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Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Elvis Presley: Elvis (1968)

ELVIS PRESLEY: ELVIS (1968)

1) Trouble / Guitar Man; 2) Medley: Lawdy Miss Clawdy / Baby What You Want Me To Do / Heartbreak Hotel / Hound Dog / All Shook Up / Canʼt Help Falling In Love / Jailhouse Rock / Love Me Tender; 3) Where Could I Go But To The Lord? / Up Above My Head / Saved; 4) Blue Christmas / One Night; 5) Memories; 6) Medley: Nothingville / Big Boss Man / Guitar Man / Little Egypt / Trouble / Guitar Man; 7) If I Can Dream.

General verdict: The famous «out of the frying pan and into the fire» Comeback Special — like watching a paralyzed man trying to relearn to walk, with mixed success.


And here it is, folks — The Comeback Special in all its glory, though the original LP, faithfully reproducing most of the material from the broadcast of December 3, 1968, certainly pales in scope next to The Complete edition from 2008, with 4 CDs covering the entirety of the sessions for the special. Were I a big fan of The Special, I would have certainly looked that one up. Unfortunately, Iʼm not, and never have been, and here is why.

There are clearly no doubts as to the fact that the Elvis Special was the first Elvis-related project in years which the King actually enjoyed — or that it was a major turning point in his career, marking the transition from a life dominated by movies to a life once again dominated by live performances and regular studio recordings. One question, however, which I very rarely see thrown around, seems quite obvious to me: if this program, and whatever steps followed it, are regarded as a «comeback» for Elvis, then why the hell did this comeback last for just a few years? Why did it quickly evolve into a pompous Vegasy ritual for affluent middle-aged ladies? Why the drugs, the obesity, the deteriorating quality of both recorded material and live performances? Was there really a «comeback» in the first place, or?...

Upon first glance, what the enthralled audiences saw in that TV studio in mid-ʼ68 (and millions of people later witnessed during the broadcast) was a freshened up, rejuvenated, exhilarated Elvis, dressed in imposing black leather, surrounded by his trusty bandmates, thrusting his hips like there was no tomorrow, performing a smorgasbord of his classic hits, real rockʼnʼroll stuff, none of all that recent movie crap — just look at the track listing. A few gospel classics thrown in for good measure, a good old Christmas song, great ballads like ʽCanʼt Help Falling In Loveʼ and ʽLove Me Tenderʼ. Scottie Moore himself back in top form and soloing like crazy! Like itʼs 1957 all over again, or something like that.

Alas, it was all for naught in the long run. If you want to see a real comeback — well, maybe not a «comeback» per se, but a set of authentic, credible, exciting, relevant live performances from the rockʼnʼroll pioneers, look no further than the Toronto RockʼnʼRoll Revival festival from 1969, with Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis performing next to younger and hipper artists (including some odd guy called John Lennon, among others) and proudly holding their own ground, just doing their old thang and submitting themselves to the all-powerful God of RockʼnʼRoll. Next to those fairly ferocious performances, the Elvis Comeback Special most certainly pales in comparison because it was, first and foremost, a SuperStar Show, a Celebration of Celebrity. Instead of being about rockʼnʼroll, it was all about King Elvis — although the greatest irony of it all was that King Elvis himself may have very well thought that it was really all about rockʼnʼroll after all.

The very setting of the show — a tiny lighted square grid, surrounded on all sides by adoring fans, within the space of which the King would be promenading his leather-clad hips — ironically resembles a locked cage, with a captive, if not fully tamed, tiger walking from one end to another and back again. The performances themselves are rowdy and spirited, but the format is rather ridiculous: most of the songs are actually snippets, bound together in lengthy medleys, as if the aim of the show was to remind the population of how many classic hits this wonderful man has had in his previous life, rather than just let everybody have a good time. Even the leather, truth be told, looks rather silly — remember that in the Fifties Elvis had no need whatsoever to borrow the rebellious Gene Vincent look in order to succeed, and it certainly has not become a natural look for him in the next decade, either; no wonder that «leather-clad Elvis» so quickly gave way to the «jumpsuit Elvis» once he returned to live performing fulltime.

To be clear: in the context of the time, the Comeback Special was a massive breakthrough for Elvis — and itʼs not like there isnʼt a lot of fun involved in listening to this performance. When the King breaks into ʽHeartbreak Hotelʼ or ʽHound Dogʼ, brief as those moments are, he must have felt as if he was punching through a wall with each of these verses — he delivers them with the grotesquely overworked abandon of a starved man who doesnʼt really care if he dies on the spot from overeating, he just gonna do it, come hell or high water. When he half-accidentally, half-intentionally butchers stuff like ʽLove Me Tenderʼ or ʽOne Nightʼ with unfunny improvised lyrics, it is, too, the act of a drunken man on the night of the lifting of Prohibition. But then he starts rambling on the current state of music ("I like a lot of the new groups, you know..."), or patting his bandmates on the back, or going all spasmodic on the surrounding fans, and this is where you are reminded that the Comeback Special is a show, first and foremost, and has much more to do with Elvisʼ personality cult than with the spirit of rockʼnʼroll.

No better reminder of that than the opening and closing sequences — a burlesque medley of ʽTroubleʼ and ʽGuitar Manʼ in the beginning, and a mini-musical about Elvis as a struggling artist at the end. The songs are all good, but the arrangements are predictably Vegas-ified (oh those stupid, stupid, stupid brass howls in the intro to ʽGuitar Manʼ!), and the emphasis is always on the King-Is-Back thing rather than the music. It is quite telling that they hired Steve Binder to direct it all — the man previously known for directing the T.A.M.I. Show in 1964, way back when this glitzy stylistics was actually cutting edge and did not take the proper attention away from the artistry (like, your eyes were probably still glued to James Brown and the Rolling Stones rather than the vapid go-go girls shaking it in the background). But what may have worked for all sorts of audiences in 1964 could only work for very specific types of audiences in 1968, when the «cutting edge» format would rather be describing something like The Rolling Stones RockʼnʼRoll Circus than the Comeback Special.

Consequently, there are only three things I genuinely like about it all. First, I like to see people happy, and Elvis here was quite credibly happy, so I canʼt help but feel a little happy about him, too — happy-sad, of course, realising that in the long run this was the first step on the road that led him to even further humiliation and, ultimately, the grave; but thereʼs something to be said and enjoyed about the short run as well, after all. Second, being a big Scotty Moore fan, it is really great to see him in close-up action on the stage (given how little footage of Elvis we have from the Fifties and how it never ever focuses on his backing players), and, by the way, it is sad that the original album omitted what was possibly the most touching and thrilling moment inside their little boxing ring — the performance of ʽThatʼs Alright, Mamaʼ by Elvis and his original band (minus Bill Black, who passed away in 1965).

Third, the show and album conclude with ʽIf I Can Dreamʼ, the song that marks Elvisʼ transition into the gospel-soul business and whose quality and passion, in my opinion, trump just about every single moment on From Elvis In Memphis — perhaps because it was such a fresh take for the King at the moment: heʼd wrestled the right to sing the song from the Colonel, who did not think it suitable for his protegé (for a good reason — what would make the Colonel care about his artist singing MLK quotations instead of "old MacDonald had a farm"?), and he really gave it his all — there is an out-of-control tear in his voice here that you never heard before even on his gospel recordings, let alone all the cute pop songs. If there is one single moment of complete honesty and genuine emotion here, ʽIf I Can Dreamʼ is it, and upon hearing it, you can actually understand what he meant when he said "Iʼm never going to sing another song I donʼt believe in" (even if I am really not sure that he truly kept that promise).

