Search This Blog

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Art Brut: It's A Bit Complicated


1) Pump Up The Volume; 2) Direct Hit; 3) St. Pauli; 4) People In Love; 5) Late Sunday Evening; 6) I Will Survive; 7) Post Soothing Out; 8) Blame It On The Trains; 9) Sound Of Summer; 10) Nag Nag Nag Nag; 11) Jealous Guy.

Second time around, the exact same groove will obviously not sound as fresh. With the element of surprise and shock gone, and nothing else taking its place, It's A Bit Complicated is a bit com­plicated to adore the same way it was possible to adore Bang Bang. As clever as Argos and company show themselves to be, too much cleverness can be dangerous; and since these guys' main strength is in their lyrics rather than in their loins, I mean, riffs — once the joke starts get­ting old, they are all over and done with.

And the joke does start getting a little old. At the very least, it starts getting less obvious and in your face, meaning that I, for instance, have to strain myself somewhat to get it, and what good is an Art Brut album where it is necessary to strain oneself to get it? 'Formed a band, we formed a band!' and 'My little brother just discovered rock'n'roll!' were ready-made slogans with near-uni­versal appeal, immediately forcing you to acknowledge the band's presence. On It's A Bit Com­plicated, in contrast, nothing is ready-made, you have to cook it yourself. Thirty three minutes, high temperature, constant survey and flipping required, results not guaranteed.

Some riffs are good — the anthemic U2-ish line that drives 'Nag Nag Nag Nag', the cute love theme of 'People In Love', the brutal stomp of 'St. Pauli' — but the overall quality is certainly not enough to make this any more stupendous musically than Bang Bang. As for the lyrics, they seem way too frequently to drift into more intimate territory, focused more on the grotesque sides of personal relationships than on the absurdities of society ('Jealous Guy', 'Late Sunday Evening'), etc. — and it does not help much that they continue strictly adhering to the principle of repeating each chorus (and, sometimes, each verse) as many times as it takes to get the Gumby effect. But it is not nearly as funny when the repeated chorus sounds something like 'There's nothing that's been done that can't be undone / You were sick, now you're better, there's work to be done' or 'People in love lie around and get fat / I didn't want us to end up like that' (admittedly, the latter is funny, but lots of things in life are funny).

Overall, this is not a good sign: the lyrics are more boring, the melodies are not improving, and the groove has been carved in stone. I do not want to officially tag this as a good or bad album, because, although on the surface it is not very pleasant, the Art Brut vibe still sort of transcends the line between good and evil — like one of their role models, the Ramones, whose only album worth of sacred admiration is the first one, but who never really ever made a truly bad record be­cause you could not put down or corrupt the vibe. But perhaps it's a bit too complicated, after all.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Alice In Chains: Facelift


1) We Die Young; 2) Man In The Box; 3) Sea Of Sorrow; 4) Bleed The Freak; 5) I Can't Remember; 6) Love, Hate, Love; 7) It Ain't Like That; 8) Sunshine; 9) Put You Down; 10) Confusion; 11) I Know Somethin' ('Bout You); 12) Real Thing.

On beginner level, one could define grunge as «pop melodies, punk attitude, Black Sabbath tone» and mostly hit it right. But Alice In Chains, despite embracing this aesthetics wholesale, actually had roots in Eighties' metal and funk — roots that went back at least four or five years — and this gave them a mature, professional edge over most competition. Vocalist Layne Staley and guitarist Jerry Cantrell were just as pissed-off and fucked-up as Kurt Cobain, just as talented, but they also knew how to throw around their skills so as to consistently come out with some of the scariest music to ever come out of the pop music scene.

Facelift, the band's stunning debut, is as much death metal as it is grunge — in fact, Cantrell has always stated that the band was primarily metal — but certainly not «fantasy-death» metal, not a corny dramatization of some semi-deranged artist's brain damage, rather a faithful depiction of whatever was going around, from Staley's personal drug experiences to observations on true life atrocities ('We Die Young', for instance, is said to reflect Cantrell's impressions of ten-year old drug pushers on the streets of Seattle).

So what happened, exactly? Nothing much. One fine day, hair metal woke up with a strange de­sire to take an honest peek behind its made-to-order screen of hedonism and irony — to look at the other side of all those carnal and spiritual pleasures it had been celebrating for so long now, it even forgot when it all started. That auspicious day, hair metal became Alice In Chains.

Facelift gives no respite: one heavy rocker after another, sometimes moving on slow and painful, like junkies crawling on the floor during their last moments of consciousness, sometimes relent­lessly, steadily mid-tempo, like the hand of Death reaching over the junkies — not too slow, not too fast, but just right — and inavoidably. Sometimes Cantrell softens the proceedings with ligh­ter, acoustic-based passages, but this never changes the general depressing atmosphere. As for Staley, he only knows two moods: The Growl, which will send little kids straight under their beds, and The Moan, which will send the neighbors dialing the drug squad number. Do we want more? What for? They would not be honest, and honesty is Facelift's banner.

With several years of previous collective experience, a fresh, original vibe, and songwriting, sin­ging, and playing talent a-plenty, it would be surprising if Facelift had plenty of bad songs to go along with it, and it does not. The three major stunners, all of which were hit singles, are tacked at the beginning — 'We Die Young', embodying all the basics of worldly evil in a compact 2:30 pa­ckage; 'Man In The Box', the song that Cantrell acknowledges as the first «true Alice In Chains» song the band wrote, and which also has the most achingly overwhelming invocation of the Lord's name I have ever heard in pop; and 'Sea Of Sorrow', whose point is essentially to proclaim that there is no stronger thing in the world than total suicidal desperation. 'I live tomorrow / You I will not follow / As you wallow / In a sea of sorrow' — strange that the song has never played a part in high school shoot-outs. Probably too smart for that.

If you have the strength to sit out everything, you will later on be treated to Cantrell's acoustic capacities ('I Can't Remember'), a couple tracks that sit closer to their hair metal beginnings ('Sun­shine'), and some funky numbers that are almost danceable ('Put You Down', 'I Know Some­thin'), if you like dancing with ghosts, that is. The «sleeper» of the album is its longest number, the dramatic aria of 'Love, Hate, Love', a death metal ballad with Staley giving it his all (and he is a pretty powerful singer); at first, it may be somewhat tiresome to watch it draw its weighty, poi­sonous bulk over your living room (I should certainly know — I trashed it in my original review. Silly silly), but eventually the fumes will sink in, and, for safety reasons, I would certainly re­commend them over their real-world equivalent (a 24-hour stay in an opium den or something to the same power).

Heavy with a flair, honest with an intelligence, Facelift is one of Seattle's finest hours, and will always remain a thumbs up record as long as there are enough thumbs to go with it. It is nothing less than amazing that they actually managed to top it with their next offering.

Friday, January 29, 2010

A-ha: Hunting High And Low


1) Take On Me; 2) Train Of Thought; 3) Hunting High And Low; 4) The Blue Sky; 5) Living A Boy's Adventure; 6) The Sun Always Shines On T.V.; 7) And You Tell Me; 8) Love Is Reason; 9) I Dream Myself Alive; 10) Here I Stand And Face The Rain.

For some reason, it is quite psychologically daunting to look back on the Golden Age of Synth-Pop and make a conscious attempt to stratify the chaff and the wheat. Somehow the gap between the likes of, say, Depeche Mode, with their clear interest in expanding the borders of the genre and using it to explore man's dark side, and, for instance, Modern Talking (a.k.a. «The Black Pla­gue of Eastern Europe» in the 1980s) always seems narrower and more bridgeable than a super­ficially similar gap between the likes of the Beatles and the Dave Clark 5, or Thin Lizzy and Fo­rei­g­ner, or Mötley Crüe and Guns'n'Roses.

