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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Albert Collins: Iceman


1) Mr. Collins, Mr. Collins; 2) Iceman; 3) Don’t Mistake Kindness For Weakness; 4) Travellin’ South; 5) Put The Show On The Other Foot; 6) I’m Beginning To Wonder; 7) Head Rag; 8) The Hawk; 9) Blues For Gabe; 10) Mr. Col­lins, Mr. Collins (faded version).

The gods were so angry with Collins for selling out to a major label (Virgin, or, more precisely, its subsidiary Pointblank), that they sent him to hell with liver cancer two years later. But appare­ntly none of the gods took the trouble of actually listening to the album, because there is nothing whatsoever that would seriously set it apart from his Alligator records. Its main flaw is recyclism, not sellout-ism. With Johnny Gayden still on bass, and Albert and his wife in tight control of the songwriting, performing, arranging, and production, no doctoring is involved — and I am not even sure this is so much of a plus.

The only thing about Iceman that’s memorable is the little funky guitar grumble that opens the album, and a worried female chorus that retorts: “Mr. Collins, Mr. Collins... please, Mr. Collins... DON’T PLAY SO LOUD!” And, in general, Mr. Collins obliges. There are almost no fiery out­bursts that could, in the end, save face even for the weakest of his Alligator albums: ‘Blues For Gabe’, for instance, an instrumental that closes the album and could be expected to blow away the roof, is unpleasantly tepid, and puts as much of a spotlight on the guitar as it does on the or­gan and trombone solos, a real crime when it comes to Collins.

Everything is professional, but there is truly nothing here that is not a rewrite of some earlier suc­cess (or misfire), and the only way to admire Iceman is for the man’s tenacity: true, he has firmly wedged the formula into the ground, but he managed to bravely carry it through the disco, New Wave, synth pop, hair metal, and grunge eras without even pretending to notice that any of these eras really took place. Not even Virgin record executives could make him admit this. From that angle, Iceman is deserving of deep respect (and how many 60-year old bluesmen can sustain that level of energy, anyway? Buddy Guy, perhaps) — but from any other, it is stunningly weak, with no strength left at all to come up with even modestly new ideas. At least ‘I Ain’t Drunk’ had the no­velty factor to it, and then there were all these tunes on which he used the guitar for cool spe­cial effects, but no such luck here: Iceman is the kind of album the man could easily produce at the rate of a dozen a day. Thumbs down.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Big Joe Williams: Walking Blues


1) Levee Camp Blues; 2) Low Down Dirty Shame; 3) Gambling Man; 4) Ain’t Gonna Rain No More; 5) Feel So Good; 6) Prowling Ground Hog; 7) Back Home Again; 8) Sugar Babe; 9) Tell Me Mama; 10) Studio Blues; 11) I’m A Fool About My Baby; 12) 38 Pistol Blues; 13) Pearly Mae; 14) Walking Blues; 15) Highway 45; 16) Meet Me At The Bottom; 17) Skinny Mama; 18) Jockey Ride Blues; 19) Coal And Iceman Blues; 20) Army Man Blues; 21) Black Gal; 22) Pallet On The Floor.

For precision sake, it should be mentioned that this collection originally came out as two LPs: Blues For 9 Strings in 1961 (the last 12 songs) and Studio Blues in 1966 (the first 10). Both were, however, recorded during the same session in 1961, with a small combo involving Larry Johnson on harmonica and the great Willie Dixon himself on bass (usually, with Big Joe around, one hardly gets to hear anybody else properly anyway, but Big Willie was the bass player to rip at the strings with the kind of thick ferocity that agreed with Big Joe’s style better than any other playing style).

By now, it was relatively clear what Delmark, Folkways and the others were trying to do: short of «authentic» pre-war blues artists, yet faced with the ever-increasing demand for genuine Delta blues on the part of the younger generation, they expected of a happy find like Big Joe the com­plete recreation of the entire Delta repertoire, no less. Of the 24 songs recorded during these ses­sions, only a very minor portion overlaps with previous recordings. Instead, Joe covers songs made famous by Son House (‘Levee Camp Blues’), Big Bill Broonzy (‘I Feel So Good’), and probably others (many of the titles I simply do not recognize, but, clearly, there is no talk of ori­ginal com­posing here).

