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Sunday, June 30, 2013

Adebisi Shank: This Is The Album...

ADEBISI SHANK: THIS IS THE ALBUM OF A BAND CALLED ADEBISI SHANK (2008)

1) You Me; 2) Dodr; 3) Colin Skehan; 4) Shunk; 5) Mini Rockers; 6) Agassi Shank; 7) I Answer To Doc; 8) Snake­hips.

There is one thing that bugs me about the debut album of this band called Adebisi Shank, titled This Is The Album Of A Band Called Adebisi Shank, as well as the slightly earlier 4-song EP by the same band, called This Is The EP Of A Band Called Adebisi Shank (it makes sense to treat the two within the same review, considering that both are executed in the same style, and that the «Album» runs only slightly over 20 minutes anyway). The thing that bugs me is that the individual titles, breaking the established idiom, are not listed as ʽThis Is The First Composition On The Al­bum Of A Band Called Adebisi Shankʼ, ʽThis Is The Second Composition....ʼ and so on. Instead, they inexplicably adopt the old pretentious jazz tradition of assigning random combi­na­­tions of words and non-words to their instrumentals. This does not seem consistent. Then again, the very name of the band is essentially a meaningless word combination («Adebisi» is the name of a character from the Oz TV show, chosen rather randomly), so the inconsistency goes even farther than that...

Nevertheless, this is as far as I can go about seriously criticizing the record, because in all other respects Adebisi Shank, a power trio from Wexford, Ireland, created out of the ashes of an earlier «post-rock» project, Terrordactyl, build up one of the strongest cases for «math rock» that I have ever witnessed (although be sure to take my words with a grain of salt, since I am anything but a solid expert on these hip new genres). Their older peers, like Don Cabal­lero, and their contemporaries like Battles may have collected more fame under their belts, but this is mainly due to different marketing strategies — Battles go for a more public image, whereas Adebisi Shank mainly keep to themselves and let their music do all the talking, and I do mean all: there is no singing whatsoever, other than a few electronically processed and looped vocal bits from time to time, nor do they waste their times on music videos (although their live shows have gained an exceptionally high reputation).

Now, in general, «math rock» is a dubious enterprise. In their hyper-rationalistic efforts to find the «perfectly complex» combination of beats, chords, and effects even the best representatives of the genre (and it is hard to tell who the worst ones are, since math rock, by its essence, requires a mega-level of intellect, technique, and creativity) may drive themselves into the quagmire of purposelessness (well, then again, real mathematicians sometimes do that, too). So when I first heard about these guys and decided to give them a first try, I was certainly skeptical — especially since my latest math-rock experience had been with BATS, where the first three or four songs are usually awesome, and then the headaches begin.

But Adebisi Shank ain't anything like BATS and their «heavy metal trigonometry», or even like Battles and their chipmunk robot fantasies. The difference is that, while all those bands do the kind of «robot rock» you'd expect a robot to produce if the robot were pressed into inventing rock music, Adebisi Shank do the kind of «robot rock» you'd expect a robot to produce if the robot wanted to create his own impression of a previously experienced and «assimilated» wild rock'n'roll band, let's say, with a slice of Celtic heritage (be it AC/DC, Slade, Thin Lizzy, or U2, echoes of all of whom — and many more — may be heard throughout the album).

Most of the instrumentals are taken at fast, pouncing tempos. The rhythm section is almost com­pletely dependent on the powers of drummer Mick Roe, who isn't much about tricky, off-beat polyrhythms à la Bill Bruford, but sometimes sounds like a finally disciplined and harnessed avatar of Keith Moon — filling up as much space as possible with his loud and surprisingly melo­dic bashing, but all of it according to a strictly pre-planned and perfectly realized strategy. Bass guy Vinny McCreith (whose stage gimmick consists of always wearing a mask while play­ing — he says it's all about having the audience concentrate just on the music, but maybe he's just an IRA veteran on the run) usually provides the main riffs and melodic developments throughout the show: the bass is laid on in such thick, distorted swabs, that most of the time you will pro­bably be playing air bass to these tracks than air six-string.

Not that any of this means depriving guitar guy Larry Kaye from what is rightfully his: there is plenty of guitar riffage as well (usually doubling the bass), and when he gets around to soloing, the two-handed tapping technique, long associated with the self-indulgence of pointless «guitar wankery», displays a fuck-'em-all spirit set against the relentless jackhammer punch of the drums and the brutal bass onslaught. Larry also seems like the only player out of the three who is some­times allowed to improvise, and when he does, the guitar bursts out in splatters of punkish anger, showing that our robot has probably even spent some time in the company of the Stooges.

Individual tunes, be it on the EP or the LP, are all but useless to name — they are about as diffe­rent as individual tunes on an AC/DC album (actually, the guitar tone and snappy chords of the main riff to ʽMini Rockersʼ might have made Angus and Malcolm very happy): if you are truly impressed by one of these compositions, you will probably want the enchantment to last to the very end, and if you are not, you probably just don't have enough robot blood floating in your veins. I will tentatively single out ʽColin Skehanʼ as a personal favourite (mainly for the ultra-cool stop-and-start false coda), and ʽYou Meʼ as the album's deviating tune (it's got the only vocals on here, even if they only consist of the song title, distorted and looped as befits a robot freshman, recently initiated into the wonders of kick-ass rock'n'roll).

If you are interested, be sure not to miss the EP as well — compared to the longplay, it is even heavier, although, fortunately, that heaviness is of the neo-garage type rather than the death metal type. (ʽJump Cutʼ, with its choppy chords, is particularly telling, although the song eventually switches over to a somewhat romantic mood, becoming a suitable background for a never written Bruce Springsteen epic; they do not go for that kind of sentimentality on the LP). Limitations of their chosen genre, and its inborn deficiencies (such as the very hard task of imbuing this stuff with «soul», although the band really works wonders within the formula), obviously prevent it from the status of an all-time classic, but not from a solidly guaranteed thumbs up.

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Saturday, June 29, 2013

Barenaked Ladies: Stunt

BARENAKED LADIES: STUNT (1998)

1) One Week; 2) It's All Been Done; 3) Light Up My Room; 4) I'll Be That Girl; 5) Leave; 6) Alcohol; 7) Call And Answer; 8) In The Car; 9) Never Is Enough; 10) Who Needs Sleep?; 11) Told You So; 12) Some Fantastic; 13) When You Dream.

Stunt indeed — with the surprising success of ʽOne Weekʼ as the album's lead single, Barenaked Ladies managed to pull the stunt of becoming major celebrities almost overnight. Apparently, all it had to take was for Robertson to start rapping: channelling the band's trademark loquacity and humor into a hip-hop riverbed proved to be the key, even if the actual music never strays away from the regular pop-rock format. The song's subject matter (an ironic look at stupid breakups over nothing) probably did not matter as much as the rapid stream of cultural references — every­thing from Snickers to Sailor Moon to Harrison Ford to Kurosawa — but overall, the whole thing just sounds funny. Heck, it is funny — reinstating the band's «smart college clowns» image on a more sophisticated level than that of ʽBe My Yoko Onoʼ.

