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Saturday, June 30, 2012

At The Drive-In: Vaya


1) Rascuache; 2) Proxima Centauri; 3) Ursa Minor; 4) Heliotrope; 5) Metronome Arthritis; 6) 300 MHz; 7) 198d.

Not the first, but the longest EP released by these guys, it deserves its own brief review because it is generally considered to be an important transitional step — sort of a threshold where they fi­nally stopped seeing their noisy schtick as a thing-in-itself, and started using it as a foundation upon which something bigger could eventually be built up. What would be built up is another matter, and I am still not sure that either Vaya or its lumpier full-length successor are «awesome» records in the way that they are revered by the fans, but...

...there's a change in the air, and it is a change for the good. Vaya cuts down on the straightfor­ward noisemaking of In/Casino/Out, brings back some of the twisted guitar geometry of Acro­batic Tenement, and throws in a few new ingredients, mainly, a huge emphasis on «dirge-like» bass and guitar chords. As a result, Vaya gels together as a sort of twenty-minute long punk re­qui­em — appropriate enough for a record whose last song is said to be dedicated to the drum­mer's grandmother, buried in a mass grave in Lebanon (Tony Hajjar's family actually fled to the States from the Civil War in the 1970s).

It is, in fact, only when I started looking at Vaya this way that something clicked (and I tried re­listening to the earlier albums this way, too, and it did not help). This is a carefully — much more carefully than before — constructed projection of human madness and its consequences, preten­ding to far more importance than you'd initially assume it to. The lyrics still flow in seemingly random streams of conscience, but as the music that backs them becomes loaded with a sense of purpose, the words no longer irritate at random — important signals are let out at regular intervals: "mastadon infantry radiate this frequency"... "civilization tastes so good, Nero has conquered the stars..." "they will come and get you tonight, so I guess this is goodnight..." "it's as if someone raised the price of dying to maximum vend again..." "what if forensics finds the answers, what if they stole my fingerprints?.." "amnesia proletariat, coughing up the coffins..." "you speak in ton­gues, tremors that warn us of ourselves..." ...see, it's starting to come together somehow.

As for the music, it is still anything but memorable, but now they know how to make atmosphere — by putting more fuzz on the bass and letting it roam along the premises louder and prouder than they used to, by alternating quiet and loud sections with more suspense than they were ca­pable of mustering, by bringing back the «guitar-weaving» techniques, by toying around with echoes and bits of electronics, by... well, I don't want to create the impression that these songs are very «diverse», because they are not, but the end result is a complex, intelligent, and, of course, hard-rocking grimness that warrants repeated listens until something sinks in.

Because this is so short, there are no high- or lowlights. ʽHeliotropeʼ is one of their fastest and craziest numbers; ʽMetronome Arthritisʼ is an attempt at «dark soul» that culminates in the "what if forensics..." line, the grandest gesture of paranoia in the band's career; ʽ300 Mhzʼ is the album's humble simulation of a worldwide nuclear meltdown; and ʽ198dʼ sometimes quietly, sometimes all-out loudly wails over the consequences. They do not really work apart from each other, and it takes a few listens and a bit of an effort to even make them work together, but once the effort is made, it is hard not to acknowledge that, finally, At The Drive-In managed to transform their «edu­cated brutality» into a form of, ho hum, modern art. Thumbs up, right?

Friday, June 29, 2012

Aztec Camera: Stray


1) Stray; 2) The Crying Scene; 3) Get Outta London; 4) Over My Head; 5) Good Morning Britain; 6) How It Is; 7) The Gentle Kind; 8) Notting Hill Blues; 9) Song For A Friend.

Along with High Land, Stray is considered one of the two key cornerstones of the Roddy Frame legacy, and I concur. Nothing beats the startling originality of High Land, but Stray takes Rod­dy on an entirely different goal — it is his take on The White Album, an ambitious stab at covering everything in sight and sound, and one that nobody really saw coming, certainly not after the Knopflerisms of Knife and the dance-pop-a-roll of Love.

Mainly self-produced, with an entirely new backing band (as usual) and a welcome guest spot from ex-Clash guitarist Mick Jones, Stray does exactly what it is supposed to do: it strays. In all sorts of directions. Pop rock, folk rock, smooth jazz, rhythm and blues, and just a pinch of adult contem­porary for dessert — as much as one lonesome artist is able to cover in about fourty mi­nutes. Fortunately, he also happens to be a talented artist, which he almost made us forget about on the more unbearably tedious moments of Knife and the cornier tricks of Love.

First off the bat, the two upbeat pop singles released from the album are two of Roddy's best ever pop songs — ʽThe Crying Sceneʼ is a masterpiece from top to bottom, be it the beat, the jangle, the lyrics, or the structure of the chorus vocal melody; of all the pop songs to hit the mainstream in 1990, this was the most perfect mixture of modern sentimentality with retro flavours, and "Life's a one take movie and I don't care what it means / I'm saving up my tears for the crying scene" is a fantastic two-liner if there ever was one. ʽGood Morning Britainʼ, due to Mick Jones' presence, does have a whiff of classic Clash arrogance to it, but the carefully engineered melodic flow of the chorus is still one hundred percent Roddy. The only minus is that there are two many keyboards on the song and not nearly enough guitar interplay between the two.

The non-hit rockers are not much worse — predictably, they are just a little less hooky, but ʽGet Outta Londonʼ is a nice companion to ʽGood Morning Britainʼ, more vicious in its verbal attack ("down where the streets are paved with sick schemes, the river's running like a snake through a dream" — how come the great god of the Thames hasn't swallowed him up yet in retaliation?), somewhat less inventive in terms of hooks; and on ʽHow It Isʼ, Roddy immerses himself in lyri­cal and, especially, vocal Dylanisms, sort of trying to recapture the man's radioactive sneer of old and stuff it into a brand new 1990 bottle. Effective.

I am less impressed by the softer numbers — the gentle guitar/piano acoustic flow of the title track, the Chet Baker-influenced vocal jazz of ʽOver My Headʼ, the roots-/synth-pop fusion of ʽThe Gentle Kindʼ. But, unlike the fast stuff that latches on almost immediately, these things are growers. The most difficult situation concerns ʽNotting Hill Bluesʼ, whose seven-minute-long sprawl clearly marks it as a climactic point, and it does feel like the most personal and directly felt number of the lot — it is simply not too interesting from a musical standpoint. Banal as it may sound, Roddy's confessionals strike hard only when they are catchy. Without his pop ins­tincts, he ain't no Van Morrison to work you up with just the power of his voice — something that Knife already showed well, yet, for some reason, here he is falling for the same problem just as Stray was heading for complete perfection.

Nevertheless, occasional flaws and fillerisms aside, the album is a major success, and I am sur­prised that it seems to have all but vanished from the radars — in 1990, Britpop simply did not get much better than this. (In fact, what with the time gap between the Smiths and Blur/Oasis, Brit­pop as such almost did not exist in 1990. And, for the record, we are using a broader definition of Britpop here than the one that pins down Blur and Oasis as founders of the genre). A thumbs up all the way: the very fact that Roddy did not collapse under this burden of diversity, but bravely bore it out, only slipping a bit towards the end, deserves respect.

Check "Stray" (CD) on Amazon

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Bad Company: Holy Water


1) Holy Water; 2) Walk Through Fire; 3) Stranger Stranger; 4) If You Needed Somebody; 5) Fearless; 6) Lay Your Love On Me; 7) Boys Cry Tough; 8) With You In A Heartbeat; 9) I Don't Care; 10) Never Too Late; 11) Dead Of The Night; 12) I Can't Live Without You; 13) 100 Miles.

If Dangerous Age was Bad Company's Permanent Vacation, then Holy Water is its Pump. Of course the gross figures are incomparable, but look at the tendency: Fame And Fortune – US No. 106, Dangerous Age – US No. 58, and Holy Water going all the way up to No. 35! Hitting pla­tinum heights! And the title track going all the way up to No. 1! Holy water indeed!

