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Monday, September 30, 2013

Brenda Lee: Let Me Sing

BRENDA LEE: LET ME SING (1963)

1) Night And Day; 2) The End Of The World; 3) Our Day Will Come; 4) You're The Reason I'm Living; 5) Break It To Me Gently; 6) Where Are You; 7) When Your Lover Has Gone; 8) Losing You; 9) I Wanna Be Around; 10) Out In The Cold Again; 11) At Last; 12) There Goes My Heart.

No conceptual foundation this time, but no significant difference, either, except for a minor tac­tical twist: other than the opening ʽNight And Dayʼ and maybe just one or two other oldies, the majority of the songs come from recent success stories — Bobby Darin, Skeeter Davis, those kinds of people. If anything, though, it only means that polite, Disney-ish ballads occupy the space that could have been dedicated to fun retro jazz romps: if Brenda Lee is prohibited to sing rock'n'roll, she could have at least been warming our hearts with some of that old swing. But Let Me Sing is targeted exclusively at «respectable parents» circa 1963, and no one else.

Already sickening strings are now joined, on at least a third of the songs, by the greatest evil of all — croony backup vocals that successfully recreate the atmosphere of Bambi: nineteen fourty-two all over again (ʽYou're The Reason I'm Livingʼ, ʽThere Goes My Heartʼ, etc.). Brenda herself sounds strong and confident in the midst of all this sugarland, but strength and confidence are wasted on this kind of material with these kinds of arrangements. Besides, many of these songs are not even intended to be sung with strength and confidence — if there is a substantial point to a song like ʽBreak It To Me Gentlyʼ, it is pretty much lost on the singer. If somebody asked me in that particular way to «break it to me gently», I'd rather run and hide.

Anyway, the two oldies that open the two sides of the LP (ʽNight And Dayʼ, ʽWhen Your Lover Has Goneʼ) preserve some of the playful fun, and are altogether acceptable, if dispensable. The rest is mainly just awful songs in awful arrangements, sung by a singer who was not born to sing this kind of material, period. Another thumbs down, of course — don't let anyone fool you into suggesting that «time has been kind to this stuff...».


Sunday, September 29, 2013

Baroness: Blue Record

BARONESS: BLUE RECORD (2009)

1) Bullhead's Psalm; 2) The Sweetest Curse; 3) Jake Leg; 4) Steel That Sleeps The Eye; 5) Swollen And Halo; 6) Ogeechee Hymnal; 7) A Horse Called Golgotha; 8) O'er Hell And Hide; 9) War, Wisdom, And Rhyme; 10) Black­powder Orchard; 11) The Gnashing; 12) Bullhead's Lament.

Alert to lineup change: guitarist Brian Blickle is out, leaving his brother Allen on drums, well, brotherless, and is replaced by Pete Adams. If I am not mistaken, this does result in a slight in­crease of guitar soloing on the album — so maybe they just wanted to procure the services of a flashier lead player. But it isn't as if the replacement had led to a lot of stylistic change: for the most part, the metal heart of Blue is genetically the same as the one on Red.

On second thought, though, I would probably agree that it is a tad heavier, darker, and tougher than its predecessor — which we'd expect, I guess, considering the transition from a «redder» to a «bluer» hue. I have no idea what the band means by «Bullhead» (a fish? a town? a movie? an un­disclosed friend?), but both of the two short, «Bullhead»-inspired bits that open and close the al­bums are dirge-like — grim minor key wailings that purge the last bits of «math rock» from the band's legacy. And in between are a lot of aggressive, war-like compositions, although, believe it or not, the sound is still ultimately friendly: if it is battle and slaughter that the band is singing about, then it's some sort of ancient epic battle-and-slaughter, carried out with an honorable smile on one's face, with none of that doom-and-gloom, «war-is-evil» bullshit invented by humanists to spoil our old favorite game of head-gathering.

Thus, the album's centerpiece is probably ʽA Horse Called Golgothaʼ, with the band firing away on all cylinders as machine-gun riffage and frenzied soloing (much of which actually resembles a neighing war horse!) assault your ears for five minutes straight. But it is never a vicious assault: guitar tones remain brawny and bulgy, but never evil, and although one would probably expect «a horse called Golgotha» to symbolize something apocalyptic, this particular horse looks like it kills fascists (a dime a dozen), rather than people of good will.

In fact, now that the band has gone even farther retro, abandoning all pretenses to pushing the envelope forward, I know that old sound, echoes of which they consciously or subconsciously reproduce here: the Randy Rhoads-era Ozzy Osbourne records — the same lively, gristling-and-bristling, but never too scary or depressing brand of metal that seeks acceptance from all sorts of music fans, not just the «metalheads». Allegedly, there is nothing here that even begins to ap­proach the catchiness of Ozzy's records — because Baroness are not a «pop» band, after all: they might like that kind of sound, but they certainly wouldn't want you to merrily whistle it out, as it is easy to do with the likes of ʽCrazy Trainʼ. But it's very much that kind of metal, shorn of its Eighties gloss and, perhaps, just a little bit intellectualized.

Other tracks, apart from ʽHorseʼ, that also invoke that analogy, include ʽThe Gnashingʼ (with yet another series of choo-choo train riffs) and ʽJake Legʼ. ʽWar, Wisdom, And Rhymeʼ tries to be more ominous, but mostly through the lyrics — "we are grave, we are graves, we will die" is sung too often for the song to retain a cheerful face, even if Baizley's grizzly-bear vocals still remain the weak point of the band's sound, mainly because the man sounds forever stuck in one mode of expression, regardless of the circumstances. Whether he gets to bash somebody's head in, or whe­ther it is his own head that gets bashed in, you may be sure he will have the exact same howling in­tonation to inform you of the results in both situations.

All in all, the bad news is that, once again, the collective atmosphere forged by these songs, one after the other, is more interesting than the individual riffs and solos, if you pull them apart and start comparing them to various hard rock classics — try as they might (provided they actually do try, which I am not sure of), Baroness are incapable of drawing an economic, concise, meaningful sonic picture, compensating for this in «sprawl mode». (And I am not even mentioning the oc­casional non-metal tunes like ʽSteel That Sleeps The Eyeʼ, where the band harmonizes in a «poor man's Crosby, Stills & Nash» fashion — very boring).

The good news is that this «sprawl mode» works, and Blue Record as a whole, with its brawny nature, relative variety, and compositional bravoura, is definitely more than a mere sum of its parts. This is not any sort of great praise — as heard through this reviewer's ears, it signifies the victory of style over substance, and that is always a disappointment in comparison to the opposite. But at least, yep, Baroness have style, and that is already much more than can be said about... oh, well, up to you to complete that sentence, if you are up to it in the first place. So here we go with yet another modest thumbs up, as blue turns out to be the new red and all.

Check "Blue Record" (CD) on Amazon
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Saturday, September 28, 2013

Beck: Mellow Gold

BECK: MELLOW GOLD (1994)

1) Loser; 2) Pay No Mind (Snoozer); 3) Fuckin With My Head (Mountain Dew Rock); 4) Whiskeyclone, Hotel City 1997; 5) Soul Suckin Jerk; 6) Truckdrivin Neighbors Downstairs (Yellow Sweat); 7) Sweet Sunshine; 8) Beercan; 9) Steal My Body Home; 10) Nitemare Hippy Girl; 11) Mutherfuker; 12) Blackhole.

One theory that explains the surprising commercial success of Mellow Gold is simply that its attitude appealed so much to the new generation of slackers all over the US and worldwide, they went ahead and made it into their personal Bible of 1994. There is, however, a big hole in that theory — namely, where did all those slackers get the money to buy the album? Naturally, there are a hundred thousand different ways for a slacker to solve his financial problems, but then... would not being able to afford Mellow Gold really count as a genuine financial problem, in need of an immediate solution? Who knows, really.

There is another theory, though — one that also acknowledges the purely musical merits of Mel­low Gold, and states that Beck's meticulous fusion of the archaic and the contemporary, achieved here in a most understandable and accessible manner, was so unprecedented and intriguing that there was simply no way it could not transform the guy into the hottest new thing around town. Let's face it: even though, once we get to the bottom of it, country blues and hip-hop ultimately stem from pretty much the same source (lower class Afro-American layer, that is), it isn't every day that somebody proposes to knock 'em back together in a single package — all the more sur­prising that it took a hunk of «pseudo-white trash» to carry out that operation.

Allegedly, Beck himself was of no high opinion of ʽLoserʼ, which he only reluctantly submitted to release as a single — to him, this was a mediocre experiment like many others, maybe just a little more elaborate than the majority of his «stereopathetic soulmanure» products. But he was wrong — unlike most of these products, ʽLoserʼ had the golden touch for everybody. Critics loved the unholy union of slide guitars (roots!), sitars (psycho!), and hip-hop rhythms / vocals (modern cool!), and simple fans were awestruck with the chorus: "I'm a loser baby, so why don't you kill me?" was so poignant... and «sing-along-able»: readymade national anthem for a small army at least, or maybe, who knows, even a large one.

