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Thursday, December 31, 2009

AC/DC: Let There Be Rock


AC/DC: LET THERE BE ROCK (1977)

1) Go Down; 2) Dog Eat Dog; 3) Let There Be Rock; 4) Bad Boy Boogie; 5) Problem Child; 6) Overdose; 7) Hell Ain't A Bad Place To Be; 8) Whole Lotta Rosie.

Pay attention how nearly each and every song on this album begins with a little dry guitar «click» sound, sometimes accompanied with a muffled, but intentionally preserved, initial countdown. It is a unique thing for Let There Be Rock: already on Powerage, all the intros would be made tho­roughly clean. So it is symbolic, and the best guess is that the band is telling us that, having found its schtick on the previous two albums, it has now found its sound.

Because if AC/DC ever did make the transition from «hard rock» to «metal», or any other sort of sound-related transition if these terms do not suit us, this is the spot. Malcolm and Angus add a rough, leaden touch to their guitars, going for more distortion and «dirt», and realize the head­banger's dream: a sound so fat and crunchy that, when played at the proper volume, it never fails to bring out your devil if only God did not forget to endow you with one.

The album is not without problems. Some of the songs have lazy riffs — 'Go Down' recalls their least inspired blues-rock romps, 'Overdose' has never even once surfaced as a live recording, 'Dog Eat Dog' is equally so-so, and, for some sort of silly censorship reason, the classic number 'Crab­sody In Blue', worth it for the title alone, has never surfaced on the international version of the record, instead replaced by a slightly shortened version of 'Problem Child'. This is depressing, especially given that the whole album hosts but eight numbers.

Still, fillerish as they are, all of these songs rock as well, and none of them spoil one's appetite for the classics. 'Hell Ain't A Bad Place To Be' has one of the band's most memorable «angular» riffs going for it, and a great cool 'Hey you! Yeah, you!' from Bon at the start. The title track and 'Whole Lotta Rosie' are acknowledged classics, both for their mock-anthemic quality and the ut­most level of madness that Angus achieves with his solos, literally the musical equivalents of a fire team drowning your burning house or car in avalanches of foam; at the end of 'Whole Lotta Rosie', one risks the real danger of suffocating, since there is every chance of you forgetting how to breathe under the onslaught of the younger Young's incessant pummeling.

But, upon being heavily saturated with the two hits, my heart chooses to belong elsewhere. Where 'Bad Boy Boogie' is frequently viewed as merely a cool element in the band's stage show — it is that number during which Angus does his strip show — I have gradually come to the conclusion that it might simply be the AC/DC song. Everything about it is perfect to per­fection. The noisy intro, and how the song's riff grows out of it. The riff itself — simple, bluesy, amazing in its austerity, triggering your inner rhythms like crazy. Bon Scott as the ideal man to blurt out the message: 'It was the seventh day, I was the seventh son — and it scared the hell out of everyone!' The breathtaking pause before Angus rips into the solo. The lengthy one-note pas­sage. The deception as the drums kick back into full gear, only to disappear entirely a few bars later. The build-up back to the main melody, by which time — notice? — the riff has actually changed, but did not lose any of its power. Mark Evans' crescendo on the bass, piling up high high high until Bon relaunches the vocal part. In terms of how much is going on, it may be the band's most complex creation, ever, and yet it is still perfectly fit for the hormone level of a seventh grader, a masterpiece of insulting brutality.

Let There Be Rock is an arrogant, but perfect title. Presumptuously, it almost seems to imply that before it there was no rock as such, and that it is only now that this pack of sacrilegious Aus­tralians, playing God, allow it to come into existence. (Presumption seriously confirmed by the video that accompanied the title track, in which Bon is seen dressed as a preacher and Angus, oh good heavens, is playing with a self-made halo stuck on his head). Of course, Bon's lyrics, hila­riously retelling the story of the birth of rock'n'roll, would seem to contradict that. But whoever listens to AC/DC for the lyrics, hilarious as they might be?

Come to think of it — from a certain point of view at least, they may be right. Certainly rock had never ever sounded quite like this, and, more importantly, it has never ever sounded more «rock» than this. In the whole history of popular music after 1977, no one has ever written a song that rocks — in the simplest, commonest, basest sense of the term, not in its intellectualized perver­sion — harder than 'Whole Lotta Rosie'. So, «let there be rock» indeed. Thumbs up without a single question asked, even despite all the filler.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Alice Cooper: Goes To Hell


ALICE COOPER: ALICE COOPER GOES TO HELL (1976)

1) Go To Hell; 2) You Gotta Dance; 3) I'm The Coolest; 4) Didn't We Meet; 5) I Never Cry; 6) Give The Kid A Break; 7) Guilty; 8) Wake Me Gently; 9) Wish You Were Here; 10) I'm Always Chasing Rainbows; 11) Going Home.

As the 1970s slowly begin to usher in the age of punk and disco and retire the age of glam and shock rock, we find Alice flubbering and fidgeting. «Master of the Macabre», sure — but from 1976 and all the way to his questionable «comeback» a decade later, the man has not really relea­sed even one properly macabre record. Instead, he spent all that decade fighting: with himself, over his alcohol addiction and other personal problems, and with the musical scene, trying to re­invent and redefine himself in all sorts of new styles and genres, from Broadway to disco, from art-rock to New Wave.

This is the reason why critics, and plenty of fans, think of this period as the «lost years». What good is a man whose output is saddled by drink, and who cannot even decide properly what it is exactly that he wants to do? And what good is a man who used to make mind-blowing killer rock, only to have later flushed it down the toilet and replaced it with show tunes and cheesy humor? Awful times, awful songs, awful sell-out.

The title of Alice Cooper Goes To Hell suggests that it may be some sort of conceptual sequel to Welcome To My Nightmare. It is conceptual, for sure, but hardly a sequel. This time, Alice de­picts an imaginary voyage to the depths of Hades — probably also a dream, as indicated in the final track, but not on the part of «Steven», rather on the part of Alice himself. 'For criminal acts and violence on the stage... for all of the decent citizens you've enraged — You — Can Go — To — HELL!' And so he does. The rest is up to Dante.

A concept album about Alice Cooper traveling through the nine circles, with realistic musical il­lustrations — hot, hot sounds! — could have been just the thing that fans were waiting for. Asto­nishingly, there is nothing even remotely resembling such a concept. Instead, what you get is, es­sentially, a rock-tinged comic Broadway musical, with a very simple subject: Alice Cooper goes to Hell (depicted, more or less precisely and authentically, as a disco nightclub), meets up with the Devil, pleads for mercy and salvation, confesses his sins, and only manages to avoid eternal torment by... waking up.

No giant snakes or lizards, no sword-wielding demons, no pitch or tar or boiling blood, no Bosch level horrors, and even the Devil himself is just a big old bad boss who, so it seems, can be reaso­nable enough unless you flip out too early, which is the protagonist's biggest mistake. Plenty of irony and humor, but no titillation whatsoever: you do not really need to call yourself Alice Coo­per to stage this kind of show. You couldn't exactly be Frank Sinatra to do it, either, but there is nothing whatsoever to scare off the little kids. I bet even Elvis would appreciate.

Musically, the last traces of rock'n'roll have been washed away by the onslaught of orchestrated balladry, retro-vaudeville, and disco. We still get a couple crunchy riffs on the title track and 'Wish You Were Here', and Alice tries to mold 'I'm Guilty' in the old garage style, but neither of the three are very convincing as «rock»-style material — they just provide some instrumental di­versity and catchy themes, fist-clenching not included.

Topping it all is the album's hit single, 'I Never Cry' — another housewife-level ballad, second in a row. This turns a potential one-time blunder into an alarming tendency: Alice Cooper compe­ting with Barry Manilow? This either got to be the grandest put-on known to mortal man, or the grandest sell-out this side of Rod Stewart.