Honestly, though, this next try is a little better cooked than the previous. There are all sorts of funny little rip-offs, from Aerosmith to Michael Jackson, that are fun to spot; the truck stop an­thems are gone (unfortunately, the power ballads are not); and the overall proportion of sticky riffs and quasi-fun singalong choruses has also increased. Basically, Holy Water is as good a pop metal record as this band would ever be capable of putting out — its «rootsiness» is long gone now, all of it squeezed out, filtered and concentrated in a brief two-minute long acoustic ditty that finishes the album on a most surprising note — drummer Simon Kirke's first lead vocal on a Bad Company record (and the guy actually shows more soul than Brian Howe, but somehow, that doesn't come off as such a big surprise for me). Other than those few seconds of hearkening back to the good old days when the rock of America absorbed its strength from the salt of the earth, it's all strictly under the rule of hair, hedonism, and high technologies.

But you gotta give hair and hedonism their due — those first ten seconds of ʽHoly Waterʼ really kick ass. That's one really mean bluesy guitar roar from Ralphs, and the song is genuinely im­pressive until it gets to the chorus, when it just becomes catchy, but loses the thunder-and-light­ning potential as the ballsy riffage gets lost behind the fruity vocal harmonies. But it isn't the only relative highlight: ʽStranger Strangerʼ opens out on another fine riff, and adds sharp slide lead work to its advantages; and even though ʽDead Of The Nightʼ is not about zombies, as I had ho­ped in utter vain, it is still dominated by guitar crunch rather than poppiness.

ʽFearlessʼ is odd, somewhat of a cross between generic AC/DC and the funky wobble of ʽ(Dude) Looks Like A Ladyʼ; ʽWith You In A Heartbeatʼ is more in the style of Jackson's ʽBeat Itʼ; but then the gentlemen get their revenge by previewing Genesis' ʽI Can't Danceʼ with ʽI Don't Careʼ (really, there is a curious similarity between the riffs, although probably not enough to override chances of sheer coincidence). All of this is silly rather than stunning — clumsy attempts at co­ming up with their own hard rock formula — but at least they had enough sense to cut down just a bit on the machismo angle, focusing less on the «nasty» lyrics and more on the riffs.

Still, don't get me wrong: the simple fact that Holy Water might be the peak of the Howe years does not mean it can be honestly recommended. Why listen to a bunch of mediocre old pros try to sound like Def Leppard when nobody has so far deleted the Def Leppard catalog? Why listen to an album where, in the first song, the singer tells you that he is walking on holy water, and then in the very next one, he already could walk through fire? If they themselves don't really know all that well what they are walking through, how can anyone else?.. Maybe they should have re­leased a Simon Kirke solo album itself. Somehow, "Hey little girl, I love you so, I'd walk a hund­red miles to let you know" sounds more humane here than everything before it.

Check "Holy Water" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Holy Water" (MP3) on Amazon

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Rod Argent: Moving Home


1) Home; 2) Silence; 3) I'm In The Mood; 4) Summer; 5) No. 1; 6) Tenderness; 7) Pastorius Mentioned; 8) Well, Well, Well!; 9) Smiling; 10) Recollection.

This is NOT an «Argent» album; it is a «Rod Argent» album, his first official solo project, after which he retreated into session work shadows for a whole decade. Technically speaking, this should certainly not have gone under the «Argent» session; but factually, it is not all that far re­moved from Circus and Counterpoints, and there is always room for a little cheating — in a way, Moving Home is not so much a new beginning for Rod as an album that, on the contrary, closes the book that was started in 1969. Hardly on one of its more interesting pages, but still, gi­ven the circumstances, it could have been much worse.

The legacy of Argent (the band) is all over this album: lush balladry, portentous attitudes, and jazz-fusion textures are on every track, sometimes even all of them at the same time. But there is no drive to make a really big statement. Even when things get «pompous», it is a homely sort of pomp, never backed with mighty crescendos or lots of physical force applied to the instruments. You'd think that on an album where Rod Argent is responsible for the keys, Phil Collins for the drums, and Gary Moore for the guitars, testosterone would be running high on a permanent basis — wrong! Even Moore mostly sticks to acoustic playing.

Naturally, if you are all set on making a «homely» album, conveying a peacefully tranquilizing mes­sage, you will probably be more successful with the «ballad» rather than the «rocker» form of things. So the only track here that could be called a minor classic, and deserves inclusion on any collective Zombies/Argent anthology, is ʽHomeʼ itself, with a nice, soulful vocal part and almost gospel harmonies in the background. Synthesizers are used as a substitute for strings and church organ at the same time, and produce a fine effect — unlike so many other songs here, where, un­fortunately, the selected keyboard tones mostly range from boring to stupid.

For instance, ʽSilenceʼ is a potentially decent upbeat art-pop song, hopelessly spoilt by a moronic «bubbling» synth bass line and several layers of electronic keyboards where pianos and older-fashioned Mellotrons could have worked much more effectively. The same keyboards also spoil large parts of the fusion-esque instrumentals (ʽNo. 1ʼ, ʽRecollectionʼ), and occasionally poison the fun in other places. All of which is strange, because, up to this point, Rod seems to have ex­ercised good taste and restraint in his complex mix of acoustic, electric, and digital instruments. Here, every now and then he seems to be losing his head, going crazy over some new electronic toy or other. This prevents me from taking Moving Home too seriously.

Another bad piece of news is that most of the «energetic» compositions never really come toge­ther. The «modern jazz» number ʽI'm In The Moodʼ wastes some pretty nimble Phil Collins per­cussion over a piece that tries to present Rod as some sort of jazz pro, but come on now, who are you kidding. And I was subtly hoping that ʽWell, Well, Wellʼ could turn out to be a John Lennon cover, but it is a completely original piece of piano-driven funk aiming for a «badass» attitude (the lyrics seem to be a harsh attack on musical criticism) that fails completely — Rod could ne­ver sing or play «badass-wise» even if his life depended on it. I mean, I have no idea: in real life, it is theoretically possible that he can punch his fist through a brick wall without feeling pain, but there was hardly a time when he could believably vent his frustration on record.

So, once all the nits have been picked and squeezed out, this leaves us with ʽHomeʼ, ʽSummerʼ (not a very memorable, but a very cute-sounding piano ballad with «aethereal» vocals), and ʽTen­dernessʼ — decent, medium-fast moving Brit-pop reminiscent of classic ELO. And while, on the negative end, the inclusion of  the ridiculous ʽSmilingʼ is a serious incentive for a negative rating (calypso should be left to calypso artists, period), on the whole, this is one of those classic «on-the-borderline» thumbs up cases when there is very little to love, very little to hate, but the final feeling hovers around «well, that was kinda cute» rather than «Jesus Christ, life is way too short to waste it in such a pointless manner».

As it happens, Moving Home is that final part of the slide when the journey still goes on, but the speed is decelerating and the feet are already drag­ging on the ground. Worth owning by Rod fans, but it is quite understandable that the guy went on a lengthy hiatus in its wake — because, want it or not, everything that could be said had already been said, so why say it again?

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Beatles: At The Hollywood Bowl


1) Twist And Shout; 2) She's A Woman; 3) Dizzy Miss Lizzie; 4) Ticket To Ride; 5) Can't Buy Me Love; 6) Things We Said Today; 7) Roll Over Beethoven; 8) Boys; 9) A Hard Day's Night; 10) Help!; 11) All My Loving; 12) She Loves You; 13) Long Tall Sally.

For some reason, this album still has not seen a properly authorized CD release; maybe they are just waiting to lay George Martin peacefully in his grave before that happens, considering how re­luctant he was to put it on the market back in 1977 — when the release was triggered by the concurrent propagation of the horrible Live At The Star-Club, Hamburg tapes from 1962. Be­cause there was no way Capitol could stop these recordings from going public, they quickly nee­ded their own reply, and ended up holding George at the allegorical gunpoint. Various factual sources will let you know how much of a challenge it was to handle and process the old tapes; the whole thing was anything but a love affair, and so, the only officially released Beatles' live album still remains sort of a bastard, despisable child.

