Search This Blog

Loading...

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Bob Dylan: The Bootleg Series Vol. 10 (Another Self Portrait)

THE BOOTLEG SERIES VOL. 10: ANOTHER SELF PORTRAIT (1969-1970; 2012)

CD I: 1) Went To See The Gypsy; 2) Little Sadie; 3) Pretty Saro; 4) Alberta #3; 5) Spanish Is The Loving Tongue; 6) Annie's Going To Sing Her Song; 7) Time Passes Slowly #1; 8) Only A Hobo; 9) Minstrel Boy; 10) I Threw It All Away; 11) Railroad Bill; 12) Thirsty Boots; 13) This Evening So Soon; 14) These Hands; 15) In Search Of Little Sadie; 16) House Carpenter; 17) All The Tired Horses;
CD II: 1) If Not For You; 2) Wallflower; 3) Wigwam; 4) Days Of '49; 5) Working On A Guru; 6) Country Pie; 7) I'll Be Your Baby Tonight; 8) Highway 61 Revisited; 9) Copper Kettle; 10) Bring Me A Little Water; 11) Sign On The Window; 12) Tattle O'Day; 13) If Dogs Run Free; 14) New Morning; 15) Went To See The Gypsy; 16) Belle Isle; 17) Time Passes Slowly #2; 18) When I Paint My Masterpiece.

The farther you go, the harder it gets to push out new incarnations of «The Bootleg Series» that would not merely be of historical interest, but actually worthy of Bob's general reputation and enjoyable to the average ear without having to be preceded by a three-hour lecture on how Bob Dylan changed the world in so many ways. The Witmark Demos was already something like the equivalent of Vol. 25 of Leo Tolstoy's Collected Oeuvres, located so far down the bookshelf that only professional philologists ever get there. But with Vol. 10, the Bootleg Series Team and their grumpy old endorser from Hibbing, Minnesota, have found an unpredictable and exciting twist that clearly shows — «Dylan still got it» even when it comes to digging around in forty-year old trash that most people would have probably recycled a long time ago.

This, in fact, is nothing less than «Dylan's revenge»: a double CD of demos, outtakes, and alter­nate cuts from his least critically respected era — the year of Self Portrait (which everybody hated) and New Morning (which everybody could have hated were it not for it being the follow-up to Self Portrait). Was the team crazy or something? Not in the least. Even as the original ter­minator-style reviews of Self Portrait pretty much secured the album's encyclopaedic status of «Dylan's lowest creative point», over the years, more and more people came to realize that the record was really «not all that bad» — meaning, of course, that it was pretty good, as long as you did not hold it up to the standards of a Highway 61 Revisited. All one had to do was wait — and Dylan waited just long enough. The timing could hardly be better: with his string of derivative, non-revolutionary, but still modestly brilliant artistic successes in the 1990s and 2000s he got fans and critics alike to recognize and respect that «Dylan cannot always be great, but he can be consistently good». And here comes a memo of the distant past — just admit it, guys, I've always been at least consistently good, even when you said I stunk. Just let it go. Drop a load. You've always liked Self Portrait, I'm sure, you were just too embarrassed to admit it.

To drive the final nail in the coffin of Self Portrait's musical-Frankenstein legend, none other than Greil Marcus, the author of the original famous «what is this shit?» review, is called in to repent and atone for his sins by writing a new set of liner notes. Honestly, I have not even opened them — I am just amused by the power that Bob Dylan has over people. Of course, he may have also reiterated what other reviewers have said: many of them, so as to save face, published glowing reviews along the lines of «Dylan was on such a creative roll in 1970, really, it is a pity and a shame that his outtakes were actually so much better than the official record. Yeah, truly and verily, the only thing that is better than ʽCopper Kettleʼ and ʽBelle Isleʼ without the orches­tral overdubs is ʽDays Of '49ʼ without the rhythm section!»

This is all rubbish, of course. Self Portrait was cool (including Bob's romantic takes on ʽBlue Moonʼ and ʽLet It Be Meʼ, rather than excluding them), and Another Self Portrait simply adds to that coolness. If there is one thing that it adds to our understanding of Dylan circa 1970, it is that the man was not merely driven by the desire to release something «humble» and «epochally irrelevant» to get the Messiah-seekers off his front porch — he really was exploring various musical avenues and corners, even if that exploration so often focused on material written and recorded by other people. It was all just a part of the general plan to «get back to the roots» (which he shared with the Beatles, the Byrds, and quite a few other people around the same time) and it worked far more often than it did not.

