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Saturday, August 31, 2013

Barenaked Ladies: Stop Us If You've Heard This One Before!

BARENAKED LADIES: STOP US IF YOU'VE HEARD THIS ONE BEFORE! (2012)

1) I Don't Get It Anymore; 2) Yes! Yes!! Yes!!!; 3) Half A Heart; 4) Old Apartment; 5) Shake Your Rump; 6) Same Thing; 7) One Week; 8) Teenage Wasteland; 9) Long While; 10) Second Best; 11) I Can, I Will, I Do; 12) Adrift.

Considering how productive Page and Robertson had shown themselves to be over the centuries, one would think it reasonable to suggest they might have a shitload more of stuff in the vaults — enough to fill out a boxset or two, and delight the fans, especially those that admire the band's «serious» side as sincerely as their «quirky» side. Moreover, some dedicated and knowledgeable fans occasionally confirm that suspicion — which makes it all the more surprising why the heck is the band's only archival CD, containing a modest 46-minutes worth amount of music, focused almost exclusively on alternate versions of already well-known tracks, always inferior ones and sometimes differing only in regard to the mix.

The official explanation is that the record was originally planned as a «companion» to a proper best-of package (Hits From Yesterday & The Days Before), but something went awry, the two projects could not be properly synchronized, and eventually the rarities package got delayed and was released as a separate entity one year later. Regardless, it's a fairly pointless entity. The only track that is worth some interest is the previously available single B-side ʽYes! Yes!! Yes!!!ʼ, a fun, catchy power-popster co-written by Hearn and containing one of the fuzziest riffs in Bare­naked Ladies history (although, might I add that the cheesy synthesizer line that comes in to double the riff adds a suspicious whiff of a teen-oriented summer-themed video game). Maybe it is also possible to throw together some excitement for the unfinished electric demo of ʽLong Whileʼ, but there is nothing special about it.

Technically, there is also some live stuff here that could be useful for fans — early performances of ʽSame Thingʼ and some pointless bore that is arrogantly titled ʽTeenage Wastelandʼ, preceded by silly jokes on the art of performing in the German language and eventually transforming itself into a subsconscious, but flaccid, tribute to Otis Redding's cover of ʽSatisfactionʼ. Yes, there is also a live run through a Beastie Boys song (ʽShake Your Rumpʼ), but I see no point in the Bare­naked Ladies covering the Beastie Boys other than informing their audience that they do, in fact, love the Beastie Boys, which we already know because of ʽOne Nightʼ etc.

Everything else is just demos and alternate mixes of songs that weren't that good to begin with (ʽI Can, I Will, I Doʼ), or, on the contrary, songs that were already perfect (ʽOne Nightʼ) and needed no further undisclosed variations. In short, this whole package is more for the historiographer of the Barenaked Ladies than even the loyal fan; maybe someday Robertson might learn how to get it right, but until then, you might want to trust my thumbs down on this.
Check "Stop Us If You've Heard This One Before!" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Stop Us If You've Heard This One Before!" (MP3) on Amazon

Friday, August 30, 2013

Bathory: Destroyer Of Worlds

BATHORY: DESTROYER OF WORLDS (2001)

1) Lake Of Fire; 2) Destroyer Of Worlds; 3) Ode; 4) Bleeding; 5) Pestilence; 6) 109; 7) Death From Above; 8) Krom; 9) Liberty & Justice; 10) Kill Kill Kill; 11) Sudden Death; 12) White Bones; 13) Day Of Wrath.

For all those torn between the «epic-Viking» personality of Hammerheart-era Quorthon and the «thrash-hammer» style of his Requiem/Octagon period, here is the ultimate in gift-showering: a 65 minute-long package that gives you the best of both worlds! Bombastic Scandinavian epics and mosh heaven at (almost) the same time — could anything be better in this world for an open-minded heavy metal admirer?

Now, considering that both the latest Viking-style and the latest thrash-style offerings from Ba­thory were, at best, questionable (Blood On Ice was somewhat dull, and Octagon was somewhat horrendous), even a very open-minded metal admirer would probably think twice before putting his trust into Destroyer Of Worlds. And, sure enough, some of the problems are carried over: the «epic» compositions are long-winded and repetitive, while the thrash stuff is marred by the same old stupid vocals that are stuck somewhere in the gutter that separates «singing» from «growling» and are more likely to irritate and offend rather than impress and entertain. This I have to say: Quorthon is always Quorthon, despite his seemingly many faces, and, although you can look to Hammerheart for near-perfection, it is more typical of the guy to stick to his formulaic guns than to try and make them look more and more refined over time.

That said, with all the disclaimers in place, Destroyer Of Worlds is a surprisingly good record. We start out with three songs that could have very easily fit on Twilight Of The Gods, and with a little more squirming, even on Hammerheart, although the subject matters are a mixed bag — Quorthon seems to be jumping from his favorite Satanism schtick (ʽLake Of Fireʼ) to images of nuclear apocalypse (title track) and then to Scandinavian pagan anthems (ʽOdeʼ). This means there is no and there will be no further conceptual unity to the album, but that's okay — it was clearly designed that way, as a diverse series of vignettes, and who really cares as long as the vig­nettes in question work as planned? ʽLake Of Fireʼ adds little of interest to the Bathory canon, stately and threateningly creeping along like all those medieval procession-type songs on Twi­light, but it forms a good contrast with the ensuing sturm-und-drang of the title track — and then ʽOdeʼ comes on and blows both of them away with another medieval procession, but this time set to a belligerent, muscular, angular riff.

Then we start moving into true thrash and speed metal territory — ʽBleedingʼ («anatomy metal» with all the expected lyrical imagery), ʽ109ʼ / ʽDeath From Aboveʼ (a nice double tribute to the powers of the Luftwaffe), ʽKromʼ (a somewhat pathetic anthem to the biker tribe), ʽKill Kill Killʼ (yoohoo, anti-establishment!), ʽSudden Deathʼ... wait, is this about somebody getting clubbed to death during a frickin' hockey match? See how this guy Quorthon is dying to show you how ver­satile and unpredictable he can be if he puts his mind to it? Vikings, Satanists, necrophiliacs, nu­clear holocausts, WWII air raiders, bikers, hockey players — suddenly, the Bathory world has stretched out to an almost ridiculously huge size, sucking in almost everything in sight, like the Vacuum Cleaner Beast in Yellow Submarine.

But do we get decent music to go with all that? I'd say, rather yes than no, and that covers even the thrash numbers — suddenly, many of them turn out to be endowed with riffs far more expres­sive and colorful than anything on Octagon. ʽKromʼ, for instance, does its best to mimic a bike engine roar, turning the steel machine into an animated Godzilla. ʽ109ʼ does the same from the perspective of a Messerschmitt fighter. And ʽSudden Deathʼ does honestly try to imitate the hustle and bustle of a hockey game gone wild — okay, so it does sound a bit like an imaginary soundtrack to WrestleMania or something, but Quorthon manages to make it fun anyway.

As the album ends with two more long compositions (ʽWhite Bonesʼ starts out in generic slow-thrash mode, then suddenly becomes a bluesy / artsy instrumental epic midway through, with Quorthon picking up a psychedelic guitar tone that he never used before; ʽDay Of Wrathʼ returns us to medieval procession mode), it sort of begins to dawn on you that more work must have gone into the construction of this whole thing than on most Bathory albums put together — all the more impressive considering that the entire record was done by Quorthon alone: he is credited for everything, including the rhythm session. At the very least, Destroyer Of Worlds may be counted as the most bizarre and baffling of all Bathory oeuvres — considering that Quorthon had always been a weird person, this judgement is not to be taken lightly.