The rest of the album, fortunately, drops the rap angle (one stab is okay, more than one could be interpreted as too much groveling before the altar of the Beastie Boys and such), but continues to unfurl the general approach. The tempos are faster, the moods are lighter, the lyrical matters are quirkier, the hooks are sharper — the somber mood that permeated the previous two albums is all but gone, so that even the slowest and most sentimental number (ʽCall And Answerʼ) is an opti­mistic song of future reconcilement instead of a bleak account of separation. And although, from time to time, they do walk that fine line that separates clever satire from gimmicky novelty tunes (I still cannot quite make up my mind about ʽOne Weekʼ, for that matter), Stunt on the whole does not produce the impression of a «clownish» album.

For instance, already the second single, ʽIt's All Been Doneʼ, is just a well-written power-pop song, with jangly folk-rock guitars, Beatlesque ooh la-la-las and whoah-whoahs, and lyrics that complain about the repetitive nature of intimate relationships without any particularly smartass verbal flourishes. If it weren't for the vocals — one more pretext to repeat that Page and Robert­son always needed a much more accomplished and versatile vocalist in the band — it might have been a late masterpiece of the genre.

On the other hand, the third single, ʽAlcoholʼ, does derive much of its charm from the lyrics, which certainly paint a much more likable portrait of the substance than the Kinks song with the same title. What used to be «demon Alcohol» now becomes "alcohol, your songs resolve like my life never will" and, despite the clearly tongue-in-cheek attitude, could have easily been picked up by some promotional campaign (maybe even has?). If the song's basic melody leaves something to be desired, they compensate for it by loading the track with pianos, violins, and electronics — to demonstrate, no doubt, the sheer amount of sights and colors that alcohol brings into one's life. One can only guess at the popularity ranking of the song on the college circuit when it came out.

Genre diversity is displayed throughout: ʽIn The Carʼ appropriates an old surf-rock pattern; ʽNe­ver Is Enoughʼ has an organ part that almost sounds lifted from an old Bob Dylan number; ʽTold You Soʼ carries on the country-pop vibe with a whiff of R.E.M. drea­miness (not one of my favourites, it does sound a bit like an outtake from the Pirate Ship sessions); ʽSome Fantasticʼ swerves into bossa nova territory. As usual, though, the album does not feel diverse, because the personality of the Ladies remains the same throughout — it just helps avoid the impression of «one long song separated by pauses».

It all does make me, wonder, though: why does my personal favourite song on here happen to be the least typical of the album? ʽWhen You Dreamʼ is formally placed at the end as a good night lullaby, to smoothe out the edges, but even though I generally do not care much for the heart-on-sleeve side of the Ladies, this particular tender waltz (in which one can hear distant echoes of John Sebastian and the Lovin' Spoonful, among other things) strikes such a fine balance between sentimentality and intelligence that I would place it right next to John Lennon's ʽBeautiful Boyʼ in a personal rating of «toddler tunes». At the very least, it is hard to imagine it not finding the proper resonance in the heart of each and every inexperienced parent, provided that parent is advanced enough to own a copy of Stunt.

In other words, ʽWhen You Dreamʼ symbolizes the ultimate victory of emotion over reason, but that does not annul the effects of the other songs — on the whole, this is not quite the return to the level of Gordon that one might have hoped for, but it is a certified «return to making sense», with the band completely in their element. Lively, fun, smart, diverse within reasonable limits — not genius, just rock-solid quality, liberally sprinkled with charisma. Thumbs up.


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Friday, June 28, 2013

Bathory: Bathory

BATHORY: BATHORY (1984)

1) Storm Of Damnation; 2) Hades; 3) Reaper; 4) Necromansy; 5) Sacrifice; 6) In Conspiracy With Satan; 7) Arma­geddon; 8) Raise The Dead; 9) War; 10) Outro.

Whatever you think of the whole «black metal» schtick, it has to be acknowledged that, for an 18-year old, Bathory is quite a stunning achievement. There is one thing I am not sure of, and that is the whole «lo-fi» approach. On one hand, it is quite consistent with the general ideology of this band that their output should sound as if it were recorded inside a tightly packed garbage can. On the other hand, even the Devil himself probably likes to ride in style, rather than appear in the image of Freddy Krueger, the only guy who would have probably found the production standards of Bathory completely to the liking of his charred guts.

Which is too bad, because this record, even sharing as it does most of the clichés associated with «extreme» musical genres, is genuinely innovative (for its time) and impressive (for ours). The music is basically a cross between Venom and Slayer, with the grinning hellish carnival attitude of the former set to the thrash metal punch of the latter. Venom serve as the primary inspiration: not only is the goat picture on the front sleeve conceived as a tribute to the front cover of Black Metal, but even several of the songs share the same titles (ʽSacrificeʼ, ʽRaise The Deadʼ). But the music is faster, angrier, «punkier» than Venom ever got, and clearly reflects the influence of the thrash scene — as far as Bathory's opinion is concerned, the Horsemen of the Apocalypse ride fast and hard, and the music has to reflect that fact.

Most importantly, though, the music reflects the unquestionable talents of Thomas Börje Fors­berg, usually known by the name of Quorthon, who, by the tender age of 18 years, had not only mastered the high level of guitar technique required to qualify for «metal master», but also deve­loped a taste for complex and interesting riffage. Sure, it takes time and patience to rip through the awful production barrier (the whole album was slap-dashed together in a garage, converted to a recording studio), but after a couple of listens — which go by fairly fast, as the entire album clocks in at a very wise 26:52 — the riffs come through, and they are all similar, but different enough to distinguish one part of this twenty-six minute suite of death and destruction from ano­ther. Which is all that is required of them; the rest consists of a sworn dedication to kick ass at top speed (only ʽRaise The Deadʼ slows the tempo down a little bit, probably because the dead are not accustomed to rise as quickly as the Four Horsemen are accustomed to ride).

Quorthon's vocals, at this point, are strictly locked in the «evil scream» mode — a bit less laugh­able than typical «growling» vocals, just as his lyrics are a bit less laughable than the average black metal lyric, especially considering that they come from the mind of an 18-year old Swedish guy. (Well, they are laughable, but for the most part, the words are strung together without offen­ding style or grammar). Just how serious the guy was exactly is hard to tell — as far as I know, nobody ever caught Quorthon in the act of burning down a church or feasting on the flesh of freshly baptised Christian babies, but, of course, stuff like "The lies of Christ will lose / The ways of Hell I choose / I drink the floating blood / Defy the fury of God" (ʽIn Conspiracy With Satanʼ) shows character — and helps build plenty of it.

Anyway, even though I cannot, for the life of me, award an explicit thumbs up to anything with this kind of production (if cleverly constructed riffs are your main forté, I can find no acceptable excuse to insult these riffs with cheap equipment), and, besides, Bathory would move on to much higher ground in the future, this self-titled debut is a fairly amusing listen — could even be one for open-min­ded Christians, who are not above a smirk or two at a caricaturesque, but professio­nal musical depiction of the Antichrist. Rumour has it that Quorthon expressed surprise and dis­tress when, upon the release of the album, the band started receiving blood-written letters and dead animals in the mail — then again, it only means that he managed to get into character all too well. (But a funny trivia bit: apparently, Quorthon's father was the head of a Swedish record label, and helped the kid out with recording and distribution during the early days of his career. So either we have to conclude that the band was a completely phony act from the beginning, or they got pretty liberal record label heads out there in Sweden).


