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Monday, April 30, 2012

Blind Boy Fuller: Complete Recorded Works Vol. 4 (1937-1938)


1) Shaggy Like A Bear; 2) Ten O'Clock Peeper; 3) Hungry Calf Blues; 4) Too Many Women Blues; 5) Oozin' You Off My Mind; 6) Shake That Shimmy; 7) Heart Ease Blues; 8) I'm Going To Move (To The Edge Of Town); 9) Pis­tol Slapper Blues; 10) Mean And No Good Woman; 11) Georgia Ham Mama; 12) Piccolo Rag; 13) Funny Feeling Blues; 14) Painful Hearted Man; 15) You've Got To Move It Out; 16) Mama, Let Me Lay It On You No. 2; 17) Meat Shakin' Woman; 18) I'm A Good Stem Winder; 19) What's That Smells Like Fish; 20) She's A Truckin' Little Baby; 21) Jivin' Woman Blues; 22) You're Laughing Now.

Man, was Blind Boy Fuller ever in demand in 1938!... sorry. Right until the unfortunate moment when he shot his wife in the leg — apparently, the «Meat Shakin' Woman» refused to believe that he was really such «A Good Stem Winder» and maliciously avoided a direct answer to the ques­tion «What's That Smells Like Fish». Which meant that Blind Boy eventually had to «Move (To The Edge Of Town)» and halt his recording activities until 1940. But not before recording a cou­p­le dozen more unique, unrepeatable examples of his songwriting craft.

Vol. 4 has lots more songs that Fuller recorded with Sonny Terry, as well as accompanied by a se­cond guitarist (Dipper Boy Council), which predictably gives us a fuller, but not necessarily better sound. Occasional progress is seen in that two subsequent takes on the exact same melody may now feature different sets of lyrics — for instance, ʽShake That Shimmyʼ and ʽHeart Ease Bluesʼ are still the same song, but you couldn't genuinely tell that by simply looking at the lyrics sheet. (Not that there's any available — not that it's a big problem, either).

Only one song on the whole volume deserves special mention, especially because, for some rea­son, not every single-CD Blind Boy Fuller compilation includes it, even though they all should. This is ʽJivin' Woman Bluesʼ, a very different example of ragtime guitar playing than everything Fuller had played up to that point, with a slower tempo, a more bluegrassy feel, and a complex, but catchy picking pattern, echoes of which you could eventually hear on Fleetwood Mac's ʽNe­ver Going Back Againʼ (with plenty of buffers along the way, of course).

Minor «experiments» can also be heard on ʽMeat Shakin' Womanʼ and maybe one or two other numbers that passed me by, but you'd really need an aural magnifying glass to concentrate on that. Which makes the time scale of Vol. 4 Blind Boy's most skippable period so far. It does, however, seem to feature an exceedingly large number of double entendres — if you ever thought it was up to rockers to invent the «popularity booster through excessive profanity», here's living proof that «sleazing up» your music was a well-oiled technique before the war. Question: How do you sell more copies of your song called ʽLog Cabin Bluesʼ? Answer: Re-record it under the title ʽWhat's That Smells Like Fishʼ. Do not overestimate the decency of the average record buyer.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Bon Iver: Bon Iver, Bon Iver


1) Perth; 2) Minnesota, WI; 3) Holocene; 4) Towers; 5) Michicant; 6) Hinnom, TX; 7) Wash.; 8) Calgary; 9) Lisbon, OH; 10) Beth / Rest.

No fewer than seven different musicians accompany Justin Vernon on his sophomore stab at a masterpiece, which should prompt the obvious question: «How the heck did all these people fit within one log cabin in the woods of Wisconsin? Must have been really crammed out there!» Then you learn that the album was not recorded in a log cabin at all, but in an abandoned veteri­narian clinic in Fall Creek, remodeled as a recording studio. Still sounds romantic, although one would expect it to be somehow reflected in the recording — a couple of songs about being kind to animals wouldn't hurt, and yet I can find no traces. Of course, with Bon Iver's lyrics never ma­king figurative sense, let alone literal, you can never be sure.

The move from acoustic minimalism to denser art-pop arrangements paid off brilliantly: most re­viewers were happy beyond measure, since they could amply concentrate on discussing the Im­portant Artistic Reasons behind the move, and praise the Important Artist for Progressive Artistic Growth, shown so early on in his career. A few disgruntled voices complained that the growth was actually Regressive, and picketed April Base Studios with signs reading JUDAS and BACK TO THE LOG CABIN and EMMA IS NOT HAPPY. (In their imaginations, at least). But even those voices generally acknowledged that the songs were still great, it's just the idea of develo­ping a bigger sound for them that didn't quite work out.

In fact, the atmosphere on Bon Iver, Bon Iver did not change a whole lot from the minimalistic soundscapes of For Emma. The basic vibes, moods, goals, structures remain exactly the same. The falsetto singing has no plans of going anywhere (although, for honesty's sake, Vernon shows a little more range this time around); nor do the lyrics show any signs of advancing from sheer nonsense to, at the very least, some plain old surrealism.

We got to give some credit to the Artist. Like so many of them, he is struggling to build himself his own personal dream world, since none of the others seem to be satisfactory enough. This dream world bears a passing resemblance to the United States of America, because it is also di­vided into states, and its towns and cities sometimes even have the same names as the correspon­ding US locations (ʽLisbon, OHʼ), although some of the locations are quite confusing (ʽMinne­sota, WIʼ?) and others could even be offensive to certain Americans (ʽHinnom, TXʼ — you Te­xans do realize that ʽHinnomʼ has the same root as Gehenna, right?).

In this dream world, people mostly talk in disjointed, impressionistic associations; play slow, soft, traditionally melodic music; sing in sweet voices, usually multi-tracking them along the way; and always exude a mixed happy-sad feeling because, after all, there are very few things in life over which one couldn't or shouldn't get happy and sad at the same time. If, every once in a while, you start getting the feeling that it all sounds discomfortingly close to banal 1980s-style adult contem­porary, just shake it off. According to a Pitchforkmedia reviewer, it was a brave move on Justin Vernon's side to move things so close to 1980s adult contemporary, and who are we to argue with that? 1980s artists recorded crappy music without understanding how crappy it was (and how much more crappy it would sound with each passing year); recording crappy music with such an understanding is definitely a far braver move.

It is true that bringing in extra people at least helped to make some of these songs acquire extra dynamics. ʽPerthʼ, for instance, gradually expands from a pretty guitar flourish to bombastic mar­tial drum patterns and then into a veritable sea of sound with synthesizers, horns, and shrill elec­tric lead lines that is quite far removed from log cabin isolationism — and yet, at the same time, does not really create any different type of mood. It could have been a fantastic track if the flou­rish in question worked in a trance-inducing manner, and the drum patterns and the wall of sound were gelling with it in some sort of meaningful way. To my ears, they don't: the guitar pattern is boring (and, after a while, quite annoyingly boring), the martial drums make no sense, and the wall of sound is neither structured well enough to punctuate the senses, nor dares to whip its brief traces of aggressive atonality into something genuinely alive — for fear that some people might dare to suppose a «rocking» strain to this very, very, very peaceful experience, I guess.

I could write a similar diatribe against just about every song on the album, which all range from staggeringly boring (ʽMichicantʼ is a straightahead criminal offense against the slide guitar) to mildly passable (ʽTowersʼ has a cozy country-pop drive, and the strings that double the slide gui­tars are an inventive touch) to almost good (the first half of ʽMinnesotaʼ, with its active fuzz bass lines, is the album's only «gutsy» moment). But what's the use? Just like For Emma, Bon Iver will work for you if you can feel it for this guy, or, more precise, if this guy makes you feel it for him. I feel nothing. All the ingredients are there, but they are all inserted in the wrong order, in wrong amounts, in the wrong handling.

When they get around to closing the album, the desire to strangle the producer becomes almost unbearable: as much as I try to, I just cannot interpret ʽBeth / Restʼ, with its electronic drums and keyboards, as a «brave» decision on the songwriter's part — I can only interpret it as a subconsci­ous tribute to one of the miriads of tepid ballads he must have been hearing on the radio when he was six or seven years old. Please do not count me in on this game; I refuse to accept these rules that allow «The Artist» to pass off bland Eighties nostalgia as «Modern Art». It is not a sin to be infected with any sort of influence, even Kim Wilde — it is a sin to extol the very fact of your be­ing influenced as your artistic statement. And no, masking that influence with sets of schizopha­sic lyrics that could just as well be machine-produced does not help.