In the end, it is absolutely no sin to enjoy Elvis ʼ68 and get caught up in the excitement; it is simply important to realise that, while this was certainly an important and glaringly obvious change in direction, the word «comeback» is not a very good one to describe the event — not coincidentally, the word itself made its first appearance in the Colonelʼs discourse when, soon after the show, heʼd announced a «comeback tour» for Elvis. Sadly, a «comeback» to the values that imbued and defined his classic years was really out of the question — like demanding the victim of a serious stroke to «come back» to his original state of health. The good thing about it is that it managed to give us Elvis, the credible soul singer, for a few years. The bad thing about it is that it really failed to give us back Elvis, the intoxicating rockʼnʼroller. 

Elvis Presley: Speedway

ELVIS PRESLEY: SPEEDWAY (1968)

1) Speedway; 2) There Ainʼt Nothing Like A Song; 3) Your Time Hasnʼt Come Yet Baby; 4) Who Are You; 5) Heʼs Your Uncle Not Your Dad; 6) Let Yourself Go; 7) Your Groovy Self; 8) Five Sleepy Heads; 9) Western Union; 10) Mine; 11) Goinʼ Home; 12) Suppose.

General verdict: Just another typical later-period Elvis soundtrack — nothing to indicate that it would be his last, though if they had the good sense to involve Lee Hazlewood a bit more, I might even have regretted that.


Although Elvis starred in at least six more movies after Clambake, Speedway would be the only one of these and, consequently, the very last full-fledged Elvis soundtrack LP accompanying a feature film (rather than a TV show or concert documentary). Doubtlessly, this had to do with plummeting sales — with its miserable profits, the album became the final nail in the coffin of the Elvis soundtrack album. Yet, once again, in the overall context of Elvisʼ Sixties output, it is nowhere near as boring and irrelevant as the 1965–66 stretch of embarrassments. Once again, we are dealing here with a bizarre mixed bag — some nicely acceptable goodies going hand-in-hand with true Kings of Corn.

The big deal about Speedway, the movie, was that it featured Nancy Sinatra as Elvisʼ co-star; and while it would be unfair to all the truly great ladies of the Sixties to regard Nancy Sinatra as a top tier artist for the decade, she had at least two things going for her — a touch of tough, edgy class and collaboration with Lee Hazlewood. Both of these things work wonders for us with the inclusion into the soundtrack of one song that has absolutely nothing to do with Elvis — the Hazlewood-written slow «country cabaret» tune ʽYour Groovy Selfʼ, delivered by Nancy in her fairly trademark «half-empowered, half-stoned» hazy drawl, oozing sardonic mid-Sixties cool in a way that would be totally unthinkable for Elvis himself.

She does cross paths with Elvis on the Joy Byers-written ʽThere Ainʼt Nothing Like A Songʼ, though «written» is a bit too strong — most of the time, Byers takes old classics and tweaks them in slight ways, this one being no exception: it is really just an updated, overproduced take on ʽKing Creoleʼ, but at least the tempo is fast, the drums are crashing, the guitar solo is tight, and Nancyʼs responses to the Kingʼs calls in the final verse add a touch of diversity; I could never say, though, that there is anything here even remotely recalling the kind of chemistry that Elvis had with Ann-Margret. Too bad — with a bit more work, we could have gleefully enjoyed a pair of hip boots walking all over the Kingʼs hillbilly chauvinist persona, but perhaps the song- and screenwriters were taking conscious effort at this point so as not to humiliate their star beyond reasonable limits.

They did a decent enough job on the title track, another Vegas-rocker partially redeemed by some nice boogie piano and a semi-inspired vocal workout; ʽYour Time Hasnʼt Come Yet Babyʼ, a pleasantly upbeat acoustic ballad written by team newcomer Joel Hirschhorn in a style vaguely reminiscent of Elvisʼ late Fifties material like; and ʽLet Yourself Goʼ, another Joy Byers «composition» which is really just a Vegas-ization of Willie Dixonʼs ʽLittle Babyʼ but thatʼs alright, weʼll take it for lack of anything better.

On the downside, Ben Weisman and Sid Wayne offer another fine, totally justified contribution for Elvisʼ Greatest Shit — that one song with the unforgettable title ʽHeʼs Your Uncle, Not Your Dadʼ. Like any respectable, well-meaning, law-abiding citizen of this planet, I did not doubt for a second that this was going to be a song about good old incest before putting it on — so imagine my disappointment when it turned out that the «uncle» in question was Uncle Sam, and that the song itself was an «ironic» parody on a patriotic military march. Honestly, what with the Kingʼs total inability to carry off anything ironic, sarcastic, or plain humorous, Iʼd probably have preferred the song to be a sincere patriotic march — but then again, perhaps we could do without patriotic marching altogether? (It doesnʼt help much if you actually watch the choreography in the movie, either — the most pitiful thing in the world is trying to look funny without having the first idea of how to achieve a properly comedic effect).

Once again, the total number of new songs (seven) was barely enough to fill up one side of the LP, so they had to quickly scrape together some leftovers — unfortunately, three of them came from the rotten factory of Bennett and Tepper, including ʽWestern Unionʼ from 1963 (yet another wretched attempt to recreate the success of ʽReturn To Senderʼ, almost note-for-note) and the utterly generic lullaby ʽFive Sleepy Headsʼ. Only Joy Byersʼ ʽGoinʼ Homeʼ is worthy of a bit of attention — I cannot identify the exact folk / country source from which she ripped off that one (probably something by Johnny Cash), but at least the King sounds a bit more authentic and inspired on this one. Still, with even the bonus tracks now incapable to bring up the value of the finished product, it is easy to see why Speedway marked the long-awaited end of Elvisʼ sound­track business: even the trusty corporate mafia were getting tired hacking out new material for the movies. For most of his subsequent movies, they would contribute 2–3 new songs on average, and it was fairly clear that it no longer truly made any difference if Elvis were to sing anything in the movie or not. In fact, itʼs ridiculous that the machine still kept rolling on, by inertia, for at least half a year after the comeback special. But hey, at least we got to see the man getting it on with Mary Tyler Moore in Change Of Habit. 

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Elvis Presley: Clambake

ELVIS PRESLEY: CLAMBAKE (1967)

1) Guitar Man; 2) Clambake; 3) Who Needs Money?; 4) A House That Has Everything; 5) Confidence; 6) Hey, Hey, Hey; 7) You Donʼt Know Me; 8) The Girl I Never Loved; 9) How Can You Lose What You Never Had; 10) Big Boss Man; 11) Singing Tree; 12) Just Call Me Lonesome; 13) Hi-Heel Sneakers.

General verdict: Much of this «clambake» is inedible as usual, but fortunately for us, Elvisʼ movie songwriters are getting really tired and lazy, leaving a few nice empty spots for good people to come and fill ʼem up.


Everything written about Double Trouble applies equally well to Clambake, the soundtrack to a movie that could just as well be a culinary show, because, honestly, who cared at the time? As an album, Clambake is a roughly proportioned mix of horrible novelty numbers; derivative but listenable pop-rock fodder; and a few classics whose presence is randomized but not totally accidental, because every once in a while the man would stick his head out of his shell and take a bite of juicy stuff — before being beaten back under cover with another batch of Bennett and Tepper compositions.

