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Saturday, October 31, 2009

AIR: 10,000 Hz Legend

AIR: 10,000 HZ LEGEND (2001)

1) Electronic Performers; 2) How Does It Make You Feel?; 3) Radio #1; 4) The Vagabond; 5) Radian; 6) Lucky And Unhappy; 7) Sex Born Poison; 8) People In The City; 9) Wonder Milky Bitch; 10) Don't Be Light; 11) Caramel Prisoner.

AIR's first proper album of new material since Moon Safari pretty much bombed in the face of the critics. All of a sudden, people were realizing that these French guys weren't really breaking a hell of a lot of new ground — and, in addition to that, they were sort of getting all serious and pretentious, with a progressive attitude on which modern progressive criticism has signed the exclusive lease to Radiohead. And AIR, after all, are no Radiohead. They're French!

However, putting aside the odd neurobiological impulses of modern day criticism, it is still nece­ssary to admit that 10,000 Hz Legend is a different album. It is no longer structured like a jour­ney; it is relatively monolithic, saddled with many more vocal tracks, and, overall, much darker and, in fact, more Electronica-like than Moon Safari. There is still plenty of real instrumental di­versity, but more of the tracks are openly driven by the power of electronic impulses, and echoes of Kraftwerk and their robots keep ringing in the head even in the ensuing silence. It's as if the band suddenly remembered which particular hole they were pigeoned into and decided to play submissive, bringing along the whip and collar.

But it's good clean fun all the same. With a whole squad of guiding angels — everybody from Pink Floyd to Depeche Mode to, yes, Radiohead — behind their backs, AIR still deliver nice moo-sic (-zak?). Since keeping hip is an essential ingredient, they also recruit individual angels-in-the-flesh to spice things up: Jason Falkner, Japanese rockers Buffalo Daughter (!), and even Beck himself all make guest appearances on vocals, and a couple of members of Beck's becking, sorry, backing band offer further support on bass and keyboards.

Results? Nothing groundbreaking, nor do the proceedings sound as lush and dreamy as they used to be. We are moving away from pastures, forests, and oceans to the gloomier and murkier depths of the subconscious, although that move does not truly occur until track five, 'Radian', with its creepy game of hide-and-seek unfurling before our eyes between the electronic loops and the ghostly vocal echoes. Before that, things are unquestionably lighter: we have the Floydian 'How Does It Make You Feel?', acoustic, minimalistic, and quite effective (although I, for one, was quite happy when its annoying breathy vocals were so properly lampooned in its totally unexpected final lines — nice to learn the duo have plenty of self-irony), the al­bum's only "pop-rocker" 'Radio #1', and 'The Vagabond' — a harmonica-led bluesy number which really truly is as much Beck as AIR, and maybe even more Beck than AIR.

Then, with 'Radian', we make the descent... no, not into Hell — Godin and Dunckel are too wim­py to earn the right to build up their own private Hell — but rather into the waiting room where you suffer more from your own insecurities about the future than whatever actual torment may await you in a matter of hours. These other compositions tend to merge in one large lump — one large, highly creative, if not thoroughly highly exciting lump.

Come to think of it, it is easy to understand all the disappointment: people may have been expec­ting AIR to break down one more wall in the back of their minds, and, instead, got one reinsta­ted, as the band made a conscious decision to fall back on already explored ways of music-making. The basic question, however, is: whatever made people expect that AIR could have done some­thing like that? There was nothing particularly groundbreaking about Moon Safari either — ex­cept for, perhaps, just the basic shock of seeing an electronic band bring out acoustic guitars and real strings from time to time. But then they also do it here. There's just a bit more bleeping. I can't say all of it drives my imagination to new, ever more glorious heights, but thumbs up all the same, says the heart, while the brain takes a break.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Adrian Belew: Mr. Music Head


1) Oh Daddy; 2) House Of Cards; 3) One Of Those Days; 4) Coconuts; 5) Bad Days; 6) Peaceable Kingdom; 7) Hot Zoo; 8) Motor Bungalow; 9) Bumpity Bump; 10) Bird In A Box; 11) 1967; 12) Cruelty To Animals.

This is the first in a sequence of four records in a row on which Belew's main goal was to exor­cise his inner pop demon; from 1989 to 1994, he intentionally displaced his avantagarde Crimso­nian schtick to backstage status and tried to be all four Beatles at the same time instead. Serious fans paying serious attention to Adrian's career already knew that one day it would come to this, of course, given his pop contributions to King Crimson's albums and the playfulness of Lone Rhino, but perhaps some of them still prayed to the Great God of Weirdness about not letting it happen — to no avail.

Come to think of it, serious fans had probably already heard Adrian's previous two records with The Bears, their eponymous album of 1987 and Rise And Shine from 1988, both of them essen­tially a bunch of tight retro-power pop songs modernized by Belew's guitar; but The Bears could have been thought of as a lightweight side project, a little bit of "divertissement" or maybe even a red herring. That Belew would go on in the same direction after parting ways with the Bears was somewhat sensational all the same.

And yet, nevertheless, I have never come across any major ac­cusations of "selling out". Perhaps it's because, technically, Belew never managed to really sell out: the funny video for 'Oh Daddy' got some MTV rotation and earned him a single hit, and so did the Bowie duet for 'Pretty Pink Rose' off the next album (arguably, just because of Bowie's name attached to it), but that was it — he never made that much money from this stretch. Perhaps, also, it's because this whole stretch took place in the interim between two major rocket launches for King Crimson; you can't really accuse a guy of "selling out" if the "selling-out" is clearly sha­ped as a bit of self-indulgent hobby in between "serious work".

But I would say that the main reason these albums are viewed, even by Belew's strongest critics, from the "weird man overdoes the weirdness" angle, rather than the "weird man loses honour and goes straight" angle, is that, for 1989-1994, they are, when judged by their own value, decidedly uncommercial. For one thing, Beatlesque pop has ceased to be of immediate commercial value ever since the Beatles broke up — Belew did not have any more chances of firing up the public-at-large's attention than Big Star and Badfinger two decades earlier. For another thing, his records, although clearly "tributary", were still Adrian Belew records and nobody else's. His lyrics, his vocals, his rhythmics, his guitar tricks — he may not be playing in 13/8 all the time, and he may go easier on the whammy bar, but this is by no means "commonplace" pop music.

Most of the instruments are played by Adrian alone (Mike Barnett is credited for string bass on a couple of tracks), meaning that, as in all such cases, you will not get a "live feel" for the procee­dings; this is technically admirable, but I think the record would have seriously benefitted from a few more overdubs, as well as better drumming (I hate beat boxes, especially on non-beat-box oriented albums); the lack of smoothness detracts from being able to fully appreciate Belew's in­ventiveness and songwriting talent. This is a serious drawback, I think — but, essentially, the only one, because the songs are all very strong.

