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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Bad Company: Desolation Angels


1) Rock'n'Roll Fantasy; 2) Crazy Circles; 3) Gone, Gone, Gone; 4) Evil Wind; 5) Early In The Morning; 6) Lonely For Your Love; 7) Oh, Atlanta; 8) Take The Time; 9) Rhythm Machine; 10) She Brings Me Love.

Surprise! Just as you started to think it could never ever get better, the Bad Company boys make one last concentrated effort. Perhaps even the band members themselves were so horrified with the apathy and facelessness of Burnin' SkyDesolation Angels at least sounds as if somebody gave them a much-needed cold shower.

I know the idea of Bad Company doing disco sounds horrendous on paper, and that their decision to hop on the train during disco's last profitable year reveals agonizing desperation, but ʽRhythm Machineʼ is not utterly trashable as far as trashable disco goes: its chunka-chunka bassline does not take the attention away from triple guitar parts, with Ralphs alternating catchy slide lines and razor-sharp electric leads over a rhythmic jangle. If you can get past such amazing showcases of lyrical genius as "I'm a rhythm machine, you know what I mean" (not exactly atypical for disco hits), the thing almost counts as a breath of fresh air in the context of the ultra-stale BC formula.

The band did not dare to release the song as a single, though, probably afraid of losing the truck driver segment of their audience without picking up the «Tony Manero» group. They went with ʽRock'n'Roll Fantasyʼ instead, which became their last certified big hit — and also represented a weak effort to catch up with the times: Ralphs is playing electronically treated, «cold-hearted» guitars, giving the whole thing a little bit of a «Cars» attitude. Why they decided to further «em­bellish» the song with silly-sounding electronic percussion bursts that punctuate the breaks is not clear. Or, rather, it is quite clear, but I am not sure it works in any way other than utterly comic. But remember, one reason why Burnin' Sky sucked so much was its total lack of humor, inten­tional or not. Even a good laugh at the band's antics automatically makes Desolation Angels an improvement, if not exactly a proper «comeback».

There is also a feel of increased diversity, something the band never displayed as a cherished va­lue before. Besides disco and «electronized» pseudo-New Wave rock'n'roll (the second single, ʽGone Gone Goneʼ, also belongs to the same category), there is also a touch of basic country-rock — the unexpectedly catchy ʽOh, Atlantaʼ, which I really like in all possible ways: upbeat, boun­cy, lyrically simple, but non-moronic, cool singalong vocals: «poor man's Allman Brothers», which really sounds like a great compliment for the band.

And, of course, a couple traditional varieties of the band's hard rock spirit: another spin-off from the pub boogie of ʽCan't Get Enoughʼ (ʽLonely For Your Loveʼ, perfect for stomping your beer mug on the table) and another metal-tinged blues-rock growler (ʽEvil Windʼ, also «spoiled» a bit with the band's strange new passion for electronic percussion). The soft, folksy numbers are no­thing to write home about, but ʽEarly In The Morningʼ could almost be worthy of a contemporary Eric Clapton solo record — not that this should be a reason for rejoicing.

In any case, the album puts the band at an interesting crossroads: the incorporation of synthe­sizers, disco rhythms, and a puff of New Wave spirit does not disrupt the continuity — this is still very much a bona fide Bad Company record — and points a possible way at a marginally respec­table future. Why they preferred not to pursue it any further is beyond my comprehension. Maybe Paul Rodgers got cornered by one of the truck drivers. Maybe they experienced a nervous break­down seeing the «disco sucks» campaign unfurl at the very moment that they came forward with their first experiment in the genre. May be a million other reasons — the fact is, this is the only point in the «listenable» part of their timeline that they had a good chance to modernize their sound and remain relevant for the next decade. Then again, does it really surprise anyone that they ended up blowing it?

Check "Desolation Angels" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Desolation Angels" (MP3) on Amazon

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Argent: Nexus


1) The Coming Of Kohoutek; 2) Once Around The Sun; 3) Infinite Wanderer; 4) Love; 5) Music From The Spheres; 6) Thunder And Lightning; 7) Keeper Of The Flame; 8) Man For All Reasons; 9) Gonna Meet My Maker.

The last Argent/Ballard studio collaboration is generally quite underrated, I think. It yielded no hit singles whatsoever, sank on the charts, directly preceded the loss of a key member and only rose as high as two stars on the All-Music Guide — most probably, rated according to its histori­cal trajectory rather than actual song quality. It ain't no masterpiece, for sure, but it's hardly worse than In Deep — in some respects, it might even be better.

Band members are usually known to quit because of ego conflicts, yet it would be hard to suspect an ego conflict on Nexus: the balance here is tilted significantly towards Argent on Side A, then leans to the other side with the flip of the turntable. Lovers of Argent's brand of pompous hard rock will be placated with two heavy numbers, but Russ also shows his sentimental side on the minimastically titled ʽLoveʼ, and a new-found passion for Scottish martial music on ʽMan For All Reasonsʼ. In the meantime, Mr. «Hot Rod» Argent gets ever more and more progressive, with two long, complex, baroque-soaked suites (one of them fully instrumental) and yet another self-elevating anthem — after ʽI Am The Dance Of Agesʼ, comes ʽKeeper Of The Flameʼ.

All the usual caveats, reprimands, and honors alike apply to Nexus as well. ʽThe Coming Of Kohoutekʼ will be seen as a triumph of creativity and emotion by some, as a pretentious deriva­tive bore by others. I think it deserves credit at least for the wide variety of tricks it pulls together. There are overwhelmingly pompous, «imperial» synthesizer parts, light atmospheric guitar jams à la mid-period Floyd, Bach-derived organ interludes, Chopin-esque piano rolls, and a couple ag­gressive synth / organ / guitar climaxes that The Comet of Kohoutek might have enjoyed, had it actual ears to hear. On the other hand, everything is a little too limp and restrained to properly re­flect such a kick-ass-tral force. Enjoying is one thing, getting overwhelmed is another.

Therefore, I would say that the real highlight of the album is ʽMusic From The Spheresʼ, a com­position that does not try to invoke the feeling of Absolute Might, but instead plays out like an extended fairy dance — a jazz/classical hybrid driven by Rod's high-pitched melody, always stay­ing on the right end of the keyboard until the effect becomes almost hypnotic: the three-minute long coda brings a new meaning to the word «repetitive», but if you play it long enough in the dark, you might eventually start seeing little musical fireflies hopping under your nose. In the good tradition of ʽLothlorienʼ and particularly ʽBe Gladʼ, the song once again gives us Rod Ar­gent as an illusionist-mesmerizer, his best emploi in his prog years.

Ballard, in the meantime, is dreaming of giving his muscular rockers a religious flavor — ʽThun­der And Lightningʼ would hardly be out of place on a Manowar album, what with its GENUINE THUNDER INTRODUCTION, echoey electric current-imitating synths and guitars, and, of course, Mr. Ballard himself, screeching and bellowing like the great Thor himself. It would be utterly awful if the chorus weren't catchy, and the arrangement weren't so creative. As it is, «hi­larious» is more like it. On the other hand, ʽGonna Meet My Makerʼ is slower, more stately, ba­sed on a simple and memorable blues riff of a ʽBorn Under A Bad Signʼ-threatening quality, but never seems to decide whether it really wants to be a commanding Old Testament-oriented blues-rocker, or an operatic performance — Ballard's vocals clearly veer towards the latter, and this, again, gives the whole thing a sort of pre-Meatloaf sheen that I find irritating.

