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Monday, November 30, 2009

Alberta Hunter: Complete Recorded Works Vol. 1


ALBERTA HUNTER: COMPLETE RECORDED WORKS VOL. 1 (1921-1923)

1) He's A Darn Good Man (To Have Hanging 'Round); 2) How Long, Sweet Daddy, How Long; 3) Bring Back The Joys; 4) Some Day Sweetheart; 5) Down Hearted Blues; 6) Why Did You Pick Me Up When I Was Down; 7) Gonna Have You — Ain't Gonna Leave You Alone; 8) Daddy Blues; 9) Don't Pan Me; 10) After All These Years; 11) I'm Going Away Just To Wear You Off My Mind (take 1); 12) I'm Going Away Just To Wear You Off My Mind (take 2); 13) Jazzin' Baby Blues (take 1); 14) Jazzin' Baby Blues (take 2); 15) You Can't Have It All; 16) Lonesome Monday Morning Blues; 17) Come On Home; 18) You Shall Reap Just What You Sow; 19) T'Ain't Nobody's Biz-ness; 20) If You Want To Keep Your Daddy Home; 21) Bleeding Hearted Blues; 22) Chirping The Blues.

Blues queens of the 1920s generally fall into three categories. There are the Power Gals, whose trick is to overwhelm the listener with superhuman strength and passion — could be just brute force, like Ma Rainey, or mixed with subtlety, as in the case of Empress Bessie, but power and aggression are the key in all cases. Then there are the Hooligans, like Mamie Smith or Lucille Hegamin, who sound like screechy, sexy, mischievous schoolgirls that are out there to have a very naughty time, above everything else. These ones sound more dated today, but are a terrific reflection of the swingin' era none the less.

Then there's the third, initially least noticeable, but eventually recognizable category: the stately, no-bull "Ladies of the Blues", those that generally avoid the more salacious, wang-wangy side of the blues, and try to push it closer to the white crooners of the day. Among these, Alberta Hunter was arguably the leader. The approach did not pay off well: history generally prefers those who like to take a little risk, and it is possible that Hunter's name would have been wiped off the slate entirely — and unjustly — had she not had the luck of getting a "comeback" chance in her late years, the only blues queen of younger days to actually record and perform live for a bewildered generation five or six decades removed from her golden age.

As it is, she has a slightly better chance to appear on the pages of musical encyclopaedias than, say, Ethel Waters, and this is good news, since these early tunes are quite enjoyable. The first volume of Complete Recorded Works collects all of the records cut for, first, the Black Swan label and then Paramount, who lured her over with a better contract after the initial two singles, in 1921-1923, along with a couple well-preserved alternate takes. Sound quality is tolerable — you get to hear not only the voice, but the musical accompaniment as well, generally provided on the piano by the notorious Fletcher Henderson. (The Complete Recorded Works series never bother much about removing any hiss-and-scratch, though, so do not expect Fletcher Henderson to be the only accompaniment).

Connoisseurs of Bessie Smith will undoubtedly recognize some of her own later standards — 'Down Hearted Blues', 'T'Ain't Nobody's Bizness', and 'Bleeding Hearted Blues' are all here, and as much as Bessie makes them her own, Alberta's renditions, although more "croony" and generic in tone and arrangement, are quite worth hearing as well (not to mention the trifling fact that 'Down Hearted Blues' was actually written by her). Adhering closely to the respectable stan­dards of ladies' conduct, she allows but tiny drops of overt sentiment; you have to get past the con­ven­tionalities of the genre to get at the "heart" behind it, and if you do not succeed, you are not to be blamed — I myself find the superficial trappings more enticing than the essence, and have a hard time rethinking that.

Still, in between her lovely and rather idiosyncratic voice, Henderson's tasteful and inventive piano playing, and generally well-chosen blues (or, rather, "vaudeville-blues") standards, these early records are fine party-poppers, with only the cracks and hisses threatening to turn them into party-poopers. Thumbs up.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Animal Collective: Strawberry Jam


ANIMAL COLLECTIVE: STRAWBERRY JAM (2007)

1) Peacebone; 2) Unsolved Mysteries; 3) Chores; 4) For Reverend Green; 5) Fireworks; 6) #1; 7) Winter Wonder Land; 8) Cuckoo Cuckoo; 9) Derek.

You know you're in for a special treat when the album you're listening to is known to draw its in­spiration from a strawberry jam packet included in a tray of airplane food — at least, according to Panda Bear's account of it. So many thoughts spring up so immediately. For instance, like any normal human being, I get the urge to throw up at the very idea of airplane food, much more so at the idea of a music record inspired by airplane food. On the other hand, I admit that strawberry jam is just about the most eatable thing out of all the orcish variety of airplane food, and it's a big relief to know that the album wasn't at least inspired by tasteless bread rolls or cashew nuts. Ne­vertheless, the album cover does make me want to throw up.

Strawberry Jam is a big progression over Sung Tongs and Feels — it is the first record on which the band really takes advantage of sophisticated production values, adding so much depth and scope to their sound that, in the eyes of "quality sound aficionados", it might as well be the band's first proper album as such. They are also slowly, but steadily drifting more and more into the realms of conventional songwriting — oh, nothing to worry about, ye goofballs and whackos all over the world, because they were so far away from it when they started out it will probably take them at least a couple more decades to become Phil Collins. For now, this is a pleasant "golden middle mix" of the experimental and the traditional.

With the addition of new sound layers and all, the Collective's general aim — revival of the Brian Wilson spirit for the new millennium — becomes even more obvious. How else can one explain these whirls of falsetto vocals clinging to baroque-tinged tape loops and bright shiny upbeat gui­tars? Almost every song on Strawberry Jam owes at least something, here and there, to the SMiLE sessions, from the rousing power pop opener 'Peacebone' to the hypnotizing "power folk" closer 'Derek'. This does not do much in the way of diversity — frankly speaking, even the mo­dest length of fourty three minutes wears me out somewhat — but it does generate a very consis­tent and convincing sonic kaleidoscope (sorry, could not resist using the word again).

There is nothing truly "bad" I could say about the album. It is respectful of tradition yet quite strikingly original, it has songs that carefully avoid cheap catchiness but slowly end up being in­terestingly memorable, it has HARD WORK AND SOLID CRAFT written in invisible ink on every square inch of it, it has enough musical ideas and twisted lyrics to merit deep philological and artistic analysis, and it has justifiedly earned glowing reviews from most alternative sour­ces and even a few mainstream ones.

At the same time, I cannot bring myself to love it. Feels worked better towards achieving that goal, and so, two years later, would Merriweather Post Pavilion; but as for Strawberry Jam, I cannot get rid of the feeling that the band's aim here was mostly to practice the new form rather than go for further nurturing of the spirit. The hooks feel hollow, the excitement feels forced, the whole experience has a decidedly post-modernist flavour that either kills emotion off the cuff or makes emotion physically undistinguishable from mock-emotion. And it is not contradictory that I should be mentioning this so late in discussing the Collective's career: if a record keeps continu­ously inviting comparisons with the Beach Boys, it is only fit to mention why it cannot, and should not, really function as a substitute for the Beach Boys.

'An obsession with the past is like a dead fly, and just a few things are related to the old times', they say in 'Peacebone', as if predicting the kind of reaction described in the previous paragraph — a pretty strong statement, considering that most of the things they do are, in fact, quite strongly related to the "old times". But, two lines later, what they say then is 'It's not my words that you should follow, it's your insides' — and here they are perfectly right. I follow my insides, and my insides tell me that either Strawberry Jam has no soul, or, if it has one, then I am way too old-timey and retarded to feel it.

