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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Blues Incorporated: Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated


BLUES INCORPORATED: ALEXIS KORNER'S BLUES INCORPORATED (1965)

1) Blue Mink; 2) Rainy Tuesday; 3) Yogi; 4) Sappho; 5) Navy Blue; 6) Royal Dooji; 7) Preachin' The Blues; 8) The Captain's Tiger; 9) A Little Bit Groovy; 10) Anything For Now; 11) Chris Trundle's Habit; 12) Trundlin'.

Introducing a new angle here — for the first time ever, Blues Incorporated operate on a comple­tely instrumental basis, with Herbie Goins quitting in order to front a new hot Mod band, The Nightimers. Not only that, but the focus is very clearly shifted in favor of a jazz approach: around a third of the numbers are completely in the jazz idiom, and the rest at least tend to stray away from the 12-bar blues form, in favor of jumpier time signatures and extra sax work.

Naturally, with so much «authentic» jazz work to digest and assimilate, it is futile to expect that people nowadays would have any incentive to dig Alexis' noble attempt to lead British R&B in a different direction. Compared to jazz stuff that was en vogue or, more politely, «on the cutting edge» in 1965, this bunch of tunes is more or less on a «Mother Goose level» — Korner is taking more cues from Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman than Miles Davis or Coltrane. This is un­derstandable, since he had no lofty goal of progressing from «intelligent entertainer» to «intellec­tual innovator». But this sort of music entertained relatively few people in 1965 — not to mention today — and its traces dissipated just as quickly as those of any other given B.I. album.

Which may be just a tad unfair, because Alexis and the band (Heckstall-Smith still manning the sax, along with Phil Seamen on drums, Mike Scott on string bass, and Johnny Parker on piano) are trying to achieve something. At least the opening number, ʽBlue Minkʼ, is unusual in its com­bination of a Chicago blues guitar style on Alexis' part with two fussy, dissonant sax parts blown in the background, kind of a Muddy-meets-Dolphy type of thing. Does it make sense? Is it inspi­rational? Mind-opening? Who knows? All I can say is — at least they make a creative effort, even if the resulting synthesis is not pleasing for either straightforward blues or jazz lovers.

The arrangement of Robert Johnson's ʽPreaching The Bluesʼ is likewise non-trivial, with a slight­ly discordant sax and tribal congas accompanying Korner's slide playing (which remains relative­ly faithful to Johnson's parts). The dissonance takes some time to get used to, but one could say that it only strengthens the hellish atmosphere of the track (remember, ʽUp Jumped The Devilʼ was the original subtitle). Again, an interesting, if not flabbergastingly exciting, take on an old classic, quite novel for its time.

The remaining tracks feature steadier tempos and less fussy arrangements, and also occasionally lapse into rewriting (ʽRoyal Doojiʼ is basically just ʽHerbie's Tuneʼ under a different name), but ʽSapphoʼ and ʽTrundlin'ʼ have charming dance potential, and Parker's ʽA Little Bit Groovyʼ fea­tures impressively dexterous piano playing for an allegedly «B-level» record. In brief, everything is totally listenable and undeniably professional, and if there are only one or two attempts at ex­panding existing boundaries, well... frankly speaking, quite a few highly applauded jazz albums do not really feature any such attempts, so let us not frown at poor Alexis Korner just because he dared to encroach upon such an alien turf. In a way, for some people, this might be the least predictable and most promi­sing record in his entire career.

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Monday, April 29, 2013

Bobby Bland: Get On Down With Bobby Bland


GET ON DOWN WITH BOBBY BLAND (1975)

1) I Take It On Home; 2) Today I Started Loving You Again; 3) You've Always Got The Blues; 4) I Hate You; 5) You've Never Been This Far Before; 6) If Fingerprints Showed Up On Skin; 7) Someone To Give My Love To; 8) Too Far Gone; 9) You're Gonna Love Yourself (In The Morning).

More like «Let It Down With Bobby Bland», actually. After the success of the California Al­bum / Dreamer formula, yet another modest reinvention could not hurt, and heading in a coun­try­-blues direction was not necessarily a bad thing... well, come to think of it, in 1975 it probably was — the next bad thing to going disco. Nashville people come into the picture and while they do not exactly steal it from our hero, they sort of tug the rug from under his feet.

The only excuse for «sterilizing» production values and opting for a smoother, slicker sound in the post-Duke era was that the resulting smoke, darkness, and desperation were an excellent com­pensation. Now, however, sterile production values remain, but the depth is gone — Bobby is covering newer and older country classics that were never written with himself in mind, and, for the most part, are so melodically faceless that only a strong — and appropriately selected — per­sonality could make them work. Bobby's personality is a strong one, by all means, but whether it has really been appropriately selected for these songs is questionable.

Technically, it all works if you have sufficient respect for Merle Haggard, Freddie Hart, Charlie Rich, and Kris Kristofferson: the arrangements are deep and lush, the backing vocals sensual and sexy, and Bobby gets into the whole thing like a pro, whether or not it was his own idea. But emo­tionally, the whole thing wallows in syrup rather than anything else — so much so that even a song called ʽI Hate Youʼ really spells ʽI Love Youʼ (and is about as musically intriguing or spi­ritually involving as either of these titles).

And most importantly, there is simply no room for Bobby to show off what he's got: these songs do not imply build-ups, contrasts, growls, snorts, hysterics, or gospel undertones. They may work — occasionally — when sung by lazy, offensive, unshaved, whiskey-soaked white guys, but not when sung by a hard-working, amicable, clean-cut, and (presumably) sober Bobby «Blue» Bland. At least when Ray Charles did this kind of thing more than a decade earlier, it was novel and benefitted from the overall freshness of approach, the overall healthier climate of 1960s pop, and the overall genius of Ray; this piece, however, uncomfortably reminds of the subtly evil sides of that legacy. Thumbs down.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Broken Social Scene: Broken Social Scene


BROKEN SOCIAL SCENE: BROKEN SOCIAL SCENE (2005)

1) Our Faces Split The Coast In Half; 2) Ibi Dreams Of Pavement (A Better Day); 3) 7/4 (Shoreline); 4) Finish Your Collapse And Stay For Breakfast; 5) Major Label Debut; 6) Fire Eye'd Boy; 7) Windsurfing Nation; 8) Swimmers; 9) Hotel; 10) Handjobs For The Holidays; 11) Superconnected; 12) Bandwitch; 13) Tremoloa Debut; 14) It's All Gonna Break.

Thousands of minor differences from You Forgot It In People, but hardly a single major one. Apparently, just because the band comprises so many people now, all of them capable of some­how playing off each other, Drew and Canning seem to think that these songs are gonna write themselves. Which sometimes happens if your band comprises genuine geniuses — but in the case of Broken Social Scene, it just comprises a bunch of freshly baked ambitious idealistic bearded pop in­tellectuals, and the last time idealism, intellectualism, ambition, and beard went together with genius was probably circa 1971, with Pete Townshend working on Who's Next.

Once again, sixty minutes into the album I can barely back-focus on anything that I just heard, despite the allegedly tasteful and quite variegated combinations of instruments. The band sets an uplifting, stomping pace, piles up five rhythm parts and seven leads on top of it, adds multi-tracked male or female or androgynous vocals, and then gradually overcharges the motor in order for it to go up in smoke and explode. The chords are loud and bold, the vocals combine high pitch for emotional resonance and breathiness for intellectual depth, and the song titles, as usual, stimu­late you into making new discoveries — such as Canadian writer Ibi (Kaslik). (Not that I will ever find the time to read the lady, but «knowledge is power» all the same).

