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Saturday, November 30, 2013

Belle And Sebastian: Tigermilk

BELLE AND SEBASTIAN: TIGERMILK (1996)

1) The State I Am In; 2) Expectations; 3) She's Losing It; 4) You're Just A Baby; 5) Electronic Renaissance; 6) I Could Be Dreaming; 7) We Rule The School; 8) My Wandering Days Are Over; 9) I Don't Love Anyone; 10) Mary Jo.

Of course, Stuart Murdoch is just the kind of «frail lonely indie kid» that gets regularly parodied by all the sarcastic wiseguys in the world. A little nerdy, a little sissy, sometimes bitter, some­times tender, a champion of the little guy and of the underdog, and what could you expect from someone who spent seven years suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome, and then served seve­ral more years as a caretaker for a church hall in his spare time? Here be the proverbial musical re­cluse who always takes brain over brawn, beauty over beast, and bells over balls — a position that has been profanated over and over again since the days of Nick Drake, who could at least justify it by also being a real musician (yes, knowing how to play your instrument better than your neighbor with just a few years of musical school behind him actually helps).

But it is also true that some of those sad indie kids have more credibility than others, and, for­tunately, Mur­doch falls within that category. If he and his music may occasionally fall prey to certain stereotypes, then, for the sake of justice, it should also be mentioned that they also break stereotypes — for instance, the stereotype that every rock band from Scotland should be fronted by a permanently drunk ex-coal miner with an iron throat, and that its music should be the perfect soundtrack to having a good barf at the local pub. Try as I might, I just cannot imagine anybody barfing to the sweet, sensitive sounds of Belle and Sebastian, a band that was, after all, named after a children's book and TV series.

Besides, Murdoch chooses a near-perfect attitude for his songs, one that goes back directly to the aforementioned Nick Drake and maybe even further back to Ray Davies — frailty and tenderness without either excessive sentimentality or excessive «see me suffer, see me suffocate» type of self-pity. It's all light, breezy, «twee» (as they say today) folk-pop that at its best — when the band falls upon a fortunate vocal or melodic hook — sounds charming, and at its worst — when they drift on the waves of style and attitude alone — still sounds nice. Acoustic or jangly electric guitars, occasional cellos, violins, and trumpets, pretty vocals, intelligent lyrics, everything with plenty of throw­backs to old-school pre-Hendrix Brit-pop, what's not to like?

Like most B&S albums, Tigermilk does suffer from its rather limited stylistics. There is fairly little on the record that is not already contained in its opening number, ʽThe State I Am Inʼ — if you are in a big hurry, the song pretty much tells you everything about Belle and Sebastian that you must know in order to check off that little square. Simple (accessible), acoustic (immediate), upbeat (unpretentious), tells an allegorical story that should not be taken too literally but is easily decodable figuratively — "I gave myself to sin / I gave myself to Providence / And I've been there and back again / The state that I am in". Internal conflict, personality disorder, adolescent angst, maturity crisis — for those who do not like these themes accompanied by barking vocals, chainsaw guitars and death-challenging volume levels.

As a «poet», Murdoch is certainly operating at a more advanced level than Ray Davies (who was fairly old-fashioned even by Sixties' standards himself), but that is more or less to be expected from an indie kid. As a melody writer, unfortunately, he does not even begin to come close: most of these songs float by like fluffy clouds — five listens into the record, only ʽShe's Losing Itʼ managed to cling on to a piece of my mind's driftwood (its bouncy chorus is the most «kiddie» element on the entire album, and I am afraid that must be exactly why it is so memorable), and, of course, ʽI Could Be Dreamingʼ — probably the album's true major highlight, with its tremolo ef­fect on the electric guitar hook, its quasi-Theremin countermelody, and the odd Isobel Campell recital of «Rip Van Winkle» in the outro section.

But the songs still warrant repeated listens, because there is more to them than sheer melodic con­text, and I am willing to listen to Murdoch and his little under-the-bed performances. On very rare occasions, he cooks up completely unpredictable surprises — for instance, ʽElectronic Re­naissanceʼ uses shitloads of synthesizers and drum machines to... express contempt and disgust for the digital clubland revolution that was taking place in the mid-Nineties, without mincing words: "Monochrome in the 1990's / You go disco and I'll go my way", and, sure enough, al­though they do sparingly use synthesizers on some of the other tracks, all of them are quite «mo­nochrome» in comparison.

However, that is more or less the only straightforward piece of social criticism. Most of the time, Murdoch takes it out on himself — for instance, on ʽI Don't Love Anyoneʼ, which is probably the sweetest song about not loving anyone ever recorded: "if there's one thing that I learned when I was still a child it's to take a hiding", although the man is really so nice that he can't help adding a few disclaimers: "I don't love anyone... well, maybe my sister... maybe my baby brother too..." — doesn't he know that, once you've opened that door just a little bit, it doesn't take too long for the opening to widen? Most likely, he does, which is exactly why he sings about it.

Or he takes it out on himself and everyone else of his own caliber — ʽWe Rule The Schoolʼ ends with a lightly enigmatic "You know the world was made for men / Not us", as the accompanying romantic pianos and cellos bring to mind... well, I was almost going to say Dennis Wilson and Pacific Ocean Blues, but Dennis Wilson, a «man» in every sense of the word, would probably never have penned that line, even when composing in a thoroughly broken-hearted state. (Actu­ally, the best thing about the song is its understated woodwind solo bit — a beautiful little bit of phrasing there, making me wish they'd inserted more of those short solos throughout, but an indie kid's worst nightmare is always to come across as «indulgent», a risk somehow perceived in even a few bars of soloing — or, perhaps, the average indie kid is simply afraid to show off his relative incom­petence, or, most likely, both at the same time).

In any case, Tigermilk is one of those debut albums that promise a long, respectable, successful career where the highest point would never get out of sight of the lowest one — if you do not climb all that high, you should have no fear of falling. And it does have its own spirit, so that even long after Stuart Murdoch ceases to be a contemporary role model for Glaswegian adoles­cents, young people all around the world can still use the album in order to deduce the difference between a Nick Drake in 1972 and a «Nick Drake» in 1996. A well-pleased, if not as inadequately overawed as some of the attested reviews, thumbs up here.

Check "Tigermilk" (CD) on Amazon
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Friday, November 29, 2013

Bauhaus: In The Flat Field

BAUHAUS: IN THE FLAT FIELD (1980)

1) Double Dare; 2) In The Flat Field; 3) God In An Alcove; 4) Dive; 5) Spy In The Cab; 6) Small Talk Stinks; 7) St. Vitus Dance; 8) Stigmata Martyr; 9) Nerves; 10*) Dark Entries; 11*) Telegram Sam; 12*) Rosegarden Funeral Of Sores; 13*) Terror Couple Kill Colonel; 14*) Scopes; 15*) Untitled; 16*) God In An Alcove; 17*) Crowds.

First things first: let us get the harmful genrism crap out of the way. Wherever you go to stock up on basic information about Bauhaus, you are sure to learn that they are «the fathers of goth rock» or, at least, «counted among the progenitors of gothic rock as a genre». There is only one piece of serious evidence to back up this idiotic stereotype — namely, the name of the band's first single: ʽBela Lugosi's Deadʼ. Naturally, every band whose first song mentions Bela Lugosi, vampires, and blood, deserves to be pigeonholed as «gothic rock», but one might just as well tag The Jimi Hendrix Experience as a «folk-rock band», since their first single was a cover of ʽHey Joeʼ. (For that matter, Bauhaus' third single was a sped-up cover of T. Rex's ʽTelegram Samʼ — about as «gothic» in essence as ʽMary Had A Little Lambʼ.)

