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Saturday, October 3, 2015

Butthole Surfers: Hairway To Steven


1) Jimi; 2) Ricky; 3) I Saw An X-Ray Of A Girl Passing Gas; 4) John E. Smoke; 5) Rocky; 6) Julio Iglesias; 7) Backass; 8) Fast.

A lot of people swear by this as the last great Butthole Surfers album, but... I'm not all that sure. I'm not even sure about the title, which is a kinky spoonerism worthy of a Mark Prindle review, but on the whole, seems just «silly» rather than «absurd» — and not even all that offensive, either, if you want to make a key point on the Butthole Surfers' importance as the ultimate Sacred Cow Irritant to be unleashed on a stuck-up world.

But outside of the title, the record seems like an attempt at relatively tame, even normal — for the Surfers, that is — psychedelic rock, with a heavy nod to their predecessors. It may well be so that, like many sensible people do, Gibby and Paul got tired of merely fooling around and decided to finally «make progress», «mature», or something like that (this rational assumption is almost de­stroyed to smithereens if you take the lyrics of ʽJulio Iglesiasʼ into consideration, but this screa­ming exception just proves the general rule). And this is not such a perfect idea, because the "songwriting" here is essentially centered around lengthy and/or repetitive grooves — almost  jam-like grooves, and as much as I respect Paul Leary as a guitarist, jamming is not what this band is truly about. Although, in a pinch, some Butthole Surfers jamming may be good (and, shh, don't tell anyone, but it is definitely more fun than the Grateful Dead anyway).

Unlike Hairway To Steven, ʽJimiʼ is a good title — this opening 12-minute epic is clearly dedi­cated to Hendrix, which is reflected both in Leary's guitar style and in the band's heavy playing around with speeding up and slowing down their vocals; together with all the astral noises and guitar meltdowns, this is highly reminiscent of the opening «alien sketch» on Axis: Bold As Love. But ʽEXPʼ was over in a couple minutes, whereas this one goes on long after it has re­vealed all its potential, and even if you built up a case that Paul Leary is a much better Hendrix interpreter than Stevie Ray Vaughan (totally possible, if you value the «psycho» aspects of Jimi's playing more than his «blues» aspects), this is cool, but not jaw-droppingly amazing/original guitar playing by the standards of 1988. The unexpected transition into acoustic folk-rock jam­ming with chirping birds and crying babies all around during the last five minutes is kinda cool, but also most definitely overlong. Take five minutes off the first part and three off the second, and you have something nice and adequate going there.

Once we get to the shorter songs, we experience the problem of what it is when the Surfers sound «normal». Found face to face with a psycho-folk backing (e. g. on ʽRickyʼ and ʽRockyʼ), Gibby Haines begins sounding suspiciously close to Marty Balin, whereas Leary, when he is not paying tribute to Hendrix, seems to be surreptitiously tearing pages out of the Syd Barrett riffbook (ʽRickyʼ, I believe, uses some chord progressions from ʽInterstellar Overdriveʼ at least). That wouldn't be too bad if they used these influences to good effect — but much too often, it just sounds like humble tributes to their betters. I mean, it's probably good that the songs sound so timeless; remembering the sound fashions of 1988, it is nice not to see them reflected here in any way. But timelessness also comes at a price, and the price here is that this brand of groove-based, relatively humor-free psychedelia just does not seem to make a lot of self-autonomous sense.

The problem is, you either have great melodies or you have impressive atmosphere (if you're really lucky, you can have both), but these melodies aren't too great (at best, they're passable vari­ations on stuff we already know), and the atmosphere is confusing. ʽI Saw An X-Ray Of A Girl Passing Gasʼ — is this supposed to be a parody, or is this the Butthole Surfers' twisted way of a lyrical and musical interpretation of what seems to be a routine visit to a local clinic? It's too twisted for the former, but too crude and offensive to be taken seriously. And if you pay no atten­tion to the lyrics (or even the vocals), it is just another syncopated rocker with a predictable acoustic rhythm pattern — although when Leary gets to the solo, he has a nice way of taking it high up into the stratosphere, I'll admit. But then, if we're heading into the stratosphere, we are no longer in the local clinic, so count me confused.

