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Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Breeders: Title TK

THE BREEDERS: TITLE TK (2002)

1) Little Fury; 2) London Song; 3) Off You; 4) The She; 5) Too Alive; 6) Son Of Three; 7) Put On A Side; 8) Full On Idle; 9) Sinister Foxx; 10) Forced To Drive; 11) T And T; 12) Huffer.

Almost ten years separate this one from the last Breeders LP — ten years in which lots and lots of things happened to alt-rock and indie-rock, and over which both the Pixies and the Breeders had sort of become living, but somewhat outdated legends, and not even Kurt was alive any more to give Kim and Kelley's next offering the proper praise, though I'm fairly sure he would have loved Title TK to yet another death, had he had the chance.

Anyway, these Breeders have everything and nothing in common with those Breeders. Every­thing, because this is very much a Breeders record in design and execution; nothing, because the Deal sisters are the only Breeders left around — neither Richard Presley (guitar), nor Mando Lopez (bass, guitar), nor Jose Medeles (drums) had anything to do with Pod or Last Splash (in fact, the former two players were recruited by Kim from the then-current lineup of L.A. hardcore punk band Fear). But you know what? For all of this record's sparseness, it might as well have been recorded by the Deal sisters alone — that is, as long as old friend Steve Albini stayed behind the engineering console. After all, Kim is credited here for «guitar, organ, drums, bass, vocals», and it's not as if you're gonna hear any flutes or harpsichords — and, if you'll pardon me this one more pun, it's Kim and only Kim that is the right deal for the Breeders.

In a way, Title TK was Kim's «protest album». Technically, it is sort of a cross between the less accessible Pod and the more «poppy» Last Splash — the ascetic, bare-bones nature of the songs hearkens back to Pod, but the heavy infusion of the songs with hard-to-forget pop hooks shows that mystical spontaneity was far from the only force driving the songs. What is also important, though, is that Kim insisted on analog-only recording techniques — no, this is not lo-fi here (thankfully), but this is still as raw as it gets, flubs and accidents included. Had the songs been poor at the core, this approach could be judged as unnecessarily pretentious; but with such strong hooks, the occasional «what-the-heck-was-that?» reaction only spices up the proceedings.

And what are these strong hooks, may you ask? Well, they usually come in the form of very brief, but strongly emphasized «clippings» — vocal or instrumental. Considering how hard it has been  to come up with short, punchy, resonant hooks ever since half of the world's population enlisted in rock and roll bands, I feel half-amused, half-amazed at how many cool phrasings there are in these short blasts. Sometimes you have to wait for them, of course: ʽLittle Furyʼ opens the album with a generic mid-tempo beat and some expectedly somnambulant, nonsensical vocals, distribu­ted between the Deal sisters in a rather chaotic pattern... it is not until 2:08 that the nasty, teasing little four-note riff starts up, and it goes away after just a few bars, but that little is enough to get the back of your mind thinking — what was that? was that really necessary? was it really a tease, or a threat, or a warning? does it have any relation to the tender chorus admonition of "hold what you've got"?.. well — "it's a living thing", as Jeff Lynne would say.

ʽLondon Songʼ, on the other hand, is totally vocal-dependent — dependent, in fact, on one word: as devoid of direct interpretation as "slipping through the states to find the static, yeah there's something to believe" is, using the word "believe" for the final resolution of the chorus is a bril­liant move, because it turns the entire song into a sort of intimate, camouflaged «I'm holding on» anthem. But this vocal dependency becomes even more explicit on ʽOff Youʼ, which is a ballad (I think — with this approach, the difference between tender ballad and angry rocker seems to be blurred) that totally rides on Deal's personal charisma as filtered through her vocal cord modula­tion. The dry overtones, the ability to conjure some detached innocence and «infantile wisdom» through potentially over-pompous lines like ʽI am the autumn in the scarlet / I am the make-up on your eyesʼ, the stern, but tender conclusion of each chorus with a laconic "yeah we're movin' — yeah, we're movin'" (don't forget the rising rather than falling intonation on the second movin'), it's all ascetically beautiful in a way that's doggone hard to explain.

