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Friday, November 30, 2012

Bad Religion: Tested


1) Operation Rescue; 2) Punk Rock Song; 3) Tomorrow; 4) A Walk; 5) God Song; 6) Pity The Dead; 7) One Thousand More Fools; 8) Drunk Sincerity; 9) Generator; 10) Change Of Ideas; 11) Portrait Of Authority; 12) What It Is; 13) Dream Of Unity; 14) Sanity; 15) American Jesus; 16) Do What You Want; 17) Part III; 18) 10 In 2010; 19) No Direction; 20) Along The Way; 21) Recipe For Hate; 22) Fuck Armageddon; 23) It's Reciprocal; 24) Struck A Nerve; 25) Leave Mine To Me; 26) Tested; 27) No Control.

Get out the calculators. 3 completely new, previously unissued songs; 5 songs from The Gray Race (1996); 2 songs from Stranger Than Fiction (1994); 4 songs from Recipe For Hate (1993); 3 songs from Generator (1992); 2 songs from Against The Grain (1990); 3 songs from No Control (1989); 2 songs from Suffer (1988); 1 song from Back To The Known (1984); 2 songs from How Could Hell Be Any Worse (1982). Boy, do these guys have a large disco­graphy — and boy, do they love to love it. All except Into The Unknown, that is, which is im­portant, because it is the only clue we have here that Greg Graffin can actually accept a few mis­takes (or at least one mistake) in his life.

If there could ever be a point in a Bad Religion live album, then Graffin and Co. make everything in their power to avoid it. First, a real good live punk rock show should last about the same as a real good punk rock album — no more than half an hour at best; Tested spills over an hour-long vessel, and listening to Bad Religion for more than sixty minutes is only recommendable for real strong guys with lots of frustration to vent, more than I could ever imagine (and I'm feeling pretty pissed off right now myself). Second, even in punk rock, it does help if you try and make your material a little bit different from the studio originals — even if you just speed it up a bit, like the Ramones — and this might be the main reason why punk bands do not frequently bother with live recordings, since most of them already have a live-in-the-studio sound.

Third and most important, Graffin chose a very strange approach here: instead of doing like eve­ry­body else and «miking the stage», he simply directed all the instruments straight into the recor­ding console. This allowed the sound to be captured as faithfully and cleanly as possible, and the reasonable point to be lost completely. The new, crazy point is to answer the question: «How fuckin' good — technically — are Bad Religion when they go onstage and play their material?» The normal answer to that question, in a logical world, would be: «Who fuckin' cares?» Only a band with a very puffed up sense of self-importance would demand a different one.

In addition, the actual recordings were all taken from different shows and selected with great care out of a pile of look-alikes — you'd think it was Glenn Gould here sorting through the tapes, not the leader of a generic hardcore outfit regularly operating at a three-chord level. With no conti­nuity whatsoever to the proceedings, they don't even formally qualify as a «live punk rock show». What's the actual sense, then? Just try to assert your intellectual superiority over all competition by «doing something different»? How about some humility here? Would be nice for a band whose workbag of musical ideas is kinda skinny, to put it mildly.

Not that the whole thing is utterly bland, uninspired, disgusting, or anything. The song selection is all right — at this point, it is fairly difficult even to remember what were the «highlights» and the «lowlights» on the band's original albums anyway — and of the new songs, only the super-slow, ultra-pathetic ʽDream Of Unityʼ goes over the top in an adequacy-defying manner. As a general retrospective, it isn't too bad (although one wonders why they didn't arrange the songs in chronological order, if they are fading out after each track anyway). But high up above the simple «like it or hate it» level, most live albums set out to prove a purpose — and Tested seems to prove all the wrong ones. Thumbs down, simply because I doubt I'll ever listen to it again. In fact, I have similar doubts about plenty of other BR albums, but if there is anything in particular that the title of Tested refers to — it's patience, yours and mine. In any case, buying the album won't solve the world's problems, as Graffin would have you do. You might just as well donate your money to a financial pyramid.

Check "Tested" (CD) on Amazon

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Baker Gurvitz Army: Live In Derby '75


1) The Hustler; 2) Space Machine; 3) Remember; 4) White Room; 5) Neon Lights; 6) Inside Of Me; 7) Memory Lane; 8) Sunshine Of Your Love; 9) The Artist; 10) Freedom; 11) Time; 12) Going To Heaven.

Although, at their peak (and they were almost always at their peak, considering they only lasted three years), Baker Gurvitz Army were a real swell live act, somehow they never got around to putting out a live album — probably because there was little hope of commercial success, given the failure of the studio ones (too bad they never got inspired by the example of KISS). The vaults did open, eventually, in the 2000s, with a whole stream of low-budget, but sometimes sur­prisingly high-quality releases, the most representative of which is this show, recorded for a live BBC broadcast (hence the quality) during the Elysian Encounter tour.

In the true spirit of progressive ambition, the setlist barely fits onto a single CD with only twelve numbers — but, in all honesty, the seventy eight minutes never feel tedious. These are just long songs, sometimes launching into jam mode for brief periods (this ain't Cream, really), sometimes giving the guitarist or the drummer an individual chance to shine (only one, and a relatively brief at that, drum solo — probably at the BBC's cordial request), but most often fixed in a steady groove mode, just getting it on, with the Gurvitz brothers providing the hard rock excitement, Ginger adding a jazz foundation, and the keyboard guy laying on the funk 'n' fusion. Although, honestly, to hell with the keyboard guy — his presence is notable, but as a keyboard guy, he is the weakest link in this chain.

The setlist is predictably concentrated on Elysian Encounter, with a couple of numbers from the debut album, a «preview» of ʽNeon Lightsʼ from Hearts On Fire, and a 7"-only song (ʽSpace Machineʼ, "our last single that vanished without a trace", Mr. Snips says) to hold up some balance — as well as two Cream classics (guess which ones) donated specially for Ginger fans, and a late period Jimi Hendrix cover, because what fun must it be to feel yourself in the shoes of The Band Of Gypsies from time to time.

The spirit of the transformation into the band that made Hearts On Fire is already evident — there is a very strong emphasis on danceable funk grooves throughout the show, most obvious on the drastic rearrangement of ʽInside Of Meʼ, where they drop the melancholic blues and lay on the dirty funk like there was no tomorrow. But it works much better in the raw live setting than it would work in the polished confines of the studio. As I said, it ain't Cream — there is never any feeling that the players are fighting a mortal combat against each other, even Ginger seems fairly content to be just a member of the team — but there is no fear, either, of letting their hair down and sacrificing, where possible, precision and discipline for the sakes of gutsy excitement.

They could actually do without the Cream covers, though: it is quite clear that both were per­formed for purely perfunctory reasons, and that neither Mr. Snips (who omits an entire verse from ʽSunshine Of Your Loveʼ) nor Adrian Gurvitz (who refrains from playing the last solo on ʽWhite Roomʼ) have any real interest in playing a Bruce or a Clapton. But I suppose that having Ginger Baker in your band surmises certain ironclad obligations — especially when one starts thinking of all the potential ticket buyers. Anyway, that is just six minutes out of seventy-five, and they don't sound awful or anything.

Overall, a content thumbs up here: the whole thing is a sweaty, crunchy, agile, and intelligent sample of mid-Seventies' «hard-art»-rock with a respectable balance between the hard and the art parts. Less elitist and esoteric than something like The Mahavishnu Orchestra, perhaps, but high­ly recommendable for all those who'd like to combine intelligence with headbanging without having to take it from the likes of Uriah Heep.