I do not think that Bon Iver, Bon Iver is any «better» or «worse» than For Emma. Technically, it has a different sound, but substantially, nothing has changed. Except for my suspicion that the existence and appraisal of Bon Iver confirms that, on an official level, «indie» has become as much of a rotting corpse as everything else, and that the wheel has completed its next cycle — the so-called «independent musical press» has advanced to approximately the same level of credibi­lity as Rolling Stone. Yep, just my humble personal opinion, nothing else. And a heartfelt thumbs down — the most sincerely emotional outburst from me that could be associated with this record.

Check "Bon Iver, Bon Iver" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Bon Iver, Bon Iver" (MP3) on Amazon

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Ash: 1977

ASH: 1977 (1996)

1) Lose Control; 2) Goldfinger; 3) Girl From Mars; 4) I'd Give You Anything; 5) Gone The Dream; 6) Kung Fu; 7) Oh Yeah; 8) Let It Flow; 9) Innocent Smile; 10) Angel Interceptor; 11) Lost In You; 12) Darkside Lightside.

Listening to «alt-rock» almost always produces a poisonous effect on me — there is something innately sick about that sludgy sound, something very, very uncomfortable. When all is said and done, pop is pop, and metal is metal: you cannot assure a healthy, stable marriage between the two (which makes me all the more admire those few lucky bastards, like Kurt, who did manage a temporary union; on the other hand, he did that at an expense that might be too heavy for the rest of us). Ash, even at their very best, never strived to be the exception from the rule. Therefore, all of the music that Ash ever produced makes me sick, period.

But a more interesting subject to discuss would be the reason why 1977, the band's first proper LP, propelled them into the limelight like crazy — by 1996, the album was hot enough to push Jagged Little Pill off from the top spot on the charts, and, although both records certainly qualify as «alt-rock» to whoever uses «alt-rock» as a bad word, they are certainly different enough to acknowledge that 1977 gained its popularity somewhat on its own, not just because it was the trendy thing to do (even if it was).

One thing is for certain: 1977 is more than just a «three guys play tinny rawk» album. Certainly Tim Whee­­ler is not the easiest person in the world to pigeonhole. The songs here blast off a whole wide variety of influences — of which classic Ramones/Clash-era punk, heralded by the album title, is but one, and not necessarily the strongest (in fact, it is claimed that the title simply refers to the birth year of two of the band members, and is also a subtle Star Wars reference — ʽDarkside Lightsideʼ ring a bell?). But there is also regular Oasis/Blur-derived Britpop, gruff re­tro-1970s metal, Springsteen-muscle-powered «urban rock», shades of Hawkwind psychedelia, and... you fill in the rest, I'm sure I've missed something along the way.

It is too bad that Wheeler's imagination is blocked on subsequent steps — he seems to be doing his best to take all these various ingredients and reduce them to the same formula, compressing chords, tones, and moods into one big headbang-fest. 1977 may have been God's gift to modern rock radio stations — here was something you could disseminate at top volume from your creaky car stereo without spooking off the environment — but we will never know why he chose as his mediator this particularly odd guy, taking off on a major highway and then ending up on a one-track dirt road. It doesn't help that he can't sing, either. One genuinely bugging aspect of 1977 is that nearly all of the vocals are... murmured?

Still, even with all the aspects of this record that one could detest, 1977 is likeable, to a degree. It has a mild sense of humor and hipness — not everybody could have come up with the idea of using a Ramones-inspired (with an explicit lyrical reference to «teenage lobotomy») two-minute pop-punk tongue-in-cheek anthem to ʽKung Fuʼ as the lead-off single. In fact, had the Ramones recorded the song themselves, it could have been a minor classic — as it is, Wheeler's muffled guitar sound and boring vocals (that try to simulate excitement but fail) make it more of a bark than a bite. A pleasant bark, nonetheless — cheap swipes at pop culture will never die.

The other big single, ʽGirl From Marsʼ, rolls along on what seems like the laziest chord set in the world, but is somewhat redeemed by Wheeler's attempt to channel the spirit of Ray Davies, even attempting to trade the whiny murmur in for a higher-pitched, naïve-romantic delivery (which certainly works better for him than any attempts to raise the aggression bar). The melodic wah-wah solo in the middle is also attention-worthy: in fact, Wheeler's lead playing is quite superb throughout the record — crisp, fluent, technical, and with plenty of love for various pedals and stuff. What this band really needed was a fourth member, one that could take away his rhythm playing and especially singing duties.

Some of the stuff is quite below par, though. The lumpy, leaden take on 1970s metal, ʽI'd Give You Anythingʼ, really plays out like an inferior variation on Black Sabbath's ʽN.I.B.ʼ with all the cool Satanism taken out and replaced by... never mind, it's impossible to make out anything from that murmur anyway. ʽGoldfingerʼ somehow became the single that truly put them on the map for the world to see, but it is the weakest of 'em all — a rather transparent take on the basic Oasis style, yet without a mighty hook to boot. But that's probably the exact reason why people were buying it at the time. Does anybody even remember it any more these days, though?

Overall, 1977 is a firm chunk of 1990's musical history now, and should probably be listened to by all those who are interested in learning more about the «spirit of 1996» — and also by every­one who wants to know how a melting pot of superior influences should not be brewn. But hey, these guys just didn't want to stick to the underground — they wanted to make it big, and in 1996, if you wanted to make it big, you didn't invent the rules, you stuck to them. They even had to go to Oasis' producer for this album, for God's sake. Sorrowful, but understandable.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Associates: Sulk


1) Arrogance Gave Him Up; 2) No; 3) Bapdelabap; 4) Gloomy Sunday; 5) Nude Spoons; 6) Skipping; 7) It's Better This Way; 8) Party Fears Two; 9) Club Country; 10) Nothinginsomethingparticular; 11*) Love Hangover; 12*) 18 Carat Love Affair; 13*) Ulcragyceptimol; 14*) And Then I Read A Book; 15*) Grecian 2000; 16*) Australia; 17*) The Room We Sat In Before.

Considering the noticeable increase in tempos and repetitive choruses, it is hard to refrain from the thought that Mackenzie kept pushing the band in a more commercial direction — leading, eventually, to a split with Rankine, who (not without reason) thought that he was becoming side­tracked, and left for a solo career. On the other hand, «commercial» is not an easy word to use when you are dealing with the deliriously paranoid  lifeform that is Billy Mackenzie: for every new fan that he was gaining with the band's re-orientation on the dance-pop market, he was pro­bably alienating at least one old (pissed off at all the trendy keyboard sounds) and at least one po­tential (scared of Mackenzie's hystrionics).

The recent CD re-release of Sulk is seventeen tracks long, and since the style generally remains the same, may be overkill. However, the expansion is due to a healthy bunch of A- and B-sides from around the same year that the LP came out, and some of them are honestly better than the stuff they put on the LP. Arguably the best way to enjoy the trip is to program out the five or six tunes that you find too boring or annoying — and believe me, everyone will have a bunch of an­noyingly boring favorites on Sulk — and be left with the catchiest, and most energetic collection of electronic dance-pop romances in the band's history.

The best of the lot never made it on the original LP: it is a thoroughly disloyal cover of Diana Ross' ʽLove Hangoverʼ, throttling the sweet lovey-dovey attitude of the disco original and repla­cing it with a lower, darker groove over which Mackenzie spreads out a tour-de-force perfor­mance. As a matter of fact, Diana's original never sounded much like a «hangover» — if our hangovers took on the form of her sweet ecstasy, we'd all be doomed alcoholics by now. In the hands of Mackenzie, however, the song finally justifies its title: the man plays out a real «hang­over» — it's killing, yes it is, splitting headaches and all, but, for some reason, this is the state that he'd rather remain in for life. «Love» becomes a bout of masochism here, not some sort of generic ab­stract «pleasure».

