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Monday, February 17, 2020

David Byrne: Feelings


1) Fuzzy Freaky; 2) Miss America; 3) A Soft Seduction; 4) Dance On Vaseline; 5) The Gates Of Paradise; 6) Amnesia; 7) You Donʼt Know Me; 8) Daddy Go Down; 9) Finite = Alright; 10) Wicked Little Doll; 11) Burnt By The Sun; 12) The Civil Wars; 13) (Interlude); 14) They Are In Love.

General verdict: A solid return to form, even if the songs may require repeated listens to reveal themselves to you in all their complexity.

So either it is just that David was going through a really rough phase around 1994, or, perhaps, it was the No Talking Just Head debacle that shook him up and made him realize how far he had strayed from his musical identity — whatever the reason, Feelings is a damn good album that manages to correct most of the mistakes heʼd made on the self-titled David Byrne. There are no breakthroughs here, no serious attempts to invent some new synthesis, even despite the elements of collaboration with Morcheeba; but there are songs that bring back funky grooves, humor, and cool musical hooks, all the while retaining Byrneʼs usual depth and intelligence.

It all begins with ʽFuzzy Freakyʼ, easily Davidʼs catchiest and slinkiest tune in at least a decade: the combination of funky wah-wah guitar, menacing intonations in the verse melody and falsetto suspense in the chorus creates a weirdly sleazy atmosphere that could be decoded in a million different ways, given the lyrical vagueness — but each of these ways would be either offensive or provocative, considering that the chorus goes "itʼs summertime and the weeds are high, fuzzy freaky, funny family". The text is a mess, the melody is one big fuzzy wobble, the guitar solo, whoever is doing it, rips through the speakers in sharp, treble-soaked wailing waves... basically, itʼs alive, which is more than could be said about anything on the first record.
From there, the album takes us on a little journey through different territories. Byrneʼs love for Latin American rhythms comes back into play (ʽMiss Americaʼ, ʽThey Are In Loveʼ), while Morcheeba helps him develop a new love for trip-hop (ʽDance On Vaselineʼ). There are quiet sentimental ballads (ʽA Soft Seductionʼ), string-led chamber pieces (ʽFinite = Alrightʼ), loud psychedelic pop anthems (ʽThe Gates Of Paradiseʼ), at least one song that sounds like a tribute to the Velvet Undergroundʼs ʽVenus In Fursʼ (ʽDaddy Go Downʼ), and at least one song that shows David may have developed a special love for old friend Adrian Belewʼs brand of intellectual-idealistic pop (ʽBurnt By The Sunʼ). All of these tunes have something to offer by way of both melody and lyrics, even if they never rise to the heights of Talking Headsʼ best material.

ʽMiss Americaʼ is probably the one song that gets the most mentions on the album because of its near-manifesto status: "I love America, her secretʼs safe with me" — David discussing, with a surprisingly high level of candor, his complicated love-and-hate relationship with the country that sheltered him from childhood (and donʼt we all, really?). Musically, however, it is not the most interesting track, essentially sounding like a potential outtake from Rei Momo or Uh-Huh sessions: its samba rhythms make a nicely joyous counterpoint to the half-sincere, half-sarcastic lyrics, but for musical inspiration, Iʼd rather go to something like ʽDance On Vaselineʼ, which combines a small pinch of Remain In Light jerkiness with echoey brass creating the kind of dusky atmosphere you find on Miles Davisʼ Bitches Brew — and is also far more enigmatic from a lyrical standpoint (come to think of it, "come preacherman, shoot me with your poisoned arrow, but I dance on Vaseline" is one of the most weirdly articulated statements of freedom and immunity to come from a human mind).

On the other hand, Byrneʼs Feelings are clearly meant to be expressed here in such a way that words and melody are just about 50-50 important. A song like ʽThe Gates Of Paradiseʼ, for instance, without its verbal content balances between soft, cuddly verses, caressing your ear with Davidʼs sweetest crooning and a warmly ambient organ pattern, and all-out ecstatic choruses of exuberant joy, climaxing in a frenetic psychedelic guitar solo at the end. At the same time, the words are pure, undiluted cynicism: "Itʼs a sin to seek perfection / Itʼs a sin to help the poor / Itʼs a sin to hold convictions / For none of them are true" — only a very seriously pissed-off person could have come up with something as brash as that. Amazingly, the song, especially its ecstatic coda, has somehow triggered in my mind an association with Fleetwood Macʼs ʽEyes Of The Worldʼ — another musically similar «ode to joy» whose actual lyrics are a rant against deceit and hypocrisy. Great minds deviate alike?..

The more you listen to the record, the more you begin to understand that, perhaps, the gloomy and depressed frame of mind that was so much on display in the self-titled album had never really gone anywhere — it is just that David took better control of himself and returned to that complex state of ambiguity, where the complexity, diversity, and occasionally optimistic mood-setting of the music made all the gloom and depression sound less self-important, more ironic, and, ulti­mately, far more poignant and influential. You know that he is pissed off if the verse melody of ʽBurnt By The Sunʼ hits you on precisely the same beats as Bob Dylanʼs ʽHurricaneʼ — but he is not above outbalancing the anger with sweet Belew-ish nostalgia when it gets to the chorus ("we were burnt by the sun, having way too much fun..."). In short, we have quite a few of those onion layers on each of these songs, and thatʼs the way it should be. Damn good record. 

Sunday, February 9, 2020

King Crimson: Epitaph


CD I: 1) 21st Century Schizoid Man; 2) In The Court Of The Crimson King; 3) Get Thy Bearings; 4) Epitaph; 5) A Man, A City; 6) Epitaph; 7) 21st Century Schizoid Man; 8) Mantra; 9) Travel Weary Capricorn; 10) Improv: Travel Bleary Capricorn; 11) Mars.
CD II: 1) In The Court Of The Crimson King; 2) Drop In; 3) A Man, A City; 4) Epitaph; 5) 21st Century Schizoid Man; 6) Mars.

