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Friday, May 31, 2013

Bangles: Different Light

BANGLES: DIFFERENT LIGHT (1986)

1) Manic Monday; 2) In A Different Light; 3) Walking Down Your Street; 4) Walk Like An Egyptian; 5) Standing In The Hall­way; 6) Return Post; 7) If She Knew What She Wants; 8) Let It Go; 9) September Gurls; 10) Angels Don't Fall In Love; 11) Following; 12) Not Like You.

Almost everybody who cares about the Bangles more than about the history of MTV usually speaks of Different Light as a serious step down in overall quality for the band. However, this is «symbolically» true rather than «truly» true. The moderate success of All Over The Place had opened the doors to fame and fortune, and the girls were definitely not above trying it out — they agreed to tour with Cyndi Lauper and eventually attracted the attention of Prince himself, never the one to nonchalantly skip over such a «tasty treat». And this encounter pretty much sealed their fate: once you start taking orders (or even recommendations) from Prince, there is no turning back — besides, considering how niftily Prince managed to remain his own master while at the same time drawing in the big bucks, taking advice from the guy naturally seemed like a big win.

So we have ʽManic Mondayʼ, written by The Artist specifically for the Bangles and released as the first single from their second LP. Is it a good pop song? You bet it is. The little baroque key­board riff that functions as the main melodic hook is unforgettable, as is the vocal melody of the chorus (and if you think that "it's just another manic Monday, I wish it was Sunday, 'cause that's my fun day" is a lame lyric, you probably come from way before the era of Rebecca Black). Is it «an important, progressive development» in the history of Bangles sound? No, it isn't, since it shifts the emphasis away from the poppy, but bite-y electric guitars and the sarcastically intelli­gent atmosphere of that sound — and moves into the kind of territory inhabited by... not even so much by Prince as by Madonna: the "all of my nights..." midsection could very easily be pictured sitting somewhere in the middle of True Blue. Moreover, Susanna Hoffs does her best to sex up her vocals, developing a «bedroom voice» that does sound suspiciously close to Madonna's.

Most albums are usually judged on the strength of their lead single — in this particular case, ʽManic Mondayʼ is not very representative of the rest of the album. First, most of the songs are still originals, composed by Hoffs and the Petersons, or covers of artists you'd expect them to co­ver (Big Star, Jules Shear). Second, the guitars make a loud return on the second track already, and rarely let us down afterwards — and they are good, trusty, jangly Bangl-y guitars, not the ge­neric pop metal crap that ruled over mainstream rock releases in 1986. What does unite these songs with ʽManic Mondayʼ is (a) the production, which feels slicker and more technology-de­pendent than before, and (b) the overall feel — where All Over The Place kicked ass and felt strong and self-assured, Different Light comes across as a spiritual surrender... «...in which the ladies embrace their feminine side and purge their pretty heads of superfluous ideas».

Not totally, of course. New bass player Michael Steele, for instance, gets to contribute ʽFollo­wingʼ, a sparse acoustic ballad (which could have been even more effective, I think, without the unnecessary synthesizer hum in the background) that could serve as a blueprint for most of Ani DiFranco's career: punchy jazz/folk chords, strong, independent vocals, harsh post-breakup lyrics etc. It is not as immediately overwhelming as the big pop hits, but in time, it gets its warranted status of overlooked highlight.

But on the other side of the deal, you have ʽWalk Like An Egyptianʼ — written by Liam Stern­berg, the song is musically innovative (it sounds like a light calypso number turned into a speedy rock anthem at the last moment) and lyrically fun, yet ultimately quite light-headed and trifling: naturally, it ended up becoming one of their largest hit singles, if not the trademark song to be remembered by (particularly since everyone except for Debbi trades lead vocals across the dif­ferent verses). Great stuff for parties, but if you ain't much of a party goer, chances are you will get tired of these friendly hooks fairly quickly.

Nevertheless, far be it from me to call Different Light a «bad» album — «disappointing», yes, but if all «disappointing» albums had this kind of quality, we would have to rethink the meaning of the word itself. Frankly speaking, there are no bad songs here. The Jules Shear cover is irresis­tible, even if the main guitar riff is made to sound like ABBA and Hoffs' vocals are once again done Madonna-style. The interpretation of Big Star's ʽSeptember Gurlsʼ, once again with Steele on vocals, is respectful and well executed (and was quite instrumental, by the way, in restoring Big Star's reputation and earning the struggling Alex Chilton quite a bit in royalties). ʽStanding In The Hallwayʼ, ʽReturn Postʼ, ʽNot Like Youʼ — all of them catchy, fun, enjoyable numbers. Cal­ling them «slick» is probably justified, but if we only get to remember what was really slick in 1986, one of the worst years in mainstream pop music history, Different Light will have no choice but to, well, be seen in a different light.

In other words, the album is nowhere near close to a catastrophe on its own — it sets the girls up for a fall, indicating the inevitably downwards direction their career would take from that point, but the LP itself is well above any devastating criticism, and still a must-have for all lovers of good pop music, though probably not for the average «girl power» fan. Isn't it ironic, really, that Prince was so impressed by one of the girls' punkiest songs (ʽHero Takes A Fallʼ), that it stimula­ted him to write them one of their «girliest» songs — one that they accepted and swallowed up without a hitch? Isn't that much better proof of the man's Mephistophelian powers than whatever Tipper Gore ever spotted in his silly sexist lyrics?.. Oh well, never mind. Sexist, feminist, slutty, or punkish, or both, this is a certified thumbs up in any case.   


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Thursday, May 30, 2013

Barclay James Harvest: Baby James Harvest

BARCLAY JAMES HARVEST: BABY JAMES HARVEST (1972)

1) Crazy (Over You); 2) Delph Town Mom; 3) Summer Soldier; 4) Thank You; 5) One Hundred Thousand Smiles; 6) Moonwater.

I used to think this was a «bad» album, and a real downer of a closer for the first and best period of BJH's presence on the scene. But a more just and balanced look would rather suggest that this is merely a «problematic» album, one that reflects pressure on the band from within (creative bickerings — something that inevitably creeps up when almost everybody in the band writes his own material) and without (apparently, some or all of them were exhausted from touring). And when Barclay James Harvest have problems, they don't beat around the bush: they simply fall back upon their influences and become even more derivative than usual, which is their own trade­mark way of being «uninspired».

The first «problem» is the name of the album itself — clearly alluding to Sweet Baby James. Not a smart move: it's bad enough to make a pun on a James Taylor album if you are going to make something that sounds like a James Taylor album — it is completely incomprehensible if you are not going to make anything that sounds like one. At best, the album opener ʽCrazy (Over You)ʼ may be said to sound like Crosby, Stills & Nash — in fact, it does sound very much like Crosby's ʽLong Time Goneʼ in its chorus — but overall, it wobbles between art-pop and progres­sive structures, never truly attempting to toy with the «California sound» or any other introspec­tive schools of soft rock. And the wobbling seems a bit out of control.

