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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Al Green: Truth 'n' Time


1) Blow Me Down; 2) Lo And Behold; 3) Wait Here; 4) To Sir With Love; 5) Truth N' Time; 6) King Of All; 7) I Say A Little Prayer; 8) Happy Days.

The point of this record, however, is not clear. No sooner had Al rejuvenated and reinvented him­self with The Belle Album than he'd completed his conversion, and Truth 'N' Time turned out to be his last record of secular music for quite a long time. But it isn't even a properly done farewell to his classic image: coming off the success of Belle, it's a veritable cold shower, if not a straightforward fuck-you to this image. It's almost as if, at this point, he didn't care so much that he'd intentionally produced a total toss-off.

Truth 'N' Time completely adheres to the classic Woody Allen formula, introduced a year ear­lier — 'such terrible food, and such small portions'. With eight songs and not a single 'epic' among them, it runs for less than thirty minutes, and the amount of throwaway cuts rises over fifty percent. He didn't even write most of them, with gospel guru Bernard Staton contributing three cuts and two others being covers of Burt Bacharach that are usually associated with Lulu ('To Sir With Love') and Aretha Franklin ('I Say A Little Prayer').

Of course, Al's professionalism and work ethics prohibit him from releasing something utterly worthless, and the classic Green sound is still in vogue, with the ballads retaining the atmosphere and the dance numbers still kicking it up. But only moderately so. The title track and 'Happy Days' will only be bootylicious when not compared to the real maniacal punch of 'I Feel Good', which was like almost a meticulous study on all the possible reasons for shaking it up; and as for the ballads, the only thing that managed to register properly on my meter was the chorus to 'Blow Me Down', very idealistic and invigorating with its nice use of backing vocals. On the downside, the cover of 'I Say A Little Prayer' may be the closest Green has ever come to 'awful' — clumsy, rushed, and feeling completely superfluous; it's no use trying to do it if you're unwilling and un­able to compete with Aretha, and Al is neither able nor willing.

In short, I don't understand this record at all. Under different circumstances, I'd call this a typical effect of a "contractual obligation", but Al wasn't getting out of any contract — he was still asso­ciated with Hi Records, and he'd continue to be associated with them for much of his gospel peri­od. So, rather, Truth N' Time is just a semi-misguided album from a person who'd finally lost interest in secular pleasures, yet still could not force himself to make the complete conversion to the Lord's music; it took another couple of years and another stage accident in 1979 to finally convince Green that taking this career risk was the right thing for his soul. I am fairly sure that he himself, looking back, would give Truth N' Time a thumbs down as decisive as I am forced to award it, even if 'Blow Me Down' and the title track are salvageable in the long run.

And, as much as pure gospel music annoys me to no end — unless it is Mahalia Jackson taken in very small dosages — I guess that an inspired gospel album is still preferable over an uninspired secular pop one, regardless of whether it narrows your vision of things or widens it. Except I have about as much interest in reviewing gospel music as I have in writing about flamenco, so that you are free to explore Green's output in the 1980s on your own, without my judgements to refer to.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Alex Harvey: Alex Harvey And His Soul Band


1) Framed; 2) I Ain't Worrying Baby; 3) Backwater Blues; 4) Let The Good Times Roll; 5) Going Home; 6) I've Got My Mojo Working; 7) Teensville USA; 8) New Orleans; 9) Bo Diddley Is A Gunslinger; 10) When I Grow Too Old To Rock; 11) Evil Hearted Man; 12) I Just Wanna Make Love To You; 13) The Blind Man; 14) Reeling And Rocking.

Out of those people whose musical career took years and years to get off the ground, Alex Har­vey must hold an indisputable record. Success and notability weren't his until the launching of The Sensational Alex Harvey Band in 1972 — yet The Alex Harvey Soul Band was active and kicking around the circuits of Scotland and lands to the south since at least 1959, when the Beat­les were still the Quarrymen and Elvis was still in the army.

But was there anything particularly worthwhile about the Soul Band? No, except for perhaps a damn fine good taste in selecting their cover material (the scarce information we have on this page from Harvey's past does not include anything on original songwriting). They performed quite a lot of diverse material, almost completely shutting out the more "commercialized" US and UK pop hits and concentrating instead on everything from rockabilly to R'n'B to electric blues to even digging out and rearranging old pre-war blues standards (Harvey's special predilection for these golden oldies would result in an entire album dedicated to them — see below). In all that, they arguably had little or no competition on the British/Scottish scene of the early Sixties.

This is where the praise comes to a dead end, though, because the band's only album, as far as I'm concerned, holds only meager historic interest. It was recorded on the heels of their (traditional for all British bands of the period) big break on the Hamburg club scene, and dressed up as a "live" album, with overdubbed audience noises, although the sound quality is way too good for anyone to be duped — it may have been, and probably was, live in the studio, but that's about as live as it gets. The fourteen songs faithfully run the gamut of whatever was listed above, and eve­rything is done with a proper amount of professionalism and, perhaps, even some excitement, yet there is nothing in these performances that somehow improves on the originals or, more impor­tant, changes them into something worth hearing on its own.

Harvey himself, although blessed with a powerful voice, was still light years away from capturing his tragic madman stage persona, and, although he is nowhere near as obnoxious on this record as he is on The Blues, simply makes no competition to the other guys in the business. His sidemen are competent, but competent the way your local barroom band would be competent after having played in the barroom each night for five years. The "edge" is missing, if you know what I mean. If you don't, see for yourself — try to compare the band's performance of Leiber & Stoller & The Coasters' 'Framed' with the song's radical reworking on the same-titled debut from The Sensatio­nal Alex Harvey Band eight years later. The latter is a demented rock theater masterpiece; the former is... a cover of Leiber & Stoller & The Coasters' 'Framed'.

In short, this is a pretty bland album if you take it in the context of Johnny Kidd & The Pirates (who rocked out better), the Beatles (who had better songs), the Beach Boys (who had better vocals), the Dave Clark 5 (who had a riskier and edgier sax player), the Animals (who had a cra­zier frontman), the Rolling Stones (who had a far more dangerous and provocative sound), the Americans (who wrote all these songs that Harvey covered), the Russians (who had just flown Gagarin into space three years ago), and the Romulans (each of whom looked more handsome than Alex Harvey could ever hope to get). If you manage to strip away the context, it all comes across in a far more positive light, but I guess Avril Lavigne could also be thought of as the epi­tome of punk if one didn't know anything about punk. Thumbs down from the heart that did not manage to get wound up, and likewise from the brain that tried to justify the album's existence but found it easier to justify Asian despotism.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Albert King: Funky London

ALBERT KING: FUNKY LONDON (1972-1974?; 1994)

1) Cold Sweat; 2) Can't You See What You're Doing To Me; 3) Funky London; 4) Lonesome; 5) Bad Luck; 6) Sweet Fingers; 7) Finger On The Trigger; 8) Driving Wheel; 9) Lovingest Woman In Town..