Sure enough, from a purely formal / technical point of view, other than the completely unpredictable lyrical to­pics, there is not much new here — but what matters is that, for the first time ever, Quorthon has really sewn all of his ends together, and it works much better than anybody could have expected, and in much stranger ways: for instance, it took me my third listen to actually get that something was «really happening» here, so to speak — but once it did, the in­trigue never went away again. It's still there with me, so a quick thumbs up here before the en­thusiasm wanes and I start getting angry at those dumb vocals once again (or at the lyrics, which could be even worse — other than the Viking epics, most of these verses do suck).

Check "Destroyer Of Worlds" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Destroyer Of Worlds" (MP3) on Amazon

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Barclay James Harvest: Face To Face

BARCLAY JAMES HARVEST: FACE TO FACE (1987)

1) Prisoner Of Your Love; 2) He Said Love; 3) Alone In The Night; 4) Turn The Key; 5) You Need Love; 6) Kiev; 7) African; 8) Followed Me; 9) All My Life; 10) Panic; 11) Guitar Blues; 12) On The Wings Of Love.

All through 1985 and 1986, some of the worst years in commercial pop music history, thankfully little was heard of Barclay James Harvest — in fact, this was the first time ever in the band's his­tory that they decided to take such a long break, and the musical press must have finally breathed a sign of relief. But not to worry: refreshed and remobilized, John «Jesus Loves Africa» Lees and Les «Boy Loves Girl» Holroyd are back, and now they have the opportunity to make full use of the CD format: the full CD version of Face To Face contains twelve songs and stretches out for a grand sixty minutes. Turns out that the years weren't simply wasted, after all. But maybe this is exactly what all the German fans were waiting for — that new, improved TV dinner from your favourite band, now 20% more nutritious.

The best I can say about Face To Face is that every time I listened to it while doing something else at the same time, I had no impression / memory / faint reminiscence of what I just heard ten seconds after I'd heard it. And this was the good news, because when I finally got angry with my­self, dropped everything, and started focusing in on the music... well, the most awful thing about this whole late-period BJH trajectory is that there really was no single-moment werewolf trans­formation: it was more like a portrait-of-Dorian-Gray kind of a thing, with each subsequent al­bum adding another streak to the general degradation. But by this time, Barclay James Harvest can no longer even be called «poor man's Moody Blues» — this late Eighties stuff sounds like a parody on late Seventies BJH, which itself sounded like... oh well.

Without going into serious details (this album certainly ain't worth it), I will just briefly mention some of its more appalling elements. Number one: how many song titles with the word ʽloveʼ in them does one really need? we got the message twenty years back, thank you very much. Number two: didn't John Lees already set The New Testament for Kids to music with ʽHymnʼ, a decade ago? so why did he feel the urge to do that again, in an even more thorough, and even more trivial, manner? Number three: didn't John Lees already come up with his best anti-oppression / anti-war song more than a decade ago with ʽChild Of The Universeʼ? Who needs this particular ʽAfricanʼ, with its plastic synth-rock arrangement? Number four: excuse me, but the combined evil of the melody, the arrangement, and the lyrics makes ʽPanicʼ a fine candidate for worst BJH song ever written by Lees on any occasion — tough as the actual competition might be. The "yeah yeah yeah rock'n'roll" bit simply shows that the man must have not been in his right mind at the time: no normal human being could have agreed to release this crap on a commercial basis.

You might think that Les Holroyd is finally doing better, but no dice: his ʽTurn The Keyʼ is hor­rendous Phil Collins-type adult contemporary, his ʽPrisoner Of Your Loveʼ is bland synth-pop, and, although his ʽKievʼ may have been driven by pure generous empathy with the victims of Chernobyl, in the context of his past karma it just feels like a continuous quest to write a sugary love song to every bisyllabic European city: for some reason, we never got around to hearing his ʽBelgradeʼ or ʽMadridʼ, and I am still personally and impatiently waiting for my own ʽMoscowʼ. And, for that matter, do Barclay James Harvest fans exist in India? China? Central African Re­public? They may want their own personal tribute to their capital cities, too.

All right, enough sarcasm. Truth be told, under normal conditions Face To Face provokes neither laughter nor anger — even when the band are at their most appalling, they cloak it so well with slick, inoffensive production and soft, inobtrusive singing that all the senses just go plain numb. I do feel like giving the album a thumbs down this time, though, seeing as how it has no re­dee­ming qualities whatsoever, and even the band's trademark «melodicity» is reduced to rehashing, recycling, and regurgitating chords and leads that weren't on anybody's hot list in the first place.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Blood, Sweat & Tears: Child Is Father To The Man

BLOOD, SWEAT & TEARS: CHILD IS FATHER TO THE MAN (1968)

1) Overture; 2) I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know; 3) Morning Glory; 4) My Days Are Numbered; 5) With­out Her; 6) Just One Smile; 7) I Can't Quit Her; 8) Meagan's Gypsy Eyes; 9) Somethin' Goin On; 10) House In The Country; 11) The Modern Adventures Of Plato, Diogenes And Freud; 12) So Much Love / Underture.

A slightly cumbersome name for a somewhat encumbered band — but in early 1968, the game was worth it, considering that nobody in the rock'n'roll department had properly done it before: namely, integrated the «rock band» format with the «big band» format, expanding the regular lineup to no less than eight permanent members, four of them confined almost exclusively to the brass section (although Fred Lipsius, in addition to alto sax, is also credited for piano). For all we know, this here is indeed the birth of «jazz-rock», a gleefully incestuous combination in which «rock», the child, turns on «jazz», the mother, and takes his Oedipus complex out on her.

No wonder the pagan gods got angry, and although they could not stop the jazz-rock virus from spreading, they did ensure that, for all their prolific career, Blood, Sweat & Tears would only have one proper masterpiece of the genre — this album. The formal reason is obvious: the band was essentially conceived and formed by Al Kooper, «the master of creative thinking» in roots-oriented American pop music, fresh out of The Blues Project — but no sooner had they released their first record that the unlucky guy was booted out of his own band, due to «creative disagree­ments»: much like Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck on the other side of the ocean, Al must have simply been incom­patible with normal teamwork, and eventually had to go solo.

The good news is that Child Is Father To The Man, a groundbreaking and, one could say, visio­nary collection of new compositions and old songs rethought in a radically new manner, did hap­pen. Like many similar artefacts of the time, it is quite a pretentious affair — the name of the band, the name of the album, the sleeve photo with all the band members holding cardboard re­plicas of themselves, the presence of an overture and an «underture», the understandably loud, sprawling sound... but its intentions are also honestly idealistic — this is not complexity for com­plexity's sake, this is complexity for the sake of building a ladder to the sky — and, most impor­tantly, it simply got a bunch of great songs on it.

I must say, though, that this is one of those cases where the presence of a small handful of major personal favorites sort of obscures the rest, and dims the whole picture. Namely, I am talking about the three principal Kooper originals: ʽMore Than You'll Ever Knowʼ, ʽMy Days Are Num­beredʼ, and ʽI Can't Quit Herʼ, which not only happens to be the best triad he ever wrote — there is no doubt in my mind about that — but should also rank as high as anything contributed to the world by a major songwriter in 1968. The man's career in The Blues Project gave only vague hints at the soulful depths he would eventually uncover, and how was that made possible? In the least predictable manner — by surrounding himself with trumpets, trombones, and saxophones that could be organized into a genuine power machine.

