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Sunday, March 31, 2013

Broadcast: The Future Crayon


BROADCAST: THE FUTURE CRAYON (2006)

1) Illumination; 2) Still Feels Like Tears; 3) Small Song IV; 4) Where Youth And Laughter Go; 5) One Hour Em­pire; 6) Distant Call; 7) Poem Of Dead Song; 8) Hammer Without A Master; 9) Locusts; 10) Chord Simple; 11) Daves Dream; 12) DDL; 13) Test Area; 14) Unchanging Window / Chord Simple; 15) A Man For Atlantis; 16) Minus Two; 17) Violent Playground; 18) Belly Dance.

This other compilation of Broadcast's «classic era» material nicely wraps up the rest of their odds and ends — a variety of tracks culled from singles, EPs, and various side projects that would be hopelessly lost otherwise. As it is, the assemblage makes for seventy minutes of additional mate­rial that is, at best, gorgeous, and at worst, just «nice».

There is a small whiff of deception, though. The first track on the album is also unquestionably the best one — ʽIlluminationʼ not only adds a stoner rock guitar line to the band's usual «magic organ» arrangement, but also has a vocal melody that is more Beach House than Broadcast, with Trish's voice pirouetting around and dropping from high to low pitch on a mesmerizing trajectory. It is so convincing in its majesty that, clearly, it was intentionally selected as the lead-in track — who could resist jumping in to check for even more of these hidden gems? Even if you suspect a trap, you will still be tempted to walk into it.

Well, «trap» might be a tad too harsh, but in terms of stand-out material, there will not be a lot waiting there for you further on down the road. Much, if not most, of the album is instrumental, meaning that if you are primarily into Broadcast for Trish, you might just stick to ʽIlluminationʼ. Even when she does sing, many of the tracks simply incorporate her voice in the background, in the form of a distant echo (ʽLocustsʼ) — merely one more atmospheric ingredient in an army of well-rehearsed tricks with the band's electronics.

More or less finished «vocal numbers», apart from the first and greatest track, include: ʽStill Feels Like Tearsʼ, a pleasant chunk of upbeat syncopated psycho-pop that still ends up drowning Trish in two rivers of feedback, each streaming out of one of the speakers; ʽWhere Youth And Laughter Goʼ, so light, fluffy, caressing, chimey, and echoey that not remembering Astrud Gilberto is a non-option; and ʽDistant Callʼ, where the dialog between the minimalistic bass guitar part and Trish's singing is thoroughly endearing, if not too memorable.

The further we go, though, the fewer «songs» there are, their places taken by impressionistic psy­chedelic sonic paintings — more and more of those old rhythms and progressions borrowed from classic Motown-and-the-like records and then heavily spiced, sugared, and peppered with archai­cally-sounding «baroque electronics». In other words, nothing unusual or atypical for Broadcast. Some of the tracks have a more defiantly avantgardist flavor (ʽDDLʼ; ʽMinus Twoʼ has so many beeps and bleeps that, if not for the occasional "aaahhh" on Keenan's part, you could mistake it for Autechre), but this is not totally atypical, either. There is also an alternate version of ʽUnchan­ging Windowʼ, adding little to the original.

Which all goes to say: the main problem of Broadcast was that they were way too much in love with their own sound for way too much time. An album like Tender Buttons strives to rise above «formula» and «background-ish-ness», and succeeds admirably well. But on normal average days the band was happy enough to just crank up the barrel and go along. We may think of it as a sign of modesty and humility, yet it definitely transforms the task of making people truly appreciate what they really did into a tough challenge. Whatever be, do not make the mistake of getting to know the band through this album — chances are that, even if ʽIlluminationʼ smites you, the rest of it will either bore or downright stupefy you. Needless to say, seasoned fans will not want to miss any of this — at the very least, this is far more genuine Broadcast than that wretched sound­track, or even that Focus Group collaboration.

Check "The Future Crayon" (CD) on Amazon
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Saturday, March 30, 2013

Autechre: Exai


AUTECHRE: EXAI (2013)

1) FLeure; 2) irlite (get 0); 3) prac-f; 4) jatevee C; 5) T ess xi; 6) vekoS; 7) Flep; 8) tuinorizn; 9) bladelores; 10) 1 1 is; 11) nodezsh; 12) runrepik; 13) spl9; 14) cloudline; 15) deco Loc; 16) recks on; 17) YJY UX.

The old popular saying goes that «more Autechre is better Autechre», because the only thing to beat five blows of an electronic jackhammer is fifty blows of an electronic jackhammer, and the only thing to beat fifty blows... well, you get it. From this point of view, what could be better than, finally, to have ourselves a double CD of brand new Autechre material — one hundred and twen­ty minutes of slaughtered prime time in total? And, come to think of it, how come it happened that it is only now, in 2013, twenty years into their illustrious career, that Booth and Brown have finally decided to go all the way?

Unfortunately, at the moment (I have only sat through twice through the whole thing — maybe a third listen could clinch it, but then you'd have to pay me), my answer is crude, simple, impolite, and nasty. All too often, one is tempted to mask the poor quality of one's creative ideas with sheer quantity. A turd is just a turd — a mausoleum of turds piled atop each other is a work of art if you manage to mold it into an imposing shape. And no, I am not going as far as to suggest that most of the tracks on Exai are «electronic turds», because I wouldn't even know what that is, much less what would one look like coming from Autechre's guts. But I am going to suggest that there is nothing of interest to look forward to on Exai, and that is that.

Formally, this is a retreat back from the curious synthesis of «melody», «humming tone», and «jarring noise» on Oversteps into the safer, tried and true territory of their post-Confield recor­dings. Once again, it is the confused-and-confusing sub-atomic beats that rule the day — and it is true that Booth and Brown have a seemingly infinite amount of combinations to try out, but this would be more of interest to an expert in combinatorics than a simple listener who cannot remem­ber ever pledging to decipher, catalog, and analyze every percussive pattern generated by the two geniuses. In other words, it no longer stimulates me even on a purely detached, «intellectual» le­vel — no more than a tenth generation video game targeted at the same old market.

Even worse, much too often it looks as if they are not trying at all. The longest track on the album (ʽbladeloresʼ) runs for twelve minutes on what seems like one and only one musical idea — a leisurely revolving «warped» noise wave, twirling mysteriously in the background while the usu­al jackhammers are put in «relaxed» autopilot mode in the foreground. There is nothing innova­tive about this, and from an atmospheric point of view, it seems so boring that I wouldn't even be able to be lulled to sleep by whatever is happening. The second largest track (ʽcloudlineʼ) is a bit more dynamic, but overall, I must say that I get more excited when pressing my ear real close to the back panel of my computer — I mean, why bother listening to the faked life of microchips when you could just as well enjoy the real thing?

I wish I could produce a slightly less clueless impression here, but, in all honesty, I have nothing interesting, insightful, or pleasant to say about a single one of these tracks. As far as I am concer­ned, Autechre have simply returned to the bland, uninspired «craft» of their Draft 7.30 stage, and this album, huge as it is, can only be a donation to the staunchest of fans — personally, I am not going to be bowled over by the sheer hugeness of this offering. Bottomline: if Confield is all of your life and the village green beyond it, Exai will add an extra 120 minutes of happiness — otherwise, spare yourself the misery of trying to «get it»: just think, instead of one listen to Exai you could have spent the same time on five Beach Boys albums! Just this one thought is quite sufficient to solidify the thumbs down.

Check "Exai" (CD) on Amazon
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Friday, March 29, 2013

Bad Brains: Rise


BAD BRAINS: RISE (1993)

1) Rise; 2) Miss Freedom; 3) Unidentified; 4) Love Is The Answer; 5) Free; 6) Hair; 7) Coming In Numbers; 8) Yes Jah; 9) Take Your Time; 10) Peace Of Mind; 11) Without You/Outro.

