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Thursday, October 31, 2013

Be-Bop Deluxe: Modern Music

BE-BOP DELUXE: MODERN MUSIC (1976)

1) Orphans Of Babylon; 2) Twilight Capers; 3) Kiss Of Light; 4) The Bird Charmers Destiny; 5) The Gold At The End Of My Rainbow; 6) Bring Back The Spark; 7) Modern Music; 8) Dancing In The Moonlight (All Alone); 9) Honeymoon On Mars; 10) Lost In The Neon World; 11) Dance Of The Uncle Sam Humanoids; 12) Modern Music (reprise); 13) Forbidden Lovers; 14) Down On Terminal Street; 15) Make The Music Magic.

Even more disciplined and «song-oriented» than Sunburst Finish — although one needn't get any false ideas about shifting the overall style by simply looking at the album cover: suits and ties they may be sporting, but the hair is still fairly long, and even the word «modern» in the album title does not necessarily mean «New Wave», «punk», «reggae», «electronica», etc. For now, only one concession is being made, albeit a serious one: Modern Music shows serious quotas introduced on «guitar wizardry». For the first time ever, Nelson intentionally refuses to stretch out with heroic solo passages on any of the tracks — which is why most of them are so unusually short — and concentrates on songwriting and atmosphere rather than dazzling technique.

In fact, he might even be concentrating a bit too hard. The final version of the record has 15 tracks instead of the usual 10, and, although some of these are represented by very brief musical «links», the general feeling is that there is too much going on. Some of the songs are genuinely meaningful and evocative, but on the whole, Nelson is not a master songwriter, and when he sud­denly sets himself this challenge — to generate as many songwriting ideas as possible per one LP — it is probably inevitable that a large fraction of these ideas will not work, and those that will may get lost in the forest. And when I say «forest» with a negative connotation, I mean tracks like ʽHoney­moon On Marsʼ: big, pompous, Ziggy Stardust-age compositions, all echo and phasing and anthemic vocals and little in the way of interesting melodic concept. Unfortunately, there is a lot of such stuff here, and it has nothing to do with suits and ties, in fact, it almost sounds nostal­gic in the context of 1976.

On the other hand, this is the album that also gave us ʽKiss Of Lightʼ — a conscious attempt, I think, at recreating the success of ʽSister Seagullʼ, since both songs are driven by a major hook in the form of a screechy, high-pitched guitar riff, and both are among the decade's finest brand of «burly romantic» arena-rock anthems, combining crowdpleasing potential with intelligence and craft. On paper, a crude start like "the woman of moon flew into my room last night" might make one cringe, but put it together with Bill's tricky shuffling of thick distorted riffage and liltingly clean melodic lines — and it works. Maybe because underneath all that romance, as the guitar and the vocals suggest, lies a thick layer of irony.

It is also not true that the pomp is never enjoyable. On ʽThe Gold At The End Of My Rainbowʼ, it most certainly is, since the anthemic chorus is so elegantly and conclusively shaped — and the song becomes a credible power ballad even without the power of the guitar solo. But in general, the most interesting moments of Modern Music are those where Nelson strays the farthest away from the already well-known formula: for instance, on the funk oddity ʽDance Of The Uncle Sam Humanoidsʼ, which, according to its title, should be about something anti-American, but, since it's instrumental, who can really tell (unless the occasional sound effects such as bullets whistling over your head count as implicit condemnations of Yankee violence). Or on ʽTwilight Capersʼ which, for no obvious reason, quotes the Dragnet theme out of the blue. Or on the title track which opens with a series of radio noises — including the listener tuning in, out of sheer accident, of course, on ʽAxe Victimʼ and ʽSister Seagullʼ — before turning into the album's most senti­mental number, almost a prayer to the power of music on the radiowaves.

Actually, ʽModern Musicʼ is not entirely self-contained, but rather acts as an introduction (and, later on, as a reprised coda) to an Abbey Road-style futuristic mini-suite — the one that includes both boring (ʽHoneymoon On  Marsʼ) and exciting (ʽUncle Sam Humanoidsʼ) parts. Presenting it all as «modern music» seems like a funny miscalculation: futuristic it may be in spirit, but on the whole, it is still way more old-school glam-rock than a foresight of the radically new things to come. But the idea of transition from lengthy, drawn-out space jams to these economic snippets, where Nelson's guitar forms the backbone of the song, but leaves out the fireworks, might be such a foresight — as if putting on that suit and tie was a symbolic gesture that also surmised imposing limits on Nelson's «sonic ego».

The bottomline is — it all depends on whether you have more love and respect for Bill as a player or for Bill as a songwriter. If one of your favorite Be-Bop Deluxe songs is ʽNo Trains To Heavenʼ, you will need to come to terms with Modern Music, and live with the fact that the end of 1976 was marked by imposing a heavy tax on guitar pyrotechnics. If, however, going against the grain of mainstream criticism, you find Nelson to be a great master of melody, Modern Music has every chance of becoming your favorite Be-Bop Deluxe album — good melodies or bad melodies, there is a lot of them here, and the old spirit, perhaps not as freely roaming as before, is still largely intact. Anyway, a thumbs up is still well guaranteed.

Check "Modern Music" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Modern Music" (MP3) on Amazon

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Blood, Sweat & Tears: More Than Ever

BLOOD, SWEAT & TEARS: MORE THAN EVER (1976)

1) They; 2) I Love You More Than Ever; 3) Katy Bell; 4) Sweet Sadie The Savior; 5) Hollywood; 6) You're The One; 7) Heavy Blue; 8) Saved By The Grace Of Your Love.

Curious, yes, but as late as late 1976, the band was somehow still holding up. As rhythm & blues, black and white alike, was steering ever closer to sterilized disco standards, and men were co­ming to terms with beginning to sound like machines rather than human beings, there are practi­cally no signs of catastrophe on More Than Ever — yes, at the expense of sounding way too old-fashioned, Blood, Sweat & Tears make an album here whose reputation a couple of decades or so past its original release must have inevitably exceeded the «warmth» of the initial reception (when the record stalled at #165, and was used as an excuse by Columbia to drop the band from its roster — not that the label itself didn't have a hand in this failure).

Anyway, more than anything else, More Than Ever takes its cue from the peak years of Stevie Wonder — with plenty of funky clavinet, brass fanfares à la ʽSuperstitionʼ, «ominous», socially acute, R&B, and excursions into gospel soul territory. Almost half of the album is self-penned, and the other half is allocated for relatively obscure covers, sometimes provided by guest players (e. g. ʽSweet Sadie The Saviorʼ, credited to Patti Austin, who took part in the sessions as backup vocalist). There is very little here that could be even remotely called «daring» or «experimental», but the songs are written and recorded with care, and, most importantly, with enough obvious love for the purely musical side of the business.

Occasionally, there are tasteless missteps. ʽHollywoodʼ, a glitzy dance-funk number that, out of everything on here, moves the closest to disco, was probably intended as a tongue-in-cheek self-paro­dy — the band sending up their own image of «prisoners of Las Vegas / Beverly Hills» — but it is not funny enough to be perceived as a purely comic number, and so, the ecstatic chants of "Hollywood! Hollywood! I think we're gonna be here a while!.." can easily come across as silly pandering rather than self-irony.

The big, bulky, gospelish ballads are also a problem. ʽI Love You More Than Everʼ, despite not being written by any of the band members, is entitled way too similar to ʽI Love You More Than You'll Ever Knowʼ to suggest sheer coincidence — and invokes unfavorable comparisons, since this here song is just a sentimental, hyper-orchestrated love ballad. The oboe part from guest star Sid Weinberg is a useful bit of peaceful pastoralism to draw attention away from the corny string arrangements, but it is still not enough to push the song into «artsy baroque» territory. In the end, it's just another sappy love hymn, suffering from excessive weight. ʽSaved By The Grace Of Your Loveʼ, closing out the album, suffers from the same, and this time, it does not even have any oboes for partial redemption. But at least they both give it an honest try.