Actually, ʽI Love You More Than You'll Ever Knowʼ is the one song on here that would have been just as poignant without the brass backing — first and foremost, it is the greatest one-man show in Al's entire career. Recording a song that formally matches the required criteria for «soul­ful desperation» is not difficult, and has been done millions of times; making it fully credible and epically breathtaking is a feat manageable only with a fortuitous combination of talent and luck. Although, technically, the song is molded in the well-known «blues-de-luxe» idiom, and you can very well see its roots in the output of B. B. King and Ray Charles, Kooper's vocal composing is all his own — the gradual build-up, rising to near-hysterical heights on "is that any way for a man to carry on?..", then suddenly turning from rage to sobbing tenderness on one of the awesomest "i-love-you-baby" of all times, then bringing it all the way up with the first "more than you'll ever know", then gently lowering it back down with the second one. «Heart-wrenching beauty» — check, and I would personally take that vocal part over literally anything Robert Plant has ever committed to tape, much as he liked to dabble in the same sort of aesthetics.

That said, the individual beauty of ʽI Love You More Than You'll Ever Knowʼ does not quite tie in with the ideology of Blood, Sweat & Tears: its chief reliance is on Kooper's voice and the con­cordingly weepy lead guitar parts from Steve Katz (who, by the way, also rises to the occasion and comes up with lines far more impressive than anything previously tried in The Blues Project). That the album, after the string snippets of the overture have died down, is actually launched with this particular tune, might even be a bit of a surprise for the uninitiated, as the brass section truly comes in only on the bridge, and is not at all essential to the tune. But Child Is Father To The Man is actually quite big on surprises — as befits any classic work of art.

The brass section does get essential on ʽMy Days Are Numberedʼ, a faster, tenser, and even more desperate sequel to ʽMore Than...ʼ — the opening brass melody gives you con­templative melan­choly resolving into decisive musical seppuku in a matter of just a few bars, and although the fast rock-based verses and the slow baroque-styled choruses are a little too crudely sewn together, the contrast still works towards making the experience even more unforgettable. Finally, the «Love Junkie Trilogy», as the whole thing could be suitably called, ends with ʽI Can't Quit Herʼ, more piano-based and a little less gloomy than its two suicidal companions, but still picturing the pas­sion as a hopeless addiction, driving the protagonist crazy and, perhaps, more than a little psycho­pathic. Here, the piano is soon joined by strings and brass in a fairly democratic ensemble, but again, everything is dominated by the vocals and the inner demons — belying the image of «jazz-rock» as something that has to be bombastic and anthemic, ʽI Can't Quit Herʼ is really as personal and intimate as it gets.

And this is also why everything else on the album, as thoroughly thought out and implemented as it could be, inevitably pales next to the «Love Junkie Trilogy». Steve Katz, Kooper's old pal from the Blues Project days, in stark contrast to Al, still seems to be living in those days — his psycho-folk ballad ʽMeagan's Gypsy Eyesʼ is pretty and courteous, but hardly endowed with much stay­ing power. However, Kooper himself is hardly free of the old «training days» legacy, either, con­tributing the eight-minute mammoth blues jam ʽSomethin' Going Onʼ that is quite pedestrian in the old Blues Project way: at least Katz's «post-Hendrix» guitar tone and the thick brass backing give it more substance, but hardly enough to compete with the new blues-rock language of Jeff Beck or the upcoming Led Zeppelin.

The jazzified covers of Tim Buckley, Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman, and Carole King are all perfectly listenable, intelligently reworked, and pleasantly soulful — certainly not «filler» in any sense of the word — and, in between the four of them, show quite exhaustively how this new musical formula can be applied to any sort of material, though it is interesting that the band pre­fers to concentrate on «singer-songwriter» stuff rather than try, for instance, to put their touch on any of the pop hits of the day. Kooper's intentions seem clear enough: build his art at the intersec­tion of the confessional style, typical of loners and recluses, and the loud «arena» style — show how, when the deeply personal gets expressed through the openly public, the end results may, surprisingly, turn out to become even more deeply personal. This is the greatest paradox of Child, and the one reason why the band became such a different artistic entity after Kooper's departure: the form was retained, the substance was lost.

Anyway, the bottomline is: even if, for some reason, you are afraid of «jazz-rock» — for instance, associate it with Chicago ballads, or with instrumental fusion conundrums for those who value mathematics over music, do not make the mistake of ignoring this record, which sounds nothing like either of the two formulae. In fact, it pretty much sounds like nothing else out there: «Al Kooper with horns, strings, and heartbreak» finds no reasonable equivalent in my experience, and gets an assured thumbs up for that reason alone, not to mention all the others.

Check "Child Is Father To The Man" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Child Is Father To The Man" (MP3) on Amazon

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Bob Dylan: Another Side Of Bob Dylan

BOB DYLAN: ANOTHER SIDE OF BOB DYLAN (1964)

1) All I Really Want To Do; 2) Black Crow Blues; 3) Spanish Harlem Incident; 4) Chimes Of Freedom; 5) I Shall Be Free No. 10; 6) To Ramona; 7) Motorpsycho Nightmare; 8) My Back Pages; 9) I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met); 10) Ballad In Plain D; 11) It Ain't Me Babe.

Whoever suggested that title for Bob's fourth album was smart enough to understand that the al­bum was different — naturally — but certainly not smart enough to understand just how different it was. Another Side Of..., linguistically, suggests something like: «You thought he could only do that — guess what, he can also do this, bet you didn't know that, did you?» But on the other hand, it is tough to think of how a more proper title might have sounded. The Real Bob Dylan? But nobody really knows what a «real» Bob Dylan would be. The Selfish Side Of Bob Dylan? Closer to the truth, perhaps, but a little too repelling for the potential buyer and a little too insul­ting for the artist. Bob Dylan Arrives? Too promotional. Bob Dylan Doesn't Really Give A...? Too avantgarde. Whatever, we will just have to live with that original title, issued in poor under­standing, but good faith.

Most sources call the record «transitional», which is objectively true in that the instrumentation and arrangements still mostly follow the old acoustic guitar-and-harmonica model (with the im­portant exception of the electric piano, soon-to-be one of Bob's favorite instruments, on ʽBlack Crow Bluesʼ), but the lyrics have almost completely shifted away from socio-political issues into the realms of the deeply personal, the deeply sarcastic, or the deeply absurd. However, from a general «ideological» point of view, Dylan's transformation is already quite complete; and this completion does not even have that much to do with abandoning the image of the «protest singer» — the process goes deeper than that.

To illustrate, let us begin from an unexpected point of reference: a superficial comparison of The Freewheelin's ʽI Shall Be Freeʼ with this album's «sequel», called ʽI Shall Be Free No. 10ʼ (why ʽNo. 10ʼ? because ʽNo. 2ʼ would be too boring, that's why). In 1963, this little comic number, a slapstick-ish talkin' blues with a few scattered moments of brilliance here and there, was deli­vered in a low, shy, murmured tone — presumably, by a humble guy lurking in some dark corner of the stage, not yet daring to come out and spill it all in-yer-face. In 1964, the harmonica blasts get more shrill and piercing, and the guy is no longer afraid to raise his voice — sometimes al­most to a shout, giving the tune an arrogant-defying feel that his talking blues used to lack previ­ously. Nor are the lyrics always inoffensive to his surrounders — at least once he sneaks in a snappy verse about them ("I got a friend who spends his life / Stabbing my picture with a bowie knife... I've got a million friends!"); and one should definitely pay attention to the last verse — "Now you're probably wondering by now / Just what this song is all about... / It's nothing / It's something I learned over in England!" — which, on its own, might be interpreted as a good-bye to his past that is at least as strong as the entire message of next year's ʽIt's All Over Now Baby Blueʼ. And, mind you, we are still only talking about one of the most «throwaway-ish» pieces on the entire record. And it goes on for fifty minutes (the record, that is, not the song, although I'm pretty sure that Bob could have easily thrown on a couple dozen extra verses).  