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Thursday, June 27, 2013

Barclay James Harvest: Octoberon

BARCLAY JAMES HARVEST: OCTOBERON (1976)

1) The World Goes On; 2) May Day; 3) Ra; 4) Rock'n'Roll Star; 5) Polk Street Rag; 6) Believe In Me; 7) Suicide?

As the band keeps on wobbling between slightly pleasant and slightly tasteless ideas, this some­what less gimmicky recording from 1976 seems like a bit of an improvement over Time Honou­red Ghosts. The title makes little sense — it is a pun on the name of Oberon, making use of the fact that this was to be the band's eighth record; yet there is absolutely nothing «Oberonian» about it other than the album sleeve, as that would surmise either medieval folk or at least color­ful psychedelia. But then, we should have already gotten used to BJH's senseless discrepancies between the sleeves and their contents (a curse they do share with many other artists). The impor­tant thing is that Octoberon is a little less commercial than its predecessor (maybe by accident, I don't know — it feels a little weird in the overall context of the curve), and takes a little more time and effort to crack open.

The anti-hero of the album is Les Holroyd. On Octoberon, his mind seems fully and completely occupied by orchestrated soft-rock of the mushiest category. ʽThe World Goes Onʼ and ʽBelieve In Meʼ are not entirely devoid of hooks (the former, in particular, is partly redeemed by a cathar­tic pair of guitar solos), but use tenderness rather than melody as their chief weapon, and Les' high register is just not very interesting or engaging, unless you simply like high registers, period. Even when he goes for something different and contributes a simple moral message about the perils of stardom (ʽRock'n'Roll Starʼ; this time around, it is up to Les, not Lees, to plunder and pillage the classics with a lyrical and musical quotation from the Byrds' ʽSo You Want To Be A Rock'n'Roll Starʼ), he does it in such a sleepy, near-frozen manner that I just can't imagine any­body who'd want to be that kind of a rock'n'roll star.

The «art silk» of these numbers is in some ways compensated for by Lees. ʽMay Dayʼ, in particu­lar, is a worthy epic on the subject of ideological confusion, appropriately mixing in a mishmash of musical segments (some short hard rock blasts, some choral vocals, even a bit of ʽIt's A Long Way To Tipperaryʼ) over the primary jangle-folk melody. ʽPolk Street Ragʼ is the heaviest, slea­ziest number on the album, reportedly inspired by Linda Lovelace ("Didn't know when I entered / Second seat, second row / It was then that I saw you / But your mouth stole the show" — yikes!) — cringeworthy, I guess, but at least I prefer this over ʽTitlesʼ. Finally, ʽSuicide?ʼ is a funny cop-out to end the album: a song pervaded by vocal and instrumental melancholy, but the question mark in the title and the line "felt the quick push, felt the air rush" in the lyrics eventually leave you in the dark as to whether there has been a suicide. After all, Barclay James Harvest are in no position to negate the value of life — not even Pink Floyd, to whom they are so indebted, went that far. And so the song forges out a bushel of pure sadness, but not depression.

All of which leaves Woolly with just one composition — expectedly, the most far out one out there. Maybe the gentleman was inspired by an Aida performance or a trip to Hurghada, but any­way, ʽRaʼ is an attempt to quickly trace the rise and fall of the great pagan deity over a seven-minute musical journey. One might ask, perhaps, why the musical journey owes all of it to the European tradition (Woolly himself admits that the first notes were directly quoted from Mahler's 1st Symphony — oh no, not Mahler again!) rather than trying to go for a mid-Eastern flavor, but then, heck, one could ask the same of Verdi, I guess. As far as slow, stately, atmospheric multi­part epics go, this one passes for a «poor man's Pink Floyd», with a heavy ideological debt to ʽEchoesʼ, yet still manages to hold its own — with heavy help from Lees, who is well willing to get into character and play the role of high priest-axeman.

So, as you can see, Octoberon is highly uneven in quality, but its diversity is appealing — Hol­royd pulling the band in the direction of Kenny Loggins, Lees blindly shuffling ideas from his own bag of thoughts and experiences, and Woolly still being able to remind the guys that they started out as a classically-influenced art-rock band. Of their mid-Seventies' albums, this is the one that best illustrates this odd «Steven Stills meets Mahler» melange, and works well on the nerves (if you are not looking for the sharpest of thrills in the art rock department). Consequently, the album deserves its not-too-excited, but honestly-deserved thumbs up.


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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Bee Gees: Still Waters

BEE GEES: STILL WATERS (1997)

1) Alone; 2) I Surrender; 3) I Could Not Love You More; 4) Still Waters Run Deep; 5) My Lover's Prayer; 6) With My Eyes Closed; 7) Irresistible Force; 8) Closer Than Close; 9) I Will; 10) Obsessions; 11) Miracles Happen; 12) Smoke And Mirrors.

I know it is hard to believe after the previous four reviews, but yes indeed, there is one very good song on Still Waters, very much in the style of Living Eyes and, appropriately, the best thing the Bee Gees have ever done since that album — the lead single ʽAloneʼ. It's been a long, long time since they last tried that simple, open, catchy type of folk-pop with a steady beat and an intelli­gently constructed and resolved vocal melody, but here it is, and even Barry's choice of the fal­setto as chief weapon for that particular session feels appropriate. The slick production is not slick enough to smoothe out the hooks (although, perhaps, the overall effect would have been even better without the synthesizers weaving their way inside the acoustic guitar pattern), and there are even some bagpipes hanging in there, fairly refreshing for the period.

The fact that ʽAloneʼ opens the album on such a positive note raises false hopes — are the Bee Gees finally getting back to their roots? Alas, they are not. The evil curse of the malevolent R&B spirit still hangs over the Gibbs' aging skulls, as it already becomes evident on the second track (ʽI Surrenderʼ — you do indeed), and remains so until the final minute. From here on, generic dance grooves and echoey adult contemporary ballads take over and run in such smooth, slick, sappy streams that an inattentive listen might easily make one confuse the Bee Gees with the Backstreet Boys, especially considering that, unlike their rather shabby external appearance, the voices have been preserved marvelously.

One other song that is often singled out as a highlight is ʽIrresistible Forceʼ, which does indeed manage to escape the dance beat curse and is realized instead as a straightahead dark-tinged pop-rocker, say, not unlike something by Duran Duran in their classic era. With Pino Palladino on bass, Carlos Alomar on lead guitar, Steve Jordan on drums, and a desperately soulful Robin lead vocal, you'd think they simply couldn't miss, but I still find the song terribly boring, with no in­di­vidual hook and no true creativity in the arrangement. At the very least, I see no sense in the Bee Gees doing that kind of material — 1980's college rock had already explored this «rock'n'roll rhythms with a dark personal vibe» theme so well that ʽIrresistible Forceʼ has nothing new to say, except that it says it with Robin's voice, and I am not sure that makes a positive difference.

Other than that, the only «positive» change is that there are no open embarrassments on Still Waters: be it the schlocky ballads or the nicely combed dance grooves, the Bee Gees generally act their age and cultivate images of suave, trivially elegant old gentlemen rather than steamy sexy lovers that live to move it. Unfortunately, this «graceful acceptance» of old age has not resulted in any epiphanies or career-rerouting decisions — only in sinking into further blandness, which could not be overcome even by the accidental success of ʽAloneʼ. The song is inspiring; the album is anything but — the usual thumbs down, please.