And that is pretty much it. This time, there is not even a single memorable riff of the ʽCause = Timeʼ variety, and out of all their different grooves, only ʽBandwitchʼ managed to stand out due to a cool «magical-mystery» vocalized loop in the background — which did give it a little bit of a «witchy» flavor, a nice change of pace from the core Springsteenisms. Naturally, one resonant idea on a sixty-mninute album falls well within the scope of chance expectations — I am, in fact, profoundly surprised that there were no others. How hard must it be to write twelve epic pop anthems and be unable to make even one of them stick?

At least the «grand finale», grandly entitled ʽIt's All Gonna Breakʼ, grandly encased in grand power chords and grand romantic posturing, grandly making its grand point in just under 10 grand minutes, should have been satisfactory. But the way I see it, like everything else, it's all «formulaic form» and no interesting substance. Where Arcade Fire would have soaked this thing in aching end-of-the-world desperation, Broken Social Scene remain firmly stuck directly be­tween sad­ness and joy — at point zero, that is. Which is why, when they finally get to the end and wrap it up with a solemn «mock-classical» coda, I do get the urge... to strangle somebody.

For accuracy's sake (as well as extra proof that I did listen carefully to the album, just in case), the start of ʽHotelʼ is not half bad, with a simple, but tough bassline that carries more punch by it­self than any given «loud», «pseudo-symphonic» passage on the rest of the record; ʽFire Eye'd Boyʼ could have been a semi-decent generic indie single if the vocals didn't sound taken from a post-laryngitis recuperating bunch of patients; and ʽWindsurfing Nationʼ has a spoonful of lovely psychedelic guitar licks, barely discernible from under a ton of extra overdubs. But — repeat — this is all just for accuracy's sake. The album as such shows that the critical praise, received by You Forgot It In People, went to someone's head, and if the record is to be evaluated in context, well — it is a further step down, and this time around, I cannot help letting it off with a thumbs down as an impressive heap of pretentious, elaborate, sweet-scented indie garbage.

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Saturday, April 27, 2013

Bardo Pond: Set And Setting


BARDO POND: SET AND SETTING (1999)

1) Walking Stick Man; 2) This Time (So Fucked); 3) Datura; 4) Again; 5) Lull; 6) Cross Current; 7) Crawl Away; 8) #3.

Listen to all the Bardo Pond albums in a row and you will know more about chemical lore than you ever bothered to ask — in this case, for instance, I was not even aware that «set and setting» was an actual Timothy Leary term for the conditions of substance intake. Somewhere along the way the band lost Joe Culver («lapsed», eh?), and now the drums are handled by John Gibbons — no big deal: considering the essence of their sound, Bardo Pond could easily do without drums altogether and no one might even notice. Still, this is not a good omen, nor is their stubborn insis­tence on preserving the short run­ning length (49 minutes — what a shameful piddle).

The production seems to shift a bit from «interstellar» environments in the direction of your bed­room: ʽWalking Stick Manʼ is an 11 minute-long drone that puts the fuzz straight in your ears without burdening it with echoes, reverb, or any other «distancing» effects. It also seems to lack any sort of development — once the thing is established, one minute into the song, it just keeps going in circles, like a classic-period Aerosmith «sleaze riff» stuck in mid-note. Later on, ʽAgainʼ does the same thing grunge-style, with six and a half minutes of speedy nuclear fallout without intermissions or relaxations; and then ʽCrawl Awayʼ generates nine minutes of high-pitched feed­back that never move away from the initially set point. And, naturally, Isobel and her sleep-walk­ing mumbling are all over these and more.

The point, apparently, is not just to remind us that «Bardo Pond» and «allegedly meaningful mono­tonousness» are freely replaceable synonyms, but to prove this equation beyond any sort of reasonable doubt — fast-forward to any random spot on any of the longer tracks and you will hear the exact same thing. Some of the fans were actually worried over this, and I share the worry, because one of the major attractions of this band at its best was its subtle ability to build up the atmosphere, adding more and more layers to the sound until the rainy pitter-patter became a thun­derstorm. This subtlety is completely omitted here, most likely on purpose, just to see what hap­pens, but — at least for somebody who is not planning to use the album as a soundtrack for an actual trip — it might well be so that nothing will actually happen, period.

The most unusual track is ʽCross Currentʼ, which eschews the band's usual guitars for psyche­delic violins (the sludge guitars do come in later, so you could say at least one track has some de­velopment) — good enough for a change, not good enough as a classic Bardo Pond number, since they end up sounding like a slightly less aggressive Jimmy Page with a bow, and if you are fuck­ing up your violins, at least do that aggressively, so that you do not end up fucking them up for nothing. Speaking of fucking, the best track is probably ʽThis Time (So Fucked)ʼ, not because its title is so true to the album's content, but because it is built on one of those classic simple B.P. wah-wah pat­terns that rock the mind boat so well — and, of the short tracks, the two-minute in­terlude ʽLullʼ has a rockabye-baby beauty of its own (mmm, echoey slide guitars).

Nevertheless, as a whole, the album is a disappointment. It does not try to do «more» for the band, nor does it try to go someplace «different»: it tries to up the stakes on «minimalism», but instead, simply gives the appearance of being lazy. And even when you have Bufo Alvarius sitting on your right and Amanita sprouting on your left, this «setting» is a poor excuse for laziness. They used to get really high, and now they are just getting stoned. Thumbs down.

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Friday, April 26, 2013

Bad Brains: Into The Future


BAD BRAINS: INTO THE FUTURE (2012)

1) Into The Future; 2) Popcorn; 3) We Belong Together; 4) Youth Of Today; 5) RubADub Love; 6) Yes I; 7) Suck Sess; 8) Jah Love; 9) Earnest Love; 10) Come Down; 11) Fun; 12) Maybe A Joyful Noise; 13) MCA Dub.

Unfortunately, Adam Yauch was prevented from producing the next Bad Brains album by his death from cancer in 2012. Consequently, the band produced the album on their own — exactly the same way as Adam would have produced it, or so they thought, dedicating the record to his memory. Supposedly, Into The Future refers to the future of the Beastie Boys' legacy, and may­be to Yauch's future life and achievements in Heaven, than to Bad Brains' own future — which, by the looks of this album, does not seem too different from their past.

In fact, by this time we pretty much have a stable understanding of what a «late period Bad Brains album» is supposed to sound like: a loud, clean, meticulously sanitized mix of hardcore, metal, and reggae with a middle-age spiritual undercurrent. The latter bit seems ineffective — I am not sure how many people there still remain to seriously care about H.R.'s preaching: if lines like "The youth of today / Is the man of tomorrow / They don't live in tears / Beg, steal or bor­row" seem promising to you on paper, H.R.'s grinning joker-tone may add to the promise, but then again, it might not — by now, it is so completely predictable in its theatrical poise that the original «mystique» is in danger of mutating to «irritation».

The thing is — as long as Bad Brains were young and keen on following their basic instincts, and also as long as they were playing beyond top speed and on the verge of chaos, they had intrigue: even if you were not wooed over by their playing style, there definitely was something intellectu­ally incomprehensible about their music. But now, just take a listen to the title track. Its melody is deliberately stuck somewhere between old school garage rock and new school hardcore, each chord polished and dusted off as if this was an introduction to the friggin' «Well-Tempered Elec­tric Guitar». Except that the chord sequences hardly display any freshness or originality: this is discipline without verve, a soul-free pro job that no longer has any musical meaning.