This is, perhaps, the most important breakthrough achieved in Another Side: the discovery of Bob's new voice, the one that would dominate his «golden age» over the next two years, the «ar­rogant bastard» voice that, no doubt, owed its existence to Bob's stabilized stardom — after all, a true king should behave as a true king, with none of that shying away in the dark corner. And, above all, a true king should be perfectly free to do whatever he wants to do, not whatever the people expect him to do — at least, such could have been Bob's reasoning when, instead of open­ing the album with an inspiring, visionary anthem like he had already done twice in a row, he preferred to open it with ʽAll I Really Want To Doʼ instead of, say, ʽChimes Of Freedomʼ.

An interesting, and probably true, interpretation of ʽAll I Really Want To Doʼ, previously sugges­ted by some people, is that the song was really a vehicle for lambasting feminist clichés — some­thing Bob must have swallowed his fair share of in his Village period. It is a fun, catchy song, an object convenient enough to have had both The Byrds and Sonny & Cher to use it as a weapon for chart domination, but one mustn't lose track of the condescending contempt, lurking behind the superficially innocent arrangement — the funnier it gets, as Bob intentionally bursts into «spontaneous» laughter towards the end of the song, the harder it snaps at the heels of all those girls who must have, many a time, actually accused Bob of wanting to «simplify them, classify them, deny, defy, or crucify them». Then again, to be fair, some of them may have deserved this rough treatment — let us refrain from demonizing the artist alone.

In any case, ʽAll I Really Want To Doʼ is definitely more personal than it seems to be upon first sight, and it introduces a series of even more personal songs — be it in the form of surrealist love letters to surrealist female characters (ʽSpanish Harlem Incidentʼ, ʽTo Ramonaʼ), or in the form of nasty-but-honest confessions (ʽIt Ain't Me Babeʼ), or in the form of unpleasant reminiscences of a general (ʽMy Back Pagesʼ) or way-more-particular-than-we-really-need character (ʽBallad In Plain Dʼ). A pretty impressive bunch, especially considering that, of all the songs on the previous two albums, probably only ʽDon't Think Twice, It's Alrightʼ and ʽOne Too Many Morningsʼ could match them in the intimacy department. This, too, is yet another side of the another side —the artist is raising his voice, but he is also less afraid to dig into his own feelings, his own past and present, than he was just a year before. As inspiring and grandiose as those ʽHard Rainʼ pic­tures must have been, in a sense, ʽMy Back Pagesʼ is even more «Dylanish» in nature.

Not that being «Dylanish» is always a good thing. The existence of ʽBallad In Plain Dʼ mars this idyll in a most harmful manner — the song is a misguided creation both on the lyrical side, re­miniscing of Bob's rather shameful handling of his relationship with Suze Rotolo and her sister from a decidedly biased (to say the least) point of view, and on the musical side, as the languid, barely existing melody drags on for eight bleeding minutes at a snail's pace, so that the listener may fully savour and digest each little jab, sting, and kick addressed at «the parasite sister» whom the protagonist was allegedly able to «nail in the ruins of her pettiness» (allegedly, by getting booted out of her house for improper behaviour). As a document of human relations, ʽBallad In Plain Dʼ is a fine educational piece; as a work of art, it is... let's just say, «undeserving».

It is a little funny, though, that the song, in which Dylan presents himself and his former passion as innocent romantic victims of misguided social practices, is immediately followed by ʽIt Ain't Me Babeʼ, where the protagonist switches from self-victimizing to self-humiliating, almost as if to atone a little bit for the aggressiveness of the eight-minute rant. But the song is also a mirror companion to ʽAll I Really Want To Doʼ — just like in that one, Bob is once again proclaiming his distance from all sorts of «masculine stereotypes». See, lady, he ain't gonna beat or cheat or mis­treat you, or disgrace you or displace you, but as a consequence of that, he also ain't the one who will die for you and more — so «go melt back into the night, babe»: a fairly convoluted way to tell somebody to fuck off, but works exactly the same way. Alas, it is also an extremely catchy song, the catchiness being provided mainly by the sneering, mocking refrain — the "no, no, no, it ain't me, babe" bit lashes out with cruel sarcasm and sarcastic cruelty in the nastiest way yet wit­nessed on any Dylan song. No wonder it had to be The Turtles to become the first artists to cover the song: for the Byrds, it must have seemed a little too prickly to fit in with their image.

Just about every song on Another Side merits detailed discussion, but I would rather com­press things a little bit by simply saying that the album is also quite musically diverse for something re­corded with such limited means. There is the quasi-baroque gallantry of ʽSpanish Harlem Inci­dentʼ, with Dylan in a courteous, serenadish mood; the Mexican waltzing of ʽTo Ramonaʼ, with Dylan in the grip of Latin romanticism (something that would not be properly revisited again until the age of Desire, I think); the primitive, but effective «blues-punk» piano punching of ʽBlack Crow Bluesʼ; the instantaneously memorable pop structure of ʽI Don't Believe Youʼ — a trifle in the grand scheme of things, but every bit as delightful to the ear as anything off A Hard Day's Night; and, of course, the two grand anthems — ʽMy Back Pagesʼ and ʽChimes Of Free­domʼ, with Bob's newly found «loud-and-proud» singing voice turning them into the stateliest epics of 1964... and, perhaps, the entire decade as well.

Had ʽChimes Of Freedomʼ been written a good forty years earlier and gotten a solid translation into Russian, it would have, no doubt, been readily adopted by some of the more progressively-oriented Bolsheviks — of all Dylan songs, this one has the most revolutionary spirit, and, in fact, somewhat sticks out in the context of all the smaller-scale, personally-oriented tunes on Another Side. Very very soon, this «grand vision» would be turned on its head and adapted to reflect sur­realist and near-psychotic values, as on ʽGates Of Edenʼ (which, in nature, is like ʽChimes Of Freedomʼ on a heavy acid trip). But for the moment, this one here still seems to be tailored to the likes of Bob's friends in the protest movement — and delivered with all the seriousness and ins­piration that could be mustered, even if immediately following it up with ʽI Shall Be Free No. 10ʼ might have been an intentional sequencing move.

Lyrical influence from Rimbaud, Blake, Shake­speare, etc. etc. has all been detected and described by a million authors and hardly needs any of my comments — as usual, though, the magic of the song goes far beyond the lyrics: it is rousing, yes, but at the same time also «lulling», with a regular rise-and-fall vocal drive throughout each verse, and a perfect «calm» resolution after the high-pitched lines that usually nail one or another social injustice. Despite the violent nature of the lyrics, the only thunder and lightning in the entire performance are in the man's voice — but it has by now gained so much in confidence that, at times, it does begin to seem that the guy is busy flinging out sonic lightning balls, a first example of the practice that would reach its peak on Highway 61 Revisited. And he does that without recurring to screaming, fist-clenching, or shirt-tearing — a tricky art mastered only by a select few.

To recapitulate, Another Side Of Bob Dylan really shows all of his sides — the romantic and sentimental, the nasty and offensive, the humorous and playful, the visionary and anthemic, the pretentious and the humble, the serious and the clownish (the latter as represented by ʽMotor­psycho Nightmareʼ, the one song that has not been mentioned because, hilarious lyrics aside, it should really be viewed as an early demo version of the vastly superior spectacle of ʽBob Dylan's 115th Dreamʼ on the next album). And somehow, depending on the angle you choose, it's all there in the man's facial expression on the album cover: not yet fully embracing the hip attitudes and attires of the «young intellectual elites» of the Sixties, but already far removed from the «working class hero» image of The Times — half-dreamy, half-grounded, staring somewhere right above your face, but not entirely into the sky.