Most of the album sounds «broken» — short vocal lines consisting of incomplete sentences (often put together through phonetic associations rather than any logically meaningful purpose), short guitar bursts, lots of jagged, stop-and-start sequences. An uncomfortable flow, but you get used to it eventually — a good example is ʽThe Sheʼ, one of the verses of which goes "It's my death / My rhythm / My arithmetic / I got used to / Nobody ridin' in the back", so just don't ride in the back and you'll be okay with the song's clumsy, but effective funk beat, distorted growling organ, and more of those «nasty teaser» guitar mini-riffs that are so popular this season. When the song does have an uninterrupted flow, it might happen with the aid of a loudly mixed, simple, repetitive, eerie bassline — ʽPut On A Sideʼ does just that out of one simple note and one bit of glissando — or with the aid of a sped-up tempo, like the closing ʽHufferʼ, which says goodbye with a much-needed merry nursing rhyme: "Torn, toiled and troubled... toil toil toil till I get sick, I try reverse but I'm not that quick".

Not every song is great — in fact, I would hesitate to call any of these songs «great», because they simply do not trigger that kind of verbal association — but leave it to Ms. Deal and her ghostly shadow of a sister to come up with an indie-rock album that does not leave even the slightest tinge of a «oh no, not another indie-rock album» reaction. Not too catchy, not too friendly, not too enigmatic, but a perfect balance of all three to give you entertainment, enjoy­ment, and intrigue. And let us not forget to thank Mr. Albini one more time — after all, he is still one of the few people around to know how not to strip indie-rock electric guitar of its ability to thrill and hypnotize. In short, an all-around excellent comeback for the Breeders, but pardon me if I just end this with a regular thumbs up instead of a detailed amateur Freudian analysis, which I am sure it deserves from somebody who is much more qualified.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Boris: Pink

BORIS: PINK (2005)

1) Ketsubetsu; 2) Pink; 3) Sukuriin-no Onna; 4) Betsu-ni Nan Demo Nai; 5) Burakku Auto; 6) Electric; 7) Nise Bureddo; 8) Nurui Honoo; 9) Roku-o Mitsu; 10) My Machine; 11) Ore-o Sute-ta Tokoro.

Let us list all the references to other artists that veteran reviewer Thom Jurek has made in his review of Pink, Boris' first venture into the «accessible» territory of post-rock composition: Ride, My Bloody Valentine, Isis, Sigur Rós, Nadja, Jesu, Mono (we go to Japan now), Guitar Wolf, Iggy Pop (we go back into the past now), MC5, Sunn O)))) (okay, back to the present), and Acid Mothers Temple. That's 12. Okay, now the Pitchfork review by Brandon Stosuy, who do we have here? Sigur Rós, Isis, Jesu, Melvins, Motörhead, Olivia Tremor Control, Unwound, Drive Like Jehu... oh no, that's just 8, not counting additional historical references.

The question is, now that Boris have moved into this «normal» territory, cutting tracks that be­gin to re­semble «songs» every once in a while, are they still Boris, or are they merely a potpourri of all these influences, contemporary and archaic alike? Do they have an agenda, or are they just selling out? Unfortunately, as much as I would like to like Pink, if only for the usual awesome­ness of Wata's guitar tones, not even repeated listens can convince me that the record ever once rises above the level of kitsch. If this is ironic music, it is too boring to sink in deep. If it is dead serious music, it is just plain awful.

There's always that third possibility, of course — that this is simply fun music. Starting with the title track, it is music that bluntly invites you to headbang, and at least on one occasion it even invites you to dance (ʽElectricʼ, though, as if acknowledging the embarrassing nature of the pro­position, the track clocks in at a measly 1:45). Sludgy guitar tones, punkish tempos, screamed vocals — song after song is a mosher's paradise. Then they slow down and become your usual Black Sabbath... oh wait, I am falling into the namedropping trap myself.

Well then, here be the problems. First, there are more vocals here than ever before. They all seem to be delivered by Takeshi, and frankly, he is awful. His constant screeching sounds neither angry nor crazy — it is just irritating, like the nagging of a loudmouthed peddler on the street corner or something. (Actually, I believe that drummer Atsuo also has sing... er, vocalizing duties, and carries them out with approximately the same effect). Had all these songs been joined into a single track with all the vocals wiped off for good, that would have been a big plus.

Second, the introduction of short compositions does not mean the introduction of good riffs. Well, not entirely true. The machine-gun riff of ʽPinkʼ (belonging in what I call the ʽBreadfanʼ category for lack of a better term) is sort of mildly interesting. When you combine Wata's tone with speedy finger-flashing playing the results are fun, it would be useful to deny something as obvious. But apart from that, 99% of the riffs still sound as if they have an efficient software piece that de­constructs old Sabbath riffs and puts them back together, with predictably worse results because the software has no idea of the kind of chord sequences that really gets your goat. I mean, listen to ʽElectricʼ — it's like a cross between ʽSupernautʼ and ʽN.I.B.ʼ and... something else. Esnes on sekam ti tub looc sdnuos ti. If you know what I mean.

