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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Beach House: Teen Dream


1) Zebra; 2) Silver Soul; 3) Norway; 4) Walk In The Park; 5) Used To Be; 6) Lover Of Mine; 7) Better Times; 8) 10 Mile Stereo; 9) Real Love; 10) Take Care.

An amazingly accurate title. Brings on associations with Brian Wilson's «teenage symphonies», replaces the «symphony» bit (hardly appropriate for Beach House, whose minimalistic sound is anything but symphonic) with the «dream» of «dream-pop», and looks as innocent and simple as possible without looking silly and vapid.

With this title, Beach House make the inevitable transition to the big time; inevitable, because the sympathy that they bred so carefully among the indie critics should have eventually pushed them up the ladder, and it did. Not only was Teen Dream recorded in a church building (obviously a step up from Scally's bedroom) under the supervision of well-known indie producer Chris Coady, but it was also subsequently released on the Sub Pop label — not exactly Warner Bros. level, but relatively notorious all the same — and hit the Billboard charts. What's most important, though, is that there are REAL DRUMS! REAL DRUMS! Or, at least, decent imitations.

As for the songs and the magic — this is a really tough question. There have been changes, yes, but, just like before, you have to work in order to notice them. Generally, there is more dynamics; if, on their first and second albums, you did not usually need to go beyond the first twenty se­conds or so to find out what it was all about, the songs on Teen Dream frequently rely on build-ups, with additional keyboard and guitar lines rolling in (e. g. '10 Mile Stereo', where Scully eve­ntually starts a series of psychedelic trills similar to Cream's 'Dance The Night Away'), or with pompous codas swelling the melody ('Walk In The Park', 'Take Care').

Beyond that, it is hard to make any generalizations. Cautiously, I would suggest the idea that the guitar sound is more important to the effect of Teen Dream than it used to be; it is hardly coin­cidental that the album's opener, 'Zebra', begins with a minute-long folksy guitar drone, and the keyboards do not join in until later, and even then they form an atmospheric wall carpeting rather than the melodic backbone. This may actually explain the irritation of some long-term fans who complained about Teen Dream sounding like «standard indie»: people who fell in love with the band based on Legrand's ambient synthesizer patterns will definitely feel occasional lack of oxy­gen in these songs. On the other hand, those who mostly viewed Beach House and Devotion as a set of pretty lullabies might want to form another opinion.

As for the tricky issue of «how many meaningful melodies does the record provide?», all I can say is that, on the whole, I feel more pleased by it than Devotion. At the very least, the first five songs all register. 'Zebra' is a paean to zebras — well, not really, but I like to think of it as such, and Legrand's chorus of 'any way you run, you run before us' is very evocative in tandem with Scully's picking. 'Silver Soul' is terrific nerd entertainment if you are hungry for Harry Potter-style magic. The sound of 'Norway' is, perhaps, the duo's biggest original achievement so far: the «wobbly» effect that they get with their guitar and organ processing adds an extra color to the already oversaturated palette of psychedelia, and the Norwegians, completely free of charge, have now received their country's new national anthem (granted, they could always refuse on the ra­tional grounds that the song has nothing whatsoever to do with Norway, but why should they?). 'Walk In The Park' is stately, and I wish I knew what the 'more, you want more...' coda was all about, because it is beautiful.

Finally, the single 'Used To Be' is their simplest, catchiest, and most childish song to date — a re-recording, actually, of an older version that had already appeared in 2008, and, as we now under­stand, heralded the arrival of a moderately updated, livelier, jumpier Beach House («jumpy» is a much better term here than «danceable», because 'Used To Be' must really be a great song to jump to when you are three years old). But oh the frustration! Out of three equally possible op­tions — loving it, ha­ting it, or failing to notice it — I cannot choose a single one. Loving it seems stupid (can you admit to «loving» 'The Itsy Bitsy Spider'?), hating it would be overreacting, and failing to notice it would be impossible, since I am already writing about it.

And, in a way, this is indicative of the entire album. Again, we have these two people inviting us to believe in their magic, and you can choose between faith and skepticism. It is one of those ca­ses where I almost equally sympathize with those fans who are ready to drop their tools and fol­low Legrand and Scully to the end of the world and those haters who would like to see the duo tarred, feathered, and driven out of town for good. Middle ground is useless — there is no reason whatsoever to listen to Beach House if you are not deeply in love with them.

In my case, Teen Dream still has not convinced me of the necessity of this enamouration, but there are enough flashes of beauty, and enough signs of growth (as well as delightful obstinate conservatism, which can also be a good thing), to warrant this from a negative judgement. So let us say that, while the heart still refuses to open its doors wide to these guys, it at least tolerates their serenading on the porch; and, while the brain insists that they still know much less than is ne­cessary to know about weaving your dreams into music (as compared to the Cocteau Twins, for instance), it also admits that they know enough to be treated seriously, and that it will be curious to learn where they will be going to head from here, if anywhere. Oh, and is this the best Beach House album so far? Well, it's definitely the first Beach House album so far where I am able to say five different things about five songs in a row. Maybe that makes it eligible, and maybe it does not. A vague album deserves a vague judgement. But thumbs up, all the same.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Alice In Chains: Unplugged


1) Nutshell; 2) Brother; 3) No Excuses; 4) Sludge Factory; 5) Down In A Hole; 6) Angry Chair; 7) Rooster; 8) Got Me Wrong; 9) Heaven Beside You; 10) Would; 11) Frogs; 12) Over Now; 13) Killer Is Me.

The popular music scene presents you with plenty of opportunities to hear and watch dead people perform, but Alice In Chains' Unplugged probably takes the cake. It is a recording worth owning, but it does not produce nearly as strong an impression without the image of Layne Staley's blood-shot eyes blankly staring into space. Emotions still run wild deep within him, and his voice is as powerful at expressing them as before, but he has no ability whatsoever to display them visually, singing from within a sealed sarcophagus. That, my friends, is truly scary.

It is not too clear why the band agreed to do the MTV ritual in the first place. They held no tour to support Tripod — Layne was clearly indisposed — and the idea was probably that if Nirvana could have gotten away with something like that, why not Alice? Particularly since the band was no foe to acoustic music, having already released two almost completely acoustic EPs. They do, in fact, play two songs from Sap and two from Jar Of Flies — but then it would have been bo­ring and predictable had they simply decided to stick to their original acoustic material, so they try to be more creative by rearranging some heavy numbers as well.

It all works. The songs may lose their crunch, but not a single one loses its point. One could guess the sludge metal of Tripod would be impossible to reforge in a distortion-free manner — one would be wrong, because 'Sludge Factory' and 'Frogs' trudge along with the same sense of doom (the only problem with the former is that Layne forgets some of the lyrics and they have to end it about three minutes too early), just not as heavy on the ear. Which, by the way, makes Unplug­ged the perfect choice to introduce Alice In Chains to people with zero tolerance for heavy me­tal — not sure if it is possible to make them perform the transition to Dirt from then on, but it is at least one more opportunity to spread the word about the genius of this band.