General verdict: As perfect a document of the original bandʼs live sound as possible — echoes of that old, old, old King Crimson from the hippie era.

The one major historical document of the original King Crimsonʼs awesomeness on stage, Epitaph comes in two varieties — a regular two-disc set for the average consumer, such as yours truly, and an expanded four-disc monster for the fully loyal vassal, which can be obtained via DGM. The main two discs are packaged with proper respect for the average consumer: they contain tracks from three different events (four live recordings for the BBC, three from shows at the Fillmore East, and ten from the Fillmore West) with a nice sprinkling of previously unheard and occasionally non-overlapping compositions. The only performances to be captured thrice are ʽ21st Century Schizoid Manʼ (which should be alright with everybody) and ʽEpitaphʼ proper (not so alright, since its symph-prog nature leaves little room for improvisation or any other type of sonic maneuvering). If you do opt for the 4-disc version, though, remember that there will be no further surprises — also, the sound quality of those recordings, from the 9th National Jazz and Blues Festival and the Chesterfield Jazz Club respectively, seems to be inferior.

In any case, what we have here is two hours of live greatness from the original KC, dating both from before the release of In The Court (BBC recordings) and after (the American shows). Predictably, the band performs all three major epics from that album, though not ʽI Talk To The Windʼ and not ʽMoonchildʼ (the former omission is quite curious, the latter may have been deemed either way too quiet for the live performance or way too demanding even from the 1969 brand of listener). Additionally, we have here early previews of ʽPictures Of A Cityʼ and ʽDevilʼs Triangleʼ from In The Wake Of Poseidon, the former still under its earlier title ʽA Man, A Cityʼ and the latter still being honestly called ʽMarsʼ and featuring a slightly different main riff (Holstʼs estate allegedly prohibited Fripp from releasing ʽMarsʼ itself, so he had to mutate the melody sufficiently enough and retitle the composition).

Tracks that did not see any studio release at all are predictably inferior, but still instructive. ʽGet Thy Bearingsʼ from the BBC set is a Donovan track from Hurdy Gurdy Man which they likely adapted for a while due to lack of their own original material — a bluesy/jazzy little vamp with  serious sax presence, giving Ian McDonald plenty of room to stretch out, but, honestly, rather anticlimactic when sitting next to ʽ21st Century Schizoid Manʼ. ʽMantraʼ is a quiet short piece, dominated by Frippʼs soft folksy-jazzy guitar picking and McDonaldʼs recorder, almost like something the Grateful Dead would produce in the middle of a jam session and, consequently, probably a nice gift for Fillmore West residents. From there, it segues into an even jazzier ʽTravel Weary Capricornʼ and its improv counterpart, ʽTravel Bleary Capricornʼ, which, for some reason, features Robert trying his hand at flamenco guitar — not to be taken too seriously, as hinted at by the fact that he begins it by quoting the intro to ʽBungalow Billʼ from the White Album (again, a touch of humor that shows the old spirit of Giles, Giles & Fripp was still flickering).

Finally, you get to hear the moody jazz number ʽDrop Inʼ, with its memorable, but not very pleasant (because offkey!) acapella introduction by Lake; the song tries to establish an aura of resigned melancholy, but ends up rather meandering and unfocused — no wonder it was shelved by the original band, only to resurface later as ʽThe Lettersʼ on easily the least inspired album of King Crimsonʼs early years. Not sure if the Fillmore audiences were really excited about this number — now maybe if Lake decided to sing "why donʼt you just drop out" instead of "drop in", they would have felt slightly more at home with this one...

Anyway, what really matters, of course, is not how many hitherto concealed lesser tunes we manage to recover on Epitaph, but precisely how well they are able to do ʽ21st Century Schizoid Manʼ. Of the three versions, the last one (Fillmore West) has the best sound quality, although Robertʼs guitar solo is oddly thin, almost as if the shadow of Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service hang so persistently over the place that Fripp was involuntarily accomodating his feedback-drenched, jazz-avantgarde style to the psychedelic droning philosophy of the West Coast. Nevertheless, this is what makes the piece great — even in its very first year of existence, they were able to offer fairly different intepretations. And, just like the studio version, these live performances sound relatively unpolished — the drummer, the sax player, the guitarist all make occasional mistakes throughout the songʼs fast tempo, and their equipment, though probably decent enough by the standards of ʼ69, is insufficient to carry out a massively overwhelming attack on the senses the way it would be able to just four or five years later. Still, it compensates for this with sheer enthusiasm and excitement — always great to hear a masterpiece played right at its very inception, rather than at a stage when it becomes bearded and fossilized.

Lake does a great vocal job on ʽSchizoid Manʼ, too, even without any distorted effects on the vocals — except where the studio recording gave us the creepy perspective of a half-synthetic robo-human, these live versions rather express the organic terror of a rebellious human being, which is a bit more common but also fairly relatable. Unfortunately, ʽEpitaphʼ and ʽIn The Courtʼ, two epics that are way more vocally demanding, lay bare Gregʼs biggest weakness — he has a hard time correctly holding all the right notes and playing bass simultaneously, so those of you with perfect pitch will find yourself cringing every now and then; plus, there is really not that much to do to these songs on stage, other than try as hard as possible to reproduce their studio Mellotron-based depth. The Mellotron actually gets a real hammering on ʽMarsʼ, the one track here that manages to be more aggressive than its final studio realization — perhaps because there was little room for subtlety on stage, and under McDonaldʼs heavy fingers the poor instrument howls, screeches, and agonizes in ways comparable to the Hammond organ agonizing under Keith Emersonʼs knives. Then again, we are talking about an homage to the God of War here.

On the whole, it is safe to say that this was probably far from the best live incarnation of King Crimson — way too rough for the bandʼs general standards — but obviously a unique one. Here, the young and relatively inexperienced King Crimson are still very much a Sixtiesʼ band, with elements of the late Sixtiesʼ jam culture, psychedelia, and folksiness that would be gradually wiped out, one by one, as Fripp would lead them into an entirely new decade of completely new values. But they are already making great music, and you are already getting acquainted with Frippʼs philosophy of «discipline»  and... well, in a way it is just a very symbolic record: the sound of King Crimson, the ultimate intellectualʼs wet dream, maturing and developing (and being fairly well received) at the Fillmore, the ultimate turned-on hippieʼs den. 

