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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso: Urgentissimo


BANCO DEL MUTUO SOCCORSO: URGENTISSIMO (1980)

1) Senza Riguardo; 2) Dove Sarà; 3) C'E Qualcosa; 4) Luna Piena; 5) Paolo Pà; 6) Felice; 7) Ma Che Idea; 8) Il Cielo Sta In Alto.

Fresh, sizzling, off-the-grill electronic Italian dance-pop from 1981, anyone? Didn't think so. Per­haps the move to a blatantly commercial sound was as inevitable for Banco as it was for the ab­solute majority of their progressive brethren — but even such brethren as Yes, Genesis, or Gentle Giant mana­ged to handle the transition with more self-esteem: thirty years on, it is still possible to think of a few reasons to dig out 90125 or Abacab other than pure childhood nostalgia. This transformation, in comparison, results in such utter shite that the only reason to listen to Ur­gen­tis­simo is strictly culturological, as in — you thought US and UK mainstream pop tastes in the early 1980s went down the drain? have a look at the Italian pop taste!

In the short term, the strategy worked: the band managed to launch several local hits on the Ita­lian charts, of which ʽPaolo Pàʼ was the biggest, convincing Banco that this was, indeed, the way to go on. In the long run, these corny abominations serve as the perfect textbook example of how it is possible to take the worst aspects of a successful «intellectual» band and use them to reforge it into a conglomeration of happy pop idiots.

It is not just that these «post-disco» Eurodance tunes are utterly primitive in comparison to you-know-what. I am not sure that, composition-wise, ʽPaolo Pàʼ or ʽDove Saràʼ are that much more «dumb» or «simplistic» than, say, some Oingo Boingo ditty from the same time period. ʽDove Saràʼ, for instance, has a fairly liberal lead guitar score from Maltese, and ʽPaoloʼ has several keyboard parts with the Nocenzi brothers still competing for the listeners' attention like they al­ways used to. Basically, if you want «totally primitive», there are much, much worse examples in the same genre.

The one thing that is really disgusting is a complete loss of a sense of «adequacy». DiGiacomo's vocal talents are now let loose to convey «serious emotions» in a musical context best fit for a teenage disco club — the songs are sung as if they are supposed to mean something when they really don't: the only meaning implied is «please keep on buying our records so we don't starve in this strange new age». And the only real purpose behind the Nocenzi brothers' keyboard hooks, this time, is to get your sorry butt wiggling to those Hot New Funky Sounds — best illustrated, perhaps, by the repetitive six-note chorus melody of ʽMa Che Ideaʼ, which could, for all I know, be an old AC/DC riff transcribed for synthesizer.

Only two of the tracks still preserve faint traces of more worthy purposes: ʽSenza Riguardoʼ, once you have suffered through its Big Heavy Mammoth Riff (which honors the slowly emerging pop-metal move­ment), has some free-form soloing in the middle, and ʽFeliceʼ has a brief nod to the band's former fusion pedigree (but even so, integrates the fusion-esque chord changes into a to­tally club-oriented dance number). Note that this paragraph has been inserted strictly out of con­siderations of courtesy and politeness — it is not, by any means, recommended that anybody go out and look for these songs as «lost delights». They are simply marginally less disgusting than the rest. Also, the brief instrumental album closer ʽIl Cielo Sta In Altoʼ is supposed to work as an artistic atmospheric coda, with two synthesizers trading «heavenly» lite-jazz lines against an irri­tatingly repetitive clavinet bassline.

Does it work? Well, even if it did, what's two minutes of soft, inobtrusive, jazz-poppy textures to us after thirty minutes' worth of complete embarrassment? Welcome to one of the cheesiest sell­outs in European pop music history, with a crashing thumbs down.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Bee Gees: Odessa


BEE GEES: ODESSA (1969)

1) Odessa (City On The Black Sea); 2) You'll Never See My Face Again; 3) Black Diamond; 4) Marley Purt Drive; 5) Edison; 6) Melody Fair; 7) Suddenly; 8) Whisper, Whisper; 9) Lamplight; 10) Sound Of Love; 11) Give Your Best; 12) Seven Seas Symphony; 13) With All Nations; 14) I Laugh In Your Face; 15) Never Say Never Again; 16) First Of May; 17) The British Opera.

«Fourteenth of February, eighteen ninety-nine, the British ship Veronica was lost without a sign...» Rhyming apart, this introduction line reads more like the start of some Jules Verne adven­ture novel than that of a pop record by one of The Former British Empire's sissiest bands. But in the magic year of 1969 everything was possible — and with concept albums being all the rage, particularly when stretched over two LPs, the Bee Gees needed their own answer to The Beatles (Tommy still had a few months to ripen).

Granted, the «literal» concept begins and ends with the title track, a seven-and-a-half minute suite that runs through several sections, several moods, a bunch of sound effects, and a mystery that pulls your leg hard enough to create the impression of the band being «really on to something» when they really aren't — in fact, rumor has it that the original title of the song was ʽOdessa (City On The White Sea)ʼ, and the endless references to «Baltic Sea» and «North Atlantic» in the lyrics show that, perhaps, the band has not fully mastered its geography even by the end of the sessions. Furthermore, there are no Vicars in Odessa, and it is not that easy for Odessa people to move to Finland (not in 1899, it wasn't), but never mind all that — if the Bee Gees require artistic licence, it would be prudent to grant them artistic licence before they take offense at our nitpicking and start singing ʽNights On Broadwayʼ instead.

In any case, Odessa is very much a concept album if the «concept» is not understood in a «rock opera» sort of way. If 1st and, to a slightly lesser extent, Horizontal were planned as exuberant potpourris, with the Gibbs taking a sprint through the musical candy shop and swiping off bits of everything, and Idea was an intentional balladeering «sellout» to clear their heads from excessive psychedelia, then Odessa, the last and most ambitious of the band's Sixties' adventures, is a huge romantic sprawl, penetrating your subconscious with the help of bombastic strings and multi-tracked harmonies rather than fuzzy guitar tones, distorted vocal effects, Mellotrons, sitars, and references to lemon trees, orange skies, and Lucies with diamonds.

Formally, it is like a test — is it possible to make a genuinely «cool» sixty-minute experience with the aid of nothing but fully traditional, «conservative» means? You do not even seriously need any electricity to play the Odessa stuff — acoustic guitars, pianos and strings dominate most of the proceedings: Vince Melouney quit the band in frustration after having recorded a few of the songs, understanding that his services (as the band's resident electric guitar player) are no longer needed. (Colin Petersen, the drummer, still held on throughout). With echoes of Idea's oc­casionally excessive sweetness still fresh in the ears, this could all spell disaster.

And it did spell disaster, but only on the real-life level: the recording of Odessa caused a major split within the band — Robin and Barry ended up fighting both over the musical directions to take and over the «leadership» issue: the somewhat dictatorial elder brother was being challenged by the somewhat more adventurous (at the time) younger brother, and there was a serious row concerning the lead single from the album. Barry won in the end, with his ʽFirst Of Mayʼ fixed as the A-side and Robin's ʽLamplightʼ relegated to the B-side — but at the cost of Robin calling it quits and effectively bringing the first stage of the Bee Gees to a close. (And yes, in the light of what would follow, many people would probably be happy if the first stage were to be the last stage — but what difference would it make if ʽStayin' Aliveʼ were credited to «Barry Gibb» ra­ther than «The Bee Gees»?)