No, no, and no. I am nowhere near H.R.'s biggest fan — his hypnotic powers were never matched by sufficient singing or «voice acting» ability, as far as I am concerned — but I do acknowledge that there is a unique Bad Brains vibe, and that vibe consists of H.R. vs. Dr. Know much the same way as the Rolling Stones vibe consists of Jagger vs. Richards. A Bad Brains without H.R.? It would take a proper Jah miracle to make it work.

The new vocals guy, called «Israel Joseph I», if you can really believe it, is not a bad singer — in fact, he seems to have a stronger, tougher, more disciplined set of pipes than H.R. — but that is just the problem. Rise simply has too much discipline. It is a professionally constructed mix of about 15% hardcore, 15% grunge, and 70% mid-tempo thrash metal, with a couple reggae tunes thrown in for good measure — and in between all the calculations, they seem to have completely lost the emotional aspect. Of course, it had already started on Quickness, but even that album had a few songs that did not seem written merely for the sake of keeping themselves busy.

I have nothing to say about these songs. Much emphasis is placed on crunchy brutality — Dr. Know's guitar tones and Israel's snarls are more often in the «evil» department than elsewhere, but it is never convincing: the riffs are highly derivative and uninspired, and the vocals are way too theatrical. Maybe it would help to be able to evaluate the record completely outside of its context — as it is, one cannot help but inevitably compare the «thinner», but genuinely insane vocalizations of H.R. with the «fully-in-control» attitude of this guy. They simply belong in dif­ferent worlds (think a Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd with Syd Barrett replaced by Alan Parsons, or any other such analogy).

The last track is particularly surprising — ʽWithout Youʼ is a funky, but intentionally sentimental ballad, the clo­sest they had ever come to a properly «sell-out» track thus far. It neither lies in solid Bad Brains territory, nor is it in any way a good track: and who were they willing to fool with a goddamn love song? You do not shed tears to Bad Brains material — might just as well start expecting a symph-rock suite from the likes of AC/DC.

Yes, Dr. Know and his cronies (including drummer Mackie Jayson, now as a full-term member) are professionals, and this means there will always be people thinking that there is no such thing as a Good Brains (= «bad Bad Brains») album, and if you really want to, you can headbang along to some of these songs quite nicely — ʽUnidentifiedʼ is fast as hell, and ʽTake Your Timeʼ grinds and howls with all the mercilessness (if none of the charm) of an Alice In Chains track. But why would you want to, when the world has so much more, and so much better, in store for you? Trust the critics on this one — it holds no revelations or epiphanies, other than the revelation that some­one can live with a name like «Israel Joseph I». Thumbs down.

Check "Rise" (CD) on Amazon
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Thursday, March 28, 2013

Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso: Donna Plautilla


BANCO DEL MUTUO SOCCORSO: DONNA PLAUTILLA (1989)

1) Ed Io Canto; 2) Cantico; 3) Piazza Dell'Oro; 4) Mille Poesie; 5) Un Giorno Di Sole; 6) Un Uomo Solo; 7) Bla, Bla, Bla; 8) E Luce Fu; 9) Mille Poesie (version 2); 10) Donna Plautilla.

Finally, an Eighties album from Banco that does not at all sound like the Eighties... hmm, I won­der if this could have anything to do with the fact that all of the recordings here allegedly date from the late 1960s / early 1970s? The decision to open the vaults and flood the fans with pre-proto-nostalgic demos, recorded way back when DiGiacomo was not even a member of the band yet, and most of the vocals were handled by the Nocenzi brothers themselves, came at a strange time — just two years earlier, Gianni had left the band for good in order to embark on a solo ca­reer, and what with ...E Via being the latest and «greatest» trace of their legacy, the band must have looked essentially finished for everybody still the least bit concerned.

So the fact that they turned to their almost archaeological past was quite telling: you do not usual­ly bother publishing your teenage scraps unless (a) you happen to be one of the greatest bands in the world, in which case your legions of fans will be happy to buy anything, or (b) you happen to be totally defunct, in which case your three or four remaining fans will be happy to buy anything. And Donna Plautilla offers few revelations — by default, it happens to be the best Banco album of the decade due to utter lack of competition, but in the overall scheme of things, it is primarily of interest for the historian.

The songs are surprisingly well recorded: these are not bare-bones demos, but full, professional stu­dio productions, background harmonies, multiple overdubs and all — strange enough, there seems to be no trace of this material ever having been officially released, even though I am pretty sure that some of these songs could have been turned into (at least) modest hits on the Italian mar­ket. Rather predictably, this is mainly «sunny» Italian art-pop, already with some baroque ten­dencies, but very much derivative of the typical Italian scene, particularly in the vocal depart­ment — and, speaking of vocals, Vittorio Nocenzi's singing is not all that bad: nowhere near as distinctive, sharp, or «soulful» as DiGiacomo's, but also less manneristic and overwrought. Fans of Francesco should probably stay away in the first place, but non-fans of Francesco who hold the opinion that his singing frequently distracts one, in an irritating manner, from the intricacies of the music, could actually find satisfaction — provided, that is, that the melodies were awesome in any way, and it looks like they are not.

If the songs are arranged in chronological order (I am not sure), then there is a clear «growth» ten­dency: the first song, ʽEd Io Cantoʼ, sounds like a typical late-Sixties pop «nugget», a hybrid of hip British psychedelic style with Italian dramatism that is neither too inventive nor too catchy, while the last one — the instrumental title track — already boasts the trademark Nocenzi organ / piano duo in full flight, engaging in a flashy jazzy duel reminiscent of contemporary Traffic (some of the glissandos and stuff sound inspired by ʽGladʼ off John Barleycorn). In between you have it all — hyper-driven, corny acoustic ballads (ʽCanticoʼ); distorted heavy piano boogie (ʽPiazza Dell'Oroʼ); even an early attempt at a «universalist» epic anthem (ʽE Luce Fuʼ).

In short, they were trying hard, but the short art-pop song format just does not yield good results for these guys — they never really hit their stride until they'd finally worked out the long multi-part instru­mental form. Essentially, it is just that some bands function best in «Procol Harum mode» while others have limited pop sensibility and tend to thrive in nineteen-minute long sym­phonic rock à la Yes environments. Thus, Donna Plautilla, while listenable overall and having its occasional moments, clearly shows that, as an «art-pop singles band», the early Banco had no chance whatsoever at being noticed in the crowd — there is nothing here except for general com­petence. If you want yourself some really solid «Mediterranean» art-pop from the era, equally influenced by Romance and British (as well as Greek) spirits, check out Aphrodite's Child instead — hooks galore, plenty of atmosphere, and surprising diversity out there that expose Donna Plau­tilla for the timid training camp that it really was.

Nevertheless, the album is unquestionably of great importance for those wishing to experience and assess the Banco curve from start to finish — after all, the marvels of ʽR.I.P.ʼ and ʽMetamor­phosiʼ did not come out of nowhere. And just because the brothers' playing technique is already well established, as well as for the sake of having, that way, secured at least one mildly worthy release in the 1980s (through cheating, but would we rather have another ...E Via? no way!), I am definitely not giving it a thumbs down.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Bee Gees: To Whom It May Concern


BEE GEES: TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN (1972)

1) Run To Me; 2) We Lost The Road; 3) Never Been Alone; 4) Paper Mache, Cabbages & Kings; 5) I Can Bring Love; 6) I Held A Party; 7) Please Don't Turn Out The Lights; 8) Sea Of Smiling Faces; 9) Bad Bad Dreams; 10) You Know It's For You; 11) Alive; 12) Road To Alaska; 13) Sweet Song Of Summer.

