Search This Blog

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Andrew Lloyd Webber: Jesus Christ Superstar (Original Movie Soundtrack)


1) Overture; 2) Heaven On Their Minds; 3) What's The Buzz; 4) Strange Thing Mystifying; 5) Then We Are Decided; 6) Everything's Alright; 7) This Jesus Must Die; 8) Hosanna; 9) Simon Zealotes; 10) Poor Jerusalem; 11) Pilate's Dream; 12) The Temple; 13) I Don't Know How To Love Him; 14) Damned For All Time/Blood Money; 15) The Last Supper; 16) Gethsemane (I Only Want To Say); 17) The Arrest; 18) Peter's Denial; 19) Pilate And Christ; 20) King Herod's Song; 21) Could We Start Again; 22) Judas's Death; 23) Trial Before Pilate (including The 39 Lashes); 24) Superstar; 25) Cru­ci­fi­xi­on; 26) John Nineteen Forty-One.

By the time Norman Jewison got around to filming JCS for the big screen, it had already evolved from its early beginnings as a Decca «concept album» into a lavish musical, staged in London, on Broadway, and beginning to be exported to other locations as well. With several years of fleshing out the structure, arrangements, and performances, it is no wonder that the 1973 version sounds like a more «complete» experience than the 1970 original, even if this should not be forcing fans of Ian Gillan, Murray Head, and Joe Cocker's Grease Band to immediately switch their loyalties.

My own loyalties, though, have firmly stayed on the side of the movie soundtrack all through the years. Which is a bit comical, since I was never a huge fan of the movie itself. Like so many other rock-based movies of the 1970s (remember Ken Russell?), it leaned a bit too heavily on the kitsch side, and ended up dated and ridiculous in quite a few aspects. I do not actually mind some of the anachronisms — arming the Romans with Uzis and setting the Jewish priests up on scaffolds ad­ded a fun element, and the scene of Judas running away from rolling tanks kind of sticks in your memory, like it or not — but the «glam» elements of contemporary culture, scattered all over the place, are as out of place today as they used to be then. It is true that Rice's lyrics are replete with references to contemporary pop culture (referring to Jesus as «top of the poll» or asking «did you know your death would be a record breaker?» is certainly not the way a more clerically-minded person would address the same issues) — but I still believe that is exactly where it all should have stopped, because now, instead of watching what could easily have been one of the finest JC-mo­vies of all time, we are forced to watch a movie about Afros, R&B dancing, hippie clothes and hairstyles and lots of other stuff that, in the end, narrow the range and scope of JCS instead of attempting to broaden it.

Which is all the more pitiful considering just how perfect the assembled cast is. Of the original UK cast, only Yvonne Elliman as Mary and Barry Dennen as Pilate reprise their parts — for very good reason, and, in fact, this particular stab of Dennen's at the Pilate role easily trumps his first take: now he is a very smug, self-confident, even a little bit tricksterish Pilate that finally falls vic­tim to a shattering nervous breakdown. Bob Bingham's deep bass makes a Caiaphas to die for; Josh Mostel may be overacting the buffoonery King Herod part a little bit when compared to Mike d'Abo's more restrained performance, but I would say that, out of all the parts, this is one part that does not suffer too much from overacting.

Then there is the magnificent Carl Anderson as Judas; predictably, there was a bit of fuss about a black member of the cast playing the greatest antagonist in history — but even if we are stupid enough to accept the «racist» argument in the first place, let us remind ourselves that the Judas of JCS was never intended to be portrayed as «evil» or, in any way, a «malicious» person. And Carl succeeds in showing his inner torment far better than Murray Head — by playing out the role with noticeably more passion, aggression, and versatility.

Finally, the completely unknown Ted Neeley — together with Carl, both were understudies in the original Broadway version, and got the movie part through sheer luck — will always be the ideal Jesus for me. His voice is more thin and frail than Gillan's, which suits the character quite well, yet he is still able to raise it to a shrill scream when necessary (on ʽGethsemaneʼ, for instance), and he conveys the «sad little man» aspect of Jesus with great skill and subtlety. Nor do his arias sound rushed any more — ʽPoor Jerusalemʼ is now taken at just the right tempo that gives Ted plenty of time to hit each syllable as hard as is required for a prophetic passage.

It is interesting that the performances in the movie differ quite sharply from bits and pieces of the original Broadway stage version that I have heard, even though the cast, apart from the two major players, remains very much the same — apparently, the motto for the movie must have been «less theater, more realism», so that, even despite all the fads and trappings, the movie, and the movie soundtrack frequently produces a skin-crawling effect. The singing is in no way dominated by the kind of crap I personally hate about Broadway musicals: each performer makes his/her best to make every line come alive. When Pilate and Christ engage in their rapid-fire verbal duel in the intense ʽTrialʼ passage, they are talking, like two emotion-bound human beings — and, at the same time, singing on key. No matter how many times I listen to these performances, I still can't help feeling amazed at how startingly effective they pull off almost every line.

And yes, this time around the show looks definitely completed. The extra Annas/Caiaphas dia­log on ʽThen We Are Decidedʼ, early on in the show, is a delicious dark taster of grim things to come. The fanfaric ʽHosannaʼ is extended with one extra verse ("sing out for yourselves, for you are blessed") which is actually very important — it is the only place throughout the whole opera where Jesus, for once, sounds happy, surrounded by his admirers. The Mary/Peter duet on ʽCould We Start Againʼ adds an original and interesting lyrical twist from Rice and is a great emotional «tender breather» in between all the rough post-Gethsemane stuff. The extra verse and bridge in ʽTrial Be­fore Pilateʼ gives us more time — and suspense! — to prepare for the tension of ʽThe 39 Lashesʼ. At the same time, a few unnecessary bits have been trimmed — such as the ultra-long repeti­tive coda to ʽEverything's Alrightʼ — so that, in the end, the running length is just about the same as on the original, but the final album makes much better use of all that time.

In short, while I am always happy to have the Gillan/Head version around, it is the Neeley/An­derson version, I hope, that will stand the test of time as the ultimate JCS version. Granted, I should add here that I know almost nothing of the subsequent castings, which have been nume­rous and possibly successful; but, to be perfectly honest, I don't think I even want to know, be­cause I honestly have no idea how anyone, anywhere, anyhow could ever improve on this inter­pretation. (I once caught a glimpse of some bits of the 2000 filmed version, with Glenn Carter as Jesus — just a glimpse, since I had to shut it off very quickly, fearing for the safety of my sto­mach: the pomp, pathos, overacting, and oversinging seemed to personify everything that I could ever abhor about these kinds of staging. Unsurprisingly, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber proclaimed this his personal favourite of all interpretations).

And yes, the movie deserves to be seen — we should probably just learn to disregard its dated as­pects and concentrate on the performances, because visually, the actors fully match the emotions that we feel from their singing. And it actually does work as a movie about Jesus Christ — much better so, at least, than Mel Gibson's sadistic Christploitation flick; not to mention that Jewison faithfully preserves the ambiguity of the opera, and we never get to know «the truth». (We do see, symbolically, an empty cross at the end — yet we are never told how exactly it got empty, and, to be precise, Jesus was resurrected from the tomb, not from the cross). On the other hand, the «movie soundtrack» certainly needs no visuals to be appreciated as a great, thoroughly inspired and magnificently arranged and recorded piece of work. Thumbs up a-plenty.

