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Monday, June 27, 2016

Cher: All I Really Want To Do

CHER: ALL I REALLY WANT TO DO (1965)

1) All I Really Want To Do; 2) I Go To Sleep; 3) Needles And Pins; 4) Don't Think Twice; 5) She Thinks I Still Care; 6) Dream Baby; 7) The Bells Of Rhymney; 8) Girl Don't Come; 9) See See Rider; 10) Come And Stay With Me; 11) Cry Myself To Sleep; 12) Blowin' In The Wind.

It's too bad, I think, that the debut album of Cher as a solo artist does not include ʽRingo, I Love Youʼ — her first single, issued in 1964 under the rather hideous name of Bonnie Jo Mason and allegedly co-written by Phil Spector in person. It is such a silly Beatlesque pastiche (one out of hundreds, of course) that the only point of interest there are Cher's vocals, so unusually low for the time that, rumor has it, some radio stations refused to play it because they thought they were being duped. And although she probably had no say whatsoever in these early decisions at the time, the song still set a career pattern that would be rigorously adhered to for the next fifty years: if it ain't trendy, the dark-haired lady can't be bothered.

Fast forward a bit to October 1965, by which time the dark-haired lady had teamed up with Sonny Bono and became an international celebrity by means of ʽI Got You Babeʼ. No sooner had the duo released their first LP that Sonny put forward the idea of crafting a parallel solo career for the wife — a golden throne for her and a grave for himself, as it would later turn out, but seeing as how he, at the moment, was the only one of the two with songwriting talent, the poor guy obviously could not see it coming. And thus, with the release of ʽAll I Really Want To Doʼ as a single and the same-titled LP quickly following it up, the green light was given to one of the most, umm, let's say «predatory» careers in show-business, ever. A career as historically instructive as it is almost delightfully tasteless, and one well worth studying in detail, if only because it pretty much reflects the entire history of pop/rock music in its crooked mirror.

Anyway, it's October 1965, and the Byrds are one of the hottest things on that side of the Ame­rican market that tries to be friendly to «mainstream» and «alternative» audiences at the same time, so, naturally, at this time Cher is a folk-rocker, singing pretty arrangements of Dylan (three songs), Pete Seeger and The Byrds themselves (ʽBells Of Rhymneyʼ), Jackie DeShannon, and a bit of British Invasion to round out the picture (a cover of The Kinks' ʽI Go To Sleepʼ which they never released officially at the time anyway). No expense was spared during the recordings, as a large part of The Wrecking Crew was recruited for the sessions, and Sonny's production, though not as masterful as Phil Spector's, still managed to come close to capturing the wall-of-sound effect — actually, considering that most folk-rock at the time was produced by young bands without much experience or simply with no desire to go beyond minimalistic arrangements, Sonny had the advantage of merging the «innocence» of the folk sound with Spectorian bombast, and at least in purely technical terms, he did it well.

Of course, Cher's voice at this time is both an asset and a problem. Asset, because if you care for low-timbred female vocals at all, there's just no way that at least some Cher songs could not ap­peal to you — when she's really on, she's a powerhouse, and as calculated as the whole thing (and the whole Cher career) is, I struggle to think of a 1965 album by a female artist (white, at least) that would better convey the idea of «woman empowerment». Problem, because one thing Cher has never had is subtlety — she rips through all this material, diverse as it is, as if she had boxer gloves on throughout the sessions, and while this is perfectly all right for some songs, it is defi­nitely not all right (and, in fact, embarrassing) for others.

First, the highlights, though. ʽAll I Really Want To Doʼ, set to the predictable, but tasteful jangle guitar and chime keyboard, is a stunner — definitely a song more suitable for Cher than even The Byrds, taking Bob's tongue-in-cheek joking chauvinist jab at over-intellectualized females and turning it inside out in favor of the other sex. It is actually the only song on the album where the lady sounds like she's having fun — playing around with her limited range and sometimes arching out that "all I really wanna doooooo..." as if teasingly mocking the song's addressee — and it's kind of a pity that the other two Dylan covers here are ʽDon't Think Twiceʼ (a tune that is not intended to be screamed out, whatever the cost!) and ʽBlowin' In The Windʼ, done in a manner as grand as any national anthem and just about equally stultifying. Of course, it would have been too much to expect her to go ahead with ʽSubterranean Homesick Bluesʼ (although she'd probably do a great job with it), and there'd be gender problems with ʽIt Ain't Me Babeʼ, but... uh... ʽMaggie's Farmʼ, perhaps?