Perhaps this point might be even better illustrated by a song named ʽFunʼ — although it is about as far from any real fun as a Celine Dion ballad. Generic thrash metal chugging alternating with languid distorted power chords, set to a rather silly mantra ("Let's have fun, we all need fun, and this music is fun, school is fun, love is fun") — unless they actually think it's ironic, which it is not, this is one of the least appropriate anthems to fun-making that I have ever heard. If you listen to it long enough, it may begin to seem catchy, but the trick is that a properly catchy song has to catch you with an emotion, not with repetition. And what is that emotion?

Overall, I refrain from any judgements on this record, just like I did with its predecessor. It is for­mally listenable, even the posh reggae numbers with amazing titles like ʽJah Loveʼ, but emotio­nally and intellectually, it is basically just a blank, and both of the key members are to blame — Dr. Know just seems content to sit on his legacy, and H.R., having said goodbye to his old mad­man image... is really just a Paul D. Hudson like any other Paul D. Hudson in the London area.

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Thursday, April 25, 2013

Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso: No Palco


BANCO DEL MUTUO SOCCORSO: NO PALCO (2003)

1) Prologo #1; 2) R.I.P.; 3) Il Ragno; 4) Cento Mani, Cento Occhi; 5) Quando La Buona Gente Dice; 6) Canto Di Primavera; 7) La Caccia / Fa# Minore; 8) Moby Dick; 9) Non Mi Rompete; 10) Come Due Treni Intro; 11) 750,000 Anni Fa... L'Amore; 12) Traccia I; 13) Traccia II.

Hey, another live album — bet you didn't see this one coming. Then again, what a better way to celebrate the band's 30th anniversary than with a major live extravaganza, staged in the heart of Rome itself, with a swarm of friends, old and new (some of which are allegedly big names on the Italian stage), and a setlist that makes it pretty clear that the Eighties and Nineties never really hap­pened? And why not release it as an official CD if the performances are generally flawless, and if Nudo already showed so clearly that re-recordings of the «old shit» are so inherently supe­rior to whatever new shit they could try to come up with?

In any case, No Palco is at least interesting in that, for the last bunch of tracks, the band is joined on the stage by brother Gianni, doing a solo piano instrumental (ʽCome Due Treniʼ) and taking on the key role in ʽ750,000 Anni Faʼ and both of the ʽTracciaʼ pieces. Additionally, Mauro Pagani, one of the founding fathers of Banco's chief competitors, Premiata Forneria Marconi, makes a guest appearance on ʽNon Mi Rompeteʼ and ʽCanto Di Primaveraʼ, contributing violin parts, and even the band's old drummer, Pierluigi Calderoni, sits in on a few numbers. Meaning that the whole thing does qualify as a celebration of sorts, and is worth picking up if you are in serious love with the band.

The setlist is actually quite clever, evenly spread between most of the band's classic period up until 1979 — the only song from a later date is ʽMoby Dickʼ, an excellent choice to remind us of the band's only moderately worthwhile album from their creepiest decade of work; it is preceded by a piano instrumental (ʽLa Cacciaʼ) that seems to be new, and, additionally, ʽQuando La Buona Gente Diceʼ is expanded from its original length to become a jam session, with all the keyboard and guitar players taking turns to prove the world that Italian rock music is nothing to joke about. (Well, that still won't stop us from... ah well, never mind).

Other than the general «superfluousness» of the record, there is nothing to complain about — the setlist is respectable, the players gel perfectly, DiGiacomo remains in the finest of all possible vocal forms (his range seems invulnerable to age, and his energy and self-confidence only seem to increase), and the audience is genuinely enraptured — on ʽNon Mi Rompeteʼ, they go totally against the message of the title and interrupt the singer with such verve that he just steps away from the mike and lets them handle the first verse. Corny, but touching.

Overall, No PalcoNo Stage» — excessive arrogance or heart-melting idealism?) was such a success that the band would repeat it ten years later, with Quaranta released in 2012: I have not heard that one, since (a) there are only so many BMS live albums one can take and (b) the track­list includes ʽNudoʼ, which is not a good sign, but fans should probably take note. In the mean­time, let us close the main book on BMS with a modest thumbs up to No Palco, unless the old boys garner enough strength and ambition to master another studio recording before finally heading for the great gig in the sky (with Darwin in person as MC, no doubt). But hopefully, they won't be that silly.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Bee Gees: Children Of The World


BEE GEES: CHILDREN OF THE WORLD (1976)

1) You Should Be Dancing; 2) You Stepped Into My Life; 3) Love So Right; 4) Lovers; 5) Can't Keep A Good Man Down; 6) Boogie Child; 7) Love Me; 8) Subway; 9) The Way It Was; 10) Children Of The World.

This is it — the album where the Bee Gees quasi-officially shut the door on their past. No more half-hearted compromises between the conflicting ideologies of «give the people what they want» and «show the people what we are». The very idea of the exact same band recording Odessa, or even Trafalgar, and then eventually following it up with Children Of The World is so revolting that one feels tempted to dump the Bee Gees' entire output as a result. So have the Bee Gees al­ways been «phonies»? Or was this sabotage of artistic credibility a conscious sacrifice? Or did they really love these dubious achievements? Or did they just love whatever music could return them to the top of the charts? Are they beyond redemption, or can they still be saved? So many questions — too many, in fact, for a record of such sordid quality.

Since Robert Stigwood's distribution deal with Atlantic was over, with RSO shifting its allegiance to Polydor, the band no longer had Arif Mardin at its disposal, and had to basically produce the album on their own, with some help from engineer Karl Richardson and his friend Albhy Galuten. The differences in style are immediately obvious — Children Of The World is far more slick and glossy, taking at least as many cues from the newborn «Eurodisco» as from the contemporary US R&B scene. The guitars are toned down, with chief emphasis on electronics — regular key­boards as well as synthesized strings: for the first time ever, the band rejects real orchestration, which used to be such an integral part of their sound, in favor of artificial substitutes.

Of course, the most controversial of the artificial substitutes is Barry's falsetto — which is all over the place now, regardless of how well it fits into the overall context. Most of the time, it does (and, to give Barry his due, he does not use it on the funky ʽBoogie Childʼ where it would have been completely inappropriate), but overall, it just reads as a symbolic message: «This whole thing is as true to the musical legacy of the Bee Gees as it is true to the natural tone of Barry Gibb's voice». With the entire album being so utterly «inorganic», it made total sense to de­liver it in a «homoerotic android» vocal style as well.

There are only two things that could have saved Children Of The World from a total repu­ta­tional fiasco. One could be humor and self-irony, a safe haven for «smart» artists who had to tackle disco (everybody from Blondie to Sparks) — unfortunately, the Bee Gees always had a very limited sense of humor, and none of it had survived into 1976. The other one could be a set of unstoppable monster hooks — irresistible dance grooves, for instance, which totally enslave the body despite vehement, but fruitless protestations from the mind. This is where they fare a little better — however, occasional fanboy claims about how the songs on Children Of The World represent the disco movement at its finest are grossly exaggerated.

