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Saturday, July 23, 2016

Blood Ceremony: Lord Of Misrule

BLOOD CEREMONY: LORD OF MISRULE (2016)

1) The Devil's Widow; 2) Loreley; 3) The Rogue's Lot; 4) Lord Of Misrule; 5) Half Moon Street; 6) The Weird Of Finistere; 7) Flower Phantoms; 8) Old Fires; 9) Things Present, Things Past.

Ah, how delightful unabashed copycatting can be. Say what you will, but when the first track on your new album opens with a suspenseful guitar riff taken almost note-for-note from Pink Floyd's ʽLucifer Samʼ (because Lucifer!!), and then, eight (or nine) bars into the song, changes into a Black Sabbath-style rocker with Iommi-tone, on top of which the frontlady piles up a Jethro Tull-style lead flute melody with Anderson-fuss, it's hard to get rid of an ironic chuckle: «Man, these guys just might be the most original artists of 2016 — they're, like, the only ones to completely and absolutely waive the right to any originality! Slavish imitation rules the day!»

Add to this the fact that, as of now, Blood Ceremony have already been going on for ten years: that's right, time goes pretty fast now, right? Four albums in ten years, all of which essentially sound the same and that «same» is 100% derivative of a bunch of heavy rock / prog rock artists who now probably come to relax and revisit their youth at Blood Ceremony concerts. (At least Anderson and Iommi, I believe, should get a lifelong supply of free tickets to BC shows). I think their rhythm section has changed again for this album (too lazy to check out properly), but the main people stay the same (Alia on keyboards, flutes, and apprentice-demonic vocals; Sean on Iommi-guitar, although, unlike Iommi, he never downtunes it properly enough), and overall, the band just wants to tell you that dark magic is a full-time occupation, with its own routine, schedules, and stability rates. It doesn't pay too much, but hey, it's a job like any other.

And it would still be fun, if only, after the first few tracks, one didn't get the feeling that they are treating it like routine. Again, everything follows the same formula — heavy guitar riffage, deriva­tive of Sabbath and their ilk, but never as memorable; witchy woman vocals from Alia, strong and spiteful, but never truly scary or disturbing; and flute or keyboard solos that always sound tasteful, but never too different from each other. Sometimes the music veers far into the field of Celtic balladry (ʽHalf Moon Streetʼ begins like a metallized version of Fairport Conven­tion's ʽMatty Grovesʼ; ʽThe Weird Of Finistereʼ is a slow, mournful waltz with, for once, a more pastoral sound to the flute), and ʽFlower Phantomsʼ is an unexpectedly short and upbeat psyche­delic-melancholic pop song in the vein of British nugget-bands circa 1968-1969, but even these exceptions have the same arrangement style and the same overall mood.

Generally, I still think that the heaviest rocking songs here have 90% of the fun — the already mentioned ʽDevil's Widowʼ, with its tribute to ʽLucifer Samʼ, takes the cake (fast tempo rules, and there's something delightfully corny in the way Alia screams "THE DEVIL'S WIDOW! THE DEVIL'S WIDOW!", as if she just saw her walking down the street or something), but the slow, ponderous ʽRogue's Lotʼ, where the lady gets to ask us the question "how do the living raise the dead?" in such a sinister tone you'd think she was going to demonstrate it here and now, is also cool (at least, until it picks up speed and becomes a more forgettable piece of Crowley boogie); and I am also partial to the «dance-metal» pattern of ʽOld Firesʼ and its overdubbed guitars with «woman tones» melodically duelling in the instrumental section. The title track (referring to the legendary title of the presider over the medieval Feast Of Fools) is probably supposed to be the album's centerpiece, what with its epic, power chord-based opening and all, but does not really come across as a standout — however, it does have a well-thought out main riff as well.