Check "Live In Derby '75" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Live In Derby '75" (MP3) on Amazon

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Band: Moondog Matinee


1) Ain't Got No Home; 2) Holy Cow; 3) Share Your Love With Me; 4) Mystery Train; 5) Third Man Theme; 6) Pro­mised Land; 7) The Great Pretender; 8) I'm Ready; 9) Saved; 10) A Change Is Gonna Come; 11*) Didn't It Rain; 12*) Crying Heart Blues; 13*) Shakin'; 14*) What Am I Living For; 15*) Going Back To Memphis; 16*) Endless Highway.

Apparently, Robbie Robertson got tired one day from waking up and looking out of his window to discover the rest of The Band picketing his apartment with large signs reading «ROBBIE WE NEED MORE SONGS FROM YOU» and «ROBBIE GRACE US WITH EVEN MORE OF YOUR EGO». In order to teach those guys a lesson, he decided that from now on — for a short while at least, enough to record one whole LP — The Band were no longer The Band, but would rever­t back to The Hawks, the barroom/shithouse-playing backing band for Ronnie Hawkins back in their early «Swinging Toronto» days. Alternatively, this may have been a collective decision, but who can tell now? It ain't 1973 any more, and they all lie in their autobiographies anyway.

Cover / tribute albums were not exactly all the rage in 1973, when the world was still young, but they were beginning to coalesce as a separate form of art — the other well known example from the same year is Bowie's Pin Ups — and with Moondog Matinee, The Band ended up playing a serious part in that coalescence. Since, at any point in their post-Basement existence, The Band could have leisurely changed their name to The Academy, Moondog Matinee is no exception: it finds our merry bunch of bearded musical intellectuals «institutionalizing» the lightweight enter­tainment that they originally grew out of. On a sheerly technical level, they succeed; on a more abstract artistic one, they utterly fail.

At least the choice of material is exquisite. Instead of sanctifying early garage-rock à la Bowie (which would be silly, since The Hawks were never garage-related), or early rockabilly, which would make them look like a British Invasion band, or Chicago blues, which would make them into a second-rate Butterfield Blues Band, they go for a diverse selection that does involve a bit of rockabilly, but generally concentrates on old school soul, R&B, gospel, and New Orleans party muzak — and very few of these songs even begin to come close to «radio standards».

If anything, Moondog Matinee is priceless for its edutainment value. If you squint at the credits hard enough, you might want to find out about Clarence «Frogman» Henry and his throaty croak (which no one in The Band, shameful as it is to say, was able to reproduce — so they just put an electronic distorted effect on Helm's voice), or about The Platters, or about LaVern Baker — or you just might want to shift gears and go watch The Third Man, which is a really good movie, al­though perhaps just a tad overrated in terms of significance and quality by today's gourmet hip­sters, according to whom, almost everything with Orson Welles in it automatically turns to gold... but we were actually talking about The Band here.

To tell the truth, this is not really a «bad» album. The Band honestly try to «Band-ify» the origi­nals — in fact, come 1973, they were so much one with their general style already, they could not have really gone back to their bare roots even if they wanted to — making this, at the very least, into an intriguing modernization of the freshly dug-out «non-classics». However, that is also the root of the problem: some of these songs yield quite unwillingly to the «Band-ification», and some just plain rebel and turn into uncomfortable small puddles of embarrassment.

I am talking first and foremost about the «rock'n'roll» numbers — in one of his monologs on art philosophy in The Last Waltz, Robbie said something to the effect of "been there, done that, could do that along with the best of 'em, got bored and moved on" about their early days playing rock­'n'roll, and listening to these tepid, languid takes on Chuck Berry's ʽPromised Landʼ and Fats Do­mino's ʽI'm Readyʼ (which happens to be one of my personal favorites from the early boogie era, so I take this as a personal offense) sure confirms that stance. Actually, the prime culprit here is not Robertson, but the rhythm section of Helm and Danko — a clear-cut case of «overcooking it»: not content to play simple four-fours and minimalistic, but steady boogie lines, they give both of the tracks a «swing» attitude that completely robs them of their basic point, because if one cannot properly headbang to these tracks in a clear, metronomic fashion, what good are they? Complete­ly no good. Ashes to ashes, funk to funky — if anything, Chuck Berry should be left to the care of the Rolling Stones, and Fats... Fats can probably take good care of himself.

They do a better job with Junior Parker's / Elvis Presley's ʽMystery Trainʼ, which gets seriously funkified without completely losing the vibe of the original — and also turned into a playground for Hudson, who is busy unfurling a little electronic / proto-IDM symphony in the background while Robbie and the boys are merrily hacking away. The weirdness of the combo alone would be suffi­cient to make it passable; unfortunately, the groove goes on well past its welcome, be­cause even Garth runs out of creative ideas a couple of minutes into the song.

Likewise, everything else is randomly hit-and-miss. One upbeat tune may reach the right spot because of the proper amount of party flavor and tongue-in-cheekiness (ʽAin't Got No Homeʼ, even despite the lame attempt to electronically compensate for the lack of a proper «Frogman» voice) — another one may be a shy, tentative recreation of a much more energetic and over­whelming original (ʽSavedʼ — somebody tell these guys to stay away from African-American parishes). One Manuel-sung ballad may be sweet and touching (ʽShare Your Love With Meʼ), another may attempt to squeeze his free-roaming style into a rigid waltzing doo-wop arrangement where his attack loses focus (ʽThe Great Pretenderʼ). One side-closer may be the completely un­expected rearrangement of the ʽThird Man Themeʼ, now a lazy-summer-day Band-style chillout polka (no zither!), another side-closer may be a moving, but totally expendable Sam Cooke cover (ʽA Change Is Gonna Comeʼ is, I believe, one of those few tunes that are so personal, you'd really have to live it out before adding it to your repertoire — no reasons to doubt Danko's sincerity, but he is not living it out here, he is just paying a humble tribute to Sam).

Thus, it ain't all totally without redemption, but I would never in my life call Moondog Matinee a «success» — certainly not if the goal here was to «update» all the songs for the modern age, nor if the goal was somehow to prove The Band's «authentic» status: ʽThe Weightʼ and ʽThe Night They Drove Old Dixie Downʼ assert their authenticity and heritage far more effectively than a million Chuck Berry and Sam Cooke covers ever could. And this is a thumbs down — still a must-own for the serious fan, an «important trifle» in the legacy, but, nevertheless, also an album which The Band's discography could definitely skip over.

The CD reissue adds a whole bunch of bonus tracks from the same sessions, most of them com­pletely passable (particularly a lame-o-licious acoustic guitar cover of Chuck Willis' ʽWhat Am I Living Forʼ, with a subtle melody change that totally kills off the smooth flow of the original) — including one and one only original track: the studio version of ʽEndless Highwayʼ, which, to tell the truth, would later be done with far more verve and energy on the joint Dylan/Band live album Before The Flood. No surprise here, though — like main course, like bonus.

Check "Moondog Matinee" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Moondog Matinee" (MP3) on Amazon

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Billy Preston: Wildest Organ In Town


1) Midnight Hour; 2) Uptight (Everything's Alright); 3) A Hard Day's Night; 4) Ain't Got No Time To Play; 5) Love Makes Me Do Foolish Things; 6) The Duck; 7) Advice; 8) (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction; 9) I Got You (I Feel Good); 10) It's Got To Happen; 11) Free Funk; 12) The In Crowd.