As for the artistic level, Odessa is a total success. Yes, it is made up of lush ballads from head to toe, with a small bunch of acoustic pop and country-rockers thrown in for diversity's sake — but this is definitely «art» balladry, with complex, intelligent, meticulously crafted harmonic hooks and equally complex orchestral arrangements: easily Bill Shepherd's finest hour with the band (Paul Buckmaster, who would go on to famously orchestrate Elton John's early albums, may be noticed here among the credits, playing cello on the title track — however, as far as I can tell, he is not responsible for the arrangements in general; rather, he was probably soaking in the experi­ence in order to begin profiting from it just one year later). It is Bill Shepherd, by the way, who is responsible for the only few psychedelic twists we get — the Mid-Easternish violin «swoops» on ʽYou'll Never See My Face Againʼ, for instance, are quite trippy.

There are no highlights and no lowlights. This is not a «cathartic» experience: be it Barry's «knight in shining armor» approach, or Robin's «green-clad lyre-stringin' minstrel» impersona­ti­on, both, as usual, suffer from mannerisms and theatricality — it is as hard for me to imagine any­body (anybody I know, that is) driven to tears by this stuff as it is to picture anybody's eyes watering to the sounds of a Diane Warren power ballad. But hopping from song to song on Ode­ssa easily affects the same nerve centers as those responsible for, say, responding to a visit to some old Dutch masters' gallery. The colors. The vividness. The little details. The unpredictabi­lity of all the twists and turns within what, at first, seems to be a rather limited-formula model. It's a case where, at first, you seem to think of a «triumph of form over substance», then begin to realize that there is no difference between form and substance here — form is substance, and sub­stance is form. (Granted, one could say the same about the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, but the form-substance duality of 1977 and the form-substance duality of 1969 are two entirely dif­ferent things, aren't they?).

Each of the songs does work on its own, but Odessa is still much more than the sum of its parts. There are some recurrent motifs — mostly on the instrumental compositions such as ʽSeven Seas Symphonyʼ and ʽBritish Operaʼ — and with quality control in complete effect, each subsequent song somehow builds up on the legacy of its predecessor, stockpiling the «formalistic beauty» in your memory until it reaches the «grandiose» mark. Actually, Odessa is a bit short for a double album — barely over sixty minutes, where The Beatles ran over ninety — but that helps it mini­mize or even totally eliminate «filler»: ʽNever Say Never Againʼ on the last side echoes ʽYou'll Never See My Face Againʼ on the first side as a full-time respectable partner rather than an infe­rior re-write to pad out the remaining space.

In the past, I used to strongly favor Barry's material over Robin's — his «knightly» deliveries, sometimes with a bit of irony and always with a strong debt of gratitude to the Beatles, seemed to agree much better with my tastes than Robin's increasingly «bleating» minstrel-boy vibrato, here demonstrated most perfectly on songs like the title track, ʽBlack Diamondʼ, and ʽLamplightʼ (in general, Barry has more leads here than Robin, which is not surprising given the circumstances). But today, there is no question in my mind that ʽBlack Diamondʼ is an absolute vocal masterpiece — there is probably no other song in the Bee Gees catalog that would pull all the stops in the same way (stuff like ʽMr. Naturalʼ is quite unique, too, but it leaves less space for subtle varia­tions, whereas on ʽBlack Diamondʼ, few lines are sung the exact same way). And if we accuse songs written in the shape of medieval folk ballads of mannerisms, well, the logical thing to do would be to follow up on that and extend the accusation to the medieval folk ballads themselves — the Bee Gees are simply honoring the time when real emotions had to be hidden behind a fa­ça­de of «regulated» ones. So I just admire the «regulations» in Robin's voice when he is belting out his "...and I'm leaving in the morning... and I won't die, so don't cry..." as if Henry VIII and all of his eight wives were in the audience.

If lush orchestration, starched ruffs and doublets aren't really your thing, Odessa is not for you, but you might want to try out some of its more down-to-earth segments — ʽMarley Purt Driveʼ, for instance, an acoustic roots-rocker with a ringing lead vocal à la Hollies (who were doing very much the same thing in the late 1960s), or the light, upbeat, catchy country-rock ditty ʽGive Your Bestʼ, with the classical cellos and violins laid to rest in favor of a rustic fiddle, or the shuffling ʽSuddenlyʼ (although the latter does have some strings and woodwinds). Still, it's only a tiny fragment of the total amount of delicacies you get if you subscribe to the whole package — and I even like the instrumentals: ʽSeven Seas Symphonyʼ, as far as I'm concerned, is grander, more imposing and more memorable than any of the orchestral work on, for instance, the Moody Blues' Days Of Future Passed, often quoted as «the» textbook example of the neo-classical approach on a pioneering art-rock album.

Naturally, it is all a matter of the Zeitgeist. It was the musical context of the time that brought out the best in the Bee Gees, and stimulated them to work in a direction that does not look dated, cheesy, or ridi­culous fourty years on — Odessa may still easily be revered, be it by only a tiny bunch of con­nai­sseurs, long after the band's disco stuff has been buried and the gravestone wea­thered down. But nobody asks anybody to love Odessa because it is a Bee Gees album — the Bee Gees were one of those bands that let itself easily be blown about by the wind, and I love Odessa because it is an album blown in by the adventurous, extravagant wind of 1969, not be­cause it materialized itself in the hands of three competitive, opportunistic, narcissistic singer brothers whose tastes and priorities, not fully evident behind the Zeitgeist of the late 1960s, would become more and more questionable with each new year. So, in a way, it is to that Zeit­geist that I dedicate the thumbs up rating — honorable second prize going to Barry, Robin, and Maurice, not forgetting Bill Shepherd and whoever else responsible.

PS. Being a double album, Odessa released the deluxe treatment over the course of the recent reissues — an entire 3-CD boxset, with stereo and mono mixes of the album and an extra CD of outtakes. I do not have the reissue: as far as I can tell, the majority of the tracks on the third disc are alternate mixes and demos, which might make it less of a necessity than the reissues of the previous three albums. Apparently, most of the stuff recorded during the Odessa sessions did make it onto the final record, and since there was only one single (ʽFirst Of Mayʼ), there were no extra juicy B-sides either. So, unless you are a major fan of red backgrounds with gold letters, you might want to hold off this time. Curiously enough, the Reprise Records routine of reissuing Bee Gees remasters with extra tracks broke down on Odessa — rather like the band itself.

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

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Billy Preston: The Way I Am


BILLY PRESTON: THE WAY I AM (1982)

1) Hope; 2) Good Life Boogie; 3) Keep On Truckin'; 4) A Change Is Gonna Come; 5) Lay Your Feelings On Me; 6) I Won't Mistreat Your Love; 7) Baby I'm Yours; 8) Until Then; 9) The Way I Am.

Whew, that was close. Try to ignore Billy's subtle hint on the album sleeve photo (about having just bought a poultry farm in Texas or something like that), and The Way I Am will successfully correct and purify the aura that Motown blew in around their unfortunate duet batch with Syreeta. At the very least, this album is not downright awful. It is predictably generic, and boring, and un­inspired, but it rarely aspires to something else.

Basically, the mascot of this here album is the cover of Sam Cooke's ʽA Change Is Gonna Comeʼ — a seriously belated tribute to one of Billy's major influences, done with competence, sincerity, and absolutely nothing else that would warrant its existence. The song is a great anthem for the ages, Billy Preston is a nice fifth Beatle, the keyboard inventory consists of a snowy organ in­stead of a Yamaha synthesizer — it's pretty hard to complain. It's probably the best cover of ʽA Change Is Gonna Comeʼ that was done in 1982, but I couldn't be sure, considering that 90% of black artists and 45% of white artists probably did it at least once in their lifetime.

