Search This Blog

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Al Stewart: Year Of The Cat


1) Lord Grenville; 2) On The Border; 3) Midas Shadow; 4) Sand In Your Shoes; 5) If It Doesn't Come Naturally, Leave It; 6) Fly­ing Sorcery; 7) Broadway Hotel; 8) One Stage Before; 9) Year Of The Cat.

By popular consensus, Year Of The Cat is not just the best Al Stewart album ever; it is, inas­much as we know, the only Al Stewart album, period. The man may have baked LPs like pan­cakes, both before and after, but no matter — popular conscience has logged 1976 as the Al Ste­wart year, and popular conscience is a bitch when it comes to dissenting opinions. The rest of the time, popular conscience tells us, was spent in the basement.

There is one nagging problem with this: frankly speaking, Year Of The Cat may be a master­piece and all that, but it is not really an Al Stewart album. It is Al Stewart providing his services of resident singer-songwriter to Alan Parsons, the true musical wizard behind this sound. Hardly a coincidence that Year Of The Cat was released about two months later than Parsons' own de­but (Tales Of Mystery And Imagination): by now, Alan had his own approach to art-rock fully fleshed out, and he was perfectly happy to impose it upon a good friend as well.

Not that there's any need to complain, mind you. Stewart's own musical palette was staying firm­ly the same: these here songs, even including the big fat hit single of the title track, are no better and no worse than his usual quality. So it was only natural for Parsons to try and see what he could do to make the material, based on the exact same folk rock chord progressions, sound not just up-to-date, but diverse and involving as well. The recipe is simple: cook it all up in the thick, echoey, mystically-pretentious overproduction of mid-Seventies art-rock.

As 'Lord Grenville' opens the proceedings, no holds are barred: big drums, rippling acoustic gui­tars, grim keyboards, and Spanish-tinged electric lead lines welcome you on the first bars, and the strings are not lagging far behind. And if you think that this sea of sound, in which Stewart him­self is merely a Robinson Crusoe latching onto a piece of timber, is perfectly suitable for the ope­ning number, be forewarned that it is going to be raging on every song on the album. («Raging», of course, is not the right word when you are dealing with a tin-can Alan Parsons production: eve­rything is raging only inasmuch as it is permitted to range by the Man In Control).

Those who hate the likes of Alan Parsons, thinking that the man represents everything that was rotten about «serious pop music» in the Seventies, should steer clear. But I, for one, cannot deny neither his imagination and creativity nor his ear for melody, and, when all is said and done, 'Lord Grenville' is a great cohesive work of art — if anything, listen to how marvelously the strings at the end of the song imitate the crashing of waves on the shore! Without his flourishes, the tune would be just another nice Al Stewart song; together, they molded it into a progressive epic that sounds extremely dated and completely fresh at the same time.

It is not hard to understand the immense popularity of the title track, either. Stewart happened to write a set of mysterious lyrics about a mysterious woman, with Humphrey Bogart references and a whole lot of appeal to all those looking for the meaning of life in extravagant romance. Parsons got the idea, and gave the song a perfectly radio-ready arrangement that had it all: head-bobbing rhythmics, acoustic guitar, electric guitar and lounge sax solos, and a combination of melancholia and elevated inspiration that grabbed everyone wanting to be grabbed. Is it really Stewart's «mas­terpiece»? I would never have thought that on my own. But that it was the perfect song to capture the minds of its generation on a summer day in 1976 — no question about that.

The rest of the album, sandwiched in between these two highlights, is generally of the same qua­lity, and occasionally suffers from monotonousness. I was quite happy to discover 'Sand In Your Shoes' and 'If It Doesn't Come Naturally' as two sunnier-than-the-rest Dylanesque inclusions, par­ticularly the former with its wintery Blonde On Blonde overtones and one of the most memorab­le chorus lines on the record — "and it's goodbye to my lady on the island...". But the other songs, be they the second big hit single 'On The Border', or 'Broadway Hotel' with its gypsy violin, or 'Midas Shadow' with its somnambulant electric piano, get sort of glued together in a never-ending celebration of the wedding between the modernistically morose and the canonically beautiful.

Do not make the mistake of equating Al Stewart with Year Of The Cat, even if it may still be the only record of his within easy reach of the bargain bins. To understand the man better, one would need to experience him outside the state of symbiosis with Parsons. But it is also true that that symbiosis never worked better than on the best songs on Year Of The Cat, and that the longer the title track will be followed by its army of sympathizers, the more hopes there are humanity will last a little longer. Could you love 'Year Of The Cat' and still be able to detonate a nuclear missile? Weird question, but, for some reason, it just popped into my head out of nowhere. Yes, and a big thumbs up both for the intelligent craftsmanship and for the good songs.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Aretha Franklin: Live At Fillmore West


CD I: 1) Respect; 2) Love The One You're With; 3) Bridge Over Troubled Water; 4) Eleanor Rigby; 5) Make It With You; 6) Don't Play That Song (You Lied); 7) Dr. Feelgood; 8) Spirit In The Dark; 9) Spirit In The Dark (reprise); 10) Reach Out And Touch (Somebody's Hand); CD II: 1) Respect; 2) Call Me; 3) Mixed-Up Girl; 4) Love The One You're With; 5) Bridge Over Troubled Water; 6) Share Your Love With Me; 7) Eleanor Rigby; 8) Make It With You; 9) You're All I Need To Get By; 10) Don't Play That Song (You Lied); 11) Dr. Feelgood; 12) Spirit In The Dark; 13) Spirit In The Dark (reprise).

Aretha's big, bulky, flashy show at the Fillmore West has become a love-hate affair amid critics and fans alike. Defenders and propagators never tire of repeating how terrific it was of Jerry We­x­ler to convince Aretha to drop her usual backing band (the one we heard on Aretha In Paris) for these shows and rely on King Curtis and the Kingpins instead — not to mention the addition of Billy Preston and the Memphis Horns, and Ray Charles himself for the encore! Skepticists, ho­wever, object with a smirk that the entire show was a humiliating sellout to white audiences, what with at least half of the setlist dedicated to Aretha's reinterpretations — sometimes forced and clumsy — of the Big White Hits of the day, and remark that to pass it for Aretha's greatest live album would be betraying the essence of soul.

On a factual basis, the skeptics are probably right. Wexler was constantly steering Aretha into that direction, and commercial considerations must have played a serious part in this. Then again, there is always the «bridging the racial gap» justification, and no one can ever state with certainty whether it was greed or gallantry lying at the bottom of it all. And once we get down to it, the real question, of course, is not whether Aretha had any real business covering these songs, but whe­ther or not she managed to make a good job out of it.

Not quite, I'd say. Of the four «white hits» covered during the show, 'Eleanor Rigby' remains as perfectly misinterpreted as it ever was, and (Bland) Bread's 'Make It With You' is no less awful in Aretha's version as it was in the original. I have mixed feelings over the famous cover of 'Bridge Over Troubled Water'; again, it is probably a reinterpretation that works much better if you have never heard the original — Franklinization of the song leads to a complete loss of the tender, ca­ring atmosphere provided by Garfunkel, and when the lady belts out "Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down", I'd suggest to steer clear: no one wants to be buried under three hun­dred pounds... oh, never mind.

In the end, what remains is Stephen Stills' 'Love The One You're With', a song that lends itself very well to the Aretha treatment, not to mention the great interplay between the horns and Pres­ton's jumpy organ. That is one great cover — friendly, rocking, and sincere-sounding — and it honestly makes one wonder just how much of the lady's own judgement went into those selec­ti­ons and what the hell prevented all these people from making all the right choices; it's not like there was any sort of limit to the material. Anything from 'Whole Lotta Love' to 'Long As I Can See The Light' would easily do, but no, they had to pick a Bread hit? Ridiculous.