Ironically, though, as the years go by, its importance increases, if only because there are so many young fans now who do not know the proper answer to the question: «So why exactly did they stop touring?» One good listen to Hollywood Bowl will provide that answer. Although the tracks are taken from two different periods, more or less equally divided between August 23, 1964, and August 29-30, 1965, little had changed in the interim: the banshee wailing flying over the amphi­theater never loses a single decibel of intensity. You, the listener of At The Hollywood Bowl in its LP form, have the magnificent benefit of actually hearing the band. The girls in the audience did not have that benefit — not that they had any need of it. And the band itself did have need of it, but couldn't have gotten it unless somebody built a soundproof glass wall around them. Like the blue bubble around Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in Yellow Submarine.

That said, the Beatles did play well under the circumstances. Occasional flubbed notes in Harri­son's solos or a few tripped beats here and there could happen at any Beatles show, screamfest or no screamfest, and John's major stage curse — that of constantly forgetting the lyrics and having to mumble, improvise, or fall back on older verses — was, I am fairly sure, aggravated by his nonchalant personality rather than teenage howling getting him off the right track. They were ne­ver «great» stage performers, but they did what they could do: rev up the energy level of their studio recordings and play them faster, crazier, more aggressively, the way any good rock show should assert its advantages over the «calculated perfection» of the studio.

The problem was not that they «couldn't play»; the problem was that they couldn't improve. In the studio, every new batch of recording sessions brought on new discoveries and challenges. Live, there was no way they could profit from these discoveries. It is quite telling that, although the per­formances from 1964 and 1965 are shuffled, there is hardly any way to distinguish earlier and later stuff — even if, in August 1965, less than two months separated the Beatles from the break­throughs of Rubber Soul. (Well, clearly, other than the numbers performed — in 1964, they couldn't have been singing ʽHelp!ʼ or ʽTicket To Rideʼ, but I'm not talking about that).

The oddest moments, I think, are the ones where either John or Paul strike up some clumsy, «hu­morous» stage banter — banter that, under normal circumstances, could either be ignored or pro­duce a laughing reaction, but under Beatlemania rule, triggered something much simpler: «A Beatle is talking — time to scream louder!» They genuinely seem lost on that sea, talking and joking to no one in particular, and playing well enough to not lose confidence in themselves, but who really cared? A few headshakes, a few falsetto whoo-whoos, and that's all they need to send the audience to heaven. Led Zeppelin sure hope they could get away that easily.

Today, there is no pressing need to hunt down Hollywood Bowl as long as you already have a general idea of what a Beatles live show used to be like — for which purposes, the Anthology CDs and videos would be perfectly sufficient. Maybe someday the tapes will get the benefit of proper remastering, and the setlists will be expanded to make this document more coherent and comprehensive (at the very least, there is something disrespectful about the almost random shuf­fling of the running order). But clearly, none of these performances will ever replace the studio originals in your heart — although I do admit that, Ringo yells his head off quite effectively on ʽBoysʼ, going at it far more ferociously than when locked in the comfort of Abbey Road Studios. On the other hand, the decision to strip ʽThings We Said Todayʼ of a part of its subtlety, and in­troduce the bridge with a rock'n'rollish "yeh!" on Paul's part, was a mistake. They should have rather included more Carl Perkins in the program.

Of course, the only official live Beatles album (bar The BBC Sessions, which isn't really «pro­perly» live before a real audience) cannot and will not get a thumbs down. What might get a thumbs down is the band's uncompromising decision to quit touring, once and for all. Had they endured just one more year (and even then, when you look at their touring schedule for 1966, you will see that they already spent an absolute minimum of time on the road many months prior to abandoning the practice altogether), the screaming would have died down on its own, and then, finally... remember that the best touring years for the Stones and the Who, two of the Beatles' finest competitors, only began around 1968-69; before that, live bootlegs and scraps of official recordings show that they had relatively limited advantages over the Beatles on the stage. But, as they tell us, history knows no ifs, so let us just bear with the fact that Paul Is Dead, after all.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Blind Willie McTell: Complete Recorded Works Vol. 1 (1927-1931)


1) Writin' Paper Blues; 2) Stole Rider Blues; 3) Mama, 'Tain't Long Fo' Day; 4) Mr. McTell Got The Blues (take 1); 5) Mr. McTell Got The Blues (take 2); 6) Three Women Blues; 7) Dark Night Blues; 8) Statesboro Blues; 9) Loving Talking Blues; 10) Atlanta Strut; 11) Travelin' Blues; 12) Come On Around To My House Mama; 13) Kind Mama; 14) Teasing Brown; 15) Drive Away Blues; 16) This Is Not The Stove To Brown Your Bread; 17) Love Changing Blues; 18) Talkin' To Myself; 19) Razor Ball; 20) Southern Can Is Mine; 21) Broke Down Engine Blues; 22) Stomp Down Rider; 23) Scarey Day Blues.

The usual way, these days, to learn about Blind Willie McTell is through Bob Dylan — you have to become enough of a fan to get around to The Bootleg Series, hear how "no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell", and form yourself the image of an old, weary, troubled, Old Tes­tament-style blueswailer, lambasting the evils of society with his art as nobody listens and the hopelessly corrupt world crumbles all around his blind eyes and rusty guitar.

Then you finally develop the incentive to go check out the real Blind Willie McTell, and if you only came to him after the Dylan song (like I did, although the two experiences weren't directly connected), you are in for quite a shock. The real Willie McTell, not the one invented by Dylan, but the one who was actually born in Thomson, Georgia, on May 5, 1898, was nothing like that image. Yes, he could occasionally sing slow, moderately depressed blues, but in general, the mu­sic he played was light, ragtime-influenced Piedmont blues, sung in a sweet, almost «romantic» tenor that could even be mistaken for a white singer's voice.

(To get off the Dylan topic — if you really want my opinion, I think that the protagonist of ʽBlind Willie McTellʼ is not only a «collective-allegorical» figure, but is really much closer in attitude to Blind Willie Johnson, who was just as big an influence on Dylan as McTell and probably even more than that, in the early days at least. It's simply that "no one can sing the blues like Blind Wil­lie Johnson" does not fit into the song's rhythm-and-rhyme structure, and trivia like that never bothered Bob for one second. He did cover McTell's repertoire with ʽBroke Down Engineʼ and ʽDeliaʼ, but only ten years after the original recording of ʽBlind Willie McTellʼ).

Anyway, Willie McTell was twenty-nine years old when he first entered Victor Records' studio in Atlanta, and, unlike many, many other bluesmen of the time who were more or less the same age when they started out, Willie sounds exactly his age: in a blues world of raspers, howlers, grow­lers, and grumblers he comes across as almost a crooner, except that there is a light, pleasant nasal twang to his voice that prevents it from becoming overtly sweet and sappy.

Arguably, the voice helps Willie to establish an even sharper identity than his playing — which is perfectly adequate for a Piedmont-style picker, but its only truly outstanding aspect is that McTell mostly uses a 12-string guitar, so the overall sound is «fuller» and «busier», yet also more «fus­sy» than, say, Blind Boy Fuller's; to each his own choice of favorite. Every now and then, though, Willie is practicing his inventiveness — nowhere more so than on ʽAtlanta Strutʼ, a total classic of the ragtime blues genre where Willie's guitar gradually builds up a complete picture of life bustling on the streets of Atlanta, from crowing roosters to slide-pickin' passers by.

Sympathetic, danceable, bouncy ragtime entertainment stuff is certainly Willie's major trade du­ring these early years: ʽCome On Around To My Houseʼ, ʽKind Mamaʼ, ʽRazor Bluesʼ, and ʽSou­thern Can Is Mineʼ are all highlights of the genre, even if all are essentially interchangeable and never venture far away from standard formula. But compare Blind Boy Fuller's ʽLog Cabin Bluesʼ with McTell's ʽCome On Around To My Houseʼ (essentially the same song) and McTell clearly emerges as the more lyrical, «frail» type. It's hard to imagine ladies swooning over Fuller, but Willie must have been quite a charmer.

