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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Aretha Franklin: This Christmas


1) Angels We Have Heard On High; 2) This Christmas; 3) My Grown Up Christmas List; 4) The Lord Will Make A Way; 5) Silent Night; 6) Ave Maria; 7) Christmas Ain't Christmas (Without The One You Love); 8) Angels; 9) One Night With The King; 10) Hark! The Herald Angels Sing; 11) 'Twas The Night Before Christmas.

For a moment out there, it might have seemed like the Queen was holding serious plans to clean up her act. Upon the release of So Damn Happy, she severed her ties with Arista — giving the album title a whole new meaning — a thing she should have done a long, long time ago; twenty three years on that rotten label gave her barely enough good songs to fill up one side of an LP. She then opened up her own label and announced a new title, A Woman Falling Out Of Love, for which some sessions were held but nothing eventually materialized.

And then we get this: a Christmas album (!) with the lady not only showing us her full girth (!!), first time ever, but also wearing the tackiest red dress ever made (!!!) and, furthermore, making it Borders-exclusive (!!!!; since then, re-released on DMI records and made available for Santa Cla­us fans all over the world, not just those who do their Christmas shopping at Borders). After three decades of piss-poor records, there is no way whatsoever that a Borders-exclusive Christmas al­bum from the Great-grandmother of soul could make us happy. It sold something like thirty thou­sand copies, and earned her some of her worst reviews to date, especially from obligation-free fans who have earned their inalienable right to despise red dresses, Borders, and Christmas al­bums through a properly regulated diet of multicultural / intellectual values.

It is hard to believe any of them took a proper listen to the album, though, because if anyone did, surely at least one voice in the crowd could have stated the obvious: this is the best-sounding Are­tha Franklin album since at least 1975-76. Not in regard to singing, no. But the arrangements, af­ter so many years of technological fluff, are very pleasant. Aretha herself plays a lot of piano (the most, I think, she'd ever played since the Atlantic heyday); the rhythm section adheres to the old values of classic R'n'B and occasionally even manages to kick some funky ass ('The Lord Will Make A Way'); lots of nostalgic Hamoond organ and real strings arrangements; and not one sin­gle half-hearted, corny attempt at sounding «modern». The idea is to make a Christmas album, and make it in a way that the real Aretha Franklin would have made it — say, around 1970. The presence of Mary J. Blige is not required.

If you judge any Aretha Franklin record by one and the same parameter — the shape her voice is in — then, of course, even What You See Is What You Sweat (a.k.a. What You Hear Is What You Puke) is a far superior record. The lady is getting old; the lady is relying ever and ever more on that raspy «dying-dog» falsetto that should not be concentrated upon, for fear of provoking condescending or embarrassed emotions. Some of the higher notes are blown, and certainly such a demanding benchmark as 'Ave Maria' should have been left off. Furthermore, the duet with her son on 'This Christmas' suffers from overt cuteness and could have done without the struggling-to-be-funny bit of «telephone monologue».

But let us face it — it makes no sense to expect a 66-year old belt it out with the power, range, and precision of a 30-year old. At this point, the only reason to keep on listening to new Franklin records, other than irrational stubborness, is a faint hope to hear traces of deep soul attitude, and This Christmas offers more of these traces than all of her Arista records put together — because this is her first record in a long, long time where she is not trying to prove anything, but is simply being herself. And the music, correspondingly, is being itself.

As much as I am skeptical of Chris­­­tmas albums (see the Aimee Mann Christmas album review for more details on that), this one, being taken in its chronological context, is much more than just a Christmas album for Aretha. It is unlikely to be followed by anything as good any time soon — but even if it is her very last album of «original» material, it forms a nice redeeming conclusion to thirty years of shame and horror. As a bonus, you get one of the most original, if not necessarily the most artistically successful, personal readings of 'Twas The Night Before Christmas' ever put on record. Thumbs up — modestly, but firmly.

Check "This Christmas" (CD) on Amazon
Check "This Christmas" (MP3) on Amazon

Monday, November 29, 2010

B. B. King: There Is Always One More Time


1) I'm Moving On; 2) Back In L.A.; 3) The Blues Come Over Me; 4) Fool Me Once; 5) The Lowdown; 6) Mean And Evil; 7) Something Up My Sleeve; 8) Roll, Roll, Roll; 9) There Is Always One More Time.

A modest return to form after two of the man's worst studio albums in a row. With the Eighties over, it became possible to return to nicer production values — the poison-synths and drum ma­chines are gone, replaced by more normal playing. To B. B.'s credit, he would, from now on, be for the most part free of the technophilia bug, meaning that one does not run a serious risk of sti­cking with something atrocious even when picking up any of his latest albums at random.