Of those songs that have previously been available only in real bootleg form, most would have fit in well on Self Portrait, although I do not feel like spending much spacetime discussing them — mostly a mix of blues, folk, and country oldies and a few originals, ranging from the stylishly romantic (ʽPretty Saroʼ) to the epic western (ʽRailroad Billʼ) to the working man's song (ʽThese Handsʼ) to even a satirical send-up of Jimmy Reed's classic style (ʽWorking On A Guruʼ); only the cover of Eric Andersen's ʽThirsty Bootsʼ, a stately song of consolation and repose, makes a humble swipe at «classic» status, but somehow remains in­complete. Still, it is kinda fun to imagine all of them, along with a few early versions that would later be reworked for New Morning, making it on to the regular Self Portrait and turning it into a triple album. What would Greil Marcus have said in 1970?

The most interesting stuff, actually, is not the «naked» versions of songs that did make it to Self Portrait (I personally do not mind the strings and backing harmonies on ʽCopper Kettleʼ at all), but those early versions of New Morning songs that are often completely dissimilar to their official equivalents. ʽIf Dogs Run Freeʼ, in particular, is an actual song here rather than just a recital, with a gospel chorus to boot; ʽNew Morningʼ itself is aggrandized with a horn section, giving it a flashy «Stax» feel; ʽTime Passes Slowlyʼ opens up in full-blast rocking mode, and ʽIf Not For Youʼ features a retro-romantic, if not too well polished, violin part from some wannabe Jascha Heifetz — I can see why Dylan ended up hating the idea, but it was funny while it lasted. Collectively, these songs are very different in aim and scope from the final «homebrewn», relati­vely minimalist product, and, as good as New Morning ended up anyway, it would have been interesting to see it as this far more ambitiously conceived project; the album would have no obvious equivalent in the rest of Bob's catalog.

Two of the songs also feature additional numbers from Bob's 1969 Isle of Wight gig with The Band, but if you're lucky, you might end up with the 3-CD deluxe edition whose bonus disc con­tains the show captured in full. Since it was Bob's first official gig after a three-year break (and would also be the last, an appearance at Harrison's Bangla Desh concert excepted, for another four or five), everything is as crude as it seemed on the official Self Portrait, but not without its own period charms — this is where Bob would sing (for about half of the show) in his «angelic» voice, putting a special spin on oldies like ʽIt Ain't Me Babeʼ and ʽTo Ramonaʼ, butchering ʽI Pity The Poor Immigrantʼ in the process, and, together with The Band, turning his old rockers into rambling, half-drunk traveling minstrel show ballads. Not a great show, but a fun experiment — and another live Dylan album that sounds nothing like any other live Dylan albums. Plus, that Robbie Robertson guitar solo on ʽQuinn The Eskimoʼ, cleaned up and remastered, has never sounded more fiery and inspirational.

Happy to say that I have no qualms whatsoever about giving this one a thumbs up — I, for one, have liked (and sometimes even loved) Self Portrait since the day I first heard it, and it is only natural to extend that liking to Another Self Portrait, since it sort of lets you in much deeper on Dylan's general state of mind at the time.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Bill Withers: Menagerie

BILL WITHERS: MENAGERIE (1977)

1) Lovely Day; 2) I Want To Spend The Night; 3) Lovely Night For Dancing; 4) Then You Smile At Me; 5) She Wants To (Get On Down); 6) It Ain't Because Of Me Baby; 7) Tender Things; 8) Wintertime; 9) Let Me Be The One You Need; 10) Rosie.

Strangely, even though this album is even more upbeat, sunny, and dance-oriented than Naked & Warm, it seems to produce an overall stronger impression. Maybe it is because of consistency and coherence — this time around, Bill is not even beginning to pretend that he still has any of that old «dark streak» left in him, not to mention that there is no ʽCity Of The Angelsʼ anywhere in sight, or any other attempts to carve an «art» sound out of the basics of the California dance scene. This time around, it's all about romance, chivalry, happiness, and smooth body music in the disco paradigm — soothing entertainment to relieve you of your troubles, not to remind you of your troubles. Meet Bill Withers, next in line for the title of The Ladies' Man.

The best news for miles around is that the album begins with ʽLovely Dayʼ — incidentally, one of the best «happy-sunny» R&B grooves of the decade, pulled up by the hair into the stratosphere by Bill's ability to hold one note (the right note, of course!) for what seems like an eternity, while his backup singers have enough time to pull in and out several times. It is really a simple trick, and it eclipses the rest of the song (which is actually quite commendable for its well-thought out funky bassline at least), but without the trick, we would not find ourselves coming back to it for any special reason. Whatever be, the song manages to ooze happiness without exaggerating it — the arrangement is fairly minimalistic, and Bill sings everything, including the extended notes, in an easy, relaxed, self-controlled manner, implying that you don't really need to jump out of your pants in order to convey that happy feel. But you do need technique and discipline.

