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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Beach Boys: Stars And Stripes Vol. 1


1) Don't Worry Baby; 2) Little Deuce Coupe; 3) 409; 4) Long Tall Texan; 5) I Get Around; 6) Be True To Your School; 7) Fun, Fun, Fun; 8) Help Me Rhonda; 9) The Warmth Of The Sun; 10) Sloop John B.; 11) I Can Hear Music; 12) Caroline, No.

All I can say is that, in «desert island» mode, Stars And Stripes would be a more tolerable choice than Summer In Paradise. Which does not mean that the entirety of this album does not spell out «M-I-S-E-R-Y» at the rate of two songs per each letter of the word. Listed as a «Beach Boys» album; featuring all five Beach Boys – including Brian! – on vocal harmonies; but consis­ting exclusively of Nashville musicians playing and Nashville singers singing on old Beach Boy covers — the idea was rotten from the start, and the lack of intelligent execution fails to compen­sate for the rot in any imaginable way.

These are not even properly done «country» rearrangements: at best, it is all made to sound like «1990s country-pop», which was at least before the Taylor Swift era, but was already no more «authentic country» than John Mayer is «genuine blues». Everybody just seems to be playing for cash, with no interest whatsoever in anything else — learn the chords (and, since most of the co­vered songs are from the 1963-64 period, that certainly would not take too long), practice for half an hour, churn it out, and off you go. A pure instance of rigid professionalism that makes the idea of «art» almost ridiculously superfluous.

Much the same applies to the singers, almost none of which are either capable of reproducing the fun spirit of the originals or of supplying a new cool twist to the old stuff. The only exceptions are – big frickin' surprise – the two old-schoolers. Timothy B. Schmit, of Eagles/Poco/solo fame, does a good job of recreating the worried mood of 'Caroline, No' (which is, by the way, the only «serious» song on the entire album, and its being tacked onto the end, like a lame dog bonus track, clearly demonstrates that, at this point, Executive Producer Mike Love was still certain that the true Beach Boys expired thirty years ago upon disembarking from the yacht on the front sleeve of Summer Days). It adds nothing to the original, but it doesn't spoil it, which produces quite a nice psychological effect after the preceding eleven tracks.

Second, another old-schooler and everybody's favorite, Willie Nelson, unexpectedly pops out on 'The Warmth Of The Sun' — a song that normally commands a very complex vocal performance and a particularly sweet vocal tone. Of course, it could be expected that the old trickster would try and do something like that — deconstruct a vocal classic with a deliberately minimalistic perfor­mance. But, unfortunately, that is just the way it works: as an experimental deconstruction. It is odd and unusual to hear Nelson's sympathetic «non-singing» backed by angelic harmonies, but it certainly is not the right way a good Beach Boys cover can be done. (Come to think of it, I do not even know what is the right way — the Beach Boys defy personal interpretation, which is why we do not see too many respectable Beach Boy covers floating around, unlike the Beatles).

And, in any case, two decent/interesting performances out of twelve isn't exactly hot stuff — es­pecially when, in order to get through to them, one has to suffer the humiliation of Toby Keith singing about being true to your school; of 'Help Me, Rhonda' rearranged as a fast-tempo shit-rock number; of grown-up people rather than fresh kids still wallowing in the cheap silliness of 'Long Tall Texan'; of Lorrie Morgan going through 'Don't Worry Baby' with all the passion of a young idealistic mom giving it her all at the local school benefit show, etc. etc.

Predictably, the planned Stars And Stripes Vol. 2 never came to pass (although some material was actually recorded, like a not-half bad Tammy Winette take on 'In My Room'), and the origi­nal record went out of print fairly soon — and with it, any incentive on the part of the «Beach Boys» to record any new material, particularly since, soon afterwards, the rift between Brian and Mike Love became permanent, and because Carl passed away in 1998: although Mike and Bruce still shamefully continued touring as «Beach Boys», it is one thing to please nostalgic crowds with shaky-hand renditions of 'Surfin' USA', and quite another one to record new material under the same name (not that, in between the two of them, they had any).

Thumbs down without a question (sorry, Willie), both to this album and its funny permutation that occasionally circulates around in bootleg form — one with all the lead vocal tracks wiped out and amusing liner notes that explain that, since this is probably the last ever Beach Boys album to bear that name on it, one must have the right to hear it as a Beach Boys album, focusing on auth­entic Beach Boy harmonies, rather than a trashy country star tribute record with the band guesting on its own album. Now that, in 2012, a reunion is finally expected, the excuse may no longer be an excuse, and then the last ever reason for even remembering that someone ever had such a fit of bad taste will dissipate forever.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Billie Holiday: Lady Sings The Blues


1) Lady Sings The Blues; 2) Trav'lin' Light; 3) I Must Have That Man; 4) Some Other Spring; 5) Strange Fruit; 6) No Good Man; 7) God Bless The Child; 8) Good Morning Heartache; 9) Love Me Or Leave Me; 10) Too Marvelous For Words; 11) Willow Weep For Me; 12) I Thought About You.