Some are still molded in the old "paranoid" tradition that Belew carries over from the New Wave style of 1980's King Crimson and Talking Heads — such as 'Motor Bungalow' and 'Hot Zoo'; they are, however, mixed with post-psychedelic anthems to serenity and tranquility ('Peace­able Kingdom') and fun, lightweight pop-rockers and ballads that cast Adrian in a nostalgic or sentimental mood, wearing his heart on his sleeve or at least pretending to ('One Of Those Days', where he could be mistaken for a modern day Jerry Lee Lewis; 'Bad Days', with a gorgeous vocal part). On most of these numbers guitar trickery is reduced to a minimum — you'll have to look for classier guitar work on the grittier rockers, e. g. 'Coconuts' with its bee-sting tones, or 'Bum­pity Bump', one of the more authentically Crimsonian displays of grimness on the album. But these are exceptions: Mr. Music Head will not go down in history as a guitar-lover's paradise.

Disregarding the CD-only bonus sonic collage ('Cruelty To Animals', only there to further satisfy Adrian's faunistic fetish), the record's two most memorable tunes are the ones that bookmark it. 'Oh Daddy' is a sweet, heart-warming, but highly sarcastic take on the "I wanna be a star" syn­drome, cleverly structured as a dialog between Adrian and his now-11-year-old daughter (who can sing backup vocals even better than she could play piano as a 5-year-old) — all the more iro­nic seeing as how this "lament" about not being able to make it to the top was the closest Belew ever came to becoming a real pop star. And the mini-symphony '1967', almost completely acous­tic, is usually recognized as cast in the vein of the Beatles' mini-sequences, although melodically I do not spot any direct Beatles influence — but it is a very interesting piece nevertheless, alter­nating between a little vaudeville and a little blues and a little folk-pop, and all the time you can't really tell whether it's got real soul or if it's just a hollow exercise in genre-hopping without chan­ging the guitar around your neck, but it's interesting all the same.

In short, Mr. Music Head is an album tailor-made for that little middle-of-the-road segment of the audience who like their pop music weird, and their weirdness poppy. Unfortunately, experi­ence shows that we live in an age of extremism, so that the Simple Guy will find this too jarring and twisted, and the Complex Audiophile will dismiss it as "pop-slop". Since I never subscribed to either stereotype, I happily award this a thumbs up, with the brain in the lead (marvelous, un­predictable design) and the heart catching up (on the strength of 'Oh Daddy' and 'Bad Days' as already in the bank, and quite a few other songs poised to get there eventually).

Thursday, October 29, 2009

ABBA: Arrival


1) When I Kissed The Teacher; 2) Dancing Queen; 3) My Love, My Life; 4) Dum Dum Diddle; 5) Knowing Me, Knowing You; 6) Money, Money, Money; 7) That's Me; 8) Why Did It Have To Be Me; 9) Tiger; 10) Arrival; 11*) Fernando; 12*) Happy Hawaii.

Another perfect title for ABBA's first of two perfect albums in a row. "Perfect", here, does not necessarily mean "beautiful" or "great" or even "timeless" — simply that, as far as the record's goals and ambitions are concerned, they are satisfied with perfect perfection. On Arrival, there is no "filler"; not a single note is, in fact, out of place. Huge (and well-deserved) hits alternate with lesser numbers in a way that's respectful for the latter and profitable for the former. And, by 1976, ABBA were finally in full control of their bodily functions when it came to songwriting.

Even if I hated this particular form of glossy Euro-pop — and, normally, I do, because I have no choice — I would still be forced to admit that the guys who wrote these melodies were no ordina­ry hackmen. Ordinary hackmen do not usually make their verses as memorable as their choruses, and they do not strive to get their middle eights to sound like entirely different mini-compositions gracefully wedged in between the verses.

When you've settled in, you start noticing that Benny and Björn's hooks, particularly the ones they employ on the hits — like the piano runs in 'Money, Money, Money' or 'Dancing Queen' — are extremely simple, sort of nursery rhyme level-simple (hardly a coincidence that one of the songs, 'Dum Dum Diddle', basically is a nursery rhyme), and that may make you ashamed of fal­ling for these melodies instead of, let's say, Keith Jarrett. My advice would be to fuck it. There is a time for the beauty of Keith Jarrett, and then there's a time for the admirable simplicity — and efficacy — of 'Money money money, must be funny in a rich man's world'.

They certainly could have employed (what with all the money that'd started rolling in) a better set of lyricists. The slightly on-the-edge "high school giggle" of 'When I Kissed The Teacher' and the explicitly and obviously grim "depression" of 'Knowing Me, Knowing You' (their first 'parting' song, foreshadowing the band's personal problems to come) are probably the only tunes on here that could scramble for at least a C+ on the Singer-Songwriter Scale of the decade; everything else ranges from the thoroughly trite to the unintentionally hilarious ('Dig in the dancing queen' is quite notorious, but I'd say that the cake is taken by 'And if I meet you, what if I eat you?' from 'Tiger'). However, I have seen people dissing these lyrics as if this somehow discredited the whole experience — and some of these were the same people who, the very next moment, would begin colorfully headbanging to AC/DC.

In terms of arrangements, Arrival and The Album are, in between them, the best illustrations of the default ABBA sound after they'd stripped away all the shortcomings, but before becoming de­railed with the disco wave. Layers of acoustic guitars, usually, with a simple or electric piano ac­companiment, and moderate usage of electric guitars and strings and, sometimes, accordeons, re­flecting Andersson's Swedish folk music influences. In the end, it is stuck somewhere in between the opposing poles of hard rock/power pop, the heights of which they never even try to scale, and the American folk-rock scene, which some of the songs clearly resemble, but regularly trump in terms of sheer pop energy (after all, Arrival is not a meditative album à la James Taylor — it's dance music, pure and simple).

As a result, the songs seem quite lively even today, and show plenty of soul from under the gloss. For many, the album peaks at the end, when the incompetent lyrics fade away and the title track greets us with its heavenly waves of Nordic melody — a choral mantra of such bliss that even Mike Oldfield could not resist from covering it. Following the general line, 'Arrival', like everything else, is not a technically demanding piece — basically just one melodic line brushing against you over and over again, but every good band needs an anthemic mantra to its name, and 'Arrival' has a good chance of making the shortlist of candidate melodies to welcome earthly saints to the gates of Heaven (at least in the "pop" category).

Special honourable mention: 'Why Did It Have To Be Me', arguably the best Björn-sung number in the catalog, blissful vaudeville which begins as if they were painfully trying to disguise it as rock'n'roll, but then just drops all the pretense altogether in favour of the fat brass riff and the pompous chorus delivered by Frida-on-Fire (her campy punch onstage in the version in ABBA: The Movie is so grotesque that it has to be seen to be disbelieved). It simply embodies everything about the band that you might want to consider good, and everything that you might want to con­sider bad, if you still have any idea of what these words mean. I do not pretend that I do, yet I am certain that Arrival will go on finding admirers until the day we're done with as the human race, and, in keeping with that, I gladly put my thumbs up.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Al Green: Lay It Down

LAY IT DOWN (2008)

1) Lay It Down; 2) Just For Me; 3) You've Got The Love I Need; 4) No One Like You; 5) What More Do You Want From Me; 6) Take Your Time; 7) Too Much; 8) Stay With Me (By The Sea); 9) All I Need; 10) I'm Wild About You; 11) Standing In The Rain.