No complaints can be voiced about the rest of the material. One of the most frantic 'Respects' in existence to open the show; 'Don't Play That Song' turned into a dazzling screamfest; eight minu­tes of a slow, steamy 'Dr. Feelgood' that challenge Tina Turner herself on the sexiness issue; and, best of all, a huge, sprawling, never-ending, but never-boring twenty-minute jam to conclude 'Spirit In The Dark', first with Ray Charles trading voiceovers with our heroine, then just letting the tape roll as the Kingpins and the Memphis Horns battle it out with each other. On formal gro­unds, this may be condemned as overkill, but these are some of the finest, if not the finest, R'n'B players of their era, and not for one second do I get the feeling that they are merely carrying on on autopilot because somebody forgot to tell them when to stop — they're going on strictly as long as the spirit is there (or until Aretha does tell them to "break it up!").

Regardless of the flaws, Live At Fillmore West is essential Aretha, a fact commemorated by several different releases of the album: mine is the 2-CD edition where the second disc adds alter­nate versions from other shows, plus some additional material like 'Call Me', but there is also a li­mited 4-CD edition that adds the King Curtis part of the show and may actually be a better buy if you're generous enough (note, however, that Curtis was not above lame white artist covers either — his 'Whiter Shade Of Pale' will not make the world forget Procol Harum any time soon). My thumbs up relate to any of these editions.

Monday, June 28, 2010

B. B. King: Blues Is King


1) Introduction; 2) Waitin' On You; 3) Introduction; 4) Gambler's Blues; 5) Tired Of Your Jive; 6) Night Life; 7) Buzz Me; 8) Don't Answer The Door; 9) Blind Love; 10) I Know What You're Puttin' Down; 11) Baby Get Lost; 12) Gonna Keep On Loving You.

Quite a few fans consider this rough follow-up to Live At The Regal as the superior experience, and they might just as well be right. The only problem is, despite being a fully official album, Blues Is King plays all the way through at solid bootleg quality — the sound is awfully thin and sparse. You do get to hear all of the instruments, but you hardly get to be overwhelmed by any­thing close to a coherent wall-of-sound.

Still, this is quite definitely a marking-time record; where Live At The Regal finally showed us the proper way to enjoy B. B. King's music, Blues Is King is the first firm proof of his ability to make the transition from one musical era into another without losing any of his relevancy or pub­lic appeal. Recorded in late 1966, at a time when white guitar heroes like Beck and Clapton had already started to revolutionize the role of their instrument in the world of pop music, and when the world was one step away from Jimi's stage appearance, Blues Is King shows that B. B. was firmly hip to the times, willing to get louder, shriller, and even a little dirtier to keep up with all the young British whippersnappers.

The singing is as solid as always, but the spotlight is 100% on «Lucille», which even gets its own introduction in the spoken credits section; most of the tracks feature mid-size extended solos that keep getting more and more complex and inventive and intense and «talkative». No single track stands out — curiously, the set list does not include any of his bigger hits — and there are no po­mpous blues medleys to underscore the «regal» status of the man, but everything is as sweaty/gri­tty as it could possibly get at the time, and the saxophone/organ backing is no slouch, either (es­pecially awesome are the sax/guitar duets such as during the coda to 'Buzz Me').

Actually, the set list is somewhat more monotonous than on Regal: slow blues and fast blues is all you get to hear, so, coupled with the tinny sound, this may not register at the top range of King's live albums. But for the diehard fan, this may be the one particular B. B. King experience to trump all the others: stark, staunch, uncompromising, loud, and who cares about the sound quality? the dirtier it is, the higher the chance it'll be your own personal love affair with the LP and no-fuckin'-body other's. Thumbs up, in support of this elitist idea.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Andrew Bird: Fingerlings 3


1) Grinnin'; 2) Dark Matter; 3) The Water Jet Cilice; 4) Measuring Cups; 5) The Happy Birthday Song; 6) A Nervous Tic Motion Of The Head To The Left; 7) Scythian Empire; 8) Dear Dirty; 9) Tin Foil; 10) Ethiobirds.

The third and, so far, last volume of Fingerlings hardly deserves a lot of words. It is slightly lon­ger than the other two, mainly at the expense of featuring a couple extra non-live (or «live in the studio») tracks that sort of spoil the principle, but you'd never guess it without additional research anyway. Chief among these is the ten-minute suite 'Ethiobirds', an unusually ambitious piece that I could only describe as «elevator muzak for paradise», with Bird's regular synthesis of folk rhy­thmics, Eastern melodies, and classical sonics stretched out to cover all the time it requires to make that elevator trip from Earth to Heaven, with the rhythm gradually fading out to make way for cloudy cloudy cloudy.

Casual Bird fans will want 3 primarily for that particular piece; without it, it is essentially more of the same — slightly altered twists on older songs ('Nervous Tic Motion', for instance, is springier and livelier in the live setting and showcases his seriously underrated whistling talents far more effectively) interspersed with «previews» of newer songs from the upcoming Armchair Apo­crypha ('Dark Matter', 'Scythian Empire'). 'Dear Dirty' is also an original that, as far as I know, has not yet showed up on any other record — a gloomy piece with blues overtones, unusual for its thumbful of bitter bile that Andrew, normally such a nice fella who prefers to mourn over bad things in life rather than to hate them, empties into the mix. 'Tin Foil' is yet another Happy Fami­ly cover that is a nice addition to anyone's collection of Happy Family covers. What else is there to say? Nothing. Maybe Andrew thinks so, too, seeing as how the series has been essentially dis­continued since 2006.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Ani DiFranco: Living In Clip


1) Whatever; 2) Wherever; 3) Gravel; 4) Shy; 5) Joyful Girl; 6) Hide And Seek; 7) Napoleon; 8) I’m No Heroine; 9) Amazing Grace; 10) Anticipate; 11) Tiptoe; 12) Sorry I Am; 13) The Diner/The Slant; 14) 32 Flavors; 15) Out Of Range; 16) Untouchable Face; 17) Shameless; 18) Distracted; 19) Adam And Eve; 20) Firedoor; 21) Both Hands; 22) Out Of Habit; 23) Every State Line; 24) Not So Soft; 25) Travel Tips; 26) Wrong With Me; 27) In Or Out; 28) We’re All Gonna Blow; 29) Letter To A John; 30) Overlap.

Ani’s prolific nature easily spreads over to the live setting: she has a never-ending «Official Boot­leg» series second in scope only to Pearl Jam (and third only to the Grateful Dead) — artistic commitment at its most maddening for completists. Non-completists, though, will most likely only want one sample of the lady’s stage creativity, and Living In Clip, essentially a 1990-96 career retrospective masking as a live 2-CD set, will do nicely.

Despite the unsettling length of this thing, its selection of songs, going heavy on recent material from Dilate but not really ignoring any of her other albums, is a great reminder of the fact that Ani DiFranco is, in fact, an accomplished songwriter (not to mention a fabulous picker) — one that she has an ugly knack of making us forget through massive overproduction. And since she honestly works her ass off in concert, playing with the same level of complexity that she shows in the studio, this passes off quite easily for a legit best-of compilation.