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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Blues Project: Projections

THE BLUES PROJECT: PROJECTIONS (1966)

1) I Can't Keep From Crying; 2) Steve's Song; 3) You Can't Catch Me; 4) Two Trains Running; 5) Wake Me, Shake Me; 6) Cheryl's Going Home; 7) Flute Thing; 8) Caress Me Baby; 9) Fly Away.

The band's first «proper» album, recorded without Flanders (everybody except for the rhythm section has his share of lead vocals), is the first proper LP-size imprint that Al Kooper made upon the world, and for that fact alone, is worth owning, admiring, and cherishing. However, like all Blues Project albums, it is inconsistent, and only occasionally starts scaling visionary heights — with Al as the band's resident visionary, and Katz and Kalb as a pair of disloyal henchmen, who, instead of supporting their clearly more gifted buddy, try in vain to steal the spotlight on every occasion. It is not that either of them is a poor musician: it is simply that, without Kooper, they seem unable to transcend the paradigm in which they had started out.

Take the cover of Muddy Waters' ʽTwo Trains Runningʼ, for instance. Even in late 1966, 11-minute tracks with long jam sections were still a relative novelty, and it took some guts to dedicate so much precious LP space to even one of them. But for the most part, it looks like the band itself is not quite sure about what to do with all that amount of time — mostly, they just waste it on a very slow tempo and a bunch of guitar and harmonica solos that sound a little... obsolete, perhaps, for an age where the Yardbirds and Cream were already setting new standards (and Jimi was just coming around the corner). They were probably thinking that, by expanding the composition, they could ensure some proper build-ups, climaxes, and finales for Muddy's «apocalyptic pin­nacle» of a song. But they do not.

Amusingly, it is actually the midsection of the much shorter ʽWake Me, Shake Meʼ that stands sonically close to the other well-known 11-minute monster from 1966 — the Stones' ʽGoin' Homeʼ, with freely ad-libbed vocals over a repetitive R&B groove. But although the song itself is among the most fun and rousing romps in Blues Project history, the groove section limps — too clean, too restrained, too laid-back to compete with the bite-and-snarl of classic Stones.

No surprise, then, that the most famous piece of the Blues Project's legacy, captured on the album, is neither a lengthy improvised blues-rock jam, nor a stark-ravin' rock'n'roll number: rather, it is Kooper's instrumental ʽFlute Thingʼ, a slightly dreamy number that rolls folk, jazz, and psyche­delia all into one, with Andy Kulberg's simple, but elegant and memorable flute part standing out as probably the first «serious» example of the flute as a lead instrument in a «pop-rock» context, a couple years before Ian Anderson made the situation casual. This is what the Blues Project should have done more often — an open-door synthesis of beauty and innovation. It isn't much of a «blues project», of course, but then again, ʽFlute Thingʼ does convey a blue feeling all the same, and whoever said that by «blues» we only mean the Chicago 12-bar stuff anyway?

This does not mean that the band is somehow pathologically unable to «rip it up». When Al is given the ideological lead, he knows how to make it work — his arrangement of the old blues tune ʽI Can't Keep From Cryingʼ as a hard-rocking stomper, with screechy distorted organ solos and accordingly screechy guitar counterparts from Danny, is first-rate, as it scales epic / anthemic heights, rather than attempting to delve into the devilish depths à la Muddy / Howlin' Wolf or to rapturously kick ass like the Stones. There isn't much credibility to the lyrics this way — the whole performance should rather be associated with punching fists through walls than with shed­ding an occasional tear over lost love, so something like "I can't keep from cursing" would have been a better idea for a title change — but this is not essential. What is essential is how the organ and the guitar meld together in ecstasy.

Other than those two obvious highlights, Projections is rather evenly divided between blues-rock escapades (including a fun, but superfluous cover of Chuck Berry's ʽYou Can't Catch Meʼ — again, the Stones did that one in a sparser arranged, but tighter and sharper fashion a couple years earlier), and friendly rootsy compositions like Kooper's ʽFly Awayʼ (fast country-pop with a light­ly psychedelic flavor) or a cover of Bob Lind's ʽCheryl's Going Homeʼ which sounds like... uhm, sounds a bit like the Monkees, I guess. Yes, I'm sure the Monkees would have loved to have that one on their debut album. Steve Katz also steps into the spotlight with ʽSteve's Songʼ, an in­teresting attempt at fusing a baroque-style menuet with gallant singer-songwriter folk-pop à la Donovan, although its consciously experimental and glaringly derivative nature still make it feel a bit artificial.

In conclusion, I think that anyone who would bother to seriously sit down with this record back in 1966 and listen to it several times in a row could have prognosticated the obvious — namely, that the conflicting forces within The Blues Project would not allow the band to last for long; that the only way it could have carried on would be by turning into Al Kooper's backing band (with Danny Kalb playing loyal second fiddle, as he does on ʽI Can't Keep From Cryingʼ), which was impossible; and that, most likely, The Blues Project would have remained in history as an im­portant, but brief page in the personal biography of Mr. Al. Nevertheless, Projections, even with all of its imminent flaws, does remain as Al's finest moment with the band, and fully deserves its thumbs up — ʽFlute Thingʼ alone is a steady guarantee, and individual flaws, after all, only ac­centuate the rich diversity of approach: other than modern classical and Eastern stuff, there is hardly a musical genre that does not get a nod on the record.


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Monday, June 24, 2013

Bobby Bland: Portrait Of The Blues

BOBBY BLAND: PORTRAIT OF THE BLUES (1991)

1) Ain't No Love For Sale; 2) Hurtin' Love; 3) These Are The Things That A Woman Needs; 4) I Can Take You To Heaven Tonight; 5) The Last One To Know; 6) Just Take My Love; 7) I Just Won't Be Your Fool Anymore; 8) She's Puttin' Something In My Food; 9) When Hearts Grow Cold; 10) Let Love Have Its Way.

Just as I was winding myself up into the brain-wrecking procedure of writing something «origi­nal» on Bobby's fifth or sixth Malaco album, news came in that Bobby passed away on June 23rd, 2013 — nothing to be particularly sorry about, since the man seems to have lived a long and gene­rally satisfying, well-deserved life that most of us could only envy. It would seem natural to dedicate this review to his memory, but then, like all of his late period records, this isn't a parti­cularly outstanding album to deserve a «specially dedicated» review. Rather, let us just hope this entire set of Bobby Bland reviews somehow helps to keep that memory alive.

Anyway, Portrait Of The Blues sounds almost completely the same way as Midnight Run. There are two relative highlights, placed at the very start. ʽAin't No Love For Saleʼ is a moody throwback to the days of ʽAin't No Love In The Heart Of The Cityʼ (the title of the latter is even chanted in the background, just in case somebody happened to miss the stylistic link), with a bit more tension than usual, generated not only by Bobby's vocals, but also by some pretty exquisite Clapton-esque guitar work (not sure who exactly is responsible — the liner notes list about four or five different guitarists, none of whom are all that familiar). Then ʽHurtin' Loveʼ completely switches the mood from desperate to optimistic, and the lead instrument switches to organ from guitar — an equally dexterous part. No melodic inventions whatsoever, just good vibes.

From there on, the album slows down a bit, loosens up, and becomes the usual always-nice, never-grabby sequence of blues ballads and lite funk, only shifting gears once on ʽShe's Puttin' Something In My Foodʼ (slow blues-de-luxe that sounds like every other blues-de-luxe number ever recorded, but the song title and the misogynist sentiments do look funny wedged in between all the romantic libations elsewhere).