As if we needed one more proof that life is stranger than fiction. Two times in a row, Al Green had unsuccessfully attempted to recreate the Ol' Green magic by immersing himself in the pains­takingly recreated setting of the legendary Seventies. It did not work. What was the reason? No one knows for sure. Then, for causes unknown, Green switched producers: instead of old pal Willie Mitchell, Lay It Down was produced by Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, from the hip-hop out­fit of The Roots. And presto, third time's the charm: suddenly, everything works!

I can only explain this by admitting that people change, and that, at this particular point, there are people for whom it is easier to step into Willie Mitchell's old shoes than for Willie Mitchell him­self. The essential difference between Lay It Down and Green's previous two records is that Lay It Down sounds far less cluttered. At his best, Green worked in a subtle way — nothing, to me, exemplifies the beauty of his approach better than the gallant dialog between the man and the strings on 'I'm So Glad You're Mine', and these subtleties were thoroughly missed on both I Can't Stop and Everything's OK. Now they're back — maybe not in a real big way, but they're definitely back, and the magic is back with them.

If the former two records both opened with an energetic, punchy rocker (that, nevertheless, some­how missed the punch), Lay It Down opens with the soft, relaxed title track, meaning that the company set their aims real high — on attempting to recreate the el-paradiso-atmosphere of I'm Still In Love With You rather than the much more dance-oriented collections of the mid-Seven­ties. And even if 'Lay It Down', featuring R'n'B guest star Anthony Hamilton on additional vocals on the chorus, is no masterpiece, it is still a perfect conductor for Green's warmth and kindness. Revolving around a (finally!) good vocal hook in the chorus, it manages to reinstate my faith in Green's soul therapy, and who could ask for more?

But there is more. Additional magic can be found, for instance, on 'Take Your Time', where Green cedes a large part of the vocals to another guest singer, Corinne Bailey Rae, and their duet, aided but definitely not overshadowed by the usual silk screen of lounge instrumentation, is touchingly sincere. In fact, just about every ballad on here is good. The upbeat numbers are more hit-and-miss, perhaps running a bit too close on the heels of the generic product of yesteryear, but even so they manage to close the record perfectly — 'Standing In The Rain' is a great singalong number in the pure R'n'B tradition, with nary a sign of disco and sung in such an encouraging manner that somehow it leaves you certain that this isn't the last time you are heartily enjoying a slice of Al Green wizardry.

It may be so that all the «new blood» was brought in primarily with the aim of assuring chart suc­cess, an argument reasonably upheld by the fact that the album got an assured chart success, ri­sing to #9 on the Billboard where Everything's OK had previously stalled at #50. And we all know that Green is not the kind of ivory-tower artist that is most alergic to popularity: he is a prea­cher, after all, and regardless of whether you're preaching about heavenly or quite earthly love, you are a proverbially lousy preacher if you're not interested in attracting a large crowd. But if one's successful search for success even today, when even Google has trouble juxtaposing the words «good taste» and «Billboard», can, as it turns out, be compatible with a record as elegant, delicate, and well-crafted as Lay It Down — maybe there's still hope for our fellow earthlings. Thumbs up on the part of the grateful heart.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Sensational Alex Harvey Band: SAHB Stories


1) Dance To Your Daddy; 2) Amos Moses; 3) Jungle Rubout; 4) Sirocco; 5) Boston Tea Party; 6) Sultan's Choice; 7) $25 For A Massage; 8) Dogs Of War.

Recovering from the temporary bout of "all-coveritis", Harvey, Cleminson and Co. go back to relying upon their own forces, as they deliver yet another serving of the usual stylistic melange. SAHB Stories is not one of their most acclaimed albums (even though, surprisingly enough, it brought them their highest bit of commercial success with the single release of 'Boston Tea Par­ty') — it came out at a time when the Harvey formula was quickly becoming obsolete, and 'punk' values were replacing 'glam' at an alarming rate. But, ripped out of its historical context, it can proudly measure up to any other solid SAHB album of the decade.

It is dark, though. As you look back on the band's career, you can definitely see the early comic overtones gradually recede and give way to a much bleaker vision of the world. At some point, you no longer have any lightweight vaudeville, and even basic headbanging rock'n'roll is begin­ning to be presented with a strong touch of bitter lemon. Looking at the lyrics to some of these songs, it's relatively easy to crack the usual smile, but the music, per se, is not smile-inducing at all. 'Dance To Your Daddy', for instance, would seem like a title destined to accompany some cute pop-rock ditty, but why, then, is its main riff so reminiscent of Zeppelin's 'Immigrant Song', and what do all the aethereal bursts of synth soloing and angel choirs have to do with it?

Indeed, most of the time the band is bent on one of two things: churning out grim, unfriendly riffage ('Amos Moses'; the unbearably catchy 'Sultan's Choice') or engaging in ominous, unsett­ling atmospherics (the never-ending, but somewhat hypnotic 'Sirocco'). Every once in a while they venture out into funky territory ('Jungle Rub Out' and especially '$25 For A Massage', also reminiscent of Zeppelin, but this time of their funk explorations on Physical Graffiti), yet im­pression-wise, these numbers do not stray too far from the overall darkness. Even 'Boston Tea Party' itself, no matter how much it seduces us with its superficially friendly singalong chorus of 'Are you going, are you going to the Boston Tea Party?' — the one whose superficial friendliness sold it so well to British audiences in 1976 — recalls the whole story of American independence in a bitter vein, and that chorus is oddly unengaging: it transfers neither joy nor sorrow, getting stuck in your head for a reason that is impossible to understand.

It may be so that the band was simply caught in a state of confusion and tiredness, and Harvey was already suffering from his spine problems. It may have been a conscious decision to 'morose up' their act. The bottomline is that the album is a downer, from the initial deception of 'Dance To Your Daddy' and right down to the openly sadistic, murderous conclusion of 'Dogs Of War', one of the most hateful tracks ever recorded by the band (and something tells me they really meant it). But downers can be masterpieces, and far be it from me to accuse these songs of slackness or to­tal 'genericness'; most are fabulous creations, with the utmost care paid to the smallest details — things like 'Sirocco' may be fairly simple in their basic execution, but what matters is the impres­sionistic sonic landscape painted by all sorts of unpredictable brushstrokes from the band's array of gui­tars and keyboards. (It doesn't exactly give out an impression of a real sirocco — rather a pre-feeling of one — but it hardly matters).

Since it is also quite consistent — not one track that feels completely out of place — the brain and heart department concur in their thumbs up, although it is still unclear which of the two is more instrumental in this decision. The heart rather goes after the basic charms of 'Sultan's Choice' (top-notch riff + catchy chorus + on-the-edge lyrics that could be about sex slave trade = first rate gut level pleasure), but the brain is most impressed with the likes of 'Dogs Of War', so we'll just leave them at that and move along.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Albert King: Live Blues


1) Watermelon Man; 2) Don't Burn Down The Bridge; 3) Blues At Sunrise; 4) That's What The Blues Is All About; 5) Stormy Monday; 6) Kansas City; 7) I'm Gonna Call You As Soon As The Sun Goes Down; 8) Matchbox Holds My Clothes; 9) Jam In A Flat; 10) As The Years Go Passing By; 11) Overall Junction; 12) I'll Play The Blues For You.