The obvious classic here is the very first track (which wasnʼt even in the movie, and so much the better for it) — Elvisʼ cover of Jerry Reedʼs freshly released ʽGuitar Manʼ, with Jerry Reed in person manning that acoustic guitar because, allegedly, nobody around Elvis could properly replicate Reedʼs finger-picking style. You could say that here was another little gem of a country-rock song stolen by Elvis from a lesser known artist, but truth is, the song was perfect for Elvis: Reedʼs voice is that of a charismatic country trickster, while Elvis is a raging force of nature, and the feeling of triumph over all the obstacles that life throws in your way is felt much more bluntly on the Elvis version. (It also boasts cleaner and subtler production, but this is to be expected — all of Elvisʼ Sixties records were polished to perfection, so if you are rather after a bit of lo-fi rawness, stick to the original instead). In any case, the good news is that Elvis and Reed really clicked on that session, and the result is another track that can proudly stand up to any randomly chosen Elvis classic from his golden years.

Other above-average material, also recorded to pad out the scanty soundtrack, includes Jimmy (not Jerry) Reedʼs ʽBig Boss Manʼ, with Jerry (not Jimmy) Reed also manning the guitar and Charlie McCoy blowing the harmonica all through the song, as if trying to gain supremacy over the lead vocal (sometimes he actually succeeds); and a couple of decent country ballads, such as ʽSinging Treeʼ and ʽYou Donʼt Know Meʼ, which Elvis sings with total conviction.

Unfortunately and predictably, the soundtrack material is quite rotten in comparison — the worst offenders being Randy Starrʼs vaudeville ditty ʽWho Needs Money?ʼ (a very stupid duet with Elvisʼ co-star in the movie) and, of course, ʽConfidenceʼ, in many respects a spiritual successor to ʽOld MacDonaldʼ and another fully deserving entry on the famous compilation Elvisʼ Greatest Shit. As a Sesame Street number, it would have been perfectly adequate; as something through which every loyal grown-up admirer of the King had to be put, itʼs humiliating torture. One only has to wonder if the man was forced to wear breeches and suspenders in the studio for extra authenticity. And caned on the butt after each bad take.

Even Joy Byers is not fully up to task this time; her ʽHey, Hey, Heyʼ, seemingly a rip-off of some old Motown dance number that I do not quite recognize, is way too old-fashioned for 1967 — this kind of style had gone out at least a year or two ago, together with the likes of Shindig. This leaves the title track as the most «modern» number, with the obligatory distorted electric guitar lick and the glitzy-swaggy Tom Jones attitude — but, of course, you canʼt do all that much with a song whose chorus goes "mammaʼs little baby loves clambake, clambake, mammaʼs little baby loves clambake too". Heck, it doesnʼt even work as a gross sexual innuendo, unless you somehow find a way to work «sausagefest» in there too.

Still, on the whole it is once again amusing and intriguing to witness the ongoing battle of the «soundtrack agenda» with «re-emerging artistic inclinations» — here is yet another record where Elvis is sort of left to his own devices whenever there is empty space to be filled on the chunk of vinyl, and one could argue that, paradoxically, it was precisely this filler problem that ultimately aided Elvis in resuscitating and prolonging his artistic life by a few years. 

Frank Black: Frank Black

FRANK BLACK: FRANK BLACK (1993)

1) Los Angeles; 2) I Heard Ramona Sing; 3) Hang On To Your Ego; 4) Fu Manchu; 5) Places Named After Numbers; 6) Czar; 7) Old Black Dawning; 8) Ten Percenter; 9) Brackish Boy; 10) Two Spaces; 11) Tossed; 12) Parry The Wind High, Low; 13) Adda Lee; 14) Every Time I Go Around Here; 15) Donʼt Ya Rile ʼEm.

General verdict: A «return to roots» of sort for the twisted alien mind of a former Pixie, but without forgetting the twisted alien mind.


It may seem bizarre or controversial, but I actually enjoy Frank Blackʼs self-titled solo debut slightly more than I feel for Trompe Le Monde — albeit only slightly, since something about Frankʼs individual vision had blocked his solo career right from the start from ever overtaking the high points of Pixies. Nevertheless, there is that cherished feel of liberation and a new beginning about this record, the same one that used to characterize the first records by solo Beatles and make them outstanding in their own ways. It is pure intuition, of course, but somehow Trompe Le Monde, to me, has the feel of an album they were forcing themselves to make, whereas Frank Black is very clearly an album that Frank Black wanted to make. Though, admittedly, why he wanted to make this kind of album is an issue yet to be resolved.

From a purely musical standpoint, this is actually a very «normal» record. Despite the important presence of Joey Santiago to handle lead guitar duties, there is no attempt to somehow channel the experimental spirit of classic Pixies — for the most part, Frank writes his solo material in a fairly conventional manner, and his main musical influences seem to be the Beatles and the Ramones rather than Talking Heads or Pere Ubu or Captain Beefheart, even despite the fact that his bass and keyboard player, as well as producer, Eric Drew Feldman, had previously worked for both Pere Ubu and the good Captain. But «conventional» need not mean «predictable» or «boring»: most of the songs are made interesting, one way or another, by being injected with healthy doses of Frankʼs uniquely weird personality.

The very first song is ʽLos Angelesʼ, whose complex structure, for some reason, reminds me of Radioheadʼs ʽParanoid Androidʼ — a similar mix of folk, psychedelia, and hard rock (well, straightforward grunge in Frankʼs case) imbued with an aura of I-donʼt-belong-here sadness, though Frank Black would never agree to wear his heart so openly on his sleeve as Thom Yorke does: for Frank, being too vulnerable comes across as either a sign of weakness or a sign of narcissism (choose one based on your own ideological alignment). Of course, ʽLos Angelesʼ is nowhere near as epic or compositionally rich as ʽParanoid Androidʼ, but I still love its crazy shifts of tone and tempo, its hilarious forays into old-school prog-rock territory when those synth fanfares roll out on the battlefield around 1:25 into the song, or its back-of-your-mind falsetto vocals from the classic book of psychedelic pop. What is the song about? Well, he wants to live in Los Angeles, but «not the one in Los Angeles». I mean, honestly — who wouldnʼt?

Even before hearing the album, you would probably be able to predict what it is going to be about: namely, building an alternate variant of the universe for the artistic alter ego of Charles Thompson IV, formerly known under the sinister moniker of Black Francis but now simply Frank Black, ever since he managed to disentangle himself from the Dark Side. There will be songs about aliens, time travel, oceans, and ghosts; there will be songs about strange and possibly quite meaningless things; and there will even be an uptempo, almost «techno» cover of the original version of the Beach Boysʼ ʽI Know Thereʼs An Answerʼ — ʽHang On To Your Egoʼ (which, not coincidentally, had only recently been released for the first time on CD, so we could probably tell Frank is a major Pet Sounds fan from this fact alone). Well, I guess one thing we could never accuse Frank Black of is not hanging on to his ego.

That said, if there is one single thread running through all or most of the songs on here, it is not Frankʼs ego as such but rather all the things that Frank loves — tons of lyrical and musical references to all sorts of pop culture elements, some of which would take a genuine connoisseur to notice, while others are more obvious. For instance, besides the Beatles and the Beach Boys, Frank obviously loves the Ramones, and so he decided to write a song about them, changing ʽRamonesʼ to ʽRamonaʼ so that things wouldnʼt be that obvious and youʼd be misled into thinking that maybe it has something to do with Dylanʼs ʽTo Ramonaʼ instead. Never mind that ʽI Heard Ramona Singʼ is played at about one-third the speed of a usual Ramona, uh, Ramones song: just speed it up and you get yourself a modestly catchy pop-rock anthem filled with giddy teen adoration. I am not sure if Frankʼs "I hope if someone retires / They pull another Menudo" bit of advice is really practical — after all, the Ramones did outlive themselves by 1993, not to mention historyʼs cruel irony of all the original members dying before they got really old — but if taken as a simple allegory for eternal youth, itʼs nothing to complain about.