Now there is certainly no way one could deny the killer power of ʽYou Should Be Dancingʼ — although the unsung hero here is not Barry, but brother Maurice, totally responsible for the «dark» and «gritty» undertones with his mean and lean bassline (and do not forget to pay close attention to his walking all over the fretboard, getting hotter and hotter as they move into the final jam section). In fact, with that bass, those tribal congas, the grumbly synth part, and Alan Ken­dall's ear-piercing wah-wah guitar break, the song would have worked equally well as an instru­mental — except that I actually like Barry's falsetto on here, and the way he alternates it with a more regular low-pitched bark on the last lines of each verse. The song transcends the formalities and clichés of its immediate environment: all you need to complete the picture is a Tra­volta. The whole thing is about as «real» as some voluptuous, fake-tittied porn star — but there is still something to be said about «grade A sleaze» as opposed to your regular, run-of-the-mill, unima­ginative sleaze. And this is actually grade A++ sleaze.

The sad news is that nothing else on Children Of The World may even remotely approach the punch of its lead-in single. Take the B-side ʽSubwayʼ, for instance — simplistic sacchariney ro­mance stuffed in a dance beat, with a moronic chorus to boot (there is something very, very wrong in trying to deliver the line "take me to the subway" in heavy-breathing «carnal» mode). The only other disco song here that even tries to show a few teeth is ʽCan't Keep A Good Man Downʼ — it has a fun brass riff interwoven with a «nasty» wah-wah guitar line, and its vocals (on the verses) are more «aethereal» than «helium», but it is still strictly a passable dance groove, hardly with any potential to penetrate deeper layers of conscience.

And then there is all the «lyrical» stuff — even the titles could not have been any more straight­forward: ʽLove So Rightʼ, ʽLoversʼ, and ʽLove Meʼ all on the same record? What about the alle­ged lexical richness of the English language and all? Additionally, ʽLoversʼ bears the brunt of having too much Robin on it: if you think Barry's falsetto is bad enough, wait till you hear Ro­bin's caprine talents strained through the same filter (I honestly thought my eardrums were going to burst). And as much as I hate to admit it, the title track, sung partially in accappella mode, is a spi­ritual and technical ancestor of all the boy bands of the 1990s — the Backstreet Boys must have been listening to it every day on their ways to the studio.

Quite honestly, Children Of The World simply gives the impression of a bunch of quick, cheap filler assembled around one undisputable classic of its time — an odd observation, seeing as how the brothers would be able to crank up the quality for their next effort. Presumably, they were still «learning» the business, poking around in different corners, and ʽYou Should Be Dancingʼ was their jackpot for the day — none of the other singles from the album made it as high on the charts (and their British compatriots, in particular, pretty much ignored them altogether). But whatever the circumstances, most of these songs should have never seen the light of day; and considering that ʽYou Should Be Dancingʼ is perfectly well available on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack anyway, I do not think that anybody except for aging cousins of Tony Manero should bother. Hence, here comes my first «totally disgusted» thumbs down in Bee Gees history.

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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Blues Incorporated: Red Hot From Alex


BLUES INCORPORATED: RED HOT FROM ALEX (1964)

1) Woke Up This Morning; 2) Skipping; 3) Herbie's Tune; 4) Stormy Monday; 5) It's Happening; 6) Roberta; 7) Jones; 8) Cabbage Greens; 9) Chicken Shack; 10) Haitian Fight Song.

This studio album was recorded a month later than the Cavern show, but seems to have been offi­cially released earlier than the Cavern album — no big matter, since neither of the two was a prominent commercial or critical success. It is a good listen in its own right, but it has neither the energy nor the exuberant risk-taking of At The Cavern, consistent with the then-current practice of putting on a politely gallant face in the studio and leaving all the «stop-pulling» business for the live shows. This is the environment in which Alexis calls for tightness and discipline.

Unfortunately, a tightly disciplined Blues Incorporated, at best, comes across as a second-rate backing band for Louis Jordan — check ʽSkippingʼ, a professionally played jump-blues where Ron Edgeworth's organ, Alexis' own guitar, and three sax players form five near-ideal pieces of the puzzle, yet that «something special» still ends up missing, maybe because not one of the play­ers is ready to let the instincts take over, too afraid that something will fall out of place. It is this rational fear, I think, that prevented Alexis Korner from becoming Keith Richards, even if some of the licks he plays here are quite reminiscent of Keith's «anglicized Chuck Berry» style.

Likewise, the short version of ʽHerbie's Tuneʼ captured here is fairly academic and stiff compared to what they did to it on stage — where the saxophone screeched and whined like a demented pig under the knife, whereas here the pig just lazily grunts and snorts in its trough. Of course, the mix is better, the different instrumental parts are well defined, and Ron Edgeworth's organ adds an extra layer of depth that was all but unheard at The Cavern, but they are not even trying to cap­ture the same excitement.

Thematically, Korner, in addition to the old infatuation with 12-bar blues (ʽStormy Mondayʼ, with a stinging guitar solo, fairly decent for the pre-Clapton era) and jazz (ʽIt's Happeningʼ), seems to have also become a big fan of Booker T. & The MGs, ripping off ʽGreen Onionsʼ on his poorly masked ʽCabbage Greensʼ — he gets everything right except for the «evil» vibe that made ʽGreen Onionsʼ so devilish where ʽCabbage Greensʼ is so utterly inoffensive. ʽHaitian Fight Songʼ is a bit better, but still way too tame to match the promise of its title. At best, it sounds like a behind-the-stage preparation for an actual fight.

Still, even if Red Hot From Alex should rather read Stone Cold From Alex, there may well be people to whom this «perfectionist» take on rhythm & blues will be dearer than garage rock. The album does have the distinction of being the first well-produced, clear-sounding record to come out of Alexis Korner's camp, and now it sounds like Manfred Mann without the irritating nursery pop ditties — serious, but totally accessible mix of blues, jazz, and dance music whose only fault was in that nobody really needed this kind of music from Britain at the time. Even if he wanted to (which he didn't), Alexis Korner could never become part of the «British Invasion» — this whole thing was strictly for internal consumption, and even then, only as long as the US import market still remained relatively underdeveloped. Only in long-term retrospect is it possible to see that the guy was honestly trying to reinterpret his influences, not just copycat them — and that he just didn't quite have the talent to make these reinterpretations transparent for everybody. A modest thumbs up here, but teetering dangerously on the edge of «blank indifference».

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Monday, April 22, 2013

Bobby Bland & B. B. King: Together For The First Time... Live


BOBBY BLAND & B. B. KING: TOGETHER FOR THE FIRST TIME... LIVE (1975)

1) 3 O'Clock Blues; 2) It's My Own Fault; 3) Driftin' Blues; 4) That's The Way Love Is; 5) I'm Sorry; 6) I'll Take Care Of You; 7) Don't Cry No More; 8) Don't Answer The Door; 9) Medley; 10) Why I Sing The Blues; 11) Goin' Down Slow; 12) I Like To Live The Love.

Technically, this record should have probably been filed under «B. B. King»: B. B. is officially given first billing on the set, and besides, he plays and sings, whereas Bobby, unfortunately, ne­ver took the time to properly master an instrument — not even a tambourine. But since B. B.'s discography is so much more vast anyway, we will bring in some balance and give Bobby extra credit. He sure needs more credit from us than B. B. does, anyway.