As ʽLoserʼ deservedly jump-started the process of turning Beck from street rat to major star, he must have warmed up to its nature — because, frankly speaking, ideology-wise most of Mellow Gold, his proper major label (Geffen) debut, sounds like variations on the same topic: combining elements of roots-rock music, psychedelia, and «modern street rhythmics» to form a soundtrack for losers, outcasts, and downshifters the world over. «Slacker music», come to think of it, is not a very good term — Beck himself has always hated it, rightfully pointing out that he was never a «slacker» as such. «Urban loser music» is more like it, although we would also need to throw in Beck's little fetish of mysophilia as well: few records have more mentions of toilets, manure, scum, puke, etc. per square inch than Mellow Gold allows itself in fourty-five minutes. Urban losers come in different sorts and sizes; Beck's version is a particularly smelly one.

Not that any of us should mind, since, on the whole, Mellow Gold's basic intention is never one of grossing you out — that can happen, sometimes, as an unintentional, or desirable, side effect, like it does in Pulp Fiction (to which Mellow Gold, from certain angles, relates like its musical twin from the same year), but above everything else, it is a musically interesting construction, stylistically uniform and variegated at the same time. Hip-hop rhythms, rapping, and sampling frequently make part of it, but they do not lie in the foundation — which is strictly occupied with chord sequences learned, borrowed, or based on Beck's knowledge of the rustic tradition; so, in a way, he is doing here much the same thing as Dylan was doing back in 1965, rebooting the old franchise in a manner fit for the moods and airs of thirty years forward.

In terms of immediate memorability, it is the loud, obnoxious numbers that steal the show — ʽLoserʼ is an impeccable opener, but then there is also ʽSoul Suckin' Jerkʼ (continuing with the analogy, "I ain't gonna work for no soul suckin' jerk, I'm gonna take it all back and I ain't sayin' jack" is the 1994 equivalent of "I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more") — great combo of swampy acoustic guitar and harmonica with rudely distorted fuzz bass on that one; ʽSweet Sun­shineʼ, which fits its title very well if one interprets «sunshine» as «nuclear explosion flash» (the instrumental part is like a very bad, very perverse acid trip); and a new, improved, beefed up ver­sion of ʽMutherfukerʼ that now sounds very much like stoner rock with a screwdriver up its ass, as spontaneously as that simile is generated.

Then, over time, one also gets warmed to the quieter, subtler stuff — the «anti-depressed» (so called because they should be expected to sound depressing, but in reality sound like the singer has already transcended that silly, pesky emotion) acoustic ballads like ʽPay No Mindʼ, ʽNitemare Hippy Girlʼ, ʽWhiskeycloneʼ, or the solemn, quasi-Eastern album closer ʽBlackholeʼ. There is no compositional genius here, but the hooks and moods are quite efficient, without any traces of taking themselves too seriously or exercising any self-pity, but still aspiring to some importance. ʽBlackholeʼ, in particular, almost invites you to meditate to its rhythmic waves of guitars and strings, and then you realize that a large segment of the album is, indeed, meditative in nature, even some of the heavier numbers — because, after all, what is a sla... er, urban loser supposed to do other than just drift away into the depths of his subconscious and hope that he might find peace of mind is waiting there, to quote another famous «slacker»?

All in all, Mellow Gold is one of those records that do provoke different reactions depending on the number of times you have listened to them, the context in which you heard them, the mood in which you find yourself at the moment, and, of course, the ability to judge avantgarde artistic statements both on their own terms and on common grounds — good news for me is that I actu­ally happen to like the record not just because it is «weird» or «innovative», but because it shows a streak of very individualistic, very unusual wisdom. As a collection of great individual songs, it may not be Beck's finest hour; but as one of the most important cohesive albums of the decade, it just might be. At the very least, it more than deserves its exalted thumbs up.

Check "Mellow Gold" (CD) on Amazon
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Friday, September 27, 2013

The Bats: The Law Of Things

THE BATS: THE LAW OF THINGS (1989)

1) Other Side Of You; 2) Law Of Things; 3) Never Said Goodbye; 4) Yawn Vibes; 5) Time To Get Ready; 6) Ten To One; 7) Mastery; 8) I Fall Away; 9) Cliff Edge; 10) Nine Days; 11) Bedlam; 12) Smoking Her Wings.

If there is a «law of things» according to The Bats, it is unquestionably the law of preservation — the band's second album does not introduce even a single serious change to the formula. Same lineup, same twin guitar jangle, same guest violinist, same vibes, same moods. Same crude pro­duction style, too, except that Robert Scott's lead vocals frequently get clearer in the mix and are not as often double-tracked with Woodward's, so you can get a better picture of the sonic palette of New Zealand's Roger McGuinn — if you'd like to get a better picture, of course, because his voice isn't exactly the epitome of expressivity, to put it mildly.

The album is rarely, if ever, described as a «sophomore slump», but critical reaction here usually follows the well-known critical principle of «If A precedes B and B = A, then A is better than B», as the band is supposed to run out of its originally accumulated cloud of inspiration and slip into a «regular workman» routine. It is a dangerous sign when it is the opening and the closing track that are usually found listed as highlights — meaning that the listener, most likely, fell asleep right after the first song and woke up towards the end — and this is more or less what happened to The Law Of Things.

Granted, the closing track, ʽSmoking Her Wingsʼ, which was also the single, is a little different: if anything, it sounds like the little brother of Joy Division rather than The Smiths, with a vague hint of threatening doom emanating from its droning guitar parts and with an unusually stern, al­most «ceremonial» singing tone — yes, I think the late Ian Curtis would have dug this, even if The Bats, byt their very nature, are physiologically unable to generate those dark clouds: at best, this is just a slight patch of fog, but even in this way, it stands out from the rest.

And the rest is the rest: average-fast pop-rockers driven by pretty, but unexceptional folk-pop melodies and singalong-style choruses, almost always in the same relaxed-idealistic emotional state. I suppose that ʽTen To Oneʼ, stuck in the middle, is also a bit of a standout — guitar and vocals pack a bit more crunch, and even Alastair Galbraith's violin screeches and scrapes like somebody just stepped on its tail, er, neck. But that's just two and a half minutes out of a half hour of overall pleasant sameness. Feel free to pick your favorites — I, for one, think that the al­bum only loses if you begin to think of it in terms of individual melodies. (For instance, the melody of ʽNever Said Goodbyeʼ borrows its first chords from McCartney's ʽListen To What The Man Saidʼ — which, subsequently, makes its last chords sound like a botched version of that song's melody. I could easily see somebody preferring the ragged, unglossed-over production of The Bats as artistically superior to McCartney's «stiffly polished» arrangement, but in terms of general melodicity and catchiness, Paul wins over this particular phrasing, hands down).

Still, especially in the context of its times, The Law Of Things as a whole is quite a thumbs up experience. The title ʽYawn Vibesʼ may be appropriately self-ironic, but at least these are some happy, tasteful yawn vibes we are getting provided with.

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Thursday, September 26, 2013

Barclay James Harvest: River Of Dreams

BARCLAY JAMES HARVEST: RIVER OF DREAMS (1997)

1) Back In The Game; 2) River Of Dreams; 3) Yesterday's Heroes; 4) Children Of The Disappeared; 5) Pools Of Tears; 6) Do You Believe In Dreams; 7) (Took Me) So Long; 8) Mr. E; 9) Three Weeks To Despair; 10) The Time Of Our Lives.

If you actually managed to stay with me here, all the way through that interminable string of «papcore» records getting duller and duller with each subsequent release... well, I wouldn't exact­ly call River Of Dreams, Lees' and Holroyd's last BJH collaboration, a «reward» for all that patience, but at the very least, it is a partial recompense. It was not intended to be a swan song for the band — but, luckily indeed, the guys managed to stay together long enough to not let the to­tally abysmal Caught In The Light close the book on Barclay James Harvest.

This, not its predecessor, is the real objective «comeback»: finally, somebody started paying atten­tion to how far away the band had drifted from its mid-1970's sound into the territory of smooth-bland adult contemporary, and the record is a very conscious, very hard-working attempt to get back where it all... not «began», exactly, but where it had that relative balance between be­ing «artistic» and «commercial». Not only are the guitars back in a big way, fighting back the synthesizer mush with renewed forces, but so is the «poor man's Moody Blues» / «poor man's Pink Floyd» / «poor man's Beatles» spirit, which seemed so pathetic back in the 1970s, compared to what was going on at the time, but, by the late 1980s, was so goddamn sorely missed as the band plummeted into «poor man's Phil Collins» territory.

Of course, subtlety was never a forte for the band — you could suspect something of the sort hap­pening just by glancing at the song titles: ʽBack In The Gameʼ, ʽYesterday's Heroesʼ, ʽTook Me So Longʼ... And then there is all that musical legacy — the Harrison-esque slide guitar parts that open ʽDo You Believe In Dreamsʼ, the unflinching "let me take you down..." quotation on ʽMr. Eʼ, along with the psychedelic cellos, the Wall influence on ʽYesterday's Heroesʼ... but then again, without all these links, how could we call this a «comeback» in the first place? Barclay James Harvest used to make a living out of «plundering» everyone in sight — the quintessential «art-rock vultures», and now they're back with a flesh-ripping vengeance.

