Search This Blog

Loading...

Monday, May 31, 2010

B. B. King: Easy Listening Blues


B. B. KING: EASY LISTENING BLUES (1962)

1) Easy Listening Blues; 2) Blues For Me; 3) Night Long; 4) Confessin'; 5) Don't Touch; 6) Slow Walk; 7) Walking; 8) Hully Gully; 9) Shoutin' The Blues; 10) Rambler.

Very easy listening blues. So easy, in fact, that you do not even have to stress out your aural ner­ves responsible for picking up and transmitting the human voice — there is none. After a whole album of non-playing B. B. King (Spirituals), Crown Records have invented yet another way to mar­ket the hypermarketable: a whole album of non-singing B. B. King.

It does, however, serve one important purpose: make one understand how integral King's vocals are to his sound. When we pay for the man, we pay for the pair; anything less than that and you are ripped off mercilessly. The playing on these ten tracks is no better and no worse than else­where — perhaps even a wee bit better than last time around, since, once again, you get diversity: regular mid-tempo 12-bar stuff interspersed with a little boogie, a little rumba, and a little twist. But without the vocals, none of the songs have any actual sense.

Of course, Easy Listening is supposed to mean «stuff you put on while doing housework, so that all the bypassers learn you have real good taste». But here is the shameful secret: I thought pretty much all of B. B. King's albums from the Crown era (and quite a few from later periods) are «ea­sy listening», and I never expected the stakes were only waiting to be lowered. Am I wrong? Are we supposed to listen to the previous ten albums as if they had lots of deep, penetrating stuff to tell us? I do not really buy it. B. B. King's primary function is entertainment, and this album is low-quality entertainment because it deprives us of a deserved half of it. Thumbs down.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Andrew Bird: Fingerlings


ANDREW BIRD: FINGERLINGS (2002)

1) Action/Adventure; 2) Trimmed And Burning; 3) Gotholympians; 4) Richmond Woman; 5) Sweetbreads; 6) Why; 7) Headsoak; 8) How Indiscreet; 9) T'N'T.

Pretty much impossible to find these days — the original was limited to something like 250 co­pies — but, nevertheless, totally essential. Much of Bird's studio recording has a live feel to it all by itself, but to «get» this guy, it is necessary to experience him on stage, at least converted to au­dio (or video). It is there, as he is standing half-plucking, half-bowing his violin, that it is the ea­siest to convince yourself he really does have the required «mystery component» and cannot be simply written off as just another readily trashable post-modern clown.

Fingerlings have been assembled from various performances, but structured in a very coherent manner, reminiscent of the original sequencing of Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense: the prota­gonist is alone at first, then slowly joined, one by one, by the trusty backup. And this gives an ex­tra reason for comparing Bird with Byrne (beyond the obvious graphic and phonetic similarities in their names, that is) — both artists have been guilty of cultivating a unique mix of craziness and intelli­gence so as to make an impression, and both make it hard for the average listener to dis­cern the average human soul beyond the formalistic trappings; hard, but possible, and richly rewarding in the long run.

Bird's solo sound is quite unique. The simultaneous plucking and bowing gives him a great angle — the plucked violin acquires a mandolin-like sound, and this takes care of both rhythm and me­lody. But his real trademark is the use of a special gadget, based on the loop pedal principle, that actually records parts of what he is playing and then plays it back while he is going on to the next part, having just cre­ated a temporary «phonogram» for the next several bars. Cynics will deride this as a crude fi­nancial solution (no need to pay the rhythm player), but admirers will point out the tremendous technical difficulty it takes to measure out something like that in live performance — we know of plenty users of the loop pedal, but this is a very demanding extreme.

It could also be qualified as a silly show-off, but with Bird, it works; it might, in fact, be just what is needed, as, over and over again, he wraps himself in his own freshly-generated sounds like a protective cocoon. The first three songs on Fingerlings are strictly solo, solemn and sorrowful, and the traditional 'Keep Your Lamps Trimmed And Burning' perfectly fits in with two of his own compositions. But it is not any kind of sorrowfulness you are easily familiar with; it is a very quiet, introspective kind, a chamber piece for the initiated few, perhaps bringing to mind the old melancholy of Nick Drake, except Bird's blood quietly boils where Nick's used to quietly freeze, if you'll pardon the clumsy metaphor.

Things slowly start picking up and shedding some of the moroseness once Bird is joined by Nora O'Connor on guitar and backing vocals for the next three numbers, including a completely re­interpreted 'Why' from The Swimming Hour. These bring on a more traditional folksy attitude (although, lyrics-wise, the extremely bizarre 'Sweetbreads' is anything but traditi­onal); and then, finally, the entire Bowl Of Fire comes forward, first in a stately and graceful ma­n­ner on a stripped-down version of 'Headsoak', then totally letting their hair down and having a rowdy ball on the last two numbers.

And then, as you cast a retro-eye on what you have just heard, it turns out you have been taken on one man's journey through three (if not more) different stages. There's the being alone part, the­re's the being together part, and then there's the big company part. Three modes of existence, three ways of conduct, three emotional stages — solitary sadness, thoughtful dialog, and reckless partying, each one equally engaging and convincing. Throw in the idiosyncratic playing te­ch­nique, the note-perfect singing, and the general strength of the selections, and the 250 copies will look like a fuckin' joke. A billion thumbs up if that is what it takes to bring this back in print.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Ani DiFranco: Puddle Dive


ANI DIFRANCO: PUDDLE DIVE (1993)

1) Names And Dates And Times; 2) Anyday; 3) 4th Of July; 4) Willing To Fight; 5) Egos Like Hairdos; 6) Back Around; 7) Blood In The Boardroom; 8) Born A Lion; 9) My IQ; 10) Used To You; 11) Pick Yer Nose; 12) God's Country.

Perfectly Imperfectly Vol. 2: same approach to melody, same approach to using words as bullets, looking more and more like they are coming off one and the same endless ammunition belt, same approach to arrangements — mostly acoustic, with a bit of this and a bit of that to keep down the boredom factor. Granted, the bits are numerous: she expands her acceptance of outside help, and the songs are now continuously embellished by violins ('4th Of July'), harmonicas ('Egos Like Hairdos', 'God's Country'), and bluesy pianos ('Back Around').

As far as I am concerned, however, Puddle Dive is Ani's lowest point at this stage in her career. Embellishments are fine, but she had pushed the formula as far as it could go already on her first album, and this is yet another retread, with nary a single song that would make a really fresh im­pression. Not a single account of the album that I have seen focuses on the music; the writers have little choice but to accept her channelling them into discussing her lyrical provocations, e. g. «wow, she sings about menstruation, not once, but twice!» She also sings about the freedom to pick one's nose (I'm a born nose-picker, myself, so I'm with her on that one, too), and, oh, yes, about the freedom to pick as many male (or female) partners as she wants, which is, by and large, the exact same thing, I guess.