Also available as simply Live, and — I believe — as Blues From The Road, with the latter spread over 2 CDs and featuring the entire performance, whereas current, and most widespread, editions of Live Blues truncate some of the lengthier numbers ('Jam In A Flat').

According to most sources, the tracks here were recorded at Montreux in 1975, but the exact date does not matter as long as it is clearly understood that the album reflects the "Tomato King", wi­thout any backing from Stax. Also, on some of the songs you might be surprised by a very non-King style of playing, particularly 'As The Years Go Passing By'; this is because Albert is backed by Irish guitar hero Rory Gallagher, and sometimes even condescends to duelling with him — which makes for just about the most exciting moments on this otherwise standard fare disc.

By 1975, King didn't have anything left to prove, and it was one thing to play before an unex­pe­rienced, but demanding audience of Frisco hippies whom you had to convert to your own faith, and quite another to present yourself to a jaded Mont­reux audience of professional jazz and blues junkies who knew exactly what they were going to get and who weren't at all ready to take no bull from the man. So he played it straight, predictable, and devoid of surprises. The backing band is slack and lazy. Gallagher does not overplay. The selections are the same old chestnuts. The licks are known by heart. Good album. Nice album. Let's move on.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Animal Collective: Hollinndagain


1) I See You Pan/Pride And Fight; 2) Forest Gospel/There's An Arrow/Lablakely Dress.

This is a live album, credited originally to Avey Tare, Panda Bear, and Geologist, and my take on it will be quite short. There are people who live and die for this, and there are people that Nature has rendered unable to get it. I belong to the latter group, and, therefore, feel justified to exercise my freedom of speech and label this a bunch of messy, ugly, unlistenable noise, far more «pre­tentious» in the direct sense of the word than, say, Tales From Topographic Oceans — at least the old proggers could play their instruments. (Well, truth be told, Panda Bear does know how to drum. But this hardly makes me feel any better).

The only ray of light is that today, the world knows the Animal Collective can do much better than this. But did the world know it in 2002? In short, there ain't enough thumbs in the world to let you know just how «down» I'm feeling about this record.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

AIR: The Virgin Suicides


1) Playground Love; 2) Clouds Up; 3) Bathroom Girl; 4) Cemetary Party; 5) Dark Messages; 6) The Word 'Hurricane'; 7) Dirty Trip; 8) Highschool Lover; 9) Afternoon Sister; 10) Ghost Song; 11) Empty House; 12) Dead Bodies; 13) Suicide Underground.

The Virgin Suicides, if the reader is in need of a reminder, was Sofia Coppola's first film and to­day is more of a "cult" favourite among movie buffs in comparison to her major success with Lost In Translation — which, the way I see it, was a much better film, but, since its success was "major", and also since it did not concentrate on hot teenage girls, is perhaps less fondly mentio­ned among the hipster crowds. (OK, so Scarlett Johansson was a hot teenage girl, but in Virgin Suicides you had five of them, including Kirsten Dunst, and it was all about wanting and being unable to get laid anyway).

Still, the movie was good enough to go and get depressed to, and a major part of that had to do with the soundtrack. Now it is important to remember that there are two soundtracks, both called The Virgin Suicides: one faithfully reflecting the actual music from the movie, with extra Heart and Todd Rundgren and other inclusions, and one entirely consisting of AIR's contributions, with expanded versions of many themes that are only there in tidbit form in the actual movie. Since Heart and Todd Rundgren are pretty deserving artists on their own, I'd say getting the former ver­sion makes little sense. The latter, however, can easily qualify as not just a mere soundtrack, but as a proper AIR album in its own rights — dressed up as a concept one, at that.

It is more monotonous than Moon Safari; most of the tracks follow the same unhurried, rigid mid-tempo beat which, when well-fed with synthesizers and arrays of other instruments, again gives the impression of traveling — but if on Moon Safari you were given the right to visit all kinds of places, with Virgin Suicides you are hopelessly stuck on an endless Journey Through Dark Forest. The soundscapes are dim and dreary, the keys are minor, and the general mix of smokey-loungey-sax, mystical chimes, Gregorian chanting, and mid-Seventies prog rock à la Pink Floyd and/or Genesis is a great way to lower one's spirits as you understand that you will, in fact, never ever find your way through the forest. Just forget it.

Only one track has vocals: the opener 'Playground Love', sung (or, rather, breathily croaked) by 'Gordon Tracks' (actually — Thomas Mars from the French band Phoenix) in a semi-progressive, semi-"alternative" manner. But it might as well have none — the album needs no vocals, and even the odd bit of voiceover from the movie that pops up every now and then feels distracting from the overall experience. Individually, not all the tracks work, but at least each second one is driven by some fantastic melodic idea, and that idea may be completely unpredictable — it may be a huge electronic Eno-like swoop on 'Dirty Trip', or a McCartney-like piano melody on 'High­school Lover' (a minimalistic instrumental reworking of 'Playground Love'), or a sad funebral organ pattern on 'Empty House'. Speaking of which, it doesn't much feel like an Electronica al­bum: live instruments occupy at least as much space as the synthesizers, and some of the tracks feature sharp, expressive, vivacious drum patterns that are as far removed from the "sci-fi" sheen of the genre as possible.

The Virgin Suicides, in all listings of AIR albums, is never set aside into a special "soundtrack" category, and I applaud this decision. It may be less diverse than Moon Safari, and the nagging voiceovers may remind us that, want it or not, it is a soundtrack, but upon all counts it is simply another excellent impressionistic invention that should please everyone who loves good music by talented artists and the idea of young girls taking their lives so that talented artists can make some good music. Thumbs up without a doubt — along with Magnolia, this is the hardest-hitting "non-soundtrack soundtrack" of the decade.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Adrian Belew: Desire Caught By The Tail


1) Tango Zebra; 2) Laughing Man; 3) The Gypsy Zurna; 4) Portrait Of Margaret; 5) Beach Creatures Dancing Like Cranes; 6) At The Seaside Cafe; 7) Guernica; 8) "Z".

The most sonically audacious of Belew's albums of the decade, it's also the one that is bound to appeal the most to burnt out King Crimson fans. Fully instrumental and almost completely jetti­soning Belew's "pop" side — which would unexpectedly come back in full swing on the next four albums — it is definitely not for the faint-hearted. Nevertheless, I can hardly call it an "avant­garde" record in the full sense of the word, because its weirdness comes from Adrian's ongoing passion for bizarre tones and effects, as well as from its sonic unpredictability, rather than KC's trademark desire to break the limits of traditional harmony.

The album is relatively strictly demarcated in the middle: the first side is generally rhythmical, featuring "regular" melodies played in odd ways ('Tango Zebra' is a partial exception, because it's long and has multiple sections, but at its core is a relatively clear free-jazz rhythm pattern), and the second side, at least after 'Portrait Of Mar­ga­ret', is more generally "atmospheric" and, there­fore, less accessible. But there are highlights in both camps. 'Laughing Man', for instance, frivo­lously justifying its title with ugly laughing sounds from a mechanical toy, is a neo-psychedelic interpretation of an elegant, romantic waltz — before it collapses midway through, giving way to some slithery Eastern-tinged improv (but also quite neo-psychedelic in character). It's amusing and visionary at the same time.