Even if we do accept «goth rock» as a legit musical genre and describe it as, well, let's say, dark, gloomy, bass-heavy, minor-key music with a lyrical and atmospheric fixation on misanthropy, death, suicide, ghosts, and red blood on white sheets, In The Flat Field, the band's first and argu­ably best album, only fits certain parts of that description. Moodwise, this brainchild of Peter Murphy's is a whole lot more cheerful than Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures, from which it draws much of its inspiration — not to mention certain albums by The Doors, Lou Reed, or Nico that I could mention, all of which are far more deserving of the «early goth rock» nametag than this relatively lively, tongue-in-cheek, occasionally quite funny piece of entertainment.

In fact, if you glance at some of the original negative reviews of the record, you can sometimes see people condemning it for not living up to their expectations — "sluggish indulgence instead of hoped for goth-ness", Dave McCullough quipped in Sounds. Indulgence — for sure; sluggish — vile slander. In 1980, there was nothing sluggish about the playing style of Peter Murphy, Daniel Ash, David J, and Kevin Haskins. On the contrary, like all those fresh, young, seriously idealistic New Wave outfits, particularly those based in such centers of trendiness as London, they were determined to prove that they could combine new meaningful musical ideas with the verve and energy of their glam-rock and punk rock idols.

Just like the Smiths, Bauhaus' image is generated at the intersection of «the eccentric vocalist» (Peter Murphy) and «the inventive guitarist» (Daniel Ash). Of those two, Murphy is the less in­teresting component: he adds little to the accumulated legacy of Jim Morrison, Iggy Pop, and Ian Curtis, and his trademark gloomy baritone has fairly little emotional range or depth. He is a com­petent singer, and his singing style matches the moods and the messages of the songs fairly well — you couldn't really imagine somebody like Elvis Costello singing these songs instead, or if you could, you shouldn't — and other than a couple cases of potentially overlong overscreaming, he never does much to irritate the listener; that's about as high as my praise can go.

The guitar playing of Daniel Ash, though, is an entirely different matter. Like most of the pro­minent guitarists of the New Wave era, he tends to eschew solos, but the style is by no means minimalistic — on the contrary, it is ambitiously synthetic, with little regard for any pre-estab­lished «genre rules». ʽDouble Dareʼ, for instance, opens the album with a few nasty feedback blasts, out of which quickly emerges an even nastier growling «industrial metal» riff. Then the title track, in contrast, is all based on distorted scratchy droning, in loving memory of Lou Reed, Phil Manzanera, and Tom Verlaine. ʽGod In An Alcoveʼ updates the old garage sound, where folksy arpeggios alternate with bluesy block chords and psycho trills (and to top it off, Dave J sometimes makes his bass adopt a disco pattern — what a nuthouse, eh?). On ʽSpy In The Cabʼ, he plays a depressing dirge, while the limp, but arrogant shuffle of ʽSmall Talk Stinksʼ could have easily been picked up by the likes of Marc Ribot for a Tom Waits album.

Nothing on Flat Field really hits harder, though, than the looped metal riff doubling the already established bass melody at 0:50 into ʽStigmata Martyrʼ. The song is a masterpiece of tongue-in-cheek «religious horror» in music — all due to the expressiveness of Ash's guitar, imitating all sorts of physical (and spiritual?) pain on an almost literal level. There is no real horror here (as in, «vivid musical projection of real life horror or the uncomfortably dark depths of one's soul»), it is all sheer theatrics, but it still perturbs the senses in some way. Even as a cheap thrill, songs like these show that Bauhaus are really onto something.

It may well be so that the original critics were confused — In The Flat Field is, indeed, too flashy, extravagant, and even «cheery» to genuinely convey any dread, doom, and despair (you do know for sure that Peter Murphy is no Ian Curtis, and that the rope is not a solution), but if it does not genuinely do that, what the hell is it here for in the first place? These songs make very little ideological sense; Murphy's lyrics, at best, convey a feeling of stupid adolescent decadence; and the band's being all over the place without firmly indicating where they do belong disorients the potential reviewer into a state of irritated hatred.

But get over it, potential reviewer. So what if these arrogant kids have reduced your precious Joy Division to the sarcastic-vaudevillian frame­work of a dark rock cabaret? Surely there might be an empty space left for this stuff somewhere on of your empty shelves. And there is really no logic in worshipping Tom Waits, who did much the same thing with his favorite types of music, and despising Bauhaus — who, at least, never took themselves too seriously. In the end, In The Flat Field may not «mean» much, but it is inventive, experimental, catchy, energetic, and fun, right down to the slow build-up (love those suspense-generating tick-tocking keyboards straight out of the local torture chamber) and massive explosion of ʽNervesʼ. Subsequently, I would like to give the album a thumbs up right now, and attempt to explain what particular major changes for the better it introduced to my life later, once I have enjoyed those changes to their fullest.

PS: Any newcomer to the band would do well to pick up the expanded reissue. For some reason, it does not include ʽBela Lugosi's Deadʼ, but it does include the rest of their early singles, inclu­ding the brilliant ʽTerror Couple Kill Colonelʼ (dedicated to the murder of Paul Bloomquist, with a delicately crafted folk-pop guitar part from Ash, and with the chorus always misheard by me as «pterodactyl kill carnal», adding even further to the mystery) and the insanely accelerated ʽTele­gram Samʼ; also, ʽCrowdsʼ is a romantic piano ballad that should be owned by every admirer of Paul Murphy's (not that I'd ever like to have a hand in convincing anybody to become an admirer of Paul Murphy's, but if you are an admirer, you do have to hear this little Peter Hammill-style depressed confessional), and ʽRosegarden Funeral Of Soresʼ is probably the only song on the entire CD that would indeed be fit for playing at a Goth-themed funeral. (Particularly if you wan­ted to raise the chances of the deceased person rising from the dead, that is — it is rather painful to have to endure Murphy's hysterical roaring at the end of the initially calm track).

Check "In The Flat Field" (CD) on Amazon
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Thursday, November 28, 2013

Betty Davis: Betty Davis

BETTY DAVIS: BETTY DAVIS (1973)

1) If I'm In Luck I Might Get Picked Up; 2) Walkin' Up The Road; 3) Anti Love Song; 4) Your Man My Man; 5) Ooh Yeah; 6) Steppin' In Her I. Miller Shoes; 7) Game Is My Middle Name; 8) In The Meantime; 9*) Come Take Me; 10*) You Won't See Me In The Morning; 11*) I Will Take That Ride.

In 1967, Betty Mabry was in luck, as she happened to be picked up by Miles Davis himself — and although their marriage lasted but three years (Miles later complained she was «too wild» for him, and whatever that really meant, I don't think I even want to know), it is said to have been greatly mutually beneficial: she introduced him to the «electric» scene of the psychedelic Sixties, thus being partly responsible for his transition to the fusion period of In A Silent Way and Bit­ches Brew (being one of the «witches», a.k.a. «bitches», herself) — and he introduced her to... umm, his bank account? Whatever — anyway, without that marriage, there would neither have been a «Betty Davis» name tag, nor, quite likely, any of these strange albums that the funk lady engineered during her short, but vivid, career.