There is also a lot of singing about life on the road and, consequently, about the inevitability of change and flash-in-the-pan impressions, and this all fits in well with the herky-jerky mood she creates by ripping into her guitar, but, unfortunately, it does not detract from the feeling that all of these songs were written just as herky-jerkily, on the spur of the moment, sometimes on a rather silly spur (e. g. the lullaby-style "na-na-na" chorus of 'Egos'). If you can catch that wave, or if you like songs about menstrual blood, or if you love her lambasting of the IQ test ("they taught me dif­ferent is wrong") in one of her spoken-word pieces, or if you simply cannot get enough of rou­sing feminist/human rights anthems and need a new one each morning at breakfast, Puddle Dive will satisfy; but the way I see this chronological stretch, it was a genuine puddle dive, and she would only start recovering on the next album. Thumbs down.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Anthrax: State Of Euphoria


ANTHRAX: STATE OF EUPHORIA (1988)

1) Be All, End All; 2) Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind; 3) Make Me Laugh; 4) Antisocial; 5) Who Cares Wins; 6) Now It's Dark; 7) Schism; 8) Misery Loves Company; 9) 13; 10) Finale; 11*) I'm The Man.

This was preceded by what is today recognized as one of Anthrax's highest points — the EP I'm A Man, whose lead-off track can be found on some editions of State Of Euphoria as a bonus; it is one of the earliest examples of straightforward «rap metal», a crossover that, hard as it is to be­lieve today, was fairly jaw-dropping back in 1987. But it is still moderately funny, lashing out at idiot stereotypes and employing the barely discernible 'Hava Nagila' riff in the chorus.

Then something changed, a dark cloud rolled through the evening sky, and all of a sudden Anth­rax were not funny any more. State Of Euphoria was not only their heaviest, but also their blea­kest album up to that point — never mind the misleading title. Dropping the comic book aspect entirely or almost entirely, the boys concentrate on rebellion topics and social criticism, all taken very, very seriously. Even the riffs are blacker, although that may be just an intuitive impression triggered by the lyrical gloom.

The critics, who were secretly hoping for more popcorn and more Judge Dredd, responded by ha­ting the record. Obviously, since these guys do not have Metallica's chops — they're good old rock'n'rollers in thrashers' clothes, not some sort of reverend prophet-artists of the apocalypse — they should leave the darkness and the holy anger to those who can make good use of it. Here they had a terrific niche carved out for themselves, and then to go and lose it all of their own free will? Is that proverbially stupid or what?

Indeed, State Of Euphoria sounds much more «generic thrash» than their previous two albums. But it is more polite to compare it to the generic thrash of Fistful Of Metal — and see just how much these guys have grown since then. The riffage has improved a ton, with each song at least sporting one or two meticulously constructed melodies, even if far from all of them are heart-breaking; and the attitude has shifted from balls-to-the-wall, brains-against-the-wall exaggerated aggression to things that make much more sense. Not that I am deeply moved by their pre­aching, which, in lyrical terms, rarely moves beyond leftist propaganda for first-graders ('Schism'), but it is nowhere near as off-putting as the caricature image they began with four years earlier.

Technically, then, there is no problem with State Of Euphoria. It is respectable, intelligently (if the word is applicable to the genre at all) conceived thrash, with occasional original flourishes — like the surprise cello line that announces 'Be All, End All' and then mutates into its evil guitar riff — and, in places, a punkish spirit, e. g. on the Trust cover 'Antisocial'. The album may be for­mulaic and unoriginal, but the band definitely sounds inspired to me, quite sure of what they are doing and shifting their focus from cheesy pop culture to darker matters not because someone forced them to, but because they really felt like doing it.

Describing the songs is pointless — how many different words can one come up with to depict a thrash metal riff? — so I can only say, once more, that I think this to be a decent thrash offering, not exceptional, but well acceptable to any fan of the genre, which I am not, so the thumbs up thing comes from the brain side exclusively.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Aerosmith: Live! Bootleg


LIVE! BOOTLEG (1978)

1) Back In The Saddle; 2) Sweet Emotion; 3) Lord Of The Thighs; 4) Toys In The Attic; 5) Last Child; 6) Come To­gether; 7) Walk This Way; 8) Sick As A Dog; 9) Dream On; 10) Chip Away The Stone; 11) Sight For Sore Eyes; 12) Mama Kin; 13) S.O.S.; 14) I Ain't Got You; 15) Mother Popcorn; 16) Train Kept A-Rollin'.

Obviously not a bootleg, but just as obviously live — the intent here was to beat the bootleggers by offering the public at large an official equivalent of a bootleg: raw, untampered, and sweaty, yet at the same time boasting professional sound quality. The stuff that dreams are made of. The «pseudo-bootleg» touches, like the plain bootleggish album sleeve or the «missed» listing of one song on the album ('Draw The Line'), are a show-off, but the rest is genuine.

Two schools of thought dominate here. One says Live! Bootleg is a rough-hewn, exciting, price­less document of America's greatest rock'n'roll band at its most intense — that small period right after the creative peak when everything has started to fall apart, but only just started, so that this very threat of disintegration keeps things interesting. The other one says Live! Bootleg does nothing but engage in an aw­ful-sounding, muddy, sacrilegious destruction of the classics on the part of a bunch of babbling junkies, thoroughly wasted, basted, and pasted.

Both schools are right, and, furthermore, there is no contradiction between the two. If you want a tight, fearsome, unstoppable live performance of 'Back In The Saddle', skip forward fifteen or even twenty years; I've heard technically better versions from the band dating to as late as their oldie tours of the 2000s. The difference is that in the 2000s, they were performing 'Back In The Saddle' as a classic — an untouchable part of the sacred rock'n'roll treasure grove; in 1977, they were still living it out. So if Tyler's "I'm baaaack!" on this particular album sometimes degenera­tes into butchered-piglet squealing, and Perry's riffage sometimes stands on its head, it is not just the drugs that are responsible (although that, too) — it is the classic damn-it-to-hell attitude of the 1970's rocker. Take it — or leave it.

Of course, with the level of ferocity displayed on their studio albums, none of these live equiva­lents are truly equivalent. Missed cues, flubbed lines, confused chords, all of the big hits have this kind of shit in spades; you will love this if you think that is what «real life» is, and hate this if you think that you have had plenty of «real life» already from your neighbor kid downstairs, a guy so utterly tonedeaf, his parents had no choice but to buy him an electric guitar for Christmas. Then again, it's not that bad, and, overall, tragedy usually only strikes on the numbers that are the most vocally demanding — 'Back In The Saddle', 'Toys In The Attic' (for some reason, Perry always sings harmony with Tyler on this one, even though the guy can barely hold a note even on his bet­ter days, and those were far from the better ones), and a couple others.

Minor additional reasons to own the album include an extended, dark and creepy jam on 'Lord Of The Thighs'; Perry's ridiculous, but amusing decision to filter the riff of 'Walk This Way' through a talkbox, a regular fixture on the 1977 tour; and two new songs — the band's relatively success­ful cover of 'Come Together' (which they also sang for the infamous Sgt. Pepper movie, admit­ted­ly, one of the few highlights) and 'Chip Away The Stone', a solid, but hardly classic, Rocks-style mid-tempo rocker.

Major additional reason includes the «bootleg-style» insertion of two old live recordings from 1973, covers of Jimmy Reed's 'I Ain't Got You' and James Brown's 'Mother Popcorn', giving us the early bluesy Aerosmith in full flight and also offering a glimpse of the early funky Aerosmith: nobody beats Brown at his own game, but at least it gives Tyler a good excuse to show us how deep down his unusually lengthy larynx he can really go. Actually, both performances are subpar and as far removed from the classic big smelly Aerosmith as possible, but what a supercool histo­ry lesson — and I wish your next door band could kick so much ass on a Jimmy Reed number.

