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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Amon Düül: Disaster


AMON DÜÜL: DISASTER (1972)

1) Drum Things (Erschlagzeugtes); 2) Asynchron (Verjault Und Zugeredet); 3) Yea Yea Yea (Zerbeatelt); 4) Broken (Ofensivitäten); 5) Somnium (Trauma); 6) Frequency (Entzwei); 7) Autonomes (Entdrei); 8) Chaoticolour (Entsext); 9) Expressionidiom (Kapuntterbunt); 10) Altitude (Quäär Feld Aus); 11) Impropulsion (Noch'n Lied).

If they intentionally gave this album that kind of name to avert disaster — for instance, to have all of us blush and say, «oh come on, don't be so hard on yourselves, it's not that bad, really!»... — well, it is that bad. No need to underplay the badness. After the cute, if ultimately unsuccessful, attempt at actual music-making on the previous album, Amon Düül are back to basics: once again scraping out the barrel of the big 1969 jam session. And now, God help us, they have scra­ped out enough to fill out a double album of material.

What separates the real Disaster from a forgivable curiosity like Psychedelic Underground is that these, really truly, are dregs. Most of the tracks are, as usual, centered around drums, except that this time, there is little of anything other than drums (about one or two chords worth in gui­tar strum and some occasional howling notwithstanding), and it all sounds like a bunch of sound­checks — warming up for the real thing. Everything is taken at the same tempo, most of the pat­terns are exactly the same, and the individuality of each of the tracks basically just depends on how many drummers there are and on which particular single string the guitar or the bass player would pluck or strum in the event of a common cosmic current picking him up and carrying him along with the drummer(s).

Essentially, this is Metal Machine Music, but without the pizzazz — Lou Reed, at least, produ­ced his «anti-masterpiece» as a well-targeted fuck-you-all, whereas Disaster doesn't even have the proper sonic punch to offend anybody exactly as the doctor prescribed. Psychedelic Under­ground was the sacrificial ritual; this is rehearsal material for the sacrificial ritual. You interested in listening to the witch doctor getting it on in­side his hut, half an hour before they drag the sacrificial victims in the center of the village square? If yes, Disaster awaits you, all the sixty seven minutes of thumping and pumping. Thumbs down.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Beach Boys: Summer Days (And Summer Nights)


THE BEACH BOYS: SUMMER DAYS (AND SUMMER NIGHTS) (1965)

1) The Girl From New York City; 2) Amusements Park USA; 3) Then I Kissed Her; 4) Salt Lake City; 5) Girl Don't Tell Me; 6) Help Me, Rhonda; 7) California Girls; 8) Let Him Run Wild; 9) You're So Good To Me; 10) Summer Means New Love; 11) I'm Bugged At My Old Man; 12) And Your Dream Comes True.

History has marked Summer Days as a slight fall-off from Brian's unprecedented mountain­eer­ing record — an involuntary concession to pressure on the part of both Capitol Records and Mr. Mike Love, so that the band's loyal fan guard suffer not the painful deprivation of the good old surf / girls / cars saccharose intake. And nothing is going to change that history, because it seems to have been objectively true: Summer Days was rather hastily put together by Brian to assuage his worried pals, just as Pet Sounds were already flooding his brains.

That said, for a «marking-time album» this one is remarkably filler-free — so much so that, in a way, it would be possible to imagine Summer Days/Pet Sounds as a joint double LP, twice the length of Today! but sharing the same structure: one half dynamic, upbeat, and commercial, one half slow, introspective, and experimental, yet in such a way that both halves are clearly the pro­duct of a single mastermind conscience. (Even bearing in mind that the former half still showed some signs of collective output, whereas Pet Sounds is 100% Brian).

Yes, there are a few saddening throwbacks. For instance, the instrumental composition 'Summer Means New Love' is technically pleasant, but essentially sounds like generic early Sixties soundtrack muzak (à la 'Ringo's Theme' off Hard Day's Night, except the melody is nowhere near as captivating as 'This Boy'). Worst of the lot, a serious blemish on the album's re­putation, is 'Amusement Parks USA', a carnivalesque romp dominated by artificially cheery lyrics and vocals from Mike, festival barkers and what-not, a tune whose closest match in style would be some­thing like 'County Fair' off Surfin' Safari — and that was three years ago, when the band was just starting out and its lack of expertise, professionalism, and taste could still be excused. In mid-1965, there was no more excuse. Every time I hear that frantic laughter in the background, I have to turn the volume down — if anybody catches me listening to this over the Brandenburg Concertos, my reputation is gone forever.

The expertise, however, breaks through on 'Salt Lake City', which must have been intended as yet another silly-sounding, life-asserting anthem to the pleasures of American life (through a Mor­mon perspective, no less, although, judging by the lyrics, Mike Love might have been totally un­aware of that obvious association, being far more interested in the sensual pleasures that the lo­cation offered). But midway through, an entirely different sax-and-keyboards section cuts in, with complex interweaving patterns, and becomes the focal point of the song — so good that the melo­dy would stick in the band's subconscious and eventually be rewritten as 'Do It Again'.

