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Thursday, February 21, 2019

Ringo Starr: Ringo The 4th

RINGO STARR: RINGO THE 4TH (1977)

1) Drowning In The Sea Of Love; 2) Tango All Night; 3) Wings; 4) Gave It All Up; 5) Out On The Streets; 6) Can She Do It Like She Dances; 7) Sneaking Sally Through The Alley; 8) Itʼs No Secret; 9) Gypsies In Flight; 10) Simple Love Song.

General verdict: If your name is Ringo Starr, please refrain from trying to embrace all the mainstream musical genres of the mid-1970ʼs at once; and certainly try to refrain from embracing them drunk.


It is fairly ironic that the only original album released in the Year of Punk by an ex-Beatle was Ringo The 4th — even more ironic that of all Beatle-related output in the 1970s, this was arguably the single most cringeworthy endeavour (though Ringoʼs own follow-up, Bad Boy, comes close). Almost everything about this record hints at a total lack of taste and complete ineptness, starting with the more-cheesy-than-sleazy sleeve photo (I presume nobody involved in that photoshoot was even remotely sober) and ending with its relative diversity, as the covered styles range from funk and disco to country-western and yacht rock — and feature a thoroughly unprepared and clueless Beatle drummer trying to get on top of them, but having obvious trouble already at the stage of unbuttoning his pants, if you pardon my being blunt.

Unlike Rotogravure, this does sound like it was produced by Arif Mardin: at least half of the songs feature very contemporary dance grooves, even if the proverbial disco bass lines can be found on maybe just one or two. The credits list is endless: you can find a young Luther Vandross and a slightly less young Bette Midler among the back vocalists, Johnʼs and Paulʼs collaborator David Spinozza on guitar, and even the great Tony Levin on bass (though he is co-credited along with three other bass players, so I have no idea where precisely they are hiding him). Needless to say, all the arrangements are immaculately produced and all the basic tracks laid down with professionalism and devotion. Unfortunately, it is all wasted.

It is not even that the songs are all that bad. Vini Poncia, who had been working with Ringo since 1973, is now promoted to chief co-writer, and Ringo has certainly had worse co-writers covering his back. The choice of covers is formally reasonable as well: ʽDrowning In The Sea Of Loveʼ was a solid soul standard by Joe Simon, and Allen Toussaintʼs ʽSneakinʼ Sally Through The Alleyʼ was an early Robert Palmer highlight. It is simply that none of these styles fit Ringoʼs voice or personality. ʽDrowning In The Sea Of Loveʼ is a turbulent tempest of a song, one that requires range and power, two things that were always out of Ringoʼs reach even back when he was not an alcoholic. Ten seconds into the songʼs intro, you know the man is going to flub it as soon as he comes in, and though he fights bravely, this ainʼt Sparta, son.

Basically, most of these tunes fall into two categories: deeply serious numbers for which Ringo lacks the authenticity and power of vocal conviction, or deeply corny numbers of a vaudeville variety that should, theoretically, be played for drunk sailors by guys in top hats and underwear. The fact that the two types are mixed in roughly equal proportions and play off each other like there was nothing to it only adds to the emotional confusion, and I cannot even say which of the two is a bigger turn-off. Probably the serious stuff, though, like ʽGave It All Upʼ — a sort of Willie Nelson-like dark country ballad through which Ringo largely just sleepwalks. You can sense potential here, and even the lyrics arenʼt a total loss (and lines like "as I look back and wonder / have I wasted my time?" definitely ring with a lot of relevance for Ringo in 1977), but one can only guess if the song could have made a bigger time with a better vocalist.

The single was ʽWingsʼ, a song that sounds so much like Foreigner that Ringo would eventually have to completely remake it in a poppier vein thirty-five years later. Here, too, the day could probably be saved with a different vocalist and some funky twists to the arrangement: as for Ringo, he might have felt like shit in 1977, but that did not help him convey it on the record. It is worth listening to Ringo The 4th attentively at least once to understand that not everything about it is just corny dance fluff — but you do have to know the historical context to guide you. Some people make great records about their personal crises and breakdowns... and some people are Ringo Starr, God bless his beautiful soul and limited artistic abilities.

In short, this is where I am driving at: this is a bad album not because it is so lightweight, but rather because it combines an utterly lightweight style with elements of dark, brooding substance. There is a certain perverted charm watching the man walk the line from the bluntly alcoholic pub-rock of ʽCan She Do It Like She Dancesʼ and the equally bluntly alcoholic club-pop of ʽOut On The Streetsʼ to the pain and suffering of ʽWingsʼ and ʽDrowning In The Sea Of Loveʼ, but I would never force anybody to experience it. Trust me, you donʼt really want to be friends with Ringo when he is down in the dumps; you really have to wait for peace and love. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Brand New: Science Fiction

BRAND NEW: SCIENCE FICTION (2017)

1) Lit Me Up; 2) Canʼt Get It Out; 3) Waste; 4) Could Never Be Heaven; 5) Same Logic / Teeth; 6) 137; 7) Out Of Mana; 8) In The Water; 9) Desert; 10) No Control; 11) 451; 12) Batter Up.