Nevertheless, even the worst stuff is still interesting, in one way or another, and Nexus certainly does not feel like the end of the road — the band is literally bursting with ideas, good, bad, or otherwise. It's just that the audience for these ideas is steadily dwindling: in 1974, the commercial appeal of Ne­xus was close to zero (way before the punk revolution), and Ballard was no longer content to «waste his talents» by pandering to Rod's artistic ambitions. In fact, listening to ʽThun­der And Lightningʼ, you can almost sense the man's potential dissatisfaction with how the band treated the song — instead of concentrating on its heaviness and «thunderous» attack, Argent keeps pushing wimpy synths, spoiling its hit potential. (Never mind the emerging subtlety — in the mid-1970s, subtlety did not translate well into fame and revenue).

I could be imagining things here, but facts are facts: Ballard quit soon after the recording of Ne­xus, making it the last «genuine» album by Argent as a band — the next few efforts would be completely dominated by Rod. Despite its ambiguity and occasional cheesiness, it still gets a thumbs up. Besides, it's always fun to encounter obscure records titled after Latin metaphorical terms. And they did it first! Gene Harris only released his own Nexus in 1975!

Check "Nexus" (CD) on Amazon

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Beatles: Let It Be

THE BEATLES: LET IT BE (1969-1970)

1) Two Of Us; 2) Dig A Pony; 3) Across The Universe; 4) I Me Mine; 5) Dig It; 6) Let It Be; 7) Maggie Mae; 8) I've Got A Feeling; 9) One After 909; 10) The Long And Winding Road; 11) For You Blue; 12) Get Back.

I am going to go for a little change of protocol here. Technically, Let It Be was the last original Beatles album, since it was released on May 8, 1970, exactly one month after the infamous McCartney press release about his leaving the band. It was also the last album on which three out of four Beatles (no Lennon) recorded a new version of an older song (George's ʽI Me Mineʼ, with the final sessions dated to January 1970), and most of the mixing was done in March/April 1970 by Phil Spector. Naturally, most discographies and review sets place it at the end of the line. Be­sides, it's called Let It Be. The title track is called ʽLet It Beʼ. How could there be a more perfect title and a more perfect title track for the Beatles' swan song?

But, ironically, the first rehearsal of ʽLet It Beʼ took place on January 3, 1969, at a time when tension was already running high, but there was no thought yet of an actual break-up — and the song was never intended as a musical testament, as it is quite easy to see from the lyrics. On the contrary, it is a pacifying piece, maybe even a subconscious plea for everybody to just take it easy. Which no one did, unfortunately, because by early 1969, Paul's «take it easy» was unequivocally under­stood by everyone as «take it easy and just do as I say», whether he really meant it or not.

The «finished» album may have come out in 1970, but in 99% of all possible ways and manners, it belongs in early 1969; and props must be given to Spector for preserving much of the attitude of early 1969. Upon release, Let It Be was heavily criticized for sounding ragged and unfinished, but that is exactly what the Beatles' musical grip was at the time — ragged and unfinished. If you ever saw the movie, you might even get the feeling that the Beatles themselves were quite ragged, although much of this has to do with the cold London climate and the necessity of getting up ear­ly in the morning to participate in the filming.

I have no reason to doubt that Paul's complex plan to revitalize the band was undertaken with the best of all possible intentions. Unfortunately, it just proved what many might have felt all along: namely, that being a genius composer does not automatically make you eligible for «smart poli­tician». Probably the most correct strategy at the time, if one really wanted to preserve the band as a single entity, was to take a break — let everybody's nerves cool down after the already hea­ted White Album sessions, invent alternate outlets for everybody's individuality, maybe even settle on part-time solo, part-time collective careers. Instead, less than two months after The Bea­tles was finally launched, Paul was pressing the band back in the studio, and how.

The idea of getting «back to the roots», playing much of the material «live in the studio», like they did in 1963, without giving in to studio trickery where each band member would sit in his own cubicle, turned out to be disastrous. For one thing, it'd been a long, long, long time since they ever did anything like that — two or three years at least. Listening to the early takes of Let It Be material, or watching the Twickenham footage in the movie, shows just how painfully rusty, and, at times, quite sloppy the results came to sound. For another, it actually involved spending more time in the presence of each other, and an increased necessity of compromising — some­thing that was much more easily done in 1963 than in 1969.

And finally, it was just plain wrong. It is one thing to abandon an idea that did not work, and re­trace one's steps back to the previous level when things were going all right. But the concept of «getting back to the roots» from a level that you have perfectly mastered is nothing short of ridi­culous. (Four years later, a similar change of mind would forever destroy the «hipness» of Eric Clapton). Simply put, Paul's plan was completely doomed from the start, and it also laid to rest whatever hopes there might have been of the Beatles eventually sorting out their mutual problems. In a way, Paul did kill the Beatles with the «Get Back» project — injecting a lethal dose of cama­raderie instead of a careful, step-by-step treatment.

Still, the Beatles could be fairly great even at their collective worst, and for demonstrating that, we have to say a big thank you to Phil Spector. These days, mostly due to active counter-pro­paganda on Paul's part, his role in the album is usually remembered as that of «the guy who put those corny strings on ʽThe Long And Winding Roadʼ, but I am completely on John's side of the debate: strings or no strings, Spector took the chaotic, confusing, incoherent mass of tapes from the January 1969 sessions and made the best of them. And, furthermore, he did not merely select the «cream of the crop» — he somehow managed to convey the dishevelled, tense spirit of the sessions, while at the same time avoiding showing us all of their blandness. In other words, Let It Be manages to be a glorious mess, as compared to the depressing mess that we can now officially observe in the outtakes included on Anthology 3.

Paul's original idea was to record the final version live, and Spector actually respected that intent: although only four songs were included from the «Rooftop Concert» — the culmination of the whole enterprise — there is certainly a live feel to the entire album, conveyed by the inclusion of snippets of dialog, pseudo-announcements ("I Dig A Pygmy, by Charles Hawtrey and the Deaf Aids! Phase One, in which Doris gets her oats!"), and little odd bits like the band launching into an accappella comic rendition of ʽDanny Boyʼ at the end of one of the rooftop numbers. Throw in such snippets as ʽMaggie Maeʼ and a little slice from the large ʽDig Itʼ jam that introduces ʽLet It Beʼ, and the informal, messy feeling is complete.

It does not necessarily help, because the ʽDig Itʼ jam is pointless, ʽMaggie Maeʼ is just a moment of occasional silliness, and the jokes and adlibs are only funny for the first time. But it provides some authenticity. There is no way that Let It Be could ever demand to be included into a Beatles  «Top 3» or something like that, anyway — so, if this is going to be a relatively minor release, one might as well throw on something special that would indirectly hint at why it is a minor release. Sure, the best explanation would probably have to be the heated McCartney / Harrison studio ex­change, captured in the movie, but that's carrying it a bit too far. We're happy enough with Len­non's self-ironic "thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we passed the audi­tion" at the end of the album. Would there ever have been a reason for asking that question on any previous record?

Still, there are at least three fully accomplished, well-produced, «completed» Beatles classics on the record — one of John's (ʽAcross The Universeʼ) and two of Paul's (the title track and ʽThe Long And Winding Roadʼ), which is already more great stuff than there is on... er, Yellow Sub­marine. John's song is intentionally «transcendental», and probably the quintessential «trans­cen­dental» Beatles song altogether — again, not without irony, considering how this stately, grace­fully flowing, humbly meditative anthem was written and recorded at the height of the Beatles' personal quibbles and quabbles. Discussing the religious ecstasy of ʽLet It Beʼ is hardly necessa­ry, although I must mention that this particular version is my personal favorite, compared to the sin­gle release and the movie take — because of Harrison's decision to make the solo a little more dynamic and «screechy» by going all the way up before elegantly coming down again.