Perhaps it has something to do with the instrumental minimalism displayed by all parties con­cerned (just how many classic synth pop melodies sound as if it took one cheap key­board and one finger to play them?), or by the common shared ugliness of the genre's obligatory requirements, such as electronic percussion etc. Most likely, people raised and reared on the genre will not ag­ree, but their generation (my generation, to be sure) is a cursed one in any case, and their opinions on the matter value about as much as an oil magnate's opinions on alternate sources of energy.

A-Ha (more correctly, a-ha with no capitals, but this looks horrid in printed text, so I will allow myself the sacrilege of capitalization) — Norway's pride and joy, and one of the major factors in the prolongation of the average lifespan of Norwegian population — probably symbolize the art of unpretentious synth-pop better than any other 1980s band. Without infringing on the gloomy Freudian territory of Depeche Mode, or on the decadent cosmic synth-rock turf of Duran Duran, they still manage to sound similar to both — and present a viable alternative for those who want their dance beats simple and stupid, and their mood elegant and romantic with no oddities. Is this awful? Is this beautiful? I don't know.

The music is definitely not very exciting. The trio of A-Ha does include a guitarist, Paul Waak­taar, but Hunting High And Low, the band's debut, does not ever let us hear him in full flight, since he seems to mostly be busy providing acoustic backdrops that are «felt rather than heard». He is, however, the principal songwriter for the band, which makes him the principal accused. Keyboardist Mags Furuholmen is responsible for the overall sound — one finger on the keyboard, remember — and then there is the band's biggest surface attraction, singer Morten Harket, the one destined to reap the biggest female harvest.

In all honesty, Harket is a great singer. Listen to 'Train Of Thought' and you might think, like me: 'Gee, I had no idea David Bowie could sell out to that extent!' But then listen to 'Take On Me' and you will think: 'Say, since when did James Taylor develop that kind of falsetto?' And it is not like Morten is consciously imitating anyone: he simply has an excellent range and is in perfect com­mand of his cords, and all the different moods go off quite smoothly. In conjunction with strong melodic hooks (vocal hooks) of Take On Me', 'The Blue Sky', 'Living A Boy's Adventure' and a few other songs, this definitely gives A-Ha an edge, and explains their huge commercial success better than any other reason. I freely and openly admit that some of these songs are prime exam­ples of the most gorgeous singing in synth-pop history.

Alas, if only the music were up to par. There is not a single track on the record that would whis­per "hey, what an interesting, original musical decision" in my ear. Without Harket's contributi­ons, all of this would go down the drain immediately: no complex riffs, no non-trivial arrange­ment touches, just a bunch of generic keyboard loops, drum machines, and «heavenly» keyboard effects to prove that Harket, like a true knight of the synth-pop order, is singing down to his wor­shippers from the faraway Electronic Temple on Casio Mountain. Predictable.

So, apparently, Hunting High And Low will not be appreciated in years to come as much as it has been appreciated upon immediate release, making the band a permanent chart presence and MTV's prime time darlings. But it still works well as an inspiring testament to the abilities of the human voice, and, for that reason, I give it neither a definitive thumbs up nor a decisive thumbs down — this would depend on whether I am in the mood for some great singing, or for some very, very crappy synthesizer loops.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

AC/DC: Back In Black


1) Hells Bells; 2) Shoot To Thrill; 3) What Do You Do For Money Honey; 4) Given The Dog A Bone; 5) Let Me Put My Love Into You; 6) Back In Black; 7) You Shook Me All Night Long; 8) Have A Drink On Me; 9) Shake A Leg; 10) Rock'n'Roll Ain't Noise Pollution.

Bon Scott died in the proper manner for a noble rock'n'roller — choking on his own vomit — and his replacement was certainly different. I do not think Brian Johnson has, or ever had, even a mi­nor part of Scott's charisma. His lyrics show him to be incapable of matching Scott's wit and hu­mour, his stage behaviour is rougher and far less subtle, and, overall, he has rarely contributed to­wards making the band more interesting and less predictable. He has always blended in with the band very well, but the blending was somewhat bland, and it may have been — partly — his fault that the groove he synthesized with the Young brothers in 1980 has changed less in the last thirty years than Bon Scott's groove had in five.

Yes — but what a groove! For his first three albums at least, he gave AC/DC a vocal sound that was previously unimaginable — neither for AC/DC, nor for his own previous band, Geordie, nor for anyone else. Singing at the top of his range ninety percent of the time — and going over the top the remaining ten percent — giving even mediocre tunes an intensity the band could never have dreamt of in the Scott days — squeezing out the last remaining bits of «intelligence» in ex­change for an all-out assault on the senses — this is AC/DC reaching the climax in its message.

Plus, there was a certain element of bravery in their putting out an album as arrogant as Back In Black. I am pretty sure that even some of the toughest fans of the band might have felt a little un­easy upon hearing that the man who, only a few months ago, so defiantly sang 'I'm on a highway to hell!' before arena crowds, was taken away so promptly. To celebrate his death with a grinning, gleeful acknowledgement of the fact that Hell is, indeed, where Scott belongs ('Hells Bells'), and then to imply that the same establishment has speedily issued out a replacement ('Back In Black') — even non-religious people might be shook up with this blatantly «amoral» line of conduct, let alone those who truly believe that Hell is not to be toyed with.

On the other hand, I doubt that even the religious right would be thoroughly immune to the temp­tations of 'Hells Bells', possibly the greatest song ever in the AC/DC canon. For me, 'Bad Boy Boogie' illustrated the perfection of their early rock'n'roll vibe; 'Hells Bells' is the older, matura­ted perfection of their heavy metal vibe. Its depiction of hellish images is cartoonish, both lyrics-wise ('if you're into Evil, you're a friend of mine!') and musically — you do not truly intimidate people with simple rock riffs — but, then again, the Devil has a long history of being portrayed in a delightfully cartoonish manner, and 'Hells Bells' is far from the first, and, hopefully, from the last, in the series of these portrayals.

The song is great because it does not have one wasted second — from the opening bells (might those, in a way, be a nod to John Lennon's bells at the opening of 'Mother'?) to the slow, meticu­lously planned and executed build-up, to Johnson's powerful entry — within three seconds he is able to show that the band did just the right thing — to his climbing higher and higher and higher until the chorus explosion, to the deceitful pause before the storm as Angus takes over the mad­ness, to the maniacal coda as Brian opens up more and more internal channels for the evil prese­nce, to the utterly brilliant «guitar thunderstroke» at 4:45. In fact, cartoonish it may be, but I have caught myself, a couple of times, nervously fidgeting when Johnson goes into the 'they're drag­ging you down, they're bringing you 'round' part. Come to think of it, can anyone guarantee that this is not what was happening to poor Bon at that exact moment?

The Satanic vibe is then once again recaptured properly, albeit in a slightly more lightweight and playful fashion, on the title track that cleverly opens Side B (cleverly, because, for AC/DC al­bums, I always get the feeling that critics usually just listen to the first tracks on each side — the only reason, in my opinion, why the vastly inferior For Those About To Rock is commonly ra­ted high and above the exuberantly superior Flick Of The Switch). Combining the uniquely con­structed «step-jumping» riff with Johnson's rapid-fire, over-the-top delivery could hardly fail, and it never did, giving the band another signature song and giving Brian his own personal anthem with which he proved, once and for all, that he did belong in the band.

