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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Ben Folds: Way To Normal

BEN FOLDS: WAY TO NORMAL (2008)

1) Hiroshima (B B B Benny Hit His Head); 2) Dr Yang; 3) The Frown Song; 4) You Don't Know Me; 5) Before Cologne; 6) Cologne; 7) Errant Dog; 8) Free Coffee; 9) Bitch Went Nuts; 10) Brainwascht; 11) Effington; 12) Kylie From Connecticut.

Really bad album title here. The lack of a second ʽoʼ in ʽtooʼ would never deter the skeptics from sneering «You don't say!», which they really do in their two-star and C+ reviews. But it's even worse if you prefer not to notice the pun — because who of us would want a «normal» Ben Folds? Any more «normal» and he'd be Vanessa Carlton. An immediate turn-off, and a particularly ridi­culous one, considering that it is also deceptive: Way To Normal is not really any more or less «normal» than any other Ben Folds record. In fact, considering its overall lightweight nature and the abundance of openly clownish moments, it might even be less normal than usual. Maybe he should have come up with that title earlier — I think that Rockin' The Suburbs is more deser­ving of it than this particular batch of tunes.

There is nothing surprising about the fact that Way To Normal was greeted with relative cold­ness, and the reasons behind this probably go deeper than a simple «oh no, not another forty minutes of this guy bitching about his problems» gut reaction. One of them is that thirty-five years earlier, a bespectacled eccentric called Reginald Kenneth Dwight recorded ʽBennie And The Jetsʼ, a stomping, fireworks-laden, piano-on-parade glam rocker that became one of the most symbolic and unforgettable anthems of its era — a giddy celebration of excess, decadence, and showbiz razzle-dazzle, spiced with self-irony that you could savor or ignore at your whim. Now, thirty-five years later, Ben Folds, a successful, but still somewhat aspiring singer-songwriter, opens his new album with an intentional tribute to that particular song, subtitled ʽB B B Benny Hit His Headʼ just so there would be no way whatsoever you could leave that fact unnoticed — and the song is about... falling on his head off the stage at the start of a Japanese show. "Oh oh oh, they're watching me fall", goes the chorus. Does that make you happy or what?

Oh, it's not a bad song at all — the chorus is suitably anthemic and catchy, and Ben pounds the keys with no less physical energy than Elton. It's a funny parody, except it came out about thirty years too late for us to properly get the joke, and, worse than that, it is one more reminder — as if we really needed one! — of why Elton John is Elton John, and Ben Folds, all pros and cons con­sidered, is still only Ben Folds. And I am not even raising the issue of how convenient it is to get this sort of song under the title ʽHiroshimaʼ, which would normally have us expect something completely different. (Then again, it might be a politically incorrect plus rather than minus — fuck atomic bombs, let's just sing about falling on our heads instead).

A very similar piano-punching pattern constitutes the spine of the album's lead-off single and best-known track, ʽYou Don't Know Meʼ, for which Ben enlists the help of a chamber string sec­tion and Regina Spektor, who had only just graduated from Soviet kitsch to Begin To Hope, and whose whimsical style was in perfect agreement with this song, written by Ben as a mutually ac­cusing dialog between the bastard and one of his bitches (and yes, most of the imaginary or not so imaginary protagonists on this album come across as certified bastards and bitches). The percep­tive effect of ʽYou Don't Know Meʼ, however, is different from ʽHiroshimaʼ — the whole song, both instrumentally and vocally, is built on brief stop-and-start bits of melody, which gives it a robotic feel; Ben's and Regina's vocal interaction on all the "you-don't-know-me"s, in particular, sounds so intentionally rigid and mechanical as if it were computer-generated. But both singers are so «wimpy» that, in the end, they sound like baby robots having a baby battle of the wits, and while the effect is genuinely hard to forget, you do feel like you're sitting in the middle of a cute­sy cartoon while it's on.

«Fluffy» moments like these abound on the record. ʽDr Yangʼ, ʽThe Frown Songʼ, ʽFree Coffeeʼ, and, of course, the infamously titled ʽBitch Went Nutsʼ — all of them giddy, lightweight, ironic, sometimes parodic pop-rockers; some of them are melodically impressive (ʽDr Yangʼ is a head-spinning piece of piano-based rock'n'roll with one of Ben's best piano tones ever captured on the instrumental solo part), but some do not seem to be making much of a point, or, worse still, are making a debatable point — the lyrics of ʽBitch Went Nutsʼ carry the «strained relationship» topic a little too far, right into the sphere of personal meanness, and the breakneck tempo of the piano melody does not allow Ben to redeem himself through efficient composition.

All the more surprising is the fact that, sandwiched in between these numerous samples of «storms in teacups», we do find some of Ben's most soulful ballads in ages — ʽCologneʼ and ʽKylie From Connecticutʼ both work on the most basic gut level, the former with its melancholic desperation (featuring the loneliest way to say the words "my hotel room" since Ray Davies), and the latter with its desperate melancholia, if you get the difference between the two. Both are far more emotionally loaded than ʽBrickʼ, even if their respective choruses are nowhere near that loud — apparently, as time (and more divorces) go by, it becomes easier for Folds to wallow in his misery and convert the results to heart-tugging vocal lines.