General verdict: Deadly dull third-rate alt-rockisms. If this is the way depression is pictured in rock music nowadays, thereʼs just no fun in depression any more.


The world seems to literally demand a punny joke out of you when you set out to review an album by a 17-year old band that still calls itself Brand New, doesnʼt it? You could probably find a cop out by saying that, since Brand New had not released a record since 2009, this is like a brand new beginning for them... except that the band broke up upon completing the sessions, and has openly stated that Science Fiction was intended to be their farewell gesture.

Perhaps it was this very statement that prompted all the positive reviews — because as far as I am concerned, this is just another Brand New record: not too bad, not too good, nothing particularly memorable or particularly horrendous. It sounds a little slower, a little more quiet, a little more dedicated to «subtle, suspenseful gloom» than «angsty, wailing gloom», which, I guess, is to be expected of a band that got eight more years behind its back and now wants to make an atmo­spheric exit with a wave of smooth chill. Unfortunately, the eight years in question have not made them into better songwriters, players, arrangers, or showmen.

Let me just explain my feelings by concentrating on the first and last tracks on the record — otherwise I feel like I might trip, slip, and do some permanent damage to my brain. ʽLit Me Upʼ begins with soft layers of electronic hum and a tape recording: "This tape recounts a dream which occurred close to the termination of approximately 400 hours of intensive individual therapy...", upon which the lady patient begins telling her dream — which is boring, in case you were hoping for some Vincent Price type of moment. Once the lethargic, emotionless narrative is over and the song itself begins, Science Fiction has lifted its curtain and established its vibe — a slow, gray, limp, atmospheric vibe that might be the right thing for you if you, too, have just terminated approximately 400 hours of intensive individual therapy. (Though Iʼd rather recommend ʽSunny Girlfriendʼ by The Monkees, rather than go on wallowing in your own pain). But the smooth hum of the smooth trip-hoppy bass and the dull-ringing sustained bluesy chords of the heavily treated electric guitars never go one inch beyond simple, monotonous ambience — and I cannot even tell how many times in my life I have already had to endure that crap, Just Because The Sincerely Inspired Artist Has To Convey The Dulling Of His Emotional Receptors By Making Music That Goes Absolutely Nowhere And Makes A Big Fucking Point Out Of It.

At the very least, if you are making a song like that, by all means do not accompany it with lyrics like "It lit me up like a torch on a pitch black night / Lit me up and I burn from the inside out / Yeah I burn like a witch in a Puritan town", because on paper this seems like something off a Def Leppard album — in practice it sounds like Robert Smith on sedatives after liposuction. And since we already know that Jesse Lacey has always had a hard time making his emotional pain believable, it would take a real good jolt to make ʽLit Me Upʼ change oneʼs biases. But there is no jolting here, just 400 hours of intensive individual therapy.

Fast forward many many many endless miles of routine depression — and meet ʽBatter Upʼ, a nine-minute long epic closer. Now you might expect something to happen over nine minutes of music, right? After the first two or three minutes of its endless acoustic loop, sonically pleasant but melodically every bit as original as a James Taylor song from the 1990s, it slowly began to dawn on me that this is going to end exactly the way that it started, and is not going to go any­where different in the middle — and I was almost right, except that the last couple of minutes consisted of yet more quiet humming noises. "Itʼs never going to stop / Batter up / Itʼs never going to stop / Batter up". (Since my baseball vocabulary is horrible, I had to actually look up ʽbatter upʼ in the dictionary. Still not sure that I understand completely what it means, but it did come to my attention that it is an anagram for ʽbutt-rapeʼ, and you know, that feels just about right at the moment).

In between ʽLit Me Upʼ and ʽBatter Upʼ ten more songs are stuck, and after three listens I do not remember a single one of them. I do remember that some sounded like third-rate REM and a few sounded like second-rate Pearl Jam; a couple featured annoying screaming vocals and a couple tried to rock out, but mostly it was just that slow bluesy grayness all over. Oh yeah, ʽ451ʼ sounded like a watered-down Black Keys song. Did I miss anything?

Yes, for the record, Science Fiction got generally positive reviews and is currently featured in RateYourMusicʼs Top 30 albums for 2017. All I can say is that if this kind of music is now held to be symbolic of rock in the late 2010s, then rock is not just dead, it is deeply submerged in embalming fluid, and Science Fiction is that fluid. I swear to God, one of the critics called this «the Abbey Road of emo» or something. I do not know all that much about emo, but if this analogy is even barely hinting at the truth, I shudder to think what the Please Please Me of emo could ever have sounded like.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Neutral Milk Hotel: Everything Is

NEUTRAL MILK HOTEL: EVERYTHING IS (1994)

1) Everything Is; 2) Here We Are (For W Cullen Hart); 3) Unborn; 4) Tuesday Moon; 5) Ruby Bulbs; 6) Snow Song Pt. 1; 7) Aunt Eggma Blowtorch.

General verdict: Derivative, but charming lo-fi psycho-pop — although for it to be interesting in the 2010s, youʼd probably have to understand all the importance of the 1960s for the 1990s.