Most of the tracks feature her flexible power trio — herself, percussionist extraordinaire Andy Stochansky and Sara Lee on bass; ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘Both Hands’, however, get unexpected symphonic arrangements from the Buffalo Philharmonic (which sort of happened to turn up at the right time in the right place) that work brilliantly in the case of the former, which gets a sort of Ravel-style bravado sheen, and not so brilliantly in the case of the latter, which gets a sort of En­nio Morricone-style heroic intro and outro for no particular reason.

Discussing all the subtle changes that are supposed to justify separate ownership of the album would make me look like an Ani fan, so let us skip directly to the nasty part. There is almost ab­solutely nothing seriously wrong with the record bar one thing: the banter. Stage banter is an art (at least when you bother to include it on live albums), and Ani is, honestly, one of the clumsiest banterers that ever ventured out under the spotlight. Simply put, her «stage persona», to me at least, sounds exaggerated and artificial. All over the place, she drops tons of giggling, silly jokes and puns, life-on-the-road anecdotes and casual blabbering with Stochansky — stuff that would sound totally okay when shared with a bunch of friends at a local barbecue, but is extremely con­trived during a live show. I know, it is supposed to signify Friendship With The Audience, but these people in the audience are not her friends, and it all gives off some strange effect, as if she were saying, «hey I’m as human as all you guys out there, so I’ll laugh till you drop and tell jokes till you cry because how else are you gonna believe it?»

In short, it would have been far more effective if she’d bothered to insert her «humor» in the actual songs rather than in between them; as it is, this occasional transformation into Jerry Sein­feld’s sis­ter only detracts from the power of her strongest numbers. Fortunately, some of the lon­ger bits are segregated into separate tracks (‘Travel Tips’, etc.) that can be easily programmed out. With that little bit of personal alteration behind us, Living In Clip is another easy thumbs up for the lady, and an excellent, definitive full-stop to the first part of her career. Bring on the next one.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Anthrax: The Island Years


1) N.F.L.; 2) A.I.R.; 3) Parasite; 4) Keep It In The Family; 5) Caught In A Mosh; 6) Indians; 7) Antisocial; 8) Bring The Noise; 9) I Am The Law; 10) Metal Thrashing Mad; 11) In My World; 12) Now It’s Dark.

It is hard to imagine the Anthrax live sound significantly different from the Anthrax studio sound, unless, in a paroxism of cool, they’d want to baffle their fans by playing nothing but symphonic rearrangements of Phil Collins hits. This weakness of imagination, unfortunately, is in full agree­ment with reality, so the only problem of this live retrospective is that one who has already stu­died the studio albums needs it not.

Brief factual notes: all the tracks are from two shows with Belladonna still at the wheel, one in 1991, one in 1992; major emphasis is on the hits, although there are a couple surprises. e. g. ‘Me­tal Thrashing Mad'’from the early Neil Turbin era; and a joint performance of ‘Bring The Noise’ with Public Enemy is included, the only number to be seriously reworked from the original, but, as far as I can tell, seriously less focused and more chaotic.

Brief critical opinion: essential for slavery-bound fans and completists, but hardly worth the bo­ther for those without significant brain damage. To be «caught in a mosh» during an Anthrax show is, in all likelihood, an unforgettable experience (and one that I would not wish for myself even in exchange for world peace), but listening to such a show on record inevitably brings for­wards all the flubs and off-key singing, which, in a genre as demanding as thrash, are unpardo­nable. ‘Caught In A Mosh’ itself, for instance, starts off decent, but they totally ruin the chorus by failing to synchronize the vocals.

At its best, Live succeeds in replicating the power of the studio albums without augmenting it; at its worst, it shows how much care and rehearsal must have gone into the studio recordings, beca­use spontaneity is definitely not on these guys’ side. Not exactly a thumbs down, but it is hard to praise live albums whose main point is to certify that the artist did not suffer from stage fright.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Aerosmith: Classics Live


1) Train Kept A-Rollin’; 2) Kings And Queens; 3) Sweet Emotion; 4) Dream On; 5) Mama Kin; 6) Three Mile Smile / Reefer Head Woman; 7) Lord Of The Thighs; 8) Major Barbara.

This is just a stop-gap record put out while the boys were in rehab, purging their blood and sel­ling their soul. Classics? Absolutely. Live? Most assuredly. I am not so certain about the excla­mation mark, though. The LP is a rag-tag-grab-bag of performances both from the Live! Bootleg era and the Perry-less / Bradford-less stunt (although the liner notes do not specify most dates for each of the performances explicitly), and it boasts neither coherence nor quality.

The truth is that, while Aerosmith were consistently superb at the height of their mid-Seventies powers, from 1977 to 1984 the live performances were uneven and depended a lot on just how far strung out the band members were — the bad boys from Boston or the crap boys from Shitrock­ville? As a matter of fact, spontaneous mistakes and flubs are the essence of rock’n’roll, but no one has ever revoked the golden middle principle. For Live! Bootleg, where the band still had the strength to remain in charge, they made all the right selections — this particular setlist, though, must have been produced by a tonedeaf programmer in search of data to test his newly-program­med randomizing algorithm.

If you respect pre-Armageddon Steven Tyler as much as I do, don’t ever listen to the atrocious rendition of ‘Kings And Queens’ where the man obviously cannot keep up the high notes — it is, in fact, amazing how he can keep it up at all, what with all the crack and booze taking it out on each other inside his system, but why make us all involuntary witnesses of that battle? (And, whi­le we’re at it, Steve’s idea to reproduce the alarming synth-string-siren of the original with his own vocal cords is equally ugly). ‘Dream On’ is only marginally better: this time, the high notes come out decently, but... at the expense of all the other ones.

As for the rockers, they rock, but, without Perry and Whitford, it just isn’t the same. The other guys may have been okay with their own material, and may have given the paying fans a decent time, but as for the record — no, it just does not feel like they are able to pass on the same fervent conviction as is oozed out by Perry ninety percent of the time. One needs only compare the crack­ling improv on the original live 'Lord Of The Thighs’ from 1978 and the pro forma version on Classics. Or, perhaps, one does not even need to compare.

In short, most of this is about as listenably-mediocre as the lone old studio outtake with which the company tried to entice the fans (‘Major Barbara’, a lazy, plaintive cowboy waltz from 1973) — but even so, it is still a way more pleasant experience than having to sit through all of the band’s Nineties’ hits on their later live records in order to break through to the golden oldies, especially if one happens be much too anal about pressing the skip button.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Al Stewart: Modern Times


1) Carol; 2) Sirens Of Titan; 3) What's Going On?; 4) Not The One; 5) Next Time; 6) Apple Cider Re-Constitution; 7) The Dark And The Rolling Sea; 8) Modern Times.

Al Stewart could never take the place of Roger Waters. He lacks the prerequisite acid of evil, and he is too courteous to want to wash the listener with gallons of musically-processed bile. But eve­ry now and then, the need arises to consume some «Pink Floyd Lite» — music that would carry similar messages of fear, sadness, melancholia, betrayal, madness, etc., but without the overdri­ven intensity and spookiness of the classic Floyd sound. And since, deep down inside, Stewart's artistic and intellectual essence is not at all different from Waters', what a better way to get that «Pink Floyd Lite» sound than combining Al's usual schtick with Pink Floyd's lead engineer?