And when the collective spirit is not that strongly dominated by the «surf-o-rama» (meant figu­ratively, of course; technically, there are no surf songs here at all, in spite of the tempting album sleeve), we simply get pop classic after pop classic. 'Help Me, Rhonda' is here again, in a heavily revised version that adds more melodic overdubs, more complex vocal layers, and a more inven­tive build-up in the solo section. Phil Spector and the Crystals' 'Then He Kissed Me', with the gen­der roles wisely reversed, is not a huge improvement over the original, but is exactly what one would expect of a Beach Boys' reversal of a fabulous girl group hit song.

The magnum opus of the record has always been recognized as 'California Girls': easy-going cat­chy pop lovers adore it because, well, it would be fairly hard to find a catchier pop song in exis­tence, while artsy-minded types love to concentrate on the song's small «symphonic» opening, simple in melody but, sound-wise, completely identical to the instrumental style of Pet Sounds ('Wouldn't It Be Nice' would soon be introduced in a very similar way). Me, I like the tempo of the song — before that, somehow, the band would generally favor either fast pop-rockers or slow ballads, but here we roll along on a steady midtempo that somehow gives the song a statelier cha­racter than all those other early anthems to the Californian lifestyle. It is really a perfect culmina­tion, and a fitting conclusion, to the band's career as troubadours of teen-centered West Coast va­lues, which they would never again return to in a fully convincing, «authentic» manner.

On the other hand, the magnificence of 'California Girls' sometimes obscures the fact that its im­mediate follow-up on the album, 'Let Him Run Wild', is also one of the greatest achievements of Brian Wilson's career. It isn't just a ballad, it's a little bit of an über-romantic thunderstorm that, for the first time on a Beach Boys album, almost threatens to break out from under control and turn into emotional chaos — even if it's only an illusion, since, at that time, Brian was still in full control of his senses and instincts. And that nervous beginning, when Brian's high-pitched vocals break the wall of the near-psychedelic keyboards, is every bit as good as the famous start to 'Good Vibrations'. Don't you go forgetting this little masterpiece.

Almost everything else on the album also ranges from interesting to excellent. Beatlesque influ­ences crop up on 'Girl Don't Tell Me', one of Carl Wilson's first lead vocals over a refrain that, admittedly, was influenced by 'Ticket To Ride' (although the lyrics treat their female subject with far less reverence than John Lennon reserved for his female protagonist); overall, however, the two songs are entirely different. And 'You're So Good To Me', with a non-falsetto lead from Bri­an, also sounds a little Mersey-beat-ish to my ears, or, perhaps, even reminiscent of the style of the Hollies — in any case, more British in stylistics than American.

Of note is the near-complete lack of transparent filler, and the complete lack of goofy material ('Our Favorite Recording Sessions' etc.), unless one wants to count 'I'm Bugged At My Ol' Man' as a bit of goofiness. The tune, a sort of mock-comical musical swipe that Brian took at his father (hyperbolically exaggerated enough so that a «c'mon, Dad, it's not really about you» would al­ways be in order), is made to sound like a rough demo, with just Brian at the piano and the rest of the band surrounding him like a barbershop quartet — in a way, presaging similar rough-cut mu­sical skeletons that he would accumulate twelve years later for Love You. It is so completely out of place here, though, that, for the first time ever, we get to sense Brian's own bits of mental in­sta­bility: a person more or less at peace with himself could hardly be expected to put this kind of stuff on the same album with 'California Girls'.

To summarize, Summer Days is, in general, a bit of a retread indeed, but, taking one big step backwards, the band still manages to make a few intriguing short steps forward at the same time. And it is the last we will ever see of these early, smiling, still beardless, still having-fun-in-the-sun Beach Boys — before the towering ambitions of their leading genius, the relentless marching on of time, the personal troubles and turmoils, drugs, disfunctions, depressions, derision, Charles Manson, and whatever other avatar of chaos came along, took over and wiped that smile off the band's collective face, never to return again, unless in a very forced and unnatural state. Thumbs up, album — thumbs down, loss of youthful innocence.


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Monday, August 29, 2011

Bill Haley: Rock'n'Roll Stage Show


BILL HALEY: ROCK'N'ROLL STAGE SHOW (1956)

1) Calling All Comets; 2) Rockin' Thru The Rye; 3) A Rockin' Little Tune; 4) Hide And Seek; 5) Hey Then, There Now; 6) Goofin' Around; 7) Hook, Line And Sinker; 8) Rudy's Rock; 9) Choo Choo Ch'Boogie; 10) Blue Comet Blues; 11) Hot Dog Buddy Buddy; 12) Tonight's The Night.