In short, it does not take a genius to understand why Alice Cooper Goes To Hell is usually pin­pointed as the start of the slide by the regular audience (purists, of course, point already to Night­mare or even Muscle Of Love). But there is also a small heretical group of semi-outsiders who confess to loving this record — and this is exactly the group to which your humble reviewer be­longs. According to him, this just happens to be one of Alice's best efforts.

Yes, the concept is not particularly smart, but it is FUN. Who but Alice could have thought of arranging the climactic dialog between himself and the Devil in the form of a 1950s doo-wop number ('Give The Kid A Break'), replete with second-rate Woody Allen-like dialog ('can't you give me a break? — Sure thing kid, when hell freezes over')? Who but Alice, when facing the need to pander to contemporary disco audiences, would have incorporated the obligatory dis­co number into his concept in a way that equals disco dancers with sinners confined to eternal torment ('You Gotta Dance')? Finally, who but Alice could have crossed the distance from sharp social irony to hilarious self-parody in two easy steps? Watch for yourself. Step 1: 'For gambling and drinking alcohol constantly... For choosing to be a living obscenity — you can go to Hell!' Step 2: 'You'd poison a blind man and steal his cane... You'd even force feed a diabetic a candy cane — you can go to Hell!'

And while the songs may not rock, they are good. 'Go To Hell' is massive and memorable. 'Wish You Were Here' is a complex mini-suite where Wagner and Hunter are eager to show what they have learned about the intricacies of funk. 'I'm The Coolest' is cute minimalistic vaudeville. The ballads suffer from overpompous arrangements, but show an ever-increasing skill; in particular, 'I Never Cry' owes as much to the school of Paul McCartney and Badfinger as 'Only Women Bleed' owes to the school of James Taylor and Carly Simon — feel the difference. It's also much more personal — in fact, probably the first openly confessional tune that Cooper ever wrote about his problems (which is why nobody noticed at the time) — and, hopefully, will stand the test of time better than its hit ballad competition in the face of 'Only Women Bleed' and 'You And Me', also good songs, but rather obviously «fake» in comparison.

Goes To Hell does have some structural similarities with Nightmare, in that both albums start off at a high level of tongue-in-cheekiness, and then, by the time the second side comes along, gradually turn into something more disturbing, sincere, and deep. Here, under the superficial «mush» of all the balladeering — 'I Never Cry', 'Wake Me Gently', 'Going Home' — Alice is exposing his sensitive and vulnerable side, not a pretty sight for the fans. I respect the effort in its entirety, and love parts of it. «Broadway» or not, it's an interesting, often exciting, diverse and thought-provoking effort that deserves a thumbs up from all points of view.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Animals: Animalisms


THE ANIMALS: ANIMALISMS (1966)

1) One Monkey Don't Stop No Show; 2) Maudie; 3) Outcast; 4) Sweet Little Sixteen; 5) You're On My Mind; 6) Clapping; 7) Gin House Blues; 8) Squeeze Her Tease Her; 9) What Am I Living For; 10) I Put A Spell On You; 11) That's All I Am To You; 12) She'll Return It; 13*) Inside Looking Out; 14*) Don't Bring Me Down; 15*) Cheating; 16*) Help Me Girl; 17*) See See Rider; 18*) I Just Wanna Make Love To You; 19*) Boom Boom; 20*) Big Boss Man; 21*) Pretty Thing; 22*) Don't Bring Me Down (stereo); 23*) See See Rider (stereo); 24*) Help Me Girl (stereo); 25*) Cheating (stereo).

The original Animals' last album is conveniently available today as a monumentally expanded col­lection, twice the size of the original, also including all of their 45s from around 1966, out­takes, stereo mixes, and even, as a very special bonus, the band's earliest EP from way back in 1963, so that the commonest layman may easily assess the length of the road traveled.

Animalisms is, in fact, a transitional record. After 'It's My Life', boosted by commercial success but also fed up with the dependency on producer Mickie Most's material, the Animals — by now, entirely in Burdon's hands — switched from EMI to Decca in an attempt to toughen and roughen up their original sound, on the verge of leaking and collapsing under commercial pressures (or so they thought; back in 1966, everything was so mixed up that «commercial» and «artsy» pressures were frequently impossible to separate from one another).

They still have not learned to write original material, though, and, for the most part, still exploit the same old vaults of blues, R'n'B, and rockabilly. Without Price, and in light of the changing times, they sound different: louder, brawnier, darker even than before: Chas Chandler's bass rises high up in the mix, as is evident already on the opening seconds of 'One Monkey Don't Stop No Show', and Valentine's guitar says goodbye to the shrill squeaking of yesterday and fully embra­ces garage noise as its ideal (although he still goes light on the feedback). Yet it cannot really be said that all of this manages to improve on the previous two years.

The album's two greatest numbers are, in fact, not on the album — they are the hit singles 'Don't Bring Me Down' (a Goffin-King original, and nothing whatsoever to do with the ELO disco hit) and 'Inside Looking Out' (in a rare glimpse of happiness, credited to the band members themsel­ves, although most people probably know it through the Grand Funk version). These rank high up there with the very best. Eric is on fire, the boys supply him with cool guitar and organ riffs, and an A+ in the tension-building department is guaranteed for both. 'Inside Looking Out', in particu­lar, is one of those simple, but unforgettable hard rock classics that serve as the perfect illustra­tion to the 'Spirit Of '66'. The Yardbirds have some of those, too.

Sometimes you can't help but wonder — what was it, exactly, that prevented the original lineup from simply sitting down and writing a bunch more of these numbers to put up on the next LP, instead of filling it to the brim with cover material of such widely ranging quality? Was it mode­sty, or even self-humiliation? Wild, unbridled love for trans-Atlantic music dictating their hand in the studio? Elementary laziness? Or real true inability? The latter choice is the most dubious: lack of talent has never prevented «The Artist» to clog the world with his refuse. I go for a combina­tion of the other three.

That said, 'Maudie' is a great dirty piece of talking blues arranged as proto-punk rock (the band never fails with John Lee Hooker — he's like their closet songwriter!); Bessie Smith's 'Gin House Blues' is a little too overtly theat­rical, but Eric's sincerity is not to be doubted; and Chuck Willis' 'What Am I Living For?' is given a lush, deep arrangement that makes the ori­ginal sound like a hastily pre-recorded demo. On the other hand, tunes they should not have touched include Screamin' Jay Hawkins' 'I Put A Spell On You' — Burdon singing Hawkins? might just as well hunt elephant with a baseball bat — and 'Sweet Little Sixteen' (who the hell needs another cover of it, and in 1966 at that?).

The rest of the tracks can be further split down the same line, and in the end, Animalisms is a severe disappointment — a generally good record that only gives tiny hints at how excel­lent this band could have become with a bit more verve. At that moment, the world needed lots and lots of songs of the caliber of 'Inside Looking Out'. Instead, it got one more 'Sweet Little Sixteen' — and, worst of all, by the end of the year Burdon was so strung out that he'd simply confused his lazi­ness for writing good conventional songs with The Artist's disdain for writing good conventional songs. This led to near-catastrophic results, not the least of which was the dissolution of the origi­nal band; and we have, I guess, to be glad that they still left behind even such scraps as they did leave behind.

For these scraps, they still win — with much difficulty — a thumbs up from the department of the heart, but from a rational point of view, Eric Burdon should be strapped to a time machine, transferred back into 1966 and forced to remain there until coming out with a whole album of songs like 'Inside Looking Out'. Sweet, sweet punishment!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Alberta Hunter: Amtrak Blues


ALBERTA HUNTER: AMTRAK BLUES (1980)

1) The Darktown Strutters Ball; 2) Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out; 3) I'm Having A Good Time; 4) Always; 5) My Handy Man Ain't Handy No More; 6) Amtrak Blues; 7) Old Fashioned Love; 8) Sweet Georgia Brown; 9) A Good Man Is Hard To Find; 10) I've Got A Mind To Ramble.