The centerpoint, both chronologically and metaphorically, is, I think, the inspired performance of 'Rooster'. For the most part, they stay away from their most aggressive rockers — no 'Them Bones' or 'We Die Young' or 'Godsmack'; 'Rooster' is the closest they get to their standard heights of fury, and Layne's opening 'Ain't found a way to kill me yet...' tingles my spine every time I hear it. There goes something big and pretentious, something formally non-related to the singer's problems, but if we did not have the correct information that the song was written about Jerry Cantrell's dad's Vietnam experience, would there be a single chance of us not associating it with Layne's own plight? In fact, even now that we have the information, does it not sound like it is all about Staley? 'Seems every path leads me to nowhere'? Vietnam my ass. Watch the video, look at this guy taking it. There's death in his voice, death in his eyes — his own death. It's terrifying, and yet there is something diabolically seductive about all this. Maybe no one would like to go like Layne Staley — decomposing from overdosing — but quite a few people would subconsciously want to be like Layne Staley on that stage, hypnotically drilling the lines of 'Rooster' into the ears of a (sometimes visibly shaken) audience.

Correcting the balance a little, let us not forget that Staley is not the only stage presence. Cantrell plays excellent guitar throughout, with the additional help of second guitarist Scott Olson, and Mike Inez lays down strong basslines as well as injects a little humor in the proceedings: the video shows the inscription 'Friends Don't Let Friends Get Friends Haircuts' on his bass, most pro­bably an amicable stab at Metallica, and he also plays the intro to 'Enter Sandman' at one point — for no particular reason.

This may not be essential Alice In Chains listening, but its importance is not merely historical (as in, «the last Alice In Chains album with Staley still alive», etc.); it builds up their acoustic legacy and it gives you the band on a more intimate level, which, in the light of Staley's condition, turns into a strange twist on a spiritual séance. A deranged thumbs up.

Friday, February 26, 2010

A-ha: Memorial Beach


1) Dark Is The Night For All; 2) Move To Memphis; 3) Cold As Stone; 4) Angel In The Snow; 5) Locust; 6) Lie Down In Darkness; 7) How Sweet It Was; 8) Lamb To The Slaughter; 9) Between Your Mama And Yourself; 10) Memorial Beach.

A-Ha's last album before calling it quits for the rest of the decade is sort of a mixed bag — a fai­lure by most objective standards, but very possibly a success by certain subjective ones. The big­gest problem is that, having lost their original face, they were still experiencing difficulties about finding a new one. On East Of The Sun, they at least tried several possible directions, and came out with a relatively diverse and talented collection. Memorial Beach, on the other hand, seems to pool most of the band's resources into a fierce competitive effort with the 'Madchester' scene — not only about two years too late (by 1992, the Stone Roses were no longer the hottest thing around), but also with no hope whatsoever.

Could anybody ever hope to believe that the sweet teen idols of yesterday would be able to stand their ground next to the biggest, weightiest «alt-dance» bands of the era? That Mor­ten Harket could come off as cool as Ian Brown? Obviously not. For a bunch of Norwegian nearly-has-beens to make a serious new impact on the British dance scene, the music had to be a real rocket; Me­morial Beach is more likely to be compared to an antique choo-choo train, slowly grumbling its way through the night.

Critics hated it, the public ignored it, and it was pretty obvious that the world simply had no need for more A-Ha product unless it ceased to be A-Ha product and became something else. A predi­ctable disaster. But the more we look back on Memorial Beach, the more it turns into a veritable memorial beach, one that may be worth paying a lonely visit for no particular purpose, but abso­lutely risk-free.

A-Ha's brand of modern funk is, of course, tremendously derivative, but the songs themselves are not altogether boring or pointless — 'Move To Memphis' has a catchy chorus; the eight-minute monster 'Cold As Stone' puts its two cents on «atmosphere» and more or less pockets a solid win­ning; 'Lie Down In Darkness' has swell vocal harmonies; and on 'How Sweet It Was', Harket lays down his best vocal performance on the album. No masterpieces, but still a soft touch of class on each of these things (and from a purely technical point, they are unassailable — these guys may not have the inventiveness or the freshness of the fathers of 'Madchester', but they have definitely studied the scene to perfection).

The ballads are shakier, as the band descends deeper into the pits of adult contemporary, with the required lack of focus, cheesy harmonies, and lyrical triteness — but there is no denying the sin­cerity of 'Angel In The Snow' (or the nice fact that its keyboard accompaniment is provided by a snowy winter electric organ) or the unusual otherworldliness of 'Locust', the band's only song written in «hypnotic lullaby» mood and deserving it. The choice of the album opener 'Dark Is The Night For All', which some critics have sneeringly compared to U2, for the single, was, however, unhappy — its anthemic strife is not well supported by its hooks, and its exaggerated idealism is an entirely false preview of the things that follow, which are really much better, but which may seem like a bored disappointment after the grand sweep of 'Dark Is The Night'.

Do not believe the one-star reviews when you meet them: no sane person had a good reason to listen to this record when it came out, but today, when no sane person has a good reason to listen to music at all, and what we are left with is either insane people or bad reasons, one-star re­views like these are hopelessly obsolete. A little bit of thumbs up is in order here, and if you are intere­sted at all in seeing A-Ha's career as reflecting the inner emotional journey of Morten Harket and his vocal tract, Memorial Beach is indispensable, if only to hear him sing 'The mirror sees you — so alone — cold as stone... yeah!' and still be able to admire his cool.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

AC/DC: Blow Up Your Video


1) Heatseeker; 2) That's The Way I Wanna Rock'n'Roll; 3) Meanstreak; 4) Go Zone; 5) Kissin' Dynamite; 6) Nick Of Time; 7) Some Sin For Nuthin'; 8) Ruff Stuff; 9) Two's Up; 10) This Means War.

After the critical and commercial failure of Fly On The Wall, AC/DC's fortunes perked up some­what with the release of Who Made Who, the band's soundtrack to Stephen King's Maximum Over­drive (apparently, AC/DC happen to be King's favorite band, which should come as no sur­prise to King fans because, in reality, AC/DC are everybody's favorite band, it's just that not eve­rybody has properly understood it so far. But someday, even you will see the light). Granted, it merely gave the fans an opportunity to re-buy such old hits as 'You Shook Me All Night Long', along with two punchy, but forgettable instrumentals and the title track — a catchy pop-rocker that nevertheless may have alarmed some purists with its big electronic drum sound.

Two years later, the purists had every cause to rejoice: not only did the band's next album con­tain no traces whatsoever of any electronic tampering, but the Young brothers were obviously dead set on correcting Fly On The Wall's horrendous mix problems by reteaming with their old pro­ducing duo of Vanda & Young. They were also dead set on recapturing the ballsiness of yore: for the first time since 1980, they come up with a proper album title — alluding to healthy destruc­tion and, along the way, poking fun at MTV; a proper album sleeve — Angus bursting through a shattered and splintered video screen; and a proper album introduction, as 'Heatseeker' stomps into your room at breakneck speed.

At this point, stylistics would require the use of a turn of phrase such as «Too bad they manage to strangle all hope by the time the second song comes along...», and, in fact, such was, and still is, the attitude of quite a few critics, who have worked hard at creating the image of Blow Up Your Video as the lowest, or one of the lowest, points in the band's career. But guidelines for measu­ring the level of awesomeness of an AC/DC album do not generally go beyond gut reaction, and what can I do if my gut reaction reads overtly positive?

Seriously, at least half of these songs are fun. What other AC/DC record starts and ends with a speedy rocker? And not just a speedy rocker, but 'Heatseeker' is their liveliest anthem to the plea­sures of headbanging in a long, long time — I will certainly take its Chuck Berry attitude over the fat pomp of 'For Those About To Rock' any time of day — whereas 'This Means War' is just as exciting in terms of showcasing Angus' «tapping» technique as the far better known 'Thunder­struck', just not as anthemic.