All said, Lord Of Misrule does find me a little tired of giving out thumbs up as if, you know, it were automatically guaranteed that Blood Ceremony's schtick, as long as it is properly executed, is always a good thing to have in unlimited quantities. Namely, Lord Of Misrule has fewer moments of true excitement than The Eldritch Dark — actually, come to think of it, none at all in comparison — and if it takes them three years to come up with a weaker application of the same formula, why should I be recommending this? If you're new to the witchy world of Alia O'Brien, check out their early stuff; if you already know what they are all about, your time and spiritual energy should probably rather be spent on something else — unless, of course, you need fresh music like this to create the proper vibe for casting incantations over your personal stock of mandrake roots, toadstool powders, and black cat bones.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Caribou: Our Love

CARIBOU: OUR LOVE (2014)

1) Can't Do Without You; 2) Silver; 3) All I Ever Need; 4) Our Love; 5) Dive; 6) Second Chance; 7) Julia Brightly; 8) Mars; 9) Back Home; 10) Your Love Will Set You Free.

Please to witness yet another strong proof of how much the reviewer is falling out with the times (again!) — apparently, Our Love got the strongest, most raving reviews of Snaith's entire career, and even made it all the way to No. 46 on the Billboard charts, yet I can barely bring myself to sit through half of it (and several relistens have only made the torture worse), so here's a very brief verdict and hopefully I'll never have to do this again.

In a nutshell: where Swim could at least still be called a psychedelic dance album, Our Love is just a dance album, period. It's probably far from the worst IDM album ever released, but it is precisely that — an IDM album. And I am no enemy of IDM when we're talking classic Aphex Twin or other people who have the proper guts to export our conscience into outer space or to orchestrate a robotic apocalypse, but Snaith, with his «sunshine attitude» that was so à propos when dabbling in abstract electronic jazz on his first records, or when going retro-Sixties on Andorra, is just boring as hell when he goes for straight house music.

Of course, he still mixes it up, and there is, for instance, a strong streak of R&B running through the album. ʽCan't Do Without Youʼ, opening the album, samples a bit of Marvin Gaye, com­bining the sample with Dan's own falsetto, but I've always thought that the primary power of R&B is always locked in live grooves and spontaneously generated power, whereas here we are locked within a robotic, sterile arrangement, and the complex overdubs of several waves of synth noise do nothing to save the situation. If this is an ode to happiness, there is nothing to confirm this except for Dan's looped sample — and even though there is quite a lot happening, as on every Caribou track (read here for an almost over-detailed deconstruction), the track leaves me completely uninvolved on an emotional level, which is a catastrophe.

Everything that follows is essentially more of the same mood: soft dance grooves with complex, but bland and generally predictable series of overdubs. ʽSecond Chanceʼ, with Jessy Lanza on vocals, melodically sounds like some lost Aaliyah outtake with a minimalistic synth trot pro­viding the bulk of the instrumentation — very, very boring. The title track is simply horrible, al­most completely undistinguishable from generic club muzak, and I don't care how many extra textures he throws in — the combination of that bass pulse with the man's falsetto aah-aahs shoots the lights out from both, and the results just sound stupid.

And I could go on, but I won't: let's just say that I fail to get the point of this kind of music — it's no less danceable, of course, than any other piece of music with a steady beat, but its artistic con­tent is completely compromised by the «applied» nature, and I would go as far as to say that its relation to genuinely gripping electronic dance music is about the same as Chubby Checker's relation to Chuck Berry; keeping in mind, of course, that there are plenty of people who'd actually prefer Chubby to Chuck, and, by analogy, there might be people around who will like Our Love more than Selected Ambient Works. In my personal paradigm, though, this counts as a generic sellout from yet another guy who decided that sounding «trendy» and «modern» should do more for his carma than investing his talent into creating true beauty. (Let alone the fact that I am not exactly sure in what way these beats, loops, and overdubs are «modern» for 2014, when all this and more has already been done in electronica many times over). A near-disgusted thumbs down. Bring back those Zombies rip-offs once more, comrade! Viva la Revolución!

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Cars: Door To Door

THE CARS: DOOR TO DOOR (1987)

1) Leave Or Stay; 2) You Are The Girl; 3) Double Trouble; 4) Fine Line; 5) Everything You Say; 6) Ta Ta Wayo Wayo; 7) Strap Me In; 8) Coming Up You; 9) Wound Up On You; 10) Go Away; 11) Door To Door.