As usual, most of the titles are «written» by Bobby's Malaco sidemen (quotation marks indicate that the actual writing has mostly been confined to the lyrics, and even these mainly consist of rearranging pre-available sets of blues idioms, in the good old folk tradition), and once again they decide to cut down on the covers — in every other respect, arrangements and production do not differ from Midnight Run one iota.


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Sunday, June 23, 2013

Burial: Street Halo / Kindred

BURIAL: STREET HALO / KINDRED (2012)

1) Street Halo; 2) NYC; 3) Stolen Dog; 4) Kindred; 5) Loner; 6) Ashtray Wasp.

Beat Records took the trouble of releasing two of Burial's EPs, Street Halo from 2011 and Kind­red from 2012, on a single CD — considering that they are ideologically quite close, this makes for a cozy enough «third album» to merit one more autonomous review: after all, much to Buri­al's honor, he does not regard electronic music recording as some sort of inevitable daily activity, on par with going to the bathroom, like quite a few of his peers do.

This does not automatically ensure that each new release of a Burial album turns into a mind-blowing event, but these two EPs, in particular, certainly go a step further than Untrue, and, I would say, more or less in the same direction in which Untrue alienated itself from the self-titled debut — namely, the music is gradually becoming louder and livelier, as if, indeed, the guy were busy constructing his own «cycle of life», where Burial represented the post-apocalyptic «cock­roaches, Cher, & Keith Richards» phase, Untrue was the baby organic matter recomposing itself after a lengthy wait period, and now these two EPs let you hear the newly developed steady pulse of life — immune not only to extreme radiation exposure, but even to dirty vinyl scratching.

The big difference, of course, is that, for the first time in Burial history, the dance beats are not only perfectly audible and usable, but they are also all over the place. ʽStreet Haloʼ employs a relatively straight techno track, to which Burial pins all his usual trademarks (melancholic ambi­ent synthesizers and vocal samples lifted from select R&B ballads). On ʽNYCʼ, the rhythms are more tricky, with an industrial flavor, but loud, precise, and predictable enough for the track to be classified as «body-oriented» — and then on ʽStolen Dogʼ the techno aspects are back, although, to be fair, all of the tracks are multi-part: every now and then, the beats sink into the mud, and the music takes some time to reform and regroup.

Kindred takes this liveliness even further by adding speed and frenzy — not on the title track, which mainly reproduces the atmosphere of ʽNYCʼ, but certainly on ʽLonerʼ, where not only the beats, but even the synthesizers are subjected to some rather unusual acceleration by Burial's standards (resulting in a slightly paranoid, never-stop impression not unlike the one triggered by Pink Floyd's ʽOn The Runʼ), and on the first part of ʽAshtray Waspʼ, whose rhythmic and melo­dic parts have really little to do with the image of an ashtray wasp — the fast-moving synth loops suggest dynamic journeying rather than immobile decomposing insect flesh.

That said, whether all this change is for the better or for the worse remains an open question. The transition from a largely «static» sound to a more dynamic ambience may give us reviewers something to write about, but it also steals away some of the bold charm that was the main reason to listen to and speak well of Burial in the first place. Ever so often, I catch myself thinking that, on their own, these tracks have nothing important to add to our understanding of electronic music ever since Richard D. James had expanded it so thoroughly even before the new millennium crept in. In context — yeah, sure, «death breeding life» and all that stuff that crept into my mind while trying to visualize the offered sonic ambience. But solitary standing — not really.

Granted, both EPs were generally met with tremendous praise by the critics: Kindred, in parti­cular, has received plenty of ecstatic rave reviews («never before has his music possessed this much majesty, this much command, this much power: the pathos here has moved from sym­pathetic to completely domineering», writes Andrew Ryce at Pitchfork, making me question the very es­sence of such terms as ʽmajestyʼ and ʽpowerʼ, neither of which I would ever associate with the music of Burial). But honestly, in terms of sheer substance, I see little, if any, progress here: basically, this is just the same solid Burial formula, made a bit more accessible for the average electronic listener. As such, this pair of EPs does deserve a solid thumbs up, but it hardly seems to deserve the «amazing techni­color breakthrough» tag that certain people suffering from long / short-term me­mory loss have been so keen on sticking to it.


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Saturday, June 22, 2013

Barenaked Ladies: Born On A Pirate Ship

BARENAKED LADIES: BORN ON A PIRATE SHIP (1996)

1) Stomach Vs. Heart; 2) Straw Hat And Old Dirty Hank; 3) I Know; 4) This Is Where It Ends; 5) When I Fall; 6) I Live With It Every Day; 7) The Old Apartment; 8) Call Me Calmly; 9) Break Your Heart; 10) Spider In My Room; 11) Same Thing; 12) Just A Toy; 13) In The Drink; 14) Shoe Box.

Third time around, and it's sort of a bummer. A little weakened, perhaps, by the departure of Andy Creeggan, but also seemingly a little strengthened by Page and Robertson deciding to col­laborate more tightly in the songwriting process, Born On A Pirate Ship makes the fatal mistake of being way too dark and serious way too much of the time. This state is simply not natural for these guys — they may be funny, or sarcastic, or smart, or witty, or poignant, or snobby, but singing songs of spiritual torment does not agree with these other states; most importantly, they lack the musical talent to provide the appropriate sonic backing.

Amusingly, it does not start out that way — ʽStomach Vs. Heartʼ, with its uppity martial punch and ironic subject matter («the material against the spiritual» and all that), even if it is not a par­ticularly great song, almost restores confidence in these guys, or, at least, seems to promise that the record is going to be a respectable sequel to Maybe You Should Drive. But then something odd happens, and the boys launch into an odd series of rather pedestrian murder ballads (ʽStraw Hat And Old Dirty Hankʼ), forcefully angry anti-bigotry rants (ʽI Knowʼ), suicidal pleads (ʽThis Is Where It Endsʼ, ʽWhen I Fallʼ), and various other raids on classic singer-songwriter territory, almost always with rather lackluster results.

What they now most frequently sound like is early R.E.M. with much less memorable melodies and blander, far less mysterious atmosphere — in other words, highly generic «college rock». They do work on their lyrics, and still find occasionally interesting ways of expressing the same millennia-old feelings, but it is not clear why anybody, outside of the regular 18-year old college rock audience spinning contemporary product in their dormitories way back in 1996, should care about these ways today. I mean, I can easily see how a song like ʽBreak Your Heartʼ could form a very intimate relationship with a young boy's spirit at the dawn of the great girl problem age, but when the not-so-young boy looks back on it fifteen years later... it's not as if they really wrote something here other than the lyrics, what with the song growing out of the standard Fifties' progression, borrowing a bit of its vocal melody from McCartney's ʽLet Me Roll Itʼ, and going for a «blue-eyed soul» atmosphere that is way beyond Page's vocal capacities.

Alas, similar observations could be made on almost every other song on here, regardless of its genre, mood, tempo, or tonality. ʽShoe Boxʼ, featured on Friends, is sort of okay, as it is the most Gordon-style of all these songs (catchy, friendly-sarcastic, and lightweight; naturally, this had to be the song that almost did not make it onto the final print of the album) — together with ʽSto­mach Vs. Heartʼ, they at least provide a credible framework for the record. The «big hit», which brought them some U.S. notoriety, was ʽThe Old Apartmentʼ, but it moves me about as much as, say, a Taylor Swift song could have — there is not a single musically interesting thing going on, and its nostalgic vibe, so firmly expressed in the lyrics, would never be evident to anybody not fluent in the language. Generic acoustic alt-rock, blah.