Oddly enough, one of my favorite pieces on the album is the only song not to feature any vocals at all: ʽTossedʼ is a kick-ass piece of steady 4/4 power pop, with big strong muscular basslines, drum rhythms, and guitar interplay — its best moment, however, is when the rhythm is joined by equally muscular sax parts which carry a Beach Boys-like spirit and somehow give the entire workout that special sunny Californian flair. This kind of material would be particularly appealing to all those who love Brian Wilsonʼs pop hooks and melodicity but deplore their lack of kick-ass rock energy — of course, Frank Black is not Brian Wilson, and his melody skills are nowhere near the same league, but he has that great knack for marrying crunch and melody, and it is good to see that this is one thing that he hasnʼt lost one bit after divorcing the band.

Another of Frankʼs clear connections is David Bowie — ʽFu Manchuʼ, with its glam-rock brass arrangement, epic-soulful vocals, and half-mystical, half-comical pathos, sounds like something that would have nicely fit in on an album like Diamond Dogs. The big difference is the voice: it might be an American vs. British thing or it might just have to do with an innate discrepancy between vocal timbres, but Frank always struggles when it comes to convincingly represent an unknowable being from outer space. (One reason why ʽCactusʼ, in some ways, actually became a better song when David covered it on Heathen — I sure wish heʼd developed an interest in ʽFu Manchuʼ as well). On the other hand, Blackʼs preference for more simplistic, poppy, ska-like rhythmics of the ʽOb-La-Di Ob-La-Daʼ type gives his own brand of alien comic-book mysticism this childlike charm that makes him particularly endearing where a David Bowie might come across as way too alienated and impenetrable. To each his own.

Like most Frank Black albums, this one works better as a whole than on the level of individual songs — thereʼs just too many of those, and it is difficult to pick truly outstanding hooks and unforgettable highlights because, for one thing, Blackʼs arrangements and chord patterns do not show that much diversity, and even his cute brass flourishes start becoming predictable after a while. But there are still enough quirks to make the album flow by without getting boring, and he manages to sign off on a suitably high and grandiose note — ʽDonʼt Ya Rile ʼEmʼ, a song about the advantages of natural light over electricity (sort of), really manages to tie its melody to lyrics like "Iʼve been working my way back to sane / Itʼs coming back to me again / Old navigational ways / Back in time where I belong / Theyʼre playing my favorite song". Adepts of constant progress might flinch at this scrap of a nostalgic manifesto, but the truth about Frank Black is that it merely takes a small step away from the eccentric excesses of classic Pixies, and its «normalization» of the Frank Black sound, along with all the artistic bows to his influences, does not prevent the music from expressing the Frank Black persona. Which is just the way some people like it — myself included. 

Elvis Presley: Double Trouble


ELVIS PRESLEY: DOUBLE TROUBLE (1967)

1) Double Trouble; 2) Baby, If Youʼll Give Me All Your Love; 3) Could I Fall In Love; 4) Long Legged Girl; 5) City By Night; 6) Old MacDonald; 7) I Love Only One Girl; 8) There Is So Much World To See; 9) It Wonʼt Be Long; 10) Never Ending; 11) Blue River; 12) What Now, What Next, Where To.

General verdict: Passable glitzy pop-rock entertainment with a few serious lows — almost a masterpiece compared to the depths plumbed a couple of years before.

Although this and the next few soundtracks art not so great by any means, I believe that any honest evaluation of them as proper LPs should admit that they are nowhere near as bad as that entire stretch from 1965 to early 1966, pre-Spinout. Want it or not, times had forced the Elvis team to adapt at least a little, and much of this material sounds relatively passable for the early rock music era. With a new haircut, lightly foreshadowing the «comeback Elvis» style; a new producer (Jeff Alexander, who had previously composed the instrumental score to a few of his better movies, including Jailhouse Rock); and a slightly higher rate of solid songwriters than usual, Double Trouble is... well, still a disappointment, but not nearly as much of a disappointment as it could have been under different circumstances.

I do believe that the many one-star ratings for the LP generally have to do with the presence of ʽOld MacDonaldʼ. Rather arrogantly credited to the infamous «songwriting dentist» Randy Starr because some of the old lyrics have been changed to make the song more «edgy», it is, once again, something perfectly acceptable if it were spontaneously delivered during some drunken binge with Elvisʼ friends, but certainly not in the context of an album promising healthy, whole­some entertainment, whatever that might mean. The song proudly takes its place next to ʽPetunia, The Gardenerʼs Daughterʼ, ʽQueenie Wahineʼs Papayaʼ, and other similar mega-embarrassments of the Kingʼs career — and not, of course, due to the fact that Elvis chose to perform a generic nursery rhyme, but precisely because he chose to perform it as a pseudo-humorous «adult take» on a generic nursery rhyme, one of those vaudeville travesties for which many, many grown-up persons have already been condemned to eternal flames of Hell.

But that is just one song, and although the soundtrack has a few other moments of blatant corn (Tepper and Bennettʼs ʽI Love Only One Girlʼ, a new and stupid English translation of the French chanson-cum-military-march ʽLe Prisonnier De Hollandeʼ, is the second worst offender), on the whole it turns out to be surprisingly listenable, and in a few places even unpredictable. The title track, written by Pomus and Shuman, is harmless cocky Tom Jones-y jazz-pop; the ever-reliable Joy Byers comes up with the predictably derivative ʽBaby, If Youʼll Give Me All Of Your Loveʼ, a fast, driving song that is melodically reminiscent of ʽWear My Ring Around Your Neckʼ; and John Leslie McFarlandʼs ʽLong Legged Girlʼ is as good a Little Richard pastiche as probably was physically possible at the time, though the frantic rocker could have benefited from removing its horns and throwing on some electric guitar licks instead — after all, the song does begin with a few gruff, distorted guitar chords, though they strangely never appear again after the opening five seconds. At least, it wasnʼt the worst possible choice for a single.

The real surprise of the entire project, though, is ʽCity By Nightʼ, a rather unusual creation from the very usual songwriting team of Baum, Giant, and Kaye. It is essentially a jazz serenade, a bit Duke Ellington-style, perhaps, with some nifty trombone parts and a smoky midnight vibe — a cliché in itself, perhaps, but still cooler and edgier than the usual corny vaudeville stuff they typically served to Elvis. The fact that this tune, clearly the winner of the entire game on here, is immediately followed by ʽOld MacDonaldʼ, only goes to show how much of a roulette wheel Elvisʼ career was at this point — nobody really gave a damn, which is really the main reason why it is a bit fascinating to be checking all those soundtracks in retrospect: you never know when exactly you are going to fall upon that single pearl amidst all the manure, but even if the pearl never comes, the manure in question comes in so many different forms and flavors that you cannot deny the element of a very perverse intrigue in here.