Conventional wisdom says that Heartbeat City, with its mega-popular singles and ground-breaking videos, was a very good record — then the same conventional wisdom goes on to say that Door To Door, released after yet another break for solo projects, was a tremendous drop down in quality, and the record is consistently rated as the band's worst ever. So poorly produced, so uninspired, so boring, that the only way they could excuse themselves was by breaking up, which they did. One and a half stars, tops.

For some reason, I have never felt this opposition. To me, this is basically Heartbeat City Vol. 2, perhaps a wee bit heavier on (bad) guitars, but also a tad darker and more mysterious — on my own, I would never have guessed that I was supposed to love the former and hate the latter. It even has about the same ration of songs I really have a feeling for and songs I couldn't care less about never hearing again; my only explanation is that the overall «style» of Heartbeat City, which felt fresh and exciting in 1984, had become so clichéd and stale by 1987 that the same songs that used to be adored were now abhorred. But as time becomes compressed and we now look back at both records from a faraway point, I suppose it's high time the oddly polarized reac­tions began to be corrected.

I mean, ʽYou Are The Girlʼ is essentially a follow-up to ʽYou Might Thinkʼ, maybe a bit more sentimental, but essentally the same type of simple upbeat catchy pop song that does not mean much in the grand scheme of things, but is worth a chuckle or two while it's on. Granted, the second single, ʽStrap Me Inʼ, may be one of the worst things they ever did (three power chords is not the reason why they brought back more guitars, right?), but the third one, ʽComing Up Youʼ, is a soft synth pop tune for kids that has plenty of inventive «symphonic-electronic» overdubs to suggest they actually still cared at the moment, so?..

Anyway, the two songs I really like have nothing to do with the singles. ʽFine Lineʼ is a moody follow-up to ʽDriveʼ, this time with a smoky, melancholic atmosphere created by solemn sus­tained organ notes, and even moodier overdubs by Hawkes and Easton — this time there's no op­timism, as in ʽDriveʼ, and although the lyrics are enigmatic, the feeling is one of acknowledging the inevitability of alienation ("there's a fine line between us, all the way"), and it's working. The second favorite is ʽGo Awayʼ, another Orr-sung number that's actually closer to ʽDriveʼ in spi­rit, but now it's fast and energetic, and the escapist chorus, highlighted by a bitter-tender jangling guitar line, really stands out as an emotional outbreak. Both songs are dark in essence — uneasy broodings by people who feel trapped in a rut and do not have a good idea of how to break the circle, but are able to at least encode that desperation in melody.

Perhaps it was, after all, the element of thick distorted «quasi-punk» guitar that pissed off critics and fans alike: the title track begins with such an insanely fast drum beat that if it weren't the last track on the album, fans might have suspected their favorite band to have gone hardcore on their asses. But it's only there on three tracks — title song, ʽStrap Me Inʼ, and ʽDouble Troubleʼ, the last of which is actually moderately catchy, so not that much of a problem. There's also one of the earliest songs they wrote, ʽTa Ta Wayo Wayoʼ, another fast and merry pop-rocker that they re­hearsed in the studio and eventually loved so much they decided to finally cut it — silly decision, perhaps, yet there's nothing that should make us think of, say, ʽWhy Can't I Have Youʼ as a masterpiece and this song as a comparative throwaway.

In short, Door To Door isn't half as bad as they tell you: chances are that if you honestly like Heartbeat City, you'll find plenty of things to like on this belated follow-up as well. It's a dif­ferent matter entirely that The Cars, as a band, found themselves ultimately dissatisfied with each other and chose to break up — not at the end of their rope (Ocasek went on to have quite a suc­cessful career), but rather just because they felt like it: "we left on a good note, a high note", says Ocasek, and while the note could certainly have been higher, there was plenty of room in musi­cal Hell well below Heartbeat City (becoming a collective Bryan Adams, for instance!), and they never went there, and that's okay by me.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Carole King: Music

CAROLE KING: MUSIC (1971)

1) Brother, Brother; 2) It's Going To Take Some Time; 3) Sweet Seasons; 4) Some Kind Of Wonderful; 5) Surely; 6) Carry Your Load; 7) Music; 8) Song Of Long Ago; 9) Brighter; 10) Growing Away From Me; 11) Too Much Rain; 12) Back To California.