The bad news is that King's backing band here is just as faceless as the robots on those Eighties records. Jim Keltner is a solid drummer with an immaculate pedigree, but he is a great addition to an already solid team, not some amazing percussion wizard who can make sticks and stones come alive; the bass player, whoever he is, just plays bass; and the keyboard players, instead of playing decent instruments, rely on those dead-sounding electronic pianos that seemed to have been all the rage in blues-rock around the time (they're still around, of course, but their sound range seems to have at least slightly improved with the passing years). No brass backing whatsoever, for un­known reasons (hard times?). Lucille seems to have been the only living soul on the album, but King uses her sparingly, and even when he does, we have the usual problem — her voice is way too thin to properly arrive at us from behind the keyboard muck.

It's all a pity, because there are some good songs here: most of the album had been written thro­ugh the collaborative effort of Will Jennings and Joe Sample — the same team that gave him his good stuff during the 1978-79 stint with The Crusaders — and, just like before, their contributi­ons are spotty, but enjoyable. Most importantly, the melodies return that gritty, aggressive feel that King's records from the last decade generally missed. 'I'm Moving On' opens the album on a note of such triumphant decision that, with a better arrangement, the song should have been a tri­umphant comeback for the old boy, but with those keyboards... eh.

Some of the tracks are fine mood pieces: 'Back In L. A.' is one of those laid back «city of good and evil» anthems that can be either cheap cliché mixes or inspired new takes on the old thing, and I'd vote for the latter; 'The Blues Come Over Me' certifiedly does have the blues come over him (and somebody gives him a bit of proper piano backing, for once!); and 'Mean And Evil' is simply fun — the big man is always at his best when putting the blame on his woman. That's what all big men manage to do best of all, anyway.

But clearly, the magnum opus here is the title track, written by and dedicated to the late Doc Po­mus, the second-rate genius (well, not all great somgwriters can be first-rate) behind lots of clas­sic R&B hits and drunken Dr. John rave-ups. Although King tends to sing well throughout the whole album, this particular performance is obviously and understandably his most emotional, and it's got what the rest of the album don't got — a grand rippin' guitar solo at the end, with Jim Keltner finally latching on to something of value and showing why they made a good choice in inviting him to the sessions.

Most people will probably shrug their shoulders upon reading King's "This is the best album I've recor­ded in my career" in the liner notes, and start looking around for invisible ink traces of "...sin­ce the previous one". Perhaps, though, it was not merely a trivial marketing move: the cool thing about King is, he's always lived for the moment, and it may simply mean that, while recor­ding One More Time, he'd simply forgotten about — or, perhaps, intentionally stripped himself of — all memories of past experiences. Who knows, maybe that's the sort of thing that allows him to live up to 80+ years and not feel worried about it. Fact is, he doesn't really feel like he's 66 years old on here. And I feel fine, too, about giving this a thumbs up, despite the undeniable blandness of the sound — and the simple truth that this is, of course, not the best album he's re­corded in his career. Come to think of it, what's he ever done to tell his listeners what is best and what is worst? Who does he think he is — Stephen Thomas Erlewine?

Check "There Is Always One More Time" (CD) on Amazon
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Sunday, November 28, 2010

Agalloch: Ashes Against The Grain


1) Limbs; 2) Falling Snow; 3) This White Mountain On Which You Will Die; 4) Fire Above, Ice Below; 5) Not Un­like The Waves; 6) Our Fortress Is Burning... I; 7) Our Fortress Is Burning... II. Bloodbirds; 8) Our Fortress Is Bur­n­ing... III. The Grain; 9*) Scars Of The Shattered Sky (Our Fortress Has Burned To The Ground).

Somewhat of a step down here; four years of studio non-presence, apart from a handful of not very diagnostic EPs, do not seem to have done much good for the proud Oregon disciples of Sca­ndinavian thunder and ice wizards. Not only has there been very little progress in their musical education, but Ashes even seems to trade back some of the achievements of The Mantle, and for what? Es­sentially, for a return to a much more hardcore-metallic sound — almost as if they were afraid lis­tening to The Mantle might make some of us forget the band's true pedigree.