Elsewhere, what we have is: an electronic disco instrumental (ʽGood Life Boogieʼ) with a techno­phile synth solo, a couple dance rockers with either a pop (ʽHopeʼ) or a funk (ʽKeep On Truckin'ʼ) undercurrent, some heavily orchestrated tender-hearted disco numbers à la ʽMore Like A Wo­manʼ (ʽBaby I'm Yoursʼ), an oddly out-of-place slide-driven country blues ballad (ʽUntil Thenʼ), and a pompous, pathetic, tear-gushing, string-flowing «Life-Will-Never-Be-The-Same-Once-I-Finally-Lay-This­-Shit-Down» power ballad (title track), which is probably unsalvageable, like most of the songs that have the artist explicitly sobbing into the microphone, spoiling both the expensive equipment and whatever emotional effect he could have triggered otherwise.

There is nothing whatsoever here worth hearing — it is not quite a successful retreat to Billy's late-1970s disco era standards, when there was that certain light, fluffy charm emanating from his kiddie melodies and his band trying to turn them into genuinely hot grooves. Overproduction, bombastic strings arrangements, obvious disinterest on the part of the backing players — it's all there, not to mention the album's being out-of-print for years. But in all honesty, it could have been much worse — if anything, the album and song title do give an indication that Billy is trying to revert to whatever it is he is used to do, and wants to do, instead of having to tag along with the kids, strutting his stuff to those hip electrofunk waves. From that point of view, we could even convince ourselves to forget, if not forgive, the cowboy hat and the open chest.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Bobby Bland: Here's The Man!!!


BOBBY BLAND: HERE'S THE MAN!!! (1962)

1) 36-22-36; 2) You're The One (That I Adore); 3) Turn On Your Love Light; 4) Who Will The Next Fool Be; 5) You're Worth It All; 6) Blues In The Night; 7) Your Friends; 8) Ain't That Lovin' You; 9) Jelly Jelly Jelly; 10) Twis­tin' Up The Road; 11) Stormy Monday Blues.

This quick follow-up to Two Steps is not as universally lauded or included in any «golden fund» anthologies — in fact, it is not even available as such on CD, and has to be re-cobbled together from larger Duke Records collections — however, quality-wise, it is maybe only half a notch be­low Two Steps, and only because the instrumental focus is slightly shifted from individual ins­truments to «big band flavor», with a Vegasy touch to some of the numbers that wasn't there be­fore. Also, there was really no need to remake ʽFurther On Up The Roadʼ as ʽTwistin' Up The Roadʼ — as if there was no other way to let us know the chronological setting of the record. You can hardly twist to the re-make anyway: it gets stuck somewhere midway between gritty blues-rock and dance entertainment.

But this is the one that has ʽTurn On Your Lovelightʼ on it, a number we usually know from Pig­pen's classic 20-minute workouts on Grateful Dead concerts — and no matter how much we re­spect the Grateful Dead, the two-and-a-half minute original cannot be beat: Pigpen is no Bobby Bland when it comes to winding yourself up in a gospel-soul frenzy, and the song's big selling point is Joe Scott's original brass arrangement, combining boogie discipline with New Orleanian excitement (there is an echo of ʽSaintsʼ in there somewhere).

This is also the one that has the definitive version of ʽStormy Mondayʼ on it — well, possibly the second definitive after T-Bone Walker's original recording, but it was this one that must have in­spired everybody from the Allman Brothers to Clapton: Bobby gets in character with such verve and authenticity as T-Bone never could (not being much of a great singer), and Wayne Bennett's lead guitar playing is every bit as good, and probably several bits better, than Walker's — he gives the song a laid-back, jazzy vibe with just the faintest, subtlest traces of anxiety and paranoia, and in between the two of them, a classic soulful update on a pioneering electric blues classic is produced. If you are sick and tired of the recent ten millionth cover of ʽStormy Mondayʼ recorded by yet another generic blues outfit, put yourself in the context of 1962 and it may be easier to un­derstand why the song has inspired such an annoyingly massive legacy.

Other recognizable tunes include Billy Eckstine's ʽJelly, Jellyʼ (later also appropriated by the All­mans for Brothers And Sisters), done in a somewhat «loungey» fashion; Charlie Rich's ʽWho Will The Next Fool Be?ʼ; and a version of ʽBlues In The Nightʼ that is no better or worse than the legions of versions of ʽBlues In The Nightʼ recorded over the years. However, none of these are as much fun as is ʽ36-22-36ʼ, where Bobby's backers yell out the measurements with such force, you'd think the sincerity of his love confessions depended on it in a direct proportion. (Not that there'd be anything surprising about it).

The album only has 11 tracks: as you re-cobble the sequencing from various compilations, it would make sense to expand it to 12 by not forgetting ʽHow Does A Cheatin' Woman Feelʼ, a great, but forgotten B-side from the same year with yet another fine vocal/guitar duet from Bobby and Wayne — denser and moodier than on ʽStormy Mondayʼ, and adding the much needed extra darkness and de­pression to a record whose only flaw is a small excess of sentimentalism for a supposedly «blues» album. Oh sure, it inherits the «urban blues» tradition rather than the «Delta blues» one, but still, there has to be a good balance between the happy Bobby and the unhappy Bobby. Restore this balance with ʽCheatin' Womanʼ, and that's a surefire thumbs up for you.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Broadcast: HaHa Sound


BROADCAST: HAHA SOUND (2003)

1) Colour Me In; 2) Pendulum; 3) Before We Begin; 4) Valerie; 5) Man Is Not A Bird; 6) Minim; 7) Lunch Hour Pops; 8) Black Umbrellas; 9) Ominous Cloud; 10) Distorsion; 11) Oh How I Miss You; 12) The Little Bell; 13) Win­ter Now; 14) Hawk.

This follow-up to The Noise Made By People is even more full of helium than its predecessor. The major difference is that the snow has melted away, and this, now, is spring come to replace winter, although everything still stays firmly within the confines of the same old magical barrel organ (and winter does come back at the end of the album, at least nominally). Contrary to the title, there are no actual «ha ha's» anywhere in sight — Broadcast do not have a sense of humor, at least, not an «earthly» one — but if the idea is simply to conjure an as­sociation with something lightweight and childishly innocent, that's okay.

The very first song, actually, is a kiddie song — a tune that could, with just a little bit of tweaking, easily fit on Sesame Street or the like: "I am grey, still on the page / Oh colour me in / Just an outline, sketchy but fine / Oh colour me in". The psychedelic electronic waltz that unfurls in the background complements the song's basic idea just fine — in fact, the song almost ends up intru­ding into «corny» territory, as Trish Keenan now metamorphoses into a Dusty Springfield for her generation. However, the complex overdubs still contain plenty of dissonance to satisfy both the introvert intellectual child and the grown-up indie hipster kid (not that there's a huge amount of difference between the two).

ʽPendulumʼ was already previously released on a short EP of the same name, which makes it the odd one out on the record — driven by a loud, bashing drum pattern instead of the usually soft percussion, and a rather cold synthesizer rhythm track that suggests a bit of dark mystique. But it is the album's equivalent of an ʽAmazing Journeyʼ — guiding the listener through a somewhat uncomfortable interdimensional corridor so that he or she may then revel freely in the multi­coloured pastures and forests of the remaining twelve tracks.

And this is where the problem lies: paradise, even one of a cool intellectual design, is actually a boring place to be. The Noise Made By People was fairly monotonous already, but not to this extent: now that Keenan has sacrificed most of the variety in her singing for a single-purpose «ethereal» delivery (hushy, echoey, mid-range, little to no modulation at all), listening to this stuff is like wandering through an endless art gallery of XVIIth century Italian painters — every­thing done in bright, professional, masterful, spiritual ways, but everything completely interchan­geable, dissuading you to focus on anything in particular.