Supposedly the most important compositions on the album are the two longest numbers — ʽKetsubetsuʼ, a «regal» drone piece that really does conjure all these references in Jurek's review (yes, even Sigur Rós, with its choral harmonies and ringing rainbow-y guitar dubs over all the noise), and the closing ten-minute gallop piece which I would probably mistake for a lost And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead composition if not for the annoying Japanese vocals. On second thought, though, I probably wouldn't, because those guys would have chickened out when it came to basing a ten-minute track on exactly two musical ideas. In any case, both tracks are deadly dull — unfortunately, I cannot share the enthusiasm, so common among reviewers, over the mad fury of the opening minutes of ʽOre-o Sute...ʼ because it is hard for me to endorse something just because it is mad and furious. If it went on for sixty minutes, that would at least be an artistic statement. Since it only goes on for ten (I think there's also an extended version that throws on eight more minutes of feedback), it's just a bore.

On the whole, a drastic thumbs down and a radical disagreement here with tons of glowing reviews on RYM and other sites that often extol this as Boris' finest hour — much of which pro­bably has to do with the fact that it was the band's first widely distributed US album. In this humble reviewer's opinion, Pink simply shows that Boris are spiritually incapable of producing genuine «rock»-type material. One of the few dissonant reviews on RYM put it short and sweet: «Stick to drone guys». Couldn't agree more.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Brand X: Livestock

BRAND X: LIVESTOCK (1977)

1) Nightmare Patrol; 2) -Ish; 3) Euthanasia Waltz; 4) Isis Mourning, Pt. 1; 5) Isis Mourning, Pt. 2; 6) Malaga Virgen.

Live albums by fusion artists are somewhat of a puzzle — first, because fusion as such always tends to be associated with the «live-in-the-studio» principle, what with its being the rock-era inheritor to classic jazz and all; second, because jazz-rock musicians are simply not expected to wear different faces for their studio and live avatars. So, unless the live album consists entirely of new material, its only purpose would be to prove that the actual musicians in the band are, indeed, cunning and dexterous, and can keep a tight groove going in real time — and even so, that would be thin proof, since nobody knows to what extent the results could be doctored in the studio. Un­less you want to be real obnoxious about it and compare them with bootlegs. But are there really people in this world who are obsessed with hunting for Brand X bootlegs?

Anyway, Livestock was put together from recordings that cover a period of one whole year and two different drummers: three tracks were culled from London club gigs with Collins and two more — from an August 1977 concert at the Hammersmith Odeon with Kenwood Dennard, re­placing Collins who had only just completed his duties for Genesis' Wind & Wuthering tour. And it does have to be admitted that much of the material is new: ʽEuthanasia Waltzʼ and ʽMalaga Virgenʼ are the only tracks (though they do take up more than a third of the album) to have been previously available. Not that the new material sounds all that difficult from the old one, though — but then, nobody would expect it to.

As it happens, they could have omitted the references to «live» altogether. The tracks either fade in or fade out; the audience response is limited to maybe just a couple seconds of applause every now and then; and there is no stage banter whatsoever (according to the «if you don't sing, you don't speak, either» principle that is also rather typical of the instrumental jazz tradition). The two songs taken over from the studio catalog are almost totally identical to the studio versions (except for muddier production values in the live setting), and so the album's real worth lies in the new material — not because it is live, but because it is new.

From that point of view, the opening ʽNightmare Patrolʼ is one of their best compositions from that period — it does have a slightly ominous, nocturnal atmosphere to it, if not necessarily night­marish, as well as a dreamy-poetic guitar riff and an involving adventurous mid-section in which they show themselves able to build up suspense and then happily release it to everybody's relief and satisfaction. It is also the first track to feature the new drummer who shows himself quite worthy of the crown, although, for my money, his fills and rolls are not nearly as smooth and totally natural-sounding as Phil's.