It goes without saying that the substitute is not ideal: Big Joe has his own middle-of-the-road style, and taking on the entire Delta legacy is a bit like the Grateful Dead taking on the entire le­gacy of American popular music: formally, they pull it off, but who will remember Jerry Garcia for playing ‘Johnny B. Goode’ or ‘Death Don’t Have No Mercy’ instead of ‘Dark Star’ when no one has so far taken care to burn all of Chuck Berry’s and Rev. Gary Davis’ records?

But I have to admit that Big Joe’s take on ‘Feel So Good’ is still pretty amusing, with the song slightly sped up and boogified. Joe even tries out some quasi-rockabilly licks in the solo: some of these all but demand being accompanied by duckwalking, and I am pretty sure that the man, un­like many of his peers, did not turn a deaf ear to those hot new sounds on 1950s radio.

Overall, this is probably the best choice for post-war Big Joe: the session is long, well-recorded, diverse (covering all of Big Joe’s proper bases and touching upon many others), and, like I said, Big Joe’s gruff and gritty playing style is a perfect match with Dixon’s amazing blues bass skills. Some of the tracks, especially fast ones like ‘Tell Me Mama’, are worth it just for Willie’s fat, but smooth runs alone. Thumbs up.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Avett Brothers: The Gleam / The Second Gleam


1) Sanguine; 2) When I Drink; 3) Yard Sale; 4) Backwards With Time; 5) If It’s The Beaches; 6) Find My Love; 7) Tear Down The House; 8) Murder In The City; 9) Bella Donna; 10) The Greatest Sum; 11) St. Joseph’s; 12) Souls Like The Wheels.

These are but two short EPs, six songs long each, and it would be rather luxurious to discuss each of them separately — not to mention that the titles themselves indicate a sort of coherence, as Cap’n Obvious whispers to me behind my shoulder. What is less obvious — at least, until one has actually listened to both EPs — is that, stylistically, they fit together as two pieces of a single puzzle; and what is even less obvious, but steadily moving closer and closer to a stone-set opi­ni­on of mine, is that they contain some of the brothers’ finest songwriting. In other words, do not, by all means, bypass this stuff simply because it’s in EP format. (For what it’s worth, I really pre­fer taking the Brothers in small doses rather than in their sixty-minute escapades).

Stylistic coherence is ensured by the generally stripped down atmosphere: yes, the Brothers are going UNPLUGGED, and by this I mean unplugging the goddamn banjo out of their collective ass and relying strictly on acoustic guitar. Well, there are some banjo parts on a couple of the tracks, just as some others contain harmonicas and fiddles, but for the most part, this is just a stern set of guitar-and-vocal songs, with nothing else in between the listener, the bearded trend-fighters, and whoever is there in charge of the musical duties in the extraterrestrial sphere.

And it is not always like this, but usually the Brothers succeed when they just hang their heart out there to cry and dry, and it works. ‘Sanguine’, opening the proceedings, may be snuffed at for be­ing such a Dylan rip-off (‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue’ certainly comes to mind), but the seaso­ned listener should be wise enough to appreciate it as a respectable variation rather than a blatant steal. The Brothers truly start to weave their web of empathy starting with ‘When I Drink’, such an idealistic, child-like ode to self-improvement that it is hardly possible not to want to pat each of them on the shoulder once it’s over. ‘Backwards With Time’ is a terrific folksy singalong that also finds the wisdom to ask the question “are we losing the fight, are we growing backwards with time?” which must be quite relevant for every remaining intelligent person on the planet (not that I am implying that intelligent people should be obliged to love the song because of that, it’s just that the song speaks to me on several levels at once). Conversely, ‘If It’s The Beaches’ is low on (also Dylanesque) vocals, but nicely incorporates both Spanish (guitar) and Jewish (fiddle) mo­tives in its main me­lody.