But if someone had the idea that Brian Johnson's arrival symbolized the band's slipping further into mock-Satanism, that someone probably never went beyond the album sleeve and a glimpse of 'Hells Bells'. In reality, Brian Johnson is just a bawdy, fun-lovin' guy from the Scottish high­lands, who has always valued the earthly pleasures of a smoke, a drink, and a shag way above the dubious honours of purchasing a piece of property in Lucifer's domain. Accordingly, the rest of the tracks are all about having a smoke, a drink, and a shag. Actually, plenty of shags — the en­tire Side A after 'Hells Bells' is dedicated to that perennial subject.

It helps that the Young brothers were still on a roll. The riffs for 'Shoot To Thrill' and 'What Do You Do For Money, Honey' are top notch and very well aligned with Johnson's rampant sexism, the madman guitar barrage on the ungrammatically titled 'Given The Dog A Bone' efficiently drown out Brian's inane lyrics about a girl who lives for blowjobs (supposedly old Scotland is just swarming with these), and even 'Let Me Put My Love Into You', the closest AC/DC ever got to writing a stupid power ballad and thus committing a serious blunder, has a chord sequence that stays within the listener for days.

Side B, after the initial two-way punch of 'Back In Black' and the eternal football crowd favourite of 'You Shook Me All Night Long' (a song covered live by Celine Dion, no less — a must-see for any dedicated fan of I Spit On Your Grave!), gives way to more moderate thrills, and sort of fiz­zles out with the not particularly successful ode to popular music ('Rock'n'Roll Ain't Noise Pollu­tion' — great line, but why the boring mid-tempo?), but then AC/DC were rarely consistent from start to finish, and there is no use scorning Back In Black for something that is innately present in each of the band's LPs.

The big difference is that Back In Black is bigger, denser, darker, and dumber than these guys ever were before. Is it their best? I do not know, but it can very well be argued that it is, indeed, the one particular album that God, or his less respectable colleague in the business, has commis­sionned from them. And this has very little, if anything, to do with the fact that Robert "Mutt" Lange has produced it in such a subtle commercial manner that even grandmas on wheelchairs were rushing to the stores to order an extra copy, feeling young and strong again as the virile, Dionysian sounds of 'You Shook Me All Night Long' were flooding their senses. It is just that, at this moment, they happened to be writing great riffs, using great tones, handling a great screamer, and pushing the delightful absurdity of rock music to its utmost limits. This is headbanging incar­nate, and no headbanger's heart can allow it to get away without a major thumbs up.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Alice Cooper: Flush The Fashion


1) Talk Talk; 2) Clones (We're All); 3) Pain; 4) Leather Boots; 5) Aspirin Damage; 6) Nuclear Infected; 7) Grim Facts; 8) Model Citizen; 9) Dance Yourself To Death; 10) Headlines.

This time, the cover proudly flashes the inscription «ALICE COOPER '80», which makes it a little dubious that Alice is truly going to «flush the fashion». On the contrary, he embraces the fashion — not to the point of sacrificing his old self, but to the point of sacrificing his old sound. This is the sharpest, least expected shift in his solo history so far.

At each step in Alice's career, there was a small disgruntled group of old fans who would jump ship; Flush The Fashion must have caused a particularly large disturbance. Openly and shame­lessly, the album borrows the musical trappings of the likes of The Cars: old guitar-driven pop rock structures dressed in trendy modern electronic clothes — industrial synthesizers, ping pong percussion, even processed vocals (sometimes). Why should Alice Cooper, father of all things shock, innovator extraordinaire, now reinvent himself as a New Waver, imitating those who grew up on his own records, among other things?

It is sometimes easy to forget here that, musically speaking, Alice Cooper — neither the band nor the solo artist — never «invented» anything; their chief know-how was their image, not the music, which, despite generally being high quality, always looked up to somebody else. If the guy could look up to the Stones, or the Who, or Bowie, or Elton John, why can't he look up to The Cars?

Particularly since Flush The Fashion, looking at it from a particular point of view, is better than most Cars albums (and I like The Cars quite a bit). Surprisingly, there are no more ballads — breaking up with the well-estab­lished tradition, Alice chose the weird sci-fi rock of 'Clones' to forward his new image — and the ten pop-rock songs put such a heavy emphasis on irony and humor that it is all but impossible to get seriously offended or bored by the material, even if you find it uneven.

Among the good news is Alice's simultaneous decision to refresh and renew his rock'n'roll roots. The record opens with a gritty electronic reworking of The Music Machine's garage classic 'Talk Talk' (this was way before Nuggets, in the form of a bulky boxset, became an obligatory requirement for the refined music fan), includes a brief, but fun rockabilly snippet ('Leather Boots') and, despite all the keyboard-heavy production style, includes a fair share of seriously ass-kicking riffs ('Nuclear Infected', 'Grim Facts', etc.). 'Talk Talk' is, in fact, fairly symbolic of the album as a whole: Cooper drags out a retro obscurity, implying that rock'n'roll ain't and never was noise pol­lution, gives it a contemporary arrangement, implying that it makes no sense not to change, and comes out with a winner, implying that best results are always gotten when the old and the new go hand in hand, rather than taking pot shots at each other.

As for the humor, it is well on the level — no slapstick in sight, satire a-plenty: 'Clones (We're All)' is a nasty swipe at mass mentality; 'Aspirin Damage' exposes the addiction problem with the aid of an unforgettable — especially if you are a third-grader — chorus ('Sometimes I find myself shaking from the medication taken!'); 'Pain' is Alice in his native element, an anthem sung from Pain's point of view ('It's a compliment to me to feel you screaming through the night', he conclu­des in classic «Steven»-like fashion); and 'Model Citizen' continues the artist's crusade against the self-important bourgeois. For those who like their humor/grit ratio at around 1 : 4, there is 'Grim Facts', where Alice «slices through the vices» both with his angriest vocal performance on the re­cord and Davey Johnstone's fittingly «grim» guitat melody — and you can certainly see the seeds of born-again Christianity sown with the Coop's creepy tales of teenage moral decay.

It may be a little sad to realize that Furnier has, once again, completely disappeared behind the Alice Cooper mask; his true (or, at least, «true-looking») personality, having broken through thick crust on Goes To Hell and culminated with From The Inside, has now gone into hiding again — no doubt, due to the temporary alcohol-free relief after the sanitarium experience. But then, expecting to have regular glimpses of Alice Cooper's true face is about as justified as expec­ting the same from one of Shakespeare's clowns: their function is simply different, and Flush The Fashion is as typical of the typical Alice Cooper function as the typical Alice Cooper function typically gets, and this should be deemed good enough.

Flush The Fashion is almost criminally short (less than half an hour), and has a couple oddities-among-oddities whose effect, either expected or actual, is not well understood (e. g., the obscure purpose of the mix of mid-1970s Stones-style riffage and Dylan-style vocalization on 'Dance Yourself To Death'). But overall, this is a brilliant reinvention that allows Alice to stay in touch with the times while being true to his vision — and it opens wide the doors to one of his most interesting, if, unfortunately, most neglected musical periods that would last for three more years and three more albums. Thumbs up by all means.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Animals: Love Is


1) River Deep, Mountain High; 2) I'm An Animal; 3) I'm Dying, Or Am I; 4) Ring Of Fire; 5) Coloured Rain; 6) To Love Somebody; 7) As The Years Go Passing By; 8) Gemini; 9) Madman (Running Through The Fields).

The Animals' 1969 Christmas gift to their already well-loaded fans was this double LP — nine songs stretched to the breaking point and still hardly pushing over sixty minutes. With a little mo­dest trimming, the band might have easily fit everything on two sides of vinyl. But in 1968, dou­ble albums were coming in as the latest obligatory ingredient for the serious artist: if you lacked the capacity to splatter your Vision over four sides, you ran the risk of being deemed closed-min­ded. Big times required big statements, said the Beatles, and came out with The Beatles.