There are also nice apocalyptic notes scattered here and there, most overtly so in 'Some Sin For Nuthin', with arguably the most meaningful lyrics Brian Johnson ever wrote: 'Some sin for gold, some sin for shame, some sin for cash, some sin for gain, some sin for wine, some sin for pain, but I ain't gonna be the fool who's gonna have to sin for nothing!' — and the brothers come up with a suitably grim riff and an ominous atmosphere. «Intellectually oriented» fans of the band like to complain, with generally good reason, about how the coming of Johnson ruined AC/DC's flashes of street wit, sarcasm, and self-irony embodied by Bon; but songs like this could have very easily fit onto an album like Powerage, and might make one want to think twice before pro­nouncing judgement on Johnson's cranium capacity (which would necessarily involve some lame joke about his cap, I suppose).

Other good riffs can also be found. 'Meanstreak' has one, presented in a cool alternation with a memo­rable bass line (a rarity!). 'Two's Up' has one — a weeping one! 'Kissin' Dynamite' hasn't got one, but the chorus is still fun, and the song, with its slow ominous build-up, has later been employed as the blueprint for about half of the Ballbreaker album. It may take a couple listens to get used to the amicable nature of these hooks — which, perhaps, accounts for the lack of luck, since we generally expect to be satisfied with an AC/DC record at first listen, otherwise, what's the point? — but once you're in the game, you won't want to let it go. As for the filler tracks, there certainly are some (I can never remember a single thing about 'Ruff Stuff' or 'Go Zone', for instance), but this is the obligatory blame of just about any AC/DC album.

The saddest thing is the ongoing deterioration of Johnson's voice. They still put a heavy echo on it, but not nearly as heavy as the last time around, and the ever-increasing rasp begins to get on one's nerves. The thing to do is try not to concentrate on it at all; every time I start thinking about it, I begin to feel a nasty lump in my own throat, and, instead of just digging the music, experi­ence admiration for the humanism of the Young brothers, stuck with a pathetic voiceless shadow of a formerly terrifying singer for the next two decades, yet gallantly refusing to let him go — surely they didn't just let him tag along because of the fans growing accustomed to the cap and the wife beater shirt? There's chivalry involved, right?

All in all, a thumbs up; this is, by all means, a serious improvement on Fly On The Wall, even though it is still riddled with problems of inconsistent songwriting, average mixing, and progres­sively deteriorating singing. But it does rock.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Alice Cooper: Constrictor


1) Teenage Frankenstein; 2) Give It Up; 3) Thrill My Gorilla; 4) Life And Death Of The Party; 5) Simple Dis­obe­dience; 6) The World Needs Guts; 7) Trick Bag; 8) Crawlin'; 9) The Great American Success Story; 10) He's Back (The Man Behind The Mask).

Freedom of choice or predetermination? In 1983, Alice had but two options: go down by losing all the vital organs, or make one last desperate attempt to break his dependency. He chose the lat­ter, and must be commended for it. But, having cleaned up his act and taken a two-year break from the music industry altogether, the only smart logical choice for the next step was to re-estab­lish his sunk career. And when 1986, the absolute worst year for music in XXth century, is on the threshold, how do you re-establish your sunk career? That's right: by putting out the inarguably most rotten record of your entire career.

It is not difficult to understand the driving force behind this. The Coop did not just want to go back to making records again; he was in acute need of something that would reinstate his confi­dence in himself and his power over the crowds — not to mention acute need of replenishing his bank account. He also probably experienced some nostalgia for the horror shows of old, which he hadn't produced for about a decade now. In short, the man needed to be back!

But the man was also smart enough to understand that, if he wanted to capture a new audience of Eighties' teens, he had to meet their contemporary expectations. Since synth-pop was obviously not a good choice, the only other one was hair metal. Accordingly, Alice hired a hair metal guita­rist by the name of Kane Roberts, who satisfied pretty much every single cliché of the genre: big, brutal, utterly stupid riffs and meaningless finger-flashing solos, played by a hairy dude with a Rambo complexion whose every stage move suggested having missed a successful career in porn flicks in favour of a misguided stunt at music-making. The rest of the band were mostly complete unmentionables. And Dick Wagner must have been begging on the streets.

The corny, mock-creepy arrangements would have probably ruined the album even if Alice made the mistake of populating it with well-written songs. Fortunately, he did not; with his superpower IQ, he calculated that dumb times called for dumb tunes, and every single one of these ten songs must have been conceived and hummed during a quick bathroom break. Lyrically, there are three subjects: (a) «rebellion» ('Simple Disobedience'; 'Give It Up') — generic verses about teenage unrest, which, in this context, are about as smart as the album gets; (b) «shagging» — Alice had long since be­come only very modestly and occasionally interested in picturing the basic elements of this pro­cess on record, but, since he now had to compete with Mötley Crüe, there was hardly any choice ('Crawlin'; 'Trick Bag'); (c) «gore» — now that the horror show was back, it needed fresh songs, and, since most Eighties' teens had a hard time understanding the concepts of «irony» and «metaphor», the images had to be slapped in their faces on a far more direct level ('Teenage Frankenstein'; 'The World Needs Guts' — the titles speak for themselves).

Cooper's expertise still shows through in that most of the tunes are mildly catchy: you take one or two listens, you look back at the song names, and you will get a devilish urge to hum them and make yourself look silly. (I still think it was a particularly dirty trick on Alice's part to make peo­ple sing along to the lines 'Where were you when the monkey hit the fan? Thrill my gorilla!'). The teens were impressed — to the point of putting Alice back on the charts (the record hit No. 59, his highest since Flush The Fashion). The new show was also successful, with Alice setting new records for the amount of blood'n'guts splattered around, getting into good old confrontations with local authorities, and, overall, having a mighty good time with it all. And he probably nee­ded this — who knows, maybe if he did not succeed in this corny comeback, his confidence would have been shattered forever and we would have been deprived of his later artistic succes­ses (not to mention that he could have easily gone back to drinking).

But to understand is one thing, and to forgive and enjoy is another. When your comeback single, presumptiously titled 'He's Back (The Man Behind The Mask)', is not even a bona fide rocker, but a goofy pop song propelled by the cheapest synthesizer patterns in existence, not to mention a legitimate part of the soundtrack to Friday The 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (!), you know for sure this is not a record that is going to go down in history as a classic. What you do know for sure is that it is just one more piece of evidence of how deep down the drain mainstream taste had gone in ten years. In 1973, the world wanted Alice Cooper to give it Billion Dollar Babies; in 1986, the world was fairly happy to have Constrictor. Play them back to back. Taste the difference. Times have sure changed, haven't they? Please join me in my thumbs down.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Aretha Franklin: Songs Of Faith


1) There Is A Fountain Filled With Blood; 2) Precious Lord (part 1); 3) Precious Lord (part 2); 4) You Grow Closer; 5) Never Grow Old; 6) The Day Is Past And Gone; 7) He Will Wash You White As Snow; 8) While The Blood Runs Warm; 9) Yield Not To Temptation.

Upon release, Aretha Franklin's groundbreaking debut caused a serious stir among the musical elites of the day, what with its innovative concept of a mini-musical built around Bram Stoker's Dracula. Starting with the ominous introduction of 'There Is A Fountain Filled With Blood', it is vividly remembered for Aretha as Lucy Westenra's stirring aria ('You Grow Closer', as the Count grows clo­ser), the creepy seduction monolog of guest star Christopher Lee ('Never Grow Old', in­deed), the terrifying chorus of vampiric henchmen ('He Will Wash You White As Snow'), the triumphant evil of 'While The Blood Runs Warm' that puts Wagner to shame, and the sudden, deus-ex-machina, but still heartwarming happy ending of 'Yield Not To Temptation', as the forces of Light manage to rally around the victim and drive off the Terror... you wish!