There is nothing «awesome» about these songs, and there probably could not be at this point, but there are almost no embarrassments, and the nostalgia is handled with care. ʽBack In The Gameʼ opens with a little chamber muzak, then enters energetic pop-rock mode with acoustic power chords backed by a permanently wailing electric part and multi-part harmonies — plenty of juicy stuff going on to excuse the expectedly trivial lyrics about "spirit of the 1970s live forever" etc.; and, what's more, it is written by Holroyd, who I'd already think had, by that time, completely forgotten how to write anything other than suave synth ballads. Lees follows with ʽRiver Of Dreamsʼ, an equally catchy «arena folk» song — not great, not awful, and vastly helped by being backed with ye olde electric organ rather than cheesy synth.

Later on, ʽYesterday's Heroesʼ gives us a rockier sound: the guitar tone is a bit rotten, like on those post-Waters Pink Floyd albums, but the main echoey riff shows inspiration. The main prob­lem with the song, I think, is that Barclay James Harvest are too «happy» a band — at least, have been too happy a band ever since their reformating in the mid-1970s — to be able to plow the lower depths of depression and desperation: ʽYesterday's Heroesʼ somehow tries to convey the despairing realisation of being stuck in an endless wheel of fate, but the growling wobble of the song's main riff is as far as they can go about expressing that despair. Still, this is light years ahead of ʽSpud-U-Likeʼ, no question about that.

The album is not entirely free of Caught In The Light's nightmarish legacy: sooner or later, electronic sentimentality must take over, and it certainly does on Holroyd's ʽTook Me So Longʼ, an elevator ballad with no redeeming value, and on Lees' ʽPool Of Tearsʼ (glycerin ones, I sup­pose), riding on pure, and very boring, atmosphere. But these, I'm happy to say, form the mino­rity among a generally acceptable bunch of songs that honestly try to get back to the source — they don't always manage to get there, but most of them are at least headed in the right direction. For that particular reason, I am inclined to mark the album with a very modest thumbs up, if only to indicate the huge «upwards» step in comparison to everything they did in the previous ten years, and to put a checkmark in the «finished career on a positive note?» box.

Check "River Of Dreams" (CD) on Amazon

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Blood, Sweat & Tears: New Blood

BLOOD, SWEAT & TEARS: NEW BLOOD (1972)

1) Down In The Flood; 2) Touch Me; 3) Alone; 4) Velvet; 5) I Can't Move No Mountains; 6) Over The Hill; 7) So Long Dixie; 8) Snow Queen; 9) Maiden Voyage.

And lots of it, too. By 1972, the band had lost not just Clayton-Thomas, who thought his position solid enough to try and go for a solo career, but also two more of its founding fathers — Lipsius and Halligan, whose arranging and songwriting talents had been one of the band's assets. In their place, the remaining veterans hired Jerry Fisher, a big fan of the jazz-rock sound who'd been hanging around Dallas for a couple of years, playing BS&T and Chicago covers; Lou Marini on woodwinds; and Larry Willis on piano. In addition, Georg Wadenius was added to the lineup on extra lead guitar — maybe because the band just couldn't stand the prospect of not having a band member whose family name ended in "-ius" among them.

However, strangely enough, the basic essentials of the BS&T sound remain the same even with all the «new blood» pumped in those not-too-attractive veins. The new vocal guy sounds some­what like a deflated version of Clayton-Thomas — a barroom screamer who'd like to have the same amount of brawn, but is incapable of conquering his gene machine. That is a change, but not a very significant one. In all other matters, this is still the same old brand of roots music with horns — a little jazz, a little blues, a little pop, and a lot of blowing.

One change for the worse is that, with the departure of Clayton-Thomas and Halligan, the band is once again deprived of the songwriting initiative. Trombonist Dave Bargeron tries his hand in the business, but his ʽOver The Hillʼ ends up being a fairly standard pub-rock cut, very much influen­ced by Joe Cocker's ʽDelta Ladyʼ — the grizzly wah-wah riff that drives the song is a nifty inven­tion, but everything else about the song is way below par. New band member Lou Marini also jumps in with a slice of soulful funk (ʽAloneʼ) that only shows signs of life during the instrumen­tal jam section — in other respects, it's just your Vegas show most of the way.

Elsewhere, the impoverished band has no choice but to fall back on covers, trying out everything from Bob Dylan to Carole King to Herbie Hancock to Teddy Randazzo. Naturally, the choice could have been much worse, and the decision to cover ʽMaiden Voyageʼ alone signified that the band was not yet done with its «artsy» pledge — the mid-section with scat singing over a nimble jazz guitar solo by Wadenius could hardly qualify as «commercial» stuff in 1972. However, it is hard to sense any genuine inspiration in most of these covers: on the whole, the band does not seem to understand very well why exactly they are making these particular choices.

Thus, Dylan's ʽDown In The Floodʼ is unexplainably set to a slowed-down variant of the bassline from Cream's ʽCrossroadsʼ and transformed into a less-than-subtle blues-rock rucus — not too bad per se, but what's that got to do with Dylan? Randazzo's ʽTouch Meʼ is arranged as a bona fide Elton John piano ballad — all fine, but we already have an Elton John, and he sings better than Jerry Fisher. ʽSnow Queenʼ is a good song, but, from this particular rendition, you'd never guess it had anything to do with Carole King — and so on.

I suspect that the album would have worked much better as a fully instrumental project: almost everywhere on here, the tracks are easier to appreciate when the band just «gets it on» — nobody is able to deprive Jim Fielder of his great bass skills, and all the trumpet and trombone solos and duels are completely on the level with many jazz greats of the era. The cover of ʽMaiden Voyageʼ, which is completely instrumental, is unquestionably the highlight here for that very reason. But every time these guys drift off in a pure «entertainment» direction — and this happens way too often for comfort — they run out of purposes faster than you can pull that mouthpiece away from your lips. Nothing on here sucks bad enough to warrant a negative assessment, but RateYourMu­sic currently evaluates the record as «#868 for 1972», and I'd say that's a fairly rational place for it — be sure to check out those other 867 albums first.

Check "New Blood" (MP3) on Amazon

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Bob Dylan: The Basement Tapes

BOB DYLAN & THE BAND: THE BASEMENT TAPES (1967; 1975)

1) Odds And Ends; 2) Orange Juice Blues (Blues For Breakfast); 3) Million Dollar Bash; 4) Yazoo Street Scandal; 5) Going To Acapulco; 6) Katie's Been Gone; 7) Lo And Behold; 8) Bessie Smith; 9) Clothes Line Saga; 10) Apple Suckling Tree; 11) Please, Mrs. Henry; 12) Tears Of Rage; 13) Too Much Of Nothing; 14) Yea! Heavy And A Bottle Of Bread; 15) Ain't No More Cane; 16) Crash On The Levee (Down On The Flood); 17) Ruben Remus; 18) Tiny Montgomery; 19) You Ain't Goin' Nowhere; 20) Don't Ya Tell Henry; 21) Nothing Was Delivered; 22) Open The Door, Homer; 23) Long Distance Operator; 24) This Wheel's On Fire.

Technically speaking, this album belongs in the «Addenda» section, together with all the Boot­leg Series volumes. As every Dylan fan with a spoonful of experience already knows, this rag-taggy collection of songs was never intended to see the light of day — not even after much of it was bootlegged as Great White Wonder in July 1969, initiating the worldwide bootleg craze, not even after many of its songs were officially covered by other artists, not even after Dylan and The Band went through a new extensive collaborative period in 1974. In the end, it saw the light of day as late as mid-1975, after the tremendous critical success of Blood On The Tracks — some suppose that this had something to do with Bob regaining confidence in himself, but since this is Bob, we will probably never know the truth anyway.

Nevertheless, these reviews are intended to provide some sort of chronological coherence, and from that point of view, The Basement Tapes is a vitally important transition piece for Bob — not a «great Bob Dylan album» by any means, but a notable evolutionary step that might, perhaps, somewhat soften the blow of sudden metamorphosis from the unique psycho-dreamy whackiness of Blonde On Blonde to the stern musical ascetism of John Wesley Harding. Anybody who is willing to learn his Dylan in chronological order should, I believe, put The Basement Tapes in its right place — which is right here, smack dab in the middle of the Summer of Love. Just as the hippies converged in Monterey to open up a new era of peace, love, and soiled underwear, Dylan and The Hawks holed up in the basement — at Woodstock, as ironic as that may sound — and showed 'em all how much they cared.

That infamous motorcycle accident on July 29, 1966... the funny thing is that, apparently, there are no reliable documentary confirmations that the accident even took place, or, at least, that it was really as serious as Dylan described it himself, with broken neck vertebrae and all. If the whole thing was not staged, then, at the very least, Bob clearly used it as a respectable pretext to trump the wheel of fortune and put it in reverse before it burned him up. So very much like Bob — right at the very moment where, in a matter of months, they could have finally crowned him king, to go in hiding, abandoning any possible claims.

The music he made with The Hawks, soon-to-be-the-band in that Big Pink basement over in Woodstock, was, for the most part, «non-music», or, rather, «anti-music», a perfect antidote to his 1965-66 period of creative overdrive. It is not clear to me how it would be possible to think of The Basement Tapes as a «lost and found masterpiece», as is it is often claimed to be, outside of the overall context. The sessions actually started out in full-on «recreation mode», as Bob, in or­der to kill time, began drawing upon his vast knowledge of «Americana», and playing the game of «teach The Hawks to be The Band in three months», which he actually did — Robbie Robert­son and his pals entered that basement in their garage shoes and came out of it wearing pioneer boots. There was no genuine intention to be creative. It just so happened that creativity sometimes comes to you, whether you want it or not.

