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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Alan Stivell: Again


1) Suite Sudarmoricaine; 2) An Dro / Tha Mi Sgith; 3) Ar An Garraig / Telenn Gwad; 4) The Foggy Dew; 5) Suzy McGuire; 6) Suite Irlandaise; 7) Spered Hollvedel; 8) Son Ar Chistr; 9) Marv Ma Mestrez; 10) Kimiad; 11) Suite Des Montagnes; 12) Metig; 13) Pop-Plinn; 14) Bal Ha Dans Plinn; 15) O'Neill's March/The King Of The Fairies; 16) Ian Morrison Reel; 17) Tri Martolod.

Either out of nostalgia or out of ideas, Stivell recorded this album of self-covers that relates to his early output much like the «enhanced» new DVD versions of Star Wars relate to the originals: with the artist procuring himself tons of pointless fun watching the fans kill each other over the issue of how much should an artist really be allowed to tamper with one's own art. Except that it takes the much less numerous Stivell fans much less time to exterminate themselves than it takes Star Wars fans — which must be the reason why we so rarely see them on the streets any more.

Anyway, all or most of the tracks are new recordings of old «classics» going as far back as Re­flets and, I believe, stopping around Chemins De Terre, with these two albums and the Olympia Concert taking up the lion's share. Considering that Stivell is an acknowledged technophile, and has always dreamed of reaching the perfect synthesis between the past, present, and future, it was perhaps inevitable that one day he'd want to «clean up» the old stuff. But it is also predictable that «cleaned up» it may be, but improved upon — no way.

One should admit that, if you play the old stuff back to back with the new stuff, Stivell's harp sound definitely sounds cleaner, fresher, «thinner» than it used to be — but one wonders, of cou­rse, if the same effect could not have been reached by simply re-remastering the old records. The downside is the electronic vibe: swampy synths and booming electronic drums. They aren't eve­ry­where, but they sure stick around, and every time they do, I cannot help but think how come by 1993 Stivell had not yet realized these New Age paraphernalia were no less dated than hair metal and 'Owner Of A Lonely Heart'.

Some of the stuff is even more dated, and with even less reason to be so: for instance, 'Kimiad' from Chemins De Terre receives a generic and completely unnecessary «jazz-fusion-style» bass solo in the middle, something Stivell had not touched upon in the past because there was really no need. All of a sudden we're in this Joni Mitchell mode circa 1979 — why?

That said, it could all have been worse. It is not a total crime to become acknowledged with Alan's classics through these re-recordings. It is a total crime to make this your one and only Sti­vell record, though, because Again operates under the presumption of the «Dumb Modern Per­son», unable to perceive the value of any work of art unless it is draped in contemporary drapes. Even if Stivell's own conception is more noble (modernization as just another inevitable stage of the creative process), in the grand scheme of things it still comes out that way. Even the Star Wars analogy does not quite work — George Lucas, after all, had placed technophilia above eve­rything else from the very beginning, and it is only natural of him to renovate the old stuff accor­ding to the new standards. For Stivell, on the other hand, melody and vibe was always more im­portant than production, and Again might easily deviate the innocent into suspecting the opposite. For all these reasons — an offended thumbs down, even despite the fact that nothing on the al­bum is explicitly cringeworthy per se.

P.S. Kate Bush fans may be delighted to know that she plays keyboards on 'Kimiad', and Pogues fans may be delighted to know that Shane McGowan duets with Alan on 'Tri Martolod'. Not that there's any real worthy reason to be delighted, but it's a nice turn of phrase to wrap up an obliga­tory trivia bit.

Check "Again" (CD) on Amazon

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Al Kooper: You Never Know Who Your Friends Are


1) Magic In My Socks; 2) Lucille; 3) Too Busy Thinking About My Baby; 4) First Time Around; 5) Loretta; 6) Blues, Pt. 4; 7) You Never Know Who Your Friends Are; 8) Great American Marriage/Nothing; 9) Don't Know Why I Love You; 10) Mourning Glory Story; 11) Anna Lee; 12) I'm Never Gonna Let You Down.

Al Kooper may not be a «genius», either John Lennon-style or Paul McCartney-style — which is, really, just about the only explanation of why these late Sixties' records are not generally remem­bered as musical pinnacles of their time. But when three great doubly-defined qualities come together — ambiti­ousness/bravery, sincerity/honesty, balance/taste — you do not necessarily re­quire a superpower to craft simple and stunning hooks. It only remains to the listener to take his time, and eventually it'll all hang out.