A little more adequacy seems to be present in the tougher numbers. ʽTheyʼ is a funk / fusion ve­hicle that seems to grumble against organized religion, but, most importantly, has several instru­mental passages that dispense with predictability — guitars, brass, vibraphones, and the rhythm section move around in semi-free-form mode, groping for ideas, and generate a few minutes of thoroughly anti-commercial controlled chaos à la Zappa, which, furthermore, fits very well the overall confused / angry mood of the song. The funky instrumental ʽHeavy Blueʼ, in comparison, never tries to move into previously uncharted territory, but it does establish a moderately cool proto-disco groove — delightfully integrating all of the band's varied instrumentation to capture the now-dated, but then-resonant stylishness of the decade without sacrificing the musician.

The rest of the songs do not deserve much commentary, but, as usual, none of them are awful — in fact, beyond the unlucky corniness of ʽHollywoodʼ, there is nothing on More Than Ever that would significantly challenge good taste: «generic decent album» would be closer to the truth than «generic failure». Why they decided to release ʽYou're The Oneʼ, one of the better ballads from the set, as the lead single instead of the much more hard-hitting ʽTheyʼ is anybody's guess — probably deemed ʽTheyʼ too adventurous for the masses, or hoped for yet another ʽYou've Made Me So Very Happyʼ — but on the whole, of course, their stubborn clinging to the old style was commercially doomed from the start. However, that is no reason to dismiss the record today without giving it a chance: it remains perfectly listenable, and deserves an unethusiastic, but honest thumbs up.

Check "More Than Ever" (CD) on Amazon

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Bob Dylan: Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid

BOB DYLAN: PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID (1973)

1) Main Title Theme (Billy); 2) Cantina Theme (Workin' For The Law); 3) Billy 1; 4) Bunkhouse Theme; 5) River Theme; 6) Turkey Chase; 7) Knockin' On Heaven's Door; 8) Final Theme; 9) Billy 4; 10) Billy 7.

Intermission. Other than a brief three-day recording session in March 1971, which yielded ʽWat­ching The River Flowʼ and the «canonical» version of ʽWhen I Paint My Masterpieceʼ, there was little musical activity on Bob's part for almost four years. Somewhere in this gap, lost and gene­rally overlooked — well, as far as one can «overlook» anything associated with a giant of Bob's stature — was this soundtrack, which the man generated for the Sam Peckinpah movie of the same name, in which he also played a brief, but curious, supporting part.

Although few critics would probably list Pat Garrett as a Peckinpah masterpiece (nothing beats The Wild Bunch, right?), it still has to be one of the most dead-on collaborations between a ma­jor movie figure and a major musical figure in history. Peckinpah was pretty wasted by the time it came to realizing his next project; Dylan was in comparatively better shape, but still a long way from inner peace and comfort, insecure about his musical future and facing family trouble on the horizon. Peckinpah was making a movie about «the end of the Old West» as we know it, and Dylan had lightly scratched that issue, too, on John Wesley Harding, although the album wasn't about that topic in general. Peckinpah put Dylan in the movie, gave him the name «Alias», and pretty much nailed his essence by providing him with the most bizarre scene in the film (the one where «Alias» is forced to move behind the bar counter and read all the labels on cans of beans and tomatoes — am I the only one to see the hilarious parallels between this and this?). In return, Dylan gave Peckinpah some of the most broody, somber, unsettling, and, occasionally, cathartic music he'd ever written.

The obvious bane of the soundtrack album is that it is not only way too short, but also way too repetitive and «padded out» to count as a properly offered record of new original music. No less than four of the tracks are set to the same melody (the three different ʽBillysʼ and the instrumen­tal ʽTitle Themeʼ), and, in between them, cover about a half of the album's running length. Of the re­maining half, only ʽKnockin' On Heaven's Doorʼ counts as a fully self-contained song, melody, lyrics, significance, and everything; the others are instrumentals, varying in purpose and quality. Essentially, the album is a movie soundtrack, never aspiring to anything more, and it wasn't even as if Bob had any incentive to write a lot of music for the movie — the first impression is that of a quick toss-off, with neither the acting part nor the writing part helping to make the man feel happy or satisfied.

That said, even a proverbial «toss-off» like that from Dylan still in his prime (or, more accurately speaking, on the threshold of his «Silver Age») may contain its fair share of gold nuggets. For one thing, the backing band assembled for the sessions was a mega-nugget on its own: Roger McGuinn and old pal Bruce Langhorne on guitars, Booker T. Jones on bass, Jim Keltner on drums, fiddler-extraordinaire Byron Berline, and brass/woodwinds-pro Gary Foster — Dylan's usual knack for getting varied, but amazingly well compatible teams working again. The combi­nation is so perfectly set that even the six-minute repetitive acoustic jam of ʽTitle Themeʼ is ulti­mately quite addictive — they just repeat the same instrumental folk-blues verse over and over and over, but with enough nuances to keep it interesting (and when you are tired of savoring the acoustic guitars, turn your attention to Booker T.'s bass parts: the man is actually being quite funky in places).

ʽCantina Themeʼ, ʽBunkhouse Themeʼ, and ʽRiver Themeʼ all seem to be centered on the general atmosphere of the dreamy, relaxed laziness in a hot New Mexican framework — their slow tem­pos and somewhat rambling guitar arrangements also diminish the album's initial impact, but with time, the laziness acquires its properly mystical character, a sort of «desert Taoism» that only the best directors of Westerns could capture — and only the best soundtrack composers. The ninety seconds of ʽRiver Themeʼ are especially captivating. Monotonous, yes, but so is the river.

The real «meat» of the soundtrack, I think, begins with ʽTurkey Chaseʼ and covers the next two songs as well. ʽTurkey Chaseʼ may have begun life as a realistic accompaniment to an actual turkey chase (fast tempo, aggressive style of playing, and the banjo does a good job of imperso­nating an actual turkey), but the frantic fiddle part from Byron Berline makes it more like a life-and-death chase (well, I guess it was, from the turkey's point of view), being, simply put, one of the most stunning country fiddle melodies I've ever heard in my life — seeing as how we are nor­mally accustomed to «friendly» or «funny» fiddle melodies in the genre, this one, by contrast, is a deeply tragic impersonation of a restless hunted soul, forced on the run for eternity. Possibly the greatest musical ode to a turkey ever written — never mind that the word «turkey» by itself pro­duces a funny effect, just have a listen for yourself.

Still, Berline's three minutes of glory on the album are easily outperformed by Gary Foster on ʽFinal Themeʼ — here featuring what is probably my favorite recorder part in all popular music. ʽFinal Themeʼ builds on the base chord sequence of ʽKnockin' On Heaven's Doorʼ — for the first thirty seconds, it seems as if this is simply going to be an instrumental version, but from the mo­ment Gary's recorder part comes in, it fully compels the listener's attention, and not just the lis­tener's: drummer Jim Keltner, for instance, seems totally hooked on the playing, following Foster's melody in all of its rises and falls, and so do the gospel-styled backing vocals. Little sur­prise about that: it uses a bare minimum of tone changes to cover the entire palette of human emotions — every several bars, the mood goes from sadness / depression / tragedy to joy / re­la­xa­tion / redemption, before, finally, the instrument gets stuck in a small coda loop of ultimate paci­fication and coming to terms with the world. Further words just fail me.