The rest of the album never quite lives up to the subtle punch of the opener, but the opener sets up the mood, locks it shut, and somehow ensures that the record stays listenable and non-irritating right to the very end. Oddly, it is the funkiest / disco-est numbers that stay around for the longest time, probably because of all the repetition in the grooves — I wouldn't ever want to speak of ʽShe Wants To (Get On Down)ʼ as a dance-pop masterpiece, but the call-and-response vocal hook is infectious against my will, as is the "get up and dance with me" exhortation on ʽLovely Night For Dancingʼ (yes, there is a lot of invitations to dance throughout the album — and who'd be surprised, with Saturday Night Fever coming 'round the bend at any time?).

On the other hand, there is no need to pretend, either, that, apart from ʽLovely Dayʼ, Menagerie has any reason to be singled out of a swarm of similar R&B products on the mid-1970s market. The dance numbers are still undermined by Bill's «softness» and «gentlemanliness» (next to the «ruffian sound» of Chic, for instance), and the ballads... well, even the previously unissued demo version of ʽRosieʼ, now appended to the CD version of the album, with just Bill and his piano, fails to move me beyond the expectably-predictable «niceness», so when it comes to full arrange­ments, things get worse — Bill used minimal arrangements on most of his masterpieces, and most of the string and harmony parts on songs like ʽLet Me Be The One You Needʼ suffer from corny melodic moves, too much syrup, and too much formula.

In the end, while this is not a «thumbs down» record per se (the presence of ʽLovely Dayʼ and the absence of a ʽCity Of The Angelsʼ equivalent guarantees some neutrality), neither is it a mira­culous «return to form» as one could conclude from reading the occasional happy-faced review. Then again, not being particularly familiar with the story of Bill's personal life (I only know that 1976 was the year of his second and happiest marriage), I am quite willing to suggest that the man was simply playing the honesty card — a well-balanced, content, peaceful personal life, with all the demons exorcised and crucified, might be translatable to a musical re­cord like Menagerie with the utmost sincerity. Good for him — Marvin Gaye might have had a far more exciting musical career from beginning to end, but nobody in one's right mind should wish anybody else the life of a Marvin Gaye rather than that of a Bill Withers, right?

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Albert King: In Session (with Stevie Ray Vaughan)

ALBERT KING: IN SESSION WITH STEVIE RAY VAUGHAN (1983; 1999)

1) Call It Stormy Monday; 2) Old Times; 3) Pride And Joy; 4) Ask Me No Questions; 5) Pep Talk; 6) Blues At Sunrise; 7) Turn It Over; 8) Overall Junction; 9) Match Box Blues; 10) Who Is Stevie; 11) Don't Lie To Me.

A recording that pits one of the greatest blues stars of the «old school» against one of the bright­est blues legends of the «new school» should be predictably boring and boringly predictable, and In Session does not dissapoint — it is so by-the-bookishly great that I could not tolerate its pre­sence in the foreground for even five seconds before my attention would slip away to something different. Which, of course, does not in the least prohibit this recording, and also the accompany­ing video program, from enduring and enjoying a legendary status.

Although both the album and the video obviously belong in the discographies of both artists, the field here largely belongs to King — he is, after all, the older one, and does his best to appear in the role of the wise master teacher (on ʽPep Talkʼ, he is hilariously pushing Stevie towards per­fectionism: "the better you get, the harder you work, you can't say, ʽI've got it madeʼ... you're already pretty good, but you're gonna get better" — "that's the whole point", the Texas kid replies humbly and politely, instead of "fuck you dad" which he was probably thinking at the moment). It is said that, when he was approached about recording a session with Vaughan, he initially declined, not knowing who Vaughan was — then realized it was the «little Stevie» he'd allowed to sit in with himself during some of his earlier Texas shows, and once it became clear that the session could be conducted in this «father-son» manner, things started getting easier.

Anyway, what we have here is a selection of blues classics, mostly from the standard repertoire of Albert's, with one Stevie number (ʽPride And Joyʼ) graciously accepted for balance (the video and audio releases have significantly differing tracklists, by the way, so any fan should consider owning both), and interrupted by bits of studio banter, mostly from King reminiscing about the old times (such as playing ʽBlues At Sunriseʼ at the Fillmore with Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin at the same time). Stevie, on the verge of his big breakthrough, is in good form, and Albert was never in bad form as long as the material was adequate. The obvious question is — how are they up for teamwork, and does that teamwork offer any extra revelations?