Check "Jesus Christ Superstar: Soundtrack" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Jesus Christ Superstar: Soundtrack" (MP3) on Amazon

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Beach Boys: Good Timin' - Live At Knebworth 1980


1) Intro; 2) California Girls; 3) Sloop John B; 4) Darlin'; 5) School Days; 6) God Only Knows; 7) Be True To Your School; 8) Do It Again; 9) Little Deuce Coupe; 10) Cotton Fields/Heroes And Villains; 11) Happy Birthday Brian; 12) Keepin' The Summer Alive; 13) Lady Lynda; 14) Surfer Girl; 15) Help Me, Rhonda; 16) Rock And Roll Music; 17) I Get Around; 18) Surfin' USA; 19) You're So Beautiful; 20) Good Vibrations; 21) Barbara Ann; 22) Fun, Fun, Fun.

Twenty years after the fact, it was decided to finally let the Beach Boys' 1980 performance from Knebworth reach the hearts and minds of fans through official financial channels, and it was rele­ased both on CD and DVD, for the world to enjoy the middle-aged band in all of its heavily bear­ded glory. By all means, though, this is a historical performance, with all the original six mem­bers of the band for the last time standing together on a British stage. (They would do some more US shows, though, in between this one and Dennis' drowning three years later).

Of all the officially released Beach Boy live albums this one is predictably and expectedly the worst; but even at their worst, the Beach Boys never failed reminding the world what a spectacu­lar backlog they possessed, and what sort of a superhuman craft they had developed to deliver it live — even at a time when, deep down inside, even Mike Love must have already understood that the world was regarding them as little more than a cute nostalgic plaything. Not that you'd tell it from the audience's reactions — the cheering is quite heartfelt and spontaneous, to the ex­tent that everybody seems quite content to join in a happy birthday wish for Brian. But chalk it up to the magic of the songs, whose power had outlived the personal charm and sex appeal of the band. (Well, I'm pretty sure there were still some people falling for Mike's Hawaiian shirts even as late as 1980, but they probably do not read my reviews, so I'm quite safe insulting them).

By 1980, the band's setlist mainly consisted of evergreens from 1963-67, with a few «highlights» from their most recent albums thrown in, to try and lure the listeners into raising sales. Conside­ring, however, just how «terrific» recent efforts like ʽKeepin' The Summer Aliveʼ and even the much less annoying ʽLady Lyndaʼ sound when they are wedged in between ʽHeroes And Villainsʼ and ʽSurfer Girlʼ, I do not think they had all that much of a chance here (at least they do not get booed after three minutes of retro-moronic duh-duh-duh-ing on ʽSummerʼ, which is the best they could possibly expect).

But the evergreens are delivered well enough: even Dennis, with all his troubles and wreckings, seems to be in hot search of energy, and smashes and crashes all over the place just as he used to in the good old days, with a limited sense of rhythm, perhaps, but a sincere desire to pump as much energy into brother Brian's melodies as possible. Brother Brian himself mostly serves as a mascot here, sitting well-hidden behind a keyboard that he hardly really plays, and each time he takes a lead vocal part is considered so special that Mike feels it his chivalrous obligation to draw our attention — "Ladies and gentlemen, Brian Wilson!" Throw in the happy birthday chant, and a special thank-you-thank-you-Brian delivered once or twice for the «man who wrote all this beau­tiful music», and the feeling of a mummified deity installed in the temple is complete.

That said, there is no evidence to suggest that Brian himself did not feel positive emotions from what was going on — playing live, for him, was supposed to be part of the healing process, even if he was being used in the process. And the actual leads that he takes on ʽSloop John Bʼ and the bridge section of ʽSurfer Girlʼ are sung at his broken-voice-best; I think he actually flubs fewer notes during this show than Al Jardine, who has developed a strange penchant for straying away from the melody (most notable on ʽHeroes And Villainsʼ) — not quite in the Mick Jagger manner, of course, but still rather unpleasant for a band where tightness is always the key.

Curious odds-and-ends would involve a drastically and solemnly slowed down take on the «sym­phonic» introduction to ʽCalifornia Girlsʼ; the unearthing of ʽBe True To Your Schoolʼ sung with the good old teen verve — very strange-sounding, coming from a bunch of guys who should, by then, be teachers rather than students; a barroom-oriented rearrangement of ʽDo It Againʼ that does not work very well with the accent shifted from vocal harmonies to hard-rock overtones; ʽHe­roes And Villainsʼ squashed into a medley with ʽCotton Fieldsʼ, even if the only thing that joins them together is that ephemeral «Americana» feeling; and a Dennis solo spotlight with ʽYou Are So Beautifulʼ, a song he originally co-wrote with Billy Preston and then performed frequent­ly until his death — easily one of the most spontaneous and heartfelt bits of the show.

Other than that, Good Timin' is strictly for the collector — although it does its best to fill in a certain gap in Beach Boy history, since the «Brian is back» period was, until 2002, the only peri­od left unrepresented by an official live recording. And, from a certain point of view, it is now the best of all the «Brian is back» period albums, by definition: the only reason why the Beach Boys were able to carry on and preserve a shred of respect at that time were their live performances. A bit rusty over here, a bit wobbly out there, but still saving the day. Thumbs up.

Check "Good Timin: Live at Knebworth 1980" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Good Timin: Live At Knebworth England 1980" (MP3) on Amazon

Monday, February 27, 2012

Billie Holiday: Lady In Satin


1) I'm A Fool To Want You; 2) For Heaven's Sake; 3) You Don't Know What Love Is; 4) I Get Along Without You Very Well; 5) For All We Know; 6) Violets For Your Furs; 7) You've Changed; 8) It's Easy To Remember; 9) But Beautiful; 10) Glad To Be Unhappy; 11) I'll Be Around; 12) The End Of A Love Affair.

It is a little ironic that Billie's final completed record was recorded for the very same label that hosted her original recordings — by early 1958, she was out of Verve and back on Columbia. Of course, by that time it was already impossible for Columbia to present her the same way they did in the 1930s, that is, lightweight jazz entertainment with a pinch of intelligence and a shot of indi­viduality — Billie was so frail already that trying to rev her up would, at worst, have killed her, at best, have made her sound utterly ridiculous.

Instead, to celebrate this new re-beginning and try out something different, the entire album was recorded with strings — a full orchestra conducted by Ray Ellis. This was not the first time Bil­lie was being backed that way: most of her Decca sessions included lush strings. But, odd enough, this seems to be her most well-known recording on which she has orchestral support — either be­cause it happened to be her last record, or, maybe, because her voice was so thin and crackling, it's almost as if the orchestra were shining through it all the time. On her Decca records, the vio­lins tend to stay in the background; here, Ray Ellis dominates the proceedings at least as much as the lady herself, perhaps more.

Lush orchestral backing was quite en vogue at the time for jazz singers and crooners (e. g. on El­la's Songbooks), and Billie herself never specifically preferred small combos to big bands — in fact, she seems to have had the time, before her death, to acknowledge Lady In Satin as her per­sonal favorite. The arrangements themselves will probably fail to please those who are allergic to syrup: going very heavy on strings and very light on brass, adding a moody (if not to say «ghost­ly») background choir for most of the songs, conventional, predictable, and completely undis­tin­gui­shable from each other. So will the songs — just a bunch of additional stuff from the Song­book, all of them new for Billie but still feeling as if she'd already sung them all before. Nothing too bluesy, nothing too jazzy, nothing too fast, almost everything lethargically slow. No high­lights, no lowlights. In fact, why bother at all?