Overall, this is frankly a mess — but then again, so was a heavy chunk of, say, Paul McCartney's solo catalog (an analogy that probably came to my mind because both artists like to write silly songs about dogs — check ʽ3 Legsʼ against ʽErrant Dogʼ!). So, for consistency's sake, I couldn't dare condemn Way To Normal based on any «ideological» grounds, if the individual songs range from cutesy-funny to subtly-heart-wrenching. Diverse, creative, funny, and, as usual, ho­nestly fulfilling Ben Folds' destiny — converting his life experience into friendly musical anec­dotes. If, this time around, the results seem «fluffy», I guess it also merely reflects a particular piece of life experience. No problems with a thumbs up here.

On a side note, one year later Ben actually re-released the album as Stems And Seeds, changing the running order, adding some extra overdubs (notably additional orchestrated parts for ʽCo­logneʼ), and, most importantly, remixing all the tracks with less compression — acting on fan complaints about the poor sound quality of Way To Nor­mal, as he explained before other fans who complained about the rip-off effect. I have heard both versions, and testify that Stems does sound a wee bit fresher and «ringier», so certified audiophiles might want to go along with the new ver­sion; but on the other hand, it is not as if they were so significantly different that you could get bored with the old one and then get redeemed with the new one. However, it is worth noting that, in the authentic tradition of the «nutty artist», the actual song ʽWay To Normalʼ only makes its appearance on Stems And Seeds, but not on Way To Normal itself. Fortunately for us all, it's not a particularly good song.

Check "Way To Normal" (CD) on Amazon
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Friday, April 18, 2014

Black Flag: My War

BLACK FLAG: MY WAR (1984)

1) My War; 2) Can't Decide; 3) Beat My Head Against The Wall; 4) I Love You; 5) Forever Time; 6) The Swinging Man; 7) Nothing Left Inside; 8) Three Nights; 9) Scream.

After a three-year break in recording, partially triggered by legal hassles with their record label as well as personal problems — such as losing their drummer and their bass player for different reasons — Black Flag came back with a vengeance for 1984, releasing no fewer than three new studio albums that year. But whoever was expecting another Damaged from these guys (or, bet­ter still, three more Damageds!) had to take a hike: Greg Ginn and Henry Rollins were not about to let their progressively-oriented brain machines be overridden by rigid formula.

The first side looked promisingly conservative. The title track breaks in at an acceptably fast tempo (not nearly as fast as ʽRise Aboveʼ, though), delivers a classic Rollins scream-hook as he spits "you're one of them! you're one of them!" right in your face, almost making you blush in embarrassed confusion, and turns Ginn's guitar into a well-oiled machine gun, as he bathes you in sonic shrapnel from behind Henry's muscular back.

ʽCan't Decideʼ, despite the already suspicious gargantuan running length of 5:22, is even better as a song — as its discordant sonic intro even­tually morphs into another set of machine-gun phrasing, Rollins and Ginn construct a series of verses on the issue of having to suppress one's true emotions that subtly-brutally build up towards an explosive resolution: Henry's "I can't decide, I can't decide, I can't decide ANYTHING!" may be one of the most credible expressions of total frustration since the Who's ʽI Can't Explainʼ. Why they decided to include a gazillion of dissonant guitar solos and verses is beyond me — the song would probably have worked much better as a laconic 2:30 blast — but, most likely, expanded lengths like these simply meant re­fusing to kowtow to established «hardcore standards», take it or leave it.

The remaining four songs on Side A do not add any extra emotional range: the energy level never drops, and Rollins' lyrics never cease scorching the earth (the first line of ʽI Love Youʼ is, after all, "I put my fist through the door" — we've come a long way from 1964), but the musical structures and moods follow the same principles, and Ginn's laudable willingness to keep experimenting with chord sequences comes at the expense of catchiness: there are some fairly monstruous and not particularly meaningful polygonal riff-monsters here, and the best thing about them is pro­bably the guitar tone — low, grumbly, distorted, but cleanly produced, with tight control exerci­sed over echo and feedback.

Side B, although it retains the tone, is a different proposition altogether. It is given over to some­thing quite unexpected: three lengthy, slow, draggy slabs of what could only be described as «early sludge metal», most notably derivative of Black Sabbath but nowhere near as poppy or catchy, especially when Greg throws in one of his dissonant solos whose sound I could only de­scribe as «what you'd expect to happen if Lou Reed started playing like Frank Zappa». Critical opinion on these weird creations is usually negative, with «self-indulgent» as the mildest epithet in their direction — but once you really start thinking, it seems as if it is only the tempo that truly separates them from the first half. Everything else is the same — the guitar tones, the dissonan­ces, the darkness, the lyrics, the screaming; if you took ʽI Love Youʼ and slowed it down, you'd have yourself another copy of ʽNothing Left Insideʼ. Therefore, by loving the first side and hating the second side, one essentially admits that the only reason why «hardcore» deserves to exist is its speed — a logical position, but not a very useful one, so it seems.