And, naturally, with tunes like ʽJulio Iglesiasʼ, where Gibby lambasts poor Julio ("Julio he had a mole / Went to the doctor with a fiery pole / Saw the nurse what did he see / Loved to watch his sister pee") to a frantic neo-rockabilly beat; or with tunes like ʽJohn E. Smokeʼ, a lengthy pseudo-live send-up of the country-western tell-tale subgenre, it is hard to take the album seriously. In the end, it's just a little frustrating: the record tries to be everything at once, and in doing so, fails rather than succeeds as a whole. Individually, there's plenty of good moments to be had — and the short coda ʽFastʼ, featuring the band packing a tight punch and Leary excelling both on rhythm and heavily processed lead guitar, might be one of their best songs ever. But as a cohesive (or even as an intentionally dis-cohesive) LP, Hairway To Steven is a first misstep that would ultimately lead to the band's losing it altogether.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Built To Spill: There Is No Enemy


1) Aisle 13; 2) Hindsight; 3) Nowhere Lullaby; 4) Good Ol' Boredom; 5) Life's A Dream; 6) Oh Yeah; 7) Pat; 8) Done; 9) Plating Seeds; 10) Things Fall Apart; 11) Tomorrow.

God, how tedious. Somehow, on their seventh LP Built To Spill preserve the relative simplicity and accessibility of You In Reverse, but lose that album's momentum. No more fast rockers, no more colorful power-pop, no more tense pulsating melancholic vibes like there were in ʽTracesʼ. Instead, we get another set of largely interchangeable, monotonous mid-tempo alt-rock tunes, everything about which is predictable — if there is yet another leaf unturned in the personal log­book of Doug Martsch, There Is No Emeny ain't in no hurry to turn it over.

Maybe that's what Doug Martsch thinks, too, because what else would lead him to naming one of the songs ʽGood Ol' Boredomʼ? Yes, indeed, "it's nice but it's not that exciting", as he sings after the lead guitar line, curiously reminiscent of the fanfare riff in Yes' ʽAnd You And Iʼ, has been silenced to let in our friendly, slightly effeminate singer. And as if in support of that, he returns to his old favorite way of mumbling the vocals, while all the guitars are equally muted, with this irritating «muffled» mix that isn't exactly lo-fi, yet still creates the illusion of a thick screen be­tween yourself and the music, which is never a good thing, really.

But it is hardly the worsened production that is the record's biggest problem — no, it is the lazy, paralyzed songwriting, where you get track after track of generic folk-rock chord progressions and weakly Beatlesque vocal harmonies (ʽLife's A Dreamʼ) that feel deeply derivative, totally familiar, and mining those mines that are already completely depleted. In fact, at least half of these tracks, I am sure, exist only as sonic pads for the next in a series of Doug Martsch's Really Important Metaphysical Thoughts, such as: "And if God does exist / I am sure he will forgive / Me for doubting him / For he'd see / How unlikely he / Made himself seem". I once said some­thing like that at dinner, too, but I never thought about making it into a song — who knows, may­be I'd have been able to come up with something better than ʽOh Yeahʼ, a lumbering dinosaur strolling along a path of power chords.

What's even worse, this record drags on for almost an hour: eleven songs, stretched out to what seems like infinity, and all of them so similar to each other that it is no wonder most reviews of the album I've seen concentrate on the lyrics, trying to decode Martsch's cryptic messages to the world. Or maybe not so cryptic — I mean, there's nothing too cryptic about "The more you have to live for / The more you love your life / The harder it will be for you to die / And we all want dying easy". Uh, yeah, sure, whatever. I actually preferred him when he sang pure nonsense — that way, you could just not bother at all, but here, Pitchforkers all over the world just slobbered over these bits-o'-banalities (Pitchfork: "For the first time in almost 10 years, it seems that Martsch might actually have something he wants to say" — if so, maybe he shouldn't be saying anything), and forgot to think about whether the music here actually means anything.

I have no way of explaining what exactly went wrong in between You In Reverse and its utterly uninspired follow-up — the players are essentially the same, co-producer Dave Trumfio has a decent reputation, and according to various interviews, Martsch was in high spirits when entering the recording studio. Of course, once again do remember that essentially all Built To Spill albums sound the same, and the qualitative difference between any of their two records is negligible in the grand scheme of things. But every once in a while, they put out an album that seems to sug­gest there is yet some hope for the old gray school of Nineties' alt-rock — like You In Reverse — and then they put out an album that almost makes me swear off guitar-based rock music and go wash my ears out with a piano concerto or, pending that, with some Eurodisco. Anything but another eight-minute mid-tempo post-grunge psychosermon from Doug Martsch. This one, I think, deserves a thumbs down all the way. 