The Basement Tapes were, indeed, much more important for The Band than for Dylan: they helped lay down the basics for the sound which, when carried over to a proper studio and given an «okay, now let's be serious here, folks» flavor, generated Music From Big Pink and every­thing that followed. What that sound was, exactly, is hard to define in one sentence. «The real folk rock» is as close as it gets — meaning music with a folk tradition basis, but played on rock instruments, without any unnecessary polish, but with lyrics and moods updated to fit the times. As odd as it seems, very few people had done that prior to the summer of '67 — hence all the alleged «roots-rock revolution», much of which ultimately came from «The Basement».

The funny thing is, Dylan himself did not care all that much. He helped The Band find their voice, but it is interesting that the two best known songs on the album (ʽTears Of Rageʼ and ʽThis Wheel's On Fireʼ), featuring Dylan-written lyrics and Band-written music (Richard Manuel is responsible for the former, and Rick Danko for the latter), are the most serious-sounding pieces on here, whereas most of the «solo» Dylan material is just plain comic stuff — ʽOdds And Endsʼ, ʽMillion Dollar Bashʼ, ʽLo And Beholdʼ... the guy was really not doing much out there, except for just plain goofing off, and this is not even ʽRainy Day Womenʼ-style goofing off, with a bit of a bite: nope, this is as straightforwardly «dumb» as Dylan ever allowed himself to get. At least ʽYou Ain't Goin' Nowhereʼ got itself that lazy, hammocky, nonchalant vibe that The Byrds caught on and exploited so well on Sweetheart Of The Rodeo — but hey, I'd like to hear them try and cover ʽYea! Heavy And A Bottle Of Breadʼ, with all that Roger McGuinn sagacity.

Is there any salt-of-the-earth-type «depth» behind all this fun? Not unless we count the overall raggedness of the session as a means to invoke ye spirits of olde — including Bob's personal tran­sition from the energetic and meticulously staged singing styles of 1965-66 to a deeper, lower, croakier, and somewhat less distinctive manner of delivering his lyrics, which could be just as much a result of a conscious image-shifting decision as it could be the result of physical injury. (One must, however, also remember that these songs were never intended for commercial release, and this is why Dylan is less mindful of steering his soundwaves than he would soon be on John Wesley Harding — whose genius is all about that particular steering). In other words, The Base­ment Tapes make sense as an overall cultural phenomenon, but certainly not as a collection of bigger-than-life songs, like most of the LPs that Bob put out prior to 1967.

Even the lyrics often sound like they were created on the spot... well, come to think of it, most of Dylan's lyrics took very little time to write, but in the end, they usually fit in very well with the mood of the song, and ended up making their point — not so with songs like ʽMillion Dollar Bashʼ and ʽLo And Beholdʼ, which, quite honestly, sound as if Bob was simply improvising to a freshly discovered groove: "What's the matter Molly dear / What's the matter with your mound? / What's it to you, Moby Dick? / This is chicken town!" and so on. It don't really matter much — if this counts as an easy-going, laid-back set, created in order to have fun and kill time. Of course, it helps that most of the songs are catchy, usually by means of their anthemic choruses, but even the choruses usually give the impression of yer friendly madhouse come to visit.

Curiously, or maybe not so curiously, it is the small handful of Band songs included on the album that tries to be more serious and thoughtful — as if all these little comic trifles from the mind of The Master somehow ended up inspiring Robbie and friends to come up with ʽKatie's Been Goneʼ and ʽBessie Smithʼ, as well as the utmost verbal nonsense of ʽYazoo Street Scandalʼ and ʽRuben Remusʼ that still has a «spiritual tinge» to it — the former is ominous and aggressive, the latter tragic and desperate. It should be noted that a few of the Band songs included here are ac­tually «fake Basement Tapes», recorded somewhere in between 1967 and 1975, which explains an overall higher degree of polish and sound quality: Robertson's explanations on the issue are confusing, suggesting either that they simply did not have access to some of the original recor­dings and so had to re-record them, or that they would automatically brand any of their post-1967 home­made re­cordings as a «basement tape» and throw it in the pile. But on the whole, there is no doubt that the Band material included here is stylistically close to what was going on in there, in those summer months — the birth of The Band, with Dylan as trusted godfather.

Because of the extra-crudeness of the demo recordings, this is the only album in Bob's career, I think, where all of the famous songs would be improved upon by future performers — most no­tably The Band themselves, of course, who took ʽTears Of Rageʼ and ʽThis Wheel's On Fireʼ with them for their debut album, but also by The Byrds and others. However, their appearance here, among all the lighthearted fun stuff, is still very important: these are the first Dylan songs in the genre of «Biblical dirge» — one that he never tried to seriously approach before the motorcycle accident, but which sounds so appropriate after. John Wesley Harding would soon put it on the map in all its gloomy splendor, but these are the first serious inklings — ʽTears Of Rageʼ wails and moans in desperation, while ʽWheel's On Fireʼ wails and moans with reproach and anger: "this wheel shall explode!" is Prophet Ezekiel speaking to you, not Woody Guthrie or Allen Gin­s­berg, and the speech sounds fairly convincing, if a bit shaky.

Altogether, I believe, it is high time the original Basement Tapes were reconfigured — the 1975 double album release could benefit both from some trimming (for instance, later Band tracks should probably be removed for integrity's sake) and from some expansion — the «seriousness» quota, in particular, could be improved by including ʽI Shall Be Releasedʼ, still usually only available on compilations, even though it is arguably the most important Dylan song of the year 1967, and one that symbolizes the transition from a «young, spirited Dylan» to an «older, wiser Dylan» better than anything else, not to mention simply being one of the most beatiful songs about death ever written by mortal man. (Although, once again, Richard Manuel trumped the original Dylan-sung version on Music From Big Pink).

But even if such a reconfiguring never takes place, the album, inevitably flawed as it is, is still fascinating as a chronicle of the times — and works particularly well in contrast with the chro­nicle of the Monte­rey Pop Festival on the opposite coast. The only trick is that it has to be expe­rienced as one barely-cohesive whole: if you go inside, expecting individual sonic masterpieces (which was sort of my original expectation, and the reason why I was so sorely disappointed at one time), «nothing will be delivered». Perhaps, if you are a newcomer both to Dylan and The Band, it might even make sense to postpone the acquaintance until after you have become a convert to the magic of both Blonde On Blonde and John Wesley Harding, not to mention Music From Big Pink. That way, it could be much easier to get those thumbs up.

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Monday, September 23, 2013

Brenda Lee: All Alone Am I

BRENDA LEE: ALL ALONE AM I (1963)

1) All Alone Am I; 2) By Myself; 3) (I Left My Heart) In San Francisco; 4) It's All Right With Me; 5) My Colouring Book; 6) My Prayer; 7) Lover; 8) All By Myself; 9) What Kind Of Fool Am I; 10) Come Rain Or Come Shine; 11) I Hadn't Anyone Till You; 12) Fly Me To The Moon.

Recorded in late 1962, released in February 1963, forgotten, I suppose, as soon as its lead single fell off the charts. And this time even the lead single, although it did rise to No. 3 on the charts, does not help out the situation — a sentimental adult pop waltz, sung with plenty of power but no subtlety whatsoever. The harpsichord adds a nice touch of anti-mediocrity, but there is only so long a distance I am willing to go as far as my admiration for Brenda Lee is concerned: a corny mainstream standart is a corny mainstream standart, period.

The subject of loneliness seems to have been raised to conceptual heights here — apart from the title track, one finds both ʽBy Myselfʼ and ʽAll By Myselfʼ (yes, they are two different songs: the latter from Irving Berlin's songbook, the former a recent composition), and then there is the sleeve photo on which the girl does seem sort of lonely. In fact, that purple-dress-on-black style would suggest some musical «doom and gloom» to go along, but the arrangements make no ef­fort to genuinely convey any dark emotions. Everything's glossed up again, with strings, pianos, and, occasionally, harps and harmonicas (as on the impossibly, almost Sesame Street-like «ange­li­fied» rendition of ʽMy Coloring Bookʼ) providing all the perks.

Most of the toughness that can be elicited from the performer here comes on fast-paced jazz-pop numbers, both new (ʽBy Myselfʼ) and old (a funny cover of the old Rodgers & Hart chestnut ʽLoverʼ, with Brenda's trademark «stern» approach), but even these are limited to two or three tracks. As for the rest — well, ʽMy Prayerʼ is probably as solemn and anthemic as she ever got to that point, but that does not mean this «regal» approach really suits her. Altogether, the whole thing is another disaster on par with Sincerely, and a good example of Decca's utmost stupidity in the early Sixties when it came to making the best use of their artists. But we all know that — «guitar bands are on their way out» and all the rest. Thumbs down.


Sunday, September 22, 2013

Baroness: Red Album

BARONESS: RED ALBUM (2007)

1) Rays On Pinion; 2) The Birthing; 3) Isak; 4) Wailing Wintery Wind; 5) Cockroach En Fleur; 6) Wanderlust; 7) Aleph; 8) Teeth Of A Cogwheel; 9) O'Appalachia; 10) Grad.