Well, for one thing, the whole album sounds like a testament. She was not explicitly dying yet (still had more than a year to go), but it is clear that all of the systems were failing, and this phy­sical deterioration and pain somehow got... not «reflected» in the performance, but rather «con­verted» into the performance, if you can follow the difference. Her voice occasionally quivers as if in silent tears, but these are neither «real» tears nor «fake» tears, rather like a slightly mannered, theatrical take on suffering delivered by a genuinely suffering person. If this does not suffice to describe her performance, let me just state that the performance is simply unique — except it has to be listened to very closely (one or two songs at a time may be enough; there is no need to sit through the entire session if you do not feel like it), and your mind has to set the orchestra back a few feet to suck in all the pain. Pain, pain, pain. The Songbook was never really intended for that kind of pain — it's a wonder the whole thing worked in the end.

Note, though, that weak or strong, Billie never ever lost her knack at phrasing, her ability to place her own accents within each performance. This is why her voice, even at its crackliest and feeb­lest, still stands the test; complaints about her lack of singing power in these late years are useless, since, at this point, it was her weakness itself that gave her extra power, the kind of which she could never have twenty years earlier. It is a power to conjure pity, but «pity» as some sort of noble emotion, rather than just the gut feeling you get when bypassing a legless hobo. If it were the latter, we would just «pity» the lady — «oh God, she must have been in some real deep shit back then» — and forget Lady In Satin in favor of her earlier records (even the late-period Verve sessions sound like Ode To Joy in comparison to this). But there is this deep, weird attrac­tive force here that elevates the record to genuine tragic status; and this, in a sense, almost makes Lady In Satin the most important album in her career — despite its numerous flaws, or, rather, due to these flaws.

Never make the mistake of making this your introduction to Billie (some of the «best-of» jazz lists I have seen were stupid enough to make it «the obligatory B. H. inclusion» instead of the much more diagnostic Commodore sessions), but never make the mistake of bypassing it, either, if you care at all about the reflection of pain in art. At a certain point, if you get into it pretty deep, Lady In Satin is almost terrifying. But there is probably no need to wind it up to that effect; Bil­lie herself, always the icon of restraint and elegance, would probably not want us to judge it that way. She probably wouldn't say no to a simple thumbs up, though.

Check "Lady In Satin" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Lady In Satin" (MP3) on Amazon

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Black Lips: Arabia Mountain


1) Family Tree; 2) Modern Art; 3) Spidey's Curse; 4) Mad Dog; 5) Mr. Driver; 6) Bicentennial Man; 7) Go Out And Get It; 8) Raw Meat; 9) Bone Marrow; 10) The Lie; 11) Time; 12) Dumpster Dive; 13) New Direction; 14) Noc-A-Homa; 15) Don't Mess My Baby; 16) You Keep On Running.

Thank you, Mark Ronson, for helping to steer these guys away from lo-fi. On their last three stu­dio albums, the Lips seem to have been wobbling back and forth, but Arabia Mountain is their cleanest-sounding record yet, and something tells me that, by this time, there is no going back. Especially since the result is one of their strongest efforts, second only to Good Bad Not Evil, and even then, just because it does not have as many sharply high points — but overall, it may actually be more consistent in terms of songwriting.

Songwriting and diversity, to be precise: the Lips now feel strong enough to tackle as many dif­ferent styles as they can technically afford, with the only condition being that the styles all be sufficiently retro. Brutal aggressive garage, riff-based power-pop, Ramonesy punk, proto-Goth spookdom, drunken folk dances, guitar jangle, a bit of twist, a bit of glam — well, nothing too distant from the parts of each other, but different enough to give each song its own little face. And it's all CLEAN! You actually get to hear and enjoy the riffs, the brass lines, the vocal hooks — without having to pick out the miles of sludge, for no other reason than a hollow pretense at «authenticity» that this band's idols, fourty years ago, would have considered unprofessional.

Okay, so the songs are not very good, as usual: once a mediocre songwriter, always a mediocre songwriter unless your name is George Harrison and your best buds are a pair of you-know-whos. But they are amusing, curious, involving, and just plain nice to hear, even if most of them are still devoid of significance. ʽFamily Treeʼ, opening the album, is a case in point: fast, fun pop-rock à la early Merseybeat bands with a bit of noise and distortion thrown in — and all for the sake of backing up a chorus that they must have found verbally innovative ("Can I take you out, out to the family tree?"), but for no reason other than sheer absurdism. ʽModern Artʼ makes more sense — a song that is about absurdism and its effect on people, another rocker whose musical back­bone is almost surprisingly normal for a song whose chorus goes "You turn around and you don't know where you've been / You look up at the glass dome and your head begins to spin".

Relative highlights (relative, because, as I have said, the album is generally quite even) include ʽMad Dogʼ, a brass-dominated anthem to backward messages and the temptations of shock-rock; the unusually grim-sarcastic ʽBicentennial Manʼ and its appropriation of the guitar jangle for hard rock purposes; the hilarious Ramones tribute ʽRaw Meatʼ that tastes like the Ramones, smells like the Ramones, and revs up like the Ramones (but did the Ramones ever have whistling in be­tween verses?); and the album closer ʽYou Keep On Runningʼ, slower, longer, and more atmospheric than everything else — having started out in fun, fast, playful mode, the Lips decide to end things with something ghostly-spooky. As usual, they are semi-successful: the echoey guitars and whoo­shing and wheeing back vocals keep things modestly convincing, but we have heard all of it too many times be­fore to allow ourselves to fall prostrate at the altar.

Arabia Mountain is probably as «solid» as these guys are ever going to get. Here, they are no longer a bunch of hooligan kids with good tastes in influences and bad tastes in producing their own records. Their decade-long career has finally turned them into matured professionals — and for me, it's a fact: if you do not know how to fish fabulous melodies out of thin air, there are but two ways to overcome that obstacle — go drive a truck or turn into a matured professional, no matter how much time and will it takes. The Black Lips proved themselves tenacious enough. I do not understand how it would be possible to love this music, which continues to embrace post-modernism in a post-post-modernist epoch at the expense of inspired melodies; but if they go on making albums like Arabia Mountain, each one will at least be an «event» worth savouring and discussing. Respectfully, a thumbs up.

Check "Arabia Mountain" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Arabia Mountain" (MP3) on Amazon

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Ani DiFranco: Which Side Are You On?


1) Life Boat; 2) Unworry; 3) ¿Which Side Are You On?; 4) Splinter; 5) Promiscuity; 6) Albacore; 7) J; 8) If YR Not; 9) Hearse; 10) Mariachi; 11) Amendment; 12) Zoo.

A four-year gap in productivity is not something we have come to expect from Ani DiFranco. But kids are kids, and even the icon-est icon of feminism is ironically bound to get stuck with being a mother once she actually becomes a mother — apparently, the long delay was caused by the lady having to dedicate more time to family matters (family? ooh, what a disgustingly obsolete con­cept for the genuinely progressive mind).

The consequences of this are both positive and negative. Positive, because this means more time to flesh out the compositions — for a thoroughly non-genius songwriter, it is a serious advantage, and, although there is not a single song on here that managed to genuinely strike a chord with me, some of the tunes seemed more notable than just about anything off her previous two records. But negative, because the delay seems to have made her lose her biters — or, at least, dull them to the point where I find it hard to believe that even a single intelligent person on Earth would want to be moved by her sociopolitical stance.

