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Monday, October 31, 2011

Bill Haley: Rock-A-Round The Clock King


1) See You Later Alligator; 2) ABC Boogie; 3) Panic; 4) I've Got News For Hugh; 5) Don't Mess Around; 6) The Wobble; 7) This Is Goodbye, Goodbye; 8) Train Of Sin; 9) Altar Of Love; 10) Helena; 11*) Yakety Sax.

Okay... apparently, in 1964 Haley's career still mostly revolved around Mexico and the Orfeon la­bel, for which he was churning out new records faster than the Mexican government could im­port vinyl. Some of them might be good, too, judging by the high quality of the Round Table album; however, these days it is easier to have access to this lonely session that Bill and the boys cut in January '64 (in Las Vegas?) for the US Guest Star record label.

With Johnny Kay on lead guitar and the rest of the band still sweating it out like they did in the old days, this ten-song record, extracted from the depths of the large Bear Family 5-CD set (and I am taking the liberty of augmenting it with an enthusiastic run through 'Yakety Sax', taken from the same session), shows that, yes indeed, in 1964 the Comets still sounded swell, even if they were utterly and hopelessly irrelevant. Not entirely behind the times, though: the production is fuller and richer than usual, and Kay was clearly a guitar player of the next generation, not as in­ventive or aggressive as Beecher, but in full control of new, fuller tones. Listen to the solo on 'See You Later, Alligator': it is not as sharp as the original, but it is definitely power-poppier. That there guitar is just smiling at you, with a rich, juicy tone.

The record is not all just re-recordings of older standards, either: after the couple of obligatory opening «reminders» of why we were all into Haley in the first place, the band goes on to play various dance numbers that may have all been minor hits in their day, but most of which I do not recognize at all. That is not the problem, though; the problem is, the album is way too slow — too many mid-tempo shuffles, not enough boogie. (Odd enough, one of the most boogie-oriented num­bers here is the gospel-tinged 'Train Of Sin'!).

Decent listen, but no, no lost gems here or anything. And as for 'Yakety Sax', well, they really shouldn't have covered it — apparently, not every sax player can play the yakety-sax, and Rudy Pompilli, well, he's one of the best, but on this version at least, he does not give it his best, and any performance of 'Yakety Sax' that is not absolutely top-yakety will sound just stupid. The same applies to most of the other songs here. Still, Johnny Kay was a decent guitarist, and fans of early Sixties electric pop guitar might need to look into this.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Bees: Sunshine Hit Me


1) Punchbag; 2) Angryman; 3) No Trophy; 4) Binnel Bay; 5) Sunshine; 6) A Minha Menina; 7) This Town; 8) Sweet Like A Champion; 9) Lying In The Snow; 10) Zia; 11) Sky Holds The Sun.

The Bees are perhaps the best thing to have happened to the Isle of Wight ever since the 1970 Fes­tival. There are really but two of them: Paul Butler and Aaron Fletcher, and I like it how Wi­ki­pedia tells us that both «had been notables on the Isle of Wight scene for a while» before relea­sing this album — with a whopping population benchmark of 140,000, there certainly must be some real cut­throat competition on the Isle to become «notable».

Yet The Bees certainly do not sound at all as if they would be fit for the cutthroat business. For the most part, this is wimpy, harmless, friendly music for friendly harmless wimps. Even when the band «rocks out», they do that to such a blatantly retro type of garage-influenced sound, that it is impossible to suspect any toughness. Actually, they only rock out once, on their lead single, 'A Minha Menina', not even an original, but a rather faithful cover of an old Os Mutantes song. And the only rocking presence on there is the grumbly riff, distorted exactly the same way that Os Mu­tantes were distorting it in 1968. A thirty-four year old cover... hmm... could the Beatles ever cover anything that was 34 years old, and put it out as a single? Some prime time old-fag-ism we have here, no doubt about it.

Dissection time. In 2002, The Bees mostly draw their inspiration from: (a) yer basic sunshine pop and pop-rock of the 1960s; (b) yer dreamy introspective pop and folk-pop from singer-songwri­ters and art-rockers circa the early 1970s; (c) various black music genres like dub / reggae / funk, more precisely, those varieties that still sounded fresh and inspiring circa the mid 1970s. This is an interesting and not utterly wasteful combination — I am not sure if I have really heard any­thing thoroughly similar to 'Angryman' before, with its dub/disco/pop synthesis. But I don't hear any conscious emphasis on innovation. It's just two charismatic indie guys who are not afraid that they will be drowned in the sea of all those other indie guys playing their retro games. They just go into that sea, and swim in it, and have fun. That's the best way to go about it.

Since the basic styles of the tracks are so diverse, everyone will have personal favorites. It is hard for me to take these guys as «Serious Artists» (as distinguished from serious artists, who they cer­tainly are), so my favorites are the numbers that I feel and think they do best – soft bouncy rhythmic kiddie-ditties. Like the opening 'Punchbag', whose main hook – "whooh, use me like a punchbag" – just floats along on a soft cushion of bells, chimes, and brass, creating a warm atmo­sphere that only a total Mr. Grumpy could refuse. Or the closing 'Sky Holds The Sun', whose mi­nimalism should, in theory, already be annoying these days (I mean, everybody's a minimalist, gimme some Mahler in pop music already), but still wins my trust because that main (and only) hummable line is so goshdarn pretty.