The ever more swinging years find Billy Preston still too shy and afraid to try something that de­viates from the established formula. He does continue to acknowledge the arrival of new trends, styles, and fashions — covering contemporary pop hits by the dozen — but he does not dare to sing, still limits his own songwriting to just a small handful of half-assed instrumentals, and, most importantly, still shows little interest in playing with a daring, competitive backing band.

In fact, most of the backing players were not even listed in the credits here — with the exception of Sly Stone, not yet a man of «The Family», but already a player on the scene, who is also credi­ted for arranging most of the tracks and co-writing two of Billy's three numbers. Curious trivia bit: ʽAdviceʼ is probably the first recorded song on which you get to hear Sly's trademark "I wanna take you higher" bit, even if the excitement and enthusiasm on this track is on kindergarten level compared with later Family Stone developments. For some reason, the two artists find it funny to interweave the riff of ʽLouie Louieʼ into the melody — in a certain sense, ʽLouie Louieʼ does take you higher, but I wonder if my sense is the same as theirs.

Anyway, the only real difference is that, the farther they go, the less these organ rearrangements closely resemble and mimic the originals — ʽSatisfactionʼ, for instance, is practically unrecogni­zable until the brass section starts playing the main riff, at which point you understand that Billy was actually translating Jagger's vocals to an organ setting all along. But he really transforms it into a loose, festive R&B number (somewhat similar to Otis Redding's take), completely chan­ging the spirit of the Stones to something more celebratory and less spiteful. (Which is not neces­sarily a good thing, but a fairly common one with R&B adaptations of British Invasion tunes, so we might just as well make our peace with the procedure).

Many of the covers are R&B standards in the first place, though, and cannot be transformed too deeply — ʽIn The Midnight Hourʼ, ʽI Feel Goodʼ — so, in the end, it is still more intriguing and curious to look at Billy handle the other stuff. If ʽSatisfactionʼ rolls along like a merry dance groove, then ʽA Hard Day's Nightʼ, on the other hand, gets slowed down and played in almost dirge-like fashion, which is only logical, if you ask me: this is the kind of rhythm that would be more appropriate for someone who has just had «a hard day's night», «working like a dog». Yes, it's sort of sad that the song loses energy, spirit, catchiness, memorability, and every other reason to exist in the process — but nice, logical, reasonable try anyway.

On a final note, beware of ʽFree Funkʼ: despite the title, this is really a slow soul ballad, «freely» quoting from ʽGeorgia On My Mindʼ and something else that I do not recognize. Not that the word «funk» had a straight, unambiguous musical meaning in early 1966, of course, but even back then, it would probably be associated with something carnal and sexy rather than a slow moving, spiritually-oriented soul groove. Maybe the record people accidentally switched the title with ʽIt's Got To Happenʼ — since both are original non-hit compositions, who would be giving a damn anyway?

Overall, if you only want to have one album of Billy Preston instrumentals, this might just as well be it, or just about any other one would do (I would still lean towards 16 Yr. Old Soul — back then, at least, this formula was still fresh and far away from being run into the ground). A year later, Billy would follow it with Club Meeting, another similar «experiment» that hardly merits its own review (the two LPs have been reissued on a single CD in recent years), except for a brief mention that it does have a few vocal parts, the first real Billy Preston singing on a Billy Preston album. He also does ʽSunnyʼ and ʽSummertimeʼ. (I bet you're already as thrilled as I am).

It is a little sad, actually, that in the end, Billy had to spend most of the century's greatest musical decade in such a state of skepticism over his own abilities — the years to come would prove that he had much more to offer the world than credible, mildly imaginative organ reworkings of other people's ideas. Who knows, maybe if he had spent those «magic years» honing his individuality and creativity in more aspects than one, he could have grown into a major star of the business. Then again, idle speculation on the subject is none of our business, either. Simple fact is — early Billy Preston is best enjoyed in a minimal dosage. One LP only, or, better still, a self-made com­pilation. Preferably without ʽGoldfingerʼ on it.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Bo Diddley: Hey! Good Lookin'


1) Hey! Good Lookin'; 2) Mush Mouth Millie; 3) Bo Diddley's Hoot Nanny; 4) London Stomp; 5) Let's Walk A While; 6) Rooster Stew; 7) La La La; 8) Yeah Yeah Yeah; 9) Rain Man; 10) I Wonder Why People Don't Like Me; 11) Brother Bear; 12) Mummy Walk.

Two Great Guitars might have been an oddity, but at least it left a stronger impression than Bo's regular studio albums from the same era. This one belongs in about the same class as Bo Diddley & Company — as solidly masterminded and produced as anything the man could knock off in his sleep. But with the musical world growing more and more demanding by early 1965, and slow­ly awakening to the idea that «progress» could and should not only come «naturally», but could also be permanently stimulated, the idea of making a 1965 record that sounded so firmly like 1957 was getting colder and colder by the minute. This one didn't sell at all, and I don't blame anyone — were I alive and buying LPs in 1965, I probably wouldn't buy it either.

The only track here that suggests a certain awareness of one's surroundings is ʽLondon Stompʼ, a dance-blues number that crudely parodies a bunch of English accents, all based on Bo's recent experiences in the trans-Atlantic cradle of the English language. Just a novelty number, but one well worth a listen — after all, surely all that tolerance towards the legions of white British boys imitating the walks and talks of grizzled black bluesmen entitles us to hearing the grizzled black bluesman returning the favor. Then again, a parody is only a parody, however funny it may be (and this one ain't particularly funny).

Everything else is just standard Bo fare. The title track is no Hank Williams cover, but simply another pomp-and-stomp opening number to exploit the Diddley beat, even if it opens with a couple of deceptive licks that Bo might have learned from the Chuck Berry sessions — then in­tegrates them into the old beat to the point of disintegration. ʽI Wonder Why People Don't Like Meʼ is a decent Motown stylization — and the lyrics, with their tongue-in-cheek rags-to-riches story, might actually be a subtle jab at the typical «Motown star» of the time (especially appro­priate for Bo, who was struggling for survival at the time and must have been fairly envious of all the young, smooth, soulful whippersnappers like Marvin Gaye).

The rest? For the most part, just variations upon variations, with semi-catchy recycled vocal grooves at best and no particularly curious guitar parts whatsoever. The best Bo Diddley song of the epoch was not even included on the original LP for some reason — this is the grim, parent-scaring ʽMama, Keep Your Big Mouth Shutʼ, in which the man gallantly asks the matron of the family to refrain from interfering in his romantic relations with her daughter. (And the guy was worrying about why nobody was buying his records!). It does seem to crop up on some editions, though, so do try to hear Hey! Good Lookin' in its company — the only way to ensure that Bo actually did have some bite left in late '64 / early '65.