Perhaps the ultimate test result of whether you are ready to enjoy The Gleam, or, in fact, acknowledge the Avetts at all, depends on whether the near-crooning falsetto chorus of ‘Find My Love’ will be deemed «gorgeous» or «sickening». My bet’s on «homebrewn gorgeous» — not the kind of aching beauty one finds in the work of sincere professionals, but the kind of clumsy beauty one may find in the first attempts of a little kid who really believes in beauty as such. In other words, not enough to professionally squeeze out a tear, but definitely enough to want to play this out loud to everyone in sight, without blushing.

The Second Gleam, recorded two years later, is the Brothers’ tender farewell to Ramseur Re­cords, before moving on to bigger things. The songs are slightly more complex, and thus, parado­xically (or not), slightly less involving; still, the closing ‘Souls Like The Wheels’, on which Seth begs the unknown to “let me go, let me go” with all the gallantry of a medieval minstrel, is ano­ther pleasant, less «affected» variant of the same homebrewn gorgeousness, and the other songs are at least modestly catchy.

Oh yes, continuing the analogies, ‘Murder In The City’ quite dis­tinctly shifts the veneration from Bob Dylan to Paul Simon. It’s been a long, long time since two guys equipped with nothing but acoustic guitars and voices last managed to make heavenly music... and that time is not over yet, since, for all its worth, The Gleam(s) do not, and do not even want to, compete with the depth and passion of its influences. But it manages to build up on them, and, in a way, it’s got a much harder task to perform: reaffirm the moral ideals that, today, seem so much more distant and, well, ideal than they must have seemed to the affected fans of Dylan, Simon and company fifty years ago. Way to go, Bros! Thumbs up for all the honest work.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Afghan Whigs: Gentlemen


1) If I Were Going; 2) Gentlemen; 3) Be Sweet; 4) Debonair; 5) When We Two Parted; 6) Fountain And Fairfax; 7) What Jail Is Like; 8) My Curse; 9) Now You Know; 10) I Keep Coming Back; 11) Brother Woodrow/Closing Pray­er.

Let an average band hang around long enough for the stars to form a lucky configuration, and soo­ner or later it will justify its existence, finally plopping out that near-masterpiece that, accor­ding to the occasional benevolent critic, it «always had in it», but was «biding its time». For The Afghan Whigs, a group grand on intentions but petty on realisations, Gentlemen was their finest hour. In all honesty, it is a record that must have come about by accident. But come about it did, and ensured them their proper place in the 1990s.

There is nothing particularly new or striking here conceptually; the difference is simply in that, somehow, the band pulled their act together and, for once, released a collection of musically in­teresting pieces. The general taste and smell of the band — that was well-known by 1993, and had no intention of changing. Loud, rough, screechy, confessional, obscure, not easily accessible: for an average Joe in the world of pop-art (like me, for instance), it was certainly easier to em­pathize with Kurt Cobain than Greg Dulli, who always seemed to leave the most important and direct things unexpressed. As in, try to guess the meaning of the album sleeve this time — is this a cheap-thrill-inviting allusion to underage sex, or just an allegory concerning the hard problem of stratifying gender roles in our modern world?

No matter. What is important is that some of the songs are good. Maybe it was a condition of the band's being picked up by a major label (Elektra Records), in the wake of industry bosses' reali­zation of how much all grunge-related people could sell — that the band's got great sound and all, but they also need to learn to write, if you know what I mean. Whatever it was, it worked.

The band tries out some new, interesting approaches, such as a tricky «syncopated grunge» style on the title track, or a moody, echoey, almost «artsy» atmosphere on 'When We Two Parted'. The band comes up with a couple memorable riff parts, such as the hard rock droning on 'Now You Know' (reminds of Hawkwind) and the psychedelic-mystical melody of 'Be Sweet'. And the band allows for sonic diversions — such as inviting Marcy Mays of Scrawl to take over the lead vocals on 'My Curse' (a real nice change from Dulli, who wears out the eardrums fairly quick), or clo­sing the record with yet another instrumental drone that the Velvet Underground would certainly appreciate — with guest star Happy Chichester contributing a spaced-out Mellotron part, no less.

