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Friday, December 31, 2010

Adolescents: Balboa Fun Zone


1) Balboa Fun Zone (Riot On The Beach); 2) Just Like Before; 3) Instant Karma; 4) Alone Against The World; 5) Allen Hotel; 6) Frustra­ted; 7) Genius In Pain; 8) It's Tattoo Time; 9) Til' She Comes Down; 10) Modern Day Napoleon; 11) I'm A Victim; 12) Balboa Fun Zone (It's In Your Touch); 13*) Runaway; 14*) She Walks Alone; 15*) Surf Yogi.

Recorded without lead vocalist Tony Cadena; Steve Soto and Rikk Agnew share most of the vo­cal duties, and you can actually tell the difference because in between the two of them, they so­und a heck of a lot uglier than Tony used to be on his own. Not that it matters — we're not exact­ly talking La Scala out here. Hardcore music calls for hardcore values.

But is this really hardcore music? Without the speed, the intensivity, the youthful aggression of old? The Adolescents' third album seems to make even fewer nods to their rebellious past than its immediate predecessor. 'Riot On The Beach' starts things on the proper note (even though that main riff sounds suspiciously Anthrax-like, showing off their interest in thrash) — fast, flashy, and totally furious, but then the band, once again, starts veering off on all sorts of tangents, dig­ging into power pop, retro-metal, surf-rock, even folksy acoustic musings.

Upon first sight, all the nasty things that could be said about Brats In Battalions are just as easily applicable to Balboa Fun Zone, with the addition of lamer vocals. Upon second sight, this is a major improvement: the band has finally learned to add expertise and convincing force to ma­ny of their ventures in all these genres. They may not have learned to justify their existence, but at least they have made it more tolerable.

Thus, the obligatory unpredictable cover — this time, John Lennon's 'Instant Karma', no less — is a lot better, because they mostly stick to the original mood, melody, and tempo, without any silly attempts at «deconstruction»: it's a solid, faithful, tribute that preserves the tune's fine spirit (al­though why in the world it needs to preserve anything still remains a mystery), even if the vocalist sounds like he'd been living in a trash heap north of the Polar Circle for most of his life.

Some of the gritty hard-rockers are also quite good, mixing catchy choruses with well-played crunchy riffs ('Til' She Comes Down', 'Allen Hotel'); again, provided that one's nerve centers re­act well to mixing punk with metal and power-pop at the same time. Lyrically, there's nothing in­teresting going on, and few things can be more irritating than, e. g., sincere odes to the art of mu­tilating one's own bodies ('It's Tattoo Time'), but when they're played with verve and the chorus is memorable, who really cares?

All in all, I really think that Balboa Fun Zone does a much better job at finding its potential au­dience, but it is still hard to understand what kind of an audience that might be. The craft has been improved, the souls have matured, and the result is a well-made album that has no clear reason for having been made. Are they being serious? Ironic? Post-modern? Ante-modern? The next time you hear someone dismissing solo McCartney as «pure fluffy craft», tell him that McCart­ney, at least, knew when he was going for prime time «fluff» with a clear-cut goal of putting you into an intentionally fluffy mood. Albums like Balboa Fun Zone, on the other hand, simply do not know what it is they are going for. No matter how catchy a song like 'Allen Hotel' is, no one is ever going to make it his first choice for being in a mood for hard rock.

So it is a good thing, in the end, that the Adolescents' second attempt at ruling the world came to an end in the spring of 1989, when they called it a day once again. Historical interest is by far the only reason to listen to this period's output, unless you happen to be really out of hard-rocking material — but even in that case, will these middle-of-the-road studies in seneselessness bring you satisfaction?

Check "Balboa Fun Zone" (CD) on Amazon

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Alan Stivell: A L'Olympia


1) The Wind Of Keltia; 2) An Dro; 3) The Trees They Grow High; 4) An Alarc'h; 5) An Durzhunel; 6) Telenn Gwad / The Foggy Dew; 7) Pop Plinn; 8) Tha Mi Sgith; 9) The King Of The Fairies; 10) Tri Martolod; 11) Kost Ar C'hoad; 12) Suite Sudarmoricaine.

If Harpe Celtique sounds a bit too extreme, how about this — a full show played by Stivell at the Olympia music hall in February 1971? No lengthy multi-part suites, very little Celtic harp (most of it on the opening 'Wind Of Keltia'), but an amazing sound nonetheless; no wonder the album became a bestseller (in Europe, at least) and a high watermark in the chronology of «Celtic revival». (Ironically, it is nearly impossible to find on CD these days).

