — and they aren't even «beautiful» loops, they seem more like «trance-inducing» loops, but most of the time they just put me to sleep (if I try to concentrate on them) or flush by unnoticed (if I do not).

In terms of musical innovation, I have not been able to spot anything that would make the re­cord seem «progressive» compared to Aphex Twin or Autechre or late-period Eno — sure, the bro­thers make their own loops and mix in their own samples, and sometimes they are pretty, but other than this vaguely original idea of making «static, paysage-ly ambient music that you can dance to» (and not all ideas of this kind are necessarily supposed to work — just look at Vanessa Mae putting technobeats on Vivaldi), the «theoretical» achievements of Boards of Canada are nothing much to write home about.

In terms of the «who cares for innovation when the music's so great?» line of thought, I just do not find the music so great. It is uniformly pleasant and almost never irritating (already a big plus for an experimental electronic release), but Michael and Marcus are not minimalist geniuses like Eno, and even when they declare open season on «beauty», with tracks like ʽOpen The Lightʼ whose several keyboard layers strive to create an «angelic» atmosphere, it still sounds more like a brain-manipulator gadget than a thing of sheer sensual purity.

On the other hand, we must also admit the possibility that it is that very quality — the fact that the band rejects «excesses», «build-ups», «prominent hooks», «cathartic moments» — which gives Music... its own advantage. If their aim was to construct a maximally relastic soundscape, they may well have fulfilled it to the max. Let's face it, if you find yourself walking through a snowy forest at night, or crossing some cooled-off desert sands, or floating on an iceberg through the Arctic ocean, most of the time (when you are not pursued by hailstorms, getting bitten by un­expectedly awakened rattlesnakes, or drowning in a storm) things are going to be fairly calm, uneventful, boring, and not particularly cathartic or epiphanic, despite all of nature's beauty. Same stuff here — ʽAn Eagle In Your Mindʼ simply moves from one icy synth tone to another, as the beats snort and scuffle around like a pack of busy rodents. As one reviewer wrote about the track's basic emotion, it's "somewhere on the border between anxiety, happiness, control, and evil" — even if I were to agree, it is precisely this border thing that makes it a little bit of every­thing, but not enough of anything. If this is a conscious artistic stance, I can understand it, but I cannot understand how it can make for great art. Not this way, at least.

I do like some of their sampling ideas — probably the most memorable track on the entire album for me was ʽThe Color Of The Fireʼ, where they take what seems to be a sample of a little kid diligently trying to spell out the phrase "I love you" and distort it in psychedelic fashion, while a set of chiming overdubs further enhances the «magic» aura of the proceedings. For some reason, this turns out to be quite charming and endearing: some have found the experience disturbing and frightening (because the treated voices sound like ghosts?), but I think it takes an intellectual leap to come to that conclusion — no matter how much you distort an originally natural vocal, it won't really sound frightening unless its intent was to frighten you in the first place. In any case, it is a pity that only a very small portion of the record is given over to that sort of experimentation, although, of course, much more of that would turn it into a pure performance act rather than a musical offering.

I have most likely missed out on some of the intended meanings behind these tracks — it's always easy to catch up on these by reading interviews with the brothers — but it is unlikely that any «explanation» will influence anybody's amount of love for the record. Likewise, it is easy to recognize the sheer amount of work that went into its construction (for instance, the tricky rhythms of ʽTelephasic Workshopʼ, combined from all sorts of natural sounds, including finger-poppin' and voice bits), but if the work does not translate into an instinctive marvel-for-the-senses effect, that work is simply wasted, period. My final judgement is that it's all okay, but the «special» status that this record is endowed with among so many fans remains incomprehensible; give me some Massive Attack over this stuff any time of day.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Bonnie Raitt: Green Light


1) Keep This Heart In Mind; 2) River Of Tears; 3) Can't Get Enough; 4) Willya Wontcha; 5) Let's Keep It Between Us; 6) Me And The Boys; 7) I Can't Help Myself; 8) Baby Come Back; 9) Talk To Me; 10) Green Lights.