The album returns to epic format: side A is dominated by Lees' anti-war suite ʽSummer Soldierʼ, and side B is ruled by Wolstenholme's orchestral suite ʽMoonwaterʼ — apparently, the two were recorded separately, with Lees and the rest of the band working in Stockport while Woolly was rearranging the different pieces of the «Barclay James Harvest Orchestra» in London. The former is decently sewn together, and features at least one highly memorable «symphonic guitar» theme in the middle, one that probably wouldn't be refused by a Steve Howe — however, on the whole it just doesn't have enough muscle to convey the anti-war sentiment properly (and the straight­forward lyrics with their rally-like structure and clichéd imagery do not help much). The track's heavy use of sound effects at the beginning, with church bells, marching feet, gunfire, and looped tapes of "kill, kill, kill", may have been inspired by ʽThe Unknown Soldierʼ — but as far as my nerve centers are concerned, the Doors achieved much, much more over that song's three and a half minutes than Lees does here in ten.

That said, the Lees opus is still enjoyable and mildly touching, which is far more than could be said of ʽMoonwaterʼ — who on Earth wants to hear Woolly Wolstenholme do a straightforward Mahler tribute, particularly if (as usual) it comes out sounding like Max Steiner instead? This is neither proper Barclay James Harvest, nor proper progressive rock: just a lot of romantic melo­drama, aping late 19th / early 20th century masters without any major purpose.

Of the remaining songs, ʽDelph Town Momʼ is pleasant, well orchestrated folk-rock with a jazz streak; ʽThank Youʼ is a pleasant, upbeat rocker combining elements of «power pop» with a brawny «pub» attitude, although its repetitive looped riff is promoted a bit too heavily; and ʽOne Hundred Thousand Smiles Outʼ is a rather strange tribute to ʽSpace Oddityʼ and ʽRocket Manʼ at the same time (the freshly released ʽRocket Manʼ must have been the stimulus, but "can you hear me there below?" is way too similar to "can you hear me major Tom?" to be a coincidence — granted, Les Holroyd's singing is also at times highly reminiscent of Lennon's style, so the song is a real crazy mishmash of influences).

Overall, except for ʽMoonwaterʼ, which is simply an important-sounding waste of time, each of the songs has something to offer for the not-too-demanding art-pop lover. The album's major problem is that the band is once again short on genuine creativity — for their self-titled debut, this could be excused, but now that they had almost begun coming into a style of their own on Short Stories, Baby James looks «regressive» in comparison: solid if judged exclusively on its own merits (and ultimately deserving of a skeptical thumbs up), but somewhat disappointing when viewed in context.


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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Bee Gees: E.S.P.

BEE GEES: E.S.P. (1987)

1) E.S.P.; 2) You Win Again; 3) Live Or Die (Hold Me Like A Child); 4) Giving Up The Ghost; 5) The Longest Night; 6) This Is Your Life; 7) Angela; 8) Overnight; 9) Crazy For Your Love; 10) Backtafunk; 11) E.S.P. (vocal reprise).

It is a very good thing for the world of music (I think) that, after the commercial failure of Living Eyes, the Bee Gees went into a six-year seclusion, at least, as a brotherly team — although they did briefly resurface with half a soundtrack to Stayin' Alive, an expected unnecessary sequel to Saturday Night Fever that nobody needs to either see or hear (ʽThe Woman In Youʼ was the single, a bland synth-rocker with none of the sleazy glamor of the Saturday Night singles). For the most part, they spent the mid-Eighties writing for other people — remember Diana Ross' Eaten Alive? No? Good.

It is a very bad thing for the world of music, though, that the Bee Gees eventually decided to go back to the studio before the Eighties were out. Now that they were under contract with Warner Bros., which had swallowed up Atlantic Records, they found out they could re-unite with Arif Mardin, and, apparently, they expected the magic of Mr. Natural and Main Course to strike out and reignite their careers. Problem is, no matter how professional or experienced, Arif Mardin was a straightforward guy — in 1974-75, he steered them towards commercial success by focu­sing on what was considered «hot» back in the day, and why would one expect him to have acted different in 1987? Electrofunk rhythms, programmed drums, synthesized bass, and elevator key­boards all the way, just exactly what the good doctor has prescribed.

Whether E.S.P. is or is not the worst Bee Gees album ever is questionable (it certainly has some competition from some of the records that would follow) — what seems unquestionable is that this album marks the band's transition into the last and saddest phase of their career: twenty years of total musical irrelevance when, not content with the simple status of an «oldies act», singing everything from ʽNew York Mining Disasterʼ to ʽYou Should Be Dancingʼ before appreciatively glamorous Vegas crowds, the Bee Gees stubbornly went on to churn out record after record in strict accordance with «mainstream expectations». In other words, what they have become in 1987 is not so much a «synth-pop» act (at least real «synth-pop» is able to generate some bodily excitement, which is not the case here) as a strictly «adult contemporary» one.

And in the process, they have forgotten how to write songs. I mean, completely and utterly for­gotten. This does not always happen with age: not a lot of artists could go from 14 near-perfectly written songs (as on 1st) to 10 pieces of totally meaningless triteness in twenty years (and I am not counting Rod Stewart, since he wrote very few of his own songs). But it happened with the Bee Gees — the band that used to produce vocal hooks, generate thrilling chords, and dress them up in luxurious arrangements, now seems to think that as long as their brotherly harmonies are still in place, everything else can be taken care of by session players and producers, or not be taken care of at all.

Occasionally, people praise ʽYou Win Againʼ, the album's lead single, as the only thing worthy of attention — some even call it a late period masterpiece. It does have an upbeat, memorable vocal melody, but the music is horrible, from the mock-industrial percussion intro to the flabby tinkling electronic keyboards. I could easily envision the vocal melody transplanted, safe and sound, into a healthier musical body (after all, Lindsey Buckingham did save the beauty of ʽBig Loveʼ, re­corded that same year in a thoroughly dated synth cocoon, by later reinventing it as one of his greatest showpieces for acoustic guitar), but fact is, it seems to have never happened in reality — even much later live performances stick to the original horror.

And even so, ʽYou Win Againʼ is the only vocal melody on this record that generates decent emo­tions. Everything else is either generic stiff balladry (ʽLive Or Dieʼ, ʽAngelaʼ), or, much worse, mid-tempo dance-pop that tries to pass the brothers off as cool funksters who still know how to shake that ass like they knew in 1979. Problem: they had very little knowledge of that in 1979, and they have absolutely no knowledge of it in 1987 — I mean, ʽBacktafunkʼ, really? And what is the point of remembering all their disco hit song titles in ʽThis Is Your Lifeʼ if it is the same song that also features the line "more rap, less crap" (seriously!)?

Of course, plenty of people were deluded around the same time — it would be cruel to dismiss E.S.P. simply for its adherence to drum machines and synth loops. But even Phil Collins made better albums with the same ingredients. With all the previous styles that they had explored, the Bee Gees were able to sense at least the form, if not always the substance, and even if one finds the «message» of ʽNight Feverʼ disgusting, they found the perfect envelope to package it in. On E.S.P., behind the thick cardboard walls of its Excruciatingly Sonorant Production, there are no hints at all that the brothers were even mildly interested in exploring the potential of this new sound on their own — they just took whatever they were given, and ended up with a bunch of Exceptionally Stupid Pablum. For the record, no less than twenty people collaborated on the final mixes of the songs — just another good example of how much energy we waste in the modern world for obscure and dubious purposes. Thumbs down: now that the Eighties are viewed in the overall context of several decades before and after them, the most prudent solution is to regard this monstrosity as a particular aberration in Bee Gees history, and not look back at it any more.