Other tunes where she is vocally spot on include ʽShe Thinks I Still Careʼ, a bitter-mocking rendition of Dickey Lee's ʽHe Thinks I Still Careʼ; and a rousing ʽSee See Riderʼ which manages to pack just enough brawn and arrogance to stand up to all the sprawling competition. Some others are just bizarre — for instance, a reading of Jackie DeShannon's ʽCome And Stay With Meʼ that should have honestly been retitled ʽCome And Stay With Me, Bitchʼ: where Marianne Faithful, who originally performed the song, sings the lines "I'll send away all my false pride and I'll forsake all of my life" as if she really means it, tender and on the verge of breaking, Cher's natural, never-shifting timbre makes it sound as if she's totally mocking the guy — probably giving him the finger behind the back, too. I do not doubt that the irony was unintended, and that, like so many other titles here, it was simply a matter of poor song choice, but the effect is still hilarious all the same, especially considering that this is one of her best-sung tunes here.

Specific downers, on the other hand, would include ʽNeedles And Pinsʼ — Sonny wrote it, yes, but not for her, and she just ploughs through the subtle hills and valleys of that song with a vocal bulldozer — and ʽBells Of Rhymneyʼ, where she seems to just lack the technique and even ends up singing awfully off-key in spots. And although the dreamy baroque arrangement of ʽI Go To Sleepʼ is a very nice alternative to the minimalistic piano demo accompaniment of Ray Davies, one thing Ms. Cherilyn Sarkisian will always have a very hard time to simulate is that feeling of late night loneliness without a loved one. (Oh, I mean, it might just be a matter of her voice, it's not as if I'm implying she never ever felt lonely without a loved one herself.)

Overall, this is just like it will always be from now on — there's material that lends itself to the Cher treatment, and then we're in for a hell of a treat, and then there's material that fights back, and then we're either in for a hilarious oddity, or, more often, for a corny embarrassment. But this is precisely what makes the exploration of her backlog such a fun thing — you find yourself in the position of an involved historiographer, describing the never-ending shift of balance between treats, oddities, and embarrassments, and isn't that what life's all about in the end?

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Beyonce: Lemonade

BEYONCE: LEMONADE (2016)

1) Pray You Catch Me; 2) Hold Up; 3) Don't Hurt Yourself; 4) Sorry; 5) 6 Inch; 6) Daddy Lessons; 7) Love Drought; 8) Sandcastles; 9) Forward; 10) Freedom; 11) All Night; 12) Formation.

Look, I really do not want to Queen Bey in this «damned if you do, damned if you don't» posi­tion, particularly not when her latest album almost sounds as if she were personally responding to all of my criticisms for the previous one — well, not mine, obviously, but clearly her goal is to find that one perfect spot where she could have her legions of fans and the small, but demanding, detachment of elitist critics all roll together. There's no stone cold reason why the consummate hitmaker, the glitzy fashion icon, the fight-for-your-rights symbol could never grow into a real artist, even with all the difficulties brought on by fame and fortune. Well... come to think of it, maybe there is: at least, I'd hypothesize that if you were not a real artist before the onset of fame and fortune, the chances of your, let's say, «spiritual transformation» after you have been caught up in the cogs and wheels are pretty slim.

But still, at the very least Lemonade has a clear edge over Beyoncé in that here, it is at least interesting to see her take on the challenge — the record is much more turbulent, dynamic, and diverse. It's got some unpredictable collaborators, too: I mean, Kendrick Lamar could probably be expected at some point, sooner or later, but Jack White? (There's also some pseudo-crediting: ʽ6 Inchʼ, for instance, lists The Animal Collective as co-writers, apparently because one of the lines in the song somewhat reminded the production team of a line in ʽMy Girlsʼ — the result is an extra credit for Avey Tare, Panda Bear, and Geologist, formally as a safeguard against lawsuits, but I'm pretty sure the lady thought it cool to have some respectable indie names included in the liner notes. I mean, some people might actually think that way that she got The Animal Collective to work for her, you know? And everybody's happy — the guys will probably make more money off ʽ6 Inchʼ than they made off all their records put together, anyway).