All of this combined makes Gentlemen into a record worth revisiting, and, perhaps, even worth trying to understand and «assimilate». Not because of any insights it may give one into the world of male/female relationship — at the turn of the century, a mediocre band like the Whigs can har­dly expect to publish any important breakthroughs in that sphere, no, and I am not at all interested in quoting their lyrics, or admiring the subtle ways in which they turn the sentimental ballad for­mula on its head. But when I listen to the band really burning it up on 'Now You Know' or 'Debo­nair', I feel as if am that close to «getting it» — «it» being the admirable way in which the band leader's frustration is finally converted into a sound that's got direction and purpose in addition to crunch and volume. It is tough to explain, but then I'm not alone in this — pretty sure that the boy sitting on the bed out there is having a much tougher time than me in figuring what's going on, for some reason. So, a curious, unexplainable thumbs up it is.

P.S. But is it just me, or is 'My Curse', with its main melody and acoustic guitar/piano arrange­ment, subconsciously influenced by Clapton's acoustic reworking of 'Layla' on Unplugged (chro­nologically, quite apt, since the latter came out one year earlier)? Because that is sure a bizarre way for the subconscious to behave itself.

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

Friday, May 27, 2011

ABC: Abracadabra


1) Love Conquers All; 2) Unlock The Secrets Of Your Heart; 3) Answered Prayer; 4) Spellbound; 5) Say It; 6) Wel­come To The Real World; 7) Satori; 8) All That Matters; 9) This Must Be Magic.

The sea horse on the album cover is just about the best thing about this album, if you favour exo­tic life forms in the first place. As for the music — there is hardly anything exotic about these songs. The duo's move to EMI accomplished nothing whatsoever, except providing them with one more kind chance to prove their usefulness in the post-New Wave era, and, accordingly, they blew it one more time.

Just like Up, this is a personality-deprived, instantly forgettable collection of dance tunes, not all of them entirely hopeless, but all of them eventually merging into a single mass of similar «mo­dern R'n'B» grooves. One of the singles, 'Say It', is «innovative» in that it combines a disco bass line with a techno rhythm — apparently, though, instead of finding a way to multiply two nega­tives, they add them up, and the results are predictable.

The music is pretty much non-existent — most of the «melodies» are just simple synth loops tacked on to drum machines — and Martin Fry, as a bleak shadow of his former personality, only maybe appears on one or two of the bleaker songs (the best moment, for me, is the itsy-bitsy roar he lets out on the chorus of 'Spellbound'; just a tiny thing, but, somehow, the most notably human moment on the entire record). But generally, the album strives way too much to be happy, and, as a result, is just cloying, like its lead single, 'Love Conquers All' (pretty discouraging title for a band who used to make its reputation with 'Tears Are Not Enough' and 'Poison Arrow').

Arguing about whether Up or Abracadabra should be considered the absolute low for the band would be a ridiculous activity, so I will just say that Up, at least, has 'Never More Than Now' and 'Paper Thin', which I could see gracing an anthology. On the other hand, Abracadabra got the sea horse, so it's up to you to decide in the end. But an egalitarian and, I believe, uncontestable thumbs down for both is in order in any case. Yuck, mainstream Nineties dance muzak.

Check "Abracadabra" (CD) on Amazon

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Amazing Blondel: Evensong


1) Pavan; 2) St. Crispin's Day; 3) Spring Season; 4) Willowood; 5) Evensong; 6) Queen Of Scots; 7) Ploughman; 8) Old Moot Hall; 9) Lady Marion's Galliard; 10) Under The Greenwood Tree; 11) Anthem.

With the addition of Edward Baird to the line-up, Amazing Blondel become a stabilized trio with one firm goal in life: be reincarnated alive as authentic «Renaissance men». Discarding gospel, blues, and contemporary rural folk motives, they concentrate on one style only — that of the gal­lant courtier music 'round the 16th century. Their influences now span a pretty short distance — say, from about Henry the Eighth to about William Byrd — but at least nobody could now accuse them of lacking an identity all their own. In 1970, no other band sounded like this on a constant, workman-like basis.