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Billy Bragg: Mr. Love & Justice


1) I Keep Faith; 2) I Almost Killed You; 3) M For Me; 4) The Beach Is Free; 5) Sing Their Souls Back Home; 6) You Make Me Brave; 7) Something Happened; 8) Mr. Love & Justice; 9) If You Ever Leave; 10) O Freedom; 11) The Johnny Carcinogenic Show; 12) Farm Boy.

Six years between albums is a long time even for the 21st century — you'd think that, perhaps, the artist has completely run out of new things to say (which, of course, has never prevented bad or desperate artists from putting out new music anyway, so it's actually more of a compliment than a critique in this case). And when, eventually, new things had accumulated to a proper de­gree, what we saw was an almost strangely humble and low-key Billy Bragg, almost as if he'd seen his turning fifty as a sign from God to quiet down and start acting his age. No loudness, no tension, no screaming, no anger — a wisened-up elder statesman.

The music is still nice, though. Sentimental, touching, with a pinch of catchiness and the usual intelligent Billy Bragg charisma, even if it is occasionally wasted on very local pieces of pro­gressive propaganda (yes, ʽThe Johnny Carcinogenic Showʼ is a rant against the advertising of tobacco companies on TV, which is a noble cause in general but makes for poor art in particular). But these pieces are not frequent — somehow, peace, love, and tranquility seem to be the album's main topics, since even the anti-Iraq war tune (ʽSing Their Souls Back Homeʼ) is more of a sin­cere prayer for the soldiers' safe return than a passionate rant against the crooked politicians who sent them there in the first place.

And that's all right, as it seems that Billy does honorably perform the artist's main duty — follow the tugs of the heart, wherever it happens to find itself at the moment. The tone of the record is immediately set by its opening and arguably best number, ʽI Keep Faithʼ: true to the title, the song has subtle gospel overtones (mainly reflected in the use of organ and vocal harmonies), but it is anything but traditionally religious — the artist keeps faith in humanity rather than God, and proves it with a low-key anthem where, perhaps, the greatest asset is the tone that he has chosen for his voice: cracked, worn, and weary, yet deliberately friendly, optimistic, and supportive. Nice chorus resolution, too, and a good mix of pianos, jangly guitars, and strings.

Everything that follows is plain, simple, unadorned, and direct, yet with enough stylistic and in­strumental diversity to be very easily sat through without getting bored. Sometimes it's just a bit of a carefree pop-rock romp at the happiness of having something that still conforms to the man's socialist ideas (ʽThe Beach Is Freeʼ, with a slightly «de-syncopated» Bo Diddley rhythm expres­sing the happiness); sometimes it's a dark folk dance acknowledging the sadness of the ultimate crash of these ideas (ʽO Freedomʼ, featuring the most paranoid, Richie Havens-worthy, acoustic backing track and the mantra "o freedom, what liberties are taken in thy name!" for the chorus); but most often, it's just a quiet love song — not a breakup song, not a bad bitch song, but an "if you ever leave me, my dear, there's nothing for me here" type of song.

And at the end of it all, Billy offers us a confession — as it turns out, he is "just a farm boy" and he is "just dreaming of the time when I can go home". Formally, it's just another anti-war song, but it can also be interpreted as a sort of "I'm tired" statement in general, tired especially from being pushed around by idiotic and/or oppressive decisions of, you know, the System, without really being able to do anything about it. There is no exaggerated desperation or frustration, it's all more of an "I'm old and tired, I'd just like to settle down and love my wife, but they still keep pestering me with all that shit" vibe that most of us are likely to empathize with more and more as we reach mid- and then old age. It's a reasonable vibe indeed, and it's propped up by a set of okay songs that suit it well — not too striking, but not completely unoriginal, either. And maybe it's just me, but it seems as if Billy's abilities as a singer are only improving as time goes by (and his drawn-out Cockney accent, funny enough, is also much less prominent). No great shakes, but enough love, justice, and honest songwriting on the record to guarantee a modest thumbs up.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Brian Eno: Nerve Net


1) Fractal Zoom; 2) Wire Shock; 3) What Actually Happened?; 4) Pierre In Mist; 5) My Squelchy Life; 6) Juju Space Jazz; 7) The Roil, The Choke; 8) Ali Click; 9) Distributed Being; 10) Web; 11) Web (Lascaux Mix); 12) Decentre.