Thumbs down for this total failure of a record. Even the sleeve photo is (intentionally) ugly, not to mention its complete lack of ties to the inside contents. Although, come to think of it, when you do remember the underlying prank (that is, pronounce the title of the album making the same face that the boy is pulling on the cover), you do get the appropriately correct title for this pile of... oh well, never mind. Bottom line is: feel free to disagree with the judgement if you're mainly here for the words, but if you insist that the underlying music and atmosphere even begin to match their wittiness, well, «this is where it ends» for you and me.


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Friday, June 21, 2013

Bangles: Sweetheart Of The Sun

BANGLES: SWEETHEART OF THE SUN (2011)

1) Anna Lee (Sweetheart Of The Sun); 2) Under A Cloud; 3) Ball 'n' Chain; 4) I'll Never Be Through With You; 5) Mesmerized; 6) Circles In The Sky; 7) Sweet And Tender Romance; 8) Lay Yourself Down; 9) One Of Two; 10) What A Life; 11) Through Your Eyes; 12) Open My Eyes.

If you liked Doll Revolution more than I did, this slow-on-the-move follow-up will probably en­chant you even further. If, however, you were left somewhat unimpressed, then beware — most of the problems are still here, and as the Bangles get older and their marrow gets stiffer (although they still manage to remain visually attractive), chances are that this level is as good as it is ever going to get. Father Time is a pretty hard guy to beat.

Still, at least this time around there is a sense of tasteful purity here, filtering out any production excesses on the level of ʽSomething That You Saidʼ — no attempts whatsoever to appeal to the current mainstream tastes in pop music, easy as it could have been for them to try on the pitiable red-dress / white-horse glamor of Taylor Swift. All the guitar melodies and vocal harmonies bear the time-approved stamp of the Paisley Underground (and, by induction, that of the Byrds-and-Beatles brands of jangle-pop); all the rhythm sections are in strictly manual mode, with no signs of being tampered with in the final production stage; all the lyrics are as far away from modern day problems as possible — in short, just a good sip of that old-timey California sun essence.

It all sounds wonderful: from the opening riffs of ʽAnna Leeʼ (a song that inexplicably shares the name of its imaginary protagonist with an old Beach Boys song, yet borrows its chief chord pro­gression from the overture to Tommy) and right down to the respectfully performed cover of Todd Rundgren's ʽOpen My Eyesʼ, there are no formal complaints to be lodged. The album was carefully planned — some of the songs, according to the liner notes, had a fairly long history of development, and ʽOpen My Eyesʼ was remembered as one of the first songs the girls liked to perform live in the early days — and just as carefully executed, even despite the fact that Michael Steele is no longer in the band, so the songwriting was more or less evenly distributed between Susanna, Vicki, and Debbi.

But the problem of Doll Revolution remains — all of these songs are strictly second-rate, a nos­talgia trip for lovers of nostalgia trips, with the words NOSTALGIA TRIP imprinted in large blinking golden letters all over the place. Speaking of which, All Over The Place, too, could certainly be accused of being nostalgic and derivative — but it was conceived and realised at a time when its «unhip» nostalgia clashed so fiercely with the futuristic sheen of mainstream pop that it created an exciting cultural wormhole; plus, the girls were young, fresh, snappy, snazzy, punchy, and aggressive. Sweetheart Of The Sun, in comparison, has very little «punch» to it: a song like ʽBall 'n' Chainʼ, put forward by Debbi, is a rock'n'roll number alright, but its sound is stiff and formulaic, way too clean, polished, and calculated, not to mention utterly derivative, to make the song matter even the slightest bit once it's over.

I will be the first to admit that there are a few numbers here where the harmonies are really, really lovely. Hoffs' ʽUnder A Cloudʼ, for instance, is a steady grower and has her working that «head in a cloud» lovestruck charm to perfection. ʽMesmerizedʼ does not quite match its title, but still comes up with a fairly emotional nursery-rhyme type Brit-pop chorus. And it wouldn't hurt if Vicki's acoustic ballad ʽCircles In The Skyʼ someday managed to replace ʽEternal Flameʼ in the public conscience (well, at least we are allowed to dream). But for every such grower, which still requires about two or three listens to cast its spell, there is one or two inferior copies of it — and the overall monotonousness of the proceedings is inavoidable.

In short, if I am mistaken about the Bangles making age-based concessions (and I would love to be wrong), the only alternative critique would be that they simply go way too far in the «sunny» direction. Perhaps, like most normal people, they have simply settled down, found inner peace, and only sing about whatever it is that they really have in their hearts these days — music for honest, hip, and time-honoured family entertainment. If so, I am very happy for them, and I cer­tainly do not regret spending time on listening to their happy songs of the new millennium. But even John Lennon, in his happiest hour that was so ominously cut short, was not above adding a drop of honestly experienced (or, at least, magnificently simulated) doom and gloom (ʽI'm Losing Youʼ) to his happiest record (Double Fantasy) — so here is one more reminder that the Bangles are not the Beatles. An album can only have that much value if it gives you songwriting compe­tence and emotional fluff instead of songwriting genius and emotional depth, and Sweetheart Of The Sun goes as far as it can go with its limitations, but alas, that just ain't far enough.


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Thursday, June 20, 2013

Barclay James Harvest: Time Honoured Ghosts

BARCLAY JAMES HARVEST: TIME HONOURED GHOSTS (1975)

1) In My Life; 2) Sweet Jesus; 3) Titles; 4) Jonathon; 5) Beyond The Grave; 6) Song For You; 7) Hymn For The Children; 8) Moongirl; 9) One Night.

For this somewhat uninspired (very mildly speaking) sequel to Everyone Is Everybody Else, the band moved to a studio in San Francisco, and either the nice summer climate of California molli­fied their brains after the proverbial London rain and fog, or such was the overall decadent musi­cal atmos­phere of 1975 that the rotting process would have started in any case. The average song quality on Time Honoured Ghosts drops down another couple of notches — mainly because the band seems intent on purging out both the last drops of psychedelic influences, and its hard-rocking component at the same time (the presence of a few distorted riffs here and there notwith­standing, their collected crunch now never really rises above Crosby, Stills & Nash level). The melodic quotient still remains, but so does the narcissistic sentimentalism — and there is only so much heart-on-sleeve attitude that a tired old sense of perception can stand.

Moreover, it does not help that Lees continues to explore the gimmickry line, launched with ʽThe Great 1974 Mining Disasterʼ. This time, we are offered ʽTitlesʼ — a dreamy, more or less inof­fensive mix of the California sound with the European art song, but rendered unlistenable by stay­ing loyal to its name: the lyrics do indeed consist of little other than titles of Beatles songs, stringed together to form a ghostly Profound Message ("across the universe one after nine-o-nine, I've got a feeling for you blue and I feel fine"). Every artist may have his, her, their ups, downs, collapses, revivals, breakdowns, and comebacks, but this, unfortunately, is a kind of creativity re­served for artists with serious mutations in their taste buds — not only does it cast its cheesy sha­dow over the entire album, but it simply blocks my ability to take these guys seriously.