Since the artistic reputation of Neutral Milk Hotel rests on such a small body of work, I suppose it makes sense to allocate a special review to the very first piece of that work which Jeff Mangum saw fit to submit for official commercial distribution. Originally, it was just one short single with but two songs on it, distributed by Seattleʼs indie label Cher Doll Records — then, in 1995, it fell into the hands of the British label Fire Records, who re-released it with an extra track, and this three-song version could be claimed to be the definitive form of Everything Is, since the three tracks more or less comprehensively cover all the bases that would later go on to form part of the Neutral Milk Hotel legend.

ʽEverything Isʼ is an excellent specimen of early Ninetiesʼ lo-fi, one-man psychedelic revival — distorted blues-pop guitar riffs taken from the good old garage-rock textbook; well-articulated nerdy vocals with an otherworldly touch, probably achieved through double-tracking; and surreal daydreaming lyrics that update ʽLucy In The Sky With Diamondsʼ for the contemporary listener. Additionally, I seem to detect a bit of a Brian Eno touch here — funny enough, the verse melody is very similar to ʽKurtʼs Rejoinderʼ from Before And After Science, and the similarity gets even more in your face because of the tonal resemblance between Jeff Mangum and Eno when they are in calm / quiet mode (it disappears every time Jeff goes up the scale in the chorus). This could be just a total accident, but since there is no denying Enoʼs general influence on the Elephant 6 community and on each of its representatives individually, I thought this worth mentioning.

Anyway, ʽEverything Isʼ already tells you almost more about NMH than you needed to know — how Mangum could craft second-hand, but solid melodic hooks, how his lyrical craft bravely advocated for a return to the ideals of old ("everything is beautiful here / Iʼm finally breaking free from fear" is such a major fuck-you to the angst-ridden alt-rock narrative of the time), and how you were free to take or leave snippets of sound collages and random conversations that he liked to insert in his work. A quarter century later, this revivalist ideology seems a bit fruity, and its impact is probably no longer understood by anybody who was younger than 15 years at the time, but the "and itʼs fading..." hook is still fun, and the song in general benefits from a complete lack of unwarranted pretentiousness that would follow in its wake.

If ʽEverything Isʼ is Eno-ish, then ʽSnow Song Pt. 1ʼ is quite naturally Syd Barrett-ish: its lazy acoustic guitars and even more lazily purred vocals, filling up your room like some subtle wisps of musical shisha, are recorded in the grand tradition of The Madcap, which, unfortunately, also means that the song is not likely to remain in your brain as anything other than an atmospheric cloud. I do find it funny how many different verbal influences are subconsciously affecting Mangumʼs mind here: "Cindy smiles in overcoats" (ʽCindy Tells Meʼ — Eno again), "candy-apples everythings" (ʽCandy And A Currant Bunʼ + ʽApples And Orangesʼ = Syd), "unhappy girl, sheʼs spinning" (ʽUnhappy Girlʼ = Jim Morrison), "rain is a perfectly sculpted garden of wetness" (ʽRainʼ = The Beatles) — I do not know about rain, but the song is most definitely a perfectly sculpted garden of references to cherished customers at the Neutral Milk Hotel.

The third track, ʽAunt Eggma Blowtorchʼ once again recalls Eno (ʽPaw Paw Negro Blowtorchʼ), except that it is largely just a sound collage, allegedly recorded by a 17-year old Mangum in his bedroom. It has nothing to offer other than historical interest and some signs of a curious, hyper-active searching mind looking for blissful revelation in unpredictable combinations of sound: no use looking for true artistic symbolism or suspenseful atmospheric coherence here — ʽRevolution #9ʼ it is not. But if you are 17 and you make up a sonic collage titled ʽAunt Eggma Blowtorchʼ, you may have a very bright, unusual, and painful future before you, which is exactly what happened to Jeff Mangum, so at least things check out.

The convoluted story of Everything Is does not end here, however. The next phase begins in the posthumous era: in 2001, the single was re-released on Orange Twin Records, with the addition of ʽTuesday Moonʼ, another upbeat pop song with a hazy nasal charm, but rather clunky lyrical twists ("I just want to climb your tower / To your dress like apple pie" — is this written from the perspective of a garden ant or a cross-dresser?). Finally, a 10" version of the record appeared in 2011 on the fully autonomous Neutral Milk Hotel Records — adding three more early tracks, of which ʽHere We Areʼ is an unquestionable highlight, if only for its unusually clear production: the acoustic guitars ring out loud and pretty, the slightly out-of-tune electric overdubs are almost nostalgically raga-like, and the vocals are soothing (Mangum does have a very pleasant voice, as long as he does not drive it over into higher range, at which point it becomes annoying).

From a certain point of view, even though the music would go on to become more complex and the lyrics would go on to look less like the naïve scribblings of a high schooler in love with John Lennon and Syd Barrett, all you really needed to know about Jeff Mangum and his one-man band is already encapsulated in this small bunch of tunes. Well, almost all: one thing that is clearly missing is the tragic brokedown-artist approach, which, honestly, could not yet be represented at such an early stage. This is a young and somewhat bizarrely optimistic Jeff Mangum, whose visions and aspirations have not yet had the chance of being ground down by cruel world reality. I mean, how could it be otherwise, with almost every song featuring a reference to candy, ice cream, and teacups? So catch this guy while he is still busy being a butterfly.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Talking Heads: True Stories

TALKING HEADS: TRUE STORIES (1986)

1) Love For Sale; 2) Puzzlinʼ Evidence; 3) Hey Now; 4) Papa Legba; 5) Wild, Wild Life; 6) Radio Head; 7) Dream Operator; 8) People Like Us; 9) City Of Dreams.