Another good thing is that the soundtrack was so short they had to, once again, pad it out with some oldies scooped up from past sessions — including, among a few lesser selections, ʽBlue Riverʼ, an old and nearly lost B-side from 1963 which, along with ʽLittle Sisterʼ, is probably Elvisʼ most rocking and fun early Sixties song. Fast, sharp, fully guitar-based, with a couple kick-ass solo breaks (from Hank Garland, probably), its two minutes kick the ass of each single «rocker» on here by reminding you that there used to be a time when Elvisʼ rockʼnʼroll was not coated over with production glitz, and that bits and pieces of that time did survive well into the early Sixties. Sure, the song really has no business being on here, but at least this gives me a good pretext to mention it — without having to dig up compilations.

Oh, and, obviously, Double Trouble was the soundtrack to an actual movie, but this time around, I forgot to look up the plot. Allegedly, itʼs a «comedy-thriller» with a slightly unusual plot for Elvis (the original script was written with Julie Christie rather than Elvis in mind!), so it might be worth a look for, I dunno, fans of the classic James Bond stylistics or something. Me, Iʼm just paying attention to that haircut.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Pixies: Trompe Le Monde

PIXIES: TROMPE LE MONDE (1991)

1) Trompe Le Monde; 2) Planet Of Sound; 3) Alec Eiffel; 4) The Sad Punk; 5) Head On; 6) U-Mass; 7) Palace Of The Brine; 8) Letter To Memphis; 9) Bird Dream Of The Olympus Mons; 10) Space (I Believe In); 11) Subbacultcha; 12) Distance Equals Rate Times Time; 13) Lovely Day; 14) Motorway To Roswell; 15) The Navajo Know.

General verdict: The Pixies get themselves a solid rocking sound for their swan song, but oddly sacrifice the hooks in favor of somewhat old-fashioned power-pop energy.


I wish I could continue the analogy that was dropped in the previous review and treat Trompe Le Monde as Pixiesʼ Abbey Road, but, in all honesty, this record is just a tad short of such a status. Perhaps a better analogy would be Pixiesʼ Let It Be, since Trompe Le Monde, too, seems to be driven by one manʼs desire to move a little closer to «the roots» and produce something a little more spontaneous, more wild, more rocking than usual. This is unquestionably the bandʼs loudest, most abrazive album, one on which they end up sounding influenced by Cheap Trick far more often than they do by Talking Heads; and while this is definitely not a problem in the large scheme of things — after all, the Pixies are a fuckinʼ rock band, are they not? — it does result in a certain lack of subtlety, and in the band occasionally slipping into the world of fairly generic rock clichés (at least, musical; «message-wise», Trompe Le Monde is still as idiosyncratically Pixies-ish as it gets).

Arguably the main reason why Trompe Le Monde, good as it is, is still the weakest Pixies album is that it is not too much of a Pixies album — it is more of a Frank Black solo album with guest musicians Kim Deal and Joey Santiago. Kim has no compositions of her own here (not sure if she was blocked by Francis or if she simply was saving them all for future Breeders records), no lead vocals, relatively few backing vocals, and even her bass lines are often relegated to purely supportive roles. And Joey, while still an essential contributor to the psychedelic textures of the music, has nowhere near as many memorable lead parts as he used to. For the most part, this is a Frank Black show all the way — his chugging rhythms, his weird vocal hooks, his twisted sense of humor, and his pissed-off attitude, of which we seem to be receiving a mighty huge dose here. You never really saw the Pixies in such a jerky mood throughout, believe me.

To try to understand what they were really going for on this album, it might make sense to begin with a comparison of their unexpected cover of The Jesus And Mary Chainʼs ʽHead Onʼ with the original. The most surprising thing is that although the cover postdates the original by two years, it actually sounds retro-fied: the JAMC version, with its heavy echo on the vocals and the drums, is immediately datable to the Eighties, while the Pixies here make it sound exactly like a Cheap Trick song circa 1977-78, with those thick, glammy guitar tones, exuberant barman-give-me-one-more-drink lead vocals, and a we-want-it-louder-than-everyone-else attitude. Could it be that a band whose purpose once seemed to be to push classic pop-rock in a futuristic direction is now showing signs of repentance, looking back at the old school glam-rock and punk-rock of the mid-Seventies as a key reference point? And could this «nostalgic reinvention» of a contemporary alt-rock hit be their flagman statement about it?

The thought hits harder when you combine it with all that anger captured on the record — anger clearly directed at none other than a large chunk of the Pixiesʼ own core audiences. Two songs stand out particularly in that respect, both of them well-known highlights of the album. One is, of course, ʽSubbacultchaʼ, an unusually straightforward (for Black) indictment of «club culture» as an excuse to find oneself a hot piece of ass — and set, might I add, to a very clearly retro melody, very reminiscent of the Modern Loversʼ ʽPablo Picassoʼ, except that first-rate production allows each rhythm and lead note to cut even sharper than Jonathan Richmanʼs band. The other one is ʽU-Massʼ, an even more vicious assault on the phoney varieties of progressive student subculture which Iʼm sure all their student audience must have loved with the exact same abandon that the Ramonesʼ core audience displayed while gleefully bopping along to ʽCretin Hopʼ and ʽTeenage Lobotomyʼ. The songʼs melody has been often compared to ʽSmells Like Teen Spiritʼ (itʼs funny that Nevermind and Trompe Le Monde were released with one dayʼs difference), but Pixies donʼt do achingly desperate grunge — they do deeply sarcastic grunge, and they play it here in such a way that the guitar chords are just as reminiscent of AC/DC and ZZ Top as they are of their own contemporary alt-rock scene.

None of this is to say that the Pixies have somehow turned into some sort of conservative musical reactionaries overnight. The music on the whole, be it the production, or the inventive weaving techniques between Black and Santiago, cannot be dismissed as a return to stale clichés; and the elements of vitriolic criticism against the bandʼs own breeding grounds still count as occasional blips among the usual sea of random impressionist imagery that covers territory all the way from the Eiffel Tower (ʽAlec Eiffelʼ) to Native American legends (ʽThe Navajo Knowsʼ). Whatever be the case, it is not very likely that a band with such a history as the Pixies could turn around and start churning out «generic rockʼnʼroll». The biggest problem is that by concentrating too much on rocking out and venting off, the Pixies slightly lost their grip on their legendary ability to create instantly captivating pop hooks. Even after a whole bunch of listens to the album, my mind still tends to remember much of it as a rather messy and monotonous sonic glop, instead of building a separate cozy cottage for each individual song.

Personally, I very much miss the stylistic diversity of Bossanova — there are, for instance, absolutely no moments of tender, subtle beauty of the ʽAnaʼ or ʽHavalinaʼ type here; not a single song, in fact, that could be labeled as a «ballad». The closest they get to being a little romantic here is on ʽMotorway To Roswellʼ, a winding epic about an alien beingʼs tragic death in an accident that does not really deserve its five-minute length — but even that one is ultimately so loud and crunchy that even its nicely placed piano flourish in the coda does not do much by way of reminding us of how tender Frank Black and the boys can be when a certain muse grabs them by the spleen. Not here. Not this time.

If you have not yet heard the album and these several paragraphs happen to be discouraging you from checking it out, though, do not be discouraged — just take a quick listen to the title track, since I think that those minute and forty seconds are perfectly representative of the album as a whole. Some thick, speedy, mammoth riffage; some flashy psychedelic guitar leads; some quirky changes in tempo; some cosmic lyrics delivered with the appropriate cosmic vocals. Itʼs a cool sound, and one that hasnʼt dated one bit in thirty years — you still have indie kids doing this kind of music to this very day. But it hasnʼt really got much to latch on to, does it? No "my boneʼs got a little machine" or "debaser, debaser!" or even a "Caribo-o-o-u!" to it. Sadly, the same type of impression applies to a good half of the album.

