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Sunday, September 30, 2012

British Sea Power: Man Of Aran


1) Man Of Aran; 2) The South Sound; 3) Come Wander With Me; 4) Tiger King; 5) The Curach; 6) Vertiginous; 7) The Sunfish; 8) Coneely Of The West; 9) The North Sound; 10) Woman Of Aran; 11) It Comes Back Again; 12) No Man Is An Archipelago.

I have to thank this album for its educational value on my behalf — although I did know about Nanook Of The North and have even seen bits of it, I neither remembered that it was originally filmed by Robert Flaherty, nor did I know of him as a major force in the dubious genre of «ethno­fiction». Apparently, Man Of Aran is one of his better known documentaries, this time, about a bunch of «primitive» Irish seamen living in pre-modern conditions on the Aran Islands. Origi­nally slagged off as being almost completely staged, yes, but people have relented over time: af­ter all, moving pictures do not necessarily have to be as true to life as scientific volumes, and a little staged excitement can be excused.

Anyway, for the 2009 DVD release of the movie, the people in charge approached none other than British Sea Power with the request to provide a new soundtrack. Apparently, for an «epic» mo­vie like that, they needed something appropriate, and who would be the most «epic» band in the neighborhood? And not just «epic», but with a special taste for sea-related topics and oceanic effects? There you go.

The album is a soundtrack, mind you. There is only one vocal number: ʽCome Wander With Meʼ, a cover of an old tune from Twilight Zone sung by a guest star rather than Yan — Cedric Bixler-Zavala of the Mars Volta. Everything else is strictly instrumental: loud, lengthy, echoey, very British Sea Power-ish, and about as exciting as you would expect from a coherent soundtrack to an old documentary.

The tracks are not entirely of an ambient nature. ʽThe Sunfishʼ, in all of its 11-minute «glory», and ʽThe North Soundʼ, for instance, are propelled forward at speedy tempos and sometimes even with nicely distorted post-punk riffage, probably reflecting the tendency of the native population of Aran to follow up a hard day's work by coming home, plugging in, and going at it like there was no work tomorrow. Unfortunately, all of them would end up sounding just like British Sea Power did on Do You Like Rock Music?

Other sonic varieties include cutesy piano-and-chimes waltzing (ʽThe Curachʼ), slow dreamy folk shuffles, often with solid help from new band member Abi Fry on viola (ʽConeely Of The Westʼ), and, of course, simply lots and lots of droney atmosphere (title track, etc.). If you can get in the spirit, the sonic waves might really transport you to a different place — not necessarily to Aran, though, because the soundtrack is just too dreamy and epic-romantic to be an appropriate accom­paniment to the rowdy, troublesome life of a pre-industrial population. Maybe to Aldebaran, or to Arrakis (although the latter might have some problems with supporting an oceanic environment).

Overall, there is no attempt here to adopt any sort of different musical personality in order to «match the individual vision of Roberty Flaherty». The band just does what it wants to do, cut­ting out the vocals and limiting the «rock'n'roll drive» for technical reasons, but in everything else, not advancing seriously anywhere beyond their latest albums (for comparison, when one of their ap­parent idols, Neil Young, did his own soundtrack for Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man, it managed at once to sound Neil Young-ish — and also sound like nothing he'd ever done before). Fans will be happy, non-fans like me will probably be indifferent. But at least, unlike Do You Like Rock Mu­sic?, this release does not even pretend to stocking solid, memorable melodies. And the final de­cision whether it works well as a soundtrack will have to be made by someone else — I have not seen the movie, nor do I plan to in the nearest future.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Autechre: Confield


1) VI Scose Poise; 2) Cfern; 3) Pen Expers; 4) Sim Gishel; 5) Parhelic Triangle; 6) Bine; 7) Eidetic Casein; 8) Uviol; 9) Lentic Catachresis.

«An album, to respect, not to enjoy», quoth the All-Music Guide. Well, according to my personal philosophy, Autechre is altogether an artistic unit to respect rather than enjoy — remembering this all the time helps me warm up to their output like nothing else. And Confield is nothing but an expectable, if not to say predictable, apex of this «respectability»: after spending years on ma­king music that seemed to be generated by artificial intelligence, Booth and Brown finally put out an album that actually was generated by artificial intelligence.

Well, sort of, that is. In preparing Confield, the robotic duo relied heavily on Max software, with the basis for most tracks electronically generated from input clues. This does not mean that the in­put clues were completely random, or that the results did not undergo heavy selection and were not seriously doctored, pampered, and trussed up before release. But overall, this is, indeed, as close as Autechre ever got to letting the machines take over; and this time, even the heroes had to admit that, perhaps, this music was not quite suitable for a club environment.

Do the results bode well for a new age of machine-generated music? Well... supposedly we still need time to understand that, even now that a whole decade has elapsed since Confield made the headlines. The machines certainly prefer percussive sound waves to playing with tones and the pitches, that is for certain; and oh the variety! ʽVI Scose Poiseʼ sounds like a spinning top laun­ched in the bottom of a metal tub, travelling all over the perimeter at varying angles and speeds. ʽCfernʼ is a spike-heeled mosquito tap-dancing atop a malfunctioning jackhammer. ʽPen Expersʼ is Commander Data rehearsing a Jackie Chan routine, receiving his instructions from a sped-up movie projection. ʽSim Gishelʼ is a Geiger counter on overload, and so on (there's only so many metaphoric descriptions one can generate for an Autechre review without overheating).

The tonal stuff is much less interesting, to be frank. There are actual notes on all the tracks, but on some of them they are barely noticeable (ʽPen Expersʼ), and most of the time, they represent rather unassuming minimalistic patterns that mainly act as ear tampons, or otherwise the percus­sion dynamo could eventually cause irreversible damage. «Music» gets a bit louder on ʽEidetic Caseinʼ, where discordant, chaotic, ominous cascades of violin-organ-esque notes competes for attention with the crackling rhythms on an almost equal basis. Everywhere else it simply provides a static background to the active pulsating life of the rhythms.

As a self-certified human being (I hope!), one of those billions of ultra-complex sets of machi­nery evolved over the past several billion years, I find it even harder to attune my senses to these waves than with any preceding Autechre record. I can survive, temporarily, on a bit of percussion if it's an actual, well-improvised drum solo, but for hour-long stretches of time I need more than that, no matter how weird or witty all the clicks, cracks, and clangs may be sounding. But as a particularly bold intellectual experiment, the meaning of Confield, I suppose, is just to set you a-thinking. For instance, how close — even if only by accident — could they have come to tapping into the emotional instincts of... err... insects? Or tapeworms? Or single-cellular organisms? May­be, without knowing it, they have recreated some of the favorite dance tunes of Micronuclearia podoventralis, to name just one potentially grateful listener in my tummy. It might take us years, or ages, to find out, of course, but we'll get there eventually.

From this or any similar point of view, Confield is a delight. From most others, it is a nightmare, and even many of the critics halted in befuddlement before spitting out a rating and a judgement. My original instinct was to give in to hate and ramble about how people who do this should be dragged out into the square and publicly, and humiliatingly de-artistified. But, honestly, justifying this hatred requires a lengthy, elaborate philosophy of art and a lengthy, elaborate pamphlet on why we could only live happily ever after once we have all subscribed to that philosophy. To hell with it. I don't really like Confield, I don't hate Confield, I don't want to listen to any more Con­field, but I do feel as if the actual experience extended some of the mind borders. Plus, I have serious doubts about the album ever making it onto the «golden masterpieces» shelf, but it could, in theory, point the way to something entirely different... coming up in about five hundred years or so. With an emotionally-driven thumbs down and an intellectually-fueled thumbs up cancelling out each other, welcome to the big question mark that is Autechre's most openly audacious, soul-challenging re­lease ever.