Okay, so who could actually resist imagining this bit of Cooper-meets-Coppola fantasy upon gla­n­cing at the track listing for the first time? And is it really our fault if so many subjects and titles of gospel hymns involve the good old blood-'n'-guts imagery? In any case, it certainly is a little disappointing when you put on the record, and, instead of this promising model, it turns out to be a bunch of crappily recorded gospel hymns, performed by Aretha and a choir of highly pro­fe­s­sional church­goers and highly amateurish singers during a service held by her father, the Rev. C. L. Franklin, in his own little parish in Detroit.

The Reverend was a very active promoter; not only did he put his daughter in the Lord's service at the earliest age that the Lord would admit servants, he went so far as to put her under contract with Checker Records, to use every possible opportunity to spread the Lord's word in as many ways as possible. (For that matter, the Reverend was one of the first Reverends to record his own sermons and distribute them through the LP medium; God can only wish he had more PR agents like this).

It is somewhat pitiful that he did not strive for a better ambience — the recording is really, really poor. The piano, played by Aretha herself, wobbles and floats, the chorus is mostly unfocused, and the ad-libs of 'yes, yes', 'praise the Lord' and suchlike sometimes sound as if they were overdubbed at random, or as if it never mattered to anyone in the audience at the time that the ad-libs should punctuate specific moments in the singing rather than just be there. On the other hand, there is probably something to be said for authenticity; we do not have that much solid sonic evidence for gospel conventions in the 1950s, and Songs Of Faith is at least a decent example.

Now for the main point. The album was recorded when Aretha Franklin was fourteen years old, and it already gives us her voice and fiery personality as fully established. In fact, she is far more inspired — and inspirational — on here than on any of her records from the next ten years on Columbia. She does not go for subtlety, and she does not try to capture any of the possible nuances of these hymns like, say, Mahalia Jackson; at 14, she is much more intent on simply set­ting the house on fire, and does she ever do it! The Reverend had the good sense of thrusting the only good mike in the church into close proximity with his daughter's oral tract, and Aretha's singing rules supreme over every other sound; but something tells me she'd do almost as good if the mike were at the other end of the building. The power buildup is amazing — you do have to keep in mind that it comes from a 14-year-old all the time, but that is the only condition necessary to accumulate a ton of respectable admiration.

Admiration does not necessarily mean enjoyment: straightforward gospel is a tough genre to en­joy unless you are a Jesus freak, and wall-rattling power alone is not sufficient to redeem its weak sides. But I cannot deny the basic thrill of accessing this experience, nor, of course, the tremen­dous historical importance; the brainy side demands that the album receive a thumbs up based on these considerations. For the record, Songs Of Faith can also be found under a million other titles, such as The Gospel Soul Of Aretha Franklin, Aretha's Gospel, You Grow Closer, Ne­ver Grow Old, and, of course, Dracula: A Gospel Mini-Musical.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Bessie Smith: Complete Recordings Vol. 1


CD I: 1) Downhearted Blues; 2) Gulf Coast Blues; 3) Aggravatin' Papa; 4) Beale Street Mama; 5) Baby Won't You Please Come Home; 6) Oh! Daddy Blues; 7) 'Tain't Nobody's Bizness If I Do; 8) Keeps On A-Rainin' (Papa, He Can't Make No Time); 9) Mama's Got The Blues; 10) Outside Of That; 11) Bleeding Hearted Blues; 12) Lady Luck Blues; 13) Yodling Blues; 14) Midnight Blues; 15) If You Don't, I Know Who Will; 16) Nobody In Town Can Bake A Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine; 17) Jailhouse Blues; 18) St. Louis Gal; 19) Sam Jones Blues; CD II: 1) Graveyard Dream Blues; 2) Cemetery Blues; 3) Far Away Blues; 4) I'm Going Back To My Used To Be; 5) Whoa, Tillie, Take Your Time; 6) My Sweetie Went Away; 7) Any Woman's Blues; 8) Chicago Bound Blues; 9) Mistreatin' Daddy; 10) Frosty Morning Blues; 11) Haunted House Blues; 12) Eavesdropper's Blues; 13) Easy Come, Easy Go Blues; 14) Sorrowful Blues; 15) Pinchbacks — Take 'Em Away!; 16) Rocking Chair Blues; 17) Ticket Agent, Ease Your Win­dow Down; 18) Bo Weavil Blues; 19) Hateful Blues.

Typically, one's acquaintance with the «urban blues» of the roaring decade begins with Bessie Smith — and, also typically, ends there, because it takes the modern listener a long time to get settled into that creaky, hissy, monotonous, faraway groove, and not everyone can make it at all, much less become interested in exploring that groove even further. Still, it is not very difficult to understand what exactly was it that charmed audiences back then in this kind of music — and what it is that makes the retro-fan share the same sentiments almost a century later.

It is much harder to understand and explain what it is, exactly, that sets Bessie Smith so far apart from all the other innumerable «blues queens» of the day: Ma Rainey, Mamie Smith, Clara Smith, Alberta Hunter, Lucille He­gamin, Ida Cox, Sippie Wallace... the list is really endless, and all of them were first-rate entertainers in their own right. And yet, it is not just some arbitrary histori­an's choice that randomly picked Bessie from this crowd and set her on a particularly impressive pedestal. The fact is that the blues boom of the 1920s did not properly set in until the arrival of Bessie, and, even though she was far from the first blues queen to appear on record (Mamie Smith had her beat by three years at least), it was she that, almost overnight, turned the blues re­cording business from a modest kingdom into a huge empire — rightfully earning the title of «Em­press Of The Blues», under which she was billed throughout most of the decade.

The reason certainly does not lie in the music, or the arrangements. Song-wise, Bessie was recor­ding more or less the same compositions as everyone else — sometimes borrowing songs that had already become hits with her competition, sometimes giving them away, according to the co­mmon rules of the trade. As for the accompaniment, it is certainly hard to complain: almost from the beginning, after a brief stint with pianist and (rather ruthless) promo man Clarence Williams, her main partner was Fletcher Henderson, one of the biggest piano men of the decade, whose tire­less «flourishing» graces a lot of these tracks and seriously raises the stakes in the beauty depart­ment. But still, there is no denying that many blues queens back then got prime backing from dex­terous jazz and blues musicians.

Obviously, the public was buying not because it wanted to hear more of Fletcher Henderson, but because it needed all the magic it could get from Bessie herself. So, what was that magic, and can we still perceive it, being so far removed from its time?

The way I see it, Bessie represented the first step on a long emotional journey whose purpose is to free performing art from its performing conventions and to imbue it with realistic emotion. When you listen to the other «queens» of the time, what you get is essentially show-biz. Now do not get me wrong: when you listen to Bessie, what you get is also show-biz. But the first show-biz is show-biz presented as show-biz, whereas Bessie's show-biz is awesomely more life-like. Roughly speaking, she sings it like she means it, while such performers as Mamie Smith or Alberta Hunter would sing it like they were expected to sing it.

