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Monday, January 31, 2011

Amos Milburn: Blues, Barrelhouse & Boogie Woogie


CD I: 1) After Midnite; 2) My Baby's Boogying; 3) Down The Road Apiece; 4) Amos' Blues; 5) Amos' Boogie; 6) Operation Blues; 7) Cinch Blues; 8) Everything I Do Is Wrong; 9) Blues At Sundown; 10) Money Hustlin' Woman; 11) Sad And Blue; 12) Mean Woman; 13) Aladdin Boogie; 14) Nickel Plated Baby; 15) Real Gone; 16) Rainy Wea­ther Blues; 17) Train Whistle Blues; 18) Train Time Blues; 19) Bye Bye Boogie; 20) Pot Luck Boogie; 21) It's A Mar­ried Woman; 22) My Tortured Mind; CD II: 1) Hold Me Baby; 2) Chicken Shack Boogie; 3) Hard Driving Blues; 4) I'm Gonna Leave You; 5) Pool-Playing Blues; 6) Rocky Road Blues (take 1); 7) Rocky Road Blues (take 2); 8) Lonesome For The Blues; 9) Slow Down Blues; 10) Anybody's Blues; 11) It Took A Long, Long Time; 12) Wolf On The River; 13) Frank's Blues; 14) Empty Arms Blues; 15) A&M Blues; 16) Won't You Kinda Think It Over; 17) Jitterbug Fashion Parade; 18) My Luck Is Bound To Change; 19) Roomin' House Boogie; 20) Walkin' Blues; 21) Blue And Lonesome; 22) Let's Make Christmas Merry, Baby; CD III: 1) Drifting Blues; 2) Untitled Boogie; 3) Melting Blues; 4) Boogie Woogie; 5) Atomic Baby; 6) Sax Shack Boogie; 7) Birmingham Bounce; 8) Let's Rock A While; 9) Hard Luck Blues; 10) Two Years Of Torture; 11) Bad Bad Whiskey; 12) Tears, Tears, Tears; 13) Put Something In My Hand; 14) Trouble In Mind; 15) Flying Home; 16) Let Me Go Home, Whiskey; 17) Please Mr. Johnson; 18) Let's Have A Party; 19) One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer; 20) Good, Good Whiskey; 21) After Awhile; 22) I Guess I'll Go.

Jump blues is an all but completely forgotten genre these days, having miserably fallen through the cracks — too primitive and formulaic for jazz fans, too wimpy for rock'n'rollers; the fact that the best of the «jumpers» managed to create a unique vibe of sorts, partially borrowed, but also partially wiped out by rock'n'roll, is not enough to make people remember names like Big Joe Turner and Wynonie Harris — only the fact that Elvis covered both the former ('Shake, Rattle & Roll') and the latter ('Good Rockin' Tonight') is.

Unfortunately, Elvis did not cover Amos Milburn (Chuck Berry and John Lee Hooker did, but their reputation, even pooled, is still no match for the King), and his current popularity amounts to little more than a footnote. Injustice a-plenty: unlike Big Joe and Wynonie, great powerhouse belters whose talents, nevertheless, can be fully assessed by sampling three or four of their best recordings, Milburn was one of the very few jump blues performers whose main talent lay in the playing — simply put, he was one of the most accomplished pianists of his epoch. Naturally, it makes no sense to compare him to the likes of demi-gods like Art Tatum, as he was way more li­mited in scope and technique by the very nature of the popular entertainment genre. But as far as that genre went, Milburn can honestly be said to have explored every nook and cranny.

For those totally unfamiliar with the man, let's just say that his sound was a direct influence on Fats Domino, as well as Chuck Berry's Johnnie Johnson — some of the piano runs on 'Down The Road Apiece' made it directly on to Chuck's version, and from there, became distributed between Keith Richards and Ian Stewart on the Stones' version — and on Jerry Lee Lewis. The latter, cer­tainly, banged on his keys with way more reckless abandon than Amos could ever allow himself, but lagged far behind in terms of technique and inventiveness. In all, Milburn probably was to the piano, during the late 1940s, much the same as T-Bone Walker was to the electric guitar: the in­ventor of a new language, one that would take firm hold a decade later, and then go on living without a good memory of its own forefather.