General verdict: Not bad as far as ordinary pop-rock albums go, but way too unfocused and old-fashioned for us to understand why it had to have the name "Talking Heads" attached to it.


For all my immense respect towards David Byrne as a multi-faceted artist, and for all my undying admiration towards his body language in Stop Making Sense, I could never be bothered to follow all of his creative activities — here implying that I have not seen the movie True Stories, nor have I heard Sounds From True Stories, the actual soundtrack from the movie, split between Byrneʼs solo takes on some of the songs and incidental music from other artists. This does bring me closer to lots and lots of people, I believe, who only bought True Stories, the album — Talking Headsʼ bona fide sequel to the previous yearʼs Little Creatures — and experienced it without any contextual knowledge. And really, there is nothing about the sound of the album that suggests it should have been a soundtrack. It just sounds like a Talking Heads album — and not a very good Talking Heads album at that.

All right, admittedly, not a very bad Talking Heads album, either. Common consensus pegs True Stories as the absolute nadir of the bandʼs existence; but considering the fact that it came out in 1986, the counter-artistic nightmare year for so many different artists par excellence, it actually seems amazing to me that it does not suffer from too much overproduction, too many cheap synthesizer sounds, too seriously watered-down lyrics, or too many outside cooks (hacks) stirring the pot. If anything, where most of 1986ʼs failures suffered for sounding way too big, the chief flaw of True Stories is its being so frustratingly humble. Little Creatures began the process of transforming the band into a «normal» pop-rock outfit; True Stories finishes the job by making it sound like a simplistic pop-rock outfit.

Indeed, once the somewhat drunk-sounding one-two-three-four count-in has announced ʽLove For Saleʼ (whose very title, taken in the context of 1986, is easier associated with the likes of Bon Jovi than Billie Holiday), more than one listener will probably be taken aback by the flat, loud drum sound and the arena-rock style guitar riff: is this truly a Talking Heads song, or have we accidentally put on another experimental record by KISS? The lyrics seem to be Byrnish all right, but the music owes much more to conventional, old-school blues-rock than anything this band was ever about. The song is not devoid of meaning or catchiness, but the music is just a bit too dumb for the satire to catch on, and Byrneʼs vocals are not quite as effective in the context of this brawny, pub-rockish spirit.

In fact, if you concentrate on stuff like this opener or the albumʼs best known song, ʽWild Wild Lifeʼ, you might begin to wonder if Mr. Byrne has not taken a subtle and twisted liking to the popularity of the hedonistic hair metal scene — twisted, because neither of the songs count as open celebrations of the reckless lifestyle, but both deal with it one way or another. It is as if The Byrne City Dweller, having come to terms with the reality of modern family life, suddenly decided to be The Man, went out to town, got drunk at the local bar and began fraternizing with the local bikers, to the best of his abilities. In fur pyjamas. Itʼs weird all right, but it is not nearly as exciting (and certainly nowhere near as funny) as the description might make it sound.

Turn elsewhere and you will see that another new influence is ska — ʽPuzzling Evidenceʼ and ʽRadio Headʼ have exchanged the funky basslines of old for fast, furious, and monotonous head­bobbing, though I will be the first to admit that both tunes are fun to bob your head to, and the organ / guitar / backing vocals groove of ʽPuzzling Evidenceʼ is pumped out with all the energy and the discipline that we came to expect from the band. ʽRadio Headʼ is also quite sympathetic, though for a song that allegedly gave the name to one of the most depressingly existentialist bands of the late 20th century it is quite surprisingly cheerful and good-natured.

The worst thing about it all, really, is that all of these songs are... just okay. They do not feature any particularly horrendous lapses of taste, and they still prominently show Byrneʼs knack for pop hooks. They are simply not too interesting, and not too exciting compared to everything that the band did before. Had True Stories been recorded by any B-level pop-rock outfit in the 2000s or 2010s, the album might easily have been the highlight of their career. But since this is Talking Heads, all I can say when I listen to something like ʽPapa Legbaʼ is "these are the same guys that did ʽI Zimbraʼ and ʽSlippery Peopleʼ"? Compared to those musical exorcisms, ʽPapa Legbaʼ is a smooth, inoffensive piece of lightweight exotica, with almost elevator muzak-level guitar playing and a vocal performance that could be seen appropriate for the Fifties.