This point will become very simple and obvious if, for instance, one listens to Alberta Hunter's 'Downhearted Blues' and Bessie's rendition of the same song — her very first recorded side — in a row. Hunter is cute, elegant, and pleasant; she hits all the right notes, but, essentially, sounds like she is mostly doing it just for the applause. Her 'gee, but it's hard to love someone, when that someone don't love you' certainly does not sound like it is really coming from someone in painful love with someone else. Bessie, ditching the lightweight vaudeville horns, with nothing but Cla­rence Williams' minimalistic piano behind her back, takes it to a whole different level. It is not just that her voice is deeper and stronger; it is that she really modulates it to fit the lyrics and the general mood, actually putting the blues back into the blues where the blues belong.

Formally, much of this is still «vaudeville» rather than true blues, but emotionally, this is troubled music, and even though Bessie's own troubled times, aside from some tumultu­ous personal rela­tions, ended pretty soon after she began her recording career, this never impacted her ability to deliver music that people could properly relate to, rather than just use it for parties. Can people still relate to it? Well, take my own case: while I have learned to enjoy female urban blues as such, almost none of it has managed to seriously stick in my mind — and yet, at the same time, 'Downhearted Blues', 'Gulf Coast Blues', 'Baby Won't You Please Come Home', the absolutely powerhouse 'Tain't Nobody's Bizness If I Do' (a classic that nearly every bluesman has performed since and not a single one has performed better), 'Lady Luck Blues' — these are just some of the tunes from this first volume of recordings that have struck a deep chord with me.

Keep in mind that I mentioned «first step»: in 1923, «emotional» blues singing was too young yet to include screaming one's head off, going from shrill to hushed in a matter of seconds, or ad-lib­bing whatever impulse came into your head like crazy. The inexperienced listener should not be ex­pecting a Janis Joplin here, or an Aretha Franklin, or even a Billie Holiday, even though all three were clearly indebted to Bessie, directly or indirectly (and Billie, in particular, used to sing quite a bit of Bessie's material). In essence, this is traditional, gimmick-free singing — but very human, very approachable, and, while we're at it, quite powerful: most of the «strong, indepen­dent» women of the more recent eras of pop music really sound like vague, insecure bimbos next to the strength and confidence that Smith exudes on almost every performance.

Obviously, the Complete Recordings series, even for giants like Bessie, are overkill, and she does not always sing with the same level of intensity, not to mention that much of the material just does not have any pre-written hooks to latch on to. There is also a horrendous recording that, for some stupid marketing reason, pairs Bessie with Clara Smith, a decent performer in her own rights — but together they form The Hungry Cat Duo, singing so drastically off-key that the only purpose of it must have been to imply that they should never be put on the same record again.

But this is obligatory nitpicking — when you strive for completism, you should know beforehand that not everything is going to be great. On the positive side, these cannot even be called the for­mative years: Bessie was just as fantastic on her first records as she was on her last — fresher, in fact, and with an overall higher proportion of truly timeless classics. Only historians need access to all the 38 tracks on here, but regular music lovers who do not have access to at least a dozen have missed a good friend. Thumbs up.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Beach House: Devotion


1) Wedding Bell; 2) You Came To Me; 3) Gila; 4) Turtle Island; 5) Holy Dances; 6) All The Years; 7) Heart Of Chambers; 8) Some Things Last A Long Time; 9) Astronaut; 10) D.A.R.L.I.N.G; 11) Home Again.

If Beach House want to become the AC/DC of dream pop, they are well on the way with their second album. Nothing has changed: each single part of the general description of their sound in 2006 is equally applicable here. This concludes the most significant part of my review, but per­haps a little postscriptum is in order.

First, they may be a little fuller and plumper here; after all, a debut is always a debut, and you al­ways learn a little by the time you start producing your sophomore effort. So the keyboards are more dense, and the pssht-pssht percussion more muffled and thus less annoying. The singing is more trying, especially on songs like 'Gila' where Legrand experiments with pitch, and on 'Heart Of Chambers', where she shows her range (which actually exists). And they produced no less than three different musical videos, which is about two more than before. Progress!

Second, I really like the two songs mentioned above. They are melodic, evocative, and catchy, and just about the only two songs on the record whose magic actually works. Why, I have no idea. Certainly not because of the lyrics that typically look something like this: 'In your heart of cham­bers where you sit / With your picture books and ancient wit / In that nook I found you / So old and tired / Would you be the one to carry me?' If this verse looks okay to you, how about the next one: 'Made our iron bed side cold as graves / So we stoke the organs that may comfort grace / And they conjured spirits to make you smile / Would you be my long time baby?'

But it is true: my stoked organs do comfort grace and conjure spirits to make me smile whenever I hear that song. It is suitably stately, appropriately grand, and mixes traditional melody and inno­vative incomprehensibility with enough conviction to register itself in my mind. So does 'Gila', whose point, as I see it, is to create an old-time feeling of nostalgia constrained by a tragic — but not thoroughly tragic — understanding of being unable to satisfy that feeling. Actually, this is pretty much what Beach House are all about: recreate the future by exploring the past. Or was that vice versa?

Sadly, the two singles seem to be the pivotal elements around which I can only see a lot of end­lessly revolving filler. This is inevitably what happens when you record a bunch of same-sound­ing tunes, two or three of which are notably stronger than the rest. By including 'Gila' and 'Heart Of Chambers', they made me think of individual songs rather than the overall picture, and where Beach House worked primarily as homebrewn enchanting ambience, Devotion attempts to put on slightly different faces as it goes along, and it does not work. Once 'Gila' is replaced by the far less interesting 'Turtle Island', you may feel a pang of disappointment, and since nothing kills magic more efficiently than a good pang of disappointment, Devotion may crumble right under your very eyes, as it very nearly crumbled before mine.

Then again, it may not. If you loved Beach House — and I never loved it — you will never be disappointed by the follow-up. Instead, you will feel that Legrand's nonsensical lyrics merely re­flect the existence of a parallel world, difficult to understand on the part of a mere mortal, and that you are ready to accommodate yourself to its living conditions, even if, as a side effect, they involve listening to stupid electronic percussion. And I will try to understand your feelings, even if I will have a decidedly hard time learning to respect them. In the meantime, I will surreptitious­ly whisk 'Gila' and 'Heart Of Chambers' off this record and spoil your fun by giving the rest a mischievous thumbs down. This is just not my ideal of a good dream-pop album.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Alice In Chains: Alice In Chains


1) Grind; 2) Brush Away; 3) Sludge Factory; 4) Heaven Beside You; 5) Head Creeps; 6) Again; 7) Shame In You; 8) God Am; 9) So Close; 10) Nothin' Song; 11) Frogs; 12) Over Now.

Sometimes lovingly called Tripod by the fans due to its cheerful album cover, depicting a world-weary dog with three legs on the front cover. For that matter, there is also a man with three legs on the back, but most people prefer to pay attention to the dog — probably since the dog fits in so well with the overall mood of the record, whereas the three-legged man only adds confusion.

And that mood cannot even be called «depressing». «Depression», after all, is a sort of human condition, an emotional state that can be transmitted from one person to another or, in exceptional cases, transmutated into an art form. The songs on Alice In Chains, on the other hand, go way be­yond this, in that they are purged of emotion, kind of like the actors in a Robert Bresson movie had been purged of acting by their director. If Facelift and particularly Dirt represented the ago­nizing stage, the victim lashing and thrashing in meaningless, but terrifying, fury, Tripod is the paralysis stage — there is still some occasional limb twitching, but mostly the victim just stares into space with beady eyes, hardly capable of caring about anything any longer.