This idea of reinterpreting ʽLove Hangoverʼ ties in brilliantly with the band's original vision. Sulk is almost nearly a conceptual album about the psychic dangers of love — at least half of the songs, both musically and lyrically, are about suffering from its side effects. Way too dark to be able to compete with the comparatively «fluffy» Duran Duran, yet much lighter than the contem­porary Cure records, because Billy Mackenzie's ego never amounted to even half the size of Ro­bert's Smith (yet again, not that it's necessarily a good thing: Robert Smith regularly offered plen­ty of musical fat to prop up the size of his ego — and no, that is not a veiled hint at the man's weight problems).

I have to confess that the actual music behind this attitude is fairly routine. With Rankine as­sign­ed to synthesizer duties, spending far more time at the keys than at his guitar strings, the toughest musical link in the band at this point is bass player Michael Dempsey, who, incidentally, joined the Associates soon after quitting The Cure. Considering that Three Imaginary Boys from 1979 was one of The Cure's bass-strongest records, that hardly comes as a surprise: most of the bass grooves on Sulk are first-rate, particularly on ʽSkippingʼ and ʽParty Fears Twoʼ. The keyboard work, on the other hand, leaves much to be desired. Most of the time I just feel like Rankine is weaving little flourishes around Mackenzie's «arias» that never take our attention span away from the vocals. Proving my point, the two completely instrumental numbers that bookmark the record are both utterly forgettable — minimalistic synth patterns pinned to bouncy rhythms; you could get that kind of stuff for a dime a dozen in 1982.

Mackenzie himself is quite good, though. Besides ʽLove Hangoverʼ, he also reinvents the old jazz standard ʽGloomy Sundayʼ (also known as ʽHungarian Suicide Songʼ) — it is fun to listen to his version alongside Billie Holiday's, showing how much and how little has changed over the fourty years that allegedly shook the world. ʽParty Fears Twoʼ remains stuck in the head as well, if only for the wall-rattling "AWAKE ME!" that serves as its climax — it's one of those tunes that is exactly 50% drunk romantic happiness and exactly 50% bleak suicidal despair, an explosive mix inherited from Roxy Music, but stripped of Bryan Ferry's salon smoothness. On the other hand, sometimes the silliness-as-seriousness is a bit too much to take — ʽBap De La Bapʼ is a dumb title, and the lyrics match its dumbness without even compensating with a bit of humour that could be expected from such a title. Dumb title, dumb lyrics, dumb «spooky» vocal delivery + annoying synthesizer sound = the Eighties forget no one.

Sulk is no masterpiece, and won't become one even when all the fat has been trimmed. In most retrospectives, it usually cuts off the «highly starred» period of the Associates' career, because most reviewers instinctively think that «loss of a key member» is always an objective event that the band needs to be penalized for. But Alan Rankine never was a particularly awesome guitarist, just a good one; and Sulk makes relatively little use of his talents in a relatively useful way — this is the Mackenzie show through and through, so the gap between it and the next stage of the «band» is not nearly as huge as one could believe from just browsing through the All-Music Guide. Still, it's got some good hooks, and, most importantly, when it is at its best, it's got that odd mood — how would you like to slit your veins while feeling totally happy about it? never mind, don't try that at home unless you are a Struggling Artist — that alone justifies a respectable thumbs up. I mean, I'm not sure I like that mood — in fact, I'm pretty sure I don't — but hey, a mood is a mood, and sometimes you just have to respect a mood while being detached from it. If everybody starts driving scooters into the oceans to the sounds of ʽLove Reign O'er Meʼ, that's gonna take a heavy toll on the fish population.

Check "Sulk" (CD) on Amazon

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Average White Band: Living In Colour


1) Check Your Groove; 2) Down To The River; 3) Living In Colour; 4) One Of My Heartbeats; 5) Close To You Tonight; 6) Half Moon In The Crescent Street; 7) Think Small; 8) I Can't Help It; 9) I'm Gonna Make You Love Me; 10) Love Won't Let Me Wait.

But wait — they are not done yet! In fact, I was that close to missing this release at all: very little information on it is available outside of the band's fan-targeted website, and, furthermore, this new studio album almost threatened to get lost in the small, but steady trickle of live releases that the AWB are still baking on a regular basis. Yet there it is: a brand new studio album, much as I hate to admit that. Let us approach it with an open mind and a friendly heart, hard as it is to treat that way a record whose very front sleeve is screaming at you — «do you remember the soft, sweet, sexy days of 1974? Do you?» Particularly hard to take if you were born in 1976.

The good word is: this music still sounds very much like the AWB, despite the fact that there are, by now, only two of the original members left — and that even long-term post-peak member Eli­ot Lewis is no longer in the band by now, replaced by Klyde Jones. But the presence of Gorrie, who still handles most of the vocals, and Onnie McIntyre on guitar ensures healthy conservatism. Dubstep influences are nowhere near to be found, and neither is auto-tuning. In fact, all of the music continues to be recorded with live instruments.

The bad word, however, is that Living In Colour is a clear step backwards from the minor re­vi­val of Soul Tattoo. If anything, the band seems to be retracing their original steps — where Soul Tattoo was a partly successful attempt to restore the «classic» sound of their first three or four albums, Living In Colour brings us back to the late 1970s, the age in which their sound got soften­ed, their grooves got simplified, and their ability to capture the imagination, not just the feet, vanished into thin air. What for — I don't know. Maybe they got a call from a rich millionnaire fan, saying, «oh man, oh man, those days of rockin' it out to Feel No Fret in 1979 were hot — here's a million dollar check if you get me one more of those!»

It only suffices to compare ʽSoul Mateʼ with ʽCheck Your Grooveʼ, which opens this record on a superficially similar note — «checking the groove» reveals that the groove is pitifully limp from all points of view. Even the drummer releases zero energy hitting on the skins, not to mention the twice-as-minimalistic bass. It is still a well-constructed dance groove, but they forgot to adjust the dentures. And, unfortunately, it is the best track on the album.

Or, to be more honest, one of the best tracks. As long as they are ready to throw on even a small pinch of funky energy, the compositions are mildly fun. ʽHalf Moon In The Crescent Streetʼ, in particular, is a touching anthem to New Orleans, and its cajun attitudes add some bright colors to the otherwise dull-gray hue of the record. And ʽThink Smallʼ, presumably recorded live (although my only arguments are Gorrie's spoken introduction and occasional applause on the part of a small audience, both of which could be overdubbed), is a solid brass-led jazzy jam, «in the style of Cannonball Adderley, or The Crusaders, all the stuff we grew up on», Gorrie says. It is not tre­mendously exciting, but it is respectable second-hand jazz-pop.

Most of the rest of the album, unfortunately, is given to ballads — all of them equally dull and lifeless in their by-the-book sentimentality, culminating with a particularly lifeless cover of ʽLove Won't Let Me Waitʼ (which was already fairly lifeless when Major Harris had a hit with it in 1974, and has only managed to lose its last shreds of pulse since then). Some are slow and some are a bit faster, but who really cares? If you are that nostalgic, just throw on a karaoke version of ʽMore Than A Womanʼ. Going all mushy on us once again is not the way to go if you want to up­hold your R&B credibility. Thumbs down — and, as far as I can see, this really is the last studio album by the AWB; considering that age and lineup issues will probably no longer allow them to fabricate hot grooves, I can only hope that they will have the good sense not to release another ballad-soaked record in their twilight years. Gracefully, gentlemen; the keyword here is grace.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Aphrodite's Child: 666

666 (1972)

1) The System; 2) Babylon; 3) Loud, Loud, Loud; 4) The Four Horsemen; 5) The Lamb; 6) The Seventh Seal; 7) Aegean Sea; 8) Seven Bowls; 9) The Wakening Beast; 10) Lament; 11) The Marching Beast; 12) The Battle Of The Locusts; 13) Do It; 14) Tribulation; 15) The Beast; 16) Ofis; 17) Seven Trumpets; 18) Altamont; 19) The Wedding Of The Lamb; 20) The Capture Of The Beast; 21) ∞; 22) Hic And Nunc; 23) All The Seats Were Occupied; 24) Break.