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Elvis Presley: A Date With Elvis


1) Blue Moon Of Kentucky; 2) Young And Beautiful; 3) (Youʼre So Square) Baby I Donʼt Care; 4) Milkcow Blues Boogie; 5) Baby Letʼs Play House; 6) Good Rockinʼ Tonight; 7) Is It So Strange; 8) Weʼre Gonna Move; 9) I Want To Be Free; 10) I Forgot To Remember To Forget.

General verdict: Even more messy leftovers, but to have all that stuff from the original Sun sessions in the palm of your hand before the man «grew up» and pretty much renounced it — priceless.

If you really wanted to have a date with Elvis in mid-ʼ59, youʼd have to go to Germany and sneak inside a U.S. Army base. But if you were willing to settle for the next best thing, RCA Victor Records could placate you with even more stuff from the archives — five songs on this album go back to the Sun era, and five more are culled from various later sources. With this push, the Sun backlog was almost exhausted, but it cannot be said that they left the least for last: ʽBlue Moon Of Kentuckyʼ, ʽMilkcow Blues Boogieʼ, ʽBaby Letʼs Play Houseʼ and ʽGood Rockinʼ Tonightʼ are every bit as good as it gets with classic Elvis, and the only reason why I am leaving out ʽI Forgot To Remember To Forgetʼ is that it takes things more slowly and sentimentally, and is the kind of country-blues that could equally well be done by Carl Perkins.

The entire philosophy of rockʼnʼroll might just be condensed in that false opening of ʽMilkcow Blues Boogieʼ, which seems to amicably mock ye olde slow blues tradition — that "hold it fellas, that donʼt MOVE me, letʼs get real, real GONE for a change!" bit is just a wee bit slightly artificial recreation of the epochal moment that happened with ʽThatʼs Alright Mamaʼ, but not that much more artificial, really, than raising the flag on Iwo Jima: it all happened in a whirling flash more or less at the same time. Instead of moaning the blues, Elvis turns ʽMilkcow Blues Boogieʼ into the punkiest of all his early tunes — the level of aggression here would not be outdone until ʽHound Dogʼ — and sets the tone for countless cover versions to follow, from the Kinks to Aerosmith and beyond. Remember that itʼs really a murderous song, no flinching about it: "get out your little prayer book, get down on your knees and pray", "youʼre gonna be sorry you treated me this way" and the like are delivered by Elvis in exactly the same way theyʼd be delivered to Desdemona by a modern day Othello — and although he is inheriting rather than inventing that tradition, his gruff, lead-heavy vocal performance raises the stakes considerably, and the man clearly revels in this play with fire. This is the kind of material that makes it easy to understand the «danger» that American parents perceived in the young man — and you donʼt even have to watch any swiveling hips to understand it.

Same with ʽBaby Letʼs Play Houseʼ — let us not completely forget Arthur Gunterʼs fun-filled original, but with the increased tempo, the rumbling bass drive, and that hiccupy, echoey, I-want-it-now vocal performance, Elvis appropriates the song: not necessarily for white audiences, mind you, but, much more importantly, for young audiences, getting this stuff out in the open where it was formerly reserved for relatively reclusive and generally «mature» listeners. Heck, sometimes we tend to forget that before these Sun sessions, roughly speaking, music specifically targeted for the young did not even exist, much like childrenʼs literature did not exist before the likes of Lewis Carroll and Frank Baum; and much of that original magic, which literally blew the heads off millions of young people, can still be perceived in the reckless bass stomp of ʽBaby Letʼs Play Houseʼ, despite the antiquated sound, if you place it in its proper context.

In a similar way, Elvis took Wynonie Harrisʼ jump blues standard ʽGood Rockinʼ Tonightʼ, sped it up, took out the «respectable» saxophone arrangement, replaced it with stinging-scorching Scotty Moore guitar licks, and turned it from a nightclub standard into a school ball anthem, omitting all of the songʼs dated lyrical references to imaginary characters like Sweet Lorraine and adding the "weʼre gonna rock, weʼre gonna rock" bridge for emphasis. And that Scotty Moore solo, by the way, is one of my personal favourites: unlike many others, which Moore probably just made up on the spot from a (sometimes genially, sometimes not) randomized selection of stock country licks, this one is pre-meditated, simple, geometrically exquisite, perfectly shaped and making great use of microtones, a classic example of emotionally charged sonic greatness made with very limited means — in some ways, still unsurpassed to this very day.

Again, next to these early Sun classics all that later RCA material pales a bit, especially because they went heavy on the doo-wop ballads. Also, I have already discussed some of it above, since several of the songs were carried over from the Jailhouse Rock EP. Therefore, I would once again like to use this opportunity to mention the last couple of singles released during Elvisʼ army stint, stemming from the same 1958 Nashville session. Of these, ʽI Need Your Love Tonightʼ is a fun, catchy, hard-driving pop tune, but the real kicker, and one of my favourite Elvis recordings of all time, is ʽA Big Hunk Oʼ Loveʼ, notable not only for its ultra-tightness and humor, but also for giving a great chance to Floyd Cramer and Hank Garland, two major architects of the classic Nashville sound, to shine respectively on piano and lead guitar. (I was all but devastated when I originally learned that it was not our man Scotty to play the guitar here, but give Hank plenty of credit for deceiving me by incorporating some of Scottyʼs guitar-whipping aesthetics into his own style here for consistency). With this song, «Fiftiesʼ Elvis» goes out on the highest note possible, every bit as true to his image and original aesthetics as the last Beatles songs would be for the Beatles — «Sixtiesʼ Elvis» would be a significantly, if not completely, different animal that one is free to endorse or decline, but definitely not free to compare to the original beast who single­handedly did more for the empowerment of young people than the entire teen-pop scene of the past fifty years; and no, that is not an exaggeration. 

