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Saturday, April 30, 2011

Arab Strap: The Last Romance


1) Stink; 2) (If There's) No Hope For Us; 3) Chat In Amsterdam, Winter 2003; 4) Don't Ask Me To Dance; 5) Con­fessions Of A Big Brother; 6) Come Round And Love Me; 7) Speed-Date; 8) Dream Sequence; 9) Fine Tuning; 10) There Is No Ending; 11*) El Paso Song; 12*) Go Back To The Sea.

Arab Strap may not have been the best band in the world, or even the best band in Scotland, but the general outlook of their output is bizarre enough to guarantee them a free ride on the musical history train all by itself. For instance, how does one really explain the fact that it took them ten years of essentially re-writing the same old dirge in order to get around to an album significantly different from the rest — and then disband, as if that were their ultimate goal, and now that the goal has been achieved, we can all happily go home?

No drum machines — at all. Plenty of fast, driving tempos to break up the funeral procession style every time it threatens to annul the differences between songs. Aidan Moffat's occasional at­tempts to modulate his voice into a sonic flow that, with a bit of a stretch, could be called «sin­ging» (and generally on-key at that). Even some sort of moderately optimistic vibe, most clearly evident on the fanfare-driven album closer 'There Is No Ending'. And yet, at the same time, the original spirit of Arab Strap is fully preserved: any accusations of «falling in with the alt-rock crowd» would be completely ridiculous, because the trademarks — mantra-folk acoustic riffs, somber violin counter-melodies, dark lyrical topics revolving around alcohol intake and anima­listic copula­tion, etc. — are all there.

More importantly, after a few listens, the album does come across as the final stage of a journey through various stages of one's self-consciousness. As boring as it may be for some of the young 'uns, a thing called responsibility enters the picture: responsibility both from a musical point of view, as the album is made more generally accessible without sacrificing artistic integrity, and a general-artistic point of view as well. To put it simply, the point of The Last Romance is to show that Moffat and Middleton nowadays do give a fuck about what's going on, contrary to all those early years when they not only didn't, but considered it cool to let all their fans love them exactly for the fact that they didn't.

Hence, 'Confessions Of A Big Brother', which, in a way, may be the duo's masterpiece: a cleanly, near-gorgeously recorded acoustic ballad, with Moffat's lines occasionally echoed by a «baroque» cello part — beginning with the line "I used to be so proud of thinking I was such a liar", but en­ding with the realization that "I don't want to spoil your fun, but you don't have to hurt someone". And somehow it makes you feel that, perhaps, from time to time, there does arise a need to spurt out a morally positive truism instead of a morally neutral, or shock-value morally negative, geni­us-quality innovative string of words.

'Dream Sequence', despite the need to incorporate some obligatory dirty imagery (even pure ro­mantic love for these guys is undetachable from golden showers), is essentially a sentimental ly­rical anthem, whose main piano melody line is stately rather than sad, uplifting rather than de­pressing. On 'Fine Tuning', another pleasant acoustic ballad, Moffat openly admits that "You're useless at drinking, but these days I've been thinking I doubt we're going to need it" — abstinence detected! And then, as the guitars, organs, and mighty brass of 'There Is No Ending' weave out a near-symphonic melody, each few bars of which descend into a satisfyingly conclusive mood, what we hear is: "Not everything must end, not every romance must descend, not every lover's pact decays, not every sad mistake replays". Now that's even more optimistic than what the late George Harrison used to tell us about all the things that must pass, and the late George Harrison, in the long run, was a fairly optimistic kind of fellow.

Whether it is Arab Strap's friendship with Mogwai (whose keyboard player Barry Burns actually guests on the album), or just the basic process of growing up that is responsible for this change of attitude is nowhere near as important as the fact that The Last Romance does work terribly well as a swan song, and that even some of the band's most unbearable albums, conceptually, gain from its existence — with this last thread, they are all joined together in one meaningful whole. But do not take this as an advice to begin your acquaintance with these guys with this record: no matter how accessible it is, it really only makes sense within the overall context. In order to like The Last Romance, I had first to hate The Red Thread.