Of the more straightforward blues numbers, ʽStatesboro Bluesʼ is quite well known for its popu­la­rization by the Allman Brothers, but, as you can probably tell, the original has almost nothing to do with the cover — McTell turns it into a mandolin-like ringfest, where Duane Allman would later turn it into a launchpad for some mighty slide riff exploration. It is rather ʽBroke Down En­gineʼ that already sounds like a highlight here, decades before receiving the Dylan treatment — one of the most acutely «stressed» numbers in Willie's repertoire. And again, even though the song is built on a memorable guitar line, regularly interrupted by gloomy bass notes, it is the vo­ice that takes the cake: Willie cannot make it rumble, but he can make it tremble, and when he is not conveying lightheartedness and happiness, he can sure as heck convey «little man» insecurity and paranoia. In such moments, he sometimes ends up reminding me of Ray Davies circa Mus­well Hillbillies, regardless of how appropriate the comparison really is.

Overall, it's fairly hard to talk about individual songs, as usual, but, unlike similar collections by Blind Boy Fuller, McTell's recordings, assembled in chronological order, are easier to listen to without skipping track after track. It might have something to do with his vocal versatility, or, perhaps, with the relatively high amount of playing freedom he allowed himself — paying less attention to total precision and more to expressivity. In any case, the presence of ʽAtlanta Strutʼ alone is sufficient ground for a thumbs up, and when you have it on the same disc with ʽBroke Down Engineʼ and ʽStatesboro Bluesʼ, not even a whole bunch of languid filler could pull them back down.

Check "Vol. 1 (1927-1931)" (CD) on Amazon

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Beach House: Bloom


1) Myth; 2) Wild; 3) Lazuli; 4) Other People; 5) The Hours; 6) Troublemaker; 7) New Year; 8) Wishes; 9) On The Sea; 10) Irene.

For about fourty seconds, ʽIreneʼ, the last official song on this album, hangs on a single, extre­me­ly shrill, almost mind-torturing note, as if Victoria Legrand finally got stuck in her own loop and were only too happy to stick there for eternity. This only happens once, but it is still highly sym­bolic of the entire record. Bloom abandons any weak attempts that Teen Dream might have to broaden and stretch out the band's sound — and sticks to the good old formula, tried and true, more loyally than any Beach House album so far. Not only are the diligent duo not attempting at all to «progress»: on the contrary, they are doing everything in their power to let us know that here they are, and here they will stay. Apparently, for Scully and Legrand, this is perfection, and as long as they continue to make music, there is no need to move away from perfection.

I do not generally believe in remaking the same message ten times in a row, and I had hopes for at least another Teen Dream, where you could at least move from ʽZebraʼ to ʽNorwayʼ to ʽUsed To Beʼ without a feeling of being force-fed the same meal over and over again. No surprise that the first reaction was vicious hatred. Again, song ofter song that creeps along at a static midtempo, rolling over trivial synthesizer rhythms and minimalistic «heavenly guitar» countermelodies. Again, Victoria Legrand is playing her role of yer sympathetic ghost from the closet, blowing mystical fluff into your ears, seductive as long as you do not start interpreting the lyrics. Again, it all sounds imposing, important, and impervious, and the listener is manipulated into kowtowing before the stately, holy iciness... of whom? an exhausted, depleted one-trick pony? Come on!

Fortunately, once the initial disappointment sinks in and you realize that, after all, everybody has a right to the «AC/DC work method» as long as that method is applied to work, not just to dick­ing around, it gets better — much better. Eventually, it becomes evident that there is some pro­gress, and that progress is in Legrand's ever-increasing skill of coming up with wonderful vocal melodies and delivering them with the experience of a well-seasoned sorceress.

And eventually, Bloom just emerges as a container of some of Victoria's subtlest and prettiest hooks. It's too bad that they are never used as song titles, triggering the memory centers with tra­ditional pop ease. The album opener, ʽMythʼ, should probably have been called ʽHelp Me To Name Itʼ, because it is exactly the falsetto transition to that line that really «makes» the song, pushing it from «simply solemn» to «magically transfigured» mode. ʽWildʼ should be ʽGo On Pretendingʼ — there is a deliciously unresolved arcanum in the way she draws out that line, with maybe just the faintest tinge of irony, but well enough to separate the one cool fairy from a series of generic alumni of the Magical Mystery School.

ʽThe Hoursʼ, of course, should be ʽFrightened Eyes (Looking Back At Me)ʼ — and, while we're on it, it is hard not to notice that the opening aaaah aaaah harmonies are a direct reference to the Beatles' vocal arrangements on ʽBecauseʼ; not that this should surprise anyone, since, if there is one Beatles song that could serve as the blueprint for Beach House, it is ʽBecauseʼ (yes, yes, here again, John Lennon did it earlier and did it better, but let us not hold that against anybody). As a matter of fact, the song also has some of the finest guitar-based hooks on the album as well.

In the end, my personal favorite of the bunch has emerged as ʽNew Yearʼ. It isn't for much: you can't get «much» of any single song on here, but it beats 'em all in one ungrammatical line: "All I wanted comes in colors vanish every day", sung with such humane sadness that it gets real hard not to be moved. Sometimes one line like that is enough to distinguish the real thing from the fac­simile, and this, mind you, is the real thing.

So, in the end, Bloom is a retreat from Teen Dream into more conventional territory — but it is like Devotion done really well, with better production, better guitars, better keyboards, fewer drum machines (the pssht-pssht effect is still present on a few of the tracks, but most of the time it's real drums), better vocal hooks, more credible sentiments, and, overall, simply more mature, as the duo's fairy-tale world enters adulthood and the protagonist, armed with extra spell credits, is now able to weave the love magic on an advanced level.

There are still a couple really weak songs here, I'd say, on which the hooks never succeed in ma­terializing (ʽOther Peopleʼ, for instance, sounds too much like generic pop balladry, despite being arranged the same way as everything else), but that is, in itself, a sign of maturity — the very fact that, with such a similar approach to everything, some songs step out of the background and some do not means that the duo is now going for something larger than sheer atmosphere. Also, the silly old trick of adding a «hidden» track after about six or seven minutes of silence never truly works, because the track itself is easily the most boring thing on the album — but this probably explains why it was «hidden» in the first place.

But neither complaint will prevent Bloom from getting a thumbs up — and that title might even be justified, because you can really feel these two guys «blooming», self-assured and totally in control over their strictly limited, but honest trade. I'm glad I did not give in to the initial tempta­tion of trashing the album. On the chronological scale, it is no progressive masterpiece, but in terms of sheer craft and feeling, it annihilates the band's first two albums, which now seem like half-baked, preliminary attempts to «get things right».

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

Saturday, June 23, 2012

At The Drive-In: In/Casino/Out


1) Alpha Centauri; 2) Chanbara; 3) Hulahoop Wounds; 4) Napoleon Solo; 5) Pickpocket; 6) For Now... We Toast; 7) A Devil Among The Tailors; 8) Shaking Hand Incision; 9) Lopsided; 10) Hourglass; 11) Transatlantic Foe.

Big lineup changes here: former bassist Omar Rodríguez switches to second guitar, with Paul Hi­nojos taking his place, and drummer Ryan Sawyer is replaced by Tony Hajjar. Are these shuffles responsible for a change in sound? No idea, but there is a change in sound, and not necessarily a good one, as far as my ears can tell.

The album was issued under a rather standard ideological sauce: «we want to come close to re­producing our live sound in the studio». This idea never worked for the Who, who pretty much abandoned it after several unsuccessful attempts; why it should have worked for At The Drive-In is never made clear. What it all comes down to is sacrificing the basic studio sound of Acrobatic Tene­ment — a sort of «Television updated for the 1990s» — and plunging deep into the world of loudness, distortion, power chords, screaming, and other charming attributes of noise-rock.

At this point, Cedric Bixler certainly sounds like one of the illegitimate sons of Captain Beefheart: the songs never distinguish properly between verse and chorus, the lyrics are an endless stream of consciousness that never makes literal sense but sometimes creates a «mood», the vocals are lite­rally «on the edge», and the music is intentionally ugly and non-catchy. The only problem is, In/ Casino/Out is no Trout Mask Replica. The lyrics have too few intriguing lines, and the words are mostly indiscernible anyway; Bixler's screaming is no better or worse than the acoustic waves sent out by millions of punk guys across the world; and the music...