The completest way to get acknowledged with Milburn's legacy is through the five- or six-vo­lume Chronological Classics series that attempts to collect all of his recordings for the Aladdin label from 1946 to 1957, although I believe the label only got as far as 1953 before going bank­rupt, and some of these volumes are already notoriously hard to get at a normal price. There was also a limited-time-issue boxset of 7 CDs, The Complete Aladdin Recordings, which, last time I checked it out, went for $425 on Amazon, and sky's the limit. But, of course, these buys are for the nutty ones; regular guys like us can find perfect satisfaction in smaller collections, since, like every respectable performer from that time period, Amos was never above recording the exact same tune over and over and over again.

Blues, Barrelhouse & Boogie-Woogie is a currently out-of-print, but still findable, 3-CD compi­lation of what somebody thought to be the best and most representative tracks of Milburn's top recording years. It does not have all the big hits — like the dusky ballad 'Bewildered', for ins­tance, which can be found on additional smaller compilations — but it does have around 95% of them, along with lots of lesser B-sides and, so I gather, a bunch of stuff from the vaults as well. The tracks are more or less arranged in chronological order of recording, and the sound quality is as fine as one could demand from the era; no need to turn on the «Forced Ignorance of Cracks and Hisses» switch in the back of your mind.

Listening to these recordings on a track-by-track basis clearly establishes that Milburn's best stuff was recorded around 1946-48, when the major attraction was Amos himself: his unexceptional, but nice singing voice, and his exceptional, if formula-limited, piano playing. As time went by, he started relying more on his backing bands: a lot of electric guitar and brass soloing eventually pu­shes the piano out of focus, which is too bad, since the electric guitar is not T-Bone Walker level and the brass ain't no Tympany Five. Also, the rate of boogie-woogie to slow blues gradually de­creases throughout the years, especially after Milburn fell upon the winning formula of the «drin­king shuf­fle» with 'Bad, Bad Whiskey' in 1950 — a formula that subdued and charmed black drinkers all across the States, but did not obligatorily surmise fast rhythms or flashy playing.

In those early years, though, Milburn was magic, as evidenced already on 'After Midnite' that opens the album. Generic slow-moving 12-bar blues? Sure. For that matter, Chuck Berry's 'In The Wee Wee Ho­urs' is the exact same song. But Johnnie Johnson was just a supporting player on that tune, his ivories buried deep in the background; Milburn, who came earlier, pushes them up front, and accompanies each of the generic sung bars with a different improvised run. He is a good master of «sonic painting» — listen to how the line "the blues is falling, just like drops of rain" is immediately followed by piano-generated drops of rain ('Rainy Weather Blues') — and an even better mathematician-as-musician: the long instrumental workout on 'Down The Road Api­ece' is a prime example of melodic calculation, with amazingly elegant, symmetric constructions materializing from under his fingers in an endless sequence (as I already hinted at, this «engine­ering» approach was well understood and respected by both Berry and Richards on their respec­tive versions — actually, listening to all three versions in a row makes it clear that Keith must have been inspired by the original as well).

Stuff like 'Amos' Boogie' is «rock'n'roll in all but name», as they say, and a lot more ass-kicking than much of the stuff that bears that name just because it happened to come out later. Even if Milburn was not the only accomplished boogie player around town at the time, there are still few, if any, other places where you can hear such a distilled sound. Meade Lux Lewis, perhaps, or Pete Johnson, but the former did not record all that much, and the latter always got overshadowed by whoever he was accompanying. This here is pristine stuff.

The material on the two later-period discs is not as consistently exciting, yet there are still clas­sic R'n'B hits out there that are well worth getting to know: the humorous 'Chicken Shack Boogie', its equally humorous remake as 'Sax Shack Boogie', and, of course, out of all the innumerable drin­king songs — 'One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer', which most people know as that John Lee Hooker classic, but the song was just as relevant to Milburn.

Still, it is worth repeating that it is possible to play the sixty-six tracks on here in a row without going mad, which is much more than could be said about most of Milburn's competition during those years. Like everybody else, he was churning these recordings out like newspapers, without giving any serious thought to «individuality» or «innovation» — it's just the old 45s going out of print and the new ones replacing them. But, being stuck in the role of a commercial entertainer, he could still have the mindset of a freedom-riding improviser, and as similar as all these tunes are, only a very select few repeat each other note-for-note. (Granted, this may not hold for his en­tire output — we probably owe a big thank you to those responsible for the selection). If that is not enough to freeze the man in whatever Hall of Fame is willing to contain him, I don't know what is. Thumbs up, of course.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Akron/Family: Akron/Family & Angels Of Light


1) Awake; 2) Moment; 3) We All Will; 4) Future Myth; 5) Dylan Part II; 6) Oceanside; 7) Raising The Sparks; 8) I Pity The Poor Immigrant; 9) The Provider; 10) One For Hope; 11) Mother/Father; 12) Come For My Woman.