Another interesting change of pace here — reflecting the end of the Seventies and, in a way, the end of the singer-songwriter era, Green Light is a simple, ballsy, and ever so slightly New Wave-influenced rock'n'roll album. Once again, the entire songwriting and recording team has been shifted. The new producer is Rob Fraboni, best known for working on various roots-rock projects of the previous decade (such as The Band's Last Waltz and Eric Clapton's No Reason To Cry; not coincidentally, The Band's own Richard Manuel gets credited in the liner notes for background vocals), and the most notorious instrumentalist on the album is Faces' veteran Ian McLagan, who, I think, is chiefly responsible for the somewhat nonchalant, barroom-boogie attitude that rules on Green Light.

For all of Bonnie's «excesses» of that era, brought about by heavy drinking, and for all of her desire to let it all hang down for a bit, the record is still quite reserved and delicately polished — no use expecting sloppiness or high levels of distortion and fuzz from the lady. However, as you can easily see from the title track, she is not above allowing modern production techniques (in­cluding a little bit of electronic treatment), so that today, ʽGreen Lightsʼ is quite easily datable back to the early 1980s. This is not a problem, though — the whole album pretends to little more than casual lightweight entertainment, for which aims the production is adequate.

There are almost no ballads on the album: the closest thing is probably ʽRiver Of Tearsʼ, contri­buted by long-term partner Eric Kaz, but even that song's melodic base is blues-rockish — in fact, the opening guitar lines sound like they were lifted directly off some alternate version of ʽHonky Tonk Womenʼ, open G-tuning and all; it is only the overall broken-hearted sentimentality of the lyrics and the slight whiff of angry tragedy in Raitt's vocals that would allow to classify the song as a «heartstring-puller», if there were any need for such a classification. Everything else just ranges from straightahead rock'n'roll to dynamic Motown-style R&B (ʽI Can't Help Myselfʼ).

Interestingly, one of the exceptions from that formula, ʽLet's Keep It Between Usʼ is a Bob Dylan reject that he occasionally performed in concert but never recorded in the studio — no idea if he could be able to flesh it out into some­thing more exciting than the slow 12-bar blues on this album, but before I took a look at the liner notes, I had not the smallest inkling to associate the song with Bob: clearly, Bonnie is much better at capturing the spirit of pre-war black female blues singers than nailing the Zimmerman essence (it may be a good thing, after all, that they never got her involved in the 30th anniversary show in 1992 even if, on the surface, she'd make a far more natural choice than Sinead O'Connor). It's just boring.

The speedy numbers, though, like ʽMe And The Boysʼ or ʽTalk To Meʼ, are catchy, harmless fun. Curiously, ʽTalk To Meʼ, opening with a couple of chords nicked from Blondie's ʽOne Way Or Anotherʼ and then quickly turning into a «post-disco dance-rock» number, was written by Jerry Lynn Williams, the same guy who wrote hit songs for Clapton in the mid-1980s (ʽForever Manʼ, ʽPretendingʼ, ʽRunning On Faithʼ — the latter one was actually quite good), but ʽTalk To Meʼ sounds most closely to the one song that Williams did not write for Clapton, namely, ʽTearing Us Apartʼ, from which I conclude that Williams not only wrote songs for Clapton, but also inspired Clapton to write songs in the style of Williams. It's a pretty complicated network out there in the world of show-biz, as you can tell.