And yet, in the final run, with all the wonderful creativity flowing through the record, it would be at the very least disrespectful to give it a thumbs down and, God forbid, maybe prevent some cu­rious seeker to test its charms on himself. Yes, at the very least, it is a total triumph of form, and, on that level, thumbs up are guaranteed. Let's face it: before these guys came along, nobody (at least, no one we regular Joes are aware of) ever dreamed of combining Terry Riley with Brian Wilson, and this means that new and exciting syntheses of ideas, if not exactly new and exciting ideas themselves, are still possible as late in humanity's development as The Pre-Apocalypse Pe­riod we happen to live in.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Alanis Morissette: Alanis


ALANIS MORISSETTE: ALANIS (1991)

1) Feel Your Love; 2) Too Hot; 3) Plastic; 4) Walk Away; 5) On My Own; 6) Superman; 7) Jealous; 8) Human Touch; 9) Oh Yeah; 10) Pretty Boy.

Oh boy. It's one of THOSE albums — ones that you'd never give one thought about if they repre­sented the artist at his/her most essential. But it so happened that Alanis Morrisette, the mainst­ream goddess of Nineties' commer-fessional singer-songwriting, started out as a Canadian wanna­be Janet Jackson, and, for the sake of formality, I have to mention her first two albums — even though many of her fans remain happily unaware of their existence.

Technically, there could be a copout here: both of these records bill her as "Alanis" (apparently, the family name was judged way too complex for the target audience, which, as allegedly pointed out by the marketing survey team, tends to have big problems with first grade spelling bees), so, from a certain point of view, we are speaking of a different artist here. It is also important to un­derstand that, having barely turned 16 (although they try to make her look 30 in the accompany­ing videos, taking all the clues from Tracy Lords, I guess), in no way was she in control of the proceedings, letting some run-of-the-mill synth-pop hacks write and arrange the music and mold her image. She is credited as co-writer on most of the tracks, to be frank, but let us not hold it against her; supposedly the hacks had a little bit of humanity left in them and decided it would be good to let her have some extra dough.

Of course, if she does assume songwriting responsibility for this tripe, that's not good. All of this is generic Eighties' dance music, with one or two corny Diane Warren-style ballads thrown in for the hankies' sake. The "hits" 'Feel Your Love' and 'Too Hot' have catchy choruses, like some of the other stuff, but in more or less the same manner that you'd expect from your aerobics workout videotape: to help you better train your butt reflexes. Vocals are decent — good dance moves and a strong throat were, after all, two sine qua non conditions that got you within the world of latex and frizzed hair at the time — but there's hardly any threat to Debbie Gibson or Paula Abdul.

I suppose a few of the tunes offer at least lyrical glimpses at the future Alanis — e. g., the "soci­al critique" of 'Human Touch' ('I'm tired of people sellin' their sex appeal', she declares, and then instantly proceeds to do just that in her videos), or the self-defense in 'On My Own'. But these aren't very convincing lyrical glimpses, and besides, they only work if one is actually a worship­per of the future Alanis. On the other hand, I can imagine where someone who hates the A. M. of Jagged Little Pill could love this album as a guilty pleasure — very, very guilty pleasure, on par with watching an old man's sex with minors. I had a bit of fun listening to it as a curious histori­cal memento, recollecting all the worst blows that the Eighties had dealt us. Then nausea started setting in, and I had no choice but to scuttle off. Thumbs down, quite predictably.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Adrian Belew: Here


ADRIAN BELEW: HERE (1994)

1) May 1, 1990; 2) I See You; 3) Survival In The Wild; 4) Fly; 5) Never Enough; 6) Peace On Earth; 7) Burned By The Fire We Make; 8) Dream Life; 9) Here; 10) Brave New World; 11) Futurevision; 12) Postcard From Holland.

Here concludes Belew's quadrilogy of pop artefacts on a pretty high note — still fairly distant from the semi-experimental rocking mode of Young Lions, but equally restrained in the matter of direct Beatles imitations. In fact, I only count one, even if it is the most Beatlish of them all: 'I See You', as Merseybeaty as it gets, straightahead McCartney on the verses and Lennon on the middle-eights and Harrison on the reversed guitar solos. As usual, it is fun, catchy, and a wee bit awkward and phony. I love it.

Lyrically, Here is quite straightforward. All the songs are (a) about Adrian; (b) about ecology; (c) about Adrian and ecology. And if something does not fit into one of these three categories right away, it will eventually. The messages are also quite clear: (a) Adrian is in love and feeling hap­py; (b) the ecology is in a mess and getting worse; (c) Adrian's knowledge of the ecology being in a mess and getting worse will not prevent him from being in love and feeling happy. (Say, my feel­ngs exactly. Maybe I ought to record a Beatles ripoff album, too.)

'May 1, 1990' is Belew at his prettiest — a little research shows that this was the day he met his wife Martha — and at his sincerest, a great slab of angelic idealism painted as power pop. But highlights are around every corner: 'Burned By The Fire We Make' could win Greenpeace quite a few new converts were they to adopt it as their anthem, 'Never Enough' uses a simple droning gui­tar riff to convey the mood of 'addiction to love' to great effect, 'Dream Life' is a charming acoustic serenade that is all but impossible to dislike or ignore, and 'Fly' features far more comp­lex guitar picking techniques than all of The Acoustic Adrian Belew put together behind a small wall of psychedelic effects — funny enough, the song, despite all of its psychedelic trimmings, is essentially about fear of flying.

In fact, cut for cut, Here may be even stronger than Young Lions, except the highs are not nearly as high (nothing really reaches the heights of ecstasy provided by 'Pretty Pink Rose'; perhaps Be­lew should consider dragging Mr. Ziggy into the studio a bit more often). That the record, just like the previous three, went down unnoticed by the public at large and scorned by professional King Crimson fans, only goes to show what kind of an unprofessional opinion I hold on both. It is high time history butted in and carried out the proper justice; in the meantime, I can only hold my thumbs up one more time and pray that, some day before getting pie in the sky, Adrian gives himself another chance at recording something like this.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

ABBA: The Visitors


ABBA: THE VISITORS (1981)

1) The Visitors; 2) Head Over Heels; 3) When All Is Said And Done; 4) Soldiers; 5) I Let The Music Speak; 6) One Of Us; 7) Two For The Price Of One; 8) Slipping Through My Fingers; 9) Like An Angel Passing Through My Room; 10*) Should I Laugh Or Cry; 11*) You Owe Me One; 12*) The Day Before You Came; 13*) Cassandra; 14*) Under Attack.

The Visitors was not necessarily intended to be ABBA's last album, but, given that both marria­ges were in tatters by the time it came along, and also given a major shift in commercial tastes that prevented the band from being able to combine its musical vision (yes, they had a vision) with further strings of number one hits, I am pretty sure they must have felt some premonition. Already the next year, when they went into the studio once again, they found themselves inca­pable of putting together an LP's worth of material. With The Visitors, the effort did work, but the results were more than strange.

In fact, I remember actively hating the record upon hearing it for the first time — a shattering anti-climax to Super Trouper, everything dim and wobbly and lacking in polish, and who in the world needs an ABBA album without polish? Also, objective assessment would state that this is the record that has the least share of proverbial ABBA classics — the biggest and, in fact, the only hit from it was the bitter pop song 'One Of Us', and even that was sort of a minor achieve­ment even in the face of their earliest successes like 'Ring Ring' and 'Waterloo'. And who in the world needs an ABBA album without hits?