This is not a very important release for those who savor Billie's career in chronological order; ne­vertheless, it is still one of her best-known late period albums, since it is somewhat conceptual – released as a «companion piece» to her famous autobiography of the same name: ghost­written, actually, by William Dufty from Billie's recollections, but still historically important for a number of reasons (a black artist candidly writing about the intricacies of childhood abuse and heroin ad­diction was still quite a novel thing in 1956). The franchise then culminated in a couple shows at Carnegie Hall in December, where Billie's performances were accompanied by readouts from the book (a large chunk of the show is available on the Complete Verve boxset as well).

Thus, Lady Sings The Blues is somewhat of a retrospective album – all re-recordings, except for the title track, specially written by Billie herself for the occasion, and, today, one of her visit cards, along with 'Strange Fruit' and 'God Bless The Child', which, not coincidentally, are also re­recorded for this session of June 1956. (Four of the songs are, however, taken from an earlier ses­sion in September 1954, again, creating a slightly uncomfortable dissonance between two diffe­rent stages of the lady's voice).

The backing tracks on the session are nothing outstanding to write home about (where have you gone, Mr. Peterson?), and the old classics are not exactly reinvented, either: the best I can say about this performance of 'Strange Fruit' is that the subtle horror is still there, neither grown nor diminished. In a way, one could say that, as Billie got older, her voice was compensating for extra hoarseness and creakiness with an additional thin thread of wisdom-and-experience, so I could understand someone preferring this version of 'God Bless The Child', burdened with twenty-five additional years of ups and downs, to the original Columbia recording.

But then it may just be better to take this record as one large whole — lady does not so much sing the blues here as she sings her past, alternating darker and lighter numbers to come up with an ad­equate representation of her own importance. And 1956 was an important year for her: on the he­els of clever (and totally justifiable, in this case) marketing, she at least had the pleasure of recei­ving widespread acclaim and acceptance — crowned with the Carnegie Hall performances — during her lifetime, even if she did not get to enjoy it too long.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Black Lips: Let It Bloom


1) Sea Of Blasphemy; 2) Can't Dance; 3) Boomerang; 4) Hippie, Hippie, Hoorah; 5) Not A Problem; 6) Gung Ho; 7) Everybody's Doin' It; 8) Feeling Gay; 9) Take Me Home (Back To Boone); 10) Gentle Violence; 11) She's Gone; 12) Fairy Stories; 13) Dirty Hands; 14) Workin'; 15) Punk Slime; 16) Empassant.

The Lips' third album seems to be titled much more modestly than their second (although still dealing with the same issue) — but this is a false impression, since any title like that brings on in­evitable as­sociations with Let It Be and Let It Bleed, meaning that this is really an arrogant sta­tement of purpose if there ever was one. Or, at least, a tongue-in-cheek arrogant statement of pur­pose. In any case, it commands attention — in a gambling way.

And admittedly, I admit that it is a heart-warming improvement. The band steps back on the noise, just a little bit, opening the window just enough to let in some of that melodic spirit of the 1960s, while at the same time still keeping the production values and the playing style very lo-fi; at the same time, the diversity is back, with garage-blues-rock occasionally giving way to folk-rock, dark blues, and hooliganish R'n'B à la early Stones. (Not a lot of diversity, of course, but still fee­ling like The White Album after the boring monotonous noise of We Did Not Know).

Hence the predictable question: now that we see some songwriting going on, how does it com­pare — both to the band's debut album, and to their influences? On the first point, I would say that the songs are a half-notch more interesting and involving, but the sound is still a whole notch dir­tier and noisier, so that only a properly initiated adept of the lo-fi ideology will like them when they are playing this-a-way more than when they were playing that-a-way. On the second point, they are still nowhere near close to competing with their garage ancestors in terms of inventive hooks. Not that they claim to be competing, of course.

So, in the end, once again it all comes down to the idea of «reviving and modernizing garage va­lues for the intelligent segment of white trash in 2005». And the fun of it lies, of course, in reali­zing that most of these songs could not be recorded in 1966 — it takes decades of additional de­velopment (and even brain growth) to produce these results.