Of course, if you happen to like The Red Thread, you will have to wait your turn to grow up to like The Last Romance — otherwise, it will be too sissy-pissy for your hipster tastes. But as for me, I happily award a thumbs up both to the record, and, with it, to the entire career of these two awful Scots. And, for the record, since their parting ways, both have had solo careers, of which Malcolm Middleton's seems not only to have been the more productive, but also the more worthy in general: his solo albums pick up quite well from the «freshly grown-up» stage of The Last Ro­mance and proceed from there — highly recommended, although I have no idea if these here reviews will ever get around to them.

Check "The Last Romance" (CD) on Amazon
Check "The Last Romance" (MP3) on Amazon

Friday, April 29, 2011

ABC: Beauty Stab


1) That Was Then But This Is Now; 2) Love's A Dangerous Language; 3) If I Ever Thought You'd Be Lonely; 4) Po­wer Of Persuasion; 5) Beauty Stab; 6) By Default By Design; 7) Hey Citizen!; 8) King Money; 9) Bite The Hand; 10) Unzip; 11) S.O.S.; 12) United Kingdom.

A classic case of «sophomore slump». Or, perhaps, not so classic. Normally, «disastrous second time» usually means that the band had spent a lot of time polishing their act and practicing their art of songwriting, then unloading its full potential with the debut record — and then finding out, much to their surprise, that they have to make a second LP already the next year, without having the time or the strength to write some equally good material.

Beauty Stab suffers from a different problem. The songwriting is pretty much at the same level: handy-dandy guy Martin Fry and his friends are churning out brisky New Wave anthems at a ve­ry regular rate. However, the Horn/Dudley production team was already busy establishing itself as The Art Of Noise; only Gary Langan was left behind to help them put out the record, and it does not look as if he cared all that much about arrangement flourishes.

Also, there seems to have been more emphasis on coming across as a «rock» band this time. To that end, the band cuts down on the keyboards (a bit) and compensates in the way of guitars (a lot). Were they funky guitars, like the way they sound on Lexicon Of Love, it would have been one thing; but, clearly, they felt some sort of need to distance themselves from formulaic dance rhythms (maybe they'd just caught on to the idea that disco sucks), and they are mostly «hard rock guitars», of the ugly, over-processed, Eighties kind. Expectedly, the more they strive to­wards «authenticity», the more fake it all sounds.

The public never went wild over this «anti-dance stance» foolishly taken up by ABC in the year of 'Flashdance... What A Feeling', and from there onwards the band's commercial and critical reputation never truly recovered (although both did go one notch up with their next record). Still, the songs are mostly decent. ABC's powers of hook-making still rate highly: the post-pause sax riff of 'That Was Then But This Is Now' gives the song a stern, crunchy, decisive character that agrees well with its title; 'Unzip' is a delightfully sleazy call for sexual liberation ("she's vegeta­rian except when it comes to sex" is one hell of an immortal line), with its mesmerizing bassline and endless background mantraic repetition of the chorus almost work as a subconscious call to lose your virginity (and many did, I bet); and the same bass also transforms 'If I Ever Thought You'd Be Lonely' from a boring ballad into a little bit of a musical thriller.

Best of the bunch may be 'Bite The Hand', which sounds like a near-perfect cross between the style of Le­xicon and this newly established «synth-rock» idiom: starting out with disco-style or­chestration and syncopated bass, it eventually adds near-Sabbath heavy metal guitar which flows in and out of the ravaging instrumentation, and does so quite harmoniously. 'Bite The Hand' is a «socially conscious» song, as are many others on here — perhaps Fry got sick of all the Bryan Ferry comparisons and intentionally decided to move into territory that Bryan would never touch with a ten-foot pole. Not that it matters, though: atmospherically, the «ominous» in his socially relevant songs is undistinguishable from the «ominous» in his love tunes, and 'Bite The Hand' could just as easily be about a bitchy vamp as it is about the upcoming apocalypse.