But there is also a different kind of opinion, and I have been slowly working my way from the former right up to the latter. That opinion states that The Visitors is the only ABBA album that was not, in fact, targeted at all at hit-making; that Benny and Björn, consciously or subconscious­ly aware that their days as prime hit-makers were at an end, simply let their musical instincts have their way without paying too much attention to the market, and that the songs on here were writ­ten and performed so as to reflect the kind of things the people in the band were really going through at the time. Not that ABBA ever lacked a streak of sincerity — from 'One Man, One Wo­man' to 'The Winner Takes It All' you can observe it quite transparently — but The Visitors is the one and only ABBA album coming straight from the heart.

Therefore, it is only natural that it can take a little more time to sink in; its hooks are not as pain­fully obvious, its potential gloss and shine mostly sacrificed to give way for a slightly more com­plex and meaningful melodic approach. Even the lyrics have matured: 'Slipping Through My Fin­gers', for instance, tells a similar "family trouble" story to 'Hey Hey Helen' (one could, in fact, see the mother-daughter split in 'Fingers' as a natural sequel to the wife-husband split in 'Helen'), but in words that have been chosen with far better care and intelligence.

The weirdness of The Visitors, however, is nowhere as evident as it is in the title track, which some people keep mistaking for a tale of a strange encounter with alien beings — probably beca­use of all the odd sci-fi type arrangements at the beginning, as well as the title itself — but which seems, in fact, to have been written about the persecution of dissidents in the Eastern Europe bloc under Soviet domination: ABBA's one and only overtly political song. It takes some gall to take such a serious subject and arrange it as a fast-tempo catchy pop number ('Now I hear them mo­ving...'), but the slightly paranoid tinge of the melody atones for that, and, besides, in the long run the song's most bewitching part is its opening — a disturbing polyphony of synthesizer tones with Frida's ghost vocals droning in the background: 'I hear the doorbell ring and suddenly the panic takes me...'. Pretty unsettling for a first impression of the world's leading pop band's latest record; no wonder the public did not have the courage to buy into it.

There is plenty of disturbance and paranoia elsewhere as well. 'Soldiers' makes some odd allu­sions to some upcoming apocalypse, panicky singing and menacing guitar and a strangely "cheer­ful" chorus that only makes things even more suspicious. 'Head Over Heels', sarcastic character assassination over a dark retro-pop melody. And then there's all the divorce songs, of course: 'One Of Us', 'When All Is Said And Done', 'I Let The Music Speak' (well, the latter is not techni­cally a divorce song, but its main message — trying to find consolation in music without much success — is very much in line with the other two).

But this is still ABBA, and all the paranoia is well-compensated for with elements of beauty: the melancholic march of 'Let it be a joke, let it be a smile...' in 'I Let The Music Speak', the graceful chorus resolution in 'Head Over Heels', the controlled, but burning desperation in 'one of us is crying, one of us is lying...', the humble majesty of 'Slipping Through My Fingers' — all of this is priceless, and its combination with elements of the unusual only raises the stakes.

The album's only misfire, as far as I am concerned, is the Björn-sung 'Two For The Price Of One', a rather forgettable and lyrically lame tale of a goofy attempt at sexual encounter. You'd think that by now they would have learned to leave all the Björn-sung numbers off the record at the last minute, but then, I guess, life would be so much duller if we did not have at least one permanent flaw in our genetic structure. Fortunately, we live in the days when we can all make our own al­bum, and my recommendation is to swap this tune with the excellent B-side 'Should I Laugh Or Cry', much more suitable for the overall tone of the album.

It goes without saying that the album gets an assured thumbs up judgement on all sides, even though it took me some time to become certified. Whether the existence of The Visitors does gua­rantee ABBA a late-coming blast of "artistic respectability" or not is up to debate. Some might argue that "artistic respectability" is firmly reserved for the likes of the Soft Machine or at least Elvis Costello, and The Visitors does not even begin to touch Elvis Costello. Others might argue from the opposite side — that ABBA were only as good as they were dumb, and any at­tempt at seriousness on their part would smash their artistic integrity the same way that the career of KISS was undermined by Music From 'The Elder', etc. But these are brainy judgements, while ABBA's melodies were always directed primarily at the heart — and in this department, The Visitors does not fail, although it requires a little more time to succeed.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Alice Cooper: Killer


ALICE COOPER: KILLER (1971)

1) Under My Wheels; 2) Be My Lover; 3) Halo Of Flies; 4) Desperado; 5) You Drive Me Nervous; 6) Yeah, Yeah, Yeah; 7) Dead Babies; 8) Killer.

One can classify this as proto-punk, as hard-art-rock, as Goth theater, as power pop with a dark edge — Killer is one of those records that give the illusion of being easy to pigeonhole, but what­ever you pigeonhole it into, it will always be more diverse, experimental, and unpredictable than the basic rules of the genre demand it to be.

Essentially, Killer consolidates all the strengths of Love It To Death (its mean, scary sound and strong songwriting), dispatches with its weaknesses (an occasional tendency to ramble without a point), and throws in lots of additional touches, such as multi-part song structures and diverse in­strumentation. My only regret is that, due to the two lengthy "suites", there are only eight songs; surely, given the perfect shape the band was in, they could have made room for two or even four more mini-gems. (I hold the same opinion on the Stones' Let It Bleed, for that matter).

Classic rock radio, with its tightass conservatism that makes even the Catholic church pale in com­parison, has only managed to memorize 'Under My Wheels'. Certainly the song is a classic, a big ball of rollickin' fun with the band magically pumping up tension throughout (some of glam rock's greatest use of the horn section, for instance) — fun which you get so caught up in that you do not even realize you're singing about roadkill, and I don't mean squirrels or opossums. So it's a metaphor — big deal.

But Killer is much, much more than just the 'album that yielded that big hit single'. Its main em­phasis is not on pure rock'n'roll: even 'Under My Wheels', with the addition of these horns, starts to resemble David Bowie, so the honour of the most canonically "rock" number should go to 'You Drive Me Nervous', a two-minute explosion of teenage anger whose creaky riffage and wild wild screaming guarantee it a solid place in the Punk Hall of Fame. The rest is much more subdued: 'Be My Lover' and 'Yeah, Yeah, Yeah' are catchy guitar-driven pop songs with fun self-referential lyrics ('She asked me why the singer's name was Alice/I said listen, baby, you really wouldn't un­derstand') and pretty melodies.

'Desperado' has been called a tribute to Jim Morrison, but if so, a very veiled one, because on the surface, it's rather a tribute to a Western hero, building up on a little Spanish guitar and a bit of spaghetti atmosphere. But it could be about anyone: 'I'm a killer, I'm a clown, I'm a priest that's gone to town' — words that many people would be happy to sing about themselves. With the ex­ception, of course, that no one could sing it better than Cooper, his dark, deathly voice the perfect vehicle for both the subdued ominous verses and the paranoid chorus.

Opinions are divided about the longer pieces — 'Halo Of Flies' and 'Killer'. For the former, the band has gone on record saying that they wanted to record something à la King Crimson (!), to prove their skill in creating longer, more complex pieces. "Longer" all right, but in terms of musi­cal complexity, of course, 'Halo Of Flies' would never make Robert Fripp suffer from sleep depri­vation. Or would it? Each particular musical part that the band's guitarists create is pretty rudi­mentary by itself, but there's quite a few of them, and each works well on a gut level. Most of the time, non-virtuoso musicians trying to dabble in artsiness "drive me nervous", but 'Halo' manages to create an eerie, unsettling atmosphere and slowly build it up to a galloping, shattering, ecstatic climax — should be played very very loud, by the way — so much so that even the awful, absurd and unfunny lyrics that swing between James-Bondish and gibberish ('And while a Middle Asian lady she really came as no surprise, but I still did destroy her and I will smash halo of flies' — at least, make it grammatical!) are forgotten.