In 1954, Alberta Hunter quit show business for good — or so it seemed — and embarked on a nursing career instead, for a bunch of personal reasons (such as shock from her mother's death) and some objective ones — such as not really being needed in the business any longer. For more than twenty years, she did nothing but nursing, with just a couple spontaneous guest appearances on recordings by «old artists», e. g. the somewhat uncomfortably titled Songs We Taught Your Mother project from 1961, where she sang together with Lucille Hegamin and Victoria Spivey, being unquestionably the biggest star of the three.

In 1977 her hospital promptly gave Alberta her walking papers, probably expecting the lady to dine with Bessie Smith any day now — ironically, this turned out to be one of the most conveni­ent firing events in history, as it prompted Hunter to try out the stage once more. Too old to nurse, too young to die, just the right age to perform, she thought, so she started trying out various pla­ces in the Village — wisest choice of all possible ones — and ended up with a triumphant come­back, first on stage, then on film (in Robert Altman's Remember My Name), finally on record, signed to Columbia and releasing four albums before finally kicking it in 1984.

The only one that is still easy to find today is Amtrak Blues from 1980, ten songs from Alberta's deep-reaching back catalog (odd enough, though, only 'Old Fashioned Love' overlaps with her 1920s recordings) that Columbia wisely let her record with the Gerald Cook quartet (a band of pros almost as seasoned as Alberta herself) rather than any unexperienced young whippersnap­pers: as a result, the sound is fully authentic and never «retro».

On its own, Amtrak Blues is a pretty little jazz-blues collection that makes up for excellent back­ground music. But it goes without saying that it is not the kind of album that should really be ap­preciated «on its own». The point is that it is an album from 1980, recorded by an artist whose date of birth is usually given as 1895 — if, «on its own», it were barely listenable, it would still have been a priceless historical document, but if, «on its own», it is enjoyable, it is nothing less than a historical masterpiece.

Of course, Hunter's voice now sounds like an old woman's voice is supposed to sound: deep, cro­aking, gruff, a far cry from the gallant silkiness of her old records (at least, what frequencies of that gallant silkiness one can still make out from behind the wall of hiss). But then she is not sin­ging opera, she is groaning the blues, and this age-bound change gives her the same kind of grit that, in the 1920s, actually defined her competition — like Ma Rainey or Memphis Minnie. Now, in the Reagan era, it makes her the last remaning spokesperson for all these ladies; she is more than Alberta Hunter, she is Blues Queen Incarnate.

And she does sing well — not just «well for someone over 80», but «well for anyone who sings the blues». She charms you with her slyness, such as, for instance, starting out slow and cool on the first verse of 'The Darktown Strutters' Ball' before charging up the tempo and inviting every­one to bop along as if 'old age' were a purely psychological concept (which it is). Even on the si­nuous double entendre numbers — such as 'My Handy Man Ain't Handy No More' — there is no trace of the ridiculous. Certainly, no one can stop the skepticist from complaining about lines like 'he churns my butter' coming from the lips of an octogenarian. But I would pity the skepticist, unable to feel the still young spirit behind the old body.

For most people, including myself, the evident highlight would be 'Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out', simply because it is the most outstanding and well-known composition on here, and because Hunter does it full justice (from Bessie's classic repertoire, she also sings 'A Good Man Is Hard To Find'; being the last of the great old divas still alive and kicking, she did a great job promoting and preserving the memory of her generation). Yet, of course, Amtrak Blues is not about individual songs — it is about the pleasures of survival against all odds, and it is so wildly successful on the intellectual level that it seriously influences the emotional level as well, and gets a decisive thumbs up from both.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Arctic Monkeys: Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I Am Not


ARCTIC MONKEYS: WHATEVER PEOPLE SAY I AM, THAT'S WHAT I'M NOT (2006)

1) The View From The Afternoon; 2) I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor; 3) Fake Tales Of San Francisco; 4) Dancing Shoes; 5) You Probably Couldn't See For The Lights But You Were Staring Straight At Me; 6) Still Take You Home; 7) Riot Van; 8) Red Light Indicates Doors Are Secure; 9) Mardy Bum; 10) When The Sun Goes Down; 11) From The Ritz To The Rubble; 12) A Certain Romance.

In January 2006, British audiences have once again demonstrated that their average tastes are still more «rock-based» and less eroded by the onslaught of crap marketing than the average Ameri­can tastes — by spinning all the way up to No. 1 the debut album of this, still relatively little known, Sheffield band. Critical and commercial response, over a one-year period, have pretty much transformed The Arctic Monkeys into The Jam of their generation, and now it was up to the Monkeys to prove that they had something to offer history that the Jam already had not — or, perhaps, not to prove anything, but simply to fill in the old pair of shoes that, for every new gene­ration, needs to be filled in by a pair of young stinkless feet.

But I am in a little trouble here. I have never liked The Jam all that much; I liked Blur and Oasis a lit­tle bit better, but not enough to worship at their altar; and as for the band's more immediate influ­ences including The Strokes and The Libertines — the obvious question is, what kind of space are these influences actually leaving this new band to stand out on its own?

No space at all, except for the kind of space that is inevitably provided by the passing of time. Alex Turner (lead vocals, guitar, lyrics), Jamie Cook (guitar), Nick O'Malley (bass), and Matt Helders (drums) are a bunch of kids who grew up in 1990s Britain, and are obviously reflecting 1990s Britain (they are also quite obviously influenced by older music, which they freely admit, but it is safe to assume they grew up on Blur rather than Beatles). They are young, moderately intelligent — the moderate way you'd expect from a bunch of middle-class Sheffield kids — and very, very relevant. So relevant, in fact, that even Gordon Brown had to admit to liking them (say­ing something along the lines of 'they really wake you up in the morning' and sending the whole nation up in hysteria at the thought of the Right Honourable MP hopping in the direction of the bathroom to the bright sounds of 'I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor').

If it is still possible, today, to make interesting music with bass, drums, and two electric guitars with no special effects, then The Arctic Monkeys make interesting music, or at least honestly try to. Their style is «punk pop», with an occasional outburst or two of outside influences like ska, and they are constantly looking for unusual riffs, time signature varieties even within two-minute long songs, and non-trivial decisions for the vocal hooks. Of course, there is never any guarantee that these riffs and hooks are completely fresh — any major connoisseur of punk and pop will be able to trace these elements back thirty years — but, just like The Jam thirty years back, they are seriously striving to create their own brand of songwriting. And (no question about it) they rock; this is not some sort of sanitized alternative bullshit, but a very live, angry, sharp sound.

Are the individual songs memorable? To their young audiences, I can imagine, they will be very much so, but against the background of fifty years of guitar-based rock records, they really look like, well, just another guitar-based rock band. Strange enough, the thing that lingered in my own brain longer than anything else was not their riffs, but rather Turner and Co.'s crazy vocal explo­sions — such as 'I don't want to hear you... KICK ME OUT, KICK ME OUT!' ('Fake Tales Of San Francisco'), or the immortal line 'Get on your dancing shoes, you sexy little swine' (sic!!), which I will treasure forever. These, at least, feel more 'immediate' than the melodies — the me­lodies place too much emphasis on smartness, and in the end I am not too sure if I am supposed to just bop and drop to those beats or to view them in a post-modern light, or both.