...well, a few songs are genuinely interesting in one way or another. ʽPickpocketʼ is fast, concise, collected, and riding on a set of wobbly, quasi-psychedelic guitar lines that are at least amusing, and at best, inspirational. That is an example of an actual song with an idea behind it. Then comes ʽFor Now... We Toastʼ, where the same type of wobbly line makes an occasional appearance — but most of the time the musical background remains just a background, loud, but bland.

Many of the songs use a broken, stop-and-start structure (ʽA Devil Among The Tailorsʼ), pre­ten­ding to some sort of «avantgarde» structure — and despite the band's loyalty to the usual soft-verse-vs.-loud-chorus trick (except, as I said, there is no verse/chorus distinction here, un­less the «getting louder» part always counts as the chorus), anyway, despite that, yes, quite a few chord and rhythm changes here are relatively unpredictable. The only problem is, this group is smart, but taken together, they aren't exactly the Mothers of Invention or the Magic Band. They handle their instruments on the same level as any modestly capable punk band, no more and no less. And when you do not play your instruments in a particularly complex or unusual way, «ex­peri­men­tation» is usually a dead end.

To be fair, the album finds quite a warm reception in certain circles; I have seen terms like «ama­zing songwriting» and «unparalleled musicianship» applied to such songs as ʽAlpha Centauriʼ and ʽLopsidedʼ far more often than I'd like or even expect to. Therefore, I have a diplomatic duty to acknowledge that, perhaps, I am not «getting» something here. As far as musicianship goes, there is, at best, a bit of «nice» jangly / drony interplay between the two guitars (far less interes­ting than, for instance, the Bachmann/Johnson duets on Archers of Loaf albums), and the song­writing never advances beyond well-trodden paths of proto-punk and post-punk artists.

But my biggest concern is probably with Bixler, who is simply unbearable here — a naturally whiny guy trying to scream his lungs out is far more annoying than just a natural-born screamer. Eleven songs in a row try to convey a sharp personal tragedy of desperation and disillusionment, spat out in a schizophrenic stream of non sequiturs, and all I can discern is a sociopathic guy in bad need of professional help. (Side note for those who understand: while At The Drive-In could be seen as sort of a «Birth­day Party» prequel to the «Bad Seeds» of The Mars Volta, the compa­rison would never be secure, since Bixler never really «found himself» with his first band, where­as Nick Cave was already perfectly well within his element on the first Birthday Party albums).

Bottomline: if you like your N-O-I-S-E clumsily stuffed into a relatively conventional song for­mat, and your punky music dressed with «modern improvisational poetry», In/Casino/Out may well be for you. But not for me — I think that, unlike the first and third LP from this band, this one has almost nothing redeemable about its thumbs down.

Check "In/Casino/Out" (CD) on Amazon

Friday, June 22, 2012

Aztec Camera: Love


1) Deep & Wide & Tall; 2) How Men Are; 3) Everybody Is A Number One; 4) More Than A Law; 5) Somewhere In My Heart; 6) Working In A Goldmine; 7) One And One; 8) Paradise; 9) Killermont Street.

One thing that is hard to deny about Roddy Frame: the guy definitely had no big love for standing in the same spot long enough to slip into formula. High Land was a fusion of classic pop with New Wave attitudes, and it worked. Knife was a fusion of classic «singer-songwriterism» with Eighties-type Knopflerisms, and it didn't work. And now, three years later, comes Love, a fusion of dance-pop with adult contemporary. Predictions, anyone?..

Predictions can be wrong, though. While, upon first listen, this sounded awful, subsequent im­mersion showed that the «sellout» actually helped Roddy with his creative juices. And, technical­ly speaking, this was a major sellout: no less than six different producers, most of them coming from mainstream markets, worked on the project, which also featured a completely different ses­sion band, with a host of musicians hired specially for the sessions and then going their separate ways again. The songs, however, were still written exclusively by Roddy: this is one area where the corporate machine was strictly forbidden to enter.

Because of its dependence on generic dance rhythms and fairly bland musical arrangements, Love generally tends to get flack from fans. But remember the contrast between High Land and Knife and realize that, whatever the side effects, Roddy generally works better when the songs are upbeat and rhythmically stimulating; drag him down into the world of slow tempos and heavy moods and he will quickly lose his focus and forget about everything but the lyrics.

Even assuming that most of these songs are bad (which they are not), Knife certainly did not have anything of the caliber of ʽSomewhere In My Heartʼ, a certified Aztec Camera classic that justi­fiedly hit #3 on the UK charts, going much higher than the far more «contemporarily-arranged» singles from Love, because sometimes people actually go for intensity of delivery instead of the production trinkets — and Roddy's "somewhere in my heart there is a star that shines for you..." is pretty intense. The arrangement, with its simple synth patterns and sax blasts, is nothing special, but it never detracts from the hooks. It's a simple, but intelligent, solid, powerful love song that should be able to proudly walk into anybody's pop collection.

As for the rest of this stuff, well, it depends on where one draws the line between catchiness and tastelessness. For instance, ʽEverybody Is A Number Oneʼ and ʽOne And Oneʼ certainly have infectious choruses, but whether these are benevolent or malicious infections is hard to deter­mine. Both songs try so doggone hard to get you «on your feet» with their artificial party atmosphere that it quickly becomes irritating — particularly on ʽOne And Oneʼ, with its call-and-response vocals. I do like the arrangement on ʽEverybody...ʼ, with its funky guitars, horns, and «synth-vib­raphones» meshing quite colorfully, but it still might be a bit too overtly «joyful» — on the other hand, it seems as if Roddy were consciously going for a power-to-the-people-ish Lennon vibe on this number, sacrificing a bit of good taste to keep the blood boiling, and I respect that.

It is the slower-moving ballads on which «Roddy the Aztec» seems to be really losing his grip, slipping into adult contemporary clichés, or, at least, writing melodies that are hard to distinguish from such clichés. Stuff like ʽHow Men Areʼ and ʽParadiseʼ tries to create a brand of Roddy-soul that requires very close inspection to distinguish it from contemporary R'n'B-ism. There are some acoustic guitars to keep the live-sound lovers happy, but overall, the synthesizers are overbearing, the hooks are mediocre, and the ideas behind the songs do not warrant the presence of an indivi­dual singer-songwriter. If there is something that makes Roddy Frame different from George Mi­chael — and there must be! — it is not immediately obvious on these songs.

Even so, it does not prevent him from ending the album on a very high note — ʽKillermont Streetʼ, along with ʽSomewhere In My Heartʼ, is the only other reason to own and cherish Love. Ironically, it is also slow and draggy; but the acoustic guitars are uncluttered by cheesy synth overdubs, and it succeeds very well where ʽKnifeʼ failed — by being a lot shorter, a little faster, a tad catchier, with a nice vocal melody resolution, and seriously more optimistic.

These two songs are «classic Aztec Camera», the perfect embodiment of Roddy's «well-tempered op­timism» that ties together suffering and hope through awesome vocal work where you don't even need to learn the lyrics to get the message. No matter how weak or atmospherically cor­rupted the rest of the tunes are, these two are the anchors that manage to color the whole experi­ence, and, since my brain loves them both and refuses to get irritated by the rest of this stuff, al­together, Love demands a modest thumbs up. Which is good, because where would we be if we all started giving love our thumbs down? Aww.

Check "Love" (CD) on Amazon

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Bad Company: Dangerous Age


1) One Night; 2) Shake It Up; 3) No Smoke Without A Fire; 4) Bad Man; 5) Dangerous Age; 6) Dirty Boy; 7) Rock Of America; 8) Something About You; 9) The Way That It Goes; 10) Love Attack.

There must be one thing and one thing only that has determined the sound shift from Fame And Fortune to Dangerous Age, and it must have been the success of Aerosmith's Permanent Vaca­tion in the interim. Suddenly, it was mathematically proven that aging, no-longer-hip rockers could be cool with the primary record-buying crowd once again, as long as they filled out a sub­scription to cheesy pop-metal with an almost clownish approach to sex matters. And the most awesome thing about it: you don't even have to rely on synthesizers any more, because synthesi­zers do not prolong your male dignity to the same extent as Mr. Rawk Guitar.