The coming of Alan Parsons on board means that things are going to get a bit denser and darker, and somewhat alarmingly in touch with what may loosely be termed as «the second wave of Se­venties' prog» — such bands as the Alan Parsons Project itself, for which the formal trappings and complexities frequently overshadowed the inadequate shallowness (or pompous absurdity) of content. But since at the heart of it all we still find Stewart's relatively simple, honest, clever, and essen­tially friendly folk rock, there is no need to worry. Modern Times may have survived with­out Parsons' production — in fact, I wouldn't say that Modern Times desperately need Parsons' production — but the man definitely adds an extra dimension to Al's sound that doesn't spoil any­thing; on the contrary, it sort of justifies the release of yet another album, even if the songs never tell us anything about Stewart that we didn't already know.

In fact, I do not have a good explanation for the fact that the album shot up to No. 30 on the Bill­board charts — up more than a hundred positions from the previous LP. We can hardly blame it on the Alan Parsons association: as solid as he made a name for himself with the engineering of Dark Side, people don't usually scoop up new albums because of their producers. Obviously, all the songs are good, and there are no pushing-it experiments like 'Roads To Moscow' or 'Nostra­damus' that can kill off a good idea midway through, but, the way I see it, this is just another col­lection of Stewart's usual caliber: repetitive folk-rockers and «folk-poppers» each of which con­tains a touching hook or two but each of which is also overlong and only saved by the fact that, like Dylan, he can come up with plenty of interesting lyrics to keep it up.

Nicest of the bunch are the fast ones — 'Carol' and 'Apple Cider Re-Constitution' — not just be­cause they have the toe-tappin' factor in their favor, but also because they are the best suited ones to Tim Renwick's fast, fluent and emotional playing style, even though the atmospheres are com­pletely different: moody and bitter on 'Carol', with Al sharpening his teeth on yet another female victim, sunny and romantic on 'Apple Cider', where the odd psychedelic lyrics do not suggest much in terms of finding a way out of this place ("You know London can make your brain stall") but the music is definitely escapist to the n-th degree.

The magnum opus, however, is the lumbering title track, on which Parsons unleashes all of his potential to create a kind of musical crescendo that echoes the best successes of Yes in the prog-rock genre, adding layer upon layer of guitars, keyboards, brass, and orchestration to elevate this initially humble tune about sharing a glass with an old friend to epic heights. Al himself hardly exists on the song's last two minutes at all, but he is definitely out there for the first six, and so the song reads like a dialog between Stewart, lazily melancholizing about the world that we have lost, and Parsons, who translates his melancholy into grand musical vision much the same way he would «translate» Edgar Allan Poe on his own album one year later.

Curiously, Modern Times lives up to its name in that none of the songs deal with historical sub­jects: perhaps Stewart thought that, for the time being, he'd exorcised his inner history demon and that it was time to deal with more actual matters. But he still deals with them in the same old fa­shioned ways, appealing primarily to old fashioned audiences, which is why the com­mercial suc­cess of the album is so puzzling in such a totally mid-Seventies manner. Is Modern Times really a giant step forward, as we sometimes read in musical guides? I don't believe so; the musical gui­des have simply been misled by too much chart statistics analysis. Is it yet another first-rate Al Stewart album? Unequivocally so; thumbs up.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Aretha Franklin: Spirit In The Dark


1) Don't Play That Song (You Lied); 2) The Thrill Is Gone; 3) Pullin'; 4) You And Me; 5) Honest I Do; 6) Spirit In The Dark; 7) When The Battle Is Over; 8) One Way Ticket; 9) Try Matty's; 10) That's All I Want From You; 11) Oh No Not My Baby; 12) Why I Sing The Blues.

Aretha's second LP from 1970 has eventually emerged as a major critical favorite, despite contai­ning only one hit. What a hit, though. When it was first released by Ben E. King, 'Don't Play That Song (You Lied)' was just a modest attempt at keeping up his chart presence — its lack of pre­tense to anything greater exemplified by the fact that it borrowed the rhythm track off his biggest hit, 'Stand By Me', but left behind that song's loyal intensity. In Aretha's hands (quite literally, by the way: she plays her own piano lines, and plays them in quite a confident and memorable way), it acquires a pop­pier, toe-tappier bounce that, melodically, still hearkens to the careless old days of 1962-63, and so gives us a good idea of what Ms. Franklin's early career might have been had she been for­tu­nate to sign up with Ahmet Ertegün from the very beginning, instead of wasting six fruitless years on a completely alien label.

Normally, though, a «classic» Aretha LP was supposed to contain at least two or three big chart hits with monster hooks, and Spirit In The Dark clearly did not set out for those goals. Instead, here was a conscious attempt to get closer in touch with the lady's blues and gospel roots, as well as give her more room to stretch out as a songwriter. The songs have been, as usual, recorded at several different sessions with several different bands, but there is almost as high an amount of cohesion here as on Soul '69 — and the final results are much stronger, since the songs are way more in touch with Aretha's own spirit, be it in the dark or in the light.

She is responsible for writing four out of twelve tunes — a personal record, or a family record if you add a fifth one contributed by sister Carolyn. Instead of Burt Bacharach, she covers Jessie Hill, B. B. King (twice!), and, least predictable choice ever — Jimmy Reed; you'd think that Jim­my's one-two-note-based, toothless-rambling vocalizations would be unadaptable for the Atlantic treatment, but apparently, nothing is unadaptable. The Rolling Stones may have shown more ima­gination in regard to the song while applying their own instrumental flourishes back in 1964, but in the vocal department, Mick Jagger is hardly the king to Aretha's queen.

In a more risky battle, Franklin takes on B. B. King and wins hands down on 'The Thrill Is Gone', giving the song a far grimmer reading, if only because straight-faced darkness is a mood that King always has to simulate, but to Aretha it comes quite freely when necessary. For some reason, Aretha and B. B. failed to team up, live or in the studio, to produce what would surely have been the definitive version — her singing, him playing — but perhaps, in the future, someone will find a way to overdub King's soloing on this here rendition? Actually, no less a talent than Duane Allman himself is listed in the credits as playing guitar on this number; but his presence is felt far sharper on 'When The Battle Is Over', as he duly gets into «battle mood» for this gospel number and adds crispness and «jaggedness» to this already spark­ling performance.

Aretha's own creations are surprisingly diverse: orchestrated balladry ('You And Me'), gospel R'n'B that tries to compete with Wilson Pickett (title track), Ray Charlesian soul ('One Way Ti­cket'), and even a fun throwaway mid-tempo boogie number advertising the comforts of a local restaurant ('Try Matty's'). None of these goes far enough to convince us of the lady's composing genius, but she never needed one — it's quite sufficient that they establish competent grooves over which she can spread her sincere emotions.

The bottomline is that nothing here can be counted as an individual masterpiece, but there are no slip-ups or catastrophes — it's solid rootsy-bluesy grit all the way through, and, consequently, one of the few Franklin albums (heck, perhaps the only Franklin album) that can be considered a coherent fourty-minute piece of honest art rather than a chance bag. It is not quite clear to me how, after such clear signs of slipping into the worst vices of the Seventies on This Girl, she ma­naged to reemerge in such a rejuvenated, cheese-free manner, but miracles sometimes happen even in the world of mainstream pop. A spiritually endowed thumbs up, of course.

Monday, June 21, 2010

B. B. King: Live At The Regal


1) Every Day I Have The Blues; 2) Sweet Little Angel; 3) It's My Own Fault; 4) How Blue Can You Get?; 5) Please Love Me; 6) You Upset Me Baby; 7) Worry, Worry; 8) Woke Up This Morning; 9) You Done Lost Your Good Thing Now; 10) Help The Poor.