In the middle of this great battle between the master fiddler, who gets the silver, and the master woodwinder, who gets the gold, sits ʽKnockin' On Heaven's Doorʼ, the first and unquestionably the best of Dylan's intrusions into the field of gospel music. Later recast by Clapton as a reggae number, with Bob picking up on the rearrangement and generally performing it that way in con­cert, it is still at its most impressive here, backed with all the proper, somber "ooh-oohs", funereal organs, and a slow, steady beat, rather than the reggae pulse that cannot help but transform the song into a dance number — which it probably shouldn't be. (Actually, I think one reason why Bob eventually switched to the reggae version was that he might have found the original too heavy and seri­ous for his cliché-free image). But it should also be noted that, for all of its sub­sequent fame, the song works par­ticularly well in the context of the original movie — this is when you really get to feel this somberness and heaviness as almost physical heaviness, pressing down on the protagonist: the "mama, put my guns in the ground / I can't shoot them anymore" bit is central to the general idea of Pat Garrett, and the song is not so much a generic anti-war / anti-violence song as a personal complaint against the wearisome side effects that complete freedom from everything, including law and morale, brings on to people.

So, as you can see, there is not one single reason on Earth to sidestep Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid while exploring the different faces of Bob Dylan. It may be debated to what extent the ins­trumental numbers are really «Dylan» (although, formally, he is credited as the only songwriter), but we should remember that «Dylan music» was never limited to «Dylan songwriting» and «Dy­lan singing» — time and time over again, it was also about getting all the right people in the right place at the right time, getting them in the right mood to produce great music, and knowing when to start, when to stop, and what to select for the final take. And from that point of view, this soundtrack is as quintessentially «Dylan» as everything else — and its thumbs up here means «even if this is to be your last Dylan acquisition, there is no reason why it should be the least».

Check "Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid" (CD) on Amazon

Monday, October 28, 2013

Brenda Lee: Too Many Rivers

BRENDA LEE: TOO MANY RIVERS (1965)

1) It's Not Unusual; 2) Call Me Irresponsible; 3) Too Many Rivers; 4) Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me); 5) Whispering; 6) Stormy Weather; 7) Hello Dolly; 8) Unforgettable; 9) Everybody Loves Somebody; 10) No One; 11) Truer Than True; 12) Think.

Country songwriter Harlan Howard provided Brenda with the hit for this album — the title track rose to No. 13 on the charts, her highest achievement since ʽAs Usualʼ two years before. As far as generic country balladry goes, ʽToo Many Riversʼ is hardly the worst kind: if only they'd thought of a better set of clothes for the song than the usual lush strings and cloudy aah-oohs... but the days of curiosities in guitar, sax, and keyboard arrangements were long gone by then. Still, a rockin'-horse country song for a hit is always better than a glob of syrup.

Other than that, let's see: Tom Jones... Judy Garland... Shirley Bassey... Nat King Cole... Dean Martin... Hello Dolly... a couple pre-war standards... well, you get the gist. And you do know that you are in general trouble listening to Brenda's mid-1960s albums, and in double trouble when ʽHello Dollyʼ turns out to be one of the highlights — but somehow, done in a fast tempo, rock-and-roll style, oddly enough, it is (at least, I'd certainly take it over Streisand, but then again, I'd take almost anything over Streisand, so forget it).

But altogether, if the previous two albums might seem like the last twists and twitches of agony, curious to watch from a sadistic perspective, this one is rigor mortis setting in — Vegas stuff, regurgitation of the «Songbook», schmaltz and glitz all the way. No doubt, somewhere in the world there may hide a genuinely devoted fan or two, or three, that could secretly wish for a complete set of Songbooks from Brenda Lee the way we got them from Ella — then again, there might also be some people out there who'd like their refrigerators to play their CDs, and their CD players to press their pants. What Brenda does on this, and many other, records, is not fundamen­tally different, and deserves nothing other than yet another thumbs down — although stealing the title track and ʽHello Dollyʼ for your playlist would be a merciful gesture.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Beachwood Sparks: The Tarnished Gold

BEACHWOOD SPARKS: THE TARNISHED GOLD (2012)

1) Forget The Song; 2) Sparks Fly Again; 3) Mollusk; 4) Tarnished Gold; 5) Water From The Well; 6) Talk About Lonesome; 7) Leave That Light On; 8) Nature's Light; 9) No Queremos Oro; 10) Earl Jean; 11) Alone Together; 12) The Orange Grass Special; 13) Goodbye.

With the kind of fame that Beachwood Sparks had been able to earn (each of their albums has amassed from 10 to 20 customer reviews on Amazon, to give a rough picture), one might get a little puzzled about why this band felt the need to get back together under the same old name, ten years after they'd all dissipated to test out various alternate projects. A «Pink Floyd reunion» or a «Fleetwood Mac reunion» or an «Eagles reunion» — that kind of makes sense, whatever the ac­tual results might be, but a «Beachwood Sparks reunion» just sounds weird.

However, just one listen to The Tarnished Gold, the band's third album, is enough to set things straight. This is not a reunion because the band never really felt apart. What they did was take their own advice and go back to a tree-like state — that way, no matter how long the breaks be­tween albums, time stands absolutely still, and the next one picks up where the last one left off even if the tectonic plates themselves had relocated in the meantime. There is only one problem: the more time you spend standing still, the deeper your roots sink into the ground, and thus, ten years of phantom existence resulted in the band's third album becoming their dreamiest — nay, their most lethargic — creation thus far.

With the exception of maybe just one or two mid-tempo soft country-rockers, and a highly artifi­cial and unfunny excursion into Latin territory (ʽNo Queremos Oroʼ), all of these songs are slow, atmospheric, brooding segments of psycho-folk, and all of them could be roughly described as spiritual variations on the theme of ʽConfusion Is Nothing Newʼ. Except that there is neither any confusion here, nor anything new — the Sparks still place their trust in tender, caressing mixes of acoustic guitars, echoey slide leads, retro-sounding keyboard tapestries in the background, and hushed, relaxating vocal harmonies. No individual part of this sound is ever great by itself, and when they are all merged together, The Tarnished Gold is, at best, a pleasing, instantaneously forgettable lullaby. Listen to it every evening, seven days in a row, and by the end of the test period you will probably not be able to remember a single song — but you just might get a week of heal­thy, eco-friendly sleep.

Where this album fails, as far as I see it, is in its goal to generate transcendental magic — the very goal to which everything else, like lively tempos and catchy melodies, is sacrificed without mercy. In ten years, Beachwood Sparks have not managed to pick up any new tricks: they think that their three cherished muses — Echo, Repetition, and Tenderness — will somehow do the job for them. But, like all responsible muses, all these three can offer is a helping hand — they cannot teach the band to learn new chords or implement original instrumentation. Hence, another dis­appointed thumbs down. Put it this way: good taste may be a virtue, but who needs good taste if there's nothing on the horizon to be tasted?

Check "The Tarnished Gold" (CD) on Amazon
Check "The Tarnished Gold" (MP3) on Amazon

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Beck: Midnite Vultures

BECK: MIDNITE VULTURES (1999)

1) Sexx Laws; 2) Nicotine & Gravy; 3) Mixed Bizness; 4) Get Real Paid; 5) Hollywood Freaks; 6) Peaches And Cream; 7) Broken Train; 8) Milk And Honey; 9) Beautiful Way; 10) Pressure Zone; 11) Debra.