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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Blues Magoos: Basic Blues Magoos

BLUES MAGOOS: BASIC BLUES MAGOOS (1968)

1) Sybil Green (Of The In-Between); 2) All The Better To See You With; 3) I Can Hear The Grass Grow; 4) Yellow Rose; 5) I Wanna Be There; 6) I Can Move A Mountain; 7) President's Council On Psychedelic Fitness; 8) Scare­crow's Love Affair; 9) There She Goes; 10) Accidental Meditation; 11*) You're Getting Old; 12*) Subliminal Sonic Laxative; 13*) Chicken Wire Lady; 14*) Let Your Love Ride; 15*) Who Do You Love.

The band's third and final attempt to make themselves noticed in a world of gruesomely heavy competition. Some creative growth is evident: all of the songs but one are originals, and the one cover is that of a contemporary psycho-pop single — The Move's ʽI Can Hear The Grass Growʼ, very suitable for the Magoos' current interests and much more «relevant» than, say, another Jim­my Reed or Ray Charles tribute. However, this is where the growth starts and ends: in all other respects, this is just another Blues Magoos record, well on the level of Electric Comic Book, but still lacking anything even remotely close to the «bomb» of ʽNothin' Yetʼ.

The opening number, ʽSybil Greenʼ, is this album's ʽPipe Dreamʼ: a song that seems to have plenty of potential, but ultimately remains a failure — the descending organ riff, its main claim to individuality, is not given enough prominence to register itself deep in the emotional core, not against the wimpy vocals, the disappointing lack of hook in the chorus, or the simplistic power-pop rhythm guitar backing. It has all the ingredients of The Move, for sure, but none of that band's talent to make these ingredients matter.

It is all the more evident when you look at them actually covering The Move: on one hand, they honestly work to bring out to light some of the facets of ʽI Can Hear The Grass Growʼ that were underdeveloped in the original (such as the colorful guitar riff introducing the verses, somewhat smudged in Roy Wood's version, but quite resplendent here, despite worse production), but on the other hand, they completely undermine the song's psychedelic capacity by choosing a more aggressive, lower-pitched and barkier approach in the chorus: their "I can hear the grass grow, I can hear the grass grow, I see rainbows in the evening" is delivered almost like a call-to-arms, which is definitely not what this peaceful and, essentially, introspective song really needs.

Elsewhere, the Blues Magoos now come across as a slightly lighter version of Blue Cheer: on songs like ʽAll The Better To See You Withʼ and ʽThere She Goesʼ they mask the paucity of ideas with a thick, brutal sound that still lacks interesting chord sequences. ʽThere She Goesʼ has a curious solo section (some proto-electronic bleeps in the nascent style of United States of Ame­rica, battling over turf with freakout electric guitar), but that's about it. Maybe if they at least had hired an expressive singer... at this point, the lack of a good vocalist in the band really becomes a problem — their vocal melodies seem to be more thoughtfully constructed than instrumental ones, but neither Scala nor Tielhelm know how to do them justice.

ʽI Can Move A Mountainʼ aspires to become a touching epic, rooted as much in dark folk as it is in jangle-pop, but loses out just as well because (a) the production is tedious, with everything, from vocals to organ to rhythm section, glued together in tapeworm fashion; (b) the vocals, apart from the first bars of its «romantic» opening, are nasal and «wooden» at the same time; (c) the mid-section, with its twenty seconds of loud musical chaos instead of a normal solo, is pointless, because the «crashdown» comes from nowhere, is completely unexpected and out of place (un­like, just to quote the first analogy that crept up in my head, a similar «crashdown» in the middle of Bruce Springsteen's ʽAdam Raised A Cainʼ, where it concludes a ripping solo and has a well identifiable purpose of its own).

And that is not to mention minor ridiculous excesses — ʽScarecrow's Love Affairʼ, for instance, which is not only a bad attempt to cross psychedelic trippings with a barroom rock vibe, but also ends in at least one whole minute of recordings of engine noises, a minute we should all have saved for something better to do. Or the generic psycho-folk conclusion of ʽAccidental Medita­tionʼ, which is neither really a meditation nor certainly accidental. (And I'm not saying anything about the one-minute «link» of ʽSubliminal Sonic Laxativeʼ, attached as a bonus track — except that it is hardly even worth checking out to learn what it is that is so embarrassing about it).

I suppose that, on some level, the album certainly justifies its «#435 for 1968» rank currently awarded to it by the reviewers at RateYourMusic — considering the greatness of the year, #435 isn't too bad — but the rank more or less correctly reflects the order in which I would recommend adding Basic Blues Magoos to anybody's collection, as well. Style-wise, I have no problems with the record — the band has proved capable of adapting to changing fashions, shifting to heavier grooves, modernized technologies, and a larger amalgam of different styles. But the playing, the sin­ging, and the songwriting departments are still understaffed, and now that there isn't really a single song here that I'd like to keep in memory, I have no choice but admit that the Blues Ma­goos' boat had sunk back then, even before the original band split up and became replaced with a «Peppy Castro Post-Blues Magoos Experience». Thumbs down.


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Monday, May 27, 2013

Bobby Bland: I Feel Good, I Feel Fine

BOBBY BLAND: I FEEL GOOD, I FEEL FINE (1979)

1) I Feel Good, I Feel Fine; 2) I Can't Take No Mo'; 3) Little Mama; 4) Tit For Tat; 5) Someone To Belong To; 6) Soon As The Weather Breaks; 7) In His Eyes; 8) Red Sails In The Sunset.

All right, this one does not even deserve three paragraphs. Apparently, two ladies approached Bobby on the corner, each planting a kiss on one of his aging cheeks, while a third one almost literally "picked his brain",  convincing him to go disco. And even if the anti-disco backlash had already started by that time, how can you just say no, with two lovely ladies planting kisses on your cheeks? The only thing to do is to hop it up and go — with the six-minute title track announcing that trouble is finally over, and now you are lis­tening to a Bobby Bland album for the hip dance grooves, none of that depressing «deep soul» stuff that might lead you to dark thoughts of... never mind. In fact, it would even be best for him not to sing at all — and he doesn't (on the title track, that is).

The most hideous realisation of all, though, is that the silly hop-along title track, with the ladies chanting "I feel good, I feel fine, it's alright" as if they were advertising Prozac, is the best thing on the album — once Bobby cuts in on the second track, the tempos start slowing down (without losing the disco skeleton), and things start getting less fun and more serious without any adequate compositional, instrumental, or vocal merit to justify the change in style. Strings and brass almost completely drown out guitars and even keyboards; gospel (ʽIn His Eyesʼ), blues (ʽI Can't Take No Mo'), balladry, and pop are sifted through the same sieve; the lyrics accordingly suck (I swear I remember something along the lines of "you are my magnet, I am your dragnet"), as do some of the song titles (ʽTit For Tatʼ? — yep, very 1979-ish indeed); and although Bobby dutifully attacks all these monsters like a pro, he can do nothing worthwhile, saddled with this kind of material. Thumbs down for the sleeve alone, although we'd only seen the beginning of the slide.