Want it or not, Ani DiFranco used to be a poet — good poet, bad poet, innovative poet, banal poet, whatever, the subject is up for discussion. Even when she used to mix liberal preaching with poetry, she usually took care to preserve some sort of balance between the two. But now we have stuff like ʽAmendmentʼ, which begins as follows: "Wouldn't it be nice if we had an amendment to give civil rights to women, to once and for all just really lay it down from a point of view of wo­men..." and goes on more or less the same way for six and a half minutes. ("It's a song that's got a lot of those words in it that are hard to sing", our protagonist says in one of the filmed introduc­tions to her performing the song live, and yeah, I concur: it is fairly hard to put the Communist Party Manifesto to music as well, no matter how much time Friedrich Engels would spend trying to find the right guitar chords to Karl Marx' lyrics).

The saddest thing of all is, she does not even sound convincing when she delivers this stuff — nor when she delivers the «hit of the season» in the guise of the title track, an old chestnut by fellow feminist icon Florence Reece, with a new set of updated lyrics and a ninety-year old Pete Seeger himself accompanying the recording on banjo and backup vocals. It is supposed to be big, power­ful, inspirational, and anthemic, but it sounds a little tired to me; tired, monotonous, and particu­larly ineffective from the point of view of the current situation. The lyrics themselves are caught in contradictions — first admitting that "now there’s folks in Washington that care what’s on our minds", then going off in all directions: Reaganomics, consumerism, poverty, starving Africa, patriarchy, environmentalism, you name the rest.

Risking further curses from the (rapidly decreasing, I am afraid) legions of Ani fans, I would dare to suggest: the fact that these lyrics look ever less and less like poetry and ever more and more like a particularly trivial brand of leftist propaganda must mean that the lady herself is not altoge­ther interested any more. That old flame, which could at least occasionally take on curious sha­pes and reach scorching temperatures, has shrunk to yer good old predictable quiet crackle of a log in the living-room fireplace.

It is even more evident if we consider the simplest rule of this album: the more personal and quiet any particular song is, the less annoying and silly it stands out to the senses. ʽIf Yr Notʼ is built around a technically dark, distorted bluesy riff, but the message is: "If you're not getting happier as you get older, then you're fucking up", and even if she sings it in her trademark «grim» man­ner, there is not so much irony here as stern, solid truth. On ʽLife Boatʼ, she almost seems to be apologizing to her fans: "...and I didn’t really want a baby, and I guess that I had a choice, but I just let it grow inside me, that persistent little voice..." — and the song is not very memorable, but it has a nice ring and attitude to it. And then there is ʽAlbacoreʼ, which is just a simple love song, minimalistic, sweet, and quite hard-to-hate.

Musically, Which Side Are You On is, of course, an ongoing disaster — most of it is acoustic, without a single trace of what an individualistic and even inimitable player Ani used to be a cou­ple of decades ago. But at least there is no more pretending of being a «serious jazz-pop artist»: despite a plethora of backing musicians, most of the backing is either in the background or used primarily for «side effect» purposes (only the title track, in accordance with anthem requirements, is given a near-symphonic arrangement, with a full children's choir and an entire New Orleans student brass band involved). The sound, overall, is quite unpretentious and decent; it's just that there are no interesting melodies. But we have already come to expect that.

What we did not come to expect is this spiritual transformation — one that she herself may not be fully aware of, but, hopefully, as time goes by, things will be getting more and more introspective and less and less concerned with politics. Do not get me wrong: politically-inclined art is a neces­sity of life, and it can be and sometimes is great, but there is no more powder left in this particular keg. You have paid your patriotic dues more than anyone else, Ms. DiFranco — time to pass the baton, listen to your heart, and sing about your family, because, so it seems to me, that seems to be your chief concern these days. Leave the protest songs to the younger generation — people like Pete Seeger, for instance.


Check "Which Side Are You On" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Which Side Are You On" (MP3) on Amazon

Friday, February 24, 2012

Asia: Rare

ASIA: RARE (1999)

1) The Waterfall; 2) The Journey Begins; 3) The Seasons; 4) The Gods; 5) The Whales; 6) The Journey Continues; 7) The Reservation; 8) The Bears; 9) Under The Seas; 10) At The Graveyard; 11) Downstream; 12) The Ghosts; 13) The Sun; 14) The Moon; 15) The Sharks; 16) The Journey Ends; 17) The Indians; 18) The Angels; 19) The Horizons; 20) To The Deep; 21) The Game; 22) The Exodus.

Without a doubt, this is the most unusual album in the Asia catalog; and since, for Asia, the more «unusual» their music is, the better it is by definition — few things can be less exciting in this world than «usual» Asia music — Rare is not only «rare», it is also curious, and, on particular days of the week, may even be enjoyable.

Essentially, this is a joint combination of two different soundtracks that were commissionned for the band, or, rather, for its crucial members (only Downes and Payne were involved in the project, recording all of the parts): one for a documentary on the migrations of salmon (!), another one for a SEGA game that ended up unreleased. With the release of Archiva, the rulers of Asia had al­ready shown how much they care for their residue, so it was probably predictable that these aty­pical sessions would find their way out to the general public as well.

But this time, the decision was right. If anything, Rare reminds us of the fact that Geoff Downes, behind all the stiff commercial glitz, started out as an innovative professional composer, capable of stringing together interesting sequences of notes — exploring the ways of music, rather than choosing the safest, easiest way into the hearts of people whose emotional receptors do not work well on levels beyond formulaic soap operas and Broadway shows. He was never all that great at this kind of exploration — one reason, probably, why he ended up drifting towards the lowest common denominator — but he was hardly talentless, either.

Take these two soundtracks, for instance. They actually defy straightahead categorization. There is a lot of New Age influence here, of course, but the salmon journey is hardly generic «ambient»: there are numerous classical and pseudo-classical piano themes, there is some dissonant avant­garde, there are a few «ethnic» themes (ʽThe Reservationʼ, with Indian motives), some elevator muzak, some electronic grooves, etc., all of which can make a salmon's life pretty colorful. The themes usually match the titles — ʽThe Bearsʼ is stern and menacing, with heavy emphasis on mock-Wagnerian synth-horns; ʽThe Whalesʼ goes heavy on special effects to imitate the animals' breathing and other activities; ʽThe Sharksʼ sends the keyboards swooshing back and forth to mi­mic fast underwater travel, etc. — so I am pretty sure that whoever actually watched the docu­mentary must have walked away a deeply changed man, one who will no longer crave for salmon roe, but will instead work hard to make the world a better place. By all means, Geoff Downes and salmon were made for each other.

The second soundtrack is louder and more dynamic — no big wonder, since no video game deve­loper would probably want the music to be done Brian Eno-style — eventually diving into a mix of trip-hop and heavy guitar rock (ʽThe Gameʼ) and then into techno (ʽThe Exodusʼ). It is also fairly diverse, but, in general, sounds cheesier and lacking «naturalistic inspiration». Still, there are quite a few impressive musical ideas out there, be it in the heavenly synth overdubs on ʽThe Angelsʼ or in the pipes-and-guitars combination on ʽTo The Deepʼ.

In short, I have no problems about giving the whole thing a thumbs up. It goes without saying that it sounds remarkably fresh and even stupefying when surrounded on all sides by the ugly walls of Payne-sung non-hits (I did not explicitly mention that there is not one bit of vocals on the entire album, except for some atmospheric backing harmonies), but even out of context, it is, at the very least, a perfectly «okay» specimen of a multi-purpose soundtrack. In a better world than the one that made the existence of «Asia» possible, Geoff Downes would be spending most of his days recording projects like these — and John Payne would be there to assist him, wisely keeping his mouth shut and helping people to get more kicks out of their video games rather than spoiling their tastes with corny pomp. Of course, it also happens to be one of the few Asia albums that are now strictly out of print.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Average White Band: Soul Searching


1) Overture; 2) Love Your Life; 3) I'm The One; 4) A Love Of Your Own; 5) Queen Of My Soul; 6) Soul Searching; 7) Goin' Home; 8) Everybody's Darling; 9) Would You Stay; 10) Sunny Days (Make Me Think Of You); 11) Dig­ging Deeper (Finale).