Every once in a while, they try to raise the bar, and somehow succeed by failing. For instance, 'Sunshine' is a slow-moving instrumental that seems to emulate the romantic spirit of the early art-rock movement – nobody in the band really has, or is brave enough to show, the chops for that (indie bane strikes again), but the music still sounds very nice, with moody guitar and organ solos, dreamy vocal harmonies, etc. However, when they try to do it one more time ('Zia'), with more emphasis on solo piano work, it already feels a bit like déjà vu, so no thanks.

'Angryman' is still the best – that groove is totally infectious, let alone the ominous lyric "an an­gry man needs attention", with the best moment hitting around 2:50, when the «soft» version of the groove is (alas, for a few bars only) replaced by a «hard» version, with tough brass and wah-wah guitar coming in from the dark side of the street. It shows that the Bees have a subtle snap next to their omnipresent smile, and that the snap can bite as hard as the smile can dazzle.

Whether these songs will manage to stay with you once the sunshine is out and you're in for a long cold winter, is not for me to say. Like all retro-oriented records of the XXIst century, Sun­shine Hit Me will hardly ever take the place of its influences in the public or critical conscience. But for that particular part of the public who frequently wonders – what would all these once-cool styles sound like today, had punk, New Wave, electronica, and hip-hop not swept them away? – here's your answer. Happy? Join me in my thumbs up.

Check "Sunshine Hit Me" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Sunshine Hit Me" (MP3) on Amazon

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Amon Tobin: Supermodified


1) Get Your Snack On; 2) Four Ton Mantis; 3) Slowly; 4) Marine Machines; 5) Golfer Vrs Boxer; 6) Deo; 7) Precursor (feat. Quadraceptor); 8) Saboteur; 9) Chocolate Lovely; 10) Rhino Jockey; 11) Keepin' It Steel (The Anvil Track); 12) Natureland.

This is the best Amon Tobin there is. To me, the pricky conservative, the best praise that can be given to an electronic album is that, for once, the album makes me forget about its electronic na­ture and just enjoy it as music — atmospheric, static, whatever. From the very start, it was cool to hear Tobin blend jazz with jungle, but that's what it was: cool, not stunning. Cool records come and go, and these days, can be heaped on the racks a dime a dozen (actually, skip the dime), but a stun is a stun — it is bound to leave an impression.

So what do we have up here? Some of the critics have called Supermodified Tobin's most acces­sible album, which, in these days, often translates to «the crappy one» (a.k.a. «the one with guest contributions from Lenny Kravitz and Mary J. Blige»), but, fortu­nately, this does not apply here. It's accessible because it's (a) heavier than before, (b) catchier than before, (c) more diverse than before, (d) whatever. Oh, wait. It's fun.

Where do we begin? The main message has not changed much. We are still living in our own private lounge with velvet curtains and hi-tech drape runners, a sort of David Lynch-ian paradise if I might say so. But it is now getting rougher and darker (apparently, BOB is in the building?), as 'Get Your Snack On' announces the new record on a gruffer note than ever before. Big cra­shing drums, a nagging minimalistic riff that almost sounds sampled from some old John Lee Ho­oker tune, lush gospel organ and vocals brewing a 'Gimmie Shelter'-type apocalypse in the back­ground, paranoid funk guitars scratching their way in and out, it's one heck of a tune.

From there on, just about every tune is hook-based. 'Four Ton Mantis' might sound appropriate for a real four ton mantis: even though the basic melody stomps along at a generic blues-rock pace, the drums and bass soon start pummeling the pavement, and the typewriter-mannered key­boards clatter along like some parasitic retinue to the beast. It doesn't get too way out of itself, but if played at top volume, it's quite an impressive «anti-utopian» chunk of atmosphere.

After the first two heavy hammers, the atmosphere becomes subtler – kick-ass panoramas begin to alternate with sexier / sleazier stuff, with an occasional touch of romance ('Slowly' is Tobin's most perfect attempt at conjuring a femme fatale vision) or, vice versa, of industrial doom ('Ma­rine Machines', which manages to combine the rhythmic robotic clanging of a power plant with vague bits of Eastern melodicity — as in, Genie, I want to run a Panzer tank factory). Skipping far ahead, there's a really rough space journey on 'Rhino Jockey', which will make you earn far more bumps and blisters than any Aphex Twin trip; and a smooth, well-planned slide-off, first with the upbeat, catchy, almost singalong-able Latin beat of 'Keepin' It Steel', and then the dim cabaret lights of 'Natureland' — that last ballad which you can allow yourself because all the rough ones are already under the tables, or kicked out.