A bunch of outtakes from some of King's Stax sessions from the early Seventies (possibly earlier as well, I'm not informed of the recording dates). The review will be brief: there is only one track here that guarantees the purchase, which is the instrumental cover of James Brown's 'Cold Sweat' — King's worship of Brown could be out of place when he tried to imitate Brown's audience teasing manners on stage, but it worked all right when he simply did funky James Brown num­bers with his faithful rhythm section, embellishing them with his blues licks. This here 'Cold Sweat' chugs along almost as fine as the original, and will also please those who dislike Brown's neglect for melody, because that's exactly what King's guitar adds to the proceedings.

Everything else is stuff we have heard a million times in better or equal quality. Most of it is by the numbers blues that, to me, gives the impression of rehearsal material, performed in warm-up pur­poses before the recording of King's truly serious contributions to his official albums. It's all tight and solid, but strictly sparkless. The title track, another funky instrumental, stands out a little sim­ply by being funkier than the rest, but 'Cold Sweat' displays more energy and enthusiasm.

I have this on a CD that's paired with the earlier semi-official Live At Wattstax album, recorded at about the same time as Blues At Sunrise, and in terms of basic passion, it is much better, ex­cept all of its songs ('Killing Floor', 'I'll Play The Blues For You', etc.) have already been played live with the same fire on other releases. Bottomline: all of this is heavily expendable, although not for the dedicated fan.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead: So Divided


1) Intro: A Song Of Fire And Wine; 2) Stand In Silence; 3) Wasted State Of Mind; 4) Naked Sun; 5) Gold Heart Mountain Top Queen Directory; 6) So Divided; 7) Life; 8) Eight Day Hell; 9) Witches Web; 10) Segue: In The Realms Of The Unreal; 11) Sunken Dreams.

One can sense confusion as the main point of this album: perhaps befuddled by the critical and commercial backlash against Worlds Apart — one that I, for one, could not have predicted ei­ther, were I the one in charge of the band's creativity, since Worlds Apart was a smooth and lo­gical expansion of the journey started with Source Tags — Keely and Reece are all but dancing without a floor, trying out all sorts of ideas and ending up with perhaps their most incoherent album ever, a mess of shards that just can't seem to stick together.

For this, they got slapped once again; few people loved the album as a whole — most firefighters from the music review industry slapped on their gear, dashed into the burning house, saved a few precious items and condemned the rest of the building. The band was accused of meandering, philandering, pandering, and rendering their former rock sound soft, lazy, and unbearable. Even the infamous Matt LeMay from Pitchfork joined in the fray.

I guess, however, that it all boils down to one's expectations. Discoherence and being "all over the place" are not welcome much in the XXIst century; had The White Album been recorded and released today, chances are the leading critics of our generation would have swept it away, complaining that "its complexity seems inorganic and clumsy, revealing the weakness of the source material rather than elevating and enhancing it... even when the dizzyingly disparate pieces of the album do fall into place, it seems like the work of some external hand; the band achieves crystalline structural vistas, but it's never quite clear how they got there, or why" (a direct quote from the Pitchfork review of So Divided — but isn't this a word-perfect description of The Beatles as well?).

And So Divided is this band's White Album (proportionately, of course): the product of a band that, subconsciously at least, understands that it has already reached its highest peak and can now allow itself whatever curious and puzzling moves it can think of at any given moment, even at the expense of "clumsily" sounding like a parody on someone else. Even without being fully and com­pletely versed in all the musical styles of the past fifty years, I can't help but spot influence after influence on the musical world of the album.

There is only one straightforward cover: Gui­ded By Voices' 'Gold Heart Mountain Top Queen Directory' (with a more lush and polished ar­rangement than the original, but also with a vocal delivery that is undistinguishable from R.E.M's Michael Stipe, for some reason), but nods to giants are all over the place: 'Eight Day Hell' bor­rows its piano-and-drums intro from 'Good Day Sunshine' and then sounds like a generic late Sixties psychedelic anthem à la early Bee Gees or Status Quo; 'Sunken Dreams' is a spot-on imi­tation of The Cure, from its title to its grim echoey production to Robert Smith-like vocals; 'Stand In Silence' is the kind of pop-punk that stems from The Jam and extends to... oh, whatever; 'Wit­ches Web' may be Pink Floyd-influenced (although I've also seen it compared to the Kinks' style on Muswell Hillbillies, if you can believe that); and at least one or two songs have massive codas that bring to mind Yes' 'Starship Trooper'. Bizarre as it seems, even the non-essential intro to the al­bum has made me think of Blur's 'Tender'!

So, if anything, the easiest accusation against the Austin guys here could be that they no longer sound like the Austin guys, but rather like a bunch of imitations of other guys. The title track is arguably the only song on here that still preserves traces of the old band; elsewhere, even the songs that rock no longer rock the way they used to rock — 'Naked Sun', for instance, has blues-rock overtones and even refuses to utilize the chainsaw-and-jangle wall of sound for most of its duration. Worst offense of all: on half of the tracks at least, the vocalists are actually trying to sing rather than shout. Sometimes, they even succeed. Sometimes, when they can't and don't, they bring in female voices: the avantgarde artist Amanda Palmer on 'Witches Web' and Lily Courtney on a few other tracks. Just how "And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead"-like is this?

But I like most of these songs; I like the vocal melodies, I like the refined arrangements, and I like how they did manage to re-capture the artistic essence of their influences (I defy you to play the beginning of 'Sunken Dreams' to your unsuspecting neighbour and not have him identify it as The Cure). Their lyrics are getting better and better with each new album as well — although it's hard not to make a jab at lines like 'I had a band, had a song, had a vision, where's my vision gone?', they go along very well with the energetic riffage of 'Stand In Silence'. In fact, quite a few of the texts are all about confusion, loss of direction, disillusionment, and other nice elements that goad sharp-tongued critics into action, but at least they're being honest, and let's face it: if a band that doesn't know what it is that it is doing does it so well, doesn't this mean that the band is essen­tially good? For all it's worth, it may be So Divided that ultimately convinces me the Austin lads have talent, certainly not Madonna — and, perhaps, it ends up convincing me even more master­fully than Source Tags, although it may not be the better album of the two.

So thumbs up for a record that I will, by all means, be wanting to eventually revisit — not be­cause it simply "sounds like all these other great bands", but because I have yet to figure out all the subtleties of how these other great bands merge with Reece and Kelly's own musical and spiritual past and present.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Aimee Mann: One More Drifter In The Snow


1) Whatever Happened To Christmas; 2) The Christmas Song; 3) Christmastime; 4) I'll Be Home For Christmas; 5) You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch; 6) Winter Wonderland; 7) Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas; 8) God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen; 9) White Christmas; 10) Calling On Mary.

This should be as good a place as any to expound the Teleology Theory of the Christmas Album. This constantly self-regenerating beast has a nasty tendency to produce a population explosion around the end of each upcoming year, but the motivation behind the explosion is quite different from procreator to procreator. Christmas Albums fall into the following categories:

the money album, the idea behind which is for the starving artist to make a couple quick bucks from the fans (hard to blame—don't you need a new Lamborghini for Christmas?);

the dedication album, the idea behind which is the artist's firm conviction that there is no better gift for the fans than another Christmas album — surely, all the previous ten billion Christmas albums must become irrelevant and outdated the minute The Artist enters the studio to record a new one;

the money-dedication album, the idea behind which is to make a money album, but to state in every subsequent interview that the idea really was to make a dedication album. This is arguably the most common category.