In an older review, I seem to have been a bit unfair to this record — probably because, next to the concentrated, concise, and conceptual grandeur of Trafalgar, this one seems to lack focus so much that its throwaways, unlike Trafalgar's, lack the chance to be «saved by the frame». In other words, where Trafalgar was «the bomb», To Whom It May Concern is «the shards», a chaotic collection where old outtakes, surprising new experiments, and intentionally commercial, sometimes «dumbed-down» productions are mixed together without a clear plan. Obviously, this generates a feeling of «faltering» and «insecurity» — even the album title seems to suggest some­thing like, «well, naturally, we don't insist that you listen to this, unless you are a Bee Gees vet fan or something...».

What must have happened was that the recording of Trafalgar, much like the recording of Odes­sa two years earlier, left the band out of breath, yet, instead of taking a recommended break, they decided to plough on quickly, while the new wave of popularity, caused by the success of ʽHow Can You Mend A Broken Heartʼ, was still high. Hence, three more singles in 1972 — all of them lush ballads for sure, although not a single one came close to replicating their biggest US success so far. Unfortunately, this time around these songs are just that — lush sentimental ballads with relatively simple, easily understandable content, not particularly distinguished through any ex­quisite «aristocratism» or baroque flavors. Where ʽHow Can You Mend A Broken Heartʼ not only works on its commercial own, but also easily fits into the general puzzle of Trafalgar, a song like ʽRun To Meʼ is simply ʽRun To Meʼ, no less, no more.

At least ʽBroken Heartʼ had an introspective component to it, a trivial philosophy that was non-tri­vially expressed through music — the lead-in number on this record is sheer candy for the cry­stally clear teen­age heart (and I do stress «teenage», given the line "now and then, you need some­one older" — considering that Barry was twenty-six at the time, it would be a stretch to ac­cuse him of grandfatherly instincts). At least it is well-written and beautifully sung candy — just a good song, whatever — but, as a greeting, it clearly states that a second Trafalgar is not to be expected: the boys are running up the Sentimental Hill again.

And yet it actually helps that the band has «lost the road» one more time — this suspended state of «where to now?» results in an unexpected return to diversity. In fact, one distinguishing feature of To Whom It May Concern is that it is all over the place, easily their most diverse record since 1st. See for yourself: in addition to sentimental tear-jerkers / heart-breakers (ʽRun To Meʼ, ʽI Can Bring Loveʼ) there is a philosophical Trafalgar outtake (ʽWe Lost The Roadʼ); a loud, glammy pub-rocker with screechy electric guitars and big fat basslines (ʽBad Bad Dreamsʼ); a blues boogie (ʽRoad To Alaskaʼ); some acoustic folk- and country-rock; a hilariously absurdist Brit-poppy «mini-musical» (ʽPaper Maché, Cabbages & Kingsʼ); and a moody psychedelic piece dominated by a moo-moo-mooing Moog melody (ʽSweet Song Of Summerʼ) that almost echoes the Gregorian somberness of ʽEvery Christian...ʼ.

Not all of these ideas may work, but the important thing is that they are all there — this makes the Bee Gees album the equivalent of the Stones' Goats Head Soup: nothing seriously new, not all of it ringing true, and no particular idea of where we are going to, but give it time to grow, and once you have had enough of all the acknowledged «classics», you may be in for a bunch of sur­prises. ʽPaper Machéʼ, in particular, had always struck me as a fairly «risqué» piece for a band that seemed to have left sheer silliness way, way behind them in the past, yet here they are did­dling away on banjoified mandolins, making parodic fun of their own «soulfulness» in the bridge section, and winding it up with a jolly good chant of "Jimmy had a bomb and the bomb went bang, Jimmy was everywhere". Australian childhood memories?

ʽWe Lost The Roadʼ and ʽSweet Song Of Summerʼ are the other two «lost gems» off the album — the former was indeed recorded for Trafalgar, but was excluded from the final abridged ver­sion, judged as one anthem too many; as one of those «where have all the good times gone» ser­mons that the Gibbs are always so good at, it is beyond reproach. As for ʽSweet Songʼ, it is actu­ally one of the most «disturbing» codas to a Bee Gees album ever — brewing up an atmosphere of ominousness and impending doom with its unhurried pace, torture chamber echoes, and Moog-from-hell passages, but you never really know what sort of impending doom that is. It just im­pends, that's all. For the record, Mike Vickers of Manfred Mann is credited for mann-ing (sorry) the synthesizers on that track — apparently, getting just the right sound for the song was a top priority for the brothers.

ʽBad Bad Dreamsʼ, the album's lonely and risky venture into hard-rock territory, is also surpri­singly decent — mainly due to Maurice's choice of a thick, brawny, but melodic tone for his bass, and to the brothers' new working partner Alan Kendall's aggressive style of lead guitar playing (Kendall actually jumped on board ship as early as Trafalgar, but flashy electric guitar was very much not a priority for Lord Horatio «Barry» Nelson and his crewmates). Of course, with the Bee Gees and hard rock, the question is always «will they or will they not embarrass themselves?» rather than «will they or will they not come up with a hard rock classic?», but a good hard rock number on any Bee Gees album, provided it's really credible, is always welcome — at least, for an important psychological reason.

The «sweeter» part of the deal, always aided by Shepherd's tasteful arrangements, still strives for seriousness occasionally — Barry's ʽAliveʼ, for instance, is genuinely grandiose, unlike the much schlockier ʽRun To Meʼ and ʽI Can Bring Loveʼ. Robin is best experienced here on ʽNever Been Aloneʼ and ʽSea Of Smiling Facesʼ, but neither is a big favourite of mine — I believe his vibrato really only works well along with a baroque flavor, whereas these here songs are more in stan­dard folk-pop («soft-rock») territory and end up on the cheesy side of life. Meanwhile, Maurice tries to go for a vibe somewhere in between James Taylor and very early Beatles circa ʽAsk Me Whyʼ on ʽYou Know It's For Youʼ, but the song is almost surprisingly primitive-sounding (of course, from some perspective or other, this could be interpreted as charm).

To Whom It May Concern marked several important «lasts» in the band's career — most im­portantly, it was their last album recorded at London's IBC Studios (from now on, most or all of the band's recordings would be done in America) and the last one with the participation of Bill Shepherd. Thus, if we are setting up demarcating lines, it still makes sense to place it in the same period with Trafalgar, despite suffering from a clear «post-masterpiece» syndrome. It does not as much initiate the band's decline as it simply resigns itself to sweeping around the corners — with mixed, yet occasionally fascinating results. No need to rush, but if you are interested in set­ting up a block post for the Bee Gees that would leave ʽNights On Broadwayʼ somewhere on the other side, make sure that To Whom It May Concern still stays on the right side. In the end, I reassess it as a thumbs up — conceptuality be damned if it helps bring back somberness and silliness at the same time.  

Check "To Whom It May Concern" (CD) on Amazon
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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Aretha Franklin: A Woman Falling Out Of Love


ARETHA FRANKLIN: A WOMAN FALLING OUT OF LOVE (2011)

1) How Long I've Been Waiting; 2) Sweet Sixteen; 3) This You Should Know; 4) U Can't See Me; 5) A Summer Place; 6) The Way We Were; 7) New Day; 8) Put It Back Together Again; 9) Faithful; 10) His Eyes Are On The Sparrow; 11) When 2 Become One; 12) My Country 'Tis Of Thee.