As for ʽRoadʼ, well... frankly speaking, the song is not one of my favorite McCartney ballads anyway, so it is hard for me to say whether it works better or worse with Spector's strings or with­out them. It's got plenty of romantic pathos in its original incarnation anyway, so if it is the «cor­niness» that annoys the listener, it's right there from the beginning. If, however, it is the amaze­ment at yet another impeccable piano/vocal combination from Macca's heart that you're after, the strings arrangement hides neither part of it from you.

Of the «rooftop» numbers, ʽGet Backʼ is the only one that approaches the same level of accom­plishment, and for good reason: the band must have spent plenty of time working on the song in the studio, to get locked in such a tight, ideally directed groove, with Billy Preston on electric piano as the star of the show. Arguably McCartney's greatest contribution to the restrictive world of the boogie — that stomping, cavalry-charging rhythm seems so simple when you come to think of it, but somehow, nobody ever did it just like that before. Had all of their new songs come out sounding thus easy-going and inspired, the message of "get back to where you once belon­ged" might not have been wasted on the band.

The bad news is, instead of going on another creative rampage, a lot of studio time was wasted on remembering, rehearsing, and re-recording old standards — from ʽBlue Suede Shoesʼ to ʽBesame Muchoʼ — none of which had any reason to appear on the final album, and none of which, for­tunately, did. The only exception was made for the Beatles' own ʽOne After 909ʼ, a song they'd originally tried to record at least in 1963, and now replayed it «rootsy-style» on the rooftop. It's funny, and they had lots of fun playing it, and it features an original Billy Preston piano part with a cool «electronic» ring to it... but for some reason, I've always enjoyed the original version more: the slower, more relaxed, laid back original matched the sarcastic lyrics better than the rooftop version, which tries to kick more ass in a rowdier way. Besides, John and Paul's voices do not mix up all that well on the live performance.

On the other hand ʽI've Got A Feelingʼ is, to me, the forgotten gem on the album. It makes for a classy, fresh, inspiring start of Side Two; it's got one of the band's best ever «looping» riffs; it's really two songs alternating with each other and then locked onto one another; it has George Har­rison playing the nastiest licks of his career at 1:25 into the song (and it's hilarious how he never managed to get them quite right in the Twickenham Studios part of the footage — and then got it so perfectly once the band was finally on the roof) — and even the lyrics make sense, because it is... well, it's probably the world's finest ode to human ability to feel. In that respect, it's funny how, in this battle, it is Paul who is the herky-jerky one, whereas John is all but playing the Dalai-lama on the "Everybody had a hard year..." part. Down with stereotypes!

Sure, the album feels incomplete. Some of the songs are objectively underworked — George's ʽI Me Mineʼ, fantastic as it is, lasted all of 1:34, and Spector had to replay the same section twice to bring it to a more logical completion (with brass overdubs on the second verse so it wouldn't feel too obvious). John's ʽDig A Ponyʼ gives the feeling of leaving too many melodic lines unresolved, as if he wasn't given enough time to complete all the sections. ʽFor You Blueʼ feels a little naked, too, although I love the song dearly because of its odd combination of sounds — John playing lap steel and Paul getting it on with an electric piano that seems to have been dragged out into tropi­cal sunlight and left out to dry for twelve hours straight (I almost physically feel dehydrated my­self each time after the performance).

But let us also remember that, much to the Beatles honor, they realized it full well themselves: this is why the final album was indefinitely shelved, as the band regrouped itself for the final ef­fort of Abbey Road, and this is why it was only released after it became clear to everybody that a brand new studio album from the Beatles was not forthcoming. Let It Be is a self-acknowledged failure, with a few moments of utter brilliance and some moments that are not quite up there (but, goes without saying, still better than 99% of the... well, you know). It should not be passed off as «just another Beatles album» — it is in equal parts a Beatles album and a historical document, and should be taken as such.

Which brings me to my last point: the recent re-invention of Let It Be as Let It Be... Naked is little more than a postmortem curio (I'm not saying «cash bait», because the process of messing around with the tapes again may have meant much more to Paul than simply an extra sour­ce of revenue). By discarding the Spector «innovations», taking out the «live» bits and snippets, and reshuffling the tracks, the Naked version tries to pass it off for «another Beatles album» — but it doesn't work that way. That Beatles album never existed in the first place. And I have no interest whatsoever in hearing ʽTwo Of Usʼ without the "I dig a pygmy...!" introduction, or ʽOne After 909ʼ without the ʽDanny Boyʼ bit.

Particularly the latter. Watch the Let It Be movie and you'll have to agree with the obvious: through­out that cold and miserable January of 1969, the happiest moment in the Beatles' col­lective life happened during those forty minutes of playing on the roof — fueled by the genuine excitement of it all and the impending danger of getting their heads smashed in by the police. The more of those minutes we have included on our copy of Let It Be, the better it makes us feel — realizing that the whole venture was not a complete waste, after all. At the very last mo­ment of his crazy plan, Paul finally had it going right. Too bad that forty minutes of playing live in the cold never got around to compensate for twenty days of misery that preceded it. Not even Billy Preston helped in the long run.

I can only hope that future re-editions of the Beatles' catalog will never succumb to the mistake of replacing the original Let It Be with the Naked version — although, perhaps, both have a reason to exist. To me, the Beatles are interesting not only as masters of the pop hook, but also as live human beings with a juicier feel for the universe than my own, and I sense their presence as such much better on the original album than on the sterilized «remake». Not that it's a matter of life and death or anything — screwing around with a Beatles album is nowhere near as dangerous as screwing around with the multiplication table — but on that little grading scale of life's tiny nit­picks it at least feels more important to me than the Greedo controversy. Am I wrong in thinking that Paul McCartney is more precious for humanity than George Lucas? You tell me.

Check "Let It Be" (CD) on Amazon

Monday, May 28, 2012

Blind Lemon Jefferson: Complete Recorded Works Vol. 2 (1927)


1) Black Snake Moan; 2) Match Box Blues; 3) Easy Rider Blues; 4) Match Box Blues; 5) Match Box Blues; 6) Rising High Water Blues; 7) Weary Dog Blues; 8) Right Of Way Blues; 9) Teddy Bear Blues; 10) Black Snake Dream Blues; 11) Hot Dogs; 12) He Arose From The Dead; 13) Stuck Sorrow Blues; 14) Rambler Blues; 15) Chinch Bug Blues; 16) Deceitful Brownskin Blues; 17) Sunshine Special; 18) Gone Dead On You Blues; 19) Where Shall I Be?; 20) See That My Grave's Kept Clean; 21) One Dime Blues; 22) Lonesome House Blues.

The obvious towering highlight of Blind Lemon's output in 1927 is ʽMatch Box Bluesʼ — not be­cause it has anything to do with matchboxes, and not even because it was later covered by Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and eventually the Beatles (the lyrics only have one verse that overlaps anyway, and the melody... 12-bar blues is only whatever your inspiration makes out of 12-bar blues, in any case). It's just that it happens to be the best sounding Blind Lemon song: during a brief stint at O'Keh records rather than Paramount, he cut one single (with ʽBlack Snake Moanʼ as the B-side) that, today, allows us to appreciate his guitar magic unhindered by crackle (well, there is still a little bit left, but it only helps the atmosphere).

I still feel that ʽRabbit Foot Bluesʼ is the man's one true classic on which he pulled all the stops, but ʽMatch Boxʼ does not linger far behind — chops, flourishes, trills, rhythmic traps and coun­terpoints, and then an out-of-nowhere boogie line for the last verse. The technique is impressive for its time, but it is not the technique that counts (for sheer speed and complexity, Lonnie John­son had Blind Lemon beat all the way), it is this amazing freedom of form: normally, you'd ex­pect the flourishes and key changes to happen after the man sings his line — Jefferson does that while singing, so that it is his voice, occasionally, that becomes the rhythm instrument, while the guitar just goes wherever it wants to.