Every now and then, however, there appears a fourth category: the intelligent Christmas Album, an extremely rare breed since it requires a complicated combination of parameters. Chief among those is the requirement that it be an album that is more about the artist than about Christmas, because, after all, there is only one Christmas and we know all about it, whereas the same cannot be said about artists.

Of course, fans of any particular artist will always want to argue that it is this particular artist's Christmas Album that is the most intelligent of all, even when we're very clearly dealing with a money album, but it is possible to be a bit colder and more objective about these things, especi­ally if the default emotion is to detest Christmas albums. In the light of this, I'm happy to say that I don't find anything detestable about Aimee Mann's Christmas album, One More Drifter In The Snow, because, totally true to her identity, on this record she invents (or, at least, strongly up­holds) a new sub-genre: Christmas music for loners.

In other words, it would be completely useless, maybe even ridiculous, to throw it on at a lively Christmas party, or, in fact, any Christmas party. It is, however, a very cool record to put on if, by any chance, you happen to be spending Christmas alone (at the most — with your other, but not too heavy on the champagne). Certainly this is not a depressed album — Aimee is not that weird — but it is an album to be played at a quiet volume in a small darkened room. Aimee herself quotes the Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra Christmas albums as chief inspiration, records that weren't specifically targeted towards the party spirit either, but we've come a long musical way from there, and One More Drifter dispenses with the commercialism and superficiality in an even rougher way than Frank or Dean could ever imagine way back then.

There are chimes, and strings, but the arrangements are chamber-like, never symphonic, and on most of the standards — 'White Christmas', 'Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas', 'God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen', etc. — Aimee's morose singing rises way up high above the mix, sugges­ting you're having a serious little conversation with the artist rather than merely having yourself another merry little Christmas. Strong surprises are few: 'You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch' from the Dr. Seuss legacy, and two originals — Michael Penn's 'Christmastime' and Aimee's own 'Calling On Mary'; the former is sort of bland, but the latter is quite strong, sounding very much like an outtake from the Forgotten Arm sessions (same rootsy style) and embodying all that is significant about the album: an odd mix of happiness and loneliness, contention and desperation.

Aimee's intentions are, in fact, immediately clear: the song that opens the album is not 'Jingle Bells', but rather Jimmy Webb's somewhat grim 'Whatever Happened To Christmas', so that the album is established as a protest against the cheapening and the commercialization of the holiday (or, in fact, of everything). Given that the album failed to chart on the Billboard at all, I suppose it matched its purpose fairly well. If you happen to be somehow torn between the idea of hating Christmas albums and the necessity to own one, One More Drifter In The Snow may be just what you need. If you're an admirer of Aimee's charisma, One More Drifter In The Snow is quite a must-have rather than a slight footnote. Either way, it's a thumbs up, and a good excuse to throw all your friends out on Christmas' Eve and just get drunk in the good old-fashioned way.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Accept: Predator


1) Hard Attack; 2) Crossroads; 3) Making Me Scream; 4) Diggin' In The Dirt; 5) Lay It Down; 6) It Ain't Over Yet; 7) Predator; 8) Crucified; 9) Take Out The Crime; 10) Don't Give A Damn; 11) Run Through The Night; 12) Primitive.

Again, this isn't awful, but the band sounds really tired, as if the invisible hand of fate had roun­ded all the members up right after their having run an up-the-hill marathon and placed them in the studio with no creative ideas, no prepared material, and a total lack of commitment. A band of one notch less quality than Accept, under such conditions, would have produced some monstro­sity; Predator isn't one, but the end results clearly showed that the band was so much out of steam that it was high time to call it a day.

It's funny, but in the light of Predator even the endless streak of "gang choruses" on Death Row seems refreshing and memorable. Predator cuts down on much of the heaviness, cuts down even more seriously on the speed aspect, features a slicker, less involving production style from vete­ran hair metal producer Michael Wagener, and even reintroduces Peter Baltes on vocals on a couple tracks (they're not power ballads this time, but they're still pretty so-so). The riffs are most­ly recycled from their own and other people's songs, and even Udo sounds disinterested. To make matters worse, the album closer 'Primitive' may just be the silliest and ugliest Accept song ever put on record: it's an unfortunate experiment at making some sort of ugly industrial-metal hybrid, quite unsuitable for Accept's overall style.

All of this calls for an unquestionable thumbs down, but as long as Accept aren't truly betraying their essence, as they did on Eat The Heat, there is, and will always be, at least something redee­ming about each of their records, and, in the end, 'Hard Attack', 'Don't Give A Damn', 'Crucified', and 'Making Me Scream' are all decent rockers with plenty of headbanging power. 'Run Through The Night' is actually one of their better "rocking ballads", with curious jangling guitar arrange­ments from Hoffmann (he is in charge of all the guitarwork on the album again). So there's no reason for the fans to stay away from it; people have been known to end their careers on notes far more pitiful than Predator, and, in fact, we can only applaud Accept for their wisdom — once they perceived that the thing was no longer working smoothly, they just packed it in, instead of stubbornly sticking around, wasting money and good old CD plastic.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

10cc: Mirror Mirror


1) Yvonne's The One; 2) Code Of Silence; 3) Blue Bird; 4) Age Of Consent; 5) Take This Woman; 6) The Monkey And The Onion; 7) Everything Is Not Enough; 8) Ready To Go Home; 9) Grow Old With Me; 10) Margo Wants The Mustard; 11) Peace In Our Time; 12) Why Did I Break Your Heart; 13) Now You're Gone; 14) I'm Not In Love.

At least this one does not pretend to be a "reunion", but that's hardly a sufficient excuse for the album's predictable weakness. If ...Meanwhile was made somewhat marginally acceptable with the aid of one or two strong melodies ('Woman In Love') and relaxed party atmosphere on its barroom rock numbers, then Mirror Mirror plunges the listener back into the stale waters of adult contemporary head-on.

The best I can say is that Stewart is jumping over twenty-feet high fences, trying at all costs to emulate the melodicity of Paul McCartney, as if their 1985 collaboration on Press To Play was the most important event of his life, deserving to be waxed nostalgic about every time he crosses the threshold of a recording studio again. 'Yvonne's The One', the opening number, is, in fact, a ten-year old outtake from those sessions, and Paul even drops by to play rhythm guitar on it, which never saves the song from being completely pedestrian and forgettable (well, it's hard to expect anything other from an outtake for the sessions for McCartney's worst album). And 'Blue Bird' is not a cover of the McCartney song, but it sounds eerily like a fifty-fifty cross between McCartney and Justin Hayward (also, by the way, one of Eric's good friends — coincidence? may­be not, although why is the track credited exclusively to Gouldman, I wonder?); so eerily, in fact, that I am completely unable to judge it on its own, and the most that it gets me is a nagging desire to relisten to my Moody Blues collection.