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

Friday, September 28, 2012

Bad Religion: Into The Unknown


1) It's Only Over When...; 2) Chasing The Wild Goose; 3) Billy Gnosis; 4) Time And Disregard; 5) The Dichotomy; 6) Million Days; 7) Losing Generation; 8) ...You Give Up.

Apart from being one of the most bizarre releases in the history of hardcore, Into The Unknown is not particularly enlightening, interesting, or exciting. It is usually quoted as «that unfortunate prog experiment by Bad Religion», which is not very accurate, I think; the word «progressive» only appears in conjunction with the main band members (Graffin and Gurewitz) having once proclaimed to have had a crush on progressive rock acts. There is, at most, one track here that bears a direct influence of classic 1970s prog — the seven-minute, multi-part epic ʽTime And Disregardʼ — but everything else is more like «anthemic power-pop with a heavy keyboard fe­tish». And totally godawful production values.

Bad Religion's entire rhythm section quit in protest over this unexpected change of direction, and they can be understood: just as the band was starting to make headlines with their brand of «intel­ligent hardcore», lo and behold, Greg Graffin drags a keyboard out of the bushes and learns to sing instead of... well, you know. The new look band's live shows were reported to be abandoned by fans in droves at the first sight of the synthesizer. In the end, they just had to acknowledge that the whole thing was a silly mistake. As far as I know, the entire album has never even been relea­sed on CD so far (although, curiously enough, it has been re-released on vinyl for the 30 Year Anniversary Box Set — go figure!).

The album does suck, for sure, but not because of the «switch» — I'm always happy to witness a switch when it works. The biggest problem is that the songs are just no good. It is quickly evident what has been lost — the speed, the energy, the sneering, the standard punk riffage variations that become appreciable once you get to know them — but it is not immediately clear what it is they have gained. As a «pop» or «prog» singer, Graffin has no distinct personality; as a guitar player in either one of these genres, Gurewitz has little credibility; and the keyboards really, really suck, as if they only had saved up for the cheapest available model — oh, these tones, not even worthy of a late-period Genesis. Even those few songs that preserve a bit of rock'n'roll crunch are seri­ously cheesified by them (ʽLosing Generationʼ).

And, since we are no longer hardcore, what we need here is outstanding melodies. Instead, we get flat, faceless «martial» rhythms or boogie lines, where the role of rhythm guitar is limited to put­ting down a bedrock of power chords (some of the solos are sufficiently melodic, to be fair, but are we really supposed to simply wait for the solo each time? Gurewitz ain't no Clapton anyway). ʽChasing The Wild Gooseʼ alone tries to open with something that resembles a catchy riff, then realizes it sounds a bit too close to ʽZiggy Stardustʼ (thanks to Mark Prindle for pointing that out) and quickly shifts to a one-chord mid-tempo melody with rotten vocals.

Lyrically, the album moves away from hardcore bluntness and into the realm of obscure meta­phors and ellipses that still seem to be dealing with the same major topic («society rot»). Seeing the lines to ʽTime And Disregardʼ on paper, I could perfectly well picture them sung by the likes of Peter Hammill — someone whose average care for melodic memorability was more or less on the same level as Graffin's, but whose ability to credibly «get into character» was quite unsurpas­sed, whereas Graffin here does not even begin to try.

Overall, it just looks they did not pack enough supplies and undergo the proper physical training to justify a serious cosmic journey Into The Unknown. The braveness — nay, the craziness — of the gesture may be appreciated, of course (much like the «braveness» of jumping off the 20th floor to see what happens), but the results are, at worst, disastrous (each time the keyboards start staging a particularly ferocious assault on the senses) and, at best, just boring. Even if ʽLosing Generati­onʼ chugs along at a fine speed, I'd rather re-enjoy the same chug on something like, say, The Amboy Dukes' ʽJourney To The Center Of The Mindʼ. Thumbs down.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Badfinger: Head First


1) Lay Me Down; 2) Hey, Mr. Manager; 3) Keep Believing; 4) Passed Fast; 5) Rock'n'Roll Contract; 6) Saville Row; 7) Moonshine; 8) Back Again; 9) Turn Around; 10) Rockin' Machine.

I really should be doing this in the «Addenda» section, but this album almost made it on the store shelves. Almost, that is, before Warner Bros. suspected that the band's manager Stan Polley was stealing funds (actually, Badfinger themselves suspected the same, but for whatever reason War­ners sued both Polley and Badfinger) and, over the course of the accident, rejected the completed album. The master tapes were subsequently left to rot, and were never recovered, so this particu­lar Head First, finally out with a twenty-five year retardation, has been reconstructed from rough mixes (so that one can only guess what the actual ʽSaville Rowʼ must have looked like: this track here is only thirty six seconds long, an atmospheric, artsy keyboard-based introduction that fades away before you can even try guessing where it might lead).

Head First was cut in two weeks over a focused work period in December 1974 — an admirable feat, actually, considering the heavy blow that befell the band with the withdrawal of Wish You Were Here, the subsequent resignation of Pete Ham (replaced by Bob Jackson), the subsequent return of Pete Ham (because Warners were not willing to work with the band without Pete), and the subsequent resignation of Molland. Under such circumstances, you'd normally expect either a disaster or a masterpiece — but Head First is neither. Maybe the master tapes, had they survived, could produce a different impression, yet I somehow doubt it.

Just like in the days of Ass, Pete is keeping his head down here. He gets the usual honor of open­ing the album, and ʽLay Me Downʼ is a respectable power-popper, but without a particularly me­morable or emotional riff to kick it up to the skies of ʽNo Matter Whatʼ or even ʽJust A Chanceʼ, and the nagging chorus of "need your loving, need your loving, need your loving, it's everything to me" sounds a bit perfunctory and repetitive. The rhythmic acoustic-and-slide ballad ʽKeep Belie­vingʼ is a little better if you like your Pete Ham in a subtle / tender / confessional mode bet­ter than you like him in «power» mode, but the hooks are nowhere near great.

Since Molland was already out, Evans, Gibbins, and new band member Bob Jackson had to take the burden of songwriting on their own shoulders. Jackson's solo contribution ʽTurn Aroundʼ is a rather lumpy hard rock anthem that, truth be told, is more Grand Funk than Badfinger, only with­out all the testosterone. Gibbins continues with his fairy-light folksy stuff with ʽBack Againʼ, a pleasant cowboy ditty without any cowboys, but with some curious harmonica vs. synthesizer interplay. And Evans is the one to serve as the band's personal spokesman here. He takes it out vi­ciously and vivaciously on their enemies with telling titles like ʽHey Mr. Managerʼ and ʽRock'n'Roll Contractʼ — the two best songs on the album, actually, suggesting that, before set­ting up an installment plan for sui­cide, it might have been a good idea to come up with a fully conceptual album on the evils of rock management.

Overall, I wish I could say that it doesn't show this whole thing was tossed off in two weeks time, but more often than not, it does. But if we look at this from a different side — yes, they really needed something out on the market quick, yes, they were in a complete mess, yes, none of them were genius songwriters, yes, these are rough mixes, and still it's a perfectly nice record that does not in the least pathetically wallow in self-pitying (even such a lyrically bitter tune as ʽHey, Mr. Managerʼ tries to be as upbeat as possible when castigating Mr. Manager for "messing up my life"). As a «swan song» for the original Badfinger, it does not work, but as a worthy addition to the hardcore canon, it isn't any worse than any of the band's second-tier albums. Thumbs up, but do not expect a revelation or anything.