Almost ended up missing this one. Apparently, Aretha's first album of «original» material in eight years only got an exclusive release through Walmart — this should give us a few hints at the ave­rage audience of Aretha Franklin these days — and, although it did get some press coverage, this time around there was not even the faintest trace about any «comeback» hullabaloo. In fact, I do believe that Aretha's choice of hat for President Obama's inauguration made far more of a social wave than this album. Even if it does include her performance of ʽMy Countryʼ as a bonus gift for those who missed turning on the TV set on January 20, 2009, preferring a leisurely, relaxed stroll down the Walmart aisles two years later.

Not that the lack of interest was in any way unfair, since — mildly speaking — this is not a very good album. There are, in fact, only two merits to it. One, Aretha's voice got a little better: natu­rally, it is still an old lady's voice and will always remain that way, but either she does not try so hard to reach the highest notes or merely manages to cut down a bit on the breathiness — in any case, the age issue does not stay on my mind as constantly here as it does when listening to her Christmas records. Two, she is very much «acting her age» — there is no «music for the body» here whatsoever, just ballads, gospel tunes, and a few light-jazz / blues-de-luxe cuts for good measure: a fine decision, actually, since it relieves us of the impolite temptation to poke nasty fun at the lady. An icon is an icon, after all.

And yet, this time I am also quite sure that I would rather want to hear the lady go completely retro, pushing out a slew of inferior copies of past successes, than listen to this bland, thoroughly faceless collection of so-called «songs», all of them written and produced according to the legis­lation of «modern R&B» — which means sitting through oceans of synthesized wishy-washiness as Aretha weaves predictable tapestries of melismas over them. Of all these tunes (most of them contributed by outside corporate songwriters), only three stand out at once, and none of them for a particularly good reason:

— ʽSweet Sixteenʼ, announced as a tribute to B. B. King, is soaked in a strongly traditionalist sauce, and may be Aretha's most retro-sounding track she's done in years; however, the choice is fairly strange, since this is very much a male song in lyrics and spirit, and there are no attempts here to remedy the ridiculousness of the situation (although whoever is playing that guitar adds at least a few minutes of fresh musical breath to the overall turgid experience);

— ʽFaithfulʼ, a gospel duet with Karen Clark-Sheard, is a six-minute monster that becomes com­pletely unbearable as it reaches the two-minute mark; sheer aural torture for seasoned masochists by the four-minute mark; and a good cause for a «I-have-lived-through-this» medal if you survive all six. If this stuff is, in any way, typical for modern gospel, I will stick with my Mahalia Jack­son (or, actually, with my Amazing Grace, for that matter) until the end of time — instead of visions of angels, what I see is two unfortunate women forced to dance barefoot on a bed of red-hot rocks, and I am no sadist to enjoy that;

— ʽHis Eye Is On The Sparrowʼ is not Aretha at all: it is a promotional spot for her son Eddie, who has turned into an accomplished, professional, sincere gospel singer with a strong set of pipes, and he ain't afraid to use them, drawing out those notes as best he can to challenge Morten Harket. That said, I have no idea who could actually be interested in listening to him other than out of sheer curiosity — there is no subtlety in his delivery, just a mechanical pump-iron drive. Maybe he believes that the longer your notes are, the higher your chances of God hearing them. Provided God operates at the speed of sound, of course.

The rest is divided into one hi-tech lounge jazz number (ʽU Can't See Meʼ), one clap-your-hands light-mode R&B dance number (ʽNew Dayʼ, the closest the album comes to «body music», but still not quite), and ballads, ballads, ballads, all of them freely interchangeable within the confines of the waste basket. If you ask me, the album should have never hit even the counters of Walmart, let alone anybody's personal collection. If it makes Ms. Franklin happy, let it be — it is not easy to settle into hopeless retirement after half a century in the music business. In fact, let her release as many more of these as it takes to sweeten the latter part of her life. But what's up with the title? A Woman Falling Out Of Love with whom? Her family? Her fans? President Obama? The world at large? If anything, the title should have been Falling Out Of Fashion — as is also sug­gested by the awful hairstyle and cheeky red dress — and she should have known better: compe­ting with Beyonce and Rihanna is a hard time even for the former Queen of Soul, when you are pushing seventy. Even without intentionally trying to sound sexy and young. Nothing personal here, but an inevitable thumbs down.

Check "A Woman Falling Out Of Love" (CD) on Amazon

Monday, March 25, 2013

Bobby Bland: Touch Of The Blues


BOBBY BLAND: TOUCH OF THE BLUES (1967)

1) A Touch Of The Blues; 2) Set Me Free; 3) That Did It; 4) Road Of Broken Hearted Men; 5) Sweet Loving; 6) Driftin' Blues; 7) Sweet Lips Of Joy; 8) Sad Feeling; 9) Shoes; 10) One Horse Town.

Since there was no reason to change the formula of Soul Of The Man — unless Bobby wanted to go psychedelic or baroque-pop, which he most certainly did not — this is a rather faithful follow-up, without any noticeable innovations and, therefore, a little less exciting from a reviewer's point of view. Two of the songs are from «outside» sources — ʽThat Did Itʼ, a leisurely blues shuffle contributed by Dave Clark, and a cover of the old standard ʽDriftin' Bluesʼ; everything else is cre­dited to our old acquaintance «Deadric Malone», and whether or not Don Robey was using ano­nymous out­side contractors this time, the songs are not particularly interesting or memorable.

ʽShoesʼ is kind of a strange number, as it echoes ʽSunnyʼ in its vocal arrangements and no less than Procol Harum's ʽConquistadorʼ in one of its bass lines. However, it is clumsily written, and the brass and chimes overdubs produce a confused, chaotic feeling — almost as if some deadbeat took the near-perfect structure of ʽSunnyʼ, twisted it far enough to avoid a plagiarism suit, and ended up producing an only semi-functional entity. Not even Bobby can do a lot with it, because this sort of soul-pop approach is not in his style.

The real highlights, therefore, are probably the title track, a moody chunk of dark blues-soul where Bobby's pleading / growling, whooping female harmonies, and some tasteful jazzy guitar licks yield an excellent combination; ʽSad Feelingʼ, which builds up towards a frenzied James Brown-ian chorus through thick brass swagger and slow funky guitar; and ʽOne Horse Townʼ, which is essentially more of the same, but a little more upbeat.

Overall, repeated listenings are rewarding — in actuality, almost each track has some nifty lead guitar work, even if the guitar almost never gets the spotlight to itself, and in terms of production, the dialog between guitar and brass may really be enhanced here, compared to the standard of the previous year. Add to this the complete lack of sappy ballads (most of the sentimentality here is expressed in upbeat, danceable pop form, as on ʽSweet Lips Of Joyʼ), and it all makes for thirty more swell minutes of a Bobby "Blue" Bland experience that you will never ever forget... while it keeps playing in your player, that is. Thumbs up.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Broadcast: Work And Non Work


BROADCAST: WORK AND NON-WORK (1997)

1) Accidentals; 2) The Book Lovers; 3) Message From Home; 4) Phantom; 5) We've Got Time; 6) Living Room; 7) According To No Plan; 8) The World Backwards; 9) Lights Out.

Officially released as early as 1997, this could be qualified as Broadcast's first LP, although in re­a­lity it was just a collection of several singles that the band originally made for several small la­bels (Wurlitzer Jukebox and Duophonic). Warp Records, which became their home in 1997 and stayed that way to the very end, was kind enough to acquire the rights and flesh out a nine-song mini-LP that lasted them all the way to their proper debut, but, of course, it still tends to fall through the cracks a bit.

From a historical perspective, the songs show that the basic conception of the band was all ready and boiling as early as 1996, when ʽAccidentalsʼ, in all of its lo-fi roughness and still in some debt to trip-hoppiness, introduced them to the world. Trance-inducing psychedelic roundabouts, Keenan's melancholic-somnambulist lulling voice, echoes of The United States Of America, em­phasis on the «electronic barrel organ» vibe, everything is in place.