Monday, February 3, 2020

Interpol: Interpol


1) Success; 2) Memory Serves; 3) Summer Well; 4) Lights; 5) Barricade; 6) Always Malaise; 7) Safe Without; 8) Try It On; 9) All Of The Ways; 10) The Undoing.

General verdict: In which Interpol have nothing left but tears, but they cannot even drown in them, because all the onions have gone stale.

Carlos Dengler left the band soon after the release of this self-titled disaster, and I secretly hope he took a long, long, long vacation in the Bahamas or somewhere, partying his head off, because even a cursory listen to this slow, bland, miserable wall of self-pitying makes me run for the safety of the nearest Mötley Crüe album (well, not really, but I desperately need a shot of hyper­bole for this one). Of course, in some sense, it might be argued that Banks is simply continuing the trend initiated with Our Love To Admire: Interpol continue to grow and mature, becoming ever more soulful and introspective, displaying ever more vulnerability and sensitivity, going from the tightly focused, energetic, toe-tappy rhythmics of their youth to a more relaxed, melodic, atmospheric sound and a more in-your-face confessional attitude.

But in some other sense, which has at present overwhelmed all of my remaining ones, Interpol just sucks. What was good about Our Love To Admire is that it was largely an album of anthemic sounds — Banks had willingly exchanged a bit of that post-punk enigma for wearing his heart on his sleeve, yet the best songs on that record still preserved Interpolʼs decisive energy and distributed it well enough across diverse melodies and catchy vocal hooks. On Interpol, all of that is forgotten in favor of a generally grayish, murky, monotonous mix of shoegazing and alt-rock clichés. You do not need to go further than comparing the opening tracks: ʽPioneer To The Fallsʼ had great melodic dynamics and that thick, almost commanding vocal tone ("show me the dirt pile and I will pray...") that immediately suggested there was something going on. ʽSuccessʼ, in comparison, falls back on standard shoegazing tricks and drowns the vocals in the overall sonic soup without any good hooks in sight.

From there on, almost each song atmospherically sounds like the previous one. Sometimes it feels like those heavy guitar trills are the only playing style that matters to the band now, and always it feels that Paul Banks has somehow got himself stuck in the exact same singing mode — whiny mock-tenor — and generates about as much compassion as youʼd expect from a bored hobo sitting next to you while you are forced to spend half an hour waiting for a friend. Amateur reviews of the album are full of mockery at Banksʼ attempts to sing in Spanish on the closing track, but it seems to me that much of this mockery is probably heavily fueled by all the hatred accumulated during the previous ten tracks, so when, at the very end, you are given the chance to stone the guy for «cultural appropriation», you do so with glee.

The only track on the record that has «upbeat» elements, as well as a moderately catchy chorus, is ʽBarricadeʼ, unsurprisingly released as the lead single — but it does not even match the quality of the anthemic-psychedelic ʽMammothʼ, let alone any randomly chosen decent soulful pop-rocker from anybody elseʼs catalog. Paulʼs hysterical wailing of the chorus ("it starts to feel like a barricade to keep us AWAY!... to keep us AWAY!...") will attract attention, but he is not the kind of singer who can properly transmit the feeling of uncontrolled desperation — in the end, it is more likely that the song will be deposited in the same garbage bin with 99% of mass-produced emo theatrics from the same era. The thing is, Interpol had always been gloomy and melancholic, but up to this moment, they havenʼt really been emoish-whiney; on this record, they cross the border into the territory where you are supposed to give Paul Banksʼ lyrical hero the proverbial hug, and I donʼt want to give Paul Banksʼ lyrical hero the proverbial hug. Canʼt I just smack him instead? This is not «vulnerability», this is sonic mush.

I mean, any clever person could probably predict that Interpol would not survive the transition into the 2010s, but at least both Antics and Our Love were able to garner critical acclaim, some commercial success, and a cult status among fans (for every bunch of «generic» fans of Turn On The Bright Lights, you are bound to find a smaller bunch claiming either Antics or Our Love to be the bandʼs one true masterpiece). With this self-titled «reinvention», it seems like they lost all of it: the record still continued to sell based on inertial residue, but critics and fans alike seem to have finally lost interest in defending the bandʼs relevance, given that there was no longer any. And no one should be blamed except for Paul Banks — who, for some reason, thought that the future of Interpol would rather lie in sentimental self-pitying than collective rock energy. 

Saturday, February 1, 2020

The Heads: No Talking Just Head


1) Damage Iʼve Done; 2) The King Is Gone; 3) No Talking Just Head; 4) Never Mind; 5) No Big Bang; 6) Donʼt Take My Kindness For Weakness; 7) No More Lonely Nights; 8) Indie Hair; 9) Punk Lolita; 10) Only The Lonely; 11) Papersnow; 12) Blue Blue Moon.

General verdict: Misleading in appearance and far from perfection, but an enjoyable memento of the overall healthy musical climate of the mid-Nineties all the same.

A bad, bad, bad promotional decision yielded a predictable result: No Talking Just Head is forever etched in popular conscience as a crass attempt to cash in on the name of a band whose existence without David Byrne makes about as much sense as the existence of The Kinks without Ray Davies, or of King Crimson without Robert Fripp (I make these particular analogies to point out that Ray, Robert, or David were not the only ingredients that mattered at all, but they were certainly the one and only irreplaceable ingredient). However, if we forget the title of the album, or its color gamma that is clearly reminiscent of the style on True Stories, the truth will emerge fairly quickly — in reality this is, of course, just a Tom Tom Club album that tries to take itself somewhat more seriously than ever before.