Then, on the second side, it's easily matched in quality by 'Guernica', a song so obviously inspi­red by Picasso's painting that, I believe, it is even possible to get that impression without knowing its title. In a matter of two minutes, Belew gives us the roar of the Condor Legion, the detonation of the bombs, the sirens, the chaos and confusion, the cries and moans of the dead and wounded, and perhaps even some of Pablo's bull-and-horse imagery to finish the picture. I have not been able to locate anybody else's appreciation for the composition — I guess it's too short and modest a piece on a way too obscure album — but I insist upon calling this one of Adrian's most meaningful and interesting experimental creations.

Everything else on the album can be described, more or less, by taking these two numbers as star­ting points. Belew is, of course, "nuts", and Desire Caught By The Tail will be best appreciated by similar-minded individuals. However, Mike DeGagne of the All-Music Guide is quite right in saying that "there is a method to Belew's madness", which, I'd like to add, quite a few "sane" people might be seriously interested in deciphering. The brain is, thus, much more interested in these sonic equivalents of cubist painting than the heart, forcing a thumbs up decision, but the album is vivid and colorful enough to make me believe that this might, indeed, reflect the way Belew actually feels about the world around him rather than the way he dissects the world into crazyass guitar patterns.

Thursday, October 22, 2009


ABBA: ABBA (1975)

1) Mamma Mia; 2) Hey, Hey Helen; 3) Tropical Loveland; 4) SOS; 5) Man In The Middle; 6) Bang-A-Boomerang; 7) I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do; 8) Rock Me; 9) Intermezzo No.1; 10) I've Been Waiting For You; 11) So Long; 12*) Crazy World; 13*) Medley: Pick A Bale Of Cotton/On Top Of Old Smokey/Midnight Special.

It is tempting to speculate, based on these album titles, that Ring Ring and Waterloo were just it — LPs hastily brewed around their imperial single, but the self-titled ABBA is where the band finally announces its explicit arrrival. (Or wouldn't that be until Arrival?..)

No matter; whatever the historical reality, ABBA is their first album where the force flows unin­hibited and the atavistic detours are all but eliminated. "All but" — meaning they still insert a few oddball tracks here and there that break up the pop bliss by simply standing there and being highly questionable in everyone's faces. I am speaking mostly of the Björn-led numbers: 'Rock Me' is awkward in its attempt to blend rock star pathos and sexist lyrics with a toothless music hall arrangement (well, any song that is called 'Rock Me' but fails to do so could be called awkward), and 'Man In The Middle', despite showing us that Benny really has a way with those Stevie Wonder-like funky clavinets, is equally unconvincing as a piece of social criticism — which, again, goes to show that ABBA are always at their worst when they're trying to imitate someone from the rock/funk idiom.

But if you just judge these innocent — still catchy, by the way — bits of fluff as inertia-born re­lics from the age of Waterloo, the rest of the songs are power pop heaven. Or "Europop heaven", provided the reader takes offense at the "power pop" label being applied equally to the likes of ABBA and, uh, Big Star. Then again, no: ABBA is quite a few steps away from what we typical­ly call "Europop" and equate with some generic canzone Napoletana played on cheap keyboards in a disco arrangement. It is, in fact, Benny and Björn's biggest achievement that they managed to step over that limitation, and instead produce a brand of pop that would only superficially be "Euro" (mostly when it came to guitar and keyboard tones), but, in fact, be based much more on a unique synthesis of American mainstream pop, classical influences, and such modern trends as glam and art-rock (later, alas, to be substituted for disco).

None of these songs have any deep meaning — in fact, they're all rose-colored and tailored so as to appeal to the most undemanding segments of the market, and I love this, deeply. I love this because if all mainstream music that appeals to undemanding audiences were like this — yester­day, today, tomorrow, doesn't matter — the world would have been a far more interesting and far less irritating place to live in. Few songs of the Seventies convey the pure, simple, naïve feeling of overwhelming joy better than 'Bang-A-Boomerang' or 'Mamma Mia'; few display operatic, but sincere emotion sweeter than 'I've Been Waiting For You'; and fewer still make the heavy riffage of glam rock put on such a cheery attitude as the slow-moving 'Hey Hey Helen' or the fast-bop­pin' 'So Long'. And then there's 'S.O.S', which even Pete Townshend is known to have praised as a great piece of music.

Where, normally, a typical pop song waits for the chorus to deliver its main hook, Benny and Björn have explicitly set themselves the standard of around three main hooks per song, so that no one has to wait for thirty seconds of mediocrity to be awarded with fifteen seconds of prize value. 'S.O.S.' is perhaps the best illustration to this approach — Benny's simple, instantly recognizable keyboard intro would be enough on its own to make the tune somewhat worthwhile, but then there's the plaintive verse melody, played out by Agnetha with the most rueful countenance, the acoustic guitar-led first part of the chorus, and the dark, almost Gothic-like key change for the second part. None of this is technically difficult, but genius shouldn't be.

Thus, after two false, if promising, starts, ABBA firmly establishes the formula and shows that the men in the band have finally attuned their antennae in the 100% perfect position, while the women have blossomed into the perfect vocal surrounding for these antennae. And if the brain is, as usual, a little cautious about praising, without reservation, this kind of "safe", "glossy", "main­stream" music, the heart seems to have no problem with it whatsoever. Besides, what harm can a little ABBA-loving do to an organism that has already assimilated Zappa and Zeppelin? Cheer up and put your thumbs up along with me.

PS. The newest reissue of the album adds one uninteresting song of Ring Ring caliber ('Crazy World'), but also the oddest thing ABBA ever did — an ABBA-style medley of three old folk standards, including even 'Pick A Bale Of Cotton'. I hesitate to say it's good, but it certainly sounds like nothing else and deserves to be heard for that fact alone.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Al Green: Everything's OK


1) Everything's OK; 2) You Are So Beautiful; 3) Build Me Up; 4) Perfect To Me; 5) Nobody But You; 6) Real Love; 7) I Can Make Music; 8) Be My Baby; 9) Magic Road; 10) I Wanna Hold You; 11) Another Day; 12) All The Time.

Yes, everything's OK indeed. This is I Can't Stop Vol. 2 — same lush arrangements that tell you the last two decades never happened, same beautiful vocals, same dedication to original song­writing. How can I put down this album? It has everything that made Al Green a legend, in full shiny spades. A triumphant return to form.

Alas, for myself, I can only state that, just like its predecessor, it passed me by completely. It's one of these very, very bizarre situations where I honestly do not understand what is happening — I want to admire it as a successful comeback, and it seems to be fully equipped to qualify as such, but something essential is missing, and, once again, I can't put my finger on it.

In fact, when I manage to specially concentrate on some of the tracks, they are capable of giving the illusion of life. For instance, isn't 'You Are So Beautiful', well, beautiful? The strings, the fal­setto, the soaring choruses? Or doesn't the title track make you wanna get up and dance like it's supposed to? And isn't the warm, optimistic feeling on most of these songs a sincere feeling, so much in line with The Reverend's real nature? And isn't it spreading all over you, the listener?