A technical success, perhaps, but this is where the meter finally started dropping down. Although Soul Searching still shows no signs of the band seriously embracing disco, it veers dangerously in the department of «suave»: the band, formerly known for its warm (if not exactly «hot») dyna­mic grooves, is putting more and more effort into producing lyrical balladry. Of the nine primary songs on this record, six are ballads (or, at least, slow, soft, sentimental grooves), and only three take us back to sweaty, funky territory. Surely this is not what I usually associate with the idea of «soul searching» — unless we consider the soul to be six parts honey and only three parts grit.

Furthermore, the three «gritty» numbers are nowhere near classic level. Two had already been previewed on Person To Person, where they did not look particularly inspiring next to big ones like ʽPick Up The Piecesʼ, and here, they are the best of the lot. On ʽLove Your Lifeʼ, the whole band still works as a terrifi-team; all that is lacking is a set of memorable guitar and/or brass riffs, instead of a set of nice-sounding, but not particularly inspired wah-wah grumbles. ʽI'm The Oneʼ has a much more interesting brass part, even if the syncopated blasts were clearly reaped from the same territory on which ʽSuperstitionʼ had sown its seeds four years earlier. The third dynamic dance groove is the near-instrumental ʽGoin' Homeʼ, and there is nothing I can say about it ex­cept that... well, it could have worked well in a blackspoitation movie.

As for the ballads, it may be worth one's while to locate and try to enjoy ʽA Love Of Your Ownʼ, sometimes extolled as one of the band's finest, although I find the wheezing synthesizer annoying, the brass backing purely atmospheric, and Gorrie's falsetto completely generic; ʽQueen Of Your Soulʼ is a slightly better proposition, with a better oiled rhythm section and tolerable chimes in­stead of the synthesizer. Actually, at this point I believe that my favorite band member is... who­ever is playing the bass at any given moment (Stuart or Gorrie): the bass lines, in general, show more originality and creativity than any other lines on the album.

It does not help matters much that the record is dressed up in conceptual clothes, with an ambient ʽOvertureʼ that previews some of the album's themes at ultra-slow tempos, and an equally slow and moody ʽFinaleʼ, subtitled ʽDigging Deeperʼ — perhaps a hint at the band not having found its soul, after all, but promising to do better next time. In the process, they ended up giving us some average mid-Seventies equivalent of what would later be known as «adult contemporary», the on­ly difference being that it is sometimes interesting to trace the traces of the band members' fingers on their instruments, whereas in classic «adult contemporary» the very idea of «musical per­for­mance» would be devalued.

Still, that's no reason to go easy on Soul Searching: it must be cli­ni­cally boring for everyone but the most dedicated nostalgic funky guy (especially if he happened to get his first lay to the softporn sounds of ʽWould You Stayʼ), and since 1976 is my year of birth and I couldn't experience any nostalgia for this whatsoever, I give it a thumbs down with the clearest state of conscience that I could ever feel.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Andrew Lloyd Webber: Jesus Christ Superstar


1) Overture; 2) Heaven On Their Minds; 3) What's The Buzz/Strange Thing Mystifying; 4) Everything's Alright; 5) This Jesus Must Die; 6) Hosanna; 7) Simon Zealotes/Poor Jerusalem; 8) Pilate's Dream; 9) The Temple; 10) Eve­ry­thing's Alright (reprise); 11) I Don't Know How To Love Him; 12) Damned For All Time/Blood Money; 13) The Last Supper; 14) Gethsemane (I Only Want To Say); 15) The Arrest; 16) Peter's Denial; 17) Pilate And Christ; 18) King Herod's Song; 19) Judas's Death; 20) Trial Before Pilate (including The 39 Lashes); 21) Superstar; 22) Cru­ci­fi­xi­on; 23) John Nineteen Forty-One.

It makes good healthy sense to take a brief listen to Joseph before diving deep into Jesus Christ Superstar — if only for the sake of getting amazed at one of the most gigantic creative leaps of pop music's most exciting decade. Of course, the very idea of writing a musical / rock opera on the life of JC would preclude the authors from taking it too lightly: neither Andrew Lloyd, nor Tim Rice were dedicated Christians, but neither of them could have the audacity to take on an overtly humorous or satiric attitude towards the matter. Still, intention is one thing, and execution is an entirely different one; and where Joseph, execution-wise, was for the most part funny, fluf­fy vaudeville, JCS is, unquestionably, one of the grandest high-tragical works of our age.

In general, critical respect and continuous fan support for JCS is due to the fact that, out of all of Sir Andrew's works, it is the most «rock-oriented» one. The music as such does not relate nearly as much to the psychedelic / hard-rock / blues-rock movements of its era as it does to contempo­rary R&B, and the bulk of the melodies still have the typical Broadway show as their forefather; but the arrangements have been cleverly designed to get in tune with the rock crowds, and it is no coincidence that, for the original studio sessions, Webber and Rice got Joe Cocker's Grease Band to record most of the parts (including electric guitarists Neil Hubbard and Henry McCulloch), not to mention, of course, offering the main vocal lead to Deep Purple's Ian Gillan. The result is fun­ny — a totally non-rock'n'roll album that totally sounds like one.

But the real overwhelming success of JCS, of course, has nothing to do with electric guitars and Gillan's proto-metal screaming. It has everything to do with two people setting themselves one of the hardest tasks in music history — writing a rock musical about the last days of Jesus' presence on Earth — and pulling it off. If nothing that Webber ever did later can even come close to the effect of JCS, it is not because the effort drained him of all talent; it is simply because he would never again encumber himself with a task involving so much responsibility. If you are embarking on a project like JCS, you have to (a) make sure that your work produces a cathartic effect on al­most everyone, regardless of their religious feelings; (b) make sure that your work sounds con­temporary enough to not be laughed off as pretentious mimicry, yet also timeless enough to not let its effect wear off on the very next generation; (c) make sure that your work does not offend the religious, yet at the same time stay true to your own inner feelings about the matter, which may not at all be religious. If even one of these conditions goes unsatisfied — the result is a sure­fire failure which might cost you your entire future career.

It is utterly amazing, then, and still amazing to me after all these years, how perfectly all these conditions are met — consequently, resulting in one of the most perfect works of musical art of the entire century. Yes, individual moments, performances, interpretations may be deficient; and, in fact, this Original London Cast version, with Gillan at the helm, has never been my personal favorite. To my ears, it sounds a little rushed, almost like an «early rehearsal» attempt. The tunes are frequently taken at way too fast tempos; the singers do not seem to always have had enough times to properly «get into character»; the players do not seem to have practiced their guitar licks and brass kicks to perfection. In my opinion, the opera needed a certain gestation period, which is why the 1973 movie version boasts more subtlety and significant «character growth», so to speak. But I also understand those who prefer the rawer, less polished spirit of the 1970 version, which they might find more blood-boilingly-aggressive, thanks in part to Gillan's delivery.