Eric Burdon, too, was already well used to big statements, and Love Is was one of his biggest. No original material here at all; instead, the band runs through a selection of covers whose only thing in common is that they have nothing, or almost nothing, in common. Having sung so many times about the diversification of popular music, Burdon now illustrates that diversification on himself. Beginning relatively straightforwardly with the R'n'B genre (Ike & Tina Turner's 'River Deep, Mountain High', Sly & The Family Stone's 'I'm An Animal', no doubt, selected because of the fit­ting title), he rips through country ('Ring Of Fire'), Brit-tinged roots-rock ('Coloured Rain'), lush balladry ('To Love Somebody'), 12-bar blues ('As The Years Go Passing By'), and, finally, psy­chedelic rock (side four).

And I stand by my word: with about fifteen or twenty minutes of this stuff trimmed, the album would have stood up better today. Case in point: the rocking rendition of 'River Deep' ranks among Eric's best covers, as he yields one of those stirring predator-begging-for-mercy perfor­mances that combine the primal ferocious scream with rough tender feeling in a uniquely Burdon way. But midway through, the song transforms into a silly tweet-tweet chant praising the charms of Tina Turner (culminating in a mock-psychedelic 'Tina-Tina-Tina-Tina!' that must have embar­rassed the poor woman deeply even back then). Original? Certainly. Does it add much to the song, does it go down well today? All I can say is that I far prefer the edited single version which, nice­ly enough, can be found as a bonus track on the CD edition of Every One Of Us.

Pretty much the same applies to every other song on here that goes over five minutes — with the possible exception of 'As The Years Go Passing By', which is prolonged at the expense of an ex­cellent blues-rock guitar solo rather than silly psychedelic noises, and the slightly less possible exception of 'Coloured Rain', where the guitarist improvises in a Clapton-like manner, backed by a tired brass section. 'To Love Somebody' just repeats the chorus too many times; and 'Gemini' of­fers a freakout break that is stuck somewhere in between the astral plains of the Moody Blues and the upcoming minimalistic chinks of King Crimson's 'Moonchild'.

All these flourishes will probably inspire only the most «open-minded» of human beings, those that accept just about any flash of creativity as long as there is a minimal chance of proclaiming the thing in question «a flash of creativity». Yet all it really takes is to flip the mindset switch on the back of your head into the '1960s' position, and then the «flashes» will not be a serious bother — at the very least, they will not prevent one from enjoying the individual stamp that Burdon is putting on all those covers. He is loving this — or else he would not have done it — and he still roars the blues out like crazy, and he does not spoil 'Ring Of Fire' by giving it an operatic flavor, and, in my opinion, he sings 'To Love Somebody' better than the Bee Gees.

And a special big thanks to new band member Andy Summers — later of the Cops' fame — for bringing along the beautiful song 'Madman (Running Through The Fields)', taken from the vaults of his previous outfit, Dantalion's Chariot. I would not say it is better than the original, but this probably made a lot of people hear it for the first time. Such a cute marriage between uptempo Brit-pop and «pastoral psychedelia» — a gorgeous way to close the record.

Analytically, Love Is does not quite make the grade: its «meat» is unoriginal, and its «fat» deci­dedly oversaturated; the brain is not happy. But the heart clearly states that, as long as Eric Bur­don sticks to singing the stuff that he is covering rather than fucking with this stuff, it will never have a problem with this particular artist. Assessing the rate of singing to fucking to be appro­ximately 7 : 3 on this album, thumbs up are guaranteed.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Arthur Crudup: Complete Recorded Works Vol. 3


1) Mercy Blues; 2) She's Just Like Caldonia; 3) Mean Old Santa Fe; 4) Behind Closed Doors; 5) She Ain't Nothin' But Trouble; 6) Oo-Wee Darling; 7) Anytime Is The Right Time; 8) My Baby Left Me; 9) Nobody Wants Me; 10) Star Bootlegger; 11) Too Much Competition; 12) Second Man Blues; 13) Pearly Lee; 14) Love Me Mama; 15) Never No More; 16) Where Did You Stay Last Night?; 17) I'm Gonna Dig Myself A Hole; 18) I'm Gonna Dig Myself A Hole (alt. take); 19) Goin' Back To Georgia; 20) Mr. So And So; 21) Do It If You Want To; 22) Keep On Drinkin'.

As the 1950s drew near, Big Boy finally decided to vary the formula — if only a little bit. He got himself a new guitar sound, explicitly more electrified and thick than before, learned a few extra chords (or so it would seem), and even dared to tread on the previously untrodden turf of a few giants. 'Anytime Is The Right Time', for instance, is a soft and sweet blues ballad in the vein of Lonnie Johnson; and for 'Nobody Wants Me', he assumes a plaintive lyrical tone that evokes the blues queens of the 1920s.

This is pretty much it, though. Except for those two songs and tiny signs of evolution as a player (and the generally much improved sound quality, but, what with the passing of time, this is to be expected), everything else is still The Slow One and The Fast One; and The Fast One is, once again, giving up its positions (the ratio on this volume is 13 : 8 in favor of The Slow One, not counting one alternate take), while The Slow One, if that is even possible, becomes even more generic than before — out of the 13, at least seven or eight start out with the exact same ringing chords. Alas, no «Guess That Melody» game for Arthur Crudup, I'm afraid.

Of course, this is also the volume that has 'My Baby Left Me' on it, and it has pretty much the same atmospheric spirit — a little dark, a little depressed, yet all very playful — that Elvis mana­ged to preserve with his cover. Which should not detract from realizing that it is the exact same song as 'That's All Right (Mama)', or even that pretty much all of its lyrics had already appeared on previous recordings of The Fast One, usually in sizable chunks.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Art Brut: Bang Bang Rock & Roll


1) Formed A Band; 2) My Little Brother; 3) Emily Kane; 4) Rusted Guns Of Milan; 5) Modern Art; 6) Good Week­end; 7) Bang Bang Rock And Roll; 8) Fight; 9) Moving To L. A.; 10) Bad Weekend; 11) Stand Down; 12) 18,000 Lira.

If the lovable Gumbies from Monty Python's Flying Circus decided to get together and play rock'n'roll, they would, most likely, sound like Art Brut — not forgetting that behind the retarded characters of the Gumbies hide the hyper-intellectual personalities of the Pythonites, and that be­hind the carefully staged low-class dumbness of Art Brut hide the personalities of... who are these guys anyway?

Obviously, garage- and punk-rock are still alive and kicking, and will be so until there are no more honestly aggressive, but smart young people left in the world (MTV is working hard on sol­ving that problem, but give it a bit more time to come up with the ultimate solution). But it is not every day that a punk band with a fresh new twist comes along, and this here is definitely a fresh new twist. Instead of joining the usual crowd of deadly serious anti-social rockers who hardly know the difference between a guitar and a Tommy gun, Art Brut play it with the utmost in irony ('it's not irony', lead singer Eddie Argos objects on one of the tracks, only further convincing everyone for miles around that it is).

Whenever people start talking about Art Brut, they cannot help from spurting out tons of lyrical quotes — understandably, because this band is mainly about the lyrics. The music is run-of-the-mill garage noise, a bit more complex than the Ramones and very nicely retro-arranged, but no­thing to write home about (and some of the riffs are just irreverently copped from golden oldies, e. g. the intro to 'Good Weekend' is 'Let's Dance' by the Monkees and suchlike). Lead vocalist Eddie Argos, in age-honed punk fashion, never ever sings, but just speaks or shouts out the words. Alto­gether, they synthesize a good drive, but good drive alone hardly suffices to throw you over the threshold; you have to feed it with great melodies or great attitude.