By the time the band got around to making the transition from short EPs to long, expansive musi­cal statements, Baizley and friends seem to have undergone subtle, but important stylistic chan­ges.The principle of allowing no breaks between songs is still there, but the songs themselves are a tad more diverse (including acoustic interludes, among other things), and the entire atmosphere is a little less «math-rockish», but not that much more «metallic»: the sound is still generally friendly, and it is now hearkening back to ages both long past, such as the «idealistic» heavy rock of Budgie and Rush, and recent ones, like the noise-rock of And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead (but with significant noise reduction).

And I think that these subtle changes are for the best — they do not exactly help Baroness carve out a unique identity, but they make them more accessible for those listeners (like myself), who are more easily seduced by, let's say, «unoriginal accessible bands» than by «unoriginal in­ac­cessible bands». In other words, a little extra bit of melody goes a long way in proving your worth, when your previous «musical chess parties» turn out to already have been played by better players (or, at least, equally good / comparable ones).

ʽRays On Pinionʼ, the multi-part album opener, illustrates this point better than anything. The first four minutes consist of a minimalistic intro and a bluesy, guitar-weaving jam, both with a psychedelic tinge. Eventually, the band comes in full throttle with a thick hard rock sound and Baiz­ley's trademark warrior scream, then, at about five minutes into the sound, launches a clean, melo­dic double-guitar riff in the best tradition of the 1970s — carrying it on for only a few bars before reverting to a heavier tone. But all the different parts fit together and paint quite a dynamic and meaningful picture — a journey, a battle, a natural phenomenon, whichever way you might like to interpret it. It's not a masterpiece, but the riffs are creative enough, and show fairly well that Baroness are at their best when they don't strive too much for sonic wizardry.

Subsequent tracks rarely diverge from the formula, but there are enough changes in tempo, tona­lity, and riffage (the latter seems to suck up to all sorts of heavy music from the previous four decades, as long as they are formally disciplined and organized — thus, echoes of Black Sabbath are more likely to be found than, say, echoes of Hendrix) to keep us entertained for 45 minutes. I am particularly partial to ʽWailing Wintery Windʼ, which, true to its name, goes for a less brutal, but more cold and shivery atmosphere (the main melody is stylistically reminiscent of ʽShe's So Heavyʼ from Abbey Road, which is only natural, considering its own successful evocation of a «wailing wintery wind»); to ʽTeeth Of A Cogwheelʼ, with a fun dialog of «biting» guitar licks and ultra-busy percussion bursts; and to the merry martial exuberance of ʽO'Appalachiaʼ. Less so partial, though, to stuff like ʽWanderlustʼ and ʽAlephʼ, which have a bothering tendency to ske­daddle away into «soulless» math-rock territory, but maybe they just require more intensive lis­tening — in any case, they are all blood relatives, these songs.

Altogether, Red Album (this does seem to be its official title, despite the lack of any words on the sleeve; all of the artwork for Baroness albums is painted by Baizley himself, by the way) cer­tainly deserves a thumbs up — despite occasional slips into meaninglessness, and despite Baiz­ley's highly limited caveman vocal style, which many people have complained about. Maybe the best thing about it is how it manages to consistently stay in hard rock territory without ever be­coming vicious or aggressive: where heavy metal usually qualifies as «demonic» music, these guys go for a «titanic» vibe instead — big, brawny, powerful, but ultimately benevolent. And this approach could very easily lead to boredom, but somehow it doesn't.

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Saturday, September 21, 2013

Beck: Stereopathetic Soulmanure

BECK: STEREOPATHETIC SOULMANURE (1994)

1) Pink Noise (Rock Me Amadeus); 2) Rowboat; 3) Thunder Peel; 4) Waitin' For A Train; 5) The Spirit Moves Me; 6) Crystal Clear (Beer); 7) No Money No Honey; 8) 8.6.82; 9) Total Soul Future (Eat It); 10) One Foot In The Grave; 11) Aphid Manure Heist; 12) Today Has Been A Fucked Up Day; 13) Cut 1/2 Blues; 14) Jagermeister Pie; 15) Ozzy; 16) Dead Wild Cat; 17) Satan Gave Me A Taco; 18) 8.4.82; 19) Tasergun; 20) Modesto; 21) Ken; 22) Bonus Noise.

Apparently, this was released on the independent Flipside label just one week prior to Mellow Gold — reflecting Beck's strange fluctuation between his «accessible» and «batshit» sides that kept going all through 1994. The most brilliant thing about the record is its title, which more or less adequately reflects its contents — however, this is also the perfect album to get for those who are curious about Beck's darker side, but are reluctant to engage in completism. At the very least, this piece of product is a little better structured, and certainly much better produced, than Golden Feelings. I could even understand somebody actually liking it, rather than shrugging shoulders and asking, «...is this really what we were fighting the rock'n'roll revolution for?..»...

...which is not to say that I like it, not in the least. The huge number of tracks is justified by their unpredictable diversity — we have everything here, from acoustic blues to country to garage rock to electronica to samples running wild, but, as usual, everything is so utterly experimental that failures, by far, outweigh successes. There is a lot of ideas — and a brave, but fatal refusal to ela­borate on any of them. As in, something like ʽOzzyʼ will start out as a moody acoustic rock piece, built around a sarcastic lambasting of the title character (yes, I suppose it is that Ozzy: one can hardly err, with lines like "there's mascara bleeding out of your eyes" and "there's a giant chicken claw above your head"), but ultimately consists of a basic strum, an echoey "Ozzy, Ozzy, Ozzy", and a mumbled, seemingly improvised recital. There is a tiny seed of ironic greatness somewhere in here, but it is not given any time to grow.

More or less finalized pieces here include two plaintive country ballads (ʽRowboatʼ, ʽModestoʼ) that sound a little like Neil Young parodies (and we could always use a good Neil Young parody, that's for sure); the Sonic Youth-style noise-rock-fest ʽTasergunʼ, rather pointless if you already know and love Sonic Youth; the pseudo-Piedmont blues of ʽCrystal Clear (Beer)ʼ; and probably the album opener, ʽPink Noiseʼ, which has really nothing in common with ʽRock Me Amadeusʼ, despite being subtitled that way, and once again plunges us into noise territory, this time arguably reminiscent more of the original Velvet Underground with its drunk guitar swoops. But even all of these «accomplished» pieces wobble between «parody», «homage», and «drunken hooliganry» rather than making some autonomous point of their own. They do sound sharper and clearer than they used to before, enhancing the illusion of «accomplishment».

Wrapped around these pieces are interminable snippets of acoustic (anti-)folk, harmonica and violin drones, warped vocals imitating either Tom Waits or a blind pre-war blueswailer, chain­saws, news reports, and assorted freakouts — if you really force yourself to pay attention, one or two of these bits may come across as funny, but that's just me being overtly optimistic. Further­more, as if all this random crap (or, Beckademically-speaking, «soulmanure») over the main body of the album weren't enough, there are 16 more minutes of «hidden» ʽBonus Noiseʼ tacked to the end — enjoy, and have a nice day.


Friday, September 20, 2013

The Bats: Daddy's Highway

THE BATS: DADDY'S HIGHWAY (1987)

1) Treason; 2) Sir Queen; 3) Round And Down; 4) Take It; 5) North By North; 6) Tragedy; 7) Block Of Wood; 8) Miss These Things; 9) Mid City Team; 10) Some Peace Tonight; 11) Had To Be You; 12) Daddy's Highway; 13*) Calm Before The Storm; 14*) Candidate; 15*) Mad On You; 16*) Trouble In This Town; 17*) Made Up In Blue.

The Bats are Robert Scott on rhythm guitar, vocals, and songwriting duties; Kaye Woodward on lead guitar and vocals; Paul Kean on bass; Malcolm Grant on drums. The Bats formed in 1982, released their first EP in 1984, but had to wait half a decade before releasing their first LP, Daddy's Highway, in 1987, featuring twelve original compositions by Scott and also making additional use of session guest Alastair Galbraith on violin. Oh, and they are, of course, from New Zealand (from the wonderfully named city of Christchurch, to be exact).

These are the dry facts that no one need deny. The accompanying assumption is that The Bats loved their homoplastic relatives The Byrds, and everything that had to do with folk-pop jangle in general. Subsequently, they did not exactly invent what is informally known as «Kiwi pop», but they very much defined it and helped substantiate its stereotypic «nice and jangly» image — and they themselves were never nicer and janglier than they are on this here LP debut.

Few things are simpler than the Bats formula — maybe the Ramones, but then, punk thrives on simplicity, whereas folk-pop need not necessarily be as one-dimensional as Daddy's Highway. Steady, danceable rhythm, usually taken in mid- or fast tempo for optimal effect; two guitars — one with lower pitch, one providing the jangly flourishes; quiet, relaxed vocals, either solo or with doubled harmonies, always keeping fairly low in the mix; inobtrusive, usually introspective, lyrics that are not meant to be paid serious attention to. This description pretty much applies to every one of these twelve songs, as well as the five bonus tracks taken from B-sides and EPs and appended to the CD reissue.

If you really like this sound as such — and, for all its minimalism, it is a pretty seductive sound, and it must have been even more seductive, coming on the airwaves in the synth-pop dominated 1980s — Daddy's Highway may appear to you as an endearing sonic masterpiece. Compared to something like R.E.M. or The Smiths, the music is clearly «fluffy», but, on the other hand, it is not here to ac­company a pretentious, «artsy-fartsy» personality like Stipe or Morrissey: Robert Scott humbly stays out of the spotlight, letting the music always speak for the man. This is not an endorsement of those who hate pretentious personalities — just a reminder that there is a time for everything, including a time when the simple, pretty, monotonous music of The Bats might work more efficiently than the more demanding, but not necessarily more satisfying music of R.E.M. or The Smiths.