However, on second thought, this is not really a «problem» as such. This fairy-tale world that Broadcast have constructed is effective and believable, even though it is so intentionally «fluffy» and «sugary», with only that slight melancholic ring in Keenan's voice to suggest that there may be a darker undercurrent to their «Land of Long-Lasting La-La». So if we have no individual me­mories of what it was that made ʽMan Is Not A Birdʼ fundamentally different from ʽOminous Cloudʼ, why should it matter? (I think the latter was in 3/4 tempo while the former was in 4/4, but that's about it, and anyway I might be wrong...).

This is mood music, to be played on a warm spring night or, perhaps, to set the mood of a warm spring night on a cold winter night. Or under a different set of circumstances, whatever. The textures are very pretty. A more serious analysis also reveals that, «under the covers», the band is conducting some experimental research — many of the tracks, while starting out quite conven­tionally, eventually resolve themselves as sonic explorations (for instance, the bizarre electronic drum solo at the end of ʽMan Is Not A Birdʼ, or the trance-inducing repetitive acoustic guitar pat­tern of ʽValerieʼ, eventually fusing with all the electronics in a thin wall of noise).

I do want to raise one complaint — there is a bit too much waltzing going on here. Dancing out with the moonlit knight, or with candlewick fairies, or with The Phantom of The Analog Synth is all fine and dandy, but why it so necessarily has to be done in the spirit of Johann Strauss Jr., is not as easy to understand. A minuet, anybody? An old reel? A tango? If they were waltzing all day long and into the night in my paradise, I'd lead a counter-cultural revolution.

Thumbs up, overall, but in terms of general trajectory, this is a slight letdown after the debut — too much attention on texture, not enough attention on composing, what with all the generic tem­pos and vocal melodies that, much too often, are reminiscent of conventional lullabies or nursery rhymes. But they most probably were not going for anything other than a specific atmosphere here, and they got that atmosphere all right.

Check "HaHa Sound" (CD) on Amazon
Check "HaHa Sound" (MP3) on Amazon

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Babes In Toyland: Fontanelle


BABES IN TOYLAND: FONTANELLE (1992)

1) Bruise Violet; 2) Right Now; 3) Bluebell; 4) Handsome & Gretel; 5) Blood; 6) Magick Flute; 7) Won't Tell; 8) Quiet Room; 9) Spun; 10) Short Song; 11) Jungle Train; 12) Pearl; 13) Real Eyes; 14) Mother; 15) Gone.

In general, this is To Mother expanded to full-LP status. Despite an important lineup change — important, because any change in a three-person lineup will be important, even if the third person is confined to dancing and tambourines — namely, the replacement of bassist Michelle Leon with Maureen Herman, Fontanelle continues the band's «Journey Into The Depths of Your Sexual Subconscious», under the ongoing mentorship of Sonic Youth (whose own Lee Ranaldo co-pro­duced the album with Bjelland).

Somehow the album managed to become their commercial peak — most likely, due to (a) heavy promotion on the part of Sonic Youth and on the part of themselves, with the band's wild, but no­vel stage act steadily gaining in prominence; (b) most importantly, the overall grunge craze — in the wake of Nevermind, this sound was bound to succeed, especially considering that Bjelland's guitar tones are now even fatter, crunchier, and dirtier than they were two years before. That «swamp pussy» sound of Spanking Machine is all but gone, replaced by the punk-o-metal doom growl that Kurt commanded us to love — and we (the people) loved it so much we ended up buy­ing 220,000 copies of Fontanelle in the United States alone.

And what now, in retrospect? Well, naturally, the seams are showing — whatever emotional ef­fect the album may produce on us, the reasons for that effect are immediately obvious, canceling out the desirable «creepy» vibe. Even a brief comparison of the album sleeves between 1990 and 1992 shows the unhealthy difference: from a stylish, subtly defiant photo they switched to a ra­ther dubious «Chucky-meets-Alice-Cooper» trashy aesthetics. Then there is the same thing within the album sleeve: confused quasi-Freudian imagery in the lyrics + dark, quasi-gothic guitar tones with more emphasis on how the chords are played rather than on which chords are played = a tho­roughly unnecessary pretense to «intellectualism» where, earlier, there was just some simple, brutal, basic, gut-level exorcism.

However, that does not mean that Fontanelle is bad — it is a firm step in a wrong direction, as far as I am concerned, but it retains enough primal punch to be consistently listenable for those who respect primal punch punched by professional primal punchers. For sure, it was wrong of them to re-record the instrumental ʽQuiet Roomʼ from To Mother (its three minutes should, at best, have been reduced to a twenty-second mood-setting intro to some other song); and the final ʽGoneʼ, with its slow tempos, feedback walls, and «atmospheric» or «symbolic» overdubs of breaking glass at the beginning, is understandable as a choice for the lead-out track, but pretty much unbearable on its own (once again — such experiments should better be left for Sonic Youth; it's not that they do them a whole lot better, but at least «it's their life», whereas Bjelland is just an uncomfortable stranger to this land).

And yet, when Fontanelle rocks, it really rocks. The sonic textures may be even more monoto­nous than they used to, the melodic hooks may be completely disregarded (intentionally disrega­r­ded — since the melodies here are influenced by avantgarde rather than minimalistic, but catchy garage-rock), but they still get by on the strength of Bjelland's personality. One of my favorite numbers here, ʽHandsome & Gretelʼ, managed to become a favorite simply because of the hila­rious vocal modulation, which includes everything from deep-throat roar to mock-falsetto irony — if anything, that is at least serious theatrical skill. ʽBruise Violetʼ is a great album opener, jackhammering the song's maligned victim (some suggested that the victim in question was Court­ney Love, which Bjelland naturally denied in public, in the light of lines like "you fucking bitch I hope your insides rot", etc.) into oblivion, with a few well-placed echoey calls of «liar, liar, liar!» diversifying the mood — now you're playful, now you're vengeful, and now you're down­right psychotic. This is something that needs a Kat Bjelland for comfort; nobody in Sonic Youth possessed that sort of back alley devil inside them.

In short, to sum it all up in a transparent hyperbolic manner, you probably haven't lived your life to the fullest if you never heard Kat scream out "YOU'RE DEAD MEAT MOTHERFUCKER YOU DON'T TRY TO RAPE A GODDESS" at the top of her lungs during the climax to ʽBlue­bellʼ — this ain't «music», really, more like «spiritual history», but it's the little things like that which make Fontanelle an important, and quite exciting, document of its epoch. Even the obli­gatory Lori Barbero vocal spotlight this time is tolerable, as the lady is playing Patti Smith's little sister on the tempo-varying ʽMagick Fluteʼ.

Additionally, I refrain from making any definitive comments on the actual music content here, because this would require more trained and attentive ears — I don't «get» these melodies as dis­tinct entities in their own rights, but somebody else might: this is not generic hardcore or poorly masked formulaic blues-rock, with at least some of the guitar / bass interplay quite carefully con­structed and occasionally steered in the «punk jazz» department of Primus and the like. Not that the girls are seriously / notably growing as technically skilled players or anything — the only point is that there may be more to this music than what immediately meets, and blackens, the naked eye. From that point of view, my thumbs up come both as overdue payment for Bjelland's fiery spirit — and possible advance payment for potential future revelations.