Like Beyoncé, the record is all about herself, yes, but now that her daughter has grown up a bit, intimate family matters take a small step back, whereas her iconic status makes an advance. The very first single, which preceded the album by a couple months, was ʽFormationʼ, which, for all I know, could just as well have come from Nicki Minaj — people made a stupid fuss out of it be­cause it, like, celebrated Beyoncé's black heritage and all ("I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils" — first time I ever heard about the Jackson family as a metaphor for all Afro-Ame­rican people), but actually, it's more about celebrating Beyoncé's bitchiness: "I'm so reckless when I rock my Givenchy dress" sounds just about right to me. She might slay all right, but the song itself is a mediocre piece of very routine hip-hop — and, in the context of the album, one of its weakest tracks, perhaps not incidentally delegated to the very end of the record, almost as if it were a bonus track after the much more logical conclusion of ʽAll Nightʼ.

Although it is somewhat atypical of the album in general, ʽFormationʼ still ties in with a whole set of other songs that focus on strength, power, independence, and various ball-breaking activi­ties — at least she's honest about it, because a whole album of whining by one of the world's big­gest superstars would be worse than pathetic. And I have to admit, I really like some of these. ʽDon't Hurt Yourselfʼ has a thick, dark, thrashing groove (not surprising for a song that samples ʽWhen The Levee Breaksʼ — as done by Led Zep, not Memphis Minnie), a cool arrangement of backing vocal harmonies that sound like they're appropriately and shitlessly scared of the lead singer, and enough metallic effects on Beyoncé's vocals to make Jay-Z run for cover ("you ain't married to no average bitch boy"). ʽDaddy Lessonsʼ is a mix of New Orleanian jazz and neo-country-pop (Bey going Taylor Swift on us now?) that unexpectedly turns out to be the catchiest number on the album (even as it formally defends the 2nd amendment, much to the delight of Uncle Ted Nugent — then again, isn't a country song supposed to?..).

Best of the bunch is probably ʽFreedomʼ, which was written in line with the Black Lives Matter campaign but avoids any direct lyrical references and could therefore qualify as just a general, abstract anthem to the nice F-word. Kendrick Lamar adds one of his intelligent poetic raps in the middle, but the song's primary point of attraction is still the chorus. Like most choruses for most songs called ʽFreedomʼ, it is lyrically clumsy ("freedom, freedom, where are you? cause I need freedom too") and clichéd ("I break chains all by myself"), but the bombastic ascent all the way to the epic resolution how "a winner don't quit on themselves" is totally believable. Even a rich superstar, you know, should be allowed to flex some muscle every now and then, and she's flexing it just about right on this tune.

Of course, a Beyoncé album consisting of nothing but kick-ass empowering statements would be unthinkable, and there are plenty of lyrical moments scattered throughout — some of them quite melodic and emotional, like the album opener ʽPray You Catch Meʼ (gorgeous harmony arran­gements, classy «deconstruction-style» minimalistic atmosphere, non-cloying sentimentality) or ʽLove Droughtʼ with its nice falsetto chorus; also, ʽAll Night Longʼ has a beautifully vocalized title, but drags on for a little too long. ʽSandcastlesʼ is a really bland piano ballad, though, that should probably belong on an Alicia Keyes album instead.

Overall, the album is still absolutely not my cup of tea — all that hot-electrifying-sexxxy aesthe­tics of songs like ʽ6 Inchʼ (is it about a podium model or a stripper? who cares, anyway) is ulti­mately just stupid, and although, thankfully, the album is not so thoroughly obsessed with the whole «self-empowering through sex» ideology that was at the core of Beyoncé, it still retains that angle; let, I dunno, Rolling Stone and the NME sing praises of it rather than the grumpy conservative Only Solitaire. But I was pleasantly surprised, this time, at how many of these songs actually stuck around, enough to suspect that from a purely musical angle, Lemonade may indeed be Beyoncé's (or, rather, The Beyoncé Concern's) greatest achievement so far. Strip away all the ideological elements for sociological gender-based analysis, forget the English language (most people outside of the US will probably not get most of the references anyway, and who cares what Red Lobster really means to a starving Afro-American family of three, worth no more than a measly 600 million bucks?), and you're left with a bunch of perfectly crafted vocal hooks, accompanied with elegant arrangements that meld together live playing, electronic programming, and sampling in an undeniably «artsy» style.