With the dark brooding of Mutations out of the way, it's back to swing time again. A spin of the wheel, and Nigel Godrich disappears in smoke — don't worry, he will be back — as The Dust Brothers make a triumphant re-entry. This time, Beck's ambition is to make the party album to outparty all the other party albums. The samples are back, in a modest way, but for the most part, it's all about the beats, the hooks, and the arrogant, cynical, super-cool party spirit: Midnite Vul­tures is flashy, hot, and ultimately meaningless — but, like the best of those party albums, it's got enough witty, funny cynicism to it so as not to repulse the demanding listener.

Pretty much every song on here is fun in one way or another. They may not be deeply impressive (few «party albums» are deeply impressive in the first place, for obvious reasons), but Beck is not aiming for that — he claims to have perfectly mastered the art of, let's call it, «expensive cheap thrills», puncturing the listener's senses on a primal level without offending the brain. It's all a bunch of musical sexual acts, but, as he states himself on the very first track, "I want to defy the logic of all sex laws — let the handcuffs slip off your wrists". Midnite Vultures does have its logic, but it is its own logic indeed, not anybody else's.

I honestly have no idea of how many elements on the album come from Beck's own head, and how many have been taken from other places (but still reshuffled and re-glued in Beck's own head all the same). Direct influences that everyone mentions range from Prince to Grandmaster Flash to David Bowie to Kraftwerk to the Velvet Underground, and that is not mentioning minor touches like echoes of Elton John on the coda of ʽDebraʼ, or the occasional Beatlisms, or the occasional country touch here and there. In addition, some of the songs show that Beck had de­veloped a fairly impressive falsetto technique — and that, whenever he sings falsetto, he sounds eerily similar to Mick Jagger (just compare ʽDebraʼ with, let's say, ʽWorried About Youʼ). But none of that is ever a problem, because the important thing is to know how to steal, what to steal, and when to steal, and if Odelay could still be accused of an occasional abuse of power here and there, Midnite Vultures is a perfectly woven tapestry. If anything, one could perhaps shed a lo­nely tear for the pre-war blues strain — hopelessly lost in the fray this time. But at least the word "garbage" is still prominently featured in the lyrics (ʽPeaches And Creamʼ forms a delicious rhyme with "you make a gar­bage man steam", don't you think?).

On a song-by-song level, there are no highlights or lowlights, but, on a whim, I would particular­ly mention ʽMixed Biznessʼ as the «the shit» element of the album — certainly this sort of groove, democratically generated by guitars, brass, and vocals jumping from speaker to speaker, is as good as anything Prince ever had to offer, not to mention just as «mock-dangerous» ("I'm mixing business with leather", Beck tells us from the outset, even though the music itself contains no hints at a BDSM attitude — cybersex, perhaps, given the huge amount of electronic bleeps, but nothing that would suggest any glorification of physical pain). Then again, ʽGet Real Paidʼ might be even more fun — an almost completely electronic brouhaha that might sound like a dialog be­tween two androgynous robots in heat at first ("Teletubbies going electric", Beck used to say himself), before you understand that the lyrics are also poking fun at la dolce vita à la 1990s ("we like to ride on executive planes, we like to sit around and get real paid").

As the album moves on, though, the tracks get a little less beat-oriented and become ever more interesting in terms of melody and musical effects — for instance, the insane slides and bends on ʽPeaches And Creamʼ that make the song seem like Animal Farm Gone Berserk; or the psyche­delic vocal modulation ("we're out of controo-ool...") on ʽBroken Trainʼ, once again reviving the spirit of 1966; or the entirety of ʽBeautiful Wayʼ, reportedly inspired by The Velvet Underground and certainly consistent with the spirit of Loaded — slow-moving, steady, the only track on the album that moves away from head-spinning electrofunk, trip-hop, etc., but am I ever glad it's there even despite not fitting into the general atmosphere.

By the time we get to the «sentimental» coda of ʽDebraʼ, Vultures have already been long since balancing on the edge of parody, but ʽDebraʼ is probably the only time on the album where Beck officially makes that move — the absurdly exaggerated falsetto, the lyrics ("I met you at JC Penny, I think your nametag said Jenny..."), the exuberant brass arrangement, always happy to oblige with a mock-build-up, all of it reads like a final gesture: «Oh, by the way, if any of you here were going to take any of this stuff seriously, here's a final firm reminder to drop it». But as a good-natured parody on classic soul material, ʽDebraʼ is hilarious anyway, and a memorable and atmospheric conclusion, carefully wrapping up a non-stop-rave experience with some sit-back-and-relax laughter.

Of all of Beck's major label records, Midnite Vultures is probably the most «trashy», but even its title forewarns you of that — what else is to be expected from an album about «vultures»? For the most part, it's all about form, not substance, but this here is Beck at the peak of his «formal» abilities, so much so that the songs, despite being so steeply soaked in late-1990s technologies, sound as exciting and baffling in the next millennium. They really do make a garbage man steam, not to mention, more prosaically, thumbs up all the way.

Check "Midnite Vultures" (CD) on Amazon
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Friday, October 25, 2013

The Bats: At The National Grid

THE BATS: AT THE NATIONAL GRID (2005)

1) Western Isles; 2) Horizon; 3) Hubert; 4) Bells; 5) Single File; 6) Pre War Blues; 7) The Rays; 8) Things; 9) Mir; 10) Up To The Sky; 11) We Do Not Kick; 12) Flowers & Trees; 13*) Untitled.

Ten years later, The Bats are back to conquer the third millennium. But do they make any con­cessions? Do they even attempt to recognize how much has changed? Naturally they do not, or else the would not be The Bats. At The National Grid does not sound exactly the same way as Daddy's Highway, but if there are any differences in sound, they sure as heck ain't due to no sissy changes in musical trends and fashions. The Bats love their folk rock, and they couldn't care less about trends and fashions, and that obstinacy deserves respect — unless it comes from stupi­dity and lack of talent, which is not something Robert Scott could be easily accused of.

There is some bad news, though. With age, The Bats seem to have seriously mellowed out — not that they ever subscribed to the «rock'n'roll» idiom in the first place, but they did have a knack for  solid, steady beats and sharply focused electric jangle. At The National Grid opens with ʽWes­tern Islesʼ, a pretty, but highly fragile-sounding piece — acoustic guitars picked by elves, vocals contributed by hobbits, background vocals added by sylphids. Add the predictably monotonous mood (no dynamics or development whatsoever throughout the song's three minutes), and that essentially leaves you with three choices: (a) imagine yourself as a fairy, (b) plunge into deep sleep, (c) fail to notice that something was just played from your speakers in the first place.

The soporific effect is tentatively rectified already on the next track — ʽHorizonʼ adds drums, jangly rhythm guitar, and a distorted psychedelic lead guitar part. But «tentatively» is the key word, because the song is still essentially a drone (instrumentally) and a hum (vocally), the only difference from «shoegazing» lying in its fast tempo — yet whoever said that it is impossible to shoegaze with some acceleration? The whole point of this song, and this whole album, is in its at­mosphere and attitude.

Construction-wise, National Grid picks up exactly where Couchmaster left off — it, too, has a few of those brief instrumental interludes, usually consisting of one or two simple musical phra­ses locked in a trance-oriented cycle (ʽHubertʼ; ʽWe Do Not Kickʼ), that have no major purpose other than humbly introducing themselves to you. Hello, we are the interludes, we have no idea what we are doing here, they probably just forgot to add vocals to us, but you know, it was nice meeting you all the same, hope you have a good time out there.

But melody-wise, the album is not that strong because it has no such intention. The evocative lead lines of Couchmaster, such as the one that made ʽAfternoon In Bedʼ such a cute little clas­sic, are nowhere to be found — everything is melted down to acoustic strum and electric droning, with the vocals (particularly Kaye Woodward's sleepwalking performance on ʽMirʼ) floating on essentially the same frequencies all the way through. The atmosphere, as could be expected, is tasteful and friendly enough so as not to stimulate any thumbs down — in the end, The Bats are simply too good at their formula to ever make a truly bad record — but really, the album is only for diehard fanatics of this style.