The revival of Eno's «pop» career ended as quickly as it began: in 1991, Brian almost finalized what would have been his first completely solo pop record since the Seventies, ironically calling it My Squelchy Life — but at the last moment, the project was scrapped, shelved, and ultimately replaced with Nerve Net, an allegedly much less accessible affair that did incorporate some mate­rial from MSL, but on the whole, did not look much like a «pop» album, let alone anything even remotely close to the nostalgic spirit of Wrong Way Up.

What Nerve Net is, actually, is an attempt to modernize and «harshen up» the man's electronic sound. Throughout the Eighties, Eno was largely following his own path, making all sorts of becalmed ambient albums that fit in with nothing else. But he may have eventually noticed that, in doing this, he had pretty much fell out of time — and even as a producer, he'd hit his cutting-edge peak with Talking Heads in 1979-80 and, well, that was that. Nerve Net sounds like a con­scious, even desperate attempt to catch up, and since the hottest thing around to catch up with was IDM (well, actually, the term IDM itself wouldn't be coined until 1993, but still...), this is what he is catching up with here. Electronic textures set to dance rhythms — produced by a man who hadn't really come close to a dance rhythm in at least a decade.

Saying that Nerve Net is a «bad» album wouldn't be meaningful at all. Rather, it is the stereo­typical useless album: an old-school pro treading on the turf of younger artists who are much more agile and knowledgeable in this department — I do not think that many a fan of Aphex Twin will think all that highly of Nerve Net in comparison. It is creative and moderately diverse, but the tunes are neither memorable nor all that powerful, and one reason behind that may be their compromising nature: the rhythmics may be modern enough (although the actual rhythms are rarely techno — more like good old syncopated funk), but the guest stars, including old friends Robert Fripp and Robert Quine on guitar, are old school veterans, and are just doing their usual schtick, not looking particularly excited about Eno's call for rejuvenation.

Problem is, if you're making a dance album (and this is a dance-oriented album), it has to go all the way, but this one does not. It sets up groove after groove with tense, nervous atmospherics (hence the name Nerve Net, right? right?), but it's almost as if Eno's decade of creating relaxed ambient sounds were refusing to let go off him, and every groove that tries to go for a harsh, grim, merciless effect ends up sounding soft and tender. In fact, about half of them sound like Brand X reprogrammed for drum machines and keyboard loops — atmospheric jazz-funk that tended to get boring even with live players, and gets useless with machines.

Attempts at singling out «better» tracks have been fruitless for me. Maybe it is the ones that have Fripp soloing all over them, like ʽWire Shockʼ with its vocoder-ish guitar tone vomiting all over your living room. Or maybe it is ʽAli Clickʼ, just because its funky groove sounds more loose and cocky than any other, and there's also this fade-in-fade-out piano line swooping down, and Eno is rapping something out on top of the music as if this were a surrealist pop number out of the past? Or maybe it's ʽWebʼ, because its «web» of distorted synthesizers and scared piano tinkling is the most ominous soundscape on the album? Whatever be, to me these observations do not come naturally — I have to concentrate really, really hard on the tunes to be impressed by them. Not that they aren't professional or creative or anything like that: they are simply too busy and fussy to be «ambient», yet too reliant on atmosphere and repetitiveness to be properly «dynamic».

Disturbing bit of trivia: apparently, the vocoder-distorted vocals on ʽWhat Actually Happened?ʼ encode the discussion of a rape situation. You wouldn't notice it unless you listened in very at­tentively or checked the lyrics online, but there it is. The words would agree with the general tone of the album — nervous, paranoid, deranged, psycho — but their blurriness also agrees with the general timidity of the album: Selected Ambient Works it sure ain't. On the other hand, those who still like to have their dynamic, kick-ass electronica with a bit of a humanoid face to it (all these guitar solos and drum loops that give the impression of being hand-generated) might still want to give this a try. Eno's mediocrity does have growth potential, you know. 