The official edition, by the way, adds a whole extra CD of mostly acoustic demos saved up from the same sessions — some of which could have been nourished to full health, had they had the time and will, but by early 1975, they clearly had nothing left. Was it all really that desperate? Did Pete really have to hang himself, or was that just the hideous effect of a nerve wreck shatter­ing an already unstable mental system? Who the hell could tell? In a way, I've always thought that, perhaps, it wasn't all just a matter of bad luck and unfortunate accidents — maybe the eerie downfall of Badfinger has to be thought of in «Altamont terms», sort of one of those symbolic events that separate the idealistic 1960s from the grim 1970s. After all, Badfinger were an idea­listic 1960s band at heart — at a time when the whole thing was becoming cynically obsolete. They learned to sound different from the Beatles, but they did not want to learn to sound like the Bay City Rollers, either, and paid the symbolic price for that. In any case, there must have been more to the whole thing than just a treacherous manager and poor understanding from the record industry bosses. Mustn't there?

Check "Head First" (CD) on Amazon

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Arthur Brown: Tantric Lover


1) Paradise; 2) Tantric Lover; 3) The Bridge; 4) Circle Dance; 5) Swimfish; 6) Voice Of Love From A Magic Hat; 7) Gabriel; 8) Love Is The Spirit; 9) Heartaches From The Music Theatre Piece ʽAirʼ; 10) All The Bells; 11) Healing Sound; 12) Welcome.

If you have nothing better to do these days, hunt down Mr. Arthur Brown in one of his asylums and ask him the question: «Mr. Brown! How come Tantric Lover, your first recording of ori­ginal music in the 21st century, is credited to ʽThe Crazy World Of Arthur Brownʼ, even though that band was officially proclaimed dead thirty years ago, and you are the only remaining mem­ber?» Wait for the answer, and if it is anything like «why, man, many an Arthur Brown has roa­med through this world, but there has been only one Crazy World of Arthur Brown so far, and maybe some people will be careless enough to mistake my new album for the old one — and I do need the money, I'm all out of fuel for my helmet», feel free to add +100 to Mr. Brown's artistic karma. However, if it is anything like «well, see here, man, we just had all these groovy cats to jam with, and I thought, it's like the spirit of the old Crazy World was coming back, and I know we're all crazy but some are crazier than most...», please do the reverse.

Because, clearly, Tantric Lover does not sound anything like the old «Crazy World». And not only does it not try to sound like Crazy World, on the contrary, it does everything in its power to present Arthur in an entirely new light. For one thing, it is completely acoustic, with elements of world music represented by the extensive use of the kora (a West African harp) and the didgeri­doo, an Australian woodwind (and Arthur has a separate band member for each, although «Phil Brown» does not sound much like a good name for an Australian aborigine, if you ask me). For another thing... it is not all that crazy, to tell the truth.

What it is is simply a good album of inventive art-pop compositions in a range of styles and moods. Some R&B, some reggae, some folk, some blues-rock, a little of this, a little of that, all of it sort of connected with thin psychedelic vibes and a general peace-and-love sentiment. Very well recorded at that — praise the 21st century for something, at least — and the quiet acoustic arrangements allow Brown's voice to come through bright and expressive; actually, I think this is the first time ever that he gives it to us from so many different angles. Crooning, pleading, whis­pering, muttering, screaming, talking, goofing off, it's all here. You might hate the songs and the spirit, but the man couldn't care less — he must have had so much fun doing this.

Since this is still «rock theater», or, rather «unplugged theater» this time, Tantric Lover gets by on the strength of its humor and eccentricity, not on any kind of cathartic vibes — and its quiet, low-key nature will never allow us to recognize it as a lost masterpiece on the same level with Requiem. But, on the other hand, it also lacks those of Brown's trademarks that are the most prone to becoming annoying — the reckless, «anything-goes» experimentation, the permanent tone and signature shifts of Kingdom Come, even the general «look at me, have you ever seen anyone crazier?» attitude. And the kora / didgeridoo duets may be a novelty trick, but in our mo­dern potpourri of ethnic traditions, it can hardly look as surprising as, say, the drum machines on Kingdom Come's third album, or even Arthur's decision to take a red-hot synthesizer bath on Speak No Tech.

No, this is just a «nice little album» here. And the songs are surprisingly well written and per­formed. ʽParadiseʼ steals the opening riff from the Beatles' ʽI'll Be Backʼ and puts it back where it came from — into a Latin setting, that is — and works out a half-menacing, half-magical mood punctuated by occasional flourishes from the kora. ʽCircle Danceʼ is a catchy art-pop / blues-rock hybrid, irresistible when it comes to toe-tapping, tasteful when it comes to little bits of out-of-nowhere electric guitar soloing (yes, we can!), and goofy when Arthur begins to yodel (yodeling is bad, but Arthur is good). ʽSwimfishʼ is set to a Celtic waltz; ʽGabrielʼ (no relation to the ʽGab­rielʼ of Requiem) is slightly funky, spits out broken bits of slide guitar, and has Arthur doing his best Horned King impression (or was that Horny King?). He even delivers a convincing musical aria on ʽHeartachesʼ — with a fairly complex vocal part to be sung by a 60-year old.

This is definitely not ʽThe Crazy World Of Arthur Brownʼ — more like ʽThe Cozy World Of Arthur Brownʼ if you ask me. But first, he is wrong who would assert that Arthur Brown has no right to have himself a cozy world at this time in his life. And second, the more I listen to it, the more unsure I am about which one of the two worlds I like more. Of course, in 1969, Crazy World was on the cutting edge, whereas Tantric Lover did not make as much as the tiniest ripple when it appeared, and remains steadily confined to Arthur's microscopic hardcore fan base. But, just like Requiem, it is an album that could have a greater appeal — it is ten times as auth­entic, memorable, and pleasant as the majority of indie favorites from the same year. Yes, the title and the album cover are a bit stupid — they could make you suspect that an old dirty has-been is lurking inside — but do not let it get you off the track: Tantric Lover deserves its thumbs up full well, and I'd personally nominate at least ʽCircle Danceʼ for the average 2000s playlist (par­ticularly if this would mean kicking out one more Bright Eyes tune from said playlist).

Check "Tantric Lover" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Tantric Lover" (MP3) on Amazon

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Billy Fury: The Sound Of Fury


1) That's Love; 2) My Advice; 3) Phone Call; 4) You Don't Know; 5) Turn My Back On You; 6) Don't Say It's Over; 7) Since You've Been Gone; 8) It's You I Need; 9) Alright, Goodbye; 10) Don't Leave Me This Way.

Billy Fury. Was this guy just a cheap plastic imitation of American rock'n'roll, temporarily acting as a local substitute on UK soil before «the real thing», like the Beatles and the Stones, came along? Or was he the real thing all along? It's a tough question, not unlike the one that is often asked about the Monkees on the other side of the ocean. Furthermore, is there a single solitary reason, real thing or not, to listen to his recordings today?

I think the key factor here is that — unlike quite a few of the supposedly more «authentic» Bri­tish Invasion acts that came in the guy's wake — Ronald Wycherley, a.k.a. Billy Fury, wrote all of his material himself. Yes, he idolized American pop music and rockabilly, and had no idea whatso­ever about going out there and making something different; but he crafted his own melodies and constructed his own lyrics, and when you are doing this in the genre of light entertainment, you either fall flat on your face or you come up with something interesting. Given Billy's tremendous popularity from 1960 to 1963, he must have come up with something interesting, you'd think. And when you take a listen to The Sound Of Fury, his first and best record, just a quick couple of listens might convince you that he really did.

Yes, he likes all of them whitebread rockers, and alternately writes and sings in the style of Bud­dy Holly, Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent, the Burnette brothers, and/or Elvis — all of whom he had to be at once for the hungry British crowds. But the simplest thing to do would be to simply ap­propriate their melodies and add new lyrics, and I do not recognize direct rip-offs. Each time a song starts off exactly like some other classic, it quickly shifts into its own territory — like ʽIt's You I Needʼ, for instance, starts off just like ʽThat's Alright (Mama)ʼ, then gets its own brief poppy chorus. A trifle, of course, and one might seriously argue that all these cosmetic changes were mainly designed as safe guarantee against lawsuits while all the royalties could be kept for the artist. But I hope there was more to it than just financial reasons — that Billy Fury really liked writing songs in the manner of his idols.