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Thursday, October 24, 2013

Be-Bop Deluxe: Sunburst Finish

BE-BOP DELUXE: SUNBURST FINISH (1976)

1) Fair Exchange; 2) Heavenly Homes; 3) Ships In The Night; 4) Crying To The Sky; 5) Sleep That Burns; 6) Beauty Secrets; 7) Life In The Air Age; 8) Like An Old Blues; 9) Crystal Gazing; 10) Blazing Apostles.

Turning temporary session player Andy Clark into the band's resident keyboard master was pro­bably not the main reason why Sunburst Finish might look like a serious improvement over the «sophomore slump». After all, he is never credited for any songwriting, nor is he some sort of Rick Wakeman, capable of adding exciting (if not always meaningful) passages to melodically unexciting compositions. On the other hand, fleshing the band out with an additional layer of sound could somehow have brought about a more disciplined approach to songwriting... well, the point is, Sunburst Finish is a little less about virtuoso guitar playing than Axe Victim, and a little more about meaningful hooks than Futurama. In other words, all the three albums of Be-Bop Deluxe's «glam» period are similar, yet all are also different.

Although ʽFair Exchangeʼ opens the record with feedback blasts, these are quickly replaced by quite modern-sounding synthesizer patterns — inspired, one might add, not so much by the robo­tic fantasies of Kraftwerk as by the idealistic pulsations of Who's Next: modern they might be, but the New Wave penchant for «refrigerator electronica» had not yet caught up with Nelson by that particular point in time. In fact, electronic pulses soon give way to good old-fashioned rock and roll guitars (playing a riff akin to AC/DC's ʽHigh Voltageʼ), enhanced with a grand piano sound that seemes to show Roy Bittan's influence. Bruce Springsteen meets the Young brothers — hey, that could actually work, and on ʽFair Exchangeʼ, it does. As is often the case, it is hard to get what the song is about, but it is definitely about somebody's highbrowed anger, and the riffs, solos, and keyboard enhancements are all in agreement on that.

However, Nelson is willing to compromise his artistic integrity even further: ʽShips In The Nightʼ, released as the «commercially oriented» single from the album, is basically a ska song, tripped up and decorated with artsy passages, but, in the end, with an overall message that is hardly much different from that of ʽOb-La-Di Ob-La-Daʼ: "Without love, we are like ships in the night, selling our souls down the river", sung to a boppy, cheery pattern. There is not that much guitar on the song at all — it is primarily driven by the rhythm section and the keyboards, culminating in a «mock-sax» electronic solo that almost puts the song in campy parody territory. Who knows, maybe it was a parody — Nelson's ironic take on a «commercial» tune that paid off very well, since the song became Be-Bop Deluxe's highest point on the charts. But I think that it must only have soured Bill's impression of the true meaning of «chart life» even further.

That said, ʽShips In The Nightʼ is hardly the best choice to convey the general spirit of the album. Such a choice could, for instance, be ʽSleep That Burnsʼ, an ambitious chunk of composing that rolls through hard-rocking choo-choo sections, music hall extravaganzas, psychedelic interludes with backwards solos, and finally explodes after a massive guitar/keyboard build-up in the coda. And it does have a catchy chorus behind all that, despite its primary goal of conveying an atmo­sphere of hyperactive personal torment: the «sleep that burns» in question is of a kind that causes the patient to chuck his TV out of the window rather than pop pills and moonwalk. Emphasis is always on burning, not on sleeping (or not sleeping).

Or it could be Nelson's equivalent of the power ballad spot — ʽHeavenly Homesʼ, an inspiring mix of romantic piano, acoustic guitar, and glam riffs that, once again, sounds like an arithmetic mean between Bowie and Hammill, but grander than the former and more «song-like» than the latter. For all his irony and cynicism, Nelson has nothing against the old heart-on-sleeve trick from time to time, except that he never forgets to back it up with a return to harsh reality — ʽHea­venly Homesʼ joyfully flutters past the stars for several minutes before smashing, full speed, into the hardbodied asteroid of the "Heavenly homes... are hard to find..." chorus, set to a variation on Pink Floyd's descending/ascending ʽEchoesʼ riff for a sharp doom-laden effect.

Since most of the songs are marinated in the same musical and lyrical idiom, it makes little sense to comment on all of them: chances are that if you like one, you'll like the rest as well, so a thumbs up is quite imminent. But note that it also makes sense to hunt for the CD reissue, which adds three interesting bonus tracks: an almost totally instrumental psycho-funk jam (ʽShineʼ), a dark romantic ballad with a surprisingly tender and introspective underbelly (ʽSpeed Of The Windʼ), and a slow dance-style B-side with a psychedelic guitar/synth duet (ʽBlue As A Jewelʼ) — all three are curious in their own ways, and all three are quite different from the average style of the album itself.

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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Blood, Sweat & Tears: In Concert

BLOOD, SWEAT & TEARS: IN CONCERT (1976)

1) Spinning Wheel; 2) I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know; 3) Lucretia MacEvil; 4) And When I Die; 5) One Room Country Shack; 6) And When I Die (reprise); 7) (I Can Recall) Spain; 8) Hi-De-Ho; 9) Unit Seven; 10) Life; 11) Mean Ole World; 12) Ride Captain Ride; 13) You've Made Me So Very Happy.

Well, at least they had the good sense to wait until Clayton-Thomas was back to release the ob­ligatory double live album — this way, all the hits are re-generated the way they are supposed to: even a non-fan of the C-T style like me will gladly acknowledge that having ʽAnd When I Dieʼ or ʽLucretia MacEvilʼ sung by the completely colorless personality of Jerry Fisher would have de­prived the experience of the smallest modicum of sense it could ever contain.

Anyway, In Concert, a non-US LP release (only issued in the States as late as 1991, under the alternate title of Live And Improvised), was culled from at least four or five different gigs that were played in the US and Canada in late summer and early fall of 1975, and, technically, were intended to promote New City, even though only two songs off that album were included in the tracklist (no idea how many were actually performed); the band lineup is essentially the same as on the studio album, except that George Wadenius, the guitar player, was halfway out, and is on some tracks replaced here by Steve Kahn, and on others by Mike Stern, who would go on to play with the band on the next two studio albums.

There is really not much of any substance to be said about In Concert. Whatever their flaws, BS&T are never anything less than professional — money-grubbers they might be, but nobody can say they don't work hard for their money, and the record proves it. The rhythm section is tight, the improvised passages at least try to be inspired, and, most importantly, the setlist nicely fluctu­ates between predictable, but worthwhile, hits and unpredictable excursions into tasteful jazz-rock territory: they give out energetic renditions of Chick Corea's ʽSpainʼ and Cannonball Adderley's ʽUnit 7ʼ, the latter as a tribute to the recently deceased performer. This is not my kind of music at all, really, but as far as my ears suggest, the performances should be pleasing enough for the general jazz fan, unless he's racist or something. Better this, at least, than covering the latest Bee Gees hits or still trying to grovel at the feet of Earth, Wind & Fire.