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Bruce Springsteen: Live In Dublin


1) Atlantic City; 2) Old Dan Tucker; 3) Eye On The Prize; 4) Jesse James; 5) Further On (Up The Road); 6) O Mary Don't You Weep; 7) Erie Canal; 8) If I Should Fall Behind; 9) My Oklahoma Home; 10) Highway Patrolman; 11) Mrs. McGrath; 12) How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live; 13) Jacob's Ladder; 14) Long Time Comin'; 15) Open All Night; 16) Pay Me My Money Down; 17) Growin' Up; 18) When The Saints Go Marching In; 19) This Little Light Of Mine; 20) American Land; 21) Blinded By The Light*; 22) Love Of The Common People*; 23) We Shall Overcome*.

Apparently pleased with the vibes, results (and sales?) of We Shall Overcome, Bruce took The Seeger Sessions Band on tour — and not just anywhere on tour, but all the way to The Point Theatre in Dublin, to show these Irish sissies what a real man's reel really sounds like. The Irish sissies did not mind, and gave The Boss a truly international welcome. Probably feeling sancti­fied about getting to sing tura-lura-lura-lay smack dab in the heart of tura-lura-lay country and getting away with this, Bruce released the proceedings as a live DVD and a live album — not just «another live album», but a special one.

The obvious problem here is that The Seeger Sessions Band, as you might have guessed, mainly plays songs from The Seeger Sessions — all of that album is reproduced here with the exception of ʽJohn Henryʼ (too political?), ʽShenandoahʼ (too intimate and dirge-y?), and ʽFroggie Went A-Courtin'ʼ (now THAT I consider the crime of the century — depriving worthy Dubliners of a passionate, rabble-rousing, ball-breaking ʽFroggie Went A-Courtin'ʼ? What were they thinking?). Naturally, with the exception of a few extended jam bits, these songs sound mostly identical to the studio versions, which were produced less than a year ago, and it's not even a question of adding «live spirit», because The Seeger Sessions were themselves imbued with live spirit. So the enthusiastic roar of the Irish crowd may add a little adrenaline, but on the whole, when it comes to «paying me my money down», most people will think twice before paying twice for more or less the same thing.

The gimmick of the record is that, in addition to all the traditional songs, Bruce sneaks in some of his own material, rearranged... nay, rewritten in the same format, and then it all depends on what you think of the idea. Personally, I think it sucks. Perhaps he thought that he had no choice — the people wanted to hear at least some of his own songs, yet they would obviously sound strange wedged in between the old folk classics, so he just had to reinvent them as «pseudo-old folk clas­sics». But who needs an ʽAtlantic Cityʼ shorn of its hooks and recast as a speedy, but utterly generic bluegrass romp? Or ʽBlinded By The Lightʼ losing the verse-chorus contrast and reduced to a mumbled vocal delivery set to a relentless ska beat? Or ʽFurther On Up The Roadʼ turned from a dark, grizzly blues-rock number into a happy highlander anthem, with flutes and accor­dions and bagpipes (okay, no bagpipes... but there should have been bagpipes)?..

As a one-time experiment, this may be amusing, but artistically, this is a dead end: Bruce may have succeeded as an interpreter of traditional old-school songwriting, but as an imitator, he does poorly even when compared to Woody Guthrie, let alone all those nameless ballad writers whose legacy has outlived their identities just because the legacy meant so much more to people than the identities. Likewise, he does not fare that well when he takes old songs with well-established forms and tries to recast them into something completely different — his multi-vocalist take on ʽWhen The Saints Go Marching Inʼ, remade as a soulful acoustic ballad, is plain boring. Besides, what's up with having a fully formed brass section, capable of hitting up that New Orleans sound in no time, and not doing ʽSaintsʼ the way it should be done? Shouldn't he be old and wise enough now to stop with these «confound-all-expectations» childish games? Come on out and decide, Mr. Springsteen — is it «give the people what they want», or is it «the artist bows down to no public pressure»? You've been having it both ways at the same time for so long now, it's become downright irritating at times.