The demand for the record was actually so big that, as soon as Blind Lemon returned to Para­mount, he was pressed into cutting two more takes — both of them in Paramount's standardly aw­ful quality, yet it is still curious to compare all three recordings, since no two out of the lot are completely identical. The boogie line may come in earlier, the intro may play an entirely different chord sequence, and, in general, it seems as if the man had no set plan when launching into the performance at all. Pure free flight.

This does not apply to all of Blind Lemon's material, of course. Some of the songs are quite tight and disciplined, such as ʽRight Of Way Bluesʼ, which is all based around one dark, menacing line winding its way upwards after each vocal turn — but it is such a creepy line, way over any gene­ric 12-bar standards of the day, that the song is still a minor masterpiece. To compensate for the eeriness, there is ʽHot Dogsʼ, a fast little dance number credited to «Blind Lemon Jefferson and His Feet» (the latter are indeed well audible), and then ʽHe Arose From The Deadʼ, sung in Blind Lemon's most sentimental croon to a very similar melody. (And why shouldn't one be merrily tapping one's foot to the story of the Resurrection? Happy end and all).

Somewhat more questionable is the inclusion of several numbers on which Jefferson switches guitar for a piano accompaniment: I am not sure if he played the instrument himself (he did know how, according to reports) or if Paramount brought in a session musician, but the playing on ʽTed­dy Bear Bluesʼ and other piano-led tunes is nothing special, and Blind Lemon is not that mi­raculous a singer to just fall for his voice and nothing else (well, Eric Clapton never learned his lesson, either). It's not bad, but, as a guitar player, Blind Lemon is worth looking into even at his laziest and tiredest — as a singer, he's just one of the many greats of his era.

Besides, his finest vocal performance on Vol. 2 is on a guitar-led track anyway: ʽSee That My Grave Is Kept Cleanʼ, which Bob Dylan would later record trying to emulate some of Lemon's actual modulations — to very good effect, for that matter, even if the fact remains that one is the original and the other one is a tribute act. Musical testaments like this were still a rarity in 1927, even among blues singers, and Jefferson's howling, while not particularly «shivery» per se, still feels a little uncomfortable. The guy was a commercially successful, near-prosperous, respectable bluesman-entertainer, yet here he is wailing about impending death and diminished returns in the afterlife. He only had two more years to live.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Books: Lost And Safe


1) A Little Longing Goes Away; 2) Be Good To Them Always; 3) Vogt Dig For Kloppervok; 4) Smells Like Content; 5) It Never Changes To Stop; 6) An Animated Description Of Mr. Maps; 7) Venice; 8) None But Shining Hours; 9) If Not Now, Whenever; 10) An Owl With Knees; 11) Twelve Fold Chain.

You'd think that, with this clear propensity for «pushing boundaries», The Books would eventual­ly start advancing beyond the format of their first album. For most of their predecessors this was, after all, inevitable. From the nightmarish industrial clang of Einstürzende Neubauten to the psy­chedelic kindergarten of The Animal Collective, they were all moving somewhere. But apparent­ly, that is exactly what Zammuto and de Jong are the most afraid of — that trying to expand their sound and vision will make their «art» more accessible and, consequently, dilute the «impor­tance» of their revolutionary contributions.

Which is certainly correct to an extent: speaking of Animal Collective, now that the world has shed a tear over Merriweather Post Pavillion, how many people are going to remember this band through their first batch of far less accessible, «anti-musical» records? Even despite the fact that, in sheer objective terms, they may have been far more «innovative» per se. Thus, it seems that The Books are willing to lock themselves in this curious state of «perpetual revolution» — not a progressive series of revolutions replacing one another, more like the same group of Bol­sheviks running up the steps of the Winter Palace in constant replay mode.

The third album is a little bit longer, a tiny bit more diverse in terms of selection of basic «melo­dies», and actually features a large amount of vocal work by the band members themselves — sometimes going as far as real singing, usually in a dreary lethargic mode. That's about as far as they allow themselves to go. As for the samples, these now include occasional poetry readings (e. g. from W. H. Auden and «Jabberwocky»), along with the usual obscure movie quotations and bits of street dialog, describing the details of which is excruciatingly boring, and decoding the reasons of inclusion for which is impossible without performing brain surgery on the creators.

You'd think that, perhaps, including a larger proportion of vocals would push these tracks closer in the direction of real songs, but it does not. The minimalistic instrumentation, the chop-and-pa­ste computer effects, the lulling or electronically treated original voices, and the extraneous sam­ples are still interwoven in «art-performance» fashion, so there is no threat of losing the band's precious integrity. In fact, I didn't even notice the change upon first listen — so seamlessly do Zammuto's and de Jong's voices flow into their sample database. I suppose that might be checked as a positive accomplishment.

As a curious exception, I'd list ʽIt Never Changes To Stopʼ, the best thing about which is not the "I don't want to hear any more talking, any more moving about" sample part grumbled out by a see­mingly insecure disciplinarian, but rather an excellent overdubbed cello part that is as much Wagner as it is ʽI Am The Walrusʼ. Its very presence makes the sound louder and fatter than just about everything else on here, and teasingly proves that these guys can make actual music when they feel like it. They just don't, most of the time.

The bottomline turns out to be the same as usual. If you are sleeping, Lost And Safe may wake you up — slim chances, though, because it won't wake you up by itself: you'll have to find it first, meaning that only authentic somnambulists are eligible. If you consider yourself wide awake, I fail to see any potential emotional or intellectual stimulation here that could be genuine. Just one more hollow attempt at breeding a new cultural stimulus that is only alive as long as there is a firm feeding hand to breed it. Sure ain't my hand, though — my hands go thumbs down!

Check "Lost And Safe" (CD) on Amazon

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Ash: Twilight Of The Innocents


1) I Started A Fire; 2) You Can't Have It All; 3) Blacklisted; 4) Polaris; 5) Palace Of Excess; 6) End Of The World; 7) Ritual; 8) Shadows; 9) Princess Six; 10) Dark And Stormy; 11) Shattered Glass; 12) Twilight Of The Innocents.

In my highly subjective, one-in-a-billion, opinion, completely irrelevant in the face of the uni­verse and its struggle for perfection, peace, and justice — Twilight Of The Innocents, pre­sumably the last ever LP-format release in Ash history, is a pile of bland, instantly forgettable, proverbially generic, emotionally disappointing, intellectually insulting, historically insignificant, culturally repugnant airwave stimulants, with a passable superficial similarity to a certain style of art they used to call «music».

To soften the blow, I hasten to confirm that the exact same definition could be slapped on a mil­lion other records, including complete discographies of certain artists we could (but won't) name — and also express a certain amount of satisfaction. For more than a decade, Ash seemed like the perfect band to release a primetime suckjob of an album, but something always stopped them at the last moment: a cool vocal hook or two, a passable funky groove, a well-thought out guitar so­lo, a heartfully delivered folksy melody, something like that. Now, with Charlotte Hatherley once again out of the band, the classic trio finally feels free to fire their worst shot.

Apparently, the intention here was to play it more «raw», less «polished» – a statement that, co­ming from the mouths of most modern bands, is usually translatable to «run for the hills», be­cause, nine times out of ten, dropping the «polish» also means abandoning any attempts at wri­ting non-trivial melodies. Which is really logical: «raw», «unpolished», «with a live feel to it» is frequently understood as «go into the studio and hammer out anything that just blunders into your head. Don't worry, you're a pro, you're bound to sweat out some inspiration».