Extolling the individual musical virtues of particular tunes would be pointless: if you have alrea­dy heard the record, you can probably do a better job for yourself than I can, and if you haven't, just stop everything that you are doing right now and go get it — there is no excuse for not being acquainted with JCS unless you have something going on against music in general. I might sim­ply mention that I myself knew the whole thing almost by heart upon the third or fourth listen, and that not even a single track on it — not even the briefer links — is devoid of a stunning ins­trumental or vocal hook, sometimes several of them. But it isn't «just» a collection of musical hooks: each theme and passage is perfectly adjusted to its lyrical and spiritual content. Dynamic, aggressive, neurotic-paranoid passages accompany the parts of Judas; coldly ominous, scary brass pomp represents Roman power; lightweight folksiness or silly-sounding R&B dance rhythms are associated with the Apostles (one minor point for which the church people could be left genuinely displeased with JCS is Andrew and Tim's presentation of Jesus' disciples as a bunch of fame-see­king idiots); beautiful balladry is reserved for the likes of Mary Magdalene, etc. — Wagner him­self could have been proud of these guys' use of leitmotifs.

I have occasionally heard people complaining about the crudeness or silliness of Tim Rice's lib­retto — complaints I have never understood, since, in general, the lyrics merely represent minor variations on the original text of the New Testament. A major exception is Judas, who gets to be the show's chief original hero, right from the opening salvos of ʽHeaven On Their Mindsʼ, in which he lays down his justification for the upcoming betrayal, and down to the album's big hit single ʽSuperstarʼ, in which he, already as a ghost, reasons that "If you'd come today, you would have reached a whole nation / Israel in 4 B.C. had no mass communication" (okay, these particu­lar lyrics do sound a bit stupid — but we have to remember that, in the age of Flower Power Guru Explosion, they did sound far more relevant than today).

On the other hand, it is fairly admirable how Rice and Webber manage to keep things in hand — not a single moment on the album lets us know for sure that they are genuinely presenting Jesus as The Sa­viour, The Son of God: throughout the opera, Jesus does not produce a single miracle, even when the lepers in ʽThe Templeʼ beg him to, and the music stops directly at ʽJohn 19:41ʼ ("Now in the place where He was crucified there was a garden. In the garden was a new tomb in which no man had ever yet been laid"), omitting any hints at the Resurrection. Yet, at the same time, not a single moment directly asserts the opposite, either — giving every devoted Christian a fair chance at admitting the opera into their canon of religious works. Some might see this as an intentionally commercial, even cynical attempt at recruiting fans on both sides of the fence, or as a sign of cowardice (two self-professed atheists afraid for the potential consequences of their ac­tions), but that's looking at things from a hatred point of view; I would rather just admire the skill with which they managed to guide their ship through the reef of fanaticism.

A bit of «crudeness» may be found, perhaps, in the constant references to the «superstarsdom» of Jesus — culminating in ʽKing Herod's Songʼ, for which Webber recycled the melody of his ear­lier vaudeville composition ʽTry It And Seeʼ (made into a hit by Rita Pavone); here, the original Biblical mention of Herod imploring Jesus to try out a miracle is basically turned into an allegory for a sleazy entrepreneur imploring his artsy-fartsy client to be a good lad and sell out like they all do. But, come to think of it, this particular projection has even more relevance today than it had in 1970, and ends up adding depth to the show rather than cheapening it.

A few more words are in order regarding this particular version of the opera. As I said, I find it flawed, and not least of all due to the relative ineptness of some of the performers. The major cul­prit is Murray Head as Judas: his lungs are nowhere near as steel-caged as Gillan's, which puts him in a bad position (the role requires him to be way more of a passionate screecher), and his phrasing is frequently muffled and, well, just less expressive than the melody easily allows it to be. Victor Brox as Caiaphas is fairly mediocre as well, coming off more as a mediocre Pharisee meddler than as the iron-willed symbol of conservative evil that the authors must have had in mind. Even Barry Dennen as Pilate does not hit the same heights here as he will do three years later. The only cast member I find beyond reproach is Yvonne Elliman as Mary Magdalene — the true «miracle» of the sessions, since Webber and Rice almost literally picked the lady off the street, where she was doing serious drugs and living off slim barroom pickings; who knows, may­be that was the major reason for which she slipped into the role so quickly and so comfortably (and the decision to release ʽI Don't Know How To Love Himʼ as the album's second single was one of the wisest marketing choices they could have made at the time).

As for Ian Gillan in the title role... he sings it well enough, and there is no question about ever calling his interpretation «wooden» or any of those other well-known nasty names. But the per­formance still occasionally suffers from too much speed (the timing of ʽPoor Jerusalemʼ, for in­stance, is abysmal compared to the movie version — it's almost like, «hey guys, I'd like my pro­phecies to be more heart-wrenching and convincing as much as all of you, but I've still got ten more rallies scheduled in all of the city's quarters, so we'll have to get it over real quick»), and, perhaps, from a bit too much «Deep Purplism»? Basically, just ask yourself the question if you're all right with the same guy who just finished singing ʽChild In Timeʼ to go on with this Jesus role. If you are all right with the idea, Gillan is your personal Jesus for all time. If you're not, you'll just have to wait for Ted Neeley.

Also, there is this small matter of the original version being too short — omitting certain non-cru­cial, but still important character-building numbers, such as ʽThen We Are Decidedʼ (Caiaphas and Annas talking about Jesus' fate prior to the general priest meeting in ʽThis Jesus Must Dieʼ) and the Peter/Mary duet on ʽCould We Start Again Pleaseʼ, and criminally shortening ʽThe Trial Before Pilateʼ, giving Barry Dennen even fewer chances to prove himself firsthand. These may come off as minor quibbles, but they are not: the original cast version, once we get acquainted with the future of the opera, does not come across as «well-rounded».

Still, it is the original cast version — the one that announced JCS as a cultural phenomenon, the one that already ensured Sir Andrew's future knighthood (I will always prefer to think that the man was knighted for JCS and not for Phantom Of The Opera, even if the Queen herself proves me wrong), the one that sold the most copies and produced the most hits, and the one that best fit the Zeitgeist, since, by the time 1973 came along, hard drugs and assholes had already resulted in an entirely different spirit. Hence, even if this is not my favourite version (and even after all has been said and done, it may still easily be a matter of personal preference), it is clearly the most important from a historical perspective, and merits its thumbs up all the way.

Check "Jesus Christ Superstar" (CD) on Amazon

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Beach Boys: Hawthorne, CA


CD I: 1) Mike Love Introduces "Surfin'"; 2) 3701 West 119th Street, Hawthorne, California: The Surfin' Rehearsal; 3) Happy Birthday Four Freshmen; 4) Mike On Brian's Harmonies; 5) Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring (live rehearsal); 6) Surfin' USA (demo); 7) Surfin' USA (backing track); 8) Carl Wilson Radio Promo; 9) Shut Down (live); 10) Little Deuce Coupe (demo); 11) Murry Wilson Directs A Radio Promo; 12) Fun, Fun, Fun (backing track); 13) Brian's Message To "Rog" (take 22); 14) Dance, Dance, Dance (stereo remix); 15) Kiss Me Baby (a cappella mix); 16) Good To My Baby (backing track); 17) Chuck Britz On Brian In The Studio; 18) Salt Lake City (session highlights); 19) Salt Lake City (stereo remix); 20) Wish That He Could Stay (session excerpt); 21) And Your Dream Comes True (stereo remix); 22) Carol K Session Highlights; 23) The Little Girl I Once Knew (alternate version); 24) Alan And Dennis Introduce "Barbara Ann"; 25) Barbara Ann (session excerpt); 26) Barbara Ann (master take without party over­dubs); 27) Mike On The Everly Brothers; 28) Devoted To You (master take without party overdubs); 29) Dennis Thanks Everybody / In The Back Of My Mind; CD II: 1) Can't Wait Too Long (a cappella mix); 2) Dennis In­tro­du­ces Carl; 3) Good Vibrations (stereo track sections); 4) Good Vibrations (concert rehearsal); 5) Heroes And Villains (stereo single version); 6) Vegetables Promo (instrumental section); 7) Vegetables (stereo extended mix); 8) You're With Me Tonight; 9) Lonely Days; 10) Bruce On "Wild Honey"; 11) Let The Wind Blow (stereo remix); 12) I Went To Sleep (a cappella mix); 13) Time To Get Alone (alternate version); 14) Alan And Brian Talk About Dennis; 15) A Time To Live In Dreams; 16) Be With Me (backing track); 17) Dennis Introduces "Cotton Fields"; 18) Cotton Fields (The Cotton Song) (stereo single version); 19) Alan and Carl on "Break Away"; 20) Break Away (alternate version); 21) Add Some Music To Your Day (a cappella mix); 22) Dennis Wilson; 23) Forever (a cappella mix); 24) Sail On, Sailor (backing track); 25) Old Man River (vocal section); 26) Carl Wilson; 27) The Lord's Prayer (stereo remix); 28) Carl Wilson - Coda.