'Can't Dance', for instance, takes a speedy «punk-metal» chord sequence that sounds suspiciously close to 'Mötorhead' (the song), and only then proceeds to dress it up in 1960s' guitar and vocal tones. 'Not A Problem' makes a joke on reasons that drive us to homicidal tendencies ("I woke up in the morning just the other day, found my dog beneath the Chevrolet") – one that probably would not be tolerated or under­stood in 1966, nor would people be necessarily hip to the song's maddening combo of thin jangly guitar driven to non-existence by deafening fuzz noise. But, again, the fuzz, the jangle, and the lead vocals are all as retro as they come.

Word problems would also surface as early as on the titles to 'Feeling Gay' and 'Fairy Stories' — both of these songs have their prototypes in the Stones ('Heart Of Stone' and 'Rocks Off', respec­tively), but their messages, whatever they are, are intended for modern audiences. On the other hand, 'Dirty Hands' starts off like the Ramones' 'I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend', then quickly be­comes something like one of those early pop ballads by Manfred Mann — and if you were worry­ing about the meaning of the title, well, the hands happen to be dirty simply because it's an inno­cent story about love on the beach.

Whether these quirky little twists on the quirky little twists of days gone by are enough to justify Let It Bloom's existence — that is not for me to decide. It's a fun album, a curious album, a lis­tenable album, but so far, I have been unable to convince myself that it is also an unforgettable album. As far as I am concerned, The Black Lips are still playing childhood games here, and in a way that, either consciously or unintentionally, prevents grown-ups from discerning just how much real talent and artistic drive there is behind the entertainment masks. Fortunately for us and them, childhood would soon be over.

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

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Arch Enemy: Rise Of The Tyrant


1) Blood On Your Hands; 2) The Last Enemy; 3) I Will Live Again; 4) In This Shallow Grave; 5) Revolution Begins; 6) Rise Of The Tyrant; 7) The Day You Died; 8) Intermezzo Liberté; 9) Night Falls Fast; 10) The Great Darkness; 11) Vultures.

If I am not mistaken, the average metal-fan response to Rise Of The Tyrant was generally more positive than to Doomsday Machine. The album does pack quite a punch, going ever and ever heavier on brutality. «Artsy» touches are reduced to an absolute minimum — this time, 'Blood On Your Hands' opens the session without any atmospheric buildups, getting straight to the point in about five seconds. Acoustic interludes have been flushed out of existence, and the tempos are very steadily balanced between «fast» and «lightning fast».

In addition, there is no more double-tracking on Gossow's vocal parts: all of the growling is re­corded «live», in an attempt to match the unmediated onslaught of a genuine Arch Enemy show. I am not sure if that was a good decision, though — the double-tracking gave that awesome growl a surrealistic sheen, as if actual demons were genuinely swooshing around the room, whereas the «pure» growling on Tyrant, especially when it rises high above the instrumental din (or during the brief accappella moments, e.g. "REMEMBER!" on 'Blood On Your Hands'), is thinner, and thus, more ghost-like; besides, you get to hear better what the woman is really doing to her throat, and that makes me a little nervous.

Finally, more than ever before, the lyrics and moods have focused on issues of freedom-fighting and stuff. The title track is introduced with a rather lengthy quotation of dialog from Caligula (the scene in which McDowell demands that the Senate proclaim him God) — and the entire album is permeated with the hyperbolic feeling of an impending threat of you-know-what. Occasionally, Gossow turns to «lyrical» subjects ('The Day You Died', a simple goth tale), and at least one song could be qualified as «straightforwardly suicidal» ('I Will Live Again'), but overall, it's the same old story: the tyrant rise, the meek shall fall, revolution is imminent, and, of course, plenty of blood and guts to go 'round. Same old story, whipped to swirling frenzy.

The only thing that seems to be completely missing from Rise Of The Tyrant is interesting song­writing. The basic formula works in the old way, but only 'Blood On Your Hands', I think, has a decent structure and melodic, evocative lead lines. Everything else is just supertight generic speed runs that merge with one another in a manner so irritating I do not think I have ever been so much irritated since listening to Black Earth. There is nothing here even remotely approaching the creep-of-doom of 'My Apocalypse': as I said, «atmosphere» has been flushed out, and so have atmospheric riffs, replaced by finger-flashing. Even on tracks like 'The Great Darkness', mildly enlivened with bits of «medieval» Latin chanting, the guitar melodies fail to grab.

