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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Bobby Womack: Safety Zone

BOBBY WOMACK: SAFETY ZONE (1975)

1) Everything's Gonna Be Alright; 2) I Wish It Would Rain; 3) Trust Me; 4) Where There's A Will There's A Way; 5) Love Ain't Something You Can Get For Free; 6) Something You Got; 7) Daylight; 8) I Feel A Groove Comin' On.

Ironic title, considering that this was Bobby's first serious plunge into disco waters — the last track is a ferociously non-stop eight-minutes-on-the-floor workout, and ʽEverything's Gonna Be Alrightʼ and ʽWhere There's A Will...ʼ do their best to keep up with the hotness as well. For the first time in his life, alas, it seems like Bobby is giving in to outside pressure, with a loss of face. When it comes to straightforward disco, he has no way of «womackizing» it.

Seriously, ʽI Feel A Groove Comin' Onʼ, despite preceding ʽDisco Infernoʼ for about three years, already sounds like an embarrassing parody on The Trammps (a gruesome conclusion, conside­ring that much of the time, The Trammps themselves sounded like an endless self-parody). Eight minutes of a totally mind-boggling, robotic groove, with one ska-derived brass figure repeated over and over with no extra coloring — my only hypothesis is that this was Bobby's way of snap­ping back, «oh, you want real red hot? I'll give you real red hot, you brainless idiots!» There is an odd surprise — at 6:30 into the song, there is an unexpectedly classy piano break that pushes the song sky high for about one minute, and no wonder: check the liner notes and you will see that the piano player is no less than Herbie Hancock himself (!). A beautiful reward, no doubt, for those who have been patient enough to suffer through the rest of the song, but is it really adequate relative to the overall cruelty?

ʽWhere There's A Will, There's A Wayʼ is actually less embarrassing if you like that sort of jumpy mid-1970s vaudeville (of which Billy Preston was a particular master) — at the very least, it has an intricate, non-trivial brass-pop arrangement that Blood, Sweat & Tears would probably kill for (just the kind of sound they needed to fortify the dance-oriented part of their reputation). And the seven minutes of ʽEverything...ʼ actually try to balance between darker, funkier verses and the lighter, bouncier, more discoish chorus — an interesting, unusual attempt to merge the two facets, but it does not seem to work well: the «seams» are too crude and artificial for the mood transitions to become believable. One minute you are standing in a spooky swamp of wah-wah riffage, faraway ghostly-echoey guitar shrieks and warlike brass blasts, then the next minute you are happily dancing your head off to a merry disco beat — sounds intriguing on paper, per­haps, but not so much in real life.

The remaining half of the album is still occupied by examples of the more traditional Womack sound: highlights include ʽTrust Meʼ, written half a decade ago for Janis Joplin and revisited here under a more modernistic coating — but even so, the plastic synthesizer sound is not enough to wipe out traces of genuine soulfulness — and ʽDaylightʼ, a dance ballad with an ironic flavor, sung by Bobby from the viewpoint of a «nightlife addict» who treats «daylight» as «the only time when I can unwind». Could be hilarious if Bobby didn't succeed in making it sound a little tragic. As for the trademark «oddity number», this time around it is the old Chris Kenner chestnut ʽSomething You Gotʼ, redone as a comical reggae number: too self-consciously cute for its own good, but at least showing that the old style of cerebral gymnastics is still very much alive.

All in all, this round of the battle is still being won by Bobby, but when you start counting tro­phies and casualties, the former only barely exceed the latter. It is clear enough that, at this point, the man finds himself forced to engage in something that he obviously does not like too much, and that it gets harder and harder to find an acceptable compromise between «soul» and «com­merce». The solutions that he offers on Safety Zone — such as merging the dark and the light on the lead-in track, or subtly mocking the values of disco on the lead-off number — betray a con­cealed cry for help and may be read as the Morse code equivalent for «I'm as irritated with this crap as you are, guys and girls», but that does not automatically redeem an album where Herbie Hancock is invited to contribute just one minute of piano playing on a generic eight-minute disco track. Whose idea of a pleasant surprise was that, anyway?