Of all the albums recorded by Aphrodite's Child before it grew up and underwent ternary fission, 666 is clearly the most dated — but also the most tempting, because only a disillusioned Sa­tanist, way past his prime, would nonchalantly bypass a record that has the number of the Beast staring at the world so defiantly from its album sleeve. Of course, skepticism is not merely allowed, it is very welcome: «What can these guys tell us about the Apocalypse? Sure they're Greeks and all, but it's not as if they wrote The Book of Revelation!» But take away the superficial trappings, the way too overtly insistent references to the text of the New Testament, and the result is an ambiti­ous, extremely curious project that succeeds at least as often as it fails. Considering that what we have here is a double album, that makes up for at least fourty minutes of good music.

Conceptualism was the way to go in 1970, when Vangelis decided that the band had to grow up of its «three minute art-pop song» phase and join the army of progressive musical thinkers. I am not quite sure of how Demis Roussos, with his crooner aspirations, reacted to the idea, but, at the very least, he honestly participated in the project, doing his bass duties and singing where requi­red (many of the individual tracks are completely instrumental). In addition, work on the album saw the return of Silver Koulouris, fresh from the army and ready to do guitar battles now.

The flow of 666 is fairly straightforward: it takes relatively few liberties with The Revelation, for the most part just offering vivid musical images that accompany its happy tales of seven seals, lambs, beasts, trumpets, horsemen, and whores of Babylon. (One curious exception is a track na­med ʽAltamontʼ — apparently, Vangelis took the «apocalyptization» of the 1969 Altamont trage­dy by the rock press seriously, interpreting ʽAltamontʼ as a modern projection of the «mountain» in The Book: "This is the sight we had one day on The High Mountain"... etc.). Whether it works or does not work as a soundtrack to the book probably depends on everyone's pre-set ideas of how such a soundtrack should sound in the first place. Creepy? Scary? Overwhelming? Distur­bing? Loud/bombastic or quiet/subtle? Could we trust Miles Davis with playing the seventh trum­pet, etc., etc.? Another possibility is to simply forget about the Biblical connection and form your own idea of what the heck it is all supposed to mean.

Regardless of the choice, most people will probably agree that 666 is quite heavily «padded». Ap­parently, Vangelis insisted on a double album, because nothing less than a double album would have been appropriate for the subject. (Besides, double albums were all the rage by 1970). How­ever, he did not have enough original musical ideas to fill up four sides — hence, comes the spra­wling, 20-minute-long suite ʽAll The Seats Were Occupiedʼ, featuring a bit of loose jamming and then working as an «underture», rehashing and revolving all of the themes, sometimes more than once. Already upon the second listen, it becomes eminently skippable, except for the last minute of wild avant-jazz noise that follows the haughty enunciation of the title.

Another highly controversial bit, then and now, has been ʽ∞ʼ (ʽInfinityʼ). The basic premise is crudely funny — a sexual pun on the line "I am to come", which we are supposed to interpret in both of its meanings at the same time. The realization of the pun is a five-minute piece of percus­sion havoc, against whose background the guest-starring Greek actress Irene Papas is donated the line "I was, I am to come!" and instructed to pronounce it in a million different ways, as long as each of the ways is reminiscent of an orgasmic experience. That Vangelis actually won the long, hard battle against studio executives, who tried to keep this porno-scented stuff off the album, is a pleasant page in the history of the war for artistic and personal freedom. It would have been far nicer, though, if, upon finally gaining the studio executives' consent, he had immediately deleted the tapes. That way, freedom of art would be vindicated, and so would our ears, because having to listen to this crap for five minutes in a row is simply ridiculous. One would have been more than enough (it is rumored that the full take lasted for thirty-nine minutes).

That said, once all the padding and questionable sonic experimentation have been removed as dated filler, the musical parts of 666 are just as strong as anything Aphrodite's Child had ever done, and in some ways, stronger. Genre diversity, in particular, continues to be held in high esteem. We have bombastic «arena-folk» (ʽBabylonʼ), moody art-pop dreamscapes crossed with hard-rocking guitar frenzy (ʽFour Horsemenʼ), dark Floydian panoramas (ʽAegean Seaʼ), jazz-fu­sion-style jamming (ʽDo Itʼ), honky piano-led blues-rock (ʽThe Beastʼ), and, of course, plenty of Eastern motives, sometimes with sitars (ʽThe Seventh Sealʼ), but more often with a closer-to-home Greek underbelly, I think (ʽThe Lambʼ, ʽThe Wedding Of The Lambʼ). And, for the most part, it all works. The hooks and moods are there.

ʽThe Four Horsemenʼ were loosed on the poor horrified little world as the lead single, and, al­though the piece itself hardly had any hit potential on its own, the decision is understandable — the track is a clear standout, with the catchiest, most sing-along style chorus on the album ("The leading horse is white..."), and then, several minutes into the song, followed with a brilliantly constructed wah-wah solo from Koulouris, which has not just the finest guitar playing on the al­bum, but simply happens to be one of the greatest guitar solos ever played — and I am not joking: no one would ever suspect Koulouris of being an unsurpassed technical virtuoso, but somehow he managed to properly pick up all the «epic» chords and come out with a flying monster that could easily stand its ground next to Dave Gilmour in terms of emotional impact.

Other personal favorites include ʽAegean Seaʼ, which not only has some more of that fantastic guitar work, but also introduces electronic textures that predict solo Vangelis, to a large extent; ʽThe Lambʼ, with its odd mix of baritone guitars, winds, and electronics — a fast-paced Greek dance beset with mystical vibes; and the final piano-led number ʽBreakʼ, the closest thing we have here to a «normal» Demis Roussos ballad, which is probably why it was the only number from 666 to remain in his solo stage repertoire. (Not that he kept the echo effects on the voice, the organ flourishes, and Kouloris' last wah-wah guitar solo, I believe — all the things that elevate the song above the state of a generic ballad).

Overall, it is clear that 666 never had a chance: not only did the world market care rather little about fearless prog-rockers that did not have permanent residence in the UK, but Vangelis and his temporarily obedient friends also made plenty of false moves, both during the planning of the al­bum and upon completion of the recording. In the end, 666 only came out as late as 1972, by which time Aphrodite's Child were effectively over as a band, and it never received the proper promotion, partly because there was no one left to promote, partly because the promoters must have still felt uneasy about promoting an album with such a title.

But in retrospect, despite all the flaws, 666 deserves proper recognition — let alone the high qua­lity of the melodic content, it is a bit more than simply «derivative second-generation prog». In fact, it is not only «first generation prog», but its synthesis of Western and Mediterranean stuff is, in a way, completely unique for the whole movement: if the guitar solo on ʽFour Horsemenʼ, no matter how overwhelming it is, essentially just follows the Hendrix/Clapton standards of guitar playing, tracks like ʽThe Lambʼ and ʽLamentʼ are in a class of their own — you won't hear any­thing like that from a Robert Fripp or an Ian Anderson, because on this sort of turf, they were at a heavy disadvantage next to Vangelis, a native Greek who had enough time and opportunity to as­similate the Western tradition as well. This is the only time, really, when «Greek progressive rock» came out loud and proud on the international market, and it is fully deserving of everyone's ears — and an impressive final twist to Aphrodite's Child's prematurely deceased career... out of the ruins of which came Vangelis, «The Electronic Guru», and Demis Roussos, «The Singing Kaftan» (feel the difference). Thumbs up — here's hoping for an eventual proper revival.

Check "666" (CD) on Amazon

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Beatles: Revolver


1) Taxman; 2) Eleanor Rigby; 3) I'm Only Sleeping; 4) Love You To; 5) Here, There And Everywhere; 6) Yellow Sub­marine; 7) She Said She Said; 8) Good Day Sunshine; 9) And Your Bird Can Sing; 10) For No One; 11) Dr. Ro­bert; 12) I Want To Tell You; 13) Got To Get You Into My Life; 14) Tomorrow Never Knows.

In 1966, the Beatles were cool. Of course, in certain ways, they were cool ever since the world learned enough of them to treat them as such, and in still other ways, they remain cool even today. But I am not just talking about the usual «cool» here; I'm talking about «cool cool», that particu­lar kind of it that sows respect even in the hardened hearts of young cynical intellectuals. For the Beatles, 1966 was that very brief period where they were, like, one of the coolest things ever — so much so that, despite their pop orientation, they could be competing with the likes of Ornette Coleman. After Rubber Soul, nobody could properly predict where they would go next, and, al­though in retrospect their creative development seems quite logical and consistent, back in those days each new record was seen as a revelation.