I mean, for God's sake, if this is called «melodic death metal», we are at least entitled to hearing some new melodies on each ensuing album, right or wrong? Up until Doomsday Machine, such was the case, but here, it isn't even that there is no «progression» – it seems to be one of those ca­ses in which a formerly inventive band suddenly gets this ridiculous urge to «get back to basics», and produce a very «basic» – and a very boring – piece, whose only achievement is in showing us listeners that it is really hopeless to go against the flow, and hinder your own development. Well, it is my free right to disrespect this attitude, and so, in a state of total disrespect, a thumbs down for Rise Of The Tyrant. It doesn't help, either, that I do not know of any actual tyrants having ri­sen in 2007. Unless they somehow mean the release of the last Harry Potter book.

Check "Rise Of The Tyrant" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Rise Of The Tyrant" (MP3) on Amazon

Friday, January 27, 2012

Asia: Aqua

ASIA: AQUA (1992)

1) Aqua, Part 1; 2) Who Will Stop The Rain?; 3) Lay Down Your Arms; 4) Heaven On Earth; 5) Someday; 6) Crime Of The Heart; 7) A Far Cry; 8) Back In Town; 9) Don't Call Me; 10) Love Under Fire; 11) The Voice Of Reason; 12) Aqua, Part 2.

Okay, this is where things start to get irredeemably bad. It has little to do with the loss of a crucial member: one needn't really have a problem with John Payne, who came out of nowhere and re­placed Wetton fairly well, with a similarly powerful, but, overall, intelligent manner of singing. New guitarist Al Pitrelli was already a seasoned pop-metal player who'd made a good name for himself playing with Alice Cooper in his Trash/Hey Stoopid period (where he was at least a fair­ly tolerable replacement for the «Rambo» style of the Coop's previous axman). And besides, Steve Howe agreed to guest-play on some of the tracks. Carl Palmer, too, was still an official member when the sessions started (but left to rejoin ELP before they were over).

So the people are okay. What is not okay is a sense of total wretchedness. The style of the band was pathetic enough in the 1980s, but at least it was sort of en vogue at the time, and that pro­vided enough inspiration — not just in order to come up with decent melodies, but to play and sing them like there was some hope for tomorrow, if you know what I mean. By 1992, however, even mainstream tastes were changing, and only those who, for some reason, fell way too deep under the «Eighties charm», could continue enjoying this cr... uh, I mean, «eccentric-romantic» approach to music making.

Aqua does not give out one single bloody hint that the band even noticed the bug of the times, let alone tried to capture it. Same stuffy electronic arrangements, same booming drums, same pathos, same arena-rock choruses — still riding the old formula, and quite depleted and worn out at that. What used at least to be novel is now predictable and utterly annoying; and no matter how much «Authentic Care For The World's Problems» Payne is trying to convey with his voice, nothing works. Personally, I cannot even make myself believe that they really cared about anything at this point — it is as if someone just put the entire band in a state of trance and ordered them to plow through on auto-pilot.

Some of these choruses are still catchy, but why bother? I could imagine someone taking 'Crime Of The Heart' and rearranging it as a moving acoustic folk ditty, but until this is done, why in the world should we bother with the original? Simple, undeserving musical ideas are being puffed up to symphonic size here, the same way a bad scientist, having made a trivial discovery, turns it into a 500-page dissertation, with an emphasis on very long words with very little meaning. The utter banality of it all is best illustrated with the intro to the generic love ballad 'Don't Call Me' — starting, of course, with the sound of a tone dial and a female "Hello?" — you know, to set the proper mood and all. Even Jeff Lynne, with his 'Telephone Line', handled that better.

The more energy there seems to be, the more it seems to be fake, fake, fake. Fake rockers ('Back In Town'), fake power ballads ('Love Under Fire'), fake prophetic anthems ('Who Will Stop The Rain', cautiously titled with the full form of the auxiliary so as not to offend fans of CCR), even fake acoustic prayers ('The Voice Of Reason') and fake intro/outro «atmospheric» instrumental pieces ('Aqua') built on clichéd classical guitar figures and boring sound effects. Some fans say that Geoff Downes at least renewed and remodeled his synthesizers. But is this supposed to mean they sound any more alive than they used to? The fact that he managed to achieve the highest standards of adult contemporary is not particularly recommendable.

Fun fact — although Aqua, almost predictably, failed to chart in either the States or the UK, it still went all the way to No. 1 in Japan. (Then again, I suppose everything goes to No. 1 in Japan sooner or later, since they live in a parallel reality where time flows ten times slower than in the preoccupied Western world.) On that happy note, let us simply issue the expected thumbs down, and move along: the real Trail of Tears has only just begun.

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