The central composition on Side B is ʽIsis Mourningʼ, where they bring down the tempo and try to inject a little «soul» — lots of atmospheric synthesizers and weepy bluesy soloing, but the focus is still on group playing, so neither Lumley nor Goodsall get to properly show off just how passionate, loud, and overflowing with salty excretions Isis could be in mourning. So, instead of trying to be moved to tears ourselves, we should probably just enjoy the interplay instead — the way Goodsall and Jones trade licks, arpeggios, scales, and occasional dissonances around each other once the tempo slows down and they get a better chance to impress us with the musical dia­log. Hardly unique, but fun, and they never hang around one repetitive theme or gimmick for too long — Goodsall, in particular, has this knack for frequently changing the tones and effects within a short time, so once you get close to getting tired of hearing him do minimalistic jazz licks, he'll sense that and start spitting out funky wah-wah chords, before going into 12-bar terri­tory and back to jazz guitar again.

Still, the fact remains that as a composition, only ʽNightmare Patrolʼ seems to have stick-around potential — the rest are more like temporary vamps, enjoyable because of the players' professio­nalism and creativity, but hardly pretending to much else. Throwing in the album's slightly in­ferior sound quality (as compared to the studio albums, of course — on the whole, the recording is perfectly acceptable), I would certainly not recommend it as a point of entry. Once you have become a Brand X fan for life by assimilating Unorthodox Behaviour and Moroccan Roll, feel free to proceed. Or, at least, take additional advice from some genuine fusion expert, the kind of person who can actually offer a serious opinion on why one fusion album is «better» than another fusion album — my own opinions here are as innocently amateurish as any thoughts I might have on global warming or the Big Bang.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Brian Eno & Robert Fripp: No Pussyfooting

BRIAN ENO: NO PUSSYFOOTING (w. Robert Fripp) (1973)

1) The Heavenly Music Corporation; 2) Swastika Girls.

«Both of these compositions are terrific, or both are crap, I can't decide» — that's what I wrote ages ago about this album. So much time has passed, though, and now I believe I can.

In 1973, albums with just one track per side were nothing new, and neither were lengthy droning compositions that took ample time to explore a single musical groove, idea, chord sequence, believing that there was no better way to go totally transcendental. What did not happen yet was a fortuitous meeting between two musicians — one with a beyond-the-ordinary vision for electric guitar playing, another one with an above-the-common understanding of the possibilities of elec­tronic keyboards — who could pool their talents together and come up with a deeply intellectual conception for how The Perfect Psychedelic Record could sound.

Eno and Fripp began working on No Pussyfooting in 1972, back when the former was still an official member of Roxy Music, but already felt uncomfortable about having to compromise his vision for the sake of Bryan Ferry's flamboyance. The main pretext was to test out the tape-delay system commonly known as «Frippertronics», because nobody was ever able to figure out how it works except for Fripp himself. Actually, it shouldn't be all that complicated — essentially, it's just a special technique, requiring two tape-recorders trading signals back and forth so that your guitar sounds like it's being played in a deep, multi-sectioned cave with a great echo system. But, of course, you have to coordinate the recorders so that the delays and echos do not turn the whole thing into an atonal mess, and in order to do that, you probably have to be Robert Fripp.

Still, when it's just one guitar, even hallucinating like that, one can feel a little lonely, and this is where Eno really comes in. On both these tracks (which were, by the way, recorded almost a year apart of each other), it is his ambient loops that provide the foundation for Fripp's guitar. On ʽHeavenly Music Corporationʼ, the loops are mostly droning buzz, wobbling in amplitude and continuously yielding a cello-like sound, as if you were stuck in some fifteen-minute snippet from a particularly dark Wagner passage. On the much more merry sounding (and even more merrily titled!) ʽSwastika Girlsʼ the loops are completely different — high-pitched, ringing, more imita­tive of a fairy-tale harp sound than anything else.

Whether Fripp actually coordinates his guitar playing with Eno's loops or not is hard to say, especially since a lot of work was done by Eno at the mixing stage — apparently, he had himself a lot of fun with Robert's tapes, cutting and splicing at will. In any case, the best thing about both of his extended and transformed solos is that they are actually solos — not one-chord drones or anything, but thoughtful improvisations along the same lines as contemporary King Crimson. On the first track, the solos come quickly and are stern, dark, brooding, but not particularly angry or unhappy — sometimes they resolve themselves into majestic swoooooops that sound like birds of prey unleashed by the «heavenly corporation» upon the listener, but they don't cause any damage or anything. On the second track, there are many more overdubs, including what seems to be a droning acoustic guitar loop mixed with Eno's vibes, and the actual soloing arrives later, around the eighth minute — and it sounds a lot happier. In fact, I've got a hinch that they originally wanted to call the composition ʽRainbow Girlsʼ, but changed their minds at the last moment and called it ʽSwastika Girlsʼ instead. Not that much of a difference anyway.