Speaking of the Fifties, though, I might have something there, what with the most sentimental and heartfelt song on the album, ʽPeople Like Usʼ, beginning with the line "in 1950 when I was born, papa couldnʼt afford to buy us much...". In fact, the bandʼs entire line of evolution ever since the triumph of Stop Making Sense had them oddly growing backwards — where in 1977 they were recording stuff that may have been at least four or five years ahead of its time, in 1986 they were making music that might have belonged in the early Seventies or late Sixties. Old hard rock riffs, simple ska patterns, countryfied slide guitars, even a prom night waltz-type serenade (ʽDream Operatorʼ) — and none of this would be too bad if there wasnʼt a certain aura of laziness around it all. Most of the songs just go on for too long, even if not a single one actually goes over six minutes. This is... unpleasant.

In the end, I think, we have no choice but to return to the reality of True Stories as a soundtrack: allegedly, at least some of the songs work better in the context of Byrneʼs movie, where their relative simplicity and old-fashioned nature should theoretically make a fun contrast with the absurdism and sarcasm of the plot and cinematography. But then we remain with the big question of why the hell Byrne had to force the entire band to release this set as a Talking Heads album rather than just stay contented with the movie soundtrack. Knowing David, this could have been an intentional move to piss off his annoying bandmates — or even an intentional move to give the bandʼs reputation a solid shot in the foot. But since the truth is usually boring, it is more likely that nobody just gave that much of a damn; and by 1986, the other band members, despite all their hard feelings for David, were so used to following his directions that they could not have come up with a better plan on their own anyway.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Paul McCartney: Wings Over America

PAUL McCARTNEY: WINGS OVER AMERICA (1976)

1) Venus And Mars / Rock Show / Jet; 2) Let Me Roll It; 3) Spirits Of Ancient Egypt; 4) Medicine Jar; 5) Maybe Iʼm Amazed; 6) Call Me Back Again; 7) Lady Madonna; 8) The Long And Winding Road; 9) Live And Let Die; 10) Picassoʼs Last Words (Drink To Me); 11) Richard Cory; 12) Bluebird; 13) Iʼve Just Seen A Face; 14) Blackbird; 15) Yesterday; 16) You Gave Me The Answer; 17) Magneto And Titanium Man; 18) Go Now; 19) My Love; 20) Listen To What The Man Said; 21) Let ʼEm In; 22) Time To Hide; 23) Silly Love Songs; 24) Beware My Love; 25) Letting Go; 26) Band On The Run; 27) Hi, Hi, Hi; 28) Soily.


General verdict: Paulʼs triple-live contribution to The Age Of Excess — loud, chaotic, clumsy, and technically expendable, but alive and fun rather than mechanically nostalgic.

The Wings Over The World tour of 1975–76 was not merely the public zenith of Wings as a band: somewhat arguably, it marked the very last moment in history when any one of the Beatles was still capable of «moving mountains», figuratively speaking. McCartney was making headlines, selling like hotcakes, attracting gigantic masses of live audiences, and basking in the warmth of rockstar extravagance. Sure enough, for the upcoming generation, soon to be feasting on the fresh flesh of punk and New Wave, Paul was approaching the status of living fossil — but not any more than, say, Led Zeppelin, who were still very much at the peak of their game.

The thing is, Paul was really digging the Seventies. He would never succeed in properly catching up, Bowie-style, with the new musical trends of the Eighties, and starting with Flowers In The Dirt, he would completely jump out of the time window. But the hard-rock, the glam-rock, the prog-rock period of 1970–75 — this, instinctively, was still his time, and Wings Over America is the perfect historical document to prove that. The band that was assembled for that tour may not have exactly been the tightest, most disciplined, or even most professional team to back him up on stage; but each and every member of Wings in 1976 — even Linda! — was a personality, rather than a willing and obeying servant of the one and only Sir Paul, and all these personalities were enjoying the dope-thick air of the mid-Seventies in a freedom-loving, reckless way that, some might say, could only have existed around 1976. (Cue Weenʼs ʽFreedom Of ʼ76ʼ here).

That was a hyperbole, but so is this entire album: a triple LP set — if ELP and Yes can do this, then why not an ex-Beatle? — focused on ensuring Wingsʼ dominance over the contemporary world of rock (or, at least, pop-rock) music, and ensure it did: to the best of my knowledge, this is the only triple live album to have ever topped the US charts. Once again, one last time, Paul McCartney was on top of the world, showing himself to the world exactly the way the world wanted to see him — rocking out, glitzy, long-haired, and playing tons of catchy anthems. And most importantly, while he did make a few nods to his past with the Beatles, for about 80% of the time he was busy presenting his new stuff, and the fans did not seem to mind. Never again would a McCartney live set feature less than at least 50% Beatle classics — and never again would the man ever agree to share the spotlight with any of his supporting band members.

This is not to say that Wings Over America is a great live album. For all his lively nature, Paul McCartney lives and breathes studio polish, and everything that he takes with him on stage inevitably suffers from the lack of that polish. The lack of atmospheric overdubs, the difficulties of singing and playing at the same time, the inability or unwillingness to reinterpret or expand the studio material — all of these problems, so typical of pop artists in general, are especially biting in the case of Paul McCartney, where you instinctively want everything to be perfect, get sorely disappointed when not everything is, then understand that there would be no need for a live album if everything were perfect, then try to find a way to embrace the imperfections... then you find out you cannot really do it, and never return to the album again.

