Search This Blog

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Antony And The Johnsons: Swanlights


1) Everything Is New; 2) The Great White Ocean; 3) Ghost; 4) I'm In Love; 5) Violetta; 6) Swanlights; 7) The Spirit Was Gone; 8) Thank You For Your Love; 9) Fletta; 10) Salt Silver Oxygen; 11) Christina's Farm.

He almost did switch to visual installations: accompanying the album, Antony has also produced a 144-page art book — beautiful, expressive, pretentious, and bound to be forgotten as soon as the next Antony takes over the crown of this particular fiefdom. But there is also the small matter of this fourth album, which does exist, even if it is not quite clear if it is the music that is the sup­porting companion to the visual arts or vice versa.

"Every everything, everything is new", the man wobbles during the opening twenty seconds, eno­ugh to make you understand that nothing is actually new, and thus, present a jarring paradox from the very start. Once again, morose piano ballads with either minimalistic, or lush strings-adorned arrangements, are the word of the day; occasional acoustic guitar backing, brass fanfares, and gen­tle woodwinds only reinforce the general rule. Trying to assert some sort of individuality for Swanlights is futile. All that is left is just to see if you can enjoy the music.

And I believe that it can be easily done, indeed. Perhaps there is one good general observation about Swanlights that can be made: as to what concerns my personal experience, the album has revealed itself to be much less «annoying» than its predecessors. No intelligent person can have a problem with Antony Hegarty's disdain for the ugly trashy world in which we all live, and for his deep-running desire to escape it if he cannot change it; but lots of people, myself included, can have a problem with the theatrical manner in which he expresses that desire — I mean, does one really escape the cynicism and cruelty of life by putting on layers of makeup?..

Swanlights, if only a little bit, but a little bit that I seem to have felt, tones down that theatricality. As it often happens, the toning down begins with the album sleeve: where we once saw creepy hallowed figures and photos of near-alien Japanese artists, we now see a mortally wounded polar bear (and 'Swanlights', for that matter, is his name). Pain, suffering, isolation, empathy, and eco­logical concern — all in one, but with a little bit of gritty reality thrown in, too. The same is with the music: a little smoother, a little quieter, a little less overtly manneristic, yet never ever betray­ing Antony's essential schtick.

The very idea of Antony doing a duet with Björk, especially at this time in her career, when the «nutty» streak in her brain seems to have infected most of the sane cells, could easily trigger a bathroom response from those who have their feet firmly planted on the ground. No reason to be alarmed: 'Flétta' ("lichen" in Icelandic) is a restrained, humbly-pretty duet that will be appreciated not so much for its melody (which is about as instantly memorable as, say, an average Liszt piano prelude) as for the delicate weaving of two of the most individual singing styles of the past two decades. The piano playing is Hegarty-style, the vocal flourishes Björk-style, and the two mesh together real well without trying to outdo each other in purely technical terms.

The title track is also a relative standout: for about six minutes, the regular pianos disappear, re­placed by a bleak apocalyptic nightmare with Eastern/psychedelic overtones, as Hegarty vocali­zes on the pentatonic scale to jarring blasts of feedback and all sorts of analog and digital noise. This is his first attempt at immersing himself into a gentleness-free atmosphere, as if to show us what can happen when the lonesome hero finds himself flung out of his little room at the top of his ivory tower and thrust into the world. Is there any difference between the lights of Broadway and the North Pole? Not for Mr. Hegarty, no.

Another highlight is 'Thank You For Your Love', which can be seen as either an original twist on the modern romantic ballad, or even as a cunning send-up; beginning quite generically, it eventu­ally reaches a point at which Hegarty locks himself up in a never-ending loop of "thank you, thank you, thank you"s which, as some astute reviewer has noticed, start sounding more like a "please please" — clearly, he is begging for something he has not yet received rather than simply showing his gratitude in such an obnoxious way. It is at least an intriguing development, and at most, it's just plain funny, even if that may not have been the original intention.

And overall, most of the time his minimalistic melodies work. 'Everything Is New' and 'The Spirit Was Gone' are delicate piano pieces; the strings, woodwinds, and chimes on 'Salt Silver Oxygen' interact in a beautiful baroque-tinged manner; 'The Great White Ocean' is a near-gorgeous folk ballad; and even though I am not quite sure why the laconic, Eno-ish piano phrase of 'Christina's Farm' had to be prolonged for seven minutes, that does not make it any less touching, per se.