Eventually, someone got it right: even if the live album format was not nearly as obligatory a companion for a performing artist in 1965 as it would be in just a few years, few people deserved a switch to that format any more than the B. B. of the Kings. Unfortunately, Live At The Regal's huge reputa­tion has been causing an almost equally huge backlash in recent years — what with most people falling for the «wanna know what B. B. King sounds like? Try out Live At The Regal» trap, or, even worse, the «wanna know what the blues is all about? How about getting Live At The Regal?» travesty.

But it does not work that way. According to hearsay, King himself never considered the final product to be all that great, which is telling, coming from someone who quite obviously is his own biggest fan. Listening to the Regal performance out of context is entirely useless; for most people, it will merely sound like an adequate blues concert. And reading all the rave-ups about how this is one of the most «fiery», «incendiary», «exciting», «involving» etc. performances of its time — come on now, who do these guys think they're kidding? Jerry Lee Lewis' Live At The Star Club — now that's excitement. Live At The Regal is polite entertainment.

Still, even today, with those early days of electric blues magic long concealed from us by the trash heaps of generic 12-bar hacks, all it takes to give Regal the appreciation it deserves is to listen to the twelve or so studio LPs that B. B. had to put out in order to gain the precious right to include a recording mike on stage. There, he was cornered; on stage, he is unleashed, and as cli­chéd as this phrase may sound, there is no better context in which to insert it. Playing whatever he wants, however he wants to play it, and for as long as he wants to play it (well, all right, in 1965 he still had himself some time constraints), the man finally gets to show that there is so much mo­re behind the polished surface of his hit singles — enough to convince even fans of the grimmer blues of Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker of his worthiness.

Some of the songs are played as several-movements «blues suites», where all it takes is a slight change of key in between bars to move from one type of wail to another; this may actually be bet­ter than inserting all the usual breaks, because there is no pretense of playing different songs, and the breaks, where they are present, generally indicate the transition into a general sub-style, of which B. B. has developed many: jump blues ('Every Day I Have The Blues'), boogie blues ('Ple­ase Love Me'), rumba blues ('Woke Up This Morning'), and soul blues ('Help The Poor').

Like every self-respecting entertainer, King likes to address the crowds — most often, over a mu­sical background from his backing band — and his ad-libbed bits diversify the atmosphere, ser­ving either as thematic links in between numbers (e. g. the seamless transition from 'Sweet Little Angel' to 'It's My Own Fault') or as justifications of the song's existence (for 'How Blue Can You Get?', he says, "...I would like you to pay attention to the lyrics, not so much to my singing or the band" — right on the money, because the song is lyrically arresting).

The unquestionable centerpiece of the album lies in the six and a half minutes of 'Worry, Worry', for the first time ever giving us an extended blues solo — two minutes of subtle blueswailing that sets the benchmark for so many things to come: this is not just generic improvisation, but an at­tempt to «play human» with the guitar, alternating bends, wobbles, stops, and starts in completely unpredictable and yet completely melodic ways. (Not to mention one of B. B.'s most impressive falsetto parts on record).

Understandably, Live At The Regal's historical importance — this is, after all, one of the few albums that are directly responsible for the birth of blues-rock as such — has forever oversha­dow­ed its hands-down value (much like, I must add, that of James Brown's Live At The Apollo, if it's all about barbecuing sacred cows). But then there is also no better spot to locate, assess, di­gest, and enjoy a young, rough-spirited, easy-going, eager to please, and, at the same time, not yet corporally or spiritually overweight king of the blues than Live At The Regal; even if it is no independent masterpiece, it is still a unique piece of history and identity. A sacred cow, after all, does not become sacred for nothing. Thumbs up.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Andrew Bird: The Mysterious Production Of Eggs


1) √; 2) Sovay; 3) A Nervous Tic Motion Of The Head To The Left; 4) Fake Palindromes; 5) Measuring Cups; 6) Banking On A Myth; 7) Masterfade; 8) Opposite Day; 9) Skin Is, My; 10) The Naming Of Things; 11) MX Missiles; 12) ~; 13) Tables And Chairs; 14) The Happy Birthday Song.

I freely admit that an album that is called Mysterious Production Of Eggs, sports a picture of a green-tinged zombie goat (sheep?) on the sleeve, and borrows the sign of a square root for the title of its first composition, is a little hard to take seriously. But do we really know all the in­tri­cacies of the mechanism of egg production? Do we understand all the peculiarities of the co­louring of domestic bovids? Have we thoroughly explored all of the properties of the square root function? And if not, what right have we to ridicule Andrew Bird's symbolism, which may just as much be the result of a stunning spiritual revelation as it may be a load of baloney?

Regardless — my working hypothesis is that all of this is a load of baloney. The percentage rate of wheat to chaff in Andrew's lyrics this time hovers around 1:9, according to my intuition, and the words matter only inasmuch as they have an intonation attached. Intonations include a lot of questions and just as many plaintive notes, once again confirming Bird's «nerdy whiner» status; but now he has pushed his brand of dream-pop even further, expanding the number of used inst­ruments (in particular, there is much more acoustic and electric guitar playing on here than ever before) and making the background arrangements ever more complex, and this creates a very strange final impression. If Weather Systems was his high-up-in-the-clouds cozy little ivory to­wer, one in which he could lock himself with his small dedicated audience and shun the corrosion of the rest of the world, then on Production Of Eggs he seems intent on somewhat augmenting the property. Still behind barbed wire, but the stakes have moved: now he is not so much defen­ding his claim to intellectual paranoia as he is propagating it.

In other words, Production Of Eggs is still «dreamy», but it isn't nearly as «chamber»-like as its predecessor. 'Fake Palindromes', for instance, is a huge-soundin' mother, with a sweeping power-pop violin assault that we have not heard since Swimming Hour; 'Skin Is, My' is a fully vocali­zed re-recording of 'Skin' with a much denser sound that almost approaches pop-punk on the "what a lovely sound" chorus; and 'The Naming Of Things' is a stately anthem on which the man throws in a pinch of Old Testament fervor (not that anyone would ever get the message — pre­suming one existed in the first place).

All three of these songs will appeal immensely, I am sure, to the average pop fan who likes his music loud and crunchy. But the true soul of the record probably still lies in tracks like 'Sovay' and 'Masterfade', gentile, vulnerable ballads that are as much soaked in the Elizabethan spirit as they are genuine creations of the XXIst century. Their sweet, melodic, melancholic vibe is com­pletely at odds with lyrics like "Then you realize that you're riding on a para-success of a heavy­handed metaphor" (much as the latter is true for Mr. Bird), but only if you make the mistake of trying to decipher them in some sort of literal way.

Or maybe the album's true soul lies in 'Opposite Day', a song that moves from Beach Boys-like choral harmonies to Beatles-like psychedelia to Nick Drake-like hush-folk in several crudely joi­ned movements — and deals with the issue of turning into a cephalopod as "laws of physics lose their sway" and "those who can't quite function in society at large got to wake up on this morning to find that they're in charge". Because over the course of these fifty-plus minutes, it is indeed Andrew Bird who is in charge over your senses, and is there any doubt about his own ability to "function in society at large"? Like I said — the man is trying to expand his corner of the market, quite deliberately so.

And, actually, he succeeded: it was Production Of Eggs that, after almost a decade of shadowy existence, put him on some more widely distributed musical maps. The album got positive res­ponses from sources as distant from each other as Pitchforkmedia and Robert Christgau, and pre­t­ty much ensured that the next album would even make a Billboard presence. The fact that he achieved this without sacrificing a single shred of artistic credibility — only a total musical idiot would dare brand Eggs a «sellout» — is a small sign of hope.