Of course, The Sound Of Fury is quite a misleading title, and anyone looking for the album in hopes of uncovering a long-lost classic of kick-ass early rock'n'roll must immediately lower the pulsating expectations. Even something like ʽShakin' All Overʼ, also recorded in the UK that same year by Johnny Kidd & The Pirates, blows Fury's «fury» out of the water — not to mention most of the major American rock stars of the 1950s. The «wildest» track on here is ʽTurn My Back On Youʼ, an echoey, suggestive, bass-heavy rockabilly romp in the vein of Gene Vincent and Johnny Burnette, but altogether about four years late to seem in any way «dangerous» to any­body but the most killingly conservative grandparents (not that there weren't still quite a lot of them in 1960, of course). Everything else is even more tame, with a poppy or a country under­lining to it. Heck, even such a little-known wussy band as The Silver Beetles, who once refused to be­come a backing band for Billy because he wanted them to fire their bass player (Stuart Sutcliffe at the time, not Paul McCartney, so I sort of understand), was «heavier» than Fury's ensemble. So take the album title with a grain of salt.

On the other hand, Billy did have himself a nice playing outfit — including a young and ambi­tious guitarist called Joe Brown (yes, the Joe Brown who went on to many different things, including befriending George Harrison, becoming the father of Sam Brown, and writing some good music in between), helping him out with original riffs (he doesn't solo all that much), and Reg Guest on piano, playing much in the style of such American greats as Amos Milburn and Johnny Johnson (meaning that he mostly favors the boogie pattern).

If anything, The Sound Of Fury does sound like a perfectly professional endeavor — it just seems a little bit out of date for 1960, what with all the echo and reverb and bass slapping and a near-total lack of drums (at least loud ones; extra bit of trivia — Andy White, later to play on the Beatles' recording of ʽLove Me Doʼ, is the drummer here). You'd almost think the radio didn't work and it took these guys four years for a steam­ship to deliver The Sun Sessions to their doorstep. (The story also goes that, while doing the bass slapping, they had to have two bassists — one to pick the notes and one to actually do the slap­ping. Hey, but it works!).

But they made their own Sun Sessions, and they do sound somewhat like the real thing. As a singer, Billy ne­ver had a unique voice, but it was capable of many things: he can have it all glottalic and hiccupy and rockabillish on ʽTurn My Backʼ, or he can have it slyly sweet with a hillbilly whiff à la Bud­dy Holly on ʽThat's Loveʼ, or he can do tender sentimental pleading on ʽAlright, Goodbyeʼ (al­though the from-the-bottom-of-my-heart crooning style on ʽYou Don't Knowʼ is one time where he seems to severely overcook it: his frail lungs simply cannot handle the ambition). So, looking back on this stuff from more than a half-century distance, I wouldn't call this «empty posing». The guy really dug whatever he was doing here. Thumbs up.

That said, the best track on the current CD issue is to be found not on the album itself, but on one of the accompanying bonusy B-sides: ʽDon't Jumpʼ is a terrific pop-rock exercise in the style of post-army Elvis (think something like ʽLittle Sisterʼ), but with heavy emphasis on Duane Eddy-ish twangy guitar and an independently invented «heartbreaking» story of a teenage suicide set to Billy's own lyrics. Just a juicy, seductive example of one of those «light somber moods», set to a stea­dy pop rhythms, that were produced so frequently in the early Sixties and then vanished al­most completely, replaced by genuinely depressing heavy somberness.

Check "Sound Of Fury" (CD) on Amazon

Monday, September 24, 2012

Bo Diddley: Have Guitar Will Travel


1) She's Alright; 2) Cops And Robbers; 3) Run Diddley Daddy; 4) Mumblin' Guitar; 5) I Need You Baby (Mona); 6) Say Man, Back Again; 7) Nursery Rhyme; 8) I Love You So; 9) Spanish Guitar; 10) Dancing Girl; 11) Come On Baby.

This is where things start getting a little stale. To flesh out Bo's third LP, they had to reach as deep down as 1956 — and what they brought out was ʽCops And Robbersʼ, a wannabe-hilarious blues shuffle with mostly talking vocals that tell a story about... well, look at the title. Perhaps in 1956 it was still a novelty, but in between 1956 and 1960 we had ourselves The Coasters, who, with the aid of Leiber & Stoller, took that whole «comedy / R&B» fusion to a level against which Bo Diddley could not hold up. Uninteresting musically and not very funny, the song is one of Bo's ultimately failed experiments, and the fact that they had to resuscitate it in order to complete the album is quite telling.

The other «oldie» is the much better known ʽI Need You (Mona)ʼ, mostly due to having been covered on the Stones' first album (as well as Britain's sexiest, but completely forgotten, band of the early Sixties, The Li­verbirds, who seem to have covered almost all of Bo's catalog in their microscopically short heyday) — which is, of course, merely a variation on the classic Diddley beat, and was covered mainly due to its lyrics, since UK bands narrating the peculiarities of Bo's biography (had they stuck to the original ʽBo Diddleyʼ) naturally felt a little odd.

Another relatively recent single, from 1959, is even less exciting: a straightforward follow-up to ʽSay Manʼ (ʽSay Man, Back Againʼ) with another bunch of crude jokes exchanged between Bo and Jerome, and its B-side, ʽShe's Alrightʼ, a loud R&B rave-up along the lines of Ray Charles or The Isley Bro­thers — except that neither Bo himself, nor his backing band really had the vocal qualifications; the crudeness of the execution may not be quite as embarrassing as his struggles with doo-wop (after all, this is at least a rousing number, and one wouldn't expect Bo Diddley to completely miss the boat on anything «rousing»), but it is still a relative failure.

Stuff gets a bit better when Mr. Otha Ellas Bates struts into the studio in a focused state of mind and starts recording a chunk of new material tailor-made for the LP itself. ʽMumblin' Guitarʼ is an instrumental built around one sole gimmick — make the guitar «mumble», as you guessed — and the result is a dirty, sludgy piece of controlled chaos that could seriously compete with Link Wray on a certain level. The other instrumental is ʽSpanish Guitarʼ: here, the Bo Diddley beat is indeed combined with an amusingly amateurish «Spanish guitar» part, although he still slips into blues and rock'n'roll modes every now and then. Not a masterpiece, but at least hearing Bo try out un­familiar musical styles on his guitar is more exciting than hearing him sing in unfamiliar music styles; I'd rather listen to him «ineptly» incorporating flamenco elements than lending his voice to doo-wop and soul interpretations.

Good stuff also includes ʽRun Diddley Daddyʼ, a fun pop-rocker that is not a musical sequel to ʽDiddley Daddyʼ, and ʽCome On Babyʼ, another fun pop-rocker that makes the best possible use of about five piano notes and three bass notes, or something like that. But there is also ʽDancing Girlʼ, with a much-too-easily recognizable variation on the Diddley beat (actually, it sounds like the exact mathematical average of ʽBo Diddleyʼ and ʽDiddley Daddyʼ), and a couple more re-writes... overall, the sessions did help to save face a bit, but not a lot. Two decent instrumentals, a bunch of scraps, re-writes, and variations does not a good album make, and it is little wonder that this particular one is rather hard to find on CD — and that the only song off it to regularly appear on compilations is ʽMonaʼ — and that we probably have Mick Jagger to thank for that — so thank you, Mick Jagger, but the album overall still gets a thumbs down.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

British Sea Power: Do You Like Rock Music?


1) All In It; 2) Lights Out For Darker Skies; 3) No Lucifer; 4) Waving Flags; 5) Canvey Island; 6) Down On The Ground; 7) A Trip Out; 8) The Great Skua; 9) Atom; 10) No Need To Cry; 11) Open The Door; 12) We Close Our Eyes.