Once again, Lees and Holroyd share primary songwriting and singing duties, this time on a more or less equal basis, and now that the band is firmly rooted in soft rock territory, the styles of the two also begin to merge. Lees tries to set an intense atmosphere over the first seconds of the LP: ʽIn My Lifeʼ (another glaring nod to the Beatles, as if ʽTitlesʼ weren't enough) opens (and closes, after a rather dreary mid-section) as a fast melodic blues-rocker that probably has more energy than the rest of the album put together. The preachy lyrics are, as usual, quite off-putting ("But I was young, did not know, grace is for God, greed is to know"), but if the entire album had been relatively faithful to this style, instead of switching to unexciting acoustic foundations, slower tempos, and exaggeratedly soulful high-pitched vocals (from ʽSweet Jesusʼ and onwards), the band might have earned more respect from me. Instead, it just bores me one minute and offends me the next, and there is nothing I can do to myself to prevent those effects.

Every now and then, Holroyd's ʽMoongirlʼ on the second side is extolled as the album's definitive highlight, a magical-mystery art song where Sgt. Pepper-influenced guitars are integrated with Woolly's enchanting keyboard overdubs like never before or after. I probably would not mind, had the main chord progression and its key role in the song's coda not been so blatantly (with very minor changes) lifted from a far superior song — Eric Clapton's ʽLet It Growʼ, which al­ready has more than everything that ʽMoongirlʼ has to offer.

In between this «contextual failure» of one of the album's suggested highlights and the embarras­sing pretense of ʽTitlesʼ, the rest of Time Honoured Ghosts simply fails to attract this writer's attention or provoke any interesting comments. So I will finish by saying that, perhaps, the best song on the album is the sole contribution from Woolly — ʽBeyond The Graveʼ is yet another of those attempts to emulate the symphonic ambitiousness of early XXth century music (from Mah­ler to Strauss), this time carried out with surprisingly few overdubs and practically no guitar at all: organs, synthesized strings, and choral harmonies do all the job instead. The «poor man's majestic effect» is there all right, although I would have honestly preferred that the song remain complete­ly instrumental — not only are the vocals needlessly delivered in plaintive Procol Harum mode, but the lyrics, as usual, are beyond contempt ("we will survive beyond the grave, and as we sleep we will be saved, life in its essence will endure while still on earth we can be sure" — we can take stuff like that from Black Sabbath, perhaps, but hardly in a song that pretends to draw its inspiration from academic styles of music).

So, although it would still take a long time to reach the genuine creative nadir for these guys, Time Honoured Ghosts is the first BJH album to which I could not possibly react with a thumbs up even if a swarm of professional musicologists were to prove that each of the songs features a variety of subtle, previously unheard of musical ideas. Mushy, unmemorable, preachy, gimmicky, downplaying the band's strengths and extolling their weaknesses, it is not a «catastrophe» — it is a «failure», which is even worse, because catastrophes can at least be curious and amusing. Well, check out ʽTitlesʼ, perhaps, for such curiosity's sakes, then join me in my thumbs down if you, too, do not react so lightly to taking the name of the Lord thy God in vain.


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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Bee Gees: Size Isn't Everything

BEE GEES: SIZE ISN'T EVERYTHING (1993)

1) Paying The Price Of Love; 2) Kiss Of Life; 3) How To Fall In Love; 4) Omega Man; 5) Haunted House; 6) Heart Like Mine; 7) Anything For You; 8) Blue Island; 9) Above And Beyond; 10) For Whom The Bell Tolls; 11) Fallen Angel; 12) Decadence.

The Bee Gees are back — well, to be more precise, a modest pinch of Bee Gees essence is back, which does not seem to bother the band too much, because, as they say themselves, «size isn't everything». There is no question of the band even as much as lifting a finger to shake off the arbitrary shackles of mainstream production values, but at least they do remember to make some room for the harmonies. If High Civilization could have really been put out by anyone, your average local boy band included, Size Isn't Everything has «Gibb property» stamped all over it. Even Barry's occasional slip-backs into falsetto, not any less irritating by themselves, feel like home after the frustration of the sensation of alienation on Civilization.

Unfortunately, harmonies aren't everything. One listen to the lead-in single, ʽPaying The Price Of Loveʼ, with its primitively programmed beats and synthesizer swamp, is more than enough to un­derstand that the Bee Gees still have not remembered what it actually means to «give a damn about the way you sound» — and the same evaluation applies to every other track on the album. Even the acoustic ballad ʽBlue Islandʼ, where it is the guitar and not the keyboards that forms the musical backbone of the song (and a melancholy harmonica provides the additional flourishes), feels dull, because the melody never goes beyond simple chord strum, and all the mild moodiness of the song is tightly locked within its vocal lines. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the best thing they have offered us on the album.

Occasionally, the band would offer some explicit justifications for the sound. For instance, Robin claimed that on ʽHeart Like Mineʼ, he was intentionally aiming at capturing some of Enya's am­bience, which explains the dreary tempos and «cloudy» processing of the electronics. But the Bee Gees do not have Enya's natural-born feel for this texturing — they have never been able to con­quer the digital world and put it to their own purposes; and furthermore, this ambience simply does not agree with Robin's «wimpy» voice — it requires either becalmed operatic majesty or a dreamy psychedelic hush (the latter, several ages ago, used to be quite within Barry's capacities, but it's been a long, long, long time...).

Besides, for every tolerable, if somewhat boring, mood piece like ʽHeart Like Mineʼ or ʽHaunted Houseʼ, there is a clichéd adult contemporary ballad (ʽHow To Fall In Loveʼ) or bland dance-pop entry (ʽAnything For Youʼ). With the fast-paced pop rocker ʽAbove And Beyondʼ, they register one welcome attempt to incorporate some old-style Motown spirit; and with the album's biggest hit, ʽFor Whom The Bell Tollsʼ (alas, not the Metallica cover, which would have really been something, wouldn't it?), they conjure a puff of religious grandiosity. But nobody even needs three guesses to guess why, at the end of the day, these songs still suck.

And I have not yet mentioned the band's cheeky dabbling with techno — if ʽFallen Angelʼ is not enough to prove that they have as much talent and authority to cover that direction as they have with Enya, then try out the European release bonus track — ʽDecadenceʼ, a techno remix of ʽYou Should Be Dancingʼ for the rave generation. In other words, whatever crumbs of good taste they may have reassembled together on ʽBlue Islandʼ get scattered to the four winds by the end of the record; and ultimately, this is just another thumbs down for a band that made the classic mistake — having conquered the trends of the 1960s and the 1970s, decided that conquering trends would be the logical way to go until the end of time. But fashion isn't everything, you know.


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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Blues Project: Live At The Cafe Au Go Go

THE BLUES PROJECT: LIVE AT THE CAFE AU GO GO (1966)

1) Goin' Down Louisiana; 2) You Go, I'll Go With You; 3) Catch The Wind; 4) I Want To Be Your Driver; 5) Al­berta; 6) The Way My Baby Walks; 7) Violets Of Dawn; 8) Back Door Man; 9) Jelly Jelly Blues; 10) Spoonful; 11) Who Do You Love.