I think that the monotonous, draggy trilogy of ʽNothing Left Insideʼ, ʽThree Nightsʼ, and ʽScreamʼ is at least «kinda curious», and at most, if you let yourself ride its wobbly waves, a quasi-psychedelic rough trip that mixes early 1970s pothead-ism with modern punk to an unpre­dictable effect. ʽNothing Left Insideʼ, in particular, succeeds in generating a cool, smoky, downer atmosphere where, at times, Rollins and Ginn howl in unison like a pair of stray dogs, freshly run over by a truck. Nothing too serious, just "pain hurts my heart, nothing left inside". Oh, needless to say, eighteen minutes of this atmosphere are easily sustainable probably only if you are a pot­head, but the experience is not a total waste, and «self-indulgence» is a word I'd rather reserve for a 15-minute Kansas epic than for this brave, only partially successful attempt to invent «slow hardcore» (or «anti-hardcore», whatever).

All in all, the experimental nature of My War has its attractive sides, and the album captures and bottles something — at the very least, this is certainly not a case of a band with nothing to say. I am pretty sure that all of this could have been said better, maybe with some extra overdubs, or with a little more range to Rollins' character, or with a little less slobbering adoration for Tony Iommi that prevents Ginn from straying away from that one single path. But even as it is, My War still deserves a thumbs up, since its «bravery» (maybe even literal bravery — the hardcore market is already so small that most of the suppliers usually try not to alienate any parts of it) does not come at the expense of meaning, and the album has some replay value.

Check "My War" (CD) on Amazon
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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Billy Joel: An Innocent Man

BILLY JOEL: AN INNOCENT MAN (1983)

1) Easy Money; 2) An Innocent Man; 3) The Longest Time; 4) This Night; 5) Tell Her About It; 6) Uptown Girl; 7) Careless Talk; 8) Christie Lee; 9) Leave A Tender Moment; 10) Keeping The Faith.

Once again, you gotta give it to Billy — in an era when New Wave, electrofunk, synth-pop, and glam metal were all the rage, going out there to record an entire album of tributes to late 1950s / early 1960s pop, rock, and R&B and making it chart, as well as yield a whole bunch of big hit singles, is a genuine accomplishment if there ever was one. In retrospect, An Innocent Man does not particularly stand out from the general streak of Billy's change-face-records, but in its historic context, it probably holds the record as «least expected thing for Billy to have done at the given moment». This already makes it worth hearing, at least once.

The album, as Billy admits himself, was triggered to life by his divorce from his first wife, which allowed him (finally!) to date hot young Cosmopolitan chicks like Elle Macpherson and Christie Brinkley (whom he finally married two years later) and «feel like a teenager all over again». As a result of this, the seriousness and pessimism of the previous two albums are cast to the wind, and we are invited to a retro-styled rock'n'roll party, where one by one, Mr. Joel impersonates a long series of his idols — R&B entertainers, soul belters, doo-wop crooners, rock'n'rollers, Motown stars, you name it. There is no attempt to veil, conceal, or modernize these influences: on the con­trary, the album openly bills itself as a tribute, and should be regarded as such, so there is really no sense in criticism like «this song is a blatant Wilson Pickett rip-off, how can it be good?». The real questions are — (a) how close do these imitations come to recreating the right spirit? and (b) is there any reason to listen to them instead of the real stuff?

Question (a), I think, should rather be answered in the positive. There is no doubting the profes­sionalism of Billy Joel, or of Phil Ramone who agreed to go along with the idea and adapted his production to all the old-time values. There is no doubting, either, the sincerity and adoration that went into this project — Joel really truly loves this music (and why shouldn't he?), and, more ar­guably but still quite likely, understands its spiritual essence. Throw in his hook-crafting poten­tial, and voilà, all the required ingredients are there. ʽEasy Moneyʼ bangs the ground with typically Pickettish ferociousness, ʽChristie Leeʼ pounds the piano with typically Little Richardish abandon, ʽCareless Talkʼ steals and remixes all the right vocal inclinations from Sam Cooke, ʽTell Her About Itʼ is pulsating with all the right catchy-excited romanticism of Motown girl groups, and so on. An Innocent Man succeeds not only on the surface, but deeper as well — with the under­standable reservation that most of the songs and styles imitated here by Billy were never that deep themselves, to begin with.