Individually, the songs are not divided into highlights or lowlights: from the opening life-asser­ting guitar dialog of ʽTreasonʼ and right down to the bass-heavy sounds of the title track, the songs are all nice, mildly memorable, and generally interchangeable. Vivacious tempos help out a lot — every time the band slows down, like on ʽMiss These Thingsʼ (with surprisingly out-of-tune guitar, which might have been intentional), they tend to lose my attention. But almost every song, at the very least, tries to generate and develop its own hook, even if it does not always suc­ceed — subsequent listens, once you've gotten past the similar atmosphere and start picking up the actual differences in melody, reveal that some songs are better written than others.

For instance, I would suggest that ʽTreasonʼ, with its ascending-descending riff, is better than ʽTra­gedyʼ, with its rather tired and worn-out folk chord pattern; or that ʽNorth By Northʼ, with its gritty rhythm section workout and «quasi-spooky» echoey vocal overdubs, rocks harder than the happy bounce of ʽTake Itʼ; or that the siren-esque double guitars that open ʽBlock Of Woodʼ are a much catchier introduction than the somewhat distracted strumming that opens the way-too-Smiths-like ʽSir Queenʼ. I could suggest all this and more — but then, in the end, this would all look like nit-picking, and rather belong in some parallel world, where The Bats are recognized as the greatest band of all time and armies of musicologists are paid to offer competing interpreta­tions of each chord change in each of their songs.

Therefore, having said all I really have to say, I leave you here with a thumbs up and an extra recommendation for the bonus-tracked edition: the last song here, ʽMade Up In Blueʼ (the title track from their 1986 EP), shows that The Bats were capable of «anthemic» choruses as well, and rocks almost as hard as ʽNorth By Northʼ.

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Thursday, September 19, 2013

Barclay James Harvest: Caught In The Light

BARCLAY JAMES HARVEST: CAUGHT IN THE LIGHT (1993)

1) Who Do We Think We Are; 2) Knoydart; 3) Copii Romania; 4) Back To Earth; 5) Cold War; 6) Forever Yester­day; 7) The Great Unknown; 8) Spud-U-Like; 9) Silver Wings; 10) Once More; 11) A Matter Of Time; 12) Ballad Of Denshaw Mill.

Apparently, browsing the Web reveals that a small bunch of fans continues to regard this album as a «comeback» of sorts — some call it BJH's most «progressive» effort since the late 1970s. But only a very strong love for the art of John Lees and Les Holroyd, leading to malicious self-delusion, could trick anyone into mistaking this vapid, turgid, somnambulant pile of sonic mush for an artistic comeback. The way I see it, Caught In The Light simply scales another peak in turning the band into a bland adult contemporary act — and this time, their act lasts all of sixty minutes, letting you savour each whiff of that blandness for minutes on end.

Maybe Barclay James Harvest were never a first-rate art-rock band, and maybe their devolution was slow, subtle, and treacherous, but it actually makes sense to think back twenty-three years and compare their first (and, in my opinion, best) album with this piece of junk. Think, let's say, ʽTaking Some Time Onʼ, a song that seriously and amusingly mined the psychedelic rock mines, and ʽSpud-U-Likeʼ, a song about... well, basically, this is John Lees complaining about Gameboy and «Mega drives» squishing out the rock'n'roll spirit, get it? "Don't want a Gameboy, just rock and roll... Don't want a system that ain't got no soul", Mr. Lees complains over a backdrop of electronic drums and synthesizers that is, altogether, more «Modern Talking» than anything even remotely approaching ʽrock'n'rollʼ. In a long, long story of one stylistic embarrassment after ano­ther, ʽSpud-U-Likeʼ just might be the lucky one to take first prize.

Subtler, but even more embarrassing, is ʽOnce Moreʼ. If you already know your BJH well enough, you might, perhaps, suspect that the title really means «let us re-record an old song», and indeed, this is a re-write of ʽMockingbirdʼ, lock, stock and barrel, only with synthesizers replacing strings — Lees does let go with some frenetic soloing towards the end, but this does not save the ridi­culous monster, it only raises further questions, such as, if this guy's only remaining talent is to squeeze out beautiful lead sequences from his guitar, why does he do this on one or two songs per album, and lets generic synthesizer parts rule with an iron fist over the rest of it?

But wait, there is more. ʽBallad Of Denshaw Millʼ is a nine-minute track that is almost complete­ly — barring the noisy intro and the small solo of the outro — ruled by a keyboard «melody» that requires the compositional skills of a 6-year old after his second piano lesson. «Based on a Saddleworth legend», apparently, but who gives a damn? In a world populated by miriads of at­mospheric epics, this one does not even begin to qualify. ʽForever Yesterdayʼ took me a few lis­tens to understand its source, but then the title ultimately helped out — of course, the verse me­lody is but a slight variation on Dylan's ʽForever Youngʼ, with the first line completely the same and the rest deviating by split hairs. And if I were offered to cherish the memory of my departed father with a corny synth ballad like ʽBack To Earthʼ, I know I would quite certainly be offended. (And I can certainly understand this grief, but did those lyrics really need to sound like a rhyth­mic rearrangement of a schematic memorial service?).

And now for the big one — all of the songs mentioned above are Lees songs. You can try to imagine what the Holroyd songs are like — better still, don't even try, because it is fairly hard for a mind not thoroughly accustomed to sentimentally synthesized adult contemporary to imagine such a copious amount of pathetic triviality all at once. Each of these songs must have been com­posed in about three minutes' time, then took about three years of huffing, puffing, and convin­cing oneself that this is one of the most serious, profound, heartfelt songs ever written. Then they go in, play the required three notes on the rhythm synthesizer and the required one note on the «lead» synthesizer and go out.

All in all — my hearty congratulations: after Welcome To The Show, it seemed that they could already sink no further, but Caught In The Light successfully conquers an extra five or ten feet of depth (we are talking sewer territory here, of course). Then again, for justice sake, it should be remembered that this is just my irate personal opinion, and there are alternate ones, for instance, such as «in the age of trivial grunge, these brave people returned with their deepest, most intro­spective album in more than a decade!» So take this next thumbs down with a grain of salt — especially if you have a habit of, for instance, thinking of Chris de Burgh in terms of «depth», «introspection», and «progressiveness».


Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Blood, Sweat & Tears: B, S & T 4

BLOOD, SWEAT & TEARS: B, S & T 4 (1971)

1) Go Down Gamblin'; 2) Cowboys And Indians; 3) John The Baptist; 4) Redemption; 5) Lisa, Listen To Me; 6) A Look To My Heart; 7) High On A Mountain; 8) Valentine's Day; 9) Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me A Little While); 10) For My Lady; 11) Mama Gets High; 12) A Look To My Heart (duet).

An unexpected improvement upon the band's disappointing third album — suddenly, the band wakes up and remembers that writing songs can be as much fun as covering them (not to mention much more satisfactory in the financial scheme of things). Nine out of eleven tunes are originals, and a tenth one is contributed by Al Kooper, still the «blood» of the band where Clayton-Thomas could have been its «sweat» (and the proper «tears» had yet to come). Only one bona fide cover remained, because what is a Clayton-Thomas era BS&T album without an authentic cover of an R&B standard? Original songwriting be damned, nothing can get an audience on its feet as effec­tively as good old Motown — and ʽTake Me In Your Armsʼ is as good a choice as anything.

The point is not that Clayton-Thomas, Katz, Halligan, and Lipsius suddenly turned into genius songwriters. The point is, their investment in trying out new chord combinations gives the band a sense of purpose, even if that purpose is rarely satisfied. Most amazingly, it seems to somehow procure some much needed dignity for David's voice: be it on the introspective country waltz of ʽCowboys And Indiansʼ, on the tough blues-funk of ʽRedemptionʼ, or on the courteous folk bal­ladry of ʽFor My Ladyʼ, he sounds a little more thoughtful and a little less flashy / corny than he did on most of 3. A little original songwriting may go a longer way than one usually thinks?.. Or is it just a misguided gut feeling?

The decision to start out on a hard rock note, most likely influenced by the Zep-dominated tastes of the time, does feel somewhat pathetic, especially considering that ʽGo Down Gamblin'ʼ isn't really much of a classic — its generic and not particularly memorable blues chords are not even much of a match for the brass riff of ʽLucretia Mac Evilʼ. Competing with the «monsters of rock» did not pay off: thoughtlessly released as a single, the song only went as high as #32, and why should it have gone any higher, with the market already oversaturated with bulgy riff-rockers? (And most of the fans of bulgy riff-rockers had little interest in hearing a bunch of sissy brass instruments overclouding the guitars, anyway).

But it gets better from there: ʽCowboys And Indiansʼ exudes some simplistic nostalgic sentimen­talism — co-written by Halligan with Terry Kirkman from The Association, it challenges David to convince us that the protagonist does prefer, nowadays, to «play the Indian» rather than «play the cowboy», and in order to do that, the guy chooses the «mumble-in-your-beard» style that suits him much better than the Tom Jones posturing. The song is written in relatively free style, more like a distracted Van Morrison type of rambling than a verse-chorus thing, but the brass arrange­ment gives it a bit of grizzled-heroic atmosphere, and ultimately, it works.