One thing I must confess is that, throughout the endless blues jamming, I was not always able to tell who of the two was taking the lead (referring to the audio soundtrack only, of course). As dif­ferent as King's and Vaughan's blues playing styles generally are, when seated together and fo­cused on the same thing, the two players seem to have drifted almost uncomfortably close to each other, with Stevie in particular wanting to impress Albert by feeding him back trademark Albert licks (or, when asked for it, as on ʽBlues At Sunriseʼ, some trademark Hendrix licks: "this is where you gotta play Jimi's part", King says, and the disciple obeys). Albert himself also rises to the occasion and plays the whole show as fluent, loud, screechy, and well-rounded as possible: no flubs or retro-style minimalist passages that would date him as somebody out of the 1950s.

The result is a curious «merger» that, paradoxically, seems to lower the sheer entertainment value of the experience — with two blues greats trading solos played in similar styles, what's the major use of having them engage in these lengthy jams at all? In the end, it all looks more like a text­book of possible blues licks, created by the two with the aim of educating their audiences about the blues rather than having themselves some fun. As a textbook, it is beyond reproach: you could hardly wish for a more awesome combination of stellar players if you are in the mood for some star-powered blues-rock. But I do not think that either Stevie or Albert are at their most «natural» here — to achieve that proverbial «chemistry», they play it too safe around each other.

Most of the reviews I've encountered for In Session were glowing, but I really wonder how many of them weren't already following a pre-set bias (if you get Vaughan and King together on one record, and if they find a way to gel together, then this has to be good because there is no way it could ever be bad). Well, actually, there are relatively few of these «super-sessions» that would eclipse the individual highlights of the superstars, and this is no exception — to truly appreciate these people, you need to look at them separately, not together. Did they make history on that night? Would be hard to deny that. Isn't it great to have a whole hour of high-quality footage of Albert King's playing (so rare to come across in general)? Sure is. Did I have a right to expect more than what I got? Yes, I did. No, I did not. Why should this super-session be different from any other super-session?..

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Bikini Kill: Pussy Whipped

BIKINI KILL: PUSSY WHIPPED (1993)

1) Blood One; 2) Alien She; 3) Magnet; 4) Speed Heart; 5) Lil Red; 6) Tell Me So; 7) Sugar; 8) Star Bellied Boy; 9) Hamster Baby; 10) Rebel Girl; 11) Star Fish; 12) For Tammy Rae.

Since this is the band's first, loudest, and most straightforward full-fledged LP, it has become the classic point of first reference for Bikini Kill — but it is not easy to say something about it that has not already been said in the context of discussing the first EPs. In fact, Pussy Whipped plays off the idea that nobody has probably heard those EPs, because they go to the trouble of re-recor­ding ʽRebel Girlʼ — in an inferior version, I might add, with noticeably lower fidelity and with a sur­prisingly tamer guitar tone from Billy.

Of course, the band in general is anything but tame: Hannah's screeching has only got wilder, to the extent that it is nigh impossible to decipher the sound waves battering against the poor micro­phone. Maybe it's all for the better — it is hard not to cringe at all the «radical feminist» dribble that is delivered non-stop without the slightest hint of humor or irony ("your alphabet is spilled with my blood", "all you do is destroy", etc.). Then again, I would be lying if I said that every song on here qualifies as a straightforwardly dumb anthem; and I would also be lying if I said that songs like ʽStar Bellied Boyʼ or ʽSugarʼ, decrying brutal sexist attitudes of guys who treat girls like fuckmeat, had nothing to do with reality — for justice' sake, it would constitute a good balance to have ʽStar Bellied Boyʼ sitting next to, say, the Rolling Stones' ʽStupid Girlʼ as a call-and-answer thing on ridiculing stereotypes.

Anyway, the real bad news is that the music is still being treated like a bitch. All the riffs have been pilfered, as usual, from the band's favorite recordings by the Troggs, the Ramones, and the Sex Pistols, so that the record rides exclusively on attitude — and the attitude never varies from song to song, depending only on whether Hannah plays it completely straight or gets a little theat­rical (on ʽSugarʼ, she spends some time mocking and parodying the «pornstar approach» towards guys, before cutting the crap and asking it straight — "why can't I ever get my sugar?"; right next to it, ʽStar Bellied Boyʼ culminates in a frantic "I can't, I can't, I can't, I can't cum!" that really shows all that dumbass guy how much of a pathetic «hero» he really is).