The second question is trickier. There are even some major Billy Joel fans out there who do not think much of the album, since to them, «this is not the real Billy», and one might even feel of­fended to have ʽGoodnight Saigonʼ immediately followed up by such a light-hearted pastiche as ʽTell Her About Itʼ. But we are not really discussing this from the point of view of major Billy Joel fans — as far as I am concerned, I have no idea of what exactly is «the real Billy Joel»: for all I know, «the real Billy Joel» could mostly be about wanting to bed hot Cosmopolitan models, so let us just steer clear of the issue for safety reasons. The real concern is whether you could, for instance, intersperse these songs with ʽMustang Sallyʼ, ʽCupidʼ, ʽYou Can't Hurry Loveʼ, ʽSe­cond That Emotionʼ, etc., and not feel a «cringing» moment whenever a Joel song comes along on the setlist. Or, even worse, a «boring» moment.

My own answer is that I do not. Or, rather, that I think these songs are typically as good as the stuff they are imitating, with one major exception: Billy moves uncomfortably close to «black­face mode» when he is openly imitating the vocal styles of great singers — it is a little ridiculous to hear him try out the vocal attack of Pickett on ʽEasy Moneyʼ, or Sam Cooke's modulation rou­tine on ʽCareless Talkʼ, or go ahead and bawl like Little Richard on ʽChristie Leeʼ. He is a good singer, and he does a fairly decent job with these approximations, but «doing impersonations» is not really quite the same as «paying tribute».

Other than that, I like the results — the brass-punctured fast Motown sweep of ʽTell Her About Itʼ, the Four Season-ish vocal harmony-drenched pop punch of ʽUptown Girlsʼ, the R&B gallop of ʽEasy Moneyʼ (although I thought that, after The Doors had already exploited that rhythm on ʽThe Changelingʼ, there would be little reason for white performers to try it on for size again), and even the soft, echoey Drifters-like style of the title track. I am much less enamored of ʽThe Longest Timeʼ, which sounds as silly and corny as most of the doo-wop that it imitates, and of ʽThis Nightʼ, which sounds like it belongs on Zappa's parodic Cruising With Ruben & The Jets, but I think Little Anthony himself must have been in awe of the melody.

I think that, in the end, it all depends on the level of worship. If you think of all these old tunes as light, friendly entertainment for the simple senses, Billy's copycat imitations, stylistically mat­ching the originals but with sufficient melodic divergencies so as not to count as «stolen items», are equally light, friendly entertainment for the simple senses (more or less the job that Billy Joel, the Artist, was born into this world to carry out). If you put them on a higher pedestal — for in­stance, as proud expressions of the liberated Afro-American spirit — in that case An Innocent Man might seem misguided and even offensive. If bashing Billy Joel for all the sins of the world is on your agenda, this is a great and innovative way of performing the task. But it really isn't on mine, so I'll just say this: An Innocent Man is nice, harmless fun, and if you take it in the overall context of commercial 1983, it is extraordinarily nice, harmless fun.

So I give it a nice, harmless thumbs up, at least until I can think of a way to prove that ʽYou Can't Hurry Loveʼ boasts a more sophisticated and groundbreaking style of composition than ʽTell Her About Itʼ. For the moment, all I can say is that I prefer Diana Ross as a singer to Billy Joel, but that would be a lame excuse.

Check "An Innocent Man" (CD) on Amazon
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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Bobby Womack: I Don't Know What The World Is Coming To

BOBBY WOMACK: I DON'T KNOW WHAT THE WORLD IS COMING TO (1975)

1) Interlude No. 1 / I Don't Know; 2) Superstar; 3) If You Want My Love, Put Something Down On It; 4) Git It; 5) What's Your World; 6) Check It Out; 7) Interlude No. 2; 8) Jealous Love; 9) It's All Over Now; 10) Yes, Jesus Loves Me.

Yes indeed, it is hard to tell what the world is coming to if it no longer agrees to buy mass quan­tities of Bobby Womack records. This one completely fell through the floor — the lead single ʽCheck It Outʼ barely scraped the charts, and its follow-up, a revised (in fact, completely reinven­ted, which might have added to the problem) take on ʽIt's All Over Nowʼ, missed them complete­ly. The LP itself also fared poorly, and the most disappointing thing about it was that you couldn't even accuse Bobby of feeling «out of time» — on the contrary, the record clearly pays attention to ongoing trends, incorporating more electronics and tighter dance beats than ever before. All in all, Bobby makes it clear that he is ready to undergo a transition to disco. So why the decline in popularity? How come he got outsold by the Bee Gees on this market, anyway?

Most likely, the album simply fell through the cracks. At his best, Bobby was a master of the friendly funky groove and the soulful vocal tear. But the more he stoops to the new demands of the time, the less impressive the groove is, and the less space is left for the soulfulness. A succes­­ful disco hit needs a major hookline, and just how many major hooklines are there on these parti­cular songs? ʽCheck It Outʼ features a pleasant enough four-note brass / guitar riff as its main point of attraction, but it has neither sufficient cockiness for the boys, nor the required sexiness for the girls. The thing is, Mr. Womack's soul is still dwelling in the «gallant Sixties», and the thrills that he offers here for listeners in 1975 are too obsolete to properly thrill — in fact, proper­ly titillate — their gut feelings. In other words, ʽCheck It Outʼ is no ʽYou Should Be Dancingʼ when it comes to really getting people up on their feet in a way they've never been gotten up be­fore. The old funk school is getting dusty.