I suppose that Tina, Chris, and Frantz were all missing those sweet days of fame and fortune, and neither Jerryʼs nor the Tom Tom Clubʼs separate careers seemed to show any commercial promise — which is why they resorted to this rather lame gesture, and it backfired on them hard: not only was the album trashed quite savagely by just about any critic who mattered, they also got embroiled in litigation with Byrne when they tried to go on tour supporting it. "How do I undo the damage I have done?" goes the chorus to the very first song, almost prophetically so. Well, time does heal certain wounds, and we should look back at the record without biases. After all, for all of Byrneʼs genius the man is not impeccable, and the sharpness and depth of his talent had decreased by the late Eighties / early Nineties anyway, and there is absolutely no guarantee that even a real full-on reunion of Talking Heads around 1996 could have been a success. In a way, I might even feel oddly more contented having this record to sit through than, say, another clone of Naked, let alone a mix of Tom Tom Club with the limp melancholy of David Byrne.

The weirdest decision here was to relegate all the vocal parts to an assortment of guest stars instead of singing them on their own — despite the fact that Tina and Jerry are accomplished singers; maybe they were afraid that having Tina coo or rap out any of these tunes would make the Tom Tom Club association too obvious, I have no idea. To make the guests feel more at home, the «Heads» actually let them compose their own lyrics most of the time. The guests themselves range from old friends from the classic days of New Wave, including Debbie Harry, Richard Hell, and Andy Partridge, to younger heroes such as Shaun Ryder from Happy Mondays, Johnette Napolitano from Concrete Blonde, and Ed Kowalczyk from Live. This randomization has provoked the second most common accusation against the record — that it has no direction and no idea what it is supposed to do — but I think, in all honesty, that this is not very fair.

I mean, it certainly does not have a clear sense of direction, but neither did the White Album and we do not usually take it as a serious problem. No Talking Just Head is just a panoramic collection of songs that sounds very much of its time, reflecting echoes of everything from the British Madchester scene to the American college rock scene. Some of it is bad, some is okay, but there does seem to be a general air of depression, disillusionment, and deadpan sarcasm to the proceedings — making them weightier and less playful than your average Tom Tom Club record. So it is really misguiding to say that everybody just went into the recording studio without any plan of action whatsoever. But, of course, with so many different variables it would be irrational to expect consistency, either.

Personally, I think that the «moodier», less dance-oriented parts of the record work okay. The title track, given over to Debbie Harry, is a minor highlight — a dark, slow, industrialized piece of electrofunk over which Harry delivers one hell of a long-winded menace, open to all sorts of interpretation (revenge on a cheating boyfriend? dehumanization and mental submission of society to Big Brother? in any case, itʼs a bit of a blast to hear Debbie Harry say "grease it up good, work it back and forth, no talking just head" to her imaginary victim). So are the preceding two songs — ʽDamage Iʼve Doneʼ, sung by Napolitano to a deep, Nirvana-ish bass riff and culminating in a screechy, but catchy chorus; and ʽThe King Is Goneʼ, with Michael Hutchence from INXS — the albumʼs rockiest piece which sounds like it could have been some late period Stones outtake. It does not strive for much: it just wants to be a little sleazy, a little threatening, and a little bizarre, and it does just that.

As time goes by, different songs produce different impressions, and a lot will depend on whether you find certain clichés of the mid-Nineties alt-rock / dance-rock scene annoying or not — for instance, I think that the attempt to marry grunge, trip-hop, and that GunsʼnʼRoses schtick on the Shaun Ryder-led ʽDonʼt Take My Kindness For Weaknessʼ is pretty abysmal, but find the Kowalczyk-sung ʽIndie Hairʼ a fairly cuddly and endearing attempt to emulate the classic sound of early R.E.M. (and that opening arpeggiated riff is actually more catchy than the absolute majority of R.E.M. songs!). I think that Maria McKee does a bad job on the way too technophile dance number ʽNo Big Bangʼ, but Malin Anneteg does a good job on ʽNo More Lonely Nightsʼ, whose cold ʼnʼ distant arrangement is somewhat reminiscent of Man Machine-era Kraftwerk. I do not like the Andy Partridge number (it sounds too much like an intentionally weirdified adult contemporary tune), but I do like ʽPunk Lolitaʼ, because what can be more fun than Tina and Debbie joining forces to rap-paint a sarcastic portrait of their old selves?

All these choices could be reversed depending on personal tastes, and that is good — there can hardly be any consensus on this record, meaning that it is nowhere near to the universal disaster that its reputation claims it to be. It is bizarre, diverse, and it manages to be fun much, if not all, of the time. Simply remember it as part of the Tom Tom Club discography, rather than part of the Talking Heads discography, and things will be fine. 

King Crimson: THRaKaTTaK


1) THRAK; 2) Fearless And Highly THRaKKed; 3) Mother Hold The Candle Steady While I Shave The Chickenʼs Lip; 4) THRaKaTTaK Part 1; 5) The Slaughter Of The Innocents; 6) This Night Wounds Time; 7) THRaKaTTaK Part 2; 8) THRAK (reprise).

General verdict: A self-inflicted insult to the awesome legacy of King Crimsonʼs live shows, and a great example of how to abuse the hell out of the art of improvisation.

Say hello to BʼBoomʼs little friend from Hell. My guess is that after the release of his «official bootleg» Fripp became positively disgusted at how blatantly commercial that record looked, stripped almost completely clean of the Double Trioʼs inspirational improvisation — and so, in order to avoid eternal damnation at the final judgement of the Crimson King, decided to atone for that sin by releasing an extra live album that would consist of nothing but improvisation. Even more rigidly, of nothing but several improvised pieces that the band played in the middle of ʽTHRAKʼ — which is why THRaKaTTaK bears this extended emphatic title, and why the record begins and ends with it, sandwiching not one, but six different improvised pieces in between. Actually, no, make that about twenty improvised pieces, since most of the longer tracks are in reality spliced together from different bits, recorded on different nights during the bandʼs shows all over Japan and the USA.