But the saddest thing is that I just cannot appreciate the atmosphere of it all. There is a big, ugly, smelly difference between the whole goddamn aura of Whatever People Say I Am and, let's say, Paul Weller's This Is The Modern World. In the late 1970's, British youth — not all of it, but the smartest part of it — was breathing discontent, and their spiritual leaders were singing and playing about getting out of this fucked-up place. The Arctic Monkeys, children of a (mostly) satisfied and content generation (in relative comparison, of course), are singing and playing about the drugged charms of this fucked-up place. Their attitude may be ironic — I hope it is ironic, at least in part; no, screw that, I know it is ironic, they have too many different words in their lyrics and too many notes in their melodies to be truly dumb — but if so, not many will see the irony, and those that will might think twice about headbanging to this music, which, controversially, is the most natural reaction to it.

Whatever People Say I Am is a loud, gruff record about the lives of loud, gruff people living loud, gruff club-lives that tempt them into using only one particular side of their brain, the one that is responsible for animal pleasures. All of the album's twelve songs are like one big concep­tual ensemble of a 12-hour period in the life of a jaded clubber. Typical subjects: [a] music, [b] dancing, [c] drinking, [d] necking / pulling / shagging, [e] talking trash, [f] various other human-level manners of animalizing. Sung in a brawny, disrespectful manner with a thick, almost inten­tionally amplified Yorkshire accent. Accompanied by music that is technically and theoretically «rock» but, once you start thinking about it, owes just as much to the hedonistic synth-pop of Duran Duran (for those who doubt it, Turner has dropped an extra lyrical cue in one of the lines on 'I Bet You Look Good') — and is a perfect match for the lyrical subjects.

A perfect symbol of the album's ambiguity is its cover, a photo of one of the band's friends (Chris McClure, frontman of The Violet May) taking a cigarette puff in Liverpool's famous Korova bar in the early morning hours. As a photo, it's an amazing piece of work — few images convey the idea of feeling absolutely terrific and like total shit at the exact same time. As food for thought, though, it's a serious downer. We need not feed ourselves illusions: the majority of the album's audience will simply use it for having a good party time, just like the majority of the Jam's audi­ence would use their music in 1977. However, the minority of the Jam's audience would be likely to sit down, listen, and be prompted into some kind of meaningful action. In the case of the Arc­tic Monkeys, though, I have no idea what the minority of their audience would be prompted into. Going out and simply hanging or shooting themselves is my best guess. 'Get on your dancing shoes, there's one thing on your mind'.

I like the Arctic Monkeys, really, I do. They are creative, intelligent, and when you see them playing onstage, they always look like the kind of smug, self-assured pricks that think of the rest of the world as undeserving crap — a very positive and healthy attitude. Even if I forget every single song of theirs tomorrow, today I still give this album a thumbs up for all the stimulating it does. I simply happen to hate the world that has produced the Arctic Monkeys. Clubbers, party animals, hipsters, Korova bars, 'banging tunes and DJ sets', 'lad at the side drinking a Smirnoff Ice came and paid for her Tro­pical Reef', 'classic Reeboks or knackered Converse' — could we have a hydrogen bomb for all that stuff and all the causes that cause that stuff and all the reasons underlying the causes that cause that stuff, too? Pretty please.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Alanis Morissette: Unplugged


ALANIS MORISSETTE: UNPLUGGED (1999)

1) You Learn; 2) Joining You; 3) No Pressure Over Cappuccino; 4) That I Would Be Good; 5) Head Over Feet; 6) Princes Familiar; 7) I Was Hoping; 8) Ironic; 9) These R The Thoughts; 10) King Of Pain; 11) You Oughta Know; 12) Uninvited.

It is theoretically likeable, this session. Alas, it does not improve much on the biggest thing it could improve upon. Considering that Morissette's full-band rock arrangements are one of the weakest spots on her studio albums, one could hope that getting rid of dreary, boring «alt-rock» guitars and dehu­manized, depressing percussion would make her material more fresh and exciting. It does not.

If anything, the only reason why Unplugged could merit consideration is Alanis' curious restraint and even a bit of «delicacy» that she gives her listeners by not overscreaming, not even on such screamfests as 'You Oughta Know'. It may not always be evident that she is an excellent singer when her bratty attitude overshadows her vocal talent, but on Unplugged, there is no bratty atti­tude whatsoever. Of course, for some fans that would only make things more boring.

To comment on the musical aspects of this session would be missing the point — Morissette's music was never about any sort of instrumental melodies in the first place, and here, her band is only to provide a properly atmospheric setting for her seriously self-sustained seance of soul sur­vival. She only serves a small helping of hits from Pill (I could easily live without 'Ironic', but three cheers for changing the vocal melody of the formerly grating chorus), goes heavier on Jun­kie material, and introduces three entirely new songs that have passed me by completely, altho­ugh 'Princes Familiar' is supposed to be a very important tune on a personal level.

It's all okay, going by gently and with relatively little pretense, but in order to really enjoy this, you have to adore Alanis Morissette as an extraordinary individual with a deeply idiosyncratic vision rather than a pop performer (for the latter purpose, studio records will suffice completely). And it is very hard for some of us to do just that — certainly not with moves so blatantly obvious as choosing, for your obligatory tribute to your influences, Sting's 'King Of Pain', and even redoing the hookline as 'I'll always be queen of pain'. She is so admirably «honest» about everything she does, I think I'm going to be sick.

First-rate singing, second-rate playing, thoughtful song selection, moderate hooks on every corner, tortured soul in abundance, all of this comes together in a depressing thumbs down that the brain had only just time enough to signal to the heart before lapsing in a coma. I envy you if you have a greater tolerance level for such sanitized atmosphere.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Adrian Belew: Side One


ADRIAN BELEW: SIDE ONE (2005)

1) Ampersand; 2) Writing On The Wall; 3) Matchless Man; 4) Madness; 5) Walk Around The World; 6) Beat Box Guitar; 7) Under The Radar; 8) Elephants; 9) Pause.

In 2000, Belew released a futuristic compilation seducingly called Coming Attractions — a set of «sneak previews» of tracks from records to come. Then, in an almost insulting manner, he de­layed the release of the real records for a smashing five years. Granted, he had a serious excuse: in the early 2000s, King Crimson was again on the move, and in between recording The Con­stru­Kction Of Light and The Power To Believe and touring in support of both, there was not much chance of resuscitating the solo career.

By 2005, however, Belewstuff was on the market again, in the form of three consecutive records, all three so short that, with a little insignificant loss, they could easily fit onto one CD — but that would leave us with no gimmick, a very boring result considering how long fans had been wai­ting for something extraordinary. So the gimmick splits Adrian's personality into three «sides» and gradually acquaints us with each over a year-long period.

Side One, for the most part, gives us the «futuristic pop» Belew, and for that reason is my favou­rite. Except for a few brief ambient interludes, the songs rock — in weird time signatures, as be­fits a true Crimsonian, but with honesty and passion. Particularly notable are the first three num­bers, where Adrian forms a power trio with bassist Les Claypool of Primus and drummer Danny Carey of Tool — they are not necessarily the best songs, but they are certainly covered with the juiciest flesh and the prettiest skin.

'Ampersand' puts a psychedelic Beatlesque vocal on top of music that is, very much indeed, equal parts King Crimson, Primus, and Tool, and, with a stron­ger dose of PR, could have been judged one of art rock's top creations of the decade. 'Writing On The Wall', although mostly vocalless, is only a tiny notch below in quality, and then the trio cools it down a bit with bongos, backward guitars, and opium den atmosphere of 'Matchless Man'. A very modernistic mix of beauty and weird­ness, catchiness and experimentation — if the world were a better place in the first quarter of 2005, this would be the perfect Top 40 material, while Mario's 'Let Me Love You' and 50 Cent's 'Candy Shop' would be justly relegated to the status of semi-legal biological weapons, inflicting permanent brain damage on alien invaders.