So how good is it? Groundbreaking — for sure, but is this something that is still worth listening to? Personally, I now believe it all totally works as an emotional experience. On one hand, the pieces can be classified as «ambient», but on the other hand, they are not really «minimalist», since there is simply too much going on there. The first track is actually quite tempestuous in nature, and the second has this resplendent, kaleidoscopic nature that sort of celebrates diversity and singularity of everything at the same time. And if you can see the beauty in Fripp's guitar playing at all, then these fourty minutes will be anything but boring: inspiration and soul-seeking dominate both tracks.

Ultimately, it is the combination of these two powers that wins me over. Eno's dark-wobbly or shiny-clinky loops + Fripp's multi-layered «intellectual drones» are a perfect combination, it's a joy watching them making this «pseudo-conversation» with each other, and it does sound some­what transcendental. It would never be the same with just a regular keyboardist, who probably would have just played some Bach tribute instead of Eno's Terry Riley fetish. And best of all, there is not a single ounce of noise on the record — no feedback, no crunch, nobody trying to drown the proceedings in a sea of nasty distortion to mask the lack of talent. Nope, it's all clean and melodic in its own way, even humorous, as Fripp sometimes makes the guitar grumble, growl, or croak in laughter. Great record, totally worth a thumbs up after all these years.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Booker T. & The M.G.'s: Universal Language

BOOKER T. & THE M.G's: UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE (1977)

1) Sticky Stuff; 2) Grab Bag; 3) Space Nuts; 4) Love Wheels; 5) Moto Cross; 6) Last Tango In Memphis; 7) M.G.'s Salsa; 8) Tie Stick; 9) Reincarnation.

As is known all too well, the death of your drummer is a bad, bad omen. Led Zeppelin understood that and wisely disbanded; the Who did not, and spent four years wallowing in mysery and de­gradation. Booker T. & the M.G.'s, however, preceded both of them, and they probably believed that, since they were not in the big leagues anyway, they could try it out safely. So, in the place of brutally murdered Al Jackson Jr., they hired Willie Hall, who formerly played with The Bar-Kays and Isaac Hayes, and ploughed ahead.

There were other big changes, too. First, a new label: Asylum Records, the first brainchild of David Geffen, notorious for offering a brief «asylum» from Columbia to Bob Dylan in 1974-75 and now providing the same for this bunch of Stax survivors. Second and more important, a new style: with Afro-American entertainment music now shifting almost completely to funk and disco, it was only natural that the M.G.'s, too, would have their own funk/disco album. After all, they showed the world that they could easily make the switch and tame those wild funky rhythms back in 1971, on Melting Pot — what could stop them from traveling further down that track?

Alas, Universal Language falls in the same trap as so many other albums by Sixties acts who tried to embrace the shifting production values, playing styles, and atmospheric ideologies of the Seventies. Word of the day is «smooth» — tightly disciplined and strictly repetitive guitars, «cos­mic» electronic keyboards painting pictures of seductive, but somewhat soulless technological future, and formulaic dance grooves that are not allowed to experiment with rhythm because, you know, who wants to be unexpectedly thrown off rhythm on the dance pad? The best performers of the day could compensate for this tight harness with wildness, sleaziness, or pop hooks, but Booker T. & The M.G.'s were never wild, always tended to avoid coming across as sleazy, and as for pop hooks — well, that could happen, but it was never a priority.

So, somewhat predictably, Universal Language ends up sounding professional, but dull and quite pointless — as a serious musical offering, it hardly adds anything to these guys' legend, and as entertainment, it is nowhere near as «hot» as, say, Chic, or many more of the new competitors. ʽSticky Stuffʼ opens the album with a nice cool groove, but it soon becomes obvious that the guys are not very much into it, or if they are, the point is not to let us know: everything is tight, but nothing ever gets out of hand. Total lack of passion, just professionalism — and the same verdict applies to each of the remaining eight tracks.