The reason why that career never really took off, with all those albums flopping one after the other, is as plain to see as the reason why, in recent years, it has been given a serious re-evalu­ation, so that these days, Mrs. Davis is finally enjoying some serious popularity in knowledgeable circles. First and foremost, Betty Mabry was not much of a singer, and back in those days — heck, back in any days — a black performer, particularly a female one, was expected to live up to the standards: if you couldn't belt it out like Aretha, or coo the pants off your listeners like Diana, or rattle the walls and shatter the glass like Tina, you hardly stood a chance, regardless of how much character or personality you could offer in compensation. A racist standard, come to think of it, but nobody said stereotypes can be that easily overthrown.

Second, Betty Mabry was not that much of a songwriter, either. In reality, her «songs» are perfor­mance acts — theatrical monologues set to whatever musical backing she may be offered. Since all of her records are funk records, you can dance to these tracks, but you are not very likely to be humming them, or memorizing the (usually non-existent) choruses. They have neither any pop chart po­tential, nor any seductive value for those looking for musical innovation: Betty did not know that much about music to truly care about the notes, and the musicians backing her were simply having a good time in the studio.

Third, Betty «Game Is My Middle Name» Davis was admittedly way too wild, confusingly so, even, for 1973. Everywhere you look for info on the lady, you will see comparisons to Madonna and Prince popping up, but neither Madonna nor Prince were on the scene in 1973, and both Ma­donna and Prince, when they did appear on the scene, compensated for their provocative behavior with catchy hooks, so that you could simply close your eyes on the former — I mean, not even Tipper Gore found out about this before it was already too late. Not so with Betty Davis: the very major, if not the only, point of these «songs» is to drench the listener in waves and showers of aggressive, near-sadistic sexuality. Then again, what does one expect of a girl who, as far as rumors go, wrote her first song at the tender age of 12 and named it ʽI'm Going To Bake That Cake Of Loveʼ?..

Put it all together, and you can easily see that, even if the crazy musical climate of 1973 could allow for such an album to come out, the somewhat more predictable «consumer climate» could hardly allow it to be successful. Nowadays, though, as our tastes have shifted and mutated, the picture looks entirely different. Of course, Betty is not a «singer» in the technical sense, but what she does with her voice is impressive all the same — think something of a black female equi­valent of early Iggy Pop, going all the way and never looking back. The lower part of her larynx, which she heavily exploits throughout, is her chief instrument: the lack of diversity of delivery may eventual­ly get a bit on one's nerves, but the album is fairly short anyway, going off in one brief concentrated punch — or like a thirty-minute brutal «vocal rape», if you'll excuse the crude­ness of the definition. She may be singing about wanting to "get picked up", and how she is "wig­gling her fanny" to achieve that purpose, but it is pretty clear who is really doing the picking.

None of that would matter, though, if the assembled musicians were not so totally hip to whatever Betty was doing. The roster here is impressive — due to her connections in the biz, she gets no less than the regular Sly Stone rhythm section of bass genius Larry Graham and drum expert Gregg Errico, as well as certain members of Santana, including Neal Schon on guitar (well on his way to form Journey, but we will ignore that particularity), and some brass players from Tower Of Power, while The Pointer Sisters are providing background vocals. And they all cook — maybe not a prime-series «bitches brew», but, if you ask my opinion, that very title would con­vey the essence of Betty's debut much better than it conveyed the essence of Miles' hymn to fusion. Here we do have a certified «bitch», and she's brewing it up to high heaven.

Most of the songs follow the same simple pattern: set up a riff-based groove going, around which the lead instruments (guitar, organ, brass, in that particular order of preference) play circles with a very high degree of freedom allowed, to match the equally high degree of freedom for Betty to scatter, spit, and snarl out the exotic tales of her own sex drive and, occasionally, offering acid comment on other people's lives (ʽSteppin' In Her I. Miller Shoesʼ is a mean-spirited diatribe against the «celebrity itch»). This sounds fairly simple, and too much like a potential recipe for disaster to be credible — but just wait until you actually hear it.

The trick is that Betty's spitfire act must have invigorated the musicians as well, so that every­body is trying to match her in terms of «badness» and «nastiness». ʽIf I'm In Luckʼ starts sizzling from the very first second, as the Zeppelinish blues-rock riff rips through the speakers and is soon joined by the equally «badass» bass and organ parts. The time signatures and lead riffs change from song to song, but the drive and passion stay the same — occasionally, the message shifts from direct aggression to a more subtle threat, but this does not make it any less vicious: ʽAnti Love Songʼ, driven by bass-'n'-keyboards interplay rather than guitar, is the album's best tune, in fact, it is probably the hottest tune about sexual abstinence ever written.

By the time they get around to the last movement of this molten-lava-suite (ʽGame Is My Middle Nameʼ accidentally borrows the «crawling» guitar melody from The Doors' ʽBack Door Manʼ, and, while we're on it, this gal could definitely teach ol' Jim a thing or two about pork and beans), the floor has already most likely caved in from exhaustion — the only problem is that they were not able to come up with a properly soothing conclusion: ʽIn The Meantimeʼ is sort of a «ballad» that tries to wrap things up on a softer note, but this is also where Betty's disabilities as a singer come to the forefront, and the gospel organ melody that dominates the song is a snoozer com­pared to what they just did on the meat'n'potato numbers.

Still, one mediocre piece of dessert should not spoil the basic impressions of the main course — besides, if you get the remastered CD version, there are three extra, previously unreleased, cuts from the same sessions that yield 12 more minutes of violent sexual games, mid-1970s fashion, ensuring that you get your money's worth. Just remember that this ain't Funkadelic or Sly Stone — it's all a bunch of provo­cative «punk-funk» (Betty is sometimes called the godmother of Nina Hagen, although Nina was a far better singer and a far loonier type of person), which does not get by on the wings of inventive­ness of diversity. But it does show that sometimes all you need is a spirited «bitch», a decent hard-rock riff, and a well-hewn backing band to create an enduring clas­sic, or, at least, a resurrection-worthy one. Thumbs up, or we can just «wiggle our fanny» in acknowledgement.

Check "Betty Davis" (CD) on Amazon
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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Blue Cheer: Vincebus Eruptum

BLUE CHEER: VINCEBUS ERUPTUM (1968)

1) Summertime Blues; 2) Rock Me, Baby; 3) Doctor Please; 4) Out Of Focus; 5) Parchment Farm; 6) Second Time Around.

«The Jimi Hendrix Experience for Lunkheads», this is what this band really is, but if you ask me, this is still much better than the poseur professionalism of Grand Funk Railroad, whose enduring popula­rity should have been more justly enjoyed by Blue Cheer. Had they been a Detroit band, their bite might have been worse than their bark, as they would have to compete with the Stooges; as it happened, they were based in San Francisco, where they did enjoy the cult status of the hea­viest, wildest band for miles around, but depended a bit too much on the usual «blues pedigree» that was shared by everybody in the business, and, despite being at about the same level of formal musical competence as the Stooges (zero), did not catch neither the contemporary nor the «revi­sionist» critical eye with the same force.

But they really should have. For one thing, there is so much that is «wrong» with this band that this realization alone should already turn them into cultural heroes. Like, what is their very name supposed to mean — how on Earth does one produce a «blue cheer»? Or if you are really going to show off by giving your debut LP a Latin name, how about getting it right? The correct Latin translation of "to break out of chains" would be vinculis eruptum, whereas vincebus is not even a proper wordform in the language. Or if you are covering Mose Allison's ʽParchman Farmʼ, do you really need to show how much you care by retitling it ʽParchment Farmʼ? It's not like any in­mates in any American prison ever spent much time scraping calfskin.