Anyway, it's not as if I did not enjoy Live In Dublin — it's just that, on the larger scale of things, it feels like a conjectural appendix to The Seeger Sessions. Or you might turn it around and say that the Springsteen vibe really only shines to its brightest extent in the context of an arena, in which case The Seeger Sessions will be merely a warm-up prelude to the mass epiphany of Live In Dublin. But viewing both as equally important would be quite illogical, and I, personally, choose the former — it's more concise and compact and it lacks any failed self-experiments. The only track I'd gladly salvage from here is ʽOpen All Nightʼ, which I didn't even recognize at first, an old Nebraska number completely redone as a rollickin' / rip-roarin' honky-tonk number with a bedazzling piano part. Put it as a bonus track onto The Seeger Sessions and that's all we need.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Brinsley Schwarz: The New Favourites Of Brinsley Schwarz


1) (What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding?; 2) Ever Since You're Gone; 3) The Ugly Things; 4) I Got The Real Thing; 5) The Look That's In Your Eye Tonight; 6) Now's The Time; 7) Small Town, Big City; 8) Trying To Live My Life Without You; 9) I Like You, I Don't Love You; 10) Down In The Dive.

For their last album, Brinsley Schwarz turned to Dave Edmunds, already a minor celebrity in his own right, an avid lover of early pre-Beatles rock'n'roll who would as much want to impose that love on others as dwell in it himself — and indeed, The New Favourites should have rather been titled The New Old Favourites, since it just might be the single most retro-oriented Brinsley Schwarz album there ever was.

It does begin with what is arguably Nick Lowe's most famous song — the catchy pop anthem in support of idealistic ideals that would, however, only truly catch on in the popular conscience with the Elvis Costello cover several years later (and then be cemented even later with the version from the Bodyguard soundtrack, but we will try to erase that from the record). You could argue that this song, too, is «retro» in a way — advocating for a fallback from decadence and cynicism to the naïve, but noble (if also somewhat mythical) sentiments of the previous decade — but mu­sically, it should probably be described as «power pop», punchy, muscular, employing the three-chord punch of ʽBaba O'Rileyʼ (to weaker effect, though), and quite modern for 1974. It's not a great song in terms of composition, but Lowe makes an excellent, passionate vocal run towards the chorus resolution, and at the very least, comes across as a convincing spokesman for the cause — no wonder the song was endorsed for the Vote For Change tour in 2004 (even if the election results that year ultimately showed that something really was very funny about peace, love, and under­standing, but that's really beyond the point...).

Nothing else on the album, however, even begins to approach the anthemic fire of that song: all the other songs are quite down-homey, humble, and formulaic in comparison. Symbolically, one of the record's two covers is ʽNow's The Timeʼ, a very early, very simple and naïve pop song by The Hollies — not a songwriting gem like ʽBus Stopʼ or ʽKing Midas In Reverseʼ, but a generic early Merseybeat-style ditty that the Schwarzes perform with their usual diligence, yet how could they ever beat the Hollies' harmonies — their only serious advantage as of 1963, and one which still makes these early ditties outstandingly enjoyable, as opposed to this immediately forgettable cover? The second cover, by the way, is much more recent — Otis Clay's ʽTrying To Live My Life Without Youʼ, but, again, it is not clear how the band can improve on the song or make it more interesting in at least some respect.

Most of the «originals» also turn out to be pastiches and imitations — like ʽSmall Town, Big Cityʼ, which is essentially ʽAlley Oopʼ with new lyrics — and it looks like the band is not even trying to cover that up; maybe Edmunds was the one who convinced them that «good bands bor­row, great bands steal», but they got the causation wrong — it's not «if you steal, you're a great band», it's «if you're a great band, you steal», and because of this, here we have a good band stea­ling, which is embarrassing. I am not 100% sure that each and every one of these chord progres­sions had already been used in some pop / rock / country song in the 1950s/1960s, largely be­cause my memory is not vast enough to stockpile all those chord progressions, but it does honest­ly feel like this is the case, and then the idea of Brinsley Schwarz as the Stray Cats of the 1970s or something like that just doesn't seem so hot — except for the tactical idea of preserving the pleasures and vibes of pre-Beatles entertainment in the mid-1970s, which has been inevitably obsolete since, well, the mid-1970s, there is nothing about this music that elevates it above «listenable if you are ever forced to listen to it, so cross it off the Guantanamo list».