With a five-piece band behind his belt, Stivell sets out two humble goals — (a) to show the mass audience that tra­ditional Celtic music is only as «boring» and «obsolete» as the unskillful non-ex­pert would make it seem, and (b) to try out a real synthesis of Celtic and rock music rather than just play simple folk ballads with electric guitars, or complex Celtic ballads on traditional instru­ments and still call it «folk-rock» because they are mixed in with rock songs.

The first half of the album is mostly dedicated to satisfying the first goal, as he alternates between slow haunting ballads and livelier dance numbers, constantly varying the instrumentation — vio­lins, bagpipes, guitars, organs, drums — and the moods (magical-mystical à la Merlin in 'Wind Of Keltia', Sherwood Forest in 'The Trees They Grow High', sentimental in 'An Durzhunel', dark and omi­nous in 'Foggy Dew'). The audience gets to stomp and clap along on the faster numbers, and continuously rips into applause that, to me, sounds «frantic» rather than «polite».

Then, halfway into the album, we finally get some genuine «Celtic rock», with massive electric guitar parts that are not always «Celtic» in essence: the solo on 'Pop Plinn' sounds like it comes straight off an early 1970s prog-rock album, but it is set to a traditional melody all the same. 'Tha Mi Sgith' is just as good (this time, guitar and fiddle just follow Alan's vocal melody), and by the time they get to the encore, a smouldering, rabble-rousing Breton anthem ('Suite Sudarmoricaine'), most people in the audience are ready to subscribe to Neo-Druidism and start embracing oaks.

Unquestionably, this is the best introduction to Stivell for any type of neophyte — a failure to grasp this means a basic failure to grasp the pleasures of Celtic music as such. (Which is not a condemnation or anything: like most pre-18th century music, this stuff is generally less palatable to the cathartic nerves of the modern listener). And even if these performances take us even fur­ther away from the «pure» revival of authentic Celtic melodicity and instrumentation — if such a thing in itself is at all possible — they prove, better than any attempts at such a direct revival, that all of these long-time-ago folk musings were not mused in vain. Thumbs up, once again, more out of intellectual respect than straightforward feeling, but that's really just a problem of time and space, not one of will and spirit.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Allman Brothers Band: An Evening With The Allman Brothers Band - 1st Set


1) End Of The Line; 2) Blue Sky; 3) Get On With Your Life; 4) Southbound; 5) Midnight Blues; 6) Melissa; 7) No­body Knows; 8) Dreams; 9) Revival.

With the kind of high standard that the revived Allmans set themselves on their first two studio LPs, there was hardly any question that they'd be kicking the same sort of ass onstage. Even so, the band's first live album in sixteen years (the 1979-81 lineup wisely avoided official live relea­ses) manages not just to meet expectations, but to trump them — decisively.

Many people — way too many people — state their opinions along the lines of «this is some damn fine playing out there, though, of course, not quite on the level of the Fillmore shows». I would beg to differ — or even suggest that they might be deluding themselves, perhaps out of some subconscious fear of Duane Allman's ghost: An Evening With The Allman Brothers Band is completely on the level of the Fillmore concerts. Four of the original band members are present in the shapeliest of shapes, and number five is Warren Haynes, one of the most expressive Southern-style guitar players who ever lived.

The only area in which this band cannot beat the original lineup is freshness — compared to the Fillmore Concerts, these are expert swimmers showcasing their skills on a public beach rather than intrepid risk-takers diving from cliffs into unknown waters. But, on one hand, this is sort of understood, and on the other, both angles have their strengths and weaknesses. In terms of sheer musical pleasure, the Betts/Haynes version of this band has completely restored its former mag­ni­ficence. Short songs, long songs, genre fiddlings, experiments, they do it all.

The setlist mixes new numbers, mostly from Shades, in with the old warhorses in such a way that nobody will really feel the difference: 'Get On With Your Life' is slow burning blues that is well on par with the old classics like 'Stormy Monday', and fifteen minutes of colorful guitar wanking on 'Nobody Knows' are simply variations on whatever it was that they used to do about 'Whippin' Post'. Best news is, the setlist has enough variety to save this from becoming a monotonous cele­bration of cool crisp guitar sound: slow blues, fast boogie, country-rock, acoustic balladry, psy­chedelia (they dust off 'Dreams', which Gregg introduces as the only song he had in his pockets when the band was formed), and gospel ('Revival').