Considering that the band behind Bonnie's back is competent and tasteful, and that Bonnie's own vocal style is perfectly compatible with barroom rock (strictly reserved to those barrooms that do not let their clients throw up on the counter and pass out on the floor), I have no problems about a friendly thumbs up for the album, despite its expectable problems — the four lines from ʽMe And The Boysʼ pretty much sum up everything about what's right and what's wrong here: "Me and my buddies just like to go / We'll have fun, everybody knows / We don't fuss and we never cry / We just groove, taking in the sights". No fuss and no crying, indeed. Very cautious groove, too, but some new sights are definitely taken in. And — no doubt about it — any relations with the boys are restricted to the purely platonic sphere. But then, you don't always have to imitate Lemmy in order to play good rock'n'roll.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Bob Marley: Talkin' Blues

BOB MARLEY: TALKIN' BLUES (1973-75/1991)

1) Talkin'; 2) Talkin' Blues; 3) Talkin'; 4) Burnin' And Lootin'; 5) Talkin'; 6) Kinky Reggae; 7) Get Up Stand Up; 8) Talkin'; 9) Slave Driver; 10) Talkin'; 11) Walk The Proud Land; 12) Talkin'; 13) You Can't Blame The Youth; 14) Talkin'; 15) Rastaman Chant; 16) Talkin'; 17) Am-A-Do; 18) Talkin'; 19) Bend Down Low; 20) Talkin'; 21) I Shot The Sheriff.

Although the format of this album is rather strange, yet in a way, Talkin' Blues may be the most important live record by the Wailers ever put out. Essentially, this is the complete or near-com­plete show that the band played for a San Francisco radio station on October 31, 1973, with the original lineup still in place — interspersed with cut-up segments of an interview that Bob recorded for Jamaican radio in 1975, and throwing on, as a bonus, some alternate studio cuts and a lengthy, bombastic performance of ʽI Shot The Sheriffʼ from a London show, also in 1975: not a trivial way of sequencing your data, by any means.

The interview bits are a tough nut for anyone not used to Jamaican English — about 70% of the time I have absolutely no idea what the man is saying, although you can generally guess the topics (music, spirituality, communication with people, relationships with Peter Tosh, etc.) and then you probably have some vague idea about what is being said even without making out the particular words. Not that any of it is particularly important — in fact, I'd say that the very sound of Marley's voice earns him far more sympathy and admiration than whatever semantic content is concealed in that sound. Like most modern-day «prophets», he was never particularly deep or innovative in his message, and as for the deep meaning of his music, well, I'd always prefer to somehow infer it from the music on my own than strain myself to understand his verbal explana­tion. But hey, at least these spoken bits substantiate the «punny» album title.

The performances are an entirely different matter. These are the young Wailers here, unspoiled by fame or fortune, still earning their «musical Messiah» credentials, captured live in the studio in pristine sound quality, not having to toy or fool around with their audiences, but having some­thing to prove in the way of musicianship. As they launch into ʽBurnin' And Lootin'ʼ, the degree of internal coordination between all five involved musicians is awesome — they are already way past the «minimalistic» Lee Perry stage, when the bass was all that really mattered, but quite far away from the stage when the music began to matter less than the Exultation / Exorcism ritual. All of these performances, without exception, are at least as good as their studio analogs, and sometimes may be even better — for instance, the guitar duet on ʽGet Up, Stand Upʼ is much more lively (extra scratch, bark, and snap) than it was in the studio.

For those who want something more than a set of alternate versions, no matter how flawlessly executed, there are also some rarities — including Tosh's ʽYou Can't Blame The Youthʼ, a song that is quite questionable as to its lyrical content (all reservations applied, Christopher Columbus was a very great man, and so was Marco Polo — not so sure about the pirates Hawkins and Morgan — and this is just not a very convincing example of why the elders, rather than the youth, are to be blamed for current problems, even if they really are), but quite admirable by way of its basic groove and lively workin'-team harmonies. The previously unreleased outtake ʽAm-A-Doʼ is nothing too special, but any outtake from Marley's most important period is... important? Whatever be the case, you will not leave here empty-handed.