However, defying the laws of grammar, orthography, and semantics is one thing for a musician, and defying the music is quite another. From a simple, straightforward point of view, what this album represents is an attempt by three well-meaning, but barely competent guys (Dickie Peter­son on bass and vocals, Leigh Stephens on guitar, Paul Whaley on drums) to provide a local Fri­sco substitute for Hendrix — mainly by acquiring the same kind of musical equipment, but defi­nitely not by learning the same kinds of chords or nurturing the same kind of imaginative vision. In other words, an embarrassing fraud.

From a somewhat more complex point of view, this is a «caveman punk» take on Hendrix that could deserve its own special acclaim. Not just on Hendrix, of course: Blue Cheer were fascina­ted by everything as long as it was loud, screechy, and heavy — their cover of ʽSummertime Bluesʼ must have been inspired by The Who's version (which was not yet commercially released at the time, yet The Who had had the song in their repertoire since the early days), and they were certainly no strangers to the Yardbirds and Cream, either. But where they could not match any of these guys in terms of instrumental prowess, they could match and overcome them in terms of sheer brute force, which is really what classic Blue Cheer is all about: PURE MUSCLE.

If the opening chords to ʽSummertime Bluesʼ do not sound quite as mind-blowing as Jimi's ʽFoxy Ladyʼ, from which they are borrowed, at least they are more distorted — and if the body of the song does not produce the impression of a thunderstorm (because the bass and drum parts are fairly wimpy when compared with the Entwistle/Moon rhythm section), it still comes closer to con­veying «dumb teenage frustration» than the exquisite interplay between The Who could ever bring it. Which is to say, really, that this particular version also deserves to exist and be listened to — even if most of whatever Leigh Stephens is playing here does not make any particular musi­cal sense, other than "hey look, I can make those strings go WHEEEEE! and now I can make them go BOOOOO! and now I can make y'all believe I'm playing this thing with my teeth!" Fun thing, that rock'n'roll stuff.

They do have a feel for it, and it can be infectious. The songs are not so much songs as simply vehicles for wild improvisation (Peterson is credited with writing three of them, but other than the mediocre riff on ʽOut Of Focusʼ, I have been unable to spot much «writing» going on) — ʽSe­cond Time Aroundʼ sounds like they just left the tape rolling for three extra minutes after the song was over, and then decided to leave that uncontrolled chaos on the record (in honor of ʽThird Stone From The Sunʼ or any such other Hendrix noisefest). Laughable, yes, but every once in a while it so happens that all you need to do at a certain moment is just «go to eleven», and the result will be... impressive?

Besides, it's not like they do not know how to play at all. Stephens' obsession with pedals, wob­bles, fuzz, and distortion does not prevent him from correctly resolving the melody where he sees it fit to be resolved, or from borrowing some tricks from the arsenal of free jazz artists as well: at times, it is hard to understand if he is just being drunk / sluggish / incompetent or if he is really trying to pull off an Ornette Coleman. Whatever be the case, his playing turns Vincebus Erup­tum into the craziest hard rock album of 1968 I have ever heard, bar none — an affair in which he is much aided by Peterson (whose sin... screaming is a little colorless, but loud and brawny enough to match the guitar) and Whaley, who gives his best Keith Moon / Mitch Mitchell impres­sion — it still ain't good enough, but not a lot of people in Frisco were even trying.

In a system of values that praises «wildness» and «kick-ass potential» in rock music over every­thing else, Vincebus Eruptum is one of the indisputable champions. In a subtler system that re­quires, at the very least, a unique or technically gifted playing style, and at most, an individual artistic vision, Blue Cheer will forever be stuck as one of the epitomes of bad taste. As for my­self, in situations like these I do tend to select the «subtlety be damned» approach — the album has always been a minor favorite of mine, and I still go for the thumbs up judgement. Want it or not, these guys pretty much invented «brontosaur rock», where size does matter, and I both respect it — a little bit — and enjoy it — especially when it helps flush out unwanted guests.

PS. Oh, and, if I am not mistaken, that riff they hit in the middle of ʽParchment Farmʼ pretty much predicts ʽIn-A-Gadda-Da-Vidaʼ; so there you have some of the band's immediate influence on their contempo­raries.

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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Bob Dylan: Blood On The Tracks

BOB DYLAN: BLOOD ON THE TRACKS (1975)

1) Tangled Up In Blue; 2) Simple Twist Of Fate; 3) You're A Big Girl Now; 4) Idiot Wind; 5) You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go; 6) Meet Me In The Morning; 7) Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts; 8) If You See Her, Say Hello; 9) Shelter From The Storm; 10) Buckets Of Rain.

I must say, I have never been much fond of the title of this album — seems altogether more sui­table for a Slayer than a Bob Dylan LP. Not only is ʽbloodʼ a fairly strong word for Bob, but the title also works towards a very straightforward understanding of the record, namely, that the tracks are indeed figuratively soaked in his blood, that is, convey his genuine spiritual pain like nothing has ever conveyed it before. The mask is dropped, the barriers removed, the cabbalistic verbal fog cleared, here is Robert Zimmerman, and here is a pint of his own blood that he offers you to drink up like some modern day Jesus. Real strong hemoglobin and all.

That Dylan's family problems and divorce case have provided inspiration for these songs seems quite obvious; much less obvious, when you really start thinking about it, is this idea of a Dylan freely opening his heart and mind to the general public, allowing to connect on a much more in­timate level than before. The greatest advantage of Blood On The Tracks is not so much its «sincerity», about which we can really only guess, as its «accessibility». Planet Waves had al­ready introduced a serious change to Dylan's lyrical style, and here it is carried even further — even if not all the lyrics begin to make sense, all of them at least give a feeling of making sense. The air is still clouded with thick metaphors and allegories, but they heartily invite interpretations: "beauty walks a razor's edge, someday I'll make it mine" does make one ponder its possible mea­ning much more effectively than "six white horses that you did promise were finally delivered down to the penitentiary", if you know what I mean.

Subsequently, there has always been, and will always be, two camps of Dylan fans: the Blonde On Blonde camp and the Blood On The Tracks camp (there is also a separate Highway 61 Revisited camp, but that is a different talk altogether — it is mostly populated by people who like an angrier, dirtier, kick-ass-er, rock'n'rollish Bob Dylan). The «BOB» camp appreciates Dylan for the enigma, the unexplainable magic; the «BOT» camp worships him for the revelation, the suf­fering humanism. The camps are not forever fixed in place — normally, the case is that every once in a while, somebody «achieves a higher degree of illumination» and defects from the BOT camp to the BOB camp, but I have also seen opposite cases, where haughty young people would snub BOT for its relative simplicity and triviality, then gradually, over the years, succumb to its charms and renounce their trendy elitism of old.

Amusingly, though, it's not as if there weren't anything in common between those two records. Listen closely to ʽIdiot Windʼ and you will see that it amply borrows from ʽOne Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later)ʼ — not just the same organ tone, but even some of the same melodic moves: "I couldn't believe, after all these years..." is pretty much the same line as "I didn't realize, just what I could hear...". It is only when you see these little occasional shake-hands between songs that you understand — this whole «feud» is completely pointless, and rests entirely on flim­sy subjective impressions, liable to change with every next blow of the wind.

Overall, Blood On The Tracks happens to have a more «serious» tone, showing none of the sense of humor that could either attract or repel in the case of songs like ʽRainy Day Womenʼ or ʽLeopard-Skin Pill-Box Hatʼ; and it also happens to be a little more «stripped» in terms of arran­gements, with no traces of brass and, more importantly, very little electric guitar presence (ʽMeet Me In The Morningʼ is the only song here with a loud electric lead part). These factors create the impression of intimacy / personality / altogether confessional atmosphere, which charms the pants off the souls of so many people, but how close that impression is to the «truth», we will never know. All we know is that, for the first time since Blonde On Blonde, Bob has given us a col­lection of songs that punch hard and reach deep — a similar «soul transfusion» from one vessel to another (John Wesley Harding I judge on a different level — more like a meaning-of-life-style type of global mystery that is much bigger than the singer and the listener taken together).