So the first thing you get to see when you pick the album up is the title, and it has the word Dan­gerous on it. Dangerous? Bad Company? Even Paul Rodgers could only seem «dangerous» to a very, very bored housewife with pretty low-set standards of «danger», and Fame And Fortune was no more dangerous than Chris de Burgh. Then you put it on, and whoops, a blues-pop-metal riff explodes straight in your face. Then come the lyrics: "One night ain't no love affair, but I won't ask no more from you / One night with you anywhere, heaven knows what we can do". See? It's a song about a one-night stand. And Brian Howe really only asks to plug her once, like the good old-fashioned gentle­man he is, because he is a God-given gift to all the ladies. As long as they do their hair in 1988 fashion, enjoy Dirty Dancing, and have not already been chosen by Steve Tyler whose publicity advantages over Brian Howe are undeniable.

You have already understood, I gather, that, in between 1986 and 1988, Bad Company made the «smart» choice to shift from one sort of awfulness (bland, languid synth-rock) to another: metal-guitar-dominated cock-rock. «Smart» only in that this really helped them, on the heels of Aero­smith, to sell more copies: quality-wise, this shit is only marginally better than that shit, since the change gave the band more chances to work out some concentrated, precise riffage — most of which is still fairly rotten.

There is more to this than the riffs, though. If your goal is to present yourself to the rest of the world as some sort of orgasmic terror-inspiring sex god of hellfire, you have to know how to do it with humor and irony — qualities that were no enemies to Steve Tyler or Gene Simmons, but se­em fairly incompatible with Brian Howe and Mick Ralphs. Instead of truly sounding «dangerous», or at least «hilarious», the title track just sounds stupid. Chorus lines like "young girl has found her stage, watch out, she's a dangerous age" are delivered as if the singer is really warning you to watch out. Of course, the style was not invented in 1988; but it looks ever so dumber when it is dressed up in musical clichés of 1988 — its glossed-out metal sound, Big Terror Drums, and sa­tanic echo effects on the dude's voice.

Things can only get worse in a song that has the word «rock» in the title, and there it is: ʽRock Of Americaʼ, a certified «truck driver anthem» the likes of which this band had never stooped to be­fore. It's a good stimulus for punching your fist through the wall to the merry sounds of "I wanna ROCK!", but it isn't a frustration-venter, and what's the use of having to pay the repairman if you didn't even properly vent your frustation? If you really want to rock the rock of America, go climb Mount Rushmore or something.

Just like Permanent Vacation, this miserable imitation features just one schmaltzy ballad (ʽSomething About Youʼ, a song that even Diane Warren could never have written — I think she ge­nerally uses a couple more chords in her monstrosities), buried in a sea of Sex, No Drugs, and a Facsimile of Rock'n'Roll — a sea whose individual waves roll over and fade away so quickly, it hardly makes sense to mention them at all. Recommendable only for those who are curious about cross-breeding «classic» Bad Company with «classic» hair metal. Those who have better plans for their time can simply follow my thumbs down.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Argent: Counterpoints


1) On My Feet Again; 2) I Can't Remember, But Yes; 3) Time; 4) Waiting For The Yellow One; 5) It's Fallen Off; 6) Be Strong; 7) Rock & Roll Show; 8) Butterfly; 9) Road Back Home.

The band moved to RCA for their next album, but the new deal never helped: not only was Cou­n­terpoints to become their epitaph, but, so far, it is the only Argent album that has consistently avoided a CD re-issue. So bear with me — I had to listen to it as a mediocre vinyl rip, plagued with skips and crackles, and whether that circumstance has in any way colored my judgement, you won't ever know until you hear it for yourself... but, on the other hand, I cannot honestly recommend the record, especially considering that it requires hunting for, so here we are, locked in a vicious circle over an album that doesn't deserve getting locked upon.

Generally, Counterpoints expands upon the «fusion» inklings of Circus, with a lot of the focus taken away from Rod's keyboard-directed landscapes and placed upon the band's rhythmic drive and frenzied jazz guitar soloing. Why they thought this could ever become the right road to fol­low is beyond me: Argent's primary source of inspiration had always been classical motives, not hard bop, and by the mid-Seventies, fusion was so well established that they could never even begin to hope to make a dent in the market. Who wants to see Argent turn into Weather Report? Probably the same people who'd expect Horowitz to start playing ʽBlue Monkʼ.

The album starts out with a weak promise: ʽOn My Feet Againʼ is an optimistic pop rocker with a pretty McCartney-like sentimental prelude. It is not sharp or powerful enough, on its own, to con­vince us that the band is on its feet again, but it does introduce the possibility. And then, starting with the second track and almost all the way to the end, we learn that «back on their feet» means «competing with Jeff Beck and Alan Holdsworth, because that is what all the creative people in the business should be betting their dollars on». Well, technically, the songs are passable, but I cannot say that they add anything interesting to the set of technical and mood tricks already im­plemented by masters of the genre. Grimaldi's and Verity's speedy guitar runs sometimes reach actual ignition, but there's a good reason for most people not associating the jazz-rock fusiom movement with the «Grimaldi/Verity duet» — they are copycats, not true creators. Fun fact: on some of the tracks, due to drummer Bob Henrit's unexpected illness, Phil Collins himself is sit­ting in: no wonder a few of the tracks have a «Brand X» feel to them. (My strongest guess is the instrumental ʽIt's Fallen Offʼ, which you could indeed sneak on a Brand X album without anyone taking serious notice). But it isn't a big consolation.

And thus, after twenty five minutes of passable, mildly listenable, generally unmemorable fid­dling about (including at least one «mini-epic», called ʽTimeʼ because there were too few songs called ʽTimeʼ written by 1975, and at least one limp, unconvincing «anti-rocker» called ʽRock & Roll Showʼ), we get to ʽRoad Back Homeʼ, a soulful ballad on which Rod's own honey voice does everything in its power to seduce you into thinking that nothing has really changed — that Argent are still a band that values traditional melodicity and sweet vocal modulation over jazzy-schmazzy finger-flashing and tricky percussion figures.

But the seduction is not working. Even ʽRoad Back Homeʼ itself is still built on a bass foundation that we'd rather be hearing from Jaco Pastorius, and besides, one ballad don't remedy no jazz-fusion show. Counterpoints is true enough to its title — it's an album that makes no points, only counterpoints; the only album in Argent's catalog that has very little reason to exist. If it had even one master­piece of a ballad, of the same caliber as ʽShine On Sunshineʼ, things might have been different. But it hasn't. (Actually, there is one more ballad: ʽWaiting For The Yellow Oneʼ con­ti­nues Rod's heliophilia subject, with intricate vocal overdubs but little in the way of hooks).

Predictably, the album did not sell at all, which led to the band's dissipation — according to some sources, Rod simply dumped the rest of the guys, tired of it all (some of the members, like bassist Jim Rod­ford and drummer Bob Henrit, went on to work with late-period Kinks). Too bad: I do not regard Counterpoints as a «loss-of-steam» for the band, rather as just an unhappy, thumbs down-worthy, move in a completely inappropriate direction. But sometimes, once you start mo­ving the wrong way, you just end up stuck there. It's a brain thing. Difficult to understand.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Beatles: Past Masters, Vol. 2

THE BEATLES: PAST MASTERS, VOL. 2 (1965-1970; 1988)

1) Day Tripper; 2) We Can Work It Out; 3) Paperback Writer; 4) Rain; 5) Lady Madonna; 6) The Inner Light; 7) Hey Jude; 8) Revolution; 9) Get Back; 10) Don't Let Me Down; 11) The Ballad Of John And Yoko; 12) Old Brown Shoe; 13) Across The Universe; 14) Let It Be; 15) You Know My Name (Look Up The Number).

