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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Amon Düül II: Almost Alive


1) One Blue Morning; 2) Good Bye My Love; 3) Ain't Today Tomorrow's Yesterday; 4) Hallelujah; 5) Feeling Un­easy; 6) Live In Jericho.

I am not quite sure what kind of hole would be ready to accommodate this pigeon. Technically, it is even less of a «sellout» than Pyragony X. The compositions are longer, the melodies less trivi­al, meek attempts at sounding «rootsy» mostly purged. But even if we manage to call this stuff «art-rock», what consolation would that give? My ears only hear a band that has completely lost its original vision, and is now blindly struggling to find a new one, with no success whatsoever. Almost Alive? Frankenstein-style, you mean?

The marginally new direction that the band, here represented by the exact same lineup as in 1976, sets out to explore is funk, which, at least on one track ('Hallelujah'), veers dangerously close to disco. It is as if someone in the group had become a major fan of George Clinton — or the Ave­rage White Band, because, although there is a big difference between the two, it's not like it mat­ters for Amon Düül II, a band that could do many things, but hot syncopated grooves were never among them. This takes care of about half the album: 'One Blue Morning', seven minutes of bo­ring riffage that neither rocks nor makes you want to dance; 'Good Bye My Love', which sounds like a cross between the Bee Gees and Boston-style arena rock; and 'Hallelujah' — danceable, but why should anyone, way back in 1977, prefer to dance to Amon Düül II when you could have Donna Summer and Boney M all to yourself?

The two soft-prog mini-epics are nothing special as well. This is simply not this band's emploi, never has been. Renate is not here to trigger the band's psycho-folk inspiration channels, and the dark Gothic blasts are equally a thing of the past. What we get is just more substandard riffage, autopilot-mode Moog solos, and, in the case of 'Tomorrow's Yesterday', an attempt to mount an Anthemic Progressive Coda, with grand piano, swooping strings, and choral vocals, which could be resonant if only the actual song to match it were of any value. As it is, it's an anthem to no­thing, hopelessly lost in the din.

Thus, the only track of passable interest to hardcore fans of the band would be 'Live In Jericho', on which, for the last twelve minutes, the band decides to try and go back into «improv» mode, the way they used to cut it seven years back. Even then, they all but kill off the initiative by be­gin­ning the track with a drum solo (remember that classic Düül valued democracy way too much to ever allow their drummer a moment of self-indulgence), and only somewhere around the six-minute mark start barely recapturing bits of former glories. Even then, there is too much generic guitar and keyboard wanking to finish the recapturing properly.

In short, consider me stumped, because I have no idea why on Earth a band as original and inven­tive as Amon Düül II would one day decide that they'd rather be a combination of Funkadelic, Boston, and ELP instead. Almost Ridiculous would be a far more precise title for this record — «almost», because most of the tracks are pulled off with just enough competence so as not to sound like parodies. But in such cases, «awful» records at least may leave an imprint in the mind: Almost Alive, tottering on the lowest rungs of «simple mediocrity», is not guaranteed to produce even that effect. BORING! Thumbs down. (And let's not even talk about the album cover — their silliest one to-date).

Check "Almost Alive" (CD) on Amazon

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Beach Boys: In Concert


1) Sail On Sailor; 2) Sloop John B; 3) The Trader; 4) You Still Believe In Me; 5) California Girls; 6) Darlin'; 7) Marcella; 8) Caroline No; 9) Leaving This Town; 10) Heroes And Villains; 11) Funky Pretty; 12) Let The Wind Blow; 13) Help Me, Rhonda; 14) Surfer Girl; 15) Wouldn't It Be Nice?; 16) We Got Love; 17) Don't Worry Baby; 18) Surfin' U.S.A.; 19) Good Vibrations; 20) Fun, Fun, Fun.

I've said it once, twice, and thrice, and I'll say it again: I do not fancy the idea of a Beach Boys live show, much less a live album. At their best (and even at their so-so), the Beach Boys were the perfect studio band, and such things as «spontaneity», «rock drive», «getting in the groove», etc., could only hurt them rather than help. No matter how hard they tried, they could not get the same kind of perfection on stage — nor could they re-cast their stuff in a significantly different way for live audiences, different enough to be justified. They could come close to perfection — but that only makes the whole experience even more frustrating, because who the heck needs close-to-perfection if you can get complete perfection instead?

And if anything in the Beach Boys' live catalog ever comes close to perfection, it is, without a doubt, the double In Concert album from 1973. The shows were recorded in 1972 and 1973, at the height of the band's artistic and «reputational» comeback. Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar, as questionable as their songwriting contributions were to the band's catalog, added plenty of ex­tra power on stage: good harmony singers and good extra musicians (especially Fataar, who real­ly helped the band out at a time when Dennis had lost his drumming capacities through a hand in­jury. Not that Dennis felt good enough at the time to drum with as much passion as he did in the innocent Six­ties — even if there were nothing wrong with his hands).