One thing you definitely cannot blame on Hegarty is lack of attention to detail and manner; some of these numbers will pull your strings, others won't, but not a single one can be accused of not having tried to the utmost. Maybe he is a poseur, but he's definitely a worker, and Swanlights convinces me that, provided he goes on working as hard, he might have a couple dozen more albums like this one in him. Thumbs up for mope rock's upcoming AC/DC.

Check "Swanlights" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Swanlights" (MP3) on Amazon

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Aphex Twin: Come To Daddy


1) Come To Daddy, Pappy Mix; 2) Flim; 3) Come To Daddy, Little Lord Fauntleroy Mix; 4) Bucephalus Bouncing Ball; 5) To Cure A Weakling Child, Contour Regard; 6) Funny Little Man; 7) Come To Daddy, Mummy Mix; 8) IZ-US.

This would be a fine place to mention that, in addition to his relatively small number of long-pla­y­ing records, Richard D. James has had immense streaks of EPs and singles released over the past twenty years, describing all of which individually would take forever — yet it would not always be a waste of time, since much of the man's tastiest meat is to be found on these petty pieces of product. All I can say in general is that they are generally worth checking out, and, as an excep­tion, say a few words about one of his lengthiest EPs: Come To Daddy runs over thirty minutes and, therefore, almost qualifies as a full album (actually, Richard D. James Album only excee­ded it by about five minutes, completely blurring the distinction between album types — which, come to think of it, is only natural considering that these days they all come on the same pieces of plastic with the same diameter).

Come To Daddy is likely to qualify as Aphex Twin's eclectic peak; with a little bit of every­thing and more contained inside, I might even recommend it as a most useful introduction to the chara­cter in general. If you want to see where exactly one talented artist stands on beauty, evil, fun, absurdism, and musical geometry, each single track on this release will answer at least one of these questions, and sometimes more. Plus, together with Album, this is the finest proof available of the idea that Richard D. James is not merely making music with electronic equipment; he has, in fact, become one undetachable whole with his electronic equipment — much like for Jimi Hendrix it could be seen that the guitar was just another, extremely vital, organ of his body, here it seems that sounds like these could only have come from an operative cyborg.

'Come To Daddy (Pappy Mix)' is the most famous number here, mostly due to the promo video, from which the world got tricked into thinking that Richard D. James is, in fact, a mutant hell-raising demon born out of an old TV set in­seminated with dog pee. Musically, however, the track is one of the simplest and least interesting numbers on the EP, a jarring industrial techno parody on all sorts of «evil music», from Ministry to Prodigy to death metal, that is rather one-dimen­sional, unless you want to throw on some points for the mock-creepy «demon vocal» overdubs of "Come to Daddy, come to Daddy!" and "I WILL EAT YOUR SOUL!"

But the big general plus of the EP is that it is intended to be more than a sum of its parts, and the hyperbolic evil of 'Pappy Mix' does not reach its full effect until, one track later, you reach the 'Little Lord Faulteroy Mix', whose only common link with the 'Pappy Mix' is the main title — in all other respects, it is an entirely different experience, with underwaterish chimes and little green man vocals taking the place of metallic grind and Lucifer roar. And then, still later, there is the 'Mu­m­my Mix', which is even less similar — mostly percussion-driven with a few ambient tones in the background and next to no vocals at all (just a little high-pitched screaming).

Why are they all 'Come To Daddy'? Probably just to reflect the man's provocative spirit. The unsettling titles, the evil grin staring out of the dog-pee-stained TV set in the video, the unusually high percentage of warped vocal overdubs, all of this has the stamp of the «man-machine» over it, as if all these long years of tampering with the spirit armies of chips and transistors finally did transform the man into the «Analord», as he would, in a few years, start christening a whole se­ries of his new records. Scary — but certainly exciting.

Tucked inside the three «mixes» are lesser known tracks that are, however, no less deserving. 'Flim' represents one of his most pleasant minimalistic melodies, a rhytmic melange of almost jazzy synth patterns, completely devoid of any ironic aspects. 'Bucephalus Bouncing Ball' starts out as a crazy, superhuman break-dance track before completely chucking rhythm out the win­dow and concentrating instead on tracing the virtual trajectory of a virtual set of bouncing balls: imagine a bunch of Olympic gods setting up a pinball championship and you'll end up some­where in the vicinity (I cannot even begin to imagine the work it took to program all that). And 'Funny Little Man', the more I listen to it, the more it comes across as some gruesomely political­ly incorrect musical joke, which is fabulous, because who the heck wants to see a world stripped of the art of intelligent provocation?