ʽRedemptionʼ is more impressive for its funky instrumental section, with plenty of punch contri­buted by the bass and drums, than for any main melody, but, unlike ʽSympathy For The Devilʼ, this is a groove that they worked out all by themselves, and it is far more effective. ʽLisa, Listen To Meʼ is a pretty damn good «roots-pop» ditty, too, highlighted by a classic fuzzy psycho-riff from Katz — by all means, it should have been the first single from the album, not the second one: by the time it hit the market, ʽGo Down Gamblin'ʼ had already flopped, and the band was spin­ning down commercially at an alarming rate.

The second side of the LP is unexpectedly dominated by Katz compositions: formerly relegated to the duty of contributing one or two lushy-mushy folk ballads per LP, he now has a whoppin' four songwriting credits — of which only two are ballads (ʽValentine's Dayʼ sung by Katz him­self); ʽHigh On A Mountainʼ is a slow and rather boring attempt at a hymn, and ʽMama Gets Highʼ is a piece of old-school vaudeville, which would probably not be deemed good enough for Cabaret, let alone a respectable rock band. All of which just goes to re-confirm the old truth about sleeping dogs — Katz was not improving as a songwriter by expanding his range. Still, somehow, I'd rather have these limp attempts at living than yet another bunch of Traffic, Laura Nyro, and The Band covers. (Speaking of which, Al's ʽJohn The Baptistʼ sounds uncannily like a Band song from circa 1969 — and, what's even more funny, Al's own version of the song, re­leased the same year, is so much more overproduced and stuffed with brass overdubs that it ends up sounding more like typical Blood, Sweat & Tears than the BS&T version!).

Cutting a long story short, very little of this stuff is impressive, but it holds together well, and the album as a whole is a «moderate grower», becoming a wee bit more friendly and invigorating with each new listen rather than the opposite. Unfortunately, 1971 was not a good year for «mo­derate growers»: the public, already disappointed with what had been offered to them the year before, could do with nothing less than a strong jolt, and a strong jolt is one thing that BS&T4 does not manage to deliver even once — ʽLisa, Listen To Meʼ is a good song, but much too plain to attract the required attention. Alas, the lack of commercial success shattered the band's self-confidence, and what could have been a new humble beginning proved instead to be the begin­ning of the end.

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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Bob Dylan: Blonde On Blonde

BOB DYLAN: BLONDE ON BLONDE (1966)

1) Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35; 2) Pledging My Time; 3) Visions Of Johanna; 4) One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later); 5) I Want You; 6) Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again; 7) Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat; 8) Just Like A Woman; 9) Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine); 10) Temporary Like Achilles; 11) Absolutely Sweet Marie; 12) 4th Time Around; 13) Obviously 5 Believers; 14) Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands.

Usually, whenever I get the urge to fantasize about yet another version of a shortlist of the «Greatest Al­bums Ever Recorded», I tend to exclude albums from solitary singer-songwriters or «dictatorial bands» dominated by one towering figure (like Jethro Tull). As phenomenal as any one particular mind may be, two phenomenal minds, properly coordinated with each other, are unquestionably even better. Pet Sounds is a fantastic album, yet it is fundamentally the product of not simply one mind's (Brian Wilson's), but one vision's, one purpose's, one creative vector's: almost any random song off it already has the seeds of every other song's inside it. Not so with a truly great record from, say, a peak period of the Beatles or the Stones, where thoughts and aspi­rations ran in different directions, and the way they interlocked opened up a virtually limitless number of combinations. Perhaps this could come at a certain expense of coherence, or perhaps some of the ideas could get a wee bit dissipated or out of focus, but I never see this as a real pro­blem — a great idea that makes its point in two minutes rather than forty is still a great idea.

However, every rule knows its exceptions. «I get your point about Pet Sounds, but it speaks to me on such a fundamental level that I really don't care if all of its songs are essentially about the same thing. What really matters is that they are about THE THING, and nothing is greater in the whole world than THE THING». That is certainly a respectable position — and that, more or less, is the way I feel, and have always felt, about Blonde On Blonde. Except I could argue, perhaps, that, unlike Pet Sounds, it is not all about the same thing, but for the sake of simplicity, and equ­ality of argument, let us assume and agree that it is. For the moment.

One thing that Dylan shared with the Beatles around late 1965 / early 1966 was this uncanny, rationally inexplainable ability to progress in the face of all odds. The more they all became bur­dened with «public duties» — never-ending touring, ridiculous press conferences, excessive so­cializing, not to mention groupies, sycophants, girls, drugs, and whatever else might be coming that way — the more their creative juices seemed to overflow and pour out in a completely dif­ferent direction. Revolver had Paul's finest odes to loneliness and John's strongest hymns to the transcendental; Blonde On Blonde almost completely dispensed with the aggressive rock'n'roll spirit and dived into the introspective and the ephemeral. It would have been one thing if Re­volver were recorded after the band's decision to quit touring and retreat into their private worlds, or if Blonde On Blonde were created after the infamous motorcycle incident that temporarily cut off Dylan from the outside spheres. But history stubbornly insists on the reverse, «unnatural» or­der of these incidents, and this should, if anything, enhance our respect for — and our enjoyment of — both these sonic wonders of 1966.

Formally, the crucial difference between Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde was due to Bob's decision to move to Nashville for the main sessions. He had made several attempts to record with his new touring band, The Hawks, in Columbia's New York studios, but nothing seemed to work the way he wanted — and it is relatively possible to follow Bob's train of thought on that one if one listens to a selection of outtakes from those sessions that have since been made available on the various Bootleg Sessions (ʽI Wanna Be Your Loverʼ, ʽShe's Your Lover Nowʼ, etc.): most are listenable, but sound like somewhat uneasy transition pieces from the blazing rock of Highway 61 to the moody sounds of Blonde. In the heat of the moment, the Hawks and Robert Zimmerman just wouldn't gel in the studio — it would take the motorcycle incident, a relaxed peri­od of Woodstock seclusion, and a name change to The Band to make them under­stand each other so much better.

Meanwhile, the move to Nashville in February '66 turned out to be a genius move. Dylan took only two musi­cians from his then-current retinue — Al Kooper on organ (a very wise choice, since the organ parts are essential ingredients in many of these songs) and Robbie Robertson on guitar (maybe not so wise a choice, since Robbie, with his still very «rock-oriented» style of playing, does not seem to always understand what is going on. "It's not hard rock", Bob would later say about ʽVisions Of Johannaʼ, "the only thing in it that's hard is Robbie", and I am not sure that the statement was not actually meant as a slight critique. On the other hand, some of the songs here do require small amounts of hard rock guitar, so the decision to bring the lead Hawk along was not entirely pointless, either).

The rest of the band was all picked up at Nashville, including the already well-known guitarist Charlie McCoy and the soon-to-be well-known artist Joe South on bass. None of them were bona fide «rock'n'roll» players, so, in a way, one could argue that Dylan's personal «roots revolution» had already begun well prior to John Wesley Harding, or, at the very least, that the seeds for those roots had already been planted in early 1966. But that would be a moot argument anyway, because Blonde On Blonde goes beyond these petty discrepancies — its world transcends the limits of «rock music», «roots music», whatever. Somehow, during those sessions, something, some sort of sound was captured, the likeness of which I have never, ever heard on any other re­cord. Out of a complex bunch of ingredients arose a once-in-a-lifetime combination that, for a brief moment, opened the doors to a completely befuddling dimension. The motorcycle crash slammed those doors back shut — but, in all honesty, I highly doubt that they would be kept open by themselves even without the crash: the moment was simply too good to last.

So what's up with that «thin, wild mercury sound», the way Bob himself described what was hap­penning here a decade later? In individual terms, the closest equivalent to a «thin mercury sound» that my ears tell me about here is probably Kooper's subtle organ lining for the basic melody of ʽVisions Of Johannaʼ — very thin indeed, and trickling down from your speakers like mercury, though, hopefully, with less lethal consequences. Not coincidentally, this is also the album's stand-out tune par excellence, a thoroughly «nighttime» song compared to the louder, brighter, generally more «active» or, sometimes, more «ceremonial» performances elsewhere, but still, in most of its ingredients, very typical of the general approach of Blonde On Blonde. The lyrics themselves subtly hint at nocturnal impressions — "ain't it just like the night to play tricks when you're trying to be so quiet?", "lights flicker from the opposite loft", etc. — and the whole song ultimately becomes a musical seance, and leave it to Al to come up with the perfect ghostly whistle of an organ tone to complete the picture (whereas Robbie's sharp, piercing licks, as I already said, rather detract from the atmosphere than add to it — fortunately, not a lot).

There was nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, that even hinted at this kind of material earlier on in 1965. There is no anger here, no irony, no condescension, no pissed-off feelings, and it even looks like there ain't that much in terms of «shock value»: ʽVisions Of Johannaʼ is not set to stun, its only way of working is to gradually crawl under the skin, which partially explains its running time of seven and a half minutes. I have no intention of saying that this is «Dylan at his most sin­cere» or «as close to the real Dylan as it gets», because by early 1966, what with drugs, touring, pressure, and, above all, Bob's complete slide into the realm of self-mythologization, he himself may not have been entirely secure of what was real and what was, well, a «vision». But there is a very special kind of magic running through the air every time the chorus comes to a resolution.