From a less history-, more context-oriented point of view, though, Work And Non Work (and we could as­sume that the fully fleshed out songs like ʽThe Book Loversʼ could constitute «work», while the more chaotic mood pieces like ʽAccording To No Planʼ — indeed — constitute the «non» part) adds little to one's experience if one is already familiar with The Noise Made By People. ʽThe Book Loversʼ is probably the best song on here (so impressive in its combination of the modern and the retro that it was even borrowed for the soundtrack to Austin Powers), but there is nothing about its emotional powers — that magical-mystery vibe with an ice touch — that they would not do just as well on ʽCome On Let's Goʼ or ʽLong Was The Yearʼ.

Still, the songs are all good; even if the band's penchant for waltz tempos may seem irritating at times, repeated listens bring out subtle individualities in the songs — with all their overdubs and tonal varieties, ʽMessage From Homeʼ, ʽLiving Roomʼ, and ʽThe World Backwardsʼ are at the same time the exact same song (rhythmically, coarse-grained emotionally) and three different ones (ʽMessageʼ is a slightly more personalized lament; ʽLiving Roomʼ is a «take-my-hand-I'll-take-you-through-the-looking-glass» kind of joy-buzzer; ʽThe World Backwardsʼ, closing the album, focuses on beautiful folksy vocalizing to give the song a one-with-the-world feeling).

All in all, this is probably not the best way to start with Broadcast — the lo-fi crackling on ʽAcci­dentalsʼ may be a bit of a turn-off, the vocal hooks are less prominent than on the best songs from Noise, the experimental atmospheric parts do not properly guarantee their atmosphere, and it's all over way too quickly, if you remember your Woody. But for the intermediate/advanced fan, this is definitely more essential than anything released under the name of «Broadcast» since Tender Buttons. So, one more thumbs up, following up on the rest.

Check "Work And Non Work" (CD) on Amazon

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Babes In Toyland: Minneapolism


BABES IN TOYLAND: MINNEAPOLISM (2001)

1) Bruise Violet; 2) Swamp Pussy; 3) Vomit Heart; 4) Oh Yeah!; 5) Handsome And Gretel; 6) Won't Tell; 7) Drivin'; 8) Ripe; 9) Dust Cake Boy; 10) Ariel; 11) Bluebell; 12) He's My Thing; 13) Middle Man; 14) Memory; 15) Spun; 16) Spit To See The Shine; 17) Sweet '69.

This is not one of the many archive live releases from the vaults of the Toyland, but actually a contemporary memento of the Babes' last ever public appearance, after a few years of disin­tegrating, reconfiguring, patching up, and breaking down again, the Babes finally played their last show, with Bjelland, Barbero, and new bass player Jessie Farmer (who had actually replaced Maureen Herman in 1997). Details are obscure: reprinted sources claim that the show took place on November 21, 2001, yet at the same time the release date for the album is usually given as May 2001, so either we have some time travel involved here or some anonymous son of a bitch is falsifying history. Not that this particular history is of any tremendous importance, but accuracy is important even when dealing with a band as chaotic as the Babes.

Anyway, even though Minneapolism is primarily a historical document, it could have plenty of potential to become a great live record and, come to think of it, a much better farewell than the stupefied Nemesisters. Alas, nobody happened to care about sound quality — the whole thing honestly sounds like an audience-quality bootleg, albeit recorded from the first row, so all the drun­ken guffawing and hullabalooing mainly come through during the breaks between songs. Audiophiles will put this down ten seconds into the album and never pick it up again; lo-fi enthu­siasts and Kat Bjelland suitors are the only ones likely enough to want to keep it.

Too bad, because the show was really good. The new bass girl handles all of Michelle Leon's and Maureen Herman's tough parts fairly well, and Bjelland, despite occasional faltering and not al­ways being able to sustain the heat, still has enough spirit to whip herself up into the usual frenzy (something that you do not always expect out of «last concerts»). She seems a little out of breath on ʽHandsome And Gretelʼ (even letting the audience sing a couple of the "handsooooome!"s in­stead of herself), and misses a few of the «scream-shots» on ʽDust Cake Boyʼ — but apparently, there had always been slips like these whenever the Babes performed live, so there is no need to tie the occasional mistakes in with disillusionment, tiredness, or lack of enthusiasm.

The setlist, on the other hand, is near-perfect — all the classic numbers are here, with a nice fat selection from Spanking Machine, all the big «hits» from Fontanelle, and a slightly higher than necessary, but not fatal selection from Nemesisters (the weirdest inclusion is ʽDrivin'ʼ, on which Barbero is forced to chant her mantra of "where were you, I thought that I knew" for three mi­nutes without any echo or reverb on her voice — not a pleasant experience, particularly to hear her get so totally out of breath towards the end). Main focus is on kicking ass — the «moody» numbers are reduced to a minimum and act as occasional breathers (ʽWon't Tellʼ, ʽMiddle Manʼ), helping Bjelland to regain some stamina for the next monster rocker. Altogether, I think the audi­ences got what they wanted — if only somebody had bothered setting up a proper recording con­sole, us future listeners could get what we want, too, but no dice.

Consequently, do not hunt for this without extra necessity; ʽFontanelletteʼ on Painkillers is a sharper illustration of the girls' club power, although, of course, it is exclusively limited to pro­mo­ting Fontanelle, and The Peel Sessions have far better sound quality, although they are not genuinely «live» (not before a genuinely vibrant club audience, that is) and are also represented by a somewhat questionable setlist. Which, in the end, leaves us still wishing and hoping for that one perfect Babes In Toyland live experience where it would all come together — the clarity of the mix, the enthusiasm, the song quality — and it looks like that particular wish just ain't coming true, unless the ladies give it one more try one of these days.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Bad Brains: The Youth Are Getting Restless


BAD BRAINS: THE YOUTH ARE GETTING RESTLESS (1990)

1) I; 2) Rock For Light; 3) Right Brigade; 4) House Of Suffering; 5) Day Tripper / She's A Rainbow; 6) Coptic Times; 7) Sacred Love; 8) Re-Ignition; 9) Let Me Help; 10) The Youth Are Getting Restless; 11) Banned In D.C.; 12) Sailin' On; 13) Fearless Vam­pire Killer; 14) At The Movies; 15) Revolution (dub); 16) Pay To Cum; 17) Big Takeover.

A good setlist can work wonders. This is not brand new stuff — the recordings were taken from the same support tour for I Against I that gave us the Live album (recorded just a wee bit earlier), so it could formally qualify for «archival» status, except in this case, it worked more like a stop­gap while the band was busy sorting it out with H.R. — eventually replacing him with Chuck Mosley from Faith No More. Hilariously, the «stopgap» turned out to be far better than the origi­nal official live album, though...

...for an obvious reason — the setlist here is more intentionally targeted at the band's punk legacy than the metal one. Only three out of seventeen songs are from I Against I. The rest generally stem from their two first and best studio albums, which means speed, excitement, and, overall, a better application of their crunch than the slow, lumbering, and generally wasted metal riffage on that album. Furthermore, the recording quality at that particular show at the Paradiso Theater in Amsterdam was well on the level, and so was the inspiration.

Obscurities include the title track — a reggae number that did not make it on any studio album and is well worth knowing, mainly because of its clever integration of a smooth funky bassline into the general reggae structure, so that you never really know what it is you are listening to; and the unexpected synthesis of Beatles and Stones — a reggaeified medley sewn together from bits of ʽDay Tripperʼ and ʽShe's A Rainbowʼ, with additional lyrics from H.R. By all accounts, this is a novelty number, but the very fact of making a reggae medley of a Beatles and a Stones song counts as a novelty number that may just as well turn out to be unforgettable — even if, ultimate­ly, you just find it a stupid idea.