Oh yes, ʽMummy Walkʼ is rather amusing as well ("hey little girl, I mean a-you in yellow, I don't wanna see you do the mummy walk with the other fellow" is one of the classic lines of the pre-Patti Smith era, in any case). But on the other hand, you should also suspect that something is wrong when two songs in a row are called ʽLa La Laʼ and "Yeah Yeah Yeahʼ; and when you ac­tually hear them, you will most likely go from suspicion to somewhere else, much less pleasant. Overall, a thumbs down — lack of diversity or originality is one thing, but simply remaking your own history, going round and round in circles, is another thing. An annoying thing.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Band Of Horses: Mirage Rock


1) Knock Knock; 2) How To Live; 3) Slow Cruel Hands Of Time; 4) A Little Biblical; 5) Shut-In Tourist; 6) Dum­b­ster World; 7) Electric Music; 8) Everything's Gonna Be Undone; 9) Feud; 10) Long Vows; 11) Heartbreak On The 101; 12*) Mirage Rock; 13*) Irmo Bats; 14*) Reilly's Dream; 15*) Catalina; 16*) Bock.

Nothing lasts forever, and few things last shorter than the fruitful periods of modern rock bands. Two years earlier, Band Of Horses seemed to settle into a comfortable pattern of writing not par­ticularly original, but quite seemingly beautiful music. With Mirage Rock, they almost seem bent on proving to us that they do not want to conform to patterns — and in order to do that, they are willing to sacrifice beauty, depth, and quality for the sake of change.

First things first: if you have a sound rooted in the roots, is it that necessary to choose a moment for placing production duties in the hands of the man who produced The Eagles? Glyn Johns does have an impressive, but a very uneven, pedigree: this is also the man, after all, who went on from producing Who's Next to producing It's Hard, meaning a total lack of guarantee. I have no idea if it is Johns' presence that determines the transition from the fairly sophisticated sound layers of Infinite Arms to the much more sparse and simple arrangements on Mirage Rock — I suppose that Bridwell must have wanted this shift in approach — but it is Johns' presence that orchestrates the whole deal, and the deal sure goes wrong.

Apparently, most of the album was recorded «live in the studio», with lots of re­hearsals required before the final takes. Since none of the band members are really seasoned, notorious musicians, clearly more energy must have been spent on «getting it all to work» rather than on concentrating on the melody and texture side. Result? Mirage Rock sounds about as impressive and memorable as anything done by the kids in your local art college band (just enter your ZIP code to get the name) — maybe worth relaxing to while having a beer or two after a hard day's work on a cold winter evening, then moving on forever.

Nothing illustrates this point better than ʽKnock Knockʼ, the lead-in track and the first single re­leased from the album. If there is only one classic example allowed of «impotence in music», this here is a great fine candidate — the song opens up ringing, banging, and whoo-whooing in an­them mode, and then you spend four minutes looking for release without getting it. Verse number one... bridge... verse number two... bridge... where's the frickin' chorus? Wait, what do you mean that was the chorus? That was just the bridge, wasn't it? You mean I'm supposed to sing along to "knockin' on the door, knockin' on the door, knockin' on the door" as the highest climactic point of the anthem? Can you imagine — oh, I don't know — a ʽDead End Streetʼ that goes straight back to the verse melody after "we are strictly second class, and we can't understand"? And this song doesn't even have that sort of verse melody.

Most of the rest is equally disenchanting. All sorts of by-the-book midtempo pop / country-rock grooves that barely ever rise above the ground, and float out of memory as soon as they are over (quite often, even way before they are over). Everything is superficially melodic, soft, warm, ne­ver overproduced, never irritating, but there is nothing in the world that would compel me to go back to these songs after I have patiently endured the record four times from top to bottom, and never even once did it manage to hit a nerve that wasn't already worn down to insensitivity by way, way too many hits in the past. So to speak.

Poking half-blindly at the titles, ʽA Little Biblicalʼ is not even the tiniest bit biblical, but it is al­most a good, upbeat, well-rounded power pop number — maybe The Alan Parsons Project could have emphasized its stronger sides and polished it to the state of one of their unforgettable ditties such as ʽSooner Or Laterʼ (particularly if they'd found a less ordinary vocalist than Bridwell). ʽDumbster Worldʼ stylishly toys with Neil Young-style folk-rock gloominess, but then crashes into Garbage Planet when the mid-section starts «rocking out» in generic alt-rock fashion. And that's about all there is, really. By the way, quiet country stuff like ʽLong Vowsʼ does sound like the early Eagles, and even though I am not a mortal enemy of the early Eagles, what use do I have for a 21st century imitation of the early Eagles?..

One thing that does indirectly confirm that Glyn Johns was indeed chiefly responsible for this failure is the bonus EP on the deluxe edition, called Sonic Ranch Sessions: this was apparently re­corded by the band without Johns' participation, and the five tracks on the EP are much more re­markable than the album itself. For instance, ʽReilly's Dreamʼ is pinned to a hallucinatory oscilla­ting guitar line, turning it into homely dream-pop; ʽCatalinaʼ is saved from immediate death by some amusing experiments with Beatlesque vocal modulations; and ʽBockʼ has a better melan­cholic mix of piano, organ, guitar, and vocals than any other track on the whole package. This is a highly subjective feeling — it's not like we're talking heaven-and-earth scales here anyway — but it did come from somewhere, so I'm noting it just in case. But bonus tracks are bonus tracks, and the album per se gets an assured thumbs down — if you can't do better than the Eagles, why not just turn into an Eagles tribute band? More honest that way.

Check "Mirage Rock" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Mirage Rock" (MP3) on Amazon

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Auteurs: New Wave


1) Showgirl; 2) Bailed Out; 3) American Guitars; 4) Junk Shop Clothes; 5) Don't Trust The Stars; 6) Starstruck; 7) How Could I Be Wrong; 8) Housebreaker; 9) Valet Parking; 10) Idiot Brother; 11) Early Years; 12) Home Again.

If the name of the band is «The Auteurs», and the name of the band's debut album is New Wave, it would be only logical if the first song title were ʽAnna Karinaʼ. As strongly as I have to congra­tulate myself for coming close to the truth (since one of the songs on the band's second album is actually titled ʽNew French Girlfriendʼ), all of these trappings — including the fuck-this-world black-and-white imagery on the band's early photos — only suggest a pool of reverence for the intellec­tual rebel attitude of early Sixties' Europe; the music, however, generally scoops up ins­piration from completely different waterbasins.

The Auteurs were really little more than a pretext for Luke Haines — the man behind, before, in the middle of, and all around the band — to adorn himself with a cool moniker. The rest of the band consisted of bass player Alice Readman, since she already was Luke's girlfriend anyway; a rotating set of not particularly outstanding drummers (Glen Collins on this particular record); and James Banbury as the band's resident cellist — probably the only distinctive element of The Au­teurs' sound and style that is not Luke Haines. That said, he does not play on every track, and the cello always stays in the background: first time I listened to New Wave in a somewhat distracted state, I did not even notice that some of the songs had a cello padding to them.

With these details out of the way, let us talk about the early, barely-post-pre-pubescent years of Luke Haines as bandleader, songwriter, arranger, musician, and spiritual vessel (setting aside the tacky issue of Luke Haines as a human being, commonly reported to be rather juicy, but should not really concern all of us who strive for civility).

Every once in a while, The Auteurs are repor­ted as one of the first, if not the first band to symbolize «Britpop», preceding by a very brief mar­gin all of those people like Blur, Oasis, etc. — a rather confusing pigeonholing, actually, because (a) «Britpop» itself is an awful word in its current usage (if The Kinks weren't the first real Brit­pop band, then who the heck was?..); (b) The Auteurs sound nothing like either Blur or Oasis; (c) The Auteurs do not, in fact, sound tremen­dously «British» at all — neither does Haines sport a particularly «trademark British» singing ac­cent, nor are the lyrical subject matters particularly UK-related, and what else is there for the mu­sic to qualify as «Britpop»? A heavy Gilbert & Sullivan influence?..