There is no «development», as such, from I Stand Alone to You Never Know, because, after the titanic sprawl of Kooper's interests in 1968, there was really very little new territory for the man to penetrate, considering that neither trip-hop nor metalcore had yet been invented. Thus, all that was left to do was to try it again — which he did, with one major improvement: most of the sonic collage stuff was sent packing, to the delight of all those future generations who love the 1960's achievements but hate their excesses. Another difference is that there is more original material, but, given Kooper's interpretive talents, that may not necessarily be a plus.

The sessions were produced with the aid of «The Al Kooper Big Band» — a veritable swarm of musicians very few of which I am familiar with, because most seem to come from jazz rather than blues or rock backgrounds, be they guitarists, pianists, or brass players. Not that You Never Know is, in any big way, a jazz album. There is a huge R'n'B presence, lots of blues, some music hall, Motownish lush pop, and one or two songs recreate the style of the original Blood, Sweat & Tears, perhaps, but that's about it. That said, if you want to record a great pop album — better still, a great eclectic album — get some well-oiled jazz dudes to do it.

An almost frustrating feeling of evenness all but prevents me from talking about the tunes; each and every one defines worthiness. One possible choice for top of the pops would be 'Too Busy Thinking About My Baby', which just might be the most «authentic» Motown number recorded by a non-Motown artist (not inside a Motown studio). If Kooper cannot properly hit the high no­tes required of Eddie Kendricks, he still does a good, passionate job, and in all other respects he builds up on the song's potential, throwing on a brass, strings, and back vocals arrangement that is at once very Motown-ish and artsy — an arrogant, but subtle synthesis of tribute and reconstruc­tion, and a great euphoric feel to the whole thing.

The album starts out on such a rowdy note, actually ('Magic In My Socks' will rock those socks off you with its fast-moving brass riffs) that it is possible not to notice the wonders of the slow, moody numbers at once: the cover of Harry Nilsson's 'Mourning Glory Story' has a complex «an­ge­lic» harmony arrangement, and 'Nothing', opening with an interesting neo-classical in­tro­duc­tion, then turns into psychedelic Sinatra, riding from cello cloud to harp cloud to piano cloud in a frenzied fit of never-stopping imagination. Decidedly not my favourite style of music, but when it's done with that much enthusiasm, even the sappiest notes regain some freshness.

At this point in his career, with just a little bit of restraint on meaningless weird side effects and unjustified song length, Kooper could do no wrong. Even 'Blues, Pt. 4', essentially just an instru­mental blues jam, has five minutes of soulful organ and piano solos that soothe rather than bore. And if it really is so hard to pick out outstanding tracks, well, so much the better — think of this as one even-quality fourty-three minute symphony with tons of ideas that trump quite a few four­ty-minute-symphony-structured progressive rock albums. Thumbs up.

Check "You Never Know Who Your Friends Are" (CD) on Amazon

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Albert Collins: The Compleat Albert Collins


1) Soul Food; 2) Jam It Up; 3) Do What You Want To Do; 4) Black Bottom Bayou; 5) Junkey Monkey; 6) 69 Under­pass Roadside Inn; 7) I Need You So; 8) Bitsey; 9) Cool 'n' Collards; 10) Blend Down And Jam; 11) Sweet 'n' Sour; 12) Swamp Sauce.

Boy, what a seriously deceptive title. Unless it was, from the very beginning, designed not to make any sense at all, the only logical reaction is that, with this release, Albert Collins has seve­red all ties with his past and disowned all of his legacy. But this is clearly not the case, since he still went on to play the old stuff in concert! So no, make sense it does not.

Nevertheless, there are some stylistic changes at hand here; good ones, too. The album is, overall, more of a rocking affair, with less emphasis on brass instrumentation and more on fiery guitar and funky rhythms. With 'Jam It Up' and its progressive addition of instruments, Collins is openly moving into King Curtis' and Sly Stone's territory, and he holds his ground well: the Texan boys cook with verve, and Albert's usual mini-blasts of icicle-sharp notes are the perfect emotional stin­gers on top of the groove. He is also exploring the world of guitar effects, achieving a psycho wobbly one on 'Soul Food' (must be one of those «Leslie cabinets» or something) and various mi­nor, less noticeable, variations on the other tracks.