Interesting trivia bit: Production Of Eggs was released on Ani DiFranco's Righteous Babe label, which puts to rest the formerly rhetoric-idiotic question of «What does an introvert violin hack­man from Chicago and the head banner of East Coast feminism have in common?» (Other than this, of course). Thumbs up as usual, although beware: if Weather Systems puts you to sleep (in a bad way), Production Of Eggs is not at all guaranteed to wake you up (in a good way).

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Ani DiFranco: Dilate


1) Untouchable Face; 2) Outta Me Onto You; 3) Superhero; 4) Dilate; 5) Amazing Grace; 6) Napoleon; 7) Shame­less; 8) Done Wrong; 9) Going Down; 10) Adam And Eve; 11) Joyful Girl.

Dilate put Ani on the mainstream charts, the low-to-mid ranges of which she has never left since, but just how much of her own merit went into this is debatable; the main reason for this increa­sed popularity is, I believe, that she simply fell in with the wave of interest towards the «Angry Young Female Singer-Songwriter» crowds popularized by Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill just a few months before Dilate hit the stores. In fact, quite a few people have gone on record comparing Ani's confessional blurts on here with Alanis' style — "isn't it ironic" (to quote Alanis herself), considering that DiFranco had been doing that schtick for half a decade already?

It helps that Dilate, again, returns to a fuller sound, with Ani herself handling electric guitar du­ties, and also adding bass, synthesizers, and organs where she sees fit. This makes her 'Napoleon' sound a little bit Neil Young-ish (the dry guitar crackle is not unlike the one that sets up the mood for 'Down By The River'), and her 'Going Down' a little bit psychedelic — the lyrics may suggest that it is merely a song about being dumped by yet another male chauvinist pig, but the carefully measured effects do really create an aura of slowly descending into a bottomless shaft, and the more you listen to it, the more you are prone to creeping yourself out.

So, either it is the reentrance of variegated arrangements, or there are some real improvements on the melody side (with Ani, it is always hard to tell), but, in my view, Dilate brings back some confidence in her use as an artist, much as this view is opposite to those that think DiFranco is al­ways at her best when it's just her, her guitar, and the latest version of her agenda. Her interpreta­tion of 'Amazing Grace', contrasting the actual singing with somebody reciting the verses in a dull, disinterested manner over the phone, is fresh and thought-provoking, despite being horrendously drawn out (not even the President of the United States could stand seven minutes of it, let alone the mere mortals). Her singing on 'Done Wrong' nears beautiful. And her trademark "fuck you" on 'Untouchable Face' must have taken quite a bit of polishing during rehearsals — it perfectly cap­tures the presupposition of «I used to be patient with you, but even the strongest kind of pa­tience has its limits, so I have no choice but to take a shortcut here» that one witnesses quite of­ten in movies, but, for some strange reason, almost never in music.

To make things even brighter, Dilate heavily cuts down both on anthemic statements and shock­ing verbal imagery — certainly not because she is selling out to the Alanis Morissette crowd (for that matter, Jagged Little Pill was all about anthemic statements and ugly impressions), but be­cause she is... growing up? Note that, with the understandable exception of 'Amazing Grace', each song on the album has a «YOU», and that «YOU» is mostly in the singular; as much as I feel un­comfortable about spying on other people's relationships, I'd rather prefer to be let in on these se­crets of the soul than listen to yet another not-a-pretty-girl kind of rallying. Besides, these respon­seless dialogs become less and less annoying with each new album — and the lyrics for some­thing like 'Adam And Eve' are downright complex and open for quite a variety of interpretations, e. g. such lines as "I just happen to like apples / And I am not afraid of snakes" put a new twist on the Genesis morals that is well worth considering.

As per custom, from about one third to one half of the album is fillerish, but if we «stoop to her level», like the anti-hero of 'Adam And Eve', the fresh, interesting part still guarantees a thumbs up. Serious critics may, and will, sneer at the general public that only opened its eyes to DiFranco after having been goaded by the inferior presence of Alanis, but at least Dilate proudly deserves each and every one of its 480,000 sold copies, which I could hardly say about Pill's 33 million.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Anthrax: Sound Of White Noise


1) Potters Field; 2) Only; 3) Room For One More; 4) Packaged Rebellion; 5) Hy Pro Glo; 6) Invisible; 7) 1000 Points Of Hate; 8) Black Lodge; 9) C11H17N2O2SNa; 10) Burst; 11) This Is Not An Exit.

Some things never change, but this is not one of them. Suddenly, Anthrax no longer sound like Anthrax — they sound like Alice In Chains! Where is the irony? Where is the healthy, sanitary aggression? Where are the generic shredding thrash rhythms? Why is the new vocalist singing through his nose like a grunge queen? Why are all the songs so depressing? What in the world made them think this was what the fans needed?

Well, see, first they lost Joey Belladonna due to some internal conflicts that did not get a lot of publicity, and replaced him with John Bush, essentially an «old school metal» singer, formerly of Armored Saint, one of America's biggest non-thrash (and non-glam, for that matter) metal bands in the early Eighties. Second, they signed up with a new label (Elektra Records). Third, right on the heels of his work with Bush on the last LP for Armored Saint, they teamed up with Dave Jer­den — who, as it turned out, just happened to be the producer of Alice In Chains! With all these new developments, the reformed Anthrax were only too happy to incorporate cer­tain grunge elements inside their sound and see how it work out.

How? Perfectly! The worst thing I can say of Sound Of White Noise is that, unlike Among The Living, it does not have a unique identity of its own; by throwing in extra darkness and serious­ness at the expense of «moshing», Anthrax have aligned themselves with the main pack of the grunge warriors, allowing themselves to be pigeonholed far more easily. But this has little bea­ring on the fact that so many songs on here rule not only without mercy, but also with a modicum of added intelligence that we never saw during the Belladonna era.

There are some totally amazing, unbelievably strong riffs on the album, as if the band woke up overnight with a ten times more intense belief in the impending Coming Of The End than it ever shared. Case in point: the main riff for 'Invisible' that enters the stage around 0:56 — brutality that ranks up there with the best of Sabbath and Metallica. The relentless pounding of 'Only', 'Room For One More', and 'Packaged Rebellion' may be the most terrifying trio sequence in An­thrax history, and it does not even matter what words John Bush is pronouncing (although, for that matter, the rant against «packaged rebellion» is one of the cleverest things they ever produ­ced, all the more ironic because so much of Belladonna-era Anthrax is «packaged rebellion» in itself), as long as they stream out to some of the most melodic, and, at the same time, grim-reape­rish passages from Scott Ian and Dan Spitz.

At a certain point, the record takes a strange turn, as the band members declare themselves fans of Twin Peaks and collaborate with the series' composer Angelo Badalamenti on the dark ballad 'Black Lodge', which, frankly speaking, sounds very little like either Badalamenti himself (he contributes some of his trademark synth moods, but they are rather deep in the background) or like Anthrax in any of their incarnations; more like a cross between Dada-era Alice Cooper and any-era Rush, if you ask me, but curious all the same. And then, starting with their punkish, but not highly memorable, anthem to sodium pentathol, they move in closer to the old thrashy sound, as if having run out of grunge-metal ideas, somewhat diluting and spoiling the effect of the grin­ding first half, before coming back to their senses on the most Alice In Chains-ish song of them all, the terrifying 'This Is Not An Exit'.