As for 'Killer', which works in a tandem with the preceding 'Dead Babies', these two should argu­ably be best experienced in the context of the live setting: 'Dead Babies' with the accompanying smashing and chopping of baby dolls onstage, and 'Killer', of course, culminating in the infamous hanging scene, when Alice, cursing and kicking, was led to the gallows to the accompaniment of the solemn funebral organ music. But even without the imagery, 'Dead Babies' is the perfect mar­riage of Cooper's gut-level shock theater and meaningful social statement; unlike the pure brain­less gorefest of 'I Love The Dead' two years later (ooh, necrophagia, yummy!), 'Dead Babies' is, after all, a lament on the so frequently tragic effects of parental neglect.

And then, of course, the title track: 'I came into this life, looked all around, I saw just what I liked and took what I found'. Musically, it is again a concoction of several effective riffs and tempos, not one pattern hanging around for too long and all of them together symbolizing the killer's final journey from arrest to gallows; lyrically, it gives the perfect impression of that typical guy we're all afraid of — you know, the one whom the world forgot to endow with any sort of moral code upon graduation; whether it was the world's fault or his own does not seriously matter here. It all leads to one of the scariest endings in musical history — you just have to remember that the or­gan music accompanies him to the noose, the dull noise that follows is the opening of the trap­door, and the evil, ear-bursting noise that follows is... well, you know. Creepy.

Killer is a relatively easy record to dismiss: its lyrics are generally either obvious or absurdly bad, its music simple and unassuming, its shock value very much in-yer-face and almost completely devoid of any subtlety. Next to Lou Reed or Bowie or even the Stones at their best, it's "dumb". But many things in life that many of us deeply love without any feeling of guilt are "dumb", from Casablanca to 'Oliver Twist' to Michelangelo's David (don't tell me the latter is a sculptor's feast of intelligence). Killer belongs in that company, a straightforward masterpiece of angst and bru­ta­lity and, at the same time, a big, big load of FUN. Even the brain, amazed at the effectiveness of this approach, opts for a thumbs up, and the heart enthusiastically proclaims this to be the undis­puted peak of the original Alice Cooper band.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Sensational Alex Harvey Band: Live At The BBC


THE SENSATIONAL ALEX HARVEY BAND: LIVE AT THE BBC (1972-1977/2009)

CD I: 1) Midnight Moses; 2) St. Anthony; 3) Framed; 4) There's No Lights On The Christmas Tree, Mother; 5) Hole In Her Stocking; 6) Dance To The Music; 7) The Faith Healer; 8) Midnight Moses; 9) Gang Bang; 10) The Last Of The Teenage Idols; 11) Giddy Up A Ding Dong; CD II: 1) Next; 2) The Faith Healer; 3) Give My Compliments To The Chef; 4) Delilah; 5) Boston Tea Party; 6) Pick It Up And Kick It; 7) Smouldering.

Many, if not all, of these tracks had surfaced earlier on various smaller releases, but in 2009, fi­nally, someone did the job right and gathered everything that could be salvaged from SAHB's radio appearances in one place. The result is, of course, patchy, but just about everything apart from the last two tracks seriously rules.

The first disc contains full recordings of SAHB's two radio concerts from 1972 and 1973, respec­tively, with only one track ('Midnight Moses') duplicated — since the first show was promoting Framed and the second was promoting Next, what you get is a selection of highlights from both albums. I would not say they are necessarily better than the studio counterparts; since all the songs are still fresh, they mostly tend to stick to reproducing the originals ('Framed', for instance, does not yet get the extended audience participation workout), except Harvey is a little more loose and Zal is a little more ass-kicking, just what you'd expect from a live performance.

The only surprise in the tracklisting is a cover of Sly & The Family Stone's 'Dance To The Music', and it is understandable the band would soon drop it from the setlist: well-rehearsed and well-mea­­ning, but a bunch of mock-rocking Glasgow dudes doing one of the Sixties' most classic funk numbers, head-and-tails-oriented on Sly's "family style", can hardly be expected to work all that well (there is some ferocious bass work, though). My advice is to stick to Harvey originals.

The second disc traces the band's evolution through several other worthy recreations of their hits onstage (taken from the Old Grey Whistle Test and Top Of The Pops, no less), where the defini­tive highlight is Harvey's possessed rendition of 'Next' (it has also survived on video, and works much better in that form), although the other four tunes are at most one notch below. Unfortuna­tely, the album peters out quite badly, allocating unnecessary space for two performances of the SAHB without Harvey (recorded during Alex's leave of absence in between SAHB Stories and Rock Drill), with 'Smouldering', in particular, sounding like very, very bad Foreigner. But I sup­pose they had to use some of that material to fill out empty space (Disc 2 is pretty short as it is, compared to disc 1).

Regardless, this is a sure-fire thumbs up, even if it does support my thesis that "radio concerts" are not a very faithful representation of any band's live sound — most probably, recording "live in the studio" still triggers that part of the players' brain which is responsible for "studio" (clean, polished sound) rather than "live" (give 'em the show of their life), and it conveys the hypnotizing power of SAHB much less effectively than the Live album, or other archive releases that let you hear full shows from actual tours. But the pleasure is undeniable.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Albert King: I'm In A Phone Booth


ALBERT KING: I'M IN A PHONE BOOTH, BABY (1984)

1) Phone Booth; 2) Dust My Broom; 3) The Sky Is Crying; 4) Brother, Go Ahead And Take Her; 5) Your Bread Ain't Done; 6) Firing Line (I Don't Play With Your Woman, You Don't Play With Mine); 7) The Game Goes On; 8) Truck Load Of Lovin'; 9) You Gotta Sacrifice.

King's final studio album — not just for Fantasy, but altogether — is a slight improvement over the total lifelessness of Crosscut Saw, but not by much. You know things cannot be particularly good if he starts remaking his own Tomato-era material ('Truck Load Of Lovin'), or if the best tracks on the album turn out to be million-year old Elmore James standards like 'Dust My Broom' and 'The Sky Is Crying'.

Alas, by this time it is evident that the problem lies with Albert as much as it lies with his side­men. He is given more opportunity to show off, the backing band does not get in the way so ob­no­xiously, and they even bring back the horn players to try and valiantly recreate, as genuinely as possible, a classic Stax environment. But it does not work; King clearly cannot be driven into ac­tion. He just keeps playing the same tired old licks over and over again. Every doggone second of the album is more predictable than the next United Nations session, and what could be more safe and predictable than that?..

Following Phone Booth, King retired for good, and that was the wisest decision he could have made; after all, no one could, or should, have banned him from recreating his past glories live as often as he wanted, and there was quite obviously no chance left at shaping some future ones. He spent eight more years occasionally resting and occasionally touring, before passing away in 1992; some live releases may be available from these years, but they are strictly for fans, particu­larly those who had the bad luck of never seeing the man live in action himself.