Thumbs up for the songwriting; but if Lexicon Of Love has dated like a vintage Charlie Chap­lin movie, Beauty Stab is more like some third-rate Douglas Fairbanks picture — still entertaining, amusing, and pleasing if you really feel like it, but not worth hunting for unless you have a strong penchant for Ferry/Fry-style personalities.

Check "Beauty Stab" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Beauty Stab" (MP3) on Amazon

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Alan Stivell: Au-Dela Des Mots


1) La Harpe, L'Eau, Le Vent (A); 2) La Celtie Et L'Infini (A); 3) La Celtie Et L'Infini (B); 4) Dihun Telenn vMarzhin; 5) La Harpe Et L'Enfant; 6) Bleimor, Le Bagad; 7) Gourin-Pontivy; 8) E Kreiz Breizh; 9) Goltraidhe; 10) Et Les Feu­illes Repousseront; 11) Demain Matin Chez O'Carolan; 12) Harpe Atlantique/La Route De L'Etain; 13) La Celtie Et L'Infini (C); 14) La Harpe, L'Eau, Le Vent (C).

It does not require a deep knowledge of French to understand that this is yet another purely ins­tru­mental album from Mr. Stivell, and, as such, not deserving of a long review. This one is less explicitly ambient than Harpes Du Nouvel Age: the arrangements are more complex, and the overall spirit is a bit more dynamic ('Bleimor, Le Bagad' refers to the music of Breton pipe bands called bagad, and, sure enough, an actual ear-bursting bagad is enlisted; and 'Gourin-Pontivy' is a very quiet, hushed-down, but still danceable tune).

On the other hand, it is certainly no Renaissance Of The Celtic Harp: next to Stivell's landmark breakthro­ugh record, this one is just a modest collection of pretty, but relatively unstimulating and mostly unremarkable melodic weaves. However magical and otherworldly the sound of the Celtic harp may be, there are certain limits to it; being tailor-made for exclusive needs of traditi­onal Celtic melodic patterns, it cannot be molded into much of anything else.

Nevertheless, it is probably quite indispensable for any major lover and/or student of the harp, as well as for everyone who loves proverbially deep titles such as 'La Celtie Et L'Infini' (much as listening to the actual melody convinces me of its oxymoronic nature, unless under 'Infini' he ac­tually means infinitesimals). Me, I'm only qualified to acknowledge its soothing New Age-style qualities, rather than recognize its thematic depth and adventurous spirit.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Al Kooper: Naked Songs


1) (Be Yourself) Be Real; 2) As The Years Go Passing By; 3) Jolie; 4) Blind Baby; 5) Been And Gone; 6) Sam Stone; 7) Peacock Lady; 8) Touch The Hem Of His Garment; 9) Where Were You When I Needed You; 10) Unrequited.

Apparently this was released to fulfill Al's contractual obligation — a mish-mashed quickie to al­low for some breathing space and take a three-year break from recording. However, always a gen­tleman to the core, Al took the obligation seriously: Naked Songs may not be altogether more «naked» than anything else he's done (and, fairly speaking, the title would fit in much better with his next album, if you compare the front sleeves), but it's another good Al Kooper album, not stri­ving for much of anything except satisfying his usual goals and values. And whoever holds no love for Mr. Kooperschmidt's usual goals and values has no reason to be present at this part of the review sequence anyway.

'(Be Yourself) Be Real' has a clichéd hippie title and a slightly moralizing attitude (are we suppo­sed to cast out everyone who wants to be fake? Well, on second thought...), but it is one of his best three-minute outpourings of soul, two amazing piano and choir crescendos that crash down in a hoarse, near-suffocated "be rea... eaaa... eal" which let you know for a fact that, unless you solemnly pledge to be as real as real this very instant, the guy is going to expire right here and now, thrashing in agony on your blood-stained carpet.