They even looked cool — still wearing the suits, but exchanging the cutesy ties for rougher look­ing sweaters, adopting «continental intellectual» sunglasses, letting their hair down to barely ac­ceptable length, but still quite a long distance away from the Frisco hippie look (and still untain­ted by the Maharishi aura). Still very much in the public eye, too, keeping touring activities on a limited, but ac­tive scale: the band's last concert, in Candlestick Park, San Francisco, would be held twenty four days after the release of Revolver (without featuring even a single one of the new tracks). This was the year of John's «more popular than Jesus» scandal — adding as much to the «coolness» image as could be sucked up by the world's growing share of cultural rebels. The Beatles, though, were no rebels. They were just cool. Nothing else.

Consequently, Revolver may not be the Beatles' «best ever» album (what is?), or their most «re­volutionary» album (one could write a thesis on that issue and still be left standing in the middle of the road), but the way it seems to me, it is their «coolest» album — in mid-'66, all of the condi­tions for that were met, no difficulties encountered. The reason why so many «hip» people prefer it to Sgt. Pepper are crystal clear — Sgt. Pepper is saturated with idealistic ambition, a genuine desire (at least, on McCartney's part) to make a «grand» statement from a «rock guru» standpoint, which can easily piss off some people, especially if they feel that the actual music is not quite up to the task (and that feeling is not that difficult to feel for an album that has ʽWhen I'm 64ʼ on it). On Revolver, however, the idea of a «conceptual» approach had not yet burgeoned — the songs are perfectly free to flow, without having to work for any common noble purpose. And yet, at the same time, Revolver washes away the last traces of «simplistic teen pop» that could still be evi­dent on bits of Rubber Soul (ʽWaitʼ, ʽRun For Your Lifeʼ, etc.).

It is also a «transitional» album, in the best sense of the word that there is: Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison are now fully established as individual creative forces with separate, coherent crea­tive ideologies (George gets a grand total of three songs to celebrate that, his largest share ratio per one vinyl disc on a Beatles album ever), and yet the group spirit is still completely intact — as evidenced not only by the jointly written ʽYellow Submarineʼ, which works primarily as a char­ming buddy an­them, sealed off by having Ringo sing on it, but simply by the fact that every­thing is perfectly coherent, with no visible attempts to pull the blanket in opposite directions, and plenty of emotionally involved and fruitful collaboration, too, on each other's songs.

And, above all else, perhaps, it's a LOUD album! Revolver is often proclaimed as the record on which the Beatles finally embrace the psychedelic vibe without reservations — but, truth be told, there is relatively little «hardcore psychedelia» out there, apart from Klaus Voormann's sleeve painting and ʽTomorrow Never Knowsʼ. On the other hand, there is a lot of loud, thick, bulging electric guitar-driven rock music, usually provided by John (ʽShe Said She Saidʼ, ʽAnd Your Bird Can Singʼ, ʽDoctor Robertʼ), but also by George (ʽTaxmanʼ, ʽI Want To Tell Youʼ), whereas Paul, assisted by the «rock saboteur» George Martin, is channelling the loudness into the realm of art songs (ʽEleanor Rigbyʼ) or brass band stylistics (ʽGot To Get You Into My Lifeʼ) — adding heap big lot of aural diversity without disrupting the overall flow.

And finally — it is the first Beatles album where not even a single song can be said to «owe a heavier-than-it-should-be debt» to anybody else in particular. I have scrutinized every piece in my mind several times, and not a single one qualifies as «okay, here they are being a bit too much somebody else (Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Bob Dylan, Burt Bacharach, the Byrds, etc.) and not quite enough themselves». Like everybody else, I have my favorite tracks here and ones that I could, more or less, live without (ʽDoctor Robertʼ, even after all these years, strikes me as a rather minor novelty number, notable for its drug-related lyrics rather than much of anything else; melo­dically, it seems like a miscalculated attempt on John's part to upstage Paul with ʽPaperback Wri­terʼ), but all of them exclusively represent the vision of the Beatles and no one else.

A possible exception is ʽLove You Toʼ — the band's (more precisely, George's, since the only other band member to be involved here is Ringo on tambourine) first serious attempt to incorpo­rate real Indian motives in its music, rather than just plunk out a simple (but effective) folk melo­dy on the sitar in ʽNorwegian Woodʼ. It is still a point of debate whether he is responsible for all the sitar playing on the track himself or there are uncredited Indian musicians supporting him at least on the soloing parts — most musicologists are inclined to believe the latter, claiming that it would have hardly been possible for George to master the necessary skills in less than one year of training, not to mention that, for some reason, those «magic skills» would somehow never re-ap­pear on subsequent tracks (and by the time they got around to recording ʽThe Inner Lightʼ in 1968, the Indian session musicians were already given proper credit, even as George was ta­king extra lessons from Ravi Shankar himself).

But this should not detract from the fact that ʽLove You Toʼ is not only the first full-fledged mer­ger of Indian and Western motives in pop music, as opposed to tiny flourishes in the past, but also one of the best such mergers — unlike future, expectedly more meditative, ventures, this one ac­tually rocks, and combines the «spirit of the drone» with the memorability of a pop hook in a way that somehow seems completely inoffensive for both cultural approaches. Nine times out of ten, the whole «East meets West» thing in pop, be it Western-produced or Eastern-produced, is either dead boring or hideously laughable. With ʽLove You Toʼ, I used to be a little bored, for sure, but now I am convinced that its basic melody is no worse than the average melody of a George Har­rison song, and that the sitar carries it in a natural and unforced manner. Indian music aficionados will cringe at its lack of «authenticity», of course, but for those who actually look forward to get­ting into Indian music from a completely Western background, ʽLove You Toʼ and the likes of it would be a respectable initial compromise. At least it was good enough for Shankar.

Besides, ʽLove You Toʼ is as true to George's ego as anything else he'd written. On Revolver, ʽTaxmanʼ introduces us to his mundane side — never a proper hermit, George liked his money just as everyone else does — and on ʽI Want To Tell Youʼ, he plays that kid in The Who's ʽI Can't Explainʼ who finally grew up and learned to articulate more properly: now at least he reali­zes that it's no big deal to be confused, because "I could wait forever, I've got time". Funny buddy thing: both of the songs owe a huge part of their effect to Paul — first contributing the exquisite angry guitar solo on ʽTaxmanʼ (raga-style! mind the irony!), then enhancing the somber mood of ʽI Want To Tell Youʼ with the finger-tapping piano bits.

Speaking of Paul, Revolver marks that particular point in the race where he fully catches up with John, the both of them speeding ahead neck-to-neck (another good point to hold up the reputation of the album). Five out of fourteen songs constitute his private domain (as opposed to the average four or even less on preceding albums), and even though all of them are expectedly «wimpy» and sentimental next to John's «grittier» material, at least two out of five transcend generic sentimen­talism by delving deep into human tragedy — ʽEleanor Rigbyʼ is often seen as the ultimate heart-breaking anthem to loneliness, but ʽFor No Oneʼ, written and arranged on a slightly less epic / an­themic scale, is actually its more reclusive, but not any less beautiful cousin. (Quite closely mat­ched in spirit by Paul's solo classic ʽAnother Dayʼ four years later — although ʽAnother Dayʼ was quite «upbeat» in comparison, not as much of a straightahead downer; not to mention lacking the exquisite extra flourish of Alan Civil's French horn solo).

Come to think of it, the emotional depth of these two — Paul's suddenly emerging ability to in­vent two fictitious, but realistic characters and then get so deeply under their skins — pretty much transcends the depth of anything even John had written up to that point. I cannot even exclude the thought that this is the starting point from which we have to unwind the story of the Beatles' breakup (which, in my opinion, has always been the story of John Winston Lennon being pissed off at one James Paul McCartney stealing his, John Winston Lennon's, band from under John Winston Lennon's nose — and not being able to do anything about it, because all the stealing happened through fair competition. But that's putting it too roughly, of course). In any case, Re­volver sees Paul firmly and finally taming his «sappy» instincts and taking them in the only right direction that can turn one's genius sentimentalism into lyrical tragism.