Occasional turn-offs do occur, and, sad to say, they are mostly the fault of Clayton-Thomas, who sometimes lets his hair down too much — for instance, turns the finale of ʽLucretia MacEvilʼ into blabbery mush (how many "talk to me, Lucy!"'s does it take to make us get the point?), or has a little too much fun with the audience at the end of ʽHi-De-Hoʼ (okay, so its anthemic chorus may be the perfect trigger for happy audience participation, but that is no excuse for turning it into sheer silliness). Worst of all, however, is that we get to hear David's take on ʽI Love You More Than You'll Ever Knowʼ — with all the throbbing pain of the original replaced with a Vegas-ap­proved schmaltz delivery, oversung, overscreamed, and even the lead guitarist somehow manages to transform the original wail into a pseudo-Page blues-de-luxe solo without any soul.

But on the whole, the experience is adequate: ʽLifeʼ, ʽRide Captain Rideʼ, the bulk of ʽLucretiaʼ and ʽHi-De-Hoʼ, the ubiquitous ʽYou've Made Me...ʼ — I do not see how these could be suscep­tible to serious criticism. Besides, ʽSpinning Wheelʼ gets an improvised fanfare-ridden passage in the middle, and ʽAnd When I Dieʼ is split in half with a John Lee Hooker cover and a Dave Barge­ron-led trombone jam — so they are being at least mildly inventive. All in all, In Concert might even be a good alternative to getting all the studio albums: in between the hits, the oldies, the improvisations, and the tributes, it captures the spirit of post-Kooper BS&T much better than any individual studio record, possibly with the exception of the 1969 one, and, several nasty flaws notwithstanding, deserves a thumbs up.

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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Bob Dylan: New Morning

BOB DYLAN: NEW MORNING (1970)

1) If Not For You; 2) Day Of The Locusts; 3) Time Passes Slowly; 4) Went To See The Gypsy; 5) Winterlude; 6) If Dogs Run Free; 7) New Morning; 8) Sign On The Window; 9) One More Weekend; 10) The Man In Me; 11) Three Angels; 12) Father Of Night.

The fact that New Morning came out just four months after Self Portrait is frequently brought up as an argument that the album was an «appeasement» for critics and fans alike — that Bob's huge ego simply could not stand the rotten-tomato treatment of his latest record, and so New Morning was rushed out, first and foremost, in order to wipe out the bad memories. As could be expected, Dylan himself denied this; and, likewise, there are strong counterarguments — for in­stance, the bulk of the album was recorded over the first five days of June 1970, whereas Self-Portrait itself was only released commercially on June 8.

But then again, it sure does seem that way. Is it a coincidence, after all, that 1970 was the only year, past-1965, in which Bob would release two albums rather than one? Is it a coincidence that Self-Portrait was all covers and this one was all originals? Is it a coincidence that there are al­most no signs of the «clean» crooning style of Nashville Skyline / Self-Portrait, as Bob is get­ting back to the tried and true? I don't think so. I think that there was an explicit goal here — to get that damn Rolling Stone to renege on its aggression, and wrench that precious «we've got Dylan back!» tag out of it. Although I'm not sure Bob himself would confess to that in the pre­sence of God Almighty, provided he does hold a ticket to Heaven after all.

For all I know, New Morning does not give us back «our» Dylan, since he was there all the way on Self-Portrait. But it does open him up from yet another, previously unknown side — that of a quiet, relatively unassuming, relatively undemanding family man, quite content to enjoy the little things and not force any diatribes, proclamations, predictions, sermons, or hallucinatory visions on the world at large. Well, maybe just a few, every once in a while. For old times' sake.

The fact is that, throughout the late Sixties and early Seventies, Dylan really was a family man. Like a good, traditional Jewish father, he already had four kids, and with the birth of Jakob in 1969, he found himself pleased to take a detour in the world of diapers (either that, or he knew how important it was for the frontman of The Wallflowers to be hugged and pampered on a 24-hour basis). Serenity was unstable from the beginning, and did not last for long, but a strong ray of it is evident all over New Morning — making it, as the title also suggests, the sunniest and homeliest of all Dylan records, so that it is probably best played on the porch of your country house, on a hot summer day when you have nothing else to do. Heck, I am writing this review right now — in my 7th floor apartment, on a cold autumn day when I have tons of stuff to do, and I can still put myself in that mood just by pushing play. That's how strong the mood is.

Stuck between Bob's own rendition of ʽIf Not For Youʼ and George Harrison's vision of it on All Things Must Pass, I will take George — who found the song a place in his awesome religious experience and turned it into a thing of, like, transcendental beauty. Dylan's original, in compari­son, is humble and homely, no wall of sound, no soaring slide passages, and even a tempo that seems a little too rushed, giving no time for the sentiments to complete the blow to one's head. But even so, there is a feeling that this might be the first thoroughly «sincere», unveiled, intentio­nally simplistic-sounding (both lyrically and musically) love song he'd ever put on record — not the cloudy, hip-o, intellectualistic tapestries on Blonde On Blonde, some of which may or may not be about love, but who can really tell; not the «look-at-me-I-sing-love-songs-like-a-country-pro» crooner stuff on Nashville Skyline; no, just an old-fashioned catchy love song, with the heart on the sleeve represented by the subtle vibraphone touch. Surely it wasn't by chance that, of all the new Dylan songs Harrison had heard while jamming with him in May 1970, it was ʽIf Not For Youʼ and no other that he latched on so quickly — only on very, very rare occasions does Bob come up with a great love song.

There is a lot of piano on the album: Bob himself places the ivory keys at the center of six of the songs, and, where extra sophistication is required, Al Kooper contributes his services — particu­larly impressive on ʽIf Dogs Run Freeʼ, a rare, if not only, Dylan incursion into the world of late night cool jazz, reciting beat poetry over Al's sprinkly arpeggios, Maeretha Stewart's scat vo­cals in the background, and an overall atmosphere that would seem more appropriate for 1955 than for 1970, but then, why refuse when you can indulge your «inner family man» by going retro and satisfy your «try anything once» life principle at the same time? The good news is, it all works out — once you realize that the key word is ʽfreeʼ, it all falls in place (or out of place, which is pretty much the same thing here).

The other Kooper-led song is ʽThe Man In Meʼ, which Al liked so much as to appropriate it for his own catalog (1972's Possible Projection Of The Future), but this is where it becomes ob­vious that Al Kooper is no George Harrison — his version dispensed with the piano and replaced it with solemn-sounding organ, needlessly serious-ifying the mood. It also cut out the "la-la-la"s which are totally essential to the song, giving it a little bit of healthy idiot flair to compensate for the metaphysical heaviness of the refrain ("takes a woman like you to get through to the man in me" — could an apology for one's male-chauvinistic excesses in the past be worded in a better way?). I think it was the "la-la-la"s and little else that prompted the Cohens to include the song in the Big Lebowski soundtrack — although, come to think of it, New Morning in its entirety is the most Lebowski-compatible album Dylan had ever recorded in his life.

Dividing the songs into «high-» and «lowlights» on New Morning is impossible due to the very conception of the album. On John Wesley Harding, there was a very clear demarcating line be­tween songs like ʽAll Along The Watchtowerʼ (epic!) and ʽDown Along The Coveʼ (whee, groovy!). As for New Morning, well, on one hand, it is true that some of the tunes explore gran­der themes than others. ʽThree Angelsʼ, with its gospel organ and allegoric story about the world failing to notice the angels with their horns, is one; ʽSign On The Windowʼ, exploring loneliness and escape from it in the possible joys of domestic bliss (sort of an «Eleanor Rigby Got Married» from a Dylan perspective), is another; ʽFather Of Nightʼ, concluding the album in brief snippet fashion, is a reworking of a Jewish prayer.