It's a good thing, too, that he let go of The Band for those sessions, as they had turned out to be more of an encumbrance than a blessing on Planet Waves. Although the final credits list quite a lot of different people taking part in the recordings, they are all split in two different bands — one backing him up in New York, another providing local services in Minneapolis, where he re-recor­ded several of the tracks — and the only thing that technically separates Blood On The Tracks from the ascetic sounds of John Wesley Harding is a near-constant keyboard presence (some of those provided by Paul Griffin, who'd previously played with Bob on parts of the Blonde On Blonde sessions, for that matter).

Bob's own acoustic guitar playing is at the heart of every single song on here, and it looks as if he'd been taking lessons — just take a look at ʽBuckets Of Rainʼ, for instance, which could have easily worked as an instrumental (some of the chords sound like they came right off the Pat Gar­rett soundtrack, which, for that matter, was no slouch in playing terms either). The album is real­ly only marginally louder and denser than his early acoustic stuff, but it still produces a much «fuller» feeling, both because the guitar is treated more like a musical instrument than a «partner for comfort», and also because of the production — credited to Bob himself, by the way, which was a first for the man, and now we know how Bob wants his own records to sound: soft, deep, and with just a small touch of echo on the vocals so that it doesn't sound too homely and cozy. He's not exactly calling out to us from the lower depths, but he's distanced himself a bit so we no longer have to smell each other's socks or anything.

As for the songs themselves — these are not really «songs» as usual. These are magic incanta­ti­ons: mantras, whose repetitiveness is brought upfront and shoved in your face, take it or leave it. Notice how most of the song titles form sentences or at least complex phrases, and then inavoi­dably conclude or constitute each chorus, so that you have them memorized upon first listen: ʽTangled Up In Blueʼ, ʽSimple Twist Of Fateʼ, ʽYou're A Big Girl Nowʼ and so on. This can be no mere coincidence — it can only reflect a maniacal desire to hammer these statements inside our heads, and it could be seriously irritating if only these mantras, taken all together, did not form such an awesome kaleidoscope of their author's state of mind.

Side A: ʽTangled Up In Blueʼ opens the show with fuss / irritation / confusion, as the title would suggest. ʽSimple Twist Of Fateʼ is melancholic introspection — something that happens once the nerves calm down and one takes some time to reflect on all the damage done. ʽYou're A Big Girl Nowʼ is all sorrow and tears, held back as much as possible but still showing. ʽIdiot Windʼ brings on scorn, rage and curses (good thing for Bob he put in that last "we are idiots, babe" chorus, inclu­ding himself in the guilty party, or else this might have become his most misogynistic song ever). ʽYou're Gonna Make Me Lonesomeʼ brings on more sorrow, but now it is subtly hidden under a veil of bouncy retro-folk, just like them old jigsters did it in pre-war times.

Side B: ʽMeet Me In The Morningʼ throws in some acid intonations with a nod to the 12-bar blues form. ʽIf You See Her, Say Helloʼ is like an older, creakier, wrinklier brother to ʽGirl From The North Countryʼ: the girl has now moved to Tangier, but she can still look him up if she's got the time. ʽShelter From The Stormʼ, however, concludes the album on an almost unexpectedly optimistic note — consolation, redemption, basic human care, no need to commit suicide after all. ʽBuckets Of Rainʼ acts like an epilogue that pretty much summarises everything about the album: "Life is sad / Life is a bust / All ya can do / Is do what you must / You do what you must do and you do it well / I do it for you honey baby can't you tell?". Yes we can.

I have omitted ʽLily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Heartsʼ from the list, as you can see, because even after years and years and years of listening, I still cannot quite understand what this song is doing on an album like this, other than functioning as «that one song that shouldn't fit in because no Bob Dylan album can be that predictable». Its complicated, twisted story should have rather been saved for a Traveling Wilburys album or something like that — nor is it even melodically interesting or just plain funny (like a ʽBob Dylan's 115th Dreamʼ). But some people like it, and some even think it belongs — if only in its role of a thick question mark. Of course, it also has to be the longest song on the album, goes without saying.

As usual, the album thrives on Bob's little perks and twists — mantras are mantras, sure enough, but he never forgets to vary his intonation from chorus to chorus, so that no two tangled up in blues or simple twists of fate sound exactly the same way: within each of the specified moods there are further teensy-weensy mini-moods, and indeed, it all easily makes up for one of Bob's most realistic-looking performances. (Then again, reality as such is rarely that exciting). In addi­tion, ʽIdiot Windʼ is really the last time ever we would see such a fulminating, life-threatening Bob without a trace of elderly whine or lyrical banality — feel free to enjoy every second of its eight minutes, and particularly the haughty-snotty irony of the final protracted vowel in "sweet lady", which I personally enjoy in a masochistic way: it is Bob's equivalent of a condescending grin to his audience, and I, for one, humbly acknowledge his right to it. Besides, "we are idiots, babe, it's a wonder we can even feed ourselves" is a suitable conclusion to those eight minutes, and one that only gets stronger and stronger with each passing year.

As a sidenote, I would also like to commend Tony Brown, the little-known bass player on the New York ses­sions, for perfectly guessing the vibe of the album and providing a wonderfully re­strained, but meaningful, counterpoint for the man — particularly on ʽSimple Twist Of Fateʼ, whose pensive atmosphere is largely due to his laconic plucking, and on ʽShelter From The Stormʼ, whose repetitiveness might get a little wearisome if there weren't any extra meat added to Bob's strumming (the bass actually plays a more complicated melody, and it is almost joyfully danceable in places, again, well in touch with the redemptive mood of the song).

Winding down on this: if somebody wanted me to formally narrow my choice of «best Dylan album» to one, Blood On The Tracks would have to be left out for several reasons — the simplest of which would be that he was 34 years old at the time, and we should never trust anybody over 30, or, more accurately speaking, the «gold» layer of Dylan's talent was already depleted in the mid-Sixties. Blood On The Tracks is not particularly «unique» — it is well within the paradigm of introspective folk-based singer-songwriters, and there may be Neil Young or Joni Mitchell albums lying around that would be ready to give it battle in terms of depth, melodicity, and consistency. In fact, the follow-up to Blood On The Tracks would, surprisingly enough, superate it as far as sheer boldness and experimentalism are concerned.

But on the other hand, the album is unique — it is Bob Dylan's «great humanistic record», re­lating to his mid-Sixties stuff much the same way as Dark Side Of The Moon relates to Barrett-era Pink Floyd: more accessible, more compatible with «the flow», less mysterious and enigmatic, and if these aren't virtues by themselves, they sure as heck ain't flaws, either. Always nice to see a man explore so many different corners of the human soul in one well-focused sweep (and then blow it all away without giving a damn on ʽLily, Rosemary, And The Jack Of Heartsʼ) — and too bad he never even came close to repeating this feat again: bleakness, depression, paranoia, and, occasionally, Jesus would soon enough get the better of him, and we would never again see the same ideal balance, where for every sob of ʽYou're A Big Girl Nowʼ there would be a snarl of ʽIdiot Windʼ, and for every confused and insecure ʽTangled Up In Blueʼ there would be an opti­mistic and consolatory ʽShelter From The Stormʼ. Thumbs up, of course — not forgetting the album sleeve, where our hero gets himself a Byron/Chopin-sort of early 19th century romantic profile (or should we say Mendelssohn for accuracy?). Suits the songs just fine, I'd say.  