Well... technically, yes. But the songs just don't have any staying power. The presence of form makes them seductive while they're playing — the lack of spirit makes them trifling when they're gone. And although I understand the host of critics who all but fell over themselves in praising Green's musical resurrection, I do not understand myself, because I cannot bring myself to fol­low­ing suit. It is funny that, statistically, about half of the opinions I've encountered rate this as superior to I Can't Stop, and the other half thinks vice versa — restoring the equilibrium.

I do heartily recommend Everything's OK to Green's serious fans, but I cannot even write about it, sorry. Thumbs down from all the sensitive organs of my mucho puzzled organism; I'd rate even Truth 'N Time higher than this — at least 'Blow Me Down', in my mind, is well worth all the twelve songs on here put together.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Sensational Alex Harvey Band: The Penthouse Tapes


1) I Wanna Have You Back; 2) Jungle Jenny; 3) Runaway; 4) Love Story; 5) School's Out; 6) Goodnight Irene; 7) Say You're Mine (Every Cowboy Song); 8) Gamblin' Bar Room Blues; 9) Crazy Horses; 10) Cheek To Cheek.

Usually, the decision to record an all-covers album serves as a sharp separation marker between the artist's "classic years" and the "creative slump" — The Band and Todd Rundgren immediate­ly come to mind. This is not a God-enforced rule: David Bowie, for instance, somehow managed to form an exception to it. But the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, unfortunately, did not.

This is a strange collection: beginning with two original — and not half-bad — numbers, but then dedicating most of the rest of its space to Harvey's "deconstructions", which are, to put it mildly, hit-and-miss. It's almost as if they'd started recording a proper album, but then ran out of ideas midway through studio time and decided to fool around instead. Tomorrow Belongs To Me may have been avaricious in respect to catchy melodies, but it still bubbled with creativity; Penthouse Tapes is the band arrogantly coasting, and they're loving it.

The selection is very, very Harveyesque: today, post-modernist freaks have arguably tried out every combination and concoction that is mathematically possible, but in 1976, only on an Alex Harvey record — not even on a Frank Zappa one — could you discover Del Shannon shaking hands with Jethro Tull, Irving Berlin ride in tandem with Alice Cooper, and Leadbelly and Jimmy Rogers sharing the apartment with the Osmonds. The very idea to put prog, glam, and pre-war blues together was so novel it could sell the album on its own. Today, though, it's dated in the nasty sense of the word: it doesn't really matter how outlandish your idea is unless you have the chops, brains, and guts to get it to work properly.

And out of all these numbers, nothing manages to captivate me with one exception: 'Gamblin' Barroom Blues'. I don't even know why. But I'm guessing that Alex sensed some sort of special common bond between himself and Rogers — both had a penchant for giving themselves up to bouts of drunken loneliness, and despite all of Harvey's trademark wildness, nowhere ever in his live show does he come across as more believable than when he morphs into this miserable, piti­ful little guy. The swagger of 'School's Out' goes nowhere — it is impossible for him to surpass the dark fires of Alice — but the retro-sadness of 'Gamblin' Barroom Blues' hits hard, much har­der, at least, than all of his stiff pre-war blues workouts on The Blues.

As for the originals, 'I Wanna Have You Back' is competent barroom rock in the 'Gang Bang' vein, and 'Jungle Jenny' is a Tarzan tale that does get to be both hilarious and insinuating ('Jungle Jenny can't get any'). There's also, I believe, some sort of cowboy original midway through the record, but I probably forgot about it for a reason. So, a couple good ones, but not enough to pre­vent me from thumbs down-ing the album, as I absolutely fail to see the point of these covers, and I deeply resent the idea of Harvey dragging the band down to the level of his pre-Sensational days. Zal Cleminson does not deserve to be wasted that way.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Albert King: King Albert


1) Love Shock; 2) You Upset Me Baby; 3) Chump Chance; 4) Let Me Rock You Easy; 5) Boot Lace; 6) Love Mechanic; 7) Call My Job; 8) Good Time Charlie.

May actually be a slight improvement over the last two efforts. At least this time around there are no outward embarrassments: the pure blues quotient is raised in comparison to the funk/disco component, and even for the funk/disco component, they make a half-hearted, ultimately unsuc­cessful, but nevertheless honest attempt to bring it closer to the steamy-smoky sound of King's mid-Seventies Stax releases — with a little less gloss and a little less coke-soaked happiness.

Even so, it is hard to find a single song worth including on any representative retrospective com­pi­­la­tion. Maybe 'Good Time Charlie', a soul-blues number that finishes the album on a slightly more elevated note than everything else. It only has a brief guitar solo, with the rest of the song dedicated to Albert's impersonating a little emotional drama, and although by his highest stan­dards this is absolutely forgettable, it sounds tremendously humane next to all these mechanical creations like 'Chump Chance' or 'Love Mechanic'.

The really sad thing is that there is no feeling of the guitar as the album-driving instrument — and what, may I ask, is the point of listening to a non-guitar-centered Albert King record? Obviously, he soloes on every track, but either the solos are short, or they are drowned out in the mix; and even when they are not, they are so pro forma that you just can tell exactly how much King actually cared for this material. Not one bit. Thumbs down.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Animal Collective: Danse Manatee


1) A Manatee Dance; 2) Penguin Penguin; 3) Another White Singer (Little White Glove); 4) Essplode; 5) Meet The Light Child; 6) Runnin The Round Ball; 6) Bad Crumbs; 7) The Living Toys; 8) Throwin The Round Ball; 9) Ahhh Good Country; 10) Lablakely Dress; 11) In The Singing Box.

On their second album, the future Animal Collective are already a trio, adding "Geologist" (Brian Weitz) on extra keyboards. Since Geologist has gone on record saying that Danse Manatee is his favourite album from the team, I'm going to imply that the shift in sound from Spirit to what we have here has a lot to do with his honourable presence; but it isn't going to change my opinion on the record, which isn't exactly sugar and spice.

Spirit — like all seriously notable records by the band, be they good or bad — regardless of whe­ther you like it or not, mixed fairy-tale fantasy with avantgarde in a way that could be annoying and curious at the same time. But the basic idea behind Manatee is different; it's not "let us filter our child fancies through a net of electronic devices", but rather "let us filter whatever comes into our heads at any given moment through a net of electronic devices, utilizing the most astounding and unusual sounds we can produce in our bedroom". And, since in the best of both worlds the most astounding and unusual sounds are also, quite frequently, the most unlistenable ones, the results are predictable. They're also more boring than they used to be.

There's not even the tiniest ounce of melody; worse, there's not even the tiniest ounce of captiva­ting atmosphere. There's a lot of pssh-pssh noises, and a lot of brrr-brrr noises, and a lot of jing-whee-fjjjrr-kllllng-wshwshwsh-pooka-pooka noises, and, of course, plenty of stuff to make your dog wish for stronger animal protection laws to be enforced on its owner. Sometimes they try to sing over it, but it doesn't help matters much, because they have these high frequencies all over the place that make it feel like you're listening to painfully low-quality MP3 recordings, and, instead of tuning in on the vocals, I just tune in to my subconscious desire to rip all that torturous whistling and wheezing out of the track.