In reality, the very name of «The Auteurs» surmises that Luke Haines would like, if at all pos­sible, to avoid pigeonholing. He is simply a singer-songwriter who happened to see it fit, at the time, to indulge his singer-songwriting impulses in a «rock band» format, no more, no less. Mu­sic-wise, he is not a particularly pretentious or ambitious singer-songwriter, seeking for direct self-expression rather than for new and surprising formats. His melodic gift is obvious, but not tremendous, and quite conventionally realized: The Kinks may have been just as much of an influ­ence here as Love, or R.E.M., or any band, American, British, or world-wide, that could grow its own identity out of a fairly «normal» understanding of melody in folk, pop, and rock'n'roll tradi­tions. Nothing particularly eyebrow-raising here, unless you think that regular use of melodic cello overdubs in pop-rock songs was a particular stunner for 1993 (and why should it be, when Roy Wood and Jeff Lynne were merrily engaging in it twenty-five years earlier?). Nor does New Wave flash around in an eye-attracting retro parade: Haines goes just as easy on hea­vily distorted, lo-fi grunge / alt-rock guitars as he does on the acoustic strum or on the «colorful»  electric pop-rock tones — New Wave is quite clearly a product of the post-Nirvana world, de­spite its allegiance to the pre-Nirvana one.

The old and new schools go for a merry merge already on the first song — ʽShowgirlʼ combines a dreamy, ethereal vocal part, almost straight off some obscure psychedelic nugget from the late 1960s, with a simple, feedback-drenched guitar buzz in the chorus that was all the rage in 1993. The trick worked, though: once they'd released this melancholic, self-deprecating tale of a guy disillusioned in being married to a showgirl, it effectively clicked with the critics and eventually led to a se­rious recording contract. And how does it sound today? Well... it isn't particularly awe­some, but you do get to take a bit of a liking to Haines' artistic persona, and supposedly, that is all that's really required of the first song. Because «a bit of a liking» is quite likely to grow into a se­rious attraction, over time.

The «liking» that I'm talking about is hardly a kind of «I really like this guy» liking, though; it's more of a «I really like how this guy is manipulating my attention» liking. Luke Haines is a semi-decent rock lyricist, deftly hiding his childhood traumas and adolescent disillusionment under metaphors, allegories, and impressionistic chaff so thick that very quickly, you lose all hopes or wishes to decipher the message — you have to simply remain contented with the fact that he is smart, ironic, and romantic, while you, most likely, are dumb, straightforward, and deadly dull.

More importantly, he can also come up with some fine vocal hooks and occasionally resonant pop guitar riffs — such as the nagging dental drill driving ʽIdiot Brotherʼ, or the mean little pissed-off chord sequence at the end of each chorus to ʽEarly Yearsʼ. None of these riffs will pro­bably ever make it to the Great Textbook, but over the course of the record, they support each other in building a coherent impression: there is really not a single «useless» song on the album, each offers at least a little something to add to the general pool of depression, hatred, disenchant­ment, disillusionment, self-deprecation, social anguish, explicit and implicit envy...'d think I'd be talking Alice In Chains here or something, but probably the one big advan­tage of Luke Haines is that he is expressing all that stuff without having to resort to clichés — such as brutal heavy riffs, jarring power chords, or hateful screaming at the top of one's lungs. Instead, he does it all through hushed, dreamy vocal hooks: lines like "bailed out, this skin is shed / bailed out, this thing is dead" or "downtown, you're burning down / I'm sick of parking cars" are delivered almost lovingly, the way others would sing of a love interest lost or found.

If forced to choose one song, I'd probably go along with ʽStarstruckʼ, whose lyrics cleverly walk the line between the two different meanings of the word — maybe for no other reason simply than the way he articulates the phrase "I was always starstruck" that resolves the verse-chorus build-up. Idealism and cynicism are attitudes that are pretty hard to combine within the confines of a single vessel — like matter and anti-matter, you'd expect them to cancel out each other, but Haines has the skill it takes to override the laws of the universe: this and many of the other songs are delivered from the perspective of somebody who obviously believes in something grander, yet hardly ever admits that it is reachable.

Overall, running slightly ahead of the events to come, I find New Wave to be The Auteurs' finest moment — Luke Haines' image and style is already fully fleshed out, the individual songs are all written at the top of his abilities, and the balance between the Sixties, the Eighties, and the Nine­ties in the arrangements and atmospheres is dang near perfect. And yes, the album is anything but flashy, and quite prone to disappearing in the cracks of the floorboards of time, so all the more reason to join me in a big juicy thumbs up here.

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Friday, November 23, 2012

Bad Religion: The Gray Race


1) The Gray Race; 2) Them And Us; 3) A Walk; 4) Parallel; 5) Punk Rock Song; 6) Empty Causes; 7) Nobody Listens; 8) Pity The Dead; 9) Spirit Shine; 10) The Streets Of America; 11) Ten In 2010; 12) Victory; 13) Drunk Sincerity; 14) Come Join Us; 15) Cease; 16*) Punk Rock Song (German version).

Still with Atlantic, but with some major changes in personnel: (a) this is the band's first record with­out Gurewitz, who left for a variety of reasons (he himself quoted the need to concentrate on managerial work at Epitaph Records, whereas Graffin would hint at increased drug use); (b) this is their first — and only — record produced by none other than Ric Ocasek of The Cars. Both of these factors could finally hint at a fresh change in the overall sound, for better or for worse. And? Take a guess?... are absolutely correct, The Gray Race sounds exactly like Stranger Than Fiction. New guitarist Brian Baker, formerly of Samhain, Government Issue, Junkyard, Minor Threat, The Meat­men, Dag Nasty, Doggy Style, and probably a host of other hardcore outfits that only the most hardcore fans have heard about, is not seriously distinguishable from Brett; and as for the production, unless Ocasek saddled this band with synthesizers — which was probably out of the question — would have to remain the same anyway.

So, here is another set of mostly interchangeable and rather generic «melodic hardcore» from the world's leading combo of human rights activists who happen to like speed, distortion, rock poetry, and moralizing at the same time. At this point, their mid-tempo stuff is already close to unbea­rable — I have no business listening to metronomic crap like 'The Streets Of Americaʼ, no matter how anthemic Graffin always makes it sound; and, unfortunately, quite a few of the fast songs start sounding just as boring and clichéd as the slow ones — ʽDrunk Sincerityʼ, for instance, just seems like they threw on an extra drum part as an afterthought.

The lead singles were ʽA Walkʼ, which is not a bad song (at least there is a nice, tense buildup from verse to chorus, as the rising bassline takes your spirit higher); and ʽPunk Rock Songʼ, which is just too clean, poppy, and politically correct to merit the title — yes, it is a punk rock song in general form and structure, but there is nothing in the world to justify it as an exemplary punk rock song, which it isn't, and re-recording it in German (this extra version is appended as a bonus track) does not help much to elevate its status.