Well, they do have great attitude. Normally, a single chorus line shouted over and over again is guaranteed to stick in the brain, but the process is painful and even shameful if it is a bland, banal, hyperseriously taken chorus line. However, how can you go wrong with 'Formed a band! We formed a band! Look at us — we formed a band!' Or with 'My! Little! Brother! Just Discovered Rock And Roll! My! Little! Brother! Just Discovered Rock And Roll! There's A Noise In His Head And He's Out Of Control!' (Sung over a clone of the melody of The Clash's 'London Cal­ling', no less). Or with 'Modern Art! Makes Me! Want To Rock Out! Modern Art! Makes Me! Want To Rock Out!' Or with 'I can't stand the sound of the — Velvet Underground!' (Backing vocals go 'white light, white heat!' at the same time).

This is my dutiful share of the album's lyrics, but believe me, there is much more than that. Not coincidentally, Art Brut attracted the admiring attention of Pixies' founder Frank Black, who even went on to produce one of their albums — their groove is wedged in the tradition that covers the ground between the Stooges and the Ramones, but their absurdism and irony far surpasses the basic level of the Ramones and is, indeed, much better aligned with the post-modern excesses of the Pixies. Except that Frank Black you could accuse of being «pretentious», while these guys are completely unassailable from such an angle. At least in the narrow sense of the term: if by «pretentious» we simply mean «claiming to have something important to say», then Art Brut are, by all means, quite pretentious.

But they really do have something important to say. They may seem like they are singing about themselves, yet, in fact, they are singing about everybody else. Irony is their deadly weapon, with which they exterminate their dim-witted competition: bands that do suppose they are the shit just because they'd mustered the intelligence to get together ('Formed A Band'), street gangs whose norm and ideal of significant communicative expression is a good punch in the nose ('Fight'), braindead sex-obsessed teens ('Good Weekend', which includes what is arguably the band's most oft quoted line — 'I've seen her naked TWICE!'), and what is likely Art Brut's primary target — the hipster crowd, which they hate with my own kind of passion ('Modern Art'; 'Moving To LA', about 'drinking Hennessy with Morrissey' etc.).

Certainly this is not a «masterpiece»: it is way too dependent on its inspirations and way too limi­ted in its goals to advance the band to some sort of top rank. But its limited goals are masterfully achieved, and its thirty minutes, particularly if you are paying close attention to whatever Eddie has got to say to you, fly by almost unnoticed. Many people have a soft spot for headbanging al­bums that make fun of headbangers — this is possibly the best representative of the genre in the «noughties», and it happens to perfectly fit in with my conception of good humor, which automa­tically guarantees an intellectual-and-emotional thumbs up.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Alanis Morissette: Flavors Of Entanglement


1) Citizen Of The Planet; 2) Underneath; 3) Straitjacket; 4) Versions Of Violence; 5) Not As We; 6) In Praise Of The Vulnerable Man; 7) Moratorium; 8) Torch; 9) Giggling Again For No Reason; 10) Tapes; 11) Incomplete; 12*) Or­chid; 13*) The Guy Who Leaves; 14*) Madness; 15*) Limbo No More; 16*) On The Tequila.

After a four-year, relatively secluded, break, only interrupted by the release of Jagged Little Pill Acoustic in 2005 (which is more or less what it is, an unplugged revision of her fading moment of glory, and hardly deserves a special review), Alanis has returned to the studio in an attempt to update and polish her image. With an entirely new team of musicians, led by producer Guy Sigs­worth and «programmer guitarist» Andy Page, she is ready to strive for hipness once again.

Her team's understanding of hipness, however, means basically one thing: make the album a tech­nophile's dream. Half, if not more, of the songs are stuffed with «look at us, we are so sci-fi» electronic farts, and some are driven by mid-tempo techno beats — all of a sudden, Alanis decla­res that she actually loves to dance (yes, we know, Ms. Morissette, we did see you in those com­promising videos from 1992) and that no dance fan will be disappointed with her new record.

On paper, a combination of pretentious lyrics, confessional attitude, and techno beats coming from the likes of Alanis sounds like the proverbial recipé for disaster. Think Madonna's Ray Of Light or something in the neighbourhood. Surprise: it is perfectly okay, no better and no worse than the average A. M. offering of the past ten years. The synthesized farts and programmed loops never detract from her standard hooks, in fact, they are somewhat refreshing after the uni­form, monotonous production style of Under Rug Swept and So-Called Chaos.

In fact, the ugliest moment on the record is not even one centered on Electronica: it is '(Bring) On The Tequila', a dreadfully silly, campy attempt to write a song in the 'party pop' genre of the latest brand of idiot teen idols (Miley Cyrus, etc.) — I hope the intention was primarily parodic, but you can never tell with artists of Morissette's level, prone to chronic lapses of taste. Fortunately, it is only available as the final track on the «deluxe» 2-disc edition of the album, and need not in­furiate the tastes of the average enlightened listener.

As for the techno-pop, 'Straitjacket' does suffer from being way too overtly commercial, but the electronification of her raga tendencies works better on 'Citizen Of The Planet', and even gets close to the level of intimidation on 'Versions Of Violence' (which I always keep hearing as 'Vir­gins Of Violence' — a great title for a cutting-edge animé series, I think, and the song would do great as the title track). Her gift for vocal hooks has not gone anywhere, and the production team never tries to shadow them, no matter how many side effects they cram in the mix.

Note, though, that once again the singles from the album were some of the least commercial tracks. 'Underneath' does have a danceable chorus, but its trendiness is strictly limited to orna­mental electronic flourishes (that, moreover, seem to be played on an old Moog synth — trendy my ass!); 'In Praise Of The Vulnerable Man' is a catchy mid-tempo folk-rocker that failed to chart completely, maybe because of the awful title and lyrics (no man would buy a single with such a title ever, no woman who's got a man would buy such a single under the risk of losing the man, and no woman who hasn't got a man would buy it — because what's the fucking point?); and 'Not As We' is a piano ballad, and not a very good one at that (try as she might, Alanis will never be­come a Tori Amos, so why even bother?).

This is odd: even as we see Alanis trying to break back into the stream of public conscience, she is at the same time intentionally sabotaging her commercial fortunes. It is non-trivial, and, from a certain point of view, respectable; but my taste-o-meter still goes low on the mercury level, indi­cating that Ms. Morissette's ambitions are still the same — to be perceived as a Soul-Baring Se­rious Artist rather than the averagely pleasing pop songwriter that she really is. I cannot even reach a judgement, what with the brain and heart departments locked in a stalemate over the thumbs' position. In any case, if you are a committed fan, you will love Flavors Of Entangle­ment; if you are not, the album probably only deserves a «curio listen».

Friday, January 22, 2010

Adrian Belew: E


1) A; 2) A2; 3) A3; 4) B; 5) B2; 6) B3; 7) C; 8) D; 9) D2; 10) E; 11) E2.

The contents of the first official studio release by the Adrian Belew Power Trio — Adrian & The Slicks — are easily guessed by anyone who has combined an acquaintance with the general Crim­sonian attitude with a quick glance at the «songs»' titles, or at the modern geometrical design of the album cover.