Now one thing we must all understand is that the most «authentic» thing about the classic Blon­del lineup is their use of period instruments. Lutes, theorboes, citterns, violas, harpsichords, re­cor­ders, crumhorns, pipe-organs, and so on; dozens of different instruments are listed, and not a single one of them invented in post-Elizabethan times. And yet, at the same time, John Gladwin mostly plays his lute the way he'd be playing a guitar — were I not made aware of the lack of guitars in the credits, I would have made the mistake quite easily.

Any average connaisseur of Renaissance music, let alone serious musicologists, would have im­mediately spotted forgery: Gladwin's compositions, whether he wants it or not, always tend to drift away towards simple, basic folk balladry structures rather than inventive musical experimen­tation at Tudor courts. In this respect, much more impressive work would be done later in the decade by Gryphon; as for Evensong, all of the music on it is so light and fluffy, it could be pi­ge­on­holed as «twee-Renaissance».

However, Blondel's saving grace lies in the fact that none of the band mem­bers took this stuff too seriously. They themselves openly admitted to playing «pseudo-Elizabethan» music; and live, they would be spicing up their shows with bawdy banter, as if wanting to stress the fact that they were more jesters than minstrels. Therein lies the reason why the band has never garnered much attention or respect from «progressive» audiences: in spirit, these guys really be­longed to the mid-to-late Sixties generation of the innocent, idealistic flower power generation, even if in form they would be aligned with the stern, technically endowed, strictly music-bent prog- and medieval-rockers of the early 1970s.

But even if, in a way, Evensong belongs to the category of «fluff», it is terrific, highly entertai­ning, irresistible fluff. The kind of fluff that the Monkees would probably want to play if stuffed inside a time machine and transported five centuries back. Ten lightweight minstrel ballads here, each one catchy in its own way, right from the very first seconds of 'Pavan', with Wincott's pasto­ral recorder dancing along with Gladwin's guitar-like lute. Most of the themes concern gentle­men's lady issues ("This is spring season, and the time for courting's come around", the third track politely states), i. e. quasi-16th century equivalents of 'I Want To Hold Your Hand', and only the album-closing 'Anthem', built around a solemn harmonium and organ part, changes the general mood, in a rather bizarre way — as if to tie up ten gentle and frivolous ditties with one harsh strand of stern (but optimistic) pomp. Somehow, it works.

In retrospect, Evensong is really like a general rehearsal before the next two albums, which are generally acknowledged to form the true cornerstone of Blondel's reputation. But, being more «feather-light» than those two, it may actually be truer to the band's essence. One thing's for cer­tain: no one can complain that on Evensong, Amazing Blondel bit off more than they could chew. And another thing is my personal amazement at Gladwin's melodic ideas — for an album com­posed of ten similar-sounding, same-mood archaicized ballads to be able to hold my attention from top to bottom is a rare feat indeed. Thumbs up for all the fair sounds, no matter how «pseu­do» they might actually be.

Check "Evensong" (CD) on Amazon

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Al Kooper: Soul Of A Man


1) Somethin' Goin' On; 2) I Can't Keep From Cryin' Sometimes; 3) I Stand Alone/I Can Love A Woman/New York City; 4) Flute Thing; 5) Don't Tell Me (Repo Man); 6) Two Trains Runnin'; 7) Heartbeat; 8) Sleepwalk; 9) Just One Smile; 10) I Can't Quit Her; 11) I Want A Little Girl; 12) My Days Are Numbered; 13) I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know; 14) Spoken Intro; 15) Made In The Shade; 16) Downtime; 17) Violets Of Dawn; 18) Albert's Shuffle; 19) Closing Medley (You Can't Always Get What You Want/Season Of The Witch).

Is this a stupendous live album, or what? Imagine a double live CD led by, say, Eric Clapton, with three songs performed by the original Yardbirds, four by the original Cream, and an extra three by the original Derek & The Dominos (minus the dead guys, of course), plus a bunch of so­lo stuff plus a bunch of whatever else came along — old stuff, new stuff, you name it. Clearly, despite all of his allegedly easy-going nature, Clapton could not pull it off in one go, nor would he ever want to. Leave that kind of bewildering stuff to crazy schemers like Al Kooper.