All right, if you want it that much, I'll bite. I do like rock music. But if we're talking about the bare essentials, the «narrow» definition of rock music, then British Sea Power is one of the last bands on Earth to have the right to subtly imply to me that what they are doing is «rock music». Heck, I don't even think of Bruce Springsteen as «rock music», no matter what Jon Landau might tell us. True rock music is covered with dust on Earth, not skyrocketing towards Heaven, which is where Yan and Hamilton have set their sights.

Not that they don't have a right to; it's just that the album title really rubs me the wrong way, much as if someone had the ingenious idea to release an Andrew Lloyd Webber collection en­titled From Cats, Trains and Phantoms to Ambiguous Argentinian Women: Greatest Classi­cal Hits. Yes, BSP's third album is even more loud and epic than its second. But it doesn't mean that it is any more related to the quintessential spirit of «rock music» than its predecessor. Nor does it mean that it is a better album, for that matter. It is much worse, on all sides.

Supposedly what happened here is the inevitable. Praised by critics for all the wrong things — the volume, the scale, the soulfulness, the verbal intelligence, etc. — instead of the right thing, a.k.a. musical creativity, British Sea Power became convinced that they were the UK equals of Arcade Fire, and that, as long as they stuck with their form, they should no longer be under pressure to seek for more substance. In fact, they became so stuck on preserving and polishing the form that they even went to Canada to work with Arcade Fire's producer for a while (the album overall has at least three producers and was recorded all over the world, although the stylistics is so coherent that it does not really show). And so the indie trap closed in on them.

For me, there is one big difference between Open Season and Rock Music: the cloud of «bored hatred» that eventually dissipated after a few listens to the first of these never opened up on the second. Why? Most likely — because the melodies have become even more generic, more stereo­typical, more dispensible. They do throw in a little extra dosage of punky scraping and distortion, but it is still not enough to install a firm «rock bite» into fillerish tunes like ʽA Trip Outʼ or ʽLights Out For Darker Skiesʼ (whose rhythm appropriates Blondie's ʽOne Way Or Anotherʼ and turns it into something much more serious and much less exciting). Nor does it excuse them for such obvious Arcade Fire steals as ʽWaving Flagsʼ, which tries to pocket the drive and spirit of ʽNo Cars Goʼ but forgets to sew on a hook of its own.

Even worse, their «atmospheric» numbers are becoming even more yawn-inducing than they used to be. ʽThe Great Skuaʼ, a beauty-oriented instrumental number, gets by through sheer exclusive loudness, echo, and wail of overdubs; if we're talking seabirds, Fleetwood Mac's ʽAlbatrossʼ ori­ginally achieved much more with much less. And the closing eight «psychedelic» minutes of ʽWe Close Our Eyesʼ, brave as they are, are a pointless mess of silence, white noise, annoying organ ambience, and a wall-of-sound coda which is completely wasted because all of the rest of this al­bum already had the same wall of sound — try as they might, they just cannot make this conclu­sion sound more «EPIC» than everything else on here.

Like any such album, Rock Music is probably not a complete waste of time, but the amount of time spent on sorting out the few tasty grains is quite disproportional to the size of these grains. ʽAtomʼ has some curious dynamics to it, alternating moments of silence and all-out loudness so that one gets to appreciate the relative value of each a little better. ʽNo Need To Cryʼ, as the only relaxed, quiet ballad on the album, presents a comforting change of pace and a few subtle emo­tional pinches on the senses that, I think, actually work better than the incessant tempestuous as­sault on said senses throughout the rest of the album — enough already!

But my major disappointment is with the guitar sound: other than on one or two tracks (ʽDown On The Groundʼ might be a particularly good exception), the little colorful power-poppy phrases that helped the material on Open Season so much are almost en­tirely gone now. It's almost as if they consciously sacrificed their best abilities for the sakes of  Ab­solute Power. Now everything is in the vein of ʽNo Luciferʼ — a never-ending high-pitched plink-plink-plink set against an equally monotonous distorted chunk-chunk-chunk, with no indi­viduality whatsoever. In other words, a masterful shortcut towards an irate thumbs down, which I am happy/sad to provide. One more indie nightmare.

Check "Do You Like Rock Music?" (CD) on Amazon
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Saturday, September 22, 2012

Autechre: EP7

AUTECHRE: EP7 (1999)

1) Rpeg; 2) Ccec; 3) Squeller; 4) Left Blank; 5) Outpt; 6) Dropp; 7) Liccflii; 8) Maphive 6.1; 9) Zeiss Contarex; 10) Netlon Sentinel; 11) Pir.

As you may have noticed, I generally leave Autechre's EPs unreviewed — most of them can be viewed as little satellites of the accompanying LPs, and dedicating separate space to them would be a waste of time more often than not — but this particular release is actually a combination of two EPs, released separately as EP1 and EP2, and, in between them, running for about an hour. Since there is no principal thematic difference between the two anyway, it is easier to simply think about the whole thing as one more large opus, and tackle it that way.

Not that there is any grand new world to tackle here. Both EPs seem like temporary stopgaps to me, continuing the generally stable Autechre pattern: «one conceptual breakthrough» — «one well-crafted, but lazy follow-up, fed by the old formulae». The only curious thing about EP7, in that respect, is that it is the first (or at least the first large-size) Autechre release to feature a limi­ted amount of vocal samples (on ʽCoecʼ and ʽZeiss Contarexʼ). If there is any effect to it, it's most likely to be «disorientation» — all the vocals are garbled and run through Booth and Brown's precious waves of static, so that you get impressions of degraded biopatterns stuck in Star Trek transporters or something like that.

Static, by the way, heavily dominates these EPs, even if, altogether, there may again be more traces of ambient-ish melodicity here than on LP5. The seven minutes of the appropriately titled ʽLeft Blankʼ, for instance, is simply all static mixed with PC speaker bleeps, plinks, and plonks that remind me of old arcade games circa 1985 or so. On ʽOutptʼ, they try to tune that static and maybe even make it rock — good idea, because every microprocessor with the tiniest bit of self-respect needs to learn to rock'n'roll sooner or later. On ʽLiccfliiʼ, they seem to be giving the static a lesson in hip-hop, but the way I see it, static waves are just too stubborn to assimilate that much learning over such a brief time period.

The only track that seemed relatively unpredictable to me here was ʽMaphive 6.1ʼ, where both the static and the «microchip percussion» suddenly disappeared, replaced by a mesh of keyboard patterns (some pseudo-electric pianos, some pseudo-organs, some pseudo-harpsichords, some pseudo-chimes, even some pseudo-glass harps and vibraphones, whatever) and «normal» electro­nic percussion that comes and goes at will. Not only does the whole thing create a mood that is almost critically «non-Autechre», but its overall degree of complexity seems staggeringly high for these guys, who usually prefer minimalistic layering. On the other hand, I am not really sure what exactly it is doing here, locked in a cage of static waves and clicks on all sides.

The most individualistic thing I can say about EP7 is that much of it does a damn good job of dispensing with «tone» as some sort of prerequisite in music. Just turn on your radio and choose whichever configuration of static agrees the most with your biorhythms. Yes, ʽMaphive 6.1ʼ seems to go against that idea, but that's the trick with Autechre — they never hit you in the face with their philosophies. There's always a red herring in the woodpile, if you know what I mean. But then, if not for that track, I would not have hesitated about a thumbs down, probably.

Check "EP7" (CD) on Amazon

Friday, September 21, 2012

Bad Religion: How Could Hell Be Any Worse?


1) We're Only Gonna Die; 2) Latch Key Kids; 3) Part III; 4) Faith In God; 5) Fuck Armageddon... This Is Hell; 6) Pity; 7) Into The Night; 8) Damned To Be Free; 9) White Trash (2nd Generation); 10) American Dream; 11) Eat Your Dog; 12) Voice Of God Is Government; 13) Oligarchy; 14) Doing Time.