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Monday, November 25, 2013

Brenda Lee: For The First Time

BRENDA LEE: FOR THE FIRST TIME (1968)

1) Cabaret; 2) There's A Kind Of Hush; 3) Basin Street Blues; 4) Windy; 5) Night And Day; 6) One Of Those Songs; 7) Mood Indigo; 8) Can't Take My Eyes Off You; 9) 59th Street Bridge Song; 10) Anything Goes; 11) I Gotta Right To Sing The Blues.

But wait, here is another late-Sixties Brenda Lee album that somehow stands out, and this time, in a more refined or, at least, more fun manner than Reflections In Blue. The twist here is a col­laboration with famed Dixieland clarinetist Pete Fountain — which is what the title refers to, of course, and what did you think it might refer to?.. — and since the overall quality of Brenda's albums had always depended on what sort of musicians were given the green light on them, and given Fountain's hitherto impeccable jazz credentials, one could finally expect something more-than-just-pitiful even before putting on the record.

These expectations are fulfilled only partially, because, in general, the arrangements are still based on glitz and glamour, the vibe is one of fluffy cabaret entertainment (it suffices only to look at what particular number has been chosen as the introduction to the LP), and the year may only be guessed as 1968 if you look long enough at the song titles — pre-war standards like ʽAnything Goesʼ are in the minority next to contemporary hits from 1966 and 1967, but whoever produced the album must not have thought much of Sgt. Pepper, let alone the Monterey Pop Festival.

On the other hand, though, the songs are generally lively and Dixieland-ish a-plenty, which at the very least means there is little danger of falling asleep; and the addition of Fountain as a working partner works fine, just as expected — the man has a swell tone (or, rather, variety of tones) and a seductive old-timey playfulness that perfectly matches the same in Brenda's voice. So yes, they take Simon & Garfunkel's ʽ59th Street Bridge Songʼ and spoil its cozy little vibe with orchestra­tion, but if you filter the superfluous strings past your ears, what remains is a cutesy-friendly dia­log between the voice and the clarinet — one that understands that vibe and cherishes it. Then they also take Jimmy Durante's joke number ʽOne Of Those Songsʼ, crack its vibe, speed it up, and come out with something that, musically at least, beats the original (well, music-wise, any­body could beat Jimmy Durante — the man was about comedy, not about hitting notes — but they do retain the humor punch as well).

This dialog works within any setting — modern, ancient, folksy, jazzy, bluesy, with or without a huge brass backing, with or without gushing / pouring strings, it's as if this «vicinity of the tal­king clarinet» were giving a new sense of existence to Brenda's singing, and even if it does not help her override her usual limitations (on the whole, the clarinet shows a much higher degree of sub­tlety than the voice), it is still that one missing ingredient that makes For The First Time her best album by far since the very early 1960s, which isn't saying all that much, but at least it does deserve a thumbs up — too bad it was all just a one-night stand.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Black Dice: Load Blown

BLACK DICE: LOAD BLOWN (2007)

1) Kokomo; 2) Roll Up; 3) Gore; 4) Bottom Feeder; 5) Scavenger; 6) Drool; 7) Toka Toka; 8) Cowboy Soundcheck; 9) Bananas; 10) Manoman.

Well, yes, that is right, except for a small correction: the real load was blown two albums ago. This one is more like «blowing steam», if you ask me. A little more impressive on the whole than Broken Ear Record, but still not enough to impress yours truly like the band's original master­pieces. At least the album sleeve picture is nicer than last time around, too.

If anything, this whole thing simply sounds like a fussy soundtrack to a video game — some sort of a racing simulator where you have to drive your amphibian vehicle through all sorts of force fields, lava pools, underground factory corridors, and, occasionally, underwater routes. Under the right circumstances, the experience could be fun, but it's all really been done before, many times, and besides, it might have worked better with an actual video game at your disposal — it is really odd when you have to let your imagination work out the details of a frickin' video game (I usually try to reserve it for somewhat loftier goals).

With ʽKokomoʼ, you'd probably expect a deconstruction of the Beach Boys song, but I do not discern even a trace of sampling — only an endless series of electronic swoops and wobbly dis­torted vocals in the background. The effect is psychedelic all right, but it is the kind of psyche­delia that is usually produced by a couple of kids fooling around with some digital equipment... in other words, nothing out of the ordinary. ʽRoll Upʼ follows with seven minutes of completely re­placeable sounds — meaning that you probably have to put on your headphones, lie on the floor, and let yourselves go for those seven minutes, otherwise you won't be able to connect with the greatness inside and outside of you. Unfortunately, I hate lying on the floor, and taking this in while sitting straight up did not do a thing. (Neither am I a fan of race simulators, which this track recalls vividly — every once in a while, there's an engine revving up like somebody just rammed the gas pedal right into the floor).

The record briefly perks up in its second half, when some of the tracks start going easier on the noise and subtler on the atmosphere: ʽDroolʼ has a slight samba feel to it, with buzzing insects representing a hot summer day somewhere in the tropics; ʽToka Tokaʼ is all built on electronic monkey mating calls, and is the one composition on here that could have easily fit on Creature Comforts; and the album closer ʽManomanʼ is built on trivial sonic sequences, so simple and stu­pid they can't help but infect you — after all, if an album makes you feel like an idiot, it is still better than when it does not make you feel anything at all.

But even these tracks seem more like fortuitous exceptions, because, second time around, Black Dice are compromising their original vision — sacrificing it in favor of ideas like «loudness» and «rhythm», which everyone has in spades. I am not informed of what had happened; maybe they really, really wanted for their music to be played on the club scene, which is, indeed, not the best environment for Creature Comforts. If so, this is all a shameful «sellout», never mind that they are still being experimental and «formally creative». Or, perhaps, they themselves did not manage to understand what an imaginative wonder those early sonic scapes were. In any case, I see no reason for anyone to bother with the likes of Load Blown when there is, oh, I dunno, the entire catalogs of Vangelis and Klaus Schulze to explore before that.

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Saturday, November 23, 2013

Beck: Modern Guilt

BECK: MODERN GUILT (2008)

1) Orphans; 2) Gamma Ray; 3) Chemtrails; 4) Modern Guilt; 5) Youthless; 6) Walls; 7) Replica; 8) Soul Of A Man; 9) Profanity Prayers; 10) Volcano.

Well, even the best of us eventually get themselves cornered. After Midnite Vultures and Sea Change, Beck had nothing left to prove; after Guero and The Information, he had nothing left to recombine and resynthesize. It does not seem too surprising to me that, once Modern Guilt came out, he took his lengthiest break from new solo projects so far — five years without a fresh Beck album is definitely not something that the man's fans were looking up to. But the man is smart, and knows when to give himself a much-deserved break, letting that heavily exploited soil rest in peace and restore its nutrient potential.

Modern Guilt is quite short; not at all flashy or «assuming»; and basically gives us a faint pic­ture of a guy at a crossroads. I mean, what else would it be, if the very first line of the very first song goes "think I'm stranded but I don't know where"? If there is at all an overriding point to this record, it is simple enough — been there, done that, now what? Then this message just keeps on going: "modern guilt, I'm stranded with nothing" (title track), "beat my bones against the wall, staring down an empty hall" (ʽSoul Of A Manʼ), "been walking on these streets so long, I don't know where they're gonna lead anymore" (ʽVolcanoʼ). Nor is this dead-end problem limited to the singer alone: "down by the sea, swallowed by evil, we've already drowned" (ʽChemtrailsʼ), "there's a bottomless pit that we've been climbing from" (ʽYouthlessʼ), "what are you gonna do when those walls are falling down on you?" (ʽWallsʼ), and the list is only just beginning.