The second volume of the singles oversees the band enter adulthood, and, consequently, will be of more interest to those who like to see these guys chasing the meaning of life instead of you-know-what. Of course, I respect the opinions of people who assert that you-know-what and the meaning of life are the exact same thing, and that the Beatles did the world a major disfavour when they stopped thinking of happiness as the art of «just to dance with you» and began thin­king of it as a «warm gun». I get their point, but I'm not one of them — and, therefore, Vol. 2 by definition is going to show up more frequently on my playlists than Vol. 1.

One tiny element of displeasure is that Vol. 2, for sheer technical reasons, lacks the smooth con­tinuity of Vol. 1. Since all of the band's A- and B-sides from 1967 already constitute the second side of the Magical Mystery Tour LP, they are not included in this collection; thus, we have a straight jump from ʽRainʼ to ʽLady Madonnaʼ, as if the band went on hiatus at the height of the Flower Power era, and neither ʽStrawberry Fields Foreverʼ nor ʽAll You Need Is Loveʼ ever exis­ted. In a more perfect world, a well-rounded Beatles CD catalog could perhaps consist of Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour proper (the movie soundtrack) on one disc, and the ac­companying singles properly distributed among the two volumes of Past Masters. But, obvious­ly, that is not going to happen — and, anyway, with the little plastic discs on their way out, it's all up to you to program your sequencing the way you like it.

For a bit of fun, let us talk about the weaker or less famous stuff on this release, and then we'll see if I have anything revolutionary to say about the likes of ʽHey Judeʼ or ʽGet Backʼ. So here we go — random observations on an incidental compilation.

ʽThe Ballad Of John And Yokoʼ. Apparently, the only thing that puts the «Beatles» tag on this song is that Paul happened to be hanging around in the studio when John got the urge to record it (and a well-trained ear with seasoned knowledge of Paul's solo career will probably recognize his own, rather straightforward, drumming style). Otherwise, not only do the never-ending lyrics vio­late the Beatles' autonomy, but they seem to be far ahead of the melody as well. I've always en­joyed it for a laugh, but it is odd that Paul vetoed ʽCold Turkeyʼ (which, with a little doctoring, could have been turned into a proper Beatles song), but okayed this rather pedestrian travelogue. John must have caught him in a good mood.

ʽLet It Beʼ. I do not like George's solo on the single version. The Leslie speaker effects are fine, but the effect is subdued and humble, compared to the far more dynamic and passionate solo on the album track. Some people might say that this repetitive stateliness is exactly what the song needs, but I always saw ʽLet It Beʼ as a song that goes up and comes down — not a stern church hymn or anything: Paul McCartney ain't no Handel. But in the end, it's good to have both ver­sions so that we can happily waste away hours of our lives arguing about these things.

ʽThe Inner Lightʼ. Probably the weakest of all of George's «Indian» songs (but, in true eclectic fashion, the lyrics actually paraphrase the Tao Te Ching) — but in terms of effect, not structure: structurally, it is often described as particularly complex, unusual, and the closest in tone and ar­rangement to true Indian music. Which might just be exactly why it never struck me as all that amazing: a personal achievement for George, perhaps, but if I want something fairly close to In­dian music, I'll probably just go straight ahead for some real Indian music. The «galloping» sarod rhythms are funny (by the way, there is no sitar on this song — just sarod and Indian wind instru­ments), but not convincing enough for me to see George himself — he's kinda lost in the conse­quences of the novel idea to set basic Chinese philosophy to an Indian melody.

ʽAcross The Universeʼ. Uh... nice birdies. No limits to the happiness of The World Wildlife Fund, for whose purposes the song was originally recorded. Teenage girls singing backup instead of Phil Spector strings. Your choice or mine? Funny enough, every time I replay the song in my head, I only remember Lennon and his guitar anyway — meaning, honestly, that I don't care.

ʽYou Know My Name (Look Up The Number)ʼ. A frickin' LOST MASTERPIECE. Probably the only more or less «genuine», if utterly tongue-in-cheek, «jazz» number the Beatles ever recorded, an almost vicious send-up of its lounge variety, and with a brief and dashing sax solo at the end contributed by no other than the Rolling Stones' own Brian Jones. The only time in Beatles histo­ry that a sheer musical joke dared to make it to a B-side — and, although one time is quite eno­ugh, wouldn't we feel a little poorer without at least one?

ʽOld Brown Shoeʼ. This one is surprisingly rough rock'n'roll for George's «late Beatles» period, when his Carl Perkins fandom phase was already long overcome: he would never again play in such fast tempos for a long long time. In fact, this «aggressive love song» style is usually John's, not George's. It was not included on Abbey Road, and for good reason — it is too brutal to up­hold George's ʽSomething / Here Comes The Sunʼ image on that album. But I dare say that, this once at least, the band could have given him the honor of having the song as an A-side, since it is in every way superior to ʽThe Ballad Of John And Yokoʼ.

And then come the «biggies» that require no extra publicity. ʽRainʼ, originally hidden on the B-side of ʽPaperback Writerʼ, these days finally gets its deserved dues as one of the greatest classics of the psychedelic era. And while, spirit-wise, it is a John show all the way — «birth of the cool», Lennon-style — its finest asset is still the rhythm section; the more I listen to it, the more I am inclined to think that Paul and Ringo were trying to work a bit in the style of The Who, where Paul would play faster, more complex runs (fitting in plenty of bass expressivity, considering the song's slow motion), and Ringo would be working in energetic «drum leads» that keep threate­ning to take the listener's attention away from the guitars. But since Paul is no Entwistle, and Rin­go is no Keith Moon, the end result is still different.

Lastly, the rocker in me is always a little sad that ʽRevolutionʼ always gets such a reserved wel­come compared to its A-side, because on the sheer musical side of things, the rock sound that the band gets on that thing is, again, something utterly without precedent. The whole track just sizzles with electricity — every time I listen to it, I get the feeling of standing near a high voltage power trnasmission line. There's been lots of people known to professionally handle distortion, but this particular way goes beyond Hendrix. I'm pretty sure George must have played his part with rub­ber gloves on his hands, for safety reasons.

And the best song of the lot? I am going to play the game of «being special» here — and, instead of the predictable ʽHey Judeʼ, nominate ʽDon't Let Me Downʼ. It is curious that, where in the next few years John's «Yokosongs» would mostly be of a purely romantic nature (ʽOh My Loveʼ and suchlike), in 1969 he must have really been scared of his own feelings — ʽI Want Youʼ is where he almost goes over the top with that fear, but ʽDon't Let Me Downʼ is a little more restrained. The verses are like a sledgehammer, driving that feeling of eternal, unbreakable love into the ground — the final «she done me good» borders on animalism — and then comes the fear that this love might be breakable, after all. It's one of the greatest «this-moment-is-so-good-please-God-don't-let-it-end» songs in pop history, and the energy that John lets out with this perfor­mance is unprecedented. When they played it on the roof, they didn't require plugging in.

Overall, Vol. 2 covers lots more ground than Vol. 1 — from the still relatively early days of ʽDay Tripperʼ, which announced the beginning of the «maturation» process, through the «psycho» and «elder statesmen» years, you have here the folksy Beatles, the psycho-cool Beatles, the back-to-roots Beatles, the let's-get-personal-Beatles, and the don't-give-a-damn-Beatles. What you do not get at any of these stages is let-the-standards-fall-Beatles — even the «worst» songs I mentioned are still memorable and engaging. Everything is a must hear, even ʽThe Ballad Of John And Yo­koʼ. Admit it, it's more fun to learn about their daily activities when John sings it to you than when you read about it in some sloppy biography.