Check "Fontanelle" (CD) on Amazon
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Friday, February 22, 2013

Bad Brains: Rock For Light


BAD BRAINS: ROCK FOR LIGHT (1983)

1) Coptic Times; 2) Attitude; 3) We Will Not; 4) Sailin' On; 5) Rally 'Round Jah Throne; 6) Right Brigade; 7) F.V.K.; 8) Riot Squad; 9) The Meek Shall Inherit The Earth; 10) Joshua's Song; 11) Banned In D.C.; 12) How Low Can A Punk Get; 13) Big Takeover; 14) I And I Survive; 15) Destroy Babylon; 16) Rock For Light; 17) At The Movies.

This is basically a «do-it-right-this-time» upgrade of Bad Brains. Same line-up, same style, same ideology, same technique, even a bunch of the same songs — but this time, recorded in a proper studio, released on a proper label (PVC), and produced by a guy with credentials, namely, Ric Ocasek of The Cars... Ric Ocasek???!!! ...but no, no worries, Rock For Light sounds nothing like The Cars — there isn't a synthesizer anywhere in sight, and the only rudiments of «pop hooks» are occasional melodic patterns in Dr. Know's riffs which were there all along, you just couldn't hear them too well.

Actually, if there is any substantial improvement, it mostly concerns the reggae numbers. Not co­incidentally, perhaps, none of the reggae tunes from Bad Brains were chosen to be re-recorded — instead, they wrote some new ones, tighter, more focused, and more catchy than the old ones. Reggae really only amounts to something bigger than local hoodlum ganja fun when it starts hun­ting for that Old Testament spirit, becoming downright uplifting for some and downright scary for others. And ʽThe Meek Shall Inherit The Earthʼ, for instance, definitely has a particle of that spirit (along with some powerhouse percussion work) — H.R. sings the lyrics, for once, instead of barking or growling, and the band's beliefs and convictions come forth as credible (even if the Rastafari religion as such seems like a bunch of baloney to you — heck, it probably is baloney, but if it makes these guys' lives happier, let 'em have it, "in the way of our lord JAH!").

As for the speedy punk songs, they continue to be properly undescribable — now that the pro­duction is so much clearer, we should simply enjoy them the way they are: disjointed quanta of one big whole, brief punk blasts whose main attraction lies in their being sped up to ridiculous tempos. Play this any slower and it will be quite boring, even with the technical skills of the band members — it is not as if Dr. Know is delivering any amazing, hitherto unknown chord se­quences... actually, except when he is off to churn out one more finger-flashing solo, he is not even playing it too fast: the main punch is delivered by the rhythm section.

H.R.'s ecstatic sneer on the fast punk numbers tends to be overrated by reviewers, maybe for exo­tic reasons — after all, you do not usually see this sort of style from black vocalists — but I really prefer what he is doing on the reggae rather than the hardcore numbers, where the tone is just a tad too hysterical to properly match the instrumental crunch. As for the Rastafari influence on the lyrics of ʽCoptic Timesʼ, ʽJoshua's Songʼ, and others, it is certainly novel, but it would be more fun to somehow manage to see a musical combination of reggae and hardcore rather than a lyrical one, and of that, the band is not capable (not that anybody could blame them — «hardcore reggae» is sort of an oxymoron, since combining pot with speed is usually not recommendable).

Overall, the only two reasons I still go with a thumbs up here are (a) the improved reggae num­bers and (b) the improved production — both of which sort of permit Rock For Light to count as a successful update of the Bad Brains sound for the audiophile. However, a second (third?) al­bum with the same sound and style would have been untenable — Bad Brains would end up mu­tating into somebody like Agnostic Front. To their credit, the band realized that: we may debate whether their subsequent changes were amazing or disappointing, but regardless, it is actually a good thing that they only made one Rock For Light, without dissipating its legend over the course of a thousand faceless clones.

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Thursday, February 21, 2013

Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso: Capolinea


BANCO DEL MUTUO SOCCORSO: CAPOLINEA (1980)

1) Non Mi Rompete; 2) Il Ragno; 3) Canto Di Primavera; 4) 750,000 Anni Fa... L'Amore; 5) Capolinea, Pt. 1; 6) Capolinea, Pt. 2; 7) R.I.P.; 8) Garofano Rosso.

Why these guys had to wait until 1980 to release a live album is anybody's guess — perhaps they thought it boring to jump on the «triple live album» fad while they were still playing the songs close to the originals, but now that they had so daringly reinvented themselves for the Modern Age, it was time to show the world how infinite those adaptive capacities of progressive rock really are? Particularly now that you can actually dance to those formerly tricky oldies and all?

All right, so this is not quite the brand new, Eighties-ready Banco yet. This is a transitional album: they do a selection of mostly old material, alternating between (a) tear-jerkers — ballads that need very little readjustment to set the crowds a-weepin'; and (b) old «rockers» remade according to the electro-funky standards of the day, with hot syncopated basslines that sometimes go all the way up to disco (even though in general this is not «Banco's disco album», as the fans sometimes brand it, steeping away in horror — but a dance album this is, of course).

The only new composition is the two-part title track, a fast, but relatively old-fashioned boogie piece with alternating synthesizer and guitar solos, and a bass part that pays proper tribute to the fusion genre. It's listenable and nimble, but generic, and the synthesizer tones are ugly anyway. But it may be a better proposition for the fans than the funkified rethinking of ʽR.I.P.ʼ, or the disco pounce of ʽIl Ragnoʼ, or the new life of ʽGarofano Rossoʼ as the Italian equivalent of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.

On the other hand, in retrospect the experience is sort of amusing — it is curious to hear, at least once, how these old classic tunes behave in a «nightclub» setting, and it will ultimately depend upon your attitude towards something like Walter Murphy's ʽA Fifth Of Beethovenʼ: ridiculous, disgusting, money-grubbin' desecration or cheesy, bold, tongue-in-cheek experimentation? For Banco, scrap «tongue-in-cheek», though: there are no signs of self-irony anywhere in sight, they are clearly targeting these rearrangements at a new kind of audience — one that is accustomed to standing up and getting it on at live shows, not sitting down and contemplating.

The recording quality is fairly good (every throb of each disco line wobbles your speakers im­pressively), DiGiacomo is in fine vocal form (in fact, at this point he emerges as the most «con­servative» element of the music, faithfully reproducing the original vocal melodies), and the No­cenzi brothers do work their asses off, regardless of the goals and results. The album hardly qua­lifies for a proper end-of-the-decade «summarization» of achievements — it stares way too in­tensely into the glum future, and the song selection is too restricted — but, at the very least, it is a semi-decent way to cap off one's collection of BMS records, because, compared to what would follow, and follow very soon, Capolinea is a frickin' Mozartian masterpiece. Prophetic title, too: Capolinea means «terminus» in Italian, so take a hint before proceeding further.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Bee Gees: Idea


BEE GEES: IDEA (1968)

1) Let There Be Love; 2) Kitty Can; 3) In The Summer Of His Years; 4) Indian Gin And Whisky Dry; 5) Down To Earth; 6) Such A Shame; 7) I've Gotta Get A Message To You; 8) Idea; 9) When The Swallows Fly; 10) I Have De­cided To Join The Airforce; 11) I Started A Joke; 12) Kilburn Towers; 13) Swan Song.

In the beginning, Idea sounds like a huge letdown. As the psychedelic haze slowly started dissi­pating by mid-1968, and the musical world started splintering into the «roots rock camp» (which the Bee Gees took a serious liking to), the «art rock camp» (which the Bee Gees preferred to ad­mire from afar), and the «hard rock camp» (which the Bee Gees abhorred), the band found this a good pretext to allow themselves to «let go» of even more of that extra ballast they'd picked up in 1967 — and released their «wimpiest» record to-date (not counting the early Oz stuff). Lush bal­lads, sissy folkie tunes, and inoffensive country-pop — this is what Idea is all about, and no one but the Bee Gees themselves are responsible.