That said, let me quickly list a few songs which are right up there with the very best that Pixies ever put out. ʽAlec Eiffelʼ is a modest masterpiece of speedy pop-rock, sounding like a future blueprint for every fast Arcade Fire song ever made. ʽLovely Dayʼ takes the bass line of ʽYou Canʼt Hurry Loveʼ, gives it a little twist and briefly turns the Pixies into a «dark side of Motown» band. But where they really pull all the stops is on ʽSpace (I Believe In)ʼ, a one-of-a-kind mix of grunge, Goth, and psychedelic elements with the most brutally honest lyrics in the universe: "We needed something to move and fill up the space / We needed something — this always is just the case". As you can see, itʼs not about cosmic space, itʼs all about filler space, and somehow in this weird and wild universe the song that was most likely written on the spot to fill space ended up being the best number on the entire album. How can you ever forget "JEFREY WITH ONE 'F', JEFREY! JEFREY WITH ONE 'F', JEFREY!"? (Allegedly, the tablas guy who they got to play with them on the song was actually called Jef Feldman, with one 'f').

Okay, that wasnʼt too many songs, but the truth is, while I actually enjoy most of the album, somehow numbers such as ʽLetter To Memphisʼ just do not stimulate me to come up with any brilliant ideas, if you know what I mean. Quite a few people are ready to swear by Trompe Le Monde as the crowning moment of glory for the band, which stumps me — is this because of all the loudness and distortion? Because the actual songwriting is rather lazy, to be honest. One commenter on Mark Prindleʼs old review site actually confessed to loving the album because it was «MEAN and UGLY» where the previous ones were «CUTE and CLEVER» — I think this is a fairly appropriate description as far as minimalistic descriptions go, but maybe the problem is that a lot of other bands can be MEAN and UGLY like the Pixies, but very, very few can be CUTE and CLEVER like the Pixies. Just about anybody could come up with songs like ʽPlanet Of Soundʼ or ʽThe Sad Punkʼ (check out the career of Art Brut, for instance), but who the heck could come up with another ʽWave Of Mutilationʼ? Nobody has, so far.

As the final brick in the bandʼs classic house, though, Trompe Le Monde makes perfect sense: it has a sound all its own, and its raging energy guaranteed that the band would go out on a pretty powerful, if not particularly inventive, note. It was never specially planned as a swan song, and it does not sound like a swan song, but itʼs better to go out with a bang than a whimper in any case. Itʼs like ʽMotorway To Roswellʼ is an allegory for their entire journey — Trompe Le Monde is really the sound of the Pixiesʼ little flying saucer entering the atmosphere at full speed and burning up before it ever has the chance to land. I only wish I could enjoy the individual songs as much as I respect the overall idea of the album, but perhaps it is an unfortunate effect of not having had the chance to enjoy it back in 1991 — my ear being subsequently spoilt with way too much bombastic indie rock that was probably influenced by it. Then again, as I said, way too much of this album actually sounds like stuff that came before it, so itʼs all really part of that one big food chain, and maybe it is just that this particular link does not feel particularly outstanding in the larger context of swallowing and digesting. 

Monday, July 20, 2020

Elvis Presley: How Great Thou Art

ELVIS PRESLEY: HOW GREAT THOU ART (1967)

1) How Great Thou Art; 2) In The Garden; 3) Somebody Bigger Than You And I; 4) Farther Along; 5) Stand By Me; 6) Without Him; 7) So High; 8) Where Could I Go But To The Lord; 9) By And By; 10) If The Lord Wasnʼt Walking By My Side; 11) Run On; 12) Where No One Stands Alone; 13) Crying In The Chapel.

General verdict: Feels almost like the real thing — definitely as close to «true gospel» as the man would ever get. Who needs psychedelia when you have the King on your side?


Once again, context is everything. Surrounded by the Kingʼs golden great rockʼnʼroll classics, this album would have probably seemed underwhelming in comparison, particularly to a not particularly religious conscience (like mine). But surrounded on both chronological sides with Elvisʼ soundtrack fluff, How Great Thou Art is not simply a breath of fresh air — it literally towers over all of that crap as a genuine artistic masterpiece.

One thing is for sure: it is definitely the most creative, curious, and deeply felt of his three gospel albums. The main problem with His Hand In Mine was that it was really a «gospel» album only on the surface: at heart, it was really an album of sentimental crooning balladry — nice and well-meaning, but way too slight to evoke a properly spiritual response. With this experience — and let us not forget that it was actually Elvisʼ first proper new album in five years — it feels as if the man had actually realized that himself, and tried to rise up to the challenge of creating a true gospel experience this time. With a brand new producer (Felton Jarvis), a set of tunes that Elvis mostly picked out himself rather than had imposed on him, an actual gospel quartet joining him for backup (The Imperials), and even a set of arrangements for traditional tunes credited to Elvis Presley in person, he clearly wanted to make something different, and he largely succeeded.

Even the track order matters here: instead of being interspersed with each other as they were on His Hand In Mine, here the slow and solemn hymns are all put together on the first side, while the fast and ruckus-raising spirituals are confined to Side B. This creates a risk of bringing on monotonous boredom, but it also eliminates the risk of «mood killing», and at least on the first side — the most interesting one, if you ask me — the approach pays off well. Two things are immediately noticeable — a huge emphasis on keyboards, usually piano and more rarely organ, with far more sophisticated and tempestuous arrangements than before; and a new sort of depth and seriousness to Elvisʼ singing, as he goes lower than he has done in years, generally refraining from sensual crooning and going for something more «earthy», if you know what I mean.

Of those six opening songs, the unhurried waltzing of ʽFarther Alongʼ is my favorite — maybe because of the lyrics, whose significance goes far beyond simplistic Christian conventions, or maybe because somehow Elvis manages to turn it almost personal; it is interesting that if you compare the song to other versions, from the Byrds all the way to Brad Paisley, Elvisʼ one actually omits the decisive third verse (basically the one that states how Jesus is going to solve all your problems) and only includes the first two (listing the actual problems). Whatever be the actual truth, the gut impression is that of a tired, exhausted, but still deeply optimistic person quietly praying for alleviation — almost like a veiled cry for help, which comes across as doubly significant if you are aware of the context in which these sessions were held.

But there are other highlights, too. The title track has an interesting construction, starting out without a rhythm section, just wave upon wave of impressionistic piano playing and occasional thunder-imitating drumrolls, then smoothly transitioning into another anthemic waltz with huge booming choruses, subtly attenuated by an uncredited string section. And ʽSomebody Bigger Than You And Iʼ may be seen as an early precursor to Elvisʼ bigger-than-life, ʽSuspicious Mindsʼ et al. style, but still with much more restraint than most of his Vegas-style material, probably because most of the «pomp» is generated by the loudness of the Imperialsʼ backing vocals and the mighty organ, rather than glitzy strings and horns.