So, this was the worst of times, this was the best of times, in any case, Live! Bootleg gives you a taste of some of the dirtiest live rock'n'roll playing in history just like Draw The Line showed us some of the dirtiest studio rock'n'roll production in the exact same history. For glossy pornogra­phic polish, check out 1975 and 1976; for playing it rough, Live! Bootleg gets a hearty thumbs up — at the very least, if you only need one live Aerosmith album, this one's it, warts and all.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Al Stewart: Love Chronicles


AL STEWART: LOVE CHRONICLES (1969)

1) In Brooklyn; 2) Old Compton Street Blues; 3) The Ballad Of Mary Foster; 4) Life And Life Only; 5) You Should Have Lis­ten­ed To Al; 6) Love Chronicles.

No more orchestration — all the young folkies are made happy, now that the corporate wall of Mantovani strings no longer separates them from the Bare Truth. But the real good news is that, despite writing songs with strictly traditional, «rootsy» structures, Stewart always understood the power of exciting arrangements. After all, a bunch of long, repetitive songs with predictable vocal melo­dies and simple rhythmic backing satisfies no one but the staunchest fanatic. And from the very start, Stewart had an uncanny talent for attracting the best of the best to help him out.

On Love Chronicles, Al is assisted by no less than Ashley Hutchins, Simon Nicol, and Richard Thompson of Fairport Convention (all sporting various pseudonyms, most likely to avoid breach of contract), and, on the lengthy title track, by Jimmy Page himself, freshly free from Yardbirds duties but not yet having embarked on the Zep crusade. The formula works most of the time: Ste­wart starts off with a lengthy piece of narrative, sets it to an unpretentious, time-honoured chord progression, and then lets his pals roam all over it, adding plenty of (probably improvised) guitar flourishes in between his vocal lines, but never ever going off into solo territory.

From a formalistic point of view, all of this is a terrific potential recipé for boredom. But the com­bination of Stewart's intellectual charisma and the fresh talents of some of Britain's finest players generally overrides the boredom factor, at least on Side A of the album where the only song that significantly outlasts its usefulness is 'The Ballad Of Mary Foster', an eight-minute la­ment on the sad fate of a British housewife. For some strange reason, it is exactly this behemoth of a tune that Al had deemed unsuitable for any additional electric flourishes, and there are only two ways one can come to terms with that — either Al's very voice acts like an orgasmatron (not in my case, but I can understand how it could), or you can try to bring yourself to feel fairly deep­ly about Mary Foster, hard as it is to have deep feelings about such «stock characters». The song does have a certain novelty value in that it is divided into two «acts», giving us first an outside glimpse of the Fosters' family life, and then taking us inside as Stewart begins to impersonate the protagonist herself. But the novelty value wears off after a while.

Of course, 'The Ballad Of Mary Foster' is nothing compared to the famous excesses of 'Love Chronicles' themselves — eighteen minutes of musical-lyrical dialogue between Stewart and Pa­ge, as the former provides a detailed, if not necessarily sincere, account of the story of his love life from kindergarten to adulthood, and the latter attempts to project its various stages onto an improvised set of in-between lines mini-solos. The song's main claim to fame is not even the length (after 'Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands', nothing of the sort could be surprising to the ge­neral public); it is the first documented use of the F-word in a pop composition, and something tells me that, perhaps, the very idea of recording an eighteen-minute long song was intended by Al to be a ruse so that he could sneak the F-word in surreptitiously somewhere close to the end, in the hope that none of the record executives would have enough patience to hear it.

A great, promising idea, but, alas, it did not work; the executives did hear the word, and, conse­quently, the album's release was delayed by a year at least, as Al battled it out with the censors. And, of course, kudos to him for not having given in, especially since this is one rare case where the F-word really makes sense, in the context of the phrase "...it grew to be less like fucking and more like making love". But, even though it all makes for a great historical anecdote and a pivo­tal precedent, it hardly saves the song from a «mere curio» status. As much as we all respect Jimmy Page, he, too, eventually runs out of ideas, and somewhere around the ninth or tenth minute it all goes away except for the never-ending monolog. To be fair, it is a good monolog, very much of its time and owing much more to the hip European prose, poetry, and movie scene of the Sixties than to folk balladeering, but tolerable — but certainly not for repeated listenings.

So I would say that it is the shorter songs on Side A that make up the real meat of this record. 'In Brooklyn', a funny remembrance of one of Al's love encounters on the other side of the Atlantic, pretty much says in four minutes the exact same things that 'Love Chronicles' said in eighteen, and Thompson's and Nicol's electric guitar «weaving» is every bit as inspiring as Page's. 'Old Compton Street Blues' and 'Life And Life Only' share a slow stately beauty, particularly the latter in its cruel dissection of bourgeois family life, symbolized by a deep, desperate electric wail that renders it far superior to 'Mary Foster'. And, although slight by comparison, 'You Should Have Listened To Al' is one of the best tributes to the classic Byrds sound on this planet — especially opportune to come at the moment when the Byrds all but ceased to produce that classic sound.

The biggest difference, however, is not the length of the songs, or even the switch from orchest­ration to electric guitar backing; it is the generally more «down-to-earth» attitude, as Stewart mo­ves ever further away from the mannered medievalisms of Bedsitter Images and closer — some would say, dangerously closer — to the equally popular territory of socially-oriented Brit-pop subjects. Half of these songs, true to the album's title, tell us about Al's love life (which was, if we are to believe all this tripe, almost comparable to Gene Simmons'), and the other half is about bro­ken dreams and wasted lives of the middle class (or the lower class, for that matter, as in the prostitute tale of 'Compton Street Blues').

The stinging question is: can he do it better than, for example, Ray Davies? The obvious answer is: there is no need to compare the two if the purpose is to award first prize, because, roughly speaking, Ray sets average lyrics to colossal melodies, where­as Al clearly places more emphasis on the words — which, however, does not mean that Ray's lyrics and Al's melodies/arrangements do not matter, because they do; it's all a matter of accents, and both are quite meritorious in their own ways.

Despite the obvious shortcomings of the album — at least, from today's point of view — its gains over Bedsitter Images are as significant as its losses, which guarantees a thumbs up; but I will not argue with the commonly held opinion that, what some could see as eighteen minutes of spi­ritual revelation back in 1969, has mutated into eighteen minutes of wasted time fourty years la­ter (actually, much earlier than that), and that Al still had a certain way to go to learn the true mea­ning of the word «timeless».

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Aretha Franklin: Aretha Now


ARETHA FRANKLIN: ARETHA NOW (1968)

1) Think; 2) I Say A Little Prayer; 3) See Saw; 4) Night Time Is The Right Time; 5) You Send Me; 6) You're A Sweet Sweet Man; 7) I Take What I Want; 8) Hello Sunshine; 9) A Change; 10) I Can't See Myself Leaving You.

Working at the rate of two first-rate LPs per year might not seem that difficult when you do not have to write (most of) the songs you record — but, on the other hand, for a «cover-based» R'n'B artist to have released four excellent records in two years is a feat you just can't beat, and I do not even mean today, when even major R'n'B stars lazily condescend to record one album every two or three years and most of it is bland crap anyway; I mean back in the 1960s, when even the grit­tiest stars of Atlantic Records still gave their all to the singles market.