To those listeners who think that only the spirit matters, these forty minutes may seem like a single, super-concentrated energy punch, a nuclear warhead of an album that takes the feminist revolution in art to a whole new level. Myself, I don't see the principal progress over Patti Smith, who was a better poet, had a more professional musical backing, occasionally authored catchy songs, and was at least as ballsy as Hannah. But yeah, Bikini Kill make more noise, and all their riffs are thick, crunchy, and distorted to the max.

Oh, I forgot: the last song here breaks the trend — it is nothing less than a ballad, dedicated to Tammy Rae Carland, a lesbian artist friend of theirs who also designed the album cover. Its com­positional genius could probably be matched by a five-year old Paul McCartney, its catchiness factor drops well below zero, but the artistic statement of finishing this hyper-aggressive package with a sweet-but-not-too-sentimental confession of love (for that one person who might probably be able to finally make Kathleen cum!) cannot be beat.

As a final disclaimer, I have to say, of course, that I only feel somewhat qualified to dismiss Pussy Whipped as a «musical» non-entity — as to what concerns its power and authenticity as a social performance act, well, I guess that guys have about as much business discussing this stuff as propagating their views on abortion. In a way, it might be so that Hannah and her friends are simply doing here the kind of thing that should have been done a long time ago — that, as a girl band, they are simply «ideologically catching up» with the hardcore punk aesthetics. It is true that, even if musically Bikini Kill are not doing anything in 1993 that could not have already been done in 1983, or even in 1977-79, for that matter, there was no band quite like Bikini Kill (music, lyrics, image combined) circa 1977-79 or 1983, and that should get you a-thinkin'. Maybe if all these songs had been written in 1977, I would not be tempted to snicker at them so much.

Nevertheless, I am here primarily to opinionate on the music, not on the ideology, and from that point of view, if you come here searching for music, I have no right to recommend Pussy Whip­ped, an album whose chief target audience, so I'd think, would consist of sexually oppressed mid-to-low-class young females in need of a psychological crash course on how to defend yourself (nothing to laugh about, actually — far be it from me to deny the grave seriousness of this issue!). So remember this, ladies: next time you find yourself sexually harassed by your male chauvinist pig employer / colleague / high school «admirer», just put up ʽBlood Oneʼ or ʽStar Bellied Boyʼ as your ringtone, and watch his allegedly mighty tool wither on the spot.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Bettie Serveert: Attagirl

BETTIE SERVEERT: ATTAGIRL (2004)

1) Dreamaniacs; 2) Attagirl; 3) Don't Touch That Dial!; 4) Greyhound Song; 5) You've Changed; 6) Versace; 7) 1 Off Deal; 8) Hands Off; 9) Staying Kind; 10) Lover I Don't Have To Love.

An irresponsible reviewer like myself should have found a very easy way to shrug off an album like this — simply by saying that no album that features a Bright Eyes cover deserves a review, period, let alone a positive review. But for the sake of self-improvement, let us assume that I am not myself today, so, in a far more responsible manner, I have to point out that ʽLover I Don't Have To Loveʼ was one of the few listenable numbers on Lifted, and that any Conor Oberst song would automatically sound better anyway if done by Carol van Dijk. Because Carol can at least play it intricately, mystery-woman-style, whereas Conor Oberst is simply a guy that deserves being put out of his misery on the spot, whenever he opens his mouth. (Okay, make it «the artistic reflection of Conor Oberst», to avoid unrequired ambiguities).

In any case, regardless of how artistically embarrassing it is for a band much older, better, and at least more experienced than Bright Eyes to cover Bright Eyes, that is only one last track on an album that is quite uneven, but occasionally still charming and/or catchy. Shorter and less ambi­tious than Log 22, it is another mix of «classic indie-rock» Bettie Serveert with their Private Suit incarnation, so it's got a little for everyone, but not a lot for anyone, unless you adore their guitar posturing stuff and their moody escapades equally.

I will probably settle for the moody escapades: ʽDreamaniacsʼ is a successful art-pop creation where bouncy rhythmics, meteor showers of electronic bleeps, and ambient strings mesh well with Carol's lyrical message — "though my feet are on the ground, my head is on a cloud", as she pleads with her imaginary lover to take it easy on her ("don't give up on me, dreamaniacs don't aim to please"). The title track is even better, with its smoky lounge atmosphere and a streak of weepiness culminating in the bitter-ironic hook of "attagirl!" We never get the details, but Carol's "it's you and me and the Devil makes three" is an uneasy line all the same, and the arrangement of the song makes it work, although arguably it works even better when totally stripped, on an acou­stic demo version that is appended as a bonus to some of the CD editions.