I have never valued this idea and I do believe it takes a very special type of King Crimson fan to support and enjoy it. Improvisation at King Crimson shows, like any improvisation, can be hit or miss — the professionalism and discipline are always there, but genuine inspiration can never be guaranteed; and, naturally, if you are splicing together improvisations from twenty different shows, you are pretty much bound to lose yourself in excess. Indeed, THRaKaTTaK is a messy, dense sonic jungle with absolutely no plan of the area in sight. There are tons of dynamic moments (hardly surprising, given all the splicing going on), yet the actual tracks are barely distinguishable from one another. Typically, Robert creates some Mellotron-ish ambient canvas of sound, against which Belew explores every possible way to create «ugly» dissonance, or, when he gets bored, makes his guitar sound like a piano and plays atonal runs. The psychological effect is almost always the same — whatever that effect might be.

I remember getting seriously mad at the record in my original review and giving it a zero rating as my only, helpless and ridiculous, way to get some payback — «take that, record!» Decades later, I am no longer able to get that pissed off about an album on which six insanely professional and talented musicians have put together a few moments of having spontaneous fun. However, I am still unable to appreciate it in any way: it did not work as a musical statement in 1996, and it has not begun working today. Was it really a hooliganish gesture — Frippʼs personal Metal Machine Music, to baffle and befuddle even some of the most loyal fans? Or was it thoroughly narcissistic, an arrogant statement of «every note played by King Crimson is sacred»? Or was it just a side effect of exuberance at having their own record label, so they could put out anything and not give a damn? Nobody will ever know for sure, even if Fripp himself goes ahead and spills the beans, because the man is to be revered, but not to be trusted.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Elvis Presley: For LP Fans Only


1) Thatʼs All Right; 2) Lawdy, Miss Clawdy; 3) Mystery Train; 4) Playing For Keeps; 5) Poor Boy; 6) My Baby Left Me; 7) I Was The One; 8) Shake, Rattle And Roll; 9) Iʼm Left, Youʼre Right, Sheʼs Gone; 10) Youʼre A Heartbreaker.

General verdict: Messy leftovers, but totally sweet — a hodge-podge of Sun and RCA-era material.

It is rather funny that it took Elvis Presleyʼs induction in the US army to familiarize many of his fans with some of his best material from the early days at Sun Records. As part of RCAʼs strategy to keep the manʼs legacy fresh in the public eye before the eagerly awaited triumphant return of the national hero, two LPs of «leftovers» were released in 1959, featuring very, very heavily randomized selections of previously issued singles, occasional album tracks, and an even more occasional previously unreleased track or two. Neither of the two has its proper place in todayʼs world of careful chronological compilations, but it is worth mentioning them anyway, if only to remember what a weird world it was back in 1959.

Plus, this is as good a place as any to begin turning our attention back to those neglected Sun classics — ʽThatʼs All Right Mamaʼ is the song that pretty much invented rockabilly, after all, but it is nothing compared to ʽMystery Trainʼ and what they did to the Junior Parker original. That original, by the way, is a classic slow-jump-blues tune in its own right, with a particularly sweet and sorrowful vocal delivery; and so is — if we really want to pay all our dues — his proto-rockabilly sound of ʽLove My Babyʼ, which was essentially chosen as the basis for Elvisʼ arrangement of ʽMystery Trainʼ. The difference is that Elvisʼ ʽMystery Trainʼ has less soul, but it actually has mystery, as represented by that strange, strange, strange echoing sound that Scotty Moore and Bill Black get from their instruments: an oddly reverberating rocking effect where each new chord relentlessly pushes you around, and each new «hiccup» from the yet-to-be-crowned King awakens something brutally rebellious inside you. It is the kind of sound that would be picked up and amplified by Gene Vincent, but while Gene would certainly make his own advances in terms of loudness, wildness, and sheer maniacal energy, I would not presume to say that the pure class of ʽMystery Trainʼ — its subtle combination of restraint with hidden menace — has ever been outdone by any guys in leather jackets.

At the same time, sitting next to ʽMamaʼ and ʽMystery Trainʼ we have RCAʼs own ʽMy Baby Left Meʼ and ʽShake, Rattle & Rollʼ — for those who want to hear a more «modern» Elvis, louder, angrier, and with an actual drum sound (very important for both of those songs). There is no more mystery in ʽShakeʼ, though — just relentless maniacal rockʼnʼroll, crowned by a Scotty Moore guitar solo that sounds like a rapid shoot-out in the streets between two equally talented and equally bulletproof gunslingers. Which one do you prefer, esteemed teenager of 1959? Looks like you will have to become a true LP fan to make that choice. Or, more accurately, become an even truer LP fan if you simply refuse to choose.

Having said that, this point in Elvisʼ discography is also as good a time as any to remind the reader about some of the songs that Elvis specifically pre-recorded in 1958 before his army stint in Germany to serve as true all-national reminders that the King was merely taking a break. Right before For LP Fans Only, in late 1958, we had ʽOne Nightʼ (a «cleaner» re-recording of ʽOne Night Of Sinʼ) with ʽI Got Stungʼ as its twin A-side — a totally hardcore two-minute stunner from Schroeder which is as close to noise-rock as it could be at the time, at least in terms of production which combines a breakneck pace, a set of bumbling back vocals that fuse together with the bassline, a minimalistic head-drilling piano riff whose power would not be beat until John Caleʼs one-note piano part on the Stoogesʼ ʽI Wanna Be Your Dogʼ, and a lead vocal part that is barely comprehensible — rapid, mumbly, slurry, delirious, and dangerous. One quick listen to this thing, and any fan worrying about Elvisʼ post-army future could rest easy... deluded, yes, but comfortably happy in said delusion. 

Interpol: Our Love To Admire


1) Pioneer To The Falls; 2) No I In Threesome; 3) The Scale; 4) The Heinrich Maneuver; 5) Mammoth; 6) Pace Is The Trick; 7) All Fired Up; 8) Rest My Chemistry; 9) Who Do You Think; 10) Wrecking Ball; 11) The Lighthouse.

General verdict: Catchier songs, better vocals, slightly more diversity than before — but not enough to sneak through a second window of opportunity.