Sunday, May 26, 2013

Akron/Family: Sub Verses

AKRON/FAMILY: SUB VERSES (2013)

1) No-Room; 2) Way Up; 3) Until The Morning; 4) Sand Talk; 5) Sometimes I; 6) Holy Boredom; 7) Sand Time; 8) Whole World Is Watching; 9) When I Was Young; 10) Samurai.

All right, who called for another order of Animal Collective? On their sixth LP, Akron/Family step away from some of their wildest, most experimental maneuvres, and record a set of songs that would probably sound best next to an Ewokan campfire. Not that Sub Verses aren't wild and experimental — but the album seems to have more discipline, and behave in a more predictable manner than its predecessor. Nor was it recorded in a cabin on Hokkaido: the band moved to Seattle and El Paso for the sessions, which must have produced a healthy effect on their overall sense of reality.

As usual, the band has been praised for its diversity — the songs, in typical Akron/Family fashion, cover plenty of rootsy, artsy, and psycho ground, yet the record does not have a diverse feel, be­cause, by now, we know what a stereotypical Akron/Family treatment is: heavy tribal percussion, instrumental loops, and choral harmony chanting characterize almost all of these songs, be they «bluesy», «folksy», or «baroque» in essence. This time around, however, the shamanistic ritual that they practice seems to have been thought and carried out with more precision and, dare I say it, a larger sense of purpose than usual.

ʽNo-Roomʼ opens the proceedings with an almost math-rock arrangement of busy drum fills and guitar flourishes, while the vocals chant gruff quasi-Tibetan mantras about the difficulties of see­ing and breathing. The song's roll is a bit monotonous, but it actually helps that not as much is going on at the same time as is these guys' usual penchant; this is still not enough to convince the skeptic of any «serious intentions» that the song might have, but at least this makes it «quirky» rather than «confusing». The gloomy accappella part with the "we held on fast, we held on strong" vocals is, in fact, a bit shivery, an excellent achievement considering how rarely these guys manage to stir up a genuine emotional response.

Next comes ʽWay Upʼ — with its dialog between percussion explosions and vocal outbursts pseudo-randomly popping up from different channels, this song probably the Animal Collective rip-off on this album, but Akron/Family come from a different background: they are a rock band, after all, and their wil­ling­ness to learn from their furry electronic brothers does not go all the way — the sounds of these tribal campfire anthems are, on the whole, crunchier than those of AC.

Next comes everything else: as usual, Akron/Family care little about catchiness (although there are so many looped choruses here that, by and large, something is bound to catch on), but the real reason why individual songs are not worth individual commentary is that they are all part of the same lengthy ritual, and each separate part of it, taken on its own, is meaningless outside of the general context. Towards the end, they seem to get a little more sentimental on tracks like ʽWhen I Was Youngʼ and ʽSamuraiʼ (even a little nostalgic, I'd say), but that, too, sort of feels like a natural conclusion of the ritual after the «heavy» parts.

And some of the parts, mind you, are quite heavy — ʽSand Talkʼ, ʽSand Timeʼ, and particularly ʽHoly Boredomʼ are often drowned in deep fuzz and flattened out with percussive sledgehammers. The heaviness itself is nothing new for Akron/Family at this time, but it does not seem gratuitous­ly arbitrary (like the heavy riffage on ʽSo It Goesʼ from the preceding album) — it just highlights the energy-demanding parts of the campfire ritual.

None of what I have just said means that this is a «good album». Like most of the Akron/Family records, I do not properly «get» it — nothing will ever resolve this band's problem with sounding natural, not to mention «relevant» in any way. But somehow, this time around they really arran­ged their ingredients in a way that can be intriguing and stimulating for whoever needs a little extra intrigue and stimulation these days. I'd like to say that ʽHoly Boredomʼ is a good title to describe the entire album, but in reality, it's more like ʽUnholy Non-Boredomʼ — a focused, con­centrated effort to make spirits ride that ends up a fascinating misfire, where their Hokkaido ex­perience was just a pretentious mess of a misfire. At least, such is my initial impression: watch me return to this record in about three hundred years, and change this opinion.


Check "Sub Verses" (MP3) on Amazon

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Bardo Pond: Bardo Pond

BARDO POND: BARDO POND (2010)

1) Just Once; 2) Don't Know About You; 3) Sleeping; 4) Undone; 5) Cracker Wrist; 6) The Stars Behind; 7) Wayne's Tune.

An eponymous album released late in an artist's career usually indicates some sort of «reboot», but in this case... actually, it isn't «eponymous»: judging by the album cover, it's «untit­led», so let us look for analogies with Led Zeppelin rather than the Beatles. But if Led Zeppelin were relea­sing their untitled album as an experiment, just to see if it'd sell fewer copies without the artist's name on it (and, of course, it didn't), with Bardo Pond, it is rather obvious that their devoted fan army is of a highly stable, yet utterly tiny nature, and it is probably futile to expect it to double just because some Bright Eyes fans might look at the sleeve picture and get the wrong idea.

In any case, Bardo Pond simply picks up from where Ticket Crystals left off — or, rather, «dragged off»; as usual, it is best appreciated if you forget everything you knew about Bardo Pond before listening to it. If at all possible, they seem even slower, dronier, more lethargic here than they used to: this is seventy minute of very draggy, very nerve-wrecking stoner rock. And un­fortunately, the more they seem determined to tighten the grip on the old formula, and squeeze any traces of compromising out of the system, the more boring it all eventually gets. At 21 minu­tes, ʽUndoneʼ is their longest opus so far after ʽAmenʼ, but seems to completely lack the «world-building» enthusiasm of its predecessor — its only interest is in testing the «backwards effect» on its lead guitar lines for about 12 minutes, before the predictable noisy build-up and explosion puts the track on the downward slope for the next 8 minutes.

One of the shorter tracks almost claims to «real song» status, but it isn't a particularly good song: ʽDon't Know About Youʼ sounds like standard fare alt-rock, drowning in sludge guitars, even if it is rendered some­what seductive by its memorable opening lines (Isobel's "Jesus is coming, but I'm willing to wait" isn't exactly on the level of "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine", but it is the first verbal line on a Bardo Pond song, in twenty years, that commands attention).

Of the rest, in between the heavy psychedelic boredom of ʽUndoneʼ and the light aethereal (ʽSlee­pingʼ) or swampy (ʽWayne's Tuneʼ) panoramas of acoustic / slide guitars and flutes, only one track stands out as a worthy addition to the catalog: ʽThe Stars Behindʼ has the good sense to present itself as a pompous, crashing anthem, played in waltz time and sung by Isobel as if it were some highlanders' drinking song, rearranged for a more courtly presentation. This is a fresh approach, fully deserving of receiving the standard Bardo Pond treatment (that is, with the Big Freakout Guitar Build-Up and all that goes with it). Unfortunately, its freshness is rather easy to overlook, seeing as how it is the next to last track on the album.

In short, a four-year break in regular album output might just as well never have happened — these guys are fantastically tenacious in clinging to their Vatican-size fanbase (a whoppin' two reviews for this 2010 album on Amazon just goes to show you who still really cares), and, if any­thing, you gotta have some admiration for this obstinacy. But at this point, they are in their «late period AC/DC» stage — doing the same thing that they used to on auto-pilot, generating second- and third-generation impressions that preserve the form but dissipate the spirit, with an occasional inspired exception every now and then.