Since, other than ʽA Walkʼ, there is not a single song here that commands my attention (not even the title track this time can boast a strong hook), this is the first Bad Religion album since Into The Unknown that demands a certified thumbs down. As long as the verve and inspiration were there somehow, I could respect the style enough to acknowledge its existence. But with Gray Race, Bad Religion seem to finally cross that line — for me, at least — where «respectfully tole­rable» finally morphs into «unbearably dull». For other people, that line might have come signi­ficantly earlier, or somewhat later, but it is clear that somewhere, somehow one simply has to draw that line. My tired buck, sick of recycled punk riffs and idealistic sentiments rekindled like burnt out matches, sort of stops here. And I am sure that this has even nothing to do with the de­parture of Gurewitz. It's just a question of time.

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Thursday, November 22, 2012

Baker Gurvitz Army: Hearts On Fire


1) Hearts On Fire; 2) Neon Lights; 3) Smiling; 4) Tracks Of My Life; 5) Flying In And Out Of Stardom; 6) Dancing The Night Away; 7) My Mind Is Healing; 8) Thirsty For The Blues; 9) Night People; 10) Mystery.

Now who was it ordered a change in style? They had such a lovely thing going on, and without a single warning, in just one year's time, they went from a smooth synthesis of jazz, prog, and roots stuff to a disheartening brand of heavy funk, bordering on disco (and sometimes crossing over directly — on ʽDancing The Night Awayʼ, which, alas, is anything but a throwback to Cream's ʽDance The Night Awayʼ, even though Ginger at least must have felt a slight discomfort). I'd like to place this burden on the conscience of Mr. Snips (because what the hell of a name is Mr. Snips, anyway?), but apparently, he is only credited for two of these songs, so what we are really deal­ing with is nothing less than a shameless sellout by the Gurvitzes — and Ginger playing submis­sive accomplice.

Not that these songs are all that awful. The Gurvitzes' songwriting instincts were honed well enough by the first two albums to produce a set of decent riffs, shuffle in some variety and play around with guitar tones and overdubs. It's just that ʽHearts On Fireʼ, with its macho stomp and electronically treated guitar solos, rather belongs on a Peter Frampton album. These guys did not really have enough brawn to «sex it up» — Mr. Snips, as a vocalist, lacked personality or power, and the riffage was too clean anyway to inspire the expected dirty thoughts.

There is one interesting composition here: ʽNeon Lightsʼ, despite the misleading title, is actually a tight, swinging blues-rocker with a subtle, cool-oriented chorus and a weird selection of guitar tones — hard to describe, but it seems to generate a gloomy forcefield all its own, with a wobbly psychedelic aura, not terribly original, but standing out a bit. Everything else is simply «listen­able» and even «memorable» after a few listens, but you'd have to have those few listens first, and why should you, when there were probably about five thousand albums released all over the world that year, covering the same grounds?

The band even stoops to including a generic 12-bar piece, dressed in a «blues-de-luxe»  treat­ment (ʽThirsty For The Bluesʼ) — to my ears, even more of a lowlight on this album than the cheesy disco stuff: Adrian Gurvitz is no B. B. King, and neither is Mr. Snips, and the worst they could do was drag down the tempo so that, for over five minutes, we'd have to slowly savour each bar, de­livered in pseudo-vintage fashion (and wasting Ginger's presence — this man has no business whatsoever doing generic blues material).

Granted, ʽThirsty For The Bluesʼ may simply have been a chunk of filler that they came up with at the last moment, with ideas running low and contractual obligations pressing closer. But the truth is that I really cannot recommend any other tracks — ʽNeon Lightsʼ is okay, and «funk-rock» collections may probably benefit from ʽHearts On Fireʼ and ʽFlying In And Out Of Star­domʼ (the latter is at least fast and furious, if only they had a better singer), yet even these are only impressive while they last.

Consequently, here is just another of the many examples of decent bands eaten up by the com­mer­cial bug — since Elysian Encounter did not cut it with the crowds (it hardly had a chance anyway, with progressive rock already drifting out of mainstream fashion by 1975), they tried to go the Physical Graffiti-era Led Zep route here with a foray into accessible, danceable hard-rock and predictably fell flat on their faces. The only honorable decision after that would be to commit seppuku, and that they did, disbanding once and for all. Which is a pity: had they been able to remain satisfied with what little they had, and develop it further, we might have seen many inte­resting developments that could organically grow out of the Elysian Encounter stylistics. As it is, they just cruelly aborted the baby, and for that, they get a merciless thumbs down from me — even though, on my third listen, having overcome the initial disappointment, I could already sto­mach most of these songs with good old toe-tapping indifference. But is that enough for a change of heart? And speaking of hearts, an extra -100 for the album title. I cannot exclude that Mr. Snips' heart was indeed on fire during these sessions (you'd have to be a professional cardiologist to reach a proper diagnosis), but I am more interested in Mr. Ginger, and this just isn't the sort of music that he was born to play.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Band: Rock Of Ages


1) Introduction; 2) Don't Do It; 3) King Harvest (Has Surely Come); 4) Caledonia Mission; 5) Get Up Jake; 6) The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show; 7) Stage Fright; 8) The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down; 9) Across The Great Di­vide; 10) This Wheel's On Fire; 11) Rag Mama Rag; 12) The Weight; 13) The Shape I'm In; 14) Unfaithful Servant; 15) Life Is A Carnival; 16) The Genetic Method; 17) Chest Fever; 18) (I Don't Want To) Hang Up My Rock'n'Roll Shoes; 19*) Loving You (Is Sweeter Than Ever); 20*) I Shall Be Released; 21*) Up On Cripple Creek; 22*) The Rumor; 23*) Rockin' Chair; 24*) Time To Kill; 25*) Down In The Flood; 26*) When I Paint My Masterpiece; 27*) Don't Ya Tell Henry; 28*) Like A Rolling Stone.

Not everybody in the world would have easily dared to slap a title like Rock Of Ages onto a live album, not even a double one. Pompous double (and triple) live albums were all the rage in the early 1970s, of course, but The Band still managed to stand out — releasing a concert record that could easily compete with the average prog live album in pretentiousness, without being in the least saddled by «prog» trappings (probably not counting Garth Hudson's solo spotlight, but we'll get to that soon enough).

Whoever saw The Last Waltz — and we will get around to that, too, eventually — could hardly walk away from it untouched by The Band's aura of self-importance (be it «awestruck» or «irri­tated», no matter), but would probably remain somewhat uncertain as to how much of that self-importance was immanent and how much of it was conjured by Scorsese's direction: after all, the master is quite famous for being able to perceive Biblical solemnity in whatever object he has chosen to idolize this morning. One listen to Rock Of Ages will put that uncertainty to rest: no Scorsese anywhere in sight, but the not-so-bad boys of Rustic'n'Roll are every bit as manipulative with their majesty here as they would be at their final show. Or, for that matter, any time, any day, as long as there were more than two of them assembled in any one place.

Recorded on the last days of December in New York City, at a venue (hardly coincidentally) cal­led «Academy of Music», culminating in a Bob Dylan cameo (which was actually left off the original album, but faithfully waited in the archives until the remastered CD reissue), this is a to­tally huge show, with about 75% of The Band's material from their first three, «already classic» albums interspersed with a lonely ʽLife Is A Carnivalʼ off Cahoots and a few R&B covers here and there to provide the Impressive Link With The Past. The Bob cameo actually took place in the early morning hours of January 1, 1972, and on this new, expanded reissue finds its rightful place as the «climax» of the show. I mean, what with the humble servants working their asses off for two hours, it could be expected of The Prophet to come out at the end and provide one final blessing. He provided four.