Re-evaluated forty years after the fact, though, I Don't Know What The World Is Coming To seems to be just another decent, not-too-special Womack record. Other than the quickened tem­pos, everything seems to be in place: passionate vocals, clever guitar licks, unusual arranging ideas, tight backing band. The title track, for instance, has a thoroughly cool twin set of guitar lead lines trailing through all of its duration — a «clean» «woman tone», playing a melodic part all based on sustained humming notes, and a distorted, frenzied, psychedelic guitar explosion. Unfortunately, they are not separated into separate channels and are kept well below Bobby's vocals in the mix: as usual, the man is just too humble to let the guitar play a distinctive part, not even if one of the players on the track is Glen Coins from Parliament/Funkadelic.

On Side B, the same double-tracking trick is repeated on ʽWhat's Your Worldʼ, another classy groove where the tension is further driven up by the mean bassline which, at about 3:14 into the song, explodes in a murky sea of apocalyptic fuzz, then, a minute later, comes back to its senses, then, towards the fade-out, does it again. It's the little things like that — totally superfluous from a general point of view — that add spice to the otherwise plain, not-too-memorable grooves and show that Bobby's will to hunt for new sounds was hardly diminished. The problem is, you, the listener, likewise, have to sniff that will out; sometimes only an intent, thoroughly focused listen in headphones will bring out the complexity of the arrangements.

And there are misfires, too. The new version of ʽIt's All Over Nowʼ, for instance, is a mess; where Bobby's previous self-reinventions always preserved the gist of the tune, this particular one is clearly self-referential, and could only work as an extra coda to the original — Bobby's duet with Bill Withers centers on endless re-runs of the chorus and chaotic vocalizing: you are offered three minutes of cheerful dance-centered insanity without a good understanding of what all the hoopla is about. The only thing sillier than recording this track was the attempt to release it as an official single — for whom?

It is also a little strange to sit through a whole album of mostly high-powered dance music, lightly interspersed with a few ballads, only to have it end on a slow, reverential note with a gospel num­ber: ʽYes, Jesus Loves Meʼ seems like a hasty toss-off, almost like an instantaneous apology to the Lord for over-indulging in «pleasures of the flesh» on the rest of the record (musically more than lyrically), and the gospel genre is not really tailor-made for Bobby's stylistics.

But in all honesty, that's just nitpicking. It would be all too easy to say that the album finds Bob­by in a directionless state of confusion, and use its very title for an indirect confirmation — in reality, I don't feel any confusion, and, for what it's worth, serious soul artists have always com­plained about the state of the world, regardless of the actual historical context (which is why so much of their stuff sounds timeless, applicable to any epoch). It is really quite a self-assured, so­lid recording in its own right — its only serious «flaw» being in that it tries to give the people what they want, the way they want it, but fails, because it is still delivered the way the author wants it. Or something like that, anyway.

Check "I Don't Know What The World Is Coming To" (MP3) on Amazon

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Bob Dylan: Love And Theft

BOB DYLAN: LOVE AND THEFT (2001)

1) Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum; 2) Mississippi; 3) Summer Days; 4) Bye & Bye; 5) Lonesome Day Blues; 6) Floater; 7) High Water; 8) Moonlight; 9) Honest With Me; 10) Po' Boy; 11) Cry A While; 12) Sugar Baby.

He survived into the 21st century after all, but when you compare Love And Theft with Time Out Of Mind, it still feels as if he died, lingered out there for seven days and seven nights, and then came back as a different person. In all honesty, trying to repeat Time Out Of Mind would be like trying to rewrite one's own testament — not an auspicious thing to do. So what do you do if you have your testament laid out in perfect form, and somehow you're still not dead yet? You just take on a different personality, and pretend it's a separate kind of you.

It is a little humorous that, although the levels of critical praise for Love And Theft matched, or even exceeded, the praise for its predecessor, if you rewind the tape a little, the nearest closest album in spirit would probably be Under The Red Sky — the one that got the critics all riled up and declaring that the man was gone for good. But honestly, play them back to back and the basic concept is the same: get yourself a rootsy backing band, let it all hang out a bit, relax and have some old-fashioned fun with archaic musical structures. The one glaring difference is the lyrics, which were clearly downplayed and almost intentionally simplified on Red Sky, but are fully back to Dylan's highest standards of sophistication here — which, once again, only goes to show that for most critics, Dylan's art is only as good as Dylan's words are. To tell you the truth, though, I like Love And Theft just fine, yet I could not bring myself to pay deep attention to any of the lyrics. As I browse through the sheet, it is evident that the man is really trying — many of the phrasings and unpredictable twists hearken back to 1965-66 — but, honestly, by 2001 most of us must have hit that oversaturation point where even the most brilliant new Dylan lyrics are already perceived as... well, it's good to know his brain is still locating new combinations of metaphors and conundrums at top speed, but it's not as if it were still capable of surprising us.