Allegedly, it is possible that I have missed out on some fantastic experiences by neglecting the remainder of Bardo Pond's «semi-official» catalog: throughout the 2000s, the band has produced around 12-15 «fan-only» releases (as if anything else they do is not strictly «fan-oriented» as well) that usually contain lengthy improvised psycho jams, recorded before a live audience or in the studio (the first six, from 2000 to 2005, are simply entitled Vol. 1 ... 6, and from there on, sport individual titles). The few bits and pieces I've heard sound like Bardo Pond alright — should we really expect Duke Ellington? — but hardly as if they were saving their absolute best for improv time, so dip in at your own risk if your reverence towards this band exceeds mine.

I can only conclude here that Bardo Pond seem to have outlived their time — they are very much a «1990s» band, and had they simply faded away after Dilate, the world would not have become a lonelier place. But on the other hand, fifty years from now, time will compress itself, and those who come after us will probably look at this stuff from an entirely different angle — for them, the entire «Bardo Pond Collected Works» may simply be one large fifty-hour piece, split into several hundred sections like a set of preludes and fugues. Who knows?


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Friday, May 24, 2013

Bangles: All Over The Place


BANGLES: ALL OVER THE PLACE (1984)

1) Hero Takes A Fall; 2) Live; 3) James; 4) All About You; 5) Dover Beach; 6) Tell Me; 7) Restless; 8) Going Down To Liver­pool; 9) He's Got A Secret; 10) Silent Treatment; 11) More Than Meets The Eye.

We will not be remembering them for ʽEternal Flameʼ — we will remember them for this album, one of the finest treasures to come out of the «Paisley Underground» and a fine reminder for every­one that it is possible to be retro and innovative, old-fashioned and new-fangled, style-cen­tered and catchy, formulaic and emotional at the same time. Of course, its national and interna­tional fame did not really come until Prince arrived on the scene and turned them into gilt-bronze two years later, but who's to be surprised? They don't call it underground for nothing.

All Over The Place was not the Bangles' first release: two years earlier, it was preceded by a five-song self-titled EP, which some critics predictably hail as the Bangles record to abide by — not because it still features original founding mother Annette Zilinskas on bass (soon to be repla­ced by Michael Steele), but because it is still delightfully lo-fi, released on the aptly titled indie label «Faulty Products» instead of Columbia. However, other than better production, All Over The Place does not really represent any fallbacks from the aesthetics of Bangles — both the EP and the LP even share exactly one cover of an old garage «nugget» (The La De Da's ʽHow Is The Air Up There?ʼ and the Merry Go-Rounds' ʽLiveʼ, respectively), and are best taken together, which would only bring the total length to 44 minutes anyway.

So what's good about these Bangles? First, they really love their guitars: both Susanna Hoffs on rhythm and Vicki Peterson on lead have rich, thick, powerful, and colorful power-pop tones. They like to jangle that stuff (ʽLiveʼ), but they can just as well use it for crunchy purposes (ʽRest­lessʼ), or throw in wailing pop riffs that rival their idols, Big Star (ʽGoing Down To Liverpoolʼ). The two have just enough technique to think of various interesting things to do over the instru­mental breaks (like the Nashville-influenced guitar break on ʽAll About Youʼ; or the way ʽJamesʼ starts out deceptively as a funk-rocker, only to take a completely different turn ten seconds later and never go back again) — but not enough to engage in empty flash. As light and insubstantial as most of these songs are, these ladies are musicians, not «babes with guitars».

Second and most important, they are excellent B-rate songwriters: B-rate, because all the ele­ments are familiar, and they do not even try to conceal it (ʽI'm In Lineʼ off the EP is built on the ʽTaxmanʼ riff, and God knows how many Beatles or Big Star chord sequences are less openly in­volved in the other numbers), but excellent, because it never really bothers me — the ingredients are reshuffled expertly and with feeling, the tempos are lively and exciting, and the singing is... well, always nice to hear some simple, happy, ringing, innocent-sounding tones in an era when the female intellectual ideal was defined by the likes of Kate Bush or Siouxsie Sioux — not that I have anything against either, but there is always room for a Susanna Hoffs as well.

Highlights include... just about everything. ʽHero Takes A Fallʼ and ʽJamesʼ are probably the most anthemic and easily memorizable / recognizable songs, although the album as such is more frequently identified with a cover of Katrina and The Waves' ʽGoing Down To Liverpoolʼ — a song that the Bangles took up, colored up with less distortion and more treble, made a little less angry with more melodic singing (drummer Debbi Peterson carries the lead), and they still ended up with a credible rocking attitude. ʽRest­lessʼ is more in the blues-rock idiom (with the lead vocal going to the lower-pitched Vicki Peter­son here), but pulled off quite credibly; and their janglier, or their country-western-er sides (ʽDo­ver Beachʼ; ʽTell Meʼ) are also delightful.

It all works, because there is not only unbridled love for guitar-based pop rock, expressed here so freely in an age of dance beats and synthesizers, but there is also one thing that prohibits most of to­day's bands from recreating the Bangles' success: a total lack of fear of being judged too «silly», too «lightweight», too «fluffy» — these songs are innocent and simple in mood and execution, and they have no double bottom or any other secrets to slowly unravel over repeated listenings. But neither does any of this sound like an expertly calculated retro-affair — the girls have been raised on a punk bedrock, after all, and overall, an album like this would have been impossible in the pre-Ramones, or, more accurately, the pre-Patti Smith era: as retro as it is, in terms of cha­racter toughness displayed, it clearly belongs to their time.

Actually, come to think of it, All Over The Place is simply timeless — unpretentious high-qua­lity entertainment for the ages, even topped off with a little bit of chamber pop: ʽMore Than Meets The Eyeʼ is a good title to introduce the accappella opening, the Merseybeat-style har­monies, and the modest string quartet that form the album's coda, and show an additional side to the girls' versatility — they not only know their ʽTaxmanʼ but their ʽShe's Leaving Homeʼ as well. Naturally, it's all «fluff» — no deep insights are to be gained or previously unexplored paths un­locked from listening to the Bangles even at their best — but in 1984, it took brains, brawns, and guts to produce this particular kind of fluff. Thumbs up.

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Thursday, May 23, 2013

Barclay James Harvest: ...And Other Short Stories


BARCLAY JAMES HARVEST: ...AND OTHER SHORT STORIES (1971)

1) Medicine Man; 2) Someone There You Know; 3) Harry's Song; 4) Ursula; 5) Little Lapwing; 6) Song With No Meaning; 7) Blue John Blues; 8) The Poet; 9) After The Day.

The key word is «short»: although ʽBlue John Bluesʼ almost reaches the seven-minute mark, the record consciously stays away from «epic sweep» this time around — almost defiantly so, what with progressive acts all around going in the opposite direction. Even if the decision was not set in stone (epic length would make a return on the next album, with rather questionable results), it was still important — BJH letting us know that they still pledge allegiance to the «art-pop» attitude of Moody Blues / Procol Harum in an era when the «art» and the «pop» components were beginning to get segregated once more.