I can't say that Mirror Mirror is not melodic; that would be a direct lie. But these aren't melo­dies that one should live or die for, and certainly not when they're used to convey straight-faced, deadly serious sentimentality ('Code Of Silence', one of the most revolting songs about broken relationships I've ever heard from a formerly good artist; 'Grow Old With Me' — much worse than the Lennon song of the same name; 'Why Did I Break Your Heart' — yuck) with the help of synthesizer arrangements that, by 1995, were already considered the epitome of cheesiness by just about everyone who wasn't a ten-year old ten years before that. Another heavy blow is that barroom rock is out, and in its place they reinstate their bland reggae and calypso schtick ('Take This Woman', 'Margo Wants The Mustard', etc.). And as a final insult, the record includes a re­working of 'I'm Not In Love' (some editions include two different reworkings of 'I'm Not In Love'!) that dares to suggest their limp adult contemporary of 1995 somehow owes something to their masterpiece of 1975!

On second thought, it does owe something, but it just goes to show you what twenty years of taste deterioration can do to one's creativity. Thumbs down; a most ignoble end to a formerly brilliant career — at least no one seems to have noticed, because for most people 10cc had already died a quiet death at least twelve or fifteen years ago, and only a few unfortunates (like record reviewers) are forced to see these old ghosts.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Al Green: The Belle Album


1) Belle; 2) Loving You; 3) Feels Like Summer; 4) Georgia Boy; 5) I Feel Good; 6) All 'N' All; 7) Chariots Of Fire; 8) Dream.

In 1977, Al was but two years away from a full-fledged immersion into radical gospel; it's all the more amazing that the same year saw such a major oddity in his catalog as The Belle Album. He may have realized himself that the last three records, consistent as they were, were also pretty much interchangeable, and opted for a change of direction. Long-time pal and producer Willie Mitchell was cordially given the sack; new musicians were brought in the studio; Al wrote pretty much all of the material himself, and he even played his own guitar on most of the tracks. The results could have been terrible; instead, they are brilliant.

What's so fascinating about The Belle Album is that it goes in two opposite directions at the same time. No other Al Green record makes so well-pronounced a distinction between Dance and Dream; no two Al Green songs are more different from each other than 'I Feel Good', symboli­zing the Dance and 'Dream', symbolizing itself. And yet the two extremes are one in that both serve the same purpose — celebrating the beauty of Her and the goodness of Him in one package, the two inseparable from each other.

For the Dance, Al finally makes the crossing into disco (blessed are the polyester wearers, so the Lord says). But if all disco were like this, we could still be hailing disco as the best musical break­­through since the days of Handel. 'I Feel Good' — an original, nothing to do with the James Brown hit — boogies along to a clever web of acoustic rhythm, funky clavinet patterns, brass bursts, and even a little modernistic electronic percussion; it is disco, technically, but it feels like maniacal funk all the way, even despite lacking fiery funky guitar solos. 'Georgia Boy', also built around a disco bassline, is, however, its direct opposite: it's hushed and stripped down, with just a little acoustic backing track and some handclaps (and some delicate chiming in the background) strapped on top. The result is fairly weird, as if we were witnessing an old folk-blues performer adjusting to the modern times, but it's quite unique in a way.

Those who are more interested in the "serious" aspects of soul music, though, will certainly want to pay more attention to the Dream side of the story. That one is best illustrated by 'Belle' and 'Dream'. The former is a gorgeous ballad; the story is old — once again, Green is assuring his girl that he has little choice but to share her with the Lord, because 'I know you're all of these things, girl, but He's such a brighter joy' (yes, I know that's exactly the way I'd always talk to my wife were I a truly devoted believer) — but the way of delivery is new, with Green's acoustic and the shrill, but pleasant synthesizer gelling together in a manner that seriously raises the angelic feel of it all.

Yes, even though synthesized strings mostly replace real ones on this album, it never feels wrong because they're pushed a bit into the background to provide subtle atmosphere, while the loud part is mostly Al's acoustic rhythm. This is even more pronounced on 'Dream'; the latter formally belongs to the pile of Green's seven-minute mood-setters, but it's better than most — it is really set in the manner of a "musical lullaby", slowly rocking back and forth, rising and falling, soaring and swooping; if you play it loud, it'll be a never-ending series of mini-climactic moments, but you're probably supposed to play it soft, so that it gets a chance to really lull you — I've always felt that "music that puts you to sleep" is not necessarily a bad thing, and 'Dream' will put you to sleep in one of the best ways possible, just as 'I Feel Good' will put you up on your feet even if you were among the original jury that yielded the guilty as charged verdict against disco.

Set so near the end of his career, so unconspicuously nested among a string of "merely good" records, and so near to the usually (but not in this case) precarious influence of the disco spirits, The Belle Album rarely gets the same attention or respect as the early 1970s records that defined Green's career, but to me it is obvious that this is little more than the result of unfortunate circum­stances, and my own respect and love for the record prompt me to give it as solid a thumbs up as I'd give Call Me or I'm Still In Love With You, and here's hoping the album will eventually return to print and gain as much critical and fan appraisal as the older records.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Sensational Alex Harvey Band: The Impossible Dream


1) The Hot City Symphony, Part 1: Vambo; 2) The Hot City Symphony, Part 2: Man In The Jar; 3) River Of Love; 4) Long Hair Music; 5) Sergeant Fury; 6) Weights Made Of Lead; 7) Money Honey/Impossible Dream; 8) Tomahawk Kid; 9) Anthem.

God loves a third: The Impossible Dream concludes the trilogy of Alex Harvey records that no honest rock music lover should live without. If there's a breach in this fortress, it's that by now we know what to expect, and the record offers no amazing new surprises. You'll have the crunchy hard rock, you'll have the vaudeville and music hall, you'll have the generic blues-rock made non-generic through sagacious arrangements, you'll have a little bit of sensitive soulfulness, and you'll have the usual puzzled feeling of not understanding how much on here comes from the heart and how much goes as an appendage to Zal Cleminson's clown makeup.

But then, this is probably expected, and the good news is, the Sensational Band's style is so tho­roughly and utterly demented that, once they're on a roll, nothing can be truly predicted. Take even the weakest tracks on here: 'Weights Made Of Lead' is standard 'Green Onions'-style 12-bar, but certainly Booker T. & the MGs would have never thought of spicing the song up with such a fun clavinet-imitating funky guitar part as Cleminson invents for the recording. 'Sergeant Fury', in theory, should bore to sleep everyone who shivers at the name of Fred Astaire, but it is hardly possible to resist the energy of the song, or the cheesy, but seductive gay overtones in Alex's cho­rus of 'I wanna be rich and famous, I wanna be just the same as the stars that shine on the Christ­mas tree...'. In short, even where it's "common", it's a ton of fun; and where it is less than a ton of fun, it is never common.

Yet in all seriousness, The Impossible Dream is centered around two major compositions. 'Hot City Symphony' features two parts, the first of which is a slower, but not any less overwhelming re­working of 'Vambo' (by now, 'Vambo' was Harvey's scenic alter ego), and the second a Zappa-in­fluenced mock-detective story about a 'Man In The Jar' (who 'wanna get out' and is 'smashing the glass', so be careful!). Running over thirteen minutes, it doesn't feel one second overlong sin­ce you should be too busy following the misfortunes of the man in the jar to care about anything else.