Technically, this is one of those «split albums» that usually get recorded out of cash deficit and, just as usually, pair two worthless artists in a desperate effort to multiply zero by zero and get a non­-zero result. This particular situation, however, is slightly different, because «Angels Of Light» is just a moniker for Michael Gira and whoever comes along to back him up on his next studio session. On this studio session, he happens to be backed up by members of Akron/Family, at the chronological peak of their symbiosis. So, all in all, this is a legitimate Akron/Family rele­ase, with the first seven songs representing «pure» Akron/Family and the last five representing Akron/Family playing five cover tunes — with Gira as special guest on vocals.

It does matter a lot to count it as legitimate, actually, since some of A/F's best material is to be found here. Stretching out in all directions and frequently bursting out of the solitude-embracing shell of their self-titled debut, the band finally shows that it may really be nice to have them hang­ing around — even though no one's still sure exactly why.

They certainly go out of their way to prove they are different. Admit it: not a lot of people would open a record with a song which is called 'Awake' — and which, during all of its running time, does its best to try and put you, the listener, to sound, healthy sleep with a sound, healthy, mono­tonous acoustic folk guitar line and sound, healthy, droning vocal harmonies. Only to wake you up, after all, with a crash-boom-bang as the second track, 'Moment', opens into a wall of free-form noise that may be intended to make Eric Dolphy crawl out of his grave.

Upon first listen, it is these bits of shock power that you will probably remember the most: the in­sanely prolonged "aaaaaah" chant on 'Moment', the ritualistic, out-of-control scream orgy on 'Ra­i­sing The Sparks', the massive mock-tragic buildup on 'Dylan Part II' (where is Part I, and what does this all have to do with Dylan anyway?). Later on, though, melodies start to emerge on the more quiet numbers, such as the minimalistic 'Oceanside' and the first, acoustic, half of the 'Dy­lan' thing. And in the final run, the expert will appreciate all the overdubs and psycho-layers of sound on the superficially blunt, straightforward folk romps ('Future Myth', which has enough stuff going on to warrant a dozen listens before one gets used to it).

The good news is, they are still being interesting, and they get better at it by throwing even more ingredients into the pot — if free-form atonal craziness is not enough for you, there is also shrill, hysterical prog-rock guitar soloing ('Dylan' again), ballsy (and catchy!) rock'n'roll-ifying of vil­lage dances ('Raising The Sparks'), and, just generally so, a complete lack of understanding where their train is going to stop in a few seconds from now. The bad news is — I still don't quite get it. Not only does this constant experimentation lack any explicit point, but all of its originality feels forced, and all of its non-originality feels... well, non-original.

In this respect, the Angels Of Light side of the story is actually better. Veteran guy Michael Gira used to be even crazier than any of these people while being a Swan, but his craziness seemed far more legitimate to me. And now he is not so much a crazy guy any longer as simply an intelligent human being who loves to... cover Bob Dylan: the band's rendition of 'I Pity The Poor Immigrant' is not only faithful to the original, it is also wonderfully well sung. The other four songs are dark folk originals, slow growers that make a simple, but lovably melancholic antithesis to Akron/Fa­mily's emotional canvas — more complex, perhaps, but also more prone to suspicions of fakeness. Twist it too tight, and people may lose interest in disentangling it.

Still, I view this as an improvement. The ugly off-key singing is gone, the diversity level has gone up, the band shows some teeth and muscle in their playing, proves that it is capable of crea­ting decent melodic hooks, and, overall, restores the reputation of «freak folk» as a musical move­ment that would really like to expand the limits of «folk» rather than just serve as a pretext for pretentious goofing. And in a couple dozen years from now, we might actually come to under­stand what these guys were about — after all, there are some people out there who give Trout Mask Replica a fair chance, too. Thumbs up, on lend-lease.

Check "Akron/Family & Angels Of Light" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Akron/Family & Angels Of Light" (MP3) on Amazon

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Apoptygma Berzerk: Soli Deo Gloria


1) Like Blood From The Beloved (part 1); 2) Bitch; 3) Burnin' Heretic; 4) Stitch; 5) Walk With Me; 6) Backdraft; 7) ARP (808 Edit); 8) Spiritual Reality; 9) Skyscraping; 10) All Tomorrow's Parties; 11) The Sentinel; 12) Ashes To Ashes '93; 13) Like Blood From The Beloved (part 2).