One might think that competition among hardcore punk acts is somewhat like competition in be­tween a pack of wild buffalo — thriving, aggressive, life-asserting, but ultimately they all look alike anyway. Which is why, even though early Bad Religion were by all means a worthy com­petitor, it makes lots of sense that they only released one full-length, «generic» hardcore album before embarking on a complex quest to find their own identity.

«Generic» does not necessarily mean «stupid and boring», though. From the early start, Bad Re­li­gion put serious emphasis on technicality (as opposed to «virtuosity») and melodicity, although in terms of melody they would rather veer off into metallic territory rather than power-pop, as did many of their LA colleagues. In the rhythm section, bassist Jay Bentley frequently benefits from moments of silence that allow him to throw in some nicely thought out, quiet lines (check the coda to ʽInto The Nightʼ). Guitarist Brett Gurewitz throws out riff after riff after riff, mostly vari­ations on standard Ramones fare but with an occasional nod to Sabbath as well — and then he overdubs flashy, wailing, melodic solos in the brave rock'n'roll spirit of Mötörhead. (On one of the songs, ʽPart IIIʼ, the solos are played by Greg Hetson, who would soon become an integral part of the band's sound). And the vocals?

Well, it is true that Greg Graffin had not yet found a distinct vocal style. But it is already quite clear, if you ask me, that he is heading for one, just as lyrics like "Early man walked away as mo­dern man took control", not exactly standard fare for yer average illiterate punker, already seem to presage his future academic career. He does not sing much, or else he would be violating the hardcore aesthetics, but neither does he go for straightforward toneless barking — his is a more restrained approach, sort of a hoarse snobby sneer that allows for slightly more distinctive articu­lation: what use, after all, is heavy investing in your lyrics if no one understands them anyway? This might not make How Could Hell Be Any Worse? an «intellectual's dream» by itself, but this is one instance where words actually do matter, since many of them go way beyond the gene­ric «my girl's a bitch, fuck the system» thematics.

Graffin does favor fucking the system, of course, but he frequently sets his sights higher — for instance, Bad Religion's ʽPityʼ shares pretty much the same message with George Harrison's ʽIsn't It A Pityʼ; it is only the speed and the tone of delivery that are different, and the terser, more so­ciological phrasing — "if we endure the aggression that's inside all of us, we'll wipe out our own species... pity on the masses of ignorant people, on the future centuries to come". How the emo­tion of «pity» can be yoked together with the musical aesthetics of hardcore is not easy to under­stand — but, apparently, that is the essence of early Bad Religion: take a detailed, if not exactly original, philosophy of society and convey it to the hardcore crowds. Better us future university professors than ignorant skinheads, right?

Memorability is a touchy issue with these songs: a few of the choruses are catchy enough, either as «shout-along» slogans (ʽFuck Armageddon, This Is Hellʼ, in which the «this» should come in italics, I guess; ʽWhite Trash, Second Generationʼ) or simply as agonizing outbursts (ʽInto The Nightʼ), but the riffs all drift together after a brief while, so that generally, the songs are only distinguishable when they are adorned with some particular gimmick — such as the sarcastic «Christian» speech in ʽVoice Of God Is Governmentʼ, the classic garage-rock soloing on ʽLatch Key Kidsʼ, or the almost psychedelic guitar tone that appears on ʽDoing Timeʼ to conclude the album. But such tricks are quite rare.

Overall, this is definitely a must for every fan / historian of hardcore, but those who like to asso­ciate their hardcore with explicitly youthful rebellion might be disappointed: Greg Graffin does not care all that much whether you are young or old, socially rewarded or socially discriminated — his pity is for all of us, whether we want to take it or not. "You're just gonna die anyway", goes the last line of the album, and who could disagree? Pretty powerful statement here. I give the whole thing a modestly curious thumbs up — modestly, because (a) I'm not much of a hardcore fan myself, and (b) I prefer the Adolescents, and maybe even the Dead Kennedys. But in general, a hardcore record must be judged according to whether it sounds dumb or smart, and this one sounds quite smart, if not, perhaps, quite deserving of a UCLA professor. But then again, Greg wasn't quite a UCLA professor yet. For a 17-year old, this is quite impressive.

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Thursday, September 20, 2012

Badfinger: Wish You Were Here


1) Just A Chance; 2) You're So Fine; 3) Got To Get Out Of Here; 4) Know One Knows; 5) Dennis; 6) In The Mean­time/Some Other Time; 7) Love Time; 8) King Of The Load (T); 9) Meanwhile Back At The Ranch/Should I Smoke.

Wish You Were Here may be no masterpiece for the ages, and it might not have the most easily memorable, stay-with-you-for-life Badfinger songs, but it is definitely the Badfinger-est album of the all. A record, that is, which tries to dig as deep and to climb as high as could be physically possible for these guys, without a single overtly wrong twist or turn, a single glaring lapse of taste, a single court case of the band trying hard to be somebody else. It probably would not have been a big commercial success even if it did not undergo the proverbial «Badfinger luck» treatment  (due to legal haranguing between Warner Bros. and the band's management, it was pulled from the stores only seven weeks after the initial release; we cannot even technically call it a «flop», since it did not have enough time to flop). But it is exactly due to the fact of sounding like a Bad­finger album, not like a «1974-oriented album», that it has aged much, much better than nume­rous hit records from that year.

With all the neuroses and psychoses pursuing the band's members, I do not even manage to un­derstand how they succeeded in getting it so right after two relative misfires in a row. Maybe things had temporarily settled down, and the band just had a chance to sit down, catch a breath, and realize that, perhaps, if they were not able to achieve success with stuff that they weren't too good at (hard rock, funk, arena-rock, whatever), then they might be able to do better if they just concentrated on what they did best — folk-based pop songs with «power» arrangements, with varying degrees of complexity.

Chris Thomas is still retained as producer, but who could tell? The production is no longer mud­dy: the guitar sound is effervescently clear, and the vocals are for the most part echo-free (with one or two exceptions) — there is simply no need to compensate for the melodic weakness with extra varnish, since the melodies are anything but weak. Furthermore, there is not a single song here — not one — that has any direct connotations to a Beatles predecessor. On Wish You Were Here, Badfinger are, for the first time in their life, fully transformed into a self-sustainable band. Big tragic irony, considering all that happened next.

Song-wise, Pete Ham is almost absent on Side B, but his creations dominate Side A, creating a somewhat tilted balance of quality. ʽJust A Chanceʼ is one of the band's crunchiest pop-rockers: the riff may not be nearly as much in your face as on ʽNo Matter Whatʼ, but it's still a good roots-rocky riff that earns extra points for subtlety — and the song could have easily become a classic rock radio staple, if only there had been an opportunity to cull a couple singles from the album. ʽDennisʼ is a slightly veiled ode to Pete's little son, Blair, which starts off a little lumpy (not un­like, say, a «prog ballad» à la Styx, with a somewhat heavy accent on «anthemic» power chords), but soon picks up steam, conjures some genuine fatherly love, and then ends in an optimistic explosion of heavenly harmonies — the coda is a brilliant example of the band's «lush pop» sen­sitivity, here rivaling the Beach Boys themselves in force of expression, I'd say, if not necessarily in the technicalities (perhaps if Pete Ham only had two brothers and a cousin...).