The major problem with Music, as it is, in fact, with most of Carole's subsequent output, is that it is simply much too mellow. Tapestry struck a perfect balance between softness and toughness: ʽI Feel The Earth Moveʼ actually rocked, ʽBeautifulʼ was a real power anthem, ʽWhere You Leadʼ had uplifting energy, and ʽSmackwater Jackʼ was a ridiculously fun stomper of a throwaway, cle­verly sandwiched in between the ballads. Conversely, with Music Carole upsets the balance: as good as any individual song here is (and most are really good), the album overdoses on tender sweetness, and even though, by inertia, it also rose to No. 1 in the charts, sales would be nowhere near as strong as Tapestry's — and today, the record, along with the entirety of Carole's ensuing career, is comfortably forgotten.

Which is unjust, because if taken in small doses, Music gives you exactly the same Carole King: a talented composer, an honest and emotional singer, and an adorable human being. At this point, she is pretty much running out of oldies to cover («re-cover»?): the only such oldie here is the old Drifters' hit ʽSome Kind Of Wonderfulʼ, predictably re-introverted from the Drifters' luxuriously extravert performance, but not necessarily a highlight on this album — in fact, two minutes into the song it becomes a lazy, pleasant lullaby, putting you to sleep with its tasteful, but generic singer-songwriterish arrangement (two criss-crossed acoustic guitars, piano, silky bass, congas, pretty girl backing vocals, the works).

She is still capable of upbeat pop — ʽSweet Seasonsʼ, smartly enough released as a single, is the bounciest and catchiest tune of the lot here, and it should be able to put a smile on your face as easily as anything on Tapestry; the falsetto twirl on the "...like a sailboat a-sailin' on the sea" is marvelously head-spinning, and the entire band seems energized (listen to Charles Larkey really «sailing» on his bass during the fade-out). ʽBrighterʼ seems a little cornier, and its happy beat is like a preview of the nonchalant disco attitude of the mid-Seventies, but that does not take away the catchiness of the chorus or the delight at more of Larkey's impressive bass zoops. And I won­der if the lady herself realized, consciously or unconsciously, that her ʽBack To Californiaʼ was stylistically and musically ripping off the Beatles' ʽGet Backʼ — right down to the message, as now, instead of "Jojo left his home in Tucson, Arizona, for some California grass", we have "take me to the West Coast, daddy, and let me be where I belong"? The tempo, the beat, the banging piano chords, the electric piano solo... coincidence? Can't be. But cool tune anyway.

The majority of Music is, however, quite mellow... well, actually, even the upbeat songs are mellow, because she simply refuses this time around to let anger, nervous tension, or depression into the pic­ture: sadness, yes, but always colored with optimism. The most unusual song is ʽBrother, Brotherʼ, which seems to have been written under the influence of, and maybe even as an indirect response to Marvin Gaye's What's Going On — a piece of slightly funky soul with a message of feeling one with the (presumably Afro-American) underdog: for some reason, though, it does not work too well, perhaps because she is trying too hard to write and sing in somebody else's style rather than her own — but surely we can appreciate the gesture. There's also the title track, a waltzy continuation of the soft jazz jamming she'd already explored on ʽRaspberry Jamʼ, but again a little more mellow and a little too relying on a rather boring sax solo this time.

As for the ballads, they suffer from sharing precisely the same type of arrangement over and over again (acoustic guitars, piano, bass, congas or soft percussion), even if choruses for ʽGrowing Away From Meʼ and ʽCarry Your Loadʼ are as catchy as anything she'd ever done. The big mis­fire, however, is ʽSurelyʼ, a slow, ponderous, meandering soul jam that seems to take ʽNatural Womanʼ as its starting point, but fails to provide a proper build-up or climax; Aretha, perhaps, could make the song come alive with a big booming delivery, but Carole's vocal powers are not enough to compensate for the lack of interesting melody.