The «solo» material that follows predictably sounds a little tossed-off in comparison, and we've heard it before — 'Madness' is an apt title, but this type of paranoid, pressure-pumping, guitar thunderstorm (or, rather, a cross between a thunderstorm and a deranged beehive) was already ex­plored to the limit on Crimson's early 1980s instrumentals, and the rest of the tracks — with the exception of the intentionally trendy lo-fi sound of 'Beat Box Guitar' — are also firmly grounded in the values of Discipline and Beat. Not that it's a bad thing — these have always been exciting values — but it is a little strange to see that, after an eight-year pause, Belew is unable to offer us anything seriously fresh, unless he gets professional outside support.

On the other hand, one cannot invent a new fashion of the wheel with each new decade, and even a guy as permanently whacko as Adrian Belew must get old, eventually. Whatever be the case, if you do not expect a musical revolution, Side One shows that the man still has plenty of ideas, and that his sensitive soul has not entirely burned out yet, either. And it is nice to know he is still a fan of the whole wildlife shenanigan — not above giving us some more cooky elephant noises as a trifling postscriptum to the record. Thumbs up, by all means.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

AC/DC: Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap


AC/DC: DIRTY DEEDS DONE DIRT CHEAP (1976)

1) Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap; 2) Love At First Feel; 3) Big Balls; 4) Rocker; 5) Problem Child; 6) There's Gonna Be Some Rockin'; 7) Ain't No Fun (Waiting Round To Be A Millionnaire); 8) Ride On; 9) Squealer.

It is hard to write a PhD thesis around this album. I would like to call it «rushed», but chronolo­gically, it does not look rushed — the band's only new record in 1976, all the more puzzling since it gives out a very strong impression of having been stuffed from top to bottom with rejected out­takes from T.N.T. At the very least, it simply does not improve on anything.

Unquestionably it does contain two absolute classics. 'Rocker' has the distinction of being the fas­test number in the band's catalog, and winds their obsession with basic rockabilly up to such an absurdist level that, once they recorded it, they never ever returned to rockabilly — what sense would it make if you have already created the ultimate experience? Angus' solos, in places, re­mind me of Alvin Lee's hyperbolic madness on 'I'm Going Home', and the two songs do have a lot in common, except AC/DC, of course, sound much more like naughty schoolboys. In concert, they would rather unreasonably stretch the number out to six or ten minutes of tomfoolery, inclu­ding Angus riding through the crowd on Bon's shoulders while soloing, yet I prefer the terse, compact three-minute version. Rock'n'roll at its drunkest.

And, of course, we have the title track — all Bon's realm, even though the primary riff is also a sort of minimalistic treasure. Rather daring for its time (I guess only in Australia, the happy home­land of the chain-gang, could you so easily get away with singing 'I lead a life of crime' in such a cheery, gleeful tone), and even today quite a strong vehicle for titillating the brain, despite all those new levels of lyrical straightforwardness that we have gained access to since 1976. The band gives him a strong backing, too — the moment when the Young brothers lower their voices, grumbling 'dirty deeds and they're done dirt cheap, dirty deeds and they're done dirt cheap' may be the most hilarious seven seconds in the band's history.

Against the background of these crazy/evil masterpieces, the rest just comes out in a rather bleak perspective. 'Ride On' is slow, moody, bluesy, and unusually sentimental — must be a great favo­urite among ardent Bon lovers, as it gives a little glimpse of his vulnerability — but it is not a style that suits the band well. 'Problem Child' has a great coda, in fact, one of the band's first great codas (watch out for Angus' head-spinning trills at the very end), but the song itself is only so-so. Seven minutes of hollow jamming on 'Ain't No Fun' are openly boring — they try to make ano­ther anthemic piece in the vein of 'It's A Long Way To The Top', but the riffage is clearly deriva­tive of the former and not as hard-hitting, and oh my God, seven minutes is just too much. 'Big Balls', to me, indicates that Bon's stream of successful double entendre's is running dry (do you think that lines like 'it's my belief that my big balls should be held every night' constitute some sort of smutty genius? I have my doubts about that). Etc., etc., etc.

So I will take a little risk here and say that, for all it's worth, Dirty Deeds merits a thumbs down. The two classics should be salvaged and treasured, like Pooh's pots of honey from the flood, but the rest is quite subpar by the band's usual standards. Why that is, I don't know, but there is such a thing as occasional loss of focus, or, as philologists say, an occasional fuss of locus, which is ba­sically the same thing.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Alice Cooper: Welcome To My Nightmare


ALICE COOPER: WELCOME TO MY NIGHTMARE (1975)

1) Welcome To My Nightmare; 2) Devil's Food; 3) The Black Widow; 4) Some Folks; 5) Only Women Bleed; 6) Department Of Youth; 7) Cold Ethyl; 8) Years Ago; 9) Steven; 10) The Awakening; 11) Escape.

In 1975, it was not yet obvious that Alice Cooper as a band had already sung their swan song. The idea was to put the thing on hiatus, and let everyone do what they wish to do — a wise deci­sion, perhaps, seeing as how the compromise of Muscle never really satisfied anyone. Unfortu­nately, Alice Furnier just happened to love his newly-found freedom so much that he ditched the band altogether, sending them on their own merry way for good — but not forgetting to take the name for himself. From here onwards, Alice Cooper is a solo artist, not a band.

The change is visible, but not nearly as drastic as some people insist. For his next album, Alice procured the services of twin glam-guitar-gods, Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter (already well known for their work with Lou Reed and other things; they'd also contributed bits and pieces to the Alice Cooper Band's work as well), and also retea­med with Bob Ezrin, always happy to help out his former pal with another theatrical piece of pro­duction. Obviously, Welcome To My Nightmare, on which the Coop had complete creative free­dom, was to be his flashiest, most gro­tesque and image-heavy production yet, a rock-theater extravaganza of an unprecedented stature. Far from the goriest, by the way: the accompanying stage show did not even feature any of the trademark executions, being instead heavy on decora­tions, dancers, giant spiders, cyclops, smoke, and corny gimmicks a-plenty. (All of this can be easily discovered on the video of the live tour — not to be confused with the somewhat less impressive TV special version of the musical).

But what about the music? Alas, the Vegas nature of the ridiculous show has all but wiped out the songs themselves from the public conscience, which is a pity, because, despite all the heavy nods to show-business, and despite Alice's drink problems that were piling up ever higher, there is no way one could accuse the man of dropping quality control standards. Of course, Welcome To My Nightmare should not be approached with the wrong expectations. Back in 1975, people would cautiously ask from around the corner: 'Well... does he still ROCK?' And, upon understanding that he most certainly did not, disappointed, they would leave him to his drink problems. Some­how, someway, public amnesia reached a stage at which nobody remembered that, actually, the last time Alice Cooper was "rocking" was somewhere around 1971, after which the band had almost completely switched to "shocking".

In fact, if we initiate a direct comparison of the amount of heavy riffage, Welcome To My Night­mare "rocks" more than Billion Dollar Babies. 'Black Widow' is heavier than anything on that 1973 classic, and 'Devil's Food', 'Cold Ethyl', 'Department Of Youth', and 'Escape' are all upbeat, rhythmic, guitar-driven tunes that honestly pump out the required amount of adrenaline. It is not a rock'n'roll album per se, but neither were its predecessors. It is only the shock of seeing Alice Cooper prefer the company of Broadway dancers dressed in stupid spider costumes to the compa­ny of Baxter, Bruce, and Dunaway that is responsible for unwarranted claims of "Vincent Furnier betraying the ideals of garage rock and becoming a slick Vegas entertainer".