If someday the dust settles, the cards are reshuffled, and the memory of Interpol as «one of those bands that spearheaded the short-lived garage / post-punk / indie revival in the 2000s with their groundpoking debut album» is erased from the public conscience — in that case, I would not be too surprised if Our Love To Admire, rather than its two predecessors, became the most highly appreciated Interpol album. Admittedly, this does not mean much, but if there ever really was an aesthetic agenda that could be called Interpolʼs own, my own sixth sense tells me that it was here where they really came closest of all to proving this.

Upon first listen, Our Love Was To Admire may feel like an obvious slump — a pretty grim feeling for those who werenʼt too overwhelmed with the earlier records in the first place. The engine is winding down, the songs are getting slower and more soulful, with more emphasis on Paul Banksʼ vocals than ever before and romantic sentimentalism frequently overshadowing the tightness of the rhythm section. Itʼs not quite the safe zone of «adult contemporary» yet, but one might easily get the feeling that this is the direction in which the band is moving, and that the measly five years separating Our Love from Bright Lights should not be enough time for the band to earn the right to cuddle up by the fireplace.

Surprisingly, though, with repeated listens this record began growing on me — not a lot, but, well, letʼs say there was clearly some positive dynamics involved, as opposed to Bright Lights where each new listen just made it a more and more annoying experience. What is the difference? After some consideration, I think I count two. One, the album actually shows a bit of musical growth: the songs can no longer be reduced to the same «hold down those two chords for eternity» pattern. There are still quite a few exercises in minimalism, but some songs rather prefer to follow the jangly folk patterns of the Byrds-to-Smiths legacy, others adopt a grittier, harder rocking sound closer to the Black Keys, and the final number, ʽLighthouseʼ, brings them closer to psychedelic, dreamy shoegaze than anything they ever did before. One may or may not favor the results, but at least they are trying to expand the formula, that much is obvious.

Second and even more surprising, the vocal melodies are getting better — to the point where some of the songs begin featuring clear vocal hooks, even if Paul Banks is still Paul Banks and his singing voice is still nothing to write home about. This is most likely the main reason why I manage to remember (at least temporarily) and feel content about the first two songs. ʽPioneer To The Fallsʼ is arguably the best straightahead love song they ever did, largely because of Banksʼ vocal inflections on bits like "the soul can wait..." and "you fly straight into my heart" — and they must have felt it, too, because sometimes Banks slips into pure a cappella mode, and it is good, though still no Ian Curtis (at least a semi-octave lower would be nice, thank you). In any case, it is the first time where I actually feel like I care about their stonefaced melancholia, and am ready to consider, if not accept, their attempts to slip into the spirit of a two-hundred year old literary romantic. Weird, but true.

What is even more true, I suppose, is that my favorite song on the album, ʽNo I In Threesomeʼ, is most likely my favorite because it comes closest of all to imitating the sound of classic Arcade Fire. That introduction — repetitive bass, then guitars, then pianos, then lots of extra noises in the background — is the kind of tension-raising strategy that made Arcade Fire so outstanding, and this is a pretty decent attempt to do the same thing without ten thousand people in the studio. The hilarious thing about it is that if you do not keep a close watch on the lyrics (including ignoring the song title, duh), the punchline — "alone we may fight, so just let us be free" — will make the song look like some anthemic battle cry; but if you do keep a close watch, particularly at the moment when "let us be free" becomes "let us be three", you realize that the song is really about trying to save a failing romance by introducing, um, an extra element into the relationship, which gives the whole experience a sarcastic-ironic angle that adds depth to the anthemic atmosphere. Anyway, the most important thing is that, to me, the song has its own face, which is something I could never admit about any given tune on Bright Lights.

It was also released as a promotional single, but, unfortunately, the two main singles from the album showed the somewhat more familiar, less sentimental and rockier face of Interpol, though, again, if you listen very closely, the vocal melodies of both ʽThe Heinrich Maneuverʼ and ʽMammothʼ are more poppy than ever before — and that ghostly falsetto introduction of "spare me the suspense..." in ʽMammothʼ, along with the blues-rock guitar riff that signs off each verse with a flourish, hints that now they may be looking to Sixtiesʼ rather than Seventiesʼ garage rock for inspiration. They are both decent songs, but they do not have that special soulful substance of the two openers. Iʼd rather place my trust in the slow, tired trudge of ʽRest My Chemistryʼ, whose chorus is emotionally captivating and linguistically intriguing.

Do not get me wrong: all the kind words above in no means imply that, all of a sudden, Interpol have matured into a truly interesting band. The only point is that they traveled a certain road from their first album to their third one, and I differ here from the critical consensus stating that the road was downhill all the way; much as Iʼd like to agree — because so much of recent pop music can be described as «one good album and fifteen inferior clones» — in this case I just think it was largely a matter of Zeitgeist: somehow, for some reason, the musically and spiritually dull Bright Lights did capture it, but by the time they grew themselves some musical muscle and some relatable emotionality, the window was closed. This record was simply too much of a departure from their «golden standard», yet not enough of an artistic success to attract new legions of fans (for instance, from emo circles — or even from the National Geographic audience, despite the seductive album cover).

Monday, January 27, 2020

David Byrne: David Byrne


1) A Long Time Ago; 2) Angels; 3) Crash; 4) A Self-Made Man; 5) Back In The Box; 6) Sad Song; 7) Nothing At All; 8) My Love Is You; 9) Lilies Of The Valley; 10) You & Eye; 11) Strange Ritual; 12) Buck Naked.

General verdict: Meet the new David "Schopenhauer" Byrne, now putting his musical legacy in the service of pessimistic sociology and whatnot.

A self-titled album in the middle of an artistʼs career frequently implies a self-reboot, some sort of impulsive awakening which may or may not work, but at least shows that the artist is trying. In the case of David Byrne, however, it almost looks like this lack of a title was merely meant to agree that the artist no longer has anything particularly interesting to say, period.