It is no big secret that your average goth still preserves just enough human spirit to possess a need to dance. Neither forefathers like the Cure, nor more straightforwardly Gothic acts like Bauhaus avoided dance rhythms — as long as you could paint them dark black and pass them off as some sort of scary ritua­listic trance thing. After all, one can always take advantage of the fact that none of us are properly informed about the nightly activities of Count Dracula.

From a different corner of the market comes EBM, «electronic body music», a term introduced by Kraftwerk and, allegedly, rather confusing — despite the phrasing, it does not refer to any ele­c­tronic dance music, but only to those types that introduce «industrial» elements. In other words, take something like the nerve-wrecking chaotic, dissonant hammer-clanging of Einstürzende Neu­bauten, straighten it out into an easier-going rhythmic pattern, and you got yourself some EBM. (How the hell you are supposed to remember the difference between EBM and IDM is a question that no popular music theoretician will ever answer, because choosing the right words for their terminology has never been a conscience-bothering issue with these people).

Finally, there's Apoptygma Berzerk, basically a one-man project (formally a group, though, with permanent supporting member rotation) from the sick brain of Danish-Norwegian Stephan Groth who happened to fall upon the rich idea of combining Goth-dance with EBM and acquire the stu­dio means of carrying it out. The original idea might have been as random as the artistic name he chose for it (Apoptygma means 'fold of dress' in Greek, and Berzerk is Groth's middle name... nah, too much honor), but the delivery had plenty of gusto anyway.

Had I the misfortune to hear Soli Deo Gloria back in its own time, I would have probably lasted about fifteen minutes. Even today, there is a temptation to simply dismiss this as awful shit and move on to better things. But why yield? Just because of its techno-pop overtones? Let us just wrap them up in one brief disclaimer: those of us who have an innate animosity towards techno-pop will never love Apoptygma Berzerk (or, at least, their early formative period), but love is one thing, and curiosity is another. And surely Soli Deo Gloria is a curious album.

Imagine a Gregorian choir trading in their church organ for a bunch of sequencers and you have just begun to understand the gist of Groth's output. The «songs», interspersed with brief atmos­pheric links, are dark rhythmic grooves with heavy emphasis on life-and-death matters. Groth's vocals, alternating between «doom-laden» and «scary-evil», combine very well with the cruel-sou­n­ding electronic pulses, and most of the choruses are catchy enough to convince you that there has been some traditionally-oriented songwriting involved here. Bad news is, the traditionally-ori­ented songwriting way too frequently sounds like second-rate Depeche Mode: if there is any­thing striking about a number like 'Bitch', it is not Groth's vocal melody, but rather the constantly angle-shifting showers of electronic effects that bombard it.

The real meat is to be found on longer, even more adventurous tracks like 'Skyscraping', ones that can switch in between several different rhythmic patterns and noise sections. Groth's imagination runs wild on these things, even if he has a long way to go to catch up with the big names in the electronic business; for one thing, he never lets a single groove overstay its welcome, insisting that these are all particular movements of complex art pieces, not just dark ambient plains to cross while shooting up zombies and Neo-Nazis.

But the main issue is always the same: will you or won't you take this guy and his darkness seri­ously? Like a Jim Morrison gone techno? (Provided you take Jim Morrison seriously, but that's a different question). Will you agree that his recasting of The Velvet Underground's 'All Tomor­row's Parties' honors the spirit of the original rather than mocks or profanates it?

I vote a mild 'yes'. Mild, because Groth's rather obvious commercial inclinations prevent him from casting it all in a truly EVIL mold (à la Ministry). Gloomy, but not creepy; dark, but not abys­mal. Always stopping at that threshold that separates the cautious worker from the brave ka­mikaze. But, on the other hand, how is it polite to say 'no' to a record that does something unique in spirit, accumulates lots of effort, and is at least marginally memorable? Besides, this is just the beginning of Groth's bizarre musical wanderings, released at the age of 22. It needn't have done much of anything other than just showing promise. And not every record needs to show knockout potential to merit a thumbs up, anyway.

Check "Soli Deo Gloria" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Soli Deo Gloria" (MP3) on Amazon

Friday, January 28, 2011

Angra: Aqua

ANGRA: AQUA (2010)

1) Viderunt Te Aquae; 2) Arising Thunder; 3) Awake From Darkness; 4) Lease Of Life; 5) The Rage Of The Waters; 6) Spirit Of The Air; 7) Hollow; 8) A Monster In Her Eyes; 9) Weakness Of A Man; 10) Ashes; 11*) Lease Of Life (remixed version).