And overall, since we do have fabulous live versions of ʽRock For Lightʼ and ʽBanned In D.C.ʼ this time around, The Youth Are Getting Restless, with its high production quality and energy levels, may be a pretty damn good introduction to the band. What else is there to say? Absolutely nothing, so a fast, but firm thumbs up to it and let us move along.

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Thursday, March 21, 2013

Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso: ...E Via


BANCO DEL MUTUO SOCCORSO: ...E VIA (1985)

1) Notte Kamikaze; 2) Ice Love; 3) Black Out; 4) (When We) Touched Our Eyes; 5) To The Fire; 6) Mexico City; 7) Lies In Your Eyes; 8) Baby Jane.

With your permission, I will keep this one brief. For some reason, the «moody» twist of the self-titled Banco did not appear satisfactory — and just two years later, the band fell back on its «silly Italo-pop» schtick, except, this time, with an appropriately (for 1985) larger emphasis on big stu­pid electronic drums and «sci-fi» synthesizers. Results are predictable: a record that is just as dumb as Buone Notizie, but goes even harsher on the ears.

Summarizing: a total of 4 cretinous (yes, I need to drag out my thesaurus for this) «hot» electro-pop dance numbers — I can just imagine the Nocenzi brothers, with naked torsos, getting it on with those sexy portable synths!; one deeply bathetic power ballad that might as well have been written by Diane Warren; and three calmer, adult-contemporary numbers, the last one of them with a faint, distant echo of the band's fusion legacy (but at this point, that echo is pretty much undistinguishable from the domain of soft jazz muzak).

Additionally, most of the songs are delivered in English — never a forte of DiGiacomo's, and at this point, who really cares? I seriously doubt they managed to sell a single copy of this crap out­side the borders, where everybody had their own national crap at the time. (Not to mention that a single look at DiGiacomo's facial expression on that billboard would shoo away even the buz­zards). Somebody must have gone completely wild in the marketing department — or maybe singing in English over ear-splitting electronic drum backgrounds was all the rage in Italy circa 1985, which I doubt.

As is often the case on such of the lyrics, a few of the choruses are «formalistically» catchy, but usually in the form of «idiot catchiness» — if the Italian line about dancing with the protagonist all night long from ʽNotte Kamikazeʼ gets stuck in your head for a couple hours, nothing good will come out of it anyway. Nobody except for the most corrosively perverted Eighties' buffs need ever bother about locating this record — E Via, indeed. And yes, that's the wrong way you are pointing out there, signor DiGiacomo — thumbs down, all the way, never up or even side­ways.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Bee Gees: Trafalgar


BEE GEES: TRAFALGAR (1971)

1) How Can You Mend A Broken Heart; 2) Israel; 3) The Greatest Man In The World; 4) It's Just The Way; 5) Re­membering; 6) Somebody Stop The Music; 7) Trafalgar; 8) Don't Wanna Live Inside Myself; 9) When Do I; 10) Dearest; 11) Lion In Winter; 12) Walking Back To Waterloo.

Early info on Trafalgar was that it was planned as a double LP with twenty songs, thus matching, if not exceeding, the monumentality of Odessa. Those plans were eventually scrapped, although enough material was recorded indeed to spill over onto the next album (ʽWe Lost The Roadʼ, in particular, was recorded during the Trafalgar sessions and would have fit on quite well), and, at 47 minutes, the final LP is still one of the longest Bee Gees offerings. It is also the absolutely last one of the «timelessly great» Bee Gees records — having gotten it out of their systems, they were creatively devastated and «lost the road» indeed: their own private Quadrophenia, if you wish, with all the necessary corrections for scope and style.

Of all the Bee Gees albums, this one is their most genuinely conceptual. If Trafalgar weren't its name, then Another Year, Another Time — extracted from ʽWalking Back To Waterlooʼ — might be the obvious choice. On all of their records, one way or another, these guys tended to look with fondness at the aristocratic past, and now they have devoted an entire album that re­volves around that topic — not always lyrically, sometimes simply in spirit. Yes, Trafalgar is slow, sentimental, drowned in orchestration and pathos, but it has itself some real class, and it seems as if with each passing year it only ends up aging better and better.

Curiously enough, it was not intended or pre-planned that way: the brothers simply fell upon a lucky star configuration. Maurice wrote the title track and the three of them wrote ʽWalking Back To Waterlooʼ — these bookmarks, together with the album sleeve (and Barry plays quite a dash­ing Lord Nel­son on the back cover, but where's the eye patch?), give the record its «Napoleonic» sheen, but its real theme, of course, is not a particular period in history, but merely a sort of I-just-wasn't-made-for-these-times longing — this is some rampant, raging escapism here, only dif­ferent from the Kinks in that Ray Davies liked to picture himself more like an innocent commo­ner, «sitting by the riverside» and all, whereas Barry Gibb sets his sights much higher — he is only willing to go back into the past in the guise of an exquisite, ceremonious Lord of the Manor. (I wish I could say «in the guise of a Byron or a Shelley», but in order to achieve that honor, at least one of the Gibbs would have to be lyrically competent).

Anyway, ʽHow Can You Mend A Broken Heartʼ broke them big in the US for the entirely wrong reason — the silly Americans took the song the same way they were taking James Taylor and the Carpenters, that is, as a simple, sissy, sentimental ballad. Consequently, when the band followed it up with the longer, denser, deeper ʽDon't Wanna Live Inside Myselfʼ, they were surprised that it did not even make the Top 50, even though, by all means, this is a much better song. Not just «better», actually — it is an absolute classic. That moment when Barry starts repeating the title against his brothers' gospel harmonies and Shepherd's monumental strings might just be the most breathtaking single moment in Bee Gees history — for me, it opens the door to some near-mysti­cal epiphany... occasionally. On worse days, it is simply one of the most successful impersona­tions of the «epic romantic loner» stereotype in pop music history.

Every single track on here overflows with pathos — but most of the time, it works, courtesy of Bill Shepherd's orchestral wizardry. And it is Barry's show all the way, I am afraid: like a grown-up, intelligently tasteful version of Cucumber Castle, past the stage of sappy folk-pop balladry and scaling the walls of «art-pop» now. Robin's minstrel leads here sometimes border on parodic: ʽDearestʼ, a lament to a departed love interest, is overacted so blatantly that one can't help but imagine the village's cheesy rustic foreman laying a rose bouquet on his wife's grave, while the Lord of the Manor is busy melancholizing somewhere high above in the castle tower. I used to hate the song — now I am more interested in taking it in its rightful context. However, it does not abolish the fact that Robin sometimes feels out of place on Trafalgar.

The foreman and the Lord do come together in a ferocious duet on ʽLion In Winterʼ (another song named after a movie on British history, certainly not a coincidence), the one place in the Bee Gees catalog where you get to hear Robin bleat and roar at the same time: once the initial aural shock is gone, it remains a memorable, inspired performance on the same old topics — loneliness, abandon, betrayal, etc. — delivered in a unique manner. (It is debatable whether the first thirty seconds of martial percussion should be part of it, though).

Funny as it is, I have never seen the Bee Gees accused of Zionism for ʽIsraelʼ, even if, formally, the song is one of the most passionate anthems to the Holy Land ever created in the Western world. But «formally» is the word — since the whole album is a fantasy, the ʽIsraelʼ in question here is just as far removed from reality as its Waterloo and Trafalgar, and what matters is not the word but the way Barry and Bill lay on those mighty crescendos, making for a wonderful gospel-soul experience. If it does worry your conscience for some reason, just replace ʽIsraelʼ with ʽShangri-Laʼ or something — it'd work that way, too.