None of these guys happens to be Thelonious Monk or Keith Jarrett, though, and even if these songs were all written on the spur of the moment, that does not excuse their existence (and if they weren't, that's even worse). Everything here is written in the genre of... «rock music» (shudder), where one guy plays the drums, another one plucks the bass, and a third one picks distorted notes on the electric guitar. Ever heard of that? Oh yes, they do it rhythmically, so you can punch a couple of holes in the floor if you got spikes on your shoes.

There is not a single memorable riff here, nowhere in sight. There are claims at catchy choruses that rarely go beyond shouting the same line over and over again (ʽYou Can't Have It Allʼ). There is one slightly more than hopeless, but still quite pathetic attempt at coming up with an anthemic, «soulful» Brit-pop ballad (ʽEnd Of The Worldʼ), a last humiliating lick at the lollipop already consumed by the likes of Oasis – how does it taste licking a wooden stick? There are a few at­tempts at guitar jangle-laden power pop that don't even manage to step outside the door, because the jangle is compressed into sonic muck (ʽShadowsʼ) . There is an «epic» conclusion (title track) laced with falsetto and a bunch of strings rolling over Beethoven. None of it works. There may be craft, but there is no sign of genius.

It is true that there is less noise here than on Meltdown — the nu-metal legacy is almost out, re­placed by nostalgia for the «1990s nostalgizing for the 1970s». But this is neither good nor bad in itself. And Twilight does not even feel like a sweeping nostalgic gesture: it does everything in half-terms, and ends up sagging rather than bulging in between its countdown points. Goshdarn it, there are only two things that Tim Wheeler can sometimes do really well — bash out sunny-hap­py Ramones rip-offs and sing sentimental folksy ballads — and this record just goes on to prove it by featuring neither. Thumbs down, violently.

Check "Twilight Of The Innocents" (CD) on Amazon

Friday, May 25, 2012

Associates: The Radio Sessions Vol. 1 (1981-1983)


1) Me, Myself, And The Tragic Story; 2) Nude Spoons; 3) A Matter Of Gender; 4) It's Better This Way; 5) Ulcra­gy­cep­timol; 6) Waiting For The Love Boat; 7) Australia; 8) Love Hangover; 9) A Severe Bout Of Career Insecurity; 10) God Bless The Child; 11) This Flame; 12) Helicopter, Helicopter; 13) Theme From Perhaps; 14) Perhaps (schizo­phrenic version); 15) Don't Give Me That I Told You So Look; 16) Breakfast.

Due to the briefness of their shooting star, the original Associates never left behind a proper live album; nor, perhaps, did they really need one, because their sound relied much more on studio craft than explosive live-by-the-moment energetics. For this reason, you might well think, just like I did, that their live radio sessions, released seriously postfactum from the BBC archives, may be ignored without serious consequences. Don't make that mistake! Every once in a while, obsessive completism pays off properly.

The first nine songs on this collection, recorded on April 28, 1981 and March 6, 1982, respective­ly, not only feature Rankine on guitar, playing some of the band's best material: they present the best sound that you will ever get out of the Associates. Recorded live in the BBC studio, the songs only allow that much excessive Eighties gloss to be spoiled with. Real live drumming; a minimum of keyboard layers; and, most importantly, guitar a-plenty, guitar that screams and wails as much as it wants to, instead of being subject to rude discrimination. But at the same time, it's still the Associates — moody, echoey music, hysterical vocals and all.

Take ʽA Matter Of Genderʼ, for instance. The original was an atmospheric rocker, whose spark was ignited by rubbing together a heavy funky bass line and a slight, shrill, «see-saw-y» guitar riff. Live, the guitar minimalism is expanded to become a veritable banshee celebration of the in­strument — it does not exactly become better, but it sacrifices a little bit of «mystery» in order to gain the guise of a tempest. The pseudo-Eastern riff that opens ʽIt's Better This Wayʼ is played out with twice as more muscle, and the vocals do not creep out like a swampy echo from behind the generic electronic drums, but are delivered straight in your face. And ʽNude Spoonsʼ? The guitar buzzes and stings like a swarm of bees on speed, where on the Sulk studio original it just left a dirty trail of sonic slime in the back of your speakers. Cool!

In addition, there are a few tracks that never got album release — the instrumental ʽMe, Myself And The Tragic Storyʼ is another brawny, flashy, inspiring composition, if not particularly me­morable; and ʽA Severe Bout Of Career Insecurityʼ probably has the best pure piano melody on any Associates record of the Rankine era. Also, ʽLove Hangoverʼ gets a long near-accappella in­troduction (with just a few piano notes to back McKenzie), a must-hear for everyone who just sits there waiting for one more chance to go crazy over McKenzie's tonal magic.

The remaining seven songs are from 1983 and already feature several early versions of McKen­zie's Perhaps compositions. These are less exciting, because there are fewer differences from the final takes, and with Rankine's departure, the new band was no longer interested in emphasizing the «live» nature of the sound. Still, there is an interesting take on the Billie Holiday classic ʽGod Bless The Childʼ — I abhor it, currently, but just because I cannot see anyone improving on the original; Billy really does a fine job in his style.

In any case, the first nine tracks alone merit a rock-solid thumbs up: one of those indisputable cases, I think, which fully justify the existence of the BBC Archives — they may have put out a huge lot of redundant, hardcore-fan-only «pale-shadows», but this is one of the major exceptions. It's too bad they didn't record their entire catalog that way — or I'd have no problem recommen­ding to just go for the BBC stuff, and forget about regular studio work.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Bad Company: Burnin' Sky


1) Burnin' Sky; 2) Morning Sun; 3) Leaving You; 4) Like Water; 5) Knapsack; 6) Everything I Need; 7) Heartbeat; 8) Peace Of Mind; 9) Passing Time; 10) Too Bad; 11) Man Needs Woman; 12) Master Of Ceremony.

Apparently, this album was recorded so quickly after Run With The Pack that they even had to delay the release a few months — so as not to let two records compete on the charts at the same time. But what am I saying? Compete? Only in terms of whichever one manages to bore the ma­ximum shit out of you. And by now, even the fans were getting tired: Burnin' Sky peaked at #15, ten positions below Run With The Pack, and its only single of any importance (the title track) went no higher than #78. For a band that placed 100% of its faith in record sales, the sky must have been burnin' indeed.

But then again, what else do you expect from a record that allows itself to build a seven-minute long track on a four-note bass riff? ʽMaster Of Ceremonyʼ may feature plenty of absent-minded organ punching, a distraught, echoey Paul Rodgers vocal that seems to betray traces of pot, and even an occasional sax solo or two, but they are just fooling you: it is really all about the «doo-dum... doo-dum! doo-dum... doo-dum!» Nazi torture assault on your brain. Seven bleeding minu­tes of a pseudo-funky, pseudo-gritty pseudo-jam whose only purpose is to let you know: «Yes, we can make long improvisations that are every bit as minimalistic as our singles!»

The rest is divided more or less equally between rote, unmemorable, trivial rockers and rote, unmemorable, trivial ballads. The title track, believe it or not, is also based on a four-note riff that is nearly the equal of ʽMaster Of Ceremonyʼ, and it happens to be the hookiest thing on the whole album, with Ralphs' electronically treated solo briefly reminding the listener of the existence of such a thing as «danger». But ʽLeaving Youʼ, ʽEverything I Needʼ, ʽMan Needs Womanʼ, etc. — does anybody need to hear these songs even once? Trust me, the music inside is about as appeti­zing as the mega-inventive titles.

Straining my already tired mind, I can perhaps acknowledge that there is a bit of pretty acoustic picking on ʽMorning Sunʼ, and the joint effort of the phasing effect between verses and the pasto­ral flute interludes is enough to at least recognize the song as something on which these guys might have worked, meaning it at least creates an atmosphere (in comparison, something like ʽPeace Of Mindʼ doesn't even begin to create one — just blunders about in a mid-tempo puddle of generic country-pop pianos and electric guitars).