So yes, this is even better than B'Day, and so here comes another thumbs up. If she keeps it up this way, who knows, maybe the next album will feature Tom Waits as special guest and a fully credited sample from Can's ʽUp The Bakerlooʼ — I guess that she's now pretty much earned the right to do anything, and she'd be a fool not to use it to her advantage.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Caribou (Manitoba): Up In Flames

CARIBOU (MANITOBA): UP IN FLAMES (2003)

1) I've Lived On A Dirt Road All My Life; 2) Skunks; 3) Hendrix With KO: 4) Jacknuggeted; 5) Why The Long Face; 6) Bijoux; 7) Twins; 8) Kid You'll Move Mountains; 9) Crayon; 10) Every Time She Turns Round It's Her Birthday; 11*) Cherrybomb; 12*) Silver Splinters; 13*) Olé; 14*) Thistles And Felt; 15*) Seaweed; 16*) Cherry­bomb Part II.

Ambition begins to bubble here — Manitoba's second album is even louder and more colorful than the first, and goes on to spread its tentacles in even more directions. By 2003, Dan Snaith had staked his claim somewhere midway between Sufjan Stevens and The Animal Collective, although I would guess that the major influence on Up In Flames was neither, but rather an older artist — My Bloody Valentine, whose psychedelic production techniques Dan must have studied at length, because some of this stuff (such as ʽKid You'll Move Mountainsʼ ) often tends to sound precisely like MBV at their most trippiest: woozy, delirious grooves with interlaced ghostly over­dubs and whiffs of vocals that are sometimes felt more than heard.

As derivative as the overall style tends to be, it is still Dan's own: there's not enough somnam­bulant guitar drone here to qualify as «shoegaze», way too much non-electronic instrumentation to count as «electronica», and way too many borrowings from all sorts of musical genres to con­form to the already poorly understood definition of «folktronica». «Psychedelic» is the only term that fully applies, largely due to its inborn vagueness — this is music from another dimension, although, in nice contrast to much competition, it does not brag about its origins, but rather just behaves in an orderly, ordinary manner, humbly inviting you to try out the rabbit-hole instead of pulling you there by force.

The musical skeletons of these songs are less jazzy than before, and owe more to folk, classic Brit-pop, baroque pop, and even dance-pop — but really, the skeletons should be of more interest to musicologists than simple music listeners, because the sonic textures clearly take precedence here over basic composition. Once the groove is set up (and this is usually done quickly: Snaith is no lover of overlong intros), Snaith opens his mid-size bag of tricks and pulls stuff out largely at random — bombastic percussion bursts, pastoral flute passages, avantgarde jazz brass blows, angelic vocal chants, astral noises, and sometimes all of it at once (ʽBijouxʼ). Although it does have the unfortunate effect of making all the songs sound the same, the soothing countereffect is that Up In Flames is a pretty short record, and we could all stand fourty minutes of a same-soun­ding universe that could be best described as «trying to interpret the Animal Collective for a five-year old kid», or «a cross between Loveless and Sesame Street».

My only real problem with the record is the old «middle-of-the-road» problem: it all sounds very, very nice, but it never blows the mind in quite such a decisive way as its influences or the best of its contemporaries. Even when the man goes for a really large, quasi-epic sound, like on the sup­posedly climactic grande finale of ʽEvery Time She Turns Roundʼ, it still seems quiet and cloudy and a little too messy. All these sounds — the electronic blips, the sax farts, the chimes, the bells, the whistles — seem like packs of scurrying ants and other tiny insects under your feet, a hustle-bustle that is nice to observe from a certain vantage point, but hard to get into. Like I already said, at times this seems to be an advantage (humility, lack of emotional manipulation, etc.), but at other times you feel like he's gone too far in the other direction and does not give a damn about properly involving the listener at all. And that can be a little maddening.