But on the other hand, none of these songs could have ever been properly reworked into blazing Jimi Hendrix anthems — they simply represent occasional dips into pensiveness and solemnity on a generally light-hearted, «simple man» type of daily schedule. Here we celebrate the arrival of yet another 24-hour cycle with the title track, sung deliciously out-of-tune (the only thing lack­ing is Keith Richards on background vocals), but with all the soul it takes. There we do a bit of barroom blues, pulled by the hair out of «generic» mode like only Dylan can — by re-defining the concept of «nag­ging» with the repetitive song title. Here we send up Princeton University, who had the nerve to present Dylan with an honorary degree when he least needed it (ʽDay Of The Locustsʼ, somehow still managing to piano-celebrate the innocence of nature in between all the sneering — and if it were up to me, I would probably rename some part of the Princeton campus to «The Black Hills Of Dakota», if only to take revenge on the songwriter). There we just rollick along to an unassuming, but utterly non-Nashvillian all the same, country waltz (ʽWinter­ludeʼ), and so on. All soft, all cozy, lazy, tender, and sarcastic at once.

New Morning essentially concludes the third phase in Dylan's career — the «country years», some might call it, although «the campfire years» or «the log cabin years» seem much more to my liking. Subsequently, his musical ascetism would reach its peak and culminate in abandoning music altogether for a couple of years, except for a few unproductive sessions and a rare gig for George's Bangla Desh concert — which he shared, surprisingly enough, with yet another recluse: Clapton, too, basically just locked himself up in 1971-72. Dylan's existence, fortunately, was less drug-dependent, but somehow I think that these pauses were not entirely coincidental: both Bob and Eric represented the «Sixties' survivor» stereotype — «The Guy Who Could Have Been The Next Jimi Hendrix / Jim Morrison / Brian Jones», etc. — and, probably, both of them needed to take some time off, if only to shake off the ghosts of the past and clean themselves up, spiritually even more than physically, for what the future had in store.

That said, I must note that, had New Morning turned out to be Dylan's swan song for any reason, it would have enjoyed an even stronger reputation than it does today — I mean, a record that starts out with one of the man's sincerest, tenderest, simplest, catchiest love songs, and ends with an equally light, but moving take on a Jewish prayer? That certainly qualifies as some sort of Let It Be, if you ask me. And just imagine everyone salivating at the idea of the man being taken away from us just as he finally got to admit that "this must be the day that all of my dreams come true..." — can you not feel the Faustian grandeur already? Not even John Lennon and Double Fantasy would have anything on this. Anyway, thumbs up all the same — for all we know, Bob Dylan's talents may extend to the ability of terminating and resuscitating his own life at will, so he is entitled to at least nine proper swan songs, or something like that.

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Monday, October 21, 2013

Brenda Lee: The Versatile Brenda Lee

BRENDA LEE: THE VERSATILE BRENDA LEE (1965)

1) Yesterday's Gone; 2) Dear Heart; 3) I Still Miss Someone; 4) How Glad I Am; 5) Almost There; 6) Don't Blame Me; 7) Willow Weep For Me; 8) Truly Truly True; 9) Love Letters; 10) The Birds And The Bees; 11) La Vie En Rose; 12) Maybe.

And by «versatile», I presume, they mean «one that can perform everything, from lightweight pre-war popu­lar songs to profound contemporary material by our illustrious songwriters, like ʽThe Birds And The Beesʼ, for example». Well, truth be told, they may be right, if they are going not with the third meaning of the word in Webster's dictionary («turning with ease from one thing to another»), but with the first one — «capable of being turned round». It must have took quite a bit of turning round, I'd say, to end up with a cover of ʽLa Vie En Roseʼ on one's hands in the middle of 1965.

The album doth add insult to injury by opening in a dishonestly deceitful manner — ʽYesterday's Goneʼ, a fluke hit for the wimpy UK folk-rock duo Chad & Jeremy, is unexpectedly arranged in a rock'n'roll manner, with gruff electric guitars and a King Curtis-style saxophone solo. Not exactly «hard», but probably the toughest sound on a Brenda Lee album in about two years, making the listener salivate for more. But already track number two is ʽDear Heartʼ, a thick syrup concocted by Henry Mancini for Andy Williams, with backing vocals that you thought you'd heard the last of in Disney classics from the previous decade. And off we go...

In all honesty, the interpretation of ʽWillow Weep For Meʼ is extremely «versatile», not to men­tion powerful, and ʽHow Glad I Amʼ is quite competitive when it comes to comparison with the Nancy Wilson original — where Nancy has the upper hand in subtle modulation, Brenda fights back with sheer volume and determination. It is also interesting that her version of ʽLove Lettersʼ managed to predate Elvis' hit rendition by about a year — not that either of them matters all that much in the grand scheme of things.

But a thumbs down all the same, since everything else is (by now) traditionally rotten, including ʽThe Birds And The Beesʼ, which must be one of the worst love songs ever written in an upbeat pop manner (no wonder Jewel Akens never had another hit in his whole life). Bad songs, worse arrangements, formally impeccable, but fully predictable vocals, and, worst of all, the realization that this was all made in the summer of '65... well, couldn't they at least let her cover ʽAll I Really Want To Doʼ? Maybe we'd have no need for Cher then.


Sunday, October 20, 2013

Beachwood Sparks: Once We Were Trees

BEACHWOOD SPARKS: ONCE WE WERE TREES (2001)

1) Germination; 2) Confusion Is Nothing New; 3) The Sun Surrounds Me; 4) You Take The Gold; 5) Hearts Mend; 6) Let It Run; 7) Old Manatee; 8) The Hustler; 9) Yer Selfish Ways; 10) By Your Side; 11) Close Your Eyes; 12) Banjo Press Conference; 13) Jugglers Revenge; 14) The Good Night Whistle; 15) Once We Were Trees.

Everything about the concept of this album suggests that, with a little luck, it could have been one of the greatest records of the new millennium. An established country-rock band with a penchant for old-style psychedelia. An «eco-conscious» overtone. A musical link between all the green things that grow and one's own existence, a pantheist's paradise expressed in modern sounds, but steeped in tradition. A suggestive album title, and a pretty album cover to go along with it, some­how reminiscent of Friends by The Beach Boys — another record that seemed bent on exploring man's relation with nature and the transcendence of things.

This is what makes the ultimate reaction so bitter. There is no way to ignore the ambitiousness of the goals — not with a thirty-second introductory track called ʽGerminationʼ — but there is no way, either, that one could admit the goals have been fulfilled. To do that, Beachwood Sparks de­cide to move even further away from the idea of writing sharp, memorable melodies, and replace them with «atmosphere», understood as «unbreakable tissues of repetitive guitar / keyboard pat­terns». Now maybe there is a philosophical idea behind that decision — as in, plant growth hap­pens on a steady, but quiet and inobtrusive basis, and so should the music. But at least that idea would have required better production than what we have here.

The album never really gets much better, or much worse, than its first real song, ʽConfusion Is Nothing Newʼ. Slow, echo-laden, with three or four guitars going off at the same time just mind­ing their business — four different trees growing in their own different ways... okay, time to dis­pense with these comparisons. The multi-tracked vocals that come in are almost totally devoid of expression: they hit the notes all right, but this ain't even Byrds level, let alone the Beach Boys. Is it pretty? By all means. Tasteful? No complaints about that. But does it make you feel small? Big? Happy? Sad? A part of Mother Fucking Nature? One with the universe? One against the universe? All I can say is that, perhaps, the song would stand a better chance if differently produced, so that the vocals, guitars, and keyboards wouldn't get all glued together.