To be fair, the talking and singing are actually integrated rather than interspersed randomly. For instance, at one point they have a short conversation with the interviewer about Bob's playing the flute, and this is followed by an alternate take of ʽBend Down Lowʼ that does indeed have a flute lead scattered all over the place — never made it to the final runthrough, and it is somewhat of a pity, since the extra touch of pastoral tenderness is quite appropriate. But in the end, it really does not matter — if the talking bugs you, it is extremely simple just to edit it out and still have a re­spectably lengthy live album, worthy of an assured thumbs up. For obvious reasons, Talkin' Blues will never be anybody's first choice for a live Marley album (the man is too strongly asso­ciated with the «shepherd-and-the-flock» imagery to make one believe to try him out first in a radio studio environment), but that's alright as long as you do not forget about its existence: an essential acquirement, really.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Bonzo Dog Band: Keynsham


1) You Done My Brain In; 2) Keynsham; 3) Quiet Talks And Summer Walks; 4) Tent; 5) We Were Wrong; 6) Joke Shop Man; 7) The Bride Stripped Bare By 'Bachelors'; 8) Look At Me, I'm Wonderful; 9) What Do You Do?; 10) Mr. Slater's Parrot; 11) Sport (The Odd Boy); 12) I Want To Be With You; 13) Noises For The Leg; 14) Busted.

You can use Wikipedia or a million other sources to learn why the album was called Keynsham, and it might even help you to form a more informative, complete, and systematic picture of the universe, but it will probably not provide you with an extra key to enjoying, admiring, or even «understanding» the fourth LP by The Bonzo Dog Band, so we will not dwell too long on the trivia and instead, will skip right on to the generalization — Keynsham is their second most com­plex record after Doughnut, but still a little less complex, sort of a partial compromise be­tween the experimentation of Doughnut and the accessible silliness of Tadpoles. Let it not be said that the Bonzos made even two albums that sounded completely alike — their menu items all share the same core, but are varied enough to fit quite a plethora of different tastes.

One thing that is hard not to notice is how quite a few tracks here either parody or deconstruct the «art pop» thing — where Doughnut was more obsessed with fooling around with blues-rock and rock'n'roll, Keynsham seems to take note of the increase in popularity of such bands as the Bee Gees or the Moody Blues or any of their other competitors: songs like ʽQuiet Talks And Summer Walksʼ and ʽWhat Do You Do?ʼ combine elements of vocal crooning, pastoral flutes, swooping strings, heavenly harmonies, etc., and end up sounding like authentic «artsy» compositions of their age — until you start concentrating on the lyrics: ʽWhat Do You Do?ʼ parodies the «Serious Philosophical Question Song» movement, and ʽQuiet Talks And Summer Walksʼ depicts a couple's romantic relations as seen through the somewhat bleek perspective of the protagonist, only to become suddenly deflated by the sound of a dentist's drill.

At the same time, the boys are not at all past their usual «slap-schtick»: ʽTentʼ is brassy Sha-Na-Na style pop with a brawny caveman angle, ʽWe Were Wrongʼ is romantic Zombies-style pop with a corny joke angle (ʽThis Will Be Our Yearʼ may have served as the musical inspiration, provided the Bonzos actually did have access to the not-so-popular Odessey And Oracle), and then there's material like ʽMr. Slater's Parrotʼ that sounds as if it were taken straight from the Benny Hill Show soundtrack. Naturally, there is no coherence whatsoever between the «serious-sounding» stuff and the directly comedic numbers, but that is something you either have to take or leave: the Bonzos declared war on coherence before they were born.

In terms of sheer inventiveness, we should tip our hats as usual: the mix of melodies, hilarious lyrics, recitatives, mini-stories, and sound effects is as dazzling and delirious as ever — speaking of sound effects, ʽBustedʼ probably has the single best example of a cow's mooing sampled in the history of all cow moo samples, and ʽNoises For The Legʼ probably has the most irritating ever example of the use of a Theremin on record (one that was actually installed inside the leg of a mannequin, which explains the song's title).