For a series of three gigs, recorded in New York in February 1994, Al got together the original members (well, not all of them, but most) of both of his old bands —The Blues Project and Blood, Sweat & Tears, as well as his new band, the Rekooperators, led by Jimmy Vivino. In addition, he got Johnnie Johnson (the Johnnie Johnson, of Chuck Berry fame) to play some piano, and John Sebastian (the John Sebastian, of the Lovin' Spoonful fame) to blow some harmonica — in fact, something tells me he could have gotten anybody, including President Clinton on tambourine, they just ran out of space listing all the guests on the album cover.

With such an eclectic presence spearheaded by one of the most eclectic artists the world has ever seen, one should be prepared for everything. Now, obviously, Al did not get the old bands back together to make them play post-rock: the old chestnuts are respectfully revisited en masse, from the Blues Project's 'Flute Thing' and 'I Can't Keep From Crying' to BS&T's 'My Days Are Num­bered' and 'I Can't Quit Her'. Apart from that, however, instead of concentrating on his solo care­er (mostly reduced to a brief three-song medley in the early part of the set and just two numbers from Rekooperation), Al concentrates on...

...oh boy, this is always my favourite part with this guy. Let's see now: there's Randy Newman ('Just One Smile'). The Rolling Stones (well, somehow, Al is justified in choosing 'You Can't Al­ways Get What You Want', considering that he played on the original; and this is the only live rendition of this classic song I've ever heard that emphasizes the initial choral part instead of just dropping it, as the Stones always do). Friggin' Lynyrd Skynyrd — 'Made In The Shade', not even one of their better-known tunes, but turned into a New Orleanian hedonistic delight with Johnnie Johnson's help. And, even less expected — Adrian Belew, with 'Heartbeat' ("I cannot even be­gin to tell you how difficult it is to play this song", Al complains before launching into it, "cause Ad­rian Belew is nuts!"). The band does a great job on the song, though.

Not everything is picture-perfect. The Blues Project, for instance, was a really early venture for Kooper, who did not really begin to bloom until 1968, and while the band was quite decent when covering contemporary psych-pop (e. g. Eric Andersen's 'Violets Of Dawn', one of the highlights here as well), their «blues» thing was rather generic, and little has changed since then — eleven minutes for Muddy Waters' 'Two Trains Runnin' is overkill. And on 'Albert's Shuffle', Jimmy Vi­vino does not particularly well match the shoes of the late great Mike Bloomfield (who, himself, must have had a great time watching the shows from Heaven through direct satellite trans­mis­sion). Also, one strange post-production defect concerns Steve Katz, the guitar hero behind both Blues Project and BS&T, who, for reasons beyond rational comprehension, did not give per­mis­sion to release his playing, so his parts had to be re-recorded in the studio by Vivino.

But none of this is truly significant next to the general feel of the record: once again, and once again from an entirely different angle, you get a potpourri of Americana (I sometimes forget Ad­rian Belew is American, too) played with just the right mix of professionalism, sincerity, and ac­cessibility. And Al is in perfect form as a singer, too — for instance, his rendition of 'I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know' almost matches the original in tension and passion, and this is a major feat; the original vocal performance was so perfectly modulated that each single live ver­sion by BS&T I've ever heard was always a letdown. Here, allowing himself some minor leeway during the coda, Kooper delivers the goods exactly the way I feel they should always be delivered if 'I Love You More' is destined to remain what it has always been (namely, one of the most soul-shattering, tear-jerking songs ever written). His grumbly sense of humor works well, too ("I hate playing this song...", he says about 'I Can't Quit You', "...except with these guys").

Soul Of A Man is a goddamn perfect title. It is not a «career summary» — it omits way too much from Al's career, and adds way too much from his non-career for that — it is merely a re­af­fir­mation of Al's original purpose in music, and shows him fully capable of pulling off everything he did thirty years earlier, and more. Look up «artistic integrity» in your local encyclopaedia — if you don't find a picture of Al Kooper next to it, I'll be very much surprised.

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