The music itself isn't quite as gloomy as the lyrical message, even if most of it is in minor keys. For variety's sake, the album was produced by Danger Mouse, instead of one of Beck's regulars, and so it neither has the kaleidoscopic urban fuss of the Dust Brothers, nor the strange cosmic vibe of Godrich. Instead, it is cast very much in a mid-Sixties art-pop style, which had always been one of Beck's favorites, but he generally used to bury those influences way deep under a coating of techno beats and synth loops. Here, only a few tracks (ʽYouthlessʼ, ʽReplicaʼ) are do­minated by modernistic percussion — most, with just a few tricks of the trade, would have fit in perfectly on old school garage-pop albums, or Pink Floyd ones.

Which is also the root of the problem: when Beck gets «stripped down», his retro-melodies are nice enough to the ear, but do not seem to be infused with just enough melodic genius to «matter» all by themselves, without the helping hand of a master producer, and Danger Mouse is either not able or not willing to provide that helping hand: his style of work, from what I have heard on the other albums produced by him, is to leave it to the artist — and Beck is exactly the kind of artist that should not be left alone in the studio at all, and definitely not left alone when he wishes to issue a serious statement about how all of us are going to a place that is far more dull and boring than hell or purgatory could ever hope to be.

While the album is on, it's really on, though. ʽOrphansʼ has just a light, sweet touch of the baroque, and of the psycho-mystical (somehow, I don't know how, the start of the "if I wake up and see my maker coming..." chorus, simple as it is, manages to trigger that mode). The orches­trated «chamber-music-hall» coda to the title track gives a good shot of romantic melancholia, ʽYour Mother Should Knowʼ-style. The flute-and-fiddle dialog on ʽWallsʼ gives another, but dif­ferent, shot of the same — and maybe it does make sense that the emotion of the song is not blown all the way up to high heaven, as some other guys singing about walls have been known to treat the subject. The harder-rocking stuff gives you some nifty basslines (ʽSoul Of A Manʼ) or fuzzy guitar riffs (ʽProfanity Prayersʼ), and the keyboards/strings combo of ʽChemtrailsʼ is qua­lity tripping material. Honestly, I cannot find any filler here (and with the album's total running length of 33 minutes, I'd be really surprised to).

Compared, however, to the majority of Beck's major label albums, the songs on Modern Guilt have less staying power — the grooves, the hooks, the moods are too, shall we say, «restrained», and additional listens do not show much additional depth to them (as it happened, in my ex­perience, with Sea Change, where each re-run of the tracks brought to mind at least several other minor wonders of Godrich's imagination). And, most important of all, you'd think that any album entitled Modern Guilt should leave you in the end... well, feeling a little guilty, perhaps? That is the kind of sentiment that an album like Arcade Fire's Funeral, if we are talking Beck's contem­poraries, easily provokes in me, but this album, in comparison, feels lacking. Instead of making me want to go out there and help make the world a better place, it just makes me want to give the guy a hug and tell him to maybe eat more vitamins every once in a while. Oh, I guess that last sentence automatically translates to a thumbs up, anyway, but possibly this is not the correct type of thumbs up that Beck Hansen might want from a reviewer. Still, what the heck — this is another good Beck album, making it an almost record-breaking (for this period) nine positive ratings in a row, and let us not forget about that.

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Friday, November 22, 2013

Anthrax: Anthems

ANTHRAX: ANTHEMS (2013)

1) Anthem; 2) T.N.T.; 3) Smokin'; 4) Keep On Runnin'; 5) Big Eyes; 6) Jailbreak; 7) Crawl; 8) Crawl [remix].

A fun footnote in Anthrax's catalog, this one: a short EP of songs that pay tribute to the band's childhood heroes — the testosterone-worshipping, sweat-grinding, crunch-rockin' dudes of «The Me Decade». «Tribute albums» like these seem to become the norm of day in the 21st century (as more and more people begin to realize that they can do no better than the dinosaurs, after all), but usually the tribute-payer in question is trying to present this in sort of a «Me and Mr. Amadeus» manner, recasting the original in his/her/their own image and, more often than not, butchering the classic and embarrassing the reputation.

In contrast, Anthrax do not go for that kind of shit. The six songs they cover are played as closely to the original as possible — the only difference being that the guitar melodies are dutifully ap­proached from the thrash angle. Even Joey Belladonna tries, as far as possible, to imitate the styles of the original singers — no mean feat, considering they run all the gamut from Geddy Lee to Phil Lynott. And I would say the results are not only fun, but even a little moving: you don't really need to listen to the whole thing more than once, but you do get the feeling that they really really love music in general, and these old bands in particular. (We leave aside the fact that, in 2013, there is not that significant an age difference between any of them and Anthrax themselves — chronologically, the last song covered is Journey's ʽKeep On Runnin'ʼ, released the same year that Anthrax was formed in the first place).

Anyway, the band's tastes are pretty much what you'd expect: they have been fans of anthemic hard rock of all directions, be it ironic sleazy stuff (AC/DC), socially-conscious «street intellec­tual» stuff (Thin Lizzy), melodic power-pop (Cheap Trick), bombastic arena material (Boston, Journey), or «progressively» oriented composition (Rush). The only important links that tie all of these together are loudness, power, and crunchy riffs, which is what Scott Ian and the boys latch on to and never let go. I think they capture the essence of each of these songs perfectly, except I am not really sure that it was such a good decision for Joey to concentrate so exclusively on get­ting those vocal styles right — he spends too much time guarding his voice's modulation to re­member about the clownish irony of Bon Scott's ʽT.N.T.ʼ performance, not to mention the subtle Weltschmerz in Lynott's ʽJailbreakʼ (Joey's "hey you good lookin' female, come here!" is taken quite literally, when in Thin Lizzy's original it was more like a... well, let's say «reluctant ack­now­ledgement of nature's calls»).

Authenticity is occasionally provided by adding guest musicians, such as Fred Mandel to play the «smokin'» keyboard parts on ʽSmokin'ʼ, or Motörhead's Phil Campbell to play the guitar break on ʽJailbreakʼ — not that Rob Caggiano couldn't have handled that one on his own, but apparently they thought they needed somebody «extra dirty» to do that part. But for the most part, they don't really need anybody else — all of this stuff is really in their blood, and it is useful to be thus re­minded that it's all really part of the same chain, especially for those who only listen to thrash metal and those who never listen to it.

I wouldn't even have minded sitting through more: it wouldn't be tough for them, I guess, to come up with at least a couple extra covers instead of inexplicably finishing the EP with the original version of ʽCrawlʼ (which was already present on their last album) and another remix of the same song with keyboards, orchestration, and backup vocals. The remix is fairly creative, and Anthrax with strings works surprisingly better than one could have thought, but why? the song has nothing to do with the general concept. They could have covered us some Sabbath or Slade instead.

In any case, this is one of those albums that does not require a rating — calling it «good» would suggest calling for more of the same (not recommendable), and calling it «bad» would mean they didn't do a good job with it, which they did. I'd say this: if Anthems manages to get even one Anthrax fan into Cheap Trick, it's a success. If all it does, though, is get more Anthrax fans into Journey — now that would be lamentable.