The spider costumes are stupid, for sure, but the music is not. Welcome To My Nightmare is a concept album about... nightmares. It introduces the character of 'Steven', a mentally un­stable boy (or, alternately, an Anthony Perkins-type character), possibly locked in a sanitarium (for the live show, Alice would incorporate 'The Ballad Of Dwight Frye' into the proceedings), constantly tormented by voices and visions. The first side of the album gives us the visions, the second in­troduces "Steven" in person; intersections provide different subjects, poorly or not at all connec­ted to the main "plotline", the way it usually is on concept albums.

Actually, we begin our journey with a series of B-movie clichés. The title track is all about Alice reveling in his impersonation of the lord of darkness — yes, rather a silly thing to do for a grown up person, but what if the person has simply forgotten to grow up? There is such a great, over­whelming delight in the man's intonations as he tries to spook you with lines like 'welcome to my breakdown, I hope I didn't scare you, that's just the way we are when we come down' that it is impossible not to participate. The song is so perfectly composed to, building up from quiet creepy acoustic guitar to all-out funky jamming, and the laser torch of the Vegasy brass section that cuts its way through guitar and keyboard concrete midway through the tune is the ideal icing. Creepy, but harmless, titillating, but sanitized, Horror-for-Housewives, it is delicious.

B-movie flavor hits with even more force on the 'Devil's Food/Black Widow' segment, where the obvious highlight is Vincent Price's lengthy monolog on the glory of Arachnida: 'this friendly little devil is the heptathelidae... unfortunately, harmless...', and where Alice almost matches his cartoon evil style by demanding that we all 'pledge allegiance to The Black Widow'. How can one resist this demand? I do not see how it is possible. Count me in, even though I hate spiders.

Still, if Nightmare were all just a lengthy sequence of gut-level pleasure flashes, we could suc­cessfully build up a case against it. But every now and then, Alice adds small vials of substance that have acted as superb preservatives over the years. 'Department Of Youth' continues the mean treatment of his teenage audience, initiated with 'Teenage Lament '74' and now reaching a new scale of grandiosity; watch out for the biggest, deadliest blow on the fade-out as a curious Alice asks his young friends where their power source comes from. 'Only Women Bleed' initiates the decidedly strange trend of sugary ballads as Cooper's main candidates for hit singles — and, al­though I personally do not at all find this newly-found sentimentality for the weaker sex con­vincing, it is still an interesting new page in the man's career.

Finally, there is the sprawling Steven Suite on the second side, which also threatens, every now and then, to free itself from the straightjacket clutches of "B-class" material and reach a higher le­vel of conscience. Unless you strongly believe that it is illegal to draw inspiration from pictures of deranged lunatics, it is a masterpiece of the genre — a little overdramatic in places, for sure, but not nearly enough to be officially relocated to the Five-and-Dime area. Plus, there are some beautiful piano passages somewhere out there.

So what is Welcome To My Nightmare? I cannot come up with an easy definition. Its serious­ness and irony, intelligence and stupidity, gritty rock and flashy schmaltz cling to each other so tightly that it is forever bound to be the subject of endless debates — and this is good, because debates ensure longevity, which it certainly deserves. I do not even understand which particular part of myself plays a decisive role in giving it a thumbs up, because neither the brain nor the heart have ever found the courage to confess, and yet here it is — a fairly certain thumbs up if there ever was one. A truly mistifying record, though perhaps not quite in the same way that Alice intended it to be.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Animals: Animal Tracks


ANIMAL TRACKS (1965)

1) We've Gotta Get Out Of This Place; 2) Take It Easy; 3) Bring It On Home To Me; 4) The Story Of Bo Diddley; 5) Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood; 6) I Can't Believe It; 7) Club-A-Gogo; 8) Roberta; 9) Bury My Body; 10) For Miss Caulker.

Again, this American release, this time following the same-titled UK album after a four month de­lay, has virtually nothing to do with it — only two tracks intersect ('Roberta' and 'For Miss Cau­lker'), whereas most of the other numbers on the British Tracks are really the same as the ones on the American Tour. On the other hand, the title when applied to the American record ac­tually makes more sense: these are indeed 'tracks', a.k.a. 'leftovers' — an even more than usually discoherent mess of tracks, some cut as early as 1964, some as late as summer 1965, by which time Price had already left the band, replaced by Dave Rowberry. (Rowberry is a fine organist in his own right, but prefers to stay in the shadows — listen to how subtly hidden he keeps himself in the mix on 'We've Gotta Get Out Of This Place', for the most part — so this means trans­forming the band into a guitar-driven powerhorse, under Eric's undisputed rule.)

The result is weird. It would be an exaggeration to say that, over two years, the Animals' sound had covered a distance of any number of light years, but, let's face it, songs like the straight up raver 'Club-A-Gogo' are very different from songs like 'Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood' — imagine a record that is half Please Please Me and half Help! and you'll know what I mean. This is not to say that any of the songs are bad; on the contrary, Animal Tracks is as consistent in pure quality as its predeces­sors and maybe more. But it's a decidedly odd mix.

Its two superheroes bookmark Side A: 'Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood', Price and Burdon's last triumph together as they borrow a tune from Nina Simone and show no intention of giving it back, and 'We've Gotta Get Out Of This Place', the classic Mann-Weill escapist anthem that showed the world the Animals could hold their ground even without Price — for a little while, at least. It is Bur­don who leads the band on both numbers, showing that his gruff wildman persona can be sha­ped into a painful, personal, sensitive mold just as easily as it can be employed for the needs of acute social statements. His 'I'm just a soul whose intentions are good... oh Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood' and 'we gotta get out of this place, girl, there's a better life for me and you' are delivered almost in the same tone — and yet they mean two entirely different things.

He also gives a decent, if very unfaithful, Sam Cooke impression ('Bring It On Home'), shows himself capable of handling old folk blues ('Bury My Body', which these jokers manage to turn into a sweaty R'n'B workout at the end anyway), and jokes at his own ineptitude in impersonating Bo Diddley ('The Story Of Bo Diddley'). The latter, by the way, although it is chronologically one of the earliest recordings here, already presages Burdon's future overstated love for pompous verbosity and 'propheteering' as he extends 'The Story' way beyond Bo Diddley and turns it into a lengthy narrative of rock'n'roll history up to the present day. Later experiments in this style would for the most part be awful, but this particular bit of narration — no doubt, due to its extremely tongue-in-cheek character — is still a laugh riot, especially when Eric starts imitating Bobby Vee ('take good care of my baby...').

The review would be incomplete if I did not mention the band's last single for Columbia, which does not form part of this LP but rightfully concludes the 2-CD package of The Complete Ani­mals. Roger Atkins' 'It's My Life' follows the winning formula of 'We've Gotta Get Out...' — same cool, swaggery melody, same bravado in the singing, same self-assertive atmosphere, plus a great, epoch-defining guitar riff to go along with it, making it perhaps the quintessential Animals song (no Price, though).

For some reason, I have always admired its B-side, a Burdon "original" called 'I'm Going To Change The World', even more, despite the obvious fact that Eric simply re­cycles the exact same riff and comes up with just one melodic part instead of three different ones — but what a part! As if in honest compensation, he winds his mechanisms up to the limit and over the limit, on the verge of pushing his larynx all the way down his trachea, even if that's what it takes him to change the world. If 'It's My Life' is, after all, a proper pop culture creation, then 'I'm Going To Change The World', stripping it of all embellishments, is the punkiest statement from these guys, right up there in terms of sheer power with 'My Generation' from the same year.