Anyway, the big deal is that, where Time Out Of Mind, with its ghostly-swampy Lanois palette, was dark, unsettling, and psychologically uncomfortable, Love And Theft is light, playful, and almost completely given over to pre-rock'n'roll stylistics. The Bob Dylan band is having itself a «woodchopper's ball», to which we are all cordially invited — overseen and produced by none other than Jack Frost, giving you a sharp stare from the album cover and looking quite a bit frosty indeed (the album does really go along quite fine with a thin streak of fresh snow falling outside the window, particularly the romantic jazzy bits like ʽFloaterʼ and ʽMoon­lightʼ), although, when the time comes, he can shake off all that ice with a tight, fast beat in an instant.

It is interesting that Bob chose not to retreat once more into the world of dark acoustic folk songs, but instead settled somewhere else — emerging as a retro popular entertainer, stuck somewhere in between Louis Jordan, Lonnie Johnson, Hoagy Carmichael, and Hank Williams. But then, when you start thinking about it, that was a kind of image he hadn't really tried on yet (although he did get somewhat close with the Traveling Wilburys and Red Sky stuff), and he obviously was not going to get any more pigeonholed in the 21st century than he was in the 20th. So here you go — some good old-fashioned jump blues, some Django Reinhardt-ish jazz balladry, a bit of swing, a touch of the electric 12-bar Chicago stuff, and one for the road: ʽMississippiʼ is the most «proverbially Dylan» song on here, but it was originally recorded during the Time sessions, later donated to Sheryl Crow, and finally reappropriated for Love And Theft — where it occu­pies the position of track no. 2, luring the listener into thinking there will be more songs like that on the album. But there won't.

So, how successful is the experiment? I'd say it works all right, but probably does not deserve the grand acclaim it got — to a large extent, from people who had simply forgotten about how good «rootsy» music can sound when one actually gives a damn. Funny as it seems, Bob's backing band here sounds tougher, tighter, more involving and more involved than gazillions of other bands from 2001, young and old — and yet they are only the backing band: never once is any of the players properly allowed to leave the shadows and outshine the frontman. Everything is kept down to the bare, well-familiar necessities: clock in, set the groove, kick in the groove, repeat at top energy level until the leader runs out of lyrics. The only question is, how much of your time are you, the listener, willing to give to these guys.

And Bob plays a mean game with you here, pushing his band into delivering one cheap, simple, healthy trill after another. ʽTweedle Dee & Tweedle Dumʼ, opening the album, is not really that more sophisticated than, say, ʽWiggle Wiggleʼ, but the guitar parts, screwed together from a few jazz, blues, and rockabilly chords, are much more fun and far better capable of winding up the spirit. Likewise, the song title also hints at the same level of childishness as ʽWiggle Wiggleʼ, but the words, this time, are fired from Bob's machine gun of surrealism and sarcasm, and in the end, «Tweedle Dee» and «Tweedle Dum», as abstract characters, will tend to look more like Frankie Lee and Judas Priest than their John Byrom, Lewis Carroll, or LaVern Baker predecessors. Yes, the song goes on for nearly five minutes. No, you are not getting anything in its last four minutes that you have not already gotten in the first. Yes, it's not as if this never happened before with Bob Dylan. No, you are not allowed to suggest any changes or throw in constructive criticism, because he is Bob Dylan and you are...?

There may be yet another reason why Love And Theft is so far removed from Time Out Of Mind. Over those four years, Dylan's voice has undergone yet another shift — now the croaking, gurgling, and wobbling in his throat can no longer be tamed, subdued, or mixed out, and this is really not the kind of voice that could inspire its owner for another round of ʽIdiot Windʼ. Even ʽLove Sickʼ, when sang with the Love And Theft voice, would have lost a large part of its mys­tery. So the best bet, indeed, would be to match the «decrepit» vocal strings to certain «decrepit» musical genres, in order to prove that they are not «decrepit» at all — check ʽHigh Waterʼ, sub­titled ʽFor Charley Pattonʼ, on which Bob certainly does not sound much like the real Charley Patton, but does sound like a desperate-desolate old hobo, lamenting the end of the world as we know it ("high water everywhere!"), much like the real Patton did in the 1930s. On the other hand, correction: the voice is not particularly desperate per se, but the colors that Bob has irrevocably lost in his singing, he is still able to elicit from the players — the atmosphere of trouble and con­fusion is brilliantly conveyed with the fussy banjo and acoustic guitar parts.

As far as I can tell, there are no highs or lows on Love And Theft whatsoever — be they retro-rockers or retro-ballads, all of these songs, no exceptions, satisfy their modest goals more or less equally. And I stress «modest»: not even ʽSugar Babyʼ, the nearly seven-minute long solemn outro, for which Bob is saving most of his (intentionally) clichéd grand maxims ("love is pleasing, love is teasing, love's not an evil thing"), could be said to truly aspire to something grandiose, it merely winds down the album with some pleasant atmospherics.