Come to think of it, I may be slightly downplaying the band's will for change. There is really a noticeable increase in all sorts of instrumentation that is not hard rock guitar: folksy acoustic melodies, pianos, saxes, even synthesizers (including synthesized strings). None of which helps, unfortunately, because the basic ideology and style remains the same: SMUT (Simple Music for the Undemanding Toiler). Sometimes I think that the job must have really been a hard one — the guys had so many things to unlearn about their playing, I almost feel like pitying them. Howev­er, not even this kind of pity should stay our thumbs from going down. This is an album that was born begging for a thumbs down.

Check "Burnin' Sky" (CD) on Amazon

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Argent: In Deep


1) God Gave Rock And Roll To You; 2) It's Only Money (part 1); 3) It's Only Money (part 2); 4) Losing Hold; 5) Be Glad; 6) Christmas For The Free; 7) Candles On The River; 8) Rosie.

Strange album cover, if you ask me. Of course, it's Hipgnosis and all, but I know what is my first reaction: «Oh, hello, Mr. Argent. Going... down?» And indeed, the figure on the front sleeve is captured in a fairly uncomfortable position — matching the music, which, by now, is also begin­ning to feel somewhat strained. Or, perhaps, not so much «strained» as «misplaced» — just as the band was finally getting a grip on the progressive stylistics, the stylistics itself was slowly getting on the nerves of the musical community. In Deep never went as deep as the notorious prog-rockers were going in 1973, and thus, was doubly doomed: too lightweight, primitive, and even «regressive» for defenders of the faith, yet too pompous, long-winded, and unfocused for the modest, undemanding pop consumers.

It charted, at least. But at what cost? Since their previous hit record was ʽHold Your Head Upʼ, it was assumed that the follow-up should also be anthemic — and ʽGod Gave Rock And Roll To Youʼ becomes the most blatantly Bick-flicking power vehicle in the band's career. Admittedly, it is nowhere near as cheesy as the KISS cover two decades later, because it wasn't really conceived or executed in the «glam» idiom. It's got plenty of tasteful organ work, an elegant bass line, a pretty baroque chime-filled interlude, and bits of genuinely beautiful harmony arrangements. Still, most people will not fall for all these flourishes — they'll go straight ahead to the Monster Riff and the tribal incantation of "GOD GAVE ROCK'N'ROLL TO YOU, PUT IT IN THE SOUL OF EVERYONE!" At this point, I'd rather save my tears (and lighter fuel) for a different purpose — I always thought it was Chuck Berry who gave me rock'n'roll, and I do not exactly recollect see­ing a holy aureole around it when it was given. Honestly, I rarely take this crap from Freddie Mercury — why should I take it from Russ Ballard?

There is far more grit and actual rock'n'roll in the two-part blues-rock suite ʽIt's Only Moneyʼ, occupying the bulk of Side A and giving the impression that Ballard is now dominating all the songwriting. The first part in particular is quite heavy, riff-based, slightly funky, pierced with flashy bullying guitar and organ solos, whereas the second is a little more laid back, veering to­wards rowdy, but well-meaning pub-rock. But there is a standard problem — Argent is not a hard rock band, and its «brutal» mode simply cannot stand competition even with the likes of contem­porary Budgie, let alone the mega-popular heavy metal monsters.

The bad news is that the Argent/White team is also starting to lose steam. Of the two contributed ballads, ʽLosing Holdʼ is a rather sterile power thing that tries to get by on the strength of a «mas­sive» coda, in which a tiny recorder painfully tries to outsing a simplistic, but loud wall-of-sound — nice, but a better mix couldn't hurt. ʽChristmas For The Freeʼ is relatively more listenable and beautifully sung, yet it is such a blatant take on the «McCartney piano ballad» style that it is al­most impossible not to throw it on the same shelf with ʽLet It Beʼ and ʽMaybe I'm Amazedʼ — which it conveniently misses, landing instead on the same shelf with second-rate Elton John compositions. (But the vocals are gorgeous, I guarantee).

Then there are the two complex epics — ʽBe Gladʼ and ʽCandles On The Riverʼ. They are pro­bably the main reason to care about the album at all, although ʽCandlesʼ also suffers from exces­sive heaviness and too much pathos in the vocals; I place most of my personal trust in the piano-dominated ʽBe Gladʼ, with its merry martial rhythms, classical/boogie piano interludes where Argent keeps switching from Mozart to Fats Domino as naturally as if the two were graduates of the same music college. This is a genuinely inspiring piece, fully deserving an eight-minute run­ning time. But there is no explaining why nothing else on the album really sounds like it — pro­bably the misguided result of trying to get a more «commercial» gloss.

Unlike most listeners, I think that the barroom rock of Ballard's ʽRosieʼ forms a suitably «defla­ting» conclusion to the album — if one takes it that way, as a light, relaxating slide from the stuffiness of ʽCandlesʼ, rather than one more of the band's questionable «sure we can rock'n'roll with the sim­ple people» statements. But it certainly does not remedy the general feeling: flashes of brilliance aside, In Deep generally feels lost in space (or, rather, in deep waters). I would still award it an ever weakening thumbs up, since there is only one significant lapse of taste, and the actual songs range from incidental greatness (ʽBe Gladʼ) to listenable above-mediocrity (most of the rest). But the curve is clearly past its peak, and descending at an alarming rate.

Check "In Deep" (CD) on Amazon
Check "In Deep" (MP3) on Amazon

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Beatles: Yellow Submarine


1) Yellow Submarine; 2) Only A Northern Song; 3) All Together Now; 4) Hey Bulldog; 5) It's All Too Much; 6) All You Need Is Love; 7) Pepperland; 8) Sea Of Time; 9) Sea Of Holes; 10) Sea Of Monsters; 11) March Of The Mea­nies; 12) Pepperland Laid Waste; 13) Yellow Submarine In Pepperland.

There is no pressing need to decry and deplore Yellow Submarine as a «failure», since the album was never truly geared for any sort of success, and everyone knew it at the time: it never even managed to hit the top of the charts in either the UK or the US. Perhaps, had it been marketed along the lines of Magical Mystery Tour — for instance, packed with contemporary singles like ʽLady Madonnaʼ and ʽHey Judeʼ on Side B — it might have seen a warmer reception. But, on the other hand, unlike Magical Mystery Tour, this particular project was somewhat anachronistic from the very beginning, so even that might not have helped.

The thing is, Yellow Submarine (the movie), together with its soundtrack, genuinely belongs in 1967, with all of its humorous surrealism and young-and-innocent flower power vibe. Most of the basic work on the movie was done in late 1967, and the Beatles themselves filmed their brief cameo at the end of the cartoon in January 1968, before the Indian trip that can truly be seen as the last important watermark separating the band's «mid-period» (psychedelia, rabid innovation, friendly cohesion) from its «late period» (back-to-basics, Elder Statesmen, dissent and dissoluti­on). Much had changed in the world, and for the band, by July 1968, when the movie was premi­ered; and even much more had changed by January 17, 1969, when the soundtrack was finally re­leased (apparently, the delay had a lot to do with George Martin recording the symphonic score for the second side).

Thus, it is almost ironic that the soundtrack to one of the friendliest «buddy» cartoons in the his­tory of animation, celebrating peace and love and bright colors and substances, came out at the same time that the band, on the brink of total collapse, was trying to patch up its recent fallout with George Harrison, only briefly delaying the inevitable. And hence, one more reason for a subconscious lack of respect for Yellow Submarine: when placed in the chronological context of late 1968 / early 1969, it feels fake, or, rather, just uncomfortably anachronistic — the first «new» Beat­les release that reeks of nostalgia, rather than points to the future, or, at least, gives the ex­haustive low­down on the current situation.