Do not be fooled by the endless tracklist on this ridiculous piece of crap – a tracklist long enough and descriptive enough to serve as its own review – and, by all means, skip this unless your com­pletism and/or religious adoration knows no limits. Inspired by the success of Endless Harmony, and also, perhaps, by that of the Beatles' Anthology, Capitol ushered out this 2-CD «anthology» of «previously unreleased material», in the finest tradition of screwing with the Beach Boys' stu­dio output, stretching all the way back to 1962.

Beyond the pretty packaging and the nice «historic» run of the recordings, generally arranged in chronological order from 1960 to 1972 (and thus, acknowledging that the Beach Boys as a histo­rically relevant entity virtually ended with «Brian's comeback»), most of the tracks here fall in five different categories, listed in the order of (slowly) decreasing stupidity:

(a) bits of retro-banter à la Beatles' Anthology I (usually consisting of one Beach Boy praising the spiritual gift of another Beach Boy, or, failing that, of the Everly Brothers): could be tolerable if these introductions actually led into anything worthwhile, but the compilers should have rather taken the hint from the Beatles' Anthology II, on which, not coincidentally, all the bits of banter had magically disappeared;

(b) instrumental «backing tracks» for original studio recordings, i. e. more Stack-o-Tracks fun for those who hadn't already had enough; including such really odd choices as Dennis' ʽBe With Meʼ and even ʽSurfin' USAʼ (what's to admire on that one? the stop-and-starts?);

(c) vocal «a cappella mixes» for other original studio recordings, probably for aspiring boy bands to have something to practice their craft to;

(d) even more of those «stereo remixes» that made our day on Endless Harmony, instead of do­ing it like a man and just remastering all the albums in stereo;

(e) work-in-progress versions. This is probably the most interesting of the five groups, but it is also fairly small and pretty much entirely oriented at historiographers and musicologists, e. g. the 1960 home recording of ʽSurfin' Safariʼ, with just one weak acoustic guitar track accompanying the already well-structured vocal harmonies; Brian (Brian?) teaching the horns to come one after the other on ʽSalt Lake Cityʼ; and the band having silly fun during the recording of ʽVegetablesʼ. The funniest moment is on ʽWith Me Tonightʼ, where, after the introductory harmonies, one of the Boys says, "hey, I've got an idea, let's sing this with a smile" — probably a much-needed in­vocation during the sessions for Wild Honey. But that's just one tiny bit, and you'd have to strain your attention so as not to miss it.

In the end, what remains is a couple of highlights from Party! stripped from their phony-raucous ambience (including ʽBarbara-Annʼ); a one-minute snippet of an abandoned melancholic ballad called ʽLonely Daysʼ; and a two-minute piano and organ demo of Dennis' ʽA Time To Live In Dreamsʼ from 1968, an era in which his individual songwriting style had only just begun to terra­form: pretty, but not as deep and moving as his genuinely accomplished compositions. Slim pick­ings to say the least, and certainly not at all worthy of any sort of hype.

Perhaps Capitol would have made a more understandable and respectable move, had it simply promoted The Beach Boys as «Unquestionably The American Band Of All Time», and, under that pretext, emptied its vaults completely, systematically, and thoroughly, e. g. by having a 4-CD boxset of The Wild Honey Sessions next to the already released Pet Sounds Sessions. That way, it would have been perfectly clear who the intended recipients of this stuff might be – professio­nal Beach-Boy-o-logists, who are numerous enough in the world to justify the commercial side of it – and everything would have made perfect sense. As it is, nothing here makes much sense at all; Beach Boys or no Beach Boys, this is a pathetic thumbs down of a release.

Check "Hawthorne, CA" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Hawthorne, CA" (MP3) on Amazon

Monday, February 20, 2012

Billie Holiday: All Or Nothing At All


1) Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me; 2) Cheek To Cheek; 3) Ill Wind; 4) Speak Low; 5) We'll Be Together Again; 6) All Or Nothing At All; 7) Sophisticated Lady; 8) April In Paris; 9) I Wished On The Moon; 10) But Not For Me; 11) Say It Isn't So; 12) Our Love Is Here To Stay.

Last of the three albums from the January 1957 sessions, and, consequently, Billie's last album for Verve. Once again, a mixed bag here, combining songs that were almost tailor-made for the lady; songs which she is able to permanently mark with her seal of approval; and a few annoying missteps that should have never been tried at all — yes, I am talking about ʽCheek To Cheekʼ, a song that was genuinely corny from the beginning even for Irving Berlin's standards, and one that could not ever be successfully «holidayed» even with a change in tonality. For that matter, ʽI Wished On The Moonʼ, reprised here from its original 1935 incarnation, also sounds like a bit of sorry nostalgia — at this point in her career, conveying pure, naïve joy was an impossibility.

Conversely, the highlights would probably include Duke Ellington's ʽDo Nothing Till You Hear From Meʼ — slow, lazy, subversive, and with just a tiny pinch of sarcasm in the "...and you never will" resolution of each chorus; Harold Arlen's ʽIll Windʼ, with a mini-epic bluesy arrangement and excellent guitar-vocal dueting between Billie and Barney Kessel; and the cute rumba-jazz of ʽSpeak Lowʼ, which, if I am not mistaken, must be the only time Billie ever took on Kurt Weill in her entire career. I wish I could say the same about the title track (e. g. about how Billie destroys Sinatra's version or something like that), but it sounds fairly hookless to me.

With Ellington, Weill, and the «early blue-eyed soul» representative Frankie Laine (ʽWe'll Be Together Againʼ) sharing the same album with the obligatory G.A.S. representatives, All Or No­thing At All is, technically, one of Billie's most «diverse» LPs; but, of course, all of the songs are processed more or less in the same way, reducing surprise effects and novelty factors. Still, bar­ring ʽCheek To Cheekʼ which, for me, is one of the few true moments of displeasure in Billie's late career period, it proves that the 1957 sessions, as always, were consistent throughout, and I would give all three albums one collective thumbs up — put all the songs together, fish out the «too happy» ones, and Billie's going out of Verve with plenty of verve.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Black Lips: 200 Million Thousand


1) Take My Heart; 2) Drugs; 3) Starting Over; 4) Let It Grow; 5) Trapped In A Basement; 6) Short Fuse; 7) I’ll Be With You; 8) BBBJOT; 9) Again & Again; 10) Old Man; 11) The Drop I Hold; 12) Body Combat; 13) Elijah; 14) I Saw God; 15) Meltdown (hidden track).