This is a beautiful little sprawling double LP, recorded in one take in some cheap sleazy L. A. bar (correction: actually, at Western Recorders, Studio 1, but, allegedly, the audience was real, and rowdy enough to suggest that they did mask the studio as a cheap sleazy bar) — much of it im­provised and almost all of it without any serious pre-planning or rehearsal. It got panned by Rolling Stone upon release and continues, out of subconscious respect for tradition, to garner cool reprimands from mainstream-os: the All-Music Guide review mumbles something about the at­mosphere being «too relaxed» and a lack of flying sparks — as if they were expecting the Dead Kennedys or something. For Christ's sake, these guys are public entertainers: their job has always been to entertain, and, having gotten together, this is what they do at twice the effort and twice the effect. Despite the critics, the album sold real well, and in this particular case, I am complete­ly on the side of the buying public.

On the technical side, nothing is new. The setlist is comprised mainly of those songs that were already big hits or personal favorites of B. B.'s or Bobby's — it is rather symbolic that they open with ʽ3 O'Clock Bluesʼ, which was the very first commercially successful recording for King in 1952. The singing and playing are exactly what you would expect from both gentlemen circa 1975 (you may set your expectations pretty high, but no particular surprises). And the «novelty» of the «together for the first time» announcement will, of course, be dampened for everybody who knows that B. B. and Bobby spent an awful lot of time together in the 1950s as the «Beale Street Boys» in Memphis. They may be recording for the first time together, but they gel like old pals — because they are old pals.

And this is, of course, the cornerstone of the album's charm. Even if it is a commercial project, it has all the trappings of a loose, free-flowing, informal party — just two guys showing off before each other and a bunch of friends, cocky but amicable. Almost every track has them shooting off insider jokes at each other, trading funny (or not so funny) one-liners and offside remarks, and, overall, having a great time — or at least simulating a great time so well that I honestly couldn't tell it for the real thing.

True enough, there is very little «blues» here if what you want is serious heart tension rather than a friendly party environment. The atmosphere only gets bleak and smoky maybe just a couple of times — for instance, when they put a temporary stop to the banter as Bobby launches into a heartbroken rendition of ʽI'll Take Care Of Youʼ: then, almost as if they simultaneously realized that things are getting too «heavy», just as the last note of the song is sprung, they launch into the uptempo, uplifting ʽDon't Cry No Moreʼ to compensate. The other track where they try to go over the head of the «party mood» is ʽGoin' Down Slowʼ, with a mighty build-up towards the end — but the show is still brought to a final stop with ʽI Like To Live The Loveʼ, a recent hit for B. B. that has nothing for you but one hundred percent positive vibrations.

And there is nothing wrong with that. "Some people say that the kind of blues we're getting into now are ʽslick bluesʼ", B. B. remarks as they wind up ʽI'm Sorryʼ, "and I don't think so, I think they're just telling it like it is", and there certainly is a serious slice of truth to that remark. In 1975, both of these guys were respectable stars (if not superstars), with plenty of reputation, pub­lic acclaim, and money to spare — so would a tense, tragically-flavored performance, floating in misery and anger, be «telling it like it is»? What they do here, in addition to being professionally performed and recorded, is all perfectly natural, a fine document of their time that, even today, will make for terrific evening party accompaniment. Thumbs up, totally.

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Sunday, April 21, 2013

Broken Social Scene: You Forgot It In People


BROKEN SOCIAL SCENE: YOU FORGOT IT IN PEOPLE (2002)

1) Capture The Flag; 2) KC Accidental; 3) Stars And Sons; 4) Almost Crimes; 5) Looks Just Like The Sun; 6) Paci­fic Theme; 7) Anthems For A Seventeen Year-Old Girl; 8) Cause = Time; 9) Late Nineties Bedroom Rock For The Mis­sionaries; 10) Shampoo Suicide; 11) Lover's Spit; 12) I'm Still Your Fag; 13) Pitter Patter Goes My Heart.

Only one year has passed and Broken Social Scene have already swelled from a guest-dependent rhyth­mic ambient duo to an eleven-piece orchestra, bashing out idealistically epic indie rock — in their own words, «anthems for a seventeen year-old girl», although most of this stuff is perfectly suitable for seventeen year-old boys as well (maybe it is the lack of any sort of «heaviness» in the arrangements that prompted them to address their female audiences). Their aspirations are noble, their ambitions humble, and their allusions subtle. Nevertheless, the reproachingly titled You For­got It In People fails to be that beautiful, long-coveted masterpiece that the critics had been waiting for, hurrying up to lavish all sorts of praises on the album when it came out.

The basic problem is that, despite switching to the traditional «rock song» format, the styles and attitudes remain essentially the same — this is still little more than nicely sounding, polyphonous background music, yet somehow, we are now supposed to be memorizing the themes, singing along to the anthemic choruses, and agreeing with its goal of «teaching» us something. I honestly tried doing all three of these things, but, unlike the average BSS fan, shamefully failed on all counts — the melodies were found unmemorable, the choruses generally uninviting, and the band's «soulfulness» hopelessly stuck in no-man's-land somewhere between Nick Drake, Bruce Springsteen, and Jeff Tweedy, all of whom they try to be at the same time. As you can imagine, it would take a bunch of miracle workers to do that, and even if there is one miracle worker among the eleven current members of BSS, it is pretty hard to spot him / her from among the other ten.

Do not get me wrong: nothing is overtly «bad» here, in fact, from a purely technical angle, the album is unassailable — genuine and diverse instrumentation, competent sound layering without any unwarranted chaos, pleasant, unaffected vocal tones, obscure, but not altogether meaningless lyrics, in short, everything within the limits of good taste and intellectual inoffensiveness. I fully understand how, for instance, all those people whose minds were just blown by Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot could want them to be re-blown with this record. But Yankee Hotel Foxtrot had «the spark» — actually, above everything else, it had a strong focus on hooks and personality. Broken Social Scene, in contrast, «focus» on... well, on a broken social scene.

It will suffice to make a first conclusion based on the album's first proper song, ʽKC Accidentalʼ, named after Kevin Drew's first band (the hazy Floyd-ian instrumental ʽCapture The Flagʼ is the formal opener, but it is only a brief ambient overture) — a few initially discordant guitar notes and violin scrapes quickly give way to a fast-paced anthem in the «over-the-waves» paradigm: deep rolling guitar waves, seagullish whistling violins, and electronic sirens wailing their way over the surface. But without even a single genuinely exciting part, this anthem only packs the technical ingredients for success — somewhere along the way these guys seem to have forgotten that a massive collective sound still has to have a great backbone, one that would still sound at­tractive when recorded at a piano or on acoustic guitar by one guy on a demo tape.

This is actually a proverbial truth that would very soon be made use of by BSS' Canadian partners, Arcade Fire, and this is why the equally anthemic Funeral is a modern masterpiece whereas You Forgot It In People is, for the most part, an impressively tasteful bore. When they revert to their old «moody» self, e. g. on ʽPacific Themeʼ or on the album closer ʽPitter Patter Goes My Heartʼ, they are not overreaching their grasp; when they dip into the freak-folk of ʽStars And Sonsʼ or the pomp-rock of ʽAlmost Crimesʼ, they are.