Where Come To Daddy can seem a step below the Richard D. James Album is in the «melo­dy» department — without any strings arrangements or Beach Boys influences, but with boun­cing balls and goofy vocal tricks, it is more about «sonics» as a whole than about traditionally valued note sequences. But the inclusion of tracks like 'Flim' clearly shows that, like every talen­ted electronica / avantgarde composer, James simply views «traditionally valued note sequences» as but one of the important ways to realize his maniacal sonic drive, and the good news is, he is fully capable of realizing it in ways that are complex, exciting, and impressionistic, which sets him apart from armies of poseurs. If nothing else, Come To Daddy is simply one of those magnificent treatments for the tympanic membrane that builds up one's sense of perception, ge­neral experience, and, well, character. Thumbs up.

Check "Come To Daddy" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Come To Daddy" (MP3) on Amazon

Friday, October 29, 2010

Adam And The Ants: Prince Charming


1) Scorpios; 2) Picasso Visita El Planeta De Los Simios; 3) Prince Charming; 4) 5 Guns West; 5) That Voodoo!; 6) Stand And Deliver; 7) Mile High Club; 8) Ant Rap; 9) Mowhok; 10) S.E.X.

The sequel to Kings is just your stereotypical sequel — same stuff, less inspired, more predic­table, and probably your best bet to diagnose yourself as a major fan or a passing admirer of the artist. From a slightly detached point of view, Prince Charming's main goals have even less to do with music than those of Kings, and much more with image. One need not go further than the promo video for the first single, 'Stand And Deliver', to understand that Stuart Goddard's greatest dream in life all along had been to show off in an 18th century dress before millions of people. (I have to admit that he wears it real well, though.)

With the abandoning of the «Burundi drum sound», the music loses a good chunk of its energy, and to my ears it also sounds like Pirroni goes lighter on interesting new riffage. After all, the al­bum's title track, another huge commercial success, has eventually been identified as a complete rip-off — not «tribute» or «imitation», but straightahead theft — of Rolf Harris' far less known 'War Canoe' from 1965 (granted, the song itself was based on a traditional rowboat theme, but that is beyond the point); who really knows what other obscure compositions may have served as backbones for the rest of these tracks? It is as if, upon gaining self-confidence after the fame of Kings, Adam had decided that not only was style superior to substance (that he knew all along), but, in fact, substance was a major obstacle to style. Write good melodies and, what do you know, people may start concentrating on them rather than on your beloved kitsch.

Still, as another self-indulgent exercise in humorless absurdity, Prince Charming may deserve recognition as Kings' sincerely trying, but far less gifted younger brother. For the most part, the band has dropped the «Antpeople» gimmick, locking it inside just one of the album's tracks (and also arguably the worst one: 'Ant Rap' makes the early white attempt at hip-hop sound as patheti­cally miserable as Debbie Harry, exceptionally, managed to make it sexy). But many of the other gimmicks have been successfully transplanted here as well, including The Pirate Gag ('Stand And Deliver'), The African Gag ('That Voodoo!'), The Native American Gag ('Mowhok'), and even The Spaghetti Western Gag ('5 Guns West', a latecomer in this world to feature in the soundtrack to Blazing Saddles, but firmly inside the same aesthetics nevertheless).

It is also quite likely that, depending on the ratio of your coolness, you will want to like and de­fend any track that goes by the name of 'Picasso Visita El Planeta De Los Simios' — not so much for its music, which is just by-the-book power pop, but for the hipness of its subject matter. Ne­ver mind that the song does not even begin to compete in emotion with 'Picasso's Last Words' or in humor with Cale and Richman's 'Pablo Picasso', but a song about Picasso! visiting the Planet of the Apes! titled in Spanish! how awesome is that?

Not nearly as awesome as some exercises in post-modern synthesis can be, I'm afraid. 'Stand And Deliver' is still the album's best song: Stuart is so goddamn happy to be playing the «dandy high­wayman» that the happiness is well bestowed on the music, simple as it is, and even if it is not the epitome of a great vocal melody (most of the verses are just shouted) or a great hook (the chorus hardly represents the basic philosophy of «standing and delivering» the way it should get down to you), it is at least infectious in terms of pure enthusiasm. The rest does not go that far.