It should, nevertheless, be stressed that the man never "sold out" completely, despite the occasio­nally lame trend-following on some of the Tomato records; he just slowly faded out. Pretty much all the interesting material he released from 1976 to 1984 could be stored on half an audio CD, yet none of these records tarnish his reputation the way, say, Rod Stewart's last thirty years have pretty much annihilated his. Ignore them if you do not worship the man like the celestial bulldo­zer some think he is, and concentrate on his Stax legacy, which will remain forever as some of the most passionate and inventive electric blues music captured on record.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Animal Collective: Feels


ANIMAL COLLECTIVE: FEELS (2005)

1) Did You See The Words; 2) Grass; 3) Flesh Canoe; 4) The Purple Bottle; 5) Bees; 6) Banshee Beat; 7) Daffy Duck; 8) Loch Raven; 9) Turn Into Something.

Maybe if you only want one Animal Collective album, Feels is the one to get. Maybe. Starting with Strawberry Jam, they would begin to bury themselves under deep, deep layers of kaleido­scopic sonic panzers, but on Feels you can still experience the band in plenty of intimate ways (and I mean that in the decent sense of the expression) — and, at the same time, still quite acces­sible and, might I suggest, even understandable.

Diehard fans of the band may think of 'Did You See The Words' and 'Grass' as way too simplistic and mass-marketed, betraying the unsigned agreement between Panda Bear, Avey Tare and those select few that actually paid them money for their early releases. I prefer, on the other hand, to view all of their earlier career as a preparatory stage for these quirky psycho-pop masterpieces. What I see and feel here is real sunshine-soaked joy, filtered through a crazy impressionistic me­chanism but totally sincere in its essence. The lyrics, as usual, make no sense, but once lines like 'there's something living in these lines' and 'there's something starting, don't know why' are deli­vered, there is an odd "brand new day" kind of feeling — obviously, sharpened by the bright, upbeat melody, the steady rhythmic build-up, and the glimmering production — that can fill you up with optimism if you just lower the deflector shields for one moment.

But this is no longer whacko fairy-tale muzak like they used to do early on. This is a different kind of "light", not the kind I would recommend to play to kids: this is denser stuff, and more bent on creating solid musical background than just goofing off on a vocal basis. Certainly the sin­ging is still the central point of attraction: songs on which there are no solid vocal hooks are only half as good as those songs on which they continue to invoke the spirit of Brian Wilson circa 1967. But even when they're only half good, they still make sense — after the initial blast of ener­gy, the album gradually sinks into foggy trance, inviting you to trip along, swooning hazily to the trills and chills of 'Bees' and 'Daffy Duck'.

Actually, the best comparison I can make of this new ambient side of theirs is to the early Grate­ful Dead (around the Anthem Of The Sun period), but they're better, because they sing better than the Grateful Dead, and the sound is quite a bit richer than the Dead's (well, this is the 21st century, after all). There is a great, respectable sense of balance on these tracks — neither too mi­nimalistic to become boring, nor too overproduced to become disorienting. Some atmospheric keyboard background, some gentle raga-like guitar strumming, and a general supernatural feel to the proceedings that may have something to do with the odd tuning of all the instruments (band members later confessed they tuned everything around some original loops recorded from a «naturally de-tuned» old piano).

Feels is, indeed, one excellent title for the album, all consisting of a bunch of "feels" — and at least one or two of them are probably guaranteed to fall in line with your own. (I'm not speaking here of the upbeat material, restricted to the first two songs and 'Purple Bottle'; this kind of mate­rial, I'm sure, will be pleasing to everyone who has gotten, in his or her life, past the stage of cal­ling things "annoying"). For me, the best of these "feels" is 'Bees', with its tender vocal cascades and deep piano rumble and harp-like strumming. For you, may be anything else. Other "feels" — most of the second half of the album, in fact — leave me in a relatively cold state, but I am not complaining, at least, not the brain part of me, which has, early on, claimed the right to declare a thumbs up state while the heart was still undecisive. Yet, with the added support of the life-affir­ming beauty of 'Did You See The Words' and 'Grass', the decision holds up pretty well, and the album, along with Sung Tongs, means the peak of this band for me.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

AIR: Love 2


AIR: LOVE 2 (2009)

1) Do The Joy; 2) Love; 3) So Light Is Her Footfall; 4) Be A Bee; 5) Missing The Light Of The Day; 6) Tropical Disease; 7) Heaven's Light; 8) Night Hunter; 9) Sing Sang Sung; 10) Eat My Beat; 11) You Can Tell It To Every­body; 12) African Velvet.

Well, this is just another AIR album, and the difficulty of writing about each following one grows almost exponentially. If the reader is already familiar with it, there won't be anything enlightening in my review — not in the smallest degree. If not, here's just a brief listing of a few small out-of-the-ordinary impulses that I have managed to log:

— the unexpectedly heavy opening, as 'Do The Joy' fades in over a gruff, distorted bass line and sci-fi synthesizer whooshes that suggest Hawkwind nostalgia;

— the almost surf-rock style (although leaning towards the "ominous" effect) of 'Be A Bee'; I can just imagine its guitar parts played by the likes of Link Wray or Nokie Edwards;

— the innocent happiness of 'Heaven's Light' and 'Sing Sang Sung', two of the duo's best dream-pop contributions so far; 'Sing Sang Sung', released as the single, got quite a serious amount of flack for pushing the "fluffy" side of the duo too far, but the way I see it, as long as we have true crea­tivity, no fluffiness can be excessive enough to kill off the work of art — and, besides, the "fluffiness" is quite self-ironic, as can be easily noticed by anyone who has also noticed that Dun­ckel chants 'thing thang thung' in the chorus.

Other than that, I noticed nothing and I noticed everything. Love 2 is no better and no worse, no different from and not the same as any other AIR album ever released. We can hate this approach if we want to, but we must keep it alive, if only for the reason that not too many bands in our days keep using the same number of instruments on their records — and still end up with their records in the "Electronic" bin. Thumbs up, even though I'm not entirely sure why.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Adrian Belew: The Acoustic Adrian Belew


ADRIAN BELEW: THE ACOUSTIC ADRIAN BELEW (1993)

1) The Lone Rhinoceros; 2) Peace On Earth; 3) The Man In The Moon; 4) The Rail Song; 5) If I Fell; 6) Burned By The Fire We Make; 7) Matte Kudasai; 8) Dream Life; 9) Old Fat Cadillac; 10) Crying; 11) Martha Adored.

The A Cappella Adrian Belew would be more like it. Normally, electric guitar wizards record "unplugged"-style albums as sort of an "experience in refined taste" — to let the fans know that they can create sonic wizardry without any technical gadgets just as easy as with them, that they sim­ply prefer the electric sound most of the time because it rips, but every once in a while it kind of rules to stress that everything begins with nylon, wood, and finger technique.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. But with The Acoustic A. B. it doesn't even begin to work, because the purpose of the album is anything but demonstrate to the listener that A. B. is an acoustic virtuoso. For the most part, he plays the simplest of chords, the most standard of rhythm accompaniments — at least, that is the way it sounds to my ears; I may not be getting the deep-hidden complexity of what and how he picks, but I am pretty sure that The Acoustic Robert Fripp would have sounded nothing like that.

So what's the point? Maybe he can do better than that on acoustic, but there is no sign of that here; why release the album at all? My answer is — it has little, if anything, to do with Belew the gui­tarist; it has much more to do with Belew the vocalist, Belew the lyricist, and Belew the gentle, sentimental artist. With the minimalistic, hushed playing (not only is everything indeed complete­ly acoustic, but Belew is the only player on it), the emphasis is clearly on the impression convey­ed by his singing — which is why he includes not only some of his poppiest, catchiest numbers, but also Beatles ('If I Fell') and Roy Orbison ('Crying') covers.