Along with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the Blues Project were one of the first American acts that consisted of young middle-to-low class white guys playing the black man's devil music, won­dering how the hell it could ever have happened that they had let British young middle-to-low class white guys take this sort of initiative a couple of years earlier. They were less successful than Paul Butterfield about landing a record contract, only managing to have their first album out in early '66. On the other hand, unlike Butterfield's, their debut was a live one, recorded in No­vember '65 at the Cafe Au Go Go in the Village — introducing the band at its rawest and wildest, and drawing inevitable analogies with the Yardbirds, who were also introduced to the world in full through a red-hot live session back in '64.

The original Blues Project line-up included Danny Kalb on lead guitar and vocals; Steve Katz on rhythm guitar; Andy Kulberg on bass; Roy Blumenfeld on drums; and latecomer Al Kooper on organ (Kooper originally played guitar, but ever since he first tried out the organ on the sessions for Dylan's ʽLike A Rolling Stoneʼ, the instrument was promoted to his personal good luck charm — not that he had any particular knack for that particular instrument). Last, but not least, was vocalist Tommy Flanders, whose cultural and social background put him somewhat apart from the rest of the guys (well, the names speak for themselves) and may have been responsible for the tension that eventually drove them apart even before the album was released.

The record is not fully representative of the Blues Project onstage — like most of the other bands that tried out the live album schtick at the time, due to format demands, they had to cut down on the jamming and improvisation and concentrate on relatively short, compact song-based numbers. Nor did they yet have much audacity in trying out their own material: other than Andy Kulberg's instrumental ʽThe Way My Baby Walksʼ, all of the tunes are covers. And for the most part, the Blues Project predictably covers... the blues: Chicago stuff from Muddy and Howlin' Wolf, with a bit of Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry thrown in for the extra energetics, and a Bobby Bland tune for a little extra bit of soulfulness.

On the other hand, seeing as how this is the Village, after all, it is only natural that the band's territory also extends in the direction of folk — with a somewhat surprisingly modernistic slant, as, instead of doing ʽIf I Had A Hammerʼ or at least ʽTurn Turn Turnʼ, they prefer to popularize imported fellow Donovan (ʽCatch The Windʼ) and the Village's own Eric Andersen (ʽViolets Of Dawnʼ), as well as redo the traditional folk-blues tune ʽAlbertaʼ ("...let your hair hang low..." and all that) in sentimental folk ballad mode (with a whiff of lounge jazz, perhaps). This certainly gives them their own twist, since even Paul Butterfield, not to mention the Yardbirds, preferred to stay away from the sissy vibes of folk balladry — but the Blues Project, from the very beginning, showed that it was not going to insist on taking its name too literally.

All fine and dandy, but how good are these guys, really? Well — they certainly have enough energy to rock the Café (although, judging by the rather limp applause, the house wasn't exactly jam-packed on those evenings), and they are smart enough to introduce their own tempo, time, and to­nality changes into the songs, so as to limit the comparison angle between the covers and the originals. The singing, more or less equally divided between Kalb and Flanders (Al also gets to sing on the Chuck Berry cover), is competent, and the playing is engaging as long as it is pos­sible to think of it in terms of «honor duels» between Al, trying to prove to Danny that his is the rocking-est organ in town, and Danny, trying to prove to Al that his is the flashiest and speediest style of playing on the other side of Eric Clapton.

The latter, in fact, is not that far removed from the truth: Kalb's parts are expressive, fun, and technically stunning for late '65, showing a clear interest in the jazz school of playing as well as the expectable Chicago blues lessons. The weak side is the thin, limp guitar tone, unfortunately, quite characteristic of all the pre-Hendrix era (and quite a few of the post-Hendrix era) American R&B-ers — of course, you had to be fairly careful with your feedback and distortion when play­ing in the folk-oriented Village, but in retrospect, there may simply be too little «power» here to properly capture the interest of the modern listener. Downplay that aspect, though, and Kalb's parts on such blues snarls as ʽJelly Jelly Bluesʼ and ʽSpoonfulʼ will indeed be second only to Mike Bloomfield (inasmuch as aggression-channeling young American six-stringers from 1965-66 are concerned).

And yet, this rarely feels like an album where everybody is doing whatever is the most suitable thing for them. The Rolling Stones (not always, but often) and, say, The Doors (remember their ʽBack Door Manʼ?) were able to capture and preserve the creepy-devilish atmosphere of these Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf tunes. These nice, bright kids from New York are not able to do that — they can host a friendly rock'n'roll party, and they can let off some steam, but there is no sense of allegoric «danger» coming from their renditions. In fact, the jazz-folk recreation of ʽAl­bertaʼ, in terms of soul and feeling, easily trumps almost everything else that they do here — pointing out the general route which Al Kooper would soon start to take.

So, if it weren't for the notoriously exciting bits of Kalb / Kooper interplay, and an overall good chance of assessing young Danny's talents from several different angles, Live At The Cafe Au Go Go would not be much more than a valuable historical document. In fact, even with Danny, it isn't much more than one — mainly a teaser, and certainly no match for Five Live Yardbirds, the album whose model it loosely follows. Fortunately, the Blues Project still had some time left to ripen and come into its own, before the whole mutual-tension and lack-of-perspective thing would start tearing it apart.


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Monday, June 17, 2013

Bobby Bland: Midnight Run

BOBBY BLAND: MIDNIGHT RUN (1989)

1) You've Got To Hurt Before You Heal; 2) Lay Love Aside; 3) Kiss Me To The Music; 4) Keep It A Secret; 5) Take Off Your Shoes; 6) Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone; 7) If I Don't Get Involved; 8) I'm Not Ashamed To Sing The Blues; 9) Midnight Run; 10) Starting All Over Again.

No surprises, although, fortunately, the classic covers are back — there is no way Bobby could go wrong with his (predictable, but wonderful all the same) interpretation of ʽAin't No Sunshineʼ, or with the old Mel & Tim ballad ʽStarting All Over Againʼ, which makes here for a somewhat more optimistic and uplifting conclusion than last time's ʽThere's No Easy Way To Say Good­byeʼ, and the funny thing is that one doesn't even have to listen to either in order to understand that.

Still, two oldies' covers on a late period Bobby Bland album is too few, because the remaining songs are again provided by his sidemen, and are not in the least memorable. Just like last time, there is exactly one «fun» 12-bar blues (ʽTake Off Your Shoesʼ), nice while it's on; and then, like every self-respecting old bluesman, Bobby commands himself a song that explains why exactly he is still hanging around after so many years (ʽI'm Not Ashamed To Sing The Bluesʼ — actually, a song like that did make sense in 1989, when the popularity of the blues was only just beginning to recover after a decade-long snooze; that said, it's not as if the song smells of any particular heroism or self-sacrifice).

Additionally, ʽYou've Got To Hurtʼ opens the album on a powerful epic-ballad note; ʽLay Love Asideʼ tries to echo Bobby's dance-oriented R&B grooves of the mid-1970s; and the title track straightens out a reggae groove as the band does indeed search a little bit to expand its horizons. Neither the epic thing, nor the dance thing, nor the reggae schtick feature any outstanding musi­cianship or musical ideas, but at least there seems to be a bit more emphasis on guitars and strings rather than synthesizers, and a bit more diversity, which would altogether indicate an upward movement of the curve. If anyone still cared, that is. Anyway, expressing the same idea in com­mercial terms — better grab Midnight Run for a quarter than Blues You Can Use for a nickel.


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