This follow-up to Good Bad Not Evil seems to me to go slightly heavier on fuzziness – as if the band suddenly realized they must have overdone it with cleaning up the slop on the previous re­cord – and seriously lighter on hooks and memorability. Where Good Bad Not Evil almost made me forgot how genuinely mediocre these guys are in the songwriting department, on 200 Million Thousand this mediocrity hits back with a vengeance. At this point, these guys are like the Dave Clark Five's evil twin – «cooler» because they are «nastier», but in other terms, simply furnishing paler, less interesting variations on much stronger pop-rock songs.

Tim Sendra, reviewing the album for the All-Music Guide, ended up complaining about its ex­cessive «maturity», saying that the record «could use a little more teenage head and a little less brains» – that the Lips are really only worth our attention when they are being silly, chaotic, ju­venile, and totally trashy. By all means, that was their basic aesthetics when they started out, but first of all, I do not see that it has changed all that much (surely the small bunch of slow, «tense», marginally serious-sounding songs on here, like ʽTrapped In A Basementʼ, cannot be defined as overtly «brainy» in comparison to the fast rock'n'roll numbers), and second, I simply couldn't dis­agree any more – these guys need to be brainy in order to come up with something truly worth our while. There's way too much brainless retro-punk in this world already.

Unfortunately, 200 Million Thousand is really an album stuck somewhere in between. It does not inject me with a feeling of control-free drunken teenage revelry, nor does it look like a signi­ficant intellectual statement, in need of serious analysis or whatever. It is simply another batch of Nuggets rip-offs, if not always in melody, then always in spirit; and it is excruciatingly boring. The only track to offer something relatively fresh to my ears was ʽElijahʼ, a madcap bass-and-pi­ano blues romp with a deliciously paranoid chorus – the interaction between the goofy "oh yeah"s and the stop-and-start piano bits were novel and fun enough to interrupt the slumber party.

I must confess that this may be, once again, just a case of acute lo-fi-itis: I hate this murky pro­duction with such a passion that it almost surprises myself (and here I was thinking that I can stand any kind of sound after spending my entire childhood listening to bunches of chewn and re-chewn cassette tapes). The displeasure is particularly intense after Good Bad Not Evil, which was like a teaser, showing that the Lips (a) do not really have any religiously motivated feelings against a clean sound and (b) seem to produce better hooks when they are working with clean pro­duction. And now we are back to square.

Perhaps a quick run through the first few tracks is in order, just to serve up a few concrete exam­ples. ʽTake My Heartʼ is fast, dark, bass-heavy, Count Five-ish, but the guitars sound choked and stuffy as opposed to razor-sharp, which should really be expected on such a track. ʽDrugsʼ is a garage take on Merseybeat with Beatlesque vocal harmonies, but the melody is primitive, and the guitars sound... right, choked and stuffy. ʽStarting Overʼ begins with a nice promise – some Byr­d­sey jangle – but adds nothing to the basic idea of the jangle, except for some more choked and stuffy guitar playing. ʽLet It Growʼ is an anthemic ode to an embryo (or, perhaps, to an erection – you never know with these guys) whose potential hook is tortured to death by overreliance on distortion and the fact that the lead singer has a plastic bag on his head. And so on and on, ad in­finitum – these complaints will all mostly be of the same character.

The bottomline is: these songs are not hopeless, but each of them could be so much more if only the band would not mask its laziness and carelessness as «artistry». Let me say this once more: Lo-Fi is not artistry, at least – not in frickin' two thousand and nine it isn't. It used to be cool once, as the underground's proud and vengeful answer to the bloated overproduction of mainstream com­mercial crap, but these days, it is not just boring, it is almost conservative in nature. Somebo­dy please phone Sir George Martin, while he is still alive, and tell him there is this semi-talented flower punk band that is in desperate need of salvation. Until then – a decisive thumbs down. (And, before I forget: ʽI Saw Godʼ might just be the single stupidest and draggiest thing recorded by these guys so far. Totally with Tim Sendra on that one).

Check "200 Million Thousand" (CD) on Amazon
Check "200 Million Thousand" (MP3) on Amazon

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Arch Enemy: Khaos Legions


1) Khaos Overture; 2) Yesterday Is Dead And Gone; 3) Bloodstained Cross; 4) Under Black Flags We March; 5) No Gods, No Masters; 6) City Of The Dead; 7) Through The Eyes Of A Raven; 8) Cruelty Without Beauty; 9) We Are A Godless Entity; 10) Cult Of Chaos; 11) Thorns In My Flesh; 12) Turn To Dust; 13) Vengeance Is Mine; 14) Secrets.

Each formula can only live for so long before its manufacturers run out of oxygen. Technically, Khaos Legions finds Arch Enemy at their ballsiest — loud, brutal, evil — but no matter where I look, there does not seem to be a single new idea, and that does not just concern the lack of expe­rimental moments: much worse than that, there is not one single riff on here that would seem as if I have never heard it before. And even if I acknowledge some of these riffs as variations on past successes — after all, each composer is entitled to variations on his own compositions — they are dull, un-evocative variations.

One direction in which they could have headed at this time, with a small bit of hope of getting out of the rut, is «moody». ʽNo Gods, No Mastersʼ, with its stern mid-tempo and genuinely melodic guitar and keyboard lead lines, actually ends up more memorable than the «thrashy» anthems on here. The Amott brothers are talented enough to master «subtle» if they really feel the need for it, and I am fairly sure that Angela could accommodate her by-now all-too-familiar growling style to fit that subtleness. But, by and large, this does not happen on Khaos Legions.

Instead, what we get is lots and lots of fast tracks, normally a plus for hard-rocking albums, but in this case they just merge into one lumpy blur, with nothing to distinguish ʽYesterday Is Dead And Goneʼ (album opener) from ʽSecretsʼ (album closer). In the end, the most successful track is pro­bably ʽWe're A Godless Entityʼ, due to the provocative title and some nice ominous minimalistic bass plinking from Sharlee D'Angelo. That's just one and a half minutes, though.

In short, this is a serious step down even from the level of Rise Of The Tyrant, and that record was no great shakes, either; but at least it had one stone cold death metal classic (ʽBlood On Your Handsʼ), whereas this album will, most probably, just go down stone cold; I cannot imagine any of its songs surviving for long even in the heads of the most devoted metal forgers. Curiously, the album is said to have sold more copies (in the US at least) than any previous Arch Enemy record; but I will put that down to the band's general workhorse attitude — keep it up for long enough, and eventually you'll get what's coming to you. Besides, who would mind the guys finally making a little bit of money after all these years of finger-tearing and throat-wearing?

In any case, my thumbs down will hardly make a difference: hardcore fans will thrive on this stuff as usual, and bypassers do not need to hear more than one or two albums by this band any­way. Just out of curiosity, I actually browsed through a half-dozen reviews of Khaos Legions on various metal-related sites — just to let you know that we probably are in trouble when the re­view in question (and most of those were like it) simply gives you some back story («this is the first album of original material in five years...»), a list of the players and producers, some­thing along the lines of «to all those who think they lost it, well, they still kick ass», and a heavy splat­tering of terms like «sharp riffs», «clear sound», «melodic shredding», and «power growl». Yeah, it's all here, I guarantee you that. For some reason, though, none of these reviewers ever ask themsel­ves the obvious question: «And what next?».

Check "Khaos Legions" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Khaos Legions" (MP3) on Amazon