Another observation is that the songs, in their desire to combine elements of «normal» country pop with elements of ambience, simply end up too limp and diluted to qualify as pop songs — and too poppy to qualify as true atmospheric panoramas to relax and meditate to. The band is at its best not when it tries to take the middle ground, but when they give it their all in one or the other direction. Thus, ʽYou Take The Goldʼ and ʽYer Selfish Waysʼ, two numbers that pick up the tempo, are moderately fun and catchy; and on the other side of the fence, ʽThe Good Night Whistleʼ, with its repetitive structure ("train's going to sleep tonight, train's going to sleep to­night...") and train-whistle-imitating harmonica, is as close to putting you in a specific old-timey mindset as they ever get here.

In a nutshell, Once We Were Trees is a classic example of setting your plank so impossibly high, all that remains is sit back and hope the audience will only stare in awe at how high the plank is, failing to notice that you have not the least chance of making it. Maybe if they had themselves a Lindsey Buckingham in the band, or any other such master with a gift for melody and playing technique and atmospheric production, things would have turned out differently. As it is, they should have stuck with ʽThe Calming Seasʼ paradigm — aiming for fairy-magical slide guitar melodies that are not impeded by lethargy, numbness, and a cloak of redundant overdubs for maximum effect. As a not-unpleasant, but still jarringly disappointing sequel to a promising de­but, Once We Were Trees (And We Still Play Like Ones) gets a thumbs down, I'm afraid.

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Saturday, October 19, 2013

Beck: Mutations

BECK: MUTATIONS (1998)

1) Cold Brains; 2) Nobody's Fault But My Own; 3) Lazy Flies; 4) Canceled Check; 5) We Live Again; 6) Tropicalia; 7) Dead Melodies; 8) Bottle Of Blues; 9) O Maria; 10) Sing It Again; 11) Static; 12) Diamond Bollocks; 13) Runners Dial Zero.

This album marks a serious turning point. Before the rise to major superstardom, Beck would fluctuate between «lo-fi anti-folk» and «hi-fi sample madness», lending his post-modernist de­cons­truction talents to the idea of commercial success, and his depressed garbageman side to indie labels, so as not to lose his standing in the underground. Thus, for every Mellow Gold you had yourself a Golden Feelings, for every Odelay — a Foot In The Grave.

Mutations was originally thought of, I suppose, as more of a follow-up to the latter than the for­mer: the next installment in Beck's ongoing series of «reinventing the roots», but without the samples and hip-hop beats. To that end, Beck even had an agreement with Geffen that the record, as an experimental project with no commercial appeal, would be released on an indie label. How­ever, everything changed as Radiohead took the world by storm with OK Computer. Suddenly, post-modernistic irony was out of vogue again... suddenly, there was once more a certain demand on sullen, introspective singer-songwriters... and, suddenly, Beck found himself working with Nigel Godrich, Radiohead's producer — which, for better or worse, meant that coming up with another Golden Feelings was out of the question, unless the covert idea was to make Godrich die of a heart attack and quash the competition.

Whatever those circumstances were, the end result of this collaboration between the «intellectual garbageman» and the «master of technophilic melancholia» is an excellent album — and a great introduction to Beck for those who may be too put off by his experimental side to notice the true talent behind the «glitzy» and the «trashy» aspects of his work alike. Mutations is a very «nor-mal»-sounding, but a complex, diverse, intelligent, emotionally rich record — and, best of all, the actual songs are nowhere near as boring as that description might suggest. Just blame it on the inadequacy of the language, or the language user.

Predictably, Beck and Godrich still settle on old-timey blues/folk lamentation as the departing point — and even when the melodic backbone is more akin to post-war singer-songwriters than to pre-war blueswailers, Beck still finds the time to name the song ʽNobody's Fault But My Ownʼ, with a transparent throwback to Blind Willie Johnson (and not Led Zeppelin, of course). But now, other than being different through the application of Beck's lyrics and Beck's quite-modern per­sonality, they are also different through Godrich's atmospheric production ideas — and the man adds layers of surprising depth that was hitherto inaccessible for Mr. «Feel Like A Piece Of Shit» Hansen, but now somehow feels quite native to his vision.

The «Radiohead touch» is immediately observable from the first seconds of ʽCold Brainsʼ, a song that, with a little extra tweaking, could have easily fit on The Bends. Wobbly wah-wahs, sub­liminal distorted riffs, astral noises burbling in the background — without all these embellish­ments, the song would have been just another acoustic guitar / harmonica-driven folk meditation, a «poor man's Neil Young» offering. Instead, we get a sensory feast of a «space-folk» panorama that belies the song's lyrics: "Cold brains / Unmoved / Untouched / Unglued / Alone at last / No thoughts / No mind / To rot / Behind / A trail of disasters...", but, apparently, even in that un­moved, untouched, unglued state there is a hell of a lot of different stuff going on within those «cold brains» — if the song is not a melodic masterpiece, it should at least be the object of every producer's wet dream.

For ʽNobody's Fault But My Ownʼ, Godrich invites Warren Klein, who used to play for the Stoo­ges in the early 1970s and then moved on to studying Indian music, to contribute sitar overdubs — and, once more, turns a potentially pedestrian composition into a psychedelic «sea of droning» that illustrates the protagonist's «floating» state of mind so much more vividly than it would have with just an acoustic guitar and Beck's tired, reprehensive vocals. ʽLazy Fliesʼ takes the idea of an «intellectual country waltz» and throws so much in the pot — big bass drums, harpsichords, wah-wahs, Theremin imitations, fuzzy leads, whatever — that by the time you get down to the actual chords and find out that they are quite easy, you will have already gained enough respect for the song to be properly disappointed.

And so on, and on — this Godrich touch ensures that something at least can be said about each song regardless of whether it strikes you on a personal level or not: a classic bait for critical praise (and the critics did not disappoint). So as not to fall in this trap of spending too much time on an album that, after all, may not quite deserve it, I will limit myself to just a small handful of additional mentions: ʽTropicaliaʼ is a terrific mix of Latin rhythms and ominous jazz chords (al­though most people will probably remember it for the sneering grin of the cuíca, tortured by per­cussionist Smokey Hormel); ʽO Mariaʼ would have been perfectly at home as part of a sound­track where a grizzled Beck is playing honky tonk piano in a smoky intergalactic space bar; and ʽDiamond Bollocksʼ (included as a hidden track on some of the album's editions) is Mutations' blistering nod to hip-cool mid-1960s Revolver-ish rock'n'roll, but only as if Syd Barrett came to guest star on one of the tracks.

These are just a few examples, but even though some of the songs take a little more time to get into than others, I can find no serious individual flaws — nor do I have any problems with the concept of the album in general. Of course, Beck never took himself as seriously as Thom Yorke, so there was no chance that Mutations could ever be hailed as «the Album of its generation», but on the positive side, Mutations, unlike Radiohead, does have a sense of humor. But above and beyond everything else, this is one of Nigel's finest hours — his work on Mutations really goes to show that a truly great producer is always a great producer, no matter what sort of artist he works with (as long as the artist is generally talented, of course). Despite living in the same age, Beck and Radiohead are very different — yet Godrich was able to adapt essentially the same style of production to the essence of each of them without running into serious problems. (Seven years later, he would once again work a similar, but different kind of magic on Paul McCartney's Chaos And Creation In The Backyard).

Do keep in mind that the «Beck/Godrich» way of working is very different from the «Beck/Dust Brothers» way of working — for practical purposes, these are almost two different Becks, where it is fairly easy to rave over one and get bored with the other, or to be enchanted by the latter and disgusted by the former, depending on whether you came here from Beastie Boys Wasteland or Radio­head Sanitarium. Then again, whatever be the situation, there is always a Blind Willie John­son, blindly peeking out from behind the backs of both — and a dark alley with a smelly garbage can. This one, however, is located somewhere on Aldebaran, which is all the more reason to give it a thumbs up, and hope someone out there has a telescope capable of detecting it.

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