Ironically, this also happened to be the album with guitarist Vince Melouney's only songwriting credit: the soft pop-rocker ʽSuch A Shameʼ, which must have been written under the heavy influ­ence of Dave Davies' ʽDeath Of A Clownʼ — not a song of any importance, but at least it's got some bluesy harmonica runs from some anonymous harmonica blower, which adds an extra touch to the mostly keyboards-and-strings-dominated album. Vince was the one who pushed the band into a bluesier direction — but what can one little-known Australian guitarist have against a whole three Gibb brothers? Particularly once they finally decide that, God be witness, they don't need fuzzy electric guitar on their albums. Because it distracts them from their spirituality.

But as time goes by, Idea gains back some of the appeal that it never had. Most of these lush bal­lads, manneristic as they are and occasionally suffering from the ever-increasing prominence of Robin's lead vocals, are perfectly written and laid out, and, most importantly, they usually offer just the right «antidotes» to the potentially annoying sentimentality. ʽLet There Be Loveʼ starts out swimming in cotton candy — then, once it gets to the bridge ("I am a man, so take me for what I am..."), group harmonies come in and add a little drama and intensity. Same thing happens with ʽWhen The Swallows Flyʼ, where the dynamic chorus pulls the song out of mediocrity after a rather lackluster piano verse kinda goes nowhere (but still manages to influence a young Elton John, as I seriously suspect).

Meanwhile, Robin's two «tour-de-force» highlights that I used to shun — ʽIn The Summer Of His Yearsʼ and ʽI Started A Jokeʼ — are, in fact, pretty hard to criticize either from a melodic point of view (the vocal parts are designed and carried out as harmonic triumphs) or even from a «mood / style» point: they are subtle psychological portraits or prayers, rather than cheap sentimental clichés. The for­mer was supposedly written in memory of Brian Epstein, but could well apply to any young man, struck out by misfortune at a comparable age — Robin's take on the subject combines just the right amount of solemn pomp, humanity, and pity.

As for ʽI Started A Jokeʼ, when you look at the lyrics, it is actually rather gruesome — suicidal, in fact — and this gets me to thinking that the whole album, in fact, has more brushes with death than any other Bee Gees product: apart from these two songs, you also have ʽI've Gotta Get A Message To Youʼ (written from the point of view of someone condemned to the chair) and ʽSwan Songʼ which is not explicitly about death, but still provides a sort of «last-wish» conclusion to the album, much like the conclusive title track to Horizontal. In other words, Idea may take another solid step away from the diversity and the «grittiness» of its predecessors, but that does not mean it has to steer towards the «namby-pamby»: the overall atmosphere is still fairly dark, and the ro­mance is still understood more in Byron / Chopin terms than in Hollywood ones.

The upbeat, toe-tappable folk and country stuff is mostly limited in ambition, and thus, not too durable in terms of live show favorites or best-of compilation eligibility — but ʽKitty Canʼ is funny and catchy; ʽIndian Gin And Whisky Dryʼ is one of the most elegantly gallant tunes written about the perils of alcoholism; the title track features the best (if not the only) electric guitar lick on the album, delivered in a psychedelic tone (nice sonic match for the light bulb on the album sleeve); and ʽI Have Decided To Join The Airforceʼ is an amusing parody on British martial sty­listics (unless the song was actually commissioned by the UK Air Force, which I know nothing about, but it's possible — after all, if they invested their talents into writing jingles for Coke, why not this? And best thing of all, in the wake of The Who Sell Out, it would be impossible to tell the proper limit between pop-sell out and pop-art anyway).

In the end, I think that the only relative failure is ʽDown To Earthʼ — still an important song in any case, as it briefly explores the «cosmic loneliness» theme one year before Bowie's ʽSpace Od­dityʼ made it a commodity (and four years before ʽRocket Manʼ brought it into the average household), but it sounds a bit too lethargic and, eventually, unresolved — and applying for epic status on rather thin grounds. Maybe they should have extended it to seven minutes or something, but in mid-1968, they weren't quite ready for the big game yet.

In retrospect, I sort of think that Idea was the first album where the Bee Gees really realized themselves as the band they wanted to be — throwing most of the peer pressure off their shoul­ders and going for the heart. This does not mean that it is a better album than 1st or Horizontal: those whose musical tastes and conceptions are close to mine will inevitably prefer the Bee Gees with peer pressure rather than without them, if only because there is only so much «lushness» and quasi-operatic vocalizing and strings and romantic loneliness that one can take (although even from that angle, Idea is like a little kid compared to Trafalgar).

But if we judge artistic quality according to how well the artist managed to «find himself», then Idea should be placed in the top range of the Gibb brothers' immense catalog. The brothers themselves agree with this inter­pretation, by the way — "That was when I got an idea / Came like a gun and shot in my ear / Don't you think it's time you got up and stood alone?" And, well, in a certain way, they do, so a big thumbs up for stand-aloners and their wimpiness.

The bonus disc on the CD reissue is not as strong as the previous two, but it does have ʽJumboʼ (probably the strangest, most «daring» single the brothers put out in the 1960s — naturally, it did not climb up too high in the charts) as well as a funny tongue-in-cheek send-up called ʽCom­pletely Unoriginalʼ (probably a comedy recording to serve as the answer to some of the band's critics — and a good choice for a banner song for everybody who denies the importance of «ori­ginality» in song, dance, and culinary arts). On the other hand, there is also some soundtrack muzak (ʽGena's Themeʼ), a few of those cheesy Coke jingles, and lots of alternate mixes that do not sound too different from the original ones, so, possibly, upgrading your CD collection in this particular instance should not be a top priority.

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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Billy Preston: Billy Preston & Syreeta


BILLY PRESTON: BILLY PRESTON & SYREETA (1981)

1) Someone Special; 2) Searchin'; 3) Just For You; 4) It's So Easy; 5) A Long And Lasting Love; 6) Love; 7) One More Try; 8) Hey You; 9) A New Way To Say I Love You; 10) What We Did For Love.

It's almost tedious in its predictability — the Eighties are upon us, and with the first year of the new decade, comes the first genuinely awful album in Billy Preston's discography. And what a sad bit of un-luck, too, that it had to be a duet album with Syreeta Wright, whose sweet voice is the only redeemable feature of the record — and even then, only barely.

Apparently, Motown wished to exploit the success of ʽWith You I'm Born Againʼ to the utmost limit, and steered the two artists towards pooling their talents for a whole session, evenly split between contemporary teenage dance-pop and contemporary adult balladry. In 1979, that could have worked — the dance-pop, at least, given how ʽIt Will Come In Timeʼ still managed to be fun in Billy's usual «one for the kids» way. But now, with «electro-funk» sweeping the waves, synthesizer markets overstocked with brand new production waiting to be exploited, and Prince and Michael Jackson setting new creative standards for dance music that ruined everybody not fully up to the same levels of creativity, «the average mainstream» was going down the drain so fast, it could almost make you wanna cry for the passing of the disco era.

Like I said, this album is atrocious — first and foremost, it is not really a Billy Preston record: his playing here, if it can be called playing at all, is completely lost behind the walls of synthesized strings (if it's balladry) or the programmed drum beats and electronic bass (if it's the shake-yer-booty vibe), and his singing... well, Billy has never been that much of a singer, and when he is doing it face-to-face with Syreeta who, most definitely, is a singer, he hardly ever rises above to­tally generic vocal clichés.