The results of their cutting down on acoustic compositions and interludes, as well as clean vocals, are obvious: most of the songs sound totally alike. The basic range now is not from dark folk to heavy folk-metal, but rather from heavy folk-metal to songs that dangerously border on «old school metal»: the main riff of 'Not Unlike The Waves', for instance, is near-genuine Metallica. Haughm, in an interview, called that number "the perfect representation of Agalloch in 2006"; if that is truly so, I am not overjoyed. As for the first four tracks, I simply cannot find any new words to describe them — it suffices to conclude, from what I have just stated, that this is ge­ne­rally the same Agalloch as before, but rendered sli­gh­tly less atmospheric due to more emphasis on the heaviness and less on the subtlety.

For me, the album does not even begin properly until the final suite, the three-part 'Our Fortress Is Bur­ning' — where 'Our Fortress' is, of course, the predictable medieval allegory for 'Our Ho­me­world' the burning of which we are invited to contemplate through folk-metallic eyeglasses. Most of the atmospheric highlights are concentrated in these three parts, from the gently minima­listic piano intro to the weeping drone of the first guitar-based part to the epic-romantic solo of 'Bloodbirds' to the avantgarde representation of the world's collapse in 'The Grain', where Hau­ghm's guitar strives to achieve an effect comparable to that of Hendrix's on 'Star Spangled Ban­ner' — saddle the capacities of the electric sound to make them represent man's (or, in this case, nature's) eternal suffering. Unlike the preceding tracks, this suite strives for something more gran­diose, and with Agalloch's overall qualifications, it's quite successful. It might also be useful to check out the limited expanded edition of the album, which adds a twenty-minute long coda that sounds like one of those chilly soundtracks to action games that take place in post-nuclear envi­ronments: a demolished, lonesome world whose only sounds are the ones left to us by shards of human civilization swaying in the cold wind.

In short, strange as it may seem, it is the non-melodic parts of this album that seem to constitute its biggest attraction, speaking out louder, more overtly, and with more meaning than the straight­forwardly metallic parts. Hardly a thrilling realisation for the typical metal fans (Haughm said that many of them considered 'The Grain' part of 'Fortress' as filler, whereas in reality the whole suite had been built around that part), but a saving grace for those who prefer the art side of the band. On 'Fortress', Agalloch really press forward, switching from a mostly «white and gray» pa­norama of The Mantle to a «gray and black» one — charred, crackling, and smoking. In the pro­cess, they retain their crown as America's kings of impending doom, but only barely. Altogether, the presence of 'Fortress' still guarantees a thumbs up, yet, in my opinion, the often-heard victo­rious wails of «another Agalloch masterpiece!» are exaggerated all the same.

Check "Ashes Against The Grain" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Ashes Against The Grain" (MP3) on Amazon

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Apples In Stereo: Fun Trick Noisemaker


1) The Narrator; 2) Tidal Wave; 3) High Tide; 4) Green Machine; 5) Winter Must Be Cold; 6) She's Just Like Me / Taking Time; 7) Glowworm; 8) Dots 1-2-3; 9) Lucky Charm; 10) Innerspace; 11) Show The World; 12) Love You Alice / D; 13) Pine Away.

If we roughen it up real rough, and reduce it all to the two basic oppositions — Happy / Sad and Stupid / Smart — we can, sort of, get four possible combinations. Somehow, though, in the world of art, or popular music, at least, the attractive forces between «Sad» and «Smart», on one hand, and «Happy» and «Stupid», on the other, generally overpower the other two combinations. No surprise there: the same connection may be observable if you deal with people themselves, not just the art they create.

By the mid-Nineties, however, the grunge explosion became so infectious that «Sad» (in all of its varieties, such as «Angry», «Suicidal», «Anti-Social», etc.) became too huge to mate exclusively with «Smart». People like Courtney Love heralded the «Stupid-Sad» connection and launched it into vegetative reproduction mode. Happy music had little choice but to retreat to the most pathe­tic of the intelligence-free corners (Paula Abdul!). So perhaps it was inevitable that, sooner or la­ter, a «Happy-Smart» antidote would eventually resurface and vitaminize us all over again.

Such is the general scheme of things that some pop music experts force on us. Like each general scheme, it has its vulnerable spots and inconsistencies, but it does give one a better understanding of the importance of bands like The Apples In Stereo when they emerged in the mid-Nineties with their sunshine-heavy, neo-psychedelic brand of power pop. It also commands respect and admiration for their debut album, Fun Trick Noisemaker — even though it sucks.

The recipé for an Apples song is relatively simple, and hasn't changed that much over the centu­ries. A colorful folk-pop riff, distorted just enough to give it a rough garage sheen, but never far enough to push it into «hard rock», let alone «metal» territory; lots of overdubs to commemorate Phil Spector and drive your mind into fuzzy-wuzzy frenzy at the same time; slurrily murmured, but expertly harmonized vocals to bring back memories of the Beach Boys without pretending to achieve the same kind of glossy perfection; a few vintage synth effects to emphasize the psyche­delic effect — and then play it all on repeat for 30-40 minutes.