So if, as usual, there are still two or three tracks on Aretha Now that don't do much except pad out the length, this should not detract from the overall consistency. Same band, same songwriters, same formula, and, fourth time in a row, it still works, as long as the pool of Ray Charles and Sam Cooke songs is still open to reinterpretation. The Cooke tribute here is 'You Send Me', a rare case of Aretha doing fine on one of Sam's more sentimental numbers — because this particular one does not require any vulnerability on her part; and the Charles tribute is 'Night Time', on which she celebrates the joys of lovemaking from the feminine side just as vigorously as Ray used to do it from the male one. (Strange they never tried a duet, missing the chance of recording the sexiest performance of all time).

The album is most vividly remembered, however, through 'Think', a rare case of a self-penned song that is also a classic; Aretha attempts to one-up Otis by writing her own version of 'Respect', and she very nearly succeeds, putting another big-time feminist hit under her belt, and one that rocks the shoes off right from the very first beats, too. (Twelve years later, she was smart enough to refresh the song for the general public in The Blues Brothers). I may be wrong here, too, but I think it might be the first pop song ever to feature, if not the word "freedom" itself, but an anthe­mic exclamation of "Freedom!" in the chorus, and even today it is still one of the most powerful "Freedoms!" ever — even if, in its context, it refers to family freedom rather than social freedom (not that we haven't been told that all society starts with family).

The other big hit was Aretha's reinterpretation of Burt Bacharach — Dionne Warwick's 'I Say A Little Prayer', a song whose pomp may be overbearing for some and whose tenacious presence in pop culture may be off-putting for others, but an icon is an icon, and this is the second-most ico­nic recreation of it, and it's right here on this album. For the record, Aretha's version completely dissolves the candy gloss of Warwick's original (tender strings, silky percussion, «cutesy» vocals etc.), so, in my eyes, it is definitely superior.

And, of course, the hits are still interspersed with minor, but heavily rocking R'n'B cuts each of which is delightful in its own minuscule way — Don Covay's 'See Saw', Isaac Hayes' 'I Take What I Want', and Clyde Otis' 'Change' are all worthy renditions. No man ever did 'I Take What I Want' better than Allan Clarke of the Hollies, but no woman ever did 'I Take What I Want', peri­od — that is, not before Aretha, who, as it seems, was constantly on the look out for strong self-assertive male songs from the past decade(s) and turning them upside down. Good for her, and another major thumbs up; when you know for sure that it's formula, but it doesn't feel one bit like formula, that's real talent for you, and sometimes, even genius.

Monday, May 24, 2010

B. B. King: Blues In My Heart


B. B. KING: BLUES IN MY HEART (1962)

1) You're Gonna Miss Me; 2) Got 'Em Bad; 3) Troubles Don't Last; 4) Your Letter; 5) I Can't Explain; 6) The Wrong Road; 7) I Need You Baby; 8) So Many Roads; 9) Down Hearted; 10) Strange Things.

How do you tell a corporate profanation of the art of B. B. King from a shackle-free celebration of the art of B. B. King? Simple. If all the ballads, rumbas, and twists make you miss the blues, you're in for the whoring. If, on the contrary, all the blues makes you miss the rumbas and twists, you know you're in for the real stuff.

At this particular session, there really was quite a big deal of blues in B. B.'s heart. In fact, there is so much blues in his heart, it ends up sharing the fate of too much fat in the broth of the pro­verbial greedy inn­keeper who was promised to be paid by the spot. Meaning, of course, that all of the songs sound so much the same, it takes a significant attention span to notice the breaks.

It must have been a fun session, but with the exact same mid-tempo 12-bar structure all over the place, there is hardly an album that can make a worse case against the limitations of the blues. 'Down Hearted', a.k.a. 'How Blue Can You Get', is taken at a wee bit slower tempo and sounds a little bit more personal ('I gave you seven children, and now you wanna give 'em back' is as clas­sic as a blues line can get), which is probably why it got a single release, but, as far as I know, it was not a big hit anyway. The rest are all interchangeable.

On the positive side, if you survive one intent listen to this, King's ensuing output will look like the epitome of diversity in comparison — and so, by the way, will almost every other electric blues album released ever since. This is, like, the utmost in hardcore 12-bar; and I used to think Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac could be boring. You live, you learn.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Andrew Bird: The Swimming Hour


ANDREW BIRD'S BOWL OF FIRE: THE SWIMMING HOUR (2001)

1) Two Way Action; 2) Core And Rind; 3) Why?; 4) 11:11; 5) Case In Point; 6) Too Long; 7) Way Out West; 8) Waiting To Talk; 9) Fatal Flower Garden; 10) Satisfied; 11) Headsoak; 12) How Indiscreet; 13) Dear Old Greenland.

The best Bowl of Fire album ever — or, perhaps, simply the most accessible? Well, if diversity and unpredictability count as sins, probably the latter. But, regardless, this review will be written from the point of view of an incorrigible sinner. Besides, it's not like we are talking teen pop or anything like that. This is a guy who could stand his own with Yo-Yo Ma.

The Swimming Hour takes us ever further away from the limitations of «neo-swing», as they like to call it, and into new old realms like power pop, psychedelia, blues rock, and rumba, among others. It has already been likened to The White Album and similar genre-hopping en­cy­clo­pae­dic al­bums, and for good reason, even though, occasionally, Andrew seems to plod through these gen­res rather than hop through them. Perhaps this explains the title — to swim, after all, takes more effort than to fly for those who can do both.

Some complain that Bird is hard to understand, and the points he makes are hard to get. Well, ob­viously, because he does not really make any points. He goes for moods and melodies, and he sets them to the kind of lyrics that are in no danger of spoiling said moods and melodies: rooted in the old pop-poetry clichés, either twisted to the point of intelligent-looking absurdity or adjusted to reflect a well-acted theatrical situation that does not cut through to the heart, but is still exciting, all the same. The lyrics are decent, but it's not like they really matter.

What does matter? Many things. Like when the crunchy violin riff emerges out of the sonic chaos of the first 40 seconds of 'Two Way Action', and we perceive it as a driving power pop anthem, well worthy of the Big Star legacy except that the strings are bowed rather than plucked. Or when the baroque flourishes on '11:11' bring together the twenty-first and the eighteenth centuries by way of the psychedelic Sixties. Or when the screeching guitar solo emerges out of nowhere on the quiet waltz of 'Fatal Flower Garden', giving it a nice rock flavor. Or when Bird starts whistling on 'Headsoak', giving us a first taste of his tremendous talents in that department. Or the wild rock'n'roll things he does with the violin on 'How Indiscreet', spiritually reminiscent of the British R'n'B rave-ups from around 1964.

In short, The Swimming Hour is simply a very melodic, and a very expertly constructed, piece of non-revolutionary modern art. Its intelligence is even reflected in the extremely correct manner in which Bird treats all the styles: thus, when it is power pop, a direction that nurtures originality in the juxtaposition of chords, he actually writes melodies of his own, but when it is the same old swing, we find the same old age-weathered progressions (as in, most notably, his cover of The Mi­ssissippi Sheiks' 'Too Long'), and this should bother us no more than it did on the man's previ­ous couple of records — you don't mess up with an already winning formula, you only polish it for the modern listener's hearing criteria.

One of the simplest and most effective examples is 'Why?', a thrilling chunk of «blues de luxe» that Bird arranges in the form of a non-trivial drama (he is a no-good fucker, she sees no problem in tolerating his no-goodness, he only gets more pissed-off as a result — not such a rare situation when you think of it, but, for some reason, generally neglected in the long tradition of refining personal rela­tions into high art). As the bluesy violin scrapes the soul with the efficacy of a trade­mark B. B. King solo, and the vocals effortlessly switch from exasperated falsetto to drunk, reckless wailing on the middle-eight, you know that the guy has created something — a character, a performance, a symbol, whatever, that you just might want to keep with you.