Second, it would be one thing if it were only the syrupy power ballads that are atrocious (ʽA New Way To Say I Love Youʼ — nope, no dice, really; ʽLoveʼ — who do you think you are to get away with that title? John Lennon?; ʽA Long And Lasting Loveʼ — between you, me, and sweet Yamaha; ʽWhat We Did For Loveʼ — is it just me, or do I see some sort of tendency here?). Un­fortunately, the dance grooves, while nowhere near as embarrassing, are just plain boring — there is nothing behind these grooves to demand attention, and nothing in these grooves to suggest somebody here was looking for something other than a quick cash-in.

Actually, I stand corrected: every once in a while, the grooves do tend to become embarrassing, when the artists start exploring their «Hot, Sexy» sides (such as the bridge section of ʽSearchin'ʼ, or the clumsy, halfway-there Prince-isms of ʽJust For Youʼ). Now that dance-oriented artists were explicitly pushed towards «roughing it up» rather than keeping it smooth the way they used to, you either had to reinvent yourself or die trying. Billy and Syreeta died trying, and sometimes the smell gets a little bit too heavy.

Too bad, because, as I mentioned early, Syreeta Wright is a lovely singer, and her vocal talent should not have been wasted on this total tripe — maybe a duet album with Michael Jackson could have been a better proposition. Thumbs down, unless your honorable taste is really per­verse and you delicately feed on generic early Eighties' dance-pop like... (insert your favourite insulting line here: «green flies on horse poop» is a good candidate). The good news is, I think this record was never officially released on CD, and here's hoping it never will be.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Bobby Bland: Two Steps From The Blues


BOBBY BLAND: TWO STEPS FROM THE BLUES (1961)

1) Two Steps From The Blues; 2) Cry, Cry, Cry; 3) I'm Not Ashamed; 4) Don't Cry No More; 5) Lead Me On; 6) I Pity The Fool; 7) I've Got To Forget You; 8) Little Boy Blue; 9) St. James Infirmary; 10) I'll Take Care Of You; 11) Don't Want No Woman; 12) I've Been Wrong So Long.

Like most «LPs» from the era, this is not a real «album», but rather a collection of singles scat­tered over five years of recording — the earliest tunes here, like ʽLittle Boy Blueʼ, go all the way back to 1957. However, this streak certainly has a more coherent flavor to it than 1952-1959 (ac­tually, the bulk of the material was recorded over just two sessions in late 1960 with the same band), and for all it is worth, could be considered a wholesome set. Particularly seeing as how it is often seen as the ultimate best set in Bobby's career.

Most of the songs, as on Bobby's earlier singles for Duke Records, are credited to «Deadric Ma­lone», formally a pseudonym for Don Robey, who was the owner of the label and had a reputa­tion of a violent thug, forcing anonymous songwriters to yield him all the credit — so that, in the end, nobody knows who really wrote ʽCry, Cry, Cryʼ or ʽI Pity The Foolʼ and whether they really had their fingernails pulled in the basement by Don Robey or if it was just a matter of an extra bottle or two and a drunken signature on a white sheet of paper. But who cares if it's just music that we have to be concerned about? The shady aspects of the music industry are supposed to come and go — the music is here to stay.

ʽTwo Steps From The Bluesʼ — the song — is a masterful piece of work that belongs to no genre in particular. Part time blues, part time vocal jazz, part time doo-wop, part time New Orleanian funeral music, it is a giant step forward for Bobby and Duke Records in general in terms of pro­duction. No longer do the boys sound like Wynonie Harris with extra electric guitar — the sound is fully fleshed out and rehearsed, with guitars, pianos, horns, and vocals sharing near-equal parts of the cut, and each partner bringing on a little something from a different area.

It actually helps that Bobby is not associated with any particular instrument other than his voice — not being a guitar hero like B. B. King or a piano whiz like Ray Charles — and that, at the same time, his backing band is given a fairly free hand to do whatever it chooses to do, so they all do whatever they do best, particularly Wayne Bennett on guitar and Teddy Reynolds on piano (the brass section is too large to type them all in). Behind the vocals, there is always some sort of battle going on, usually between the guitar and the brass, and most of this stuff would be brilliant even without Bobby Bland — the sheer dynamics of ʽCry, Cry, Cryʼ and ʽI Pity The Foolʼ put them way above the average R&B level of the times.

Still, the immediate memorability is all due to the vocal hooks and «temperatures». Along with the improved production values, we have an extra level of smoothness and steadiness achieved here — Bobby rolls into 1960 as one of the most technically accomplished vocalists of his gene­ration; in fact, if we eliminate the «over-affected» people like Clyde McPhatter from the starting line, his only real competition back then is Sam Cooke, and Sam was too much into his emploi of «sweet ladies' man» to try on gritty «screamers» like ʽCry, Cry, Cryʼ (although he had his own advantages and know-hows, obviously). Actually, come to think of it, Bobby himself must have influenced subsequent developments of Sam's career — I hear definite echos of ʽLead Me Onʼ in ʽA Change Is Gonna Comeʼ, for instance.

There is plenty of soul throughout and not the slightest ounce of cheap sentimentality. Orchestral arrangements appear only once, on ʽLead Me Onʼ, and they are heavier on flutes and cellos than on violins — together with the backing vocals, this gives the song an anthemic gospel flavor ra­ther than a balladeering one. The lush «I-will-always-love-you» ballads often have an oddly dark undercurrent (ʽI'll Take Care Of Youʼ, colored with a rather ominous organ part; ʽI've Been Wrong So Longʼ, a chivalrous love confession led by an equally ominous guitar line that could be counted as a pre­decessor to Albert King's ʽBorn Under A Bad Signʼ), and to top it all, there is a fine take on ʽSt. James Infirmaryʼ (with heavily euphemized lyrics, but still...) — overall, the album matches its name fairly well.

Two Steps From The Blues ain't «scary» or «evil» — it's all in the line of respectable adult en­ter­tainment — but it is highly intelligent, innovative, and deep-reaching adult entertain­ment, and then there is that voice. Two steps from the blues? One step from a masterpiece, and only because some of the basic melodies still sound like minor variations on all-too familiar themes (which shouldn't be surprising considering all the «anonymous authorship»), and some of the songs break away from the stylistics (like the uptempo, atypically misogynistic, flashy electric-guitar-driven, ʽDon't Want No Womanʼ — although I do like the song a lot), reminding us that this is, after all, a mixed-up bag in the end. Still, thumbs up without the slightest doubt.

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Sunday, February 17, 2013

Broadcast: The Noise Made By People


BROADCAST: THE NOISE MADE BY PEOPLE (2000)

1) Long Was The Year; 2) Unchanging Window; 3) Minus One; 4) Come On Let's Go; 5) Echo's Answer; 6) Tower Of Our Tuning; 7) Papercuts; 8) You Can Fall; 9) Look Outside; 10) Until Then; 11) City In Progress; 12) Dead The Long Year.

«Barrel-organ-pop» is not an actual term, but the more we see that old-time dream-pop fused with electronics, the more pressing the need for such a term becomes. Stereolab may be named as their immediate predecessors and mentors, and Beach House and many other bands may be striving for similar emotional effects, but, really, there are few bands around that deserve to illustrate that category better than Birmingham's Broadcast, who spent the first five years of their lives devising and honing that sound, and then rolled out this debut album which, arguably, they never sur­passed — not in terms of psychological impact, at least.