The third highlight of the album is ʽVersaceʼ, where the band falls for the latest indie trends and explores the risky world of electronic dance-pop, but with surprisingly effective results — the bass groove and various keyboard overdubs set a ghostly melancholic mood, while Carol adopts her most seductive tone (the one which allows breaking into falsetto when necessary). However, the irony and need for self-deflation are not forgotten, either: on their own, the lyrics would be just a trite collection of «broken heart» clichés, but the repetitive mantra "Versace... Versace... Versace" consolidating the hookline, the song becomes more of a self-conscious parody on the «ennui syndrome of the rich and prosperous». Pretty cool, considering that it was their first experiment with this kind of style.

With the addition of a couple more inventive mixes (e.g. «swampy» slide guitars with «Eastern» strings on ʽGrehound Song), Attagirl is, at the very least, entertainingly diverse, even if it has its share of forgettable throwaways as well (ʽHands Offʼ — fast, look-at-me-I'm-so-full-of-energy pop-rocker whose main purpose seems to be to remind us that they are still a «rock» band and can kick ass any time they want to; but I don't think it's really true). Since nobody really gave a damn about a bunch of aging rockers from Holland by 2004, the album got almost no press, and what little it got was fairly cruel — but I suppose such was the inevitable cost of being originally over­rated and overpraised: few things in this world can be as pitiable as a formerly overappreciated indie-rock band still trying to raise sand in a dog-eat-dog environment. But honestly, even with­out any pity or condescension, Attagirl deserves a modest thumbs up on the whole, and we will try to overlook the Bright Eyes incident because, well, everybody is entitled to a tasteless blunder every now and then. Just don't do it again.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Beth Orton: Comfort Of Strangers

BETH ORTON: COMFORT OF STRANGERS (2005)

1) Worms; 2) Countenance; 3) Heartland Truckstop; 4) Rectify; 5) Comfort Of Strangers; 6) Shadow Of A Doubt; 7) Conceived; 8) Absinthe; 9) A Place Inside; 10) Safe In Your Arms; 11) Shopping Trolley; 12) Feral Children; 13) Heart Of Soul; 14) Pieces Of Sky.

Good God, is this ever boring. On her fourth (actually, fifth, if you count SuperPinkyMandy, and you should) album, Orton goes for an even more stripped-down approach — most of the songs are in trio format, with Jim O'Rourke handling bass duties and Tim Barnes on percussion, while Beth is doing her latest best to impress us as a singer, songwriter, guitar player, artistic soul, and gracious human being. Unfortunately, of all these categories, I can only recommend «gra­cious human being» to your attention. If you are in need of a randomly chosen gracious human being this evening, Beth Orton is as good as any, and maybe even better than most.

The one major saving grace of these fourteen songs is that they are all short — only one crosses the four-minute mark, and some barely go over two. This means that at least your ears will not have enough time to shrivel, wither, and fall off in protest as the lady moves from one traditional folk chord sequence to another. She does try to write her own vocal melodies for the songs, but she still has not mastered the art of the hook — at best, her «hooks» are softly shouted slogans (ʽHeart Of Soulʼ), and at worst, she just adds a little touch of singing to her poetry.

Lyrically, as you could guess, there is a lot of suffering going on, completely inadequate to the lite-melancholic, lulling music that surrounds the vocal delivery — and the vocal delivery itself is as tepid as usual. The words are hit-and-miss — some of the imagery is thought-provoking, although it is hard to lyrically justify an album whose opening lines go "Worms don't dance / They haven't got the balls" — but in the end, they are about as uninteresting as the music. Whole songwriting factories have put out billions of songs on the side effects of the love business, and there is no way Comfort Of Strangers could stand competition with the best of 'em.

I count exactly one track here where an interesting musical move was suggested — ʽRectifyʼ has a sort of non-trivial transition from the fast gallop of the verses to the slow shuffle of the "if you take a drop of water from a bucket..." chorus. Both parts in themselves are pretty standard fare country-pop, but the way they alternate with each other is novel and even fun, especially com­pared to the utter facelessness of the rest.