Then there is the amazing setlist, of course. The double LP allows to cover plenty of ground, run­ning the gamut from the classic surf-era hits to the mid-Sixties artistic peaks and, finally, to the band's more recent experimental period — a whole four pieces from Holland are present (five, if we include 'We Got Love', another Chaplin/Fataar number originally intended for that record, but pulled off at the last moment to make room for the «hit single» 'Sail On, Sailor'). Anyone shrug­ging their shoulders and saying «so what?» should be reminded that, in a matter of months within the release of this album, The Beach Boys would drop the bulk of «serious» material from their setlists, and just go back to being the Beach Boys, concentrating on the old sunny day hits — sure it looked a bit quirky, what with all the band members sporting big bushy beards, but hey, as long as they keep paying for the tickets...

And if that wasn't enough, how about the big fabulous surprise of the show? NO MIKE LOVE BANTER WHATSOEVER. Repeat: MIKE. LOVE. SHUTS. THE. FUCK. UP. Not a single god­damn "Lost my head again!" anywhere in sight. It is almost like he existed only to take lead vocals on the old surfin' classics, for which he continued to remain the best choice. It is almost like paradise. No wonder this couldn't be kept up for much longer.

However, feelings become a little more mixed when we come to consider the subtle changes in­troduced in the live versions. 'Sloop John B' gets something like a million extra instruments, in­cluding countrified electric guitar, banjo (I think? I may be wrong here), and other stuff, clut­tering the perfectly constructed musical card house of the original. It's not exactly 'Sloppy John B' in the end, but the bits of chaos annoy me. 'Help Me, Rhonda' gets a distorted hard-rock boogie line for its spine, which is fairly inadequate for the song's feather-light character — hell, why not a Tony Iommi tone if you are all for «toughening it up»? 'Funky Pretty', as if to justify its title, gets a genuine «funky» introduction that has nothing to do with the song itself, and the seams cer­tainly show as they switch into the pop piano melody without a warning. 'You Still Believe In Me', in the place of the opening harpsichord/deep echoey vocal duo, gets an electric keyboard /Theremin intro­duction — nice, but, again, a rather poor substitute for the baroque beauty of the original. (And hearing Al Jardine do it instead of Brian is also saddening).

This list could go on a bit, but the illustration is sufficient: changes are few, and in most cases, they detract from the originals rather than re-open them in a new light. Exceptions would include 'Leaving This Town', slightly improved with an electric organ solo instead of the silly Emerson-style Moog solo on the original (but the song is still as un-Beach Boys as ever), and 'Marcella', one single case where the «toughening» works, since, according to Brian, the song was originally envisioned as sort of a Stones tribute, and the crunchier rhythm guitars and sharper slide solo gui­tars on here do convey some sort of an Exile On Main St. vibe, for a moment.

The same complaints go for every instance of a flubbed or «swallowed» vocal note — of which, granted, there are very few exam­ples, but each one stabs through the heart. With Concert at least, you could ascribe these flubs to the band not being able to hear itself behind the yelling, but here they have no excuse — other than, admittedly, it is hard for the likes of Carl Wilson to play rhythm guitar and hold up a perfect voice melody at the same time, and it is utterly admirable that he is still able to do that, say, 90% of the time. But for those of us who expect nothing less than perfection from the way a Beach Boys album is delivered (technically, I mean — we cannot always expect ideal songwriting), this is still a serious letdown.

In Concert must be heard — throughout the 1970s, the Beach Boys remained a significant live at­traction (in fact, as their studio reputation plummeted, their live one kept going up), and this album very well explains why. And yet I do not think that it is ever going to remain highly ranked on anyone's playlist. Thumbs up, because the record is unimpeachable on formal grounds, is still a major pleasure to listen to on its own, and a satisfying swan song for The Beach Boys, soon to be disbanded, reshuffled, restructured, and renamed «The Al And Mike Love Show».

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Monday, November 28, 2011

Billie Holiday: The Commodore Master Takes


1) Strange Fruit; 2) Yesterdays; 3) Fine And Mellow; 4) I Gotta Right To Sing The Blues; 5) How Am I To Know?; 6) My Old Flame; 7) I'll Get By; 8) I Cover The Waterfront; 9) I'll Be Seeing You; 10) I'm Yours; 11) Embraceable You; 12) As Time Goes By; 13) He's Funny That Way; 14) Lover, Come Back To Me; 15) Billie's Blues; 16) On The Sunny Side Of The Street.