Granted, as long as Paul has those Wings around him, the situation is not that dire. The biggest hero in this mess is Jimmy McCulloch, who has enough raw talent to make almost each single song on which he is active slightly different from the original, with subtly improvised moments that make the songs come alive. Listen to his solo on ʽMy Loveʼ, for instance, which he has faithfully learned from Henry McCullough, his predecessor, but subtly converted from a soft-rock to a hard-rock paradigm; or to his screechy flourishes on ʽLet Me Roll Itʼ, which make the song a little less repetitive and monotonous than it was on Band On The Run. His instrumental and vocal performance on ʽMedicine Jarʼ turn it into a serious highlight of the show, with Paul willingly reduced to the role of his trusty bass henchman for a bit.

Next to the young passion of Jimmy, Denny Laineʼs more mature professionalism is not as easily noticeable, but he, too, gets a couple interesting spotlights, including a heart-on-sleeve acoustic rendition of Paul Simonʼs ʽRichard Coryʼ ("oh I wish that I could be... JOHN DENVER!") — I am only sad that he had not yet written his own masterpiece in this fast acoustic folk subgenre, ʽDeliver Your Childrenʼ, which would have been an even more appropriate inclusion. And, some­what predictably, he gets to pour the contents of his broken heart out on ʽGo Nowʼ, probably the only song associated with his person in the pre-Wings days that anybody in the audience had a chance to remember — with Jimmy lending a helping hand, as the old torch waltz is transformed into a strong arena-rock anthem.

Speaking of the setlist in general, the album has an interesting structure and features some unique performances that favorably set it apart from the string of sonically superior, but interchangeable live records from McCartneyʼs later years. The first side of the first LP is fully contemporary: nothing but songs from Band On The Run and Venus And Mars, with Wings in full-scale rock mode — Paul pulls no punches when he blasts off with ʽRock Showʼ and then directly segues it into ʽJetʼ. After the first adrenaline-raising segment is over, he switches to piano and tests out a couple of Beatles classics (ʽLady Madonnaʼ, ʽThe Long And Winding Roadʼ). After this, the band gathers round a friendly campfire to have some acoustic fun, and eventually Beatle stuff resurfaces once again — but this is just Paul solo (with a little help from the horns), playing solitary renditions of ʽBlackbirdʼ and ʽYesterdayʼ to a thrilled audience that would probably be offended if it had to leave without hearing a single Beatles song.

Once ʽYesterdayʼ is over and the people have been placated, it is back to contemporary business: as we get to the third LP, the band begins to play selections from its most recent album, Wings At The Speed Of Sound, and you get unique takes on ʽSilly Love Songsʼ and ʽBeware My Loveʼ, songs that, to the best of my knowledge, McCartney has never played live since then — my guess being that the former taxes his bass playing skills to the max, and the latter does the same to his vocals. That live version of ʽSilly Love Songsʼ is well worth your money, though, because the bass might be even louder and tighter than in the studio — and, for that matter, Paul himself plays a lot of bass on this tour, unlike the later years when he would frequently switch over to rhythm guitar and generally present himself as The Great Ex-Beatle rather than a fabulous musician. Here, he hugs that Rickenbacker like there was no tomorrow (you can actually see all the hugging on the Rockshow video from the tour), and it becomes particularly evident that on all these Wings albums he was still treating the bass as a highly important melodic instrument rather than a support strut, which would be more typical of later albums.

It is also telling how the show ends — not with a predictable good-vibe audience hug with ʽLet It Beʼ and ʽHey Judeʼ, but with two heavy and slightly provocative power-pop-rockers: ʽHi Hi Hiʼ and ʽSoilyʼ, the latter surprisingly funky for Wings (a bit reminiscent of the Stonesʼ ʽHeart­breakerʼ from Goats Head Soup) and never issued in a studio version, perhaps for the better, since the song (similarly to the earlier ʽMessʼ) is essentially an excuse for some dark and sweaty band jamming. It might not be a great composition, but once again, it shows just how much effort Paul was putting in at the time to avoid his shows being perceived as nostalgic events.

Personally, I find myself watching the accompanying video (Rockshow, recently remastered and officially re-released by Eagle Rock) more often than I listen to the album — the glammy vibe of the mid-Seventies, with all the glitter flying around, is ridiculously fun, and even if Paul now admits himself that Wings were a "terrible band" when it came to hanging out on stage, the important thing is that they had some great stuff to play, and they had a lot of fun playing it. It is hardly surprising that the pop rocker Paul McCartney, the folk / art-rocker Denny Laine, the hard-rocker Jimmy McCulloch, and the photographer-cum-keyboardist Linda McCartney could never gel together on the level of The Who or Led Zeppelin — but the very weirdness of this combina­tion of a bunch of talented people brought together by fate adds a special flavor to this historical document, one that you will never taste again. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Autechre: NTS Session 4

AUTECHRE: NTS SESSION 4 (2018)

1) frane casual; 2) mirrage; 3) column thirteen; 4) shimripl casual; 5) all end.

General verdict: Two hours of almost nothing seems like a pretty natural conclusion to eight hours of nearly something, but that does not prevent it from sucking on the gut level.