It is quite possible — indeed, almost a certainty — that some of these songs could have been saved by means of more imaginative arrangements (bring back Orbit!). Not even Beth Orton's biggest fans could probably claim that she is an outstanding guitar or piano player, or endowed with some sort of idiosyncratic playing technique that puts her in her own niche. The «folk­tronica» thing was the only thing that gave her music an edge; take away the «-tronica» and you are left with nothing. There is no sense in wasting time analyzing these songs one by one. They are not «awful bad» per se, but I'd rather they be awful bad, because this demonstration of by-the-book «tasteful sensitive grace» is as head-splittingly dull as watching a Nora Ephron movie, sorry. Thumbs down.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Black Sabbath: Sabotage

BLACK SABBATH: SABOTAGE (1975)

1) Hole In The Sky; 2) Don't Start (Too Late); 3) Symptom Of The Universe; 4) Megalomania; 5) Thrill Of It All; 6) Supertzar; 7) Am I Going Insane (Radio); 8) The Writ.

It is hardly an accident that the only song to have endured in Sabbath's «typical» live set from this album was ʽSymptom Of The Universeʼ. Others were tried out circa 1975-76, then quickly dis­carded and forgotten; and, according to most sources, the band members have relatively few kind words to say about the album themselves — they prefer to remember that time as a period of personal chaos, druggy stupor, and just not a lot of fun altogether. (Now Headless Crossthere was a time of much rejoicing and happiness... 'nuff said).

Indeed, Sabotage is anything but the «quintessential Black Sabbath» album. Fans of ʽParanoidʼ, ʽIron Manʼ, and even ʽSabbath Bloody Sabbathʼ, if they come here looking for more of the same, will inevitably run away in disappointment — as perplexed at the band's musical direction as we all would be in the band's taste in clothes (the front sleeve photo has made history as one of the tackiest style demonstrations of «the Me Decade»). Acoustic guitars are one thing, of course, and we'd had them for quite some time already, but harpsichords? synthesizers? choir harmonies? tape experiments? multi-part ten-minute epics? what is this, Selling Satan By The Pound?

Actually, no. Detractors of the album (fortunately, there are not too many of them) usually com­plain that at this point, the band got too heavily involved in «progressive» experimentation, lost its head in a mix of artistic influences and illegal substances, and delivered something that may have agreed with the spirit of the times, but was utterly «not Sabbath», an attempt to tread on other people's turf with predictable stupidity instead of required subtlety. My opinion is the direct opposite: I think that Sabotage is the most sincere and deeply personal album ever recorded by the band, and that this is the reason why it can still be so harrowing after all these years.

As great as those early classic albums were, it is hard to deny that the band was putting on an act, and that even with all his looniness, Ozzy did not think of himself as Lucifer or The Iron Man in his everyday life. Personal matters did not really begin figuring in the band's output until Vol. 4, and even then their preoccupation with their own minds was still only occasional. But they still continued growing as their own psychoanalysts, step by step, and by the time we come to Sabo­tage, it was really happening.

There is one central theme here, running through most of the songs: INSANITY. Ozzy, as he will be glad to tell you himself, is mentally unstable from birth, and while the same cannot be said of his pals, by the mid-1970s they were certainly living mad lives (and who wasn't?). Intentional or not, madness, fantasies, and delusions are at the heart of Sabotage as they were an integral part of the band's life at the time — and the fact that these themes coincided with a «trendy» desire to experiment in the studio is used by the band to tremendous advantage. Naturally, they lack the «education» that it would require to produce a Dark Side Of The Moon, but they more than make up for it with sheer natural talent, creative instinct, and, yes, a good dose of rock'n'roll passion (that one time where they really have Floyd in a corner).

Funny enough, the album begins on a completely unpretentious note: ʽHole In The Skyʼ is just a heavy rocker in the old tradition — lumpy, bluesy, driven by a good, but unexceptional couple of riffs, and only the lyrics, written by Geezer as an ever more sophisticated clump of metaphors and allusions, betray the band's current obsession with their inner psyche. That, and Ozzy's delivery, of course — he sings with such passion as if he actually gets what those lines mean: "The syno­nyms of all the things that I've said / Are just the riddles that are built in my head". Heck, maybe he does get it, he just probably couldn't explain it in words, not even if you threatened to enroll him in a Cambridge educational program.