This one puts together a few more singles, but also adds some LP-only tracks, a first for Bill. In addition, to reflect the burgeoning democratic spirit, the emphasis is more on The Comets than on Bill Haley. A few of the numbers are complete instrumentals, and plenty of lead vocal time is gi­ven to guitarists Franny Beecher and Billy Williamson, so that Bill himself only handles the lead on four numbers in toto.

Of these, 'Rockin' Thru The Rye' is the obvious highlight, not least because it is the first attempt to adapt a classic old bit of poetry to the newly emerged rockabilly genre — Robert Burns' 'Co­min' Thro' The Rye' is given an unexpected twist, but, since the latter had originally been written in the style of a party folk tune, it would make perfect sense to adapt it to contemporary folk va­lues, and the band does fine, placing another early rockabilly classic under their belt.

Some of the new tunes sound a little silly and hoedown-ish (even in 1956, it would be a little dis­tasteful to start a song called 'A Rockin' Little Tune' with the sound of an accordeon, no matter how well played). But in general, the instrumentals are fine. Rudy Pompilli's sax has rarely ven­tured on a wilder spree than on 'Calling All Comets', and it sounds particularly delicious when punctuated by wild-west-style twang-twangs from Beecher's guitar. Beecher himself gets to rip it up on 'Goofin' Around', playing sped-up jazzy licks like a maniac schoolboy (presaging a similar, if much more progressive, attitude from Ten Years After's Alvin Lee), and on 'Blue Comet Blues', one of those compositions that lies at the foundations of «blues rock» as a genre, even if no one would probably remember this, what with «blues rock» always being associated with the likes of John Mayall and Canned Heat.

Overall, this LP does not pack nearly as much punch as its predecessor — mostly due to the fact of already incorporating bits of the «early LP spirit», which presupposed and demanded a certain amount of filler — but the material shows that the band was still moving forward, all excited about these new sonic perspectives and dying to try out different approaches, even if not all of them seemed to work. Still an essential listen for anyone who takes 1950s pop music seriously — thumbs up without a single doubt.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Badly Drawn Boy: One Plus One Is One


BADLY DRAWN BOY: ONE PLUS ONE IS ONE (2004)

1) One Plus One Is One; 2) Easy Love; 3) Summertime In Wintertime; 4) This Is That New Song; 5) Another Devil Dies; 6) The Blossoms; 7) Year Of The Rat; 8) Four Leaf Clover; 9) Fewer Words; 10) Logic Of A Friend; 11) Stockport; 12) Life Turned Upside Down; 13) Takes The Glory; 14) Holy Grail; 15*) Don't Ask Me, I'm Only The President; 16*) Plan B.

Perhaps one of the problems with listening to Gough's increasingly frustrating output is that Bad­ly Drawn Boy himself seems to have taken in too many musical influences. He is not the sum of all of these parts; he is their collector, and once he gets all of them together in one circle and punches a hole in the middle, he has too little energy left to properly inseminate the hole, if you know what I mean.

Take the title track. As the simple guitar chords and heart-on-sleeve vocals roll on out, it becomes clear that the man is chasing a John Lennon vibe — something simple, punchy, honest, naïve, an­themic, inspirational. As pianos, chimes, drums, strings, and brass progressively join the picture, and Damon begs us to «give me some peace» (John used to ask for some truth instead, but it's easy to go from one to another without changing one's life philosophy), one could hope for a bu­cket of tears, but... no click. Nothing. An empty stylization that does not work; to my ears and mind, the clever arrangement is just completely wasted.

Another case — 'Summertime In Wintertime', with a hard rock groove and wild flute solos that openly remind of Jethro Tull. Why? The main melody is rather dull, plain pop, and I do not get the idea why, in the composer's mind, it had to be sewn together with a well-done, but pointless imitation of Ian Anderson's madness. I could go on further and say, for instance, that 'Four Leaf Clover' sounds exactly like one of those bad late period Ray Davies songs that may sound all cud­dly and friendly, but can never be memorized, because it really has nothing but style to it. Or... but you get where I'm going already.

It is sad, because One Plus One actually moves away from the mistakes of Have You Fed The Fish?: it is generally more quiet, relying once again on chamber-pop rather than large-scale arra­ngements. But something has been lost in transition, and that «something» is the ability to come up with charming hooks, which were still in abundance on About A Boy, but have been since then sacrificed for these bits of musical chameleonism — that may touch and impress someone, but I won't lie to you: I was bored stiff throughout, several times over.