And the results were worth it: most of the songs still work very well, on some level or other. Mel­lotrons, cellos, melodic vocal harmonies, a little baroque mixed in with a little gothic, and even the song titles and lyrics are somewhat improved, without any straightforward Tolkien references provoking accusations of cheap fanboyism or trend-hopping. At the same time, the entire album is permeated with a healthy sick world-weary spirit — nothing like a strong shot of intelligent pessimism to make a meaningful statement out of potentially empty art-pop hooks.

Of course, the Merlin-meets-Bradbury words of ʽMedicine Manʼ are not exactly a peak of «intel­ligence» per se ("oh what a cold surprise the flying horses cried"?), but the good thing is that they are vague enough to not warrant any direct analysis, just like Jon Anderson's blistering logorrhea (provided that the listener is not familiar with Something Wicked This Way Comes, which served as the chief inspiration for the song). The important thing is that the orchestral arrangements once again transform this dark folk ballad into something grand, stately, and ominous, and thus it sets the general tone for the album: softer and smoother than ʽShe Saidʼ (in general, Short Stories goes easier on screechy Lees leads, but the loss, for now, is compensated by many gains), yet just as retro-romantic.

On the other hand, ʽHarry's Songʼ, if you do not pay much attention to the words, may seem to be one of those «little man» tunes in a Ray Davies vein — actually, it is about the death of a parrot (no, there will be no gratuitous Monty Python references here), but parrot or person, it is a memo­rial song written without a gram of artificial sentimentality: in fact, it's an angry song, and the way they resolve the chorus — "something stirred today, and Harry he passed away", with the record's angriest riff echoing the pissed-off bitterness in John's voice — makes for one of the re­cord's finest hooks. Arguably the best song about the death of a parrot ever written.

The «magnum opus» of ʽBlue John Bluesʼ is allegedly a lyrical swipe at the musical industry; it may take a few listens to sink in, since its basic structures are more «rootsy» than «artsy», but it moves quite self-assuredly from a slow piano ballad format to pub-rock energetics and back, as if illustrating the public demands of cheap entertainment over introspective depth — quite a clever song, really, that makes it all the more amazing how the band would very soon lose the ability to come up with such inventive moves.

In the meantime, Beatles fans — or, rather, ELO fans — will be mighty pleased with Wolsten­holme's ʽSomeone There You Knowʼ, all of it built upon seductive Jeff Lynnian vocal modu­la­tions and power-pop guitar accompaniment; baroque folk lovers will welcome ʽUrsulaʼ and ʽSong With No Meaningʼ, two more contributions to the band's luvvable pastoral backlog; and ʽAfter The Dayʼ is «Armageddon-lite», way too melodic to properly reflect an end-of-the-world scenario, but moving all the same.

Overall, I would judge that Short Stories are tied with the self-titled debut as a solid proposition for BJH's finest half-hour: running a bit shorter on «major» hooks, perhaps, but without a single misfire or way-too-obvious rip-off — this here is a band that shows more than simply fanboy adoration of their influences, coming into its own as a markedly early 1970s guardian of mar­kedly late 1960s values, so to speak. Too bad this homely magic did not work for long, but at least the tapes are still rolling. Thumbs up.

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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Bee Gees: Living Eyes


BEE GEES: LIVING EYES (1981)

1) Living Eyes; 2) He's A Liar; 3) Paradise; 4) Don't Fall In Love With Me; 5) Soldiers; 6) I Still Love You; 7) Wild­flower; 8) Nothing Could Be Good; 9) Cryin' Every Day; 10) Be Who You Are.

A classic case of post-(Saturday Night)fever fatigue syndrome — the Bee Gees' first album of the new musical decade sounds forced, tired, uninspired, and generally superfluous. The brothers had allegedly disowned the album themselves, claiming that they were pressed into recording by the studio at a time when they really needed to sit back and rethink their image: with the anti-disco backlash tearing their reputation to pieces, and the proverbial truth of «the higher the climb, the harder the fall» landing upon them in full force, it was really unclear where to go next after the spirits had flown and yesterday's mass-cultural heroes became today's mass-cultural clowns.

The biggest irony of it all is that, in the end, Living Eyes still ended up a much better album than both the one that preceded it and the «comeback» that would follow it six years later. Not having enough time to rethink anything and come up with a carefully construed «nu-image», the Bee Gees simply resorted to the one thing they usually did best — that is, writing pop songs and re­cording them. Living Eyes has no direct «affiliation»: it is not disco, it is not New Wave, it is not trendy synth-pop, it is not retro symph-pop, it is just a bunch of typically Bee Gees songs, re­corded without much forethought or gimmickry. Not particularly good Bee Gees songs, I might add — there is nothing here to suggest even a partial recovery from the disco-induced «genius' block» — but not utterly without redeem, either.

The overall sound of the album is glossy and synthetic alright (the Bee Gees would never again be able to recapture the «organic» sound of their pre-Main Course records), but the acoustic folk-pop harmonies that form the core of the Gibb style are well emphasized, and the guitars are not drowned out by the electronics (as they would be eventually), nor is the production crappy enough to infringe on the vocal harmonies. Speaking of which, Living Eyes almost completely rejects falsetto — ʽSoldiersʼ being the only serious exception — welcoming Barry Gibb back to the «world of real men», provided he still remembers what it used to look like.

So the major problem is not with the style — it is rather bland, sterile, and unadventurous, but not ugly, crassy, or cheesy — but with the songs. Things start out kind of okay with the title track, whose romantic chorus is relatively pretty and even seems to recapture a tiny spark of the «cour­teous nobility» of old. Slow it down a little bit, bring back Bill Shepherd, and it would not feel out of place on To Whom It May Concern at least. Rebirth? No, because already the second track, ʽHe's A Liarʼ, inexplicably chosen as first single, is a pointless pop-rocker, recorded in a style that could have worked for Foreigner, but not for the Bee Gees — and its main hook is a contrast between a deep baritonal and a high falsetto rendering of the song title: a silly gimmick that only confirms that yes, the well has run dry after all.

Only three songs out of ten have managed to register on my brain cells with a positive charge — these are the title track; ʽParadiseʼ, another midtempo adult contemporary ballad with a very natural and emotional flow from verse to bridge to chorus (my favourite part is the bridge — the "run a mile for the minute" part); and, out of the blue, a Maurice original — there is something odd about the wimpiness of ʽWildflowerʼ that produces an endearing effect. Everything else ei­ther comes across as an inferior copy of one of these three songs, or represents an inept attempt at «rocking out softly» (ʽCryin' Every Dayʼ is in the same vein as ʽHe's A Liarʼ, and goes in the same null void direction). Some diversity is provided by Robin taking significantly more leads than he did last time around, but with such poor songwriting, it does not matter much already who is singing what.

Maybe at least a part of the lackluster atmosphere of the record could be explained by the Gibbs firing their studio veterans at the beginning of the sessions — not only Blue Weaver, who was re­sponsible for the keyboards throughout the disco period, but even old buddy Alan Kendall, who was already hanging around in their Trafalgar days. With more than a dozen different session musicians taking their place, there is no wonder that Living Eyes has no «signature sound», or that the strictly-bread-and-butter arrangements do not offer even a single curious flourish or twist to feed the hungry ear. On the other hand — who knows if anything could be done for the Bee Gees at the time? The harder they come...