On the other hand, you could argue that sometimes genius sentimentalism can place a truly great song on a top spot without adding huge psychological depth, and that such feats are arguably har­der to achieve. That is what's being done on ʽHere, There And Everywhereʼ, though, a «sappy», «sugary» song if there ever was one, but you would have to be a hardcore balloon-shooting Pu­ri­tan to remain unmoved by it. Suffice it to say that I have always felt that the line about "running my hands through her hair", regardless of the quality of the lyric itself, actually sounds like the vocal equivalent of «running one's hands through her hair»: this is truly one of the most magical double-tracked vocal recordings ever made (and this is also why the song never produced the same effect in concert, whenever Paul would sing it live later on — heck, there actually was a real reason why the Beatles quit live performing, and it goes much deeper than «how the heck are we supposed to play our backward-recorded guitars onstage!»).

So what about John? At this point, he does not yet fully realize that Paul is tugging on the rug, and Revolver is the last Beatles album to feature him in a completely coherent, workmanlike state, rather than thrown off balance by a miriad extra things. We learn that he is quite preoccu­pied with the LSD issue — but, funny enough, on both of the tracks that deal with it directly his is the view of a curious outsider: it's either "She said I know what it's like to be dead" or "My friend works for the national health, Dr. Robert". ʽShe Said She Saidʼ went on to become a clas­sic drug culture anthem, but even though its lead guitar line is a little reminiscent of the San Francis­co / Grateful Dead jamming style, it is still firmly rooted in the Beatles' usual brand of pop rock; and apart from the thinly veiled lyrics, there is nothing particularly psychedelic about ʽDr. Robertʼ, either. Still, both songs were quite daring for their time, what with The Beatles having the disadvantage of falling under far more closer public scrutiny than, say, The 13th Floor Eleva­tors. «More popular than Jesus» + «Take a drink from his special cup, Dr. Robert» = did I hear somebody calling for trouble? On the other hand, ʽShe Said She Saidʼ could only be interpreted as a vow of abstinence ("I know that I'm ready to leave"), so it's not all that bad.

In reality, there are only two genuine bits of psychedelia on the entire record. The one that people rarely talk about is ʽI'm Only Sleepingʼ, which, formally, is just a semi-autobiographical sketch of a lazy guy who sees no reason to get out of bed, and has nothing to do with drugs — on a lyri­cal basis: the general aura of the song is, of course, extremely trippy, and it would still remain trippy even without the backward guitar solo. Then again, dreaming, or even «waiting for a slee­py feeling» can sometimes be quite a psychedelic experience without any drugs — and there was nobody who could transmit that yawny, sleepy, fuzzy-conscience atmosphere like John could. I used to picture him actually installing a bed in the Abbey Road Studios and recording directly from under the sheets, and it looked very realistic in my mind. (A similar, but slightly different ex­perience would be captured on that same imaginary bed two years later with ʽI'm So Tiredʼ). Listen to how all the instruments are made to sound as if the person playing them had not had any sleep for at least 48 hours — even Ringo's drums seem to be «dragging their feet». And, to boot, a great muffled yawn at 2:01, during Paul's quiet bass break before the second bridge.

The one that people always talk about is ʽTibetan Book Of The Dead In C Majorʼ, a.k.a. ʽIf You Have No Idea On How To Name Your Song, Ask Ringoʼ. Now this one, of course, would be im­possible to dismiss as «non-psychedelic»: there is hardly a more flamboyant way of giving your­self away than "turn off your mind, relax and float downstream". Serious adepts like to point out that the tune is a mere trifle compared to «hardcore» London psychedelia of the time, such as Syd Barrett's Pink Floyd. Yet even on an objective basis, there is really far more complexity and au­da­city involved in the meticulous construction of ʽTomorrow Never Knowsʼ from its multiple tape loops than in any of Floyd's astral jamming. And on a subjective basis, well... don't you just love that unnerving Ringo beat?

Seriously, what I love most about ʽTomorrow Never Knowsʼ is how well it ties in with the album cover. (That link alone would suffice to earn the overall non-psychedelic Revolver its overall ve­ry-much-psychedelic reputation). The song places you, the listener, in a capsule, sends you «floa­ting downstream», and has all sorts of impressions flash by in ragged, broken, mysterious tape segments. There has to be an active sender, of course, responsible for the capsule-making and the button-pushing — and there he is, four of them, to be precise, on the album cover, with everyone and everything wedged in between the four Mount-Rushmorian faces. Somebody feeling a bit too God-like, perhaps? Well, the Beatles had been humble enough for too long for their own good; by late 1966, they thought they were entitled to a little more than usual. Besides, feeling God-like is an obligatory ingredient of «coolness» — at least, it used to be like that in the mid-Sixties, when idealistic hopes for the breeding of a new, super-progressive kind of conscience were at their peak, and «coolness» was not yet thought of as incompatible with «mass popularity».

Then again, as great as ʽTomorrow Never Knowsʼ is in its album-closing role, there are some days on which I think that ʽYellow Submarineʼ might have worked even more effectively — as a simpler, friendlier, homelier gesture to say goodbye with. One for the kids — in fact, it is ironic that it took the Beatles most «adult» album up-to-date to contain the first song targeted primari­ly at their pre-teen audiences. (Unless you, too, believe that the whole thing is a metaphor for an acid trip, and that John and Paul were taking it out on their simpleton drummer by constantly sup­plying him with drug innuendos: ʽYellow Submarineʼ, ʽWith A Little Help From My Friendsʼ... throw in the line about "what goes on in your mind", and the picture's complete). For some rea­son, it never satisfied me in its silly position as track No. 6 on Side 1 — couldn't they have at least switched it places with ʽShe Said She Saidʼ? It's a side-closer if there ever was one! Or, at least, a side-opener, for which function it had to wait until the movie soundtrack.

As far as I am concerned, though, that little mix-up with the sequencing is just about the only flaw I can see about the whole record. Almost fifty years later, it continues to sound just as fresh and relevant as it was back in its time, without losing a single drop of its «coolness», despite not even having an overall conceptual backbone (or, perhaps, because of that?), and yet, still being somewhat larger than the sum of its individual parts. Just like Rubber Soul, it pushes its nose in a dozen different stylistic, emotional, and thematic directions — only this time, nobody does the pushing but the Beatles themselves. If Rubber Soul is the album on which they successfully at­tempt to turn into the greatest band in the world, then Revolver is the album on which they know of their superpowers as the greatest band in the world, and not afraid to use them. Ambitious­ness? Vanity? Pretense? A double helping for me, please, with some meaning of within on top.

Check "Revolver" (CD) on Amazon

Monday, April 23, 2012

Blind Boy Fuller: Complete Recorded Works Vol. 3 (1937)


1) Put You Back In The Jail; 2) Walking And Looking Blues; 3) Bulldog Blues; 4) Where My Woman Usta Lay; 5) Working Man Blues; 6) Weeping Willow; 7) Corrine, What Make You Treat Me So; 8) Stealing Bo-Hog; 9) Worried And Evil Man Blues; 10) Bulldog Blues; 11) Break Of Day Blues; 12) Oh Zee Zas Rag; 13) Throw Your Ya Yas Back In Jail; 14) Snake Woman Blues; 15) Mojo Hidin' Woman; 16) Steel Hearted Woman; 17) Ain't No Gettin' Along; 18) Careless Love; 19) New Louise, Louise Blues; 20) Mistreater, You're Going To Be Sorry; 21) Bye Bye Baby Blues; 22) Looking For My Woman No. 2.

Man, was Blind Boy Fuller ever in demand in 1937! This third disc in the series only barely ma­nages to cover his output recorded from July 12 and ending on December 15 that year — starting just as the infamous recession of 1937 began rolling in and cutting down jobs, so that the title of the first song on here, ʽPut You Back In The Jailʼ, looks a little too close for comfort. And yet, ap­parently Fuller's singles were still selling like hotcakes, despite sounding not a wee bit different from what he'd already put out. (ʽPut You Back In The Jailʼ, while we're on the subject, was al­most immediately re-recorded as ʽThrow Your Ya Yas Back In Jailʼ).