Only a few of the songs are nominally «cathartic» — maybe three or four on the whole — but I do not mind in the least that some are less addictive and attractive than others, being too busy to dig this «early 19th century vibe». By the time we are ʽWalking Back To Waterlooʼ, the mood has been set, sharpened, and fine-tuned, and from the first notes of the "where do I begin?" cho­rus, you get teleported — not to any real «Waterloo», of course, just somewhere back in time where the grass, beyond any reasonable doubt, was so much greener and... well, unfortunately, I cannot quote any of these lyrics because they are not good ("I wish there was another time when people sang and poems rhymed" — don't tell me this is a subtle attack on atonal music and free verse, because it most probably isn't), but the words really do not matter one single bit. The voices, strings, and pianos do.

It is the last time ever that the Bee Gees would be working this magic, so please pardon them for the occasional oversinging, overstringing, and over-presumptuous self-aggrandizing. There is no attempt here to cover as much ground as possible, like there was on their Sixties' records — this might, in fact, be the only album in their career where they could have claimed to «find themsel­ves», once and for all. With this mission fulfilled, they could just as well «walk back to Waterloo again» and lose themselves one more time. Thumbs up, your Lordships — may you rest in peace and all. Thank God you have done your duty.  
  
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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Billy Preston: You And I


BILLY PRESTON: YOU AND I (1997)

1) Hold Me; 2) Right Now; 3) Lonely No More; 4) Supernatural Thang; 5) You And I; 6) I'm In Love With You; 7) Getting It On; 8) Dream Lover; 9) Sweet Senseous Sensations; 10) You Are So Beautiful.

On The Air effectively cancelled Billy Preston's solo artistic career, and none too soon: another couple of records of comparable quality with even a bare minimum of promotion, and his good guy reputation would be squandered without hope. Actually, he did record more, and there is such a thing as a «1986 Billy Preston album»: the rather threateningly titled You Can't Keep A Good Man Down, released by D&K Records only in the Netherlands and in Spain and utterly unavailable since then — unless you are an Ebay hunter and God loves you so much that you want to spend seventy bucks on a 1986 Billy Preston album.

The remaining two decades of Billy's life were mostly spent on cleaning up, session work, and on­ly very occasional venturing into solo recording — for the most part, he kept to himself in a private manner, with his arguably biggest «public flash» being on the memorial Concert For George four years prior to his own death (ironically, his last glimpse of major fame ended up just as tight­ly connected to the Beatles as his first ones). His discography also becomes confused at this point, with various sources yielding controversial information. He did most certainly attempt a «comeback» in 1995, releasing Billy's Back on NuGroove records: since this already happened in the CD age, the record should be easier to locate, but I have not been able to, and the fact that it opens with a remake of ʽNothin' From Nothin'ʼ does not exactly thrill me into active searching.

He may also have recorded one or more gospel albums, but the only secular project of his that is relatively easily available is You And I, recorded in 1997 under odd conditions — in Italy, wor­king together with brothers Lino and Pino Nicolosi of the Italo disco / synth-pop / soft-rock band Novecento. The union sounds kinda scary, but also curious on paper — in theory, this could be something as utterly awful as On The Air and more, but could just as well present some curious surprises. Besides, if it really is the last complete (secular) LP that Billy ever released, it would make at least some reverential sense to get hold of it. So what is it?

Well, apparently, there is nothing particularly Italian about it, and, likewise, there is nothing parti­cularly awful or astounding about it. It is just a perfectly middle-of-the-road, not-too-irritating, smoothly even collection of R&B and ballads, ideologically very much belonging in the 1970s but production-wise, an unmistakable product of the 1990s. Which is good, actually — it means clear and sharp production for music recorded by a real band rather than a bunch of samplers. But it also means adding an adult contemporary edge, and it is a little sad to watch the «kiddie spirit» of Billy dissolving away in pools of «heavenly synthesizers». At their best, Billy's grooves were lightweight, upbeat, and giddy; these ones sound deadly serious and «mature», which may theo­retically be alright for a 50-year old, but really, some people need to stay forever young because there is simply no sense at all in their growing old. (And, for that matter, has Billy produced even one thing worthy of long-term memory storage after he turned 30?).

Some of the R&B grooves are decent enough to make for acceptable background listening: ʽHold Meʼ, ʽRight Nowʽ, ʽLonely No Moreʼ, and ʽGetting It Onʼ are impeccable from a technical point of view — strong, well-oiled rhythm section with adequately jumpy bass, tasteful jazzy guitar licks, synthesizers creating a moody background but not getting too much in the way, catchy re­petitive choruses, even an occasional attempt or two at entrancing (such as the acappella break in ʽGetting It Onʼ). ʽSupernatural Thangʼ adds a mariachi band vibe for a little extra diversity, and ʽI'm In Love With Youʼ heads towards neo-disco territory. It's all competent, but I am a bit puz­zled about why it was necessary to engage an Italian band (unless, of course, no one else was wil­ling to play with an old washed-up has-been, which might just be the reason) — worse, I am a bit puzzled about why it was necessary to engage Billy Preston, because neither his keyboard playing nor his rather non-descript singing are really at the center of this music.

The ballads (title track, a duet with Dora Nicolosi, brother Lino's wife; and the last three tracks that include a remake of ʽYou Are So Beautifulʼ, also as a duet with the same lady singer) fall into the category of «totally generic», although the lady does have a nice tone and all (and a re­markably good English pronunciation, with almost no traces of Italian accent, a relative rarity in the Mediterranean world) — rendering the last twelve minutes of the album pointless from just about any potential point of view. But yes, what's a Billy Preston record without a few heart­breakers? It's good enough they left the Lord out of it this time.

Moody, unnecessarily serious, redundant, ultimately dull — all of this could qualify for a cruel «thumbs down», but if taken in the general context of Billy's ups and downs, You And I is still a creative rebound, and it does seem as if he had a bit of fun making it: nothing left to prove, not the slightest chance of commercial success — just a relaxing session with some trendy European friends, themselves probably head-over-heels about working with a «living legend». As a final memento from the man that helped bring us ʽGet Backʼ, ʽDon't Let Me Downʼ, and ʽLet It Beʼ, it is at least an acceptable choice, even if I feel he could have done much better even at that point.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Bobby Bland: The Soul Of The Man


BOBBY BLAND: THE SOUL OF THE MAN (1966)

1) I Can't Stop; 2) Back In The Same Old Bag; 3) Deep In My Soul; 4) Reach Right Out; 5) Ain't Nobody's Business; 6) Fever; 7) Too Late For Tears; 8) Let's Get Together; 9) Soul Stretch; 10) Dear Bobby; 11) Playgirl.

We are now launching into the third double CD of Bobby's Duke recordings — That Did It!, co­vering the man's career from 1966 to 1972, and including, among other things, the near-complete Soul Of The Man LP from 1966 (every song except for ʽSoul Stretchʼ, a Stax-ish instrumental with some nicely wailing electric guitar licks, but instrumentals on a Bobby Bland album? That's like heavy metal on a Beach Boys album!).

And looks like it has been well worth the wait. Now that American pop music, black and white alike, had scraped off some of the excessive sentimentality and «comfort» of the early 1960s, it was high time to get back to business — with Atlantic, Motown, King, and other labels flashing hot new R&B sounds, now influenced «in reverse» by the rock'n'roll scene, even Bobby Bland could be expected to deliver something grittier than his last two records, and he did.

ʽI Can't Stopʼ starts us off somewhat deceptively, as one of those typical I-vi-IV-V numbers all of us have heard one hundred too many of, but eventually, with an abrupt key change, we have a transformation from sen­timental ballad to ecstatic gospel for the bridge — somewhat reminiscent of the move from verse to chorus in Clapton's ʽPresence Of The Lordʼ three years later, and may­be not totally coincidental, either.