Hmm. Either I am finally getting used to this, or Aqua is an improvement over the band's last trio of power slabs — or, at least, reflects some changes that appeal to me, the non-power-metalhead who, nevertheless, has managed to enjoy large parts of the record.

So let us see what's new and what's old. The fact that Angra have adopted the Asia-style gimmick of naming their albums is new (unless you disregard the word Consurgens from their previous offering) — but certainly not encouraging. More encouraging is having their old drummer, Ricar­do Confessori, make his prodigal son return after his co-project with Matos, Shaaman, had pretty much burnt down to the ground.

But the absolute best thing that has happened to this band on an objective scale is, I think, their saying goodbye to Dennis Ward, the producer behind all of their 2001-2006 output. Why? Just make yourself a random playlist from these three albums, throw in Aqua, and admire the diffe­rence. In comparison, the old sound is simply awful. The drums are drowned in hiss, the guitar riffs glue the notes together in a noisy roar, and the singer is almost reduced to the painful task of outshouting both. For Aqua, the band, instead of the hotly credited Ward, turned to lesser names (I have no idea who Branden Duffy and Adriano Daga are) and co-produced themselves — and the result is their best sound in ages, maybe ever (even Holy Land had its production problems, which were, of course, compensated by the amazing quality of the material).

Case in point: 'Arising Thunder', which bursts out of your speakers much like the title suggests, with a magnificent, juicy guitar sound in which the heavy rhythm work never overshadows the finger-flashing melodic scale playing, the insanely fast drums feel refreshingly humanoid, and Fa­laschi's pompous singing feels like singing, not shouting. It kicks ass, it's melodic, it's complex, and it never for once ruins the ears — what more is there to ask?

So the band, conceptually, is still deeply mired in their mystical shit. This particular concept is centered around — three guesses! — water and its, uh, general influence on the life of man. Not in the issue of sewer maintenance, of course, but rather the way it is hinted at in Shakespeare's Tempest, which, so we are told, forms the loose (very loose) basis of the album. Simply put, Aqua tells you that Water Is Important — in more ways than you normally imagine it to be. If you got that, we can now move on to the music.

Much of which is fine, although I still cannot always tell whether it is merely due to a combina­tion of their refined production and my improved imagination, or if the band really sat down with a firm decision to write a bunch of better power metal tunes than usual. But I'll be damned if that opening one-two punch of 'Arising Thunder' and 'Awake From Darkness' is not recognized as the band's killing-est consecutive blast since the good old days of 'Nothing To Say'. Even when, mid­way through 'Awake', they cut out the metal and indulge in a brief piano-and-strings mid-section, it feels like an interesting gesture rather than a conventional gimmick. And I even get a chance to be amazed at some particular riffs — such as the awesome descending bumble-bee thing that cuts in around 2:32 into the song.

Third good song in a row, the piano epic 'Lease Of Life' threatens to become a rotten power ballad from time to time, but never capitalizes on that promise — instead, they just bring in den­ser layers of sound, such as dreamy female background vocals, diversify it with a rocking mid-section, and, overall, go for a more progressive stance of things than cheap-operatic. It works! Not on any tear-jerking level, of course, but there is a feel of overall solidity that never goes away.

For sure, once you get past the mid-album mark, they cannot help but start repeating themselves — the same speed-metal and prog-metal elements cast in only slightly changing ways. But with this crystal clear production and refined sense of taste, this is not a big problem. Even Falaschi's singing is not such a big bother: he is, after all, merely respecting the genre's conventions, and it is always easy to pass him by and just concentrate on the guitar melodies, or even on the monster rhythm section if you feel more like it.

As tempting as it would be to end this on a «Welcome back, Angra!» note, I would still refrain from too much excitement. For one thing, this constant insistance on Big Concept Statements is not a wise thing — it just keeps on interfering with concentrating on writing the riffs. For another thing, if the band's sound depends so much on the guy behind the mixing controls, it puts them in­to a state of constant jeopardy. For a third thing, it's frickin' power metal — Wagner for the 21st Century Lunk­head Man. Nevertheless, my internal lunkhead is still influential enough to lobby out a secure thumbs up for Aqua. Is yours influential enough to join in the fun?

Check "Aqua" (CD) on Amazon