On the other hand, somehow you can tell that, by intentionally avoiding all elements of «formula», the band has driven itself into a rut — now that they know they can handle it all, and now that they have already handled it all on Doughnut, Keynsham feels a little bit... predictable. Like their TV brothers Monty Python, who only lasted a few years before their romance with intellectualized absurdity became boring, the Bonzos were unable to settle their awesome initial explosion into a pleasantly useful routine.

As an incidental introduction to the band's sound, Keynsham is as good as any other Bonzo album — but if taken in chronological order, it does not seem to fulfill its assigned task to stick a wise-cracking knife under the ribs of 1969 the same way that Doughnut did for 1968. The simple pop parodies are a little late, and the art pop exercises do not work very well as «serious» Lieder for the masses (the Bonzos could mime to the Moodies and the Bee Gees, but their songwriting relative to these guys was more or less like the Rutles / Beatles relationship) and do not properly fulfill the task of desecrating these temples of romanticism, either. They're a little bit pretty and a little bit funny, but sort of «midway» in both categories.

The record deserves a strong thumbs up in any case — these criticisms are relative, not absolute, and repeated listens do bring out both the melodic hooks and the pockets of intellectual depth in the material. But the decision to split, which the band took around the same time the LP was issued, was utterly wise: in their current incarnation, they found it hard to keep up with the rapidly changing times — as a 1969 album, Keynsham is simply nowhere near as impressive as Doughnut was for a 1968 album. Perhaps if they had a real Frank Zappa in their ranks, things would turn out different, but neither Stanshall nor Innes could lay claim to anything like that.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Adverts: Live At The Roxy Club


1) Safety In Numbers; 2) Newboys; 3) One Chord Wonders; 4) On The Roof; 5) New Day Dawning; 6) Great British Mistake; 7) Bombsite Boy; 8) No Time To Be 21; 9) Quick Step; 10) New Church; 11) Bored Teenagers; 12) Gary Gilmore's Eyes.

Given the legendary (cult) status of The Adverts, it is almost surprising that the number of post­mortem releases on their part is so embarrassingly small — just this one live album, released on the Receiver label, and a bunch of radio performances or something. The Adverts were quite well known for the ferocity of their live shows, true to the core of the punk spirit and all, so it makes total sense to have them commemorated with this early and relatively intimate (but wild) club session that took place at the Roxy Club before the first album was even recorded. Fortunately, the sound quality, while far from perfect, is satisfactory enough to both enjoy the show in its «totality» and to pay attention to all the individual contributions.

Setlist-wise, you can predict that this is going to be Crossing The Red Sea With The Adverts Live, and it is — they play 11 out of 13 songs live, adding the B-side ʽQuick Stepʼ and offering no particularly new melodic insights into the legend. However, you can also very easily see that they still share the old rock aesthetics of keeping it «dirtier» on stage and «cleaning it up» in the studio. The studio recordings, underneath all the heaviness, could have an acoustic underbelly, or at least some colorful electric «jangle» — live in 1977, everything is plastered with chainsaw buzz. Understandably, this undermines the songs' melodic potential, but adds tons of power, and if even subtle artists like The Who understood the payoffs, why shouldn't The Adverts? Howard Pickup, Gaye Black, and T. V. Smith are seen here as a simple, straightforward, and totally focu­sed three-head beast who know exactly what they want — state that they do not know what they want in a laconic set of bash-your-head-over movements.

I do not really have much to say here except that this is one of the best live documents from the early punk era — raw, lo-fi (but listenable), replete with the idealism of 1977 when certain young people once again got the idea that they could somehow change the world, or at least shake it out of its general indifference and somnambulance. For all the notes that T. V. Smith flubs in this performance (compared to the much better rehearsed and engineered singing on the studio record), there is that spontaneous, taken-over-by-spirits yearning in his voice that convinces you even today — this whole enterprise may be futile, but it certainly is not fake. Nor is his reluctance to communicate with the audience, as all the songs are introduced with a brief "this is..." and some­times concluded with an even briefer "yeah!" (not a single «thank you», I believe, even though the audience sounds quite enthusiastic throughout).