The second side of the album, opening with the fast-paced ʽSo Highʼ and rarely losing the tempo, is not as sonically interesting, but you could still argue that there is more genuine rockʼnʼroll energy and inspiration in songs like ʽSo Highʼ and ʽRun Onʼ than in all of the manʼs soundtracks from the previous couple of years combined. ʽBy And Byʼ actually features fuzzy electric guitar riffage (!), while ʽRun Onʼ (more commonly known as ʽGodʼs Gonna Cut You Downʼ, but they probably wanted to avoid unnecessarily violent connotations on the album sleeve) cannot exactly hope to compete with the ground-shaking intensity of a Blind Willie Johnson, but still winds the man up tighter and tenser than anything since the days of ʽReady Teddyʼ. ITʼS ALIVE!

Naturally, one should not get too excited: Elvis still hasnʼt become a true gospel prophet, and there are one too many slow waltzing tempos on here to insist that the gospel theme might be used here as just a vehicle for experimentation and rejuvenation. And coming out with even a good gospel album in 1967, the year of Sgt. Pepper, was hardly the right move to re-establish a good working relation with the progressive critical minds. Yet it is quite clear that here, for the second time in a row after the (very relative) freshness of Spinout, was something that the King did not need to be ashamed of — so, for all purposes, we might as well consider that the manʼs actual «comeback» starts here, rather than with the «comeback special» and In Memphis, even if we would still have to deal with more soundtrack embarrassments in between. 

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Pixies: Bossanova

PIXIES: BOSSANOVA (1990)

1) Cecilia Ann; 2) Rock Music; 3) Velouria; 4) Allison; 5) Is She Weird; 6) Ana; 7) All Over The World; 8) Dig For Fire; 9) Down To The Well; 10) The Happening; 11) Blown Away; 12) Hang Wire; 13) Stormy Weather; 14) Havalina.

General verdict: The Pixies get more soulful, serious, and nostalgic, sacrificing some of their punchy adolescence as their generation ship crosses into the next galaxy.


Pixiesʼ third album sometimes gets a bad rap because it clearly fails to reinvent the world of music the same way that Doolittle did — and it is hardly a coincidence that, for the first time in their relatively short life, the band had hardly any well-gestated material left in stock, and often had to improvise right in the studio. Indeed, next to the total unpredictability and diversity of the previous two albums, Bossanova might come across as a somewhat monotonous, sludgy, rock-oriented experience. But I personally feel that if Doolittle was their Sgt. Pepper, then Bossanova, in some ways, stands up to being regarded as their White Album — a record on which the greatest band of its generation has absolutely nothing left to prove and simply resorts to having as much creative fun as possible. Sometimes it works, occasionally it doesnʼt, but the inspiration never stops, and the juice just keeps on flowinʼ.

It is not the happiest-sounding Pixies album, though, that is for sure. Much of the bandʼs humour has only been preserved in the form of ironic viciousness, and there are overtones of melancholia, nostalgia, and acute yearning for some better place to be (from ʽVelouriaʼ to ʽHavalinaʼ). Throw in the total lack of kick-ass fast tempo rockers, the prevalence of sludgy proto-grunge mid-tempo guitar melodies, and the fact that Kim Deal has largely been pushed into the background (admittedly, she did save all her songwriting ideas for the Breeders at the time), and it is easy to understand why some people might need quite a bit of time to get into this record. But do trust me, it is very worth getting into in the end.

Amusingly, there seems to be not one, but two introductions to the album — a ʽForewordʼ and a ʽPrefaceʼ, if you will. The first one is ʽCecilia Annʼ, a cover of an old instrumental by The Surf­tones which gave the entire record its reputation as the Pixiesʼ «surf-rock album», despite the fact that there had always been a huge surf influence on Pixiesʼ music and Bossanova hardly seems to capitalize on it any more than any other Pixies album. What they do to the tune, by fattening up its guitar tones and putting the rhythm section into an almost heavy-metallic overdrive, is prove what Quentin Tarantino said about surf music — that to him, surf music had always been more about Clint Eastwood in an Ennio Morricone-orchestrated movie than about actual surfing. Itʼs catchy, itʼs fun, itʼs danceable, but it also has DRAMA, and the Pixies cram as much epos and pathos into these galloping two minutes as possible. Once the two minutes are up, you have been mentally prepared to, maybe, take this upcoming stuff a little bit more seriously than ever before... and the lack of vocals, which always raise the bar on quirkiness and playfulness in the Pixiesʼ case, is also quite important.

The vocals do appear on the second introductory track, seductively titled ʽRock Musicʼ — but you will never understand a word they say, because the entire track is like a drunk antithesis to the tight cohesiveness of ʽCecilia Annʼ: with its endless distorted droning riff, continuously wailing monotonous lead guitar, and hardcore screaming all over the studio, it veers on the edge of self-parody, or, if not, at least on the edge of total irony in the face of «rock music» as an artistic concept. As a song, itʼs not much — more like a relentless wall of noise whose «anger» is a bona fide theatrical performance destined to undermine and expose the credibility of «anger» in music itself (a technique that would later be adopted by Ween in their arsenal). But at the same time it is also a sign that the Pixies are not afraid to «mature» by adhering to deeper layers of production and even fatter guitar tones, and by making their music less prone to being denounced as juvenile novelty garbage (if you ever had that temptation, that is).

That sign kind of comes in handy as you proceed on down the line. The first real Pixies song (and the first real classic) on here is ʽVelouriaʼ, announced by grungy power chords worthy of the Seattle scene rather than the Boston one — yet just a few seconds later it becomes clear that this is still a typical romantic Pixies anthem, with a lead guitar line that is more Beethoven than Kurt Cobain and vocals that have more blue-eyed soul in them than hardcore growling. Melodically, it seems to be distantly related to ʽWave Of Mutilationʼ, but the vocals and that wailing lead line give it a more intimate, serenade-like feel, something youʼd probably expect delivered from one star-crossʼd lover to another, especially if the romance took place on a planet where they actually name girls ʽVelouriaʼ. The lyrics donʼt mean much — just grab on to bits and pieces like "hold my head, weʼll trampoline" and "we will wade in the shine of the ever" and thatʼs all you need to request the song for your wedding ceremony, really. The weird thing is, it actually sounds like a genuine, serious, heartwarming love song — even if, on a formal level, the band does not step outside their post-modern conventions at all. I can smirk at this song and I can feel cathartic at the same time — few bands can manage that feat.

Each and every song that follows ʽVelouriaʼ has something to offer, some cute or crazy idea that might seem genius or stupid but actually makes you notice it and evaluate it. These cute or crazy ideas somehow seem largely equivalent to me, so I do not really have any favorites — in terms of pure moronic catchiness, though, the golden bough goes to ʽIs She Weirdʼ, a song whose "is she weird, is she white, is she promised to the night?" has graced my shower one too many times, and whose words, mood, and playful mystique make it a great candidate for some Witcher-themed video, or at least a self-made voodoo ritual. Then again, they are pixies, and itʼs high time they did a creepy counting-out rhyme for the midnight hour. Again, no true innovations here — Santiagoʼs twangy guitar lines weave around Kimʼs pounding hammer bass more or less the same way they did from the very start — but no previous Pixies song truly sounded this ghostly.

The rest of the songs I will go over quickly, especially since thereʼs so many of them. ʽAllisonʼ is a minute-long nursery rhyme whose point is to rhyme ʽAllisonʼ with "hit the sun", and I approve. ʽAnaʼ is a softer, surfier sequel to ʽVelouriaʼ, with gorgeous lead guitar lines that are almost too well-defined and memorable for the songʼs dream-pop textures (if somebody tells you that all dream-pop just has to be atmospheric and squishy and slipping through your brain, shut them up with this song). ʽAll Over The Worldʼ sounds like something Iʼd like to take with me on a generation starship ("with a pet at my side, God in the sky...") — and clocking in at 5:30, it feels almost like the Pixiesʼ own little progressive rock epic; at the very least, the looping "all my thoughts / all I am / are my thoughts" bit is their personal mantra and the closest, so far, they got to turning their music into a (post-modern) religious ceremony.