At this point in his career, Bird starts taking on the characteristics of an Adrian Belew for his ge­neration — that is, a properly schizoid guy, raised and reared as a tenant of the ivory tower but not above regularly holding a carnival for the local peasants right in front of the moat. No crucial importance for either the current times or the times to come, no clear reason for this kind of acti­vity, no possibility of understanding why we are all gathered here on this day, but the sensation of a significant positive charge is undeniable all the same. It's not post-modern smirk, and it isn't faithful generic tribute. It's groping in the dark with two loving hands, never mind any potentially salacious connotations.

I guess that's pretty much the same kind of feeling about which he sings in 'Dear Old Greenland'. There is no reason whatsoever for the protagonist to go to Greenland, but something out there makes him quite certain that this is just the right place to find the necessary peace of mind. Well, I could never quite get my own motiva­tion for being so strongly drawn to The Swimming Hour, but I can definitely confirm that this particular hour of swimming contributed to my own peace of mind. Let science deal with this some other day. The heart acknowledges the presence of a strong magnetic field here, and concedes a thumbs up.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Ani DiFranco: Imperfectly


ANI DIFRANCO: IMPERFECTLY (1992)

1) What If No One's Watching; 2) Fixing Her Hair; 3) In Or Out; 4) Every State Line; 5) Circle Of Light; 6) If It Isn't Her; 7) Good, Bad, Ugly; 8) I'm No Heroine; 9) Coming Up; 10) Make Them Apologize; 11) The Waiting Song; 12) Served Faithfully; 13) Imperfectly.

Well, she's done it this time. Third time around, here is an album that is completely and absolute­ly impossible to discuss in terms of any other subjects but lyrics. Technically, the sound is a little fuller here, due to the addition of occasional bass and percussion ('Make Them Apologize'), occasional mandolin ('Fixing Her Hair'), occasional backing harmonies, even mock-operatic ones ('I'm No Heroine'), and even occasional jazz trombone ('Circle Of Light'), but the extra touches never ever take the central attention from her vocals and acoustic guitar anyway, so no reason to think of them as indicative of some major style shift.

Meanwhile, the melodies, once again, do not stand up to the freshness and innovative punch of the self-titled debut: the formula gets old pretty fast. And so, all that's left is just stand there and think — do these songs reflect creative and intellectual growth, or do they simply reflect the ideo­logy of «don't-stop-'til-you-drop»? Do they continue to teach us new brands of ethical considera­tions or is it merely the same old song and dance? Is this woman a constantly expanding genius or just a predictable feminist hack?

Frankly, I don't have the time or desire to find it out with this kind of material. I have tried one possible shortcut — make an attempt at locating the album's centerpiece and try to inject it seve­ral times in a row. That centerpiece, supposedly located in the center (where else?), to me, seems to be 'I'm No Heroine', where the lady makes a hardly predictable twist by trying to make us be­lieve she is not really as tough as we want to imagine her: "You think I'm usually wearing the pants just 'cause I rarely wear a dress... you think I stand so firm, you think I sit so high on my trusty steed, let me tell you — I'm usually face down on the ground when there's a stampede; I'm no heroine, at least, not last time I checked, I'm too easy to roll over, I'm too easy to wreck..."

Nice try, Ms. DiFranco, but no dice. If you are no heroine indeed, show us, for once, your truly vulne­rable side. Or, actually, «for once» would be no good, because everyone can fake somebody else pretty successfully at least once in their life; preferably, I'd like to have both sides of the sto­ry living side by side on each record. But if you really are "too easy to wreck", how come for the rest of the album you are mostly singing about how you and your sisters should get on with your anti-male crusades ('Make Them Apologize'), or how the system only cares about your ass ('The Waiting Song'), or about girl-girl and girl-boy relations in which you never, ever back down (al­most everything else)?

It is this weird, disconcerting paradox — 'I'm heroically fighting to defend my right to be no hero' — so typical of so many liberal artistic statements, that is initially frustrating, later annoying, and, in the end, merely curious as a culturally dependent psychological trend, but not really translating so much to great art as it is to post-Freudian study material. These are intelligent lyrics, sung in a refined and, for what it's worth, perfectly sincere manner, but she is an unconscious slave of a particular paradigm, an agenda that is no less limiting than «sex and drugs and rock'n'roll». What else can I say about a record the most memorable thing about which is supposed to be the lethal voltage of a "fuck you very much" sung acappella ('Every State Line')? Just count me shocked to death, then, and unable to twirl my thumbs in any direction. (Although, for the record, I never ever put the question "baby, do you like to fool around" to anyone; and if neither have you, Mr. Average Male Reader, you will, most likely, be a piss-poor conductor for this kind of electricity).

Friday, May 21, 2010

Anthrax: Among The Living


ANTHRAX: AMONG THE LIVING (1987)

1) Among The Living; 2) Caught In A Mosh; 3) I Am The Law; 4) Efilnikufesin; 5) A Skeleton In The Closet; 6) In­dians; 7) One World; 8) A.D.I./Horror Of It All; 9) Imitation Of Life.

Some random guy on some random website called this «happy metal», and said he'd rather stick to blacker stuff. I don't know; I think it would take an absolute musical genius to make such an over-the-top genre as thrash metal truly «black». Do Slayer really scare you? Does Megadeth make you want to hide under the bed? Perhaps Metallica does have a way of crawling under one's skin in an uncomfortable way — but they are also the least «generic thrash» of all such bands; su­rely not coincidentally.

So Among The Living finds Anthrax moving further away from «unintentionally funny» (= aw­ful) to «intentionally funny» (= awesome). Letting the band members' infatuation with Stephen King and comic books burst through, they now lend their steel riffs to songs about Judge Dredd and Randall Flagg. Certainly a novel approach, but one that lets them find their own face in the tiny confines of the thrash cell block: a grotesque marriage of speed metal and pop cul­ture. And it does not even matter much that far from everyone in the world is acquainted with these characters: particular names come and go, but the popcorn stays forever.

Of course, if a song like 'I Am The Law' were written in all seriousness... but surely it is intended to be half-admiration, half-irony, a brief role game to make life more exciting. It is more difficult to say just how serious they are when writing about more earthly, socially conscious issues ('Indi­ans', about Indians; 'One World', about fighting for peace) — the lyrics are far more trite, and it is not easy to spread good morals together with headbanging riffs; as we see, some people even get offended with the «happy metal» vibe.

But the band is at its most intelligent and snappy not when singing about comic book heroes or about politics, but when they turn on their own audiences, as in the classic 'Caught In A Mosh', which I freely consider one of the greatest thrash anthems ever written. The main riff is one of the few Anthrax riffs that are truly unforgettable — all beastly power and speed — and the song of­fers the audience a chance to let off major steam while at the same time (provided you pay atten­tion to the lyrics) understanding how ridiculous they look when doing it: "Cold sweat, my fists are clenching, stomp, stomp, stomp, the idiot convention". Does the song approve of the practice of moshing or does it condemn it? This band is clever enough to avoid a straight answer.