But, of course, as an album Animal Tracks has no significance whatsoever, and the predictable thumbs up only refer to the songs, not the meaningless non-principle of their collocation. It does give you all the odds and ends on one plate, though, and this is, in a way, convenient. And if, like me, you also hold the opinion that there was no finer moment for the Animals than the ever-so-brief 1964-65 period, well, there is really no sense in bickering as long as you have all that first rate material to consume.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Alberta Hunter: Complete Recorded Works Vol. 4


ALBERTA HUNTER: COMPLETE RECORDED WORKS VOL. 4 (1927-c. 1946)

1) Sugar; 2) Beale Street Blues; 3) I'm Going To See My Ma; 4) Gimme All The Love You Got; 5) My Particular Man; 6) Driftin' Tide; 7) You Can't Tell The Difference After Dark; 8) Second Hand Man; 9) Send Me A Man; 10) Chirpin' The Blues; 11) Downhearted Blues; 12) I'll See You Go; 13) Fine And Mellow; 14) Yelping Blues; 15) Some­day, Sweetheart; 16) The Love I Have For You; 17) My Castle's Rockin'; 18) Boogie-Woogie Swing; 19) I Won't Let You Down; 20) Take Your Big Hands Off; 21) He's Got A Punch Like Joe Louis.

Unlike so many other blues queens, Alberta Hunter did not have her career seriously cut down by the Depression, because even in her prime she would not have too many recordings, and by 1927, sessions had all but ended, with the lady embarking on a lengthy revue trip to Europe and, then, eventually and gradually, shifting to other lines of duty (such as troop entertaining) and, after the war, going to nursing school and engaging in healthcare.

Paradoxically, it is exactly this career fluctuation that makes Vol. 4 into the most intri­guing and diverse unit in the series. It has no big hits or classics and represents a patchwork of scattered ses­sions, with much of the material even remaining unreleased for half a century and some of it with uncertain recording dates. But, with improving recording technologies, her singing has never be­en clearer and cleaner, and her vaudeville repertoire never as variegated.

The real gem here are the first three songs, from a 1927 session where Alberta is backed by Fats Waller on organ — a pretty exotic arrangement for the time, and she rises to the task admirably, particularly on 'Sugar', where she faithfully tries to sound like sugar herself, and her sucrosey notes, meshing with Waller's virtuoso playing and creaky old production, yield a truly phantas­magoric effect. (Especially knockout-like if you hear it after playing the previous three volumes one after the other with no breaks.)

The second gem is a long-lost New York session from 1935, on which she is backed by piano and very prominent acoustic guitar, resulting in a Lonnie Johnson kind of sound; the highlight is 'Driftin' Tide', more of a crooner than anything blues-like in form, but with Hunter's blues sensi­tivity replacing the croon. Different, but likable.

Later sessions, from 1939 and the early 1940s, are even more of a hodge-podge: traditional blues, whitebread ballads, early boogie-woogie, whatever works. Complete is not quite the right word for it, seeing as how no material from her European sessions is present, but it is debatable whe­ther the latter holds any importance (she used to record straightforward pop material with Jack Jackson's orchestra). As for these late numbers, none of them were hits, but who cares? From 1921 to 1946, there's really only two types of Alberta Hunter records: the good ones are those that you can hear and the bad ones are those that you cannot, and — technological progress be blessed — on this volume, there are no bad ones.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Arcade Fire: Neon Bible


ARCADE FIRE: NEON BIBLE (2007)

1) Black Mirror; 2) Keep The Car Running; 3) Neon Bible; 4) Intervention; 5) Black Wave/Bad Vibrations; 6) Ocean Of Noise; 7) The Well And The Lighthouse; 8) [Antichrist Television Blues]; 9) Windowsill; 10) No Cars Go; 11) My Body Is A Cage.

To improve on Funeral is probably impossible. Other bands take years, sometimes decades, to reach that magnitude — or, perhaps, "used to" take years, because, in the age of constant acce­le­ra­­tion and violent competition that puts the best theoreticists of social-Darwinism to shame, even minimalist solo artists can no longer allow themselves a growth period, let alone an entity with a bulk as huge as Arcade Fire's. We can only guess, but it is a fairly strong guess: had Funeral not gar­nered all the rightful accolades, the ensemble would most likely have disbanded by now.

Instead, they started their career with their masterpiece. As much as I want to hail Neon Bible as another one, I am unable to extract the same emotional response. It is a different record, but it is inconsistent, and its message occasionally interferes with its musical content. This is strongly linked to the impression that it is too heavily dominated by Win Butler and his personal vision rather than the band's collective one: not only is Régine all but eliminated from the proceedings (nothing like 'Haiti' to lighten things up or 'In The Backseat' for a helpful shot of gorgeousness), but there are also no anthemic tracks like 'Wake Up' to remind you that there is a strong brother­hood feeling behind the music. If this goes on the same way, Arcade Fire as we know it may not have too many years ahead of it.

Nevertheless, I have no major problems with Win Butler and his personal vision, because I fully empathize. Having dealt with his most personal demons on Funeral, he now makes the music more extrovert, turning from family ("neighborhood") problems to more global matters. Neon Bible was, for the most part, recorded in a local church that the band bought, restored, and con­verted into a studio, and what kind of an album can you record in a church, of all places? That's right: a record about the end of the world.

If you just want to assess Neon Bible from its purely musical side, you will likely be disap­poin­ted: the music per se is not tremendously interesting, and it certainly adds nothing new to the style already shown on Funeral. If your favourite band is The Arctic Monkeys, riding an amphe­tamine-powered bulldozer to assert life and its values, you will probably hate Neon Bible as boring, depressed shit produced by prematurely geriatric imbeciles. ("How many more years do we have to listen to stupid pretentious white guys singing about the apocalypse?" some people ask on the Web — obviously, the answer is "as many as it takes to reach the apocalypse", which, logically, means fewer and fewer all the time). If, however, you think that the rate at which the planet is sinking into a boiling cocktail of stupidity and cruelty keeps accelerating, Win Butler and his friends will be happy to voice your concerns for you.

What I really like, though, is that they will do it in their own, powerful and relevant, way, and not be nearly as blunt about it as some of their idols (I am thinking particularly of a well-known band from Ireland). This is a Church album, see, and the Church relies heavily on symbolism, so two of the most important symbols are established at the beginning: 'Black Mirror' and 'Neon Bible'. The former gives Butler and Co. a general vision of the state of the world; the latter represents the (a)moral law according to which this world is living. The album is thus ruled by two slogans: 'Mirror, mirror on the wall — show me where their bombs will fall' and 'Not much chance for survival, if the Neon Bible is right'. The former is creepy, the latter is correct.

Musically, the first three songs also form a perfect beginning: they make everything possible to make 'Black Mirror' as bleak and apocalyptic as the lyrics suggest, and the fact that it is so catchy (nursery-rhyme-level catchy, in fact) only makes it all the more scary. 'Keep The Car Running' continues things in a manner that mixes uplifting and paranoid, after which the title track quiets the atmosphere with its melancholy musings upon the fate of mankind (which reminds me that it is the album's only strip­ped-down number in a sea of raging rock power).

It is only then that Neon Bible starts to somewhat lose me, featuring one mid-fast-tempo roots-rocker after another, similarly arranged and with similar feeling. This is no way to compete for a second masterpiece in a row. I like the grand pipe organ riff of 'Intervention', but it seems to be the only thing that the song is hanging upon, and stuff like 'Ocean Of Noise' and 'The Well And The Lighthouse' do not have even that (although Butler still manages to grab my attention with the anthemic 'lions and the lambs ain't sleepin' yet!' chorus on the latter).

Worst offender is 'Anti­christ Television Blues', a clearly obvious Springsteen imitation that is just not Arcade Fire. There is nothing wrong about wanting to sound grand and pompous, and there is nothing wrong with liking or even admiring Springsteen, but the last thing the world needs is for other people, especially talented people, to write songs like Springsteen. It is not ugly or awful; there is just no need for its existence. I liked them more when they were channelling the spirit of Bowie than when they switched to Bruce (much as I liked watching their joint performance with Bowie more than their joint performance with Bruce).