Amazingly, the one song that did stick with me was 'Year Of The Rat', and it was the one big piece of bombast on the album, mainly due to the anthemic chorus, on which Damon is joined by a children's choir (sometimes the choir is left on its own, as if this were a tribute to John and Yo­ko's 'Happy Xmas'... okay, I'll shut up now). It's silly, it's stupid, it's derivative, it's overblown, and it wasn't even anywhere close to the true year of the Rat in 2004. But the chorus still packs an optimistic spirit that feels like an optimistic spirit. Same goes for the eight-minute epic closer 'Holy Grail', which is silly, overblown, and also overlong and repetitive, and features the brilliant line "you forgot you've got oxygen running through your veins" (the natural question here is not «what makes you think so?», but rather «so frickin' what?»). But there is something there in its grand idealism that at least makes you want to take note. And it's got a cool speed-up thing to­wards the end, as if it were paying homage to 'You Can't Always Get What You Want'... high time somebody stopped me from this already.

Anyway, in a nutshell: I don't like most of these songs, and it may have something to do with the fact that Gough thought too much of others here, and not enough of himself. His so-so streak would not, however, be over with this record, so perhaps it was just one prolonged case of bad writer's block — except writer's block usually prevents one from coming up with anything, and here we have our out-of-steam God of Chamber-Pop disregard that and let us all see the contents of his Chamber-Pot. (As rude as it may sound, I feel entitled to it after all the hours I wasted try­ing to penetrate the hidden beauty — but try as I might, I just cannot force myself to come to terms with the statement that one plus one really is one). Thumbs down.


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Saturday, August 27, 2011

Amorphis: Am Universum


AMORPHIS: AM UNIVERSUM (2001)

1) Alone; 2) Goddess (Of The Sad Man); 3) The Night Is Over; 4) Shatters Within; 5) Crimson Wave; 6) Drifting Memories; 7) Forever More; 8) Veil Of Sin; 9) Captured State; 10) Grieve Stricken Heart.

Not only is this no longer «death metal», it is no longer «metal» at all, period. The new sound de­veloped on Tuonela stuck, and Am Universum adopts it for almost all of its tunes. Gone comp­letely are the death metal vocals, along with those deep hewn, pitch black riffs that could some­times challenge Tony Iommi, replaced throughout with Koskinen's sharp-edged singing and rif­fage that mixes New Wave-style echo-based phrasing with the alt-rock drone. And that's how it is, song after song after song.

Two things save Am Universum from sucking. First, although the guitar tones are extremely si­milar, the band varies the arrangements by bringing in saxophones (contributed by Sakari Kukko on about half of the tracks), diverse types of keyboards (the keyboardist spot is once again occu­pied by a new arrival, Santeri Kallio), and even a musical saw on one of the songs. Repeated lis­tens bring out these nuances fair well enough.

Second, the progressive melodies are still okay. Somehow, almost without noticing, as the band progressed from growling to singing, they became quite good at writing catchy vocal parts. Try to deconstruct the sonic layers of 'Alone', and behind all the roar lies a fairly decent prog-pop song with dark overtones (well, the day Amorphis start writing songs with light overtones is probably the day they start growing bananas in Finland). So it may begin a bit too uncomfortably close to Pink Floyd's 'Run Like Hell', but then it meets up with the heavy guitars and with the power cho­rus and with the psychedelic guitar solo and... well, it's not really as dull as the first paragraph of this review could possibly hint.

I am also a big fan of 'The Night Is Over', where it is not even clear which of the two is more res­ponsible for the song's deadly snarl — the overdriven wah-wah guitars or the apocalyptic organ. The heart-crushing shifts between the more «romantic» middle eights, replete with dreamy slide guitars and stuff, and the crashing power chords of the main verse/chorus melody have a char­ming retro spirit to them, as in several guys getting together and deciding to simply put out a good old art-rock song in the old, time-tested way. Cute!

Now that I keep relistening to bits and pieces of this for the sake of nurturing extra ideas, I keep liking the songs more and more, almost to my amazement, considering how much I normally de­test generic alt-rock lashing, of which there is so much on this album. It's just that every song has tons of layers in it. So I never paid any attention to 'Captured State' first or second time around — just seemed like a so-so mid-tempo piece of rock ballast to me. But in reality, even at its most deafening, the song has at least one or two extra melodic lead parts tucked away in the speakers. And the keyboard accompaniment is a Hammond organ (or something), so far removed from the usual cold-blooded synthesizers. And it is still easily the weakest, or one of the weakest, contri­butions on the entire album.

I just like this groove the band has developed — it does not work wonders for catchy melodies, but it's perfectly adequate, and the album grows and grows in stature with each new listen. Oh, and its subject themes? Uh, lost love, loved loss, failed memories, memorized failures, whatever. It's dark, but too melodic and dynamic to be significantly depressing. Angry, wrathful, epic, ro­mantic, but never foolish enough to pester you with its overbearingly fake emotions. Good stuff — a step down from Tuonela, perhaps, but with so much experience and success behind their backs, Amorphis could allow themselves plenty of steps down before hitting dirt.


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