Genre-wise, the record has frequently been categorized as a form of «sludge metal», an associa­tion that is hard to bypass considering that one of the songs is even called 'Sludge Factory'. I am nowhere near close to being an expert on sludge metal, but certainly Tripod bears only a superfi­cial resemblance to the likes of Eyehategod and their brethren, due to Cantrell trading in the me­tallic crunch of his essentially pop riffs for a more complex, less accessible mix of crackling, noi­sy rhythm tracks and downer vibratos. But the proverbial sludge metal I have heard, ranging from truly impressive to utterly corny, makes you want to thrash, break, and kill (in the best of cases — the very jerks who are playing it). Tripod, however, makes you want to be thrashed, broken, and killed, and the sooner the better.

I cannot bring myself to memorize most of the songs, even though some are quite long ('Sludge Factory' clocks in at 7:12, and 'Frogs' overdoes it by one more minute). Yet I cannot forget the overall effect. In terms of absolute heaviness, these melodies do not manage to beat Dirt; but the length, and the «droning» effect of most of them, can wreck the listener's nerves far quicker. And if the songs proper do not do their job well, the extended codas will quickly mop up whatever tra­ces of life are still preserved. The creepiest of these is the doom-drenched ending of 'Frogs', re­plete with calm, creepy, ad-libbed delirium from Staley: ' the wall I scraped... you... I gotta wake... it comes this way... to drown this ache... hate... never gonna fuck with me again... man's own clean slate... don't fuck with me again... makes your eyes dilate... makes you shake...'

Actually, Layne does not even sing all that much; most of the time he just recites the lyrics, and when he does sing, he usually goes for the simplest notes and patterns, or sings in unison with Cantrell. But it is not as if he were disinvolved: on the contrary, he wrote most of the lyrics, and plays just as central a part on the record as before. He simply plays himself — the Layne Staley of this record is probably very much like the real Layne Staley who was, at the same time, enter­ing the last phase of his living nightmare. Even the few songs where he tries to raise his voice, such as the powerful 'Again', it is like witnessing the helpless anger of somebody bound hand and foot, unable to make a single movement and simply going crazy in the head.

Few people will want to listen to this record frequently. To be able to use it as background music, one would have to be an experienced neurosurgeon, and as for concentrated listening, once is enough to understand its power and significance, twice is enough to prove to yourself that your nervous system is working fine, but thrice will be pushing it. It does have a few «breathers» pla­ced in strategic points. The ballad 'Heaven Beside You', continuing the softer line of Cantrell's art as seen before on Jar Of Flies, is beautiful, and the album does not close with the death rattle of 'Frogs', but rather with the light, catchy pop-rock of 'Over Now', with Staley offering a half-hear­ted consolation to the listener: 'Yeah, it's over now, but I can breathe somehow... Guess it's over now, but I seem alive somehow'. Not for long, Layne, not for long.

Tripod does not, and should not, exist on its own; it is a fitting conclusion for the trilogy that began with the battle between life and death on Facelift, continued with death triumphant on Dirt, and now suitably ends with a detailed gloating over the coffins. But each part of the trilogy per­formed its duties as best as it could, and even if Tripod is not the most alluring part of it — how could it even hope to be? — it is the perfect conclusion, and the heart of the listener can grieve over it with the same passion with which the brain is able to rejoice at its marvelous conception and execution. Thumbs up, no question about it.

Friday, February 19, 2010

A-ha: East Of The Sun, West Of The Moon


1) Crying In The Rain; 2) Early Morning; 3) I Call Your Name; 4) Slender Frame; 5) East Of The Sun; 6) Sycamore Leaves; 7) Waiting For Her; 8) Cold River; 9) The Way We Talk; 10) Rolling Thunder; 11) (Seemingly) Nonstop July.

This is good shit. It does not exactly light my fire, but it does not annoy me, either, and that is no mean feat for a mainstream pop album from 1990. This is where A-Ha first tried to become a «real» band, trading in some of their rusted synth gear for more traditional instruments — guitars, pianos, drums, even some brass and some strings. Electronica still provides the atmospheric back­grounds, but overall, this is definitely not «synth pop». Ironically, it also marked the start of their commercial decline — apparently, some of the old fans felt betrayed (indeed, what could ever be a more awful downer than hearing an actual boring old piano instead of a brand new Casio?), and new fans would rather dig in to groovier, trendier stuff emanating from the likes of Manchester.

But for me, this might just be the ultimate A-Ha experience. They may have betrayed the child­hood dreams of their oldest admirers, but they certainly have not abandoned the quintessence of their style. As usual, there is plenty of cool grace flying around, plenty of autumnal depression, plenty of old-style romanticizing, and plenty of pop hooks. And, in fact, the switch to traditional instruments makes them work harder for it: the arrangements have to be more complex, the melo­dies slightly less predictable, the singing more upfront. Like it or not, East Of The Sun is quite a masterful construction.

Some tracks are very easy to deride, particularly the ones where the band try to «rock out». Upon first listen, something like 'Cold River' feels like a highly stupid attempt at a «tough» sound that does not at all fit in with the band's personality. The obvious Beatles reference at the beginning ('Asked a girl if she needed a ride, she said, "sure babe, but I wanna drive"') may also seem irrita­tingly flat. But then you could throw the same accusation at the Beatles themselves, couldn't you? Wasn't 'Drive My Car' a stupid attempt at a «tough» sound? Hardly — it was a well-conceived pop-rocker that stopped at the exact borderline between «strong and catchy», something the Bea­tles did well, and «tough and aggressive», something they did not believe in with the same ease and, therefore, could not transmit all that well.

The same happens to A-Ha: they never overstep their boundaries, and even 'Cold River', with its thumping bass, bashing drums, flat lyrics, and Harket singing in a more rock'n'rollish manner than usual, is tolerable fun. Although, to be sure, I like the doom-laden 'Sycamore Leaves' a hell of a lot more — nothing beats its funereal organ rhythm and solo. Add an extra few dozen layers of gui­tars and keyboards, and one could pass it off for a lost Cure classic.

Most of the album's material continues, however, in a softer vein. 'Crying In The Rain' is their first attempt at covering outside material — and the selection of a Carole King/Everly Brothers number is more than appropriate and in very good taste, not to mention the symbolic gesture of placing it at the start of the album, as if to stress the straight line of development from the Everlys right down to A-Ha: sacrilegious for some, perhaps, but factually true. 'Early Morning' and 'Slen­der Frame' are minimalistic, catchy, inoffensive adult contemporary, elegantly woven around the denser, more evocative mini-worlds of the pompous 'I Call Your Name' and the dreary title track. And then, finally, the unpredictable ending: an intimate ballad, just a little acoustic guitar and a piano, with Harket crooning out the lyrics as sweetly and nonchalantly as possible.

Who knows: once the novelty of A-Ha's «classic» synth-pop era albums finally fades away along with my nostalgia-ridden generation of the Eighties, East Of The Sun may take its rightful place as the album to remember these guys by — it already sounds far more timeless than Hunting High And Low and even Scoundrel Days. In the meantime, I will do my own tiny part by adver­tising it with a straightahead thumbs up. Good, good stuff.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

AC/DC: Fly On The Wall


1) Fly On The Wall; 2) Shake Your Foundations; 3) First Blood; 4) Danger; 5) Sink The Pink; 6) Playing With Girls; 7) Stand Up; 8) Hell Or High Water; 9) Back In Business; 10) Send For The Man.