It almost goes without saying that this here is the most important batch of tunes in Billie history (and a fantastic choice for a first-time introduction), and that the importance is mainly due to the presence of 'Strange Fruit'. It goes without further saying that, in order to fully appreciate the im­pact of the song, one would have to stick around in 1939, a time when it took real guts to perform this kind of material (and, indeed, Billie was genuinely afraid of singing it at first). But if the tune's direct shock impact has — thank God! — gradually dissipated over the years, this original recording has lost none of its original smoky mystique.

In fact, on a gut level I do not even associate it with the specific issue of Southern lynching (how could I, without ever learning the peculiarities of rural life racism?); all I know is that Billie is im­personating a sibyl here, drawing out the clumsy syllables in a state of trance, in a semi-dazed, se­mi-stoned manner, but still realizing, somewhere deep in the subconscious, that something impor­tant and devastating is coming out of her throat. Then, that final "bitter... crop!" escapes like the last agonizing wail of a brought down animal — a far cry from the pretty, but «conventional» coda flourishes she'd previously given the world within Columbia's walls.

It was indeed a song like no other, and, whatever one might say, it is a standout in her catalog that has no equals — not just because of a rare case of real social turbulence reflected in the lyrics, but also because she rose so admirably to the occasion. However, the brilliance of the song and the particular performance should not, by any means, obscure the brilliance — and importance — of the other 15 tunes on here: three recorded on the same session of April 20, 1939, and twelve more cut at several dates in March/April, 1944. Billie's collaboration with Commodore Records did not take long — first time simply because Columbia refused to accept 'Strange Fruit', second time in a brief interim between the lady's time on Columbia and Decca — but it turned over quite an im­portant page in her life.

Essentially, Columbia Records had Billie play a «significant bit part» in upbeat, stompy big-band entertainment, with loud brass, rousing tempos, and lots of soloing, in between which she would barely have time to throw in a verse or two. It was good, because the bands were good, but it cer­tainly did not offer the proper support for the talent. The tunes on Commodore, on the other hand, even if they did not always feature a significantly smaller number of players, are overall more quiet, relaxed, and give Billie more room to sing, meditate, and shine. Already on the first session, 'Strange Fruit' is augmented with 'Fine And Mellow', another one of Billie's «originals» — in ac­tu­ality, a generic urban blues set to new lyrics, but, considering how rarely Columbia let Billie en­gage in competition with Bessie Smith, it is telling that Commodore gave her this very chance on her very first outing with the label.

It is fun to engage in comparison here. For instance, the original Columbia recording of 'I'll Get By', with more than a minute of trumpet solos before Billie comes in — and an almost immediate entrance on the Commodore version, with very brief guitar and piano solos in the middle. The nearly rhythmless (next to the Columbia version), bass-less 'I Cover The Waterfront'. 'He's Funny That Way' recast as a dark, melancholic late-night piano ballad instead of a jolly, careless swing like it used to be. And so on — although at least half of the selections on this disc were all new, never recorded by Billie on any of her Columbia dates. ('How Am I To Know?', with its spine-tin­gling "Ohhh..." rhyming with the title, is a particular highlight).

What makes this short Commodore collection so uniquely valuable is that it represents this per­fect sort of crossroads that is likely to satisfy everyone. The Columbia recordings may seem too «gay», drowning Billie out in a swarm of swing entertainers. The Decca recordings may seem too sappy because of all the strings. The Verve period is where the lady started going hoarse. All of these «defects» may be easily overlooked, and, in fact, many people do not consider them defects at all. But these sixteen tracks, spearheaded by 'Strange Fruit', are pure, blameless perfection. Ku­dos to Milt Gabler for producing the stuff and showing Billie in the most suitable light anyone could ever suit to her. Thumbs up without further questions.

(PS: the review is based on the single-disc edition, but there is also The Complete Commodore Recordings, with multiple additional alternate takes spread over two CDs. Inescapable for the completist, but, given my acquaintance with The Complete Billie Holiday On Verve, must be a bit of an unnecessary overkill for the layman).

Check "The Commodore Master Takes" (CD) on Amazon
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Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Black Keys: The Big Come Up


1) Busted; 2) Do The Rump; 3) I'll Be Your Man; 4) Countdown; 5) The Breaks; 6) Run Me Down; 7) Leavin' Trunk; 8) Heavy Soul; 9) She Said, She Said; 10) Them Eyes; 11) Yearnin'; 12) Brooklyn Bound; 13) 240 Years Before Your Time.