The only peculiarity of these sessions is that the three last tracks were recorded with legendary harmonica player Sonny Terry (who had already played with Fuller earlier in a blues trio), giving the man a chance to «reinvent» three older tunes in a flashier way than usual. Unfortunately, Ter­ry is given very little space to shine – two very brief solos and some rhythm-accompanying lead lines that are rather poorly captured by the mikes. Apparently, it had to be demonstrated very cle­arly just who was the boss in the studio.

Other than that, minor ear-catching highlights include ʽOh Zee Zas Ragʼ (a new bit of fast rag­time, and it does not seem to have the exact same melody as ʽRag Mama Ragʼ!); and the dirgey mood of ʽWeeping Willowʼ, for which he also seems to have mastered a new chord or two (and then, just a few months later, duly re-recorded it as ʽAin't No Gettin' Alongʼ — and Blind Boy Fuller was actually so lazy, unlike most other re-recorders, he didn't even bother writing new ly­rics for the songs he re-recorded: he just took out a different line to use as the new title). There is also a very good take on the traditional standard ʽCareless Loveʼ, one of the «bluesiest» ones du­ring that era (Lonnie Johnson, despite being a far superior player to Fuller, did that one almost in crooner mode; and Bessie is beyond competition in any case); and I suppose that Big Bill Broon­zy recorded ʽLouise, Louise Bluesʼ somewhat earlier than Blind Boy (otherwise, why slap on a ʽNewʼ subtitle?), but I like Blind Boy's purely acoustic version much better than Big Bill's, who recorded it over one of his «hide-behind-the-piano» periods. Crisp, clean, sharp, as perfect as simple, unassuming 12-bar blues ever gets. Well, supposedly 1937 was a good year for somebody other than Uncle Joe over in Soviet Russia.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Bon Iver: For Emma, Forever Ago


1) Flume; 2) Lump Sum; 3) Skinny Love; 4) The Wolves (Act I & II); 5) Blindsided; 6) Creature Fear; 7) Team; 8) For Emma; 9) re: Stacks.

For a brief while, Bon Iver (a graphic misrepresentation of French bon hiver ʽgood winterʼ, so make sure you get your French accent on the right syllable) seemed to be one of the hottest things happening on the indie scene. It was, in fact, like a proverbial indie fairy tale come true: a «visi­onary», mildly autistic, highly sensitive guy (Justin Vernon, a twenty-six year old major in Reli­gious Studies from Wisconsin), suffering from mononucleosis and girlfriend problems, secluding himself in a winter cabin, completely alone with his guitar and some recording equipment —and out comes a minimalistic masterpiece of lonely, melancholic beauty. This is the stuff NY Times bestsellers are made of.

What really surprised me about this album, upon studying people's reactions, was the rather large amount of «on-the-fence» reviews, along the lines of «fairly nice listen, okay and all that, but cer­tainly not deserving of the hype» and so on. Because For Emma, Forever Ago is certainly not your «average» indie record — it is one of those albums that should be driving people into op­posite tren­ches, machine-guns at the ready. It may be tempting for the evaluator to try and rise above the disagreements, but as tempting as it is, it simply makes no sense. I honestly do not see a way to call Justin Vernon's offering anything other than «genius» or «crap». And in between the two — sorry Bon Iver fans — I can only choose the latter.

Note: At this point, every bona fide Bon Iver fan is supposed to say «You just don't get it, do you?» and click the «Back» button on the browser. You have been warned: leave now, be­fore somebody gets hurt.

First and foremost: I am sick to my stomach of young bearded melancholic Artists locking them­selves up in log cabins with acoustic guitars. At the very least, one thing which all that time spent inside the log cabin could be devoted to, would be to fuckin' learn to play that acoustic guitar. If Nick Drake's Pink Moon ever had the right to be called a minimalistic masterpiece (which I am not sure of, but in any case, Pink Moon is fifty times the masterpiece For Emma could ever claim to be), it was because the minimalistic guitar parts were produced by a master guitar player, a genuine demi-god of the instrument. Justin Vernon, in comparison, does not seem to know one thing on the guitar that a bright school kid, listening to old folk records, could not master within one month of picking up the thing.

Second: The proverbially gorgeous falsetto simply does not cut it any more. Unless this is the first falsetto you have heard in your life, the sweet, soothing, lulling sound of Justin Vernon's voice adds nothing whatsoever to the legions of falsetto-using singers already assembled. The on­ly thing of note is the consistency: unlike such wimps as Brian Wilson, Prince, or even Antony Hegarty, Vernon sings almost exclusively in falsetto, threatening the very reputation of the entire State of Wisconsin. A brave chore (unless he also talks like that), but a head-splitting one.

Third and most important. I am not the one to deny the power and importance of atmosphere. I am certainly not against minimalism as such. And I certainly do not agree with Zappa on the ge­ne­ral principle that «broken hearts are for assholes». But there are limits to every sort of patience and tolerance, and as far as I am concerned, For Emma crosses that line quite definitively. The broken heart of Justin Vernon is probably the 10,000th broken heart or so that I have come across in my relations with various kinds of art. Just because it took a log cabin in Wisconsin and an all-out falsetto delivery to acquaint me with it, is not going to make me any more excited. Where is the goddamn music to go along with the broken heart?

Admittedly, from time to time there are a few vocal hooks that might, even should be salvaged from the realm of boredom (and if I ever notice someone appropriating them for a better record without sharing the proper credit, I promise to pretend not to have noticed). Most of them are tucked somewhere within the two slightly more upbeat tunes — ʽFlumeʼ and the title track; I also admit to liking the chorus of ʽCreature Fearʼ. The former two have bits of folksy beauty, the lat­ter has a bit of dream-pop charm... somehow, on these three, Vernon must have accidentally fallen upon a few non-standard, evocative vocal moves.

But all of these are exceptions, and they never obstruct too much the overall flow of the record, which is quite comparable with the average flow of a water storage basin on a very slightly bree­zy day. Sometimes it outdoes itself by dragging at an absolute tortoise pace (ʽThe Wolvesʼ), as we are supposed to revel in the naked pain and beauty of Vernon's voice and its multiple over­dubs. More often, it picks the tempo up just a little bit, usually on the strength of some basic folk shuffle strumming. Not that there is any big difference.

As for Justin Vernon's personal drama... you know what? I'm sorry about the guy as I may be sorry for every other guy or girl that suffers more than he or she deserves to, but I find his poetry clumsy and derivative (here is a typical example: "Only love is all maroon / Gluey feathers on a flume / Sky is womb and she's the moon / I am my mother on the wall, with us all / I move in water, shore to shore / No­thing's more"); his attempts to artistically individualize his problems at the same time overblown to the skies and undercooked to the core; and, of course, all the general indie-trendy hoopla fuss raised about the record reflecting the general crisis of the times.

In the end, I have no choice but to agree with Robert Christgau, the lone voice in the crowd to give the album its deserved C+ — or with my old idol Mark Prindle, who dismissed Bon Iver in his usually laconic way: «without the falsetto, it'd just be boring; with the falsetto, it's unlisten­able». Count this whole review as a somewhat superfluous commentary on that judgement. And please, please, PRETTY PLEASE, NO MORE BEARDED LONERS WITH ACOUSTIC GUI­TARS! WHERE THE FUCK IS A ROCK'N'ROLL GUSTAV MAHLER WHEN YOU NEED ONE? THUMBS DOWN, DOWN, DOWN!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Ash: Trailer


1) Season; 2) Jack Names The Planets; 3) Intense Thing; 4) Uncle Pat; 5) Get Out; 6) Petrol; 7) Obscure Thing; 8*) Hulk Hogan Bubblebath; 9*) Different Today; 10*) Punk Boy.

Apparently, before recruiting drummer Rick McMurray and settling upon «Ash» as a suitable name for their future «best-rock'n'roll-band-in-the-world (to ever come from Ireland, since you are all sick of U2 by now anyway)», guitarist Tim Wheeler and bassist Mark Hamilton had done time in an Iron Maiden cover band, no less. Traces of this can be heard quite distinctly in their early sound (ʽHulk Hogan Bubblebathʼ starts out as sheer heavy metal, before melting down into zombie-flavored stoner rock), but it is most probable that they sucked at this venture — Wheeler is a good guitar player, but hardly on the level of Iron Maiden's axe gods, un­less technique and complexity were intentionally sacrificed once the new band rerouted its inte­rests into the direction of «alternative rock».