Only two songs on the entire album struck me as being out of the ordinary. The above-mentioned ʽAnthems For A Seventeen Year-Old Girlʼ almost accidentally hits upon a beautifully tense vo­cal / instrumental sequence in the chorus — which works even despite the vocals being masked by a (seventeen year-old?) wheezy chipmunk effect; and the immediately ensuing pop rocker ʽCause = Timeʼ has a deliciously emotional riff popping out of the speakers around the 2:30 mark — and coming back in later. Consequently, these two songs have plain old heart-grappling hooks, unlike others that just have vague atmospheres and cool-sounding titles (although in 2002, thirty years after the hip intellectual freshmen had invaded the pop music business, who's to judge exactly how cool a title like ʽLate Nineties Bedroom Rock For The Missionariesʼ is supposed to look?).

Oh, actually, speaking of titles, the album was supposed to receive the Mark Knopfler Annual Re­ward for ʽI'm Still Your Fagʼ, but got sidetracked at the last moment as the jury became convinced that it is rather sung from the perspective of an unjustly deserted and psychologically traumatized cigarette butt. Besides, melodically it is a somewhat boring mix of folk and bossa nova — were it given a major stadium riff on the ʽMoney For Nothingʼ scale, the controversy over lines like "I swore I drank your piss that night to see if I could live" would have been much higher. But who really cares, as long as it's only a bunch of unknown Canadian hobos we're dealing with here?

I refrain from an overt thumbs down, if only out of respect for how much real sweaty work went into the final product — and an additional bonus of several really really pleasant moments — but as far as my own paradigm is concerned, You Forgot It In People does break the golden rule of «staying adequate»: it bites off far more than these eleven people might chew. Want it or not, they are just your average, regular, well-meaning, self-educated indie kids, and they do not know the meaning of life — heck, they do not even properly understand the meaning of getting eleven people together in one studio. Listenable and pretty, yes, but never great, and definitely overrated back in its time.

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Saturday, April 20, 2013

Bardo Pond: Lapsed


BARDO POND: LAPSED (1997)

1) Tommy Gun Angel; 2) Pick My Brain; 3) Flux; 4) Anandamide; 5) Green Man; 6) Straw Dog; 7) Aldrin.

Fourty-seven minutes? You must be joking. A proper Bardo Pond album never lasts less than eight billion hours — fourty-seven minutes is not even long enough to overcome the initial bore­dom stage, let alone the ensuing unbearable hatred stage, the languid fatigue stage, the dizzy trance stage, and the total brain shutdown coma stage. And since, roughly approximated, all Bardo Pond albums always sound the same, the drastic reduction in length is more or less the main difference between Amanita and Lapsed — a difference that many will be able to tolerate and some will even welcome, but a difference that is not quite loyal to the band's essence.

Actually, there is one more catch: there is a bit too much sludge and noise here for my liking — for all their love of distortion, Bardo Pond are really at their best when they tone down the tide and rock you to unconsciousness with slow, echoey, transcendental-meditation-type patterns. On Lapsed, there is only one such number — ʽAldrinʼ comes in last and does the right thing for the longest time (14:19), with a single «delayed» bass line providing the foundation and subsequent layers of Isobel's somnambulant voice and psycho guitars slowly... very slowly transform it from a threatening rumble to all-out roar. The crescendo is handled perfectly: it is only once the peak level has been attained that the tune runs out of further things to say — it should have been cut off somewhere around the twelve minutes mark, I'd say, in an ʽI Want Youʼ-type manner, but then again, what do I really know about the regulations of modern day musical shamanism...

As for the other tracks, well, this time around we may perceive a little extra emphasis on distorted slide guitars — they enter the picture on track two, ʽPick My Brainʼ, in delightfully «poisonous» mode (think Allman Brothers who suddenly decided to do something in Black Sabbath style), and then reappear on ʽStraw Dogʼ where they are further overloaded with a wah-wah effect. Both of these slide patterns, as predictably repetitive as they are, work far more efficiently on my brain than the simpler, cruder Neil Young-ish sludge of ʽTommy Gun Angelʼ and ʽFluxʼ, or the deeply mixed space-rock ambience of ʽGreen Manʼ — see, these guys are really quite diverse, but some­how their «pseudo-roots-rock jamming» seems more interesting here than their psychedelic drones and sheer noise excursions.

Nevertheless, passing individual judgements on this stuff makes about as much sense as trying to memorize all fourteen minutes of ʽAldrinʼ and then hum them to your friends. You either hate Bardo Pond as an institution, or you respect them and own exactly one of their albums (in which case Lapsed, being so short, is not it), or you love them and then they can do no wrong — even if with music like this, they could have very easily pushed out fifteen LPs per year (like their some­what ideologically similar Japanese colleagues, Acid Mothers' Temple). Then again, with this «shortened» approach they might really be trying to tell us that they do care about each single second, and that the point is that you should engulf yourself in all the tiny intricacies — so par­don me in advance if I am in too much of a hustle-bustle here, missing all the expected epiphanies and the final enlightenment.

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Friday, April 19, 2013

Bad Brains: Build A Nation

BAD BRAINS: BUILD A NATION (2007)

1) Give Thanks And Praises; 2) Jah People Make The World Go Round; 3) Pure Love; 4) Natty Dreadlocks 'Pon The Mountain Top; 5) Build A Nation; 6) Expand Your Soul; 7) Jah Love; 8) Let There Be Angels (Just Like You); 9) Universal Peace; 10) Roll On; 11) Until Kingdom Comes; 12) In The Beginning; 13) Send You No More Flowers; 14) Peace Be Unto Thee.

Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys produced this one, and his young grateful-apprentice influence on the old masters cannot be underestimated: Build A Nation promptly returns Bad Brains to their classic reggae-meets-hardcore formula and, for the most part, keeps them there, for better or for worse. Unfortunately, I sort of get the feeling that Yauch must have been the happiest partici­pant of the sessions — maybe Dr. Know did not really mind being steered back to the styles that started it all, but I do not sense much enthusiasm, either.

H.R. might be the one to blame: no longer having the drive or energy to sound like the slobbering madman of old, he prefers to go for a calmer, hazy-mysticism-soaked vocal style on pretty much every song, be it fast or slow, loud or quiet, but his nasal overtones make the overall effect irrita­ting rather than mesmerizing. On the other hand, it's not as if Dr. Know was sending him tons of freshly baked awesome riffs to undermine — as expected, no songs here suffer from excessive memorability, so to speak. If this is the best original material they could come up with in twelve years, it can only mean that they did not really bother coming up with anything — just went into the studio and bashed all of this out on the spot, with Yauch's stylistic guidance as the only point of potential attraction.

Yes, it is a «comeback» of sorts — for one thing, there are some super-fast tracks here, first time in God knows when; however, if you compare these new quickie-speedy one-minute recordings like ʽPure Loveʼ and the title track with anything from the Rock For Light era, you will see that these ones are tighter, cleaner, better structured than the exuberant noisefests of old. A professio­nal's dream, perhaps, but the whole point of Bad Brains used to be in how anthemically mad they were — Build A Nation, in contrast, is much too calculated and stiff, a problem it certainly shares with the absolute majority of 21st century music, but that is no reason to be forgiving.

As for the reggae numbers, too much of this stuff comes in direct prayer form — the album opens with the partially acappella ʽGive Thanks And Praisesʼ, continues with ʽJah Loveʼ, and ends with ʽPeace Be Unto Theeʼ. Rasta people might, perhaps, be wooed, but none of these songs, really, is ʽMy Sweet Lordʼ-caliber: just ordinary reggae prayers for regular reggae crowds. Not even a single juicy apocalyptic ride on the waves of syncopation.