A «transitional photo», perhaps, taken for an album that he himself knew would be «transitional» — not all of his friends and admirers might have guessed that, but ʽMr. Tambourine Manʼ was already written at the time, and the only thing, really, that separates Another Side from Bringing It All Back Home is that, with the former, there still remained a slight technical chance of going back. «Another Side» — as in, «indulge a little bit in that beatnik stuff, show off your creativity, then go back to singing about coal miners and racial discrimination». Well — as it turned out, that side ended up being quite sticky. Thumbs up without a question: the album would have been a flawless masterpiece, had he decided at the last moment to replace the hatred of ʽBallad In Plain Dʼ with, say, the tenderness of ʽMama You've Been On My Mindʼ, but even geniuses are only human in the end, and have their reserved right to occasional lapses of judgement.

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Monday, August 26, 2013

Brenda Lee: Emotions

BRENDA LEE: EMOTIONS (1961)

1) Emotions; 2) Just Another Lie; 3) If You Love Me (Really Love Me); 4) Crazy Talk; 5) When I Fall In Love; 6) Around The World; 7) Swanee River Rock; 8) Will You Love Me Tomorrow; 9) I'm Learning About Love; 10) Georgia On My Mind; 11) Cry; 12) I'm In The Mood For Love.

Same stylistics, same production team, same relentless perfectionism (seven different recording sessions now, after the six of This Is... Brenda), same balanced mix of bearded oldies, recent oldies, and freshly written corporate material. The only difference: out of 12 songs, two-thirds are ballads, fair and square, bringing that train still farther and farther away from the girl's rockabilly past — and, considering that the title track predictably made it into the Top 10, this line of deve­lopment only seemed more and more viable as the months and years went by and the «little Miss Dynamite» was all set to grow into a «mature» Nashville queen.

Fortunately, the Nashville production team still keeps a firm grip on the limits of good taste, so that the strings are rarely overbearing, and sometimes actually border on delicious — ʽJust Ano­ther Lieʼ, a new number loosely based on some of Chuck Willis' tunes, instead of formulaic or­chestration, has a haunting solo violin part that comes in through an imaginary archway midway through, and gives the tune a little bit of a Stephane Grappelli feel.

The title track does have such a powerhouse delivery that its choice for a single was understan­dable: the musical backing is non-descript, but this is the first time in Brenda's career when she seems to perfectly understand the power of dynamic modulation, and, true to the song's title, tries to convey not one, but several different types of emotions over those three minutes — listen to the big kick of "EMOTIONS, please set me free!..." after the first few quiet bars of the chorus, and you'll see what I mean.

Elsewhere, she takes on Edith Piaf (ʽIf You Love Meʼ), understandably, with little success, but then again, one shouldn't necessarily be aware that the song is originally a French tune; the Shi­relles and Carole King (ʽWill You Love Me Tomorrowʼ), with far more success, even though I do believe nobody ever invested as much personal feeling into that song as its original author; and Ray Charles (we won't be saying «Hoagy Carmichael», really), with ʽGeorgia On My Mindʼ — a competent version, but only weathered old men can really do justice to that song (or, at least, those who successfully pretend to be weathered old men, like Richard Manuel from The Band).

Of the four upbeat tunes, ʽCrazy Talkʼ is a fun little wannabe-classic, where guitar, sax, and vo­cals do indeed come together in a bit of «crazy talk»; and the B-side ʽI'm Learning About Loveʼ, despite the suspicious title, is in fact a jumpy pop-rocker, with the most vivacious tone on the album and a welcome return of the old «pirate growl» from Little Miss Dynamite.

So, on the whole, one might subtract one or two of the more faceless ballads (like ʽWhen I Fall In Loveʼ), or smirk a bit about such childish cover material as the theme tune from Around The World In 80 Days, but Emotions still delivers... well, emotions. feeling glossy, but lively and cheery, and for that, gets its duly thumbs up.

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Sunday, August 25, 2013

Architecture In Helsinki: Places Like This

ARCHITECTURE IN HELSINKI: PLACES LIKE THIS (2007)

1) Red Turned White; 2) Heart It Races; 3) Hold Music; 4) Feather In A Baseball Cap; 5) Underwater; 6) Like It Or Not; 7) Debbie; 8) Lazy (Lazy); 9) Nothing's Wrong; 10) Same Old Innocence.

In 2006, Architecture In Helsinki parted ways with two of their former members (Tara Shackell and Isobel Knowles), drastically reducing their brass section — not a big problem, as the slots were occupied by an even larger selection of session musicians as soon as the time was ripe for the recording of their third album. A much bigger problem is that the third album introduces se­rious change to their basic style — a change for the worse, which, given AiH's already evident struggle to maintain their own face, means a downright failure.

To put it bluntly, Cameron Bird had suddenly decided that AiH need to start thinking of them­selves as a rock band, thinking along the lines of his (presumably) childhood idols from the pop-punk, New Wave, and electro-funk departments — the accursed «1980s nostalgia», the great bane of the 2000s indie movement, hits again with full devastating force. Consequently, ʽRed Turned Whiteʼ is AiH working à la Prince; ʽHold Musicʼ is AiH working à la Talking Heads; ʽLazyʼ is AiH working à la... UB40? Something like that. ʽSame Old Innocenceʼ is a most decep­tive title to finish off the record with — for the most part, Places Like This is busy chasing out the «same old innocence» of the band's first two LPs, and replacing it with dance beats, fast grooves, and a drunk, mildly surrealist, party atmosphere.

I am not saying that such a transformation could not succeed in theory. But there are two huge, purely practical problems that prevent that theory from working. First, as many other reviewers have noted before, we have here a complete shift in singing style: not only do Bird's vocals now occupy most of the space (largely ushering out the generally far more agreeable leads from Su­ther­land), but he has also switched from psychedelic hushes, murmurs, and whispers to screaming and barking, and there are few things more irritating in this world than to have to listen to an un­skilled screamer and barker, unable to properly align his vocal noise with the general atmosphere of the composition or the entire album. When David Byrne played the «paranoid intellectual idiot» part on the early Heads records, he did it credibly, both through his own singing and the perfect agreement with the music that surrounded it. When Bird tries to do the same on ʽHold Musicʼ, he seems to only respect the «idiot» part — there is nothing paranoid or intellectual about his effort. No meaning at all, for that matter, just an empty form.

Second, this is still the same old Architecture In Helsinki — in that they still haven't figured out a proper way to come up with memorable songs. And now that the original aura has dissipated, it is unclear what exactly should justify listening to something like ʽRed Turned Whiteʼ. The openly annoy­ing vocals? The playful, but emotionless synth patterns? The lack of a clear opposition be­tween verse and chorus? The predictably incomprehensible lyrics? Whatever they wanted to say with this song, it seems to me that they did not manage to say it in a language I understand, either on the sensual or the intellectual level. And the same goes for 90% of this album.

Here are the minimal bits and pieces that did manage to speak out. Number one: the high-pitched, swirling, supernatural vocal harmonies on ʽHeart It Racesʼ (slightly Arcade Fire-like in style). Number two: some peculiarities of the arrangement on ʽUnderwaterʼ that really manage to con­vey an «underwater» atmosphere (not that this is in any way original in 2007) — the song in ge­neral is arguably the closest in spirit to the «proper» AiH. Number three: cute pop guitar interplay at the end of ʽLazyʼ. Number four: big relief when the whole thing is over — and an even bigger thank you for the fact that it only barely runs over 30 minutes.