But the album's true piece de resistance is 'Anthem', a song that begs for usage of this word even if it already weren't its title. Here, after fooling around with us for the duration of almost another entire record, Harvey suddenly turns around 180 degrees and yields a song of tremendous perso­nal power, or, perhaps, even national power — he does not usually parade his Scottish heritage on record, preferring it to seep through unconsciously, but here he hauls out the bagpipes (in fact, he'd even regularly haul out the pipers onstage) and leads the band in a glorious spiritual chant à la "Hey Jude", but with a religious twist provided by the angelic vocals of Vicky Silva; unfortu­nately, I am unable to locate any extra info on who she was, but it is her inspired performance, by all means, that rips the song out of its classy, but traditionally-based Scottish music flowerbed and skyrockets it way up to seventh heaven.

To call the tune "pretentious" would be the equivalent of remarking, with a straight face, that the Grand Canyon — in case you didn't know — is pretty deep. The real question is whether you're overwhelmed or not, and I am overwhelmed. I am, in fact, saddened: Harvey's 'although it's true I'm worried now, I won't be worried long' may have been just a gospel cliché when he recorded the tune, but it proved only too true, and if you trace the live performance of the tune on Youtube you'll see how many people are offering their R.I.P.s: this is the anthem of Harvey's life, and it's also the ultimate funeral song if there ever was one. (And it's difficult for me to believe that it has not served as an inspiration for McCartney's 'Mull Of Kintyre', although, of course, all anthemic Scottish music does sound pretty much the same).

For 'Anthem' and 'Hot City Symphony' alone, the brain and heart would gladly unite in a joyful tandem and lift their thumbs up high, but honestly, I can't find one truly weak spot on the album. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll smash your head up against the wall — and yes, you'll be offered plenty of cheese, but haven't you heard? Scottish cheese is pretty damn good.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Albert King: Blues At Sunrise

BLUES AT SUNRISE (1973; 1988)

1) Don't Burn Down The Bridge ('Cause You Might Wanna Come Back Across); 2) I Believe To My Soul; 3) For The Love Of A Woman; 4) Blues At Sunrise; 5) I'll Play The Blues For You; 6) Little Brother (Make A Way); 7) Roadhouse Blues.

This is a pretty good example of Albert's early 1970s live sound, well worth owning if only be­cause he somehow missed releasing a live album back then, in its own time, which would make Blues At Sunrise a significant addition to the blues addict's collection. Recorded in July 1973 at the famous Montreux Festival, it catches King at the early stage of his "funkier" period, so the setlist is predictably heavy on songs from I'll Play The Blues For You with a few respectable oldies, like the title track, thrown on for balance.

The affair is certainly less stripped than the Fillmore concerts: King is backed by a full brass sec­tion — understandable, since his records from that period depend even more on the horns than Born Under A Bad Sign — and also his second guitarist, Donald Kinsey, is given quite a bit of prominence, even "dueling" with the King on the lengthier jams. He's quite competent, but it's also quite likely that Albert let him take center stage only to emphasize his own brilliance (a mo­rally questionable trick that Eric Clapton so loves to reproduce during his own shows).

Another reason to own this is that King is exploring heavier, more "electrified" guitar tones in this live setting, than the thin, shrill tone he is usually known for on his studio and earlier live records. Listening to these performances in their chronological place, one can get the impression that he was just given this new guitar two days ago and wanted to test its abilities — there's plenty of new licks here that aren't usually associated with King, and his reliance on the power of vibrato is entirely unprecedented; he ends up sounding like Hendrix from time to time. You only have to go back once to the studio version of 'Don't Burn Down The Bridge' to understand that this Montreux version blows it away completely — provided you respect "heavy blues", of course, and do not hold the conviction that extra heaviness kills off the delicate subtleties and is much better suited for emotionally deaf nitwits.

For fact lovers, 'I Believe To My Soul' is the original Ray Charles tune (somewhat sad to hear it without the trademark piano chords, though), and King even preserves the old lyrics ('...when you know my name is Ray' — do we?); 'Roadhouse Blues', however, is not the Doors song, but rather just another generic ten-minute jam that sounds exactly like the other generic ten-minute jam ('Blues At Sunrise'). But it's Albert King, and it's a cool sound, especially when after the so-so solo of Kinsey comes the shotgun blast of Albert. Also, 'For The Love Of A Woman' is set to the exact rhythm pattern of 'Crossroads' as arranged by Cream during their live performances, so for all it's worth, you might think of this performance as King's tribute to Cream. Oh, and thumbs are up, of course. This is quite definitely treasurable.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead: Worlds Apart


1) Ode To Isis; 2) Will You Smile Again?; 3) Worlds Apart; 4) The Summer Of '91; 5) The Rest Will Follow; 6) Caterwaul; 7) A Classic Arts Showcase; 8) Let It Dive; 9) To Russia My Homeland; 10) All White; 11) The Best; 12) The Lost City Of Refuge.

The higher they drag you, the lower they'll sink you. Critical minds, perhaps already in a state of pre-confusion from having hoisted too much incomprehensible praise — for incomprehensible reasons — on the incomprehensible chaos of Source Tags & Codes, were eagerly anticipating the follow-up, maybe believing, deep down in their souls, that it would be the follow-up that would, in the end, make things a little more comprehensible.

Unfortunately, Worlds Apart was — still is — even more confusing. It goes in so many different directions and makes so many unpredictable moves that it's impossible to even categorize it, let alone explain it. It is puzzling, and while trying to sort out the puzzle, some of the critics had the misfortune to sniff out, within its twisted corridors, the next worst thing to wife-beating and neo-Nazism: PROGRESSIVE ROCK!

I swear that in one place at least, I saw an ELP reference (!) in the review of the album, and that's just the beginning. Immediately the ratings plummeted (Pitchfork gives this a 4.0 right on the heels of Source Tags' 10.0), the insults heaped up, and yesterday's critical darlings became, for the most part, outcasts. For the most part — due to little more than the painfully hypocritical state of «mainstream alternative» rock journalism in the States.

Worlds Apart may not necessarily be "better" than Source Tags, but it is very clearly the band's Tusk after their Rumours. They are evidently in the "artistic growth" regime, still leaving plenty of space for the punkish loudness but reaching out to other approaches for help as well. Pianos, strings, classic rock melodicity, a little bit of Russian music-inspired waltzing, a Wagnerian ope­ning number (!) — yes, there's plenty of pomp and pretense, but it's not the pomp and pretense that's new here; pomp and pretense have followed the Austin guys since day one. What's new is that they decided to take a look back and bring in some fresh new influences from stale old sources, and I, for one, think this resulted in expanding their musical vision and, most important, making the record interesting to listen to.