The record has its fair share of decent keyboard work from Booker, especially later on: there is a graceful, pensive, nostalgic organ solo on ʽLast Tango In Memphisʼ, an uplifting uptempo solo in ʽM.G.'s Salsaʼ, and a cocky, whistle-away-your-blues part on the closing ʽReincarnationʼ, which is probably the braggiest tune about reincarnation ever recorded. But even with these, it takes a long (and unnecessary) time to suck them in, because everything is so restrained and «under wraps» of the thoroughly unremarkable production.

All in all, just another passable experience. Actually, as far as real «disco» is concerned, there ain't too much of it here — not a single instance of a «proper» disco bassline detected — but that is hardly a consolation, because I'd rather take «hot» disco over «cool» funk and fusion like this. It is true that Booker T. & the M.G.'s had always thrived on restraint and cool-calm-collected discipline, but with Universal Language, this just translates into Dull-o-rama-a-plenty, and it is hardly a wonder that neither ʽSticky Stuffʼ as the lead single nor the album as a whole were noticed by anybody. Upon which, the M.G.'s did the wisest thing they could do — and split once again, with Cropper, Dunn, and White eventually offering their services to The Blues Brothers. And I'd probably take the kitsch of the Blues Brothers over the mind-numbing seriousness of this Universal Language any time of day. What sort of title is that for an album like this, anyway? Since when has limp, pedestrian funk like this represented «universal language»? ʽHotel Cali­forniaʼ — now that's «universal language» for you in 1977. Thumbs down.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Brenda Holloway: The Motown Anthology

BRENDA HOLLOWAY: THE MOTOWN ANTHOLOGY (1963-1968/2005)

CD II: 1) Think It Over (Before You Break My Heart); 2) I'll Always Love You; 3) Operator; 4) I'll Be Available; 5) Together 'Til The End Of Time; 6) Where Were You; 7) I've Got To Find It; 8) How Many Times Did You Mean It; 9) You've Changed Me; 10) All I Do Is Think About You; 11) Who Could Ever Doubt My Love; 12) Come Into My Palace; 13) He's My Kind Of Fellow; 14) You Need Me; 15) Love Woke Me Up This Morning; 16) I Prayed For A Boy; 17) Don't Judge Me; 18) I'll Always Meet You Half Way; 19) You Are Very Much A Part Of Me; 20) I'm On The Right Track; 21) How Can You Call It Love When The Feeling's Gone; 22) I See A Rainbow; 23) Play It Cool, Stay In School; 24) Summertime.

In the end, there's probably got to be a special mention of this package, even if it's cropped up several times already — because, as of now, the first CD of this edition is where you get your most natural, most properly remastered, and, for that matter, your only official access to Brenda's first two LPs: the filler-stuffed Every Little Bit Hurts and the prematurely shelved Hurtin' And Cryin'. This is just the first disc, though. The second one, once you get past the first bunch of tracks that duplicate some of the songs on The Artistry Of Brenda Holloway, is stoked with even more oldies that were written, arranged, recorded, and mixed by Motown — then, once again, left unreleased, with the invisible hand of Ms. Holloway's mortal enemy always blocking their public availability at the last moment. Imagine that — dozens and dozens of well-polished, completely marketable songs left to rot. What a waste, eh? And, most likely, all because of some silly intrigues and under-the-carpet competition.

Anyway, it is true that there are no genuinely outstanding nuggets here: most of these previously unavailable tunes are relatively standard Motown fare (not that «relatively standard Motown fare» songs have never been hits — from a commercial standpoint, quite a few of these could be winners circa 1965-67). Interestingly, most of them are also upbeat, overturning Holloway's «hurtin' and cryin'» image: for instance, ʽCome Into My Palaceʼ, a duet with sister Patrice, sounds like a merry Shirelles serenade from the beginning of the decade, and the Ed Cobb-written ʽYou Are Very Much A Part Of Meʼ, set to the ʽYou Can't Hurry Loveʼ rhythm, is an upwinding, ecstatic celebration of joy that shows all those little bits can heal pretty quickly, depending on what it is that you go into the studio with.

And on ʽI'm On The Right Trackʼ and ʽI See A Rain­bowʼ, the drummer pounds so hard and the back vocalists sing so tightly — you'd think the lady could have won over the audience with sheer collective energy alone, like The Four Tops won over the audiences not necessarily with melody, but with their sheer capacity to transmit that «jubilation vibe». As in, you have no idea why they're being that joyous about something, but they sure as hell are infectious. Admittedly, though, as I already said, Brenda's voice is not that well suited to transmit joy as it is to transmit sorrow — Diana Ross had her beat for a reason.