Once you come to terms with that, The Acoustic Adrian Belew ceases to be a disappointment and becomes a nice, soothing, unspectacular, record to relax to. I would never call Adrian's voice "great": it is a bit too even and devoid of personality for my tastes, but he does have a nice range and an excellent ability to creep into other people's styles — he certainly "gets" the essence of 'If I Fell' and 'Crying', even if nature has not allowed him to reproduce it vibe-for-vibe. His own songs pass off even better — they are, after all, his songs — and for some fans it will be a nice distraction to hear the intimate takes on 'The Lone Rhinoceros', 'Matte Kudasai', and 'Burned By The Fire We Make' (a preview of the upcoming material from Here) without concentrating on the guitar trickery of the "full" versions.

Under this light, the disappointments are minor — some of the original 'rockers', like 'Young Lions', take a lot of strain to be properly transferred into an acoustic settings; and the closing nu­m­­ber ('Martha Adored') is played backwards in its entirety, probably goading the listener into fin­ding a means to reverse it, but count me uninterested (not that it is a hard thing to do in these days of music-editing software). As a bonus, the listener gets to hear 'Old Fat Cadillac' from the cata­log of The Bears — pretty damn fine song if you ask me. Thumbs up — moderately, as this is, after all, a trifle by Adrian's standards.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

ABBA: Super Trouper


ABBA: SUPER TROUPER (1980)

1) Super Trouper; 2) The Winner Takes It All; 3) On And On And On; 4) Andante, Andante; 5) Me And I; 6) Happy New Year; 7) Our Last Summer; 8) The Piper; 9) Lay All Your Love On Me; 10) The Way Old Friends Do; 11*) Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight); 12*) Elaine; 13*) Put On Your White Sombrero.

ABBA reached their disco peak not on Voulez-Vous, but with 'Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)', a monstrous hit released in October 1979 and still remembered fondly, as evidenced by Madonna's blatant sampling of its main riff for her incomparably weak 'Hung Up' single twenty six years later. The song gives us ABBA doing their absolute immaculate best to sound their absolute immaculate worst — the hookline is as utterly dumb as it is unforgettable, the chorus as thoroughly robotic as it is danceable. And the key question remains unanswered: why is it so that Agnetha Faltskog needs someone specifically after midnight? Surely this cannot mean... oh my God...

There is still some straightahead disco on Super Trouper, the last of the band's commercially stellar records, but most of its upbeat numbers lead into new areas of dance-pop, replacing disco bass with less funky, more electronic-style grooves. They have changed their style — again — not necessarily for the best, since they seemed more humane and lovable when the sound was a bit more loose, with acoustic guitars and shuffling beats rather than synth-and-metronome-packed creations like 'Super Trouper'. But this is not to say that they lost any of their creativity — they simply may have sacrificed a little bit of it, to fit in with the worsening times.

What's interesting about Super Trouper is its emotional tug of war. By now, the days of shiny happy pappy (such as the band experienced around 1974-75) are long gone, and, with the band members' personal lives in complete disarray, the soap opera is perfectly well reflected on disc. Yet, as commercial craftsmen, they are also well aware that the buying public will never want their ABBA spouting nothing but depression, and the scathing bitterness is so seriously mixed up with "fun and joy" that only Benny and Björn's seemingly endless stream of great melodies saves the record from utter confusion.

Case in point: not everyone would dare to place the album's most optimistically resplendent num­ber — the Frida-led title track — back-to-back with its gloomiest opus, the Agnetha-led 'Winner Takes It All', all about you-know-what. The former is instantly memorable, major key, light, an­gel-style with its brilliantly arranged vocal parts; the latter is «faux-minor» (major, but still with a «gloomy» tinge to it), dark romantic, winding up high with a plea for help rather than out of an overwhelming feeling of joy. But both work equally well, despite the relative melodic simplicity of each.

The biggest disco leftover is even darker than 'Voulez-Vous': 'Lay All Your Love On Me' is 'S.O.S.' for the new generation, transmitting its panicky atmosphere through metronomic dance beats and electronically-altered down-crashing vocals at the end of each verse rather than more, shall we say it, "classical" means; but, again, it works. A whole album of tunes like that one might have been unbearable, but to see it jammed in between the folk stylization of 'The Piper' and the anthemic closer 'The Way Old Friends Do' is quite acceptable.

The biggest laugh is also unforgettable: 'On And On And On' shamelessly steals its major key­board and vocal hook from the Beach Boys' 'Do It Again', but if the latter, when it came out in 1969, was utterly nostalgic, an almost desperate calling out to the happy carefree days of yore, 'On And On And On' transforms it into something totally futuristic, announcing a new age of dance-pop rather than yearning for a past age of it. Still, the overall message is about as light­weight as it always used to be: 'Keep on rocking baby till the night is gone, on and on and on'.

But if you still prefer to do it like they used in the old times, right after 'On And On And On' you get 'Andante, Andante' — for all we know, this is basically the same meaning and the same mes­sage, except you get in an old-fashioned waltz atmosphere (well, it's not waltz technically, but it gets you waltzing all the same), with just a few gracious electric guitar licks to give it a new shiny coat. It's as stately and refined as 'On And On And On' is reckless. You let your hair down, then you pick it back up. That's the way life goes.

All in all, this is quite an exciting journey of an album. Yes, it is somewhat colder and more de­void of living instruments and their quirky behaviour than I'd like it to be, but it compensates for that with more maturity (there are even some lyrical passages that are not half-bad!) and even more diversity than is usual for these guys, and for that, I'd have to consider it their finest moment in the late, post-1977 stages of their career. Thumbs up from every beat of my heart and every impulse of my brain.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Alice Cooper: Love It To Death


ALICE COOPER: LOVE IT TO DEATH (1971)

1) Caught In A Dream; 2) I'm Eighteen; 3) Long Way To Go; 4) Black Juju; 5) Is It My Body; 6) Hallowed Be My Name; 7) Second Coming; 8) Ballad Of Dwight Fry; 9) Sun Arise.

By 1971, Zappa's Straight Records came under the control of Warner Bros. — in a mighty ironic twist of fate — and so did Alice Cooper, who unexpectedly found themselves under contract with a major label and under the supervision of a new producer, Bob Ezrin. They also relocated back to their hometown of Detroit, saying goodbye to the detestable West Coast and once again brea­thing in the air of slums, garages, and dirty rock'n'roll.

Clearly, recording back in their natural habitat must have raised the stakes on the band's future, but it is highly unlikely that anyone might have expected the results to be so phenomenal. All of a sudden, the band not only knows precisely where to go and where to stop, but also delivers a bunch of songs that are gritty, threatening, relevant, and catchy. At this point, the "theater" aspect of their show was still relatively subdued, limited mainly to a little bit of spiderish makeup aro­und Furnier's eyes and, perhaps, a little bit of snakes and ropes here and there. More important was the rock'n'roll aspect, the brutal proto-punk onslaught that, in 1971, promised to make the Rolling Stones and the Who sound like old farts.

Five of the album's tracks are just like that: tough, compact riff-rockers, with a typical running length of three to two and a half minutes, each one a lyrical fuck-you to middle class values, each one geared so well towards the rebellious teenage mind that there is hardly a future point in time when they will become obsolete. The best known is the immortal single 'I'm Eighteen' (I'm eager­ly awaiting the moment Alice will have to rename it to 'I'm Eighty'), a song so blatantly commer­cial ("Hey Bob, do you think they'll buy into that 'lines form on my hands and face' stuff?") that the mind almost revolts against it, but so tremendously seducing at the same time that the heart buys it. Let us face it: 'I'm eighteen and I like it!' is, after all, a much more realistic slogan than 'Hope I die before I get old', even despite the odd-evening circumstance that, today, Alice looks just as ridiculous sing­ing his slogan onstage as Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend singing theirs.