Overall, the riffs they come up with seem to have slightly increased in both complexity and me­morability, but not enough to make them more discussable than their lyrical subjects or basic at­titude. The important point is that they have learned how to imbue these riffs with — for lack of a more suitable expression — somewhat intellectual content, earning the thrash genre extra points in respectability. If you are the moshing sort, you will adore all fifty minutes of this; if you are not, you are still welcome to recognize the craft and care and even humour that went into it, like I certainly do, even though my own headbanging instincts were only seriously triggered once (as the awesome bass riff of 'Caught In A Mosh' creeps in and blows you away). Thumbs up from the brain; the album's «classic» status is understood and deserved.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Aerosmith: Draw The Line


AEROSMITH: DRAW THE LINE (1977)

1) Draw The Line; 2) I Wanna Know Why; 3) Critical Mass; 4) Get It Up; 5) Bright Light Fright; 6) Kings And Queens; 7) The Hand That Feeds; 8) Sight For Sore Eyes; 9) Milk Cow Blues.

Some of the juiciest records in rock happen to be «crash albums» — made during that one parti­cular period where everything is falling apart under the pressure of too much fame, too intense tou­ring, too stubborn record company executives, too stressed personal relations, and, of course, way too many samples of heavy substances. It is completely unethical to expect such albums from your favourite artists — comparable to expecting extra profits from your plantations once you really start putting the whip to those lazy slave bastards — but, after all, no pain, no gain.

On the other hand, not everyone is entitled to a proper «crash album». You cannot be talentless (no one will give a damn about your going down if you never truly went up in the first place), and you have to time it carefully — not too soon, because that would be sort of pretentious («who do they think they are? one platinum album and they're already snorting more coke than my wife does at our home parties?»), and not too late, because if you do it past your creative prime, the re­sults will almost certainly be so pitiful that you won't be able to inspire even one future ge­ne­ration of heroin ad­dicts.

Considering all these things, Draw The Line is one of the absolute best crash albums that can be found on the market. It's just like Rocks, only with the polar signs reversed: same sound, utterly different side effects. An album that the band didn't really feel like recording (not the «proper» way that the studio expected it to be recorded, anyway), but plowed on regardless. They were still young and brawny, already professional, and completely wasted, and Draw The Line is like a reckless, totally drugged out party, with the level of self-exposure reaching up to the skies.

Think of this: Draw The Line is the only Aerosmith album not to feature even a single ballad — meaning that the band really put the commercially-oriented department of their collective brain on hold. The sequencing is about as abysmal as the ugly band caricature on the album sleeve: in­stead of elegantly closing the record with another gentlemanly goodbye like 'Home Tonight', they shut it off with a rippin' version of 'Milk Cow Blues', a blues-standard-turned-rock'n'roll that used to serve as a great album opener (e. g. The Kink Kontroversy). The mix, overall, is as muddy and dirty as the one on Exile On Main St., to which the album is often compared. No wonder that ninety-nine percent of the critics either slammed the record completely upon release, stating that the Aerosmith miracle was over, or grudgingly acknowledged this to be «the beginning of the end». Which it was, of course, but could we have two of those, please?

From the opening power chords, slide intro, and massive, unforgettable riff of the title track, and right to the very end Draw The Line rocks just like Rocks. Not all the songs are expertly written, but neither is this a songwriting disaster, as some claim. 'Draw The Line' did not become Aero­smith's last major Seventies' hit for nothing — Perry's melody ranks up there with their finest. On 'Get It Up', he effortlessly switches from rootsy slide to growling funky metal over the course of one and the same riff; how cool is that? And 'Sight For Sore Eyes' is their most exciting venture into the realm of sweet sleazy funk.

That said, it is true that the groove is more important for Draw The Line than the chord sequen­ces. Perry's hoodlum chops have gotten even hoodlum-er, and he offers us yet another proof to being the American counterpart of Keith Richards — by getting one vocal solo spot per album on an entirely self-written song, showing that he has got no singing voice whatsoever, and still so­me­how getting by merely on the convincing strength of the performance ('Bright Light Fright', a song that, in 1977, he could have easily donated to Keith and no one would have noticed: "It's the dawn of the day, and I'm crashed and I'm smashed, as it is I'm feeling like my chips are cashed"). Whitford, unabashed, adds light and color to Perry's gloom, more responsible for the party spirit of the album than anyone else. And Tyler, never forgetting how to pharyngealize on key, delivers some of the most piercing screaming of his career, be it in the climactic verse of 'Draw The Line' or on the rabid screaming of "daaaahhhctor, daaahhhctor, pleaaaaahse!" in 'The Hand That Feeds' (a much-maligned song, by the way, but which I have always liked for its sheer madness).

Stuck in the middle of this debacle is 'Kings And Queens', a song that shows exactly how crazy they were at that time — to the point of writing an amateurish prog-rock epic! If the rest of the album fit in relatively well with the angry punk explosion of 1977 (closing our eyes on a total lack of the «socially conscious» factor), 'Kings And Queens' singlehandedly aligned them with the rest of the dragons that the Pistols were out there to slay. For a reputation-killing five minutes, Tyler withdraws from the party and dreams about how cool it must have been when «long ago in days untold...» there used to be knights, maidens, swords, Vikings, might and magic, but — wha­d­daya know — "Lordy, they died". There are pianos, too, and synthesizers, and ultra-serious ba­cking vocals, and epic instrumental passages (at one point, an alarm siren goes off for about thirty seconds, probably to warn us all of the impending death of everyone and everything).

In a way, this is even more ridiculous than classic Uriah Heep material, but this is where the po­wer of context comes into play: the sheer weirdness of hearing this in between 'Bright Light Fright' and 'The Hand That Feeds' adds a pinch of surprise value. Had they written it four years before and placed it on the same record with 'Dream On', this might have been judged as a corny, disgusting move (young ambitious whippersnappers who think that rock music cannot be taken seriously unless it is «serious», i. e. telling people about St. George and the dragon); on Draw The Line, it is like a bizarre, unpredictable action of a mental patient. (And it is not all that bad from a melodical standpoint, either — there, now I've said it).

If I were a professional determinist, I would probably set out to prove the theory that, after Draw The Line, the band had but two choices: within a decade, either all of its members, or, at least, the «Toxic Twins» of Tyler and Perry would be dead from various drug- or drink-related ac­cidents, or they would have to end up with Permanent Vacation. Their taking the latter choice was depressing for us true grit lovers, but sane and healthy for them, and, like all good Samari­tans, we must be happy for their corporal and mental regeneration. The good news is, we don't ne­cessarily have to participate in it. If the price for this breathtaking exploration of The Lower Depths with Draw The Line were Desmond Child and Diane Warren, I'm willing to take it, be­cause Diane Warrens will come and go, but "Checkmate, honey, beat you at your own damn ga­me, no dice honey, I'm livin' on the astral plane" will stay forever. Resumé: with the brain shut off completely, annihilated by the vile flank assault of 'Kings And Queens', the heart takes center stage and issues the album a thumbs up from its very bottom.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Al Stewart: Bedsitter Images


AL STEWART: BEDSITTER IMAGES (1967)

1) Bedsitter Images; 2) Swiss Cottage Manoeuvres; 3) The Carmichaels; 4) Scandinavian Girl; 5) Pretty Gold Hair; 6) Denise At 16; 7) Samuel, Oh How You've Changed!; 8) Cleave To Me; 9) A Long Way Down From Stephanie; 10) Ivich; 11) Beleeka Doo­dle Day.