In addition to all the grandness, Allen Toussaint himself, fresh from working on ʽLife Is A Carni­valʼ, had been recruited for writing extra horn arrangements, and a five-piece brass band is aug­menting The Band here on many of (fortunately, not all) the numbers. Contrary to expectations, this does not provide the music with an authentic New Orleanian flavor, but it does add extra «beef» to the sound (and extra tragic hero flavor to ʽThe Night They Drove Old Dixie Downʼ), and this here is a show that needs as much beef as it can swallow without chewing.

The songs themselves, actually, are generally played quite close to the way they were originally recorded, because, to quote [an imaginary] Robbie Robertson, «why tamper with [my] per­fec­tion?» Apart from the extra brass parts, an occasional extra electronic gimmick from Garth, and a few flubbed notes from the vocalists here and there (very few, actually, compared to the usual leeway allowed themselves by most rock performers — these guys were tremendously discip­lined onstage, which many people are tempted to interpret as «boring»), the music is faithfully transposed into a live environment. If there is anything here that overwhelms, it is simply the rea­lization of how many goddamn great songs they had on these three albums — not a single stinker out here, just wave upon wave of greatness.

The bookmarks — that is where they fall short. Neither Marvin Gaye's ʽDon't Do Itʼ which opens the main part of the show, nor Chuck Willis' ʽHang Up My Rock'n'Roll Shoesʼ that closes it, really stand comparison with The Band's own songs. Not because they aren't fine old respectable R&B numbers — they are — but the idea here is to somehow ensure this link between the old and the new, to build a bridge between the old Hawks, still crediting the reverend masters, and the new Band, the masters of today. It doesn't work. ʽDon't Do Itʼ does set a groove, but the band almost seems to be afraid to truly «get into it», and as for Chuck Willis' number, well, it does look like they may not want to, but they pretty much hung up those rock'n'roll shoes for good, because this here ain't rock'n'roll, really, it's bland, generic pub boogie, and no amount of Allen Toussaint's brasswork on top is able to transform it into the «celebration» that it is supposed to be. In a way, these two numbers predict the terrible failure to come of Moondog Matinee — and the questionable excesses of The Last Waltz, of course.

What works much better is when it goes the other way — into the depths of pretentiousness, with Hudson showing off his «J. S. Bach Discovers The Power Of Electricity» routine on ʽThe Gene­tic Methodʼ, a lengthy organ instrumental that grew out of the original keyboard introduction to ʽChest Feverʼ. It is gimmicky, although certainly not as «flashy» as stuff that Keith Emerson or Rick Wakeman or even Jon Lord would be doing at the time — sort of a half «mock-baroque», half «tongue-in-cheek-gothic» improvisation that shows who was really the boss (Hudson was the only one of them all with the proper academic training), and just as you start thinking that you have just about had enough, the clock strikes twelve (maybe) and Garth launches into ʽAuld Lang Syneʼ and the audience goes whoooh. A touching moment, really, and much more exciting than their lame, half-hearted attempts to «rock out». Leave ʽDon't Do Itʼ to its original master, boys — or, at least, to the likes of The Who, because there is no way you can unlock its ass-kicking po­tential. This is not the way.

The Dylan guestspot on the bonus section of the CD is indeed a nice conclusion, but a bit super­fluous if you already know Before The Flood — recorded two years later, but setting more or less the same groove and with Bob in the same top-notch «shouting» form. The song selection that they do is rather curious, though, with two of the four numbers taken from The Basement Tapes (still not released officially at the time) — Bob is clearly being modest here, concentrating on stuff they wrote and made together, rather than turning The Band back into his backing outfit. But then, yeah, they're still on stage for the fans, so they can't help doing ʽLike A Rolling Stoneʼ anyway. Good version, but not too necessary.

Overall, yeah, Rock Of Ages — The Band pull no punches as they prepare themselves and their legacy for immortality. The album is more «important» as a memory of an event, a collection of terrific songs, a self-aggrandizing eulogy, than as something you will want to listen to over and over instead of the studio originals. Yet it does get a thumbs up, like any live album with a great setlist, plenty of verve, inspiration, and professionalism. The Band might not have had a lot of ideas about how to present their material on stage in a new light (the brass arrangements are a de­batable touch), but they certainly showed us all how much they loved their own material on that stage. And I don't mind — they may be narcissistic about their songs, but as long as these are great songs, it is a pleasure to witness them get so orgiastic about them. On The Last Waltz, the egos may have been getting too out of hand — on Rock Of Ages, they are flaunted just about right.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Billy Preston: Early Hits Of '65


1) You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'; 2) Eight Days A Week; 3) Downtown; 4) Goldfinger; 5) My Girl; 6) Go Now; 7) Ferry Across The Mersey; 8) Shotgun; 9) Stop! In The Name Of Love; 10) King Of The Road; 11) The Birds And The Bees; 12) Can't You Hear My Heartbeat.

Not much to say here: as far as I can tell, most or all of these songs were recorded during the same session that yielded Exciting Organ, so this is a same-style companion album that is often called a «compilation» — a strange definition, considering that only a few of these titles seem to have been released as singles. In any case, it was an original Vee-Jay LP, re-released on CD thirty years later, and it functions as part of Billy's legacy, so here you are.

The «hits», of course, are not Billy's, but other people's — he runs a relatively short gamut here, mostly contemporary Motown material (ʽMy Girlʼ; Junior Walker's ʽShotgunʼ, etc.), interspersed with a few oddities, such as a Beatles cover and the latest Bond song. Since Billy's own composi­tions are rather slack as far as thematic hooks are concerned, this is not a big problem, and in terms of capturing the «spirits» of the originals, he consistently does a very good job — that or­gan captures everything, be it the warm romance of Smokey Robinson, the classy seductiveness of Diana Ross, or the desperate praying of Denny Laine.

Even ʽEight Days A Weekʼ works a fine charm — in subtle ways, finer than the original, since Billy, being careful to preserve each vocal note, embellishes them with quirky little flourishes on the sides, coming out with something more complex and less predictable than Lennon / Mc­Cart­ney's original creation (which was great, but lacked development — once you had your verse, chorus, and middle-eight, the rest of the song was exactly the same; for Billy, a bare transposition to organ would have been too boring).

The biggest problem is with the choice of material — about half of these songs weren't too great in the first place (I mean, ʽThe Birds And The Bees?ʼ, really?), and I don't quite manage to see the «fun» in producing all these arrangements. Maybe an entire record's worth of Beatles covers (they did have enough popular hits by late 1964 to stuff a 12-song LP, didn't they?) could have been a better idea: in any case, ʽEight Days A Weekʼ sitting next to ʽGoldfingerʼ does give a fair­ly accurate snapshot of the era, which wasn't exactly overpopulated with pop-rock masterpie­ces, but doesn't function so well by way of general enjoyment. (Unless you really dig Hammond or­gan encoding of Dame Shirley Bassey's acoustics).

Monday, November 19, 2012

Bo Diddley/Chuck Berry: Two Great Guitars


1) Liverpool Drive; 2) Chuck's Beat; 3) When The Saints Go Marching In; 4) Bo's Beat; 5*) Fireball; 6*) Stay Sharp; 7*) Chuckwalk; 8*) Stinkey.

More of an historical curiosity here than an actual good album — but a terrific historical curiosity all the same. This was the first of several «star power» projects that Chess Records briefly toyed with in the Sixties, before realizing their commercial uselessness: getting Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry to play on the same record. Recorded in March 1964 at Tel Mar Studios, released later that year, the album is never remembered as a particular highlight for any of those guys; however, in some ways it is a rather unique artefact of the era. Even if you find it horrible, you won't ever for­get how you found it horrible, that is for sure.