More questionable is the move into country territory on 'Black Bottom Bayou', which seems to be just an excuse to try and deliver one of his minimalistic solos over a waltz tempo — I am still not entirely sure why we needed to hear that, nor why it was necessary to end the overall jolly record on a silly yodeling note ('Swamp Sauce', which could have been a funny joke without the vocals but quickly turns into an annoying one with them).

But there are just too many hot funky grooves on here to make the odd country excourses too much of a problem. 'Soul Food', 'Jam It Up', 'Bitsey', 'Cool 'n' Collards' are all worthy additions to the Collins canon, no matter how little they differ from each other and how little description they all merit. It should be very clearly restated, though, that the rhythm section — especially the bass player, who lays on fast, variegated, complex lines along with the best of the Stax-Volt people — is as much responsible for the energy and pleasantness of the grooves as Albert himself. So kudos to the band leader for focusing our attention on his bit players as he introduces them, one by one, on 'Jam It Up'. Thumbs up, of course.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Big Bill Broonzy: Sings Folk Songs


1) Backwater Blues; 2) This Train; 3) I Don't Want No Woman; 4) Martha; 5) Tell Me Who; 6) Bill Bailey; 7) Big Bill Blues; 8) Goin' Down This Road; 9) Tell Me What Kind Of Man Jesus Is; 10) Alberta; 11) Glory Of Love; 12) Careless Love.

In 1951, the best thing possible happened to Big Bill: as part of a folk music revue, he got signed on a tour to Europe — and thus, almost unintentionally, became the Old World's chief gateway into the world of American blues and folk right until his death in 1958, upon which the crown passed to Muddy Waters. Not the best blues singer, far from the best blues player, not much of a unique innovator, yet with a once-in-a-lifetime chance to impress and inspire thousands of col­lege kids across the Atlantic.

For a period of about five or six years, Big Bill toured back and forth quite extensively, leaving behind lots of recordings, mostly live, that would be useless to review separately, since he never troubled himself to vary his sets all that much. Sings Folk Songs, recorded for Moses Asch' Folk­ways (later Smithsonian) Records in 1956, is a very typical representative. (It is also the cleanest sounding Broonzy album you'll ever hear). The set mostly consists of various Appalachian-style stuff, mixed with gospel dance music, ballads, and just one or two straightahead blues numbers, and, as nice as it sounds, its chief value is historical — the best way to get your kicks out of it is imagine yourself as a young British student in the early Fifties, sitting in a small audience listen­ing to this strange black dude singing music from the «deep heart» of a strange new world.

Every reviewer and biographer will always point out the obvious fact that Big Bill only played acoustic guitar on those tours, even though his studio recordings from the past decade did not shy away from amplified instrumentation. (All the more reason for European audiences to be stunned when Muddy abruptly took over with the Chicago style). Nor does he ever try to launch into boo­gie or «hokum blues»; it is well possible that he understood what the audience really wanted — an aura of «rustic holiness» around that music — and that's exactly what he gave, even if his im­passioned renditions of folk-spirituals, to him, were just another style of popular entertainment that he fed the «intelligent» public. To each his own.

For some reason, my version of the album omits 'John Henry' (always the high point of the show, allowing him to really stretch out on one of the few «gimmicky» styles of acoustic playing that was available to him), but most regular versions have it, so if you feel like holding this historical document close to your heart, make sure that 'John Henry' is part of the proceedings. I'd also say that he plays one of the tightest and most expressive versions of 'Goin' Down This Road Feelin' Bad' I've ever heard — beats Woody Guthrie and the Grateful Dead all to hell. Overall, though, I do not feel empowered enough to rave on about how effectively this music transmits all the pain, suffering, hopes, and dreams accumulated in the souls of the Negro people over three hundred years of slavery, but I'll admit that good old Bill sure knew how to make a name — and some de­cent wages — for himself on the base of that legacy. And he certainly wasn't bad at what he was doing — just a bit overrated by way of lucky promotion breaks.

Check "Big Bill Broonzy Sings Folk Songs" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Big Bill Broonzy Sings Folk Songs" (MP3) on Amazon