Check "Prince Charming" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Prince Charming" (MP3) on Amazon

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Alan Parsons Project: Stereotomy


1) Stereotomy; 2) Beaujolais; 3) Urbania; 4) Limelight; 5) In The Real World; 6) Where's The Walrus; 7) Light Of The World; 8) Chinese Whispers; 9) Stereotomy Two.

Perhaps, after all, it was the continuing neglect towards the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe — the man respon­sible for the very existence of The Alan Parsons Project — that underlied the Project's slo­wly ongoing decay? Just in case, it would make sense to invoke the great spirit one more time, at least briefly, by calling the album after a rarely-heard construction term that one usually learns on­ly from carefully reading Murders In The Rue Morgue.

'Stereotomy' is basically the art of ta­king big blocks and cutting them in differently shaped small ones; here it refers to the art of taking talented people and shaping them in various ways to please the shape master. Or perhaps not. If you really want it, you can read 'Stereotomy' (the title track) as a thinly masked invitation for a BDSM session: "Silent knives dissect me and I feel no pain... Stereotomy, we can make it together, do anything you want with me". Woolfson's lyrics were ne­ver all that inspiring, really — it used to be interesting to hear his poetic interpretations of Poe's prose, but he never truly capitalized on these early achievements.

The important thing is that Stereotomy is clearly a conscious attempt to recapture some of the complexity that had been sacrificed for the sakes of 'Eye In The Sky', 'Prime Time', and 'Hawk­eye'. An album gloomier, denser, and heavier than at least the last three of their records — so much so that, first time in years, Woolfson even steps away from the mike to avoid the temptation of falling back on McCartneyisms. A pity, that: I loved his McCartneyisms, certainly much more so than any given «serious» piece of vocals from, say, Lenny Zakatek.

Ironically, it does not work. By late 1985, it was obviously too late for these guys to believe that they could still produce «pure» art-rock masterpieces without leaning too far over to the pop side. One major reason is instrumentation: no matter how anti-commercial they are trying to get, Ste­re­o­tomy fully relies on generic techniques of the day — stiff electronic keyboards and polished, glossy «heavy» guitar riffs learned from arena-rock masters. As a result, overall, the sound is ve­ry, very dull, even for the standards of The Alan Parsons Project, a band very well known for be­ing commonly hated for the general dullness of its sound.

There are some songs here that have no reason to be heard from Parsons and Woolfson. 'In The Real World', for instance, rather belongs on a bad Foreigner record; give me Woolfson's simplis­tic, but lovable and unpretentious pop melodicity over this fat, ugly stadium sound any day. For 'Limelight', they come up with a first, recruiting Procol Harum's Gary Brooker to sing lead vocals — and the number sounds, yes indeed, like a weak outtake from a solo Gary Brooker record, a ty­pically soulful delivery set to some of the laziest, languid-est keyboard chuck-chucks ever heard. Chris Rainbow is wasted on 'Beaujolais', a synth-popper whose main claim to fame is a careful, intricate arrangement of vocal harmonies on the chorus. The other claim is probably just that it sounds like one of the silliest numbers in Alan's entire catalog.

Still they plow on, making the title track run well over seven minutes and returning to the practice of producing artsy instrumentals — including the bombastic synthfest 'Where's The Walrus?', which even managed to earn a Grammy nomination for Best Instrumental (I think it lost). The ti­tle may be a sly reference to Magical Mystery Tour, but the main theme of the track sounds un­cannily like a potential soundtrack theme to some third-rate detective soap or computer game — again, primarily due to the unfortunate choices of arrangement. For all his studio craft, Parsons is not a super-cool master of electronica: he still represents the «old» school of music-making, and thus, falls in the same trap as so many of his colleagues who somehow thought that continuing to make music in the old way with their new digital toys, all those Fairlight CMIs, would result in a successfully modernized version of the classical spirit. From that angle, Stereotomy is even more pitiful than Vulture Culture (although, granted, both still exercise far more restraint and intelli­gence than something like Jethro Tull's Under Wraps). A transparent and unfortunate thumbs down here — not even a single song I could wholeheartedly recommend.

Check "Stereotomy" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Stereotomy" (MP3) on Amazon