The Noise Made By People is a good title, but a bit self-deprecating: while a certain amount of «ornamental noise» is indeed present throughout, all the compositions respect melody and are completely «accessible», provided you are not in the specific mood for a dance album or some­thing (or, at least, not a fast, energetic dance album — slow, cool-tempered waltzing would be quite appropriate for much of this stuff). The «noise» itself usually comes in the form of various kaleidoscopic effects which rarely detract from the repetitive, but entrancing melodies — on the contrary, considering how Christmas-y the general atmosphere is, they just add tinsel flavor.

Most of the ingredients of the music are recognizable, but the overall synthesis is quite idiosyn­cratic. The idea of creating lightly psychedelic pop with (slightly antiquated) electronics may have been borrowed from The United States of America, as is sometimes noted, and then there are further analogies with just about every technology-obsessed dream-pop band from the Coc­teau Twins to Stereolab. On the other hand, lead singer Trish Keenan belongs to the cohort of chilly-voiced femmes mysterieuses, half-Snow Queen, half-Snow White, as Renaissance's Annie Haslam (to whom she bears a particularly striking resemblance every time she reaches for those high notes) or even Karen Carpenter (she doesn't have Karen's lower range, so the vocals sound more generally «air-conditioned», but she has the same introspective / melancholy ring) — and she also seems to have a serious taste for Sixties' vocal jazz fairies like Astrud Gilberto, going for that «deeply human, but utterly impenetrable» aura that used to mesmerize people back when it was so trendy to want to be mesmerized by the little strange wonders of the world.

You put it all together — the simple, repetitive melodies, usually formed by drums-and-bass pat­terns with prolonged, trance-oriented keyboard notes laid on top; the additional electronic and, sometimes, electric guitar effects; and those gorgeously cold «don't touch me, I'm spell-genera­ting here!» vocals — and you get yourself one of the finest atmospheric landscapes of the 2000s. In particular, it is a near-perfect experience for lonely wintery evenings, what with its bringing out all the potential beauty of «cold» and «dark» without slipping into banalities and trivialities and without concentrating on the negative sides of it all. You hate the cold season? Let Broad­cast warm it up for you. Never mind that the album was released at the end of March — it's a Decem­berist record if there ever was one.

If there is a problem, it's that everything basically sounds the same. ʽLong Was The Yearʼ opens the album on a «sterner» mood, with some stiff, quasi-Teutonic rhythmics and a darker, heavier vocal color from Trish. ʽUnchanging Windowʼ follows it up with a slightly more upbeat tempo, chirpier vocals and a more playful attitude (all strictly within the limits of good old British decen­cy, mind you). Once you are acquainted with these two sub-paradigms, everything else is mostly just further variations on them — including several completely instrumental tunes (the little «toy snowstorm» of ʽMinus Oneʼ is playful, while ʽTower Of Our Tuningʼ and ʽDead The Long Yearʼ are decidedly darker in spirit, though still nowhere near «dangerously dark»).

This, as well as the overtly «static» nature of most of the songs, which almost always end exactly the same way as they began, is an obviously self-imposed limitation — it carves out a stylistic niche for the band, but it also traps them in that niche (a feeling not wholly unfamiliar to connais­seurs of the indie market), and a side effect of that trapping is that I cannot discuss the individual songs, unless I really want to get into the peculiarities of all the chimes, bells, and whistles acti­vated in the recording process, or overanalyze the «moods-within-the-moods» reflected in Kee­nan's singing here and there. All I can say is that the melodies are different, and that there is plenty of tiny little nuances that come and go. Well, maybe some of the tunes are a bit jazzier than others — ʽCome On Let's Goʼ, or the waltzing ʽPapercutsʼ, for instance, both of which show that the generally immobile «friendly Snow Queen» can condescend to wiggling it up a bit, just to prove that she does consist of organic compounds. And then again, some are a bit more frozen than others — ʽUntil Thenʼ, for instance, where all the electronics sounds as if they were freshly blown out of a stalagmite or something.

On the positive side, the evenness of the material means that all the songs are about equally good, no particular low- or highlights — although some of the instrumentals are guilty of patience-try­ing, but even here it is understandable: «static musical landscapes» are supposed to be like that (for instance, the «who's gonna go and finally close that squeaky door?» bit at the end of ʽDead The Long Yearʼ). The ambitions of The Noise Made By People are lightweight and limited, but within those limits, they are perfectly adequate, and that guarantees a convinced thumbs up — for an album that is not so much «awesome» as it is «touchingly charming», and you know there are actually certain times in life when «touchingly charming» is needed more than «awesome».

Check "The Noise Made By People" (CD) on Amazon
Check "The Noise Made By People" (MP3) on Amazon

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Babes In Toyland: To Mother


BABES IN TOYLAND: TO MOTHER (1991)

1) Catatonic; 2) Mad Pilot; 3) Primus; 4) Laugh My Head Off; 5) Spit To See The Shine; 6) Ripe; 7) The Quiet Room.

A 22-minute long EP here, worth a brief separate review not only because it is almost as long as an early Beach Boys album, but also because it is a relatively important «evolutionary step» from Spanking Machine to Fontanelle. The songs are allegedly all outtakes from the Spanking Ma­chine sessions, but they were re-recorded in the wake of the Babes' joint European tour with Sonic Youth, and some additional influence might be discernible — not a very good influence, I'm afraid, but one that guides the band into a denser jungle of subconscious libidinous metaphors and into exploring distorted noise from an «artsy» standpoint rather than just using it as a direct reflection of being pissed off.

Which is all right for Sonic Youth, I guess — these guys started out with just such an agenda, and gradually got better and better at it — but a little out of the league of Kat Bjelland and her assis­tants. Maybe she can write lyrics that are on par with Sonic Youth (it doesn't take a rocket scien­tist to master that style), but trying to put a «depth-and-subtlety» sheen over the one and only thing that Babes In Toyland do real good — waging post-pubescent hysteria — is an inadequate decision, to say the least. Particularly if it translates into the presence of boring arpeggiated ins­trumentals (ʽThe Quiet Roomʼ, sounding like a mediocre San Franciscan band transplanted into the 1990s), or into letting the drummer girl take another abysmal lead vocal (ʽPrimusʼ) even after the misfortune of ʽDoggʼ clearly showed the insanity of the idea.

There are two songs here still firmly rooted in the «old» style — loud, aggressive, demonic, hy­sterical. ʽMad Pilotʼ is somewhat spoiled by excessive reverb on some of the vo­cals, but the main brutal, simplistic riff makes up for it, and the overdubbed guitar noises actually make sense, imi­tating an airplane out of control, a fairly suitable image for the band. Even more «traditional» is ʽRipeʼ, with (almost) no overdubs, great screechy vocals and total delirium all around.

On the other hand, ʽCatatonicʼ is already erasing the distinctions between early Babes and early Hole, introducing elements of «doom-and-gloom» that may not be totally healthy — in fact, let the virus spread a bit and watch a normal person transform into a Lizard King. To look at it from a different side, when the opening lines to your album go "I know the sugar plum fairy / Her name is Mary / She's halfway inside my arm / Half way does great harm", this is a notably diffe­rent story from "Why do you make me feel so bad? / Why do you bother to act so sad?". And the difference in the music is quite comparable as well — minor tonalities, somber dirge moods, zombie atmospherics. I don't really want this from Bjelland.

That said, this is only the beginning of the change. Even ʽCatatonicʼ eventually picks up steam, and ʽLaugh My Head Offʼ gallops along to a hilarious chorus (with echoes of Siouxsie & The Banshees rather than Sonic Youth this time), so the only genuine turds on the EP are the two tracks mentioned at the beginning — the major problem is the length, making it a rather resource-ineffective proposition to go hunting for the EP.

Check "To Mother" (CD) on Amazon
Check "To Mother" (MP3) on Amazon