In all, this is one of the most displeasing transitions from «mediocrity with a promise» to «embar­rassment without redemption». What is most offensive about the whole enterprise, of course, is that the entire record still has a defiantly «artsy» feel — the band retains their multi-instrumental kitsch, the complexity of compositions, the inscrutability of the lyrics. But as far as my heart and mind conspire to tell me, there is not an ounce of genuine substance or meaning in the whole thing. One could, perhaps, see a bunch of college freshmen getting high to this kind of thing, party spirit and all. However, they'd still have to be sorry about it the morning after the party. A disgusted, rather than simply dazed and confused, thumbs down here.

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Saturday, August 24, 2013

Barenaked Ladies: Grinning Streak

BARENAKED LADIES: GRINNING STREAK (2013)

1) Limits; 2) Boomerang; 3) Off His Head; 4) Gonna Walk; 5) Odds Are; 6) Keepin' It Real; 7) Give It Back To You; 8) Best Damn Friend; 9) Did I Say That Out Loud?; 10) Daydreamin'; 11) Smile; 12) Crawl.

With another heavy sigh, I have to admit that The Barenaked Ladies' second post-Page album of original material generates more or less the same impressions as its sleeve photo. To be more pre­cise, it has the very distinct feel of music conceived and executed by a bunch of morose, stern-looking, grayish-haired (var.: bald), suit-and-tie-clad office workers, blankly staring in no particu­lar direction, trying to express something that must have accumulated in their shirt-stuffed breasts and finding themselves completely unable to do it in the least interesting manner.

In other words, Grinning Streak — the title is the best thing here, since it so aptly summarizes their latest developments — proudly wrestles the laurels away from All In Good Time, offering twelve more indie-rock compositions that come and go without creating as much as a ripple. The marginal victory is possibly due to Ed Robertson now writing almost the entirety of the album — only one song goes to Kevin Hearn, and three more are co-credited to Robertson and Better Than Ezra's frontman Kevin Griffin.

On the other hand, Hearn's ʽDaydreamin'ʼ is far from his best: a bouncy soft-rock ditty with faint echoes of techno and psychedelia at the same time, it goes on for far too long on too little fuel, and fails to make proper use of Hearn's best side — tender, honest-sounding sentimentality. The idea here is probably to generate a credible «daydreaming» atmosphere, with a mix of laziness, nonchalance, fantasy, and repetitiveness, but there are no hooks to go along with this mix, and the heavy effects on Hearn's voice make it stupidly robotic rather than wistfully magical. In short, Hearn's minimal presence here is as disappointing as his maximal absence, so we probably should not lay all the blame on Robertson alone...

...as tempting as that is, because he just keeps sinking further and further into the abyss of «gene­ricity» — something like ʽBoomerangʼ, with its syncopated percussion and quiet-to-loud dyna­mics, just sounds like bad Oasis or any other old Brit-pop band who would follow the old Ben Franklin maxim of «those who try to sacrifice memorable riffs for singalong catchy choruses de­serve neither». That it happened to be the first single released from the album just goes to show how utterly directionless the band has become. (For comparison, try ABBA's song of the same name if you really need a fun, energetic pop song).

Of the three numbers co-written with Griffin, only ʽGonna Walkʼ stands out a little bit by being poppier and cutesier than the rest, with a mild martial punch, singalong harmonies, and a jovial atmosphere that provides some respite from the many shades of gray that dominate the record. ʽKeepin' It Realʼ is an exercise in blues-rock grittiness, a somewhat different twist for the Ladies and handled professionally, but, like everything else on here, in a sterile manner — including the «blazing» guitar solo at the end. Particularly awful is the album closer: ʽCrawlʼ is overstretched, overcooked, over-emoted adult contemporary, and you'd probably have to be Ed Robertson's wife, parent, or offspring (or you'd have to want to be any of these) to enjoy the song.

Perhaps if the reviews for All In Good Time had not been all that glowing — praising the band for finally trading in their clown outfits for «mature» suits and ties — Robertson might have had second thoughts about going even further in this «introspective» direction. There is nothing of­fen­sive or unintelligent, per se, in these songs about complicated relationships and personality crises: it is just one of those cases where you almost wish something were offensive or openly dumb — anything at all to break this languid, go-nowhere crust of mediocrity. Unfortunately, at this point, with Grinning Streak getting even more positive reviews from critics who seem to be completely forgetting what it used to mean to be «fun» in rock music, it does not seem likely that  Robertson will be swerving from this steady, unadventurous, concrete-laden path any time soon, so here is another thumbs down in a series that, probably, has not yet run its course.

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Friday, August 23, 2013

Bathory: Blood On Ice

BATHORY: BLOOD ON ICE (1996)

1) Intro; 2) Blood On Ice; 3) Man Of Iron; 3) One Eyed Old Man; 4) The Sword; 5) The Stallion; 6) The Wood­woman; 7) The Lake; 8) Gods Of Thunder, Of Wind And Of Rain; 9) The Ravens; 10) The Revenge Of The Blood On Ice.

Apparently, the story is as follows: In between the «transitional» Blood, Fire And Death and the stylistic revolution and public success of Ham­mer­heart, Quorthon had actually recorded yet another album — one that explored his newly-acquired interest in his Scandinavian heritage even farther than Hammerheart, being sort of a highly cohesive «rock oratorio». Inside was a Nor­dic fan­tasy, loosely based on the motives of Germanic mythology, but «creatively reworked» by Quorthon, presumably in order to avoid being sued by Odin's and Thor's legal representatives for copyright in­fringement — you never know when that lightning might strike you.

Having recorded the master tapes, Quorthon, however, had second thoughts about releasing the album for public consumption — feeling, as he admitted himself, that his fanbase was not yet ready for such a radical image reinvention. The project was therefore shelved, and Quorthon started working on Hammerheart instead. Only six years later, having accidentally leaked the information and received lots of feedback from the fans (who, by that time, were not only well accustomed to his Viking schtick, but probably also felt seriously irritated by Quorthon's subse­quent move to stupid thrash territory), he returned to the old tapes — cleaned them up, remixed them based on improved technology, and finally made them available to everyone under the title of Blood On Ice, which at least sounds a little better than «King Arthur on ice», I'd say.

Frankly speaking, it is not quite clear why this album, had it been out there in 1989, could have been more of a «shock» to fans than Hammerheart. It does suffer in comparison to the latter, but not because of its storyline, or any sort of extra pomposity, or anything like that: it simply does not match Hammerheart in terms of sheer quantity of good ideas. The storyline is a little corny, as is every one-man fantasy-style reworking of any mythological tradition — elegantly shaped and steadily balanced through hundreds of years of «natural selection» — and perhaps he did feel a little shy about unfurling his story of one-eyed wise men, twin-headed Beasts, and eight-legged stallions, replacing it with the superficially more impressive pseudo-historism of Hammerheart. How­ever, Quorthon's verba­city rarely stands in the way of proper music: the real reason why Blood On Ice feels a little disappointing is that, unlike Hammerheart, this one is really envisi­oned as a «musical saga», and the one flaw that could be naturally expected of a musical saga is monotonousness and repetitiveness.

From that angle, Blood On Ice, with its emphasis on the «never-ending riff» rather than the «awe­some riff», has more in common with Twilight Of The Gods, or those particular parts of Hammerheart that pre-announce Twilight (most notably, ʽOne Rode To Asa Bayʼ). The tracks are typically long and repetitive, only occasionally jolted by vocal gimmicks (such as the deep «iron-man» spoken passage in the middle of the title track, or the «one-eyed old man» monolog on the same-titled tune) or an acoustic interlude (ʽThe Ravensʼ; ʽMan Of Ironʼ, despite its title, is actually a crudely constructed acoustic folk ballad as well).