Alastair Ian Stewart narrowly missed the chance to become the leading voice in fantasy folk; his first single, released for Decca in 1966, was called 'The Elf' and is frequently quoted as one of the first, if not the very first, Tolkien-inspired song to get a commercial release. The song is fairly cute, but either Stewart was afraid of losing the field to Marc Bolan in the long run, or he simply percei­ved the silliness of it all, or perhaps he got ridiculed by either Dylan or Simon, the former of whom he revered and the latter was good friends with.

Whatever the reason, in 1967 he rebooted his career, signed up with CBS, and put up his own mo­dest claim, one that is at once completely transparent and yet, rather hard to put an untremb­ling finger on. Much of Bedsitter Images sounds like it belongs on Nuggets II — pop-style Brit-folk with a slight mystical-magical tinge — but we are most certainly not in the realm of the three minute single, even though only a few tunes violate that rule technically. Dissecting Bedsitter Images into the sum of its influences is useful, and defining it as an album that could only appear in 1967 is insightful, yet it has its own voice, too, and, although Stewart was still way far from being recognized as a solitary force in pop music, this is also an album that could only have been recorded by the likes of Al Stewart.

Since Stewart came from the folk scene, echoes of Dylan were unavoidable, but they are mostly felt in the decision to push ahead with a few long songs (most notably, the grand seven minutes of 'Beleeka Doodle Day'), and in the lyrical influence, although it should be noted that Stewart never followed Dylan in his beat escapades and weirdass linguistic experiments; clearly, it is the early acoustic Dylan, not yet free from the clutches of romanticism, that serves as Al's beacon.

Paul Si­mon, with whom Al had even shared living space a little while back, is also a large pre­sence, and almost directly responsible, I think, for the youthful enchanted prance of the title track, which is like a slightly more serious and responsible brother to 'The 59th Street Bridge Song' (al­though the steady, monotonous fall of the verse lyrics is more Dylan than Simon). On the other hand, both Simon and Stewart owe a common debt to the folkie scene in general — the age-ho­noured traditional melody elements, the gallantry/chivalry touch for the love songs, the general in­telligence and culture stamp on the singing voice etc.

But occasionally, Stewart also goes beyond that in trying to merge those medieval influences with the relevant Brit-poppiness of the day, and so it should be no surprise that right after 'Swiss Cottage Manoeu­vres', which is both lyrically and melodically reminiscent of Dylan's '4th Time Around', we segue into 'The Carmichaels', thematically much more of a Ray Davies song (and, coincidentally, with its subject matter of a bored cheating housewife, also presages 'Mrs. Ro­binson'). Here, he shows that he can be mean and sardonic, too, behind that innocent stare.

But not for long, of course. Overall, Bedsitter Images is hopelessly lost in romance, whether it be old-fashioned, theatrical romance ("Maid, truly I see now, it must be a long way down, and with love's bud shorn must all dalliance hither crumble and wither" — Sir Thomas Malory, eat your heart out!), or some typically Sixties' attempt at finding radically new ways of searching for the same old meaning of life ('Scandinavian Girl'). And, like a true folkie pro, he does not neglect the duty of showcasing his guitar playing skills, with two non-outstanding, but quite pretty instru­mentals ('Denise At 16', 'Ivich').

Now comes the odd part. Most people, including Stewart himself, have always thought that CBS pretty much ruined the record by drowning out Al's introspective sound with Alexander Faris' or­chestral ar­rangements. I disagree. Obviously, they were merely trying to follow the latest trend, the one stating that pop artists performing in romantic genres go down well with symphonic treat­ment (see the Moody Blues' Days Of Future Past for further examples), but most of the arrange­ments are in very good taste, and never really distract from the essence of the songs. It is not just a bunch of syrupy strings tacked on as an afterthought — strings, pianos, horns, flutes, chimes, harps, Al really got the works here, and no two arrangements really sound the same.

For instance, 'Samuel, Oh How You've Changed!' is not very original as far as such melodies go, and it is up to the cute harp plucking to push it up in the beauty department. The military fanfares add a whole new dimension to 'Swedish Cottage Manoeuvres'. And the piano arpeggios, rising hi­gher and higher all through the duration of the chorus of 'Bedsitter Images', are just about the best aspect of that song as a whole — a magnificent melodic touch which turns the song from a com­petent exercise in Simon-izing into something of near-epic proportions. Plus, it is all handled quite intelligently; the album's magnum opus, 'Beleeka Doodle Day', does not get any orchestral ba­cking, just acoustic guitars and a morose organ laying down a wintery pattern in the back­ground, because strings would not have added anything significant to this kind of sound.

The album is truly flawless. It simply does not aspire to all that much — like most of Al's records, its ambitions are limited, and it prefers to capitalize on breakthroughs made by other people ra­ther than try its own. It is also way «fluffier» than his subsequent efforts, but there is nothing wrong with having too many stars in your eyes if you generate them yourself instead of buying them wholesale like mass-produced contact lenses. Intelligent lyrics, beautiful voice, competent guitar playing, inventive arrangements — a classic example of «Snubbed First Effort», to be dus­ted off and reappraised once Father Time readjusts the necessary balance.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Aretha Franklin: Lady Soul


ARETHA FRANKLIN: LADY SOUL (1968)

1) Chain Of Fools; 2) Money Won't Change You; 3) People Get Ready; 4) Niki Hoeky; 5) (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman; 6) Since You've Been Gone; 7) Good To Me As I Am To You; 8) Come Back Baby; 9) Groovin'; 10) Ain't No Way.

Nobody remembers 'Niki Hoeky'. For a reason. Written by Jim Ford, better known as the author of 'Harry Hippie', it is a very silly tune that, in its original conception, only serves to introduce the most exciting linguistic excesses of Southern speech to Northern — and, in a longer run, world­wide — audiences. When simply sung by Aretha Franklin, it is marginally listenable, like every­thing else by A. F. But throw in some ultra-loud, monster bass playing from Tom Cobgill, ballsy brass playing, and the overwhelming strength of The Sweet Impressions on backing vocals, and a minor corny throwaway becomes two and a half minutes of powerful, intoxicating jamming that is impossible to stop. I want the full version, goddammit; with this kind of drive, they must have ploughed on for another ten minutes at least.

This is the major reason why all these albums from that particular period are so highly valued — the golden touch of Atlantic's session players. The actual songs are not all that good. Lady Soul is often quoted as Franklin's finest hour, but throughout that finest hour, I only find one piece of brilliant, original melodicity: Carole King's (of course — who else's?) '(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman'. And, odd as it may seem, it is also a song that, perhaps, works better in King's own hands; with its decidedly non-feminist, maybe even anti-feminist message ("if I make you happy, I don't need to do more"), it is pretty hard to reconcile it with Aretha's usual aggressive style. She certainly tries, and does a great job anyway — not easy to botch a fantastic tune, one of the most impressive, cathartic build-ups in pop history, with a fantastic singer, even if they are both fantastic in such incompatible ways. But, in my opinion, 'Natural Woman' only showed its true face three years later, when recorded by Carole himself.