That such a brilliantly calculated, analytical mind as that of band leader Robert Schneider's (in his spare time, he researches analytic number theory, which does not surprise me in the least) could have failed in setting up that kind of sound is unthinkable. That it could have resulted in lots and lots and lots of perfectly sounding songs that mean absolutely nothing and leave a listener cold as ice, on the other hand, is quite thinkable, and I know at least one such listener (me). I love colour­ful, life-asserting power-pop as much as the next guy, yet I am still completely bedazzled how, even after five consecutive listens to Noisemaker, not a single one of these songs has managed to leave the slightest trace of impression in my head. This is not Gentle Giant or Ornette Coleman; this is simple pop music — it's supposed to make an impression now. Or never.

Granted, while it's playing, Fun Trick Noisemaker is fabulous. Or, at least, «cool»: just a very very awesome sound to have blasting out of your speakers as you contentedly explain to all the riff-raff around you that this music was, in fact, written and recorded in 1995, not in 1965. The one thing that does give it away is the formulaic monotonousness: even the worst garage bands in the Sixties were much more bent on trying out different kinds of sound, but the Apples cling on to that recipé described above as if they simply knew nothing about any other types of sounds. (One reason why calling this music «Beatlesque», like many people on the Web do, is misleading: not only did the Beatles never sound in such a uniform manner, they never really had this particu­lar type of sound on any of their songs at all — even if they'd wanted to, George Martin probably wouldn't let them, considering it too «dirty» for his ears).

But I have no problem with the monotonousness. This is the kind of sound Schneider and his pals dig, and it's all right; who am I to complain if they want to be the AC/DC of psycho-garage pop? The only problem I find is that these riffs, these vocal melodies, these arrangements do not speak to me. The Beach Boys do, the Kinks do, even Love's Arthur Lee, with all his flaws, still has so­mething to say. The Apples In Stereo tell me only one thing: they love cool-sounding happy pop music, and are ready to kill for their right to worship it. Fine! I respect them for it. Now hire a de­cent songwriter, won't you?

I don't know, maybe it's the vocals — Schneider's murmur is supposed to have some sort of mes­merizing effect, but not on me, I love me some good clean singing if it's pop music. Or maybe it's the intentional lo-fi production values — for all their love for Brian Wilson, the latter would pro­bably prefer to fall back on his drug habit than to sanction his production stamp on this mess.

But in the end, I still guess that it's mainly the songwriting. One hint: the only song on here that I honestly loved upon first (okay, second) listen was 'Winter Must Be Cold', written and sung by drummer Hilarie Sidney rather than Schneider. There is something to the mildly epic riff of that song that I don't find on the other tracks, and, by all means, Sidney is a much better vocalist than Schneider (I do not say «singer» because, in order to appreciate someone as a singer, you need to hear them clearly, and the basic approach on Noisemaker is that all the vocals must sound as if recorded through a set of three heavy pillows).

The only other thing I remember is the main riff to 'Tidal Wave', the album opener, although I am pretty sure it was just a slight variation on one of the Nuggets classics (don't remember which one exactly). To me, that's telling — alas, it only further confirms those deep suspicions that say that the best kind of pop songs are written by «street trash» who don't give a damn, rather than deep-thinking, analytically minded college kids who want to materialize their picture-perfect vi­sions of what that Ideal Pop Art Object should look / sound like.

It is very easy to be seduced and lulled by the sound, though, which may explain all the rave im­pressions. And obviously, a «thumbs down» rating would be out of the question — not only be­cause the band evetually got somewhat better, but also because the infuriated brain would never allow the disappointed heart to take precedence in the case of an album so smartly crafted, so res­pectful of first-rate influences, and so revolutionary and influential in its approach. It should be kept in mind that the «Elephant Six» brand of music and related artists, who did produce their fair share of contemporary classics, certainly do not end with The Apples In Stereo — but they did begin with The Apples In Stereo. And there is every reason to insist that you do hear Fun Trick Noisemaker, if you haven't already done so — not just out of historical importance, but because it really sounds fine while it's on. Who knows, perhaps it will still make your list of all-time clas­sics, provided you do not make the mistake of giving it a second thought, or trying to replay these songs in your mind once the record is over.

Check "Fun Trick Noisemaker" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Fun Trick Noisemaker" (MP3) on Amazon