I suppose that even Autechre can get tired from a four-week residence at a radio station, because this is precisely what this final two-hour marathon sounds like — tired and out of breath. With but five tracks on it (and the fifth one quite a fraudulent one at that), the fourth volume offers nothing by way of new ideas, except serving as a dutiful wrap-up for all those who live on borrowed time and do not mind having it stretched like a nylon hose because they got nothing better to do anyway than to listen to a single sample looped for eternity.

So here is a quick runthrough. ʽFrane casualʼ is fourteen minutes spent staring at a conveyor belt that splurges out the same robotic part at regular intervals. ʽMirrageʼ is six minutes spent wading in the early morning through a sticky nebula of electronic fog that looks, smells, and feels exactly the same in any given direction. ʽColumn thirteenʼ is seventeen minutes spent stuck in an alien elevator, with the friendly repair technicians convinced, for some reason, that these seventeen minutes will be much better spent with the muzak remaining on rather than off. ʽShimripl casualʼ is twenty four minutes spent in a giant empty refrigerator, breathing in dry ice clouds and staring at all the complex sub-systems of blinking lights.

Finally, the magnum opus ʽall endʼ is one track which, I have to be honest, I finally did not have the patience to experience from top to bottom — or perhaps I did, but I might have fallen asleep near the beginning and woken up towards the end of its fifty-eight minute running length. Yes, that is right: the thing clocks in at 58:21, and you can get in, get out, get in again, get out again, get up, get down, get with it, and get under it at any single particular moment: most of the time it will just be an ocean of calm electronic noise, sometimes quieter, sometimes louder, sometimes with the waves hissing and foaming, sometimes with subtle undercurrents, but mostly about as consistent as any real ocean with a quiet, stable breeze blowing over it. Chill!

Now, actually, all of these things kind of make sense within the overall context of the NTS Sessions. Since the basic idea behind all of them is to have more or less the same fun that you do with Youtube videos when playing them at 0.25 speed, it makes all the more sense to give the fans a special two-hour long goodbye, just to make you properly savor and digest all the tiny microcell elements that constitute a goodbye. Therefore, as far as multi-part artistic gestures go, I have no problem with the album. But it goes without saying that getting it to properly «register» is equally hard on its own or as part of the entire 8-hour experience: where each of the previous sessions had at least occasional moments that could grab my attention, this one is background electronic muzak that makes a very good job at making you treat it as such. If there are actually people in this world that are not doing chores while the session is on, Jeff Lebowski promises to eat his heart out.

Concluding this entire sub-section, I must stress once again the surprise at all the glowing reviews of the NTS Sessions — not that there were many of them in the first place, since Autechre are long past the peak of their fame, but most of those that did come out spent their digital space gushing at the many wonders and thrills offered by the experience. Personally, I am just not convinced that a semi-improvised eight-hour session by an aging avantgarde electronic duo could be consistently wonderful and thrilling even theoretically — though the first volume, as I have already written, did offer a somewhat fresh and exciting take on the old formula. Perhaps it is all about the ambitiousness: people, sometimes unknowingly, are so hungry for monumental artistic feats these days that the mere introduction of a Gargantuan gesture like this one gets them all aroused. Or perhaps Autechre have simply mutated into that particular kind of dinosaur which only stimulate the aut bene, aut nihil principle when people write about them.

Regardless, I have to state that NTS Sessions are a partial success on the microlevel (there is still potential in the old formula) and a general failure on the macrolevel — not only is the eight hour length no longer an impressive feat of originality by itself (sure, the whole thing runs longer than The Disintegration Loops, but who really cares?), but I am afraid that the entire «less is more» principle has ambiently hummed its last ambient hum just as well. Other than a tiny bunch of niche fanatics, this kind of product is not likely to appeal to anybody, and what once used to be a feat of free thinking and artistic exploration has turned into a routine way of making a living. Maybe I am dead wrong, and maybe, as one particularly gushing reviewer wrote, "itʼs as if the preceding decades of work were acts of research leading to that point". But to my mind, thatʼs like saying the same about something like Tom Waitsʼ Bad As Me — a good record that shows tremendous professionalism and maturity, but does not tell us anything about Tom Waits and his badass attitudes that we have not already learned decades ago. And really, with Autechre it is even more confusing, because how exactly do you rate and assess an Autechre record if you do not use originality of approach as the single defining parameter? (The only way in which you could salvage something like Confield, with its obviously clear-cut departure from tradition that even the coarsest layman could observe). I have no answer here, and I doubt anybody has — certainly nobody, so far, who has ever written anything about them. 

Monday, February 11, 2019

My Bloody Valentine: MBV

MY BLOODY VALENTINE: M B V (2013)

1) She Found Now; 2) Only Tomorrow; 3) Who Sees You; 4) Is This And Yes; 5) If I Am; 6) New You; 7) In Another Way; 8) Nothing Is; 9) Wonder 2.

General verdict: A respectable and enjoyable attempt to reproduce and refresh the old formula, but comes nowhere near the magic charm of its predecessor.