But I propose that we all try to find this an adorable solution. This is a perfect formula for a 60-year old who has said all the important things he had to say, and now he's only got three options — die from histoplasmosis (failed), retire into painting and memoir writing (done that, but still got free time to fill), or continue to make «middle-of-the-road» music that would be adequate to his age, pleasant to the ear (as far as possible, with that voice), tasteful, and, most importantly, full of that routine old-age wisdom that, fortunately enough, still prevents us from treating our elders in a Ballad of Narayama manner. Love And Theft satisfies all those conditions — and sets in motion an easily-repeated formula that Bob, with only minor variations, would employ for all of his ensuing output in the new millennium, even at the risk of getting too predictable and pigeonholeable. But then, here is a man who has certainly earned the right to predictability, after fourty long years of rough seas and cerebral turmoil. Thumbs up.

Check "Love And Theft" (CD) on Amazon

Monday, April 14, 2014

Bukka White: 1963 Isn't 1962

BUKKA WHITE: 1963 ISN'T 1962 (1963/1994)

1) Streamline Special; 2) Drunken Leroy Blues; 3) Fixin' To Die; 4) Midnight Twister; 5) Aberdeen Blues; 6) Vase­line Head Woman; 7) Jump; 8) Jack O'Diamonds; 9) Chi Chi Boogie; 10) 1963 Isn't 1962; 11) Boogie 'Til Dubuque; 12) Driftin' And Driftin'; 13) Corinna Corinna.

Not released officially until 1994, this little-known recording might actually be the best post-war slice of Booker T. to be found on the digital circuit. The reason why it took so long to see the light of day is technical — this is a relatively poor quality tape recording, with a lot of distrac­ting hiss running through it, that John Fahey and Ed Denson took of Bukka in the process of «redis­covering» him in November 1963, exactly one year after Dylan had covered ʽFixin' To Dieʼ and brought the name back to public attention.

But poor quality aside, this is the only post-war document to capture Bukka «unprepared», in a homely environment, without any special new strategy of studio behavior, and, consequently, without the man trying to be like somebody else (Chicago bluesmen, for instance). Mississippi Blues, recorded soon afterwards, would still be relatively fresh and come close to matching this attitude — yet even there, the man was already set on «giving the people what they want», that is, well-recorded recreations of his classic pre-war hits. Here, as you can see from the setlist, those hits are almost nowhere to be found — no ʽShake 'Em On Downʼ, no ʽSic 'Em Dogs Onʼ, no ʽParchman Farmʼ, just whatever Bukka felt like playing at that particular moment.

And he felt like playing lots of different things in free format, be it an almost epic-length version of one of his train tales (ʽStreamline Specialʼ), interspersed with streaks of rapped quasi-auto­biographic dialog, or short stretches of boogie improvisation (ʽJumpʼ, ʽBoogie 'Til Dubuqueʼ) that, interestingly, would not reappear on his post-1963 studio recordings, since, apparently, dance-oriented boogie-blues was not what Bukka's main target audience was expecting from the man. All in all, the main distinguishing feature of 1963 Isn't 1962 is the apparent lack of reve­rence for this business — Bukka was not yet fully aware of how «sacred» the new blues fans were finding that kind of music, and his laid-back mode here might really not have been all too appropriate for market demands circa 1963. But it's all right now, half a century later.

Of particular interest here is the brief cover of ʽJack O' Diamondsʼ, a song usually associated with Blind Lemon Jefferson — Bukka gives us a rougher, faster, more rambunctious version, but still punctuated with plenty of weeping outbursts from the slide guitar to preserve the song's tragic outlook (but his own "Jack o' diamonds is a hard card to play!" sounds pissed-off and frustrated next to Jefferson's almost-sobbing delivery). Great slide moments abound on the album in gene­ral, for that matter — weird as it is, this homemade tape gives the impression of the man really trying to prove his best on the instrument, much more so than on his soon-to-come streak of compara­tively inferior studio recordings. And his will to improvise and create is most amply illustrated by the title of the title track, even if the tune itself is generic 12-bar stuff.

So, if you can stand a little hiss and crackle, 1963 Isn't 1962 might be your best bet for a post-war companion to Bukka's pre-war recordings. The general rule holds here: as long as all those old faded «stars» of a goneby era were content with staying what they were, their recordings were full of genuine spirit — when, on the other hand, they were trying to «match the expectations of the times» or anything like that, things immediately began going sour. This one is quite sweet, by that standard, and gets a respectable thumbs up.

Check "1963 Isn't 1962" (CD) on Amazon
Check "1963 Isn't 1962" (MP3) on Amazon

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Alcest: Shelter

ALCEST: SHELTER (2014)

1) Wings; 2) Opale; 3) La Nuit Marche Avec Moi; 4) Voix Sereine; 5) L'Eveil Des Muses; 6) Shelter; 7) Away; 8) Délivrance.