Then, no sooner than the pledge has been given, he launches into the fiercest, broken-heartedest interpretation of Albert King's 'As The Years Go Passing By' that anyone has ever given (and co­ver versions abound, by the way, of which Jeff Healey's is the more recommendable one, Gary Moore's is the one to avoid for those who prefer subtlety over pathos, and Eric Burdon and the Animals' is the goofiest one). On here, Al enters his 'More Than You'll Ever Know' mode: Shake­sperian doom without disgusting mannerisms, every word weighted out carefully before being pronounced, and, in a rare fit of passion, he plays both of the scorching guitar solos himself, assa­s­sinating the instrument (occasionally, people mistake this for a Mike Bloomfield performance; Mike would have probably gone for more complexity, but I doubt he could have played with more feeling).

These two performances, I believe, are the best ones, but there is always space for more high­lights: the big band arrangement of the rainbow-coloured optimistic soul ballad 'Jolie', the hilari­ous country sendup of 'Blind Baby' (lovers of Paul McCartney's similarly upbeat country shuffles from the early 1970s will want to hear this at all costs), the wall-of-sound arrangement of John Prine's anti-drug classic 'Sam Stone', and the exotic lushness of 'Peacock Lady', which is like a mind-altering jungle of guitars, strings, tablas, and reeds (or reed-like synths). You can always count on good old Al for diversity.

A couple of relatively unfocused and underarranged, if still classy, piano tunes give the impres­sion of having been laid out too quickly to pad the sessions; and 'Touch The Hem Of His Gar­ment', unfortunately, is very hard to appreciate next to the Sam Cooke original, because there are almost no melody twists to distract from the vocals, and while I do not hold the orthodox opinion that it is theoretically impossible for anybody, let alone a blue-eyed soul singer with limited range like Al, to outperform Sam, this is one of Sam's best ever vocal performances — in fact, this may just be the single greatest straightforward gospel number ever written and performed by a solo ar­tist — and Al Kooper can move big hills, but not major mountains.

Other than that, if only all «contractual» albums were ever like this, the world would have a much higher opinion of the legal system as a whole and record industry lawyers in particular. More thumbs up for Al.

Check "Naked Songs" (CD) on Amazon

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Albert Collins: Frostbite


1) If You Love Me Like You Say; 2) Blue Monday Hangover; 3) I Got A Problem; 4) The Highway Is Like A Wo­man; 5) Brick; 6) Don't Go Reaching Across My Plate; 7) Give Me My Blues; 8) Snowed In.

Very close to the successful formula of Ice Pickin' and, therefore, nowhere near as interesting, but with the same band, same style, and new waves of inspiration triggered by the sales of the previous album, Frostbite never really lets down if you do not expect too much. If anything, Al­bert gets even more revved up on some of the numbers, e. g. 'If You Love Me Like You Say' and especially the fast-paced 'Brick', on which he clearly shows, once and for all, that he only used to do minimalistic solos because he wanted to: there is a lot of fast, flashy, and clean playing here that could have easily inspired even a young Stevie Ray Vaughan.

There is also a slight feeling of ease all across the album, as the man relies less and less on tradi­tional recipés and injects more of his own personal ideas and sense of humour. 'The Highway Is Like A Woman' is a fairly original batch of metaphors, and, to my knowledge, contains the first creative use of the "slippery and/when wet" double entendre six years before Bon Jovi spoiled all the fun. 'Don't Go Reaching Across My Plate' is actually a moody, sax-driven lounge number de­crying ill table manners, for God's sake — in a fairly literal way, too.

Best of all, and a true classic in the «what this instrument is capable of», genre, is the nine-minute epic 'Snowed In', telling a harsh tale of getting about during a particularly harsh Chicago winter. Not only is Albert completely in his «frosty» element here, but he uses the time wisely, alterna­ting standard 12-bar soloing with lots of funny guitar noises, as he imitates the sound of snow crunching under one's feet, the sound of keys rattling against door locks, and, of course, sets of futile attempts to rev up the frosted engine. One serious listen to this track, and there is just no way that you won't be able to single Mr. Collins out of the endless line of generic blues players.

There is no way, either, that anyone could like Ice Pickin' and dislike Frostbite; with the front­man and the band in good form throughout, just another thumbs up for Mr. «Razor Blade».

Check "Frostbite" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Frostbite" (MP3) on Amazon