I may have a minor beef with the band for its reinvention of 'Southbound' as a slower, funkier, more danceable rocker — for the first three minutes, it deprives the song of its usual kicks. But once the instrumental part starts, it's all forgiven as Haynes and Betts battle it out till your spea­kers start tearing apart at the seams. If anything, Dickey only got better through the years: aban­doning the occasionally whiny, wimpy tone he used to have on stage, he goes for the same thick, brawny wail as Warren, yet the two's styles are still distinct enough, and the symphonic effect they achieve on the track — as well as several other crescendos, most notably on 'Get On With Your Life' — has to be heard to be believed.

Another major highlight is 'Blue Sky', turned into a veritable propaganda campaign for slide gui­tar. As much as I love the studio version, Haynes merely uses it as a foundation to transform the song into something twice as anthemic and celestial as it used to be; in his hands, the guitar be­comes, at one point, a kid angel, at another, an exuberant little piggie, and sometimes both at the same time. Once Betts enters the picture, he plays with such precision and feeling he'd previously demonstrated only in his studio work, never on stage. Overdubs? I don't think so — rather just years and years of experience, plus being goaded into action by the first serious chunk of compe­tition he'd seen in twenty years.

These remarks alone, I hope, will be enough to free the reader of the vain idea that he already knows all these songs, but there's more: the gorgeous acoustic trills at the end of 'Melissa'; Hay­nes' «slide nightmare» contribution to the mid-part of 'Dreams'; the way they work out hard rock bits into 'Revival', etc. By no means are these guys coasting; the Allmans, in 1992, were a full-time working band that made good use of their past glories, but never relied upon them as sacred cows — making First Set an absolute must-have; in fact, it should probably go on the list before that period's studio albums. Thumbs up from all directions.

Check "An Evening With The Allman Brothers Band" (CD) on Amazon
Check "An Evening With The Allman Brothers Band" (MP3) on Amazon

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Arthur Alexander: Rainbow Road


1) Rainbow Road; 2) Down The Backroads; 3) I'm Comin' Home; 4) In The Middle Of It All; 5) Call Me Honey; 6) Lover Please; 7) You Got Me Knockin'; 8) It Hurts To Want It So Bad; 9) Love's Where Life Begins; 10) Come Along With Me; 11) Burning Love; 12) Go Home Girl; 13) They'll Do It Everytime; 14) Mr. John; 15) Thank God He Came.

This disc collects most of the stuff that Arthur recorded during his brief stint with Warner Bros. in the early 1970s — although, what with all the commercial non-success he'd had in the previous six or seven years, it is amazing they even let him into a studio: Muscle Shoals, no less. The re­sults were a couple of singles and a self-titled LP, all of which except for one song is reproduced here. It all sold about as much as usual — i. e. from very little to none — and Alexander soon found himself on the streets again.

Way too bad, because the Muscle Shoals stint gave the man the best backing he ever had, while at the same time the quality of his songs continuously remained the same: another bunch of modest, likeable country-soul that does not aspire to much except sounding friendly, touching, and very human. Not a single misfire all around; perhaps trying to promote 'Burning Love' as a single was a rash decision — no one messes with the King even in his Vegas-y state of mind — but no one can accuse Arthur of botching this hot pop-rocker, either (after all, 'A Shot Of Rhythm And Blu­es' had already secured his potential as a rock'n'roller).

The third re-recording of 'In The Middle Of It All' is a bit limper, less stately than the original version, and there is also an updated version of 'Go Home Girl' that is equally unnecessary, but, apparently, Arthur was struggling for material. Still, the album is worth locating for two tracks at least: 'Rainbow Road' is a humbly beautiful prayer that could have been a blue-eyed soul hit for Van Morrison (it was eventually picked up by Percy Sledge instead), and 'Mr. John' simply revels in darkness and paranoia, accentuated by wah-wah guitars and chain gang backing vocals.

These two stand out a bit over everything else, but not by much: regardless of personal fortunes, at all times in his career Arthur Alexander was nothing less than the perfect working man, never demanding genius from the songs he sang, but always demanding melody and emotional force. Even the little country-gospel number at the end is moving in its own gentle way, despite the fact that technically, you could hardly find a less qualified singer for gospel than Mr. Alexander. Then again, if we do not consider the ability to break glass and cover everyone within a half-mile ra­dius in one's spit the necessary prerequisites of singing good gospel, I suspect that's subjective.