Truly, Supermodified is one album that deserves its title — this is where it all comes together and you really see that all that blending on the previous records wasn't done for nothing. Here, it's not simply something like «okay, let's see what happens when we put some Miles Davis over some of those drum'n'bass tracks» (although even that, per se, could be amusing). They some­times use the word decadent to describe this sound, but I'm not sure it fits: real decadence has to be pessimistic, get some end-of-the-world Bryan-Ferry-sobbing thing going for it, whereas Su­per­­modified is quite content to be threatening, ominous, and seductive without having to feel sor­ry for itself. But, on the other hand, there is a fair amount of the Devil's work going on here, that's for certain. And since we're all closet Satanists here way back from the days of Robert Johnson, how could this not deserve a thumbs up?

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

Friday, October 28, 2011

Arthur Russell: World Of Echo


1) Tone Bone Kone; 2) Soon-To-Be Innocent Fun / Let's See; 3) Answers Me; 4) Being It; 5) Place I Know / Kid Like You; 6) She's The Star / I Take This Time; 7) Tree House; 8) See-Through; 9) Hiding Your Present From You; 10) Wax The Van; 11) All-Boy All-Girl; 12) Lucky Cloud; 13) Tower Of Meaning / Rabbit's Ear / Home Away From Home; 14) Let's Go Swimming; 15*) The Name Of The Next Song; 16*) Happy Ending; 17*) Canvas Home; 18*) Our Last Night Together.

If you only know about this album from the All-Music Guide review — beware, beware! The au­thor, "Blue" Gene Tyranny, tags the record as «an incredible assemblage of solo versions of this influential and unique downtown musician» and describes it as «subtle, transcendental with gentle rock beats and new music influences in patternings and textures». But then, of course, at the other end of the playground there's always Joe the Plumber, who calls World Of Echo «the biggest pile of sonic shit I've ever seen — and, believe you me, when I'm talking about seeing shit, I damn well know what I'm talking about!» With both sides of the story thus in the can, it's up to you to make your own choice.

If the title of Tower Of Meaning could only be perceived with irony, World Of Echo is pretty straightforward. It is mostly just Arthur and his cello, sometimes with a little extra percussion thrown in; the cello itself is either bowed in a modern-classical manner, or plucked to get a jazzy rhythm going on (so much for «new music influences»: by 1986, none of these tricks were new, although, granted, it was rather novel to hear them from a guy formerly known as an enthusiastic «intelligent disco music» activist).

The big difference is that, well, everything has an echo. The plucked cello, the bowed cello, the vocals, even the percussion — everything is run through echo effects of varying force. As a result, the louder you turn up your speakers, the more you get the feeling that either it is you sitting in­side a deep stone well and the cellist is performing on top, or vice versa. Some would call this ef­fect psychedelic, but, the way I see it, psychedelic music is an attempt to mimic the complex, un­predictable, and uncontrollable processes going through your brain, and this sort of effect is fully external rather than internal. If you ever experience something like World Of Echo going inside your brain, better see a doctor at once — most likely, you have a concussion or something.

I have seen people swear by this album as the lone forgotten masterpiece of 1986. Unfortunately, I can neither join them nor jeer at them, because every time I listen to these «tunes», or, rather, what sounds to me like raw improvisatory attempts to put together a set of tunes, I cannot under­stand if there is some compositional or artistic genius inside, or if there isn't: the damn echo keeps getting me all muddled. Content-wise, World Of Echo could be called «diverse»: there's some gentle pastoralism ('Soon-To-Be-Innocent Fun', 'She's The Star'), power-pop ('Being It'), New Wave ('Place I Know'), garage-rock ('Treehouse'), hard rock ('Wax The Van'), maybe something else, but you could just as well shift some of these tags around — that's just some spur-of-the-moment impres­sions. Formally, it's all just «echo music», and I am unable to determine if it's all a huge attempt to arrogantly mask the lack of genius by drowning it in the excessive abuse of pro­duction gadgetry, or an attempt to humbly mask the presence of genius by hiding it behind a wall of innovative production ideas. (Occasionally, I tilt towards the latter, because some of these tunes, e. g. 'Wax The Van', are alternate versions of the man's notable disco hits from previous years – but, on the other hand, not all of these tunes were that fabulous in the first place).

One thing is for certain: World Of Echo sounds like nothing ever done before. This sort of expe­rimentation has its firm roots in avantgarde and jazz history, as well as occasional explorations in pop music territory (I'd say Skip Spence's Oar might be one of the forefathers), but the combina­tion of length, chosen instruments, and a total lack of compromise ensures that this will always be a cult favorite, no matter how small the cult. Even for naysayers, it might be useful to listen to this stuff once, make an effort not to make «hate this useless crap» into a final verdict, and then put it away, with a possibility to return to it once more... some day. Which is exactly what we are going to do right now, and move on.

PS. The most curious track is actually available now as a bonus on the new CD edition: the eight minute long 'The Name Of The Next Song', where, every few bars, Arthur stops playing and says "The name of the next song is...", then invents some crazyass title which I cannot make out be­cause of the goddamn echo (yeah, I suck at airport loudspeakers too), and goes on playing the same cello-raga with different words. It's so overwhelmingly silly, it just works.

Check "World Of Echo" (CD) on Amazon
Check "World Of Echo" (MP3) on Amazon