Nevertheless, on the whole this is a major step forward from Start Breaking My Heart — more complex in almost every respect, and positioning Snaith in the respectable camp of people with a floating, rather than fixed, formula of self-improvement. And if you like this at least as much as I do, and definitely if you like this more than I do, go for the more recent expanded 2-CD edition that adds seven extra tracks: some of these, like ʽCherrybombʼ, go heavy on samples and dance beats and could work well on the floor, while others, like ʽSeaweedʼ, are more firmly rooted in the baroque-pop soil, merry chimes and all. Essentially more of the same, but focusing almost exclusively on the instrumental side of things. Thumbs up.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Cars: Candy-O

THE CARS: CANDY-O (1979)

1) Let's Go; 2) Since I Held You; 3) It's All I Can Do; 4) Double Life; 5) Shoo Be Doo; 6) Candy-O; 7) Night Spots; 8) You Can't Hold On Too Long; 9) Lust For Kicks; 10) Got A Lot On My Head; 11) Dangerous Type.

The «carbon copy» principle does not necessarily lead to failure — one need only mention the classic example of Strange Days doing everything that The Doors did and more — but with The Cars, we have a classic example of the opposite: Candy-O is just like The Cars, featuring all the same ingredients, but completely missing the magic of its predecessor. It's such a direct slap in the face, and, strange as it is, so many people have noticed this and commented on it that a de­tailed, professional-musicological comparison of the two records could probably lead to major scientific breakthroughs on our perception of music in general, and I'm dead serious.

As an incentive, just take the case of the opening tracks. ʽLet's Goʼ is a good pop-rock single that also opens with the juxtaposition of old-school rock guitar and new-school futuristic synthesizer, also has a catchy singalong chorus, and also has some of that detached, ironic cool. It's a nice song to brighten up your day — but it just ain't ʽGood Times Rollʼ, because ʽGood Times Rollʼ had a certain amount of sonic depth to it. The guitar lick was snapping and barking, the synth counter-response went kick-ass, kick-ass, the vocal was bitterly desperate, the post-chorus key­board flourish was an anthemic fanfare. There, you had a feeling like something was really hap­pening. ʽLet's Goʼ, in comparison, is just a bit of light-headed fluff — there's no double bottom to this song, no intrinsic bite to the guitar or keyboard melodies, and even the lyrics, come to think of it, are just a 1979 take on ʽI Saw Her Standing Thereʼ ("and she won't give up 'cause she's seventeen" is, after all, a dead giveaway).

Alas, the same relative disappointment applies to just about any song on the album — every­where you go, you are greeted with the same simple, endearing, fluffy synth-adorned power-pop, decently composed, arranged, and performed, but with very little lasting value, and very little, in fact, to distinguish it from any similar New Wave pop from the era. Some of the choruses are fabulously catchy, yes, mainly through being so repetitive (ʽIt's All I Can Doʼ), but it is only on the guitar-heavy title track, with Orr's almost Kraftwerkian robotic vocals, the relentless mecha­nistic punch of the rhythm guitar, and the weird alternation of power chords and pseudo-classical arpeggios in the guitar solo, where I am reminded that this is indeed the same band that made The Cars into one of the epoch's most symbolic albums.

I wish I could say that the main problem of Candy-O is that it focuses too much on «silly love songs», but so did The Cars — it's not as if these songs are really that much «sillier» by defini­tion. In fact, repeated listens bring out favorable points almost everywhere. ʽNight Spotsʼ has a classy guitar riff, and it's fun to see it clash with Hawkes' keyboards as they occasionally imitate the sound of equipment heating up and ready to explode. The "it's all gonna happen to you" cho­rus of ʽDouble Lifeʼ is elegantly attenuated by Easton's slide guitar licks, giving it a touch of class. ʽGot A Lot On My Headʼ is frantic fun, opening with a power-pop riff that lesser bands would kill for, and you just gotta love how it explodes right before the beginning of the verse, scintilla­ting in little flaming fragments away in the stratosphere. In fact, not a single song even begins to approach «bad» — I am not exactly sure about the function of the brief echoey experiment of ʽShoo Be Dooʼ, which sounds like a psycho-New Wave impersonation of Gene Vincent, but at least it's a curious experiment, regardless of whether it succeeds or not.

Overall, it's just like this: imagine an album like Rubber Soul immediately followed, rather than preceded, by a... Please Please Me, then imagine your reaction at such a twist. In time, you'd probably learn to fall under the charm of both, but the first feeling of disappointment (especially if this had really happened around 1965-66 and you were there at the time) would pro­bably stay with you for the rest of your life. And this is pretty much what happened here — Candy-O has the same pretty face as The Cars, but there's no teeth in that pretty mouth once it begins to smile at you. Perfectly enjoyable, but I never ever even get the urge to sing along to any of these songs because I don't feel like they have enough soul in them, and it's hard to empathize. Maybe it would have been better to have them all as instrumentals? Anyway, still a thumbs up for all the cool melodies, but a major relative disappointment that certainly does not deserve getting a Roxy Music-inspired album cover — where's the appropriate decadence, goddammit?