For instance, they now have a different set of policies concerning the 'loud-and-quiet' dynamics, best illustrated on the example of 'Will You Smile Again?'. It begins in the traditional way, an all-out assault on the senses with mammoth drumming, chainsaw and jangle, but then, instead of giving way to the "sonic muck" of incomprehensible mumble against a background of sleepy guitars and pianos, it transforms into a stripped-down martial blues-rock tune that is completely different in dynamics from the opening part. Nothing brilliant about the songwriting, but quite good in the way of attention-grabbing — before it reverts to the ocean of chainsaw and jangle.

They also continue writing songs — occasionally, at least — that I understand on an emotional level. 'Let It Dive', for instance, fully justifies its epic ambitions with its loud, yet at the same time weirdly pacifying chorus of 'let it dive, let it die, let it fade out of sight'; the song gives the effect of an oddly grungy U2, and, in fact, I'd be highly interested in seeing it covered by Bono just to know if this gives it a sharper edge. 'All White', with its minor chords, dramatism, and operatic backup vocals has been compared to Ziggy-era Bowie — an apt comparison, and that's probably why I like the song so much (even Keely's whiny voice fits it great). 'The Lost City Of Refuge' finishes the album on a lovely, graceful, shadowy note with an elegant guitar arrangement that's more intricate that everything they'd done on their first two albums put together.

Lyrically, they also continue to mature; the texts are getting more coherent, and some of the songs now have implicit or even explicit subject matters — 'Will You Smile', for instance, is about self-imposed blocks on creating grand, sweeping artistic statements (something that the band obviously has no problem with — or, at least, no longer has a problem with, given their pre­occupation with the subject). The title track has caused some controversy; a very distinctly pro­nounced statement against modern day cultural decline ('look at those cunts on MTV with their cars and cribs and rings and shit'), it has been accused itself of being a fairly generic alt-rock pro­duct of its age — a point that works against the song, perhaps, which has obviously been written as merely a vehicle to get it out of their system, but certainly not against the album, which is as far removed from MTV values as could be possible today. Many of the other songs have interes­ting, intelligent lyrical insights as well — perhaps this is why Reece and Keely take the pains to generally sing in a more distinctive manner, and also turn down the loudness during many of the verses. Not that the voices have improved, but at least they're giving it a try.

One shouldn't also get the impression that this is so, so, so much different from Source Tags & Codes. Despite all the experimentation, the band's backbone and primary values stay the same. It may be the inclusion of overtly pompous bits, like 'Ode To Isis', or the Russian waltz, or the loss of the wall of sound on some of the songs, that irritated most of the critics and some of the liste­ners, but overall, I am fairly certain that if history chooses to preserve And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead in its memory as an important cultural phenomenon, there is no way Wor­lds Apart can be seen as the point where the rot set in and the shark was jumped. In fact, this is exactly the kind of album I was secretly hoping they'd get along to doing one day if they had any real talent within them, and I am certainly not dissatisfied — and I invite everyone to look at this with an open mind. Thumbs up from the brain for all the experimentation, and partially likewise from the heart that gladly connected with at least three or four songs on here (a major record for this particular band). Yes, and don't forget there's nothing substantially wrong with ELP either, regardless of the fact that nothing on Worlds Apart sounds even remotely like ELP. (The day someone in the band starts playing piano like Keith Emerson is the day that the last person on Earth who still remembers anything about Keith Emerson goes to his grave).

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Aimee Mann: The Forgotten Arm


1) Dear John; 2) King Of The Jailhouse; 3) Goodbye Caroline; 4) Going Through The Motions; 5) I Can't Get My Head Around It; 6) She Really Wants You; 7) Video; 8) Little Bombs; 9) That's How I Knew This Story Would Break My Heart; 10) I Can't Help You Anymore; 11) I Was Thinking I Could Clean Up for Christmas; 12) Beautiful.

Every serious artist deserves a concept album, and who's more serious than Aimee Mann? The Forgotten Arm is a mini-musical (it's a bit too fragile and tender to be called a "rock opera") built around an imaginative story of an alcoholic boxer teaming up with a "white trash" girl and their futile attempts to battle their problems. The subject matter reflects Aimee's private fetishism (she's known for her own addiction to boxing), but, more importantly, it presents her as some sort of a female Bruce Springsteen, injecting herself into "other people's lives" and functioning as a self-appointed spokesman for the lower depths.

Whether this elevates her art or, on the contrary, makes it more cheap and superficial, is a useless question to discuss. The main problem, as far as I can see, is one that almost inevitably crops up on most concept albums: there's somewhat too much of the concept and somewhat less of crea­tive songwriting. Of course, on the "positive" side, The Forgotten Arm is a more energetic al­bum than Lost In Space: the tempos are generally faster, the guitars more prominent and crunchy, the mo­rose depression reserved for just a few of the tunes, while the others are busy building up other kinds of atmosphere relevant to the story.

But on the "negative" side, too many of the songs do not register on my scale even after quite a few listens, and this is coming from someone who "got" Lost In Space not earlier than the fourth time around. This time, though, the subtleties just refuse to come out. It's mostly decent folk-rock — decent, but hardly magical. Aimee sings like she really means it — and, of course, she does mean it; it's her story, her message, her impersonations — but it is hard to get rid of the nagging feeling that the story comes first and the melody comes next. It is also not insignificant that in some recent interviews she'd also stated that the idea was to intentionally emulate the atmosphere of an early 1970s roots-rock album, to make something in the vein of The Band or Tumbleweed Connection; if so, she'd clearly paid more attention to the arrangements and "vibe" of it all than to the soul power of the notes themselves. The irony, of course, is that without great melodies, roots-rock arrangements only make the whole experience blander.

A typical example is 'Beautiful', the closing number that is supposed to wind things up on a gene­rally optimistic note after the characters had been royally messing up their lives for the previous eleven tracks. Its chorus, as far as composition goes, is lazy: Aimee does change to her falsetto on the line 'why does it hurt me to feel so much tenderness?', but, as much as I adore her falsetto, the enchantment just doesn't work; the notes are clumsily strung together, there's no adequately har­monic effect, and nothing ends up registering in my head. Maybe it's not laziness; maybe it was an in­tentional wish to write something so discoherent (Carole King, who also had a song with the same title, not coincidentally used to write in the same manner, but somehow generally came out with better results). Yet this is pop music, after all, not opera, and I don't think we were supposed to judge The Forgotten Arm according to the criteria of Ma­dame Butterfly in the first place.

Even the good choruses are lazy: 'That's How I Knew This Story Would Break My Heart', 'I Can't Help You Anymore' and 'I Was Thinking I Could Clean Up For Christmas' essentially make their points — three songs in a row! — by having their titles chanted over and over again. That's char­ming chanting, to be sure, but that's not enough for Aimee; I'm perfectly certain she could charm anyone by walking down the street and chanting random storefront signs if she wished to.