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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Be-Bop Deluxe: Radioland Deluxe. BBC Radio 1 Live In Concert

BE-BOP DELUXE: RADIOLAND DELUXE: BBC RADIO 1 LIVE IN CONCERT (1976-1978/1994)

1) Life In The Air Age; 2) Sister Seagull; 3) Third Floor Heaven; 4) Blazing Apostles; 5) Maid In Heaven; 6) Kiss Of Light; 7) Adventures In A Yorkshire Landscape; 8) Fair Exchange; 9) Ships In The Night; 10) Modern Music; 11) New Precision; 12) Superenigmatix; 13) Possession; 14) Dangerous Stranger; 15) Island Of The Dead; 16) Panic In The World.

This is one of those BBC packages which collects tracks that were actually played at theater venues in front of live audiences and broadcast subsequently, so it does function as a «real» live album, not «live in the studio», and is in some ways preferable to Live! In The Air Age. Most of the tracks are also chronologically coherent, dating back to early 1976 (the Sunburst Finish era; tracks 1-4, recorded at the Paris Theatre on the 15th of January) or late 1976 (the Modern Music era, recorded at the Hammersmith Odeon on the 10th of October) — with a further six-track «appendix» from a show at Golders Green Hippodrome on the 19th of January, 1978, represen­ted exclusively by numbers from Drastic Plastic. (Note also that the whole package was originally released in 1994, then remastered and re-released in 2002 under the somewhat less clumsy title of Tremulous Antenna).

There is not really that much to say about the whole thing, except that the sound quality is excel­lent — Nelson's vocals and guitar blaze across the living room with as much power and clarity as you'd expect from a well-produced studio recording — and that the band, as expected, is precise and consistent throughout. The major problem is the same as with Live!: the songs just do not depart all that much from the studio counterparts, or at least the departures do not jump right out at the listener, and should rather be appreciated by long-term hardcore fans. This is a particular concern for Drastic Plastic-era material, where Nelson was leaving less space for improvisation and variation — not so much for the early stuff; in that respect, as usual, ʽAdventures In A York­shire Landscapeʼ is the primary focus of attraction, with Nelson and keyboardist Andy Clark taking turns to offer their spontaneous bursts of inspiration to the listeners.

On the other hand, it may be interesting, for instance, to hear the entire ʽModern Musicʼ suite per­formed without the cloak of studio trickery, or ʽNew Precisionʼ without the «walking into the sea» overdubs of splashing water, but with extra guitar and keyboard noises to suggest aquatic interference rather than simply bring it over, or a slightly «lazier», but no less mind-blowing call of the seagull at the end of ʽSister Seagullʼ... there, I have pretty much exhausted the list of dif­ferences. But when all has been really said and done, Radioland is basically just a way of revi­siting the different, but similar faces of this band one last time — particularly since I have no problem whatsoever with the track selection (no repeats, as is BBC's custom, and no mediocre material from the early Futurama days, bar the great concise hits). Thumbs up.

Check "Radioland Deluxe" (CD) on Amazon

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Blood, Sweat & Tears: Live

BLOOD, SWEAT & TEARS: LIVE (1980/1994)

1) Intro; 2) Agitato; 3) Nuclear Blues; 4) Manic Depression; 5) God Bless The Child; 6) Lucretia MacEvil; 7) Hi-De-Ho; 8) And When I Die; 9) Spinning Wheel; 10) You've Made Me So Very Happy; 11) (Suite) Spanish Wine; 12) Drown In My Own Tears; 13) Gimme That Wine; 14) Trouble In Mind / Shake A Hand.

Although this album was recorded on October 12, 1980 (at the Street Scene in Los Angeles), it took fifteen years for it to see the light of day — meaning that nobody really cared until Rhino Records started out on their missionary mission to salvage, cherish, and promote historically re­levant (or irrelevant — no big deal) material that the big ones left in the vaults for one reason or another. But it does make sense that the last album to be officially released by BS&T had to be a live one, considering that the band name has continued to serve as a tag for various incarnations of the «BS&T spirit», going out on the road for over thirty years since they last churned out some studio product.

Essentially, it happens as follows: Bobby Colomby has the rights to the band's name, and leases it out to whoever is willing to buy for a reasonable price, as long as there is a trumpet and trombone attached. Some of these groupings have included Clayton-Thomas and some have not; certain sources say that he has not sung with BS&T since 2004, but as long as he stays in good health, there is no telling what tomorrow may bring. Altogether, BS&T should probably be in the Guin­ness book — through those thirty years, approximately 120-150 different people have been listed as formal members of the band, even if some may have lasted for just a month or so. Then again, why not? They never hurt anyone, and they wisely refrain from «creating» stuff under the name of Blood, Sweat & Tears, and if you want to get rid of twenty bucks, there sure are worse ways than spending them on an opportunity to sing along to ʽHi-De-Hoʼ.

Anyway, this here live album still comes from an era when Clayton-Thomas provided a solid link to the past — namely, it is from the small tour undertaken to promote Nuclear Blues, and so the album is played here almost in its entirety (with the happy exclusion of ʽFantasy Stageʼ). The sound quality is pretty good, the energy level is all right, and the songs are played quite faithfully to the studio versions, so that the excellent stuff still rocks (ʽAgitatoʼ; the ʽSpanish Wineʼ suite), the overwrought stuff still irritates (ʽDrown In My Own Tearsʼ is still drowning in its own bathos like there was no tomorrow), and the so-so stuff still remains inexplicable (why ʽManic Depres­sionʼ? who in the band was ever maniacally depressed?).

Unfortunately, being so preoccupied with this promotion, the band succumbs to the «medley curse» — or maybe Clayton-Thomas only had time to teach his Canadian friends the bare rudi­ments of the old classics (but they do play quite impressively on all the sections, so there is no question in my mind that they could have handled the proper load, had they had the opportunity to do so). In between two sections, completely devoted to Nuclear Blues material, they stuff a 15-minute potpourri of the classic hits, where only ʽHi-De-Hoʼ gets the royal treat­ment because of its karaoke potential. And even if those classic hits were not the greatest masterpieces of 20th century music, they still deserved a better fate.

Particularly since there was no reason to castrate them in order to make more space for a twelve-minute jam to the theme of ʽGimme That Wineʼ — where did that get resuscitated from? It's es­sentially a joke number, not to be promoted, much less to be used as a fanfare conclusion to the whole show. «We're a cabaret band and we want you to leave the building with that feeling?» Is that the message? Silly. But well representative of the band's entire career — where, for every splash of serious artistic ambition, there had always been a compensating splash of glitzy Vegas cheapness. There is nothing wrong with a little silliness or a little lighthearted humor every now and then, of course, but it all depends on the timing, the context, and on how high the joke in question is ranked on the playlist. (And this is not even mentioning all the ultra-critics who think that Blood, Sweat & Tears as a whole was just one big gag that ran for way too long — some­thing that I strongly disagree with, because even ʽSpanish Wineʼ has some serious points of in­terest to it).

In any case, if you actually want a BS&T live album, do make sure that your primary choice is the one from 1976, because this particular Live is not even proper BS&T — it's essentially just Nuclear Blues plus a medley of deeply humiliated classics and a joke-style funk-pop number run into the ground with way too much force. But if you are just an obstinate completist, chances are you won't be too irritated with this stuff, either, particularly because the basic condition is satis­fied: David's Canadian friends are organised, tight, collected, and energetic throughout. If much of this ends up being applied either to the wrong material or in the wrong way to the right mate­rial, well, that's quite a traditional part of the Blood, Sweat & Tears idiom, too.