Had My Bloody Valentineʼs third album been released hot on the heels of Loveless, it might have gone down in history as a solid follow-up, not breaking any particularly new ground but further consolidating and developing the bandʼs vision — a Magical Mystery Tour on the heels of their Sgt. Pepper, or a Day At The Races to match their Night At The Opera. Instead, Kevin Shields accidentally happened to drop through a wormhole, and emerged exactly twenty-two years later: an enigmatic disappearance that fascinated the critics for a brief while, but ultimately condemned the record to the status of a historical curio.

In between Loveless and MBV, the band had had ample time to tour, chill out, procrastinate, stall, stagnate, break up, reunite, tour some more, chill out some more, and find ways to cope with the mental problems of its leader — but almost none of that seems to rub off on the final product. In fact, I am not exactly sure if there is anything that rubs off on the final product. It clearly benefits from the advantages of 21st century production, but apart from that, it does not seem to owe any debts (at least, not major debts) to any of the contemporary musical genres or scenes. It just feels like a very natural, subtle evolution of MBVʼs sound that picks up exactly where Loveless left off and gently nudges the wheelbarrow just a tad further.

The tad in question is significant, though. On the whole, MBV is slightly less about hallucino­genic treatments of pop melody and more about the power of amplified, distorted drone. Cases where you get offered a sharply pronounced melodic riff, like ʽSoonʼ, are few, if any at all; in their place we usually witness violently strummed single chords, so that MBV ultimately is much closer to the ideal of «shoegazing» than its genre-transcending predecessor. This new — some might same lazier — approach, fortunately, does not apply to vocal melodies, most of which are still written in the finest traditions of melodic dream-pop and still faithfully feature Kevin on the outside and Bilinda on the inside, with the desired «androgynous» effect. Without the vocals, however, the music suffers: cue ʽNothing Isʼ, an odd instrumental that madly thrashes in place for three and a half minutes, like an enraged stallion galloping on the spot because the reins keep holding him back. For the first twenty seconds, it is cute; by the second minute, it has become annoying, by the third, unbearable. Perhaps they should have extended it by ten minutes, like ʽYou Made Me Realiseʼ — at least, that way it would be a statement and a psychological test. As it is, it is just three and a half minutes of wasted space.

What I do like about the record, though, is that it takes time to develop and gradually evolve. Loveless was essentially static: the formula was set in motion with the very first track and went on unhindered until the very end. MBV is less straightforward. The first couple of songs are very Loveless-like in style. ʽShe Found Nowʼ opens the album with expected layers of jangly and distorted guitars, smooth waves of feedback crackling atop your ceiling, and Kevinʼs vocals smoking out the window; ʽOnly Tomorrowʼ melds jangle and distortion in a single tone that goes along well with the accompanying romantic falsetto; ʽWho Sees Youʼ is like a hive of genetically engineered electric bees swarming around your head, with several additional hives gradually joining in at select intervals.

But none of these three songs are really on the same level with the best that Loveless had to offer; with all those guitars droning on rather than being dynamically melodic, you could suspect that this stuff might appeal to fans of stoner rock rather than people who, like myself, were won over by the ability of Loveless to combine overwhelming noise with lovely pop melody. And for me, therefore, MBV truly only begins to redeem itself by the time its fourth track comes along. ʽIs This And Yesʼ breaks with the formula by introducing keyboards into the mix — not modern-sounding keyboards by any means, but an old-fashioned organ sound filtered through some of Shieldsʼ filters, hypnotically wheezing through your ears on its own before it becomes completed with Bilindaʼs friendly ghost vocals. This is totally MBV in nature, but technically it is very different — one might even suggest a Beach House influence, except I am pretty sure that they would have been quite capable of coming up with this sound on their own.

From there on, subtle surprises come incessantly. ʽNew Youʼ is unexpectedly funky, bouncy, and sparsely arranged for MBV, except that whatever guitar and bass and vocal sounds there are, they still wobble and fluctuate like crazy — this is what Blondie may have sounded like if somebody came up with the idea of putting them on acid. ʽIn Another Wayʼ begins with a brief snippet of almost King Crimsonian guitar cacophony before settling into a much more familiar paradigm, yet even then the main melody is carried by an oddly bagpipe-like tone with strong Celtic over­tones (the band suddenly remembering their Irish roots?). And the closing ʽWonder 2ʼ takes a serious risk — it may be as close as they ever came to the edge of equating melody with total sonic chaos; although there is a definite rhythmic backbone and melodic structure, there is so much flanging and phasing that you may feel yourself being blown out of the little piggyʼs house by all the huffing and puffing. Not sure if I am a fan of that, but I appreciate the teasing.

That said, I will be cruel and state that MBV is not Loveless, because at times it tries too hard to be Loveless (and fails), and at other times it tries too hard not to be Loveless, and still fails. Some of these tracks are sonically very interesting, and some are quite lovely, but twenty years is a long time, and the magic cannot really be rekindled. There is a lot of atmosphere, for sure, but not nearly enough substance: I miss the strong melodic hooks that were such great fun to dig out from underneath the sonic rubble of Loveless — here, with cleaner production, the rubble is easier to remove, but the findings are comparatively disappointing. All of the stylistic experimentation and all the attempts to find new ways to apply the MBV formula are very welcome, yet I am afraid that lightning wonʼt really strike twice this time.