Yes, at this moment in their lives, everything was going as right as it could — the band desperate­ly needed a reinvention and it chose the best possible model. Why that model did not manage to last very long is anybody's guess; in the meantime, a brutally honest thumbs up, and a hearty re­commendation to everyone who loves their metal grumbly, gruffy, and melodic. Of course, it is also easy to understand the old guard fans who felt betrayed by the band's stylistic jump — but, as John Lennon used to say, "you have all the old records there if you want something round and hard up your butt". Or something along those lines. You get the general idea.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Aerosmith: Done With Mirrors


1) Let The Music Do The Talking; 2) My Fist, Your Face; 3) Shame On You; 4) The Reason A Dog; 5) Sheila; 6) Gypsy Boots; 7) She's On Fire; 8) The Hop; 9) Darkness.

Reunion! Things happen fast with this band — at the time when their progenitors, the Stones, were just entering the crucial splintering phase, Aerosmith were already welcoming back their lost guitarists. Joe Perry, in some of his interviews, remembers how Rick Dufay pulled out of the new-look Aerosmith of his own free will, stating that this will never work unless the «Toxic Twins» get back together. No idea about Jimmy Crespo, but the dry fact is that by late 1984, all five original members were back together, although still high on drugs much of the time.

Unfortunately, the momentum was lost. The world had already shown a clear lack of interest in the old Aerosmith sound through the diminishing sales of Rock In A Hard Place, and then three years of complete studio silence finished the job. With hair metal on the rise, capturing the mar­ket niche formerly occupied by trashy Seventies' rockers, Aerosmith had to adapt — sacrificing their integrity — or to fade away to the status of a small cult band. It is our big luck, then, that in 1985 their minds were still too clouded by substances for them to see it properly.

Of course, Done With Mirrors is no longer the Aerosmith of old. Much of the fault lies with the outside circumstances: having signed a new contract with Geffen Records instead of the old Co­lumbia association, they dumped their old producer, Jack Douglas, very much responsible for engineering the classic Aerosmith sound. New guy Ted Templeton (of the Doobie Brothers and Van Halen fame) had a solid agenda behind him, but either he was intent on molding a new-look Aerosmith for the new decade or he had little interest in the band as such, because the unique magic that made up the band is gone.

Fellow reviewer Mark Prindle couldn't have stated it better when he mentioned that, all over Done With Mirrors, «the guitars sound like walls, not like the electrical currents and loose wires of classic Aerosmith». But is this really Joe Perry's fault? The old boy is definitely trying, and, even though only a few riffs are memorable (generally at the beginning of the album), with a lit­tle more care this could have been another Draw The Line. But when the guitars are flattened and splattered, muted and muffled, hidden under pillows, glossed and glued together as if someone were afraid that people would laugh at Joe's obvious lack of virtuoso technique — quite possible to expect of a producer guy whose main protégé was Eddie Van Halen — you know that the Ei­gh­ties are upon us indeed.

Granted, it could have been much worse. The drums could have been reduced to electronic pulp, instead of simply made to sound pompously big and non-rock'n'rollish. There could have been a synthesizer invasion, but the record is mostly keyboard-free. All of the songs are self-penned, and the ballads are pretty much non-existent (with a little effort, one could call 'Darkness' a ballad, but certainly not when it picks up tempo). The choruses are catchy (with a few exceptions, such as Brad Whitford's 'The Reason A Dog', which seems to me about as underwritten as its title), Tyler is in his usual vocal form — so perhaps we'd better just get over the sad deal with the production and count this as another solid offering from the band?

Perhaps, except that there is a clear, if subtle, change in the agenda. On Rock In A Hard Place, the agenda still went something like «don't mess with the bad boys of rock'n'roll»; here, it is «you may not believe this, but we are still the bad boys of rock'n'roll». "Nobody gonna get my rock­'n'roll", Tyler screams on 'Shame On You' — hmm, was there any doubt about that in the first place around 1977? And what's with all the self-quoting? "Back in the saddle gets you sore" ('My Fist, Your Face')? References to Aerosmith and Joe Perry in 'The Hop'? Even musical quotations — when 'Let The Music Do The Talking', a re-recording of the best song from Perry's short solo career, starts the record off with a bang, it's like all the problems never happened, but then all of a sudden it goes into the riff of 'Draw The Line' for a few bars, and you realize, with fright, that this little bit kicks much more ass than the rest of the song. That's when you know, for sure, that the band's golden days are properly over.

And yet, let us be fair. Together with Rock In A Hard Place, this album has pretty much slipped through the cracks of the public conscience and the critical appreciation. People have a strange habit of associating the goodness of Aerosmith with chart positions and total revenue: for most listeners, these were the «dark years» for the drugged-out band, steadily on the decline ever since chemicals began to get the better of them around 1977 and then beginning to «come back» ten years later. But the «comeback» was actually just a change of master — freed from the iron rule of drugs, the band sold themselves to fashion.

Done With Mirrors may not be a very good re­cord, a sharp quality drop-off from the former level, but there is no doubt that, at this point, Aero­smith were still doing what they wanted to do. Their tragedy was that no one else wanted them to do it — and that they could not get over it, and so their heart was not perfect with rock'n'roll their God, and Aerosmith did evil in the sight of rock'n'roll, and went not fully after rock'n'roll, where­fore it was said unto Aerosmith, «surely will rock'n'roll be rended from thee, and given to thy betters». But all that was still a couple of years away; Done With Mirrors, in the meantime, may be threatened with a thumbs down for the exe­cution (including the rather silly gimmick of the «mirrored» writing on the sleeve), but still gets a thumbs up for the effort.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Al Stewart: Past, Present & Future


1) Old Admirals; 2) Warren Harding; 3) Soho (Needless To Say); 4) The Last Day Of June 1934; 5) Post World War Two Blues; 6) Roads To Moscow; 7) Terminal Eyes; 8) Nostradamus.

He certainly had it coming, even if no particular Nostradamus could precisely predict when it would actually happen: a massive concept album about History. The canvas had some flaws, in the form of several acutely ahistorical songs hanging around ('Soho' and 'Terminal Eyes'), which is why the copout is to pretend it's all about weaving the different ages of humanity together with its state of today and its distant prospects, but this is where it does not work. Clearly, Al just wan­ted to intelligently justify the co-existence of his old habit of writing introspective songs for lo­ners with the new habit of setting history textbooks to music, and the album title is a transparent deception that might formally clear him in court, but fail to make him invulnerable. Fortunately for him, no one really gives a damn.

Now when Al writes about history, he never hides behind allusions or allegories — you may be sure that if he sings about an old admiral lamenting his uselessness in the years of the Great War, or about a Russian soldier interned in a Siberian camp upon being freed from German captivity, or about President Harding's last and fatal journey to Alaska, that is exactly what he is singing about. For many admirers of Stewart's talent, this may seem boring, because Stewart is too esote­ric and obscure a performer to function as proper edutainment, and most people will usually be quite familiar with at least the protagonists and general settings of his little historical landscapes, if not necessarily with all the details. (Although if there is at least one person in the world who, upon hearing this record, will want to learn more about General Guderian, Lord Mountbatten, Ernst Röhm, or about how to pinpoint Smolensk or the Suez Canal on the map, Al may well con­sider his mission to humanity accomplished).

Nevertheless, as simple and unflinching as these lyrics are, they are decent; not much use as poe­try, but working well in conjunction with the music, not to mention quite well informed (well, there is nothing, really, in 'Roads To Moscow' that cannot be found in a standard beginner-level textbook on World War II in Russia, but just how many so-called «artists» bother to check their facts with even beginner-le­vel textbooks anyway?).