Still, the record gets a thumbs up anyway, because all the main ingredients of King's magic are here — she has forgotten a few of them, but at least the arrangements never take away from her disarming humanity, and I can even stand the James Taylor duet on ʽSong Of Long Agoʼ (al­though only barely so). If you are an admirer of the balladeering side of the lady, do not pass this by: Music has plenty of soul-baring introspection that cannot be spoiled by generic soft-rock arrangements. But do not, indeed, expect another installment of Tapestry.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Canned Heat: Living The Blues

CANNED HEAT: LIVING THE BLUES (1968)

1) Pony Blues; 2) My Mistake; 3) Sandy's Blues; 4) Going Up The Country; 5) Walking By Myself; 6) Boogie Music; 7) One Kind Favor; 8) Parthenogenesis; 9) Refried Boogie.

Everybody knows ʽGoing Up The Countryʼ, right? Everybody who is somebody saw the Wood­stock movie, and it's up there — the studio, rather than the live, version, the perfect soundtrack to the sights of Children of Nature gathering for their peaceful-harmless rituals in the back of the woods to the peaceful-harmless sweet sweet sound of Jim Horn's flute (yes, that is the famous Jim Horn himself — unfortunately, nobody in Canned Heat itself could actually play the flute; there's a couple videos where they're lip-synching and The Bear is imitating actual flute-playing, but he can't even hold the instrument properly). Be sure to check out Henry Thomas' original version, called ʽBulldoze Bluesʼ and recorded way back in 1928 with a wonderful quills solo of his own, but the Canned Heat version does have the added benefit of the band's tight rhythm section, and then there's Alan Wilson with his childlike voice that is such a perfect match for the flute, all of this is like Paradise Found in the flesh.

Other than that, though, there are no major stunners on the first side of this album — just more of the band's generally enjoyable, occasionally boring, occasionally ass-kicking blues rock. Best of the lot is probably ʽBoogie Musicʼ, credited to a mysterious «L. T. Tatman III» (probably a local fantasy born out of one too many Budweisers) and featuring the always-welcome Dr. John on piano — it's a rich, fat, groovy piece of funky New Orleanian R&B with great brass / guitar inter­play and an inobtrusive lecture on the essence of boogie in the coda. Other than that, Charlie Patton's ʽPony Bluesʼ is unrecognizable, but features some really whiny lead guitar licks from Vestine; and ʽSandy's Bluesʼ is a seven minute long super-slow blues-de-luxe, a genre that any band that does not have B. B. King in it should probably avoid.

But anyway, Living The Blues in general is not about the short songs — it is the band's most experimental album, with most of Side B given over to the ʽParthenogenesisʼ (ʽBirth Of The Maidenʼ) suite. Here we have psychedelic posturing (Alan Wilson's fuzzy Jew's harp solo in the intro), harmonica-driven boogie, honky tonk piano boogie, drum solo, feedback-drenched noise rock, swampy harmonica mixed with Indian raga, and a fiery blues-rock jam — all rolled in one. Honestly, none of it makes sense, and if you want to look for any thematic connections between all these pieces, be my guest. Yet somehow, the suite manages to be fun: no particular part sticks around for too long, and the guys are clearly enjoying all this absurdity. If anything, it's just a harmless celebration of the many different kinds of music that folks produce around the world, and I like this freedom of imagination and appreciate that the track still has plenty of entertain­ment value. It's not really trying to make some major philosophical point, despite the Greek title; it might even be a parody of suites trying to make a major philosophical point. In any case, it's quite a fun listen, despite the 20-minute running time.

What makes things more complicated is that it ain't over yet: here comes a whole second LP, and it only has one track, split in half — ʽRefried Boogieʼ, whose title indicates it is an «update» of ʽFried Hockey Boogieʼ from the previous album, is a 40-minute long jam, and this time, it actually is a real live jam, based on the exact same ʽBoogie Childrenʼ line as always, and with even more of those bass, guitar, and drum solos. As much as I like the band's jam power, I am not sure why they do not want us to believe that they already were at their best with ʽFried Hockey Boogieʼ, and insist on extending it to more than twice its original length for our pleasure. On a good day, I really do not mind, because a good take on John Lee Hooker can really work wonders and induce trances, and the boys were on fire all right; but on a bad day, I'd at least need a version of this that cuts out Larry Taylor's and Adolfo de la Parra's solos. That said, I do believe it is a record of sorts — I don't think anybody in 1968 (at least, outside of jazz) put out 40-minute long live tracks, so if they just wanted their bit of Guinness, I can understand that.