Check "Safety Zone" (MP3) on Amazon

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Bob Dylan: Modern Times

BOB DYLAN: MODERN TIMES (2006)

1) Thunder On The Mountain; 2) Spirit On The Water; 3) Rollin' And Tumblin'; 4) When The Deal Goes Down; 5) Someday Baby; 6) Workingman's Blues #2; 7) Beyond The Horizon; 8) Nettie Moore; 9) The Levee's Gonna Break; 10) Ain't Talkin'.

Nothing more or less than Love And Theft, Vol. 2, and by now, we should have already gotten the idea of what the title meant (for Dylan, that is): he loves those old blues tunes so much that he is only too happy to steal them, and not feel guilty about it. Then again, if Muddy Waters in the 1950s put his name on a song that he clearly did not write, why couldn't Bob Dylan do the same fifty years later? From that point of view, this album's title is a condescending joke — you sort of expect to turn the CD over and find the first part of the title on the back cover: This Is What I Think Of Your..., yes, and maybe the finger as well. Because these days, you're not expected to infringe on copyright. In the old days of folk tradition — now that's a different story. These days, «all copyrights reserved for that nameless old guy in the backwoods and his progeny».

Anyway, there we have it: ten more songs in Ye Olde Style, same topics, same cracked voice, same «Jack Frost» production style. The backing band has evolved (only Tony Garnier on bass re­mains over from the Love And Theft sessions), but the sonic essentials remain completely the same. In fact, much as I hate to admit it, the album as a whole is not even deserving of an indivi­dual review. On the whole, the songs roll along a little smoother this time, with fewer «rocking» moments and respectively more «soft blues-rock», but it takes a long time to figure out the subtle differences, and even if there are any, they seem accidental. It's not as if Bob finally lost his potential to rock out — he just happened to be in the mood for quieter guitars and drums.

And it's not as if I'm complaining, because the sound remains efficient. The upbeat, «soft-rock­ing» grooves now take on a J. J. Cale not-give-a-damn aura about them: ʽThunder On The Moun­tainʼ and ʽThe Levee's Gonna Breakʼ both make reference to natural disasters, but the attitude of the protagonist is like, «I'm 66 years old already, what do I care about the whole world going down in flames?», and the rest of the band sounds correspondingly hip and nonchalant, churning the groove out like a biorobot, only occasionally deviating for a muffled guitar solo. Naturally, once you hear "if it keeps on rainin', levee's gonna break", you will be remembering Led Zeppelin (rather than Memphis Minnie, unless you're a seasoned blues snob), and the apocalyptic hysterics of Page and Plant will look tremendously fussy and vain next to this cool-calm-collected view on the turbulent side of life.

Clearly, it is the «coolness» of it all, this effortless transition to a state in which basic emotion is completely suppressed, that attracted critics and fans alike to this «bronze age renaissance» in Dylan's career. On the more officially sentimental, jazzier numbers Bob seems to get accordingly more sentimental and tender (ʽSpirit On The Waterʼ), but exactly how «sincere» is that sentimen­tality? It might be just another tip of the hat to the trappings of a goneby era. ʽWorkingman's Blues #2ʼ, a stately piece of soul-blues, formally written from the point of view of a member of the «proletariat», whatever that word might mean today, is a piece of sad romance that a Bruce Springsteen could easily fill up with genuine affection — in Bob's current rendition it sounds a little hollow and formalistic. But that is the point — to deliver all these messages the way they are delivered, in a detached, introvert manner. It helps to play these songs interspersed with stuff from Highway 61 Revisited: where Bob once used to sound like he was hurling bolts of light­ning at his listeners, now he sounds as if he is directing all the singing right inside his own guts.