The last two tracks are worth noting for special reasons. ʽPlay It Cool, Stay In Schoolʼ is a pro­paganda ditty that Brenda recorded for a socially oriented purpose — each time I hear a song like this, I tell myself that I wouldn't mind paying to learn, out of sheer sociological interest, whether any single person in America ever changed his/her mind about dropping out based on any such musical «stimulation»? It's hilarious how they try to mold all these clichés like "when you learn more, you're bound to earn more" into catchy hooks — yes, some poor kid will definitely fall for that, humming these lines each day on the way to school. But then again, is there any psycholo­gical difference between a message-carrying pop-radio-jingle and a straightforward commercial advertising? Maybe it worked after all.

Then, at the very end, there is a rather beautiful live version of ʽSummertimeʼ, recorded some­where in a club setting and, for the first and last time, giving us a glimpse of what could have been if Brenda had settled for a career in vocal jazz instead. She's no Billie or Ella, of course, and her ʽSummertimeʼ may be a bit too slowed down, but she sings strongly, fluently, and passionate­ly, and could probably have assured herself a good position in the «B league» of jazz divas. But that, of course, could never have happened under contract with Motown, and by the time the contract was terminated, it was already too late. All in all, the more you listen to these songs, the more you tend to start thinking not about these songs, and not even about Brenda Holloway in particular, but about the good old «slings and arrows».

Anyway, get The Motown Anthology. All of us music lovers owe the unfortunate lady at least this one — ensure that her legacy lives on way beyond that of Taylor Swift, if possible.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Blur: The Magic Whip

BLUR: THE MAGIC WHIP (2015)

1) Lonesome Street; 2) New World Towers; 3) Go Out; 4) Ice Cream Man; 5) Thought I Was A Spaceman; 6) I Broadcast; 7) My Terracotta Heart; 8) There Are Too Many Of Us; 9) Ghost Ship; 10) Pyongyang; 11) Ong Ong; 12) Mirrorball.

Okay. Hold your breath no longer. Blur have come back — with a «comeback» album. Who said miracles are bound to happen? They aren't. Most comeback albums are just that — «comeback albums», defined as «collections of songs produced when former bandmates come together for the sake of old times, fans, and money, without anything particularly fresh to say». This does not necessarily mean that the music is bad — it only means that the music does not let you discover anything new about the musicians, and that there was no reason whatsoever to wait for this to happen with one's fingers crossed.

At least Think Tank was Damon Albarn's noble-treacherous attempts to turn «Blur» into «The Trendy Damon Albarn Experience». Failing that, Damon Albarn went on to churn out trendy experiences all by himself. Now that he got a bit bored with that, too, Blur come together once more, in all the glory of their classic lineup — but no, they do not continue their journey from the stage where we last saw them with 13. That journey was long since terminated. Instead, what we see them do is deliver a «Certified Blur Album». Along the well-known lines of: «If you loved Modern Life Is Rubbish / Parklife / Great Escape / Blur, you'll like this». And if you do not, how can you call yourself a Blur fan, you silly person you?

I mean, just listen to that opening of ʽLonesome Streetʼ. Street noises, okay. Brief jazz guitar intro, okay. A rollickin' acoustic arpeggio, all right. But as soon as the entire band kicks in at 0:15 into the song, there's absolutely no mistaking that this is the Blur — the Blur of the early classic Brit-pop era. Gosh, those chords, I mean, you could feed the songs off Modern Life Is Rubbish inside a computer and it would spit out ʽLonesome Streetʼ for you. The only difference is that, unfortunately, ʽLonesome Streetʼ is completely uncatchy, which raises my suspicions even fur­ther — maybe they have been working on Blur-software all this time?

Admittedly, the opening number is not indicative of the entire album. And truth be told, The Magic Whip on the whole does not produce the impression that it was simply written as «yet another Blur album». No and no — on the contrary, the main flaw of this record is that it tries too hard (and ultimately fails, I'd say) to make a big statement, one that goes way beyond pure music and, because of that, does not pay that much attention to music. The record is well produced and, on the surface, looks complex and carefully detailed, but that is mainly technological: for instance, there is a lot of electronic overdubs, reflecting Albarn's digital fetish of the past fifteen years, yet somehow, they all feel a little... «autopilotish», if you get my drift.