The other reason for «despisal» is, of course, the fact that even the first side of the album, with only four out of six «new» songs on it, is mainly comprised from outtakes. Only John's ʽHey Bulldogʼ, recorded during the same session as ʽLady Madonnaʼ, was donated to the movie right away, and, naturally, it is the best of the lot. Incidentally, the contrast between the energetic, but harmless-friendly boogie piano melody of ʽLady Madonnaʼ and the melodically simpler, but de­finitely more «evil», «barking» piano riff of ʽHey Bulldogʼ, recorded almost back-to-back, is another glaring textbook example of the John/Paul dichothomy. Watch how John can be friendly, funny, mentoresque, and downright nasty at the same time: "if you're lonely, you can talk to me" is sung with such primal ferocity that I'd rather not be lonely, given the actual choice. On the other hand, the final bit of dialog — "I said woof" etc. — is one of the most lovingly silliest mo­ments in the Beatles' entire career. The song is a worthy companion to ʽI Am The Walrusʼ in sheer terms of «what the heck is going on?», even though it lacks the latter's intentional «epic» vibe. A ʽWalrusʼ for the kids?

The other three songs were all written or even recorded in 1967: George's two contributions are both outtakes from the Sgt. Pepper era (but they do make Yellow Submarine the only original Beatles album on which George is the main contributor), and Paul's ʽAll Together Nowʼ was con­ceived in the Magical Mystery Tour period. The Paul song clearly did not make the grade be­cause of its explicit kiddie orientation (it is even based on a basic counting-out rhyme structure), and George's songs are both somewhat questionable. ʽOnly A Northern Songʼ shows no serious at­tempt at creating a vocal melody, playing out rather like an absent-minded psychedelic jam — it is rather obvious that, in the wake of ʽTomorrow Never Knowsʼ and ʽMr. Kiteʼ, the decision not to let it compete with these songs in 1967 was correct.

ʽIt's All Too Muchʼ is far, far better, one of George's most underrated love anthems, in my opi­nion — not to mention the kick-off, a wall-crumbling fifteen-second Hendrix tribute if there ever was one (and, although much of the song is dominated by keyboards and trumpets, the guitar throughout is 1967-distorted-psychedelia at its wickedest). The song is somewhat marred by the extra-long coda, though, which is actually funny, considering how the also-anthemic, also-uplif­ting, also-coda-focused ʽHey Judeʼ would be even longer — but, of course, the choral singing on ʽHey Judeʼ is supposed to entice and draw in the listener, making him one with the band, whereas the coda to ʽIt's All Too Muchʼ is primarily instrumental, and is probably best appreciated during a chemical holiday in Pepperland.

Of course, two great songs and two passable outtakes do not make up for a credible album, and, in order to pad out the results, George Martin was commissionned a full instrumental score for the second side. Which is usually the biggest complaint: that Side B has nothing to do with the Bea­tles in the first place, making the record a rip-off. This is not entirely true, of course. At least one of the pieces (ʽYellow Submarine In Pepperlandʼ) is built on the theme of a Beatles song (guess which), and besides, whatever happened to the «fifth Beatle» tag? Personally, I've always loved the ʽMarch Of The Meaniesʼ theme, and still consider it fairly «Beatlesque» in spirit (with just a pinch of Wagner thrown in for good measure).

Naturally, the instrumental orchestral themes work better within the context of the movie for which they were commissionned — except that in the movie, you almost never get to hear them in their entirety, logically developed from beginning to end. In any case, my firm position has always been that the original Yellow Submarine made and continues to make much better sense than the 1999 Yellow Submarine Soundtrack, a total commercial rip-off which threw out the orchestral score and replaced it with songs that were already available on regular LPs. (One could easily make oneself that kind of mix without having to buy the album). On the other hand, some­thing like a dou­ble LP mix with all the songs and all the instrumentals properly sequenced could also have been useful.

Which brings us to the obvious conclusion: unlike A Hard Day's Night and Help! (in their UK versions), Yellow Submarine is the Beatles' first and only true «soundtrack album», and it makes little sense to rate, judge, criticize, or enjoy it beyond the context of the animated movie which it represents. Which would have been bad news if the movie were «Beatleproof» — but, fortunate­ly, «nothing is Beatleproof», and no one is Beatleproof, including the animator George Dunning (whom laymen only know for his work on this particular cartoon), and the bunch of script writers who managed to fill a silly, simplistic fairy-tale storyline with enough subtle wit, humor, and in­telligent puns to last a lifetime.

The situation is simple: it makes no sense to get the Yellow Submarine LP before watching the movie, it makes no sense to not watch the movie if you care about the Beatles in the first place, and it makes no sense to crap on Yellow Submarine after watching the movie, unless the Blue Meanies actually got to you in the process. With the musical and cultural world galloping at full speed in the late Sixties, it almost feels like a last-moment soulful gift, a final memento of the era in which the Beatles were the chief symbol of the whole «make love not war» ideology. So it does have its place in the catalog — sort of like a paragraph break before the final act of the tra­gedy. Judge it on its own terms.

Check "Yellow Submarine" (CD) on Amazon

Monday, May 21, 2012

Blind Lemon Jefferson: Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 1 (1925-1926)


1) I Want To Be Like Jesus In My Heart; 2) All I Want Is That Pure Religion; 3) Got The Blues; 4) Long Lonesome Blues; 5) Booster Blues; 6) Dry Southern Blues; 7) Black Horse Blues; 8) Corinna Blues; 9) Got The Blues; 10) Long Lonesome Blues; 11) Jack O' Diamond Blues (take 1); 12) Jack O' Diamond Blues (take 2); 13) Chock House Blues; 14) Beggin' Back; 15) Old Rounder Blues; 16) Stocking Feet Blues; 17) That Black Snake Moan; 18) Wartime Blues; 19) Broke And Hungry; 20) Shuckin' Sugar Blues; 21) Booger Rooger Blues; 22) Rabbit Foot Blues; 23) Bad Luck Blues.

The cool thing about Blind Lemon Jefferson is not that he was the first country blues «superstar», the person to make the «tough black guy with acoustic guitar wailing into the mike» image mar­ketable and profitable, opening the doors for dozens of followers. Many of these followers could get the job done on their own. The truly cool thing about Blind Lemon is that, at his best, he play­ed that country blues like no one else, with a level of creative freedom, inventiveness, and unpre­dictability that was never matched by any of these followers. Forget Robert Johnson and Big Bill Broonzy: they have nothing on this guy when it comes to taking the basic blues idiom and strip­ping it free of boredom. In all honesty, I think Blind Lemon's stature among his pre-war acoustic blues colleagues should be deemed equal to that of Hendrix in the 1960s.

Unfortunately, Blind Lemon made all of his recordings on the shittiest of all major labels in the 1920s: Paramount. Had he hit it big with the likes of Columbia, it would have been much easier to appreciate his works today, as they would not be covered by almost unbreachable walls of hiss and crackle, from under which the thin, subtle, suffocated guitar lines feebly call out for your at­tention. Note: if you are new to Blind Lemon, do not, at all costs, begin right off the bat with the Complete series on the Document label — the songs here have not been properly cleaned up or remastered.  Go with Yazoo's The Best Of instead: it has most of the highlights, and the people out there did a laudable job of removing much of the original tape hiss, even though it still sounds like crap. But in this business of studying in pre-war music, you have to commit yourself to distinguishing between different sorts and flavors of crap.