In the end, my favourite songs turn out to be exactly those two that had already been previewed on the live album: 'Going Through The Motions', since it's the power-poppiest number on the record, and 'King Of The Jailhouse', its direct opposite — a slow, lumbering piano ballad, densely satu­rated with fantastic vocal flourishes, maybe Aimee's greatest ever vocal performance that locks tenderness and desperation into a single tiny capsule and wedges it in the ear forever; the transition from the disturbed, panicky confession of 'Baby there's something wrong with me!..' to the quiet, submissive, but still achingly painful desperation of '...that I can't see...' literally takes my breath away every time I hear it (and it is repeated way more than just a few times, believe me). There's nothing on the album that reaches the same emotional heights even remotely. It is not excluded that these two songs were, in fact, the first that were written (given that they'd already appeared a year ear­lier) and the rest of the story "grew" around them in a progressively declining fashion.

Worst of all, I don't even "get" the story. I do not feel that Aimee succeeds in making these cha­racters come alive. For all she's worth, she is still being Aimee Mann, and Aimee Mann is a per­son as much removed from an alcoholic boxer and his drugged-out girlfriend as she is from an Afghani shepherd. Am I wrong? If so, she is not trying too hard to change my opinion. It may even be an interesting story — in someone else's hands — but what I see is a smart, way too se­rious, way too sentimental, intelligent woman who'd rather be reading about the misfortunes of alcoholic boxers in the latest paperback than being able to live them out herself. In the end, I pre­fer to forget altogether that there is supposed to be some sort of story here — the whole thing comes across easier when you discard the conceptual trappings wholesale.

So, in the end, it is not easy to consider The Forgotten Arm a great success; it is easy to believe that Aimee has overreached a bit. Not that it spoils her reputation in any way, and it is still one of the sincerest and most impressive artistic statements of 2005 — or maybe even of the entire de­cade, which has been relatively scarce on honest, simple statements from intelligent people, and for that reason, thumbs up are guaranteed. But as far as rock operas/musicals go, it's certainly no Quadrophenia. And it is perhaps not a coinci­dence that Aimee, despite a certain amount of critical praise, has so far not ventured to repeat the attempt.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Accept: Death Row


1) Death Row; 2) Sodom And Gomorra; 3) The Beast Inside; 4) Dead On!; 5) Guns 'R' Us; 6) Like A Loaded Gun; 7) What Else; 8) Stone Evil; 9) Bad Habits Die Hard; 10) Prejudice; 11) Bad Religion; 12) Generation Clash II; 13) Writing On The Wall; 14) Drifting Away; 15) Pomp And Circumstance.

This isn't bad. But if you want to get a decent idea of what this record sounds like, try taking a deep breath and yelling out all the song titles, in a row, taking note of my brief comments: "DEATH ROW!" (mid-tempo, martial-like, as if you were sending someone in that direction); "SODOM AND GOMORRA!" (fast, indignant, as if this is where you were living in); "THE BEAST INSIDE!" (mid-tempo, sneeringly, like a cross between Punch and Mephisto); "DEAD ON!" (slow, with a good mixture of self-importance and machismo); "GUNS 'R' US!" (mid-tem­po, with a modicum of pride, as befits someone who could have this written on his door); "LIKE A LOADED GUN!" (mid-tempo, stern, could be from an imaginatory Terminator soundtrack!); "STONE EVIL!" (mid-tempo, ominous, don't go there or it will tear you limb from limb); "BAD HABITS DIE HARD!" (fast, a little bit à la Dirty Harry, sounds great right before you whomp that sucker); "PREJUDICE!" (mid-tempo, boring, out of steam); "BAD RELIGION!" (mid-tempo, boring, completely out of steam).

Death Row is every critic's dream — it is an album that's more formulaic than the critic's own approach; if musicians can be so predictable and derivative, why can't people that write about the music? One riff per song (not all the riffs are good), one gang chorus per song, and not even Udo can elevate this to a higher level because he frankly sounds disinterested: like a seasoned pro, he gives it his all, but he doesn't try even remotely to give it something extra.

The album makes good use of the allowed length of the CD — for instance, instead of one pom­pous, unnecessary instrumental, we have two (in a row!), and it also allows the band to offer us a remake of 'Generation Clash', with Udo on vocals this time (it doesn't work much better than the first time, though). This means that you can pretty much shut the album off after 'Bad Religion', but not every dedicated fan will probably be able to sit straight through everything else: the stiff formula gets so mind-numbing eventually that one can honestly become ashamed about letting one's brain gather dust on the nearby shelf for so long.

Technically, this is Hoffmann's show all the way — he handles lead and rhythm duties, making the arrangements seem a bit sparse. He's also trying to be inventive, throwing on wah-wah and other effects to make the proceedings more "brutal"; in the process, the band pretty much invents "nu-metal" with the title track ('Death Row' does not at all sound unlike Korn and Limp Bizkit). He also tries to brush up on his classical influences with the reproduction of Khachaturian's 'Sabre Dance' theme in 'Sodom & Gomorra' — pure kitsch but quite refreshing in the overall con­text of the album, I must say.

Overlong, uninventive, curiously lifeless, this is a serious letdown after the promises of Objec­tion Overruled; nevertheless, lower your expectations, throw away your ambitions, and you'll still have enough to get your ass kicked properly. Thumbs down from the brain, but the heart insists on having a tight E.P. shaped from the album's four or five best tracks and thereby proving that in 1994, the band was still going relatively strong.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

10cc: ...Meanwhile

10CC: ...MEANWHILE (1992)

1) Woman In Love; 2) Wonderland; 3) Fill Her Up; 4) Something Special; 5) Welcome To Paradise; 6) The Stars Didn't Show; 7) Green Eyed Monster; 8) Charity Begins At Home; 9) Shine A Light In The Dark; 10) Don't Break The Promises.

A ten-year long break can sometimes work wonders... not in this case, though. After spending a decade working on their individual projects, Stewart and Gouldman have come back to pick up from the exact same place where they left us with Windows In The Jungle, as if neither the Eighties, with their tackiness and their perverse charms, nor the early Nineties with their drastic shift in musical values have ever happened. Well — you don't have to love this judgement, but maybe you have to respect it.

A long-term tactical blunder hailed this as a "Reunion" album of the original 10cc — under the pretext that Godley & Creme were mesmerized into appearing in the studio for the sessions to add backing vocals for some of the tracks (Godley also sings lead on 'The Stars Didn't Show'). But it doesn't take a genius to figure out that neither of the two had even a pinch of creative im­pact on the proceedings; ...Meanwhile is, if possible, even more straightforward and simplistic a record than Windows.

It isn't worse, though; perhaps it's even a little better. About half of it is the same old boring adult contemporary refuse, but the other half at least cheers up the proceedings with some upbeat bar­room rock, on which the band is assisted by the piano-playing talents of Dr. John. And the lead-off single, 'Woman In Love', is at least a good pop song: it somehow manages to tap-dance on the bottle top of retro-Seventies "cock-sentimentalism" (i. e. sentimental songs emanating from artists with a general cock rock attitude, by default one of music's greatest offenses against both good taste in general and the feminine sex in particular) without getting stuck in the bottleneck, maybe because of exquisite guitar work from Stewart.