Since Brinsley Schwarz disbanded in 1975, The New Favourites could be regarded as one last bluff, undertaken to revitalize their image — and I am not saying it could not have worked, be­cause a large part of the world, fed up with progressive, glam, and Californian soft-rock, might have welcomed a retro-twist like this, were it properly presented. But this was a weak band from the very beginning, and even the addition of a dedicated producer could not have made it any stronger. Besides, the presence here of ʽPeace, Love, And Understandingʼ shows that Lowe could write passionate and powerful songs, at least occasionally — the logical question then being, why couldn't they write any more like that, instead of focusing on low-key secondhand stuff. Perhaps they didn't want to, because low-key secondhand stuff was what they really liked — in which case, well, they arguably got what they deserved.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Beach House: Depression Cherry


1) Levitation; 2) Sparks; 3) Space Song; 4) Beyond Love; 5) 10:37; 6) PPP; 7) Wildflower; 8) Bluebird; 9) Days Of Candy.

You know, despite the fact that the sound of Beach House has evolved over the years — arguably reaching a «grandeur peak» with Teen Dream and mostly staying there with Bloom — frankly speaking, it's not that much of an evolution. Everywhere you look, you still find largely the same formula of misty-moisty dream-pop with chiming keyboards and floating guitars and Galadriel vocals. Therefore, to read that "this record shows a return to simplicity" in their press release is, to say the least, dismaying; and to read, just a few lines later, that "here, we continue to let our­selves evolve while fully ignoring the commercial context in which we exist" is downright terri­fying. Not to mention that, you know, they are actually selling this record — they cannot "fully" ignore the commercial context in which they exist unless they feed on wild fruits of the jungle and drink water from pure, untainted mountain streams. An impression that their music might convey, for that matter, but then don't they, like, need to at least pay for studio time?..

Anyway, Depression Cherry — a rather awful title, if I may so suggest — is indeed a conscious return to the rather subdued, minimalist textures of the band's first two albums, where they did not use real drums or, indeed, much of anything beyond ancient-sounding keyboards, guitars, and the pssht-pssht drum machine. The question is — why? «Evolving» with this working pattern is pretty much out of the question, as the music has almost exactly the same moods, tones, tempos, associations as it «used to be». Fine, so we have already established them to be the AC/DC of dream-pop, but even AC/DC could get dull after a while, unless the Young brothers sat down and crapped out a particularly fine batch of new (if still derivative) riffs. What about these guys? Bloom could still grow on you with time. Do these songs still have any fresh signs of magic, slowly, but steadily working on your brain?

A few, I'd say. Speaking of riffage, the main riff of ʽSpace Songʼ weaves a beautiful pattern in­deed, although I couldn't say the same about the bubbly space-synth countermelody that domi­nates the bridge section — they should have rather allowed the guitar to build upon that riff. ʽBe­yond Loveʼ also has a great guitar tone — colorful, sustained, slightly distorted, perfectly atte­nuating Victoria's vocals. And the two extended tracks, ʽPPPʼ, and ʽDays Of Candyʼ, have those trademark hypnotizing Beach House codas — ʽPPPʼ turns into a fairyland waltz that manages to be completely sentimental and totally non-corny at the same time, and the wailing lead guitar line of ʽDays Of Candyʼ is a simple-graceful-magical way to finish the album, but... but...

...ultimately, it's unsatisfactory. All of this is just way, way, way too safe, cozy, comfortable, predictable, expectable. All the tricks of the trade have been learned, studied, reproduced, all the techniques explained and chewed over, including the technique of always playing the same chord at least twice or thrice before turning it over to the next one — otherwise, you know, you can create the sense of «rushed», or, even worse, entrap Beach House in the boring layman conven­tions of that stupid old fourth dimension called «time». And timelessness is the essence of the Beach House sound — woe to him who suddenly gets the impulse to ask, "oh wait, haven't I already heard this song before?" Before? What before? There is no before, or after. There's just "a place I want to take you / When the unknown will surround you" (ʽLevitationʼ). Wait! you cry, I frickin' know this place already, I've been in that place since 2006! No, no, they say, that won't do. In the world of Beach House, there is no 2006, or 2015. "There is no right time", she sings, "you will grow too quick, then you will get over it".

Coming back to our senses (briefly), I should conclude that Depression Cherry has its moments, but that its ideology of «getting back to basics» is flawed to the core, because (a) this band had never moved too far away from its basics in the first place, (b) this band had already explored its basics so thoroughly that deliberately returning there almost feels like an auto-lobotomy, and (c) who do they think they are — the Beatles on the friggin' rooftop? No thumbs up, thank you very much, though I do single out ʽSpace Songʼ here as particularly luvvable. Apparently, all of their space is dressed in red velvet, and each asteroid is inhabited by its own native siren.