I am still reviewing the Document series simply because of completism, although it should be stated that, like everyone else at the time, Blind Lemon was never about «originality». He was, however, about «inspiration», and he could easily record the same song in a routine, boring, per­functory man­ner when he was not in the spirit, or as a jaw-dropping exploration of the limits of sound when he was. And in his earliest years, fortunately, he happened to be in the spirit way more often than out of it.

For some reason, the man's first two recordings, from December 1925, Chicago, are in the gospel genre (they were even credited to a pseudonym — «Deacon L. J. Bates»). But even the first track already gives a brief glimpse of the man's love for flourishes, with mandolin-style trills disrupting the steady choppy flow of the melody and adding an almost sentimental touch. It also introduces his unique voice, an odd combination of «whiny» and «earthy»: Blind Lemon was the first of the great blues «wailers», oozing loneliness and soul torment a whole decade prior to Robert John­son. Of course, ʽI Want To Be Like Jesus In My Heartʼ actually oozes humility and friendship rather than loneliness, but that's just the beginning.

Most of the songs that follow are played in the standard 12-bar blues pattern and are generally interchangeable in terms of basic structure. But that's not the gist of it: real excitement comes from watching Blind Lemon fuck that structure from each possible point of entry, if you pardon the rudeness of the metaphor. The early sessions actually let you see the evolution. For instance, on ʽDry Sou­thern Bluesʼ, one of the man's earliest hits, the choppy ragtime-influenced pattern is technically accomplished and almost «danceable», but stays more or less the same throughout. (Sidenote: it also marks the first appearance of the "when the train left the station, it had two lights on behind" line, later to become the lyrical cornerstone of Johnson's ʽLove In Vainʼ). ʽLong Lonesome Bluesʼ is also strictly disciplined, although the melodic potential is already much wi­der, with little high-pitched country flourishes played at top speed in between the choppy rhythm work, and an occasional trill or two woven into the mesh.

But then at the end of Vol. 1, you already get stuff like ʽRabbit Foot Bluesʼ, which just might be the single greatest «fight the structural limits!» statement of the entire decade. On that track, almost every single bar comes out different — slowed down, sped up, played choppy, played lyrical, syncopated, trilled, aggressive, super-calm, whatever, but never losing track of the root notes, so that nobody could accuse the man of just fooling around. The effect is utterly confusing: the song has no general mood or «aura» per se, just a whirring flash of different feelings. It cannot be qua­lified as straightahead entertainment, because it's hard for the listener to even follow it rhythmi­cally, but it isn't an intimate emotional lament, either. What is it? I have no idea, really. An avant­garde experiment, at least in the context of its usual genre.

Most of the other tracks are less outrageous, with one or two chord patterns dominating over the rest, but even so, each side chooses its own pattern, and the only thing that prevents us from en­joying this diversity to its fullest is the ugly crackle wall. The one track that stands out the most is ʽJack O' Diamond Bluesʼ, presented here in two takes: a spirited wail set to a threatening slide guitar part (a relatively rare occasion: Blind Lemon did not employ slide techniques too often). That despairing yell of "jack o' diaaaaaamond's a hard card to play!" must have raised plenty of hairs back in 1926 — time, and shellac rot, have dimmed its impact, but with a little time-travel­ling effort on the part of your mind, it is still possible to recreate that feeling.

Since these early sessions capture Blind Lemon at his youngest and freshest, unspoiled by com­mercial success, booze, or boredom, Vol. 1 is simply one of the greatest blues «albums» of the pre-war era, period. The horrendous sound quality poisons the effect, for sure, but in compensa­tion, just put on ʽRabbit Foot Bluesʼ in the highest quality you can find and ask yourself: who ever afterwards played acoustic (or electric) guitar just like that? ... That's right. Most of the time, people are trapped by the blues, and show no strength of will to spring the trap. Hilarious, then, that the very first person who made authentic country blues into a household name had already shown how to spring it way back in 1925. Unfortunately, very few people understood the lesson, and most of them just got it wrong. Thumbs up for something so way ahead of its time — or, more precisely, so out of any sort of timeline.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Books: The Lemon Of Pink


1) The Lemon Of Pink; 2) The Lemon Of Pink; 3) Tokyo; 4) Bonanza; 5) S Is For Evrysing; 6) Explanation Mark; 7) There Is No There; 8) Take Time; 9) Don't Even Sing About It; 10) The Future, Wouldn't That Be Nice; 11) A True Story Of A Story Of True Love; 12) That Right Ain't Shit; 13) PS.

Hello and welcome to today's edition of «No Bull Session With Big Daddy». In the news: The Books release a follow-up to their critically appraised debut, Thought For Food. Called The Lemon Of Pink, it is one minute shorter, but one track longer than its predecessor, and continues in the same direction. This makes it, once more, an excellent target for our program.

A lot of reviews and evaluations of the album use different words to paraphrase more or less the same conclusion: «a chaotic jumble that should be a complete wreck, but somehow, for some rea­son, it works». Each time I read something of the kind, I want to turn into a little tick and crawl inside that particular person's ear — no, not to eat his brains out (although that might be an op­tion), but simply to witness his true reaction to a Books album. Because the nagging question is: what works? What kind of gold mine are these guys working on that remains inaccessible to us outsiders?.. Could you be more specific? In fact, could you be more specific?

That said, let us be just. The Lemon Of Pink is a bit less extremist and a bit more musical than Thought For Food. The samples are still at the forefront of everything, but there are now tracks like ʽTokyoʼ, where an actual acoustic melody — and a pretty one, too — runs over its entire length, while Japanese stewardesses welcome you on the flight and off it. The main theme of ʽTake Timeʼ may even be memorable, with the valuable help of the pendulum chorus ("take – time, take – time..."). And there are bits of impressive acoustic playing scattered here and there all over the place, particularly on the second half of the album.

This all makes The Lemon Of Pink sound like a rather vapid, distraught jam session played by a couple of professional musicians that just got together to fight boredom on a lazy, hot summer day. Pile some speech samples on top of it, and whoops, you got yourself an art statement. Take away the samples, and you get back your lazy distraught session. I just keep vacillating between rati­onal hatred for the former and friendly indifference towards the latter.

The little speech-filled links are friendlier and funnier this time, though. ʽBonanzaʼ is a bunch of chopped up, mumbled phrases in an unrecognizable language (Dutch?), recited by a toothless old man; ʽExplanation Markʼ sounds like several over-imposed phonetic lessons; and ʽPSʼ finishes the album with a recording of several people preparing to start something potentially important, but always failing due to uncontrollable giggle attacks. While it's all silly, it at least sounds frie­ndly and even «cute», which might be a starting point for liking the whole thing.

Alas, even if the record succeeds in not generally breeding negative emotions, it still never gets anywhere beyond «cuddly». Tracks like ʽThe Futureʼ and a few others occasionally sound close to The Beta Band — lulling, melancholic singing to folksy acoustic patterns that may, at any time, be interrupted by a heavy whack on the head with a frying-pan or your local rose-colored alien friend whizzing by in his flying saucer. But the Betas had the will to transform these psycho-folk vibes into actual songs, whereas the Books seem determined to put a totalitarian stop to these vile, commercial, intellectually insulting cravings.

With ʽTake Timeʼ and ʽTokyoʼ, their noble goal is almost ruined, because there are two or three things I still manage to remember about these tracks. Elsewhere, they are more successful. But if you are into The Books at all, you should be into hardcore — compared to Thought For Food, The Lemon Of Pink is a fucking sellout. As a pleasant collection of songs, it fails; as an artistic statement, it adds little to its predecessor; as a user-friendly sonic environment celebrating the simple joys of Planet Earth, it probably works best when your name is Major Tom, and you can­not hear me. Thumbs down either way.

Check "The Lemon Of Pink" (CD) on Amazon