And now we finally know the truth: Neige's preoccupation with «black metal» was really but an accident, a result of an unlucky psychic derailment. It took the guy about ten years to sort that out, but he did manage to reconnect with his own true self at last: Shelter erases the last, already bare­ly visible traces of heavy music from Alcest's palette, and replaces them with heavenly lushness, as Neige and Winterhalter place themselves in the self-assured hands of Birgir Jón Birgisson, the producer of Sigur Rós — who, in his turn, teams them up with Amiina, the Icelandic chamber music / electronic ensemble, well known for working together with Sigur Rós on quite a few oc­casions. Well, if you think about it, it was probably bound to happen, sooner or later.

The decision was clearly a gamble, and it is not yet clear how much it cost Neige in terms of mass quantities of admiration — so far, I have read many an old fan's grumble on how the band lost its unique identity by sacrificing the «black» in favor of the «lush». Now, they say, all we have is an inferior, unnecessary, pale shadow of Sigur Rós, technically pretty, but boring and devoid of its own vision. Trying to progress and develop is all very fine, they say, but not at the expense of dissolving yourself in the ocean of imitation. This point of view is totally acceptable if you really thought that Souvenirs D'Un Autre Monde was some sort of groundbreaking achievement, a fabulous milestone in the development of «blackgaze»; but if you just thought, «hmm, nice dark droning music, whatever», then it is not excluded that Shelter will please you more.

In any case, complaints of «selling out» are entirely missing the point, because, composition-wise, Shelter is as much a proper brainchild of Neige as everything else. Shimmery, jangly guitars in­stead of thick distorted tones and clean, pretty-melancholic vocals instead of deathly growling are simply a different kind of coating, and it's not even as if they weren't already in Neige's inventory from the very beginning, either. As for the strings of Amiina, they are mostly relegated to the background for ambience, so, in the end, it all still sounds more like old-school Alcest than clas­sic Sigur Rós, with Neige's guitar playing at the center of everything.

So let us just ask ourselves two consecutive questions, the only ones, in my opinion, that make sense in the context of an album like Shelter: (a) does Shelter work as enjoyable, tasteful back­ground music? and (b) does Shelter contain any moments or periods of «heavenly beauty» that would rise it above the status of background music?

The first question I answer in the positive, and, in fact, with the jarring «black» moments out of the picture, Shelter is unquestionably the finest «background muzak» album to come from Alcest so far. Some of the songs feature subtle dynamic build-ups (most notably the huge ten-minute grand-finale track), but they are so subtle indeed that they probably won't be able to rip you out of the process of doing whatever you're doing while listening to it. On the other hand, the general mix of the thing, where the guitars usually sound like they are lightly wobbling in space, the strings hover behind them like perfectly normal particle vibrations, and Neige is trying to mes­merize you with the latest in French lullaby craft, is a perfect soundtrack for doing something... like, oh I dunno, writing this here review, for instance.

The second question is trickier. It does not seem to me as if Neige were stringing together chords that weren't already well explored previously — but there are some individual moments that are sufficiently simple, yet at the same time quite deep-reaching. I am speaking particularly of the second half of ʽVoix Sereineʼ (a series of three-chord "nah nah nah"'s that gradually blossoms into an ecstatic merry-go-round); of the delay/echo effect on the guitar strings in ʽL'Eveil Des Musesʼ, which does evoke a bit of a «muse-centered» feeling; and the huge finale of ʽDelivranceʼ, whose build-up is sufficiently grand to stir up the soul... I think.

Still, «I think» is not quite the same as «I am sure». In reality, my feelings are quite torn between realizing that this is indeed the kind of music that Neige must be hearing in his heart even when sleeping — and then realizing that most of its effectiveness comes from clever exploitation of modern recording and mixing technology. And a song like ʽDélivranceʼ, with its ten minutes of powerful building-up and meticulous winding down, lays claim to overwhelming your emotions and flooding your senses (otherwise, it would have no reason to exist), but is there any actual ma­gic to that overwhelming, or is this just a guaranteed-to-work recipé that could be generated by a computer, with just a few parameters fed in? I really have no idea, and this shadow of doubt that refuses to go away prevents me from properly falling under the spell of Shelter, and once you have refused to fall under that spell, you can really only use it as background muzak.

But it's good enough to at least deserve an honest thumbs up — sufficiently different from Neige's previous work to warrant an autonomous listen, never ugly or, in fact, anything less than «pretty», and it makes you want to ask unanswerable questions, so I guess we should count that as a success story, and the idea to bring in the Sigur Rós people was relatively fruitful. Coming up: an equally productive collaboration with Godspeed You! Black Emperor? The modern world of music may be running out of creative steam for all we know, but at least the combinatory potential is on a constant rise.

Check "Shelter" (CD) on Amazon