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Captain Beyond: Dawn Explosion

CAPTAIN BEYOND: DAWN EXPLOSION (1977)

1) Do Or Die; 2) Icarus; 3) Sweet Dreams; 4) Fantasy; 5) Breath Of Fire: A Speck Within A Sphere; 6) Breath Of Fire: Alone In The Cosmos; 7) If You Please; 8) Midnight Memories; 9) Space Interlude; 10) Oblivion; 11) Space Reprise.

They should probably have retitled the band «Beyond Captain» for this one. Apparently, by 1976 most of the original members found themselves with nothing to do, and decided to have another shot — all except Rod Evans, who went into respiratory therapy instead (giving a whole new meaning to the words "Hush! Hush!"). So Caldwell, Dorman, and Reinhardt had to find them­selves a new vocalist. His name was Willy Daffern, he came from nowhere in particular (I think he worked for The Standells a bit in the late 1960s), and he sucked.

Well, maybe not «sucked», precisely, but he belonged to the same cohort of loud-mouthed, text­bookishly «soulful», pompous (white) vocalists that also included David Coverdale, Glenn Hughes, Lou Gramm, miriads of them — at least Rod Evans never pretended to operatic qualities, and he had a somewhat somber and humble tone that worked well with the band's loud music, whereas this guy has no subtlety whatsoever, even if in terms of range and technique he might have been slightly better qualified than Evans.

Most of the complaints about Dawn Explosion, however, are usually targeted not against the vocalist, but against the music — this is just hard rock without any progressive ambitions, the fans complain, and the record's intelligence quotient falls way below acceptable standards. I find these accusations a bit too far-fetched: for sure, there's a lot of hard rock riffage here, but it's not as if they turned into Thin Lizzy or AC/DC overnight. There are multi-part suites here, too, and soulful ballads, and psychedelic interludes, and even a jazz-fusion instrumental. And even the hard rock numbers are not aggressive, but rather celebratory, just as they used to be. There's no attempt here to reorient the band in another direction — there is an attempt to make it somewhat adapt to the times, with «arena-rock» overtones, but the basic combination of heaviness, psyche­delia, and pop instincts remains intact.

The main problem remains the same — the songs are just not good enough to warrant an auto­nomous existence in some personalized VIP cell inside your brain; and coupled with the issue of a new and annoying vocalist, and especially if placed in the context of 1977 with its major changes of musical aesthetics, Dawn Explosion cannot help being somewhat disappointing. I like the riffs — ʽFantasyʼ kicks ass through all of its six minutes (although they probably shouldn't have been ripping off Deep Purple's ʽBloodsuckerʼ), and the opening riff of the ʽBreath Of Fireʼ suite is like a respectable gentleman's take on Aerosmith's ʽWalk This Wayʼ, and ʽIf You Pleaseʼ sounds as if it were inspired by the Beatles circa 1965 — but I do not find them sufficiently in­spired or original to last a long time beyond basic operative memory.

Overall, if you do not mind the vocals, the entire record is perfectly listenable, and Reinhardt's soloing on ʽFantasyʼ, the power ballad ʽMidnight Memoriesʼ, and the second part of the ʽBreath Of Fireʼ suite is genuinely ecstatic-emotional. (ʽOblivionʼ, curiously enough, sounds very close to the jazz-hard-rock of Gary Moore's G-Force, which Daffern would be briefly joining a couple years from then). As far as «old school rock» from the first years of New Wave is concerned, Dawn Explosion is nowhere near the fat bottom of the list. But it is doubtful that a record like this could drag even a single young fan away from New Wave's fresh appeal. Naturally, it sold very little, and the band found itself falling apart once again in 1978.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Can: Live Music 1971-1977

CAN: LIVE MUSIC 1971-1977 (1999)

1) Jynx; 2) Dizzy Dizzy; 3) Vernal Equinox; 4) Fizz; 5) Yoo Doo Right; 6) Cascade Waltz; 7) Colchester Finale; 8) Kata Kong; 9) Spoon.

