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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Amazing Blondel: Inspiration


1) All Time For You/Inspiration; 2) Thinking Of You; 3) You Didn't Have To Lie About It; 4) I've Got News For You; 5) The Lovers; 6) Good Time Gertie; 7) On A Night Like This; 8) Love Song; 9) Standing By My Window; 10) Be So Happy; 11) They're Born, They Grow And They Die.

There are several known usages of the word 'inspiration' as defined in Webster. One is: «the act or power of exercising an elevating or stimulating influence upon the in­tel­lect or emotions». Ano­ther is: «a supernatural influence which qualifies men to receive and communicate divine truth». Thus, all I can say is, if this album has really been created under a «supernatural influence», we're all doing good staying well grounded in the non-supernatural; and if it was recorded with the in­tention of exercising an elevating or stimulating influence upon my intellect or emotions, I can only thank God it's not 1975 all over again.

Think a sequel to Mulgrave Street, but this time, with (a) all traces of Blondel's past washed away, (b) any hopes for Blondel's new future dissipated — no wailing electric guitar solos, no catchy choruses, just a never-ending string of watery, utterly predictable mid-Seventies soft-rock à la Carpenters or, at times, even Barry Manilow. There is exactly one fully decent song on here: 'You Didn't Have To Lie About It', and even that one mostly sounds good in its context, what with its bass-heavy boppy-poppiness so reminiscent of the Beatles' style circa Sgt. Pepper (think 'Getting Better' and the like). But already the second Beatles rip — title track — commits the ut­ter sacrilege in being built around... a musical bit that is directly lifted from the instrumental sec­tion of 'Something' (!!). (Which, for a moment, brings me onto thinking that 'Something', in its way, basically invented the «deep ballad» format of the 1970s, without falling victim to it, kinda like 'Stairway To Heaven' is the Blessed Mother Power Ballad of so many rotten kids).

Everything else is, at best, forgettable, ultra-sweet acoustic pop, and, at worst, polysaccharidic balladry. Basically, the distinction is simple — as long as Baird and Wincott hunt for the Beatles, the music is tolerable ('Good Time Gertie', a 'Dear Prudence' rip-off instrumental, is another OK contribution); once they start hunting for America or James Taylor, the music is no longer music, just sap dressed up in musical clothes. To finish you off with one last staggering blow, Baird ends the album with five minutes of pure orchestral Mantovani ('They're Born...') as if Inspiration were some frickin' Hollywood epic in need of a proper exit music arrangement. Well, I exit here all right. Like I said, Mulgrave Street was at least sing-along-able, in parts; Inspiration, in comparison, is vomit-along-able, and the only reason George Harrison did not sue the bastards was that The Chiffons taught him to be a peace-abiding, court-avoiding gentleman. Thumbs down, without further debate.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Amboy Dukes: Journey To The Center Of The Mind


1) Mississippi Murderer; 2) Surrender To Your Kings; 3) Flight Of The Byrd; 4) Scottish Tea; 5) Dr. Slingshot; 6) Journey To The Center Of The Mind; 7) Ivory Castles; 8) Why Is A Carrot More Orange Than An Orange; 9) Mis­si­o­nary Mary; 10) Death Is Life; 11) Saint Phillip's Friend; 12) I'll Prove I'm Right; 13) Conclusion.

Not sure about hitting the very «center», but with their second album, the Dukes have certainly reached a stable periphery. All of this is entirely self-written and much more confident than the first time around. It's also interesting in its very pronounced division. Nugent more or less owns Side A, based on individual, fat-riffed psycho-rockers, and Farmer dominates Side B, propped by a continuous psycho-pop suite, much wimpier, but somewhat subtler than Side A. Who's the win­ner? As much as it pains me to pronounce this, the Nuge is the winner.

Of course, the title track which opens the suite is the album's best number, and proudly deserves its place on the Nuggets boxset — but it is also the only one co-written by Farmer and Nugent on Side B. Psychedelia is rarely done at breakneck speed, for understandable reasons (try running a 60-metre dash on pot!), but that might just be one of the reasons why the Nuge still keeps preten­ding that 'Journey To The Center Of The Mind' is not a drug song, just an ass-kicking call for ge­neral open-mindedness and what-not. Anyway, it rocks, it's catchy as hell, it's got a blistering solo from Ted, and it shamelessly steals the fabulous riff from The Del-Vetts' 'Last Time Around' for one brief section — what's not to like?

The directions in which Farmer pushes the band on the other parts of the suite are a different mat­ter. They borrow extensively from baroque-pop and folk-rock, and neither of these is done in a particularly exciting manner. Sure, the band learns the guitar jangle, and the harpsichord tingle, and the snowy Hammond organ badongle, but the sounds still do not come together in anything par­ticularly impressive or original. Nugent does his best to paint the generic bolero rhythms of 'Ivory Castles' with meaty, vibrato-dependent solos, but he does little to save the Witgenstein-worthy title 'Why Is A Carrot More Orange Than An Orange', and even less to pull up the loud disaster of 'Missionary Mary' (that kind of title would suggest something grossly indecent, but, much to everybody's disappointment — no titillation whatsoever).

Thus, my and your money should be on Ted's compositional work on Side A: 'Surrender To Your Kings', another speedy anthem with a paranoid undercurrent; 'Flight Of The Byrd', another hard rock monster with a heavy Hendrix debt; and 'Scottish Tea', for which Ted honestly reworks a traditional Celtic anthem, replacing the bagpipes with psychedelic guitar — possibly the first straightforward crossing of the Highlands with San Francisco. No masterpiece, but amusing.