However, that is nothing compared with ʽBack In The Same Old Bagʼ, which opens directly with a «biting» rhythm guitar pattern and has Bobby roaring and bawling over a wall of serious-min­ded guitar and brass parts — the word ʽBagʼ in the title may hint at a tad of jealousy towards the recent hero of ʽBrand New Bagʼ, but the song actually invades the territory of Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding rather than the Godfather of Soul, and does it with lots of verve, although I sure wish those guitar licks eventually came together in some memorable riff.

From then on, the ballads are kept to the level of «bare necessities» — and mostly take on the form of deep soul (ʽDeep In My Soulʼ — DUH!) or, for once, a passionate soul dialog between Bobby and Vi Campbell. Everything else is rigidly, or, rather, non-rigidly groovy, with the ex­cep­tion of a blues-de-luxe take on ʽAin't Nobody's Businessʼ (a good one, but the song has been covered by way too many people for me to value any of those versions much over Bessie Smith's original) — even ʽFeverʼ is set to a full-band arrangement, with the guitar guy trying to remem­ber how to play ʽSmokestack Lightningʼ, for some reason. Other than the first two notes, he fails, but it still makes the arrangement fun.

Of all the originals, ʽLet's Get Togetherʼ is probably the best, a breezy sunny ditty with seductive girl harmonies — almost like a blueprint for all of Al Green's early career before he learned to make his own, one and only use of his one and only voice. Or it may be the Ray Charles-reminis­cent ʽToo Late For Tearsʼ. Or it may be anything else — no, these are not «great», unforgettable songs, they all follow a particular formula, but it is good to see it tested on Bobby with all the right, tasteful, state-of-the-art ingredients of classic mid-Sixties soul. Thumbs up.

PS. One of the more interesting non-LP songs from the period, worth looking for, is ʽGood Time Charlie, Pt. 1ʼ (never heard ʽPt. 2ʼ, but it might be an instrumental coda) — this is Bobby's straight answer to ʽPapa's Got A Brand New Bagʼ and ʽI Feel Goodʼ at the same time, and even if it is (naturally) nowhere near as innovative in the musical department, at least Bobby got Mr. Brown sorely beat in the vocal department.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Broadcast: Berberian Sound Studio OST


BROADCAST: BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO OST (2013)

1) A Breeze Through The Burford Spur; 2) The Equestrian Vortex; 3) Beautiful Hair; 4) Malleus Maleficarum; 5) Mark Of The Devil; 6) Confession Modulation; 7) Monica’s Fall; 8) Teresa’s Song (Sorrow); 9) The North Downs Dimension; 10) Collatina Is Coming; 11) Such Tender Things; 12) Teresa, Lark Of Ascension; 13) Monica’s Burial (Under The Junipers); 14) Found Scalded, Found Drowned; 15) Monica (Her Parents Have Been Informed); 16) The Fifth Claw; 17) Saducismus Triumphatus; 18) The Gallops; 19) They’re Here, They’re Under Us; 20) Collatina, Mark Of Damnation; 21) Treatise; 22) A Goblin; 23) The Equestrian Library; 24) The Serpent’s Semen; 25)Burnt At The Stake; 26) All Chiffchaffs; 27) The Curfew After The Massacre; 28) Poultry In Mind; 29) The Sacred Marriage; 30) Valeria’s Burial (Under The Fort); 31) Edda’s Burial (Under The Clumps); 32) The Game’s Up; 33) It Must’ve Been The Magpies; 34) The Dormitory Window; 35) Anima Di Cristo; 36) His World Is My Shed; 37) Collatina’s Folly; 38) Here Comes The Sabbath, There Goes The Cross; 39) Our Darkest Sabbath.

Trish Keenan's death from pneumonia at the odd age of 42 (way too late to join the «27 Club» — not that there would be any reason in the first place — way too early from every other possible point of view) would seem like a sufficient reason for James Cargill, as the sole remaining mem­ber, to retire the Broadcast brand. However, he is not in a visible hurry to do that: like the remai­ning Doors members after Morrison's passing, his chances at future notoriety without a charisma­tic frontperson are rather feeble.

Besides, the old vaults have not been completely emptied yet. First and foremost comes this soundtrack, on which the Broadcast duo had already begun working prior to Keenan's sickness and death — although Trish's vocals are only present on one of the tracks (ʽTeresa, Lark Of As­censionʼ), floating somewhere out there in the aether without actual words. The soundtrack is for some obscure, and generally poorly rated, arthouse movie by British director Peter Strickland, and has the odd distinction — odd even for a soundtrack — of containing more separate tracks than the actual time of its duration (39 tracks in 37.5 minutes, almost a personal record in my col­lection unless we're talking Napalm Death or something). And by «odd», I don't exactly mean «beneficial» — the overall effect is irritating rather than stunning.

Normally, Broadcast with their moody, repetitive organ-grinder panoramas would be an ideal band for some particular types of soundtracks — for movies like Scorsese's Hugo, for instance (if anything, they'd definitely beat Howard Shore). However, Berberian Sound Studio is simply not that kind of movie: it is a meta-film focused on the psychological problems of a foley artist en­gaged in creating sound effects for an Italian horror movie, or something like that — simply not the kind of topic that would be particularly suitable for a Broadcast score, so I'm fairly sure they just did it for the money (or maybe for food, since it is hard to imagine any significant revenue from this sort of movie).

Furthermore, although I have not seen the movie, nor do I plan to, it actually seems that the sound­track gives a highly distorted perspective of it. Mixed in with the many melodic and ambi­ent fragments are snippets of dialog that mostly stem from the «movie within the movie» — some generic Omen-style Satanist crap consisting of horrified whispers, shit-scared prayers, possessed babbling, hysterical screaming, the works — and the idea you get is that Broadcast, for no good reason whatsoever, simply produced a score for some trashy C-level movie, when, if I get this right, within the actual movie the «trashy C-level movie» only serves as a background setting for the real «drama», none of which translates understandably well onto the soundtrack.

Which brings me to the obvious constatation: it would have been much better if all the silly Ita­lian dialog ("Malleus maleficarum! what is it?", etc.) were scrapped, and the remaining voids were filled in by longer, fuller, more satisfying versions of the instrumental tracks — most of which barely exceed one minute in length, fleeing the listener's attention as if too modest to sur­mise that any of them really deserved it. Well, personally, I can't even tell. ʽLark Of Ascensionʼ is a pretty enough piece of «psychedelic church music» (think Catholic mass run through several successive waves of reverb), and ʽOur Darkest Sabbathʼ, closing the album, is a curious mix of the religious and the pastoral, what with the «church organ» and the «woodwind» themes inter­laced with each other so tightly. Both of these run over three minutes, which allows the dedica­tion of at least one phrase to each.

Everything else is in the same vein — medieval organ patterns and somber recorders / flutes domi­nate the scene in nine cases out of ten, which is not really what «genuine Broadcast» is all about, but is still done well enough to matter if any of these themes were given a chance to unfurl. As it is, you are basically looking at a large series of barely begun sketches, interrupted, every now and then, with stuff that did not need to be there (worst of the lot is ʽA Goblinʼ, which sounds more like a lame parody on a goblin than an actual goblin — of course, that is the way it was intended to be in the movie, but how are we to guess?).

If you adjust your antennae long enough, there is always a chance of transforming these 37 mi­nutes into a personalized trip, under the pretext of «Broadcast and Satanism — a once-in-a-life­time combo!». But as far as I'm concerned, some potential combos are best left alone, and this one, at least the way it has been molded into an album release, is a pointless oddity, particularly disappointing in its adding nothing to Keenan's legacy. Thumbs down.

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