This one is somewhat more official. This double CD compilation first came out as an integral part of the Can boxset in 1999, but later on became generously available as a separate archival album in its own rights — although, clearly, it should be not be a part of any collection that does not already include all of the band's principal studio recordings.

As usual, the track listing is a bit of an (intentional) mess. Even though the title says 1971 (pro­bably to lure in ardent fans of Tago Mago), the earliest recordings here are from 1972, and the entire first disc is assembled from performances in the UK and Germany in 1975 and 1977; addi­tionally, the quality of the sound varies significantly from track to track, predictably worsening for the early dates and improving for the latter ones (an aggravating matter for Suzuki fans, but then Suzuki always sounds like crap even on the studio recordings — seems like he regarded singing directly into the mike as a way-too-binding procedure).

Still, the almost 40-minute long ʽColchester Finaleʼ, a lengthy improvisation that was, indeed, recorded at Colchester (University of Essex), is well worth any serious fan's money. Non-serious fans will not find any major surprises, and some might even complain about a lack of focus as reflected in the often chaotic rather than metronomic drumming on Jaki's part, but my only com­plaint is the acoustics at the University of Essex, which prevents me from savoring all the tasty nuances of the band's guitar and bass players. The band is totally in Tago Mago mode here, not quite as ferocious as on ʽUp The Bakerlooʼ, but, fortunately, the last third of the performance is nothing other than ʽHalleluhwahʼ, on which Liebezeit really comes to life and the band culmi­nates in a noisy, explosive climax that sounds as if it might have been fatal for some of their equipment (though probably not — Who-style destruction was not one of their trademarks).

On the other hand, the entire ʽColchester Finaleʼ has nothing but its impressive length factor on the 14-minute version ʽSpoonʼ from Cologne, with much better sound quality and a throbbing intensity that just goes on and on — they almost literally play it according it to the «stop when you drop» principle. The original pseudo-pop three-minute single is taken here as merely a pre­text, or, rather, it is the single version that should be now regarded as a «taster» of the real ritual to come, because no self-respecting supernatural spirit is going to reply to a meager three-minute summon — but the ruckus they raise with these 14 minutes, on the other hand, suffices to make everybody who matters crawl out of their graves.

The real good news is that the 1975 performances, despite the lack of Suzuki and the general feel of the band having already outlived its «peak period», are every bit as musically strong: the non-album improv ʽJynxʼ, the extended version of ʽVernal Equinoxʼ from Landed, and the unexpec­ted return of the old Malcolm Mooney warhorse ʽYoo Doo Rightʼ, but with next to no vocals this time, all qualify as powerful voodooistic rituals in their own right. ʽJynxʼ is the more avantgarde of the three, with heavy emphasis on percussion and psychedelic / industrial sound effects, but it still has enough funky bottom to it to be considered a proper musical groove, and Karoli's blues / funk / classically-influenced soloing on ʽYou Doo Rightʼ is just wonderful to observe — an effort­less flight of the imagination that shifts direction every 15 seconds or so.

Only the two tracks from 1977, with Rosko Gee on bass, predictably pale next to everything else, but they are (a) short, (b) well-recorded, and (c) still moody enough to act as breathers between all the hard, hot stuff. Besides, ʽCascade Waltzʼ is actually from Flow Motion, and ʽFizzʼ is dark and spooky enough to fit on Saw Delight, so it's not as if they didn't fit in here somehow. It might have made more sense to correct the track listing and shift them towards the end, but I guess the idea was to save the best for last — so that, once you begin to think you can't have any more, ʽSpoonʼ would come up and bury you six feet under.

Anyway, I am honestly not sure about just how many live albums like these the band could shake out of its vaults — considering the sheer amount of hours they spent playing with the recording equipment on — but I do suppose that these tracks were not selected randomly, and that they truly represent the band at its live best (questionable and vague as that notion is when so much of your music is improvised), so there's hardly an option here not to give it a major thumbs up. But do remember that, for the most part, this is Can at their most extreme: a 40-minute long jam from these guys is not the same thing as a 40-minute long prog-rock epic à la Thick As A Brick, and unless you are a strong believer in the healing powers of long, repetitive, hypnotic jamming with no post-production treatment, you'd better go back to the «doctored» studio tracks, where mo­mentary inspiration was always tempered with symbolic reasoning, and a pair of scissors.