By all means, this is Bad Brains' best album since at least 1986 (not counting the surprisingly creative dub work on I & I Survived), and, if you, too, dislike the band's transition from hardcore to metal, even since Rock For Light — but this simply isn't saying much, given the generally abysmal quality of their studio stuff ever since they first asked themselves the fatal question, «what next?». An almost surefire delight for hardcore fans; a mostly predictable disappointment, I guess, for everyone else, although, out of sheer respect for the collaboration between Yauch and the old boys, it might be best to refrain from a direct thumbs down this time around. But it goes without saying that you won't ever build a nation with this brand of brickwork.

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Thursday, April 18, 2013

Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso: Nudo


BANCO DEL MUTUO SOCCORSO: NUDO (1997)

CD I: 1) Nudo, Pt. 1; 2) Nudo, Pt. 2; 3) Nudo, Pt. 3; 4) E Mi Viene Da Pensare; 5) Prologo #1; 6) R.I.P.; 7) Il Ragno; 8) Emiliano; 9) L'Evoluzione; 10) 750,000 Anni Fa... L'Amore; CD II: 1) Sul Palco; 2) La Conquista Della Posizione Eretta; 3) Metamorfosi; 4) Guardami Le Spalle; 5) Roma/Tokyo; 6) La Band; 7) Bisbigli; 8) Passaggio; 9) Coi Ca­pelli Sciolti Al Vento; 10) Traccia; 11) Prologo #2; 12) Non Mi Rompete.

What good is releasing a double CD if you are only going to put one new song on it? And not a good one, at that: the three-part ʽNudoʼ suite is most definitely one of those «failed experiments» where the artist thinks he is being all smart and complex and cool and modern, but in reality just comes up with something that makes no sense whatsoever. ʽNudoʼ is very loud, very full of itself, but fails to come up with melodies that would venture outside second-rate synth-pop and adult contemporary — it is about as «progressive» as circa-Union Yes; in fact, it is a serious stylistic letdown even compared to the already lax standards of Il 13. Granted, the riffs and solos are at a much higher level of complexity than on E Via, but the synth tones, the drum machines, and the over­produced guitars make that observation pointless: in the end, there is more pomp here than style, and far more technophilia than substance.

All the more curious is the fact that the rest of this stuff, even though it all consists of oldies done anew, is delightful. The first CD, once the accursed suite is over, is then dedicated to an «unplug­ged» section where they do their classic tunes in acoustic mode, with the aid of a young colleague guitarist, Filippo Marcheggiani (who was not even born when they already recorded most of their classic albums). The results are hardly essential, but sound almost surprisingly inspired — lack of amplification does not impact the energy of the melodies, just gives them more of a «chamber» feel (actually, the lack of amplification only refers to guitars — synthesizers are still quite promi­nent, particularly on ʽL'Evoluzioneʼ).

The second disc (there is also a 1-CD edition that omits it) contains a selection of properly live titles, recorded at two shows in Tokyo; the tracks do not overlap with the «unplugged» ones, but are also mostly classic stuff, with the exception of the Vittorio-sung ʽGuardami Le Spalleʼ from Il 13 and a new instrumental, flatteringly called ʽRoma / Tokyoʼ — another pompous symph-rock composition, but somewhat more effective than ʽNudoʼ, maybe because the live environment makes it feel more like a real heated battle between all the players than just another demonstra­tion of their worship of loud-sounding technogadgets.

As for the classics, well, this is actually the first time we get to hear Banco in full-out live mode playing the classics without turning them into disco attractions — the versions of ʽConquista Del­la Posizione Erettaʼ and ʽMetamorfosiʼ in particular are quite impressive. Now they share the re­gular prog-rock live album bane («find ten differences from the originals... not»), but with twenty five years lying between the originals and the copies, who would really blame them? And while we are at it, DiGiacomo's voice has not lost a thing in terms of range or power, only gained in terms of self-assurance and professionalism.

Overall, Nudo clearly shows that at this point, Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso are only functional as a «nostalgia act», but they can be a damn fine nostalgia act if they really put their minds to it — their days as composers of quality music long since gone, their talents for melody and innovation worn out, eaten up, perhaps, by the syphilis of the reckless musical prostitution of the previous decade, or by other reasons. Much to their honor, the band members must have acknowledged this and come to terms with it — although Banco never officially disbanded, and still continue to play and record, the ʽNudoʼ suite was their last ever attempt at creating new music. If you know for sure that you are never going to create anything on the level of Darwin!, not ever again, why bother hopelessly trying? Just enjoy life as it is, that's all.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Bee Gees: Main Course


BEE GEES: MAIN COURSE (1975)

1) Nights On Broadway; 2) Jive Talkin'; 3) Wind Of Change; 4) Songbird; 5) Fanny (Be Tender With My Love); 6) All This Making Love; 7) Country Lanes; 8) Come On Over; 9) Edge Of The Universe; 10) Baby As You Turn Away.

A naked lady on the front sleeve of the Bee Gees' new album? What have we missed? Where are the ruffled shirts? The mighty frigates? The pawnshop chainmails? The Victorian picture frames? Why are they offering us a spoonful of female flesh...?

Well, obviously, because times have changed: in the midst of the «Me Decade», performers are expected to undress rather than dress up. With Main Course, the Bee Gees have crossed the line — they are still not quite there yet, but the pact has been signed and there is no turning back now. At the instigation of Mardin, they are now recording one R&B dance number after another, bor­dering on stiff disco (not quite there yet, though), and, more alarmingly, Arif has unleashed Barry's falsetto on the world: according to legend, it was during the sessions for ʽNight On Bro­ad­wayʼ that he asked Barry whether he could «scream on key», and that was one of those in­famous «the night when the music died» moments in history.

As an LP, Main Course is actually quite intriguing. There is a strong difference here between the first side, which is mainly left to the well-calculated hot dance grooves of ʽNights On Broadwayʼ, ʽJive Talkin'ʼ, ʽWind Of Changeʼ, and ʽFannyʼ (the Elton John-ish ballad ʽSongbirdʼ being the only exception), and the flip side, which is far more traditional in structure — you got your old-time music hall stuff (ʽAll This Making Loveʼ), your piano-based folk-pop (ʽCountry Lanesʼ, ʽCome On Overʼ), and your guitar-based pop-rock (ʽEdge Of The Universeʼ), with the exception being ʽBaby As You Turn Awayʼ, a song that simply has to close the album in groove mode (slow groove mode, to be sure, but falsetto-laden).

In that respect, it is actually Main Course, rather than its predecessor, that has to be counted as a properly «transitional» album — the seeds of ʽHeavy Breathingʼ have sprouted and spread, but they have not yet suppressed all «old school» competition. And furthermore, at this point, it al­most looks like a perfectly viable symbiosis: there are hits and misses on both sides here. The Bee Gees are intentionally dumbing down their image, under the pretext that everyone else is doing the same thing, but in 1975, they were still able to present it under the guise of «playfulness» — as in, «so weren't you the one complaining about all that slow stuff on our records?... well, here's a few fast ones, then, just for a change».

After all, ʽJive Talkin'ʼ, the first and best one of their disco era singles, is a good song. Its bubbly synth bass line sounds somewhat gross and antiquated today, but the «jivin'» rhythm guitar is still lively and fun, and so is the poppy synth line in the bridge section, and, best of all, almost no fal­setto in sight other than a few occasional adlibs. If only they stayed on that level...