Granted, all of this is slightly more diverse than Metal Machine Music, but it doesn't have a much larger point, either, belonging to the same category of artistic statement. The only redee­ming quality is Panda Bear's percussion work, in the good old avantgarde tradition of all the King Crimson drummers and suchlike; if not for that, there would hardly be anything here that would distinguish the results from, I'm guessing, millions of crazyass experimental recordings done by millions of kids in their millions of bedrooms all over the world. Nevertheless, if you are into extreme frequencies — for instance, if you believe that God abides in extreme frequencies, and the only way to get close to God is to attune your ears to the unattunable — Danse Manatee may be a revelation. But I rather prefer to think that God abides in 'Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da', so, unsur­prisingly, this one gets a thumbs down without thinking thrice.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Air: Premiers Symptômes


1) Modular Mix; 2) Casanova 70; 3) Les Professionnels; 4) J'Ai Dormi Sous L'Eau; 5) Le Soleil Est Près De Moi; 6) Californie; 7) Brakes On.

From a strictly chronological perspective, this disc should have been placed first, since it's basi­cally a collection of AIR's first singles (starting with 1995's 'Modular Mix' and then all the way up to 1998). But this particular edition, reinforced with a couple newer outtakes, dates from 1999, and besides, Moon Safari is such a more comfortable opportunity to start off with, that I am ready to forgive myself this little chronological discrepancy.

The five large, dense mood pieces on here do, indeed, sound like very natural precursors to the pleasures of Safari. They are, however, even more "ambient" than the material from 1998: fewer jarring sounds and tones, softer rhythms, almost no vocals, and thorough stylistic unity. There is no guarantee that you'll seriously love this even if you are a fan of Safari. If the latter was an ad­venturous journey, where you had to overcome obstacles and alternate periods of tempest and tur­moil with periods of rest and repose, then Premiers Symptômes is rather like the "First Stage" of that journey — you know, the first five or six chapters from your average XVIIIth century trave­log where nothing much happens and you are simply supposed to get in the mood.

It does call for repeated listens, though, because eventually the hypnotic elevator ambience may dissipate and through it you'll see shades of heavenly loveliness, particularly on the somber, ma­jestic 'Le Soleil Est Près De Moi' and the... uh... somber, majestic 'J'Ai Dormi Sous L'Eau'. It doesn't hurt that they use plenty of different synth tones and non-synth instruments — the warm, gentle chivalry of the French horn on 'Soleil' and the schizo friendliness of the sitar on 'L'Eau' being just a few of the more memorable items.

I am not sure if the whole experience deserves its own album — maybe adding it as five "prelude-like" bonus tracks to Moon Safari would work better — but that does not prevent me from giving it a thumbs up all the same. If all elevator music sounded like this, we'd all be spend­ing much more time in elevators. Not that I'm sure it's such a good idea.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Adrian Belew: Twang Bar King


1) I'm Down; 2) I Wonder; 3) Life Without A Cage; 4) Sexy Rhino; 5) Twang Bar King; 6) Another Time; 7) The Rail Song; 8) Paint The Road; 9) She Is Not Dead; 10) Fish Head; 11) The Ideal Woman; 12) Ballad For A Blue Whale.

Although Belew's second album came out high on the heels of Lone Rhino, and his backing band is mostly the same, it sounds strangely different — and, in my opinion, inferior. For some reason, production values have dropped down, as if the artist was too lazy to drop by a proper studio and stuck to his bedroom instead; and there is clearly more emphasis on his solo guitar playing (or, should I say, guitar strangling?) than on a band-type sound.

As a result, Twang Bar King neither rocks as hard as its predecessor nor manages to reach the same levels of 'moodiness'. On the first count, it does try, because technically, it features two of the most overtly rock'n'roll numbers in Adrian's life story: a maniacal cover of the Beatles' 'I'm Down' (!) and the title track, a funny marriage of the traditional "rock'n'roll hero" cliché with Ad­rian's undying love for the whammy bar. The second, however, is so short that you barely manage to acknowledge its power, and the former is... dubious — not enough of a "deconstruction", not too successful a "tribute".

Twang Bar King also goes heavy on MIDI technology, freshly designed a year before and — perhaps — already implemented on Lone Rhino, but, in any case, only explored properly on this particular record. And the sounds that Belew synthesizes here are questionable to my ears: very computerish and, in some respects, dated just the same way that we feel about late-Eighties MIDI music in computer games. Belew's technique is not to be questioned, of course, but no technique is worth serving to produce ugliness, and much of this sounds openly ugly.

Also, where Lone Rhino gave us a fairly independent Belew, Twang Bar King yields a Belew that is much more Crimson-ian in form, with the same familiar dissonances, polyrhythms, and pseudo-pop songs that we all know in better avatars on King Crimson record (where they benefit from the participation of Robert Fripp and the gang). E. g., 'Paint The Road' may sound fantastic to the uninitiated, with its off-the-wall funk and grit, but in reality it is just an inferior reworking of the King Crimson classic 'Thela Hun Ginjeet' — who needs fish without the chips when you can always have the chips?

Overall, considering that Belew isn't known as a prolific writer, capable of churning out five mas­terpieces over one night of heavy sleep, I'd say that he was a bit spent here, having already dona­ted his best ideas at the time to Lone Rhino and the King Crimson records; or maybe it is just the ugly MIDI tones that deviate me from savouring the genius. One truly gorgeous atmospheric piece that I would, however, heartily recommend to all those who believe that technology need not be the enemy of beauty, is 'Ballet For A Blue Whale', which is neither a ballet nor is really in­tended for blue whales, but, in your imagination, can easily be both. You do have to wait for all the computerish sounds to go away, though, as it's the very last track on the album, but in reward you'll get some otherworldly tones, moans, and groans that are, perhaps, the only piece of truly timeless shit on this collection. Thumbs down overall, but flashes of brilliance here and there.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

ABBA: Waterloo


1) Waterloo; 2) Sitting In The Palmtree; 3) King Kong Song; 4) Hasta Mañana; 5) My Mama Said; 6) Dance (While The Music Still Goes On); 7) Honey, Honey; 8) Watch Out; 9) What About Livingstone; 10) Gonna Sing You My Lovesong; 11) Suzy-Hang-Around; 12*) Waterloo (Swedish version).

This isn't a masterpiece, either. It may have the benefit of being one of ABBA's most diverse al­bums: rearing for the international market, the Swedes make stabs at just about every commercial style of pop music currently in vogue, but, given their generally "fluffy" disposition, predictably manage to connect with not more than one or two.

For one thing, there is still a heavy overdose of Björn on vocals: he dominates 'Sitting In The Palmtree' and 'Suzy-Hang-Around' and is also all over the place alongside the girls on a whole pack of other numbers. I'm sure there are some major Björn fans out there that are perfectly hap­py about it, but it seems that the band eventually wasn't, because already on the next album the gentleman got seriously cut down in the singing department. His strength is in the writing; let us not waste it on areas where it is bound to be wasted.