Elsewhere, the riffs are really only there to propel the song forward — martial-wise (title track; ʽThe Stallionʼ) or, sometimes, in a more blues-rocky, almost swampy mode (ʽThe Lakeʼ — did I just say «swampy»?). This is all fine and dandy for a «saga», if we are simply supposed to take this as a heavy backing to Quorthon's story, but if the story happens to be the last thing in which we might be interested on a Bathory album, the number of memorable events on Blood On Ice will not be too large. (For some reason, the only thing that still sticks with me after several listens is the juxtaposition of thumping hooves and bleating sheep — even though I have never suspec­ted myself of anything close to a pastoralist or nomadic mindset...).

Altogether, this one is definitely for the fans, although it goes without say­ing that it does feel a lot like a gulp of fresh, methane-free air after the previous two albums — and that the story, corny elements and all, does show a deep, sincere interest in the Scandinavian pagan tradition: there are conceptual elements in Blood On Ice that may feel clumsy or poorly stated, but there is no denying the passion and the obsessive involvement. Unfortunately, this is not quite enough to properly «reward» the album with a thumbs up.

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Thursday, August 22, 2013

Barclay James Harvest: Victims Of Circumstance

BARCLAY JAMES HARVEST: VICTIMS OF CIRCUMSTANCE (1984)

1) Sideshow; 2) Hold On; 3) Rebel Woman; 4) Say You'll Stay; 5) For Your Love; 6) Victims Of Circumstance; 7) Inside My Nightmare; 8) Watching You; 9) I've Got A Feeling.

No big changes from the formula here, either — just small ones, and, as usual, for the worse. For instance, there is a further slight tilt into adult contemporary: ʽI've Got A Feelingʼ, another vile bur­glari­zation of a Beatles title, represents Holroyd's most faithful adoption of the Eighties' sen­ti­mental ballad style (watery synthesizers, trembling falsettos, the works). A little more guitar than there was last time, but what guitar? The leaden arena riffs of ʽHold Onʼ have nothing to do with John's lilting melodic solos.

Perhaps the biggest introduced «novelty» is a set of female singers singing backup, an idea that might have meant wanting to give the record a little soulful-gospel flavor, but ended up, I think, moving the band closer to Europop. One needs to go no further than the album opener: ʽSide­showʼ starts out as a glossy uptempo folk rocker, but then, as massive strings and female choirs start fountaineering from the speakers, it becomes an odd mix of Bee Gees and ABBA (in fact, a few of the string movements are almost openly copied from ʽDancing Queenʼ). As usual, they have the means to pull it off without embarrassment, but the whole style is really so alien for John and Les that they have no means whatsoever to turn it into something remarkable.

Those who have never embarked on an anti-arena rock crusade might get to like the rockier stuff on here. ʽRebel Womanʼ (despite the title, this is, curiously, an anti-Soviet song, written in the wake of the Korean airliner incident) has a streak of grim catchiness, although it could have done better without the irritating synth loops — and, perhaps, with an actual guitar solo (for some rea­son, Lees saves all of his solos for the ballads on this album — an unexplainable choice, since he used to do really well on the fast rockers). ʽInside My Nightmareʼ could have been just as good, had they kept the girls away from the microphone and made the basic guitar riff less sterile. At the very least, the two songs are a refreshing change of pace from the usual mush.

And the usual mush is hardly worth commenting — lots and lots of ballads that mostly reshuffle old ideas, scraped off Bee Gees and Elton John (ʽFor Your Loveʼ) records; I wouldn't be surpri­sed, either, to learn they had been listening to late Genesis and early solo Phil Collins as well (ʽSay You'll Stayʼ definitely has the same atmosphere as ʽFollow You Follow Meʼ). The staying power of these tunes is expectedly close to zero, although, once again, I have to stress: even at this late period, BJH songs are all «forgettable» and «mediocre» rather than openly offensive and embarrassing (unless you start bringing in the lyrics).

It should also be noted that this is the first BJH album on which Holroyd compositions outnumber those of Lees (5:4), and also the first BJH album on which Holroyd compositions are significant­ly weaker, as the man completes the transition from folk-based soft-rock into synth-choked adult contemporary, while Lees still attempts to at least nominally justify the «rock» heritage of the band. Thus, even though at this point there is still no talk whatsoever of splitting the alliance (after all, they didn't just kick Woolly out of the band for nothing: Turn Of The Tide showed how happy they could be as a duo), it is not excluded that the first faint traces of the creative rift can be tracked to some time around this period.

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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Blodwyn Pig: Live At The Fillmore West 1970

BLODWYN PIG: LIVE AT THE FILLMORE WEST 1970 (1999)

1) It's Only Love; 2) Ain't Ya Comin' Home Babe?; 3) Dear Jill; 4) Worry; 5) San Francisco Sketches; 6) It's Only Love; 7) Change Song; 8) Cat Squirrel; 9) See My Way; 10) Slow Down; 11) Rock Me.

And, as a last word on Blodwyn Pig, here is a quick account of one of those archival releases that are almost impossible to listen to because of awful sound quality. This here is a show that the band played on the 3rd of August, 1970, shortly before the break-up, but still in peak form: they now had two albums behind their belt, almost two years of gig experience, and some sort of rock vision that they tried to break through to us on Getting To This. And they were playing at the Fill­more West — a good chance to try and blow the Grateful Dead off the stage with some brusk, brawny, British rock'n'roll.

The album loyally presents both of the short sets that the band played on that day, opening for not-too-sure-whom, but the «official bootleg» tag should count as a warning, since the sound quality is that of a good front row audience recording — you can hear all the instruments, but there is no question of any sort of «mixing» present, and this, as far as I can tell, is the norm for most of Blodwyn Pig's non-BBC live recordings, so get ready to live with this if your soul hap­pens to vibrate on the same amplitude with Mick Abrahams.

The biggest problem for me, unfortunately, is not the sound quality, but the fact that this is still only Blodwyn Pig, and that means «B-level». The band was reasonably tight, but never really «Fillmore-proof»: the level of transformation that was implicitly required from studio bands as they became live bands in 1970 is not reached. True, some of the songs are expanded with addi­tional jam sections, and there is also a twelve-minute run through ʽCat's Squirrelʼ, which Mick took with him from his This Was legacy. But their attempts to plow through these sections in «Cream mode», with lengthy solo passages from Abrahams' guitar or Lancaster's sax, end up boring — loud, proud, and sincere, but lacking individuality.

There are also some «atmospheric mistakes» that may embarrass the listener — for instance, in­serting a Tull-esque flute lead part in the beginning of Larry Williams' ʽSlow Downʼ is a classic «conflict of interests», somewhat typical for early 1970s art-rockers wanting to «embellish» the rockabilly oldies with artsy flourishes. On the other hand, when they don't offer no embellish­ments (ʽRock Meʼ), the results are simply non-descript.

On the whole, the album has mostly historical importance — as in, this is the way (or one of the ways) a typically solid, but unexceptional British roots-rock band would structure and conduct its show when guesting on the West Coast; also, in the light of the overall legendary status of Bill Graham's Fillmore enterprise, any extra small piece of the puzzle is always welcome to complete the picture. (For instance, it may be useful to know that Blodwyn Pig weren't booed off the stage or anything — Californian audiences being quite friendly and receptive towards their guests, even if the music was decidedly non-psychedelic). But only a thoroughly omnivorous person, I sup­pose, could listen to this and experience genuine pleasure; in every respect other than historical, this is a thumbs down in the context of all the truly great live shows from its era.


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Bob Dylan: The Times They Are A-Changin'

BOB DYLAN: THE TIMES THEY ARE A-CHANGIN' (1964)

1) The Times They Are A-Changin'; 2) Ballad Of Hollis Brown; 3) With God On Our Side; 4) One Too Many Mornings; 5) North Country Blues; 6) Only A Pawn In Their Game; 7) Boots Of Spanish Leather; 8) When The Ship Comes In; 9) The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll; 10) Restless Farewell.