In any case, tedious or not, ʽRefried Boogieʼ does not stop the record from getting a deserved thumbs up. Everything that is here is at least not bad, and no record with ʽGoing Up The Countryʼ on it can be slandered — on the whole, Canned Heat were clearly peaking here, and if anything, the album gets by on raw enthusiasm and the fun quotient alone. They weren't talented songwriters, but they were happy to be involved in The Thing while it was Happening, and that happiness kind of trickles over from the speakers while the music is playing. So join in all the fun, and don't forget to boogie!

Monday, July 18, 2016

Cher: With Love, Cher

CHER: WITH LOVE, CHER (1967)

1) You Better Sit Down Kids; 2) But I Can't Love You More; 3) Hey Joe; 4) Mama (When My Dollies Have Child­ren); 5) Behind The Door; 6) Sing For Your Supper; 7) Look At Me; 8) There But For Fortune; 9) I Will Wait For You; 10) The Times They Are A-Changin'.

I think this must have been the time when Sonny and Cher began dressing in ridiculous furs to boost their hip credibility, but also releasing anti-drug statements to bring it back down. Anyway, With Love, Cher is an important landmark — not only is its first side arguably the finest Cher side released up to that date, but it's almost as if Sonny finally found a style for her. With the ex­ception of ʽHey Joeʼ (which is ridiculous, but isn't that bad, by the way — decent combo of bluesy lead guitar with orchestration), the first four songs, three of them written by Sonny and one by master songwriter Graham Goldman, are interesting cases of not-too-banal art-pop, with sentimental stories told in the form of mini-suites, with actual musical development, unpredic­table mood shifts and... well, intelligence.

The Goldman song, ʽBehind The Doorʼ, is the most ambitious of these, and they dared release it as the first single, though it did not chart — too weird for Cher, people must have thought: a slow, melancholic, draggy lament, with mandolins a-plenty and the lead singer, apparently, wailing about all the evil things that go on behind locked doors, culminating in lines like "the people are awaiting... and still they go on mating!" Then, suddenly, it breaks into a quasi-Morriconesque Western theme for a dramatic moment, before reverting back to the original formula. If we did not know it was Cher, who really does not discriminate all that well between any kinds of mate­rial she is offered, we'd call the tune «emotionally resonant», but as it is, we'd rather exercise caution and just call it «weird», which is, after all, precisely what you'd expect from a soon-to-be 10cc member.

Sonny's songs are certainly less weird, but they're still good. The dramatic waltz ʽMama (When My Dollies Have Babies)ʼ is another of his attempts at monumentally pompous «Euro-art songs», but the multi-layered orchestral arrangements are nothing to laugh at, and even if one thinks that the song contains little of Cher's own soul, it is hard not to feel at least a bit of Sonny's, not to mention some pretty serious composing work. ʽBut I Can't Love You Moreʼ, for all of its Vegasy nature, is still catchy, and the brass / string / guitar arrangement is nothing less than excellent. The song that actually charted was the lightest of them all, ʽYou Better Sit Down Kidsʼ, and once you get used to the odd perspective of Cher singing this breakup tune from the father's point of view (then again, Wikipedia doesn't exactly have a «Cher as a gay icon» page for nothing), it's another cool tune, a bit of «progressive music-hall» with an odd funky-folksy mid-section. No, it hardly conveys all the pains and traumas of divorce, but it's a curious musical experiment.

Bad things wake up and go bump in the night on Side B, by which time Goldman is no longer there, Sonny is getting tired, and Cher resorts to covering ʽSing For Your Supperʼ (nice try, but with Mama Cass in town, this is like John Lennon trying to battle Muhammad Ali), The Umbrel­las Of Cherbourg (no, no, please no!), Phil Ochs (Freedom Fighter Cher on the horizon), and ʽThe Times They Are A-Changin'ʼ, even though the times have already changed, and there was hardly any need to keep rubbing that in our noses. All of this stuff is completely expendable and forgettable, and basically reduces the value of the album to that of a small EP. Still, a break­through is a breakthrough, and the record does establish a certain «Cher formula» that would last well into the early 1970s, and arguably represents the only things of some artistic worth that she (with a lot of help from her husband) brought into this world, so thumbs up.