The last song on the album, ʽAin't Talkin'ʼ, seems to be a throwback to the vibe of Time Out Of Mind. It is long, dark, pessimistic, it has a naggingly depressing violin part crawling all over it, and its (and the whole album's) last words are, suitably, "the world's end". But even so, compare it with, let's say, ʽShot Of Loveʼ (a suitable comparison, actually, given the wealth of Biblical imagery in ʽAin't Talkin'ʼ), and see the difference — where we once saw the man near-lite­rally pulling out his hair and rolling in the ashes, here is a man completely resigned to his fate. Not at all happy about it, but accepting it as something inevitable. He ain't talkin', just walkin'. If Nick Cave were to sing this song, we'd already be scraping a major percentage of his internal organs off our clothes and faces. Bob and his band just put out the bare facts. No acting, no exaggerating, no self-whipping into frenzy, no trying to change the world through the music, no trying to do anything, in fact. A perfect album for a certified Taoist.

However, although there is no reason to deprive Modern Times of its thumbs up rating, I must say that it sounds overreaching, and that, in particular, I do find the running lengths of most of these songs inadequate — even understanding that Bob Dylan is Bob Dylan, takes orders from no one, and has every right to try my patience in asserting his rights to do whatever he wants. Love And Theft had 12 songs rather than 10, and still ran about five minutes shorter than Modern Times, and that was a good balance; here, unless you really, really, really crave for extra and extra modernist lyrical variations on ancient blues themes (for instance, think that namedropping Alicia Keyes in the context of ʽThunder On The Mountainʼ really works), almost each of these songs could be at least one or two verses shorter without any harm to the business, particularly since there is no development whatsoever happening on any of the songs.

Unless, of course, we are supposed to understand this philosophically — for Bob Dylan, such a silly thing as «time» no longer exists. The end of the world presupposes no need for time, so you cannot even physically complain of having «wasted time» on the extra verses of these songs, be­cause you wouldn't be making much sense. Which, of course, puts the album title in an even more ironic light. Modern times? There are no modern times. They say that Rolling Stone, a magazine that has long since lost touch with true reality, put this record up at No. 204 on its 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list. Silly people, not realizing how absurd it must feel for Modern Times to be on that list, when it so clearly belongs on The Divided By Zero Greatest Albums of No Time list instead.

Check "Modern Times" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Modern Times" (MP3) on Amazon

Monday, April 21, 2014

Carl Perkins: Dance Album Of Carl Perkins

CARL PERKINS: DANCE ALBUM OF CARL PERKINS (1958)

1) Blue Suede Shoes; 2) Movie Magg; 3) Sure To Fall; 4) Gone, Gone, Gone; 5) Honey Don't; 6) Only You; 7) Ten­nessee; 8) Right String, Wrong Yo-Yo; 9) Everybody's Trying To Be My Baby; 10) Matchbox; 11) Your True Love; 12) Boppin' The Blues; 13*) All Mama's Children.

Carl Perkins' only «original» LP from his four-year tenure with Sun Records, like most LPs from that period, is really just a chaotic compilation of A-side, B-side, and outtake material. But even in this form, or, actually, because of this form, it still counts as one of the most impressive and fun-filled LPs from the rockabilly era. Influential, too — which other single LP from the era could boast a whole three songs to be officially covered by the Beatles?

The important thing about Carl Perkins is that, of all the notorious rockabilly people of the era, he was the one to most tightly preserve the «simple country boy» essence in his music. Bill Haley probably came close, but Haley didn't have much of an individual personality, and his backing band, The Comets, was at least as important as its frontman, blending a touch of country-western with a Louis Jordan-esque big-band jump-blues entertainment approach. Perkins, on the other hand, wrote his own songs (or radically reinvented traditional ones), sang his own melodies, played his own lead guitar, and, overall, made it so that we rarely ever remember anything about his sidemen during the recording sessions. Quick, name the bass player and the drummer on ʽBlue Suede Shoesʼ without googling! Yeah, right. Not even Google can help that easily.