Namely, it is a rigid exercise in math-rock: complex, angular riffs played over complex, angular bass runs, leaning on complex, angular drum patterns. Technically, this is a very impressive show, particularly for the Slicks, who have it far more rough and demanding here than they had on the live album, where, after all, the emphasis was on Adrian's more accessible side. Of course, as official «disciples» of a new generation, they lack the freshness and inventiveness of such former rhythm section giants as Bruford and Levin, but it seems they do not only match the dexterity, but also understand the spirit. Basically, Adrian puts them to the test, and they pass it with flying colors — delight!

On the other hand, it is hard to get rid of the feeling that this is exactly what it is: a test for Be­lew's fresh rhythm section. The music itself has been radiating weirdness for so long — thirty years now — that the novelty has worn off; and how could it not have been, when most of these riffs and themes keep reminding me of Adrian's previous exploits? Making matters worse, E is frustratingly non-diverse (in fact, it helps if you just think about it as one continuous suite rather than a set of different compositions — which, to be honest, is more or less the way Belew adver­tised it): most of the parts are centered around looping arpeggios and meticulous scale runs, with my best impression of it summarized as «continuously climbing the many sides of a rotating polygon» — with no end in sight.

In E's defense, I will say that it could have made a great soundtrack to some pretentious art-house movie (preferably, with a crazy, but visionary mathematical genius as the protagonist, and The Pink Panther as an indirect influence); also, I will say that it is far more listenable than some of King Crimson's exercises in terraforming dissonance. But there is also something very sad and dis­ap­pointing about the whole concept of «predictable weirdness». In the end, I can only recom­mend it for Belew diehards — or for old fogeys who think of the newer generations as a well-trained, strictly disciplined army of lazy good-for-nothings. In the latter respect, E is pleasantly instructive.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

AC/DC: Highway To Hell


1) Highway To Hell; 2) Girls Got Rhythm; 3) Walk All Over You; 4) Touch Too Much; 5) Beating Around The Bush; 6) Shot Down In Flames; 7) Get It Hot; 8) If You Want Blood (You've Got It); 9) Love Hungry Man; 10) Night Prowler.

The wild critical and commercial success of this and the next album is often associated with the switch of producers — trying something «different», the Young brothers have turned to Robert «Mutt» Lange, back then, still relatively fresh and unknown, and he did his best to make the record sell well. At least, that is the general idea.

Certainly Lange's production style is different from George Young and Harry Vanda's. Those guys, after all, used to be at the helm of the Easybeats, Australia's garage outfit par excellence, and their idea — a great idea, too — was to make their Young-er brothers sound even more reck­less, rambunctious, and raw than the Easybeats ever were. But that does not help you sell records. Lange, on the other hand, takes the Youngs' guitar sound and does the impossible: preserves the headbang magic, but cuts down on the ear-bleeding side effect. A lesser producer would have pro­bably turned AC/DC into Foreigner: a heavy rock sound, formally, but completely stripped of any traces of primal aggression. Highway To Hell, on the other hand, rocks ferociously — and, at the very same time, raises the band's commercial stakes sky high.

But then a producer is only a producer; it is not Lange that makes the album so enjoyable, simply the fact that the Young brothers happened to reach their creative peak. Perhaps sensing that they started repeating themselves in too obvious a manner on Powerage, they go for a little creative exploring, and end up with a record that, on their respective level, is the epitome of diversity. We got straight-up speedy rock ('Beating Around The Bush'), arena-style anthems (title track), a little power pop ('Girls Got Rhythm'), punk-flavored socially conscious statements ('If You Want Blood'), heavy balladry ('Touch Too Much'), and slow blues ('Night Prowler'). With all that bag­gage, it is no surprise that Malcolm and Angus finally find the time to write some fresh riffs (in fact, some are so fresh that they kept reusing them, guilt-free, for the next thirty years), or that Bon Scott, overall, gives his greatest vocal performance.

'(I'm on a) Highway To Hell' has been, of course, immortalized not so much by the catchy, enti­cing character of the chorus as by the fact that, unknown to anybody but our supernatural overseers, in 1979 Bon Scott was nearing the end of that highway. It is a bit flat in the melody department, and does not so much give the guitarists a chance to shine as it gives the audience a chance to flash their empty beer cans, but it is still awesome in a clucky kind of way.

Generally, though, you judge an AC/DC tune on the strength of its riff. Here, we got a particular­ly seductive riff on 'Girls Got Rhythm', a poppy, almost danceable loop that accompanies Bon as he sings about his lady who is 'enough to stop a freight train or start the Third World War'. Note, of course, the slight fall-off from the lyrical level he had achieved on Powerage — but I guess that if you want to sell records to love-hungry teens, you gotta sing about love-hungry teens. An even simpler, but equally effective six-note sequence drives 'Shot Down In Flames', where Angus actually tries to paint a musical picture of being shot down in flames, and, in the process, invents a new, metallic style of soloing that would become his trademark for the next decade.

However, you do not reach the utmost peak here until the third to last track. 'If You Want Blood', borrowing the title from the freshly issued live album, is truly the closest AC/DC ever came to capturing the punk spirit — the song name would have been perfectly usable for a Dead Ken­nedys or Rage Against The Machine album title, and even if the tempo is a bit too slow and the riff a bit too high-pitched to fit into the basic musical conventions of «punk», Scott's performance is certainly anything but, as he throws the happy public a message that is normally expected to come from the likes of Ray Davies: 'You get money for nothing / Tell me who can you trust / We got what you want / And you got the lust / If you want blood — you've got it!'

Even the slow, brontosaurish blues of 'Night Prowler' that closes the record shows they have come a long, long way from the early days of 'The Jack'. Again, this is Bon's deal all the way, but only a very stupid person — such as the guy who allegedly went on a killing spree after hearing the song, bringing the band lots of unwanted problems — would honestly believe that Mr. Scott is channelling the spirit of a serial murderer, when it is clear as daylight that he is living out a hilarious sexual fantasy. 'I'm the night prowler, when you turn off the light', how more obvious can one get? As far as uncomfortable titillation goes, 'Night Prowler' is certainly no 'Midnight Rambler' — but it is a delightful, powerful theatrical piece, and one hell of a great way to go out with for good. 'Shazbot, na-nu na-nu'.

For sheer metallic power and breathtaking highlights, Back In Black is a better place to go than Highway To Hell, but for a highly balanced mix of consistency, cleverness, and moderate expe­rimentation, it is Highway that takes the cake. I would say that Brian Johnson's initiation into the world of AC/DC rule is an absolute immediate stunner, whereas Bon Scott's final hour is more of a grower, but it grows fast and secure. The heart may be already accustomed to issuing thumbs up judgements to the Aussies; the brain, however, is far more mightily surprised at the witty construction of the record — one might not have expected such a thing from the band at all.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Alice Cooper: From The Inside


1) From The Inside; 2) Wish I Was Born In Beverly Hills; 3) The Quiet Room; 4) Nurse Rozetta; 5) Millie And Billie; 6) Serious; 7) How You Gonna See Me Now; 8) For Veronica's Sake; 9) Jackknife Johnny; 10) Inmates (We're All Crazy).

The album cover is pretty clever. We still see Alice «The Monster», painted eyes and mouth and all — but, instead of scaring us by way of the usual grotesquerie, he scares us by letting us know that the monster is, no doubt about it, on the verge of collapsing. Pale white face, eyes wide ope­ned with no emotion other than uncontrolled panic, mouth half-open in bewilderment, this is a very vulnerable, pitiable Alice Cooper staring at his own mortality.

As the Lace And Whiskey tour drew to a close, Alice made his first conscious attempt at kicking the alcohol addiction by checking himself into a New York mental hospital, no less. Unfortuna­tely, it did not work (not for long, at least), but, on the good side, it gave him plenty of shocking impressions — truly shocking impressions — to base his next album around it; a concept record, for the first time in Alice history based on something in the real world, even if the subject (insani­ty) would certainly fit in well with the Coop image; in fact, Alice had already tackled the issue seven years earlier, with 'The Ballad Of Dwight Frye'. Now he'd had some first-hand experience at it, and why let such great material go to waste?