The original LP consisted of just four tracks: two short instrumentals, each provided by one of the two guitar heroes in their own trademark styles, and two long ones, symmetrically titled ʽChuck's Beatʼ and ʽBo's Beatʼ (since the latter is four minutes longer than the former, I used that as a feeble, but valid pretext to review the album under the Bo Diddley section). The long ones are fairly accurate with their titles — although both guitarists are quite active on both of them, tra­ding solos between each other in a friendly competition, ʽChuck's Beatʼ has Bo «guesting» on a Chuck-led recording, set to the beat of ʽMemphis Tennesseeʼ, and ʽBo's Beatʼ sees Chuck retur­ning the favor and trying to adapt his style to a typical Diddley beat number.

Both of the long jams sort of settle the long-standing debate of who was there first with a pop number running over ten minutes — Love, with their ʽRevelationʼ, or the Rolling Stones, with their ʽGo­in' Homeʼ. Two years prior to that, here we have two already-veteran rockers, licking each other first for ten, then for fourteen minutes in a row — and their record company being perfectly hap­py to release the results commercially, in an age of two-minute pop songs.

The very fact is fasci­nating, even if the jams themselves are nothing to write home about: twenty-four minutes of Bo and Chuck emptying their bags of tricks, most of which we have already known for about five years. There might not have been even a single newly invented chord sequence over all this endless jamming and soloing. The whole experience makes it very easy to understand why, in their everyday life, these guys preferred to stick to short outbursts rather than lengthy jam pieces. Nevertheless, the experience is perversely fascinating — seeing them stretch out so bravely in those early, pre-jam band times. And it's kinda funny to try and imagine the stuff played out in their heads, too. Like when, at 7:24 into ʽChuck's Beatʼ, Berry breaks into his «goose-quacking» solo mode, and then... «oh shit, ain't that the third time already?.. better drop this, quickly, before they take notice...» Then, twenty-five seconds later: «Aw heck, I can't play anything else anyway, so why bother looking? A solo is a solo». And he restarts the goose-quack mode again, fourth time over.

In «compact» mode, the instrumentals make more sense: ʽLiverpool Driveʼ, with its three mi­nutes, is just the right size for Chuck to deliver a short and sweet set of riffs and solos, and Bo's take on ʽWhen The Saints Go Marching Inʼ is a fine sample of «diddlifying» the classic New Orleanian atmosphere — putting the tribal beat back where it was originated. On the other hand, they lack the novelty factor of the jams: neither of the two is likely to ever take the place of ʽLittle Quee­nieʼ or ʽDiddley Daddyʼ in anyone's hearts, whereas the jams — these jams you will definitely be remembering years from now on, at least on a purely factual basis.

The CD release of the album threw on a few bonus tracks, probably released during the same ses­sion, and, judged on their own, they might actually be the best there is: ʽFireballʼ, as behooves any song called ʽFireballʼ (see Deep Purple), is fast and tense, based on a speedy boogie pickin' pattern, probably copped from the likes of Big Bill Broonzy; and ʽStinkeyʼ experiments with pha­sing a bit, creating a lively noisy environment against which sharper, more focused licks are played — the result is a great swampy feel, with well-bred, goal-oriented bullfrogs croaking out of the generally mucky, oozy depths.

Overall, a strange project indeed, but one that adds a somewhat interesting page in both histories of the «two great guitars». Supposedly, any prominent people in the jazz world, listening to this stuff back for some random reason back in 1964, would have scoffed at the poorness of the tech­niques and sparseness of ideas. They would be absolutely right, too. But everybody has to have a start somewhere — so, in a way, these simplistic sessions were paving the road to all the great achievements of rock-oriented jam bands, some of which were only a couple of years away from these humble beginnings. So, sort of a thumbs up for historical importance and general weird­ness, but otherwise, only recommended for hardcore rockabilly collectors.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Andrew Bird: Hands Of Glory


1) Three White Horses; 2) When That Helicopter Comes; 3) Spirograph; 4) Railroad Bill; 5) Something Biblical; 6) If I Needed You; 7) Orpheo; 8) Beyond The Valley Of The Three White Horses.

Two fully formed LPs over the course of one year might be a bit too much even for a wonderboy of Andrew Bird's caliber, so do not expect any big deals from Hands Of Glory, which is basi­cally just a little pony companion to the big white steed of Break It Yourself. It is sparse, mini­malistically produced, very much country-oriented, not entirely self-written, with a subset of co­vers ranging from traditional folk to Townes Van Zandt — definitely not an attempt to win over a new bunch of fans, rather just a small extra Thanksgiving gift for the old ones.

Other than this humble statement of fact, I am not even sure what to say. The textures, moods, vocals, instrumental techniques, everything here has already been commented upon in preceding reviews. The people at Pitchfork tried choosing a general «apocalyptic» angle, indicating that many, if not most, of these songs deal with visions of the end of the world, destruction, redemp­tion, and resurrection, but with Andrew Bird, these themes are actually always on the edge of the knife — his trademark fin-du-siècle melancholy has always been that of a morose guy with a fiddle, sitting on the ravine's edge, waiting for the shit to hit the fan once he finally plays his last note and puts down the instrument. Who cares if now, on a couple of songs, he is adding some words on the same subject to the music? The effect is still the same.

In a way, it almost looks like the first seven songs have all been assembled here just to provide a «conventional» intro to the album's longest, and only «experimental» number — ʽBeyond The Valley Of The Three White Horsesʼ, with a «looped» reference to the album's opening number, throws on some majorly stoned psychedelic thrills, starting off as a completely innocent ins­trumental shuffle, then gradually burrowing its way into a whirly-wobbly tunnel of sound as the violin backgrounds are phased, inverted, mortified, and sucked out into space. The effect can be donwright hallucinogenic in a proper context — problem is, in an unproper context, it can be se­verely irritating instead, and who knows which context you will be hearing it in? For every per­son for whom this «works», there will be another one who will accuse Andrew Bird of «Going Gaga à la Björk», and the world will not have come one step closer to peace and love for all.

Still, the seven «normal» songs, including a scaled-down remake of ʽOrpheo Looks Backʼ from the previous album; a semi-hilarious, semi-sad cover of the traditional country tune ʽRailroad Billʼ that might have been an outtake from Oh! The Grandeur for all I care; and an ominous feedback-meets-fiddle take on The Handsome Family's ʽWhen That Helicopter Comesʼ — these all constitute very pleasant, traditional, entertaining listening for those who dig roots-rock in ge­neral and/or Bird's personal take on it in particular. There is enough professionalism, intelligence, tact, and modest catchiness to even warrant the usual thumbs up. It just happens to be a some­what disinterested thumbs up.

(Besides, it seems that, try as he might, Andrew just won't be able to get the guitar out of business as pop music's leading instrument — somehow, it seems easier to keep on writing interesting guitar-based pop songs than violin-based ones. Maybe the problem is in that these songs aren't really based on the violin — it's fairly hard to get it to serve as a stable rhythmic foundation for this kind of music — and end up being just a collection of delicate lead lines hanging out of nowhere and fading back into nowhere, which doesn't exactly work well for the memorability department. But never mind, just a spontaneous speculation on my part here, really).

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