Instead of writing awesome songs, what Albarn tries to do here is write songs that make big claims. Songs with titles like ʽThere Are Too Many Of Usʼ — that one, I think, would be parti­cularly embarrassing to perform in public, yet they do it and the public does not care, even if lines like "There are too many of us / That's plain to see / And we all believe in praying / For our im­mortality" could easily be construed as offensive to seven billion people, even if they may be somewhat true (but isn't truth offensive?). Songs about lonesome loneliness of the lonely loner: ʽLonesome Streetʼ, ʽThought I Was A Spacemanʼ. Songs about alienation, songs about love lost, songs of disillusionment, songs of misanthropy, and even a song called ʽPyongyangʼ, and guess what, it ain't a celebratory anthem in honor of The Great Leader. Rather, it is a song sung from the point of view of the deceased Great Leaders, and... they're lonely too, in a way.

All in all, you know now: The Magic Whip, from top to bottom, is an album about loneliness. Okay, so that could be a continuation of 13, much of which was about loneliness, too. But 13 was a much more psychedelic, and a much less serious experience — Whip, in comparison, is like a musical thesis from a mature half-poet, half-sociologist. And, by the way, where is Coxon in all of that? I have no idea. The songs are all credited to all the members of the band, in a fit of demo­cratic generosity, but Graham almost never sings, except a couple co-lead vocal parts, and his playing is very restricted: guitar solos are now presumably considered tasteless, and guitar riffs way too often seem to be there only to ensure that «Blur sound».

And so that's that: on one hand, the album is a «mature» musical treatise on how uncomfortable it feels to be alive in 2015, and on the other hand — it is an unconscious throwback to the hip and cocky days of 1993-99. ʽLonesome Streetʼ, ʽGo Outʼ, and ʽOng Ongʼ sound like they belong on Parklife; ʽNew World Towersʼ and ʽMy Terracotta Heartʼ are melancholic darknesses that sound like they belong on Great Escape; ʽI Broadcastʼ is a noisefest that could belong on Blur; and ʽThought I Was A Spacemanʼ and ʽPyongyangʼ are ghostly whisps that could be on 13. Well, something like that. But when you put them all together and extract the common invariant, it's all about the good man feeling bad and wanting to be somewhere else, or with someone else. It might be too much, perhaps, to state that Albarn is feeling like Kim Il-sun in his glass coffin, but hey, it's not my fault if he makes that kind of music.

The good news is that eventually, slowly, very slowly the songs might begin to pull you in. They are serious and they are intelligent, and if a band that was among the best of their ilk in the 1990s comes back together fifteen years later and decides to make a serious, intelligent album, well, it is not very likely that they will create a complete dump. The gloomy atmosphere is real, the lyrics are good, and there's plenty of juicy little details — well, like that little morose riff that Graham is playing in between the verses of ʽNew World Towersʼ, or like the funereal approach to surf guitar on the closing ʽMirrorballʼ.

The bad news is that, well, I dunno about you, but there are certain types of albums I wouldn't want to expect from certain types of bands, and as much as I acknowledge Blur's right to sound somber and pessimistic every now and then, I don't want a Blur album that just sounds like one big dirge, because Damon Albarn ain't no frickin' Robert Smith, much less a goddamn Nick Cave. The same guy who literally spent decades partying in and out of every trendy party in the UK and worldwide is now teaching us all a lesson in loneliness, reclusiveness, and misanthropy? Come on now, this just doesn't feel right. Ten minutes into the album, I just get this urge to tell the guy to cheer up, already — this all begins bordering on emo, if not Goth, and this is not what we needed Blur to reunite for. It ain't bad, but it doesn't quite sound right, either.

I do give the album a thumbs up. It is a slow grower, and it will eventually grow some more on me, I guess, though not that much more. And compared to some other «comebacks», this one at least tries to make some points, rather than just sound like an inefficient imitation of past glories. But ultimately, it is an inefficient imitation of past glories, and that casts an unlucky shadow on all the points it tries to make, and this is why I seriously doubt that The Magic Whip will ever be in many people's «top five», let alone «top three» Blur albums.

And oh yeah, by the way, what's up with the Chinese title? I know they recorded most of it in Hong Kong, but it's not as if there was any Chinese influence in the songs themselves — are we supposed to pat the Damon on the back for letting us know about his adoration of traditional Chinese characters? Or are they trying to boost sales in China? Oh well, at least now everybody knows that Blur is Mohu in Chinese. They probably used Google Translate anyway. It's not as if it were an album that offered particularly complex solutions to complex problems.