John Drake, as lead vocalist, once again makes no strong impression, much as he tries on the ope­ning track: 'Mississippi Murderer', standing somewhat alone in its own corner, is a gruff roots-rocker, dedicated to the familiar subject of womanslaughter, and, in trying to find the proper spi­rit, Drake impersonates a thoroughly gin-soaked, smoke-choked local barroom goer, some might say successfully, but I'd rather have Tom Waits over this, since Tom has what it takes to creep me out and this guy, unfortunately, doesn't. In the end, 'Murderer' just sounds like a joke song, and a very deceitful way to start out the album.

Overall, this is «progress», in a way, because the Nuge has made way for his talents, adding a decent composing flair to his already well-honed guitar skills — and, on the other hand, it is the only Amboy Dukes album on which Uncle Ted's big dick consistently stays out of the conversa­tion, an amazing exception in the man's career and reason enough to not only own the album, but even to award it an explicit thumbs up without bringing on seedy connotations. But be ready for a sea of filler in compensation.

Check "Journey To The Center Of The Mind" (CD) on Amazon

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Beach Boys: Surfin' Safari


1) Surfin' Safari; 2) County Fair; 3) Ten Little Indians; 4) Chug-A-Lug; 5) Little Girl (You're My Miss America); 6) 409; 7) Surfin'; 8) Heads You Win – Tails I Lose; 9) Summertime Blues; 10) Cuckoo Clock; 11) Moon Dawg; 12) The Shift.

Listening back on 'Surfin', the Beach Boys' first single and a song that, in a way, opened up a new page in the history of American popular music (without knowing it at the time, of course), one could probably build up a solid case for a complete lack of progress in mainstream pop in fifty years time — the period it takes to span the distance from 'Surfin' to thoroughly «modern» «plea­sures» like Miley Cyrus' 'Party In The USA'.

Yet there is a difference. From the very start, the Beach Boys — the three Wilson brothers, their cousin Mike Love, and their friend Al Jardine — were truly committed to music. With their sim­ple blue-collar origins, it was all very much homebrewn at first, but the boys practiced hard and, most importantly, amalgamated tons of influences. It is true that their first two singles and the accompanying LP could not yet let anyone see the true greatness to come, but perhaps, buoyed by the freshness of the idea to write a vocal song about surfing, they were simply pushed into the studio too soon: compare the Beatles, whose serious studio career only truly took off after a gru­e­ling five year schedule of playing and honing their act.

Even so, the simplistic-hedonistic vibe of 'Surfin' still sounds cute and seductive today, if only for its utter innocence and, I'll say it again, freshness — basically, it was one of the first situations in which a bunch of normal, clean, non-threatening kids, raised on proper suburban values, would pick up their electric guitars and take their inspiration from the «right» people in the business, na­mely, rock'n'rollers, surfers, and folksters.

19-year old Brian Wilson contributed a whoppin' nine originals here, with lyrics contributed ei­ther by cousin Mike Love or pal Gary Usher. His growth as composer and arranger is evident already during the transition from first to second single: 'Surfin', behind the lively ba-ba-dippity's (courtesy of Mike, not Brian), is almost non-existent on the musical plane, whereas 'Surfin' Safari' already has a steadier beat, a guitar solo, and Mike Love, although still suffering from too much nasal whining, hits a few more notes here and there. Fairly big progress, actually, achieved in less than half a year, at a time when the very idea of «progress» in a pop musical career was not yet formulated explicitly.

But overall, there is not much diversity: at this point, Brian's originals are mostly fast-paced surf pop variations on pre-existing rockabilly / surf-rock compositions. The arrangements are fleshed out only inasmuch as they can distinguish «songs» from «early demos» (guitar-bass-drums and very thin, insecure vocal harmonies; kudos for playing all the instruments on their own, but this is actually a case where outside professional help couldn't hurt). And, although his services in the future would occasionally be of more significant use, Gary Usher is essentially a crap lyricist — after all, you needn't go further than Chuck Berry to learn that it is possible to write smart, funny, and provocative lyrics about cars, girls, and other simple pleasures of life, yet, apparently, Usher was not a fast learner, what with his idea of a provocative chorus amounting to "Chug-a-lug, chug-a-lug, give me some root beer". ROOT BEER? Cute little darlings, are we?

Some of the more interesting failures, the likes of which one can only encounter on this debut, involve: (a) 'Sum­mertime Blues' — the only time the Beach Boys dared to put a bona fide rock'n'roll classic on a studio album before the even bigger failure of 'Rock'n'Roll Music' in 1976; I guess they just weren't made for this style; (b) 'Ten Little Indians', an «original» experiment in kiddie-folk that the record label embarrassingly selected as the follow-up single to 'Surfin'; (c) 'County Fair', «enlivened» by pseudo-carnival atmosphere overdubs that only further emphasize its silly amateur entertainment status.

Yet, when all is said and done, 'Surfin' Safari' is arguably their best straightforward surfing an­them (as opposed to «best song that has the word 'surf' in the title», an honor that goes to the much later 'Surf's Up' which, frankly speaking, had nothing to do with surfing whatsoever); and '409' firmly establishes their «car song» format, even if the lively chorus of "giddy up giddy up four-oh-nine" sounds dangerously close to "idiot idiot four-o-nine" (intentionally, perhaps?). A minor sensation upon release, almost immediately forgotten in the wake of a wave of much gran­der successes, these days Surfin' Safari is simply an exciting case study in «a day in the life» of fresh-faced, innocent teenage America before the filthy British Invasion came and perverted the land of the free and the brave beyond repair. Thumbs down, of course (I could not win the argu­ment that this is objectively better than Miley Cyrus had I really wanted to), but with reservations concerning its instructive, period-piece-ish, value.

Check "Surfin' Safari" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Surfin' Safari" (MP3) on Amazon