It does have to be remarked that, for a band that almost prided itself on knowing exactly one chord (figuratively speaking), The Adverts are remarkably tight live; the drummer may be their weakest spot on the whole (though he's at least competent enough not to let the rhythm slide), but the bass/guitar duo always keep up the tempos and are well coordinated with each other, leaving the singer free to roam on his own. Nothing exceptional, but once again, the legend of proper punk bands «not knowing how to play» is put to rest — restricting yourself to the bare musical minimum is certainly not the equivalent of not knowing how to play that minimum. Check out ʽNo Time To Be 21ʼ as proof — there's a relatively lengthy instrumental part there where Gaye and Howard are musically flirting with each other, she playing simple, but fun bass figures around his sea of distortion and he eventually leading his guitar towards a set of orgasmic scree­ches (okay, this reads sexier than it sounds, but now that I wrote it, I am beginning to feel that it is actually starting to sound sexier than it reads).

On the whole, a well-assured thumbs up here — if the studio albums convinced you that The Adverts were much more than a mere footnote in the early punk movement, Live At The Roxy is an essential addition to the legacy, rather than a footnote to a footnote. From what I read, its title may be an unfortunate lie (as the album is now said to have been recorded at Nottingham's Rock City), but everything else is the truth, and a good source of youthful inspiration even when you're listening to it at the age of 50.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Bon Jovi: Bon Jovi


1) Runaway; 2) Roulette; 3) She Don't Know Me; 4) Shot Through The Heart; 5) Love Lies; 6) Breakout; 7) Burning For Love; 8) Come Back; 9) Get Ready.

We often tend to define the different genres of popular music through both form and meaning — for instance, The Clash play speedy, distorted, simplistic electric guitar riffs and sing about social injustice and rebellion, so they're «punks»; Black Sabbath play more complex, lower-pitched riffs and sing about Satan, so they're «metal». Every once in a while, though, along comes such a drastic incongruity that all rules and assumptions have to be revised, or even rejected. Sometimes this is done intentionally, as an understanding «mockery» of established tradition; sometimes it is simply done, because it just seems like the times were calling for it.

Few bands in the history of mankind, I think, have from the very beginning put so much of every­thing on «fake» as Bon Jovi — and did it with such a natural ease at that. Normally, when we hear «pop metal» and remember The Big Hair Decade, we would think of all those bands that carried on the tradition of shocking and grossing out their audiences: Twisted Sister, Mötley Crüe, Poison, etc. Much, if not most, of the music that they produced sucked, but at least it kind of agreed with the image — «break all rules», «fuck everything that moves», that sort of thing. In comparison, Bon Jovi continuously produced music whose lyrical and emotional content was completely tame: unimaginative romantic love songs, mostly, with just a wee bit of animal sexual passion thrown in occasionally (on their debut album, ʽGet Readyʼ is the only song that explicitly deals with humping — placed right at the end, too, as if to say, «okay, getting a little tired with all that schmaltzy stuff, let's get down to some real business for a change»).

Tame, yes, but still retaining all the superficial «metal» trappings, starting from the band's visual image and ending with the musical arrangements — booming drums, grumbly distorted riffs, gang choruses, screechy high-pitched solos, the works. Keyboardist David Bryan is very much at the center of the sound (no small coincidence that the album opens with his nasty, primitive syn­thesizer clunking), but the guitar duo of Jon Bon Jovi (rhythm) and Richie Sambora (lead) never let the listener forget that this is Metal here, or, at least, Heavy Rock. In fact, they do not want you to think of them as soft-hearted pussies so much that there isn't even a proper «power ballad» anywhere on the album: all the songs are taken at mid- or fast tempos, and the sentimentality is restricted to Jon's (and sometimes to backup) vocals and to David's keyboards — they can wail and weep all they want, but the guitars will still sound harsh and brutal.