The new approach apparently deserved a new musical setting, and From The Inside sees huge changes in the entourage. First, Alice teamed up with Bernie Taupin, Elton John's royal lyricist (who, as chance would have it, had just temporarily broken up with Elton), to give the lyrics a more serious, poetic twist. Second, along with Bernie, he enlisted part of Elton's own backing band, including Dee Murray on bass and Davey Johnstone on guitar. Dick Wagner still stays on to add an occasional sparkling solo or two, but Steve Hunter is gone, dissolving the duo. The legendary Jim Keltner plays drums, Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick guest stars on guitar, and Marcy Levy, the backing singer from Eric Clapton's band, duets with Alice on one number. Now how is that for a quintessential hodge-podge?

As for the songs, they actually do form a real concept — everything is either describing the gene­ral conditions in or impressions of the asylum, or tells little stories of people «hosted» within its walls. Credit usually goes to Cooper, Taupin, and Wagner, occasionally to new producer David Foster (who, for some reason, replaces Bob Ezrin, much as I think Ezrin would have been the perfect producer for this thing — but perhaps he was too busy working on The Wall at the same time), and, frankly, I am not even sure of how much actual musical content — beyond the general «spirit» of the thing — is owed here to Alice in person.

Because if there is something that From The Inside could be compared to, it is definitely not pre­vious Alice Cooper albums, but rather previous Elton John albums — good Elton John albums, that is. The glammy rockers sound like Elton John, MOR-oriented guitars and keyboards and all. The male-female duet between Alice and Marcy brings on memories of Elton and Kiki Dee. The strings arrangements remind one of Paul Buckmaster. And the ballads? Don't even let's start with the ballads. When I think of the ballads, I inevitably come to one of two conclusions: either the whole thing is a hoot and Elton John is the uncredited writer of these melodies, or the whole thing is a different hoot and Bernie Taupin really wrote all the music, while Elton was just sitting there flashing his glasses at the audience.

'How You Gonna See Me Now' is a magnificent ballad, but it is an Elton John ballad; Alice even sings like Elton, borrowing all of his typical moves. Listen to 'just to let you know...', to 'yes I'm worried honey...', to 'you know I've let you down in oh so many ways' — this belongs in the same category as 'Someone Saved My Life Tonight' or 'Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me'. Not that I mind. Alice or Elton, it is a song that expresses one's horror and shame at the perspective of going back to one's family «after the ordeal», and it is Alice's second shrillest personal confession after 'I Never Cry', only to be surpassed by 'Pass The Gun Around' five years later.

The rest of the album is a delightful — sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes creepy — mix of tongue-in-cheek and deathly seriousness, sometimes within the same song. The rockers have their share of humor, most prominent in 'Nurse Rozetta': we cannot expect an Alice Cooper album with no dirtiness in sight, so here, with salacious metaphors, he describes a patient's sexual fanta­sizing (well, let us face it, not exactly a forced subject for a hospital). The epic ballads are more painful, like 'The Quiet Room' ('I just can't get this wrist to bleed!') and the 'Millie And Bil­lie' duet, which starts off like a really generic Broadway number but then moves into uncomfor­table territory, as, to the ominous sounds of the string orchestra and a drill, the 'criminally insane' Billie is carried away (for lobotomizing?).

Best of all is the skilful conclusion: 'Inmates' is an expertly constructed anthem, alternating Wag­nerian orchestral swoops, stately Eltonian mid-tempo balladry, the traditional Coop school of vaudeville, and a 'Hey Jude'-style conclusion where everyone joins in a cheery chorus of 'we're all crazy, we're all crazy' as the strings dance around them, creating a mock-epic mood where you have no idea whether you are supposed to laugh, cry, or fall into a trance. A perfectly questio­nable ending for an album that gives no answers and passes no judgements. It is not exactly «rea­lism» — Alice's fantasy worlds are too demanding to let him ground himself completely — but it is very close, and, frankly, it might have simply been boring were it all purely realistic.

Not all the songs seem to be on the level — some, as expected, are too heavily focused on the conceptual side to be memorable (e. g. 'Jackknife Johnny') — but the record is in the «grower» category, and, in my case, it grew enough to deserve a thumbs up both from the heart, moved by Furnier's troubles, and the brain, delighted by all the inventiveness and creativity with which these trou­bles have been converted into art.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Animals: Every One Of Us


1) White Houses; 2) Uppers And Downers; 3) Serenade To A Sweet Lady; 4) The Immigrant Lad; 5) Year Of The Guru; 6) St. James Infirmary; 7) New York 1963 - America 1968.

Like many other artists in 1968, Burdon must have also, at one point, sensed the uncomfortable feeling of having lost firm ground under his feet. Tangerine trees and marmalade skies are all right for a day, but dwell in their neighbourhood too long and you'll end up like Syd Barrett or Skip Spence. Even if you decide to move house, sometimes only a radical antidote will suffice — such as, for instance, a grim-faced, illusion-free, grit-filled record dealing with the fates of the working class. Such as Every One Of Us by Eric Burdon & The Animals.

Change is apparent from looking at the album cover — a black-and-white (no coloured rainbows!) photo of the band members, staring morosely into space while Eric, in a ragged overcoat and a worker's cap, is drilling you with subtle scorn, as if asking «What have YOU done to improve the conditions of the working man, you sad refuse of our oppressive society?» Thus, it is with an uneasy, troubled heart that we begin our listen, expecting the worst to come.

Surprisingly, this shift in direction has been helpful. The tone of the album is just as preachy as that of its two predecessors, but it would seem a bit strange to preach about such down-to-earth matters in the form of rambling sonic collages or mantras, so the band, this time quite firmly, re­treats back to the song format. And there are good songs — and most of them originals! Even the lengthy folksy drones, like 'The Immigrant Lad', or the first six minutes of 'New York 1963...', where Eric recounts his impressions of his first trans-Atlantic visit ('And when I got to 'Mer-r-r-r-ica, I say, it blew my mind!'), are touching, and the opener, 'White Houses', is one of the sweetest little shuffles to have ever come from the man.

At the core of the album, however, is a fully successful updating of the blazing hard sounds of yore. Eric had not given us fresh performances of traditional R'n'B since at least 1966, but here he returns with a vengeance to put his stamp on 'St. James' Infirmary', arranged as the musical equi­valent of a haunting movie thriller — starts out slow, deep, and dark, then gradually unfurls into a sonic nightmare. Eerie backing vocals, wailing guitar solos, Eric in the further stages of posses­sion, a little honesty plus a little theater goes a long, long way.

In terms of importance and unusualness, however, it is still trumped by Eric's original 'Year Of The Guru'. Not only is this the first — to the best of my knowledge — straightforward indictment of «professio­nal spiritual leadership» on a pop record ('Sexy Sadie' was not only more oblique, but also came out later in the year), it is also one of the first examples of «white rap» on such a record, and fairly well grounded, too, because there would be no better way to convey Burdon's anger than with such a rapid-fire delivery on the perils of guru-trusting. But not even the lyrics themselves are as hilarious and aggressive at the same time as the song's chaotic coda and Eric's demented cries of 'Gotta get a guru, gotta get a guru, a groovy groovy guru!' — a coda that sum­marizes the epoch's disillusionment in crash courses in spiritual enlightenment better than any lengthy treatise on the subject.