No, the only words of consolation would have to refer to the falsetto-dropping and the revival of the acoustic guitar — Living Eyes is boring alright, but it sounds like a record made by living people; people who, perhaps accidentally, did not have the time to program it into an efficient commercial proposition and just went ahead on an almost spontaneous basis. It is a dang shame they could not do better: this might have been their very last chance at making a late-period mini-masterpiece, but, after all, they did sign the contract, and the devil did honor his part of the deal — now it was up to him to ensure that the Bee Gees would never properly rise again.

Still, it seems cruel to end the review with a thumbs down, considering how, in retrospect, the record really looks like a breath of moderately fresh air in between all the methane emissions. Iro­nically, despite making history as the first album to have been printed in CD form (the brothers even got an extra BBC promotion for that, although it didn't do them any good anyway), Living Eyes has long since been out of print, and the Gibbs, dead or alive, would not go out of their way to help re-endorse it. But eventually, in a better, post-World War III world, once Bee Gees al­bums are no longer rated by the amount of copies sold, that mistake will be rectified.

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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Blues Magoos: Electric Comic Book


BLUES MAGOOS: ELECTRIC COMIC BOOK (1967)

1) Pipe Dream; 2) There's A Chance We Can Make It; 3) Life Is Just A Cher O'Bowlies; 4) Gloria; 5) Intermission; 6) Albert Common Is Dead; 7) Summer Is The Man; 8) Baby, I Want You; 9) Let's Get Together; 10) Take My Love; 11) Rush Hour; 12) That's All Folks.

As bold and presumptuous as a title like ʽThere's A Chance We Can Make Itʼ might sound, the Blues Ma­goos' second album, taken in the context of its time, clearly shows that there is really no chance whatsoever of their making it. The band does find itself ready to conform to the usual re­quirements: compared to the six covers on Psychedelic Lollipop, this follow-up only has two, with every member of the band, even the drummer, joining the resident songwriters' guild — and its title and structure give it even more of a «mock-conceptual» flavor. Unfortunately, not only is this not a Sgt. Pepper, it isn't even quite on the level of second-rate 1967-style psychedelic apings by the likes of the Pretty Things or the Hollies.

The problems remain the same — lack of songwriting talent — and they are best illustrated on the opening number: ʽPipe Dreamʼ is fast, energetic, and psychedelic-tinged, but not a single in­strumental or vocal line is shaped into a decent hook. Ralph Scala's organ and Mike Esposito's «raga-blues» guitar, played Frisco-style, rub nicely against each other, but the same could be said about a million other songs from the same year. The song has neither the catchiness nor the ten­sion build-up of ʽWe Ain't Got Nothin' Yetʼ, and it is actually surprising that they managed to get as high as No. 60 on the charts with it — what with all the insane competition going around.

The other three songs that the band released as singles are even less impressive: ʽSummer Is The Manʼ is tender folk-pop in the vein of the Searchers, but without that band's competence and per­fectionism to compensate for the sappiness; ʽLife Is Just A Cher O'Bowliesʼ is a weird retro throwaway in the style of, say, Del Shannon — it probably has the catchiest vocal melody on the album, but it is not quite clear what particular business does a ballsy garage rock band cover by switching to such a «namby-pamby» style; and ʽThere's A Chanceʼ tries to melt your brain with continuous feedback and droning vocals, but since there is no hook attached, it is not clear what need there is of this song — surely, if we just want the feedback and the trippy atmosphere, we'd all rather listen to Jimi than to these guys.

Overall, the only original number here that shows potential is the very last song — ʽRush Hourʼ could have been a top-notch heavy rocker (in fact, its distorted guitar / organ duet niftily presages the classic Deep Purple pairing of Lord and Blackmore) if only the song had better... better every­thing: better production, better mix separation, better playing, better singing, better internal de­velopment, better coda... other than that, great job, really.

But there is no better proof than the band's totally successful, impressive cover of Them's ʽGloriaʼ to the statement that the lack of songwriting talent was their main problem — it is a very worthy successor to ʽTobacco Roadʼ as a psycho freakout, and one where the insane jamming section actually stays more in touch with the main sung part (on ʽTobacco Roadʼ, the basic melody and the crazy free-form section were, after all, sewn together rather crudely). This is arguably the first extended, six-minute long, interpretation of ʽGloriaʼ found on record (earlier Gants, Shadows Of Knight, and other covers ran for less than three minutes, respecting the original), and might just as well be one of the best.

Additionally, it is humorous to discover that a song called ʽLet's Get Togetherʼ, which, given the circumstances, you'd probably expect to be a Jefferson Airplane-type peace-and-love hippie an­them, is really a cover of a Jimmy Reed booze-blues number — together with a drunk, teetering-tottering imitation of Jimmy's «toothless» delivery. Nothing special, that is, but just the kind of material towards which the Blues Magoos clearly feel a more natural affection than towards all sorts of flower power stuff.

The «conceptual» nature of the record shows in the brief links — the ʽIntermissionʼ and the ele­ven second-long Looney Tunes finale (ʽThat's All Folksʼ); together with the album title, they pro­vide a «pulpy» spirit, amusing and self-ironic at the same time. But even here, the band only dips one small finger in the water — by the end of the year, The Who Sell Out would show every­body how far one can go in that direction without fear of drowning the good stuff in kitsch and parody. All in all, Electric Comic Book, listenable and modestly enjoyable as it is, still feels like a failed exam — reinforcing the feeling that ʽNothing Yetʼ was just an accidental fluke.

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Monday, May 20, 2013

Bobby Bland: Come Fly With Me


BOBBY BLAND: COME FLY WITH ME (1978)

1) Come Fly With Me; 2) Lady Lonely; 3) Night Games; 4) To Be Friends; 5) I'm Just Your Man; 6) Love To See You Smile; 7) You Can Count On Me; 8) This Bitter Earth; 9) Ain't God Something.

Well, apparently, someone thought that Bobby «Bland» was getting a bit too «acid» for a time that called for more and more mindless entertainment loaded with positive emotions. So ABC Re­cords called in a bunch of corporate songwriters, most of whom are a complete mystery to me (R&B stalwart Tyrone Davis is the only name I recognize on one of the credits), and saddled Bobby with a set that put his lonely, depressed, soulful persona in the trash bin — calling on the «ladies' man» persona. Oh well. At least it ain't disco, and at least nobody is forcing him to switch to the falsetto register.

The record is professional enough not to sound awful, and Bobby certainly has enough qualifica­tions to play the ladies' man convincingly — in fact, I'd go farther than that and say that the title track does have an uplifting funk-pop hook, and that its guitar / brass / flute / chimes / strings ar­rangement (no effort spared, so it seems) is very well done. Nor can I deny the relative catchiness and even occasional seductiveness of several other songs on here — for instance, the sexy purr of "if you feel the need, go ahead and cry" of the female backup on ʽLady Lonelyʼ, or the anthemic chorus of ʽLove To See You Smileʼ, which could almost pass for sincerity, if only it weren't so utterly dated by its late-1970s formalities.