After that low point, however, the record quickly recuperates with another blistering trio. 'Win­dowsill', a tight protest song that contains the most straightforward lyrics on the record — 'I don't wanna fight in a holy war, I don't want the salesman knocking at my door, I don't wanna live in America no more'; many have emphasized the song's "anti-war" and "anti-Bushist" stance, but it goes far beyond that — 'MTV, what have you done to me? Save my soul, set me free — set me free, what have you done to me? I can't breathe, I can't see... World War III, when are you co­ming for me?' Blunt, but it hits harder than most punk rock, and it perfectly captures the thoughts and feelings of everyone else who, like Butler, 'don't wanna see it at my windowsill'. Too bad that there is nothing whatsoever that we can do about it.

'No Cars Go' is actually a re-recording of one of their earliest songs, and it shows: its colourful, religious escapism fits into the general subject of the album, but is also way too cheerful and op­timistic to sit comfortably between two of its most depressed numbers: 'Windowsill' and 'My Bo­dy Is A Cage', the latter a grim, organ-driven, bleeding-hearted confession revolving around the infinite mantra: 'My body is a cage that keeps me from dancing with the one I love — but my mind holds the key'. It is a surprisingly theistic conclusion to the album: 'the one I love' is clearly someone or something more power-endowed than Butler's spouse, and his passionate howls of 'set my spirit free, set my body free' as the song thunders into its dark conclusion almost imply thoughts of intentional ending of one's physical and spiritual suffering, if you know what I mean. The last time I witnessed the notions of 'love' and 'death' so closely intertwined, I guess, was while lis­tening to the final aria of Quadrophenia — an album which I am pretty sure must also have been a strong influence on the band as a whole and Neon Bible in particular.

If Butler's conscious and primary goal was to promote Arcade Fire to the status of 'Biggest Band of Our Time', he has succeeded: critical reaction was sometimes even more positive than first time around, and just look at the sales — No. 2 on the Billboard? But "isn't it ironic", as Alanis Morissette would say, that the same year has seen Britney Spears' Blackout rise to the same posi­tion, not to mention both records receiving the exact same three-and-a-half-star rating from Rol­ling Stone? If anything, this comparison should only drive Butler to even greater heights of para­noia: does that not signify that most people simply pay no attention to the nature of the art they happen to be consuming, as long as they have something to consume? 'I know a time is coming, all words will lose their meaning' — I guess that time is here already, eh?

Still I hope, in a fit of naïve optimism, that many more people than just the critics will appreciate the record not because it is a cool thing to do but because they can identify with its philosophy, or, in fact, its religion. Which is enough for me to overlook the monotonousness of its middle lump and concentrate on the beauty and power of its beginning and its end, and to give it a collective thumbs up on the part of the overwhelmed intellect and the subdued soul. I can only hope that Butler keeps his ego in control for at least a few more albums; he would never get that far without the collective input of his musicians, and he should realize that very clearly.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Alanis Morissette: Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie


ALANIS MORISSETTE: SUPPOSED FORMER INFATUATION JUNKIE (1998)

1) Front Row; 2) Baba; 3) Thank U; 4) Are You Still Mad; 5) Sympathetic Character; 6) That I Would Be Good; 7) The Couch; 8) Can't Not; 9) UR; 10) I Was Hoping; 11) One; 12) Would Not Come; 13) Unsent; 14) So Pure; 15) Joining You; 16) Heart Of The House; 17) Your Congratulations.

So, before we proceed to discussion, here are the Google statistics as of December 12, 2009: [1] the correct way — Morissette: 1,560,000 results; [2] Morisette: 367,000; [3] Morrisette: 263,000; [4] Morrissette: 109,000; [5] Morissete: 52,000; [6] Morrisete: 29,000; [7] Morris­sete: 11,200; [8] Morisete: 19,600. (Of course, many of these are just bot copy results, but it is the relative statistics that matters, not the absolute numbers).

The conclusion is that about a third of people writing about A. M. do not even know how to spell her name properly. Of course, it is a rather hard name to spell (trickier even than Mississippi, where one just has to remember the «two of each» rule), but still, you'd expect a bit more attention paid to such a household item. Or, perhaps, it is just the name — misspelt — that is a household item, and not the music? How many people have written about A. M. without actually listening to her (as opposed to without hearing her, which is more or less impossible)?

I cannot say that Morissette's follow-up to her major commercial success is a "great" album. I cannot say that I love it, or that I will ever have a big desire to return and explore it some more. But it was Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, not Jagged Little Pill, that finally convinced me that there is artistic merit to this girl's work. For all its flaws, Pill was not a hollow forgery — but this is best evident only after listening to the next in line. It is no coincidence that Alanis ne­ver managed to surpass the "triumph" of Pill: not only are her subsequent records sounding more and more "out of date", but they are actually sounding less and less market-oriented.

Junkie is a tremendously long, horrendously brooding, and emphatically personal record that, first and foremost, is dedicated to growing up. Once you spot the ugly horse grin on the cover, the first thought is that you will probably be subjected to even more screeching and caterwauling than last time, but the intention is rather... 'Ironic': in fact, Alanis is much more restrained and much more oriented towards a conventional understanding of 'singing' here (from time to time, with a little Indian flavor she somehow picked up over the last three years — uh, possibly as a result of her visit to India?).

More importantly, she overcomes her major weakness — inane lyrics. It is still easy to sneer at all the different, yet equally obvious ways in which she blows up her rather simple emotions; it is more difficult to admit that she has at least advanced to the stage at which she is implicit rather than explicit about it. The encription is not very difficult, but it needs to be broken; certainly a chorus like 'Thank you India, thank you terror, thank you disillusionment, thank you frailty, thank you consequence...' is more deserving of notice than 'I've got one hand in my pocket and the other one is giving a high five'. Or so it would seem.

The music is a more difficult matter. Brushing away occasionally silly critical raves ('Wow, she is writing pop songs without choruses, whoever heard of that?'), we are left with a gloomy mix of "alternative rock" with "adult contemporary", thick on atmosphere and personality, but generally thin on hooks. There are even Goth overtones on some of the numbers: Alanis is certainly intent on letting us know either that success has not gone to her head and that she has no desire to im­per­sonate a pop-rock diva, or, perhaps, more cynically, that the very success she has earned was entirely due to her neuroses, so next time around, she is happy to heap even more of those on the listener. You want trouble? You got it.

Just like before, the main problems are with the basics of the arrangements. Same boring funky beats, same lack of detail, same moribund guitar backing — a few of the riffs are good, but for the most part, they are just grumbling away in the background. Add to this the seventy-plus mi­nute length, and it becomes a real chore to sit through all of this, especially since midway through you clearly begin to understand that no, you are not getting much of anything else. For a long time, this effect prevented me from seeing 'Joining You' as the catchiest song on the album, or 'Heart Of The House' as the song with the best strings arrangement. Alas, she is still letting Glen Ballard have control of the situation, and these are the results: she has unquestionably grown up, but he has, most definitely, nowhere left to grow.

All the same, I think that 'Baba', even with all the pretentiousness and with all the grungeness, is a powerful tune; that 'That I Would Be Good' is the best Diane Warren song that Diane Warren, fortunately, never wrote (or else I would have to reluctantly pray that her approved billion years on the fry­ing pan be reduced by a few months); that the lyrical concept of 'Unsent' is pretty clever; and that I fully understand why Robert Christgau gave this record an A- as opposed to Jagged Lit­tle Pill's B+, but have no idea why he gave Aimee Mann's Lost In Space — an album that is thematically not that far removed from Junkie, but musically surpasses it in every way known to mankind — a C+.

My own verdict would be that the whole thing is monotonous but mildly intelligent; musically poor but perfectly honest; conventional but desperately trying to overcome conventionality, and for all these counterpoints, first time in this section, I would deal it out a cautious emotional-ratio­nal thumbs up. But prepare to be bored stiff.