Most won'drous of all, and my personal favorite Badfinger song of all time (yes, with these guys, I'm really quite a sucker for conciseness and simplicity), is the orthographically silly ʽKnow One Knowsʼ, which, as a chivalrous love confession, I'll take over ʽDay After Dayʼ, well, day after day after day. Where that particular classic had a little blemish — it was way too self-consciously designed as a thing of «heavenly beauty ™» — ʽKnow One Knowsʼ is perfectly natural, and it might even have been by pure supernatural accident that Pete (or was that Joey?) fell upon that particular sparkling guitar tone when recording the rhythm parts, the kind of deep ringing that affects the subconscious in such a special way (later favored so much, for obvious reasons, by the Cocteau Twins). The riff itself could hardly be any simpler, but this is gorgeous simplicity, and taken together with Pete's catchy and ever so «humanly» singing, the sparse, but meaningful gui­tar solo aping the vocal melody, and the strange gimmick of having Japanese artist Mika Kato reciting the chorus words translated to Japanese over the instrumental section (somehow it does add a little extra mystery spice, particularly if you have no knowledge of Japanese) — well, per­sonally, I like to describe these moments as «breathtaking beauty». There's not much of it in the overall Badfinger catalog, but there's plenty of bands who aren't capable of even a single moment like this, so let us give due where due is due, I say.

Amazingly, the rest of the guys generally rise to the challenge. Gibbins contributes the light­weight, but amicable folk-rocker ʽYou're So Fineʼ — perfectly adequate, especially when you remember that, only a year ago, he was veering into the realm of the cowboy song instead. Evans' ʽKing Of The Loadʼ is a bit of meditative Brit-pop with Dylanish lyrics, which they decided to set to the sound of two different keyboards and no guitars (bar Pete's shrieky solo) — again, nothing great, but it gets where it wants to get. And Molland's highest point is ʽGot To Get Out Of Hereʼ: an attempt not to «rock out», but to create an oscillating mood piece that would take you from despair to hope and back to despair and back to hope depending on whatever simple organ chord is played at the moment. J. S. Bach would certainly be appalled at the crudeness of it, but for less demanding tastes, it works quite well.

The two long medleys on Side B are not quite as striking — I am not even sure they should have been medleys, even if Ham's ʽMeanwhile Back At The Ranchʼ and Molland's ʽShould I Smokeʼ do belong together quite naturally, with a melody overlap in the chorus. They seem to have a little too much of everything thrown in, without the ability to grow a face of their own. Still, there is nothing embarrassing about them or even particularly boring — I just wish they didn't put that goddamn echo on Pete's vocals on ʽRanchʼ — and quite a few people list them among their favo­rite tracks on the album, maybe because of some sort of Abbey Road-esque thrill which I do not think was intended here at all (in line with the overall «no more Beatles dependence!» policy).

Contrary to what one could expect, and contrary to the lonely whiff of the title and the album co­ver, Wish You Were Here is not a particularly depressed record. On Side A, in fact, there is only one track dealing with despair — ʽGot To Get Out Of Hereʼ — and although some of the songs on Side B are a little more mopey, nothing here even remotely approaches the universalist grief of ʽTimelessʼ. Rather, it is just a very humane record, and a mature one at that. The love songs are never sappy, the complaining songs never wallow too heavily in misery, and there are no attempts to suck up to someone or something just for the sake of «trying out something that's not us». All of which makes this one of the most wonderful not-to-be-thought-of-as-wonderful albums of the decade, and my guess is that, had Badfinger's career not crashed right upon its release, this is as high as they could go anyway. Naturally, a delighted thumbs up.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Arthur Brown: Order From Chaos - Live 1993


1) When You Open The Door; 2) When You Open The Door Pt. 2; 3) King Of England; 4) Juices Of Love; 5) Night­mare; 6) Fire Poem; 7) Fire; 8) Come And Buy; 9) Pick It Up; 10) Mandela; 11) Time Captives; 12) I Put A Spell On You.

Mr. Brown hit fifty in 1991, not a particularly bad year for music — and I have no idea if his de­cision to reactivate his motor was due to the fact that he sensed fashions changing and maybe even a renewed demand for his kind of music in the air, or if he just woke up one morning with a nagging sense of having wasted a decade of his life on «Nothing Much». Whatever be, the early 1990s saw the man returning, if not to creating new music, then at least to reliving the old one — obviously, he was not much of a stadium seller, but all the small elitist clubs could have him, par­ticularly if he came with a guarantee of craziness.

This live album, released on the small Voiceprint label, captures Arthur during one of these shows, at the Marquee Club in London, June 25, 1993 — apparently, one day after his fifty-se­cond anniversary, since birthday announcements are made several times and ʽHappy Birthdayʼ rips out of the blue at one point during an instrumental jam section. Judging by the atmosphere, it was a pretty fun birthday, considering that he hadn't played live in England for something like a decade and a half — and certainly more fun than one year later, when he passed out on stage in the middle of a brain haemorrhage, which led to a six-month hospital stay and brought the whole «live revival» thing to an abrupt stop. A temporary one, of course: «The God Of Hellfire» would never let himself be brought down by such a trivial thing as a cerebrovascular accident.

Brown's touring band consists mainly of unknowns here: the playing is fine enough (Jeff Danford does a particularly respectable job of filling in for the late Vincent Crane on all the classic numbers), but the chief emphasis is on the show (either the whole thing or parts of it were supposedly filmed as well, and available on Youtube for all those who like seeing aging glam-art-rock stars doing crazy stuff on stage) and Arthur's persona — predictably enough. The setlist, as can be easily seen, is heavily tilted towards Crazy World, since, by 1993, if anybody vaguely remembered anything about Arthur Brown, it all had to be tied to the 1969 album, and the God of Hellfire obliged — coming up with solid recreations of ʽNightmareʼ, ʽFireʼ, ʽCome And Buyʼ, and, of course, ʽI Put A Spell On Youʼ.

But he does go further than that, and in a much less predictable fashion. Kingdom Come is paid tribute with ʽTime Captivesʼ (actually a medley here, with ʽSpirit Of Joyʼ thrown in the middle as well), and Arthur's early 1980s synthesizer experiments are honored with bits from ʽThe Fire Antʼ (incorporated inside ʽMandelaʼ), while ʽKing Of Englandʼ gets a more guitar-oriented re­arrangement than it had on Speak No Tech (not necessarily becoming more interesting in the process). And then there is some new material, including the opening two-part suite ʽWhen You Open The Doorʼ, also written and performed much in the style of Kingdom Come. Was it a shelved outtake or something?

Overall, the impression is positive. The worst possible impression from such things is that of a desperate old wreck, cashing in on fossilized bits and pieces of former success, out of time, out of mind, and very transparently out of money. But here, even without the video, it is clear that the man is nimble, agile, and still feeling quite cozy in his «Supernatural Shoes»: neither the voice nor the spirit have aged a bit (actually, Arthur has got quite an advantage here: like Ian Anderson, he was intentionally downplaying his youthfulness in his prime, looking and sounding about twenty years older than he actually was, and this paid off handsomely in the long run — he ne­ver had the Mick Jagger problem weighing on his shoulders).

The new numbers on their own may not give enough of an incentive to rush out and grab the al­bum: ʽWhen You Open The Doorʼ is strictly for major fans of Kingdom Come; ʽJuices Of Loveʼ is an artsified R'n'B number that is neither too stupendous nor too memorable; and ʽPick It Upʼ is a somewhat formulaic blues-rock shuffle that is a bit too heavy on synthesizers for my taste. But they fit in well with the golden oldies, and the resulting mix is quite a faithful and sympathetic portrait of Arthur Brown at fifty-two. Too bad that Requiem is underrepresented, of course, but honoring the short memories and limited knowledge of Marquee Club audiences was an under­standable priority, I guess, so thumbs up all the same.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Beach Boys: That's Why God Made The Radio


1) Think About The Days; 2) That's Why God Made The Radio; 3) Isn't It Time; 4) Spring Vacation; 5) The Private Life Of Bill And Sue; 6) Shelter; 7) Daybreak Over The Ocean; 8) Beaches In Mind; 9) Strange World; 10) From There To Back Again; 11) Pacific Coast Highway; 12) Summer's Gone.