Alas, the flaws of Every One Of Us are just as obvious as its successes. If the staged conversa­tion between two silly cockneys on Side A and the black fighter pilot confession on Side B some­how fail to annoy you (they are not that long, after all), then the ten-minute 'I wanna be free — you can never be free!' jam that concludes 'New York 1963 — America 1968' most certainly will. Usually, such things happen when bands run out of things to say, but if this ten-minute raving was their thing to say, this is even worse. It is not psychedelia and it is not even «modern art», but it is more dull to listen to than the third LP of George Harrison's All Things Must Pass, and that was pretty dull. Must have been dull even back in 1968; who the heck would want to take this for one's ideal of a «lengthy composition» when one could choose between 'Sister Ray' and 'In Held Twas In I' at the same time?

Still, chop off the last ten minutes and you still come out with about thirty-five of good music, which is at least longer than the Beach Boys' Surfin' Safari, and that was an LP as well, and still continues to sell for a full price. Therefore, a definite thumbs up for the rest of it, coming mostly from the heart department — believe it or not, but that Burdon guy somehow manages to awaken the dormant working man in me. Roight, guvnah, off to the docks, 'en. See ye round.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Arthur Crudup: Complete Recorded Works Vol. 2


1) Crudup's After Hours; 2) I Want My Lovin'; 3) That's All Right; 4) I Don't Know It; 5) Cry Your Blues Away; 6) Crudup's Vicksburg Blues; 7) Gonna Be Some Changes Made; 8) Train Fare Blues; 9) Katie Mae; 10) Hey Mama, Everything's All Right; 11) Hoodoo Lady Blues; 12) Lonesome World To Me; 13) Roberta Blues; 14) Just Like A Spider; 15) Some Day; 16) That's Why I'm Lonesome; 17) Tired Of Worry; 18) Dust My Broom; 19) Hand Me Down My Walking Cane; 20) Shout Sister Shout; 21) Come Back Baby; 22) You Know That I Love You.

If there is one change from «Big Boy»'s early 1940s to late 1940s style, it is a drastic shift of the proportional rate of the Slow One to the Fast One. Crudup's soul may have been more in the Slow One, but the real money was coming in on the Fast One; thus, out of the 22 songs on this album, 10 are the Fast One and 12 are the Slow One, whereas on the first volume the Fast One first ap­peared in the guise of 'Mean Old Frisco Blues' and only gained its positions very gradually.

This is the period during which 'That's All Right (Mama)' was recorded — but in the context of the album, it is not even the most energetic incarnation of the Fast One; personally, I would rather vote for 'I Want My Lovin', the exact same tune, but with some very nifty jazz drumming driving Arthur to play and sing it with a tad more wildness. Of course, these are truly microscopical dif­ferences we are speaking about, but what else is there to speak about when you deal with an artist who is not above re-recording the same 12-bar blues as 'Ethel Mae' the first time and then 'Katie Mae' the second time around?

Pretty much the only Fast One here that is not 'That's All Right' is 'Shout Sister Shout', a fun piece of Big Joe Turner-ish jump blues; and pretty much the only Slow Ones of particular notice are his interpretations of 'Dust My Broom' and 'Hand Me Down My Walking Cane', since it is most like­ly his simplistic style of trilling that served as the inspiration for Elmore James. (Do not quote me on that, though). The rest is the rest: 'Gonna Be Some Changes Made' is as deceiving a song title as I have ever come across.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Alicia Keys: The Element Of Freedom


1) Element Of Freedom (Intro); 2) Love Is Blind; 3) Doesn't Mean Anything; 4) Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart; 5) Wait 'Til You See My Smile; 6) That's How Strong My Love Is; 7) Un-thinkable (I'm Ready); 8) Love Is My Di­sease; 9) Like The Sea; 10) Put It In A Love Song; 11) This Bed; 12) Distance And Time; 13) How It Feels To Fly; 14) Empire State Of Mind (Part II) Broken Down; 15) Stolen Moments; 16) Heaven's Door; 17*) Through It All; 18*) Pray For Forgiveness.

"And the day came when the risk it took to remain tightly closed in the butt was more painful than the risk it took to bloom. This is the element of freedom".

Honestly, I thought this was one of the most innovative opening lines in existence — until I checked the lyrics sheet and it clearly said 'bud', not 'butt'. Too bad, said I, there goes a great me­ta­phor: looking at personal freedom through the viewpoint of anal sex. Most likely, the rest of the record will end up equally disappointing.

Of course, it did. First of all, if you ever decide to give it a try, by all means disregard the hype basted around it by Alicia herself, as well as those promoters, agents, and critics that she has on her payroll. Here is but one quote from the lady, and there are hundreds more: «The way that the songs progress are gonna take you on a natural high. I just want you to feel a sense of freedom, I want you to feel out-of-the-box, feel inspired, you're definitely going to be taken on a trip, I know you're going to be shocked.»

This is what happens when your first three albums all debut at #1 on the Billboard: a malicious ego tumor. It is one thing to release a mildly pleasant, generic collection of emotionally overdri­ven American Idol-style ballads and electronic dance-pop; it is an entirely different thing to pro­mote it as a grand, once-in-a-lifetime burst of spiritual enlightenment and liberation, especially when there is not a single vocal move on the record that we have not already heard before, and not a single lyrical line that rises above decades-old clichés.

Hollow pretentiousness is particularly on the rampage with 'Empire State Of Mind' (what an aw­ful title already), where Keys returns to her New York obsession, this time in the form of a power ballad. I love the city as much as anyone, but just how many second- and third-hand love confes­sions does it need? The fact that she was born and raised in Brooklyn should not, I repeat not, be accepted as an excuse to avoid punishment for describing the city with phrases like 'concrete jun­gle' (say, haven't I heard that somewhere before?) and 'such a melting pot' (does she get her inspi­ration from American English manuals for beginners?).

All that said, I still think The Element Of Freedom is a slight improvement over As I Am. If we strip it of the surrounding pomp, eliminate the worst moments and take out the most obnoxious filler (along with 'Empire State Of Mind', I vote for the artificially cute duet with Beyoncé, which basically wastes the talents of both), the rest of the songs are all tolerable. Again, the best materi­al is at the very beginning: 'Love Is Blind' is suitably sharp and angry (Alicia's most generally successful mood), and 'Doesn't Mean Anything', despite being so repetitive, has the best pure vocal hook on the album.

The general style of The Element Of Freedom has been compared to Prince: there are, indeed, some transparent parallels, e. g. on 'This Bed', with Princeish rhythms and Princeish falsetto vo­cals. But the record is mostly about ballads, not dance-pop, and, besides, in real life Prince's pom­posity and ego level may make Keys reveal herself as the little baby she really is, but on his re­cords, there is always irony and plenty of tongue-in-cheek atmosphere (which, in the end, is what makes it possible for us to like him); The Element Of Freedom is deadly serious, from top to bottom. If Prince was one of the primary influences, then, sorry to say, she just does not get Prince. Or maybe I have overrated Prince.

I do have to acknowledge one thing: if As I Am sounded like someone seriously wanted to pro­cess Alicia in MTV's meat grinder the regular, time-honoured way, The Element Of Freedom does honestly seem to sound the way she herself wants it to sound. Nobody is forcing her artistic hand on this one. It is Alicia Keys, the freedom rider, who, consciously and of her own free will, is responsible for all the bland arrangements, lyrical clichés, unsubstantiated pretentiousness, and tolerable melodies that do not, however, progress anywhere beyond the levels she had already displayed eight years ago. So which one is actually better — slavery or freedom? I'd say Ms. Keys has built up quite a strong case for the former. Thumbs down.