...but ʽNights On Broadwayʼ is already an ominous sign that things are going to get much worse, with mock-seri­ous lyrics, glutinous synthesizer atmospherics and falsettos a-plenty. ʽFanny (Be Tender With My Love)ʼ is an early precursor to the sleazy romanticism of ʽMore Than A Wo­manʼ; and ʽWind Of Changeʼ is the album's one straightforward disco number that openly an­nounces a new strategy: "Get on up, look around / Can't you feel the wind of change?" And there I was wondering where that odd smell of polyester came from...

The second side, much more in line with the «old» Bee Gees, is more palatable. The lyrics of ʽAll This Making Loveʼ are well in line with the decadent spirit of 1975, but the hoppy music-hall melody is more of a throwback to ʽPaper Mache, Cabbages & Kingsʼ. ʽCome On Overʼ is a per­fectly performed country ballad — subtly and lavishly misogynistic, just the way all of us male chauvinist pigs like it: "And if you think I need you / Come on over, lay your body down / You know I will be here / So bring your love around" — even if you somehow miss the offensiveness in the "if you think I need you" bit, you can hardly miss it in the negligent, nonchalant, and still seductive way that the chorus melody is resolved with "bring your love around".

The album's highest point, though — the very last goodbye from the old Bee Gees — is ʽEdge Of The Universeʼ, which is just a good old catchy melodic pop song that cannot be spoiled even by the whining synth sirens, completely superfluous, inescapable, and still insignificant in the light of the song's overall charm. Most importantly, it has the trademark Bee Gees spirit all over it, so they sound like real, organic, friendly, and slightly idealistic human beings. Four years ago, they bid goodbye to their «grandiose» ambitions with ʽWalking Back To Waterlooʼ, and now ʽEdge Of The Universeʼ puts a final stop to their credibility as... well, let us call it «artists who have something — anything — to say that can be picked up emotionally».

It makes no sense to blame Arif Mardin for «the change». He came from an entirely different background, he was doing his job — returning an «obsolete» band back to stardom — and, as it happened, he actually showed as much respect for the Bee Gees' legacy as possible: Mr. Natural was almost completely «old-school», and Main Course was produced as a sensible compromise. This is not mentioning that even the «disco-est» songs on here still show a certain «band pre­sence» (play ʽWind Of Changeʼ with ʽSubwayʼ off their next album back-to-back to see how glossy and slick the latter is in comparison).

And yet — in for a penny, in for a pound. The huge commercial success of the singles promptly ensured which of the two sides of this album was going to cast more influence over the future, making Main Course the start of the band's meteoric commercial rise and eventual artistic and critical downfall. I do give it a thumbs up — the sickeningly sugar-sweet balladry of ʽFannyʼ and ʽBaby As You Turn Awayʼ is pretty much the only thing that really turns me off here, so I just pretend each side ends on the fourth track — but only when thinking of it without its histori­cal context. But do not blame it on the Bee Gees — blame it on every sucker who bought a copy of Main Course without buying a copy of Mr. Natural the previous year. Hopefully, once they all die and go to their little padded cells in heaven or hell, someone will place Tales From Topographic Oceans on endless replay for them.

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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Blues Incorporated: At The Cavern


BLUES INCORPORATED: AT THE CAVERN (1964)

1) Overdrive; 2) Whoa Babe; 3) Every Day I Have The Blues; 4) Hoochie Coochie Man; 5) Herbie's Tune; 6) Little Bitty Gal Blues; 7) OK You Win; 8) Kansas City.

With Beatlemania already in full swing and the British rhythm & blues scene already beginning to be populated by newcoming young ruffians, this record already has less historical significance than R&B At The Marquee — yet it is also an honestly much better album. First, unlike the «Marquee» sessions, this one was actually recorded live (February 23, 1964, at The Cavern in Liverpool, already made famous by the Beatles' residence): expectedly, it catches Korner's band in a more adventurous and riskier state of mind, where their purpose is not only to «introduce» their influences, but to actually do something with those influences as well.

Second, with several years of experience behind their backs, Blues Incorporated were almost beginning to develop some sort of personal identity — very important in an era of swiftly increa­sing competition, even though it was still never enough to make Korner into a superstar (not that he ever entertained any such ambitions). Clearly, they were listening not only to «mass appeal» records from the Chicago blues scene, but to various strands and strains of jazz as well, and intro­ducing «bizarre» elements into their own musical approach.

This particular line-up, other than Korner himself, included mostly new players: Dave Castle replacing Dick Heckstall-Smith on sax; Malcom Saul on organ; Vernon Bown on bass; Mike Scott on drums; and Herbie Goins on vocals, although Alexis himself takes the lead on several of the tracks (allegedly, he abhorred his own singing voice and only sang out of necessity — which is understandable, since he has a raspy croak that, at best, comes across as «funny»; still, in terms of mood, it agrees well with many of the arrangements, and it is still light years more «acces­sible» than, say, any random Jimmy Reed vocal).

Of all these people, Dave Castle is the loudest, and his sax frequently tends to outshout the voca­list (ʽEveryday I Have The Bluesʼ is a particularly illustrative example: no sooner does Alexis in­troduce Herbie Goins to the Cavern audiences as «someone who can sing» than the frenetic blurt­ing from Dave's pipe completely prevents us — and I am not even talking about the actual audi­ence at the club — from assessing that statement). Some find this a problem, but not me: the noisy ambience generated by Dave's ruckus is intermittently irritating... and curious — certainly B. B. King would never have dreamed of performing the song that way.

The lengthy instrumental ʽHerbie's Tuneʼ, ironically named after the band's only non-performing member, is quite solid — a carefully constructed workout in 12/4, with Castle and Saul taking time to improvise and Mike Scott turning in the obligatory drum solo, probably making this the earliest «jazz-style rock instrumental» in the history of British rhythm & blues, and a pretty good one: everything gels, even if the main theme, with its rather monotonous rise-and-fall pattern, is hardly on par with Charles Mingus.

Alexis throws in a few of his own compositions, introducing ʽWhoa Babeʼ as a «John Lee Hoo­ker type blues» (not that John Lee Hooker would care for such saxophone exuberance on his re­cords, but otherwise, a fairly good definition) and giving the other one the ambitious title of ʽOverdriveʼ — although, frankly, the only performer to remain in overdrive throughout the album is Dave Castle, so much so that they should have honestly credited this one to «Dave Castle's Blues Incorporated». He even manages to dominate ʽHoochie Coochie Manʼ, no matter how much Alexis tries to revert attention to himself by playing a «stinging» slide guitar solo.

Sometimes it hurts, sometimes it amuses, but in the end, it is what gives At The Cavern its dis­tinct flavor: Britain had its fair share of competent sax blowers, yet, for the most part, they were either bit players of relatively little significance (e. g. Mike Vickers of Manfred Mann) or played in a strictly pop configuration (Mike Smith of the Dave Clark 5). Heckstall-Smith was among the few exceptions, but he had not yet latched on to his chance to shine — so Dave Castle takes the lead here and blows 'em all away, for bad or for good. Yes, and Herbie Goins does have a nice blueswailing tone, after all (check out ʽOK You Winʼ for proof).

Thumbs up, of course, and there is also an expanded reissue of the album that includes an addi­tional six tracks recorded live for the BBC that same year — including ʽTurn On Your Lovelightʼ and ʽPlease, Please, Pleaseʼ, showing how much Korner was really getting into soul-based R&B at that time, way beyond his passion for the Chicago blues scene.

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