"These visions... pause... of Johanna... pause..." ...note the ultra-short punch of the first i in "visions" and the first a in "Johanna", they are like two rhythmic hammer blows, sharply con­trasting with the generally drawn out stressed syllables in the verses — that obligatory conscience modulator, without which our senses might have simply been lulled to sleep. This type of careful, meaningful enunciation is something decidedly new: there just wasn't time, space, or opportunity for it on Highway 61. Nor were there any similar tricks, in fact, on any of Dylan's early acoustic albums. He'd learned to turn the weakness of his voice into a powerful communicative tool alrea­dy prior to entering the recording studio — but I think that it wasn't really until these Nashville sessions that the knife became truly jagged.

In fact, it is the Blonde On Blonde voice, I think, that usually falls victim to all sorts of «Dylan parodies», be it Adrian Belew on Zappa's Sheik Yerbouti or Weird Al Yankovic on his own ʽBobʼ (with an accompanying video that parodied Dylan's original clip for ʽSubterranean Home­sick Bluesʼ — which Bob certainly did not rap out with that kind of voice). On many, if not most, of the tracks, Bob sings here in a significantly lower register than he'd used to before; and since so many of the songs are taken at relatively slow tempos, this gives him the opportunity to draw out, twist, mutilate, and make otherwise suffer as many syllables as he wishes to — including that odd manner of adding a rising tone to everything that's stressed: "but you-OO said you knew-OO me and I too-OOk your wo-OOrd..." ...in fact, he even manages to push it over to the fast tracks, like ʽI Want Youʼ — "the gui-II-lty underta-AA-ker si-II-ghs...". Why the heck does he do it? What's to be gained, other than mockery and parody?

Perhaps — simple explanation — it all has to do with the side effect of mind-expanding sub­stances. Perhaps — slightly more complicated, but I actually like this more — it's all about scree­ning himself and his output from outsiders: by putting on this half-theatrical, half-mental guise Dylan instinctively protects the songs from being adopted, adapted, misconstrued, and desecra­ted by outsiders. Indeed, how many notorious covers of songs off Blonde On Blonde do we know of? Other than ʽJust Like A Womanʼ, which the ubiquitous Manfred Mann immediately latched on to (but even the Byrds, who only attempted to do it around 1970, dropped it from the official relea­ses of Untitled and Byrdmaniax) — almost nothing. Not that people didn't try to do it — they did, and usually failed, not «getting» the original spirit of the song and not succeeding in imbuing it with a different one, either. Of all Dylan collections, Blonde On Blonde is arguably the least pliant when it comes to the art of plundering — and there are good reasons for that: its strength is not in the «melodies» per se, but in the fortuitous combination of its sonic structures. The «mer­cury sound», the «Nashville orchestra» bent to carrying out the will of the Minnesota genius, the ridiculous — and ridiculously unforgettable — singing manner, and the endearingly nonchalant spontaneity of it all. How does one improve on such a cocktail?

At this point, it would probably make sense to talk in more details about the individual songs, which places the reviewer in an awful condition: brief blurbs would be redundant and uninfor­mative — thorough analyses would turn the review into a monograph, and for that we already have Clinton Heylin and a host of less prolific Dylanologists. Consequently, instead of going one way or the other, I will try the «random observation» route. If you have not yet had your required listen to Blonde On Blonde, stop reading this stuff already; if you have, and wish to compare impressions, you might want to think about the following:

— how is it possible, on the part of so many people, to rail against ʽRainy Day Women # 12 & 35ʼ? It is the perfectly expectable Dylanesque shocker: after the mindblowing explosions of ʽSub­terranean Homesick Bluesʼ and ʽLike A Rolling Stoneʼ, to open up your next album with a super­ficially dumb, deranged, plodding carnival freakout. But if it sounds stupid, that does not neces­sarily mean that it is stupid — if anything, it might be the best ironic pun on the double mea­ning of the verb ʽto stoneʼ ever offered by anybody, and Bob's totally triumphant intonation on the verse-closing "everybody must get stoned!", as he turns the tables on his imaginary oppressors, reveals that he is perfectly aware of his own greatness in the matter;

— don't the rhythmically counterbalanced guitar and organ flourishes, framing Bob's vocals on the verses of ʽStuck Inside Of Mobileʼ, remind you of relentless, unchanging, unyielding cogs inside a machine, enhancing the «stuck inside» feeling? No conventional depression or despera­tion here, despite the lyrics' obvious debt to old-timey plaintive blues poems — but, somehow, the song still manages to pass for Blonde On Blonde's pinnacle of depression;

— what's up with all this odd passion for long-winded adverbs? ʽAbsolutely Sweet Marieʼ, ʽOb­viously 5 Believersʼ, "anybody can be just like me, obviously... but not too many can be like you, fortunately..." It's one thing to be head over heels in love with words, and another, much less comprehensible one, to be obsessed with complex derived adverbials. Maybe it was just a kind of intellectual mockery, especially considering how these adverbs usually seem to be employed in the «wrong» context. On the other hand, the longer any particular word is, the more fun you can have with it while mouthing its syllables — let us not forget that, at this point in time, phonetics was just as important to Bob's act as semantics;

— if there is a single «anti-sexiest» manner of pronouncing the words "I want you" than Dylan doing so on ʽI Want Youʼ, I have yet to hear it. Much has been said about how sweet and senti­mental the song is, but if so, it is being all that only by having all the sweetness and sentimenta­lism «purged» from its chorus, much like Robert Bresson preferred to purge all signs of «acting» from his actors before casting them in his movies;

— there is only one occasion on the whole album where I am truly grateful to Robbie Robertson for his presence: the maniacal garage-style solo during the instrumental break on ʽLeopard-Skin Pill-Box Hatʼ. Sure, the song, recorded while still in New York rather than Nashville, is formally a bit of filler, but it does feature one of the funniest sets of lyrics Bob ever wrote ("you might think he loves you for your money, but I know what he really loves you for — it's your brand new leopard skin pillbox hat!" remains one of my favorite cliché inversions in the world), and Robbie's break has him rising to the screechiest of heights, crazier and punkier than he'd ever get anywhere else, be it backing Bob, fronting The Band, or even flash-duelling with Clapton on The Last Waltz. This is just to note that these Dylan albums do not generally have filler per se: there are simply more and less ambitious tracks, that's all;

— regarding ʽJust Like A Womanʼ, my favorite part has always been the final instrumental verse, which I regard as the album's most beautiful moment: not coincidentally, perhaps, it is the only instrumental verse that does not count either as a «fade-out» (since it does not fade out) or as a «break» (since it terminates the song) — that way, it draws additional attention, and for a good reason, since the guitar / organ / harmonica trio is simply out of this world. Regardless of what the song's lyrics are supposed to mean, and whether they are «misogynistic» or merely «risqué», it is the music that truly counts here, not the words, and the music is a tender, dreamy serenade with just a tiny, but an important, bit of sarcastic sorrow (look for the meaningful harmonica note change at precisely 4:08, among other things) beneath the surface;

— ʽSad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlandsʼ is basically an Eastern, Persian/Arabic/Jewish-type tapestry of verse, crossed with a streak of beatnik influence and set to the «mercury sound»: be­yond its obviously innovative surface there actually lies a grand archaic tradition, which is the exact reason it works so well, or else it would have been simply perceived as a spout of boring nonsense. Consequently, I think this is the only song on the whole album where his new singing style fits in perfectly — because this is not really even beginning to approach «singing», it is grand-style rhythmic poetry declamation set to a rich accompanying soundtrack, and the only things that are missing include a turban, a long beard, and a flying carpet, though it wouldn't take a whole lot of imagination to put them all together, because the music already supplies the re­quired magic fuel. My only complaint at this point: the song could have used an extra three or four verses, since 11:20 is kind of a pitiful length for an entire LP side, don't you think?

It's always been a little funny to me, to talk to people who don't «get» Blonde On Blonde (much as it has probably been equally funny for lots of people to talk to myself, not «getting» Miles Davis or, say, Radiohead, so this should not be taken as a snobby remark), an album that has always connected to my psychic radar like no other — yet, somehow, there still remain lots of those who wouldn't even agree with the thumbs up, much less with such pompous, but sincere appellations as «greatest Bob Dylan album ever» or «one of the greatest albums ever re­corded», etc. On the other hand, the very fact that, unlike, say, any given Tim Buckley or Scott Walker al­bum, Blonde On Blonde has never been awarded a «cult status», but has continued to enjoy an unbroken world-wide reputation ever since its release, should also speak volumes to at least those of the unconverted who do not suffer from acute bouts of conspirology and can be persuaded to think about the impact of this album outside of the «Great Dylan Hoax» theory.

At the very least, here is my own sincere testimony: at one time, these songs — heard around the age of 13-14, still in Soviet times, thoroughly disconnected from any potentially accompanying reviews, praise, hype, etc., and not even fully understood as far as the actual words were con­cerned — somehow managed, nevertheless, to rock some of the foundations of my personal world. And in a way, that old feeling still remains. This is one of those very few albums that occasionally reminds me — listening to music, after all, is not such a silly way to spend one's time as one's logical reasoning might suggest.

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