And yet, no matter how slick, overproduced, or interchangeable one might have found Bobby's major efforts of the decade, when the man was in «tragic» mode, he was really on — demanding nothing but the smokiest from his backing band and playing the broken-hearted card for all it could be worth. In this here happy-sappy mode, though, no matter how much professionalism he keeps demanding from his backers, the songs just don't hit hard enough to merit a comeback — just one more of those albums that is okay while it lasts, then forgotten in a flash. Maybe the title track and ʽLove To See You Smileʼ are worth salvaging for anthology packages. But as for the rest, even the one lonesome gospel number, saved for last (with a somewhat sacrilegious title — doesn't ʽAin't God Somethingʼ sound just a bit... inappropriate?), feels more like a local newsreel (he was nailed to the cross and all that) than a moment of inspiration. In other words, the balance between «soul» and «craft» is completely upset in favour of the latter. No wonder, then, that the album has never been released on CD — from this point on, Bobby's records are becoming in­creasingly hard to find anywhere except for Ebay and used vinyl bins, and there is nothing co­incidental in this period being marked off by Come Fly With Me.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Broken Social Scene: Something For All Of Us...


BROKEN SOCIAL SCENE PRESENTS BRENDAN CANNING: SOMETHING FOR ALL OF US... (2008)

1) Something For All Of Us; 2) Chameleon; 3) Hit The Wall; 4) Snowballs & Icicles; 5) Churches Under The Stairs; 6) Love Is New; 7) Antique Bull; 8) All The Best Wooden Toys Come From Germany; 9) Possible Grenade; 10) Been At It So Long; 11) Take Care, Look Up.

Well, er, I suppose that Brendan Canning quickly followed up on Kevin Drew's «solo» album with his own one since he wanted us to insightfully compare his individual artistic vision with that of his partner. The trouble is, once I'd finished listening to Something For All Of Us..., I for­got absolutely everything I remembered about Spirit If..., so, what with this thing about a revie­wer's responsibility and all, I honestly went back to Spirit If... and gave it another twist. But then it turned out that, by the time the last song was over, I could not keep in mind even a single thing about Something For All Of Us... So, not wanting to disappoint my readers, I immersed myself once again in Brendan Canning's one-and-only solo oeuvre. It was not an unpleasant listen, but, needless to say, once I finally got down to the review, there was nothing in my head to compare it with. For some reason, Drew and Canning just couldn't share adjacent space in my memory cells. It was then that I finally got it — the two guys' styles are so similar that they act upon each other like two positive charges. Whatever you do, don't listen to them in a row. Put some AC/DC in between, or maybe a full CD of didgeridoo soloing.

Anyway, it's too late to be drawing serious comparisons now, so just a few quick words on whe­ther this «Broken Social Scene Presents: Brendan Canning» thing has any autonomous value, or if it can be used to generate awesome epiphanies in the brain, or if we should encourage the au­thor to develop this style even further. These few quick words, in their correct order, are: it hasn't, it cannot, and we shouldn't. Nice sound overall, though.

Apparently, Canning favours a slightly heavier sound than Drew: there are more distorted guitar parts here, more forceful percussion rhythms, and the anthem-to-ballad ratio seems a little heavier on the anthem side. But none of it matters, since most of the anthems are just straightahead «alt-pop» without any extraordinary melodic content. You know something is definitely not right here when the «element of surprise» on the album consists of unexpectedly encountering a disco bass line on one of the songs (ʽLove Is Newʼ) — as if this decision had some deep meaning (in reality, most likely, it is just part of the same old nostalgic trend, where people raised on disco, even if they thought they hated it when they were in their teens, were still surreptitiously encoded to re­turn to it twenty or thirty years later).

Of the rest, ʽChurches Under The Stairsʼ has some funny falsetto awoo-awooing; ʽAll The Best Wooden Toys Come From Germanyʼ is a short and pretty «ambient-folk» instrumental in the vein of BSS' first album; ʽPossible Grenadeʼ has a powerful riff-based coda; and that's all, folks — everything else is non-descript inasmuch as it can all be described by the small world of for­mulae long since set in stone. No better and no worse than the average BSS album, I think that Something For All Of Us... should be legally sued for moral damage by the word «something» — and honestly, I'd take something really wild, offensive, and disgusting, like Ted Nugent, over this sterile-packed «Piece Of Mass Art For The Progressively Illuminated 21st Century Art Lover» any time of day. Thumbs down.

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Saturday, May 18, 2013

Bardo Pond: Ticket Crystals


BARDO POND: TICKET CRYSTALS (2006)

1) Destroying Angel; 2) Isle; 3) Lost Word; 4) Cry Baby Cry; 5) Fc II; 6) Moonshine; 7) Endurance; 8) Montana Sacra II.

Most of the reviews of this album that I have seen went the predictable way about it — preten­ding to forget about everything that Bardo Pond did since Amanita, and comparing it directly with their earliest records. Because this at least gives you an opportunity to fill the space up with something, e. g. «it is interesting to note that the heavy psychedelic guitars take a step back in or­der to make more room for Isobel Sollenberger's flute», even though the flute presence here is not really any more overwhelming than it was on their previous two records. But we do have to find progress in everything that we listen to, right?..

Well, forget it. The only thing there is on Ticket Crystals that constitutes a genuine surprise is a cover of the Beatles' ʽCry Baby Cryʼ — apparently, recorded for a John Lennon tribute album (commemorating the 25th anniversary of the murder) and placed here for fear of being wasted. It is actually quite a decent, minimalistic cover for the first three minutes: acoustic guitar, percus­sion, and vocals that are very loyal to the original phrasing and intonation. Then, once the main body is done, the number finally turns into real Bardo Pond, as waves of feedback finally hit the shore, and that which was pretty singing just a few moments ago is now blurred mumbling — «The Beatles according to Bardo Pond» indeed.

Everything else remains steadfast and true. The funereal atmosphere of Ellipse is lightened up a bit, rolled back to earlier standards: the acoustic chords and ambient flutes of ʽIsleʼ are a little melan­cholic, but «relaxing» rather than «depressing» (and feature unusually «clean» vocals from Isobel, so that not only can one finally decipher a few of the words she is singing — not that there is any need to — but also understand that getting in key is a really difficult job for her, even if she has a nice folksy soprano tone). The heavy fuzz-and-grumble is back with a vengeance on ʽDestroying Angelʼ and ʽFc IIʼ. And the band seems to have developed a real taste for backward vocals — ʽMoonshineʼ and ʽLost Wordʼ, in particular, play around with tape direction as if it were 1966 all over again.

That said, on any evaluation scale that takes Bardo Pond for a curve rather than straight line, Ticket Crystals is a bit of a disappointment. The heavy stuff is not nearly as heavy as it used to be, and the light stuff is not nearly as moody. It's not that they aren't doing anything «new», it's just that doing the «old» no longer seems to arm them with excitement. Some of these drones, particularly the closing ʽMontana Sacra IIʼ, already seem to confuse «atmosphere» with «sheer tedium». For the newly grown fan, unaware of Amanita, this can still be enchanting; but I see no reason for the seasoned veteran to award Ticket Crystals any more points than one would, for instance, award to the Rolling Stones' Black And Blue over Let It Bleed. Essentially, this is the sound of a mood-oriented band past its moody prime, tenaciously clinging to the old formula, but hardly deriving any further happiness from it — even for their own selves, let alone the listeners. Hence, I do hereby give the album a thumbs down, despite a Bardo Pond-perfect running length of seventy-seven minutes... wasted length, because the mind, already addicted to Amanita-level psychedelia, needs seriously stronger stuff than this to start reeling.

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