Thus, Carl is essentially a «loner», and in that status, gets the right to his own influences and no other's — and chief among those influences is The Grand Ole Opry, with Bill Monroe, Gene Autry, and Hank Williams as his major idols. The good news for those who, like me, feel a bit iffy when it comes to «pure» country music, is that Carl obviously preferred his country with a sharper edge, and if anything, his rockabilly style is a direct continuation of Hank's faster-paced, boogie-based material like ʽMove It On Overʼ. Although Carl's own spirit was never as tempes­tuous or torturous as Hank's (not a single Perkins song shows any signs of acute bitterness), he always had a thing for raw excitement, energy, speed, humor, good-natured irony — anything that would put a smile on your face and an itch in your feet.

Most importantly, Carl's «lonerism» is responsible for making ʽBlue Suede Shoesʼ into one of the coolest songs of its era — and the lyrics had a lot to do with it: "Don't you step on MY blue suede shoes...", sung in a friendly enough tone but with a very clear hint of a threat. This is really where all the Gene Vincents of this world come from: the «rebels» were inspired by the individualistic cockiness of a plain, harmless, friendly «country bumpkin» who inadvertently tapped right into the spinal cord of his era. ʽRock Around The Clockʼ was a good enough count-off for the rock revolution, but it was a general fun party song. ʽBlue Suede Shoesʼ takes us into one particular corner of that party, where one particularly self-consciously hip guy is busy protecting his own particular interests against the whole world, and backing them with sharp bluesy lead guitar licks that sound like a bunch of slaps in the face of whoever has been unlucky enough to step on the protagonist's lucky footwear.

There is a myth going around that Elvis «stole» the song from Carl while the latter was recupera­ting in the hospital after a car accident, and that this effectively put an end to Carl's career as a pop star. In reality, Carl never had the makings of a star, and the image of a «teen idol» would have probably never sat too well with him in the first place — he was, first and foremost, a song­writer and a guitar player — none of which, however, prevented ʽBlue Suede Shoesʼ from going all the way to the top of the charts, while Presley's version (a classic in its own right, no doubt about that) stuck at No. 20 (admittedly, RCA people agreed to hold back the release until Carl's version lost its original freshness — see, there was a time when record industry people could occasionally show signs of gentlemanly conduct).

Already ʽBoppin' The Bluesʼ, the folow-up to ʽBlue Suede Shoesʼ, did not chart as high (No. 7 was its peak) — and it wasn't Elvis that had anything to do with it, but rather the fact that the song was comparatively toothless in comparison, a fairly formulaic rockabilly creation describing the simple joys of rock'n'roll dancing with little challenge or defiance. In the hot, tense competi­tive air of early 1956, Carl soon lost the lead, and although the next three years would see him reeling between inspiration and repetition, the record-buying public pretty much wrote him off as a one-hit wonder and focused on Elvis instead. In addition, Carl loyally stuck with Sun Records through those years, meaning that he couldn't even begin to hope for the kind of promotion that Elvis got (on the positive side, Carl never got to have his own Colonel Parker).

It is a doggone shame, though, that such fate also prevented a great tune like ʽMatchboxʼ from charting — without the Beatles' support, it might have altogether sunk into oblivion, but really, few pop songs sounded as harshly serious and deep-reaching in 1957 as that particular reincarna­tion of an old, old, old blues song by Blind Lemon Jefferson. When those echoing, distant-thun­der-like boogie chords start rattling around the room, it's as if you were being prepared for some important social statement, and, in a way, you are, since Carl preserves many of the original ly­rics, infusing the song with a blues-based sense of outcast loneliness instead of the usual get-up-and-dance stuff. In a way, «socially conscious rock'n'roll music» starts somewhere around this bend, even if Carl himself probably never intended it to be this way.