'I'm Eighteen', however, is merely the most anthemic and presumptuous of the five rockers, not necessarily the best; the band are equally adept at capturing a wannabe-glam effect with 'Caught In A Dream', at sounding sexy and provoking with 'Is It My Body', at playing angry prophets with 'Hallowed Be My Name', and at playing the angry lonely young man routine with 'Long Way To Go' (my personal favourite, a totally smoking garage classic that let you vent your frustration like nothing else back in 1971). No other Alice Cooper album packs together a five-way punch like that, although Killer comes close.

The 'theater' aspect, however, is far from absent from the proceedings: it dominates two of the album's epics that also served as then-current visual centerpieces of the live show. Of these, one has endured: 'Ballad Of Dwight Fry', Cooper's morbid impersonation of an asylum-locked mental patient such as could have been played by Dwight Frye (the title is a bit misleading — Dwight Frye himself was a perfectly sane person, merely being known for playing a long line of deranged characters like Renfield in Dracula). As is the usual case with Cooper, the effects are a bit over­wrought, but not by much, and one could argue that the 'Dwight Fry' character is, in fact, far more effectively fleshed out than, for instance, 'Steven' (1975-1994).

The other lengthy showpiece is far more questionable — in most treatises written around the al­bum, 'Black Juju' is quoted as its low point, the one track that prevents Love It To Death from acquiring 'masterpiece' status. Curiously, it is credited not to Furnier (you'd think he would be responsible for all of the band's theatrics), but bassist Dennis Dunaway. Its main problem is the length and the extremely evident — way too evident — debt to the Doors' epics, particularly 'When The Music's Over'. But at least the Doors had Morrison's poetic gift and a better knack for dressing his spoken ramblings in a variegated array of musical effects; 'Black Juju', apart from its main imposing guitar-and-organ melodic line, has none of that, and if it simply petered out after the first three or four minutes, it would not be as problematic as it is with its lengthy mid-section, supposing to creep you out but, instead, probably just making you go to sleep. The 'rest... rest... rest... rest... WAKE UP WAKE UP WAKE UP WAKE UP!' segment is so trite and predictable that 'Black Juju' does spoil the overall effect — just as you thought the Coops had magically attai­ned the status of the perfect rock'n'roll band, they slap this proof for the contrary right in your face. That's a bit humiliating.

Yet, once we come to terms with the fact that nobody's perfect, least of all Alice Cooper, Love It To Death proudly remains standing as one of the best examples of early Seventies' rock, and not to give it a total thumbs up is out of the question. As the solemn chorus of Rolf Harris' 'Sun Ari­se' slowly fades away into silence, we all know that the sun has, indeed, arisen over one of Ame­rica's finest acts of the decade.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Alex Harvey: The Soldier On The Wall


ALEX HARVEY: THE SOLDIER ON THE WALL (1983)

1) Mitzi; 2) Billy Bolero; 3) Snowshoes Thompson; 4) Roman Wall Blues; 5) The Poet And I; 6) Nervous; 7) Carry The Water; 8) Flowers Mr. Florist; 9) The Poet And I (Reprise).

Perhaps by the time the early Eighties rolled along, Alex was bracing himself to regain his star­dom: with his new band, "The Electric Cowboys", he resumed touring and entered once more into the recording studio. With his tragic, untimely death on February 4, 1982, from a massive heart attack, all hopes were extinguished.

All we have left from this stage in his career is Soldier On The Wall, a posthumous release that puts together semi-finished (or so I hope) tracks from those last sessions and credits them to solo Alex Harvey. And, as is the usual situation with such cases, it is rendered more interesting by the shadow of death that looms, unforeseen, but threatening, over it — most of the songs, whether we want it or not, will tend to associate with the man's demise and acquire an extra mystical aura from the depths of our own subconscious. Which, although gruesome, is still a good thing, be­cause otherwise Soldier On The Wall does not look much like a record that could have restored Harvey's stardom, much less add something truly important to his overall legacy.

In general terms of meaning and atmosphere, it's the same old Alex: a little clownish, a little sad, a little pompous, a little introspective. In terms of arrange­ment, it suffers from an acute case of synthesizer-itis: the ugly Eighties' keyboard sound is all over the record, and the yucky blobs of electronic poison that announce the album opener, 'Mitzi', backed by equally yucky electronic drums, spoil most of the song's pleasures. Zal! Where are you, Zal? 'Billy's Bolero' is an interes­ting attempt at combining martial rhythmics with country-western, but, again, its being domina­ted by that half-dead sound immediately dates it, in the bad sense of the word.

The keyboards temporarily leave the stage on a couple of real obscure covers — Buddy Ebsen and Tennessee Ernie Ford's 'Snowshoe Thompson', a cheerful folkie rave about California's most famous mailman ('mush man mush man mush man go!'), and 'The Poet And I', an instrumental composition by Frank Mills to which Harvey added his own lyrics, a mish-mash of folk imagery loosely based on the works of Robert Burns. Thus do Native America and Old Scotland shake hands over the album's A- and B-side, and the rowdy craziness of the former greatly comple­ments the bagpipe stateliness of the latter (which almost manages to ascend the same height as 'Anthem' one decade prior to it).

Some decently rocking tunes on the second side manage, in addition to these two highlights, to save the album from a complete disaster, but overall, its musical hide leaves a lot to be desired. It's so very sad, for instance, that Harvey never left behind a SAHB version of 'Roman Wall Blues' — a tense, personal, more-than-anti-war song that he first recorded in 1969, with a limp, boring band, and then waited until 1982 to re-record, when its impact was so much subdued by lifeless electronica. Sad, because even through the cheap sci-fi murk of these keyboards it is still possible to hear Alex Harvey the likeable loner, too smart for his own good. But a thumbs down all the same — this is simply not a kind of record to which one will turn frequently as long as all the SAHB catalog is at one's reach.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Albert King: Crosscut Saw


ALBERT KING: CROSSCUT SAW: ALBERT KING IN SAN FRANCISCO (1983)

1) Honey Bee; 2) Ask Me No Questions; 3) I'm Gonna Move To The Outskirts Of Town; 4) They Made The Queen Welcome; 5) Floodin' In California; 6) I Found Love In The Food Stamp Line; 7) Match Box Blues; 8) Crosscut Saw; 9) Why You So Mean To Me.

After a lengthy break from recording, King reemerged for a two-album stunt in the Eighties, on Fantasy Records — the same label that had earlier bought out the Stax catalog, which does not, however, mean that it also bought out Stax's creativity and inspiration. The best I can say about this "comeback" is that, technically, this is a comeback: first time in years, King releases a pure blues album. No frills. Strictly 12-bar, strictly guitar-bass-drums, and some piano to boot.

Since the man's playing and singing have not deteriorated one bit, regardless of all the perturba­tions during the Tomato years, Crosscut Saw is definitely a must for fans. However, evaluating it in its historical context means recalling that we already know all these licks by heart, and that each new solo will be painfully predictable. This could have been compensated by dazzling ef­forts on the part of the rhythm section, but this new band of Albert's just seems to have no indivi­duality whatsoever. Even when they pick up the tempo and start to boogie a little bit ('They Made The Queen Welcome'), I do not feel any genuine rock'n'roll excitement. These are paid people who do their job and little else.