This seems like a rather jarring stylistic contradiction, but on a certain level, it works. For in­stance, people who had an instinctive attraction to the new «heavy» sounds, but were repelled by the «shock» image of the usual glam rockers, would probably see Bon Jovi as a guiding light — you can headbang to this music all you want, but you don't have to cuss, and you don't have to be afraid of embarrassing your God-fearing friends from the PMRC. And it works the other way round, too — if you come to Bon Jovi, merely out of scientific curiosity, expecting to hear the most godawful shite ever recorded, this lack of power ballads, for one thing, will be an almost pleasant surprise.

Still, even with all the pleasant surprises, this is some of the most godawful shite ever recorded, and the reason is simple enough: TEH DRAMA! You can almost literally feel the veins and arte­ries all over the well-exercised body of Jon Bon Jovi puff up and explode from being overworked as he piles up tons upon tons of sympathy for the protagonists of his songs (usually himself, but sometimes outsiders, too — ʽRunawayʼ is the ʽShe's Leaving Homeʼ of the hair metal world, and the poor thing has become addicted to steroids since 1967). The general focus is not on how to make these primitive, if sometimes catchy, pop melodies more interesting, but on how to convey the agony and the suffering — because, you see, he's ʽBurning For Loveʼ as he calls upon her to ʽCome Backʼ, but ʽLove Liesʼ that ʽShe Don't Know Meʼ, so he's ʽShot Through The Heartʼ in an always-losing game of Russian ʽRouletteʼ. Figuratively speaking, of course. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. (Not that there's much danger of anything here bearing resemblance to any activity by a real person, of course).

This is why, even acknowledging the pop hooks of the band's choruses, I find them ineffective. You can find yourself out on the street, distractedly humming "ooooooh, she's a little runaway" if you are not too careful, but it's a crude, blunt, shallow chorus, devoid of any subtlety or musical point of interest, relying on the power of the "oooooh" and the stop-and-start bit of the chorus to win over the hearts of undemanding fans. Oh, and the speed, of course — the speed at which these choruses are delivered are an integral part of the album's success. And then there's more drama in group vocalizations (ʽBreakoutʼ), gang shouts ("SHOT! SHOT! SHOT!"), and, of course, Sambora's ecstatic solos all over the place.

Interestingly enough, the album's only (still rather minor) hit was ʽShe Don't Know Meʼ — the only song in Bon Jovi's discography not written or co-written by a member of Bon Jovi; I guess their record label, at this point, did not yet trust Jon and Ritchie's hitmaking capacities, relying on outside songwriters. Indeed, the song is the least «metal» thing on the album and the closest thing here to a power ballad (though still taken at a much faster tempo for that) — more accurately, this is the closest Jon Bon Jovi comes to sounding as if he'd been having a crying fit on the album, always a big winner for all them lady fans.

Everything else follows pretty much the same formula — and, to be fair, we must state that Bon Jovi pretty much invented that formula, or at least became its absolute dominators: the «Keep It Simple, Serious» formula. In other words, their music is similar to Van Halen, but composition- and realisation-wise, it is much simpler, and attitude-wise, it takes itself far more seriously, with not an ounce of humor or sarcasm in sight. An atrocious formula, to be sure, but there's also some­thing perversely attractive in its atrociousness, at least for the first time around — enough to suggest at least giving a single spin to ʽRouletteʼ or ʽShot Through The Heartʼ, probably the two best examples of Bon Jovi's «heavy metal broken heart» schtick on here. Despite the massive re­putation of Slippery When Wet, it really doesn't get much better in the future — in fact, there wouldn't be a future Bon Jovi album where they'd play so fast on the average, and speedy Bon Jovi, warts and all, is always preferable to slow Bon Jovi, no exceptions.