Arthur's last, faintest smudge of success came two years later on Buddah Records, for whom he recorded a minor hit version of 'Every Day I Have To Cry Some', but even that did not help his career to recover, and eventually he just switched to bus driving — all for the better, perhaps, be­cause even with all that perfectionism, who knows what degrees of lameness could he have been driven to in the disco and synth-pop eras? This way, I can simply award him another respectful thumbs up, and then we can move right on to the very last chapter of his career, and life.

Check out "Rainbow Road" (CD) on Amazon

Monday, December 27, 2010

B. B. King: Let The Good Times Roll


1) Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens; 2) Is You Is, Or Is You Ain't (My Baby); 3) Beware, Brother, Beware; 4) Somebody Done Changed The Lock On My Door; 5) Ain't That Just Like A Woman; 6) Cho Choo Ch'Boogie; 7) Buzz Me; 8) Early In The Mornin'; 9) I'm Gonna Move To The Outskirts Of Town; 10) Jack, You're Dead!; 11) Knock Me A Kiss; 12) Let The Good Times Roll; 13) Caldonia; 14) It's A Great, Great Pleasure; 15) Rusty Dusty Blues; 16) Sure Had A Wonderful Time Last Night; 17) Saturday Night Fish Fry; 18) Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out.

Ten years on, this album has obviously lost any relevance it might have ever possessed, but in 1999 it may have done a decent job of introducing a handful of young B. B. King fans (yes, the brand name does indeed attract young fans on a continuous basis) to the legacy of Louis Jordan, a whoppin' eighteen cuts from which are faithfully covered here by King, assisted on piano — and, once, on vocals — by none other than Dr. John.

Naturally, Louis Jordan was as much of a seasoned pro and underrated genius at his schtick — jump blues and swing — as B. B. King was at his; naturally, it is just as unlikely for B. B. King to excel at Jordan-style jazz as it would have been unlikely for Jordan to excel at King-style blues. That B. B. was a devout fan of Jordan is beyond doubt: he'd already covered 'Let The Good Ti­mes Roll' on many an occasion, and his entertainment style borrowed lots of its easy-going ele­ments from Jordan's. But to do an entire album of Jordan tunes, including prime Louis cuts whose musical table tennis between Jordan and his band is supposed to take one's breath away like no­thing else, that takes quite a bit of gall. How the man came up with the idea in the first place, we'll never know. The big questions are — (a) does he pull it off? and (b) what's the payoff?

Surprisingly, it all works. Had B. B. concentrated on Jordan's slow blues stuff, such as 'I'm Gon­na Move To The Outskirts Of Town' or the album-closing 'Nobody Knows You' (which Jordan ne­ver «owned» as such but, apparently, covered), he would have turned it into just another blues al­bum — a regularly good blues album, perhaps, well suited to King's style and persona, but it would be rather silly to call it a Louis Jordan tribute album. On the contrary, most of the album is devoted to Jordan's fast, rollickin' numbers that give B. B. a chance to flash his boogie licks — a chance that he doesn't use nearly as often as he should, usually ceding the spotlight to Dr. John and the brass section and concentrating on the singing.

This is where he is bound to lose: no matter how easy-going and inspired his backing band is, no­body can beat the original Tympany Five, and no matter how convincing and authentic B. B. is in his phrasing, he wasn't born with it the way Jordan always seemed to be. B. B.'s guitar and Dr. John's piano are the two edges that they have over the original, but the original was all about sin­ging and brass interplay — it's a little like trying to improve on Chuck Berry by adding a master church organ player to 'Brown Eyed Handsome Man'.

It is admirable that the end result is as much fun as it really is, but, honestly, at best Let The Good Times Roll is a one-time listen to admire the man's lively spirit: let us not forget that the man was a whoppin' seventy-four years old while boppin' and groovin' to the merry sounds of 'Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chi­ckens' (in comparison, Jordan was sixty-seven when he died, and pretty much stopped boppin' and groovin' upon reaching the age of fifty). For that alone, it defini­tely deserves a thumbs up, and now go do yourself a favour — pick up one of those cheap Jor­dan compilations available everywhere, and 'Let The Good Times Roll'!

Check "Let The Good Times Roll" on Amazon
Check "Let The Good Times Roll" (MP3) on Amazon