This is not a bad record, mind you. It may sound very boring first time around, then it may slowly begin to grow as you realize that it is very deeply personal, and that being subjected to a deeply personal experience experienced by somebody with the talent, intellect, and life story of a David Byrne is, at the very least... useful, if not necessarily enjoyable. But this is what it is: much more of a personal confession in a state of mid-life crisis than a musical piece. Once you come to terms with the fact that almost nothing worthy of serious attention goes on here, musically, it may be easier to accept everything else that is of value. Yet I cannot help feeling a little weird, and sad, when it turns out that even the frickinʼ Tom Tom Club has finally made a jump on David Byrne in terms of musical experimentation and innovation.

I do not really know what was going on in Davidʼs life at the age of 42, but I have recently been through that age myself, and that state of mind is relatable. He is not exploring any issues here that he hadnʼt had at least a small brush with previously, but he is now picking at them with melancholic ferociousness: "I kept my feelings to myself / Until the perfect moment comes", he states on the very first track. I am not sure why that "perfect moment" had to be 1994, a year that, to the best of my memory, was hardly one of those surrender-all-hope years — and this, in fact, might be one of the main reasons why David Byrne disappointed just about everybody and is still rated fairly low on the Byrne-o-meter by critics and fans alike. Ironically, the record just might feel closer to home in 2020; or maybe it is simply my own growing old, because, had I actually heard it fresh from the oven, Iʼd probably dismiss it just as well.

But oh yeah, music comes first. And musically, this is not just a complete departure from the odd Latin-funk-pop synthesis that Byrne curated all through the Eighties; this is actually a mish-mash of styles — Talking Heads styles, solo Byrne styles, other artistsʼ styles — where it is obvious that David tries not to bore you with a monotonous approach, but is also obvious that he is just rewriting old patterns. Many of the songs have evident progenitors. ʽAngelsʼ, for instance, uses a bass pattern very similar to ʽOnce In A Lifetimeʼ. The playful rhythmics and screechy guitar of ʽBack In The Boxʼ take cues from the upbeat material on Little Creatures (hilariously, though, I just realized that the main melody may very well have been subconsciously influenced by Genesisʼ ʽI Canʼt Danceʼ!). The long atmospheric start to ʽStrange Ritualʼ, with its delayed guitars running ghostly circles around your ears, is something directly out of Brian Enoʼs textbook — think one of those instrumentals on Another Green World. And so on.

No wonder, then, that if you approach the album from a position of musical experience, the songs will not look like much of anything. Worse, even a dude with razor-sharp wit and God-given inspiration might eventually cease to be interesting if he just keeps making the same artistic points over and over again — and I cannot promise that this album will let you know anything about Byrne, the thinking personʼs artist, that you, the thinking person (you are a thinking person, right?), have not already known or at least suspected before. But if you want yourself just a few nifty nuances, and if you want to hear a David Byrne who is a little unusually more quiet and contemplative than ever before, the record is worth your while.

The album lives under the shadow of ʽA Long Time Agoʼ, a sort of jazzy meditation with astral overtones — lots of tricky guitar lines overloaded with echo effects, against the background of which the voice of David slowly drifts in space. Curiously, it shares stylistic similarities with Bends- and OK Computer-era Radiohead, though the instrumental arrangements are nowhere near as attention-attracting; the overall message is much the same, though — a sad farewell to the old world and a bit of discomfort and trepidation at the coming of a new one. Listen hard enough and it is difficult not to feel pity at the songʼs conclusion — "itʼs only the singing of the stars, they burned out a long, long time ago...". This is genuinely the saddest and gloomiest that Byrne ever got, which is not really a compliment — so far, the guy has always worked best when he was hiding his depression under a spastic coat of irony and eccentricity, and while taking off oneʼs mask is always an act of bravery, the end result always has a 50/50 chance of amazing people or severely disappointing them. In this case, the typical reaction might be relative indifference: we know, really, that melancholic nostalgia and fear of the future have been two of Byrneʼs primary building blocks for the previous ten years, so this «coming out» with an explicit confession is, if not totally predictable, at least somewhat to be expected.

Later on, we learn that "there are no angels left in America anymore", which does not exactly set your mind reeling as strongly as it did when the same song was ʽOnce In A Lifetimeʼ. We get a ʽHeavenʼ-type acoustic ballad where we learn that "weʼre living in a dump, trying to figure out what sex we are" (no, this is not about transgender issues). We get that odd ʽI Canʼt Danceʼ clone in which we learn that "the sun shines on the evil, the sun shines on the good, it doesnʼt favour righteousness, although you wish it would" and that the protagonist is "going back in the box again", though, honestly, heʼd never left it in the first place. We have ʽNothing At Allʼ, a song that begins with the same gloomy bass swoop as Aimee Mannʼs ʽSave Meʼ would a few years later — totally not a coincidence, because both artistsʼ aesthetics are dangerously close at this time. We do get a thin thread of romance and sentimentalism, too, like in the short acoustic ballad ʽMy Love Is Youʼ which sounds exactly like a Ray Davies trying his hand at bossa nova — but we do get the message that this cuddly sentimentalism is just one way of alleviating the heroʼs pains and shutting him off from the outside world.

What we also get, unfortunately, is a sort of half-assed attitude when it comes to developing and realizing all these ideas. In a recent appreciation of the late David Bermanʼs Purple Mountains, I was struck by how it was possible to express such a decided and resolute state of self-ejection from the world through such friendly and worldly musical means, making you deeply respectful and genuinely terrified of the artist at once. This album, on the contrary, is not resolute at all — it meanders, it hobbles around from one shred of musical depression to another, and even though, fortunately enough, it is not at all self-pitying, it... well, letʼs just say it sprays its message all around you in faint whiffs of aerosol, rather than sending it flying like a bullet in your skull. Itʼs not that Byrneʼs musical muscles have become flabby; it is rather that he has consciously allowed them to atrophy without thinking of a way to make the best use of it. Of course, with anybody less talented than Byrne this entire «more existentialist philosophy, less musical invention» strategy would be aural and intellectual torture. With Byrne, it is more like «hmm, nice change of direction, David, but did you really have to let your hair grow that long to do it?»