In short, a huge disappointment. Having fully reembraced his blues roots, King has unvolunta­rily joined the Eighties-up-to-present "blues revival" — a movement beautifully fit for mid-level bar­rooms and restaurants, but little else. I would bet anything that "Larry Burton" on rhythm guitar, "Michael Llorens" on drums, "Tony Llorens" on piano, whoever they are — actually, Larry Bur­ton at least is a slightly well-known solo blues artist nowadays — were totally overjoyed to have the honor of backing a giant like King, but the sad truth is, they just don't do this giant any justice, steering him in the safest, most uninteresting direction possible. And a particular ugh goes for Tony Llorens' cheap piano tone.

To add insult to injury, the record is crowned by a remake of a remake (!!): a new recording of 'Crosscut Saw' which, with its two parts, imitates the re-recording of 'Crosscut Saw' on I Wanna Get Funky. Thumbs down, no doubt about it; instead of wasting your money, if you really need another Albert King record, trace down some old archive or live release from the early Seventies.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Animal Collective: Sung Tongs


ANIMAL COLLECTIVE: SUNG TONGS (2004)

1) Leaf House; 2) Who Could Win A Rabbit; 3) The Softest Voice; 4) Winters Love; 5) Kids On Holiday; 6) Sweet Road; 7) Visiting Friends; 8) College; 9) We Tigers; 10) Mouth Wooed Her; 11) Good Lovin' Outside; 12) Whaddit I Done.

Finally, the state of Grace has been attained. Sung Tongs is, almost inarguably so, the Animal Collective at their most accessible (which is still pretty darn inaccessible) — and, coincidentally, the one album on which they finally demonstrate the purpose of their very existence.

Unlike Indian, it is not at all heavy on special effects; many of the tracks are almost completely acoustic, with light, bright melodies that hearken back to the psycho-folk of Spirit. One big dis­tinction is the production: despite the fact that, just as usual, all the songs were recorded in, shall we say, clinically non-sterile conditions, the "lo-fi feel" is completely missing, making me think that the filthy sonic hooliganry of Campfire Songs was, in fact, perfectly intentional.

But, most importantly, the thing that really matters is the singing. To appreciate this, I think one must forget the gimmickry, the weirdness, the musical minimalism, and concentrate on the man­ner in which Avey Tare and Panda Bear weave their waves — best exemplified on the opening track, 'Leaf House'. This time, I know what this reminds me of: the Incredible String Band, at their psycho peak in 1967-68. But the Animal Collective have set themselves the brave task of outdoing their gurus, and in a sense, a technical one at least, they succeed: the up and down and out of town undulations of their speech signals are unlike anything I've ever heard. They're nei­ther heavenly, like with the Cocteau Twins, nor scary, like with your average Siberian shaman; nei­ther ugly, like with Yoko Ono, nor beautiful, like with Tim Buckley. What are they?

I am not talking here about the album's low points, mind you, which it still possesses. From time to time the duo seems to be wanting to hypnotize us in the old way — blubbering and grumbling over an endless repetition of two chords (twelve minutes worth of 'Visiting Friends'), or simply letting what starts off as a cute moment of tenderness evolve into seven minutes of boredom ('The Softest Voice' — indeed, and not necessarily a bonus). But everything must be forgiven with 'Kids On Holiday', which plows on ahead on the strength of the same two chords, yet within a vocal setting that will twirl your head until it falls off.

In short, the old modus operandi — combining the psychedelic with the child-like — has come back with a vengeance. 'You don't have to go to college', goes the lone lyrical line on 'College', and, sure, why should you? Going to college requires killing off, or at least restraining your inner child, and there's no liking Sung Tongs without releasing the inner child. I cannot imagine any­one who does not have a streak of Peter Pan within, or Tinker Bell at least, to get a kick out of all the wah-wah-wahs on 'Whaddit I Done' (but I refuse to let the truth out about whether I get a kick out of it or not).

Actually, at the risk of sounding completely off my rocker, I'd say that the best possible audience for Sung Tongs would be a kiddie one — that a three-year old, under the right circumstances, would get more out of it than any adolescent or adult raised on "proper" music. Some might want to extrapolate this over just about any avantgarde piece of art, but I doubt if a typical three-year old could be enticed with Ornette Coleman or Throbbing Gristle; Sung Tongs, to me, sound like the perfect non-ordinary soundtrack for the non-ordinary mind of the youngster whose speech mechanisms have not yet become fully separate from his musical mechanisms. If you have a tod­d­­ler, try it out. It can do no harm, can it?

For all the lovely, unpredictable, and amazingly complex vocal work, these Beach Boys on acid and lollipops get an unquestionable thumbs up from the terrified brain department. Obviously, the heart must keep quiet; not being a three-year old, a mental patient, a ganja lover, or The Man Who Came To Earth, I don't "love" this record and I never will. But some of us here on Earth do happen to be Flying Spaghetti Monsters in denial, so I am not rejecting the possibility of at least a certain amount of mature organic matter dripping real feeling for Sung Tongs.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

AIR: Pocket Symphony


AIR: POCKET SYMPHONY (2007)

1) Space Maker; 2) Once Upon A Time; 3) One Hell Of A Party; 4) Napalm Love; 5) Mayfair Song; 6) Left Bank; 7) Photograph; 8) Mer Du Japon; 9) Lost Message; 10) Somewhere Between Waking And Sleeping; 11) Redhead Girl; 12) Night Sight.

AIR never really made two albums that sound the same; but they certainly made quite a few al­bums that sound like they sound the same. Pocket Symphony, in particular, is anything but a se­ries of remakes of Talkie Walkie songs, yet I have a very poor idea of how to write about it. It does not exactly help that, no matter how many times I listen to this record, I rest enthralled by its icy beauty, yet each time that it is over, I cannot remember a single doggone tune.

Pocket Symphony is very AIR-y, even for AIR. Like a prima ballerina that, while dancing, most­ly floats above the ground, taking your breath away, it eventually reaches a stage when you start secretly wishing for her/it to plummet to the ground, for once, for a change. Zephyresque synthe­sizers, heavenly chimes, dreamful vocals, swooshing asteroid percussion, Japanese folk instru­ments out of some faraway Mizoguchi movie — my feet are soaking wet for spending too much time walking in the clouds. Don't get me wrong: these are songs, with melodies and even musical development, real small little parts that truly cling together in, I guess, some sort of 'symphony' — but they're all wrapped up in such dense layers of musical cotton candy that, in the end, it hard­ly matters whether there is any sort of development or not.

Not even the fabulous guest stars inflict any significant deviations. Jarvis Cocker of Pulp con­tributes ly­rics and vocals to 'One Hell Of A Party', sounding more like a highly drunk, deeply depressed Mark Knopfler than Jarvis Cocker; and Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy contribu­tes lyrics and vocals to 'Somewhere Between Waking And Sleeping', sounding more like a deeply drunk, highly depressed Nick Drake than Neil Hannon. Both songs are pretty and elegant, but neither one has managed to stay with me the way 'Le Voyage De Penelope' or 'Playground Love' still does. Oh well, maybe 10,000 more listens will do the trick — it's high time I changed my ringtone anyway.

Giving this kind of record a "thumbs down" assessment will, however, not do, because within its own limits, it's admirable. Of course, admitting that it's admirable imminently leads to admitting that, for instance, Alan Parsons, whose music frequently sounds the same way, is also admirable, and to admit, in the XXIst century, that Alan Parsons is "admirable" immediately brands one as a soul hopelessly lost in irreality. But as a soul hopelessly lost in irreality, and speaking out to other souls hopelessly lost in irreality, I am fond of Pocket Symphony, somewhere deep down inside that is, and when the new ringtones work, my thumbs up will be fully validated.