Check "Past Masters, Vol. 2" (CD) on Amazon

Monday, June 18, 2012

Blind Willie Johnson: The Complete Blind Willie Johnson


1) I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole; 2) Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed; 3) It's Nobody's Fault But Mine; 4) Mother's Children Have A Hard Time; 5) Dark Was The Night - Cold Was The Ground; 6) If I Had My Way I'd Tear The Building Down; 7) I'm Gonna Run To The City Of Refuge; 8) Jesus Is Coming Soon; 9) Lord I Just Can't Keep From Crying; 10) Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And Burning; 11) Let Your Light Shine On Me; 12) God Don't Never Change; 13) Bye And Bye I'm Goin' To See The King; 14) Sweeter As The Years Roll By; 15) You'll Need Some­body On Your Bond; 16) When The War Was On; 17) Praise God I'm Satisfied; 18) Take Your Burden To The Lord And Leave It There; 19) Take Your Stand; 20) God Moves On The Water; 21) Can't Nobody Hide From God; 22) If It Had Not Been For Jesus; 23) Go To Me With That Land; 24) The Rain Don't Fall On Me; 25) Trouble Will Soon Be Over; 26) The Soul Of A Man; 27) Everybody Ought To Treat A Stranger Right; 28) Church, I'm Fully Saved To-Day; 29) John The Revelator; 30) You're Gonna Need Somebody On Your Bond.

I do not generally insist on pushing pre-war blues on people. It takes a long time and a lot of ef­fort to get paid off. Poor sound quality, monotonous sequences of interchangeable compositions, ascetic arrangements — we'll just have to accept that this stuff is «not for everybody», and that most listeners will simply be paying their respects by throwing on a Charlie Patton or a Leadbelly record. We all suspect that Leadbelly «felt» ʽMidnight Specialʼ much more intensely than John Fogerty (if only because the latter never did actual time, unlike the former), but Leadbelly's ori­ginal gathers 200,000 views on Youtube while CCR's versions count millions, and that's the way it's going to stay, and nothing's gonna change that fact.

But there are certain moments when the general rule has to be forfeited, and this is one of them. Everybody with even a passing interest in XXth century popular music must know about Blind Willie Johnson, one of the most unique — and mysterious — musical figures of that century. And everyone must own at least one single-CD collection of his greatest songs (such as Dark Was The Night), although, considering that his entire legacy consists of just thirty sides recorded over a three-year period, it might be more productive to go straight away for Columbia's 2-CD Com­plete package. Yes, some of these thirty songs do sound the same. No, this is not supposed to tire out the listener. Yes, this is terrifying genius on the prowl. No, I'm being serious.

If you know your «classic rock» well enough, you will probably recognize a good third of the titles straight away — Blind Willie was covered quite extensively. Bob Dylan liked him for his grizzled earthiness. Eric Clapton admired him for his delicate soulfulness. Led Zeppelin respected him for his desperate madness. Nick Cave fancied him for his apocalyptic attitude. Ry Coo­der worshipped him for his transcendental mysticism. And Peter, Paul and Mary just dug him beca­use the songs were catchy and all.

So what is the secret of Blind Willie's popularity? In his short lifetime, he was never a massive commercial presence, and post-mortem, he never succeeded in becoming a «legend» of Robert Johnson's caliber, having steadily remained «the musician's musician». Most probably, this is just because the man was too weird for his own time, too far ahead of it for the average listener to overcome the confusion and understand what it is really all about.

The first thing people will tell you is that Blind Willie was a masterful slide player. According to legend, he preferred playing with a knife on the strings rather than the proverbial «bottleneck», but this is hard to verify by simply listening to the records. He did play a lot of slide guitar, much more so than the average picking bluesman from the same time — and it was hardly a coincide­nce that most of his material was thematically in the «gospel blues» sub-genre: of all the nume­rous particular proofs that properly played slide guitar is the champion of Soul in Sound, few ma­nage to be as convincing as Blind Willie Johnson's.

The second thing is, of course, Blind Willie's voice. He had a natural tenor, which can be heard on a handful of these songs, but most of the time he would intentionally lower it to a gravelly «false bass», which sounded as if the guitar strings were not the only thing across which he was sliding that knife. Simply put, the man was there before Tom Waits, before Captain Beefheart, before Howlin' Wolf, even before Charlie Patton — the first well-known example of an artist playing hell with his voice for a nice little horrorshow effect.

Of course, Blind Willie did not invent that effect. It all goes back to apocalyptically minded old black preachers invoking the Old Testamental spirits of Moses and the Prophets. But he was one of the first, if not the first, performer to put it on record, singlehandedly responsible for creating the «dark gospel blues» style. And, as far as I know, he still remains the single best representative of that style, because gospel and blues soon went their own ways, with blues inheriting most of the darkness and gospel turning to a more optimistic outlook on things, for good reason — if all they sang in church was Blind Willie Johnson material, Satanists would eventually start joining the Church instead of trying to burn it down.

However, Johnson's most popular song is ʽDark Was The Night, Cold Was The Groundʼ, where there is very little singing as such — mostly just a series of wordless sighs and moans. Techni­cally, it's an impressionistic illustration of the sufferings of Jesus, but in retrospect, it is probably the first «mood piece» ever put on record in popular music history: call it «proto-ambient», if you like, created with just a series of isolated slide licks that never come together in a rhythmic whole. Sure can't tap your feet to that stuff. Just feel lonely and lost in space.

His second most popular song is probably ʽNobody's Fault But Mineʼ, built upon a magnificent swirling slide riff, later burnt down to the ground and reconstructed from the ashes by Led Zep­pelin on Presence. Without the slide guitar, it would simply be one more preachy message: "If I don't read it my soul be lost, nobody's fault but mine". With the slide, you don't even pay much attention to the lyrics — in fact, Blind Willie was also one of the first people to introduce the pra­ctice of leaving certain vocal lines unfinished and letting the guitar finish the message instead. Of course, the gravelly voice, shredding your ear nerves, and the thin wail of the slide sound nothing like each other. He's the man, and the slide is his woman, and they're both unhappy in their own way, and... (this should be followed by one of those key Marxist-tinged phrases about the music reflecting the hundreds of years of poor underdogs and black slaves suffering, but this review al­ready looks stupid enough without having to run even more stuff into the ground).

Speaking of women, on about a third of these numbers Willie is accompanied by his wife, Willie B. Harris, who normally stands a little farther away from the mike and provides «echoing» vocals (ʽJohn The Revelatorʼ, etc.). This could be seen as a softening, «commercializing» factor, but in reality, the contrast between her «normal» backup and Johnson's earthy growl is sometimes even weirder than his solo numbers — on ʽChurch, I'm Fully Saved To-Dayʼ it seems as if their parts were overdubbed from two different performances, so dissimilar are the attitudes: the quiet, calm, moderately pretty delivery of the wife against the animal growling of the husband.

On the other hand, Willie was capable of tenderness — on ʽLet Your Light Shine On Meʼ, he al­ternates tense growling with a delicate croon, and the self-imposed laryngitis is not in evidence on ʽBye And Bye I'm Goin' To See The Kingʼ, which, incidentally, also features some of his most technically complex slide runs. This does not have any philosophical implications — it only goes to show that the sequence of thirty seconds is not as stubbornly monotonous as it could be. There are different tempos, different keys, different vocal modulations, a little bit of ambience, Willie Harris' support or lack thereof, songs you know from later covers, songs you don't know from later covers, in short, you won't be bored unless you really want to.

The only thing that the progressive listener has to bear with is that all of the songs, indeed, are of a gospel nature. Blind Willie meant it seriously and never succumbed to the pleasures of singing about black snakes, log cabins, and ya-yas instead of doing «the right thing». But who cares? In a way, this collection is the acoustic blues equivalent of Black Sabbath's Master Of Reality: Chris­tian songs delivered in a manner that is decidedly frightening and unsettling for most good Chris­tians. Whoever claimed that Robert Johnson's music sounded «dangerous»? There is hardly a moment more dangerous-sounding in Depression-era music than Blind Willie going "We done told you, God done warned you, Jesus comin' soon". This here guy doesn't joke around with his Apocalypse, he's earnestly waiting for it to spring out from behind the corner.

Total thumbs up — and repeat: this is one of the three or four most important pre-war compila­tions that your collection might be missing. In a way, it even sounds surprisingly modern: as I said, Blind Willie was so far ahead of his time that, had they frozen him up before his death from malaria in 1945, he'd have fit in very well inside today's lo-fi movement. Any lo-fi aficionados out there? You don't know what you're missing.

Check Out "The Complete Blind Willie Johnson" (CD) on Amazon
Check "The Complete Blind Willie Johnson" (MP3) on Amazon