Trailer, their first EP/mini-LP, was built around ʽJack Names The Planetsʼ, the band's first single of any popular importance, and originally contained just seven songs (a few more were thrown on later for comprehensiveness' sake). None of them are very good, but one fine aspect of Ash alrea­dy on display is that their guitar-based sound is just a tad different from the generic «punk sloppi­ness meets pop toothlessness» manner of the alt-rock crowds of the mid-Nineties. Maybe it is the Iron Maiden tribute period that we have to thank, but, in any case, Wheeler's guitars usually have a lower grumble and a fuzzier crunch to them than the genre prescribes, and the lead parts feature a variety of tones, from high-pitched to wah-wah, and are consistently more melodic and less pre­dictable than one would expect.

That does come in handy when you realize that there is not a single melody to die for on Trailer. ʽJack Names The Planetsʼ is sort of likeable, with its fast tempos, Wheeler's friendly, non-screa­my vocals, and a brave attempt at marrying punk, hard rock, and Brit-pop, but the melodic flow is extremely even, and the hooks are non-existent — what, did they really think that simply re­peating the track title three times in a row is enough to make a respectable pop single? The se­cond attempt, ʽPetrolʼ, essentially following the same songwriting formula, managed to be a little better — at least this time, there is an attention-drawing climactic burst at the end of each verse as Wheeler's echoey scream kicks off an extra layer of distortion and sets the song's main melodic riff in action. Not that it's a lot, either — any professional songwriter would have chuckled at how little is really done to gain the listener's trust.

I hardly remember anything about the other songs, except for ʽUncle Patʼ, where the tempos are slowed down a wee bit, and the whole song, replete with Wheeler's friendly vocal overtones, ends up sounding somewhat like (very) late period Kinks (Think Visual or something like that). On the ultra-short ʽGet Outʼ, the band tries to go for a «polished metalcore» type of sound — very fast, aggressive, but also quite technical — but the melody is too brutal to be melodic, yet too re­strained to win points just for the hardcore smell of it all.

In the end, the most memorable tune on the album is... the band's cover of Helen Love's ʽPunk Boyʼ, quite a telling fact all by itself. (Even more telling is the recommendation to listen to the original instead — Helen Love have quite an odd, if very silly-sounding, approach to bubblegum-pop that sounded far more original in the mid-1990s than Ash's approach to Helen Love material). The good news is that the bubblegum pop influence may have helped these guys to lighten up — and become a little bit better in the future. With Iron Maiden and Helen Love playing dice in your subconscious, chances of your musical output amounting to pure, undiluted crap can be expected to decrease rather sharply. It does take time, though, and for the moment, Trailer gets a thumbs down, if only for not being diagnostic of the subsequent movie that it allegedly advertises.

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

Friday, April 20, 2012

Associates: Fourth Drawer Down


1) White Car In Germany; 2) A Girl Named Property; 3) Kitchen Person; 4) Q Quarters; 5) Tell Me Easter's On Friday; 6) The Associate; 7) Message Oblique Speech; 8) An Even Whiter Car; 9*) Fearless (It Takes A Full Moon); 10*) Point Si; 11*) Straw Towels; 12*) Kissed; 13*) Blue Soap.

It is hard to surprise anyone by describing an early 1980s album as «dark and cold». Even the New Romantics, whose basic goals involved finding fresh new ways to get girls to sleep with them, thrived on sounding «dark and cold» — the colder you are, the hotter will be the girls that you are going to get. And, considering how much the Associates' debut was influenced by the Bo­wie/Eno team, it would be very easy to dismiss their further developments on Fourth Drawer Down as even more bandwagon-jumping.

But during this very brief streak, the Associates were not really jumping on the bandwagon — on the contrary, they were helping to build the bandwagon. First of all, these six singles, first relea­sed separately, then knocked together in a coherent single monster, are wildly experimental. Ran­kine and Mackenzie were not interested in simply trading in their post-punk guitar band sound for a bunch of synthesizers: nearly each of the tracks had to include various sound effects and over­lays that would all contribute to the «authentic eeriness» of the atmosphere. Second, throughout the working process Mackenzie was feeding the band his personal disturbance and paranoia — and where it did not seem enough, they were enhancing the mood with drugs (allegedly, both of the key members even had to be hospitalized at one point).

In terms of complexity or meticulousness of production, Fourth Drawer Down does not stand comparison with The Cure, for instance. But it does not really have to. Robert Smith's target has always been the arena — his internal anguish had to be projected over the entire world, and that, by itself, required a tremendous amount of work so as not to come out as laughable. Mackenzie, on the other hand, is not singing about the end of the world or about humanity being forever chai­ned to eternal bleakness, despair, and soul torment. Hence, this is «chamber-oriented» art-pop, not the «symphony-oriented» brand of Robert Smith; and most of the sonic waves seem oriented straight at myself, rather than at occupying the airspace around.

Starting, actually, with the first throbbing pulses that open ʽWhite Car In Germanyʼ. As your sub­woofer threatens to blow up under the weight of the song's massive «leaden» punch, Mackenzie pours out waves of lyrical nonsense with such keywords as "cold", "infirmary", "spies", "surgery", "premature senility", and, yes, "white car in Germany". Whether it's all about an ER vehicle or something else is irrelevant: the main aim is to get a shivery, clinically sterile, living-dead sound, a variety of «morgue muzak», if I may say so. There is no overexaggerated depression or faked in­sanity here — it's simply an anatomical deconstruction of death with no emotional evaluation attached. None needed, in fact.

ʽWhite Carʼ is one of the album's least guitar-dependent songs, though; a more typical formula involves some particular, relatively simple, but catchy, guitar figure, devised by Rankine and us­ed as the basic anchor — the unnerving voice of your internal doomsayer. Next come Macken­zie's ice-cold operatic waves, and finally, all the extra overdubs. It applies to ʽA Girl Named Pro­pertyʼ (where several guitars drone on, layered across each other, in a disturbingly Crimsonian manner); the faster-paced, but still living-dead ʽKitchen Personʼ; and ʽMessage Oblique Speechʼ. ʽQ Quartersʼ pushes the guitar drone into the deep background, keeping the foreground minima­listic-ambient, with a little bit of pseudo-harpsichord to ensure that the mood is still flowing. And ʽTell Me Easter's On Fridayʼ floats on a thin little keyboard riff instead, probably being the clo­sest to generic «synth-pop» that this record gets.

The original record only included eight songs, still managing to run for a good fourty minutes be­cause of the length; however, the six bonus tracks on the CD reissue, bringing back all the nearly lost B-sides, add a brief epic touch — the extra twenty-five minutes will probably just irritate you if you find yourself incapable of «getting in the spirit», but for those who like a solid morgue-ori­ented album from time to time, ʽPoint Siʼ, with its quasi-annoying buzzing guitar groove, and ʽStraw Towelsʼ, one of the album's fastest songs, will be fine additional touches to the sonic pa­norama. (The only true misstep is the final number, ʽBlue Soapʼ, which features Mackenzie sin­ging accappella through a megaphone or something, set against a backdrop of dripping water and what sounds like a faraway orchestra rehearsal — gimmicky and quite meaningless).

It is thoroughly not «my kind of album» — quite inevitably, I find myself bored each time I get to the third or fourth song on it. Me, I'd rather hear one more time about the end of the world than be reminded, in such an intricate manner, of the existence of the cold-room. But if that's the point, Fourth Drawer Down definitely succeeds in making it — don't forget to throw on a sweater or something before loading the record into your CD player. Oh, and the melodies? I'd say they are on the same level as with The Affectionate Punch: modestly catchy «growers» with little, if any, «gripping» power. Oh, and the sound effects? Well, there's typewriters, coughing, singing thro­ugh vacuum cleaner hoses, probably lots of other stuff — no string quartets or nightingales, as could be guessed — it all contributes to some atmosphere, I guess. I could turn my thumbs down, theoretically, but they seem to have been frozen in the thumbs up position.

Check "Fourth Drawer Down" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Fourth Drawer Down" (MP3) on Amazon