One thing that most people have always felt about Dylan to the near-point of certainty is his ego­centric nature. Behaviorally haughty, instinctively condescending, and in addition to all that, to­tally closed to outsiders — where «outsiders» would begin with the closest friends and relatives and end with everybody else. This is more or less common knowledge, but I have to bring it up because ever so often, caught up in one or another side of Dylan's artistic personality, we forget that we can never be sure of when exactly we are dealing with the «true» Dylan.

It is probably safe to say that «Dylan the folk protest singer», much like «Dylan the newborn Christian» fifteen years later, was essentially a mask that he agreed to wear for a certain period of time, as long as it was helping him with his artistic career. «Mask» does not quite nearly equal «fake», mind you: there is no reason not to believe that, on some level, Bob did sympathize for people like Hollis Brown or Hattie Carroll — and there is every reason to believe the spite and contempt that the man had both for the powers-that-be, as brutally as he is lashing against them on ʽWith God On Our Sideʼ, and for the «mothers and fathers», as gleefully as he is condemning them to the trashbin of history on ʽThe Times They Are A-Changin'ʼ. But sympathizing is one thing, and pledging one's faith is another — The Times They Are A-Changin' is not an album made by a loyal soldier of the Pete Seeger regiment, even if the uninitiated did not understand it all that well back in early 1964.

The decision to release an «all-out» protest song album was quite conscious, and symbolically il­lustrated by the sleeve photo — quite far removed from the clumsy shyness of The Freewheelin', Bob is now trying to put on the look of somebody who has just emerged out of a sweatshop, or, at least, spent his entire childhood collecting Woody Guthrie photos and memorabilia. Again, though, the somber look on his face as he so explicitly looks down upon the evil exploiters (in­cluding everyone who sells and buys his own records) is not particularly «fake» — this is, after all, a great opportunity to indulge in his favorite passion: putting people down, whether it be for his own sake or for the greater good of the planet in general.

The only problem is that, having consciously narrowed down this scope and played out in favor of this particular image, Bob — almost predictably so — did not manage to come up with a sui­tably great bunch of songs. Many of them were, in fact, created already at the time of or even way before The Freewheelin', and some are downright simple rewrites: ʽBoots Of Spanish Leatherʼ, as it is very easy to notice, is essentially the same song as ʽGirl From The North Countryʼ. Like­wise, it is hardly a coincidence that the overall number of tunes here is smaller than on Free­wheelin', while the average length of a single composition has increased by almost a whole mi­nute — something quite typical for a situation of «creative blockage».

Three songs still stand out as major/minor classics. The title track sits here in the same place that was earlier occupied by ʽBlowin' In The Windʼ: its face is more stately, its voice is louder, and its message is far more blunt and unambiguous — blushy shyness being replaced by Biblical thunder as the prophet makes the transition from the liberal-minded salon into the open space of the town market square. It must have taken some gall to write and record a song like that, but someone had to do it, particularly if that someone had to live up to the «generation spokesman» tag (which Bob openly claims to have hated, but ʽThe Times They Are A-Changin'ʼ could only have been written with that specific tag in mind, whether he had already been assigned it or not). The song has nei­ther the depth nor the subtlety of his greatest creations — but it has certainly gone «beyond your command». The guitar may be raggedy and a little out of tune, the lyrics may borrow one too many clichés from the Prophets, and the message may seem less and less pleasant to baby boo­mers as they become grandfathers, but what can we do about it? It's a fucking symbol now, one of those near-ideal generational anthems.

Within the context of the album, though, I think that it is ʽWhen The Ship Comes Inʼ that makes the greater impact — the only song to break up the dirgey bleakness and monotonousness and to shower the curses on the heads of Bob's enemies in a faster, more playful (and, therefore, a little more sadistic) mode: inspired by Jenny's pirate tune in The Threepenny Opera and an accident where Bob was refused hotel admission for not being clean enough, it is the most gleefully dan­ceable of Bob's protest songs, and probably the one that his Jewish ancestors would be the most proud of, not just because it namedrops Goliath and the Pharaoh among those who will be crushed when the ship comes in, but also because, of all those early songs, it is the only one that gives the listener a clear vision of that happy end we're all hoping for. And it's catchy, too, but what wouldn't be catchy if it were inspired by Threepenny Opera?

The rest of the social / political songs on the album rarely reach these highs, not just because they are lyrically much more tied in with specific cases and particular situations, but also because they simply happen to be too drawn out and dreary. ʽWith God On Our Sideʼ gives you nine verses of irony when one could easily do with just three or four — the melody is boring, the energy level is low, and the lyrics are extremely questionable in the light of Bob's usual standards (I have always thought that the verse about the Germans was particularly poorly thought out — do the lines "though they murdered six millions... the Germans now, too, have God on their side" imply that the correct alternative would have been to wipe the Germans off the face of the Earth, once and for all? Probably not, but that is one of the easiest interpretations).

ʽThe Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carrollʼ has more direct involvement on Bob's part, and would have probably made a great impact had it been performed on the day of the William Zantzinger trial (August 28, 1963), but, at the risk of understating its importance for the history of anti-racist struggle in the US, I would dare say that the song is quite boring on the whole, and that its slow, stuttering, droning verses have nothing even close to the fist-clenching effect that a song like ʽHurricaneʼ would produce more than a decade later — even if, as a person, Hattie Carroll might be deserving more of our empathy than Ruben Carter (if anything, merely for the fact that Hattie Carroll is dead and Ruben Carter is not). The lyrical description of the woman's murder and of the rigged trial, and the acid condemnation of those who «philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears» is brilliant — the execution seems way too poorly thought out (although, of course, there are quite a few Dylanologists that would be happy to fight that idea).

In any case, the best song on The Times They Are A-Changin' happens to be one of the few that completely lack any sociopolitical undercurrent — it is also the shortest and, at first, least noticeable of these tunes, still completely in the vein of the «humble mumble» of Freewheelin'. ʽOne Too Many Morningsʼ (Steve Jobs' favorite song, no less!) has only three verses, a barely audible fingerpicking melody that rolls out far more smoothly from under Bob's fingers than the scrapy, wobbly strum of ʽThe Times They Are A-Changin'ʼ, and a beautiful melancholic aura — I like to think of it as a sequel to ʽDon't Think Twiceʼ, in which our hero contemplates the choices he has made and feels a little guilty and repentant about it, all the while being extra careful to not let us understand this directly. But even if not, it is still the most personal and deeply human tune on the whole album — even more so than the closing ʽRestless Farewellʼ, where Bob once again dons the travelin' minstrel cap and sings a well-meant, but formulaic dinner ballad for the king and his court.

On the whole, The Times They Are A-Changin' is a misstep — the only time in Bob's entire career, perhaps, when he went ahead and delivered an album that somebody expected him to de­liver: an artistic mistake he would never repeat again. But considering that he was still young, fresh, full of creative juices, energy, and invigorated with his success in «the right circles», it is also no wonder that the record is listenable, contains no major embarrassments (if one discounts the superfluous song lengths and a few lamentable lyrical slip-ups), and still has a bunch of clas­sic songs that rank all the way up there with his best. For these reasons, I would rather resist the temptation of giving it a thumbs down — even the worst Dylan record of the 1960s is still an es­sential listen for everybody who has a basic interest in the man. Besides, as a social stimulus — a musical protest statement — it certainly worked back in 1964, and might as well continue wor­king for a long time, as long as the English language doesn't change too much.

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