For a band that much busy with promoting a dumb image, AC/DC certainly raise quite a few com­plicated issues. For instance — we all know that AC/DC are generally as good as their riffs, but what is it, exactly, that makes an AC/DC riff, or, in fact, a hard rock riff in general, so utterly great for the body and soul? And what is it that makes an AC/DC riff boring and generic? And why would most — not all, but most — people agree on the greatness of the riffage in 'Hells Bells' or 'Whole Lotta Rosie', while at the same time failing to notice anything special about the riffage on 'Flick Of The Switch' or 'This House Is On Fire'?

Or — vice versa — some fans and critics, even those convinced that Fly On The Wall represents AC/DC's all-time lowest point, would still note that the title track, however, is sort of okay, or even «excellent». How could that happen? 'Fly On The Wall' (the song), to my ears, has always seemed the weakest start ever to an AC/DC album, a return to the power chord sludge of the 1981 album, a song that could have been slapped together in three minutes on a particularly lazy day. Does it even have a riff? Can one hum it? Can one appreciate it? If so, how and why can one ap­preciate it and another even fail to notice it...?

These are all interesting questions, and to discuss them is perhaps more appropriate within the review of a mediocre album than an excellent one. But since I do not even have a hypothetical answer, let us just skip the theoretical part and concentrate on the record for a while. By 1985, AC/DC were getting older, and their schtick was already illustrating the definition of «predictab­le» in every thesaurus, so it is no wonder that fans and critics alike were not at all happy with Fly On The Wall. Today, in retrospect, the album still stands as a fine testament to AC/DC's tenacity — coming out at the height of the hair metal boom, it was, nevertheless, firmly and frighteningly true to the band's style. Even the drums (now played by new band member Simon Wright, having replaced Phil Rudd due to the latter being sacked for non-disciplinary behaviour) have not been enhanced by any modernistic electronic effects — leaving AC/DC probably the only classic rock act of that era so steadfastly clinging to the past.

History has rewarded them with the last laugh: today, Fly On The Wall is one of the few hard rock albums of 1985-86 that does not sound ridiculously dated. If only its material stood up to the production values, we would all be sitting pretty. Alas, the songwriting has once again taken a sharp downturn, and the lack of focus on the title track is but one indication. None of the tracks at all have persisted in the band's live setlist, and some are just silly macho throwaways that are on­ly production-wise better than the goofy hair metal crap they were supposed to contest with. 'Send For The Man'? 'First Blood'? 'Back In Business'? (The latter's title probably tries to somehow al­lude to 'Back In Black', but how could this unimaginative hard-funk riff, somewhat reminiscent of Rainbow's 'Man On The Silver Mountain', ever hope to compete with the genius simplicity of the bang - ba-da-bang - ba-da-bang of 'Back In Black'?) All of these songs have the required crunch and punch, but AC/DC pride themselves on being a rock'n'roll band, and this is not rock'n'roll — this is pompous heavy rock posturing, and it is boring at best and ugly at worst.

Still, some nice rock'n'roll is present: the riffs seem noticeably better on songs like 'Shake Your Foundations', 'Sink The Pink', 'Playing With Girls', and 'Hell Or High Water', and these also con­tain the catchiest, most likeable choruses — getting dumber with each year, as most people who have ever tried singing along to "ai-yee-yay-yay, shake your foundations!" will probably agree, but still preserving the fun quotient. Which makes Fly On The Wall very inconsistent, but cer­tainly not a complete disaster, as was thought at the time.

One major disadvantage is that AC/DC's magic only really works when all the ingredients are equally strong; lose or weaken just one and the seams will start showing. By 1985, Brian John­son's voice had finally begun giving in to all the strain, embarking on its transition from the most powerful high-pitched scream of 1980 to the «stuck pig hoarse rasp» of 1990. At that time, the problems were showing up more frequently onstage than in the studio; but, for some reason, the band decided that it was necessary to «mask» them all the same — so they put some kind of ugly echo or reverb effect on the vocals, for once, yielding to technological pressure.

The result is that the singing problem still remains and is well visible, but the vocals tend to sim­ply disappear behind the guitars' wall of sound — to the point that sometimes I almost fail to no­tice when exactly the vocalist is supposed to come in, or, at least, when exactly his ad-libbing in the song intro finally shifts into the verse melody. This is totally frustrating, particularly on the better songs: I cannot help thinking how, with improved mixing and production, 'Playing With Girls', for instance, could have turned into a fabulous classic, well on the level with Back In Black material. (Could have, I'm not taking any chances).

Throw in the strangest album title so far — the first AC/DC album title, in fact, to completely dump their power effect — and the unimpressive album sleeve (an actual fly on the wall? imagine that!), and there is no disputing the fact that the band has, indeed, ran into deep trouble. But I still give the album a moderate thumbs up, on the strength of its strong half and the bravery of its very existence in the age of Def Leppard and Mötley Crüe.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Alice Cooper: Dada


1) DaDa; 2) Enough's Enough; 3) Former Lee Warmer; 4) No Man's Land; 5) Dyslexia; 6) Scarlet And Sheba; 7) I Love America; 8) Fresh Blood; 9) Pass The Gun Around.

By a miraculous stroke of luck, Bob Ezrin, after a period of recuperation from all the stress cau­sed by The Wall, returned one last time to produce what is, today, very commonly recognized as the «lost gem» in Alice's catalog. Of course, all of his early Eighties' records are criminally un­der­rated. But the entire stretch from Flush The Fashion to Zipper Catches Skin, no matter how exciting from a general point of view, was certainly not very Cooperish: the theater vibe suppres­sed, the sci-fi New Wave elements replacing all the hard rock, and the entire balance tipped way too seriously towards the humor and irony end of things.

Dada is, of course, the name of an art movement, somewhat hinted at by the use of a modified Salvador Dali painting as the cover — even though Dali himself was never part of that movement. It is hard to tell whether DaDa the album was in any way stimulated by the Dada trend, though, because, if anything, it quenches most of the surrealistic trends that ran through Cooper's previous albums — even with all of its references to vampires, it is still quite brutally realistic. More likely, the primary use of the title referred to baby talk, and the art connotations, if any, came as an after­thought.

With DaDa, Alice manufactured the impossible: retaining all the best qualities of his later work — incessant experimentation, modernistic production, etc. — he once again gave the fans a quin­tessentially Alice Cooper album, but darker, deeper, creepier than Welcome To My Nightmare ever hoped to be. The biggest difference is that DaDa is not exactly show business. Created and recorded by an essentially dying man — Furnier's alcohol problem was at its absolute peak — it was not accompanied by any subsequent touring, and, in fact, the songs would not easily lend themselves to any reasonable stage treatment. The general atmosphere of the record, some would say, is closely reminiscent of Berlin-era Lou Reed and The Wall-era Pink Floyd: hardly surpri­sing, considering Ezrin's involvement in both of these projects. In fact, it would seem that Bob's goal was to create a little mini-Wall for Alice himself. The continuity is most glaringly observed in the «looping» structure of the album, beginning with the recording of a baby saying 'Dada!...' and ending with the same — but it also deals with pretty much the same subjects throughout: ali­e­nation, parents-children conflict, addiction, psychosis, and guilt.