The true face of Lady Soul is the other big hit, 'Chain Of Fools' — Don Covay's R'n'B stomper is far more primitive from a melodic standpoint, but at least this is a song that is forever bound to be associated with Franklin and Franklin only. And the Muscle Shoals: a very important ingredient here is the swampy guitar playing, which, together with the 'chain chain chain' backing vocals, adds a creepy voodooistic tinge to the song — we are told that, in light of the five years of torture that the protagonist gets from her man, "one of these mornings the chain is gonna break", but we can only guess how. I smell bonfires and fresh rooster and goat blood, personally.

Like all great R'n'B, Lady Soul does not stuff your brain cells with magic combinations of com­plex chords, but provides dazzling, fiery, and diverse entertainment. Aretha throws herself at a little bit of everything. There is more Ray Charles, this time the rowdy Ray Charles turf where she can almost beat the genius ('Come Back Baby'); there is more getting hip to the sounds of the times (a cover of the Young Rascals' 'Groovin'); there is the daring to challenge the unchallenge­able — James Brown, with a smoking version of 'Money Won't Change You'; the beginning of Aretha's lengthy love affair with Curtis Mayfield ('People Get Ready', which she rips out of the silk cocoon of The Impressions and adapts to her own rough 'n' rowdy gospel style); and even a heartily welcome guest appearance by Eric Clapton, who makes the slow-passing four minutes of 'Good To Me As I Am To You' twice as exciting.

For the grand finale, sister Carolyn comes up with the epic winner 'Ain't No Way', again, not exa­ctly a pillar of songwriting but a song that allows Aretha to show softness and vulnerability with­out self-humiliation — trust a sister to truly understand the nature of your soul, rather than an out­side songwriter, no matter how brilliant. Supposedly, that is also Carolyn and Erma wailing out the­re in the background, in a manner rather uncharacteristic of standard R'n'B vocalizing, almost close to bel canto at certain moments.

The immense reputation of Lady Soul, to a large extent, rests on the success of the hit singles, but there is no question that, at this point, Aretha and her following were still in full control of the formula and able to keep it fresh by constantly adding new minor ingredients. So it gets the same type of a thumbs up as the less revered, but equally satisfactory Aretha Arrives. And, for the record, try to find an issue that has the unedited version of 'Chain Of Fools', with an extra minute of introductory vocalizing over rhythmless swamp guitar. Makes the voodoo brew quite a bit den­ser and juicier.

Monday, May 17, 2010

B. B. King: Blues For Me


B. B. KING: BLUES FOR ME (1961)

1) Bad Case Of Love; 2) Get Out Of Here; 3) Bad Luck Soul; 4) Shut Your Mouth; 5) Baby, Look At You; 6) You're Breaking My Heart; 7) My Reward; 8) Don't Cry Anymore; 9) Blues For Me; 10) Just Like A Woman.

B. B. King goes... twisting, at least on the opening number, 'Bad Case Of Love'; for any similar artist with a similar gesture today, we'd call this yet another exercise in self-prostituting, but for B. B. King, this was, no doubt, just another brave attempt to break down the walls between genres. He twists pretty damn good, too; I guess his moves are a little rustier than Chubby Checker's, but he can sure play the guitar a whole lot better.

But seriously, Blues For Me is just another by-the-book record that only distinguishes itself in two ways from its predecessor. The bad way is that it brings back the syrupy orchestrated ballads ('My Reward'). The good way is that there are quite a few fast numbers, and 'Bad Case Of Love' — the lead single — is actually the least surprising of them, because B. B. also tries out grittier, Chuck Berry-style rock'n'roll, replete with true Berry-style licks and rollicking Johnny Johnson-style piano ('Just Like A Woman'), and even — dare I say it? — Ventures-style surf-rock (the totally mismatchingly named title track).

As for pure guitar power, the real highlight is probably 'You're Breaking My Heart', if only be­cause it is graciously given a weighty four minutes to properly unwind. Not that it makes a lot of difference or anything. Overall, just another enjoyable, but completely predictable page in the man's conservative almanac.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Andrew Bird: Oh! The Grandeur


ANDREW BIRD'S BOWL OF FIRE: OH! THE GRANDEUR (1999)

1) Candy Shop; 2) Tea And Thorazine; 3) Wishing For Contentment; 4) Wait; 5) The Idiot's Genius; 6) Vidalia; 7) Beware; 8) Dora Goes To Town; 9) Feetlips; 10) And So...; 11) Coney Island Shuffle; 12) Respiration; 13) (What's Your) Angle; 14) The Confession; 15) Beware (reprise).

All right; this sounds almost exactly like Thrills, but it no longer sounds like homework. There was a little bit of Andrew Bird already present on Music Of Hair, but it is his third LP where the Andrew Bird part becomes seriously comparable in size to the «Andrew Bird influences» part. Most of this has to do with the lyrics, ever more entangled, personal, and mixing hip modern ways of thinking about life with traditional ways of expressing these thoughts. At least, such is my tentative explanation of why Oh! The Grandeur is the first FUN Andrew Bird album. Or, as Andrew admits himself, "I've got a new-found fangled fandango tango angle — and it keeps things curious, and it makes folks furious; it takes two part tango and a little tingle tangle, and two orangutans like me and you" ('What's Your Angle').

Bird's biggest achievement here, perhaps, is that he has managed to make that old time music feel relevant once again, and maybe even disclose some potential depth that we rarely, or never, per­ceive when listening to Kurt Weill or Fats Waller, not because they were not «deep», but because, in creating all these new sounds, they never bothered to explore them right down to the core. By adding new levels of technical precision, combining rarely combined instruments, juxtaposing rarely juxtaposed sub-styles, and filling them up with present-day realities, the guy gives the old carnival thing a second breath — and does this with more subtlety and personality than the Squir­rel Nut Zippers themselves, who also tried to revive the form but did not truly succeed in filling it up with the proper spirit.

On 'Candy Shop', which opens the record on a fast, brawny, danceable note, Bird promi­ses that he is "goin' to set fire to your glamour", but the song is a cunning deception: it merely sounds like a fast outtake from Thrills, another bit of well-polished tribute but with little chance of being sele­cted for preservation in the National Archives. But then 'Tea And Thorazine' takes off at a much slower, in some ways, even creepier pace as Bird sings memoirs of his autistic brother, and from then on, it is a strange journey into the world of gypsy fiddles and jump-blues guitars and voodoo percussion that, at times, evokes images of an early morning dreamy hangover after a long night at the local speakeasy.

The record's centerpiece is, I believe, to be faithfully found right in the center: 'Beware', moving from its regular violin intro to the lazy shuffle mood and then, without warning, into the sphere of drunken ominousness: with huge vocal, violin, and piano crescendos, Bird gives us a warning against... uh, I actually have no idea what he is talking about, but I do like the idea of using that old-fashioned cabaret sound to sing about some sort of impending apocalypse. In fact, all through the record there is a vague sense of danger at the end of town, but what kind of danger — that is not so interesting for Andrew to specify.

Of course, I may be reading too much into an album that, even with all the darker themes, keeps debasing itself with cheerful lightweight SquirrelNuttish throwaways like 'Dora Goes To Town', but bear with me: Andrew Bird is too smart a guy to be restricted by the tag of «lightweight enter­tainer», and there is no other way to let him escape this restriction than to keep talking about his non-trivial artistic conceptions. And, above all, you cannot accuse him of insincerity or inadequa­cy: if his goal truly is to «keep things curious» and «make folks furious», these are two things that Oh! The Grandeur does splendidly. At the very least, it made my brain cells furious enough and my heart strings curious enough to guarantee this the first truly solid thumbs up in Andrew Bird history.