Surprisingly, it is the lengthy epic numbers that take the cake. 'Old Admirals' gets the properly stately, solemn backing you'd expect from a song about an old war hero — great use of the synthesizer on the closing bars of each chorus, and masterful slow buildup of keyboard, guitar, and orchestration layers. 'Roads To Moscow' has no Russian influences whatever in its music, and this is good: the man would have certainly failed had he tried to go for balalaikas and accor­deons and folk choruses — instead, when he sings "I'll never know, I'll never know why I was taken from the line and all the others / To board a special train and journey deep into the heart of holy Russia", I cannot help but picture a starry-eyed Al Stewart in person, for some reason fin­ding himself in the position of defending the outskirts of Moscow first and then later conveyed into the realm of the GULAG. Not the effect he hoped for himself, I suppose, but Fortune works in mysterious ways.

Most of the seriousness and solemnity was, however, saved for the last track, as 'Nostradamus' takes you on a ten-minute journey through Stewart's interpretations of the prophecies (this is the one time when he clearly fiddles with the sources, but then it is hard to resist fiddling with a guy like Michel if you are into him in the first place) set mostly to acoustic strumming heavily laden with echo and other effects (the instrumental section does not even bother to add much of any­thing else except for a phasing gimmick). Obviously, ten minutes is overkill, but the melody is catchy, and the general idea rather effective — at the very least, it is nowhere near as tedious as Al's sexual autobiography on 'Love Chronicles'.

Among the shorter songs, only 'Soho (Needless To Say)' has emerged as a minor classic (enough, at least, to go on to be played live for quite a long time), but I am a bigger fan of the hilarious folk-rocker 'Post World War Two Blues', which not only manages to set an infamous dialogue between Churchill and Mountbatten to a catchy, toe-tappy traditional melody, but is also — ar­guably? — the first song in history to properly ask the question "Which way did the Sixties go?", guaranteeing Al the title of The Honorable Mother Of All Retro-Mopers (including yours truly). And let us not forget 'Terminal Eyes', one of Al's most convincing and elegant creations in the «psychedelic Brit-pop» style of Nuggets II.

For the record, the LP, like its predecessor Orange, was produced by notable art-rock producer John Anthony (of Van der Graaf Generator, Genesis, and Queen fame); some fans and critics hold the opinion that Stewart never truly hit his stride until he finally teamed up with Alan Par­sons, but I beg to differ — Anthony's grand, imposing style of production may be less calculated than that of the mathematical genius behind Dark Side Of The Moon, but all the arrangements are done in great taste, and not for a single second does the record reveal the piss-stained side of the Seventies to the listener. A mildly intelligent, moderately heartfelt thumbs up (i. e. not the kind of album that begs you to jump for joy, but then Al is hardly the jumping kind, more like the squatting one).

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Aretha Franklin: This Girl's In Love With You


1) Son Of A Preacher Man; 2) Share Your Love With Me; 3) Dark End Of The Street; 4) Let It Be; 5) Eleanor Rigby; 6) This Girl's In Love With You; 7) It Ain't Fair; 8) The Weight; 9) Call Me; 10) Sit Down And Cry.

The first of Aretha's 1970s albums — and the one that, from a certain point of view, ushered in the Seventies as such. You know what I'm talking about. The watery pianos. The silky cymbals. The romantic strings. The gospel back vocals. The total subjugation of «melody» and «hook» to «atmosphere» and «elegance». The gradual crash of the classic school of R'n'B under the joint pressure of Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway (or, rather, the shadowy forces of evil that stood behind their heavily burdened backs). The age in which mainstream entertainment music, after a short, wobbly period of assimilating the best influences from a host of creative artists, once again detached itself from good taste etc. etc.

All this and more is best illustrated by 'Call Me', a song that Aretha wrote herself, allegedly after overhearing a young couple in the park parting company with the words "call me, I love you" (or was that "I love you, call me"?). As heartbreaking/heartwarming as the story may sound, the song is sappy, the melody is lazy and unmemorable, and to call the lyrics clichéd would be a serious understatement: one can always object that it is the simplest, crudest words of love that are the most honest and effective, but, in this case, shouldn't we take the Ramones' 'I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend' over this pompous piece any time of day?

In fact, the crudeness of 'Call Me' may be enough to give one a new appreciation for the talents of Burt Bacharach — the title track, far more pompous in its use of orchestration, girl choruses, and just about everything, is far more involving and features enough tonal changes to carry one's at­tention throughout. But, of course, the balladeering highlight is 'Let It Be', a song that would have been a crime for Franklin not to record (in fact, she was sent a demo already in 1969, and her ver­sion of the tune appeared on the market before the Beatles) — after all, she was pretty much sent on this planet to put her stamp on every brilliant gospel-pop idea to be patented by anyone. Turns out that 'Let It Be' does work in grand style when you get the proper artist to do it, and King Cur­tis' passionate sax solo holds its own against Harrison's guitar versions fairly well.

All the more puzzling is the question of what in the world made Aretha go and nearly botch the impression by immediately following 'Let It Be' with her infamously misguided reinvention of 'Eleanor Rigby'. Granted, the song gets a nice frantic R'n'B groove to it, but there is nothing ex­cept the lyrics to link it to the original, so why establish this link in the first place? To let audien­ces worldwide realize how she understands absolutely nothing about the song? Why was this a single? To compete with Ray Charles (whose version also sucks, but at least has something in common with the spirit of the original)? Why does she sing "I'm Eleanor Rigby, I pick up the rice in a church where a wedding has been"? She is, quite clearly, not Eleanor Rigby, never has been, never will be (hopefully). On the other hand, she does engage in a piece of glorious idiocy, and glorious idiocy tends to attract more attention than ordinary genius; negative publicity makes for great publicity, and who wouldn't want to hear Aretha Franklin's openly awful take on a Beatles masterpiece, be it in 1970 or today?

The rest of the hit covers work much better. Dusty Springfield, apparently, loved Aretha's take on her own 'Son Of A Preacher Man' so much that she would rearrange all her live performances to fit that style, and while I certainly do not agree (nothing compares with the perfection of the ori­ginal), Aretha's version is worthy in its own way. Far less sexy, though: with Dusty, it is always clear what exactly she was being taught by the preacher's son, but with Aretha's spiritually en­hanced take, I am not that sure — the basics of Trinitarian theology, perhaps?

Jerry Wexler later regretted cutting the Band's 'The Weight' with Aretha, saying that the song was unsuitable for and incomprehensible to her black audiences — but come now, Mr. Wexler, I se­riously doubt that white audiences have a seriously better understanding of what Robbie Robert­son was trying to convey with the song (actually, there is fairly little evidence of Robbie under­standing his creation himself), and as for the black and white ties, how about The Staple Singers perfectly complementing The Band on The Last Waltz's famous performance? This is just silly. Maybe Aretha does not «get» the song (nor do I), but she sets herself on fire all the same; in my eyes, this is a total success, and the only real complaint is that the song all but wastes the talents of Duane Allman, accompanying the band on guitar but, for the most part, buried in the mix. Su­rely a short solo couldn't have hurt?

As you can see, the record, with its mix of styles comfortably old and dangerously new, bravely explorative and ridiculously skewed, is fairly intriguing in its lack of balance, and for its very un­predictability and occasional craziness, gets a thumbs up. I agree with those who see it as the be­ginning of Aretha's decline, but, for the moment, it was merely a side effect of the beginning of decline of the public taste, and there were still several years of exciting struggle to go through.