On a personal note, I must say that ʽHoney Don'tʼ feels to me as one of the very few rock and pop songs by other artists that the Beatles did not manage to improve upon — and not because Ringo is a worse singer than Carl (he actually did a fine job to preserve the tune's humor), but because George Harrison never really got around to learning all the tricks in Carl's playing bag: as rough as the production is on the original, Perkins compensates for it with a series of improvised «muffled» licks that George did not even try to copy, playing in a «cleaner» style that left less room for rock'n'roll excitement. (On the other hand, George did get the upper hand on ʽEvery­body's Trying To Be My Babyʼ by managing to raise the tension on the lengthy second instru­mental break, whereas in Carl's version it pretty much stays the same throughout).

Of the twelve songs assembled here, only a couple are relative clunkers; ʽTennesseeʼ, in particu­lar, sounds as silly as it is sincere, a heartfelt tribute to Carl's native state with a hillbillyish cho­rus and somewhat uncomfortable lyrics that, among other things, urge us to give credit to the fact that "they made the first atomic tomb in Tennessee" (a somewhat inaccurate reference to Oak Ridge, but even if it were accurate, I'm not sure I would want to boast about it even at the height of the Cold War). Pompous, vocally demanding ballads are also not one of Carl's fortes (ʽOnly Youʼ), but he can come up with a highly catchy homely, simple country ballad when he puts his heart into it — ʽSure To Fallʼ, with its melody almost completely based on serenading trills, is quite a beautiful little piece.

One of the most interesting things about comparing old rockabilly records from the mid-to-late 1950s is the relative proportion of their ingredients. Some veer closer to R&B, some to electric blues, some to «whitebread» pop, some are jazzier, some vaudevillian. From that point of view, Dance Album Of Carl Perkins is a curious mix of something very highly conservative with an explosive energy that is nevertheless kept under strict control, like a fire burning steady and brightly, but only within a rigidly set limit. Had all rock'n'roll looked like Carl Perkins in the 1950s, it would probably have taken us a much, much longer way to get where we are right now — but, on the other hand, maybe we wouldn't already be wondering where exactly is it possible to go from here. Ah well, enough speculation; here is the expectable thumbs up, and we will be moving on.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Camera Obscura: Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi

CAMERA OBSCURA: BIGGEST BLUEST HI-FI (2001)

1) Happy New Year; 2) Eighties Fan; 3) Houseboat; 4) Shine Like A New Pin; 5) Pen And Notebook; 6) Swimming Pool; 7) Anti-Western; 8) Let's Go Bowling; 9) I Don't Do Crowds; 10) The Sun On His Back; 11) Double Feature; 12) Arrangements Of Shapes And Space.

Although Camera Obscura got their cozy little break largely through the endorsement of Belle & Sebastian's Stuart Murdoch, to whose music they have been compared ever since, the band itself actually formed in the exact same year as Belle & Sebastian — they just had to wait five years be­fore being offered a record contract. Maybe the formation was a direct consequence of the ef­fect that Tigermilk had on fellow Glaswegians, or maybe it just so happened that in 1996, Glas­gow was hit by a melancholia-radiating beam from outer space, but, whatever the circumstances, here we are with yet another sweet, sad, and fragile indie pop outfit on our hands.

If anything, you could think of it as the time-required female counterpart response to Belle & Se­bastian. In the place of Stuart Murdoch, we have Tracyanne Campbell, a slightly autistic / som­nambulist soul with a sweet, instantaneously likable voice, a hipster-approved penchant for all things retro, and a deep love for cleanly produced guitar sounds (everything from acoustic strum to electric jangle) and chamber music string arrangements, which Murdoch is only too happy to help her arrange. She writes all the songs, sings on most of them, and plays rhythm guitar, which more or less saves us the trouble of memorizing the names of five other people in the band, but for the sake of fairness, let us also mention second guitarist Kenny McKeeve, whose plinking Fenders and minstrelish mandolins are just as responsible for the overall effect.