I do not know why this album was made. I do know that the word «money» explicitly showed up in some of Brian's interviews, and, although I am not sure that Brian was exactly starving in the early 2010s, he is one of the few people in the world who actually deserves all the money he can get, so that would be one reasonable reason. Another reasonable reason would be the fact that the «band» was still in need of a bona fide swan song, after all: with Mike trampling the Beach Boys brand in the dust throughout the 1990s, the biographic curve had a maddeningly pathetic form.

Thus, once Brian and Mike temporarily settled their problems and got all the remaining Beach Boys they could lay their hands on together (Al, Bruce, and somebody even dug up «oldboy» David Marks to strum the guitar; 1962 all over again!), they wisely agreed on the following work pattern: the album would be mostly sunny, happy, and nostalgic, just the way Mike would like it to be, but Brian would otherwise be given complete freedom in the writing, throwing in teenage-symphonic compositions à la ʽSurf's Upʼ if he will. Considering that Brian's solo activity in the 2000s showed him as almost completely «cured», busier with his musical projects than anytime since the 1960s, this pattern simply could not fail. Or could it?

The critical world invented a brilliantly polite tag for the final product: «their best since 1977's Love You». Given that very few people would even remember Love You itself, much less any­thing that came later, the tag sounds impressive — wow, thirty-five years past their last artistic success and still going strong! But take the time to relisten to all these albums: honestly, beating all of them put together in one punch is no feat of heroism. The question should be put differently: have The Beach Grandpappies actually managed, this time, to put out an album that would make sense to people outside the small circle of hardcore fanatics?

As one select representative of these people, I'd very much like to say yes, but the more I listen to it, the more I'm forced to say no. That's Why God Made The Radio is by no means an «awful» album in the spirit of the Brianless garbage of the 1990s, and it manages — most of the time — to avoid being «cheesy» in the spirit of the band's late 1970s / early 1980s products. But it is an empty shell of an album, Beach Boys-ish to the core in form only, never in spirit. In fact, I'd say that it doesn't even have any spirit, Beach Boys or otherwise.

In comparison, I try to remember how amazed I was at hearing Paul McCartney's Chaos And Creation several years ago. There it was, a record by an aged, out-of-time dinosaur that made crystal clear sense: slow, pensive, atmospheric, still carrying traces of melodic genius but also re­flecting a shift of values, moods, attitudes so totally in line with both the modern world and the artist's own age. Not a proverbial «masterpiece», not anything to be remembered by on an order of first importance, just an album that quietly stated, «yes, my creator is old and gray, and that gives him a special edge that he is willing to take advantage of». Similar impressions can also be received from some (far from all) of Brian's solo work — even the re-recording of SMiLE, one could say, carried some whiffs of this «wisened old man» attitude.

That's Why God Made The Radio has none of that. It sounds as if the only question the band put to itself was, «can we just make one more ʽDo It Againʼ type of album?» (As a promo move, they did re-record ʽDo It Againʼ, but it is not included on the final LP). To be more precise, «can we still work out those harmonies? can we avoid synthesizers and electronic dance beats? can we still come up with credible lyrics on Californian topics?» etc. And — yes, for dessert: "can we still make a proverbially beautiful multi-part epic suite like we did in the old days, when Mike didn't like epic suites and we still didn't give a damn?»

The title track, released as a taster several months prior to the complete thing, epitomizes its es­sence quite faithfully. After a few listens... maybe even after a single listen, you can memorize the chorus and forgetfully toe-tap along with its lazy, shuffly rhythms. But from the first to the last note, it feels utterly fake. Or, perhaps, «fake» is not the right word — what is truly awful is that it might feel like a sincere outburst of emotion to Brian himself. Can you imagine the Beatles, had they all remained alive, finally reuniting... with every single Paul song written in the spirit of ʽP.S. I Love Youʼ and every John song written in the spirit of ʽLittle Childʼ?

At least if there had been new tricks, new solutions, new discoveries. No dice. Every single chord, every single harmony seems to have a direct ancestor in one Beach Boys classic or another. So­me­times in several at once: ʽShelterʼ is the most glaring example, where the chorus ("I'll give you shelter from the storm...") is the offspring of ʽDon't Worry Babyʼ while the backing harmonies are mostly variations on ʽBreak Awayʼ. I do not doubt for a second that Brian is still capable of inventing new textures, but for this album — it's like he didn't even try. Instead, he reprogram­med his brain computer-wise, activated all the old melodies, shuffled them around, and gave out a credible «Beach Boys™» record. Give musicologists, biologists, and programmers another fifty years, and you might not even need a Brian Wilson to receive another album of this caliber.

We cannot even blame Mike Love this time. For the most part, he wisely stays away from the writing process, although you can always be sure that if you encounter a particularly cringewor­thy lyric, you know who to blame. "Singing our songs is enough reason / Harmony boys is what we believe in" from ʽSpring Vacationʼ (the most overtly awful song on the entire album — few things in life are more disgusting than forcefully faking happiness) is bad enough, but "we got beaches in mind, man it's been too much time" is a close contender (unless you start singing "we got bitches in mind", which immediately gives the whole thing a fresh new angle). He is also re­sponsible for ʽDaybreak Over The Oceanʼ, which seems to be a crude vivisection of ʽBluebirds Over The Mountainʼ with a transplant from ʽMy Bonnieʼ or something else like that.

Most of the rest is honestly credited to Brian and producer Joe Thomas, who had been a close asso­ciate of Brian's since the recording of Imagination more than a decade earlier. And from all of this «rest», critical attention, for obvious reasons, has preferred to focus on the last three songs, which finally dispense with all the phoney summer happiness and give us pianos, flutes, strings, kind melancholia, and solemn vibrations. Does this make me happy? No. I don't like the idea of Brian sitting down at the piano and telling himself, «okay, concentrate, focus, God, make me capa­ble of writing another ʽSurf's Upʼ here and now» — and for all of these nine minutes, I can­not get rid of the idea. And again, all I hear is faint echoes and shadows of past greatness.

To sum up, if this is really why God made the radio, it's totally awesome how God made me stay away from the radio for most of my life. If this album really replenished Brian's, or even Mike's, pockets in a time of need, I am fine with that. If it was made just so that the official Beach Boys discography did not end with Stars And Stripes, I am so totally fine with that, too. But in the general context of the Beach Boys history, this is not a good record, I'm afraid to say. In fact, it is a bad record, I'm afraid to say — a nostalgic trip that feels forced and stuffy, as if you've just successfully taken a time machine back to 1967, but cannot open the doors. In fact, I'm not even sure I really agree that «this is their best since Love You»: even L.A., in those parts of it that weren't totally wretched, sounded more natural.

The only reason I'm chickening out on giving it a thumbs down is that such a decision would look like some sort of «gesture» — as if I wanted to «punish» the band for committing some sort of sacrilege, or was intentionally going «against the grain» (since most of the official reviews were uniformly positive). After all, they are all just big (and, as of now, senile) children, and at least by now they have learned their lesson: don't pay too much attention to big wicked grown-ups co­ming at you with «modern musical values». Better some sheer, unadulterated nostalgia, than ʽSummer Of Loveʼ. And any nine-minute epic written and recorded by Brian Wilson will always respect the Beach Boys' textbook definition of beauty. The album sounds great — like an imma­culately produced facsimile. It feels phoney. But sounds, as we know, are waves that penetrate us all in the same way, and feelings — who knows, yours might be better than mine.

P.S. And I'd like also to explicitly mention that I do not buy the «well, what more would you ex­pect from these guys in 2012?» argument at all. One of the «real» Beach Boys' biggest advanta­ges in the past was the ability to surprise — after the failure of Smiley Smile, they could come up with a winner like Wild Honey, and after the glitzy cheese of 15 Big Ones they could rebound with the raw bizarredom of Love You. Like I said, I could totally see Brian taking charge and leading the band in yet another direction. Instead, they gave us this fucking paper house. Nosiree, we had the rightful right to expect more, and got much less.

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