Lots of people hate electric blues and blues-rock because it is... well, you know. Many of these same people, however, do not extend that hatred to the fathers of electric blues — hearing angry rants about the banality and lack of soul in the music of Eric Clapton or Robert Cray is one thing, but hearing people condemn Howlin' Wolf is quite a different story. And this does not have so much to do with political correctness as it has to do with the fact that blues-rock has, indeed, be­come a «safe institution» ever since it finally gained mainstream attention and respect. Inevitably, when a technically limited art form becomes a safe institution, this leads to boredom — and, even­tually, ridicule or even hatred.

Ever once in a while, though, somebody comes along with a fresh retro perspective: a burning de­sire to tear off this «sacralized», comfy gloss from blues-based music and try and make it sound devilish and disturbing, the way it used to be as late as the 1950s. Actually, it does not even hap­pen as often as we would expect. «Rough and tough» people generally drift towards more ener­getic forms of music (hardcore, metal, etc.), whereas the rootsy stuff falls in the hands of safe and cuddly people (John Mayer!). In this world, The Black Keys, consisting of singing guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney — and no one else! — are a curious exception, and that alone transforms them into one of the more notable figures of the last decade.

What we have here is a set of thirteen short songs, most of them featuring nothing but guitar and drums (not even bass!), and drawing heavily from the musical palette of Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker rather than any of their «more timid» and «academic» successors, be they black or white. The similarity is in the melodic side of the material (a few of the songs are covers, but most are originals written in the same vein), the careful «retro» selection of chords used, and the grizzled vocals of Auerbach, which certainly cannot compete with Chester Arthur Burnett, but try to follow the same «glass-cutting» pattern anyway.

The dissimilarity — in fact, the one thing that distinguishes The Big Come Up from a generic copycat venture — lies primarily in Auerbach's sound. Note for note, he may be rehashing the old playing styles of spooky black guitarists of the 1950s, but the guitar tones go way beyond that, drawing upon the influences of classic garage-rock, proto-punk, Hendrix, perhaps even early Sab­bath-style metal in places. Deep, fuzzy, crunchy, the works. We know this kind of sound already, but we have not yet heard it applied to this kind of material — had it been invented around 1955, even Muddy and Wolf would have thought it too far out to agree to sing to this sort of playing.

My ears have decided that the combination works perfectly. (Then again, I also refuse to refuse to listen to Clapton's solo career, so take my opinion for what it's worth — even though the Black Keys sound nothing like solo Clapton). Already the opening number, 'Busted', sounds like the Stooges covering 'Rolling And Tumbling', and if that is good, well, it does not get any worse from there — and, from a certain point of view, makes The White Stripes sound like a bunch of tame, home-schooled kids (in reality, both Jack White and Dan Auerbach share similar back­grounds, but Dan does a noticeably better job of conjuring the spirit of the wild).

Also, I should not be giving the impression that the entire album is so completely uniform in its approach. First, the retro-blues thing is done with plenty of attention to diversity. 'Busted' is sheer Delta blues gone Chicago blues gone garage, but there is also 'Countdown', with guitar licks re­cycled from Arthur Crudup and early Elvis circa 'That's All Right Mama' and 'Mystery Train'; and 'Heavy Soul' takes its cues from classic R'n'B stylistics.

Other tracks show the influence of «whiter» blues-rock outfits from the 1960s and 1970s: 'I'll Be Your Man', with its sound cleaned-up, could easily fit on any American roots-rock album recor­ded circa 1968, and some of the others would not feel out of place on Led Zep albums. In this set­ting, even the most unpredictable choice — a faithful guitar-and-drums cover of the Beatles' 'She Said She Said' — does not feel so tremendously out of place, even if it is out of place, the only «true» pop song of the whole bunch. But they do it in a fun sort of way.

Naturally, one should not expect any sort of genius songwriting here, even though 'The Breaks' features a hugely effective minimalistic shrill riff (and also qualifies as one of the most «moder­nis­tic» tunes on the album, with a brief hip-hop style intro), and the brief coda '240 Years Before Your Time' has some deliciously staged psychedelic guitar on it; with its mock-pompous intro­duction, announcing that Mr. World is going to be speaking to us in his own language, it is clear­ly a minimalist tribute (an homage, even) to Jimi, and a good one.

But it is hard to blame an artist for not achieving something he never intended to achieve. What The Black Keys did intend to achieve was to create a slightly different kind of sound using very sparse means, and in that, they succeeded: definitely not a mean feat for two simple guys in the beginning of the 21st century. Not to mention that it is only through these guys that many people might have heard about Muddy and Wolf in the first place — additional bonus for popularization (counteracted, though, by the necessity of dealing with potential YouTube commentators going «Howlin' Wolf? Who needs that prehistoric old crap when we now have Danny Auerbach?»). All in all, for this fuzzy-wuzzy lean-mean kind of sound these guys get going, they naturally deserve their thumbs up.

Check "The Big Come Up" (CD) on Amazon
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