First things first: there may actually be a substantial reason why Camera Obscura had to search so long for a record contract — unlike Murdoch, Campbell is not a naturally gifted songwriter. She is quite good at expressing her feelings, but not at converting them into exceptional chord se­quences or vocal hooks. Three or four listens into the album, and I was still unable to tell any of the songs apart, even if the actual melodies, tempos, and arrangements do have slight differences. Everything seems centered around the lyrics — the words seem well thought-out, whereas most of the melodies sound like they were quickly tossed off on the spot (rather odd for a band who had spent five years working out their schtick before finally crossing the studio threshold).

Second, the atmosphere is certainly not unique. The Belle & Sebastian comparison naturally comes to mind first, even without knowing how tight the real connection is; but really, there are dozens of twee-pop outfits out there that sound very close to Camera Obscura, and unless you are able to figure out that particularly subtle special something that makes the art of Tracyanne Campbell hit its very own nerve, this music will never be worth a second replay to you. (As a ready-made example, the arrival of Allo Darlin' in 2010, with its own retro-favoring, graciously fragile lead­ing lady Elizabeth Morris, put the reputational future of Camera Obscura in dire straits — at least, I have stumbled upon a few comparisons that were not particularly favorable towards the Glaswegian as pitted against the Australian).

But unique or not unique, I find the atmosphere all but impossible to dislike. Everything passes by like separate similar-themed movements of a single soundtrack to a forty-five minute early autumn walk through the park. Fresh breeze, chirping birdies, golden leaves, occasional joggers, carps in the pond, headphones, the works. Not a single «rough» moment on the album to pinch your emotions too hard, but that would only disrupt the pleasure of walking. Even the drummer makes sure to use as many brushes and soft cymbal tapping as possible so as not to make even the fastest songs on here «rock» in any possible manner: Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi is a gentle mood shot for all those who aren't too much in a hurry.

Campbell's style is certainly melancholic, but still, much lighter than that of Murdoch — prima­rily because the music of Camera Obscura is generally free of the bitterness and poorly concealed anger at the world that permeates Murdoch's art. The lyrics, naturally, are mostly about relation­ships, failed or holding, but they never get judgemental or out-of-hand. The singing shows no range whatsoever (sometimes it feels as if she's packing everything into one note, let alone one octave), but whatever tone there is, it feels completely natural, a special sort of «cool, but warm» intonation that suggests friendliness and loneliness at the same time. And McKeeve's little lead melodies, ringing out in the background, suit that tone perfectly.

Individual songs are not worth discussing; the only thing I can say is that the music is very much improved when there is a steady mid-tempo rhythm section pushing it forward (ʽShine Like A New Pinʼ, ʽSwimming Poolʼ, ʽI Don't Do Crowdsʼ, etc.), and tends to get very boring on slow-moving acoustic ballads like ʽLet's Go Bowlingʼ, no matter how many cool references to Clark Gable she inserts in those lyrics (although, of course, if the song helped even one fan to go see a Clark Gable movie, the album's rating has to be pushed up for educational value). The final num­ber is a waltzing instrumental that tries to go out with a bang, adding an unexpected outburst of colorfully distorted «acid» guitars — bit of a cherry on the tart for those who like their indie pop with a psychedelic flavor, but, of course, much too late to drag the record out of its «background muzak» state, and besides, who of us could be overwhelmed with a simple spiralling psychedelic waltz in 2001, when it'd been thirty years ago today that Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play?

To conclude this with a brief title discussion, the album is indeed hi-fi (fortunately for us all, Camera Obscura care about sonic hygiene), but the «biggest» and «bluest» bits are self-ag­gran­dizing hyperbolic tricks — this music isn't particularly blue («autumn gold» is much more like it), and it certainly isn't big. And these are the good points, because big and blue tend to sound fake these days, whereas Camera Obscura sound sincere and likeable. I do not remember how even a single song goes on the album, but I still give it a thumbs up for sheer therapy effect. A pretty good record to play if you're in the mood of killing someone.

Check "Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi" (MP3) on Amazon

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.

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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.

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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.

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