It all begins at the end of the fourth minute, when ʽHole In The Skyʼ is unexpectedly cut off in mid-riff (artsy!) and the short acoustic interlude ʽDon't Startʼ announces the start of the «serious» part of our program, as we slip into «experimental» mode and never let go. ʽSymptom Of The Universeʼ begins fast and heavy, then, midway through, dives into moody acoustic lite-jazz as Tony becomes José Feliciano for a change. Conversely, ʽMegalomaniaʼ ends fast and heavy, but begins as a dark psychedelic trip with ghostly musical overtones and time-warped vocals at the start of each verse. ʽThrill Of It Allʼ is a fifty-fifty mix of «Satanic Sabbath» with the all-toge­ther-now colorfully psychedelic atmosphere of Yellow Submarine. ʽSupertzarʼ (the title alone is worth a grand) puts Iommi's metal guitar on top of Gregorian harmonies from the London Phil­harmonic Choir... or was that vice versa? ʽAm I Going Insaneʼ takes Mozart's / The Nice's ʽRondeauʼ as the foundation and turns it into a synth-pop song with a catchy chorus, but no guitar. Finally, ʽThe Writʼ, an anti-lawyer song of particular value to Ozzy because he wrote the lyrics himself, goes from dark arena-rock to confessional harpsichord-driven baroque pop — and, in the good old tradition of Abbey Road, the album ends on a self-deflating note with the band banging away on a piano and singing a joke tune (ʽBlow On A Jugʼ).

If you are yet to savor those crazy delights and that paragraph seemed tempting to you, rest assured that the music actually does match all that weirdness, and, moreover, none of that weird­ness seems particularly forced or senseless. Even a track like ʽSupertzarʼ, probably the easiest target on here to shoot down for «stupidity», works very well in the overall context —  I suppose the band invented the title not merely as a pun, but because the choir reminded them of «Russian church singing», and where there's Russian church singing, there's also a sort of «foolishness-for-Christ» association going on, and one thing ties to another and suddenly Iommi's frantic guitar riffs, locked with those religious choral harmonies, start making some sort of bizarre sense — perfectly put right in front of ʽAm I Going Insaneʼ.

However, my own personal favorite here, and a vote for most criminally underrated Sabbath song of all time (at least in that the band has never tried resuscitating it live after the 1975-76 season), is ʽMegalomaniaʼ. The song is yet another example of an odd lyrical/musical mismatch — its two parts respectively deal with the self-realized deadly plight of a satanic megalomaniac (Hitler?) and the successful search for redemption ("Now I've found my happiness / From the depths of sorrow"), but if anything, the second part of the song is even gloomier and scarier than the first one: at least, Tony's major riff that is driving it forward contains no hint at «redemption» or «happiness». One totally ad hoc association that crossed my mind, for some reason, was Jesus Christ Superstar — there are some moments here when ʽMegalomaniaʼ conveys the same «un­redeemable darkness» feel as ʽThe Death Of Judasʼ, with those atmospheric, ghostly, fleeting heavy chords laid over the main melody. Thematically, though, the song probably has more in common with Tommy... one thing is for certain: this is as close as Black Sabbath ever came to writing their own «rock opera», and something tells me that in 1975, they might have succeeded with it. On the other hand, maybe it is just as well that the album was made without such a strictly set purpose, and just came out naturally the way it did.

Fate would have it, though, that the chief memory of Sabotage in the collective mass conscience would have to be the main riff to ʽSymptom Of The Universeʼ — the «first ever thrash metal riff», as it is now retrospectively featured in encyclopaedias, even though the term certainly did not exist in 1975 (Tony himself has humorously mixed it up in his memoirs, writing that it has been called «the first progressive metal riff»), and, furthermore, Pete Townshend was already playing something very close to that same pattern as early as 1969-70 on some of the versions of ʽYoung Man Bluesʼ. What matters, though, is that it is just a frickin' great riff — simple, monstruous, powerful, and, while we are on the subject, more memorable and more cool than 99% of the «real» thrash metal riffs I have heard. And what is even cooler is how Ozzy manages to saddle it with his own speedy vocal part — witchy lead singer ripping through space on a heavy metal riff broom — and how they come up with the idea of crash-landing the song in an otherworldly jazzy paradise at the end, instead of just fading the riff away as many others would have done.

And yet I insist that the legend of ʽSymptom Of The Universeʼ should not have overshadowed the overall punch of Sabotage as a thematic and unpredictable album. As a whole, it certainly is «progressive metal», and a million billion times more impressive than, say, the entire output of a band like Queensryche, simply because it happened to be made by a score of talented people who refused to bind themselves by silly genrist rules. Alas, pretty soon already Black Sabbath would turn into a prime example of a band ruining itself by sticking to genrist rules — like most other people, they paid attention to record sales, and with sales of Sabotage failing to match their pre­vious successes, it was believed that «this is not what the fans want of us» (which was at least partially true). But this is also what makes Sabotage so pricelessly unique in the band's catalog, and, in fact, in Seventies' music in general — thumbs up on all counts.