One bothersome thing is a striking number of déjà vus I am getting — consciously or subcon­sciously, Gouldman and Stewart seem to be so strung up on creative songwriting that they keep yielding either atmospheric or melodic bits that belong not to 10cc, but rather to someone else. 'Wonderland', for instance, for the most part sounds like the Police circa Synchronicity; 'Some­thing Special' keeps reminding me of some McCartney song I can't recall the name of; 'Shine A Light In The Dark' borrows a line from the Hollies' 'Long Cool Woman In A Red Dress', etc. Not that it's necessarily bad: if your own sack of ideas is depleted, a little borrowing can be a big help, and if this helps make ...Meanwhile more listenable — why not? Except that it doesn't make it all that much more listenable, certainly not to the point where we could count it as a minor latter day masterpiece. The best songs here, like 'Woman In Love', or the flat rocker 'Charity Begins At Home', would still be forgettable filler on any of 10cc's major albums.

Nor do I understand why Godley agreed to sing lead on 'The Stars Didn't Show', a tepid synth ballad every inch of which is so square they should make it an anthem of McDonalds' or some­thing. They didn't even manage to squeeze out any money of this effort, because the old fans had been washed away and who'd want to be a new fan? Part of the blame can perhaps be laid at the feet of producer Gary Katz of Steely Dan fame — what may have been good for Steely Dan, namely, extreme cleanliness and "stiffness" of the sound, compatible with the Dan's exquisite taste in arrangements, only augments the suffocation one experiences from Gouldman and Ste­wart's late-period musical values. On the other hand, maybe the tables should be turned and perhaps it was actually Katz who saved the album from becoming a complete snoozer. But complete or incomplete, it still hurts my brain so bad that it temporarily shuts down my heart — guaranteeing the usual thumbs down rating.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Al Green: Have A Good Time


1) Keep Me Crying; 2) Smile A Little Bit More; 3) I Tried To Tell Myself; 4) Something; 5) The Truth Marches On; 6) Have A Good Time; 7) Nothing Takes The Place Of You; 8) Happy; 9) Hold On Forever.

Or maybe it's Have A Good Time, after all, that is slightly more consistent than Full Of Fire — it's so easy to sway from one to another when one stops playing and the other begins. At least there is one major plus: no pure-atmosphere seven-minute track for the ultra-dedicated fan. The closest to a seven-minute track is a couple four-minute tracks, one of which ('Something') is really quite a moving ballad, with some exquisitely novel use of a sitar (if that really is a sitar) that someone is trying to play like a moody Nashville guitar. [The connection with George Har­rison, despite the sitar use, does not extend beyond the name of the song]. The other chunk of slow romance, 'Nothing Takes The Place Of You', is nothing special — but it is not a seven-mi­nute chunk, and so you are not forced to concentrate on how positively it demonstrates the depth of Al Green's decline.

Elsewhere, he is accelerating the drive towards disco, but there are no distinct disco basslines and the melody in all these dance send-ups almost comes first and foremost before the groove. The only track that misses competition with Chic and the Bee Gees by an inch is the opener 'Keep Me Cryin', yet it is so awash in complex strings patterns that it is hard to accuse it of extra cheesiness. If there is a flaw, it's that Al is working way, way too hard to wrap the listener in a friendly, lo­ving vibe: with tunes like 'Have A Good Time', 'Happy', and 'Smile A Little Bit More' — all on the same album! — he doesn't so much wrap you as he drowns you, and if he were just a wee bit less talented and charismatic, this would be the equivalent of overdosing on Prozac. All of the ambiguity and all of the subtle darkness that used to elevate his art to the level of A-R-T seem to have been burned away by just one pan of boiled grits, and I sincerely miss them...

...but only when I take a look back at his major efforts from the start of the decade, that is. As frustrating as it is to admit, there is not a single really weak tune on the record — well, 'The Truth Marches On' starts out suspiciously, as if we were about to witness some forced "gritty blues-rock", but then it turns out the blues-rock aspect of the song is secondary to its atmosphere and inspired religious message. And no matter how shallow and superficial I could find the exhorta­tion to 'have a good time', the note captured by Al comes across as so sincere and charming in its naïveness that spiritual depth and profound meaning can go fuck themselves for a good half hour — and I don't care.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

13th Floor Elevators: Live


1) Before You Accuse Me; 2) She Lives In A Time Of Her Own; 3) Tried To Hide; 4) You Gotta Take That Girl; 5) I'm Gonna Love You Too; 6) Everybody Needs Somebody To Love; 7) I've Got Levitation; 8) You Can't Hurt Me Anymore; 9) Roller Coaster; 10) You're Gonna Miss Me.

The ultimate sham: a fake live album, consisting of a bunch of studio outtakes with overdubbed crowd noises. The Elevators were certainly notorious for their wild live shows, which explains the record company's desire to put out a live album for the fans — problem is, as some actual live recordings that have since surfaced as bonus tracks or bootlegs clearly show, they either did not have the funds to buy proper recording equipment or maybe the band just couldn't be bothered to bother. So why bother, in fact, when you can simply take some studio recordings, throw on some applause, and leave the fans sorting it out with each other over whether this is really live or a fake? (Obviously, the real serious fans would figure out the real state of affairs in no time, but "real se­rious fans" do not usually constitute the majority of the buyers, even if we're talking obscure cult figures like the Elevators).

Hardliners have since disowned the record, and it's immoral to criticize their decision; softliners, however, have rightly pointed out that, if one manages to abstract oneself from the crowd noises, one is at least left with extra studio material from the band — material that was so scarce in the first place that even a sham like this can be tolerated. Maybe someday, when the business of reissuing old classic material finally falls into the hands of a new age King Solomon, someone will wash out the "audience" and simply release these outtakes as they really were; until then, it's all up to our power of imagination.

Not that there are any revelations. Alternate versions of classic tunes from the band's two albums are extremely similar to the standard versions — in fact, I am quite positive that 'You're Gonna Miss Me' is simply the standard version as is, and probably one or two others are, too. The real meat, therefore, is quite lean: two originals and three covers from some of the band's earliest ses­sions, back when they weren't so much psychedelic but more R'n'B and garage-oriented. Their takes on Bo Diddley's 'Before You Accuse Me', Buddy Holly's 'I'm Gonna Love You Too' and Solomon Burke's 'Everybody Needs Somebody To Love' are saved by Roky's proverbial ferocio­usness (musically, you'd be much better off with the originals or covers by Creedence, Blondie, and the Stones, to name a few); 'You Gotta Take That Girl' is an attempt to write an actual Buddy Holly-style song, and a good one; and 'You Can't Hurt Me Anymore' is arguably the only song that would reasonably fit in on The Psychedelic Sounds, but it would probably not be a highlight.

Naturally, the brain is left with no choice but to insist upon a thumbs down — a sham is a sham, and there is nothing ethical about not recognizing it. However, if you are even a semi-completist, your doom is to succumb. The most honourable way to succumb, of course, would be to come into possession of the 3-CD box The Psychedelic World Of The 13th Floor Elevators (unfor­tunately, out of print, but not undiscoverable altogether), where Live is but a small chunk of ad­denda among the three original studio albums — and a bunch of real live performances from '66 and '67, although, predictably, in far worse quality. The electric jug does come through very clear­ly, though, wherever it is present.