Of their second single, ʽDig For Fireʼ, I can only say that it is a curious way to merge a very Talking Heads-sounding verse (funky guitar weaving, ʽOnce In A Lifetimeʼ-style sloganeering vocals and all that) with a Madchester-influenced chorus — Talking Heads meet Stone Roses — and although Frank Black himself later dismissed the song as a «bad Talking Heads imitation», I think the combination of the cryptic verse with the heavenly chorus still works. ʽDown To The Wellʼ is probably the albumʼs laziest song, but even here I like the mock-silliness of the melodic resolution, in which "...she went down to the WELL!" is delivered with such a gleefully demonic attitude that you quickly understand WELL is really just a euphemism for HELL. After this, ʽThe Happeningʼ delivers yet another nice melodic contrast — a strange swampy sound for the verse and a high-pitched, totally stoned psychodrone for the bridge, with the lyrics eventually turning to something that feels like rejected outtakes from an early draft of ʽBob Dylanʼs 115th Dreamʼ ("I was driving doing nothing on the shores of Great Salt Lake...").

Skipping over two more tracks, we have a symmetric ending for the album with not one, but two outros. The «proper» ending is ʽStormy Weatherʼ, a track that could pretty much serve as the blueprint for all classic Brian Jonestown Massacre material — a slow, lazy, repetitive retro-Sixties psycho-party vibe with a hip (post-)modern sensibility; silly and way too rowdy-sailorish for Pixies, but if these guys just wonʼt be pigeonholed, so be it. And then, for the ʽGood Nightʼ encore you get ʽHavalinaʼ — smooth, tender, full of classy romantic guitar lines, escapist as heck and a great reminder of how sentimental this band really is at heart.

At the end of the day, there is no dazzling, teasing flame at the heart of Bossanova; it does not even try to recreate the infectiousness of Doolittle, and it does show the band falling back just a little bit too strong on past musical formulae — again, much like the Beatles did with the White Album, or like the Heads did on Speaking In Tongues and their later albums. But the bandʼs overall vision, their sense of humour and their ability to make even clichéd musical ideas sound interesting once again are fully intact. And this additional touch of maturity might actually allow some people to develop a tighter emotional band with the album than any before it — ʽVelouriaʼ and ʽAnaʼ, in particular, have an aura of sincere gorgeousness that would still be unthinkable on the much more playful and sarcastic plains of Surfer Rosa and Doolittle. The best news is, in keeping up with Great Band Reputation, no two Pixies albums (at least, from their classic era) sound alike — well, best for those of us who value experimentation and diversity over sticking to the exact same formula, at least. 

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Elvis Presley: Spinout


ELVIS PRESLEY: SPINOUT (1966)

1) Stop, Look And Listen; 2) Adam And Evil; 3) All That I Am; 4) Never Say Yes; 5) Am I Ready; 6) Beach Shack; 7) Spinout; 8) Smorgasbord; 9) Iʼll Be Back; 10) Tomorrow Is A Long Time; 11) Down In The Alley; 12) Iʼll Remember You.

General verdict: A slightly outstanding soundtrack in that it at least briefly acknowledges the arrival of a new musical era with new musical values.

Oh wow, there are actual signs of life here! Do not get your hopes up too much — we are talking just a few relatively bright spots in a stable sea of hogwash, nothing close to a true «comeback»; but the objective facts are such that the soundtrack to Spinout is Elvisʼ first ever album to acknowledge, one way or the other, that the world of music did actually move on since the days of Frankie Avalon. Maybe we should thank George Stoll, who had earlier produced the Viva Las Vegas soundtrack as well, or maybe we should be grateful to the particularly odious Giant / Baum / Kaye songwriting team for only contributing one stupid corny tune this time around (the tropical sex anthem ʽBeach Shackʼ) — whatever the matter, Spinout is almost inarguably the strongest of all of Elvisʼ mid-to-late-Sixties soundtracks. This is not saying all that much, but it is definitely saying something.

The good news are announced with the very first track: ʽStop, Look And Listenʼ (written by the generally reliable Joy Byers) is a lighthearted, but sharp-sounding pop rocker, certainly more appropriate for a go-go girls performance on Shindig! than for the Monterey Festival, but played with genuine rockʼnʼroll verve and featuring what should qualify as an «experimental» guitar solo for Elvis — played by Tommy Tedesco, I believe, through a Leslie speaker or something. No, itʼs not amazing by any means, but hearing this kind of sound after half a dozen completely retrograde soundtracks is such a drink of cool, clear water that I am almost ready to forgive this album any of its upcoming sins in advance.

Fortunately, ʽStop, Look And Listenʼ is not just a fluke: throughout the album, one continuously encounters traces of decent contemporary production and convincing atmosphere. The Pomus-Shuman composition ʽNever Say Yesʼ is just a slice of standard Bo Diddley beat, but when it is delivered with crackling, fuzzy rhythm guitar at a head-spinning fast tempo, then even the Kingʼs ever-softening voice starts regaining certain powerful overtones, almost forgotten after hours and hours of consuming Queenie Wahineʼs papayas. The title track brings back the tastefully treated electric guitar of ʽStop, Look And Listenʼ, and although it is essentially a Tom Jones-style cabaret number, at least its somber swagginess finally sounds in step with the times. Finally, ʽIʼll Be Backʼ is a generic mid-tempo blues-rocker, graced with lively backing vocals, screechy guitars, and even a few shadows of Elvisʼold rockabilly voice, with those almost forgotten alternations of exuberant high and somber low that heʼd largely left behind in the Fifties.

While everything else on the soundtrack proper is largely forgettable (but usually not horrible), the main attention has always been tied to tracks tacked on at the end which had no relation to the movie at all — such as a quality cover of The Cloversʼ old hit ʽDown In The Alleyʼ, and, most importantly, a five-minute long (!) acoustic cover of Bob Dylanʼs old song ʽTomorrow Is A Long Timeʼ, which Dylan allegedly referred to as the one cover of a song of his that he "treasured the most" — of course, everything Bob ever said in his life always has to be taken tongue-in-cheek, but it is worth noting that he said this in 1969, the year of Nashville Skyline, and that his own soft and crooning vocal tone on that album, amusingly, was quite similar in mood and overtones to Elvisʼ voice on this soft and crooning cover. Besides, five minutes long! Five! The longest Elvis song up to that point was ʽOld Shepʼ, and even that one was just four. If that ainʼt sufficient homage to one of the greatest post-Elvis forces in music, I donʼt know what is.

I will not spoil the positive impression by discussing the flaws of particularly inferior songs on the album — just reiterate that they are not enough to spoil the overall fun, but also state that you can really only taste that fun in full if, like me, you have previously sat through Harum Scarum, Frankie And Johnny and Paradise Hawaiian Style in a row. Look, even that sleeve photo is an upgrade — for the first time in at least three or four years, there is a slightly vivacious glint in the manʼs eyes, as if there was something out there on the horizon that finally piqued his interest. Alas, time would show that this was all an accident, but it wouldnʼt be the only one — and, after all, you can only stay under the water so long before you have to come up for at least one or two quick gulps of fresh air. Spinout is one such gulp.