And, just like Waters was trying to build on his own emotional experiences and traumas, so does Alice transform this into his most personal album. How do we know this, when nothing is made particularly explicit? Well, obviously Alice's father did not sell him out on the streets for cash upon the death of his mother ('Enough's Enough'). In fact, Alice's father was an ordained Elder and anything of the sort would have become the Sacrilege of the Century. But the song, a slow-moving hard-rocker with «light prog» overtones, is so bleak in its lyrics and its arrangement that, no matter how shocking the subject is, it goes way beyond ordinary shock-rock: there is no over­riding desire here to gross out the audience, there is a mad drive to take it out on someone's Dad — someway, somehow.

After the father comes the brother: 'Former Lee Warmer' returns us to the well-explored territory of 'Dwight Fry' and 'Steven', now re-invaded with re-kindled passion and increased experience. Then comes the misogyny, weirdly joined with schizophrenia, in 'No Man's Land'. 'Dyslexia' of­fers one little drop of pure humor ("Is dis love, or is dys-lexia?"), before we are thrust into the hellish Middle Eastern paradise of S&M with 'Scarlet And Sheba', subjected to a poisonously vicious lashing of the stereotypical redneck in 'I Love America', and, finally, immersed into the romantic, but boring and depressing life of a vam­pire stalking its prey on 'Fresh Blood'.

Had all these songs been recorded five or six years earlier, they would have born a Stamp of the Silly; in the context of DaDa, even the ode to vampires takes on a personal aspect; its tired mid-temp funk groove may not be exciting per se, but it fits in very well with the concept of a vampire who keeps on doing his bloodsucking routine out of pure necessity rather than out of some sort of evil excitement and a sense of romantic destiny calling. Same thing with 'Scarlet And Sheba': the exotic sexual pleasures are presented neither as exciting/titillating, nor as dangerous/perfidious — the nagging chorus "I just want your body, Sheba, I don't want your brain" sounds like the prota­gonist does not really care all that much for the body either. Just the same old routine. Same old story. Same old whips and chains. Overfed, overspoiled, disgusted with everything in sight.

No wonder, then, that the album ends on an appropriately suicidal note and arguably the most per­sonal song the Coop ever gave us. 'Pass The Gun Around' is one of his cleverest titles (as much as cultural history has discredited the concept of puns, one has to admit that, in this context, the line "give everyone a shot" is just brilliant), and Ezrin cloaks the song in a gorgeously despe­rate anthemic veil, while the trusty Dick Wagner contributes what I find to be his best guitar solo on an Alice Cooper record — taking a few easily noticeable hints from David Gilmour, but adjus­ting the catharsis mood to his own early-Seventies over-the-top glam style, with breathtaking re­sults. In the end, 'Pass The Gun Around' is a song of epic proportions, tragically overlooked by the music world because it happened to be produced by the wrong artist at the wrong time — or, perhaps, because its subject matter was just too uncomfortable to be hailed publicly.

If it is at all true that great artists tend to produce their greatest art when totally strung out at the end of their rope, there is no greater proof of that than DaDa. The only thing that can, and will, prevent people from hailing it as one of the decade's finest achievements is bias of the «how can an Alice Cooper album not by the original band be anything but a shallow candy wrapper?» kind. Yet even Alice Cooper is human, and, as such, theoretically capable of communicating with his audience through some individual mutation of an art form. If it took him a decade of hard drin­king to get to this point, there definitely is something to be said for hard drinking; at least we can state that not all of that «Stoli Vodka» had been consumed in vain.

Hopefully, when the dust settles and the finest and brightest of our children's children's children begin exploring the Alice Cooper backlog without using 'Poison' or even 'School's Out' as the star­ting point, DaDa will occupy its rightful place of honour. Until that day, I can only give it a major joint thumbs up as a record that does a great job of wiring up the brain and rocking the heart at the same time. Furthermore, it can be a terrific, utterly non-banal way of getting into Ali­ce Cooper in the first place. Start with DaDa — and you will never want to end up with Trash.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Animals: With Sonny Boy Williamson


1) Sonny's Slow Walk; 2) Pontiac Blues; 3) My Babe; 4) I Don't Care No More; 5) Baby Don't You Worry; 6) Night Time Is The Right Time; 7) I'm Gonna Put You Down; 8) Fattening Frogs For Snakes; 9) Nobody But You; 10) Bye Bye, Sonny, Bye Bye; 11) Coda; 12) Let It Rock; 13) Gotta Find My Baby; 14) Bo Diddley; 15) Almost Grown; 16) Dimples; 17) Boom Boom; 18) C Jam Blues.

This record exists in many forms and varieties — the negative flipside of the lack of proper copy­right — but the 18-track one is probably the most comfortable, even if also the least true, since the last seven tracks, in fact, have nothing to do with Sonny Boy Williamson. But what all of this stuff does have in common is that everything was recorded sometime in late 1963, live at the Club A Go-Go in Newcastle, the Animals' principal stronghold at the time. Fairly surprisingly, the sound quality is very good — all the instruments are well discernible, and, since the audience probably consists of rowdy, but self-preserved coal miners instead of orgasming teenage girls, Eric's singing is not impeded by extraneous noises to the point that he cannot hear himself.

As for Sonny Boy Williamson II, he was an excellent and even innovative bluesman in his own right, and his touring in the UK, along the same lines as that of Muddy or Big Bill Broonzy, did a lot to popularize black music and, eventually, replace it with black-sounding white music. But it must be duly noted that, while performing, he had this nasty habit of jamming the whole length of his harmonica way deep down his throat, making it possible for him to punctuate the right notes with his uvula. This gave him a unique, inimitable sound — the only drawback was that, most of the time, he did not have the time to push it back whenever it was necessary to sing. Therefore, if you lack access to Sonny's records, but are nevertheless interested in his manner of performing, it is advisable to stuff a big chunk of wood or rock in your mouth and try to sing some generic 12-bar material in this condition. For additional authenticity, it is also recommended to knock appro­ximately half of your teeth out before proceeding.

If this sounds a little exaggerated and offensive, my only excuse is that it at least makes the pro­position seem somewhat interesting. Because otherwise, there is no point whatsoever in being in­terested in this kind of collaboration. Sonny Boy sounds better on the original studio recordings anyway, and the Animals, when backing him, sound exactly like your average backing band, with Price alone occasionally trying out some extra organ flourishes and Burdon probably sleeping it out backstage. Things get a little hotter on the duets, such as the lengthy rave-up of 'Nobody But You' (same as 'Talkin' 'Bout You', actually), but only because Sonny Boy is mostly absent from there, only coming in for a few seconds to trade some lines with Burdon — who, in his turn, is very busy ad-libbing stuff about Sonny Boy being the king of the blues and all.

As for the band's own set (sometimes found separately under the title In The Beginning), it is pretty well smoking hot. The vocal harmonies aren't worth shit (particularly on those songs that really really need them, e. g. Chuck Berry's 'Almost Grown'), but there is plenty of energy and good will throughout, and I am especially struck by how big Hilton Valentine's presence is on here — he is playing lots of sharp, hard-rocking solos in a very fluent and «mature» manner that somewhat reminds me of Keith Richards' typical stage playing about six or seven years later on. Very raw, dirty, with plenty of rock'n'roll feeling: the Berry numbers rock harder than anything the studio Animals produced in their original years.

The album's primary value is historical, of course, but it does give one a somewhat different facet of the Animals than the ones we are used to, and no fan of early British R'n'B should stay away from it. As a first acquaintance with Sonny Boy, it does not work at all — please do not let it dis­courage you from exploring his classic Chess singles — but as a farewell glance at the original Animals, it provides a convincing last-time ass-kicking. Thumbs up.