But the major problem is, of course, that around half of the album is devoted to stylistic deviati­ons that are clumsy and awkward. Glam and shock rock was at its public peak around 1973-74, and it's understandable that the band couldn't resist the temptation to go "heavy" and "theatrical" with numbers like 'King Kong Song' and 'Watch Out'; yet they are neither emotionally resonant nor hilarious — in fact, 'King Kong Song' gives me the impression of a typically bad kiddie song at a typically cheesy kiddie festival, while 'Watch Out' tries to sound "scary" but doesn't even reach Alice Cooper level.

Other songs just don't feel focused enough — 'What About Livingstone' is given a "big" sound and "important" lyrics as if it were making a serious social statement, but it isn't; their experi­ments with country-rock and ska are not very convincing; and their vision of dance music, at this point, still reminds one of the overwrought, generic sound of bad Italian Europop ('My Mama Said'). All of these songs are memorable, in a way, but their melodic power is not yet enough to override the crap factor.

So the record rolls on on the strength of its hit singles: 'Waterloo', the song that made ABBA in European public conscience, and arguably the best ever song to win Eurovision; 'Honey Honey', the most overtly erotic song that the band recorded (the girls' voices drip so much with sex on here that, at one point, I used to indignantly dismiss the song as unsuitable for their generally more restrained style, but then it makes no sense to put down 'Honey Honey' while at the same time praising Madonna's debut, does it?); and 'Hasta Mañana', a Swedish-only chart-topper with Agnetha's angelic sweetness all over it. 'Dance (While The Music Still Goes On)' and 'Gonna Sing You My Lovesong' are also prime ABBA, showing that by 1974, they'd already fully mas­tered their classic style — they simply weren't too sure that this was to be their classic style, or that the best choice for them would be to stick exclusively to their classic style.

For all the good stuff, this does deserve a thumbs up, yet it is still very clearly a hit-and-miss record hastily built up on the heels of 'Waterloo'; and 'Waterloo' isn't even in my Top 10 of hit ABBA singles — its over-the-top Wagnerian bravado does not compare well with all those later classics that put more emphasis on romanticism and sentiment than on the pomp-and-stomp. Which is not to say that 'Waterloo' shouldn't be counted, all the same, as Eurovision's most glori­ous moment, or that any Europop lover should stay away from this album just because it features lyrics like 'This is the King Kong song, won't you sing along?' (For the record, I did catch myself singing along to 'Honey Honey' one day — that's when I knew there was nothing left in store for me, not ever again).

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Al Green: I Can't Stop


1) I Can't Stop; 2) Play To Win; 3) Rainin' In My Heart; 4) I've Been Waitin' On You; 5) You; 6) Not Tonight; 7) Million To One; 8) My Problem Is You; 9) I'd Still Choose You; 10) I've Been Thinkin' 'Bout You; 11) I'd Write A Letter; 12) Too Many.

From 1980's The Lord Will Find A Way and up to 1987's Soul Survivor, the Reverend was unwaverend: with a handful of minor "ambiguous" exceptions, everything that he wrote, covered, and recorded served the sole purpose of proving, over and over again, that He could always count on the Reverend in case of need. Some time in the late Eighties, though, either the Reverend felt that he'd propped up his faith with plenty of supporting beams already, or perhaps He eventually let the Reverend know that if the Reverend were to continue in the exact same way, his paeans would eventually start being regurgitated back on Earth in the form of a severe pandemic of dia­betes, proportional to the amount of Heart and Soul contained therein.

Anyway, during the late Eighties and Nineties Al Green released several uneven albums, some­what confusedly hopping between pure gospel, gospel-tinged secular numbers, and secular-tinged gospel numbers. Some of these albums are supposedly worth a short visit, but it wasn't until the turn of the millennium that it became possible to speak of a true "secular comeback" — after all, the Apocalypse happily passed us by, and so one could allow oneself a little relaxation.

Since relaxing is always more fun in the company of old friends, Green chose to team up once more with his old producer pal, Willie Mitchell, and within the confines of his original Eldorado: Hi Studios, where many of the old session players were still abiding. Not only that, but the inten­tion was clearly to try and replicate the old sound — screw all modern technology advances and return to the original warm vibes of Seventies' R'n'B; who cares if it sounds "retro" and "outda­ted" as long as it's Green's signature sound, the thing that he obviously does best?

Indeed, I Can't Stop sounds marvelous. No matter how much I listen to it, I still can't find a single thing that would unmistakably tie it to 2003 from a technical point of view; it seems to pick up exactly from where we were left twenty-five years back with Truth 'N Time. One could imagine that, over twenty-five years, Green could have at least aged in the throat, but the Lord has amply repaid him by protecting his vocal charm — he hasn't lost a single step off his range, still doing both his grunts and his high-pitched squeals the same way he produced them in his youth. And when you hear them strewn over funky guitars, rhythmic brass figures, swirling or­gans, and swinging live percussion, you know for sure that the old joy is back.

There's only one thing that's wrong with this idyllic picture: this album completely, totally, and inescapably sucks. Beneath the shiny facade, there is no sign whatsoever of the old amazing spi­rituality, or of the composing genius that Al Green used to be. Each and every one of the twelve songs on this album are utterly lifeless, as if they were contributed by outside hacks — all the more horrible it is to realize that all of them are credited to Green and Mitchell. Obviously, I have no "objective proof"; I can only speak for myself, stating that, where Green's classic material from 1971 to 1977 made me cry, laugh, and feel like a sentient human being, I Can't Stop has not connected me with Al Green neither on the in-, nor on the outside.

I cannot put my finger on it; it's one of those most-hard-to-explain cases where everything should work but somehow nothing does. It's certainly not the "sterileness" of the production — perfect studio gloss has always been a sine qua non of Green's life. It's not a matter of "detached singing": I cannot accuse Green of not caring for this material, as he fully empties his bag of vocal modula­tions and tricks onto the listener. It's not even a matter of "lack of hooks": technically, there are some 'attention-demanding' brass riffs and catchy choruses, meaning that the songs were written, not improvised on the spot. So what is it?

Unfortunately, it seems to be a severe case of gospelitis. After two decades of squeezing himself into the rigid hymn format, of bravely (but, in the long run, needlessly) sacrificing his indivi­du­ality for the Greater Glory, Green is no longer able — or, to put it in more optimistic terms, for the moment unable — to bring back that most important component: emotional intelligence. These are all simplistic, superficial love numbers, some in dance format, some in ballad shape, but none of them displaying even a tenth part of the subtlety and depth of old. They're all inter­changeable and flat; the only feel they give out is that of gladness and satisfaction, but you can't even tell where the gladness and satisfaction are coming from, much less discern a single trace of something more complex behind them.

There are some tiny drops of potential, like on the sly, foxy-sounding 'I've Been Thinkin' 'Bout You', or on the anthemic title track, but even these numbers sound like their primary purpose was to reintroduce the old sound — at all costs — rather than say something important. It all prompts me to end this review with some spiteful remark (such as "see what years of singing gospel music does to good people"), but it's scientifically incorrect to make broad generalizations even on such a tempting subject as dedicated Christians, so, instead, I'll just give this a straight ahead thumbs down from the heart, reiterating, however, that the brain was at least pleased to see the man able to recreate the basics of his classic sound with such meticulousness — even if to no avail.